‘Lot 34, what am I bid, gentlemen, what am I bid? Very nice piece of classicism here, highly sought after, a sound investment – wide-sweeping vistas, possibly crumbling a little at the edges, but plenty of wear left in it yet, never mind the quality shall we say, feel the breadth, ha,ha, – what am I bid? Thank you sir, you won’t regret it – any more? Come, gentlemen, a wide range of assets here, own in-built infrastructure, huge returns, no effort required; well, very little, anyway, minimal maintenance necessary as free service is included – won’t let you down, – unless you turn a little tyrannical, eh? Ha,ha, sorry – what am I bid? My, but we are all eager, aren’t we – hardly surprising: the elegance, opulence, the sheer size and scale are unequalled. A growing concern, constantly expanding, new annexes all the time… Admittedly not the original Greek version, but as is often pointed out, a fair copy nonetheless, I think we are all agreed – thank you, sir – any more? And going, going, – GONE! Sold to the gentleman in the toga at the back there: one Roman Empire to …Senator Didius – Julianus, wasn’t it?’
No, it probably wasn’t quite like that, but tempting to imagine even so. Old Marcus Aurelius got into the habit of auctioning goods to get out of debt, and with a rather generous commodity in slaves and unwed females, auctions were the norm. Still, to end up auctioning a whole Empire. That takes some seriously bad housekeeping. But then, by 193 A.D., things were perhaps getting a little crumbly around the edges: conspiracies, messy murders and war have a way of leaving moth holes in the furniture, so to speak. The result was the Praetorian Guard who, having relieved Emperor Pertinax of his position (and life), offered the Empire up for auction – and Julianus rose to the bait.
Auctions can be such emotive things. Drama, comedy, tragedy – it is an extension of theatre, filled with emotion and excitement, tension and hypocrisy, plots and paranoia, acts of pernicity coupled with acts of generosity. Witness the dramatic candle auction in Moonfleet, or the pathos of Dobbin secretly buying Amelia’s harpsichord in Vanity Fair. In the case of the Empire, it did at least kick some of the provincial commanders into action, and Severus marched on Rome to pull it back into shape. The Praetorians were sent into the corner for being such naughty schoolboys, and poor old Julianus was executed. Let that be a warning to greedy bidders: you never know what you might be buying into. Which leads me neatly (or probably not) onto the opening scene of the second Julia Warren Mystery (Of Soul Sincere) where a house with a past is auctioned off to the highest bidder: in this case, another politician. He too, didn’t know what he was buying into …
A catalogue of household furniture, one piano-forte, a capital eight-day clock, plate, silver, ornamental china, a few pictures and drawings and numerous curious articles, the property of the late Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq, deceased; which will be sold by auction by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Friday the 10th, and Saturday the 11th of June, 1791, at eleven o’clock, on the premises, at Bower House, South Lambeth, by order of the executors.
Bower House, an elegant building completed in 1762, property of Geoffrey Bosquith, Esq. deceased, will be sold by auction, also by Mess. Cardew & Penn, on Monday the 13th of June, 1791, on the premises, by order of the executors. …
‘GONE!’ The auctioneer’s gavel lands heavily, with a resounding bang! and the auctioneer wipes at his perspiring face with a piece of cambric. A last minute bid. No one had challenged. The bid had stayed. One of their more favoured clients, too. Henry Paglar Esq. Member of Parliament. No question of Queer Street with HIM—money fairly pouring out of his pockets in musical fountains. The auctioneer bows, smiles, extends his hand towards the register. The auction house clerk scurries across, hair tied back in a knot, with limp cravat and worn coat two sizes too large for him, holding quill and inkpot.
The auctioneer bows again. Henry Paglar Esq. (Member of Parliament) leans over the book, holding out his hand for the quill. It is dipped in the ink for him, and proffered with due reverence. He takes it and scratches his name in the ledger. The deed is done. There are bills of exchange and terms and contracts to be drawn up; the executors are even at this moment in the house, through there, dear sir, preparing the papers. The Member of Parliament is escorted to the next room and the business is concluded.
Only a few members of the audience remain to act as chorus to the whole scene; the rumour that sped through the air moments before hovers yet around them.
‘But is it true then? And that gentleman has gone and bought it even so?’
‘I would not live in such a place, not if you was to pay me for it—why, even just standing here, in full light of day, makes me shiver.’
‘And where was it they found him?’
‘Up the stairs, hanging, from the stairwell.’
‘Was it… was it murder then?’
