Friday, November 21, 2014

Business Breakfast, by Mark Neal


When Sarah said a friend from home 
was starting at college, I didn't know 
that the faceless figurine would hex and intrigue me 
for years to come. 
If I'd sensed that this was so, 
I would have asked, 'What's she like?' 
As it happened, I just said 'oh' 
and set off on my bike. 

When Sarah said her friend from home
was nineteen, five foot two, blonde and slim, 
I became more interested, and some
unlikely scenarios flashed through my mind.
Although most of her features were dim, 
all the necessary bits were there - 
lips and hips, and, light as a whim, 
fine free flowing hair. 

When Sarah said her friend from home
was coming round for tea and staying the night, 
I looked down at the dishes, covered in foam,
and thought at last this abstraction
was coming to life. 
But I felt strange, not quite right
as I wiped another plate, 
sensing that on Friday night
the other guest was Fate. 

When Sarah said her friend from home
was at the door, I nearly died
and cursed the fact that I hadn't a comb, 
and looked more zero than de Niro.
I stood still, defeated and sighed, 
for the girl I longed to meet
was already there, already inside, 
and I had no socks on my feet.

When Sarah said her friend from home
had just come back from hols, 
and that she'd been offered a job in Rome,
Alison - yes Alison - slumped onto a chair; 
and flicking back her hair the way
only certain girls can do, 
she said she'd had a hideous day, 
because of you know who. 

When Sarah slurred she was off her head,
Alison called her a drunken tart, 
and cried that she couldn't believe what she'd said
about her fancying her brother Mark. 
- But he's only just eighteen, 
she said and poured herself another drink, 
- I didn't know you were keen.
Now I don't know what to think. 

As wine decreased, two people changed;
one made flesh, one deranged. 
The book was writ, the canvas filled. 
I was smitten, bitten, thrilled. 

When Sarah yawned and said her friend
could crash on the sofa and use the duvet by the door,
I sensed it was the end;
the chances of copping off now were poor.
So there we remained, too close in a lift,
with only each other to inspect. 
Resigned, I thought this chance, this gift
was irredeemably wrecked. 

And so we sat like rival cats,
with damp wallpaper peeling;
until we heard the Boomtown Rats
thumping through the ceiling.
Alison smoked, and sipped her red, 
and talked about Italian wine,
and how men wanted her in bed. 
I smiled and wished her into mine. 


We laughed a lot in the Eighties. 
Whereas others wrung their hands
about weighty matters, stuff about the Falklands, 
we drank cider from plastic glasses, 
and talked about drugs and bands. 
We had snogs, affairs, romances;
waved to each other across the bar
like sodden, smoking little cancers.

Standing cackling in our gowns
on the burning, beaten lawn, 
we licked the speed from our teeth. 
Our folks paid for the rounds. 

And when they finally fucked off home, 
we staggered to the Unicorn. 
As the pub began to spin, 
to some dire song by Magazine,
Thea Burns all scent and sweat
asked me back to hers. 
As you passed us by the door, 
I stared hard at the floor. 

We bought our suits, 
and learned to say "Could I have a word?"
We learned that friendships fade away,
drank pinot and chardonnay.
Chat became more issues-based.
Colleagues smirked and talked of work;
mortgage, car - less speed, more haste. 

We kept in touch. You met a bloke. 
A spark called Mike who seemed alright 
but then again he liked a fight; 
a stringy man who spoke of bikes, 
using words like bitch and poke. 

The invitation on cream card
was embossed, expensive. 
I'd met your parents only once. 
Nice people. Teachers. 
Their names in gold, like patrons of a charity; 
Mike the Bike called Mr Michael Moor. 
To see him linked to you in gilt all seemed rather cheap;
when in the project, I still keep, 
we’re bound on a page of A4.


My mother phoned me up that day,
- Your father's going in again.
I couldn't find a thing to say
to cheer her up, to make light when
she sobbed for her dear man.

My father's going in today,
going in to get it out;
claims he's fine in every way,
packs away a can of stout
as mother sobs for her dear man.

- You alright? I said to her,
through the line, the empty line
and thought of times when life was fair
as she croaked, Oh I'll be fine.

- Would you like to talk to him?
she asked within a fragile breath,
- Please, I said, and thought how grim
the passage is from life to death.

- H'loo, he said in that light way,
he used on us when we were young.
- Hi, I said and tried to stay
the sense that what was right was wrong.

- Don't you worry. It's routine,
my failing father said to me.
- As you know, I've never been
afraid of mice or surgery.

