Fringe Online 2021
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. One performance only, July 11th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
For their sixth and last show devised and directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival, Live Canon take on a tight-knit group of poets and sensibilities: the Pre-Raphaelites who flourished roughly from 1848 through various troughs and peaks to the 1890s.
(Since I’d flagged it as upcoming, I should add No More, Live Canon’s intriguing fifth outing about slavery was due July 4th, but wasn’t on the livestream – Terence Blacker’s concert was repeated instead).
So when Rebecca Hare, Simon Muller and Jim Scott join forces in their usual ensemble intro, we get something rather different. William Morris (1834-96) emerged in the second wave of the Pre-Raphaelites, pioneering the architecture wallpaper printing-press-and-socialism phase.
Yet despite the fact he can write pretty lumbering verse, always original, interesting but a bit turgid ‘Love is Enough’ thrown around by this trio is utterly different: comes up as fresh as Kelmscott wallpaper put up by Robert Tressell (and paid at non surplus-value wages, no doubt). It’s light, sinewy, strong stuff, and I’m looking it out.
A bit of context next, which you can skip. Pre-Raphaelites famously suggests pre-Raphael and the accent on painting, returning to intense bright colours and a foreshortening of perspective. Whilst painters like Millais and Madox Ford concentrated on painting, the prodigious Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) straddled poetry and the most iconic painting of the group: literally – paintings of Lizzie Siddall (we’ll come back to her) and Jane Burden, later Jane Morris. His massive brooding poetry surging with imagery and obsession is now eclipsed by his sister Christina (1830-94) seriously considered for the Laureateship before she died (as was Elizabeth Barratt Browning in 1850). Christina’s verse is astonishing: lyrically, fresh with a strike-through use of images and rhythm culminating in the magnificent sexual, turbulent Goblin Market of 1861 – and we get some of that here.
So what’s a Pre-Raphaelite poem? Rich in imagery with a rediscovery of Keats and then Blake (D G Rossetti championed both and edited the latter), we’re at a renewal of romanticism, yoked to an aesthetic of everything anti-mass-production, from painting and as we’ve seen architecture (Ruskin was attached) through to socialism, return to craft, and its remarkable apogee in William Morris.
D G Rossetti’s ‘Genius in Beauty’ from his dug-up 1871 collection (I mean really dug up from Lizzie Siddall’s grave, a spoiler) is a strongly-gendered hymn, a good if not outstanding work, and so, so dated it’s been set up for a fall by Simon Muller:
Beauty like hers is genius. Not the call
Of Homer’s or of Dante’s heart sublime,—
Not Michael’s hand furrowing the zones of time,—
Is more with compassed mysteries musical
Muller gets the sincerity of this just right. Despite all the Bohemian rebel and later on opium, most of all the objectifying of his model and lover, Mid-Victorian fustian vies with Rossetti’s keen rhythms and he can do better. OK he does in the sestet.
As many men are poets in their youth,
But for one sweet-strung soul the wires prolong
Even through all change the indomitable song;
So in likewise the envenomed years, whose tooth
Rends shallower grace with ruin void of ruth,
Upon this beauty’s power shall wreak no wrong.
He’s a greater poet than this though. Christina Rossetti certainly does better than digging in a shallow grace to get the flung-in poems out again. Her answer with Rebecca Hare’s warm but pointed rendition is a slap in the face literally in her artist’s painting studio:
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress…
There’s lithe loadings of anaphora, two phrases repeating the opening, driving her emphasis, It ends damningly ‘Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.’ Someone’s sticking up for Siddall.
You might want more Christina after that? Jim Scott delivers in the sharp ‘Promises like Pie-Crusts’. ‘Promise me no promises so I will not promise you’ – and we get a strong sense now of Christina Rossetti’s sharp argumentative powers behind the vivid lyric grace (to hi-jack a T S Eliot phrase), It’s one of the more attractive retreats from sexuality and love. Eastman has directed a fine short film of it for Live canon, featuring Eva Traynor.
Stepping aside from sibling wars, John Sibley’s ‘Worn Out’ is a fugitive from the PRB magazine The Germ, and flitted by Muller – one of those pallid strong pieces touched by the genius of the group.
With Algernon Charles Swinburne (1847-1909) very much the dissolute side of second wave, we come not to his magnificent lyrics with their unending variations tending to hypnosis – he was the most rhythmically gifted poet after Shelley in English in the 19th century – but to much quieter meditations. Hare introduces ‘Dead Love’ with its leaner phrasing, its sinewy sense of the forlorn; rare and disciplined for him.
Scott’s back with DG’s ‘A Little While’ and for non-literary reasons this gets a laugh. There’s undoubtedly a sense of demob-happy, a couple of miniature gaffs which in fact enhance the atmosphere as everywhere a ripple of laughter and holiday flickers through the potentially jewel-like religious radiance of the poets. And the imminent football which everyone’s trying to avoid by getting off the street.
D G learns something from his sister ‘a little while a little love’ though despite its melancholy I can’t help thinking this is has been chosen for its rarer singing qualities than depth. There’s a slip-stream in it, clouds of opium, but it does fly.
