Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Gods at The Globe.

To The Globe for an afternoon as a groundling, catching two shows. First up was a fun filled, rumbustious Tony Harrison version of The Mysteries, full of theatrical tricks and lively invention. The always impressive David Hargreaves played God - blunt, plain talking and often impatient. His only solace against the misdemeanors of mankind a cup of strongly brewed Yorkshire tea and the chance to put his feet up in the shabby armchair from where he oversaw creation.

There are some stunning set pieces. The Massacre of the Innocents full of genocidal horror, the 2nd Shepherds Play finely tuning broad farce with the poignant announcement of the nativity and the casual conversation of the workmen nailing Christ to the cross, whilst deciding how to wager for his cloak, all served as excellent reminders of the way in which the Medieval writers skillfully implicated their audience into shows of awe and wonder. Here the word is truly made flesh and we are held responsible. This is not voyeuristic theatre. We're present and forced into decisions at every turn.

Back in the evening to see a new comedy The God of Soho by the Scottish dramatist Christopher Hannan. Feisty and hectic it felt a bold choice for the venue and to begin with the audience struggled to get a grip on the broad humour and slightly surreal version of heaven and hell presented before them. Essentially the play is centred around three love affairs God -played this time by Parklife legend Phil Daniels - and Mrs God are slowly losing it, but keep a fond banter going meanwhile their daughter the Goddess of Love spurned by a New God comes down to Essex to see if she can regain her magic. Here she ends up watching the tender but self destructive relationship between celebrity it-girl Natty and her musician boyfriend Baz who in turn are struggling to find the formula to become nobodies that might enable them to put their own egos aside and be blissfully happy together.

In reality it's all too much for two and a half hours - but there's some great lines, beautiful moments and in the end a powerful, if self evident, truth about the nature of love is laid bare. I'm not sure you need much else from a day at the theatre.


Sunday, 28 August 2011

Melody and Sound.

A reunion of the Rutland company over at Tina's to reflect on the show and tentatively think ahead to some future projects. It was lovely to catch up with everybody and have a chance to feedback on the work. It was a very interesting discussion. For all the positive experiences and outcomes generated during our time in the Midlands there was much to sift through and learn from.

Chris felt that in someways we'd failed to understand the space. In the pre-planning we'd assumed the water itself would be the main stage with the slope of the shoreline providing a natural rake to spectate from. In the event the huge tents placed at right angles to resevoir gave too clear a suggestion to the audience that the event was to be situated there. It was an uncomfortable surprise for many to have to angle themselves round to see the show on the water.

Anami talked about the dangers of site specific work where the landscape - including the architectue imposed by the show - can end up devouring the very meaning of the space. The tents were beautiful, but their size and elegence in many ways drew attention away from the live performances and, arguably, the wonderful mechanical structures that were created to tell the story.

Kate R. suggested we were in an uncomfortable half way house somewhere between a theatre piece and a festival event. In so many ways the logisitics concerned with safely producing an event of this scale dictated artistic decisions. With more time and greater understanding could the event have shaped itself around the theatre rather than the other way round?

There was much talk about the true value of the work. There is alway a tension between the aesthetic purity of theatre art and inclusive participation. It's often crudely polarised as amateur v professional - but the truth is more complicated. Community work only really happens once we start to see the act of enabling others as an art in itself. The question on this project was did the community have enough to do? As artists, we carried every decision of significance, but does that matter? Is being part of it enough?

Nick explained that for him the process of composing a show for the community had forced him to focus on melody. In effect he was trying to create a folk experience, where the score, although completely original and specific to the piece, felt familiar and belonged to Rutland. He suggested the more his focus shifted onto a populist and accesible approach the less concerned he became about the precision of sound. Perhaps this is a clever metaphor for the tension inherent in Applied Theatre practice? Chris suggested this was all a part of the pleasure principle. For an audience to have a good time they have to recognise something familiar to grasp or relate too. The role of art is then to lead them somewhere they had know idea that they wanted to go.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Chasing Shadows.

