Monday, May 25, 2020

Nights in and days out...

Once again this week's round-up opens with a gang of blokes in Elizabethan-style dressing-up-clothes, shouting and romping dramatically in the open-air: The Lord Chamberlain's Men have now released for free online viewing their 2019 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, an incredible 425 years after this theatre troupe was first created.  It's really good.  There's huge potential for buffoonery in this play, and the three squabbling story strands - lovers, fairies, and buffoon 'mechanicals' - are separate enough for seven men to create each strand without confusion. They are excellent in all of them,  and bring big energy and laugh-aloud-in-the-livingroom humour to the mishaps in the forest as well as the legendary story of Pyramus and Thisbe.   My screenshots here show the spat in in the forest when the young lords - who've been relishing the cat-fight - leap in to drag Hermia off her rival,  and a moment from the mechanicals' tragic play-within-a-play. The soldier Pyramus, aka Bottom the Weaver, also played lovely Hermia in one of the best multi-tasking switches I've ever seen. Recommended viewing.

Thursday was a busy night, with a 2018 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth followed by Ibsen's A Dolls House adapted by Tanika Gupta, with additional dialogue, into an Anglo-Indian drama for Lyric Hammersmith. Perhaps this evening schedule was a little ambitious, especially after the hottest day of the year so far, and a smattering of fast-forward was involved but, in my defence, many in Shakespeare's day never saw his plays in their entirety, and apparently Chinese theatres used to double as tea-houses where people ordered refreshments and carried on chatting during the shows. A darkened room with serried rows of silent spectators is a comparatively recent development in the history of theatre, and perhaps on-line at-home viewing will find new audiences for live - ie filmed in one live take - performances as the rules of how to watch are inevitably relaxed - there's a great article here about how 'stupid' silent reverence is killing theatre for the future. Anyway, here's the wonderful Christopher Ecclestone hallucinating the friend he murdered while watched by his wife Niamh Cusack in a strong 2018 production directed by RSC which manages to make the witches really scary by presenting them as creepy children.
And here for contrast is Elliot Cowan with Anjana in Ibsen's exploration of gender politics transposed to 1879 Calcutta in a set that looks neither Russian nor Indian, just a place for dour argument and mind-games. Dark, but well-reviewed by critics as an expose of the consequences of English colonialism, racism and sexism
One final theatre recommendation, as you probably have your own choices by now: A Streetcar Named Desire on Friday as presented by the Young Vic for National Theatre, a superb production that also highlights the problem with my hope that home streaming may revive live drama - the difficulty of recording a night of intense interaction. Brilliantly acted with atmospheric set and dynamic direction, but the negative aspect of filmed productions was overwhelming: endlessly altering angles, close-ups and lens-elected choice of observation all worked against the theatrical experience, controlling the interaction that makes theatre live, fragmenting the experience and wasting a clever set by isolating areas of attention.  That’s just my take, many will disagree - you have till May 28 to decide.

In Poetry Corner: Liv Torc -whose amazing Haiflu Project is collecting responses to the coronavirus in haiku from around the world - this week created a Zoom version of her Rainbow Fish Speak-Easy, with some splendid contributions from the floor as well as guests including a set with piano accompaniment from Francesca Beard. And Steve Pottinger, who like Liv has been a popular guest at Frome's Poetry Cafe, had an online launch on his facebook page for his new poetry collection with the delightful title thirty-one small acts of love and resistance -'celebration and defiance in politically turbulent times' he claims, which sounds right for now, though are there ever others?
In other 'word' news: when not walking from my house in every direction on a daily basis while this glorious weather persists, my lockdown focus has been to complete a novel about Belfast at the start of the 1970s 'troubles', a time when I lived there. The characters are imagined, but the events aren't, as there's no shortage of historical accounts of this era of simmering conflict to supplement my memory. Anyway it should be out next month, published by Hobnob Press, with a powerful cover image created by Paul (Mutartis) Boswell. Sneak preview here...

Ending this week's rather late posting - I blame the distraction of tracking Dom Cummings as he darts like a Hermes parcel van around the country humming 'doo da dee, lockdown's not for me' to the tune of the conga song - with a couple of photos from my permitted-exercise explorations along the river Frome.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

In do-what-thou-wilt-be-the-whole-of-the-law week...

