For You. An installation by Tracey Emin. Liverpool Cathedral. 11-03-17

The thing which I find most impressive about our British cathedrals is, strangely enough, not the grandeur, the wonderful stained glass, or the majestic pillared naves inside them, it is the way that they are able to grow and change with the times. They are open, inclusive spaces which have stubbornly resisted the temptation to fossilise and this is why their congregations are growing while parish churches mostly decline. They understand that people today are not joiners. We like to find our own way and come to our own conclusions and each of us has a different starting point. There are no easy right answers. Those who are not steeped in religious culture- and that is many of us- need to be given a chance to have time out and think. A cathedral gives those who walk through the doors an opportunity to do that. Of course there are services and if you want to learn about Christianity you can do that, but you can also learn about yourself. You can sit in silence, take in the beauty and the quietness around you and work out for yourself what you think, rather than being told. In medieval times a criminal could seek sanctuary in them, and know that they were safe until the coroner arrived to bring official justice and we can still take sanctuary from our own lives in a different way. They provide a breathing space.

It is a brave thing for a cathedral to commission a modern Art work and place it centre stage in a traditional setting and it is also a brave thing for an artist to attempt. Tracy Emin’s installation under Liverpool Anglican cathedral’s west window- a huge area of stained glass with four windows covering 150 square metres by Carl Johannes Edwards was first put in place as a temporary installation in 2008 as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s European city of culture year. It is a single sentence in pink neon, in her own handwriting and it reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me.“ It is a deliberately ambiguous statement- one with great power- which allows us to bring our own needs, experiences and concerns to it and it accepts everybody. We have all given and received love, throughout our lives, in many different forms and from many different sources. We may not be able to put its meaning into words, which is why so many people keep trying, but we know what it is when we feel it.

The installation is visible from almost everywhere in the cathedral, either wholly or in part. It keeps reappearing as you walk around the space and becomes almost like a mantra, reminding us gently of the most important thing about faith and the most important and noble thing about human beings- our capacity for love.

When it was installed Tracy Emin said that she wanted to “make something for Liverpool cathedral about love and the sharing of love” and she has succeeded quite beautifully. Everything in Liverpool Anglican cathedral was placed there to express love of God and her work opens up this truth so that all people, of any faith and none, can think about what is the best part of us all. It’s title, For You, is a very personal one and it reminds us that love is a gift, rather than a decision or an obligation.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott devoted most of his adult life, from the age of 24 to his death at the age of 62, to building Liverpool Anglican cathedral from soft local sandstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and he died without seeing it completed but he was able to put the last tower finial in place. The work was finally completed in 1978 and only the west end, where the Benedicite window and the installation is set, differs from his original plan. I’m sure that Tracy Emin’s work would surprise him but I hope he would be pleased that his great project continues to inspire and grow and that it can still mean something in a much changed and much more secular world.

Fiddler on the Roof. Liverpool Everyman. 11.03.17

Patrick Brennan as Tevye. Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great show. It has one of the greatest opening numbers- Tradition- and one of the greatest lead characters- Tevye- and it draws you into the heart of a small, tight knit community before breaking your heart as you watch that community being torn apart. In a world where we have been watching this happen too often in recent years it has great resonance and poignancy. It’s a wonderful choice for the opening production of the Everyman’s new repertory company, popular and familiar without being trite or hackneyed and perfect for a small, intimate space- especially when it is set up in the round. Great writing doesn’t date and nor do characters whose humanity and relevance still remain strong. It is just over fifty years since it opened in New York, won nine Tony awards and went on to become what is still the second longest running show on Broadway. It is set in Imperial Russia in 1905, but the kind of human tragedies that it deals with have never gone away and they never will and this truth has led to it being performed all over the world ever since.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

There are no great West End voices here and no star performances- that would have unbalanced a delicate, spare production set in a small, intimate space. It is an ensemble piece by the newly formed repertory company and it is this company- and above all the theatre itself- which is the star. The actors know their characters perfectly and their energy and conviction is both charming and utterly believable. At the heart of the show is Patrick Brennan’s Tevye, a fine performance which shows us a real, conflicted man whose humour and warmth sits alongside a deep, uncompromising faith. He has the best lines, especially when talking to his God, and we are allowed to see what he is thinking.

