Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Art of Horror: Paul Bryers at the Writeidea Festival 2013


Lucky me.  Paul Bryers drew on his considerable experience as a film maker and writer on November 17th at the IdeaSpace in Whitechapel Road. (It's really a huge modern library near the Whitechapel tube station) His presentation was  called ‘The Art of Horror’.
A range of examples, from Bram Stoker to Stephen King were combined with  personal anecdotes. A sense of mischief is essential for a writer of horror, he said, referring not just to Roald Dahl’s short stories but his own childhood game of frightening himself by projecting a shadow with a torch onto his bedroom wall and then walk  backwards  so it loomed  larger and larger.

Location plays a prime role in horror stories, typically the archetypal haunted house, but a landscape can be as eloquent as a building. EdgarAllan Poe lived for a while in nearby Stoke Newington, and projected images of the place were overlaid with quotations that summed up Poe’s feelings when he lived there:
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”  He also had ‘tendency to see demons’

According Stephen King:   ‘We make up imaginary horrors to help us cope with real ones’. King’s film The Shining, set in a remote hotel in the wilderness of Maine, encouraged Bryers to spend three months there on an Indian reservation whilst preparing to write his own book, a firm believer in the theory that  ‘A lot of the things you write about come from places you visit’.
‘The essential of horror is coincidence’, he said mentioning the bizarre road accident that nearly killed King, when he emerged from a wood onto an almost deserted road into the path of a drunken truck driver. ‘Every moment we deal in chaos’

Paradoxically, Bram Stoker found the ingredients for his classic Count Dracula from his Summer holidays in Whitby, where he was inspired by the ruined abbey, and   house that suggested the home of solicitor John Harkness, and even two women at his digs who became fictional female victims.  He found the idea for his villain from a book about a Russian tyrant called Vlad the Impaler.
An exploration of Charles Perrault ‘s (1628-1705) classic fairy tale, Red Riding Hood showed the potent influence of a shape-shifting wolf on writers like Angela Carter Thomas Harris and Daphne Du Maurier.

The essential ingredients for the writer of horror stories could be summed up as: haunted locations; myths and fairy tales; evil characters; innocent/vulnerable victims; irony; predestination and coincidence; paradox; one’s own life experiences; a sense of mischief.

I’ll definitely be attending this weekend-long festival in 2014 and would recommend the talk if you see it offered elsewhere. It’s the best I’ve seen all year, and  especially good for aspiring  writers (like me).

Friday, November 22, 2013

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play at the St James Theatre, Victoria


Sarah Ruhl's  piquant  comedy about medical treatment for ailing women in 1880s America explores gender issues and touches on the role of technology in sexual relations.
Dr Givings runs a successful clinic for depressed females in his middle-class home. A supply of the latest domestic modcon – Thomas Edison’s newly-available electricity – means he can deploy an apparatus that brings about a miraculous change in the health of his patients after only a few treatments.

Much of the humour in the play rests on the assumption that the Victorians didn’t know that the ‘paroxysms’ induced by direct stimulation were of a sexual nature. The spectacle of the straight-faced  doctor (Jason Hughes)  applying a buzzing contraption to his patient (Flora Montgomery)  lying under a sheet while he stands beside the couch with a stop-watch is hilarious; even more so when he extends his practice to include a local male poet (Edward Bennett) who has experienced a romantic disappointment. Soon everyone wants in on the treatment,  including Mrs Givings (Natalie Casey ), whether the doctor is present or not.
Laurence Boswell’s brisk direction and an experienced cast, added to authentic set and costume designs by Simon Kelly,  recall the satirical world  of Oscar Wilde and  George Bernard  Shaw, with similar ironic dialogue and comments  on social conventions.
Even they wouldn't have included the male full frontal nude, though, in a scene that seems tacked on to titillate, in line with the somewhat misleading  poster and programme illustration.
The glamorous venue in Palace Street is readily accessible by walking through the new shopping mall opposite Westminster Cathedral, and the same street has a very cosy Shepherd Neame pub, The Cask and Glass in the same street. There's a noisy gastro-pub next to the theatre itself, which also has a restaurant and cocktail bar.  
The stage  an has an unusual semi-circular curtain rail  that juts out into the small auditorium. Maybe this accounts for the ungenerous amount of leg-room. It made me glad there was  an interval even though I was well-entertained for the hour and forty minutes running time of the play.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Disappointing Dramas: The World of Extreme Happiness and Mansfield Park.

