Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Exeter Riddles Finale

It’s become something of a tradition over the past few years for the Animated Exeter festival to stage an open air spectacular for the delight of the local citizenry. The cathedral has proved the obvious Beer stone backdrop for inventive animated projections which have used its windows, towers and buttressed walls to tell tales both haunting, surreal and amusing. This time, events moved North to Belmont Park, and, under the direction of the Mischief La-Bas company, mixed projections with theatrical storytelling and historical re-enactment to thrilling effect. It was the climax of both the Animated Exeter and the Extreme Imagination festivals, which had conjoined at various points, encouraging the half term hordes to get involved in various creative literary and artistic activities. Philip Reeve, author of the wonderful Mortal Engines books, had written a new story for Extreme Imagination, The Exeter Riddles. This envisioned time leaks breaking out around the city, caused by some mysterious power source, and depositing bewildered denizens of past eras at various familiar locales. An interactive game, Time Winders, produced by Slingshot, took place around the city over the weekend, with players following clues to trace the source of the leak before the rifts in time wreaked havoc and reduced all to smoking rubble. Posters were to be found in bus shelters and shop windows promoting the efforts of the Ministry of Historical Defence and calling on citizens to come to their aid, for the sake of their city and ultimately Britain itself. They were printed on a red background in an authoritative, utilitarian wartime and post-war type, with which people have been refamiliarised through countless Keep Calm and Carry On variants. It really was a widely co-ordinated effort which seamlessly grafted an entertaining and expansive fiction onto the everyday world.

The posters directed us to Belmont Park where, on a chill Saturday evening, the boundaries were dramatically lit with flaming torches. Ambling around the perimeter, we came across idling Georgian soldiers in fine green tailcoated uniforms; a foppishly attired and cheerfully loquacious Civil War parliamentarian with foil at the ready to run through any royalists who might cross his path; World War 2 land girls and air raid wardens celebrating victory with a hearty singsong which they encouraged us to join them in (handily unfurling a banner on which the words to We’ll Meet Again were daubed, in case we didn’t know them); a group of squatting cavemen and women (or perhaps survivors of some future apocalyptic war – the time crack spread outwards in both directions from the present) warming themselves around a fire in front of their hide-draped bivouac; a group of Roman legionaries, their polished helmets and handsome plumes glinting in the baleful glow in the far corner, which flickered over the stone building which used to be the lavs; and a number of figures clad in dusty white, their faces fixed plaster masks, who stiffly descended from a tiered platform at various intervals to stiffly totter about like horror movie mummies before returning to their set positions. They were statues from the façade of the cathedral magically brought to life (rather like those on the front of York Cathedral at the start of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) we later learned. Officials wandered around, clearly identifiable in the modern manner by their hi-vis jackets, printed with the MOHD logo.

Over and above all this milling activity, the insistent sound of heavy drilling shattered the night air, originating from the Mining Area, marked as such by another MOHD sign and barricaded off. A large scaffold framing a black screen indicated that this was where the climactic show was to take place. Two officials dressed in black uniforms (recalling a previous gathering in the park in the thirties, when Oswald Mosley addressed a rally of blackshirts) stood atop its upper walkway. Their amplified voices called everyone in, crossing searchlights also drawing the attention of all in the park and no doubt beyond as well. They summed up the crisis in the city, reporting sightings of cavemen in John Lewis (shrinking from action movie explosions on widescreen TVs, perhaps) and Romans on the cathedral green. The source of the time leaks had been traced to the city’s heartstone, which had been reawakened, and which lay directly below. Our collective effort was now required to summon up the spirit of Sidwella, the local saint whose tale of murder in the cornfields and the bubbling up of a renewing spring where her blood was shed blends elements of Pagan and Christian symbolism (and who was central to the Isca Obscura animation projected onto the cathedral walls a couple of years ago). This call to mental fight, in the Blakean sense, combined with the Attlee-era poster style and the clipped accents of our expositing ministerial narrators, pointed to a subtle underlying element of nostalgia for a time of post-war consensus in which all were intent on creating a public society which worked for the good of all, rather than slaving for a private and corporately governed world. And, of course, the whole shebang benefited from funding by the Arts Council, City Council and Heritage Lottery Fund. This was a rite in which the lingering ghosts of Mosley’s fascists would be exorcised.

With deep bass rumbles and pulsating electronic music reminiscent of the F&%* Buttons (whose childishly profane name prevented them from fully benefiting from the use of their music in the Olympic opening ceremony, another celebration of the collective post-war spirit) the heartstone rose from the behind the boards screening off the mining area, its pulse of throbbing life gradually increasing in a wakening accelerando. Cut into facets like a precious jewel, its blank, white, hexagonally outlined surface provided the focal prism for a procession of reversed moving pictures, whirling us on a rushing journey from the Exe Estuary to the modern-day Exeter. Here, passersby retraced their steps, walking backwards presumably to deposit whatever was in their bags back onto the shelves. It reminded me a little of the eyeflash succession of subliminal images in Yellow Submarine, when the magic vessel takes off from Liverpool and flies off towards psychedelic seas, passing through a rapid montage of English land and cityscapes before plunging into the water with the final crashing chord of A Day in the Life. Perhaps I should mention that I’d seen a screening of a sparkling new digital print of the film at the Animated Exeter festival a couple of days previously. On the big screen and with such beautifully clear (and hand restored) colour, I saw it anew, in a completely fresh light. There were many delightful sequences, with the Eleanor Rigby collages having always been a favourite. There was also the surreal pop art invention of the sea of monsters, the retina-dazzling op-art of Only A Northern Song, the splashily impressionistic Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and the wonderfully celebratory All Too Much – enlightenment with an assurance of getting home in time for tea.

Back to the dawn of man
Back to Belmont. As the heartstone became a black hole hoovering time into its depthless vortex, backward running local news and home movie footage faded from colour to black and white, calendar pages mentally stripped off and blown away on chronological winds. Further and ever accelerating regression swept us back through medieval and prehistoric periods, cheekily refracted through familiar movie images: knights and monks from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rachel Welch as a fashionably coiffured primitive in One Million Years BC, and ape ancestors grazing the plains in 2001: A Space Odyssey, their grunts given echoing recognition by the cavemen whose curiosity had led them to mingle in with the watching crowd. Even the pre-human was a given a look-in, with an animation from David Attenborough’s evolutionary survey Life On Earth run backwards, beating a retreat from land to a simpler, unicellular life drifting through the oceans, a de-evolutionary folding-in. The computer graphics of the late 70s used in Life On Earth now seemed as much an antediluvian relic of the past in the context of the rapid evolution of digital and communications technologies as the primitive transformations they depicted. They also served to show how far animation technology has developed in just a few decades. To demonstrate, we were about to witness an evolutionary leap worthy of the mystical denouement of 2001.

Finally, with time spooled back and packed away in the heartstone’s crystalline archive, Sidwella made her appearance. Drifting spectrally across the screen, she was a wide-eyed starchild, serpentine strands of red hair (still stained with sacrificial blood?) wafting like water weeds in an invisible aetheric current. She cupped the stone, dense with accumulated time, in her hands, gazing at it with open wonder and infinite curiosity. It glowed with a responsive light, and then its glittering facets shattered, dispersing in luminous shards. The stone, now blank and drably featureless once more, sank back into the ground, its recession marked by a cascade of sparking light spitting and crackling along the top of the screen. Sidwella drifted back to whatever otherplace she’d emerged from, and the MOHD officials emerged once more to declare that all was safe once more. The destructive forces of fragmentation and disharmony had been dispelled by our collective summoning of the feminine spirit, and harmony and rightness was restored. A small celebratory firework display lit the sky behind us, reflected impressionistically in the windows of the terraced houses beyond the park railings, the skeletal wintry branches of the plane trees in front forming charcoal silhouettes against the blossoming explosions. Disaster has been deflected by collective effort, and by the invocation of a female spirit of renewal and open-hearted compassion. It was a message of hope for everyone to take home with them, a light in dark times. It was a positive, imaginative and wonderfully staged event which brought a bit of magic to a bitter February night.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Raymond Cusick

Raymond Cusick has rightly been hailed for his design of the Daleks for the original Doctor Who story in which they appeared in December 1963, only the second serial in its very first season. It was a design to which that much abused and overused term ‘iconic’ can for once be confidently and accurately applied. As ever with BBC productions of the time, there was a good deal of contingency involved, practical considerations of cost, time and utility playing a role in what was eventually produced. Terry Nation’s original intention, backed up by producer Sydney Newman’s determination to avoid ‘bug-eyed monsters’, was to create something which steered clear of the usual man in a rubber suit clichés of monstrous SF aliens (clichés which Dr Who would later wholeheartedly embrace, often to great effect, and on occasion not). Nation’ descriptions in his script were left vague; he described machine-like creatures moving on a cylindrical base with mechanical arms and a lens eye on a flexible stalk. Cusick took this basic scripted thumbnail sketch and set to creating a workable model. He originally thought of a straight cylinder, which really would have looked like the mobile dustbins which the Daleks were later to be characterised as. But he realised that this would be distinctly uncomfortable for actors who would have to stand stooped inside for considerable period of time. It would be far better for them to be seated, which would also make them easier to operate. The leg room thus required led to the forward flaring expanse of their ‘skirts’, which, with the inspired addition of the half-tennis ball bumps giving it a textured design, had the appearance of a thorax separate from the dome-capped ‘head’. This gave some sense of a body, which added to the terror they inspired: they were alien, but not wholly other. It’s a characteristic which Steven Moffat cleverly exploited in a recent story which played on the horror of being forcibly turned into one of them. The angular thrust of their skirt also added to the menace of the dalek glide, lending its leading edge the aspect of a plough, designed to cast aside all in its path.

