Speak Bitterness. Live stream from Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin. 18-10-14

Truth and reconciliation … Forced Entertainment's Speak Bitterness.

Production photograph by Hugo Glendinning.

Forced Entertainment’s show Speak Bitterness is a strange piece of theatre. It flies in the face of a lot of the normal assumptions about what makes theatre work. It is an unbroken six-hour long ( six-hour long- just think about that for a minute) catalogue of the failings of humanity, great and small, both as individuals and as societies. There is no narrative drive, no characterisation and it is diffuse and rambling, visually stark, with little use of technique and not a hope of any kind of coup de theatre. The six actors move around, choosing and reading aloud what appear to be verbatim quotes on a mass of A4 sheets of paper which are strewn around the set, both on the floor and across a long table. They come and go as it seems good to them, resting, fading into the background, listening, watching, or taking on the action as they please. It really shouldn’t work. So why does it?

Sadly I was not sitting in the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. If I had been I am quite sure that it would have seemed a very different piece. So different that I think I would be able to watch it there again as though I had never seen it before. Six hours in the same small space with a group of actors (even though the piece is designed so that you may come and go) would have made it an entirely new experience. I watched it at home via a live stream and during the six hours I also cooked and ate a simple meal and wandered down the road to take a picture of a sunset. During all this time, from five o’clock in the afternoon to eleven o’clock at night, the relentless catalogue of human shortcomings continued. As my partner asked quite pointedly several times when he wandered in, “has anything happened yet?” In strict theatrical terms the answer was no, and yet……………

As we listen to the quotes read out a series of threads, repetitions, rhythms and correspondences begin to emerge. Some are everyday, banal reasons for shame, (we could not program the VCR) some are horrifying, (we switched the medication when the nurse wasn’t looking) and some are single sentences hiding a whole story which we will never be told, (some of the letters we wrote weren’t even in our own handwriting). They range from the deeply personal to the political, from the trivial to the profound, and as we listen we begin to wonder if those two things are as far apart as we had imagined. Those individual, small human failings are the same ones which lead on to greater social breakdown and tragedy. It is all one. It is as if the actors are picking their way through a pile of discarded evidence, sorting helplessly through what has been left after a horribly flawed humanity has departed, having confessed their inadequacy. As time passes we come to “know” the individual actors and pick out their contrasting styles and characters. We watch as they become tired, are able to understand how they are working together and feel their relationships with each other. What begins as a series of simple statements of failure, sometimes hectoring, sometimes quietly honest or amusing, becomes something deeper as things fall apart and the sense of intimacy and collusion with the audience grows.

Speak Bitterness doesn’t respond to the usual measures of what makes a piece of theatre work, but it is something quite remarkable all the same. I am very glad that I had the chance to see it.

The Twilight of Memory.

I have seen things that you will never see,
heard things that you will never hear,
been to places that have disappeared in the mist.
Don’t imagine that it didn’t happen
just because you were not there.
I have lived.

My memories walk with me,
holding me up,
helping me along,
filling my days.
Thoughts of half remembered summers
warm me,
caressing my face,
comforting me.
I stretch out my hands
towards the log fires of my youth,
and watch the sparks
chase away through the darkness
of the chimney breast.

The present is cold and unforgiving.
I step out of my front door, unseen.
There are things I could say,
but they will not ask.
Things I could do
but my body lets me down.
Things I know,
that I keep to myself.
I am left to go quietly,
listening and wondering
at this strange new world.

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On the York train.

