Friday, 27 January 2012

Tender Buttons, Trish Keenan and Gertrude Stein

A little over a year has gone by since the untimely passing of Broadcast singer and writer Trish Keenan. Browsing in a bookshop the other day, I noticed a copy of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which had exerted a great influence on her approach to lyric writing, and to making music in general. Never one to disguise the source of her inspirations, she wrote a song called Tender Buttons, and Broadcast’s fourth LP took its title from it. I was interested to read Stein’s work (which can loosely be described as a prose poem) and trace some of the ways in which its style and its ideas about associative, semi-automatic writing, sound and sense translated into the Tender Buttons (and Witch Cults of the Radio Age) songs. And so I began to beat a trail through its knotty, meandering text – as you can too (it’s over here at Project Gutenberg).

Gertrude and Alice in Paris
Stein wrote Tender Buttons in 1912 whilst she was on holiday in Spain with her lifelong partner Alice B Toklas, whom she had met five years earlier, and with whom she lived in Paris. It’s a work which deliberately dismantles the structure and sense of language, and which has no readily definable sense of progression or cumulative meaning. It incorporates a strong sense of serious playfulness – wordplay and the delight in toppling and tumbling the blocs of language. There is certainly no story here, nor any comprehensible depiction of reality as it’s generally perceived. Stein’s work is of its nature hermetic. It expresses the specificity of a unique individual consciousness (all individual consciousnesses being unique) with all its private accumulation of experience, opinion, and self-regard, revised and edited in memory. With no attempt at explanation, clarification or contextualisation, this is an internalised self-portrait, viewing the world seen from a particular perspective and further refracted through personal linguistic association. Such unapologetic and unedited hermeticism ultimately leads to a cul de sac, to isolation and artistic solitude, and is not a form which is worthy of pursuing beyond the occasional experiment. The personal insights which the techniques of semi-automatic writing and unconscious word association provide have to be shaped and recast, or placed in a more universal context in order to communicate with other people with any degree of clarity. Trish seems to reflect upon the danger of becoming isolated in a private world of hermetic meaning in the line ‘in autosuggested pathways you are caught’ from the Tender Buttons song I Found the F.

An obvious comparison with the prose style of Tender Buttons would be the stream of consciousness passages in Ulysses (Stein and Joyce knew each other in Paris, although they didn’t exactly get on) which attempt to encompass the mercurial rush of the mind’s associative, semi-conscious buzz and chatter in unpunctuated prose. What structure Tender Buttons has is created by its division into three sections labelled Objects, Food and Rooms. Within these categories, subheadings are collected; a random assortment of objects, some of a surreal and largely notional nature; and a menu of foodstuffs and accompanying words associated with the act of eating (dinner, cooking, cups, breakfast etc.). The Room section has no sub-headings, proceeding in a series of discrete paragraphs, ranging from single sentences to lengthy passages. It is defined by a general sense of domestic interiority and spatial awareness, with words such as corners, table, drawer, chair, floor, roof, door, chair and looking-glass rooting it in a particular sense of place. The sense of a self located in a particular domestic space comes through in various of Trish’s lyrics for Broadcast songs, from the title of their second single, Living Room, to the lines ‘interpret the rooms’ from Tears in the Typing Pool’, and ‘in today’s room with today’s view’ from ‘The Be Colony’. It is also present in Trish’s story Life of a Dummy, in which the interior voice of Marie says ‘my room caverns me. I hear the corners of it’.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso
The fractured nature of Stein’s prose, its shattered syntax, reflects her attempt to pay attention to and bring to bear all of her senses in recording her impressions and thought processes, and to continuously shift the angle of her perception. She was an enthusiastic patron and collector of modern art, and an early champion of Picasso and Braque when their work was still receiving general condemnation. She later affirmed in her 1938 book on Picasso that Tender Buttons was an attempt to create a literary equivalent to the prismatic effects of cubist art. Commenting that it was her ‘first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense and eliminating rhythm’, she seemed to view it as both a visual work, with the look of the words on the page being a part of the whole, and a semi-musical one, in which the words come to life when read out, aloud or in the head. There is a rhythm in it, too, with lines varying in length, and commas and other punctuation sporadically if unconventionally used. But it does avoid the traditional metrical cadences of poetry or incantatory prose. It possesses a more elastic rhythm, the shifting, rolling, asymmetrically accented beats of free jazz – Rashied Ali rather than Elvin Jones.

