Sunday, April 25, 2021

The scrapbook edition: sunny walking, and talking about theatre

Picture of the week was a tough choice now that sunshine and car-repair allow a wider range of walking as spring brings bluebells and wild garlic along the paths and may-blossom dazzling in the hedges, with birdsong everywhere. Frome market yard on Saturday was a pop-up picture-book of enticing stalls, with creative crafts as well as food and flowers. Irrelevantly, but a new discovery to me, this majestic elm not far from the town centre is probably the last local survivor of the 1960s Dutch elm disease blight that killed off an estimated 20 million trees in the UK. Constable was mad about elms: his famous landscapes are thick with them and the V&A has a painting of an elm trunk by him that looks exactly like a photograph - you can see it here. 

As indoors venues are still off-limits and sunshine is enticing, the only performance to report this week is A Winters Tale from the Royal Shakespeare Company on BBC4. Although officially regarded as a romance and one of Shakespeare's comedies, the storyline is very dark.  A sad tale's best for winter, declares the little prince: his mother is thrown out by his deranged father and he dies of grief, so you could say he got what he wanted, but transposing the action to the 1950s & '60s - despite some powerful tableau moments and jolly revelry in the second half - doesn't alter the grim storyline and resolution takes nearly 3 hours with much angry shouting and that famous death by bear-pursuit. This BBC Lights Up production is available on iPlayer here, with a more comprehensive review here, and a couple of screenshots of from the opening and final acts. 


Speaking of the bard's works, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory has issued a series of podcasts focusing on the speculation What Would Shakespeare Do? in a pandemic, comprising recitations of speeches that have uncertain relevance and interviews with Bristol residents about their dreams and opinions. The first two - both out now - are quite niche, in a Home Service way, but free to listen here.

National Theatre more entertainingly offers filmed conversations of Life In Stages, with episode 1 on Thursday featuring its Artistic Director Rufus Norris talking with actress Olivia Colman. There's no attempt to make this seem an informal chat at a casual encounter, and both seem a bit uncomfortable out of their professional role, but the rapport is good, and interesting insights emerge about the apparent glamour of their profession - both admit to stress, and familiarity with 'imposter syndrome'.  Insightful and interesting - you can watch the series here

Also free, static but very well illustrated: a Webinar talk on London Theatreland from Andrew Warde, swooping entertainingly through the history of the city's 241 buildings, their owners and designers, their dramas and dramatists, their technicians and traumas, plus a peppering of spicy anecdotes. Our oldest theatre now is the Bristol Old Vic (opened 1776) but the first was built 200 years before that by Richard Burbage, and playhouses have survived closures for plague and civil war, often rebuilt after fires - they often burned down as stage lighting was by large candles until Drummond's 1816 invention of 'limelight'. The entire talk was crammed with fascinating detail and tasty soundbites - Samuel Pepys' view of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Kings Theatre in 1662, for instance ("The most insipid ridiculous play I ever saw in my whole life,") and Sheridan's response when reproached for drinking as in 1809 he watched the Theatre Royal Drury Lane ablaze: "A man may surely be allowed a glass of wine by his own fireside?" A fascinating dramatic time-tour from Mirthy - worth checking out their topics.

Clare Reddaway, playwright, fiction writer, and since lockdown organiser of the Storeopathy online fiction events currently has a story with the Tempest Productions story project: Living in the Shadow of Venus, a delightfully quirky and satisfyingly upbeat tale of our times. Clare would have been one of the writers in I'm Talking to You, the planned event by Nevertheless Pub Theatre for the Frome festival last year.  It hasn't been possible to revive this project for 2021but there's plenty of good stuff in the offing for the festival's return, with a Frome Poetry Cafe session in ECOS, the town's famous amphitheatre - look out for more details of a whole raft of other events coming soon. 

Still with words: this week has been a good one for me, with the conclusion of a poetic project - wonderful to reconnect zoomily with my Live & Lippy partner Hazel Stewart for this - and the start of a fiction-related one. Partial release from lock-down still feels strange, neither total freedom nor the seclusion that allowed us - me anyway - to indulge in private pastimes like jigsaws, painting, online games and reading.  Several irresistible books are still as yet unfinished: the brilliant Book of Trespass and Who Owns England now joined by The Assault on Truth, countered by the optimism of Human Kind, and the compelling, sad, funny, account of his journey to death & back by Michael Rosen: Many Different Kinds of Love.  For a daily dip into etymology there's Susie Dent's Word Perfect (word of the day today was guillotine, which despite its menacing connotations was actually introduced in 1792 with the aim of reducing the unnecessary suffering of botched-job sword and gallows executions.)  Final footnote: if you go to this website and paste in a paragraph of your own work, you receive a comparative analysis of your writing style. Apparently my fiction is like award-winning novelist David Foster Wallace, while my non-fiction is more Arthur C Clarke, noted for his sci-fi. I tried to catch it out with an obscure chunk of Salinger, but it wasn't fooled, so maybe there's something in it... 

