Welcome

nature-forest-trees-fogThis blog is about everything and nothing: It will chronicle my time in England – what I do, what I think, what I feel, what I see. It will be about adventures, dreams, books, people, silly thoughts, awkward moments and whatever else needs to be put into words. Will it be good? Bad? Funny? Weird? I don’t know.

We’ll find out soon…

Merken

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I’m back

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I’ve been away for quite a while. Not that I think anybody noticed. But still. Things have been weird and messy. Eventful, always. Fun, mostly. Sad, sometimes. Boring, never.

I could have written about so many things. Like, visiting Scotland for the first time. Walking through Chatsworth House looking for Mr Darcy and the sculptures from Pride & Prejudice (2005). Strolling through Bristol on the hunt for Banksy works and ending up having cider on a boat. Falling in love with London a little bit more with every visit. Pretending to be a student in Cambridge for just a day. Screaming and singing and sweating at concerts and festivals. Meeting the most amazing people. Saying goodbye to England. Reading too many books to list them now. Working on the final project for my MA. (I guess that was the main reason why I stopped posting regularly for a while – that took up a LOT of time, energy, passion and whatever else I had to give.) Finishing that project. Feeling a little lost once it was done. Moving to Hamburg. Starting an internship in Hamburg. Feeling welcome in Hamburg. Making friends in Hamburg. Feeling lost in Hamburg. Being in Hamburg, liking Hamburg, missing England. Talking German and thinking English. Not knowing where I belong. Not even knowing where I want to belong.

And that’s just a few of the things that have happened and have been occupying my mind lately.

Maybe I’ll write about some of that in the next weeks. Maybe I’ll write about something completely different. But I’ll write, I promise.

Interview: Lindum Books

When you enter Lindum Books, the little independent bookshop in Lincoln’s Bailgate, you can’t help but want to sit down in the cosy chair in the back of the shop and dive straight into another world. Owner Sasha Drennan talked to me about the shop – and, of course, books.

How did Lindum Books start?

I’ve always been a veracious reader and had been thinking about running my own business for years, so when I got made redundant, I decided to combine that and open a bookshop. The shop will be three years old in April, and I haven’t regretted it a single second.

What is the best and the worst thing about owning the shop?

The best thing is that I can do everything my way. And there’s also the huge satisfaction of sending someone away with a book you think they’re going to love.

Ironically, now that I have a bookshop, I have very little time to read anything. That’s horrible! It’s wonderful and satisfying to own an entire shop full of books, though.

Why did you choose a location in the Cathedral Quarter?

In order for the business to work, it needed to be up here. There are so many visitors, and, much as we don’t like to admit it, there’s a divide between the people who live and work and shop downhill and those who live and work and shop uphill. Uphill is wealthier, and more likely to spend money on culture. I’m an independent bookseller and can’t afford to discount books. I use the same suppliers as all the chains, but they get much bigger trade discounts for buying in huge quantities, so I simply wouldn’t be able to compete downhill.

What distinguishes Lindum Books from other book shops?

We can’t compete on price, so we compete on the experience and service. For example, we can get books for our customers that large chain booksellers such as Waterstones perhaps can’t. They have a corporate buying hub who choose what the chain stocks. Store managers can request books for their individual stores, but the corporate buyers don’t always agree. We, by contrast, can get you anything available in print in Britain.

You sell second-hand and new books. How do you get the second-hand books?

Most of our second-hand stock gets donated to us. Many people have their houses filled with books, and if they want or need to clear out, it’s quite difficult these days. Ebay and Amazon Marketplace aren’t for everyone, and charity shops are getting quite picky as to what and how much they will take. We take everything that’s not mouldy or really falling to bits. I’ve literally had house-loads of books coming.

You regularly host events at the shop. Why?

It was a condition of Gill, one of my employees, to come and work for me. We both think it’s very important to get authors and readers together. People who love reading books love meeting the people who write them, it’s almost like meeting you favourite music or movie star. And it brings literature to life. It shows that it’s kind of a living, breathing thing, that there is a human being behind every story. We’ve had big names come and do events with us, like Joanne Harris and Kate Morton, but also local authors. People seem to like this mix very much.

In 2016, print sales went up by seven % in the UK. Was that visible here at the shop too?

