Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Green Men, Murder and Religious Mayhem - the Rochester Promenade Play

Yikes, what a week! I’m just back – today – from celebrating my mother’s 70th birthday by taking her to see La Traviata at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff and, finally, I have a few minutes to talk about the promenade play.

Actually, I feel like the last person who should be telling you about it – I didn’t even see it properly as I was the prompter for both performances. My eyes were glued to the script so I just listened and snatched odd visual snippets of what was going on. I will be able to watch it – eventually - as a cameraman from Kent Online has provided us with some uncut footage and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak was there with his digital video camera and the cathedral’s tripod recording it for family posterity.

We’d dreaded bad weather – particularly as one scene was played almost entirely in the cloister garden and we had no contingency plan other than to issue the audience with as many umbrellas as could be mustered – but, in the event, the sun shone all day, leaving the cast – most of whom were in medieval-style woollens – overheating in the unseasonal weather.

And the Indian summer encouraged the crowds to come. We had excellent audiences for both performances – in fact the audience for the first was almost too large, causing some delays between scenes and nasty moments of ‘do I come in now or not?’ for the poor cast. But all the actors coped with that – and all the other minor hitches of ‘with the audience’ performance - admirably. With ad libs to the fore and some nice moments of cast-audience interaction the whole thing was carried off with great aplomb.

Here are some pictures of the actors in action:

Actually, this one isn't an actor in action but, behind the mask (click on the picture to enlarge it) which was fixed to the outside of the organ loft, stood Bob, an actor with a mighty Green Man's voice which filled the cathedral with his rage during his anguished conversation with Justus, first bishop of Rochester:

Then there were the monks:
Ulf, the novice, who nearly slithered down the stairs in his haste to make his meeting with the Novice Master and

...Gundulf (not to be confused with Gandalf, despite the magician-like robes) aka The Weeping Monk of Bec who built the early bits of Rochester cathedral, its castle and the White Tower of London for William the Conqueror whom he didn't much approve of.

Then the audience was treated to a garden-based murder most foul. One of the cathedral's two saints - William of Perth, a thirteenth-century baker on pilgrimage - was done to death by his treacherous foster-son...

the story told by a storyteller and observed by a Madwoman...

...I'll leave you to work out which is which...

Then we watched as a conservator had a fright when the bishop whose memorial she was working on suddenly showed up with a lot of difficult questions...

...which were partly answered by the following scene in which two men who, in all probability never met - John Fisher and Nicholas Ridley - confront each other with chaplains at the ready...

The last scene, involving Dickens and a wholly fictitious biographer whom I had great fun inventing, allowed us to end on a poignant note - that of Dickens's last days.

Many thanks to my son, The Bassist, and to Richard Simmons both of whom took wonderful pictures of both performances in difficult circumstances.

And, in case you’re wondering where we came by all our fantastic costumes, the majority were designed and made by Berthe Fortin, a professional costume designer with whom we were very lucky to work. Berthe researched and produced all the medieval costumes which gave the early scenes – and particularly the story of William of Perth and Rochester’s madwoman - a great sense of unity and cohesion. The Dean and Chapter kindly made real vestments available for some of our Bishops and their chaplains which meant that the contrast between bishops Fisher and Ridley was wonderfully highlighted by the difference in clerical clothing the two men wore.

Of course, most of the experience of writing a play and having it produced is unlike novel-writing. The interactivity, the different medium, the audience… But one thing is exactly the same – the minute it’s finished and you can’t do anything to change it, you want to rewrite, cut, polish and change.
Fortunately for the actors, I restrained myself...

Many, many thanks must go to the Dean and Chapter of Rochester cathedral for giving me such free rein to interpret the history of their lovely cathedral in my own way – their faith in me is very much appreciated.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Play's the Thing.. or is it the Actors?

As a novelist, you always know what your characters look like, what they sound like, how they move, what they’re fundamentally about.

