Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

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Tom Picton, Mountain-Fighter (1895-1939) by Robert Havard

Tom Picton, why d’you go to Spain,

some bastard get you drunk again?

 

Was in the Railway Bar,

never knew his name.

Said he’d see me in Espanya,

put me on the Cardiff train.

 

Tom Picton, why d’you go to Spain,

you punchy now, got clots on the brain?

 

Had his fill of punching holes

in butties on the mountain,

a gutsful of picking coals

now Maudie’s gone again.

 

Tom Picton, why d’you go to Spain,

think you’ll stand a bullet’s pain?

 

Can always duck and bend

see boy. Only bullet

that can kill me, friend,

has got my name on it.

 

Tom Picton, Twmmy boy, why d’you go to Spain?

 

For Christsake, mun, I came.

 

by Robert Harvard


Fun fact: Tom Picton actually existed.

Thomas Issac Picton was born in 1895 and became a miner in Treherbert, Rhonnda Fawr, South Wales.  He was one-time amateur middle weight boxing champion of Wales. During the 1914-18 War he was light-heavy weight champion in the Navy. His ships were torpedoed on two occasions and received decorations for bravery on two occasions. Tom was a noted bare-knuckle `mountain’ fighter in the years after the war…

Like most of his generation, class and nationhood, Picton became radicalised by the experiences of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a close friend of Communist Councillor George Thomas of Treherbert but little else marked him out from the ordinary until he became aware of the consequences of the passing, on the 11th January 1937, by the British Government of the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870 applicable to the Spanish Civil War. The effect was to criminalise the finest segment of British youth of the 1930s in the shape of all who volunteered to fight for the International Brigade in Spain…

Enraged by the unfairness of this Act and despite his age – he was 52 years – Picton must have convinced his way into the IB due to his fitness and legendary prowess as a fist-fighter. He joined the Communist Party either just before going to Spain, or actually while in Spain. But, unfortunately, he was one of those detained in France. Yet, miraculously, even inexplicably, he found himself freed from jail and finally arrived in Spain…

Tom Picton was taken prisoner and executed despite being a prisoner of war in San Pedro de Cardeña, a prison in Bilbao, by Franco’s fascists in April 1938. His widow, Maud, had always refused to believe the news, as no body was found. Maud spent years on several futile visits to Spain to try to establish his whereabouts, on which she took her daughter.

The poem was probably written prior to the confirmation of his death hence the discrepancy with the later confirmed date of death. Tom was likely deemed a casualty of war and his date of death only given as that of the civil war’s end as no more accurate information was available at that time.

Leaving Cardiff by Dannie Abse

I wait in the evening air.

Sea-birds drop down to the sea.

I prepare to sail from where

the docks’ derelictions are.

 

I stand on the deck and stare,

slack hammocks of waves below,

while black shapes upon the pier

make the furthest star seem near.

 

Now the funnel’s negations blow

and my eyes, like spaces, fill,

and the knots of water flow,

pump to my eyes and spill.

 

For what who would choose to go

when who sailing made no choice?

Not for one second, I know,

can I be the same man twice.

 

The straw coloured flames flare still,

spokes over the long horizon,

and the boats under the hill

of Penarth, unload and move on.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Tenants of the House (1957)


Fun facts: This was written in 1957 and the former working docks, which by the time of the poem were ‘derelict’ and I myself recall in childhood walking through along the barrage, were redeveloped (‘gentrified’ wouldn’t be an understatement) in recent years into the Cardiff Bay area filled with bars, restaurants, the Wales Millennium Centre, the Senedd and BBC buildings amongst many other developments. Penarth is an affluent town, within walking distance along the coastline, south west of Cardiff .

Tiger Bay by Idris Davies

I watched the coloured seamen in the morning mist,

Slouching along the damp brown street,

Cursing and laughing in the dismal dawn.

The sea had grumbled through the night,

Small yellow lights had flickered far and near,

Huge chains clattered on the ice-cold quays,

And daylight had seemed a hundred years away…

But slowly the long cold night retreated

Behind the cranes and masts and funnels,

The sea-signals wailed beyond the harbour

And seabirds came suddenly out of the mist.

And six coloured seamen came slouching along

With the laughter of the Levant in their eyes

And contempt in their tapering hands.

