Sunday, June 28, 2020

Dreaming of midsummer and after...

And now, for anyone missing the Midsummer Night's Dream theme thriving in early June, there's another version of the streamed-theatre's favourite play: this one from National Theatre at The Bridge, and the most exciting, innovative, and enjoyable of the three. Much of the delight in this interpretation came from the unusual way the two sets of rulers, mortal and fairy, are merged: this is the usual policy in casting, for dramatic reasons as well as convenience, since the conflicts of both royal couples echo each other, but the master-stroke in this production is the reversal of the storylines for Titania and Oberon: not only is it irresistibly funny to see the besotted fairy king sharing a bubblebath with Bottom the ass, but this 'taming' of a domineering lord by his angry lady also works better for relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta. There's witty, but not over-milked, impro among the 'mechanicals', there's trapeze swinging for the fairies, audience involvement, and the soundtrack - from Beyonce, Florence & the Machine and Dizzee Rascal to the London Symphony Orchestra - is great. Nick Hytner directing this 2019 production emphasises the 'dream' aspect of the story and makes sense of the extremes of emotion in the forest by a set with floating beds as the four lovers imagine their own passions becoming confused - it's odd, but it works.

When Luke Wright's solo poetry-play What I learned from Johnny Bevan was staged in 2016 it won awards for both writing and performance and was hailed by critics as a 'blistering story of our times.' Back then, Rosie Finnegan - the inspiration behind our co-directed pub theatre production company Nevertheless - joined me in  Soho Theatre to see this powerful personal parable of hope and political disillusion and we were both overawed by the combination of drama, poetry, and polemic. Applauded at the time for its questioning of the developing values of both the main UK parties, four years on Luke's online revival is even more pertinent, and his intimate, informal, performance on Wednesday lost none of the impact.  (And Luke still looks like he'd get questioned trying to buy alcohol... an enviable problem. )

Liv Tork's inspirational weekly posting of haiflu - haiku sent to her from round the country and beyond, to chronicle lockdown - is now compiled into a 40 minute film of still shots - all poignant, not all sombre, some breathtakingly moving. The photographs paired with them are superb and stunningly well chosen - this really is an amazing pulse-beat record of this summer.
And in other word-related news: The enterprising team at Frome Writers Collective have managed to fulfil one popular Frome Festival feature despite lockdown, by organising their annual Writers in Residence contest as an 'At Home Challenge', within the usual time constraint between receiving the title and handing in the finished piece. Prizes and zoom presentation will be on July 11th. And for those missing live readings: The Poetry Place on West Wilts Radio, hosted by Dawn Gorman with Peter O'Grady, offers recorded shows featuring guest poets - Frome's Claire Crowther is one - available on 'Play Again' here. This month's show on Sunday had an excellent quartet of guests including eco-poet Helen Moore.  If you have poems of your own you'd like to share and are mourning the cancellation of the July Poetry Cafe (postponed, like the rest of the Frome Festival programme in entirety, until 2021) then do consider posting your piece on the Frome Poetry Cafe page - not as much fun as seeing the audience's faces, but you can add an image and your words will be preserved! (but don't do this if you plan to submit for publication,obvs.)   Prose workshops from Story Friday organiser and skilled practitioner Clare Reddaway are running online throughout July - contact her for dates - and, still loosely on a theme of story-telling, if you missed the social history show Three Acres and a Cow (as sadly I did, though I have seen this excellent show live) then do dip into their resources - a salutary story still hugely relevant today.

Little to say about music... you've probably all got your favourite sites and connections, and if not just put on the tele for Glastonbury (very tactful of the weather to provide rain this weekend to console us to this loss) where, from a 2017 set by Frome's most famous fans the Foo Fighters to a documentary  on the history of the John Peel stage, you can enjoy the whole experience barring the aromas and the merch. Enjoy the slowly ebbing summer, everyone!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Dreams dramatically dashed - words, spoken & writ - it's another lockdown medley

Small Island, the National Theatre production staged last year, is an especially timely offering for streamed viewing, not just as a shaming reminder of recent treatment of families of those 'Sons of the Empire' lured to post-war Britain, but also with the current spate of retrospective sensitivity about historical terminology: as the producers put it "Please note that, as part of depicting the experience of Jamaican immigrants to Britain after the Second World War, some characters in the play use racially offensive terms."  Andrea Levy based her 2004 novel on her own experience of growing up in London as the child of Jamaican immigrants: it won several major book prizes and was picked by The Guardian in 2009 as one of the defining books of the decade As in the book, the action of the play moves across two continents, and the minimal set changes plus effective lighting effectively convey Hortense's culture-shock as she relocates from a sunny small island where she could consider herself both British and middle-class to a chilly, damp, small-minded island bereft of respect for her qualities and seeing only her skin. Online till 25th June, well worth watching.

