Sunday, 28 February 2010

A theatrical interlude

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm feeling quite sad this week. It has been announced in the news that our local theatre has gone into administration and is in danger of closure.

The idea of living in a city that does not have a professional theatre leaves me feeling bereft.

I just looked over the last sentence, and my mind is telling me that the word bereft is too strong. My heart feels the word is exactly the right strength.

Anyone who knows me - or even anyone who has just read my first posts - will have realised by now that I love books. One of the few things that rivals the strength of this passion is my love of the theatre. I like films a lot as well, but I love going to the theatre.

Just writing this blog about theatre means that I am being swamped by memories of plays that I have seen. A big part of writing this blog is trying to train myself to write and think again; to find discipline and structure in what I am writing. I am aware that I have probably been guilty of lack of focus in the couple of entries I have already written. But in this blog I am probably even more likely to be drawn into unfocussed rambling. When I think of how important the theatre feels to me, my mind starts to be overwhelmed by a wealth of images and memories.

My first memory of the theatre is going to a pantomime (this is possibly most people's first memory of going to a theatre). The villain scared me so much that my father had to take me out of the theatre to calm down. Instead of staying in the theatre, he drove me around town to look at the Christmas lights.

After that, my main memory of the theatre is going to see Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My birthday was always around the time that our local amateur G&S company staged their shows, and this would be my birthday treat.

As an adult, I love going to the theatre with others or on my own, but I hate going to the cinema on my own. For me, going to the cinema is a social experience. On the couple of occasions I have gone to the cinema alone, it has been a rather cold and lonely experience - just you, and the flat, unresponsive, images on the screen. But in the theatre you have the flesh and intellect of the actor in front of you - it is never lonely. It is a very intimate, revealing experience - and I love to sit in the front row to try and maximise my connection with the events on stage.

The theatre has a huge capacity to confound expectations. Years ago I saw a production of Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real." I went mostly because I love Tennessee Williams - as a repressed Briton, I feel drawn to the catharsis of his over-wrought melodrama and torrid sexuality - and also because Leslie Phillips had been cast, and I was interested to see him on stage. However, I felt Leslie Phillips was miscast as Gutman, the sinister owner of the Siete Mares (or it is equally possible that I was unable to get past my own preconceptions of him as an actor). But I was deeply impressed by another actor in the cast - Peter Egan, as a vulnerable, ageing Casanova. I had only seen Peter Egan on TV before and didn't really have any preconceptions of him - and now I have an abiding memory of his performance being the best thing in that play. In fact, I think my copy of the script for "Camino Real" still has a promotional postcard of him as Casanova, which I used as a book mark.

Theatre is mutable and can always surprise you.

The theatre is also potentially incredibly powerful. I remember seeing a production of "A Winter's Tale." I went knowing little about the play, or about the cast (John Nettles as Leontes, Samantha Bond as Hermione, Richard McCabe as Autolycus and Alan Cox as Florizel). It is probably the most intense theatrical experience I have ever had. This was one of only two occasions when I have been part of the audience for a standing ovation (and this even more remarkable because it was at a matinee - in my experience matinee audiences tend to be small and apathetic). I can't conceive what it must feel like to be an actor receiving a standing ovation, as it is overwhelming enough to be part of the shared euphoria in an audience. I remember walking up the road to catch my bus in a trance afterwards. I think I even walked into a couple of people in a daze.

On a rather more frivolous note, the theatre has also indirectly given me another unique experience. I went to see Terry Johnson's play "Dead Funny." This is one of my favourite plays, with a strong female role which I would covet if I had any acting talent (I've tried and I don't). It is a play I know very well. So, when I walked past the actor who I knew had been cast as the leading man, only an hour before the play was due to start, I was in the position of walking past a complete stranger and knowing with total certainty that I would get to see him totally naked in an hour's time. I should explain that I knew the play had full-frontal male nudity in its first few minutes. You might walk past someone cute in the street and fantasise, maybe even proposition them if you are brave enough (I never was), but I knew.

I now feel even sadder after writing this. If our local theatre closes then I would fewer opportunities to make more memories like these. And, even worse, children who grow up here won't have the opportunites to discover the pleasures of the theatre.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

I have more bad habits than I realised....

