Sellout productions at The Globe, the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway - solo performances of story-poems and poem-stories. Read about it all, including my current performance Three Folktales in
ADVENTURES OF A (verse) PLAYWRIGHT IN THE 2Oth AND 21ST CENTURIES.
I had written plays in prose since I was fifteen, but felt something was missing. I also wrote poetry and had found around age eighteen that the iambic pentameter was my favourite form. These are my first ones, just about, a description of the Great Karoo desert in South Africa
Who contemplates approaching hurricanes?
But who has witnessed beauty when enraged,
Implacable and not to be caressed?
Who but the dead, who stared and stood in the way,
To catch a glimmer of the witch’s eyes?
Here on the gently seaward-sloping sand,
I gaze at where the meeting blues confuse.
If all the seven seas were two feet deep,
My reverie could not be entertained.
About seven years after this, with neither my poetry nor my prose plays going anywhere much, I decided to combine the two, and wrote ALLBRIGHT, set in World War One, and staged it.
From this I was commissioned to write a version of Schiller’s DON CARLOS.
I was hesitant because I wanted to be a playwright not a translator. However, I knew that contemporary verse drama pretty much only exists in the form of translations and versions of classic texts, so the question was – to say no and stop, or say yes and carry on. I said yes and since then have written versions of or translated:
Dona Rosita – Lorca
Oedipus Tyrannos – Sophocles
Phedre – Racine
The Shy Man – Tirso de Molina
Don Juan (El Burlador de Sevilla) – Tirso de Molina
The Haunted House – Plautus
Shakuntala – Kalidasa (Sanskrit)
Ondine – Giraudoux
The House of Desires – Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz
Mary Stuart – Schiller
This last one went to the West End and Broadway, and circulates around Shakespeare Festivals and Universities in North America.
All this showed me something of the worldwide ancient tradition of verse drama.
I wrote a very free version of a Japanese puppet play by Chikamatsu, and this was done by the National Theatre. Mark Rylance came along, and commissioned me to write a play for the new Globe.
So far I have written three plays for the Globe.
Augustine’s Oak (about the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity.)
The Golden Ass (about a man who turns into a donkey.)
The Storm (about a man who loses and finds his daughter.)
I’m still rewriting them, a few years after they were staged...
The NT has also staged my version of The Ramayana, in the Olivier Theatre.
My favourite plays (of my own) are three I wrote for Glasshouse College in Stourbridge, for autistic students (that doesn’t remotely describe them but I’m being brief!)
The Temple is about the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. He is supposed to marry the Queen of Sheba, but she falls in love with the architect, Hiram. We were supposed to have funding from the Freemasons, but we (the director and me) refused, so the tour was limited....
The Gododdin. (pronounced Godothin, with th as in the; stress on the second syllable.) This is a reincarnation play set in two different times – dark age Britain and the modern day. The King is supposed to be sacrificed but is captured and kept alive, while his modern-day equivalent is kept on a life-support machine.
Kaspar Hauser. This is set in a bombed-out theatre in Berlin in 1945 where some shellshocked actors stage the story of Kaspar Hauser while being starved to death by the Americans. This play hasn’t been performed yet, the ending was reckoned to be too depressing for the students.
WHO ARE MY INFLUENCES?
In terms of iambic pentameter, just about anything written by the Elizabethans and Jacobeans. In contemporary terms – Howard Barker is the only light.
ADVENTURES OF A THEATRE COMPANY
In 2002, I co-founded Heart’s Tongue Theatre Company, based in Totnes, Devon. For them I wrote
ASH – a version of Cinderella
WHITE CRANE TO LITANG – the story of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tibet’s most famous love poet.
and I acted with the company. It changed into ATTENTION SEEKERS TC and we performed
SHORT SHRIFTS – short plays in prose (there’s about thirty of them.) A ventriloquist and his dummy; two people carrying a trunk over a vast wilderness, slowly going blind –
we took these plays to London, Berlin and Bristol; sometimes my wife Alice performed her poetry with us – and there was music –
then the company changed into THE ABYSS and we took my play LUCIFER SAVED to London –
THE ABYSS is still THE ABYSS and we are creating a show called DANTE AND BEATRICE, a love story that goes down to hell and up to heaven – here is a sonnet written by Beatrice to Dante, after she is dead -
My love is in the world and I am free.