Starting the week with another Shakespeare play, Macbeth, in contrast to last week's epic at the Globe, was a streamlined version of how to change the fate of dynasties: monarchs speedily despatched, soliloquies with no lingering,  ghosts keeping up a good pace and witches not lurking about waiting for a forest scene, just leaping in. Characterisation was novel too, as if director Cressida Brown had started rehearsals with a warm-up exercise asking the cast to 'pretend it's a comedy' and then was so tickled by the Private-Walker-cockney-style Banquo of Samuel Oatley and the Harry-Potter-geek that Aidan Cheng created as Malcolm that she said 'Don't change it!' and they didn't.

And, live on twitter, the ever-entertaining Luke Wright, who is reading poems for about half an hour every night at 8 o'clock. They are his usual droll observations of life and quirky character studies, with a bit of amusing banter in between - just like his live shows, in fact. It's free, but donations welcomed - as with every performance as our valuable Arts culture faces an ever-more difficult future.

It's difficult to keep social media out of an social-arts blog these days since, apart from TV (I've just discovered Sky Arts) these sites are where accessible things are notified. National Theatre Archives gave us Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, imagined stories from six different barber shops moving and funny by turns - makes you wish you'd seen it live! Many more ideas here, too.
Frome is famous for dissenting, and pretty good at street-art too, so when I spotted this sign in our town centre it seemed worth a wider audience.  It's become my most popular online post ever, and has been shared (at last check) 2,683 times. So this is a revival of my brief 'little known characters' spot which began as a blog filler and then faded when the internet took control of our waking days: Whoever stuck this on what appears to be an old meter box, at the bottom of Gentle Street, take a bow.

And on a more serious note, despite protest and pre-empting a currently-disputed planning permission, many in Frome were sad and shocked to find to a protected meadow alongside the river has been illegally levelled. So this post concludes with a thought from John Clare, from his 1827 poem The Mores - and on a happier note, a picture of a glorious holloway from one of my rural walks.
And birds and trees and flowers without a name 
All sighed when lawless law's enclosures came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

A week of theatrical responses & sunshine

Open-air theatre is a thing that no plague can stop, it seems, with two productions streamed this week: The Tempest from the Lord Chamberlain's Men was a jolly way to pass a couple of hours but even if you know the play, it's quite hard to follow the story as delivered by seven shouty men, especially with Prospero focused on audibility rather than tonal range, and that masque sequence which is baffling at the best of times - though the costumes, part-burlesque, part-dirndl, were fun. This production was clearly designed for performance in a large garden with a beer tent on a warm night but with a bit of imagination and a large glass of wine it was good fun.

Miracle Theatre had no problems in conveying their story: they were making it up as they went along, allegedly, so incoherence was part of the fun. The Case of the Frightened Lady gave us Bill Scott's talented team, led by marvellous Ben Dyson, creating a who-dunnit by whirlwind improvisation to meet crime-writer Edgar Wallace's deadline for delivering a new novel to his publisher. This was shot at a live performance at the Minack on the edge of the Cornish coast, which adds huge glamour, and is a wonderfully funny pastiche with great performances. Again, as often with filmed performances, it's a bit disappointing not to be able to see the whole stage at crucial moments: close-ups in farce, where everyone's reaction is part of the humour, reduce the overall effect. But it was still brilliant.

On a grander scale, National Theatre offered us Anthony and Cleopatra, all three hours of conflict and passion as envisaged by Shakespeare, with Ralph Fiennes check as Anthony (here with Tinji Kasim as Caesar) and Sophie Okonedo as his temperamental mistress (here with an asp and a death-wish). Director Simon Godwin brings a thoroughly modern lens to this tale of big personalities and complex politics, with slide-tape presentation to follow the battle plan and the Egyptian queen in costumes which reminded some in the comments of Beyonce, though to me it looked more Top Shop.

Music: most of mine these weeks is supplied by Craig Charles on Radio 6, Spotify and CDs, but there's plenty to watch too: Bath Festivals weekend roundup offers 10 virtual options from concerts to burlesque, Cooper Hall has a Youtube channel dedicated to enlivening ditties such as You Cannae Shove Yer Granny Off Bus and Al O'Kane has a new single out on Monday: I want some Peace.

