Celebrities and creatives on what they have been watching, reading and listening to during lockdown
Throughout the Herald arts’ ‘Artists in retreat’ series of interviews we have quizzed various creative folk about the books, screen favourites and music that has inspired them during the pandemic. As the Stratford Literary Festival introduces a month of books and debate, we revisit our interviewees’ highlights from the last year.
Niamh Cusack, actor
I was lucky enough to get a chance to read Rachel Joyce’s new book, Miss Benson’s Beetle, before it was published. It is the story of a female friendship and it is moving, tender and funny. Rachel and I worked together long ago at the RSC when I played Rosalind in As You Like It and she was a wonderful Celia. But writing was her passion and she eventually gave up acting to devote herself to it. She writes really beautifully.
Favourite film: So Long my Son, a Chinese film by Wang Xiaoshuai, has the most wonderful performances in it, particularly the central couple. It is the story of a marriage struggling to survive the loss of a child, against the back drop of the one child policy in China. It spans from 1980s to the present day and its structure turns it into a puzzle, in which the full picture only becomes clear at the very end.
Favourite documentary was 63 UP , Mike Apted following a number of people from when they were seven years old to now. It was incredibly moving and revealing about class and the question of nature versus nurture. And of course it makes you think about what it is to be a human being, to have a life. Which is maybe one of the gifts of this whole period.
I have also dipped into a number of telly series: Normal People and Ozark were two I really enjoyed. The former really captures young love in this love story of two rather damaged, confused young people. And the latter is a tall yarn of a thriller that sometimes made me laugh out loud with the outrageously awful situations the central couple get themselves into
Andrew French, actor RSC’s The Winter’s Tale
My RSC production of Romeo and Juliet , in which I played the role of Friar Lawrence, was on iPlayer and we did a watch-along on twitter which was great! I’ve also been watching Mad Men and The West Wing, which is my favourite TV show ever. Hilary Mantel's latest novel is sitting by my bed, waiting for me to start. I’m also a big fan of crime novels. And I'm a history podcast fiend. Musically: the Hamilton soundtrack is just great. And I've been listening to a lot of Sufjan Stevens, who can be melancholy but sometimes a little cry is good!
Jane Lapotaire, Actor
I watch a film a day, sometimes two, the luxury! My favourite French films and classics include Wings of Desire and The discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
TV wise I recommend streaming The Crown of course [Jane plays Princess Alice in the show], Unorthodox, and The Queen’s Gambit.
I love Marilynne Robinson’s and Elizabeth Strout’s writing, both American novelists.
Music ¬- I listen to a-capella, choirs and love the duduk - it’s an Armenian ‘oboe/ flute’ Very plangent. Lovely word plangent.
Or I sing along with Aretha Franklin, Joan Armatrading, Streisand, Eagles, Stones, Johnny Cash and Roberta Flack (child of the 60s, moi)
When I’m realIy up against it I run to the Complete Works. I speak some out loud for comfort.
Kimberley Sykes, director, recently directed The Whip and As You Like It at the RSC
I’m obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology, so have devoured every single book by the extraordinary Natalie Haynes (The Amber Fury, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta and The Ancient Guide to Modern Life). I’m very excited to crack into her new book Pandora’s Jar. I’ve also revisited Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, both of which have broken my heart. And it’s been refreshing to read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey from the female gaze.
Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is a work of genius and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is profoundly humane.
These women writers have been my lockdown companions.
My favourite binge watch has been Lovecraft Country [Sky Atlantic]. It’s ridiculously epic and ground-breaking in terms of style. They surprise their audience constantly. It’s properly unbelievable and yet makes complete and utter sense. The actors feel like their boldest, biggest selves and completely in charge of the storytelling.
Avita Jay, actor RSC The Winter’s Tale
Shakespeare! I’ve read much more of his work since lockdown started and I’ve realised quite how exciting and relevant his words are. It’s been great to watch the RSC shows online. I’ve also really enjoyed Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on Netflix, combining food a travel – two of my favourite things. I think for the same reason, my favourite book to read has been a Japan travel guide! I’ve loved listening to Fela Kuti’s music– it always lifts my mood and I can’t not dance.