Its method of following associational lines of thought has led to the idea that Tender Buttons is a piece of automatic writing, a direct outpouring from the unconscious with little mediation on the part of the conscious mind. Stein had shown an early interest in experimental psychology, and studied the subject from 1893-7 at Radcliffe College (an educational college for women formally connected with Harvard) under the tutelage of the renowned and pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James. She took part in some experiments into what became known as Normal Motor Automatism. This phenomenon was observed when the subject’s attention was divided between two activities, both requiring intelligent engagement – say writing and conversing. One or other would exhibit a form of automatism in which the normal structures and controls of consciousness would break down and a ‘second personality’ would appear to manifest itself. These experiments (and Stein’s co-authored paper about them) later formed the basis of an argument put forward by the psychologist BF Skinner in a 1934 article accusatorily entitled ‘Has Gertrude Stein A Secret?’ Skinner was a behaviourist with the view that human beings were programmable through the scientific application of a series of positive and negative reinforcements. Such techniques could be used by a rational and benevolent technocratic elite comprised of the likes of Skinner to shape society. He cast his ideas in fictional form in the utopia Walden Two, where they lead to a paradise of human happiness. Such dreams immediately dissipate when exposed to the air of the real world, of course. Given his belief that the mind was a mechanism open to moulding and manipulation, it suited him to suggest that Tender Buttons was a piece of automatic writing, akin to what Stein had produced in the Normal Motor Automatism experiments. She denied that this was the case. The abandonment of grammatical form and meaning and the seemingly random leaps of loosely associational sense may have been akin to the products of automatic writing. But this was a piece produced under conditions of intense concentration rather than deliberate distraction or dissociation. This concentration extended to the act of writing itself, the physical production of words on paper. The appearance of these words on the page suggested further variations or connections, so that the piece becomes as much about language itself and its translation into written form as it is about the expression of a particular mental state, conscious or unconscious, as it passes through a series of instants.

Whilst acknowledging that she made extensive use of automatic writing (‘that’s where most all of my lyrics come from’, she said in a September 2005 Wire Jukebox interview) and other associative techniques such as cut ups in the development of song lyrics, Trish was also wary of ceding the creative process to unconscious forces. Talking about the role of improvisation and chance in the making of the Witch Cults of the Radio Age LP, she suggested that ‘because we had a loose concept and a title first, we explored a place once removed from the notion of the automatic – more like improvisation with restraints’. She pointed to one method of writing in an automatic style within particular controlling and guiding parameters in the Wire Jukebox interview. ‘You get a list of adjectives’, she said, ‘a list of nouns, and a list of verbs. You choose a meter and a rhyme scheme and you have to have a few internal rhymes in four to six verses…once you get the structure of sentences into your mind, your automatic writing improves – that just keeps it in check, short lines’.

She was interested in the dissociative effects of automatic writing, the sense that it brought forth a ‘second personality’ as Stein put it. ‘Suddenly you’re not yourself’, she enthused in a Wire interview from October 2009, ‘as though you’ve created another you’. This pleasure in discovering new aspects of your personality and need to create alternate identities to inhabit and from which to create was a major theme in her writing, and was reflected in the changing nature of her stage persona. Different forms of ‘I’ turn up in her songs. The nature of personal identity, the sense of self, is also central to her story Life of a Dummy, which was published in the literary and arts paper The High Horse in the mid-noughties. This is an absurdist tale set in Madame Tussauds, its genesis in a piece of reportage about he discovery of the missing heads of the Beatles’ waxwork dummies. It is structured as a fragmented, three-layered narrative, each layer written in contrasting style. It’s a modernist form which embraces multiple perspectives and modes of writing, drawing from Stein’s early innovations. In one strand, presented as if it were a transcript of a TV show, complete with audience laughter, the Beatles dummies go through their wisecracking routines in Hard Days Night fashion. Paul becomes increasingly reflective and distant from the others, however, retreating into himself until he can no longer be heard by the others – the sensitive Beatle. Another layer records, in diary form, the observations of a museum worker, who notes the political wrangling and personal manoeuvring of various showbiz (rather than showroom) dummies (principally Diana Dors, Humphrey Bogart and Tom Jones) as they jockey for favoured positions in the display. The final layer is the interior monologue of that same worker, Marie Michaels, a ‘mid 30s sizzler from the Midlands’ according to the newspaper which George reads. The same paper reveals that she had stolen Paul’s head and communed with it in her bedroom. Marie’s inner thoughts reflect on the idea of an autonomous self, one which in this case has become interpenetrated with that of Paul McCartney, and by extension with the fantasy figures of popular culture in general. Just as Paul grows silent, heard only in Marie’s head, so she begins to see herself as reflected in his writing and persona. ‘If only we had a universe of our own’, she muses. ‘Separate and not found-out’. She comes to realise that the version of Paul which she has taken ownership of is in fact hollow (‘all that space inside you won’t fill up’) and that it is she who inhabits him, who creates her own self (‘I collect my own past Paul. I am my own first person’). Still she cannot help but see part of herself through his elevated, romantic perspective, however, and wishes that he would ‘write me alive into a song one day’.

