Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: Coriolanus (RSC)

On Wednesday last, a small group from the college went to the local movie theater to watch a live broadcast of the RSC's Coriolanus from Stratford-upon-Avon.

I hesitated about going because Coriolanus isn't in my top 25 Shakespeare plays, and I've had a cold and sore back and am busy.  But finally I decided to go since I've never seen it before and live theater's not that easy for me to get to, even in a movie theater.

I think the RSC is doing all the Roman plays this year, so Coriolanus came along for the ride.  And for the most part, the production felt like it.  Workmanlike.  It got the job done.  Overall, the first three Acts could have been a step faster all through.

But I want more out of theater.  I want to be challenged to think (or rethink) things.  I want to be excited, or saddened, to be reached at an emotional level or an intellectual level.    And this production didn't do that for me.  The actors were fine in their parts, but no one struck me as especially good.

The Roman plays are all political, and this one happened in modern dress, which seems more effective than togas these days.

I'm not quite sure what I want from a filmed version of a staged play.  I found the camera work (changing points of view, changing distance, and so on) a bit distracting.  When I watch a play, I sometimes find myself watching side action, and I couldn't do that often with this camera work.

I did think the casting of two women actors to play the Tribunes, Martina Laird as Junius Brutus and Jackie Morrison as Sicinius Veletus, was interesting because the rather tall and athletically built men really felt threatening when they loomed over the Tribunes.  And Menenius seemed to be mansplaining in ways I don't think I've felt before when I thought of the Tribunes as male characters.  The effect for me was to make me identify even more closely with the Tribunes than otherwise.

I remember first studying Coriolanus in a course and talking extensively about same sex desire, so I expected to see a real sense of that on stage.  In Act 4, scene 5, the scene where Coriolanus goes to Aufidius to join with him, when Aufidius says,

                            Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars! I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm fort: thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,
And waked half dead with nothing. (Source)

it's nigh impossible to miss the homoerotic aspects.  But in the RSC's production, Aufidius was more smirking than convincing, more like a teenager showing off a bit rather than a man who's had dreams.  And that was that.  The play didn't take Aufidius's dreams or desires to heart, didn't give them a Greco-Roman context of homoerotics between soldiers.  It just sort of sat there and then was over.  (I'm sure the actor did as directed, and could have done the part very differently if so directed.)

All in all, then, I was disappointed.  I want so much more out of plays than I got from this production.  Is it me?  the play?  or the production?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Catching Up: British Library and Leicester

 Time flies around here.   The last weekend in October, I spent in London, with one afternoon at the London Metropolitan Archives, and three days at the British Library.

The LMA was super; one of the librarians helped me find stuff, including a registry book of unpublished London diaries.  And one of those diaries was at the British Library!

I didn't take many pictures at the library, but here's one I took while having my tea as the line formed outside in the rain to go in.
The other one I took was of the manuscript (which was labeled as okay to photograph, and I was in an okay to photograph area).  The manuscript was by a James Petiver, listed in the registry book as a medical practitioner, botanist, and pharmacist.  I was hoping to see some botany stuff, but mostly it seemed like he listed someone's name (or, for example, "my grandmother") and then wrote down his prescription.  I took a picture of this page because the prescription is for chocolate.

I found lots and lots to read and work on at the BL, met another scholar who was friendly and nice, which made the place less daunting.

The problem was, I basically sat and read most of four days, with little exercise and no stretching.  My hotel room as tiny, and the bed canoe like, and voila, my back got very sore.

So I've been dealing with that.  It's much much better now.  I'm sitting down and not hurting much right at this moment, which is a huge improvement.

Last week, we did a trip to Leicester.  So good!

The obvious thing for me to do in Leicester is to visit Richard III.  I started at the Discovery Center, which was really well laid-out and presented.  I learned about the Wars of the Roses, and enjoyed it a lot.  Below is a memorial stone, and below that, an explanation of it.

