That’s Life – in the Eyes of Noel Coward

I’ve loved the work of Noel Coward since I first saw one of his comedies, in my teens. Noel CowardAmong many different archetypal character-types which I hold in my mind, is that of an indolent Noel Coward male lead, lounging against a mantelpiece wearing a silk brocade smoking jacket, elegant, mannered, and dispensing witticisms with the greatest of ease: the sort of individual who would instantly impress in a social setting; but what’s really going on behind that stylish, confident exterior? I had this image in mind when I created the character James in my novel Mystical Circles (and James reappears in A Passionate Spirit).

In Coward’s play Present Laughter, the male lead, Gary, a successful comic actor, lives out of the image of himself he projects on stage.

He is the focus of everyone else’s obsession.

Gary is a poser – he throws tantrums, acts in a theatrical manner, and hates it when others accuse him of “over-acting” – which he, of course, does all the time. Only his secretary and his supposedly-estranged wife see him in a plain unvarnished way.

Meanwhile, a strange, intense young aspiring playwright, Mr Maule, is obsessed with him and latches onto him and challenges him.

Gary want to get rid of them all, yet cannot see he himself is a magnet for them.

In this play, we see yet again the beloved Noel Coward tropes:

  1. A flouncing self-important male lead;
  2. A sullen fag-smoking housekeeper;
  3. A strange insecure subsidiary character who has a major effect upon the action;
  4. A femme fatale triple-crossing vamp married to the MC’s best friend, having an affair with the MC’s other friend, and with the MC himself.

In this play, the women who spend the night with Gary, and have to explain themselves to visitors in the morning, always:

  1. appear for breakfast wearing Gary’s dressing gown and his black silk pyjamas;
  2. say they had forgotten their latch-key, which was why they had to stay the night; and
  3. claim they slept in the spare room.

Just so do so many of us feel compelled to behave in predictable patterns, so that we might as well be following a script that’s been written for us.

It’s comedy, farce, satire … but isn’t it often just like life? Comedy is a wonderful vehicle for communicating truths. Don’t we find sometimes – especially in this society, and on the current political scene – that people behave as if they were characters in a farce, acting out a parody of themselves?

This is the human comedy.  And comedians only need to tweak real life a very little: just a slight exaggeration – for us to see how absurd this all is.

I think this is why, in moments of insight, we instinctively respond to good observational comedy, especially when it is delivered with warmth – for there are occasions when we recognise ourselves reflected back in the wit of the comedian. And when that is so, we might see opportunities to try and interrupt this pre-determined script, and start acting as if we genuinely do have free will, instead of behaving like characters pushed hither and thither by the plot…

Joan of Arc: Mystical Experiences and Empowerment

The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live.St Joan National Theatre Live I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.

Joan has  special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.

The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.

To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.

Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel  handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real.  The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.

When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:

  1. Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis –  she definitely had profound religious experiences.
  2. She acted upon these experiences.
  3. She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.

I think of similar cases of young girls and women who have had profound religious experiences which then impact the future course of their lives and the lives of many others:  Bernadette of Lourdes, St Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.

What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?

 

What the Camp Comedian Has To Say to the Creative Writer

I love camp, on-the-cusp comedians who subvert gender stereotypes.Julian Clary

A good example is Julian Clary who is above all a genius with words – playful, teasing, fluid, quixotic, suggestive, subversive – and he has an acute sense of irony. His camp public persona in itself subverts what I believe may lie much deeper in him, which is more subtle and complex, the true person beneath the entertaining mirage.

 

I’ve long loved camp comedians. They follow on from a line of great gay writers: Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, to name just a few that come to mind. There are many examples among gay comedians, but my great favourite first of all was Frankie Howerd.

Frankie HowerdThere were others I loved too, Kenneth Williams foremost among them. I instinctively warmed to these entertainers and felt drawn to them. Perhaps it was because they represent, metaphorically, border country, phantoms behind the magic lantern, different dimensions, stories within a story. The man dressed as a woman, the woman dressed as a boy. And in Shakespeare’s time of course, the young boy dressed as a woman.

Whether or not any of them  hid their  true sexuality whilst in the public eye – as was the case with Frankie Howerd – that essential gay character suffused their performances and their personal style; I don’t believe it can fail to do so, in any creative area.

Not long ago, I saw Julian Clary in the role of Slave of the Ring in the pantomime Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome. He shone out above all the other performers.

