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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

An agonistic world

During the course of a Baltic sea journey I found myself comparing the character of two capitals. This was certainly unfair, based, as it was, on an acquaintance of a few hours, but the impression left was a very strong one. In Riga the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia left me numb at the fate of those lost in the long years of the two Soviet occupations and the briefer subjugation by German National Socialists. The exposition of historical documents, artifacts, and pictures is brilliantly organised and occasionally too distressing to observe. Next day in Tallinn the mood generally seemed so much lighter, as though the Estonians had overcome their ordeal and were now embracing Western culture readily, whereas the Latvians were still recovering from the deep shock of their experience. Some further reading on the Baltic states confirmed that the situation is not quite as simple but there is no doubt that the two capitals I visited are quite different in disposition. Suicide rates are high in both.Catherine the Great was born in Latvia and brought her style and taste to what is now called the Hermitage museum. Ironically, its French name as a place of solitude may well have been appropriate for the tsars but these days it is a cacophonous, heaving mass of polygenous visitors. Nothing could contrast more with Riga’s museum. The exhibits are eclectic, priceless, and ostentatious and founded on tsarist Russia’s obscene wealth. It’s amazing the revolution did not happen earlier. In the evening I and hundreds of other tourists who had not opted for a night of balalaika music found ourselves at the St Petersburg Conservatoire for Swan Lake.This was no ordinary staging. The unadorned theatre stairway was brightened by the presence of three little maids from school in colourful dresses of a period before Uncle Joe designed the Soviet uniform. Before the performance began the public address system announced in six or seven languages that photography was forbidden. Once the music started flash photographs were taken at regular intervals by those whose deafness prohibited their hearing the proclamation or who spoke one of the many other languages of the planet. To my certain knowledge the broadcast was not made in either Swahili or Tetun. Perhaps the Japanese present thought this an excellent way of saluting Odette who was danced by Yuri Higuti – from Japan. Her co-star dancing Prince Siegfried was Nikolay Vizuzhanin, whose rictus confirmed his horror of what sat before him. The ballet was abbreviated either to get us back to the ships on time or, more probably, to ease the distress on the performers. Or it might have been because it seemed to take several hours to leave the theatre by the one small door left open. This was not art. It was a photo opportunity.A helpful programme note at Stratford mentions that the Greek word agon means struggle or contest and is derived from an ancient name for a public celebration of games. Aristotle said that the origin of theatre tragedy was the moment when an actor split from the chorus and entered into dialogue with them. Later a second actor came and provided further opportunity for confrontation. The first actor was called the protagonist and the second the deuteragonist. ‘Conversation in the theatre of historical tragedy is always a form of agon which rapidly escalates into emotional intensity (agony) and thence to physical violence.’ This was a helpful preface to Henry VI, Part I in its vibrant restaging at the Courtyard Theatre. This venue has been constructed for use during the redevelopment of the existing theatre complex and its footprint gives us a foretaste of the new design. Some of the cast from the 2000 production were back and it was difficult to find a weak link. As an accidental primer for seeing the Wars of the Roses I happened to read recently Christina Hardyment’s biography of Malory, the author of Morte Darthur. He lived during the reigns of Henry V and VI and this fascinating, scholarly work describes his life and times, his love of King Arthur and chivalry, and along the way describes the political background to the wars. I found it quite engrossing, especially the reminder that Shakespeare’s famous pun: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York’ was based on a celestial phenomenon called a parhelion. In their attempt to stage all Shakespeare’s plays before the redevelopment begins the RSC has outsourced some productions and I saw Cymbeline by Kneehigh Theatre. There were very few of Shakespeare’s words, much contemporary relevance (lots of hoodies), an incessant musical backing which was occasionally throbbingly loud, a few clever devices, and a passable rewrite of the story. Some punters left within minutes, some at the interval. At the end, apart from the curious such as I, there were enough young people and, I assume, friends of Kneehigh for a good ovation. There was energetic performance but little acting. Shakespeare it was not.