It was going to be a full train. The woman, anxious, thin, well to do, wanted to get her frail, elderly mother settled. The journey was a worry. Her mother was saying nothing, letting her daughter sort things out for her, clutching her glittery stick.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
The young man, who had been absorbed in the blue light of his ipad, glanced to one side.
“No you’re fine”.
The woman’s body sagged with relief. She turned back to her mother.
“You sit here then. I’m going to leave these bags with you. Is that all right?”
Her mother sank into the seat silently and allowed the luggage to be placed around her feet. She had the long angular bones of someone who had been beautiful in her youth, now transformed into the fragility of dry twigs by old age.
“I’ll come and find you at York.”
The daughter disappeared off down the carriage and her mother stared quietly at the back of the seat in front of her. Slowly the rush died down. A rather pompous middle aged lady appeared at the last minute, clutching her ticket.
“I think that’s my seat.”
She waved her ticket at the young man, sure that he was sitting in her seat.
He looked at her mildly.
“The way it works is this. I should be sitting in the other seat but I’ve let this lady sit there.”
The mother just watched, taking it all in, saying nothing. Her daughter appeared from nowhere.
“Is there a problem? You can sit in this seat over here instead. Is that all right?”
The pompous middle aged woman, mortified to have caused a fuss, quickly agreed that it was. Her self righteous wish to get what was due to her had vanished in a puff of embarrassment.
The elderly man sitting next to me had been watching. He was very smart, shirt, tie, jacket and neatly cut hair. He saw my book, wondered whether it was any good and wanted to talk. He was eighty six and he was a big reader. Dickens, Shakespeare, all sorts. He had lost his book in the cafe where he had had his breakfast but he wasn’t bothered because it was rubbish. He searched in his carrier bag and found his leather bookmark.
“I’ve still got this, see, I thought I’d lost that as well. That’s one good thing.”
We both agreed that this was, indeed, a good thing and talked about Dicken’s characterisation and how it made good television. He liked Solzhenityn too. I said that I hadn’t read much Russian literature but I probably should read Crime and Punishment before too long. He nodded.
“I read that. Miserable lot the Russians. Always worrying.”
After a few minutes silence while we both contemplated the poor, miserable people drinking their vodka in draughty shacks on the snowy Russian steppes he started to tell me about his travelling.
“My son says he never knows where I’m going to pop up next. I’ve been all over. I went on a cruise to Spain last year. Very nice. It’s not the same without my wife though. She’s in a nursing home. Had a bad stroke. It’s not the same on your own.”
It must be hard and I said so. Even so, his detailed knowledge of the Manchester transport system suggested that he didn’t let this stop him getting out and about. There was no need for pity.
The cheerful guard, who had announced at Malton that we were on the York train and if we wanted to go to Scarborough that was “tough” informed us that we were now approaching York. My companion listened to the long list of platforms and connections that followed with interest. The elderly lady began to unfold her legs from around the lugggage and picked up both bags with some difficulty and more determination. With a fixed look on her face she headed towards the door of the train. Soon afterwards her daughter appeared. She frowned at the empty seat.
“Has she gone?”
The young man grinned.
“Yes she has.”
The daughter sighed. It would be so much easier if her mother just did as she was told.
“Thanks for your help earlier on.”
“No problem.”

The Conquerer.

I am holding a horse chestnut tree
in the palm of my hand.
The ground under my feet
is strewn with potential,
laden with chances,
bursting with promise.

Small bundles of waiting life
have been thrown out into the cool air,
a gauntlet challenge to the future.
The tree has chosen fragments of its life force,
wrapped them in carefully inscribed skins of polished wood.
and sent them flying.

Only the strongest will survive.

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In Helmsley Walled Garden.

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In the cool damp of a mid ~September afternoon
The garden is using all its senses.

The scent of a thousand nameless flowers
creeps through the mist as the rain strokes the leaves.

A few hardy bees drain summer’s nectar
down to the last, elusive drop.

A garish shout of dahlias scorns the dwindling light,
flaunting themselves like blowsy matrons.

A fading sunflower turns its head,
searching for what remains of the sun.

A flock of Goldfinches chatter a path across the borders,
dipping and plundering.

Slowly the ragged tints of autumn are catching fire
among the soft pastels of a sumer that is loath to leave.

Only the seed heads keep their thoughts close, swaying smugly.
Tomorrow is their secret.

In Ampleforth Abbey.

Silence becomes something tangible,
something active,
something real.
The smallest sound cries out in pain
ricocheting off the walls,
demanding attention.

This is a vaulted store of mystery,
a repository of unspoken needs and requests
sent out into the empty air
by those who have come and gone.

Light falls softly on pale stone
shattering coloured glass into action.
The thin sound of a tiny bell
shivers in the air.

The long lines of hard pews
hold the memories of those who sat there,
believing or wondering.
The bored, shuffling, anxious faithful.

Unlit candles,
Empty lecterns
Silent choir stalls,
the veiled dome on the altar,
have time to spare.
They can wait.
Steadily the space breathes out,
heavy with longing.

I breathe in the smell of dust,
burning wax,
heavy fabrics,
old books.
The scent of history.

Solemn faces from the past
people the emptiness.
Questioning, watching, enduring.
I have no answers for them.

Suddenly the organ explodes into swirling cadences.
The walls vibrate, savouring the sound.
The empty space lifts up its head,
remembering,
and the unseen multitude around me
stand to sing.

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