Negative Space – A Review

This is a review of a play that we went to see and was submitted as part of an assignment in my first year at Edge Hill University.

 

Negative Space is a stage production from the Reckless Sleepers, a UK/Belgium based theatre group.  The Reckless Sleepers have a philosophy about their work in which they embrace mistakes and accidents as part of the performance in the hope that it will add to the piece or help describe it in a way not thought of before.

This latest production is something of an oddity.  For a start, there’s no dialogue at all, the whole thing is pure physical theatre.  It takes place on a stage where, it’s fair to say, the real star of the show is a plasterboard cube in (and through) which the actors perform.  The performance begins with a single actor stood alone in the cube.  Not long after, another actor drops in from over the top of the wall and pretty soon there are actors everywhere, pulling and pushing at each other, leaving through holes in the floor or using ladders to climb out of the cube.  The whole thing was a little confusing, but I think it was meant to be some kind of love story.

Things started to become a little more interesting when one of the actors came crashing through one of the plasterboard walls and onto the stage.  From that point on, the whole performance became an orgy of destruction, slapstick and comedy violence.  From a fairly underwhelming start, the performance suddenly found some life.  Unfortunately, once you get over the initial surprise and delight of them smashing up the set, it loses its ability to hold the audience.

I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Reckless Sleepers were trying too hard to make art for art’s’ sake.  The performance just didn’t seem to have any direction and if there was supposed to be a plot, I couldn’t figure one out.  Overall I was left with the feeling that, yes, watching a group of people smash up a plasterboard room is quite cathartic, for a little bit at least, but ultimately I was expecting a little more substance with my style.

If you like your theatre to feel avant-garde while not really innovating at all, then perhaps Negative Space will be the show for you, but if you’d prefer something with a lot less pretension and a lot more plot, then I think you would be disappointed with this one.  It’s an interesting idea in theory, but in practice it turns out to be the equivalent of paying good money to watch plasterers work.  Now if they’d all been dressed as plasterers and the pseudo love story unfolded from that, it might have been a little more interesting.  As it stands right now though, Negative Space was disappointing, underwhelming and ultimately as flimsy as the plasterboard walls themselves.

Shopping and F**cking – A Review

Written as part of an assignment in my first year at Edge Hill University

Warning: Contains swearing.

 

Mark Ravenhill is a British playwright whose second play, Shopping and Fucking, propelled him into the forefront of contemporary theatre in the 1990’s.  He has since gone on to great success in the theatre, due in no small part to the popularity of this play.

Shopping and Fucking is a shocking and cynical look at the disposable world of 90’s England.  It opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1996 and was a major part of the Nineties movement known as ‘in-yer-face theatre’.  Despite the play now being 20 years old, it still manages to resonate the shock factor that put it in the forefront of the movement.  However it has to be said that a modern audience may not be as shocked with the complexities of the relationships between the characters in the play (who are, amusingly, named after members of the boyband Take That).  It’s a testament to a (little) more enlightened age that the relationship between Lulu, Robbie and Mark doesn’t seem as shocking or strange in 2016 as I imagine it did to a theatre audience in a time when homosexuality and pansexuality were not as accepted as they are today.

The plot of the play revolves around four characters; Mark, who used to work in the city but is now a recovering drug addict, Robbie, Mark’s jealous and insecure lover, their girlfriend Lulu and a sexually abused teenage prostitute called Gary.  Mark meets Gary and pays him for sex which serves up one of the plays many shocking scenes.  An unforgettable bedroom scene which includes analingus and blood.  This play is definitely not for the faint of heart!

Lulu goes for a job interview at a tv shopping channel where her sleazy boss gets her to audition topless before convincing her to sell Ecstasy for him.  Lulu agrees and involves Robbie in the dealing too, but when Robbie practically gives all of the pills away, they find themselves in trouble to the tune of £3,000.  After trying to set up a phone sex line, Mark introduces them to Gary and the four of them are faced with a life altering choice.

The themes behind the play, those of the disposable nature of the world and the fact that everything is treated as a commodity, still have relevance in the world today.  Perhaps even more so, as the slightly far fetched world in which the play is set resonates uncomfortably in the even more throwaway and commodity rich world of today.

