Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not everyone who's seen the famous tale of Katherine, the shrewish woman tamed by the wild wiles of Petruchio, will know that it was actually written as a play within a play: the opening scene is about a drunken tinker called Christopher Sly being fooled into believing he is a lord and this entertainment is created for his benefit. Lucy Bailey, directing the RSC production of Taming of the Shrew now at Bath Theatre Royal, has not only retained this introduction but incorporated much bawdy comedy around the portly tinker throughout the action. It’s a good decision, allowing for a theme of dream longings to entwine with the complex plot – and an even better decision is to make the entire set a giant bed, as if Sly has fallen into a gross erotic Alice’s Wonderland. And this is not ancient Padua but a non-specific small town in the 1940s/50s era with costumes that evoke American-Italian movies – there’s a Tennessee Williams moment with the lovers, a touch of Grease with pony-tailed Bianca and her nerdy scholar-boyfriend, and a dash of mafia about the nobles’ negotiations.
Acting overall is as excellent as you'd expect from this company. Nick Holder as Sly is terrific, intruding in the antics with the swagger of a lord and the underclothes of a tinker to remind us that there is little difference, under their robes, between any of these rowdy loud-mouthed men. Most of their behaviour is borderline-out-of-control bullying and vulgarity, but Kate is violent to the point of dangerous derangement.
There’s much routine slapping, spitting, ball-scratching and pissing though some of the more bizarre antics are truly funny – as when the fake Lucentio taunts his rival by flinging open shutters to reveal Bianca and the real Lucentio in a series of increasingly explicit poses, once with bemused Sly peeping from between their legs.
It’s a clever, if often overly-ribald, interpretation that’s neither rom-com nor black comedy. This is not called a ‘problem play’ for nothing. Even with boisterous embellishment to underline the coarse & cruel macho society that Kate finds so frustrating - where women are sold & bought by men like any other asset, where lords behave so disreputably they’re indistinguishable from their rowdy servants – there is simply no definition of irony that can make her final, docile, dutiful, speech anything other than odious. The script is long and often ugly, most of the characters intent on trickery whether from greed or from happy-slapping mentality. I applaud the brave directorial attempt to make this a love story of twin souls but unfortunately the scriptwriter has worked assiduously against it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

“Recognise the flotsam and jetsam of your mind- it can be a very useful source” is the first piece of advice from Dan Reballato at his workshop on Writing for Devised Drama in Salisbury on Saturday. Writing for devising is all about blurring the boundaries, he explains, and we spend the warmest day of the year indoors in the Arts Centre exploring constraints & structures, creating storylines & subtexts, and generally immersing ourselves in the somewhat shamblolic processes of such blurring and proving Dan's summative point that "when it works well you end up with something you would never have done on your own - but that's true when it goes badly too."

In the evening to Bath's Rondo, one of my favourite small theatres, to see Gonzo Moose in their new touring comedy I’m an Aristocrat, get me out of here! I'm a big fan of this anarchic trio of performers and there were superb highlights in this absurdist version the turbulence & intrigue following the French Revolution. All of the actors - Mark Conway, Jonathan Peck, & Lauren Silver - have irresistibly hilarious facial expressions, the men especially change personality with their costumes unbelievably. There are bizarre capers (I especially liked the St James Infirmary dance by bored Bastille guards) and eye-boggling sword-fights, and a less-frivolous underlying theme: “The Republic is virtue. Terror protects the republic. Therefore terror is virtue” declares Robespierre, with the deadly logic that destroys every virtuous ideal it touches. The basic plot, like much of the humour, is simple: Louis XVI and the imprisoned aristocrats are being released by counter-revolutionary group called Les Petis Pois, whose red hats are more Little Noddy than bonnets rouge and whose mysterious leader is finally revealed, of course, as the character least likely. There are glancing references to historical actuality like the revolutionary support of portraitist Jacques-Louis David, but accuracy isn't a guiding light and political commentary is deliberately aimed at contemporary grievances - as when the liberated Marie Antoinette tells her penitent husband to spread the word in England in a speech that met with a fervent cheer from the full house audience. Not quite vintage Gonzo, but jolly good fun all the same.

