Sunday, 14 December 2014

Reading the Classics: Light in August by William Faulkner

I know I haven't posted a book review for ages. It's not that I haven't been reading, but I became completely bogged down by the modernist classic Light in August. It's one of the set texts for my online course, The Fiction of Relationship, otherwise I might have been tempted to abandon it.

In the end I'm glad I didn't, even though it was often a struggle; based in the American Deep South of the 1930s, Light in August is deeply imbued with the racism and misogyny of this place in time.

The novel concerns itself with a number of disconnected characters; beginning with Lena Grove, a young, pregnant white woman on the road from Alabama in search of Lucas Burch, father of her unborn child. It's clear he's run out on her, yet she has a simple faith that she'll find him before the baby is born. Burch is confused with a similarly named man, Byron Bunch, by the folks Lena meets on her travels and she heads for the sawmill in Jefferson where Bunch works.

The focus then shifts to Joe Christmas, an ostensibly white man working at the same mill, who doesn't really know who he is. Adopted at birth, he's described as 'parchment' coloured, passes for white but believes himself to have some black heritage. It seems he can't help but confess this to the women he sleeps with and word gets around. In the meantime, he develops a relationship with Joanna Burden, the descendant of Yankee abolitionists. He's living on her property and selling bootleg liquor, along with his business partner Joe Brown, who happens to be Lucas Burch under an assumed name.

When Joanna is horribly murdered, it sets off a train of events which leads to Christmas being hunted down, implicated by Brown but defended by Bunch and the disgraced priest Gail Hightower. Finally, he is condemned in the cruelest way by the townsfolk, for whom his most heinous crime is to be the deceitful possessor of black blood.

According to course tutor Professor Weinstein, Faulkner initially intended Hightower to be the central character and conscience of this novel, but Christmas somehow took over. Faulkner explores Christmas's formative years in detail, delving back into his early days at the orphanage:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows believes remembers a corridor in a big long gabled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassland cinderstrewn-packed compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrow-like childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears. 
For Christmas, the past has an unerasable hold on the present. He is a man out of phase, living in the sewer of his own impulses, sensing
something is going to happen, something is going to happen to me
It seems his body is the site where violence takes place, rather than his mind consciously deciding on it. In his rages he watches himself in slow motion; with the black girl who has been paid to initiate him in sex, we learn
He was moving because his foot touched her. Then it touched her again, because he kicked her.
Christmas has problems with women. He's more at ease with being beaten by his foster father Mr McEachern, than with Mrs McEachern's timid attempts to soothe and care for him. When offered food, he rejects it as 'women's muck' as if also rejecting feminine love and kindness. He cannot bear the pattern of women's lives, reacting so violently to being told about menstruation that he goes out and shoots a sheep like a ritual sacrifice. He runs away when his first lover Bobbie can't sleep with him because she's 'sick', yet ultimately rejects the almost manlike Joanna Burden for being too old to bear children, telling her 'you're not any good any more.'

By contrast with Christmas, Lena Grove is the life force of Light in August. She's unmarred by guilt at her situation and is tranquil and serene. Her thinking is undeveloped, indeed Faulkner has been criticised for 'essentialising' her as a 'breeder'. Her unborn child is the novel's 'ticking bomb', the linear timeline cued to its birth.

Faulkner's work is stamped by trauma and shock, peopled with characters who are outsiders in a small community, nursing psychological and physical wounds. Light in August explores the connections there may be between its disparate central characters and between the forces of life and death. As the novel progresses, new relationships are forged. The birth of Lena's child draws Hightower and Bunch into life, and even though Lena and Christmas haven't met, she contemplates the notion, through encountering his grandparents, that he may be the real father of her child.

Light in August dwells much longer on the forces of death and evil though, than on the redemption of a child's birth. Having lived a violent, displaced life, rejecting love and doling out hatred, Christmas faces an end which many have compared to the crucifixion of Christ.