 After the Discovery center, I went to Leicester Cathedral and visited the actual interment site.  It's a beautiful memorial, and in a lovely space.  The Cathedral feels more like a friendly parish church than, say, York Minster or Lincoln Cathedral, but they do a really lovely job explaining themselves and the burial site.
 What I didn't know about until I was in Leicester was the Guildhall!  And that turned out to be the best part of the trip (even though the other parts were wonderful).  It's a 14th century Guildhall, with later additions (17th century, I think).
 And the hall was built for the Guild of Corpus Christi, which made me especially interested.  I'm sure medievalists would know if there are records of plays; the Guildhall didn't say.

 And in the Guildhall museum, among later artifacts, is a scold's bridle.  I keep seeing these in museums.  I wonder if they're as common as they seem now because they were common then, or if they've just managed to survive especially well?
I would have happily spent several more hours in Leicester, but alas, we didn't have long.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

On My Back

The last week in September, we had a long weekend.  For me, that started early Wednesday morning, when I helped a visiting faculty person get to Heathrow airport.  There's a train involved, then a tube ride.  They shouldn't have needed help, but they didn't feel confident, so I helped.

And there I was in London!  So I spent Wednesday afternoon getting a History Card and reading at the London Metropolitan Archives.  One of the librarians there went above and beyond in helping me out.

Thursday, I went to put my British Library reader's card to good use.  Friday, too, and also most of Saturday.

I stayed in one of those tiny hotel rooms in the King's Cross area, the sort where you barely have room to stand, where you can reach the shower from the bed, and so forth.  The bed was a bit like a canoe for sleeping (not comfortable).

And so, I left Saturday on the train (because the Library is closed on Sundays) and at some point I realized I'd really messed up some muscle in my back with spasming.  Whether it was reading for 6-8 hours, carrying a backpack at an odd angle up and down stairs, not stretching, sleeping in the canoe, or what, but ouch.

I'm sitting now, with my laptop on my lap.  And it's almost the first time in a week.  The back's feeling a little sore, but so so much better!  (I've been taking ibuprofen, using heating rub, stretching...  I can walk fine, and I can lie down in some positions, but standing is only so so, and sitting has been painful.)  I've been working on top of a small bookshelf, standing to read, make notes, grade, and so forth.  It's less than efficient.

I've spent a lot of time lying around on my back, and stretching, both of which help.

In other news, my campus HR folks made a bit of a hash of my paycheck, and paid me as if I were on sabbatical (which I was going to be, but then not).  Let's just say it was a bit of a shock to get about half the paycheck I was expecting.  Now they said I could come pick it up and deposit the physical check in person.  Or I can wait and have it added into the next direct deposit check.  Ugh.

I'll post more soon, maybe later today, when I can sit down again.  For now, back to stretching!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Observations on The Abbey

Here at the Abbey, there's a British faculty member who's also an early modernist, and it's delightful to chat.  Unlike at home, where most of my conversations with the other early modern person in my department are about bureaucratic stuff, and not early modern anything (and we don't seem to have ever really become friends), we don't have much bureaucracy in common here, so mostly we chat about early modern stuff.  It's fun getting our geek on and knowing the other person is making the same connections and such.

At Bletchley Park the other day, I went with the student group and some other faculty folks.  And I noticed, the students really fly through things.  They pass through the museum almost without stopping.  The other faculty folks and I, in contrast, were listening to explainers, reading stuff, and so on.  And so, by the end, I would have been happy to spend another hour or two there, and the students would have mostly been happy to leave an hour earlier.

It's similar when I talk to them about visiting, say, London.  They'll say they went to Westminster Abbey, and I'll ask which part they liked best, or did they go see this other part, and they'll say that they didn't go in, just walked past the outside.  It seems to me that if you're just going to walk past the outside of a building that's more interesting inside, you might as well just look at a picture and save yourself the effort.

But I am old and grumpy, I guess.

