Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris pulled off what many will
consider an impressive coup when Mark Rylance agreed to develop his own
personal project with this theatre company: the result is Dr Semmelweis,
the true story of the doctor who found a way to fight the virus killing
women in childbirth in the 19th Century. With hindsight it seems quite
extraordinary that hundreds of women died because the experts in charge
hadn't thought that washing their hands after dissecting cadavers before
thrusting them into the bodies of women in labour might be a good idea,
but this was the revolutionary and life-saving concept that Dr
Semmelweis came up with before sadly parting company with his sanity,
along with his wife and reputation.
This is a stunning production and we in the southwest are privileged that Mark Rylance brought his personal project - which actually predates the current pandemic - to Bristol Old Vic. News is out now that Tom Morris is stepping down as artisic director of the theatre he steered to high international reputation during the last 12 years - I can't believe it's actually that long since I persuaded Tom to a breakfast meeting at the quayside to talk about his plans for Plays International. Under his steerage, Bristol Old Vic has been transformed physically as well as artistically: this production, with its emphasis on essential innovation against all odds, is curiously apt despite the personal tragedy of Dr Semmelweis himself.
It's not a straight-foward hurtle from obstetrics to madness, however:
there is much reverie and wafting dance, mostly by dream images, en
route, and some violent rows as the pioneering Hungarian doctor is
obstructed by the hostility of his superior (Alan Williams) and by his
own unfortunate manner: an incoherence mingled with arrogance and,
sadly, the approaching insanity which finally claims him. Mark Rylance
is mesmeric in this role, managing to hold the audience's hopes that he
may battle through his own crazy notions just as he battled through
those of the hospital authorities', and come through somehow in the end.
The set, conceived by Ti Green, effectively evokes an alien clinical
environment while also providing balconies where the ghostly mothers,
murdered by bad science, dance around in the mind of tortured,
obsessive, Dr Semmelweis. (Choreography Antonia Franceschi, diaphanous
costumes by Ti Green.) Oh, and a big shout-out to Ewan Black, playing 'off book' so seamlessly he had special applause at the end.
Ethereal dance-drama without spoken exchanges now, as Mark Bruce Company
premiered their new production Phantoms
at Frome's Merlin Theatre
. This triple bill delivers all the intense atmospheric imagery and phenomenal skill in movement and mood that we've come to expect from this company. This was a triple bill, opening with two shorter pieces: Green Apples
music by White Stripes as two dancers relate intensely to each other, and Folk Tales
quirky narratives of loves, betrayals and handed-on stories from the tapestry of our past. The final piece in this triology, Phantoms
, opens in a landscape of beasts & strange savagery as well as extraordinary beauty in movement and connection. Ever-changing lighting effects & set details enhanced the mood of a dream - or a nightmare - of startling intensity. Phantoms
will be touring nationally: we're privileged to have hosted the first performance in Frome.
On to the movies now, and I have to admit I was disappointed in Belfast. It's set in 1970, just at the start of the the Troubles I remember well - living with a toddler and a baby in the centre of a city suddenly overtaken with civil war isn't something you readily forget - and this story opens with a barrage of street conflict as catholics in a 'mixed' street are assaulted with firebombs. So far, so nightly news. After that it goes a bit cute and goey. The boy is supposed to be nine, I discovered later, having taken him for much younger throughout. He's mad about the movies so we get snippets of popular 1970s films in full colour, to contrast with the monochrome of the backstreets - a set, not the actual streets, because Branagh was filming throughout the pandemic, which might explain the vaguely un-city-like feel of much of it. "Anybody who turns to “Belfast” for a delve into the roots of the Troubles in Northern Ireland will be frustrated," warns the New York Times, and it's true. Anyone who hopes for more insight into Branagh's formative years than a sentimental youthful crush and a passion for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be disappointed. What annoyed me most was the failure to show just how much Northern Ireland is another country, with a language & values that have little in common with the mainland. For an instance, young Kenneth & his cousin discuss how hard it is to know who's Catholic in their Protestant street. Excuse me? That's like having a couple of south London kids discussing how to work out which of their mates are Caucasian and which Jamaican. Trust me, they know. "A syrupy memoir offering little insight into a turbulent time," is one trenchant observation on Rotten Tomatoes, though the Daily Mail thought it was 'an absolute joy.'
For a more realistic view, also through unaware eyes, you might want to read The Price of Bread, the true story of a young family living in central Belfast when the Troubles erupted, as seen through the eyes of an English girl who came to live in this conflicted city with no idea of the ingrained realities and only hopeful hippy idealism to counter the terrifying hostilities exploding on the streets. You can get a copy from me, or Hunting Raven Books in Frome, or my publishers Hobnob Press - or any other outlet. It's about what it was like when the city streets were filled with blockades, when it wasn't safe to take children uptown, when red-white-and-blue were painted along the kerbs of the backstreets as a warning, and the colour of your coat could mean the difference between an attack and a safe passing. That's the Belfast I remember.
And finally... the absolute joy of packing up the jigsaws that cover the floor and rejoining the real world! A bit wobbly - a little bit woah! & a little bit wha? - but definitely in that lovely land called Beyond Covid. Huge condolences to everyone who had it worse than me, massive thanks to everyone for their gifts & kindness. Here's a Frome market stall in Saturday sunshine, where Tom from Bristol Fungarium is selling chinese-inspired tinctures from mushrooms. Being a Leo, with an affinity for lion imagery, it wasn't surprising that the lion mushroom was the one that chose me: this amazing fungus looks like a massive exploded brain, but if it helps me get my house back to some kind of order and cleanliness, that will be magic indeed.