A Warm Bank holiday.

I look down upon a thousand stories.
A gull floats, twists and soars,
sending a shadow racing across the sand.
A small girl turns cartwheels
just because she can.
A dog trots out,
tail raised, snout up-
going somewhere.

Sounds drift upwards
on the still air.
Torn from their source
and floated into the past.
We have been here before.
Other children,
other gulls,
other dogs.

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Lionel Shriver at Scarborough Book Festival. 14-04-18

I have never once been disappointed by a writer who I admire when I have seen them in person at a book event and Lionel Shriver was no exception. She is very direct, fearlessly clever and funny. I think that may be because the best writers are very much themselves in their work. If you admire what they write you are almost sure to admire them. I think that We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the great modern novels and it was a real pleasure to be able to tell her so and hear her thank me before answering my question at the end of the talk.

The event, at Books by the Beach, Scarborough Book Festival, was to promote her new collection of short stories, Property. They have been written over a period of time with that same loose overarching theme, each time a commission came in where the theme could fit, and they are now drawn together into a collection. We began with a reading from one of the stories which was sharp, witty and perceptive. Of all the writers who I have heard read their own work I think only Jeanette Winterson did it as perfectly. The narrator is describing what it is like to be “hated” and face the constant feeling of being criticised- to not fit in. “What do you do about an annoying laugh? Stop finding anything funny?”

The discussion which followed was interesting and wide ranging. One of the stories is long enough to be a novella and this is a form that she admires. I can see why as it is much like herself. No tedium. more direct- one good story with no diversions. There were some poignant thoughts related to the books theme. as the magic of having things for long time was remembered via a clockwork donkey and she pointed out that what we care about is not always what we are told is valuable. Losing money hurts more than never having it. We do not own our own lives, other people experience our life in their own ways and it isn’t possible to draw a perimeter around it.

There were some interesting thoughts about fiction in general following from a past controversy where Lionel Shriver spoke out against the idea that “cultural appropriation” was wrong. We need a well rounded, healthy, enjoyable intersect between cultures, a taboo on writing outside your own culture is wrong headed. All fiction is fakery, a matter of what you can get away with. Anyway, as she pointed out, “I don’t want to be told that I may not do it”. Any writing is either convincing or it isn’t. That is what matters. The only form of censorship for a writer which is acceptable is self censorship. Hate speech laws shut down opinions which should be out in the open to be expressed and challenged.

She said that she markets herself as a “purveyor of pessimism with humour” and it was a delight to have the opportunity to sit and listen. Going eyeball to eyeball with her from the front row to ask my question was challenging but in a way that made me feel more alive and engaged rather than threatened. If I were ever to have a full conversation with her I have no doubt at all that I would have to up my game. I liked her a lot.

Not now.

I shall sit in state
wearing my smart anorak,
flaunting a glittery stick.
I shall nod at my friends
and say hello to strangers.
I shall know the names
of people who I dislike,
have my say,
take my time.
But not yet.

I shall compare ailments
with someone who will not be bored.
I shall locate the exact position
of my aches and pains
while I watch the nice man on tv.
I shall take all morning to do a small shop.
I shall have opinions,
take umbrage……….
But not now.
Not yet.

I shall put a sticker on my door
saying, no cold callers,
peep out from behind net curtains,
and turn the heating down.
I shall deadhead my roses,
watch and be watched……….
but not yet.
Sometimes I am tempted
but please God,
not now.
Not yet.

For the time being
I shall find my own patch of sunlight
and stand in it bravely,
waiting to be noticed.
I shall take the final chocolate
from the opened box
and eat it all at once,
slurping.
I shall look back
without wondering ,
did I waste my time?
I shall survive.

Winter Solstice. Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 5-4-18

Roland Schimmelpfennig, one of Germany’s most performed playwrights, wrote Winter Solstice during 2013 and 2014 as a response to the rise of the new right in Europe. It is the story of what happens when Corinna, a naive, lonely older woman invites Rudolph, a plausible stranger who she has met on a train, into the family home of her daughter Bettina and her husband Albert. They are educated liberals, a film maker and a writer, whose marriage is under strain. It is Christmas and Rudolph doesn’t leave. To start with he is delightful in the eyes of everybody but Albert, until slowly his true nature is revealed, although we are never sure how much of what follows is real and how much is happening inside Albert’s over-medicated head.

