“‘Him’ is unemployed and looking for romance.

‘Her’ works in a dead-end office job and doesn’t know where she’s heading.

They are lonely twenty-somethings, lost amidst the beating rhythm of the city.

After a chance meeting, they spend the night together. But can they find the connection they are searching for? Is there hope in this briefest of encounters?”

 

The Day After, by award-winning young playwright, Miran Hadzic, opened last night in the Cavern in the Vaults at Waterloo. Described as both darkly comedic and romantic, the piece, barely an hour long, covers 24 hours in the lives of two isolated individuals: office-girl and out-of-work bloke. The boy-meets-girl scenario is told in a combination of rhyme and present tense, giving  the effect of vocalised thought bubbles.

The play is a snapshot into the lives of two individuals who admittedly have not had that much time on the planet, let alone in London, to be able to establish where they are coming from and where they are headed, yet already have accumulated a series of unhappy memories; their painful pasts emerge gradually as the piece unfolds, further underlining their sense of isolation and need for comfort.

There is a sense of ballad, with verse and refrain; the whole being driven by fast-paced dialogue and action sustaining rhythm and rhyme. High quality acting is brought out by Juliet Knight’s energetic direction: Todd James’s rueful self-criticism, Ruby Thomas’s mournful recollections of schoolday trials and tribulations are both naturally paced and expressed.

Most of all, however, the play could read as an ode to London: there are sights and sounds, motion and emotion – and above all, sounds: further aided by the occasional rumble from overhead trains, that do service as a heartbeat, a distant roll of thunder, even as a giant hand, knocking at the door…

The Vault is the perfect venue for a play of this calibre: stark, yet warm, with the smell of earth and raw yet perfect acoustics to tickle the senses with; this is both  perfect sounding box and dramatic arena, inviting speculation and imagination to take a ride.

The Day After runs until 1st February. For bookings and more information:   The Vaults: The Day After

The Importance of Not Being Too Earnest

The Harold Pinter (or Comedy Theatre as was) is a box of delights – if a little cramped in the way of refreshment areas (everything  seems in miniature) – although the MoonLight Bar has a particular 20s charm; again, paucity of seats resulted in theatre-goers lounging picturesquely on the stairs leading up from it, wanting only beads, boas and boaters to complete the effect of a 20s-themed evening out.

It is also one of the few theatres still with binoculars to hire; these I took full advantage of, and with elbow room to spare (owing to a few empty seats on either side of me – and I hadn’t even eaten any garlic…) I was able to whisk out my charcoal and sketch block and practise ‘minute drawing’.

There were moments when I nearly succeeded: the actors did occasionally stand still just long enough for me to throw down the rough outlines, but most of the time they were bouncing about like spring chickens – which almost made redundant the added framework of an amateur company (The Bunbury Players)in its twilight years rehearsing a reunion production in a country home. This particular production has divided opinion amongst critics on that point – still, it does offer further opportunities to mess about with the cucumber sandwiches,  and hint at various off-stage debacles; there is sparkle, and laugh-out-loud aplenty as they leap, skip and wit their ways through the play which is allowed to proceed pretty much unhindered once the initial point is made.  If Oscar Wilde had, Gilbert & Sullivan-like, allowed free license with regard to age we might after all have lost the fun of the extraneous paraphernalia: the Test match results, carefully camouflaged by the drinks cabinet, the on-stage mending of costumes that will insist on splitting seams in the wrong places, and so on.

The set itself is a treasure trove of Art Nouveau and William Morris – it might almost be the Red House itself; there is no lack of detail, and the tantalizing view into the garden beyond allows us background tweets and chirrups to accompany the tea and cakes scene with Gwendolen and Cecily.

Poised and polished, the Young Ones are smooth yet fresh, their acting lively and intelligent and a treat to watch – with an added treat in the presence of Sian Phillips as Lady Bracknell.  Restrained and musical as ever and never resorting to caricature she makes the role her own with quiet, unassuming command.

It is another production where I have had the pleasure of watching Dudley and Bailey working together: in particular in the treatment of lighting, which is approached  as a persona in itself, with its own presence, cues and exits; as in their work on Turgenev’s Fool, there is a sense of real time, the passing of the day, rehearsal and story from morning through afternoon towards dusk, complete with a summer storm half way through.

