Thursday, 22 November 2012

Arts Funding : Thank You, Will Gompertz. If you can't trust the Today programme to get it right what can you do?

So Will Gompertz, thank you very much.  The arts are subsidised to 'no great effect'. Really?  And your evidence for this statement is...?  Sorry? Pardon? Didn't quite catch that.
Did you set out to do the Daily Mail's work for them?  Of course you didn't.  I've listened to you and I respect your views and I know you are a dedicated supporter of the arts.
So was the item too quickly put together? Was it poorly edited?  Did a slip of the finger delete the counter argument - and the facts - from the final broadcast?  We'll never know how the Today programme let in such a shoddy piece of reporting but thanks again for feeding the argument that the arts are irrelevant and elitist. Why should we pay for the rich to go to the ballet and the opera?  Why don't we cut the funding to the arts?  Save a few bob. What a good idea.
Only it isn't though, is it, Will?
I've been a full time playwright for approaching twelve years now and I've done a few back of the envelope sums to try and work out how many people, leaving aside the audience numbers, have been involved in the arts through my own work or through work I've been engaged you do. It's an estimate, Will, and I've gone on the low side.

Warrior Square.
Playwrighting workshops for eight schools in the Huyton area : Action Transport. 240 + young people.
Children of the Crown.
Workshops on structure and playmaking. Art project in junior school : Nottingham Playhouse. 50 + young people.
Broken Spaces.
Year long youth project sharing work with companies in Italy and France : Nottingham Playhouse. 23 young people.
Mockingbird Hill.
Play for Nottingham Youth Theatre : 90 + young people.
Play for Sheffield Crucible Youth Theatre : 30 + young people.
She sat next To You, Not Me.
Play for junior school assemblies : Theatre Royal, Plymouth. 250 + young people and teachers.
A Workhouse Christmas.
A community play : Jumped Up Theatre Company, Peterborough. 60 + adults and young people.
Up the Slack
Promenade performance : Jackfield Festival. 20 young people.

Crossed Purposes.
Cross generational project : Eastern Angles. 120 + young people and adults.
Playwrighting projects : Theatre Writing Partnership.  40 + young people.
Nottingham Playhouse Summer School.
15 adults.
Roundabout Playwrighting Project.
Nottingham Playhouse playwrighting project in junior schools. 200+ young people.
RSC Teachers' INSET events.
30 + teachers.
Comedy of Errors.
RSC project with schools in Cardiff, Wolverhampton and Nottingham. 120 + young people and teachers.
RSC project with young people in Sandwell. 30 + young people and teachers.
The Canterbury Tales.
RSC project with schools in Melton Mowbury. 60 + young people and teachers.
Two Gentlemen Of Verona.
RSC community project in Ely, March and Littleport.  80 + adults and young people.
Julius Caesar.
RSC community project in Ollerton, North Notts. 70 + young people and adults.
The Tempest.
RSC schools project in Rotherham. 120 + young people.
A Midsummer Night's Dream.
RSC schools Playwrighting project in Birmingham schools.  120+ young people.

Okay, Will, so that adds up to 1768. Not a huge figure. I could add to it if I went back through my work diaries and picked up all the sessions I've forgotten. And in some of those projects, like the assembly plays for the Theatre Royal in Plymouth were another eleven playwrights also involved ans the RSC work, my contribution was only a part of the whole. Start to put all that in and the numbers get bigger.  To make it a round figure let's say that arts subsidy has allowed me to work with 2000 people.  And I'm just one playwright. Think of all the other artists, the working in all disciplines, all over the country. Before making statements about how arts subsidy is failing the people of this country, remember  what they say in the Sates, Will, and do the math.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The English Baccalaureate Will Damage Our Children

When I was growing up I thought baccalaureate was a wonderful word.  I wished I could chuck O levels and A levels and take a baccalaureate.  When French students talked about le bac  it made education sound sexy.  When I heard about the International Baccalaureate – an exam so wide and embracing and mysterious that it could only be taken by those with enlightened parents wealthy enough to send them to Atlantic College where they sailed the Bristol Channel and ran their own Mountain Rescue Service I wished I could go there too.  And now Mr Gove has given us the English Baccalaureate, a qualification so shrivelled up and insular that it pays little attention to the needs of the present day or our rich cultural heritage that he and his party are so fond of defending.

