Theatre review – Equus

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan, Ethan Kai (Alan Strang) and Keith Gilmore. Image The Other RichardThere’s an explosive power within the play Equus, currently on stage at Bristol Old Vic. Peter Shaffer wrote it in 1973, inspired by a crime involving a 17-year-old who blinded six horses. Why would someone do that? The question resounds throughout the script, again and again, gaining intensity as we learn of Shaffer’s imagined boy’s deep-rooted love of horses.

There’s no doubt that Shaffer was a visionary, and his words hold their own more than four decades on, but the freedom given to English Touring Theatre’s production, directed by Ned Bennett, feels like an intoxication. The resulting creation is a sensuous and cerebral tour-de-force forged in horse sweat and breath.

EQUUSR~4

The set is minimal to the extreme, with three vast plain curtains containing the space, while contributing to the atmosphere of the scenes. At times, figures or props emerge through them, silhouettes of the horses are shown through use of backlighting, and on one occasion psychiatrist Dr Martin Dysart, performed with startling sensitivity by Zubin Varla, twitches up a section to reveal Alan sitting behind.

Played by Ethan Kai, Alan is a wonderfully complex character. Initially communicating only in advert jingles (sung excruciatingly out of tune), his gradual willingness to open up is believable and moving.

And, yes, there is full frontal nudity. Perhaps, especially following the notoriety of he ‘naked Harry Potter’ production of 2008, if there had not been the audience would have felt short-changed.

What there is not, in this fresh production, are horse masks. Instead the actors embody horses through movement directed with masterful insight by Shelley Maxwell. In the pre-show talk Assistant Director Denzel Wesley-Sanderson and English Touring Theatre Producer James Quaife explained that while they tested masks in the show’s development stages, they decided they weren’t necessary.

EQUUS. Ira Mandela Siobhan (Nugget) and Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nugget and Ethan Kai as Alan.

It’s a wise choice, as it ensures no barriers stand between us and the performers. Ira Mandela Siobhan as Nuggets melts from man to horse through subtle shifts in stance. Hands become hooves, and the harrumphs of horses breathing become almost a form of communication. In a sense, it leaves interpretation of the worship elements of the story wide open, adding to the levels of this already richly layered script.

EQUUS. Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard

There are moments of sheer magic, not least when Dysart asks Alan, “What’s your first memory of a horse,” and we’re relocated to a seashore via the addition of six sandcastles that slide on stage fully formed. The production leaves it up to us to make sense of what we see. This trustfulness invites us to participate in envisioning the play, adding details and scope from our own frames of reference.

EQUUS. Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart), Ethan Kai (Alan Strang). Image The Other Richard.

Alan refers to horses as slave-gods, and speaks of the remarkable fact that horses allow us to control them when their size equips them to crush us in moment, if they wanted to. This idea of strength in submission pushes us to question ingrained ideas more deeply, a path Dr Dysart leads us further down in the second act as he queries his patient’s madness in contrast to his own perceived sanity. Alan’s confusion and vulnerability acts as a field into which Dr Dysart’s, and our own, can be thrown and examined.

EQUUS_Zubin Varla (Martin Dysart). Image The Other Richard.

Rubin Varla as Dr Martin Dysart

The second act takes things up a pace, as we rocket through revelations or increasing emotional intensity. The play touches on so many themes – devotion, loyalty, passion and guilt are just a few – that by the exquisitely disconcerting finale, you may find yourself ready to interrogate your own heartfelt or socially imposed beliefs.

Equus is on at Bristol Old Vic until at Saturday 20th April 2019. Find details of cast and ticketing here.

All images by The Other Richard.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Writing prompt – delivery

White chocolate albatross egg_photo by Judy DarleyImagine waking to find an expected delivery in your living room – an egg so beautiful and speckled it seems to glow with light and colour.

Could something have crept into your home to lay it? What might hatch from that exquisite shell?

Now hype up the intrigue by expanding the egg to at least the size of your sofa.

By the way, this particular eggs-ample (sorry, couldn’t resist!) is a white chocolate confection apparently resembling an albatross egg.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

The 507 micro fictions I have read

Dinefwr water meadows. Phot by Judy DarleyRecently, in a little under two days, I read and digested 507 micro fictions. Some of them I returned to and chewed over multiple times. In the two days after that, I set aside more than stories until I’d selected the 25 tales that have… well, yes, cast ripples.

The 507 specimens are 100-word stories submitted to the National Flash Fiction Day competition, which I was lucky enough to co-judge. On the morning after the contest closed to entries, I opened my inbox to find a fat document brimming with them all, ready to read at my leisure.

Well, not at my leisure, but it was a Saturday and I had almost an entire free morning in which to luxuriate over the carefully crafted creations.

