Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Make Your Own Indie Author Fair

“What about a fair? For indie authors.”
“There’s a thought. We could have a pop-up bookshop.”
“Yes, that should be easy enough to organise.”

Seven months later, we’re kneeling in the mud trying to attach a banner to the railings, before lugging boxes of books down a slippery flight of steps, setting up the pop-up media centre, meeting our sponsors, directing authors to their stalls, answering media enquiries and posing for photographs.

Forty authors, hundreds of books in a pop-up bookshop, eighteen readings, five sponsors, a thousand catalogues and hours of buzzing activity on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a London Underground line. All organised by Triskele Books, with the support of The Alliance of Independent Authors(ALLi) and Chorleywood bookshop.

At five o’clock, we celebrated with a well-deserved glass of wine and listened to the feedback. Our first ever Indie Author Fair had been a huge success.

But easy to organise? Not so much.

So what if we could seed the idea for a pop-up bookshop for indie authors around the world, so they become they become a regular part of the literary landscape?

Here we present our beginners’ guide.

Instructions for Your Own Indie Author Fair

  • Start a long way in advance. It takes a lot of organising. We started planning this back in March and we were only just ready in November.
  • Think about what you and your authors most want out of the event. Book sales? Recognition for indies? Creative display? A chance to share ideas and experiences? The answer will affect the kind of venue you look for.
  • Don’t underestimate the response. Indie authors are starved of opportunities like this, and they will flock to join in! Plan the space you are going to need and find the right venue.
  • Cultivate a relationship with a local indie bookstore or Lit Fest. They can share the load of booking and promotion – and it gives your event a certain recognition factor to the general public.
  • Ask for a booking fee from authors, to encourage commitment, but keep it low, especially for a new, untried event.
  • Expenses will creep up, so find sponsorship early on and budget carefully. We found that self-publishing service providers were eager to be involved – in return for a presence at the Fair.
  • Think creatively about how best to promote the event to the public. We opted for a print catalogue featuring all of the authors. An expensive option but a great way to engage with readers. (You can read it online here.) We also ran a daily ‘meet the author’ feature. Promote on all channels – local media, libraries, book clubs, online. If you are including children’s authors, remember that you may need to promote that in a different way – focusing on local parents and schools.
  • Create a community among your authors, so they are keen to support and promote one another. We created a Facebook group to keep participants up to date with the latest news.
  • Put on a show. Readers love author events at bookstores. So include space for author readings and children’s story time. But think, too, about how to integrate that with time and space for visitors to browse, ask questions and chat to authors.
  • See what added extras you can offer, to give the event even more of an edge. Can you provide opportunities for studio photographs? Recorded interviews? Press?
  • Communicate clearly. Authors will have lots of questions, and you need to make sure that, even before the doors open to the public, everything behind the scenes runs as smoothly as possible.

Finally, let Triskele Books know how it went! We love hearing success stories from other indie authors.

Good luck!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Indie Picks

As part of bringing the world of Indie Publishing to the Indie Author Fair at the Chorleywood Lit Fest, this autumn, we are encouraging everyone to send us their 'Indie Picks' - your recommendations of best indie books you have read.

So to get the ball rolling - here are my three Indie Picks:

Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

Lit Fic / Contemporary Fiction  

Unquestionably my book of 2013. Set during London's summer of riots, the story unfolds in the voice of 14 year old Alesha - homeless, disenfranchised, lost in the cracks of the system. Seen through her eyes, the riots are a rolling juggernaut of inevitability. A book to open your eyes and break your heart.

Read my full review here.

The Gift of Looking Closely by Al Brookes

Lit Fic / Psychological Thriller

Winner of the Guardian Self-Publishing Book of the Month, July 2014, this novel is the embodiment of what the self-pub revolution is all about. Written in the second person, addressing the impact of assisted suicide on those it leaves behind - this book is bold and challenging. But it is also an exquisitely written psychological thriller. Whether in the physical world or the psychological, Brookes has the gift of looking closely.

Read my full review here.

