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I went to Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake recently, and saw Dear Uncle, an Alan Aykbourn adaptation (?) of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. I’m not familiar with the Russian play, so had little idea of how much was the samovar and how much the teapot, but there was the occasional whiff of a Slavic Soul, and the brooding, sultry rise of a storm that I could imagine might hover over the Steppes. I flew across Russia (not a bombing run – but a commercial flight) from the UK to Moscow, and then, twenty four hours later, from Moscow to Beijing. The return journey done on a clear, January morning, with the vast expanses of the then Soviet Union, sans roads mostly, but with the occasional factory chimney, and once a bridge throwing long shadows in the direction of the North Pole. It was like flying over an untidily thrown brown quilt, and we flew for hours, until we hit a wall of cloud that crossed our route and stretched as far as I could see towards the Himalayas, and saw no more.

Russia was cold in January; minus around twenty; and the air ripped the back of your throat at each breath. Cars were white humps along the roadsides in the city centre. Ice flowed on the river seen from Lenin Heights. China, at around minus 6 was dry, a pale, watery sun and a dusty air making the silhouettes of false horizons as hazy as the pen and ink wash lines of Chiang Ye’s Silent Traveller landscapes. This was years before the Chinese Government frightened its monkeys, and there were only a few military jeeps, our tourists coaches, and the odd commercial truck nosing through a sea of bicycles – some of them three wheelers, with flat-bed backs to which the white goods and televisions of modernisation had been tied.

Stories come out of place and time. Come here, or go there a few years, or perhaps even minutes earlier, or later, and the stories the place is making will change. Come at that precise moment to here, or there, and the few hundred miles, or mere turning of a corner, will make the story of that minute quite different.

I couldn’t work out where the Chekhov/Aykbourn story came from, nor when it belonged, despite the excellent costumes and cleverly managed stage setting. Theatre by the Lake always impresses me with its stagecraft. Sprinkling the script with Lake District names and generic aye oop lad, sithees, didn’t cut the mustard. The English country house still carried the reek of the dacha, and the ‘estates’ that were managed implied the serf rather than a Cumbrian farming folk. Motors off sounded as rough as the wind up gramophone record near the end of the piece, but I was never convinced where I was, or when, nor that I might be somewhere and when entirely imaginary.

            The cast included many I recognised from The Ladykillers, which I saw a few weeks ago, and they were as good. Valiant would be the word I’d chose. But every line they uttered, and some were sparkling and powerful, seemed to come straight from the mouth of a playwright, not from what the characters they represented might have said at that particular moment, in that particular place. As with the location, what these characters seemed to be talking about was what interested Chekhov, or Aykbourn, but not themselves. I just couldn’t believe in them between their speeches (though as they spoke, each statement was given with brio, and conviction). It was the gaps between that didn’t work, the hidden links that would make this character say that to this other one, and say it in that way, at that moment. My unwilling disbelief was never strung up from the lighting rig, as it (almost) always has been before at TBTL. I found myself weighing it up throughout the performance, rather than being immersed in it, and carried along.

I need to read the Chekhov now, as indeed a man on the row in front of me had done, he said, the night before. It’ll need to be good in the second half, he apparently told a friend of mine at the interval, or it’ll be a miserable failure. What did he say at the end, I asked when I saw her again. ‘Mm’, she told me.

Hey! I still loved it, and writers can only take us part of the way….the rest is up to us.

I toyed with the idea of taking the dvd of The Beggar’s Opera to my mother-in-law’s last weekend. Starring Laurence Olivier it was Peter Brook’s directorial debut (he went on to direct the 1963 Lord of the Flies), and was released in 1953.

Subtitled A Highwayman’s Tale, it was a contemporary piece when first written and published by John Gay in the late 1720s.

In the end I decided not to take it. When would we get the time to watch it, I asked myself? What I didn’t ask was, would I have the time to read the playscript? which I found in a 1923 facsimile edition on my mother-in-law’s book shelves. Well I did, as it happens.

Bound with the Opera was a sequel, Polly, of which I hadn’t heard tell, and I read that too! Polly, the eponymous heroine of the slightly later play, was the unhappy wife of Macheath, the Highwayman of the first. In this sequel she is seen having fled (as advised somewhere in the earlier play) to the West Indies to make a new life for herself. MacHeath is there too, disguised as the ‘black pyrate’, Murano. In a convoluted plot he and his pirate band end up fighting an alliance of colonists and Indians for control of, well, almost everywhere in the Caribbean it seems!

