Monday, October 05, 2015

'An age when we treat art as autobiography' and blog our diaries...

To live is the greatest thing in the world ~ most people merely exist.
Oscar Wilde is probably the most quoted playwright after Shakespeare, though not many know his passionate plea for reform in an England he saw as repressive of individualism and morally hypocritical: The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
Many of his best known maxims and bonne mots are found in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. bringing both an opportunity & a problem to any stage adaptation: how to string these pearls of familiar wit together without sounding more like a parlour game than a dramatic relationship.  European Arts Company brought their highly-praised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray to Merlin Theatre, with some cast changes, in the final month of their long tour.  It's a terrible story: a young man possessed of everything superficially valued ~ youth, beauty, & wealth ~ looks at a painting of himself and impulsively wishes he could be always perceived that way, thus accidentally initiating a Faustian pact he can never reverse. Under the influence of a jaded aristocrat he falls into increasing decadence, but the ravages caused by his corruption and crimes are all held secretly by the painting in the attic until the dramatic climax.  (A slightly bizarre set came into its own for that haunting moment.)
Lord Henry of course has the best lines, expressing Wilde's own view that We are in the native land of the hypocrite as well as cynical maxims: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."  There's humour too in the staging, with four actors taking on eighteen roles ~ Ben Higgins particularly entertaining as a dowager duchess and sleazy theatre manager. Guy Warren-Thomas is the motherless youth doomed by a moment of vanity, Helen Keeley plays Sybil, first step on his downfall. Adaptation by Merlin Holland and John O'Connor, directed by Peter Craze.
Back at Merlin Theatreand still in the 19th Century, on Saturday for very different saga from Angel Exit TheatreThe Ballad of Martha Brown, the story of the last woman hanged in Dorset, is quite simply the most enthralling show I've seen for a while. Immensely slick physical theatre, great live music, superb lighting, amazing set, props & costumes, imaginative direction, tight script without a syllable of unnecessary exposition, and five actors who swung the mood from furiously funny to shocking savagery in seconds. That's quite a list, and to that you can add great foyer dressing creating a macabre fairground atmosphere from the start. The public hanging of Martha Brown made headlines in 1867 and attracted a huge audience, including 16 year old Thomas Hardy who later wrote I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back. Like all good plays, when the entertainment is over it leaves you reflecting on the extraordinary human capacities for cruelty, and love.

The new exhibition at Black Swan, in the gallery and Round Tower, is Step in Stone, part of a six month project with the old & disused quarries surrounding Frome.  As succinctly put by Mayor Kate Bielby opening the show on Friday: "Quarries are part of our heritage and this project brings together the industrial history, natural landscape, and immense creative talent of this town." Immense in scope too: massive credit to Fiona Campbell and all the artists and musicians ~ it's a fantastic project involving art inspired by every aspect of quarry history from rock strata to wild life.  And on Sunday the resultant show inspired writing too: after the Independent Market (as usual a feast of artisan goodies with some great busking) the much-respected poet Stephen Boyce joined Words at the Black Swan group to lead an excellent session ~ results will be on our group webpage soon.
With events layering up like the fillings in Flora's signature bakes, I missed Leander Morales' concert on Saturday but did get to hear some great music this week, including the new Music Club on Tuesday in the Grain Bar (what do you mean, Frome doesn't need another music night? of course we do) ~ then back after the theatre on Wednesday for marvellous Feral Beryl at the Grain Roots Session. I arrived in time to hear their memorable a cappella version of your children are not your children, and Gemma White's stonking fiddle in Take Me To My Wake Before I Die. 
Then on Thursday ~ this is beginning to sound like an old Craig David song ~ Sara Vian launched her EP at the Three Swans, and the week ended at Cooper Hall (a fine concert hall & striking sculpture garden) with fantastic Frome band Dexter's Extra Breakfast supporting O'Hooley & Tidow, a terrific duo and 'one of British folk's mightiest combinations' according to Mojo, Radio 2, and even Billy Bragg.  They deserve their 5 star reviews and every accolade for their 'sublime musicality and cheeky northern banter' and for dedicating their song Like Horses to Tony Benn with the quote "If we can spend money to go to war then we can spend money to help people." Which neatly bring me back to Oscar Wilde's plea for socialism as a way to free every individual to personal fulfillment, so I'll end with SaraVian's echo of his belief we can all look to the stars: "Everyone has a gift within, we have to find it and go for it."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

