Thursday, 29 December 2011

Winter Treasures.



With Christmas over, Eleanor and I are in Italy to catch up with friends Paola, Paolo and their growing family. The wonderful Margarita was born in April, a chubby, smiley little sister for Mario.


Milano is a lovely Winter city of thick fog, cobbled roads, trams, theatrical Christmas displays still sharp in the designer shops of the Quadrilatero and the smell of roasted chestnuts on every corner. I've been coming on and off here now for over twenty years and it always feels familiar and welcoming. Both of us have a fair amount of reading to do for the new year, so we've spent quite a bit of time in the city library, but in between times we've taken to bikes and freewheeled around the town from church to coffee shop and coffee shop to church.


We couldn't get a timed ticket for the Last Supper in Santa Maria Delle Grazie, but did spend some time exploring the Sant' Ambrogio basilica, which is just at the end of Paola's street.


St Ambrose is the patron saint of the city and his ghoulish remains lie, dressed in fine vestments in the crypt of the church. In life he was said to be so eloquent that bees used to fly into his mouth, which must have been terribly annoying, especially during sermons.


Perhaps the most interesting attraction in the complex is Sarcophagus of Stililcho sitting proudly under an ambo, off centre in the nave, from where it hasn't moved since it was carved in 385. It's a thing of beauty indeed with sculpted scenes from both the old and new testaments including naive representations of Christ handing St Peter the keys to heaven, teaching his apostles and holding the last last supper, offset with fabulous birds and beasts from myths and legends. In all my previous visits I'd never come across it before. A little treasure chest in the middle of the city.
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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas Carroll.



It's been a relaxing Christmas spent with family in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Midnight mass in the lovely village church at Appleford and then a couple of days in Devizes and Salisbury catching up with some reading. Marking has been temporarily suspended and left in a pile back in London.


I've spent a few days trying to make sense of Lewis Carroll in preparation for the Alice project with Level 2 Applied Theatre students begin work on in January. We're not sure yet which direction the work will take. We could just work from one of the several theatrical adaptation of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass already published. We could adapt ourselves or we could look at doing something a little different which might take us into Carroll's biography and philosophy?


In many ways I'm most attracted to the latter option. Re reading the original stories is fun, but the dialogue feels, predictably stifled and difficult to work with. I think there's something exciting to discover in Carroll's love of photography. He was one of the early pioneers and their is something in his love for capturing, framing and fixing an image that seems to me vital to understanding the Alice stories and in particular the romantic fear of the death of innocence that he perceived children experience as they grow up. Through the Looking Glass itself is a story premised on optical reversal. From the initial idea, Carroll introduces young readers into conundrum after conundrum reversing time, merging space and defying logic. All of these are philosophically linked to the time frozen click of the photograph and to the desire to be ever young.


How do children build memory? or nostalgia? Do adults experience a child's childhood differently to the child themselves? To whom does it belong? These are all fascinating questions that go beyond the simple rites of passage stories of a girl falling down a hole or stepping through a mirror. Can a community play encompass all this?

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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Matilda.



Off to the Cambridge to for a final theatre visit of 2011 and a chance to finally catch up with the RSC's acclaimed musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda.


Aided by Tim Minchin's brilliant songs and Dennis' unsentimental script the production is everything a West End musical should be. Funny, warm, witty, dynamic and most importantly full of wisdom and moral certainty. It's a rectifying tonic against the dumbed down juke box nostalgia that seems to have flooded London in the last decade or so.


The young cast relish the world that's been created for them. A wonderful playground of a set that turns the iron gates of Cruncham Hall into a climbing frame the bookshelves of the library into a never ending kingdom of mystery and exploration.


There are great performances throughout - including some of the best child acting I've ever seen. Paul Kaye is excellent as Matilda's money grabbing father Mr Wormwood, twisting his languid body and outrageous quiff in serpent like challenge to the upstanding brilliance of his well read daughter whilst Lauren Ward is perfect as the goddess of effective nurture Miss Honey.


It's Bertie Carvell's terrifying portrayal of that hideous, child hating, Miss Trunchbull that really steals the show, however. Our first encounter of her is at her desk where she sits facing a subversion proof bank of CCTV screens, choosing which 'maggot' to victimise next. Her hammer throwers shoulders hunched high as she looks for any threat to her pristine machine run world. Later her malevolent sadism is given full throttle when she stretches ears, launches unsuspecting pupils into space and tortuously forces young Bogtrotter to finish every crumb of an enormous chocolate cake.


There are always forces of evil to overcome in Dahl's stories and the joy for children is in seeing the perpetrators of misery crash and burn and so it is here when the revolution breaks out the whole audience unites to send the monstrous headmistress into unforgiving exile.


Demons banished and Schools out. Everybody headed home animated and laughing, grateful perhaps that no Wormwoods' or Trunchbulls' are around to ruin their Christmas.

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Monday, 19 December 2011

First Round of Interviews.



Today was our first round of Drama St Mary's interviews, looking at applicants to join us in September 2012. It's still a little early to know exactly how the tuition fees are effecting prospective students, especially as after a slow start there's been a rush of applications in the last week. One theory suggests that school leavers are being really careful over their five UCAS choices and that this in turn has meant that forms are being submitted later, once the round of open day visits has come to an end.


What is true is that nearly all the students we saw today had very high predicted grades. This has been a steady trend over the past four years. A sign perhaps that our reputation is growing and that academically gifted students who want to marry a practical training with a University education are increasingly considering us alongside more traditional conservatoires.


Of course there's no guarantees that triple A grade students can act and ultimately we're looking for students who have a spark of something and want to learn how to perform. Still it's exciting to see that we're now seen as a credible alternative to the Drama Schools and that our constituency, at least in terms of applicants, is shifting. In the long run this can only help drive up standards. High flying students tend to make greater demands on lecturers, but in turn lecturers really enjoy working with motivated and talented students. It takes a bit of time to create a culture where expectations are high once achieved though, everybody benefits. With this in mind we've revalidated all our programmes for next year and have upped the practical component of the course to stay in stream with Central, Rose Bruford, E15 and the rest. Again we're strongly promoting employability. We want our graduates to leave, full of ideas, heads screwed on, ready and willing to work.

Auditions went well and we ended up making some firm offers. It'll be interesting to see how many take us up. This first cohort of auditionees are likely to be in high demand, but St Mary's really does have something unique to offer for those who are committed to the idea of becoming an actor.

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Friday, 16 December 2011

War Horse.



Tonight a rare trip into the West End with Eleanor to see the transfer of War Horse at the New London Theatre. It's amazing that this show has been going for four years now. I first saw it in its initial Olivier run back in 2007 and was keen to see whether with a new cast and a successful Broadway transfer behind it, the wide eyed magic that marked those first performances still remained. It's easy for long runs to turn stale as actors and technical crew struggle to find the motivation to keep the work fresh and optimistic.


For the most part War Horse is still the show it was. John Tams beautiful folk ballads still haunt the work leading the expectant audience into the story and of course the dexterity of Handspring's exquisite puppets still take the breathe away. We watch and marvel at Joey's every move from wilful foal, to reluctant work horse, to captain's charge, journeying from Devonian village to the battlefields of France and back again.


This time round I was struck by how ambiguous the ending is with Albert riding his beloved mount wearily home. It's neither triumphant nor for all the earlier action sentimental, just the end of the war and a new chapter. Unusual in many ways for a children's story. No resolution or symbolic return. Just the reality of a devastated community.


The only downside to the commercial transfer is that the not so cheap, cheap seats at the New London really do restrict your opportunity to sense of the majestic Devonian landscape and the wonderful moment when Albert first rides Joey fast and loose across the Moor is lost to all but those who've paid top dollar.

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Thursday, 15 December 2011

Cinderella.



Off to Richmond Theatre tonight to enjoy their yearly offering of pantomime. Matcham's crimson chocolate box is the perfect playhouse and really comes into it's own every December when the frocks are dusted down, the backdrops hauled up on the flies and the cast settle in for the month and a half run. This year it's the turn of Cinderella. Lite on reality TV celebs and high on variety entertainers it was heart warmingly traditional and rather brilliantly played.

