City of Glass in Manchester

HOME Manchester, Lyric Hammersmith and 59 Productions are staging an adaptation of Paul Auster’s novella, City of Glass.

City of Glass is the first of 3 metaphysical or postmodern detective stories collected in The New York Trilogy, which is Auster’s best known novel and the one attracting the most attention from scholars.

The production coincides with Auster’s new novel, 4 3 2 1, and his visit to the UK to promote it – he’s been on Radio 4 and Newsnight in recent weeks, and read from his novel at, among other venues, HOME.

The metaphysical detective story employs the conventions of the traditional detective mystery – a crime, clues, investigation, a detective, a suspect, a femme fatale – but along the way the detective finds himself contemplating complex and foundational philosophical ideas. In City of Glass, the detective figure finds himself investigating language, identity, writing, narrative and literary form. I use the term detective figure here because Daniel Quinn is a detective writer who takes a case meant for the Paul Auster Detective Agency.

HOME’s adaptation is stunning in how it realises the claustrophobia of Auster’s metafictional central character, isolated from New York society by tragedy and his writing, Continue reading

Sex and death in the short story

There was a great article in the Guardian last week about the short story form. Writer Sue Hall describes how:

Short stories are strange, almost impossible language systems. They are acts of        compression, without seeming to compress. They concentrate, without clotting. They provide a focused view of an expanse, and, in the best examples, the weight of the exterior world, a universe even, can be seen or sensed outside the narrative frame. (Guardian Review section, 20 Aug 2016)

It is also, she insists in a collection she has edited with Peter Hobbs, a perfect form for exploring creation and endings, sex and death. This is particularly true of one of the most famous short stories, ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce (in Dubliners). Here, while in the throes of desire for his wife, the middle-aged Gabriel has an epiphany (one of the features of the modernist short story) that his wife has always loved a lover from her youth in the west of Ireland who was willing to die for her (and did). As Hall says; sex and death, creation and endings. Joyce’s use of free, indirect address is mesmerising as it transports the reader from Gabriel’s very personal erotic and emotional disappointment to the landscape of the whole of Ireland (through the motif of snow, which inhabits much of the story), and then to the history of the resistance of the Irish people to British rule.

Across the teaching of English and Creative Writing we consider the short story in some depth. The collection of short stories connected by character and event has been employed by American modernists such as Sherwood Anderson (in the masterful and influential Winesburg, Ohio) and Faulkner (‘The Bear’ in Go Down, Moses is one of the most complete pieces of writing you can hope to read. He just makes you weep with the beauty of the language. Here, the contradictions of the American South are compressed into the incestuous relationships of a handful of its inhabitants), to the Native American literature of Sherman Alexie (in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, 500 years of conflict and oppression are compressed into the image of a Native American standing in front of the reservation store beer cooler).

 

Somewhere between Waiting for Godot and The Nutcracker – Appetite’s The Enchanted Chandelier

Two drunken tramps discover a huge bell hanging from what appears to be an enormous chandelier. The bell’s rings summon a court of comic and grotesque fairy tale characters – a king, a queen, a troubadour, a jester, and sprite like figures who illuminate the the outdoor arena with fiery torches. After some drama to illustrate their roles, the fairy tale characters take their places on the chandelier before being hoisted way above the heads of the audience. What follows is a mesmerisingly choreographed combination of drums and bells, acrobatics and technical wizadry. The music played by the courtiers carries us through lulls and crescendos; the sprites perform on ropes, swings and trapezes way above us; and the chandelier itself changes height and shape as it is illuminated in a constantly transforming show of light, dark and shadow.

This is Appetite’s fourth major show in Hanley Central Forest Park. All four have been triumphs and this one is up there with my so-far-favourite, The Bell (a promenade performance about the futility of war with acrobats, fire, explosions and opera – oh, and a bell!).

20160813_214254

Appetite is an Arts Council funded body who, in collaboration with the New Vic theatre, stage accessible and and often interactive arts events for the communities of North Staffordshire. A recent city centre event celebrated the originator of the modern circus, Philip Astley, who came from Newcastle under Lyme. Staffs Uni English and Creative Writing students have volunteered and undertaken work placements with Appetite who continue to do great work across the region.

See what else is on this summer here

 

 

Powerful Civil Rights Drama

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  (Dr Martin Luther King Jr, April 3, 1968)

mountaintop

Daniel Francis and Tala Gouveia as King and Camae (courtesy or the New Vic)

To what extent should we allow a man’s human failings to define his place in history? Martin Luther King’s reputation as the man who changed the course of racial politics in America is unassailable. However, close associates have described his weakness for women, he smoked, and, at the time of his assassination in 1968, he was battling factions within his own movement over the policy of non-violent resistance and his opposition to the Vietnam War. Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, is an exploration of the conflicts between the man and his myth and is named after the speech given in Memphis the evening before King’s death. The play explores the humanity of King the man, while contextualising both his struggles and his achievements in a wider American history of the late 20th century. In his speech, King makes reference to his own mortality and to the need for the struggle to go on without him. After the sermon, and on the eve of his assassination, King is visited by a mysterious maid bringing him coffee and difficult questions about his faith and the direction of the struggle. Camae challenges King’s adherence to non-violent struggle, evoking Malcolm X and delivering her own oration, as passionate and compelling as King’s, exhorting American Americans to ‘kill all the white people … with our minds’. The play draws our attention to both the costs of passive resistance in the face of ruthless violence (‘walking won’t get us far’, Camae reminds King) and to the sacrifices made by poor black women under the conditions of segregation in the South and in the Civil Rights movement itself (a concern dealt with by Alice Walker in her novel, Meridian). Camae refers to women like her as the ‘mules of the world’ and challenges King to include them in his vision of the Promised Land. Hall is, I think, deeply aware that the Civil Rights movement was a patriarchal enterprise; beyond Rosa Parks, most of us would be unable to name a significant woman campaigner.

The play was first performed in London in 2009 and won numerous nominations and awards. There are some surprising twists in this drama, and plenty of humour alongside the politics and human frailties.

This production is on till Saturday June 25 at the New Vic close to Staffs Uni. It’s a shame that the production has been ignored by the national press, as the acting is superb, with British actors Daniel Francis and Tala Gouveia nailing the Southern accents and the staging allowing the power of King’s oratory and his legacy to be fully realised. It was great to hear the actors talk about the rehearsals, the emotional responses of the audience, and their own re-appraisals of the Civil Rights struggle and King’s legacy in the talk-back session after the performance. This is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen.

Crime fiction and gender

We borrowed the film theatre once again for an English and Creative Writing private screening and the complete cinema experience, complete with free pop-corn (my pleasure). We watched One for the Money, the 2011 adaptation of the first Stephanie Plum novel, as part of the Crime Scene America module.

I think Rotten Tomatoes’ 1 star review of this jolly crime-romcom is a bit unfair. Along with a nice afternoon at the movies, we watched the movie for the way it adapts the detective-figure role for a female central character, explored notions of gender and racial representation, and the further development of the crime genre. We used Mulvey’s discussion of the gendered cinematic gaze to consider the extent to which this film challenges Hollywood’s patriarchal attitudes (it doesn’t!).

One for the Money

Special Showing of Macbeth at the Film Theatre

We borrowed the university’s very own film theatre for a special showing of Justin Kurzel’s new interpretation of Macbeth. English and Creative Writing students were joined by students from other degrees, friends, family and staff for a great afternoon in the dark (with apologies to Graham Greene for nearly stealing his line).

