Saturday, February 25, 2012

How do you pass the time when house-arrested by a throat virus gone viral? Sounds like a good chance to catch up on reading but trying to follow a linear thread for more than 5 lines turns my mind to mud. Writing ditto. So this has been a week devoted to sudoku, online scrabble, and trawling FB for Briterati comments and witty clips, in between reluctantly cancelling plans and answering sympathetic enquiries with a determined 'Improving!'
And in a Descartian sense it must be so, because I made it to the finale of The Incubator day of plays in development as part of Shakespeare Unplugged at the Ustinov, to see David Lane's brilliant re-imagining of Coriolanus with the Young People's Theatre. I Am England evoked a near-future England at odds with the rest of Europe and teetering on the brink of war. The disruptive populace, represented in classic tradition by a chorus, are workless hungry and half-feral, and their iron-lady leader sets up conflicted young war-veteran Marc to rally them. Urged on by his belligerent mother to be a hero, warned by his girlfriend he'll be a martyr, Marc chooses finally to speak his own truth, but no-one in the yelling crowd listens: he's irrelevant now 'there’s a version of you out there that's bigger than you ever were.’ Huge energy and passion from the cast of 20 script-in-hand YPs and a strong script combining colloquial language with occasional lyrical grandeur made for a gripping production, which - according to those who know more about Coriolanus than I do - also illuminated the major themes in the original play.

Speaking of gaps in my Shakespearian comprehension, I'm really appreciative that Andrew Hilton, director of King Lear, took time to contact me to explain the costume concept I described a bit disparagingly in a previous post. He writes that change to modern dress towards the end was to express the central theme of a cyclical element in the growth, maturing and collapse of society. I've never not enjoyed a SATF production, and if one of the reasons is their ambitious adventurousness in expressive interpretation, then Lear in a string vest is a small price to pay.

Thanks to Katy Duke, indefatigable illustrator of town life on the Frome People site, for posting images of Frome Poetry Posse on the Westway Stage during the folk festival.
And there's a poem of mine currently featured on Mediterranean poetry, a deliciously cerulean site to browse on a wintry UK day. The link was sent to me by Roger Jinkinson who I met intially on Kythira as a participant on one of my writing courses. Roger, like his fellow course member Christine Coleman, has gone on to publish very successfully and remains a friend - in fact a visit to Chris in Birmingham was one of the plans cancelled by the virulent virus.

Coincidentally, I've had two other reminders of past courses in beautiful locations this week.
Richard Gould who writes graciously of receiving 'encouraging and inspirational tutoring' at The Grange has published his first novel The Engagement Party, and Teddy Goldstein spoke equally charmingly of 'excellent tutelage' at Gardoussel in Languedoc when he wrote to tell me his novel Toxic Distortions has been nominated for the Amazon First Novel award.
Flattery may not get you everywhere but it gets you a link on my blog, boys.

