Friday, February 22, 2013

Media excitement over the unearthing of Richard III's remains in a Leicester car-park makes this a good time for another look at Shakespeare's most melodramatic historical play, but the new production at Bristol's Tobacco Factory is more than timely: it's superb. One of the strengths of this theatre is its physical space which, set centrally to the audience on four sides, offers huge scope for imaginary landscapes both external and psychological. Andrew Hilton's production relishes this aspect and uses it vividly, from the opening moment when Richard's confidently casual entrance transforms us all somehow into witnesses in his own head, to the final battle raging imminently as he calls for a horse, a horse...
John Mackay (image by Mark Duane) is marvellous as Richard, playing the lines for callous wit and near-psychotic ruthlessness. It's a dominant but hugely subtle performance, with even room for fleeting pity for the killing-machine king as he looks on bleak and impassive while his mother the Duchess of York pours out a torrent of loathing dating from the moment of his malformed birth, recalling that earlier declaration since I cannot prove a lover, I am determined to prove a villain. He's not dog-scaringly deformed either ~ a bit gangly and with a useless arm ~ which is also effective to add psychological depth. A lead actor this charismatic needs some counterbalance, and the rest of the cast provide that with strong performances all round, especially in moments of respite from terror & treachery: Chris Donnelly as an inept murderer, Piers Wehner and Jack Bannell bringing a younger energy, and of course the sweet & solemn little princes. Costumes designed by Harriet de Winton are sumptuously of the era and look fabulous - gorgeous jewel tones teamed with sable, black and gold. Matthew Graham's lighting design enhances every mood and even the programme deserves recommendation: lots of fascinating history and no annoying stuff like most glossy ones. So there you are. Richard III, on till the end of March, and well worth seeing.

Fiction Feast on Thursday evening once again saw the Merlin stage transformed into a bohemian bistro where the audience became a supper club, read to by local writers:  Emily Gerrard, Alison Clink, Jill Miller, Rosie Jackson, Frances Liardet, Debby Holt, and me. Thanks to everyone for your warm and appreciative feedback, both on the night and in postings & emails.

Keats did it - Auden did it - even Wendy Cope did it, and writers throughout the ages have found inspiration in visual art. Now Black Swan Arts has started its own group of wordsmiths to respond to each exhibition.  Words at the Black Swan is launching with a free pilot session, with refreshments, at 4pm on Monday March 11th, so contact me if you fancy coming along. The inaugural exhibition is  Charlie Murphy's installation 'Retort'

Again looking ahead poetically, small yelps of delight echoed around Frome when we heard Luke Wright has included Merlin theatre in his national tour of Your New Favourite Poet with a show there next Friday, March 1st. This one has been travelling down from Edinburgh collecting 5-star reviews and lovely soundbites like  "visceral, poignant, and riotously funny" (The Scotsman) "Blisteringly good… heartfelt, true and richly human" (The Independent) and "Positively life-enhancing as well as hilarious" (Evening Standard). So come along, support the Merlin, support poetry, have a blistering riot and go home with your life enhanced. I am.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sometimes I see a show that's so mindblowingly imaginative and all-round fabulous I come out not knowing what to say except that everyone should see it, which is how I feel about Borges and I by Idle Motion, so if it's not sold out do get to Bristol's Brewery Theatre before March 2nd.  Inspired by the words and life of Jorge Luis Borges, this mesmeric and beautiful story takes the notion that "all writing is a continuation of reading and half-forgotten memories" and blends balletic visual theatre with clever and very funny parody in the contemporary storyline ~ a reading group with internal issues. The great tragedy of Borges' life was going blind in his thirties and the production explores this through the relationship of two of the group, but though this strand is deeply moving it's the inspiration of the writer's thought which illuminates this piece throughout. "Catching yourself in the mirror, you know that’s you but there’s another you and not everyone sees it", realises the geek of the reading group at the end... “All men who quote Shakespeare are Shakespeare – we’re all writers and protagonists in this infinite story." An immensely rich experience which will leave you emotionally brimming and with images of fluttering pages and books like birds flying through luminous mists in your mind. And tigers.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Valentine Night at Frome Poetry Cafe sparkled like a glitter-ball on Wednesday as some of our most popular regulars stepped in when featured guest poet Robbie Vane was sadly indisposed. We had handbags and gladrags from Muriel Lavender, list-mistress extraordinaire Jo Butts, and a posy of lovely Roses: Rosie Finnegan, Rosie Jackson, and Rose Flint ~ and nine fantastic open-mic contributers too. Prizes went to Linda Perry, Rick Rycroft, and Holly Law whose superb poem 'Quiet Quiet' was especially appreciated. A hugely enjoyable evening, let's do it all again soon!

"One Billion Women Violated Is An Atrocity,One Billion Women Dancing Is A Revolution." Women were dancing on Valentine's day throughout the world, with Frome Rising too. But only Frome celebrates the saint of courtly love by lighting a Victorian gas-lamp... just another of the things that make this quirky town so endearing...

