Friday, August 26, 2016

Letter from America

Incredibly, to me, this is now my seventh 'writing retreat' visit to Half Moon Bay to stay with Mo and Anja, walking the coast paths & beaches daily as well as getting quite a bit of writing done. Each year there are changes ~ huge erosion along the coast ensures that ~ but each visit brings the same sense of serenity in the spaciousness of this incredibly beautiful coast.
My  long walks along the bay and over the headland to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve have been in coastal fog as well as dazzling sunshine, but there's always so much to elate: seal heads bobbing in the harbour, processions of pelicans flying in slow scoops, massive yellow butterflies flopping on the wild flowers...
And there's been more than a dash of culture too. Half Moon Bay Shakespeare Company is presenting The Tragedy of Macbeth in an open-air performance in Carter Park, which to quote the local press preview, you will find just down Highway One, turn left on Main Street and it's just before the bridge. Quite a lot of people have found the venue, and massively enjoyed this lavish production. Director Robert Pickett created a fast-moving interpretation effectively choreographed and with some great individual performances, especially Duncan (pictured in the opening scene), and Lady Macbeth ~ here greeting her husband, newly made Thane and with his heart already fixed on the crown. Macduff and his doomed young son were excellent too. I was delighted to attend the opening night of this production, with Mo's friends Dave & Claudine who brought cheese & wine for a perfect picnic in our front-row-stalls seats.
Dave also organised a Spoken Word evening at his house later in the week, where nine of us were gathered to share words & appreciate some superb readings by Bay residents like Diane Moomey whose droll & tender poems have been widely published.

Apart from these social highlights, my time here has been exceptional for its quietness & the leisurely progress of days.  So what else... I've spent a lot of time outdoors, examining flora & sometimes fauna through the lens of my old Canon compact, since my Nikon lens now repaired is waiting for me in Frome, and a lot of time on my current writing project, and even some time writing while I walk...  

Today the California blues have ebbed to monochrome
sky softly pleated gray,  the wet sand silver,
sea platinum, foam-flecked as white froth pulls away.

Today is a day to watch pelicans in slow flight,
examine the intricate tapestry of eucalyptus trees,
to observe, minutely, the endless reciprocity of rock, & sand, & sea.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Girdling the earth, from Bottom's Athens to Batman's Gotham City

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about love in all its aspects: magical, delusional, reckless, reliable, posh & common, and the current production at Theatre Royal Bath puts sharp focus on Shakespeare's timeless theme of passion's follies as well as its ecstasies. The cast are all impressive and the lovers are superb. William Postlethwaite is specially awesome, his louche Lysander mesmeric from the moment he steps on stage as lover of feisty Hermia (Eve Ponsonby). Helena (Maya Wasowicz) thrillingly makes an olympic sport out of fighting for your man (Wilf Scolding) ~ in fact the funniest scene by far is not the comedians' set-piece but the lovers' cartoon-like conflict in the forest. Darrell D'Silva and Katy Stephens are mesmerising in their royal roles in both human and faerie worlds, and Simon Gregor creates a strange Caliban/Ariel-like figure for Puck.
Among the gang of would-be players, Phil Jupitus's Bottom has been gathering plaudits and Oscar Batterham's Thisbe-aka-Flute-the-bellows-mender is a particular delight.
Design in both visuals & direction seems all about stripping down beneath the presentable surface of life, with much flesh progressively revealed and fairies war-dancing around like the lost boys from Peter Pan.  Costumes for mortals are vaguely modern ~ Hermia in leggings, though Helena is more like a 1950s school librarian, and all the lovers abandon their drab attire in the forest (it reappears, disappointingly for so flamboyant a production, at the wedding) while Titania spends most of the time cavorting in purple underwear. The workmen are dressed pantomime-style, with the betwitched Bottom (Phil Jupitus) sporting feathers on a headband and a black blob on the tip of his nose so he looked neither transformed nor like a donkey though he did say 'Eeyore' a lot.
There are some marvellous sequences: transforming the verbal cruelty of the young people in the night forest by physical comedy is an inspiration, and individual performances are fantastically strong. But ~ and I'm on my own here I suspect, as audiences and critics are loving Laurence Boswell's direction  ~ I missed a sense of light & shade, and the symbolic mystery of the forest. Despite dark mottling on the set, the effects are mechanical rather than magical with Titania in a hoisted bed and Puck’s transport a kind of dumb waiter.  The success of high-impact-entertainment in every scene comes at a cost, and I felt the four segments of the play ~ lovers, fairies, commoners and court ~ ultimately failed to combine as integral aspects of human experience, so the show was a series of set-pieces without real significance. But go along and see for yourself ~ you'll enjoy superlative acting, a feast of visuals, and a lot of laughter guaranteed. It's on till 20th August.