The staging, by director Gemma Bodinetz, is simple and direct and the audience is close to the action, so close that we can almost feel part of the community that we are watching. This is not musical theatre as spectacle, where we watch from afar and marvel at lumbering stage machinery and great set pieces, it is musical theatre with heart and soul where people sing because words are no longer enough and we see the concerns of real human beings- our own concerns- reflected on stage.

Production photograph by Stephen Vaughan.

This is the first production in the new, award winning theatre by a company who have big boots to fill. Last time the Everyman had a rep company it produced a group of young actors and writers who became household names and the delight of the audience was obvious. Even for those who had been regulars at the old theatre this will still have been one of their first sightings of the new space in action and there was a real sense of joy in the air as they found that their beloved rep company had been given back to them in a theatre made magically young and beautiful again. For those involved in that process it will have been a delicate task, but they have given Liverpool back one of its treasures. It was very moving to be part of the standing ovation at the end, an ovation for the cast and the show- of course- but it was also a welcome back for the Everyman rep from a delighted city of Liverpool.

Pygmalion. Headlong/West Yorkshire Playhouse/ Nuffield theatre Southampton at Liverpool Playhouse.

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

I love Bernard Shaw’s work so if you are going to play with the text and leave out/ rewrite/ distort whole scenes of one of his best known plays, Pygmalion, and expect me to like it you are on dangerous ground. I haven’t read the reviews of the co-production I saw at Liverpool playhouse between Headlong and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but I’m quite sure that some people will not like that idea at all, however well it is done, and if the production hasn’t worked it will sink without trace. It’s a brave thing to do and the director Sam Pritchard has expected a lot of his actors and laid himself on the line. Once or twice it made me lay back my ears a bit but it still managed to carry me along and kept me onside.

Shaw himself was not afraid of comparing himself to Shakespeare and part of me thinks that he would be outraged at not being able to hear every word of his precious script. Another part of me imagines that the man who campaigned for a new phonetic alphabet would have been delighted at the playfulness and attack of the cast as they juggled accents, lip-synched recorded voices and distorted their lines in the opening scene. He would also have been delighted that his best writing was still there exactly as he wanted it and shone as brightly as ever. Doolittle’s great speech, Mrs Higgins disastrous at home- a comic masterpiece- and the moving scenes at the end between Higgins and Eliza were all (literally) showcased and given full weight allowing the actors to fly. Natalie Gavin and Alex Beckett were both heartfelt and true to the original characters and it was this that held the show together. Without their belief and commitment there would have just been two hours of a director enjoying being clever. Audiences need to have people on stage that they can relate to and understand. My heart lifted at the end when the two of them were given space to spark off each other and show some real emotion as that always impresses me far more than directors imposing their own ideas on a play. I also liked Liza Sadovy as Mrs Higgins and Raphael Sowole as Colonel Pickering very much.

The design by Alex Lowde works very well, especially the giant vitrine on stilts, which forms the set for Mrs Higgins front room and later her conservatory. It was both beautiful and appropriate for a play which is all about appearances and social conventions.

In short they were flying close to the wind to make this work- we even heard a bit of My Fair Lady from Eliza as she rode in a taxi on screen- but thanks to some truthful acting and the fact the fact that they left the best of Shaw’s writing alone they got away with it and this is a really interesting and thought provoking new look at a play that is over a hundred years old.

Generation Y.

Megan knew that she was beautiful- although she would never have said so- but she still hadn’t got used to being looked at. When people stared at her she usually thought that there might be something wrong. It took a long time in her bedroom sorting out hair, eyebrows- especially eyebrows- skin and make up to try to reduce the possibility of something wrong being noticed next time. It never dawned on her that a newly minted sixteen year old girl, stick thin with long legs and a drift of long polished hair, dark eyes and a shy way of looking at strangers was always going to attract attention. It wasn’t that she didn’t like attention, or not usually anyway, she just didn’t know how to react to it. Especially if it was a man. Boys her own age were no problem- they were just stupid. They went around with their shirts hanging out and the laces of their dirty trainers trailing in the mud. So long as they had a Superdry logo across their top they were happy. They shouldn’t have been, but they were. When men looked at her it was different. They were checking her out and it made her feel grubby. The man at the bus stop was doing that now. She looked round anxiously for her friend Katie.