Two plays I saw in October depicted women fighting social restraints;  they disappointed for quite different reasons.


The World of Extreme Happiness at the NT’s temporary space on the South Bank, the Shed, was about internal migration in China –peasants moving from the countryside to the cities in search of economic and social gains, often at great personal risk.

 It struck a chord with me; I taught in China in 2,000 on an English Language Summer School south of Shanghai, where a booming crime rate in a small town was blamed on incomers competing for jobs.

 Since  then a  whole spate of films in China such as Jia Zhangke’s docu-drama 24 City (2008),  Yang Ya-zhou’s  Loach is Fish Too (2005)  and others, depicted migrants caught up in a rush to cash in the economic boom. Their aim was to lift their families from the hardships of subsistence farming.  

 This raucous production at the Shed covered most of China’s problems for the last sixty years from the one-child policy to famines under Mao, a sometimes overwhelming context.   

Lowly heroine Sunny is desperate to escape the shackles of her gender. Unlike the migrants in the above-mentioned films her goal is to improve her own status. Presented as a contestant in a talent show with  a top job in the business world as the prize, her westernised outlook seems puzzling.
A visceral script and strong performances from the cast grabbed audience attention. Vera Chok as Xiao Li, alumna of self-help books, plays  a convincing Chinese Barbie who shows ill-fated Sunny ( Katie Lung) how to smile and dress for promotion. The remaining actors give strong support, especially Daniel York as the world-weary veteran of the Cultural Revolution with no sympathy for a younger generation who want it all and want it now. Bold staging and a raw script from Ya-Chu Cowhig make a case for a China’s nightmare present built on a horrific past.

It’s sad to think the values of a society steeped in traditional values of hard work, patience and above all family ties could be overturned so quickly. Programme notes, however,  reveal little direct experience of mainland China by cast or writers.


Like most people, I’m long-time admirer of Jane Austen’s satirical portraits of her age and social class;  I’ve recently been preparing a course about adapting Jane Austen novels into film.

Mansfield Park is a favourite Jane Austen novel, despite the insipid heroine, Fanny, and her love-object the equally pale and loitering (thankfully off-stage for most of the play) Edmund Bertrand. I like the broader social canvas shown in Fanny’s home in Portsmouth. The plot recognises a largely ignored factor in Austen’s novels: dependence on the West Indies slave plantations to support the great English estates.

Fanny, whose aunt married higher up the social ladder than her own mother, is taken from her family in Portsmouth to be raised in the luxurious surroundings of Mansfield Park. When she refuses to marry the man chosen by her benefactor, Sir Thomas Bertram, she is returned to her chaotic seaport home. A spell of poverty may bring her to her senses and remind her of a debt of gratitude she owes to her benefactor Sir Thomas.

The Bury St Edmunds production adapted by Tim Luscombe seemed lost in the huge shallow soup dish of the Rose Theatre, Kingston, where it played at times like a Greek Tragedy. Much of Jane Austen’s action happens typically in drawing rooms, hedged-in garden walks or crowded assembly rooms (contrary to what the films depict). Here a vast space accommodates statuesque figures who never really come to life. Worse, some of the cast, especially the gruff-toned and admirably tall Sir Thomas Bertram, (Richard Heap) were at times inaudible. He was better as bluff Mr Price, Fanny’s seafaring father.

The adapter says he wasn’t sure where to put the interval, but the first half was soporific and the play only took off after the interval. I'd begun to think Portsmouth would be left out. Thankfully, the actors doubled up to play different roles in the contrasting family. Geoff Arnold was remarkably transformed with the help of wigs and costumes from Tom Bertram, ne’er-do-well son, and the ebullient Mr Rushworth, to Fanny’s beloved sailor brother,  William. Kristin Atherton made a lively Mary Crawford, plainly disdainful of clergyman Edmund’s chosen profession, and as Fanny’s sister Betsey.
How to make a drama from repressed emotions and genteelly-expressed opposition is a challenge, especially in such a large theatre. One answer to the staging problems presented by Mansfield Park may well be to heed Willy Russell’s Rita’s advice, and ‘Do it on the radio.’