October 25, 2010

Review of Agamemnon at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, Thursday 14 October 2010

‘The Greek Play’ at Cambridge is like a Norfolk bus. One arrives every three years but when it does, life suddenly accelerates into a different universe. Greek theatre is such a perfect dialexis of epic drama, choral poetry, hybris, hermatia, pity, catharsis and catastrophe that one of the regrets of my life is that I have no Latin and less Greek. Fortunately, knowing the plays back to front and also (as in these Cambridge productions) getting the surtitles means I am free to luxuriate in the percussive and lyrical glory of the Ancient Greek and so the relative lack of spectacle (fifth on Aristotle’s list of tragedy requisites) and of modern – meaning often trivial - psychology in the characters is no loss. The grandiloquence of Aeschylus equals the grandeur of his subject, the murder of Agamemnon on his return from Troy by his wife, the mother of the daughter the great general sacrificed to get a fair wind ten years before. What won’t a man sacrifice in to win a war and what fury is unleashed by a mother’s grief in response, his archetypically named wife Clytemnestra. What a show! It’s like being able to read (and hear and see) Dante in the original. I hoped this production would live up to the billing.
The chorus (of old men who couldn’t go to war) was compelling, their clothes Edwardian black, their movements jerky and their faces blacked across the eyes like some sinister cartoon of Blair. They also looked and sounded rather like Hasidic Jews crossed with Victorian music hall which might have some private resonance for the director if not in any conscious sense for me. It didn’t matter – it worked well as a hybrid of outsiders and oddities. There was also much of the Great War about the Trojan War depicted here, which again works as it stands as the same sort of grim archetype of all war for Western civilisation now as it the Trojan war did for the Greeks then. Clytemnestra, acted by a Hellenic ‘yellow-haired’ (Helen-like, and hell-leashing) woman, was a great mixture of gender signs, the dressy top of what appears to be an evening gown but is in fact a trouser suit capturing her ambivalent thrusting seizure of the Agamemnon-vacated role as man of the house (with her lady’s lady man Aegisthus in his flowery shirt) competing with her profound maternity and intuitive practical femaleness. Yes, this woman has a clitoris and a will (fiercely awoken by her husband’s actions) but she also has a broken heart : the Trojan war and all its peacock posturing is clearly a boy’s game to her compared to the rending reality of the ritual sacrifice of her daughter and her maternal loss. What won’t we sacrifice to make war holy, a crusade/ jihad. Other resonant moments were the entry of Agamemnon from the pit in a Great War trenchcoat but with the overweening and portentous feathered helmet of a classical age and the ravishing look behind given by Cassandra – the look of startled and exotically beautiful, Arab-dark foreign girl – and then her extraordinary scene, much of it harrowingly and beautifully sung, of horrified omen-seeing, her apprehension of her own and Agamemnon’s death by Clytemnestra’s hand, which (following her curse) no-one will believe (though – against all the rules of theatre, the chorus waver and - almost - intervene).
There were some irritating flaws. It was effective to have a shrine, including the child’s yellow dress and child – and never to be bride – photographs, to Iphigenia as a backdrop to Clytemnestra’s furious grief. But even given the remote foreign language, there was no need to have the Chorus enacting the sacrifice onstage on the dress – ridiculously and fetish-istically - when Aeschylus, and all the unities and rules of Greek theatre, convey the horror with such epic grandeur and dignity and pity in the words, images and sounds. (The bringing in of the ashes of the Troy war dead in jars – or the modern equivalent - during the relevant chorus – was by contrast very effective because it was language-led and hauntingly enacted through gesture, movement and chant.) Nor was there any point in having Cassandra onstage in her leotard and knickers for much of the last quarter of the play, both pre- and (splashed with ketchup) post-mortem. Violence is supposed to happen offstage Greek theatre - and to be reported in appalled language in and Aeschylus is more than capable of handling this without assistance from a pantomime aesthetic. To paraphrase Peter Cook, we get enough at that at home – on the telly. And Cassandra was so ravishing and forlorn in the one look she gave behind, it was criminal to throw this impact away, to turn the rending of her prophetess robes into a strip tease. Her tragedy is a hard enough fall without becoming a farce. Also, although the stillness maintained by both Cassandra and Agamemnon on the (farcically angled and pantomime-bloody) death bed was a tribute to the great skill of these two epic actors, was all that effort really worth it? Yes, here were corpses played with utter conviction by real actors for ten minutes and more – but after the first impact (a second) all this effort added nothing to the drama: only, reductively, to the spectacle. Over and over again.
Despite the small flaws of over-literal spectacle noted, this production was well worthy of its genre, author and story: and that is high praise indeed.

