An Interview With Florence Bell

This week, I “interviewed” Florence Bell, a theatre blogger and theatre kid.

I say interviewed; it was more of a chat. Florence is a good friend of mine, and a fellow English student at the University of Nottingham. She wrote her first blog post in December 2016.

Florence Screenshot 2

The first play Florence ever saw was an amateur pantomime production of A Christmas Carol. “I was around three years old, and I remember the guy who played Scrooge putting pyjamas on top of his clothes. Of course, the audience was meant to suspend their disbelief, but three-year-old me was blown away that someone could wear clothes under their pyjamas.”

Since grappling with the discovery of costume in theatre, Florence has moved on to grapple with plays at an advanced critical level.

“I had been tweeting about theatre for a while and people kept encouraging me to start a blog, or asking me if I had a blog. I had been thinking about it for a while, but a few people suggesting it was all it took.” she said.

“I had already booked to see Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre and I knew that I’d be able to write an in-depth and interesting review of it. I probably spent more time on that review than on anything else I’ve ever written. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to grab people’s attention. I wanted to make a splash.”

‘I wanted to grab people’s attention.’

Florence certainly did make a splash; prominent theatre critics including Andrew Haydon and Matt Trueman both praised and retweeted her first blog post.

Florence Screenshot 3

She is upfront about writing, as well as reading, honest reviews.

“I like reviews that say what they mean, because that’s what they are meant to do. Reviews that mock awful shows can be fun to read, but they’re rarely the best reviews. My favourite reviews to read are assertive, thoughtfully considered, and beautifully worded.”

“I stopped writing negative reviews because all I was doing was annoying people who might employ me when I graduate, and there’s no point in being cruel. It’s fine to be critical – sometimes even mean – but constructive criticism is always best. It’s rude to both the theatre makers and your readers to take the piss out of a show and not give a careful and considered approach to what went wrong.

‘It’s fine to be critical – sometimes even mean – but constructive criticism is always best.’

If I’m going to be really negative about a show, instead of just slating it, I’d rather engage with it on a political level. That way, I can explain why the show had issues.Florence Screenshot 1 Sometimes I am too finicky though. I went to the theatre with a friend recently and I think I weirded her out by asking: Do you think this is problematic?’ during the interval!”

However, although she’s been blogging for a few months, Florence is adamant that writing is not her end-goal.

“I don’t want to be a critic and I don’t want to be a journalist. I don’t think I have a ‘writing style’ either –  other than an overuse of parentheses and a reliance on long paragraphs.”

“I like to think that my writing isn’t dissimilar to Meg Vaughan’s, but I’m kidding myself.”

“I write blog posts for fun.” she continued, “This is something I’m doing while at university, and I’ve met lots of cool people doing it, but being a critic is just not what I want to do with my life.”

Instead, Florence wants to be a director, and theatre has always been a big part of her life.

She has seen a variety of productions, but for her, it all started with a production of Oresteia. “It’s still my favourite play. I know half of it off by heart. Most theatre fans hum along to their favourite showstoppers in the shower. I recite bits of Oresteia in the shower.”

‘I recite bits of Oresteia in the shower.’

As someone who is not so much of a theatre kid, I steered the conversation towards a common interest of ours – Shakespeare.

As part of the BA English course at the University of Nottingham, both Florence and I chose a module title Shakespeare’s Histories: Critical Approaches. The texts we looked at were Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.  Eagle-eyed followers may note this is why some of my blog posts focused on these last year.

Shakespeare’s Histories has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of studying English at Nottingham so far.” Florence said, “The plays we studied will always have a fond place in my heart; the module really got me into the degree. I think it helped me settle in. And I met you through Shakespeare’s Histories, so that’s always a plus.”

I blush.

When asked about her favourite Shakespeare productions, Florence said, “In terms of a director’s vision, Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War and Roman Tragedies, Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, and Icke’s Hamlet. Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale and Deborah Warner’s King Lear were also gems.” she said.

‘There’s no such thing as a hard and fast rule to as what makes theatre good, and I’m definitely not the person to ask.’

“I find original practices productions, like Dromgoole’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe, quite hard to engage with. I’m interested in directors who are capable of cutting the text and finely tuning their stagecraft to engineer a tone and an atmosphere based on the events in the play, and actors capable of making Shakespeare’s words sound like they were written yesterday.”


Quick-fire Questions:

Favourite theatre actor?

Andrew Scott or Hans Kesting.

Favourite theatre actress?

Lia Williams, duh.

If you could be any female character in any play who would you be and why?

Most of the plays I see are far too depressing to actually want to be any of the women in them. None. Literally none.

What about a male character?

Nope.


