George Ttoouli reviews a new theatrical production based on the Bloodaxe anthology, Being Human...
Simon has asked what I've been up to. In the words of Bugsy Malone, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. One thing is certain, I have forgotten how to review things. So, I did see Being Human, a theatrical production of selections from the Bloodaxe anthology of the same title, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry; but every time I try to write down my reaction to the show, I seem to fall into stock phrases.
Which is not exactly, but might be, a review of the poetry in the book. While there are many recognisably poem-y poems, surprises - both names and poems - jump out at you. As with the previous incarnations of the anthology – Staying/Being Alive – there's a marvellously wide range of poets on show, from Fernando Pessoa and Mohja Kahf to Tomas Transtromer and Selima Hill. As with the previous incarnations of the anthology, there's a thinner range of poetics on show. So, for example, Pessoa's nuttier verse is overlooked in favour of the somewhat didactic 'To be great, be whole'; and Kahf's resoundingly confrontational and very funny 'Hijab Scene #7' has its punchline and sassiness, but is a relatively conventional performance piece once the very contemporary content is set aside. Gregory Corso's 'The Whole Mess... Almost' and Transtromer's 'April and Silence' stand out for their surprising constructions, images, syntax, so experiment isn't absent, simply slightly muted here.
I'm specifically mentioning these poems because they comprise some of the selection for the stage show. Being Human uses three actors to perform thirty four poems chosen from the book (I counted 'em, they're listed in the programme) as a way of presenting a perspective on the human condition. A worthy ambition and here it's carried off with panache. The three actors take it in turns to perform one or two pieces, using light-touch props, mostly based around a domestic kitchen scene with a solid wooden table and simple lighting, which progressively (particularly in the second half) steps up into more mystical, placeless set pieces.
Edip Cansever's poem 'Table' (trans. Julia Clare & Richard Tillinghurst) is used three times to excellent effect to tie the thematic approach together; the first is literal, and passed me by as little more than a good poem and a matter of fact statement, but the later two renditions expand the meaning and significance of not just the poem, but the whole show, to beautiful effect.
The three performers, dressed in white, each have their own strengths in performing. While Elinor Middleton's voice at times lacks the strength of the other two, she compensates with emotional depth. She delivers the most moving part of the whole, which had most of the audience, myself included, sobbing. I've thought Paul Durcan's poetry to be a little hit and miss from what I've read, though very striking when it works, but Middleton's rendition of 'Golden Mothers Driving West' is utterly, heartbreakingly brilliant. Benedict Hastings has a strong, bold, actor-y voice, though at times I wondered if certain poems weren't quite pitched right, that his delivery sometimes missed opportunities for impact and meaning.
Barrett Robertson, however, was just fantastic. His voice bombed out for the (less subtle) performance poems, at others dropped to a stage whisper that remained fully potent. His rendition of Cansever's 'Table' marked a turning point in the show's tone, into something dark, utterly essential to human experience.
The kind of poetry that crosses over into theatre these days tends to be performance poetry masquerading as stand up comedy, or a one-actor show with a bit of rhyme or thematic unity thrown in. I can't say I want to launch it all into the sun, but there's a way some people have of reading poems that doesn't just clutter the meaning with externally imposed rhythms, but pretty much destroys any audience engagement with anything in the poem, focusing attention on the performer's ego. I'll spare you a lengthier diatribe; the performances in Being Human will restore your faith in poetry in performance, and not just if you've had a bad run of open mic nights. Even the minor niggles I've pointed to above didn't detract from the over all wow-ness of seeing poetry made personal, relevant.
Yes, I could go on a little bit (as Jorie Graham once argued) about how a vocal rendition of a poem might emphasise one meaning over another, while a page reading allows many meanings to surface simultaneously, but that's a moot point. If you're making a decision to perform poetry, then the decision here is right: let the performance serve the poem. And the direction as to how to read each piece showed great attention to letting the language do the work. The actors used few semantics during each reading, once their poses and props were fixed in place, giving listeners a chance to create the poems for themselves. By the second half, I found myself disappearing into each scene, letting the images take over what my eyes were looking at.
OK, so I've glided fully into review mode, probably cruising at about a thousand feet now. I want to say something about storytelling, about how these poems use narrative extremely well, create their own scenes and pictures, but I'm mostly thinking of the performance of Paul Durcan's poem which achieved that the best. I want to say that the poems set scenes better than most drama I've seen lately – as with Transtromer's piece, or Corso's (a line about a prisoner painting the bars of his cell sky blue stuck in mind) – because some directors (film included) seem to think spectacle - CGI and lavish set design - can take the place of the human imagination. Well, you know what I'm trying to say about Being Human, which I should probably sum up in review mode as, Go see it.
Switching back to my G&P critical hat, though, I did want to point to one surprising aspect to the whole production in how it treated the conventions of theatre. The usual act of sitting in a seat, listening to actors speak lines written for the closed reality of the stage, in a way that often leans on the conventions of vocal training that drama drums up for itself when it's spent too long away from the real world... Anyway, you look at the stage, the constant (slightly militaristic?) thematic music in the background, the three thespians in their staged white clothes, and you expect something to come out of their mouths. A certain kind of delivery, a certain kind of conventional, RADA-trained performance. And suddenly they're saying the maddest things. Even the most familiar poeticisms feel enlivened by this staging – trained vocal chords, smooth, almost conversational tonality, control of physical movements and environment to give language its full due.
When you put Being Human up against other attempts to perform poetry, like Daisy Goodwin's awful television series (sorry to any readers who had repressed those memories), or some of the overly-precious attempts that sometimes feature on Poetry Please, then this production shines.
Sure, you can't beat Paul Muldoon doing Paul Muldoon, but that's not what Being Human sets out to achieve. This is in the rhapsodic tradition, memorists bringing poetry to audiences that won't go out to see a lesser-spotted versifier; and it works extremely well.
As far as I know, the idea for these shows comes out of the mind of Jonathan Davidson, of Midlands Creative Projects. In his quest to make live poetry events tolerable, Davidson has pushed against traditional event formats and resisted going down certain paths, like slamming, or leaning heavily on celebrity to bolster audiences. Credit where credit is due here: this is pioneering work taken well beyond beta testing. An anthology that hadn't jumped up on my radar becomes an amazing theatrical experience here.
Just a few weeks ago, watching the Jubilee celebrations in all their glorious crassness, I couldn't help thinking about how well managed the stage was, the set up, but also that there should have been some poetry alongside all that kitsch synth pop. It starts to sound much of a muchness when it's crammed together like that. Nothing like interluding for five minutes with a spot of poetry; certainly beats idiotic, tax-dodging comedians attempting to read an auto-cue.* Anyway, if it does happen, someone should ask Jonathan Davidson to take care of the poetry segments. Judging by this show, he'd do an amazing job of it.
* Simon, run that bit past our legal team, would you, before this goes live?
There are more dates in the recent future, at Bury St. Edmunds and Ledbury Poetry Festival. The website is here. Don't bother trying to google the show, you'll get spammed with that TV show of the same name...