Monday, October 05, 2015

'An age when we treat art as autobiography' and blog our diaries...

To live is the greatest thing in the world ~ most people merely exist.
Oscar Wilde is probably the most quoted playwright after Shakespeare, though not many know his passionate plea for reform in an England he saw as repressive of individualism and morally hypocritical: The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
Many of his best known maxims and bonne mots are found in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. bringing both an opportunity & a problem to any stage adaptation: how to string these pearls of familiar wit together without sounding more like a parlour game than a dramatic relationship.  European Arts Company brought their highly-praised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray to Merlin Theatre, with some cast changes, in the final month of their long tour.  It's a terrible story: a young man possessed of everything superficially valued ~ youth, beauty, & wealth ~ looks at a painting of himself and impulsively wishes he could be always perceived that way, thus accidentally initiating a Faustian pact he can never reverse. Under the influence of a jaded aristocrat he falls into increasing decadence, but the ravages caused by his corruption and crimes are all held secretly by the painting in the attic until the dramatic climax.  (A slightly bizarre set came into its own for that haunting moment.)
Lord Henry of course has the best lines, expressing Wilde's own view that We are in the native land of the hypocrite as well as cynical maxims: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."  There's humour too in the staging, with four actors taking on eighteen roles ~ Ben Higgins particularly entertaining as a dowager duchess and sleazy theatre manager. Guy Warren-Thomas is the motherless youth doomed by a moment of vanity, Helen Keeley plays Sybil, first step on his downfall. Adaptation by Merlin Holland and John O'Connor, directed by Peter Craze.
Back at Merlin Theatreand still in the 19th Century, on Saturday for very different saga from Angel Exit TheatreThe Ballad of Martha Brown, the story of the last woman hanged in Dorset, is quite simply the most enthralling show I've seen for a while. Immensely slick physical theatre, great live music, superb lighting, amazing set, props & costumes, imaginative direction, tight script without a syllable of unnecessary exposition, and five actors who swung the mood from furiously funny to shocking savagery in seconds. That's quite a list, and to that you can add great foyer dressing creating a macabre fairground atmosphere from the start. The public hanging of Martha Brown made headlines in 1867 and attracted a huge audience, including 16 year old Thomas Hardy who later wrote I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back. Like all good plays, when the entertainment is over it leaves you reflecting on the extraordinary human capacities for cruelty, and love.

The new exhibition at Black Swan, in the gallery and Round Tower, is Step in Stone, part of a six month project with the old & disused quarries surrounding Frome.  As succinctly put by Mayor Kate Bielby opening the show on Friday: "Quarries are part of our heritage and this project brings together the industrial history, natural landscape, and immense creative talent of this town." Immense in scope too: massive credit to Fiona Campbell and all the artists and musicians ~ it's a fantastic project involving art inspired by every aspect of quarry history from rock strata to wild life.  And on Sunday the resultant show inspired writing too: after the Independent Market (as usual a feast of artisan goodies with some great busking) the much-respected poet Stephen Boyce joined Words at the Black Swan group to lead an excellent session ~ results will be on our group webpage soon.
With events layering up like the fillings in Flora's signature bakes, I missed Leander Morales' concert on Saturday but did get to hear some great music this week, including the new Music Club on Tuesday in the Grain Bar (what do you mean, Frome doesn't need another music night? of course we do) ~ then back after the theatre on Wednesday for marvellous Feral Beryl at the Grain Roots Session. I arrived in time to hear their memorable a cappella version of your children are not your children, and Gemma White's stonking fiddle in Take Me To My Wake Before I Die. 
Then on Thursday ~ this is beginning to sound like an old Craig David song ~ Sara Vian launched her EP at the Three Swans, and the week ended at Cooper Hall (a fine concert hall & striking sculpture garden) with fantastic Frome band Dexter's Extra Breakfast supporting O'Hooley & Tidow, a terrific duo and 'one of British folk's mightiest combinations' according to Mojo, Radio 2, and even Billy Bragg.  They deserve their 5 star reviews and every accolade for their 'sublime musicality and cheeky northern banter' and for dedicating their song Like Horses to Tony Benn with the quote "If we can spend money to go to war then we can spend money to help people." Which neatly bring me back to Oscar Wilde's plea for socialism as a way to free every individual to personal fulfillment, so I'll end with SaraVian's echo of his belief we can all look to the stars: "Everyone has a gift within, we have to find it and go for it."

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