The Tempest of Lyme

Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis
BR Rating ****
[Until Sunday 24 July]

By John Pownall

We know that Shakespeare used a multiplicity of sources, literary and historical. That The Tempest, the richest of his texts for what the academies call ‘postcolonial’ studies, derived in part from a true tale about colonists on their way to Virginia is perhaps no surprise. That there is a Lyme Regis connection certainly is surprising, however. The source narrative begins in the Dorset seaport in the early part of the seventeenth century, just as England was establishing its fledgling empire.

What a great idea, then, to weave together the two strands; the Shakespeare with the source. This is the premise of Andrew Rattenbury’s partial re-write. The action begins inside the theatre, and then the audience, players and musicians troop out at the end of the First Act to take in the rest of the production outside, just below the bar balcony, with the backdrop of Lyme Bay. This is site-specific theatre; we feel as though we are on an island, the July heatwave persuading us that we are somewhere very far away.

The idea largely works to great effect. The two stories segue into each other nicely, the actual storm and casting away being the touchstone for both tales. The thorny and problematic issue of Caliban’s subjection is not contextualised by the colonial narrative, which for some may have been a missed trick. Nevertheless, this is a production which generally plays for laughter more than reflection, and is highly entertaining as a result.

The writer, director and players have worked hard to give a sense that this is one vision, and that huge team effort, combined with wonderful music and soundscapes from Andrew Dickson and his assembled musicians, carries the night along at pace. Visually, the production is wonderful, with rich and varied costuming, and clever lighting and staging. For a first night, it was almost pitch perfect.

Performances are uniformly creditable. Anne King is a forceful Gonzala (feminised as with many characters in the production, no doubt by force of casting issues). Val Christmas is a very funny Trincula, adeptly abetted by John Simpson as the drunken Stephano. Ariel is cleverly portrayed by six young women who play her at once as a disparate voiced spirit. Marcus Wood is a wonderfully energetic and engaging Sebastian. The love story is beautifully captured by Bramble Wallace’s nuanced Miranda, and Joe Urqhart’s charming and masterful Ferdinand. Declan Duffy plays local penman Sylvester Jourdain with cheeky panache. There is no weak link in this broad cast of players young and old.

Nicola Kathrens plays Prospera (rather than Prospero), one of the most poetically stretching in Shakespeare’s works, with great energy and vitality. At the end, the audience showed her their considerable appreciation, richly deserved as simply getting all those lines right on the first night is a challenge for even the most adept professional.

This was a wonderfully exuberant production, brought to Lyme by its own people. The moment which stood out: a very young audience member’s searching eyes in the evening sky for a storm cloud described by Trincula, straight from the script. There wasn’t a storm cloud in the sky, of course, but the boy still tried to find it, so convinced was he by the rendition of the poetry. Such stuff as dreams are made on.

By |July 20th, 2016|John Pownall|1 Comment

Elaine Beckett

Elaine BeckettFaber New Poets 13
Available from The Book Shop, South Street, £5

BR Rating *****

By John Pownall

Elaine Beckett is a Faber New Poet. She lives here in the Bridport area, and has written for the Review on several occasions. She is one of 16 selected by Faber, the publishing house that is the apotheosis of poetry publishing.

Elaine arrives with a collection of 15 poems, none of them overlong, and all of them seemingly accessible and lucent. This is the trick of her work, to have the surface of simplicity, but the depth of complexity.

The opening poem, for example, Melting, appears to work on a simple narrative level. A conversation is struck up between strangers; a fishmonger and his customer –the poet herself perhaps. It’s the melting of polar ice and social barriers which works the core meanings in the poem; everything is going to water, it seems, including the atmosphere outside the shop:

..he sloshed about with his bucket/and I enjoyed the rain/that was coming down like a veil/between us, and the passers by

So ends the piece. The collision of sibilants acting as a sonic echo to the poem’s meanings; everything is liquid – even the consonants.

The collection takes in a broad range of ostensible subjects; ecological issues sit side by side with stories of love and loss, and indeed it is the latter which often stand out. A poem such as The Woman Who Cries does what any great psychological poem should: it encapsulates a moment, or series of moments, that resonates in a life – it distils, even more successfully than a good short story does, the gist of an epiphany. Here, the poet (perhaps) receives a postcard of a Picasso painting, and a message from (one assumes) her lover. The message instructs her not to be the woman in the painting:

don’t be La femme Qui Pleure –

it says. First she thinks of the poor woman in the painting, but then turns to think of him, the lover who sent the postcard:

a man who could match me to a painting/that summarised the trouble we were in.

That final couplet is utterly perfect, and astoundingly revelatory. This is tight, polished, wonderfully economical language that signifies a depth and acuteness of feeling, subtly understated because of the tightness of the verse.

