Saturday, 31 March 2012

Building a Teapot.

We've moved into the theatre to begin building the large set pieces for Cabbages and Kings. Jethro began work on a screwing together a large stack of wooden chairs which, eventually, with the help of a pile of discarded sleeping bags become the caterpillar's toadstool.

Meanwhile hundreds of cardboard cakes, which will be used to set dress the trees, were being put together by a team in Tina's cabin. Elsewhere an oversize jam tarts, rose bushes and soup tureens began to take shape.

Two huge photographic frames were put together and sprayed. Some of the first years, who will, as a chorus of giant chess pieces, carry them from scene, came in for a practice.

In the foyer Katie, Tina and Jordan inflated a huge weather balloon, which was initially coated with tissue paper and sticky clingfilm, before being paper maiched, to form the round bowl of an enormous teapot.

Heather Leigh, who's playing the Dormouse, kept coming over for a nervous look. It's certainly big enough for her to be stuffed into.

There was a really cheerful atmosphere to the day. A good time to break from rehearsals and turn our minds and hands on job of set building. Smells of paint, glue and coffee and a real sense of excitement as ideas are given life.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Valley of the Blind.

It was the Level 2 Physical Theatre production of The Valley of the Blind in the Drama St Mary's theatre tonight a clever adaptation HG Wells' short story of a Nunez, a Colombian mountaineer who, whilst attempting to summit the unconquered crest of a fictitious Ecuadorian mountain slips and falls into the valley cut from the rest of the world on all sides by steep precipices.

The isolated citizens of this land have been blind for many years and have absolutely no concept of sight. Nunez at first thinks it'll be easy to conquer the tribe, but with their other sense's sharpened he is no match for their dexterity. He does however fall in love with the Chief's daughter and although to begin with the tribal elders refuse the wedding, on the grounds that Nunez is a ranting fool obsessed with an imaginary activity called 'seeing', they do eventually agree providing he consents to have his 'diseased' eyes put out.

It's a fascinating parable brought vividly to life by the ensemble company who play both the blind and a pack of saucy Llamas who nonchalantly comment on whole saga as they graze the mountainside.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Dress Rehearsals at The Orange Tree.

It's the last week before Easter break and a chance for the Level 1 students to dress rehearse their Schools Based workshops before they take them out on tour in April. This year we've teamed up with The Orange Tree in Richmond to put the work together. Today was spent in their rehearsal rooms running through each groups piece in turn, taking an active role as participants to road test the work.

The workshops have all been designed to support Cabbages and Kings, using the Alice stories to frame some really interesting Maths and Science work. Students work in teams of four to put together the work and this year, for the first time, we've made the whole process more theatrical by insisting that the sessions are scripted. It's lifted the work, turned lesson planning into play making and really ignited the creative spirit of the group.

Each session took about an hour and was followed up with a rigorous notes session led by Henry Bell, who leads the theatre's education programmes.

I was really delighted with what had been produced. Inventive ideas, loads of fun, formal and informal learning opportunities aplenty and a great mix of storytelling and discovery.

I think the Richmond Primary Schools who've agreed to take the work are in for a real treat.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Cabbages and Kings.

We've finally got a name for our show. The Alice Project, which we've been using up to now has an unwanted, if light, association with manipulation and even grooming, which would be provocative in the context of the work and so, despite a small swell of support for 'Twas Brillig we've ended up with Cabbages and Kings.

The way of working has changed a little this year, adapted to suit the skills of this particular cohort. It's slightly more democratic than the process employed on Canterbury Tales last spring and although I still retain final control over the editing and structuring of the piece, it has meant more input from individual company members.

There are three overlapping phases. First the research, which has been incredibly thorough this year. Partly that's because these Level 2s enjoy reading and the discovery of new information. This is ongoing. The second stage has been to structure this work into six separate stories, which mix biographical details from Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll's lives with the Wonderland and Looking Glass texts. In this way we've created six adapted fairy stories. weaving them site specifically into the gardens. The students provide the broad outlines for these stories, as well as excerpts of texts. Simultaneously Tina and the design team seize on any scraps of information or decisions that come out of rehearsals and set to work on fabulous costumes and set piece installations. This part of the work has its own momentum and a visit to the workshops always provides fresh momentum and new ideas. It's symbiotic.

Finally we adapt and rehearse. The great thing about having your own text to work from is that you can cut and add continually, kneading the work into shape. Eventually, to the relief of the stage manager, a script begins to emerge. At the minute we've almost finished Stage 1, are half way through Stage 2 and pushing ever onwards towards Stage 3. It's an exciting way to be creating a play.