During the first day I soon built up a rhythm that swept me along. As I swam through the compact fictions, I developed a labelling system of Yes, for the ones that stopped me in my tracks, Maybe, for the ones that snagged my attention at all, and No, for those that, I’m afraid, I felt I could remove without too many qualms.

By the end of day two I’d completed my second reading of all surviving stories, and was down to around 130.

Day three saw me whittle these down to a scant 61.

Patterns began to emerge as my brain sorted them into a series of recurring themes. I and my fellow judges, Angela Readman, Diane Simmons and Kevlin Henney, each attended dozens of funerals, including a high number where the chief mourner was also the murderer. We spent time in hospitals reeking with antiseptic and regret, waded through the mud of a multitude of wars. We met ghosts, unhappy children and cheating lovers in their droves.

We visited far-off planets, encountered people contemplating violence to themselves and others, and grazed our knees on numerous allegories and analogies. We bore witness to sensual and sinister moonlit cavorting. On at least three separate occasions we were told of the pain experienced via injury done to a twin. We eavesdropped on #MeToo revelations and felt the heat or skin-creeping chill of first times. These echoed narratives made our jobs a fraction easier, as we sought as the best of one type or another and used these to narrow our choices.

The process taught me to recognise a number of important things.

  • Word play is good, but not enough. For me a story needs to have heart too
  • A twist in the tail really needs to be handled with skill so as not to become an irritant
  • In some cases, even a 100-word story can have too many words
  • In some cases, a story trimmed down to 100 words can lose all meaning
  • Titles matter. With only 100 words to play with, the title offers precious opportunity to set the tone, and even layer in background information
  • Last lines matter. Somehow, they are the pebble that really casts a ring of ripples that will draw readers back to your story time and again.

To reach the small sum of 25, we each had to extricate and wave sorrowful farewells to some truly outstanding works. One I removed on day three continue to wriggle in my mind with such insistence that I retrieved it on day four and included it in my 25.

Once we’d ordered our 25 choice according to  preference, Santino Prinzi, the competition coordinator, correlated these, reissued the shortlist of 26 and asked us to narrow these down to our top ten. At this point, certain stories really began to shine.

I have emerged from tales breathless with wonder. It’s been an incredible, exhilarating journey, every step of the way.

NFFD 2019 logo

Now we have announced our winners and high commendably micro fictions, all of which will be published in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology 2019. There are some absolute stunners among them. Huge congratulations to these final ten, as well as everyone who reached the shortlist!

Being a co-judge of the NFFD completion 2019 has been a privilege. more than that, it’s been an education that’s spurred me on to aspire to write deeper, write truer and uncover more through my own writing.

A perfectly crafted paragraph is a powerful thing.

Writing prompt – fruit

Tomato. Photo by Judy DarleyDo you ever find it hard to believe that a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable? By this logic, how can we know that a dog is a dog, a pigeon is a pigeon or that a rock is a rock (and not a tortoise)?

Take this idea further and question all of your surroundings, piece by piece. Or consider this rather beautiful tomato and imagine it being extremely large, or yourself extremely small, and see where your mind carries you. If you want to go the other way and picture yourself being extremely large instead, go ahead. I won’t judge, promise.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

How to create compelling child characters

Esther 1 by Jayne JosoToday’s guest post author, Jayne Joso, created a complex seven-year-old, Esther, to sit at the heart of her novel From Seven to the Sea. Here she explains how she tackled the challenges of writing from a child’s point of view in a novel for adults.

From Seven to the Sea CoverThis is a book I thought I wouldn’t write until I was 80. Somehow, despite having previously written male characters at the centre of my work, and one as a Japanese male – something I did as a challenge – writing a small girl seemed far more complex for me. Children are amazing, they are so complicated and, at the same time, simple and straightforward in many ways, but what they lack is the vocabulary to describe their lives, particularly their feelings and so it is easy for these feelings, their inner lives, to be overlooked. So, one of the biggest obstacles was to find a way to showwhat this little girl character, Esther, might be feeling since I could not offer her an advanced level of communication and still manage to sustain her as a little child.

I re-read Henry James’ ‘What Maisie Knew’ and Barry Hines ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ – which always makes me cry; and without realising it my fingers hovered over the keyboard. But not for long. I began to write in a way I haven’t done before. Frantically, like a crazed pianist. I wept at moments, but wrote with a fury, with a passion, for 11 hours a day, and my hands would hurt. I felt hungry but slept.

Walking in North Wales by Jayne Joso

 

Gather the character’s cells

The character of Esther had, in fact, emerged after some years of imagining, a gathering of cells, if you like, from here and there. Over time, as I read articles about fabulous women and how they started out, or little girls with particular abilities that showed early on, I think I consciously and unconsciously found little Esther. In many ways, I had most of the story already. I could see it. I could occupy it, feel and breathe it. In any case, I always have the start and the ending at the very least, that’s how I work, I need a strong opening and I need to know where I’m headed.