Yes. I think it’s because publishers finally seem to have realised that if they still want to sell physical books, they have to make the physical copy worth owning. For a long time, there’s been little effort made to make books look lovely. Now, there are so many incredibly beautifully designed books – you look at them, and you want to own them. A lot of our customers say they have a Kindle but aren’t really using it anymore because they’d rather have physical copies.

Profile: Literary Review

Walking through Soho, you’ll find many odd and quirky things. Sex shops. Night clubs. Antique dealers. German tourists. And – nestled between all that and almost impossible to find if you don’t know what you are looking for – the Literary Review.

The location is very fitting, actually. Where else in London would it feel more natural to have a literature magazine famous for both the quality of its content and its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award?

Apart from reviewing the latest books, the Literary Review has been giving away this notorious award to the creators of the worst lines of sexual description in literature each year since 1993, not shying away from nominating and crowning international literary luminaries such as Erri De Luca, a celebrated Italian novelist. His clumsy attempt to compare having sex with dancing ballet in The Day Before Happiness prompted the jury to state that “even in the wake of Brexit, Bad Sex knows no borders” and made him a worthy successor of Morrissey, who took the prize in 2015. De Luca almost faced competition from the US President, though: several Literary Review readers nominated Donald Trump’s ‘locker-room talk’, but as the award only honours fiction, the jury had to disqualify him.

It’s this mix of humour, light-hearted boldness and serious passion for literature that distinguishes the Literary Review from most other literature magazines. Founded by Dr Anne Smith in Edinburgh in 1979 as a more accessible alternative to existing literature magazines, the Literary Review’s aim has always been to provide lovers of literature with a witty, well-written and entertaining overview of the latest works in fiction, history, biography, politics, memoir, poetry, crime and everything in between.

The May 2017 issue, for example, covers topics ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to neurosurgery, the MI5, human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, horses, Protestantism, forgeries of Tennyson, and the memoir of a former director of the National Theatre. This variety and the quality of the writing have made the Literary Review one of the most popular literary magazines in the UK, with a monthly readership of close to 45,000. There’s even Literary Review merchandise (tote bags and postcards) available from the website.

When you enter the small office on Lexington Street, the first thing you notice are the books. They are everywhere: shelved on the walls, piled up on desks and all over the floor, even towering on spare chairs – it looks and smells like a little library. There must be hundreds of them, and every day new ones arrive.

For everyone who loves books, these deliveries are almost like Christmas. As there are so many, the postman – just like Santa Claus – delivers the books in a huge bag, which is then cut open and emptied in the middle of the room. Besides numerous hardbacks and paperbacks fresh off the printing press, these bags often contain weird little gifts from the authors and publishing houses: candles and matches accompanying a thriller about a séance, packets of super-soft tissues sent with a supposedly very sad romantic novel, Belgian chocolates, card games and once even a tiny bottle of vodka. Some books come in wooden crates or are wrapped in expensive handmade paper, all to increase the chance of getting a review in the next issue.

Every bit of space that isn’t hidden by books is pasted with some of the iconic cover illustrations – since 1997 by the award-winning illustrator, political cartoonist and current Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell – that have appeared on the Literary Review over the years, some of them already faded from the sunlight entering through two large windows.

With all that, you would be forgiven to overlook that there aren’t only creatures of ink and paper but also some of flesh and bone in this room, sitting bent over a book or editing a review while sipping coffee from a shop around the corner. Editor Nancy Sladek and her team (five to six people, depending on whether there’s an intern joining them) share four desks and computers squeezed in between the books, switching places depending on who needs a computer and who can do without it; this is one reason why a lot of the work – from fact-checking to proofreading – is done with paper and pencil.

Most of the people there have been working at the Literary Review together for years, which might be one of the reasons why the atmosphere is so warm and surprisingly relaxed for an editorial office. There are no raised voices, no nervous break-downs if a contributor has missed the deadline, no bickering or nasty comments behind each other’s back. Instead, they share a deep passion for literature and the desire to make each issue as good as possible – which takes a lot of time, effort and an almost obsessive eye for detail.

The magazine’s reputation attracts some of the biggest names in literature (Julian Barnes, A. S. Byatt, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Harris and Nick Hornby being just a few of them) as contributors, but most reviews are written by critics, academics and lesser-known authors with a certain expertise in what they are reviewing. Thus, crime novels are usually reviewed by a crime writer, while the biography of a surrealist artist will very likely end up on the table of an art historian.

The reviews all vary in style and quality, so once they reach the office, the main work begins. Every tiny detail – from names to quotes to book prices – is fact-checked, then each text is proofread several times by at least three different people and edited until everyone is satisfied.

