Why Hamilton Is Not Just a Fad

I first heard of Hamilton three years ago, from the teenagers at my son’s drama classes. They were all excited about this new show that none of them had seen, but for which they knew the songs and lyrics. Endorsement by famous people, including the Obamas, added to the spice. Then, after the election of Donald Trump, it became a form of political activism to support this show.

The steep prices and instant sellout when the tickets were put on sale for the London show almost put me off the whole enterprise. But my teenage son looked at me pleadingly and I found some restricted-view sets that only involved selling off one arm and leg instead of my kidneys too… So I gave in to the buzz.

Then we had to wait for more than a year.

I bought the CD with the original Broadway cast. My older son and I became obsessed with it, much to the dismay of the younger son, who is not a fan of musicals. We started reading up about American history, the founding fathers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, bought the book. It became an all-consuming passion and we marvelled at the research, hard work, cleverness, passion and teamwork that went into creating the show. We worried that we were so impregnated with the recording that we would be disappointed with the new voices in the London version.

We needn’t have been.

Seeing the show onstage is an electrifying experience. Not so much because of the audience reaction – although it was wonderful to see that, alongside the elderly white people who could afford the seats there were also young people and people of all colours. It is simply even more dramatic and poignant getting caught up in the whirl of things live. I didn’t think I would cry more than once perhaps (at the death of Philip) after knowing the whole musical by heart, but seeing it performed had me in floods of tears a mere 4-5 songs in. So yes, I did embarrass my son (although I had tissues on hand).

The voices were indeed different and it took me a couple of songs to get used to it, but it then allowed me to appreciate all the nuances and differences in interpretation. For all of his Olivier award, Giles Terera was good but not as suave and extraordinary as Leslie Odom Jr. in the role of Aaron Burr. Jamael Westman is charismatic, unflappable and perhaps almost too heroic for the role of Hamilton – he certainly demonstrates why people fell in love with him, but is perhaps not as impish and nasty as I can imagine Miranda might play him. King George and Lafayette/Jefferson made the roles their own and milked them for all they were worth, providing excellent comic relief, while Laurens/Philip was very close to the Broadway original and utterly charming. My favourite was Eliza (understudy Marsha Songcombe) – who started off relatively quietly and hesitant, but just grew and grew in voice, drama and stature. She brings all that is good and loyal, beautiful and sad to the play. Her final gesture of reaching her arms out for her husband still brings tears to my eyes.

It’s not just the cleverness of the lyrics, the staging, the singalong music, the charismatic performers that makes this a night to remember. It’s not even the almost impossible blend of high drama, excitement, farce, lyrical moments and profound sadness. It is absolutely true that this breaks the mould and shows us what is possible with musicals and cast if you are audacious enough and inventive enough. But above all, like all good plays and musicals, it takes something that is particular (about a person and a time) and makes it universal. We all know that feeling of ‘running out of time’, the need to leave a legacy behind. We’ve all wondered ‘when my time is up, have I done enough?’. And Hamilton forces us to acknowledge as well that ‘you have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story’.

Hamilton London cast on opening night.

The problem now is living with having seen it. It feels like there is nothing more to look forward to. Ever.

And if you too want to see it, there are £10 tickets available for lottery.

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Cultural Summary April 1-10

Val Thorens from above the clouds.

‘Culture’ might be a bit of a misnomer for what I’ve been doing since April 1st. However, there is such a thing as a skiing and snowboarding ‘sub-culture’ – and no, it’s not the wealthy people posing in their Chanel ski-suits and drinking Aperol in front of an open fire in their immaculate chalets. Skiing to me and my friends since high school is a low-budget, almost alcohol-free, very sporty and fun adventure, with a lot of talk about snow conditions, piste-bashing, skiing techniques and waxing and cutting edges. Sounds absolutely riveting, doesn’t it? Not everyone’s mug of mulled wine, but the upside is a view like the one above.