Welcome to the Café Abersychano

These superb photos capture two Abersychano Grammar Technical School old boyos now in their own mid Fifties reliving on a beguiling October day in 2010 their schooldays in the late Sixties and early Seventies in the valleys. One of them happens to be me, silver-haired, coal-jacketed bard in exile; the other (the photographer, pictured at the end, also a confirmed expatriate with roots still deep in valley) is Kevin Fackrell. We were both in 2X in 1968. Then in the third year (now Year 9) Kevin took the Tech route; I went the Grammar way: not to the everlasting bonfire – at least not yet – but to an early retirement from our nine to five careers and with it the heaven of taking a day out of time like this. Through the old wrought iron heaven and hell gate behind me (now disused) you can see the old coal hole and above the window where Mr Padfield, the Headmaster, used to spy on any late arrivals, smokers, truants, boy-girl couplings and other miscreants. Almost by accident, Kevin captured some images of our adolescence amid a mighty Welsh industrial revolution that was once felt from the USA to the USSR, that was getting to be a spent force even in as we reached 13 in 1968 and which is now, in the remote valley pictured - once the clanging, winding, bustling, steam-trained, demon-frenzied, coal-driven, Satanic-milling locale of the Blaensychan, Tirpentwys and British pits - surely the finest living outdoor museum in the world. This valley and mountaintop strides purposefully – as did we – from Craig Ddu to Talywaun. I was staying in Bristol, eating in Clifton and had been at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature the day before so – used to the seven choices of coffee now de rigeur - blithely ordered a Café Americano with hot milk at the local café while local builders tucked into sausages the size of horses’ appendages, causing waitress panic and a referral to the manageress, before receiving, ultimately, a Café Abersychano. There were two options on the chalked board: Instant Coffee and Instant Milky Coffee. Ninepence and a shilling and Instant Karma at number two. Kevin went for the milk, now forever to be remembered as ‘Latté Abersychano.’ It was a long, mountainous, exhausting but exhilarating day. And it seemed to last about fifty years. Because of course it did.

October 11, 2010

George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2010

Wentworth Hotel, Aldeburgh, Sunday 10/10/10

An auspicious date, beautiful warm weather and a very happy day. We drove from sea to shining North sea (the North Norfolk and East Suffolk coasts of what used to be called ‘The German Ocean’) without once leaving the ancient Celtic queendom of Icenia. I was there to deliver my adjudication of the George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2010 hosted by the Suffolk poetry Society. For the record, I also read half a dozen poems from ‘Exile In His Own Country’: namely, Glad To Be A Guy, Boudicca Britain’s Dreaming (done in homage to our ancient Celtic queen without book, by and from the heart and – in that Icenic sea side setting and to that audience, one of the most satisfying experiences of my performing life), Mocks, Healthy Norfolk, Coming Down and Cooking Up A Revolution. Sold a few books too. I append below some general comments about the adjudication and where to find the individual comments on poems. But first, a handful of telling incidents. The organiser and several of the poets took the trouble to thank me for the detailed comments I made and for the way these framed and introduced their readings. Poems take a lot of writing and I do think it’s important to give due credit for the blood, sweat, tears, craft and inspiration they require. There were some harrowing experiences grappled with, mastered and made into a Muse: for the poets to write about pain so brilliantly and then get up in front of so many people and share this triumph deserves more praise than I can give here. Suffice to say, the conversations I had with several of the poets about these struggles were a privilege and a reminder of what greatness inheres in the art of poetry and the human soul. There were some funny-painful moments too… but I think I’ll keep these for the novel after next! It was a glorious day.

