Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber

Just like Uncle Bulgaria I’m behind “The Times.” (Only people of a certain vintage will get that!) I’ve just realised that Emma Rice’s production of Wise Children is going on tour next year. I’m thankful for this as I wanted to see it at The Old Vic in London but I’m watching the pennies and couldn’t really justify the trip. So, Storeyhouse in Chester it is. A ticket has been purchased and I’m thrilled to see Angela Carter’s last novel brought to stage by the innovative director, Emma Rice.

So, who is Angela Carter? I recorded a BBC documentary about her recently; one of Britain’s greatest writers, she was an independent-minded woman, outspoken and challenging of the authorities. If you can find a copy of it, I recommend watching it. She was born in Sussex in 1940 and read English at Bristol university. She had a prolific writing career and all multi-layered tales, which were quirky and sometimes vulgar in style, were highly thought of and received critical acclaim. She died of lung cancer in 1992, aged just 51.

When I visited Bath a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Christopher Frayling’s book – Inside The Bloody Chamber. It’s a wonderful insight into Angela Carter, her work, other weird tales and the Gothic genre. When I read English Literature at UCLanc I chose the gothic novel as one of my options…I quickly ending up reading the list of books and not bothering with the lectures (once again concern arose that books of such beauty would be pulled apart and the overall effects lost.)

“I would really like to have had the guts and the energy and so on to be able to write about people having battles with the DHSS. But I haven’t. I’ve done other things. I mean, I’m an arty person. Okay, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what…”

Angela Carter – interview with Kim Evans for the BBC

Christopher Frayling, historian and broadcaster, was a close friend of Angela Carter, and throughout the pages of this book that friendship is documented via both Carter’s literary works and personal correspondence with Frayling from the time she was living in Bath in the 1970s. It was during this time that she wrote many of her important literary works, The Sadeian Woman, The Passion of New Eve and The Bloody Chamber, from which the book gets its title.

The book is a collection of essay’s, articles and lectures which mirror many of the stories within The Bloody Chamber and cover all sorts of topics, from Hitchcock and Hammer horror films, Freud, Disney, The Hound of the Baskervilles and of course, vampires! It gives wonderful insight into the mind of Angela Carter, but also that of the horror story. Disney’s version of Snow White is well known all over the globe, but the tale was based on Snowdrop, translated by the Brothers Grimm (published 1823) which was a darker and more sadistic tale than Disney’s saccharine portrayal of a princess and her helpers. It is these investigations into tales and back stories, alongside the beautiful woodcut prints scattered amongst the text, which make this an appealing book for all lovers of the Gothic.

The Bloody Chamber and other stories is a fairy tale book like no other. It comprises of ten short stories which are reminiscent of some of the more popular tales we were told as children. But these stories are not for children. They are works of serious re-imagining, bringing sexual unease into the cruel world of the original fairy tales, making them darker and more twisted than the tales collected and recollected by the Brothers Grimm. What store lies in wait for the new bride in the bloody chamber, and what has happened to her husband’s previous wives? “I was seventeen and knew nothing of the world; my Marquis had been married before, more than once, and I remained a little bemused that, after those others, he should now have chosen me.”

Beauty and broken promises can destroy the life of the heartbroken Mr Lyon, whilst a game of cards changes the fortune of beast and betrothed. If you thought your cat was just a sleepy companion then you are wrong… “So may all your wives, if you need them, be rich and pretty; and all your husbands, if you want them, be young and virile; and all your cats as wily, perspicacious and resourceful as: PUSS-IN-BOOTS.” Never trust the smile on a sleeping feline.

These tales create a unique world of fantasy and show a writer with great imagination that the imperious reader may take instant dislike to. They break the chains of the righteous and have a dynamic energy because of that.

“What a joy it is to dance and sing.”

So, what will Emma Rice bring to the stage in Wise Children, Carter’s final novel? It is a tale about twins Dora and Nora Chance. It is Shakespeare’s birthday, it is also their 75th birthday, and in a bizarre coincidence it is the 100th birthday of their father and his twin brother. The tale could be heralded as Dora’s memoirs as she looks back through her life, to when her father was a prolific Shakespearean actor, who didn’t publicly acknowledge his daughters; instead the world believed they were the offspring of his brother instead.

Reviews at The Old Vic have been well received, saying it is a night of magic and stardust.

I’ll get back to you about that, in March, after I’ve had a chance to watch it for myself!

