Sunday, November 30, 2008

In horse talk, I have not been On Form this month. Consequently most of my time has been spent in comfort pursuits involving mooching about, close friends & family, and online scrabble, so there's not much in the literary line to report. However, I made it to the Mission Theatre in Bath twice: once to see Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending. It's set in the playwright's usual world of small-town America: full of repressed passion needing only the trigger of a wild outsider to set the place alight, with an ending as horrifying as any Greek tragedy. In the hot dry dust of unspoken grievance and unspeakable grief, wanderer Val celebrates lyricism and hope for "a future called perhaps, which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the only important thing is not to allow that to scare you. "
It's a re-working of a much earlier, failed, play called Battle of Angels which Williams never abandoned. He said "You will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart in this completed play... it's about the acceptance of prescribed answers that are not answers at all"
That notion of freedom from 'prescribed answers' is most lyrically expressed in Val's fantasy of tiny birds with transparent wings, eluding predator. "They live their whole life on the wing, and they sleep on the wing, they just spread their wings and go to sleep and never light on this earth but one time when they die! " A powerful image to anyone, perhaps especially to writers.
Russell Brand ended his documentary on Jack Kerouac with this thought: "The main thing I got from this journey is that if you aren't governed by fear then you can live truthfully and you can find a kind of beauty. But if you're inhibited and fearful, you will live a prescriptive existance. Once you get beyond the hedonistic first impulse of that philosophy, you find that you need to focus on something wider, more permanent and beautiful and valuable. That's what I've learnt." Could be Tennessee Williams' Val talking. Except he'd probably have strummed it.

Then on Sunday the Bath Poetry Cafe had a Rialto night, celebrating local connections with this prestigious literary magazine. Editor Michael Mackmin talked about what he seeks from submissions - a self-seal envelope is paramount, apparently. Readings from poets who had avoided this and other fatal errors followed: I especially enjoyed Sue Boyle, Emily Wills, and of course Rose Flint, who writes so sensuously and with such tragedic yearning:
And what I hope for every winter is to find a way through
to the other side where the jubilant light begins again
in a hesitation of birdsong.

Footnote this week: my online interview with writer Judy Darley .


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set in a 1960s Soho nightclub sounds a jaunty idea and I had high hopes of this production by Frome Drama Club, usually never less than competent. Sadly, purple tie-dye does not a Viola make, and the bullying aspect of this drama became, rather than Sopranos-style tension, an epidemic of pinching, punching, happy-slapping that even included Orsino flooring Olivia so violently her subsequent request that he call her 'sister' must have sounded alarm calls in Social Services. Even good acting - Malvolio as a lanky Gollum, the pragmatic fool Feste - couldn't create characters to satisfactorily survive this directorial savagery.

I didn't know what to expect from Dracula staged as a musical at the White Bear theatre in Kennington by Loveless brothers writer/director Chris and composer Alex... a comedy, maybe? (Wiv a littul bit of blood, a littul bit of blood, you can let temptation drip right in...) Not so. It was stunning. From the wilds of Transylvania to prim Victorian London, the drama was darkly bloodstained and biting. Piano and cello enhanced a mesmeric mood, with every element for a gothic fantasy glowing through: madness, lust, the fear that immortality is worse than death itself and that love can seem the deepest abyss of all. Songlines simmered: Love is a knife that carves your life. Faithful to Bram Stoker, the production still managed to find twists in the story, and played grim torchlight on undercurrents of brutality posing as medicine and morality. There's an amazing scene as the men, outraged by the transformation of their women into vampiric seducers, form an armed posse and thunder through the forest, the vampire as their quarry, like any group of self-righteous fanatics witch-hunting the outsider who threatens their supremacy. Brilliant. I'd go to see anything by Fallen Angel Theatre Company now.
Pix by Michael Brydon, more about the production here

I'm writing a play at the moment - I don't usually admit to writing anything until it's finished & safely published, so acknowledging this is a strange part of the process - and therefore collecting comments on drama from every source I come across, as well as my dramaturgy (wonderful word, too) mentor, playwright Steve Hennessy. Like this from Tony (Mark of Cain) Marchant in an RT interview: "I don't think there should be any taboos. The object of drama is to illuminate and to explore - it's a writer's job to make people think harder." Finding this week's BIG ISSUE is a playwrighting special, I turned the pages avidly with highlighter poised. Here's a collection of write-bites from the mag:
"What makes good drama? Pushing the creative boundaries" - this is agent Mel Kenyon- "the stage should be about metaphor rather than literal recreation." Zia Trench of Zeitgeist Theatre Company believes: "If theatre wants to grow more of an audience, it's got to rethink just about everything", and there's frustration about the moribund state of theatre among most interviewees. "Shakespeare is all well and good but we get 2000 scripts a year from unknown writers" says theatre director Lisa Goldman, lamenting that there is no funding to produce them.
Patron Joachim Fleury doesn't want theatre "a formaldehyde form of art - museum pieces resuscitated ad infinitum." James Phillips urges other directors like himself to relish the risk offered by new writing: "I mean we know Twelfth Night works, don't we?" (see above, James...)
An overall theme emerges: face the fear and do it anyway. "The most important virtue for a writer is determination" concludes the editorial.
True for any writing, any media - and especially with difficult stuff. I was talking this week with Malinda Kennedy, therapist and poet, whose experience has convinced her that long-term anxiety = suffering that's not been expressed creatively. But, she cautions, personal outpourings are not art. “Most people feel so good about the outpourings they think it’s a novel - it’s a poem - it’s a play! Is it heck. Now starts the crafting.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ninety years ago to the month, Siegfried Sassoon wrote Memorial Tablet, a poem as full of anger about class divisions as about war itself. His grave, in the sombre yew-shadowed churchyard of Mells near where I live, is often honoured with red poppies, and always on Remembrance Sunday.

