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.