Hamlet at the Lowry

In Act 3, Scene 2 of Hamlet, the prince asks a troupe of players to use their performance ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’. He wants to show his adulterous mother and murdering uncle the truth of what they have done in killing his father and taking the throne of Denmark.

Drama, then, should show us the world, so it is appropriate that the RSC production of the play, currently touring, should reflect the realities of the global culture and multi-cultural society in which it is being performed. The cast are mostly black actors and Elsinore transported to an African country (still, conveniently, called Denmark) where the action is accompanied with African drumming and singing.

Paapa Essiedu was sublime as Hamlet, while Ewart James Walters excellent as both the ghostly king and a reggae gravedigger (this felt familiar. Did I see it, perhaps, in the Manchester Royal Exchange production recently?). Buom Tihngang as Laertes was at his best as the bereaved brother and son, while Mimi Ndiweni’s sung lament to her thwarted love for Hamlet’s was mesmerising.

The Lowry is a big space, and the atmospheric soundtrack which accompanied the action created unnecessary competition for the actors to be heard in some of the more subdued moments.

If the RSC are passing your way, I suggest that you take the chance to see a great production; one that may be talked about in the future as a defining take on Hamlet.

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

Dark in The Day book launch

Some 50 members of the public attended the Dark in the Day Book Launch at City Central Library on February 7th. The book publishes 8 Staffordshire University creative writing students (6 undergraduates, 2 postgraduates) alongside established writers in the field of ‘weird fiction.’ The project came about when guest lecturer, Storm Constantine (author and publisher) suggested to creative writing lecturer, Paul Houghton, they might work on an anthology together with the students. The format for the evening was six contributors reading six-minute extracts. Before that, co-editor of the book, Paul Houghton introduced the event which began with a particularly luscious and surreal poem by Dr Lisa Mansell, ‘Angels of Anarchy’, inspired by the work of Leonora Carrington. The first story excerpt was by final year undergraduate, Jack Fabian, who read from his eerie story, ‘A New Womann’ about an artist inspired by a disfigured woman. Next up was Sian Davies, another final year undergraduate, with an equally chilling tale, ‘Post Partum’, about a new mother who believes her baby is not her own. She was followed by PhD creative writing student, Paula Wakefield, who read from her story, ‘In Touch’, a psychological zoom-lens analysis of an intense relationship. After a break for wine-bipping, bookselling and chat, lecturer Paul Houghton read an extract from ‘The Strange Case of Quentin Wilde,’ a black comedy which details a dummy’s first night out. Novelist and publisher, Storm Constantine read from ‘The Secret Gallery’, a luscious, dream-like story set in the mysterious Galleria Buiocuore. The surreal tone was continued by guest author Rosie Garland, who read from her dramatic and equally poetic story, ‘An End to Empire’ which has become even more poignant in the light of recent political events in the U.S. Rosie also gave an impassioned speech about the inspiration and importance of public libraries.

After more wine, book sales and chat, a happy audience filed out in an orderly manner.  It was great to see so many people there, even a few former students as well as library users and curious people. Many thanks to Emma and all the lovely staff at City Central Library for all their work and support.

Dark in the Day, edited by Storm Constantine and Paul Houghton is available here:

www.immanion-press.com/info/book.asp?id=492&referer=Hp

Review of Stratford Trip

Our English and Creative writing group had the fantastic opportunity to go on a Shakespearian adventure to Stratford-Upon-Avon. On Friday 20th January, we set off at 3pm to the town of Alveston where our youth hostel was situated. When we arrived at Hemmingford House we were allocated our dorm rooms. We only had time for a quick freshen up as our departure to Stratford was imminent. We took a short journey into town and managed to locate quickly a nice local pub for some refreshments. After feeling restored we headed on down to the Royal Shakespeare Company to watch The Tempest. We were situated down the right-hand side of the stage and the view was particularly good. I personally had no previous knowledge of the play, so I was expecting to struggle with the plot and dialogue. However, I was proven wrong. The actors and actresses performed The Tempest clearly and dramatically. They made full use of the staging; hidden plinths arising from the stage floor and wooden trees that could even resemble a ship depending on the scene. Their use of technology should not be overlooked either as the sound and lighting effects produced larger characters and brought beasts to life. The play itself is set on a remote island where a sorcerer and his daughter have been stranded for 12 years. He then uses his magic to conjure a storm to shipwreck the men responsible for his banishment. Romance, comedy, and tragedy are all added along the way of the sorcerer’s journey back home. We all thoroughly enjoyed the play. As a first timer to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I can assure you I will be going again.