The Hurricane Lover by Joni Rodgers

Crime Thriller

Texan author, Joni Rodgers describes this book as her 'soul project'. This tense thriller is set in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina sweeps through the city and a sexually predatory serial killer takes advantage of the ensuing chaos. The disastrous politics of the failed clean-up operation and the almost equally disastrous chemistry between the two lead characters add depth to the story without ever overwhelming it.

Read my full review here.

Please send your Indie Picks to catriona.troth [at]gmail.com

Monday, 28 July 2014

Two Tone Remembered

I was already in the early stages of researching the background to my novel Ghost Town in 2000 when Bob Eaton’s Three Minute Heroes first came to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. But the Internet was still a moody teenager back then, and Social Media barely a glint in a Harvard student’s eye, so by the time I stumbled on the existence of the Two-Tone musical, I’d missed both its original run and its short revival the following year.

model of set for Three Minute Heroes
I was delighted, just before Ghost Town came out, to interview Bob Eaton, here on this blog, about the genesis of his musical – and even more pleased a few weeks ago to hear that it was being revived for the new studio stage at the Belgrade.

The news came with the announcement of an appeal for people to bring their Ska memorabilia to the Belgrade on Saturday 26th July. The play’s producers were hoping to find rare footage of Ska gigs and Coventry ‘rude boys’ that they could project onto Patrick Connellan’s stripped down set. I decided to
go along to capture some of those memories.

The first treat of the day was to find Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson of The Selecter, and Neville Staple and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers of The Specials there – looking cool and very 2-Tone! (The fact that I got to shake hands with Pauline Black almost made up for my appalling failure to catch her at the Penn Festival, just down the road from where I now live, only the week before!)

The second treat was to meet not only Pete Chambers, authority on all things to do with the Coventry music scene and the driving force behind 2-Tone Village and the Coventry Music Museum, but also Suky (Sukhbender) Singh, who as well as running a Ska Memorabilia shop at 2-Tone Village is the author of Concrete Jungle, a radio play that deals with the impact on young Asians of both 2-Tone and the racial tensions of 1981.

I was bowled over by the warmth of the reception I got from these guys. They actually took a copy of Ghost Town and put it in pride of place among the memorabilia they had on display. The story of that summer, so little known outside the city, is still something woven into the fabric of Coventry’s consciousness – and anything that touches on it is given a reception there unlike it would meet anywhere else. It made me feel proud to be a part of it.

Coventry still has its share of idiots like any other. But the city has a way of seeing them off, just as they did in 1981. Patrick Connellan told me that a few weeks back, a far-right group called Britain First tried to hold a demo not far from the Belgrade Theatre. Another group that happened to be protesting about the war in Gaza got wind of it and managed to keep them pinned down in a pub so they never made it onto the street.

Now that’s the city I remember!

Turn out for 2-Tone Remembered was not as good as the theatre might have hoped. So if you have any memorabilia from that era, then you can email the Belgrade with your photos and other memories at: 2Toneremembered@belgrade.co.uk. Mark the subject line ‘Ska’d For Life’. You can also share your memories via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Belgradetheatre or via Twitter @BelgradeTheatre using the hashtag #2ToneRemembered

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Exploring Human Rights Through Poetry

I first met Laila Sumpton at a poetry slam that took place in one of the oldest pubs in Buckinghamshire. In the course of the evening, we discovered a mutual interest in Human Rights issues, and in particular in the use of creative writing both therapeutically, to help those who have suffered trauma, and as a means of raising awareness of Human Rights issues.

After that slam, we kept in touch, and last year I interviewed Laila about the launch of In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights.

This unique anthology, rooted in an open call for submissions brings together poets from 18 countries, representing a total 38 different heritages. They range from established poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Ruth Padel to those who had never written a poem before – human rights lawyers, workers from NGOs and those for whom the issues raised are all too personal. It covers issues from the past – like the slave trade – and those – like the war in Syria – that are unfolding under our eyes today.

When I learnt that Laila was running Human Rights themed poetry workshops, I knew it was a perfect for my Quaker writer’s group – Q Writers, which meets once a month at High Wycombe Meeting House. Thus, last Tuesday, a dozen of us sat down, not knowing quite what to expect, to a workshop on the theme of Censorship and Freedom of Speech.