Mirrored selves
This preoccupation with creating new identities, partly constructed from the fragments of a pop cultural or art historical past, or of maintaining the integrity of the self, is a recurrent one. It’s a way of breaking from the limitations of background, class, cultural or familial expectations. Finding freedom through ceasing to be yourself, or rather transforming into new selves – allowing yourself to be subject to change. The song Corporeal, from the Tender Buttons LP, revisits the dummy theme in the lines ‘we are mankind, we are mannikin’, with further reference to ‘the strings of my autonomy’. In Arc of a Journey, the question is asked ‘can I see more than what I’m programmed to be?’. The repeated refrain of Subject to the Ladder may even be an allusion to the spiralling staircases of our DNA. Mirrored selves and fractured identities abound (with mirrors making regular appearances in Trish’s lyrics). The notion of a refracted and distanced perspective on the self, as if viewed by another, separate persona, is suggested by the lines ‘a prism is only walls’, and ‘I am iris and the lens’ from I Found the F, and in Colour Me In from the Ha Ha Sound LP, with its uncertain attempt at self-reassurance, ‘I must be real because somehow I feel that I’m just the idea’.

Stein’s flow of words in Tender Buttons is drawn into a euphonious whole through the use of alliteration, assonance, variation and repetition, creating a linguistic structure of sound which bears its own justification – bypassing the need for direct, rational meaning. Perhaps this was the kind of thing Trish had in mind when she wrote of ‘model euphonic paradigms’ in The Black Cat, a song from the Tender Buttons LP which alluded to the destabilizing logic of nonsense in the work of another writer – Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. You can hear the assonance in a phrase such as ‘a single mirror, a manikin’, with its progression of pinched ‘i’ vowel sounds; or in the violent k sounds of ‘a jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king’; or in the kaleidoscopically shifting vowel sounds of ‘out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question’. Such connectivity through assonance is found in the Broadcast song The Be Colony from the Witch Cults LP, with the short a’s and sibilant ss’s of the line ‘asses, ashes and classic glasses’, repeated with slight variation, the word ‘nurses’ replacing ‘asses’. Sometimes simple and playful rhymes break through, such as ‘pick a ticket, pike it’, or the childlike ‘a sister is not a mister’. There are lots of words beginning with a hard c sound, which makes an emphatic, percussive impact, like the sound of a crisply struck cymbal. These are strung together into phrases such as ‘cold coffee with a corn’, ‘a cape is a cover’, ‘a climate, a single climate’, ‘careful and curved’ and ‘a can containing a curtain’. Trish drew on the sound qualities of c words in her lyrics for Tender Buttons, which provide their own inbuilt staccato rhythms and inflections. She lists these words like beads on a necklace, the repetition of the hard consonant serving to emphasise the variations in the following vowel sounds; ‘the comb, the calm, the colour, the cortex’. Coal, the word which sets the word train into motion, may well have been triggered by lines in Stein’s Tender Buttons. She writes early on in A Piece of Coffee from the Objects section, ‘the clean mixture is white and not coal color, never more coal color than altogether’; and later ‘color is in coal…coal any coal is copper’. Trish also juxtaposes the words coal and colour in the lines ‘the coal, the coal light, the colours, the caress’. The harshly repeated phrase ‘die cut’ at the end of the song sounds likes the commands of a director making a film collage – abruptly ending and juxtaposing (and colouring?) small fragments of image and sound. Burroughs and Gysin style cut ups were another compositional technique which Trish used. She said of the song Libra, the Mirror’s Minor Self in an interview in The Wire at the time of the release of the Witch Cults LP that ‘the words were a cut up of my horoscope’. The science fictin song Arc of a Journey from the Tender Buttons makes reference to writing techniques which sidestep conscious control: ‘automatic oracles’ which give access to ‘verbal hemispheres’ and ‘a mnemonic game’ which expresses ‘the axis of feeling’.