You have to think hard to keep up with what is happening as this is a thoroughly Brechtian play, full of artifice. How the story is told is every bit as important as the story itself. It starts in a production meeting for one of Bettina’s films and we are never allowed to forget that we are in a theatre as the cast both play their characters and narrate the action. There is no set and the jumble of props and metal trestle tables from that original meeting are moved around with great speed and accuracy throughout the play to tell the story and used to signify whatever might be needed. The whole production is very cleverly directed and devised and makes some powerful and timely points about the insidious nature of populism and political manipulation- this is a play which is designed to make you think rather than touch the heart. It must have packed quite a punch when it was first seen at home in its original language. It fitted in the round at the SJT beautifully with the cast opening it out and sometimes speaking directly to the audience. I was more in awe of their technical skills than their characterisation as I watched them at work, delivering lines in and out of character at speed, making sure that everything was there in the right place at the right time and finding drama and humour in quick succession.

This was clearly a really well made piece of theatre, recast and redirected from a production that won four off West End Awards but, while I am very glad to have seen it, it wasn’t really for me any more than Brecht is. Having said that, it is the first time that a stranger has seen me in the audience, recognised me the following day and stopped me in Filey wanting to talk about a production, so they must have been doing something right. I think Roland Schimmelpfennig would probably be quite happy about that.

Napoleon Disrobed. Told by an Idiot at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 22-03-18

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Napoleon disrobed, a “comic alternative history” of what happened to Napoleon after he fell from power is a playful and inventive piece of theatre, typical of the work of Told by an Idiot, directed by Kathryn Hunter who knows a few things about theatre. It takes risks and asks its audience to go with it. It is the kind of telling that only works on stage which is always a good sign. As we see Napoleon attempting to come to terms with his loss of power and wondering who he really is, we are asked interesting questions about status, power and control in a lighthearted, absurdist way. There is a lot to enjoy, above all two technically accomplished and focused performances from Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter. They have to think fast and keep their timing perfect, both vocally and physically. Paul Hunter engages with the audience and has some moving moments where we see him as he once was while Ayesha Antoine plays a number of parts with style and charm. I was delighted to see her back here again. Kathryn Hunter has asked a lot of them- the direction is fast and often quite technically demanding. The audience are part of the action throughout and playing a character and managing the physical demands of the show while keeping it moving forward must feel a bit like juggling.

The stage itself, designed by Michael Vale, is a wooden platform which can be rocked or raked and have things hidden under it via trapdoors- a wonderful tool which the production makes full use of- and the backdrop is made of three coloured lengths of cloth forming a tricolour. It’s a clever and versatile setting.

This is a very good production- it has worked well elsewhere and it will work well again- so why did I feel that the performance I saw didn’t quite take off at the SJT? Firstly, to allow for the staging, part of the round had to be screened off so we were on three sides rather than in the round. The round at the Stephen Joseph is never a comfortable space when that has to be done. There is a sweet spot, a connection with the audience, which is lost and what is a very special space seems to sulk. Napoleon Disrobed relies on that connection and on this particular afternoon too many of the matinee audience I was part of were uncomfortable with it rather than delighted. From my seat I was looking across at the tiered audience on the other side so I didn’t have to guess about that. They were wondering what was going on rather than allowing themselves to follow a flight of theatrical fancy. It was their loss. Maybe they hadn’t read the words “comic” and “alternative” in the tag-line. The one moment which they really made work was when those who had been given paper Napoleon hats were asked to stand up,look at Napoleon and copy what he did. As they pointed and put on their hats they were serious and uncertain and the effect was genuinely eerie. If only the audience had worked as hard as the cast things might have been very different.

The Merry Go Round.

So long ago, too long ago,
when the world was new,
there were endless hours
with so much to do,
Long afternoons, gilded with sun,
so many beginnings,
a race to be run.
I sat in a blue ship
time spinning around,
sand on my feet,
ice on my tongue-
a tiny adventurer,
waving at mum.

Now I am watching
from the far side of the years,
listening to voices
which nobody else hears.
A small child scrambles
to begin a new ride,
waving and bouncing,
mum bursting with pride.
A few things have lasted,
though many are gone,
there is no bus, no motor bikes,
but the ship sails on.

Somewhere hidden
under thick layers of paint,
the times I remember
grow distant and faint.
Figures are waving,
sketched in black and white-
people I remember………..
almost out of sight.
Swirling in the shadows
as the world turns,
and the rhythm of memory,
slips away and returns.