Friday, April 29, 2016

Giving Madame Bovary a voice

The tale of an adulterous, profligate, ultimately suicidal, French housewife doesn't sound ripe for comedy, though Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary briefly became a best-seller in 1857 after an obscenity trial. But the Peepolykus creative team ~ Javier Marzan & John Nicholson with director Gemma Bodinetz ~ wanted to 'give a voice' to its inscrutible heroine, so there is some gravitas at the heart of the wild proceedings in their extraordinary, hilarious, clever, magical, production of The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary, currently at Bristol Old Vic. For a summary without spoilers I can't surpass the company's facebook page:
Laugh and cry as Emma Bovary chooses the wrong husband... Lose yourself in mesmeric love scenes featuring devastatingly handsome men... Question the impotence of women in a patriarchal society, if you want... Marvel at how many parts a Spanish man with limited English can play... And of course, some lovely accordion playing.
The 'bijoux' cast comprises Javier Marzan, John Nicholson & Jonathan Holmes playing 20 characters and Emma Fielding playing the wayward heroine. The story opens with couple of rat-catchers on a cart who explain they are a framing device for the story: "Flaubert would be rolling in his grave - with envy, the production values alone would blow his moustache away."
And there you have it - ludicrous liberties with both literature and theatrical convention of this ‘lovingly derailed’ version of a classic tragedy. But she’s complex, this heroine who demands Is it unrealistic to want to be happy? and when events get too funny she stops the play to remind us of this, and the men shuffle contritely like boys at a bun-fight when the teacher gets serious, but then - luckily - they get back to all the crazy stuff again and even the ending is up for grabs as the cast have a quick rethink… Everything is sharp as a jump-cut, scene-changes mostly indicated by chalk scribbles on the near-blank set and costume changes faster than the speed of light. Among other highlights there's a fantastic seduction scene so magical they did it twice and a posh party where Emma is all lit up like a chandelier (literally) as lights whirl and the handsome Marquis scoots around (literally) while dull Doctor Bovary dances with a lobster.  You really should see it for yourself- you have till 7th May.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Poetry and motion, & That anniversary.

Monday's Frome Poetry Cafe was also the launch of Rosie Jackson's superb collection The Light Box at The Garden Cafe. Nearly fifty people, amazingly, found seats or standing room to listen to Rosie reading her acclaimed poems examining love, art and life with precision and passion. The title poem refers to a container for exotic moths, appropriate for these luminous, delicate, personal glimpses. We had an exceptionally good open mic session too, twenty readers including popular regulars, debut performers, and published poets from Bath, Bristol & even London, as surprise visitor Tamar Yoseloff delighted us with her contribution ~ and her comment: "I wish we had an event like this in London."  
Then on Tuesday, another feast of words, as Six Acclaimed Writers read at St James Wine Vaults in Bath. Frome's Claire Crowther is one of this group who meet for 'writers' retreats', as is Tamar (who I first met six years ago co-tutoring on Crete) Sue Rose, Siriol Troup, Anne Berkeley. Joined by Bath's Carrie Etter, their varied voices created a brilliant event, made even more fun by late supper at Rustico Bistro.

Back in Frome there was an interesting mini-residency at the Archangel where Dan Guido, 'abstract expressionist raw self-taught artist' from New York, has taken over the upstairs room and is filling it with raw expressionist abstracts. Dan is immensely friendly & forthcoming: he quotes Kahil Gibran on his bio, paints with tiles, wants to create massive pieces for stage backdrops, and identifies with Jean-Michel Basquiat. If you miss his constantly expanding exhibition this time, look out for his next trip ~ he's already hooked on Frome.
The Archangel Sunday afternoon music session this week featured Amelia Orgill & Steve Driffield, while the Griffin on Saturday night gave us a double bonanza: Backwood Redeemers plus Captain Cactus and the Screaming Harlots. What a time, you could well say, to be alive... except that both these brilliant band dress the part with dramatic panache so a touch of stage lighting would be appreciated... then I could include some photographs!

And now to Velvet Bottom: I tried to uncover some literary connection as pretext for including my long walk in this magical place of overgrown lead-mines and bluebell woods near Cheddar Gorge, but all google provided was a letter written by Coleridge including the comment 'We visited Cheddar'. Tolkien was allegedly inspired by the gorge when describing Helm's Deep though, and nearby Long Wood Nature Reserve is spookily reminiscent of fantasy landscapes, so that will do.