In the end, he said that he
would see me in a week or two.
I replied - OK, then we
can find that car for Auntie Sue.

He said Bye, and that was that.
I hung on to the hissing line,
half-hoping he'd resume our chat,
and say that everything was fine.

I felt empty, cold and dim,
and thought should I have used the call
to tell him what I thought of him;
that I loved him warts and all.

Instead I sat and thought of ways
he'd helped me through my darkest years,
how his advice and his OKs
had stopped the rot and dried my tears.

These empty hours haunt me still
with thoughts of what I could have done,
if I'd possessed an ounce of will -
if I had been a better son.


The elders are praying and burning herbs. 
The women are silent and constantly eating. 
The men are strutting, each prouder than the other. 
The sky is as blue as the sea. 

The army is two days away,
chopping down people and trees in equal proportions. 
Bloody foreigners. Who do they think they are?
I mean, things were going so well. 
A house. Sprog on the way. 
Who could ask for more?
Now that's all gone. 
The funny thing is, I don't even care. 
Of course, boyfriend's useless. 
He looks distracted and there's a shrill tone to his voice. 
He's looking forward to it all. 
At least there's some glory in his death;
Mine's a gangbang and a stabbing. 
Boyfriend knows that, and it spoils it for him. 
I think he's jealous. 

The elders are praying and burning herbs. 
We women are silent and constantly eating. 
The men are strutting, each prouder than the other. 
The sky is as blue as the sea.


I'm sick of life.
I want to die.
The gods have kicked me in the eye.
I'm going grey,
and yesterday
I told my wife another lie.

I like Sue,
and she likes me,
but now that she is forty three,
her looks have fled
and so our bed
is but a field of duty.

I do want sex,
but not with her.
I want it with a teenager.
Somebody who kisses me
and talks about her ex.

I hate my job;
It's killing me.
I should have been an actuary.
Loads of dosh and flexi time
and offices in Camberley.

I want to leave it all behind -
Start afresh, move ahead.
But my wife is good and kind.
She talks to me when we're in bed,
and soothes me with her hugs.

And so I get up every day.
I go to work and grin.
I phone up men I do not know
and say, Well how you been?
And they reply, Oh can't complain
or, It's OK except the rain.

I trap the mobile with my chin,
and tap in numbers as they speak.
On the screen, figures flash
and lines meet at a peak.
I do some sums in my head
and work out the commission cash.

After work I meet the gang
at the usual bars.
We talk of women, work and beer
and the speed of cars.
We laugh out loud and take the piss
and ask, Why are we doing this?

I punch the numbers on my phone
and tell the wife that I'll be late.
She wraps my meal in silver foil,
and eats hers alone.

When I return, I watch the box
and drink a glass of wine.
Sue complains about my socks,
and asks about my day at work.
I say it's been fine.

She yawns and pecks me on the cheek,
and says she's off to bed.
I pour myself another drink,
and hum Simply Red.

I watch a politician lie
and nod with every word.
I sigh as skinny people die,
in some disgusting ward.
I see a girl with puckered lips
run her hands along her hips.

When Sue has safely gone to bed,
I sit and surf through different things -
men on men, two on a girl,
stuff with whips and cuffs and rings.
I watch until my belly curls
and then I wish that I were dead.

As I slip in next to Sue,
I think of things I'd like to do -
win the lotto, write a book;
fuck and fuck and fuck and fuck.
As my wife begins to snore,
I think that life is such a con.
As she grunts and gasps for air
I feel I can't go on.

But I get up every day.
I go to work and grin.
I phone up men I do not know
and say, Well how you been?
And they reply, Oh can't complain
or, It's OK except the rain.


The mute vibrations of the 12.52
shake my pen, and all of us as one.
We fly past a church, and I hear a woman say,
- I told him where to go, but he wants me to stay.
We're pushed, they're pulled, but we do not move.
A young man sits four feet away.
He's pushed, I'm pulled up along this groove;
pushed by the seat back, pulled by pay.

Trees whip past us, smooth fields flow;
constant clouds like us are still -
grim faces set as busts that know
that life is finite time to kill.
Against the faces starlings toil,
fluttering South in an awkward V,
above cruel crows, pecking at the soil
which blurs and slips away from me.

The world turns black and pops our ears.
I see myself sat pen in hand,
and view the worst of all my fears:
that I am still in shifting sands;
that this is it, that I am whole;
like this until my time is spent;
that in this window my whole life is framed.
- A cough. The feeling went.


