ARTYFACTS: May 2006

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Day 23 - Roeg film maker

Nicolas Roeg is a film maker with a unique style. His montage effects, freewheeling approach to narrative, cross-cutting and atmospheric film making have given him a CV that puts him among the very best of British film makers. This session made you want to rush back to see Don't Look Now, Walkabout, The Man Who fell to Earth and Bad Timing.

He's a gentle man, who, by his own admission, mumbles a lot. This, along with the poor sound, and no microphones for questions, made it a bit of a trial to listen to, but he's full of great insights into film making, so you end up ignoring all of this and soaking in the views of a master.

Film making
He doesn't storyboard and sees the script as a guidance. The script, for example, for Walkabout, was only 14 pages long. He loves to shoot lots and use the edit as an opportunity to create atmosphere. Some good examples were shown on the screen and through anecdotes. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, a scene with Bowie had a man belching, this was kept in as the first thing the alien heard on our planet. One of Roeg's talents seems to be his eye for these unscripted moments.

Modern movies
He sees the business now as more of a business than it's ever been, but still sees a sense of daring among young film makers. As the effect of the novel on film fades, he sees young film makers and young audiences rely less on tight narratives, and with the rise of the internet and other media, including reality TV ("people are being hypnotised by the strangeness of reality"), sees audiences cope with looser plots. Unlike the administrators, lawyers and business people in the industry, he sees a more sophisticated form of visual literacy. Interesting point about film being in the grip of the novel, which is, in his view, in itself a relatively recent thing. This event, is, rather strangely, a book event!

Flash Gordon
A questioner asked what had happened to the fateful Flash Gordon. Roeg spent three weeks in a hotel room reading the comics and uncovering some pretty saucy scenes which the cartoon guys had slipped in under the eyes of text-only newspaper editors. Full of lines such as "I'm coming Gordon". When it came to his interpretation the studio were having none of it.

The final question was, and there's always one, "Do you have a favourite film that you've made?" His answer - "no". And could someone oil the doors in The Duke of York's? They groan and squeak like hell.

4 stars

Day 22 - Tavener - zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I tried hard. As a spectacle, the symbolic cross formation of the choristers, musicians and conductor worked well. The peripheral choirs also worked to good effect but the Tibetan horn and percussion instruments smacked of ecumenical tokenism.

The problem, for me, is Tavener's obsession with orthodox Christianity. This seems to be regarded as deep and meaningful, but is it anything more than an affectation. Tavener gets away with a lot of nonsense on the pretence that he's a composer. This means he can serve up some truly Byzantine (literally) lyrics/prayers, with a downright fundamentalist message - and get away with it. A cleavage rich soprano wouldn't get far in that world. In fact, women full stop don't get a look in.

One could argue that one must separate this content from the form, and enjoy the music as a thing in itself. That's fine, but well over two hours of repetitive choral work was something to be endured, not enjoyed. The tenor and bass pieces from the gospel were more laboured than a third-rate rap song. There were unearthly moments, especially the female choir's use of 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me' made remote by placing the choir behind the audience.

The orthodox church emphasises worship, but the piece is so liturgical that, if you have any sort of humanist beliefs, it is almost impossible to find any sense of joy. I refuse to worship someone who wants to take us back rather than forward. I took my son - who thought it was the most boring experience of his, admittedly young, life.

1 star

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Day 21 - DBC Pierre - true or false?

DBC Pierre doesn't take these readings too seriously and slugging from a bottle of vodka along with lurid anecdotes smacked of a 'bad boy' having to tell everyone how very 'bad' he really is. However, I warmed to him as his descriptions of the writing process were lucid.

The interviewer got off to a rather nervous start, despite an introduction from the Festival Programmer explaining that he had been here 2 years ago, he introduced the writer as having last been here 4 years ago - Pierre explained that his first book hadn't been written then. After this flustered start, Pierre started to warm up. He has a low and powerful voice which, I suspect, makes everything sound much more important than it really is, but it works well when he reads.

He made much of his controversial background (he has been accused of exaggeration and fiction) with lurid stories about being brought up in Mexico on a diet of drugs and cigarettes , where everything is turned up to full volume. Although it seemed obvious he was making some of this up as he went along. His answers to the woman who asked him what he did when he got writer's block and the guy who asked him whether Balham had been an inspiration to him as a writer, were clearly tongue in cheek.

He mentioned Irvine Welsh, so I asked him what he thought of the Welsh/Palahniuk genre as well as asking why he wanted to write a 'decadent' novel. He clearly likes Welsh as a person and had been out on the razz with him and Shane MacGowan recently in Dublin. On 'decadence', he wanted to write about sex, but beyond pornography into its more disturbing long-game psychology.

Questions about questions
I've enjoyed the book sessions but the chairs often don't know how to handle questions from the floor. They need to identify those with their hands up, line them up in order - you, then you, then you - and direct the people with the mikes to the questioners. Some of the staff with the roving mikes have been hapless. Fixed mikes are also a bad idea - those in the middle of a row can't get out and it intimidates many to walk up the aisle.

3 stars

Louise Elliot Quintet
Of the lunchtime concerts I've attended, I've enjoyed jazz the most. The bright open windows still annoy me, as jazz creates an intimate atmosphere and the light pouring into the theatre has a negative effect. Nevertheless, this was another driven and spicy set including latin , blues and Ellington inspired arrangements. The highlights for me were the blistering trumpet solos from S African Claude Deppa. Nice to see Robert Wyatt down front. He was clearly enjoying himself as much as the rest of us.

4 stars

Friday, May 26, 2006

Day 20 - Hitchens - a Paine in the neck

Given Hitchens penchant for unpopular causes, using nothing more than reason and wit, I was looking forward to this lecture, but it was a lazy performance and at times oddly fractious.

Lazy pen portrait
His Thomas Paine lecture was nothing more than a pen portrait. He made no attempt to relate Paine’s ideas to the modern world and simply strung together a sequence of anecdotes. It did nothing more than illuminate Hitchens own attachment to reason, anti-theism and republicanism. Like Galloway his love of rhetoric is really about him loving himself.

Questions and answers (sometimes)
Things did get a little more seismic in the Q&A session. There was a hilarious example of muddle-headedness, as some questioners made complaints about not being able to get to the fixed microphone to ask their question. After a couple of minutes of this nonsense, Hitchens lost his patience and said, “If you really want to ask your question walk to the fucking mike! That’s my last word on this fucking question.” Some continued to holler from the floor, and he refused to answer their questions. They had a point, as a roving mike was clearly necessary. However, the point was more than laboured.

Q Wasn’t Spinoza ahead of Paine in his attachment to reason, giving it a deeper philosophical basis?
A Hitchens was vague on Spinoza and could only recall some irrelevant biographical detail.

Q I represent a Brighton resident who is holed up in Guantanamo bay? Do you think the US has abandoned those principles you attribute to Paine?
A I’ve been to Abu Graib – it’s better than it was under Saddam. Hitchens has a simple tactic – he avoids answering the question by giving an eloquent answer to another question.

