First night tonight at The Marlborough

So the first night of our double bill, We Three Kings, and A Glass of Nothing is tonight at the Marlborough. Till the evening comes, I feel in limbo. We’ve had long rehearsals over the last few days. Our tech rehearsal in the Marlborough Theatre was last night. It certainly focuses your mind and clenches the bowels when the stage is lit and dressed, and people are in costume. It is the first performance of We Three Kings so tonight is slightly terrifying. I’m very confident in A Glass of Nothing however, which helps.

There are still a few seats available on the door should lovers of dark comedy want to come on impulse. The Marlborough Theatre deets are here.

Being in The Marlborough theatre reminded me of the first time I went there about seven years ago. I snuck onto the stage, and just soaked up the atmosphere of the empty theatre. Unexpectedly, I had a powerful feeling of homecoming.

My first flirtation with writing for theatre was with my friend Timothy Gallagher. It culminated in us staging plays we had written at the Water Rats Theatre in London. Tim was like an infuriatingly talented older brother. But as his death loomed (of AIDs at the age of 37) I shelved my work and focused on helping him stage his own plays. Sometimes he would check out of hospital, get a cab and perform at a venue I’d helped sort out, then go back to the ward. His performances, seen by very few, were electric.

I took me about fifteen years to realise I had been experiencing survivor’s guilt. I didn’t understand at the time, why I was no longer able to face theatre or even poetry readings for about ten years. So I will be thinking of Tim tonight, but in a happy way. And thanking my lucky stars that I worked my way back to theatre again. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of witnessing an entire world being conjured up on stage. It an act of magic. And when people are laughing at a line you’ve written, to be the writer sitting in the audience is a fine thing.

A snap from rehearsals two days ago. James Kuszewski fascinating Beth Symons with a walking stick.

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Time to shine

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After a six hour rehearsal, a snap taken last night in The Duke of Wellington whose rehearsal room we are using. Left to right, James Kuszewski, Dylan Corbett-Bader, Kitty Underhill and Beth Symons all with well deserved cookie accessories. I think their performances are peaking at just the right time. Beth has struck the balance of ensuring the cast is well rehearsed, but not jaded. We’ve got some intensive work this week, before our shows at the Marlborough Theatre this Thursday  8th and Friday 9th. Please come along if you can. A nice preview of our Brighton Blonde Productions show can be found here in BN1 Magazine.

The older I get, it becomes clear that time is the most precious resource. In my experience, no kind of art happens in a vacuum. Everyone else in the cast is juggling work and other commitments. As for me, in the last two weeks I’ve been visiting my mother’s husband who has been in intensive care in  a London hospital following a triple bypass. This kind of stark contrast, moving from intensive care ward to rehearsal room, increases my  determination to take every opportunity I can. I hope not an out of control egotism, just a desire to say everything I have to say that’s worth saying, while there’s still time.

That four such talented and hilarious actors are happy to give up their time, effort and energy to make these two dark comedies live and breathe is something I’m extremely grateful for.

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A Glass of Nothing & We Three Kings

The, ah-hem, sophisticated Brighton Blonde marketing machine is grinding into action. Here is the flyer for my plays at The Marlborough Theatre (tweaked for the interweb). Tickets are available at The Marley’s website here.

I am very proud of A Glass of Nothing. I am not someone who lovingly strokes my old work. But plays are a bit different. Each time you perform it, it is reborn. Beth, Dylan and Kitty continually unearth new approaches. I’m discovering that a successful script, is one that’s a firm launchpad. I’m also discovering the importance of a good structure. The play seems to have taken on a life of its own, driven by Beth’s direction and the lovely ensemble acting. I’m continually surprised at how well it works. We Three Kings is shaping up nicely too. It is about half an hour, and I think of it as a Christmas Entertainment, but a very Brighton one. A little bit nervous about this, just because it is so new.

PS: If you are tweety sort of person you can follow Brighton Blonde Productions at @BrightonBlondes

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A poet between worlds

Touchpapers by Tess Jolly, published by Eyewear Aviator 2016 Series

cover_jolly_print_1024x1024There is a magic and darkly fairytale quality in Tess Jolly’s work which I greatly admire. The poetry is the product of a powerful imagination.

In several poems a brother is depicted as a magical other, and their sibling relationship seems closest when dressing up, or playing imaginative games.

my legs swinging, his anchored to the floor –
one of us would shriek the code name

and we’d both hunch knees to chests,
pretend to be scared as the ground gave way
to glittering blue and silver carapaces,
giant razor crabs screeching and rattling scales
in rock-pools of pavement or lino.  

(Crab Water) 

In The Gingerbread House, where ‘I follow crumbs through the wood to find him’ the recurring brother and sister theme becomes filtered through a nightmarish lens:

He wants to show me around. We feel our way
along the sticky walls like children learning the dark.
Licking sugar from his lips he tries to hoist me
onto his shoulders as if he hasn’t realised I’ve grown.
I admire the toffee paving-slabs, butter-cream roofs.
He opens wide. Mice are nibbling his tongue.

