Thursday, March 28, 2013

Eighteen is a magic number associated with both conflict and stories in Hinduism, so perhaps there's extra significance for The Three Snake Leaves now it has been performed by the same trio of storytellers for eighteen years. There was certainly something magical about driving into the snow-bleached Welsh mountains for these 'fairytales grownups from the Grimm forest' performed by Hugh Lupton, Sally Pomme Clayton and Ben Haggarty, supported by two musicians and a score of instruments ranging from a water-warbler bird whistle to a four-tiered rack of bells. The tales are all fantastical, word-pictures swirling like dark robes glinting with gold, but lies like beauty are only skin deep and when every twisted thread is finally woven into place the message is redemptive.
This was the piece, I learned from my story-teller friend Lisa, which reintroduced the classic oral tradition into performance: as Hugh told us at the start, behind every story-teller are the shadows of those who through the ages told these stories before.  I can't find an image that evokes in any way this extraordinarily powerful presentation so here's a picture of Abergavenny, where we were transported deep into the extraordinary and often painful psyche of humanity in the Borough Theatre while the world outside froze.

Frome Library, which has been closed for a month, reopened on Wednesday with cakes and a speech explaining that Frome has now been Are-eff-eye-deed, which meant very little to those of us unfamiliar with Radio-Frequency Identification use of electro-magnetic fields to transfer data for the purpose of automatically tracking tags attached to objects.  (thanks, Wiki.) After some strummed Wordsworth and an excellent taster workshop on Writing for Wellbeing led by David Goldstein, it all began to feel more like the Frome Library we know and love, despite the reader-focussed kiosks in the entry which have replaced the book-borrowing-focussed desk.

Is every art work an expression of its artist? How do characters arrive on canvas, or in scripts? Christopher Bucklow was talking about his Talking about Painting exhibition with Steve Hennessy at Black Swan Arts  on Wednesday. Chris wanted to explore the similarities in their creative process, as painter and playwright, and reflect on a shared perceptions of their characters as part self & part myth. 'Part of creating anything is to make ourselves well,' as Steve succinctly said.  Dreams and metaphors are 'part of the cats-cradle' too, and Chris's idea of art as belonging to 'the theatre beyond the paintings'. Fascinating stuff ~ though not for the audience member who used the Q&A to opine "It's a flat surface, get used to it." Brecht might have agreed.

Frome Scriptwriters have been working on monologues for actress Becky Baxter to perform at The Cornerhouse as a fringe event for Celebrating the Imagination, and the chosen scripts were announced at our meeting this week. Becky, who picked the pieces she felt had most theatrical scope for her,  was wowed by the writing standard of our fledgling group and we were wowed by her brilliant read-through, so after an exciting evening we're all looking forward to When She Imagines... on May 16th. By which time ~ we hope ~ Frome Festival brochure will be on the streets, crammed with amazing and quirky events. Nevertheless Pub Theatre has award-winning contemporary drama with What's the Time Mr Wolf?, there's no less than THREE unmissable poetry nights, there's a book quiz, workshops, talks from publishers & meetings with agents, in fact everything's unmissable so clear July 5th-14th for one of the top 5 small festivals in one of the top 10 small towns!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Talking About Painting by Christopher Bucklow is the current exhibition at Black Swan Arts, and at Friday’s opening Chris was talking about painting and dreaming and psychoanalysis, and confirming my suspicion that theatre at its best is about creative interaction and doesn’t necessarily need a script. “The unconscious is a hidden language ~ a whole universe of things we don’t have access to," Chris says,  "I paint a room and I wait for the characters to appear. It’s like a séance."  Consistent characters in the dream-dramas of his paintings are Clement Greenberg and Mandy Rice-Davis, metaphors for the struggle within the artist's psyche:Clement an art critic who "wanted a painting to be itself, not a 'window into the world'," and Mandy the call-girl who, when the Foreign Secretary denied sleeping with her, challenged the entire establishment edifice by her calm response Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.  “She opened the skin that was closed," says Chris, "That’s the dialogue in the pictures – between the open and the closed. I didn’t set out to use these characters, I discovered them.. It’s day dreaming.  I dip in, then I sit back and think about what I’ve done. That's the pattern.” Sounds just like writing a script...

Back within the cave of these huge canvases on Sunday,  Kim's cake replaced the wine as Words at the Black Swan writing group met for our second session, this time with poet Rose Flint, who skilfully steered us away from fore-knowledge into a personal place of 'receiving' the paintings, as "both the physicality of the art and the image within the art are ways we view the world." With the challenge to 'write about the canvas that appeals or repulses you most', here's Mandy Mourning: 
Sliding through time
piece by shining piece 
folded like a deckchair,
your lives hanging by a thread,
How can you crawl away in those shoes?
Who will paint your struggle now 
that bloodied stump is floored?