Q When can we expect another debate with George Galloway?
A He had a go at George Galloway, claiming that he had invited him to debate six times and had met with six refusals. He also looked forward to writing his prison diaries. Cheap shot. This all goes back to Galloway giving him a hard time in Washington when he called him “a drink-soaked former Trotskyist poppinjay”, effectively checkmating him in the use of juxtapositions of outdated adjectives and obscure nouns (a favourite Hitchens device). My favourite galloway jibe at hitches is, " You know, Hitchens, you’re a court jester. Not of Camelot, like other ridiculous liberals before you, but at the court of the Bourbon Bush".

Q Who, in our own times, has taken up Paine’s causes?
A Perhaps Havel and Mandela. Certainly not that bloated bullfrog who sits astride Venezuela.

Q Why has the US abandoned Palestine?
A Israel is a better place than palestine. Hitchens completely ignored the question.

Q Will the UK ever be a republic?
A Hitchens lambasted the Royal Family as ‘ a clapped-out roadshow – it’s finished’. Charles he called an “organic Islamicist”. Whatever way you look at it, being subject to the vagaries of a hereditary system was absurd. Hitchens was at his best on this subject.

Hitchens was unfairly antagonistic to questioners, who were polite and clear in their questions. Mishearing one questioner, then checking him on his use of grammar, was downright insulting. The cigarette being pointed at the audience from his lips like a gun was a schoolboy tactic. At one point he claimed not to have been asked a question by any women, despite the fact that he had given a long answer to a woman only moments earlier. Galloway was right; this guy has lost even his own plot. However, it was good to see a little passion in a book event. They can so easily turn into sycophantic sessions with questions such as, "What do you do when you get writer's block? How do you get your inspiration?..." This stirred up some passion on both sides. I met a lovely lady after the event who turned out to be the Sherriff of Sussex. Do we need any further proof taht England is the most civislised country in the world, when even our Sheriffs and polite, urbane and wear pearls! She was very quiet on Hitchens republicanism, mentioning only that she was meeting Charles and Camilla tomorrow.

3 stars

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Day 19 - Warp - the mess is the message

Despite the latecomers, general commotion (including the man sitting in front of me having huge drops of water drop on his head from the roof), the doppelganger dance got us all in the mood for something really special. Suddenly, the two dancers disappear and Jamie Liddell steps up to give us a 'Game of fools' from the excellent 'Multiply', a soul song that makes you want to weep with joy. Then jumps behind a huge mixing desk to deliver a set that defies description - beatbox, soul, jazz – it’s a continuous stream of vocals and beatbox deepened with layer upon layer of delay and effects. On top of this were images from a number of cameras being mixed behind Jamie onto a huge screen. Madness - and the young audience LOVED it. The intermission allowed them to fuel up for the second half. This was refreshingly lively, none of your intermission ice cream for this lot.

A heavier session from Plaid with some great moving images on the huge screen –mosquito animation, Iraq war sequence, abstract Kandisnsky on speed, architecture loops, most with accelerated sound, led us eventually into the fast and furious Random Dance in their RGB tee-shirts. This made the Ballet de Marseille look like caged, faux modernism, shop dummies. The open stage, huge sound from Plaid and Dionysian dance were exactly what the festival needed – something real, now, bold and different. Here was a dance event where the crowd whooped with sheer delight during the performance and roared with genuine satisfaction at the end. No ‘Bravos’ here, just brave stuff that mixes soul, beatbox, jazz, dance, video and film into an experience that you still have in your head when you waken up the next morning. The mess was the message – but what a mess!

5 stars

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Day 18 - Cooped up in convention

Oh how we laughed. Farce, for me, is like Chinese food, fine at the time but soon leaves me feeling empty. As for the endless puns, farting, burping, butler’s funny faces, funny Spanish foreigner, wigs falling off – it was the usual jaded stuff. However, the performance did lift itself out of these dull conventions with some new and inventive material. This included; a good Yiddish swearing skit, the stiff body piece, a substantial dose of nudity and an explicit ping pong gag. This took farce out of its safe zone. It could have done with being even more dangerous. In the end, really nothing more than a staged ‘Carry on…” movie.

2 stars

Chris Wood
I'm not so keen on over-nostalgic folk songs, and when Wood looks at the modern world, he doesn't like what he sees. The lyrics are melodramatic and maudlin, with none of the subtlety and musicianship of celtic folk.

At times this attitude trips over into Countryside Alliance values and even worse in the lyrics about St George fighting the Turk. And is it right for a professional singer to repeatedly hesitate and forget his lyrics? I'll reserve judgement on this as it's not my type of music, nor my culture. The audience adored him.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Day 16 - DV8 on TVC4

If you've never seen DV8, either live or on film, make sure it's one of these things you promise to do before you die. They're astonishingly good. I had seen The Cost of Living some time back and was interested to see how it fared as a TV programme.

I wasn't wholly convinced. Film gives you real locations and control over editing and therefore time. But this is an edgy piece and the physical presence of the live dancers was truly menacing on stage. It lost some of that menace on TV which can both distance and, because it is essentially a close-up medium, dilute the physicality of dance. But Lloyd is a smart guy and he did manage to make a credible film.

He was bold enough to go along to C4 having never directed a film in his life, but they trusted him enough to do the job. Interestingly, they had a budget for 50 mins but the programme ended up being 30 odd minutes long - with no budget cut. He was lucky on that one.

It opened up to the audience and I asked two questions:

1. The tyramnny of TV is the 30 min and 1 hour schedule. Do you think that the internet with YouTube and Google Video may suit dance better as it copes well with shorter, low budget pieces? Jan thought that TV will have to cope with this new threat but also thought that TV was still the best source of budgets.

2. Would you allow a film director with no choreography experience to come along and choreograph your next piece? His answer was interesting. No, because choreography is one-on-one direction and creative build, as opposed to the teamwork and general directing in a film. A reasonable answer.

A third question was:
3. Why don't they have more dance and less reality TV, (which I hate (the questioner not me))?
Jan explained that the only way dance gets a look-in on TV is because of the earnings from reality TV.

An interesting short reflection on how two very different media are coming to terms with each other but not enough revelations or questions from the audience.

2 stars

Day 15 - Charleston sways and swings

The Arts tend to steer clear of this debate; for fear it may uncover some unpalatable truths. John Carey’s excellent book ‘What good are the arts?’ stirred things up last year and this debate is a direct result.

Anyway the motion was, ‘An appreciation of the arts makes us better people – YES or NO’, and there was a great line up. Polly Toynbee chaired with John Carey and Blake Morrison arguing against, Howard Jacobson and Jude Kelly for.

Venue in motion
Charleston is an odd venue. In fact it isn’t really a venue at all, merely a tent in a field, and the facilities are deplorable. It was cold, so we went for a tea in the café – our two cups were stewed and lukewarm. When we handed them back we were met with an astonished ‘this is Charleston dear, how dare you complain’ sort of look. We got our replacements, which were barely any warmer. They are in dire need of some professional catering. As for the tent, I can forgive the fact that it was blowing a gale and that we were all in danger of being wrapped up in a bundle and blown towards the Old Man of Wilmington, what was odd was the seating. If you sat in the wings, at least two of the contributors had their backs to you, and as for the two lamps, curtains and old school lectern, it looked like set of a third rate school play.