The chiselling of the hard c sounds in Tender Buttons is alleviated by a verse in which the softer f consonant dominates (it’s a song which is full of f and c words which don’t have to be dipped out on the radio). ‘The fen, the fine, the fin, the defend, the fawn’ is a word list which offers a shifting, subtly morphing series of word sound rooted around the ground of the f. The choice of the f seems to follow on from Stein’s line ‘a window has another spelling, it has ‘f’ all together’. Trish also wrote the song I Found the F on the Tender Buttons LP, which opens with the line ‘I found the fragrance separate from the flower’. The balance of soft and hard consonant sounds reflects the general contrast offered throughout of hard and soft words; a contrast contained in the very title Tender Buttons. Tender here can imply either physical or emotional softness. It’s a word which appears in various contexts throughout the poem. This contrasting of soft and hard runs through all three sections, including phrases such as ‘an elastic tumbler’, ‘all the handsome cheese which is stone’ and a can containing a curtain’. The title A Piece of Coffee in the Objects section treats a liquid as if it were solid and divisible. Masculine and feminine qualities can also be ascribed to these hard and soft contrasts, as Stein seems to suggest in the sentence near the beginning ‘callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men’. The malleable meaning and grammar of Tender Buttons could thereby be seen as attempting a feminisation of language and of writing. Tenderising it and rendering it more pliable, the better to put it new uses, shaping it into new forms. This would seem to tie in with comments which Trish made in the Broadcast feature in the October 2009 issue of The Wire (number 308). She observed that ‘what excites me now is the female voice playing games with words and vocal sound while managing to anchor deeper philosophical concerns…they seem to gesture towards the absurd and playful at the same time as having a kind of fearless form experimentation’.

This malleability can also be found in the questioning tone which frequently emerges, and which further denies the rigidity of assertion, statement and absolute certainty. Common suppositions are abandoned as linguistic meaning and structure is uprooted. There are repetitive lists of what is? and why is? clauses: ‘Cloudiness what is cloudiness, is it a lining, is it a roll, is it melting’ and ‘why is there no necessary dull stable, why is there a single piece of any colour, why is there that that sensible silence’. We are also asked to entertain certain notions: ‘suppose there is a pigeon, suppose there is’ (pigeons are a recurring subject of the poem), or ‘suppose an eyes’. Once the questions start, they stream out in an unending, conjoined ribbon. Like children newly learning about the world by answering every statement with a ‘but why?’

Sense and supposition is also destabilised through the odd juxtaposition of jarring or seemingly incompatible nouns, verbs and adjectives, each torn from accustomed meaning in its odd and unexpected company, and new and startling associations created as a result. ‘The difference is spreading’, as Stein puts it. ‘Glazed glitter’ sounds like the kind of word collision which Mark E Smith might come up with (indeed, it’s close to Glitter Freeze, the title of his song on the Gorillaz LP Plastic Beach). We are also confronted with ‘a method of a cloak’, ‘peeled pencil, choke’,and ‘a substance in a cushion’. Nouns are made strange by adjectives which nudge them form their usual orbits: ‘the serene length’, ‘the sudden spoon’ and the ‘cunning shawl’. This seems to allow them to take on a life and character of their own, beyond mere functionality. There are also definite but strange and nonsensical statements and assertions along the lines of ‘rhubarb is susan’, ‘no eyeglasses are rotten’, ‘an elegant use of foliage’ (which could make a kind of sense in certain horticultural contexts, I suppose), ‘the alteration of pigeons’ (vivisection or genetic manipulation?) and ‘a blind agitation is manly and uttermost’. The nineteenth century French writer Comte de Lautreamont wrote of something being as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’, a statement taken up by Andre Breton as a credo of surrealist intent. It could equally be applied to Stein’s linguistic grafting. This idea, adopted by the Surrealists, of disrupting habitual ways of seeing or thinking, and of constructing new patterns of perception and consciousness also corresponds to Trish’s expressed views of psychedelia as a way of reaching altered states through artistic rather than chemical experience. She talked, in an interview in The Wire in October 2009, of ‘the idea of psychedelia as a door through to another way of thinking about sound and song. Not a world only reachable by hallucinogens, but obtainable by questioning what we think is real and right, by challenging the conventions of form and temper’.