What it is that makes it so destructive?  There is to be a core curriculum – English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, French and another modern language/Latin and PE.  At first glance this is a reasonable spread of subjects. Not suited to all perhaps but surely there will be arrangements put in place for those whose educational needs lie in different directions?  But consider what it doesn’t include. For a start what’s happened to sport, IT, any element of Design Technology, Art, Music, Drama?  Where they are offered at all, it is to be outside the core curriculum as extra-curricular activities.

The EBAC has been sneaked in. It began as a list of nominated subjects that would get schools special consideration in the points table if they produced a sufficient number of students with grade C and above. And in education points don’t mean prizes, they mean survival for the many schools whose catchment areas don’t provide them with a majority of academically inclined students.  Then followed a direct hit at those schools who, knowing their community, and aware of the needs and abilities and aptitudes of their own students let them follow subjects suited those criteria, only to discover that those subjects were to lose all their points.

A Tory minister came on to the Today Programme to tell us how ridiculous it was that schools were teaching subjects like Horse Management and Fish Farming at GCSE level and claiming that they should be given the same value as History and Geography. Until the programme was swamped with phone calls, texts and e mails from parents in rural areas, a lot of them declaring themselves to be Tory voters, protesting at such a short sighted lack of understanding.

We’re now moved on and the EBAC has been redrafted and will be introduced with no margin for compromise. Sport. IT. Design Technology.  Art. Music. Drama. And a host of other valuable subjects all pushed out. And why?   So we can return to what its supporters see as a fondly remembered golden age when state secondary education imitated the public school model.  For grammar schools and direct grant schools read academies and free schools.  We don’t yet, in name, have the secondary modern schools to shovel off all those who don’t fit the approved model but they are being created, slowly, and without anyone but those affected really noticing, by gradually syphoning off over the brightest from the existing state schools and into the new schools for profit.

The EBAC will not only damage our children by depriving them of the education they need to equip them for the twenty first century, it will take away one of their basic rights, that they should be able to feel a part of the cultural life of their country, and I use the word culture in its widest sense. And it will hurt the nation. Where will be the artists?  And the money they generate? Where will the next Jessica Ennis or Mo Farrah, both of whom acknowledged PE teachers and school sports as a vital part of their development, look for encouragement?  And what about the kids who discover a love of sport at school and carry that enthusiasm with them when they leave into local football leagues and rugby clubs?  Will they find that level of enthusiasm when sport is jostling for space with everything else in an extra- curricular circus? (The proposed Nottingham Free Schools tell prospective parents that extra- curricular activities will last for 45 minutes, anything after that they’ll have to be paid for.) Can we seriously not have IT as a subject for all?  Or do we assume that kids pick up all the skills they need on facebook?  Where will the designers, and engineers, and chefs, and farm managers get their grounding? 

We want our young people to grow up fit, healthy, aware of the wider world , considerate and sensitive towards the needs of others, with the best educational qualifications they have been able to achieve.  If Mr Gove is allowed to restrict our children’s school experience to this narrow, measly, curriculum we will all be the poorer.

It is probably too much to hope that he will have a sudden change of mind and throw it all out and say sorry, chaps, you were right, I’ve made a mistake.  But we can show him that we are not satisfied.  That what he wants to do isn’t right.  And that may bring about a rethink.  The straps on the strait jacket may be eased a tad, and further enquiries set up, and time may pass, another education secretary take over, and the whole thing may be allowed to slip away like so many other educational initiatives.  I believe we can make that change come about by raising our objections at every possible opportunity.  And if we can’t then we may have to bite the bullet and start up a few free schools of our own.

Follow the link below for one way to support the campaign against the English Baccalaureate.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Nottingham Free School - Is this really the best we can offer our children?

A brochure came through the letterbox last week about the Torch Academy proposal to open a free school somewhere in Arnold and I found it very confusing.  And very worrying.  Okay, first, let’s get out all the possible axes I may have to grind. Until I left the profession eleven years ago to become a full time playwright I was a teacher. I taught in Watford, Doncaster, and Sheffield, my last post was Head of Expressive Arts at the Dukeries in Ollerton.  So that must mean that I’m an opponent of any initiative that threatens to take education out of local authority control. Not so. I’ve worked with enough kids from severely disadvantaged backgrounds to want to listen carefully to any proposal that might improve their opportunities. But Nottingham Free School?  That has got me concerned.  And working my way through their booklet and website has only deepened those concerns.  Everything appears to be straight forward, very little is.

