Tuesday, 31 December 2013

An Alternative Christmas

Eliza and the Wild Swans

Sometimes Christmas can feel too much. There’s so much expectation on everyone to have fun and everyone has their own idea of what that fun looks like.
     This Christmas is the first I’ve spent in my own home, my boyfriend cooked me and his mum a beautiful Christmas lunch and we all nodded off into the lovely books we got for Christmas. There was no false jollity. We had planned to play games like Scrabble and Charades but we were all perfectly content.
     Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean we should be content with what always happens. What makes Christmas exhausting and inevitably bland is all the stuff that is imposed on us. The need to consume as much as we can as if we’re mice going into hibernation for half the year or the incessant harping of Christmas music at you from the radio and in shops.
     Round and round and round, “Here come Santa Clause, here come Santa Clause.” You can’t move around your normal life without being pecked by it.   I just want to be with the people I love and comfortable in my own home, able to contemplate the pagan and Christian messages of Christmas. Which on the day I could. Finally there was nothing more to collect from the shops.
     Which is why I heartily recommend Eliza and the Wild Swans. A true antidote to the faded glitz of Christmas. The Bike Shed is one of my favourite theatre spaces in the South West and it boasts a really lovely bar which has a clutter of furniture including old cinema seats and a fun cocktail list. Wardrobe Ensemble have a cast of five and make up all their props from the laundrette where their fable begins.
     Like all of the shows I’ve seen at the Bike Shed it combined physical theatre with comedy. The company very successfully managed to fit an epic story, traversing oceans and borders, into the small space.
     The company begins its narrative in the launderette on Christmas Eve where we meet Eliza whose real life is reflected in the fable. At times it seems a weak link but perhaps the original Eliza was comforted by the fact that her life couldn’t be more dangerous and complicated than the fable-Eliza's. They swoop from this launderette scene into the fairy tale world taking fragmented bits of the launderette to assemble the new world, coat hangers, laundry bags, broom handles, rubber gloves, net curtains etc.
     There is a very effective scene where the eleven brothers, played by three members of the cast, turn into swans, their wings sprout into coat hangers and laundry. Also, a frightening moment for some in the audience was when the step mother burst into a demonic Kafka-esque creature, mop arms and red eyes and hideous crawling voice. Another demon with a laundry bag over his/her head caused one girl to sob. That’s what I loved about fairy tales and fables when I was little, the horror and the fear intermingled with the beautiful and sublime.
     There are nice, happy moments too, like the tsar dancing and lots of lovely comedy moments, oh yes, and then they try to burn Eliza.
     There's no attempt to hide the seams of the special effects, there can’t be in such a small space and a lot of its charm is in its handmade quality. If you’re looking for a glitzy-slick evening this isn’t for you. If you’re the sort of person who values creativity and ingenuity then this is definitely for you.
     As an eight year old I would have been equally delighted by it. The actors keep a fast tempo and you come out feeling excited and flushed. A very good way to spend ninety minutes of your life.  

 Art work by Anne-Marie Jones



Saturday, 14 December 2013

Burial Rites

Fistfuls of sky
Hannah Kent's Burial Rites describes a long-imagined landscape of sagas and fictions that are so familiar that they feel like a part of my own narrative.
     Northern Iceland, 1829, is barren and bleak and the characters that inhabit the land feel small and hopeless against the inevitable bad weather whipping in from the arctic and the grueling poverty they must endure. There are few rewards materially or spiritually to living in this harsh, sub-arctic climate. Our protagonist, the raven-like Agnes, has grown up here. She has lived through thirty-three winters and knows the hardship of the land. Every rise and fall of the valley is familiar to her and it seems to be the closest thing she can call home. She was left as an orphan to its wind-rushed slopes. There is a sense that she is an incarnation of the land, abandoned and barren.

We're all shipwrecked. All beached in a peat bog of poverty.      

Kent's book is rich with layers of superstition and the conflicts between humanity and landscape and the ascendance of Christian belief over pagan tradition; they make an uneasy compromise in both situations.
     At some points this book is confessional and others it bears the marking of a ghost story. Agnes's past haunts us through the pages.

"Do you know what it means, to have a hollow palm? It means there is something secretive about us. This empty space can be filled with bad luck if we're not careful. If we expose the hollow to the world and all it's darkness, all it's misfortune."

The knowledge that she is not prepared to die and that there is no dignity in her death or any death is brutal and sparingly described. Kent does not give us Agnes' death, only the lead up to Friðrik's execution. She leaves us with Agnes' fear as she hears the axe fall for the other accused.

