On Celia

 

This Monday sees the opening of Re:Verse Theatre’s production of Volpone, in which I am lucky enough to be playing Celia. In doing my homework on the play and the character, I found there to be much more to Celia than meets the eye (or ear), and she is not often discussed in much depth, so I wanted to share my thoughts and findings here.

Celia’s name (pronounced ‘chay-lee-uh’ in our version) means ‘heavenly one’; she fits Jonson’s scheme of not-so-subtle character names in Volpone where everyone is ‘as it says on the tin’ – the wiley fox, the scrounging birds of prey, the usurping parasite. Our production involves larger-than-life animal masks for all save Celia and Bonaria, who provide the only sense of moral conscience in the play and thus remain human amongst the corrupt bestial beings.

Celia provides a moral pillar for the tale without being very present or very vocal. She emulates qualities held in high regard for women of the era; piety, modesty, loyalty, obedience. Interestingly, in our cut Celia has no counterpart – Lady Would-be is no longer, so we have no reverse seduction scene with which to compare Celia’s response to Volpone. I’m not sure what this does to Celia’s representation other than thrust it further central with harsher focus.

The seduction scene is placed as the climax of the play in that it is the turning point for Volpone, when he loses control of himself and thus his con, making Celia the catalyst for his ruin (herself having self-control in abundance). It is also essentially a battle between good and evil, morality and corruption, the ‘heavenly’ Celia and the ‘satanic’ fox. Good triumphs purely in a lack of damage done, when the cavalry arrives in the form of Bonaria. Neither party has persuaded the other of their cause, it is worth noting.

You can play Celia with as much fire as you like; she remains a damsel in distress no matter the reading, but is at least rescued by a woman in this show, allowing her some breathing room to go full damsel without the trope feeling too archaic. I think it would be a mistake regardless to make her entirely sarcastic just to experiment with radical modern feminism or to avoid the traditional victimhood. Her plight gives her layers and integrity.

She can read as insipid or naive, (she has been called “anaemic”, “completely and intentionally null”) but that’s a dull interpretation. I like to think our Celia is more insightful, in line with Jonson’s intention that she be considered the embodiment of wisdom.

She has feelings she resists, making it clear that goodness comes in how you act, not how you feel, which gives us a tremendous sense of ownership and agency, ever more needed in our current political climate. She is very oppressed in the play, but never by herself – she is what she chooses to be. Her lines do suggest that she blames what happens to her on herself and her beauty, and we (intend to) hint at comment on that in the reading. This for some calls her wisdom and strength into question, a reaction I would argue is misogynistic – it ignores the potency of living with self-doubt (and 100% external coercion) and still somehow staying true to one’s core principles to the point of forsaking life itself.

As audiences we’re not usually interested in watching characters be good and upstanding – we want chaos within the safe space of the auditorium. But this production is happening out in the wild, right in your faces, making it very immediate, and I think now of all times we need to see principles and integrity triumph somewhere.

Jonson’s prose is harder to learn than Shakespeare’s verse, my only level comparator; the rhythm isn’t quite as catchy, but it’s so rich and rewarding to study and spend time with, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know Celia.

Ben’s direction refreshingly acknowledges the mixture of good/bad, funny/foreboding, light/dark that any one given moment is, so what could be played quite flat is very much 3D, breathing and alive. I hope you can make it, and can find something in Celia that speaks to you as she does now to me.

17861543_10158588341290445_549828934931366766_n

 

On Female Friendships

My friendships with women have evolved over the years, and are still evolving. I am incredibly grateful for what they are becoming, not least because they have been shaky at times. I had a series of ‘unfortunate’ friends whom I may have mentioned before; the people who I found myself closest to in my new schools, who bullied me in ways both crass and complex.

At college I found myself in the unique position of being ready to finally say, “Fuck you” to one of these friends who was treating me poorly, and got to trot off and choose myself a whole new bunch of friends who excited me and cheerlead(? Past tense…) me, and began a whole new chapter of experience in my life.

Throughout university I struggled to find people I connected with on a fundamental level. I flew the nest in the biggest way I could imagine at the time and left home comforts far behind me. I regret that sometimes. The small northern town and the very small northern campus I ended up at did not yield the open-minded liberal microcosm I had hoped for. I spent these years quite lonely.

Following graduation I formed the most intense friendships I had had for years. Living in each other’s pockets, we literally co-habited, ate almost every meal together and made creative work together, and shared dayjobs. That inevitably burned out.

Since then, I have felt slightly adrift, having invested every energy in this insular dynamic and finding myself now without a permanent home, a best friend I have known all my life whom I talk to every day. This seems to be something everyone has – a default, a backup, a safe bet.