Dates and information about the tour can be found by clicking here:


Saturday, 3 November 2018

Arguments for a Theatre - Barker

After I had watched Don Carlos for the first time, I told Tom Burke how much I had enjoyed the play and in particular the work of Friedrich Schiller. I was glad he had introduced me to his work. It was a revelation to me, not only reading Schiller’s plays, but also the Aesthetical Essays of Frederich Schiller, the Philosophical Letters of Frederich Schiller; his short stories and poetical works which all promoted the ideals of Enlightenment – to celebrate the beauty of life, and to oppose all forms of tyranny. I confessed to loving Schiller, and further confessed that I wasn’t overly fond of another popular playwright. I have seen, and continue to see his work, but it never fills me with the same ebullience as Schiller does.

It was then that Tom told me what ARA’s next project would be. I was desperately hoping he was working on something else, but said nothing, just smiled and laughed that I was sure I would enjoy it. What I really wanted to say was “WHHHAAATTTT? You’ve set up your own theatre company! You could do anything you wanted! You could perform Howard Barker plays but you’re going to do what EVERY theatre company under the sun does!” But I kept quiet, it’s not my place to dictate what he does and I’m sure he is doing what he wants, it just doesn’t fit into my bucket list of plays that I want Tom to do – but that’s my problem, not his! I’m sure Tom and Gadi will apply a suitable twist to their next venture that will make me enjoy the production.

A week or so later, I got an email alert about various newspaper articles, one of which was an interview with Tom Burke in The Telegraph. A particular paragraph stopped me in my tracks 

“There will also be more from Ara, with Burke keen to stage the work of Howard Barker, whose tales of sex and violence have made him persona non grata at several lofty British arts institutions, even though he is worshipped in Europe.” 

YESSSSS! There is a God after all, I just hope the reporter got that bit right! After all, it’s Tom’s fault I became a fan of Barker in the first place. Just like Schiller, I hadn’t heard of Barker, but about three years ago I had the bright idea of reading the plays that Tom had done earlier in his career. I remember being in Prague, in the “chicken tea room” reading Gertrude The Cry. I was happily absorbed in the book when I suddenly realised that not only does Barker liberally uses the word c**t, but his language is often very coarse. Now this doesn’t bother me…or I thought it didn’t…but it suddenly occurred to me as another flask of hot water appeared on the table beside me, that often the coarsest of lines are written in capital letters and seem to leap off the page! Now, if you don’t read the passages in context, they can seem a little, erm…extreme?! “OMG what must people think I’m reading?” I thought in horror as I shuffled round the table to a lower, squashier chair where no-one could read over my shoulder!

Despite this overwhelming moment of self-consciousness, I finished Gertrude and started on Scenes from an Execution. Set in Venice, I was hooked right from the start, (there are posts throughout the blog on those book reviews,) and there in Prague, over a pot of green tea in an old saggy chair, my love for Barker began. When I returned home I visited the internet and found Oberon books had published several volumes of his collected plays. I bought Plays One which contained Scenes From An Execution which I read again, and three further plays, Victory (an ethical voyage of a widow during the English Civil War) The Europeans (An Islamic woman fighting for her identity) and The Possibilities (a series of short, disturbing moral dilemmas). 

The plays were challenging to read as they had some disturbing, moralistic questions to consider; and that’s what I enjoyed…the ambiguity. I didn’t feel that Barker was trying to tell me what to think, I felt as though he was telling me I was allowed to think. And I think that is why I don’t like some texts and some playwrights. Too many lecturers have torn apart great pieces of literature for me, telling me what the answer is. The lecturers were right. I was wrong. You could think for yourself, but only if you came up with the right answer…and I always found that difficult, because I view literature and the theatre like any other piece of art. It should be subjective, it should speak to you as an individual. But then, I’ve had art teachers who have told me my perceptions of paintings are wrong too!

I’ve just finished reading Barker’s “Arguments for a Theatre.” It appears to be a timely choice of text. The book contains a series of essays, poems and Barker’s thoughts about theatre and it is a book I’ve dipped in and out of over the last couple of months. It’s interesting because whilst he discusses his work, he still keeps a high level of ambiguity about the nature of each play he cares to discuss, it is for the audience to deliver their own judgement. His plays are unconventional, they are intellectually stimulating and I realised this most profoundly after seeing In the Depths of Dead Love. My friend Nikki is also an ardent Barker lover and she noticed that a Barker play was being performed in London. Finding a Barker play is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, but find it we did in a quirky theatre, The Print Room @ The Coronet.  

After buying a couple of beers from behind a piano (???!!!) we sat down on a double bed that was in the centre of the “bar” area. A couple of chaps came over and sat with us and told us they would probably only stay until the interval…this was after all a Barker play. It was doubtful they could stomach a whole evening of it. But stomach it they did because we saw them leave at the end of the show and so we ribbed them about it. We then had a short but enjoyable conversation about the play, which was interesting because Barker has been quoted that in writing a play, it “is immune to discussion…eliminate debate…replaces arguments.” (pg 75 3rd ed) Here, there were four people discussing the play, but not in the conventional sense. No-one was trying to correct each other. No-one was trying to prove they understood what was going on. Instead four people were divided in their opinions, not only within the group, but also within themselves as thought processes contradicted themselves.