Bletchley Park

In the annals of visits to new places, on Sunday I joined the school trip to Bletchley Park.  It sounds interesting and cool when you read about it, but in person, it's way better!

Bletchley doesn't sound like the sort of place with lots of scenery pictures, but it's beautiful.  If I lived near, I'd get a year pass just to picnic on the grounds regularly.  They've got lots of comfortable looking seating around the grassy area, and it looks very inviting.

Alas, I only had a few hours, so I didn't stop to sit down except for a quick bite to eat.

First up is the manor house.  It's very beautiful inside, and there are displays about the work done at Bletchley and the people who did the work.  They seem to focus a lot in the manor on the recreational side of things, while other areas focus more on the work.

 This is the back of a "Bombe" machine, designed by Alan Turing.  It's an electro-mechanical machine that sorts through codes using probabilities.  Here's the basic idea:  the British intercepted lots of Morse code radio messages.  Once they'd figured out the rotor system that the German Enigma machine was using (which they started with a good idea about since Enigma machines were initially patented as business machines for sending coded business messages, so several countries had bought them to work with), and they knew that a lot of messages sent out were basic information, weather, supplies and such.  If they could pick out a message that was likely to be, say, weather, that would usually have specific words in it, then they'd enter the code into the Bombe, and it would use probability to suggest one or more settings that the Enigma codes were using that day.  (They changed daily.)  Then they'd test those, and if one worked, they knew the code settings for the day, and could punch in code and come back with the message.  Well, they'd get a version of the message, because nothing was going to be said in full or spelled out, of course.
 And this is the front of the Bombe, where the women (mostly women, evidently) who ran the tests input the messages.
 This is an Enigma machine.  There are three rotors near the top (there's a little open lid that could be closed over them).  The rotors have the alphabet.  There were five rotors to choose from, each with 26 letters.  Three rotors were chosen each day, in a specific order, with specific settings.  So that gets difficult!  Once the rotors were in and settings done, the coder entered a letter on the keyboard, and then a different letter lit up on the upper panel.  And the coder would write that letter down, and then enter the next one.  The coded letters were given to a radio operator who used Morse Code to transmit the information.  At the other end, someone with an Enigma machine and the rotor and setting information did the same process, entering the coded letters and coming out with the message.

I think they said the code was reciprocal, so if A --> X, then X--> A.
 The next one is a Lorenz machine, which was the German next step in code making, and way, way more complicated.
 These are the boring looking buildings where the probably very boring work of day in, day out trying to figure out the codes and translate them into meaningful information happened.

 Some cottages!
 A memorial to Polish codebreakers.  From what the tour guide said, Poland had been really advanced in mathematics and codebreaking before the war, and had shared a lot of information with France and Britain, and that information probably saved tons and tons of time in breaking codes once the war started.
 Some important people.

 All in all, I could have spent probably 8 or more hours here happily exploring.  I think we were here for just about 4, so good, but there's so very much to see and learn!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

If It's Friday, This Must be Lincoln

On Friday, there was a school trip to Lincoln.  It was great!  The school organized everyone so that we would all have four "slots," one each for the Cathedral, Roman ruins, Castle, and then a fourth for going to whatever seemed fun.  Faculty were allowed to do whatever, so I tagged along for the Roman ruins and Cathedral tours (led by British faculty folks), then had lunch at a pie shop, then went to the Castle, and then back to the Cathedral to look some more.  Because the Cathedral is just that GREAT!

Without someone telling me, I would have totally missed these in the street.  There's a row of them, as you can see in the next picture.  Just right in the middle of the street.
 They mark, according to our guide, the columns that held up the Roman basilica/forum thingy, back when Lincoln was a colonia of Rome.  (I love that some names have Roman origins, and we still use them.)
 Part of the Roman wall still stands.  I gather it started as a fort, and then once the local population was pretty much pacified, turned into a colonia, a city with colonists from all over Rome.
 And, when it was a colonia, it had big open gates, the better to welcome traders.  Unfortunately, that meant it wasn't defensible really when the Angles and the Saxons attacked once the Romans pulled out the legions.  Oops.