When everyone you know is having children and getting married, you feel this all the more. Guest lists really drive things home.

I don’t always have the tools to honour my friendships properly. I have found myself on the end of a few very one-sided friendships over the past few years that have ultimately fallen apart. It was frustrating thinking I was giving all I could, using my years of focus on communication, and still not finding a compromise that worked. Which really shows how little these friendships were meant to be.

However, I’ve been looking around me recently and noticing that I have a pretty super support network of women who are respectful, loving and accepting, who make the effort to maintain our friendship. I can’t express how much it stands out to find these types of people in your life – people who actively listen, who tell you openly that you are worth their time and that they’re happy to see you, who regularly get up out of the house with no excuse for meeting other than enjoying each other’s company. There’s no need for themed events or activities.

Maybe the others could have been saved with some kind of mutual nurturing practice. I joined feminist newsletter Lenny Letter yesterday and the first email they sent me included this article. It’s about exercising timed conversations as a way of developing your listening skills and making space for both people in a relationship to speak and be heard. It’s used in couples counselling as well as by friends, and it’s a really valuable tool for anyone wanting to better their relationships, or indeed even just to further their own communication skills. I highly recommend it.

It’s ever-more important to value and celebrate our female friendships in this time of violence and oppression, to raise up women’s voices, to ‘build each other up’. Write a postcard to your female friends today. Start a group chat. Share the love. Keep it up.

The Siren Call of The Grotesque

My acting ambitions have changed somewhat since I first set my sights on treading the boards. Since I was young I have admired the graceful, feminine icons of the silver screen: Audrey Hepburn, Tippi Hedren ,Grace Kelly. The flawless, fashionable glamour was the height of sophistication; if I could pull off that aura, if I could be eloquent and graceful through anything, I would be untouchable.

Since then I’ve read a few plays. I’ve heard stories about characters that are damaged, desperate, marginalised, fascinating. I’ve acquired a taste for the grotesque.

One of my university lecturers, Harold, who passed away a couple of years ago, introduced me to Jean Genet. He impressed upon us the essence of Genet. The homeless man in town with a bleeding head. The pair of old women who always walked side by side wearing identical clothes.

I began searching for a kind of tragic truth in everything I read and wrote. Detail, pain, wildness.

Around the time of his death, I got the opportunity to act in my first Genet production; The Maids. A friend of mine runs a theatre company and shares a Harold-inspired love for Genet’s works, and we found ourselves very much on the same page. Our maids were feral women in lapdogs’ clothing. They were wild, hurt, angry, fired.

Perhaps there’s something of my old ambitions living in the hearts of Claire and Solange. The desire to be glamorous, fashionable, loved, untouchable. Despite their hatred of the bourgeoisie, while they’re chewing it up, they suck up all the juice. Why not take for yourself the best of both worlds?

Claire and Solange are ugly, twisted, animalistic rebels whose pain and frustrations might just resonate a little loudly with the public of today.

dsc0132-1024x683

Photograph courtesy of www.hedgepigtheatre.com

Sum’n Sum’n

Fresh-faced little sum’n sum’n
Running, and running, exhilarating,
Escape the werewolves, beat the boys,
Scrape first place and furthest
Pass the berries, pass the ferns,
Whack-and-thwacking care not no – time – breath – can’t – run – and – talk –
These daddy-approved shoes will carry
Over rucks and molehills, down crumbling hills, through stumps and rubble
She thinks she must have got the eye when she took Norb’s elbow but it was actually that fly-away berry,
Making its pretty purple mark just for her mother to see
A shining proud beacon of androgynous disgrace

Inspired by Normal Rockwell’s ‘Girl with a black eye’.

Acting is the lifelong sting of not being chosen

I wrote the following passage a few months ago now, and it felt a bit too ripe to publish in the heat of the moment, but the sentiment stands, and is, I imagine, something that recurs for other actor-creators too, and perhaps sharing it now it is at a safe distance can be of some worth.

—————————————————————

It’s been a while since I had something to say. It’s been a while since I had something to say that meant something to me. Since this blog has been less anonymous, I’ve also been less carelessly candid. It’s been a dry spell. But pain and writing have long been intertwined in my life, and right now I’m kinda hurtin’.

An actor dating a director, I’ve developed a nasty habit of typecasting myself. I am constantly hearing actors being ruled out for being too comic, too straight, too camp, too hulky, too silly, too homely, etc., etc. I’m sure this doesn’t make directors bad people, it’s just how they’ve learned to function efficiently. Conversely, in acting training I’ve always believed (was I taught to believe it? I don’t remember) that any great actor can perform any role. THE MAGIC OF THEATRE. If you believe it, they believe it. Etc. But… I’ve started to internalise the typecasting, physical and otherwise. Actors beware; if you’re going to put yourself on that side of the table and keep up the acting too, the perspective will take its toll on your ego.