In a way, all I had to do was give the story to little Esther and let her run with it.

When I came to write, I actually had more material than I used, but that’s usual for me, I am a huge fan of cutting. Apparently, it is more usual for authors to ‘over write’, writing far more than the publisher wants and having to be persuaded to cut this and that, but I am quite the opposite. As I write I realise, no, that is too much, it’s getting too dark and the shape might be lost, for example;and so I omit along the way.

Looking at the sky whilst walking by Jayne Joso

 

Cut to maintain the novel’s shape

The next stage is that I cut like a demon as though I will end up with a short poem and not a novel at all. A short poem is the most wonderful thing, but not when the aim is a novel. So, I have to be careful to be critical when I write and edit but not over-critical. It can become destructive. At moments of indecision or heavy-handed cutting, I find it better to take my hands away from the computer and do something completely different.

Walking is usually the best thing. If possible, it is good to walk somewhere nature-rich such as North Wales or in the mountains of Japan if I am writing there, but I also enjoy pacing, just walking calmly about a room. That too can be enough. I find my rhythm, and lines that I was struggling with decide their position and whether they are needed. That’s a good feeling, as is looking at the sky, cloud watching – it calms my breathing and makes me feel alive, and inspired.

HEADshotJayneJoso CREDIT - Natacha HornAuthor bio

Jayne Joso is a writer and artist who has lived and worked in Japan, China, Kenya and the UK. She is the author of four novels, From Seven to the Sea, the highly acclaimed My Falling Down HousePerfect Architect and Soothing Music for Stray CatsHer literary works are largely concerned with matters of human empathy, issues surrounding home, homelessness; and cultural identity. Joso is twice the recipient of ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND awards to support her writing. She also received the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Award and was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Award 2017. Most recently she gained a small grant from the DAIWA Anglo-Japanese Foundation to continue her research in Japan. Jayne will appear at the Hay Festival 2019 on Wednesday 29 May 2019 at 2.30pm. Find her at www.jaynejoso.uk and @JayneJoso.

All images in this post have been supplied by Jayne Joso. Headshot by Natacha Horn.

Read my review of From Seven To The Sea by Jayne Joso.

Got some writing insights to share? I’m always happy to receive feature pitches on writing genres and writing tools. Send an email to JudyDarley(at)iCloud.com.

Reading at Novel Nights with Maggie Gee

Novel Nights 12 April 2019

I’m excited to be reading an excerpt from my novel-in-progress Lake Glas at Novel Nights in Bath on Friday 12th April. This will be the first time I’ve read part of this novel to an audience, so I’m bubbling inside!

I’m particularly thrilled that Maggie Gee is the headliner. She’s an author who has been on my shelves for more than 20 years and I still remember the wonder of discovering The Burning Book when I was a teenager. After reading my parents’ copy, I bought my own in April 1997, which I know because my young self helpfully wrote the month and year on the flyleaf. Dipping into those pages now feels like being given a touch of time travel power, as they conjure the younger woman I was then, and how the novel captivated me.

Other readers sharing new work are Gail Aldwin and Debby Holt. Looking forward to an inspiring night of readings and conversation. Hope to see you there!

Book review – From Seven To The Sea by Jayne Joso

From Seven To The Sea coverMy overwhelming impression of Jayne Joso’s novel From Seven To The Sea is of glittering sunlight that blinks off every surface until you can only see your surroundings through the shards of your own eyelashes. Beautiful, but brimming with half-glimpses of potential treachery.

Esther is an exceptional child, gifted with a view of the world muddled through intoxicatingly with joy, music and hope. She has a talent for making allies of every person or dog she encounters.

Until, that is, she meets the man.

“The man, it would transpire, had a long list of ‘rules’, a long list of ‘dislikes’… things that caused him ‘displeasure’ and on top of this, a list of ‘hates.’ (…) But more than any of these, he hated on sight, and would come to detest, Esther, just turned seven.”

The man is, unfortunately, her new stepfather. As her seventh birthday falls into disarray and she’s swept to a new home, we’re buoyed by Esther’s resilience even as each act against her happiness, usually perpetrated by the man, wounds us.

As wrongfooted as she is to have been uprooted, Esther’s natural buoyancy leads her to the many havens in her neighbourhood, from a room full of African artefacts that become her pals, to a den she creates under trees in the garden, to the wondrous place where sea meets shore.

Continue reading

Writing prompt – encounter

Boy meets turtle_Photo by Judy DarleyInspired in part by Michael T. Miyoshi’s fantastic response to last week’s #WritingPrompt – Oddity, this week’s prompt features an inquisitive turtle.