Perhaps then, the most shocking thing about Shopping and Fucking is not the ‘in-your-face’ sexuality of its characters, or the pints of blood and sadomasochism.  Maybe it’s the fact that Ravenhill was onto something twenty years ago, he tried to warn us and we didn’t listen?  Whatever the answer, the play is hard hitting and darkly humorous, so if you’re not easily shocked and you have a strong stomach, I’d recommend watching Shopping and Fucking.

Kids – A Review

Written as part of an assignment in my first year at Edge Hill University

 

In 1995, Larry Clark arrived on the film scene with his directorial debut, the controversial film Kids.  Written by Harmony Korine, the film, styled as a documentary, explores the lives of a group of teenagers in New York City.  Hard hitting and challenging to watch, showing an unflinching view of teenage life in the mid 90’s, Kids has the feel of a dogme film about it.  

The film opens with a long and graphic kissing scene involving Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), the unforgivable and irredeemable fulcrum on which the whole movie turns, and a young girl in her bedroom.  The stuffed animals and juvenile quality of her room isn’t lost on the camera, despite the tight angle it’s constrained to.  Telly is trying to get the girl to sleep with him, having set himself the task of deflowering as many virgins as he can.  He says all of the right lines to make her feel special and convinces her to sleep with him.  We next see him on the street, boasting about his conquest and allowing his idiotic, sycophantic friend Casper (Justin Pierce) smell his fingers as proof of the deed.

This type of vulgarity is rife throughout the film, as the boys and their friends talk about drugs and sex almost constantly.  The roughness and frankness of the script is what gives the film its biggest impact.  Much of the script, though written by Korine, seems improvised which adds to the documentary feel of the film.  Leo Fitzpatrick says of Korine’s writing “Harmony was such a good writer and it was so natural…A lot of what we talked about in the movies we talked about in real life.”

Across town, Jennie (Chloë Sevigny) and her friend, Ruby (Rosario Dawson) are getting tested for STD’s at a clinic.  It’s here that Jennie is told that she’s HIV Positive and since Telly is the only boy she’s ever slept with, it could have only been contracted from him.

So begins the basic plot line on which everything else in Kids hangs.  It’s not an overly complicated plot; Jennie spends the whole film trying to track down Telly to tell him the bad news, but the film doesn’t require a complicated plot.  Instead it serves as a skeleton on which Clark and Korine hang their uncomfortably realistic cautionary tale.  Sevigny, in her debut role is just as powerful an actress as she always is.  Her portrayal of the naive and scared Jennie is brilliant, compelling the audience to feel both sympathetic and protective for her as she travels New York City in an ever desperate hunt for Telly.  

Ultimately though, despite her central part in the plot, even Jennie is just another tool that Clark and Korine use to show the disregard the boys have for everything around them.  Despite Sevigny’s acting prowess, Jennie is never more than a victim.  She is given drugs by a boy at one party and when she finally tracks down Telly, only to find him in bed with another young virgin, she falls into desolated unconsciousness in an armchair, where she is raped by a drunk and high Casper.

It is a testament to Korine’s writing and Clark’s refusal to pull punches that Kids still manages to shock nearly twenty years after its release.  It is never an easy watch at any stage and it feels purposely hard to feel any sympathy for the characters.  While the film will surely be in very bad taste for some viewers, there is no doubt that the hand held camera work and the punchy, hyper-realistic script provide a bleak and horribly reflective view of youth in 90’s New York.  

Where does the time go?

Wow.  What a journey that first year at university was!  I’m so sorry you didn’t really get to experience it with me, I think I misjudged the volume of work when I said I’d keep this blog updated.  Still, I’m here now with plenty of time on my hands over the summer, so I’m going to try to keep it updated a little better.

Edge-Hill-University-Campus-Images-John-Johnson-34

Our amazing library.  This place saved my life more than once!

First things first, let me tell you how I felt my first year went; it went great.  It surpassed all of my expectations and managed to blow a few of my fears out of the water.  I’ve done well in the majority of the assessments that have already been marked, including an absolutely mind blowing 80% in one of them.  I still can’t believe that 80% mark is actually right!  The classes were all interesting and while sometimes it felt like we were feeling around in the dark without much guidance, I guess that’s just how universities operate.  A lot of the stuff you have to work out or decide on for yourself; it’s not like the less advanced kinds of further education, where you’re spoon fed the information you need.  The tutors seem to give you just enough to get you thinking and then the rest is really up to you.  It takes some getting used to, but I think I worked it out fine in the end.