Gary Wilmott stars as the ever amiable, best of best friends, Buttons delighting in warming up the children as he confides in them of his love for Cinderella, charmingly played by Kellie Shirley. Hard not to feel a little heartbroken when she reveals that she loves him 'like a brother.' Still with the resilance of the playground he's quick to bounce back and is soon doing everything in his power to get her to the ball.

His show driving energy is well supported by Graham Hoadley and Paul Burnham as the ugly sisters Beatrice and Eugenie, who, like their royal namesakes work their way through an desperate amount of implausible costumes, each more outrageous than the last.

Together they form a devastating double act as cruel as they are ridiculous. They left the audience roaring in disapproval and delight.

There are local gags, Shetland ponies, camp choreography, a perfectly acted slosh scene and Jenny Eclair tottering around as a rather out of place fairy Godmother, all of which contributes to a blissful evening of high octane, joke filled, routine rich, joy.
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Monday, 12 December 2011

Three Blind Mice.



Our friends from Cardboard Citizens brought their hostel tour onto campus this evening. This year's play Three Blind Mice written by Bola Agbaje was set in social housing flats and focused on the stories of three tenants, each of whom lived on a different floor. Bola had created a neat artistic conceit by turning the joker figure, played by veteran artistic associate Terry, into a mouse who moves between the three floors, looking for crumbs. The parallel between this precarious existence and the challenges of living in social housing were clearly drawn.


The rest of the company Shara, Helen, Jonathan and Andre, have all at one time or another found themselves homeless but thanks to the company they've skilled up, found work and are all looking confidently into the future. They've been on the road for a couple of months now and are clearly loving the play.


As in previous years the students watched the stories carefully, each one ending at a particular moment of crisis, they then took it in turns to swap in for the play's protagonist trying to build towards a better ending. The second half of these shows are always great fun as the actors relish creating believable antagonists and the audience try and deconstruct the complexities of the issue.


In contrast to last year tonight's show was a low key affair. We're into the last week of the semester and many students have half an eye on their final submissions and packing up for Christmas. Still there were some interesting interventions and for Applied Theatre students in particular, and the night did give us the chance to see the countries leading exponents of forum do their stuff right here in St Marys.
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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Heigh Ho the Holly



A really seasonal evening in the Great Hall of Ham House with a concert of sixteenth and century music played on period instruments by the wonderful City Musick ensemble who combine their research into the 'waits' - professional musicians employed by towns and cities to play at civic ceremonies and in exceptional circumstances to keep the hours - with gorgeous playing of sackbutts, cornetts and bagpipes.


The evening interspersed carol and wassailing with carefully chosen secular readings, mostly centred on music making, from Shakespeare to Hardy delivered with charm and wit by the treacle voiced actor Andrew Harvill and we in the audience snuggled up in the appropriately freezing hall for an hour of wonderfully evocative entertainment that really ushered in the festive season. Sounds and stories from the past reminding us that in the ever changing world of consumer must haves the spirit of Christmas has essentially stayed the same.


Afterwards we were taken through the upper rooms, through the gallery and past the substantial library to the orangery for mulled wine and hot mince pies. Outside the wind blew up and December rain began to fall. It mattered not a jot. The holidays are fast approaching.
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Friday, 9 December 2011

Showing the Money.



There's some funny business going on with the Olympics. The budget for the opening and closing ceremonies has, overnight, leapt from an outrageously high £40 million to a potentially culture changing, if it wasn't all going on a couple of media friendly spectacles, £80 million. How the British Theatre could do with that kind of handout. What incredible investments it would be able to make for the future? How many local underfunded community initiatives could seed themselves on a fraction of this?


Earlier this year 154 arts organisations had their funding stopped as part of the Arts Council settlement which saw a real-term cut of 29.6% in the budget over the next five years. Many of the companies had track records dating back years if not decades and, although the new funding structure optimistically set about to freshen up the arts through the promotion of innovation, it strikes me as incredible that a two hour meeting in Whitehall can sign off this amount of money - which would fund the National Theatre for five years or the keep Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in business for 40. The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith had all of their £500,000 annual grant withdrawn this year. That's 1/160th of the money now going on the ceremonies.



In the main, with a few grumbles, British theatre accepted the cuts, perhaps recognising the need to contribute to the belt tightening exercises going on across government departments. How offensive is it just eight seven months later to have to bear witness to such a frivolous waste of money?



The rationale, of course, is very simple. The ceremonies are the showcase moments when the world watches us and the money spent is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds of investment coming into the UK from the games. How much of this money finds its way back into the creative industries is never mentioned.



If it is really true that we need to sell an impression of Britain at the start of the games then why not do what innovative British industries have always done take a more eccentric less orthodox approach. Celebrate the legacy Britain has given to the world of sport which has been to make up the rules. Sure Sydney, Athens and Beijing threw millions of pounds on unrepeatable vacuous displays but I'm not sure monolithic grandeur and grandstanding is really a Great British characteristic. Even at our most imperial our Victorian ancestors scorned the building of huge monuments and instead invested in infrastructure and administration. It's no coincidence that Big Ben the most recognisable British landmark is a clock.


So this is my plan for an opening ceremony. Families across the UK are invited to apply for £10 grants with which they then host one of the 12,000 or so athletes, inviting them round for a cup of tea and a biscuit. How they entertain their guests will be up to each family. The athletes wouldn't have any choice where they were sent, but BBC and Sky outside broadcast teams could report back from all over the country, promoting all of Britain in the process. It'd certainly be a way of both making the games less London centric and wouldn't it be great to see Usain Bolt settle down to a brew and a custard cream in Rochdale or Dorking or Mertyr Tydfil?


In these professed days of austerity and localism I wish the organising committees of the games had the courage to save money, humanise the games and find a creative British solution. Sadly, however, energy, dynamism, kick arse youth and lots of firework glitz will no doubt flood our eyeballs when it all kicks off next summer.


I can't help but feel it's like burning money outside a soup kitchen.

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Thursday, 8 December 2011

Oskar.



The Physical Theatre Level 3 students put on their final year production in the Drama St Mary's Theatre tonight. They'd adapted Jonathan Safran Foer's wonderful novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close into a fast paced and charming show eponymously named Oskar.


There were some terrific performances, particularly when the company kept things simple and allowed the story to tell itself rather than - as can be the case, early on in the training - pushing too much in order to make sure we get it.


Oskar lost his father during 9/11. He was one of the many workers who jumped to their deaths from the upper reaches of the World Trade Centre. In order to try and make sense of what has happened he projects a mythical status on a lost key in an envelope and hunts all over New York to find the owner and unlock the secret that he's sure his Dad has left him in order to cope.


The story itself twists towards the end and the expected happy ending, never occurs. The turns out to be just a key and although Oskar does reunite it with its relieved owner, the optimism he had invested in the key's meaning proves futile. Instead another story begins in the mind of our hero; a story in which could be reversed so that his Dad might fall from the ground upwards, flying high until he reaches the window ledge of his office before ducking inside to wait for the planes to retreat from the building, putting the fires out. The protective sanctuary of the imagination might not be able to turn back time, but it is ever creative at finding ways to make sense of the senseless.

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Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Haunted Child.



To the Royal Court to see Joe Penhall's new play The Haunted Child which opens next week. It was great to see so many Drama St Mary's students there, having taken advantage of the Court's reduced student rates and the chance to grab a Saturday night preview.


The play itself was well worth the trouble. Young Thomas has his world torn apart when his absent father Douglas returns home to announce that he's abandoned his job as an engineer and has joined a religious cult whose main belief is the renunciation of worldly ties. Thomas' ever patient Mother, Julie, tries in a vain attempt to return to normality, to explain her partners increasingly erratic behaviour in terms that her son will understand, but the battlelines are drawn from the off and it's quickly apparent that Thomas is going to be asked to take a side.