Sadly, I have to admit that for the first time I truly felt my age, as the altitude and exertions really got to me. I emerged like a warrior after endless wars in Troy: with a strained ligament, a pulled deltoid, throbbing headache, shortness of breath and a cold. Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! I mean: how inspiring is this?

Mont Blanc from the ‘other’ angle.

I did get quite a bit of reading done and, since I was skiing with Chinese and French friends, it was appropriate to read Chinese thriller Death Notice by Zhou Haohui and Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer. Both have been adapted for the screen, but while the Chinese book is all heart-stopping action, the French book is languid, slow build-up of tension and a lot of personal emotion (the film stars a very young Isabelle Adjani). I have also embarked upon the Asymptote Book Club title for March, Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, a sensitive, amusing and slightly disquieting view of the less talked about aspects of the grandfather/grandson relationship.

I was planning to attend First Monday Crime at City University last night, but had to give up and go home early because of creaking bones. However, if you are a fan of crime fiction, this monthly event (twice this April – the next event will be on the 30th) is a must-see: great panels, super-nice people and lots of laughter guaranteed.

More exciting events coming up this week: the launch of the new edition of Poetry Review will take place at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden on Wednesday 11th April. And on Thursday my older son and I will be attending the show we’ve been waiting for, dreaming and talking about, singing for the past year or so: Hamilton. Last but not least, my local writing group will be celebrating two years of existence on Sunday 15th with a feedback session and a festive meal.

I’ve also acquired some books in that short day that I was at Senate House library yesterday. I borrowed George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London to reread for the David Bowie Book Club in April. I also borrowed John Berger’s to reread for Shiny New Books’ celebration of 50 years of Booker Prize – Golden Booker Week in July. Serendipity again reared its spirited head and introduced me to Brian Aldiss’ Life in the West – mention an ex-spy  and hedonist and an academic conference – and I cannot resist! I also found an academic book entitled Tatort Germany: The Curious Case of German-Language Crime Fiction, so you can imagine I had to pick that one up! Finally, the ever-wonderful Europa Editions sent me Iranian-born, French-writing author Négar Djavadi’s debut novel Disoriental, described as at once a micro-history of Iran, a family saga and a woman’s personal experience of exile.

And finally, just ‘pour la bonne bouche‘, as the French say, here is one more picture to say farewell to winter. Give me snow over rain, I say!

 

 

 

Cultural Summary 25 March 2018

An extrovert week is followed by a more introvert one, perhaps also coloured by the tumultuous events at work. Students occupied part of our building and impeded access to workspace, training rooms and even fire exits, and we had all the excitement of megaphones, human chains, trying to reason with them and then being evacuated and finding refuge in the library. While I have every sympathy with their fear that universities are becoming too similar to businesses, I am not fully clear what their aims are or how we could help them achieve those. But it does bring back memories of idealistic younger days when we protested against Communism and (sort of) won that battle, and of course there are parallels with the March for Our Lives movement in the US. I hope that this younger generation will achieve something before they get too disillusioned by the inertia and selfish interests of the older generations.

March 20th was the International Day of the Francophonie, so I spent the evening reading some French poetry, which was perhaps my first poetic love (Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire). I have a slim volume which is a good introduction to more modern poetry published by Gallimard: Mon beau navire, ô ma mémoire: Un siècle de poésie française (1911-2011). Gallimard has equivalent anthologies for each century, and this one features both well-known poets (such as Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, Aragon) as well as many poets that I am less familiar with.

This week I discovered the Norwegian crime series in 6 episodes Eyewitness on Walter Presents/All 4. Two teenage boys witness a crime at a sand quarry just outside their town and vow to keep it a secret, with all sorts of repercussions on their community and on themselves. It’s got great build-up of suspense and pacing throughout and manages to also be a love story, a tender mother and son/foster parents and child story, and to show how fallible and flawed even police detectives can be. Recommend, if you can access it. I very seldom binge watch, but I watched all 6 episodes over the course of just 2 nights.

