(Photos copyright Ben Phillips Photography)America 2029, one hundred years after the start of the Great Depression: in Lionel Shriver's latest novel we fast forward thirteen years from now to the near future and to a world where the American President has renounced the national debt, the Mexicans have built a wall to keep out impoverished and unwanted Americans, and anarchy unfolds, fuelled by food shortages and fiscal collapse.
The opening day of Marlborough LitFest 2016 (Friday, September 30) saw an erudite and engaging conversation between the author Lionel Shriver and journalist Alex Clark focusing mainly on her latest novel, The Mandibles, and enjoyed by the many appreciative fans who packed into the Town Hall - this was a sell-out evening.
Is this story a dazzling work of imagination? Could it really happen? Ms Shriver explained her fear about the current level of indebtedness and quantitative easing and was at pains to point out that her story is indeed plausible and pertinent to us all.
Some of her narrative clearly echoes the past: the economic downturn of the thirties, Roosevelt’s recall of gold reserves in 1933, Keynes proposed monetary unit… This story may be based on apocalyptic economics, but who amongst us would survive if it became a reality?
Asked what inspired her writing Ms Shriver agreed that she is predominantly an 'issues writer'. Previous novels have focussed on the impact of dysfunctional parenting, the devastating effects of illness, population control in East Africa - to outline a few of her issues.
And yet they also address the central issues of relationships and Ms Shriver chose to read aloud an extract from The Mandibles that illustrated just that. It is, she said, interesting to see how different people are able to cope with change.
The Mandibles is, however, predominantly, a dystopian novel and in writing it Ms Shriver suggested that she was able to exorcise her own fears. Indeed, in the novel Lowell tells her daughter: “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”
So what does Lionel Shriver see as emerging issues facing us in 2016? She expressed her concern about the near Soviet correctness of the left, her dismay at their emerging control over what is political acceptable and her repugnance of identity politics at the cost of the individual.
Could these issues motivate her next books? Success, she asserts, has allowed her to write about whatsoever she chooses and if you are going to write fiction there should be no limit on the imagination.
Yet, after all that, the audience was left in no doubt that Ms Shriver’s sense of humour remains intact.
At the same time as America is experiencing spiralling collapse in this latest novel, Putin remains in charge of Russia, albeit with his shirt on!
A dysfunctional household management system that is out of control provides an amusing and welcome distraction.
Friday’s audience with Lionel Shriver was a treat, a strong and engaging start to this year’s LitFest.
The event was a triumph for the organisers and heralded the start of a wonderful weekend.
Tom Holland addresses a crowded Town Hall (Copyright Ben Phillips Photography)The Town Hall was packed on Saturday morning (October 1) for author Tom Holland’s talk about Athelstan, the subject of his latest book published in the Penguin Monarch series.
I wondered why so many people were keen to spend an hour listening to a talk about a tenth century king I had only heard of recently. I soon discovered why they had come.
Tom Holland is an engaging and witty speaker as well as being an impressive academic historian. I had read the book beforehand, but his fluent presentation sent shafts of sunlight into what on paper I had found a rather dense mesh of dates and names which all seemed to begin with Aethel… It was a great talk.
Tom has nursed a passion for Athelstan since childhood. Most of us know nothing about him, and only the merest facts about his grandfather Alfred. Yet Athelstan can rightly be acknowledged as the first real king of England, the foundations for which had been laid by Alfred, by his aunt Aethelflaed, and his father Edward.
The progress of Athelstan and his forebears’ efforts to unite the various kingdoms – Wessex, Kent, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, Strathclyde and Alba – was cleverly illustrated by five coins, which Tom is fortunate enough to own.
The first, produced by Plegmund, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by Alfred, was the last coin to be minted by anyone other than royalty.
Next he showed a coin made in Chester, where Aethelflaed, Edward’s sister, the Lady of the Mercians, (and one of Tom’s heroines!) had created a stronghold against the Vikings.
(Photo copyright Ben Phillips Photography)The third was a Viking forgery. In 917 Edward and Aethelflaed brought East Anglia and the Danelaw under their control, and in 918, after Aethelfled’s death, Edward became king of all land south of the Humber.