Vote 1 – a resounding YES
The good news is that the debate really was a debate, and it was one hell of a bu fight. The howling gale may have added to the tempo. We were all asked to vote YES or NO on entry and Polly read out the results:

216 - YES
40 - NO

Not surprising really, as this is a doubly, self–selected audience; those who love the arts and those who can get to Charleston. Then add in the factor that Charleston was the seat of some of the most arrogant of aesthetes. Carey attacked them with some venom in The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Eight minute presentations
Jude Kelly
Jude Kelly started by interrogating the question. By ‘us’ she wanted to be clear that the arts were for all and not the few. Actually she would have been better interrogating the more problematic words, ‘appreciation’, ‘arts’ and ‘good’. Unfortunately, her arguments were simple appeals to those she knew and had met. She quoted no independent evidence for her case at all. Her final appeal was to ask a different and unrelated question, ‘Would you like to see the Arts diminish?’ This was simply an emotional appeal to the audience.

John Carey
If you’ve read the book you’ll know that he gathers a lot of evidence to support his case. These huge trials claim to show that an appreciation of the Arts does not make us morally better people. They make further claims that arts education does not lead to improvement in other subjects. The key references were Kreitler, Eisener, Laski and Bourdieu. He even makes a case for the arts making people worse, quoting a study that shows that actors and people working in the theatre “tend to be insensitive to other people’s feelings, treating them as objects to be amused, teased or manipulated”. He went on to claim that the arts, far from leading to democratic improvement, led to the reinforcement of social distinctions. As for ecstatic experience, he showed that sex and drugs were far more efficacious.

Howard Jacobson
Again Howard made no appeal to evidence but went for the student debate approach. “Have you ever been burgled by someone who had read Middlemarch?" he asked. He thought that, far from merely relecting life, watching Macbeth allowed one to enter his head and see a deeper side to life and thought and that the Arts had a functional role in freeing us the “better to enjoy and endure life”. Jacobson was affronted at the very suggestion, by Carey, that the Arts do not lead to intellectual improvement. At this point I saw Carey take a careful note, for this was to be the undoing of the YES vote.

Blake Morrison
Morrison thought that this idea of Victorian moral improvement uncovered a great deal of snobbery and he detested this type of social engineering argument. If the arts are the great repository of moral values then why are so many of its creators so distasteful? We can count a great many unpleasant, immoral, amoral, fascist and dysfunctional people in their ranks. He then bravely had a go at Charleston and the Bloomsbury group. Interestingly, Carey steered clear of this, despite his attack on the Bloomsbury group in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses. Morrison also attacked the Arts establishment for being too narrowcast in ignoring film and television. The guy behind me guffawed at the very mention of the word ‘television’. He was not here for debate.

OK, the fight was on and Polly opened it up to the audience. I asked the first question, a retort to Jacobson’s idea that burglars would do well to read Middlemarch. “Many ordinary people may find that they themselves have been burgled by people who have read and own a copy of Middlemarch. Their hard earned taxes and money from the companies they buy goods from, is siphoned off to subsidise opera seats for those who can afford to pay for the seats themselves”.

It turned into real ding-dong with both sides hurling Middlemarch examples to and fro. Jacobson argued that he’d rather have a carer that had read Middlemarch than one that had not. Carey stated that it mattered not one jot that a carer had read Middlemarch and so on. I have to say that the questions and debate were excellent. The audience were genuinely engaged, asked many interesting questions, and many were clearly rethinking their position, apart, that is, from a solid core that clapped every time something was said about the high worthiness of the arts. One guy, with what sounded like a German accent, simply stated that he had listened to the evidence, and thought that Carey was right. Very Teutonic. There was also one very thoughtful comment from a woman psychologist who, I think had also changed her mind or at least had been convinced by Carey and Blake.

Vote 2 – a 175% swing!
Rather than relate the whole debate, I’ll cut to the quick. The vote taken again, at the end, was astonishing.

187 - YES
110 - NO

The NOs had increased their share of the vote by 175%! Something else rather odd had happened here – see of you can spot the statistical oddity. We needed a four-wheel drive to get out of the field and sped back to brighton for a hot cup of tea.

5 stars

Craig Ogden
Ogden played us a wide selection of classical guitar pieces from Baroque through Classical to modern pieces and jazz. I also liked his short interludes, where he explained some of the tricks of his trade. Apparently, if you break a nail, you cut a piece from a ping-pong ball and glue it on, layers of tissue paper and superglue also work. Digital delay, the reason for amplification, retuning to mimic a Baroque Lute.

There was a clever build going on here with melancholy pieces at the start from John Downland, through some mood pieces by the Brighton composer Paul Carr, some dazzling classical work by Sor and some Australian woks inspired by the Barrier reef islands. Finally, some fiendishly clever jazz pieces. Lovely encore with an arrangement of Waltzing Matilda! Made me walk out with a big smile on my face.

I wasn’t so keen on the Carr work, except for the 2 am piece. If you’ve ever gently plucked away on a guitar, on your own, very late into the night, you’ll recognise the beauty of the instrument when its played with the lightest of touches in private against the silence. On the other hand, seeing a virtuoso play such a range of styles makes you feel very inadequate.

These lunchtime concerts seem to be sell-outs and are very enjoyable, although I still think that closing the curtains on the huge windows on either side of the auditorium would create more atmosphere.

3 stars

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Day 14 - Mad Fairy Queen has weekend in Brighton

Most people will never have heard of Purcell, or The Fairy Queen, but most will have heard his work; the opening bars of Pinball Wizard or the title song of A Clockwork Orange.

Only rediscovered in 1901 this 17th century work is a cut-down opera with music, singing, clowning, dancing, circus trapeze artists and puppetry. These 'festive' pieces are very difficult to adapt for a modern audience but this was a brave attempt, setting the whole piece in an asylum with four patients, psychiatrists and nurses.

A lonely patient shuffles on at the start, the audience laugh when the 'asylum' theme is revealed, then a second patient pisses against the side of the stage, falls off the stage, climbs into a box and is chased by a nurse through the middle of the stalls, clambering over the audience. This was wonderful. Meanwhile, the music, played on period instruments, was quietly entrancing.

What didn't work so well were the circus artists who seemed a little tame. If you're going to have trapeze, there needs to be a sense of danger and there's no room on a stage of this size for anything remotely dangerous. But other entertainments, especially the puppets, were very good. Wisely avoiding some of the duller aspects of puppetry, they played the ventriloquist card, and played it well. It's astonishing how quickly we succumb to the suspension of disbelief with ventriloquism, even when we can see the singers lips move and the fully lit people operating the puppets. I wonder if this could have been improved with a more serious attempt at masking the mechanics of the puppetry. This is, after all, a masque. I would also have loved to have seen this performed in the Pavilion. These masques were originally 'court' entertainment and cry out for some context and intimacy.

"The perfect introduction to opera for a new generation of theatre and music lovers" said the website - well the average age was certainly over 50 and probably nearer 60. Not quite, but who cares, we oldies had a good time.