There is a really Oedipal feel to the drama as Penhall explores the territory between idealism and responsibility. In one chilling moment Douglas, played brilliantly from calm to storm by Ben Daniels, tries to persuade Thomas that he is the reincarnation of his grandfather calling into question who, in the scene, is the child and who the man. It's a moment of sinister manipulation that subtly suggests that men struggle to make adequate room for the development of their offspring. In this respect the play is a study of masculinity in crisis.


Sophie Okenedo's Julie provides the ballast for the family and it's her desperate attempts to keep domestic stability in the face of a new order that wins the audiences hearts and minds. She is fairly flawless as the forgiving heroine of the piece that celebrates the security of structured normality.


Penhall's work is uneasy and tense, whilst asking serious questions about the nature of parenthood. It's made for a profound and thoughtful evening.

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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Business End.


We're getting to the business end of the year now where lecture classes begin to look more directly at the assignments and students begin the switch from idealistic consumers of new knowledge to pragmatic foragers for good grades.

For some pathway Drama students essay writing is really tough. Our focus on practical training means they're only really producing 6,000 words a semester and whilst many are grateful that the bulk of their time is spent in rehearsal rooms rather than libraries, it does mean an additional pressure that the joint honours students, who produce essays every fortnight, don't have.

This can lead to a mean approach with students looking to find out the minimum they have to do to pass rather than embrace the assignment as an opportunity to research and develop further their own unique interest in a field. The one off assessment also encourages a kind of conservatism, borrowed from their schooling, of believing that if clear guidelines are followed, high grades are guaranteed. There is some confusion when lecturers feign vague on this matter or answer student questions with further questions.

Overall though I do sense in the Level 1 and Level 2 classes that I teach a slight shift and the beginnings of an understanding that turning over your essay is the tip of a much more impressive ice berg. Reading plays and going to see theatre may exercise different creative muscles to physical and vocal workouts but are just as vital in developing an understanding and cultural security about the profession. Drama students seem to work more naturally from the inside out, finding expression for their experience. It soon runs dry though if they're not investing the other way. Looking at the world beyond themselves and storing their discoveries for the future.
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Friday, 25 November 2011

Political Cabaret.



The Level 2 Applied Theatre students performed their second political cabaret of the semester in the Dolche Vita this evening and tried something a little different. For the first half hour they provided us with the usual fare of review sketches, topical songs and provocative takes on contemporary events both within and beyond the University; all well received by an appreciative audience.

The second half of the show, changed tack. The students had teamed up with a writer from the Professional and Creative Writing degree who'd written a clever short piece set in the Starbucks, opposite the Occupy London site by St Paul's. It called for different skills from the performers and demonstrated how quickly good theatre can fabulate to shine new truths and fresh perspective on real events. This is a possible new direction for the work.

The evening ended with a short forum play looking at sexually transmitted disease with Natalie jokering. I was unsure how this might sit with the other work, but they played it with a light touch and brought exactly the right sense of playfulness to allow the audience to explore the issue. It provided a prototype for a longer piece of work.

Political Cabaret has been running for two years now and is beginning to establish itself on the Drama St Marys calender. It'll be interesting to see what the students made of tonight's variations and how that effects the work in the future.
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Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Meaning of Feste.



We watched Trevor Nunn's film version of Twelfth Night this evening as part of the Shakespeare on film season I'm running to supplement the Early Modern Drama module. Filmed in and around the beautiful Penwith peninsula in Cornwall and set in the early years of the nineteenth century, it's a version that's grown on me over time.


I've often thought of Twelfth Night as the pivotal play in the entire canon. A moment of revelation for Shakespeare as a writer. The moment, perhaps, where he simultaneously becomes sure of his place in the world and his impending mortality. Nothing he wrote before was as tightly structured and nothing he writes afterwards is as freewheeling.


The key to my mini-theory is Feste who seems, particularly in the last moments of the play to be as autobiographical a character as Shakespeare wrote. His final song, which starts so clearly to lay out the ages of man, seems to loose heart after just four verses - compare this with Jacques in As You Like It, written just a couple of years earlier, who finds seven distinctions in his All the World's A Stage speech.


The song ends with a passionate statement in which personal ambition is resigned in favour of self-knowledge. The focus is shifting from virtuosity to craft.


'A great while ago the world begun

With a hey, ho the wind and the rain

But that's all one, our play is done

And we'll strive to please you everyday.'


Shakespeare was 38 when he wrote that and staring into middle age. The sixteenth century had come to an end. Within a year Elizabeth had died and England was once again thrown into religious and political uncertainty. His later works, all written under the new patronage of James I, would reflect a desire to provide intellectual and philosophical succour to the Jacobean world order. Illyria was the world that he left behind.

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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Comedy of Errors.



To the National to see The Comedy of Errors starring Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse. It's a rip roaring production played out with enough chutzpah and sense of fun to give even the most cynical theatre goer a good night out.


Director Dominic Cooke sets the play in a composite place somewhere between the West Indies, North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. He has a Romanian band thrown in for good measure. The openning section where the Syracusean merchant Egeon lays out the back story uses the full glories of Bunny Christie's inventive set, to create a vast poetic story board. A visual trailer for what's to come.

And what's to come is very good with Henry, who won rave reviews for his Othello a couple of years ago, revelling in the comedy. He has presence, a sense of ease with the language, great timing and, of course an anarchic spirit of irreverence. It made me wonder why we don't encourage more of our stand up comedians to take the comic roles in Shakespeare. Rickie Gervais as the Porter ? Frankie Boyle as Lear's fool? Paul Merton as Touchstone? or even Tim Minchin as Feste? If it hasn't hasn't already happened I'm sure it won't be long before James Cordon is offered Bottom. It just makes sense to put audience pleasing specialists into these roles.

Elsewhere there is some marvellous support from Chris Jarman as the other Antipholus, Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser as the Dromios and stealing little moments, the wonderful Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry as tottering wag-esque sisters Adriana and Luciana.

This isn't a show that reclaims or reinterprets the play for our times. In many ways Cooke's production is a classic rendering. It doesn't half leave you with a smile on your face though.
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Monday, 21 November 2011

Tales from a Sea Journey.


Our old friends NIE returned to the Drama St Mary's theatre this evening with their new show Tales from a Sea Journey. It was lovely to see them bring their peculiar brand of Post-Brechtian clowning back for a new generation of students to enjoy. It was wonderful to see ex-student Kieran back, playing a brave Norwegian sea captain.

Unlike their earlier trilogy, which sought to dramatise the cataclysmic history of twentieth century Europe by telling the stories of three families, this new show focuses more directly on the way stories help us to pass time, to form communities and to dispel our fear of loneliness. Whilst it lacked the political bite of previous work there was a metaphysical dimension at work here.

The company created the show a year ago when they spent ten days as passengers on a container ship travelling from France to Guadalupe in the West Indies. Each member of the company was asked to take along three stories and a couple of songs for the rest of the actors to learn. They fused this process with observations and tales from their own adventure. The result is a wickedly funny, kaleidoscopic treat of tentative offerings, songs and fables, made poignant by the ever present awe inspiring vastness of the Ocean. We're tossed and turned from moments of gloriously silly slapstick to sublime majesty.

As in previous work NIE stand to assure us that stories are our real solace, inspiration and the only thing we can genuine offer in the face of the unfathomable mysteries of the deep.
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Saturday, 19 November 2011

Collaborators.




To the National Theatre to see John Hodge's witty new play Collaborators, intimately staged in the Cottesloe. The play, based in part on truth, centres around the relationship between the dissident writer Mikhail Bulgakov and Josef Stalin, brilliantly played by Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale.

It's 1938 and Bulgakov's new play about the life of Moliere has been declared subversive and withdrawn from the stage. In a Faustian pact to get it back on, he takes a commission to write Young Josef, a hagiographic play celebrating the dictator's impeccable revolutionary credentials. Unfortunately the writer's artistic sensibilities make the task impossible and despite some nasty threats from Mark Addy's blackly comic secret policeman he finds himself struggling to make the first night, scheduled for Stalin's surprise 60th birthday party.

Stalin, who of course, doesn't do surprises, steps in and arranges a series of secret scripting meetings where he delights in swapping roles with Mikhail, typing up glorious scenes from his heroic past whilst temporarily handing over the reins of the USSR, to his adversary.

