The Widow

Devonshire Park Theatre: 22-26 July 2014

Playwright Merlin Ward’s chiller The Widow premiered at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park Theatre last night. The Widow is a brand new play in the gothic genre, set in contemporary Britain. It has a classic blend of the occult, the dark, the haunting and the sinister, which are brought up to date by the modern characters and setting.

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It’s not easy to present this kind of occult thriller on stage, as we’ve become so used to the technical wizardry of film – and I feel this story could make a good film, similar to the way The Blair Witch Project brought the genre up to date several years ago.

But with the help of a striking gothic set, spooky sound effects and excellent use of lighting, the play pulled it off. Anita Dobson plays a characteristically underhand house maid with dead-pan accuracy amid strong acting from all the cast.

One of the play’s greatest successes was in playing to the strengths of what theatre is all about, and what the Devonshire Park can offer in particular: the thrill of live performance in front if an audience inside a real Victorian theatre. Darkness was used to great effect in the play, and it was in those unnerving edges of blackness that the theatre itself seemed to lend its own long-accumulated eeriness, swallowing everything up and beckoning you to wonder, what if..?

The Cross and The Serpent

Magic, myth and mystery in the ancient world…

I’m reading William Haslam’s deeply insightful and thoroughly-researched exploration from 1849: The Cross and The Serpent. From the outset, it reminded me of the 1998 book, Heaven’s Mirror, by Graham Hancock and Santha Faiia. This apparently had an accompanying Channel 4 television series, but unfortunately I didn’t see it.

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I did, however, read the book from cover to cover with growing enthusiasm and excitement as it explored the tangible links between the world’s ancient cultures – the distances between which geographically, temporally and socially would have made communication between them pretty unlikely, if not absolutely impossible in many cases.

What they asserted was that the same patterns of language roots, architecture (specifically temple-building), and mythological motifs could be found in pretty well every ancient culture that ever inhabited the earth at any place and in every time. They made exciting links between the temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and the Temples of the Sun and Moon in Mexico City; these were linked to Hindu temples and mythologies, Egyptian, Pacific and ancient Western traditions.

One of the major connecting factors was the symbol of the serpent – others included The Word, and the overwhelming presence of the Great Flood narrative across every culture, with all evidence seeming to point towards the civilisation that existed before the flood as being holders of wise and sacred knowledge from God that was later imparted to the varying cultures as they dispersed across the globe after the flood.

The study explores a wealth and wide range of sacred texts and scriptures from around the world to underpin its findings, and includes some references to the Gnostic Gospels which point towards a vaguely Christian understanding, although the Bible itself seems to have been largely overlooked as an important source of scriptural knowledge.

The rift between biblical and non-biblical cultures seems to be deep and strong.

And yet. In 1849, William Haslam was setting out the exact same argument – with one key difference: grounded in Biblical theology, Haslam shows how all these mythologies share the same Original Root as the Christian Gospel – namely, the Word of God. His theory is based on a deep reading of Biblical Scripture, not just for what is written, but also for what is implied. And his argument is partly based on reinterpreting the history of what happened after the Flood. He sets out to prove through scripture that the scattering and dissemination of peoples across the globe following the flood is directly responsible for the arising of so many symbolically connected mythologies across the ancient world.

By examining the exact same arguments and evidence, Halsam shows how the esoteric knowledge and sacred mystical understanding of the symbolic Cross and Serpent wove their way into every sacred mythology across the world, and still hold potency in our imagination and rituals today.

He explores language etymology, temple architecture and mythological symbolism to demonstrate how the world’s seemingly diverse cultures have One Root in God’s Word, and that they all find their culmination in the salvation of mankind at the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Stories bearing the same or similar motifs abound across the ancient world and in every mythology that we have inherited.

For me, one of the most personally relevant – and seasonally topical – of these stories is the Celtic/British story of John Barleycorn, which is symbolically enacted every year at the Eastbourne Lammas Festival (Western Lawns, 26-27 July 2014). In this story, the god (Lughnasa/”Light”) is present on earth in the form of an ordinary man – John Barleycorn. At harvest time, John Barleycorn must die – his blood must be shed to give life for the people in the following year. With his death, bread and ale are produced from the crop of his body (the barleycorn), and are ceremonially partaken to ensure the success of next year’s harvest.

In a corresponding ancient Mexican symbolic rite, a maize cross was constructed, venerated and shared among the people, in a ritual that was linked to the giving of blood in sacrifice.

The echoes of the Gospel are so striking they hardly need explaining. John Barleycorn’s story itself has resonances across the ancient world – for example the Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, the Roman Ceres, and particularly the Egyptian story of Osiris, whose body was broken on the threshing room floor each year at the harvest, and who would judge the dead in the underworld.

Haslam argues that the symbol of the Cross can be seen in the Egyptian ankh – designating immortality and eternal life; the symbols of the five major planets in the solar system, each relating to ancient god and goddess figures; the architecture and construction of ancient Hindu temples in India; and is traced in China, South America, Europe, Celtic imagery and many more.