Joe Kloska, actor RSC The Winter’s Tale
We watched all 72 episodes of the The Americans on Amazon Prime. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (who played Romeo here in the early 2000s) are both absolutely incredible. And lots of reading. I recommend the transcendent Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, a wonderful book to read while in Stratford and wandering the paths between Shottery and town.
Phillip Breen, director RSC The Comedy of Errors
If I had to recommend one book it would be Red or Dead by David Peace. He wrote the Red Riding Trilogy and the Damned United. If the Damned United (his controversial book on Brian Clough) is a diaboliad, then Red or Dead is about a hagiography. It’s a book about the life of Bill Shankly, who built the modern Liverpool Football club. He took Liverpool from a mid-table second division team to being the champions of England. It’s about the obsession that is required to do that, and it’s about what happens when that is taken away. The second half of the book is about what happens when Bill Shankly no longer has Liverpool Football to run. What that obsessive mind does when he doesn’t have a focus. It’s like an epic working class King Lear or Paradise Lost. Liverpool’s rise as a cultural epicentre of football and rock and roll in the 60s and early 70s mirrors Shankly’s rise, and Liverpool and Shankly are screaming at the Gods on the blasted heath by the early eighties. It’s not about football. It’s just the setting. It’s about ambition. competition, love, obsession, the reasons we get up in the morning. It’s a masterpiece. You get the football fix too.
I’m also reading the Hagakure (the ancient manual for the Samurai) – it’s full of good advice on getting through difficult times.
Binge watch favourite is This Country, BBC 3. All the good stuff.
Music wise I’ve been listening to Paddy Cunneen’s brilliant compositions for The Comedy of Errors. And Schubert. The piano trios. If Schubert’s not on in heaven, they can stick it.
Stewart McGill and Mary King, consultant director and executive director at Playbox Theatre
Macbeth Underworld from La Monnaie de Munt in Belgium is Thomas Jolly’s opera take on the supernatural in the play. His directorial style is magnificent and the show is being streamed so look at visuals and enjoy his amazing approach to drama. Phèdre from The Wooster Group was amazing, as is the French ensemble Pygmalion with their early opera variations Stravaganza D’Amore on DVD and CD and Royal Opera’s La bohème. Music ¬- it’s been Pink Floyd, Beatles, Oasis, Sufjan Stevens, The Cure, and Sondheim, everything he had ever written!
Also, a confession: our son Chris [McGill] has been directing episodes of EastEnders, and we’ve got hooked. It’s great contemporary drama with superb performances. The number of viewers is staggering and the immediate issues played with total conviction.
Bally Gill, actor, Romeo in RSC’s 2018 Romeo and Juliet
I’m watching a documentary on Netflix called the The Last Dance which focuses the 1997–98 Chicago Bulls basketball team. I’m not massively into basketball but it’s really interesting and I’m hooked. Home on 4OD is one of the smartest and relevant comedies I’ve seen in ages and resonates heavily with me, I urge you to watch it. And obviously Romeo and Juliet on iPlayer!
Evgenia Golubeva, director, writer and illustrator for children’s shows
I’m enjoying Noughts + Crosses on BBC and Lost in Space on Netflix. And I’m looking forward to watching The Mandalorian on Disney+.
I love graphic novels especially travelogues like Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem by Guy Delisle. He travels with his wife who works for Médecins Sans Frontières. He documents their life with lots of humour and reflects on the difficult political situations he witnesses. I also just read The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui – a touching story about a Vietnamese refugee family caught in the turmoils of war based on Thi Bui’s life. It made me cry.
I use Spotify to help me find new songs. I’ve been listening to lots of Italian and French singers like Michele Bravi and Isaac Delusion. I used to live in Italy and France and really miss travelling. When I’m drawing – music is my best companion and helps to lift my mood too.