 

Very much a fun evening out and recommended – go while you can, it runs until late September and is worth the suspension of belief of a septuagenarian John Worthing answering to the age of twenty-nine (he certainly sounds twenty nine).

A very willing suspension of belief on my part – it is theatre, after all.

 

 

Cast : Rosalind Ayres, Niall Buggy, Nigel Havers , Martin Jarvis, Christine Kavanagh , Cherie Lunghi and Sian Phillips.

The Importance of Being Earnest is booking at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 20 September.

Adler & Gibb at the Royal Court Theatre

A satire on the art world and Hollywood combined.

A split narrative, the threads gradually merging together into one colourful collage; it might be a novel, it might be a film, it might be real, it is all happening on stage. More of a film script in parts than a stage play, it is a parody of parodies, playing off one cynical world against another.

An arts student, Louise, begins a presentation on the life and work of Janet Adler. This is interwoven – or interrupted – with scenes between a Hollywood actress (an adult Lou) and her coach Sam, breaking into the house of said Adler. The actress is there to make a bio-pic of her idol, dragging the reluctant coach behind her over barbed wire and through thick fog.  Comprehension is gradual, which is where it begins to resemble a novel made of many parts: there is more than one voice here, but it settles fairly quickly into a recognizable pattern.

It does begin rather statically – they might have been recording for radio in front of microphones.  This moved into a more naturalistic phase as the narrative unfolded – in fact, the direction appeared to move from radio through filmatic scenes to a form of realism, with the house gradually growing around them (or stepping forward out of the mists of time?) interspersed with the lecture notes of the increasingly frustrated arts student, still presenting her thesis. Both she, and to a degree the Hollywood coach, could be seen as mouthpieces for author and/or the public; he with a heartfelt speech to the audience mid-way through part two on truth and reality, she on her podium ultimately shouting at her auditors: ‘What do you want?’ before stamping off, screaming (which of us has not, at one point, wanted to do precisely that before yet another pile of empty plastic bottles pseudo-cunningly labelled as ‘Void’ or ‘The Ultimate Purpose of Being’?).

The art world has been selling its collectors installations, ‘moments’, ‘happenings’, ideas without physicality (and, alas, physicality without much idea) to saturation point  – some names have survived, others have agents desperately seeking new ways to promote works from 40 years ago to an audience that by now has seen it all. The old new has become new old, with ideas endlessly recycled, from the self-destructivism of the Dadaists to Fontana’s torn canvas and so on. Whatever the personal view of the beholder, it has certainly provided ample material for thought, debate, ridicule and reason, ranting and railing. It is at once divisive and collective. We can’t help being involved by it  – frequently we may find ourselves walking straight through it (if accidentally) – sometimes we are left perplexed by it;  confused, angered, amused. In short, it has something for everyone to respond to.  Not unlike the play, in fact. The narrative is satiric – and the satire is woven even into the very structure of the thing, suggestive of a self-parody. The themes  of art, cynicism and idolatry are explored, probed at, prodded and poked, via the medium of Louise the arts student, Lou  the  Hollywood actress (distinguished by a ruthlessness of  almost caricaturial proportions), and Sam her coach, armed with camera equipment and an increasingly volatile digestive system. Louise the student is out to get her grant – and walks out, in a fit of frustration. Lou the Actress is out to Make a Movie; nothing is going to stop her.

Has a murder been committed? Will a murder be committed? How far is anybody prepared to go to achieve their maximum, creative result?  These are almost side issues, wrapped up as they are in a tale of ambition, cynicism, creativity suffocated by greed – and about how the client (the public), whether as buyer or spectator, ultimately originates and influences that same creativity.

There were also puzzles and mysteries beyond that of plot: Sam, with distinct Scottish burr in the first part, goes over to American in the second – is this part of the act within an act? Then, the deliberate staticity of the first part : it is tempting  to wonder why the actors were not allowed to simply move about as dialogue dictated; to have Louise yelling out for Sam, with Sam standing right beside her, was slightly puzzling and not really explainable.

It is both playful and angry by turns – there is real frustration at what the art world has been made into by galleries, collectors and complicit spectators, coupled with mild farce both verbal and visual. It has divided the critics – and the odd section here and there might leave you wanting a little less than more; but perhaps, after all, it is only fitting it should prove as divisive as the art world it explores.

