Sunday, 30 August 2009

Hola Madrid!

Madrid, the morning after Cristiano Ronaldo played his first game, and scored his first goal at the Bernabeu and he's everywhere, staring down from every billboard, looking out from every magazine, his name on the back of every white Real shirt that passes. A city with baited breath, a new God.

I was immediately at home. Madrid seems modest, domestic and although it's clear that life is very good here, the human scale of everything, compared to other European capitals, made me feel like I was a welcome guest in the spare room, rather than a commercial traveller in a plush hotel. It's a city that welcomes tourists, but doesn't seem to stop much for them and it's all the better for not feeling pushed around. The real joy here is not in monuments, although the Bourbon monarchs offered an air of grandeur, but in the social places, the cafe bars, the parks and plazas.

As I only had a day I dumped my rucksack and headed straight of to the modern art museum Reina Sofia, which is free on Sundays. My main mission was to see Guernica up close, but the gallery was so full of treasures that I spent the entire afternoon wandering the rooms.

Guernica is overwhelming and impressive, even in the scrum of mobile phones and digital cameras. Up close you realise its uneven texture, hidden scratches and the rough outlines of shapes that Picasso thought about making, but didn't. The layering seems to give the painting both a skeleton and a nervous system and despite the hundreds of flash lights and posed pictures of international travellers capturing themselves for a moment in front of the canvas, it defies commodification.

Even more wonderful was a playful retrospective of Juan Munoz sculptures inhabiting every space, corner and crevice. Charm filled, I didn't quite know if the mannequins were sharing a joke with me or laughing at my expense - they're so theatrical, like characters from a Beckett play, suspended in motion, half way between the ridiculous and profound.

By evening I'd found my way across town to the Plaza Mayor, where the waiters whistled and waddled like penguins to bring in their clientele. A late night stroll through the busy bustling streets around La Latina before heading to bed. Early start tomorrow.


Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ham Sandwich!

Well after a summer of waiting around for lawyers, estate agents, money to telegraph, land registry to make a decision as to which garage should be mine - I'm finally the proud owner of a house sandwiched between the Thames and Richmond Park in barely disturbed Ham. German Bakeries, the stomping Ham Lands and flocks of green parakeets, swooping from tree to tree.

The last two days have been manic, first up to Stratford upon Avon to clear the flat that I bought over ten years ago, and moved out of fairly soon after, abandoning it to a string of tenants. Some salvage of things I'd forgotten I'd ever had, but most of the stuff to the dump. Very cathartic.

Then a second pack up and scrub out of Twickenham, interrupted by a string of prospective new tenants caught half way between excitement at projecting themselves into the flat and embarrassment at intrusion into space not quite cleared (I suspect we're meant to feel nostalgic about moving - I used to, but I don't at all any more.) - and so now with all my gear safely stored in my new uncontested garage I'm going to forget about it all and pop off to Spain to see Spiral and have, finally, as summer draws to a close, a week of fun. I'll move in and settle when I get back. It feels like I'm starting University all over again - September always seems to me to be the most expectant month.

Matt and Aida have also moved and so whilst I had the van I helped move some of their stuff to Shepherd's Bush. We all ended the day, close to midnight, eating burritos from a Mexican takeaway underneath the Westway - can't wait to be able to cook in my own kitchen again.


Monday, 24 August 2009

The Whirligig of Time!

It's hard to explain cricket... and I don't even mean the rules. A fantastic summer of sport came to an end yesterday with England's nail biting, but superb victory over Australia just up the road from St Mary's at The Oval yesterday. It's the end of a drawn out campaign lasting six weeks, five matches, seventy five two hour sessions, swings, roundabouts, dexterity and above all tactical decisions of genius and folly all played out in fascinating bursts, duels and slogs and counter punches.

I've often talked on this blog about the drama and psychology of sport. The most exciting events work simply because they are theatre. A week ago Usain Bolt astonished the world in nine and a half seconds, regaining the Ashes is the opposite end of the wonderment spectrum. An epic Shakespearean history cycle or Aeschylus' Oresteia compared to a Diva shattering a glass with a high note.