3 stars

Friday, May 19, 2006

Day 13 – Melvyn Bragg gets ratty

Mr Whippy
I was eager to see Bragg in the flesh and the hairstyle didn’t disappoint – it does look like the hair portion of one of those Reagan masks that gangsters use to rob banks. He explained that the books were British, that he hadn’t included any novels because there were too many and none, he thought, had really changed the world in the way that his choices had. Neither were they the best 12 books that changed the world, quite simply 12 books that did change the world. He then exposed the roots of the English language (his book The Adventure of English is really rather good) and then went through all 12 with a focus on just four, Newton, Wilberforce, Marie Stopes and the King James Bible.

His 12 British books that changed the world

Sorry Melvyn, but the Magna Carta fits onto one page with a seal – that’s not a book. Wilberforce’s speech was, unsurprisingly, a speech! Never read Arkwright’s patent but I’ll bet it’s a patent, not a book. And aren’t Shakespeare’s plays…….. errrr plays? I know - I'm being too picky!

Mr Whippy gets ratty
The audience, of course, lapped him up and he is a rather eloquent speaker, with a great face - lots of wide grins and warm eyes. he also had some rather affected hand flourishes, which you never see on television as it's really a close-up medium. However, I suspect he doesn’t attract the audience he wants to attract, as he got rather ratty when it came to the questions. My suspicion is that he’d like a rather more academic audience and more relevant questions. This audience was, how can I put it, Radio 4 listeners but maybe more at the Archers end of the spectrum. The questions say it all. (I’ve paraphrased Bragg’s answers.)

Q I’ve travelled the world and think that cricket, rather than football, should have been your choice?
A Don’t be so bloody stupid – cricket comes nowhere near football in its popularity and geographical spread.

Q Novels have changed my life, so why no novels?
A Weren’t you listening? As I explained novels haven’t changed the world to nearly the same degree as my chosen books.

Q What about The Communist Manifesto?
A Weren’t you listening? It was written in German by a German, I said British books.

Interestingly, this guy had a go at Bragg, claiming that Marx had a more profound influence on the world than Adam Smith. This mini-debate got the juices going. That’s the problem with Q&A sessions at book events – it’s all very polite and debate is not really tolerated.

Q Aren’t your choices a little too patriotic and smack of tub-thumping?
A I suspect that the book is reading you, more than you reading it.

Q Why 12 books?
A Don’t know. It had to be a manageable number so I chose 12.

A few extra questions
What was Bragg’s 13th choice?
What other scientific text did he seriously consider?
Which of the 12 would he most like to have met?

Please post your answers by clicking in Comments.

3 stars

Day 12 - An Oak Tree

Tim Crouch, both writer and actor, looks like Al Murray the Pub Landlord, and has a delivery that is just as mannered. The idea is clever, too clever, as we move through layers of reality with Tim directing another actor, who doesn’t know the lines and has never read the play. The problem is that moving from one layer to another breaks any suspension of disbelief so that you are constantly an observer of the mechanics of the script and not involved in the performance. OK you’ve got to try these things to see if they’ll work, but Tim needs one of those friends who say, “sorry mate, this ain't working”. The other actor, a woman, had to play a man called Andy, introducing yet another useless complication. The net result was no more interesting than a scripted game of snakes and ladders. It was all brain and no heart.

All of these crude mechanics didn’t make me think, only ponder on the fact that I was missing the European Cup Final. If this is how far theatre has fallen it is no surprise that audiences are staying away and that the West End and Broadway have defaulted down to endless runs of musicals. He was fluffing his lines, completely unconvincing as a pub hypnotist and was left with nothing but an attempt to tell us how clever he was. Don’t tell us, show us.

Three people walked out early, deciding they had better things to do with their time, and a couple in front of us got the giggles, which they had to suppress, making their ribs ache with pain. They held on until it passed, but only just. The taxi driver told us that Arsenal were one nil up despite their goalkeeper being sent off. Barcelona scored in the final few minutes, then again just before full time – now that’s drama.

1 star

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Day 11 – James Lovelock - Hell on earth

On the very evening that Lovelock gives his talk about the necessity for the large-scale adoption of nuclear power, Blair announces that very policy. Lovelock’s position is clear – it is too late to stop global warming, so must adopt damage limitation; the immediate adoption of nuclear power and national programmes to cope with rising sea levels. Our planet has been a stable system for 3.5 billion years (a quarter of the lifespan of the universe) and we’re destroying it in one century. Timescale – 30-40 years. He predicts an eight-degree rise in temperature within our lifetimes, which is catastrophic.

Nuclear power the answer
Nuclear power, he claims, produces hardly any waste compared to CO2 omissions. He described going around Sellafield with a Geiger Counter and recording readings at one third of the natural background radiation in St Ives in Cornwall. On Chernobyl he described much of the news on human casualties as propaganda, quoting the WHO report as identifying only 56-70 casualties (mostly killed in the explosion and clean up) and some childhood thyroid cancers that are curable. Nuclear fission, then nuclear fusion, are our only choices. He puts the commercial use of nuclear fusion at 30 years and given the fact that a nuclear power plant has a 40-year lifespan, we can move from one to the other. Interestingly, fusion produces no waste.

Wind farms and biofuels are futile
Rather surprisingly for the older environmentalist movement, he ridiculed wind farms as being “not very practical” and with recent wind changes “a futile gesture”. Power output increases to the cube of wind speed, this means that a drop in wind speed reduces large windmills to useless objects that clutter up whatever green land we have left. Biofuels are, he thinks, a nonsense. It would take, he calculates, another 3-5 planets to grow enough to make this a feasible energy alternative.

Sustainable development unsustainable
This was an informed audience with a good mix of ages and all of the questions were relevant and advanced the debate. A few of Lovelock’s memorable answers included; “Sustainable development is unsustainable as we’ve gone too far” and “increase the amount of sulphur in aeroplane fuel to create more haze to stop the sun from heating up the planet”.

Some serious science in an incisive interview by John Gribbin, to possibly the most important environmentalist on the planet. At 86 Lovelock was in clear on both the numbers and arguments. Gribbin attacked NASA for spending so much on fatuous Mars missions, and searches for other planets, when our own planet is heading towards catastrophe.

No publicity is good publicity
I would have loved to have included my own photograph of Lovelock and Gribbin, but a member of staff prevented me. No one stated at the start that photography was not allowed. Personal and review photographs do no harm, and a Festival thrives on publicity.

5 stars

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Day 9 - Hell gets even better

What a beautiful experience. The audience gathered as the sun went down, the village band played and then, in the distance, six soldiers appear back from the trenches. Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice but tragedy strikes as she's blown up by a mine (I think - as she literally exploded!). At one point, as Orpheus was struck silent in his grief, all you could hear was the sound of wild birds in Stanmer Park singing at sundown. These sounds, smells and changing natural light allowed the performance to cast its tragic spell.

We then follow Orpheus in his search for Eurydice in the underworld. As we enter, Hades warns and welcomes us, but we can't enter before a party of 13 dead people who suddenly arrive from Crawley. Then we're off on a magical walk through Stanmer Village. This use of the village in the dark was inspired. It was the star of the show, lit windows, the dead living in their houses, old man on his porch, their own memories in little shrines in their own gardens, even a dead cloaked child. This is not Milton's Hell (I entered that grisly world on Wednesday - see Day 5) but an altogether different Greek concept - much more agreeable.

