Friday, 29 May 2015
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (Faber, 2015)
Two (artistic) encounters with wolves over the last couple of weeks have got me thinking about our relationship with the wild in ourselves and in nature, and whether there is a difference between the tame, and the domesticated. And just how easy it is to romanticise the wild from an urban lifestyle, without really experiencing it as it is.
Wild Works new site-specific immersive story, produced at Felbrigg Hall in partnership with Norfolk and Norwich Festival, takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that mirrors the Greek myth of Calisto - the nymph turned bear - and the unusual life of Peter the Wild Boy, an eighteenth century boy found living wild in the woods of Northern Germany and brought back to live in the UK.This is what Wild Works do: they set up camp somewhere, meet people, uncover stories, and produce theatre that has that place and those stories at their heart.
In this one, we begin with a warning: do not stray from the middle of the paths - wolves are about, and our safety cannot be guaranteed. Nor can it be for Rowan, mute orphan and heroine of this show, who plays her wobbly fear with strained abandon. We first meet her amid the orphanage of Mother, a prim and austere woman who has dedicated her life to creating civilised order and ladylike manners in a manicured house on the edge of a dark forest. But Mother likes to scare her orphans into propriety. and when Rowan is sent out into the woods with a shotgun, she begins an odyssey that takes in an erotic encounter with some sort of wild stag-man, a pack of wolves, a child, and an inter-generational conflict with Mother and her harem of order.
We're guided around the forest by a murder of crows: they narrate the story and entertain us on the long walks between scenes. The female crow, with her esturine squarking runs away with the show, so fantastically does she capture the playful inquisitive intelligence of the crow.
There are other triumphs, too - a puppet of a young daughter taking her first steps in the wolf pack; the image of mother riding upright on her horse before the great grandeur of National Trust's Felbrigg Hall; and the way that an hour in we realise we have left the path and are totally lost in the woods with no idea which direction lies civilisation. The sun has sunk, the sky is a blueish grey, lighter than the treetops shadowed against it. There are candles lighting our path, sometimes a blue tinge to our destination, but either side is darkness and unknown.
If there is a criticism, it is that of many large-scale site specific works - the shepherding of an audience takes time and, for all the efforts of the crows, breaks the intensity of the story. And while the story they tell feels wild and unrestrained, following a line of theatre goers doesn't. I found myself taken out of the story too often to fully immerse, which after the intensity of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing the night before, was a shame.
There's also a sense of romanticising the wildness. This feels like a story for an urban arts audience. Perhaps I just wanted some proper danger and uncertainty! But its an amazing spectacle nonetheless.
What Sarah Hall does in The Wolf Border is simultaneously less dramatic, and more creative. The novel is about transition and change, mutability, and an interaction between the tame and the wild, voluntary, changeable, permeable. Rather than looking to a mythical past for her story, she sets it the UK today, telling a story of rewilding a tame landscape as the old-order begins to break-down, and wild new possibilities open up in a newly independent Scotland. It's a cunning tale from one of the wildest of UK writers: Sarah Hall's oevre is packed with tales of altered landscapes and characters longing to throw off the shackles of conventional life for something altogether more elemental, physical, less governed by the mind.
The heroine here is Rachel Caine, refugee from a bohemian mother, who has for years been working as a wolf expert in the US. But her life is in transition, and following her mothers death and an unexpected pregnancy, she decides to accept the offer of an Earl who has an eccentric plan to reintroduce the wolf to the UK landscape on his vast estate. In language that is scented to the earthy, metallic Cumbrian landscape, we almost feel as though Rachel is some sort of shamen figure, totemically running free alongside the pack, guiding them towards their natural home. If there is a philosophy underpinning this book, it is that we cannot escape our nature, that we are all part tame, part wild and both parts will get us in the end.
This is reflected in the narrative of Scottish Independence, which sits alongside the main plot. But what starts as a naturalistic presentation of the UK over the summer of 2014, begins to become altered as the vote goes the other way, and the public schoolboy Westminster power-base is challenged. The portrait of Scotland is slightly one-dimensional; a rugged antithesis of ennobled England. But the border is both physical and metaphorical, a transition of mindset as well as of landscape.
Sarah Hall's writing is swift and enthralling, the plot sucks you in and her very real characters enchant. She's one of my favourite British novelists, and her perspective that sits somewhere between naturalist and farmer is an unusual one in the often too bland middle-England literature. There's much familiar about this tale, in setting and atmosphere. It feels like Haweswater meets The Carhullan Army, and I flew through it in a couple of days - very quick for me! - starting on a train from Lancaster to London as I mourned the fading Cumbrian landscape behind me. There's a thrill in the wild, it calls to us like a romantic longling for something we feel we've lost. Something human, though. Governed, by our fantasies and imaginings. Wolf's Child taps right into this, and is limited by it. But The Wolf Border takes a step further, exposing that longing as an empty misunderstanding, and presenting a wilderness that is. It just is. That's Sarah /Hall's brilliance.
