Monday, July 16, 2018

Our revels now are ended... for a while

And now the carnival is over... the 2018 Frome Festival enjoyed sunny days and warm evenings throughout and ECOS amphitheatre packed for Illyria Theatre's visit on the final night. The Merchant of Venice is considered one of the bard's 'problem' plays for its unmitigated antisemiticism, and some productions now present Shylock's crazed revenge demand of 'a pound of flesh' from his principle tormenter with more sympathy, but this gloating Shylock was a boo-hiss villain, allowing Antonio to emerge an untarnished hero. Director Oliver Gray always aims to stay close to Shakespeare's intentions, and the elements of fate and chance are emphasised in this complex tale of fortune and misfortunes. The best part, as always, was the clever way the tiny cast created every character with rapid costume-change and a few other tricks - I was particularly impressed by the mercurial personality shifts of Beau Jeavons-White whether merchant or wench.
Moving backwards, as you can in a review, the focus was on words throughout Sunday:  During the morning Frome Writers Collective hosted an interesting panel discussion with crime writers David Lassman, Nikki Copleston and Sandy Osbourne responding to audience questions on their genre and writing generally.
The library was also the venue for the Frome Short Story Contest finale, with a prize-giving ceremony for the winners and keynote speech frome writer Rosie Jackson who stepped in to replace indisposed judge Margaret Graham and provide appraisals for the winners and remind us 'We need stories that will anchor us in real human values.' First prize winner Julie Evans read her story The Artist's Last Model, inspired by Manet's famous painting of A Bar at the Folies Bergère. Prizes were also presented for the winning stories written in shops and cafes on the opening day of the festival, when the 'Writers in Residence' had four hours to invent and complete a tale inspired by the line 'Everything must have a beginning'...  (The FWC page  has more details on results, with names and photos.)
This was also the day of the Frome Half Marathon, so applauding contestants hurtling past the Boyle Cross became a fun filling in the sandwich of these two events.  Runners were near the finish once they reached the town centre, and widely scattered after 13 miles of hills under a scorching sun.  Results aren't out yet but here's one of those only-in-Frome moments as a couple of gypsy traps shared the car-free road with the runners.
Saturday night the Cornerhouse became a crowded dance floor for Flash Harry, one of Frome's favourite bands and a terrific way to end a day spent wandering around Mells reciting the words of war poets: In the footsteps of Siegfried Sassoon was the event name and I was privileged to partipate along with Martin Bax and John Payne, who devised a script of 18 poems for our nine stops on a really lovely circular walk around the lanes and footpaths of this atmospheric little village, from the war memorial to the poet's grave.
Words of women poets were included too: my favourite of these, I think, was this one by Sara Teasdale: ‘There will come soft rains:’
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground, 
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound 
And frogs in the pools singing at night, 
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white; 
Robins will wear their feathery fire 
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire; 
nd not one will know of the war, not one 
Will care at last when it is done. 
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
 If mankind perished utterly; 
And Spring herself, she she woke at dawn 
Would scarcely notice that we were gone.

(Thanks Mike Grenville for the image)

And now we've arrived back to Friday, where in Bristol there was a new show at Wardrobe Theatre,always a delight to visit: For Parlour Games they're teamed up with Sharp Teeth Theatre ;to create a historical romp with a serious undertone.  Set in 1848 when democratic revolutions were springing up all over Europe, on a stage that puts all its trust in audience imagination, Victoria and Albert have fled to their Isle of Wight hideout to avoid Chartist protest in the capital. The queen (6 ft 3 Peter Baker) is petulant, belligerent, demanding and imperious. Her perky moustachioed spouse Prince Albert (Lucy Horrington) prances around her with magic tricks and parlour games in attempt to calm her as they cavort the scary night away. The glue that holds this absurd situation together is provided by the piano-playing servant. Like all Wardrobe productions, it’s ridiculous, clever, and very very funny, but there’s real poignancy in the unexpected darker moments: Victoria remembering her lonely childhood, Albert knowing from boyhood he must marry his powerful cousin and forever be her lesser. Even sharper is the resonance with democracy’s continuing struggle against the wealthy and privileged. Watching this play on the day thousands of protesters had made their way to London - my  brother was one of them and I'd spent the day tracking his images - it was poignant to realise that protest prevails with the powerful no more now than when the Year of Revolution ended in failure, repression & disillusion.




Friday, July 13, 2018

Busy week in Fromesville

Interim report from Frome festival: 200 events in ten days, and sun blistering the sky from before 5a.m, rising tirelessly to high 20°s, simmering us like poached apricots till long after dusk.
I'll begin at the beginning for me, which was the Small Publishers Day on Saturday, joining the Hobnob stall with copies of Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-punk which had arrived like the cavalry in the nick of time. First copy went to writer Nikki Copelstone (who took this picture of me all excited with publisher John Chandler) and second to Barry Cunningham, MD of Chicken House. Sales started well, and Hunting Raven has already re-ordered so I'm hopeful.
Early evening saw a lot of happy football fans at the traditional Food Feast in the market yard, gloriously entertained by the Street Bandits and exotic dancers, with further free music inside the Cheese & Grain as dusk descended - here's awesome Raggedy Men reliving their teenage kicks.
Open Studios this year has 21 venues presenting the art of 65 artists: I only managed to scamper round a few of these on Sunday before heading for the Children's Festival in Victoria Park, where my 'First Cut' colleague Annabelle Macfadyen was enchanting an audience of little ones in The Quest for the Red Herring with Simon Blakeman. Here she is looking menacing but not as scary as the extraordinary creations of Ik'sentric and Mutartis at Freakshow Boogaloo (venue 8). The long hot day ended at the Cornerhouse, dancing not-really-tango at the 'Music of the Soul' jazz session from Keith Harrison-Broninski trio with Karen Street.

Monday now, and a sultry night for the Festival Poetry Cafe with Rob Barratt guesting and a monster Open Mic as 15 poets offered their words on the theme of Frankenstein, which is the theme of this year's festival. Interpretations ranged from Rosie Jackson's superb & visceral glimpse of an aged Mary Shelley reflecting 'This is how it is when the world has no mother' - to Liv Torc's heartfelt & funny insight into mothering two hot tiny tots, ' a tiny prison riot in a nappy'. Rob had the tough job of picking out just one of these wonderfully varied poems as most apt and chose Shauna Robertson's powerful poem about monsters made by misjudged political policies. Rob's own 'pithy poems, satirical songs, and provocative prose' were immensely entertaining, with a particularly empathetic response to his rant against The God of Data who in five days created levels & targets, jargon, league tables, the omnipresent Angel OFSTED, and sent Gehova who said 'Suffer the little children' and the little children did suffer... Thanks to all who came and contributed, as audience and readers, and to Garden Cafe's Ellen and Suzy who transformed our space into an open-air theatre and organised everything, and to Bill Aven who came from Frome Wessex Camera Club and sent the picture of Shauna receiving her Frome Festival 2018 Poet Laureate certificate and bubbly donated by Jon Evans. Dave Denyer, I hope you don't mind that I stole this pic from your page to give a glimpse of the busy garden.

A change of mood on Tuesday for The Meddling of Mrs Harris, a performed reading by Peter Clark of Mark Twain's satirical monologue King Leopold's Soliloquy at Rook Lane Chapel.  I came across this online while researching for Frome Unzipped, because the meddlesome missionary's wife who took the photographs - used by the Congo Reform Society to oust Leopold from his murderous regime - came from Frome. Alice Seeley-Harris' great-granddaughter Rebecca was in the audience and joined our post-show Q&A, adding further fascinating detail and very pleased that Alice's work is now more well-known in her home town. This event was supported by Nevertheless Productions with direction from Rosie Finnegan - not one of our usual shows but aiming to present a historical document in a provocative and memorable way. Thanks Mike Grenville for the discussion photo .
Wednesday's big event for me was Homeliness Exile and Longing, a celebration of the poems of Mahmoud Darwish on the tenth anniversary of his death. This was organised by Frome Friends of Palestine in Trinity Hall with a Middle Eastern banquet first and atmospheric music from Chai for Three alongside poems chosen by Mick Randall and read in translation by James Laurenson and me, and in Arabic by Hazem Al Asaad. Peter Clark, now shorn of his Mark Twain moustache and long locks, introduced this with a short account of Mahmoud's exiled life, and the readings concluded with a wall projection of the poet himself, reading his defiant poem 'I am an Arab'. A moving experience for readers & audience alike - thanks Ali Morgan for the photo.