Amazing to think these have been here for about 2000 years.

 The Cathedral, on the other hand, is practically new, not even a thousand years old yet.

 We learned a bit about architecture and planning.  Notice, for example, that the row of kings disrupts the arches built around the door.  Not part of the original planning, perhaps.
 The Normans were descendants of Vikings, and their buildings show motifs that come from Viking imagery, like this amazing dragon over the arch.
 And these very weird heads with massive, ornate tongues sticking out.

 Inside, if you embiggen the picture, and look along the roofline, you can see where there's an architectural error.  Or something.  (I missed the story that went along with that, alas.  But I've read that a lot of the Cathedral was ruined by an earthquake in the 12th century, so maybe after that?)
 A closer view.
 The stone masons were amazing!

After the Roman and Cathedral tours and lunch, I went to the Castle.  Imposing!

The most interesting part of the Castle for me was in the prison chapel.  When originally built, the prison was built on a system of separation, keeping prisoners alone.  And the chapel was built the same way, so there are individual little cells where the prisoners all stand, with a door between each, and watch/listen to the preacher in the pulpit up above.
 They had manikins in some of the little cells, and holy cow, they're creepy!  I looked down, not realizing one was there, and almost jumped out of my skin when I saw it!  You can see a couple heads in this picture below.
 Magna Carta was, as always, magnificent and exciting.  They also had two Charter of the Forests from different signings on display.  But you can't take pictures in there.  So I walked around the top of the castle wall walk, in the rain, and took a picture looking towards the Cathedral.  I hadn't realized how different the spire things are until I looked from this angle.

 After walking the wall, I went back to the Cathedral to look at things I hadn't looked at enough before.  There's little Hugh's memorial, and a Bishop Richard Fleming's famous cadaver tomb (there was a scaffolding being put up just in front of it, so my picture's sort of iffy).

And then it occurred to me to see if there were any Green Men about, so I asked, and the docent gave me a map!  Here's the first one, in a little hidden place, but lit now by modern lighting.
 This next one is interesting, with oak leaves and such.

 And finally, a friend showed me these snails, which are a reminder of our mortality.

Midweek Visit to Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton's Home

Woolsthorpe (the link is to the National Trust site) is amazing.  It's where Isaac Newton was born, and where he lived for a few years before being sent off to school.  But when he finished his undergraduate degree at Cambridge, the plague was bad, and he (I'm told) returned to Woolsthorpe for about 18 months.  And later, he credited those 18 months with helping him make the discoveries he made about gravity and the light spectrum.

He lived much of his adult life away, though he owned Woolsthorpe.  But his death mask (or a copy, anyway), made it back.  Death masks are very weirdly fascinating.

 Kitchen, I think.
 Here's the room where he supposedly did lots of his work.
 And the room where he was born.  (None of the furniture is from when he was at the house.)
 Here's a back view of the house.  On the left is one of the outbuildings for farming stuffs.
 And here's the front, facing onto the fabled orchard.  See the S things?  I'm told they're ties, and attached to long bars that go through the structure, and so keep the walls from bulging out from age and weight.  (And so says Wikipedia!)
Here's the docent telling stories in front of the apple tree.  Well, the not quite apple tree.  Supposedly, this was the apple tree, but it fell.  But then from the trunk, a new tree grew, so it's the same genetic tree.  And lots of people have taken slips of the tree for grafting so that they have the apple tree, too, sort of.  The docent said it was a cider/cooking apple tree, and not an eating apple tree.

I have to say, walking where Isaac Newton walked, seeing where he may have scrawled on walls, being where he was, that was incredible.  Mind blowing, even.

I'd recommend Woolsthorpe for a half day visit, for sure.  It's really fun!