The other thing I want to mention in this blog post is that I will be putting my assessment submissions up here on the website in the future, but in order to avoid the university’s plagiarism filter, I have to leave them off until they’ve been marked.  Look for them at the beginning of June, if you’re interested in how they turned out.

Other than that, thanks for sticking with me, those of you who still read these things!  I PROMISE I will try to keep this thing updated and will hopefully be adding new work and stuff as I keep my skills up over summer.  Unless I become world famous in the meantime, of course!

Be Excellent To Each Other!

Steven

 

Review of Chronicle of a Death Foretold

This novella by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, who won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1982, paints a picture of life and death on the coast of Colombia in the mid-twentieth century. In doing so, he gives us a glimpse at the culture and attitudes of his home country at the time. If you can get past the impassive way it is told, then there is much to be discovered between the pages of this book.

First published in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tells the tale of the murder of a wealthy Colombian man by the vexed brothers of a woman he has allegedly deflowered. This man, Santiago Nasar, goes about his day unaware of the danger that the deflowered bride, Angela Vicario, has placed him in. Through interviews and conversations with the residents of the village, we are guided through the final hours of Nasar’s life and shown the multitude of ways the murder could have been prevented.

Nasar is somewhat of a lothario; Good at running his ranch, interested in firearms, drinking and has more than an eye for the ladies. Because of that, it is easy to see why no questions were asked when he is accused of deflowering Angela Vicario. The way information is relayed to the reader about Nasar is unreliable and contradictory. For instance, Victoria Guzman, the cook says, “He was just like his father … A shit.” The narrator’s sister, on the other hand, speaks favourably about him: “I suddenly realised that there couldn’t have been a better catch than him” and “Just imagine: handsome, a man of his word, and with a fortune of his own at the age of twenty-one.” This makes it hard to get a definitive idea of the character and feels like a barrier to having empathy for him. Nevertheless, by the end of the book I did feel sorry for Nasar due to the brutal nature of his murder and the number of times the death could have been prevented.

Angela Vicario, by comparison, is initially presented as quiet and beautiful, a little socially awkward and a little immature. It is her fear of her mother and brothers’ rage that causes her to utter Nasar’s name and by doing so, set the tragic events in motion. As potential antagonists go, Angela is subtle and not entirely irredeemable but because it is never revealed whether her accusation is true or not, she serves well in her role.

Thematically, the piece explores the nature of honour, as it existed in that society in the mid-twentieth century. It does so by showing how the villagers could have prevented the murder and stopped the brothers, but chose not to, preferring to believe that the brothers were justified in seeking retribution. While the novella has a historical setting, honour killings are still very prevalent in modern society, whether in Colombia, the United Kingdom, India, or anywhere else in the world and so the theme of the novella is still as important today as it was both when it was set and when it was written.

Márquez’s use of repetition, constantly bringing the awareness of the reader back to the murder with lines such as, ‘On the day they were going to kill him’ and ‘until he was carved up like a pig an hour later’ helps to heighten the shock and brutality of Nasar’s murder. His presentation of everything as cold, hard facts serves the narrative well and keeps the plot rolling along, despite its nonlinear nature. Personally, the shock of the murder was removed for me by a detailed autopsy scene halfway through which seemed out of place and took away a lot of the impact from the later scene.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is powerful, darkly humorous and descriptive, though the dispassionate nature of the narrative sometimes jarred with the colourful and poetic descriptions of the village and its people. It also seems as if the villagers react in an unrealistic way when confronted with evidence that the murder will take place, such as when the butchers in the meat market are told by Pablo Vicario, “We’re going to kill Santiago Nasar” and even though they can see the brothers are sharpening knives, nobody seems even slightly concerned.