Let’s start with the curriculum for years 7 and 8 because that’s all they will be offering at first. The core is the untried, untested English Baccalaureate offering English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, French, Spanish/Latin.  Years 7-8 will take these subjects as well as Philosophy and Ethics, Physical Education,  Design, Enterprise, Computing, Drama, PHSE, Art and Music.  Then it tells us ‘the core curriculum will be enhanced by opportunities to learn and participate in: Performing and Visual Arts, Leadership development (including public speaking & debating) and Enterprise opportunities’ A pretty full day, an exciting range of subjects. 

Then a little further on it tells us that the core curriculum ‘will be enhanced by the afterschool sessions covering Sport, Performing Arts, Music, Critical Thinking, Duke of Edinburgh and other leadership opportunities’.  So, doesn’t that mean everything outside the EBAC will be taught out of school hours?  But students will have the ‘unique opportunity to learn from professional coaches – including professional sports coaches, musicians and actors.’ Not from qualified teachers?

The website makes it a little clearer. It lays out the core curriculum and lists the following subjects as being outside the normal school day of 8.15 to 3.15.

  • Art, Music and Drama
  • A range of sports, taking advantage of local facilities
  • Public speaking & other LAMDA qualifications
  • Computing
  • Further GCSE choices (e.g. Product Design, Food Technology, Sports Science)
All these opportunities are available until 4pm - that is for 45 minutes. And after 4pm? 'If there is sufficient demand additional supervised sessions maybe available after 4.00pm, for an additional cost.'
Nottingham Free School has as its banner ‘a science and creative arts specialist’,  one that proposes to jam the arts, sport, computing, and anything to do with Design Technology into forty five minutes a day, and if you think your child deserves a broader experience you'll have to pay for it. 

And in case we might wonder where all the 'football, rugby, cricket, and rowing' is going to take place the school will take 'advantage of our unique Arnold location to offer a wide range of sporting opportunities. which means they won't have any facilities themselves.
I happen to believe that the EBAC and its supporters are looking to return to an educational golden age that never existed outside school stories written in the nineteen fifties imposing on teachers and students a curriculum that is hardly suited to the twenty first century.  I think that depriving children of the chance to get involved in sport and the arts in the hope that the extra time can be translated into more exams passed in fewer subjects is an appallingly short sighted approach that will deprive a generation and undermine our culture.  But I'm a playwright so I would say that wouldn't I?  All I’d ask is that parents who are considering enrolling their children into this risky experiment should think back no further than to their own education, and without putting on rose coloured spectacles, or dwelling too long on those things that they didn’t go well, and ask themselves, do they really want their kids to miss out on all they took for granted?

I don’t doubt that the existing Torch schools are doing an excellent job for their pupils.  I question whether they need to build a free school somewhere in Arnold.  There are two existing schools here, embedded in the community, with structured plans to expand.  Let them get on with the job.

Two things do still nag at me as I think about the confusing way that the Nottingham Free School group presents itself.  Young people need to feel sure that that no-one is trying to be anything less than open with them.  On their Twitter feed is this:
Nottingham Post article reinforces our message that we're providing choice for parents in Arnold, Sherwood,... about 11 days ago

Click the link and it takes you to an article with the headline 'Headteachers claim there is no need to set up two free schools in West Bridgford and Arnold'. Their tweet isn't exactly untrue, but then the article doesn't exactly reinforce their message that 'we're providing choice for parents in Arnold.'

And if you look at the qualifications of the two leaders of the Torch Group Mr Jonathan Taylor lists MA(OXON).  I know how hard it is to get a BA at Oxford.  My daughter who went to Arnold Hill worked hard for hers. I also know that to get an MA(OXON) you don’t have to do any work after your first degree, all you have to do is leave your name on the university books for seven years and pay them thirty quid.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Talking to Pristina