We're asked to write, either what we want to forget or remember, and everyone hangs their memory on a sort of pagan shrine. I was with my family and none of wanted to tell the others what we wanted to forget. This is quite deep audience participation.

The Underworld is not without its fears and we're followed, way up on the hillside, by two spooky white figures. Then, as we enter, surgeons operate on a women, remove her heart and weight it on scales. The big barn scene is very atmospheric as the music echoes off the roof and walls, and we're plunged into darkness. Here Persephone appears - a beautiful woman in a stunning green dress who sings to us in the dimly lit barn. Hades and Persephone give Orpheus his awful choice.

Then off to the Pool of Memories where Eurydice is stripped of her memory. This is just wonderful. The whole thing evokes a gentle mood, a mixture of nostalgia, love, loss, warmness and wonder. I'm a tough old nut to crack emotionally but this got to me. From start to finish you transcend into another world, an emotional underworld.

As we leave, Hades and Persephone bid us farewell promising that we'll be back. Then the final reunion and tragic ending - I won't give it away, as you may still want to see the performance. Get a ticket, steal a ticket, bribe someone, sneak in, do what you can to see and experience this unique journey. This is something I will never forget and would never want to.

5 stars

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Day 8 - Groupe F - Hell looks like fun

Groupe F: The Light Players
Groupe F played here in 2002 and I can still recall the huge fireballs and the smell, so was really looking forward to seeing how they've progressed. We're so used to seeing traditional firework displays that we're taken totally by surprise when they're used to do more than just accompany the 1812 Overture. Here they made up the Icarus wings of a flying, light figure, were propelled like bullets from a fireworks' gun, cartwheeled on a man's hat, pushed a rocket chariot and so on. Inventive though this was, it's the pyrotechnics that steal the show - huge flames that roar in response to a Satanic cello-like musical instrument. They also make the eye sweep right across the landscape and up and down - it's not a static experience. I was right at the front, and the sound, heat and light were intense (so was the soot that rained down on those who got too close). Lovely stuff.

They do try to break down the traditional series of firework displays with gaps between building to a grand finale by having people covered in bulbs act as anchors, but the show still stumbles along. More continuity would have been no bad thing. As it turns out they do rely on the traditional big bang at the end and the sky was one huge dome of glistening gold.

I tried to untangle the story which seemed to involve a countdown towards saving the planet. Television screens, a huge inflatable planet, eyeball projections (the French love projected eyeballs) and one magical moment when the projected image of a tree matched the lit trees of Preston Park. This use of the landscape was clever. The irony of burning hundreds of gallons of smoky fuel and thousands of fireworks to warn us about global warming seems a little odd - but who cares. It wasn't really about narrative, it was a spectacle. As Betjeman said when asked why he loved fireworks, " Why do I love fireworks? Because they're so unnecessary".

One odd thing were the hundreds of mobile phones being used as cameras - they were rather annoying, like those people who hold lighters up at rock concerts.

But if this is what a fiery hell's like, we're all going to have a lot of fun - you know who you are!

4 stars

Soweto Kinch - On Jazz Planet
Full house for a tasty cocktail of rap and jazz from this self taught rising star. Kicked off with a rap, opening up the show and the audience. This sort of blend could lead to a crossover from rap to jazz and vice versa. He moves effortlessly between the two, from saxaphone to rap vocals.

Weird watching jazz at 1 pm with the theater awash with sunshine. No time to get in the mood or drink enough to get into any sort of chilled mood. Sat next to a lovely guy, a painter, who happened to live in the next street. He was roughly my age (late 40s) and had got to Grade 4 saxophone in 18 months - that was impressive.

Guest vocalist and trumpet player Abram Wilson was a star in his own right and added some great vocals and trumpet solos. The drummer, Troy Miller, looked as though he was having the time of his life - the smile never left his face. Similarly with guitarist Femi Temowo and double bassist Michael Olatuja. Lots from the excellent, award winning CD Conversations With The Unseen as well as the new single 'Jazz Planet' which got the Brighton Audience into a rap chorus singalong " We're on a Jazz Planet, Jazz Planet". How often do you hear that at Jazz events?

The final number was an invitation to the audience to name three things for a little freeform rap and jazz. Mashed potato, owl and heaven came from the audience. Surreal choices but, he rapped them all in, rhyming Wako with mashed potato! Great finale.

4 stars

Streets of Brighton 2
One of the problems with street theatre in Brighton is telling the performers from the residents. Came away a bit ambivalent on this year's street stuff - some was plainly amateurish. But a big thumbs up to our local Varndean School Samba Band. They showed some of the professional performers a thing or two about keeping it tight and creating some buzz. Had a surrounding crowd seven or eight deep and sounded fantastic.

2 stars

Day 7 – Ballet National de Marseille – Mesh-merising

The Ballet National de Marseille performed La Cite Radieuse, a fusion of dance and architecture. Fredric Flamand is obsessed with the fusion of dance and architecture but, in my view, this needs some interrogation.

Fusion of dance and architecture
Dance and music usually blend seamlessly, mutually supporting each other. Why - because they are both largely non-representational art forms. When either dance or music move out of this non-representational sphere, they must tread very carefully. This is not to say that representational and functional art forms are no-go areas, only that they run a higher risk of failure.

With architecture it is especially difficult, it is fixed, geometric and functional (architecture, unlike most art forms has this at its core). This tends to reduce it on stage to props and backdrops. To be fair, Flamand attempts to break down architectural forms using mobile mesh-screens (favourite material and device of his architectural collaborator Perrault) but all too often the mesh screens are just inert props, and often obscure and interfere, rather than enhance the dance. This problem becomes obvious when the dance really does come alive and you forget about the mesh screens – they become invisible. The five by five square grid – a sort of stage/city plan worked better. This an important point about dance – it works when the mechanics of it all become invisible and you are transported into a world of beautiful form and movement.

The only example I can think of where dance and architecture successfully collide is in free- running, where the buildings are integral to the movement and the huge variety of urban dance, which seems to be part of, and emerged from, urban landscapes. It may have worked better with more recognition of urban dance, and indeed, when this did happen, the piece came to life.

Fusion of dance and media
The other attempts at media fusion sometimes worked, but rarely. The epigrams (to slow down, to be with everybody, to be a star in Japan, to be happy) were trite. Again the representational form of language intrudes rather than adds to the performance. Leave the epigrams and aphorisms to writers, not dance directors.

More successful were the projections of virtual dancers alongside the lead. This was thrilling as your eyes flitted between the real and unreal. The huge projections above the dancers also worked, sometimes. It’s interesting to see a dancer’s body blown up to 30 foot or more or details of the dancer’s face – overcoming a major limitation of live performance. Here the mixed media really did blend.

Fusion of contemporary and ballet
Separate from all of the external trappings was an attempt at a fusion of contemporary dance and ballet but the seams were all too obvious. And while we’re on the topic of seams, who designed those costumes? They were straight out of a cheap, 60s, television, sci-fi series. Who says the French have a monopoly on fashion?

Modernism struck long and deep into architecture. If you want to see the wonders of Modernism and how modernist architecture plays a central role in all of our lives, go to Modernism exhibition at the V&A, with its blueprints, drawings, photographs, objects and excellent films. It will make your mind dance.