Merlin Theatre foyer turned tardis on Monday night, as an auditoriumful of audience crammed through to see the magnificent Eddie Izzard in a one-night-only try-out of stuff for his new London show.
It's a sell-out there too - here tickets were going on eBay for £160, and I'm sure the buyers were delighted - my eyes were sore next day from weeping with laughter. Eddie's new stuff circles "like a cow with a gun" from Obama through the fallacies of world history through Wikipedia, Galileo, Genesis, stromatolites, stone-age scrabble, squirrels, Spartans, creationism, arriving back at Obama and the possibility of hope for the future. "Terrorism exists where there is no hope" he says simply, at the end of two hours of surreal humour, unflinching satire and brilliant mime. I wish we could elect our own God, my vote would go to Eddie Izzard - even though he doesn't believe we have or need one. "I believe in humans" he says, "Good and evil are in your tummy. That's our fight, how to live our lives."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Hot on the heels of November 5th - and how celebratory those fireworks felt this year - came the verbal sparklers of Madabout Words night. Over 60 people came along to hear thirteen local writer/performers in a cabaret of poetry, prose, drama, and lyrics.

I'd love to give a full and impartial review but as I organised it I can't so I'll just say to fiction writers Debby Holt, Magnus Nelson, Rosie Jackson & Niamh Ferguson; to poets David Sollors, Gordon Graft, Rose Flint, & Caleb Parkin; to dramatists Alison Clink and Rosie Finnegan, and to musicians Howard Vause & PJ Leonard: Darlings you were wonderful and I mean that most sincerely. And many thanks to all who supported us.

As one performer said, for us it's an opportunity to play to a perfectly listening audience, and "it is something that actually seems to matter to people - very lovely - this sort of thing is important isn't it?"
I certainly believe so.

Same yet different, another evening of spoken word at the launch of a new book from Peter Please: CLATTINGER An Alphabet of Signs from Nature, a quirky look at a Wiltshire wildflower meadow and site of special scientific interest. The Georgian premises of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Society contrast and blend graciously with imagery of snakeshead fritillaries and damselflies. Unusually for an author launch, this gentle and charming event was designed as a team effort, with musical accompaniments and contributions from several other writers including a striking poem from cover artist Sean Borodale. Clattinger is an unusual book too, a hi-tech production finished by hand; Peter Please sewed them all himself, pinching the spines in the traditional manner of 19th Century craftsmen. "We are the farmers' markets in a supermarket world," I like to tell writer friends; Peter Please wants to be slow-simmered broth in a fast food planet. You can find out more here.

Footnote to last week's epic event in America: Jeremy Paxman to Dizzee Rascal "Mr Rascal, could you see this happening in Britain?" "If you believe you can achieve, innit?" "Do you believe in political parties in Britain?" "Yeah, they exist." Perfect.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Searching Halloween for smatterings of significance beyond pumpkinheads and Dracula for this once hallowed evening, I found that in some cultures the entire month of November is a Festival of the Dead. Something to look forward to.
Emily and I celebrated this tricky night by treating ourselves to Comedy Scratch Night at the Arc in Trowbridge. A fun evening, though with a curiously non-contemporary ambience. 'Rather a lot of genitalia' one audience member commented, which was true, yet Master Bates apologised for both his swear words and no-one mentioned Voluptuagate.
You've probably already over-familiar with what the Head of the BBC calls "the tumultuous events of the past weeks" and the tabloids term "sickening obscenities that made the whole nation shudder", (the infamous phone call to Andrew Sachs has been viewed over a million times on Youtube) so the only thing that can make it better is... another cheap jibe. "This sort of obscenity against a member of the Satanic Sluts cannot be countenanced." thunders News of the News, "Suspension is hardly sufficient. The British sense of justice and fair play will not be satisfied until they are castrated by a baying crowd, pursued through the street on horseback with dogs, hanged by the neck outside White City until dead and their foul corpses left there to fester for at least a month. We pay our licence fees!"
What a good thing we in the literary world aren't tainted by such salacious voyeurism, I thought smugly, going into WH Smiths where exciting promotions encourage everyone to turn off the telly and read a good book. Promotions like TRAGIC LIFE STORIES - BUY 1 GET 1 HALF PRICE...

Quantum of Solace.... well I won't go on about the dizzy-making yumminess of Daniel Craig but I will just mention that Ben Elton's first novel Stark had a similar storyline (villain poses as environmentalist) though without the breathtaking car-chases, land-sea-&-air shoot-outs, the inferno and the Tosca opera. Other than that, pretty close.

I'm posting this as the world is poised to know whether Obama managed that final lap to the White House, so in electioneering mode I commend this more local party political broadcast from 'shouty scot' & poetic genius Elvis Mcgonagall.

And finally... how about writing a novel this November? NaNoWriMo will help you. Lots of tips and pep talks, and an international scoreboard for ongoing word-counts. England is at currently number 18, with the Germans already spreading their writing towels across the keyboard at number 1. So if you want to change that, pick up your pens! (Not now, at the end of the blog when lines are open....)