A preview on Friday of A Fragile World, mixed media installation by 'weird stuff artist' Hans Borgonjon, a combination of shards, shadows, and sounds that make subtle subliminal interconnections. The sounds are by Paul Francis, an Australian astronomer who translates the electromagnetic waves of the planets into... well, sounds. Fascinating and mesmeric. The exhibition is on at Owl in Catherine Hill, with lots of other intriguing arty stuff too.

Frivolous footnote: Frome hit the national press recently when Nigella Lawson tweeted she'd been shopping in Deadly is the Female, our 'vintage-inspired' emporium of fantastic frocks, which is my tenuous link for including a picture of valentine night at the Grange in my own little number from Deadly... as you see, no concessions to Lent here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How many stage directions should a writer include? How much should a director meddle with the script? Who owns a piece of theatre anyway? These, and other pithy issues from funding & contracts to why women aren't better represented in the upper echelons of professional theatre, were discussed at the 'Open Space consultation' at Bath's Rondo Theatre for practitioners across the southwest, led by Alison Farina of Butterfly Psyche Theatre. A stimulating and informative day and perhaps most importantly affirming: collaboration is the heart of theatre and as writer/director Ian McGlynn says, the best thing for a writer is when something comes out of the script that you didn't know was there. Most impassioned topic was Rosie's query about imbalanced female:male ratios in theatre ~ hard to dispute, since Equity wrote to 43 artistic directors of subsidised theatres drawing their attention to the fact that they consistently offer work to many more men than women actors and show many more male than female characters. The A.M. of the group tried denial, Shakespeare, and girly topics being less popular themes than war, but a substantial body of research suggests this is a social and cultural issue rather than whining women and weak writing.  As long as airbrushing is considered routine dressage by the media, it's hard to talk convincingly of gender parity in any walk of life.

All of which leads me to another perennial writerly issue ~ Why blog? ~ raised at an excellent digital marketing session at the Silk Mill last week led by Becca Braithwaite.  To practice shaping ideas, as a kind of halfway house between free-flow and submission, I suggested. I use mine to explore thoughts on productions before the formal review ~ and to big-up the vibrance of Frome. Looking back to when I'd just started blogging I found a quote from journalist Kate Kellaway: For me it is like placing a rock in a stream, a way of interrupting the flow of time, diverting it - having the comforting illusion that it has not escaped forever. My comment then was: A virtual pod-cast of thoughts and impressions, made by a magic damn. I like that. Back then my blog was more true to its frivolous mission statement 'all the goss from a writer's life', with quips and snippets and pictures of writer friends. Social media, of course, is where jokes and quotes go now, and most of the images too, but there's a subtler social change too: we've all become more cautious about our virtual existence, and I'm more wary around others' privacy. I gave up candid photography way back when I first noticed people getting anxious around a stranger with a telephoto lens, and when friends started asking is this for the blog?, I stopped posting casual encounters. I think overall this chronicle is the poorer for that, but people aren't for the entertainment of their friends ~ except of course on facebook where there's more immediate control and veto. Which is why I probably spend more time there now than blogging...
And to return to women writers... the Pride & Prejudice readathon is on line now! Muriel Rosie and I are all in part 3  ~ my read starts after 2.39 hours. Since you ask!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ghost story aficionados probably already know the name  R M Lloyd Parry as synonymous with thrilling dramatic exposition of the genre, but to me Count Magnus at the Brewery was a total sensation. The set is perfect to evoke late 19th Century gloom and slightly sinister candlelight, and his story-telling, in the style of a garrulous club member, makes it seem that every phrase has been chosen in the moment for this particular recounting of the M R James tale. Ghoulish spookiness is entwined into the narrative with elegant sparsity ~ only the occasional hint ("Mr Wraxall paid dearly for his curiosity...") until each dreaded and dreadful occurrence, never fully described but evoked with terrible sounds... "I heard one cry out and I heard one laugh, and if I cannot cease to remember those sounds I will never sleep again." Weird shit at its best.