Their coffee was waiting in some smoke-laden den,

With smooth yellow dice on the unswept table,

And behind the dirty green window

No lazy dream of Africa or Arabia or India,

Nor any dreary dockland morning

Would mar one minute for them.

 

by Idris Davies


Fun fact: Tiger Bay (Welsh: Bae Teigr) was the local name for an area of Cardiff which covered Butetown and Cardiff Docks. It was rebranded as Cardiff Bay, following the building of the Cardiff Barrage, which dams the tidal rivers, Ely and Taff, to create a body of water. The development of the Cardiff Docks played a major part in Cardiff’s development by being the means of exporting coal from the South Wales Valleys to the rest of the world, helping to power the Industrial Age. The coal mining industry helped fund the growth of Cardiff to become the capital city of Wales and contributed towards making the docks owner, The 3rd Marquess of Bute, the richest man in the world at the time

Cardiff Elms by Gillian Clarke

Until this summer

throught the open roof of the car

their lace was as light as rain

against the burning sun.

On a rose-coloured road

they laid their inks,

knew exactly, in the seed,

where in the sky they would reach

percise parameters.

 

Traffic-jammed under a square

of perfect blue I thirst

for their lake’s fingering

shadow, trunk by trunk arching

a cloister between the parks

and pillars of a civic architecture,

older and taller than all of it.

 

Heat is a salt encrustation.

Walls square up to the sky

without the company of leaves

or the town life of birds.

At the roadside this enormous

firewood, elmwood, the start

of some terrible undoing.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from Letters from a Far Country (1982)

The Prince Regent’s Band: Russian Revolutions

A virtuoso brass ensemble that uses 19th century instruments to get as close as possible to the sounds of another era? That’s the Prince Regent’s Band – and today, as Wales commemorates the centenary of the Russian Revolution this extraordinary period-instrument group explores the brass music of Imperial Russia: a lost world of romance, melancholy, and glittering splendour.

Tuesday 7 November 1.15pm
Pre-performance talk by RWCMD musician in the Foyle Room has been cancelled.

Venue: Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Tickets: £6 in advance, £8 on the day. Get your concert ticket, cake and a cuppa for only £9 in advance. Get 25% off any main meal or buy a soup and a sandwich for just £4.99 with a valid lunchtime concert ticket. Valid on the day of the concert only.

I got the ticket from the reception desk in the foyer, which also serves as a cafe and entrance area to wait around in, and saw there was a small stall with a giant Fabergé egg behind it. They were selling the CDs of the band there before and after the show.

I went into the hall and sat in the second row while many of the other attendees sat more centrally. The front row is right next to the foot of the stage but that is to be expected as this is a music performance venue more so than one for staging plays where the front row would definitely be far too close to the front leading you to be looking directly up at the performers. There was a wide mix of ages present in the audience; some students, some office workers coming to a lunchtime concert, OAPs and some other people.

DSC_0112 leafletaaaaDSC_0113 leaflet

It’s all pine wood in  the Dora Stoutzker hall and made to have the best acoustics possible I imagine. They record music in here. If you’ve ever seen the BBC hall in the Wales Millennium Centre then you know what to expect. Pine is very ‘now’ in modern Welsh architecture…

When they came on they did the first piece then discussed how brass wind instruments were popular with the royal (Romanov) family during that era and they themselves played such instruments. This of course being part of the R17 events running throughout October/November in celebration of the centenary of the Russian Revolution they performed pieces from the era. Between each piece they emptied their spit valves a lot onto the floor of the stage. It was quite gross. I have to assume in orchestras they have a cloth to do that into but you could see it spilling out in quite some volume from where I was sat. Most people were sat in the centre of the seating here and now I realise why.

The band have a YouTube channel discussing instruments of the era as well as the Dustin family whose music they made a recording of and discuss in a number of videos. I found it quite interesting and the videos are short. The only issue, ironically for musicians, is the acoustics of the rooms they filmed in: ( https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCopIHhNUDG0Kk460EIKq6uw ).

