Thursday, November 29, 2012

Images for November: floods mile after mile along the Bristol trainline, and a spangly night in Bath when the storms finally abate.

Vox pop moment during the interval of The Double at Bath's Ustinov studio theatre: "It's a good play but I think enjoyable is the wrong word." Actually strictly speaking it's not even a play, it's a session of illustrated storytelling in the 'Transformation' season, adapted by director Laurence Boswell who confesses a lifelong fascination with this Dostoyevsky tale of paranoia in 19th Century Russian bureaucratic life. As with Chekhov and more especially Gogol's Diary of a Madman there's a universality about the mind-eroding frustrations of petty officialdom which stirs our pity: I also liked the minimalist set, brilliant manipulation of the life-size puppet, moments of humour and (rare) moments of stillness that allowed us ~ as theatre can ~ to engage with 'our hero' Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin rather than just observe his plight on animated pages. The cast are superb, especially Simon Scardifield as Golyadkin. Direction, with its multiple voices and wafting puppets and block-stacking, is energetic but a tad CBeebies in visual variety and determination not to let the action flag. The result is sad rather than poignant, clearly told rather than subtly shown. Worth a visit though, especially if the coming festivities make you empathise with a neurotic who self-medicates extensively and greets each new catastrophe with I knew this was coming!

Big relief and a nice warm feeling at Frome's Merlin AGM tonight as board chair Clare Hein reports the theatre has finally come through its recent financial woes. "We've had a tough time but now there's a real sense of celebration ~ it will be alright." This is fantastic news and massive credit to director Claudia Pepler and her team of tireless volunteers, and also to the new Community College Principal for his visionary commitment, and to everyone who swelled the audience numbers during that use-it-or-lose-it time. The message now is "we're here, and we're here to stay."
And so is Nevertheless Pub Theatre! our festive show Flaming Crackers features seven Frome Scriptwriters in "brand-new ten-minute scripts with a festive twist" to quote the flyer provided for us, like our top-class actors and London director, by our supportive co-producer Stepping Out Theatre Company. We're Upstairs at the Cornerhouse on Thursday December 13th then in Bristol at the Alma Tavern Theatre the following two nights and it's only a £iver for seventy minutes of original drama "light and dark, funny and touching, strange and surprising ~ a seasonal smorgasbord with a difference." Do come if you can.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Now here’s a thought. Since Shakespeare’s sonnets explore every aspect of love ~ passion, pain, tenderness, vulgarity, violence, madness, sadness, lust and loss ~ then maybe strung together they would add up to a play... or at least a theatrical performance. Swansea-based physical theatre company Volcano thought so, in fact Paul Davies deviser-director of L.O.V.E thought so back in 1992 and this twenty-year on revival is now touring with a new cast and “subtle and not-so-subtle” changes from the original. The genital rubbing & sniffing may come under the not-so-subtle heading, and perhaps also the extended snog-the-audience episode ~ not that I’m complaining, the kiss was lovely even though the Dark Lady did then swig deeply from my wine.
And this show doesn't claim to be a play as such, it's a series of dramatic cameos using Shirley Bassey songs, playfulness, balletic physicality, bawdy comedy and brutality too. The trio are amazing performers, especially Andrew Keay as the lovely boy, and bring ambiguous depths more often cruel than touching to the familiar sonnets: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? becomes a fight and My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun contemptuous homo banter. From seductive to (literally) biting, ardent to murderous, in Auden's words mortal, guilty, but entirely beautiful. There's madness, but maybe not like Will knew it, more Psycho than Ophelia, and by the end everyone is stripped to their undies ~ though white as a detergent ad and the Dark Lady's with a touch of Bridget Jones.  Back in 1993 this was hailed as dangerous theatre, obscene and erotic: maybe Beyonce videos on screen in every High Street Curries since then have redefined our terms but it’s exciting, skilful, performance with beautiful visuals and well worth seeing.

 Segueing loosely through Keats, who admired Shakespeare for his "Negative Capability, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason" and inspired by a piece in the Indie, I want to suggest that people who complain Wikipedia isn't definitive or even unbiased are missing the point. We are, thankfully, moving away from the Age of Reason with its absurd focus on facts and certainty. So what if inaccuracies clamber in with more valid hypotheses? Reality is porous, truth is variable. We've all got a filter against the malicious, mendacious, or plain crazy: it's called instinctive intelligence. So bring on Wiki-world, and let's all remind ourselves how to use the mind-skills we used to have before the pernicious school system brainwashed us into believing learning meant being taught, education meant being told, and thinking meant second-guessing to conform. Scientists, or at least one esteemed geneticist, reckon our appraisal skills & hence intellect are in decline, maybe Wiki-chaos will show us the way back to evaluating situations as our ancestors did and honouring experiential learning over received wisdom.

 Looking ahead: Frome Scriptwriters are thrilled our next production, Flaming Crackers, short plays with a festive theme, will again be set alight onstage by a talented team of actors provided by Stepping Out Theatre Company ~ and this time our rehearsed-reading event will be on in Bristol too!   More details with next posting.
 And looking even further ahead, 2013 may be a vintage year for me for courses in spectacular places: check my website if you're interested, and pick between Spain, France, Greek islands, and two rather lovely venues where you don't need euros...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Be ready for the Apocalypse" our neighbour announced when Steve and I arrived at our holiday apartment in Valle Gran Rey at La Gomera, littlest of the Canary Islands, expecting a relaxing break of sunshine and strolls. And Goyo did have a point. This idyllic environment of rustling palms and gardens of fruit trees and blossom was shockingly devastated: the fires that started during a tinder-dry August this year had smouldered on till the end of September. Hundreds of families were evacuated, scores of houses burned, and scorched trees and razed small-holdings all the way up the long ravine told of tragedy and terror. Even in the heart of the island, the primeval forests of Garajonay looked in some parts more like a war zone than a National Park. It felt like we'd come to a place that rain had forgotten.
 The next day the storm broke. The skies exploded in the same hour the front tyre on our hire car exploded, which would have been tricky except that extraordinarily fortuitously we were right outside the only garage on that mountain road. We decided to abort our planned walk, which was also fortuitous as most of it fell down the mountain that day, and we arrived home to find our road a lake and our path a waterfall. Goyo was jubilent: four years of dearth ended and all would be beautiful again, he said ~ and it certainly was awesome to see fresh verdancy unfolding daily.
Apart from Garajonay and the small townships most of La Gomera is ancient rock, which survives impassively in extraordinary formations from Jurassic times. We walked each day for hours: along coastal paths where blue skies merged with blue seas far below, on forest trails where twisted branches were frosted with long fronds of moss and lichen like witches hair, and on one memorable day we walked 800 metres above sea level on a stone path so steep I sometimes had to go on all fours like a spider-monkey. This was another occasion when, as on puncture day, it seemed the Goddess of La Gomera was looking out for us: we arrived eventually exhilarated but exhausted at Las Hayas to realise it had neither welcoming bar nor taxi option - but it did have a friendly-looking couple in a hire car just about to set off. They gave us a lift all the way back to Valle Gran Rey, negotiating the descent with exclamations of awe while we stared out murmuring near-disbelievingly We climbed all that... we must have been crazy.
We didn't just hike, of course. Valle Gran Rey with its hippy vibe & relaxed bohemian ambience isn't touristy at all by Tenerife standards but we found some nice cafes and restaurants down by the beaches. A favourite was El Mirador overlooking the bay, rightly proud of its fresh local produce.

And now our mythic journey is over, and I'm home again.
Great to arrive to good news from previous writing course participants: Teddy Goldstein's book Toxic Distortions has won the 2012 USA Best Book Award for Historical Fiction e-Books, and Cliff Lonsdale, initially inspired in September on Skyros, is celebrating his writer's journey with an excellent blog. Congratulations guys, and thanks for the appreciation but commitment and practice is all that really matters ~ which is why now I need to get back to writing...

Sunday, November 04, 2012

It was full house at Tobacco Factory on Friday for The Paper Cinema's Odyssey, a feature-length version of the mythic journey in live animation, and if you wonder what that involves, it's lots of tiny paper cutouts magically manipulated by hand at the front of the stage to create an on-screen graphic novel of fast-moving amazing adventures. There's a brief demo here of the making of these preliminary elements. While the sleight-of-hand duo create these impressive visuals in real time before our eyes, rather wonderful live music and sound effects enhance the story. There's no dialogue, but a few helpful plot notes onscreen when the narrative becomes particularly dense. The audience were vociferously thrilled by it all, and especially enthusiastic when the hero's journey found contemporary references like hitchhiking as Easy Rider bikers drive past. An ambitious concept and an amazing performance, this BAC co-production is touring nationally all November and returns to London in February.

  And now for something completely different: four short plays at Salisbury Studio, a great little theatre space I was unaware of till Saturday when Ripped Script presented An Evening with David Ives. Like Christopher Durang's dramas combining wit with psychological bite, these Pythonesque pieces twisted logic and timescale to delirious extremes, drawing us into a world where monkeys struggle with writers' block while typing Hamlet, a casual cafe chat-up is a work in progress, and Leon Trotsky with an axe in his head reads of his death in the Encyclopaedia Britannica but remains unconvinced... all hugely entertaining, but carrying too a kernel of the real world, with its absurd but painful vanities. Directors Jon Nash & Laura Jasper and their team of four lively performers did a brilliant job with these comic gems from a contemporary American playwright who, I see from the New York Times is currently working with Stephen Sondheim on a new show - how great will that be!

Next posting will be from La Gomera... where? Here. We discovered it last winter, and heading back now for long walks through ancient forests and 20-plus temperatures... Enjoy the snow, southwest UK, we'll be thinking of you.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

No Dickens character is ever ordinary. They are macabre, valiant, odious, saintly or brutal ~ victims or bullies in a vivid people-scape with no pallid shades, and thus ideal for Red Dog. This Stroud-based theatre company specialises in text-based plays with big immediate impact and is currently touring Dombey and Son which came to Bristol's Tobacco Factory last week. From the opening moment of the play ~ the explosive birth of Dombey’s son ~ colourful characters ricochet around like a fairground waltzer to create a salutory tale: the destructive power of greed and the redeeming power of love. Six superbly skilled actors created between them two dozen characters, some by poignant puppetry, some by extraordinarily absurd costume, and the city was convincingly contrived by stepladders and crates. With humour and pathos by the bucketload, this was the most emotionally moving theatrical experience I've had all year.
And now it's Samhein, the most important festival on our calendar, a magically potent time we call also Halloween when La Strada staff serve customers with not so much a smile as a bloody grimace. In the Cornerhouse, John Law's jazz session was interrupted by ghosts from 1685 as a vampiric Judge Jeffries strode in to harangue and finally hang a youth from Frome unjustly accused of supporting the rebel Duke of Monmouth... a powerful cameo penned by Frome Scriptwriter Eddie Young, and sadly based on truth. Twelve men of Frome were hanged right outside where the pub now stands, the road still called Gorehedge because of blood spilt there in the Orange Rebellion. Although another website throws doubt on this grim etymology, explaining that gore is an ancient name for a triangular field. Phew.
And well done Eddie, Jake Hight and hanging judge Howard Vause.