Thursday, June 01, 2017

Murder, mystery, pirates & a reborn reprobate

Last year, you may remember, was the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, but you may not know it was also for Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu. The Confucius Institute felt the coincidence deserved a play-writing contest, which Bath writer Clare Reddaway won: she and her cleverly entertaining play The Red Court, produced by Rapscallion Theatre, will go to Shanghai later this year after a couple of local previews. I caught it at Burdall's Yard as part of Bath's Fringe Festival. The plot blends the true story of a 5-year-old political murder involving corruption in the Chongqing province with Macbeth, using Shakespeare's twin themes of ambition and betrayal plus a few direct quotes to bind the two stories succinctly together. Four actors take on all the key roles: Mayur Bhatt is impressive as ruthlesss Wu, with Michelle Wen Lee the wife who, like Lady Macbeth, was wicked but not quite so ruthless... and despite the sinister theme there are moments of comedy, mostly from Sarah Curwen as a brutal Mongolian Police chief with a Yorkshire accent, also rapidly switching from oriental fortune teller to narrator. Ashley Green is strong as both the US Embassy official and the English fixer-victim. Simple and effective setting and tight directing from Carolyn Csonka ~ the Shanghainese are in for a treat.

Visiting Bath was also an opportunity to catch the Brueghel exhibition at the Holburne Museum.  Here I learned Brueghel was not a painter but a dynasty ~ a mini-factory almost, as many of their paintings are versions of Pieter the Elder’s most popular ones re-composed from ‘cartoons’ of stock characters merry-making at festivals or rubber-necking at bible stories, all re-envisaged in Flemish surroundings. Most fascinating was a Pieter the Younger painting of The Procession to Calgary, a massive landscape scene painted with minute detail and almost photographic depth of field. Legends next to the paintings are cursory but I learned a lot from an informative volunteer who pointed out the strange composition, with the central focus on a nun giving alms to a beggar, rather than the struggling christ deep in the festive procession. Other anachronistic figures representing simple charity are dotted about too, and there's a solitary observer who looks like the artist... This 1602 version of his father's painting forty years before might hide a big secret: with Flanders violently divided between Reformation and Counter-Reformation, perhaps this particular Brueghel was out of sympathy with the Catholicism of his wealthy patrons. The not-so-hidden clues point that way.

Another double-purpose trip on Wednesday, to Bristol, for a Treasure Island Story Walk around the docks in afternoon sunshine with a swashbuckling pirate in another production from Show of Strength. Our 18th Century guide entertained his group of mainly families with lots of arrrrghs and some terrible pirate jokes but the children following this charismatic Pied Piper all seemed to grasp the plot whether they'd read Robert Lewis Stevenson's yarn or not. I was one of the 'nots', having as a child little interest in doubloons, but it was fascinating see the connections with the taverns and caverns of Bristol Docks.

And then to Colston Hall, to see Russell Brand in his RE-BIRTH tour. I'd love to tell you about it but you can't describe a Russell Brand show, it's a sort of hurricane of hilarity, vulgarity, and social critique, with moving moments and inspirational moments and a massive amount of prancing. The difference between this tour, he says, and his last one is his daughter, born at the end of last year, whose arrival has changed his life. There's also the fact he's off drink, and drugs, and is now monogamous, all of which have impacted on his life ~ and also inspired some wildly funny stage routines. Russell Brand's outrage at media and consumerism is well-known but I didn't expect him to show clips of his campaigning interviews, freeze-framing to ridicule his words and antics and to marvel at his naivety in trying to bring about social revolution. So what does Russell Brand want to do now, apart from performing to wild applause? Ending on a serious note, he talks about love, loving his daughter, and using love to make the world a better place for her to live, reminding us that in a hundred years time we won't be alive but our ideas will have shaped the future... My friend Esther Nagle (we met at the Polers'n'Poets event earlier this year) managed to get a hug and a photo in the interval when she gave him her yoga book, and he mentioned that gift as he closed the show. Not a night anyone there will forget, especially not Esther.

Regular readers may notice there's no mention in this post of The Lurgy. That's because, though it's still holding my larynx hostage and kicking my energy level down to the basement, I have devised a cunning plan to co-exist with it: viz, alternating days between active and inert. So I've still missed whole days of things but it's now a plan, a bit  like the 5:2 diet you could say. And I'm posting this early because both the Brueghel exhibition and the Treasure Island Story walk are only running till Sunday so this weekend is your last chance!

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