Sometimes Stein seems to be collecting words and assembling them together according to some hidden logical system. Allowing associations to emerge from words and the ideas which they embody, she makes of her mind a subconscious cabinet of curiosities. Like one of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages of seemingly unrelated objects contained within a box, and therefore inviting us to make connections, the positioning of these words next to each other on the page imply some secret correspondence. The idea of such an assemblage is made explicit in the final Rooms section, in which Stein writes ‘there was a whole collection made. A damp cloth, an oyster, a single mirror, a manikin, a student, a silent star, a single spark, a little movement and the bed is made’. Trish uses this in her Tender Buttons, beginning the verse which steers from c to f with the preface ‘the collector’ before listing her gathered words. The covers of the single America’s Boy and of the Tender Buttons LP depict her placing words on a transparent board, the curator and arranger of her own personal language.

She also makes much use of colour, another engagement of sensory perception, prompting visual associational triggers. She writes lines such as ‘any little green is ordinary, ‘a corn yellow and green mass is a gem’, ‘why is a pale white not paler than blue’, and ‘a plain hill, one is not that which is not white and red and green’, the latter suggesting some kind of Fauvist landscape. Trish also used colour in her lyrics. This is captured visually on Julian House’s cover for the Future Crayon compilation, with its prismatic raindrops on a grey background, one filled with a neatly arrayed spectrum of coloured pencils. This links in directly to the song Colour Me In from the Ha Ha Sound album, in which the opening line, ‘I am grey, still on the page, oh colour me in’, is followed by the paintbox being opened to shade the hills green, the sky blue and the heart red. Stein’s ‘little green’ is also extracted and inserted into the non-c verse of the song Tender Buttons (‘the collector, the green, the fine…’).

Stein also used repetition in an insistent way, underlining the materiality of certain objects or the stability of certain ideas or concepts, or revising and refining others. So we read of ‘a dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey’, as if she’s defining its precise nature as her perception of it grows clearer. She tells us ‘book was there, it was there. Book was there’, as if we might doubt her, and that ‘a steady cake, any steady cake is perfect and not plain, any steady cake has a mounting reason’. Some favourite words are scattered throughout, such as tender, china, cheese and clouds (clouds also being a favourite of Trish’s, which turns up in several Broadcast songs, Ominous Clouds being the most obvious). Sometimes words seem to get stuck, as if Stein has become fixated upon them, hypnotized by some quality they possess. They are caught in a stuttering loop which anticipates the repetitions of sampling. The cogged mechanisms of the mind temporarily become locked in their turning ratchets, juddering back and forth before freeing themselves once more. So, we get ‘this which is so not winsome (that ‘so’ making it sound uncannily modern) and not widened and really not so dipped as dainty and really dainty, very dainty, ordinarily, dainty, a dainty, not in that dainty and dainty’; ‘little sales of leather and such beautiful beautiful, beautiful beautiful’’ and ‘aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers’. You can imagine that last sentence as a sampled and savagely spliced and edited vocal playing over some digitally created rhythm.

The use of words and their placement alongside each other in accordance with their sound and scansion as much as with any sense they might make immediately suggests music, and pop and rock lyrics in particular. There are references and allusions to music throughout Tender Buttons. The phrase ‘dance a clean dream’ could very well sum up the entire work, and I can certainly imagine it as a line in a Broadcast song’. Stein also writes ‘this is a sound and obligingness more obligingness leads to a harmony in hesitation’, and ‘so the tune which is there has a little piece to play’, and also ‘a cup is readily shaded, it has in between no sense that is to say music, memory, musical memory’. The latter seems to imply that music and memory don’t conform to conventional logic or sense. Elsewhere she adds ‘harmony is so essential’ and that ‘no song is sad’. Whether the latter means that the very act of singing is in itself joyous, or that to have no song is a sad thing is ambiguous. Then again, all sense is provisional and open to negotiation in the poem. Stein herself became involved in setting words to music, writing opera libretti, and enjoying a particularly fruitful artistic partnership with the American composer Virgil Thomson. Her libretto for his 1933 opera Four Saints in Three Acts follows the mixing and realigning of language of Tender Buttons, although in a slightly less absolute and uncompromising style.