Yet, today in the media, we see inaction by witnesses and bystanders, content to record and capture on their smartphones, rather than step in and stop a tragedy from occurring, as seen in 2009 when a fifteen year old girl was assaulted and raped outside of a homecoming dance in front of more than fifteen witnesses. With this in mind, the themes and questions explored in this novella seem more relevant today than they did in 1981. Put down your smartphone, read this book and ask yourself, what would you do?

Just keep swimming!!

So, the second week of university is over and our third week is about to begin!  Last week brought with it new challenges as well as some surprising revelations!

I guess you could say that last week was the first time ‘shit got real’ at university, as our tutors gleefully threw tons of information at us and chuckled as our heads

Someone catch my brain!!

Someone catch my brain!!

revolved (I might be embellishing that a little).  We did suddenly find ourselves with lots to think about and lots to study; it’s hard to know where to start, but start I must!

Even though there’s work to do, the reading part of it doesn’t really feel like work and as I read books written by authors I’d never heard of, in styles I’d never consider reading, I find myself enjoying it.  It really is amazing how much you can learn by getting out of your comfort zone and reading things you wouldn’t usually.  I found myself initially confused and disliking Dan Rhodes’ writing style in Anthropology, but by the time I’d finished it, I’d come to love those little surrealist vignettes of his and I will be seeking out more of his work.

Another surprising thing I discovered was how much I’m actually scared of

Scriptwriting in a nutshell...

Scriptwriting in a nutshell…

scriptwriting!  Before I started the course, I thought it was easy, but after our first four hour (yes, four hours of scriptwriting each week!) class, I was petrified by the

technical complexity of scripts.  Hopefully as the weeks go on, I’ll be able to get it straight in my head and I think that ultimately, I will enjoy scriptwriting.  Still, it was scary, eye opening stuff!

For me, the lesson of the week has to go to Building The World.  We were spoiled by having it as our very first class and it was so much fun!  Everything else was struggling to match up to it.  We started easily enough by discussing what secondary worlds were and why we create them.  We then had to imagine what our world would be like without a single invention.  It was fascinating to imagine the possibilities that could exist when just one essential invention was removed from the world.  Although I have to say to some of my classmates, who imagined a world

It's early days in World Building...

It’s early days in World Building…

without the internet, that I remember that world very clearly already!  Jokes about my age aside, the whole lesson was fun and thought provoking.

So we start week three with a good idea of how our lessons are going to go and a very real idea of the amount of work we have to do.  Even with all of the work, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now and I’m so happy I have a great bunch of people to go on this journey with!

#EHUFreshers

So, here we are, my time at Edge Hill University has finally started!  That means that from now on, this blog will be getting regularly updated as I keep a journal/blog/personal rant of the things that I’m learning here at university.  I would have posted on Monday, but the only thing that happened was a tour of the campus and while that was fascinating for me, I doubt those of you who read this would have been enthralled to learn the opening times of the library!

The face of someone who listened to my library tour tale...

“Oh my god, he’s talking about the library again!!”

As enlightening for me as Monday was, Tuesday was the real deal.  I finally got to meet my department tutors and the other Creative Writing students.  We had our Creative Writing Programme Induction in the morning.  This was, as our Programme Leader said, just to get the nuts and bolts of both our course and university life out of the way before the real learning starts next week.  It was really interesting overall, from both a student point of view and from a personal one, I felt that the personalities of our tutors shone through and they seem to be a likeable, relaxed group as they talked us through some crucial (but, admittedly, a little boring) pointers about how our time here will run.

We were told the times of our seminars/workshops as well as a little from each tutor about what these would include.  Those of you who know me well will know that my particular interests lie in Speculative Fiction and Writing for Games.  It bodes well, I think, that the tutor for those particular workshops came across as very friendly and approachable (ultimately though, they were all very nice!).  Best of all, the whole course kicks off with ‘Building The World’ next Wednesday.

Tuesday afternoon saw us in a lecture hall, getting a talk from the English Department head and from Student Services.  It wasn’t interesting enough to warrant a breakdown on this blog and so I’ll spare you the details.  Suffice to say that it served to make me feel glad that we won’t be spending too much time in big lecture halls.  Those places make me so sleepy it’s untrue!