I also succumbed to some bookish temptations. Upon hearing the sad news of the death of Philip Kerr, I borrowed one of the post-WW2 Bernie Gunther books from the library Prussian Blueto see how Gunther copes with a post-Nazi world. I stuck to Germany when I ordered another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go Went Gone I so enjoyed. This time it’s Heimsuchung (translated by Susan Bernofsky as Visitation), about a century of German history seen through the ‘eyes’ of a piece of land outside Berlin and the people who lived on it. Last but not least, the Japan Society left a comment on my review of Japanese novellas, and drew my attention to a dual language anthology of contemporary Japanese writing that they have just published. Heaven’s Wind is translated and edited by Angus Turvill and might help me get back into reading Japanese in the original once more. There will be a Book Club meeting dedicated to this volume on the 9th of April at the Japan Society headquarters in London.

There will be a break in my cultural events for the next two weeks, as holidays and the mountains beckon. However, if you are in France and not skiing, then you really should go to the wonderful Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon, which this year takes place between 6 and 8 April. It will be my first time since 2012 that I won’t be able to make it, but I am sure Emma from Book Around will tell us all about it.

Happy Days in Lyon

France, Norway, Germany and Japan (plus I’ve just finished reading a crime novel set in South Afrida): where have you been ‘transported’ this week?

Summary of Cultural Events 18 March

The tango show that I had to rebook because of the snow took place thankfully on Thursday, rather than this weekend (which is once again snowy). So I could enjoy watching Tango After Dark at the Peacock Theatre, with five tanguero couples and a live band on stage. Two hours of continuous tango music and dancing may not be everyone’s cup of tea: it does perhaps lack the variety that a ballet performance might have, but for me (a very dilettante tango fan) it was sheer pleasure. With the mournful sound of the violin and the accordeon (or a smaller version thereof, the bandoneon), the change of rhythm between languorous leans and lifts and the staccato whipping of the legs between the partner’s legs – it was so polished, accurate and captivating. I really have to restart my tango classes! And the women’s endless legs seemed to be endlessly flexible…

I also discovered a place that serves genuine Viennese desserts nearby: Delaunay on Aldwych, which claims to be inspired by the grand grand cafés of Mittel-Europe. I had my first ever Kaiserschmarr’n outside Vienna and I might go there again soon to explore the coffee menu, see if they have my beloved Melange or Fiaker, and eat a Topfenstrudel while reading Horvath’s Tales from the Vienna Woods. What a find! It will spell disaster for my waist line.

On Friday I celebrated St Patrick’s Day with a small-scale whisky tasting at my house (well, I didn’t visit the Jameson distillery for nothing, did I?) with two friends, while watching Call Me By Your Name. While I didn’t care much for the character portrayed by Armie Hammer (who is not physically my type anyway, but my friends were drooling over him), I was utterly beguiled and captivated by the very vulnerable and tender portrayal of Elio by Timothée Chalamet (with his gawky, immature teenage body and a face with emotions passing like clouds on it all the time). I was very glad though that my older son decided he didn’t want to watch the film with us…

Although I joked about wanting to adopt Timothée, his multilingual, multicultural sensibilities struck a chord and I could see a lot of my older son in him in a few years’ time.

Movie still from Variety.

No new book acquisitions this week, you (or my shelves) will be relieved to hear.

Other cultural events happening over the next week or two that I have heard are well worth your time: the RSC’s West African production of Hamlet at the Hackney Empire runs until end of March, while the Philarmonia will be performing works from Bolshevik Russia (surprisingly timely that, right?) on the 22nd of March at the Southbank.

