Saturday, 30 April 2011

Change of Direction.

It's a bitty time at work. No sooner have we got a couple of days rehearsal when another bank holiday appears. It's lovely to have so many days off, but with the show fast approaching it's breaking the momentum a little.

The Level 3 students were supposed to fly out to Lilongwe on Friday night, but their plane's been delayed and so they stuck in a hotel in Heathrow. Meanwhile already in Malawi Paul phoned to say that his Dad's been taken seriously ill and he'll need to come back to the UK. An hour of frantic phoning and emails later and the only course of action seemed to be for me to fly out on Monday to cover for him, until Matt, who's currently recruiting in South Africa can get there next Friday.

The knock on is considerable, especially in terms of The Canterbury Tales, but I've entrusted Joe, whose been co-ordinating the band, Emma, who directed a really sound production of Shakers earlier in the term and Katie, who co-jokered the crime prevention play in February to look after things until I'm back. I'm absolutely confident in their ability to keep things rolling.

In many ways a mini-crisis like this offers students a fantastic opportunity to step up the plate and prove their maturity. It's always difficult to direct, and be directed by, your peers - but on this occasion there's no alternative. It's not a gig we can postpone.

In late afternoon I headed into college for the Student Union SIMMstock festival, which was in full flow and caught up with a lot of the cast, who were perfoming bits of the A-political cabaret in-between sets. There was some concern about next week, but in the main I think they're supportive and seem prepared to work together to move the show on.


Monday, 25 April 2011

The Word is God.

To The Globe with Eleanor where a company of brave actors have been performing the St James bible since Palm Sunday. By today they'd got as far as the gospels and so Easter morning was spent, in bright sunshine, sitting listening to Matthew and Mark. The four performers dressed and relaxed in their own casual dress, took it in relay turn to deliver ten minute chunks, the words being fed into their ears from handheld ipods, which made them appear incredibly devout, if not a little possessed.

It was a wonderful simple display. For four hours, an attentive crowd of about 100 just sat and heard these familiar stories. The sun gently rose and catching the brim of the theatre's thatched roof created a slither of light that moved almost imperceptibly from stage right to stage left, illuminating the thrust crucifix catwalk just at the moment when Matthew recounts Christ's death.

Perhaps it's because of Corpus Christi and The Canterbury Tales, but there seems to be a revival in sacred drama at present. Later in the summer The Globe will stage their own mystery cycle reworked by Tony Harrison and over this weekend The National Theatre of Wales celebrated their first anniversary with a 72 hour passion played out in the streets and docks of Port Talbot, with Michael Sheen staying in role as Christ for the duration.

These works are not agnostic in any way, but rather try to connect the drama to its earliest roots in liturgy, poetry and worship. In their focus on participation they also recognise that far from being a voyeuristic, bourgeois pastime, theatre has its origins in community engagement and endeavour.


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Golden Ham.

It's been another glorious extended weekend. The first of two back to back bank holidays. Some of the students have been working hard at the community Easter events at Ham house. The marking is in and it's now just the productions to get through before the end of another academic year.

We went out for a walk in the Ham lands in the early evening light. It was exquistely beautiful, the river turned to gold, sparkling and dancing. The sky cloudless and as unnaturally blue as a 70s polaroid. Although I've lived here for nearly two years now I've never quite got my barings in the paths and tracks between the estate and the Thames; the curve in the river making it almost impossible to judge the way.

The lands are alive with wildlife: foxes, parakeets and herons. In a previously unexplored section we found a badger's set amongst the dried reeds.

It's almost impossible to believe you're anywhere near London as you wander through the deserted woodland, with only the gentle sound of the river lapping against the bank to guide you.


Thursday, 21 April 2011

Hackney Central.

With Level 3 students Kadeem, Steph and Danny to The John Howard centre in Hackney and a chance to have a look around the Millfields Unit, a medium secure personality disorder unit. Steph in particular is keen to use the drama skills she's developed over the past three years to work in help those with mental health problems.

We were met by Dr Celia Taylor, who explained the aims of the unit and then took us on a brief tour. All of the twenty men who live in the unit are serving lengthy prison terms and most will spend two or three years in Millfields, before returning to complete their sentences. The criteria for selection is mostly based on the willingness of the individual to engage in the therapy offered.

