Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Adolescent Fever Dream of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore by John Ford

Incest is best
There's nothing like a Jacobean tragedy for lust, incest, and hearts on sticks. Especially the latter. Cheek by Jowl's flabbergasting production of John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore is an uber-tragedy, a slick, serpentine nightmare-machine where everything happens at a thousand miles an hour and under manic, bright strobeing lights. This is what would happen if you boiled tragedy down to its purest essence. It's what the witches make in their cauldrons in Macbeth.

The text has been sliced down to its bare bones - there is no bumptious suitor subplot here. Everything is focused on the affair between Annabella and her brother Giovanni. The stage represents many places at many times, but is always Annabella's bedroom, giving the impression that the whole thing is a sordid adolescent fever-dream draped in posters of True Blood.

Lydia Wilson's Annabella goes from sweet, ipod-bouncing ingenue through lustful demoness to final repentance with ease and poise, her presence always  balanced, and never, though she is often physically thrown about the stage, out of control - until, crucially, at the end. Her brother, Giovanni (Jack Gordon) has a fanaticism to his lust, convincing himself with philosophies and books that he is right, even in his most psychopathic moments. He strides around in a black t-shirt and ripped jeans, recalling Ben Whishaw in Hamlet; the character himself like a depraved, cut-price version of that delaying prince in his more vengeful moments.

The rest of the cast fit seamlessly into the nightmare. There is Soranzo (Jack Hawkins), seemingly a man of good reputation, but in reality as corrupt and whimpering as anyone else. Putana (Lizzie Hopley) wins out as Annabella's conniving maid, playing her with all the world-weariness of an East End gangster's moll. No matter, says she, if a girl gets the fit upon her then father or brother - it's all one.

Characters remain on stage even when they are not there, or even when dead, acting as a weird kind of chorus, a set of Eumenides, sometimes in suits, sometimes barechested, dark ghostlings of a disturbed mind. The simple set has two doors - one that opens into freedom; and one that enters into a white tiled bathroom. If you go into that bathroom, you're not going to come out of it happy. Or even alive. This was perhaps the most effective thing about the production - that the goriest moments happened in that clinical room, thus heightening their power. There were some fine touches, as when Soranzo, trying to reconcile Annabella after he's found out she's pregnant with another's child, buys her baby clothes; or when a leather-clad man arrives suddenly to seduce the nurse Putana into giving away who the father is.

The play eschewed the final lines of Ford's text, which provide the title: "We shall have time / To talk at large of all; but never yet / Incest and murder have so strangely met. Of one so young, so rich in nature's store, / Who could not say, 'tis pity she's a whore?" In a production such as this, the rhymes would have been jangly; the nervous audience would have guffawed. Instead, we were left with Giovanni, spattered with his sister's blood, holding her heart in his hands as her ghost reaches towards him.

Whether manically dancing, or stylised into heaving piles of flesh that resembled paintings ('The Wreck of the Medusa" at one point; the Sacred Heart at another) the cast gave their all to it. This production was full of apocalyptic energy, of a decadent entropy that pulled everything out away from the centre, out of control, into chaos. We are lucky that we can turn the lights on, and escape from that crimson-tinged bedroom. We can flee the nightmare-machine - but only just.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Kalliphilia, and some Wykehamists

Hugo Wilson
It was a very artistic weekend, what with one thing and another. On Saturday I went to a show called Kalliphilia at the Vegas Gallery, which lurks in a back street in Bethnal Green beneath the thundering of trains. A love of beauty can often seem to be absent from the art world, and this gallery aimed to showcase some things of real beauty. Emma McNally's weird and entropic abstracts were very striking; Andy Harper's seething and dream-like serpent stood out, as did Hugo Wilson's dark and dream-like kneeling monk. More surprising was a piece by Tom Gallant, which on the surface seemed a normal collage: look closer, and you will see some very explicit pictures. Beauty lurks everywhere, it seems, whether in flesh or flowers, faith or fever.
Emma McNally

On Friday, I zoomed down to Winchester for an exhibition put on by some recently Old Wykehamists in the enormous and impressive art school. Six old boys, the eldest of whom left in 2003, came together to show some of their recent work. The art school itself was displaying some excellent pieces by current pupils, including some wonderfully Mervyn Peake-like portraits.

