Review of Sweeney Todd (Taganka Theatre, Moscow – 28 January 2017)



I’ve been to a few of musicals in London’s West End, including seeing a slightly bored cast go through the motions of Miss Saigon as an expensive recreation of the Vietnam War went off behind them. Whilst I love musicals, those glitzy, expensive shows, played night after night in enormous theatres, somehow don’t connect with me the way smaller productions do.

I was therefore intrigued when I found out about a new repertory production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, at the medium-sized Taganka Theatre, renowned for their version of Master and Margarita.

Sweeney Todd isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste – in fact the president of a drama group I was in once derided it as ‘not music’ – but I’ve long been a fan of this “penny dreadful” come to life. With its visceral score and intricately constructed lyrics, the musical manages to transcend its larger-than-life characters and lurid plot. I find myself drawn into believing this unlikely world where it seems reasonable that a wronged man should take revenge by committing serial murder, whilst his lover, Mrs. Lovett, makes the victims into pies. For a work I know so well, there’s a risk that a new production may not live up to my expectations. However, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed the Alexander Frandetti’s Taganka production very much.

The most obvious way this production stands out is that is performed ‘in the round’, with the audience sat at tables around a central stage, as if in Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. The made use of the multi-level set pieces around the theatre, but also moved amongst the spectators, carrying mirrors and shiny props reflecting us – suggesting that any of us could become Todd’s victims, or perhaps even Todd himself. People like me, in the cheap seats, had a restricted view, watching some of the action through the scaffolding (see the photo) but this didn’t significantly detract from the entertainment.

The actors and singers gave an excellent account of the challenging score and characters: Petr Markin as Todd was brooding and detached, whilst Alexandra Basova as Mrs. Lovett was charming, humorous and devious, and the supporting cast were also excellent. The production hit the tone of the original in a way that some productions (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton), fail to do. The performances felt sincere and fresh, unsurprisingly perhaps, as this was only the third or fourth public performance, and I found myself enthralled and thrilled as the story unfolded. The Russian translation seemed to fit the tone, and managed to emulate the complex rhyming of the original.

As this was not a mega-budget extravaganza, the set was mostly static, and some of the more complex aspects had to be represented more simply – bodies weren’t dispatched through trap-doors and slides: rather, deaths were represented by the character’s coat being hung in an ever-increasing collection around the stage. However, the whole space was brought to life with dynamic lighting effects, highlighting singers’ faces, Todd’s beloved razors and bathing the stage in red as each throat is slit – in fact, I found this approach less distracting than more complex stage machinery would have been, and allowed the more horrific aspects to be implied and not shown (only the most timid should be put off by the 18+ rating they put on the poster).

So, if you prefer your shows to be in a smaller, more intimate setting, I can without hesitation recommend this new production – just don’t be disappointed when a helicopter fails to land on stage.

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The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

For a reasonably slow reader such as myself, it is pleasant being given a 150-page book for my birthday (courtesy of my brother), which I can plough through in just a couple of evenings. It’s the first Julian Barnes book I’ve read, and I came to it with no particular expectations of the author or the plot.

The story is narrated by a retired man, who first remembers details of his school and university days, an unsuccessful relationship with a girl, a visit to her parents’ and the suicide of one of his friends. He forgets about the incidents until he receives notice that the girl’s mother has left him something in her will, and he begins to remember and re-evaluate the memories of which he was so sure, until his old girlfriend drops just enough clues for him to start to unravel the mystery.

As I mentioned, the novel is brief and deals with events on a small scale, barrelling along quickly towards its conclusion, while the substance is somewhat beneath the surface. The central theme is how memories can be misleading, and the narrator is indeed somewhat unreliable, painting himself and other characters in a positive or negative light that the reader can sometimes see through. A powerful, recurring image is that of the Severn Bore, a tidal wave, going upstream against the current, as the newly reconsidered memories of the past wash up the river of time to the present.

