Sunday, 27 June 2010

Why Huff and Puff Just Isn't Enough!

Perhaps reality has finally bitten? Perhaps there are no more epic stories? Perhaps we're just not very good? Supporting England is always frustrating, but as we fell disastrously short with an unheroic 4- 1 thrashing at the hands of Germany, I couldn't help but feel that it was the end of the line not just for the golden generation but of a whole cultural narrative that's sustained the myth of the plucky underdog since the end of the Second World War.

England were inferior; technically, physically and imaginatively and the idea that determination, belief and commitment can win out against players as sophisticated as the Germans, is as outdated as Spam Fritters and Anderson Shelters.

I watched the game with Holger and Kay, two sons of Germany and old friends from my school days. They were kind enough to contain their obvious joy at the spanking and even feigned embarrassment and apology in a bid to allow me a retinue of dignity.

The problem is without the myths English football has very little. At half time there was still a chance of a return to the breech as, fuelled by the adversity of an outrageous disallowed goal, we seemed set for a courageous fightback, but this is the age of enlightenment and our crude superstitious faith had no answer to the unremitting logic of the German counter.

We are not in the same league as Germany... or Argentina... or Brazil... or The Netherlands ... or Spain ... or Portugal and no amount of Dunkirk spirit can make up for the lack of self-esteem that seems to be inbred amongst England's sporting elite. We simply don't like winning and find more reward in bravely avoiding defeat. We like sports that contain and scupper.... snooker rather than pool... rain affected cricket matches rather than fast flowing basketball. Today in front of a global audience the mean and mannered nature of such a philosophy was nakedly exposed. Before the game we were prematurely dreading penalties. The Germans didn't give it a thought and that's why they didn't need them!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Omit - 'Piss Taking.'

Spent most of the day with the Richmond Theatre young writers in the theatre galleries at the V&A working alongside Gill Brownson and Little Lights, the museum's resident company, exploring ways to create short scenes that shed light on the objects and artefacts in the collection.

Katie and George focused on a letter from the Lord Chamberlain's office dictating cuts and amendments to Joe Orton's Loot and quickly created a wonderful imagined scene set at the Court of St James at which a committee of decrepit censors are encouraged by the Lord Chamberlain to consider ever more outrageous alternatives to Sc3 Line 34: 'They just want to shag their birds...' after climaxing with the thrill of righteous indignation they agree to cut it only to be joyfully presented with Sc 3 Line 48: 'Bares his arse in public.'

Other groups focused on a Victorian star trap and Henry Irving's make up.

We went on to to consider different acting styles over the last hundred years and tried out the handbag scene from The Importance of Being Earnest as both a melodrama and kitchen sink piece of social realism. It was a very entertaining session.

I hung around afterwards to finally catch up with the Walpole and Strawberry Hill exhibition, which is in its final week. It's rather odd seeing so much of Horace's collection gathered in one place - particularly as the place isn't Strawberry Hill - but it does help me realise what an insatiable appetite for collection he had. There is little rhyme or reason - Cardinal Wolsey's hat, James I's gloves, miniatures and modern art, trinkets and furniture. Nothing quite labelled authentically, but all fascinating. The house itself re opens in September, which we're all looking forward to, but it seems a shame that by that time all of its accompanying ephemera will have long since been boxed up and shipped back to its lifeless, air conditioned, archive at Yale University.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The Saint of Solitude.

The Lakes have been bathed in sunshine for the last couple of days and I've been enjoying the opportunity to stretch my legs and clear my head. On Wednesday I set off early from my base in Keswick and headed out of town up and over Latrigg onto Skiddaw, where, after a steady two hour climb I was able to stand on the ridge and take in the wonderful view over the Northern fells back towards Carlisle and the Borders. I stayed on, what felt like, the roof of the world for an hour or so before tracing my way back down via Skiddaw little man which offers amazing views South back to Derwentwater and Borrowdale.

I took Alfred Wainwright's guidebook up the mountain with me. His observations, gentle prose accounts of the journey, although written fifty years ago, have an incredible intimacy -especially when he's your only companion. His line drawing images quickly make the curve and scale of the mountain familiar.

I drove down to Buttermere to find the plaque in St James' church dedicated to his memory. It lies beneath a window offering a view up to Haystacks - his favourite fell and final resting place.

'If you, dear reader, should get a bit of grit in your boot as you are crossing Haystacks in the years to come, please treat it with respect. It might be me.'

