Chips in the Rain.

There is nothing quite so perfect
as hot chips in summer rain.
Eaten, hood up, shoulders hunched
speared on a wooden fork.
The scent of happiness lifted
from underneath the sheltering lid
of a polystyrene carton,
bringing warmth to a shivering day.

The best ones are on top.
Fat sticks of golden potato,
salved with ketchup,
anointed with vinegar,
cooled by a sea borne wind.
Their fading heat comforts my mouth
with a thin coating of molten grease
and the tang of weak acid.

I stroke the bare ones,
sharing out the ketchup,
coating the bare chips
with long thin smears of pale red.
Just right. Perfect.
A small black dog watches,
lips moving anxiously.
Eyes fixed.

We eat together, delicately,
taking each chip into an open mouth
with careful attention, one by one,
until only the scraps are left
and an eager, searching, desperate mouth
bolts them down from the pavement,
excitement shivering,
all control gone.

The Tempest. RSC at the Barbican theatre.

The Tempest 2017. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have seen it quite a few times over the years but never like the current RSC production which is gracing the stage of the Barbican theatre. I am going to start by talking about the set and production design- usually a bad sign but not this time. There are moments- whole scenes even- where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the hands of the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and The Imaginarium Studios the island becomes a real character in a way that most productions can only hope for. Its noises, sounds and sweet airs become tangible, set amongst shimmering patterns of light and colour. Bravura spectacles are conjured out of thin air. I was able to watch a Prospero who really did seem to be able to do magic- a fact which made the ending all the more powerful as I had seen with my own eyes what he was giving up. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on a stage, filling the Barbican theatre with light, colour and illusion. From the moment that the huge ribs of the wooden ship which formed the set began to shake in a fierce sea, an effect created purely by a trick of the light, until Prospero’s perfectly judged, simply spoken, final speech standing in a small pool of white light, over one thousand people were held in the grip of the kind of experience that only live theatre can give you. As the applause started I looked across into the audience, surprised to remember that there were other people alongside me. All that spectacle had been stripped away, distilled down into a single figure on the stage, speaking gently to each one of us individually. If this isn’t the future of large scale theatre I’ll be astonished.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017. Mark Quartley (centre) as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Of course the real wonder of the production lies in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. It might have been tempting for an actor playing Prospero, set against that kind of spectacle, to overplay, feeling that they had to be somehow bigger, more commanding just to match up to it. Simon Russell Beale asserts himself quietly by using simple honesty and truth. He means every word that he says. He is the greatest Prospero that I have seen- and I saw Paul Schofield be wonderful in the part when I was a teenager. There is power- as in the electrifying moment when he screams in Ariel’s face, realising that Ariel has greater compassion than he can find in himself at that moment and his own magical power is not enough- but there is great gentleness and humanity too. His scenes with Miranda are tender and raw and his relationship with Ariel is both complex and heartbreaking. This is a play about mortality, a play about accepting your own limitations and those of others, a play about forgiving and letting go. It takes an actor with a big heart and great delicacy to stand at the centre of it and show us that.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017 Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Ariel is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare and in this production he is placed centre stage both as a character and within the virtual reality. We see him trapped, we see him as a giant screaming harpie, we see him tease, we see him fly. He truly is a watchful, mercurial spirit, belonging everywhere and nowhere, who is both mysterious and strange, but alongside the virtuoso special effects we also need to see and feel a real presence who sulks, does his master’s bidding eagerly or reluctantly, and who longs for his freedom. This can only come from an actor who is physically present. Mark Quartley gives a fine performance which both acknowledges his alter ego and creates a strong, vibrant, yet ethereal presence on stage. It is typical of the attention to detail which is obvious throughout the production that when he is finally released from his bondage he runs out to freedom through the one exit which has not been used at all during the show. We have no idea where he is going.

Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton have some nice moments as Miranda and Ferdinand and the comedy is well played- especially when Trinculo hides with Caliban- but it does seem a little thin in comparison to the wonders surrounding it. Jonathan Broadbent is a loathsome and believable usurping brother who deserves all he gets. There is nobody in the cast who lets the side down. It is particularly good to see the masque performed as it is often cut and it is wonderfully sung and staged. The play makes much more sense with it there.

Special effects of any kind can be a mixed blessing. they can overwhelm and take the place of real feeling and humanity. It is a real tribute to the work of the cast, and to the director Greg Doran’s deep understanding of the play that this never happens here. There is a unity of vision which allows the verse to continue to dominate and have clarity.

Just a few times in my life I have seen a production which makes me feel privileged to be there. When the play is The Tempest, one of the first Shakespeare plays that I saw as a young girl, there is a definitive central performance and my favourite character is allowed to run riot among great beauty………. well it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Giacometti. Tate Modern. 16-07-17

Man Pointing 1947 Bronze 178 x 95 x 52 cm Tate, Purchased 1949 © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

“We succeed only to the extent that we fail.”

