Friday, 13 February 2015

'The Life and Times of Fanny Hill' at Bristol Old Vic

The hoopla around the Bristol Old Vic’s mega production of The Life And Times of Fanny Hill has been huge. Most of this centres on the titillating factors surrounding the play’s origins as the most sensational, and outrageous, pornographic novel of the 18th Century. But actually, April de Angelis’ recent reworking of John Cleland’s novel is much more feminist than you might imagine for a piece about prostitution.

I’ll make no bones of the fact that I’m a feminist who is strongly opposed to the sex industry (not to the women who work in the industry, but to the men who exploit those women and to a society which enables this to happen). But this post isn’t the place to wade into that debate. But with this in mind, I ventured out to see The Life And Times of Fanny Hill with my feminist principles firmly in my pocket. As it turns out, there was no need to worry.

In de Angelis’ recreation of the novel, Fanny (played wonderfully by a dishevelled Caroline Quentin) is in her middle years and approached by a noble statesman (Mawgan Gyles) who has inherited her gambling debt… and requests she pays her debt off by penning her salacious memoirs, which he will publish and make his fortune (in turn becoming a pornographer himself, despite his facade of distaste for the whole industry of sex). Fanny negotiates herself a 15% cut and promptly sets to work… yet realises she has no memory of her exploits as a woman of the night because they have all blurred into one since she worked so much “in the dark”.

So she enlists the help of two sister prostitutes, Louisa (Phoebe Thomas) and Swallow (Gwyneth Keyworth), who recreate their own stories for Fanny with the help of a panting Dingle (Nick Barber), and here the bawdy exploits unfurl. Scene after scene is literally re-enacted as Fanny scribbles feverishly on paper, delighted at how well the book is coming together. So much so that she has no intention of her debtor getting his hands on her hand work. We learn how teenage Fanny was duped into a life of prostitution, not knowing what she was doing and having no means to stop it once she found out.

The stream of realities of life working on the streets peels away. No more the glamour, decadence and ‘happy hooker’ sham that Cleland and a million others have willingly painted in an attempt to ease their own consciences (or bury their heads in the sand). Instead, Fanny, Louisa and Swallow recount tales of abuse, rape, violence, dead babies, murder and a stream of other miseries and indignities that they suffered at the hands of punters, and at the hands of a society that condemns them for no other reason than the fact they had a shitty start in life.

It’s all dealt with sensitively, shockingly and abruptly. Quentin and Keyworth in particular are outstanding in their roles in Fanny Hill, melding the younger and the older and the sadness and jadedness of their lives. There is the sense that the women are survivors of circumstances, not victims of privileged men. Fanny teaches her debtor a harsh lesson, while exposing his own hypocritical lasciviousness, and ultimately reclaims her own life story (which isn’t her own to start with) and control of her destiny.

It’s interesting that the destiny of Fanny in the play and Fanny in the novel is very different - with male novelist Cleland painting Fanny as going off to a happy life of contentment, while female playwright de Angelis shows a more realistic view of Fanny descending into a sad, alcoholic, lonely twilight, where her comrades have desperately abandoned her in the hope of being considered respectable by the critical society that caused their downfall in the first place.

The Life and Times of Fanny Hill is performed at Bristol Old Vic until March 7. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

International Women's Day 2015 - Bristol events

Last year, I wrote a post rounding up the many and varied events happening in the Bristol area for International Women’s Day (March 8). It was phenomenally popular so I’m doing another one for 2015. This post will be regularly updated as I hear about events. If your event is not mentioned here, please post info about it in the comment section and I will add it into the body of the post.

£2 on the door
Who do you write for and what do you write about? In the theatre, there are proportionately far more male writers and directors than female, yet there are more female actors looking for work in the industry. For one evening, Hecate Theatre brings together five panellists from different backgrounds in the worlds of theatre and feminism to present and converse on what it means to write as a woman, for women, and about women.

One of the reasons for launching What The Frock! Comedy back in January 2012 was to celebrate and nurture new female comedians. So it produces a bi-monthly night showcasing new acts, as well as new material from more established comedians. Hosted by one of their two resident comperes, Cerys Nelmes (Fubar Radio host, Funny Women finalist 2012), New Kids On The Frock! is Bristol's very best new material / new talent night. In February, the line-up will feature Sooz Kempner, Harriet Dyer, Rachel Fairburn and Dotty Winters.