Dance and architecture, remain in this case, an oil and water mixture, of an exciting cocktail. There’s the illusion that one informs the other – in this case they don’t

2 stars

Streets of Brighton
An afternoon of street theatre saw a South American band pulse out some Latin rhythms. Foreign girls danced, English guys watched, all apart from a lone madman dressed in white gloves and flame-covered trousers, shirt and baseball cap. He danced a manic Michael Jackson, frightening kids and adult alike. Fun hour or so walking among the acts.

Polly Toynbee, the new chair of the Festival, made a sound point when she asked the obvious question – why don’t they close this area off permanently? Good point, it’s not an essential artery and the area is becoming the new focal point, away from the stag and hen parties of the south lanes and seafront.

2 stars

The Bhundu Boys
A ‘Bhundu Boy’ was a runner for the rebel Zimbabwean army and Biggie Tempo, the lead singer, was such a runner. But Zimbabwe and The Bhundu Boys have had more than their fair share of tragedy. Three band members have died of AIDS and Biggie Tempo hanged himself in 1995.

For this lunchtime gig, Rise Kagona teamed up with Doug Veitch, an edgy Scots musician, to play some lively African tunes. They all live in Scotland and I suppose Brighton is as near to Africa as you can get in the UK without getting wet.

They joked along, got the audience to sing and a couple of brave souls danced down the front. It must seem very odd for African musicians to play in front of stiff, almost expressionless English audiences. It’s so far removed from a culture that is openly expressive and wouldn’t dream of an event like this without being able to dance. But it was a hot, sunny day and African rhythms seemed appropriate.

3 stars

Friday, May 12, 2006

Day 6 – Eric Sykes

This was one of the earliest sell-outs of the festival. I now know why. Sykes, at 83, took off like a bullet. Simon Fanshawe, who knows how to tell a tale or two, was left in his wake, as Sykes reeled of anecdote after anecdote. However, it was the ad-libs and interaction with the audience that were warm and wonderful. Sykes exudes a sort of worldly wisdom with his humour, and talks fondly of the stars, now gone, with whom he worked; Hattie Jakes, Frankie Howard, Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper. The mere mention of their names makes you smile.

Applause for being 83 was greeted with "they never applauded when I was 82". He started with some tales about how he got into showbusiness in the Army. When they asked if anyone had theatre experience he said "Yes - I had been to the theatre twice". When asked about his experience he claimed he was a famous northern comic Rick Small.

There was a touching moment when he told us that his mother had died during his birth, but that she had been a living presence throughout his life. He often felt this physically.

Of Spike Milligan he described how they had to cross a wide and busy road to get to lunch every day in Shepherd's Bush, and how they would take turns in pretending to limp and help each other across the road. Hatti Jakes was his soulmate, a trained ballet dancer, she would end her act with the splits. Sykes spotted her and cast her as his sister. There were some real insights into the process of comedy writing and how careful the selection of characters and context had to be if the writer(s) were to maintain momentum across a long series, but he was damning when it came to the BBC. He thought them crude and unsophisticated.

Simon Fanshawe was perfect. He saw what was happening and just tickled Sykes along, repeating the audience's questions to the now deaf Sykes, and on one fine moment supplying a surname that Sykes was struggling to remember, with comic timing.

Good old days? Perhaps.
"What did you think of your role in Harry Potter? Very short. I got killed off early - and so did my agent". He answered every question from his fans with funny but always pertinent stories. At 83 he had leant a thing or two and what stuck you afterwards was the simple honesty of the man. He played for laughs, but beneath it all was a deep understanding of comedy and comic writing. It was a masterclass.

Then the predictable, "What do you think of today's comedy writers?" Some older members of the audience were baying for blood and this is where it got a little odd. Sykes started off being gracious, claiming that he was now to old to judge, then proceeded to condemn them all. His argument was that the older comics and comic actors were the same on and off stage - wonderful characters. True, but so is Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard and Billy Connelly. Even if they weren't, that's what acting is - being in character. Charlie Chaplin didn't troop around tripping up over every kerbstone.

I did feel like pointing out some of the downsides of this much admired Vaudeville tradition. Try watching re-runs on UK Gold - it wasn't all funny. It also, arguably, perpetuated racist views in the UK. Remember that the BBC were still airing The Black and White Minstrel Show as late as 1978, and Sykes appeared in a Speight written comedy called 'Curry and Chips' featuring a blacked-up Spike Milligan as an Irish Pakistani. I would have got lynched if I had asked a question on this subject. But this was not an evening for debate.

Not so much a performance as a privilege. Those who grew up with Sykes remember his wonderful expressions and asides. His character hangs around fondly in your memory. A naturally funny man, he transported us all into an hour of so of blissful memories while making us all laugh like ten year olds. The standing ovation was really heart-felt. Truly, truly wonderful.

5 stars

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Day 5 - Paradise Lost – Satan fluffs lines

You’ve got to love a ticket that says ‘Due to the nature of the material, Paradise lost contains scenes of nudity & is not suitable for younger children’. By ‘material’ did they mean that Sin HAD to have her left breast hanging provocatively out of her dress? Did Milton foresee a production with a completely naked Adam and Eve? If alive today the old Puritan would have picketed the theatre. Of course, we could have sneaked him in and not told him they were naked! (You have to know your Milton to get this.)

An evening of dramatised 17th century poetry may not be to everyone’s liking, but this is one of the finest pieces of literature in the English language. Milton doesn’t do small. Paradise Lost is hugely ambitious; the story of the Fall, and a theatrical production must take this huge theme and get it into the heart of the individual watching from the stalls. This is no easy task.

I liked the opening set, all bluish-grey with the narrator in grey hoodie and washed out jeans. The only colour a single, shiny red apple. Then a blonde, white-suited Satan with his cohorts and an array of accents along with a clever technique - interviewing them as a sort of panel of pundits using a hand-held microphone. Satan is no caricature for Milton. He’s full of doubt, confusion and reflection but in the end deadly. The reader is lulled into feeling sorry for his predicament, which, of course, is our predicament – the whole point of the poem and this production. It was a shame that he forgot his lines (twice). Not like Satan to fluff his lines.

Clever stagecraft also concealed the surprising birth of Death, from his mother Sin but Death’s southern US accent was puzzling. Was it a comment on the current dominance of Southern Fundamentalism – the new Axis of Evil?

Angels flew, Satan roared, a shocking rape of mother by son, and the Gates of hell were open. Not a typical Wednesday night’s entertainment – but damn frightening. Down to the bar for a Beck’s at the interval and told that I must drink it from a plastic glass. Do they really expect ‘bottle in your face’ hooligans at Paradise lost? I’d just seen ‘Death’ rape his mother ‘Sin’ from behind – I needed a quick drink. Theatres ought to loosen up a little.

Adam and Eve appear in all their glory. Milton allowed them to have sex in Eden before the Fall, something that shocked Puritan England and it still seems a little odd. Satan, now in a black suit, tempts Eve, by changing into a snakeskin jacket, like some over-aged nightclub owner, to eat the apple. Why an apple I wondered? The fruit gets a raw deal in Genesis. It looks so innocent. Anyway, we know the story and as Adam and Eve are forced in their shame to don suits, a tie and office clothes, we are forced to reflect on the complexity of sin in our world. This worked well enough, although it lacked emotional punch.