‘No,’ and here the voices lower still more. ‘By his own hand, they say…’
A short pause. Then: ‘Shall we go and see?’
Almost on tiptoe, the little group wanders out into the hallway, to gaze with ghoulish relish up at the sun-filled stairway and landing.
‘Aye,’ murmurs one of them at last, ‘he’ll not rest easy, that one.’
‘Well, I do not know about such things,’ blusters one of the party, sticking his chest out, ‘but I should say the Honourable Member made a sharp bargain, and if he ain’t concerned about suicides and unquiet graves, why then, he is welcome to it. And I, for one, say well done for catching a bargain before it can wriggle away.’ With that, he declared himself ready to partake of a pint of ale and a pork pie at the White Horse down the road, and set his hat firmly upon his head.”
(Opening from ‘Of Soul Sincere’)
It is odd. I wouldn’t have made the comparison, but for stumbling upon this historical footnote re Ancient Rome, yet in a way, the thread is similar. The House is bought, and becomes the nucleus for the same family all through the rest of the 18th century, the whole of the 19th century, to reach the year 1928 – when Julia arrives on its doorstep, to begin unravelling its secrets. In the same way that the Empire was sold, bought, and stayed with the same family, enduring the usual untidy asides of plots, murder and strife. Well, that’s families for you. Another coincidence: two of the female members of the Severus line were called Julia. Disconcertingly, both ruthless poisoners and political intriguers by all accounts.
I have a pet wish to set a whole series of stories in and around an auction house; most likely in the 18th century – they somehow belong there. It was when the big auction houses took off: Christies, followed by Sothebys, and perhaps some not so big, such as Cardew and Penn…
It is summer, 1928.
When invited by her publisher to assist a well-respected M.P. write his memoirs, Julia Warren is at first reluctant to concentrate on anything other than her next novel; however, circumstances(involving among other things unexpected plumbing) conspire to change her mind and she finds herself at once guest and employee at the great man’s rather bohemian household.
Almost immediately she encounters memories from the past, of a rather unsettling nature …
Of Soul Sincere, coming April 2 2016, published by Grey Cells Press
Rehearsals have been in progress- broken up over the week, the time available necessarily making these short, frequent and concentrated. A week also to source props – the essential ones. Once the script was run through a few times, the essentials were narrowed down to barely three items; one of which stands out for being woven into the text, and without which the piece might actually lose a sense of place and time.
Simply put, we need binoculars. These happen to play a fairly important part in the piece throughout.
Well, not binoculars perhaps – immediately an image is conjured up of hefty field glasses. We need something a little more delicate, something you could hold in one hand (there’s a bit of business involving some snatching, physical banter so to speak); and a little bit vintage (the characters are in 20s -30s get up) so, … ah. Opera glasses. Now there’s a thought. Yes, they might do.
Head for Google. Websites. Not many, in fact. The same website for props in London pops up repeatedly, followed by vintage wedding supplies. The website that actually has opera glasses does not however indicate any price. My immediate reaction is to move away, just as I would from a beautiful window display, following the old adage: if the price isn’t showing, you probably can’t afford it.
Can I make them from scratch? Possibly. Can I make them in less than two days? Perhaps, had I the basic materials to hand (I start calculating what would be needed: small pastic bottles, tape, paint, glue, additional bits and bobs to finish off and realise this not a viable option). Can I adapt one?
Ho for home supplies, where I spot a simple black plastic little item for ₤6.00 or so. The basic shape is there. Otherwise they look hopelessly modern. I consider how long it would take to get them, and to find suitable materials to convert them into the kind of thing required. Too long.
The local hospice? I have on occasion seen the odd costume (mermaid, to be precise) but it’s a long shot as to whether they have a spare pair of opera glasses kicking about, and I don’t want to risk wasting time on it to no purpose.
It is now evening, and dress rehearsals due the next afternoon.
One more try online – a last resort, I did not expect to find anything now, yet within seconds I had an image on screen of a smart set of ‘generic horse race and opera glasses’ in wine red and chrome: they looked the part, didn’t cost much at all and offered next day delivery. Bingo! I clicked the button and arrived at rehearsals with only a slight delay, proudly bearing the prop. It feels like something of a triumph. It now only remains to source a couple of sandwiches (yes, these are props too, although how long they will last is moot point as I haven’t had any lunch yet….)
No U-Turn runs Sunday 17th at the Pleasance Theatre.