Professor Weinstein describes this as one of Faulkner's more accessible works, written before he fell under the influence of James Joyce and his stream of consciousness. But I found Light in August to be the very antithesis of its title; dark, full of bleakness and frequently opaque. There may be eloquent writing but there is also a great deal of confusion and ugliness.

At the beginning of his lectures, the good professor suggests there is great value in reading books whose ideology you don't believe in, because you learn a lot. There's also the benefit of reading a book considered a classic and deciding what you think of it yourself. Ultimately, these are the reasons why I'm glad I battled my way to the end of this difficult novel.

Light in August is published in the UK by Vintage Classics.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Theatre Review: Swallows and Amazons at Bristol Old Vic

This review was written for Theatre Bristol Writers

Childhood adventures don’t come any more exciting than those of the four Walker siblings, in Arthur Ransome’s classic tale Swallows and Amazons. Set in the summer holidays of 1929, Bristol Old Vic’s production captures its spirit from the beginning; a telegram arrives from the children’s father, permitting them to sail unaccompanied across the lake with the words ‘better drowned than duffers.’

Who needs CGI? Under Tom Morris’s direction the power of imagination is unleashed as wind is invoked and the Swallow sets sail, a wooden frame and wheeled platform negotiating a waterway of blue ribbons. Distant views through the telescope are reconstructed at the back of the stage in circular frames. As the children land on Wildcat Island, they keep a keen look-out for Barbarians, recreate their heroes from Marco Polo to Robinson Crusoe, and cross swords with real life enemies in the shape of two Amazonian pirates and their dastardly uncle, Captain Flint.

Played by grown up actors, John, Susan, Titty and Roger combine all the energetic, quicksilver emotions of children with the fun of seeing full-sized adults (with facial hair in Roger’s case) dressed in silly shorts and bathing suits. Captain John (Stuart Mcloughlin) and First Mate Susan (Bethan Nash) are the oldest and notionally in charge. But Jennifer Higham is fearless and bold as Titty, leaping with great physicality from the rocks into the water, to be caught in the arms of the ensemble. And Tom Bennett captures the feverish irresponsibility of seven year old Roger, as he capers, sulks and trembles at the turn of events.

The whole cast is outstanding; the two unruly Amazons (Evelyn Miller and Millie Corser) inject a slug of high-octane anarchy and the ensemble of ‘players in blue’ choreographs the action with attitude, sprinkling water in the children’s faces and whipping up the fiercest of storms.

The intrigue of the first act is enhanced by Neil Hannon’s captivatingly original score and some wonderful musicianship. But it’s after the interval that the roof is really raised, showing how ready the audience has become for a bit of full-blooded interaction. The children in the front rows from St Peter’s Primary School in Portishead (who sang their competition -winning song ‘A Drop in the Ocean’ beautifully before the beginning of the show) seized their chance to bombard the on-stage fighters with foam rocks, while yelling for Captain Flint to be made to walk the plank – as if he has any choice in the matter.

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Swallows and Amazons was first staged at Bristol Old Vic in 2010; this thrilling story of an endlessly idyllic summer holiday makes a welcome return for another Christmas season. It creates a horizon full of possibilities, where children are free to roam and grownups provide a safety net rather than a cage. Arthur Ransome wrote many more books in this series, so maybe there’s room for a second adaptation in the future?

It would be great to think so, because this really is an unmissable family treat, captivating for children and adults alike. If we could, we might wish to inhabit this world forever; at least, with this revival, we can enjoy the sheer, unadulterated bliss of revisiting it for a couple of hours.