By all accounts Wainwright was a bit of a miserable old curmudgeon, unable to bear most forms of social interaction and happier alone with the loyal fells than with his colleagues and admirers (friends are harder to trace), but there is something admirable about his independence and self reliance. Something steadfast about his patience and resolve. Over time he became as fixed and recognisable a part of the Cumbrian landscape as any of the mountains. He became one. Our culture fears loneliness and solitude -what makes Wainwright so remarkable is that he revelled in it.

On Thursday I headed South to Patterdale and took another slow climb across Birkhouse Moor towards the summit of Helvellyn. This was Wordsworth's favourite and he was happy climbing it well into his seventies. I'm impressed, it nearly killed me.

I set out across Striding Edge (see image), but froze at the dizzying drop and had to come back and take the softer route to the top around Red Tarn and along Swirral Edge, coming back to lake level via Miresbeck.

I hope I'll find a chance to escape this way again sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Far From Home.

Our meeting wasn't until midday, which gave me a couple of hours free to go exploring and so I set off West from Carlisle to find the start of Hadrian's wall at Bowness on Solway. Here hundreds of poor and freezing Romans must have stood, homesick for vineyards, sunshine and the Coliseum; cursing their luck at being sent to the final arse end frontier of empire whilst keeping diligent watch for raids from the marauding, long haired tribal terrorists a few miles away across the firth. It's a long way from the eternal city.

A few miles down the coast at Burgh by Sands, I came across a strange monument to Edward I -Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots - who died of dysentery on the marshes trying to reclaim sovereignty from Robert the Bruce. It stood proud in a field, unvisited and fairly neglected. England's a bit of jumble sale - you never know what secrets each village or town holds.

Back on campus the board went fairly smoothly - even though it coincided with George Osborne's emergency budget, which many of the lecturers were keen to hear. There seemed to be more pessimism about the future from the Carlisle team and several of them hinted that the forthcoming cuts would inevitably mean a reduction in activity and a compromised experience for the students. It's not a discussion we've had, or really are prepared to have, at St. Mary's.

I hope Cumbria stay on the front foot for the future. It's doesn't help to grumble about the cold when you're far from home. Their course is good and the team obviously put a huge amount of thought and imagination into creating a meaningful education for the students. HE is facing a bit of a pinch, and we will need to be on guard against the barbarians. Performing Arts simply lecturers mustn't stop creating partnerships and exciting project work. Perhaps I'm naive - but I do know that no lecture or reading list can teach the scale of investment required to create effecting theatre and students need to test themselves over and over in real situations. You have to do it to get it! Anything else would turn us into a cost-effective, but ultimately self indulgently useless cultural studies course. It'd hardly be worth the survival.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Crossing Swaledale.

After our last staff meeting of the academic year I headed north in preparation for tomorrow's exam board at the University of Cumbria. With the Papal visit, an audit and the Richmond Theatre show I'm not sure how much time I'll get off this summer - so I'm grabbing every chance to give myself a couple of days freedom every now and then - starting with a short break in the North.

It was a lovely drive up the M1 and by late afternoon I found myself pulling off the motorway and into Richmond where I wanted to take a brief pit stop. I don't know North Yorkshire very well, but basked in low light and warm sunshine I wondered why I'd never taken the trouble to visit before. With it's square high up on the hillside commanding views of the hills and dales all around, Richmond felt like a time worn town in Tuscany or Umbria rather than cobbled wool market a few miles shy of Tyneside.

The Georgians, as with Bath, capitalised on the town's popularity and prosperity and there's a gorgeous walk that they planned around the base of the castle that allows you to see the rich valleys, gurgling water falls and the Swale river. They liked their walks and views. How content they must have been. Back in the centre Samuel Butler's now wonderfully restored Georgian theatre was the surest sign that the bourgeoisie had arrived.

I found a quiet road out of town and headed without passing another car out across stunning Swaledale, following close to the coast to coast path that I'd like to walk one day soon. It took about an hour to cross the deeply beautiful pass, before winding down into Kirkby Stephen - a town Ruskin thought the most beautiful in England - and the beginning of the Lakes.

Carlisle was just a short spurt up the M6.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

After the Dance.

