Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Play’s the Thing: Changeling Theatre’s Hamlet at Severndroog Castle



"...The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."
(Act II, Scene 2)

A lot of things happened in 1997: Blair brought Labour back from the wilderness, the death of Princess Di unleashed mass hysteria, UK band Radiohead unveiled their iconic OK Computer album and …erm, I started working at Goldsmiths.
But something else happened too. A small Kentish theatre company put on its first ever production, Moliere’s Tartuffe, at Boughton Monchelsea Place, near Maidstone. Now, twenty years later, The Changeling Theatre have begun touring their latest outdoor-theatre production, that most challenging of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet, directed by Rob Forknall who has directed every Changeling show.


In last Wednesday's (19 July) evening open-air staging of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest and most quoted of plays, the backdrop of the towering Severndroog Castle, deep in South-East London’s Oxleas Wood, provided a fitting substitute for Elsinore, the Danish royal castle which quietly broods over the tragic play.
Setting the scene: Oxleas Wood, Severndroog Castle
The woodland setting’s intimacy immersed and enveloped audience members in the play’s action. Similarly, the evening breeze rustled the leaves of the surrounding ancient trees in eerily-timed accompaniment to the wandering Ghost of the late King Hamlet.

The story of the troubled prince struggling to deal with grief and revenge in the Danish court, the Changeling Theatre's production triumphantly succeeds in that most difficult of conundrums – just how do you solve a problem like staging a long philosophical tragedy, with few laughs, in a summer outdoor setting? The answer is… brilliantly.
The plot thickens, audience rapt. (Spot the 10th Royal Eltham Scout Explorers along the railings, who were volunteer helpers.)  [Photo courtesy of @GuyBenJonesSM, Company Stage Manager]
The production features an excellent cast, creative use of music and scene transitions, and a clever combination of period and modern costume. The modern world is also referenced in other witty anachronistic touches – e.g. two characters pausing for a photo ‘selfie’ on their way out of a scene; and the ‘mad’ Hamlet expressing his mock-demented state by gleefully sticking stickers on another character’s back, enlisting the help of a nearby cross-legged child audience member.
Another interesting interpretation was borrowing from cinematic visual techniques (only sparingly though - relax!) in which we had the characters on stage suddenly moving in dramatic slow-motion before casually coming back to ‘normal speed’ again.
The talented young Manchester School of Theatre-trained actor, Alex Phelps, convincingly carried off the famously dense rhetoric and discourse of Hamlet’s many soliloquies including the Bard’s most famous lines:
“To be or not to be – that is the question:
Where 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,”
(Act III, Scene 1)



However the audience, and Hamlet, were enjoyably teased when it came to another set of well-known lines. The supporting characters persisted in throwing around the skull, interrupting Hamlet several times from completing his lines:
“Let me see, Alas…”(*)
and then only later allowing him:
“…poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”
(Act V, Scene 1)
(*sorry, I may have mis-remembered the exact break-point here…)

Despite the play’s serious content, the cast created a charmed and relaxed atmosphere with one of the characters even camply chivvying people back from the interval with, “Come on, come on, hurry up, it’s my big solo!”
And was it my modern feminist imagination or were there some ironic snorts and gasps at the lines?:
“Frailty, thy name is woman!
……
… a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer”
(Act I, Scene 2)
when Hamlet is berating his not-long-widowed mother for re-marrying so soon after her husband’s death. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is played very engagingly by multi-talented LAMDA-trained Sarah Naughton (in action, photo below) who also excellently doubles-up later as a comic bawdy character.
The professional cast also contributed to the excellent ‘soundtrack’ to the production, arranged by Alex Scott, with many of them taking up various stringed instruments and a clarinet too.

It may well have been “madness”, sitting there in a darkened wood at 10pm on an English evening, “yet there is a method in’t” especially for such an engaging, witty and intelligent production.
(Act II, Scene 2)

This highly-recommended production continues at various venues around London and Kent ending in the grand setting of Pembroke Castle, Wales, on 30 August. Tickets obtainable from the Changeling Theatre website.

Cast
Hamlet - Alex Phelps
Gertrude - Sarah Naughton
Claudius/Ghost - Michael Palmer
Polonius/Gravedigger - Bryan Torfeh
Ophelia/Priest - Niamh Finlay
Horatio - Bryan Moriarty
Laertes/Player King - Tim Bowie
Rosencrantz/Bernardo - Brandon Plummer
Guildenstern/Francisco/Osric - Khalid Daley
Marcellus/Player Queen - Cary Ryan
Company
Director - Robert Forknall
Design - Clare Southern
Music - Alex Scott
Assistant Director - Charlotte Quinney
Casting Director - Suzy Catliff CDG
Company Stage Manager - Guy Benedict Jones
Assistant Stage Manager - Leonie Jai Hamilton
Administrator - Dawn Archer
Marketing Director - Jill Hogan
Graphic Design- Dan Bull
Photography - Nic Dawkes
Video - Lukasz Jasiukowicz
Movement - Jessica Rose Boyd
Fight Director - Edward Linard

Friday, 9 June 2017

'They got their kippers back...': the GE2017 Eltham result

The Eltham constituency has been held by Labour's Clive Efford, with an increased majority of 6,296, on a 72% turnout.


