Monday, May 30, 2011

"Welcome to Theatre West Bank Holiday Extravaganza" Alison Comley says cheerily to the crowded Alma Tavern auditorium on Sunday morning. I've never watched 39 plays in 2 days before, and extravaganza sounds like the mot juste. Packaged in eight batches over two days, these ten-minute salami-slices of drama all represented, as co-director Anne Stiddard put it, the seeds of their theatre company's 2011 autumn season. Only eight will be pricked out and encouraged to grow, and of these only five will be ultimately shown at the Theatre West equivalent of Chelsea Flower Show. The term for a collection of competing writers must be 'a tremble'.
We'd all been given a photograph as starter-fertiliser - hence the project name: Picture This - and most of the writers kept impressively close to their images. All the 'starts' had points of interest, many were really good and some were brilliant; some were successful as short pieces but hard to envisage extended, others clearly had potential to intrigue and entertain as a full-length play. (Marietta Kirkbride's Semiprecious Eggs I just wanted to watch for the rest of the night.) And the acting, throughout the entire two days and nights, was brilliant: a terrific team showing how to pick up a script and breathe life into a character - 115 characters, to be precise.
My entry, Fairytale Ending, was in the first set of the second day, and I was lucky to have Natasha Pring cast as my protagonist - she pulled the part off the page like she'd not just rehearsed it but lived it. Once that was out of the way it was easier to relax and enjoy all the others, and to spend our breaks discussing faves and noting zeitgeist trends: hauntings from the past and matrimonial discord featuring significantly. An exhilarating two days, not least because I've now got four new friends - Elaine, Natalie, Ionnis, and Martin, don't forget to write!
And finally: I never thought I'd blog-link a church, but for All Saints with St John, Clifton I'll make an exception. Emily, who deserves brownie points and actual brownies too for driving into Bristol to support me, alerted me to the vast and utterly amazing stained glass windows here, designed by John Piper. Another highlight from an unforgettable Bank Holiday weekend.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Your dreams are potent fields of creativity, understanding, and wisdom."
Esmé Ellis
has finished her new book Dreaming Worlds Awake, an intriguing patchwork of reflections about the elusive but palpable connections between our conscious and unconscious worlds. We use the term 'dream' both for imaginings in sleep and conscious aspirations, and Esmé explores these interactions in a fascinatingly personal way. I'm delighted my poem Jacob and the Angel is included among her fragments of synchronicity.

Back in Frome, The Lamb is no more! Well not with that name anyway: Martin Earley, charismatic host and owner of the pub where Nevertheless Pub Theatre began, has changed the name to The Cornerhouse with a cool new look to match. Launch night with the Zoe Francis Trio playing Gershwin to Frome's glamorati gave a foretaste of sophistications ahead.

Back to Bath again for something very different: 24 Hour Plays at the Ustinov. "24 hours ago", project director Shane Morgan reminds us after the cast have taken their final bows at 10 pm tonight, "not a word of this production existed. In the last 24 hours, 6 plays have been written, learned, rehearsed, and performed." It's an amazing and wholly admirable achievement, and though the writing was understandably variable, the acting by each team of five was superb. The same props - a venetian blind and a suitcase - featured in each play, as did the notion of wind, and there were thematic synchronicities too: motherhood, both surrogate and abandoning, with the end of the world threatened twice. My favourite was Maria by David Lane, both for strongly developed characterisation and pacey direction: all characters on stage from the start allowed Sam Berger to avoid the dozen or so blackouts that fragmented the opening play Tiny Little Lost. Chris Loveless also did well to create a sense of cohesion with his slightly Am-Drammish comedy material Exit Only. And despite any personal nit-pickings, overall this event was an absolute triumph: two hours of engrossing dramatic entertainment, whipped up by six inventive writers and a cast of thirty talented actors. Bouquets all round.

And as we freeze in bitter winds, I see Skyros island is set for another week of 22 degree sunshine... roll on June 11th, when I'll be in Atsitsa Bay, watching the water, smelling the oleander, tasting the retsina, feeling the warmth, listening and talking about writing to anyone who wants to hear and share.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ovid's Metamorphoses, according to Pants on Fire , are as relevant to the modern world as to antiquity. Man is still violently destructive and continues to ignore the most elemental of all truths: that everything in the universe is made of the same 'stuff' and to destroy nature is to destroy ourselves. Setting the myths in the 1940s allows this classy production to contrast girly glamour with war-time action as metaphor for brutal destruction. Narcissus is a screen idol besotted with his own image, Echo a smitten usherette, and Theseus a shell-shocked soldier sent to slay a Guernica-like Minotaur made of crutches and gas-masks. Pants On Fire have been touring this slick production for eighteen months and it arrived at the Ustinov this week with a collection of awed reviews from both sides of the Atlantic: not surprising, with six dynamic performers, clever set, stylish costumes, and tales as witty and ingenious as they are poignantly provocative.