Last Friday at Nottingham Playhouse we talked to Pristina.
While in Pristina they read extracts from four plays by Nottingham writers, Andy Barrett, Michael Pinchbeck, Amanda Whittington and me, in the Neville studio we saw rehearsed readings of plays by Doruntina Basha, Ilir Gjocaj, Arian Krasniqi and Jeton Neziraj.  Then, through Skype we were able to meet each other and discuss the work we'd seen.
In the UK we had all dealt in some way with the experience of the refugee and conflict, in Kosovo they lived it first hand.  That word 'conflict', we've heard it so much, 'the conflict in the Middle East', 'the conflict in the Balkans', We all use it and they were right to call us on it.
Very politely,and very correctly, we were made to realise that 'conflict' has as little reality as 'collateral damage', or the infamous ' terminated with maximum prejudice' for those who live the reality.
'Please don't call what we had over here a conflict,' asked Jeton Neziraj, ' a conflict sounds like a minor dispute between two cities, an argument, we had a war.'
All the four plays from Kosovo dealt with different aspects of the war. They felt that only recently were they able to speak of the war in their work in anything other than direct terms because the pain was too immediate for any other approach. We saw a shift in this approach in three of the plays - The Demolition of the Eiffel Tower by Jeton Neziraj and The Finger by Doruntina Basha and Iphigenia's Doll by Arian Krasniqi. Even a small amount of distance had allowed these writers used metaphor and humour as an alternative to tackling the subject head on.
It was a powerful evening. Funny, moving, exciting.  The work was serious.  The discussion was good humoured and light. Appropriately It broke up when it was decided it was time to go to the bar.  We hope we can continue to develop our new friendship with our collagues in Kosovo. Find ways to make a more substantial exchange of work. Maybe through the next NEAT festival. Who knows?  But you know when you meet people you'd like to work with somehow you're going to look for ways to make it happen.
One of Jeton's questions stayed with me. 'All your plays dealt in some way with the bad experiences that immigrants have when they get to the UK. So this something that is being talked about in your theatre. Does this mean that the theatre in the UK has changed the way the government thinks and acts?'  I wish I could have answered yes.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Shakespeare:Staging the world @ the British Museum

I don't know if I've mentioned this before but in my opinion that Shakespeare was a clever sod. Aggravatingly so if you happen to make your living writing plays. The exhibition at the British Museum only confirms this, and, in my opinion, pulls the rug from under any argument about how he must have been a courtier, a diplomat, a spy, a rich traveller, or even the Earl of Oxford. (For further evidence of the spurious nature of these claims and the near lunacy of some of their proponents you have to read Contesting Will by James Shapiro which is scholarly, readable, and a hoot, not an easy trick to pull off.)
The exhibition takes you through the sequence of the plays and puts them in the context of the events against which he was writing - which monarch was up to what, which latest unsuccessful Irish expedition had to be given  a favourable spin - with portraits, artifacts, maps, reports from travellers, and contemporary accounts of everything from court intrigue to bear baiting and public executions. 
The hard evidence of how Shakespeare came to write the plays is there in front of you. He did what all writers do.  Kept his eyes and ears open and made it up.  The infuriating thing is that he did slightly better than the rest of us, and that's why there's this ridiculous debate about his identity. Some people are unwilling to accept that a man we know virtually nothing about produced such a soaring and timeless body of work, in language that embraces all shades of humanity and speaks to anyone who listens.  We can see how a man from a humble background  could create Doll Tearsheet, and Falstaff, they say, but surely he lacked the background to chart Prince Hal's journey to Henry V?  Well, he did.  End of.  Live with it. 
I was working on an RSC project with a group of kids in Sandwell, on the edge of Birmingham. In the piece I was writing with them a girl is play fighting with two male friends and wants to tell them to get off, let go of her.  I didn't feel familiar enough with the way Black Country kids speak so I asked the group of girls what they'd say and straight away one girl said 'Loose me.'  Will would have been proud of her.
At the end of the exhibition there is a complete works covered by Diwali stickers that was passed around the prisoners under the eyes of the guards on Robbin Island who thought it was a bible. Each prisoner underlined the lines that meant the most to them and  signed their names.  It's open on the page where Nelson Mandela has underlined Caesar's speech to Calpernia as he is about to leave for the senate where he will be assassinated -

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

A voice echoing from over four hundred years ago bringing strength, honesty and light into  the darkness of a South African prison.  Good one, Will.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

I wake up dreaming pitches.