At any rate, it’s clear Florence is a confident theatre blogger and theatre kid but, crucially, she is not a theatre critic. She has other plans for when she grows up.

‘What do you wanna like be when you grow up?’

‘I am grown up.’

(Annie Baker, The Flick at The National Theatre)
(Florence Bell, Top Ten Plays of 2016)

***

Thank you for reading!

– Judith

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol is, I think, well-deserving of its fame as a Christmas classic. In case you’re not familiar with the story (although I wonder how is this is possible), A Christmas Carol is about one particularly mean old man, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is notorious for hating all things associated with Christmas, until, one December, the influence of four ghosts initiates a drastic character transformation in him.

Last year, Chris Priestley wrote ‘A Christmas Carol is more than just a story. It is a tirade against greed, selfishness and neglect. It uses the story of a rich man – the startlingly nasty Scrooge – to highlight the plight of those affected by the greed and meanness he exemplifies.’*

*Chris Priestley, Ignorance and Want: why Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is as relevant today as ever

For Dickens, social realism and social commentary are reoccurring themes in his work; Oliver Twist focuses on the injustice cast upon the poor (for example, Oliver) by the better-off (for example, Mr Bumble) and highlights the realities of the poor – themes such as violence and crime can be seen in the lives of Fagin, Bill and Nancy. Similarly, in Great Expectations, Pip begins life in a struggling working-class family, with limited provisions, until he is provided with the means to better his chances in life.

Therefore, Christmas seems an appropriate time for Dickens to again draw attention to the impact the “Scrooges of Society” have on others, as people tend to be more charitable, kind and willing to listen around Christmas-time than other times of year.

I like the length of A Christmas Carol; it’s quite short compared to some of Dickens’ other books, which makes it an easy read – ideal, if you want to start reading more classic novels but don’t know where to start.

I also liked the idea of mixing Christmas, usually a cheerful occasion, with ghosts, hauntings and a foreboding sense of impending doom. This brings out my enjoyment for Gothic literature! Naturally, then, my favourite ghosts are Jacob Marley (his entrance of groaning chains is enough to spook anyone) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. I feel like these are some of the best characters drawn out in the various film adaptations too – although I’m yet to find a film adaptation that completely satisfies me.

As A Christmas Carol is such a popular story, I thought I’d scour Goodreads, to find out why readers love this book so much:

1. Claudia said: ‘I think A Christmas Carol makes us better people.’

2. Jude said: ‘It reminds us of what is truly important in a life.’

3. Walter said: ‘It showed us how the spirit of the holidays can be humanizing.’

4. Melissa said: ‘For me, it’s not so much the story–which I enjoy every Christmas, sometimes twice – as it is the writing itself. There’s a lyrical quality that hasn’t popped out at me in his longer stories.’

5. Diane said: ‘I think we love this story partly because of how well Dickens portrayed Scrooge as a complex, multi-layered character. Sure, he appears as a greedy stereotype at first, but then we are shown his backstory and how he became that way, and (gasp), suddenly we realize that any of us could become rapacious and bitter if we chose to go down that road. And that’s what raises this tale to a classic–its universality. We are also made to care so deeply about Tiny Tim & his family, who choose to be generous even through their own want, because they realize they will become like Scrooge if they don’t.’

– Judith

Halloween Book Review: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is a satirical Gothic work by Jane Austen. The protagonist Catherine, travels to Northanger Abbey and imagines her life as parallel to the plot of a Gothic novel, although her real life brings her back down to earth.

Although Northanger Abbey isn’t strictly a Gothic novel, or in fact wholly a ghost story, I wanted to talk about some more Jane Austen, and I didn’t feel like discussing Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was entirely appropriate in the run-up to Halloween!

I’m a huge fan of the Gothic genre, and so I went into reading Northanger Abbey with great excitement, eagerly waiting for Austen to satirise the genre as much as she could.

However, I was disappointed in how long it took Austen to start talking properly about the Gothic; I was halfway through the novel and Catherine hadn’t even arrived to Northanger Abbey yet! I did appreciate the references to some more Gothic classics though, such as Matthew Lewis’ The Monk and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.

The character of Henry was also really amusing – he painted fantastic Gothic images in Catherine’s mind, images which reminded me of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, of haunted rooms, and hints at mysterious family deaths, raising the question of ghosts.

It’s particularly ironic to read Northanger Abbey as a Gothic-loving English student, because it makes me even more aware of the stereotypical Gothic conventions. I can only imagine how Austen’s readers felt at the time, when the Gothic genre was so popular.

All in all, I did enjoy Northanger Abbey but it’s definitely not my favourite Austen novel.

– Judith