Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Art, drama, poets, rebels & reprobates: a busy week...

A big week for art in Frome, as Black Swan hosted their Arts Open event with a launch night crammed by celebrity judges of the ilk of Mariella Frostrup and sponsors like Hauser & Wirth and Babington. Naturally, with big names handing out big cash prizes, the private view was too rammed to really see any of the art but there were plenty of smiling faces and I do know that first prize, plus a mentoring award, went to Katherine Fry for her video of a woman sucking a table leg.
Also pictured: the installation which judge Seamus Nicolson feels represents contemporary confusion, and Bea Haines' Nest, picked by Rachael & Gary of PostScript for the 3D prize. I'll go back for a proper look at Words at the Black Swan workshop.

Straight on then to Merlin Theatre for Lemn Sissay giving a dramatic reading of his one-man play Something Dark Until earlier this year Lemn was mostly known as a performance poet struggling with a difficult past, but in May he took the extraordinary step of revealing that past not only to the world but to himself, on stage at the Royal Court, shifting his persona from entertainer to something more profound and precious. Lemn ~ his name, he discovered aged 32,  means 'Why'  ~ has experienced many shifts in his life. Fostered as 'Norman', shunted through care homes, crossing the world to find his family and meeting serial rejection, he now works actively with the Forgiveness Project. He sees his search for identity as both unique and universal. From his days as Chalky ~ 'I was nobody, so I became everybody's nobody' ~ to his ultimate acceptance of isolation from his real kin ~ 'Now I have a fully dysfunctional family just like everyone else!' Lemn Sissay finds connection with all of humanity, and a purpose for his own work.
     I am the bull in the china shop
     & with all my strength & will
     As a storm smashed the teacups
     I stood still.
 “It’s about opening up all the dark places that have been closed,” Lemn says “That’s what we’re doing here. We’re digging up the bodies.” Gladys Paulus, whose Hinterland exhibition recently caused such a sensation at Black Swan Arts, would understand that scouring of the past for healing.

From art and life to stage dramas ~ three of them, making for a busy homecoming. Bristol first. Waiting for Godot is so well-known as 'the play where nothing happens’ that any director must feel challenged about what special thing to bring to a new production. Director Mark Rosenblatt at Tobacco Factory brings various bits of things, like pantomime-style audience interaction and bits of slapstick. Estragon (a strong performance from David Fielder) brought a bit of Northern Irish anguish and Colin Connor’s Vladimir brought a bit of gurning comedy, John Stahl’s Pozzo was a bit Wildean and Chris Bianchi while memorably impressive as Lucky also looked a bit like Marley’s ghost; the set was a bit evocative of an unpopular Turner Prize, the costumes were a bit like a post-festival clothes-swap, and the music was... just a bit baffling. It would be good to say that the whole made something fantastic of these disparate parts, but I didn’t feel it did, and the reduced audience for the second act suggested others felt the same. Despite this being a play where nothing happens, there is actually a lot already in it, much of it mysterious and lyrical, exploring themes in the way dreams do. Friendship and freedom, loss and longing, power and personal choice, remembering and forgetting, the search for meaning and guidelines… all in a random repetitious way with no answers. Just like life, you could say. Previously, after tTF productions I'd head for my friend Bob’s place nearby to talk over a nightcap of other things like his passion for the Scottish highlands, but now he's gone to live full-time in a wee bothy or whatever it is highlanders dwell in, so I plodded back to desolate Templemeads to catch the midnight train to Frome reflecting that weird and hopeless as Beckett's script may be, its poetic intensity works best without diversions and, even with fine actors, his staging instructions need to be observed. Also feeling very grateful for the oasis of Wetherspoons. (Production now touring)