It’s different with plays. When you write dialogue for actors you can have your views on these things but – in the end – they will be decided by the actor playing the part. Of course, if you’re the director as well as the author, you can influence how the character is played, but only to a certain extent. After all, an actor’s appearance can only be altered just so much; you can’t make a tall man short or a person of 50 look 20 (though it’s possible to do the reverse operation if you’ve got a good makeup artist).

So, writing and directing a play has been a very interesting process. (If you don’t know what I’m going on about, read this post.)

When you’re writing a novel, words are the only tools at your disposal. Crossing the tracks to writing dialogue, I kind of assumed that – to an extent - words would suffice there, too, but I’ve been surprised at how much of a difference costume and location within the cathedral make.

For instance, at the beginning of the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, I walked in to the dressing room and saw a grey-haired, bearded man in a frock coat whom I completely failed to recognise as Owen, the actor who is playing Dickens! Suddenly, he was Dickens. And it may or may not have made a difference to how he felt about the lines, how he spoke them, but it certainly made a difference to how I heard and felt them.

What I’d forgotten, of course, is that both the writer’s and the reader’s imagination are constantly moving beyond the words on the page to see the characters they’re reading about. Writers and readers do what actors do – they use their imaginations to see the people on the page and to breathe life into them.
Obviously, the imaginative work required of the reader is slightly less onerous than that required of the writer – the reader doesn’t have to invent everything from scratch, merely to put their own interpretation on what the writer has written but, without imagination, the process of reading and understanding a book is impossible.

So, actors do for their audience what a reader’s imagination does. They take the bare words on the page, imagine what lies behind them and flesh the characters out, bringing them alive in the process.

All of which makes play-writing a far more collaborative process than novel writing, even if – as they playwright – you never get to influence the production. You are still in a process of collaboration with the actors to present the finished piece to the audience. In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to influence the production very much as its director, and it’s been wonderful to work with the actors.

Tomorrow is production day. If anybody is in or around Rochester, do come along to the cathedral and join in the festivities for the new interpretation project’s launch. You can try out the new audio-guides (voiced by Jools Holland) look at all the spiffy new display panels, see the audio-visuals and even watch the promenade play. First performance is at noon and the second will begin, seamlessly, just after one.

And the cathedral has a very nice tea-room too…

Thursday, 17 September 2009

What you might call writing balls...

One of the lovely people we met at the charcoal burn in the Forest of Dean told us that the architects at the practice she manages don’t sit on office chairs – they use exercise balls instead. You know - those huge things that look like space hoppers without the ears and the goofy face…

So, because I have a back that enjoys tormenting me by popping its sacro-iliac joint fairly regularly and – according to my osteopath – pretty naff ‘core stability’ I decided I’d get one.

Foolishly, I followed the height recommendations at Argos and got a 65cm one when I should have looked at less cheapskate more medically-oriented ones which tell you ‘if you have unusually long legs this may necessitate the use of a larger ball’. Well I do have unusually long legs. I’m just shy of 5’10’’ and I have a 34’’ inside leg. Nightmare for buying trousers – average women’s trousers are 29/30’’ with 31/32’’ considered long or even (hah) extra long. For me, only Long Tall Sally trousers will reliably fit, so if I don’t like what they have on offer, I go without. I have a lot of very well-worn trousers…

So, having used my 65cm ball for a week, I sent off for a 75cm one instead. Of course, it arrived today. When we were all at work/school/in Portsmouth in the case of the Ultimate Frisbee Freak. So I’ll get it tomorrow.

Has anybody else tried alternative seating in a bid not to completely knacker themselves by sitting at a desk for large parts of the day?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Here we go...

Well, it’s only Wednesday and so far it’s a spiffingly good week – I’ve started actually writing The Black and the White rather than endlessly droning on about research for it and I’ve been quoted on the Bookseller’s online presence here.

In case any of you follow the link and are wondering where I said all this, the original guest-blog post is here on the lovely Juxtabook blog.

So, finally, the thing is started. I got the house straight (OK straight-ish) over the weekend, organised a new working space (I’ve been doing all my research work in the kitchen) and bought a box for my index cards instead of keeping them in a nasty confused pile on the kitchen table.