The leading actors are superb. Russell Beale's Stalin weaves easily between avuncular openness and childish impatience - under which we sense a monstrous ego held short. Whilst Jenning's imbues Bulgakov with the painful realisation that principle has pragmatic parameters and the tired disappointment of a man who, taken off guard, has fallen a little for the devil.

Nick Hytner and Bob Crowley create a surreal, constructivist universe, where dreams, desires, fictions and startlingly reality mix in full absurdist glory. It all made for a dark and delicious evening, designed to puncture any optimistic belief that art can flourish in a totalitarian system.
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Friday, 18 November 2011

We Are Three Clever People.


Are there some stories that essentially can't be dramatised? Last May I had an uninspiring evening at the Richmond Theatre watching Shared Experience explore with little dramatic punch the relationship between the Bronte sisters and their characters. Polly Teale's script had strong intent in that it showed how fantasy helps us escape claustrophobic circumstance but having made its point the play faded.

Tonight at the Rose in Kingston it was the turn of another acclaimed touring company Northern Broadsides to find a way into the dark and lonely world of Haworth Parsonage with their production of We Are Three Sisters. Again it made for a long night.

In someways the piece is a triumph of conceptual elegance over good storytelling. Writer Blake Morrison and critic Susannah Clapp realised, over dinner a decade ago, that the Bronte sister's story had some obvious parallels with Chekhov's The Three Sisters. They floated the idea to Broadside's Artistic Director Barrie Rutter and a script was developed.

It's a bold idea, but it's realisation lacks conviction. Essentially it's Chekhov's play (without soldiers) set in rural Yorkshire, but the doggedly enforced biographical detail needed to replace Olga, Masha and Irina with Charlotte, Emily and Anne and unsubtle grafting of fact and fiction felt incredibly self-conscious and at time even precocious. Charlotte, searching for a publisher, stares out and parodies Irina's famous lines on Moscow with a cry of 'To London! To London! To London!' A looser relationship between the two stories would have allowed the audience to enjoy making their own connections.

I really admire Susannah Clapp, both as an editor and critic. Barrie Rutter has forged a fantastically muscular, no nonsense approach to classic plays through Northern Broadsides and Blake Morrison's eulogies to his parents are amongst the most poetic memoirs ever written; but something about this meeting of minds has served to flatten what could have been an interesting restaging into a rather predictable academic exercise.
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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Nandos Education.



Spent much of today in City College, Brighton with first years Ami and Megan, delivering a talk and chatting to sixth form students about the courses here at St Mary's. It was a really good experience and something that, in the scramble, to ensure our courses are full next year we need to do more of.


Although it's still not really clear how the rise in tuition fees has effected recruitment, not just nationally, but for individual institutions and programmes, the one thing that is clear is that seventeen and eighteen year olds are being much more careful about choosing their options.


In the last few years I've often asked potential applicants who've turned up for open day how many similar events they've been too and, with some notable exceptions, the answer has always been 2 or 3. This year, however, it's more likely to be 7 or 8. One girl I spoke to at the last evening had been to an impressive 22.


Last year the Universities had the luxury of a competitive market to work in. The number of Gap year students feel dramatically as school leavers tried to get a place on the old fee scale. This year, with applications down, the choices are all with the students and the onus is on us as institutions to offer attractive and worthwhile courses. Already this is making itself felt in St Mary's where a new marketing campaign 'you said, we did...' is encouraging students to claim entitlements from the institution.


Whilst student experience needs to be at the heart of most decisions a University makes there is a crude theory that all of this will drive up standards across the sector. The more students pay, the logic goes, the more they will demand. But it's the nature of that demand that matters and it's romantic to think that the primary drive of the young is value for money. In many cases I think undergraduates are driven by appetite and for educationalists, if you'll excuse the pun, that's difficult to swallow.


Education is a challenge. Learning new ways of thinking, making connections between disparate disciplines and subjects and absorbing fresh knowledge takes personal investment and willpower. The threat of a consumer driven sector is that students believe they are paying their lecturers to do this work for them and repackage it all in dumbed down, easy to access forms. Paying more doesn't necessarily mean you'll go for the healthy option. Given the choice many students will head for Nandos every time.

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Monday, 14 November 2011

Juno and the Paycock.



A smashing production of Juno and the Paycock at the National this evening with Ciaran Hinds as a brilliant Jimmy Boyle commanding every inch of the Lyttelton stage. In some ways the character is an Irish cousin of Rooster Byron, admirably played by Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, over the river, a larger than life fabulist whose enjoyment of life's journey leads him into huge trouble and eventual bankruptcy.

The play is set in the civil war that followed the failure of the Anglo-Irish treaty talks and brilliantly captures the political indifference of a family caught up in desperate acts of survival. The fighting outside the peeling tenement flat is mirrored by the ongoing battle between Juno, played with stoic fortitude by the impressive Sinead Cusack, and her delusionist husband.


The supporting cast is uniformly good. Clare Dunne is pitch perfect as Juno's daughter, carefully balancing the pragmatic need to find a suitor who'll take her out of poverty, with a fading notion of romance and Risteard Cooper, an Abbey favourite making a rare appearance in London, is terrific as scrawny scavenger Joxer, constanly searching the corners for the means towards a next meal.


At times the production is lit with breathtaking beauty, which adds an epic quality to the social realism, but never detracts from the underlying sense of watching lives lived at the very edge.


This is a company completly in tune with the demands of the play and working as a natural ensemble, whose precision and sure touch, draw the audience in. The attention to this kind of detail is a hallmark of director Howard Davies' work. It makes watching plays easy.

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Saturday, 12 November 2011

Allegiance.




Spent the day in University preparing for the evening's rehearsed reading of Mary Kenny's play Allegiance a fictional re imagining of a meeting between Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill and Irish Republican Michael Collins that occurred in October 1921 in which both men outline their positions politic and personal and look for a way to progress the Anglo-Irish Treaty Talks. I'd been asked to play Evans, Churchill's butler.


It was a fascinating afternoon watching the speed with which Matthew Marsh, playing Churchill and Colm Gormley, as Collins went about the text. On paper the play had seemed rather expositional, a lesson in history and biography, rather than a lithe political poker game, but as the afternoon went the texture of the piece was teased out, the changes in strategy noted and slowly a more interesting architecture to the play emerged.


Beyond ten or twelve lines of introduction my role was chiefly to fill up the drinks. Mary, who was in the audience for the show, makes it fairly explicit in the script that the men's trust for each other grows the more they put away. Certainly at times when the negotiation became entrenched Churchill's tactic was to pour another drink and carry the conversation into personal territory: love, children, common ground.



It's strange to act again. I haven't done anything on stage for years and in the end I was just relieved not to have sent the accumulating brandy glasses flying.

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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Its No Joke!



Off to Lost Theatre in Lambeth this morning to see It's No Joke! The Comedy School's TIE show dealing with knife crime, which has been touring the borough over the last few weeks. Today a fifty strong group of year 6s from a local school were brought in.


It's a good show, eschewing shock and sentimentality and instead using humour, broad characterisations and fast paced storytelling to cover the ground. At the end the kids hot seat and offer advice to the characters - including the victim (who always gets asked what it's like to die.). The level of questioning really demonstrated how much had been learnt.


It's No Joke! has been on the road for three or four years now and gone through several recasts. The latest incarnation stars Danny Morgan on his first job since graduating from Drama St Mary's last summer. It was great to see all of the hard work he put in over three years being rewarded with an opening gig and he was really good value. Light, charismatic and confidently in control of the audience, particularly as he jokered the Q & A at the end. Keith seems impressed with him so hopefully he'll be considered for future projects.

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Sunday, 6 November 2011

The First Actresses.



A morning lecture at the National Portrait Gallery by way of introducing their new exhibition The First Actresses, a fascinating collection charting the rise of women on the stage from their first appearance in the 1660s to their glittering ascendancy through the eighteenth century.


