Monday, March 24, 2008

"Tonight's performance contains haze and nudity" promised posters in the Theatre Royal Winchester but technical difficulties prevented Northern Broadsides from getting hazy in this radical production of Romeo and Juliet with Staffordshire accents and contemporary street fashion. I went with Emily, as her nephew Liam is one of the multi-talented cast who sang, played, duelled, and clog-danced their way through this hate-fest so often mistaken for a love story. The real story is the conflict: family rows, city feuds, power-struggles at every level of the action. Director Barrie Rutter brought out the energy of these angry confrontations brilliantly - even Friar Laurence, often played as a doddering do-gooder, had his Ian Paisley moments. Less developed - perhaps inevitably - was the love-affair, best at showing the youth of Juliet and emo tendancies of her Mika-lookalike Romeo, rather than the poetry, tenderness, and eroticism of their encounters.
An electrifying production overall, though, surviving the collapse of the lighting system effortlessly. It's on tour now: check Northern Broadsides for venues.
We met up with Liam for lunch and a walk around the city's lovely old cathedral area. There's a Jane Austen house, and Keats apparently wrote his Ode to Autumn here, & perhaps that passionate letter to Fanny Brawne: "love is my religion - I could die for that. I could die for you. I cannot breath without you."
Romeo couldn't have put it better.

Mediaeval Verona to modern Zimbabwe, and back at the theatre, this time the Ustinov in Bath. ‘Breakfast with Mugabe’ was based on “tittle tattle”, the playwright tells us in his programme notes. This turns out to be an article headlined "Paranoid Mugabe dines with a ghost" by a journalist notoriously antagonistic to southern African liberation movements. Fraser Grace from this created a story of three brutal unscrupulous 'blacks' and a rather nice 'white' who tries to help them, and in reponse one murders his wife, one takes his land and the third beats him up. What’s the authorial message here? That Ian Smith was right? This play won the John Whiting Award for best new play 3 years ago but I couldn’t join in the applause.
Reviews I googled were bafflingly uncritical of this thinly structured piece of drama, apart from Victoria Brittain discussing the original production: "Zimbabwe in 2001 resonates with Britain in 2006. What's in Blair’s head? We know we don't have a clue. But when it comes to the same conversation about Mugabe, the old African stereotypes come up and we say that he's mad. Political theatre is now more fashionable than ever. Robert Mugabe, routinely demonised by the British media as a larger than life African tyrant - Idi Amin with brains - was an obvious dramatic target."

Time for a picture of dancing daffodils, I think, now the Equinox has ushered in summer and the season of Lindt chocolate bunnies is over. This is Longleat, where Steve & I walked in sleet and sunshine on Saturday.
And as spring is the theme for the next Frome poetry cafe, I'll end this post with a fistful of quotes:

Poetry can communicate before it is understood ~ TS Eliot

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world ~ Shelley

Poetry should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance ~ John Keats

Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement ~ Christopher Fry

Poetry is life distilled ~ Gwendolyn Brooks

Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits ~ Carl Sandburg

Poetry is just the evidence of life ~ Leonard Cohen

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese ~ G.K. Chesterton


Monday, March 17, 2008

The wind was so wild on the way back from the Isle of Wight tonight the FastCat was nearly cancelled. Wonderfully hospitable though our venue was - it's run by Yannis Andricopoulos, also Oberon to the magic island of Skyros - I do feel the 10 participants on my course deserved better weather while finding their Writers' Voice. The Grange is only a spit from the lovely sandy coastline at Shankhill, but the rain spitted back throughout most of our weekend stay, though this didn't diminish the exuberance of a talented and delightfully goodhumoured group. You know something's gelled when the entire course reconvenes after a demanding day's work at the village inn (helpfully named The Village Inn) for late-night supper together.
The retro charm of the Isle of Wight featured in several pieces of writing: 50s? 70s? We couldn't quite decide...