Monday, 19 March 2012


Off to the Young Vic to see the revival of Edward Bond's 1970s classic Bingo, a play which speculates that Shakespeare, for all his poetry and apparent empathic understanding of the human condition, actually spent his final years, back in Stratford supporting local land enclosures, which prevented the peasant class from feeding themselves. He has become a self-loathing protective reactionary, unable to grow old gracefully or to justify his new found wealth.

Patrick Stewart plays the Bard, staring, empty eyed at the dull parochial concerns of retirement in a small market town, his only solace a drunken night out with his old London rival Ben Jonson, played with bile and balls by the wonderful Richard McCabe.

But my how this play seems to have dated when performed in these days of spectacle and visual metaphors. Written at a time when socialists still had an eye on revolution the central point that art is meaningless unless it's allied to political struggle seems, post-Thatcher and Blair, frankly barmy. The debate on land enclosures drags on and even Bond's visceral poetry seems clunky, despite Stewart's best efforts to bring it to life.

I wish I could say the production had real force, but sadly all we're left with is the sight of a great Shakespearean actor wrestling his hero into all too human form. Fascinating and voyeuristic, sure; but it's a mighty long way from the great leap forward so eagerly anticipated by Bond and his playwright colleagues back in 1973 .

Friday, 16 March 2012

Election Night.

Today was the annual student union elections. It's been a low key build up this year with candidates only allowed to begin their campaigns on Monday. Whilst this may have meant the process has been contained and well managed, it's also been less colourful and imaginative than in recent years. The turnout, however, was up which has to be a good thing.

I took part in the count, which saw Charlie Benson elected as President and Luke Allen take on the Athletics Union post. Both apparently where very impressive at Tuesday's hustings and seemed delighted to be elected.

The only concern I have about the process is that despite being a University where over two thirds of our students are women, all of the fourteen candidates who put themselves up for election onto the executive were men.

Perhaps this reflects the way in which Politics has been traditionally played out in the UK but it is a shame, nonetheless. In the six years I've been at St Mary's we may have had three women SU Presidents, but we've not had a woman run the Athletics Union.

Locally this might be to do with the boysy atmosphere that pervades the Union building, where despite some good work in recent years, sports clubs still dominate. Most people see it as a hedonistic place, somewhere to fuel up on a Monday or Wednesday before the subsidised buses take everybody off to get further tonked at Oceana or McCluskys in Kingston and the primary job of the elected executive seems to be to ensure that this party culture continues. The gender roles in this set up are clear, defined and unchallenged.

So what? You might say. The Union belongs to the students. It's up to them to manage it in the way they chose and up to a point I agree. But my feeling is that we, as a University tacitly support the tribalism and binge drinking in the way that we structure our own data gathering procedures. We're very happy to ask for tokenistic student opinion or ask focus groups to contribute soundbites to committee work and policy documents, but we don't let students chair any of those committees or prepare serious recommendations. Were we to promote a higher level of responsibility for the Union we might just see some more serious politicians, of either sex, emerge.

Students are in real need of a strong voice as the new fee regime comes in and the College moves from 15 to 20 credit modules. The decisions being made now will effect the community here for many years to come. I wish Charlie and Luke all the best and hope they'll be able to use their time in office to continue to expand the Union's remit.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Guildford Reckie.

Spent the afternoon in Guildford looking round the castle grounds. Lewis Carroll had a family home overlooking the site and died here in 1898. This local connection means that there's been some interest in taking the show here after we've played Ham House.

The site is substantially smaller and I think if we do come here it'll have to be with a drastically scaled down version - but it might produce an interesting contrast with Ham. Carroll was already famous as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland when he bought the house here in 1868 but it's thought that much of Through the Looking Glass was written here. A statue behind the house commemorates the fact.

I walked through the castle gate to the county museum which has a small collection of memorabilia, including some of Carroll's childhood toys, before crossing the river Wey by the old bridge and climbing up the Mount to the cemetery where he's buried. His grave, underneath a Yew tree, near the entrance overlooks the town. Perhaps in keeping with the image I've developed of Carroll since I began researching his life the site feels lonely and out of place, a long way away from Oxford and the monastic comfort of Christchurch.

Back on the river bank another statue shows Alice and her older sister Lorina reading, whilst a rabbit skips past, suggesting the start of the whole new adventure, but its dwarfed by the huge Debenhams on the opposite bank and the constant flow of traffic, heading for the Portsmouth Road.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Les Mis behind Bars.

Drove down to HMP Erlestoke in Devizes with the Applied Theatre Level 3 students to see Pimlico Opera's latest intervention, a production of Les Miserables cast mostly from prisoners in the jail.