There is a very  complete world constructed around  the whole, with a colourful timeline in keeping with the general artistic theme – lovingly created, almost wholly believable, further emphasized by  the website dedicated to the two artistes des artistes. It is an installation in itself.  More self-parody?

As a bishop from Dublin once said of another satire: ‘I hardly believed a word of it.’ Well, almost hardly…

 

  Adler & Gibb runs until 5th July.

The Meaning of Absence

TAW Cover DIGITAL web

The Absent Woman, by Marlene Lee, was the first book we published under the Holland House imprint. It was a natural choice, and, in retrospect, the perfect one, a short, profound novel written in clear and elegant prose; written simply, with delicate shading and here and there a rich, arresting phrase that lives in the memory. ‘Simple’ seems to cry out for the cliché ‘deceptively simple’, but in fact the lines are laid on like thin glazes, building up depth and subtle effects without ever succumbing to trickery.

The basic story is also simple: Virginia Johnson takes a three month sabbatical from her job as a court reporter (in which capacity she only ever writes other people’s words about other people’s dramas) to stay in an unremarkable apartment in the unremarkable coastal town of Hilliard, in order find out how far she can go with her piano playing: both technically and in terms of musical understanding and aesthetic fulfilment. This is no Cinderella story, nor is it Rocky with a keyboard, nor even The Moon and Sixpence. She has no illusions about being a great concert pianist, and such an idea would be irrelevant. Nor is this simply about ‘art’, and one central character dismisses the modern obsession with being ‘artistic’ and asserts the importance of craft above all; Virginia is in some sense at the nexus of art and craft and above all this is about finding what, if anything, is inside her.

The story is a kind of rebirth, as Virginia has to find her way around a strange place, meeting new people and learning like a child; even her piano teacher seems at times like  mother figure (with the teacher’s husband the warm yet unknowable father) who is worshipped, whose praise at first means everything and from whom she must break free.

‘The Absent Woman’ is the title she gives the woman whose apartment Virginia has taken over, a woman who also had dealings, of a very different kind, with the piano teacher, and about whom Virginia gradually learns more during her time in Hilliard. Yet the novel is absences generally – one is tempted to say it is full of absence –  physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, and about trying to understand and fill those absences. Various concepts related to absence and presence – loss and discovery, deprivation and attainment, exile and home – thread through the story until a there is brief moment of resolution; or, to be precise, an exalted kind of resolution when art and craft, spiritual and physical, all meet, though there are both highs and lows throughout; the book has neither a happy ending nor an unhappy ending, but the beginning of a new day in her life.

A central theme too is that of choice and, as Keija Parssinen remarked, there are echoes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, albeit updated. This aspect did provoke some unexpected (to me at least) reactions from some readers and some people who attended Marlene’s readings. For they characterised Virginia as ‘abandoning her children’ and ‘being selfish’. The impression at times was that she had taken new-borns to the Amazonian jungle and dumped them. In fact, prior to the beginning of the novel Virginia and her husband have divorced, and he has custody of their two boys, aged ten and twelve – largely, it would seem, for financial reasons and because he, as a college professor, is more able to give them time. Virginia sees them regularly, and they stay with her in Hilliard, and the pain of separation, and her fears about her possible failure as a mother pervades the entire novel. Again there is absence – her absence from their lives and theirs from her life. What she knows is that for her to have stayed with their father would have been wrong for all of them, because there was an absence of love, a vacuum at the heat of the family. As for the selfishness – an unpaid sabbatical for three months is hardly the height of self-indulgence. Nevertheless, there is some truth in that accusation, in that she knows she has to do this (do something) entirely for herself. Yet even then she is concerned always about the impact on her children. It is hard not to think that these criticisms would not have been made had the protagonist been male.

The book came out in April, on Marlene Lee’s 74th birthday. It has been well received by authors such as Keija Parssinen and Ella Leffland, who wrote a brief and insightful piece about for Marlene, and has sold well; even those online reviews bothered by the narrator’s apparent offences against the maternal imperatives have delighted in the quality of the writing. Much of the success in selling goes to Marlene herself, giving charismatic readings from Columbia to New York. The work itself is full of pleasures and insights, and layers are continually coming to light, rich with absences and possibilities: a constant renewal of life.