It's seven o'clock and I wake up. I've been dreaming, or thinking, I don't know which.  A door slams.  She's out of the house and in the fresh air, running along the path by the sea on the way to meet her friend.  At two o'clock I hadn't dreamt or thought of her yet and when I woke up and small boy was playing with his grandfather by the sea, he wants to dig for treasure, the old man is remembering seeing bombers coming back over the coast.  And when I woke up at four o'clock it was another idea only I can't remember what that one was.
Five stories stand alone stories. That's what I need. All linked together by a specific object in a specific place.  Small cast for each one.  The each one to be reduced to a few words, beginning, middle, and end.  A pitch.  Five pitches. So someone can tell us if we can go ahead or not.
The trouble is the only way I know how to find out what a story or a play is about, is to write it.  All of it.   Which is fine if you already have the commission, but I don't yet, and I haven't got the time to write five stories. Frankly, it's tying me up in knots.
I've tried displacement activities. I've done housework. Cut the hedges. Gone for walks.  Ridden my bike. Played Spider Solitaire. Stared at the computer screen. Written early morning blogs.
I have three stories. I think they'll work. I've written them up. I need two more. I have one half good idea, and two not so good idea, and the two that have come up out of my dreams last night.
There's only one hope. I have a deadline for getting them in.  I'll have to do what  freelancers always do.  Absolutely nothing.  I'll wait until the last possible moment, probably on the day I have to send them in, and just sit down and write the buggers.
There. Sorted.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Reading Kent Haruf.

I ran out of something to read in Savannah.  I found a proper bookshop, and with no time to browse asked them to recommend an American writer I might not have heard of and they pointed me towards Plainsong by Kent Haruf. 
Haruf's novels are set in Holt, a small town in Holt County, Colorado.  Each one - The Ties That Bind, Where You Once Belonged, Plainsong and Eventide - is a small jewel.  They explore in effortless prose the lives of the inhabitants if Holt.  Sometimes the characters overlap from novel to novel, sometimes they don't, but the background of Holt remains constant. 
He writes with precision and detachment.  He might keep his distance as a writer but these books aren't cold.  You always know where you are. The country, the houses, the bars might be sparely described but always with one or two images that feed your imagination and tell you all you need to know.  You understand and empathise with what the characters are going through, what they're feeling, often by what they don't say or do.  His people are flawed, see themselves as failures, don't understand why others find them deserving respect, affection, and love.  And he writes killer opening sentences -

'They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning' Eventide.


'Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up.' Plainsong.

Like many artists and writers who know the benefits of restricting themselves to a limited palate Haruf pushes through those limitations to take us deep into the human experience. These books aren't cosy. Don't be put off by the quote from the Mail on Sunday that describes them as a rural soap opera written by a poet they are much more.  With wit, humour, brilliant dialogue, and wonderful prose he shows us what we are and makes us wish for what we might be. 

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Isango Ensemble - Stephen Lowe's Ragged Trousers at the Hackney Empire

Last Sunday I went to Hackney Empire in the rain to see the Isango Ensemble in Stephen Lowe's Adaptation to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and I've been wondering since then what it is that makes that company so good?
Stephen Lowe has reworked his original adaptation. It's now about a group of South African workers building a new cinema for their white boss during the apartheid era.  In the first half we see them at work and in the second, darker half they have to perform a concert for the whites.

Okay.  What's so special?  They can sing, dance, move, act amazingly. Every harmony is pitch perfect.  Every routine has been worked on with a rigour and discipline that gives them real freedom.  The whole company can turn on a sixpence.  They are a true ensemble.

They have passion.  They have belief. They are self aware, self depreciating, witty.  They burst with confidence.  There are no weak links, no small parts, no small performances. And they have Pauline Malefane whose voice is a wonder.


Okay. Apart from Ms Malefane there are other companies that possess similar qualities, indeed they are the qualities that all good companies aspire to. So?  I've thought about this and I think it's the energy.  They can go from 0-60 in an instant.  I haven't seen that.  Stillness, then, bang, high energy and never for a moment does it get ragged or lose focus or freshness. As simple and as hard as that.  They are truly something to be seen.
And, a special plea, whoever has removed from Youtube the clip of Pauline Malefane singing Summertime with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic please put it back. In my opinion not to make it publicly available is pretty close to a criminal act.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Mississippi, the Blues, and the great Sonny Boy Williamson.

I can confidently assert that the Mississippi Delta does indeed shine like a National guitar, at least it did the first time I saw it about a month ago. We were travelling down through Virginia to Nashville, Memphis, and Clarksdale to New Orleans.