Box of Tricks is touring Wordplay: six new short plays inspired by “Division” with a a subtext suggestion NW/SW divide may be involved, especially as this is a collaboration between Octagon Theatre Bolton and Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre. Connections with the theme seemed somewhat tenuous but that didn’t matter at all in a production which included some very strong writing brought to life by four absolutely cracking actors: Rachel Austin, David Judge, Helen Carter and Matthew Ganley. Best of the writers were Bea Roberts and Ella Greenhill, whose sibling drama was sensitively poised emotionally and extremely moving, and Luke Barnes’ Goldilocks spoof despite not really going anywhere did make me giggle. A good piece to end an event that deserved a bigger audience.
 My account of the Cosmic Walk Annabelle & I went on last year is in the spring issue of Green Spirit ~ thanks Ian Mowll for digging it out from these postings virtually verbatim, apart from the jaunty conclusion of Monty Python's Galaxy Song: Let's hope that there's intelligent life in Outer Space, 'cos there's bugger-all here on earth.
And finally... this week's headline in the doughty Somerset Standard brags that Frome ‘according to a national newspaper’ is Sixth coolest place to live in UK. I couldn't find confirmation online but here's Sam & Paula’s party before serious dancing began... hotting up & cooling down.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Current show at Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov studio is the UK Premiere of The American Plan by Richard Greenberg, set in the predominantly Jewish resort of Catskill in the 1960s.  This is a dazzling production of a brilliant play: the script is Wilde-ly witty and full of surprises, the set elegantly simple, and David Grindley's strong direction allows all five superb performances to shine.  Interestingly, the women seem to get the best lines ~ beautiful trapped Lili (Emily Taafee), an Alice-through-the-Glass whose mind is a sort of masked ball - you never know who you'll be dancing with next, enigmatic Olivia (Dona Croll) who says dryly being known is not part of my job, and most awesome of all Diana Quick as Eva, the mother whose simpering evil is breathtaking.  Social setting ~ the title refers to a full-board, all-you-can-eat, booking plan at the resort which says much about clientele aspirations & values ~ is fascinating and often satiric but this is primarily a psychological study of one family, and powerfully shows that great drama needs very little on-stage action if there's good story well-told. My only reservation is the final scene, which expositionally knots up loose ends already subtly tied, which could have been ommitted to send us out into the night still stunned by a sublime piece of theatre. But it was close to flawless anyway.

'Wild, crazy, devilishly funny' Gonzo Moose arrived at the Brewery this week with their current historical pastiche What the Dickens? inspired, loosely, by the bicentenary of Victorian London's most famous novelist and his penchant for fantastical characters and complex plots.  We watch agog & aching from laughter as sleuthing reporter Charles Dickens (co-founder, artistic director, co-writer Mark Conway, on fantastic form as always) meets with pickpockets and plotters, grave-robbers, soft-hearted tarts, hard-hearted lords and an enormous owl ~ all hilariously created with multi-costume change by Chris Porter and Emily Murphy. It's clever, classy, and immensely funny, and they're back at the Rondo next month so if you miss out in Bristol, book there now!

And finally...  summer officially begins at the end of this month, so if you're beginning to think longingly about holidays, and wondering where to find a fantastic location with fabulous food, good company and a chance to write too, then let me direct your attention my website which has links to two sensational options:  SKYROS HOLISTIC HOLIDAYS on the Greek island of Skyros and CORTIJO ROMERO in Southern Spain are both marvellous venues which provide a wide range of creative courses as well as entertainment & relaxation, so as well as Finding Your Voice with me, there are many other options to browse...  :-)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

I feel like you sometimes.
Spiky, branched out,
brittle body incongruous
snake-shadows strong,
pinned, wired, and alone.
Your glass thorns are dancers
in a savage fairyland,
one touch would crush
those delicate stiletto claws.
Infinite fragility took you to the edge.
Did you fly?