russet moon, golden sun

A Prism for the Sun was the theme for Frome's autumn Poetry Cafe as Rose Flint's new collection has that title,  happily appropriate too in this week's Indian summer. Rose's poems celebrate the natural world, its remorseless power as well as consoling beauty, 'piercingly alive': osprey, swifts, hounds, hares, sparrow hawk shadow and scythe / setting each moment of wild light flying in glory.  Our other superb guest was Mark de'Lisser from Bath, sharing personal spiritual insights ~ two very different poetic voices which worked extraordinarily well together. It was an extraordinary night throughout, full in every way, with fifteen open-mic poets and some amazing readings and performances, endless variety and a fantastic atmosphere. This was a prism indeed, with lucent love poems like Rosie Jackson's First Breakfast and Helen Frame's reflections on our shimmering unknowable future, tender thoughts of family, glimpses of local life, reflections inspired by art, and great evocation of Morpeth by Kevin Ross. As well as readings we had performances of spicy comedy from Muriel Lavender, a strong debut from Liam Parker, and witty bitterness from Hannah Teasdale... so much to entertain, charm, and delight, with too many special moments to list all. Many thanks to everyone who crammed into the Garden Cafe to read, perform, or listen.

Samuel Beckett was notoriously specific about directions for  performance of his plays and his estate has maintained that scrupulous monitoring, which is probably why Waiting For Godot nearly always works superbly ~ as it did in the LCT production at Frome's Merlin Theatre last week.
There are various esoteric interpretations of this play and one obvious one: existentialist despair at the incomprehensibility of life, expressed with a deep and dreary rage that would blend neatly into Dismaland.  Godot isn't God, if you were wondering, Beckett took the name from the French slang for boot and said he wished he hadn't when he realised all theorising thus caused. He isn't Pozzo either, and the two men are not identified as tramps although usually played that way, sometimes in Laurel-and-Hardyish comic style. Director Michael Cabot never ignores the pathos to play just for laughs, which paradoxically makes it funnier as well as more moving: Richard Heap as Estragon and Peter Cadden as Vladimir are both excellent, bickering and hugging with neither rancour nor comfort enduring for more than a moment. Michael Keane is a diminutive but brilliant Lucky, the slave of Pozzo, and his 'thinking' speech ~ a long nonsensical monologue ~ brought spontaneous applause from the audience when he was finally wrestled into silence.
Beckett identified the set laconically (A country road, a tree) and said the action needs 'a very closed box', even suggesting 'a faint shadow of bars on stage floor'. Designer Bek Palmer has added instead a continual series of bubbles rising through dense liquid ~ I quote this from the programme notes as I took it for a mangrove swamp with driftwood lilypads, imposing constraints on movement which for me didn't work. (Bek however also designed their unforgettably amazing set for Betrayal two years ago, which shows something about creative risk-taking not pleasing all the people all the time...) Anyway that didn't significantly detract from a fine production with a strong cast and a some memorable highlights. And in the week the media sizzled with piggery-pokery it was especially entertaining to hear Pozzo rant  Up pig… as though I were short of slaves!   There's more political analogy too: I’ve given them bones, I’ve explained the twilight to them – but is it enough?