Monday, April 19, 2021

The week we remembered ordinary life

The 'glorious twelfth' of April has brought many openings, one of which is Hauser & Wirth in Bruton, where there are two art exhibitions and, of course, the famous Oudolf Field garden, designed to complement the gallery by looking like 'a giant artists palette'. A trip here is always a pleasure but at the moment it's not at its most dramatic & felt a bit like visiting a friend who's laid out the paint cards and wallpaper swatch to show how nice the flat will look later. The pond is lovely though, as is walking up the hill to the dovecote above the town.
Performance poetry zoomed in again on Thursday from the Rainbow Fish Speakeasy run by Take Art, the excellent events organisation for Somerset rural areas. Superbly compered by Liv Torc, this has developed a wide audience with contributors providing poems from their sofas, kitchens, and other areas of comfort, sometimes with delightful interruptions from children and cats. Guest of the night was Kat Lyons, who introduced me to the poignant word solastalgia: "a feeling of despair when one's home environment changes" and a neat 'group poem' from audience comments was woven by Jaime. Liv's vivid & moving poem on how her hair sacrificed its life for hers was for me the highlight of an excellent event - you can read it on her FB page here.

From poetry to prose: Andy Wrintmore's Giant Pod this week features Eleanor Talbot, another brilliant exponent of audio sessions, definitely not one to miss. "I have no problems with borders," Eleanor explains when Andy asks about her eclectic choices in music in her weekly show Variations on a Theme, where Kazakhstani hip hop is likely to be heard alongside Noah & the Whale, or Elvis.  Eleanor talks with refreshing frankness and genuinely upbeat vitality about 'touchy' topics like mortality and libido and her lifelong chronic kidney disease.  

The last year has tested the ingenuity of all performance groups and a range of ways have emerged to present productions online and, even more challengingly, to rehearse them. Stepping Out Theatre Company in Bristol maintained their programme of activities via whatsapp and zoom, compiling a presentation with a topical theme: Putin's Mist, on-line for two nights, imagined an hour in the life of the community of a tower block as a mysterious toxic mist confines them to their homes in an intriguing metaphorical processing of reality.  Credit to all the team for this provocative and disturbing look at the effects of disinformation when 'nothing is what it seems.'

And now we can look ahead with confidence that  Frome Festival will definitely go ahead in July - it's already been featured in the Guardian Top 10 summer festivals. "Quirky cobbled alleyways" always seem to head the bill in London-based publications but it's great news anyway, and festival director Martin Dimery expects the line-up to be online by the end of the month. The ECOS amphitheatre will be a major venue for performance, including on Tuesday (6 July) the return of the Frome Poetry Cafe with Liv Torc as guest as well as our popular Open Mic - check it out on the Merlin page here, but note there's no advance booking - it's turn-up-on-the-night in the traditional spoken word way of the 1960s beat poets and here in Frome since the first festival twenty years ago. 

Concluding this bulletin on another upbeat note: the longed-for return to socialising with near-normality has seen a new bar opens up in the French antiques shop in Frome, serving widely spaced tables in a car park that looks as good as the Alhambra gardens to our friendship-starved eyes. Here's me with thespian friends Rosie and Tracey, and a toast to everyone able to enjoy meeting friends and family again - hopefully that's all of you. Cheers!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Soliloquies, books, self-absorption and bluebells.

Southampton's Art House continues to find ways to share entertainment and this week offered After Shakespeare, a quartet of monologues created and performed by Lexi Wolfe. Weighing in at 2½ hours zoom-time this was quite a heavyweight session but raised intriguing questions about the bard's plays: what was Hamlet's relationship with Laertes? Why was Lady Macbeth so avid to see Duncan dead? How did Portia really feel when her betrothed failed to recognise her in barrister's disguise? Was HenryV heroically brave, or pathologically vicious?  

Taking tiny clues and clearly with intensive research as well as imaginative intuition, Lexi explored these and other depths, creating a sense of interactive listening without too much of the 'what's that I hear you ask?' device. Setting the four characters does take some time, but the reveries are all provocative & interesting. Here's Portia, the chat-line's favourite. 

