Monday, May 15, 2017

Of gods & mortals, killings & madness ~ and some art.

Salisbury Playhouse identifies 'high quality revivals of classic English comedy' as at the heart of its artistic vision, and their new production Before the Party is directed by Ryan McBryde who usually does their pantomimes so there's much to laugh at in this satirical drama, adapted by Rodney Ackland from a short story by Somerset Maugham. The original story was published in 1922  but the play is set just after WW2 and this quarter-century forward shift with the original social mores retained has created the kind of timeless absurdity of a PG Wodehouse story, though with a darker centre.  (Images: Robert Workman)
James Turner's design is great ~ tastelessly sumptuous surroundings and fashion-plate frocks ~ and there's laugh-aloud humour in hypocrisy and pretensions of this upper-middle-class family fawning to their ‘betters', bullying those below them, and sneering at the black marketeers they routinely rely on to keep them provided as post-war rationing continues. A strong cast keep just ahead of farce as an erratic doorknob threatens to imprison them all while Laura's secret unravels as relentlessly as her mother’s composure, with especially brilliant performances from Katherine Manners as Laura's vicious sister and Philip Bretherton as her ghastly father, both making the most of their obnoxiousness.
In days when children were sent to their room with Nanny while adults misbehaved, writers relished the addition of a young observer. Part sagacious-Greek-chorus, part uncomprehending-distorting-mirror, they could show another perspective on events with ruthless candour. Young Susan (Eleanor Bennett) has this role, questioning the integrity of her elders until banished from the room and banned dessert. Her bewilderment is understandable. Her parents are appalling snobs, her aunts hate each other, and even God can’t be trusted. "Is he the God of Love or is he the God of Hate?" Susan wails, "How can we tell?" How indeed.
Rodney Ackland had a massive reputation at one time, though he's largely unknown now: Harold Hobson lambasted his play The Pink Room, which pre-empted the fashion for realism, as ‘jaw-aching soul-obliterating boredom’ which may have done for him what the Mercury Review allegedly did for Keats. It's no bad thing that audience reviews online have taken over from acid-tongued tyrants like Hobson. Here's Laura's lush but slightly louche lover (Matthew Romain) because it would've been nice to see more of him on stage.

Another story re-envisaged for later eyes, this time far more complex: Medea is the new production at Bristol Old Vic.  Euripides' 640BC version is a story of revenge at its most extreme and hideous, and I'd previously assumed it was a dire warning against revenge (or possibly barbarians) rather than a rally-cry for revolutionary feminism. Perhaps it can be both: this seemed to be the premise of this production underlining that History is made by women just as much as men. The original tragedy has been elaborated by director George Mann and writer Chino Odimbo by taking Robin Robertson’s 2008 translation and interweaving a modern tale about a single mum with a grudge against her ex, these overlapping stories presented mostly in song by a superb six-women cast. Jessica Temple, as Medea's nurse and Maddy's friend, was particularly impressive in this musical delivery, and Akiya Henry both looked and sounded awesome in the title role. Atmospheric lighting and a stark set enhance the surreal and sombre aspects of these twin sagas, though I found the sliding portals distracting and costume concept seems undecided ~ Medea looks great but the others, who have to change sex as well as century, tend to look as if they're trying on stuff in search of a style that suits. Opinions may divide on this interpretation of Medea - they did in my row, where Maddy's belligerence was loudly applauded.  The classic story is grim and the contemporary one glum and tritely scripted, but with great singing and visceral high-impact delivery, there’s no doubt about the dramatic impact of this performance. (Images: facebook)

Did you know that May 11 is Celebrating Somerset Day? Me neither, until I went along to Bruton Art Factory to hear Richard Pomeroy talk about his paintings and found a party with cider, local cheese, and Worzels songs, all - I quote the CSD website here - "to honour the date of King Alfred the Great’s defeat of the Danes in the 878 Battle of Edington, which is also known as the Battle of Ethandun (although the exact date of this is unknown." Patron Michael Eavis says "Somerset is a county full of entrepreneurs and people who don’t take no for an answer", which seems a good enough reason for a party.  Here's the spread put on by the ever-generous Art Factory, and here's Richard talking about how he creates his massive 'body-prints' en plein air, covering the linen fabric with acrylic paint and lying on it, then working on the floral surround later - there will be a body-printing performance on Saturday 20 May at 2pm in the gallery, free to all interested.
Back in Frome there were two art exhibition previews on Friday: Black Swan Arts is welcoming back Steve Burden, who won last year's Black Swan Open with his unforgettable painting Abettoir and now returns with a sensational show he calls Utopian Myths. Steve grew up on the Pepys estate in Deptford, a 'showcase' 1960s estate designed in post-war brutalism which like others had descended from Utopean to anarchic. Deptford Docks, which Pepys described in his diary, were the most important royal dockyards from Tudor days for three hundred years, and the massive work behind Steve is based on Peter the Great at Deptford dock by Maclise in 1857. There's a lot of vigour in his painting process, Steve agrees:"My drawing is very detailed and technical, and I want the paint to take it to another level - to take control. My paintings are robust, they're not whimsical."
At the HUBnub Centre, an exhibition from print artists Pine Feroda celebrates the arrival of a new art space for Frome in the gallery above the Rye Bakery. These big, dramatic, woodblock landscapes are created collaboratively by five artists all from the southwest: there's also a film showing their team work is as impressive as their talents. All of the group, Ian PhilipsJulia Manning, Judith Westcott, Rod Nelson & Merlyn Chesterman have an extensive background of successful individual work too.

Ridiculusmus brought their current production Give Me Your Love to Frome's Merlin Theatre: a story about a war veteran struggling, with the help of what is possibly ecstasy, to cope with his post-traumatic stress. By being profoundly about what it is, the story becomes, like Waiting for Godot, about much more: by revealing nothing and no-one, it might be the quintessential howl of humanity to 'give me love' ...or just about a man in a box in a room with a chain on the door. Bizarre, disturbing, sometimes weirdly funny, always gripping.
Ending this week's culture-bundle with The Levelling, now at Frome's smashing (3-screen, £4-a-seat) independent Westway cinema. Set on a the Somerset levels after the 2014 floods with a strong rural heart-beat, there's also a plot, a suspense story that holds till the last moments, and Ellie Kendrick as the girl at the centre is incredible. So too are the long shots of murmurations around the tor, and hares slowly swimming through the flooded fields. The Guardian gives background and a good review, and I also liked the Financial Times critic's quote which chimes with other themes in this week's post: Not just a character piece with pain and poignancy, also a swirly, dystopian, ugly-beautiful landscape painting.  There's a stark moment when the father advises his daughter how to deal with the terrible levellings life brings to our lofty hopes: "You have to forget about it. Get out of bed, and bloody move on." You could say that challenge has been the theme of all this week's dramas.

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