Daleks vs. Mechanoids - The Chase
The grilled ‘neck’ beneath the shiny skull cap also played a practical part, allowing the encased actor to see out, whilst the flashing ‘ear’ lights (perhaps the Daleks’ only cute feature) were added so that it would be clearer which one was talking (or shouting, as tended to be the case with these irritable creatures). The lights would be flicked on and off by the actor inside in morse-like flashes corresponding to the lines being spoken. The actor could also operate the whisk-like gun, which Cusick added, and also gesticulate with the sucker. As director Richard Martin ruefully recollects, the plunger was a matter of contingency. They wanted some sort of mechanical arm, but the budget was already at full stretch, so they had to make do with what they could find lying around – a sink plunger (which no doubt still had to be accounted for). This served as an all-purpose if rather impractical hand. Ironically, this underwhelming facet of the Dalek design was the first we ever saw of them, as they menaced Barbara at the end of the first episode before being fully revealed at the beginning of the next. A magnet was attached beneath the black rubber sucker so that it could carry metal trays. In the first Dalek story, one of the creatures brings in some food on a tea tray to the Doctor and his imprisoned companions, thus proving for all time that this was an alien invented by an Englishman. Rob Shearman would later make effective play with years of mockery occasioned by the plunger in his Dalek story in the revamped Russell T Davies series. A soldier unwisely takes the piss and finds out exactly what the sucker is capable of in a horrific scene which ensures that the appendage will never be seen in the same jokey light again.

Dalek vs. Dracula - The Chase
The Daleks were an immediate success, in no small part due to their immediate visual impact, their classic profile so to speak. Cusick must have looked on with a certain amount of weary resignation as he saw his original work licensed out to become a phenomenal marketing success from the mid 60s through to the seventies. Die cast toys, board games and play costumes were mass produced to meet insatiable public demand. Whilst his design might have been distributed in a wide variety of forms throughout the households of Britain (and beyond), as a jobbing staff designer at the BBC he presumably saw not a bean of the considerable profits accrued over the years. Of course, if people wanted to replicate the actual Dalek, the mutated mess which lurked within the protective metal casing, they could have done so in a budget fashion following that taken by Cusick. The slimy claw briefly seen protruding from a tarpaulin covering the corpse Ian has scooped out of the decommissioned Dalek’s lid was the hand from a joke shop gorilla costume smeared in Vaseline.

The first monster - petrified Magneton
His contributions to Doctor Who went well beyond the fashioning of the Daleks, however. He worked as a designer on the programme for a little over 2 years, from December 1963 through to January 1966, when he bowed out in style no the epic 12 part Dalek story The Daleks’ Master Plan. With his work for The Mutants, the serial later to be known as The Daleks, he can lay claim to having created a number of Doctor Who firsts: its first alien, a rather charming chameleon-like creature with upright eye stalks called a Magneton, whose dead husk the Doctor and his companions chance upon (he would later design another alien with snail-like eyestalks for the Keys to Marinus, this time rising from that pulp SF classic, the squirming brain in a bell jar); its first alien environment, the petrified forest on Skaro, whose haunted strangeness is economically conveyed through some trails of white lattice-like growths; and the first alien city, the Daleks’ metropolis. This looks magnificent, and only a cynical curmudgeon or someone whose senses are oversaturated with digital dazzle, leaving them unwilling to expand upon the model in their own imagination, would point out that it was evidently just a collation of toothpaste tube lids, plastic screws and box corner reinforcers.

Dalek City - knick-knack dystopia
Its interiors also feature Doctor Who’s first corridors, walled with a semi-reflective material which gives it the look of some alien alloy. The running down corridors aspect of Doctor Who was later to become something of a cliché, but it was used so much because of its simple effectiveness (and, of course, because it was economical). The suspense is heightened when something might appear around the corner at any moment. Cusick cleverly pointed to the fact that this city had been constructed with non-human needs in mind by making the doorways oval and low-lying. He also created an alien symbology, with dials and controls covered with ‘pie-chart’ designs. Futurity was indicated, 60s style, by the use of a lot of Perspex, with blinking lights and diodes behind suggesting complex computational functions in constant operation. Cusick would also make impressive use of Perspex in The Keys to Marinus, with the giant machine brain which provides the calculating judicial Conscience of the planet represented by a large transparent platonic solid, an all-knowing, all-seeing dodecahedron.

Perspex mind - the conscience machine in Keys to Marinus
Cusick seemed to specialise in the more science fictional aspects of the first two series, mostly leaving the historical backdrops to others. His broken down spaceship in The Rescue had the kind of deglamourised shoddiness which would later be a feature of the Nostromo in Alien (and Ridley Scott was a BBC designer at the same time as Cusick). He created another spaceship as working environment for the Sensorites, a story for which he also imagined another convincingly alien city. The climax of The Rescue featured a particularly effective and atmospheric set – the Dido temple, with its columnar row of smoking braziers, draped tapestries and its round table and altar decorated with Aztec-style designs. In low light shone through drifting smoke, this looks very impressive indeed. Cusick also explored the domestic quarters of the Tardis in the third story, Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction). Curved plastic beds descend from the walls, and there is an automatic food dispenser which synthesises whatever is programmed in. Shades of the Nutrimatic in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although no one asks for a cup of tea. He also designed the Tardis’ rather unwieldy ‘fault locator’, a bank of instrumentation which took so much effort to set up that it soon quietly disappeared.

Ian and Barbara inspect the drains in Planet of the Giants
One of his greatest triumphs can be found in the oversized sets he designed for the Planet of Giants, which outshone the rather dull story in which they featured. A miniaturised Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian make their way through rocky canyons which turn out to be the gaps between garden paving stones, and come across dead specimens of ants and earthworms. Later, Ian and Barbara unwisely climb into a the cavernous interior of a briefcase and are carried into a laboratory. Here, there is a great aluminium sink set, with very convincing plughole and adjacent plug with linked chain. There is also a king-sized spiral-bound notebook, a tangled slope of cloth-insulated phone wires and a mighty telephone handset, as well as a match on the scale of a caber, which Ian and Susan heave up like battering ram, taking a short run-up to strike it against the side of a shed-sized matchbox.

Viewing the Op Art caves - The Chase
Cusick did design the sets for one of the historical Whos, however: The Romans, which encompassed a rather impressive villa, a stretch of Roman road, a marketplace, various rooms of the Emperor Nero’s court, prison and a galley slaves’ rowing deck. All of this with a budget which was fiddling change in comparison with the money thrown at the Taylor/Burton Cleopatra a year or so earlier, and which would make Carry On Cleo look like a lavish epic. Perhaps his greatest challenge came with two series whose episodic nature required multiple sets, often of an elaborate nature. The Chase finds the Doctor, Barbara and Ian pursued by the Daleks across space and time, stopping off on a desert planet, Aridius (the vaulted, labyrinthine underworld of which is impressively Piraneisian); the top of the Empire State Building (where Peter Purves does a hilarious turn as a stereotypical Texan before turning up later as a completely different character, Steven, who would become one of the Doctor’s companions for the next year), the Marie Celeste (a well-realised ship’s deck set); a haunted house complete with gothic monsters and paraphernalia, which turns out to be an abandoned, robot-populated fun fair, Frankenstein’s House of Horrors (and it’s great fun seeing the Daleks confronting – and getting a pasting from – Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and freaking out at a wailing female ghost); and finally, the planet Mechanus. Here, there are some entertaining giant ambulatory mushrooms which envelop any who linger too near with their umbrella-like caps; some great op-art caves; and a fantastic alien city which follows the fungoid theme by resembling something that has grown from rotting humus. It looks like something that Roger Dean might have drawn for a 70s Yes album cover (triple gatefold, of course). There's a miniature shot I particularly enjoy here of a model mechanoid travelling across the arcaded bridge between the cliffs and the main city. Cusick also gives us a mechanical adversary for the Daleks, the Mechanoids, which resemble trundling Faberge eggs. There’s a great climactic battle between the two, taking place on another excellent city interior set, which of necessity involves a lot of intersecting ramps along with white arching architecture which makes it all look like the bisected section of a seashell.

