Thursday, 27 January 2011

Giants in the Earth at the Natural History Museum in Oxford.

Composer Matt Marks, director Karen Simpson and writer Nick Wood at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Oxfordshire Theatre Company: A new work

By Nick Utechin

How long should a work in progress take to gestate and produce a result? The answer, so far as the Oxfordshire Theatre Company is concerned, is at least a year.
Some weeks before Christmas, they held an intriguing rehearsed reading and sung performance of what may or may not eventually be called Giants in the Earth.
Let me explain...

The preparatory reading was held in the University Museum of Natural History for an excellent reason: they are developing a piece of musical theatre that centres upon a race in Victorian times to learn from dinosaur fossil discoveries on a beach near Lyme Regis in Dorset and thus ask questions about Creationism.
The Oxford connection comes with William Buckland, who established the university’s first geology department, whose collection is held in the museum and who ended his days in Stonesfield.
The tale is told in word and song of how he met a workhouse girl, Mary Anning, who sold ‘snake stones’ from the beach (and later became the first woman to be honoured by the Royal Society), and how the pair vied with two contemporaries to uncover what would become geological history.
This true story might seem an unlikely subject for a musical production, but the bones of the idea came from OTC’s artistic director, Karen Simpson: “I wanted to do something connecting the arts and science, and something that’s not only about Oxford, but something that would help the company absolutely connect with all the scientific achievements that happened around this area.
“From that, we spread the word and Nick and Matt turned up on my doorstep with a proposal, which took me in a direction I hadn’t necessarily contemplated — fossil hunting!”
Nick and Matt are writer Nick Wood and composer Matt Marks, who have collaborated on projects previously.
The detailed concept of the race and its implications (“Six days to create the world? Impossible. But why can’t a day stand for a million years?”) was theirs: the cumulative pressures on Buckland leading to his insanity contribute to a mix of Darwinism and Dawkins-ism that is irresistible.
And there was another factor, as Marks told me: “We started with a man who not only was responsible for this building, but a man for whom one of his life’s aims was to eat his way through the zoological kingdom! So you have to be interested, don’t you?”
“Buckland ended up as the Dean of Westminster,” adds Wood.
“And had always had a complete belief in the religion that he was brought up; but then his science led him to find out all these things which were slowly disproving it and leading to chaos — not least for the government which became worried about people turning away from the church when it was suggested that the Bible was not literally true.”
The musical content as it presently stands is an interesting mix of chant — to imply prehistoric times – and fun songs like Chip Away — to cover fossil hunting.
Marks, whose influences for this piece are primarily world music and jazz, bridled when I suggested that, as the extracts of the work provided for us stood, there’s much acting and then along comes a song — “If that’s how you perceive it, then we haven’t succeeded”.
Karen Simpson jumped in: “When we were putting together another version of the script this week, and Nick and I were hot over the photocopier, I found we were developing something else: a lot of music, and then two pages of dialogue. So it’s slowly becoming more and more complete.
“Oh, and we’re not even sure yet that the title, Giants in the Earth, is right. What d’you think?”
For what it’s worth, I think it’s a very good one. The process is intriguing and the potential undoubted.
A public rehearsal put on many months before the final production in front of interested parties is unusual.
I look forward to the real curtain-up.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Getting Stuck and the Benefits of Timewasting.

A couple of  days ago a friend asked how the Drum play was going and what it was about, and I was stupid enough to try and tell her.  By the time I'd staggered through the plot as it stands now, it felt like the biggest load of crap I'd ever tried to write.  For two days I've sat in front of a blank page headed - PART TWO.  I've covered the paper, deleted it, covered it again, deleted it again, complete waste of time.  Then, out of nowhere, I realised I was trying to write the second half in a different style from the first. And, I wasn't giving any thought to what  it was about, only to what might happen. Simultaneously I got the idea of a scene I hadn't thought of before, which I might not use, but it sparked things off, and I saw two things happening on the stage at the same time.  I went up, very late, and wrote,
                                      Wales. Jools is sitting at the table.  Steve is standing upstage.  Alex is downstage holding his bag.  Jools is taking part in two conversations, one in Steve’s kitchen, the other, in a service station on the way to Wales.  She only replies to Jools.
The next morning it started to work. The second part started to flow. I wrote the first scene. I made notes on where it was going and what needed to change in the first part and felt like a writer again.  I wish I could say it all came in a flash of inspiration after hours of deep thought, but it didn't. After a whole afternoon playing Spider Solitaire, my wrist was aching, my brain was addled and I was awash with self disgust for having wasted so much time and teetering towards wondering if this time I'd have to send the advance back, when I suddenly thought, I wonder if it would work if I did it like this?  Now I don't say it's going to be a masterpiece, but it just might work, and I know what to do with it tomorrow, which is what really counts. Onward and upward.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Thank you, Mr Franzen.

Just finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen of oh, dear I've lost my glasses and can we pull the first edition because they are four too many commas fame.  Well, that was the hype.  And the greater the hype the less inclined I am to want to read the book, go to the show, see the film, look at the view.  But. In this case.  Bugger the hype. It is brilliant. I finished it yesterday and I  I want to read it again. Now. 
Okay there are big hints he sees himself scrapping with the big boys this time, in particular Tolstoy, to whom there are more than a couple of references, which could be seen as hubris, except that he pulls it off.  Real passion. Real skill.  Thank you, Mr Franzen.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Giants, the Beeb, the Drum, and the great Pete Postlethwaite.

The show in Peterborough - A Workhouse Christmas - went very well. I couldn't get to see as much of it as I would have liked as  circumstances prevented me from going more than once and at least two visits were necessary to see it all. It took place in Peterborough Museum and the Radio Cambridge reviewer said it was the best theatrical performance she'd ever seen ... in Peterborough.
Since I've been home I've got back to work.  The second draft of Stephen Luckwell is nearly ready for the BBC and I think the ending works, or at least it's getting close to working. I've now got a first act for the piece for Plymouth and that is good because I was wondering if I'd ever fill all that blank paper with something worthwhile.  It feels as though it might work and I'm now rewriting it before I start on the second act. At the moment all I know about the second act is that they're in Wales, not Scotland as they were before, and it will end reasonably happily.
Giants are lurking on the horizon. I was able to print out Matt's notes for the rewrite and I've started to go through those and I expect we'll meet up later this week and start work on the next draft.  I didn't mean to have a break from writing but it does seem to have energised me, or possibly I feel that way because all the deadlines are so much closer than they were in November.
I've just seen that Pete Postlethwaite has died. I thought of him this morning as a copy of Bill Morrison's Flying Blind caught my eye. I saw him in it at the Court years ago and it remains one of the most exciting nights I've ever had in the theatre. A wonderful actor and a sad loss.