Pastel shades on the seafront have the dainty dilapidated charm of Miss Marple's theme tune, but the live music at the pub was Eagles era. What will I take with me? Full grey skies, golden gorse, pewter seas. Generosity, warmth, laughter. Passion, integrity, constant coffee.

According to Ted Hughes, Ovid was interested in passion too, I'm told by the programme notes of 'Tales from Ovid: Metamorphosis', as presented by the A/S Level drama students at Frome College. It's a vibrant and unequivocal production, all the more impressive as the students apparently shared the direction as well as, literally, the characters they portrayed. This is passion in extremis, mutating through violence into something surreal... I'm trying to make a link here with the tempestuous sorrow Lorca talks about, in order to morph into a final comment on the concept of duende, which I had never heard of until this week. Duende is the kind of inexplicable sadness at the heart of many songs - not with the poignancy of tristesse, but with a force that 'jets up like blood'. I read about it in the Back page of the Guardian (which I bought for the Philip Larkin booklet): "a terrible question that has no answer...Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically with it. Tom Waits can summon it.'
...Sounds like a Writers' Voice to me.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Niamh led this month's Library Writers' Group with some canny thoughts on 'Don't get it right get it written' - how to deal with deadlines and discipline and what Zoe calls the 'inner wallpaper' of self-judgement. Learn to love editing, Niamh advises, and don't be deterred by lack of experience. "Make it a strength to come to your subject as an interested ingenue - we have enough experts."

To say that Cube's modernised version of Hamlet has been controversial round here is a like saying The Satanic Verses raised a few eyebrows. I really enjoyed it. It's true the actor taking the title role was tiresomely twitchy, and Gertrude and Horatio seemed to have wandered in from Abigail's Party, but this is a stunning interpretation of a play so full of quotations as to be almost impossible to make fresh and vivid. From the opening (Streets) track onwards, the music added energy, and the set - a silver wall variously claustrophobic, Big-Brother-intrusive, and screen for memories & nightmares - was brilliant. I loved the unexpected, sometimes outrageous, liberties taken with the script: letters as mobile texts, tequila shots and happy-slapping, that famous soliloquy sharded into dialogue. A terrific way to remind us the essential elements of Hamlet are timeless: dysfunctional families, violent passions, love, loss, and loneliness.

Serious bit this week - and I've chosen this picture because the well-known author of 'Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis' is stroppy about website exposure, even though googling Wendy Cope gives 145,000 references. But I'm going to talk about her anyway.
What do you do if you want a smart quote, maybe a few lines of verse perhaps already half-remembered? You look on the web, right? Wendy Cope thinks: wrong. “It isn’t ok – you have to fork out for the book” she asserts, in an article on copyright which is reprinted – obviously by repayment to the author – in the current issue of ALCS news. It’s a Grumpy Old Woman rant, and I don’t know how seriously Ms Cope intends it to be taken since she admits it even annoys her that her words will still be making money after she’s too dead to spend it, but it does raise serious questions about this new world of wider access to literature. And I disagree with her at just about every level.
For one thing, I don’t agree there’s a direct & discouraging correlation between downloading and book-buying. I’d suggest that those who find and enjoy poems on the web are more, not less, likely to buy poetry collections - just as musicians recognise that initial interest from downloading & copying encourages word-of-mouth promotion and hence CD sales. "If poetry was only available to book owners we wouldn’t have our rich popular culture", Emily points out as we discuss these issues over coffee. And as it’s this accessibility to light verse that makes her the ‘good money' she so desires, what is her problem? It’s like an artist, having sold a painting to one buyer, griping that others will enjoy sight of it too. These enriching glimpses create the buyers of the future, in every area of the arts.
Another bee in Ms Cope’s bonnet – her cliché not mine – is literary festivals presenting readings of other people’s work without clearing permissions. I’ll stand up here and admit it: I am Spartacus. Arts festivals – ours anyway – work on budgets that make shoestrings look tough as towlines, and no-one makes big money out of poetry events. Clearing permissions is incredibly time-consuming and can be prohibitively costly. Last year I organised an event called Desert Island Reads at which writer Steve Voake read from a little-known collection of stories by American writer Frank Huyler. Neither Steve nor any other contributor was paid, but five of the audience went away and bought that book. And we were within our legal rights in introducing this author to a new audience, as the law is luckily not always an ass: ‘Fair comment’ specifically allows such use of material still in copyright as long as there’s no libellous intent.
So I have no sympathy with Ms Cope’s stance. There’s a lot of us out here working hard to make a world where her verse, and the poetry of others, will be more widely known and appreciated. We use real events and we use the web too. The internet has impacted our world – she’s a beneficiary, not a victim.

