‘On Bear Ridge’: Sherman Theatre. A view.

Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.

Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure  if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow,  ‘Rhys Ifans’.

Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.

Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.

Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.

John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.

We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.

Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.

All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.

John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.

In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)

Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.

‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.

It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.

Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.

(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)

But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.

 

 

*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?

Wise Children.

Let’s gush, for a moment. For this really could be the best night I ever had at the theatre. The most enjoyable, the most delightful. ‘Wise Children’ at the Bristol Old Vic. Let’s rush backwards before we really go in.

My Angela Carter phase began about thirty-odd years ago. Meaning that the fuss around ‘Company of Wolves’ (I think) precipitated a period of reading and as it were, familiarisation. I’ve been on Team Carter ever since, howling along with that extravagant wolfiness, dancing with the seductive, luxuriant-but-plain otherwordliness – the prismatic fable.

She speaks for all of us who won’t behave, or take a reasonable look at things, or deny the imagination. And I love that. All her values are charged.

Carter knows that, sees that everything is a dance, a ‘story’, a place to soak up or unpick life’s sexiness. She has dumb blokes like me both skewered by her electrifying awareness, the force of her sexual politics… and yet even I feel somehow liberated, too. She became one of my goddesses – the boss, in fact, the matriarch, the guru or Senior Lecturer to them all.

I arrive in Bristol, however, strangely unburdened by anticipation. Neither foaming nor twitchy, just tired-ish and *swallows heavily* actually unaware that the family mission (booked as so often by my brilliant wife) was to see a Carter extravaganza. Yup, because if I ‘did hear anything’ I had completely forgotten that ‘Wise Children’ was Angela’s baybee!! DOH!

(In my defence, I often go to events deliberately underinformed; can be a great way of stimulating good, engaged and unencumbered watching and listening. I think probably I had, in this case, chosen to swerve any conversational build-up with this Healthy Neutrality in mind: arse that I am).

The Bristol Old Vic is a striking venue. The redeveloped gathering-hall and bars feel all of grand and intimate, cool and wonder-ful. The auditorium remains gorgeously old-school. But the play, the play…

In her programme notes, the Artistic Director speaks eloquently of Carter’s ‘wonder tales’ – of her ‘mythical truths’. In a couple of words, Emma Rice – for it is she – delivers, triumphantly on both wonder and story fronts.

The production is deliciously ablaze and dancing and singing and charming and blisteringly poignant. It’s musical in every movement, every moment. Though ostensibly we should note, a story of Common People, it positively soars and swoops and sinks and seethes (and I do mean positively) with transcending love, with issues, with comedy. This is channeling Catherine Tate as well as the redemptive power of sisterhood.

Performances are great; feels ridiculous, superfluous or  just downright wrong to single anyone out in the mercurial melody and flow. ‘Wise Children’ is built around Nora and Dora’s invincible closeness but the wonder may be springing more from the overall vision.

The word ensemble feels a tad pretentious here; this lot make a fabulous group. The playing and moving together is the making of this: chapeau, then, to both the Director (Rice) and to Etta Murfitt (Choreography) and Ian Ross (Band). Acting contributions – for example Gareth Snook’s magbloodynificent Dora – are utterly matched, supported, made possible by the whorl of song or arc of a move.

It’s enormously human: there is tremendous fun, melancholy and there is sexual abuse. There is music hall and there is hilarious shagging. There is betrayal. There is the flawed love of a ‘family’ and the cruel arrogance of a jumped-up thesp. There are ‘men’. Winged, we flit through the generations – sometimes gleefully, sometimes we find them loaded with more or less repressed trauma.

Dora: We in Brighton already?

Perhaps above all, there is a generous intelligibility to all this. It’s so beautifully entertaining without ‘going over our heads’. Wise Children is, in the finest sense, an achievement through community, through simplicity: you don’t have to be a Proper Theatre-goer to receive this. Just let the magic do its work.