(The Gingerbread House)

Having establishing that their realest connection was through a kind of make-believe, Tess Jolly’s poems function as acts of magical reanimation. As long as the imagination is alive, the relationship still exists. This is something I personally find very moving.

The poem Prayer is starker and uncloaked. Rigorous critics tend to resist biographical interpretations, but I find it hard not to draw the conclusion that the brother figure is also the same person featured in the two extraordinarily powerful end-of-life poems, Prayer and We’ll talk about this when it’s over.

If I prayed at all it wasn’t when I thought you were dying,
when children and dogs oozed from pavements
to gawp at you: a falang with shrivelled limbs and jaw
hanging, eyes dragged deep in their sockets.

(Prayer)

Touchpapers moves from such harrowing desperation to moments of beauty. At the end of Prayer the poem’s narrator is momentarily absorbed by looking out at the stars and moonlight on the sea. Tess Jolly’s imaginative leaps can make me laugh out loud too. Take the start of Frog:

Frog and I sit opposite each other comparing belches.
Obviously Frog’s are louder.

(Frog)

I’m not sure why this works so well. Maybe it’s the deadpan matter of factness. We are instantly there, with no necessity to suspend disbelief at this manifestation of the magical other.

… I have to be careful because Frog’s secretions
can be toxic, and there’s the danger his skin will dry
if we spend too long between worlds like this
mostly conversing but sometimes just squatting in silence.

(Frog)

Between worlds. That pinpoints it for me. Tess Jolly’s Touchpapers brings an otherworldly beauty, which stimulates the reader’s sense of wonder. Tess Jolly’s book is a tour de force of the imagination, and of course this quick look has only scratched its surface. But I highly recommend you read it for yourself.

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What place has poetry in a post-truth world?

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A supervillain for post-truth times? Loki, the trickster

In a post-truth world, poets can be superheroes. We have special powers to illuminate the truth, and prick the bubbles of lazy fiction. We can bend words to say the right thing. 

This week, ‘post-truth’ was declared international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. I like new words, so I doff my cap to folks like Oxford-educated Michael Gove, former Education minister, who managed to spin the word ‘expert’ into an insult. And to Donald Trump, whose airy assertions have swept away any sense of proportion or of being achievable: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively…”

But its only poetry right?  It’s totally ineffectual and harmless  

There’s an Eyoreish English view on all this that galls me. Here’s the nutshell: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making” .  Auden wrote this in his poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”. Confusingly, he wrote it about a man who sparked a nation’s literary renaissance, transformed the way people thought about Ireland, became an Irish senator and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Makes nothing happen. Really?

Oppressive regimes must firmly believe poetry can make things happen. Poets have been locked up in droves over the years. People like  Osip MandelstamWole Soyinka or now  Ashraf Fayadh – accused of inciting atheism in his book Instructions Within.

Poetry changes hearts and minds, it allows people the ability to experiment with new ways of thinking

For example, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, thought something might happen. They set up the literary review L’Étudiant Noir in Paris in the 1930s, birthing a surrealism-inflected poetic movement Négritude which took ownership of blackness in literature, and gave black poets a strong new voice. Senghor went on to become the First President of Senegal, and Césaire became the highly influential mayor of  Martinique’s Fort de France. I’d call that something.

So if poetry can make things happen, what should we do?

I see an opportunity for poetry in a world where pernicious myths are taking hold, where toxic, half-witted fictions about people’s differences are taking root.

We live in a time when words are being weaponised to forge terrible myths. Luckily, poets understand myth and fiction, poets understand rhetoric and how to manipulate words. This is not the time for poetry to become despondent. We need to fight back with what we have, our words. We need to stretch our minds to imagine new pathways around the challenges to come. We have to remind everyone that despite the efforts of politicians to incite a hateful focus on people’s differences, humanity is universal.

This post-truth time should never be accepted, or normalised. It is not normal. Employing dog whistle racism is never okay. Humiliating the disabled is never okay. Litigimising mysogeny and violence towards women is never okay. Hatred towards LGBT or transgender people is never okay.  And anyone who voted for a candidate or cause, who decided that, although distasteful, they could live with any of the above needs to take a good hard look at themselves.

Time to climb off my virtual soapbox. One last thought…

Where politicians build walls, poetry builds bridges.

 

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He who saw the deep

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Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill The Bull of Heaven

I listen to half a dozen podcasts every week. One of these is from BBC Radio 4 In Our Time, which is hosted by Melvyn Bragg, takes a scholarly subject (from the sciences and arts) every week and discusses it with experts. I learn lots from these podcasts. The recent episode about The Epic of Gilgamesh particularly inspired me. It featured the translator of the most recent Penguin Classic Version, Andrew George, plus fellow Assyriology boffins Frances Reynolds, and Martin Worthington.

I’d read this epic (in the N.K. Sandars translation) while studying ‘The Epic Tradition’ course as a student at Warwick University. Andrew George’s translation is terrific, and does not gloss over the missing words and lacunae in the text, while the deliberate, and oddly hypnotic, repetitions in the verse are more evident.