"When you're wasted you can be the man you want to be" says Ted in Wasted by Kate Tempest, at the Merlin on Monday night. I'd seen Kate perform in Bristol & was knocked out by her poetry, and this debut play isn't just clubber clich├ęs, it opens wounds on wasted lives & life choices with deep empathy and lyrical language. The three young actors were all strong, especially Cary Crankson as Ted, and the writing stabs you: apart from the slightly lame Billy-Liar-style finale which would have been better left to inference, the impact never falters in a story which is both ordinary & unique.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Byron Vincent had missed two nights' sleep when he took the mic at the Bath Hip Yak Shack but it suited him: his headline spot was the supernova in a starry night of terrific guest performers, and an excellent Slam rightfully won (in my view, but then I was one of the judges) by Robbie Vane.

Frome's performance writing team Stagewrite took over Merlin theatre stage tonight with monologues inspired by A Postcard from... Fourteen local writers took us around the world, from past to future: funny or sad, memory or fantasy, every story had authenticity and charm. Huge congratulations to Alan Overton, Linda Perry, Beverly Jones, Rosie Jackson, Frances Liardet, Des Harris, Niamh Ferguson and her reader Maddy Herbert, Howard Vause, Karl Bevis, Alison Clink, Brenda Bannister, Rosie Finngen, and Jill Miller - and extra thanks to Howard for fabulous visuals.

Another exciting event coming soon: Frome Poetry cafe is On the road again... on Wednesday April 11th - metaphorically speaking of course, we'll be at the Garden Cafe as usual - with Mo Robinson sharing his edgy lyrical ballads inspired by real life stories spanning Ireland in the Troubles to contemporary California. Plenty of poetry too, with Paul Tobin and the usual popular open mic session.
Still on things poetic, I've just heard that my poem Previously Loved was Commended in the Lumen/Camden poetry competition run by Ward Wood for the London Homeless Shelters project. The contest was judged by Carol Ann Duffy & raised over £2000 which is great for the homeless and gratifying for me as it means selection from more than 800 entries. The winner was Bob Cooper, who's a proper published poet and can even write a neat sonnet to wheelie bins - respect!

And finally: Alma Tavern spring programme now ready to publish, and how chuffed am I to see my play Mascara in the brochure... Rehearsals starting early May, can't wait.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stina Harris wanted to create "something halfway between a brothel and a temple" for Frome's Women's Day celebrations and she has, sumptuously, sacred & sleazy mingling superbly in the Sun Street Chapel exhibition. Centrepiece among the artwork to 'rejoice and honour' femininity is the sensuous sofa littered with handmade roses, ideal for a reclining goddess to pose, as Stina does here in her Coat of Sin. There was a peace vigil the morning I dropped in, especially apt as we mourn the slaughter of Afghan families by the soldier who 'didn't want to go'...
Another celebration of the female this week, though a sad one: Friday was the funeral of beautiful Jo Lindsay, smart, creative and wickedly funny, and a treasured member of Frome writers' circle. She was a great cartoonist too, and my study wall is hung with her (personalised) interpretation of a story I'd told her of the frog urging a woman to kiss him on the grounds that he'll become a prince and marry her, and meeting the response "I think I'd prefer a talking frog"... Here's Jo when I first met her, in Tuscany in 1996, and the way I'll always remember her: with a dazzling sunflower and a big grin.

A Postcard From... is the theme of the new STAGEWRITE event onstage at The Merlin. We had our runthrough at Des's house this week, and I'm gratified & excited to report the standard is startlingly high. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always authentic is my favourite review quote, and it's never been more true. If you're in striking distance of Frome & you haven't yet booked for next Thursday, do so now!

Back in the winter of 2009, Inua Ellams came to Frome with his deeply personal 14th Tale of the life of a Nigerian in England and I was privileged to be his curtain-raiser act. He's touring again, with Black T-Shirt Collection, which arrived at Bristol Old Vic this week. This extraordinary 80 minute monologue is such a tour-de-force of lyrical story-telling and metaphors for modern life it's hard to describe it. Imagine you’re a Christian child fostered by Muslims. Imagine your brother is gay and you live in Nigeria where retribution is terrifyingly violent. Imagine you went on the run together through alien lands, culture-shocked and missing family & friends, became successful entrepreneurs but belatedly realise the exploitative basis of your business. These are the challenges of Inua’s character Matthew, told on a stark, dark, stage with sparse graphic-novel style illustrations and minimal sound as he learns the political, economic, & social realities of life - and the limits of love. The pain is nearly unrelenting but the integrity of Inua's story-telling gives vitality to this unforgettable piece. It's coming to Frome's Merlin in May, please don't miss it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

With spring fingering the Cotswold hills, Farncombe Manor is a great location for a creative writing course along with eight participants in search of their inner author. Not that we had time for more than a quick caper through the silver birch groves and banks of golden daffodils, we we were all too engrossed, over breakfast, through coffee breaks, and in the bar till nearly pumpkin-time, with writing and talking about writing. I don't know if it was the mix of personalities, the fluent interaction, the quality of writing, or all three, but this course was an absolute delight. So, many thanks Mike, Brian, Carolann, Diana, Amanda, Rosanna, Ian and David, for much mirth, many mmm moments, and a modicum of miscreancy. Missing you already...

"May contain strong language and adult themes" advises the entry ticket for bOX oF fROgs. I'd expect nothing less at these excitedly-anticipated (by me anyway) Word of Mouth poetry performances in Bristol Old Vic basement. Amphibian line-up comprised local favourites Byron Vincent and Nathan Filer with two voices new to me: A F Harrold, who eats squirrels - he isn't my cup of tea but says he isn't his either - and hilarious surrealist Rob Auton who uses props like peppers & plastic toys & sycamore leaves, and has a complicated relationship with God ("mainly because I exist and he doesn't".) Byron's emceeing is always studded with gems, and Nathan was on exuberantly spiffing form with an amazing saga inspired by that octogenarian documentarian David Attenborough and a dramatic scene involving sponges, crills, and Stephen Fry. Brilliant stuff.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Red Light Winter by Adam Rapp is the first of director Laurence Boswell's American season at Bath's prestigious Ustinov studio theatre. Unrequited passion is a harsh subject in any era and place - here we are in loosely contemporary Amsterdam and New York - and this exploration of love and lust despite graphic scenes is more tragic than erotic. Putting aside the deconstruction of literature & its relationship to the American Dream, this story is a love triangle comprising two naive victims manipulated by one alleged charmer of TV-soap standard villainy. He lies, he betrays, and he buggers - in fact he does all three together while on the phone, in startling refutation of male difficulty in multi-tasking. Maybe the hooker's infatuation would have seemed more credible if he'd been less shouty and obnoxious, or maybe the point is that some people are inevitable victims. Whatever, the audience found much to laugh at (mostly the rude words actually, but this is Bath) in a busy script, the actors were impressive, and the set & lighting were superb.

Still on the subject of sex in the city, Bath Lit Fest offered an intimate look at the 'Frail Sisterhood' - 18th Century courtesy title for women who follow the oldest profession. Rosie & I joined historian Kirsten Elliott in her walk around the lewder & more lascivious streets, to hear tales of the beauties and bawds whose lives are a significant though hidden part of the history of Bath. From wealthy courtesans like Kitty Fisher, Joshua Reynolds' favourite model, to disorderlies who came to sticky ends, our 2-hour prowl around the staid pale Georgian buildings revealed scores of colourful stories. Kirsten's folder of quotes for every corner illustrated a timeless mix of lust and fear in male responses: 'panting breasts and soft music' to some, 'dissolute women and piano-playing so respectable people are ashamed to live here' to others. I especially liked Harris's List of whores, listing the qualities & even genitalia of each nymph rather as a garden catalogue might describe their floribunda. Among much intriguing data the overwhelming fact to emerge was that elegant Bath was once so notoriously licentious the very name of it set men salivating, though most of these women's stories were more of sadness and squalour than success... but who would expect anything different.
Another, and more specific, celebration of the 100th International Women's Day was held in St Michael's Church as a hundred women took turns to read a poem or prose extract by a woman. Six of Frome's writers - Rose Flint, Rosie Jackson, Rosie Finnegan, Alison Clink, Jill Miller, and me - contributed and as well as being fascinated to hear others' choices we felt immensely privileged to participate.
And I'm still in Bath as evening falls, for supper with my friend Diana, editor & broadcaster. Diana doesn't subscribe to the value of 'time-rich' living, preferring to be 'time-focussed', and takes the opportunity to interview me for her Glastonbury radio programme on 'love, loss, and therapy'. A fitting end to International Women's Day.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Bath Literary Festival launched its nine-day verbal jamboree on Friday with Voices in the City, a full day and evening of so many free events it was impossible to go to them all - I know, because I tried. My poetry-crawl began with Bath Poetry Cafe at the library, a day-long programme of excellent readings. This isn't pub verse, these are poems that make you go mmm... - deeply thoughtful pieces, inset with occasional phrases that startle you as they catch the light. From Liz Brownlee's true tales of Animal Magic - did you know the Madagascan robber moth sucks from the eyes of rainforest birds while they sleep? - to Sue Boyle's clear-eyed views of Rome, there were many appreciative mmms. Here even the open mic readers have previous publications to be taken into consideration: among them Frome's Rosie Jackson, and Claire Coleman who prefaced her colourful street theatre poem by scarf-juggling. Organiser Nikki Kenna kept timings tight, ensuring varied voices and quick breaks for a coffee or a dash to the sales table. During one of these I popped over the road to St Michaels Without to hear readings from David Copperfield, luckily catching the Barkis-is-Willing episode.
Next on my list was 'sensational spoken word from young performers' promised at the Egg but disappointingly the promised sizzle had fizzled out, so it was on to St Swithins Church where Wendy Cope was reading and talking about her poems. Wendy is renowned for her rotweiller attitude to copyright infringement, even as promotion from adulating fans, so I went predisposed to be annoyed by her and swiftly had to upwardly-adjust my opinion. She's droll, grumpy, sharp, and very funny and I found it impossible not to warm to her. Family Values was one theme, dipping into her latest collection of disconcertingly simple ditties, and Wendy also revisited that famous "Bloody men are like bloody buses" responsible for her 'national treasure' status and now in textbooks with analytic questions like - Wendy swears she didn't make this up - "What adjective would you use to describe the poet and the men she meets?"
Time now to dash to The Raven where ex-Bard of Bath Jenny Walter was opening the first of the night's five pub poetry events: Poems in Pubs also seemed to be going for the Guinness Book of Records for how many audience members can sit, squat, and stand in a bar listening to 15 fresh-faced young poets sharing their lifetime's learnings - mostly about other bars. This is on the other side of the lyrical galaxy from the elegant intoning of the library: self-revelatory, provocative, and loath to settle for any line without a laugh - it's slick and refreshingly entertaining. Laurie Bolger showed how to do it with a tour through Shoreditch (the bars, mostly) and was my highlight of the night.
No time to stay for more than a third of the team, sadly, as we were due at the Assembly Inn for Poetry and a Pint - yet another tribe of poets here, with hippy strumming and druid chanting in the stone-floor cellar bar. Among familiar faces was Kevan Manwaring, and Rosie Finnegan and I added our names to the performance list, just to be part of this day of voices.
So I'd call the whole event a big success and a credit to Bath, upending that common perception of slightly snobby staidness with a Spoken Word marathon that was varied, stimulating, entertaining... and exhausting.