Lorca in a time of tyranny

Scowling and stamping her cane, as soon as the door was closed and we were hermetically sealed inside her house, Bernarda Alba (Charlaye Blair) dominated the stage of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical from the start. Only towards the end, with the horrific scene outside (a young woman who had murdered her baby born out of wedlock pursued by a stone-throwing mob) did we understand the tremendous social pressure she was under to keep her virgin daughters inside and inviolate until their wedding day. The heavy cross on the wall beside the huge wooden door, the smoking thurible (wielded with the rhythmic clink that marks the expert thurifer) and the imagined image of the Virgin, addressed in prayer, all set the scene for the patriarchal funeral and the funereal matriarchal atmosphere that followed.

Megan-Louise Fraser had the hard job of performing alternatively as virgin, mother and crone in the characters of the mad Maria Josepha, the matronly (and plainly bored) neighbour Prudencia and the young maid, lowest of the low in this very hierarchical household. The contrast between her youthful features and the dress and grey hair of the mother of Bernarda Alba gave us the insight that inside every grandmother there still lives a young woman.

Gemma Elmes (servant) set her face with all the strong character of the gitanas of Andalucia, yet could also be merry and her voice was a delight. Erin McCullagh (Poncia) played the part of the poor relation well and provided an occasional buffer to the tyranny of the mother of the five unfortunate girls.

Such was the magic of this show that we were persuaded by the insistence of the cast to suspend our disbelief and accept that the very beautiful Abbie MacNeil (Angustias) was, in fact, the ugly sister – though the one lucky enough to receive the attentions of the never-seen male suitor. That she was not the only one receiving his attention was the constant rumour, suspicion, jealously and scandal of the other sisters: dignified but playful Magdalena (Heather Crook) and Amelia (Johanne Rishaug Hellman); besotted Martirio (Caitlin Mae); and minxy Adela (Laura Sweeney).

This challenging show was beautifully choreographed by Kally Lloyd-Jones, with the dancers moving now in unison, now in a complex swirl of stage-setting and striking poses lit by the changing hues of set and lighting designer John Holding. Stage management by Holly Adams was, as it should be for this most self-effacing theatrical role, so good it was invisible.

Having lived in Granada for years, I must confess my initial disappointment that more was not made of flamenco rhythms but on reflection the high social status of the household may well have included a disdain for the music of the pueblo and I could not fault the melancholy combination of oboe/ cor anglais, viola and cello, nor the brio of the guitar-playing by Ross Wilson. Directing the music (and playing piano) Christopher Breckenridge accompanied the cast as they moved effortlessly from intoning liturgical chant to singing the sinister ribaldry of Three Moorish Girls.

With such cast, accompaniment, setting and lighting, director Tom Cooper had all the ingredients of a great show and with percussionist Antony Irwin, and strategic slams of the cane, the door and the chairs, the dramatic effect of the action was startling. With no visual required, everyone in the audience knew what we were witnessing at the last scene and – whether we knew the story or not – everyone gasped.

A timely mediation on tyranny and the oppression of women – even (and especially) by each other. 

Bernarda Alba is performed by GAMTA.

gypsy-girl-with-mandolin-c-1870

Thanks to Dawn Hudson, who has released her photo “Gypsy Girl With Mandolin, C. 1870” (Public domain vintage painting by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, available from The National Gallery of Art) into the Public Domain

 

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Dead Funny Theatre

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It wasn’t what it said on the tin. The expected evening of witty political satire of the state of Trumpton, which I took to be implied by the title, didn’t happen. However the unexpected is to be expected at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow, especially when Melanie Combe of Dead Funny Theatre is in charge. 

Except she wasn’t. Her NY comedy mentor started off this draft show & tell of his weeklong improv workshop with quite a lot about him and quite a big push of his merchandise. And the ‘tips jar’? This would have been better at the finale or the interval and someone else acting formally as front of house at the start might have avoided the mobiles ringing, pointed out loos & exits and explained the refreshments situation. (There weren’t any.)

The comedy didn’t really happen till the improv in the 2nd Act, which was amusing and often clever. During the 1st Act, I felt the Fourth Wall was a clear glass oven door through which we could see the mixture start to rise. And a rich mixture it was. I’m used to theatrical self-revelation and, while it is often self-indulgent, these four poignant offerings showed potential.