I was about twelve years old when I first became aware of the blues.  I heard the Stones, the Beatles, the Manfreds, the Nashville Teens playing RnB.  I remember the excitement in my best friend's voice when he told me on our way to school how he's heard someone called Wilson Pickett singing In the Midnight Hour when he was listening to Radio Luxembourg in bed the previous evening.  This music was new.  We'd never heard anything  like it. We sought it out. We ate it up.
In Croydon there was a two storey shop, downstairs it sold Singer sewing machines and upstairs, I don't know why or how, was rack after rack of Chess records. We'd spend hours after school looking at them.  Reading the labels.  Wondering at the names we'd never heard of. Memorising the sleeve notes on the LPs.  Hardly ever having the money to actually buy anything.  And then I did have the money, enough for one single.  I don't know why I picked it, I hadn't heard it before, didn't know the name on the  yellow, red and black Chess label.  I asked them to play it.  Help Me by Sonny Boy Williamson, B side Bye Bye Bird. I still think it is one of the most exciting pieces of music I've ever heard.  I saw Sonny Boy at the Fairfield Halls and last month I visited his birthplace in Glendora, Mississippi.  On the way we stopped for petrol in Tuttwiller, where he's buried, and the girl behind the desk asked me why I'd come to Mississippi and I said  I grew up with the music, but it was more than that.  I am in debt to the music and the musicians. 
The first time I heard Bessie Smith sing 'I'm sitting in the house with everything on my mind' her voice went right to the centre of my fears.  The blues is fun, sexy, raucous, prophetic, poetic and profound.  And all within an art form of deceptive simplicity. 
John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Wille Dixon, Chuck Berry and Howlin Wolf were the voices I listened to as I grew up. They talked to me about a world that frightened and attracted me.  I had nothing in common with their life experience but that didn't matter because even if I didn't know anything about Parchman Farm and wondered if a jelly roll was some kind of cake, when they sung about the loneliness and the joy of being alive they were showing me something far more important than my common or garden teenage angst.  And their work and their music has been a constant throughout my life.  I reach for it in moments of celebration and despair.  I'm still following their signposts. Hanging on to their hope.  Revelling in the nights when the only thing that'll touch it is one bourbon, one scotch and one beer.
We went to Mississippi to see where it came from and I have no conclusions.  Glendora seems to have hardly changed from the day Sonny Boy Williamson came home and told everyone he'd been playing the concert halls of Europe and nobody there believed him. 

There's a museum there now commemorating the terrible murder of Emmett Till and a Blues Trail marker for Sonny Boy Williamson. I have no idea how such a place with such suffering and hardship produced a music that lights up the world. I suppose I went there to say thank you. 

Friday, 25 May 2012

Happy Birthday, Sir Arnold Wesker.

Yesterday I celebrated your birthday at lunchtime by going to a rehearsed reading of I'm Talking About Jerusalem and in the evening I saw the same cast in Roots at Nottingham Playhouse.  And both plays are alive and well and kicking.  And full of passion and doubt.  The characters may be floundering around, they may not understand each other, but they never lose their humanity.  Watching Ronnie and Beatie and Dave and Ada was as powerful for me yesterday as when I first met them in my teens in between the green and yellow banded covers of the Penguin Wesker Trilogy O level text.  I'm still floundering like Ronnie and I'm still looking for my voice like Beatie, I'm getting on with the day to day and doing my best, but like Dave and Ada I'd give the world if my little shovel could help build a new Jerusalem.
When they did Chicken Soup at Nottingham I was in the unlikely position of sharing a platform with you and the other writers for the season's launch. You spoke with insight and generosity and read one of the Mother plays and I felt proud to be sitting next to you.  You signed my copy of Love Letters on Blue Paper.  You wrote a small inscription and signed your name Arnold and went to pass the book back to me, stopped, looked at what you wrote and then wrote Arnold Wesker at the top of the page, to make clear it was you.
It must be frustrating to have had so many premieres outside the UK and so much neglect at home.  You'd have enjoyed yesterday in Nottingham though.  You had a cast and a director who understood what they were doing, what you wanted, and an audience who responded enthusiastically to the demands you made.. But I bet you'd have said don't you think it's about time someone had a look at all my other plays nobody in this country has had a chance to see?  It is.  Starting with The Merchant.  (Your book The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel would make a bloody good radio play if anybody's listening.)
I felt refreshed yesterday.  Relieved that the passion I recognised in your characters at fifteen is still there in me.  And, okay, writing this is a displacement activity, but, I know what I want to do, what I'm meant to do, like you, sadly with only a fraction of your talent, I'm going to keep on working, keep waving my tiny tattered flag.  Right now.  As soon as I've finished this.  And made another coffee.  And possibly rearranged my bookshelves.
Happy BIrthday.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

King Lear and the Belarus Free Theatre.

