Review – new publishing house Grand Iota

Apropos Jimmy Inkling cover for webThe first two books released by publishing start up Grand Iota each entice us into streams of consciousness states of very different kinds.

In Apropos Jimmy Inkling by Brian Marley, we enter a court case where an unwitting customer, unnamed, has become the jury for the afore-mentioned Jimmy Inkling. Written entirely in dialogue with numerous digression into random topics, we soon learn that in the world our characters inhabit, gods tread alongside us and seem very like to us. We’re taught early on in the book that gods have far less power that we mortals suppose, but “have a tendency to boast”, hence this misconception. Instead of causing or preventing “typhoons and tsunamis”, for example, they are responsible for tasks such as making hinges squeak.

I’m a fan of authors who play with space on the page, and Marley works with his text as though it is clay, building small mountains by careful tweaks to font and alignment that lifts some passages so that they seem more akin to spoken asides:

His speed of thought was such that
he was incapable
of finishing one sentence
before starting another.

There’s a wonderful surreality to the court case’s progression, as time is taken out to honour the loss of a tooth, from the mouth of a character whose godly name is almost impossible for mortals to pronounce.

By this point I had lost track of whether I’d ever known what the court case was actually about, or even who was on trial, but was enjoying the ride.

It’s a frame of mind equally well suited to Grand Iota’s other bibliophilic pioneer.

Wild Metrics cover for webIn Ken Edward’s Wild Metrics we meander through the life of alternative poet K, sharing a squat in the early 1970s where, as in Marley’s book, characters ebb and flow, and the text is laced with the aura of dreaming philosophers, with punk, and Thatcher, on the horizon and literary genius bubbling below the surface.

In a neighbourhood of squats, the one where our hero resides (run by a bloke called Des) is special enough that nearby residents, including Big Steve, want in: “Steve would scrounge items from skips or dustbins that he thought Des or other members of the household might like and bring them round hopefully, like a cat depositing the gift of a decapitated mouse on the doorstep.”

There’s a sense of memories having been poured onto the page, possibly from a substantial height. Rather than being channelled towards a specific destination, each syllable nudges you one way, then another in a way that offer an impression of being immersed in K’s consciousness. I found myself setting the book aside for a few weeks and then, inexorably, returning to it – once it’s in your blood you’ll need more than a session of cold turkey to push past it.

Part memoir, part trip and part novel, it does, as the publisher promises, confound easy categorisation.

More than anything, reading Wild Metrics is akin to overhearing a discombobulating conversation on a bus that draws you to lean in with the aim of catch every muttered word.

In short, Apropos Jimmy Inkling and Wild Metrics are great companion reads. As you align yourself to unfamiliar atmospheric and gravitational pressures, you’ll find yourself hungering for another paragraph, another page and, most definitely, another book to allow you access back beneath the surface of this unconventional and intriguing waterway.

Apropos Jimmy Inkling by Brian Marley and Wild Metrics by Ken Edwards are available to buy from Grand Iota

Please note that Grand Iota is not currently open to submissions.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

The arrival of immersive cinema

Sanctuaries of Silence_ecologist Gordon HemptonLimina is the UK’s first immersive cinema VR Arts venue, and just happens to have cropped up on Bristol’s harbourside. Outside, it looks like just another building, but inside, you’ll discover oceans, rainforests, architectural marvels, and wild places that are on the brink of disappearing from the real world.

On entering you’re invited to relinquish bags and coats: “It’s best to be as unencumbered as possible.”

When the time for the screening begins, we and our fellow travellers (each screening allows a maximum of 12 people), were led into a room where swivel chairs with plump cushions awaited. So far, so low-tech. Our hosts handed out headsets, warned about possible dizziness and advised us to close our eyes briefly to regain our balance if necessary.

Limina Immersive exterior

The first scene that appeared was an illustration of Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension bridge, with a few static hot air balloons for good measure. Even this doodled scene was entire, so that if you turned in your chair the view continued, with the river stretching onwards. A calming female voice explained what was about to happen, and that Limina means ‘between things.’ I actually googled the word afterwards, and discovered it also means: “The threshold of a physiological or psychological response” and “an entrance’, which seems very apt.

We’d chosen to attend Cathedrals and Rainforest, a double-bill exploring the power of natural and man-made sanctuaries.

Our first short screening was The Man Behind Notre Dame, by TARGO. In the company of Rector-Archpriest Patrick Chauvet, we explored the cathedral’s most imposing and private spaces, pre-fire, joining him in his preparations and attending part of a mass where I found myself taking a gulp of air, expecting inhale incense. For me, the vertiginous views from among the gargoyles atop one of the towers offered a moment of breathtaking awe.

