Sunday, March 28, 2021

War, slavery, and sunshine as winter officially ends

'Pink Mist' sounds like a lipstick shade or a girly cocktail but for the troops in Afghanistan, it meant the fine spray of blood in the air when a soldier is blown to bits. It's the title of Owen Sheers' extraordinary drama of three young men who, inspired only by paucity of alternatives, go to war and are all terminally damaged. This was first staged at Bristol Old Vic in 2015, returning 2017 and is now available online here until 22 April. 
The play is a kind of surrealist mix of poetry and dance, with high-energy performance and dream-like intensity from a small cast and the interpreter always visible beside the action like a lamenting Cassandra - it's all powerfully effective. The script was inspired by interviews from returned servicemen and their families, which makes it all the more harrowing that none of the soldiers was inspired to enlist for any reason other than frustration with their life options in Bristol, and none gave any consideration at any time to the larger issues of national conflict.  This casebook study of three urban boys who deserved a better life - Arthur, Hads and Taff - shows the ripple effect on families and questions the values of the society we live in. You can read more about the cast and production here:  recommended viewing, if only to appreciate the emotional impact & scope of staged theatre. 

Bristol Old Vic has been providing drama in a variety of ways throughout lockdown, with this week's diversity including an audio play on Radio 3: The Meaning of Zong, directed by Tom Morris and written by Giles Terera, recreates with emotional intensity the true story of the slave ship which in 1781 dumped hundreds of black men and women overboard and successfully claimed insurance for their lost 'cargo'.  Moving between the historical court case with real-life figures of abolitionist Granville Sharp & Olaudah Equiano (Samuel West & and Giles Terera) and imagined mystical scenes from 1781,  it's sometimes difficult to follow, but the facts of the case are dreadful enough to grip the listener throughout.
Southampton's Art House on Saturday featured a zoom-adapted performance of Kevin King of Egypt, a bizarre tale created by poetry performer & psychiatric nurse Rob Gee - who Frome audiences will remember from his popular visits to Merlin Theatre for Poetry Platter events. Kevin has bipolar disorder and we meet him in a mood of strange elation as he decides to break out of the psychiatric ward and head for Egypt. All he needs is his passport and a run of luck, and it seems at times that he may achieve both, as he somehow acquires a policeman's wallet, a malleable taxi-driver, and a small girl called Millie. Kevin is an immensely sympathetic character, despite his extraordinary behaviour: the points he makes about social controls are insightful, and there's a lot that's really funny in this deceptively simple, very skilful, monologue.
A contrast in zoom mood now:  At the Coalface is the title and theme of Frome poet Rebecca Brewin's collection of poems published by Blurb Books: her online launch on Thursday was hosted by Mike Grenville with an introduction from Helen Moore and harp interludes from Vicki Burke. This evocation of mining and miners' lives merges with a mining of the poet's own history, and Rebecca uses the power of lists to summarise, define, and deepen the experiences she evokes. An impressive launch for a complex collection. 

And my tale of The Invisible Granny was Thursday's featured Storyopathy event from Kilter Theatre in collaboration with Clare Reddaway's A Word in Your Ear fiction sessions. Sadly I missed the link to Olly Langdon's reading but my pestering messages got me through the waiting room in time to hear Dr Olly's suggestion of retrouvaille as a key theme which, although his therapist persona is spoofy, I felt gratifyingly insightful.  After the audience dispersed, the page stayed open long enough for a big old catchup chat with friends who'd booked to hear my story of Izzy Quirk who had never been on holiday and what happened when she did. 

Time for another look at a couple of Frome's Podcasters: what's brilliant about these audial sessions is that they aren't time-sensitive so if you miss one you can catch up any time later, or binge on them box-set style. Eleanor Talbot, seen here with Jessie and some of her jewellery designs, hosts Variations on a Theme which this week covers the topic of cover songs. Is the original always the best - or even the best-known? Case in point is the 1982 hit written by Tears for Fears' co-founder Roland Orzabal for the band, but Gary Jules' more powerful cover of Mad World was a massive Christmas hit in 2003.

Andy Wrintmore's podcast guest couldn't be more appropriate in the week we heard Easthill Field has been saved from development by the support team's efforts to research the wildlife and prove its value as ancient meadow, as the Giant Pod with Julian Hight focuses on Frome's punk-rocking self-taught tree specialist. This informative & entertaining session covers a wide range of topics including tree communication, 'forest bathing' in benign pheromones, and protection activism as well as his travels and those great tree books. Andy has now also given the podcast treatment to musician Nick Wilton, another fascinating Frome personality - who I'm proud to say, like Julian - and Andy himself - featured in my book Frome Unzipped - from prehistory to post-punk. So it's good to know 4000 year-old trees and neo-punk are both still thriving in Frome.