Story-telling of a different kind from Big Wooden Horse whose half-term offering STUCK used songs and puppetry to embellish a direct-to-audience approach in this tale a tree-trapped kite requiring imagination & ingenuity to dislodge. The show is surprisingly close to Oliver Jeffers' picture book in imagery and Stan,6 and Joe,3 gave it thumbs-up from their booster-seats at Frome's Merlin theatre: Stan enjoyed the shouting and Joe the fire-engine but my favourite bit was the orangutango-dancer.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Who are these, coming to the sacrifice...  dancers, bounding, boundless, beauty and truth. “That piano is a bit annoying.” Green man, green knight, translucent glass drilled and stitched,  bounded, bonded, blind. Dangling man, medieval jouster, patchwork jester, triple shadowed, shifting in space as the piano plays, fusing with the movement of the dancers on the porcelain bowl.  Who is this, coming to the sacrifice, swaying slightly in the warm air, hum of projector, thrum of repeated solo piano note.. Whose is this glinting web, Penelope... Ariadne... ‘You are invited to contribute’ so I do, taking up more knitting needles like the sheep in Alice’s dream, or was it the queen? “I used to knit for my grandson - he’s 18 now.” Memories and myths entangle, nets and snares, and who knits up the sleeve of care? Current show at Black Swan Arts in Frome is SHIFT, a fascinating look at the relationship between craft & fine art ~ worth a look before 16th February especially for writers, as the gallery plans to start a group to respond to their exhibitions in words. There's a long tradition of wordsmiths, especially poets, finding inspiration in visual art so, after indulging in a some freeflow jottings at this show,  I'm looking forward to our pilot events next month ~ watch this space for details.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is a short story for children by Gabriel Garcia Marquez ~ so short it's hard to see how Little Angel Theatre could manage, even by adding social parody, to stretch it to a full-length show with an interval. Well they do, using a gothic picture-book set where four clever puppeteers manipulate a large cast of villagers to tell the story of this fallen angel who mutely transforms the lives of all around him. Perhaps the cast is a bit too large: while all the figures are charming there's little character-differentiation and not always a chance for the kind of subtly-animated movement that makes skilled puppetry so striking. When this occurs it's superb and the relationship between the old man and the little boy, which is at the heart of the story, is exquisitely shown. And there's jokey fun,  especially with the chickens, but also a lot of wafting about. I loved the surprises at the start but everything gets more predictable as the parable of materialist corruption sets in, and an unscrupulous banker sits uneasily with the magic realism ~ but the very beautiful ending is worth waiting for. (BOV Studio & touring.)

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Ferment is the 'artist development' strand of Bristol Old Vic and always a great chance to see experimental work in process ~ theatre arts as an extreme sport, you might say. I didn't see all 23 but the most extraordinary and awesome show for me was Just Because I Have A Launderette in My Thigh Doesn't Mean I'm Milkshake Wednesday, poet Byron Vincent's exploration of the 'fine line between insanity and genius', which pushes observational comedy of the former incontrovertibly into the territory of the latter. The show is mostly prerecorded or read, which seems at first odd for a performance poet whose unscripted fluencyis legendary, but against a clever filmic background this only enhances the impact of his material: his life-journey from an estate where if your tattoos were spelled right you got kicked as a pseudo-intellectual to incarceration on 5-minute suicide watch in an institution that, as his visiting mother blithely comments, would drive you bonkers if you weren't there already. "If a prison had sex with a hospital, the resultant wet patch would be the Psych ward" he sumarises, and ends with a list of side-effect warnings on medication aimed to lift the spirits ~ of which death seems one of the more benign ~ and concludes "Maybe it's better to engage with actual happiness and real suffering." He shuffles off while applause is still frantic, and when we emerge from the Studio theatre there's a January-sales-style rush for feedback forms & pens, and I wish I'd actually written more, but it's hard to explain why you hurt from laughing about the pain of being human.

Chasm of Sorrow gave us 35 minutes of a show in development by performance artist Andrew Dawson about the journey taken by Chekhov to the penal colony on the island of Sakhalin, off the coast of Siberia ~ "A prison the size of Scotland. Nobody went to Sakhalin voluntarily, until 1899, and that man was Anton Pavlovich Chekhov." It’s hard to know what genre to call this: not a play, but more than a slide-tape presentation, as Andrew Dawson narrates with affability and compassion ~ an odd combo, but effective ~ and evokes through physical movement the hard journeys and debilitating punitive constraints. Chekhov spent his sojourn interviewing all 10,000 of the island’s captives, 6 an hour, 17 hours a day: the resultant book didn’t create much stir in Moscow but the experience must have affected his plays, and undoubtedly shortened his life. His words, recorded by David Ricardo Pierce, were affecting but more profoundly moving were the portraits of prisoners with the same demon-facing eyes I saw in the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh last year.

Kilter, operating from a delivery van converted into a Mobile Sorting Office parked outside the theatre, provided light entertainment not only site-specific but audience-specific too. A trio of postal service conservationists sang on letter-related themes while we browsed correspondence on display and added to it by means provided ~ coloured pens and a trad typewriter. A charmingly nostalgic interlude, though I couldn’t assent to their rallying song: When was the last time you sent your love in an email? There are times when the medium isn't the message... :-*

The Second Coming Of Sue reintroduced the alter-ego of Dafydd Jones, a tragi-comic naif and virtuoso pianist whose tinklings and falsetto trills inspire irresistible chortling. The show lifts into another dimension when Sue confides chirpily “God came upon me early this year in the changing room at Debenhams. I was ever so pleased. He’s giving us another chance!” At her urging, the front row audience timidly pat the bump and after more banter Sue returns to the piano to sing a prayer of wonderment and hope for her new baby: Will you be a boy child, will be a lady, or will you be a bit of both, just like Paul O’Grady? which slowly becomes as exquisitely truthful of parental longings as it is absurdly funny. Sue is at her best when she demands & deserves more than your usual tranny. The Mrs-Thatcher-like control-freakery she exerts over her look-(not)alike band is great, as is her survival story as an unloved orphan ~ it’s the dark side that makes her farcical humour so brilliant. I hope that's the way this fantastic character continues to go.