Tag Archives: Carol Ann Duffy

Everymanandwoman

PosterI had an interesting three days this last week, with Everyman at the National Theatre neatly sandwiched between a gig in which I was to be found playing the cornet as I marched down Kingsbridge Fore Street accompanying the townspeople as they danced the Floral Dance, and an open air performance of The Taming of the Shrew by Guildford Shakespeare Company. ACADll three were hugely enjoyable, but this blog is about the National Theatre production of  ‘Everyman’ on the middle evening. The play is based on the mediaeval morality play, updated with a script written by Carol Ann Duffy.

Every now and then it is necessary to swallow my feminist ideals, and as this play is based on the mediaeval morality play that evolved many centuries before our awareness of the inequality that can be perpetuated by exclusive language, I won’t complain at the title. I’ll just point out that it’s a morality play about everyone, including women. (OK, that’s all I’ll say on this occasion!).

It is courageous to stage a straight morality play in the 21st century, and even though the programme suggests that it’s adapted for a secular age (whatever that is), the message of the play is old-fashioned religious, and at times probably reflects Carol Ann Duffy’s Roman Catholic upbringing. The story is of Everyman being visited by death at the end of his bacchanalian 40th birthday party, and told that he has to give an account of his life before God. Everyman tries various devices to get away from this horrible truth, and appeals, unsuccessfully, to friends, family and wealth to put in a good word for him.

It was a fast-moving, slick and satisfying performance. The wonderful actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was an appealing and convincing Everyman, well capable of representing us all. God who was played as an office cleaner by Kate Duchene, and Death (with an Irish accent) by Dermot Crowley, were both impressive. There were familiar songs such as ‘You’ll never walk alone’, Latin chant and plenty of contemporary music and dance, and the play starts with Everyman’s dramatic descent down from the roof to the pit. There was also some delicious humour.

If I had any minor criticisms they would be first that the dramatic first scene of the party, though brilliant in terms of chowith castreography, sound and visual effects, could have been cut a little: we really had got the message by half-way through the sequence; and occasionally we lost some vital words and therefore missed a joke or punchline. But all in all it was a wonderful evening, with fine dialogue, and exciting sound and visual effects, including a terrifyingly realistic tsunami.

The modern slant to the morality aspect took the form of an environmental emphasis, and as Everyman moves from mindless materialism to knowledge and humility, he also becomes aware of the way he has mistreated the planet, treating it as a coin to be tossed away. The message comes across strongly, and anyone watching the play must surely be reminded not only of the harm the planet has suffered through our ecocide, but also of our continuing complicity if we don’t work tirelessly to change the way human beings are squandering the earth’s resources and raping the planet that is our only home.

One of the pivotal points in Everyman’s journey occurs when he meets his younger self, Everyboy, and is told by him in no uncertain terms that he should remember to say thank you.

The final scene is probably the most moving. Everyman, having ended up being helped and instructed by a tramp (Knowledge) gains not only knowledge but also humility and gratitude, and comes to an understanding that he has a soul. I was reminded in the first case of T S Eliot’s ‘humility is endless’, and in the latter by the Ancient Mariner finding blessing when he became aware of beauty. Everyman’s paean of thankfulness was beautifully expressed, and covered all of his life and experience.

with GodGod (still sweeping and cleaning) is heard to comment on how she still loves him, which is a religious message if ever there was one. But apart from that, the splendour of the performance and the strong environmental message, the play reflects in the cast and the production the rich diversity both of London, and of life.

This modern version of the mediaeval morality play may seem a surprising choice for the 21st century London stage, but it was skilfully adapted, beautifully acted, challenging in its message, and offers an extremely rich and satisfying evening.

Chiwetel

Poetic Junketings

It’s a common perception that poets spend all their time scribbling away in lonely garrets. Well, some of the time that’s true, but we also love a good social occasion; and you’ll find that groups meeting to workshop their poems, as well as festivals and readings can all be fairly uproarious affairs.