The narrator turns out to be – well read your Milton to find out – it’s the twist at the end.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Day 4 - Lost and Found

I believe in Dockerills
Those who have seen Terry Garoghan’s ‘Brighton - The Musical’ will remember the song, ‘I believe in Dockerills’, sung to the tune of Hot Chocolate’s ‘I believe in Miracles’. Lost and Found is this idea writ large.

It opens wonderfully with instrument cases being used as instruments and follows through with the imaginative wringing out of sounds from junk – fingers on glass rims, bottles openings being blown by bellows (echoes of Brighton’s Bottle Orchestra), pipes, traffic cones, rubber tubes, saws, plant pots, gas cylinders, sticks, water bottles, wet towels, ventilation ducts, sticks and so on.

A great idea, although at times a little too busy and in need of an extra dimension to lift the arrangements out of pure percussion. When that one additional dimension was added, it took the idea to another level. The singer who steps out of the shower was a good example. Another outstanding lift was the mournful angelic sounds from hoses swirled from the roof of the set. Others included the trapeze-like pipe ringing session – an astonishing piece of choreography. The guy with the mohican dragging an axe across the stage. The young choir, brought on near the end of the show also took the performance to another level as it reached its finale. Looks set to move effortlessly from Brighton to Broadway.

On exiting the Dome I saw a man in a fluorescent coat on a unicycle. That wasn’t surprising in itself, it was the fact that he was cycling home to Lewes in the dark. Only in Brighton!

4 stars

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Day 3 – Bootlegging Beckett

Three hours of intense monologue by a sole actor to a hardcore Beckett audience. Apart, that is, from the woman sitting next to me, who was clearly deranged. She spent three hours rumbling around in her bag, inconveniently placed on the empty seat between us, switching an ancient cassette recorder on and off. Bootlegging Beckett is a pretty rare obsession. I felt like screaming – get an iPOD – get digital – at least it’s quiet! On top of this she guzzled a pint of beer and took notes by constantly leaning down and noisily picking up and putting down an A4 pad from between her legs on the floor. I’m not sure that she was actually listening to the performance at all. Yet she was first to her feet at the end for the encore.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system. What about the show? A solitary figure, centre stage in a single pool of light, dressed in a poor man’s clothes – but all to clean. The Director needs to spend some time with some real tramps and poor people – there’s always stains. The first reading is from the opening section of Molly and his dealings with his mother, encounters with the police, killing a dog with his bicycle. The hapless Molloy is alone in the world and his encounters are stripped down to knocks on his blind mother’s skull, forgetful replies to interrogation and incidents over which he has no control. Thus far it’s encounters with the real world that emphasise his predicament. The language is just plain beautiful.

Reading versus listening
I wasn’t sure if this would work – book readings of written texts that exist as print and are mostly read in silence by the reader – and silence you need. Reading Beckett needs concentration. My copy of the book was bought and read in 1976 – 30 years ago. I'm nearer my own death than birth! I can still remember where it was read. So how would it be when spoken? Very different. The image of the performer becomes Molloy’s self. That is the focal point. In reading there is no visual focal point. Your imagination constructs Molloy. You become Molloy as the word ‘I’ blurs between the narrator and reader. You stop, re-read, reflect, move on – make a stuttering progress. In performance it’s at the performer’s pace. Nevertheless, the performance is a considered reading with appropriate pace and pauses, teasing out the humour, and the aching pain.

Language as the limit of thought
The second reading was from Malone Dies where Malone is literally writing a story but the character takes over and writes his life story. This is more fantastical but tedium and death are there from start to the end. The language gets more fragmented as Beckett painfully pulls memories and words from his mind. Consciousness is laid bare with no stabilities of plot or character to anchor the reader/listener. The language convulses and turns in on itself, words all too inadequate. In this work he pushes out with words and hits their limits, pulling back when they fail with words like ‘gladly’ and ‘bellyful’. This is the manifestation of Wittgenstein’s fly in the bottle, that bounces off the glass but doesn’t know what the lies beyond. Language as the limit of thought. There is no edge for there is no other side.

The pauses are longer in this reading, and this is where it starts to work, for in these long pauses, there’s no stillness. Thoughts flood into your own consciousness. I find myself obsessing about the mad Beckett Bootlegger sitting next to me. The tapes keep clicking to a halt and she has to swap them over – does she want to sell them, use them to teach, or is it some Beckett-like exercise in recording memories? Consciousness doesn’t stop and we’re its helpless victims. There’s no real silence.

Beckett calls
Surreally, a mobile starts to bleep, despite repeated instructions to switch them off. The performer stops and hangs in the air mid-gesture. On and on it goes, the owner hoping the ring will stop and they will not be exposed to ridicule. Time stretches out and it stops – finally. The performer looks up as the noise has axed into his consciousness and continues seamlessly. Wonderful! You can almost forgive the owner – forgetting memory and forgetting is what much of these texts are about.

The cassette player is hissing annoyingly but this is where the performance takes flight. He’s swirling around in words, phrases, ever more confused as he retreats into an increasingly solipsistic state. This is a Cartesian quest as he strips himself down to pure thought. The silences are even longer and all the more intense. It is uncompromisingly painful, being stuck in the web of language, not being able to think without its crutches. The hiss of the cassette recorder makes these silences even more despairing.

4 stars

Monday, May 08, 2006

Day 2 - Round 2 – Welsh and Palahnuik

‘Stories in Motion: a revolutionary new multimedia happening’
That was the billing under ‘Books and debate’ in the brochure. Well this is about as far from Clarissa Dickson Wright as you can get (she is, apparently, a leader in the Green movement!). I’ve met her – she’s not. You knew you were in for something different when being handed a leaflet on entry that warned about ‘content of a violent and sexually explicit nature which some people may find offensive or disturbing’. They got that right.

The audience stood in the middle surrounded by podiums and hanging sheets for projection, more nightclub than theatre, and that’s the point. This was not a ‘happening’ maaan, it was something far more interesting. The audience were very young – and I suppose don’t now see art compartmentalised into books, music, performance, theatre and dance. They have it all, and want it all.

Fight Club as Night Club
The two writers sat opposite each other on podia looking out across the audience between. Phil Hartnoll (Orbital) and Nick Smith, stood as DJ referees. The entire audience was in the ring. The music got the heads, hands and feet moving – Welsh stood up and opened with a series of jabs, reading a list on how to avoid excessive masturbation, he’s used to this and his forays into Acid House events are well known – then a thumping dance piece that got the audience going – Palahnuik fought back with a ferocious attack to the body – ‘Guts’ is his infamous short story about masturbation and pegging gone wrong, so horrific that many have fainted just reading the text from a book – many more at live readings. True to form they started to fall as Palahnuik punched out truly disgusting images onto the floor. The first was a heavy metal kid in full black, helped by an elderly security guy to the paramedics at the back. The staff were clearly prepared for this. Then a constant stream of ashen-faced revellers left the floor for some air and medical help. Guts lived up to expectation. Welsh was shaken but back on his feet with a tale about a young man having to have sex with a huge, elderly witch in exchange for some magic spell – no fainting this time but plenty of laughs – comedy refief to balance out the horror. A fantastic dance piece in the interval, then Palahnuik came back with a long piece called Hot potting – all boiled flesh being scooped out of hot sulphur pools. We got our BBQ Beef air freshener cards to add to the atmosphere - literally. A lone violinist provided a lilting score to this story and finally a haunting song by a beautiful girl from another corner of the ring.