The fourth coin illustrated Athelstan’s conquest of York, which had long been the capital of the Viking kingdom. He could then call himself rex Anglorum, the king of those who speak English.
When an alliance of two northern leaders and an Irish warlord attempted in 937 to overthrow his power, Athelstan triumphed at the horrifyingly bloody battle of Brunanburh. His aim of uniting the kingdom was secured - and Tom Holland's final coin declared him to be rex totius Brittaniae.
But Athelstan was not merely a warrior. His power was consolidated by the fortification of many towns or burhs. He was a pious and literate man, a lawgiver and an advocate for justice. He encouraged prosperity, but his Christian faith urged him to consider the poor. He decreed that those with wealth and land must provide the destitute with food and shelter.
The effort to form one nation was immense. But for all his work, it still had the easy possibility of fracturing into two nations – England and Scotland – a fracture which is still very apparent today.
After his talk, there were several interesting questions which Tom answered fully and thoughtfully. Asked why Athelstan had taken little interest in Wales, Tom suggested - with a smile - that it was too hilly. But their language was different, and although his rule in England was acknowledged, there was considerable resentment towards him among the Welsh.
When asked about the intelligibility of the different dialects in the country, we were assured that south of Lothian the inhabitants could understand each other. There was one word he had made them all understand: Aethel means ‘noble’!
One of the key events of this year's Marlborough LitFest (September 30 to October 2) will be marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death.
Simon Russell Beale, who has strong family connections with Avebury, will be 'Celebrating Shakespeare' on Sunday, October 2 in the Town Hall.
He is one of Britain's foremost actors and is perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor alive today. Marlborough.News spoke to him by 'phone as he stood in a London square. There is nothing like starting with the most fundamental question you can ask: "Why, Shakespeare?"
There was a short pause. "Hmm. I first got into it through a great English teacher - that's the practical 'why'. I don't think my family were particularly Shakespearean. They were very, very musical...and a lot of doctors. I don't remember Shakespeare looming very large. Though just before my mother died she told me she used to listen to Olivier on a record in her bedroom - Olivier doing Hamlet."
"My teacher Brian Worthington was an inspiring man - an absolute inspiration. He has been an inspiration for a lot of people - some in the business too. Another reason is that the only thing I was any good at, I think, was English and particularly Shakespeare - even to degree level. That was always my strong suit."
"The bigger 'why' is that Shakespeare is endlessly, endlessly fascinating - I don't know whether any other writer has that sort of generosity."
And he tells how Tom Stoppard, after he had watched Simon Russell Beale in a run through of The Winter's Tale in Brooklyn, said: "Shakespeare exercises all your muscles - doesn't he." "That", says Simon Russell Beale, "from another great playwright is a good comment."
In November, Simon Russell Beale, who has played so many major Shakespearean roles from Hamlet to Lear and Timon, will be playing Prospero in the RSC's new production of The Tempest at Stratford on Avon. He last acted there in 1993 - directed by Sam Mendes in The Tempest playing "Ariel - an airy spirit".
About eighteen months ago, the RSC's Director Greg Doran emailed Simon Russell Beale saying he was trying to do The Tempest in a way that would somehow acknowledge the great special effects that they used in the seventeenth century for masque theatre - of which The Tempest is an example.
Doran came up with idea of working with the technical wizardry and digital magic of The Imaginarium Studios which were founded by actor/director Andy Serkis (famous as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings cycle.)
The studios' motion capture technology has mostly been used in films and gaming, but after a year of research with Intel and The Imaginarium, Doran and his team are going to bring digital avatars - notably Ariel - to life on stage in real-time, interacting with live actors.
A novel way perhaps for Ariel to be seen, as he says, "...to fly, To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride, On the curl'd clouds." Or to give contemporary form to some the play's stage directions: "Enter Ariel, invisible" or "Thunder and lightning. Enter Ariel, like a harpy; claps his wings upon the table; and, with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes."
Simon Russell Beale is very excited by Doran's approach and has already had two days at Imaginarium's Ealing Studios with Doran and Mark Quarterly who is playing Ariel. (You can see RSC's report on the visit here.)
