Sunday, 16 June 2013

When The Rain Stops Falling

It’s been some while since I performed any proactive genealogical research. However, around 15 years ago this eccentric hobby took up a good deal of my time and energy, and I found great satisfaction in being able to assemble, however incompletely, the extraordinary jigsaw that resulted in the person that is me today. There’s a suicidal, alcoholic, wife-beating shoemaker; a city gentleman, estranged from his wife, who died alone in a cinema; a royal lady-in-waiting; umpteen agricultural labourers. All these tiny facts have filtered through, and I know they are still not the whole story.

The extraordinary When The Rain Stops Falling at the Sewell Barn Theatre (commonly referred to as WTRSF by the cast and crew) pieces together, in the same addictive and painstaking way, lives across eighty years and two opposite points on our planet. Slowly, without fanfare or sensationalism, each fact slips into place, and finally we understand better (but never completely) who these people are and how they come to be connected. Complex, challenging, truthful and compelling, it takes concentration and commitment, from both audience and performers, beyond almost any other show I’ve ever seen; but the rewards are enormous.

Ginny Porteous guided her cast through this tense network with a sure hand and a clear vision. The extraordinary rain-themed images and back projections, the insistent two-note guitar refrain, the white furniture and fittings, the beautifully-painted postcards on floors and tables, all made wonderful use of the quirky space that is the Sewell Barn.

The nine members of the cast all rose to these substantial challenges – mentally leaping around between eras and continents – with aplomb. Every single performance was a masterpiece of integrity and skill, and it therefore feels (as always) disingenuous to isolate individual performances. However, I have to do just that in the case of the two Elizabeths (Jenny Hobson and Jo Parker-Sessions), whose joint intense focus and intelligence were emotionally shattering.

The play defies classification (tragical-comical-historical-pastoral). There were many laughs, some of recognition; intakes of breath, for shock or heart-sinking realisation; smiles of satisfaction when another piece of the jigsaw dropped into place. Like Airswimming, this is not a show for glib distraction or easy entertainment; it’s far, far more worthwhile than that. To refuse the opportunity to see it on the basis of ‘I’ve never heard of it’ or ‘it’s probably not my sort of thing’ is, to me, akin to insisting on eating nothing but English fish & chips when on holiday in some exotic part of the world.

When my husband and I returned from seeing the show, we (as usual) browsed around the internet for further information on this play that had had such a profound effect on us. We found an excellent review – a blog post in a series by Brendan Lemon, focused on the production of this play at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York in early 2010 – which sums up the emotional value: “…the unsentimentality …means EARNED emotion rather than the unearned, easy variety habitually served up by plays and movies and TV shows”. He goes on to say that “It is only sentimental if you think that loss of loved ones is a tra-la-la type of occasion. If you do, then Rain probably wasn't for you. For the rest of us, the production reminded us why we go to the theater.”

Quite. This is the second production in succession at the Barn that has come into the ‘unusual’, ‘risky’ category of ‘earned emotion’ – and both have moved me deeply, made me think very hard, and proved their worth beyond doubt over the attractions of a night at home in front of the tv.

Just remember: 3D entertainment has been around for thousands of years. It’s called theatre.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Cathedrals: des res for peregrine falcons

We are very fond of observing both the wildlife in our own garden and in the surrounding countryside, and it's wonderful to see the increasing interest in such matters through programmes such as the excellent Springwatch (and its sister seasons). The new-ish technology of webcams enables an extraordinary study capability without intrusive disturbance.

I was delighted, however, when I Googled 'peregrine falcons cathedral' - without saying which cathedral - to discover that it's not just our local, beautiful Norwich cathedral that's home to these beautiful birds. So (more for my own aide memoire than anything else) here are a few of the dedicated sites I've found - where the high cathedral spires are clearly regarded as the penthouses of the bird world.

First, our local Norwich birds, first seen on the cathedral in 2009:

The Derby peregrines have been there since 2006:

Chichester peregrines are old hands: they've been there since 2001:

Lincoln since 2007:

I can't find how long they've been resident in Worcester:

The birds returned to Salisbury for the first time since 2003 this year:

There may well be more, but these have come up on an initial search. Many of the above give amazing webcam coverage, which of course will only be active for a short time longer as we're into the fledging season.

I haven't had the opportunity to attempt photography of these lovely creatures myself, but Gordon Burwood (a first-rate local amateur) has captured some wonderful images. I thoroughly recommend his Facebook page for some excellent work. Here is a beautiful example.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Take a chance on ... the theatre

After my rant a couple of weeks ago about local audiences missing chances to see wonderful theatre, simply because it was outside their comfort zone, I thought it was only fair that I shared my thoughts once I'd actually seen the production. I assure you that it came well up to expectations. The review (which has been published in the appropriate theatre Newsletter) can be found below.

