Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Identity & history - drama, art, poetry, and ducks.

Richard III as re-envisaged by Beyond the Horizon has the kind of anarchic energy and raw violence I imagine productions would have achieved in Shakespeare's own era. The set looks like a kind of dystopian Occupy and familiar roles are chaotically unfamiliar, but the story is faithful to the savagery of the times: this rogue king is not uniquely monstrous but a creature of his age.  Adam Lloyd-James, producer and co-director, is charismatic in this role: duplicitous, ruthless, credibly the fittest to survive when 'war has descended into brawls and government into shambles.'
This young company based in the southwest has just completed a year of touring this dynamic production, the final two nights at Bath's nice little Rondo Theatre. I'm delighted I caught the penultimate night, and will look out for their tour of Oedipus and Antigone next year.

Tom Stoppard's play The Real Thing was first performed in 1982, over twenty years since his 'modern masterpiece' Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which may be why the playwright-hero of this piece reflects with irony that 'it's the fate of all us artists - people saying they prefer the early stuff.' Actually this one at Theatre Royal Bath is very entertaining. Henry's play about love and marriage opens the 'real' play, which promptly replicates the storyline of suspected infidelity. His daughter's summary of the play-within-a-play works for his 'real' life too: “It’s not about anything except did she have it off or didn’t she?” The 'real' play seethes with sensual possibilities but its fascination is cerebral: wit and wordplay constants as Henry (Laurence Fox) struggles with emotional uncertainties and the audience can never be sure if we are seeing the real play or the play within the play. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie, whose moral system challenges Henry's belief in 'insularity of passion', is fabulously watchable and entirely convincing as woman even a passing stranger might follow anywhere, even to prison.  Stephen Unwin's direction and Jonathan Fensom's set design effectively supported the sense of era and the overlapping realities. And how much of this is autobiographical? Tom Stoppard has only admitted to identifying with Henry's preference for Procul Harum to Bach and pop to opera. On till 30 September - recommended. Image: Edmond Terakopian

So, a good week for theatre, and a fine week for other creative-artsy events too. Hinterland, the new exhibition from Gladys Paulus at Black Swan Arts, has already stimulated enormous emotional response. Gladys is a felt-maker, previously best known for her theatrical animal masks, but after her father's death two years ago she started to explore the hidden story of her heritage and uncovered a painful history dating from Japanese occupation of Indonesia. The story is available alongside the work: it is too traumatic to précis here but do visit before 14 October if you can. Gladys work is disturbing but no way depressing, a painstaking reparation for the shattered past, which she calls 'mourning and healing.' It's an invitation to consider your own identity, as a human in history, interactive with the past and proactive with the future.
Words at the Black Swan, the writing group dedicated to responding to Long Gallery exhibitions, met on Monday for a workshop led by Dawn Gorman, founder of Words & Ears in Bradford-on-Avon. Dawn's imaginative guidance inspired all ten participants to create some powerful writing, using the installation as both window and mirror.

Dawn's other poetry highlight this week was finale of her role as organiser & host of the Bradford-on-Avon Arts Festival 2017 Poetry Competition with the award ceremony at The Swan. Entries came from all over the world, over 600 of them, so it was remarkable as well as delightful that 7 of the 11 finalists could be present to hear senior judge Carrie Etter introduce their 'Flights of Fancy' and, after reading of some of her own poems on that theme, to announce the verdict: overall winner New Yorker Eric Berlin, second David Van-Cauter, bronze for Penny Hope, with Daniel Snieckus collecting the local prize: a bottle of bubbly and an illustration of his poem by Bradford's artistic deputy mayor Alex Kay. An excellent night, well organised, friendly, and sky-high with stunningly imaginative fanciful flights.

And now for something completely different - ducks.
Nine hundred yellow plastic ones, all bobbing down the river Frome, as they do every year since 1976, in the Frome Carnival Duck Race. This admirably compact event lasts about five minutes from start to finish, probably a tenth of the time it takes the bold canoeists to collect the 897 non-winning ducks.

I'm desolate that I won't be in Frome for the actual Carnival on Saturday or the musical party after... but at least, despite several clashes, I caught a couple of the brilliant musicians of Frome ~
viz : Al O'Kane, celebrating his birthday (here with Andy Hill), and Pete Gage at the Grain Bar with terrific support from Duncan Kingston and Paul Hartsholme on guitar.

