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I know that many – perhaps even most – people believe that the truly great plays demonstrate their greatness, in part, by proving themselves to be infinitely open to interpretation and presentation.

Along side this belief there is also the much-repeated claim made by actors (genuinely meant, I am sure) that they feel that they never did – never COULD – get totally to grips with the character of Lear, Hedda, Iago – whomever.

These two things taken together make it almost blasphemous to talk about a definitive performance in one of those roles (let alone the more complex and wide-ranging idea of a “definitive production”)…and yet…

Of course these things are matter of taste, and they are locked in time (even if one were to admit its possibility, a definitive “Othello” of the 1950s is going to be very different to one of this decade – not least because of the natural skin tone of the actor playing the eponymous hero), but that said, I think I have seen quite a few “definitive” productions of the great plays (and thus with “definitive” performances at their heart) – and I think (without modesty) that I have seen enough and no enough to be able to make that judgement. I’m thinking of “the classics” here – rather than modern plays where the production has been mind-blowing (and hard to imagine an improvement being made: such as Denise Gough in “People, Places and Things” or Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”).

These are not in date order, and I don’t know how they’d hold up today: but I would guess “pretty well”…

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Hedda Gabler” – still the best night (nine nights, in fact) that I have ever spent in a theatre.

Antony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s “King Lear”

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth”

Adrian Lester in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello”

Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge”

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Medea”

Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s “Hamlet”

As I write this, “Hamlet” is still on at The Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it for the first time in the Almeida, and then the second time with my children at The Gielgud – and I’ve got tickets for two more nights before it closes in a month’s time. It is absolutely extraordinary.

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet makes the play – and the character – feel newly minted (which I would have never thought possible). He is conversational, clear and accessible, never once striking a false note; and managing to find wit, humour and passion in even the most well-trod of passages. There isn’t one cliche, there isn’t one moment that feels manufactured: this is the first time that I have seen the leaps in emotion executed with such clarity and conviction – it really is a monumental performance. This Hamlet is so grief-stricken because he is so passionate: you feel that he has one layer of skin less than anyone else – he is so vulnerable to what goes on around him, to the endless betrayals that he faces and the lies that he is told that his death felt like a release that he was yearning for. The “fall of a sparrow” section had me in pieces: this was someone looking forward to death as a way out of a tormented life. Mind-blowing.

The direction is a masterpiece of clarity and creativity. I’ve never seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father presented in so chilling and brilliant a way. I’ve never seen Elsinore feel so watched and watchful (even in other productions when that was clearly a core part of the interpretation: Nicholas Hytner’s great production with Rory Kinnear in the lead was awash with FBI types with earpieces and walkie-talkies – but somehow I became immune to it: here, the touch is far lighter and far more significant). I have never seen such a strong and affecting Ophelia as Jessica Brown Findlay, whose mad scenes were handled with such control and pathos that there wasn’t a single embarrassed titter throughout (and if that doesn’t sound like the highest praise imaginable, I assure you that it is): this was the first time that I thought Hamlet and Ophelia really, really loved each other. The final scene (well cut and sharply staged) ends in a coup-de-theatre that delivers a punch to the heart.

It is absolutely once in a lifetime, dust-free, fuss-free stuff: and it blew me (and my children) away. If you can get to see it, I would urge you to see it. If you only go to the theatre once a year, make it this. It is so, so good and I know that I will never forget it.

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Look: I’m not going to start making rash claims about regular updates. I may, or may not, start doing this again “properly”: but what I CAN commit to is a swift and utterly non-comprehensive update on some of the things that have happened in my life since my last post, which was a LONG time ago.