For some, taking all that care might seem like pedantry, or even a waste of time, but it certainly pays off – in the final product, there are literally no mistakes, no design issues, and the quality of the reviews is incredibly consistent. And this, ultimately, is what keeps the Literary Review going strong in a time where both books and print magazines are often declared a dying breed.

 

Review: To Kill A King

If you think that a few hundred people singing cheerfully along to a song about funerals is a bit weird and morbid, you’ve clearly never been at a To Kill A King concert. It doesn’t have to be weird and morbid at all – on the contrary, it can be a whole lot of fun, as the London-based indie band proved at their excellent comeback show last Thursday.

The gig at The Borderline – an iconic Soho institution where acts like Muse, Blur and Mumford & Sons took their first steps towards superstardom – is the first in a series of shows at the band’s favourite London venues. It’s a small basement venue, with space for only 275 people, creating an intimacy you simply don’t get at a stadium or concert hall. There’s not even a barrier between stage and audience, allowing support act Josh Savage, a talented young singer/songwriter from Winchester, to jump down and play one of his songs right in the middle of the crowd.

To Kill A King enter the stage to euphoric cheers. “We haven’t done this in a while, and it feels great to be back,” lead-singer Ralph Pelleymounter confesses straight away, visibly moved by the warm welcome. They had taken a break from gigging to work on their third record, and now it’s finished they are ready to show the world what they’ve been up to in the last 18 months.

Always at least one eye on the darker, less pleasant parts of being human in their lyrics, To Kill A King often display a stubborn hopefulness and cheeky optimism in their songs, as if to say that nothing ever is as bleak as it seems – there’s hope as long as we dare to look for it. This mix of dark and light makes their music very modern, almost a perfect soundtrack for life in 2017, and the crowd eagerly embrace it: they dance, they cheer, they sing along. Guitar-driven indie-rock isn’t dead after all, it seems.

The set includes many old songs, creating almost tangible waves of joy in the audience whenever they recognise a favourite, like Choices from the 2013 debut Cannibals with Cutlery and Love Is Not Control from the self-titled follow-up. The new material – including the latest single The Good Old Days – triggers an equally euphoric response. “You are delightful!”, the band let them know, and they mean it.

“Delightful” actually sums the gig up very well. It’s a pleasure to watch this band, to hear and see their dedication, passion and sheer joy. They are up there because they love it, and what they do feels real and authentic – which is quite special in an age of manufactured acts and overly polished, calculated musical output. And then, of course, there’s the simple fact that To Kill A King are a very good live band. They know exactly what they are doing, mixing quieter folk-like tunes with heavier indie-rock carried by strumming guitars and wild drums, and both styles suit them well.

Just over an hour long, the gig is over far too soon, both for the audience and for the band. They play an encore and hang around at the merch stall afterwards to talk to everyone who wants to say hi – which is almost everyone. And that is definitely an indicator of a good night.

Review: Hamlet

I’ve hardly ever been happier to be 23 than when the Almeida Theatre in Islington announced “Hamlet for Free”, a four-day festival for under-25s including free performances of Robert Icke’s sold-out production starring Andrew Scott – best known as James Moriarty in the BBC series Sherlock – as the tragic Prince of Denmark. And all my joy was justified: Icke and his team on and behind the stage make Hamlet feel so fresh, exciting and relevant, one could easily forget that it was written four centuries ago.

With seats for only 325 people, the Almeida benefits from an intimacy the bigger West End theatres lack, and the bare brick walls give London’s “Theatre of the Year 2016” (The Stage Awards) an edgy, industrial look – it’s the perfect canvas for this ambitious, radically modern take on Hamlet.

Everything from set to props and costumes is slick, subtle, chic – pomp and bombast give way for understated Scandinavian coolness and the latest technology, which seems to be everywhere: King Hamlet’s funeral is broadcast on a massive screen, and his ghost (David Rintoul) is discovered thanks to security footage of the castle. Skype is used to communicate with international politicians, and the new king Claudius (Angus Wright) – tall and hawkish, and every bit the modern politician bent on good publicity – makes sure that a camera man or photographer are never far off to capture royal life for the public.

