A piece for The Guardian on Moon Country by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell
The Guardian: Journeys in literature: Moon Country
A piece for The Observer on Shakespeare in China
The Observer: Culture: William Shakespeare
Rapid reflections on a fair field for Penned in the Margins
An interview with Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, The Transmitter, Winter 2015 – The Transmitter
Under the cobblestones, the pitch, The Transmitter, Spring 2015 – The Transmitter
A pint with… a poet, The Transmitter, Summer, 2015 – The Transmitter
Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town? (or Goodnight Mrs Tom), The Transmitter, Summer 2013 – The Transmitter
A piece for The Guardian Books blog, on BS Johnson
The Guardian: Summer Readings: Like a Fiery Elephant
A piece for The Guardian Theatre blog on working with Teatro Vivo
The Guardian: Theatre blog: Site-sensitive theatre
A piece for The Guardian ‘Old music’ series, on Sheep by The Housemartins
Old music: The Housemartins – Sheep
A piece for The Guardian ‘Old music’ series, on Caravan by Van Morrison
Old music: Van Morrison – Caravan
A literary XI for The Football Pink
On writing for Teatro Vivo – The Public Reviews blog
A rehearsal blog for Theatre Alibi – Hammer & Tongs
Album reviews – The Peryls & Metamono, The Transmitter, Winter 2013 – The Transmitter
The Fahrenheit Diaries, a ten-part series for The Guardian Theatre pages
M.Phil thesis – University of Hull, 1998
Acting the Fool: The modern actor’s approach to Shakespeare’s clowns and fools
See below for unpublished pieces:
Homer in Deptford
I’m staggering about a patch of grass beside a busy road. I can’t see where I’m going and my teeth hurt. Some teenage girls are throwing bits of wood at each other and a shady character is trying to sell something to a group of passers-by, some sort of exotic flower that makes you feel good. It’s Friday night and I’m in Deptford.
Despite appearances I’m not three sheets to the wind and I am – almost – safe. I’m telling stories, Homer’s stories, and in one of them I’ve been blinded by somebody called Nobody. Am I Homer, the apocryphal blind bard? Well strictly speaking I’m a Cyclops but in spirit I am Homer; we all are, all of us who’ve made and are making this journey, as well as the many others who are on it but don’t know it.
For the past year I’ve been working with two other writers, Vic Bryson and Sarah Sigal, and with Teatro Vivo on re-imagining Homer’s Odyssey for the streets of Deptford. It’s a promenade, site-sensitive adventure which begins at the Albany Theatre, our Ithaca, and soon travels out onto the wine-dark streets in the footsteps of Odysseus.
We’ve enjoyed responding to the idea that Homer was not necessarily one man, but may have been a collection of various voices, itinerant poets singing and eventually scribbling their tales, then flicking yarns from island to island. Luckily there are over a hundred islands in the Thames. Many voices have made our story too. Not only three writers and Teatro Vivo, who are a collective, but the people of Deptford who’ve signed up as a community chorus of gods, the fellow-travelling audience, and the folk who stumble through the story blissfully unaware that they’ve just passed a whirlpool and a six-headed monster outside the People’s Choice.
We don’t really know who Homer was or whether he existed at all, but these stories, from what have become known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, passed down through roughly two and half millennia certainly do exist here and now in Deptford. In his biography of the two books Alberto Manguel suggests “No-one owns Homer… For Homer’s future readers, Troy came to stand for all cities and Ulysses for every man.”
Each audience member seems to experience a different odyssey but hopefully also enjoys a shared adventure which is true to Homer’s original – whoever she was. What we’ve written allows space for other Homers to speak, for a genuine connection between audience, cast as Odysseus seekers, and character, each obsessed with their encounter with the wily fox. Sometimes the audience try to derail us. It’s our story just as much as yours they seem to say. We are Homer.
Robert McCrum writing in The Observer noted “a violent immediacy is the key to Homer. His heroes live and die in the present moment.” And that certainly feels true out here along Deptford Church Street, a javelin’s throw from London’s Olympic sites, as the green man at the crossing becomes the ferryman over the River Styx, watching over flowers and ribbons tied to the railings. McCrum goes on to say that the original versions of the texts contain “a blend of many dialects, like a poet writing in Caribbean, Scots and Australian English”- various voices; Manguel’s “cacophony of one-man bands.”
Deptford is a voice too, its places sing – the creek, the meadow, the tattoo parlour –despite the bulldozings of the 1950s; as do the ghosts of shipbuilders and market traders, poets and girls chucking wood. Eddie stands on a concrete block scattering verse. He’s a prolific poet from south London. He is Homer. Steve, born and bred on these streets, speaks Billy Bragg in the arches, beautifully simply, “What will you do when the war is over, tender comrade?” Steve is Homer too. As are the ‘ghosts of poetry past’ who have inspired us – Euripides, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Yeats, Joyce, Augusta Davies Webster – Django Reinhardt.