  1. All my children continue to be superb. I shall say nothing more about them: they are the centre of my world, but that does not make for diverting updates.
  2. My workplace has moved from the wildly convenient Chelsea to the hideously inconvenient Shoreditch. I am the only person in the world unconvinced by East London: but there it is.
  3. I have been considered for redundancy twice in the last six months. On neither occasion did the redundancy transpire, but it is an utter hurricane of piss when it’s going on.
  4. Old Friend at Work DID get made redundant. This has affected my enjoyment of being at work negatively by approximately 86%. She is far happier and strolled into another job almost the second that she left here:s o there is that – were I less self-involved I would see this as an unqualified good news story.
  5. I have gone out with: two actresses (one famous – so famous that I had to sign a form saying that I wouldn’t post about her on social media, which was weird – and one not famous, but absolutely stone cold mad); a journalist (who decided she wanted a baby – and as I have done all the baby-making I want to do, we parted ways very amicably); a teacher and a fellow advertising professional.
  6. I have bought a new rug, largely on the basis of Old Friend at Work’s frank assessment of the decision, which was: “If you don’t buy it, you’re a cunt”.
  7. Seen a lot of excellent theatre, much of it with the children. I took Eldest Son to see the almost-impossible-to-get-a-ticket to Benedict Cumberbatch “Hamlet”; and (whilst he professed to find it excellent, and I think really did enjoy seeing it); when I suggested, earlier this year – that all four of us might go to see fellow “Sherlock” alumnus Andrew Scott in “Hamlet”, I got the earnest reply “I think I’m probably OK for “Hamlet” for about twenty years or so.”. We’re all going in July. I’ve already seen it once, and it was phenomenal – better than Cumberbatch, in my opinion (but I think a lot of that was down to the director, Robert Icke, whose work I admire very much).
  8. Had a number of people I work with leave and be replaced. This has not been painless, as those that I lost (not that they died, it just felt like that) were quite a bit jauntier than their successors. The current batch seem not to have the same quality of being a bit odd – which I think is a pre-requisite for being a good Planner. One of them has a first name that I find so objectionable that I have had to give him a new one, which he has accepted without a murmur of complaint.
  9. Various bits of fuckery from the Ex-Wife, which have served – as ever – to remind how very fortunate I am not to be married to the adulterous old witch any longer.
  10. Been introduced to – and liked – the following:-
    1. Fever Tree Angostura Bitters Tonic Water.
    2. Beetroot stems used as a salad “leaf”.
    3. Pistachios in previously unimagined quantity and manifestations.
    4. Freeze-dried raspberries.
    5. Sanetra Sourdough from Gail’s.
    6. Baguette from Le Pain Quotidien.
    7. Sartorial aftershave from Penhaligon’s
    8. A Karcher pressure washer, which I ache to use, but have now run out of appropriate surfaces.
    9. The novels of Elizabeth Strout.
    10. Veep
  11. Had a sabbatical, during which I went on a watercolour painting course and wrote six episodes of a TV sitcom, which is brilliant in parts and turgid beyond belief in others.
  12. Ten things about which I have become certain:-
    1. Sean Penn is an actor who absolutely deserves to be talked of alongside DeNiro and Brando (and some way ahead of Pacino).
    2. Flawed as he undoubtedly was and is (and aren’t we all?) Tony Blair is the only politician whom I can imagine marshaling a course out of this mess: everyone else reminds me of a sixth form debating society, or a university first year meeting of the Socialist Workers’ Party.
    3. I can’t be fucked with WhatsApp.
    4. Office politics are a waste of time, and people who indulge in them are – without exception – wankers.
    5. Funny people are nearly always clever.
    6. Cooking from scratch relaxes me and tastes immeasurably better than anything I can buy – apart from bread, at which I have no talent.
    7. Olivia Colman.
    8. People are nicer in the North of England, but London is too brilliant to leave.
    9. No man who cycles to work needs to wear Lycra to do it. Ever.
    10. Brexit is a catastrophic decision.
  13. Ten things about which I remain unconvinced:-
    1. Cross-gender casting. I’ve seen it work (Fiona Shaw as Richard II, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia) and I’ve see it fail (Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, Kathryn Hunter as King Lear, Harriet Walter in the last two years’ worth of experiments) – but this assumption that it makes no difference just isn’t true: there needs to be a justification that makes sense.
    2. Quinoa.
    3. A Gin and Tonic that costs £18.
    4. Jeremy Corbyn as the saviour of the Left.
    5. Cold-press coffee.
    6. The slew of TV programmes where “a cohesive plot” is seen as a bourgeois, reactionary indulgence: I don’t mean that everything should be linear and require no investment in terms of time or interpretation, but there have been a few things on TV recently (“Marcella”, “Missing”) where the contortions of the plot appear to have left the programme makers themselves absolutely lost.
    7. The following descriptors in restaurants: “foraged”, “heritage”, “spume”.
    8. Millennials.
    9. iCloud security.
    10. Wales.

I’m sure you will agree with me when I write: “That’s quite enough of that”.

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I can’t really get into the meat of this little entry before I tie up the loose ends of the previous one. Let me get it out of my system and onto my blog, and all will be well…
Binky Felstead failed us all.
Binky has decided that (against the advice of her fetching and wise mother, her fetching and shrill friends, and her fetching and fatalistic friends) she is going to entrust the skippering of the craft of life’s happiness to pencil-sharpened hair weasel, Alex Mytton. I am disgusted, my father is furious and Raccoon Eyed Account Manager is (in her contained and calm way) saddened by the grim inevitability of it all.
Binky: you have disappointed a nation.
That said, I overheard the most splendid conversation – or rather, monologue – on my way into the office today.
I was walking in front of (in turned out) two people, though at first I had assumed that it was one person, speaking on the `phone.
An American man was declaiming, and I have rushed to set his words down (and I wonder if it will be as funny in print – possibly not) as they were so deliciously pompous that I was almost squirming with delight as I heard them.