Sunday evening saw the return of the famous Proof Pudding Club initiated by Hunting Raven Books manager Tina Gaisford Waller, held on zoom since live book clubs and actual pudding-sharing have both been off the menu. Tina's very good at picking new titles that will intrigue, and this busy session covered a wide range, with Tina as host choreographing our contributions: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, inspired by the discovery that the word 'bondmaid' was discarded by the compilers of the first dictionary, and Jackie Polzin's debut novel Brood emerged as fiction front-runners.  

My last post pledged to avoid the politics of Northern Ireland, but last weeks news stories are inevitably my main preoccupation.  The Assault on Truth, Peter Oborne's exposé of the UK's catastrophic decline, charts the ruthless sacrifice of Northern Ireland by our mythomaniac prime minister: newspapers are focusing on the rioters but my thoughts are with the individuals & families living in cities on fire. Hobnob Press published my novel The Price of Bread, about living in the fringes of similar 'Troubles' fifty years ago, with this press release: ‘This powerful evocation of a fractured and dystopian society may be read as history – an insider’s chilling recollection of a conflict which most people not directly involved failed to understand, and saw unfold with incredulity. But it can also be read as a warning to be heeded: the anger and hatred, suppressed for decades, never went away. It could and quite possibly will return – it may even now be reigniting.’ It's a distressing thought. Thanks to those who sent comments - they're on my novel's Facebook page here - and my piece was published on American online journal Medium last week. Credit David Goodman for this compilation created for my website.

On a more upbeat note: last week's sunshine allowed more walks along paths where the green carpet of wild garlic leaves will soon be a forest of white blossom: in the meantime, there are violets and celandine, wood anemones and primroses - and the first bluebells are already showing. so I'll end with that happier thought as we edge gingerly towards the first steps of what we once called normality.  

Monday, April 05, 2021

The cafe edition - short, but with an otter.

The  Barrel House Ballroom in Totnes has been home to the Word Cafe created & run by Julie Mullen since 2019, and on Thursday Julie introduced a 30-minute film of poetry and music from local poets and performers which hopefully will stay on YouTube because it's delightful. Beautifully filmed in a variety of enticing local locations (cinematography by Chris Plant) this features poetry and music by local creatives, including Matt Harvey, with an acrostic about Totnes to compensate for his recent move to Dartington, and Brian Patten, still ruggedly scouse. Brian Patten was one of my poetry heroes - the title my published collection Crumbs from a Spinning World is derived from one of his poems - and his book launches unmissable, a fact I confided to him after his eighth, Storm Damage, and received the sighed reply 'Yes, we're all getting old.'  That was back in 1995. Here he is now, and here too is Susie David reciting her poem The Sea Calls.

Back in Frome, Black Swan Arts is preparing to reopen its gallery and the cafe reopened on Friday as the River House Cafe relocated - lock, stock, and staff - from its popular but cramped location on the bridge to the spacier premises - with courtyard seating too - of the Black Swan building. It's another upward step for this 17th Century alehouse, nearly demolished in 1974 until rescued & reopened in 1986 as an arts centre. Here's me looking very happy to join the queue on the official opening day. Thanks Emma Warren for the snap! 

Also in Frome: Our last couple of weeks' sunshine has coaxed the swirling mudscape beside the river bank to regain its role as a path, thus widening the range of rambles available in town and beyond. Frome's online Wildlife Watch group, a treasure trove of birds, butterflies, and recently beavers,  been getting excited about otters, and I was lucky enough to spot this sleek-headed little guy in the exquisite garden of Marston Mill on the Mells River after a writing group meeting. 

Drama has been coming at us from all sorts of places since our theatres, initially muted apart from pleas for donations, have regrouped and come back with online options and now National Theatre has premiered their Romeo and Juliet on the telly - Sky Arts on Sunday night. Directed by Simon Godwin and commendably contracted to 90 minutes, this pandemic production of Shakespeare's violent love story becomes a timeless tale of families and passions. Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are the lovers, but it's Tamsin Greig as Juliet's powerful mother who stands out in a production that changes relationships and scythes speeches but creates the constraints of family dynamics and social controls in a fantastic, and memorable, way. Look out for repeats.

This blog, or rather this blogger, is determined to chicane through our present Troubles, as the Irish so eloquently delineate stuff too big to name, without discussing either of them, nor the western religious calendar,  so this spring holiday bulletin will conclude with a 'poem for today' as chosen by Poem for the Day (1) ed. Wendy Cope which is by Maya Angelou: Still I Rise was written 1978 and is shockingly still relevant, read it and weep. More cheerful is the other choice for today, from Poem for the Day (2) ed. Andrew Motion, which is Adrian Mitchell's ditty to Celia: 

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on

They later married & lived happily ever after, which shows there's more than one way to look at Easter.