Emily Quash, artistic director, Playbox Theatre
BOOK OF DUST! Can I say that over and over again?! Anyone who knows me will be aware that I am a huge fan of His Dark Materials and I loved the first Book Of Dust volume that Philip Pullman published a couple of years ago. I was given the second in the trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth last September but failed many times to make my way through it. As a result of the lockdown, I have restarted and finished it, and it is wonderful. We may not be able to literally travel anywhere, but the expanse of ‘Lyra’s world’ is absolutely transportational and I loved every page…I hope Pullman is using the lockdown to complete the final in the series, because I cannot wait for Volume III.
We’re also catching up on films and thank goodness for Netflix – Captain Fantastic is absolutely sublime, and 127 Hours was totally compelling.
We did a proper binge-watch of The Letter For The King, which stars the fabulous Playbox member Nathanael Saleh, and we loved this and were very proud. Plus endless re-watches of Breaking Bad and Friends, which we never tire of.
There are some fabulous offerings from theatres across the world and I really recommend The Unknown Island which has been shared by The Gate Theatre, as well as Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant 90th birthday musical celebration. Akram Khan workshops have kept us sane.
Emma Smith, Shakespeare scholar
I’m finding my appetite for new things is limited. I’m preferring the comfort of what I know well. Handel is always my go-to when things are tough, so we’re listening to lots of Ariodante – and the signature tune for Friday evenings, the Swedish jazz musician Jan Johansson, is with us all the way. I’ve read some brilliant crime fiction, including Andrew Taylor’s The Last Protector and Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, and am re-reading some Agatha Christie I haven’t read since adolescence for a radio programme for the 100th anniversary of Poirot. I’m rewatching Star Wars although I’m still not sure about the renumbering of the classic films.
Iqbal Khan, RSC director
Favourite TV binge watch is deﬁnitely Succession. It’s just so beautifully written; it has a Shakespearean scope and a wicked sense of play. The cast are absolutely brilliant, with many new to me and the great Brian Cox as good as I’ve ever seen him.
Favourite ﬁlms recently include Tehran Taboo (shocking in its daring and so nuanced in sharing these range of female experiences). or, on a lighter note, I just watched Three Men and a Baby again, a smart and irresistibly sentimental ﬁlm - with great performances (Tom Selleck has such surprising nuance and depth! Don’t believe me? See it again!).
Books: Crime and Punishment. Don’t be put off by the size. It’s episodic and each one is glorious. A really compelling, exciting read. It’s written in very accessible language that presents enormous depths of insight. It’s surprisingly funny and so humane.
Music: I’ve been listening to a lot of Kate Tempest and, at the moment, very unusually, Nana Mouskouri (her Live British concert from 1972) I Love the ﬁre, play and eloquence of Kate Tempest. And, Nana? Well, she is more a reassurance. I remember this concert from when I heard it on vinyl when I was very young. It is all beauty, naive, luminous beauty.
David Le Page, artistic director, Orchestra of the Swan
I love reading and always have about three books on the go plus an audiobook for the car. I enjoy the way your next book is suggested by a phrase or chapter in the one you’re reading currently. I’m addicted to the Adam Buxton podcast; he has a brilliant way of coaxing conversations from his guests in a way that you won’t hear anywhere else. The latest one with Stewart Lee is a good example. To relax I’m trawling through episodes of Columbo which I have on DVD; I enjoy looking at the sets, the clothes, the locations and the cars. In an episode I was watching last night from the late-70s a character changed the TV channel with an enormous metal remote! That’s fascinating to me and the closest we get to time travel.
We watched Little Miss Sunshine the other night. Hadn’t seen it for ages and my daughter’s flatmate [who was in lockdown with the family] hadn’t seen it before. I was relieved to find it was as good as I’d told her it was. I’m listening to the audiobook of the new Hilary Mantel [The Mirror and the Light], which will probably see me through most of the next decade. Other than that there’s a very good programme on Sky Atlantic called Save Me Too – I believe the guy playing the creep Gideon Charles is something rather special… [Adrian is of course referring to himself]