Saturday, September 25, 2010

If you fancy a relaxing retreat in the heart of Languedoc, the place to go is Gardoussel, a wonderful stone-built complex of gites and workrooms with stunning views, yoga decks, gardens, a field complete with donkeys, and a warm communal kitchen providing fabulous Ayurvedic meals throughout the day.

A perfect place to write and just be, not too isolated from the community as there's a village about a mile down the river road: St André de Valborgne, a one horse town without a horse, but with lovely traditional stone buildings and a sandy boule rink outside the only café where locals gather. No room for much more as the high foothills of the Cévennes edge close as hungry cats, their pine-dense crags and sweet chestnut forests looming steeply on either side.
I first came here two years ago, and eulogised about the venue, Sharon and Alex who run it, their family, and their way of life: it’s the most tranquil and inspiring place you could find anywhere in the world.

Unsurprisingly, my writing sessions last week were an absolute delight, a great group of warm-hearted individuals who generated a sense of immediate friendship as well as producing some amazing writing to share in our morning and evening sessions. In the afternoons I explored the forest trails, going for miles seeing no-one, both exhilarated and scared, once escorted by a mysterious wolf-dog, swimming by the waterfalls, finding masses of orchids and a four-leafed clover. Equinox full moon added even more enchantment to this magic place. As the old man in the café said: “Un peu sauvage, mais vraiment cool.”

Gardoussel – what can I say that's negative? No waitress service with cheery muzac in the dining-room, no cocktail bar, no Full English fries, no Jeremy Kyle in the lounge, no jostling coachloads, no tour guide, no artificiality, nothing that doesn’t feel nourishing, and warm, and generous, and right.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Red Shoes is a terrible tale. A girl who has no name – at least other fairy story victims are allowed wistful names like Snow White, Beauty, Cinderella – is punished in the most unimaginably cruel way for wanting to dance, as if joy is a crime that deserves torture and mutilation. A dark theme indeed, which Kneehigh Theatre embraces with total relish. The players creep in with shaven heads and Belsen faces and institution underwear, shivering their way to the stage and opening the story with a washing routine more Bedlam than bedtime story. Costumes became more varied but maintain their ugly crudity, with the exception of the fantastical Lady Lydia, our Host/Hostess, whose role like the voyeur "Master of Ceremonies" in Cabaret is to give ruthless commentary on the unfolding tragedy. "Shoes red with desire, shoes that bleed, that’s what all you girlies need."
But the crucifixal iconography which creates the church backdrop is a sinister symbol of oppression and cruelty: her red shoes are 'brighter than the bleeding heart' and the dreadful punishment is to dance endlessly until the butcher takes pity on her and cuts off her feet.
Is it the end of the nightmare as the crippled girl limps away on her brush crutches? No. Her dancing shoes, streaming blood from her severed feet, fly after her, and the torment continues until an angelic figure arrives to tell her "You have been redeemed"...
Is that the end? No. The girl resists, and the angel becomes brutal as they fight until her damaged stumps and wooden feet destroy him. Lady Lydia has the last words, obscure and menacing like so much of the performance: “My secret is reserved for those who dare to dance a different dance with me.”
Advertised for ‘adults and brave children’ yet though the violence- both emotional and visceral- is graphic and unflinching, the entire performance is laced with exuberant comedy and wild, beautiful, inventiveness. On stage musicians create the fantastic soundtrack to this minimally scripted and magnificent production. Patrycja Kujawska as The Girl is the supernova in a stella cast.

Saturday morning saw the final rehearsal of my play Consulting with Chekhov, with full props, and I've learned much about effective use of bondage tape. The spanker - which Dee acquired from Ann Summers by pointing wordlessly to the relevant data in her script - is thrillingly effective too, and I was delighted with the nuances of unease as well as sexiness brought to this theme of the symbiotic relationship between love and control.
The evening show, to a crowded house at the Alma Tavern, went brilliantly, and all I could manage in the questions-to-the-playwright bit at the end was say how appreciative I feel - to Theatre West, my director Pameli Benham, and the fabulous cast. And thanks too to everyone who laughed, applauded, and enjoyed the play.