Flick through the programme and it figures. The company oozes talent (I know, they all do but bear with, bear with): this posse is bursting with musicians and dancers. It’s not incidental that Patrycja Kujawska studied violin or that Mirabelle Grimaud can ‘move a bit’, as well as sing so movingly. Or that the credits include so much in the way of circus, dance, fairytale.

I’m guessing that Rice found a refuge as well as an inspiration in the ‘simple joys’ of the fable (and its ‘high priestess’, Carter) after a challenging period in her career. Thank god she did. Thank god she renewed and rebooted and gathered in again. This production really is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen. So yes…

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

Wise Children is now a cause as well as a glorious production. (7% attend Private Schools, 42% of Bafta Winners in 2016 went to… you guessed it).

Rice and her team are doing their bit to a) tell stories/tell women’s stories b) oppose sexism and oppression c) demystify the arts, whilst enchanting us d) get Or’nary Kids into theatre and theatre roles.

They are training us. To experience. To be travelling players. Wow.

 

The Tide Whisperer – in Tenby.

The Tide Whisperer speaks of many things. It declaims them, from atop a scaffold, a harbour wall – or it signals them from the clifftop.

Mostly, it beams them in, in between those ears, through headphones offering both a private view and a rich, collective experience.

We’re in teams. We gather in the de Valence, in Tenby, on a coolish but viable September evening, passing racks of kit and rakes of guides or staff or stewards on the way in. I’m red.

In the hall, that scaffold supports an almost-anarchic electro-sculpture, alive with scenes around the town, the water, the world. There are presences – on the stage there’s a bloke who might be a fisherman, dragging for something. There’s a woman in shadow, or grief, or both. There’s a chair… and sand… and then a sitter.

Soon enough the screens will break through the chatter and the scaffold will host an entry, a monologue, a man opening the themes. Refuge; flux; the search for harbour. Then urgency, bombs, carnage: we’re driven out, in our teams, to the sea.

There’s a kind of prose-poem playing between those ears, an evocation of things remembered, things left. The ‘Tudor Streets’ walk with us, with the 30 or 40 reds as we carry that context with us to the beach. I wonder if we might have left our shoes and socks, as we traipse across that sand, past the golden cockle-women and the strewn chairs, to the waiting boat.

The sea, then. Central and essential to the piece. We join it for an hour, maybe, in transit or stalled, circling or encircled, at the mercy of – who knows? Pirates? Police? The evil whim of an indifferent or hostile world?

Two stories. That tragic woman – one of the Boat People – and a young, male Russian(?) who transgressed into loving another. Danger and escape, or not.

Sometimes we sit, ‘pointlessly’. Sometimes we ‘make good progress’ through the chop. Always the invitation – the compulsion – to listen and to feel the stories trawl through us. The headphones make us victims; there can be no distraction, no interaction; we can only immerse, not escape.

Ashore, that man from the scaffold is back, in the bandstand. He is Welsh, he is Corbyn-like, he is a refugee: he was Mayor!

We march on, down, again, inevitably, to the auditorium of the harbour, cobbles becoming sand once more. The three central characters and the swaying cockle-choir and the backdrop of the town await: a staging, a denouement between our ears. My friend Jane wept, almost uncontrollably.

So *things I liked*. The whole, the experience, the physical elements – from walkabout to water, to the inescapable word. (Different groups did different things: I’m glad we were mostly on that sea, in our coats, inside our headphones). Impossible not to be affected – subtly or profoundly – by the leaving, the returning, the rise and fall.

Personally though, I am left with a sense that maybe I/we might have been challenged more. Despite the scope of the piece – and the budget – this was traditional community theatre. (I know, I know – community theatre can be wonderful and revelatory, stay with me!)

The stack of tellys was okay but hardly original. I didn’t need the Guernica reference. I felt the character Pearl didn’t need that name. My comfort, in the face of these atrocities, remained relatively un-shredded. This could, of course be my own inadequacy but there’s an argument Tide Whisperer might have screamed or torn at us some more.