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I'm starting to feel a little bit demoralised by writing this blog. I never thought that I had so many bad habits. I have just thought of a couple more - and that's without trying very hard. I dread to think how many I could come up with if I tried.

I am compulsive. I am a big fan of Eddie Izzard, and yet I have never managed to fully watch his DVD, "Definite Article," without getting distracted. This is because his set for this show is a huge, open book on which a page of various texts is projected. I always end up trying to recognise which book is being projected. I can get a few of them - I remember some Spike Milligan - but, every time I watch the DVD, I get increasingly frustrated by the ones I can't recognise. In fact I am now thinking that I have to watch it again. Not because Eddie Izzard is brilliant - he is, and this is one of my favourite shows of his - but because I want to try again to recognise those damn books.

A few years ago I read "Wonder Boys" by Michael Chabon. This is one of the rare instances in which I prefer the film version to the book, maybe because I saw the film before reading the book. I actually don't think I can recall another instance where I prefer the film to a book. Anyway, there was one section in the book with which I felt a strong connection. He writes of a character (I can't remember her name, but the Frances McDormand part in the film) who is a voracious reader. If there is no book available, she will read anything to hand. I do that. In the absence of a book I have been known to read the backs of shampoo bottles.

I'm nosy. And again I am only talking about books. If I go to someone's house and books are on display, then I will gravitate to the bookshelves to see what's there. I might try to be circumspect, but you will probably see me edging nonchalantly towards them.

Likewise I'm not really a gossip, and I don't listen in to conversations on public transport - but if you are sitting near me on a bus or train, reading a book, I will feel compelled to try and see what you are reading.

So, please, take pity if you are reading on public transport and, out of the corner of your eye, you notice a woman looking furtively over. It could be me. Please be kind and move your book slightly. It need only be for a few seconds, but just long enough for me to see the spine or front of what you are reading. If you don't I will be in torment for the whole journey.

Monday, 22 February 2010

An autobiographical bit

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

After the hubris of my introduction, and my naive and vain fantasy of being discovered, I found that I couldn't get off to sleep. This was partly because I had lots of ideas of what I might write about, but also because I got a bit scared - scared because I started to worry that if someone read it, they might not like it; that they might think I am an arrogant idiot, pretentious and not a very good writer. And I also got a bit scared that they might be right.

I thought that the writing and the chance to express some of my thoughts was the most important thing - and mostly it is. But I am finding it increasingly odd to be writing into a void, with no idea if this is being read by anyone or what they think of it.

I found myself coming back to two instances in my life that relate to the written word (although, admittedly, in the latter case the words weren't written by me). I could say that they scarred me for life, but that would be a melodramatic exaggeration. I could say that the memories came back to torment me, but that would also be too strong. Maybe taunt would be better. They are certainly events that I don't really talk about. Mainly because I feel like I don't come out of them very positively - and no-one really likes to re-visit past humiliations.

The first was at school, and I was maybe about 10-12 years old. We were given homework to write a story, and I wrote about something that I think my father once told me about being chased by a dog on a cliff path. The teacher hated my story so much that she gave it to the rest of the class as homework, asking them to correct it (the only point that I can remember was that apparently you use shorter sentences if you are trying to introduce tension into a story). I didn't go to school the day that they were going to dissect my story - it felt too painful (and at this point in my life I had perfected the art of legitimate truant - working myself up to psychosomatic illness, and then recovering a couple of hours later when the threat of school was safely passed).

It now feels rather like cowardice, but I cared about what I had written and couldn't bear to have it torn apart. That said, I do feel distanced from this memory now. It doesn't feel like it happened to me, although I do recall it with anger - but it is more the abstract anger that someone would do something so humiliating to a child.

The second instance was at university. I went with some friends to see a theatre production of "Frankenstein." I was talking with a friend before the play and firstly said something inaccurate; that Mary Shelley had quite a few children. I should have phrased it that she had numerous pregnancies (I think about 5), but that few survived (I think she had a premature birth, 2 children who died young, a miscarriage and, finally, a son who survived - but that's if you trust wikipedia). My point was to underline the birth and parenting imagery in "Frankenstein." I also made a comment about how amazing it was that she found time to write when she was so busy with children - this was meant to be a satirical comment on the attitude towards women at the time, but in retrospect I think it came out sounding rather facetious. Particularly when coming in close succession to my previous stupidity.