Then to Salisbury Playhouse for a play where lots happens, most of it criminal and all absurdly funny: The Ladykillers, produced in conjunction with New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich & Queen's Theatre Hornchurch has been adapted from the 1955 film by Graham (Father Ted) Lineham. There was an endearing innocence about those Ealing comedies, their Laurel-and-Hardy-level violence and humour, simplistic plots and signalled denouements. Anyone who remembered this one from 1955 would delight in the nostalgia, and anyone who didn’t would surely be delighted by the silliness and gags both spoken and visual, the criminal gang's surreal ‘concert’ which bookmarked the interval, and absurdly satisfying final outcome. The complex set was amazing and deserves a permanent place in a museum or at least a branch-line of its own. On a circular stage, a virtually-life-sized station-house rotated to alternately reveal its exterior, sometimes adorned by fleeing criminals, and its 2-storey interior where the cunning-planning and most of the action took place. Mrs Wilberforce (Ann Penfold) was a delightful antithesis to Miss Marple and the five crooks created their OTT character-types superbly, with each gruesome death impressively slick (special credit to bannister-breaking Sam Lupton's Harry and Damian Williams as One-Round, slow-witted even when knifed.) Director Peter Rowe led the production team: Foxton, as well as creating the set, designed the costumes supporting the 1950s look, and presumably also the clever illuminated model of the crime scene. Multiple murder really shouldn’t be so... delightful, once again, is the word. On till 18 November.

Criminals' comic capers on stage are ok when bags of cash are  involved, but terrorism is serious, and so is Daniel Khelmann's play Christmas Eve at Bath's Ustinov Studio Theatre.
Directed by Laurence Boswell in a translation by Christopher Hampton and with an awesomely strong cast, this tense two-hander creates in real-time the hour of interrogation room faced by academic Judith (Niamh Cusack) from a man unknown to her, whose tactics vary from psychological manipulation to browbeating challenge. It's not without dark humour too, mainly from Patrick Baladi who plays Thomas a bit like Gene Hunt from Life on Mars with just a touch of David Brent. It's a great performance, bringing believable complexity to his character even in the least plausible sequences, when  the play seems to be trying too hard to be enigmatic.    Personally I found the discussion of ideology and the dynamics of protest fascinating, though some reviewers might not, and felt the weakness in the script was its unconvincing twists and turns. But definitely recommended, as an entertaining and thought-provoking hour ~ it's on till November 18. I'm now committed to further  research Frantz Fanon, who as well as supporting redistribution of wealth 'no matter how devastating the consequences' wrote Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.  Which sounds like something Lemn Sissay would understand... and also segues nicely to my final review:

The week's not yet over but this post is already brimming with rebellious struggles and you probably have more to do than sit around reading blogs so I'll end with Thursday night at the Wheatsheaves (the pub with four names, aka also The Wheatsheaf, Frome's new Venue and 23A Bath Street): a rabble-rousing evening of post-punk songs and protest poetry organised by Momentum Frome.
After a stonking set of gloriously dissatisfied & disappointed songs from Beef Unit (FB 'band interest': our dystopian present), the headline act to a packed room was Attila the Stockbroker: (FB 'genre': Surrealist performance poetry, energetic acoustic songs, punk rock with medieval tinges! )
Attila talks a lot about politics and the need for social change, but he talks also about his life, growing up in Southwick (one of the 5 'most normal' towns in the country) with a stepfather he resented ~ though he's written a moving poem about reconciling with this 'decent gentle man' ~ about experiencing bladder cancer, nursing his mother, saving his football club, and how it feels to be still actively performing political protest poetry in a post-grime world... His book, ARGUMENTS YARD, which I was delighted to win in the raffle, is 'a cultural activist's eyewitness journey through the great political battles and movements of recent times.' And he's a terrific performer, with unfaltering focus on timeless class struggle, from medieval punk-folk ballads played on thrash mandolin to fresh-today rants and raves ("He's not the Messiah or a naughty boy, he's the man Murdoch wants to destroy - that's how we know he's the real McCoy, the man they call JC..."). And above all, he says, his message is a simple one: "You don't need to be a celebrity to have a wonderful life earning your living doing what you love." He does however add, "You just have to have a way with words, the self-confidence and organizational ability of Napoleon and a skin thicker than the armour of a Chieftain tank." But that's performance poets for you...

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Honeys, I'm home...