Giacometti was born in 1901 and during a hard working and disciplined life he became one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. The major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern is the first for twenty years and we have waited far too long for it. It is a fine show. The sculptures that Giacometti has left us seem to live on for him, honouring his memory. Each one bears the marks his fingers made on their surface as he worked on them obsessionally, his presence still clings to the surface giving it life. He loved to mould clay or plaster with his hands, although his work was cast in bronze, and the austere, passionate personality of the man who worked in the same frugal studio for many years stares calmly out of everything that he made. They do not challenge us, they just are. They have dignity, grace, composure, movement and above all humanity. They are timeless.

Very Small Figurine c.1937- 1939 Plaster, traces of colour 4.5 x 3 x 3.8 cm Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Pari s © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Even the tiniest most unassuming little figure lives, although barely formed. The “very small figurine” made in 1937/39 is a tiny miracle. It is barely there at all……. yet it lives. I stood alongside a teenage boy and we both marvelled at it. The man walking across a square, a bronze figure from 1949, has determination and purpose- he is crossing that square to get somewhere- it is as though we can read his mind. The bronze dog from 1957 has great personality. He is going along at a medium lope, on his own, sniffing for stuff but he has not found anything yet. He is comfortable. He knows where he is and where he is going. It is also a saluki, one of the worlds oldest dog breeds so it can stand in for all dogs, everywhere, alive and dead, who have spent their lives doing just that. The falling man, a bronze made in 1950, has been caught in mid tumble, just before he loses balance. A moment has been freeze framed. In the final room three giant figures face us as we walk in, two women and a man. It is humbling to meet them- and yes it does feel like a meeting- and see Giacometti working on a grand scale. A grand scale which has lost none of the humanity and humility which runs through all his work.

Diego Seated 1948 Oil paint on canvas 80.5 x 65 cm Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The paintings which mostly come from his early years, are dark and shadowy, intensely worked and full of vibrating life. I didn’t like them so much as the sculpture although there is one of Jean Genet which appealed to me very much.

Pierre Matisse Giacometti working on Four Figurines on a Stand at the Tate Gallery, 1965 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017

Part way through the exhibition there is a wonderful film of Giacometti at work in his studio. He is concentrating hard, intensely tactile, fingers moulding the clay, passionate, dignified, strong and unchanging, but always humble. He used the same few subjects, a few people who were close to him, over and over again and he tells his interviewer that he could try to paint someone for a thousand years and he would end up saying “it’s still all wrong but I am getting a little nearer”. Rather than making a likeness of an individual he was paring life, and in particular humanity, down to its essence and that is a long job- not one for the faint hearted. Never have I seen work that so reflects the personality of the man who made it. I think I would have liked him very much.

The Creature of Time.

 

 

 

 

 

Clutching the darkness,
head stretched upwards towards the light,
the creature has been waiting.
Trapped.

He has known sunlight,
tasted many springs and sipped pure water.
Leaned into the wind and felt it move him.
He has been called beautiful.

Held fast by the subtle power
of the soft mud that clings
he has slept tight………….
Barely breathing.

Slowly the rain stroked his body,
loosened his ties, poured away his bonds
wiped the darkness from his empty eyes,
willing him to see.

In the midst of the storm
he roused himself,gazed around,
filled his lungs, felt the edge of the cliff calling………….
With a great howl of longing, he jumped.

Now he waits for the power of the tide,
legs braced, cold and haughty,
curious chin held high as he stares around him.
Ready for his new world.

It belongs to him.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 06-07-17

Serena Manteghi as LV. Photograph by Sarah Taylor.

The Lancashire playwright Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered at the National Theatre in 1992 to great acclaim, but it is a very Scarborough play ( the film was shot in the town) and a perfect choice for the showpiece of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer season. The writing is fresh, sharp and solidly based on character and because of this it hasn’t dated, even though it looks back at a very different world. Little Voice (LV) is a touching, birdlike character with a great talent, marooned amongst louder, coarser people who do not see her personal worth, only a talent which can be used for their own ends. She is vulnerable, easy to manipulate and potentially damage, hidden in her room grieving over her dead father’s record collection. She has little connection with the outside world until her gift is discovered by chance and a local theatrical agent on the make and her out of control, needy mother, push her into performing. She deserves so much more from life and as we watch her story play out and become darker we long for her to get it.

LV is a great part, an unusual one which must be quite hard to cast. It is the kind of part which can make a career take off, as it did for Jane Horrocks in the original production, and it demands a lot of the actress playing it, in particular great truth which needs to shine out in a grotesque and unforgiving world. Serena Manteghi gives us a delicate and subtle performance which does this perfectly, lighting up the small space and also providing a welcome relief from the performances around her which are all very good indeed but sometimes a little overplayed for the space that they find themselves in. The Stephen Joseph has its own very particular and unusual dynamic and this is all too easy to do. Less is more.