Sanctuaries of Silence_accoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton

Our second journey, Sanctuaries of Silence by Adam Loften, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Go Project, acoustic ecologist Gordon Hampton invited us to enter the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. It’s actually a place I’ve visited, and again I was aware of how much I understand the world through smell, as I sought the aroma of the trees dripping with moss. Our guide led us into the forest of immense Sitka spruce and onto Ruby Beach, surrounding us in layers of natural sounds as well as the calming beauty of these places. It was a highlight of the virtual reality experience, resetting my mind from the hubbub of Bristol’s city centre.

There’s something extraordinary about these films that capture a location so completely. Since the fire that occurred in Notre Dame, this particular viewing offers a gateway to a location now drastically changed. While in the screening, you can gaze in every direction and take in the true grandeur of architecture now lost in the real world.

The same was true in the second film of our double bill. The demands of modern life mean many of us spend little time deep in the countryside, and this was a much needed pause in pace.

I emerged feeling I’d been away on a walking holiday or to a spa, refreshed and rejuvenated. It seemed strange that less than 30 minutes had passed. I catch myself already wondering which event to swim into next. Perhaps Ocean, Body, Mind?

In future, I suspect smell and texture will play a larger role in these immersive events. For now, these experiences offer brief pockets of respite I think would be beneficial on a regular basis – perhaps on prescription – to keep our brains in check and remind us of the world beyond our city streets. Wonderful.

Find out what’s on and book tickets.

Book review – This Is (Not About) David Bowie by FJ Morris

This Is (Not About) David Bowie by F. J. Morris coverFJ Morris has a unique way of viewing the world that feeds into every piece of fiction she writes. Loosely using the theme of David Bowie as a connecting point, the stories in her debut flash fiction collection examine the magic of our human contradictions in glittering, meteor showers of prose.

Morris’ vivid turns of phrase bring scenes into focus – puddles ‘pop’ with rain, bodies can become rubble, and confessions are preceded by “the deepest of breaths, for the deepest of dives.”

There’s a sense of unearthing ancient fables through her tales, as even the most unexpected imagery is presented with such innate confidence in us readers to digest it that it seems at once commonplace and utterly peculiar. That’s a skill many writers fail to master in a lifetime – akin to achieving the ability to harness a trick of the light.

Morris’ sideways glance at the world equips her to embrace huge themes in a way that helps you see them anew. She tackles grief via the motion of a freshly vacated swing, and explores on questions about gender, sexuality and more in a way that invites strange flavours onto your tongue and unfamiliar textures under your bare feet.

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Book review – Unveiled

UnveiledThe first anthology of novel excerpts from the Unthank School of Writing was never going to be a straightforward affair. Created seven years into the School’s existence, editors Ashley Stokes and Stephen Carver describe the contents as brimming “with storytelling verve, imagination and talent.”

That’s all true, but what strikes me most powerfully  is the immense variety within these tales, crossing time and geographic landscapes while presenting us with a multitude of realities, shared in a diverse array of authorial styles.

The anthology opens with Lost Lessons of Imaginary Men by Nicola Perry. Reading the author biographies, it’s clear Perry is one of the more practised Unthank School alumni, and that experience shines through in this prologue and first chapter.

She opens with words that anchor under your skin: “My mother is dead inside. There’s nothing I can do for her. I am instructed in this from a young age.” Questions bubble up immediately: who is our narrator? How young are they exactly? What’s wrong with the mum? Is she the one instructing her son in this peculiar fact? If so, why? Perry has clearly mastered the art of intrigue, and we’re only 21 words in. Impressive.

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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.

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.

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Theatre review – Orca

Orca play at Bristol old VicMatt Grinter’s powerfully understated play Orca, directed by Chloe Masterson, opens on a scene of excitement as fourteen-year-old Fan (Rosie Taylor-Ritson) prepares for her village’s annual ritual of choosing a girl to play the role of the Daughter and protect precious fish stocks from marauding orcas. Each of the village’s young girls vies for the privilege to re-enact the Daughter’s sacrifice of leaping into the ocean and the orca’s jaws to save The Father and the village.

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan and Sam Henderson as The Father in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller.jpg

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan and Sam Henderson as The Father in Orca

Fan has her dress all but ready, the flowers for her hair and her performance down pat, but there’s one obstacle. Her sister Maggie, who was chosen as the Daughter years earlier, shamed her family by telling ‘lies’ about what happens to the girls taken out to sea. The family – Maggie, Fan and their carpenter father Joshua (Finnbar Hayman) has been struggling to get by ever since.