Cortijo Romero, vegetarian, holistic, English-speaking, holiday venue in the hills of Andalusia, bans phones & internet in the same way schools do & for the same reason: to discourage thoughts & connections with a personal life beyond the community. I suppose if you have a job you hate that’s welcome but if not, you feel a bit severed and it can create group dynamics that are... well, a bit schooly. I went there for a week of group walking in the Alpujarra, and that part was fabulous. All the treks were all a coach-ride away so less of the day was spent on foot than I expected but our guides were fantastic in a constant herding-cats situation, dealing with a big group with diverse needs and speeds. My own annoying-trait was to want to know more about each place we visited - the geology, history, map-location... (see above lament about no internet) but no-one could complain about the routes & views ~ this was a week-long blast of bliss to set anyone up for an English winter. My personal highlights, apart from the general joy of walking daily in glorious sunshine under a searing blue sky, were: the cliff scramble above cerulean seas from Playa de Cantarrijan to a tiny deserted bay and then back for a fish lunch at a beach restaurant ~ the walk from Trevélez, highest village in the Sierra Nevada, looking down on the dazzling golden poplars, and ~ top favourite this ~ the walk around old Granada listening to a fantastic talk by architect & historian Raphael Anderson.
With passion equalling his scholarship, Raphael's talk not only brought vibrantly alive the story of this ancient city, once supremely important & still beautiful, but also showed connections across the centuries from thousands of years ago: powerful controlling forces corrupting from within, now as then. Does the history of Islam, doomed by the unification of Spain into a single-state religion & deprived of all their advanced learning with the iniquitous burning of books in 1499, have parallels today in the perilous state of our democracy, debased within and distorted by our media? You do right, perhaps, to wonder...

And now a welcome return home, to grab again the vibrant threads of real life. I gather I've missed the launch of a new open-mic music venue and probably much else.  But fear not, Frome fans! Normal service will be resumed next week.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Ghosts in art and history

Southampton is the port from which the Titanic sailed, has a Premier League football team (currently interested in Barcelona striker Paco Alcácer) (thanks Google), and a great little art gallery which is featuring a major retrospective of the work of Christopher Bucklow. As Chris lives in Frome, and I was fascinated by his amazing paintings exhibited in the Black Swan in 2013, a trip to the City Art Gallery was definitely called for. Here, in several galleries, there's early work reflecting a passion for Sisley's landscapes, later work exploring 'Guests' ~ ghostly figures arriving unexpectedly and mysteriously, and some of the series that had fascinated me when I first saw it in Frome: Mandy Rice-Davis struggling with the art critic Clement Greenberg, who here is 'trying to keep Mandy down as a 2-D ghost, while also preventing her from cutting, Suffragette-like, the vital fourth slit in the Kenneth Noland Chevron painting...' The gallery is fronted by a fountain & beside a line of horse-chestnut trees but as 3pm was museum closing time and there didn't seem much else in this part of the city, we adjourned to The Titanic to talk about ghosts with the landlord... until he rather strangely disappeared...

Frome in Palestine is the title and theme of an impressive exhibition at Silk Mill gallery, where thirty-six boards filled with photographs and media cuttings tell the tale of our town's contribution to Britain's involvement in this troubled land. There are also tables of books and images, options of films and food, and a programme of talks and entertainment, all creating a rich though serious environment for this extended study. Frome Friends of Palestine is marking their tenth anniversary with this historical presentation of British involvement in the region, summed up by the excellent introduction in their guide booklet: A hundred years ago this autumn General Allenby marched into Jerusalem. To some it was the culmination of a dream, but Britain's 30 year rule of Palestine rapidly became a nightmare. This carefully researched study of a difficult but crucially important subject is on till the end of the month and deserves at least one visit ~ more if you can, as there's much to absorb.  Banksy said it's the role of art to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed': this, one might think, should also integral to any religion. The history of the 'Holy Land' shows a different perspective and this is not, as the booklet warns, an easy exhibition.

