Meddling women?

Such excitement here in Oxford. About twenty-four hours ago the first female Professor of Poetry at Oxford University resigned the post she'd held for 8 or 9 days. Our Brit-land is a small world, and though I was not eligible to vote (I spent two post-graduate years at my Oxford college, but never took an Oxford degree), I seem, more or less, to know everyone involved in the fracas.
If there's anyone reading this who doesn't now know the story: When the election for the 300+ year-old post (occupied in the past by stars such as W.H. Auden and James Fenton) was held earlier in May, Ruth Padel, 63, won with something short of 200 votes, against Arvin Krishna Mehrotra, an Indian poet - but only because Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, 78, had dropped out of the race, alleging dirty tricks by Ms Padel's supporters, who had sent details of charges against him about a much earlier sexual harassment dust-up at Harvard to about 100 electors. Walcott (I interviewed him not long ago in the Wall Street Journal) was almost everyone's favourite; and Ms Padel has now confessed that she did indeed tell two journalists about the sexual harassment business, though she denies having any part in the larger smear campaign. 
Hmmm. I've met her once or twice, and like her work. I once shared a large flat with her (still friendly) former husband and father of her daughter, and feel sympathetic. But she's done herself a damage, if only by appearing to be too ambitious to be the first woman to occupy the post. On the other hand, while the election for the Oxford Prof. of Poetry almost always makes headlines, Ms Padel has given it some big-time publicity. I wonder who'll get the job now?
It won't be either of the writers of the plays I saw recently. Tom Kempinski's revived "Duet for One"  (at the Vaudeville) and Matt Charman's new play, "The Observer" (at the National Theatre's Cottesloe) are both relentlessly prosaic.
"Duet" stages six therapy sessions between a stereotypical Hampstead shrink of the pill-prescribing variety (though he's into the talking cure as well), played by the too-good-for-the-role Henry Goodman, with funny accent, a huge music library, and potted plants; and a professional musician who has multiple sclerosis, can no longer play her violin, and whose marriage is in trouble.  She is played with utter brilliance and perhaps too much conviction by Juliet Stevenson, who ends the evening exhausted. This is the first time I've seen this piece, though it's been revived all over the place. It's another, creepy small-world phenomenon for my wife and me, as it all too obviously draws on the story of Jacqueline du Pré, who lived and ended her life a few doors down the street where our flat is - in Hampstead. MS is always a tragedy waiting to happen; but, apart from seeing such a fine actress give it all she's got, I'm not sure the play itself tells us anything about life, music, disease - or tragedy.
"The Observer" features another fine actress, Anna Chancellor, as Fiona Russell, an elections supervisor in a "fictitious, Igbo-speaking, former colony in West African." In the end, she loses her strict neutrality, and finds a loophole that favours the opposition to the corrupt incumbent President. The point of view of the play is that in overstepping the mark, she is not much better than the former colonial power. Richard Eyre has come back to the National Theatre he formerly ran to direct this play, which is mostly feeble tosh. Of course Ms Chancellor is good - no serious actress can be on stage so long as she is in this piece, and fail to entertain her audience. But the only really enjoyable parts of the evening are the scenes involving the black actors, most especially the loveable, bright-eyed Chuk Iwuji, as her translator, and Louis Mahoney as his father. And the terrific scene where the local politicians in tribal dress tell her she's meddling dangerously with their culture. Still, I never thought to see a play where the best lines seem to be in Igbo.

May 26, 2009 4:13 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on May 26, 2009 4:13 PM.

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