Monday, February 20, 2012

This weekend the town centre swarmed with stalls and Morris dancers for the first ever Frome Folk Festival. Not all folk organisers take the view that with 24 stonking music acts in three main venues and umpteen more in the pubs, what they really need is a spot of poetry - but Jan Ayres is a promoter with vision: which is why, on Sunday night, eight Poetry Cafe stalwarts were on the stage of the Westway billed as the Frome Poetry Posse offering some of our feistiest stanzas through the best mic I've ever used... True, we were offering to largely empty seats, as folk fans aren't all as visionary as Jan and we had major musical competition, but those who did see us were gratifyingly enthusiastic. So big thanks to Jo Butts, Rose Flint, Alison Clink, Rosie Finnegan, Muriel Lavender, Robbie Vane and Liv Torc for joining me to create an impromptu troupe which had no less than Tim Edey and Brendan Power telling us - before, during, and after, their set - "You poets rock - you blew us away". Tim and Brendan followed us with a totally fantastic set, showing how & why they're 2012 BBC Radio2 Folk Award winners, and until links for their amazing performance in Frome are available, this clip gives a taste of their extraordinary virtuosity.
Richard Kennedy at the Cornerhouse rounded off a day of delights, and now the last notes of guitar, mouth-organ, and button accordion have faded into memory I'm looking forward to the 2013 Frome Folk Festival - yes, tickets are now available.
I wonder if Morris minor, from Cam Valley, will be back dancing with his dad.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bristol's Tobacco Factory is perfect for theatre in the round, and works brilliantly for Andrew Hilton's new production of King Lear - no set changes to slow the energetic dramatic pace, and audience visibility creating a sense of shared voyeurism which often becomes a frisson of conspiratorial intimacy, shockingly intensified when conniving Edmund invites our collusion by addressing his monologues directly to us.
This is a tragedy of extreme dimensions and a fine SATF team led by John Shrapnel brings immense passion to the emotions and powerful impact to the assaults. The bullying macho ethos at court is highlighted: Kent for example (strongly played by Simon Armstrong) is gratuitously brutal, exemplifying the behaviour of the ‘100 knights’ that become the focus of contention between Lear and his exasperated daughters, underlining the dangers all around in a kingdom where truth goes unheard and loyalty is part of the tangle of violence.
The acting is superb and my only real reservation is the baffling costume design. Why, in a serious production, was Lear swaggering his moobs long before he went seriously loopy? And having established dress code as Elizabethanalia, why the random rummage through 20th century threads - still combined with antique weaponry - in the second act? Why did Edgar arrive for battle looking like a Tottenham rioter? Presumably this was all to hammer home the production comment that “At a time when autocratic regimes around the world are under unprecedented threat (the play) has acquired a new contemporary relevance.” But these distractions upstaged the actors, and I wished I'd been trusted to find Shakespeare's words enough to touch my heart and mind with the timelessness of human conflict, folly, and loss.
Photos Graham Burke

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Awesome evening at Frome Poetry Cafe on Monday for the Valentine special: Jon dashed in repeatedly with extra chairs as more and more poets piled into the Garden Café but we were still standing room only by the time Muriel Lavender led off in her inimitable rococo style. Three of the Bluegate poets from Swindon followed, then Carrie Etter from Bristol, then Stephen Boyce from Winchester... honestly the evening was beginning to sound like a roll-call for best in the southwest, all stunning stuff too. Add to this twelve more great local voices, including brilliant Liv Torc and Rosie Jackson back from India, and the evening was a stonking success. The random valentine prize of Chinese Erotic Poetry donated by Hunting Raven Books went to newly-Frome-dwelling Robbie Vine who noted there hadn't been much cynicism and helpfully remedied the deficit.
The Poetry Cafe will be back on April 11th but Frome Poetry Posse are strutting their stuff at the Folk Festival on Sunday from 5.45 till 6.30 at the Westway Cinema venue.

When you're out of the school loop, which I've been roughly since William Smith said 'I wonder what to do with my enormous collection of fossils, I think I'll invent geology', half-term holidays are events that leap on you like Tigger in the forest and similarly noisy. Bristol Old Vic with canny recognition of the need for parental respite, organised a week of HALF TERM HAVOC! offering 'noise, mess and chaos' as well as a couple of shows. Stan, aged 4, was my discerning companion at Stones & Bones by Squashbox Theatre, an hour of havoc coordinated by ebullient entertainer Craig Johnson who combines storytelling, puppetry, magic, music and mayhem with quite a bit of keystage 2 content. An excitable young audience shrieked happily through the geological data, which though interesting failed to grip them as much as the monster-sightings (sometimes I think I have the mentality of a 6-year-old). Craig met all the heckling with a few stern words but immense good humour, probably because he knew his vengeance would come in the volcano-dousing sequence, when he could run wild with the water pistol. Stan enjoyed it all immensely, especially the bit when the dinosaur-puppet attacks Craig repeatedly, Emu-style, with a carrot. My favourite bit too, maybe I need to adjust my mental age downwards by a couple of years...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A magical night at The Rondo in Bath on Saturday as Angel Exit recreated Frances Hodgeson Burnett's hundred-year-old tale The Secret Garden.
I always feel trepidation when facing a favourite story interpreted anew, but this highly entertaining and very moving performance brought out both shade and light with equal energy, showing the traumas of loss as well the message of nature’s magical power to heal. If you haven't read the book, it's about a child's journey from angry isolation to the heart of a reunited family through her own determination and the rising sap of nature – kind-of Back To The Future reconceived by Lawence and the Brontes, darkly dramatic and timelessly satisfying. This version is written by Tamsin Fessey and Lynne Forbes (also playing good-angel Martha, the maid) and told by a fantastic cast of five fast-moving performers who can concoct anything from a train to a houseful of memories simply by clever movement and hypnotic imagination. All were great, especially Simon Carroll-Jones who is bizarrely convincing as both grim housekeeper and neurotic little boy, and Ashleigh Cheadle as Mary, looking like a sour Alice tumbled into a bleak Wonderland of terrible secrets.
Despite the inherent darkness there's a joyful message about resilience and recovery here, and this enchanting production delivers joy in wheelbarrowfuls. To be picky, I'd have preferred it if feisty Mary had been less swamped at the end by the males, if the animal puppets had looked less play-group made, and if there’d been less reliance on ragged strips of daubed sheeting to convey the miraculous secret garden - but the superb performances and imaginative exuberance of this fantastic group overcame any quibbles.
A garden of delights - and still touring this area & beyond till April. Do go see.

