30 May 2005

Synge and Chekhov



John Millington Synge, author of The Playboy of the Western World, Riders To The Sea, and other fine plays. He died of Hodgkin's Disease in 1909, poor fellow, aged just 37. I had the same illness eighty years later, by which time a cure was available.



I love this picture of Anton and Olga Chekhov. (found it here)

Saturday last I had the honour of attending works by the above geniuses of early twentieth century theatre. The triple bill of Synge one-acts at Southwark in the afternoon, and in the eve the Maly Theatre of St.Petersburg in Uncle Vanya at the Barbican. My friend Svetlana had tickets but couldn't make it - she'd got her dates mixed up so was in fact in the air, on her way back from Moscow, when she was meant to be taking her teenage son Sergei (aka Zig) to see her compatriots give their finely paced, emotionally brilliant version of the play. So I got to go instead. Zig really loved it, he laughed at the comedy-of-embarrassment bits but also said after he thought it was romantic, and he felt just as sorry for the professor as he did for Vanya. He's being brung up well, that boy.
The Barbican audience, by the way, gave a most un-English standing ovation. True, there were a fair few Russians in the audience, come to hear their great dramatist in their mother tongue. But I felt the majority were simply responding to the intensity of the performance. There have been sceptical notes sounded in the things I've read and heard, but Lev Dodin's company really did hit some heights in the show I saw, and the reception, though extreme, was not entirely unjustified.

I loved Riders To The Sea all over again, though the actors seemed a little unfocused. George Innes was sensational, though, in the second play, The Shadow of the Glen, as a cuckold taking his revenge on his young wife (very nicely played by Alisa Arnah).

I'm so enjoying this seeing-everything-I-can business. Seen more plays in the last three months than the previous three years. I know it's a drag on my writing momentum but to be frank, I'd really had my fill of solitude, and for the present I need society, and communal stories.
Which said, I'll be showing up to the page now.

(Still cold-y, would you believe.)

26 May 2005

To the Arcola yesterday lunchtime for a reading of Penny Black's play, A Sudden Silence. I was expecting one of those things with the actors sitting on chairs, script in hand, sipping from water bottles between scenes. Got instead a more than semi-staged affair, tightly performed on a rudimentary but effective set. Scripts in hand became invisible, and the story came across very well. It's about a woman's sudden debilitation because of a stroke, and the emotional shockwaves disturbing the foundations of her family relationships. Humane and well-observed and funny.

Nice chatting after with PB, director Ellen Hughes and Erica W.

That was the only thing I did yesterday, still bedevilled by this cold. Preserved my energy for the football, which was just as well. Well done to the Red Half of Liverpool (I am a Bluenose, myself.) They are - pinch me- European Champions. Again. It was a fairytale evening to eclipse even Manchester United's 1999 triumph in the competition. To quote Sir Alex Ferguson from that night:
"Football - bloody hell".

25 May 2005

Stinky cold. Exacerbated by yesterday taking S to the South Bank when really I should've stayed home. Had a good time with McK and Nora though, idling in the members' room at Tate Modern. McK is a sceptic when it comes to all this new-fangled art, but I took him to the room with lots of Soviet propaganda posters and he was well impressed. S and Nora well impressed with groovy wooden benches, just perfect for climbing on.

Later at NT I picked up tickets for Tristan and Yseult, am going again and taking B and her parents, who saw Kneehigh's Bacchae in Bristol and raved about it. They've treated me to some cracking shows in the past. The latest was the revival of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, and there've been crowd-pleasers like Noises Off and Anything Goes. Evenings at the theatre with the ins are always jolly affairs, featuring picnics in the foyer and much rustling of choccy wrappers in the auditorium. Dad-in-law loved the Cinderella me and Erica did at Southwark and is dismayed to learn I'm writing a tragedy. One with no jokes in it. And a Virgin Mary fixation.

Read Emma Frost's play Airsick. Liked it very much. Met her recently (she's a friend of bro-in-law Toby) and gathered she's very busy writing for film and tv these days, which is a loss to us theatre spods but since she has the requisite style in spades, and a strong voice to boot, why not?

ps Good luck to Liverpool Football Club and all its supporters - including little sister, traitor that she is - just for today. They're playing AC Milan in the European Cup Final tonight in Istanbul. (Evertonians might be interested in this, though.)

