Theatre Reveiw – The Royal Shakespeare Company Christmas Show

Okay, so it’s nearly the end of January now, and your thoughts have left the festive season behind, but I was a bit late booking for Wendy and Peter Pan.  Here’s a tip.  If you’re interested in getting seats for a small group to see a show at the RSC during the holidays, and want to learn by my mistake, you should start organising before the end of November.

Although now that we’ve done this late the once, I’m tempted to say I’d repeat it.  It was good to gather the family together again, post festivities.

The observant amongst you may have wondered if I’ve got a bit muddled about the title of Peter_Pan_1915_coverthe play we saw.  No, it’s not a typing error.  This is an adaptation of JM Barrie’s, Peter Pan and Wendy.  Ella Hickson has reversed the order of the two names to reflect the changes she’s made to the story (don’t worry, she’s not so much fiddled with the plot as shifted the focus to include more of Wendy).    If you’re interested, you can read more about that, and a whole lot more other information on the RSC website.

Okay, it’s their show: they’re bound to rave.

What did our party think?  Fab.  That’s all of us, from the youngest (who is five, two years younger than the recommended age, but he didn’t want to be left out) to the oldest (not me, Granny).

Settling down before the show

Settling down before the show

The set and costumes were amazing, and full of surprises.  The scenes shifted seamlessly. The underground home of the lost-boys opened up out of the stage floor as if it were the top of a clam-shell, looking brilliantly den like; Captain Hook and his crew sailed the Jolly Roger back and forth across the lagoon, pursued by the ticking crocodile, and the cast bounced effortlessly off the ground, the walls, the furniture and the rafters.

In addition though, the story had enough depth to be delivering entertainment on all our levels. This version is not just about boys being able to run wild, it opens up questions about what part girls do, and should have, in that.  Hickson’s version of the play is a fusion.  The setting, and a lot of the references are Edwardian England, but the twenty-first century keeps seeping in.

‘Come on girls, we’re going to up and at ’em,‘ shouts Tinkerbell, clumping heavily out of the den to lead the battle charge, in her off-pink frilly dress and sturdy leather boots.

Tradition has been updated.  All around me the audience drew in a collective breath as Peter appealed for us to save Tink.  ‘Could we help?’

‘Yes,’ called a child’s voice, and then there were others, not just one or two voices, the answer echoed across the auditorium.

Theatre, huh?  When it comes right down to it, there’s something magical about watching a drama played out on a stage.  The engagement of the imagination; that act of suspending disbelief is such a special experience, and sometimes, thanks to this oh so realistic digital society, we forget that there are other ways of discovering truths about ourselves and the world around us.

My wish is that every child could have the opportunity to visit a show like this.  If nothing else, it’s got to be good for them to see grown-ups who can let go and imagine.  But on so many other levels too, theatre seems to me to broaden our horizons.

You don’t need to have children to enjoy this show.  There were unaccompanied adults in the audience too, looking just as dazed as the children when the lights went up and we had to step back into the mundane business of going home.

If you’re anywhere near Stratford-upon-Avon, this show is on until March 2nd and in case you haven’t realised, I’m thoroughly recommending it.

Weighing words to shade the focus

Our book group have now read to the end of part two of Anna Karenina, and we’re all deeply engaged in the novel.  Opinions are forming about the characters and their actions and we’re enjoying the descriptions of 1870s Russia.  There’s no doubt that Tolstoy tells a cracking story.

Between us, we’ve bought a good range of translations.  None of us read or speak 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullock (2)Russian, so it seemed to me that the closest we could get to Tolstoy’s voice was through comparing and contrasting the various versions at key points.  It’s raised interesting discussions about how translation and author-ship work, and something that we often take for granted, that is the significance of language choices in any text.