A group of young skater boys, having heard lines on our hero’s troublesome sea crossings once, by the second reading are joining in, an impromptu echo outside Wavelengths leisure centre. Later they turn up back at Ithaca, having skated down Resolution Way, joining the odyssey. This is what this storytelling is for. I don’t know whether these boys knew this was happening on their patch this evening, but by 9 o’clock, and despite England Vs Sweden poised at 2-2, they want news – of Odysseus. Outside the Albany one of them asks someone, who happens to be the show’s director Sophie Austin, ‘Are you Homer?’
As the sun sets on Creekside – Leda in Hades cowers from the swan-shaped stars she sees in the London sky, a military helicopter passes overhead and the Docklands Light Railway rumbles by – the audience, now back together as one, prepare to pinball back through old-new Deptford, searching still. Has anyone checked the library? We ask them to pause for a moment to remember those who’ve been lost before. ’There are many war dead here. There are many wars.’
Describing the search for Homer himself Robert McCrum supposes that he was “probably an illiterate folk poet chanting his work to village audiences through prodigious feats of memory,” but that ultimately putting the pin in the map is impossible: “Even in ancient times Homer is everywhere – and nowhere.”
I stagger into a railway arch. Searching for Nobody in the dark.
Copyright © Michael Wagg 2012
Box three, Spool five
I took the coach to Paris. The coach drove onto the ferry. On the ferry there was a strange family. I’d heard them earlier discussing their shared packed lunch and arguing about what to tackle when. So I was pleased to find myself standing out on the back deck near the table where the strange family had gathered, Beck’s beers in hand. I was pleased to listen to the strange family.
Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! And the resolutions! To drink less, in particular.
I think they were on their way to a gig. I think the younger man was a musician, the younger woman too, maybe. I think the younger woman and the younger man were together, though maybe not. I think the younger woman was related to one of the older two, probably the woman. And I think the older man was the fairly new partner of the older woman and was a musician too. I don’t think it was his gig, but he’d brought his guitar along anyway and looked like Jerry Lee Lewis and Alex Higgins.
(Brief laugh of Krapp alone.)
I liked the strange family.
It was late September and I was going to Paris to meet my friend. My friend was born in Belfast and lives in Paris. He’d agreed to direct. On the first night we ate at the local Indian restaurant. I sent a message back home asking for the brown waistcoat. Around midday the next day I took a quick walk round the roundabout near the apartment in Saint Germain-en-Laye, just to clear my head.
I thought about the strange family and hoped they hadn’t fought.
It was my thirty-ninth birthday and so I was able to say thirty-nine today as I walked round the roundabout clearing my head. I went back to the apartment and rolled my tongue round my mouth a few circles. After a quick check of the levels and a brief discussion of where it was best for my friend to station himself we began, spools turning.
Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago..
We’d first talked about it in Hull in east Yorkshire sometime around 1995, though we weren’t sure exactly when, and now we were about to set it down once and for all. Once and for all.
I imagined it was late at night, around eleven forty-five, that I’d just come back from the bar – I knew the bar – and that I was alone. I thought about going round and round, and bananas.
The strange family were probably having a late breakfast after a long night at the gig.
Thirty-nine today, sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness, and intellectually I have now every reason to suspect at the… crest of the wave – or thereabouts.
Or thereabouts. On the coach from the French coast I’d read something about Eric Satie’s dying words. He’d talked about cows. I saw cows in Calais fields and thought I saw them winking. Then I’d thought about Richard Huelsenbeck, the Dada Drummer, and his cows playing chess sitting on telegraph poles. The view from the ferry had been two sorts of grey, sea and sky, one strip on top of another. Like a Rothko dreamt by Sam or a memory. I was still thinking about the strange family. I hoped they were fine.
But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
I was recording Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape on my thirty-ninth birthday. Or at least I was recording the recorded bits of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. On my thirty-ninth birthday. The recorded section starts Thirty-nine today, sound as a bell, and it’s this that the older Krapp listens to some time in the future. Some time in the future. I hope the strange family are fine.
… great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighhouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality…
I hope they had a good day out exploring Paris.
These passages are recorded by Samuel Beckett’s Krapp on his thirty-ninth birthday and he starts Thirty-nine today.. In the play by Samuel Beckett the older Krapp listens back to his younger self.
(Prolonged laugh in which Krapp joins.)
In thirty years’ time, or so, we plan for me to perform the play, Krapp’s Last Tape, under my friend’s direction, and for me to listen to the voice of my younger self. We hope that the first time I play Krapp will also be the first time I hear the recording since that day. This will probably require using a dummy recording in rehearsal. As for Krapp it will be strange and awful and amusing and inconceivable, I suppose, that that voice ever was. That a man travelled to Paris from London by coach and boat, that all was grey, that he thought of cows and chess, that he met a strange family and was Krapp and was me and was me and was Krapp.
Spools turning round and round. I hoped the strange family had a safe trip home and hadn’t fought.
(Brief laugh of Krapp alone.)