And now I'm off to Languedoc, to the beautiful venue of Gardoussel in the Cévennes, to lead a writers' retreat, and hopefully to enjoy a final week of warmth before swapping my sandals for winter boots for another year.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ironic, really, after all the theatrical razzmatazz of Edinburgh, that the best show of the summer for me was a musical in a pub theatre in Southwark. From that masterly study in emotional and cultural repression Remains of the Day, Alex Loveless has created a masterpiece made unforgettable in this Fallen Angel production. Stephen Rashbrook as the self-destructively servile butler Stevens is scarily convincing but the 14-strong company were all impressive: sharp script and libretto combined with brilliant ensemble acting, singing and dancing, was absolutely exhilarating. Complex wartime political intrigue is deconstructed in wittily inventive songlines and there's time for glamour and humour too but the poignancy of the story glimmers through the gaity as "life carries on remorseless". Mega congratulations to Alex and director Chris Loveless who well deserve the Evening Standard accolade that "A canny West End producer could do far worse than to tweak this fine show for a transfer."

Only the louch and lovely can rent these rooms begins the title poem of Sue Boyles new collection Too Late For The Love Hotel , launched in Bath this week by Sue 'and friends': an impressive line-up of bardic luminaries at an elegant gathering at the BRLSI. Introducing, Sue confessed to 'a certain sadness' when her innocent enquiry about staying with her husband at the Orient Hotel in Venice was rejected at reception with the tactful explanation that rooms here were let by the hour...
Sue's poems have been hailed by Andrew Motion as 'strange' and by her many admirers as delightfully inventive: the overall theme of this collection, she says, is 'the centrality of love'.

Still on the subject of thin volumes and social mores, I've been rereading Saki's satire on 19th Century London society The Unbearable Bassington. If you haven't met Comus Bassington, or Clovis Sangrail, imagine Wodehouse's picaresque Bertie Wooster stories with an underlying melancholy and fatalistic unease. HH Munro, aka Saki, was one of those Army children like Kipling sent back motherless from India to England at so tender an age the terror seems never to have left him. He died in the trenches in 1916, his final words "Put that bloody cigarette out' perversely appropriate for a writer with such deep understanding of destructive folly and tragic absurdity. His pen-sketches are brilliant: "A close-cut beard lent a certain dignity to his appearance - a loan which the rest of his features and mannerisms were successfully repudiating" he writes of one society character, and of another: "He was a skilled window-dresser in the emporium of his own personality." Almost Wildean....

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Theatre West Autumn Season is coming to Bristol's Alma Tavern, leading off with the three rehearsed readings picked from their recent contest. Hence the picture of a blackboard. This is no ordinary blackboard, on here is chalked the information that my play Consulting with Chekhov will be one of the rehearsed readings which open the season!
Director Pameli Benham invited me to the first rehearsal - here's me with my marvellous cast: Dan Maxwell as dashing & duplicitous Doctor Darling, Annette Chown as wickedly gorgeous Lee, and Dee Sadler as stressed-out writer Sadie. We're waiting by the bins for the barman to open up, oh the glamour of theatrical life. Once we're in, it's all go. "This is the third play in a row I've been tied up" comments Dan, as Annette practices straddling and Dee marks up her lines with fluorescent pink marker pen. Exciting times...

Vamos Theatre, “on being awarded a major grant” (why does my heart sink when I read these words in a programme?) created the full-mask show Nursing Lives to evoke “nurses at work and play during the years of World War II”. The masks themselves (made by Russell Dean of Strangeface Theatre) are fabulous, and brought tenderly to life by the three actors, but there really wasn’t enough substance to sustain 80 minutes of whimsy and nostalgia. Many charming moments among the capering to 1940s melodies, and quite a few giggles, but the structural conceit of revisiting a memory-filled hospital ward gave a ‘rummage in the attic’ feel to a show that would have been so much better edited down to half the running time. For me the cheeky demolition men should be the first redundancies, but as this is billed 'for 8 and upwards' I'm probably being a bit curmudgeonly.

Stourhead lake, created in 1744 and surrounded with a walk conceived as an allegory of Aeneas' voyage after the fall of Troy. The composition was designed, apparently, to resemble a painting by Gaspar Poussin. Heroic couplets by Alexander Pope at every turn celebrate this 'finest English example of a landscape of antiquity' that we're lucky enough to have close enough to Frome for evening walks, but best moments come from un-Augustan moments like this rainbow.

