Being a Beast

Kenneth Allsop Memorial Talk by Charles Foster
Bridport Literary Festival
Electric Palace, 12 November

By Martin Maudsley

After our own beastly-themed ‘Meet the Creatures’ kids’ event at the Lyric Theatre in the morning, it seemed entirely appropriate to spend the afternoon listening to veterinarian, barrister and writer Charles Foster’s account of ‘Being a Beast’.

Despite not (yet) having read the book, its title and premise were intriguing and I relished the opportunity to hear about it straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. It seems that getting inside the heads of other animals has been something of a life-long quest for Foster, and his opening narrative about an obsession with a blackbird in the garden of his childhood immediately drew me in. From then on, with regular questions and comments from on-stage presenter James Crowden, he discursively outlined the book’s contents through explorations of five species of British beasts, namely: badger, deer, otter, fox and swift.

From the outset Foster expounded his dislike for anthropomorphism, and his attempt in this work to try to get under the skin of his chosen other-than-human subjects without sentimentalism, which he described as ‘corrosive narcissism’. His alternative method can perhaps be described as a biological version of method acting – living for extended periods, as far as possible, within the habits and habitats of each particular beast. It’s clear that Foster undertook the project with unusual, perhaps unique, doggedness – living in a hole in a hillside, assuming nocturnal habits, lying in cold river-water, loitering in urban parks “with intent to be an urban fox” – all requiring admirable stamina and staying power, and Foster’s account briefly hinted at both suffered depredations and novel sensations.

However, despite the hugely visceral nature of the enterprise that he was describing, I found it strange, and somewhat disappointing, that the talk itself was not more engaging or effusive; tending instead towards rather dry discussions of ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour) and ethics (he has written widely on moral philosophy).

There was precious little exuberance on display at having undertaken such amazing experiential endeavours or relish in telling the tales that accrued, and on the whole humour was surprisingly lacking (except perhaps in the dry-as-an-old-fox-bone sense). As the talk progressed, the pervading mood was that of the author’s dismay and disillusionment, both in failing to achieve what he set out to do (objectively understand the mind-set of another animal) and that his own affection for each animal species was lessened rather than deepened through the process of such first-hand animal encounters.

However, the conclusions from his ‘being a beast’ adventures, as outlined at the very end of the talk, are interesting and important. First, that we use very little of our own innate animal instincts (in particular, we have subjugated all our senses to the dominant one of vision). Secondly, that as humans we are “happiest when we properly connected with the things from which we have come”. This is evolutionary psychology, and Foster used the illustration of humans feeling cosy around a roaring fire because it satisfies our primitive need to defend ourselves from predators in the wild.

Despite the presentation feeling a little like a beast of burden, I suspect there is nevertheless much to be enjoyed and chewed over in the book itself – I might have to read it to satisfy my own animal instincts….

By |November 21st, 2016|Books, Martin Maudsley, Review|0 Comments

Dub Pistols

Electric Palace 21 November 2015
BR Rating ****

By Jonah Corren

Everyone who’s ever been to a festival knows who these guys are. Not all of them can remember what they sound like, or why they loved them so much, but they know they did, and that’s why the Dub Pistols’ gig saw people making their way to Bridport from all across the county. And they were not disappointed.

Most notable in the band’s set were Dub Pistols classics such as Mucky Weekend, which the audience reacted to fantastically, singing along to the catchy lyrics. Another clear-cut favourite was Alive which featured a thumping bass line making dancing easy and enjoyable, and yet another catchy chorus which the audience were invited to sing part of, in a routine exercise which really showcased the group’s vast experience and talent. One really impressive brass-coordinated number included a selection of fantastic trumpet solos showing the breadth of the band’s repertoire and genre span.

Dub Pistols brought an infectious energy to the Palace with upbeat music given a creative edge by impressively fast and lyrical rapping from key vocalist T.K. Lawrence. Front man Barry Ashworth contributed his ever-powerful vocals and possibly even more powerful stage presence. These two MCs showed fantastic chemistry, backed up by brass, guitar and percussion. At one point Ashworth wore a pair of pink sunglasses borrowed from one of the audience, and I even caught the trumpet player doubling up his instrument as an air guitar. For the encore, T.K. entered the stage wearing a huge sombrero, with fake ammunition strapped to his chest.