After introductions, we began in groups of four, brainstorming words and ideas we associated with censorship. We then each had ten minutes to produce a haiku (three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively.)
Censorship makes us
Watch the words that pass our lips,
Stifling what offends.

Our second exercise was a look at a selection of definitions of Censorship, together with articles 18 and 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Laila asked us to highlight words and phrases that  struck us and then use them to create a ‘found poem.’

The words I underlined suggested to me the way that, in a repressive society, ordinary people may become complicit with the censors.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought,
But do not threaten my security by expressing your opinions,
Do not disturb me with your obscenities.
Suppress your ideas lest they emerge in my consciousness

Next, after a break for coffee, we divided a piece of paper into four columns.  Three were headed 
Silence is...               Censorship is...               Freedom is...

In the fourth column, we were given a list of descriptors: a place, a material, a type of weather, an object, a bird etc. For each of them, we had to create an association. We then chose one column that appealed to us and used our list of associations to create another poem.  

The words I found myself associating with ‘censorship’ conjured images of places such as Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
Censorship is...
A prison cell.
Arms wrapped round my body,
Hemp smothering mouth and nose,
The taste of dust choking me.
The sound of a key turning in a lock
A guard, black as a raven in his dirty uniform,
Returning to reinforce my silence.

Lastly, Laila read a poem from ‘In Protest’ written by David Ravello, a human rights lawyer imprisoned in La Picota prison in South America on trumped up murder charges. In the poem, Firmament, Ravello’s sense of isolation is distilled in the idea that, for long periods, he cannot even see the sky.

We were asked to write a poem in the form of a letter replying to Ravello.
Censorship has locked a ceiling
Over your head
Blocking out the sky.
Together, we will smash that ceiling with our protests.
The sun, the moon and the stars
Will shine again,
Warming your skin,
Lighting your way.

Right from the start, it was fascinating what a range of material came out of these exercises. From a shared starting point, we branched out in an entirely different direction.  We had poems that were written from the point of view of the censors, poems that looked at historic instances of censorship (such as the Welsh Not, forbidding children to speak in their mother tongue at school), beautiful poems that reflected on freedom and the positive aspects of silence and others that plunged right into the darkest sides of censorship.

Laila’s workshops usually run a little longer than the two and a half hours we have for Q Writers, so the time we had to work on each poem was compressed. Some people found this challenging, but for me it was liberating.  I have never been a poet, and never will be (as you can probably tell).  But with no time for the dreaded editor in my head to kick in, I surprised myself with what I managed to produce. 

If you would like to book a workshop with Laila for your own group, you can contact her via the Human Rights Consortium at London University:  hrc@sas.ac.uk

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Happy Coincidence

Many moons ago, when I had just discovered the potential of online critique sites, I dusted off the opening chapters of my novella, Gift of the Raven, and posted the opening chapters on You Write On. A few weeks later, to my great delight, they shared a spot in the top ten with two books written by people I had grown quite friendly with. One was a novel set in a Welsh put village that examined the bitter conflict generated by the 1984 miners’ strike.  The other was a children’s story about a half-vampire who couldn’t fly and didn’t like to drink blood.

By the time I had made up my mind to publish Gift of the Raven with the author collective, Triskele Books, I had all but lost touch with Kit Habianic, the author of the miners’ tale. And Lorraine Mace, the children’s author, had given up finding a publisher for her little vampire and had turned instead to writing adult crime fiction. Which makes it all the more poignant that this week sees the launch of both Habianic’s Until Our Blood Is Dry and Mace’s Vlad the Inhaler.

I knew Vlad had found the right home with his American publisher, Little Roni,  the moment I saw the back cover for the book.  All those years ago, on YWO, we had fallen in love with the opening scene where Vlad is punished  by his evil aunt and uncle for trying to eat a peach.  There on the cover was very peach – two little fang holes piercing its downy skin and a drop of juice running down like a tear.  In illustrator, Ellen C Sallas, they had found someone who clearly ‘got’ Vlad. 

