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.
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
You’ve left the building.
You didn’t let us know you were going.
I was hoping to see you do another Moliere, another Plank, another something unexpected.
Don’t mistake me, I hardly saw you in half the stuff you did – but the little I saw, I remember with affection and a wish to see more; that quirkiness, that sense of surrealism – something quietly trotting by, like a genteel tabby cat which suddenly stands up and tickles you under the chin, saying: ‘There, you weren’t expecting that, were you?’ before padding on its way, turning half-way down the road with backward glance to see if you’ve caught on.
As they say, the eyes have it. And it’s never over-played. Add to that, the sheer devilish delight in surrealism for the sake of it, a ceaseless creativity… and a cross-word puzzler to boot. Now why doesn’t that surprise me?
‘Desperate charm of a con-man on the run’
‘King of the visual gag’
‘Angel of the Age’
You’ve heard it all already.
I am just grateful they showed that programme about you – with some choice excerpts from your works. There’s an early black and white clip from that series you did with your ‘identical twin sister’ – you were the driver, she the conductress – only in this episode, you’d had your bus taken away from you. Undaunted, you both went out, and collected your passengers, the conductress tingling the bell at each stop, all walking in unison, greeting and saluting the commuters as they hopped on and off on their three-hour walk – staunch in the face of obstruction and petty bureaucracy, nothing was going to prevent them on their morning ritual, however long it might take. A brief clip, but immediately evocative of classics such as Passport to Pimlico; – that impishness, born of an untrammelled imagination, combined with a sense of quiet, civil anarchy that comes naturally to a nation which has seen its own evolution pass through both civility and anarchy in fairly recurring circles over several centuries. You managed to encapsulate all that in a few seconds of film. How? How did you do that?
But never mind how, – just keep it up, I would say – only …
You’ve left the building.
Without a word.
Without so much as a by-your-leave.
Some of us were only just getting to know you. More, I hope, will get to know you. Was it interval-time at the theatre? An unfinished game of golf you had suddenly remembered? I hope you had sandwiches ready-packed. And a full thermos-flask.
So, happy tee-off, in your lunch break. Mind, we shall expect you back soon, somehow.
Meanwhile, many happy chuckles of the day to you, wherever it is you have gone. (What did happen to the goldfish, I wonder? Oh, and the cuckoo clock ….You see? So many questions left unanswered ….)