A dubious segueway to end this post via the pig mask (which nobody accepted) offered  by Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots at the Grain Bar Roots Session ~ a stupendous double set by a brilliant band. The harlots rendition of Fat Bottom Girls was simply superb ~ it's not on Youtube, but this one is. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lives of un-quiet desperation

If you enjoy a bit of meta-theatrical in your drama  ~ and I do ~ you should definitely go along to the Tobacco Factory before the month is over to see Living Quarters, co-produced by the company with SATTF and directed by Andrew Hilton.  Writer Brian Friel believed script was sacrosanct and 'a good director hones into the core of the play and becomes self effacing in the process’: this story is controlled by such a director (Chris Bianchi) who allows no deviation from his ledger as the Butler family recall the tragic ending to a night of triumph. Attempts by the anxious cast to interrupt, and appeals to be shown in a better light, are disallowed, as is one character's attempt at a walk-on part (Eoin Slattery, all too quickly walk-off).
Written over 40 years ago, the central story is timeless: an older man with a much younger wife left alone and bored.  There’s the shadow of the domineering dead first wife too, and more than a whiff of Chekhovian ennui evident in the Donegal homestead, as well as quite a bit of Dostoevskian unique unhappiness. The structure works against overall naturalism so it's up to individual cameos to engross us, and there are several outstandingly moving moments. With a performance in the round, courtesy (and probably pricing obligations) necessitate quite a bit of rotation in posture and placing which can work against the development of emotional intensity and the lighting didn’t help. But the cast is immense ~ especially the soldier (Simon Armstrong) and his two younger daughters (Hayley Doherty and Martha Seignior), in a family tale which for all its moments of empathy fails to fully connect. Images: Camilla Adams

And now for something completely different: the incredible immersive theatrical experience of Dismaland, which I finally achieved on Monday after a mere 3 hours in the queue ~ which is where the dystopian experience properly begins. Airport-style barriers with unnecessarily-repeated loops to ensure extended sight of the lucky online-ticket buyers streaming past & dividing the haves from the have-nots inevitably evoke thoughts of other queues across Europe... and when you arrive with relief there's so much around to entertain, amuse, and distract that you almost forget about the run-down environment, puddles of rain, and angry graffiti ~ in fact these become part of the entertainment.
You can queue again to see gratuitous violence, you can sit in squalor and watch a film of a teddy-bear undergoing heart surgery (a perfect mix of macabre and sentimental) or a traditional wife-abusing Punch&Judy show, you can pay to fail at fairground games, you can sit in a bar (the only places where staff are jolly) or look round the Gallery at disturbing imagery, and you can take a selfie in the place provided, where nothing is happening but you still smile. And there's more, much much more, but you get the gist. Over all of this presides the image of our prime minister with a glass of champagne. Banksy is a genius.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Homecoming... rain, music, art, theatre and Carnival!

