Friday, 22 March 2013

Fifty Shades of Feminism

Just as Do They Know It’s Christmas? combined the talents of (I’m guessing but let’s say 50, to help this tenuous analogy run more smoothly) 50 pop stars to raise awareness of the starving millions in Ethiopia… so Fifty Shades of Feminism combines the talent of 50 feminist writers to raise awareness of the realities of being female in the year 2013.

Yes, that is a blunt and crude analogy. No, I’m not really comparing a nation’s destitution to a gender’s segregation. Though once you’ve read the 50 entries – which cover everything from the death of war correspondent Marie Colvin to the realities of women trying to be taking seriously in science – maybe you’ll want to rethink that hastily typed Tweet that intends to tell me off for being so crass.

Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, this is an anthology inspired by the odious yet laughable Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon to question whether women really are only interested in magenta-hued variants of sex, shopping and sadomasochism. As EL James and the greetings card companies would have us believe.

Pulling together a list of contributors that resembles how the Woman’s Hour Power 100 List SHOULD have read, Fifty Shades of Feminism includes pieces from Jude Kelly, Natasha Walter, Bidisha, Joan Bakewell, Pussy Riot, Lydia Cacho and a humbling wealth of other luminaries.

I read and enjoyed the book on the way to and from the Women of the World Festival at London’s Southbank Centre two weeks ago, where I also attended the launch event for the book. It was an inspiring weekend, and I can think of no better situation in which to be immersed in a book about some of the great and good women of the world.

Obviously, everyone who reads Fifty Shades of Feminism will get different things from it, and different contributions will speak louder to different people. But my personal favourites were the pieces by Sandi Toksvig (no other piece of writing of a comparably short length has ever summed up so concisely just why feminism is so relevant now), and Jeanette Winterson (which angrily and eloquently explains – or rather SHOUTS – about just how offensive and obnoxious the porn industry is).

This is an excellent book and you should read it. If you’re in the Bristol area, you should also come along to a Festival of Ideas event on May 19, which will have a selection of the book’s contributors speaking about why this book is so necessary and so important.

Fifty Shades of Feminism is published by Virago on March 28, priced £12.99.

If you like Fifty Shades of Feminism, may I strongly suggest you go to BBC iPlayer and catch Bridget Christie Minds The Gap. A brilliant and clever four-part Radio 4 show wherein she uses humour (yes, and she a woman) to explain the urgency for feminism in our everyday lives. 

The 14th Tale

This time last year, poet, writer and performer Inua Ellams was at the Bristol Old Vic with his one-man show Black T-Shirt Collection (reviewed here). And now he’s returned, stepping out of sequence to bring us his very first play, The 14th Tale (from 2009).

But this disregard for chronology makes perfect sense, as The 14th Tale is an autobiographical piece about Inua’s teenage years, taking him from his Nigerian birth place to London and then to Dublin. The hour-long piece is bracketed by scenes of Inua in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news… and then we flash back to the scenes that led him to the waiting room.

The set is minimal – a cloth map hangs along the back wall of the Old Vic’s Basement space, and Inua is equipped with only a simple chair and a torch. His costume is a pair of trousers and a t-shirt, with what appear to be blood stains on them. And these are all the clues we have to go on, all the pieces we have to help us follow Inua on his teenage journey to the hospital waiting room.

What drives the narrative is Inua’s longing for a close relationship with his father, and of Inua’s desire to fit in with his peers in the culture shock of England. While these might not be new topics to uncover, Inua’s background as a poet clearly inspires his beautiful use of language. He expertly delivers lyrical monologues with an effortless but passionate drive, never once slipping up or faltering in his performance.

The 14th Tale is part of Fuel Fest at Bristol Old Vic, which is a series of three shows running until March 23. Click here for more information. 

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

WOW, what a weekend!

As I write this on a freezing Tuesday morning, I’m still basking in the toasty afterglow of a fabulously feminist few days.

On Saturday morning, I was up with the fairies to catch the Megatrain to London, where I spent a zinging weekend at the Women Of the World Festival (WOW) at the Southbank Centre. On the train up I was reading a review copy of the forthcoming Virago anthology Fifty Shades of Feminism, which had only arrived the day before, and in the evening I watched Made In Dagenham in my mini B&B room. I was Not Doing Feminism By Halves. No, siree.