Since 1991 the company have been taking a core team of professionals into prisons to collaborate in the creation of full scale productions. The thinking is that this kind of teamwork, discipline and camaraderie offers the inmates a chance to experience, albeit temporarily, a rewarding communal experience, culminating in the affirmation that successful production always brings to those who participate in it.

The work isn't cheap. This current production cost £180,000, all raised by private donations, mostly from wealthy patrons, earlier in the week Camila Parker Bowles came to the show. Whilst there's no disputing the value this kind of initiative brings to the relatively small number of men involved it did make me wonder how similar programmes could be publicly funded and rolled out. Most of the evidence suggests that prisoners who engage in arts based projects are less likely to re offend and from a purely economic point of view it seems clear that money invested in educational programmes in prisons pays real dividends. I couldn't help but wonder how many literacy classes the money spent on this show could have funded - a more private, but perhaps less glamerous investment? To their credit Pimlico Opera aren't just an annual circus and work hard to find employment within the theatre industry for prisoners on their release.

The problem is that many of us baulk at the idea of investing anything in those who have committed crime. The counter argument suggests that the money should go on victim support or crime prevention in the first place. Putting on a play, may help those involved to imagine themselves as part of a community, perhaps for the first time in their lives, but it doesn't seem in anyway to be an act of repentance.

Indeed the high production values of the work and the fact that prisoners are given time and space in which to perform only seems to underline a sense of privilege.

In the end I guess we have to find a way to understand that rehabilitation isn't an affront to those who have suffered as a result of crime and that money spent on offering opportunities for prisoners to realign their behaviour can, providing it's effective, ultimately improve the quality of life for all of us.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Alice By Heart.

To the Lyric, Hammersmith to see their Young Company's production of Alice by Heart a new rock musical based on the Alice in Wonderland story that Drama St Mary's alumni Stef's been directing as part of the National Theatre's connections festival.

The work's been written by Steven Satar and Duncan Sheik, who came to prominence with the critically acclaimed, but rather precocious pop version of Spring Awakening at the theatre, a couple of years ago.
It's a difficult piece to follow, set deep in an underground station during the blitz. Alice, charismatically played by Scarlet Bilham, tries to revive her dying friend Alfred sensitively played by George Pelham, by inviting him down the rabbit hole for one last time.

The problem with the show (and one that the St Mary's Alice company share) is that re-contextualising the stories doesn't seem to add anything to them. Wouldn't it simply be better to let them stand as themselves?

Yet there is a fascination with trying to get beneath the surreal characters and situations, an effort to find a moral or reason behind the stories.

The writing here shares our hunch that the work stands as a metaphor for the shift between childhood and adolescence and that a little cut here or re focus there might give a fresh and clearer perspective. It's a thin line though between revealing something new and destroying Carroll's essentially amoral world of pure escapism that make the texts potentially so liberating in the first place. Mighten it be better to write an original quest?

Still, for all the complications Stef's young company were completely committed to the play and rightly very proud of their work.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Can We Talk About This?

To the National tonight to see DV8's new show Can We Talk About This? a fusion of verbatim theatre and the companies trade mark dance style. At the heart of the work is a criticism of Islamic fundamentalism and the apologist liberal response of many multicultural commentators. On one level the work is a bold attack on cultural relativism, as it laudably affirms our freedom to speak out against acts of censorship and violence. On another it risks replacing rational debate with a reactionary challenge to political correctness in general.

It's clear that, within the context of the show, dance stands as a metaphor for freedom of expression and that by extension the extraordinary forced and contorted choreography that underscores much of the text proves to be a clear visual representation for the tangled arguments of those who bend over backwards so as not to offend. At it's best this work is thought provoking, inventive and surprising.

The premise though is tricky. If we are genuinely fearful of speaking out why are so many inches of column space devoted to the issue? Why is this show successfully touring the world unchallenged? Of course it's important to be vigilant against oppressive practice and take a stand against abhorrent acts of inhuman aggression or revenge, but towards the end of this two hour manifesto I began to long for some self-reflection and more understanding of how Muslims might contribute effectively to British society, whilst still retaining their own sense of identity.

I do understand that any society needs common law to exist, and I do think that an unintended consequence of the multicultural agenda has been to create division rather than unity, but I wonder if I was alone in feeling discomforted by the standing ovation that greeted this assertive defence of 'our' values.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Life Below Stairs.

Back to Ham House tonight to attend the reopening of the kitchen and servants quarters underneath the great hall. In recent ears this area has only really been used during Christmas celebrations, and has ended up doubling up as a store room for the bits and pieces of film set periodically left behind when the house and gardens are used as a location.