23 May 2005

Henry The Fourth Part Two

The most sublime and ridiculous evening. Epitomised I suppose by the passage from Act 4 to Act 5. One second I was blubbing over the father-son deathbed reconciliation, with David Bradley's king realising with a grim sigh that the prophecy he would die in 'Jerusalem' meant that the appointed place was the room so named in the palace, and the time was now. The next I was in a sun-kissed September orchard with a gaggle of fools, a scene which ends with a Falstaff soliloquy decrying Shallow's influence on his men, concluding, "let men take heed of their company".

The whole thing caught me somewhat unawares. I hadn't expected to be swept along and through it. You expect that of Macbeth or Othello, but not a history play. The first half of Part One had dragged - this ran like the wind.

Two odd things beforehand. I broke a tooth on a toffee walking over the Hungerford Bridge, as was. Second, some of you may know that Saturday was FA Cup Final day. I'd taped the match and hoped to be able to survive the evening without finding out the score. As I live quite near the Arsenal ground and very near two Arsenal pubs, getting to the South Bank unscathed meant keeping my head down and listening to a Walkman - something I hardly ever do.
I took my seat in the Olivier feeling pleased with myself - three hours of Shakespeare followed by the Cup Final is a pretty fine evening in my estimation.
I chatted with the lady next to me before curtain up. She was up from Hastings.

She: I saw Part One this afternoon.

Me: Oh really? What did you think?

She: Oh, wonderful. The actors must be exhausted. Especially the fellow playing Percy, I don't know how they do it to be honest.

Me: Well Percy's dead now so I expect he's soaking in the bath.

She : Oh yes I expect so.

Me : So what did you do between shows?

She : Watched the Cup Final in the pub. Arsenal won.

curtain up

Enter Rumour, full of painted tongues


21 May 2005

Kingfisher Blue

With half an hour to kill in Oxford Street before taking the tube to Shepherd's Bush to see Lin Coghlan's play directed by pm, I ambled into the big new Waterstone's opposite John Lewis. There was a gang of blokes having their picture taken. Hang on, isn't that Roger McGough? I said to myself. And he looks awfully like that young turk novelist Hari Kunzru. And that fella's a dead ringer for David Lodge... Yes, it's the 70th birthday of Penguin Books and there was a wee launch going on for the anniversary editions they're putting out. Also recognisable were Anthony Beevor and the brilliant Jonathan Coe. (Coe once said his idea of perfect happiness was "sitting in an armchair listening to Debussy while my daughters serve me drinks" - what's not to like?)
I bought Hari Kunzru's stories, along with some by Truman Capote. HK was joking with the man ahead of me in the signing queue that he'd happily do any dead author's signature, but when I asked him to do Capote he demurred. Perhaps he thought, quite wrongly, I was casting aspersions on his virility. He was very nice though, and the stories I've read so far are great.

Kingfisher Blue is all those things pm said it might be, hoped it could be - poetic naturalism, with an emotional quality all of its own. LC writes the four male voices with a careful, plangent understatement, and the cumulative effect in that small black box is very powerful. Daft perhaps in fact not to see something of Peter Gill's influence in both writing and direction. PG's links with Paul are longstanding but I wonder if his influence on LC is simply osmotic or something more tangible. Whichever, there's the wry, elusive tone there, but also an enviable gift for story-crafting, as LC paints interconnecting panels to form a whole, which is I would suggest a study of the scarred heart of the post-industrial male, his shrinking horizons, the smallness of his ambitions, his emotional needs outstripping his capacity to blank them.

Bought pm that drink, and introduced him to Rachael. Was strange to be talking face to face!, and not through this font. He was looking and sounding just fine, glad to report. On good form. Managed to buttonhole Lin to say good work, but she was spun round by Doug, one of the (extremely good) actors, desperate for change, before I could say any more than that.

Henry 4.2 tonight. Or is it 2 Henry IV. Looking forward to it, whatever it's called.

18 May 2005

Triple bill of JM Synge at Southwark at the moment. Lovely stuff. Includes the famous Riders To The Sea, in which Nora Joyce once played the part of Cathleen. Her husband was a Synge fan, of course. The language supple and musical and strange. The acting mustered by Charlotte Gwinner is thoroughly excellent, even in the open dress rehearsal I saw. I'll go back to see the third play and post more after.