In the days when I was young,
when I was young and the sky was blue,
the seconds ticked like tolls of a bell,
with dings and dongs which rose and fell,
marking out the clouds' career
from here to there, from there to here.
My father's voice, and mother's skirt,
my brother's hair and stare and dirt
were features of those early years
that caused my pain, my laughs, my tears
and made me what I am today,
a man,
a man,
a man called Ray,
with cares and woes and pain and hurt,
and skin, and bloodshot eyes that flirt
with Juliet, my love, my life
and Sue, oh Sue, my fattening wife.


Hello you, she says and smiles,
and joins me at the bar.
You buy me drink I talk to you.
Well what's an Englishman to do?
I surely didn't come this far
to start asking why.

What's your name? she say to me
I lie to her, and she say, nice,
my name is Mai. Hi Mai, I say.
and look into the eyes of vice
and wonder what she think of me.

You like me? I say for sure,
much nicer than the other ones;
and so she is - the fantasy -
trying to sell her cunt to me;
a pro within a world of cons
where fucking is a chore.


And when the hurly burly rules,
and chaos gnaws at order's heels,
men will turn from king's to fools
and concert halls will ring with squeals.
And when the drum beats night and day,
and people bump and bang and fight,
my wife will turn to me and say
How you doin'? D'you feel alright?
I'll say, Yes I feel OK.


They're my babies,
sizzling in the sun
They're my babies, seeking adult fun.
She's my little baby, with her sloping spine.
All my little babies, telling me they're mine.

The door clicks closed behind me and I go out on the hunt.
A corner shop allures me with a shelf of paper cunt.
Peering through the door I see a couple of old birds talking.
Feeling unclothed, I stare ahead and keep on walking.

They're my babies,
sizzling in the sun
They're my babies, seeking adult fun.
She's my little baby, with her sloping spine.
All my little babies, telling me they're mine. 


Are you press? he said to us
as we climbed the stairs. 
A straight nose never lies 
in the world of mash and pies. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. The Rose Playhouse.

This performance expresses everything I love about theatre - a daring, high-wire piece that leads the mind through unexpected visions and emotions. "Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" is woven together and directed by Martin Parr, who prior to this staged a memorable Doctor Faustus, also at the Rose. When I heard that Parr was doing Shakespeare's sonnets, I thought - great - that will be worth seeing. However, nothing prepared me for this.

What Parr has done here, quite masterfully, is to shape Shakespeare's most intimate writings into a haunting play, which explores every facet of loving relationships. He has done this through letting the Bard's words flow through a morphing love affair as it goes through stages of lust, longing, disdain, outrage, anger, separation and reconciliation.

He sets the stage in Autumn, and sitting expectantly with glass in hand, I found the setting fascinating. The stage and lighting team of Florence Watts, Max Mosley, Christine Dubois and Francesca Baker present a scene of an unmade double bed, a half drunk wine bottle next to it, with several lamps, a bare table and a old chair, with dead leaves scattered around it. Highly atmospheric. A realistic nowhere. A double bed in a room for one person.

This is a fragile piece, that depends entirely upon its two actresses, Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro. Lucia is the muse of the piece, the partner, the object of desire, hope and regret; and she embroiders this role with virtuoso playing of the cello, which at times becomes a third person in the relationship. Katherine is alone, but not alone, expressing her evolving and sometimes contradictory feelings for Lucia, who is relatively unchanging.  Katherine, the lover, experiences wildly varying feelings - from infatuation to irritation; at times reflecting upon the inevitable death of her partner, at other times spitting out poisonous jealousy.

Sitting in the audience, this is powerful stuff, and the flowing, but unpredictable performance raises strong emotions. These come powerfully to conclusion in the final scene where a distraught, lonely, Katherine is trying to play her (possibly now dead) lover's cello in the hope of capturing just a little bit of her magic, her voice, her scent. I won't spoil this for you, but it is one of the most powerful and creative scenes I have ever witnessed in theatre - one that has stayed with me, and lured me back last night for a second chance of seeing it.

Walking away from from the performance, I drifted towards the Thames, and reflected that this gem of a play shows why theatre is increasingly necessary and important. In this era of easy media, of electronic access round the clock to any movie/ video/ Shakespeare play etc., a sincerely felt rendition like this becomes rare, precious and significant. One has to travel to see it. Pay to see it. One has to sit in real space, as breathing people take breathtaking risks. They play their heart out, and break ours. Like the tempestuous relationship between Katherine and Lucia, the performance enchants, excites and ends, leaving only memories.

"Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" plays until 29th November. Go see it. It's that good. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, Venture Wolf Productions, London Theatre.

"All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools". 