The 2015 General Election results show the remarkable extent of the 2017 outcome:

Despite the numbers once it was known there would be no UKIP candidate, despite misgivings about an unconventional Labour leader and despite the area having a EU leave majority, the incumbent MP since 1997 nevertheless managed to win over Eltham's voters.

The local campaigns

The 'snap election' having been announced on 18 April, the Conservatives seemed bright-eyed and bushy tailed announcing Matt Hartley, a locally well-engaged Councillor for Eltham South, as their candidate. After the 2015 election, Hartley had replaced Cllr Spencer Drury (also the previous PCC) as Leader of the Conservative opposition on Greenwich Council. The numbers looked good. May was just setting out on her 'strong and stable' shtick. The polls favoured the Tories by a wide margin. Jeremy Corbyn was being trashed by the press, and few insiders, and Labour seemed the less polished and seasoned performers.

However, Efford's team were straight out of the block the morning after the election announcement, leafleting and talking to voters at Eltham Station. Some commented on the 'Labour machine' but the pic and leaflet above is from the week before the election announcement showing the incumbent MP's engagement with local issues. As it went on, the campaign was marked by upbeat numbers of volunteers turning out, many for the first time, including from neighbouring safer constituencies.

The local Conservatives frequently got in their big guns - Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Boris Johnson - and seemed buoyed. The strapline 'Standing with Theresa May' featured heavily on local leaflets by the pro-Brexit candidate.

The tide turns

With the 'Maybot' theme ringing increasingly more true in the face of May's refusal to debate, the scripted repetitive answers and the various u-turns especially on social care, it was also the polls which slowly began to look 'weak and wobbly'. The focus and momentum of campaigning altered with each of the terrorist attacks, moving away from Brexit and on to security.

Locally, a hustings event took place in Eltham on 1 June without the Conservative candidate or a representative, leaving only the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates, and the audience, to disagree amongst themselves with Tory policies and proposals without actually hearing from him. It all added to the growing impression, led from the top, that Tories were not willing to show up and debate.  At this meeting and elsewhere, Efford's messages on opposition to education funding cuts, local train service cuts and sale of NHS assets were striking home.

In his acceptance speech during the small hours - opening with, "Well, rumours of my demise were greatly exaggerated" - (well, surely he's allowed that...), he gave a coherent speech about why he thought the results went the way they did. Commenting on his view that the government had taken people for granted, "there is only one set of people who run this country and that is the British electorate." Acknowledging that he had had differences with his party leader, he said that the Labour Party had put forward a truly radical manifesto and set of policies and that people respected the decency that had been put at the heart of British politics.

Efford went on to say that respect was due to the Greens who had stood aside in this constituency and that he would honour that decision. On Brexit he was committed to ensuring that Parliament was sovereign and had a proper say in the final outcome. You can watch the results come in, and the speech here:


I'd ended my post on 30 May with Harold Wilson's oft-quoted observation that a week was a long time in politics. And so it has come to pass.


The national 'hung parliament' result has led, as of today, to May intending to form a government to lead the UK "at a critical time" working with "friends in the DUP." So, as numerous others have pointed out:

2015 election: don't give control to Scotland
2016 ref:         don't give control to Brussels
2017 election: control to...er..DUP?

Who would have guessed the ending of the 'third act' in our bizarre play?

(Thanks to for the 'kippers' line :) )

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Eltham hustings - General Election 2017



In the keenly-contested marginal Eltham constituency, you would think that the sole hustings would pack a crowd and that all the candidates would treat it as a prime opportunity to address potential voters and listen to their concerns.  Yet the key surprise take-away from the event last Thursday, 1 June, was the absence of Matt Hartley, the Conservative candidate seeking to oust Labour’s incumbent Clive Efford.
Despite the good intentions of the organisers,Keep Our NHS Public, and their organisation on the night, of the potential 63k electorate, a small-to-medium-sized group assembled in the Progress Community Hall, Admiral Seymour Rd, in Eltham's historic Progress Estate. As we sweltered in the small hall on that sunny, balmy evening (hard to believe 5 days later with rain and 40mph wind currently lashing outside) I learnt that flyers had been distributed wide and far but there appeared to be little general knowledge of the event. I was emailed a flyer by 'an informant' (ok, my mum-in law) on the Progress Estate before I shared it on Twitter.
The Labour candidate, Clive Efford (above, right), and the Liberal Democrat PCC David Hall-Matthews (above, centre), took their seats. Calling the assembly to order, the Chair (above, left) made the surprise announcement at the outset that the Tory PPC was unable to make the meeting due to a prior business meeting and that no response had been received to an invitation to send a representative. There were a few gasps, some further questioning about the absence and a couple of people (that I saw) got up and left. The absence was all the more significant because it chimed with observations over the previous few days about PM Theresa May’s reluctance to free debate. It was announced that the previous Green candidate, Ann Garrett, who had stood aside, would take the ‘empty chair’ for the evening.

