Sunday, June 20, 2021

The fusion edition: science & literature, and life

Copenhagen has had a troubled journey to the main stage of Theatre Royal Bath. Originally scheduled for November 2020,  delayed till January this year and then postponed by further lockdown, Michael Frayn's forensic analysis of the troubled relationship between two wartime physicists has finally arrived on the main stage with a different director - Emma Howlett taking over from Polly Findlay. Current restrictions on spacing and requirement for masks were scrupulously observed throughout - an important aspect for the continuation of live theatre. Perhaps because of this reminder of societal controls, the play, although set firmly in 1941, seemed to evoke relevance to life today in its suspicions, uncertainties, and irrational blaming.  There was no social media then of course, but the whispering anxieties, reappraisals and retellings all seemed to chime with the information chaos we live with now.
It's a known fact that the German physicist Werner Heisenberg met his old mentor, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, again in Copenhagen 1941, but the nature of the argument they had that night has continued into history unsolved. Michael Frayn has spun from this a trio of options, part historical surmise, part psychological guesswork. Nothing is clarified, yet there's an uncomfortable feeling that Bohr's protege may have deliberately blocked the Nazis' attempt to build an atomic bomb while his mentor, while taking the moral high ground, had supported the work that led to its deadly creation. Philip Arditti and Malcolm Sinclair are great as angry physicists yet irresistible friends, with Haydn Gwynne as Bohr's wife, whose role is to shadow her husband's perplexity. We first meet them all deceased and still baffled, and the insoluble introspections of these two scientists mighty minds prowl the massive space between them, emphasised by Alex Eales' bleak set with an enormous white circle above them shifting like a magnifying glass over their protestations.  Photos Nobby Clark

Another dramatic take on science on Wednesday, as FromeDrama at Merlin Theatre explored the interface between Quantum theory, string theory, relativity, and human emotions. Constellations, by Nick Payne, presents a volley of short interactions between a man (Ben Hardy-Philips) and a woman (Stephanie Mitchell) who don't know/know & love each other, have/haven't been unfaithful, and are dealing with terminal illness/recovery. Here's when Roland admits his love for Marianne, though in another reality this wouldn't have happened. Slickly directed by Andy Cork, with stunning sound (Laurence Parnell) and lighting (Matt Tipper), this production effectively dramatised intriguing questions about life choices, free will, and options for change.  This play, even more than Copenhagen, shows what a long way theatre drama has come since the contentious division between science and literature that shadowed the 1950s, summed up by C P Snow in The Two Cultures. It's a long time since stage drama was considered cosy, even though it was 1965 before Ken Tynan said the first-ever 'fuck' on TV.

It's been a week of fabulous long hot days - until the weekend, sadly - and the gorgeous sunshine allowed me several long walks locally: one to Orchardleigh on a quest for waterlilies on the lake, finding instead woodlands full of birdsong, wild life including baby squirrels, and fields full of sheep and wild flowers including my first orchid this year. 
Both of my writers' group meetings have thrived too: the Fromesbury Group celebrated our late-afternoon meeting in the park with Portuguese custard tarts and a selfie (thanks Debs)

Still on a writerly theme, Frome's famous independent book emporium Hunting Raven is up for another award, nominated as Best Bookshop in the Southwest (Dorset & Somerset to be precise) by Muddy Stilettos - you can click to add your vote. Tina Gaysford-Waller, the Raven's inspiring manager, was also featured in the Big Issue 'Spirit of Independence' issue this week, celebrating the national Independent Bookshop Week, although this had passed rather unnoticed here since every week is independent bookshop week...

It's also been a week of disappointment - expected but still sad, as the Cornerhouse had to cancel several sensational bands in Frome Festival next month. Fortunately most of the programme remains intact: Merlin Theatre will mainly use ECOS amphitheatre, which will have a cover over the stage. This extraordinary construction was, ironically, created to celebrate the UK joining the European Union: you can read its story on the Merlin website - or indeed in my book Frome Unzipped.  The Poetry Cafe will be held there on July 6th, with Liv Torc our fabulous guest - you can hear me extolling her on Frome FM here, starting at 16.14 minutes in.