Take these three versions of the same description of Prince Stepan Arkayich Oblonsky.   In one, he has a ‘portly pampered body‘, in the next a ‘full, well tended body‘, in a third version his body is ‘stout and well-cared- for‘.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these, and I don’t have a preference for one over the other.  But I do think each suggests a slightly different character picture.  Perhaps you think that doesn’t really matter.

Well, lets try considering his wife, Dolly, at the moment she discovers her husband 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullock (3has been having an affair with their ex-governess, who is now pregnant.  Dolly confronts her husband with a revealing note she’s discovered in his pocket, and looks at him with an expression of:

a) ‘horror, despair and wrath’

b) ‘horror despair and indignation’

c) ‘terror, despair and wrath’

I’m not questioning the quality of the translation here.  I’m sure the dictionaries would allow each of these variations.  I’m looking at the difference in effect created by each of these three interpretations, and wondering about the impact such choices have upon our overall reading experience.

This isn’t the place to draw conclusions on the novel, that’s something we’ll be discussing 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullockin the group.  I’ve been thinking about the way I employ words though, and reminding myself that words are not just about explaining what I mean, the choices I make are my voice, and my language creates subtle shades of meaning within the text.

(Photograph, ‘Waterfall’ used with the permission of R.R. Bullock.)

Taking the plunge

january lightsWell, here we are thirteen days into January.  The festivities are all packed away again and although it seems almost too late to be wishing you all ‘Happy New Year’, as I’ve not managed to do so before, I do now.  I hope this turns out to be a great twelve months for you all.

The days are getting longer.  Yes, really.  Maybe it’s only by a minute or two, but that’s enough to make a difference.  The birds have started courting songs and displays here, and this morning the sun is even shining.  You can tell from this that I’m definitely in  ‘glass half full’ phase, can’t you?

Teaching has started.  I feel as if I’m just coming out of hibernation, after my lazy Christmas.  Funny, I looked forward to the break, and all the writing time it implied, but when I weigh it up honestly, I have to admit that I achieve more during teaching periods than in the spaces between them.

Alone, I’m prone to drifting from one project to another.  The trouble with that is that instead of concentrating on finishing something, I add to the heap of ideas I’ve got ‘in progress’.  And that’s already a precariously high pile of paper.

Or worse, because I put aside writing time for one chore, I find it easy to justify adding on another. ‘While I’m out of my office I’ll just…’ is how it starts.  The next thing I know a week, or worse, a month has gone past.

It’s not just that when I’m contracted to work spare time is precious, and so I seem to spend it wisely, it’s that the process of interacting with other folks on the subject of creativity seems to get my synapses firing at full speed.  When I take an idea to someone else they provide an alternative perspective. In a group, obviously, that’s multiplied.  The discussion picks up other aspects of life, view or approach that help me to see things a-fresh.

Writing, we tend to assume is a solitary activity.  Until the advent of reading groups, fiction too, was seen as a largely an act of isolation.  Both of these statements can be true.  They don’t have to be though.

Think TV, and the way a lot of the comedy and drama shows are created and what you often find, even when only one writer is credited, is an artistic collaboration. ‘From an idea by…’ the titles might say.  More often, a group of writers are gathered together to workshop scenes, to push the possibilities of action and reaction.  Ideas adapt, and develop.

Individually the writers might have interesting suggestions, and many of us prefer to work that way.  But what if, at the inspiration stage, we could get together with some like-minded people and share our thoughts?  Our imaginations may be potentially limitless, but sometimes another point of view can provide even more possible scenarios for what we are reading or writing.

Imagine a room full of excited writers working together to create a narrative, throwing suggestions into a pool, twisting and refining, polishing, to mix a metaphor or two.  The events, the interactions, the sparky exchanges of dialogue, are talked through and work-shopped so that each incident is pushed and stretched and edited into its most advantageous shape.

I could be describing a team creating a script for a sit-com, a drama or your favourite soap.  On the other hand, this might also be a writing or reading group in a room near you, tonight.

Happy New Creative Year.

What do I know?