The myth itself is rich, and I’m not going to retell it here. But it is arguably the oldest piece of literature in the world. (Other earlier writings exist, including the magical spells inside Ancient Egyptian coffin texts but they are nowhere near as sustained.)

If you think long enough about the fact that you are about to read the world’s oldest extant piece of literature, it will make your hair stand on end. Intriguingly, the story features a flood, predating the Old Testament account, and the stories are remarkably similar. The Noah figure here is called Uta-Napishti, a man who was made immortal by the Gods having survived the flood. Gilgamesh goes to him to discuss immortality, and returns sadder and wiser.

So let’s look at George’s translation of the opening lines of the oldest piece of literature we have. They are fragmentary. The triple dots are missing bits, and the words in brackets have been inferred:

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew …, was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew…., was wise in all matters!

[He] … everywhere…
and [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom.
He who saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.

He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheephold,
of holy Eanna, the secret storehouse.

The opening idea of seeing the Deep fascinates me. Towards the end of the epic, Gilgamesh dives into water to retrieve a piece of coral which will rejuvenate him, but this is stolen by a snake. But I don’t think ‘the Deep’ necessarily refers to this event. Rather it seems we are dealing with a resonant and ambiguous metaphor. By the end of the story Gilgamesh has considered the passing of time,  immortality and death, he has had dealings with Gods, and has known great personal sadness in the loss of his companion Enkidu. Gilgamesh returns to strengthen the foundations of his city Uruk and its people, for in this legacy lies a kind of immortality.

I love the fact that this opening to the poem is so ambiguous. So much of the pleasure of reading is about what is left out, what allows us as readers to puzzle and engage. He who saw the Deep is marvellous opening.

I’ve just started looking into the deep of Gilgamesh again, and I’m loving it.

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The US Presidential election viewed as marketing

So following my look at the marketing slogans used in Brexit back in June, it came as little surprise that the Make America Great Again, message trumped the Stronger Together message.

Once again, the learning is this: PUT A DAMN VERB IN YOUR SLOGAN IF YOU ARE ASKING PEOPLE TO TAKE ACTION.  Every copywriter knows people need to be told how to respond to the message you have just given them. It’s not called a ‘call to action’ for nothing, it needs a verb. I find it a mystery that this was able to escape the notice of the both the Remain campaign in the UK, and the Hillary campaign in the US .

maxresdefaultStronger Together, echoed Britain Stronger in Europe with its hanging comparator. Stronger than what? Neither has a call to action. What do you do with Stronger Together? Go out and hug someone?

Of course, the thinking behind it is clear. Opposing the wall-building, happy to be divisive Trump campaign, the Hillary side wanted to present itself as bridge-building, and inclusive, ergo: Stronger together.

All good in theory, till your figurehead and brand ambassador describes half the voting population as ‘deplorables’. D’oh!

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Make America Great Again is a far stronger slogan. The voter can infer that a vote for Trump will make the place he or she loves, and calls home, great again. As someone who has visited the  US many times,  I found everyday patriotism far more evident there than any other country I’d visited. Old Glory flutters everywhere, while the pledge of allegiance to it is repeated by every school child in the country.

Make America Great Again, also paralleled the UK Brexit Leave campaign’s Let’s take back control in that it hankered back to a mythical past. Making America great again, sounds like something no American could disagree with. But surely, as Michelle Obama and others pointed out, America is already great.

But Make America Great Again  compares the America today with a nostalgic America, against which reality can only fall short. The slogan seems positive but there is an engine of negativity in the word ‘again’. A provoker of the angry question, so why isn’t America great any more?  And then, ‘who is to blame?’

This campaign was bold. It could have been flipped to make it seem that Trump thought that  America was no longer great. It plays with the never-to-be-spoken fear that the US will one day no longer be top nation. Just as the Brexit campaign still talks to the UK’s faint memories of former dominance.

But as an emotive, action-provoking slogan, Make America Great Again beats Stronger Together  by a country mile.

* * * *

It is a popular revolution. It seems that Brexit provided at least part of the blueprint for Trump’s election. We are told those who have been left behind by an increasingly globalised capitalism, who feel marginalised by ‘liberal-elites’, have had enough. Donald Trump, (again borrowing some of the more extreme Brexiter’s clothes) positioned himself as a highly patriotic candidate with easy solutions, who unashamedly played to bigotries.

Sadly, the vision of the future both Trump and Brexit offers is unachievable, however. Their vision of the future is a myth about what happened in the past.

As someone who loves literature, I know that myths are powerful things. In fact these two post-factual elections show that myths beat facts hands down.

For me this turbo-charging of a national myth is alarmingly reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. This mood in the US and the UK, allied to increasing nationalism in some European countries, could destabilise Europe. This is exacerbated by the possibility of NATO withdrawal, and Putin’s territorial ambitions. Add China’s expansionism, and the threatened tearing up of climate agreements, which will accelerate huge global migrations, the future is in want of hope right now.

Or perhaps everything will be okay. Please, God, let it be okay.

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