They performed:

Ewald – Brass Quintet No.1, Op.5

Bohme – Prelude and Fugues, No.1, Op.28

Glazunov – Brass Quintet, Op.38 ”In Modo Religioso”

Ewald – Brass Quintet No.2, Op.6

Apparently they had made a request to the St Petersburg Philharmonic’s Library to look in their archives for the long-lost quintet pieces by Ewald. Surprisingly the staff suddenly just found the works, out of the blue, as if they hadn’t been long-lost musical pieces! I imagine they were lost during the upheaval during the Soviet era or hidden away like many works by persecuted artists and since then no one had actually made a request until now when they could finally be revealed to exist again. That’s why it tends to be better to go look yourself and not rely on the filing system in libraries and such as they’re prone to inaccuracies if someone makes a mistake or gets lazy. Anneke jokingly asked the audience if anyone knew where No.3 and No.4 were to tell them too.

It was an hour-long concert i.e. a lunchtime concert.

I got the two CDs the band had made and have really enjoyed them both so recommend them if you want to hear music performed as period accurate as possible.

They dressed all in black though Anneke wore a dress with boots and red tights. Not that it matters but just in case you were wondering. The standard ‘smart but casual’ look of musicians when not performing at an evening event.

Review: It was very good and they gave informative little lectures between each piece. Of course that allowed the other members time to empty their spit valves but it was a nice addition to hearing the musical pieces – some of which were being performed in their original composition with the original mix of instrumentation rather than the more popular versions. I would go see them perform again though personally I find this sort of thing is better done as part of a more varied evening with other instruments involved.

The small, informative, talks between each piece were the highlight, as it put the pieces in historical context in an easily followed manner, while seeing the massive amounts of spit being spilled on the stage was definitely the low… just use a cloth or something… so if you come see them don’t sit close to the stage obviously. I didn’t get hit with anything but it was unnecessary.

Do support them as it’s important we don’t lose the variant compositions they used and it helps you appreciate the evolution of music and instrumentation over the passage of time. I think a concert with them accompanied by performers using other instruments throughout history would be a spectacular event but this alone might be a bit too narrow a niche for a more general audience to enjoy. Definitely if you are at all curious about them I highly recommend seeing themselves for yourself as it will be an enriching experience and you’ll leave with a greater appreciation of the evolutionary development of brass instruments and their compositions over the past century and beyond.

Diary of a Mad Man

A new adaptation based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Performed by award-winning actor, Robert Bowman and directed by Olivier Award nominee Sinéad Rushe.

Poprishchin is a low ranking civil servant for the Government, struggling to make his mark on life, but one day he makes an amazing discovery. Could he really be the next King of Spain?

Driven insane by government bureaucracy and hierarchy, Gogol’s dark comedy exposes one man’s reality spiralling deeper into a surreal fantasy world.

…Bowman perfectly encapsulates the madness as we watch him unravel before our eyes and head deeper into a fantasy world – Western Mail

Tickets: £12/£10

Age 12+

Running time: 1 hour

 

I saw performed at the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 4 November 2017. There are no allocated seats which is incredibly rare in established venues but the audience seems so small there is no reason to do so. It also meant we probably got the best experience possible.

The performer, Robert Bowman, starts the play lying still on top of some pallets with a pile of books in one corner and a bare bulb hanging from above. When you enter the door he remains there until everyone is seated slowly turning the piece of paper in his hand.

He starts off speaking so suddenly at the beginning you don’t catch what he says but he is clearer a few minutes later. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not as the room was silent when he began. It did however add to the character’s dissonance and lasts at most the first line or two before he is far clearer as if to instinctively put you at edge as you delve into the mindset of Poprishchin via his increasingly frantic diary entries.

It’s an hour-long monologue where he usually remains on the crate pallets, as if they were the limits of the stage, but will, surpring you the first time it occurs, leavve this space and explore the space including often entering the audience. At certain sections sit in the audience (when performing the section where Poprishchin is going to the theatre one evening), rush at the front row of chairs (during the character’s breakdown) while carrying scissors and go sit in the back row of seats and during the final section after which Poprishchin is taken to the asylum (which he thinks is Spain) so Bowman alters the staging by upturning the pallets to create the walls of the asylum cell where Poprishchin is being kept.

I was sat in the second row with the seats in front of me left empty though people had sat at the far side of the front row. Bowman took advantage of this by sitting in the vacant seats for the ‘at the theatre’ part. He did a gradually more and more forced, over the top, laugh as if the character Poprishchin has to force himself to pretend to be similar to the ordinary theatre goers by overreacting to the unseen performance. Then pointing at myself and others, as we were in second row, telling us to stop overreacting and, during the later ‘I’m the new King of Spain’ section, crashing into the front row seating and invading the back rows while carrying scissors menacingly later prior to the final asylum scenes.