One, delivered lightly to cover up tragedy, begs to become a Death in Paradise type 1 Act; another the kind of one woman cabaret that Cat Loud does so well (catch her at the Ed. Fest.) the third left me more interested in the actor (who was very flexible and inventive) than the narrative of boyhood dreams meet reality, and it was a gift to glimpse some of the raw material of the playwright, principal & director of Dead Funny Theatre whose work is normally hilarious. Melanie is bringing out a show soon and I plan to be there, holding my sides and laughing out loud.

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Muslims @thecathedral

[Trigger warning for Evangelicals: have hot sweet tea on hand and keep breathing]
Have you ever planned scripture readings for a wedding? The conversation usually goes like this:
– Right, flowers done, what’s next? Readings. Thoughts?
– Em, how about The Good Wife, then 1st Corinthians then the Wedding at Cana?
– Sorted. Next. Top Table placings. It’s a nightmare!
Okay it’s not exactly careful discernment of liturgical appropriateness but if you get the readings wrong no-one will shoot you. However, if you mess up who sits at the Top Table…
The stage after this is to run the readings by the vicar/priest/minister who will look them up in the lectionary. Because (surprisingly to some) when we read from the Bible in church we don’t actually read from the Bible. Readings in the lectionary are read as edited chunks of verses of scripture (missing out, for example, Biblical verses referring to the size of the male member of your enemies and those that compare an unhappy woman to a bear in the corner of the attic). I’m not making this up, you know!
This gets more complicated, still on the theme of weddings, when another language is involved. Usually Latin. Now like many Roman Catholics [I did warn you and there’s more to come] I can get through Adeste Fideles without a hymnbook and once asked a woman making a wedding video why she’d backed it with Miserere Domine. However, stop most Roman Catholics halfway through reciting the Credo from a service sheet and ask what the next sentence means and you may get a rather vague reply.
My point is that we tend to do things conventionally. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic composed of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet so it fits into the lectionary perfectly; 1 Corinthians 13 comprises 13 verses but the last verse of the previous chapter gives it context and it may be shortened to end with ‘love does not come to an end’; verse 12 of John 2 may be missed out as it links the Wedding at Cana to the next story. These textual decisions are usually made with the presiding minister in much the same way that an actor will discuss cutting lines with the director. For some weeks after the Epiphany, social media was full of Evangelical hatred against St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow; against the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth and against a young Muslim woman who was invited to read at an interfaith service.  None of these ‘Bible-defenders’ followed the clear Biblical instructions regarding raising concerns with a brother in faith (kindly, gently and in private) and the ultra-rightwing backlash (some of which had to be reported to Police Scotland) is sufficient evidence of the precarious state of love, peace and understanding in the USA and UK in recent months – which was the motivation for the inclusive service.

The young woman, who received abuse from vile racist trolls for weeks, had the task of not only reading a portion of her sacred scripture (Surah Mary 19:16-33) and of reading it in a language not her own but also of singing it. This she did beautifully and we, the congregation, were much moved. Subsequently, Bishop Nazir-Ali (sensitive to the very difficult interfaith situation in Pakistan where he served for years) praised the good intentions behind the service but expressed concern over a reading from the Qur’an in a Christian place of worship. This comment contained no racist or other vile language and was in no way derogatory to Islam, to the reciter or to the clergy of St Mary’s Cathedral.
Sadly, the good bishop’s erudite words on the meaning of the Arabic verb yattakhida were misquoted by an online UK Evangelical site, by the BBC and by an ‘alt-right’ (we know what that means) site in the US. Ironically, not only does it remain unclear whether the ayah (verse) referred to was actually included unaware in the recitation (the angry monoglot WASPS who claim it was have been unwilling to name their ‘non-Christian Arabic-speaking source’ to me) but even were it so, the literal translation is of a denial of adoptionism. And a previous verse may be understood (by Christians) to refer to the resurrection. In other words, the Arabic recital (of that verse all the fuss is about) is in fact more Christian-friendly in terms of orthodoxy than the usual English translation would be.
Notwithstanding the good intentions of all, the already fraught interfaith climate and the fact that the literal meaning of the Arabic verse (that may not even have been recited) is orthodox for Christians, we (congregation, clergy, reciter, Muslim guests, online supporters) have all been accused of single-handedly bringing the reign of Satan down on Earth. All of us together. Single-handedly.
Well, admittedly, there are signs that we just must be in the Last Days (notably so after the 20th of this month) but for people of faith that’s where we always are. Because the Kingdom of God is always close at hand. [Like that cup of tea, go on, take a sip, you’ll need it]
Surah Qâf 50:16 informs us that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 13:2 enjoins hospitality to strangers upon us, reminding us that thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
It is our way in Glasgow, when vile people try to divide our united community, to run out to embrace each other. I was moved to tears by an Imam, in George Square in the centre of our dear city, when in another time of fear he recited the complete motto of the city of Glasgow attributed to our patron Saint Mungo:
Let Glasgow flourish, by the preaching of God’s word and by the praising of God’s name.
And we will flourish. Our loving, inclusive, united community will flourish because we trust in the promise that love wins. And even our atheist friends online have encouraged us to hold fast to that love. One woman said that she would not have come to a service but she understood why we celebrated the Epiphany together – because it was a sign of peace.
Lord of love, unite us in this sign.