And finally... another 'Best Place to Live' list in the Sunday Times, another win for Frome as top place in the south west. Illustrating their accolade with a photo of the rapidly-depleting shops of Catherine Hill, the Sunday Times summary may not delight all residents by its enthusiasm for "tasteful Farrow & Ball tones" as a primary reasons for selection. At £84-119.00 for a 5 litre pot, F&B elegance represents everything that many long-standing residents resent about the 'gentrification' of Frome. Luckily there's a lot more to love about our town, including the passionate interest in its past & present history, reflected by online groups like Frome History & MysteryFrome Local, Frome Wildlife Watch, and more. Where else, I wonder, would my photos of a bit of ruined aqueduct, from an aborted idea at the end of the 18th Century, attract 6,824 views on facebook in 3 days? Here's the entries, now blocked: my book Frome Unzipped (p92-93) recounts the sad story of the failed project to create a canal link to Frome, despite the extraordinary inventiveness of James Fussell, and I'm learning more from comments now - including the inevitable financial scandal... (thanks Patrick Moss). 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Dark fantasy, savage satire, & restorative fiction

When Oscar Wilde submitted The Picture of Dorian Gray  in 1890, his editor quickly decided there were “a number of things which an innocent woman would make an  exception to,” and set about purging the novel of any inference of homosexuality.  There was a lot to do, but even with the throbbing veins of passion stripped, the novel was still decried as vulgar, unclean, poisonous, and discreditable, and it wasn’t until 2011 that an uncensored version was eventually published, by Harvard University Press. Wilde's moralistic fairytale has a timeless fascination and has been repeatedly adapted for stage and screen, currently in a  star-studded co-production which acknowledges the sexual passions saturating the story but steers them vividly into contemporary life.  
Dorian (Fionn Whitehead) is a student in lockdown at a university where Harry Wotton (Alfred Enoch) is a trendy 'expert', Basil (Russell Tovey) is a software developer and the beautiful Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), innocent fourth figure in this tragedy, remains as Wilde envisaged an aspiring actress. They're all excellent in their roles, and so of course are Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry, slightly underused as Lady Narborough and an interviewer in a version that begins at the end of this dark saga, interrogating the story of Dorian's downfall with techniques from contemporary entertainment as well as stage theatre. The perpetual beauty granted to Dorian exists only online, where his images most matters to him, which is why he dumps Sibyl after her onstage freeze in this retelling of Wilde's fantasy.
The digital sequences of cyber assaults aren’t just gizmos, they evoke the social wildfire of vicious glee that Oscar Wilde’s trial and conviction had aroused in the 19th century. For Lady Narborough and her social acolytes in this contemporary version, homosexuality obviously isn't an issue, but in an era when status exists largely online, fear of humiliation is tightly integrated with social media presence.

Written by Henry Filloux-Bennet and directed by Tamara Harvey, with a raft of co-producers and partner venues including Bristol Old Vic, this unusual and gripping production is available until the end of March, tickets £12 here, recommended especially to everyone with an interest in the future of theatre in a digital era. 

Donmar Warehouse, like many theatrical organisations, is using initiative and internet to maintain a presence for its supporters - over 1000, many in USA,  joined the audience  for Assembly on Youtube on Saturday night.  The 'assembly' has been gathered to imagine the future, and like many of us fails to grasp the range and dangers of the concept.  There's a kind-of childlike simplicity about the storyline, demonstrating how humans can't conceive complete apocalypse so that when the animals' needs and elements's tendencies are involved too the problem of survival becomes acute... maybe this is one for the family to watch together and discuss, though it could be trimmed in duration. This live digital performance is written by Nina Segal, directed by Joseph Hancock, and realised by the Almeida Young Company & the Donmar Local Company.

Mark Thomas, that maverick campaigning comedian who is anti-establishment in an active disruptive way, went on Youtube on Tuesday evening (only) with some 'Vintage Cuts' from his Comedy Product, summarised in his promo as "Stand up, stunts, stories and general transgressive behaviour." Mark, with intermittent comments from his producer, Geoff Atkinson, reminisces on some of his most outrageous escapades as filmed and also as narrated to club audiences over the years - and gives updates on outcomes to some of his social protests. Running for nearly 3 hours and with much topical material requiring explanatory context, this was quite a marathon but Mark has never been deterred by difficulty and the clips he chose, including club performances as well as the stunts, kept the show fascinating throughout.

From setting up a PR stall at an Arms Fair and teaching attending fascist tyrants relaxation techniques (and filming their consequent confessions of use of torture) to chasing up lax regulations around nuclear fuel transportation, Mark has a zany plan to confound any ruthless or incompetent authority. His causes are all issues worth challenging, and they make for good entertainment as Mark doesn't do subtle.