Director Icke and set designer Hildegard Bechtler make perfect use of the whole stage. The front is either a surveillance chamber or an elegant apartment, but behind that, two glass walls – sometimes hidden from view by curtains – create two additional spaces enabling them, for example, to show what is going on in the castle at night: in the very back, Ophelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is taking a bath, in the apartment, Claudius and Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) are making out on the sofa, and in the space between, Hamlet is walking somewhere with a gun in his hand.

Each setting has a distinct lighting scheme, designed by Natasha Chivers – cold, blueish-white for the surveillance chamber, and warm, almost golden in the apartment. Tom Gibbons’ sound concept works similar, guiding the audience from scene to scene with Bob Dylan songs, foreboding, almost siren-like noises and the buzzing sounds of computers and other digital devices in the background.

The whole cast is excellent, from Peter Wight’s foolish Polonius to Wright’s calculating but surprisingly passionate Claudius and Brown Findlay’s haunting Ophelia, but Scott’s mesmerising performance beats them all. His Hamlet is charming and sarcastic, a brilliant mind haunted by grief, soft-spoken and loving – which makes his few furious outbursts even more terrifying. Scott moves effortlessly from quiet despair to cruel mockery and cold anger, and a single glance or a raised eyebrow, shared with the audience like a secret joke, is enough to make everyone hold their breath or burst out with laughter. Despite knowing that he is doomed, it is impossible not to root for him.

This Hamlet is moving and innovative, and its massive popularity among under-25s proves that – contrary to widespread opinion – young people do care about the theatre: even if you are more a fan of Scott than of Shakespeare, you have to be at least moderately passionate about the theatre to happily sacrifice almost four hours for it.

Review: Blossoms

As pretty and rich in historical heritage as it may be, Lincoln isn’t exactly a hotspot for live music – most artists would rather stop in Nottingham, or maybe Sheffield, which can boast a bigger audience and iconic venues, and they’d probably have to get lost on the way to end up in Lincolnshire.

Occasionally, though, miracles happen. For some reason, NME decided that this year’s VO5 NME Awards Tour featuring Blossoms, one of the most promising new British acts around, should stop in Lincoln.

On 20 March, a crowd of young and hip-looking people queued outside the sold-out Engine Shed, a mid-sized multi-purpose venue conveniently located on the university campus. Some of them are accompanied by their parents, who don’t look half as happy as their teenage kids about waiting in the cold for the doors to open.

Apart from an overwhelming smell of chips lingering until enough people have bought beer to drive it away, the Engine Shed is a nice venue for concerts. The simple, straightforward industrial room with its high ceiling suits gigs perfectly, and stage-size and space are decent, allowing for a crowd of 1800 people. Sadly, though, the floor is super sticky even before anyone had the chance to spill beer or vodka bull – so sticky it is hard to move in some places, actually, which is annoying.

At 7.30pm, Rory Wynne, a pale blonde kid with a slightly Gallagher-esque arrogance and self-confidence kicks off the night with his catchy indie rock tunes, singing modest lines like “You’re the second-best thing in the universe after me” and throwing plastic cups into the audience. He is a talented guy, and he’s aware of that – maybe a bit too much.

The second support act is the equally self-confident Manchester-based punk band Cabbage, who deliver a very raw performance (including screaming, psychedelic dancing and spitting water into the audience) in line with loud guitars and angry lyrics about the NHS, Brexit and other political topics.

After a short break, Blossoms enter the stage to a Kanye West song. With their long hair, tightly-fitted clothes and the occasional moustache, the five-piece from Stockport look very 70s glam rock. Singer Tom Ogden (born in 1993) looks extremely young, but he doesn’t act like it. He and his bandmates own the stage with an ease that is slightly surprising for a band who only released their debut album about a year ago.

They are talented musicians, and Ogden’s voice is easily recognisable, working well both live and on record. The music is a mix of indie, 80s synth-pop and 70s glam rock, at times too polished and tame, but sometimes quite edgy and daring – the live sound is definitely rockier than the album version.

About 90 per cent of the crowd seem to know the words of every single song, and to be fair, Blossoms are perfect for huge singalongs. Towards the end, one of their songs morphs into a medley of the Oasis classic Half the World Away and Wham!’s Last Christmas. Yes, Last Christmas, in March. And everyone sings along.

The set closes with their hit single Charlemagne, a nice indie anthem made for stadiums, leaving behind happy faces everywhere. It was a good gig – let’s hope Lincoln will see more of that kind soon.