Each morning both staff and inmates meet to plan the day ahead. This is followed by smaller group meetings where any potential problems, disputes or tensions can be addressed.

B has been in the unit for just three weeks. He transferred from a prison on the Isle of Wight and was struggling with the freedom (patients have access to a TV room, kitchen, a lounge, a gym and library.) We sat with him as he watched a heavy metal DVD with the volume turned up to a maximum level.

'It's hard,' he told us 'in prison I was locked up for 22 hours a day. I had an hour to do my job, which was emptying the bins, and then an hour of exercise. It's very frightening to have to make decisions. If I could I'd be locked up for 24 hours a day.'

'You haven't made it to the small group sessions yet have you?' asked Celia gently. 'I think that's the next thing to aim for. Maybe when you've had a little more time to settle.'

Next up was K, who showed us his room - a shrine to Elvis and God.

'I'm not sure who I believe in,' he said 'maybe they're the same person! Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to see if B wants to play a video game with me.I think he's finding it tough here.

Celia was keen that we develop some links with the centre. She talked about the importance of getting the balance right between stimulating activities and non stimulating environments. The Comedy School already deliver some programmes with the centre and it's hoped we might contribute placements in the future. Can Drama help these men prepare for safe rehabilitation and independence?

As we were leaving we watched a H, accompanied by a nurse, go off to buy a paper. He was very anxious about the temporary discharge, the first real freedom he'd had for many years, but had agreed to try and stay out for at least fifteen minutes. Fists clenched, jaw set, he crossed the road and headed purposefully for the newsagent. The first steps of a very long journey.


Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Miller's Tale.

Now that students are on study leave we've got some time to dedicate to The Canterbury Tales. We had a full day working on The Miller's Tale - one of three which we're building the main show around. Up to now rehearsals have focused on the whole company as we're been developing the skills needed to support each other in the storytelling and large outdoor venues, but now, with just about a month to go, it's time to hone in a little more on the content of the stories themselves.

The medieval world is fascinating and the more time we spend with the tales, the more you realise how sophisticated the 'dark ages' actually are. Of course everybody loves Chaucer's bawdy and a poker up the arse is as much fun for an audience now as it must have been to those who originally gathered to hear the stories told; but Chaucer's world also reveals great humanity and humour.

The Wife of Bath's Tale, which we'll tackle tomorrow, has a beautiful proto-feminist moral with the Knight realising that what women want is sovereignty over their affairs. He is offered a choice by an old crone. He can either marry her as old, but faithful or she will change herself into a beautiful woman but will not promise him fidelity. He reverses the choice and is rewarded when she decided to be both beautiful and faithful. Have faith in your love, the story suggests, they will do right by you.

The Miler's story, though, includes some delicious black humour, made in the face of plague, disease and a life expectancy of less than forty. The carpenter at the centre, bemoans the fickle nature of death and tells the story of an astrology, who swore that the night stars could reveal the future, but in the darkness fell into a ditch and broke his neck. He didn't foresee that!


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Poetry at The National.

A strangely disconnected evening of poetry at the National this evening in celebration of the romantic spirit of Keats, Shelley and Byron all introduced by novelist Josephine Hart, who's been encouraging famous actors to perform poetry in monthly readings at The British Library.

I find something uneasy about trying to contextualise the romantic voice. The academic surety of the evening seemed to both control and condemn. Do their childhoods matter? Their early deaths? Their relationships and travels? Do we need to spruce them up? Explain or trim their frayed edges? Better to leave the words loose, unfettered and roaming. Life is such and lines as lonely as

Then on the shore

Of the wide world, I stand alone and think

Til love and fame to nothingness do sink.

from When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be seem to defy a reason for their own creation. Of course we can align biography or spot the craftsmanship, but ultimately we can only experience a meaning by holding Keats hand and submitting to the solitary role he describes. Hart was clear that the epitaph on his Roman tomb 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water,' was patently untrue. For all her attempts to bottle him, I'm not so sure.