He takes a hot-air balloon trip to Menwith Hill to reveal a spy base and a troop of dancing girls - The Showgirls of Truth - to the House of Commons to discuss matters with their MPs, and he taught the Essex Fire Service how to use a referendum to prevent further cuts in their service. It's a pity Mark couldn't have blown in with cutting-edge paperwork and feisty women to prevent last week's rushed-through legislation banning public protest in the UK, as we take another step to line our country up beside the rest of the fascist states.

At least in Frome, the long history of protest against unfair legislation in England is still alive: enjoy this remaking of Money For Nothing by Martin Dimery (Green Party county councillor) with musical arrangement from David Hynds, video by Patrick Dunn. The adaptation (- with a PPE) is bitingly on point and the visuals superb - the final image, of an exhausted medical worker, is genius. 

Still with words: a soothing blast, if oxymoronic imagery is allowable, of narration from Bath's Kilter Theatre which in collaboration with A Word in Your Ear is offering Storyopathy, a unusual contribution to lockdown entertainment conceived by Clare Reddaway. "Doctor" Olli leads a session antipathetical to the usual stress of zoom and, although his character's persona is entertainingly parodic, really did create an ethos of  the age-old magic of story-telling with Message in a Bottle by Derek Williams on Thursday.  As one who usually reviews projects from an audience perspective only, it's great report that my story The Invisible Granny is on offer next week: bookable here.

Meanwhile in Frome... nature-watch groups are alert not only to enjoy the buds and birds but also to counter insensitive human invasions. Friends of Easthill Field are campaigning to retain this ancient undisturbed parkland, and on Friday a zoom group discussion featured a film of tree expert Julian Hight explaining to Terésa Hadland why Easthill is particularly valuable. As this open landscape was established around 1830, its elderly trees have reached their most valuable stage, housing over 2000 species of insects and 300 species of lichens as well as providing home to barn owls and other protected birds. A fascinating and informative session.

Music, now: "Somerset's best kept secret" according to Phil Moakes interviewing the duo on Visual Radio Arts last week, Faron and Merle perform as Currer Bell Brontë fans will note that this was the pseudonym chosen by Charlotte to overcome Victorian prejudice, writing "I am at a loss to conceive why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man"  This impressive alt-folk duo consider themselves '21st century Victorian philosopher witches' were homeschooled and "often felt like modern Brontës, living on a windy hill and spending our days in the company of books and made-up characters." Like the Bookshop Band, also nurtured in the south-west, their lyrics are often inspired by literature. The Wind in the Willows (36m 40s in) is their take on "the book you're never too grown up for." See what you think... and thanks to Phil Moakes and Maggie Gregory for maintaining VRA, Frome's unique free visual-sound live sessions, an opportunity for bands to self-promote and for music fans to enjoy some of the best sounds around. Meanwhile in the real world there's sad news from the Grain bar that won't be a Roots sessions restart - thanks to Domenic DeCicco for all the good times there - but the Cornerhouse has promised live bands at the July Frome Festival - event submissions are now all in, and the line-up will be published soon...

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Gathering and spottering and a bit of puddling

Once again, a week with a nice example of the resilience and ingenuity of theatre-makers in the longest nationwide closure since the ban in 1642 which lasted more-or-less until the Restoration - although bubonic plague in 1593 had chased live performance out of London for fourteen months, if you count that.  Bristol Old Vic is one of the theatres providing lock-down dramatic entertainment online until literal doors can open again.The zoom Gathering on Thursday, hosted by director Tom Morris, was carefully planned to include new as well as remembered acts, with a balance of age and gender, and to create a sense of committed friendship within the walls of 'The Theatre Royal', as aficionados still describe this playhouse.

The theme was love, shared in poetry (Michael Byrne reciting Yeats' Song of Wandering Aengus was one highlight) and song (the superb Audrey Brisson, who chatted about her baby, also called Amalie) as well as by memories from past productions. Every performance was accompanied by one of 2 sign language interpreters, both of whom enhanced the acts by their vigorous enthusiasm. Final guest Louis Maskell joined Audrey for the Beauty & the Beast duet from The Grinning Man, which must have been a technical nightmare but sounded great. (As a footnote, a bootleg film of the original production, which this blog raved about in 2016, is viewable for less than the cost of a fish & chips, and you can get a 5-show boxset for unlimited viewing for half the cost of a bottle of fizz. Just saying!) 

Also under the heading of 'theatrical thrills', keep an eye next week, when the embargo on reports of an exciting new production of Dorian Gray is lifted... (image of Fionn Whitehead by Aaron James, for this co-production by the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd. )

And a recommended addition to your BBC iplayer downloads: - Franz, a story of two families struggling with the aftermath of WWI - this may may you weep but remains unpredictable right to the end.