Review: The Glass Menagerie

I first encountered Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play The Glass Menagerie when I was studying English and American literature at university, and I remember being haunted by it for days. Now, a few years later, I had the chance to see John Tiffany’s Olivier-Award-nominated production of it at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End, and it was just as powerful and moving as I remembered.

Tiffany, probably best known as the director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and his award-winning team masterfully capture the essence of Williams’ career-launching masterpiece and bring it to life in a fresh, unique way.

When the lights in the beautiful Victorian auditorium go out, a soft, melancholy piano tune is all you can hear. Then the narrator and protagonist Tom Wingfield (Michael Esper), a young aspiring poet feeling trapped in his life, is revealed. He introduces the audience to what they are about to see: a play based on his memories of his mother Amanda (Cherry Jones) and his sister Laura (Kate O’Flynn), and the fateful night they had a gentleman-caller, Tom’s friend Jim (Brian J. Smith), over for dinner.

After this, he steps back in time, right into the empty flat and the life he has left behind, and pulls his sister out of the sofa in one gentle, swift movement. This is the most unusual and perfect stage entrance I’ve ever seen, immediately establishing important traits of Laura’s character – her dependency, her insecurity and her tendency to hide and keep to herself, all caused by her limp. Then Amanda, their eccentric and theatrical mother, enters the stage, and the tragedy unfolds.

Tom is a dreamer with a tender heart, torn between doing what’s best for him and what’s best for his family, and Esper’s flawless performance captures the whole spectrum of this struggle, from childlike optimism and hope to frustration, even anger and self-loathing.

Cherry Jones excels as the self-confident and nostalgic mother, annoying her children with tales from her glorious youth and her attempts to get Laura a husband. She is radiant and charismatic, portraying Amanda as a stubborn, loving woman willing to do whatever it takes to save her family, and her joy at finding out that Tom has invited one of his friends at work over for dinner is as convincing as her despair when the dinner doesn’t turn out the way she hoped.

Kate O’Flynn’s Laura is clever and compassionate. Her limp is quite subtle, emphasising that Laura’s real issue isn’t the leg but her low self-esteem. It’s fascinating to watch her get lost in her own little world inhabited by her collection of glass animals – her glass menagerie – whenever she feels sad or troubled, and it is delightful to see her slowly open up to Jim, who makes her laugh and, for a moment, see that she is just as special as her favourite glass piece, the unicorn. O’Flynn and Smith both deliver moving performances, and their chemistry is wonderful.

Bob Crowly’s set and costume design recreate 1930s St Louis, where the action takes place. The modest flat – coloured in stale brownish tones – is a hexagonal space in the centre of the stage enclosed by a dark, mirror-like surface reflecting the shapes of the actors when they are standing at the edge, gazing out through invisible windows. This makes the flat appear like an island, set apart and cut off from the world outside, or a ship just about to sink, and it is a brilliant visual metaphor for the Wingfield family.

The lighting (Natasha Katz) takes on an equally symbolic, almost storytelling role. In several scenes, Tom reflects on what happened while watching Amanda and Laura from outside of the scene, as if they were forever out of reach. To emphasise this, Tom is set apart by a cold, blueish-white light in these scenes, while everything else is bathed in warm, soft tones. Only when he is a part of the story, he is included in the overall colour scheme.

Soft, jazzy piano melodies (Nico Muhly) underscore most of the play, while sound effects (Paul Arditti) are used sparsely. Sometimes, you can hear rain splashing down outside the apartment or someone using a typewriter, but often, there is a strange absence of sounds – for example, there are no plates and cutlery, so when the family is eating, they use pantomime to show it. The missing everyday noises create the illusion that we are really watching a memory or a dream.

Steven Hoggett’s movement design is absolutely stunning. When Tom first transforms from narrator into protagonist, he takes a deep breath and then walks, almost dances, with his eyes to the audience back into the flat, as if he is crossing into another world, and this stepping in and out of the action is repeated several times. Even if the actors have no props to use – as with the missing cutlery – each movement is precise and effective, avoiding the comic effect pantomime usually has.

Carried by outstanding performances and brilliant storytelling, The Glass Menagerie is a remarkable piece of theatre. Every aspect of the production fits together flawlessly, creating a tender, heart-breaking but also funny experience that stays with you much longer than the tube-ride home.

Review: Sofar Sounds London

If you find yourself in a room full of people sitting on the floor, waiting eagerly for artists they’ve never heard of to play for them, chances are you’re at a Sofar Sounds gig – a night full of surprise performances in an intimate atmosphere, like the excellent one that took place at Coates Studio in London in April.

