Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Emerging blinking into the sunlight from the nightlights of Bristol's theatreland, I find Bedminster shops are full of.... theatre. Trading Local is a Show of Strength initiative, using 19 shops to stage 5-minute monologues based on their own location and trade - each one repeated 3 times, so by scampering up & down North Street an ardent audient could catch them all. I didn't manage that, but the ones I saw were great: among them Bernard the table lamenting his lot at the antique shop (Oliver Millingham gave great voice to Matthew Oven's tale from beneath candlewick drapings) Tracy Wall's recreation of the Poet Butcher, a real-life character who sold doggerel along with faggots in the 19th Century, and Caleb Parkin's Units of Memory at Compuwave which took a poignant look at "life broken down into its componant parts." And I loved the reluctant tattoee musing on her graphic options, noting the sign on the door: "No Children, No Drunks - I should think that just about rules out anyone who wants to come in." Satiric comedy may seem easy; evoking warmth rather than a patronised stereotype isn't, but writer Joe Hobbs & performer Kim Hick succeeded.

And as Slumdog Millionnaire scoops the ultimate award on Oscar night, my question is this: how can brutality & sentimentalism emerge as 'the feel-good movie of the decade'? Fabulous soundtrack I agree, with brilliant camera work, and great montage ending, but the storyline was thin as the characterisation and the fairytale is embedded in realism as bloody as the rags on the eyesockets of the blinded beggar boy.
It's complex, I know. I wouldn't begrudge director Danny Boyle his Tigger-bouncing moment of glory or Simon Beaufoy his credit for the screenplay, but you have to search to find the name of the original writer: Vikas Swarup. And over in India there are riots over the 'humiliating' term in the title.
But is it the dog or the slum that's the problem? A perspective from an Indian journalist in NYTimes insists that Its depiction as a slum does little justice to the reality of Dharavi... (which is) safer than most American cities. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries. Also, you won’t be chased by beggars or see hopeless people loitering — Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an incredibly industrious city. People have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state — including having set up a highly functional recycling industry that serves the whole city.
Promoting prejudice, creating misinformation - even fear of reigniting the violence against Muslims of 1992 so graphically depicted in the film.... so although the title itself is merely a slur from the bad-cop who turned good-cop, objections are not as simple as one online comment seems to think: "Tough Shit. They don’t have any money to see it anyway."

Censorship is also the theme of Chimes of Freedom, a Spoken Word event at the Merlin on March 19th featuring poems and prose by writers across the world who lacked - and lack - the luxury we see as our right: 'Freedom of Speech.' It's on behalf of PEN, and former president Victoria Glendinning is joining the lineup of local writers who'll be reading. If you're in the area, come along.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A five-star revue from Venue for On the Edge: "What characterises all four plays is efficient writing, crisp direction, and therapeutic humour... Remedy for winter blues available now at the Alma Tavern." And the audience feedback is great too. (It's all on the Stepping Out website, click on the left-hand boxes.) Makes me come over all Kate Winslet. Other purr-making comments from Bristol online listings ".. each story involving wonderfully unique storylines, all delivered with unwavering energy, this is an intriguing and satisfying way to contemplate serious issues, provoking laughter throughout a week of almost nightly sell-out performances."
And a huge thanks to my friends - more than 30 of you - who swelled the audience, and the even-more who sent good wishes when there were no tickets left.

Moving south, and back in time... Road Hill House was the scene of the most sensational murder case of the 19th Century, and arguably responsible for the development of crime fiction as the genre we know today, with a wily sleuth uncovering secrets & lies from tiny clues and psychological tells. The building was renamed Langham House, and local spelling has changed to Rode, but it's the village I used as setting for my first novel Frozen Summer, so I found Kate Summerscale's account of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher particularly fascinating. "The dizzying expansion of the press in the1850s prompted worries that readers might be corrupted by the sex and violence in newspaper articles" she explains: "The new journalists shared much with the detectives; they were seen alternately as crusaders for the truth and sleazy voyeurs.” Freud recognised that therapy was psychic detection: "No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

Still a few months before the 2009 Frome Festival brochure is out, but 2008's Short Story winners and details of this year's competition are now on the Festival website. Watch, as they say, this space.