I’m back to thinking about weather again.  You might remember that’s how I started out last week, but I quickly moved on to other things.

So let’s try again.  Remember September?  I notice in the diary I’m about to put away that for the first five days of that month I wrote, ‘hot’.  This week I am, as I type, toasting next to a well-stoked woodburner, and my old Fahrenheit thermometer in the corner reads seventy.  So this room also, you might say, is hot and perhaps that covers the subject adequately.  After all, we’ve all experienced all kinds of temperatures and the writing rule these days is less is more, especially with descriptions.

We could be satisfied with memory and perhaps some photographs or pictures to trigger them.  That’s good, it’s what imaginations are for.  We take what we know and embellish it, recreate our own versions of events, scenarios, situations according to our own designs.  But, and there is a but, beware the chances of falling into cliché.  I’m not talking of language now, rather I’m thinking about how far the things that remain with us are universal.  Take summer time as a topic, for instance.

summer holidaysLet’s think about writing a description of a British family beach holiday.  You might include the sensations of being dried with a sandy towel, or the texture of gritty ice-cream, the call of seagulls, the sounds of fairground rides and the smell of fish and chips.  They’re all good, valid approaches, but what makes them specific, applicable to one particular place in time and space?  More importantly, how do you make the description your own?

Okay, you could just tell us, this is Bournemouth, Barmouth, Tenby, Yarmouth, Brighton or Blackpool.  Then again, perhaps the geography doesn’t matter.  If you’re writing a nostalgic piece, perhaps you are looking for common experiences. Fine, but surely you still want lively writing.  You want to intrigue your reader, to engage their attention.

Small children know the trick of that.  It’s the unusual, perhaps even the outrageous behaviour, that causes adults to turn from their conversations to what the child is up to.  That’s a good principle to remember when writing, because unless they’re related to us, most readers do have to be won over, by the power of our words to transport them from the present into another world.

I am on a beach.  I don’t know where – Southwold perhaps.  I am very small and wearing a blue ruched swimming costume, which scratches the tops of my legs and fills with bubbles of water when I go in the sea.  But I’m not in the sea.  I’m sitting on a big striped towel, shivering.  My dad is sitting beside me and I’m thinking how hairy his legs are, like gorilla’s legs.

So writes Leslie Glaister, from memory, in an essay for The Creative Writing Coursebook.  I don’t know about you, I’m hooked.  I both identify with this image, this moment, and am intrigued by the way she gathers together these so specific images to make them clearly only hers.

Sometimes, our recall can be precise enough for us to create something as specific as this.  Or as lyrical as Katherine Mansfield’s, At The Bay.

Very early morning.  The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist.  The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks began.  The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.  A heavy dew had fallen.  The grass was blue.

I’ve never been to New Zealand, and yet the precision of these details makes me feel that I might have.  It also reminds me of other early morning views.

In both of these pieces specific, telling, details create convincing prose worlds.  It may be that you also are able to evoke a sense of specific place in your writing without too much effort.  How does it happen?  I think it’s through having an eye for detail, and here’s the bit where I link my train of thought back to the start.

I think I could write about a hot week in September, not because my memory is special, or my creative ability any better than the next person’s.  The notes made as I waited in a car outside a Portsmouth house on a Sunday afternoon are enough for me to recall the affects of that unexpected heatwave.  For a moment I forget the woodburner, and that it is evening.

It’s not important that I’ve identified a specific date, what worked was the process of keeping a writers diary.  It focuses my attention.  I observe my surroundings more closely, and instead of passing on, I’ve learned to record it.

My notes are rarely lifted word for word from the diary into a text, they’re a draft to be worked on.  What they give me are ideas and inspiration to translate into stories, or blog entries.

And that’s it.  Here endeth the lesson on Writers Diary keeping.  If you’ve not started one yet, I hope this might have helped convince you to sit down now and start by writing about the weather, whatever manifestation it appears in.