Frome's wonderful Hunting Raven Bookshop doyenne Tina Gaysford-Waller continues to run her Proof Pudding Club, delivering review copies of new books herself, with feedback via Zoom meetings. We enjoyed our May session on Sunday night, with a smaller group than usual but much cameraderie.  Most interesting-sounding books, to me, were A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi - true coming-of-age memoir by a gay Muslim - and Sex Robots and Vegan Meat by Jenny Kleeman, a look at some of the not-science-fiction developments occurring right now... This was Tina's pick and hopefully by July the author will be able to visit our bookshop, as planned. There are more recommendations and discussions on the Bookbound online festival site.

Nature notes to finish: solid sunshine all week was perfect for permitted walks around Frome. I've never seen so many wild flowers, or so much dense white blossom on verges and hedges. Insect life too, presumably in consequence, seems to be thriving. After the heatwave we've been enjoying most of this spring, it seemed likely that the bee orchids on Cley Hill might be showing early (usually they pose for my camera in June) so I used my drive-if-exercising-longer-on-arrival permission for a trip there but floral development was less advanced than the town, with hawthorn bushes still in tight bud: the carpet of ten trillion buttercups and view from the summit were both fantastic though.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

theatre, art, music words - the 'Back in Business' one!

When theatre goes real-time live again, these free treats from London's costliest theatres will be much missed- do grab them while they're around. The Globe's offering this week was Romeo and Juliet, weighing in at just shy of three hours but superbly performed - Rebekah Murrell as Juliet and Petra Letang as her nurse especially brilliant - and thrilling viewing (unless you're one of the students whose laments that an English lesson is only supposed to be hour long littered the comments online).
Dominic Dromgoole's direction brings out the unruliness of the rival gangs and the youthfulness of the lovers, both initially naive in their notions of romance until sobered into the harsh reality of transgressing clan rivalries.  The sword fights are thrilling but have been filmed rather too close to follow the vital dynamic leading up to Romeo's fatal thrust, but overall there's good coverage of audience excitement.

Thursday night's National Theatre offering of 'Danny Boyle's monster hit Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein' was as unforgettably amazing as you'd expect from the first two names. Unforgettable especially for the long opening section of electric birth through the creature's long lonely struggle to articulate movement and sound, watching the thing grow into a humanoid and then a lover of poetry and a philosopher under the tutelage of the blind old man: this was full of charm as well as poignancy. When this connection is abruptly broken by the seeing world and the quest for vengeance begins the trajectory is set steadily for melodrama. Mary Shelley's tale of the motherless creature, completed while living in Bath, is a psychological drama as much as a monster story, and the parallels with her own life in terms of loss and disregarded needs are plangent. This brilliant interpretation of a timeless tragedy is on all week, well worth viewing.

 Bath Festival went virtual too, with a varied menu of free options including Grayson Perry's Art Club, in which he invites viewers to submit their own work, with the chance of  inclusion in his next real-time exhibition "when this is all over." His theme this week is portraits: here's one that artist Nathan Wyburn made of him, using soy sauce and noodles. Grayson was also much taken with the latest trend on facebook, even more popular than the 'ten-albums-that-define-me' one: Recreate artworks with things you find at home now has over 50,00 members and there are some fantastic efforts out there - if you haven't started following yet, you're missing a treat. And in the Golden Oldies corner. Channel 4 is releasing to the world 'Bingeable Box Sets' of comedy classics - every series of Seinfeld, and Father Ted to name but two.

As always there's masses of music online - if you don't have enough of your own favourites tune into Visual Radio Arts where Phil Moakes and Maggie Gregory continue to add new shows: here's No Fixed Abode who played last week.
Sofa continues to stream international acts for free viewing, and individuals musicians are increasingly posting on facebook: Martin Dimery, ex Sergeant Pepper's Only Dartboard Band, has made several of his Beatles songs publicly viewable. Here comes the Sun is one of my favourites.  Frome's jazz-fusion giant John Law offers a preview of his new album CONFIGURATION here prior to its release, and looking wider, Radiohead has posted their archived tour concerts.

