Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Brief Interlude in Stratford

Shakespeare as Plump Burgher
It being that dreary time before the fully-fledged December debacle we headed over to Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday last to see the RSC do Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan Theatre.  Getting there involves a flight to Birmingham and then, if you're brave, a rented car the 30 mile journey to Stratford.  This trip involves a nightmarish criss-crossing of the spaghetti junctions around Birmingham so the expense of a taxi might be best for the well heeled or the nervous. We made it thanks to the excellent GPS aboard my Audi A4 - a most unexpected surprise from Herz.  They must have been out of Astras.

If you're just going for a short trip you might as well large it so we stayed in the Arden Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel directly across the road from the theatre.  It has fine old photographs of RSC alumni in the reception area and I was drawn to a striking one of Helen Mirren in her prime.  There was also a moody shot of Vivien Leigh - an equally alluring woman.  The rooms were large and luxurious and the wi-fi worked - so no complaints there.  They did a pre-theatre dinner for our party which allowed us to eat two courses before the show and come back afterwards for cheese and dessert. Civilised stuff.

Talking of formidable women, I noticed Hilary Mantel sitting at a nearby table when we came into the bar.  I know her husband from an old technical writing gig I did in Winchester so I went over to say hello.  She was very amiable telling me about two plays based on her recent novels that are forthcoming at the RSC - so this was a scouting visit for them.  My erstwhile colleague had slipped his technical writing yoke to become her manager.  She has extraordinarily bird-like features. Very short and very lady-like.  A bit Womans Ownish in demeanour.

We had prime tickets for the play - sitting within spitting distance of the action just  above the circular stage.  The show began with an arful nude scene where Cleopatra bathes in milk (I think - it was done in subdued lighting).  She's a well upholstered black actress and she plays the role as a woman of fleshly appetites rather than a seductive siren with political motives.  A Juillard graduate called Joaquina Kalukango, she seems very young for the part.  Antony is played as a posturing stud (sort of sub Erroll Flynn) by Jonathan Cake, who has form in Desperate Housewives.  There's a live orchestra above the stage and there's plenty of dance, colour and life in the production.  The text however is cut and minced in a fairly radical manner.  I recognised a few lines - but not many. Good fun but hardly a classic production in every sense of that adjective.  And you certainly never felt the real shock and awe that tragedy should engender.

Breakfast the next morning was entertaining (oh and the food was superb).  Most of our fellow diners had the vaguely raffish look of actors, or former actors - the age profile suggesting the latter.  One larger than life character came down in expensive white pyjamas and dressing gown and elaborately kissed his waitress before settling down to breakfast.  His booming delivery ensured we heard his every utterance to the mute and chastened looking woman who joined him.  Later he appeared in the lobby in an ankle length astrakhan coat - still booming away.  A Michael Gambon type but not the man himself.

After breakfast I went across the road to watch the early morning rowers on the Avon - mostly women doing their double sculls training amid the many swans.  Girls in smart leggings pass by on their way in to the RSC building - presumeably rehearsing for the next show.  Next stop was the Holy Trinity church nearby to have a look at Shakespeare's grave.  Not much to see really, just a flagstone in the chancel with the famous words inscribed - and reproduced rather shoddily in an adjacent sign.  Above the grave in an alcove was a plaster bust (much restored) of the great man.  Its supposed to be a good likeness. If so, he looked like your average middle-aged burgher with good capon lined. Hardly a romantic figure.  Who knows?  Who cares?  His legacy is secure.  The town teemed with tourists but our work was done and we hit the road back to Birmingham.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Half Light at Hillsboro Fine Art

Lamb Series

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 17 November 2013.

Paddy Graham is one of the great old warriors of Irish art. His canvases are battlegrounds marked by the blood, sweat and tears he expends in the act of creation.  Religious iconography, nudes, pages from sketchbooks, cryptic phrases, and traces of earlier endeavours jostle for position. The man from Mullingar is still struggling with the sacred and the profane but this exhibition also shows a more meditative side. The Half Light series consists of three large diptychs inspired by the sea off the coast of Mayo.  These are not conventional seascapes but rather recreations of the feelings engendered by Graham's coastal encounters. They invite contemplation in much the same way as Mark Rothko's (a painter much admired by Graham) work does.  Two of the works are predominantly grey and formidably austere.  The third is an ethereal lime green with a jagged grey gash in the middle. The accompanying Lamb series comprise six smaller pieces where grey again predominates but this time the austerity is compromised by sacred hearts and gaping crotches. The Lamb of God contending with the sins of the world.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Girleen

Eimear McBride

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 3 November 2013.

Irish writers seem to thrive in exile, the farrow who escaped the sow.  Joyce in Zurich, Beckett in Paris, and Wilde in London are but a few examples.  Eimear McBride, the latest star in the Irish literary firmament, has fetched up in Norwich.  Her technically daring and profoundly disturbing first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, is one of the favourites for the Goldsmiths Prize, to be announced on 13 November.  McBride has been described "as that old-fashioned thing, a genius", and time may show it's not too fanciful to align her with these illustrious predecessors.

She is an ardent admirer of Joyce and her stylistic daring was inspired by the maestro's example.  In common with Joyce she experienced a peripatetic childhood.  Her parents were from the North of Ireland but they moved to Liverpool, before she was born, to escape the sectarian violence.  When she was three the family moved to Tubercurry in County Sligo and after that to Castlebar.  McBride does not have warm romantic memories of the West of Ireland.  She is particularly exercised by the primitive attitudes towards women and sexuality that she experienced there.  "Being an Irish woman I am very interested in issues around sexuality.  Growing up there as a female was a very difficult thing."  The utterly apposite term "girleen" which recurs in her book encapsulates perfectly these attitudes - the double diminutive speaking volumes.  She went to London at 17 to study drama and has only returned for family visits.