Until Our Blood Is Dry found its home with Welsh publisher, Parthian Books. The launch party was held in a crowded upper room at the Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia – a pub once frequented by Dylan Thomas.  As if this wasn’t distinguished company enough, the event was opened by distinguished Welsh poet, Danny Abse, who was followed by another, much younger Rhondda poet, Sion Tomos Owen.  Owen’s self-styled rant about the desperation felt by a new wave of unemployed was the perfect prelude to Habianic’s quiet reading from the opening of her novel. Taking the voice of foreman, Glyn Pritchard, she captures the despair and bitterness of a man who has been promised that, if he can only keep the coal moving, his pit – and his job – might be spared the chop.  

I am incredibly proud of my association with both of these books.  It’s a happy coincidence, and utterly fitting, that they should see the light of day in the same week.   Here’s hoping they will both find the many readers they deserve.

My review of Until Our Blood Is Dry can be found on the Triskele Book Club.

You can read a review of Vlad the Inhaler on the Book Muse site. 

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Like most writers, I am fascinated by the writing processes of other authors. I have always loved books like Les Deux Solicitudes (based on letters exchanged between Canadian writers Margaret Atwood and Victor Levy-Beaulieu). And more recently I was inspired by the YouTube video of Orna Ross interviewing Roz Morris, Jessica Bell and Kevin Booth on their creative processes. (How To Write A Book: Seven Stages of The Creative Process.)

I was therefore delighted when Lorna Fergusson from (http://literascribe.blogspot.co.uk and www.fictionfire.co.uk invited me to take part in a blog tour exploring our writing processes. If you would like to read her take on the subject, you can find it here.


1) What am I working on now?
I am at the very early stages of a new novel. I am pretty sure I know who the main characters are - three or possibly four generations of women with a close bond but who are not blood relatives. I know the world they live in, and I know at least one of their stories. But I haven’t worked out yet how their stories knit together. It all still feels a bit ephemeral and elusive – especially as time to spend working on it keeps getting swamped by the demands of my non-fiction writing.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I suppose you would call my books literary fiction – which some might say is the box of misshapes that won’t fit any other category!

My books tend to be issues-led. Both my first two books involved questions of identity, racism and childhood memory. They are also both set in a very particular time and place. The main events of Gift of the Raven take place in Western Canada in the first six months of 1971. Ghost Town is set in Coventry in 1981 – and the exact dates on which it begins and ends are pinpointed by real events!

I’d like to think, though, that they are also good page-turning stories. Ghost Town includes elements of both a love story and a thriller, while Gift of the Raven is more of a coming of age story.

3) Why do I write what I do?

It’s a compulsion. I write because a particular story takes me by the throat and won’t let go.

4) How does my writing process work?

I spent so long editing my last book, I found I had actually lost touch with my own creative processes. One of the things that the ‘Seven Stages’ video reminded me was that I could give myself permission to work in a non-linear way. In these very early stages of creativity you don’t have to ‘begin at the beginning and go on till you get to the end and then stop.’

Large chunks of Ghost Town were written on the commuter train going in and out of London. My children were small back then, and those 45 mins each morning and evening were pretty much the only times I had when neither work nor family were making demands on me. And I made the most of them!

I am no longer a commuter, so that’s one element of my old creative process I can’t reproduce. But I can go back to working in longhand on large blocks of unruled paper. I can draw mind-maps and spider diagrams as a way of bottoming out issues with a character or a scene. I can write scene out of order and work out how they fit together later.

For me, each new book is an entirely new world. No familiar territory to return to, no recurring characters, and no elements of genre to provide sign-posts as to which direction the plot might turn next. So I am on uncharted territory right now, mapping out a route as I go – climbing a few hills, taking bearings, noting landmarks. For those who don’t work this way, it probably sounds like a massively inefficient way to produce a first draft. But for me it is more efficient than being stymied by the tyranny of what comes next.