Black Swan Open Art exhibition and competition is currently showing some amazing works, ranging from exquisite to startling. Prizes have already been awarded but there the 'public vote' winner is still up for grabs. Here's Annemarie Blake's wintry landscape and one of the stuffed animals by Dorcas Casey who won the Town Council prize and sees her process as developing 'fleeting glimpses of the unconscious' into something tangible. Which is a good function for any artist.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Theatre Ad Infinitum brought Translunar Paradise to Bristol on its sell-out tour since their award-winning run at Edinburgh last year. Two delightful performers charmed the audience with a tender & poignant story... sorry if this sounds like Peoples' Friend writers' guidelines, but production values aside this is very much what it is like. The masks are cleverly expressive, the accordion soundtrack by Kim Heron is movingly evocative, and the two young actors are skillful and endearing. It's just that the storyline seems to forget another important magazine-writers' guideline: avoid being totally predictable. This tale of bereavement, while affecting in small moments and undeniably beautifully performed, is a memory-rummage through all the usual suspects - first date, worst row, miscarriage, returning from war shellshocked... Simple storylines are often the best, but I found myself becoming increasingly emotionally resistant as I mentally ticked off the events. "It is a little old-fashioned, a mite obvious in the life events that it covers" the Guardian noted tactfully, but a full house in the Old Vic Studio theatre clearly loved it, and delighting the audience is one of the functions of theatre. Another, of course, is to disturb, and to connect with what is difficult. As Jez (Jerusalem) Butterworth says, theatres are "places where you come along, and you evoke anxieties - and you deal with them together. That's what they're for"

"I danced with queens - I danced with five of them" boasts Jane Parker in the closing moments of Henry VIII and the Royal Wedding Planner, and she did: she counted them in & she counted them out, and she counted herself lucky to be a lady-in-waiting at court - on & off - for 21 years, from the age of 15 until her execution for treason. Jane was a real player in the hot-house scene of the Tudor king's matrimonial scandals, you can check her dates & fate in Wiki, though her motivations are disputed and will never now be known. In this 70-minute monologue, superbly performed by Julia Gwynne and directed by Andy Burden, we watch her grow from gushing naivety through increasingly devious ambition to deluded obsession. Both extremes are the wobbliest bits but overall this is brilliantly executed, with multiple voices adding variety and absurdity to this stylish, provocative, tragi-comedy. More than a witty historical drama, a successful piece of theatre on the Butterworth scale: we left the Merlin buzzing, and musing on the innate tyranny of monarchy and its trail of personal tragedies.

Media Arts Facilitator & animator Howard Vause was speaker on Wednesday when Frome Creative Network had one of their innovative 'brown bag' (ie bring your own) lunchtime talks. With an image for every point - here's how to dip your toe into visual media - his presentation was informative, reassuring, and hugely practical, fulfilling his own criteria of using media for 'fun, creativity, and truth.' Top tip: "Techi-stuff is just a tool - if you don't know, find someone who does and can explain."