And there was another dream of midsummer magic at the Globe this week, with a 2013 production directed by Dominic Dromgool three years before the Emma Rice extravaganza reported in my last post: a more traditional version of Shakespeare's drama with the fairies a darkly ominous presence in a world where mortals, both noble and lower class do all be fools in their desires and their passions.
Renaissance costumes and more traditional staging both work well for this interpretation,  the adolescent immaturity of the lovers explaining their passionate tempers, and the merging  between the mortal and fairy overlords also fits this interpretation of the drama. Matthew Tennyson plays Puck as a wayward and dysfunctional teenager - he won an award as 'best newcomer' - and the mechanicals adlib, mess about, and shove the chaos of their 'Pyramus and Thisbe' play to the limits of absurdity.  The audience clearly loved it all. These streamed shows have definitely made me avid to book live tickets for Globe's pit as soon as it's permissible.

Poetry corner again features Liv Torc, this time as hostess of the Take Art supported Rainbow Fish Speakeasy sessions - the next one in September will presumably be back in Yeovil, so this has been another zoom benefit for me.
Crammed with great contributions, this featured a totally brilliant headline set from Bristol rapper Dizraeli who introduced us to city characters like John the Baptist and Ben who sleeps under the railway bridge. Other poems ranged from powerful reflections on current issues to Mary Dickens' list poem 'I am returning this item...' compiling suggestions she felt more useful than the usual options, and the event ended with an audience-inspired poem entitled The cake of human kindness - congratulations deserved by all.

And my personal congratulations to John Chandler of Hobnob Press for lightning-fast turnaround of my error-strewn pdf into a proper-looking proof copy of The Price of Bread - already in his listings and pictured here in my hands, in John's very smart cover design featuring art work by Frome's marvellous Mutartis Boswell. If you dipped into this blog at the end of May you will have seen the image already, rather more clearly, and if all goes well for me, it will probably feature here again...

In the meantime, back from 1970s Belfast to 2020's Somerset summer glory: walks through fields of ripening corn and along river banks where bees and butterflies this year are abundant - one of pleasanter outcomes of lockdown.

Stay well, y'all.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Mostly word stuff - magical & crazy, lyrical & absurd...

Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe from 2016 was directed by Emma Rice, ejected ultimately by the management for taking too many liberties with the bard's words and using too many light bulbs, but this joyful production has a fabulous atmosphere of enjoyment and excitement. Even the textural changes - the mechanicals are hospitality workers, Helena becomes Helenus - seem like shifts the playwright wouldn't have opposed. There's big emphasis on audience involvement: indeed the lovers emerge from the auditorium, and return there to watch the cameo comedy piece that concludes their happy-ending weddings. It's a high energy performance throughout, and - unusually- the fairies steal the show, in a bold move to extend their role massively with song and energetic dance in fantastic costumes, which brilliantly succeeds.

Another real treat on screen this week: The Madness of George III from Nottingham Playhouse, directed by Adam Penford with Mark Gatiss unforgettable as the crazy king during his most renowned episode of mania, made famous by Alan Bennett in this exploration of the political machinations of his supporters and opposers while doctors vie for kudos, his heir gloats, and Mrs King weeps. Nicholas Bishop's doggedly dour Pitt is outstanding but in my Unpopular Opinion, as Greg James would say, casting women as his Whig rival Fox and the posse of royal doctors creates a kind Carry-On squabbling comedic tone that weakens the sense of terrifying domination - you have until 28th June to watch and disagree... Interestingly, this 1991 play is credited with establishing the theory that the monarch's breakdown was caused by porphyria, by emphasising the blue urine of that condition as an early symptom of George's behaviour changes: in fact, this was only noted after he had been treated with medicines derived from gentian, also used as a blue dye, and he was more probably bi-polar.
This seems a good time to take another look at Liv Torc's eclectic chronicles of lockdown days in 'haiflu', collected weekly and distilled into short films, link here. These collections combine to create a poignant and compassionate story of these strange days: glimpses range from momentarily forgetting the use of an actual coin, to reflections on painful international preoccupations. This initiative has proved an inspiration, compiling social history that's 2-way accessible and egalitarian.  Liv's amazing contribution to wellbeing and creativity throughout this time has been recognised, too, as she has been selected as one of four Cape Farewell Siren Poets, with a two month commission to 'creatively communicate climate change and the solutions in the new Covid world'.