A brief blog  this week, as I'm off now to the Alpujarras to go walking in the foothills for a week with Bootlace Walking Holidays. We'll be based in Cortijo Romero, a lovely venue I know well from years of fond memories with writing groups. I'll end with a view that trails happy ghosts... poets and fiction-writers, memoirists and bloggers, all of us enjoying these abundantly-blossomed gardens with their fabulous views of the the mountains beyond... wow, I can almost hear the laughter over that sparking azure pool, and the bell ringing for supper-time... though actually it's the long days of walking I'm going for. Obviously!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Elvis in the building & Frome's multicultural faces

Major event for me personally this week was Elvis McGonagall at the Granary on Friday, pitched to Frome as a kind of Poetry-Cafe-special-outing and pushed to Bristol and Bath too since they're  more familiar with big names in performance poetry. I knew if people came they'd love him: they did, lots of them, filling the Granary bar (big thanks to bewildered barman Sam for keeping smiling & serving even though we drank you out of draft) with many standing (only about 50 stools and chairs rustle-uppable). Frome Poetry Cafe posse opened to a warm reception and Elvis took us to sizzling at imagination-warp factor fifteen.. We all had personal favourites ~ the irasible barman,  Trump's haircut, the UK Government Care Policy, the Immigration Alphabet ~ but the whole was even bigger than the parts.*
In short, a fantastic event and an unforgettable evening. No publicity pix, but here's a snap of Elvis and also the brilliant Liv Torc.

In other news: the Celtic collective had a session at the Lamb and Fountain on Thursday ~ the first time I've actually visited this friendly time-warp pub ~ and brilliant cover-band Purple Fish returned to rock the Cornerhouse on Saturday.

Multicultural Frome at the Cheese & Grain on Sunday, 'a family festival of music, dance, crafts, food and a celebration of our international community', must have even exceeded its own expectations ~ it could not have been more successful. Hosted by Young People Frome, initiated & oraganised by Azeema Caffoor & Lenka Grimes with contributions from groups, schools, families and individuals, this was an afternoon of delights: a mix of entertainment and entertainingly-packaged information in a party atmosphere with international tasty samples, many free. Special feature was the energy and enthusiasm of the young contributors, from performances on stage to general participation. Entertained by music, song, dance, and recitations from across the world, hundreds of local people explored tables of foodstuffs, specialities, rituals and treasures, interactive games and activities... general verdict: let's do it again, next year and every year.
Somerset Scratch at the Archangel on Sunday evening, organised by Sian Williams of Boiling Kettle Company, gave the opportunity to five local writers to present extracts from their plays in progress and invite positive critique. All themes ~ a benefit office row, a refugee,  compulsory purchase, life-regression therapy and a secret love child ~ had potential and hearing their words read by professional actors like Sally Sanders is gold-dust to any writer. Congratulations, all.

* I'm aware I haven't done much of a review of Elvis, because a big percent of the show is delivery. But the words are great too, especially the political ones, & they're free to read here.  I recommend particularly That Government Healthcare Policy In Full and The Queen's Speech. smiley face!

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Autumn medley: art, words, & a brilliant SLAM in Bristol

Stourhead in October consoles winterphobes like me for the ending of summer. The Temple of Apollo is particularly consoling as he was a major inspiration to Keats and other romantic sun-worshippers.

A further attraction last week was the work of Frome painter Kate Cochrane who has combined with Olivia Clifton-Bligh, Tanya Hinton and Tim Rose in First View Gallery on the edge of the park in a show they call Quartet. Here's Olivia with her massive bronze lion Bee-speaker, who has a tiny gold bee in his mouth. There's a strong connection between lions and bees from a biblical story cannily utilised by Tate & Lyle when they canned their sugary waste with the slogan Out of the strong came forth sweetness. (The quote, from Judges, begins 'Out of the eater, something to eat', so it's a kind of Ozymandias theme about power never enduring, really, but we all loved Golden Syrup anyway...) I like too the notion of telling your secrets to the bees: they don't care or tell.