The serpent shows itself in the temple structures and mythology of Hinduism, Buddhism, Mayan culture, and so many more – especially when we consider it in its form as the dragon: barely a cultural mythology excludes this nemesis.

Haslam gives specific examples from across the ancient world of the recurring symbolic motifs of the Cross and the Serpent, similar to those put forward in Heaven’s Mirror.

The thing that both books do brilliantly is highlight the need for integration, rather than obliteration, when it comes to understanding our ancient history and our relationship with the Divine.

To me, early British churches are a kind of hopeful symbol of this. There are a number of Saxon churches (pre-1066) near where I live in Sussex, and among the striking features of these and other Mediaeval churches and churchyards you would be quite likely to find the following: a pair of ancient yew trees, often marking the entrance to the church or graveyard; sacred geometrical symbolism in the architecture and design; ‘pagan’ images carved into the cornices and ceilings – such as oak leaves and even some Green Man faces. It is often said that the church came along and pushed out the local Druidic religions – but I feel this is a little unjust in the face of the evidence, in these particular cases at least.

People who want to obliterate would perhaps take over the original sacred site (clearly marked by the yew trees, which were sacred gathering places) and destroy everything that marked it out as pagan – including the trees themselves. They certainly wouldn’t glorify the old ideas in stonework and architectural design. And yet they did. They preserved the trees and the imagery.

I like to think this is suggestive of the implicit understanding that the great mysteries require investigation, co-operation and integration, much rather than obliteration.

With the Church of England’s recent decision to allow women bishops for the first time in its history, I wonder what the process of mutual learning and shared understanding would uncover for us all.

Haslam is clear – as were Tolkien and Lewis a century later: the thematic recurrence of shared sacred symbolism across the mythologies of the ancient world is both derived from and pointing to the Truth of the One God, whose Word was made flesh in the actual historical person of Jesus Christ; the willing sacrifice of whose blood for our sins is both our salvation and the culmination of all ancient prophecy.

Once we were divided and scattered. Once again we will be reunited in the glory of our God.

Memoirs of an Excellent Week

Hallelujah! Praise God! Because, true to His Word, he is giving me strength and healing.

“Those who wait for The Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31

When I first read those words back in April, I was in the depths of chronic fatigue: I could do nothing but sleep and see nothing in any direction but darkness all around me. I couldn’t imagine myself ever being well again.

But I would read those words daily, and trust in the Promise of God.

Slowly, slowly, He’s been bringing me back to healing and renewal, rebuilding my strength and my life one step at a time.

And this week, to His Glory, has been a testament to that Promise!

Monday: Five-mile walk through the woods from Butts Brow to the edge of Town. I couldn’t quite make the last mile to Holywell as I’d intended, but it was a hot day and a winding path. And hey – I’d just done a five mile walk! The steps I had taken to get me to that point were infinitely gradual and gentle – over time building myself up with short and gentle walks, listening to what my body could do and respecting what it couldn’t yet. And the reward was great! A beautiful walk on a beautiful day.

Tuesday: Watching The Play That Goes Wrong at Devonshire Park Theatre. Hilarious! I was totally exhausted by the end – from laughing SO much. Some say laughter is the best medicine.

Wednesday: Swinging from an Ash tree over this gorgeous little brook in Bosham, West Sussex:

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More laughter, more healing, more strength.

Thursday: Singing in the church music group. A great evening of singing God’s praises with friends who are skilled and dedicated singers and musicians. With pizza, too!

Friday: Having the inspiration to write again, and making a start on my next story.

Saturday: Visiting this amazing crop circle at The Long Man, Wilmington and lying in the star at its centre:

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More healing, more strength, more wonder and renewal.

Today: A walk through the woods, with the raindrops pattering against the leaf canopy above, the sound of my muffled footsteps on the damp earth; a refreshing breeze against my skin, and the sweet scent of life reawakening.

Praise God! Hallelujah!

Why We Still Need Stories

Sally-Shakti Willow:

I was deeply moved when I read this recent post by Anna on A Classic Comeback. It perfectly expresses the essential vitality of the relationship between fairy tales / storytelling and the Christian Gospel. So I’m re-blogging the whole piece here. Thanks Anna!

It’s complemented by this short dramatisation of ideas between Tolkien and Lewis:
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE

Both draw inspiration from Tolkien’s essay On Fairy Stories, which I heartily recommend!

Originally posted on {A CLASSIC COMEBACK}:

j_r_r_-tolkien-3We live in a “scientific” and “enlightened” age that, for the most part, frowns on old fairy tales. Because we’re more realistic now than we used to be, right? This is the age of the naturalistic intellectuals where everything fanciful and fictional has been left behind and forgotten.

The old, classic stories are going out of style.

Because, we know better now. We’re into good, hard facts. Nothing so silly as “fairy-stories”.

Anthony Lane, a writer and literary critic with The New Yorker, thought so. In a review of The Lord of the Rings, he said this.