Polly has been sold into sexual slavery to a colonial landlord, but his wife has allowed her to escape, disguised as a man. She is on the trail of MacHeath, with whom she is still in love, a love that outlasts all she, and we, get to know of him, right up to his capture and execution, at which point she begins to favour the Indian ‘Prince’ on whose side she had been fighting.

Throughout the story, Polly has been an example of innocence, but not stupidity. She has displayed all the qualities of honesty and virtue that the characters in The Beggar’s Opera  have despised and perverted. In this second play she finds an echo of her qualities, not in the colonialists, nor in the pirates, but in the rather stereotyped ‘noble savages’. It’s a worthy play; but read as a much more earnest piece, as if the light, comic-satirical tone of the first had worn thin to its author. It throws up a couple of sequences that caught my attention in particular.

The first of these is a sort of prologue, in which the writer – cast as ‘the poet’ – discusses the wisdom, and possible folly, of writing the sequel in the first place, with one of ‘the players’. Surprisingly modern ideas are examined, or perhaps not so surprising on reflection, about whether it is right to venture a sequel that might not in itself be worthy, but which will succeed on the back of the earlier piece.

The second comes near to the end when MacHeath, not yet revealed in his true identity, is captured and questioned by the Indian chief, before, unrepentant, he is sent to his death. This, I thought, had more than a whiff of modern life about it…. So I share the relevant lines of the longer scene:

CHIEF: Would your European  laws have suffer’d crimes like these to have gone unpunish’d?

MACHEATH: Were all I am worth safely landed, I have wherewithal to make almost any crime sit easy upon me.


CHIEF: Would not your honest industry have been sufficient to have supported you?

MACHEATH:  Honest industry! I have heard talk of it indeed among common people, but all great genius’s are above it (apostrophe, his, not mine!).

CHIEF: Have you no respect for virtue?

MACHEATH: As a good phrase, Sir. But the practicers of it are so insignificant and poor, that they are seldom found in the best company.

CHIEF: Is not wisdom esteem’d among you?

MACHEATH: Yes, sir, but only as a step to riches and power; a step that raise ourselves, and trips up our neighbours.

CHIEF: Honour and honesty, are not these distinguish’d?

MACHEATH: As incapacities and follies. How ignorant are these Indians! But indeed I think honour is of some use; it serves to swear upon.

CHIEF: Have you no consciousness? Have you no shame?

MACHEATH: Of being poor.

CHIEF: How can society subsist with avarice!  Ye are but the forms of men. Beasts would thrust you out of their herd upon that account, and man should cast you out for your brutal dispositions.

MACHEATH:  Alexander the Great was more successful. That’s all.

Here’s Me on the TSS site, writing about Steinbeck’s short story/play Of Mice and Men

BHDandMe was (were?) at Keswick’s TBTL (Theatre By The Lake) a couple of afternoons ago (one of the privileges of being an old tosser) on a trip to see Sense and Sensibility.

I’m a bit of a Jane Austen virgin. I might have read Pride and Prejudice (but I’m not sure I have – if so it was sooo long ago). I have, of course, seen umpteen TV versions of it, which no doubt capture the events, but don’t, I imagine, do anything for the language…and even the facial expressions of people today are mirror images of the faces of their own time, not of the period in which the story was set, and written.

So I came to the adaptation of S&S without a clue what, or who it was about – and yes, TBTL has won me over to reading the book. If the adaptation can be this good, the original must be, well, even better.

And the adaptation was, is good. If you get a chance to go and see it, take it.

The cast was uniformly convincing. I never doubted they were who they pretending to be even for a moment. And what a clever story..though, having encountered several hundred (possibly thousand) stories over the last few years I kinda guessed one of the ‘surprises’ that the plot springs on us. It is a clever plot though, and the play brought that out. I liked the way there was a sort of graded version of ‘love’ on display…the sort that hits you like a hurricane, the sort that grows on you (like roses….?) and the sort that you miss by a long whisker and regret forever. I suspect most of us have tried two out of the three, and possibly the full set (age, now!)

My wife, who has been a professional textile designer, wasn’t too keen on the shiny fabrics – but hey….take a look at the TBTL website here, then go take a look at the play there!