A blast of music to end the week, as Ruzz Guitar's Blues Revue, twice-postponed, finally landed in the Cheese & Grain on Saturday night, playing blues classics with sensational style. Guest Pete Gage on keyboard & vocals took the first hour with Ritchie Blake on bass, joined by Ruzz for some numbers - video taster here. Social distancing ruled out dancing but there was a great atmosphere throughout the evening and I managed to grab a couple of photos - here's Pete & Ruzz playing their version of Ain't Nobody's Business (the video is a lockdown version, the live vibe was terrific.)
And although advance booking doesn't really suit convivial Cornerhouse, it has enabled Graham Dent to bring back jazz on Sunday evening - with Adrian Smith on double bass and bass guitar. Graham (keyboard) and Adrian have recorded a lockdown double album titled Inspiring Detour, and their live performance showcased some of their album tracks - Dat Dere by Bobby Timmons is one. Here's the duo sharing space with the new pub decor.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The no-jacket-required issue, mostly outdoors

As we in the Southwest shuffle with fingers crossed into festival season, at present time there's much to look forward to. Frome Festival has a full programme out, and Bath Fringe Festival - always influenced by the creative energy of the students as well as the city's established traditions of music, theatre & comedy - is spilling with great-sounding events and exhibitions, many of them free.  Rosie and I went along to see a late-night production of a new play by Gabrielle Finnegan (who Frome audiences may remember from our Nevertheless production Time Slides for the 2016 Frome festival) at Widcombe Social Club on Monday evening. Gabrielle joins the two actors as narrator of Cat and her Whittington, retelling the familiar story from a modern perspective & a self-avowed Marxist feminist view. Full of factual data and angry polemic, this unapologetically transgresses the general rule that entertainment shouldn't preach, but all the case-study situations are realistic and the link narration, delivered mainly in panto-style rhyming couplets, is witty as well as vehement. Personally I really enjoyed it - this is a director/performer to look out for. 

Still lingering in Bath, the Holburne Museum is reopening, but - like several theatres in the southwest, with a sympathetic eye on those still not comfortable with - or able to - travel, so there's an online exhibition of the works of Thomas Lawrence, introduced by curator Amina Wright and free on Youtube. Lawrence's reputation hasn't survived so strongly as his rival Gainsborough, whose famous Blue Boy (painted in response to his Red Boy) hangs in Dulwich Picture Gallery, a regular Sunday-afternoon-walk from my parents house when I was a child. Late 18th Century art was more admired at that time, and a reproduction of Lawrence's painting of Miss Murray hung over my bed as my father had, in a rare moment of sentiment triumphing over gloom, for some reason decided she looked a bit like me.   

And the fabulous sunshine has led to a scatter of outdoor gatherings, as well as some wonderful walks and incredible floral displays along hedgerows, fields, streets and gardens. Saturday's market was full of the usual displays of plants, craft, garments, jewellery, cakes and coffee stalls, with the Tribe busking on the bridge. Here's three popular Fromites - a writer and two musicians - spotted by an appropriate stall, and Somerset's favourite poet Liv Torc.

Live music has already returned to the streets of Frome with Frome's Tribe taking position on the bridge on market days, and on Sunday afternoon the boys took the open-air stage at Marston Park. Rosie and I walked there down the lanes and across the fields, and enjoyed a great set of rock classics from the band in this beautiful lakeside location in stunning sunshine.

If all this seems too paradisiacal, there's still danger imminent: our tranquil southern fields are under increasing threat of obliteration by a massive housing development which would destroy a rural area twice the size of Bruton. There's nothing NIMBY about the protest at this prospect: the estate will have no facilities, medical educational or social, and will simply provide easy access to the bypass for commuters - these houses won't supply local need, and many may remain vacant while developers wait for the real value - the land - to increase. StopSGC is the link to support the protest.
Ending this week with a quick shout-out to Frome Times, a local paper that reports the issues that actually matter. This week's front page features two environmental issues plus an award for the town's 'Active & In Touch' volunteer group: it's great to have a 'local paper' that follows and features the positive aspects of town life and the real issues. Frome Times is constantly an intelligent medium for actual news - you can read a digital version here. 

Monday, June 07, 2021

What fools these mortals be! existentialist angst and funky romps

TS Eliot regarded The Four Quartets, written over two years in four different locations, as his masterpiece: they secured his Nobel Prize, yet over half a century later their meaning seems as abstract and complex as ever. They don't have the vivid, witty, characterisation of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, or the epic storytelling of The Waste Land, and while his stage work like Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party (not to mention Cats!) is readily accessible, these four long reveries. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding are obscure, disturbing, questings about existence and time in a world where Humankind cannot bear very much reality. 
Ralph Fiennes, who delivered and directed this performance at Theatre Royal Bath, found nuances of mood in his mesmeric presentation, and the subfusc lighting by Tim Lutkin and monolithic imagery on set (design by Hildegard Bechtler) support this sense of elemental isolation. The recitation lasts over an hour but Ralph Fiennes has such a strong affinity with the poet's words he might have been simply speaking aloud his own musings.  It's an extraordinary performance, forensically demanding yet ultimately emotionally unyielding.  Ralf Fiennes image by Matt Humphrey, set as seen by my phone.