It’s been rather crowded recently – people, theatre, words, more people, more theatre, more words – on paper, in the air, in that dusty attic posing as my brain. Characters that had previously inhabited the relative comfort of notebooks, sleeping between the pages, are at present being made ready to be brought to life. Dusting off their wigs, hats and coats; now a little fard, a little rouge and powder; polish those shoe buckles, and they are standing in the wings, ready to leap out into the spotlight. Nothing huge, mind, in the way of actual stage-work; just a little conversation here and there – only with unexpected results. It has been an ongoing creative process, with more to come: something else I had previously written to no end has now been taken on board by another set of creatives who are actually enthusiastic to bring it to life; and all of this happening all at the same time. A little whirlwind made up of other people’s imagination, energy and perception is making its way across the pages; words, lines, dialogues, whole scenes have life breathed into them, and the transition from paper to that unreal reality of theatre is made, almost without you realising it. The magic has begun – thought processes start to whir, kickstarting a series of added details, gestures, inflections and more; some of these will be kept, others discarded, there is a constant moulding and re-modelling until the piece of art that is an imaginary character stands up on stage and takes command of itself.
The bubbly enthusiasm and creative energy brought to the rehearsal space by the actors themselves speeds up that process.
Watching someone take on board your ideas, thoughts, words and characters and invest their energy, creative, physical and even psychic, in something you have written could be a challenging experience – horror stories abound of writers turned homicidal after the perceived mangling of their work by negligible directors and/or actors; so far I can only say how pleasurable it has been, and how curious I remain to see what happens next, how those same characters will develop on stage. It is all part of the huge ongoing creative process called acting – and when you are fortunate enough to find those who can jump in, focussed, and pick up the shreds and patches we offer them, it is a magical thing indeed.
It takes a particular kind of humility to submerge one’s own ego in another’s; it is what drives many very fine actors (whom we may never actually see on the big screen), and a quality which makes such actors very special people indeed.
No U-Turn will be at the Pleasance Theatre Islington, on Sunday 17th: www.directorscuttheatre.co.uk/nouturn
The other day I spent the afternoon and evening in the company of Mr Goya and Mr Foote – and a good time was had by all: Mr Goya as irrepressible as ever, his tone a little less acerbic than in his ‘Disasters of War’; his sitters treated with sympathy for their intellect and made approachable. Here he shows his other side, that of the court painter, analyst, friend and colleague – there is no sense of status quo, only of Goya’s striving to grasp the essence of his subject.
He proceeds to fling and slap and dash loosely at his subject; he glares up at us briefly from his easel, eyebrows inquiring as to what, exactly, we are doing there – can’t we see he is busy?
Occasionally his stare is more abstract; concentrating on some study he hasn’t quite resolved – and later, his expression is the stark, tragic one of the deaf-smitten. Only recently appointed as Director of Painting at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, he was forced to resign owing to this disability, brought on by a mysterious illness in 1792-3.
The portraits follow his development in style, and to a degree, his life, among friends, patrons and (legitimate) family until finally we are allowed to sit at his bedside, while he is administered to by his brilliant friend, Doctor Arrieta. Behind the two men shadowy figures hover, in distant conversation – are they alive or imaginary?
I made my excuses and hurried on, anxious to visit Dona Isobel de Porcel, who had been given a whole wing to herself some distance away. She had been the main draw of the show for me, yet was not included in the main exhibition. The simplicity of her portrait is misleading. The verve and zest of the artist is in very lightness of touch – her black lace veil, wound carelessly about one arm, barely covering her bronze hair, is but a few hasty brush strokes, yet convince utterly in their loose deftness. All the portraits, drawn together from collections across the globe, demonstrate his in-depth study of character, his mastery of technique; all share a play on light and shade, and a radiance of the skin. Eyes bright, their skin luminous, they glow from within the shadowy framework of the canvass he places them in.
I left Mr Goya and company reluctantly, and wandered down from the National to Regent Street; on turning a corner I bumped into Mr Foote, showing off his other leg at the Haymarket, like the brazen hussy he was. On an impulse, I allowed him to usher me in to witness the story of his life, though swift scene shifts and quick, lively banter enriched by occasional visits from Mr Franklin expounding the theory of electricity, and Prince George himself. Mr Garrick was there too, along with Miss Woffingham, and of course Mr Foote’s servant Francis Barber (on loan from Dr Johnson). All of the company gathered there were bustled through backstage, upstage, dressing rooms and wings of the theatre as Mr Foote trod the high and low.