In general, I found the book very readable, the narrator likeable (or is he?) and the mystery intriguing. The thoughts described of the adolescent and young man seemed to ring somewhat true with my own memories of the time. On the other hand, the girlfriend’s reluctance to say straightforwardly what has happened seems a little artificial, as it serves only to spin out the revelation of the secret. At the end, we are left unsure exactly what happened – I read pages of speculation on the internet, and have chosen which version I find most plausible. For me, the ambiguity is frustrating, but perhaps I’ve missed the point. The lightness of tone made me a little surprised that it won the Man Booker prize, but perhaps I’ve missed the point of that too. In any case, I can recommend it, and whatever your opinion, it won’t take up much of your valuable time.




world view



the indistinct sound of people whispering



model of excellence or perfection of a kind



young and inexperienced



becoming liquid by absorbing moisture from the air



searching, rummaging



suitable for membership of a club because of one’s sociability or popularity.



capable of being broken



a large number or amount or extent



presenting favorable circumstances



being self-centred or selfish.

I made use of to find some of the definitions in one go.

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The Original of Laura – Vladimir Nabokov

I was very pleased to receive Nabokov’s “the Original of Laura” as a present by some of my trainees after a course, after I had used words and a passage from Speak, Memory as examples of very difficult language, which I could teach them as something new.

The book is Nabokov’s last work and was unfinished. It is presented as photographs of his index cards, upon which he drafted his later novels. This helps bump it up to a full length volume, as the text is sparse, consisting of only a few fairly complete chapters followed by increasingly fragmentary notes.

The book concerns a young woman who has married an older, rich academic. It is told partly by a seemingly neutral narrator, describing the woman’s encounters with past, and present lovers, and partly as the autobiography of the academic, who has an obsession with trying to make his body slowly die, through meditation.

There are some interesting episodes, and some of Nabokov’s trademark wit, irony, and carefully crafted sentences using unusual words are there, as well as the unreliable narrator, which seems to be a theme running through Lolita, Pnin and Pale Fire, the other fictional works of his that I have read. Being unfinished, it fails to come together to be more than the sum of its parts, and certainly would do nothing for someone who was not already interested in Nabokov’s works. On the other hand, it would have been a pity if his wife or son had followed his instructions to burn it.

As before, I looked up words I didn’t know or was not sure of, which may include some which you consider easy. The sources are various, including the google dictionary, Wiktionary and anything else I could find. I’ve given the line from the book for context. I was also given the Russian-language version, which I will attempt to read. I fear there will be rather more words I don’t know there.



“displaying the little hand in febrile motion”

characterised by nervous excitement or energy (also: feverish)



“the distal edge of the slipper lost its grip and had to be pried at the grateful heel with a finger for shoeing-horn”

situated away from the centre of the body



“prefactory contemplation”

seems to be the same as “prefatory”: introductory



“the mobile omoplates of a child being tubbed”

(obsolete) shoulderblades



“Auroral rumbles and bangs had begun jolting the cold misty city”

of the dawn



“whose pyjamas…were changing…from heliotrope to a sickly gray”

light purple, similar to heliotrope flowers



“The position of her head, its trustful poximity”

possibly the same as ‘proximity’?



“the local magazine Pitch, which specialized in soccer and diabolical faits-divers”

brief news stories with sensational themes in French papers



“Mr Hubert, who constantly ‘prowled’ (rodait) around her

French: third-person singular imperfect indicative of ‘rôder’ – to prowl


boutique d’éventails

“She had just opened a boutique d’éventails”

French: boutique selling fans



“Such fixed details as her trick of opening her mouth when toweling her inguen”

the crease at the junction of the inner part of the thigh with the trunk together with the adjacent region and often including the external genitals.