Three of the British folk scene’s finest, most formidable and forthright female acts take to the stage to celebrate International Women’s Day. The exquisitely harmonic songwriting duo and BBC 6 Music favourites O’Hooley & Tidow will be joined by the enchanting BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Finalists Lady Maisery and the irrepressible Leicester songwriter, activist and performer Grace Petrie. A rare opportunity to experience these thought provoking, heartfelt, entertaining and enthralling women.

This IWD all-day event is for women to come together to celebrate Bristol women’s achievements and to make new connections across our communities and networks. The day includes discussions and debates, spotlight speakers, performances, stalls, workshops and much more.

Join in with celebrating International Women's Day 2015 for a night of talks, music and great women! Speakers will include Angela Jarquín, a Nicaraguan Fairtrade cocoa producer, and local women's football team Easton Cowgirls presenting a short film on their recent visit to Palestine. There will also be performances from some of Bristol finest young singer-songwriters from the Gathering Voices pool of talent, and stalls from Fairtrade producers Zaytoun and Palestinian women's co-operatives.

Radical Funnyism is a benefit night raising funds for all four rape crisis centres across the South west from Gloucestershire to Cornwall. Compered by Cerys Nelmes, comedians tonight are Kate Smurthwaite, Sara Pascoe and Shazia Mirza.

£3.50 and charity donation
IWD Big Brekkie has become a landmark Bristol event.  Around 100 women step away from their desks to celebrate with women across the world. As entrepreneurs and business women they collect donations for Deki – Bristol’s microloan and training charity helping women work their way out of poverty. Relaxed informal networking.

Prices vary, check website
The two-day festival returns to the city on March 14-15 to celebrate the work of women writers. The programme features award-winning novelist and short story writer Michele Roberts, writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, poet and filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, and activists and writers Beatrix Campbell and Caroline Criado-Perez: some of the most influential and vibrant writers working today.

Hosted by the irrepressibly popular Jayde Adams (Funny Women winner 2014, London Cabaret Awards winner 2014), who is one of What The Frock!'s two resident MCs, the night brings you the best in female comedy talent. In March the line-up features London Hughes, Gabby Best and Evelyn Mok.

'Love And Fallout' by Kathryn Simmonds

*This review contains spoilers*

I know we’re only part-way through February but Love And Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds is easily the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year. It’s not often you get to read a novel about a relatively unexplored area of contemporary feminism that is not only fascinating, vivid and illuminating, but which also spares next to no time pandering to the bores of populist theory that such a novel also needs a love story, a romantic twist and a man at its core.

Which is why I struggled with the packaging. I know, I know - never judge a book by its cover. And with Love And Fallout the point has never been more proven.

The title, for starters, is misleading. This is not a novel about love and barely a novel about (nuclear) fallout. It is a novel about an area of feminist history that is rarely broached in fiction (the women’s peace camps at Greenham Common), which has been meticulously and intricately researched by Kathryn Simmonds. It is a novel about female friendship, about the search for self-identity, and the desire to give meaning to one’s life. It is, blessedly, not a novel about love.

The cover (a pretty illo of a waif-like clothed woman reclining in a bath, reading a book) is very misleading. At first glance, the cover, font and title identify this book to the casual browser as (yuck) chick-lit, which is to do a phenomenal miss-service to the author. Kathryn Simmonds has clearly spent months, if not years, delving into the world of the Greenham Common peace camps - her reconstruction here is so convincing that I was truly surprised to learn that Kathryn herself had not spent any time living at the camp. So to package the book as conventional chick-lit is a shame and will deter many readers who would surely love the content.

Lastly, the blurb on the back cover is misdirected. It plays heavily on the instigating act of our shero Tessa being set up in the present day for a TV makeover by her well-meaning friend and husband. Although how these two people could so woefully misjudge someone they’ve known for so long is implausible. This TV appearance, the blurb says, leads a former campmate from Greenham to get in touch with Tessa and kickstart the memories that unfold in the novel. Yet that in itself is not quite accurate. Because Angela, the former campmate, does not get in touch until close to the end of the book, so is therefore not the instigator for resurfaced memories, and her reappearance seems to have little effect on Tessa other than to ease a burden of guilt.