I spent Monday and Tuesday getting in to it and, after being at work today, I’ve decided I’ve started in the wrong place. So I think a long walk will be necessary tomorrow morning to try and get my head around how I’m going to start where I think I should have started.

More anon…

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Charcoal burning escapades

As a parting shot in a comment I made on Tim Stretton’s blog last week, I asked – slightly breathlessly – ‘Don’t you just love research?!’

Because I do. Love research. But that was taken to a whole new level this past weekend when the Other Half and I headed down to the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean so that I could watch a charcoal burn in the traditional, thousands-of-years-old manner.

I had thought I’d just watch. I’d spoken to the guy running the burn – Pete Ralph – on the phone and he had very kindly said ‘come and join in as much as you want’ but I didn’t think I would. I’m not a gregarious person and the thought of gate-crashing an event already supplied with sufficient volunteers who knew what they were doing and having to talk to loads of new people for hours on end didn’t appeal.

But I hadn’t anticipated the warm welcome of the volunteers – most of whom were our age or older and the easy way they just included us in the whole process. There wasn’t a whiff of ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ they just naturally included us and assumed that we knew as much as they did and were as fascinated as they were. Which turned out to be true – certainly the fascinated part, anyway.

The process of burning charcoal is actually quite simple. (And, like lots of things that are simple in principle, it takes years to learn to do well.)

Here’s a recipe for one smallish charcoal-burning clamp:


2 cords of wood (a cord is a stack of wood eight feet long, four feet high and two feet wide, each ‘log’ being 2 feet long and approximately 3-4 inches in diameter. Interestingly the stack is called a cord because an eight-foot cord was used to measure the stack – the cord was doubled over to measure the 4 foot height and then doubled again to measure the 2 foot width. I always knew a piece of string would come in handy…)

Enough turf (approx half an inch to an inch thick) to cover the whole stack (a dome approximately 8 feet in diameter)

A mix of soil and charcoal dust/debris lifted from the hearth (ie the area of forest floor where the burn is going to take place) prior to building the clamp.

A nice flat area away from too much wind (which causes the stack to burn unevenly).

Method (in pictures...)

First build a central chimney...



then you put the turf on...

then you start covering it with earth...

and when it's nicely covered in earth, you (ie Pete) go up a ladder on the outside of the stack and , with a shovel, put loads of burning embers and half-charcoaled logs from the outside of the last burn (the brunts) in to the central chimney to start the fire.

We spent 5 hours building the clamp and watching the firing process on Saturday and then, on Sunday, we went back as proper volunteers on a shift which combined watching the clamp for signs of collapse or turf-shrinkage and putting patches on with chatting to members of the public who’d come to see what it was all about. We sounded like pros in no time.

One of the things I’d really been hoping I could do was to see the stack at night to find out what it looked like in the dark and how the woodland felt once the dominant sound wasn’t human but animal. (The owls were particularly vocal). Thanks to the generosity of volunteers James and Tina who were on the Sunday night shift we stayed until about ten o’clock and I was able to get a wonderfully atmospheric picture of what it might have been like to do the same thing in the mid-fourteenth century. I won’t wax lyrical here because, no doubt, a certain amount of that will find its way into the book. Many thanks to James, too, for sending me an article he had written on the evidence for medieval charcoal burning.

Sadly we weren’t able to see the clamp quenched (ie have lots of water poured over it) on Monday night or opened on Tuesday as we had to drive home on Monday. I’ll have to find another burn to discover the feel of those parts of the process. And I will. Because however many books you read, actually seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling the thing gives you the kind of first hand knowledge you can’t get any other way, no matter how erudite and specific your reading matter.

We’re so hooked we’re going back to the Dean Heritage Centre in May, as volunteers this time.

Who’d have thought there’d be so much entertainment value in watching a turfed-over pile of logs smouldering gently…?

PS Many, many thanks are due to the Dean Heritage Centre for putting me in touch with Pete Ralph and to Pete and his team of volunteers who made us so welcome. Thanks guys!