If you want your theatre visceral, challenging, and provocative, one way is to create a promenade performance of a Beauty and the Beast fairytale with undertones of racial hatred and overtones of sexual abuse and stage it in the tunnels under a railway station. Alternatively you could envisage a more contemporary existentialist fable about an actor pretending to be a hypnotist juggling illusion and reality and questioning the nature and role of theatre itself. Annabelle Macfadyen came with me to Bristol on Thursday, and we saw both...
The Stick House from Raucous is the gothic fantasy and the vaults below Bristol Templemeads make a fantastic venue for this story fusing film, music, and digital technology with live performance from a trio of actors: the girl, the woodcutter, and a hobbledehoy played brilliantly by Christopher Elson as a combo of Mad Tom and Gollum. The script seems slightly overweighted with narrative but lighting effects are brilliant, especially the burning stick house and the falling barriers at the ending 15 minutes after which we were panting into Bristol Old Vic studio theatre for our second show that night: An Oak Tree, Tim Crouch's multi-award-winning two-hander in which he plays the hypnotist who accidentally killed a girl, and a.n.other actor ~ different every night ~ plays the grief-sodden father who comes to challenge him.  Finn Gill, who took this part on our night, like all the others over the ten years since the premiere, had not seen the script before the show and simply followed directions, some audible and some not. 
Experiencing these two extraordinary productions contiguously made comparisons as well as contrasts inevitable. Both work through emotional intensity rather than story-line, and both rely strongly on audience involvement. In The Stick House this was overt as we followed the action with name-cards round our necks, carrying wicca dolls, and with marks on our wrists to identify our vulnerability in this alien place where no-one, friend or beast, could be trusted. In Tim Crouch's piece the unease seems contained onstage by the hypnotist in emotional meltdown and his unrehearsed co-actor and there are no visual effects at all: his story contradicts the evidence of our eyes and minds but the illusion is as compelling and the provocative impact equally strong. An amazing night.
There are other compensations, as well as radical theatre, for arriving home in a rain-wave: as well as friends, family, and creative planning meetings (next production from Nevertheless is stirring into a nice little toxic cocktail) there's always arty events and music. A fabulous Grain Bar Roots Session on my first evening back featured Bonne Nouvelle playing molten & moody covers with a 'gritty underbelly', vocals from Coralie Hyde and John Ruddock on guitar. And while the local artists exhibition is still up in Black Swan Gallery, the Round Tower proved a great space for the 6 x 9 exhibition from Bridport which opened on Friday curated by Kit Glaisyer and Frome's indefatigable Paul Newman ~ how does he find time for his immaculate prize-winning drawings? 
We've had a fair in the Market Yard all week in anticipation of Saturday's big event: Frome Carnival procession takes over an hour to make its glittering way down to the centre of town with bands, majorettes, fantasy royalty, comedy acts, themed costumes, and dazzlingly decorated floats playing music loud enough to drown their generators. Frome Rotary Club, who steward & shake the collecting buckets, were on hand with long props to deal with overhanging branches, though the Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (my favourites) had a long wait when bunting threatened to sabotage their flight to Paris. 
To end on a less noisy note: Bath's annual Jane Austen Festival has been 'celebrating all things Austen' for ten days, and I went along on Sunday as Rosie was reading a chapter of Emma in the Library. Ladies in sprigged gowns & bonnets could be seen making their way between talks on 18th century issues like breakfast, phaetons, and 'Discomfort' (that one sounds intriguing), and workshops on Regency dance, archery, and harp, or an indepth look at the reticule. Outside Waitrose Cafe two homeless men sat on carpet strips and the man next to me started talking about Corbyn's housing pledges and hoping he 'gets in' next time. It took five days, but I feel I'm really home now.

Monday, September 14, 2015

It's all over now, California blue...a whistle-stop tour of my last week

People around here are very friendly. I'd arrived back in El Granada after a long walk along the beach on a glorious hot day, sky unflecked blazing cerulean for about a million miles, and outside the General Stores an old guy started talking to me about the pumpkin-flavour ice-cream I was licking ("Should be more orange" - "It's lovely, it's subtle," - "That's us, stateside - subtle. Subtle and dense,") and he told me how this place had began as a railroad station with no houses here at all.When I got back I asked Mo, and from him and from the plaque at the end of Portola Avenue, I learned the early history of El Granada. The whistle of the first Ocean Shore Railroad passenger train from San Francisco echoed off nearly hills on 21 June 1908. On board were five hundred SanFranciscans, good-time-loving people... and to cut the story short, they were all lured there to consider buying lots in this amazing new development. But sadly, when the last whistle blew just twelve years later, only a few homes had been bought on Daniel Burnham’s magnificent boulevards. Ocean Shore Railroad was plagued by landslides along the ocean bluffs and succumbed to the encroaching roads, but left its rugged mark along the San Mateo county coast. 
So there's a bit of history to go with all the geography.
For my last three days here the solid blue sky disappeared and the coastline disappeared, though the beach happily was still fabulous for walking -  in fact I made my longest one-way journey ~ from Poplar to Pillar Point, about 7 miles ~  in dense sea mist. I've seen seals, dolphins, and whales, and masses of seabirds: little sanderlings, elegant marbled godwits (they look like curlews but with straight beaks and forage along the foam of the wildest seas), slow pelicans and speedy seagulls... also, sadly, scores of mysteriously dead murres on the sand (these are alive gulls in the picture, at their gathering-place on Roosevelt beach.)
I started a list of best-bits, including the Nancy Cassidy concert at Cyprus Meadow on Friday where Mo provided brilliant support... woodland walks like the ancient forest along Purisima Creek...  the fantastic Bar Bocce on Sausalito harbour-front... taking thousands of photographs of flora, fauna, and just about anything... and simply sitting in the yard on sunny evenings with Anja and Mo, sipping prosecco and watching the sun go down.