Neither Shelley nor Byron fared much better - their wild restlessness seemingly out of place in the coiffured environment of the Olivier stalls. The Mask of Anarchy was given a clear historical rationale, but this served to tuck the sentiments up rather than allow them to echo across the centuries.

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number-

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you -

Ye are many - they are few.

The verses were beautifully read by Damian Lewis, Harriet Walter and Dan Stevens, but it was only really as the evening drew to a close that anything really hit home. Perhaps by then I'd tuned out of the commentary and just let Byron in full flowing defiance have the floor, leaving the composed prose of the critics trailing in his wake.

For the sword outwears its sheath

And the soul wears out the breast

And the heart must pause to breathe

And love itself have rest.


Friday, 15 April 2011


Spent the day in Oakham making plans with Chris for The Way the Winds Blow. A huge community festival that he's producing on Rutland water in June. Drama St Mary's is heavily involved in the project. Tina is designing, Stuart, who's in his final year, is part of the construction team and Level 2 Karen is going to Stage Manage.

I've only ever zoomed through Rutland before on the A1 - but had the morning to explore the town. It really is little England in little England. A tiny, proud place standing as firm as Asterix's village against the encroaching demands of multi cultural Leicestershire. There are no MacDonald's here, but family butchers, no wine bars but specialist breweries and more pubs per street than anywhere I can think of.

I started off in All Saint's church whose spire dominates the area. Inside on the capitals topping the ancient columns are intricately carved reliefs depicting a surprised looking Adam and Eve, Reynard the fox and a glorious green man. Next stop was the museum, where I met local curator Rob Clayton, who showed me the town gallows, which were set up opposite the school. Apparently in the 1810s the headmaster, Dr Doncastor, would stop lessons to, in the interests of moral instruction, make the boys go and watch the executions. A preventative measure if ever there was one.

Finally I made my way to the castle to see the fine collection of horseshoes, which have become the symbol for the county. The first time a member of the Royal family sets foot in Rutland they're obliged to present a horseshoe - this tradition has been active since 1470, when the Yorkist King Edward IV scattered the Lancastrian army at Empingham, five miles East. The gift was a form of thanks for the victory and, although eclipsed by an ostentatious black plumed offering from Prince Albert, can still be seen, pride of place on the wall of the great hall. Rutland horseshoes are hung pointing downwards, contrary to other talismanic traditions, where good luck is kept nestling in the curve of the shoe. All Rutlanders know, however, that this encourages the devil and the only way to keep him out is by turning the it round to hang the other way.

After lunch we headed to Egleton and the bird watching sanctuary. Rutland is slowly reestablishing an Osprey population, the first in England for nearly 150 years. The project has been going for seventeen years and is beginning to yield results as second and third generation birds return from migration to breed and feed on the water.

Chris explained that the remarkable journey the birds make every year is going to form one strand of the work. Every Autumn they fly to Senegal via Spain to spend the Winter in Africa, before returning in March.

We travelled onto Normanton and the actual festival site, which is next to the iconic church, whose upper portion was saved from the waves. When the Gwash valley was dammed in 1975 to create the lake many local people protested about the monumental change to the landscape - including the drowning of two medieval villages. Thirty five years on and, although some nostalgia for the valley remains, the place has become a much loved centre for leisure and relaxation. We're going to try and tell a little of this story as well.

I can't wait to start work.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Ham Pilgrims.

The Canterbury Tales company spent the afternoon in Ham House finalising our plans for our show on May 21st. They put together a presentation for Gary and customer services manager Gabe, and went through in some detail the running of the day.

It's a highly ambitious event. We'll begin at 11am with some performances by local school children on Ham village green before heading off on a pilgrimage to perform at hourly intervals The Friar's Tale at The Royal Oak, The Reeve's Tale at The Brewery Tap, The Merchant's Tale at The Hand and Flower and The Nun's Priest's Tale at The New Inn. From there we'll head down the avenue to arrive at the back gates of the house and begin the show itself in The Wilderness at 5.30pm.

There are some problems with logistics. We're hoping to have a large audience and at present we don't have enough stewards. Catering is also an issue. Gary wants to bring in a hog roast, which we think is a great idea, but do we stop the show to enable the audience to buy or only open afterwards?