Gay is the word. Christopher Marlowe found a muse in man's love for man, and infused it in much of his work - particularly in the erotic epyllion, Hero and Leander. Turning over the weighty pages of Holinshed's Chronicles, the twenty something Christopher Marlowe chose Edward II's charged relationship with low-born Gaveston for dramatisation into one of England's first fully realised History plays - a genre that Shakespeare would adopt and make his own. 

Edward II is a pacy, racy, roller coaster of a ride, which establishes its theme in Gaveston's first delighted words - of male love and loyalty taken to such heights that it causes civil war, and the eventual downfall of a king. 

As with his earlier play, the Massacre at Paris, here is a drama in which plot takes precedence over language, without the psychological investigations and existential hand-wringing characteristic of Marlowe's illustrious contemporary. From the clearly chipped characters and fast paced plot, you get the feeling that Marlowe was an excitable, direct sort of character - just the type to get himself embroiled in a squabble in Deptford in May 1593. He never saw his thirties. 

Edward II was his final drama, published shortly after his death. It's a moody, antagonistic work - a play looking for trouble - a libertine fuck you to mainstream, respectable, puritan England. 

Shakespeare may have watched the play with mixed feelings. Marlowe had been the darling of the Oxbridge literati classes - the insider's outsider. Shakespeare meanwhile had no university education - he wanted to be an outsider, accepted by the insiders. How could he out-radical Marlowe, while keeping the punters packed in?  The anything-goes Edward II freed things up for Shakespeare, and encouraged the bard to push boundaries just as far. Richard II, penned shortly afterwards, resonated with variations on Marlowe's sexual politics. 

Edward II is a serious, adult work, and I feared the worst as I entered the subterranean London Theatre in New Cross. to be greeted by enthusiastic young actors in 1920s gear, doing the flap, the Charleston and getting up to the kind of pre-show japes one encounters in undergrad productions. My fears, however, couldn't have been more misplaced. Once the silliness had subsided, Venture Wolf  put on an earnest and thoughtfully wrought production that allowed the darker ambiguities of the play to surface. Imaginatively directed by Paul Vitty, this was a fast paced, creative rendering which was hugely entertaining. 

Henry Winterbottom played the demanding role of the King, as petulant, spoilt and inflexible. It was a fine rendering of an unappealing character, which showed scope and promise. Ramzi Dehani played the King's lover and ruin, Gaveston, with a sly coolness - except where it came to his encounters with the King, when Dehani displayed a warmth and commitment that glowed. Emma Gonella played a pitch perfect Queen Isabella, with grace, beauty and wit. All queens should be like that. Turan Duncan was terrific as the heroic usurper, quickly corrupted by power. 

Of the other performances, James Chadurn played a marvellously entertaining, Churchillian Warwick - a commendably restrained performance, in that the Stentorian lines could easily have crossed into parody or irony. Will Barrett was convincing as the young  schoolboy prince, who quickly grows up to be an avenging successor; and Pippa Caddick was a joy to behold, playing the complex Baldock with charisma and subtlety. There were 17 people involved in the cast, however, and all played their parts well. 

Bravo to Venture Wolf for treating Marlowe's moody masterpiece with the seriousness it deserves. There are laughs aplenty to be had in the punnery and ironies of other Early Modern plays. Not Edward II, however. Marlowe meant this one - and so did this marvellous troupe of actors. Hats off to you all. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Woman in the Moon, by John Lyly. Rose Theatre, Bankside, London.

Do yourself a favour, and grab the last remaining tickets to the Dolphin's Back production of John Lyly's comic masterpiece. Last Thursday, a sell-out audience grinned, cackled, and glowed with admiration as this talented troupe brought the long-forgotten 16th century gem to life.

John Lyly deserves to be much better known. A bright Kentish Lad, born in 1553 in cosmopolitan Canterbury (which also also spawned Christopher Marlowe eleven years later), Lyly excelled at Magdalen College, Oxford before bursting onto the London literary scene with the publication of Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit (1578), and Euphues and His England (1580). In these prose works, Lyly introduced nothing less than a revolution in the English language, which - in his work at least - made it sparkle with style, irony and wit. By the age of 30, Lyly was widely feted as England's greatest writer, and this reputation did not diminish until well after his death. Indeed, (as James Wallace, director, writes), in his introduction to Shakespeare's First Folio, Ben Jonson places Lyly among the pantheon of England's greatest writers.