What could a kind-natured, mischievous boy and a wise, curious turtle learn from one another? Given the opportunity, what adventures might they have together?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Bristol Short Story Prize 2019

Bristol hot air balloons cr Judy DarleyOne of my favourite writing competitions (and not just because it’s local), Bristol Short Story Prize 2019 is open for entries. Flick through any of their anthologies and you’ll discover a wonderful breadth of themes, topics and styles.

The closing date for entries is May 1st 2019. Submissions can be up to a maximum length of 4,000 words. There is an entry fee of £9 for each submission.

The 2018 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by Dizz Tate  for her story, Cowboy Boot. 2nd prize went to Chloe Wilson. You can read an interview with Dizz about her win, here. Chloe Wilson has been signed by literary agent Kate Johnson of the New York-based MacKenzie Wolf Literary Agency. Kate is part of the judging panel for the 2019 competition, along with editor Lucy Cowie, writer Polly Ho-Yen, and writer Billy Kahora.

The 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by Dima Alzayat for her story, Ghusl. Following her win Dima has been signed by literary agent Juliet Pickering.

BristolShortStoryPrize-vol-9-coverThe 2016 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by Stefanie Seddon for her story, Kãka.

The 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by Canadian writer Brent van Staalduinen for his story A Week on the Water.

The 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize was won by Mahsuda Snaith for her story The Art of Flood Survival.

Find the full competition rules here.

The writing competition prizes

First prize is £1,000. Second prize is £500, and third prize is £250.

Each of the 17 remaining shortlisted finalists will receive £100. The winning story will be published in the print edition of Bristol 24/7 magazine in November 2019, as well as in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 12. An additional prize of £100, The Sansom Award, in recognition of the contribution to Bristol publishing of John and Angela Sansom, may be presented to the highest placed story by a Bristol writer.

For full details or to enter, go to www.bristolprize.co.uk.

Got an event, challenge, competition or call for submissions you’d like to draw my attention to? Send me an email at judydarley(at)iCloud(dot)com.

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Closed for maintenance…

Closed for Maintenance_The Faroe IslandsOne of the destinations on my wishlist, the Nordic Faroe Islands, has made a somewhat unusual announcement.

The entire 18-island archipelago in the North Atlantic ocean is to close to holidaymakers for an entire weekend this spring.

Far from being a weekend ‘off’, it’s being tagged as an opportunity for voluntourism, and the only outsiders allowed in for the time-span are those who commit to aiding in the islands’ maintenance.

Something about the idea tickles me – not only is this a way to take care of this beautiful rural destination, but it offers the chance to really get to know the locals as you work with them to tend to the volcanic isles located midway between Iceland and Norway.

Faroe Islands location map

“The Faroe Islands welcome around 100,000 visitors each year, attracted by the country’s dramatic scenery, including rugged cliffs, sea caves, spectacular waterfalls and an abundance of birdlife, not forgetting a population of just 50,000 Faroese people and their 80,000 sheep,” says Guðrið Højgaard, director of Visit Faroe Islands. “Happily – the Faroe Islands currently have no over-tourism problems. However, the fragile natural environment in a few popular tourist locations has felt the effects of an increase in visitors. These areas need a helping hand to ensure they remain pristine; sustainability is the goal.”

The idea is, quite simply, to close for maintenance and open for voluntourism over the weekend of Friday 26th to Sunday 28th April 2019. If all goes well, this could become an annual event.

There will be an array of projects led by local people, aimed at delivering a touch of TLC to the Faroese countryside and to ready it for the influx of visitors expected later in the year.

Just 100 visitors will be able to sign up to join the Faroese Maintenance Crew. In return for their services to the country, they will be gifted both accommodation and food over the three-night maintenance period. Maintenance projects will take place on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th April. On the Saturday night, there will be a celebratory meal for all those who have joined forces to help.

TNF_VisitFaroeProjects will include creating walking paths in well-trodden areas, constructing viewpoints that help preserve nature and protect birdlife sanctuaries and erecting signs that help with wayfinding. Projects will be of various difficulty levels, meaning volunteers do not need to be highly skilled. A willingness to assist is the only criterion.

“We are delighted that more and more people are discovering how special our islands are – our scenery, our unique way of life, our food and our people,” says Guðrið. “For us, tourism is not all about numbers. We welcome visitors to the islands each year, but we also have a responsibility to our community and to our beautiful environment, and our aim is to preserve and protect the islands, ensuring sustainable and responsible growth.”

For more information, or to sign up to be part of the Maintenance Crew, please visitwww.preservefaroeislands.com.

To watch the campaign film, visit https://vimeo.com/317464068/de987a1d75.

To learn more about the Faroe Islands, visit www.visitfaroeislands.com. All images supplied by Visit Faroe Islands.