By the end of the final section of Tender Buttons, the effort of constantly shifting perceptual points of view and avoiding established or reflex patterns of language and meaning begins to show signs of wearing down. Perhaps this is deliberate. The Room focuses on the domestic space, and a sense of being at home turns the mind towards the comforting and the familiar. The abstraction of the previous sections begins to form into blurry, impressionistic word pictures, language beginning once more to coalesce into more conventional sense. We get the vague picture of actual places, and atmospheres specific to a particular time. Stein details a scene with ‘a bridge a very small bridge in a location and thunder, any thunder’, which could be a landscape on the wall or in the mind. She also observes that ‘this cloud does change with the movements of the moon and the narrow the quite narrow suggestion of the building’. We get the impression of someone in a room in a house using her imagination and her linguistic powers to expand her consciousness beyond its confines. So, from the chairs and the doors and the table linen and the spoons, and all the other domestic objects and interior architecture which is mentioned, we get to paragraphs which imagine landscapes, and different climates (‘climate, climate is not southern, a little glass, a bright winter’). Near the end, the mind soars into the night sky, questioning and wondering: ‘star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of time’. This expansion of the mind from the domestic and particular to embrace the cosmos is echoed in Broadcasts’ song Arc of a Journey, in which Trish sings of the ‘constellation of Orion, a picture with a past, a future so vast’.

Trish’s writing was always highly evocative, drawing on a variety of influences, Stein’s included, but always retaining a distinct identity of its own. It sparked off rich imagistic associations and spun profoundly playful wordgames. I’m sure she would have gone on to write and publish more poetry and prose alongside her songwriting had she been granted more time. But we are left with what we have, and those are riches enough.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Secret Garden at the Bike Shed Theatre

The Bikeshed Theatre (named after the sizeable bicycle shop beneath which it lies – more of a bike hangar, in fact) in Exeter staged a richly imagined adaptation of The Secret Garden earlier this week. It was performed by the Dorset-based troupe Angel Exit Theatre, and it marks the centenary of the publication of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved novel, which has steadily grown in reputation over recent decades to achieve recognition as one of the major twentieth century works of children’s literature. I had vague memories of the mid-70s BBC TV adaptation, but was entirely unfamiliar with the book, and thus came to the story largely without any preconceptions; The ideal blank state in which to approach any story.

Burnett’s tale has a harsh underlying lack of sentimentality, centring around two children who are both, at least initially, intensely unlikeable. Mary Lennox grows up in Imperial India, the neglected child of parents who show her little love and leave her lonely and brittlely introverted. When they both die during a cholera outbreak, she is left for alone in the house for a while before being discovered and shipped off to England in the cold company of the fearsomely dragonish Mrs Medlock. She begins life again in a rambling old Yorkshire mansion on the edge of the moors, the home of Mr Craven, a remote uncle whom she has never met before, and who has no interest in making her acquaintance now that she has come to stay. He is merely doing his duty as an Edwardian gentleman in agreeing to look after her. Left largely to her own devices, and wishing to escape from the stultifying atmosphere of the neglected, labyrinthine house, she explores the grounds and becomes fascinated by a walled garden which seems to have no entrance, and whose existence nobody seems willing to acknowledge. A robin leads her to a buried key, and she uncovers a door when she disturbs a sweep of ivy. The wild garden she discovers within becomes her sacred space of imaginative play, and draws her out of the stubbornly inward, arrogant insularity which has led her to be so dismissively rude towards Martha, the maid, and Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener. These two take on the role of surrogate parents, but her closest companion becomes Martha’s son Dickon, a gentle-spirited local nature boy, who has a tamed fox as a familiar. She lets him into her secret world (and was Kate Bush’s song Under the Ivy maybe drawing out the potential underlying symbolism of this scenario, in an Angela Carter fashion?) and together they set about nurturing the garden back into life.

Back in the house, Mary is disturbed by pained wails winding through the night corridors. Conquering her fear, and dismissing Martha’s denials, she traces their source to a room in which a sickly boy is confined to his bed. He is Colin, the son of Mr Craven, who is apparently afflicted with a deformity of the spine, and believes that he is withering towards an early death. He is a pitiable creature, and no-one pities him more than himself. Sealed in his bedroom universe, he gleans all that he knows of the world from his books. Mary joins him in his bookish explorations, and in turn tries to coax him out into her secret world. She and Dickon entice him with tales of the garden, and when they finally manage to trundle him out to it in a wheelbarrow, he is entranced by the enclosed, magical world. As time and the seasons progress, he begins to regain some of his strength, filled with new vigour as the garden springs into life, as if, under careful tending, he has himself become a part of its perennial growth and renewal. It had been a place beloved of his mother, who had grown roses there. But she had fallen from a favourite perch in a bower and died from resulting complications. The garden subsequently became a dark space, associated with death as well as with a life whose absence was still rawly felt. It was closed off and declared a no-place, erased from the garden’s map; painful memories sealed and buried. Ben Weatherstaff, the archetypally surly, no-nonsense Yorkshire gardener (akin to Geoffrey Smith, a regular on BBC radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time, which my parents regularly tuned in to) had honoured her last requests and returned to surreptitiously prune the bushes and keep it alive in the form in which he had helped her to create it. But the creeping spread of his rheumatism eventually made of the wall an unscaleable barrier, and the interior grew wild and untamed, more briar than bloom.