Off to Camden with Carolina to see Chasing Shadows at the People's Theatre. The show, playing as part of the fringe festival, been put together by former Drama St Mary's student Nyasha under her new company Tilt The Table and featured five of our current undergraduates. It's great to see students taking the initiative and finding ways to publicly expose their work beyond the safety of the campus.

The dance based piece told the true story of Carolina and Ny's friend Ed, a South African musician who has Tourettes. The piece looked at his relationship with his Dad, his teachers and his music, ending happily when he meets Emma on a tube train and is invited to join her band. It's a simple and tender story on overcoming adversity, with some imaginative choreography.

At present it runs at forty minutes and although we get a great sense of Ed's biography and spirit of independence I wanted to know more about Emma, played with great humanity by Beth Rudkin, who only arrives for the briefest moments to save the day at the end of the play. If Ny can find away to intertwine her history into the plot she may well find some further moments of hope and beauty that will counterpoint Ed's story of struggle and humiliation.

I hope they'll find the time to develop it further. It's a solid prototype that needs texture and a few twists.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Drama and Maths.

Beginning to look forward to the new semester now. Things have changed quite a lot at University over the summer. Both Paul and Sue have left the department and Michelle is on sabbatical until Christmas, which means a reorganisation of teaching and responsibilities. As part of the reshuffled I'm teaching Early Modern Drama for the first time at Level 2, which I can't wait to get stuck into. I'm also picking up London Theatre Now, an induction module for Level 1 and overseeing Making Theatre, which I hope will give students a chance to look in depth at the different approaches current practitioners have to the act of creation.

I'm retaining the second semester community project and am hopeful that Ham House will once again host the event. I've got a couple of ideas already, but most of this work is developed in consultation with the students, so at this point I'm just scribbling on the back of an envelope.

One idea is to create a journey based roughly on Lewis Carroll's Alice stories that would lead the audience through a series of encounters in the Ham lands to a finale at the house itself. We could either adapt Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass or create our own adventure, filled with new characters and problems. I'm wondering whether we couldn't link in with some local schools and use the drama to help explore the Maths curriculum. Could we create a scene that teachers the principles of probability, algebra, geometry, trigonometry etc? Or perhaps find a way to personify time and space, enabling a very human introduction into the world of physics?

My own understanding of both disciplines is remedial to say the least. I always struggled at school with the abstract and conceptual notion of pure ideas. I desperately needed to understand exactly how the work I was doing could affect me or those around me. It was too big to be necessary. Now I'm much older I find the patterning of maths and the sheer imaginative leaps that physics calls for fascinating. I wonder whether a cleverly devised show couldn't entice younger children into a more curious approach?

To help get the ball rolling I've been reading a brilliant book Alex's Adventures in Numberland by the journalist Alex Bellos. It's a systematic explanation both of the history of mathematical thought and of the applied uses that even the most speculative number games can offer. It's certainly food for thought.


Monday, 15 August 2011


Summer is moving fast and it's only a couple of weeks until we'll be back in University full time, making sure everything is in place for the arrival of the new students in mid-September. After the excitement and jet lag of Malawi, Hong Kong and Rutland I've been using the time to read and plan for the new semester, punctuating time at the desk with a few more localised jaunts.

August isn't a great month for theatre in London. The new stuff all premieres in Edinburgh and the established shows maximise their profits by charging top prices for the tourists who are persuaded that a trip to London isn't complete until you've forked out £60 to see Phantom of the Opera. It's a good time to take a break from the capital.

This weekend I headed west to Wiltshire and had a lovely couple of days mooching about Calne, Bath, Bradford upon Avon and today, again making use of the National Trust pass, down to Stourhead on the Dorset border.

Before he came to Ham House, Gary was property manager here, and has written the definitive guide to the house and its incredible landscaped gardens. He's been encouraging me to make a visit for a long while.