In the main though things are on track. We walked the show, ending up in the cherry garden for the final benediction - a chance for us to sing outdoors for the first time - a bit of a release that for all the obstacles still to overcome offered a glimpse of the potential beauty of the work. It could be very special day.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

From Bars to Success.

The Prison Theatre module came to a close this evening with a sharing of work in Studio 3. The Applied Theatre Level 3 students performed workshop sketches, improvisation routines and snatches of verbatim text to an invited audience of potential employers and members of the prison reform trust. The focus of the work was on the difficulties many former inmates have in finding employment after release.

The module itself has been very successful. The students have met ex-offenders, criminologists, been to see the work of Pimlico Opera in HMP Send and met the artistic director, next week a handful of them are going to spend the afternoon working with some patients in a secure unit.

My only question about it is whether it should be a Level 3 module? In that the work is often being delivered to adults who have never been to a theatre or attended drama classes it takes us back to the beginning of the course and some of the Schools based work we look at at Level 1. Of course there are differences between preparing a workshop for a Secondary School and for a remand home, but essentially we've come full circle. Much of this is to do with the spiral nature of the Drama curriculum and the idea that actually once you're confident about using the approaches and techniques of a workshop leader the creative skill is in adapting these to circumstances and help develop or release the actors you're working with.

There is a frisson attached to working in a prison, with people we perceive to be a 'threat,' but in reality the real skill of drama practitioners is simply to offer a brighter alternative to the cycles of crime, violence or dependency that many people find themselves victims of. It's Drama magic question 'what if?' which helps us all to imagine a different way of living. The Prison Theatre module explores with some rigour what this might mean in reality and offers our undergraduates the chance to really discover what it means to effectively support rehabilitation.


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Bike Paths.

One of the great benefits of working at St Mary's is that we're in the most beautiful part of Greater London. Waterloo is barely half an hour's train ride away, and yet we're surrounded by wonderful parks and the river which as Peter Ackroyd so accurately describes is liquid history.

This weekend the sun shone and the banks of the Thames were filled with dog walkers, strollers, and picnickers. On Saturday we took our bikes up to Waterloo and then cycled five miles east, out through the old wharves, past Tower Bridge and on to Rotherhite, Surrey Docks and Deptford. Everywhere new homes have been built, gleaming glass centric flats jostling with reconfigured warehouses and stores. All looking out across the sparkling glutenous river to the solid impenetrable capitalist fortress of canary wharf.

There are lots of hidden treasures on this part of the river. Edward III's manor house, Brunel's first tunnel, The Mayflower pub, the ancient entry gates to the long defunct dockyards at Deptford - all before the baroque glories of Greenwich.

Sunday we went the other way and spent the afternoon heading towards Windsor. It's a great ride out through Kingston, round Hampton Court, through Hurst Park on on to Walton, Staines and Runnymede. Again the towpath was crowded, but the cycle paths are clearly marked and we made good progress, stopping for late lunch by Chertsy Bridge.

The final ride into Windsor is made difficult by the Crown Estates keeping so much of the land bordering the river private, which means having to drag your bike up a load of steep steps to cross into Datchett and then share a single file path with the Thames Pathers in slow formation for about a mile. Still the arrival at the foot of the castle is a huge reward. We had an ice cream, pottered about looking at royal wedding tat, took in a brief sweep of Eton, before catching the train back to Richmond. Sunburnt and happy.


Friday, 8 April 2011

Cheap and Cheerful?

The Principal was on Newsnight yesterday evening explaining the £8,000 tuition fees that are coming in from 2012, along with rent-a- historian David Starkey and Universities Minister David Willets. It comes at the end of a day in which Vince Cable has claimed that most University positions are 'economically irrational.'

The banter was fun. Starkey calling for 'cheap and cheerful' University courses at a lower fee than those charged at more prestigious institutions. The Principal arguing that a graduate degree is a graduate degree and predicting bullishly that the distinctiveness of St Mary's offer will ensure that we continue to attract students. Willets claiming that access is the key, and threateningly reminding us that alternative providers are chomping at the bit to undercut any institution not able to prove that they're capable of delivering value for money.