More poetry on Thursday, with the HIP YAK Poetry Shack at the Archangel, compered by fabulous Liv Torc with Chris Redmond and Johnny Fluffypunk delivering strong words strongly spoken. Main feature of the event was of course the Slam, with eight brave poets competing for a place in the Womad Poetry tent - a massive prize and big responsibility for the four audience members who accepted the dreaded judging cards to hold aloft after each poem. Slammers need a tough hide I reckon. The standard was awesomely high and everyone had favourites, but Josie Alford was agreed a worthy winner.

I'm taking a day off now but there's the final days of festival to come, and this excessively self-centric post has barely scratched the surface. This feels a good time to be offering the world my version of the story of Frome, with creativity all around, and another Guardian article affirming the impact of our local government.  I'm deeply appreciative of poet Rosie Jackson for posting this really lovely tribute: ‘Frome’s kind of a funny place, really, it reminds me of a Brueghel painting...’ M.Boswell.  No one could be better placed than living-in-the-heart-of-it Crysse Morrison to take the radical pulse of Frome, town of dissent, creativity, independence, and trace it from being part of Selwood Forest to being a reluctant annexe to Babington House in its recent gentrification and media hype. Crysse unzips it all brilliantly in this fabulous book, published today from Hobnob Press.'

And a final thought from Kahil Gibran, because it's been on my mind.
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself,
You may house their bodies but not their souls, for they dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you may not enter.  Not even in your dreams.
This is why we write books and poems and plays and create artefacts and songs. They are the children who will never leave, they stay in our nest in a spinning world.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Let the festivities commence - some highlights ahead

July's Independent Market, perhaps due to temperatures touching 30º again, was slightly quieter than usual, and all the more pleasant for it, with space to admire the ingenious craft on the hill which tends often to be lost in a slow-moving crush of limbs and dog-leads.
Thankfully most of Frome's cynophilistic population had heeded the messages on social media - or maybe their own common-sense - and weren't dragging their heavily-furred, bare-footed, creatures along in conditions that would fry an egg.  As always, great sounds from the busking stage - here's Crossing the Rockies rocking the crowd with songs & airs in the celtic tradition: this local band also played in the balconied upstairs room of The George later that evening at Ann Harrison-Broninski's launch party for her Frome Festival Sketchbook exhibition - here's a sample of the Ann's lively in-the-moment sketching. There's currently a Festival exhibition in Black Swan Cafe too, with Frome Wessex Camera Club displaying some favourite shots. David Chedgy chose this memorable moment from our 2015 Nevertheless site-specific production Midsummer Dusk in the Dissenters Cemetery: Frome actor Oliver Wright as WW1 soldier George Case.

Before Frome Festival hits this blog with the force of a Harry Kane goal kick -(yes I know this is an arts blog but there was an England match on when I wrote this bit) - a theatrical digression to Wiltshire, to Cleeve House in Seend, which was the setting for a lively performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor from Shakespeare Live.
The 36-strong all-age cast presented Shakespeare's comedy of seduction and retribution in an entertaining production visually impressive throughout - a beautiful garden setting for the company's lavish costumes and magical lighting effects. There were many great moments - Rod Moor-Bardell Falstaff is terrific, his pond-weed return from the ditch where the merry wives' trickery dumped him is a high spot (image Owen Benson). Strong performances too from Jeremy Fowlds' genial George Page and Laurence Parnell's jealous Frank Ford, with Django Lewis-Clarke and Phoebe Wood-Wheelhouse absolutely delightful as the lovers. Overall this was a superb example of community theatre - vibrant, fun, with everything the discerning outdoor theatre-goer might require: Pimms, prosecco, and portaloos.

Grain Bar Roots Session was packed despite a hot night for Wednesday's excellent double bill: Al O'Kane & band, with Ben Hutcheson support - amazing talents and fantastic performance energy - I think my wide-angle lens had heat-stroke, the images really don't do justice to the acts.