Ben Walton
Of the old boys, Ben Walton's human animal hybrids were playful and engrossing, recalling the Chapman Brothers' mutilation of Goya paintings but without their gross sensibility. Tom Rainsbury's abstracts were luminous and peaceful; Charlie Stewart provided some striking photographs (including one of a goldfish and its shadow, seemingly unconnected.) There was fine draughtsmanship in Sam Wilkinson's portraits, eerie and swirling; and also some excellently striking lines in Freddie Martelli's, whose subjects gazed out solemnly and realistically from their frames (amongst them, one of me. Ahem.) Neil Ziatabari's gloomy landscape of a field with some houses was set nicely against his livelier portraits. All in all, there was much beauty there.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

My favourite Dickens character: Bazzard

I've done my favourite Dickens character for The Telegraph - Bazzard, from Edwin Drood. He's not so much my all time favourite as my current favourite, mostly because he keeps a tragedy in his bottom drawer.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Relating Cultures at the LSE with Meg Rosoff, William Fiennes and Caroline Bird

A splendiferous event last night at the LSE, in the elegant Lincoln's Inn Fields (where once I toiled, briefly, at the start of a legal career that never materialised.) We were celebrating the winners of an LSE / First Story competition, which resulted in a brilliant anthology called Relating Cultures, to which I have written an introduction. They are all good pieces and contain some fascinating voices. The future of writing looks well.

I spoke about the historical and literary context of fantasy; Meg Rosoff gave a list of incredible facts - did you know, for instance, that if the sun were made of bananas it would be as hot? My favourite is that Charlie Chaplin once came third in a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition. Poet Caroline Bird recited one of her works, about a fairy who longs to be loved; and Will Fiennes spoke passionately about the need to ground one's fantasy into reality. There were some brilliant questions from the crowd, too.

In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs: review

What what, chaps. I've reviewed Peter Hobbs's elegant In the Orchard, the Swallows for The Daily Telegraph. Catch it here. I saw Peter speak several thousand years ago,  when I began my literary career at the Folkestone Literary Festival, about his first novel, The Short Day Dying, which I admired greatly; I also reviewed his short story collection, I Could Ride All Day on My Cool Blue Train for The Tablet. This is a powerful and beautiful novella.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall: review

Morrall: sweet
Hallloooo there. I've reviewed Clare Morrall's lovely The Roundabout Man for The Daily Telegraph - check it out, funsters.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Alice Oswald at the Southbank Centre

Oswald: vatic
Hello hello, I've written a short piece about the poet Alice Oswald at the Southbank Centre for The Daily Telegraph, available here. She read her latest book, Memorial, in its entirety. Some of you may remember that I reviewed Memorial for the same paper when it came out, and was blown away by its luminous magnificence.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A Paean to My Oyster card: First Story Workshop at Pimlico Academy

Oyster Card: give it its due
Through the freezing streets to the fabulous Pimlico Academy for an excellent First Story creative writing workshop. We wrote about abstract ideas linked with concrete places - eg, "The Palace of History", or my particular favourite, "The Sewer of Style." One of the best things that came out of it was writing letters to objects that you use day to day. So we had some brilliant letters to a ruler, a ball of blu-tac, a newspaper trolley, an apple, and a poster. Mine was to my Oyster card, and I liked it so much that I'm going to reprint (as it were) it here:

Oyster Card
Upper Right Hand Pocket


Dear Oyster Card,

Even your name is beautiful to say. Oys-ter. Redolent of the mysteries of the sea, of the beauties of gourmet dining. And with you, all those things are available - to me. I give you my gratitude for all those juddering journeys into town; all those breathless, anticipatory runs up staircases to moments of joy and hope. You are not an inexpensive friend and helper, though; but I don't begrudge you the monthly toll on my bank balance. With you, the world is my - I won't say it.

I won't mention the pearls of London life that are to be found with your elegant guidance. I won't mention the little skip of my heart that I get whenever I press you against the card reader (which, I may confide in you, is mostly because I'm worried that my balance will have run out.) But, dear oyster card - Oystie? - I jest - you are a key, a magic spell, a wonder, a Hermes, a leader into the underworld; but unlike Hermes, you also take us out - which is useful.With you, oh Oyster, the world is - I won't say it.