Still with words on Sunday evening with Head in the Clouds from Pound Arts- a one-time-only opportunity to see and hear some of the genius wordsmiths who would this summer have been headlining poetry gigs with their wit, wild imagination, and powerful performances: from weirdness like Byron Vincent striding the streets insisting Eamon Holmes is a breakdancer and the marvellous dry humour of Rob Auton ("I like faces. I like faces so much I've got one at the front of my head") and to Henry Normal extolling the joy of a cup of tea, with Luke Wright, Jonny Fluffypunk and of course Somerset and Frome's Liv Torc - these amazing short films are all now available here - enjoy, and support your favourites by buying from their websites.

Frome's Hunting Raven bookshop - announced as award-winner of South West Bookshop Of The Year 2020 just before lock-down - will reopen from this Monday, and dynamic manager Tina Gaisford-Waller explained the reassuring safety measures in place during the bi-monthly book group meeting which has continued on Zoom. Proof Pudding Club is primarily a review group for proof copies of new titles, but this Sunday night's session also included a chat from Elspeth Dougall - Head of Sales for Independent Booksellers at Penguin Random House. 'What sells a book, marketing or luck?' was a question Elspeth answered frankly and surprisingly with the latter option.
Concluding this week with an image from Tuckers Grave, one of the recreational outdoor spaces we may soon be allowed to visit, and a shout-out to YogaBen whose demo sessions have given me a semblance of sane routine into the timeless days of the last three months.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

meanwhile in a quiet corner of the world...

Much Ado About Nothing directed by Christopher Luscome in 2014 is another of the great Royal Shakespeare Company productions now streamed for home viewing, and it's another goodie.
With its 'inciting incident' of trickery and deceit this can be a difficult play to consider a comedy, but this version focuses on the suggestion of the title: it's all just 'much ado'- banter and teasing and titillation ('no-thing' in Elizabethan days was slang for a woman's vagina) until there's one trick too serious, and the insecure young lover, only a day back from battle, reacts by reverting to conflict stance - but only till the trickery is unwound by the buffooning guards on watch. These 'low-class' caricatures are often the weakest link in the bard's comedies, maybe because there's less enthusiasm for ridiculing the disadvantaged in society now, but also since Shakespeare didn't fully script these scenes, allowing his comedians like Will Kempe (who played Dogberry in the original production in 1598) to improvise on the theme, and no copies of any of the plays emerged until 1623 - seven years after the playwright's death. These extended parody scenes slightly weaken the suspense of the plot, but we know it will come right in the end, and the overall performance is a delight. Sets and scene changes are superb, from glamorous to grandiose, all offering ingenious opportunities for the eavesdropping that moves each plot along, first salacious, then serious, and ultimately revealing. Setting the entire story in 1918 works well for both the class divide and the heightened emotions after a war, and the cast are all excellent.

Live  on Zoom - an intimate performance with each member of the audience individually ticketed, a one-off performance, never repeated in quite the same way... that's what Fuel Theatre offers with their show Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, and the innovation definitely seemed worth a look. From 20 May to 26 June, Bristol's  Uninvited Guests are offering an hour of readings from love letters - your love letters. Hosts Richard and Jess are personable and charming people but that is literally the extent of the show: they read out emails from night's audience and play their chosen track, even if it's Que Sera, Sera, while smiling kindly into the camera. If you want to have a go, probably best to do what I omitted, and send your own letter & song request, then you can leave the once it's over as many clearly do: the 'watching' number dwindled before the end.

Story Friday in Bath posted another excellent batch of short stories on Friday, chosen by organiser Clare Reddaway and presented by the Kilter Theatre team.  Some tales took the current situation as their theme - Making a Mask poignantly and Flouting with an unexpected twist - and I also really liked Zorbing, a powerful image for a personality in crisis (by Chiara Vascotto, read by Alice Barclay) and Casting with WB Yeats (by David Mathews, read by Adam Fuller), lyrical and with a delightfully satisfying ending. An absorbing collection, well worth a click to hear these and browse the archives too.

A new collection of poetry, Two Girls and a Beehive, from Rosie Jackson with Graham Burchell, had a Zoom launch this week: sadly my laptop curtailed my connection with an overheated hum, but there's a Youtube taster here.  Both poets share a fascination with the life of Stanley Spencer with his wife Hilda and these poems aim to explore and illuminate their lives and art.