Words now, and a fascinating talk from Andrew Ziminski's from his workshop organised on Zoom by Pippa Goldfinger, describing his work as a stonemason, with a focus on the landscape of Wessex. His slide presentation included discoveries from neolithic sites including Avebury, Fyfield Down, West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill Stonehenge and was supplemented by workshop demonstrations of skills like creating sarsen polishing stones and repairing the carvings in the temple of Sulis Minerva. Buy the book, if you haven't got it already!
From fabulous fact to intriguing fiction, with Bath's Story Friday, the popular community platform initiated by mega-skilled Clare Reddaway, went online last week and continues its Friday evening sessions on the theme of 'Dark Clouds, Silver Linings' read by a team from Kilter Theatre. This week's set included a story from Chiara Vascotto, whose sensuous, visceral, personal style I remember from last year in Skyros. You can listen to her story, read Amy Vickers, here, along with five other intriguing short tales - one by Clare herself.
Liv Tork, indefatigably innovative and creative, continues to collect submissions of 'haiflu' (haiku in time of plague) to create weekly compilations: here's week 6 online, sombre but plangently sincere. Meanwhile Frome Poetry Cafe  is open for any original poems, especially with some tangental connection to 'revenge or redemption (which happened appropriately to be our theme for April) as the page becomes virtual 'open mic' for lockdown times.

And as April moves into May in Frome, where we're lucky enough to have lanes and footpaths close enough to walk miles in any direction, I'll end this week's roundup with images of blossom - the wonderful Judas tree in Victoria park, and a small burst of the hawthorn blossom brimming on every hedge.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

All the world's a screen... (with sunshine breaks)

And once again National Theatre Live has shown why lockdown may actually provide some of the highlights of 2020. Twelfth Night, that often tedious Shakespeare comedy about a girl and her brother looking identical enough to cause fights and fury, turns out to be not merely doable but timeless, funny, and moving. Imaginative casting helps: Sir Toby is an aging hippy, Sir Andrew a pretentious hipster and the Fool a faded flower child, with the other gender switch making Malvolio a lusty lesbian - Tamsen Greig in this role is unforgettable.  Soutra Gilmour's rotating stage brilliantly evokes every scenic shift, from manor to clubland, enhancing the essential theatricality of the story: scene changes in an ongoing drama of ascending and descending statuses, in a world where rank is all. Director Simon Goodwin, you can watch it online until April 30.

Spoken word now: and Clare Reddaway, Bath's talented writer & creative supporter of other writers, has taken her monthly live 'Story Friday' event online, combining with Kilter Theatre to ensure some great readings for their premier event on 26th on the theme Dark Clouds, Silver Linings. Seven ultra-short tales took the theme in wide-ranging ways, including two charming everyday stories of local folk:  Jonathan Evans The Pillars of the Earth read by Ollie Langdon, and My Dad the Superhero by Judith Adam, read by Eve. Clare will continue to select and post stories, so do follow A Word In Your Ear, and contribute if you feel inspired.

Last week online saw more music than may blossom in the hedgerows - you probably found plenty, but among those I've appreciated are  Flash Harry, and Al O'Kane who hosted a fundraiser on Friday for a Bristol NHS Charity. Frome's individual musicians are doing lock-in solo spots too, on their personal pages: guitarist-singer Steve Loudoun has made his public - here's a great Tom Waits track -
and Pete Gage has posted a moving guitar version of St James Infirmary Blues as well as some terrific keyboard-accompanied songs - these aren't public but I'm sure he won't mind me sharing the screenshot of I need your love so bad. -
Sofar Sounds gave us a free session from Jade Bird - donations optional - and overall there's been no shortage of music as a backdrop to this sensationally sunny week - including the intriguing Bookshop Band, who exclusively sing their own songs about book recommendations, an impressive specialism that originated in Mr B's in Bath and has brought them followers all over the UK and to America, including BBC radio.  Here they are with their regular Lockdown show - you can see them live on Fridays at 8.30.