There's a huge pleasure in a contest attrition, which enables time to reflect on previous battles, laud the mighty, expect remarkable feats of endurance, idolise and forsake heroes whilst twisting and turning and re writing the plot over and over again. As with all serious drama it's the fate of the vanquished that makes the really compelling narrative. Winning is straight forward, it's the fall from grace that really interests us..

The Oval is the most destructive of battlefields. It's where England originally lost The Ashes in 1892. It's where the great Don Bradman was bowled for a duck in his last innings in England during 'The Invincibles' tour of 1948, bringing his test average down from 101 to 99 and it's where yesterday, Ricky Ponting, the bravest Australian batsman since The Don became the only Australian captain in 119 years to lose the urn twice. The sweat, blood and the ignominy are, on this occasion, all very real. Kennington is a place where reputation doesn't count for much and tragedy is only a wrist spin delivery away!


Friday, 21 August 2009

Twickenham Gore.

On Thursday evening the staff play football (well I say play...) It's a rag taggle mob of slightly unfit lecturers and support staff who turn up, stomachs protruding impressively through the replica shirts of the mighty (Chelsea, Spurs, Man Utd, Brazil and Argentina all on display) and run headlessly around the five a side pitch, doing their bit to support Activate St Mary's - the anti-obesity programme that the workplace health department at the University run - I have to say it's a losing battle.

The teams normally line up along Facilities v Finance lines - with the fistful of academics making up the numbers on each side. Facilities normally play in yellow bibs and as I turned up in my Oxford United circa 1986 Milk Cup final winning shirt I was immediately placed in their team. There followed two hours of neat build up work by both teams followed by the inevitable blaze over the bar from six yards out as the red mist descended and we lost control in the momentary belief that we'd stopped being our fairly mediocre selves and had in fact genuinely become our cult heroes: Frank Lampard, Glenn Hoddle, George Best, Pele, Maradona ... and ...ummm!... Gary Briggs (google him!)

In the end it was great fun, despite some moments of competitiveness and a couple of hospital tackles. After a couple of hours and with the sun setting came the ultimate amateur moment of 'next goal wins' which pissed the finance lads off a bit as they were 27 -11 up. Fortunately no sulking was necessary as Mario Kempes knocked over a speculative ball for Jimmy Greaves to bundle in at the far post... not for the first time the Oxford defence... knackered... were caught flat footed.

In another part of Twickenham the 'bloodgate' scandal at Harlequins have brought sport and theatre together in a different way. Tim Williams, a rough, tough Rugby Union player, forced a substitution by using a fake blood capsule, hidden in his sock, retrieved and bitten at the crucial moment in a match against Leinster last Easter. The injury allowed Quins to put on Nick Evans a player more likely to sneak a win through a drop goal. The dastardly plot didn't work out, and Leinster won, but the affair takes melodrama to a new level. Dean Richards, the ex-England legend and caddish coach who instrumented the whole scheme with cunning disregard for sportsmanship, received a three year ban today, with Sky sports taking lots of plaudits for catching the whole thing in high definition, from several hundred different angles.

I quite like theatrical solutions, though. They seems much more innovative than steroids. My favourite cheats story is of a cyclist from the 1930's, when the Tour de France used to race some legs overnight. This magnificent idler, tired of pedalling, held a champagne cork in his mouth, attached by piano wire to the lead car, completely invisible in the dark of the night. Simple stay awake and upright! He would have got away with it as well had it not been for the fact that cars weren't so fast back then and when an over enthusiastic team mate tried to bravely overtake he almost got his head sliced off.


Monday, 17 August 2009

Sun in the South. News in the North.

It's gorgeous here. The hissing of summer lawns. Cabbage white butterflies in the rose gardens of Pembroke Lodge and huge moths at twilight on the towpath. Sparkling lights on the river and the whole of the terrace at Richmond riverside a sea of sausage red English flesh, sizziling nicely and covering every blade of grass.

In Edinburgh things also seem to be going well for Destination GB and Lost Banditos. I saw them for about two seconds on the BBC's Culture Show last week running crazily about the Royal Mile and clearly very much part of the fun. The reviews have started to come out and they also seem pretty good. I spoke to Paul on the phone this afternoon and he said that they're selling out nearly every show - fantastic news!