Finally there was Katie, waving frantically from the other side of the road.
Arms flew into a hug.
“Stop it Katie. People will look.”
Katie didn’t mind people looking. She always wore variations on the same outfit. A flimsy dress, covered with a shapeless cardie or a long coat in winter, leggings and Doc Marten boots. Mostly black. Her dark hair was dyed an even deeper shade of black and cut very short. When she went out at night she wore a corset top. She didn’t look like anybody else and she didn’t want to. You must never, ever say that she was a Goth because that would mean she had joined in with something. Megan was in awe of her. Katie could outstare any man who looked at her and she said that she was an anarchist. She had already had sex once and announced that she didn’t like it much. Katie was exciting. She didn’t know how to look good in school uniform but give her a bit of freedom and she knew exactly how to stand out. She looked at Megan critically, taking in her outfit in a glance.
“Are you not rebelling then?”
Megan shrugged.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to look awful while I’m rebelling.”
“You are killing it!”
“My hair though.”
Katie waved her head from side to side and dropped her jaw..
Megan fiddled anxiously with the two strands of hair that she had carefully teased out to frame her face. The rest floated gently down her back in a perfectly ordered, shining, pale brown cascade. Katie rolled her eyes.
“Your hair is perfect.”
“It is so not.”
Megan had not told her mother that they were going on a demo. Sixteen was almost old enough to do as you liked but not quite. Her mother had been a punk- now that really was going around rebelling and looking awful- and that should have helped her to understand but that was a very long time ago now. Apart from a tendency to play Blondie very loudly in the afternoons while she was ironing and a few grubby photo booth portraits with her tongue hanging out you would never know.

When the bus reached the city centre people were already gathering amidst a forest of placards. Most of them said variations on “Hands off our NHS” but some were quite funny. There was a young woman in a white doctors coat carrying one that said, “this sign would look better if I hadn’t worked a seventy hour week” and a lot more children than Megan had expected. One tiny boy was being held up by his mum clutching a sign that said, “toddlers against the cuts”. It was like a party- not dangerous at all. People were happy to be there, all thinking the same thing. One voice. She started to relax. Katie ran across to a man who was giving out small blue “save our NHS” placards and brought two back.
“There you go. All ready.”
Slowly the crowd thickened, found its purpose and moved off. Katie looked at Megan anxiously.
“Sure you’ll be OK?”
Megan nodded, too full of emotion to speak. She wasn’t sure. Three months ago she wouldn’t have been. Six months ago she would have been lying in intensive care after having her rib cage cracked open and her heart cut into. The team who had replaced her defective heart valve, looked after her and brought a body who expected to die back to life were her heroes now. There were dozens of them. People from all over the world, brought together to give her a new start. From the Spanish surgeon, who had just smiled at her quietly when she thanked him, to the small woman with long dark hair who had brought warm, carefully buttered toast with a piece of kitchen roll over it to her bedside each morning for the first few days. All of them. She slipped her spare hand inside her coat to feel her heart beating. The surgeon had told her that he had given her “a good valve”. When everything was silent she could hear it ticking. Her mum had been promised that she was going to have a quiet sit down in a coffee shop with Katie. They would do that afterwards. It wasn’t a lie. She would be fine. The crowd was moving slowly and the city square where the speeches would be happening wasn’t far away.
Katie grabbed her hand.
“Good girl.”
Megan took a deep breath, filled her lungs right up, as the physiotherapists had taught her and shouted.
“Hands off our NHS! Hands off our NHS!”

To this favor.

Drawn out, withered muscles
struggle to find strength.
Veins trace their way across
parched, translucent skin.
Here is the essence of a person
laid bare, anatomised.
Life preserved, dried, made strong.
A whole being reduced to
one slow, concentrated movement.

Fierce, fixed concentration
struggles through pain,
labouring to do what once came easily,
with unnoticed skill.
Hunted, angry eyes
stare out from a private place.
A hidden wealth of knowledge
fights fiercely from the core of its being,
still vibrant, wanting to live.

“Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.”
Hamlet. Act 5 Scene I

A Shy Spring

All around me things are moving,
growing, warming, stretching.
Into the cool air and the soft ground
comes a fresh, shy Spring.

Snowdrops shaking, buds breaking.
Daisies quivering, starlings bickering.
Seeds of darkness, returning quietly,
gently, silently, reach for the sun.

In every breath my senses feel the change,
unfurling, seeking, questioning.
Led by the parade of new creation
my slow hopes creep into life.

Cracks of green in trees appearing,
patient daffodils, persevering.
Space to fill and heart to grow
the yearly tide of life will flow.

New wonders and familiar joys,
remembering, rejoicing, regretting.
Each year past Springs that I have seen
grow richer and become one.