Sunday, 24 January 2010

Poetry, Theatre, Music - 'Village' with Josephine Larsen, Alice Oswald, Martin Holland and Peter Oswald

For those of you who aren't regular readers - or listeners - we had Alice and Peter Oswald on The Blah Blah Blah Show in January to promote this pamphlet and its Exeter launch organised by my co-presenter Rachel McCarthy, accompanied by a well designed poster and programme that may prove to be as collectible as the signed chapbook many in the audience left clutching.

Alice Oswald's poetry will need no introduction to those who keep in touch with the contemporary scene. She had two collections - one a commission, the other a collaboration - published by Faber in 2009, adding to her previous three collections and the two anthologies which she has edited.

Her poem for several voices 'Mrs Eaves phones her sister' closes the pamphlet and closed last night's performance, but on this occasion she was one of a company of four, each making significant contributions to a performance that combined theatre, music and verse - sometimes in combination. That piece brought the four of them together and in its weaving of character and tongue, we were left with the strangeness of an English village in winter, its people as unpredictable as the weather.

Her husband Peter Oswald is best known as a dramatist - his plays have been performed at the Globe, the National Theatre and on Broadway - but the pamphlet 'Village' features seven of his poems, three read to us on during the evening. His work reminds me most of Weldon Kees - a compliment in my book. Given most of his drama is written in verse, it is no surprise he has a facility for rhyme and metre, but so subtle you hardly register it on first reading. His style is conversational - natural words in a natural order - but  the tone is often dark - as dark as nature itself. 'Early morning hald asleep' reminded me of Kees' 'For My Daughter'. 'Cat' has an unassuming title but begins 'I'm walking through the rooms of my dead body...' a line as bleak as any Weldon came up with, and also has something of Kafka about it - the old officials on the landing, the almost empty statue room - that defies the merely domestic. 'Moonflight' is a sparser piece, aligning the trajectory of earth's satellite with man's journeys to it so effectively, I've found myself returning to it several times in the night/day/night since I first heard it.

Jospehine Larsen has a compelling presence and the ability to make each of the three short plays she starred in - alone in 'Pram', with Peter, their author, in 'Greenviolet' and 'Miss Bratty', stand alone in the memory of what was a compendium performance of fifteen parts.  The latter provided light relief that shaded and shadowed what came before and after it and was both the lynch pin of the evening and the piece that seemed to owe least to those around it. Peter Oswald the ventriloquist, Josephine Larsen his dummy - the double act combined to speak to us of relationships, their breakdown, and being alone whilst being together in a way that was more Beckett than end-of-pier show but had more laughs than most variety acts.

I hadn't heard Martin Holland play before but will seek him out again. More than an accompanist, he was both the first and last on stage, whether in combination - his call-and-response with Alice on 'Interview with the Wind' could give jazz-poetry a good name - or solo, if that is the word for a musician with the talent, timing and facility to layer guitar and trumpet into compelling duets with himself, as in the opening 'Bossa Grrove Improvised' or the experimental 'Minor Loops'.

The drama studio at the Phoenix Arts Centre is an intimate space of forty seats - sold out in advance - that would benefit from more sympathetic lighting. What the evening gave practitioners - and aficionados - of all the genres featured was an example of how they can be combined to the enrichment of each other. Although featuring two poets, promoted as an evening of poetry, and launching a pamphlet of verse, it was perhaps that of the three art forms that was least dominant on the night, made-up for by subsequent reading on the page. Poetry is a quieter art form and while I'm the first to criticise extended commentary on poems in performance and admire brevity of both contextual and biographical introduction, something was needed to give them the prominence the writing deserved when up against the more immediate dramatic and musical forms. 

That said, 'The Attention Seekers' have devised a format with legs - eight of them - that deserves wider exposure and a larger audience. With little refinement, they have a show that could tour arts centres and, with the right promotion, attract a paying crowd without diluting artistic intent. Considerable effort clearly went into preparing this performance and I hope it is one of many, a memory to repeat and not just cherish. For those organising literature festivals, it would make a fine revue to breakup the procession of talking heads with an hour or so that manages to be both entertaining and accomplished, its heterogeneity a welcome antidote to more homogeneous formats, but its content consistently of the highest quality.

I am also pleased to note that Alice and Peter intend 'Village' to be the first of several pamphlets in the Chiquita Books of Dartington imprint that will range across written art forms. The chapbook format lends itself to experiment, but in this instance it is far from disposable. Let's hope they maintain the quality, while delivering on their promise of diversity.

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