He has to posture a bit, without some form of disincentive it's inevitable now that all Universities will set their fees high, potentially leaving the government with a shortfall close to a billion pounds.

I talked a little to the Level 2 students about the approaching storm. Most of them seemed to feel that as long as places were capped the rise would make little difference to the number of students St Mary's will be able to attract. HE has changed so radically in the last twenty years from when I was awarded a grant to take my place and in some ways the widening of access has provided many young people with an experience that their parents never dreamed of. The most devastating effect, however, has been the consumerisation of the academy - which far from raising standards has actually meant that some students feel free to miss lessons, choose what, when and how to study and still have a high expectation of a good degree. In addition the fees system has meant that many undergraduates feel the pressure to earn and therefore prioritise part time work over academic study, creating a kind of half way house between the worlds of education and retail.

I know it's a pipe dream now, but the grants were more than just an economic incentive to help students stick at their studies, they actually honoured the work carried out in the institution through a form of minimum wage. I'm certain that attendance, punctuality and productivity are all improved in situations where the provider supports the students in this way. If we're serious about a highly trained or educated workforce we've got to find ways to avoid the idea that students are consumer clients.



Wednesday, 6 April 2011


To the Royal Court to see Simon Stephen's new work Wastwater, directed by Katie Mitchell. The first time these two have collaborated.

Stephens is one of my favourite contemporary playwrights. He seems to be able to both hear and capture the rhythm and discordance of dialogue more than any one else working in the British theatre. On the Shore of the Wide World was probably the most poignant play written in the naughties and since then Motortown, Pornography and Punk Rock, whilst not quite achieving the same verve have all helped establish him as a serious and articulate chronicler of our times.

In Wastwater, he returns to an exploration of pattern and form. Set in three Ballard-esque lost landscapes on the parameters of Heathrow airport the play is conceived as a triptych with thin threads of experience and shared history linking the characters.

In the first section Frieda, a foster mother played exquisitely by Linda Bassett, living in a run down farm house on ground marked for a third runway, tries to find the right words to say to Harry, her awkward foster son, as he prepares to leave for a new life in Canada. In the second Mark, a nervous art teacher, prepares to start an affair with a married masochistic police woman, working in child protection, in a faceless hotel. The final scene is set in a deserted warehouse, where a middle aged former teacher waits uneasily for the arrival of an illegally adopted Filipino child and is verbally tortured by Sian, a trafficking agent, who, it turns out, spent her teenage years with Frieda.

Mitchell directs each part with wonderful precision, helping to create the nervous uncertain tension of six characters each waiting for take off, unsure of where the decisions they're making will lead them. The piece is brilliantly balanced and sympathies shift second to second as the scenes unravel to reveal a world of desperate need, where the lines between care and abuse, protagonist and antagonist are constantly and often unexpectedly redrawn.

If there is a criticism it's that the play never quite takes narrative flight, but this is more a study than a drama in the traditional sense. A moving provocation recognising how easy it is to be stuck in a departure lounge waiting for something more exotic to tempt our fancy.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Compton Verney

A glorious day in the Warwickshire countryside and a trip to Compton Verney just East of Stratford upon Avon.

The old Elizabethan mansion house has been converted into a light and airy art centre, with breakout education rooms, a cafe and gift shop and a permanent collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century Neapolitan paintings. Vesuvius always smoking in the background waiting to blow. More diverting was a tidy exhibition showing comparing the work of Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis.

Wallis is a fascinating figure. A Cornish mariner born in the 1850s who retired to St Ives and took up painting in his sixties. Most of his work was painted on driftwood, cereal packets or whatever he could get his hands on. Nicholson discovered his work and befriended him on a motoring holiday in 1928 and his patronage shot Wallis from obscurity to international fame.

The work is charming, naive, all sense of perspective condensed, reduced or ignored. Wallis nearly always looks out from shore to sea and to me the pictures are full of longing, the impatience and frustration of a sailor who shall no more to sea. At first glance they look childish, but there is an incredible instinctive and assured understanding of space, form and stroke play. Often the card is left untreated to enable browns to come through and create moody tones. A sea that's alluring, but never compliant.