Prog rock cities - The Chase
This was all tremendously demanding, with much being expected in a short space of time. The scriptwriter, Terry Nation, had also put Cusick through his paces on an earlier story, The Keys of Marinus. Here, the plot coupon structure requires the gathering of various segments of a key to gain control of the powerful conscience machine before the Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Susan can leave the planet. This meant that Cusick had to develop and build a completely new environment for each episode. There was the initial island of glass surrounded by an acid sea (another fantastic model alien environment), with a pyramid atop a mountain containing the all-powerful machine; a beach spiked with shards of black glass (and with some rather nifty one man submarines beached upon its shores – Perspex, of course); a lavish palace and banqueting hall; a trap laden laboratory in a tropical region which is besieged by carnivorous plants; ice caverns, economically achieved by using cellophane shot in low reflective light; and a museum, courtroom and city interiors. Considering the time strictures, with the erection of sets, run throughs and filming of each episode required to be completed in one day, this was asking an incredible amount.

Isle of glass in an acid sea - Keys of Marinus
Cusick outlined his approach as being a matter of ‘beg, borrow and steal’. This is put to great effect in the palace scene, in which he has evidently raided the historical props department to create a motley scene of decadent excess. He also enjoys wrecking it, showing the tawdry and dilapidated reality which lies behind the hypnotic illusion implanted in the minds of the questing travellers. A comment on extensive use of illusion which he had to resort to achieve what was required of him, perhaps. Cusick noted that Nation tended to be a bit vague when it came to specific description in his scripts. He would, he said, write something along the lines of ‘they enter a white featureless room’. When he asked Nation about this, he told him that it was up to him to supply the detail. There is indeed a scene in Keys of Marinus in which Ian and the Doctor walk into a blank, featureless room, its only prop a battered table and a rusty tin cup. Under the hypnotic spell of the aliens who run the place (those brains with protruding eye stalks mentioned earlier), they see what we don’t – a fantastically well-equipped (cyclotrons and all) phantom laboratory. Maybe Nation was having a little self-effacing dig at his own shortcomings here.

Far from armless - Ian fails to approach idol with due caution in Keys to Marinus
Cusick also designed a marvellously fierce-looking idol for the tropical episode, which grabs the curious who approach too closely and swivels round to deposit them in a secret room beyond. Cusick had wanted mechanical arms, but had to make do with real ones thrust through convenient holes. There’s never any doubt that they’re real, and that they will obviously come to life, but the whole thing still looks pretty good. Cusick, ever his own harshest critic, and recollecting things with unsentimentally acerbity, observed that it ‘didn’t quite work, but it was cheap’. His assessment of his work on Keys of Marinus, an experience which he evidently felt was absurdly overdemanding, was particularly damning. Asked whether he was proud of anything he’d done on the story, he replied, with the air of a true perfectionist, ‘I can really say no’. I’d say he was wrong, and that he had much to be proud of there and elsewhere.

The Robin Guthrie Trio in Exeter

The Robin Guthrie Trio played at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter last week with the venue appropriately laid out café style with round tables and chairs. This was music to drift off into a reverie rather than dance to (unless a gentle rocking sway counts), and a seat to slump into allowed for a far more comfortable experience of the dreamlike sounds Guthrie produced from his jade-coloured guitar. The days of the Cocteau Twins are long gone, as are the vocals overlaying his floating effects-sculpted guitarscapes. I have to confess that I never quite warmed to Elisabeth Fraser’s sugar hiccough reveries; they strayed a little too far towards indie feyness for my tastes. But I loved the Cocteau Twins sound, and in particular their collaboration with Harold Budd (who himself appeared at the Phoenix last year), with whom Guthrie went on to collaborate on a couple of lovely duo albums. This set up was thus ideal as far as I was concerned. It had something of an ECM trio feel (Terje Rypdal or John Abercrombie in their more atmospherically-textured, less jazzy moments, perhaps), including the international cast: Guthrie from Scotland, of course; his bass player Steve Wheeler from Australia; and drummer and percussionist Antti Mäkinen from Finland, providing the Scandinavian jazz element. Wheeler and Mäkinen provided a solid underpinning for the gossamer light chordal washes Guthrie stroked from his guitar. Wheeler thrummed chords and firmly plucked riffs propelled the more rhythmic passages, whilst Mäkinen used all manner of techniques to add percussive sounds which were often as much about adding colour as keeping time. He used brushes to create gently susurrating rhythm suggestive of waves or breeze, hit small pinging notes on a tiny bell or produced spiralling metallic sounds from a dangling sculpture which looked like the peeled skin of an aluminium apple.

Guthrie turned to his laptop between each song, his face lit by its pale glow as he switched to the next programme of sounds. The guitar here was electronic rather than electric, a means of triggering sounds which was far removed from any strutting rock gestures. The chords which he gradually layered together like delicate sheets of gold leaf lacked all attack, growing with a gentle sonic incline before slowly fading in whispering reverberations. Using a panoply of pedals to loop, echo and delay the sounds, Guthrie was sometimes left standing motionless in the bluish spotlight, contemplating the heavenly harmonic clouds he’d set to drifting around the room. He cut an avuncular figure, face characterfully rounded out with a fulsomely rustic beard, his guitar resting comfortably on a gentle tumulus swell of belly. He lacked a microphone, and wasn’t about to waste time chatting with the audience, but smiled benignly throughout, sipping appreciatively at a glass of red towards the end. At one point, the other two left the stage and left him on his own, creating a solo of quite stunning beauty, a slowly expanding ambient swell with seemingly infinite reverb which reminded me of moments of Charalambides or Jackie-O Motherfucker at their most expansive and ecstatic. To show that the music could also provide the basis for more standard song forms, support act Mark Gardener, ex-Ride front man, returned to perform a piece he’d written at Guthrie’s studios in France. It was a rousingly anthemic encore, leading into a final example of the trio at their most vigorous, which made you think that yes, this could be the basis of a great off-kilter dream pop band. But who needs that when you can enjoy such sublime instrumental textures on their own merits, without any unnecessary distractions.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Neil Innes at the Phoenix Arts Centre Exeter

The multi-faceted Neil Innes visited the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter last week, a man who can claim to be a founding Bonzo, honorary Python, compiler of the Innes Book of Records (release it on dvd, BBC!), amiable children’s TV presenter, ex-Rutle and current and full time Neil Innes, singer, songwriter, humourist, raconteur and clown. He played a solo show which embraced pretty much all of these multitudinous selves, ranging from cheerful vulguarity to more profound meditations on time and memory, truth and illusion. In keeping with his art school background and the strongly visual and theatrical aspect which was always a part of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, he was flanked by a couple of pieces of junk shop sculpture – readymades, to cite Duchamp or the Bonzo b-side to Mr Apollo. A distended hat stand angel of the north spread its arms to his left, head capped with a flying ace helmet and goggles, wingspan formed of copied tabloid front pages with screaming headlines mostly decrying the nefarious evildoings of asylum seekers. Innes christened it Icarus Allsorts (he’s takes a shameless pleasure in wordplay and tortuous punning), its newspaper wings destined to send it plummeting into the lower depths. On his right was a bicycle wheel mounted no a table, his Wheel of 4 Tunes. It blended another nod to Duchamp (via his bicycle wheel readymade) with game show randomisers (the fixed grin showbiz falsity of game show hosts having long been a target of the Innes/Python axis), a spin of the wheel by an audience member causing an arrow to point to one of four colours affixed to the spokes. This would indicate the colour of an envelope to be opened, with all due hushed anticipation, revealing which of four potential songs would be performed. The mixture of the childish, the populist and the cerebral which it represented summed up the polarities at play within Innes’ music and approach to life and art. The Bonzo Dog Band were originally the Dada Band, after all, the twinning of the 1920s children’s cartoon character with the absurdist early 20th century art movement neatly setting out their stall.

Innes retains a resolutely non-conformist outlook, which partly finds its expression in gleefully childish behaviour; Thumbing the nose is used as the secret club sign of his nascent ‘ego warrior’ movement and he gets the audience to blow a defiant group raspberry which rumbled through the tiers of seating. It’s a more honest form of rebellion than the eternally extended adolescence of rock, and is more true to the gadfly instinct at the heart of the anti-authoritarian impulse, the desire to mock the powerful and deflate the pompous in the most direct and playful manner. Innes’ childish absurdism also connects with an open-minded inquisitiveness, an ability to view the world with an imaginative clear-sightedness which untangles needless complexity whilst admitting of illogic, paradox and grim irony, sometimes with delight and sometimes sadness. He may not have sung How Sweet To Be An Idiot tonight, but it could stand as something of a signature song. Other numbers like Disillusioned and City of the Angels, which he did sing, voice discontent with the state of the world without ever descending into cynicism or nihilistic hopelessness and hyperbole. Disillusioned details the process of coming to see things as they really are, the narrowing down of vision which can come with knowledge and time (a literal disillusionment, or disenchantment, which means that ‘my eyes no longer play tricks on me’). City of Angels’ central image of a man shot by the police whilst reaching into his pocket to produce a card explaining his muteness was all the more horrifying for having derived from a news story Innes heard whilst staying in LA. The ‘paradise lost in the city of angels’ which it bleakly conveys was ironically counterpointed in musical terms by what he described as LA chords; those smooth, gliding progressions of major 7ths beloved of Joni and the Eagles.