The Woman in the Moon is radical - feminising and paganising the origins of the universe; exploring the nature of female character and actions. Dissatisfied with Mother Nature's generation of a perfection to rival their own, the planets decide to derail Pandora's transition into the world. Beginning with Jupiter, and depressive, moody Saturn, each planet's undermining of woman is a chapter itself. We encounter the despondency of Saturnine woman, the belligerence of Martian female,  the allure of Venutian temptress. Each planetary influence is an orchestral movement in its own right, and each somehow brings the person of Pandora to a complex, multivalent completion.

Men in the play are easily-duped, unilinear and comic; wholly dependent upon the mood or whim of womankind. It is interesting, then, that this was a play written with Elizabeth in mind - indeed it is documented that she attended a performance of it by the Paul's Boys. Like Shakespeare's later playwriting for James I, John Lyly was not precious, or consistent in towing a party or royal line; and Lyly's exploration of womanhood was ambiguous and provocative. At the end of the play, Mother Nature asks Pandora to choose the planetary influence she wishes to make permanent; she selects Cynthia (or the Moon) under whose spell she is mad, capricious, indecisive and self-contradictory.

Elizabeth, at the height of her powers in the 1580s, was none of these things; indeed, she would have been disdainful of the character Pandora chooses for women. This raises interesting questions about Elizabeth (whom Lyly would have known well). Was she disdainful of other women, or the modes of femininity approved of in the late 16th century? Which of the planetary influences upon offer would she have recognised in herself - if any? In raising such fundamental questions about female personalities, and doing so so publicly in front of Queen and audience, John Lyly shows a provocative confidence - cockiness even.

Though the themes of the play run deep, the script is light, funny, fast-moving. The Dolphin's Back troupe did a wonderful job balancing deep, dangerous themes with light, saucy gags, and the result was ninety minutes of theatrical bliss. As Pandora, Bella Heesom took us on a dazzling journey through conflicting expressions of womanhood - a bravura performance, which showed amazing adaptability and inventiveness. Those playing the hapless men in the play worked to great comic effect, with James Askill again a joy to behold, and a name to watch out for. The great male foil in this was the crafty but appealing Gunophilus, who was entertainingly played by James Thorne. This was very much an ensemble production, however, and in a way it is unfair to mention particular names. Bravo to all.

The Dolphin's Back is a superb group of creatives, who have skill, wit and depth - from James Wallace's direction, to the quick, fun-loving cast, to inventive stage design and lighting. The DB are committed to resurrecting neglected scripts, and bringing them to life for modern audiences - and they do it with authority and a great sense of fun. As such, Dolphin's Back are my favourite troupe - and I can't wait to see them again in the Massacre at Paris. (Spoiler alert - it's brilliant.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Julius Caesar at the Globe: Why Tony Blair should Give This a Miss.

Julius Caesar was a high-stakes venture for Shakespeare. He had invested heavily in the new Globe Theatre, and this was its opener in 1599. Shareholder, playwright, actor . . here was the collision of business and art in one man. The business-savvy Bard would have been nervous as the first customers arrived. With its smell of freshly sawed wood and whitewash, those entering the Globe were testing an untried hi-tech virtual reality environment. With London reverberating with globalisation and scientific revolution, here among the groundlings one was at the very peak of modernity.

So what was the focus of this 4D sensurround - this leap into the unknown? The downfall of dictators. The first drums resounding around the Globe introduced the themes of power, order, revolution and chaos to the Elizabethan masses. Shakespeare had a knack of identifying themes that would forever remain current, and Julius Caesar speaks volumes to us in this age of political disenchantment. One of the most macabre but accurate pronouncements on political change is Jacques Mallet du Pan's statement "a revolution devours its children." Looking back on the fall of the Berlin wall, and the prematurely named Arab Spring, we see a horrible pattern, as though carved in stone: the stagnation of rule; the toppling of the tyrant; the chaotic aftermath; and the reestablishment of order through tyranny 2.0.

Shakespeare understood this.

The play examines these stages with great insight, showing Cassius steering alpha male Brutus to spearhead the toppling of a burned-out Caesar. In this production, Cassius was played by Anthony Howell (of Foyle's War), who portrayed him less as a thin skinned Iago, and more like the bluff soldier he probably was. Tom McKay's Brutus was a well-adjusted, well-meaning man whose political and moral certainties break down in his failed attempt at justifying what he has done. I hope Tony Blair doesn't go to see this production, as parallels with his noble crusading would be obvious to all around him.

Initially, I was irritated by George Irving's insipid portrayal of Caesar, but then I realised that this was the point. Caesar was 56 and a husk of the man he once was. Referring to himself in the third person (even to his wife), Caesar believes in his own greatness and infallibility; and his once brilliant mind has now become blurred and paranoiac. Here then, we have Saddam, Gaddafi, Ben Ali . . . Caesar is all rulers who have lost the plot. His despotic apotheosis encompasses them all.