He walks upon the earth and in the sky,
Thinking of him, forgetting him, I fly,
Like a white bird where the land meets the sea,
Up to the light, then down into the green,
Or else along the surface like a breeze.
I speak to him of things no eye has seen,
And what I send into his mind, he sees!
I love this game, it is like kite flying,
But if the kite was crackling down the string
The strangest news – what it is like dying,
What it is like to shake off everything,
And still be tethered by the trembling thread
Of love between the living and the dead.
MEANWHILE, IN PLYMOUTH –
I have written three plays for the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth –
BLIGHTY is about a racist white youth who turns into a Sikh. I received the great honour of being told to ‘get out of the country’ by the English Culture Lobby.
CATHERINE. After the Germans flattened Plymouth, the planners decided to put two new churches in Catherine street – so in this short street there is an Anglican Church, a synagogue, a Baptist church and a Unitarian church. In the play, there’s been a general attack of amnesia and everyone is trying to understand the meanings of these buildings, to make rituals and songs. Hugh Nankivell wrote the brilliant music. (He has also set to music my poems about birds – Birdsongs.)
THE WORLD AT YOUR FEET. This is about immigrants. The audience got to the venue by boat. One day the engine failed and the audience drifted out to sea.
ADVENTURES OF A POETRY PERFORMER.
There is Performance Poetry, which is a particular thing, but what I do is not that, it is Poetry Performance. Where the thriving, exploding genre of Peformance Poetry tends to be political and personal, I reverses the phrase, and with Poetry Performance, brings all the power of theatre and storytelling into spoken poetry. And there is no mic., the performance is completely direct and unmediated. The audiences at Three Folktales, immerse themselves in the poetry, or are simply carried along by the story, or – hopefully – enjoy both experiences simultaneously. I have written four poems based on myths, folktales and a saga:P
Helen is spoken by Helen of Troy in her old age. I performed it at the Globe (not on the mainstage but in a lecture theatre) in a long red dress. Later I decided not to try to emulate Helen’s appearance – so I dropped the dress (as it were.) But recently I had the idea of her dressing like a traditional Greek woman, all in black, so I did that. I’m not sure how I’ll do it next....
Weyland – is 100 minutes long, I perform it all from memory, the Norse myth of Weyland who made himself golden wings to escape from prison, having been crippled. It's available from Oberon Books.
Three Folktales. Italian folktales told in iambic pentameters. A young man is sold to the devil but rescued by a fairy in the form of an eagle, who marries him. A young woman falls in love with a young man in an underground chamber, and has to bring him back from the dead. A young man,a cripple, is healed by a goddess and given miraculous powers, with which he defeats the devil.
I recently performed them in a set with Simon Armitage at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. See review! And details of forthcoming performances!
Three Folktales is in print, by Letterpress. Helen is in a book of poems by me and Sean Borodale, called Dyad. Weyland is also in print – or print on demand anyway – Oberon Books.
EGIL. Egil was a Viking and a poet. I performed this at the Globe – also in York Minster at the Yorvik Festival. It’s in short, rhyming lines, as is Helen.
I also write shorter poems of all kinds, see blog
I took part in The Voice and the Echo, at the Wannamaker Playhouse, the indoor space at the Globe. I performed this sonnet of mine, an echo of As Kingfishers Catch Fire, by Hopkins. Please read it aloud....
Bells running over their beads, over the hills
Carrying water, now the water spills,
Runs down eight steps, now down eight steps the same,
Like children chanting in a chanting game,
Over and over. Who are they in there,
Pressing their repetition on the air,
Against its fading saying it again,
Like a wren singing that it is a wren?
They must be clear and simple, true and free,
To issue such a depthless melody,
Unchangingly extended. But my ear
Picks out the gaps, the little blanks of fear,
Glues them into a flute, churchtower strong,
Which plays for me my own deathsong.
I am working on a version of Homer’s Odyssey, neither iambic nor rhyming!