Possibly the best poem of the collection, Sometime This Month, is saved until the end. It is a lovely lyric about spring that updates Wordsworth and Shelley with its talk of texting boys and sunbathing girls. It works with repetition and wonderfully observed detail, and is worth quoting at length for the effect of its music:

By the hedge at the end of the lane/where the gate has swung open,a may tree will bloom; /
Five petals to each milk flower, pink- /tipped with stamens; a thousand buds/ by the hedge at the end of the lane.

The poem pivots on these alternating tautologies, the may tree blooming, the hedge at the end of the lane, focussing our eye upon and tuning our ear to the patterns and rhythms of the year as they pass. But this is not picture postcard nature:

… boys walking home/will be struck by the stink of it down/by the hedge.

What is it here that stinks? The blossom, nature, or is there something else going on – the hint of sex perhaps as they check their text messages in the following stanza? Spring is about fecundity, not just prettiness – you sense that somewhere in the undergrowth, off the page, other stamens and buds will be ripening.

Beckett’s poetry is strong and effective; not a word is wasted. Faber has, as you would expect, selected extremely well.

    • Elaine Beckett’s collection can also be bought online from the Faber shop: Click here.


By |April 12th, 2016|Elaine Beckett, John Pownall|0 Comments

The Majesty of Words

Graham Fawcett on Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sladers Yard 21 January 2016
BR Rating *****
By John Pownall

If you have never experienced Graham Fawcett, you have missed something. His childlike enthusiasm for the greats of the canon is the motor that drives through his two-part, two-hour monologues to a journey’s end of revelation. These are not literary events for those with contemporary attention spans. Fawcett does not give it to us in bite-size chunks. These are big talks, packed full of imagination and research, and ideally suited to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for Coleridge, like the Ancient Mariner himself (as Fawcett reminded us) simply had to talk.

What we learnt, the two or three dozen of us packed into the café at Sladers Yard on a cold, wintery night, was that Coleridge was the master of comebacks, an obsessive walker of hills and dales in Somerset and the Lake District (like Wainwright on speed, joked Fawcett), and a man who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. It is perhaps too easy to write off STC as the great opium eater of English letters, or as Wordsworth’s less successful sidekick. But his contribution to the evolution of Romantic poetry cannot be overstated. Wordsworth’s development as a nature poet owes much to Coleridge’s early conversation poems, and Kubla Khan can be seen as a major influence on later Romantics such as Keats, and Victorians such as the Rossettis, Swinburne, and Tennyson.

Fawcett stays away from literary history, though, for the most part, and focusses intently on the interaction of the life of the poet and the work; in other words, what we are treated to is an exemplary study of the psychological sources of great pieces such as Frost at Midnight. This last poem was recited in full. You could have heard a pin drop in that rustic room as Fawcett reached the end of the poem: if the secret ministry of frost/Shall hang them up in silent icicles,/Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. Pause for breath. “I would give anything to have written those last three lines,” he mused. Wouldn’t we all? Fawcett identified the essence of these (somewhat neglected) classics as poems that capture a precise moment, like photographs, and also as poems that reflect always upon the hurt child within the grown man, a hangover from an act of painful parental severance in childhood.

Equally intriguing was the manner in which Fawcett described the special bond he feels between himself and Coleridge. They both attended Christ’s Hospital School, and both had a classical education. There was something touching about the way that Fawcett expressed his reluctance to draw any comparisons between himself and such a renowned great of literature. But the kinship was evident, especially in this careful exposition of the biographical context of these intimate pieces.

The second part of the talk moved into the more familiar classics, focussing on Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Fawcett paused at the two-thirds stage of Kubla, at the moment that Coleridge is supposed to have been interrupted in his recollection of the dream by the ‘man from Porlock’. Was this a genuine event, wondered Fawcett, or simply a clever alibi, all part of the self-created myth about the poem as vision rather than as a carefully crafted piece of literature? The question was, of course, left hanging.

As to the Rime, Fawcett’s take here was that Coleridge is himself the mariner; an inveterate chatterbox who has to get the pain and guilt off his chest every time he meets a wedding guest, like a pub bore. Fawcett kept returning to a comment by John Carey that something had wounded Coleridge at a young age, and the wound had never healed. Only through verse could a kind of peace be found, and of course that is the tale of the Ancient Mariner himself. Life and art become so intertwined as to be inextricable.

John Keats is next for Fawcett at Sladers yard. Do go; these are very special occasions.

By |January 22nd, 2016|John Pownall, Sladers Yard|0 Comments

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudiceChapterhouse Theatre Company
Bridport Arts Centre 29 August 2015
BR Rating: **

By John Pownall

It ought to be easy, moving inside from the rain. But like all transpositions, something can get lost, and in the case of Chapterhouse’s adaptation of the Austen favourite, which was shifted from the Millennium Green to the Marlowe Theatre on South Street, it seemed at times that a great deal had been. The summer has not been kind.
Aside all else, the sets did not help the actors on the stage. Entrances and exits were all from the central opening between the flats, which no doubt works well in an outdoor setting, but for some reason looked messy in the theatre. The sound was far from compelling, and at one moment there was a bizarre interruption, with modern pop music blasting from the speakers. Clearly a mistake, and hurriedly rectified, but it added to the overall sense of untidiness.

