There is a line in Liz Lochhead's play, Edwin Morgan's Dreams and Other
Nightmares, in which Scotland's first Makar is asked by his biographer what he
thinks of fellow poet Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Beowulf, which Morgan had
done a version of some years before. Morgan's response in the play is that he
considered Heaney's version to be “too Irish.”
The line penned by Morgan's successor as Makar for a show first seen at the
Glasgay! festival three years ago became the key for its director, Andy Arnold,
to stage this month's Home Nations Festival 2014 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow,
where he is artistic director. This mini season of four pieces of poetic drama
from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales looks set to coincide with
the impending Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and its accompanying Festival 2014
arts strand which supports the season.
Opening with a big community production of Dylan Thomas' masterpiece, Under Milk
Wood, artistic director of Irish company Rough Magic, Lynne Parker, oversees a
dramatic reading of Seamus Heaney's take on Beowulf.
This is followed by Britain's Glasgow-born poet laureatte Carol Ann Duffy's
version of Grimm Tales, which is directed by Kevin Lewis, currently artistic
director of Welsh theatre company, Theatre Iolo.
Arnold will revisit Lochhead's look at the life, work and imaginings of Morgan
to complete the quartet.
“It made sense,” says Arnold. “Liz Lochhead's Edwin Morgan play seemed to work
with audiences, and I wanted to do it again, and the Commonwealth Games seemed a
good time to do it, because the play's very much about Glasgow as well. Then I
thought it would be good to put on work by some of the other iconic poets from
the other home nations.”
Under Milk Wood and Heaney's take on Beowulf were no-brainers, while Duffy's
cross-bordeer roots seemed an equally perfect fit. Regardless of where the
writers and directors of the season are from, however, it is great writing that
matters to Arnold.
“I really like adapting poems for the stage,” he says, “and, in a way, it's an
indulgence on my part, to have a festival where, through theatre, you celebrate
poets, either through their lives or their work.”
Poetic and literary-based drama has always been at the heart of Arnold's work.
Since he took over as artistic director of the Tron, this interest culminated in
a mighty staging of James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, while during his previous
tenure running the Arches, Arnold himself directed productions of both Under
Milk Wood and Beowulf.
Arnold has also staged Robert Burns' Tam O'Shanter, while as part of this year's
Mayfesto season at the Tron, he presented a staged reading of Caribbean writer
Aime Cesaire's Return To My Native Land.
“It was so powerful it made people cry,” says Arnold of the event. “It was just
two women performing it, but every young writer should listen to it because
every single line is full of visual imagery and music, and that's something you
get more in poems than in plays.”
Arnold's fascination with the poetic form dates right back to The Noise and
Smoky Breath Show, a cabaret-style compendium of performances of works taken
from Noise and Smoky Breath, a seminal collection of Scottish poetry published
by the old Third Eye Centre, which is now out of print. The Noise and Smoky
Breath Show was first performed at the Third Eye to tie in with a mooted second
edition of the book that never happened, but which then became the first show
Arnold directed for what became the Arches Theatre Company. A poster for the
show hangs on Arnold's office wall.
“It was Noise and Smoky Breath which first introduced me to the poems of Edwin
Morgan,” Arnold recalls of the show that toured to the Tron during Michael
Boyd's tenure there, and which seems to have been pivotal in Arnold's career.
Arnold followed The Noise sand Smoky Breath Show with a production of V, Tony
Harrison's epic poem about visiting his parents graffiti-strewn grave in Leeds.
Written during the Miners Strike, V first appeared in 1985, the same year that
Bill Bryden directed Harrison's version of the Mysteries at the National
Theatre. V caused controversy when Channel 4 broadcast a television version of
the poem complete with four-letter words that caused some consternation in the
House of Commons.. Working with a community cast of long-term unemployed
volunteers, Arnold faced a similar reaction to Harrison's viceral text.
“I remember when we did the first reading of it,” he says, “and one of the
performers couldn't deal with the language and walked out.”
With a new generation of poets such as Kate Tempest tackling the dramatic form,
as she did last year in the Herald Angel winning Brand New Ancients, Arnold may
be onto something. Brand New Ancients'
street-smart mix of hip hop rhythms and South London patois, after all, also had
a heroic narrative that owed much to both Dylan Thomas and Tony Harrison.
Such lively poetic activity will be reflected in a series of events going on
throughout the Tron's building beyond the Home Nations Festival's four main
shows. These will include readings by Lochhead, who is also the season's
Poet-in-Residence, a Slam poetry competition hosted by Edinburgh-based spoken
word night, Rally & Broad, and a rehearsed reading of a new play by Jackie Kay.
“All of this goes back to Shakespeare,” Arnold points out. “Taking the
musicality of poetry, but applying it to drama, and trying to find a way of
acting out every line. Epic poems particularly lend themselves to that. What I
value more than anything is the power of the spoken word, and none more so than
through the vehicle of theatre. I'm always drawn to the whimsical, the surreal
and the absurd, and you can take that as extreme as you like, but everything
starts with the spoken word.
Home Nations Festival 2014 takes place at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow; Under Milk
Wood, July 17-19; Edwin Morgan's Dreams & Other nightmares, July 24-Aug 2;
Beowulf A Dramatic Reading, July 24-Aug 2; Grimm Tales, July 27-Aug 1.
Home Nations Festival 2014 in miniature
Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas wrote his radio play set in a small Welsh seaside
town in 1953, abd performed it live with a troupe of actors in a performance in
New York, where he died shortly after, having delivered a completed draft to the
BBC. The first broadcast version featured Richard Burton in a part he repeated
several times, including in a 1972 film version. Set in the fictitious town of
Llareggub ('bugger all' backwards), the play for voices tells of the dreams and
inner lives of the town's assorted inhabitants, and is now regarded as Thomas'
Edwin Morgan's Dreams & Other Nightmares – Liz Lochhead's play about her friend
and fellow poet Edwin Morgan first appeared at Glasgay! in 2011, a year after
Morgan's death aged ninety. Set in a care home and based around conversations
with Morgan's biographer, Lochhead uses this a jumping off point to look at
Morgan's life as a gay man living a private life beyond his poetry in a vivid
eighty minutes of memory, imagination and poetic longing.
Beowulf – Written somewhere between the eighth and eleventh century, Beowulf
tells the fantastical tale of the eponymous hero, who comes to the aid of the
Danes to slay the monster Grendel and the monster's mother. After returning to
Sweden where he becomes king, Beowulf later slays a dragon, but is fatally
wounded in the ensuing battle. The Old English poem has been seen in several
versions, including ones by Edwin Morgan and Seamus Heaney, while American
theatre company, Bananna Bag & Bodice, won a Hetald Angel for their musical
version that was an Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit in 2008.
Grimm Tales – Poet laureate carol Ann Duffy's stage adaptation of the Brothers
Grimm's collection of fairy tales first appeared in 1996, and included versions
of Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretal and The Golden Goose. A sequel,
More Grimm tales, followed a year later.
The Herald, July 8th 2014