The film itself is dark and brooding, set in an atmospheric Highland landscape which is a character in its own right. This is not a landscape of castles and pomp, but of barrenness and struggle. The delivery is faithful to the original, as unadorned as the landscape and brilliantly understated, making the action even more menacing. Any moments of Shakespereian levity are edited out. Kurzel re-imagines the supernatural sequences in a new and original way, adding innovative nuances to what should be a deeply mined narrative. Macbeth (Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard) stand out in a stand-out cast.

The Telegraph gives it 5 stars and says it is ‘one of the great Shakespearean movies’.

The play is on the GCSE syllabus too, and this is a fine introduction to the text.

Click for the Stoke Film Theatre programme

 

Peter Brook’s ‘Mahabharata’ Adaptation: ‘Battlefield’, at the Young Vic

Down the smoke, 19 and 20 Feb, to tank up on High (and some low!) C(c)ulture. I saw Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen’s The Master Builder: an excellent performance in the Old Vic. The Gagosian gallery in Britannia Street behind King’s Cross (free entry!) has an exhibition comparing/contrasting portraiture of the photographer Avedon with Warhol’s portraits. Highly recommended. The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Aldwych (also free entry for students and teachers), shows the Botticelli cartoons illustrating the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy: 60 plus drawings, with magnifying glasses handed out at the entrance.: can’t think of anything better, at least not in this area of the highest pursuits…

Warhol: self Portrait

Warhol: self Portrait

Avedon: Ezra Pound

Avedon: Ezra Pound

WP_20160220_11_20_11_Pro

Avedon: Beckett

 

The main theatrical event happened in the other more vibrant place around the corner from the Old Vic: i.e. in the Young Vic, which still, it seems, fulfils the promise held out by its name: vibrancy, new impulses, setting the standard for contemporary theatre. A while ago I saw Beckett’s Happy Days there. Terrifyingly intense. This time, I was  lucky enough to score a ticket for one of Peter Brook’s rare productions on an English stage, entitled Battlefield. Brook is now 91; it was (without trying to wish time away) probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me then to see the legend in live-action.

The venue was  bristling with young vibe. Andrew Scott, of Professor Moriarty (Sherlock) and Pride fame was in the house (I could smell his Eau, I came that close), also Fiona Shaw, and, as coincidence had it, our very own Staffs arch-practitioner in the dramatic arts, playwright and Panto specialist extraordinaire ‘Rob’ Marsden…. Indeed, the Staffordshire links extended further, for, one of the five-strong cast was the Cheesemanian disciple of yore and sometime Northern Broadside member, Sean O’Callaghan, the only Caucasian white actor in this show.

My interest in Brook’s work goes back some time and is linked partially with a stint of teaching I did in the olden days for the Drama and Theatre Arts Department at Staffs Uni, including 20th century play-writing and dramaturgy. A short explanation might be in order.

Peter Brook started off as one of the most radical innovators of British post-war theatre, with trail-blazing productions of plays from the traditional canon to his name, such as Shakespeare’s Lear (1962) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970), but also new ‘experimental’ ones, the most spectacular Marat/Sade (1964) by Peter Weiss. Brook re-examined the very texts of the plays he used in the light of innovatory 20th century theatre practices and the theories that transformed theatre after Ibsen, such as those of  Brecht (‘Epic Theatre’), Artaud (‘Theatre of Cruelty’), and the Theatre of the Absurd. In one of his seminal studies (The Empty Space: the practitioner Brook is also a formidable theorist!), which has  come to be regarded as something of a rule-book for post-modern theatre, he argues that text is only one amongst the elements that come into play when the empty space of the theatre is to be filled with theatrical matter. In fact, it is Brooks iconoclastic irreverence towards the traditionally sanctioned play-text (handed down over centuries and meticulously edited into ‘definite’ shape by generations of scholars) that might be singled out as a key feature of his radicalism as a theatrical innovator. Far from holy writ, the actual text is according to Brook by no means THE central  element of theatre. Particularly the well established texts almost held sacred, such as those of Shakespeare’s plays, need to be put through the mincer; they need re-shaping and re-jigging, as each new specific present  production requires. The above mentioned  Midsummer Night’s Dream went down as a good example for the new flexibility in the handling of text for the theatre that Brook advocated, including cutting, altering, re-ordering of passages and scenes: an attitude of postmodern utility and sobriety…