The room – used as yoga studio or open work space throughout the day – is bright and spacious, providing enough space for people to spread out comfortably with pillows and picnic plaids. Through an open door, you can see one of the artists dancing around with his guitar, unaware of the people watching him. Before the first performance, a volunteer welcomes everybody and briefly explains that this night will be “all about love, warmth and respect for the music”.

Then the reggae-combo The Hempolics takes over, and for four songs, it’s summer in London. The eight band-members are as chilled as their songs, and the three singers all add a different layer to the lush sounds, in particular the female singer, whose rich, chocolatey voice brings soul to the set.

After a short break, Daniel Glover, a twenty-something in Doc Marten’s, sits down with his guitar and starts singing. His voice is beautiful, warm with a slightly raw edge, and the songs move swiftly between indie, pop and folk. Between songs, he explains that he wanted to cancel this gig because his mum died a few weeks ago and he thought he wouldn’t be ready. “I still think I’m not ready,” he confesses, and starts playing a song he wrote for her.

Hearing and seeing his grief and devastation, witnessing this young guy looking sad beyond his years and throwing all his heart into his songs, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by emotions. Everywhere people are swallowing hard, eyes fixed on the stage, holding their friends’ hands. He has to wipe his face with his hands afterwards, too, before he introduces a cover of a Johnny Cash song, which is cheerful and hopeful and feels a bit like a bird’s song after a long, cold winter. I’ll get better, I’m on my way, this seems to say. And from the applause and cheers and glassy eyes you can tell that everybody in the room feels with him.

More is More, the last and probably weirdest act of the night – three guys with saxophones and one guy with a percussion-set – then manage to lighten things up again. There’s something very alien in listening to that kind of music, especially after the first two acts, but it’s joyful and surprising and pure fun.

After the first song, they reveal that they are improvising. If they hadn’t said anything about it, it would have been impossible to tell. Everything from breaks to melodies and loudness is perfectly synchronised and they seem to understand each other from the tiniest of gestures. Most people here probably aren’t used to listening to improv-brass-tunes moving between pop and jazz, but they love it. Some laugh, others grin, but everyone feels good and happy. It definitely was a good choice to let them close the night.

Judging from the bright faces and excited voices leaving the room in Hackney, the Sofar-community has just grown a little bit more.

Review: Twelfth Night

Putting on Shakespeare is always a bit of a gamble. While the Bard’s plays are guaranteed to attract people, their popularity and familiarity can be the death of a production. Play it too safely, and everybody will be bored. Be too creative, and people will bemoan the lack of respect for the original. Merely Theatre, a small British theatre company currently touring the country with Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet, seems to have found the recipe for winning the gamble. Bawdy, passionate and ridiculously entertaining, their refreshing take on the romantic comedy Twelfth Night performed at the New Theatre Royal would surely have pleased the master himself.

The company specialises in stripped-back, gender-blind performances of Shakespeare. For every role in their productions, an actor is paired up with an actress, and they then take turns in performing the part, meaning that sometimes men play women and vice versa.

Twelfth Night itself actually includes a young woman, Viola, pretending to be a man called Cesario, so it’s a perfect fit – and since Viola was played by a male actor (Simon Grujich) that day, you had the unusual case of a man playing a girl playing a man. Additionally, the male characters Malvolio, Sebastian (both Ffion Jones), Antonio and the Fool (both Tamara Astor) were played by women, while Lady Olivia was played by a man (Luke Barton).

Admittedly, this can be confusing at first, but after a few minutes it works surprisingly well. Considering that this romantic comedy not only sees Viola – then disguised as Cesario – fall in love with Duke Orsino (David Gerits), who is in love with Lady Olivia, who in turn falls for Cesario, but also includes nearly identical looking twins, a bit of confusion was probably intended anyway.

A character’s gender is indicated both by clothes and by posture and gestures. Luke Barton’s Lady Olivia, for example, wears a classy black jumpsuit with wide, flaring legs and moves as elegantly and feminine as a Disney princess – he is absolutely convincing, as are the other actors. Tamara Astor’s mischievous Fool is the highlight, stealing the scene every time she is on stage. Ffion Jones’ Malvolio, by contrast, could do with a more understated performance. She tries a little too hard to convince everyone she is a man by exaggerating both her movements and her voice.