Of course Frome being the hotbed of creativity it is, I've inevitably missed much ~ music from great names including We Used To Make Things, Fat Stanley, Three Corners, and local favourites like Back For Breakfast, Steve Loudon (looking forward to tasters of all these in photographer David Goodman's archives here soon) ~ and there were no party-poppers to celebrate Jeremy Corbyn's brilliant landslide victory. But I did manage to participate in the Dismaland experience, by rousing at 4am to go online for tickets when the box office opened and finding after lots of clickings they'd already sold out, thus satisfyingly replicating the dismal experience of typical modern life that Banksy, bless his perverse dark mind, is keen to share with us.
So as I wait at San Francisco airport for a flight as yet only slightly delayed, I'll end with thoughts of England: one of the many marvellous pictures of hope, and the cover of a US magazine where news of our queen's abdication is sadly much exaggerated. Though as a republican I can't share the enthusiasm for new queen 'Duchess Kate'.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Dolphins, pelicans, blue sky and a bit more geography

One thing you notice as you lose your way around the undulations of El Granada is that most of the avenues are so broad they look like two one-way streets with a forest up the middle instead of a white line - not quite a forest, but a strip of ground up to 70 feet wide filled with towering pine and eucalyptus trees. These routes have the names of Spanish palaces and royalty and are mostly trafficless and silent apart from birdsong and the rustle of fallen leaves, especially on Labor Day Weekend (equivalent of UK Bank Holiday but a week later) when all of San Francisco, it seems, descends on the coast at Half Moon Bay.
I imagine the city bereft as Highway One becomes a molten stream of glinting metal, occasional surf-boards topping the cars and rap emanating from open windows. It's been hot this weekend - 80°, as they say here - and the usually-empty sand became crammed with extended families and their excited dogs, at least on the stretches near to vehicle access points. In between you can still walk long stretches with only the foam-foraging curlews for company, and a clamber up to Pillar Point radar station followed by a steep scramble down the cliff takes you to a soft-sanded beach always near-deserted except for pelicans.
I've been doing a lot of bird-observation on my long coastal walks: gulls and terns by the shoreline, finches along the paths, raptors circling overhead. Mo and I walk up on the bluff to see whales beyond the reef, and midweek drove down to Bean Hollow where we watched dolphins and seals playing round the rocks.
We've done jaunts, too. A local 'Book Faire' where I found a collection of General Ignorance full of fascinating data (it's a myth, apparently, that Eskimos use fifty words for snow, they actually have only four) and today we all went to the amazing Kings Mountain Art Fair in the middle of a forest - a real one this time - with over 200 mini marquees filled with art & crafts and a brilliant camp kitchen where early visitors get a 'mountain breakfast' of eggs with jalapeƱos, pancakes with maple syrup, and coffee with refills.

And on Saturday we  took in a show:
The Half Moon Bay Shakespeare Company performing The Tempest as outdoor theatre in the local park, a lovely place to picnic at sunset. Here's Stephano the drunken butler when he discovers Trinculo and Caliban hiding together in a comic scene which was the highlight of the play.  O Brave New World seems a good quote to end this post. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Postcard from El Granada

Just south of San Francisco there's a five-mile crescent of champagne-pale soft sand, and at the northernmost tip, behind the headland from Mavericks beach - one of California's top beaches for surfing - a small community developed in the last century as a seaside resort. It has a 'concentric circle street planning' (very easy to get lost in, if you were wondering) with wide avenues of eucalyptus trees, and a coastal path runs alongside the beach, between the sand dunes and the mega-busy Highway One running down the Pacific Coast all the way to Mexico.  Around 5000 people are lucky enough to live here, and I've been lucky enough to visit annually for the last five years.
This year, as usual, my plan was to walk and to write and enjoy the incredible beauty of this peaceful place, but somehow all I've done for a week is walk and take pictures.