The action is fast and merry, the whole piece is a vigorous theatrical tour-de-force, with scenes reminiscent of a Gilray or Rowlandson brought to life (the sorry incident of his leg being removed by Doctor Hunter is a prime example) – visually, the colours, lighting and period detail are atmospheric and well-studied; candle light and shadows play against walls, ceilings and floors, (for we rarely leave the theatre, save in the dark) adding drama, terror and warmth to this most engaging of plays.
Both Mr Goya and Mr Foote share a ferocious vitality, a splendid disregard for convention and status, as well as surviving life-threatening situations : Goya’s illness resulting in the loss of his hearing, Mr Foote’s ill-timed wager resulting in the loss of a leg. Both satirize, challenge and explore; both lived through turbulent times and both made enormous contributions in very different ways to our ideas on perception and cultural development.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg runs until 23rd January at the Haymarket.
Goya The Portraits runs until 10th January at the National Gallery.
Impressive space, amazingly well supplied with comfy bar and very relaxing cafe/lounge area upstairs….
The trailer is up and the rehearsals are winding down – or up – to the big night: Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which opens 22nd May at The Questors Theatre in Ealing.
The play won the 2004-05 Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland for Best New Play and made its London debut at the Royal Court Theatre in March 2007; it was also included in The List’s Best of a Decade in 2009. But as for what to expect when you go to see it, that is perhaps best left to the wonderful words of the director, David Emmet and stage manager Cathy Swift:
A Wonderful World Awaits
What’s the most frequent conversation you’ve had over the last year? Mine goes like this:
Member or friend: Hello David. What’s your next production?
Me: The Wonderful World of Dissocia.
Member or Friend: Oh. I’ve never…
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Arsenic and Old Lace meets George Orwell in this dystopian comedy noire; admittedly, we are missing mad uncle Teddy and murderous brother Jonathan with his creepy alcoholic surgeon Dr Einstein – still, the spirit is there and continues unabated throughout, almost as madcap and surreal, threaded through with a social consciousness of how close humanity can trip over the edge in the hands of … bureaucracy. And not just any bureaucracy. Orwell was disturbingly prophetic in many ways, and the one conjured up in Adams’ play has already spiralled out of control, making gods and demons out of the characters that live it: farce, blackmail and something nasty in the woodshed combine to make this a pleasantly chilling and surreal mystery.
It is the Future. Arguably, a not too distant one, with thinly disguised policies of the present done up as a meritocratic system: those who can still pass ‘Utility’ tests (to prove they are functioning, ‘useful’ human beings) keep Green or Amber Permits and are permitted to live while those who don’t…are not. A lethal injection of air is promptly administered to those considered ‘useless’.
Enter Norma in her reclining armchair (which Joy her cohort is not allowed to sit in for fear of spoiling the warranty), getting by on a forged Amber Permit and a spider’s web of intrigue and blackmail. She is waiting for neighbour Helen (fighting fit on Amber) to finish the crossword before the 5 o’clock post – it might almost be the beginning of an Agatha Christie. The fun has only just begun however: the usual Utility Inspector (or Exterminator, depending on how you look at it) who so far has been able to help cover up for her, as been replaced (the term redundancy taking on a whole new sinister meaning here) and the new one is shortly expected on the estate where Norma lives.
Enter the new Utility Inspector: go-getting, zero-hours contracted Noah, who is keen, enthusiastic and under a lot of pressure to give his daughter Maya a ‘Fun’ day so she can pass her birthday test tomorrow, or else risk becoming a mere Comfort Girl.
Enter Maya. Maya has a pink balloon. Maya loves her pink balloon. Maya wants to have fun. Maya is nearly 18 and challenged – and continues to be so: first by Daddy, who has to go off and ‘assess’ the inhabitants of the estate (‘Stay in the van, Maya,’ which she doesn’t), next by losing her balloon, and then by getting lost. She is found by Joy (out on an errand) – and discovery of her father’s important position as Utility Inspector can mean only one thing: Joy takes Maya back to Norma’s house. Now the plot begins to thicken. Maya is both deliverance and tumbling block to the ladies’ conspiracy – the question is, who will come out top?
The dystopia unfolds piece by piece against Norma’s web of deception and secrets, a web that stops at nothing in the business of survival.
There are enthusiastic and sympathetic performances from al the cast,and excellent character acting: Marlene Sidaway as Norma is the jewel in the crown – on stage from start to finish, spewing intelligent cunning and indomitable spirit in equal measure, she is a force to be reckoned with.