Last week was the first session of a new initiative from Black Swan Arts ~ a writing group which will explore to each exhibition in words that will be featured alongside the visual art. The first workshop inspired some brilliant responses about Charlie Murphy's installation 'Retort', now on display till the end of the exhibition as well as on facebook.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play that rarely disappoints, however fanciful or experimental the direction. There's something psychologically primitive, as well as excitingly visceral, about Shakespeare's night forest where love is lost and found again ~ it's the blending of natural passion with supernatural magic, and a great production can create tingling atmosphere with no scenery at all. But not, it appears, by having the cast restlessly toting planks about and tapping on them. And call me fuddy-duddy but I'd rather listen to Puck's words as if uttered by a sprite rather than a trio of Kwik-Fit Fitters wielding bits of junk, presumably to blend with the notion of extraneous elements like puppetry. Don't even get me started on the puppets. When the lovers dropped their action-man lookalikes and addressed their lines to each other there were some really good moments, but that didn't happen for most of the first act so the interaction was as static and tedious as an old episode of Thunderbirds. No life-size, War Horse style, fascination from Handspring Puppet Company this time. Titania and Oberon ~ who doubled as Hippolyta and Theseus, in the same workman-like attire ~ had big heads like faux-stone garden ornaments which they carried aloft, and the only character who might have benefitted from a mask was denied one: Bottom had to use his own massive naked bum as an ass, which had a crude kind of logic but seemed, like so much of this production, to belong in a drama school romp rather than Bristol Old Vic. Some good individual performances ~ Colin Michael Carmichael, whose Quince found a character beneath the parody, and David Ricardo Pearce the Duke-cum-King of the Fairies ~ but the directorial concept explained in the programme simply doesn't work: there is no excitement in this production until the end, which is thrilling but two hours forty minutes too late.

It's five years since I went to Stratford on Avon so I was chuffed with my late-Christmas present: a trip there to see play of my choice... I picked Bertold Brecht's A Life of Galileo in a new translation by Mark Ravenhill at The Swan, in a fabulous RSC production that found richness of emotion, colour, and pageantry in this rather cerebral play. The motif of orbit was echoed in on-stage movement and in the cycle of fortunes, revealing a more human story than the basic plot of conflict between the astronomer and the Church officials he strove in vain to convince. Ian McDiarmid was fantastic as Galileo Galilei, whether near-crowing with Peter-Pan-like childish pride or decrepit and broken as Lear after he had recanted ~ indeed all the cast were excellent but I'd pick out Matthew Aubrey as Andrea the young assistant, especially in a final showdown that passionately transcended mere polemic:  It's not about the planets, it's about the peasants... You will progress, but away from humanity. Stirring stuff.  And along the river Avon sunshine, spring flowers, blue skies and white swans all make this two-day break sublime.

Finally: an eyebrow-raising footnote from author Terry Deary who joined the debate on Library closures on the opposite side to most of the literary world, countering their protests with the assertion that "we've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers." The Horrible Historian receives a huge cheque from PLR annually but appears to believe that those who borrow his books from libraries would all buy all of them if such access were denied. Which makes you stupid, as well as greedy, Mister Deary.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I feel I shouldn't let the Bath Lit Fest (1st-10th March) pass without an approving mention ~ the programme looked marvellous ~  but this year I missed every one of the 179 events by spending the entire week on holiday in Exmoor.

This random timing turned out to be just before the 'walking season' officially started, so we found uncrowded towns as well as empty paths through woodland and moorland, all recreating the tranquil atmosphere the Romantic poets must have enjoyed, and a queue-less welcome in preemptive teashops everywhere. No heather yet, but glorious gorse and banks of snowdrops, and sumptuous sunshine most days.
Our base was an amazing converted Hunting Lodge in Porlock Weir ~ here's our morning view ~  from where we set off daily clutching Jarrold Guide to boldly go where so many have gone before... crags and dells, twisty bits and vistas, iron-age sites and 19th century follies, heaths and forests, beaches and waterfalls, over hills and dales, through bush and briar and sometimes quite a bit of mire, like Oberon's elfin minions we did wander everywhere.

We began with a coastal walk to the old fort at Bossington, then followed the steps of Coleridge past Culbone and Ash Farm where the poet wrote of sinuous rills and forests ancient as the hills, and a deep romantic chasm:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted 
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover...
He was famously interrupted by before completing the fragment, and Kubla Khan met with a mixed reception on publication, with Coleridge's wife lamenting his folly in admitting to an opium habit and Charles Lamb commenting that while the poet's recitation was enchanting, "there is an observation 'never tell thy dreams' and I am afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that won't bear daylight." Critics continue to argue over the literary merit, but the mysterious Person from Porlock has entered the our culture as a reference for elusive inspiration and writers' block.