Frome Festival officially begins today - Friday 6th - so this week has also been a flurry of final preparations and rehearsals.
Yesterday afternoon was our rehearsal for In the Footsteps of Siegfried Sassoon, the poetry walk around Mells devised by John Payne and Martin Bax, a three mile stroll along gorgeous wild flower trails around stone buildings soaked in history and sunshine under a sky of unblemished cobalt blue - I took only a bottle of water & my script so can't show you any snaps but it was honestly awesome.
I was home just in time the penultimate rehearsal of The Meddling of Mrs Harris, on Tuesday - definitely the most unusual event of this year's festival as Peter Clark takes on the role of Mark Twain who is taking on the role of Leopold II of Belgium, the most monstrous monarch ever, even in our long history of tyrants and psychopaths. His treatment of the Congolese people was so atrocious that reports were deemed unbelievable in the early 1900s, until the wife of an English missionary set about recording the evidence and then travelled around Europe and America with 60 slides of her photographs, taken on one of the world's first cameras. This irrefutable proof brought the end of Leopold's empire in Africa, and the woman who took the pictures has been hailed as the Mother of Human Rights by the Anti-Slavery campaign. Her name is still virtually unknown, even in her home-town - which is Frome - so come along to Rook Lane and hear all about what Alice Seeley Harris found in the Congo under Leopold, as presented in this 1905 satirical 'self-defence' by the king, with a Q&A session afterwards. There's a bar too, if you need a stiff drink after hearing some of the things that Alice saw...

Other events to look out for: Well I'll be going to all the music I can - and tomorrow - Saturday - is the Small Publishers Fair at Silk Mill, hosted by the indefatigable committee of the Frome Writers Collective, at which I'm thrilled to say I'll be lurking about by the Hobnob stall, signing and I hope selling copies of my book Frome Unzipped - from Prehistory to Post-Punk.

I'd also like to put a word in for the Poetry Cafe, which will actually be in the garden of the Garden Cafe on Monday - always our aim but not always an option - with Rob "not-only-clever-but-very-funny" Barratt as special guest, and the Open Mic quest for 2018 Festival Poet Laureate. Last year's theme worked so well we're doing it again - poems on Frankenstein, this year's festival choice.
There's poetry too on Thursday when Liv Torc does her wonderful Hip Yak Slam at the Archangel, and on Wednesday, the Friends of Palestine are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the death of Mahmoud Darwish, with an evening of poetry and music and a middle Eastern buffet. Darwish was six when Israeli forces expelled family and took his village: his poems express not only the suffering of a displaced people, but their hopes and dreams too. I'm very privileged to be one of the readers.

Now I'm off to visit some art openings...

Sunday, July 01, 2018

A hot week - scorching drama, blazing bands, solid sun

The Elephant Man at Bristol Old Vic is a Theatre School production directed by Lee Lyford with Jamie Beddard in the title role of Bernard Pomerance's 1977 play. Joseph Merrick, whose appearance led to the nickname of the title, became the pet project of the London Hospital from 1886 when he was discovered aged 27, until his death in 1890.  Jamie Beddard is unforgettable in this role: he has a way of transmitting extreme anguish silently with the impact of that howling mouth of Francis Bacon's painting Head VI.
Merrick appears at first as a fairground freak and Caitlin Abbott's clever set design evokes this aspect of intrinsic containment and objectified existence, whether in a tent or a hospital ward.  Medical diagrams, projected captions, and poignant cello playing live on stage enhance both the historical actuality and the emotional impact of a story of surprising complexity: the play combines the Heart is a Lonely Hunter theme of an outsider who becomes a mirror to the private struggles of those who connect with him, the viciousness and prurience within Victorian society,  and the existential arbitrariness of chance, whether lucky or unlucky.
There's an insightful moment when Merrick attempts to argue with his benefactors over the dismissal of a nurse for peeping at him through the curtains. They assure him it is for his comfort.  If all that stared at me were sacked there’d be whole towns out of work Merrick says lightly and then with real concern asks if the sacked workers' children will have to go to the workhouse. Even in the safety of the hospital, Merrick's status would have remained as rescued freak without the wonderful Mrs Kendal, leading light of the Victorian theatre, whose genuine friendship opened the doors for polite society to shower Merrick with gifts he couldn't use in a contest to be the most open-minded. But there's a limit to what's allowed this man, and this is reached in a memorable and moving scene.  Gráinne O'Mahony as Mrs Kendal is outstanding even in this excellent cast of young actors. It's on until 7 July - book before it's sold out! images: Mark Duet