With these major themes being shouldered by key characters, it is amazing how Shakespeare rendered them human and sympathetic - all except the morphined Caesar. Christopher Logan camped up Casca beautifully, rendering a waspish survivor in dangerous tides. Luke Thompson highlighted Mark Antony's humane greatness - in contrast to the lovestruck middle aged has-been he is to be in the sequel, Antony and Cleopatra.

As I was watching the play, I was immediately struck by the playing of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia. I focused in, and realised that here was one of my favourite actresses, Katy Stephens. I last saw Ms Stephens as an unforgettable Tamora  in Michael Fentiman's production of Titus Andronicus at the RSC. And here she was now as Calpurnia, pleading with the vague, bloated Caesar to stay away from politics for a day. Katy Stephens is a superb actress who brings roles to life with insight and wit. Later in the play, she reappeared as a pleb ringleader who tore off the genitals of the mild poet, Cinna. You don't mess with Katy Stephens.

From the off, this production was fresh, invigorating and had great momentum. This owes much to Dominic Dromgoole's energetic direction, and the overall play was greater than the individual parts - a true ensemble production.

As I left, with my hands glowing, I thought of that original audience at its first showing, walking towards the Thames and muttering about what they had seen. Did it make them think of the declining Elizabeth? Did they feel anxious about order breaking down into chaos? Among them, Shakespeare himself would have drifted, and listened, and, no doubt heaved a huge sigh of relief. The first show at the Globe was over, his investments were safe, and his message to the world was out. Revolutions eat their children. If only Tony Blair had listened. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Kicking Against the Pricks: The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham

Two plays in a day. Always a good idea. All day drinking, and double the fun. Not much to dislike there.

The two plays I saw at the RSC in Stratford this Wednesday worked really well together. Both were analyses of women out of sync. Both were based on real people, who flouted convention in Renaissance England. Both productions were imaginatively directed . . . and both were performed by the same hard working troupe.

Following a theatre’s work day like this was enlightening. Putting on plays is hard work, and the troupe worked their socks offs. Everybody from the stage hands, to the lighting and sound crew, put in a long demanding day. As time went on I amazed at the stamina of the performers -  their ability to remember so much material, and deliver it with such verve and wit. From the first words of Geoffrey Freshwater at 1.30, through to the last smiling sentence by Lisa Dillon at 10.45 that evening, the players were in make-up, onstage or waiting in the wings. Some of the actors had highly demanding parts in each play. Keir Charles, for instance, was rarely off stage in both productions.

Had I not seen both plays in the same day, I would have missed this - and the stamina of these remarkable performers. Had I seen only one production, I would have missed the transformation of the theatre, from Arden’s warehouse to London’s cobbled streets. As I sat down to the evening show I literally couldn’t believe I was in the same theatre.

Arden of Faversham centres on a real life scandal, which happened 41 years before the play was published. Arden was a self made business-man who acquired the former lands of Faversham Abbey, which had been dissolved by serial killer Henry VIII. Though legally owned by the Church, much of the pasture had been common to local farmers, and Arden’s enclosure marked the dispossession of the villagers. Arden’s wife, Alice, was rich, spoiled and bored, and embarked upon an affair with a low born local, Mosby. Together they plotted to kill rich hubby to gain control of his wealth. They were, however, rather incautious in their plans, involving Arden’s servants, an aggrieved villager and two memorable London hoodlums, Will and Shakebags.

Yes, Will and Shake-bags. Conventionally the play is listed as anonymous, however, there has long been speculation that it was written by Shakespeare. Others have claimed that it was penned by Thomas Kyd, or Kentish lad Christopher Marlowe. I don’t buy the Bard claim - to me, the writing seems too direct, with little of the thorough soul seeking that marks out the Swan of Avon. Marlowe and Kyd are more likely candidates. Indeed, the somewhat modern plain-speak, reminds me of the text of the Massacre at Paris ("Come. Let's go". Exeunt).

That said . . . Will and Shakebags? For some, this is as clear an allusion to the Bard as Rupert Greene’s denouncement of the upstart Shake-Scene. So, if Shakespeare wrote Arden, how likely is it that he secreted his name into his own play? Mmmm . . . well he was prone to overuse the word Will, wasn’t he? OK, how likely is it that the established superstar Marlowe would take a swipe at the new kid on the block? Shakebags was a common term for a thief at the time, so perhaps the name is not quite the shibboleth conspiracy theorists claim it is. The date of the play, pre 1592 is very early for Shakespeare, and late for Marlowe or Kyd. My money’s on Marlowe . .  or maybe a Marlowe/ Kyd production.