To the National to see a poised and stylish revival of Terence Rattigan's beautifully crafted After the Dance. No one is sure where to place Rattigan's work now. He was the most high profile casualty of the angry young men - who from1956 onwards drove theatrical juggernauts all over his well tended lawns. When I was at University he was seen as a reactionary conservative uninteresting and conformist, but in the last fifteen years or so he's been reclaimed and is now seen as a being a radical social commentator drawing unswervingly accurate portraits of London society caught in a sentimental reverie unaware of and unable to effect the changing world around them. Is it self-portraiture? Did Rattigan willing offer his throat and those of all the other 'bright young things' to John Osborne, Ken Tynan and the fury of those living in the shadow of their war hero fathers?

Is the suicide of Joan, the charming, but indulgent hostess wife a form of self sacrifice? Is her harsh, pragmatic, truth telling. replacement Helen, both a blueprint for a more honest future and a sharp warning for the accompanying destruction? There is more than a hint in this piece, early as it is in his canon of great work, that Rattigan knew his time was rapidly coming to an end.

Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant as David Scott-Fowler, the casual protagonist, struggling hard to raise himself up to the expectations others have for him. Nancy Carroll is wonderful as his discarded wife and Adrian Scarborough, as the happy parasite John, gives a superb turn wringing every ironic inflection out of the rich text.

The play is a complicated and rather delicious mix of nostalgia and recognition. Rattigan is no Chekhov or Ibsen, but he cared deeply about humanity and used his craft to to sensitise us to the emotional conflicts that we unwittingly, and occasionally destructively, inflict when we tell each other the truth. In a world about to discover the horror of the death camps it was an untenably polite position to hold.

Friday, 18 June 2010


Off to the Lyric this afternoon to see the ever inspiring Amici Dance Theatre Company perform their new work Tightrope. The philosophy of the company is simple. They work with able bodied and disabled artists without making patronising concessions to either. They don't use buzz words like inclusion or integration because they don't see the relevance. Disabled artists don't need the protection that participant focused terms appear to offer. They, like able bodied performers, just need the time and space to develop. More than any other company I've seen, Amici are who they are, a group of individuals who work together to solve problems and tell some stories.

This year's work celebrated thirty years of the company with a warning. A troupe of aging circus performers cling desperately to the relevance of their act in the face of changing times and tastes. Two clowns, played with great intelligence, by Pius Hickey and Gurpreet Dosanjh, threateningly deride all of the acts with increasing vitriol until, in an incredibly macabre ending, they pour petrol over the performers and set them alight. For all the humour and beauty, it's an uncompromising and angry piece.

Afterwards I caught up with the Drama St Mary's students Vicki, Joe, Emma, Sophie and Ruth who've been working as ASMs - marshaling the fifty plus performers in and out of costumes, off and onto the stage. They were knackered, but had really enjoyed the experience of working on the show. Amici must be a great family to be caught up with of for a little while.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

MA Directors at the BAC

Caught the first of the MA directors show at the BAC last night Ali Anderson-Dyer has done some very fine work on Philip Ridley's dystopian play The Fastest Clock in the Universe. It's a tough piece to tackle given the financial and logistical challenges of the final project - but I felt real promise in the work and a sense that everything was in place. Of course University projects are always held back by limited runs, tiny budgets and lack of time to rehearse in the playing space - but the story was confidently told and the acting for the most part free from clunks.

The play itself is interesting and very clever, but I think falls just short of being brilliant. I saw the revival of it at Hampstead last September and although I really enjoyed the skillful characterisation and Gothic atmosphere I couldn't help feeling that once you've understood the central idea that love and time are direct rivals in the affairs of man that the plot thins and the end is overdrawn.

The mood at Battersea was good though with Ali's fellow directors breaking off from rehearsals to give her first night support and a handful of undergraduates holding off summer to gain experience teching and crewing the show.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

We're Spilling for England.

So the talismanic captain gets injured and comes home early... a 1 - 0 lead in the crucial first game is squandered by a howlingly stupid mistake... and the inspiring World Cup song has a rap in it! Having watched last night's England game I'm not too downhearted. In fact if I were superstitious in anyway (and football does test my rational logic to the brink) I'd say all the omens were in place for a repeat of the glory days of Italia '90 when Captain Fantastic Bryan Robson limped home half way through the tournament. Steve McMahon inexplicably passed the ball into, Orpington born, Tony Cascarino's path to give the Irish a barely deserved equaliser in the first game and John Barnes set the template for Dizzee Rascal to follow... you've got to hold and give, but do it at the right time... bloomin' genius!