“It is a book that bristles with bravado. But to give in to it– to cave in to it– betrays a reluctance to face the finer shades of life that borders on the cowardly.”

At one time, the great Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis would have agreed with Anthony Lane. Even…

View original 1,397 more words

Summer Solstice

The sun is shining high in the sky!

Here’s a story I recorded last year. Gawain is one of my favourite stories, so I moved it from its traditional setting at midwinter and made it a midsummer story instead.

Enjoy!

(Apologies for the couple of small glitches at the start).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (for Windows)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (for mp4/Apple)

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She Stoops To Conquer

Devonshire Park Theatre, 29th April – 3rd May

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There’s more top-quality theatre on offer at the Devonshire Park again this week with Creative Cow’s sumptuous production of Oliver Goldsmith’s restoration comedy – She Stoops to Conquer.

The play offers a rich and comical glimpse into eighteenth-century country life, with a longing for the fashions and company of ‘Town’ that brings the foppish suitors Marlow and Hastings to the humble abode of the Hardcastles.

I really enjoyed the gloriously full-bodied accents that distinguished the gentlemen from the country-folk and the contrasts that were used effectively by Kate to achieve her conquest by stooping to adopt the persona of a bar maid when talking to Marlow.

Strong characterisation and quality acting from the whole cast brought this performance to life, and the creative use of gilded mirror props made it visually inspiring.

An excellent night out at the theatre! Go and check it out!

Raised to New Life

Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – I reaffirmed my Baptism vows: proclaiming them in my own voice before God and in front of around 400 people. Welcome to the family.

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Now my life is perfect and I’ve got everything I ever wanted, right?

Yeah, right.

I’m suffering with chronic fatigue – a condition that’s difficult for other people to see, and even trickier to understand: surely I’m just lazy/choosing this/enjoying not going to work. Actually, no. Of course, duvet days are great for us all now and again, but I certainly wouldn’t choose this every day of my life at the moment. I’m well aware of all the things I’m missing by spending 95% of my time resting at home. I miss my kids at school, I miss the daily routine of working, seeing colleagues, feeling purposeful; I miss the sunshine and the fresh air; I miss being active with my family and friends in all the early-spring-type-things they’re doing. I miss writing, being creative and communicating – this is the first time I’ve touched the keyboard in a month.

But this is where I am at the moment, and this broken body can do nothing more than wait, and hope and trust and pray. And really, that’s all any of us in this broken world can do. The world is broken because we turned our trust away from God and thought we could do things better by ourselves. I spent all my pre-Christian years believing that, and this is where it’s got me. Learning to trust in God again is the only way to live a meaningful life on earth.

First, we see that we can trust in the Gospel: we can trust in Jesus because He sacrificed His life so that we wouldn’t have to die ourselves. That’s true Love. That’s love you can trust.

Then, we see that throughout the Bible God always fulfils ALL His promises - always with the same unfailing Love that we see fulfilled in Jesus.

Finally, we can realise that the Promise of Eternal Life in God’s Kingdom WILL be fulfilled too. It’s a promise in God’s own Word. And He always keeps those promises – they’re made by His Love and written in His blood.

He doesn’t promise to give us everything we ever wanted in this life – our sinful hearts lead us too far astray for that. But He does promise to give us everything He IS in all His Grace, Love and Mercy, and everything He ever dreamed for us in His Unfailing Wisdom, and lead us into Eternal Life with Christ when the time of Glory comes.

And so, we can turn to His Word time and time again, whenever we are suffering, or longing, or waiting for things to change, knowing that we can trust in the promises He makes us and He will do the work that’s necessary to fulfil them. All we need to do, is wait.

“Those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” Isaiah 40:31

So, although I’m not turning cartwheels yet, or flying like an eagle, or even running or walking very far without getting tired, I can trust that God is giving me the strength to wait for Him and that is all I need to do.

The New Life into which I’ve been raised isn’t one of perfect health, perfect looks, perfect lifestyle – yet. It’s a life of learning to trust in my Creator, learning to live in the relationship with Him for which I was created. A life of waiting, hoping, trusting, praying and bearing witness.

If I was in any uncertainty about these things as they unfolded to me during the week, they were powerfully confirmed in the sermon I heard at church last night, on Acts 1:1-11.

In verse 6, the disciples are still wondering if Jesus’ resurrection means they’re going to get all the things THEY want: ‘So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”‘

But He answers them in verse 7 by showing that they have been called as witnesses to God’s Glory, and there is still waiting to be done: ‘He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

In his sermon, the vicar Mark Redhouse made it clear that Jesus does not come into our lives to fit our agenda, and we are not given the gift of the Holy Spirit to fulfil our own desires. But we are called to be a witness to the ends of the earth and to wait until the time set for the fulfilment of God’s Glory. The Holy Spirit makes this possible.

The waiting is temporary, and we will be given the strength to carry us through. And when the promise is fulfilled, we will all share in the abundance of God’s Glory that is to come.

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!