And finally... On 29th March, Luke "The best young performance poet around" Wright comes to Frome's Merlin Theatre. Book soon (01373 465949), bring friends - I promise you this is a knock-your-socks-off show. Appraisal above from The Observer - here's a few more reviewers' verdicts: "A rip-roaring raconteur..." "This man is a genius." "...electrifying." "Britain's brightest young bard ... hugely engaging performer, without a trace of pretension" "..genuinely funny and charming.. quick wit and blinding talent... a born performer."
Perhaps best not wear any socks...

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Frome Writers' Circle soiréed this month at Elaine's house, where despite the charming viands, as Daisy Ashford would say, dark themes predominated: two murders and a (very moving) wartime atrocity. To lift the mood Mike had brought his poems of wicked passion. Sighs does matter, he assures us. Ahhh.....

Telly time again: Grand Designs returned to Il Collegio this week, to show artists David Westby and Leonie Whitton in their Paglia paradise. I used to run writing courses at their first Il Collegio, in Tuscany, so it was brilliant to see how successful David and Leo have been in building this gorgeous new place themselves - and that means literally, brick by brick, with minimal budget or hands-on help. As Kevin Mcloud says. “Human beings do not chance upon Paradise. They make it.”

Back to Bath Lit Fest on Friday for a 'Writers of the World' event: 'Words in the Snow'- 15 short pieces by 3 spanish writers, read first in English and then in their original language. Yes folks that is 30 readings in all, in an hour, and though each piece was short their authors seemed aware of a race against time that allowed minimal contextual comment. Apparently they are stories told in Northern Spain around the fire "to fight against the long dark boring of the winter days" (lovely phrase) though little sense of an oral tradition emerged from these shaggy-dog, sci-fi, fables which seemed born from the rubble of more urban times. But it's always good, as my companion commented, to get out of our parochial bubble and connect to a European context.

From Spanish snow to Glastonbury rain... (that was Dave and Ben's opening song):
Subfuscous illumination at St James Vaults on Friday night but a crackling Oh What A Performance event, led by Dave Angus and with brilliant Byron Vincent as main man. There's really no-one quite like Byron. With his Dennis-the-Menace jumper and Please-Sir-Can-I-Have-Some-More? air of anxious innocence, he opens his set with a request to the audience to 'take a moment to lower your intellectual expectations' - but not below Nietzsche or you'd miss some of the poet's absurd, painful, and exquisite perceptions of an urban alcopops generation -
"beautiful but indistinct
like a Monet viewed up close."

Best of the rest... quite a lot, actually, including musical talent, but cos I do love to laugh I'm picking Rod Marks for the ridiculous rambling introduction to his Easter Bunny poem.

Great to hear 'spoken word' stuff on the radio - PolarBear on Colin Murray's show on Monday night. PolarBear was on the Apples&Snakes 'Exposed' tour in 2006 when I was one of the guest poets.
And if you missed my story on the radio on Friday and are thinking 'Dang it! I wish I had a chance to listen again!' then Afternoon Reading is the site to visit. (Thanks so much to those of you who've texted & emailed me such generous comments!)