At the psychological/ philosophical level the play concerns material greed and lust. Such themes are embedded in wider social/ economic realities, such as the after-effects of the dissolution of the monasteries, the new commerce and commodification, and the brash nouveau riche - of which Arden and his wife were sour embodiments. The other harsh contextual reality, was the oppression of women. Whereas Alice Arden’s accomplices in the murder received death sentences, the judge reserved the worst punishment for her. Burning. At the time, for a wife to murder her husband shook the foundations of the social order, and doing so was the civil equivalent of regicide. It was, in other words, an unthinkable act . . hence the nationwide scandal when this crime was perpetrated; and the episode was deemed important enough to be included in Holinshed’s Chronicles, the historical source for many plays of the English renaissance. Unlike most of these works, however, Arden of Faversham concerned common people - traders, butchers and thieves - and this marks out the work as historically significant in its own right. Here was a revolutionary play on a shocking episode in recent history.

With these tabloid themes, and a script by Marlowe/Kyd/ Shakespeare, this was a sure fire hit, and indeed the play was performed by Shakespeare’s own troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s - perhaps at The Theatre, Shoreditch.  The themes, and the tight modern script resonate today in an England wracked by social change and the commodification of everything. To reflect this money-obsessed spiritual wasteland, director Polly Findlay set the reptilian parvenus in a chavtown in Kent cum Essex. I think Sittingbourne fits the bill beautifully - so close to (now posh) Faversham, but a microcosm of cultureless new millenium entitlement.

Arden is a cold hearted trader, who thinks only of money and his trophy wife Alice. Ian Redford plays the saturnine businessmen as a hollow man, a hungry ghost, who has everything but is never satisfied. As he is musing about his spouse’s indiscretions, she enters the stage - and what a sight that is. Actress Sharon Small totters into the narrative, and never really leaves it, entrancing with her lack of taste, her shallow lusts and problem-page philosophies on life. She is a mesmerising creature, witty and amusing, in a frothy kind of way, but depressingly vacuous - indeed, the embodiment of modern have-it-all celebrity culture. With her husband drifting off stage, Alice talks dreamily about her boyfriend, Mosby, a bit of rough from the wrong end of town. Then in he strides, the uber-chav - cocky, stupid and cultureless, and brilliantly played by Keir Charles - the first of two huge roles he played that day. What a charismatic performer - I feel like I know Mosby, in the same way as I knew, and avoided, Dogsy in the school yard.

Other superb performances stood out. Jay Simpson played the thief Will Black as a thin skinned assassin. Christopher Middleton portrayed the poisoner Clarke as a disgusting sexual predator, eliciting repulsed reactions from the audience. Not the kind of person one would like to encounter - even at a distance. Lizzie Hopley played an aggrieved villager who pursues the dismissive Arden about his appropriation of her land, eventually delivering a memorable curse, that momentarily pierces Arden’s thick skin. Hopley played two memorable parts that day, and they couldn’t have been more different - as you shall see.

On the whole, then, this was a highly creative and powerful performance of a play that speaks volumes to us today. As wealth becomes the only measure of success, and morality, education and spirituality are marginalised or lampooned, the reptiles of Faversham are in the ascendent. This play warns us all, that we should be worried.

Lots to think about there, then - and I did so during a couple of pints before the next play, The Roaring Girl. I returned and entered the transformed theatre, amazing at the industry of the stage hands. Very impressive!

The Roaring Girl was written a couple of decades after Arden, but it too was based on real events. The focus of the play is Moll Cutpurse, actually Mary Frith (1584 – 26 July 1659) who became famous for dressing like a man, publically smoking tobacco and hanging out with street ruffians. She was done on several occasions for minor transgressions, but later, turned into an informant and unlikely celebrity. A very interesting figure amidst Jacobean London, she became the subject of public interest and gained the attention of the entertainments industry. In 1610 John Day wrote The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside. Unfortunately, this play is lost in the midst of time, but isn’t it amazing that an eccentric 26 year old woman was having major plays written about her in the midst of Jacobean witch hunting?

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Decker were a little late off the mark producing their own play, The Roaring Girl, a year later in 1611. They were obviously fans of the gender bending reprobate, but unlike Day, who dramatised her life, they weaved her into an urban rom com. Incidentally, Thomas Dekker wrote the heartbreaking The Witch of Edmonton a decade later in 1621. He was obviously fascinated by, and sympathetic to, rebellious women such as Mary.