It is interesting that the British press are dismissive about Barker, they see him as nihilistic and unorthodox, writing obscure plays that serve to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Barker is the Yin to the Yang of the safe, fun, humanistic theatre that audiences are more familiar with. They don’t want to recoil in horror at human nature, audiences want to be entertained not disturbed, they don’t want to face the immorality of the human condition. I think that’s why I enjoy reading Barker and why I would like to see more of his work staged. We all like to think of ourselves as nice people, but we’re not. Even the nicest people will hang their friends out to dry if it means them getting what they want…it’s just that some people abhor the thought of facing their true selves. It is much easier to lie to yourself, it is harder to be honest to yourself and those around you, and therefore to watch safe theatre is preferable to coming face to face with yourself in a Howard Barker text.

Arguments for a Theatre is an articulate look at the reception of Barker’s work, each essay a thought-provoking piece for all theatre lovers to sit and ponder. Barker is quite clear about our culture who does not know what to do with his work, and that probably explains why he writes the plays that he does. On language in drama (pg 29 3rd ed) he explains the use of his “obscene” language with considered logic which shows why it works in his dramas, why it isn’t offensive.  He sees theatre as an art form, and in view of my own thoughts on theatre, maybe that’s why I feel an affinity with his work. I see Howard Barker as an exhibitor in Tate Modern rather than The National Gallery. You know where you are with a Monet, or Constable; they are safe works, understandable, you can see what the artist hopes to achieve. Take the safe confines away though, and people start to struggle with art. A cow in formaldehyde, is that art? Until I witnessed it for myself I thought it was a horrific idea, but standing there, actually facing it up close, I witnessed an inner beauty to the exhibit and various thought processes tore through me. I don’t eat meat, I should hate it, it was a waste of life…but was it? This cow would never grow old – it’s beauty and innocence preserved for ever. It was a difficult exhibit to witness, but I was more open minded having seen it and rather annoyed with people who haven’t seen it telling me I was wrong to like it.

Let’s take an easy example of art in a simplistic form. I used this analogy at Don Carlos when we were discussing our opinions of the play v’s the terrible reviews in the days newspapers. There’s a pile of bricks in an exhibition area and how four people look at the same pile of bricks with differing opinions.

Person One: “How the f*** do people get away with calling that art? I’ve got a pile of bricks in my back yard. Is that art? How come this is art but my bricks aren’t art? Why can’t I sell my brick for s***loads of money when this robbing git can?”

Person Two: “That’s so sad. Those bricks were once some great building, and now look at them. Torn down. Reduced to rubble. Decay. Destruction. That’s the problem with the world today. Nothing’s sacred anymore. It’s just wanton destruction.”

Person Three: “They look like bricks, but in reality they show hope, a future…what could be. Those bricks are the building blocks of our society, what we can make from them, what we can achieve. They could be the next cancer hospital, or they could be affordable housing, they could be a new school…the possibilities are endless.”

Person Four: “Hmm. Bricks. Where’s the artists notes about this exhibit? Ah yes, now I know what it’s all about. Well yes of course it is art, and it’s not about decay or rebirth, it’s pretty obvious when you look at it really…”

Which of these people are in the right? All of their opinions are valid. Even person number four. They want to educate themselves, but they also don’t want to appear stupid in case their gut feeling is not the same as the person next to them. This only falls down when they speak to someone who does speak from the heart (or gut) and they pompously tell them they’re wrong – they know what the artist was thinking. If it was down to me, I wouldn’t have artists notes, the work should speak for itself – we shouldn’t need detailed explanations as to what thought process was going on when the work was created. And that brings us back nicely to Schiller…in his various letters and essays he explained his work to a non-understanding audience. A shame really…much better to watch and draw your own conclusions.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Thick as Thieves - Theatr Clwyd, Mold

In the lead up to the opening of Don Carlos at the Northcott theatre in Exeter, Tom Burke has been telling reporters of his passion for regional theatre and why he set up his new theatre company Ara, with his friend, director Gadi Roll. When I saw Tom after one of his performances as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, I told him that he should think about doing a production at my local theatre, Theatr Clwyd. It was only when speaking with him that I realised just how passionate I was about my little theatre "in the middle of nowhere." (Owen Teale had once remarked how amazing it was to perform Macbeth in the middle of nowhere to a sell-out crowd!)