The World Cup is only a couple of days old and I'm already really enjoying it, vuvuzelas and all. All the world is in London. I watched the first game with a South African called Edward. Then turned up at Orode's with green and white face paint to watch Nigeria take on Argentina yesterday afternoon, before going on to Matt and Aida's for the USA game in the evening.

Matt was hysterical and seemed as righteously angry that the USA only managed to draw as I was by the fact that so much English possession couldn't yield a winning goal and that the US were completely out of it with both goals essentially being scored by the English. Robert Green proving that not all spills anger the Americans. I guess it's about mentality. Sport in States is fairly black and white - you win or you lose and there is no rain stopped play, golly well played, Corinthian spirit in between. We'd have knighted all our players if they sneaked a fluky result like that. And so it begins ... what price for Rooney's tears followed by a semi final defeat on penalties?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions.

Today was staff training day and once again we explored ways to incorporate e-learning and digital technology into our teaching. It's a knotty problem made more difficult by nobody seeming to know the scale of the cultural shift that new technologies have brought. Has there been a seismic shift sweeping away all the perceived wisdoms of the traditional lecture and seminar? Or is social networking just a different sphere, good for communication but offering very little as a teaching resource?

We had two keynote lectures. The first, ironically, heralded the death of the key note lecture... unfortunately we didn't have the right software downloaded on the computer for the visiting expert to demonstrate what would replace it. So a lecture it had to be.

Skepticism aside I think we are fairly conservative about the new initiatives - not because we're not open to the potential opportunities but rather because we believe in the theatre of the lecture and don't openly accept the idea that it's not an interactive or engaging medium. We also know through the experience of creating work that technology, if not skillfully integrated, can distract and disrupt the delivery of the live event every bit as much as enhance it. I worry that the machine is expected to provide the charisma, leaving the lecturer to work as a competent technician rather than a generous teaser of opinion and powerful rhetorician. The recorded v live debate has been going on in the theatre industry for decades.

The real possibility that the technology opens up is in offering students flexible access to teaching resources, down loadable at a time that suits them. What we lose in terms of lecturer interaction might just be made up for in terms of the freedom to fit our programmes of study to the emerging new world of distance learning. It's hard to monitor progress, tangent or to sense whether your audience understand what you're saying via podcast - but it might offer some divergence and enable students to rewind, repeat and review the ideas we're proposing. It's efficient - but does it engage? Perhaps the world of the wiki, also, opens up possibilities to democratise teaching and learning, allowing a rapid exchanges of thoughts and giving a synergistic approach to problem solving?

Overall though I left the day feeling wary of subscribing blindly to a new culture. I'm very happy to play and explore whatever is on offer but, just as the digitisation of contemporary music has created a purer but less authentic sound, I think there is as much to lose as to gain by assuming virtual learning environments are the future for education.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The State We're In and Some Very Good News.

We've had a fairly intense three days going through the degree programme with a tooth comb trying to understand where things are working well and where there is room for improvement. It's been a time for hard talk and a little cross examination but, as a team, we really only get the chance to sit down and speak openly about the programme once a year. It's certainly worth doing -even if we don't always like what we hear. We know that Drama St Marys looks great on paper. This is our chance to check we're as elegant in practice.

What is pleasing is that in general the new degree has been seen as a positive development and all of us seem absolutely committed to strengthening the links between the modules. Our frustration is that sometimes it takes a while for the craft skills taught in the practical classes to embed and often the productions and assessments fail to demonstrate the learning we hope is happening. We clearly want to find further ways to make the lessons effective and meaningful and the last three days have been peppered with innovative ideas as well as tough questions.

Of course there's a clear difference between teaching and learning and much of the work we do must be to sow the seeds that will inspire a lifelong engagement with intellectual enquiry and, with a bit of luck, the theatre itself. Our job needs to be as much about providing a provocation for students to respond to, as it is about training them for potential employment. If we fail to do so students quickly lose motivation and eventually fail to reach the high proessional standards we all hope for. University work is always a partnership between the lecturers and their students and it doesn't hurt to check that our offering is attractive, stimulating and concrete.

Meanwhile some great news from Patrick about the Community Theatre Centre in Lilongwe that we're working, with Theatre for a Change , to buy. Comic Relief have agreed to supply £40,000 (about half of our total goal.) This gives us a real incentive to find the rest before we take our first cohort of students out to Malawi next May.