I found LV’s mother Mari Hoff almost as hard to take as she does. Polly Lister takes the part by the scruff of the neck and shakes it mercilessly, until she is finally made to face her self deception and vulgarity. It is a brave performance and it needs to be. I liked Sean McKenzie’s performance as Ray Say more and more as the play went on. Ray begins as a cliche but the writing gives opportunities for the actor to go beyond this and he made the most of some great moments. Gurgeet Singh was quietly touching as LV’s admirer Billy, a young telephone engineer who is as shy and awkward as she is, and the ending between the two of them, where he encourages LV to find her own voice, was gentle, satisfying and perfectly played.

I have been seeing shows at the Stephen Joseph for over thirty years now and it was a great pleasure to see how Paul Robinson, the new artistic director, used the space, placing LV’s bedroom hideaway up above one of the voms and sending Billy up into the lighting rig and control box. This kind of invention is very much in the tradition of the “old” Stephen Joseph before the theatre moved to its current site in what was the Odeon cinema and we have not seen enough of it lately. It is the kind of creativity which has always been possible here- one which can float a cabin cruiser in a tiny space or make a house with two stories live in two dimensions- and it is what will keep the SJT alive in difficult times.

Short Story: The Adoption.

It had been the usual quiet, airless afternoon in Brenda’s sitting room; tea and chocolate digestives set out on a tiny side table, the television blinking silently and the fresh air of the outside world held at bay by window locks and net curtains. Joan had pottered her way across the road, as she did every Thursday, with her nice scarf and her best skirt on and they were sitting together in comfort, rehearsing the same conversation, until “their” programme came on at four o’clock. That was the part they looked forward to most, when they could sit up straight and give opinions about the contestants. You were supposed to want everybody to win, but they didn’t. Not always. That was what happened on Thursday afternoons and that was exactly how they liked it. Familiarity was something to cling to, a comfort late in life, when the world was filled with loss and change, but this afternoon was going to be different. Joan had been thinking, and she had decided it was time to come out with her secret.
“Did I ever tell you I was adopted?”
Brenda blinked anxiously. The truth was she couldn’t remember whether Joan had told her that or not, but if she said so that would be rude. She forgot all sorts of things these days but surely not something like that. What if Joan had already told her about it? It often happened. They both liked to repeat themselves and if Joan had told her before it was not the sort of thing you were supposed to forget. That would be rude. It would look as though she wasn’t bothered……… or senile.
“Adopted? I don’t think so.”
Joan nodded.
“I thought not. Yes, adopted.”
There was a silence. The china dogs on the fireplace stared.
“Go on then.”
“I was in Dr Barnado’s to start with, until just before I was four, then after that I was fostered with Aunty Margaret and Uncle Fred. Then this one morning they fetched me into the front room- where we never usually went- and there were these two women there. It was the day before my sixth birthday so I thought it was something to do with that. A surprise. Well I got a surprise all right. I’d never seen either of them before but they knew all sorts about me. They knew my name, Millicent-”
“Millicent?”
“Yes, that’s who I am really- Millicent. They told me I had to be Joan. So that’s what I’ve been all these years- Joan.”
The last word was spat out.
“You’d rather have been Millicent then?”
Joan took no notice. Of course she would rather have been who she really was. Wasn’t that obvious? Her voice grew in confidence as she carried on talking, using a quite different tone to the one she used when she was talking about the shortcomings of the neighbours. When she had mentioned being adopted to her other friend, three doors down, she had been told to “put it behind her” and that wasn’t right. Sixty five years was nothing. Nothing at all. She wasn’t going to let Brenda do the same thing. She had something to say and she was going to say it.
“Anyway these two women were there and one of them turned out to be my mam-
“Your mam?”
“Well not my real mam, the woman who I ended up calling mam and my Auntie Jean. They took me away on a bus. We went ever so far. My things had all been packed without telling me- my teddy and everything. They showed him to me so I knew where he was. The bus windows were mucky and I tried to look out but I couldn’t see where we were properly, then it started to rain. Eventually the bus stopped at the bottom of a big hill, Weathersley hill in Stanshaw-”
“I know where that is.”
“You would do. Right next to where I was going to go to school only I didn’t know that then- I walked up and down that hill every day for years. We got off the bus. I just held on tight to her hand- the one with the nice hat on, in case I got lost and the one I called mam later on carried my bag. I didn’t even know I was stopping for good. Not till later on.
We went in the front door of number thirty six and straight into the kitchen. There was this man standing there. I can tell you just where he was standing. You remember those kitchen units with sliding doors and table parts you could pull down?”
Brenda did remember.
“We had one of those. Light blue it was.”
“Well this one was pale yellow and he was standing right next to it. The table part was pulled down and he was standing there with his cap on inside the house. Just looking at me. Then he held out his hand and gave me half a crown. they made me walk towards him like a little dog and say thank you. It was the only time he ever gave me money. I only found out he was my real dad years later. I don’t know if anybody else even knew that to start with. There was nothing on the birth certificate.”
Brenda looked down and shook her head. How could you not know your real dad when he was standing in front of you? What would it be like to be right next to him without knowing? She wondered whether to offer another cup of tea. The clock ticked. Joan went on talking.
“I had to give all my wages to my mam right up until I was eighteen. When I wanted to get married they said I couldn’t because they needed my wages. All those years paying for my keep and more. As if they were doing me a favour. I didn’t ask to be there. I kept wanting to go back home.”
“You did get married though. You married Jack.”
“Well they couldn’t stop me in the end. Not once I was twenty one. It was when I was fourteen I found the letter.”
“What letter?”
“One from Aunty Margaret asking me how I was.”
“That’s nice.”
“They’d told me they were both dead.”
“No!”
“To shut me up I suppose. He came in and saw me with the letter. Grabbed it off me and said it would go straight into my adoption file.”
“Wicked.”
It was addressed to me.”
This was wrong. They were both big believers in the royal mail and liked to talk about the post even though they hardly got any, so they knew that. Brenda shook her head.
“Course they’ll all be dead now.”
Neither of them could quite bring themselves to say out loud that this was a very good thing but they both thought it.
“They never hit me.”
Brenda’s father had hit her but only when she deserved it. She had been loved. Not the way that kids got loved- spoiled- nowadays. Endless treats, dressing up as princesses, having their photograph taken every time they came back in the room. She frowned.
“I should think not!”
“Anyway it didn’t matter. I’d taken note of the address while I was standing there. I got my friend to go with me and when we got there I remembered it all- I took her straight there. Just knocked on the door. This strange woman answered it, looked straight at me and said, “you’re Millicent aren’t you?” I said “yes”. Nobody had called me that for years. I’d only seen it written down.”
“Your Auntie Margaret.”
“No, I never did find out who that woman was or how she knew. Aunty Margaret must have talked about me. They’d moved three doors down. They were that pleased to see me.”
“They would be.”
“I used to go back and see them every so often after that. I never told anybody- not even years later.”
Joan was staring straight at her and Brenda knew that she was waiting for her to say something, but what could she say? She had a feeling that this was a conversation that was only going to happen once- unlike most of what they said to each other- and she had to be sure to say the right thing. Margaret had brought all the sadness and anger that she had held in from years back and placed it squarely in the middle of her sitting room. The hurt was seeping out, souring the still air and spoiling everything. It made her feel like opening a window to let it out. Of course it wasn’t Joan’s fault and she couldn’t ask her to go home, certainly not just before their programme.
“That’s nice that you kept in touch.”
“Yes.”
Joan wondered if Brenda had really listened. Never mind. It had been said.
“Are you going to switch the sound up?”
Brenda smiled.
“Right you are, Millicent.”