Nicholson, at the outset of his adventure to cultivate a colony of artists at the end of the country had found a doyen.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The Transparent Museum.

Spent the afternoon in Oxford and much of it in the refurbished Ashmolean, kitted out in bright fluorescence and well appointed signage. The Museum claims to be the oldest in the world and for me has a special significance for holding the Alfred Jewel, a beautiful tear shaped brooch with an enamelled figure at its centre, encircled by a dragon or serpent carrying the inscription AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (Alfred Made me.)

When I was a child the jewel sat concealed in a room of it's own, dark mahogany panels, thick green carpets, heavy purple curtains. It was hidden in a light box and only one person at a time could mount the single step and peer in to see it. It's exclusivity enhanced both its mystery and aura. As an Oxfordshire boy I felt a strange connection. Here was an ancient ornament commissioned by an Oxfordshire King - Alfred was born in Wantage - given a privileged position in the collection. For me a wonderful secret, the unauthorised heart of a magical city. A continuum, a true symbol for the place of my birth. The scholars come and go, the colleges maintain their traditions, but the jewel seemed older, wiser and certainly more mysterious than the University itself.

Now, sadly perhaps, the jewel has been released from its cell and is suspended in a glass box enabling all the visitors to see the elaborate engravings and layerings on both sides. It shares a Medieval gallery with other objects dating from the retreat of the Romans to the defeat of the Armada. Alongside is a quick explanation of it history and a couple of theories as to its purpose. It's accessible, democratic and, to be frank, rather ordinary.

Our educational culture prioritises brightness and clarity over mystery and gloom, but I wonder sometimes if our interactive museums and classrooms don't take some of the joy away from discovery. There's something rewarding about struggling to understand a thing. To have to make some effort to look closely or to be initiated into a new way of thinking. It's the drama at the heart of an educational process. The staging that leads a novice towards encountering something quite unimagined. The transparent museum offers its glories in an enlightened spirit of great generosity, but does the experience value the learner with a sense of achievement or offer an opportunity for genuine revelation?

The jewel still draws me like a magnet and the Ashmolean is a wonderful place for an afternoon mooch about but perhaps rather than assuming it's important for our understanding to bring the past into the present a museum should sometimes be encouraged to reverse the process and retreat into the ambiguous obfuscation of the past. There is much to wonder at back there.


Friday, 1 April 2011

SIMMathon and AV Voting.

Today was election day at St Mary's which is always a fantastic occasion. From early in the morning the candidates were out rounding up their support and encouraging their peers to vote. Meanwhile 104 intrepid runners drawn from the many diverse communities that go to make up the University took to the track to complete the SIMMathon in just over three and a half hours. The Level 2 Applied theatre students organised the event expertly and kept the relay running smoothly. Every candidate standing took their turn and the Athletics club kindly hung around in reserve in case anybody missed their time slot. When they were called on they keenly competed to get round the 400 metres in under a minute.

There were some great costumes - the learning resource staff came as books, human resources customised their own uniforms, Theatre Arts students dressed as costume rails and rolled the lap in their pyjamas and three of the Physical Theatre came as a donkey. Level 2 Dan even tried to get round blindfolded - which held things up a little, but was hysterical to watch. The team who'd organised the event did the final lap together in their fluorescent stewards jackets - a great celebration of a uniquely unifying event.

Almost as soon as it was over the polls closed and the long counting process began. The turnout was impressive with over 300 more voting this year than last, an early sign perhaps of a renaissance in student politics on campus. The major players still seem to be Drama and Sport, but any increase is welcome and gives the elected executive a powerful mandate to truely represent the student body.

We've been using the Alternative Vote for these elections for a while now and as usual it produced a different outcome to the election than a first past the post system, with Sam Grayson, third after the first round of voting for the Athletics Union President slowly gaining momentum to pip early front runner Aaron Huie in the fourth. The SU president next year will be Johnny Miller, whose served as AU President this year. With the Drama vote split between three candidates he was out in front from the off and safely carried a majority by the third round of voting. Congratulations to both of them.