"Must...take...notes...zzzzz"

“Must…take…notes…zzzzz”

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting to know some of the other mature students who are studying in the English Department, as well as a chance to have a chat with the tutors.  I also had a couple of really interesting chats; one with Peter, who will be running our Building The World class, about RPG’s and tabletop games and other with one of the history lecturers, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, about how a good knowledge of historical research can be useful when creative worlds for your fiction to exist in.

Finally, the rest of the English/History/Creative Writing students joined us for a few drinks, some snacks and a fun little quiz which saw us put into groups of six, fighting it out for a grand prize of Book Tokens!! (Remember: writers are readers who write!)  Unfortunately, we missed out on third place by one point, but were satisfied with being the highest of the also rans!  It’s the taking part that counts, right?

So that’s more or less my first week at university.  Apologies to those of you who thought it was going to be a rambunctious tale of wild drinking and partying,

Not pictured; me tucked up in bed...

Not pictured; me tucked up in bed…

which you probably remember from your own Freshers Week, but you have to remember, I’m 38 and the last thing those 18 year old kids want is some creepy guy twenty years older than they are hanging out with them.  I’m happy just to be doing this course in the first place!

I look forward to next week and getting my teeth stuck into the course properly.  Watch this space for further exciting tales from academia!

But is it art?

When you think about art, what’s the first thing that comes into your head?  I guess for many it’s the classic idea of painting or perhaps drawing.  A colour spattered painter holding a palette, stood in front of an easel.  That image isn’t incorrect of course, painting and drawing are art, but for me, that three letter word encompasses so much more.

Bob Ross, a genuine legend.

             Bob Ross, a genuine legend.

You see, far too often I’ve had discussions with people who’ve boldly claimed that they don’t like ‘art’.  Now that concept is alien to me and to be honest, I have a hard time believing that it’s true.  I guess that somewhere in the world there must be someone who doesn’t like art at all, but when people say it to me, I’m more inclined to think that they just mean paintings, museums and things like that, because otherwise their life would be very shallow.  Music is art, so does that mean that someone who doesn’t like art doesn’t like music?  Who doesn’t like music!?  Television programmes are art, so are movies, books, magazines.  Even buildings are art.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that a creative mind isn’t just something monopolised by artists, writers, poets etc.  I personally believe that art is anything created by a person that causes you to have an emotional reaction or response towards it.  It doesn’t matter to me if that response is positive or negative, the only requirement (for me at least) is that it makes you feel something.

I just want one.  I can't even drive.  I.  Just.  Want.  One!

I just want one. I can’t even drive. I. Just. Want. One!

With that said, in my eyes, a hell of a lot of things can be considered art.  I’ve already mentioned buildings, I love a good building, especially one that’s of an interesting design or has some kind of unique architectural quirk or construction.  I think that cars can be art, too.  Some of the better looking supercars out there in the world today have definitely made me have an emotional reaction to them (mainly jealousy towards whoever was driving it, but it counts!).  Trains, planes, boats, all of these things can be beautiful or well crafted enough that they make you have an emotional reaction.  Bear in mind I’m not talking about making you fall over weeping at the beauty of it all, but even if it just manages to stir something inside of you, however slightly, then it’s done its job.

I am quite an emotional person anyway, which is probably the reason that I love the arts so much.  I expect that not everyone would agree with me that a car or a plane is a form of art, but think of the construction and the technical know how that’s gone into constructing these things, the intricate way the parts all fit together and work in perfect harmony.  That sounds a lot like art to me.  I especially love it when something someone else created makes me want to know why the creator made it, what was the thought process behind it?  What does it mean to them?  What do they think of what it means to me?

But is it art?

But is it art?

I’d love to know what your own perception of art is, leave me your thoughts in the comments section below and let me know?  For now just consider it the next time something moves you, even just a little inside, and ask yourself ‘but is it art?’

You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

Before I get going with this post, I feel that I need to offer a little disclaimer.  I am not a student of Psychology or Sociology and have no qualifications in these fields, so the opinions that follow are my own, uneducated observations, unless I link directly to something written by someone with a greater knowledge in the field of the mind than I.  With all that said…

Creativity and Mental Health

 At various points in my life, I’ve had conversations with friends, colleagues and even some strangers about the links between creativity and mental health.  The image of the ‘tortured artist’ is prevalent in society to the point where it has become somewhat of a cliché.  Are we all tortured though?  Do we have to be mentally ill to write, paint, sing, compose, draw or do anything creative?  Obviously, the answer is no.  I am pretty sure that there are plenty of creative people out there who are of sound mind and body.  There is some interesting evidence linking mental health to creativity out there though.