Thursday, 14 May 2015
Tonight's theatrical Norfolk and Norwich Festival adventure took in the stage adaptation (by Annie Ryan) of Eimear McBride's prize-hoovering novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. As with the book, it's a difficult to watch but impossible to look away masterpiece, a verbally instant and insistent barrage of emotion and experience. Guttural.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing follows the inner narrative of a girl from the womb to twenty, her relationship with her sick brother, and search for herself. It has attracted 5-star reviews from nearly everyone who has seen it, and is performed as a one-woman show by Aoife Duffin who is simply mesmeric. Hers is a performance to shape a career. Duffin holds the stage without much movement or action, and conjures characters with a slight inflection of the voice of posture. She is utterly convincing and untouchable on an raised up stage. Sometimes, so embodying the role, it feels as though she is a child playing make believe alone in her bedroom. How she can go through that visceral performance night after night and not be a gibbering wreck is anybodies guess.
And for the audience a difference from the book. Because with a book you can always put it down, but here together in a theatre it is relentless. There is nowhere nowhere to hide. It's Excoriating. I came out tense and wordless. All around was stunned silence and soft checking each other was okay after it all. The impact and power of those words and that body and voice were written all over our faces.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is playing at Norwich Playhouse until Saturday 16th. Go and see it if you can. It is, it is, it is it
Wednesday, 13 May 2015
something sustains us
Wednesday, 1 April 2015
In the epigraph, Anneliese Mackintosh states: '68% happened; 32% did not happen; I will never tell' and this teasing game of fiction and biography that she sets in motion parched my mouth with anticipation for what was to come. It doesn’t matter whether the work that follows is a searing and amazingly frank account of a life lived in the fast lane, or a cunning character study through fiction. The writing is first rate: quick, luscious, direct. Her approach to language mirrors her protagonist’s approach to life: she charges at a thing, she doesn't shirk, she tells stories full of heart that make the spaces between people feel less vast than they sometimes might.
One of the joys of reading is in discovering different ways of living life, different responses to the challenges and joys it throws up. We most often do this by reading about cultures other than our own, and at times the more harrowing the better in this sort of reading. (See the universal love of Khaled Hosseini’s pity-porn novels of Afghanistan for one example.) But we are sadly less willing to read books that present a different view of life in our own society, or that treat with empathy subjects we would rather believe did not happen. In this searing, unflinching book, we get a first-hand view of one experience of life with Borderline Personality Disorder. It is a book that asks us to reappraise our expectations for behavior, often uncomfortably so. And that, in my opinion, is one of the things that the arts should be all about.
In its nihilistic rejection of convention and vibrant lust for life Any Other Mouth reminded me of AM Homes brilliant novel Music for Torching. But much more than this exciting, blackly comic read, it feels important too. Important, as understanding perspectives on life different from your own always are. It may be a bit of a Marmite book, and will undoubtedly provoke some anger by some people who feel the content is not always 'appropriate' but perhaps because of this, it is a book that should be widely read. Any Other Mouth is engaging, unexpected, gripping, poignant, shocking and exciting. A great read.
(Note: One word of caution: the blurb for this book doesn’t really make any sense! How do you react when you discover your boyfriend is cheating on you with his dead grandma? You don’t. It’s doesn’t happen like that! Don’t be put off, Any Other Mouth is not as ridiculous as the blurb suggests!)
Friday, 20 March 2015
What Is Literature
It is being listened to. And it is listening hard: opening the ear and the eye and the heart to that which has never been part of you, and that which has lain within you all along.
It is itself. And this is enough. And it is incomparably bigger.
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Saturday, 6 December 2014
Megan Serena Ruddock
Megan is my beautiful talented generous considerate hilarious kind wife. We have been together 12 years, and married for 10. We met when I was still a teenager and I fell for her immediately. Of course I did! She sent me an album that remains one of the best things I've ever heard and we talked endlessly. But what is remarkable is that she saw in my skinny lonely immaturity someone worth knowing. And every day since she has supported me in feeling that I could make anything of my life. She has made sure I felt loved, challenged me when I needed it, and ensured I never got too big for my boots. She is my best friend and the best thing that has ever happened to me. I don't tell her that enough.
Megan is the bravest person I know. She moved to a whole different country by herself and has built a life here. And she has the bravery to stand up for what she believes in regardless of what it costs her. She's driven by this moral code to be considerate to everyone, to do no harm at all, and to support and empathise with those who need it most. She cares for everyone, from the snail on the pavement in the morning to the person pushing everyone away. She's a champion of the disadvantaged, the very epitome of what a good Christian should be.
Megan isn't afraid to be herself. She drinks absinthe at lunch on accessions. She often describes herself as simultaneously 10 years old (she just started collecting Sylvanian Families) and 70 (last year she took a course in Ancient Hebrew!). But she is also 21 and 39 and 47 and 53 and every other age there is. I can't list all the courses she had taken or signed up for. She is a polymath: everything interests her in some way or another. She is the self-development Queen, there is nothing about her she isn't prepared to interrogate, challenge and improve if she doesn't like what she finds. And she's quite probably the best quiz team player in the world!