It was a fascinating talk focused mostly on the competitive way in which the eminent but formal Joshua Reynolds and the more natural flowing Thomas Gainsborough sort to gain commission from the actresses of the day for academy portraits. It was the start of a real move into respectability. Up to that point Gillray and Hogarth had reinforced the popular image of actress as whore with a string of satirical cartoons; but by the 1770s a counter revolution led by David Garrick ensured that performers such as Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan and Sarah Siddons were viewed as artists in their own right.


The exhibition itself is fairly small, and a bit overpriced, but it does offer a coherent sense of theatrical history and some startlingly comparisons in the way in which these early celebrities were depicted. My favourite picture was of the beautiful but tragic Elizabeth Linley, whose promising career was brought to an end at the age of nineteen, when her new husband the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan - made jealous by her popularity and concerned his own reputation would be compromised insisted that she retire from the stage. She went on to manage the books in Drury Lane and died at just 37. Gainsborough's painting captures the loneliness and boredom of an out of work actress. She looks past us now trying to remember a happier time, when her gaze engaged. Restless hands idle in her lap. She's absolutely still whilst the wind temptingly provokes her to act by gently ruffling her clothes.

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Saturday, 5 November 2011

Anonymous.



Went to the cinema to catch Anonymous Roland Emmerich's frankly bonkers film which suggests that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford was the real author of Shakespeare's work. If you can get past the nonsense of the thesis, ignore the moment by moment chronological inaccuracies and relax into the swashbuckling silliness of the conspiracy theorists world, then it's quite a fun night out.

I thought Vanessa Redgrave was wonderful as the aging Elizabeth I, returning beautifully to second childishness. Her performance every bit a match for Judi Dench's Oscar winning cameo in Shakespeare in Love. Whilst Rafe Spall gives us a believably magpie-esque Shakespeare, a sharp, live wit with an eye on the main chance. What he lacks in Latin, Greek and Italian travel, he more than makes up for in opportunism, charisma and imagination. I saw no contradiction between this lustful, life loving, optimist and the poet philosopher of our popular imagination. Why shouldn't a grammar school boy create King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III? He also knocked out Falstaff, Bottom and Christopher Sly.

I suppose I've never been that interested in the authorship debate. For what it's worth I think Shakespeare was probably a wonderful writer, but the first folio only appeared seven years after he died and I've no doubt that by that time the parts had been refined, honed and road tested by his surviving colleagues in communion with the demands of the audience. Actors wouldn't have worried too much about the authors posterity, but rather there own survival. They'd have kept what was popular and re improvised moments that didn't grip. Think of the play as a performance rather than an script and it soon becomes possible to imagine the collaborative forces at work. A terrific synergy that leads to 'genius.' I suspect Shakespeare gave his companies great material to work with, but in truth the canon stands less as a monument to one man's achievements and more to the increasingly democratic and enlightened spirit of the age.
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Friday, 4 November 2011

Twelfth Night, Political Cabaret & Fasymmetric Theory.



A busy day. After tutorial I headed off to meet the Applied Theatre first years at The Orange Tree, where Henry had invited us to provide the a dress rehearsal audience for an anarchically silly Twelfth Night, which he's been putting together with a group of four actors. It's wonderful to be able to get into rehearsals and the students really enjoyed the privilege. Next semester it'll be their turn and I hope having this opportunity will at least have helped them see how much fun work for young audiences can be.


After the run through the cast tried out a short workshop on us to demonstrate how Shakespeare creates different voices for his characters. We ran 'If music be the food of love' just using the vowel sounds... 'eee ooo eee ooo ooo' to show Orsino's open romanticism and then 'Have you no wit, manners nor honesty?' playing just the consonants ' vvv nnnn wwww tttt mmm nnn ttt' to reinforce Malvolio's lack of grace and patience. It was very smart. A great, accessible introduction into the text.


Rushed back to campus to interview Keith for Making Theatre. Much of the discussion focused on how tricky some actors find Stand Up. The suggestion was that to begin with they 'act' what they think a comedian should be like never really letting the audience into themselves.


'Comedy is the great leveller,' he said 'but if you're going to play it you've got to be prepared to come down to meet the crowd.'


From there we headed over to the Dolche to catch the second years perform the first Political Cabaret of the semester. Some really clever material on facebook and a couple of really well crafted songs. Interest in this work has grown from last year and the room was packed to the rafters. The students just seemed relieved to have got through it but it was a really good first attempt and hopefully will have given them confidence to write with even more freedom next time round.


The day ended over in the theatre watching the Theatre Arts production of Fasymmetric Theory, a really encouraging first play from Level 3 student Kat Evans who's put together a Martin Crimp like montage of slightly disconnected scenes, parodying our obsession with beauty myths. It was very exciting to see a student play getting a full production. The cast and director did an admirable job in showcasing a promising talent.

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Battle Cries.



Tonight's screening in the Early Modern Drama series was Olivier's glorious Henry V which still carries all before it in technicolor glory. Commissioned by Churchill it was made in 1944 as a morale boosting pageant, its release timed to coincide with the Normandy landings.


The film starts with a beautiful panoramic view of London, the silver thread of the Thames snaking its way past the towers and steeples of a city at rest with itself, in perfect harmony under William Walton's score. In we zoom to the playhouse, the great globe itself where bustled preparations for the afternoons matinee mirror the industry of preparation for the invasion itself. Everybody is involved regardless of class, gender, age. All united in readying themselves and the space to receive the play.


Soon it's on us. Leslie Banks' muscular chorus pulling us into the comic clerics conversing in the minstrels gallery above the stage. We follow their exit to the backstage world where make up is applied, costumes dusted down, and actors poise ready for their entrance.


The camera fixes here watching knights and page boys process onto the stage, set now for Henry's court. Then a beat. A second of empty frame and forward with one tentative step comes Olivier, not as a mighty God anointed King, but an actor, a nervous man with a slight cough, trying to get a feel for the house.


He is us and we are him, waiting for our cue. It's a brilliant moment of levelling. The messages are clear. Heroism is a human possibility and our duty is to act.


One of the most moving things about the film is to watch these our actors working in concert. George Robey, the great star of the Victorian Musical hall and friend of Henry Irving, plays the dwindling Falstaff. The pioneering Australian dancer Robert Helpman provides a comic turn as the Bishop of Ely, Matinee idol Robert Weston plays Pistol. Esmond Knight, himself blinded, earlier in the war, takes up Fluellen. Max Adrian, who would go on to be a star of the formative RSC, is an enigmatic Dauphin, John Laurie, an eminent Hamlet in his own right, but most famously remembered as Private Fraser in Dad's Army plays Scots captain Jamy and George Cole, who later found fame as Flash Harry in the St Trinian films and Arthur Daley in the eighties TV series Minder is a fresh faced boy. Most remarkably Renee Asherson, who played Princess Katherine, is still alive at the ripe old age of 96.


Any acting company at any moment of history will have a spread of youth and experience and one of the most magical things about the theatre is this sense of continuity. Olivier casting stars from the past and the future. This band of brothers united in a common cause and captured in a brief moment of time.

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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Church and State.


After work I headed into town, met up with Eleanor and went off to have a look round the Occupy London site outside St Paul's. We'd gone to see a debate at the Cathedral about the radicalism of Jesus' mission, but on the back of two resignations and the continuing fears about safety and public disorder, the event was, ironically if unsurprisingly, cancelled. The church has really missed a trick with this one. The worries seem to be more about how having a lot of unwashed hippies on the doorstep will effect box office takings in the gift shop rather than engaging with the larger questions surrounding the increasing gap between the rich and poor.

So with the doors of St Pauls firmly closed we instead spent some time in the camp. It's an impressive set up. The largest marquee has been given over as a space for free lectures and seminars. An impassioned debate about public space was raging. During the day a full programme of events are publicised outside, offering everything from talks on the geo-political challenges of the next decade to placard making workshops. Next door is a small library where members of the camp swap books and supporters of the protest bring regular donations.