Another long walk took us into Lynemouth and a detour up the funicular railway to Lynton where we strayed into Villa Spaldi, a bizarre art nouveau house with Italian gardens built in 1870 by Sir Thomas Hewitt. A lovely river path with sombre undertones in the story of the 'terrible flood' of 1952 when the Lyn broke its banks and torrents of water and rocks gushed down to destroy hamlets and shatter the town. The local paper recorded "Superlatives are too puny to describe the calamity, which has befallen Lynmouth and Barbrook. Deaths on a wartime scale, destruction worse than in the heaviest blitz, hundreds of residents and visitors personally ruined and destitute - the story stuns the human mind".

Perhaps the most glorious views were on the long walk to Selworthy across clifftops and through woods,  where we found an unexpected monument erected by his son in 1878 to the memory of Sir Thomas Dyke Akland "who, during more than fifty years, took Sunday walks up this combe with his CHILDREN and GRANDCHILDREN training them in the love of NATURE and of CHRISTIAN POETRY." 
Among shorter walks we visited Dunster where the castle loomed through atmospheric mist, and Valley of the Rocks where goats were thick as ticks and I broke my camera (luckily the best camera shop in Exmoor happens to be in Porlock, so thanks Jack for the replacement and the tutorials, plus a fabulous wildlife picture to take home).  We met ponies, listened to birdsong and night owls, were followed by a flock of sheep, and encountered a butterfly conservation project in the bracken checking out the habitat for High Brown Fritillary, a rare species which has apparently declined by 90% in the last 40 years...

And Porlock itself is a sweet little place, deserving of a better accolade than Robert Southey managed in his rather gauche ode moaning about the rain and concluding making my sonnet by the alehouse fire, while Idleness and Solitude inspire / dull rhymes to pass the duller hours away.  Our tea-shop survey, conducted at the conclusion of most of the walks, was very pleasant though no clear winner emerged. Both our eating-out evenings were a 5-star success but Hathaways in Dunster was beaten to the podium by Sashes in Minehead, where convivial ambiance and superb food combined in an event that was more intimate theatre than merely supper.
I'll end with another medley of images: Culbone, tiniest functioning church in England with a legendary past that inspired the opening lines of Blake's Jerusalem, various woodland stretches, and the biggest complete double rainbow I ever saw, resting in the sea at Lynemouth bay.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Anyone who ever doubted the towering talent of Lenny Henry needs only to watch a moment of Fences at Theatre Royal Bath to be convinced. He inhabits, with immense passion and subtle nuance too,  the lead role of Troy, a Pittsburgh garbage man with a story both local and universal ~ the essential struggle to find values & certainties in the messy flux of passion and mortality.  August Wilson's 1983 play, set in 1957 as part of his dramatic chronicle of the experience of blacks in 20th Century America, is a wordy script but a strong cast brought emotional insight to each character. Troy like his father before him makes a painful mess of parenting but faces life & death with defiant integrity, as charismatic and wild in his tales as Jez Butterworth's Rooster but still scarred by memories from childhood which are  revisited in a powerful scene that becomes a rite of passage for his own young son.  A complex set creates Troy's house and its (literal and symbolic) fences, and direction also seems to put an emphasis on small details but this doesn't detract from an excellent production of a thought-provoking play.

Parental failure again in the evening, as Boy in a Dress stormed the stage of Bristol Old Vic studio. "Third-gendered, fallen Catholic, ex-fashion model La JohnJoseph combines song, vaudeville, proselytising, striptease and post-modern philosophy in an exhilarating collage which explores intersections between faith, gender, class and identity"  ~ I can't put it better than the flyer, he certainly does all this.  It's poignant and funny as well as outrageous, and painful too, but La JohnJoseph is charismatically watchable whether stripping, singing, or musing on a Sisyphusian capacity for pushing my luck.
Self-indulgent maybe but never self-pitying, even when describing a childhood of abuse and being left to care for his younger siblings just like any other teenage mum on the estate. Musical support from Stephen Quinn and paper-darts energised the interaction, costumes and showers of glitter enhanced the glamour. Vox pop from the loo: "best thing I've seen for a long time."

Luke Wright brought his current tour to the Merlin on Friday. The ironically immodest title Your New Favourite Poet met no resistance ~ Luke is hugely popular in Frome from previous visits, and his new Weekday Dad persona as a hands-on parent gave him extra cachet. His performance poems are often  inspired by political sleeze, most recent being the public figure currently in the news (despite his leader's protestations that having a free press shouldn't mean they go finding out about things and printing the bloody stuff) entitled Lord Grope ~ (His sausage fingers on your leg, "It's alright, love, I know Nick Clegg") Much mirth throughout, loud applause at the end, and a long queue for his new book Mondeo Man which has as well as scything social satire some moving personal poems too.