All in all, Brook argues the case for a re-evaluation and re-prioritisation (dread word!) of the elements that come together to create the theatre experience. He aims at a new holistic inclusiveness of the theatre which needs to start from scratch (an empty room) in the assembly of its ingredient elements for each new production. Some of these elements, such as mime, acrobatics, magic, are to be re-admitted centre-stage from the neglected fringes of performance practice. Thus, Midsummer Night’s Dream used acrobats, fire eaters, jugglers, etc. In this regard Brook’s theatre seems to correspond  with Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the Carnivalesque: established doctrines of style are subverted through the liberating force of chaos and humour ….

Brook also worked in film. In the versions of Lord of the Flies (1963), Marat/Sade (1967) and Lear (1971), all three in Black and White, Brook seems well conversant with the aesthetic requirements in this different medium. For example, the madness scene of Lear raving on the Heath comes alive well as film. Shot in a sequence of blurry, double-exposed images, the over-blending gives Lear’s psychotic outbursts a uniquely cinematographic form. During  the English period of his activity, Brook was instrumental in launching the careers of many now well-established theatre and cinema actors, such as Glenda Jackson’s (Marat/Sade) and Ben Kingsely’s (Midsummer Night’s Dream); the name of Paul Scofield (Lear) is intrinsically linked with earlier Brook.

These days it is rare to see Brook in action in Britain. He now operates from Paris, where he moved in the mid-70s, acquiring a defunct Belle époque venue, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord near the Gare du Nord, whose director he remained until 2008. The most spectacular production emerging from Paris was the 12 hour-long staging of a Sanscrit epic, Mahabharata, in 1985, an experience of truly Wagnerian dimensions, both in terms of sheer length and as a multi-artistic fusion project, with the slimmer film version, cut down to a mere 6 hours, added in 1989. The immensely long text of more than 200000 verses is the Indian equivalent to Homer’s Greek epics, albeit probably older, going back to even before C8 BCE in its oldest core parts.

It was thus with great expectations that I attended the performance at the Young Vic. Reader, they were not thwarted! Battlefield, it emerged, is the massive epic of the Mahabharata whittled down to a mere 65 minutes of performance time. Brook has moved away then from the gargantuan proportions of the original 1985 production, from the opulence of his earlier output altogether, to a ‘late style’ of sparse gestures and tightly crafted minimalism: the show runs through without interruption in what could be called ‘one act’. The short segment presented is the condensed essence of the whole of the Mahabharata project, the full epic in a nutshell, so to speak. The structure of the huge text consisting of scores of intertwined tales held together in a broader narrative frame is showcased here, in an exemplary, didactically demonstrative way, very much reminiscent of Brecht’s Lehrstücke (‘Instructive Theatre Parables’). Thus, the Battlefield segment features as a representative nuclear scene standing in for the whole of the Mahabharata’s endlessly confabulated creation-of-the-world myth. We see the key players of the extended version in action here, Krishna and Vishnu, as well as a small selection of more minor characters lower in the mythological chain through whom the will and wisdom of the gods is filtered down the pyramid of creation. The ebb and flow of life is presented in an allegory of battle and war, the battlefield of death as wasteland of rebirth and renewal, a kind of Indian version of the baroque idea of Theatrum mundi.