Being at WOW was a wonderful experience. 2013 marked the third WOW festival but the first that I’d attended, and my reason for going was that the women’s comedy event I run, WhatThe Frock! Comedy, had been invited to put on a show in the Royal Festival Hall’s ballroom on the Sunday afternoon. That wasn’t an opportunity I was going to say ‘no’ to. Putting on a show (only our sixth ever) to 500+ people in the UK’s biggest arts centre? Err, yes please.

I headed up a day early to make the most of the festival and to see as much as possible. I lived in London for most of my 20s and still feel very fond of the place, so it’s always nice to have an excuse to go back. The Southbank Centre was somewhere I spent a lot of time in my London years as I both lived and worked nearby, plus I love the heritage of the place and the reasons why it was created in the first place.

To see the buildings (Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall) filled to the rafters with women-friendly stalls and events promoting women in business, women in comedy, women in fashion, women in charities… was brilliant. The buzz in the whole centre was electric, and the atmosphere was nothing but warm, welcoming and inclusive.

I saw several talks over the two days, but with up to 10 events happening simultaneously, I inevitably also missed a great deal. But I did catch a brilliant session celebrating women who don’t have children (whether by choice or by circumstance); debating the outcome of the Levenson Report into how the media continues to view women; the brilliance of Jane Austen. I saw Ruby Wax’s soloshow Losing It, in which she talks frankly and hilariously about her very real mental breakdown and ongoing problems with depression. And it was great to finally see Michael Kaufman talk, having interviewed him a few years previously for his book A Guy’s Guide To Feminism – and he didn’t disappoint.

All three pictures, copyright Southbank Centre

Of course, my main focus was putting on the What The Frock! Comedy show on the Sunday afternoon. With a one-hour timeslot, I’d booked Rosie Wilby as MC, and Shazia Mirza and Danielle Ward for 20-minute slots. It seemed a tough call – the ballroom turned out to be not a ‘room’ but a huge sunken space within the main foyer, meaning there was a lot of background noise and distractions. But it also meant that as well as filling our 500 seats, we gained about 200 extra audience members who were standing around the edges, sitting on the floor at the front, and pulling up chairs to peer over the balcony to watch. It was fabulous. And where else was I going to put on a show where our ‘warm-up act’ was Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray (who had done a piece on What The Frock! earlier in the week), and where we were succeeded by Sandi Toksvig?

The tweets and messages I’ve since received from people in the audience, who previously didn’t know about What The Frock! but who had a wonderful time, and who also discovered one or two comedians they didn’t previously know, has made it all so worthwhile. Putting on any show is never a piece of cake – there are contracts to sign, money to be negotiated, publicity to garner, and inevitably technical hitches on the day. But the buzz of the day and the resulting feedback is what always makes it worthwhile. Even as I sat squashed into an uncomfortable corner of a bumpy coach for three hours going home, I was still basking in the glow of a weekend where the women deservedly won.

So, thank you to everyone at WOW and the Royal Festival Hall for inviting What The Frock! along and for taking a punt on an up and coming comedy event. I had a ball, and whether or not What The Frock! comes back for WOW 2014, I’ll certainly be there, come hell or high water.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This is the kind of thing the Bristol Old Vic excels at. The contemporary retelling of a Shakespearean play that combines traditional theatre with modern manners in a seamless way.

Directed by Bristol Old Vic Artistic Director Tom Morris, A Midsummer Night’s Dream fuses puppetry from the Handspring Puppet Company with live performance in an effortless interpretation that perfectly captures the famous comic story’s themes of love, fairy tale, reality, magic and danger.

But in this latest incarnation, puppets are not simply wooden marionettes or creatures operated by string… here they take on a new life, and in turn imbue new life in seemingly inanimate objects. In this case, planks of wood. Whenever a cast member isn’t primarily involved in a scene, they pick up a plank and animate it so that it becomes a fairy in a woodland scene, a musical instrument, the moving wind, and any number of other elements. For me, the music from the planks was particularly impressive.

I’m a recent convert to puppets after having seen Kneehigh’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio last month. (A VERY recent convert, you’ll agree!). And the use of puppets between these two plays couldn’t be more contrasting. 