The Mess is the Message
Spoken words, electronic music, live violin, live singer, projected stills, film, even smells – we got it all in spades. These crossover events are hard to produce but a great deal of effort had gone into making it as seamless as possible. Even so – the mess is the message. This is the new world of digital abundance, where media are mixed and audiences want more than dull theatrics and polite encores. What it did lack was a finale. It came to a very sudden end.
Would have worked better after midnight as it needed an audience fuelled with something more than Festival enthusiasm.

This is what the festival should be about - surprises

4 stars

To read Guts….

Surprise, surprise

Found myself, unexpectedly, in a dark room recording a 30 second piece about ‘What I like about the Brighton Festival?’ I like surprises and that’s what I said – it’s all about the unexpected. I have no idea what this was for or where it will be seen. Not surprising, really.

Reminded me of a truly wonderful project we did in 2ooo when Brighton bid to become City. After placing an ad in The Argus, we shot, on video, 100 people, each born in a different year of the entire century, then put it on CD-ROM so that you could select a year or person. It was astonishing, with stories about the First World war, excited kids and lots of Brighton eccentrics - although in Brighton the eccentrics are so common that the word loses its meaning.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Day 1 - Round 1 - Welsh and Palahniuk

Ok we're officially off. My first actual Festival event. Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk drew a sell out crowd in the Corn Exchange. When Chuck (I'll use this as his surname is a bitch to type) asked how many of the largely young audience had NEVER been to a literary event before - a third of the audience raised their hands. An excellent start. This is exactly what a Festival should be doing - appealing to and developing future audiences.

Chuck is famous for live readings of his short story Guts, which is so graphically disturbing that many have fainted at the events. He didn't read Guts but was true to form, distributing Japanese scent cards (actual pic) with a burning meat smell. As we all held our steak-like card, he read from his new book Hot potting, about hot geysers in the US where tourists fall in and get boiled alive, a kid and his dog get boiled to soup - you get the angle...

A little aside. My dad (a policeman) once told me of how he had to attend a reported suicide. A woman had dropped an electric bar heater into her bath. It did indeed kill her but continued to function and boiled her body in the bath for many hours. Alarmed by the smell the neighbours called the police, and when my father went to remove her ring (for identification) her finger came off, like an overcooked chicken leg. This is the sort of story that Chuck adores.

Irvine's excerpts from his soon to be published Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, was on altogether more familiar territory for me. It's set in Edinburgh, my home town, and one of the pieces centred on the Central Bar in Leith, which was one of my own drinking haunts. He swayed his hips and waved his arms around, and literally acted out the drunken scenes in his now well known Scottish vernacular. I wasn't that taken with the writing. At times cliched ('it hit him in the chest like a bolt of lightening') and often over-stated. Welsh has never really lived up to the early promise of Trainspotting, but even that, although giving voice to a side of Scotland that had never been voiced before in its current vernacular, was a thin narrative.

The readings were fine but the event sprang into life during the interview and Q&A session. Strangely, so many people were wandering in and out to the toilet, that it was at times more like a party than Festival event. But this was an audience with a difference. A good thing, as many literary events are terminally dull and over-polite with fawning middle-aged fans, predictable questions and a rush for the book signing. These kids were certainly admiring but their questions were totally irreverent:

Have you ever stolen a story from another book and used it in your work?

What story have you heard that would make you physically wretch?

This was a night of strong accents (even the interviewer had a strong Ulster accent) and strong writing about strong subjects. However, the interviewer's questions were at times pedestrian. Do you admire each other's work and do you have a shared sensibility? What did he expect from that - no I hate the bastard and think he writes like a ten-year-old!

Irvine was, I think, himself, swearing away as if it were a chat in the pub. I saw many in the audience bristle when he claimed that Standard English was a 'bureaucratic, weights and measures' sort of language, compared to the more fluid vernacular Scots. They may have been young, but they're well off and well mannered, and still felt uncomfortable when hearing this typeof claim and Welsh's machine-gun swearing.

Chuck was more of a showman, with clearly prepared answers. He told a story of how one book signer had brought him polaroids of old dead men who had died in his peep-show parlour. There were further gruesome stories about foetuses. It's not that I'm sqeamish, just a little tired of pub anecdotes masquerading as literature. Both authors suffer from being stuck in a world of tall tales. Palahniuk, in particular, was quite open about the efforts he goes to to gather such tales - self-help groups, hanging around late at parties, sex chat lines etc. This often defines, but also limits, their work. The adolescent anecdotes, each more horrific than the last are amusing but ultimately empty.

This was an audience as much at ease with film and TV as with books. Chuck even admitted that he thought the brightest minds of our age were not writing books but working in film and TV. This is the sort of statment that drives older, literary event attendees mad, but he's probably right.

4 stars

Open House

Trooped round five houses in the Fiveways on Saturday afternoon (in the rain). Got to admire the effort of the hosts and artists - they really do make an effort. People can be a little condescending about the obvious nosing around other people's houses, but that's part of the fun. People voluntarily open up their houses and others come to look - that's fine. It's like little snatches of reality TV - a sort of serial house swap.

Loved Nancy Angus's ceramics at 7 Beaconsfield Villas. Measured understated pots and flasks - too damn cheap if you ask me and as I'm a sucker for a good pot - I bought one , a lovely dark green.

Another surprising find was a fantastic installation (photography seen through mounted lenses) by Shirley Chubb, at 25 Florence Road. These were not for sale and were clearly a cut above most of the work I saw in any of the five houses. Darwin and evolution were the themes, with fractured, cropped, sometimes-out-of focus images of genes, pathogens, algae, people, maps, text from The Origin of the Species and so on. Each had a theme. You really can spend a lot of time with this work - the images show gradual variation, the driver behind natural selection and by having to interrogate the images one by one through the lenses, the idea of discrete genetic changes that manifest in their phenotypes is beautifully shown. Didn't really like the 'quiet walk' installation, 4 video screens showing Darwin's favourite garden walk. Visually dull, unless you know some important biographical detail. Art struggles to cope with the wonder of science, especially in England where the art world is often technophobic, seeing art as a counter-movement to technology and science, rather than an opportunity for reflection. This is a welcome exception.

Festival Treason

OK we're off, and what better way to prepare for the Festival than 'The Treason Show', revue comedy at the Komedia.

Swan Lake , where one of the swans suddenly dropped dead on the floor, was clever. They started to drop one by one - great sketch, not a word spoken (bird flu if you hadn't guessed). Then a skit on Open Houses. An arty couple finally locate an address - 43 Whitehawk Road - the couple invite them in and charge a tenner to leave. Introduces them to the wife, they think she's an exhibit, a piece of performance art. "No" he says, "she's only watching Countdown". "Aren't we all" replies the art lover. A real hoot.