Poetry, like mercy, drops everywhere like the gentle rain, - various online sites will pipe it to you daily -but  April 25th was a day of special dousing: this is the day of the Universe in Verse celebrates 'the splendour and mystery of the natural world', as featured in Brainpickings. Liv Torc is still collecting haiku for her Haiflu project - you could send her one of your own or post any longer poems on the Frome Poetry page if you're missing our meetings.

Ending with another image from a walk: out of over 20 miles of happy traipsing, this one is close to home - right in the centre of Frome: wild garlic, looks beautiful, smells sensuous, tastes great...

Monday, April 20, 2020

The what-week-is-it-now? one

A golden-oldie moment to start with: it's six years now since Bristol Old Vic staged their epic 2-part marathon version of Jane Eyre, directed by Sally Cookson who vividly reimagined the story of a girl who went from poor beginnings to richly traumatic endings, adding music, physicality, and humour all of which made definite improvement to the plot. This wonderful production has been abbreviated for the National Theatre Live online performance to under 3 hours of riveting drama, and was available all last week. Well-judged filming maintained the full-stage special effects, from the dramatic fire (see screenshot) to the delightful jogging-coach journeys, and the growing passion of Mr Rochester (Felix Hayes) for Jane (Madeleine Worrall). These free sessions are well worth checking out if you're missing live theatre.

Rainbow Fish Speak Easy is a regular live poetry event that dynamic and mega-talented Liv Torc hosts in various venues, supported by Take Art, and organising this as a Zoom event on Thursday was an undertaking of major complexity but clearly worth it. Fifty spoken word fans enjoyed two hours of word play - including Liv's invention Haiflu (which has now even reached Womans Hour!), concluding with a reflective piece performed with piano by Chris Redmond and a compilation-poem of audience responses.  'We are a community,' Liv says, 'and this has been a very special night.'

By now, most people will have their own selection from the incredible smörgåsbord of online opportunities opening up like wild garlic over the last few weeks.  Here's a small posy:
Time Out Frome has some excellent music options - Soundcheck has been posting regularly: - there's a storming Nirvana cover from Al OKane here, and Phil Cooper is offering regular live streams where you can join in & chat.  Bath Festivals are offering a range of arty options, including an Andy Warhol exhibition tour, while Bristol Old Vic is offering an Open Stage for your own ideas: "your opportunity to share the things that nourish, encourage and amuse you during isolation - a song that cheers you up, a film you’ve made in your kitchen, a photo of your favourite place, a picture you’ve painted, or a poem that reminds you of someone you love, we want you to share anything that feels important to you during these strange and mood-bending times."  And if you're over 70, you might be eligible to submit to the King Lear contest for poetry, art, drama and fiction.

Last week's stunning sunshine was perfect for  solitary exercise  to enjoy the blossom and bluebells abounding Frome and surrounding villages. My best walk was new route of about nine miles, including tangental explorations: over fields to Nunney, along a river path and farmland to Whatley, and footpaths & lanes via Egford back to Frome. If you don't know the terrain you won't be particularly impressed, but for someone with no sense of direction (viz, me) it was thrilling as well as visually and sensually gorgeous.

Finally: My-Blog-in-lockdown's new spot 'Little-known personality' this week is Robert Noonan, who provides the April caption in the Radical Literary Calendar 2020: "Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery, and is therefore the enemy of his own children." Of course he's not actually little known, since under the pen name Robert Tressell he was the author of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, one of the most influential books ever written. Scarlett and Sophie Rickard, graphic novelists, are creating a graphic deconstruction of Trussell's novel, titled, Self-Made Hero, due publication this autumn. Noonan emigrated from Ireland to England as a young man, then moved to South Africa where he made a good living as a sign writer & decorator, but at that time his radical socialism wasn't strongly in evidence: he joined demonstrations against using skilled black labourers and, like other well-off whites then, had his own black servant. But by 1910 he was back in England, living with his sister and daughter Kathleen, hoping to emigrate to Canada. He died the next year disheartened by failing to find a publisher for his novel, never knowing that Kathleen's continued efforts would eventually find success. The first edition was truncated into a much 'safer' version but in 1955 the full text was published (584 pages of small print in my Penguin copy), becoming an inspiration across the world and literally life-changing for many: Ricky Tomlinson's succinct, honest, credit to 'the book that changed my life' - here - is impressive.