FairyMonsterGhost is Tim Crouch's trilogy of monologues ostensibly to clarify Shakespeare's plays for young audiences but the Bristol Old Vic studio was packed with a largely older audience all rapt as children for most of the three hours the triple performances require.
I, Peaseblossom, dressed for a muddy Glastonbury and sounding like Ab Fab's Bubbles, was the least gripping, but I, Caliban and I, Banquo were both fascinating interpretations impressively acted: Jimmy Whiteaker moving - and definitely cast against type - as the monster and Adam Peck powerful as the murdered Scot. Tim Crouch is bringing a fourth play in this series I, Malvolio to the theatre in the autumn - one to watch out for.

Back in Frome it's party time, and the erratic sun chose to shine all afternoon on Rosie Jackson's 60th birthday gathering, a wonderfully convivial event with live music and poetry performances. Rosie had invited me to join poets Rose Flint and Sue Boyle to reflect on this celebratory occasion with cronelike wit and wisdom, so we did our best and it all seemed to go down well.

And the weekend just keeps on going... Monday was a 'Word of Mouth' event at BOV featuring Dub Queen and Punk King aka Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Byron Vincent. Frequent droppers-in on this blog will know that I'd go a long way to hear Byron, who presents his achingly acute and witty life commentaries with a slightly baffled air as if he's got no idea where all these surreal similes came from or are heading, and then while we're still yelping with mirth he can silence us all with a seriously savage satire like Alchemy in Nowhere Town. Jean 'Binta' Breeze has a contrastive style, equally personal but with reggae rhythms and more specific political passion. She writes about soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same sad intensity as she speaks of the plight of Jamaica, yet somehow with a sense of enduring love for humanity. Sometimes I think there's nothing a play can do that poetry can't do better.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Exeter Northcott has always had a reputation for punching above its weight for a small university theatre, and despite last year's financial quake their programme is impressive. SATTF took The Comedy of Errors there last month, and now Sell A Door have chosen this venue to open their national tour of the controversial rock musical Spring Awakening.
It's a passionate show in every sense, with an exuberant young cast and some strong erotic moments from the lead couple ~ Jonathan Eiø as Melchior and Victoria Serra as Wendla.
Based on a German play written in 1891, it was banned for over fifty years for its frank look at adolescent sexuality and the inadequacy - and hypocrisy - of available guidance. It’s Skins meets Cabaret, the press release enthuses but from the start it's more like West Side Story as the teens hang around a playground and a starry-eyed young girl sings alone. Wendla is no Maria anticipating passion though: what she's yearning for is the truth about babies, which her prim mother refuses to impart. Repression is just as bad for the boys, stuck with a sadistic Latin teacher and sexual confusions summed up by Melchior: ‘The entire world is fixated by penis and vagina – well, I am’.
Inevitably these rites of passage are more wounding than wonderful, and the action is strewn with casualties before the Capulet-crypt-like final scene. Abused children, pregnancy from ignorance, homophobia, school-induced suicide... wouldn't it be great to think, 120 years on since Frank Wedekind shocked society with these home truths, we'd have got all that sorted? And actually if I had one reservation it'd be that this moral fable relied too much on ciphers to represent social issues rather than developed characters.
Nevertheless an exciting production well worth the long drive from Frome.

Equally as shocking an indictment of 19th century social attitudes, this time about real lives, Brontë is at Bath Theatre Royal in a Shared Experience production directed by Nancy Meckler. Polly Teale's play digs deep into the psyches and secrets of this famous family, showing the bickering and loneliness as well as the vivid imaginations that created a crucible for their iconic writings - and the reason for brother Branwell's tragic failure too. "We should be grateful for our obscurity," Emily comments candidly, "nothing was expected of us." Invading the intense minutiae of their actual lives are the writers' alter-ego characters, passionate and wild, articulating their longings and violence. Brilliant scripting and powerful performances from all the cast especially Charlotte (Kristin Atherton) and Emily (Elizabeth Crarer) whose mutual love, like their antipathy, is always painfully lucent.

And my one reservation: the aggressive air-con system in the Main House. I noticed scarves appearing in the shivering stalls but wasn't sufficiently equipped myself, it being now May, to withstand the icy assault. So, go see Brontë! - but wear your thermal vest.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's been a good month for nostalgia: no sooner back from Dublin than off to stay a few days with my student-days flatmate Helen who now lives with husband Tony in leafy Hertfordshire. Lots of reminiscences over lingering lunches in her sunny garden, including a visit from Mag who shared our Dublin digs.
Helen dug out this snap of us revising for our finals, an OMG-44-years ago, and Tony took an updated image of us in similar pose but I managed to delete it on our woodland walk so here instead are my friends sitting on a badger.
Back in Frome, and a great night of dancing with Orkestra del Sol at the Cheese & Grain, with Frome's own wonderful Street Bandits providing a terrific curtain raiser. Think gipsy rhythms, street-theatre clowning and flamboyant outfits, and you've got the picture for both these great bands.