Thank you for your slimness, for the ease with which you fit into my wallet; for your ability, somehow, never to get lost. For all this and more, I thank you, and with you, the world is my .... lobster.

Yours sincerely,

Philip Womack

Now I hope you all go and write beautiful notes to your hoovers.

Charles Dickens' anniversary: His enduring appeal

The man himself
Pip pip! I've written a little piece about Charles Dickens and his novels for The Daily Telegraph, explaining my take on why he's lasted so long in popularity. Read it here.

Alex Preston Launch: The Revelations; Katie Dale

To Daunts! (A battle cry if ever there was one). A bit slow off the mark on this one, though, as it was last week (but things got in the way); it was the exaltation, or lift-off, or launch even, of Alex Preston's new novel, The Revelations. It concerns the lives of a group of people who join the Alpha course; it's already been well-received, and follows on from the acclaim generated by his debut, This Bleeding City. Fellow state-of-the-nation novelist Amanda Craig was in attendance, as were many other literary types. Unfortunately I couldn't hear the speeches as it was quite crowded and I was at the back, but I could hear some appreciative laughter, so I assume that what Mr Preston and his editor said was amusing. I look forward immensely to reading the book. Mr Preston was a few years above me at my alma mater, Lancing College, which also saw the launch this week of another one of its alumni's writing careers: Katie Dale, whose young adult book Someone Else's Life saw the light of day, as well as her series, Twisted Fairytales. There was always a bit of literary blood in the air at Lancing - ever since Evelyn Waugh went there (by accident.) Well done OLs, and for those of you as know, triumphales, o sodales...

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher! Review

Six dead Romanians; a night out on the town with a beautiful floozy; a tattoo with a secret in it; a midnight kidnap; a psychopathic Geordie; and Rex Hammer, a man so cool he once managed to sink the Lusitania and bang Rita Hayworth (I think) in the same afternoon - these are just a few of the fantastically loopy yet recognisable features of Humphrey Ker's rocket-fuelled one-man show, Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher! at the Soho Theatre. It's basically like the Eagle but with swearing and magical swastika jokes (don't ask). And a talking dog.

The setting is the 1940s, and Ker plays the eponymous Watson, a soldier who is rather a likeable cove - both brash and vulnerable - sent by high command to tell the audience how he came to have his SS-smashing sobriquet. There are some well-observed asides, as when he's in a cab ("And I knew it would be quicker to cut up Ladbroke Grove, but I didn't say anything because he's a cabbie and I'm posh.")

There is a plot which drives the show like an amphetamine-crazed Vietnam veteran in a monster truck rally. The son of an architect, Watson's the only Romanian speaker left in England after a spate of mysterious killings. The deaths jettison Watson into a lunatic world of double crosses and derring doers.

It's a gallumphing ride, and Ker's boisterous and best strength is the ability to bring to life the galaxy of characters that Watson meets along the way. There's the aforementioned psychopathic Geordie, who trains Watson in the art of killing: "If someone comes up to you and says 'that's enough', you're doing it right." Or you can slit your victim's throat and whisper in his ear, "real creepy like." There's the marvellous Rex Hammer, who arrives after his weekend long leave still in white tie with a couple of female film stars making out in the back of his limo. "You're all right, homo," he says to Watson.

There's Joanna, the Southern ingenue who might be hiding a terrible secret (who Ker brings to life with just a little skip of his combat-trousered legs.) And there's the dog - Uncle Trevor - who would give the one in The Artist a run for his money.  Best of all (to my mind) were the Nazi fans of a magician that Watson had to impersonate (it's too complicated to explain) - Ker got perfectly the mixture of awe and embarassment, made all the more piquant by the fact that the fans were savage jackbooted soldiers who'd kill at the drop of a hat.

Inventively silly, joyously ridiculous, and yet with a plot line that wouldn't look out of place in an airport thriller, this is beautifully crafted and craftily bonkers, revealing both Ker's obvious love of the genre and his playful twisting of it. And Stephen Fry was in the audience too. You're all right, Ker!