While Kneehigh’s use was fairly traditional, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the puppets encompass all manner of objects – whether these are the planks mentioned above, or beautiful Grecian masks, or the naughty Puck created from an oilcan, basket and saw (manipulated by three actors simultaneously). As these are interspersed with a healthy dose of human acting, the combined effect is one that keeps the audience on their toes. The wealth of imagination in Morris’ production is staggering, but at times it gets a little overwhelming.

There is some fine human acting in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, too – most notably from Akiya Henry as Hermia, who is the funniest and most endearing character in this entire production. Another highlight is Miltos Yerolemou’s Bottom… which combines puppetry and human acting to create a donkey that quite clearly steals the show. I’m loathe to say too much in case I spoil it for anyone, but all I can say is that when you see Bottom, you will know exactly what I mean.

But for me, the ultimate highlight is the very finale of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the giant puppets of Titania and Oberon come to life and dominate the whole stage – and this is a set that makes full use of the revitalised Old Vic’s deep, deep stage. Actors Saskia Portway and David Ricardo Pearce are both excellent in these roles.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed at Bristol Old Vic until May 4. Click here for furtherinformation and to book tickets. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Boy In A Dress

La JohnJoseph is a third-gendered, fallen Catholic, ex-fashion model. And this is her raw and exposed autobiographical story (currently being performed at Bristol Old Vic). Everything you’re about to watch is based on La JohnJoseph’s own life.

And what a life that’s been, despite her relatively young years (she was born in 1982). La JohnJoseph is the eldest of eight children, born to a Liverpudlian mother who’s had more husbands than Elizabeth Taylor, and who grew up in poverty, moving from house to house and school to school.

But arguably that’s not what made her childhood difficult. That had more to do with the fact everyone thought John Joseph (named after the Pope) was a girl. As she admits, as a child she believed that to be a girl was inferior to being a boy, but now she wears her third-gendered identity as a badge of honour.

The idea of gender identity is clearly the dominant theme in Boy In A Dress, and in addition to La JohnJoseph, the stage is also occupied by his female counterpart (Erin Siobhan Hutching) and a mannequin – all of which represent different parts of this third-gendered character. They’re supported by a keyboard player (Ed Jaspers), whose music weaves the story together.

Music plays a key role in Boy In A Dress, with La JohnJoseph performing reinterpretations of classics such as Sweet Child Of Mine (interspersed with the story of when his mum tried to have him taken into care), and All Apologies (interspersed with memories of his school truancy spent in public toilets).

Costume obviously also plays a big part, and La JohnJoseph and Erin share clothes, shoes and appearances seamlessly, as they merge into different parts of the same character. In addition, the centre of the stage is dominated by an enormous wardrobe over which the actors climb and dance, and through which they repeatedly emerge. Whether or not this is a nod to the wardrobe in Mr Ben (“as if by magic…”), the wardrobe in Narnia (which leads to another world), or an unsubtle reference to coming out of the closet… it doesn’t really matter. The wardrobe becomes its own character; it’s drawn on, graffitied, abused and repeatedly recreated right in front of our eyes.

La JohnJoseph is like the child Marc Almond and Lulu never had, and her show also starkly reveals a great deal about La JohnJoseph’s difficult relationship with her real mother. It would be interesting to know if she’s seen the show, and how she feels about it.

As a show about the way society views gender, and the rigidity with which most people see the sexes, Boy In A Dress works brilliantly. La JohnJoseph is a very likeable and fascinating character, she doesn’t invite sympathy or remorse, instead she shares and informs.

Boy In A Dress is performed in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio until March 2. Click here for more information

A Watershed moment for printed media

I read some sad news today that hit me surprisingly hard – much harder than it should have done given all the other shit going down these days. But perhaps in light of all that other shit (unemployment, poverty, coldness - and that's just in our house), this seemingly low-level sad news was heightened. Then again, this particular bit of sad news is only happening due to all the other shit that’s screwing up our world economy.

In short, my favourite cinema (Watershed in Bristol) is no longer going to be printing a monthly brochure. Wait! Before you click away and read something about genuine tragedy, consider this information in context.