The other factor in this early stage is research. I enjoy this WAY too much. I can spend days happily following an some diversion that will never be used in the book. I am very conscious that much of the research that I did for Ghost Town ended up being totally superfluous. On the other hand, it provided a foundation of authenticity for the book that – judging by the comments I get – readers do recognise. So it’s all about finding the right balance.

The next step is to transcribe my longhand notes onto the computer. This becomes the first stage of editing for me, and when something approaching a coherent first draft appears out of the muddle. I will then work on this, chapter by chapter, refining it, mining it for themes, discarding the pieces that turn out not to be part of the whole picture.

My editing bible has been a book I discovered years ago – Revision by David Michael Kaplan, who also gave me my favourite writing quote: “Before you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, first you need a sow’s ear.” Kaplan takes a triage approach to editing, starting with big structural issues and working his way down to line editing. There is no point, as he says, worrying about the mot juste for a sentence in the middle of Chapter 8 if you are going to end up deleting the whole of Chapter 8 because it does nothing to more your story forward!

When it’s as good as I can make it, it’s time to let my Triskele colleagues loose on it. Triskele Books is an author collective that was born out of an online critique group. We have been critiquing each others work for over five years now and we trust one another completely. That means we can be tough, while still respecting each author’s own writing style. We each bring different skills to the editing mix too – an ear for the rhythm of a sentence, a nose for poor pacing, an eye for spotting inconsistencies. Between us, there’s not much we miss.

At this point there must be a cooling off period. This enables me to view others’ comments dispassionately, but also to take cold, hard look at my work for myself. This final stage of editing has to be utterly ruthless. For me, it’s like giving a plant a hard pruning. Even branches that bloomed particularly beautifully, that seemed integral to the whole thing, sometimes have to be cut.

Then finally it’s time to hand over to our wonderful proofreader, Perry Iles. Not only is he acutely allergic to sloppy adverbs, but if you have, say, had someone drive a car that wasn’t made until five years after your book is set, Perry will spot it. When he is done with it, your manuscript will be very clean indeed.

And that’s it. A finished book, ready for typesetting and cover design. But right now, that still seems a very long way off indeed.

Next week I have invited three authors with links to Triskele Books to taken part in this blog tour, Gillian Hamer, JD Smith and Barbara Scott Emmett.

Born in the industrial Midlands, Gillian Hamer's heart has always yearned for the wilds of North Wales and the pull of the ocean. A company director for over twenty years, she has written obsessively for over a decade, predominantly in the crime genre. She is a columnist for Words with Jam magazine and a founder member of Triskele Books. She splits her time between Birmingham and a remote cottage on Anglesey where she finds her inspiration. You can find out more about her at www.gillianhamer.com or follow her on Twitter @gillyhamer.

JD Smith (Jane) lives and works in the English Lake District. Having worked book cover design and typesetting. She is the editor of the writing magazine Words with JAM and the review site Bookmuse, the author of Tristan and Iseult and The Rise of Zenobia, the Overlord series, published with the Triskele Books collective. Her blog can be found at http://www.jdsmith-author.co.uk
as a graphic designer since the age of 17, her passion for books and everything literary took over and she now works predominantly on

After many years travelling the globe, Barbara Scott Emmett has returned to her home town Newcastle, where she writes in a room overlooking the Tyne. Having previously published plays, poetry, short stories and erotica she now concentrates on novel writing. The Land Beyond Goodbye and Don’t Look Down are available as ebooks. Her latest novel Delirium: The Rimbaud Delusion will be published in 2014 with the assistance of Triskele Books. Her blog can be found at http://barbarascottemmett.blogspot.co.uk/

Friday, 21 February 2014

Words and Music

From the global reach of livestream theatre to two experiences that were altogether more intimate:


The Hope Theatre in Islington is a tiny space above the Hope and Anchor pub.  In the evening it puts on short runs of new and experimental plays. But Thursday afternoons are reserved for ‘rehearsed readings’ of plays by new writers – tryouts for new works that may go on to be produced elsewhere, fully acted out but with the actors still working from scripts.

I was there to see a two-act play called Voltemand and Cornelius are Joyfully Returned.  Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the title refers to two minor characters from Hamlet, and like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the play revolves around two hapless characters lost in a world that appears to baffle them. 