Here's some links. The reviews in The Stage, The Scotsman and Hairline.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Epic Potential.

Lots of St Mary's graduates find there first work supporting the exciting youth arts work that's goes on across London during the summer.

Today I cycled (it nearly killed me) along the river into town to see the results of two projects. Firstly The Playhouse Theatre played host to The Ambassadors summer schools - over a hundred kids from Richmond, Bromley and Wimbledon, bringing together six stories from The Arabian Nights. Danielle, had helped Orode and Molly with the Richmond company

Logistically it was a triumph and it's great to offer the opportunity for all these young people to perform in a West End venue. Inevitably with this number of kids and theatre's own child protection chaperoning rules, control was absolute, right down to the rather formidable, radio miked front of house staff, patrolling the aisles, ready to take out anybody texting or taking photos during the show. There is no breath of anarchy here. Still the kids had a great time and bounced out to their parents filled with smiles and lots of pride. They'll be back.

Next across the river to see Oval House youth arts, directed by Nicholai and stage managed by Stef, perform The Illiad on a basket ball court in a Kennington primary school. This was wilder, the space and story allowing for procession, chants and a brilliantly choreographed capoeria battle with soldiers kitted out in American football body protectors.

It was great to see directors on both sides of the river, encouraging young practitioners to tackle big stories, rather than try and get down with self conscious themes of contemporary urban life, because of course, through the metaphor of the epic and the rigour of performance, we learnt a lot about the actors anyway.

However, the two experiences highlighted a difference in approach to teaching the next generation about theatre. The Ambassadors groups, fuelled by the glamour and palpation of the footlights will undoubtedly provide the audiences of the future - but I'm fairly sure the self-disciplined Vauxhall kids, laying siege to an assembly hall on a South London estate, will be the ones reinventing it.


Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Syon House and The National Archives

Summer is moving on apace and I can begin to feel the pull of St Marys and a return to real work. I'm still hoping that if my move goes through I might get to run off to Spain for a few days to play with my friends in Spiral ... but time is of the essence now.

In the meantime, I'm quite enjoying having a break at home. A ten minute bike ride from Twickenham is Syon Park, filled with mature trees and highland cows. We've looked at it as a potential venue for site-specific work over the past couple of years, but the two devised shows seemed to fit more easily into Ham House and Chiswick Park. It is gorgeous though and has a fascinating history. It was here that Henry VIII engorged body exploded in its coffin en route for burial at Windsor. Servants found dogs licking up the seepage the next morning an act that was taken as divine retribution for the de bloated King's dissolution of the monasteries.

And then there is the Lion, who when originally sculptured and positioned for the Duke of Northumberland's house on the Strand, deliberately had its arse pointing at the Prince of Wales' quarters at Clarence House as a public insult, following a dispute between Duke and Prince. Now it stands proud on the topmost tower, tail up, blowing the flowing waters of the Thames eastwards towards the sea.

I've also been to explore the National Archives on the opposite bank. It's a brilliant resource, calm, open plan and with the exciting frisson of hundreds of people milling around carrying out their own detective work. There's a mini army of workers bringing files, documents, retrieving birth, death and wedding certificates that might not have seen the light of day for many hundreds of years. It feels like a airport, filled with emotion as families are re united (or occasionally pulled apart) by the search.

Downstairs is the Domesday book, the first time full records for the UK were collated. Opposite, equally fascinating, a bank of telephones where the local detectives queue up to call older relatives to check middle initials, dates of birth or house numbers. I could spend hours here and never start to do my own looking.


Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Man of the Moment

Up to the Theatre Royal in Northampton to see Kim in Man of the Moment, another Ayckbourn, this time directed by by Sir Alan himself.

It's a clever, and slightly savage, sit com based on the ambitious desire of Jill, a regional TV reporter, to create a gripping documentary by bringing together former bank robber Vic Parkes (Malcolm Sinclair) and 'have a go' hero Douglas Beechy (played brilliantly by Kim), seventeen years after a bodged raid ended up with Vic 'accidentally' firing a shotgun into the face of bank clerk Nerys.