After the set, Barry Ashworth could be found behind an impressive array of merchandise. “It’s been a mucky weekend,” he said. “Last night sold out, and tonight was just off the scale. Everyone was just rocking with us.”

If you do spot these guys on the line-up of a festival or doing a show nearby, they’re really worth a watch. But make sure you throw yourself into the experience as much as they do.

By |November 23rd, 2015|Jonah Corren, Music, Review|0 Comments

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

We Are Many

We are manyBridport Arts Centre 18 June 2015

BR Rating ****

By Caitlin Appleton-Scott

 

“How?”

My first utterance on leaving the Bridport Arts Centre.

We Are Many is a documentary film about the largest protest event in human history, when people from 789 cities, in 72 different countries, protested that the choice to go to war in Iraq would not be in their names.

One of the most upsetting but powerful moments was when George W Bush banters with a delighted and laughing audience, about not finding weapons of mass destruction. Throughout the clip, the film cuts to videos of the injured, the dead, and the children; some of whom are likely to be among 1.25 million who were made orphans.

At first I was in awe…refreshed…willing to have confidence in humankind’s ability to act humanely. Watching footage of the crowds, you can’t help but feel delighted; one-and-a-half million people marched in London, three million in Spain; there were protests in France, South Korea, Italy, Russia, Japan, even Antarctica; it seemed impossible that so many voices could be ignored.

So I repeat, “How?” How did they choose to go to war? And why wasn’t the entire population of Britain on the streets?

Now we hit the second stage: hopelessness, self-pity, pity for everyone (although not pity for Blair and Bush.) We call ourselves a democracy, and yet with so many people protesting, we still went to war in Iraq.

Fortunately, I felt slightly more motivated by the end. Although slightly annoyed that the documentary finished with ocean-polluting, turtle-killing balloons being let go, I left feeling slightly more hopeful than devastated. For the first time in 231 years, the government chose not to pass a policy to go to war (in Syria). Maybe we are capable of learning from the past, and not prioritising monetary gains, although that seems unlikely.

As many people as possible should see this film, whatever their purpose – for self-development or for the marvellous Mark Rylance, as long as they are reminded of the fact that “ye are many – they are few”.

By |June 19th, 2015|Caitlin Appleton-Scott, Film, Review|0 Comments

Worm-Hole

Worm-Hole_image_with_textLyric Theatre 18 June 2015

BR Rating ****

By John Pownall

Niki McCretton’s solo show, which she first took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001, mixes vivid physical theatre with energetic and graceful choreography. It involves a charged emotional journey undertaken by a solitary woman in nun’s habit, confined to the space of a room that becomes a kind of prison during the course of the story – a story almost devoid of words.

The room faces us as the show begins, furniture stands draped in white sheets, a door opens and a solitary woman enters. Music plays almost throughout, each piece the backdrop to a section of the repeated cycle of the heroine’s daily routine that seems dictated by a bizarre filing system of trunks stretching across the rear of the stage. These trunks contain a series of objects, food (never has Pot Noodle seemed quite so unappealing), and Time magazine cover-portraits that are hung on the wall, first Einstein, then Margaret Thatcher, and finally the Queen. This triad of figures provides a sense of the external power that exerts influence over the young woman’s life. What’s happening here? Like Beckett and the theatre of the absurd, it’s not easy to describe what the play is about, yet something interesting is clearly going on.

Certainly, the gradual disintegration of the woman seems emblematic of the corrosive effect of regimented life, of life lived to rules, constrained by false gods and sacred texts. In the end, there is a sense of gleeful subversion as the heroine disrobes, removing her habit and joining with a puppet facsimile of herself, finally breaking through the fourth wall, walking through the auditorium out of the fire exit and into Rax Lane and midsummer sunshine.

It’s that lovely sunshine that Niki wants to bring into the Lyric more often, with the funds necessary to replace antique, boarded-up windows in this grand, but high-maintenance listed building. The show has been reprised to help raise those funds, and tickets are free on the door with audience members encouraged to donate as they desire at the end.

The show deserves a big audience on its own merit and there is the added incentive to help preserve one of Bridport’s most interesting buildings, and a theatre space which allows this kind of niche production to live and thrive.

By |June 19th, 2015|John Pownall, Review|0 Comments