Instead of being the go-getting ambitious actor I was a few years ago who created her own roles, writing new scripts every week for the fun of it with the tireless belief that each piece might be the next exciting project I got to act in, I’ve written less and less, and mentally cast myself in less and less roles. Why? I’m hearing myself say things like “So-and-so would be really good at that actually.” “I can’t do ____.” “My nose is too round.” “I’m not Hollywood enough. You want her instead. She’ll enjoy that.” Which is very selfless of me, bravo me. But no fucker else is going to be doing that for you, and they shouldn’t be either.

Now, I’ve long been in the habit of pretending I care less than I do, because it’s not cool to care. Not in interviews, not in auditions, not in relationships. “Oh, you care how this turns out? Um… O-kaayyyyy…” *Makes ‘help me’ and ‘crazy’ gestures at someone behind you, as if you’re so blind with crazy that you can’t see them.* I’ve been taught over and over that I’m not welcome at the party if I want the thing at the party.

Recently I discovered a TV series which made my heart sing and my brain buzz and I thought, “That’s it. That’s what I want to be doing.” It crept inside me and I started singing out loud and practicing accents and expressions and seeking out auditions and acting classes and agents again. (Don’t get me started on the endlessly deflating catch-22 of needing drama school to get an acting job to get Equity to get Spotlight to get an agent to get an acting job to get Equity…)

I suggested it to my partner while cat-sitting at a friend’s house, we watched it together, and it was all great fun and dreams were ignited. Kittens literally gamboled. And now that friend is making something in the vein of said musical wonderment, and they’re making it for someone else. And they happened to mention to my partner that they discovered it because he had watched it on their TV. So, not only am I not  in the running for my dream roles, (not putting myself in the running?) I’m being written out entirely from my own mini tale of self-pity about it. What am I left with? My own fucking ideas?  Have you forgotten what my brain’s doing to me? No thanks, I hate that guy.

I’m all for loving one’s own company, and building one’s own dreams, but fuck pretending not to care. I am fucking burning with want. It feels ridiculous to even have to say. I’m an actor, of course I want all the goddamn roles that have ever been written. I want to perform every classic as a one-woman show in downtown New York unused fire stations, I want to be shimmying across Broadway under the spotlight, I want to be standing next to Spielberg in photographs where he’s explaining how he wants me to do something emotionally complicated. I want all the lead roles, now and always, all the best and most demanding ones, all the ones that show range and give me a chance to be loved and hated  by committed audiences. And the funny ones.

And I will hunt those down. But it would be nice for the phone to ring sometimes too.

Web Series Review: Tales of Bacon

Photograph by Matt Durrant

Photograph by Matt Durrant

Tales of Bacon is an original medieval comedy web series by Plotting Films, written by Natalie Roe and Max Gee, directed and produced by Natalie Roe. The pilot has now been released online, with series one pending funding.

As the story goes…

The year is 1380: Young noblewoman Elfrida Deverwyck (Gemma Shelton) is on an adventure after running away from home and following the pilgrim trails of medieval Northern England. She is accompanied by rascally Pardoner Thaddeus Bacon, (Adam Elms) much to her annoyance, though he may prove to have his uses…

Expect medieval in-jokes, homages to folk tales, songs, historical figures known and obscure. Python meets Blackadder meets Chaucer meets Maid Marion.

Plotting Films have built an authentic world and hit the high notes of production value on a shoe-string budget, thanks to the expert cinematography of Tony Hipwell, Roe’s measured direction and the delightful performances of the leads. Research aided by York academics and museums has paid off, and they’ve made something worth sitting up for. (I’m sure Thaddeus and Elfrida would agree that standing would be beyond the call of duty, as you can enjoy this series from the comfort of your chambers, or your outhouse, if you’re so inclined.)

This series is charming and feisty from the off, with wonderful performances all-round, big fat tongues in cheeks, and an informed, thoughtful script and production team that will delight feminists everywhere. The setting may be old, but the perspective is refreshingly new. Postpone your premium blockbuster plans and enjoy this satisfying new story for free in your own home.