Finally for this week's post: once in a while in a writer's life a chance arises to take on a project which is totally fascinating & obsessively engrossing.  I'm lucky enough to be deep in one of these now. One of my research strands took me literally into the underbelly of Frome, into the labyrinth of tunnels that date back to Saxon times and before. This is the view below the bridge, one of only three left in England still with its 18th century buildings in use as shops and cafes, but long before then there was a ford across the marsh here... Andrew Ziminski, my fascinating guide, reckons it's been a crossing place since prehistoric times.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Two Pinters and a pick and mix

It's hard to bring anything new to the table of a Pinter play, and nor would one want novelty: those famous pauses, cryptic non-sequiturs, stripped-down brutality of human relationships are the elements that give each differently-unique drama that distinctive Pinteresque voice.  Betrayal is a love story, sort of, and a chunk of biography too, as it was allegedly inspired by the playwright's own affair with Joan Bakewell. The plot is simple: Jerry falls in love with his best friend Robert's wife, Emma, and they have an affair. The story is told backwards over ten years, from the awkward aftermath to the sensual start, the audience catching glimpses more like moments on a passing train than voyeurs of passion.
The new production at Salisbury Playhouse directed by Jo Newman superbly evokes the 1970s mood on a deceptively simple set by Hannah Wolfe, lit by Dave Marsh, with the essential separation of all three protagonists highlighted by the way each inhabits their own space like characters in a Hockney painting.
Kirsty Besterman is superb as the art dealer at the centre of the triangle, and Robert Hands brings intriguing enigma to her husband, possibly long-suffering, possibly something rather nastier. Robert Mountford as once-amorous Jerry brings out the laughs in the first act so much he seems more a hapless Bertie Wooster than a credible literary agent, but in the slow-burn climax his persona emerges: his passionate declaration This is the only thing that has ever happened is potent and poignant, as if it were the missing heart of the story.
It's only the debris of these relationships that we see, apart from a final glimpse of the tingling start of the affair which leaves the lingering question: Who betrayed who? Robert knew for years, and Emma knew he knew, while Jerry followed his heart and took his lead from his lover.  The fact that Robert Mountford looks a little bit like Harold Pinter when young is inevitably intriguing, but this play is neither a vendetta nor a personal defence: I'm not quite sure what it is, actually but it's evocative, thought-provoking and often funny, and this well-performed production is worth a visit. On till 23 September. (Production images Helen Murray)

Following this effective recreation of Pinter's era, watching The Caretaker at Bristol Old Vic felt a more arduous experience.  It's a longer and more arduous play, for a start, and 're-imagining' the story in 2017 was not to me entirely successful. There's a kind of prescient innocence in Pinter's script, written before homelessness became more familiar and more political. The cast are all superb, despite slightly awkward clowning from the tramp and the decision to make the landlord brother a kind of Puck figure, and it's a credit to all three that the fact a black man was so determinedly and irrationally racist became eventually irrelevant to a story which seemed at times a kind of Waiting for Godot situation for homeless Davies (Patrice Naiambana) and his host (Jonathan Livingstone) occasionally interrupted by wild-card brother Mick (David Judge).  Persistent sound, especially during the most poignant and painful moments of the second act, was probably a Marmite factor ~ I'm assuming some people loved it ~ but my main problem with this production was the 'explosion' concept set which dominated everything and upstaged everyone. There were some powerful highlight moments, but the subtleties in the dynamic of relationships were drowned out by visual embellishments. Directed by Christopher Haydon. (Image: Iona Firouzabadi)

 One of the best things about this time of year in Frome is that, now the holidays are over and the schools are back, the town goes into full social-activity mode. Last Saturday there were three events on the same night. One was A Late Summer Night's Dream in the magical setting of the Merchant's House Secret Garden, illuminated by night-lights and a moon only just beginning to wane. This 'casual celebration of music, literature and naked poetry' was organised and hosted by poet Liam Parker, and I hope he'll create another similar happening soon, as I was at another gathering of creatives: The Rye Bakery, in the old Zion United Reformed Church in Whittox Lane, now refurbished with many original features restored, was the splendid setting for a celebratory dinner party with poems instead of speeches.

And a welcome return this week to the Acoustic Cafe in Nunney, best way to spend a Sunday afternoon now sunny walks are off the menu ~ and an awesome line-up: Emma Shoosmith, Henry Wacey and Mike Barham among fifteen class acts, including superb headline act Maia Fry. Another high point for me was performing two of my poems in tandem with Paul Kirtley presenting the songs they inspired him to write: Crones of Avalon and Proxy Botox. (Thanks Barry Savell for the image)
Also returning after a break, Roots Sessions at the Grain Bar launched their autumn season with a stonking set from Back Before Breakfast, combining brilliant musicianship with stirring storytelling and great audience rapport. Taxi Driver's Travis, bone-collector Mary Anning, Victorian melodrama, Tasmanian tigers, and more.. all original songs, and a couple of original-crafted instruments too. A band to look out for!

