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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

‘Give me an ounce of civet’

The summer season in Stratford is split between tragedies in the theatre and a Spanish series in the Swan and it’s quite a contrast. After an unmemorable Macbeth a few months ago, it was now the turn of Romeo and Juliet with which I had a huge problem. The ensemble performing the four selected tragedies is generally young, and in many cases actors are making their debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The freshness and youth of a cast can often lead to an interpretation of some interest, but without properly honed stage skills and experience the performance will become second-rate. I left this play at the interval unmoved and unconvinced. The actress playing Juliet has a thankless task in that she needs to demonstrate a naïf, bewildered, and entranced personality yet have the emotional depth to stir us. A production which relies on the priapic, pelvic thrusts of an important but lesser character, Mercutio, to titillate a teenage audience is failing badly.By contrast The Dog in the Manger by Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562– 1635) in a new translation by David Johnston was rib-ticklingly funny. As with Twelfth Night the play is concerned with class divisions; a repressed and beautiful aristocrat; effete male nobility; clever, ambitious servants; and just deserts. The differences between the two styles of theatre were emphasised by the staging. Romeo in the main theatre seemed distant, stilted, and static whereas Manger in the Swan was engrossing, agile, and the fastest matinée I’ve ever sat through.

A genre too far?At this point I’d like to address a subject of some delicacy and sensitive readers should look away now. My dentist has a nice line in waiting-room reading and sometimes I wish he’d keep me from his chair a little longer in order that I might enjoy better his collection. Private Eye is usually there, but on my last visit there was what I might describe as an upmarket gentleman’s magazine – nothing too racy but not your usual Hello! drivel. In this worthy journal there was an article on ‘chick lit’ which, I freely confess, was a subject new to me. Here are some random headlines from the Web – ‘Chick lit – a literary genre that features books written by women and focusing on young, quirky, female protagonists’; ‘the chick lit phenomenon is in decline… and Mills & Boon have recently launched their own chick lit imprint, thus taking back what’s rightfully theirs’; ‘the shorthand term for breezy novels written by…’ ; ‘chick lit was supposed to be the bright light of postfeminist writing’. So that’s what it is – Mills & Boon on speed!My dentist was irritatingly on time as usual and, as I hurriedly passed the mag to a lady pensioner, all I could remember from the article as a basis for further research were two titles – Brass and Trix. Helen Walsh wrote Brass, which is slang for a prostitute, and the title of Stephanie Theobald’s book is a reference to the US slang expression ‘turning a trick’, which is the stock-in-trade of such a person. Both books have Sapphic content and the heroine of Brass is a 19-year-old whose escapades made my eyes water and would be beyond the wildest fancy of anyone’s Aunt Agatha. After the sex and drugs she goes back to her mother and the last words of the book are, ‘Mum. My beautiful Mum. Look who’s here.’ The book is dedicated to ‘Mum’. So that’s all right then. Trix is a variation on the road movie, another interesting genre, in which the heroine from Scarborough crosses the US with a hooker of some complexity who specialises in sadomasochism. It’s well written and genuinely funny in places, but also contains the mandatory pages of pain and concludes with the heart-of-ice moll finding her long-lost mother who had tried to burn her alive when she was a baby. I found myself at a supper trying to explain to the wife of a distinguished actuary what chick lit was. Unusually, I struggled for words. I hope your summer reading was more edifying.In the words of King Lear, ‘Give me an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination’.