Van Gogh At Last!

In a recent post dealing with school drama productions I’d been involved in while teaching in Stevenage, I made passing reference to an earlier piece about the life of Vincent Van Gogh from my time at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover. Like the Stevenage work, this was a co-operative effort involving as many students and staff as possible, although, as the production evolved, one student in particular, Stephen Lewis, had a fuller involvement as actor, writer and composer. As was the case with Van Gogh himself, no matter the circumstances, you can’t keep good man down!

Knowing a little of Steve’s later involvement with drama, I thought it would be interesting to ask him for his memories of the production and its significance. This is what he wrote …

Drama was my favourite subject at Harrow Way School and thanks to our enthusiastic and inventive teacher, John Harvey, it became a core part of my life. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I was involved in drama teaching, culminating in running the MA in Drama in Education course at what is now Birmingham City University. The strongest memory I have of the work John did at Harrow Way was the collaborative nature of it and the way that it engaged pupils and staff from right across the school.

As a 14 year old I was cast as Vincent in a show called At Last the Vincent van Gogh Show. The “At Last” was added because opening night was delayed owing to an industrial dispute and teachers having to work to rule; this meant that out of school hours rehearsals were postponed for a term. Because John wanted to involve as many pupils as possible, the only way of getting the whole cast together was after school and at the weekends. This was probably why I had a go at writing some of the script and enjoyed researching the life of Van Gogh in such detail.

The set for the show consisted of two 16 x 8 feet screens made by the woodwork department that were fixed at the front stage-right half of the traditional school platform stage and used to back-project images of Van Gogh’s paintings put together by the art department. The performance took place in front of the screens on the hall floor and a raised, tiered area built out from the stage-left half of the stage. This early practice of getting as much of a performance off the stage and thrust out into the audience space must have had a real impact on me, since very few of the hundred or so productions I directed subsequently were set on a proscenium arch with curtains.

I am sure that my attempt at scripting the show was very conventional and limited by an experience of plays that did not extend beyond what we had studied at school or I had seen on television. John had an overall concept for the show that included dance-drama numbers so that more people could be involved beyond the smaller group of characters surrounding Van Gogh’s life. Looking back, I can see now that this was a creative device to make scenes where Van Gogh was painting at his easel more theatrical and of interest to the audience. 

While Van Gogh was painting sunflowers, for example, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun was playing and a group of dancers performed around the artist at work in one of his more happier moments. In contrast to this I remember the scene in the cornfield where I was surrounded by staccato-moving dancers dressed all in black enacting the movement of crows to the music of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. It was an expressive way of representing Van Gogh’s deep-seated depression and made the moment where he shoots himself in the groin seem more plausible. There was also a dance to a piece called Urizen from a jazz album by David Axelrod which is a fusion of orchestral sound and rock band. It has these rising glissandi on strings and listening to it again after all these years I can visualise the dancers rising up dressed in yellow and swirling ribbons of fabric around me. 

John has written about the infamous ear-cutting scene which was portrayed by my holding up a 2 x 1 foot piece of ear-shaped polystyrene to the side of my head. I had to cut across the top of the polystyrene with a handsaw and I can still recall the squeaking sound it made as I sawed a lump of it away. The fragment of polystyrene ear fell to the floor and then a character dressed as a policeman walked up to me, picked it up and said to the audience, “’ello, ‘ello, ‘ello: what’s this ‘ear then?”. It got a laugh every night.