“care must be taken to eliminate the hypnagogic gargoyles…”

relating to the state immediately before falling asleep



“… and entoptic swarms which plague tired vision”

(of visual images) occurring or originating inside the eye



“getting rid of my toes (as represented by the white pedicule I was erasing…”

(also ‘pedicel’): something resembling a stalk



(definition given without context)

an ancient Greek concept of an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, and self-control.



“The extermination of my ten toes had been accompanied with the usual volupty”

(= voluptuousness): pleasure



“I palpated warily the hallux and the four other digits of my right foot”

big toe



“At worst I was ready to face an anatomical preparation of ten bare phalanges sticking out of my feet like a skeleton’s claws.”

(= phalanx) a bone of the finger or toe.



“He showed A.N.D. one of the dark grim urograms that had been taken of A.N.D.’s rear anatomy.”

A radiograph of the urinary tract.



“I wish to add that this was no homosexual manifestation but a splendid example of terminal gynandrism.”

deformity of female genitals to resemble those of opposite sex


roman à clef

“a bestseller which the blurb describes as ‘a romana novel in which real people or events appear with invented names. clef with the clef lost forever’”

a novel in which real people or events appear with invented names.


un air enjoué

“she was brimming with religious fervour and yet miserably, desperately fearful, despite bright smiles and un air enjoué, of my insulting her by some mocking remark”

(French) a cheerful demeanour



“The only help I can provide is not even paradigmatic.”

an example serving as a model; pattern



“an envahissement of delicious dissolution (what a miraculous appropriate noun!)”

(French) invasion/encroachment

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I cannot say Günter Grass’s short novel was a particularly interesting read. It considered the after-effects on fictional characters in the present day of the real-life sinking of a German ship during the advance of the Red Army through Germany towards the end of the Second World War.

I never found the characters came to life, beyond their allegorical function. Moreover, the author’s deciding to deal with several plot strands at once, in different times, made the beginning of the book boring and, to me, felt meandering and aimless – and it might have seemed cleverer if it hadn’t been telegraphed in the title.

Once we reached the disaster itself, the book became more interesting and emotionally involving but nonetheless never really took off for me.

One review I read of the book complained about the poor translation, and that it didn’t read like English, but I didn’t particularly notice this, and I think a bit of the flavour of the original German wouldn’t do any harm.

As I started this blog as a place for glossaries, I noted a couple of words which I’d seen before but had to look up:

sophistry the use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.
reticent not revealing one’s thoughts or feelings readily.
proctor (vb.) invigilate (an examination).
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Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

A long while ago – maybe in the 1990’s, I heard a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa, starring John Sessions and Siobhan Redmond. I remember it being very funny. More recently, I read the book in English which was also very interesting and amusing, and contained a lot of difficult words, some of which are below (some are less difficult, but I still wasn’t sure of them, hence their inclusion).

