'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Modernity Begins: Parade's End

We have, understandably, become a bit familiar with the fragile decadence, pomp and ceremony of the Edwardian era. Downton Abbey long sated the national appetite for costume drama, and we duly gorged on the carcass of carefully enunciated accents, stiff attire and over-the-top formalities. It appealed, perhaps, to a certain lost sense of what it meant to be 'English'. Now, having devoured the main course, we turn, like some bloated Edwardian gent, to the next: Parade's End. Can we stomach another serving?

Of course, like Downton, we once again have the accents (and doubtless debate will grumble on about whether Cumberbatch has mastered his or not); once again there is the careful attention to dress and formalities. But unlike the fast-flowing luster of the Downton stream, there is real depth to Parade's End.

Indeed it's a different beast altogether, something which is clear from the outset. The novel, written by Ford Madox Ford, and adapted for screen by Tom Stoppard, is a great work of modernism. To its credit, the BBC production has embraced the idea rather than shied away from its complexities. Visually, for example, it has laced what could have descended into 'English-rural idyll porn' with hints of vorticism and abstraction, as well as the exhilaration, noise and speed of technology. In doing so, it highlights the relevance of the period in a way Downton couldn't: we are witnessing a period of tremendous technological upheaval, scientific discovery and the collapse of seemingly impermeable institutions.

The adaptation weaves in some wonderful imagery. Madox Ford's interest in colour is teased out in several scenes. His description of the Yorkshire mist, for example, is not a flat one of various shades of grey, but a rippling description of 'bars of purple; of red; or orange; delicate reflections: dark blue shadows from the upper sky...'

Parade's End also addresses the fallacy of presenting Edwardian England as a 'golden era' frozen in time; a last 'huzzah' for the old days before the oncoming war. It highlights that modernity was not simply forged from the slaughter of the Somme, but that deep undercurrents were already at work in England. Indeed as the historian Phillip Blom has highlighted in his excellent book The Vertigo Years, underneath the pomp and ceremony, Europe was already deeply unsettled during the period. New technologies and scientific developments were progressing apace and more subtly, but no less importantly, new ideas linked to psychology, the self and the role of women were undermining a crumbling fa├žade of imperial order. Indeed Cumberbatch perfectly brings out the self-doubt and emasculation of Tietjens, and the ruling class more generally.

It's interesting, amidst all this, that it's the distant old Tory Tietjens, who is at the centre of things. He is oddly enough more aware of the constant change around him than his colleagues. For him the 'world' had already ended long-ago, with the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the undermining of that rural pastoral that is smeared by the soot of modernity. Yet the increasing pace of that change – in the form of women's votes, collapsing morals and social order – seems to focus itself particularly on this time. Far from simply being an easy jaunt into a mystical past then, Parade's End feels like a strong reminder of the lessons we can learn from the period.

Review of Prom 46

Collin: 'Fancy seeing you here James'.
James: 'Collin! What are the chances? I didn't know you were a VW fan. Margery meet Collin, we only live down the road from one another'
Margery: 'What a coincidence! Nice to meet you Collin, I'm James' niece.'

Ok. It's not word-for-word, but this is more or less the exchange I overheard when I sat down at the Royal Albert Hall. It's exactly the sort of image I had of a Vaughan Williams audience. A certain sort of staid comfortable middle-class audience who just love listening to the 54 repeats of the Lark Ascending played on Classic FM each day, in between furniture adverts. In my mind, these are the people who still think the Archer's is a form of social realism; the sort who wear socks with sandals and grumble about things like 'principle' and the use of semi-colons.

Andrew Manze, who conducted the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's rendition of Williams' Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies at Prom 46, is keen to challenge this comfortable image. To be sure, the composer's life was often taken up editing hymns, carols and running festivals; it's hardly the image of a revolutionary artist, and has given him a parochial and narrowly English label. Yet the truth is more complex. Williams' is more than a sentimental musical poet, drawing nostalgically on a long-gone past. Maze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave a vigorous performance of each symphony – from the initial shock of the Fourth Symphony to the dying embers of the Sixth.

The Fourth Symphony seems to point to the crush of the city rather than the English rural idyll. It's a piece that revels, I feel, in the speed and momentum of the city. A piece in which the listener seems to be in constant movement after an initial sensory overload on the first chord. The symphony takes us from winding and echoing passages, to the rumble of something from below, and then back to the throbbing mob of the streets. It's a nervous and often disorientating work, which seems to have been influenced, in part by a description by the critic H.C. Colles in The Times in 1931 regarding modern music. 'They all rely on the same order of stimuli. The hearer is prodded into activity by dissonance, soothed by sentiment, overwhelmed by the power of the battering climax.'

The Fifth, to my mind, takes us out of the city and lulls us back to the rural scene. It's the Williams' we are more familiar with – the Williams' of Lark Ascending and Fantasia. Yet even here there is something slightly amiss with the first scene. And by the second it's no longer a human pastoral we're inhabiting, but something much more primeval and natural. We begin to duck and weave through the symphony, assailed on all sides by competing strains and chords.

Williams' was famous for grumbling about such literal interpretations. Can't a man just write a nice tune? Yet, if it was conscious or not, his own experience is bound to have impacted upon his works – and it should fall on us to unpick and interpret them. His Sixth symphony, which has been labelled his 'war' symphony contrasts with the Fourth and Fifth in that it doesn't really seem to offer any vision whatsoever. Instead it offers us glimpses of themes which occasionally jut up heroically out of the desolation, before disappearing once again. It's a bleak piece, which asks more questions than it answers, offering no easy visions and full of raw and elemental emotion.

'VW' then, but happily an exciting,dynamic and often challenging performance from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.