The team at the house, led by Vic, have done a brilliant job reclaiming the space, providing another way to see how Ham must have operated in the early seventeenth century. The walls have life size cartoon transfers of some of the servants, with short passages about their lives whilst in the kitchen demonstrations of food preparation and baking were going on. We toasted it with an alcoholic ginger ale, the closest the scholars had found to a taste of the time.

One of the more surprising exhibits was a restoration salad, recreated from archived menus. It was amazingly cosmopolitan and included such exotic tastes as cucumber, capers and olive oil - which I'd thought had only really been introduced to the UK by Elizabeth David in the 1950s.

I'd always known that the restoration had opened up England to a whole range of European influences as Charles II returned to London after eleven years of continental experience. It's why, if you had money, the 1660s must have been a thrilling time to be in the capital.

One of the effects of creating cultural hybridity seems to be a shift from a verbal or literary reliance to a more visual form of expression. Much of the way theatre in the later 20th century has developed has been driven by the need to mix cultural forms in an understandable way. Colour, shape and spectacle replace philosophy, text and doctrine. The returning court certainly defined itself in these terms and the salad, in a small way, seemed to demonstrate that point very clearly. Impossible to explain, perfect to show. A perfect mixture of smell, texture, taste and look.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Garden of Reason and They Shoot Horses.

Spent the morning with the Alice company looking around Ham House and trying to find the route for the show. The script is being worked in six basic sections and each of these needs to find a home somewhere within the grounds.

Thematically we're looking at fusing the two Alice stories with key moments from the real Alice's life. We're also looking at early photography and some of the pioneering Maths work that Lewis Carroll carried out.

We're going to begin the show on the riverbank, with the house behind us, and have devised a lively routine where Carroll sets up his camera and persuades the Liddells to have their photograph taken. The section, obviously gives us an opportunity to introduce all the main characters. It ends with Dean Liddell, who many critics claim was the role model for the white rabbit, leading us through the gates and into the gardens themselves.

The formality of The Cherry Garden suggests itself as the obvious place for the second section, which introduces the audience to the abstract eccentricities of Oxford academia. There's an inviting passage way enclosed by high hedges on either side, which provides a great rabbit run, opening up onto the vast expanse of the back plats, where the Mad Hatter's tea party will be revealed.

From here we'll snake round the back of the house to tell the story of Alice's romance with Queen Victoria's youngest son, Prince Leopold and then end up in the wilderness with a version of Jabberwocky and an ending, yet to be sorted out. It was a really useful trip.

Tonight back in the Drama St Mary's theatre to see the Level 2 Theatre Arts play They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The play, set during a dance marathon in the heart of the great depression, is a perfect choice for the space. Patsy had swelled the stage with a three piece swing band and extended the dilapidated hall beyond the auditorium, which helped lend a sense of immersive theatre to proceedings. The story ended up being told with genuine deference to it's epic nature. The plight of the dancers really mattered.

The company worked really hard to capture the sense of desperation that drove young couples to humiliate themselves for much needed poverty busting, prize money and a moment of celebrity. Little has changed. In there inherent cruelty, false promises and dream busting marketability the dance-athons of the 1930s are simply the progenitors of X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Traces of Alice.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the famous 'golden afternoon' when Lewis Carroll rowed the Liddell sisters to Godstow and back unravelling extempore the story that would eventually become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

We're still shaping up our Alice play, which is being performed at Ham House and Garden on April 27th and so this morning I drove up to The Trout Inn on the opposite bank to the priory with the aim of walking back through Port Meadow towards Oxford. Little has changed here in the last century and a half. The busy ring road lies beyond the wide expanse of the meadow and away, clear in the distance, like a floating city itself, the dreaming spires of the town.

It's an idyllic spot to stop for a picnic, a shaded tree and the ruins to explore. Easy to imagine a flight of fancy taking hold of the day.

I headed downstream to Binsey and St Margaret's Church, built next to the Treacle Well which features in the Dormouse's story. The 'treacle' from the well, legend has it, was used by Oxford's patron Saint Frideswide to restore the sight of her unholy pursuer King Algar, who had been struck blind as punishment for his lascivious advances. Frideswide had the church built here to celebrate the miracle.

Back to the river and soon I was in Oxford, climbing up onto Folly Bridge where the boat for Alice's trip would have been hired from and a short walk up St Aldgates to Christchurch itself, where - in Carrollian fashion - an almost friendly bulldog let me slip past the queue.