You can watch the pilot episode online now, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBPsQjflhGs

And when you can’t wait for more, you can fund the completion of the series here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/tales-of-bacon-a-medieval-comedy-fundraiser?fse_1=c

Photograph by Matt Durrant, Poster by Laura Gale

Photograph by Matt Durrant, Poster by Laura Gale

Theatre Review: The Mai by York Settlement Community Players

The Mai

Written by Marina Carr, presented by York Settlement Community Players
41 Monkgate, York Wed 17th March 2016

10317727_996836223742366_6765713682862971340_o

Cast from left to right: Beth Sharrock, Baryl Nairn, Damian Fynes, Sophie Buckley, Vivienne Clare, Elizabeth Elsworth, Jessica Murray. Photograph by Michael J. Oakes

Marina Carr’s 1979-set middle-Irish play ambles through a year in the family dynamics between four generations of women, exploring the hope and disappointment of romance, the comfort and frustrations of sisterhood, the question of women’s freedom of identity within their relationships.

The play is shouldered by eight actors, all of which are excellent – a tight-knit ensemble each with their own distinct characters.

10569038_996835900409065_7036243578011836908_n

Photograph by Michael J. Oakes

Gentle cello music plays as a wistful Millie (Beth Sharrock) enters a homely cottage lounge as if to examine ancestor’s relics in a dusty attic, setting the precedent for the evening. Millie – Mai’s daughter – frames vignettes from Mai’s life with poetic narration while remaining an observer for the most part. Sharrock’s delivery is lulling and entreating, charmingly reminiscent of Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie.

10264634_996849073741081_7393963570459135207_n

Photograph by Michael J. Oakes

Beryl Nairn’s Mai emanates maternal warmth and youthful vitality. She is a woman seeking an extraordinary life, full of potential and buzz. Her liveliness is particularly poignant against Damian Fynes’s bitter apathy as her husband Robert. The pair, along with the rest of the cast, are wholly convincing in their relationships, demonstrating painfully recognisable bonds that both move and mollify.

“D’ya think I’m Paradise material?”

1496689_996835897075732_1191911804669903396_n

Photograph by Michael J. Oakes

Sophie Buckley and Elizabeth Elsworth give notable performances as Aunt Julie and Grandma Fraochlán respectively, the latter of which forms a cannily cheeky cornerstone of this ‘house of mad, proud women’, though that is not to understate the acute tenderness with which each character’s individual concerns are felt. Jessica Murray’s Beck is an open-armed, infectiously loving singleton with low self-esteem, Helen Sant’s Connie is exactly the sister you need in a crisis though she has unexplored dreams of her own, and Vivienne Clare’s Agnes is heartrendingly delicate despite her and Julie’s misguided protective natures.

981194_996836030409052_5308506610264168060_o

Photograph by Michael J. Oakes

“It’s not fair they should teach us desperation so young… Or if they do, they should never mention hope.”

The Mai is not without its tragedies, however small. Each heartache and frustration is a waking pinch for those with dysfunctional family histories. Men are bemoaned but absent except for Robert, himself a reluctant ‘visitor’ in the house. Women are let down, trapped, abandoned, left wondering why. The heaviest sadness comes from each generation of women being neglected by their mothers, who are all distracted by an endless, unrewarding search for love – a family pattern still playing out for Millie and her own son.

10615611_996836027075719_7900811213387740503_n

Photograph by Michael J. Oakes

Mai’s cat-like, rebellious attempts to win back her husband’s attention when it is too late are hilariously, heartbreakingly relatable. Angry knicker removal and a calming round of the Connemara Cradle Song are highlight moments of female camaraderie and defiance in the face of life’s rejections.

These are interspersed with narration that wades out further than it should, perhaps, into an unprecedented thread about the beautiful and ominous legend of Owl Lake. We are also asked to invest our imagination in the sympathy of characters that we never meet, along with learned accents and confusing age disparities, though some edge is thankfully minimised by Natalie Heijm’s subtle make up work.

Carr’s script is a soothing, sombre work in observational drama from a simpler time, embracing digressive conversation and the feeling of time spent with relatives during the holidays; people of varying beliefs and priorities making the most of being stuck together. It is a play that steeps and simmers. It has the tone of a more adult bedtime audiobook of The Illustrated Mum. It could benefit from some cuts and focus, but the poetry and humanity are worth your time. You may leave wanting to call your mum, your sister, your daughter, your aunt.

The play is showing at 41 Monkgate, York, until 19th March 2016. Tickets are £12/10 available from York Theatre Royal box office on 01904 623568 / https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/event/the_mai.php#.VovNQk_26Sp

You might like this if you liked: Ballykissangel, Monarch of the Glen, Match Point, Very Annie-Mary, Cider With Rosie, How To Make An American Quilt, Fried Green Tomatoes, books by Jacqueline Wilson

1781876_998453746913947_1538978268624266611_n