One of the highlights of the social year for poets is the annual gathering in the Ballroom of the Savile Club in London, when the winners of the National Poetry Competition and the winner of the Ted Hughes Award are both announced and invited to read to the assembled company of literary glitterati. Wine flows freely, we are constantly plied with canapés, we applaud the fortunate winners, meet up with old friends and make new ones. It all makes for a very jolly evening.

This year I was particularly struck by how far the Poetry Society has travelled in the last few years. The sticky period is now well in the past and there is a wonderfully positive and Judith Palmer 5supporting atmosphere. Much of the credit for this goes, of course, to Judith Palmer and her excellent staff. They have worked tirelessly to bring off an amazing transformation and are to be congratulated not only on the way they have put right things that were wrong, but have also launched out into new and exciting endeavours.

The Ted Hughes Award was set up by Carol Ann Duffy when she became Poet Laureate, and
Carol Ann 4generously offered to donate her annual honorarium from HM the Queen to fund the £5000 prize each year. It is a little different from other prizes, honouring both excellence and innovation in poetry. This year the prize was won by Maggie Sawkins for her multimedia live literature production, ‘Zones of Avoidance’, which explores and reflects on her daughter’s descent into drug addiction.

You can read some of Maggie’s poem on the Poetry Society website; but here’s a taste:

I’m reading ‘The Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ – Maggie Sawkins reduced 4
I want to understand what drove my daughter out in the snow

with no coat or socks, in search of a fix.
I want to understand what divinity led her

to set up camp in the derelict ‘pigeon house’
after running out of sofas to surf.

For those of us who write, our writing is often a way of trying to make sense of experience, attempting to understand ourselves, other people and the world as well as to celebrate it.

Linda France cropped 6Congratulations, too, to Linda France, who has won the 2013 National Poetry Competition for her poem ‘Bernard and Cerinthe’. With well over 12,000 entries, the winning poem is likely to be a bit special, and Linda’s poem certainly is. I’d like to insert an extract from the poem here, but it all hangs together so beautifully that it doesn’t feel right to take bits out. So buy the latest Poetry Review and read this wonderful poem in full. Congratulations should also go to the three judges, Julia Copus, Matthew Sweeney and Jane Yeh who undertook the mammoth task of reading all those thousands of poems. Obviously judging poetry competitions is always subjective, but it is impressive that these three were unanimous in their choice of first prize.

Two prizes of £5000 each on one night makes it sound as though poets get a cushily life; but the reality for the vast majority of poets is that, apart from a trickle of financial reward from publications, small competition wins and readings, love and satisfaction are the main rewards they are likely to reap for their all-absorbing commitment to writing. But on an evening like the one I’m describing here, there’s also the fun of being part of a lively and talented community and spending an evening with like-minded people for whom poetry matters immensely.

Poetry in public

This is the day when I should have arrived in New Zealand; and the first of my readings there was to be this evening at the charmingly named ‘Thirsty Dog’. Because disaster struck us half-way over the world, I can’t do this reading, or any of the others I was due to give in the next couple of weeks. Charles Hadfield and Hilary Elfick will be reading at most of the events I was going to, and they are kindly going to present some of my work to those audiences. So, instead of standing up and sharing my poetry, I thought I’d reflect on poetry readings in general in this blog.

All through my adult life I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the burden) of giving countless lectures, talks and sermons. In recent years, however, I have far, far preferred to give poetry readings – and I’ve been extremely fortunate to be invited to read all over Britain and in several other countries as well. If by any chance you’re interested in where all these readings have been, you can find them on the Poetry page of my website (www.marriages.me.uk). I get a tremendous kick out of giving readings: writing can be a rather solitary occupation, and suddenly, at a public reading, one has the opportunity to engage with other people, to make them laugh or sigh, and to feel the energy of a common delight in poetry flowing back and forth between reader and audience. It really is a wonderful feeling when other people share and enjoy one’s poetry.

I’ll pick out just a few of my favourites to give a flavour of the range of opportunities for poets to share their work.

I was stunned and excited to be invited to read for a whole evening at Little Gidding a few years ago. The thrill this event gave me, obviously, was because of my life-long love of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The reading took place in a large and crowded, but cosy drawing room; and I was encouraged to go on reading for over two hours.