Fan is certain that being picked as the Daughter herself will help to re-establish the family’s position in the village. But Maggie is scared that what happened to her will happen to her little sister, far out from shore where nobody can help her. It wasn’t that no one believed her, she says, but rather that no one dared or wanted to believe.

Sam Henderson as The Father and Heidi Parsons as Maggie in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Sam Henderson as The Father and Heidi Parsons as Maggie in Orca

This is the premise that has sanctioned the misdeeds carried out by men with the mindsets of Harvey Weinstein for centuries. Even Maggie’s own father dares not believe her, but she sees that there’s doubt in his heart.

Finnbar Hayman as Joshua and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Finnbar Hayman as Joshua and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca

Portrayed by a cast of five exceptionally talented acting students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, each character is wonderfully nuanced and human, from our hero Maggie, played with blazing determination by Heidi Parsons, to Sam Henderson delivering The Father with a skin-creeping blend of charm and threat.

Set designer Robin Davis keeps scenery pared back and humble, with a table and two stools representing the house, and bare, salt-stained boards becoming the island exterior. Lamps flicker into life to add atmosphere, while sound designer Daniel Harvey adds in the soft sound of surf keeps our minds on the sea. Matched to costume designer Oscar Selfridge’s rustic knitwear.

Heidi Parsons as Maggie and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Heidi Parsons as Maggie and Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca

Holly Carpenter as Gretchen, a girl pulled from the waves with rope burns around her ankles, adds a palpable sense of urgency to the narrative, showing Maggie that The Father’s actions are further reaching than she suspected. Maggie never wavers from the truth, despite the pressures put on her by the community and by her own family.

Gretchen and Maggie have both had encounters with the orcas everyone professes to dread, and both feel this fear is misplaced. As the play races towards its crescendo, clarity rises from the depths of every heart, but has it come too late?

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca. Credit Craig Fuller

Rosie Taylor-Ritson as Fan in Orca

Orca is a gut-chilling reminder that the smallest communities have room for danger, and that often the biggest risks come not from nature, but from the people who claim to want to keep you safe.

Gloriously atmospheric, rich textured and riddled with uncomfortable truths, this is a drama that will seep beneath your skin and remind you to question the society that shelters you.

Find out more at https://www.oldvic.ac.uk/events-shows/orca/

Orca is on at Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio until Saturday 16th March 2019 and is part of the New Plays in Rep season. Photos by Craig Fuller.

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.

Book review – The Dog Who Found Sorrow

The_Dog_Who_Found_SorrowAn uncanny magic occurs in picture books when you achieve the perfect balance between images and words. The Dog Who Found Sorrow, written by Rūta Briede, is both illustrated and translated from Latvian by Elīna Brasliņa, a combination which may be in part why this book exudes such eloquence. Evocative  illustrations are scattered sparingly with text that entices you into to a fable of resilience against melancholy.

Add in the final incantation of the book being published by The Emma Press, who are increasingly making waves with their poetry anthologies and other books, and it’s small wonder that this book is both beautiful and haunting.

Pages bloom with scant petallings of words layered lightly on a pictorial patchwork that brings our hero’s predicament to life: “One morning my home town was invaded by black clouds – first there was just one, but soon I lost count.”

While the theme of a town submerged in sadness seems decidedly grown up, the handling of the text and artwork opens it up to all demographics. In fact, this feels like an acknowledgement of the sophistication of our emotions, regardless of age.

In the story, everyone is depressed by the clouds filling their town, and no one thinks they can do anything about it, not even our hero. But this is no ordinary dog, this is a dog who wears an overcoat, grows roses and plays the harmonica. He can even climb a ladder.

I love the detail that our hero is a dog living as an equal among humans – it’s one of those appealing touches beloved of children’s books and requiring no explanation.

Our hero soon decides it’s silly to just accept things as they are – sad and grey. “Maybe there was something I could do. I put on my rain hat, took my backpack and climbed up to the attic to get onto the roof.”

The poetry of the book is so elegantly echoed in the rich, world-conjuring imagery that I can easily imagine being transformed into an animation in the future. Our dog is afraid but determined, which is something we can all draw hope and comfort from.

And with such an inspiring protagonist, of course there’ll be a happy ending.

The Dog Who Found Sorrow is published by The Emma Press

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.

Poetry review – Empire of Dirt

Empire of Dirt coverThe poems in Thomas Stewart’s debut pamphlet Empire of Dirt share the enchanted forest feel of the darkest fairytales. Nature appears on these pages as something elemental and vaguely sordid, with humans only one footfall away from entering the shadowy, loam-scented spaces on the fringes of suburban streets.

Moving, enticing and richly redolent, these poems summon the paradoxical sense of peace laced with disquiet that’s so particular to woodlands, where the unseen creeps ever closer.

Many of the poems are about observing. In And then The Flowers Came, he writes: “outside/ the trees can/ smell me, their/ roots/ brew plots,/ they’re watching/ me, with/ everyone else”.

In Skull, Stewart invites us to become the voyeurs, ogling the intimate miracle of Adam birthing his Eve.

More contemporary suspicions come into play with the awareness of a neighbour spying from between the petals of a hibiscus across the road: “she watches/ how many cigarettes/ I smoke/ or how many times/ I check Grindr/ on my phone.” The tension between timeless and modern, and between threat and temptation, is palpable.

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Theatre review – Wise Children

Wise Children company, credit Steve Tanner (3)Vibrant, comical and moving, Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic is a joyfully dizzying swirl of an end-of-pier helter skelter with a vein of minty gravitas spiralling through the middle.

Etta Murfitt, Gareth Snook in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner

Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook as Nora and Dora Chance

We meet twin sisters Nora and Dora Chance (Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook) as they prepare to celebrate their 35th birthday, then zip back through time to meet their paternal grandparents. Some theatrics, debauchery and a spot of violence orphans their father and his twin brother, and so a pattern is laid out for the sisters before they’re even born.

Bringing Angela Carter’s last novel to wriggling, whooping, high-kicking life is director Emma Rice, the creative whizz behind the enchanting The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, among others. The production is the first from Rice’s new theatre company, also named Wise Children, and it’s a fabulous indication of the treats to come.

Wise Children company1, credit Steve Tanner (2)

The small cast conjure a whole world, with earlier incarnations of the sisters and their fathers appearing throughout, sometimes as ghostly memories and other times in a change of costume as a lover, pier comic or stagehand. Gender is fluid, and morals even more so. The recommendation is that performances are best suited to ages 14 and up. Sex is portrayed with cartoonish vigour or fleeting tenderness, and education on this theme from Grandma Chance is accessorised by bagels and sticks of seaside rock.

Katy Owen as Grandma Chance in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner (2)

Katy Owen as Grandma Chance

The youngest Nora and Dora (apart from Lyndie Wright’s puppets) are performed with boisterous wide-eyed enthusiasm by Mirabelle Gremaud and Bettrys Jones, while their showgirl personifications, played by Omari Douglas and Melissa James, exuded sex appeal and vulnerability in equal, overflowing measure.

Melissa James as Dora, Omari Douglas as Nora in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner

Melissa James as Dora and Omari Douglas as Nora

 

Katy Owen is magnificent as the girls’ ever-tipsy, often unclothed (apart from golden nipple tassels) grandma, while the elder embodiments of their father and uncle, (Paul Hunter and Paul Rider) manage to smudge the bravado of their younger selves (Ankur Bahl and Sam Archer) into the wistful, somewhat melancholy humour of old age.

Bettrys Jones, Katy Owen, Mirabelle Gremaud in Wise Children1, credit Steve Tanner

Bettrys Jones as young Dora, Katy Owen as Grandma Chance and Mirabelle Gremaud as young Nora

The sisters long to be acknowledged by their father Melchior, who abandoned their pregnant mother, but settle instead for the intermittent adoration of his brother, Peregrine. Dashing and affectionate, young Peregrine is also the instigator of one of the production’s most chilling scenes.

Taking place in a moment of quiet between 13-year-old Dora (Bettrys Jones) and her uncle, while other action takes place around them, it’s skilfully handled enough that we questioned whether we’d really seen what we thought we’d seen – a unnerving parallel to the reality of such instances.

Melissa James as Showgirl Dora in Wise Children, credit Steve Tanner (2)

Laughter, song and dance coupled with the vivid set (including an ingenious turning caravan and some exquisite projected animation) plus enticing costumes by Vicki Mortimer keeps the tone on the right side of fun, but this dark core thread draws us towards the shadows beyond the glitz, if only for seconds at a time.

Wise Children is on at Bristol Old Vic until 16th February 2019. Find out more and book tickets. Production images by Steve Tanner.

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.