And my favourite character in the TV series Are You Being Served was played by John Inman.John Inman

When I first saw him in this sitcom, I was entranced. Here was an adult man, behaving in the most silly way imaginable, and being loved for it.

I loved him, everything about what he was doing and being and saying, and what he was projecting.  He told me something different about the adult world, and personhood, and what he turned upside down was the rigid compartmentalised view of the world that can so easily crush us in childhood and early teens.

New Puppeteers at the Children’s Christmas Party at St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa

On the third Sunday of Advent, I became, along with two others – Jamie and Sidney – a new puppeteer.puppet-show-3

That morning, after the Nativity Service led by St Mark’s Church Beaver colony, the children poured into the hall for their Christmas Party – and the centrepiece of the party was a puppet show.

To the sounds of Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M., a group of us, hastily recruited, became puppeteers. I operated a child angel plus the baby Jesus, Sidney took charge of the adult angel, Jamie manipulated, at different times, Mary, Joseph and  a sheep. Abigail and John held up the backdrop of the stable at the end. puppet-show-2 And Sidney and I held up No Vacancies signs at the appropriate time while Jamie and Sidney held up The Bible sign.

Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible said,
Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.
Our trainer and director was master puppeteer Fiona Stutton from Thrive Youth Ministries who with great patience and good humour took two evenings to train us to become puppeteers. Fiona operated a singing puppet at the beginning, and followed this with a short session for the children about the true meaning of Christmas, using magic tricks with silk handkerchieves and a bag that mysteriously changed colour. Then it was time for our puppets to perform Mary’s Boy Child.puppet-show-1

We all had great fun and learned new skills, Fiona was pleased to have trained some new puppeteers, Ros who organised the party was delighted……..
puppet-show-4

 

and, most importantly of all –  the children loved it!

A Poet’s View of Life – Shakespeare, the Jesuit Priest and the ex-Archbishop

What did Shakespeare believe?  20161107_092917-1He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.

And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.

The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known  that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).

So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.

Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.

And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

and

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to  a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard). 

I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise.  And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.

Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 

Amateur Actors, No Rehearsal, Disorganised Direction, Disappearing Props – A Dream for Shakespeare

This weekend I joined a cast in a drama – at St Mark’s Church in Leamington Spa – which I think Shakespeare would have loved. Why? because we were rather like the little band of local workmen in that Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But we were not playing “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Instead, without rehearsal, and with hastily gathered together props, we were ambitiously – and creatively – portraying the entire story of Joseph, (but not with Lloyd Webber music and lyrics).Shakespeare's 'Rude Mechanicals' in A Midsummer Night's Dream

I must admit I’d been wondering how I’d pan out as the Butler/Servant, with my son Jamie as the older Joseph. I was a little concerned beforehand about the large number of props, and the extent to which I’d need to rely on several other actors simultaneously doing the right thing – not to mention a question about whether there was going to be any kind of stage management  i.e. people in charge of making sure microphones and props were in the right hands at the right times.

And it was more fun and more memorable than a slick performance by professionals would have been.

It occurred to me Shakespeare would have loved it. Even his Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream couldn’t have bettered  our organised chaos.

For anything that could possibly go wrong in such a set-up, did.

The two narrators doubled up as stage manager and director.

Some of the performers behaved as if they’d only been cast that morning and had never seen the script before.

I was convinced others were working to different scripts than the one I had, and I wondered whether it had been revised since I was given my copy.

The narrators forgot some of their lines thus depriving actors of cues they’d been relying on.

The one hand-held mic was being passed frantically from actor to actor.

A prop (whistle) was given to me as the Servant/Butler, which I was to blow every time Joseph gave the instruction for someone to be arrested or released from jail, to alert the jailer. But then the director whipped it away unexpectedly from me and gave it to Potiphar – who didn’t even know he had to use it and spoke his lines without using it. The director intervened and grabbed the whistle and gave it to him.  Having used it, Potiphar then put it down somewhere where I, the Servant, couldn’t see it. So in the end I was unable to use it. And since my whistle had disappeared, Joseph’s brother Simeon was never let out of jail.

The actor who played the aforesaid jailer wore shorts and a helmet which was too small for him and he looked like an English policeman on holiday in Egypt.

The whole drama was like a test case for what happens when a troop of unrehearsed amateur actors get together  – exactly as Shakespeare envisaged it with his Rude Mechanicals, with Wall and Moonshine and the chink and Bottom deciding he was going to get up after his character had died and tell the audience it was all right, he was alive really.

