Twelfth Night

Devonshire Park Theatre 25-29th March

Filter Theatre Company’s rock ‘n’ roll production of Twelfth Night brought Shakespeare BACK to life in inimitable style. The performance was a wild party on and off the stage! Fully immersive and interactive: utterly unique and unmissable entertainment.

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On the strange island of Ilyria nothing is what it seems, and no-one is who they say they are. Star-crossed lovers are crossed and crossed again as illusion and deception make fools of all those who would woo. Yet for others, life is just one big night out!*

Music is the food of love in this production, where the stage looks like it’s set up for a band to play a gig and the boundaries between actors and audience are blurred.

It’s raucous and raunchy; unpredictable, yet tender – and you may well never experience anything like it again!

*It would be a good idea to brush up on a plot synopsis of Twelfth Night before heading off to see this play.

Radio 2 Folk Awards 2014 – Growing From the Roots

The Radio 2 Folk Awards at the Royal Albert Hall were a glowing tribute to the hard work, high quality and rising success of the current British Folk Music scene.

I first started listening to the Folk Show with Mike Harding on my drive home from Wednesday night yoga classes back in 2002. By the time Mark Radcliffe took the reigns, I was ready to become a fully-fledged convert. Since then, I’ve started to build my own small collection of folk music albums and it was a great privilege to be in the presence of so many artists who have spent their lives immersed in the tradition of folk music for the sheer love of it over numerous decades right up to the present day. It also felt exciting to be standing on the cusp of a new era in British folk music – as the highly talented youth emerge, and everyone young-and-old plays their part in bringing it to wider and more diverse audiences.

It’s growing, from the roots up.

Folk music provides us with a connection to our roots: the music, songs and dance in our folk tradition carry the stories of our cultural heritage. They bring us into contact with the tales of our ancestors, our own past, and shape our consciousness and our present self-identity. They can be very localised, individual or collective.

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Yesterday evening, I was excited to hear the Cornish group Fisherman’s Friends singing sea shanties that I’ve sung myself at the Wassail in my tiny village in Sussex led by my local Morris side, the Long Man Morris. Several songs from the Long Man’s collection also appear reworked in belting contemporary style on Bellowhead’s Broadside album.

I value the folk music scene for the sense of belonging it creates, and the traditions it holds at its heart – traditions that are brought alive and that we become part of every time we listen to the music or watch a traditional dance. Though it’s even better if we take part!

I love the quality musicianship, particularly the sound of the fiddle that can create so many moods from foot-stomping dance to aching tragic loss – and how each of these stories is played out musically and lyrically in folk songs originating from the earliest known memories to the most modern singer-songwriters. Last year I particularly enjoyed Karine Polwart’s album Traces for the quality of her storytelling, and this year Seth Lakeman has just released Word of Mouth, his collection of songs written from people’s stories he has collected himself in conversations.

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Folk music turns a story into a song and preserves it in the collective consciousness. I take inspiration from the songs and play with the possibilities of turning them back into stories. A full circle. Or spiral.

Without the visionary work of music collector Cecil Sharp, who collected almost 5000 folk songs and dances from Britain and America, we would almost certainly have lost that vital artistic lifeline to our traditional musical culture. He did for British folk music what the Brothers Grimm did for German Folk Tales. By recognising that the oral culture – vital, expressive, fluid, living – would soon face the threat of extinction, these pioneers of culture and story preserved what they could for future generations. So that we might have roots to nourish us, too.

The exciting new The Full English project and folk-supergroup of the same name, are taking up Sharp’s mantle for a new generation.

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(The Best Album Award, presented to The Full English last night)

In music, as in traditional story, the key to future success is to regain some of the vibrant fluency of the original oral culture. Rather than being suffocated by the written/recorded/preserved version as definitive, to take it as a starting point for informed artistic development. This is what the contemporary British Folk scene is embodying, building on a strong foundation of traditional cultural roots. Lifetime Achievement Awards for Martin Carthy and Clannad reflect the quality of this foundation. And it’s the movement forward that’s capturing the imagination of new audiences across the globe.

I love everything that British Folk Music and Dance stands for. Long may it continue to live in our hearts!

Dracula

A still and moonlit night. A dark stage inside an old Victorian theatre…

Dracula – Devonshire Park Theatre 18-22 February

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Blackeyed Theatre Company’s production of Bram Stoker’s gothic tale was gripping and stunning. The cast of five carried the entire show, including scene changes, music and sound effects.