Actor Paul Vates, the author of the play, has recreated some of the rapid fire dialogue, the verbal misunderstandings, the stupidity masking as madness (or madness masking as stupidity), of Stoppard’s original. But this time, the world in which the characters are lost is not Hamlet’s, but the German trenches in the midst of the First World War.  And the question around which the play revolves is whether Voltemand and Cornelius are really mad or whether they are faking it to escape the lunacy of the trenches.  As for Yossarian in Catch 22, proof of insanity is tantalisingly elusive. As one character says: “Every so often I have a burst of lucidity and [the doctor] tears the papers up again.”

It was a clever move for Vates to set this in the German trenches rather than the British.  It helps to shake the audience out of the ‘seen it all’ before mindset. This is not Blackadder or Oh What a Lovely War, but new territory.

The three young actors playing the lead roles were highly impressive.  They managed to convey a depth of emotion even while juggling with the yellow pages of the scripts. In fact, I quickly forgot the scripts were there at all (even when one of them was thrust temporarily into my lap and then as abruptly snatched away). If anything, the emotion was intensified by being in such a small space, with the audience literally on top of the action.

I’d love to see the play given a wider audience. With the various commemorations of the First World War that will take place over the next four years, the time is ripe for it to be picked up and given a full production.


One week later, I was in Ray’s Jazz Cafe at Foyles Bookshop in London to hear the music of Newanderthal.

The name derives, as frontman Ansuman Biswas explains, from the fact that Neanderthals discovered language and fire, while our ancestors –  homo sapiens, ‘the clever ones’ – invented weapons.  ‘I like to think the Neanderthals sat round the campfire, sharing songs. Hence we are the Newanderthals.’
They describe their music as as ‘a potent blend of esraj-accompanied Ethiopian and Bengali song forms, with mbira patterns derived from Steve Reich and jazz-infused bass riffs.’

The esraj is an Indian stringed instrument a bit like a mandolin which is held upright on the knees and played with a bow. The extraordinary-looking array mbira, played by Tom Green, is a modern adaptation of the African thumb piano.  In place of a long row of piano keys, it has parallel rows of metal tines that when pressed and released produce a sound like a harp, but more precussive. Then there is something that looks like a kettle barbecue but which, in the hands of Biswas, makes a sound between a marimba and a steel band, while Mal Darwen provides rhythm with an acoustic guitar and an electric double bass.

And through this blend of sounds, like a gold thread through a piece of shot silk, weaves the voice of Ethiopian singer, Haymanot Tesfa. Her range is extraordinary – at times deep and powerful, underpinning the rest of the music, and at times dancing across the top of it.

Cafe gigs are notoriously difficult. Often you have to compete, not just with the espresso machines, but with an audience that, instead of falling quiet, talks louder in order to hear themselves over the music. Not this time. Tesfa’s voice wraps itself around table after table, drawing them into her spell. People close their eyes, the better to listen and pick out the different strands of the music.

I thought perhaps the group was creating arrangements of traditional Ethiopian folk songs.  But as Tom Green explains afterwards, the process is somewhat more organic than that. Using patterns from Indian and Ethiopian music, the three instrumentalists improvise a sound that blends their different instruments, while Tesfa finds words and melody to harmonise.

The result is unlike anything you are likely to have heard before. You can get a flavour of it from this extract on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/haymanot.  But if you get the chance to hear them perform live, then grab the opportunity. You won’t regret it!

Friday, 31 January 2014

The Joy of Live(stream) Theatre

I love live theatre. I grew up going every summer to the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario and there are still certain things just the memory of which will send a shiver down my spine.  The sound of the gong that would mark the start of the play on that curtainless apron stage.  The rustle of a costume as an actor made their entrance down an aisle (oh, how I’d clamour to my parents to make sure that we got one of those precious aisle seats!) Maggie Smith holding the audience in the palm of her hand as Cleopatra...

Recently, however, there is no denying I have become a major fan of live streaming – the technology that allows a theatre performance to be broadcast live to cinemas around the country, or even around the world, giving you front row seats at a fraction of the current cost of tickets to the theatre.