What Book Clubs Mean to Me #AsymptoteBookClub

This is not a promotional post to encourage you all to take part in a competition to win a 3 month subscription for the Asymptote Book Club – although it would be great if you would! It is an explanation of why I have become so wed to the idea of an international virtual book club. But first, here is the information you need to take part:

The first book club I joined formed organically amongst friends. When I returned to Romania as a fourteen year old, I suddenly found many of my favourite authors were banned, sometimes simply for being from a certain country. (Those evil capitalist bastards etc.) At first, I tried to borrow books from the libraries set up by foreign embassies – until my father was told at his workplace that I should stop doing it, I was endangering the family. I persevered, underground. I went on to study Foreign Languages, and we all had our sneaky ways of getting hold of forbidden books (which might include the Metaphysical poets – we skipped from Shakespeare straight to Wordsworth in English literature, for instance): smuggled copies, photocopies, forgotten family inheritance, passing through all our hands. We spent long afternoons and nights debating them at parties (whilst listening to bootlegged Western music). It certainly made us value books for more than just their physical scarcity – they were the glimpse of a world beyond our own, the doorway to infinite possibilities when we felt we were walled in.

My second book club was more deliberate. I had developed a bit of a reputation amongst friends as the person who could always recommend a good book. After the birth of my first child, I was no longer able to go out to cultural events so frequently, so when I was invited to a book club run by local mums, which was meeting just a few houses down on my street, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember the first book we discussed was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the meeting consisting mostly of wine and snacks, 10 minutes of chatting about Oxford (the setting of the book) and then the rest about babies, sleep patterns, potty training etc.

So I swore off book clubs for a while, although I kept hoping I would meet like-minded people. The Geneva Writers’ Group proved a good forum for some reading discussions, but we were mostly about the writing.

I then discovered my reading family online, via blogs and Twitter. First I developed a crime reading community, then I moved onto translated literature. I’m not giving up either any time soon. These are all people who are as passionate as me about reading, thinking about the reading, debating, listening to other points of view. But of course we all read books at different times, so the conversation sometimes takes a long while to develop. ‘Ah,’ I find myself saying after reading someone’s post, ‘I used to love that book in my teens, but I haven’t read it since.’ Can I really contribute to the conversation, when I can barely remember it, probably overestimate my reaction to it at the time, and would almost certainly feel differently to it now?

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how wonderful it is to be part of the Asymptote Book Club, which I would be supporting even if I weren’t helping out at Asymptote. Books from independent publishers from all over the world, books that don’t have the publicity budgets of the big hitters and risk being overlooked, books that are translated with much care and thought, the opportunity to discuss the same book with an international group of book lovers, to ask the translator questions, to find out more about the culture behind the book… And something that I can join in whenever I am free, without the risk of missing a meeting. Sounds pretty much ideal to me.

 

Summary of Cultural Events 11th March 2018

Quite easy to summarise the last fortnight of cultural events: there were none! The snow spoiled plans to go and watch tango at Sadler’s Wells (but I managed to change the booking for this coming week). The International Women’s Day event organised by the University of London got postponed because of the UCU strikes. I’ve felt pretty run down and tired this week (also fed up with those everlasting financial disagreements with the ex), so I caught the bug that had been doing the rounds at the office, so I’ve cancelled plans for this weekend.

However, I did go to watch Lady Bird at the cinema just before the Oscars. While it was not the greatest film of all time (but then, how many of them are?), it was a rather delightful coming of age story from a girl’s perspective (we’ve watched so many from a young man’s perspective), with a lot of relatable humour, nuanced observation and characters we all remember from high school (the spoilt popular girl, the elusive poseur, the just-a-shade-too-encouraging married teacher etc.) and a fraught mother/daughter relationship which reminded me a little too much of mine.  I even wrote a thread about that on Twitter (and I normally never do threads – or at least not more than 2-3 tweets at a time). Maybe I was overthinking it because of the lack of other cultural events.

I did get quite a batch of books to add to my March reading plans though. While searching for something else at the library, I found Ödön von Horváth’s Tales of the Vienna Woods in both German and English and thought I would do one of my ‘closely observed translation study’ of it. Horváth was a true child of the Austro-Hungarian empire and learnt German only in his teens.

If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria–Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.