Their superb physical theatre techniques and ensemble performances increased the tension and injected humorous light relief where needed.

1897. The world created is a world not unlike our own – on the brink of huge change: caught between religion and ritual, science and technology; uncertain where to seek the truth. Into this despairing void comes the wild and sensual Count Dracula ~ serpent-like with his piercing bite and his slow-creeping poison: offering his kiss to satisfy our deepest desires, but at a price no human soul can bear.

The characters were strong and convincing and the sheer theatricality was a joy to watch.

Each act opened with live music in the various European folk traditions – a winner for me already! – and the ritualistic movement between light and dark, flame and shadow made the whole experience completely immersive. The powerful play of light and depth created a chilling ending that leaves an indelible mark and asks some thought-provoking questions.

I thoroughly enjoyed this performance and was physically gripped throughout – with just enough laughs to keep me sane and smiling, too!

Birdsong

Birdsong – Devonshire Park Theatre 12-15 February 2014

Emotionally intense and beautifully captivating, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong for theatre, produced by Alastair Whatley and the Original Theatre Company was spectacular!

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Wagstaff restructured the story to create a flashback performance in the first act – highlighting the emotional connections between Stephen Wraysford’s love for Isabelle and his experiences of desolation during World War 1. Wraysford was effectively portrayed by George Banks, with Matrix-like body-morphing from one scene into another, and the convincing emotional diversity to switch the mood in an instant.

I don’t think I’ve seen flashback used in theatre like this before, and the way it was produced and performed was highly original. At first it was a bit confusing and hard to follow, but it very quickly fell into place and became the natural mode of storytelling.

The second act unfolded with the continuous chronological development of the plot line and the characters’ intertwined fates.

The character of Jack Firebrace, played by Peter Duncan, showed both emotional tenderness and comic lovability, and provided an anchor for the plot line during those flashback moments.

Theatrically, the set was stunning and simple – echoing the original cover of the novel, with glimpses of Amiens cathedral, the Azaire’s country home, the trenches and the tunnels and more – using the stage space innovatively to create all these different scenes in one, without the need for major set-changes. The lighting and sound worked as a character within this play, bringing life and emotional presence to every scene.

And I particularly enjoyed the use of authentic song and music, with live fiddle played by Sam Martin. It gave a depth of field to the production that only theatre can achieve.

This is a brilliant adaptation of the novel – it will rekindle your love of the story, the characters and the stage.

Definitely well worth watching!

SteamPunk Storytelling

I’ve been experimenting with a SteamPunk style for my fairy tales this weekend, in preparation for the Storytelling Tent at the Eastbourne SteamPunk Festival this September.

Here’s an extract from my first attempt:

The Girl With The Clockwork Heart

It’s the year 1888.  Princess Aurora is celebrating her 18th birthday – dancing and spinning at the Belle Ball to the rhythm of the brass band: the valves of the organ opening and puffing in melodies no longer imaginable.  She can hear the soft, gently-humming tickatickatickatick of mechanical birds and butterflies in the air; sees a jewel-encrusted silver dragonfly flash past on clockwork wings.  Laughing, she raises her arms in pirouette, like a music-box dancer.

Waiting, the Professor prepares his gift for her – his latest and greatest invention of wonder, to be unveiled after dinner that evening.  The Prince, who will ask for her hand in marriage that night, also waits: watching her dance her final Maidens’ Sequence, half-listening to the Professor bumbling away behind him.  Yet, waiting, waiting – waiting too – an uninvited and very unwelcome guest lurks unseen.

You see, eighteen years earlier when the Princess was born, a magic curse befell her.   And that curse was about to strike.

The King and Queen had been blessed with only one child in all their years of happy marriage: their beloved, beautiful daughter, Aurora.  She was precious, she was treasured.  It was customary at the birth of an heir to invite the Thirteen Wise Godmothers to bestow their gifts on the new-born babe.  But there was a problem.  The thirteenth godmother, Carabosse, was stranger than the rest.  She was much older than her sisters: she cackled and croaked through her crooked lips and nose.  Her pale skin was drawn in around her dark, hollow eyes, and yet hung loose at her jowls in folds.  She pulled her dark hooded cloak around her face and melted into its shadows.

While the other twelve sisters made the golden birds and glittering butterflies, designed the lifelike dancing fairies, this sister created the black widow spider: scurrying by on clicking legs; the scarab beetle: taking flight on metal wings; the vampire bats and goblin fae.