In the last couple of months, I have been to two such live-streams:  David Tennant’s Richard II at the RSC, directed by Greg Doran, and Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke. Both these performances were sold out almost as soon as tickets went on sale, so my chances of seeing either of them in the theatres was virtually nil.

Richard II

If you have never been to a live-stream, you might imagine that what you see is just the view from a fixed-point camera, perhaps from the middle of the dress circle.  But it’s far more sophisticated than that.  Somehow, without interfering with the live performance, they position cameras at multiple angles, and take you, at times, right in close  to the actors’ faces, so that you catch details of the performance you wouldn’t see unless you had front row seats – and perhaps no even then.

Both Richard II and Coriolanus suffer from the fact that their central characters are not particularly easy to like. Tennant’s Richard II reeled in the audience’s sympathies over the course of the play, moving from an effete arrogance born of his certainty in his divine right to rule, to a resigned humility as he accepts his fate.

One of the pleasures of a live-stream is that you are often treated to little interviews with the cast and crew before the performance and in the interval. In this case, before the play began, we heard an interview with the director, Gregory Doran, who described Tennant as  “constitutionally incapable of not making a line sound like modern English,” – gift that allows him to draw out some of the bitter humour Richard finds in his own downfall.

Richard II also marks the first return to the stage of Jean Lapotaire since the brain haemorrhage she suffered in 2000, in the small but significant role as the widow to the murdered Gloucester.

We also heard the designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis, talk about going back to an old technology to create a very modern-seeming effect.  Curtains made of strings of fine glass beads (‘a bit like the chain on your sink plug’) were hung in graduated layers through the depth of the stage. Onto this were projected images – like the nave of the cathedral in the opening scene – creating an illusion of depth.  And because the curtains were semi-transparent, actors could move behind and between them, accentuating the effect.


In contrast to the grandeur of the Richard II set, the live-stream of Coriolanus came from the tiny Donmar Warehouse  - a converted banana ripening shed in London’s Covent Garden. The stage is a simple square, surrounded on three sides by banks of seats, and this stark simplicity was used to conjure the idea of a Roman arena.  The only set dressing was graffiti projected onto the back wall and the only props a ladder and a few chairs.

Tom Hiddleston is young and athletic, and he brings a different dynamic to the play than the older actors who are typically cast. (As Emma Freud asked in her interview of the director, Josie Rourke, during the interval, “MTV named Tom Hiddleston as the sexiest man on the planet – so why  exactly did you cast him as Coriolanus…?”)  And they are not averse to making the most of  that athleticism – sending him  scrambling up ladders at the siege of Corioles where he earns his name and afterwards having him stand, half-naked, as he showers blood from his body.

Deborah Findlay is impressive as Volumnia – surely one of the strongest female roles in any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But the revelation of this production, for me, was Mark Gatiss as Menenius. I love his Mycroft, but I have been in two minds about some of the other things I have seen him in.  but here he displayed the same gift as Tennant – making every word seem perfectly understandable and creating a character the audience could relate to as if this were contemporary drama.

The other piece of surprise casting was Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Borgen’s Katrine Fønsmark) as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia. It is a part with very few speaking lines and you might think she was wasted on it (especially as her English appears flawless and almost unaccented). But one of the things I have noticed about Scandanavian television actors is that that are often expected to express a great deal without using any words at all.  Because of the  way the play was staged, Virgilia is on view to the audience almost the whole time, and especially for this live-cast, where the camera often comes in very close to the actors’ faces, Sørensen has great scope to express all  the fear, anger and grief of a soldier’s wife.

Coriolanus is  the least known of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.  Unlike, say, Hamlet or Julius Caesar, much of the audience will come to it not knowing the story – and most of all, not knowing the ending.  Josie Rourke and her cast would like to keep it that way, so I won’t spoil it for you. Sufficeth to say that it made full use of Hiddleston’s athleticism, and that even filtered through  a screen, it was shocking.

Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear  from the National Theatre will be live –streamed on 1st May. I’m buying my tickets now.