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Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 13th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.



They’re back for a third time in this Jermyn Street Theatre Footprint Festival. Live Canon, directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival, bring the Romantics. Today Holly Atkins, Bea Svistunenko, Leon Scott and Charlie Merriman launch into the seven Romantic poets we kow and quite a few we mightn’t.

As ever Eastman really exposes how little we appreciate the women poets of any era. The 18th and early 19th were particularly heinous in this respect: once-famous names have faded, often without any justification. Whilst there’s no-one quite of the calibre of Barrett Browning or Rossetti, there’s some who write some of the most memorable poems of their time.

We start and end with Shelley, and a Live Canon trademark of throwing line around, as all four blow ‘To a Skylark’ to the four winds of their breaths. It’s an exhilarating reading, often just a little paused to allow the strengths to register, and never rushed though exciting.

There’s a colour coding too. Holly Atkins in lie greens brings us To Daffodils’ again breezing off all those school recitations to uncover the original passion. Leon Scott in a deep red shirt brings a fervent pause to Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’.

Holly Atkins in coral brings us the first surprise. The Sonnet ’Come to Me in Dreams’ by Shelley – Mary. It’s a very fine poem passionate and not at all the reserved novelist  we might think we know.

Charlie Merriman in beige delivers Wordsworth’s Sonnet Compose Upon Westminster bridge’ from 1802 with its rapt suspension of dawn  and its ‘Dear God the very houses seem asleep/and the river running at its own sweet will.’

Scott brings the first Keats, the 1816 Sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ with a dispatch and energy befitting this first eager masterpiece. Atkins is back with a slower contemplation, Shelley’s ‘To the Moon’ and then Merriman continues the raptness with a tragic intensity as he recites John Clare’s ‘First Love’ a great poet finally admitted to the second generation of Romantics as an equal, born in 1793 between Shelley and Keats but living on famously in an asylum till 1864. Clare returned in imagination and fact to the first love who hardly knew him and she’d died in a fire. Is his poem really deluded or merely magnified? And isn’t this the condition of writing?

Scott delivers too a passionate and measured rendition of Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’ with its refrain ‘in silence and in tears’, to complete a trilogy of short tragic poems.

We gear up for Atkins’s dramatic rendition of Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ which instead of the rapt element indued to it by many readers and indeed public ones, exchanges a restless tragic fever bracing us for a completely different way in. Atkins emphasises words like ‘no hungry generations tread thee down’ and reinvokes Keats’ brief miraculous year beset by tragedy constant throat infections and money worries, despite support from his friends. What Atkins does is return us to the conditions and much of the text of the poem. The rapt element, admittedly the wonder is necessarily lessened, but what a gain and what a reading.

The quartet come together for tossing Blake’s ‘The Tiger’ about dramatically, energising us briefly before Keats returns in Merriman’s ‘To Autumn’ which manages all the glints and sidelights but doesn’t linger, with tis satisfying dispatch.

Scott brings one of the most surprising poems, Coleridge’s lengthy rather gothic romance ‘Love’ which is pretty unknown. There’s even a Geraldine in it, not the sexually predating ‘Christabel’ one we know and at first you’d think it was Poe in a good mood – we’re not venturing as far forward as him, thankfully. But even here in an early poem about a man who turns a woman on by his tale of slaying dragons (all done with tears, a bit like Othello winning over Desdemona, yeah that ends well) there’s a craft, a certain economy and lack of indulgent repetitions that marred the younger poet.

Atkins is back for Charlotte Dacre (1771/2-1825) and her ‘The Kiss’. Dacre’s a novelist and poet acclaimed in her time, now admired for her novels again. Illegitimate, Portuguese Sephardic in late 18th century London, she had much against her, but surmounted much and this poem shows in miniature a really interesting talent.

Scott’s for Leigh Hunt’s Rondeau ‘Jenny Kissed Me’ a delightful poem from 1840 (Leigh Hunt 1784-1859 later in his career), one of only two we remember from Keats’ mentor, a rather heroic man in his youth, imprisoned for radicalism and ending pilloried by Dickens. He was upset to find out how Keats turned on him too. Sentimental yes, but as we now recognize a very fine essay writer and occasionally poet. It’s a delightful poem and you quite forget it’s about the formidable Jane Carlyle.

Svistunenko makes her solo entrance for Letitia Landon (1802-38) who recently had her biography read on Radio 4. There’s been an upsurge in interest, including lurid details of her probable suicide exiled in Ghana with her governor husband. Her work, daringly if mildly erotic, reflecting her own life, is dashed here with Revenge’ a narrative that really strikes home, in Svistunenko’s poised deadliness tipped with passion.