Friday, September 10, 2010

As I'd recently interviewed Danny Moar, the very personable director of Bath Theatre Royal, and heard all about his commissioning policy for the Main House, I was keen to see the high-profile production picked to launch their autumn season after the grand refurbishment. Sheridan’s The Rivals boasts three huge names: director Peter Hall and national telly-treasures Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles. Yes, folks, it could have been dire, despite – or because of – a full house audience rattling their jewellery in appreciation. But it wasn’t. (I’ll rephrase this for the review btw). Much credit goes to the stunningly simple set evoking 18th Century Bath merely by a sweeping crescent, mellow lighting and minimal props, and to the fabulous costumes in lavish fabrics and gorgeous muted tones. An A-list cast helped too. Penelope Keith as Mrs Malaprop did full justice to the linguistic absurdities which have immortalised her character but it was left mainly to the men to carry the energy of the story and convey the comedy, both satirical and slapdash. Tony Gardner as melancholic Faulkland was particularly charismatic, though Gerard Murphy’s Lucius O’Trigger seemed awkward in his role of Irish firebrand, perhaps prevented by 21st Century PC to fully inhabit the potential humour of the role. With a running time of nearly 3 hours, the production needed the lift of its unscripted witty additions: like the whores who whisked Jack away as soon as he’d finished wooing silly Lydia, and his Tom Cruise style passionate bouncing on the sofa. The overt theme of Sheridan’s play is rivalry in love, but a modern, reality-TV-aware, audience will find more fascination in the lewd hypocrisy of an era of class extremes - and the recognition that not much has changed. Stilted direction tended to present the action a series of tableaux, but this only enhanced the underlying self-seeking and isolation of these richly indulged socialites. Funny, yes, but a comedy of cruelty rather than of manners.

Thursday saw the Merlin re-launch: new season, new programme, new direction. New director Claudia Berry talked about the new initiatives at Frome's community theatre, including the innovative concept of Poetry Platter - a kind of faux-site-specific intimate theatre, with the stage transformed into a continental-style café so the tapas-nibbling audience are participants too, while entertained by six very different - all excellent - local poets. Do book at: Merlin to experience and enjoy a highly unusual night.

And finally... don't you love the way these old words come back into fashion? Kindle, dwindled from its firelighting origin to a metaphorical cliche, has returned triumphant: Kindle books now outsell hardcovers at the ratio of 180 to 100, Amazon reports, and are predicted to outnumber and outsell paperbacks next year.
Well, anything that rekindles public interest in reading....

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Frome's 'Hunting Raven', one of the most successful independent bookshops in the southwest, is ten years old this week so there have been celebrations on the cobbles of Cheap Street. Local authors Kate Maryon and Rachel Ward both have new books out, Kate's Glitter for the pre-teens and Rachel's The Chaos, second in her Numbers series, appealing to both YA and adult readers.

Another local novelist in town is Lindsay Clarke, whose new novel The Water Theatrewas reviewed in The Times in spectacularly giddying terms:
"Out of a tale of family traumas, Clarke has revived his career with a thrilling, insightful hymn to our humanity... a stunning, compelling tale that tackles the biggest theme of all: the existence of evil, and how ordinary, fallible mortals come to terms with Man’s astonishing capacity for brutality and venality... The Water Theatre should re-establish him as one of our most talented, ambitious and groundbreaking novelists. There is nothing small about this book; it is huge in scope, in energy, in heart... big themes are matched by exquisite, lyrical prose. ...The Water Theatre will linger long beyond the turning of the last page. It is difficult to remember a recent book that is at once so beautiful and yet so thoughtprovoking."

On the subject of big themes and venal behaviour, in the Mail of all places (my preferred Café reading: "know your enemy", but don't pay him) I found a political feature commenting on Blair's memoirs, and him, with utter contempt. Only two sentences failed to chime with me: "In a different age, retiring statesmen wrote candidly and lucidly about great matters of government and international diplomacy. But now, sadly, Blair has given us the political equivalent of chicklit. " And what did chicklit, even the trashiest, ever do to deserve comparison with the malice and lies of a man who has more in common with the Deepwater Horizon disaster than a pink paperback? Except even BP's global messup only killed 11 men directly, while ten thousand times that number died in Iraq.

And with a new season of StageWrite workshops starting, Niamh and I have begun planning our theme of 'Dressing Up Box.' As we both subscribe to Nietzsche's view that "all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking" our meetings generally involve pacing round the lake at Stourhead or along the river Frome but this week we went further: a nine mile cycle ride and lunch at the wonderful Lighthouse organic café in Tytherington. Yummy hummus and great views.
Apparently psychologists agree with most children that we're designed to thrive outside not at a desk, and then there's the stimulus of rhythm and the physiological arousal of motion which improves brain functioning. So there you are - three more reasons to enjoy the late summer sunshine.