Mr Craven spends much of the story travelling hard across the world, attempting to diminish the continuing pain at the death of his wife through physical distance. But as Colin’s health improves and the garden blossoms, he begins to hear an insistent voice urging him to return home. When he does, he finds the children in the garden, and Colin now able to walk again. His spirit is also transformed by the sight of the garden, his wife’s space which is once more full of the life she sowed in it (her son included), and the crippling melancholia which has for so long weighed heavily upon him begins to lift.

It was immediately clear (through the haze) upon entering the small, vaulted cellar auditorium of the Bike Shed Theatre that Angel Exit intended to engage all the spectator’s senses. The Indian environment in which the story starts was conjured with tamboura drones and billowing clouds of incense smoke. Already, outside in the bar area, we had come across scattered paper flowers and leaves and draped and entwined stretches of cloth patterned with floral designs which had led us to the theatre doors and prepared us for entering a different world. The incense created a heady, intoxicating fug (not a word you get to use so much these days) which immediately transported you elsewhere. Its lingering miasma in the opening scenes also served to suggest the sickly sweet pall of disease hanging in the air as the outbreak of cholera spread. Incense was pumped out again to usher us back into the story after the interval, taking us away from the smells of the bar and café. This time it evoked the rich, somnambulant scents of a hazy summer day, with the secret garden in full flower. The recurrence of scents drew the two worlds together, Mary having discovered the particular beauty and fascination inherent in the new world which she had at first utterly rejected. The exotic and the miraculous are everpresent, and can be revealed in the seemingly everyday and ordinary.

Observant statues - Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete
Angel Exit created a magical space upon the stage with minimal means, the parsimony with props necessary for a travelling company balanced by the imagination and ingenuity with which they were put to use. The illusion of depth and distance was given by the movements and gestures of the cast, who drafted architectural and garden plans in the wake of their regard. Poles (which would later become garden implements) were held up and shifted over and across to suggest the maze of corridors through which Mary was guided when she first arrived at the Craven house. Pictures and empty picture frames were lined up at head height to give the impression of the walls from which they hung. The faces of the actors positioned within the frames provided instant portraits. Their heads turned to follow Mary’s progress as she passed them by in a manner which immediately brought to mind the living statues and caryatids in the castle of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete. Such a comparison was further struck by the chorus’ formation of living furniture, of bedposts, washing line poles or even railway carriage luggage racks; static and rooted yet still observant.

Interior domestic appurtenances were swiftly re-arranged and recast to become aspects of the tamed natural world of the garden. A carpet’s dark weave, patterned with gloomy, dull colours representing the airless, lifeless world of the house was flipped over to reveal a strip of greengrocer’s grass on the obverse side, which served as the emerald baize of a well-tended lawn. Chests of drawers drawn out became bushes and vine covered walls, and the interiors of cupboards, doors spread wide open, became shady bowers under which characters sat. Long bolts of cloth were unrolled and hung and draped in undulating, criss-crossing banners, their floral designs appropriate to the season: spring blossoms and summer roses. Soft, stuffed props of a semi-abstract nature resembling the knots of thorn which appear in Graham Sutherland paintings were scattered throughout, inside and out, taking on forms appropriate to their context. They suggested objects on dressers or cupboards (brushes and hangars), mounted antlers (or antlers placed upon the crown of a head), roots, branches and rose thorns.

The members of the small cast each took on a variety of roles, Mary excepted, her presence on stage being continuous. The Lady Bracknell-like Mrs Medlock, loosely draped in a dour, floor-length black dress topped by a floppy black hat and veil, was a natural for a drag act, in the manner of Alec Guiness playing Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets. The actor later became the puny child Colin, a role at the opposite extreme from Mrs M’s formidable and forbidding aloofness. He played him in a broad, clowning style, initially communicating in a series of breathless, animalistic whoops, and warding off potential contact with wheeling and wholly ineffectual karate chop gestures. Mary herself conveyed fierce and scornful self-containment by remaining for the greater part of the play with shoulders tensely hunched and arms held firmly and petulantly, fists clenched, by her side. This stance was only temporarily dropped when she exploded into motion in sudden foot-stamping tantrums. Eventually, this wearying rigidity began to relax as she opened herself to her surroundings and responded to the kindness and patience of those who inhabited them, discovering beauty in the world and allowing it in.