Photo by  Simon Annand

Monday, 1 December 2014

Theatre Review: Exit the King at Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

King Berenger I has lived for over 400 years, yet still he’s not ready to die. He’s been too busy inventing the tractor, mastering nuclear fusion and attending an endless round of charity balls with his glamorous young second wife, Queen Marie. Now it all boils down to the last hour and a half of his life, which we in the audience are there to witness in real time, whether he likes it or not.
Eugène Ionesco wrote Exit the King in 1962 after a frightening bout of illness, and it shows. Berenger features as an everyman in several of Ionesco’s other Absurdist plays; here he’s the centre of a surreal universe, in the process of collapsing in tandem with his own demise. He’s monarch of a land now rocked by earthquakes, where the sun is late to rise and the wars he worked so hard to win have suddenly all been lost.
Alun Armstrong plays Berenger as a king denying the abyss, ill-prepared for anything except the eternal continuance of his realm. Tottering around his central throne on Anna Fleischle’s cracked and tremor-ridden set, his is a forensic depiction of a verbose and heart-wringing decline. He unpeels the layers of Berenger’s ill-maintained longevity with a staggering, sweating physical deterioration and an increasingly feeble mental resistance, while nevertheless clinging determinedly to the precipice of life.
Armstrong is ably supported by a very strong cast; as Berenger inevitably weakens, it’s down to his imperious and battle-hardened first wife, Queen Marguerite, in a superbly nuanced portrayal by Siobhan Redmond, to help him face reality. Berating him for his lack of preparation, she also dampens down Beth Park’s solipsistic Queen Marie with an ‘Oh, please God, don’t start hoping again!’ She and the Doctor (William Gaunt) chillingly count down the minutes to Berenger’s death, refusing to be distracted by the frequent proclamations of the decrepit Guard (Roy Sampson) and whirlwind interventions of Marty Cruickshank’s much put-upon maid, Juliette.
This new translation from the French by Jeremy Sams has pared Ionesco’s work back to a running time of less than two hours, yet has found room to enhance its feeling of timelessness with references to central heating and pole dancing. And the dialogue still sparkles; as Queen Marguerite accuses Berenger of flirting with death a thousand times, he replies, ‘I only flirted with her, she was never really my type!’
Under Laurence Boswell’s direction, there are no false sympathies for King Berenger. The characters and trappings he has surrounded himself with are gradually stripped away, as he edges towards the central fear that we all must die alone. Veering from the bleakly comedic to highly farcical and ultimately tragic, Ionesco confronts not only his own mortality, but also all of ours. Not always the easiest or most comfortable of plays to watch, Exit the King is a philosophically questioning and fitting finale to a truly outstanding season at the Ustinov.
Runs until 20th December 2014. Photo by Simon Annand. Details and booking here.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Punch and Judy in Afghanistan at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Stuffed Puppet has taken the seaside Punch and Judy tradition and transported it to the desert of Afghanistan. Neville Tranter’s one-man puppet show combines some sharp one-liners with a sense of the absurd, to put the puppeteer right at the heart of the political action.
Punch and Judy in Afghanistan tells the story of Nigel, a puppeteer visiting Afghanistan to entertain the troops. His assistant Emile goes missing on the back of an over-excited camel and when Nigel risks life and limb to find him, he unwittingly discovers the whereabouts of one of the western world’s most wanted terrorists.
Along the way, Nigel meets a whole host of manically glitter-eyed caricatures, from the owner in love with his lost camel to ‘Punch Bin Laden’ and his wife, Judy, who loves gardening so much that she’s cultivating a field full of poppies. While Emile may be joked about, his fate is unnerving. And will Nigel be able to make it out of there alive, to share what he’s found out?
With a simple set of a camouflage wall behind a line of poppies, Tranter ‘s skilful delivery is clear as he switches between an array of superbly crafted puppets, while also performing the role of Nigel. All the traditional Punch and Judy staples are here; the policeman is reimagined as a terrified young NATO soldier while the crocodile becomes a market trader, flogging a line of one-size-fits-all body bags.
There’s good use of music and witty observations aplenty. Early on Emile is described as having volunteered for Greenpeace as an alternative punishment to prison; charged with rescuing seals, he appears to have done something much more grisly with them. Perhaps we need to fear more for the fate of the camel than for its rider.
The ingredients are all in place but while this hour-long show throws up interesting, unsettling questions, the progression of the story is sometimes difficult to engage with and follow. The Tobacco Factory’s programme suggests a discovery of the repercussions of two clashing worlds of naiveté and cynicism; while these themes are certainly raised, this show falls short of any profound exploration of the resulting conflict of cultural values.