Easily the most absorbing area of Love And Fallout is the time at Greenham: the friendships forged, the life created, the return to basics, and the quest to redefine what it means to be a woman in the 20th Century. The echoes to how Greenham has impacted on modern day Tessa could have been more relevant if it hadn’t been repeated many times near the start of the book that it was something she hadn’t thought about for years. Yet as the revelations appear, it is clear her time there had such an impression on her that it caused her to rethink her previous life (bored secretary, lovelorn girlfriend) and become an ardent campaigner and activist for life.

I struggled with the lack of depth given to key characters. Tessa herself seems like a drip - it took guts to pack in her cosy suburban life and move to the cold mud of Greenham, yet no other evidence of these guts is displayed in a character who seems to repeatedly lack backbone or strength of character (why doesn’t she leave her boring, cheating, selfish husband who misunderstands her? Why does she just forgive Maggie for secretly dating Tessa’s teenage boyfriend who left her heartbroken?). Tessa is a doormat!

And of the many characters we meet at Greenham, there are equally as many opportunities to explore female types who usually never make it into literature… yet time and again these opportunities pass without expansion. Particularly with regards to Rori - who is considered important enough to be the character depicted on the cover and the instigator for most of the novel. Rori is a fascinating character but when she dies unexpectedly, what shocks me is the almost non-existent amount of grief displayed and the scant amount of time spent to exploring this in the book. It doesn’t make sense given how pivotal she was!

But despite all this, I return to my original claim that Love And Fallout is the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year. Because despite the frustrating packaging, misleading blurb and lack of depth to most characters… it is refreshing to read a novel that explores a relatively recent yet untouched area of women’s history, and that doesn’t resort to pitching women against each other in a fight over a man. Sure, there are a lot of shortcomings in this book, but it is ultimately a page-turning read that I sped through in almost one day and I heartily recommend it.

More than anything, Love And Fallout reminds us not to judge a book by its cover. Because this is a novel that has much greater depth and value than its failed packaging implies.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Bristol Women’s Literature Festival 2015

The Bristol Women’s Literature Festival returns to the city on March 14-15 to celebrate the work of women writers. The programme features award-winning novelist and short story writer Michele Roberts, writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, poet and filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, and activists and writers Beatrix Campbell and Caroline Criado-Perez: some of the most influential and vibrant writers working today. 

Giving the event her seal of approval, Bidisha describes it as: "A stage full of brilliant, brainy, articulate and witty women discussing literature, women, history, activism and the future. An audience full of literature-lovers and woman-likers of all ages, races and walks of life. If anything restores a woman's faith that we are not just roaring but writing and reading, it's the Bristol Women's Literature Festival."

In the same way that my own event What The Frock! Comedy was set up in 2012 to challenge the exclusion of women from comedy, the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival was set up in 2013 to celebrate the diversity of women writers, counter the male dominance of literature festival line-ups, and promote women’s writing and history. Please click the link to the website for full information of the individual events and how to buy tickets.

Festival founder Siân Norris says: "I decided it wasn’t enough to be frustrated at the continued marginalisation of women writers in our cultural scene. I needed to do something about it ... It is a real and vital opportunity to talk about women’s writing and women’s role in shaping and influencing our culture – both historically and in the present."

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Gwyneth Lewis - 'Advantages Of An Older Man'

A bitesize novella, coming in at a satisfyingly even 100 pages, poet Gwyneth Lewis’ Advantages Of An Older Man is an enjoyable romp from Swansea to New York via the afterworld.

Our heroine Jennie has begrudgingly moved home to live with her parents and has taken up a job in the Dylan Thomas Centre where she hankers after an elusive aspiring poet who remains oblivious to her attentions. After an artistic experiment goes wrong, Jennie seems unsurprised to find herself being haunted by the ghost of Dylan Thomas himself - a character struggling to accept his place in the afterworld, to shake off his former identity as a drunken rat, and to reinvent himself as a long-distance runner.

Gwyneth Lewis’ writing is a sumptuous treat and, even without knowing she is the former National Poet for Wales, the reader of Advantages Of An Older Man might easily assume the writer of this work of prose is a poet. Such is the fluidity and succinctity of her writing.

While at first glance the premise of Advantages Of An Older Man might seem preposterous (and I can see why you might think that based on what I put above), this is more than a novel about a young woman’s frustrated haunting by an annoying ghost. It is a sensitive and funny piece of writing about death, our individual perceptions of ourselves, and the gamut of emotions we experience on a rolling basis.

That this novella can squeeze discussions of poetry, love, death and running into a mere 100 pages is something that pleases this reader enormously.