Puck can 'put a girdle round the earth' in forty minutes: Phileas Fogg's boast that he could do the same in eighty days must have also sounded like the stuff of fantasy in 1872, when Jules Verne's famous saga is set. Open-air theatre is one of those classic summer delights and the Bishop's Palace Garden in Wells is a delightful venue ~ both good reasons to see the Boxtree Productions version of Around the World in 80 Days. Adaptation of a 250 page novel set globally is an ambitious project, not least as young viewers are unlikely to be familiar with concepts like consulates, valets, & gentleman's clubs, and more significantly because the action famously features trains & steamers & an elephant... the small but lively team of performers managed the elephant charmingly in a version simplified for family audiences and the evening was beautifully warm and sunny.

Sunday was Frome Comic Con Town Festival, with superheros & villains strutting the precincts and costumed fans of every age swarming the streets. Unlike the traditional convention, this inclusive event was spread through shops, cafes & pubs all around the town, with cosplay competitions and trader stalls in the Assembly rooms for collectors of comic collectables. Sheldon & the Big Bang Theory Boys would've had a frenzy fest of recognition, but as more of a Penny I couldn't identify most of the characters but enjoyed the atmosphere of excitement and odd sites like spiderman on a break in Costa and Dr Who's tardis parked in the Sun. Gotham Cosplayers were my favourite but it was all fun, except the inexplicable inclusion of reptiles in plastic boxes for a pound to pick up & hold, at the Steiner school ~ even if these creatures' normal containment is less confining and uncomfortable, it's not ok to encourage children to see them as objects to handle like toys. Sorry to add a sour note. Alligator lizards belong in stony mountain range, Steiner Academy what were you thinking.

Still in Frome: the amazing work of local artist Paul Boswell, aka Mutartis, has added excitement to various nooks around Frome, and I'm thrilled he's agreed to do the cover design for a project I'm involved with.
We  met in the Garden Cafe this week and talked of many things ~ poetry & Upfest rather than cabbages or kings. Crumbs from a Spinning World is the title that Paul's Rackhamesque imagination is now addressing, from a poem by Brian Patten with the refrain: ‘From my nest among moments/ where I keep a spinning world/ I stole one crumb of joy/ but lost it coming here.’ I have every confidence his design will the exquisite and very weird.

And that's my last post from Frome for a while, as I'm off to Half Moon Bay for a 'writing retreat' with my very good friends Mo & Anja, and intend to spend my days walking the eucalyptus avenues & pale beaches & high cliffs  ~ and writing, of course ~ and my evenings playing scrabble...

Monday, August 08, 2016

sunny celebrations & crop circles - must be August

We've reached that high point of late summer: still hot but blackberries are out now on the hedgerows and there's a crop circle in the field just below Cley Hill. This has been a busy week.
I'll begin with the Frome Creative Collective acoustic night at Sun Street Chapel: a delightful event redolent of the kind of relaxed happening we used to have in the 70s, with live music and face-painted children but more organised (credit here to Daniel Dobbie) and with superb supper thalis from Lungi Baba. Great performances from musicians James Watts, Bob HillaryJames Hollingsworth and more, with powerfully-felt poetry from Liam Parker and a stonkingly good set from Jake Hight who really should be competing in national slams.

Nunney enjoyed its annual Village Fayre on Saturday, on an afternoon so glitteringly sunny I actually bought a hat from one of the stalls along the lanes (Liz Oliver's, in fact) before enjoying jazz from Norman Leater's New Academic Feetwarmers beside the castle moat... cue 2 pictures (thanks David Goodman for the one of me)

Sunday was Independent Market day in Frome, and as August is traditionally the holiday month this one has a seaside theme with a beach in the market yard complete with donkey rides and a cocktail bar. Car-free roads as always at these events were lined with stalls selling everything you could want to eat, drink, wear, or impulse-buy and the busking stage featured Al O'Kane & Andy Hall - all with added sunshine too.

