Timandra Harkness

Timandra Harkness is a writer whose work has spanned broadsheet journalism and Radio 4 comedy. She performs improvised and stand-up comedy and also hosts public events on serious topics like the future of engineering and scientific experiments on animals. For more detail see her homepage.

May 2013

Alone in an unbearable world

It would be very easy indeed to leave the theatre thinking about the plight of soldiers and their families, or the particular evils of specific wars, or the inadequacies of psychiatry. And to provoke such real-life thoughts is one thing the arts can do. But Berg’s Wozzeck asks us to refrain from treating this human tragedy as a case study.

February 2013

Competing claims of love and the glory of war

In spite of being based broadly on Euripides’ character, Charpentier’s Medea is curiously modern, and at times her modernity emerges into the music, with harsh discords that strain against baroque formality.


‘Dear God, to die so young’

Peter Konwitschny has cut the piece back to its simple lines: boy meets dying girl; they fall in love but society tears them apart; he comes back to her but she dies. Played straight through, with no interval, it runs under two hours.

November 2012

Under the sun

You can imprison her, hurt her, kill her, but she will live and die free. Constrained as she is, like all her milieu, by poverty, sexual exploitation, military repression, she will not submit.

September 2012

A world without cause or consequence

Martinu’s vocal lines have a lightness of touch that makes room for comedy as well as romance and jeopardy. The vocal echo is a recurring motif, adding to the sense of unreality and disorientation. Beauty runs through, among the witty instrumentation and dramatic crescendo

June 2012

Clearly, he is mad

The heartbeat is a theme that runs through the piece, forcing us to stay inside the madman’s view of the world, sharing his crisis of the meaninglessness of everything.

February 2012

Decisively passive

As a contemporary work, it expresses a dilemma of our time. Do I take sides, or do I invite everyone in to have their say? Do I tell the story my way, or present the audience with fragments and let them make up their own narrative?


‘How can this come to pass?’

If you wanted to take Rosenkavalier at face value as a tale of young love you could, just about, with eyes half shut. But with eyes wide open the tragedy of the Marschallin, engineering the very abandonment she foretold, adds depth to the story.

July 2011

The old shock of the new

The layers of Craig Lucas’ libretto for Two Boys build a nuanced look at a generation that’s grown up spending its social life onscreen as much as face to face, and at how they’re regarded, often with bafflement and fear, by what Mulhy’s called ‘the analogue generation’. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg also hinges on a middle-aged character trying to make sense of a changing world.

June 2011

Nature and nurture, then and now

Though the film, with 21st century eyes, is critical of confusing chimpanzee nature with human nature because of its adverse effects on Nim’s happiness, it does not entirely reject the basis of the failed experiment. As well as criticising human willingness to treat animals as experimental subjects, Project Nim draws implicit parallels between Nim’s behaviour and that of the humans studying him.

May 2011

Ah, the innocent cynicism of youth

How should we view Oberon’s casual intimacy with Puck, sharing cigarettes with him (the ‘magic herb’ which turns lovers’ heads) and involving him in his own very adult relationship with Tytania? Is it just favouritism which carelessly harnesses the powerful emotions of adolescence, or an abusive betrayal of childish trust?


With the Devil as our impresario

But it’s a night at the opera, not a dialectical analysis of Romantic-into-modern Germany. And as a dramatisation of a distinctly undramatic musical work, it works. Letting the words float on the surface of a powerful drama, instead of having to carry the narrative, takes the pressure off the libretto’s weak points, and lets its more poetic passages fly free.

March 2011

Men and women both from Earth after all

By the time Fine has finished her furious denunciation of the worst examples of discrimination, unconscious and deliberate, still in action, it does seem ludicrous to look for causes of inequality in girls’ larger corpus callosum, or in boys’ testosterone-bathed parietal lobes.