In the intervention Vic has served his time and found fame and fortune as a media star able to switch with ease, if not sincerity, from boisterous bonhomie to 'give me a moment' pathos, as the convention of the camera demands. His semi retirement on the Costa del tax dodge, where the play is set, a reward for a life of public notoriety.

Douglas meanwhile, having married disfigured Nerys, has slipped into obscurity as a double glazing salesman in Purley.

And so with battle lines clearly drawn, the stage is set for a confrontation, for tears, for retribution, mea culpa, patronising celebrity advice and great telly ... or so Jill hopes. The problem is that Doug is happy. He lacks envy, real regret and has no need of closure. He is everything the media hate - a good man, uncynical, hard working, polite and content. The tragedy is he can't win - the cameras are rolling and a drama must be created, by any means possible.

The play was first produced in 1988 - long before 'reality' TV made voyeurism, not only acceptable, but culturally essential; and beyond enjoying the wonderful farce and the elegant craft of Ayckbourn's writing, this revival serves as a reminder of the problems a mediated society has in allowing any sense of relativity to creep into the rating-busting reactionism and moral absolutism, which we're all expected to embrace. In this sense Man of the Moment is a true celebration of the theatre's ability to go where journalists fear to copy.


Monday, 10 August 2009

Summon The Angels.

It's been a quiet week. I'm still trying to move house so most of Thursday and Friday were spent packing boxes and scrubbing down floors in my old place, whilst listening to the abject English performance on test match special. I'm not really at my happiest when doing domestic stuff and this coupled with the ridiculous capitulation at Headingly put me in a bit of a funk for a couple of days.

On Saturday I went to a friend's birthday party and fell into a conversation about the Walpole project, with a softly spoken medium, who is writing a PhD on photography and magic. She told me about the 'Shew stone mirror' that Horace had in his collection. It originally belonged to the Elizabethan alchemist Dr Dee, who was allegedly Shakespeare's influence for Prospero in The Tempest. She told me it had potent powers and is very respected by the ghost community. Apparently, Horace treated it with great reverence

So this morning I set out to the British Museum to hunt the mirror down. It's rather beautiful sheer black unblemished volcanic stone that Dr Dee would look into to conjure up angels and spirits that to appear through his medium Edward Kelly. They would help Kelly to point to a grid of prepared answers. Dee believed this was a way of understanding the future. Originally the stone came from Mexico, brought back on an early plunder of Aztec treasures.

I wonder whether it might have a phantasmagorical role to play in our show. Already we've been talking about bringing in the ghost of Walpole back as the narrator to the show - perhaps there something in the smoke and mirrors of his collection that might provide us with a clue.

'Does Walpole know about your show?' asked the medium, 'It'd be good to get him on board, especially if you're planning to do it in the house. I'll have a word!'

'Great' I replied 'and while you on the wavelength could you also see if Jack Hobbs, Denis Compton and W.G Grace are doing anything Thursday week? We need to win at The Oval.'

'Mmmm' she said shaking her head, 'connection with the other side is one thing. Miracles are quite another!'


Tuesday, 4 August 2009

...And Back!

Lost Banditos must have been very thoughtful. I didn't hear then come in at all after a first night out... but I did have to climb over somebody's dishevelled heap wrapped in a duvet on the hall floor as I let myself out of the flat at first light to turn the bus home for the long drive back South.

'The bed's free!' I whispered, but the heap just let out a loud lion-esque growl, shifted a bit and fell back into slumber.

The sun rose as I headed across the borders and into Cumbria. We came up the east Coast, so I returned via the Lakes.

Lost Banditos have managed to get themselves a residency at the Point Theatre in Eastleigh from September. It'll give them a production office and the chance to build on this show. It makes success in Edinburgh (or at least notoriety) quite important. Kasia's asked me to do some research on a show about the gypsy population in The Balkans, which I need to consider. I'm already thinking of putting together some work with Matt and Stef, adapting Sarajevo Marlboro' - a collection of short stories based on the city's siege in the early nineties. Would doing a joint project with Lost Bandidtos focus or distract this work?