Another towering central performance in an impressive production: Henry V at the Ustinov, a Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production directed by Elizabeth Freestone which takes a very modern look at a play mostly known for its Crispin-Crispian speech and vaguely associated with valour. Ben Hall, outstanding even in a mostly strong cast, creates a character pushed into the kingly role and making the violence permitted by power his new drug of choice. Certainly the historical king invaded France for no good reason and some of his battle tactics have been reappraised as war crimes: an American 'trial' in 2010 argued the mass slaughter of French prisoners breached medieval moral codes of conflict. The ruthless punishments delivered on Henry's orders are not only referenced but delivered on stage in this graphic and visceral production, in which brutality would have overshadowed the comic relief of the foot-soldiers but for the charisma of Chris Donnelly as reprobate Pistol and the versatile Melody Brown. Also superb is Heledd Gwynn's Katherine, feisty French princess whose ultimate union with the English king was perhaps intended by the bard as some kind of reconciliation scene: her response creates an unforgettable lingering moment, one of many directorial touches that make this a memorable production from the start.  Lily Arnold's set design inspired by modern warfare seemed to me slightly 'over-thinked', its multi-purpose manipulation distracting from the dream/nightmare-like atmosphere otherwise very effectively developed, but I did like the costumes - realistic enough to evoke personality but very slightly weird. It's an interesting time to be reviving a play with so many themes that chime in our own era - cross-Channel hostilities, nationalism, and the line between leadership and self-seeking aggression - and overall this is much too good for me to fail to recommend, but be aware it's not easy viewing. In Bath until 21 June and then the tour continues until November: I found two and a half hours gruelling, I can't imagine how the cast will feel after six months. images: Craig Fuller

Meanwhile in Frome... a snazzy launch party at the Merlin for Dave Merritt's production photographs, a new exhibition from Steven Jenkins (aka Hogweed), and a terrific night of music at the Sun Inn, all on Friday. Hot new-on-the-scene band Back of the Bus got the dancing going, followed by the wonderful  Raggedy Men's stonking set of Undertones, Stranglers, Clash and more...  turning the temperature up to sizzling. To cool down here's a swan family at Stourhead from a peaceful walk on Monday.
- oh, and the proof of my book arrived, so hopefully there will be copies for sale in the festival. Huge appreciation to my patient editor/publisher at Hobnob Press who waited for the delayed copy and then grabbed it and ran, metaphorically speaking, completing all the edits and design in a matter of days - he's made it all look wonderful. Cover image if you're wondering is the wonderful SATCO street theatre players completing the Great Ascent of Cheap Street in the 2012 festival.

And finally, for anyone missing the womanly touch in this post:
Filmed in 1949 on location in the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides, Whisky Galore was one of Ealing Comedy's most successful movies ever. It was taken from Compton Mackenzie's book of the same name, based on a news item from 1941 when the SS Politician, heading from Liverpool to the States, foundered on rocks and was discovered by locals to have a cargo of 262,000 bottles of whisky. The story of  unofficial salvage operations by excited islanders has both a Robin Hood charm and comedic aspects, as the night-raiding fisherman apparently wore their wives old dresses to avoid tell-tale stains on their clothes. This particular absurdity wasn't available to the 'Pallas Players' in the production currently at Salisbury Playhouse as, in homage to the post-war all-female Osiris Players, the actors are all women. Taking on thirty roles requires many hats and costume accessories to assist comprehension, especially as the islanders all speak extreme scots. Philip Goulding adapted the book into this stage version, which Kevin Shaw directed to emphasise the elements of farce on a simple but ingenious set by Patrick Connellan.