page word definition
80 lugubrious mournful, dismal
90 proparoxytones having an accent or heavy stress on the antepenultimate syllable
97 punctilious strict or exact in the observance of the formalities or amenities of conduct or actions
112 mimeticosemantic mimetic – related to mimicrysemantic – related to meanings of words or signs
117 calumny a false and malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone or something
117 jeremiads a prolonged lamentation or mournful complaint
117 cyclothymia a mild bipolar disorder characterized by instability of mood and a tendency to swing between mild euphorias and depressions
117 jitney route taxi
126 mesocrat mixed-race
126 oligophrenic having less than normal mental development
126 acromegalic sufferer from a chronic disease characterized by enlargement of the bones of the head, the soft parts of the feet and hands, and sometimes other structures, due to excessive secretion of growth hormone by the pituitary gland
145 ukase any order or proclamation by an absolute or arbitrary authority
145 venial able to be forgiven or pardoned; not seriously wrong, as a sin
145 arnica a tincture of the flowers of A. montana, of Europe, and other species of Arnica, formerly used as an external application in sprains and bruises
147 chrematistic of wealth
150 hieratically like a priest
153 epithalamicide killing of the epithalmus (the dorsal area of the diencephalon containing a habenula and the pineal gland)
158 lapidary the art of cutting, polishing, and engraving precious stones; characterized by an exactitude and extreme refinement that suggests gem cutting
158 holograph wholly written by the person in whose name it appears
159 errant deviating from the regular or proper course; erring; straying; journeying or travelling, as a medieval knight in quest of adventure; roving adventurously; moving in an aimless or lightly changing manner: an errant breeze.
163 chitlings the small intestine of swine, esp. when prepared as food
168 corpus delicti the basic element or fact of a crime, as, in murder, the death of the murdered person; the object, as the body of a murdered person, upon which a crime has been committed and that serves as evidence proving that the crime was committed
177 oneiric of or pertaining to dreams
179 phlegmatic not easily excited to action or display of emotion; apathetic; sluggish
190 infantilism the persistence in an adult of markedly childish anatomical, physiological, or psychological characteristics
199 captious apt to notice and make much of trivial faults or defects; faultfinding; difficult to please; apt or designed to ensnare or perplex, esp. in argument: captious questions
202 exophthalmic of protrusion of the eyeball from the orbit, caused by disease, esp. hyperthyroidism, or injury
208 archiepiscopal of or pertaining to an archbishop or to the office of an archbishop
208 vicuña (vicugna) camel-like animal
209 hetaera any woman who uses her beauty and charm to obtain wealth or social position
213 scapular two small pieces of woolen cloth, joined by strings passing over the shoulders, worn under the ordinary clothing as a badge of affiliation with a religious order, a token of devotion, etc.
220 casuist an oversubtle or disingenuous reasoner, esp. in questions of morality; a person who studies and resolves moral problems of judgment or conduct arising in specific situations
221 paropsis ?
221 rachitis inflammation of the spine
225 apocopes loss or omission of the last letter, syllable, or part of a word
226 cynosure something that strongly attracts attention by its brilliance, interest, etc.: the cynosure of all eyes; something serving for guidance or direction
228 huachafo (slang) Of or pertaining to a person or object resulting from poor taste, not fashionable, bad personal manners or bad habits
232 walleyed having eyes in which there is an abnormal amount of the white showing, because of divergent strabismus; having large, staring eyes, as some fishes; marked by excited or agitated staring of the eyes, as in fear, rage, frenzy, or the like: He stood there in walleyed astonishment
237 satyriasis (also “Don Juanism”) a syndrome, occurring in males, of excessive preoccupation with sexual gratification or conquest and leading to persistently transient and sometimes exploitative relationships
237 coprolalia the obsessive use of scatological language
240 chichi Ostentatiously stylish; deliberately chic
246 greenhorn an untrained or inexperienced person; a naive or gullible person; someone who is easily tricked or swindled; a newly arrived immigrant; newcomer
249 catechism an elementary book containing a summary of the principles of the Christian religion, esp. as maintained by a particular church, in the form of questions and answers
251 Mercurochrome a brand of merbromin: an iridescent green, water-soluble powder, C20H8Br2HgNa2O6, that forms a red solution when dissolved in water: used as an antiseptic and as a germicide
271 saw a sententious saying; maxim; proverb
276 pignoration the act of pledging or pawning
279 lymphatic having the characteristics, as flabbiness or sluggishness, formerly believed to be due to an excess of lymph in the system
279 abnegating refusing or denying oneself (some rights, conveniences, etc.); rejecting; renouncing
280 ontological the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such
280 Brahmanic related to being a priest?
281 teratological of the science or study of monstrosities or abnormal formations in organisms
288 scabrous having a rough surface because of minute points or projections; indecent or scandalous; risqué; obscene
295 beatifically bestowing bliss, blessings, happiness; blissful; saintly
314 mestizo a person of racially mixed ancestry, esp., in Latin America, of mixed American Indian and European, usually Spanish or Portuguese, ancestry, or, in the Philippines, of mixed native and foreign ancestry
329 niveous resembling snow, esp. in whiteness; snowy
343 deliquescence to become liquid by absorbing moisture from the air, as certain salts; to melt away
361 forensic pertaining to, connected with, or used in courts of law or public discussion and debate; adapted or suited to argumentation; rhetorical
373 lèse culture defaming or insulting a culture
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Speak, Memory