The King and Queen considered it.  ‘Far better not to invite her’, they thought.  ‘We’ll just have to make sure she doesn’t find out.’

***

La Bohéme at The Congress Theatre

I’d been waiting to see this production since it toured last year, so when it came around again, I was determined to book tickets.

The sets and costumes gave a rich reflection of the 1840s Bohemian art scene in Paris. Surtitles made it easy to follow the plot line in English, but weren’t too much of a distraction. It’s only my second experience of seeing an opera live on stage – both at The Congress, both Puccini operas sung in Italain, both directed by Ellen Kent.

Opera is a strange art form for me to get used to, but it’s growing on me as I become more familiar with its conventions. Learning to check the surtitles for meaning, yet not just ‘read’ the performance, and recognising that the lyrics and scenes can present light comedic moments as well as aching tragic despair helped me to immerse myself in this production more deeply than the first.

I enjoyed the poetic lyricism of the libretto. The portrayal of the bohemian lifestyle – its struggles with art and poverty, the coquettish nature of the muse – was enacted in the turbulent love affairs between Rodolpho and Mimi, Marcello and Muzetta.

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The singing was rich, warm, passionate and sublime. The energy of the performers touched and captivated the audience throughout the opera from beginning to end. The blue hues of the backdrops and the detail of the scene-setting, including warm atmospheric lighting, brought the era to life and enveloped me in the story, the lifestyle, the moment. The ensemble carnival scene was bustling with delight; the hearty friendship scenes brought comedy and relief; the touching moments between Rodolpho and Mimi were tender and pure. I was carried along by the experience and I loved it.

The only things that could have been better were the unusually long scene-changes between acts. The glorious sets were worth the wait, but I felt the emotional impact was stunted by the delay. I’d fully expected to blub my eyes out, and I didn’t – which felt a bit disappointing in the end.

Know Your Ancestors?

Eastbourne Ancestors Exhibition: The Pavilion, Royal Parade. 1 February – 16 November

Yesterday I visited the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition and I was blown away!

It’s a collection of the archaeological finds discovered during digs around the town, and begins to piece together the stories of our ancestors who lived mostly in the Roman and Saxon times in this area.

The work that’s been done by volunteers to restore the finds and uncover the stories is extraordinary, and the ways the exhibition is displayed is really accessible for children and adults alike. There’s a digital map of how the area may have looked in our ancestors’ times, opportunities to dress up and discover, an audio recording of an Anglo-Saxon document spoken aloud, and a facial reconstruction of ‘Beachy Head Woman’, among exciting documentary evidence of the skeletons uncovered and beautifully arranged displays of various grave goods unearthed at the sites.

Some important and challenging truths are revealed in this exhibition. Many of us like to believe ourselves superior to our ancient ancestors, in terms of our understanding and ‘advancements’ in technology and science. But to see the evidence of sophisticated medical knowledge – one skeleton is a successful amputee – healing and social care, alongside effective weaponry and household objects, and beautifully crafted jewelled adornments, we must challenge that assumption head-on.

The care and artistry that went into producing such small objects as we would find insignificant today – brooches, beads, miniature combs – and their placing in the graves of local people must suggest that these things held a significance in both life and death that was integral to the social and spiritual understanding of our ancestors. I’m interested in their love of beauty. In today’s world, we often overlook the importance of beauty in our daily lives: work work work always seems so important. Yet those who came before us, whose survival depended on working the land they lived on, found time for grace and beauty that accompanied them to their graves.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

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I’ll be visiting the exhibition again between now and November, trying to discover what I can about the people whose lives are held within the belly of our land, and particularly trying to delve into the way they created and valued beautiful objects, which may have held sacred symbolism as well as ordinary functions. There are lives to be discovered and stories to be told…

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Imbolc – Milk and Honey

Outside at the moment there’s sunshine and hailstorms.  Inside, there’s Vanilla Chai tea with milk and honey.  Mmmmm.

Happy Imbolc.  The Light is growing: the Life is returning to the earth.

Last year, I recorded this story of Brigid.

Brigid brings us milk and honey.  She signals to us of the Love and Abundance that’s to come, but she also reminds us of the nourishment and nurturing we still need.

She represents healing; the forging of new creations in the fire of the blacksmith; and the poetic transformation of the soul through wisdom and beauty.

St.Brigids-Flame

http://www.kildare.ie/kildareheritage/?page_id=35