 

The themes in The Absent Woman emerge in Marlene’s other work, the searching, the awareness of some lack, the importance of change and growth. Rebecca’s Road was released in October 2013, and The Limestone Wall is scheduled for October 2014.

The Absent Woman:

Amazon

Waterstones

Barnes & Noble

 

Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic

While the 39 Steps at the Criterion is the rowdier side of the Greek amphitheatre where the audience is allowed, even encouraged to engage with the moment, with Turgenev, the audience is very much in polite society, permitted instead to look in through the parlour window at this very Russian comedy with its air of nostalgia, memories and sweet temper – covering up layers of envy, scandal and bullying.

An unorthodox awakening , the arrival of a wedding party, a permanent house guest (Kuzovkin) and a mischievous, snobby neighbour (Tropatchov) are the principal ingredients of Turgenev’s social satire set in a country estate. The sport does not begin and end quite there however, for this is  a satire with a secret,  one which the troublesome Tropatchov does his best to worm out of Kuzovkin – with disturbing results for everyone concerned.

The devilish Tropatchov in his whirling deep green velvet coat (and very natty it is too) charges about in total command and thoroughly malicious; he is perfectly counterbalanced by the gentle, yielding Kuzovkin, hanging onto his memories, his past, his love which hover about him, wraith-like, as both he and Tropatchov  stagger through the increasingly drunken wedding reception.

There is tomfoolery too, between house steward and footman, these are deftly orchestrated and break up the rhapsodic outpourings of Kuzovkin to his friend Pyotr, while simultaneously alerting us to the fact that a wedding party is about to arrive any minute (and those two are still cluttering up the sitting room with  their chess game).  Ah, the chess game – a motif of Turgenev’s, who was a keen player – and while chess crops up in other works, here it appears a more intentional metaphor – Tropatchov’s moves later on mirroring a gradual checkmate for Kuzovkin, who is verbally pushed and prodded into a corner from whence is no escape.

The lighting is used to particular effect throughout, becoming a proper narrative tool – from the coming of dawn at the start, with its eccentric awakening in a linen cupboard, through the warm sunset redolent with reminiscence, to the suddenly threatening shadows of Tropotchov looming across the walls as he turns bully, tormenting Kuzovkin into revealing his secret.

Cruelty and tenderness, memories and neglect are coupled in refined synchrony by Turgenev; the most biting satire being perhaps at the end, when everything is left with a question mark hanging in the air – is there true  sincerity in anyone ? Or can we all be bought for the right price? Turgenev is credited with being non-judgemental, never offering a solution or alternative, while gently critical of the foibles and vices of his society  – yet perhaps here in Fortune’s Fool, he makes a bolder comment, offering a message up however carefully veiled, a message taken up subsequently and with more vigour by later authors, not least of all of Shaw. There is something of Turgenev in works such as Mrs Warren’s Profession, where the politeness of a society obsessed with status quo can hide some very ugly truths indeed.

 

 

 

Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic

Lucy Briggs-Owen – Olga   Daniel Cerqueira – Trembinsky      Patrick Cremin – Kuzovkin     Dyfan Dwyfor – Pyotr      Richard McCabe – Tropatchov

Director  –  Lucy Bailey                    Designer  –  William Dudley                  Lighting   –   Bruno Poet

Reviews

 

Recently I read an excellent ‘audit’ of patterns of success in relation to poetry prizes (for books) by Fiona Moore. It was clear that small independent publishers of poetry collection simply didn’t win the prestigious competitions, and were under-represented on shortlists. One reason, as Fiona Moore mentions, is the sheer cost of submitting, with copies having to be sent for the judges. If there is little chance of winning, the cost is hard to justify.

For the small independent publisher of novels a similar situation exists – and extends further than competitions. Independent booksellers are not especially helpful, largely because they themselves can’t take risks. In one case I sent copies of a book, with a press pack to several bookshops: not one even acknowledged. Waterstones, of course, have a centralised buying system, and copies have to be sent to them with full details of the extensive marketing one is carrying out…

The situation is far worse when it comes to reviews. The mainstream press simply will not review the small independent publisher’s books (unless there is some personal connection). This is completely understandable, each editor will be receiving huge quantities of novels each month and naturally they will tend to choose those published by the big established firms and, generally, the established authors. Undoubtedly this is where self-publishing has made life more difficult – there are some excellent (even brilliant) self-published novels; and there are many badly written, badly edited (usually not edited) books. No editor has time to go through them.