When reading Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, I came across a lot of words whose meanings I did not know. A few of these were words I had seen before but could not define, hence the inclusion in this glossary of some less esoteric words. By far the majority of them were words I had never seen before in my life. I therefore made this list to help anyone else who might be interested in reading Speak, Memory, but who lacks Nabokov’s enormous vocabulary. It only discusses unusual words, and does not attempt to explain any cultural references, Russian or otherwise, that Nabokov makes, nor any Russian sentences he uses (most of these are explained in his text anyway). The page references are to the Penguin Classics edition. Most definitions are from Any comments providing feedback on the list would be welcome.

chapter page word definition
2 28 fatidic prophetic
28 praedormitary before sleep
28 hypnagogic of, or pertaining to drowsiness; inducing drowsiness
29 photism the production of a sensation of light or colour by a stimulus to another sense organ, such as that of hearing or touch.
32 reticulated netted; covered with a network
32 ingenuousness being free from reserve, restraint, or dissimulation; candid; sincere
32 sectarianism devotion to the interests of a party; excess of partisan or denominational zeal; adherence to a separate church organization
33 chimera a horrible or unreal creature of the imagination; a vain or idle fancy
33 cuneate wedge-shaped
35 omnivicarious which can substitute for anything else
35 agarics Any of various mushrooms of the genera Agaricus, Fomes, or related genera, having large umbrellalike caps with numerous gills beneath.
36 beatitude supreme blessedness; exalted happiness
37 viscid covered by a sticky substance
39 cul de jatte legless cripple
3 47 epigraphical of or pertaining to an inscription, as on a statue or building or a motto or quotation, as at the beginning of a literary composition, setting forth a theme.
51 platband a flat structural member, as a lintel or flat arch
53 belles-lettres literature regarded as a fine art, esp. as having a purely aesthetic function.
57 borzoi any of a breed of tall, slender dogs having long, silky hair, raised originally in Russia for hunting wolves.
4 63 frass the refuse and excrement of boring or leaf-eating insects
64 sphagnum any soft moss of the genus Sphagnum, occurring chiefly in bogs, used for potting and packing plants, for dressing wounds, etc.
67 ophryon the craniometric point in the midline of the forehead immediately above the orbits
69 glaucous light bluish-green or greenish-blue; covered with a whitish bloom, as a plum
73 camera lucida an optical instrument, often attached to the eyepiece of a microscope, by which the image of an external object is projected on a sheet of paper or the like for tracing
5 84 enuretic lacking control of urination, esp. during sleep; bed-wetting; urinary incontinence.
86 lambency Having the property of flickering lightly over or on a surface; a gentle glow.
6 108 tabanid any of various bloodsucking dipterous flies of the family Tabanidae, which includes the horseflies.
108 dipterist an entomologist specialising in flies
7 113 anastomosis The connection of separate parts of a branching system to form a network, as of leaf veins, blood vessels, or a river and its branches.
113 nictitating winking
115 quiddity The real nature of a thing; the essence; a hairsplitting distinction; a quibble.
117 naturopath One who uses a system or method of treating disease that employs no surgery or synthetic drugs but uses special diets, herbs, vitamins, massage, etc., to assist the natural healing processes.
8 127 fata morgana a mirage consisting of multiple images, as of cliffs and buildings, that are distorted and magnified to resemble elaborate castles, often seen near the Straits of Messina; illusory
132 sub rosa confidentially; secretly
134 debouchment The act or an instance of marching from a narrow, confined area into the open.
134 prodigal a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance; spendthrift.
134 samara an indehiscent, usually one-seeded, winged fruit, as of the elm or maple.
134 sough a sighing, rustling, or murmuring sound.