There was a mix of ages attending on the evening but ultimately about only about 12 people came to see the performance. I found that surprising. You would expect more especially with the high praise Bowman has had for this piece year after year having received rave reviews in Edinbrugh, but I guess not… The R17 events did try to promote it but I guess this style of theatre is hard to market in this day where people want spectacle or quantity over quality…

You are meant to start off laughing with Poprishchin only for it to gradually become clear how badly he’s affected with an increasingly warped perception of the world around him. I can’t say anyone laughed out loud but that wasn’t the point… this is the downfall of a man alienated from the society around him and has that dark sort of tragi-comic style of humour that Russia is renowned for and finds itself in many ways reflected in the Welsh sense of humour also.

20171104_192745 the diary of a madman stage and actor before the start

Costume wise he wears a shabby striped dress shirt with a dirty t-shirt beneath, waistcoat and flat cap. During the later sections he removes his shirt and draws tally marks on himself with charcoal. Then a large number 8 on his chest when he thinks he is the new King of Spain. Towards the end he eventually composes, on stage, a cape from sheets of newspaper he straps together with masking tape when he dresses as the king of Spain. He does this all while ranting on stage. Quite impressive though I could see the tears in the paper. I wonder if it’s ever fallen apart of he has torn it too severely when putting it on. Well it’s all part of the spectacle leaving a great impact to see how far the character has fallen.

The stage is four pallets with alterations to hide certain items like the paper chain of dog’s correspondence letters or the paper he scrunched up as a hand puppet to represent the petty councillor confronting him at one point leading to a comedic scene of him conversing with a hand puppet as he mockingly recounts the event. In the final part he upturns the pallets to make the walls of the asylum cell. At one point, to represent the theatre, he opens up a book with a little pop-up theatre building, similar to a child’s pop-up book, then sat in the front row and began to laugh more and more hysterically which in-character showed how desperately out of step the character, yet desiring acceptance, even at this early stage when interacting with those around him (both as part of the play and when interacting with the audience).

A bare bulb hangs down and flares into a orangey pink light at times though there is also the lamp to one side and the stage lighting which intensifies starkly in later scenes creating long shadows across the space. He uses a bulldog clip to hang papers and such on the bare bulb wire in earlier scenes and tears them down later on. The sound and lighting play an important part in establishing the scenes especially in the hellscape like experience of the asylum. In the production’s minimalist staging it helps to enforce the sense of isolation and terror he fears during the story’s progress.

Review: Very intense. I really enjoyed it. I dislike ‘audience interaction’ stuff but this wasn’t reliant on it as Bowman would carry on and adapt as needed so it was more about him making clear how disconnected the character was from society so in fact it really worked incredibly well. We probably had the best experience of it possible as he could crash into the seats and be sat in front of us so there was always that slight barrier but interaction nonetheless. The usher was sat on the chair at the end of the front row, nearest the door, so maybe, if the show sold out, that’s the chair he would take?

Bowman has mastered this piece and you will find other actors failing to match the intensity and pitiable nature of the character in other versions after seeing this. He maintains the intensity of Poprishchin’s alienation throughout with turns between humour and tragedy effortlessly. We see the division between Poprishchin’s public and private identity begin to erode exposed through his developing obsession with numbers, amongst other signs, as his duality of nature declines. The insanity grows in degrees gradually over time replacing the somewhat idiosyncratic normality of earlier scenes with the desperate distress of the comi-tragic ending.

It’s the sort of thing you expect to play at Chapter as it is the experimental arts venue of Cardiff while the Sherman is for more established performers and artistic pieces, The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is music orientated, Wales Millennium Centre is for the ‘big ticket’ shows and the other venues in the city exist somewhere in between these extremes.

It’s the sort of thing you expect to be followed by a short after talk once it finishes really. But that’s it and off you go off into the bleak cold of night outside having seen an excellent performance that you’ll remember for years to come and compare other actors against.

It’s the sort of thing you should definitely go see at least once in your life time, whether you love theatre or not, as it is a brilliant experience. I would happily go see it again given the chance. Highly recommended.

It’s the sort of thing you should definitely go see!