The fact that I can still recall this so vividly fifty years later shows what a lasting impression this production made on me. That the structure of the show was an example of Total Theatre or that using an oversized prop and a music hall gag at a serious moment was a Brechtian technique were unknowns to me at the time. But thank you Mr Harvey for creating the circumstances and providing the experience that helped me find my element in life

(Return of) The Random Playlist

Here it is again, after absolutely no requests from anyone … [though I’m told, once in a while, the odd individual has been inspired to delve down into his or her collection or go looking for stuff on the internet] … the first dozen tracks to spring out of my iPod set to random shuffle while wandering on the Heath, slightly heat-bedazzled, today Friday 3rd July …

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  • Durango : John Stewart,  from Cannons in the Rain
  • Blues for Alice : Roland Kirk, from We Free Kings
  • I Loves You Porgy : Miles Davis, from Porgy & Bess
  • She : Gram Parsons, from GP
  • Is This What You Wanted : Leonard Cohen, from New Skin for Old Ceremony
  • Central Reservation : Beth Orton, from Central Reservation
  • All of Me : Lester Young, from Lester and Teddy
  • That’s My Home : Humphrey Lyttelton, from Humph Swings Out
  • Cocaine Blues : Rambling Jack Elliott, from South Coast
  • Love Vibration : Josh Rouse, from 1972
  • That Old Feeling : Louis Armstrong, from Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson
  • It’s Getting Better : Mama Cass, from The Best of the Mamas & the Papas

One thing about shuffling music around this way, the sometimes neat, more usually incongruous connections it makes between one piece and another, is the memories it can throw up about where you first heard a certain song or album. [A thought that comes all the more readily to me now, I’m sure, because of the exhibition of George Shaw’s paintings I saw yesterday – more of which, I’m sure, in a day or two.]

But the John Stewart, released in 1973, I would have first heard at the house of my late friend and co-author, Laurence James whom I mentioned recently, an album – aside from The Phoenix Concerts Live, arguably Stewart’s best – which was rarely off the stereo in the ensuing years. As my older daughter, Leanne, once said of Stewart’s voice, and I paraphrase, it was there as a comforting presence throughout my childhood.

Kirk’s We Free Kings was first released in 1961 and it would have been later that I bought a copy, towards the end of the sixties, and ordered, I’m sure, from the lamented Peter Russell’s Hot Record Store in Plymouth. We were living in Andover at the time, in one of a newly-built row of council houses (you remember those?) on the edge of the town and ours to rent thanks to my new job as Head of English at Harrow Way Secondary Modern. [Kirk I’d been thrilled to see in London, I think at the old Marquee club, an experience that I’ve written about in the poem, “You Did It! You Did It!”, which might well find its way into a blog post soon.]

The Gram Parsons, GP,  was one of the two great albums he made with James Burton on guitar and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, Return of the Grievous Angel being the other, and I came to it in a slightly bizarre fashion. One of the girls in the school where I was teaching in Stevenage had been to see Gary Glitter at the Locarno the previous evening and in the interval a number of disparate LPs had been given away for free, one of them Return of the Grievous Angel. No fan of country music, she sold it to me for £1.00 next day. I took it home, played it, went up to London that weekend and bought its companion.

Quite a few evenings in the mid-sixties – far too many if my sad A level results are to be believed – were spent at the 100 Cub in Oxford Street, the Humphrey Lyttelton Club as it was in those days. Humph Swings Out was a 10″ LP, one of the first albums I owned, and features the seven piece band I would have listened to – danced to – at the club on many occasions: Bruce Turner on alto, John Picard on trombone, Humph on trumpet, Johnny Parker, piano, Freddy Legon, guitar, Jim Bray, bass and either Eddie Taylor or Stan Greig behind the drums. Little sign here of the more traditional style or repertoire that would have predominated a year or so earlier; this was well into, as we called it back then, the mainstream – based around the ensembles and riffs of the 40s and early 50s, more Kansas City than New Orleans.  “That’s My Home”, the track here, with Humph in clear Armstrong mode, harks back, in fact, more than most.

The most recent track comes from Josh Rouse’s album 1972, which stems, paradoxically, from 2003.
Molly Ernestine and I went to see Rouse earlier this year at Kings Place. He took time to warm up, the sound wasn’t always as clear as it could have been, but the audience were firmly on his side – many of them singing along from the get-go – and by the end Rouse was enjoying himself and we were on our feet with the rest, surrendering, as Brinsley Schwarz would have sung, to the rhythm in earnest. Or in my case,  swayed my arthritic hips as  best I could.