And all this fired up my imagination as I thought how it was going to feed into my new novel  – my follow-up to A Passionate Spirit – which features a cast of actors filming A Midsummer Night’s Dream in some south east London woods….

 

 

The Creative Power of an Intense Group of People in the Hothouse Environment of a Writers Retreat

Mystical Circles by SC Skillman
Mystical Circles by SC Skillman

I’ve now finished my series of Cave posts as new inspiration has intervened!

One of my fellow bloggers Lance Greenfield has just opened up thoughts of writers retreats by reblogging this post on the subject by Max Dunbar. Lance then went on to ask his own followers for their responses to Max’s thoughts, and whether it would be worthwhile for him to go on one of the many writers’ courses or retreats that are available here in the UK.

Part of my inspiration for my novel Mystical Circles was an Arvon Foundation poetry course which I attended at Totleigh Barton farmhouse in Devon. My fellow poets that week reflected the wide variety of characters to be found at a writers’ retreat in the UK – and in the story of Mystical Circles.  Among these you may find – alongside whatever idiosyncracies you yourself may bring – several complex personalities; and your interactions with others, and your observations, form an inexhaustible source for a writer. And I believe it’s vital to write about people, no matter how deeply flawed, with love and empathy, never in a detached or critical spirit.

Below I list some of my favourite plays, books and films which have achieved this:

Unnatural Causes by PD James (detective novel set in a literary community)

Peter’s Friends (film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring  Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie)

Abigail’s Party by Mike Leigh (brilliantly developed and improvised by playwright and actors and first broadcast by the BBC in 1977)

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (a group of people are invited to one of Hesione Hushabye’s infamous dinner parties, to be held at the house of her father, the eccentric Captain Shotover)

If you’re fascinated by group dynamics and it’s relevant to what you’re writing, then a writers retreat – a small group of intense people in a hothouse atmosphere – may be ideal for you!

 

 

Brilliant Short Documentary Made by Abigail Robinson: Claiming the Spotlight

 

Claiming the Spotlight documentary by Abigail Robinson
Claiming the Spotlight documentary by Abigail Robinson

My film-maker daughter Abigail Robinson has recently created a short documentary for a college assignment as part of the second year of her HND in Creative Media. It’s about young actors trying to get into the acting profession. Called “Claiming the Spotlight” the documentary centres upon Playbox Theatre at the Dream Factory in Warwick, where Founder and Executive Director Mary King first began offering young people a unique creative experience 28 years ago.

For the documentary Abigail interviewed a selection of individuals who have all experienced the reality for young actors, and each is coming from a different angle, but essentially giving the same compelling message.

The editing is excellent, the interviews very engaging, and above all it is impossible not to be touched and moved by the reality behind the glamour of the acting world. I cannot help but see the similarities between the interviewees’ experience and that of anyone involved in creative endeavour, whether that be as a writer, an actor, a musician or an artist.

Do view the documentary here and like and comment!

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Quirky, Anarchic, and Fizzing with Life

During the last week we’ve been at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival – an overwhelming variety of acts and shows and comedians and performers, all jostling for your attention. Those who are trying to make a name for themselves are free: the already established are in big venues and do paid-for shows.

On the Royal Mile, Edinburgh - The Fringe (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
On the Royal Mile, Edinburgh – The Fringe (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

I’ve never been handed so many flyers by so many people in such a short space of time as on the Royal Mile – it felt like every member of the crowd heading in my direction was handing out leaflets for his or her show. I recalled online tips for young actors trying to breakthrough at the Edinburgh Festival: “Be prepared to spend most of your time walking the streets and handing out flyers.”

You can be trying to decide where to go and then a troupe of actors dressed in white from head to toe with eerie white masks approaches you and leaflets you; and you decide you’ll go to their show instead.

Or you pass one of the free fringe venues, see something’s on in 5 minutes and just drop in because you happen to be passing by.

And that’s how we found ourselves in the audience at a free fringe event, facing up to whatever the comedians threw at us – including, in my case, a fountain from a shaken-up bottle of Irn Bru, because I happened to be sitting in the second row…

Troupe of actors advertising their show at Edinburgh Fringe - photo credit Abigail Robinson
Troupe of actors advertising their show at Edinburgh Fringe – photo credit Abigail Robinson

We enjoyed Jonny Freeman’s Funtime Family Friendly Impro show, and a one-woman comedy show by Claire Ford called ConsciousMess. Claire showed brilliant clowning skills and I thought she’d be a good children’s TV presenter – with the exclusion of some of her material.