Final footnote: Jill Miller has been visiting Frome on one of her visits from Spain, where she lives now in coastal Villajoyosa. When we met up she presented me with a photo from the days we were both writing fiction. In the last twenty years much has changed in our lives, we've both moved house and changed genres but still get together when we can, to reminisce, write, and plan new projects together...

Friday, September 08, 2017

Autumn medley: meetings, music, and a mystery

As August morphs reluctantly into autumn,  Ham Wall RSPB Reserve proved the a perfect place to spend the last sunny day. It's a round walk of less than two miles but every turn of the flooded meadows is bird paradise ~ indeed, at the Avalon Hide, as sunlight illuminated a white egret spreading its wings, I actually heard a twitcher tell his friend "Thought I'd died and gone to heaven..." Strawberries and prosecco made a perfect picnic, thankyou Mike, and Chrissie Hynde for the drive home was a nice touch too.
Havant & District Writers Circle, a serious-sounding name for a delightful group, invited me to join them last Saturday in the peaceful surroundings of Park Place Pastoral Centre in Hampshire for a workshop.
Bravely, they opted for a full-day session, and fourteen writers arrived ready to seize every writing prompt with energy and amazing diversity plus frequent wicked humour. Hugely creative and great fun, in short ~ thanks so much to Carol Westron and Wendy Metcalfe for inviting me along. I enjoyed every minute.

A somewhat subdued Independent Market to greet the first Sunday in September, as drizzle all day reduced the number of stalls and fun stuff, and crowded the streets with dripping umbrellas. More Renoir's Les Parapluies than Lowry's Market Scene, in short, but with small pleasures like the busking stage. Here's 'Peone', jauntily leading off the morning's live music session.

Frome Writers' Collective monthly meeting at Three Swans was crowded for talk on "The Perfect Murder" by Alan Hamilton, author of Stalemate, a fictional tale inspired by the most famous unsolved murder in English history ~ the 'frenzy killing' of Julia Wallace in her Liverpool home in 1931. Alan's meticulous account of the circumstances, trial, and outcome were illustrated by slideshow and so well presented you could have heard a pin drop. One by one the theories were considered and discarded as the facts became curiouser and curiouser... could this woman of 70, claiming to be 20 years younger, have had lovers who combined to turn on her? Could her mild husband, despite so secure an alibi, have donned a mackintosh over his naked body to shatter her brain like a Nutribullet? All this and much more gruesome detail was presented and analysed in a fascinating study of the true story which Raymond Chandler called 'unbeatable' and PD James believed 'the most mysterious case ever.'

Frome Museum curator Sue Bucklow has been researching the little-known connection between 19th Century French sculptor Camille Claudel and the Singer family, at that time foundry-owners. Camille, at one time known primarily for her disastrous love affair with Rodin, has this year been finally honoured by a museum dedicated to her art  in Nogent-sur-Seine: this photograph of Camille's visit to Frome in 1866, presumed taken by Amy Singer, is now on display in the Town Hall with other images & more details. Another fascinating fact for fromeophiles.

Musically Frome has been quieter during August, with Roots Sessions taking a summer break and many musicians off at summer festivals, but Thursday saw Jazz Club return to the Cornerhouse with Funk from the Far Corners featuring the amazing talents of Keith Harrison-Broninski on keyboard, Andy Christie on guitar and Chris Jones on bass & double bass, with sensational drumming from Roberto Nappi, all climaxing in a sensational interpretation of Dodge the Dodo. (yes I did have to ask, not being familiar with Esbjorn Svensson). As a new arrival in town told me in awed tones after this finale, "I've got £80-tickets for a concert next week and I know I won't hear anything better than that!"

And finally for this posting: Jill Miller, Frome's most famous feminist ~ her 1983 novel Happy as a Dead Cat was on the reading list for Women's Studies courses for two decades ~ also renowned for founding Positive Action on Cancer counselling service, and for touring her autobiographical stage drama Time Bomb internationally was invited to reflect on What keeps you awake at night?  Battersea Arts Centre selected twelve people to film, in the dead of night, their answer to this question. Jill talks movingly about her personal killer: "Don’t let them say I was brave…" But she clearly is brave, to challenge the popular cliche of the 'battle' with cancer ("I'm a pacifist" she says simply) and to speak calmly something usually either sentimentalised or taboo. You can see Jill's response here.