City of Angels witnesses Innes at his angriest and most direct, his ironic couplets and wordplay comical only in the most desperate sense. Other songs dealt more obliquely with the passing of time, memory, regret and mortality – grand philosophical themes (or thinking about thinking, as he put it) which are also the stuff of universal human experience. Stealing Time was one such, which ‘takes a lifetime’ as the chorus gnomically points out. The wistful quality often found even in his comical songs draws on his love of clowns and clowning, and also of the great silent and early sound movie comedians. The raised eyebrows and cheeky side-smiles with which he accompanies certain lyrics definitely have something of the Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin about them, and he later paid tribute to the sublime silliness of Max Wall. His song Eye Candy updated Buster Keaton’s short The Cameraman for the multi-channel age, with its passive TV viewer finding himself inhabiting the worlds on the other side of the screen, making disorientating, channel-hopping jump-cuts between programmes, much as Buster did in his cinematic dream montage many years earlier. Innes ended his final pre-encore song by getting the audience to sing a Country Joe style cheer, spelling out SOD OFF. At which point he shuffled disconsolately towards the wings with the slump-shouldered and headhung pathos of an old pierrot clown, the odd pitiful backward glance inviting sympathy which was duly given in a series of ‘aaaahhs’.

Innes is also an expert pasticheur. He reminisced about the early days of the Bonzos, and their recording of a novelty song (My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies) at Abbey Road. The Beatles were putting together Revolver at the same time. Having heard the sound of George Harrison’s dense, pounding chord from I Want To Tell You forcefully echoing along the corridors, he had to go back to playing rinky dink piano on the silly 20s number they’d dusted off from a 78 unearthed in a junk shop (and he demonstrated the gulf between the two to amusing effect). Clearly his musical radar wavered more towards the future which George and the others were sounding out as opposed to the archaeological artefacts which he and his enthusiastically amateur cohorts were digging up from the past. He did sing a song drawing on the charmingly contrived rhymes of those corny old songs, though, which he accompanied on his ukulele, an instrument for which George showed an increasing fondness in his later years. Innes got to be the next best thing to a Beatle: a Rutle, and there was a splendid medley of Rutles songs which he played at the piano. He folded together choice extracts from the nostalgic Doubleback Alley; the psychedelic Good Times Roll (‘written after we’d discovered tea’, as he observed, and ending with a discordant swell full-stopped by a distinctly unresonant piano ping parodying the lengthy decay of the final Day In The Life chord); the McCartney bright Another Day, which includes the marvellous rhyming of pusillanimous with animus; and my favourite, the nonsense-filled Cheese and Onions (from the film Yellow Submarine Sandwich, of course), with its fantastic ‘do I have to spell out’ chorus (C.H.E.E.S.E. etc.). Unlikely as it may seem, this song was covered by the late ‘80s dream pop band Galaxie 500 (just as long running indie rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo covered the Bonzo’s Readymades in 2000). So his modern pop sensibilities been disseminated wide and far over the years, finding receptive ears in surprising places.

Another Rutles song provided the encore which, with typical subversion of conventional logic and order, came immediately after the interval. Shangri-La (originally a song from a 70s solo album) was included on the Rutles’ Archaeology LP, their response to The Beatles’ Anthology releases. It has a long fade-out chorus which combines elements of Hey Jude and All You Need Is Love, inducing a similar impulse to singalong in unison. It would indeed have been a good way to end it all, but for Innes, that would have been far too obvious and odiously showbiz. Protest Song, of the tunes randomly thrown up by the dada gameshow wheel, offered pastiche of another 60s musical titan, Bob Dylan. Prefaced by some hilarious comic fumbling with guitar strap and harmonica stand (which demonstrates that Innes is a skilful clown himself), and endless peg-twiddling tuning which only succeeded in returning to the same wincingly off-key note (‘I’ve suffered for my music, and now it’s your turn’, he warned us), this caught his Bobness circa ’65 (or perhaps one of his many subsequent imitators) with keenly observed accuracy, both vocally and lyrically. His harmonica solos were excruciating in a manner similar to his ‘ecstatic’ guitar solo on the Bonzo’s Canyons of Your Mind, a transcendent awfulness which could only be achieved by someone possessed with real musical talent and the ability to thoroughly abuse it. In his final song, Surly Morning Blues, his Roland keyboard provided the Beach Boys pastiche through a preset sound (another readymade?) which, he suggested, seemed to indicate that Brian Wilson was trapped inside (something on the order of the keyboard in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, perhaps). It produced some hilarious faux-vocalising, which he put to use with great comic timing.

As an acknowledgement of his various collaborations with Eric Idle in The Rutles, Rutland Weekend Television and Monty Python (as well as in Do Not Adjust Your Set, before they hit the big time) he sang his Philosopher’s Song (which he put forward as his most clever lyric). As originally sung by a professorial chorus of Bruces in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, its elucidation of the drinking habits of various famous philosophers provided a suitable way to herald the interval exodus to the bar. The Wheel of 4 Tunes also blessed us with Quiet Talks and Summer Walks, a Bonzo song from the Keynsham album (‘when the madness had set in’, Innes added with a touch of Vincent Price melodrama). It’s a gorgeous ballad sung from the perspective of a flower observing strolling young lovers passing by. Its Donovanesque surface of summer of love whimsy is underlaid with a more poignant reflection on time and love, which was in tune with the philosophical themes of the evening. It also provided the basis for a memorable Innes Book of Records film, with Innes going all Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and donning the guise of a giant daisy. The evening did in fact have a loose overall structure, without ever becoming too ‘slick’, as Innes put it with evident aversion to going through over-rehearsed routines. Random events (or mistakes) were still given space, and welcomed. A running theme had adds from his purported sponsors, ‘Fiasco Superstores’, intruding upon songs or forming interludes, a pop art device reminiscent of The Who Sell Out. The blue-striped Fiasco motif (now who could he be thinking of?) also extended to the banner hung above the merchandising stall outside.

There was also a deal of anecdotage, stories of Viv Stanshall, the Bonzos, George Harrison and others, with jokes thrown in along the way (I particularly liked his retelling of Barry Cryer’s Stannah Stairlift gag). They were all related with a natural ease and self-effacing warmth and wit, remembrances of someone who ‘went through the 60s and is now going through them again’. Some of his recent CDs have themselves provided a kind of aural set of memoirs. Such modesty leads him to praise the work of others, heroes and collaborators. He finished (before his non-encore encore) with a rendition of a routine which Max Wall used to end one of his shows, involving two sticks of rhubarb and two potatoes (here imaginary specimens). It was a hugely enjoyable from a consummate (but not too much) professional who can stand proudly amongst such company, thumb firmly pressed to nose. And as a bonus extra-mural encore, I got his jokes about air of freedom and freedom air (fruits de mer) and his satnav telling him about the mysterious Exeter Head on the way back home. The old brain’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Two Nights of Beckett at the Bike Shed

Last week I enjoyed two nights of Samuel Beckett plays at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, part of a Beckett-centric season entitled, presumably with a certain amount of irony, Winter Warmed. The first evening brought together four works, two from the latter part of the 50s and one each from the 60s and 70s. Connections and common currents became readily apparent, and it was evident that the programme had been chosen with great care and well-informed consideration. The first half consisted of readings of or from two plays written for radio: All That Fall (first broadcast on 13th January 1957) and Embers (broadcast 24th June 1959). They were both performed by members of local company The Uncommon Players, who have brought their productions to all corners of Devon (and beyond) both inside and out for many years now.

The actors dressed in character but read from their scripts, so this fell somewhere between a stage performance and a recreation of the conditions of a radio recording. It was a rare opportunity to see these works on stage, and would have been all the more unusual (and unlikely) in Beckett’s lifetime. Always particular about the way in which his plays were interpreted (to the letter being his preference), he even turned down a request by Ingmar Bergman to produce theatrical versions of All That Fall and Embers in 1963. Bergman’s interest in them points to an intriguing connection between their work, and makes you wonder at the extent to which Beckett’s plays informed Bergman’s films at this time (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence came out in 1961, 62 and 63), and influenced his progression towards a pared down, internally focussed modernism towards the end of the decade (Persona, Hour of the Wolf and especially The Rite).