For the small publisher though, this creates a serious problem. One feels that if copies aren’t sent for review to the Guardian, the TLS, etc, one is not doing the best for the author and implying their book isn’t worthy of such attention. Yet this works out as a serious outlay of money and time, and it all has to be done well in advance (usually at least four months before publication); all the time knowing that, barring a miracle, it is wasted money which might perhaps have been spent on promotion. Yet – a decent review in one daily newspaper can have a bigger effect than a number of very expensive advertisements.

I mentioned Waterstones before and although their selection system seems largely based on marketing, etc, they do at least set aside some space and time for considering books from small independent publishers. I am not sure that a similar system is practicable for the press, but it might help the small independent publishers if it could be done. Meanwhile we are left with the dilemma: try for the reviews and spend money we can barely afford; or simply operate outside the mainstream and focus on online reviews?

Ewan Gault’s The Most Distant Way, GutterMag Review

The Gutter Magazine review of The Most Distant Way:

 

The UK has long fostered a rich tradition of hosting divisive public spectacles, but none can rightfully claim to have been quite so intrusive as London 2012. Even the most committed hermits could never have hoped to out-run the daily waves of scandal and incompetence – the overzealous brand protection, the empty seats, and, during the build-up, a terrifying glimpse at the privatised future, courtesy of G4S and thirty unpaid workers made to sleep under London Bridge. It was easy (and in some cases wholly correct) to get caught up in all that anger, but it did drag the spotlight off one group of individuals who had some pretty pressing concerns of their own. They’re called athletes, and many of them had to sacrifice what could be termed an even vaguely normal lifestyle to reach the stage they did.

It’s these incredible stories so forced onto the periphery that Ewan Gault tackles in his debut novel The Most Distant Way. Set some years before the games themselves, the book follows Kirsten and Mike, two young long-distance runners in training with hopes of being selected for Team GB. Kirsten’s father, who works as Mike’s coach, has sent the pair to Kenya to train at one of the high-altitude facilities that allegedly help to produce the likes of David Rudisha, Geoffrey Mutai, and numerous other world record holders. The pair are approaching the end of their stay, with a few more days left at the facility before a gruelling trip back to Glasgow, first via Mombassa, and then Nairobi. The upcoming election has upped tensions in the country, with mobs already roaming the suburbs, and the police all but happy to violently suppress anything that could be conceived as a threat. On top of that, Mike and Kirsten are clearly both experiencing growing pains – pains that have exacerbated themselves overtime, having been so rudely forced out of the regular teenage routine.

The resulting novel deconstructs the hygienic myths that characterise the games, and the fantasy of sheer, undeterred, superhuman endeavour. The first-person narrative switches between the two with each chapter, and it’s not long before we realise how delightfully flawed both characters are. That said, one of Gault’s major achievements here is the creation of narratives delivered in such a naturalised fashion that we as readers initially think nothing of Kirsten and Mike’s often-unhinged behaviour – whether it’s Kirsten getting debilitatingly stoned in the middle of hyena country, or Mike taking an ice bath in a wheelie bin stolen off his neighbour.

The contrast between the two creates a fascinating tension. Kirsten is traumatised both by the violence that surrounds her in Kenya, and the violence of her past, which includes a father ruthless enough to bully his own daughter if it takes her any closer to the podium. Mike meanwhile struggles to relate anything outside the experience of running, despite an obvious desire for Kirsten’s affections. He runs to affirm his own existence. Kirsten runs in an attempt to obliterate herself.

Ultimately, Gault’s work is an unflinching, painful study of the lives of young people striving for greatness, and an unveiling of the brutality that often lies beneath the surface, and its devastating consequences. The Most Distant Way is an effective exploration of the individual’s inability to reconcile their personal struggles with any kind of wider situation, be it their home-life, or the politics of a nation on the verge of collapse. The result is a powerful, unsettling comment on something not so far from home as may first appear.

 

www.guttermag.co.uk

 

August 2013

 

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