And then we were off. After opening statements from each of the two candidates, there were pre-written and moderated questions from the audience with free debate and follow-ups. Too long to write up properly now I’m afraid, here’s a snapshot of the topics which came up:
funding of the NHS; halting privatisation; mothballing of parts of the new Eltham Community Hospital;  sale of NHS assets under the Naylor Report; housing problems; alternatives to the first-past-the-post voting system; whether coalition govts work/are good; South Eastern Trains proposals and the current consultation; Schools and how they fared in Greenwich under the govt funding formula; all seemed opposed to proliferation of grammar schools at expense of others; ending of free school lunches; the rise and fall of the ‘Dementia’ tax; more resources to tracking tax evasion; need for improved social and elderly care; involving Parliament into the Brexit process; air quality.
There was a lot of agreement on the panel, and amongst the audience, with some differences of emphasis or method. The older age demographic of the audience led to detailed discussion about social and elderly care in particular and some nervous laughter at the grim suggestion that euthanasia be legalised to give people an alternative to the ‘dementia tax’….

Being the incumbent, Clive Efford spoke articulately about local issues and often passionately about how he would tackle the issues of concern. David Hall-Matthews seemed a fair and decent-minded opponent, though losing his way a little when it got too local ie. at one point referring to Eltham as ‘Remainers’ in the EU ref…  It all made for a pretty lop-sided debate. It often felt as though we were just talking amongst ourselves rather than questioning alternative choices.

 Since then Eltham has had a ‘battle of the blondes’ – the Tories had Boris high-fiving all comers in the high-street the day before while Labour did their rounds the next day with comedian Eddie Izzard.

Nationally this extraordinary general election took yet another unexpected and tragic turn – another horrific attack, this time in the London Bridge/Borough Market area on the evening of Saturday 3 June. I think we’ve all been through the whole of range of emotions since then – shock, disbelief, reflection and resolve - but now election has cranked up again in earnest. Until Thursday/Friday morning then.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Eltham and the 2017 General Election

Results in South East London’s Eltham constituency are being eagerly watched. 

Will the Tories succeed this time in picking the still ‘low-hanging fruit’ of Eltham’s Brexiteers from the long-standing Labour incumbent candidate or will Labour’s well-regarded Labour candidate manage to hold on to his narrow majority (and add a bit more) despite UKIP’s no-show plumping up the Tory Brexit vote?

Eltham’s candidates for the 2017 General Election are:


The publication of the candidates on 11 May revealed that UKIP would not be standing this time round - significant because its 6,481 votes will be hotly-contested over. As a reminder, here are the 2015 General Election results:
2015 General Election results

In a further twist, despite there being no formal ‘Progressive Alliance’, the Greenwich Green party announced it would be standing down to give Labour's Efford the best chance. 

The Conservatives have this time pitched Matt Hartley, Councillor for the Coldharbour & New Eltham ward and Leader of the Opposition on Greenwich Council. He had previously unsuccessfully contended the Greenwich & Woolwich seat.

Clive Efford, first voted in as part of the 1997 wave, continues to stand for the constituency in which he and his family have long lived. He and his campaign team kicked into action immediately and have been very active on the doorstep and with leafleting. The Conservatives followed suit with many Tory big guns visiting. The LibDems have brought in a university lecturer and charity consultant David Hall-Matthews. Here are the leaflets:

 
 

Eltham is 29th on the Tory hit list precisely because the incumbent Labour candidate is a) in a marginal constituency having narrowly won by 2,693 votes in 2015 and b) the Eltham constituency overall voted to leave theEU

There is some excellent analysis on the 853 blog and on Dave Hill’s new OnLondon website.
Both were written before Theresa May’s social care blunders and the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester on Monday 22 May after which campaigning was halted for a few days. 

What has emerged is a changed narrative. The ‘Brexit election’ has stepped back into the shadows giving way to a new emphasis on security and generally better poll ratings for Corbyn and Labour Party.

Locally, government proposals for South Eastern trains has played large with locals up in arms over the possible axing of the all local trains to Victoria and Charing Cross, routing them instead to Cannon Street. A consultation is under way about this here, and you can read more about it on the Murky Depths blog

A week is a still a long time in politics and so the results are not a forgone conclusion, either way...