Sticking to Shakespearean language, the whole cast seemingly effortlessly throws around thys and thees and thous as if this were their natural way of talking, but including references to contemporary popular culture (e.g. “10 points to Gryffindor!”) mixes things up nicely, as does picking a random gentleman from the audience to perform a wedding ceremony on stage.

The set design is simple, with three wooden arches in the background holding curtains through which the characters enter and exit scenes, and there are hardly any props except for a handful of letters and a bench. For most of the 95 minutes, everything is brightly lit, but night is indicated with a dimmer, colder shade, and at one point, everything is completely dark except for two torches soaring over the stage. The Fool performs a few songs on stage, but there is no background music or other sound added.

All this allows the audience to completely focus on the story – and the actors. You can’t help but be charmed by the company’s dedication. In the end, everybody left with a bright smile on their face, which is probably the best compliment for the actors.

York

When I stepped out of the train station in York, I was stunned – not by the city itself but by the icy wind mocking the bright blue sky and every daffodil pretending that winter was over. Once I had pulled my scarf a little tighter and put on a cap, I could see what the cold had hidden until then: York is beautiful. Almost like a dream.

To take as much of York’s beauty in as possible, I decided to join one of the free walking tours leaving outside York Art Gallery. My train had arrived early enough to give me plenty of time to get a coffee, eat a banana and frighten a few pigeons who thought they had a right to approach and pester me. Randomly stomping my feet whenever they got too close wasn’t as effective as I had hoped, though. I was quite glad when it was time to meet up for the tour and leave the little feathered beasts behind.

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York is so full of history, I’d have felt almost ridiculously young even if my tour buddies hadn’t been a group of 60-somethings visibly shocked to see a 23-year-old interested in things that existed hundreds and thousands of years before she was born. So much about prejudices. Apart from that, the walking tour was fun. While the oldies needed to rest, completely out of breath after walking the city walls, I could take my time to look for odd little things nobody else seemed to notice, like the tiny owl sculpture sitting outside a windowsill and mice carved into an old wooden door.

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Tiny owl is watching you…
The tour ended on Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. This isn’t a joke shop or anything, it’s a proper street name. Imagine having this as your address. From there, it’s just a few steps to get to The Shambles, the most famous place in the maze of twisting medieval lanes and alleys at the heart of York. It’s probably also the narrowest street in there: in some spots, it’s possible to touch the houses on both sides of the street with your arms outstretched, and many of the houses are so crooked that their upper part leans dangerously far towards their opposite neighbours. This must be the muggle-sibling of Diagon Alley – I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised to find a wand shop amidst all the tiny boutiques and chocolate shops.

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No wands to be found there, sadly. Instead, I probably found the best sandwich ever, stuffed with slow-cooked pulled pork, fresh slaw and an amazing honey mustard sauce leaving bright yellow stains all over my fingers. If you’re ever in York (and you’re not a vegetarian), go to Shambles Kitchen. The guys working there are passionate about what they are doing – you should have seen the look on their faces when they took a large piece of roasted beef out of the oven, cut off a slice and saw that it was perfect: juicy, a delicious shade of pink at the centre, and so tender the knife went through without the slightest effort. It was a look of pure love. And you can taste this love, the food is absolutely amazing.

As is York Minster. I wasn’t sure whether it’d be worth paying £9 just to enter a cathedral, but I did it anyway. And I’m glad I did. The Minster is the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and it might well be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Whatever one might think of the Church, these guys definitely knew how to build magnificent places. I’d definitely take advantage of the free guided tours – this way, you get to see all the highlights, and the guides quite literally know everything about the cathedral’s history, whether it’s about a specific statue, one of the gorgeous windows of stained glass or about anything else.

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Chapter House at York Minster
Still in awe, I went to York Art Gallery, which has some great exhibitions on at the moment. One is dedicated to the depiction of flesh, from the naked human body to animal carcasses and fruits (with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Edgar Degas, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Circle of Rembrandt and Francis Bacon) , while another one celebrates British ceramics. Afterwards, I strolled through the museum gardens, where squirrels were chasing each other through the daffodils and crocuses defying the cold. Did I ever mention I like squirrels? Well, I really do.

 

Since my train back wouldn’t leave for another few hours, I used the time to go see Hidden Figures at the City Screen Picturehouse. That was a good decision – the movie is great, and the cinema is much nicer and more comfortable than the Odeon in Lincoln. It was the perfect ending for quite a perfect day.