Saturday, 26 January 2013

'Gossip from the Forest' by Sara Maitland

Just as Iain Sinclair's travelogue London Orbital mapped every inch of the M25 in beautifully lyrical detail, so Sara Maitland's Gossip From The Forest (Granta) leaves no leafy corner of British forestry undisturbed. And just as Sinclair’s book showed that the green and pleasant lands in England’s folklore are now nothing but ashphalted memories, Maitland pours dappled sunlight on the surviving areas of British woodland… well, those that haven’t become housing estates.

With inescapable ethereal overtones, Gossip From The Forest ensures the folklore we've garnered from the woodlands is tightly preserved for another generation. And it's a worthwhile project because, as Maitland notes, the fairytales we learned as children were bastardised repeatedly from inception. So much so that many bear little relation to their original tone or intent, often because the marketed audience shifted from adult peasants seeking distraction, to privileged children in city nurseries being told moralistic tales. You know, the sort of tales where the princess always has golden hair, animals are always anthropomorthic, and where avarice always meets a grisly end. Maitland reminds us it wasn't meant to be this way. But just as folk music has seen songs evolve through the travelling generations, forestry folk stories have been edited and tweaked. And both are equally in danger of being forgotten now that British lifestyles have changed and the habit of storytelling is dying out.

Gossip From The Forest is about much more than fairytales, though. This book is also a fascinating and unlikely sociohistorical commentary on how we have changed as Britons over the centuries. How we live, how we learn and how we treat one another. Not to mention some considered thoughts on etymology, society, politics and child rearing. Maitland leaves no tussock unturned!

In many ways, Maitland’s book reminds me of key messages from Nicola Bown’s Fairies in Nineteenth Century Literature, which again places Britain’s forests and nature at its core to explore the particular obsession of the Victorians with fairytales… the very generation whom Maitland credits with making the stories as moralistic as we now know them, and for most adjusting the tales for a young audience. But the Victorians weren’t the first to amend the stories... even the most-recognised fairytale-tellers of all, the Grimm Brothers, come in for a bad reputation in Maitland’s eyes. They may have been the pair who went around the peasants to gather up the spoken stories to publish for the first time in 1812, but they were also the pair who repeatedly reworked those same stories in every new edition of their book, until the stories bore little relation to the originals.

Framed as a monthly pilgrimage to 12 of Britain’s most important and contributory forests, in painstaking detail and beautiful language Maitland relays the origins of that woodland, the people who lived in or nearby it, the stories derived from it whether old or new (for instance, Raoul Moat’s hideout in Epping Forest in 2010 doesn’t pass unnoticed), and the present condition and use of the land.

Each chapter is supplemented with a fairytale of Maitland’s own, which are sinister reworkings of original stories. There’s surely no one more suited to this task than Maitland, a magical realist writer who knows these stories inside out. And considering that, as she explains, these are stories that have been rewritten innumerable times over the centuries, it seems only fitting that she is the one to rewrite them for a 21st Century reader. But be warned, Maitland’s reader is an adult (as was the original intention): hers are not fairytales for children.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Steptoe & Son at Bristol Old Vic

The wonderful Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in Bristol, and this time with a reworking of the classic TV series
Steptoe & Son: the 1960s sitcom showing the daily grind of a father and son working in the dying rag and bone business.

However, when Kneehigh is in action things are never as straightforward as they seem. Although Steptoe & Son is relatively faithful to the original TV series and characters, the biggest change here is the addition of a third character – The Woman (played by Kirsty Woodward) who adopts several personas to supplement the on-stage friction between Albert (Mike Shepherd) and Harold (Dean Nolan). The Woman is seen and unseen: sometimes she’s the third wheel in a storyline and has a few lines, but most times she’s a sylph on the outside looking in.

For this production, the stage play follows the TV production in that it is episodic – we have four short-ish stories across the evening, all of which are clearly demarked by title cards/sheets and musical interludes. And of course, this being Kneehigh, music plays an integral part to the performance. Bookended with a record player motif controlled by The Woman (whose tastes flit from Cliff Richard to Elvis Presley to reflect the changing years), the show is supplemented with new arrangements of classics such as You Don’t Own Me and It’s Over (overseen by musical director Jim Henson), and some charming dance routines involving the whole cast – all of which generate laughs from the audience.

Of course, while Steptoe & Son has plenty of humour, it is ultimately a sad story of two lonely and unhappy men who rub each other up the wrong way, while also being lovingly dependent on each other for survival. And the sense of the characters’ failures and unhappiness permeates the audience at the Old Vic, particularly in the closing scene.

Several years ago I saw the play Steptoe & Son: A Murder At Oil Drum Lane in London, which was a very direct reinterpretation of the TV show, complete with actors who looked and sounded exactly like their TV counterparts. Where the Kneehigh production succeeds over its predecessor is that the actors are not trying to be Harry H Corbett or Wilfrid Brambell, but instead put their own spin on the characters, which means the show has a much more fresh feel. Well, as fresh as you’re going to get in a faded rag and bone merchants!

Steptoe & Son is at the Bristol Old Vic until 9 February. Click here for more information and to check ticket availability.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

“This is not so much a play as an experiment.”

Each night, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is performed by a different actor. This evening, in the Bristol Old Vic Studio, it was the turn of Annabel Arden.

Written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, this tale is extraordinary. Our actor, Annabel, arrives on stage and is presented with the script in a sealed envelope. She is apparently performing White Rabbit, Red Rabbit cold… with the aid of a lot of audience participation.

Nassim wrote the play in 2010 when he was 29. As an Iranian, Nassim is forbidden from leaving his country, and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a clever way of attempting to recreate that sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness that such enforcement must produce.

Via the premise of a white rabbit who is attempting to go to the theatre, we are presented with a simple allegory of life for an Iranian.  Our rabbit is told by a bear that he cannot enter the theatre unless he covers his ears, which he does. Our rabbit is then told by the bear that he needs a ticket to enter the theatre, but he has no money until someone takes pity on him. And so it continues. These roles are acted out by audience members, while Annabel reads from the script. Simultaneously, Annabel instructs the audience when they may clap, when to close and open their eyes, and what to think about what they see.

It is deliberately manipulative because what this is really representing is the harsh rules and restrictions by which Iranians live. And the mandatory audience participation (which personally I found rather intimidating – though that was surely an intention) is reflective of the obligatory participation by Iranians in the harsh regime in which they are forced to live.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is giving a voice who knows nothing about who will perform their play but still has the ability to tell the audience what to see, do, say and think. It is extraordinarily clever. And extremely effective and powerful in its response.

There are various themes of control explored within White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Time is one. For instance, Nassim knows in which year he wrote the play and what life was like for him on those days. But he does not know who will perform his play, in which country, to what audience, or even what gender his actor will be. As he reminds us, Nassim does not even know if he will still be alive at the time we watch his play being performed.

Another theme is that of power. Nassim is instructing his actor, Annabel, to command various audience members to do his bidding – to act like a rabbit, to jump for a carrot, to ‘poison’ a glass of water, and so on. By turn, the audience has the power to defy these orders – as one person did by declining to join in on the stage when Annabel asked.

The most powerful theme is that of suicide, which resonates from the first to last lines. Without giving too much away, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit holds a mirror up to our frequent inability to react when we see something awful. All too often we sit passively by and refuse to participate. Nassim is telling us that we are lucky to live in such a free country, and we should make the most of our privileges. He is, of course, right.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is being performed at the Bristol Old Vic Studio until January 19. For more information and to book tickets, please click here