After some post theatre drinks, we retreated to our dorm rooms. The following day we headed back into Stratford where we split up into groups to do some sightseeing. Amy, Becky, and myself decided to go and see Anne Hathaway’s house which was a reasonable walk out of town. When we got there, we walked through the gardens to the cottage where she lived with William Shakespeare. On arrival, there was a female tour guide who was telling us that William Shakespeare would often come to the cottage and write between plays. He would often leave his wife and children behind when he went to London due to the poor living conditions in the overpopulated city. She also told us the average life expectancy in London at that time would be around 20-30 years old, whereas in Stratford it would be much longer of around 40-50 years old. She went on to say that this was because of the clean air in the countryside and that they were living from their own land. After a brief question and answer session we explored the rest of the house.

Review of Cyrano de Bergerac

A group us from our English and Creative Writing group attended the New Vic Theatre on Monday 6th February to watch Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a play adapted by Deborah McAndrew and directed/composed by her husband Conrad Nelson. Deborah was instantly recognisable to us all as a regular in Coronation Street in the 90’s, as she played a character called Angie Freeman. Cyrano was performed by the award winning Northern Broadsides in a round theatre. Different props and lighting were used to set the scene for a variety of different places in Paris: a playhouse, a bakery, outside Roxanne’s window, the frontline and a nunnery.

Cyrano is set in Paris around 1640. Cyrano is a poet and is madly in love with his cousin, Roxanne. However, he is reluctant to tell Roxanne of his feelings due to the fact he has an enormous nose! Cyrano becomes acquainted to Christian who Roxanne confesses her undying love for. With Christian’s good looks and the use of Cyrano’s poetic words he manages to marry Roxanne. However, with Cyrano and Christian both off to war, who will survive to win Roxanne’s heart once and for all. Will Roxanne ever know the truth about Cyrano’s feelings or will Christian run out of words. Cyrano is a musical musketeer marvel. With poetic readings mixed with swashbucklers, bakers, and nuns, expect a journey into the unknown. The actors that were exceptional were Cyrano and Monfleury as they both had heavy dialogue mixed in with singing and playing musical instruments. They were entertaining, comical, and dramatic. That nose is not to be missed! (Lynn Statham, 1st Year English and Creative Writing)

image New Vic and Northern Broadsides

Strenghtening Cohort Identity on Trip to Liverpool

To Liverpool last Wednesday, originally to get some live-experience of Pre-Raphaelitism (on our list of topics in my Level 5 and 6 module Painting the Town Red), through sampling the holdings of Pre-Raphalite paintings in the Walker Gallery, around the corner from Lime Street Station. However, we broadened out the brief of the trip by opening it up to all English and English and Creative Writing students on our Staffs Awards. Also, we did not just do the Walker Gallery, but also Liverpool Central Library, Tate Liverpool by the Albert Docks, and much this, that, and the other besides …

As it turned out, we ended up a fairly small, but perfectly formed little throng of 15 +, a cross-section of really nice people from all study-levels, with some joining us along the way, and also leaving at various stages of the programme, for one urgent reason or another. (One student had actually gone to the length of driving up with her lil’ toddler son to meet us at Lime Street station; she had to leave half way through, but – as we heard from  her the next day – spend more than 5 hours on the motorway on her way back: so not lucky!). A sizable part of the group made use of the opportunity to check out the watering holes and eateries in up-town Hope Street area, after the bugle had been sounded that ended the official part of our venture. One of these night birds, at the ‘Career’s Fest’ next day (a man, who shall remain nameless), had the deep bass-baritonal timbre of voice that normally follows a bout of alcoholic abandon….

At the station we were also joined by Greg, one of our Level 5 ‘mature’ students, dyed-in-the wool scouser and guide extra-ordinaire from whose expert knowledge we beneffitted all day long. He led the way, and also led by mature example as some of us frequented the more insalubrious establishments of town, in between watching the High-Art display in the two Galleries, and then later into the night….