I wasn't disappointed. Inspired by the Italianate utopias of Poussin's paintings the land rolls over hills and bridges, weaving a path between lake shore and dense woodland. At every turn temples and towers framed from grottoes and glades. It's all rather breathtaking. A longer walk around the parameters of the estate offers a less delicacy, but wonderful views from the folly of Alfred's Tower and a gorgeous walk through Six Wells Valley to the medieval St Peter's Pump moved here from Bristol to mark the source of the Stour.

It began raining so I headed back, taking in a quick detour to East Knoyle, where Christopher Wren's father was rector at St Mary's church and where the architect was born in 1632. The family were staunch Royalists and Christopher Wren senior fell foul to the roundheads who not only removed him from his position during the Commonwealth, but also destroyed the ornate alabaster reliefs depicting old testament stories that he'd crafted in the knave. He died before the restoration and never lived to see St Paul's Cathedral built. A v-sign to puritanism if ever there was one!


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

To Napier's Yard.

Things seem to slowly be coming under control, which meant that despite a cancelled dress yesterday tonight's show could go ahead. A couple of the cast dropped out, preferring to stay in rather than venture out onto the streets, but most of the company gathered early to try and cram in some last minute rehearsal before the audience arrived at 7.30pm.

Lines were reallocated, a couple of work experience students were swiftly kitted out in stove pipe hats, waistcoats and given half an hour to learn a couple of verses, but the overall feeling was one of fun and defiance.

The cast set themselves at strategic points along the Thames path. A couple of lads in hoodies on push bikes cycled up and down before finally finding the courage to ask what was going on. I guess in the age of flash mob the line between civil disturbance and street theatre has narrowed significantly. They seemed happy enough with the idea of a play and decided to hang on to watch.

There was a decent turn out and Claire launched us off at the gates of The Space conjuring an image of the ship towering above the rooftops, blocking out the evening sun as it rose from the dock across the way. Rav picked up the story describing how the West Ferry Road would have looked back then, before leading us on to Donna and Charles and Rada. Each member of the cast adding a little more of the story as we inched closer to the old yard.

Using side streets and back passages the cast overtook the audience so that when David and Pete guided us round the corner, the whole team were revealed frenetically working in the space. It was a wonderful sight.

The Leviathan project has been great fun to be around. I wonder if it might be a the basis for a larger piece of work.


Monday, 8 August 2011


Back in London and things have kicked off over the weekend. A stand off in Tottenham turned into a mini riot, which spread last night to Enfield and Hackney and by this evening several pockets of London seemed to have been taken over by looters.

It made it hard to get to Leviathan rehearsals we had to gingerly pick a route through South London to Tower Bridge - with news coming through all the time of problems in Croydon, Lewisham, Peckham and Clapham. All seemed quiet on the Isle of Dogs, but a few of the company arrived feeling worried and gloomy about the night ahead.

It's a strange situation feeling that London is on the edge of rebellion and unable to prevent the spread of violence and theft as it moves like a wildfire across the city. Something unreal about it happening on the doorstep.

Adam worked the company hard tonight - to finish putting the show down, ready for tomorrow night's dress rehearsal and to begin with all seemed to be going well. Unfortunately about an hour in Teresa got a call on her mobile to say that rioters were gathering on the corner of her road just a couple of miles north from us in Bow. She made her apologies and went home to protect her house.

Although we carried on, the mood had changed. Most of the company wanted to stay and work but there was a creeping feeling that things were going on beyond the rehearsal room that we'd all do well to be aware of. We finished at 10pm and drove back to Ham, via a number of diversions, sirens wailing all around. Adam will make a decision in the morning as to whether in the current chaos the project can go ahead.


Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Tennyson Trail.

A full day to enjoy and with the weather set fair we decided to take the Tennyson Trail which takes a high path from Carisbrooke, in the dead centre of the island, to the westerly most point at Alum Bay. The trail is named after the famous poet, one of the many eminent Victorians who gravitated here after Royal family had set up home. Their patronage revolutionised the island in the second half of the nineteenth century changing its status from agricultural backwater to holiday destination for the rich and famous.