The Roaring Girl  was highly unusual in that it focused on an existing person who was defying convention.  What would the modern equivalents be? Joe Orton writing a play about Quentin Crisp in the 1960s? Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell?

The plot is complex and ludicrous. Sir Alexander Wengrave is dissatisfied with his son’s choice of a bride, because of her lack of an adequate dowry. The emotionally intelligent Sebastian thus hatches a plot to make his father suspect him of having an affair with the infamous Moll Cutpurse. He calculates that papa would be so horrified by this, that he would change his mind and welcome his marriage to the respectable Mary Fitzallard (superbly played by Faye Castelow). So far so simple, except that the narrative then splits into several subplots about marital intrigue among Sebastian’s acquaintances, most notably that involving Mrs Gallipot and the spivvy Laxton; and Mrs Openwork and Goshawk, who whispers that her hubbie has been keeping a whore.

At the centre of this domestic maelstrom is Moll, who dominates, manipulates, mentors and massages the various personalities.  She is quite quite wonderful. At the start of the play, the lights go up to reveal her, slouching cockily on a chair, lustily drawing on a cigarette and surveying the audience with confident, mocking eye. Lisa Dillon’s portrayal of Moll is fresh and energetic. She is in charge. She is the focus, and that’s the way she likes it.  Whereas the original Moll was damned for transgressing gender boundaries, Lisa Dillon transcends them - her Moll, is above all, true to herself. Like everyone else in the audience, I fell in love with this self-actualised being, and towards the end she lasered me with an amused look, took my hand and kissed it. “Thank you, darling” she said, retreating, mockingly mopping her brow. I almost swooned.

She mocked, carped, plotted and flirted. She sang, played electric guitar, acoustic bass, climbed the stage and danced. How could anybody else get a look in?

Surprisingly, perhaps, they did. Although Moll dominated, this was a tight ensemble performance and other characters were brought to life brilliantly. The other scene-stealer of the night was Lizzie Hopley’s portrayal of Mistress Gallipot. You may remember, that Hopley earlier played the decent, timid Mrs Reede, who placed a curse on Arden. Her portrayal of Mistress Gallipot couldn’t have been more different - knowing, flirtatious, mischievous, she toyed with her lines, sparking off and involving the audience. It was a thrilling performance.

Many of her lines concerned her beau, Laxton, played by Keir Charles - who thereby played two major cads in one day. Both were a joy to behold, slightly different in personality, but as manipulative and shallow as each other. Timothy Speyer was terrific as the aggrieved but understanding husband, Mr Gallipot - a very likeable character. Indeed, one of the differences between this play and Arden was that here in London there were streams of goodness, charity, and benign humour - while leafy Faversham resembled a crocodile pit.

Another fine performance was put in by Tony Jayawardena as the slandered Mr Openwork, who loved his wife, and beamed good will throughout. The contrast between this role and that of the brutal Shakebag couldn’t have been greater. Ian Bonar also put in an amazing double shift, with sharply different characters. Likewise, Ken Nwosu did double time in eye catching fashion, stepping in at the last minute to take on the role of the aggrieved Gull.

Of course, as all rom coms do, the couple get married and live happily ever after. At the end, we are left with Mol, who reflects on the events, and announces the appearance of the real Mary Frith on stage at the theatre in the near future. No doubt Mary would have been in the audience at the original play, and may have stood up at this point to receive the applause of the audience. That I would love to have seen.

Leaving the theatre I slipped into a pub to catch the tail end of the Argentina-Holland game. At the table in front of me, I spotted Peter M. Smith, who had played the cross-dressing Bawd in the Shakespeare Institute’s fine production of Pericles last year.  What a wonderful place Stratford is.

Later, as I cleaned my teeth and reflected upon the day’s events. I looked down to my hand. Kissed by Moll Cutpurse. The soap sat by the sink, begging a question.

Monday, June 9, 2014

My favourite books, #30: To a God Unknown, by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck took five years to write this short novel, and it was a flop commercially. It is, however, an ambitious, serious and successful work. As the title suggests, the book examines the pagan urges and yearnings concealed by modernity. Steinbeck, who had a lifelong interest in Eastern religions, highlights the power of nature over over our self-obsessed species; and the narrative pivots on the paradoxical conflict between the desire to control nature, and our yearning to worship it. Here we meet real, breathing characters in a setting you can feel and smell. This is literature of the first order.

I put the book down, wiser and more alive.