Production costs 

The monthly, glossy, A5 Watershed brochure is folding due to high print costs and the time it inevitably takes staff to produce. But it is also folding due to the variety of other means in which customers can apparently get the same information. In monetary terms, it makes no sense to spend a few thousand a month (I’m guessing) on printing and distributing a well-produced booklet, when customers can get up-to-the minute information that duplicates this online via computers and smartphones, as well as weekly email bursts.

Technology and times are changing, but not in the favour of printed media.

This makes me very sad. I’m a print journalist. I grew up in the 1980s and got my fortnightly news fix from Smash Hits. If anything happened in those intervening two weeks, I either heard about it on Radio 1 or simply waited 14 days for the next inky rag to arrive through the door. That was how it was, and I liked it. Times were stress-free. There weren’t a million news sources on 20 platforms all simultaneously wanting to invade my consciousness, demand my attention and suck at my energy and happiness.

As a print journalism student in the 1990s, I was taught paper proof marks, learned how to copy edit on paper, and how to research background information via libraries, telephone calls and old-fashioned face-to-face communication. As times changed, I moved with them (reluctantly), and now I’m as guilty as anyone – I have a MacBook Pro, an iPhone 4 and a Nexus 7.

Digital technology

I’m only 35. But I steadfastly refuse to enjoy interactive i-magazines, I’ve never read an e-book, and I prefer reading a printed newspaper to its digital cousin. All of these things combine to make me no longer want to be a journalist (my dream since childhood, pre-internet), and to find something ‘real’ to do. I passionately hate the way digital culture is killing printed media. A website on a glassy screen will never replicate the joy of turning the pages in a well-designed magazine.

Which is why I feel so sad about the demise of Watershed’s brochure. The editorial introductions from cinema staff are not reproduced anywhere on the website (although there are podcasts, which I’ve no desire to listen to). And the sense of authority and personality I feel from reading printed descriptions of the upcoming films in no way echoes the online version – even though the text is the same. I’ve considered why this might be, and firmly believe the immediacy of holding tactile, pliable, folding and malleable paper information far outweighs the tedium of staring at yet another screen. I stare at screens all day for work, the last thing I want to do when considering leisure (and going to Watershed is leisure) is stare at yet another bloody screen to enable me to achieve that down time.

A bit of autobiography 

I first lived in Bristol in 1996/7, when I was a goofy 18/19 year old pretending I’d moved out of home. I did a secretarial training course at Pamela Neave’s (it’s still there, near the Hippodrome, but no longer a college) and spent every spare hour in Watershed, where I was introduced to so many exciting films that would otherwise never have crossed my path. The monthly Watershed brochure (in those days an oblong booklet) was a treat that revealed my entertainment for the coming month, and I followed it religiously. And after I’d been to see the films, I cut out the relevant section from the booklet and pasted it in my nerdy scrapbook… along with the ticket and my handwritten review. (Don’t judge!)

When I moved back to Bristol in 2008, on my second night in the city I returned to Watershed and saw Somers Town. I hadn’t been to Watershed in more than 10 years, but it was reassuringly familiar and I felt right at home. 

In my first year back in Bristol I was doing an MA in Cinema Studies, which gave me the perfect excuse to go to Watershed several times a week and see pretty much everything they were showing, ‘cos it’s really cheap to go to a matinee with an NUS card! (And I’ve still got all those tickets, tons of them, stuck in another scrapbook.) All of those choices were informed by Watershed’s printed brochure.

An inferior experience 

For some reason, the first time I made a choice from the website sticks in my mind. I decided to go to Watershed on a whim, consulted the website as there was no brochure to hand, and saw Wendy & Lucy after also booking my tickets online (another first). I’m not making it up, the experience felt different and it felt lesser. For some reason, that cinema experience felt inferior to the others, even though the film was excellent.

So even now, in 2013, I continue to book in person or over the phone, and around the 20th of each month I start keeping an eye out for the new Watershed brochure, and it’s always a treat to be grabbed and savoured. 

I’ll miss the printed Watershed brochure. Obviously, I’ll get over it and move into the 21st Century with the rest of you. But what the folding of the brochure symbolises to me is the further marginalisation of centuries of printed media history – a format I wholeheartedly and unconditionally love. And this makes me feel very sad.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for bearing with me in this very indulgent post. It’s intended as a celebration of quality printed paper mediums, and a mini eulogy for Watershed’s brochure (1982-2013, age 31, RIP).