We followed a footpath up onto a chalk ridge overlooking the ancient castle, where Charles I was imprisoned, and headed off with the Medina river and Cowes clearly visible in the distance to our right. After a couple of miles the path descended into the glories of Brighstone forest - dappled light, inviting trails and footpaths, mature trees and wild flowers. After barely an hour the path rose again and we emerged on the South side with a full view of the long stretch of coast leading from Chale right along to Freshwater visible, a bridleway took us to Mottistone Down, from where the whole island can be seen. Remarkably we barely passed a soul.

With time and weather on our side we decided to use our National Trust passes and detour to Mottistone Manor with its magical Elizabethan garden a mile or so off our track. The house itself is still in private residence, but it was wonderful to be here in the height of summer with the bees buzzing around the scented flower beds and the warm breezes blowing gently in from the channel.

Off again for the next stint over Brook Down to reach Freshwater Bay - home both of Tennyson and the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, whose home Dimbola Lodge, has recently been rescued and turned into a museum dedicated to the early days of picture taking.

The land narrowed now, giving us the false sense that our journey was near completion, but a steep climb up to the monument of Tennyson Down revealed our destination as a couple of miles further on.

With aching feet and the light beginning to fail we set out on the final leg to the Needles Battery and the coloured sands of the collapsing cliffs. Downhill with blisters to the car in Totland, giving us plenty of time of make our way back to the ferry and home.


Saturday, 6 August 2011

Osborne House.

A chance for a weekend away and so we caught the early morning ferry from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight for a cheap and cheerful get away and a long planned visit to Osborne House, Queen Victoria's favourite home high on a hill in East Cowes.

Soon after they married Victoria and Albert bought the house as a place to where they could retreat from the stresses and strains of courtly life. Albert, defying his Gothic credentials worked with the design Thomas Cubitt to create and Italianate palace - apparently the view across the Solent reminded him of the bay of Naples.

It's a really moving place, small in scale, reflecting the couple's desire to attempt some sort of domestic normality. Their private rooms have been left as they were including the joint study where they worked together on a daily basis. Victoria's desk, filled with keepsakes and ephemera, raised slightly higher than her husbands tidy and functional surface.

Albert was clearly a remarkable man, an internationalist, with clear views on how young Royals should be brought up. The Swiss chalet, allotment plots, museum of curios and play fort, half a mile from the main house bare testimony to his progressive views on holistic education and his long term plan to engineer marriages between the Princes and Princesses from the great dynasties of Europe was driven by a desire to ensure peace across the continent. With the hindsight of two world wars we can see how tragically it backfired, of course, but one can only wonder whether, had he lived, Albert's benign influence, and assertive search for the best of the world, might have slowed the insular armament of the nineteenth century superpowers.

When Victoria died in the house, bringing to an end the nineteenth century, her son, the new Edward VII, sealed the bedroom for fifty years, to create a shrine, only visited by the immediate family. The house itself was given back to the nation and now stands as a physical representation of a way of life and thought that spread from the two linked desks outwards ever outwards to help create the largest empire the world has ever known.


Monday, 1 August 2011

The Leviathan.

Work on The Leviathan project at The Space in Docklands continues apace. The group have been meeting every Monday night for the last five weeks finding different ways to dramatise texts, photographs and poems relating to the Great Eastern built just the other side of the West Ferry Road. Tonight Tina came over to give some advice on costuming and to have a look at the work.

The work is marvellously low key. The short walk from The Space to the launch site will be punctuated by short readings from different characters - riveters, royalty, Brunel, dockers, investors etc. who'll pop out to join the crowd as they make their way along the Thames Path, adding expectation and number to the arrival at the wharf itself.

Eleanor has found a description of the inside of the Eastern and a group of actors have been using it to create a virtual tour of the ship. It'll be a true act of imagination, asking the audience to recreate the largest ship ever built in a completely empty space. The whole thing is only going to take half an hour to play, but I sense a prototype for a much more ambitious piece of work.

There is a really lovely feel to the group. No sense of pretension or competitiveness, just a desire to use these sessions to tell stories and socialise. It's amateur work at its finest, bringing different people from the community together to enjoy each others company and creativity.