Frome author Peter Clark sees his writings about his time in the middle East for the British Council as "in the genre of the Subaltern's diary: fly-on-the wall observer, not someone important in his own right." The Emirates Diaries are the latest to be published: "I didn't want to go to the Emirates," the author admitted to an attentive audience for his talk in Hunting Raven Books on Tuesday. "I thought it was an unreal country, modernist and consumerist". In the event he found much to admire among the people of the sheikdoms, and as he speaks Arabic, Peter could contribute much as well as enjoy his experience. As well as the Sheiks, other colourful characters featured in Peter's fascinating talk, like Wilfred Thesiger, who consented to an exhibition of his photographs of arabs in the 1940s & 50s, and Mrs Thatcher who left without paying her bill... This book like his previous ones is based on a daily writing habit which has accumulated into 50 volumes of page-a-day diarising. Peter's writing has been described as "quirky, digressive, and indiscreet" and he says he's happy with that. It sounds perfect to me.
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever has quit the Serpentine to come west, filling all three floors of Bristol's Arnolfini dockside gallery. The Analphoney, as some disenchanted Bristolians call this prestigious institution, is usually renowned for esoteric items in unfrequented rooms, but when I went on Saturday it was totally rammed for Grayson Perry. This is a show that sends you out into the city finding you are gazing at strangers with compassionate intensity. I've only experienced this after a really great play before, but then Grayson Perry's art is like theatre: he dramatises life in extreme and vivid ways. He weaves our lives in tapestries, we are bottled in vast ceramic vases, he depicts everyone from world leaders to the dispossessed. He has a special empathy for men, struggling to define manhood without jobs, money, or status. It's all very political and personal and indescribable, and you really should go and see it ~ if you haven't yet ~ before 24 December.
Grayson Perry wasn't the only sensation at the Arnolfini on Saturday: the evening brought an influx of poets and poetry fans for Bristol Poetry Festival Poetry Slam, a dazzling presentation of talent and passion as 18 performance poets presented slices of their life-view: acutely insightful, mostly witty, sometimes painful, each one showing why this art form is so extraordinarily powerful and exciting. Judging was on writing, performance, and audience response, and scores were high all round with Shaun Hill the final winner and Melanie Branton a nano-fraction behind him ~ but the 'competition' aspect becomes an exciting part of the enthusiastic appreciation in the superbly capable hands of host Claire Williamson together with Elvis McGonagall ~ who will be in Frome later this week: cue quick final push for Elvis at the Granary!!!

A busy week left me less time for enjoying the bar music sessions but Thursday gave us an extra treat from Frome Jazz Club at the Cornerhouse, where Keith Harrison-Broninski's trio was joined by John Martin on sax adding a mellow 'multiphonic' sound which gave a different mood of their set (though, sadly, from a photographer's viewpoint no further illumination.)

Somerset Arts Weeks ended on Sunday so I made a last-minute dash to Shave Farm to see the amazing collective work of 8 artists, using a range of media including film, printing, pottery, and painting, all working in barns with wonderful views across the fields towards Bruton.
Here's Frome artist Annemarie Blake painting in one of them, Terri Hogan with her Cornish seashore sketchbooks in another, and a portrait of her daughter by Kay Lewis-Bell.
And here too is the more concentrated hub of artistry in the village hall of Batcombe and Beyond that I stumbled upon en route due to Google satnav malfunction. As well as paintings and drawings, there were some intriguing envelopes by illustrator Peter Sheldon, decorated satirically as inspired by their stamps.

Sunday was Come Together day at Frome Library, a free-to-all event hosted by Fair Frome in a party-like atmosphere with music, balloons, and lots of cake, to show the range of facilities and supports available in Frome to anyone looking for companionship, activities, or any kind of support.
The Frome Street Bandits and the Frukes, as pictured here, provided the live music and among other presentations Home In Frome was there to encourage people to share & record their memories of changing times for an archive of stories that would otherwise be lost.