Finally, it was the big Shakespeare anniversary this week ~ his death this time, 400 years ago, which has been settled on as the same day as his birth rather in the way any religion decides its dates: for convenience in the absence of actual records. The only recorded fact is that it followed a heavy night of drinking. Personally I think we should instead have honoured the 390th anniversary of the extraordinary writer of the plays credited to 'Shakespeare' on April 9th, when Frances Bacon died. If you think this is the stuff of conspiracy theory, read The Shakespeare Myth and the Stratford Hoax, a convincing and succinct summary by Walter Ellis printed 1937.  Like others since (including Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, John Gielgud, and recently Mark Rylance), Mr Ellis feels that rightful credit is suppressed by the Stratford industry ~ the catchpenny show-shop, he calls it, though it's a multi-million business now. Thanks to my brother Pete for sending me this pamphlet and reminding me of childhood conversations with my father, an erudite supporter in the Bacon camp.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

When living costs the earth... (creativity is still free)

Who owns the land we live on? It's a question that begs another: how land can be 'owned' anyway? ~ aboriginal cultures believed the land owns its people ~ and Salisbury is a good place to raise it.  The developments on Solsbury Hill are still a raw memory (in 2000 I workshopped a community drama about the hill's history and the road protest was vividly recalled), objections to plans for nearby Stonehenge rumble on, and now of course there's fracking...
This Land is a powerful and thought-provoking drama from Pentabus with Salisbury Playhouse which has arrived near the end of its two-month tour at the theatre of its coproducers, and will play in their Salberg Studio till the end of the month.
To avoid preaching, playwright Siân Owen has created a central story around a rural couple whose relationship is struggling for ordinary reasons so the arrival of the drilling rigs becomes a metaphor of their fracturing relationship, but though this mundane strand becomes slightly laboured, the time-shifts which span over a thousand years are strongly imagined and often very funny. Rosie Armstrong and Harry Long, taking on every role from 800BC to 2216AD,  are particularly good in these cameos, superbly switching personalities with minimal costume change. Set, sound, & lighting also support the concept brilliantly - literally, as drilling begins. The show's tour continues until 6 May ~ check it out, it's well worth seeing even if you don't need reminding that the earth does not belong to us, we borrow it from our children. Image Richard Stanton.
Back in Frome, the Art Society Spring Exhibition has opened in Black Swan Arts gallery, presenting a wide variety of subjects & styles & with postcards for sale. Artist & trustee Paul Newman awarded the Vera Skinner prize to this small wetland landscape called Two in a boat because he found it so intriguing... congratulations Carol Symon.
And as well as the Archangel Sunday afternoon session ~ a terrific set from Nicky, Vikki, & Griff ~ we had live music on Saturday too, al fresco, courtesy of our two Vinyl & CD record stores: Rivers of England (two of the nonet anyway) pitched in Cheap Street for Raves from the Grave, and outside Covers on Catherine Hill, the White City Shakers Old Time String Band entertained passers-by, including a strikingly good harmonica player who whipped out his instrument, grabbed the mic, and joined in. So here they are ~ which one's which is, I hope, self-evident...

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Times a'changing...

Down in the tunnels below Bristol Temple Meads station something dramatic is happening. Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond is staging the In Your Face Theatre production of Trainspotting. "I was shocked, and I wrote the fucking thing" Irvine Welsh is quoted as saying when he saw it in Edinburgh last year. But he wrote it in the '90s, about the '80s, so maybe times have changed. If you remember the novel and/or the equally controversial movie with the sensational soundtrack, you won't be surprised that the plot is basically the same as the 'advisory notes' on the flyer: "nudity, drug use, sexual violence and very strong language throughout". Key scenes are all there, shockingly gross & funny & frightening & tragic, and seven ferociously talented young actors evoke the principal characters: psycho Begbie, sweet Sick boy, sexy Gail, and Mark Renton as narrative voice for a disaffected subculture which impinges, like the flying poo, on everyone else too. ("I was going to wear these jeans tomorrow," I heard one bespattered man mutter on the way out.)
This is high-definition 'in-your-face' theatre, with audience members inches from the action and likely to be sat on, spat at, sprayed, poked or slurped at random. But however vulgar or violent, the graphic cameos are not gratuitous. From Renton's opening Choose Life speech to the final scene, it's a shout of rage for young lives at the bottom of a hierarchical society, dismissed as debris from childhood. It's theatre to shake windows and rattle walls, and Gavin Ross as Mark Renton gives such an incredible performance that when he stepped forward to speak to the audience at the end it was several minutes before he could get a word through the cheers. Staging and soundtrack are superb too, do go and see. You may have to kill for a ticket. Images Andreas Grieger

And straight on from Sandstorm, and Tubthumping in time-slip Glasgow, over the river to Bristol's 'vanguard venue' Mr Wolf for a great gig featuring some of Frome's finest singer-songwiters: Al O'Kane with support from Tom Corneill and Emma Shoesmith.