A little way along an avenue of pop ups is the makeshift media centre where three bespectacled men sat furiously typing responses to the thousands of supportive messages coming in from around the world. The tent is a geeks haven of wires and laptops, all illuminated by a single light bulb run from a noisy mini generator. Next door are the kitchens where huge metal cauldrons bubbled with veggie stews and coffee is handed out to all visitors and beyond that a jam tent, complete with a piano and a couple of broken stringed guitars.

At the centre of it all a small gazebo works as a control point. Lists of needs - food, literature, equipment is scrawled up on a whiteboard, whilst new supplies and donations are registered and distributed. New arrivals also check in here and are either allocated a plot or a place in one of the existing tents. And, as long as this is a fun and diverting place to be, they will keep coming. The headache for the authorities is that for many protestors the Occupy site isn't a necessary discomfort. Its a real social alternative to homelessness or destitution. It won't be easily shifted.

At one end of the camp guarding the entrance to Paternoster Square stood two police officers, refusing to let anybody go near this privatised area. They were, for the most part, ignored.
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Monday, 31 October 2011

The Grand Guingol.



The first of the Level 3 Theatre Arts shows at the Drama St Mary's theatre tonight. A turn of the century evening of chilling horror in homage of le infamous Theatre du Grand Guignol which opened as an intimate candle lit 200 seater in the Pigalle slum of Paris in 1897. A place of dark shadows and hidden corners.


The theatre spawned and specialised in a new gruesome genre employing naturalism to graphically reenact moments of murder, mayhem, insanity, tragedy and trauma in front of an insatiably voyeuristic audience. A typical bill of evening fare would include five or six short stories all ending horrifically. Victims were normally drawn from the lower class. Prostitutes, criminals and street urchins were all routinely slaughtered in ways designed to at once thrill and disgust the audience. The very fact that these characters are both powerless and dispensable produces a frisson of taboo breaking excitement.


It's a psycho-physical environment that the immersive theatre specialists Punchdrunk have in recent years seemed to be nostalgic for. A place where we're all complicit in the lust and gore whilst simultaneously harbouring the secret fear that we might be the next to feel the cold steel of the butcher's cleaver about our neck.


It was fascinating to see the students explore a form that has all but disappeared from the theatrical landscape and although at times it was tricky to understand whether they were attempting to accurately reproduce the style or merely parody it there was certainly enough in the four stories they offered to keep the audience engrossed for the entire evening. What better way to spend Halloween?

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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Carlisle to Settle.



Last day of our break in the North. We walked the mile or so out of Kirby Stephen to the railway station which lies half way down the Carlisle to Settle line - often described as the most picturesque train journey in Britain. The station itself stands proud looking down on the Smardale valley. In recent years it's been lovingly restored and a small team of passionate volunteers and enthusiasts maintain it for the many tourists and locals who take huge pleasure travelling through the North of England.


Kirkby Stephen lies slightly up the line from the impressive glories of the Ribblehead Viaduct but there was still plenty to see. We kicked off our boots, warmed our hands on steaming mugs of tea and coffee and, faces pressed close to the window, headed up through the evocatively named villages and hamlets of the Eden Valley: Langwathby, Kikoswald, Armathwaite, to our arrival in Carlisle.


We changed here and took a short hop back down to the waiting car in Penrith; where after an impressive Sunday lunch we started the long drive back South. For all yesterday's battles with the elements we're almost half way to Robin Hood's Bay.

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Saturday, 29 October 2011

Drenched in Westmorland.



The day started promisingly enough. We picked up supplies in the village shop and headed out across the fields to where a concrete footbridge crosses the furious M6 and onto the next stage of the walk. The path to Kirkby Stephen looks to be fairly straight forward on paper, but soon after we'd past the quiet hamlet of Oddendale the sky turned black.

For a few miles it was bearable. We made our way onto Ravensworth Fell, crossed an old roman road, waded through Lyvennet Beck, where Charles II rested his army en route to the Royalists final defeat at Gloucester and followed a dry stone wall round to an old cairn which reputedly marks the site of Robin Hood's Grave.

It would have been fantastically interesting but all the discovery and wonder was beginning to wear thin as the weather deteriorated and the cold winter rain lashed in, getting underneath our clothes and soaking us to the skin.

Eventually we made our way to the road and cadged a lift in a minibus full of Glaswegian young offenders, having a cracking lager infused jolly in the countryside; their harassed probation officer sulking at the wheel. They dropped us at The George in nearby Orton, where we had lunch thawing out by a roaring fire. Outside the weather seemed to be brightening so we wrung out our socks and set off again.

For the first few miles everything was more or less back on track we followed lanes, skipped stiles and made our way steadily across the peaty fields to Sunbiggin Tarn, a desolate spot, miles from anywhere. It was here, predictably, that the skies opened once more.

Shelter was a good two miles off in Newbiggin, so we gritted our teeth, put our heads down and ploughed onwards across Ravenstonedale Moor. By this stage the weather was so rough that we couldn't even refer to our sodden, pulped guide book and we quickly became lost amongst the sheep. Eleanor helpfully reminded me that Lear, made mad by the storm and the onset of hypothermia, began to take his clothes off in similar circumstances, a new threat that until that point I'd not considered.

Putting safety first we found some farm tracks and followed them over the hill and onto a lane leading down to a solitary farmhouse. The farmer, unfazed by our adventure, was kind enough and pointed us back towards the village, some two miles East of where we'd ended up.

Newbiggin, he promised, owned a public telephone box and with no reception to be had on the Moor there was no alternative but to continue. Wrinkled as prunes we squelched our way along the road, finally arriving just before eight o'clock. A call to a local taxi firm put us out of our misery and so drowned and defeated we arrived less than triumphantly in Kirkby.
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Friday, 28 October 2011

Farewell to Lakeland.



Up early to carry on with our Coast to Coast walk. We caught the 108 bus from our lodging in Penrith and followed its picturesque route along the western edge of Ullswater down to Patterdale to recommence our walk with a steady climb heading south out of the village towards Angletarn Pikes.

The sky was clear and it wasn't long before we were high enough to enjoy commanding views back towards the Helvellyn and adventures past. Higher we climbed scouting around the tarn itself, following a dry stone wall past Satura Crag, through a peaty field to rest by a gate and share out some fruit pastilles in celebration at completing the first 50 miles of our journey from St Bees. Against every prediction we've had wonderful weather all the way

Another short climb took us around the Knott and onwards for a glorious view both of the old roman road leading up to High Street and down the Straights of Riggindale to Haweswater, a once gentle lake, now turned into a huge reservoir, capable of quenching Manchester. From here a short walk took us to Kidsty Pike - the last obstacle of Lakeland.

We lingered for a few moments taking stock of the brooding mountains to the West that somehow we'd found a way across before turning East to stare across the more gentle gradients of the Westmorland Plateau to come; the landscape rolling far away to the Pennines on the horizon.

We pressed on, descending through Kidsty Howes to Haweswater edge and followed the shoreline for several miles, noticing the fells fall away to be replaced by a gentler terrain before arriving at the village of Burbanks, built especially for the workers who helped flood Mardale some eighty years ago.

The light was fading now as we began to cross the fields towards our ambitious overnight stop in Shap. We made it to the charming Rosgill bridge which crosses the Lowther and here decided that rather than lose our way in the dark we should follow the road in, forsaking the ruins of the old Abbey. Beside hunger had begun to set in.

It didn't take long before we were offered a lift by pensioner Flo, who was concerned that Southerners might not be easily visible, and gratefully driven the final mile and a half to the comforting delight of a boots off, good dinner and a raging fire at the Greyhound Inn.
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Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Lost City.




Partly inspired by an excellent BBC documentary on the history of ceramics Eleanor and I stopped off in the lost city of Stoke on Trent en route for another couple of days Coast to Coast walking. It's a fascinating place which, possibly because of the large number of service stations on the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester, few people turn off to visit.


And first impressions are of slow decline. Sentinel chimneys standing idle, a canal with no traffic and streaks of rust running down redundant iron pipes that have long since stopped carrying the water needed by the factories. We parked the car and walked across James Brindley's revolutionary canal interchange which links the Mersey to the Trent to the old Etruria works where a young entrepreneur Josiah Wedgewood based his burgeoning business and placed the potteries firmly on the map as the world renowned centre for ceramic production with endorsements from all the crowned heads of Europe and commissions across the globe. The canal was championed by Wedgewood to ensure his pots could be transported smoothly. Too many were broken on the bumpy eighteenth century roads. The site is chained and remarkably quiet now.