Seen at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol on 14th November 2014.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Opera Review: WNO's Carmen at Bristol Hippodrome

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

In reviving its Caurier and Leiser version of Carmen, Welsh National Opera (WNO) has chosen a solid foundation for its autumn season. It may not have been an instant success at its première in 1875, but Bizet’s tale of the life and loves of a seductive and headstrong gypsy girl has since enjoyed an enduring popularity.
Solid Caroline Chaney’s revival may be, but not always scintillating. Alessandra Volpe takes the eponymous lead, arrested for fighting with another woman at the tobacco factory in Seville where she works. While she looks and moves convincingly as Carmen, initially Volpe’s mezzo in the Habanera is a little uneven. She does warm into the role, illustrating her indomitable will with some bull-like head-butting of her lover towards the end, but both she and her Don José, Peter Wedd, have a tendency to be overpowered by the orchestra.
What’s more alarming is the lack of chemistry between the two, which undermines such scenes as Carmen’s private dance with castanets at Lillas Pastia’s inn. Carmen’s allure is such that no man from the soldiers on guard to the bullfighter Escamillo is able to resist; in this production it’s often difficult to believe in the couple’s mutual attraction, or the overwhelming love which will compel Don José to desert the army and carry out his final act of vengeance.
Set against this, Jessica Muirhead really shines as Micaëla, the village girl bringing messages to Don José from his mother. Her soprano is crisp and full of pathos; in her early scenes she expresses all of Micaëla’s attraction for the soldier, combined with an embarrassment at his mother’s unsubtle matchmaking. Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo also has a pleasing tone, although he could do with a little more swagger at times, particularly when fighting his rival in love, Don José.
The WNO orchestra is superb throughout and James Southall conducts with great clarity and vigour. Although some of the set pieces, such as the build up to the bull-fight in the final act, feel less dramatic than they should, the chorus is consistently strong and rousing and the gang of young street children are delightfully urchin-like.
Against the grandeur of the Hippodrome, the pared back set consists of Goya-inspired backdrops and a scattering of wooden chairs and tables. With its soldiers and cigarette-girls costumed in an earth-coloured palette, it does feel like less of a lavish visual feast than other versions of Carmen, and indeed other WNO productions. What this dulled-down vision does do though, is contrast wonderfully with the greater colour and vibrancy of the finale. There may be many highs and lows in this revival, but it is still an absorbing production with plenty to enjoy.

Seen at Bristol Hippodrome on November 12th 2014. This production continues to tour; destinations and dates can be found here

Monday, 17 November 2014

Book Review: The Other Ida by Amy Mason

The earliest memories of Ida Irons revolve around her mother, faded celebrity playwright Bridie Adair, and her episodes of excessive drinking.

Bridie's alcoholism isn't pretty; it breaks up her marriage and often leaves the young Ida to look after her little sister, Alice, all alone. Ida tries to reassure herself:
Things were nearly always fine, and if they weren't at least it would be an adventure.
Amy Mason's debut novel, The Other Ida, zips back and forth between childhood and a 'present day' setting of 1999. Now Ida's almost thirty and a mess herself; living in a squalid bedsit in London, she's abusing just about every substance she can lay her hands on. Bridie has died and Ida needs to get back home to Bournemouth for the funeral.

Home means confronting all the problems she ran away to escape; her difficult relationship with Alice, and her father's new life with her perfumed step-mother. Most of all, it means dealing with the long shadow of the play Ida's named after; the one her mother wrote before she was born:
She was almost asleep,...,when she realised what was wrong. It was so simple she could hardly believe it. She was the play, wasn't she? It wasn't just her stupid name. And if it was so terrible, so irrelevant, then what on earth was she?
Finding out about the other Ida in the play may help uncover the troubling secrets of her mother's life, but will Ida be able to cope with the discoveries she's about to make?