And now for something completely different. Impressionism: Capturing Life is the charming but costly temporary exhibition currently at the Holburne Museum in Bath. My pilgrimage there was rewarded by this small gem by Seurat: Une baignade, one of a series of studies for the Bathers at Asnières, on a canvas small enough to fit in the lid of the artist's paintbox as he painted 'en plein air'. Other than this, and a stormy landscape by Boudin (who apparently inspired Monet to paint outdoors) there's not much striking or even unifying in this small collection. Curator's notes on the movement explain the artists' themes while naturalistic were also glamorous to appeal to wealthy art collectors, subjects 'reclining on the banks of the Seine' to evoke frivolity & luxury. Asnières is actually an industrial suburb, the riverside buildings are clearly factories, and the group are young workmen. It's my favourite painting partly for that reason. (The final painting, in the National Gallery, is also arguably post-impressionist, in fact early pointillist. Just saying...)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

All's Well in a busy week

Does the end justify the means? The notion has been debated for centuries by different example but probably none so bizarre as Shakespeare chose for All's Well That Ends Well, currently performed by Bristol's incomparable Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory.
This is considered one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays – not for anti-semeticism as in Venice or domestic abuse like in Padua, but because the heroine uses tricks to get her man, first winning him like a fairground teddy by curing the king and then, when he runs away to war after the wedding, pulling the 'bed-trick' by switching places with his new amour - initiatives which though successful were not regarded as genteel. A further problem is that the object of her affections is the most unappealing hero the bard ever created -snobbish, chauvinist, and petulant. Caliban had more redeeming features. None of which stops the current SATTF production at the Tobacco Factory from being massively enjoyable.
Theatre-in-the-round is an ideal format for a tale unfolded in cameo moments across different locations, and Andrew Hilton's incisive direction brings clarity to complexity. His team of actors are all superb: Eleanor Yates is totally endearing as feisty Helena and Julia Hills marvellous as the Countess who loves her as a daughter. The other plot strand, the comic buffoon brought low, is wonderfully funny despite (as with the Malvolio story) the bullying involved, as Alan Coveney convinces a blindfolded Paul Currier he has been captured by enemy forces. Chris Bianchi as the king and Marc Geoffrey as the little dancing teacher are brilliant. Production shots show the effective 19th Century costumes but can't convey the energy and humour of this terrific production, on till April 30th, highly recommended. (images Mark Duet)

Meanwhile elsewhere the lowest boughs of the elm tree are in tiny leaf, which would have stirred Robert Browning to homesick excitement, and Frome had a delightful Willow Festival in Rodden Meadow with all ages contentedly practising withy skills beside the river.
The Independent market returned in sunshine from an extended winter break after December's gridlocked event. Happily this Sunday there was more space, especially welcome for the artisan food stalls in Stony Street and the craft on Catherine Hill. Once again great acts on the Busking Stage - here's September Son. And as another reason to spend all weekend in town, the Frome Art Fair across three venues ~ Rook Lane, Silk Mill & the Round House ~ displayed the amazing diversity and talent of so many local artists, like Kate Cochrane who's also had a painting selected for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours Exhibition.
Frome Writers' Collective's monthly meeting in the rather gothic upper room at the Three Swans this week featured a talk from Alison Clink on pitfalls and perils of self-publishing. Based on her own experience with The Man Who Didn't Go To Newcastle, this was informative, entertaining, and also encouraging.  Around half of the 70-strong membership were attracted by this theme and many had experience to share afterwards. FWC, like the artists' groups, is a great example of the value of networking, in my view the main reason Frome is so vibrant and creative a community. I'll end with another example: our local radio station, Frome FM, which is about to launch a season of script readings from productions by Nevertheless - if you scroll down to the player you can listen online here.