With Orta San Giulio in background

Poetry on the Lake in northern Italy is one of the highlights of the year for quite a number of poets. Like others, I first went because I was successful in their annual poetry competition – and then I was drawn back year after year. The readings are not so much large public events as good poets getting together to share their work with others who are on the same wavelength.

A & CA

 

The list of participants is star-studded, and in a beautiful venue in the sunshine (well, mostly in the sunshine), friendships develop and inspiration flows.

A reading on Sacro Monte

One morning at the festival is spent reading at the various shrines on the Sacro Monte. Then, at the end of the weekend we are also treated to a wonderful piano recital in the Casa Tallone, a thousand year old building on the island, where Tallone pianos used to be made.

There are dozens of excellent poetry and/or literature festivals in Britain. Sadly I haven’t yet been invited to read at Aldeburgh, Ledbury or Stanza, but I’ve read at most of the others. I’ve been fortunate enough to read at Ways with Words at Dartington for several years running; and I read at The Space in another part of the Dartington Estate at the end of my poetry residency with dancers and choreographers from the Ballet Rambert. For a poet who is crazy about dance, this was a wonderful opportunity to indulge in some of the best things in life.

Freiburg reading

Venues at the festivals vary, and one of the more interesting ones at which I read was the Freiburg City Festival in Germany. The challenge was to read on a podium in the city square, and although seats were put out, I doubted if anyone would come to sit on them to hear a poet reading in English. However, I was mistaken, and before long all the seats were taken and there was a crowd of onlookers standing as well.

Audiences for poetry readings range from the polite to the wildly enthusiastic. There was a nice example of the latter, when Carol Ann Duffy read at the Torbay Poetry Festival this last autumn and she received a well-deserved standing ovation. I had a particularly warm and enthusiastic audience at this last year’s Guildford Book Festival, when I read and Peter Terry sang a selection of lieder and English songs. Music can work well with poetry readings, and when I read with a couple of other poets in the Lewes Linklater Pavilion recently, our readings were interspersed with guitar pieces.

A reading at WalpoleAs well as festivals, there are many other opportunities for readings. I’ve read in a number of bookshops, at the launch of magazines and anthologies that include poems by me, the launch of my books, prizewinners’ events, as the entertainment at parties, and regular poetry events such as the Troubadour in London, the Uncut readings in Exeter and pub gigs such as Tradewinds on Dartmoor. Other great venues have been the Edinburgh Fringe, the Walpole Old Chapel in Suffolk, the Dower House at Morville Hall in Shropshire, Slimbridge and Leighton Moss bird reserves and at university venues. There’s also usually an opportunity to read after giving a workshop or judging a competition. If you’re looking for readings, the possibilities are endless..

* Sea sandals

And yes, as every poet knows, giving readings is the best way to sell one’s books. In general, the major gatherings of poets do not lead to large sales, as most of the audience have plenty of poetry books already and are probably more interested in selling their own than in adding to their groaning bookshelves. Other audiences will snap up the books and delight in having them signed by the poet.

Then there is the issue of payment. Most poetry events are fairly cash-strapped, and some others have no compunction in exploiting writers if they can get away with it. It is unusual not to receive at least one’s expenses, and there are some shining examples of organisers who value and reward their poets. Among these, Patricia Oxley, the Editor of Acumen and organiser of the Torbay Festival, is one of the best. Of course one writes, and reads in public, for love. But it is amazing how much more valued one feels when someone like Patricia shows her genuine respect and appreciation by paying a proper fee. And several more of the events at which I’ve read have been kind enough to reward me quite generously.

After so many readings this last year, and the fact that I expected to be away now, I rather feared there may not have been so many in 2013. However, the invitations continue to flow in, and between now and the summer I have already been booked to appear at the Wenlock Poetry Festival, Cheltenham Poetry Festival, the Bath Week of Good Poetry, the launch of a magazine in Swindon and at Ways with Words.

Pity about New Zealand, though!