“You know how I was talking last night about sentimentality? How that’s a BIG part of me? How I’d seriously consider having your name and the names of the kids tattooed? Well, that’s why I bought the watch. I don’t look at it and think “Great watch!” – I look at it and think “We got here together. This is a marker of how hard we’ve worked, how far we’ve come. It’s not a watch. It’s a symbol of our union.”.”

This was – obviously – comedy gold, so I HAD to see who he was. So I slowed enough to let him overtake, at which point I noticed that he was not talking on the `phone, but was talking in person to his wife. They were both dressed in gym gear, trainers that gave them both a (much-needed) extra five inches or so of height; as they walked, she looked straight ahead, he turned his head to land his point as he went. It continued: she impassive and immune to all appeals, he determined to elevate his purchase of a (presumably expensive) watch to the level of art.

“What I’m saying is: its value is not what it cost me – that’s not what matters here. What’s important about this watch is that I bought something expensive at a time when I felt comfortable spending that on myself as part of “us”. This watch is going to be like…like…my fucking WEDDING RING now, because now I have so much more than when we got married. I have you, I have the kids…”

Just as I was beginning to stop thinking “Is this guy absolutely KIDDING?” and starting to think instead “Is this guy some sort of genius”, the most beautiful thing happened. Without a word, enabled by her springy, silent footwear, his wife simply peeled off, crossed the road and walked off down a side street. Not one word did she say – she just bailed. He didn’t notice.

“So, I guess, if you look at it as a watch, then sure it’s expensive, but what I’m saying is “This is my sentimentality poured into a watch”, it’s…WHERE THE FUCK DID SHE GO? KATHERINE?”

He stopped and looked wildly around. I passed him without telling him where she’d sought sanctuary: I thought she deserved at least that if that’s what she had to put up with night after night…

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The time has come to write of Alexandra “Binky” Felstead.
I have been a long-time follower (and let me be very clear: “follower” is entirely different to “stalker”) of Ms. Felstead, the Sophia Loren of “Made in Chelsea” and I have had nothing but admiration and enthusiasm (and frankly, old school lust) for her – but I fear that things have changed.
When first we met, all that time ago in Series One, I liked her. Yes, she was strikingly pretty (and while she is no stranger to a dab of make-up, she is clearly working with very good raw material), which helped – but she also seemed very open, very kind and (probably central to her appeal) very close to her family (her mother – who is probably more age-appropriate for me is also staggeringly attractive and has that heartening quality of seeming ready to rip the throat out of anyone who even dreams of crossing her daughter for a second). She was honest about her feelings for men, frank without being gross about her desires and acted in what seemed to be an entirely fair way in what is a very normal, albeit reasonably privileged, life.
As the series moved on, I saw nothing to make me less and a lot to make me like her more. Her BETRAYAL at the hands of the duplicitous, peroxide-haired gonk Jamie Laing had me ready to mobilise a mob of pitchfork-wielding vigilantes with a keen sense of justice and a readiness to hang out in The Hollywood Arms waiting for the little turd to come bouncing in with his cry of “Hey Boi!”.
This was, however, as nothing compared to the recent revelations about multi-fornicator Alex Mytton (brilliantly described to me as “looking like a Postman Pat garden gnome”) who has been cheating on her on any number of occasions and compounding the offence by claiming to have alcohol-induced “mind blanks” on the nights in question. Obviously, given Ex-Wife’s fondness for, and keen practice of, adultery, there are certain things that press my buttons more than others – and cheating is one of those things. I think (to divert for a second) that whilst it’s always wrong, it’s a good deal worse when you’re in your forties, married and with three children, than it is when you’re single, in your early twenties and the only people involved are adults – but the added layer of his lying about it (and again, that happened to me – so I am not being dispassionate or objective here) made me think far worse of him. In the words of Lucy (who has undergone a transformation from “Utter Cow” to “Straight-Talking Oracle”): “You don’t forget putting your dick in someone else’s vagina overnight.” – so I see Mytton as a double sinner.
My father (who is a very keen follower of these sorts of programmes, and is mourning the absence of “The Only Way Is Essex” from our screens at the moment) is also disgusted with the behaviour of the cliff-haired Mytton, so we have been able to whip ourselves up into mutually-supportive rage, so this has not been a lonely crusade – however, recent developments have rocked the very foundation of our feelings for Binky, and nerves are kicking in about how the narrative is going to play out.
The problem is this: Binky has taken Alex back (fine: some people can do this; some people can’t), but what she has also done is turn on those friends who have taken the position that he is a preposterous bell-end and she is probably not doing the smartest thing. The chief victims are the aforementioned Cassandra of SW3, Lucy, and horse-faced doom monger Cheska.
Cheska is hard to warm to. She does tend to want to take the dark view, see the worst in people and to catastrophise situations – and I can imagine that she’s probably not the kind of person whom one would want to be landed with running the tombola at a country fair. She has history of throwing stones into ponds and standing back with an (even longer) sad face as the inevitable misery unfolds – which is an aspect of Schadenfreude that no-one is likely to want to be famous for. And yet, and yet…there doesn’t appear to be a malicious intent behind what she does: there is probably a bit of naiveté, and a fair dose of “misery loves company” in her behaviour – but Binky has been harsh, dismissive and (I fear to say) selfish and unkind in her treatment of her in the last episode.
My hopes, of course, are that this will prove to be a temporary blip – a fleeting, out of character outburst brought about by some very real unhappiness – and that we will see a return to the Binky whom I have formed such an attachment to in the next episode. If we don’t, then my father and I will have a lot of “Not angry, but disappointed…” work to cover off, and I dont’ think Binky could withstand that.