On the subject of plays BHDandMe (well, Me really, with writing buddy Marilyn Messenger) have a small play on in The Studio at TBTL on Saturday, October 20th. It might be worth going along to take a look at that too (but Jane Austen it ain’t). It’s called Telling, and is paired (or rather trio-ed) with two other short dramas. Marilyn and BHD did a collection of short stories together a while back:


Recently I’ve been reading John Steinbeck, and in particular his short story (included in a collection of ‘shorter novels), Of Mice and Men. A level students in the UK might well be familiar with it, but in the stage-play format, and there are two movie versions, from 1939 and sometime in the early 90s. It’s one of those stories from which we get the chance to look at storytelling over several genres -where the story stays the same (or the changes give us opportunity for speculation), but the telling differs.

In the written story everything happens in our heads, triggered by what the words mean, and, make no mistake, by what they mean to us as individual readers, which will not necessarily, in fact will certainly not be exactly the same as they do to the writer. With the adaptation for the stage, much of that triggered meaning will be presented to us by the appearance of the stage, the props, lighting, sound rigs and, not least, the actors. The willing suspension of disbelief that I was taught about when I was a student – our suppression of the knowledge that what we are looking at is not real sky, and real landscape, and real buildings – leaves us to imagine and fill in what the theatre has to leave out. With the further adaptation into film, much of that unreality is made real, and real in a way that might quite different from what those original words conjured in our minds. Disbelief, when we’re talking about movies, might suffer more of an irresistible overwhelming, than a willing suppression.

Which brings me to documentaries on the TV.

Have you noticed, how even when apparent facts are being given, by erudite and enthusiastic presenters, we are being nudged into responding to them in a particular way, not only by the back-scenes – Neil Oliver’s lovely hair blowing in the wind, for example – but by an entirely unnecessary musical soundtrack, a subtle, insidious, almost subliminal indicator about how we ought to feel about what is being said….? After all, these people aren’t telling us something so that we can make our minds up about it. They are recruiting us into the mindsets that they have already adopted.

Back to the original written word.

How do the writers, without the enhancement of emotion-tugging violins, or rousing drums, achieve the same sort of influence?

Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.


A week last Thursday night….I went to see  As You Like It at Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake. It’s the first Shakespeare play I ever saw on stage, at Birmingham Rep, with, seemingly, half the cast of Crossroads in the company. Good old Burton Boys Grammar School (I’m being ironic, you should know), had gone to pains to teach us that when we call a Shakespeare play ‘comic’, we don’t mean it’s funny. Birmingham Rep blew that piece of disinformation right out of the water, and won me over to Shakespeare despite everything that the Education system threw at him.

It must be twenty years since I’d seen the play, and last night I was amazed at how much of it – almost every line – came back to me, though I couldn’t have written down more than a few of them without that prompting. It’s remained my favourite play, though I can see it’s not the slickest (and yes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream pushes a hard second).

The TBTL production was as good as I had come to expect, and celebrated the essential romanticism of the play. Jessica Hayles made a fabulous Rosalind – all Rosalinds should be fabulous. I can remember Eileen Atkins in her Ganymede jeans, and still have the theatre programme somewhere! But Layo-Christina Akinlude as Celia/Aliena gave a master-class in how to play the part that is on stage a lot of the time, but has few lines and very little action. With nods, head-shakes, grins, eye-rolls and other micro-movements she mirrored, re-inforced and nudged our responses to what the other characters were saying and doing. It’s a fine line sort of part to walk between too much and not enough, and she was absolutely spot on.

One slight change to Shakespeare’s script puzzled me. An exchange of words, very near to the end, one that you wouldn’t notice was missing unless you were expecting to hear it, had been excised; like a sprig of bitter herb left out of a gourmet dish.

But Bravo! Theatre ByThe Lake, cast and crew.

Rehearsed reading of five new short plays scripts. All for the price of…

…Its a FREE event. No need to book just turn up.

You’d be very welcome. Spread the word and let anyone else know who you think would be interested.

Playwrights: Tom Murray Vivien Jones Marilyn Messenger Mike Smith Carolyn Yates Lucy Cameron

Director: Ken Gouge

At the Theatre Royal, Dumfries, Saturday 15th April, 4.30pm to 6.30pm.

For the last few months BHDandMe have been part of a play writing group meeting at the Theatre Royal in Dumfries. Co-writer Marilyn Messenger and I have been working on a thirty minute two hander, Telling, and under the direction of Ken Gouge (who directed the Swallow Theatre production of BHDandMe’s play Smokes, a mime with words, back in 2008 [?]) there will be a script-in-hand reading by actors of the Theatre Royal Guild.