Yet again Blake gets the full quad treatment for another revenge in ‘The Poison Tree’  and then we’re back with Svistunenko for a real find, Sara Coleridge’s (1802-1852) ‘Time’s Thistle’ a fine, intricate poem I want to root out. Of the Coleridge heirs, we know son Harley Coleridge (1796-1849) and great-grand-niece Mary (1861-1907) and always heard through Virginia Woolf that Sara Coleridge’s imagination was rather plain than her father’s jewelled one. Scholar, more than keeper of the flame, she deserves investigating.

Then there’s Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) someone who really is becoming better-known, not least for a Carcanet collection of her sonnets and other poems. Praised for her sonnets this ‘Thirty-Eight’ with its refrain on the ironic prejudices against age was addressed t a married friend whose name ends in ‘y’ and that’s all we know. It’s a funny wise poem – not unlike Cowper’s late 18th century entertainments – rather unlike Smith’s other poetry (that we know); and here Atkins gets audience participation with the other actors joining in refrains one by one.

Felicia Hemans (1793-1835) was perhaps the most lengthily celebrated poet, if only for ‘The boy stood on the burning deck/whence all but he had fled’ to which Spike Milligan’s ‘Twit!’ is often a sort of millstone. There’s also ‘The stately homes of England’ which Quentin Crisp glossed suggesting a memorability and infusion into the language inviting parody. Many of Hemans’ heroines including Sappho commit suicide rather than surrender independence, honour or self-determination and Hemans left her husband. Svistunenko’s recitation of ‘The Graves of a Household’ is an early empire poem reflecting the dying abroad of all the children of one family, far-flung for different reasons. So it’s a poem of documentary value too.

Merriman introduces another surprise. We know Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1859) as a great writer of journals but her ‘Address to a child on a boisterous evening’ (high wind not behaviour), is at the very least deeply charming and quite possibly rather more. Worth returning to.

Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825) might just finally be getting known. Mentor of Coleridge (‘The Ice Box’ was mercilessly pillaged for ‘Xanadu’) she was rejected by him and others for her 334-line poem ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’ which damns Britain in much the way we might now, starting with our arms trade. 1812 wasn’t perhaps the most tactful time to publish it, but we were ‘winning’ the Napoleonic wars.

Tragically it stopped Barbauld writing any more, though at 69 she’d done her bit for anti-slavery. This last poem is fascinating and I declare an interest since I carefully modernised it and other poems for the New Unity Newington Green (now famous for the Maggi Hambling statue of Wolstencraft), where her work as a previous worshipper like Wolstencraft is perpetuated and poetry taught.

Barbauld’s a fascinating poet, full of matter and late 18th century techniques that occasionally cut across her burgeoning romanticism. Like Smith six years her junior, she was born into a generation that hadn’t the new language to grasp sentiments. ‘Life’ a fine subdued lyric delivered by Svistunenko is a foretaste of what we’ll hear in her anti-slavery poetry in the Live Canon’s fifth outing here, in ‘No More’ in two weeks featuring more Shelley too – hose ‘ineffectual angel’ (Arnold) myth is being energetically debunked and his radicalism foregrounded.

Coleridge isn’t represented by (understandably!) either of his famous narrative poems though we got an early tr-out. Nor do we get ‘Xanadu’. We get a late poem from 1829, a miraculous dark flash of pain in ‘Work Without Hope’ with its haunting ‘hope without an object cannot live’ brought to us by Merriman. In that hue of despair we have Scott’s great poem from Clare ‘I Am’ with its mesmerising ‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’ and ending ‘above, the vaulted sky’ delivered with desolate wonder.

Blake finally gets a solo rendition, Merriman’s of his ‘London’ with tis iteration of woes and ‘the youthful harlot’s curse’ nailed by both.

Svistunenko brings us the magnificent Keats sonnet from 1818 ‘When I have fear I cease to be’ hauntingly delivered, a premonitory shadow. Atkins smiles us into Southey’s finest poem (he did write a few good poems) ‘’His Books’ and its opening ‘My days among the dead are spent’ and the team return us to Shelley’s brief normally intimate lyric ‘Music, when soft voices die’ here shadowed and fluttered in an evening-like trance by all four.

As ever consummate, fine performances. Next week’s ‘Sci-Fi Poetry’ looks to be even more romantic and richly strange, served in steely worlds.