Megan is also hilarious. No one I have ever known has such a sly, black humour, as she does. She is brilliant at word play, and she's self-deprecating and finds humour in herself at every turn. When she laughs her whole face comes alive and her eyes sparkle. She has this mini-smile wrinkle above her top lip that appears when she smiles - it never ceases to make me happy. I think her laughter is the best thing in the world. It is explosive and all encompassing and feels like freedom.
We have fun together. She is the creative genius behind Cheers (possibly the worlds most comprehensive stuffed animal society). She invented Dogwarts (stolen by Aardman as a joke in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit), and basically wrote the penguin and lemur characters for Madagascar. To our cats she is the sporty chaser, the trick trainer, the treater. She scoops them up and gives them medicine. And they love her for it because somehow they know she would never do anything bad to them.
Sadly life isn't always as kind to Megan as she is to it. She's had a pretty tough time these last few years with people not realising how infinitely capable she is. With people treating her horribly. And that sucks for her, it really does. But what I find remarkable is that she has this amazing capacity to take a bad hand and keep fighting. Nothing lessens her belief in people, her hope that tomorrow will be better, or her desire to turn today around.
Megan shows me what goodness is. She's so much better than I am. And I would be nothing without her. I love her with all my heart. And I thought you - and she - should know this.
Tuesday, 2 December 2014
Remix Summit is a global network of conferences that bring together culture, technology and entrepreneurship for an intensive set of discussions and presentations on some of the cutting edge work happening in these areas. I attended day one of the two day event, hosted at Google Town Hall in the heart of London's West End, which featured presentations by the likes of Tate, Secret Cinema, the Mayor of London's cultural office, and Manchester International Festival. Some were excellent, and there were interesting conversations around them. But overall the day proved frustrating for a number of reasons. Here are a few quick thoughts and some challenges for Day 2 tomorrow.
1. On whose terms? I probably should have realised that a conference backed by technology and media partners Google and Bloomburg would be technology centred. Nothing wrong with that: I'm writing this on my Galaxy Note 3 while listening to music on the same device, and have been tweeting throughout the day. I like technology. But the traditional arts world felt sidelined. Almost everything that was discussed was through a commercial or tech prism, focusing on how technology built communities and reached wide audiences. It sometimes seemed that technology was being seen as the savior of art. That without it, art stayed behind locked doors in austere buildings. As though standing in a gallery or on a street corner admiring a painting, sitting forward in the midst of a play, reading a book, singing along to an album, or feeling that yearn to move in the midst of dance were not enough if they weren't somehow augmented by a screen.
Clearly this is problematic. Despite a day filled with words, it is the experience of reading Liz Berry's Black Country on the underground this morning that will stay with me. There has to be a place for quiet, calm reflection, or loud furious reflection in this world and the arts provide this. We don't always have to be doing things on digital and social media platforms to be producing great work.
As Fabien Riggall said: 'We want to use technology, not be used by it'.
How we in the arts articulate different values and challenge the profit-chasing bubble thinking of the technology world may be one of the challenges for day 2.
2. There is a world outside those ivory towers. Be they the towers of national arts organisations or multinational conglomerates, there was an absence of social responsibility today. The Barbican aside, no one gave any prominence to social deprevation or how technology, culture or entrepreneurship could work to improve the lives we live and reach those whose horizons are narrowest. We talked briefly about art for arts sake, and the whole day seemed to be technology for technologies sake, and while I admire and value this there also needs to be time for art, technology and culture that works with real people and changes communities. A deliberately provocative comment towards the end of the night suggested that art in the regions was basically just community theatre and all a bit naff and amateurish. This pissed me off! It is absolutely possible to produce excellent work that is made in and with communities and makes those places better to live in. It's time to end the dichotomy between excellence and instrumentalism. We can (and many do!) do both!
3. Stop telling me how great your work is. I thought this was a conference not a sales pitch. I'm not trying to silence good work, but some ideas, some perspectives, some challenges. All these would have made for a broader and more impactful conversation.
4. Don't over programme! It is something everyone who produces events should remember. That a good event is often the result of time to breathe, to ask questions and challenge thinking, to share and drill down. With 3 or 4 people often speaking in only a 40 minute event, time was squashed. At one point a speaker was interrupted, quite rudely, mid flow. There needed more space. Less is more.
Where an individual was given time to talk, they were worth listening to. Alex Poots from Manchester International Festival was fascinating on the importance of giving power to artists. Sir Nicolas Kenyon from The Barbican was equally inspiring on working with local communities and the subtle shifts technology can give to a wide range of different productions. And Fabien Riggall from Secret Cinema told stories and gave more than just a sales pitch, he presented a vision and a story and a call to action.
Sadly, and despite some interesting speakers, the panels were largely sales pitches mashed together. Which was a shame.
5. Hosting is a responsibility, not doing it well is rude. If you advertise an 8am breakfast start, deliver that, or at least apologise for keeping guests hungry and waiting an hour to be let in. And then make sure there is sufficient cups and sandwiches and teabags for everyone. It's basic stuff, sadly.
And to finish it off, my quote of the day:
'Those who aim to give the public what they want begin by underestimating the public taste. They end by debauching it.'
Monday, 10 November 2014
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