Otherwise, the past few days quite trying. Nothing awful, but a couple of mental bruises and daring to hope for good news that doesn't come. And Spike has conjunctivitis, poor lamb. Plus we can't find a plumber to fit the shower we bought months ago - they're all either too expensive or too feckless, or both.

Missing pm's posts as well, of course. Going to see Kingfisher Blue tomorrow and will buy him a drink on behalf of the blogosphere.

15 May 2005

bow wow

Saw a show in a squat. But not just any old squat - St.George's Theatre in Tufnell Park. A former church, it's been bought by a religious group, but the counter-cultural community arts centre thriving there will not go without a (non-violent) fight. (If anyone has any news they can share about this, please mail me.)
The show reflected their spirit and warmth - Cardboard Citizens mounting a scratch performance of scenes from John Berger's novel of homelessness and hopefulness, King. JB was there the night I went. Sixteen in the cast, an onstage band, and rough theatricals that kept the story sweeping along - though the play was presented in 'fragments' (the director Adrian Jackson's word) it bound the audience, drew us in with its playful artlessness. The piece is wry, rude and raucous, as well as big-hearted and touching.
The sixteen untrained actors were of all different shapes, races, ages. They swapped lines, came together as chorus, soliloquised - they were wonderful. They'd barely rehearsed this intricate, delicate piece for a week, and the prompter was called on only once.
Congratulated the writer after, Penny Cliff. I'd met her at the other John Berger show, Vanishing Points. What CardboardCitz lacked in sophistication, they more than made up for in humour and humanity, qualities obscured in the Complicite show by, for want of a smarter term, over-artfulness.
Mind you, the funniest moment of the evening was non-human - when the chorus barked and yapped canine-style, a worried dog in the audience heckled, more than once. It turned out he was the doggy auteur of the film we'd seen projected - a stray's eye view of the mean streets a mutt must walk - he only took a bow at the end, didn't he. So it seems he wasn't heckling, but giving notes.

13 May 2005

The collective noun already seems immovably apt. A rejection of playwrights.

All I can do is mull the lessons to be drawn*. Whatever they are. One of them might be not to despair when an artistic director who doesn't know you from Adam mistakes you for someone who'd be interested in a demolishing critical review of a play that's already won you an award. I could expand on this but really, no point.

I think this getting back into the swing thing is going to be harder than I thought. Must remember to remember, only three/four months since I was dug out the pit that nearly did for me.

Brighter note, had a good chat with Gareth M at Southwark yesterday. He's up to his eyes getting his Canterbury Tales ready but still found time to ask me in to see how things are going and how he could help. Nice man.

*and finish the bloody play

11 May 2005

My Wife Doesn't Understand Me

Me: I'd really like it if you could read the play, far as I've got. You could read it tonight -

She: I'd rather do your tax return.
The weekend was gratifyingly quiet, with Mum here. Lots of cups of tea and ambling around Stokey. Much pleasure in seeing Spike with her. He needed no prompting to lavish attention and laughs and be generally the sort of grandchild you'd make a 5oo mile round trip to see.

Mum's addicted to Coronation St, so we watched Serena McKellen on superb comic form. He's obviously having a ball.

Sunday we took the Tate to Tate boat, which I recommend (tho' it wasn't the spotty Hirst one), and had lovely roast dinner (or lunch, as the southerners say) at The Constitution pub in Pimlico, one of our old haunts. We revisited Churchill Gardens, the riverside council block where B and I lived (6th floor) before Spike came along.
Noted that my old shaving mirror is still in use in the bathroom, three years on.

Had pre-supper/dinner champagne back at our place to celebrate Everton qualifying for European Champions' League next season. Appropriately enough it was a bottle forwarded from the Beeb radio drama Christmas party for doing so well with my Liverpudlian play.