Bristol Evening Post has done us proud with their Crackerjack review of On The Edge. "...barrowloads of deft writing, some absolutely lovely comic acting and a hit of thought-provoking conundrums. Chock-full of bright ideas, a tight group of actors and a slick series of sets manage to punch far above their weight... The voracious appetite among Bristolians for good new playwrights continues to be well fed."
My favourite bit is being nominated for a medal for describing baklava as “a hamster drowned in honey”. Thanks, Sophie Lomax - and your notion of a 15-minute play as "theatrical espresso" deserves a mention in despatches too.

Reading Matters on BBC4 set out to prove that words can literally electrify us, and reading about an act creates the same brain response as doing it. Science writer Rita Carter led us through this mental maze in a blue pashmino and Tory hairdo looking like she was off for a bridge night rather than an MEG scan. Our brain, she explains, was never designed for reading or writing. It remoulds itself, like a lego truck remade into a tractor, combining the oral linguistic function with the ability to distinguish between prey & predator in order to create a new ability: distinguishing between symbols & interpreting them as language. Hence empathy. It was all very convincing. Use it or lose it, said Rita, because your brain is still on the move.

And speaking of empathy, I've been meaning to say something about Being Human (TV, BBC3) because it has more interesting stories about half-lives than smiting, rending, and shooting them to bits. Humanity, not demonising, is what the world needs now... and it's better scripted and funnier than Demons too. I'm getting very fond of the characters: Annie the ghost with self-esteem issues, George the rueful werewolf and gorgeous Mitchell the vegetarian vampire. ( Mitchell's prequel is a neat story in its own right.)
Annie's a spectre after my own heart: last week, determining to find out why she's remained trapped in a shared house in Bristol since her demise, she announced "I don't know how, but I'm pretty sure it will involve some highlighter pens and a large pad of paper." George's new thing is dating: "We need some ground rules about guests," he tells Mitchell: "- like, don't kill them."
And there's lots of love and sex and death too, what else do you need for a Sunday night sit-com?

Monday, February 09, 2009

The snow brought Frome not so much to a standstill as a slide. The main road was briefly closed, with cars abandoned at odd angles or, more ominously, slipping backwards down the hill with horn on full alert. Police advice not to travel seemed a good call, so reluctantly I missed the final rehearsals of the On the Edge plays - but the thaw came just in time for Sunday night's Love Cafe in Bath.

Enterprising organisers Sue Boyle and Caleb Parkin had created a scripted evening which survived the weather warnings with compliant readers standing in for absentee poets. "I think we've got the aggressive butterfly" said Sue, doing the roll call, "do we have the melancholy waitress?" We did, and all the humour and pathos you'd expect from the night's theme. 'Je m'aime' was an email sonnet collaboration between Caleb and me, performed by Arabella Butler and Paul Hurley with Caleb on cello - all I contributed on the night was some Jane Birkinesque passionate gasping. Great fun - check it out on Youtube here.

Still on things lyrical, the next Frome Poetry Cafe is on March 4th, with a theme of celebration. Just because it's been a long winter.