At the other end of the performance spectrum, a splendid romp from start to finish - which was 2 hours later:  Sean Holmes has directed A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Globe as if everyone in the audience either knows the play backwards or simply doesn't care as long as it's funny. In these trying times, perhaps chiming with national bewilderment, it works absolutely brilliantly. 
Everyone in the cast seems to play every part at some time or another - fairies, lords, ladies, and mechanicals all so mixed up that you can only tell who's playing Puck now by the labeled teeshirt.  Bottom's scene with Titania is played like a couple of tipsy landladies at a fancy-dress party, one of the mechanicals is played by an audience member (who is enticed by the cast to interrupt proceedings for a selfie) and the lovers in the woods keep morphing into fairies. 
It's hard in this medley to pick out a man-of-the-match, but if there is, it's definitely Peter Bourke mesmeric as Oberon, the ultimate magician in the crazy mess-up summer dream. He brings overtones of Prospero to the drama, which is quite some feat when everyone's dashing about looking like a party popper. Director Sean Holmes has done something quite amazing here: it trampled over all my preconceptions, and deeply-held interpretations & I loved every minute of it. images my screenshots.

Another highlight of the week was a trip to Salisbury to discuss the front cover of my upcoming collection of short stories with the commissioned artist, Helen Look. This level of involvement in the finished product is a rare treat for an author, and also became a chance to look around this historic city which I've previously explored little further than the Playhouse. Even more impressive than the cathedral, set amid long green lawns with intermittent sculptures and bordered by enormously tall trees, is the nearby church of Thomas a Beckett. After his martyrdom in 1170, Thomas became a cult hero and the city's first church in 1220, predating the cathedral, was dedicated to him. It subsequently fell down, and the 15th Century replacement has splendid stained glass windows which are upstaged by the enormous and detailed painting of Judgement Day, showing the souls found unfit to enter the pearly gates being dispatched by devils to Hell. Several appear to be clergymen, with a bishop clearly evident at the bottom. 
Back in Frome, sunshine and the relaxation of national regulations have allowed live music to return, and open-air gigs are already anticipating next month's festival. The Tribe, an amorphous group fronted by Paul Kirtley with David Goodman, took their rock medley to the beautiful grounds of Rode Mill on Saturday, and played again in Frome's Victoria Park on Sunday, joined by the brilliant Original Barn Finds. Here's the venue at Rode, and the bands in the park - with fingers crossed for more days like these.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Theatrically to Bristol & Peru, realtime in Wales & Frome

This is a good time for theatre enthusiasts. Restrictions now allow companies to find ingenious ways to rehearse, but are still tight enough for online productions to continue - and by now they're fairly sophisticated. So Bristol Old Vic is now offering Touching the Void as performed in "a bespoke sound-stage in its 255yr old auditorium which not only created the atmosphere of being in a theatre, but transported viewers to the mountain itself -from anywhere in the world." Devised by BOV director Tom Morris in 2018, this drama tells the true story of an outrageous attempt to scale one of the most difficult peaks in the Peruvian Andes, as explored from the perspective of a non-mountaineer marvelling that anyone would purposefully risk their life to purposelessly climb a crag. Which is most of us, I imagine.  In this dramatisation by David Greig of the book of the same name by Joe Simpson, the nearly-deceased climber, it’s his sister who takes the inquisitorial role, initiating the dramatic interaction by repeatedly asking why, until Simon Yates, the other climber, compels her to explore their drama via furniture & fittings and a vivid imagination. There's a good short summary here.  The initial, live & highly acclaimed, production came at the end of the Bristol Old Vic's long closure for a £26m renovation project so it's fitting that this revival celebrates the gradual ending of the plague closure. Fingers crossed, anyway. Fiona Hampton takes the prime role of Joe's sister, with Josh Williams as Joe and Angus Yellowlees as Simon, and Patrick McNamee as a random hitchhiker.  Set & costume design by Ti Green. (screen shots by me.)  

Also last week, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory offered an online medley of Shakespearean sonnets and speech extracts in a patchwork of recitations by 'five contemporary characters as we explore our relationship with our city and our culture.'  The Place At The Bridge is written - or rather, compiled - by Chinonyerem Odimba and directed by Helena Middleton, and has the immense bonus of constant accompaniment throughout by the brilliant Gambian kora player Sura Susso - here with Zachary Powell, an impressively strong presence throughout. (my screen shots.) 