This is my life as it used to be: up to my elbows in the guts of things, working towards a kind of survival.
Agnes is positioned as the maligned outsider. She tells us how her mother left her at Kornsa farmstead with only a stone to her name and told her that if she put the stone under her tongue she could speak to the ravens. The young Agnes soon discovers that even the ravens will not answer her.
     Kent does not let her off the crime, the story is more interested in understanding why the crime happened rather than absolving. It would be a rough soul that did not follow Agnes's story with compassion but there are moments in the novel when the nagging feeling is that it's too much for one person to suffer. However, Kent never resorts to melodrama. Her prose is clear and song-like, rescuing Agnes's soul from the depression that the landscape is famous for inducing.
     Kent's writing is generous and the space between her words can be filled with our own fears. The setting feels genuine. Kent has done a great deal of research which is unsurprising from a novel that started life as a PhD thesis. She is a trustworthy guide through the ghost-filled valley.

"What's the name for the space between stars?"

"No such name"

"Make one up"

I thought about it. "The soul asylum."

"That's another way of saying heaven, Agnes"

On my edition of the book, the pages are ink stained along the side which often made me feel that death was always present, creeping inwards, ready to claim its victims, the very words and language between us and Agnes. The raven feathers on the dust jacket and the ink-black rim make you feel Agnes story is diffusing into the pages.

Quotations from Hannah Kent, Burial Rites, Picador 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

North, north, north at the Bikeshed with the NIE

I am always happy to travel North, north, north…

Three men prepare to set off for the North Pole in a hot air balloon. Yes, that’s right, a hot air balloon. The scientists amongst you might groan straight off but if you’re like me then every bit of you is tingling with excitement. What daring, foolhardy but magnificent, glamorous daring? Yes I’ll follow you, sir, in your marvellous contraption with its newly patented system of sails and rope. What could possibly go wrong? Quiet in the back there.

For an hour and fifteen minutes, New International Entertainment want to take you with them on an incredible, picaresque journey destined for shining, unequalled success that can only end with a great banquet, held by the Tsar of all Russia.

As we enter the small box room space of the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter the cast are handing around hot cups of strong Swedish coffee. The more extrovert among us call out for tea. We are, meanwhile, serenaded by a woman on a guitar who we later discover is Knut Frænkel, she has a moustache to prove it. The other woman, handing out coffee, is none other than Nils Strindberg, photographer, fiancée and second cousin to August Strindberg. She too has a moustache. The crowning glory and chief adventurer is Salomon Andrée, physicist, engineer and amateur balloonist; he seems to have grown his own moustache.



Yes, you did hear right, amateur balloonist. It transpires that the good captain has not tested his great patent.

The three start by playing music, a double bass, an accordion and a guitar. They could carry on with this sombrous, eastern folk for a whole evening if my consciousness was the only one to please but it isn’t. They begin a dramatic narrative that spreads over three short acts. But they aren’t acts, they’re stages or chapters. The three explorers go from enthusiastic national heroes to dying, deranged fools in the snow; eating polar bear brains and drinking the King of Sweden’s champagne.


“Ice to the East, Ice to the West, Ice to the North and Ice to the South” is their maddening refrain.

For me, this is a dream of a story but for some reason there is something missing. Not enough to ruin the evening or to lessen some very amusing and well-judged moments but one goes away with the sense that more could have been done. Sometimes lines were fluffed and sometimes jokes felt flat or too obvious.  

Some of the most moving moments are physical. A projection screen is used to show us the hopeful young men preparing their balloon with sails for their maiden flight. These pictures are taken by Nils. Later the projection scene shows us the sky-ship come down and the men examining the wreck. The elements of physical theatre work well here as the subjects of the photographs take their positions.

The room is full of theatre students. First years. They are exuberant, chatty and immediately engage the actors when they come in who enjoy the interaction. This is a perfect theatrical audience. The people here will know what you’re about. They need no former knowledge of the story, they are likely to laugh at a joke because it has been well constructed.

There is a dark humour here which is not easily married with the guffaws heard in the front and back rows. A twiddle of a moustache might send them howling but a man’s blackened foot, however unlikely the depiction, should send a hush over one. A folk memory of so many dead in those icy regions. North, south. History is cluttered with fallen men in the pack ice.

Earlier in the year I went to see a Tinder theatre production called, the Last March. Scott, another ambitious man, set out to be the first man to the South Pole. We are all familiar with his fate. It’s an old story now. There was no new and exciting details like Andrée’s balloon but it still managed to hold itself up better. It kept its pace and its humour was more convincing. It had a very similar dynamic of three actors playing two lackeys and one glorious leader.

If I were to recommend a play for you to see, it would be the Last March. I say this reluctantly, sadly as I watch the three doomed Swedes of my imagination, picking out their sombrous tune, with only a wicker basket between them and thousands of miles of cold, unforgiving sea ice. I knew they could have done better.