(Thanks to Tony Melena for releasing his image “Unconquerable Love” into the public domain)

 

Fairytaleheart

Studying playwriting and dramaturgy at Master’s level impacts on your appreciation of a play. The naïve pleasure of simply being entranced can be hard to recover, as the analytical cogs rarely stop whirring. You notice the costuming, make-up, props, stage management, lights & sound, direction, casting and the acting as separate elements of the production, as well as the publicity, front of house welcome and information – and the script.

So I was pleased to be totally enchanted, watching Govanhill Theatre Group’s Fairytaleheart, by all of these elements – apart from the latter which I only found charming. I shall return to this point. First of all the fit. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have found out that this was a site-specific devised performance, so snugly did the play fit the venue. When the teenaged characters, Kirsty and Gideon, comment on the cold, you could see their breath; and one of the very friendly and informative front of house staff told me there were so many resonances of this play, about a dilapidated and disused community centre, with the Govanhill Baths and the local community.

On this point, let me get my one criticism of the play (not of the production) out of the way. Having grown up on a social housing estate, or as we say in Scotland, a Council house scheme, with the unlovely generic designation of ‘Glasgow overspill’, I am very sensitive to caricature of working class communities. Especially by Guardian columnist lefty posterboys. So while I was charmed by the imaginative world that Gideon leads Kirsty to see in ‘starlight in streetlamps and jungles in cracks in the concrete’, rather than her own bleak vision of ‘a dump’, I am more interested in the community themselves which, in this play, rarely get a mention. Yes there’s Bingo and the loves past and present of the teens’ sole parent or guardian, but there’s no sense of the working class solidarity that I grew up with, the warm and generous hospitality, the houseproud poverty, the cheerful resilience and surrender to fate. It was only at university that I discovered a world where problems were not shared but hidden, where tea wasn’t automatically not so much offered as forced upon you as soon as you were ushered in the door, where there was an eccentric pride in accumulated dust over so many books and neglected objects on display, where simultaneous self-indulgent complaint and frenzied attempts to improve one’s lot were constant.

What Philip Ridley’s play does offer, and what director Eve Nicol brought out beautifully, is the awkward encounter of two teenagers in a space which they both have claim to yet neither of them can appropriate. I have seen Eve Nicol’s work before, both as director and playwright, and she deals with this theme of emotional marginality with an honesty that I find quite unnerving. I know these characters. My own adolescence was an alternation between them, never so extreme because I didn’t dare. Georgie Mac’s Gideon was attractive in his lithe energy and repulsive in his habits at the same time, as Catriona MacLeod’s Kirsty focused our eyes on him, with clever use of handheld torches, and the lovely glow of candles as the emotional temperature warmed up. Kirsty herself was always beautiful but, at first and often after, forbidding, the silver in her dress and sprinkled in her hair glittering and metallic.

Let me praise the play for not offering closure of the awkward gap between the teens. The last image, when all the candles and all the torches bar one have been extinguished, is a double profile where what is most apparent (because it’s what the actors and the director want us to see) is the negative space between them. It could just be a shadow but it could also be a candlestick – or even a heart.

The last performance in this run of Fairytaleheart starts at 7pm this evening, in the Steamie at Govanhill Baths, 99 Calder Street (just off Victoria Rd) G42 7RA. There may still be tickets on the door (£8/6) but you can book them at www.brownpapertickets.com and for further directions and info: www.govanhillbaths.com. Publicity image below by Sarah Gibboni.

Fairytaleheart