Lizzie Siddall, who’s known for a few paintings also wrote poetry. ‘At last’ seems an adaptation of a Scottish ballad, ending in a admonition to ‘hide me amongst the graves’, and is the usual story of a girl betrayed: Here’s a coupe of the middle stanzas showing Siddall making fresh use of PRB colour and Christina Rossetti’s vividness and brevity:
And mother dear, take a sapling twig
And green grass newly mown,
And lay them on my empty bed
That my sorrow be not known.
And mother, find three berries red
And pluck them from the stalk,
And burn them at the first cockcrow
That my spirit may not walk.
Siddall overdosed with laudanum in February 1862. She was 32. DG flung his poems of her into her grave, with the result we’ve seen, ten years on.
All three actors reunite for Swinburne’s A Ballad of Burdens – and this clearly influenced Ernest Dowson’s ‘Spleen’ – This s the end of every man’s desire’ very Swinburne, altered to ‘this is the end of every song man sings’ by Dowson. It’s again rally lively – Live Canon know how to do Swinburne and I wish they’d focus on him, maybe on contrast with another poet because they really infuse the lesser-known less indulgent poems with vim and point. This ballad – there’s three ‘series’ of ‘Songs and Ballads – shows how we forget the ballad in Swinburne, yet it disciplines him, and this is an entrancing rendition. And that’s it – I’d love another Swinburne in this time-frame, but Live Canon are making it one fo their shortest programmes.
And we come to the set piece. Goblin market’s to long ‘and we want to get to the pub’ the LCs laugh – but they do give a passage from early on. Two sisters adventurous Laura and cautious Lizzie are importuned by weird goblins (out of Richard Dadd or Millais) with fantastical fruit, and what Laura give them is a lock of hair. OK, it’s not blood but it’ll do. What Lizzie does is astonishing and out of the scope fo the passage but here’s a bit of what was performed by the trio.
“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes,
Cover’d close lest they should look;
Laura rear’d her glossy head,
And whisper’d like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.”
Yes it’s intensely erotic too, and continues to be. Christian Rossetti played with love, was engaged sand broke off, preferring independence and a strict Christian doctrine that tripped up suitors. Her power is everywhere, and she’s rightly the genius of the show. Hare is particularly affecting as Laura – and Lizzie – Muller and Scott inveigling the while.
Though not the only one. George Meredith (1828-1910) poet and novelist is best remembered now for a few lines of ‘The Lark Ascending’ but his sour sonnet-sequence of fifty poem Modern Love is one of his central texts, and treats of his wife having an affair with another man, and indeed leaving him (for Henry Wallis, PRB painter of The Death of Chatterton, in fact). Here – in his special invention of 16-line sonnet taken up by Tony Harrison for one – he wreaks revenge, and in Sonnets 17 (Muller), 2 (Scott) and 25 (Hare) we’re treated to an interior monologue as the man sleeps uneasily by his wife’s side and dreams. In Sonnet 2 he meditates on finding out ‘Sin… an old murder-spot’ and other mordant signs and finally in 25 on a conversation piece about morals ‘Have you read that French novel’ where the wife chooses the husband finally. Not here, of course. It’s a fine display of verbal exchange in poetry reminding us of Meredith’s powers as novelist.
Morris returns again with the whole trio in ‘The Chapel at Lyonesse’ a more typical, though more luminescent Morris territory. His obsessions with Anglo-Saxon and compounds traces across the tombs a language a little heavy, well it is marmoreal naturally, but with shafts of illumination too.
Morris deserves his final outing too, as a socialist where Scott delivers a fiery socialist rallying, a really memorable tough piece of proto-agitprop, and never more timely. Jack Shepherd’s recent play Against the Tide treats of Morris’s struggles with different kinds of socialism and his writings are now really worth considering. Polemic often finds him, as here, cutting through; but there’s more poetry to him as well.
We have to end with Christina Rossetti. And two of her most justly famous. You probably know them First Hare touchingly without undue sentiment – indeed with the incipient playfulness in nearly all her work like the (not read here )‘The Queen of Hearts’. So’ When I am dead, my dearest’ is then far more heartbreaking than sentimental: rather you should forget me and smile/than remember me and be sad’. Wow.
And Scott finishes – unlike the usual trio we’ve had before – with a single sotto voce rendition of Christian Rossetti’s ‘Birthday’ too: ‘my heart is like a singing bird/that builds its nest in watered shoot’ and after. A shower of similes rises to ‘my heart is gladder than all these/because the birthday of my life is come to me.’
There’s tributes to JST just before this, and at the end of their six programmes we must feel summer’s not the same without Live Canon. A rendition of Goblin Market entire is up on their Youtube, and as the above shows, plenty of shorts of her work and others too. It’s a privilege to hear this group to discover and rediscover, and even in the Sci-Fi Poetry programme (fourth of the series), their interaction with younger poets and indeed haiku from the audience. An enormous force in live poetry, they’re light with their scholarship under Helen Eastman, innovative and searching in their programming, and above all inclusive, entertaining and – on occasion – bloody funny. At just forty-five minutes, true Pre-Raphaelite gem-lit recital.