Prior to moving to Norwich, McBride spent four years in Cork.  This was not without its own difficulties.  She found our second city very insular and clannish. "It was very hard to get to know people.  If you weren't related to them or went to school with them they didn't want to know".  Also, her dealings with the local arts scene didn't go too well: "everyone is so bloody territorial, nobody wants to help anyone else out".  McBride found Norwich much more welcoming and quickly gained friends and contacts within its arts community.  She is settled there with her young daughter √Čadaoin and her husband William Galinsky, who is director of the prestigious Norfolk and Norwich Festival.  She has no desire to go back to Ireland but would at some stage love to return to London where she spent 12 years:  "it's the only place I ever felt at home".

Ask the average Irish person about Norwich and you'll probably find that Alan Partridge and Norwich City FC are as much as you'll glean. Our diaspora is snagged by Liverpool and Birmingham long before it gets that far east.  Once the second city of England, Norwich boasts a magnificent 11th century Norman cathedral, and, notwithstanding the philistinism of its famous fictional son, is a thriving centre of culture and the arts.

I travelled there recently to talk to McBride.  While hardly the only Gael in town, McBride maintains that she doesn't know of any other Irish people living there apart from Graham Linehan. And she's never met him. But this move to Norwich launched her literary career.  She had finished her novel nine years ago while living in London and hawked it around the publishing circuit.  While she garnered fulsome praise and admiration from all sides, none of those she approached were willing to take a chance on such a stylistically challenging work.  It blushed unseen in a cupboard at home for years until a chance encounter with Henry Layte at an arts event in Norwich brought it forth.  He was a director of Galley Beggar Press, a small local publishing house.  He offered to read it, immediately saw its potential, and promptly published it.  First novels come and go like mayflies but McBride's book grew legs thanks to a couple of very high-profile reviews.  David Collard sang its praises in the Times Literary Supplement.  He described himself as "seduced by the beautiful syncopations of McBride’s prose".  This was followed by an uncommonly lengthy and even more enthusiastic review by Adam Mars Jones in the London Review of Books.  His three page paen referenced Joyce, Beckett, Hemingway, and even Roberto Bolano in his detailed analysis of the book.   He concluded his review with the words "when this little book is famous".  So far so literary.   An even more influential review, from a readership perspective, was one by Anne Enright in the Guardian.  She described it as "an instant classic – an account of Irish girlhood to be set alongside O'Brien's The Country Girls for emotional accuracy and verve".

Someone reading her novel might expect its author to be an Irish version of Virginia Despentes, a hard-bitten habitu√© of the wild side.  Or, even a radical feminist, given to espousing the Andrea Dworkin line on sexual relations.  However, before we met we had exchanged a few emails that suggested otherwise.  They spoke of a "toddler" and conventional baby-sitting concerns.  Also, she had arranged for us to meet at a gastro pub called the Mulberry on Unthank Road - a cosy choice in a nice middle-class area.  In person she turned out to be friendly, open and totally lacking in any overt angst, or arty preciousness.  Her accent is Irish but neutrally so - it's hard to pin a county to it.  While I wouldn't say she had a sunny disposition, she was easy company, talked freely, and has a good sense of humour.  Her mood only darkened when the subject turned to some of the themes in her book: sexual mores in the West of Ireland and the death of her beloved older brother.  Her father died when she was just eight and she still remembers him affectionately as someone who taught her to read and guided her towards books. His death when she was eight did not affect her as deeply as that of her older brother Donagh who died at 28, just after she finished her drama course in London. She found his death following a protracted battle with cancer "very devastating" and admitted that "it shattered my confidence".  This event, which is fictionalised and transmuted in her novel, threw her into turmoil about her direction in life.  "Acting had been protection" she says, and now she was facing existential truths.  She travelled to Russia and after a period of reflection there she decided to abandon her theatrical ambitions and try her hand at writing. With the support of her husband and a string of temping jobs in London she completed her novel in six months. A burglary which resulted in the loss of all her hand-written preparatory notes only spurred her on to finish it.  There things rested until that chance encounter in Norwich brought it blinking into the light of day.

Many readers first reaction to her book is to baulk at the twisted syntax, the cryptic language, and above all the sexual violence.  The rape scene and the escalating sexual abasement portrayed in the book are designed to shock and confront the reader.  McBride concedes that these scenes are deliberately cranked up and exaggerated to make her point about the attitudes to women she encountered in the West of Ireland.  There is also a feminist agenda.  She believes that "casual sex was sold to women as a form of liberation" and her protagonist is depicted as acting on this to an extreme that would satisfy the Marquis de Sade.

While her heroine's escapades may be far removed from the bovine carnality of Molly Bloom, McBride's stylistic idiosyncrasies owe  a direct debt to Joyce.  She makes no bones about her admiration for his cavalier attitude towards punctuation and conventional language. When she was writing Girl (as she terms her novel, an uncharacteristically luvvie lapse) she kept a quotation by Joyce (from a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver) over her desk:

"One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot."

This is Joyce's variation on Emily Dickinson's:  "Tell the truth but tell it slant".  McBride followed this dictum in creating a uniquely effective language to recount her tale.

A number of reviewers, while praising her work, have suggested that it might be a one-off masterpiece.  Its style and content are so shockingly original that it might be difficult to emulate.  McBride has no such reservations herself.  Her second novel is nearly completed and although she wasn't prepared to tell me too much about it she conceded that it was set in London and smilingly added that there would be lots more sex.