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We live in Chiswick – and it’s never been exactly “with it”: it’s more strongly associated with leafy wide streets where solidly middle-class, ever-expanding families wheel pushchairs that cost about the same amount as a small car past a bewildering variety of candle and skincare emporia, estate agents and delicatessens to one of the four hundred coffee shops in which slyly competitive games of “Who’s MOST tired by the nanny’s latest exploits?” are played.

But recently, Chiswick has got (to quote Terence Rattigan) “des idees au-dessous de sa gare”. Maybe five years ago, High Road House and The Cowshed led the charge, to the evident delight of all the (other) media people who live in the area. Two Vietnamese restaurants, a good Tapas place and a “South African deli” (I know – me too) have also popped up and appear to be going great guns. If Chiswick is a barometer of the nation’s tastes (and I’m sure that we can all agree that it is nothing if not that), it seems that the more cooking programmes are put on TV, the more likely it is that people will give up cooking altogether and eat out at every meal, on every day.

The most recent additions to the High Road have been the fleeting stay of a Jamie Oliver restaurant (OK food, RIDICULOUS prices – you can’t charge five quid more just becuase you’ve put soemthing in a Kilner jar instead of in a bowl), Bill’s (which seems to be doing a roaring trade in “Greasy Spoon Food at Michelin starred prices”), Byron (which has transported my children to a level of delight that I would have thought it would be impossible for a hamburger to achieve) and – newest of all – Jackson and Rye, a New York style bar and diner that has yet to open, but looks pretty cool.

So, where next for Ritzy Chiswick? McDonald’s has shut – which is only a shame if you need to lay your hands on twenty gobby schoolchildren in a hurry – and the bets are on for what will replace it. Pret-A-Manger appears to be the current favourite, but I’m wondering if we might not find ourselves hosting something EVEN COOLER! These are exciting times.

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When people say “I like cooking” (or even when I read a CV, which I seem to be doing a lot more of than I would like, and it features “cooking” as an interest) I think “Ah – you like eating, eating with other people. Good.”

I like eating with other people, and given that I can’t afford to do that in restaurants (because I have decided that my disposable income, such as it is, will go on the theatre, rather than on eating at places where “spume”, “foam” and “mist” appear on menus and drive the prices for very ordinary food up by at least 60%), I have to do it at home.

Mainly, it’s family who come here – or at least family who form the backbone of the guest list – and people who know them (and would be pleased to see them) who swell the ranks. The reason for this is simple: there is a list of things that are made much more complex when you’re single than when you’re part of a couple. Chief among these are: “Carrying IKEA furniture up three flights of stairs”, “Assembling IKEA furniture”, “Hanging a seven feet high mirror” and “Cooking while also entertaining/carrying on a conversation”.