Mum left Monday lunchtime, and in the eve I went to Henry4.1. Where to start? I was feeling knackered and very odd in myself beforehand (my medicined head) and in the scene before the interval I dropped off, bored by the posturing of the rebels and the bloody bellowing of some of the cast - for which, of course, the Olivier takes its share of blame. But but but. The design is fantastic, Gambon is utterly beautifully on his game (be quiet, Mr Billington), and David Bradley's Henry is a riveting portrait of martial power and the solitude of kingship (the opening speech was electrifying - the way he talked of Christ "nailed/ For our advantage on the bitter cross" gave me goosebumps). Matthew Macfadyen's Hal is, to my taste, perfect. Sure he doesn't versify that well, but you know what, I don't mind. He gives us the character - the nascent cruelty, the ego poised between two ideas of its future, the neediness - and that's more than good enough. He also has the cojones to speak softly in that cavern, trusting we'll hear. Funny how the din of clearing throats dies down when no one on stage is shouting.

Last night, lovely dinner (or was it supper? confused now.) catch-up with me old china Erica W, who's brilliantly well and busy and had loads of interesting stories. She took me to the nicest pub - just off Bishopsgate - that has a picture of Dan Cruickshank in the back bar. I suppose he must be a regular. Or perhaps the landlady just really likes archaeology.

08 May 2005

The Home Place

Mum took care of Spike last night so we hit the town for the second Saturday running. We got cheap balcony seats at the Comedy to see Brian Friel's play in preview. They were in the front row however and I got vertigo, so we moved further back, just behind a row of American students. They were quite well behaved on the whole, but the blonde girl on the end slept the whole 100 minutes without an interval, head between her knees.
The play, given a thorough toothcombing by Mr Billington here (spoiler alert!), is a fascinating companion to his 1980 masterwork Translations, which I know well from a brief spell as an A level teacher. Same concerns (advent of Irish rebellion, its first stirrings, the provocations), same guile, same humane wit and pathos. There is however, 25 years on, a contrast - The Home Place wears its genius lightly, conceals its art, where Translations spread it out on the table and said, look what I've found.
Tom Courtenay, by the way, gives a wonderful lesson in how to dominate the stage without really trying. He's fantastic, and has great support.
Friel again jogged me to look up my ancestors.

06 May 2005

There is an exquisite piece of writing just now at Ova Girl's site. So now that's three of my favourite poetic writers from Oz - Les Murray, Matt Cameron, OG.

Off soon to collect Mum from Euston - she's on her way down from Cumbria.

Mose Allison was a real treat for me. The man's 77 or something and looks like Granpa Simpson, but my god is he ever a musician, and such attitude. He's on Jools Holland on 20th May. Wry, perfectly wrought songs. Stand-outs - one where a jealous lover says, "You call that jogging, I call it runnin' around"; one with the stoical "I don't worry 'bout nothin', cos' nothin' ever turns out right"; his manifesto, "White Boy Stole The Blues".
But the music! With Roy Babbington (double bass) and Paul Clarvis (drums). I was in awe of them too. When the trio let rip, it was transplendent. Sometimes like listening to Bach, in its relentless rhythms and mix of masculine rigour and playfulness, but softened by the colouring from the florid double bass, and the drums punctuating, or trying to get a word in edgeways. Hard to convey in words, as you can see. Go buy some, that's what I'm going to do...

The evening also notable for the excessive quantity of pizza and ice-cream I put away. Mental note: don't sit between hungry teenage boys at a restaurant, especially one with such efficient staff.

05 May 2005

All Fools Day

Shortly off to vote for gorgeous, pouting Diane Abbott, but with a heavy heart.
Yes, I'm "angry about the war" (DA voted against it). Let me be a little more specific - I am astonished and dismayed and not a little frightened at the trashing of international law to make way for a politically driven invasion. The law is an ass, says Anthony Blair and the coterie. No, coterie's not right. Thugs? Thugs. The law is an ass, they say. And it clearly is, because although aggravated burglary will get you locked up, the same crime on a gargantuan scale, when advertised in advance as "regime change" will not. If it hadn't been for the strange death of Dr.Kelly so little of the machinery driving policy would have been visible.
Disheartening to see Gordon Brown give a Yes to the question, would you have done the same, after only a split-second's hesitation. Of course, he was on the spot and could do nowt else. Here's hoping we at least get an active cabinet sometime in the next four years.

On a lighter note... found a blog by a public school teacher, David Smith, who clearly has too much time on his hands, but there's an excellent piece on the lost treasures of classical literature in the news recently. And an ace picture of Barrie Rutter and Tony Harrison, to boot.

Going to that Pizza Express in Soho tonight where the jazz people do their thing. I know next to nothing about the genre but Paul's filming a doc on the pianist Mose Allison so I'm going along to hear him and share a marinara with Svetlana. Then back for the swingometer.

ps I almost forgot. Getting off the bus outside the BAC on Tuesday - I was there to see/hear sketches from my friend Michael O's new opera, Midsummer - I nearly walked straight into John Prescott, who was having a photocall with a candidate outside the local party hq. Anyway, he's really quite little. I could 'ave 'im, I thought. Alas there was no one to hold my coat, so I went to the opera instead.

03 May 2005

Everything but the Kitchen Sink Drama

Kneehigh's Tristan and Iseult last night. I know, it's got to stop. Wasn't I writing a play?
What can I say, but that the last time I was so trainwrecked after a show was Angels In America thirteen years ago. Weird thing is, I was sitting in exactly the same place in the same theatre, give or take a couple of seats.

Sent stuff to an agent today. One who's "interested". We'll see.

Meanwhile we have no income and I'm at that point with the play when I have to decide how many stops to pull out. There are already miracles, bombs, and more violent acts than in all my other things put together. Also the Virgin Mary swearing. What do I think I'm doing?

Gone back to the old title, The May Queen.

02 May 2005

Tales From The Riverbank

To begin at the end, bumped into Tassos on the late bus home on Saturday. I was with B, he was with a friend. T has a role in Shunt's Tropicana but can't say what it is. I suspect he's a plant who does something unsavoury. You could see a naughty glint in his eye. Glyn's doing that part on occasion (there's a rota) and he also had a naughty glint when he told me he couldn't possibly tell me anything. I shall have to go to find out, clearly. (please don't tell me!)
B and I had been to the show at the Chocolate Factory, the last in Paines Plough's This Other England season. It's a play by Douglas Maxwell called If Destroyed True. I won't link to the enthusiastic review in The Times because it's a precis rather than a piece of criticism. Anyway I absolutely loved it, and so did B. Stage poetry of the most exquisite, least pretentious kind. Heart-on-sleeve stuff. Brilliant emotional rhythm to it. DM is the real deal.
Yes, the wife and I went out together! Our tyke spent the night with grandparents for the first time. He was cool about it, no fuss. We felt an odd mix of guilt and elation, if you can imagine such a thing. Pleasurably bereft.
If Destroyed True is set in New Flood, a (hopefully) fictional place that gets voted Worst Town in Scotland. I was reminded that I grew up in a borough once calculated (in the late 80s I think) to be the poorest in Europe, when compared to GDP of the country it was in. The borough is Knowsley, east of Liverpool, and so contains most of the post-war urban sprawl. I don't know exactly how it's doing now in the poverty stakes. I'll look it up. My sister still lives there with her boy. Not for much longer, with any luck.
Before I met up with B, I was at Tate Modern, luxuriating in my brand spanking renewed membership. Very pleased that the members' room hasn't changed. Bumped into very nice radio producer Pam and her nice friend. I babbled too much to them, like I tend to when bumped into. I tried to take in some of the Joseph Beuys in the short time I had, but the attendants were so distracting, so boorish and looming in their unselfconscious studenty way, I couldn't concentrate for a second. I pointed this out to one boy, politely, prefacing my words with, "This really is nothing personal..." but he was so shocked I thought he was going to cry, and I felt horrible. I've only once in my life ever written a complaint letter, and that was to the Tate way back when they had a big Rothko exhibition, which featured, the day I went, attendants calling and responding to each other the length of the galleries. God knows it's a boring job, but if theatre ushers behaved like this they'd be lynched.
And before the weird Tate adventure I was at Southwark again, for the matinee. I was able to catch the second half of Bells by Yasmin Whittaker Khan. Saw the first half on Wednesday. It's in a double bill of work by British Asian women presented by Kali TC. It's a promising and vibrant debut by YWK. Challenges some lazier assumptions about Asian life in this country, but also manages to be wildly romantic.
So that was Saturday. Oh and I went for a run in the morning! I'm very unfit, muscles (all 3 of them) still aching.