Finally in this slightly out-of-order week, a quick movie recommendation, because of its writerly connection and because you may think Goodbye Christopher Robin will probably be sentimentalised and sugar-frosted. It isn't. The back-lit woodland shots are gorgeous, but the child is usually anxiously trailing his shell-shocked father, who's blocked from writing by PTSD and slowly finding solace in those famous imaginings which become a product that turns his distressed son into public property and ruins their relationship.  It's a dark tale, in short, and the film ends with a reminder that AA Milne really wanted to write an anti-war book. He finally did: Peace with Honour ~ "It is because I want everybody to think that war is poison, and not an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book" ~ was published in 1934. Well, he tried...

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Not-so-dumb blondes and other Word Play

Marilyn Monroe and Ruth Ellis, a movie star and a murderer, with little apparently in common except their dramatic deaths. Writer/performer Joan Ellis researched beyond the media fables into the lives of both these iconic women to create a double-bill of monologues imagining the 'last words' of both women, and the result is poignant and provocative. Died Blondes reveals how the world-famous American glamour girl and the unknown small-town girl from Rhyl both had appalling childhoods, brutal lovers, lost babies, and were victims of an era when women were commodities with only their sexuality to trade. Nevertheless Pub Theatre, mostly known for productions of local writers' work, brought this gem to Frome for two nights and Rosie & I were massively pleased with our audience feedback: "Thought-provoking, sad, funny, and so brave and bold" "Fabulous. Interesting, beautifully constructed. Clever."  ~ 24 such responses on the first night alone while The Fine Times Recorder gave us this superb and astute review, concluding: The two playlets are carefully researched, convincing and beautifully contrasted, subtly observed and never falling into caricature. Another fascinating evening of pub theatre from Nevertheless.

The other literary highlight for me in a particularly brightly-illuminated week was the second edition of Word Play from Visual Radio Arts. Phil and Maggie, the lovely people behind this wonderful studio enterprise to promote musicians & other creative performers, suggested another edition of this poetry showcase, this time featuring B Anne Adriaen, Jake Xjx Hight, Liam Parker, and Jo Butts. I went along to check everyone had located the venue and give a general cheery thumbs-up, and ended up as interviewer for the entire hour-long session... great fun, and a real privilege to be 'audience' to a brilliant session with four distinctly different voices: from reflective to rap, and rhapsodic to rhyming fun.

Visual arts without radio have also been prominent, with a profusion of exhibitions around Frome. There's a double-bill at Silk Mill with Outside Insight, a powerful and enigmatic combination of Rosalind Robinson's paintings inspired by early Flemish portraiture, together with Hans Borgonjon's sculptures transformed from ancient Flemish weaving looms. "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are." Meanwhile Somerset Arts Weeks, a fortnight of exhibitions in 140 locations around the county, features five venues in Frome: Black Swan Arts host Fiona Campbell and Angela Morley have filled the beautiful Round Tower with an exhibition entitled Ephemeral and Eternal. "We are all nature, from neurons to branches to man-made stuff, Fiona says, and the work uses natural crafts of weaving and binding to impressive effect. Also in the Black Swan complex, and Cameron Scott's wood-carvings and Nick Weaver's woodwork furniture make an elegant combination ~ I'd buy these stunning cabinets in a nanosecond if I had the £££ and a big house ~ and Divas cafe has an exhibition by Ellie Mawbie using handmade paper and ink to explore perception. Archangel is showing Kit Sadgrove's Street Photography b&w candids, and Settlers Stores in Cheap Street has some of Max Milligan's photographs from Ghana and Scotland. All on till 8 October.

And there's been great music, of course: the awesome Back Wood Redeemers put on a brilliant hi-energy show at the Grain Bar Roots Session, while Pete Gage in the club atmosphere of Sam's Kitchen Deli was fabulous as always, but even more impossible to photograph as autumn creeps on and lighting is, well, clubby...

Another month, another Frome Independent Market... less crowded than usual, making a stroll through the stalls very pleasant on a mild autumnal morning. Here's authors Rachel Ward and Julian Hight at Hunting Raven Books, and Owen from Rye Bakery providing pizzas literally fresh from the oven.

This last ten days has been largely a time for family, and immersions in both art and nature, so I'll end this post with an image from each: Rita Ackermann's exhibition in Hauser & Wirth, and a walk in the magical landscape of the Brecon Beacons.