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.

Alumni return to inspire current students

This week we welcomed back Kerry Ann (pictured) and Louise, who graduated in 2009. They came to talk to the current students about completing their degrees and going on to employment after graduation. They have remained close friends since their undergraduate days.

After finishing at Staffs, Lou taught creative writing at a further education college, gaining a post-14 teaching qualification at the same time. She is now doing a creative writing Phd, working at Staffs uni, and publishing her work.

Kerry Ann went on to a graduate management scheme with a high street retailer. She left to take up a more personally fulfilling role with the children’s library service. Here she realised that helping children with their personal and educational development was her true vocation, and she trained as a teacher. She has risen quickly through the profession, and in just 5 years is a senior teacher with a school leadership role.

Thank you to Kerry Ann and Lou for their inspiring insights. What I will take away from both of them is that intellectual curiosity, both at uni and in the world of work, will create new and sometimes unexpected opportunities – fortune favours the brave!

kerry-ann

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).

 

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

 

Hardy’s Tess – Skeleton found in a – Prison Carpark?

It so happened last week, just before we were about to start the first session of our four week run on The Novel (in the Level 4 Introduction to English Studies skills module), that a newspaper article appeared reporting the discovery of the mortal remains of one Martha Brown in the grounds of a Dorchester prison. Brown was condemned to death by hanging in 1856 for the murder of her violent husband, one of the last executions of this kind in England. The event was attended by the 16 year old Thomas Hardy, apparently traumatised by the incident, so much so that he used the personage and the story leading to the hanging as raw material for one of his most famous novels, the late work Tess of the D’urbervilles, published 1892, more than half a lifetime after the grim spectacle. Coincidence wills it that this very novel is featured as specimen in our session on the novel in the above mentioned module. I could not have wished for a more fitting and timely introduction to studying the novel as a reality-bound literary form. The episode profiles the doctrine of Realism in stark relief…

Gemma Arterton (right) in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles

 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/19/thomas-hardy-tess-of-the-durbervilles-bones-found-at-prison

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

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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