All of the cast also took their turn (Mary once more excepted) in a lively chorus, which served several purposes. They told us of the characters’ actions, motivations and feelings; bridged gaps in the narrative; noted the passage of time; commented on the action in classical dramatic style; and moved and transformed props. They also acted as living props themselves, holding up the blossom-speckled material or giving shape to the bed with suspended curtains, or striking acrobatic poses to combine into a garden hedge. In Angel Exit’s very Pagan reading of the book, they were like nature spirits, arms veined with rooty brown tendrils, leaves and feathers crowning their heads, woven into wild hair. Their eyes were made up to appear in the almond-shaped style of Victorian and Edwardian fairy paintings, as depicted by the likes of Richard Dadd, Arthur Rackham and Richard Doyle. They creep out of and return to the backstage shadows, creatures caught in the periphery of vision. They are not sympathetic or compassionate observers (this is not what the characters need at first, anyway), seeming largely indifferent to the plight of those the edges of whose story they haunt. Occasionally their comments take on a mocking tone, but they are never malevolent. They are not active participants, maintaining the distanced, coolly measured perspective of the wholly other.

Simple puppets were used for the lightly anthropomorphised birds, animals and reptiles with which the characters commune, and which seem to guide them at key moments (the Robin indeed leading Mary to the key to the garden gate). The snake in the opening Indian section circles Mary as she lies in what appears to be a fever dream (an opening which allows for the possibility that all that follows is indeed but a dream within a dream). It rattles and hisses as if it is trying to tell her something. She sees it and tells it that she does not fear it. It’s a dialogue which anticipates her later communications with the robin in England, and once more links the two worlds; the standard Kipling exoticism of India with the mystery found within the commonplace in a Yorkshire garden. The snake, in its fearful, poison-tongued aspect, seems to be a harbinger of the death of her parents. But it is also a creature which has represented change and rebirth throughout the ages and across cultures, and thus presages the transformation of her life.
The robin is manipulated by the actress who plays Martha, who makes it flitter from branch to rake head with convincing birdlike skittishness. She also shifts from Martha’s Yorkshire accent to an avian trilling which contains auditory hints of human language. The fox is a sinuous wind of bristly material with a vulpine snout at its head, which is made to glide and weave across the stage in Dickon’s wake. There is also a miniscule puppet of Mr Craven, which stands in for the actor playing the role during part of his endless journeying. It slowly ascends the Alpine slope of an upward sweep of curtain, whose creases are crevasses and folds escarpments. Its tiny form symbolises the insignificance of man in the face of the spectacle of the Romantic sublime in all its terrifying grandiosity. It also represents Mr Craven’s own diminished and desolate spiritual state. His self-punishing journeys and his confrontation with immensity and the void is a dead end. He needs to return home to discover that nature can also reveal itself on a human scale, against which a sense of meaning can more appreciably be measured.

This was a performance which also incorporated much choreographed physical movement, which often approached the condition of dance. On her trip over to England, Mary was handled like a piece of baggage, her body remaining rigidly straight as she was lifted, spun around and deposited, a passive and unyielding ballerina. The motion of the train in which Mary and Mrs Medlock travelled was conveyed by a rhythmic bounce, ending with a tilting forward sway as it came to a juddering halt. There was a certain amount of miming involved in the opening of invisible doors and the negotiating of phantom garden walkways. The chorus also prowled and leapt in a very balletic manner, sprites treading lightly upon the ground, creatures of the air as much as of the earth.

This was a thoroughly engaging, charming and heartwarming piece of storytelling. Angel Exit Theatre brought the world of the book to life with great imagination and invention, bringing their own particular perspective to the story. They drew out its Pagan aspects, its English nature mysticism (I don’t know to what extent these are apparent in the novel). It is a rewarding and worthy way of celebrating the centenary of The Secret Garden’s publication, marking the continuing fascination exerted by an enduring classic of children’s literature. The company continue on their tour through January, February and March, ending up in Poole in Dorset in April.