South West Poetry Tour arrived in Bruton on Sunday, hosted by Hauser & Wirth in the big pod in their gorgeous garden.
Rosie Eliot & I arrived early enough to enjoy a cheeky sauvignon in the quirky bar (thanks Rosie for the picture)
I hadn't realised the poets were different each night so I wouldn't catch up with favourite local poets like Carrie Etter and Claire Crowther, but it's always interesting to be introduced to the work of new poets. The brief was to work in pairs, a natural form for conversation but less so for poetry and duets' responses varied from chanting in unison to filmed stone-eating.  I enjoyed David Caddy's curator ignoring inappropriate back-projections & interruptions like ‘I need a pee and there’s a Waitrose delivery van in the drive’ from Andrew Henon (more on this in Andrew's blog). The variety of work was impressive and though some pieces were abstruse it was a thrill to hear the odd intriguing line surface like an otter swimming through chlorophyta: 'real ambition demands bloodshed...' 'this week I enclose a thread of zeds.'

Tic Tac Toe brought The Scandalous Love of Oscar Wilde to the Merlin on Saturday, exploring the life of a literary genius born when homosexuality was not only illegal but unnamable, even in law. The term used was Peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum - 'that horrible crime not to be named among Christians'.  Public prurience, and probably envy of Wilde's fame & his cavalier attitude to convention, ensured his downfall from the moment he rashly decided to sue his lover's father Lord Queensberry for libel after receiving a note addressing him as 'posing sodomite'.  In the ensuing trial, Oscar chose to use his charismatic wit to play to the gallery which entertained the public but unfortunately alienated the jury, who found against him without even retiring. Calum Grant's play picks up at this point, with Wilde's downfall set in motion as inevitably as a Greek tragedy. Strong direction from Geoff Hunt and a tour-de-force performance from Luke Stuart who despite the age difference (Oscar at 40 was 10 years older) completely inhabited this part, in a monologue containing much reminiscence and rumination and even some remorse though sadly no redemption. Hopefully this ambitious piece will tour: it's a fascinating story, reflecting a very different era from our own. image: Merlin website

Final footnote: what a pleasure to meet up again with Derek Fowlds, whose autobiography A Part Worth Playing will have its Frome launch at Hunting Raven in October. Derek was superb in that iconic '80s TV satire Yes Minister, and I'm excited there may now be a (very different) stage project in the offing... 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Stardust, carnage, and song

'When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea...'  Two sedately-married couples set out to deal with their offsprings' dispute with impeccable civility in God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's 2006 'comedy of manners', in which manners wear thin to reveal rifts and ultimately chasms between everyone involved. There's some clever social satire as entente deteriorates but ultimately & slightly disappointingly the script falls back on that old standby, alcohol, to bring confrontations to a climax. Platform 8 Productions at Bath's Mission Theatre did a grand job though an elaborate set worked against the claustrophobia of confined hostilities: Jeremy Fowlds was strong as ruthless lawyer Alain with Alexia Jones his exasperated wife Anette, with Chris Constantine and Hayley Fenton as Michel and Veronique.

Feet First Theatre has been on the move again this week - up north to Shropshire, to Carding Mill Valley. Being an adamant southerner I knew nothing of this National Trust park but it's immensely popular with walkers, cyclists, families and ~ luckily for us ~ also visitors curious about a promenade theatre show about the story of the world in a thousand paces.
After a day to recce the paths, Annabelle and I were in role as guides on the Time Walk on Sunday for Arts Alive, and audiences gave us really encouraging feedback: 'absolutely fascinating... better than anything you'd get from books - and such fun!'  We had a ball too, staying in a delightful B&B in Church Stretton and enjoying the friendly community and fantastic landscape.

Back to Frome for the final note from this post, from Katey Brooks who wowed the Grain Bar Roots session with her 'voice to melt glaciers' and intensely passionate songs. Katey liked this picture of her enough to feature it in a b&w version on her page ~ always great to see my images used by musicians.