From stage to page: Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards The End, recipient of the Costa award for biography. The Daily Mail published an extract focusing on her sex life, apparently with much the same view as Samuel Johnson had of women expressing opinions: "like a dog's walking on his hind legs: It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all."
“The woman who worked her way through the Kama Sutra in her sixties – and at 91 refuses to worry about death - reveals how to grow old disgracefully” marvelled the Mail header, adding as further headline tasters The delights of late-flowering lust and Wear what you damn well like.
The DM has never been bothered by tedious constraints like consistency and was soon back on ageist form with an acid comment on 75-year old Joan Collins posing in Hello: "Hardly conventional for a pensioner."
Guardian columnist Michele Hanson responded tersely: "And what is a conventional pensioner meant to wear? Maroon, or navy, or beige... tracksuit bottoms with elasticated waists, a sure sign that your sex life is no more.. but then none of that matters, when one is a "pensioner". As Michele's rant points out, a pensioner can be anyone from around 60 to over 100. "That's people with up to 40 years between them, all lumped together... No one would expect a five-year-old and a 45-year-old to wear the same frock."
All true. But I wish I was enjoying the old lady's memoir more. It seems sad that a woman who was once a courageously unconventional thinker now muses on misapplied lipstick and Max Factor facecream. It's unpretentious and honest, and the affectionate side of her bohemianism is a delight, but was it really the most interesting memoir the Costa board received? Or is this an example of what Marlene Dietrich called the Deathbed award: doled out indulgently and with a fine sprinkling of cynicism.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The annual Salon for affiliated artists of the Merlin theatre coincided with the heaviest snow seen in the southwest for 18 years, a fact of special significance as our venue was the Bath Arms, a charmingly eccentric hostelry on the Longleat estate... delightful for rambling in the forest but disconcerting when the track to the main road glazed into a skating rink.
We talked, among other associated artistic things, of the influence of social networking filters on modes of learning. By coincidence or zeitgeist, I'd been listening last week to Rupert Sheldrake on the radio propounding something similar with reference to the whole of nature. Not that crystals or creatures have social networking sites, but that they evolve, as we do, through collective memory. 'The laws of nature didn't spring into being fully formed at the moment of the Big Bang, like a kind of cosmic Napoleonic code,' he says: 'Through morphic resonance, the patterns of activity in self-organizing systems are influenced by similar patterns in the past, giving each species a collective memory.' So they're not actually laws, just habits. Sheldrake's classic A New Science of life was tagged by one reviewer "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years" when first published, which brings me neatly on to censorship and Jaqueline Wilson.
Yes, amazingly, the Children's Laureate and Queen-Mum of young fiction faced removal from the shelves of Asda until her publishers agreed to change the word 'twat' to 'twit' in her new book My Sister Jodie. Over 150,000 copies were already sold, apparently, before 3 complaints came to light. Who are these prits, winkers, and siddoes, one wonders.

Back On the Edge, rehearsals are increasingly fascinating. On Wednesday we were in the tiny Upstairs Theatre at the Lansdown, snow whirling outside, and I quizzed Ollie about how to become a character - or in his case two characters in the same scene, which needs different-coloured highlighters for a start. He learns his lines as a monologue because, he says sensibly, he wouldn't know what other people are going to say. His process is to decide what the character wants, what's stopping him, and what would happen if he can't get it. When he's got these intentions, he works line by line to decide emotional action. Thrilling to watch the drama emerging from its script chrysalis - Venue magazine has previewed our production and tagged it as their Choice in the listing, but there's more snow forecast for the first night...

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Chris Loveless, founder/director of Fallen Angel Theatre Company, says black comedy is his favourite kind of drama. Which is great, because he's directing my play Thursday Coma and I've so enjoyed watching him and the actors work on "making the invisible visible" - including the humour lurking, I hope, in the darkness. "What's the intention in that line?" he asks, as we sit round the table deconstructing my script over tea and Oliver Millingham's chocolate brownies, until I'm really not sure any more and my words start to look like soldier ants.
Challenging, and immensely exciting.

Oh What A Performance! was the typically quirky title Dave Angus chose for his monthly poetry event in St James Vaults in Bath. Dave, who so sadly died last month, was a droll performer as well as - in his own words - a militant atheist, so it was appropriate that the poetic community celebrated him with song, sonnet, and story in a memorial OWAP night last Friday. Organised by Richard Selby and attended by about a hundred people, the atmosphere was more upbeat than mournful, with many like Bard of Bath Master Duncan paying tribute to Dave's encouragement. Mary Palmer summed up: "Dave was really good at wrapping up a serious message in a lot of humour." Personally, I'll always remember him explaining the psychedelic connection between The Owl and the Pussycat and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds at last year's Frome festival. Sailing, flying... all our stories are journeys.
Humour is truth, and as Peter Ustinov said, "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious."