Sunday, January 29, 2012

Haunting accordion and a nightclub setting hung with glamorous costumes greeted us at the Rondo Theatre as Rogue Theatre presented their current touring show The Dancer and the Devil but even as glittering hostess Laverna welcomed us - with chocolates - the black&white photographs scattered around the auditorium like lost memorabilia were already stirring unease... allure and menace are twin themes of the show. Songs, dances and stories all blend beauty and erotica with terror. The shadow of the holocaust is there from the start but this is not a linear drama, more a dream sequence in which dark psychological insights from fairy tales, Sondheim-style, mingle with historical and contemporary cultural displacements. Abandonment, addiction and abuse surge through the sensuous cabaret set-pieces, and macabre violence repeatedly intrudes in the midnight world of the Lounge Limbo.
This series of gems is very nearly a fantastic show, except for the misjudged inclusion of a lengthy audience-participation 'quiz show' which snapped the mesmeric tension and undermined the compelling theatricality. Omitting this, and the interval, would have ensured an extraordinary emotional journey for everyone in the audience, but a spell like that once broken is hard to cast again. Nevertheless this immensely talented team sent us out into the winter night illuminated by gorgeous visuals and haunting score. All seven performers were superb, but musicians Julian Gaskell & Lauren Vandike deserve special mention.
And how refreshing it is to have Rondo Theatre in Bath as a friendly and delightfully atmospheric alternative to the big theatre in the city centre - check out their season for more excellent touring shows.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

And as vivid images of Cambodia begin to fade in the where's-my-gloves-and-brolly?-ness of being back in England, with its very different rhythm of meetings and catch-ups, great to see Kate Edgley's sensitive and vividly evocative piece in The Guardian today. Kate, despite her proficiency already as an experienced travel writer, participated fully in the writing sessions and one of my top memories is the night in Siem Reap when three of us skipped supper to sit beside the pool as the sky darkened and strings of glittering lights turned the gardens into a night palace, writing and sharing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bradford-on-Avon's poetry entrepreneur Dawn Gorman has found a new and more glamorous venue for Words & Ears, and The Swan Cellar Bar was crammed on Monday night. David C Johnson, self-styled 'half man, half pippin' led an evening of varied and enjoyable contributions with performances from his new book Fallen Apples, and I'm pleased to say the Frome posse all participated too - here's 'domestic goddess' Rosie sharing quirky thoughts on housework.

Bath's Mission Theatre celebrated the 7th birthday of resident group Next Stage Company with the opening night of Jerusalem - a startling coup since its multi-starred West End production closed only last week, with queues throughout the night for the final performances. Jez Butterworth's play is about society's relationship to outsiders, national psyche, authority, change, love, loss, and basically the meaning of life: his brilliant script was also showcase for Mark Rylance as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, the swaggering reprobate whose life blood is the sap of essential energy destroyed as wild woodlands are eroded by new estates. Comparison is impossible yet inevitable, and this bold production scores surprisingly well, finding the humour & humanity, maintaining energy & suspense, and with a positive advantage in the genuine youthfulness of Rooster's under-age woodland 'rats' which creates the credibility - and underlines the vulnerability - of his kingdom. Set, sound, and lighting are excellent, with creditable performances by all the cast and Tim Evan charismatic in the central role. Huge credit to director Ann Garner for bringing an extraordinary and important play successfully to Bath. Highly recommended - it's on till Saturday.

- as a postscript to my comments above, Mission Theatre's snatching of the Rylance baton has been noted by the arts section in the i, with a big fat picture as well as quotes from the director. Nice one Next Stage!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Back home now from the Skyros-led Adventure in Cambodia... wow oh wow, where to start? I suppose with first impressions, and lasting memories too: paradoxes and contrasts. Splendor, squalor, and spirituality, all shaken chaotically together. Our ten day journey was a daily fascination of culture shocks. A million motor-scooters whirling like mosquitoes around Phnom Penh streets, long hours of bus travel past a timeless landscape of fields, stilt houses, and water buffalo, to arrive at a five-star hotel with a vast pool in gardens that nightly turned into a glittering fairyland - juxtapositions of ancient & modern, poverty & money, past & future, which are part of every culture, in Cambodia are vivid and violent. Reverence for traditions - buddhist, hindu, even ancient animism - jostles with insistence that this is a young country with a vibrant future. And it is young, still teenage: it was 1993 when monarchy was restored after the terrible years of Khmer Rouge and the war with Vietnam which left 3 million dead and touched every family in the land.
They don't pretend to forget. The message of the Genocide Museum, a stupifyingly sad collection of memorabilia housed in a school-turned-torture chamber, reads Keeping the memory of the atrocities alive.. plays a crucial role in preventing new Pol Pot from emerging in the lands of Angkor or anywhere on earth.
And with temples and paraphernalia of holiness everywhere, it's hard not to wonder how such cruelty could happen. Maybe humans aren't meant to stifle emotions behind that famous Angkor smile, maybe there's good reason the friezes show Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, seated next to his 'beloved brother' Murugan, God of War. The more direct reason is of course more sinister: the national shift to communism that allowed Pol Pot's extremist policy of 'rupture' was caused by Nixon's covert, illegal, carpet bombing of Cambodia in 1973 - an outrage supported by Kissinger, whose reward of the Nobel Peace Prize inspired Tom Lehrer to pronounce political satire now obsolete. And the rest is ghastly history.
Recent past is close to the surface everywhere but our journey revealed many layers of history and it's impossible to fully summarise ten days of amazing experiences, a full notebook and 200 photographs, so here's a list of some of the many memorable aspects and precious moments:

~ the meditation led by Michael at Ta Prohm where spong trees swaddle the ruined temples, while monkeys hooted and cicadas shrilled as dusk deepened

~ the local children jostling around the charnel house in the Killing Caves, irrepressible symbol of hope for better future

~ the Circus School in Battambang - the dazzling skill & exuberance of these children from the streets

~ champa blossom fallen everywhere, called the yoni flower...

~ luxuries! khmer massage, hotel breakfasts of papaya and dragon-fruit, restaurant suppers of Fish Amok - a speciality of Cambodia, local fish in seasoned sauce of coconut milk and spices.

~ Apsara dancers, exquisitely performing traditional story-routines, in costumes based on the temple friezes of these heavenly half-goddesses
~ the floating village on Tonle Sap lake, where life goes on the same as the water level sinks and rises

~ Kulen National Park, the massive reclining buddah carved into ancient rock, the waterfall, and the sudden monsoon downpour
~ 360 steps to the five temples of Banan, with extensive views of beautiful forests with minefield warnings...

~ water lilies, puce and spiky, on long stiff stems

~ Water of Hope, bringing wells to the rural communities of this country, poorest in southeast asia, high infant mortality rate, and still bereft of supportive infrastructure we met Narong who runs this project here.

~ our writing night in the poolside bar

~ Banteay Srei, the beautiful 'Lady Temple' with its elaborate exotic, and some erotic, carvings smothering the red limestone walls
~ our wonderful guide Soriya who shared his sensitive feelings and sense of humour as well as his extensive historical & political knowledge

~ and my group of fellow travellers, expertly led by Michael Eales. Great to spend time with you all, here's hoping to meet up again with all my new friends.

Like a Kate Winslet speech, my list could go on and on... I'll end back at Phnom Penh airport, where I bought two last souvenirs: a pack of postcards showing smiling children among the fields and flowers of this beautiful country, seemingly living in rural innocence - and a local paper with front page story about a group of villagers shot by the private army of an encroaching Rubber Company when they tried to protect their cassava harvest. Rights workers condemned the violence, but the provincial governor made no comment. Which of these contrasting aspects is the real Cambodia? It's another paradox.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Bristol-based theatre company Travelling Light has a big name for their devised productions, so I was keen to see their version of Cinderella despite the fact the promo image looked like a cover shot for a Pia Jewellery catalogue. Happily their Ella was more like a traveller from the woods of Jerusalem, sprinting to the ball with leaves in her old bowler hat and glitter on her Doc Martins, and the show was an absolute delight. Director Sally Cookson used the good-fairy birds and the toe-butchering eye-pecking savagery of the Grimm Brothers version, but wove in panto-style comedy too: the prince is an asthmatic bird-watcher with a striking resemblance to Austin Powers, and there's oodles of saucy cross-dressing. Music is a big part of the magic, Benji Bower and brother Will creating a vivid and exquisite soundscape to match every mood.
Unsurprisingly, this imaginative and cleverly-executed show is sold out till the end of the run but I managed to slip in at a schools performance and enjoyed the add-on pleasure of seeing the children's engrossed enchanted faces and hearing their frank reactions ("Yeah!" as streamers of blood flow from the wicked stepmother's gouged eyeballs, and "Yucch!" for the lovers' smoochy kiss.) Their responses on the blackboard in the foyer said it all: ‘amazing’, ‘brilliant’, ‘loveley but scary', 'I like the lights’ and ‘its great its only 5 people and the music is great’.

Another nearly-missed treat, this time in Bath: The Holburne Museum garden this winter has been filled with thousands of colour-changing fibre-optic lights, creating a Field of Light that comes to life as dusk deepens into night. The installation closes today but I heard about it just in time to experience this amazing artwork.

And there will now be a short intermission. I'm not taking my laptop to Cambodia, where I'll be offering guidance on finding way of processing through writing what looks like an amazing adventure holiday... full report to follow after 18th January, when I'm home again.