There is a problem with this novel as a theatrical adaptation: it can lack drama. Austen is all about reflection, interiority, and nuance – not easy to telegraph from the proscenium. More than this, the happy ending is writ large from day one and – yes, we all know the story far too well. Perhaps a lesser known Austen might fare better, and it is noted that Persuasion, a more mature work, is also being adapted by Chapterhouse.

As for the performances themselves, there were some strengths. Amy Forde’s Jane was pitch-perfect, capturing well the suppressed heartbreak of her ostensible jilting by Bingley. Ella Sawyers’ Charlotte brought out the restrained embarrassment of being married to a pompous and snobbish prig at a time when divorce was unthinkable, financially and socially. These were measured interpretations, not matched by the representation of the flighty Lydia, which seemed caricatured and too 21st century, striking a false note in a production which worked hard generally not to update the original.

There was a good deal of doubling up of parts, the cast being modest for touring and profit-sharing purposes no doubt, and most of it worked extremely well. Fergus Leathem impressed with his Wickham and his Collins. It was not always easy to shift from Darcy to Mr Bennet, however, despite the best endeavours of the other Fergus in this ensemble, Rees. As for the key role of Elizabeth Bennet (the only part which was not doubled) it did feel as if there was a missing link here, nothing to bridge the gap between the heroine and the audience in the way that Austen brings us close to her in the novel. Elizabeth seemed a distant, somewhat glacial figure for much of the evening.

That said, a couple of her scenes were done very well. Elizabeth’s late confrontation with Lady de Bourgh and her ultimate coming together with Darcy were acutely done, and very faithful to the letter and spirit of the text, as was much of the dialogue. Indeed why modify greatness? The wit and acuity of Jane Austen’s characters’ voices still remain compelling 200 years after first publication, and while this was not the best of the many adaptations of this novel over recent decades, it was nevertheless pretty enjoyable fare for the sizeable Bank Holiday weekend audience.

By |August 30th, 2015|John Pownall, Theatre|1 Comment

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised]

Reduced-Shakespeare-Company-2-photocredit-Karl-AndreReduced Shakespeare Company

Bridport Arts Centre 27 June 2015

BR Rating *****

By John Pownall

There can be few theatre-goers who know nothing about the RSC, the Reduced Shakespeare Company that is, not their distant highbrow cousins from Stratford who share the same abbreviation. They’ve been performing the complete works of the bard in just over an hour and half for over three decades. So the prospect of their visit to Bridport drew a very large crowd to the Marlowe Theatre, a crowd that walked away at the end of the evening full of the thrill of live entertainment performed at high speed and with great energy by three wonderfully engaging actors.

The tall one, Gary Fannin, introduced the performance by holding up the complete works, all six pounds of it, and told us that to succeed they’d have to get through eight ounces every seven seconds. It soon became clear that their method here would be to skip large sections and to focus on the big names – Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet. As they said at one point, reducing the tragedies is the most fun.

Before the interval we got all the comedies rolled into one because, as the trio explained, they are all “crap”. The reduced, distilled Shakespearian comedy became, after some mangling and re-fashioning, Four Weddings and a Transvestite, primarily because, as they put it, Shakespeare tended to write the same comedy over and over again. In fairness, the true comedies do date less well than the darker and problem plays. The other difficulty here is that it’s harder to satirise comedy. It’s a clever trick to get them all over in five minutes so that the real fun can commence.

The same approach worked with the histories. The younger member of the trio, the hilarious David Ellis, suggested at one stage that Shakespeare should be less boring, that watching him should be more like watching sports, exciting and visceral. To achieve this, the three actors performed all the histories as a game of American football, the crown being thrown one to the other as the names unrolled, all the Henrys, and the Richards, and the (very) odd John.

Other highlights from the first half included a rap version of Othello, and a TV cook version of Titus Andronicus. As well as huge amounts of hilarity (some of it at the audience’s expense) there was also occasional education along the way. Who knew, for example, that the latter play, one of Shakespeare’s most immature, least loved pieces, was the most commercially successful during his lifetime, paving the way for him to develop as a writer off its proceeds? Little nuggets like this found their way into the madness, proving that the production is penned by writers with a real love of their subject.

The second half was devoted entirely to Hamlet. With no apology to fans of King Lear, this was described as the greatest play ever written in the English language. In the hands of the ‘The Bad Boys of Abridgment’ it almost retained its dramatic power as Ellis uttered the latter part of the famous soliloquy despite himself, gradually working away from mockery towards genuine feeling. This is proof that even when spoofing the poet-playwright’s most complex work, the great philosophy and psychological insight, will shine through.

Would Will himself approve? Certainly; the great man’s energy was always devoted to ensuring that his theatre was full; he was as much a businessman as a bard. The theatre was packed to the rafters – reduced, yes, but in no way belittled.

By |June 27th, 2015|John Pownall, Review|0 Comments