Simon Russell Beale as Timon in the National Theatre productionTimon of Athens at the National Theatre - with Simon Russell Beale in the title role - was one of Nick Hytner's ground breaking modern dress productions and resonated strongly with the economic chaos of the time: "Nick Hytner said 'It's blatantly obvious what we should do with it" - it was only a couple of years after 2008."
"Timon is a piece that is rather - erm - unfinished - literally. Therefore it allows you, I think, the licence to play around with it. We re-arranged it and added a few lines. It was begging to be set in London and begging to be about the financial world."
Might The Tempest find a similar political resonance? "I've learnt it off by heart - I always do that - it's amazing how things change when you learn it. I don't see really whether it would have any direct relevance to any situation at the moment. I don't think there's a Brexit angle. There is I suppose the whole debate about colonisation and refugees. You never know what will come up."
Simon Russell Beale has always found The Tempest rather a cold play. Now, he says: "I think it's a much more emotional play than I remember. But it always happens when you study Shakespeare plays - you change your mind about them. Even a play that I think is ghastly, The Taming of the Shrew, I would probably fall in love with if I studied it."
"I think - I need to talk to my director about this! - I'm very keen that Prospero's not in control. The more I've read it the more I thought that if you are a magician and starting a big trick like raising a storm and risking people's lives, you would spend most of the time worrying that it was going to go wrong - I would. I have the idea of him as being less assured - I think he starts from a level of anxiety rather than of power."
"The most important thing in the play we learn from Ariel, who is not human, is how to behave like a proper human being - and then ditch the magic."
"The Tempest is rather like a very, very beautiful Renaissance jewel - polished and remote. The language is not tortured like The Winter's Tale, it's sort of baroque and elaborate. It's like a game - a palindrome. My job is to find some sort of emotional jeopardy."
A National Theatre poster for King Lear with Simon Russell Beale Recently - and for a year - Simon Russell Beale took on a very different role - as Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine's College, Oxford: "I loved it - I've never taught before." He decided to do workshops rather than lectures: "I had a lovely time."
Every year he also mentors a student from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He is optimistic that the British theatre will always have a plentiful supply of good young actors. But what about the audiences - how do attract a younger audience?
"That debate's been going on ever since I started - and logically half the audiences I had then must be dead! And they've been replaced."
He thinks the age group that theatres should aim to attract is the thirty-year-old: "In my twenties I didn't go to the theatre. There were much more interesting things to do like going to the pub. I was never a clubber, but it was that sort of world - you went out with your own mates and got drunk."
"Young thirty year-olds - it's the age when you like to sit down and watch. We can't sit on our bottoms and not do anything about young people - obviously. I just wonder whether we shouldn't be catching them a bit later."
The LitFest website has details and ticket information for all this year's events.
The Tempest opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on November 8.
Alex Minoudis, Myles Palmer, Laura Giddings and Stephen Depla of lead sponsors Brewin Dolphin with festival chairman Jan Williamson (centre)Marlborough’s independent book shop was the obvious venue at which to launch the 2016 Marlborough festival of Literature on Thursday evening.
The new brochure was unveiled and tickets made available to the town’s book-lovers.
The launch was attended by festival volunteers and corporate supporters, including headline sponsor Brewin Dolphin.
The 2016 programme offers over 30 events during the festival weekend, including fiction and non-fiction, poetry, children’s events and the annual Big Town Read, covering themes of history, biography, humour, poetry, politics and prize-winning fiction as well as a celebration of Shakespeare.
Among the top attractions are appearances by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, international selling crime author Peter James, and former Today Show presenter James Naughtie, who will be discussing his latest spy thriller.
Children’s author Abi Elphinstone talking to local primary school children, Jessie Burton will be talking about the follow up to her million-selling debut novel, The Miniaturist, and award-winning poet Sarah Howe will be leading a workshop, as well as performing her poetry during the Festival Finale.
The festival runs from Friday, September 30 to Sunday, October 2. Tickets and programme catalogues are available from The White Horse Bookshop, High Street, Marlborough or online at www.poundarts.org.uk