One of the most impressive features of the production is  that of ‘the fifth man’, a Japanese tabla player with a free-jazz backdrop, who provides continuous musical commentary on proceedings. The music-maker is fully integrated as an independent voice with a non-linguistic, purely musical part. This goes deep into the heart of the play’s mythologizing intentions. The good Dr. Schopenhauer is near in spirit…

If one were to sum-up the whole thing in terms of impact of theatrical experience and significance of production, the following could be said:

  • an enormously rich experience  packed into  little more than an hour of performance;
  • a fruitful tension of contemporary, ‘modern’ theatre feeding on primeval, in itself half-shadowy, prehistoric text: a ‘post-modern’ tension;
  • fulfilment of the key demands of Brecht’s Epic Theatre (narrative intentions; props rendering strange the action; the actors stepping outside of their roles etc.), paradoxically through bringing mythology back to life;
  • a marriage of thinking man’s Brechtian Epic Theatre therefore and C.G. Jung’s dimming Collective Unconscious.
A curious admixture of the best of two different worlds….

 

 

Broadsides’ Merry Wives

On Tuesday night, I, along with several other Staffs Uni students, saw the Northern Broadside production of The Merry Wives (of Windsor), by William Shakespeare. It was a thoroughly entertaining play, with jokes, music, singing, dancing, trickery and, of course, love (and how could Shakespeare resist the chance at making fun of the French?). I also learned that this is the origin of the popular phrase ‘what the dickens?’, which I had always assumed had come from a similarly named author. Afterwards, there was a talk-back session with all the cast, where we were able to ask questions, and were told stories (particularly by Barrie Rutter, who played Falstaff in this production), including performing in the Globe Theatre in T-shirts and jeans for the first half of A Midsummer Night’s Dream due to lost luggage problems. A thoroughly enjoyable evening and I would highly recommend this play to anyone.

(Harriet Lee, Creative Writing)

Some wives (not from Windsor, but somewhere Northern – as you would expect) being merry at The New Vic (courtesy of Northern Broadsides)

See the trailer at their website here

 

 

Godot at the New Vic

There are many myths surrounding Samuel Beckett and his work. He is famously reported as telling a reporter that if knew what a play had meant, he would have put it in the play. A theatre critic also described Godot as a play in which nothing happens. Twice. His is an enigmatic presence in 20th century theatre; just google a picture of him and you’ll see what I mean – what a face!

You can see what the critic meant. Vladimir and Estragon are two tramps who meet by a tree for two days running to wait for the mysterious Godot. Each day a message is brought by a boy to say that Godot can’t come today, but he is sure to come tomorrow. A conceited land-owner, Pozzi, and his slave, Lucky (a slave called Lucky?), also cross the stage in each half. Beckett plays with our expectations of time and chronology (everything happens twice, challenging us to examine the notion of causality in narrative development), plot, character, and even what it means to be an audience (there are a number of meta-theatrical moments when the central characters gaze in to the crowd and question who we are – as we question who they are). The play is at once a slapstick exchange between two tramps about sore feet and boots, and an existential meditation on life, death and the possibility of being rescued from the insignificance of life by a greater power.

London Classic Theatre’s production is a fantastic interpretation of a play which has changed the way we think about theatre.

Norther Broadsides’ The Winter’s Tale

Staff and students were at the New Vic to see Northern Broadsides interpretation of The Winter’s Tale. It was, as ever, a seductive experience of precision acting and innovative staging. It would be unfair to single out one performance from a faultless cast, but I’m going to anyway. Conrad Nelson as the king, Leontes, was magnificent in his brooding, introspective delusion. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy in real life, but he plays a baddie very well (his Iago, played opposite Lennie Henry’s Othello, was a study in malevolence). The rest of the cast were just magnificent.
Broadsides are well known for mixing drama and music in inventive ways and the turn from tragedy to romance, the ‘problem’ of this problem play, signaled the setting of Shakespeare’s verse to many musical genres, including Bob Dylan, and a folk/hippy design. There can’t been many interpretations of Shakespeare which include Irish dancing, but there should be.
We all departed stage left, pursued by a bear. Next stop Godot!
Broadsides’ trailer for the production can be found here