Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Dolly in the downturn

Wherever I go, I find myself wondering what will survive. Announcements of cuts have speeded up and I feel battered already, though the axe is still poised to fall. These months are a reversal of the norm, as if convalescence came before serious illness. Everyone seems to be waiting for things to get much, much worse.

It's hard to make culture a priority when so much else is under threat. How can I value a trip to the theatre or art gallery – even a book borrowed from a library – above the local day centre for people with mental health problems (under threat of closure)? Yet I notice that many of the activities offered by that day centre depend on what are broadly termed "the arts". The people whose lives are improved by help and friendship at the day centre also improve their lives by sculpting, painting, writing and singing. They share their skills with one another – and arrange local trips to take in the exhibitions which I also enjoy.

Millionaires never have to do without the arts. As patrons they commanded poets, painters, sculptors and musicians - they could buy whatever entertainment they fancied. I'll always be grateful to those millionaires who gave money to build theatres and public libraries. But my sympathies are with those who lived on the fringes of culture, grabbing whatever they saw and desired, without any sense of entitlement. I've always grabbed at culture.

Now the wealthy men in our government are snatching back. Education in arts and humanities will be restricted to the very rich and those prepared to embrace enormous debt. Were I young now, I'd have to give up my dreams of a good education. Meanwhile opportunities for self-education are being snatched away. Library hours are being cut. Soon galleries and concert halls will close and theatres will darken – though I suppose millionaires will continue to enjoy their holidays abroad and whatever command performances they choose to buy.

Until then, I'm grabbing as much culture as I can fit round work and a heavy cold. I've seen two shows at Nottingham Playhouse (She Stoops to Conquer and Twelfth Night – both excellent fun) and, most recently, a new play, Dolly by Andy Barrett, which is touring the region. I caught it at the Darwin Rooms in Derby.

The Darwin Rooms aren't a typical venue for New Perspectives, the theatre company behind the production. It's one of those small, regional touring companies which rarely get noticed in the national press touring the region. Mostly performances are in village halls and sports centres - the actors move around the region, setting up temporary stages, lighting rigs and sound systems for a night at the time.

I haven't seen the company before but they seem to take rural settings as their starting point. This play was set in Rosslyn near Edinburgh - according to the play a small farming community where any outsider was instantly identified as a visitor to the research laboratory. It picked up themes of ambition, success and failure. Farmer's daughter, Bettina, longed to be a country and western singer like her idol Dolly Parton. Her story was told in parallel to the story of the first cloned sheep, created at the Rosslyn Institute.

To my surprise, I found myself warming to the enthusiasm of the researchers as they explained what they were doing and why it was so difficult. Ethical questions lurked in the background - as did the desire of mourners to use cloning to bring back the dead. But the playwright and production trusted the audience to think through the questions - they weren't hammered out but left for thought and discussion later. The play was more interested in celebrating human achievement, whether the success of scientists in an improbable project or the ability of Dolly Parton to write and sing songs about triumph in the face of difficulty.

When I say that my favourite performer was Dolly the sheep, this is not a criticism of the cast. They almost convinced me that the two puppets - Dolly the new-born lamb and Dolly the adult sheep - were real and I held my breath for a moment when Dolly was born and presented to the waiting scientists. It still seems unlikely that messing around with theories, formulae and test tubes can produce a warm and breathing creature, let alone a sheep of character.

But even if ambitious and imaginative scientific research escapes, I don't suppose the idea of science will warm people through the cold isolation of the cuts. Dolly Parton, for all her artifice, may be a better source of warmth. She can, on occasion, be very funny - and she has a clear sense of what it's like to go without.


Chris Gray said...

A friend and I could be reduced to staging our own version of MacBeth or The Tempest between ourselves outside on the grassy and cold area in front of my house. Manuscript in hand (in case we forget our lines), a ready audience (our nosey neighbours of course) and a pot of darjeeling tea to look forward to (or Peppermint if the play is particularly stressful). We won't need any money or permission from the council.

Though I wonder if George Osbourne has heard this particular Dolly song?

Kimberly said...

It makes me sick that they are demolishing a perfectly good library in favour of creating a new 'modern' one in Birmingham. I understand that they want to encourage other readers (if that is the goal) but they are offending their regulars. That money good have been used to help the arts. I don't know what will happen to all of the film makers, writers and artists in Birmingham. I feel lucky that I managed to graduate before all of this but my younger siblings haven't a chance in this new world.
I would love to see Chris' play though. At least ideas are free.

Alan Baker said...

Hi Kath
Sorry, not related to your post: just wondered if you'd be coming to the Flying Goose next Tuesday? I'm part-hosting it, as I've got 2 Leafe poets on the bill - CJ Allen and Ernesto Priego.

Last Thursday was good - you'd have enjoyed it: Louis Aragon and Jacques Prevert read in French!


Kathz said...

Thanks for all the comments. Chris, if you and your friend stage Shakespeare with free tea, let me no so that I can get there. (I'm drinking peppermint tea to keep out the stress as I type).

Kimberly, I too regret the loss of good libraries, especially the Belvoir Street Library in Leicester (apparently destined to become a Job Centre), the wonderful library in Birmingham and the threatened cuts in Nottinghamshire, which will limit some people to a single visit from a mobile library once a month. Actually I'm enraged by the cuts to libraries and may post on this later.

Alan, I'm getting to as much of Beeston International Poetry Festival as I can and hope the Leafe event goes well - not to mention the Roy Fisher event on the 28th. The Flying Goose is a wonderful venue.