If I were content to have people lean on the kitchen work surfaces, making expansive gestures as we discuss Edward St Aubyn, describing wide arcs with the glasses of Kir that I have overfilled (out of a combination of nerves and a desire to render the environment into which the food will be introduced more forgiving) as I do interestingly modish things with beetroot, then the problem wouldn’t be so severe – but I am not. I don’t know why, but I have a (ridiculous) belief that when people come to eat at my house, they should enjoy drinks and canapés in a separate room to the one where I am swearing because I have forgotten to chill something that needed to be left in the ‘fridge overnight; so that, when the food is eventually ready, they don’t feel as if they have been as deeply involved in the preparation as I have, and that if ANYONE is going to accept praise graciously for the petits pois a la Francaise, then it ought to be them. As a result of this, there are any number of people whom I just don’t have over: people whom I like, people whom I would love to spend an evening with, people whom I owe an invitation to – I have decided in my crazy way that it’s better not to have these people over for an evening for a meal that I think we would all enjoy, than to leave them on their own every ten minutes for five minutes at a time while I go and marinade and get the steamer going.

It’s ridiculous. I know it is. Whenever I have seen cookery programmes – and, like everyone else, I can’t seem to turn the TV on nowadays without some media-friendly poppet who has a soundbite quirk to them (“She’s got a tiny kitchen!”, “He’s Australian and keeps going on about the rain in London!”, “She fellates wooden spoons!”, “He approaches cookery like a DJ!”, “He swears but he loves his children!” etc. etc.) looming over a set of achingly cool graphics – there is a compulsory reminder that I shouldn’t get hung-up, shouldn’t worry about the food, need to remember that it’s me they’re coming to see, shouldn’t drive myself mad over dinner…and I nod along to it, thinking “Absolutely”.

And then, when the time comes to see people whom I haven’t seen for far too long, I think: “I can’t invite them. They’re not coming to see me. They’re coming for dinner.”

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I was SO excited when I saw the combination: “Sam Mendes”, “Simon Russell Beale” and “King Lear” at the beginning of the year: excited enough to go right ahead and book tickets for four nights, in various combinations.
When the time came for the first visit (with Old Friend at Work and her husband) there had been a few early, snipey comments about how the production “Missed greatness by a whisper” (I think that particularly useless observation came from “The Sunday Times”) and so on, but I was still in a state of breathless over-excitement by the time we walked into The Olivier Theatre at The National.
The stage looked good: huge moon suspended over a blank set, with modern, stark props. Good. This was going to be good, I thought.
Well, it was, pretty much. Simon Russell Beale is (I think rightly) lauded as the best Shakespearean actor that we have, and so his Lear was never going to be a non-event. Every one of the four times I saw it, I was in floods of tears (embarrassing but true) for the first time each night at precisely the same point: “Oh let me not be mad. Not mad.” Whether this was a Pavlovian conditioning after the first couple of times, I don’t know – but I still think it’s a pretty strong endorsement of the man’s talent to be able to do that to a forty-three year-old father of three. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen – because Ian Holm is the best I have ever seen, and I am pretty confident that I will never see a better – but it was certainly a major piece of work.
Other good things were Edmund and Edgar: both excellent; and Gloucester and Kent – also terrific. There was a brilliant decision to have – spoiler alert – Lear murder The Fool in his madness in the joint stool scene, exhausted and maddened and apparently forgetting what he had done until the end of the play; and there were any other smart line readings and ideas that kept the production fizzing along. Now and then, there were moments that only The National Theatre could do: the huge number of extras who made up Lear’s army and retinue, dwindling as the play progressed, really did seem, at the start of the play to number one hundred. The Leninesque statue that dominated the courtyard outside Goneril’s home was sturdy enough to have a man chained to it and for it to seem as though it was an utterly immoveable thing. The rushes that encircled the back of the stage, revealed as Act Five began were dense and high – an effective screen for soldiers and medical staff to trample through.
On the downside, nearly every scene involving the daughters was pretty bad. The opening scene, from which everything flows and which needs to make absolute sense, was performed at such a lick that almost everything was missed – even Russell Beale was gabbling away and swallowing words. It became pretty obvious that some strange choices in characterisation had been made, and there was some spectacularly over-the-top acting from Anna Maxwell Martin, who is normally excellent. The “What need one?” moment that precedes “Oh reason not the need.” (to my mind, one of the cruellest things in that very cruel play) was positively chucked away – so there were a couple of disappointments there. One of the benefits of seeing it a number of times, with a number of different people was that on one occasion Anna Maxwell Martin’s understudy went on for her – and actually I preferred it. I can’t remember her name, but (even though she was obviously “following” Maxwell Martin’s interpretation) she was calmer and more restrained in her characterisation than her more famous predecessor.
I’m glad I saw it as often as I did. It’s never going to be a bad idea to watch people of that calibre perform “King Lear” – but what I’m most excited about (given that Simon Russell Beale is in his early 50s) is the anticipation of his next Lear.

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