A lyrical footnote to this posting: Next Frome Poetry Cafe on Monday 13th is the Lurve one, with some cracking guests expected: Muriel Lavender, Liv Tork, Bluegate poets from Swindon, Stephen Boyce from Winchester, and maybe more... with open-mic too!
And our angels-in-art poems are still being added to the Rook Lane website - mine is here: Jacob meets the Angel

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Oddsocks, famous for seizing the sails of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays & ripping them down the middle, have turned their mischievous minds to The Merry Wives of Windsor, which arrived at Bristol QEH on Saturday. In the persona of a 1950s television theatre company - with onstage studio screen monitoring the action – they perform a contemporary version complete with snatches of skiffle and interruptions from their sponsor, Mrs Quickly’s household remedies. Elli Mackenzie and Andrew McGillan shone in a quintet of jolly performers, delivering the ever-popular high-level of audience interaction, and some memorably funny moments: Mistress Page shuddering with orgasmic glee as the Bendix where Falstaff is hiding goes into full spin, the inept ‘product placements’, and a marvellous final woodland scene as the lascivious knight meets his come-uppance from romping night-sprites and Anne Page flees with her lover, fortuituously called Fenton – giving the best gag of the night as her father dashes off roaring ‘Fenton! Fenton! Fenton’ and Falstaff takes off his antlers to quip that many a dog runs after deer… (the youtube clip made national news in November – what a gift!)
But there were bits that didn’t quite work so well: slapstick comedy that should be slicker, silly walks in lieu of characterisation, gratuitous bunion-munching & a pointless radio horserace sequence padding out the second act, and - most importantly - Shakespeare’s words. The play within the parody seemed to become almost an incumbence, scenes scoured for chances of mockery and speeches milked for ridicule. Yet it is possible (as Oddsox showed with Hamlet a couple of years ago) to show pathos even in farce, enhancing hilarity while engaging more intensely with the story. More could have been made of the difficulties women faced in a society controlled by men, and my particular disappointment was Falstaff’s ludicrous Tweedledum outfit: I wished he'd been shown in fat-Elvis glory to introduce the poignancy of misplaced aspirations. Without these elements it’s a tale that’s tediously one-dimensional.
But the audience laughed and clearly love this endearing troupe, which is what matters.

Frome Scriptwriters, a new group for local writers developing work for stage or radio, launched this week at the Cornerhouse. This is another initiative from Rosie Finnegan, enterprising entrepreneur who brought Nevertheless Theatre Company to Frome, and once again I'm chuffed to be on board to support this venture. We started small, but aim to grow. It's a cliché but true: there's much talent in this town - and, unlike other places I've been, much goodwill & mutual support. Meetings will be monthly, democratic, free, and open to all.

Interesting developments for all who hanker for an effective library service: the anti-closure protest has won its case against Somerset Libraries on grounds of European diversity legislation. Opening hours in 23 libraries have been reinstated and 11 are no longer headed for closure, but councillors remain defensive about their plan to 'pass the least-used libraries into community hands.'
"The world is changing and we need to change with it," said Cllr John Woodman, Conservative, citing pressure from a 'zero book budget' - a claim corrected online to £200,000. Another comment suggests: "Somerset library service has been one of the worst managed in the whole of England for many years... Now the council has a chance to rethink the whole future of its libraries the first item on the agenda is to dramatically improve the quality of the management. What (John Woodman) has said is such rubbish it hardly is worth the ink used to print it."
Frome Library, under the tireless and imaginative stewardship of Wendy Miller-Williams, has a high profile for community book-related events and is always at the heart of the summer Arts Festival. The coldest day of the year so far - we're talking minus 7 degrees - saw a posse of local bibliophiles and writers converge in the library foyer for tea, biscuits, and book sharing to celebrate National Libraries Day. Travel writer John Payne signed copies of his new book on Bath, which opens with another wintry scene, from a walk we did last year: The city is there, somewhere beneath us. Thick snow beneath our feet and a swirly misty frozen rain falling gently from grey skies stained with yellow... How very apt, on a day that began subzero and has now shrouded the town with snow.