The whole piece is played with good-humoured menace and classic comedic delivery, against a set reminiscent of a ruined French chateau or Italian palace, down to the broken wallpaper on the wall echoing an unfinished landscape by Boucher or Tiepolo in a rococo frame; the wall itself is cunningly back-lit at crucial moments to display the room beyond – where the larder is…
Ultimately this is a play about secrets, survival and what actually makes murderers of us all. It will also bring laughter even to the jaded theatre-goer weary of contemporary themes.
Just don’t eat the sandwiches. You’ll wish you hadn’t.
Animals runs until 2nd May at 503 Theatre, Battersea
The Rapid Write Response (on Sunday and Monday) offered variety and invention in reply to Animals – all held together with the common theme of horror, each ten-minute sketch holding at least a pinch of it in the palm of its text: survivalism, the evaluation of life (human and animal), murder and its definition, even Maya’s Pink Balloon turned up in Pop! and offered the exuberant message of seizing the moment and letting things go – there were also themes of memories and coping with them, the sub-culture and influence of reality TV, and dystopian futures.
A special mention for actors Jill Riddiford and Keith Hill in Deadlock, who showed intelligent acting and such ability to actually listen to each other on stage – a skill not always evident even in the best run West End shows …
I went to see a play the other afternoon; I had been waiting to see it ever since I spied a line about its intriguing title on Twitter in September: Fear in a Handful of Dust.
Then I saw it was set during the First World War. More, it was set in the trenches. Not much else was said at the time, but it was enough to whet my curiosity, so when last week I saw it was on – and further, that there was a writing opportunity involved, I stuffed my note-and sketch-books into the Black Hole that serves as a bag, and set off.
Had I been there before, I might have made a better choice of bus; next time I shall be more prepared. I arrived at CogArtSpace, lunch-less and virtually breakfast-less, in time for one very welcome mug of tea which they kindly allowed me to take upstairs to the theatre. I did my best not to slurp. I suppose I should have been drinking it out of a billy-can, in keeping with the setting of the play. I relinquished it fairly quickly in favour of my note-books, however. I would have sketched (I generally try to when I go to the theatre unless the charcoal makes too much noise during the quiet bits), but the ideas, once they started coming, didn’t really allow me to do other than scribble.
The action evolves in a trench in early September 1916 – the audience becomes part of that trench, listening in on two soldiers, battling their way through fear, hope, despair and contrasts – contrasts in their backgrounds, culture and beliefs, struggling towards an uneven camaraderie, ultimately attempting to save each other’s lives.
The atmosphere is faultless as is the acting – well-chosen, well-placed and well-delivered, they convince, involve and empathize.
The size of the theatre naturally makes it an immersive experience – yet the trench itself takes on a larger presence as the play goes on, until it becomes one of the players; in turn sheltering, challenging and intimidating until the final challenge is set and accepted.
What I found particularly engaging, aside from the striving of humanity against all odds, was the theme of India: until now there has been little Western coverage of the Indian Army in the trenches of WWI – yet its men did help shorten the war (1914sikhs.org) and battles like Gallipoli might have had a very different outcome had more of them been deployed.
Happily the focus is gradually changing from general unawareness to acute appreciation, and the poignant images of wounded Sikh soldiers at Brighton Pavilion Hospital, the poetry of their letters home, the dauntless courage shown in the face of a seemingly implacable enemy and more will, I hope, take their true place in the annals of history alongside the Owens, Sassoons and Graves of the Western Front. It was with this in mind that I wrote my pennyworth of response, and while there was a great deal more I wished to put in, there is only so much anyone can fit into fifteen minutes of stage. Yet from this I hope something more may come. (And now to find some actors …)
Meanwhile I close with an example of the Indian Army’s own particular brand of bravery in the following anecdote from the interview with Gordon Corrigan on 1914sikhs.org:
“…There is the story of Rifleman Gane Gurung, 2/3rd Gurkha Rifles, at Neuve Chapelle. A British advance was held up by a house in the middle of the village which was fortified and strongly held by German infantry. Without orders, and in an example of suicidal stupidity (and bravery), Gane alone ran across the square and burst through the front door. Everyone assumed he would shortly be dead.
There was much shooting and shouting, then silence. The front door opened and out came a file of seven large Germans, hands in the air, followed by a 5ft, 2 inches Gane with rifle and bayonet. The village was captured shortly afterwards.”
Fear In A Handful of Dust by Sevan K.Greene will run through December until January 9th at Cog ArtSpace
Fearful Response, 5 writers’ responses to Fear in a Handful of Dust, will be directed and performed at Cog ArtSpace on the 16th of December