June is usually the month when Frome Festival preparations step up a gear, with the brochure out and rehearsals & promotions under way... so it feels reassuringly normal to see creativity around town being promoted - even though the Frome Art Trail is a virtual one this year.
All of the 51 artists represented have websites you can see direct from the link: an impressive display of diversity, skill and talent. Big appreciation to the team who compiled this, led by Kate Cochrane, whose landscape paintings include this view of White Sheet Down.

Ending this blog in a week when anti-racist riots and virus crises both move closer to our home town, with a quiet moment on the walk across the fields and through the woods to my weekly writing group session.
wind in the tall trees
sounding like a waterfall
crashing on sunshine

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Strange days indeed...

Let's avoid the politics of realtime and open with the treat-of-the-week for lockdown theatre fans as National Theatre streamed their 2012 production This House, written by James Graham, directed by Jeremy Herrin:   2 hours & 40 minutes of fast-moving, well scripted, engagingly acted, brilliant drama - funny and edge-of-chair tense by turns, entirely set in and around the Whips offices in the Houses of Parliament. As well as a gripping account of the turbulent five years of government in a hung parliament from 1974 until the draconian years of Thatcher, the play shows the mini-dramas and learning curves of each character, and what stays with me most of all is the final moral dilemma: would you sacrifice your party's future to save a man's life, probably only for one more day? Is retaining your human compassion more important than loyalty to your political tribe - even if it will mean they lose power and the entire nation will suffer when the self-seeking opposition with their harpy leader take the helm... ? It's a tough call.
With hindsight, though at the time she shocked me, I tend to agree with the most ruthless Whip of all, Ann Taylor, (Lauren O'Neill) who favoured calling in the sick MP to make up their essential numbers in the vote, and snapped back at appeal 'He'll die!' from Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) with 'He'll die happy.' Strong comedy scenes too, with some reminiscent of the Riot Club in POSH - the public-schoolboy-mentality satire, as the Mace is hauled from place and swung around like a caber in an inter-party brawl.

Miracle Theatre also dug into its 2012 archives for this month's Monday streaming for The Importance of Being Earnest and I wish they hadn't: it's impossible to improve on Oscar Wilde's elegant wit in this satire of society manners and values. Making key characters clumsily buffoonish, transposing speech from master to servant, and decorating the action with silly dances and yoga poses is a directorial misjudgement, even for an Open Air Theatre Company with an eye on the kids in the audience, which perhaps explains Ben Dyson's unusually unimposing performance as Aunt Augusta.

 BBC Radio 4 programme The Spark, where 'Leading thinkers posit solutions to the structural problems of our age', featured Frome's Peter Macfadyen last week, discussing the impact of the 'Independents for Frome' invasion of the town council in 2011 with a brief to revitalise local politics.
'I've never been a member of a political party,' Peter explained, '- they clearly don't work. They create an environment of conflict and a system that's dysfunctional. We just wanted to do something that would work.' Once Peter's motley group of wanna-be game-changers had taken every ward in the town, they were able to start changing the status quo, abolishing sub-committees and generally making procedures more informal and understandable. In a very honest summary, Peter remembers problems and regrets as well as successes and the growing interest, in UK and abroad, in the Flat-pack Democracy ideal. Here's Peter in one of the home-made chains of office donated to him as Mayor - so many and so diverse they featured in an exhibition at the end of his year in office - here's just one.

Also words: with no live audiences available, indefatigable poet Liv Torc has created a poem for the Radio Somerset website: You Make A Difference. As mentioned last week, Liv continues to collect and compile 'haiflu' reflecting feelings about lockdown, posting a film of a selection at the end of each week ( Week 10  here).

With literally months of lockdown dominating life, it seems weird to now report on a music event in real time. In an ingenious feat of engineering and after consultation with his neighbours, soundman Steve Tomkinson set up a trio of Frome's musicians to perform at the front of his house to a - social-distance-meticulous - live audience. Paul Kirtley's version of Tom Petty's famous Breakdown song as Lockdown and Bob Dylan's You Ain't Going Nowhere (with a few pithy comments about Durham) were supported by fabulous guitar riffs from David Goodman and Carl Sutterby's evocative harmonica. A blast of normal energy in our strange, static world.
And after a weekend of solid sunshine touching 28 C here in Frome  - that's 82.4F to you Mo - these May bulletins will end with some glimpses of the scandalously lovely scenery around Frome last week: the proliferation of birds, bees, butterflies, sunshine and serenity, all contrasting irreconcilably with the 'reality' on our TVs and phones in these strange days. 'Stay well' is the new goodbye.