Tuesday, 5 April 2011

My forty books. Part 1: plays

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I found that I couldn't get off to sleep last night. Partly because my brain was already trying to decide my 40 books, partly because Mark was listening to a radio comedy that somehow managed to simultaneously bore me and keep me awake.

I had initially thought that I would word process my list of 40 books and present it as a complete list on here when I had decided what to choose. But I have been thinking that a list of 40 books would be terminally dull, whereas if I rationalise my choices on here, while deciding, then it might be marginally interesting to other book obsessives. It's a bit like the literary equivalent of having to show your workings in a maths exam.

I decided to start with plays, because in some ways they are my easiest choices.

As a provisional figure, I thought maybe to aim for 5 out of the 40 as plays. Plays are intended to be watched, not read, so to read as a play as text is to divorce it from its proper context and authorial intention. But I love theatre, so I think I would need a few plays to remind me of productions I have enjoyed. Also, as a frustrated but talentless actress, there are some plays with female roles that I would covet, had I talent. I like to read plays and play the part in my head - so this gives them worth as a text among my choices. Only in my head am I ever likely to be cast against someone like Jeremy Northam or David Tennant.

I have 3 definites:
Tennessee Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire"
I love Tennessee Williams and, of his plays, this is probably still my favourite. I had to study "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at A-level, which I enjoyed, but I love Streetcar. As a repressed English woman, I am drawn to the torrid sexuality and overwrought melodrama of Tennessee Williams as cathartic release (this is probably true of my 2nd choice too). In my head I play Stella rather than Blanche. I'm not sure who is my Stanley - if I am brutally honest, that changes with whatever actor I have an immature schoolgirl obsession about at the time.

Edward Albee "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
Martha is another brilliant female character, and I think that this is a cathartic choice again. If I think I have hurt anyone's feelings, I agonise about it for ages. I think it might be quite a release to be bitter and twisted for a couple of hours with no consequences. It's a cruel and emotionally raw play, but also a very funny play. Although Martha is a monster, Albee shows the frustrations that have twisted her and, in doing so, manages to pull off the difficult trick of drawing the audience in to feel sympathy for her.

I'm not sure that I have the reserves of bile and venom needed to do Martha justice though. That's a bad thing for any acting ambition I might have, but probably a very good thing in terms of my private life.

Terry Johnson "Dead Funny"

My most contemporary choice, and the only one of the three where I wouldn't have to attempt an abysmal American accent. Terry Johnson has written a few really good parts for women, but Eleanor in "Dead Funny" is probably his best. In the midst of characters who think that they are funny, she is the only character who actually is genuinely funny in a mordant and bitter way. It has only just occurred to me that she is a little bit like a younger Martha in some ways. I'd never realised this until writing this post.

That leaves me 2 Shakespeare choices, which is quite hard. I'm shallow, so on purely entertainment grounds - and if I can have only 40 books, I want to make sure that they are ones that I like - I would probably exclude the histories and tragedies.

My shortlist would be:
"Midsummer Night's Dream"
I love this play, and I love the character of Helena. However, I would be more likely to be saddled with being Hermia who gets short jokes made about her (I'm about 4 foot 11 ish). I think that Shakespeare was heightist - his wet characters like Hermia or Hero are short. I don't think it makes one of my 40, but it's on my reserve list in case I change my mind about something.

"Twelfth Night"
Partly for Maria, but mainly as a sentimental choice. My husband proposed to me in the interval of a production of "Twelfth Night." I had looked over at him in the first half and thought that he was bored. I only found out later that it was nerves.

"The Tempest"
I'm not sure that I can analyse why I love this play. I first read it having seen Frank Langella in a play, knowing that he had played Prospero on stage. He has a very strong stage presence, and I have never seen a Prospero that matched in dominance the imaginary Frank Langella performance in my head. This is a strong possibility for my list of 40. I also think that it was Shakespeare's last play, if I remember right, and it fascinates me to wonder if Shakespeare had consciously decided this when he wrote Prospero's "This rough magic I here abjure" speech. This might be an exceptional choice, in that it is solely for the play as a whole and not because there is a female role in it that I have my eye on.

"Much Ado About Nothing"

I think I probably can't do without this one. Susan Hill decided not to have "Hamlet" on her list, because she felt that she knew it so well that she had it almost off by heart. Beatrice is my favourite Shakespeare woman but, although I could probably quote a fair amount of it, it would be really annoying to half remember a speech and not be able to look it up. And I'm probably Beatrice opposite David Tennant as Benedick - though annoyingly Catherine Tate is beating me to this one. I also studied this at 6th form, so it has a nostalgic appeal.

"A Winter's Tale"

Again a nostalgic choice, as this play was probably my best experience in the theatre. I won't write too much about this here, though, as I have already done so in a post about theatre in February last year. I don't think that I would pick this one, but it's up there as a possibility.

I don't think that I will change my mind about Williams, Albee and Johnson. My Shakespeare choice might change, but at the moment I am leaning towards "Much Ado" and either "Twelfth Night" or "The Tempest."

So I'm roughly an eighth of the way to deciding my 40.

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