Real-life Ida isn't the easiest person to love; at first, like the passengers on the coach taking her back home, you might be tempted to give her a wide berth. She's dirty and smelly and she wets the bed when drunk. She's well on her way to becoming the female equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson, starring in her own version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fear and Loathing in Bournemouth, anyone? 

But, as you get to know Ida, you begin to realise she's avoiding a script that's already been written. That she's no good with boundaries because, as a child, she never had any.

Amy Mason won the 2014 Dundee International Book Prize with this, her debut novel. Her writing is full of incisive observation and she's created a gritty, funny and layered story in which key events in fiction are mirrored by reality and repeat themselves across the generations. By baring Ida's soul, Mason does a great job of making you understand and care for her.

Occasionally, a character will leap off the page of a novel with such vitality, you can almost reach out and touch them. By the end of The Other Ida,  I just wanted to grab brave, wild, lost, endearing Ida Irons with both hands and give her a great big hug.

Thanks to Cargo Publishing for the review copy. Pictures courtesy of Cargo Publishing and Amy Mason.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Theatre Review: Institute at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Gecko’s latest creation deals with the stuff of life itself. Institute is a raw, heart-rending, high energy exploration into the triumphs and despair of the human condition, encapsulated in a Kafkaesque world of unfathomable filing cabinets.
Each of the four performers within Institute has their own story to tell, but don’t expect a clear narrative; instead there’s a stream of consciousness in dance form, layers of meaning stretched taut by incredible physicality. There are echoes of Salvador Dali’s surrealist picture City of Drawers here, a body full of secrets waiting to be unlocked.
Amit Lahav directs and appears as Martin in this, Gecko’s sixth show in ten years. He has a rendezvous with Margaret; the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet opens to reveal a lamp-lit table and chairs, together with a pair of disembodied hands representing his beloved. It seems he’s all set for a romantic evening, until flashing red lights and harsh buzzers transport him back to the everyday.
Margaret remains a shape-shifting illusion, an ever-receding fantasy which Martin ends up carrying on his back. It’s his co-worker Daniel who proves to be his greatest source of fellow-feeling; their tightly sequenced dance culminating in a hilarious office meeting. They have become each other’s ticket to surviving the mundane and meaningless ritual of bureaucracy.
Martin and Daniel may be the employees or patients of Louis and his assistant Karl; like so much this is never really clear. The fragmented profusion of spoken English, French and German emphasizes their difficulty in finding a common understanding, yet each has an impulse to catch their fellow human being as they writhe in disjointed agony. Support is provided by crutches and ever more lengthy poles; beginning as close-fitting aids, by the end of the piece their increasingly sinister purpose seems to be to modify and control.
Institute is complex, it could be argued overly so. In a disconnected age, how far are we all still interconnected? With care being more commonly bought as a package, can we rely on each other’s freely given support? And at what stage does the carer turn puppet-master?  These are questions which Gecko typically doesn’t answer readily, but instead asks its audience to contemplate.
Lahav’s fellow performers are Chris Evans, Ryen Perkins-Gangnes and François Testory, whose Louis is especially affecting in his attempts to retain control despite growing incapacity. They are thrilling to watch, never more so than in the passages of flowing choreography where they all move as one. The lighting, original music by Dave Price and atmospheric sound design also play an integral part; particularly mesmerising  is the vision of a body which cannot be saved, falling over and over again on the mezzanine.
Institute portrays a world of vulnerability and loss, relieved by an intense human connection ultimately betrayed by the passage of time. The piece’s final golden, frenzied expression of the continuance of life in the midst of grief helps to ensure that, by the end of the performance, there’s a great deal that will stay in its audience’s mind.

This run has now finished at Bristol Old Vic; there are more tour dates here