After lunch we went to search out signs of industry and took a advantage of a free tour around Emma Bridgewater's factory, half a mile south of the city centre. It was quite inspiring. Whatever you think of her stuff, and I find it a little twee and nouveau nostalgic, she has certainly done the town a great service by resurrecting a pottery works here. All of her stuff is produced in the factory and 200 local craftsmen and women are employed to turn out over 30,000 pieces a week. From small beginnings 25 years ago the turnover is several million pounds a year. Mood in the factory was good, the royal wedding and the diamond jubilee have provided a couple boom years, which everybody hopes will stay.


'Whatever else the recession makes us forfeit,' said our amiable guide, 'people will always needs cups and plates.'


Bridgewater's firm feels the right size. It's working at capacity, but there are no plans to expand and threaten the familial feel of the enterprise. It's a very British brand in a very British setting. Stoke though could do with one or two other returns. I was surprised to learn, given the morning stroll past derelict buildings, that more pottery is manufactured in the region than anywhere else in the world. Still the unemployment figures are dangerously high and the skills that have sustained Stoke for over two hundred years lie, for the main part, dormant, waiting for a renaissance.

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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Early Returns.



Troubling article in The Sunday Times today about the fall in applicants for HE courses. Universities across the country have been bracing themselves for a reduction in the number of students seeking a place in 2012, but it's been a bit like staring into a dark cave, with nobody knowing for sure exactly how the rise in fees will effect school leavers. This week UCAS will publish figures up to October 15th - which was the deadline for Oxbridge (received wisdom suggests that 10% of all applications are made by this date.)


Early returns from some London institutions suggest a dramatic fall. Goldsmiths suggests a 34% decrease and City University are looking at a 40% drop. St Mary's own speculative figures, taken from open day visitors, suggested that we were holding up (but of course there's nothing to suggest the old ratios between visitors to applicants or offers to undergraduate take up will sustain in the new world.)


I still think that Drama St Mary's have got it right by focusing on creating degrees that take the best of the Drama School and merge it with courses which, for want of a better word, explore and analyse creativity, through active problem solving. Very few of our graduates go onto academic careers, but many do get work in the theatre industry and nearly all of them leave with an understanding of the need to create opportunities for themselves, rather than waiting around to be recognised and discovered. We hope this dynamic approach to promoting a new breed of resourceful, self motivated practitioner will help us to avoid the coming storm. Let's see.

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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Unlucky?


A really difficult night at the National watching Mike Bartlett's new play 13 which is about to go to press at the Olivier.

Bartlett, who's yet to turn thirty, is often heralded as a new hope for British theatre. A playwright who can capture the drama of the new world, where communication is as likely to happen by tweet, text or skype as it is by prolonged face to face dialogue and where the technology exists for people to form intimate relationships even if they never actively share the same space. I very much wanted to like it; but unfortunately I found it patronising, complacent and trite.

As with last year's hit, Earthquakes in London, Bartlett's new work is big on ideas. Amongst many other things a messiah like figure, former philosophy student John reappears after six years in the wilderness and begins teaching a doctrine of belief in belief at Hyde Park Corner. Simultaneously a modernising Cameron-esque Tory prime minister, played with Thatcherite authority by Geraldine James, weighs up the moral responsibility of an invasion of Iran. Whilst her friend, John's former lecturer Dr Christopher Stockley, a tweeded atheist in the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins mould, delivers public lectures on the pre-eminence of Western culture. The three character's are linked by Simon, the Prime Minster's son, John's best friend at Oxford, who tragically died jumping of Magdalen Bridge on May Day.

Slowly, and completely unbelievably given the obvious sentimental psycho-babble that he speaks, John begins attracting crowds of upwards of half a million people to his daily orations which have moved from abstract ideas to a more concrete anti-war stance. His evolving popularity eventually forces the Prime Minister to meet him in Downing Street for a reunion and private talks.

For all the intercut dialogue, flashing lights and the weird, hugely expensive set - a towerblock size black cube that performs all kinds of configurative tricks - it's this scene between a young idealist, his atheist former lecturer and the Prime Minister that is the most interesting allowing as it does an ideological and informed debate between received authority and naive idealism to take the stage. This for me was the kernel of a better more intimate and sensible play. It's lost in the vast swathes of the Olivier.

I'm always mindful when writing reviews of work that I don't like that I might just not be getting it. In the mid-nineties I remember critics almost unanimously blasting Blasted, partly because they failed to grasp the bold innovation in form that Sarah Kane was proposing. Some of them later apologised.

Perhaps I'm just too stuck in a concept of makes good theatre to be able to see the merit of the play, but I'm convinced that the A-level and undergraduate students who packed out tonight's preview deserve a greater intellectual challenge than this pseudo-profound attempt to provoke youthful rebellion. There are real causes, real problems and, I hope, real solutions for young people to take a lead in finding. A work like 13 gives the impression of being radical and uplifting, but ultimately it's earnestness does nothing but reinforce the consensual and compliant nature of early twenty first century politics. For all the imposing threat of the enormous black cube this show is, I suspect, as meaningless as a house of cards.
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Saturday, 15 October 2011

Jumpy



With Eleanor to the Royal Court this evening to see April De Angelis' new play Jumpy which stars Tamsin Greig . It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, a smart play and some wonderful acting.


Greig plays former Greenham protester Hilary, who's just turned fifty. She's on the verge of being made unemployed from her job working in an Education Support Unit, is struggling to maintain an active sex life with her calm but unambitious husband Mark and most pressing of all has lost the ability to communicate with her teenage daughter Tilly.


Whilst Tilly negotiates her own private path through her late teens, refusing parental intimacy; Hilary is left anxiously longing for new meanings and adventures to make herself feel attractive and needed as she heads towards senior status. What will she have left once her daughter flies the nest? Moment to moment Greig beautifully finds the edginess of a woman who feels the best is passing without a fanfare.


Elsewhere the acting is uniformly good but it's worth highlighting the wonderful cameo from Doon Mackickhan, as Hilary's old University friend Frances, who believes that performing your gender is the best way to feel valued and is retraining as a burlesque dancer in an effort to ironically deconstruct the male gaze. The results are, predictably, hysterical.


De Angelis writes with touching care, gentle parody and a great deal of humour, seaming brilliantly the intergenerational divide, to create a poignant portrait of both the achievements and disappointments of eighties feminism. This isn't theatre to shatter the world, but rather to remind us all of our touching ridiculousness as we struggle to deal gracefully with change and the passing of time.

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Friday, 14 October 2011

Ian Redford Comes in for a Chat.





Ian Redford joined us for Making Theatre this afternoon full of stories and anecdotes from his long career, in particular working with Max Stafford Clark and Out of Joint. Once again the students were full of questions and the session flew by.

Two things re emerged from last week's session with Dennis. First of all the idea that you needed some kind of special key to enter the theatre profession - (Ian objects to the word industry) - a rich benefactor, an Oxbridge degree, a family member already in situ. Ian, like Dennis, was clear in his belief that theatre maintains a proud tradition of democratic and meritocratic involvement and that whilst theatre makers do require intelligence, it's not necessarily academic intelligence.

The second question was one about self-belief and confidence. Ian had revealed that particularly as a young actor he'd often felt inferior to his colleagues and fellow professionals. This seemed to strike a cord with a number of the year group. Izzy asked him how he'd overcome it. Ian stood in thought for a few seconds, screwing his face up before carefully answering :-

"Imagine you've got a little man on your shoulder who keeps whispering in your ear - 'You're no good, why are you even here? Why don't you just go home.' Now if that were really true wouldn't you try and get rid of him. Wouldn't you eventually just tell him very forcibly to 'fuck off!' ? Well that's what you've got to get good at doing."

