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...

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