Tfac have also produced a beautiful animated film to raise awareness of the links between gender equality and HIV reduction. It's called Mofanana you can watch it HERE

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Comings and Goings.

Sad news that after two years of sterling work Ian has decided to leave the department to concentrate more on his acting career. He's done an awful lot in his short time with us to support young actors and develop our understanding of actor training. As Drama St Mary's has looked for its niche between Drama School and University he's been a key player in exacting rigour and professionalism from our students - who I've no doubt will miss his mischievous sense of humour and constructive criticisms. The department is all the more healthy for having had his input, however.

We've also had confirmation of the new principal Philip Esler, who joins us from St. Andrews in October. The appointment has taken a while coming, but does mean that our long serving Arthur Naylor will be here to welcome the Pope who it's been announced will deliver a lecture on the value of Catholic education and meet students at St Mary's as part of his UK tour on September 17th. A fitting way to mark his retirement after eighteen years in post. It also gives out induction week a particularly unique feel... poster sale? Goes without saying... freshers bazaar? Of course... School Disco? Sure thing ... Papal Visit? ... Only at St. Mary's.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Lady Scott Hopkins.

Went with Katie to Sloane Square to interview Lady Scott Hopkins for Tender Souls and had a very jolly couple of hours in her twinkling company.

As Geraldine Hargreaves, a young dancer straight out of Arts Ed, she made her debut at Richmond in 1941, performing twice daily in Aladdin. Often the company would play through the air raids - interrupted only by the house manager who felt it his duty to inform the audience that the bombs were imminent, but hoped that they'd stay and enjoy the show nonetheless. The Dame would then step forward and to cheers announce that Widow Twankey's laundry would never closed. Although Geraldine had digs close to the venue, many of the company preferred to sleep in the dressing rooms hunkered up like mice. It was apparently warm, cosy and the management gave them blankets.

After the war she continued to dance with the touring Anglo-Polish ballet and even had an opportunity to go to Monte Carlo to join the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas where later Nureyev defected, before marrying a Conservative politician and settling down.

'My husband used to laugh whenever we were on the road because I'd always say 'oh I've played here.' Then once we were in Paris and he took me to The Moulin Rouge and said 'well here's one theatre you haven't played in.' 'No' I replied 'but I've danced with her and her and her.'

The most moving moment of the interview came when she described the joy of dancing.

'I only really managed to get it right three or form times in my whole career, when the music and my movement and the audience's understanding and appreciation all came together. But when it did - oh it was ectasy!'

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

What to Say to Actors.

I've started some serious work on Tender Souls now and spent the day at Richmond Theatre listening to the interviews that our talented team have recorded over the last few weeks. We've many hours of material to begin to filter, but by doing so a shape begins to emerge. In this sense it's more like sculpting rather than writing. It's useful to be at the theatre during a work day and to get a flavour of how the building operates, particularly when on a matinee afternoon. It also gave me a chance to have a couple of informal meetings with the marketing and box office team about how the show is going to be publicised and sold.

One of the most remarkable interviewees has been the theatre's archivist, ninety one year old, Norman Fenner, who only joined the theatre in the eighties after retiring from a distinguished career as a civil servant. Slowly, over time he's put together the complete catalogue of performances and has managed, through meticulous research, to draw a continual line of all the productions from the theatre's opening in1899 with Ben Greet's production of As You Like It, to last week's Headlong production of Salome - 'Not me... not me at all!'. He still travels once a week from the Fulham house in which he was born - 'not very adventurous I know, but every time I was about to move something cropped up.' - to catch a matinee and have a gossip with the theatre staff. Through him we know that both Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin played as part of Fred Karno's circus before packing off to conquer America. That the theatre played twice nightly through the war and that Sally Greene used to spend over £200 a week on flowers for the dressing rooms when she was in charge in the decadent late eighties.

Norman is the most gentle of men and his interview reflects his personal discretion and modesty as much as the incredible body of work he's bequeathed. He hasn't a bad word to say about anybody and finds it impossible to do anything other than enthuse about and admire the weekly process of preparing the theatre to welcome and support a new production. It's the most charming tape.

'What do you say to the actors if you don't like the performance?' asked Zoe, one of our interviewers.

'Oh. I always say 'there, you've done it again!' ' replied Norman. 'It covers a multitude of sins!'