 

The Dark Self. Susan Aldworth at York St Mary’s.

Sleep is a great subject for Art. Mysterious, unknowable but vital to our health and well being sleep is an experience which we all share. It is the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. We ask each other about it, talk about it, worry about it and attempt to find meaning in our dreams. It is a central part of our lives which we have no control over, our secret self, or as Susan Aldworth calls it in in her exhibition at York St Mary’s this summer, The Dark Self.

St Mary’s is an atmospheric space, a decommissioned church, which responds to beauty and mystery and this exhibition fills the space with both. The soundscape provided by composer Barney Quinton for the film installation, Dormez Vouz, unifies the whole space into a single experience as you walk around and makes it into a place for dreams. The film is both haunting and surreal- much like sleep itself- and you find yourself pulled into a slower, meditative way of being as you look at it, taken down into different world.

Susan Aldworth’s monoprints are both gentle and beautiful and the pillowcases, embroidered by 414 individual embroiderers from all over the country which hang in the central space and form the work 1001 Nights have dignity and presence. They are old pillowcases, with a history, used and slept on, and each person has made a kind of testimony as they sewed. They are all different, all unique to the person who made them and together they make a statement about our common experience and how we see it. It’s a fascinating piece which is both a piece of community Art and a work particular to the artist whose vision brings them together and allows them to speak with one voice.

I think the piece I loved most was the sculpture Evidence of Sleep III, five white porcelain pillowcases which rested calmly in a sunlit corner under a mullioned window. They were not quite what they seemed, hard porcelain masquerading as softness and comfort, and that deception and sense of mystery seemed exactly right.

This exhibition is a beautiful breathing space in the centre of the city for the whole summer while is is thronged with visitors and I shall make sure that I get back to it whenever I can.