Desmond Briscoe at the controls
The sound mixer played a most important part from his little corner, hunched over in the steely glow of his laptop. He produced the soundworld which is so central to these works. All That Fall in particular was instrumental in providing the impetus behind the formation of the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, the establishment of which Daphne Oram and others had been working so hard to achieve. Having been asked by BBC drama producer Donald McWhinnie to write a piece for radio, Beckett became enthusiastic about the possibilities of sound carefully and consciously employed as an integral part of the overall texture and meaning of the drama. Studio engineer Desmond Briscoe was brought in to realise the sonic directions in Beckett’s script. He was familiar with the work of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry at the RTF (the French national radio) studios in Paris, and their creation of what they termed musique concrète from the recorded sounds of the world (be they train whistles, human breaths, saucepan lids, spinning tops or any other of the sounds they used in early pieces). McWhinnie had even gone over to the studios to meet the two pioneering engineer/composers in preparation for the recording of Beckett’s play, and Douglas Cleverdon, another drama producer, had a particular interest in concrète sounds, having broadcast one of the earliest concerts of the new music, recorded at RTF, on the Third Programme in 1955. Briscoe’s subtle manipulation of the sound sources in All That Fall give them a slight unreal quality, giving them a sense of being at a remove from objective reality, sounds perceived through (or perhaps generated from) the mind of the play’s protagonist Mrs Rooney. All That Fall proved a big critical success, and the evident delight displayed by an artist of Beckett’s stature at the potential of the studio to bring new dimensions to his drama significantly furthered the case for an electronic music and sound effects department being established within the BBC. The Radiophonic Workshop would open a year later in 1958, with Desmond Briscoe soon becoming its head.

In the short extract of All That Fall performed at the Bike Shed, we didn’t get to hear some of the more startling effects, such as the long anticipated arrival of the train at Boghill Station. In the original broadcast, its hissing exhalations of steam and screeching of brakes were amplified and sculpted with echo, delay and feedback until it sounded like some great beast heralding approaching disaster. We did get to hear the establishing rural sounds of chickens and other farm animals. However, actual recordings were used in this case rather than the Percy Thrower-style human impersonations which began the original broadcast, again setting our perception of the world slightly askew. There was also a snatch of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, one of Beckett’s favourite pieces of music, which emanates from a run-down house which Mrs Rooney passes. She also cues the sound of a dove (‘leave me, listening to the sound of the ring doves’) which have previously gone unheard, once more suggesting that we are perceiving the world through the filter of her sensorium, and her mind, which occasionally retracts to experience a more inward reality. Gillie Stoneham, the actress playing Mrs Rooney, provides the heavy shuffling of feet which marks out her weary via dolorosa towards the station to meet her blind husband. The sound of effortful steps, measuring out distance and steady progress, recur in Embers and become the rhythmic focus of his late piece Footfalls.

Mrs Rooney is one of Beckett’s reflexive chatterers or self-dramatisers, like the half-buried Winnie in Happy Days, the similarly immobile Hamm in Endgame, and Henry in Embers. The latter is told that his daughter once asked ‘why does daddy keep on talking all the time?’ Unlike the relentlessly, defiantly cheerful optimism of Winnie, however, Mrs Rooney emphasises the negative to the point of positively relishing it. Her voluble suffering takes on a comical aspect, brought out particularly well in Stoneham’s performance, through its repeated and emphatic articulation, and later on (beyond the span of this extract) through her loud declarations of wounded dignity as she is manhandled like a piece of baggage or believes herself ignored. The physicality of existence is brought to the fore, as is its ongoing processes of erosion and decay. Christy’s cart piled high with dung which Mrs Rooney passes at the start of the play presents pungently earthy evidence of the trail of waste mounded up in the course of a life. She suggests he perch on top, mount his own dung throne from which he can be king of his own shitheap and survey the surrounding territory. Mrs Rooney’s struggle with her declining and ungainly physical form is both comic and tragic. It resembles a slowed down version of the battles with the intransigent matter of the everyday world which the great silent film comedians (Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy) would intently engage in at every turn. Indeed, there’s something Oliver Hardyesque about her, albeit in a female Irish incarnation. Beckett would go on to a rather uneasy collaboration with Buster Keaton in his 1965 film, reductively entitled Film, which made clear his debt at the same time as it demonstrated the unlikelihood of Keaton ever comprehending it. Mr Tylor’s bike, with its flat back tyre, and Christy’s stubbornly stationary hinny (the offspring between a female donkey and a male horse) are the first examples of the slowing down and disintegration of the substance of the world. Mrs Rooney encounters along them along her way to the station, and they can all be regarded as an extension of her own state. In the end, she joins with her blind, austere and miserly husband to retrace her steps back home. They become another of Beckett’s complementary pairings, abrasive but interdependent. They seem destined to retreat further inward, shutting out the world beyond their narrow twin orbit (‘we shall draw the blinds’, Mr Rooney says at the end) like Clov and Hamm in Endgame.

Buster Keaton in Film
Having had a mere morsel of All That Fall as a starter, we got to enjoy Embers in its entirety. This was another piece written for radio, once more produced by Donald McWhinnie for the BBC Third Programme and first broadcast on 24th June 1959, with Jack Macgowran in the principal role of Henry, and Patrick Magee providing the voice of the abusive music teacher. Macgowran and Magee were two of Beckett’s favourite actors and interpreters of his work. They appeared together in a 1964 production of Endgame, with Macgowran playing the servile Clov and Magee the dictatorial Hamm. Macgowran also played something of a Hamm-type character in Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, in itself a film greatly influenced by Beckett, Pinter and the theatre of the absurd, as the title makes clear. Macgowran’s 1966 LP of Beckett readings, which includes extracts from Embers and Endgame (and which I bought from the Exeter Oxfam music and art shop a couple of months ago) can be found on ubuweb. You can also hear his extraordinary performance in the original Embers there. It’s wrongly ascribed to Magee, and it’s true that Macgowran’s voice does indeed have the dolorous intonations of the Northern Irish actor here. Macgowran’s Henry speaks with an enervated whine, which makes it all the more shocking when he launches into a raw and full throated holler worthy of Captain Beefheart. The Uncommon Players’ Martin Reeve (who also directed both Embers and All That Fall) voiced Henry with a rather more forceful and bitter tone, his changes in register coming across as an amplification of his simmering resentment.

The sound in the original broadcast was again created by Desmond Briscoe, now as part of the Radiophonic Workshop a year after its opening. He gives the constant background susurration of the sea a burnished electronic aura. It sounds like the rising and falling hum and drone of electricity substations or pylon cables in the wind, producing an analogue imitation of human respiration. It gives an impression of a haunted half-world, a shore on the dividing line between life and somewhere beyond, the conscious and the unconscious mind. Henry feels compelled to tell the imagined shade of his dead father ‘that sound you hear is the sea’, going on to add ‘I mention it because the sound is so strange’. The Bike Shed engineer restricted himself to a more straightforward, unprocessed (unradiophonicised?) recording of waves breaking and receding along a pebbled shore. This continued throughout, occasionally asserting itself with a rise in volume before dying down into the background once more.

Footsteps here are lent a brittle reverb by crunch of shingle on the beach. In this production the sound was created live by Reeve, who shuffled his feet in a trayful of cat litter, or some such aggregate. This had the effect of pulling back the magician’s curtain and allowing us to see how the illusion was made. This literal disillusionment did offer an insight into the world of the foley artist, but, having noted it, it proved more effective to close one’s eyes after a while and recreate the original conditions of the radio (sounds coming out of the dark, as Beckett put it). Reeves’ Henry also followed his own barked out stage directions and stood or sat as ordered (‘down’ or ‘on’). The dramatic element was largely extraneous, although unavoidable in such a context.

