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.