After the session Trevor joined us and we went for a cup of tea. Half way through Ian got a text message letting him know that Michael Boyd is going to step down as artistic director of the RSC. Ian had been in line to play Belch in a forthcoming production of Twelfth Night for the company, but then had a call explaining they were taking the play in a different direction. He's curiously waiting to see who has been cast.

'Well, well, well,' he said.

We asked him who he thought would get the job. Scholarly Greg Doran, who missed out last time. Rupert Goold, boy wonder and scourge of the traditionalists. Marianne Elliott, who hasn't had a dud for many moons. Dominic Dromgoole, who's given The Globe a boisterous new lease of life?

Ian shook his head.

'David Farr. It'll keep everybody happy.'

I wonder if he's right.
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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Rural Rites in Midsummer Night's Dream.



We had our second screening in the Early Modern Drama season this evening with Adrian Noble's RSC version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which mixes Jungian symbolism with images from Victorian and Edwardian children's literature to create a visually sumptuous and occasionally surreal child's eye view of the play. It's an urban vision beginning in a town house nursery before opening out into an imaginative forest where solid wooden front doors replace trees and electric light bulbs stand in for stars.

Surprisingly for all the modernising I found the production highlighted Shakespeare's descriptions of a rural England, lost deep inside his memory, where goblins and sprites are real and signs are taken for wonders. Behind the dandified fairy kingdom lies a simpler, less stylistic, truth where the benevolent sun and moon watch over us, keeping time and revealing change.

I don't know of a play that ends so beautifully. With the married couples safely tucked up in bed Puck, Oberon and Titania return with their train 'following darkness like a dream' to bless each corner of the house.

A new adventure is beginning, but we're not invited. As the fairies trip away to do their nocturnal deeds, Puck turns to us and politely begs our forgiveness and his own release. The mysteries of the night do not belong to us.
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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Milton's Tweets.




For over 400 years the Gresham Lectures have been part of the cultural life of the city of London, paid for by an endowment set up in 1597 by Sir Thomas Gresham. Every year over a 100 fascinating free talks on every subject imaginable are delivered by an impressive range of academics. It's a very civilised institution.


Tonight at the Museum of London Alice Beer gave a fascinating insight into the dissidence of two titans of the seventeenth century: Walter Raleigh and John Milton, attended by a cheerful and motley crew of Londoners, mostly on their way home from work.


Beer suggested that whilst Raleigh used his incarceration in the tower (he was there for most of the last fifteen years of his life) to carefully put together his history of the world, subtly using ancient stories from Babylon and Mesopotamia to draw critical parallels with the Jacobean regime; Milton found that the rapidly developing print culture of the mid seventeenth century provided him with the wonderful opportunity to fire off pamphlets with all the regularity of the tweet. A passionate advocate for the Commonwealth. Beer, a round head herself, compared Milton's role, after the overthrow of the monarchy, to that of the social net workers who helped galvanise the clean up operation after this summer's riots.


By the end of his life Milton was a somewhat discredited figure - although pardoned for his earlier tracts he was never reconciled to the restored Stuart family. He died blind, but still writing, dreaming and shaping of a new kind of religious toleration that would sow the seeds for both the glorious revolution of 1688 and in the longer term set in principal some of the philosophical tenants adopted by the nascent Whig party. A fore run of our own form of liberalism.
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Friday, 7 October 2011

Dennis Kelly & Saved.


A very full day. Dennis Kelly came in this afternoon to talk to the Level 1 students about his work. It was a brilliant session full of wisdom, insight and candour. Over the last decade Dennis has, perhaps more than any other writer, been on the money. Osama the Hero - a play in which a vigilante group take revenge on a young man they believe has terrorist sympathies was produced at Hampstead just weeks before the 7/7 bombings in London and more recent work such as Love and Money and Orphans seemed to anticipate our loss of trust both in institutions and accepted moral authority. In many ways Dennis, although he'd probably strenuously deny it, is one of the writers fulfilling theatre's ancient and role: warning of things to come.

We ran class like a platform session at the National. I asked a couple of general things and then turned to the students who brilliantly and hungrily filled the next hour and a half with thoughtful and fascinating questions.

Dennis in turn responded with patience and great humour teasing out each comment and thinking fresh about each point raised.

He suggested that one of the reasons his plays worked was because he was an average guy, who thought average thoughts. He figures if something interests or concerns him, then it's likely to concern a fair few others.

'I'm not a moral person,' he said 'I don't really think I can teach anybody anything. I write good people, who I understand and then I put them into terrible situations and see how they react. I think the definition of a good writer is one who can write characters into impossible situations and then write them out the other side.'

After the lecture I hurried over to the Lyric, Hammersmith to see Sean Holmes' production of Edward Bond's groundbreaking sixties classic Saved. It's the first London revival of the play for 25 years. Drama St Mary's old girl Monsay plays the part of Liz, a small role, with one decent scene, but, having had some time of to have a baby, it's great to see her back on stage. The gal done good.

Steph O'D was also around and it was wonderful to catch up. She's stayed on at the theatre after assisting on Blasted last year and is currently in rehearsals with Filter for the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which comes in in February.

Saved itself is a cracking play and the revival in post-riot London is a timely reminder of the social problems that creating a deficit culture provokes. There have been huge material gains for all of us since the 1960s, but the intellectual emptiness and moral vacuum at the heart of the story rings as true now as it did then. Consumerism has not enriched us and the outcome of allowing a culturally impoverished underclass to evolve, as both Bond and Kelly are quick to remind us, is invariably violent.
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Thursday, 6 October 2011

A Dish of Tea with Doctor Johnson.



Out of Joint brought their successful show A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson to Drama St Mary's tonight. The first play in our Autumn season with our old friend Ian Redford playing the title role.

The show itself is a fairly straight forward adaptation. Johnson is brought to full life through both his own writings and the observations made by his trusted younger companion James Boswell, played by Luke Griffin. Occasionally scenes are punctuated by Johnson's own dictionary definition of ideas and things, but in the main this is a biographical homage to one of the most bullish minds of the 1700s.

As well as playing Boswell Griffin trundles through a host of other supporting roles each one throwing into relief a different shade of Johnson's own personality. Flora MacDonald delights him, George III makes him servile, Goldsmith and Garrick bore him, Joshua Reynolds draws his scorn and Hester Thrale breaks his heart. Whilst these quick shifts do little to allow us to see the inner workings of these eighteenth century celebrities the device does make for good storytelling. I sensed again some of the students could have done with a guidebook to help them understand the historical importance of each of Johnson's encounters.

Ian himself was fairly magnificent finding real moments of charm and vulnerability to punctuate the bluster. I found myself becoming increasingly aware of Johnson's brilliant childishness and petulant refusal to deviate from his own carefully crafted view of the world. Each syllable of his argument drenched in the Lichfield burr, adding a tonal sense of melancholy to a man at the peak of his intellectual power but unsure of his value to posterity. It was a truly touching performance.
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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Robot Minds.



The second in the series of lectures organised by the Philosophy department this evening this time turning attention on ethical issues surrounding the creation of artificial intelligence. It was given by Murray Shanahan who is a Professor for Cognitive Robotics at Imperial College.


Murray's contention is that within the next few decades the technology will have advanced enough for us to accurately create a computer programme that can accurately reproduce the 4 million or so neurons that go up to make a mouse's brain. In effect, we could one by one replace those neurons in the brain with artificial electrical charges, the culminative effect of which would be to create a new brain. If we were to do this would the mouse still be a 'real' mouse?


At what point, as we develop these 'new' brains do we say it's immoral to 'test' or 'destroy' them. If we're capable of introducing the concept, or more realistically the sensation, of suffering or pain into an artificial intelligence then will we still have the right to control or dismantle it?


It seemed appropriate to having this Frankenstein-esque debate in the Waldegrave Drawing room, with Walpole's house, a major aesthetic influence for the early Gothic writers, visible through the window. Darkness fell as we began to contemplate a world where scientists had computer designed an intelligence with enough plasticity in it to be able to grow and learn beyond our control. The romantic imaginations of the eighteenth century are beginning to find a tangible shape.

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