... and so I headed back to base.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


As I was leaving the theatre on Saturday I got an emergency call from Kasia. The seventeen seater minibus that Lost Banditos had hoped could be taken up to Edinburgh and dropped off up there, was no longer available. The compromise fifteen seater was free, but needed to be back in London the next day. Could I do it?

If I can help I generally do and so it was that I found myself at Kasia's house at 6am in the morning being briefed on addresses in Edinburgh, where to return the keys when I've motored home and how to feed her fish to avoid death by festival neglect! Then off to College to pack the squashed van, lever the 'not so good first thing in the morning' company into what was left of the seats, tuck them up and set off.

The trip up was actually great fun. Lost Banditos excited and expectant and it was a lovely feeling to watch the miles slip as we hit the motorway. We stopped briefly at The Angel of the North and finally pulled into the Pleasance, where Destination GB opens on Wednesday, just after 6.30pm.

None of the company have done the festival before I could feel the buzz as they unloaded and then stood, hands in pockets in the Courtyard staring at the montage of posters for every show under the sun on the wall in front of them.

Next stop the companies spacious tenement flat behind Tollcross, made all the more attractive by a huge ejaculating penis graffitied in silver permanent marker on the front door - welcome to Edinburgh!

The evening was moving on fast and I was keen to at least stretch my legs before a quick sleep and turning the bus round. Kas and I went and had a curry with some of NIE, who are in town playing their show My Life with the Dogs. Next I tried to meet up briefly with Lara, whose up with the second installment of Barbershopera playing at the Pleasance Dome, but unfortunately her company were flat bound working on last minute cuts, so we missed each other. Instead I went over to the pubs on Rose Street and found some of last year's first year Danny, Sarah and Michael who are working as tech support.

By ten o'clock I was ready for my bed, back at the sign of the cock, but managed to find my way to The Peartree, an old haunt, to say a final good luck to everybody. In years gone by Bare and Ragged, the Warwickshire based company I used to direct for, made this their home from home and it's good to see it quickly inherited by this lot.

Weirdly standing across the street from the pub chatting on her mobile was Penny Gaize, an ex-student, whose first work was on those Bare and Ragged tours a decade ago. She's now a senior technical support at the Underbelly. It was great to see her so many moons later.

'How random was that?' said Danny

... but the truth is the theatre profession is as small as a village and Edinburgh as familiar as the cornershop.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Black Album.

To the National to see The Black Album directed by Tara Arts Jatinder Verma adapted from Hanif Kureshi's novel set in London during the Iranian fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie after the publication his The Satanic Verses in 1989. Sadly, the direction was all too obvious and rather disappointing.

When the book was originally published in 1995 it worked as a parody on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and hinted at the political tension between liberal laissez faire and fanatical religiosity. The metaphor of Prince's 'black' album - which had no song titles, cover image or textual description - suggested that something unfamiliar, conceptual and beyond definable reason was beginning, even twenty years ago, to take shape in immigrant communities.

Kureshi picked up on the sense that for second and third generation of British Asians there was a genuine dilemma between integration into a secular Western society and protecting perceived tradition. British theatre met this tension head on in 2004 when the Birmingham Rep were forced to cancel their production of Behzti after the police could not guarantee audience safety in the face of an offended militant Sikh protest.

In the final moment of Kureshi's play Hatz, the youngest member of the comic gang of radicalised Pakistanis, and an observer for much of the action, is absolved and passed a rucksack -presumably loaded with explosives. It seems trite, convenient and lazy to employ this convention. Children will listen may be the message, but I'm not sure our understanding of extremism is greatly enhanced by being reminded of this in such a simplistic and unexplored image.

Perhaps the burning of Rushdie's book was the thin edge of the wedge, but to selectively claim, as this production does, with the benefit of hindsight, the direct link between the fatwa and the bomb blasts of 07/07, is to ignore the intensity of the intellectual, and often rational, debates about multi culturalism, anti-racism and immigration that have filled the intervening years. The discussion is vital, which is why this felt like a missed opportunity.