George Crabbe Poetry Competition 2010. Judge’s report.
Despite my title, no-one should feel Judged by my choices. The large entry of 300 – a fat bundle the size of an old style Telephone directory or family Bible – contained few if any bad poems. Or even ones that broke the rules. No-one exceeded the 50 lines and only two people left their names on the entry. Most poets had something to say and/or said it rather well (usually both) and even as I reduced that original 400 to 65, I was often still admiring lines and parts of these ‘first exit’ poems as I placed them in the reject pile. But when the competition is as strong as this, the whole poem, needs to work as a whole and poems that, say, depended too much on a portentous last line that didn’t quite deliver, or that began to preach or assert rather than entrance or move – even if only in parts – or that contained even one or two weak lines or bad conceits or groaners among much good writing had to go. And even then, poetry being an art rather than an exact science, I know that some other adjudicator might have made a different selection. This last point is even more pertinent when it came to reducing the 65 to the winning 10.
Prior to the judging, I had just marked several hundred A level English Literature papers for the Welsh Exam Board and it was a delight to be dealing instead with creative writing - poems - that were almost all in the ‘A’ grade band and for which I could bring my own criteria. There IS an objective Standard in terms of craft and inspiration that will mark out good poems anywhere, and certainly here. But, once you've done that, you can only be yourself and I chose poems that appealed to me. I am not much interested in poems that draw attention to their own cleverness as an end in itself, or that have remained an ‘exercise’ rather than – as evidently happened many times in what I assume are excellent writing circles – a means by which a poet can achieve something unique and urgent and emotionally charged. I also think it is important to know that poetry has moved on a bit since Browning – not necessarily to embrace vers libre and to reject all quaint diction because every poem will have its own language and tune and a poem about or in the voice of a granddad (for example) may very suitably have a Georgian or Edwardian music. But this should be a choice made from the full range of poetic languages available in 2010 , not the result of the mind having stopped short like that old Grandfather clock in the middle of another age. I like complexity – the fascination of things difficult – but there has got to be a pay off: I like scholarship but not reference-loaded intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake, if only because it’s such a waste of learning, literacy and effort. The language of the heart should beat through the exciting firework display and necessary gymnastics of the intellect. Occasionally, the sheer eloquence and skill of a poem will impress me by itself – will itself be moving (just as occasionally the subject is so touching that it partly transcends considerations of craft) but on the whole I have gone for poems where first and foremost the subject is (to me) worth the candle of its writing and reading – and, a close second, where the technique does it justice.

The general standard was high and the best hundred very high: a lot of poems achieved a sort of plateau of quality that made the sifting process satisfyingly difficult. George Crabbe’s name has not been taken in vain. The top 20 entries would, in my opinion, have graced any poetry competition anywhere and I would like to mention briefly together the half dozen or so who just missed out on my winners/runners up and commendations. These found ingenious and attractive ways of writing about Boudica, personal mortality (the line ‘between my boots their compressed voices creak/like snow’ was as good as anything else in the competition), cancer and cliché, the lost child within (‘wild echo of the girl I used to be’) and exotic lands. In a smaller or more average quality competition entry, these poems would have at least won commendations. If I missed anything with these poems as a whole, it was that very few poets wrote both with humour and the highest poetic quality, or generally wrote about the joys of life with the same sharpness and literary excitement as they did about its miseries. The old debate about whether it is possible to write as well about happiness as about mortal longing, agony and grief (and there was plenty of it here) is raised by this – I think it is, but certainly the best poetry entered (and there was lots of it) tended to line up nearer Sylvia Plath than PG Wodehouse in evoking the tragic-comedy of our existence.

The winners/runners up and commended poems...

These and my comments on them are available in the published anthology and on the suffolk poetry society website.
Gareth Calway
Sedgeford, Norfolk, July 2010