The steady continuum of the waves’ inhalation and exhalation was contrasted by the odd intrusion of clattering hooves. These were cued by Henry, who raised his voice in a commanding, directorial manner. As with Mrs Rooney and her doves, this suggested a reality constructed within the mind as much as externally perceived. They sharply and unforgivingly delineated the passing moments with a succession of short, non-resonant sounds, Henry at one point wondering of a horse if it would be possible to ‘train it to mark time. Time and mortality is thus set against the eternal, the unceasing waves from which voices of the past emerge. From this ocean, both internal and external (the circulating tides of sea and blood) emerges Ada, Henry’s dead wife. She is voiced with distanced frailty by Gillie Stoneham, much palpably present than she was as Mrs Rooney in All That Fall. She sat at the back to the left, far apart from Henry, who was positioned slightly to the right of stage front centre, and the two never met each other’s abstracted gaze. Her voice was drained of all colour and tonal variation, sounding as if it were weakly tuned in from the aether, the signal likely to fade out at any moment. Beckett’s script specifies that she is to speak in a ‘low remote voice throughout’. She is one of the earlisst of a series of ghosts which inhabit Beckett’s twilight worlds. They are locked into repetitive actions and circumscribed orbits, raking over old memories indelibly stained with guilt. We were to encounter another such spectral figure, dressed in a nightshirt winding sheet, in A Piece of Monologue, and they also manifest themselves in late works like Footfall and Ghost Trio. The idea of souls trapped in purgatories or hells, inhabiting moments from the past in looped repetition is also found in Play (in which they are encased in large urns), which reflects Beckett’s lifelong love of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Breath, from 1969, was originally written as ironic introit to Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh Calcutta, his celebration of the decade’s sexual liberations which loudly promised plenty of onstage nudity. Beckett fell out with Tynan over what he saw as a failure to respect the integrity of his stage instructions. Since then, it has been seen (if at all) extracted from the specific context for which it was created. It bears some relation to the contemporaneous conceptual pranks of the Fluxus artists, or indeed of the Dadaists in the early decades of the century. In its paring down of the elements of theatre to their absolute bare essence, it is the most extreme of his works, and bears comparison with John Cage’s 4’33, the ‘silent’ piece which in fact comprises the sounds which fill silence and demonstrate its impossibility. It probably takes longer to read on the page than it does to witness. It begins with what Beckett describes as ‘an instant of recorded vagitus’. This means the cry of a newborn baby. The word derives from the Roman deity Vagitanus, the protector of the newborn who brings forth their first cry as they enter the world. The baby’s cry is immediately conjoined with a long indrawn breath and subsequent exhalation. It’s a concise encapsulation of the span of a life, a brief arc of birth, growth, decline and finally silence, and acts as a reductio ad absurdum of Beckett’s themes and preoccupations. Language is erased, completing the processes of editing and simplification to which he’d subjected in previous work, and expanding the pauses and silences which were a regular punctuation until they engulf everything else. The ‘miscellaneous rubbish’ scattered across the stage is a further instance of the material detritus which litters Beckett’s plays (and which Hamm discards at the conclusion of Endgame). The fading up and back down again of the theatre light (a naked bulb suspended above the audience in this case) reflects the importance of light and darkness in the plays. This is carried through into the next work, A Piece of Monologue, with its fading down of the light moments before the end, and also takes us back to the dying firelight of the dimly glowing coals in Embers. The birth cry morphing into the ascending inhalation of life and the declining exhalation leading to death also finds expression in the fist line of the Monologue, ‘birth was the death of him’.

The stage set up for this Breath followed Beckett’s instructions that there should be ‘no verticals’. This is the randomly accumulated junk of an unplanned life and should be inherently disordered (even the appearance of disorder requires conscious ordering). It looked like the kind of art installation which gets accidentally cleared away by the cleaners. Brown ribbons of magnetic tape were strewn around like drab or time-stained bunting. This was presumably a reference to Krapp’s Last Tape (which has been performed previously at the Bike Shed) and the medium through which its protagonist listens to his filed and indexed memories, recorded on spools which have here been unravelled and effectively erased. The silence following Breath was punctuated by a few disbelieving titters and tentative applause, which goes to show that it still has the power to provoke both ridicule and surprise. Its very brevity, and the greater amount of time which went into the preparation of its short span on the stage and its subsequent clearing away, made this a pointed and soberingly poignant 40 seconds or so.

A perhaps mildly disgruntled audience was obliged to file out after Breath had expired, having only just come into to hear its initial amplified filling of the lungs. When they returned (I’d sneakily remained lurking in the shadows at the back) the clutter was gone, replaced by a single dim globe of light in the centre of the stage. A man stood to the front left corner of the stage and began uttering the tattered sentences of his monologue. This was Les Read, a retired drama lecturer from Exeter University who was here putting his academic expertise to practical use. He took on the not inconsiderable challenge of performing the solo Piece of Monologue, which Beckett had first written for the English actor David Warrilow in 1979. The isolated narrator remains stock still throughout, the audience’s attention focussed directly upon him and away from the central globe of light which dimly casts its glow over him. He is a man who has retreated to the shadows at the margins, and that is the territory into which we are led.

The Monologue finds another spectral figure marking out the boundaries of a confined space, going through repetitive rituals involving the lighting and extinguishing of a wick-burning lamp. This unnamed character is a ghost fixed upon its unvarying track, and it’s possible that the grave he repeatedly recalls seeing is his own. The clearing away of Breath’s detritus can almost be seen as a thematic preparation for this piece. Our narrator talks of facing a blank wall from which pictures have gradually been torn to be left strewn over the floor in a shredded drift. They are memories stripped away to reveal the underlying blankness, and the complete isolation of the narrator’s ghostly half-life. As in Endgame, there is a window which looks out from the confined space of the room onto a world beyond. But it is an inaccessible world, mysterious and dark, ‘that black beyond’. The world has itself become immaterial, ghostly, and all is now compressed into this small room, life reduced to the habitual movements which are enacted within it. The concentration on the details of daily (or nightly) observances has a compulsive aspect to it which seems to be an attempt to block out painful recollection. Hence the repeated phrase ‘he all but said of his loved ones’, a drawing back from emotional articulation or specific memory. An intriguing extra element inadvertently introduced on this night was the intrusion of the prompter on the odd occasion when Reed came to a halt (and aside from these few instances, his performance was exemplary). This was understandable, given the dense, repetitive nature of the language, composed of short phrases with few definite articles and laid out on the page in a solid block of text. Whilst his presence was obviously a matter of practicality, the prompter became a voice from the outer darkness penetrating the narrator’s isolation, prodding him on to continue when he showed signs of fading. A semi-divine force or perhaps just an attempt at human contact, its gentle Devonian accent suggested a benevolent attempt to break through. This definitely positioned it as an invasive presence in Beckett’s universe, a sentimental element which he would never have allowed. With the dying of the light at the end, the evening came to a close.

Endgame with Patrick Magee
The following night, the Uncommon Players returned under the directorship of Anthony Richards to perform Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame, one of the two works (alongside Waiting for Godot) for which he is best known. This takes place within another confined and circumscribed world, a featureless room with two windows at the back which might be a bunker sheltering its inhabitants from a post-apocalyptic world, or might be the cavern of a skull, with twin sockets gaping outwards. The attachment of specific meaning in terms of character, place or metaphorical meaning is not encouraged. At one point Hamm, one of the characters, tentatively enquires ‘we’re not beginning to…to…mean something?’, which raises a brief laugh from his companion (other half?) Clov, and a dismissive ‘ah that’s a good one’. Hamm also offers a few pieces of pre-emptive auto-criticism throughout, remarking that ‘this is deadly’, and later hopefully observing that ‘things are livening up’.

The main two characters, Clov and Hamm, are another of Beckett’s double acts, complementary foil who are also inseperable halves of a symbiotic whole. Clov is ostensibly the servile, active aspect, although his mobility is pained and effortful in the standard Beckett manner. His derivation from the old silent comedians is to be found in the repeated comic business which requires him constantly to shuffle back and forth, reaching his destination before having to return and retrieve forgotten stepladders or spyglasses. He was played by Philip Robinson with an end of tether edginess. But there was also an underlying pitifulness, a broken quality which suggested that his resentment at his servility would never be translated into actual rebellion, no matter how many times he might say ‘I’ll leave you’. Hamm is the intellectual aspect of this dual character, blind and immobile in his moveable chair (not moveable by him, however, as several attempts demonstrate). His is a dictatorial mentality (his chair a director’s seat) given to endless questioning and speculation. As played by David Watkins, he was curt and rude (often amusingly so) with an aristocratic assumption of superiority. But he also had a wheedling side which acknowledged his total dependency on Clov. His manner reminded me a little of Jim Broadbent in the films of Mike Leigh. In this production, he sat in an armchair mounted on a pallet, like a makeshift dais, which gives him an air of wasteland regality. Clov and Hamm are both stained with filth. Clov wears an extremely grubby white vest, and Hamm begins with blood and god knows what else stained handkerchief shrouding his face. Both have the look of decay about them.

Taking physical and mental decrepitude to an even greater extreme are the two other characters, initially hidden, Nag and Nell, Hamm’s ‘accursed progenitors’. They appear, faces dusted a deathly white, from two cylindrical rubbish bins (battered oil drums in this production) in which they mostly remain sedately ‘bottled’, resting on their stumps. Nag appears most often, and is reduced to a creature of simple appetite, calling for his ‘pap’. Their vagueness (reminiscent of Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister in The Goon Show) resolves into sharper focus only when familiar memories or oft told stories are rehearsed once again. As played by Jan Hookway and Eddie Holden, they were touchingly frail and half-present, more ghosts living in reiterated fragments of the past. Nell and Nagg’s confinement, stuffed into their bins with the lids screwed down, is similar to the fates suffered by other Beckett characters: Winnie buried up to her waste (and in the second half, her neck) in Happy Days, and the three protagonists of Play, stored in large urns from which only their heads protrude. Beckett’s love of Dante once more comes through in such purgatorial images of entrapment.