Plays by Tom Murray and Vivien Jones will also be featured.

The event will take place from 4.30-6.30pm on Saturday, 12th November, in the Studio at the Theatre Royal. About half an hour of each play will be read, and there will be an informal discussion/feedback session in the bar afterwards. Friends, blog readers & followers are all invited to come along to view, and to chat!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m beginning to notice more and more, as if it were widening, the gap between the narrative telling of stories, and the presentation of direct speech. Sometimes, and perhaps more often than used to be the case, I find that my own stories are falling almost exclusively into one or other pattern: narratives have no, or almost no direct speech; dialogues have almost no accompanying narrative. Were it not for the fact that most of my short stories are around, or under the one thousand word mark, I would turn many of them into short plays (which need c5,000 words of direct speech), turning the small amounts of narrative into stage directions, or removing them entirely.

When I am consciously writing plays I do try to limit, and if possible eradicate stage directions – believing that Directors should have the freedom to decide how the words should be uttered.

Moving in the opposite direction, towards a ‘no direct speech’ narrative throws more emphasis on the narrative voice – more awareness in the listener or reader, that here is a he or she telling us a story from a particular viewpoint. Such a narrator reports the events, and the words of the actors, as they appeared to them. During the twentieth century many writers and critics began to move away from this idea, looking for a ‘un-authored’ narrative, with multiple voices, or, as James Joyce suggested, one that had been ‘refined out of existence.’ There was an attempt to spread the narrative across the voices of equally important characters, rather than – as A.E.Coppard suggested, telling the story through the ‘eyes’ of one character only. To me, it has always seemed that so long as one person is providing the words, that person is, mixing the metaphor, calling the tune. The agendas, insights and limitations of the author will inform those of the narrator, however many of them there are, and it maybe that that is what makes any author worth reading.

With an entirely narrated piece, where everything, including the reported words of the characters, is presented through the narrator’s voice, we have come, in a sense, full circle, back to the wholly spoken state: the monologue. The narrator, however, is giving us a monologue that is not, ostensibly, about him or her.

In a curious co-incidence, the same day as I jotted these thoughts down in my notebook, we had a first person monologue that evening at the Facets of Fiction workshop, in which there was no direct speech. Such a piece is likely to look different on the page, and it did. Blocks of text, unbroken by the more fragmented layout in which direct speech is conventionally cast, seem heavier, and the white space on the printed page is far less. But it’s not only the visual that is affected. Reading aloud too, I feel, is a different business when the single voice carries the whole thing.

If this effect is something we don’t welcome in a specific piece, we can get around the problem perhaps, by re-paragraphing, and breaking up the monolithic chunks of text in that way, but paragraphing too affects not only the look of the writing. By throwing emphasis on the sentences that open, and close the paragraphs, it can skew the meaning of a piece. (I looked at this issue briefly earlier in the blog, in reference to a Russian text, the translation of which had been paragraphed entirely differently to the original, and with noticeable effects on the focus of the story.) Arthur Miller, in a preface to an earlier collection, replicated as the introduction to his collected stories, Presence (Bloomsbury, 2009), makes some interesting observations. He is writing from the perspective of a playwright introducing a collection of his own short stories, and has a strong sense of the differences between the two.

‘This was when the author stopped chattering and got out of the way;’

This is the play, by the way. But he says this too…’the novelist’s dialogue is pitched towards the eye…and falls flat when heard.’ And, ‘the dialogue in a story needs to sacrifice its sound.’ Here are two statements which, for me, at least need not be true, and better not be, for he is making an assumption about the printed word which I reject. He does say, of his stories, that ‘some of these stories could never be plays, but some perhaps could have been.’ The distinction he makes centres on sound, but it seems to me, that what the play adds to story, is observation (as does the film), whereas what the story (as text), adds to play or film, is imagination.

Neither pattern, direct speech or narrator, is right or wrong, and neither is a balanced blend of the two a desirable end in its own right, but the differences are worth being aware of, and matching to the stories we want to tell, and the way we want them to be received.

Words on stages, by the way, are part of the thing, where Borderlines, Carlisle Book Festival, 4-6th September, is concerned. You can check out the details here:

In the meantime, if you Kindle, why not grab an e-book copy of Mike’s collected essays on short story master, A.E.Coppard : (

English of the English