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

Secondary School Reunion

There’s a feature in today’s Guardian about inspiring teachers, a not uncommon subject and, as a former school teacher, of course welcome. But what about inspiring pupils? To take just one of the schools at which I taught – Harrow Way Secondary Modern School in Andover, Hampshire, where I was Head of English in the latter years of the 196os – I could single out one former pupil who is now a college principal, one who went on to become Head of History in a comprehensive school and another, who, after many years of dedication, hard work and study, is now a surgeon. And, yes, this was a secondary modern school; these were all people who were rejected by the education system at 11 plus as not fit for academic study. And these are but three inspiring examples.

Last week I had the very great pleasure of meeting up with another former student from Harrow Way, Mary McCormack. Mary, who now lives in Ireland, was over to visit her daughter, Lucy, who lives in Dalston, East London. It was the first time we’d met in 46 years. Mary had been one of the bright lights of my English class – I still recognised her writing, when she showed me, on her iPad, a poem she’d recently written – and she had been one of a small number who had helped run the school’s weekly radio broadcasts. It was lovely to meet her – Lucy, too – and to catch up over a long lunch. [The lamb was especially delicious.]

Just a couple of hours later and we were saying goodbye again. Lucy had arranged to take Mary to have her first tattoo as a 61st birthday present. And it was Lucy  who took this photograph of Mary and I outside the grocer’s conveniently adjacent to the restaurant: as happy to have met one another again as we look.

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