Saturday, November 26, 2011

"If you only see one West End play this year it's got to be Jerusalem"... so we did, convinced by scrolls of honours for Jez Butterworth's script and Mark Rylance in the lead role of Rooster, rogue-hero and Green Man, striving to create the Jerusalem of Blake's anthem among retreating rural woodlands of Wiltshire.
Rylance's Rooster is an extraordinary figure: drunken clown & local menace as well as storyteller with near-mystical powers and a body broken by Evel Knievel stunting but apparently indestructible, his insalubrious Occupy has become a magnet for the disaffected and a threat to the developers and civic authorities. The story is violent, painfully funny, and stonkingly well acted- not only magical Mark, who eats the audience from the palm of his hand, but a wonderful support team headed by out-of-office Mackenzie Crook. Challenging, baffling and entertaining in roughly equal proportions, that's brilliant writing.

I Malvolio the fourth of Tim Crouch's 'retellings' of famous Shakespeare plays in the perspective of a minor character, presents the dour steward of Twelfth Night incarcerated as insane after being tricked out of habitual restraint in a society he insists is more crazy than he is. And certainly Shakespeare's plot devices of boy/girl confusion and infatuations do seem, in his outraged summary, ripe for therapy. The ranting is comical and the outfit a joke demonstration of every emblem of derangement and rejection from soiling to KICK ME card on his back, but we're not allowed to forget the false 'love letter' that led Malvolio to this state, or the fury of his futile threat I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you. What pushed him into this abyss was the terrible thrill of believing he was loved. Which is why our laughter chills into silence as we watch Malvolio changing, slowly and deliberately, back into the corseted, starch-shirted, buttoned-up, dark-suited being he sees as worthy of respect.
Friday's late show at Bristol Old Vic was billed as adult content, so what did Tim change? Not much, apparently. He always strips to his leopard-print thong, but doesn’t usually talk so much about audience drinking. Or cardboard boxes and orgasm. The main difference was the amount of ad-libbing - so much he nearly falls out of character but, like a bungee jumper, always pulls back, and the laughter fades. This is a man stripped of everything he valued, left only with what he dreads: the vulnerability of being human. Perhaps Malvolio is right, and believing yourself beloved is madness.

Frome Christmas Extravaganza, fun even when thronging with umbrellas, was a vintage one this year - a mild clear night, and a return of the traditional 'real tree' to the market place. The town was seething with all the usual jollities, including craft fair at the Merlin, and a dance stage in the main street (only in Frome, surely, is the Christmas Light Switch-On prefaced by performances of The Sugar Plum Fairy and Whip My Hair...) Nick White in mayoral role (and male attire, which doesn't always happen, though he looks just as good in a suit as in tutu) with the help of the three little winners of the draw-a-Christmas-card contest (a crowd ahhhh moment) did the countdown (5... 4... 3... 2... 1...) and the Frome tradition of partial success was maintained to the satisfaction of all. 'Oh well, look behind you,' said Nick cheerfully, 'some of them have come on there.' And then we had fireworks. I genuinely love Frome civic celebrations, I feel a bit like Dr Johnson admiring dogs that walk on their hind legs: It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Don't come expecting anything because it won't be the way you expected" is the message from Filter to audiences of their Lyric co-production Midsummer Night's Dream now touring. I went expecting rowdy anarchy, and was not disappointed.The Tobacco Factory auditorium, largely composed of college students, helpfully recreated Elizabethan mob racket from the start, heedless of Flute's plea from the stage "Stop talking! Do you not know I can actually see you, it’s not the telly." Flute was in prologue mode at the time, introducing their show to Bristol with the conceit that Bottom was to be played tonight by Martin Clunes whose nonarrival now meant cancellation... Cue the fabulous Fergus O'Donnell, aka a punter called Steve, to identify himself as keen (and insured through MU) and step into role, cleverly anticipating the Mechanical's similar dismay when Pyramus goes missing. And for me it's the way jokes & chaos were always somehow entwined with Shakespeare's storylines & themes that makes this production so much more than merely a romp with fairies & funny frocks. In fact costumes, like lighting, set, and props evoking Occupy rather than Athenian woodland, all encouraged suspension of disbelief rather than eye-feasting, with Bottom's transformation effected without any visual change. Sound was the magic, throughout, creating donkey hooves, moonlit magic, and turning Titania's flowery dell into a seething club scene. Lots of the hilarity as well as the musical vitality came from contemporary references: Oberon, a central character throughout, was a wonderful combo of over-excited child and annoying office boss as played by Jonathan Broadbent in a Batman suit telling everyone ‘I’m invisible!’
But even with cuts and changes, the themes of Shakespeare's story came through and his words remained the real success of the play. The pain of the young lovers' relationships, the brutality of rejection in a trusted bonding, the distress at abandonment - all these timeless elements were shown full-on and the gravity of that anguish wasn't compromised by the culminating violent food fight with flying flump across the stage and auditorium. Both ways. I think that was my favourite bit, along with Batman/Oberon and his Robin/Puck settling in camping chairs with Carlings to watch the humans fight... fight....

Summing up in 4 words: brilliant, inventive, anarchic, overlong. I don't know what it's like on other nights, but it seemed to me we'd had our best fun out of the 'metafiction' of Pyramus and Thisbe at the opening, and the production could have ended after the magic righting of the final wrong, giving Bottom the rueful last word ("Shame...") as he wakes from his Dream to find he's no longer hung like a donkey, and then returning him back to his seat in the audience. The cast seemed as exhausted as the audience, and the long death scene meant the production ended with wafts of confused pre-emptive applause.. not a good finale for a fabulous show. But 4 stars, definitely, so take a look at the Youtube or just book and go.

And here's a picture of Autumn at Stourhead, before this unexpectedly mellow autumn remembers it's nearly the end of November and disappears into wintry murk.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bristol is positively bristling with new theatrical initiatives: two new mini-venues (The Wardrobe and Little Black Box) and Lunchtime Theatre at The Brewery, launched this week with a short play by Tamsin Walker and yummy pizza from Mark's Bread next door. Digits, developed from Tobacco Factory’s Script Space new writing competition, was well acted with pacey direction and clever 2-D props, but the basic idea - unreliable narrator blames duped friend after failed scam - needed a less unwavering trajectory in the storyline to maintain curiosity, and the dim/devious Likely Lads duo came over as dole-queue cliches rather than credible characters.
Still in Bristol, the Old Vic hosted a new production from Sound&Fury who last year transformed the studio into a submarine for the unforgettable experience of Kursk, a play I reviewed as amazingly poignant and a brilliant a piece of theatre... unforgettable. So I had high expectations of Going Dark, and wasn't disappointed by the fabulous theatricality and sensitive solo performance by John Mackay as Max, the astrophysicist whose galactic knowledge and cosmic understanding can't help him when he begins to lose his sight. "We are all scattered stardust... we exist in our heads" Max tells us as the darkened auditorium becomes the planetarium where he lectures on the wonders of the universe below a vast night sky. Max's talks are fascinating and contrast touchingly with the dialogue with his unseen child, though the inherent poignancy does get a bit sentimentalised (the little boy is called Leo, to further point the pathos of Max losing both his sun and his son...) Some surprisingly clunky sections too – the “what’s that you say?” repeated-phone-conversation device, and unexplained references to hallucinations - apparently common during visual loss - dropped confusingly into the story. But despite any reservations about Hattie Naylor's script, being huddled the dark, knowing our galaxy is hurtling away from the light... that was goosebumps stuff. Great direction by Tom Espiner and Dan Jones.

Plutarch called painting 'silent poetry' and Leonardo said "Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen." Though presumably in Italian. That near-symbiotic relationship was wonderfully evident on Monday night when twenty poets joined guests Rose Flint and David Davies at one of the best nights we've ever seen at the Frome Poetry Cafe. "Inspired by Art" proved a rich theme, as the room filled with intensely perceived visual experiences and deeply felt emotions. Eight of the 'Angels in Art' workshop participants read great pieces from that experience, several people brought paintings to show, and poems ranged from intense observation of a single piece to reflections on art and artists in general. We heard anger as well as awe - and refreshing humour too from Alison, and Phyllis who confessed One dictum I use - not yours, mine/ if it looks like a photo, fine. More serious thoughts particularly appreciated came from regular contributors Rosie Jackson (Stanley Spencer) & Helen Moore (Duchamp's urinal), and first time visitor Stephen Boyce (Barbara Hepworth's Configuration). I could go on and on, it was just one of those great nights that Frome's Garden Cafe hosts so well. And there'll be another soon - the annual spangly Merlin Theatre tie-in, this time going Into The Wardrobe possibly with lions and witches and hopefully with a strong spell of irreligious fantasy. Nick White, Frome Mayor and famed local thespian, will be there to reward the most popular pieces with tickets for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Magic....

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In the fabulously inventive and audaciously absurd world of Gonzo Moose, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, the famous fairytale-collecting brothers featured in their touring production Grimm and Grimmer, are just like Jedward, except one looks like Tweedledum and the other looks like Robin Cook. It's tempting to say that, in their various fairytale guises, Seamus Allen and Mark Conway steal every scene with their witty physicality, but I'm aware too that the charm and theatrical presence of Lauren Silver, in the single role of their sister Lotte, is the glue that holds this hilarious chaos together. The plot is essentially pure fairytale: the hero(ine)'s journey, the helpers (an ear, some lascivious elves), the darkest hour (top tip: brute force beats magic) but with a large helping of Monty Python and Gonzo Moose black humour sprinkled in. And blood. "Let's never do that again" say the Grimm boys, back in Jedward unison mode, after the (not-gratuitous-at-all) blood-gushing heart-surgery scene at the end... I've missed a bit of the story, actually. The show came to Bath's tidy little Rondo Theatre for one night only - I think you should all go & see it in Oxford next month.

Angels... what are they like? I've known some strange ones. Marian Bruce's amazing life-size installations - arguing, whoring, desolate... The Recording Angel in my play Love Bites, whose smart-arse jocularity would make him voiceover candidate for any celestial Come Dine With Me. Historically of course angels are depicted with feathery, birdlike, wings: the Tom Lomax artifacts exhibited at Rook Lane Arts are more cerebral, calculated apparently according to rules of alchemy, but the tiny ones looked to me more like mangled fondant mice. Whatever one's expectations, Rose Flint's excellent poetry workshop at that exhibition space inspired wide-ranging thoughts and feelings: Linda Perry's magnificent piece accused her chosen angel of looking for bones to hang your bare existence on, and as Rose commented, all our angels were pretty broken. I look forward to next Monday, when I hope to remeet some of these psychotic, traumatised, mutilated, angels struggling towards the Poetry Cafe to be born again....

Still on a poetic theme, a quick plug for Words & Ears, Dawn Gorman's monthly gig in Bradford on Avon, where I'm flying the flag for the Provocative Elder movement next month - also small poetic role as sexegenarian separatist at the fundraiser party for Keep Frome Local on December 1st.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Back in Frome, and everything that was simmering quietly when I left seems to be coming to a rapid boil. First event occurred before I'd worked through my pile of post: Hip Yak Poetry Shack, with actual yak, puppet-stylee, co-hosted by lovely Liv Torc and dashingly moustachioed Jonny Fluffypunk, premiered in Bath's Porter Cellar Bar and featured also Chris Redmond (who wowed Frome on Poetry Platter night with his reclamation of Slow) and surreal humorist Rachel Pantechnicon - all brilliant performers deservedly well received by the lively, largely student, audience. I especially liked Chris's ironic homage to Kenny G (I don't want acid jazz, I want flaccid jazz) and his delvings into dark places like a cold which made him sound like the love child of Darth Vadar and Deidre Barlow, and the only good poo poem ever written.
There were some women among the audience but as performers it was left to just Liv, sassy Bath poet Jo Butts and me to cut a swathe through the testosterone jungle.(Sorry Rachel but you know what I mean.) I'm amazed that with a line advocating no more appeasing and male ego-pleasing I got to bronze in the mini-slam - the winner cramming in more cocks, wanks, muffs and spunk than you'd find scrawled on the door of a primary school loo. I've nothing against any of these ingredients to a healthy & happy lifestyle but the term 'over-egged' came to mind, as did the image of Keats' Ruth amid the alien corn feeling a bit sick. And shouldn't students be off out Occupying somewhere? These elderly quibbles aside Hip Yak Poetry Shack was an excellent evening's entertainment, to be repeated in Frome on December 17th Upstairs at the Cornerhouse so I urge you all to go along & try it if you live nearby as I think you'll enjoy.

Poetry of a different style by the market cross in Frome for the 11.11 anti-war & Gaian evening vigil. Rain poured with anthropomorphic dramatic effect as Rose Flint read her magical Prayer for Peace and Helen Moore intoned her splendid Kali Exorcism.

Bristol Old Vic is still operating without a main theatre, but the 1927 production The Animals and Children Took To The Streets was ideally suited the studio: the show was brilliant but also hard to describe. Imagine Lemony Snicket rewrote the tale of the Pied Piper, and Tim Burton decided to make a film of it. This could be the cuttings. A cunningly animated backdrop created the infested putrid underbelly of the city, a place where the caretaker is regularly beaten up by Wayne the Racist and his eight kids, where gangs of violent children have to be sedated by Granny's zombifying gumdrops - which the neighbours agree is "a massive improvement". References to modern life - vile living conditions, an underclass society, urban riots, chemical overdosing of mental disorders, and probably a few others - crawl and scurry through the action like the vermin, but presentation is more Victorian end-of-pier: the three women who played all the (non-projected) roles wore pierrot style make-up, and silent-movie piano-playing accompanied the action. Outrageous imagination and subversive humour defiantly compensated for a slim and slightly repetitive story-line in this inverse-fairy-tale which put every theatrical element in the blender and pressed Pulse. The full-house audience all loved it, especially the children. Little dears.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

My last week here in the Bay has treated me to continuing Indian summer with day-glo blue skies and amazing sunsets so sudden it's like the moon, which has been floating high fragile as a snowflake for ages, has finally lost patience and yelled “you’re supposed to be on a break” across the celestial orbs.
For me this means more long walks, with birds and surfers to watch as well as the long rolling waves. I've been doing most of my writing on the hoof in a notebook, my laptop mainly used to scroll world news. “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking” Nietzsche said. I don't know about great thoughts but the tranquility is marvellous.
Longest walk - five and a half hours - took me up to the Moss Beach Marine Reserve, over Pillar Point bluff, breeding ground for seals as well as unique preserve of molluscs and other sea life.
The only other life form I see on these perambulations is generally canine plus owner, and I'm going to share now, with fulsome apology to all the very lovely doggy people I know (Anja, Jacqui, Rose et al...) that after three weeks in California I’ve developed a fervent wish that dog-owning will some day become as unpopular as public smoking and for much the same reasons: environmentally polluting, intrustive and unhealthy for passive victims. Even in the sublime serenity of a beach at sunset you’re not safe from a woman brandishing a ball in one of those long plastic claws calling out reassuringly ‘He’s only being friendly!’ The tempting, but unuttered, response is ‘Madam, were your son as big as a pony with the exhuberance of a Drone bomber, would you be equally blasé to watch him paw my breast, headbutt my chin, and lick up my nose? I think not Madam, indeed I suspect you would have required sharp words with his teacher and grounded him for the rest of his puberty.’
Don’t get the impression I’m anthropophobic or averse to fraternising, far from it. Every stranger who's connected with me by word or gesture has been really friendly - and despite my joy in solitude I’ve had great social times too: with the Coastside Life Story Writers group who made me hugely welcome at their meeting and over lunch, at Dave Minton’s Spoken Word event, Mo’s amazing music night (six singer/guitarists & electric standing bass), and the Friday morning jamming sessions at Ramans - all highlights of my stay.

So too was our visit to the city, fortuitously on the only rainy day of my trip. Masters of Venice was the stunning and surprisingly sensuous exhibition we viewed at the de Younge Fine Art Gallery - here's Titian's Danaë and the shower of gold - followed by an afternoon in hippy Haight district, with amazing shops like Piedmont Boutique, and taking a detour past the Occupy camp to show solidarity on the way home.
So tomorrow I'll be flying out of San Francisco: no more walks along the bay where white waves crash endlessly and sunlight glitters liquid silver over amethyst ocean and the sky is so enormously blue all I can say to describe what I see, like Steve Jobs facing death, is Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.