Monday, 1 May 2017

“‘What, not another one!" GE2017

As the nation joins the newest viral superstar, Brenda, in her reaction to the election announcement, the marginal south east London Eltham constituency is being keenly watched by locals and national political pundits alike. 

Following the surprise announcement by PM Theresa May, all Brits are now in the midst of their second General Election in two years, not counting last year’s referendum on the EU. 

The announcement of the national election on 8 June 2017 heralds the third act in a bizarre play: 

First: the 2015 poll-defying election in which David Cameron was re-elected on 7 May 2015 with a small majority over Labour’s Ed Miliband, the ‘other’ brother who had himself snatched the Labour leadership from the more likely contender, David Miliband.


Second: the 11th hour surprise result of the divisive EU referendum. Having won the 2015 election with a manifesto promise of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership as a political manoeuvre to outflank UKIP and Tory Euro-sceptic right-wingers, the Referendum was held on 23 June 2016 with lively and sometimes controversial campaigning from the LEAVE and REMAIN camps with its sad denouement of the tragic death on MP Jo Cox at the final week.  Remainer Cameron resigned hours after the Leave result plunging the already bewildered country into a Tory leadership contest while it struggled to come to terms with ‘Brexit’. Former Remainer Theresa May was duly elected and tasked with being midwife for Brexit. After toting the mantra ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (which nobody could either explain or deny, clever), Article 50 was finally triggered on 29 March 2017, formally starting the two-year Brexit process.


Third: Despite the Fixed Term Parliament Act decreeing May 2020 as the next election date and firmly denying any contrary intentions, on 18 April 2017 the PM announced the ‘snap election’ for 8 June 2017. Widely believed to be taking advantage of the huge Tory lead in the polls with difficult times ahead and of the perceived weak opposition position, May’s fig leaf is that she is seeking a firm mandate for her Brexit negotiations. And so was born her next mantra: ‘Strong and Stable government’.

And so here we are, a few weeks away from our third national voting event.

Next, a focus on the Eltham constituency….

Monday, 3 April 2017

White lines: the Eltham road crossing debate

Southward view of road markings linking to Passey Place
Opinions in Eltham are divided over Eltham High Street's latest traffic crossings.

The debate has been a amusing diversion from the general works to improve the High Street running through the south-east London suburban town. The works are part of a £6.6m improvement scheme as part of Greenwich Council's regeneration masterplan for the town centre, a scheme primarily funded by Transport for London.

The stripes on the crossings, which started appearing this month, are either 'puzzling' and 'going the wrong way' or 'funky' and 'splendid' depending on your point of view. Some worried that absent-minded road-crossers might mistake this pelican crossing for a zebra crossing. There was also speculation about what the 'E' might mean - did it intend to pick up on Eltham Palace designs?

Others joked that the markings outside the library signaled free wi-fi:


However, Greenwich Council explained that the novel markings were intended to link the two sides of the High Street in a more user-friendly way and not merely be a 'corridor for motorists.'

Bizarrely, this hot topic even managed to feature in a Daily Fail piece:

Daily Mail article on Eltham High Street crossing stripes

Personally, I rather like the new crossings.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Read a book a month

'A Book A Month' - collected in a pile under bedside lamp

How many books a year do you read?

I must admit I go through spells - some devouring books, sometimes hitting a dry patch. The trouble is that if I read while I'm doing some creative writing:
a) I find myself fornesically examining what I'm reading rather than purely enjoying it and
b) I'll often find myself too influenced by that writer's style, like a cushion bearing the imprint of the last person who sat on it!
and c) I can't put a book down and find it consumes me, and my time!

Someone I know who doesn't have the chance to read much decided to make a determined effort and try to read book a month last year while taking in some classics he hadn't read. As he finished each one, he collected them in a pile under his bedside lamp (photo above). The books were:

1.  Enduring Love - Ian McEwan
2.  Orlando - Virginia Woolf
3.  The Girl With All The Gifts - M.R.Carey
4.  Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
5.  The Alchemist - Paul Coelho
6.  The Odyssey - Homer
7.  The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemmingway
8.  Brighton Rock - Graham Greene
9.  Tripwire - Lee Child
10. Brokeback Mountain - Annie Proulx
11. Animal Farm - George Orwell 
12. Middlemarch - George Eliot (couldn't fit this on the pile under the lamp!)

I think that's quite an eclectic choice, a good trot through some different literary styles and of different ages. Some he thoroughly enjoyed, other less so.

How did he decide what to read? A combination of personal curiosity, 'best reads' lists, other people's recommendations and what he had at home already.

It would be interesting to see other people's 'book a month' choices....