Nell and Nagg’s bins shrink the boundaries of the world to an even narrower circumference. The idea of confining cylinders or other hollow, imprisoning forms, is a recurrent one in Beckett’s work, and was evidently one which played on his imagination. Similar set ups can be found in his stories The Lost Ones, in which 200 people live in a cylindrical silo, Ping, in which one person lives a monadic existence in a small white cube, and All Strange Away, which features a white rotunda in which two people lie back to back. Rod Serling used a similar idea in the Twilight Zone episode Five Characters in Search of an Exit, whose title clearly alludes to the theatre of the absurd and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Here, five archetypal characters – a ballerina, an army major, a clown, a tramp and a highland piper – awake to find themselves inside a towering cylinder with no doors. They have no memory of who they are or why they might be here. A fantasy rationale is provided in the end (not a very comforting one, however), but the atmosphere throughout is redolent of Beckett and the theatre of the absurd (as indeed are a good many other Twilight Zone episodes). Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 science fiction film Cube, in which 6 characters wake up to find themselves in a structure comprising interlocked cube-shaped rooms primed with a variety of deadly traps, is similarly Beckettian in its premise, and remains true to such influences by refusing to offer any concrete rationale which would place this netherworld within a fixed moral or political framework.

The room in Endgame is thoroughly explored, and the world beyond observed at regular intervals. Hamm insists that Clov takes him on a tour ‘right round the world’, and he is heaved from one wall to the other on his portable pallet before being parked back in exactly the same central spot from which they had set out. The windows look out onto a wider universe, one affording a view of the earth, and one of the ocean; one the realm of waking life, the other the depths of the unconscious. Such a clear division is open to any number of symbolic interpretations – or none at all. As Clov repeatedly explains, both are equally devoid of life or motion (no waves rippling the surface or winds blowing the dust), the world having sunk into an entropic flattening out of form in preparation for its final fading away. The Bike Shed proved the perfect place to stage Endgame. Its vaulted, underground space needed little adaptation to give it the feel of Hamm’s bunker, and a back wall with windows was there ready to use. Bright lights shone directly through them gave an impression of arid lifelessness beyond with the simplest of means. The fact that the small theatre was tightly packed with a capacity audience added to the sense of airless claustrophobia generated by the play – rather too effectively, in fact – I was glad to get out into the cold night air afterwards. It was a fine production by the Common Players, and it was great to see it attracting such a wide and appreciative audience. The Bike Shed continues to go from strength to strength. Long may it continue.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Ida Kar and Women In Art at Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery

Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery is currently showing a selection of Ida Kar’s photographic portraits of post-war artists and writers under the title Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer. The description could equally well suit her or her subjects. The 40 or so pictures are drawn from the major retrospective held at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011, which did much to bring her back to public attention after her star had waned in the wake of the sixties. They add up to a fascinating composite portrait of the times.

Kar’s full name was Ida Karamanian, the surname indicative of her Armenian heritage. She trimmed the tail off at some point, donning her bohemian artistic persona by creating a monicker of intriguing ambiguity and impactful brevity. It looks like it should be an anagram (Arkadia, perhaps). Her formative years found her exposed to a cosmopolitan variety of cultures and climates. She was born in Russian in 1908, where she spent her childhood, before moving to Egypt and the ancient city of Alexandria. Her first taste of the bohemia to which she would surrender herself came through her studies in Paris, where she enjoyed the left bank life from 1928-9. At this point, she wanted to be a singer, perhaps influenced by the chansonniers of the day like Damia and Fréhel. In the 30s, having moved back to Egypt, married and set up home in Cairo, she became increasingly interested in photography, however. She had briefly worked as an assistant to a photographer in 1935 and learned the techniques and processes involved, and established her own studio in Cairo. Interestingly, the photographer Lee Miller was also living in Cairo at this time, having also married an Egyptian man. Perhaps they met. It was in the 1940s that she met Victor Musgrave, who had been posted to Egypt during the war. He was a poet and painter with a surrealist bent, and also an editor, art critic and, later on, a gallery owner and curator. They fell in love and lived in the Old Town, the bohemian quarter of Cairo, before getting married in 1944 after Ida’ divorce had come through.

They moved to London in 1945, initially living in a Close off Regents Park before moving to an old Victorian terraced house at 1 Litchfield Street, a small conduit linking Charing Cross Road with St Martin’s Lane. The ground floor was taken up be a gallery owned by the painter John Christoforou, which Musgrave helped to run. Ida set up a photographic studio on the top floor. Their new home was a short hop from Soho, and they were soon immersed in the bohemian life, artistic and otherwise, of its narrow streets, clubs and watering holes. Ida was sociable, outgoing and loquacious, and very generous with her time. She surrounded herself with friends and acquaintances, some of whom came to stay in Litchfield Street, which was effectively an open house, the gallery a meeting space and the flat a lodging room for itinerant artists. Some of these also became her lovers, since neither she nor Musgrave saw their marriage in terms of monogamous sexual fidelity. Whilst her strident character and uncensored opinions meant that she was not always an easygoing or relaxing companion, she showed a genuine interest and dedication to her expansive circle of friends. She was quite the opposite of her contemporary John Deakin, another photographic chronicler of Soho life and sometime contributor of celebrity shots for Vogue. He, by all accounts (and you can read about both him and Kar in Barry Miles’ history of the capital’s post-war counterculture London Calling) was a duplicitous parasite and poisonous stirrer. Kar took no active part in the artistic life of the capital and was ignorant of contemporary currents, seemingly uninterested in what was going on in the worlds of art, theatre or literature. This curious disconnection may actually have worked to her advantage, since she approached her subjects as individuals and working people, irrespective of their achievements (or lack of them). She took photographs of people who were part of her life, who happened to be artists, writers and musicians, and through them gained introductions to others who agreed to have their portraits taken. Jacob Epstein, one of the elders of British art, who lived in the area, was particularly helpful in this regard. She took a number of pictures of him in his studio whilst he was working on a sculpture of the actress Elizabeth Keen in 1951, one of which is included here.

The exhibition in Plymouth is divided into three geographical groupings. The largest naturally comprises the London pictures, which range from the 1951 Epstein portrait to a striking photograph of Bridget Riley taken in 1963, in which she is enfolded between the op-art striations of her own paintings. Riley had met Musgrave by chance in 1961 whilst she was passing the gallery which he now owned. This was Gallery One, which had taken its name from the number of the house in Litchfield Street where it first opened in 1953, after Christofours had departed for other shores. By the time of this fortuitous encounter, however, it had moved to smarter premises in Mayfair. Riley happened to be carrying a portfolio of her work, Musgrave took a look, liked it and gave her the first major exhibition of her career. Kar captures her at this early point, before her eye-dazzling graphic style was adopted as one of the defining looks of the decade. Other artists tend to be photographed in their studios, thus granting us a fascinating glimpse into the working spaces (and works in progress) of the likes of sculptors Henry Moore, Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler, and painters Ivon Hitchens, Sandra Blow, Keith Vaughan and John Piper. An exception here is a portrait of Graham Sutherland with his wife Katherine relaxing in their Kent home in front of a whitewashed fireplace, a couple of his paintings casually propped on the mantelpiece above. Yves Klein is posed with one of his sponges hovering above his head like a thought bubble or a tethered brain balloon, its intense blue transformed into inky photographic monochrome. Stanley Spencer sits beneath a black umbrella even though he’s indoors. Its canopy echoes the moppish bowl of his hair, and it lends him an air of added eccentricity as he looks out from its protective shadow with a mildly inquisitive regard. His suit is shabby and flecked with chalk or paint, a pencil sticking out of its breast pocket, and an old jumper covers a frayed shirt with tie loosely knotted beneath a collar unbuttoned and askew. He is a picture of distracted unworldliness, the archetypal artist immersed in their work to the point of self-neglect. John Piper, on the other hand, stares into the camera eye with an intense, transfixing and rather dolorous stare, tie firmly knotted and top button done up. He is the artist as serious labourer as opposed to Spencer’s dishevelled daydreamer. Behind him we can see a model for a ballet set he was working on, which may be the one which now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s theatre and performance galleries.

There’s a selection of photographs from two trips to France. The first was made in 1954, with some of the resultant portraits included in her 40 Artists from London and Paris exhibition at Gallery One. Man Ray looks a little irritable posing in front of his 1952 painting Mademoiselle H. Arch-modernist architect Le Corbusier shows his artistic side, leaning on a desk full of sketches, with paintings stacked up behind him, looking out at us through the thick black circles of his spectacles with a crow-like regard. Marc Chagall, who you'd expect from his paintings to be open and full of joy, appears nervous and defensive, looking to one side rather than meeting the eye of the lens. His hands seem gnarled and painful. Albert Giacometti, who you'd think from his sculptures would be full of nervous angst, cheerfully perches on wooden steps outside his studio. Fernand Leger, on the other hand, looks glum and downcast in a cap. The the old Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini strikes a distinctly deadpan pose and looks postively Ivor Cutlerish way in a newspaper hat, fruit and croissants temptingly set out behind him.