9 135 vicissitudes successive, alternating, or changing phases or conditions, as of life or fortune; ups and downs
139 cacologist Producer of defective speech
140 hiemal wintry
141 hyperborean of, pertaining to, or living in a far northern region.
143 debile lacking bodily or muscular strength or vitality
146 tyro a novice
10 158 amelus a limbless foetus
159 jejune without interest or significance; dull; insipid; juvenile; immature; childish
160 loge A small compartment, especially a box in a theatre; the front rows of the mezzanine in a theatre.
163 isba (also izba) the traditional log house of rural Russia, with an unheated entrance room and a single living and sleeping room heated by a clay or brick stove
11 167 zoolatry the worship of or excessive attention to animals.
167 ghyll a ravine
167 papilio A genus of butterflies.
167 ament catkin
169 volute A spiral formation, such as one of the whorls of a gastropod shell.
170 fritillary any of several orange-brown nymphalid butterflies, usually marked with black lines and dots and with silvery spots on the undersides of the wings.
171 scud running or moving quickly; clouds, spray, or mist driven by the wind; a driving shower or gust of wind.
174 apache (pronounced “uh-pash”) a Parisian gangster, rowdy, or ruffian.
175 laciniate (adj.) cut into narrow, irregular lobes; slashed; jagged.
12 192 specious apparently good or right though lacking real merit; superficially pleasing or plausible
192 plangent resounding loudly, esp. with a plaintive sound, as a bell.
194 chamfrain (also chamfron, chanfron) a piece of plate armour for defending a horse’s head
13 196 cant to talk hypocritically
198 persiflage light, bantering talk or writing; a frivolous or flippant style of treating a subject.
199 inanition exhaustion from lack of nourishment; starvation.
201 loquacious talking or tending to talk much or freely; talkative; chattering; babbling; garrulous
205 double systole the normal rhythmical contraction of the heart, during which the blood in the chambers is forced onward.
210 quinquenniam Neronis his first five years of Nero’s reign were known as the quinquennium Neronis which became a legend within the provinces for sound administration and peaceful order.
14 215 tactual of or pertaining to the sense of touch.
218 mystagogue a person whose teachings are said to be founded on mystical revelations.
218 drisk a fall of rain
218 logrolling cronyism or mutual favouritism among writers, editors, or critics, as in the form of reciprocal flattering reviews; back scratching.
219 eschatological of any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters, as death, the Judgment, the future state, etc.
220 aquiline of or like the eagle.
225 voluted with spiral ornaments
15 228 couvade a practice among some peoples, as the Basques of Spain, in which a man, immediately preceding the birth of his child, takes to his bed in an enactment of the birth experience and subjects himself to various taboos usually associated with pregnancy.
229 incunabula extant copies of books produced in the earliest stages (before 1501) of printing from movable type; the earliest stages or first traces of anything.
230 phylogenic of the development or evolution of a particular group of organisms.
233 supercilious haughtily disdainful or contemptuous, as a person or a facial expression.
234 alacritous of cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness; of liveliness, briskness.
234 vitiate impair the quality of; make faulty; spoil; to impair or weaken the effectiveness of; to debase, corrupt, pervert; to make legally defective or invalid, invalidate
236 arbutus any of the evergreen shrubs or trees belonging to the genus Arbutus, of the heath family, esp. A. unedo, of southern Europe, with scarlet berries, cultivated for ornament and food.
16 243 perspicacity keenness of mental perception and understanding; discernment; penetration.
248 solecism a non-standard or ungrammatical usage
251 oneiromancy divination through dreams.
251 platitudinous characterized by or given to platitudes (flat, dull, or trite remarks, esp. one uttered as if it were fresh or profound)
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