February 2011

The possibility of renewal

The ritual of the Grail, unveiling the divine to spiritually restore the knights, has the emotional impact it needs. This is what sustains Amfortas’ father Titurel so far beyond his natural lifespan that he’s a living corpse. As a musical statement of belief in the redemptibility of humankind, it cuts through the despair of Act 1 like a laser.

November 2010

‘Look, he’s smoking’

There are themes that outlive the specifics of 1920s Moscow, questions about what defines us as human, for example. But in the frenetic vision of an apartment being gradually reduced to chaos by a foulmouthed ex-canine, there is little space to contemplate them.


‘Beat me, beat me!’

Don Giovanni is amoral, willing to sacrifice his own loyal manservant to escape punishment. Yet, faced with damnation for his wickedness, he refuses to repent. ‘My fate is in my own hands, I’ve made my choice… repentance is for cowards’. Suddenly there is a whiff of Faust about him.

September 2010

How grim, to have to live so long

There’s a comic streak through this production of The Makropoulos Case too, but it’s a dark comedy. And, in a sense, it’s the 20th century mirror image of the Gounod piece. Faust wanted only youth and love. Marty has more than enough of both.

July 2010

The vow is inhuman

Mitchell eschews spectacular, supernatural visuals, apart from some lightning in the darkening sky over the sea. The orchestra has a free rein to bring the storms, both emotional and meteorological, to life. But in some ways this makes it harder to accept that the supernatural element is a metaphor, or a dramatic device, to open up the emotional realities. Is Idomeneo deluded, suffering PTSD from the long war?

June 2010

As subtle as a Hollywood blockbuster

Or are we supposed to learn that local customs are right in a local context, when the laws of the gods have been transgressed? Or that it’s always the little people who suffer, and somebody should feel bad about that? The ending is deliberately unsettling, but I was left unsure what, exactly, I was being asked to be unsettled about.

May 2010

From seductive charm to violent rage

The sparseness of the libretto, too, gives the music a sense of purpose and clarity. There’s no singing for the sake of singing, here. Like a well-written play, every line tells, works for that character at that moment. Old Frau Mack has folkish strings to accompany her, but virtuoso melodic lines for her mystical flights of vision and, later, emotion.

March 2010

Janacek’s women

If nature in Katya Kabanova is sweet freedom, always out of reach,  in The Cunning Little Vixen it is everywhere in all its amoral power. The eponymous little Vixen, caught by the sleepy Forester and taken home as a plaything for his children, never yields to domestication. Even when tied up for biting a tormenting child, her spirit is swinging on a trapeze beneath the moon.

February 2010

The comedy (and tragedy) of class

Alexei starts with unrequited love and a social situation that leaves him few options. Babulenka starts with gambling for (whisper it) sheer fun and then loses her fortune almost wilfully to spite her callous relatives. Are these stories not more interesting and more believable than broad-brush comparisons with zoo animals?


Hamlet rewritten for Mills and Boon

Theses have been written about how subversive she is as a character, how her refusal to adopt a conventional role as either seductress or respectable wife is a kind of revolt against social expectations. But if you had a friend who behaved as Lisa does, you would start with a serious talking-to and work your way towards having her sectioned.

January 2010

Unsettling, ambiguous, right

Between Mozartian recitative – complete with harpsichord – and lyrical duets and trios, passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir score (or an atonal chamber concert) place the opera firmly in the 20th century. The folktale storyline is echoed by folksong-like tunes and lyrics, and at times the singers address the audience directly, somewhere between Brecht and music hall.

September 2009

Live merrily in cheerfulness

The performances are astonishingly physical, the singers making real contact with each other and performing both comedy and sensuality with confidence. Susanna Andersson, who sings both Venus and Gepopo, chief of the secret police, is outstanding in combining acrobatic movement, masterful comic timing and two coloratura soprano roles.