Kar went back to France in 1960 in order to take some more photos for the exhibition of her work being prepared for the Whitechapel Gallery. This would be one of the first major photographic exhibitions to be presented in an art gallery in Britain, and was a significant recognition of her achievements. She had been greatly assisted in setting up the show by John Kasmin, whom she and Musgrave had met in 1956, and who became their lodger, gallery assistant and later Ida’s business manager. He would go on to open his own art gallery in Bond Street in 1963, which became one of the most important of the 60s, exhibiting paintings by the likes of David Hockney, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Robin Denny, Howard Hodgkin. During her 1960 French trip, Kar shot Andre Breton, one of the founding fathers of surrealism, behind his desk, which is engulfed in letters and papers. There are paintings by Picasso and de Chirico on the wall, and African or Oceanian masks and carvings on every available surface. Georges Braque leans on a chair amongst his paintings, an amused look in his eye, whilst Jean Arp stands at his sculptor’s table, chisel in white-gloved hand.

Following the success of her Whitechapel show, Kar travelled down to St Ives to capture some of the artists at work in the far corner of the South West. Subjects included here are Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon (a charmingly informal shot with his daughter on his shoulder), Bryan Wynter with his wife Monica and son, Patrick Heron, potter Bernard Leach, sculptor Denis Mitchell and Barbara Hepworth, who warrants two pictures. In one, Barbara Hepworth at Work on the Armature of a Sculpture, she is neatly framed by the curling wire and mesh frame of her own work. The St Ives artists’ portraits are accompanied by an example of their work from the Plymouth museum collection, as are some of the London artists. Hepworth’s Constellation from 1973 is one of her white, smoothly rounded marble forms with a hole through its centre, which invites a caressing touch but is unfortunately encased in glass. Bryan Wynter’s Oceanic II from 1963 evokes the Cornish sea with a series of blue brushstroke currents and swells. Patrick Heron’s Six in Light Orange with Red in Yellow silhouttes cut out red shapes against yellow backrounds to dazzling effect. Stanley Spencer’s portrait gives the museum the excuse to get out the painting he made of allotment gardens on the Plymouth Hoe in 1955 (Hoe Garden Nursery). John Piper’s connection with the city is made through a sketch for one of the stained glass windows he designed for the post-war restoration of St Andrews Church. This was for the East window in the Lady Chapel, and incorporated various symbols such as the Marian rose (the rose without thorns, an ivory tower, a grail, lilies, a serpent, a golden gate and, at the apex, a shining star, all set against a deep blue background. I got to have a look at Piper’s beautiful windows later, thanks to the kind auspices of a warden who let me nose about even though the church was technically open only for the choir practice which was going on. Thankfully, the sun was out, so I was able to witness them in their full radiant glory.

Kar continued to work throughout the 60s, but sadly, her mental state grew hazy as the decade drew to a close. Her relationship with Musgrave ran its course and the marriage ended. As loosely defined and noncommittal as it may have appeared, her connection with her husband was an important one for her, and when it was severed, she drifted. Her bohemian friends largely abandoned her, converging on the latest bright figure or new scene, revealing the less appealing side of the counterculture, its fickleness and sometimes ruthless self-regard. She died in the bedsit to which she had been reduced in 1974. Musgrave went on to become a collector of outsider art produced by the mentally ill or those whose existed on the fringes of society, an interest perhaps partly influenced by his former wife’s decline. Kar’s reputation has experienced a revival in recent years, however, and the National Portrait Gallery now holds a significant collection of her work, from which this exhibition is drawn. It continues until 13th April.

A Hamadryad - John William Waterhouse
The museum also currently has an exhibition focussing on women both as artists and as artistic subjects. This has some interesting paintings and objects, including a sketch for Millais’ Ophelia, with poor Lizzie Siddal as its sodden subject, lying for hours in tepid bathwater. It’s the archetypal Victorian image of passive suffering and self-sacrificing womanhood. For the concomitant image of woman as mysterious temptress and aloof mythological embodiment of otherness we can turn to the adjacent painting A Hamadryad by John William Waterhouse, he of Lady of Shallott fame. This has the nude wood nymph entwined in the roots, vines and ivy of her tree, her upward tending shock of hair continuous with the dark foliage. She looks down at the wee faun playing his panpipes all unawares. The red umbrella of a toadstool stands out amongst the woody browns and greens, and presumably symbolises some poisonous temptation which we are to associate with her, rendering her sinister and dangerous. A portrait of Mrs Mortimer Collier and Family painted by John Collier in 1879 presents his wife in a dark Victorian domestic interior, dressed in sombre black velvet and almost literally an object for the children to play with. She sprawls on the couch whilst they tease out her absurdly long hair, which seems to reach down to her feet. A later portrait by Collier from the 20s, this time of a Mrs Osborne, presents a striking contrast. She is dressed in the practical fashions of the age, has short wavy hair wrapped in a headscarf and is clearly about to go out.

An Aerial View of Plymouth and Environs - Dorothy Ward
Of the women artists on display, Dorothy Ward’s large canvas An Aerial View of Plymouth and Environs really stands out, not least because of its monumental scale. It presents a fascinating glimpse of the pre-war city, and set it within a wider landscape, leading back to rolling hills and moorland peaks, with a church perched on top of one such at the back, like an object of pilgimage. The winding roads and rivers invite imaginative exploration of city and country, much as the maps in the flyleaves of a Tolkeinesque fantasy trilogy. It reminds me of the similarly expansive (if somewhat smaller) illustrations of the Scottish city of Unthank (an imaginary version of Glasgow) in Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. You can read a bit more about Ward here. Also here are Therese Lessore’s naturalistic, informal 1921 painting Cook, a portrait of a woman at work. Lessore’s painting particularly impressed Walter Sickert. As Matthew Sturgis writes in his biography of the artist, Sickert observed that ‘by “some strange alchemy of genius”, the essential being and movement of her subjects – not models, but real people doing real things – were “torn from them and presented in ordered and rhythmical arrangements of the highest technical brevity and beauty”, fixed by the “cold and not unkindly malice of her vision”’. His enthusiastic promotion later helped her sell her first painting, and he was evidently impressed with her on a personal level too, since he married her in 1926. Unfortunately, his reputation and increasing dependence on her (she was 25 years his junior) led to the eclipse of her own artistic development. It was only in the few years left to her after his death in 1942 (she died in 1945) that she was able once more to explore her own creative avenues.

Pastel Autumn Balloon Trees - Clarice Cliff
One of Clarice Cliff’s pieces of porcelain tableware is on display, a sugar sifter (whatever that might be) produced in 1930 with a typically colourful design, the title perhaps appropriately sounding like one of Donovan’s sunny psychedelic songs – Pastel Autumn Balloon Trees. Margaret Lovell’s 1970 sculpture Jib solidifies the wind formed curve of a sail, its surfaces rough and blackened, leaving the polished bronze to gleam along the edges, outlining it in light. June Miles’ 1966 painting Clifton Park takes the colours and fascination with neglected urban corners of the Camden Town group and transfers them to Bristol. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Card Table, from 1967-9, uses its subject matter as an excuse for an essentially abstract scattering of square forms, with varying shades of red, grey or green, against larger rectangular divisions. It’s a small scale and interior kind of abstraction, very different from the sort of thing she’d been doing in St Ives, inspired by the sea and the Cornish landscape, or the grand series of paintings she produced in the early 50s, complex interpenetrating concatenations of icy blue planes which drew on her observations of glaciers in the Swiss Alps. She continued to paint into old age, producing abstract works, often on paper, up until her death in 2004.

Waiting by Prunella Clough
Waiting by Prunella Clough is a late picture from 1991, by which time she had long turned her back on the industrial, dockside and urban landscapes with which she had made her name in the post-war period. This large semi abstract work retains a certain air of concrete surrounds with the abraded greys of its surfaces, however. The figure on the left is half way between human and plant form, something which has become a part of its environment (and whose slightly slumped, immobile posture presumably gives rise to the title). The bell-like head could be a rain hat or the cap of a toadstool, the spindly legs the spreading shoots of tubers. The central vertical eye of the body (a shape suggestive of the feminine) has the spectral sheen of an abalone shell, a pulsating heart of chromatic life within the pervasive grey. Other organic forms and patterns are foggily suggested behind this figure, and you can almost make out the lines of an elderly face beneath the dark, shapeless mass heavily pendant from the top of the frame. Or perhaps this is just pattern recognition derived from the weathered cracks and ridges of granite or concrete, indicative of the desire to find familiar form in the abstract. The exhibition continues until November.