There is another 'unusual' play - a curious sounding plot, a playwright of whom I've never heard - lined up for the next slot at the Sewell Barn. Once again, it doesn't sound like we're in for a predictable evening. Goody, I say. I wouldn't want it to be.

So if my review of the glorious Airswimming inspires you to feel a little braver about how you might choose to spend an evening away from the telly-box, for the princely sum of £8, please book soon for the fascinating-sounding When The Rain Stops Falling. Step outside the box. Go on - you might even enjoy it.


Airswimming by Charlotte Jones

Reading the publicity material, this sounded like a challenging show to attend, and so it proved. Consider the situation. Two women are institutionalised in the 1920s for the crime of producing children out of wedlock (even if the child was as a result of rape, it was still considered proof of mental instability). They are erased from family memory, and spend the next fifty years – fifty years – cleaning bathrooms and deprived of the basic human right of freedom. The heart and head go into revolt at the very idea. We know that laughter will be underscored with pain, with fear, with challenges; and we know that we, the audience, will not escape unscathed.

It was also a technical and artistic challenge. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in shows of all cast sizes, and each has their different dynamic, pressures and rewards. I’ve never been in a two-hander, though, and appreciate just how intense that pressure must be for all sorts of reasons. There is no distraction for the audience, no letup in the goldfish-bowl scrutiny (always the case at the Barn in any case), no room for error.

So Mandy Kiley and Kirsty Hobson, and their director Carita Liljendal, began this show with a huge challenge before them. A relatively bare set, plain institutional costumes, and just them. Two women, a challenging and difficult script, and nowhere to hide. In less accomplished hands, this could have been a painful experience: but it was a triumph on all levels.

Both actresses displayed consistency, integrity and a deep understanding of their characters; neither was guilty of over- or under-acting (both too easy a trap to fall into), maintaining the level of convincingly natural stagecraft (insofar as it’s possible to be ‘natural’ about such an unnatural situation), histrionics being completely believable as emanating from the characters rather than from the actresses. Whether whispering childishly or shouting furiously, every word was audible and comprehensible; and their physical changes as they aged were strikingly well-observed. Carita’s direction was clear and sympathetic, her concepts carried through consistently and stylishly, with exquisite use of movement, shadow puppetry and a glorious simplicity of staging and musical enhancement. Like the extraordinary beauty of the shadows of the developing foetus that opened the show, this was a creation of precise and sensitive beauty.

The script is not easy to tune into at first; the chronological chopping-and-changing is tricky, given that only the actresses’ voices and words are able to indicate the change from, say, the 1920s to the 1950s. However, once the audience has ‘tuned in’ to this oddity, we became alert to references to entertainers and news items of the day which helped us to keep track of the passage of time – in much the same way as, of course, the women themselves struggled to do.  It was painful to witness Dora’s distress when she realised that she was no longer able to tell what year it was, and we realised that the script had effectively done the same to us.

We left the theatre, in many cases, in floods of tears. In the final scene, when we realise that the women are finally being released much too late - when they have experienced far too many years of confinement to be able to gain happiness from ‘liberty’ – the words “I think they’re putting us in council accommodation” and “I don’t know that I can be bothered” were a knife in the gut when we’d spent the last two hours mentally waving placards for their freedom.

I wrote a blog posting after the first night of this show had attracted a sadly small (though very enthusiastic) audience, expressing my disappointment at the inability of the local theatregoing public to take the risk of going to see an unconventional and/or unfamiliar show. I was relieved and delighted to find that the show was well worth taking such a stand over, and indeed exceeded my expectations. However, that’s not really the point. As I said at the start of this review, this looked on paper to be (and indeed was) a challenging evening: not likely to be a relaxing, feel-good, take-me-away-from-all-this experience. It promised, and delivered, challenge and difficulty and indignation and tears and food for thought. And not enough people chose to share in such a banquet: the theatre should have been full to capacity every night.

Maybe non-attenders don’t want to be challenged. Maybe they want to attend the theatre only when they know exactly what’s going to happen, like picking up a well-worn novel from the bookshelf which you could recite by heart. But if that’s the case, I feel great sadness for what they are missing. The theatre is there to make us feel happy, of course (and this show did that as well, in spades); it’s there for bellylaughs and familiarity and beautiful sets and glorious lighting effects. But these are experiences that relate to life “as we know it, Jim”. To ignore the other stories, what’s happening outside our own little box, the off-beat, the quirky, the unusual, is to view life only in primary colours, ignoring the rest of the spectrum.

Miss Kitson and Miss Baker were real women. They were denied the human experiences of choice and variety: they were confined within an asylum for fifty years, never again to have the option to taste and try, to listen and learn, to question and to understand – although they did an amazing job with what was in their own heads. If we, who have our freedom, don’t take the chance to experience life, and theatre, of this calibre, we dishonour the memories of those who never had, or have, the choice.