We’d split the text into manageable chunks and recorded them separately, referring to them by numbered sections and lettered subsections, and once we were happy that we’d got a clean version of each chunk we went over the road to the Irish pub and had a few light beers. The mirror was painted with Guinness.
Later, just before midnight, I decided to have a go at the whole thing. I went into the small room and recorded Krapp’s complete entry for his thirty-ninth year in one go. I stumbled a couple of times but was glad to have tried.
Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.
The next day we took a stroll round Montparnasse and stopped for coffee, looking out for the cafe where that photo was taken; Sam, fingers and the ashtray, two cups. We took a few photos and I wore the brown waistcoat.
Pop of cork.
My friend turns forty today.
Tomorrow I will be thirty-nine and a half.
Brief burst of quavering song.
Happy Birthday David.
We shall wait.
London, March 2013
Copyright © Michael Wagg 2013
A gift from China By the time Zhang LinPeng scored an emphatic header right in front of us on seventy minutes I was turning to the man behind and joyfully accepting his offer of a double high-five. So what if I misjudged and slipped my hands off the edge of his. We’re in this together. ‘We Are Canton.’I’m on tour in China, performing in Macbeth. We’ve played in and around Beijing in the north for a week and are now in Guangzhou in the south. The flight south took three hours – something like London to Marrakesh so a serious trek for away fans – and we arrived the day before the big match, the FA Cup semi-final, second leg.Guangzhou Evergrande FC – the Southern China Tigers – are on course for a momentous treble. Three weeks ago they beat FC Seoul on away goals over two legs to become the first Chinese winners of the Asia Champions League. They won the domestic Chinese Super League by eighteen points, and beat Beijing Guoan 1-0 away in the first leg of the cup semi. These are exciting times for the Tigers. Veteran Italian World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi is at the helm; the fans wear Elkeson, the Brazilian, and Conca, the Argentinian, on their backs. ‘We Are Canton.’I’d been trying to secure tickets for the past week and failing miserably. Even with the help of our resourceful Chinese producer, who regularly brings the orchestras and dancers of the Birmingham Royal and Northern ballets over here and down to Guangzhou, I hadn’t got anywhere. It seemed well and truly sold out. Our last hope was to head to the Tianhe Stadium on the night of the match and see if any last minute tickets might be going any which way. We’d been told to be very wary of buying off touts so I’d pretty much resigned myself to hanging about outside the stadium for a while pre-match to soak up the atmosphere – literally, it was drizzling steadily all day – and then to find a bar nearby that might be showing the match. I’d even managed to persuade three colleagues that this was a good idea. ‘We Are Canton.’And then it happened. Out of the evening mist appeared a young woman. She tried to explain in little English that she had four tickets and was hoping for a few Yuan for them so that she and her brother could buy a drink and some snacks. We were suspicious, suggested they go to the match themselves and moved on. We talked to some others who were waving tickets at us, by this time tempted to chance it for a tenner, and were ourselves waved on by the police. Then she reappeared. She had followed us and approached again: “We want you to have them. If you want to see the match we’d like to give you the tickets – a gift from China.” And she was gone.
By the time Peter Utaka scored his third for Beijing on sixty-nine minutes we couldn’t believe what had happened. Not only had we actually got in to the ground past various ticket checks without fuss and been welcomed by the Guangzhou faithful with claps and cheers – plus the gift of two inflatable wavy things each – but we were party to an FA Cup thriller. The young woman’s gift was a rare and genuine one. Not even the large pillar in front of us, forcing us to scoot from one end of the row to the other each time a new attack took shape, like rocking on a ship on the South China Sea, could spoil this glorious Canton night.
Guangzhou dominated the first half and were two up by the interval, but Beijing came out flying at the start of the second, thanks largely to the marauding efforts of playmaker Freddie Kanouté – the ex-West Ham and Spurs man later sent off for two yellow cards – and drew level at 3-3 with two in two minutes. Just one minute later, though, the Tigers roared again and then turned on the style to see it out. A nine-goal thriller: Guangzhou 6, Beijing 3. We’re on our way to Wembley! Or rather to a two-legged home and away final against Guizhou Renhe. And the treble is still on.* In the pub after we wondered whether it all might be part of some strange west meets east reality game show, ‘A Gift from China’, and braced ourselves for the sight of four English actors on the TV looking like right Charlies once the match highlights were over. The amount of photos we were asked to pose for post match with our new Guangzhou buddies seemed to hint at this. But we are of course far too cynical; it was no game show and no dream. It was a gift from China, a people’s act of love.
On the final whistle, though, reality hit. It’s a sobering and familiar feeling we experience each time we perform our Macbeth. Despite high levels of enthusiasm and buoying encouragement throughout, on the final curtain, and the final whistle, the fun seems to stop suddenly. All goes quiet, somehow sombre, and we head out into the balmy night as if it never really happened. “Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Thank you Canton. Briefly, we are you.
Guangzhou, 28 November 2013
*Guangzhou lost the final 3-2 on aggregate
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