August 2009

Not a tidy tragedy

Getting on for a century old, this piece feels very modern. Partly because the music is neither dusty nor ostentatiously avant-garde, so it hasn’t dated. Partly, too, because it is a classically naturalistic work, in which the details of character and setting show a specific world which is not timeless, but of its time.

July 2009

In love with love

This is less the story of a relationship than an exploration of why two people choose it instead of a real relationship. When Rudel’s actual poems are sung in the medieval French, the music takes a turn that evokes the music of that period, full of harsh, primitive harmonies, archaic scales and a note of loss and sadness. These songs are what bind Jaufré and his Countess together.

June 2009

Transient convenience

Flocks of paper birds on long sticks rise and wheel over the garden, and the menacing entrance of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is accompanied by twirling black ribbons wielded by the black-veiled puppeteer chorus. At times, their ninja-like presence is distracting. Using Bunraku-style puppets can feel pointless. What does it add that a real child could not do?


Chilling discords

Paul Steinberg’s sets manage to capture the fishing-town feel, at once bleak and claustrophobic. But the visual style of the production is almost expressionist, with its high, slanting blocks of architecture and stylised movement.

March 2009

Night waiting for dawn

The music continues to be glorious. The staging is evocative, the visuals epic. But there is no suspense. We know the end of this story, after all. We know it will detonate, there will not be a chain reaction that ignites the atmosphere, Oppenheimer will live to doubt his decisions.

July 2008

Finish in time for fireworks!

Are we not the very ones who will be ‘falling asleep after dinner’, as Zerbinetta predicts? If art is being prostituted to please a philistine appetite, don’t they mean us, with our pre-theatre dinners and post-theatre drinks?

June 2008

Frustrated expectations (Orange Prize for Fiction 2008 shortlist)

Language, a recurring theme as the generations of the family move from country to country, is both a symbol of identity and an expression of the pragmatism of children, who learn to get along wherever they are.

May 2008

Up to the gods

If there are parallels to be drawn with modern China, they are not morally simple. It’s interesting that the Young Vic has gone for a version of the play in which Shui Ta’s success rests on his heroin empire, in case tobacco doesn’t place him clearly enough beyond today’s moral pale. The child who was rummaging through bins for food is now employed – but the tobacco factory has given him a cough. Which is worse? Which is better?

March 2008

From Anarchy to Grace

Someplace around page 822, the rhythm of the close-printed pages having taken over like the rocking of a train along the new-laid tracks going ever westward, as if the weighty tome itself was quite literally pulling her into the future hour by hour, week by week, the reviewer felt the thick texture of the writing start to smother her, like layers of felt, impregnated with exotic perfume by the yabanci kelimeler and ausländischer Ausdrucker slipped self-consciously between the voluptuous swathes of storyline, and wondered whether all this logodaedaly was anything more than an elaborate joke.

December 2007

The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Very good indeed. Until page 264. My frank advice to you is – read this book until the top of page 264, then stop. Go away and imagine for yourself what the answer is to Alban’s riddle, the dark secret the family hides. You won’t be wrong: it’s been flagged up pretty well.

August 2007

Gods Behaving Badly

The style is pure read-me-standing-up-on-the-tube, don’t-want-to-put-me-down fun. The content is altogether more metaphysical. Phillips asks herself, what if all religions are not equally valid, and wonders what would happen if the one that was literally true turned out to be ancient Greek.

June 2007

The Girls

Forced always to be in the same place, sharing a blood supply, Rose and Ruby are an extreme version of any close relationship; siblings, best friends, or a married couple. Even that alone might make a thin novel, but it’s only one strand of the story.

April 2007

Digging to America - Orange Prize 2007 SHORTLISTED

Like most of Anne Tyler’s books, this one is well-observed, the characters are inconsistent in the way that real people are, which makes them believable, and the details that tell the story are small, convincing ones.

December 2002


‘Man is an abyss’ - Keith Warner seems to have taken this as the defining phrase for his production of Berg’s dark opera about the hapless Wozzeck, victim turned murderer.


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