The College offers some further magical clues to the story. Carroll lived all of his adult life within its confines and, by his own estimation, ate some 8,000 times in the splendid great hall, where long necked creatures provide a guard to the fireplace and a small door at the back of the dais enables Deans to slip in and out of proceedings, as if going down a rabbit hole. I walked through the Cathedral to see the Burne Jones stained glass window with the likeness of Alice's younger sister Edith, who sadly died two weeks before she was due to marry, and on past the Deanery itself. Christchurch is obviously very much a functioning College and so much of what might interest Lewis Carroll tourists is hidden from view - his rooms, the Deanery garden, where many of his photographs were taken and the churchyard where members of Alice's family lie buried.

Alice's fame might be international, but here her friendship with Mr Dodgson, a shy Mathematics Don, is just seen as a tangential event in a continuing history of education and worship. That refusal to acknowledge the populist draw of the story, at least within the walls of Tom Quad, seems, in our world of over reaction and enforced wonder, as quirky as the adventures themselves.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Machiavelli and the 10 Man Siege.

On Monday I'm delivering a lecture about Drama and Sport as part of the Ways of Seeing course. I think Drama students can learn a great deal by looking at the training and dedication and focus on technique of elite sports men and women. The need to command performance is as true for an actor as for an athlete. But I've also long thought that sport is really only of interest as a public spectacle when it transcends a simple test of prowess or strength and begins to take on a multi-dimensional narrative. In other words when the outcome matters in epic terms or, to use the language of commentary, when a legend is created. In turn it's these legends that help establish and reinforce communities or tribes: be they virtual, national or local.

With these thoughts in mind that I headed home to Oxford to see United take on their bitter Wiltshire rivals Swindon Town. The two clubs haven't been in the same league for nearly a decade, but Oxford's recent rise has been matched by Swindon sudden slump and so hostilities have been resumed this year. In the Autumn Oxford managed to beat their opponents away from home for the first time since 1972, but since then Swindon have steadily improved and now, with only a couple of months of the season left to play sit proudly on top of the league.

Adding spice to the affair has been Swindon's maverick manager Paola Di Canio - a roman fascist of the old school, whose every pre-match interview is a call to nobility and warrior spirit. After the defeat in September he stood in the centre circle of the County Ground until the 10,000 spectators had cleared the ground, just so he could feel the pain.

Di Canio is learning his trade as a manager. In January he launched an audacious bid for Oxford's talismanic striker, Wiltshire born James Constable. The man who scored both goals in Oxford's victory.

For 12 hours Oxford fans were on tenterhooks, until, with the deadline approaching Constable tweeted a reassuring message saying he had no desire to leave the club and had turned down the chance to talk to Swindon.

The Swindon manager responded by saying that whilst he respected the decision he wasn't interested in signing anybody who lacked heart. Constable, he claimed, was weak and didn't possess the courage or desire to join Swindon. These claims were reiterated yesterday, Di Canio clearly working the wind up.

And so it was that by noon we were packed into the ground ready for battle. Oxford's big number 9 jogged out to heroes reception. It wasn't long before the second stage of Di Canio's plan was put into action. A long ball out of defence cleared the central defender, Constable turned him to chase and the defender went down clutching his face. Immediately the Swindon players surrounded the referee, pointing, gesticulating and claiming that Constable had elbowed their player in the face. The referee bought it, a red card was brandished and after only 12 minutes Oxford were down to ten men. Di Canio stood impassively on the touchline. Mission accomplished.

The Swindon players couldn't believe how effectively the plan had been carried out. It was as if they got what they'd come for.

They jogged back into position- a moment to bask in glory -the game was surely theirs for the taking. But Oxford responded on the counter, wild, screaming raids down the wings, nothing to lose and it worked, reeking havoc to Swindon's strategic approach. Two minutes after the red card a looping cross from the right was tucked in at the far post by recalled midfielder Asa Hall and two minutes after that Oli Johnson added a second.

Swindon were stunned but they regrouped and began to attack. Waves of attack. Attack after attack. Matt Ritchie smacked the ball against the bar. Ryan Clarke in the Oxford goal made a string of wonderful saves, last ditch tackles flew in, bodies committed... a siege.

The clock ticked slowly, each minute seemed an hour. Swindon increased their intensity. Oxford prayed to the Gods of charmed life. Eventually it was over the final whistle went. Oxford's players sank to their knees - local bragging rights maintained. The imperial army crushed.

And Di Canio? Well he was back in the centre circle, waving his red and white Swindon scarf around his head. Defying defeat, last man standing, daring the victorious to one final challenge. For all the apparent bravery it was a ridiculous rather than provocative display, by a general who'd ultimately got his battle plans wrong. All over, til next time.