Moving now from Peru via Bristol to Wales: to Tywyn, on the southernmost coastal tip of the Snowdonia National Park, an area of forests and lakes and - last week anyway - solid sunshine. Developed into a resort in the 1870s by benefactor John Corbett, it's now famous for its narrow-guage mini Talyllyn Railway which appears inspired by Rev W Awdry but was actually designed to service the slate mining up the hills in Abergynolwyn.  Slate is everywhere - even fences are sometimes made of slate.
Our basecamp was a well-equipped camper-van site between a broad, silvery-sanded beach rimmed by grassy dunes, and viridian fields filled with grazing sheep, extending to the distant undulating verdant hills. A lush scene.  And nearby, the amazing Dolgoch Falls descend across flinty rocks in a fern-filled forest, and a mere 4.7-mile-walk in blustery winds along the sand, there's the picturesque sea front of Aberdovey - 'front' being the operative term, as there's not much build beyond the line of gaudy buildings that look like Villajoyosa without the palm trees, but the cappuccino ice-cream is lush.
 We were back in Frome in time for the Saturday market in glorious sunshine, complete with Paul's Tribe busking on the bridge and for a sumptuous garden party hostessed by Frome FM broadcaster, podcaster, & all-round delightful person Eleanor Talbot. 
Silk Mill opened its doors at the weekend for an exhibition by artists in the Visionary Arts CollectiveThe Future Is Now features a diversity of psychedelic and visionary images in a range of media. Much of it is beautiful, even when menacing, like these extraordinary figures.
And there's welcome news from the Friends of Easthill that Mendip DC have agreed not to use this ancient field for their housing development.  This is a big relief in terms of preserving the green lungs and biodiversity of Frome but, as campaign initiator Bharati Pardhy wrote when reporting the decision, the need for affordable housing is still a community concern. And it remains to be seen how, and if, Frome can retain its independent integrity after the local government reorganisation. Fingers remain crossed.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Art and life: reopenings, trips & plans and local heroes.

Last Monday celebrated another cautious step forward into community life when Words at the Black Swan poetry group reconvened in the Round Tower to create responses to In Pursuit of Spring, the current exhibition of artworks created in response to the book of that name written by poet Edward Thomas, which you can read for free here or buy at the gallery. Our group discussed the art on show - this is the ipad response by David Daniels, an image of the River Frome which we all liked - and we reflected also where our own personal journeys might take us, with some very moving poems crafted and shared by all the group. 

Still in the arty centre of Frome, congratulations to Daniel Musselwhite - who works, usually, in his jewellery workshop at the Black Swan -  for reaching the final of BBC's show All That Glitters. The task for the three stunningly talented finalists was to design and make pearl drop earrings and a bridal tikka. Here's judge Shaun Leane modelling Dan's pearl earrings, and Dan in his Frome workplace.

Mega congratulations too, to Andy Wrintmore, here posing for probably the most unconventional official mayoral portrait in history. Andy is Sick Ones' drummer & a tremendously popular figure in Frome, and I'm immensely pleased his talent and energy is represented in my book Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-Punk, where he talks about his music and his commitment to the town. Supporting him as Deputy Mayor, we now have Sara Butler-Bartholomew, another big personality with high energy. (I'll add picture credit when I find out!)

A change of theme now, with online drama from Stepping Out Theatre Company in Bristol: Pumpgirl by Abbie Spallen, set in Northern Ireland and first performed back in 2006, is a harsh story of drab, loveless, lives told in three separated monologues. A good choice for lockdown production for this last reason, it's also particularly pertinent in a year which has put a public spotlight on women's vulnerability. Danann McAleer is excellent as Hammy, car-obsessed and brutally sexist; Neroli Trammell strong as his emotionally unstable wife, with Emma Stadon memorable as the vulnerable pumpgirl who feels gratified by his attentions.  The virtual backgrounds are sometimes distracting but this production is an impressive achievement and a credit to the company. 

Ending now with some images from local walks, as spring merges with early summer with little cessation of howling winds and rain, but bursts of sun have allowed short sorties: a jaunt with friends to The George in Norton Saint Philip, in 1685 during the Monmouth Rebellion used as headquarters for the rebel army, and in the terrible aftermath used by Judge Jeffreys as a courtroom: these idyllic lawns now being rolled as an immaculate cricket pitch saw hangings in the Bloody Assizes.