When the free university magazine came out, there was a review of the production. However, it didn't review the play - which I remember being pretty good - but instead chose to review the conversation of an idiot in the audience. Me. I felt angry for numerous reasons: that someone had eavesdropped on our conversation, that they had written a theatre review that pretty much ignored the play, but, mostly, that I had been caught out being stupid. Which isn't such an isolated occurrence as I would like to think.

This reminiscence of my troubled relationship with the written word might only be on the blog for a short amount of time. In a few days time, I might regret writing about this and try to delete it.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A rather more positive recollection

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I also remember being told by a lecturer in my first year of university that he liked the precision with which I used language.

He was quite young, and I think was probably only just starting to take seminars. He seemed like a nice bloke, although my abiding memory of him is one of sweaty nervousness (his, not mine). His vulnerability meant that I didn't quite have the heart to disillusion him by telling him about my writing strategy.

My approach to writing an essay for university was to have a favourite word, and try to force it into the subject matter. I can only remember two of the easiest ones - getting the word "revenant" into an essay on "Dracula," and the word "oleaginous" into an essay on "Twelfth Night."

I still love the word oleaginous.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

My bad (reading) habits

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I have a confession to make. I would never be unfaithful to my husband, but I am rarely faithful to my books. I am a book slut - I am always reading more than one book at a time. I've done this since a child, and can hardly remember a time when I was faithful to only one.

I tend to have a deep and meaningful relationship with one book, while also having a casual affair with a number of others at the same time. At the moment, for example, my deep and meaningful relationship is with Marina Warner's "No Go the Bogeyman," which is about fear and fairy-tales. I felt like I should read something a bit more analytical and intelligent, which I haven't done in a while, and it is quite rare for me to read something that is non-fiction. I am only a few pages in at the moment, so it is still too early in the relationship to make a commitment.

At the same time, though, I am having an occasional, casual flirtation with "Stephen Fry in America" (this is the book title, not the location of our affair - although this might be an interesting fantasy to consider). I am having an intense, passionate fling with "It's Only a Movie" by Mark Kermode (with whom I have been a bit obsessed recently). And lastly I am also reading "The Library of Shadows" by Mikkel Birkegaard (part of a Christmas present pack of books from a friend which, whether consciously or not, had a distinctly Scandinavian theme - also including Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell). "The Library of Shadows" was only meant to be a fling, but is turning into a deeper, more meaningful relationship than I expected. I might even consider leaving Marina Warner for Mikkel Birkegaard.

My duplicitous reading nature is not my only bad habit (I have many - but I'm concentrating on literary ones here). I probably don't read as thoroughly as I should. I am rather a skim reader. This might be a sign of increasing age and decreasing attention span, although I think I have always done it. This might also be down to reading too many thrillers and getting swept along with the story, wanting to know what happens next. I do tend to re-read books and notice new layers in them - but you could argue that, if I read in a more considered way, I would notice more first time round and would then have more time to read new books.

I also read a fair amount of fiction that is entertaining but has no real literary value - although I would chose to defend this. When I was at university, I remember being told by a couple of people that they could no longer just read something trashy. I found that quite sad. There is a lot of pleasure to be had from going along with a good story, being compelled to know what happens next. Maybe if I read in more analytical detail, I might enjoy the ride a bit less.

This leads on to one habit that I have, which I think really annoys my husband. If I am addicted to a book - if I don't want to put it down but life gets in the way and means that I have to - then I will peek forward a few pages to see what happens. Right now I am thinking of Billy Crystal's character in "When Harry Met Sally," who always skips to the end because he worries that he might die, mid-book, not knowing what happens. My reasons aren't that fatalistic. I try to resist, but my willpower is too weak. He bought me an e-reader last year - and I secretly suspect that this might be because it is harder to skip ahead. And also because I already have way too many books.

Actually you can never have too many books.

I think I know why I was never really meant to stay in academia. I never really got literary theory - it always seemed to obfuscate more than elucidate; seemed to be an exercise in showing off that was beyond the limits of my brain power. The most important thing to me was always whether I liked something - which is solipsistic and completely indefensible in academic terms.

It has also just occurred to me that I said I rarely read non-fiction - but 3 out of the 4 books I am currently reading are non-fiction. So you can maybe add being an unreliable narrator to my list of bad literary habits.