In the last twelve months, I‘ve noticed that my theatre trips to London have decreased, and my trips to Theatr Clwyd have increased. A lot of this has to do with the work of Tamara Harvey and Liam Evans-Ford who have helped to reignite the theatre. They have been instrumental in bringing new theatre experiences to the region with headline productions such as “The Assassination of Katie Hopkins” and “Home I’m Darling” a co-production with The National Theatre. I was lucky enough to go to a Q&A session after watching Home I'm Darling. I loved it when I heard that the chap from The National had visited, taken one look at the set and remarked he could never have afforded to build that type of set back in London.

What many people don’t realise about Theatr Clwyd, is that when it opened in the 70’s, (& through to the mid 80’s,) it housed a TV studio and was home to HTV Wales. It was meant to be a Regional Arts Centre and therefore it had facilities to make costumes and build its own sets. Whilst the 1400 seat concert hall never came to fruition, the Theatr Clwyd we see today houses a cinema, a gift shop selling local arts and crafts, a bistro restaurant, art galleries and four live performance venues. It is also one of the few remaining theatres which still make their own sets and costumes. Not bad for a little town in North Wales!

Another Bold Piece of Theatre

Thick as Thieves is a new drama by Katherine Chandler and co-produced by Theatr Clwyd and Clean Break theatre company. Clean Break was founded by two women prisoners in 1979. They wanted to create stories that women could relate to and that audiences would find thought-provoking about the injustices women face in the criminal justice system.

A meeting between Roisin McBrinn (Clean Break) and Tamara Harvey (Theatr Clwyd) led to a discussion about there being no prisons in Wales for women. A super prison was being built in Wrexham, not too far from Theatr Clwyd, but again, that would not take women prisoners. Women from South Wales are usually taken to HMP Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire and women from North Wales go to HMP Styal in Cheshire. As an average, Mold to Styal is approximately 3 hours away via public transport. Swansea to Eastwood Park is about 4 hours – but for those living further into Wales, those journeys could be much longer for visitors to take, therefore having a negative impact on women prisoners lives which men in the same position would not suffer. It was from that meeting that a new play was commissioned by Wales’ leading female playwright Kath Chandler.

It is hard to say too much about the plot without spoiling the dramatic climax of the piece in this double hander between Gail (Polly Frame) and Karen (Siwan Morris). The two characters grew up together, but Karen rejected her old life, and is now known as Kate to her husband, friends and family. Gail turning up to her office makes her reflect on her past and shows the different pathways the two women have taken. Kate is a successful business woman, working in the care system, Gail has turned up at her office in desperate need of help.

The stage is in the middle of the Emlyn Williams Theatre, with seating on all four sides. On the stage is an office desk, chair and some personal items laid out on the desk. This stark, simple staging allows you to focus on the dialogue between the two women, and the clever tilting action mirrors the shift in power between the two women as their story evolves. The central staging makes it personal, you are not just watching the women, you are involved in their story. How do they know each other? Why does Karen want Gail out of the office? Is Gail dangerous? She certainly seems to know a lot about Karen and her family. This simplicity works so well, because you start to think about how you would react in the same situation.

At the start of the play, you feel a bit uncomfortable when Gail and Karen first meet. It’s an awkward situation, and the pauses between the two actresses make it feel like a bit of a car crash (in a good way!) with neither party really knowing what to say to each other. What do you say to someone you grew up with but haven’t seen in years?! More importantly, WHY haven’t they seen each other? You hang on to every word that is spoken to see how this story is going to pan out. This tension is kept throughout, the play only has a running time of 1 hour 20 mins, so there is no need for an interval. An interval would completely kill the power of the play.

Photograph: Pamela Raith
Katherine Chandler cleverly weaved a number of different issues into the play, including the difficulties women face as mother’s and the great class divide and what experiences being of a different class bring to women’s daily issues; childcare, working, juggling the demands of people’s expectations. This is a tense, gritty and poignant piece of theatre and a fabulous insight into the lives of two very different women who are forced to face their past. The chemistry between the two leads is electric, and at times you wanted to laugh with them, other times cry with them as you realised what the horrific impact of events in their childhood must have had on them. Yet another insightful production at Theatr Clwyd.

Will Teather Art Exhibition

Something I love about this theatre, is that there are always art exhibitions in the galleries to look at if you have a bit of time to kill before a show. Even when I have someone with me I drag them around, rather than sitting in the bar, as it’s my little preshow ritual!

I was captivated by the work of the Norfolk based artist Will Teather. I loved the imaginative, dark, almost gothic imagery, and they seemed a perfect exhibit to be looking at as Halloween approaches! I might not be able to afford his work…but I could certainly appreciate it, so I went for a second viewing after the play ended! Here are some of my favourite pictures.