It's not knowing the language. It's not knowing the cultural references. Which means you can't understand all the choices that have been made. Yes, that's Gloucester and Kent but why is Kent on a trolley as if he has no legs and Gloucester in a wheel chair. For all their status and power they are helpless, but is that all?
Lear is vital, muscular, brutal, a violent Ubu Roi driven mad by power and cruelty not age and dementia.  Cordelia and her sisters demonstrate their love with incestuous embraces.  France is a decrepit old man, his voice a high pitched whine, who seizes his chance to grasp some young flesh.  The Fool bares his arse.  Gloucester makes Edmund catch his piss in a pot.  They inhabit a filthy, corrupt, absurd cruel world where there is no place for love and affection and we're not permitted a moment of sympathy until it is too late and Lear wheels in his beloved daughter to silence.
No last redeeming lines from Edgar to give us hope.  Cordelia wakes, giving us a suggestion of what could be if lives had been lived with some humanity. Or perhaps I want to hope that the possibility exists.
I've read about the situation in Belarus. I can only guess from what personal experiences this production has been conceived. The images are with me from last week.  I do know that Shakespeare is a clever bastard and the Belarus Free Theatre are the most exciting company I've seen in a long time.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Rapid Write Rewind at Theatre 503

Monday night I went to the Latchmere for the first night of their week of short plays - Rapid Write Rewind. My piece Come On Eileen started the evening and it was fun to see it again after a year.  The director Tanith Lindon had been unable to get all the original cast together. The two new actors were great and as Matt Ward and Adam Diggle could have been father and son there was no difficulty in believing they were older and younger versions of the same man.  Natalie Bridge was in the original cast and was even better than the last time.  Ended the evening feeling that the piece had possibilities.  We might be able to take it further.
The night was yet another demonstration of how much talent there is out there, directors, actors, writers, all responding to an opportunity to do their best work.  And a good audience too.  From a writer's point of view having a 10/15 minute given a full performance is a whole lot better than a rehearsed reading.  They sound like a good idea but they rarely come to anything.  The actors, book in hand will do their best. It's fun but when it's over it feels as if there's nowhere left to go. You have a whole play, you know something of what works and what doesn't but no sense of how you might take it further.  Much better to have a short piece complete, polished, performed, produced.  Try something different.  Set yourself a problem and try to solve it. And not have to worry about whether your masterpiece will ever be seen again because that's not what it's there for.  You can take chances and you can learn a lot.
That was certainly the feeling I got on Monday night.  Writers moving happily out of their comfort zone.  Good one, 503. Thank you.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Stewart Lee and Max Wall.

Saw Stewart Lee's show Carpet Remnant World. Not often an anticipated experience delivers. I'd heard him speak about Jerry Springer at a theatre conference at Warwick. I'd read his book on stand up and seen his latest series on BBC 2.  All of which made me want to see him live.  It's a long time since I've seen someone so funny, so uncondescending, and so in control of the room.  He has all the skills.  He makes a point in his second book - If You'd Like a Milder Comedian - that he has no talent as an actor. Maybe. But he knows all about physicality and timing.  In some ways it reminded me of seeing Max Wall who also used to deconstruct his act.  He'd explain he was going to tell you a joke, explain its inadequacies, apologise for telling it, tell you where you'd laugh and why you'd laugh, all of which was immaculately funny, and then about half an hour later tell the joke and step back and watch disappointed as you fell about all over again.  Lee doesn't do jokes, but in their technique they have much in common.  I saw him last week and I've been smiling ever since.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Giants in the Earth musical makes it onto film.

So we have a trailer for the musical Giants in the Earth that Matt Marks and I have been working on with Oxfordshire Theatre Company.  Please have a look, it's up on youtube.  It's on the edge of the final rehearsal draft. All we have to do is incorporate what we learned from the two weeks Arts Council funded development period we had in November and it's ready to go.  I thought it was amazing that only weeks after they'd pulled portfolio money from the company they were eager to put in eleven grand to finance our work.  An endorsement of the the piece and of Karen Simpson's work as the artistic director, and what should have been proof o the board that they wanted to fund the company on a project by project basis.
Onward and upward.  We're one step closer.  Enjoy the short video.