This was a week when springtime became more visible, and hopes of real-time connections were enhanced by plans for a summer festival and band-dates in Frome, with Black Swan Arts hopeful of reopening soon, and the popular River House Cafe team leaving their premises on the bridge to join them there. The Frome Wildlife Watch group has been practically flooded with otters, now frequently spotted along the town river (video here from the phone of Oliver Wright) and the other major news this week was the siting of a White Tailed Eagle by member Julian (Bugsy) Hight - re-posted here with his permission - a bird not seen in England since 1810 when the last one was shot, but recently re-introduced to the Isle of Wight.This one seems to have decided that Longleat was a better residence - probably attracted by the number of ancient trees and wildlife in that estate. "Rewilding is happening in unexpected places" Bugsy reports encouragingly.  Primarily known as the champion of Frome's trees, he's created on commission from the town council this short video to tell the story of Selwood's oaks.  Oaks grow best in solitary positions: It's a popular misconception that Selwood Forest comprised dense thicket, as in fact 'forest' was the land the commoners lived on until hunt-mad William the Conquerer invented land ownership and claimed vast swathes for his deer. Nick Hayes' excellent Book of Trespass explains "Under Anglo Saxon rule these tracts of land were recognised as the vial source of subsistence for all peasants of the area ... commoners had rights not just to graze their cattle and pigs, but to take wood, dig peat and gravel, and fish the ponds. For the first time in English history, the commoners and their cattle were barred from the land they used. These areas became known as 'forest' from the Latin foris meaning outside of because they were areas that operated outside of common law."  Next time you visit a stately home and wonder how the family came to own it, you can remind yourself that they just did what William did: they took it from the people who lived there.

Ending this week's doings & musings with images of the river Frome in two different moods - bubbling down to join Mells brook at the sunny start of the week, and lethargic along the disputed footpath at the end of the week.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Women being men, men being men, and life in Frome

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald is an acknowledged classic, a novel with prescient awareness of the social cruelty inherent in the rampant materialism of 1920s of post-war America. The theme and the plot are contained in one of the last lines of the book: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."   It's a great read - a story by a man about men fighting over their status and over their women, quintessentially a tale of male rivalry set in a landscape of that luxurious, careless era. So you wouldn't expect two women,  with basically a settee as their set, to create the entire story so evocatively, powerfully, wittily, and movingly. Although as this production is from Bristol's  Wardrobe Theatre, you probably would.  Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Jesse Meadows take on every character in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to evoke the doomed romance between Daisy and Jay Gatsby as seen through the outsider eyes of Nick Carraway, often role-shifting several times in a single scene. They’re helped by excellent filming and music, and a set that, like the story itself, evolves from its frenzy of self-indulgent hedonism into violent chaos. Director Tom Brennan with director of photography Jack Offord & their teams filmed it all live in January, and you can book here to see the performance until the end of March - recommended. 

Also now streaming, Hymn at the Almeida is another two-hander but a more traditional and weightier affair: the story of two men who shared the same father, written by Lolita Chakrabarti and dealing with Issues with-a-capital-I, like parental responsibility and race and policing, with much weighty dialogue. Despite the fact that the actors actually shared the set, they were filmed separately for 99% of the story, so although Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani were very good, the sense of their interaction was disappointingly absent. Directed by Blanche McIntyre, here's a screen shot of a rare lighter moment.

Another of those of Best-Place-To-Live polls has revealed once again, that the top town in Somerset is Frome, for its 'arty artisan indy businesses and cafes' - let's hope they all survive the shutdowns. River House on the bridge is enterprisingly taking orders online for speciality donuts.  And fittingly for our notoriously dissenting town, Frome's own Tolpuddle Tree, a descendent of the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs' tree in Dorset, has been planted in Rodden Meadow exactly 187 years after the original memorial - Julian Hight, Frome's Mister Trees, gives more of the context and tells the story here.
A brief note on visual arts now: Banksy, Bristol's most famous 'unknown' son (also a friend of several street artists in Frome) featured on TV last week in an excellent documentary Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art.  Sadly this isn't available online in this area but if you missed this inclusive look at how art was reclaimed from the investors and returned to the people, you can take a look at this short trailer.
And finally, poetry corner: Winter Warmers is a collection of seven heart-warming poems supporting pubs in a difficult year by celebrating their role in within their communities. Bristol poet Malaika Kegode performs the poem for the South West, and also don't miss Steve Pottinger representing the Midlands with The Best Pub in the World.  Over in Bristol, David Johnson, always a well-received guest at Frome Poetry Cafe, featured on a zoom event on Saturday at which the highlight for me was his reverie as Edward Coulson tipping into the Bristol harbour ("only a quick dip / no time to dive").  And looking ahead to June, the brilliant news is that Frome Poetry Cafe will be joining the town's Festival celebrations with an event on the ECOS amphitheatre - note our fantastic guest Liv Torc, and get the details in your diary now! (Thanks Suzy Howlett for the flyer)