Perhaps I can relate to him just a little… For the rest of his brief life, he would write in German – mainly plays, but also essays and novels. He was a keen observer of the absurdities of life and the rise of totalitarianism through indifference and the subjugation of popular culture, especially in the 1930s Germany and Austria. He fled to Paris after the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and died that same year in a freak accident on the Champs-Elysées. Tales of the Vienna Woods was not only required reading at school, but I also happened to live on the outskirts of town, just about where those woods began, so it felt like he was writing for me. His work is full of quotable moments of flawed humanity:

Actually I’m quite different. But I so rarely have time to show it.

Based on Ann Morgan’s recommendation (it is she who read her way around the world in 2012), I also ordered Tiphaine Rivière’s Tiphaine Carnet de These, a humorous but realistic look at the life of a Ph.D. student. It is now available in English as well (translation by Francesca Barrie) and is a BD, which I really miss. There are comic books and manga available here in England, but it’s not quite the same.

Another local library find was Keigo Higashino’s Journey under the Midnight Sun, which looks seriously chunky, so I will probably have to renew it indefinitely. But you know I can never resist Japanese fiction!

Last but not least, I was sent an interesting crime novel from South Africa (another of my weaknesses), translated from Afrikaans. It is Karin Brynard’s Weeping Waters, translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, and to be published by Europa Editions in April.

Weekly Summary of Cultural Events 25 Feb 2018

It hasn’t felt like a quiet week, with so much to catch up on after our short Irish holiday. However, there are only a few things to report on the cultural front.

I forgot to mention that we saw Black Panther while we were in Ireland and were wowed by the beautiful landscapes, costumes and actors and actresses. As an anti-monarchist, I found the macho posturing associated with becoming a king a bit silly, but was delighted that T’Challa was truly great because of all the women surrounding him. There is a ‘Which Black Panther character are you’ quiz doing the rounds at the moment and it didn’t surprise me that I came out as Nakia (although I was secretly hoping for Shuri). As an anthropologist, it was also fascinating to see how they tried to incorporate many different African traditions and cultures in the film, and show the rich diversity of the continent.

I saw another, very different film on Thursday at the Austrian Cultural Forum: Life Guidance by relatively young director Ruth Mader. It is a Black Mirror meets Wim Wenders kind of world, where capitalist consumption has reached its peak. The elite live in immaculate houses decorated mainly in white and beige, the men all wear impeccable suits, the women pastel or white, and everyone is in pursuit of excellence and self-improvement. It is the Communist utopia really (especially when the schoolchildren start singing about ‘fulfilling your full potential’), except it’s capitalist. But when the leading man, Alexander Dworsky, is quite content with his life and doesn’t want to strive to be even better, the private company (outsourced by the government) Life Guidance comes to call to ‘motivate’ him to fit in. This film has just the right level of sinister foreshadowing and is great in concept, but somewhat jerky in execution, with abrupt transitions from one scene to the next, which makes it hard for us to fully sympathise or understand.

In one of the funniest scenes from the film, the businessmen referred to the Life Guidance agency are all learning arts and crafts to develop more holistic skills. As a corporate trainer, this had me in giggling fits.

If you are keen on German language films and other events, the Austrian Cultural Forum offers an excellent selection of free events – and has a little library in its chic Knightsbridge mansion.

A few book acquisitions this week too: Our friends at Alma Press were having a sale on, so I couldn’t resist and bought some much-‘needed’ volumes of Bulgakov: The Diaboliad and Other Stories and Diaries and Selected Letters. Then, since I seemed to be on a Russian binge, I also bought two by Turgenev: A Nest of the Gentry and Fathers and Sons. I was also sent an ARC of Our House by Louise Candlish, which I’ve already read, as it makes a psychologically tense and murderous mockery of divorce and our British obsession with property prices.

Coming up next month, there will be a Women of the World festival at London’s South Bank from March 7th to 11th, including debates, theatre, activism, speed mentoring, workshops and much more.  Meanwhile, the British Film Institute is continuing its in-depth Ingmar Bergman season throughout March. From the 21st of March to the 1st of April BFI Flare will show the best new and classic LGBTQ+ films from around the world. I’ve got my eye on God’s Own Country, a love story between an English farmer and a Romanian migrant worker, starring Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu.