Saturday, December 03, 2011

November 2011 was one of the warmest on record, according to BBC weather website, but for me it's always the month of what my friend Bob Paterson calls 'toxic nostalgia'. This year I followed Kenji Miyazawa's theory "we must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey": encouraged by a supportive writing circle I'm dipping, episodically, into the past, and with the help of a friend with a loft ladder I retrieved my boxes of attic-abilia for embrace and burning. And I've spent the last two days of the month in and around Newton Abbott, where my grandparents lived, revisiting the coast and moors that were such a big part of my childhood and adult life. Lovely dawns and dusks over the river Teign, watery sun and bleak wind for out-of-season Teignmouth, and howling King-Lear-mad-scene-meets-Ken-Russell's-Gothic storm on Haytor Down. I stood watching the rain blowing in jagged torrents, eating downpour with every gasp, with the past clinging to my skin closer than my saturated jeans, remembering the final words of AA Milne's last story about his son: So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his bear will always be playing.

Back in the present tense, Keep Frome Local celebrated its first birthday at the Granary with brilliant live music from, among others, Indigo Children (with a fabulous cover of Ed Sheeran's You need me but I don't need you), Al O'Kane, and ever-excellent Leander Morales. With typical Frome eccentricity, organiser Tim O'Connor decided a bit of poetry would go down well mid-evening and, as Rosie Jackson, Rose Flint and I discovered, it actually did. Tim in his MC role was mindful of venue Health-and-Safety regulations, opening the event with the reminder "If you see a fire: huddle round it, it gets chilly in the evenings..."

The Surprise of Love, written by Marivaux in 1722 and currently playing at the Ustinov, is a deceptive piece: an apparent confection of gorgeous costumes and witty mockery of aristocratic emotional self-indulgence in the Olivia/Orsino tradition – you can almost hear Shakespearean fairies muttering ‘Lord what fools these mortals be’ just off the exquisitely painted set. But in this masterly new translation by Mike Alfreds, an entertaining Harlequinade of multiple courtships becomes a set of knots worthy of RD Laing as the characters tie themselves into psychological insecurities that classic philosopher Hortensius is powerless to unravel. The Marquise is a young widow in love with her own romantic grief, until her bereaved neighbour the Chevalier arrives full of the importance of his own despair. I believe I have an obligation to you, to compensate you for the loss of my husband's friendship, she promptly decides, with glazed eyes an inch from his face.
It’s significant, perhaps, that the nobles are named only by their status: their servants, smart Lisette and honest Lubin, are the ones with emotional insight, though only ‘audience privilege’ gives the full picture. And as we wait for all to end predictably, the ‘twist’ isn't that the inevitable coupling fails to occur, it’s that the path to this outcome becomes not a rose-strewn comedy but a painfully dark passage of jealousy and rage with others hurt on the way. Perhaps the surprise of love is that we are never ready for its pain.

Strong direction by Laurence Boswell and a splendid cast make this a great finale to the autumn season trilogy of European classics – and Ustinov studio theatre is the perfect venue, the stage confined enough for side walls to become boundaries and props to fretful petulance, and all seats close enough for us to be mesmerised every expression of emotion transparently played by a marvellous cast, especially luminous Laura Rees as the Marquise.

There's a weird footnote to the attic clearance mentioned above - in fact so weird I still don't know how to write about it. Briefly, we discovered another box, a previous resident - a coffin-sized box containing a white lace wedding dress which, as if its presence alone wasn't Miss-Haversham enough, was stained with something dark red, mysteriously sticky at the centre. I blogged earlier in November about the poetry workshop reminding me of writing for Marian Bruce's fallen angels, and here now in my house was graphic debris that could have belonged to the Angel Bride, whose artless love poems contrasted with her whispered dreams as she lies alone and desolate in the forest.
I re-read the words I'd imagined for her dreams: Last night I dreamed I went to the place where I had hidden my wings. I had packed them carefully but as I began to unwrap them I found the coverings had been bleeding. I unwound and unwound for a long time, and the wrappings became like sodden bandages.
"One of those life-changing moments when we encounter ourselves, and know that we've moved on" suggested Pippa Howell, reviewing this staged installation in 2003. Let's hope so.

No comments: