Monday, 2 January 2017

The angels forget to pray for us…

It’s time that we began to laugh and cry
And cry and laugh about it all again

– Leonard Cohen: So Long, Marianne

A few days ago, I started drafting a review of what was then the current year: but didn’t really get very far (somewhere around the end of February…). And, now that my deadline has passed (because of a parallel lack of mental momentum and physical health), I was on the verge of conveying those few musty paragraphs to the overflowing dustbin that is my output’s virtual, but permanent, companion. Waking up to a dark, dank day – which quickly infused my weakened joints (and thus my resolve) – did not help. However, after too many semi-comatose, quilt-hidden, guilt-ridden hours, I awoke again to realize that this was just the sort of challenge I needed to face down if I were to survive the next twelve months: a period where tough personal decisions must be made; and where the consequences of last year’s tragic body-political ones would start to make themselves evident – neither of which I could ever justify shying away from: however painful the outcome.

I am not generally one for resolutions (plural, in the calendrical sense); but am a strong proponent of meeting head-on that which would actively defeat me with as much determination, willpower, commitment and doggedness as can possibly be mustered. So, with all the resolution (singular, and in the attitudinal sense) as can currently be found, let me take you back those “few days”: so that we can jointly, steadfastly revisit my previous, expir’d twelve months and see if there is anything contained therein worth carrying forward.

It is fairly traditional, I believe – mayhap whilst swaddling a matchless single malt – to take a comprehensive look back in languor at the departing year: one’s beaded vision transfixed on its fading form trudging through Time’s tenebrose tradesman’s exit – validating its demise; its melting into the midnight mist… – as it clears the way for its bawling, vermix-swathed successor. And yet, in the protracted process of putting up this blog, it is not a praxis I have once set my ideational mind to; nor filled my fictive quill for. Perhaps none of its progenitive trilogy was worthy of such effort; was distinct enough?

Nevertheless – as many others will no doubt also conclude (perhaps because of the seemingly inordinate, interminable passing of the inestimably illustrious; or the contumacious uncrowning of the continental status quo – mimicked by the seditious Stateside selection of the supposedly surprising…) – it truly has been an annus of the most horribilis (un)kind. And, come what did… – even though I should be tempted to expunge it (or simply let it seep) from my quaggy mind; shoulder it through the metaphysical shredder; or at least deposit it in the depths of one of the many Indiana Jones-style chests summoning dust (dissipating significance) in the incorporeal loft… – still I feel it worth erecting this unmerited memorial, this inequitable cairn of consonants and vowels, before you: praying as I do so that its shadow will not overhang its successor, pall-like; indeed, pleading that its gloom is merely the precursor of a cloudless dawn (however implausible…).

As Albert Schweitzer may once have stated: “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” I presume, therefore, that unhappiness is nothing more than bad health and a good memory. Given that I (indubitably) have the former, but not (much of) the latter, I feel I am heading into murky, ontological waters (or at least dipping my big toe into a dank puddle of epistemology).

Fortunately, being the hoopy frood I (indubitably) am, this blog is all I need to keep my (and your) delicate tootsies dry. As 2016 progressed (or regressed, depending on your viewpoint), every single word, every single wick of its digital fabric, mopped up (albeit much less regularly than usual) deep pools of freshly-created memories: retaining them with the excellent efficiency and sumptuous sensuousness of the very finest Supima cotton bath sheet. Thankfully, there are moments of delight thus retained within its looped threads; but, for the most obvious of reasons (that “bad health”: both psychological and physiological), the most part is devoted to the sadness (the “unhappiness”) which made itself known as the days began to lengthen: suffusing its structure, making its mark, like the most pernicious, spreading stain.

In such a year of constantly declining health – where supposedly routine tests (medical and political) threw up results that were anything but… – I didn’t do as much walking – nor, therefore, as much writing – as I would have liked; or as much as I should have. But many of my treks – no matter their length – were memorable: my habitual ‘night-walks’, for example; and especially my encounter with an indefatigable skylark above Lower Tysoe, in May. This was also proof that my legs still had many miles in them, despite the pain that constantly shrouds me. I just need to select my routes – and the days I choose to pursue them – extremely carefully; and be wary of my physical limitations (which seem to have moved front- and centre-stage, as the year progressed).

As most of my first lines come to me whilst out and about – swathed in, or disguised by, my “wonted hat and dark glasses, walking stick in hand, somewhere in the wilds of Warwickshire” – it should be no surprise that my poetry also suffered (as it often does) in parallel with my health: the high point being a short piece I penned early in the year (which I probably should have then left untouched, rather than try to build a mirror for). It also means that Mole, Ratty and Mouse are still stuck in Badger’s old but comfortable sett (a metaphor for my depression, if ever there was one…) – still in need of my “fictive quill” to release them from their confines. Soon, I promise. (Soon.)

My consumption of others’ creations – although waning in parallel with the year and my health – still surpassed my own productivity by quite some margin. In fact, one of this appraisal’s key stimuli was the vertiginous quality of so many of the theatrical and musical interpretations I beheld.

I believe that, last night, I witnessed the greatest Shakespearean performance of my long life… – and not just from the actor in the principal rôle (that was simply a major miracle…). We had arrived at the Royal & Derngate, in Northampton, knowing that Michael Pennington would be the supreme King Lear. What I think we were surprised by was the corresponding calibre of the company that surrounded him – some of whom were only recent graduates. We shouldn’t have been, though; we really shouldn’t…

I had begun the year surrendering to the charms of Wendy and Peter Pan – and, then, at the beginning of February, was left “feeling as if I had been scoured thoroughly from the inside to within a millimetre of my flesh” by my first visit (of nine) to see Doctor Faustus, my theatrical highlight of the year. It took me a while, however, to work out why the production spoke to me so clearly, hooked me so hard; and I miss it still. Like Mrs Shakespeare, in July, it reflected my ongoing depression (formally diagnosed around the same time I first saw Faustus) back at me in a way that helped me examine it in more detail, and analyse it with a little more objectivity.

I have no idea how to even begin to describe what I have just seen – the RSC’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, at the Swan – except to say that it is the very definition of theatre…

But it was not just the appositeness, the self-applicability, which made this play so memorable: the performances from all involved – but particularly Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson (joint actors of the year) – were of a remarkably high standard: a golden touchstone by which other productions and actors would be judged; and which, remarkably, so many would go on to achieve. This was, after all, the year of that matchless, harrowing King Lear; an impossibly perfect Hamlet, starring the impossibly mesmerizing Paapa Essiedu; a gloriously riotous staging of Jonson’s The Alchemist; and, of course, Erica Whyman’s miraculous – one could even say socialist – enterprise, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – all productions where every single actor and creative was consistently at the very top of their game; where no-one was ever anything less than magnificent.

Outside, the world may have (“may have”?) been going to hell in a political, post-truth, handbasket; but, within the walls of Dionysus’ many temples – sanctuaries where we could safely hand our communal disbelief over with our coats and hats – not only were we being entertained and distracted, we were being shown alternatives, given ways of coping, handed the tools needed to respond, to fight back: the best of which were to be found in the astonishing Making Mischief festival at the RSC’s freshly re-opened The Other Place (TOP). No single component of this was anything other than devastating – but it was Joanne and especially Always Orange (which became a key component of my PTSD therapy) that hit me hardest. (The play which baptized TOP’s new Studio Theatre, in March – The Woman Hater, performed by the marvels that make up Edward’s Boys – couldn’t have been more of a contrast, though! But the quality of the portrayals was just as high.)

That I will be seeing out the old year (and seeing in the new) with two more visits to The Rover – “yet another huge dose of it-could-only-be-in-the-Swan perfection” – is a rip-roaring godsend (especially given the huge storms of disappointment conjured up by the RSC’s overambitious, vainglorious staging of The Tempest…): its high production values on a par with those listed above. I’m struggling to think of anything either funnier, or with a bigger heart.

My first concert of the year – which featured “one of the very best non-professional orchestras in the country”, my beloved Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, storming their extremely skilled way through Shostakovich’s Symphony No.3, as part of their stunning Russia: Revolution and Romance series (which also included a rare and breathtaking rendition of Prokofiev’s “unplayable” Piano Concerto No.2) – set the musical bar just as high as the theatrical one: establishing a benchmark for live performance that was somehow, quite stunningly, constantly achieved throughout the year.

Yet again – as always with Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan – this was a shrewdly-programmed concert: one with tragedy at its core. But, somehow, its overall effect was gloriously uplifting: probably because music of this quality is keenly felt and rare. We are therefore so lucky to have such inestimable talent within such easy reach.

Of course, we all select the concerts that we attend using such criteria as our knowledge of the performers, and of the music that has been scheduled – or we see pieces listed that we don’t know, or which are new, and which intrigue us… – but this is still no guarantee of such consistent excellence. I do admit, though, that I am fortunate that so many wonderful events take place within driving distance of my home. It would just be even more wonderful if my health would permit me to attend an even greater number of them.

One concert I missed more than any other featured violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Mind-bogglingly – like the Orchestra of the Swan – she just keeps on improving – heaping on yet more perfection – every time I hear her play. She is, therefore, my musician of the year.

Tamsin also took part in my concert of the year: one which marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with great thoughtfulness and beauty. My review says it all. But it was also notable in that it marked my first project as the Orchestra of the Swan’s Writer-in-Residence – which felt like being passed a gift directly from the hands of God… – interviewing the lovely Dobrinka Tabakova: whose commission, Immortal Shakespeare, formed the centrepiece of this quite remarkable event.

I may have to stop reviewing OOTS concerts soon: as I have run out of ways to explain and describe their majesty; their translucence; their ability to conquer all the peaks they face; to produce flawless radiance at the drop of a baton.

That I am now allowed(!) to write the orchestra’s programme notes; that I get to sit in on their rehearsals; that I am beginning to count members of the orchestra amongst my friends… – well, even in the darkest of despairs, these facts just go to demonstrate that there is always a light, somewhere, to follow – whether the tiniest pinprick; or the glaring beam of a flaming beacon… – you just have to look hard enough; and want (enough) to be guided by it. (In my case – and it really has led to me seeing, and hearing, the world anew – I was directed towards the purchase of a piano; and the revival of a musical love affair that started when I was barely old enough to clamber on to the stool to play!)

And, talking of my (favourite) instrument: 2016 was the year in which Thomas Nickell made his UK debut. I see a bright future for this thoughtful young man; and I look forward to making his reacquaintance in the New Year. It was also the year in which cellist Laura van der Heijden became OOTS’ Associate Artist. A seriously great musician, already – …and she’s only just started at university!

Even after all that, the year ended with a remarkable string of gloriously perfect, perfectly glorious performances: Bach, ancient and modern; then vividly-painted explorations, both oceanic and cosmic; an evening featuring “three outstanding, immensely prolific composers – all at the height of their powers”; and finally, a Messiah of amazing purity and vitality… – all demonstrating that the future of such music, as it is both made and played, is in great hands.

If only the same could be said for the world beyond those glowing, green ‘Exit’ signs…. Not that such will stop me from wishing you all the health and happiness you can muster. Just that I myself only expect it in the comfort of those I know and love; and those who can distract me with their iridescent creativity…. My best wishes to you all!

O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.

He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his scepter o’er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.

He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms; till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.

– William Blake: To Winter

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