After coffee we looked around in the Walker, starting with C19 Victorian painting. Their Pre-Raphaelite holdings are not as extensive as in he Birmingham or Manchester galleries, but we saw a couple of paintings which we had actually discussed in class, particularly Millais’s Isabella; remarkable also, a picture that we had not so far looked at on the module, one of my favourites, Brett’s Stonebreaker, which exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelites’ obsessive attention to meticulous detail (the picture shows an abundence of plants, all botanically identifiable, and much geological detail): ‘truth to nature’ is the motto; the human, here labouring, part of the cycle of things; Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is in the air…

The next station was the newly reconstructed and modernised City Library, right next to the Walker Gallery. Greg pointed it out to us and suggested we go in. We took a look at the old rotund Reading Room, reconstructed and absolutely glorious, not unlike the old Reading Room of the British Library in London, then housed in the British Museum.

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We took the above group picture on the Viewing Platform on the top floor of the modern new part of the library, whose interior compares very favourably with the new Birmingham Library, but here, of course, the modernist interior design is very well hidden behind the early C19 facade behind which it is inserted, whereas part of the splendour of the Birmingham Library is also in its multi-culturally inspired exterior design: Orienalising (?),  filigree….

Greg then led the way through town towards the Albert Docks. We got a good whiff of the Mersey sea air (with the weather wildly oscillating between misty, rainy gloom and bursts of sudden sunshine). The tide was half in, and the water over to the Birkenhead shore was like a grey mirrror, reflecting clouds and the high buildings on the other side.

Mersey Mirror

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Some of us went for a liquid pub lunch, others for more solid food in the Gallery’s café.

img-20161110-wa0001Photo: Irram Amin

Tate Liverpool had provided us with a living guide, who, for a fee (Mel, extremely kindly, forked out on all our behalf!) talked us through Tracy Emin’s Unmade Bed, as an example of a ‘Self Portrait of the Artist as a Troubled Young Woman’ (very convincing!), and tried to draw parallels (perhaps not so convincing!) with the 25 or so William Blake etchings, drawings and paintings which Emin had chosen as context for her own artistic bed-statement. The Gallery has been following through for some time with their laudable project of connecting conceptually seemingly very different art works by exhibting them side-by-side.. With Blake and Emin (Mel and I talked about it afterwards) we were not so sure whether the connection worked, even though the guide, John Hughes, did his best to draw out the links. For example, the contrast of the soft toys by the side of Emin’s bed with the depressing adult chaos of the bed he connected with the contrast of Innocence and Experience in Blake’s poetry and painting. (He also interspersed his substantial talk with amusing limericks of his own making characterising ‘the essence’ of various artists: Pollock, Dali, Emin, Blake, etc..) In any case: both the Bed and the Blake were well worth looking at.

wp_20161109_14_55_04_pro Photos: MJ

All in all, a good day out with very nice things to do, in the company of very nice people (on an otherwise depressing day, with Fascism looming in the Anglo-American world).

I enjoyed myself tremendously.

Paul Beatty, first American winner of the Man Booker Prize for Literature

Paul Beatty has won this year’s Man Booker Prize for The Sellout. His work satirises the hypocrisy and contradictions of racial politics in the US, drawing attention to the effects of economic and social segregation on the black communities of America. This most recent novel tells the story of an African-American visionary who reinstates slavery and segregation in his LA suburb to put it back on the map, and the subsequent Supreme Court trial – ‘Me v the United States of America’.  Beatty’s second novel, Tuff, explores the world of NYC gangs and the mentors who promise to save black men from a life of crime through capitalism. White Boy Shuffle, his first novel, explores the history of black leadership through a black poet with a European name, Gunnar Kaufman, who is moved by his mother from Santa Monica to the ‘hood in search of authentic black experience. Gunnar witnesses police oppression (the LAPD are ‘dressed to oppress’), riots (a ‘psychological placebo’, a ‘vitriolic stimulant’ and ‘Carnival, ghetto style’) and gang culture (Psycho Loco and his gang, the Gun Toting Hooligans, are laugh out loud parodies).

Throughout his work, Beatty focuses on the roles of parents in shaping his young black and male protagonists, and the transmission of the legacies of slavery and segregation from one generation to the next. On Radio 4 this morning, Beatty said his work contemplates ‘how we measure progress’.

This award should propel Beatty’s earlier novels back into print; come on Random House, this stuff deserves a wider readership.

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!).

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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)

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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.