Street entertainment on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival - photo credit Abigail Robinson
Street entertainment on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival – photo credit Abigail Robinson

We also found ourselves in a marquee at The Ibis Hotel where we saw “The Grown Up Show” when London’s “best emerging comedians battle it out for the title of Worst Adult in the World”. I can assure you this was not family friendly, and one of the comedians – host Alexis Wieroniey –  even queried our 2 teens from the stage about how old they were, having been about to deduct “adult points” from us for bringing children in, whereupon she realised it should be herself she deducted “adult points” from for designing the fun cartoon on the flyer! Upon being assured of their true age, the comedians then went on to present their material, packed with lewd humour about sex and bodily functions.

Seeing these “emerging” young comedians made me reflect again upon what I believe makes a great comedian: the ability to connect with the audience, win our confidence, show strong observation of life, say things we know are true and can identify with, and do it all with perfect comic timing.
And in the end, for a performer at The Fringe, what really counts is the way audiences take to you and whether you get noticed and given a chance by a casting director, agent or impresario.

Group of actors advertising fringe performance Chatroom on the Royal Mile - photo credit Abigail Robinson
Group of actors advertising fringe performance Chatroom on the Royal Mile – photo credit Abigail Robinson

Of the paid-for shows in The Festival we saw “The Lift” a new comedy by Fergus Deery at the Bedlam Theatre and “Potted Sherlock“, a fantastic whizz-through of all 60 Sherlock Holmes stories in 70 minutes by 3 excellent comic actors whose previous shows included Potted Potter, Potted Pirates and Potted Panto.

Street entertainer on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
Street entertainer Simeon Baker on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

For many creative actors and comedians, and for those who flock to Edinburgh in August, including ourselves, this Festival is all about fun, zanyness, and the principle of having been here and been involved with a show at the Fringe – however unpredictable.

 

 

 

 

 

People of Inspiration: the Much-Loved Pythons We’ve Followed Through the Years

Last night I watched the final live Monty Python show broadcast from the O2 arena and delighted once again in those famous sketches, performed by the original Pythons, less of course, Graham Chapman.

I recalled one night at university when I sat on a bed with a group of fellow-students, and one got hold of my copy of Monty Python’s Big Red Book. He then read the book aloud to us, word by word, for the next several hours, and we spent most of the night laughing hysterically.

Monty Pythons Big Red Book Cover
Monty Pythons Big Red Book Cover

In fact I believe the Python humour translates to the printed page even better than to TV. That event is probably why certain images and phrases remain in my mind, like the address Behind the Hot Water Pipes, Third Washroom Along, Victoria Station; and why I remember the Whizzo Speed chocolate assortment, and Doug and Dinsdale Piranha, (who I have occasionally wished I could put into a novel but realised it would be plagiarism), and also Miss Gloria Pules, who when interviewed about the Piranha Brothers, said they were wont to introduce one to eminent celebrities.

At the 02 Arena, the Dead Parrot Sketch and the Argument sketch were to my mind as good as the originals.  The Spanish Inquisition sketch didn’t have, for me, quite the same impact when the comfy chair was threatened. And a bit was missing out of Postal Blackmail.

Nevertheless it was wonderful to see Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam on stage acting the classic sketches.

Monty Python has infused everything each has done subsequently. I have followed and enjoyed their creative work over the years, and loved them because they were Pythons; I’ve watched the films and the TV programmes, read the books, listened to the songs. I queued up outside Waterstone’s in Kensington High Street, London, to buy a copy of Terry Jones’s Fairy Tales and have it signed by the author and illustrator.

In all they have done, the Pythonesque secret language has been there somewhere, that anarchic, surreal element, the parody of a parody of our British society, that we, embedded in that society, all innately recognise and understand, to such an extent that it can be instantly recalled with the words: This is an ex-parrot or Is this the right room for an argument? or Nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition.

I was also thrilled to discover that John Cleese, like myself, loves Roget’s Thesaurus; which played a large part in creating the most memorable lines in the Dead Parrot sketch.

Do you too love the Pythons? do share what the Pythons mean to you, by commenting on this post!