The short (under an hour) walk to Marston Park seems to have become a regular route for me so here again is the lake beyond the bluebell wood, where you can sit with a drink from the tiny bar and look ahead to Frome Festival, only 6 weeks away, when this will be the venue for many of the bands.  

Brochures are out now, and despite all uncertainties and anxieties, their 36 pages are crammed with events : walks and talks, performances of every sort, displays, workshops, and general celebration. As Festival Director Martin Bax explains in his welcome letter: We thought we might produce a much smaller festival this year. We have failed abysmally.  Don't forget the Poetry Cafe - page 12 - where as well as the quirkily egalitarian open mic, you can hear wonderful Liv Torc - the Best Fest Guest in the West.

Monday, May 17, 2021

When 'normal life' is exciting... with fingers crossed...

Frome last week was abuzz about the return of the Saturday Market, a proper outdoor do with stalls selling everything from carved curios and tantalising jewellery to garden glories and amazing edibles - here's Liam's Cake Stall offering scandalously delicious vegan specialities.  Stoic local buskers Paul Kirtley and David Goodman were on the bridge to enhance the market yard browsing experience, too.

Across the town in Merchants Barton, the ongoing debate on the Saxonvale development moved  forward with a weekend-long presentation to the public of the preferred project, described as "an exemplary development on the banks of the River Frome, meticulously designed taking the historic grain of Frome as its starting point and delivering a characterful, vibrant, residential-led mixed-use community, with flexible commercial uses, high-quality public realm, and homes for all ages." It really does look what Frome needs, and local enthusiasm is high (especially for the lido.)

Also in Merchants Barton, the car parking space has been embellished by a project to raise awareness of Mental Health Awareness Week and to further highlight the need for creative development of the Saxonvale site.  Photographer Tim Gander shot pictures, which have been paired with poems and comments from users and staff at Mind in Somerset. Tim's aim is to highlight "what happens when a former industrial site is left to deteriorate. Fly-tipping, vandalism and natural decay take their toll" and his project has much to commend it, but it is worth remembering that the abandonment wasn't all negative: birds and wild flowers flourished among the trees and the old buildings were a prime site for the ingenuity of young street artists as Frome's graffiti Hall of Fame... here's a sample:

This week's zoom drama is Transition Tales from The Travelling Talesman, promoted by  the Art House Southampton with the tagline 'When gender fluid gods saved creation...' Not only in Greek mythology but in cultures across the world, deities changed gender as well as species, and his transformation tales ranged from the same-form duality of Hermaphroditus to flowers (Hyacinthus, remade in blood and tears), stars (Ursa major & minor) and in the unfortunate case of Actaeon, a stag promptly torn apart by his own hounds. Zeus had a particular penchant for metamorphosis, apparently, seducing his many lovers in multiple forms such as as a parrot, a pig, and a shower of water. Although this talk clocked in at 2 hours 20 minutes, the chronicles never flagged and the zoom audience was enthusiastic and articulate: the chat line was really interesting, posing questions like How does root sex work for fungus? (the answer is mitochondria) and comments on the gender of quabbatic numbers. Performances like this, with an option for audience participation, are as valuable for community health as Open Mic poetry online sessions, and hopefully will all outlive the pandemic and continue to zoom.

My week ended excitingly 
with a train journey to Gloucester, taking advantage of new freedom to meet my publisher and iron out various issues relating to my upcoming short story collection: not only a useful visit but a delightful one, as we had time to walk around the docks - which are beautiful - and the older parts of this odd, somewhat bedraggled, city. 
Relics of medieval buildings, religious and secular, are everywhere, though mostly overwhelmed by modern build, but there seems to be a will to reclaim civic history more effectively. There are quite a few boards explaining the history & context of some features - there's a storytelling bench designed by the master mason at the Cathedral in 1999 - but there's not much street art around the city. This alleyway, however, has been turned into a Van Gogh art gallery, with posters of the artist's final works all along the hoarding,  in a designated 'covid friendly outdoor exhibition.'  There are some interesting curios too, like the team of clock bellringers above the old woodwork & jewellery shop, the new gargoyles on the cathedral, and even the unpretentious centre of the old town where road signs to 
Eastgate, Southgate, Westgate, and Northgate once referred to the old main roads London, Devon, Wales, and the North - as shown in this 1805 map:

This was a week when summer came in starts and stops, rather like everyone's social plans, and a busy one for me: the deadline date for my quarterly round-up of drama in the southwest for Plays International (amazingly, and encouragingly, there was much to report even though not a single production was live), a restarted writing group, new fiction project underway, and sense of renewed freedom.  I'll end with a view of a sunny walk along the river path from Frome to Great Elm.