Over in Bristol it's Mayfest time and I went with Alison to see The Summer House, billed as a comedy thriller and featuring three talented performers in a shambolic romp through male mythologies both contemporary and ancient nordic. A wonderful comedy - original, physical, and very funny - but despite the fights, portents, hints, and Viking visitations this stag-party romp never ticked the thriller box for me. Alison felt a Lord of the Flies vibe as booze and testosterone flooded the action but there was no Piggy, only Loki, and no real menace among this endearing trio. After 90 minutes the show ended with a song while loose ends remained shimmering like the Northern Lights in the Icelandic sky, to rousing applause from the Bristol Old Vic Studio audience. And jolly well deserved too.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Bliss it was to be alive,
but to be a bit less ill was very heaven,
as Wordsworth might have mused in East Woodlands bluebell woods at dusk and a new moon rising. Thanks Emily, thanks everyone. And more reason to be cheerful in the inspirational success of Frome Independents in the town council election - sweeping in with 10 out of the 17 seats. As world-travelling writer Roger says, Tunis, Egypt, Frome.... maybe hope for all of us - although, with the dejecting news our nation sees no point a fairer voting system, maybe not.

To brighter thoughts:
NIE is the wonderfully innovative theatre group that knocked my socks off last year with their promenade show Everything Falls Apart, so I was avid to see their new production Tales from a Sea Journey at the Tobacco Factory as part of Mayfest. Like all their shows, it's fast-paced, high-energy, and hugely entertaining, using live music and intermingling various cultures and languages to create a colourful patchwork of emotional experiences. Their inspiration this time is a real sea voyage taken by the group in 2009, embellished with tales both encountered and invented. These range from ferociously funny black comedy to moving domestic cameos, and combine to create an exciting show that despite its random elements feels satisfyingly complete.

Monday, May 02, 2011

It was touch and go till Saturday morning whether I’d make the trip to Dublin to convalesce with my long-time friend Jenny. I knew I couldn’t have a kinder carer, so took the chance: after all it’s only a short flight, what could go wrong....
Well for a start, the woman at Aer Lingus check-in decided my tiny bag was too big for carry-on, and I had to pay £17 fine despite the fact it was way too small for the hold, as obviously noted by the baggage handlers since it failed to emerge with the larger cases on the carousel at Dublin. Aer Lingus desk was deserted but there was a phone on which I became embroiled in a MontyPythonesque exchange with a voice which insisted I must be outside the Spa and at my plaintive insistence I was still in Arrivals, decided it had no idea where I was. It put me on musak-hold for a while, returning to announce I was in Terminal 1, as though of all the places the flight from Bristol might arrive who’d have thought it would choose that one! The voice then became efficient and took details, and eventually I bundled out of the airport, bagless, into the late afternoon sun and climbed into a taxi. I related my woes to the big Nigerian driver as we cruised towards Howth. ‘They will bring it to you.’ he told me in a very deep voice I found immensely reassuring.
And sure enough, after a lovely evening of catchup & supper with Jenny, I got a text to say my bag was being prepared for delivery.
Next morning as hours passed and the sunshine beckoned ever more insistently, I phoned Aer Lingus to query their optimism. ‘I’m only here for the weekend, we had plans for today,’ I said, coming over all plaintive again. ‘Ah sure, but you know what they’re like,’ said a soothing voice as if I were whining over the non-appearance of lions at nature reserve.
So what with Aer Lingus charging me £17.00 to lose my bag, not bothering to return it till over 12 hours after they found it, plus providing the unique flight experience when I struggled with a coughing fit of a stewardess solicitously asking if I’d prefer to pay €2.50 or £2.00 for a glass of water, and you can see why my overall impression of this airline is not good. Easyjet next time.
The bag arrived at last and off we went to Howth Demesne, where Deer Park Golf course replaces the classic landscaped gardens of the Gaisford-St Lawrence family. It’s a lovely view anyway, right down to Malahide, and out across Dublin Bay. We walked among the wild rhododendrons and saw the Neolithic portal tomb and the masses of wild garlic - the curse of Gráinne Ní Mháille, 16th Century Pirate Queen, who fell out with the Baron. When she called at his castle he ignored the ancient Brehon law of Ireland giving hungry travellers the right to claim sustenance and barred his castle against her. In retaliation she captured his little boy and held him hostage until the family agreed to set an extra plate at the supper table every night in case she would ever pass that way again. And the promise is honoured to this day. ‘God be with the old days’ says Jenny.
Then after broth and bread & cheese, we walk on Howth Head, thick with the egg-yolk yellow and coconut smell of the gorse, looking out over the sea to Ireland’s Eye. Lots of talking, good food, and sunshine: perfect recuperation.