Douglas Adams knew what he was talking about...

Douglas Adams knew what he was talking about…

Some of you reading this will know about my own personal battle with depression that’s been going on for years now.  It’s not an easy illness to live with and it can make me not only suicidal, but incredibly self-destructive too.  Despite all the drawbacks, I did find that while I was in one of my lowest phases, I was writing an awful lot of poetry.  Yes, the poetry was dark and sometimes depressing, but it was helping me to express how I felt in the only way I knew how.

There have been a few studies done over the years to try to establish if there is a link between mental health problems and creativity.  Most notably one conducted in Sweden, which found that creativity and mental illness do not necessarily have a link, with the possible exception of Bipolar Disorder and the possibility that writers tended to suffer from depression more than other creative types.

The problem with these kind of studies is that the notion of ‘creativity’ can be very subjective.  The Swedish study didn’t properly define what they considered creative, except to say that scientific creativity consisted of doing research and teaching at universities.  Furthermore, they didn’t specify a difference between artistic creativity with the exception of writers.  Finally, even if they had specified between artistic creativity, their idea of what that creativity is might not necessarily be the same as everyone else’s.

The creative brain.  Squishy and encased in glass.

The creative brain. Squishy and encased in glass.

The American neuropsychiatrist, Nancy Andreasen conducted a study of the writers of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She conducted first person interviews with them regarding their personal struggles with mental illness.  She discovered that the idea of the ‘tortured artist’ wasn’t necessarily true, that these writers had become successful despite their mental illnesses, not because of them.  They overcame their struggles and even mentioned that while they were in a period of depression, they found that their creativity was stifled by the illness.  Andreasen documented her findings in the book ‘The Creative Mind‘.

So what does all of this mean to me?

Since the Andreasen study seems to show that the Iowa writers overcame their mental illnesses in order to become successful, I think it’s fair to say that the ‘tortured artist’ cliché is just a myth.  It’s certainly true that at first, my own depression was adding fuel to my creativity, inspiring me to write quite a few poems in a short space of time.  I think though, that for me this process was a cathartic one.  It helped me to take stock of and understand the emotions I was going through at the time.  By interpreting those emotions into words and putting them down on paper, I was able to look at them, analyse them and see what was going on in my mind.  Sort of like an emotional ‘selfie’, which I guess most poetry is anyway.

The thing that stands out the most to me is that after that initial flurry of creativity, I stopped almost completely.  Perhaps, as the Iowa writers attested, my mental illness had become a barrier to my creativity once I had poured my feelings out.  Certainly my attempts at writing since then until now have been half-hearted.  Now that I know that my mental illness has this effect on my creativity, maybe I won’t be so hard on myself in the future if I’m feeling down and finding it hard to write.  If that’s the case, maybe that can help me in controlling my depression by introducing another positive thought into my CBT bat-belt of tricks.  That can only be a good thing, I think.

Creativity - Like having the whole world in your hands.  I'll stop now.

Creativity – Like having the whole world in your hands. I’ll stop now.

In conclusion, while nothing that’s been said above can definitively answer the question regarding the link between mental illness and creativity, I think that, wherever your creativity comes from, whether you’re artistically creative, scientifically creative or creative in business, as long as you’re taking risks and dreaming your dreams, that’s all that matters.  So while the answer to our question may remain ambiguous, it does seem that you don’t actually have to be mad to work here, but in some cases, it might help!

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There and Back Again…

Originally published in a slightly altered form on tentonhammer.com

When I think about what books mean to me, I always remember back to when I was a child and my parents had a few books from the 1950’s full of amazing facts about how things worked. These books were my first experience with the potential of the written word; they showed me all of the things I could discover about the world around me and more importantly, they showed me worlds that could be my playground. Places I could only dream of flowed from the pages and into my imagination, inspiring me to dream of far off places and of goals worth fighting for.

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