 For around five or six hours every day,  I've walked along beaches and coastal paths and across Pillar Point bluff: I've pictured seals & pelicans, flowers & butterflies, rabbits and even a racoon as well as long views of rolling waves and closeup patterns on sand and bark... peaceful solitary days, supplemented with some pleasant interaction: a yard party and folk concert on Saturday ~ here's my generous friends' lovely home, and my host Mo Robinson headlining with harmonies from Peter Bland,
and a few of the images that stay with me, along with songs like Sunny AfternoonHotel California, and a phrase from a poem by Pablo Medina: what the ocean says, and says again and then forgets.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

As blackberries ripen and August ends...

It's that heavy end of summer now, fields stripped down to cornrow ridges and the verges decorated with silver thistledown & bright red hips. Autumnal, in short, but a pleasant aftertaste of  the summer festival this week: readings from the Writers in Residence event revealed the impressive inventiveness mustered on sight by the phrase 'It was a chance meeting that changed everything". Impromptu tales penned in shops and cafes, romantic, historical, poignant, quirky and very funny, were all shared at the Bell in Buckland Dinham on Thursday night in a delightfully laid-back event hosted by Sue Watts for Frome Writers Collective. Here's Nikki Lloyd reading her winning story, about the relationship between two women revealed with beautiful delicacy and an unexpected ending.

And what can I say about the Tri-Art Summer School production of West Side Story at Merlin Theatre except that it was a spectacular triumph, thoroughly deserving the standing-ovation applause of each full-house audience: a vibrant ensemble show that dazzled from the opening chords of  the overture to the moving final moment, with funky dance routines, superb voices, fabulous costumes, great filmic visuals, and a stark set that cleverly utilised mirror effects to increase impact.  The boys' gang set pieces were terrific but even more impressive were the girls: I like to be in America and I feel pretty were absolute highlights, as was the poignant duet between Maria (Tabitha Cox) and Anita (Marie-Claire Wood) after the street killings. Strong support from Ryan Hughes as Riff and Aynsley Minty, Nick White and Steve Scammell as the grownups, but the night belonged to the youngsters. There was a ban on cameras but I do hope someone managed to video the lads' unforgettable Officer Krupke routine with Ben Hardy-Phillips as Action leapfrogging his gang across the stage and 'Baby John' Dillon Berry's incredible trilling social-worker pastiche ~ posted on Youtube it would get about a zillion views.  Creative Team Leader Claudia Berry must be very happy ~ and brochures are out now so you don't miss out on the next big Merlin production, Little Mermaid.  

There's art stirring in wild places too, with the Step in Stone project in the disused rock quarries of East Mendip.  Six different venues throughout the summer till 18th October are featuring site-specific artworks in various media, and on Sunday the Westdown/Asham Quarry featured a call-and-response trumpet duet by Frome composer Helen Ottaway, together with birdsong and shadow sounds from long-gone industrial processes.
The art trail is intriguing but the whole place is enchanting now, reclaimed by trees and buddlia bushes and reedy marsh pools where dragonflies flit, reminding me of the temples of Cambodia reclaimed into jungle by determined Ficus Strangulosa trees.  The trail route is a walkers' right of way now, definitely a place to return and explore, when I'm home again in a few weeks.
I'm off to California now, to walk the coast and write and spend time with good friends. As always, there's much over here I'll miss ~ Merlin's 40th birthday celebrations for one, and all the excellent live music around in pubs & bars ~ here's Chic Mystique at the Artisan this afternoon.
Also happening while I'm away is the Festival of Puppetry in Bristol which looks awesome, various stage shows, and the Great British Bakeoff (only joking) but I did at least get to see the extraordinary and brilliant Grayson Perry self-portrait in Bath's adventurous little Victoria Gallery. It's a map of his life, half-chronicle half-citadel and totally engrossing.