History as helix on Celie and Ab’s 90th anniversary

I’m re-rehearsing Wot? No Fish!! ready for shows in Birmingham and Battersea in July.  As I take out their ketubah (marriage contract), I realise that Celie and Ab were married 90 years ago today.

ketubaSo …

1936: 10 years after their wedding – is three months before the Battle of Cable Street.

1946: 20 years after – the war is over just over a year.  There’s rationing, austerity and a Labour government committed to building a welfare state.

1956: 30 years after – Look Back in Anger is on at the Royal Court and Elvis (Presley) is in the charts. The Conservative Party is in turmoil over Suez and a weak PM’s days are numbered.

1966: 40 years after – England is about to embark on a successful World Cup campaign and Barclays introduces a new thing in the UK called a ‘credit card’.

1976: 50 years after – There’s the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising – a key moment in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Also, Britain and Iceland have a cod war…

1986: 60 years after – Celie has been dead for five and a half years.  Ab dies in 1986.  The Labour Party is in turmoil – Derek Hatton, Deputy-leader of Liverpool City Council is expelled for being a member of the ‘Militant Tendency’.

1996: 70 years after – England lose in a penalty shoot-out to Germany at Euro 1996.  John Taylor is made the first Black Conservative peer (later jailed for false accounting).

2006: 80 years after – George W Bush is caught talking informally to Tony Blair.  Starting with “Yo, Blair!”, they discuss Syria and other global/Middle-east issues.   The Stern Review into climate change is published, recommending that emissions trading schemes, like the one operating across the EU, should be expanded and linked.

And then there’s today … 2016 …

The central metaphor for Wot? No Fish!! is that history doesn’t work as either a straight line of continuous progress nor as a circle, where history is doomed to repeat itself.  History works as a helix; like a spiral staircase.  You think you’re back in the same place, but you’re not: things have slightly shifted.

Today I fear the rise of racism and fascism, the scar of the 20th Century, revisiting the 21st.

Political parties are absorbed in internal conflicts; mediated so it’s difficult for the populace to separate heroes from narcissists.

Global issues are both far away and on our doorstep.

Families feel insecure, but loving relationships provide meaning and foundation to people’s lives.

And I will be telling this story again – for  something like the 120th time.  I hope to draw audiences in to Ab and Celie’s intimate world; knowing that every time I tell it, the story helps me to make some sense of my own journey up that spiral staircase.


Thirty years on

Thirty years on

I first came to the Edinburgh Fringe as a student in 1981 and 1982.

1981 was the year when I worked a 48-hour shift culminating in performing in a late-night cabaret at Bedlam.  No one showed.  My fellow disgruntled artiste Steve Nallon, who a few years later became the voice of Maggie Thatcher on Spitting Image, gamely “did” his Bruce Forsyth on the street to drum up trade.

In 1982, this time at the Netherbow Theatre, again with Steve Nallon in cabaret, the actor “doing” his Robin Day was so spectacularly bladdered through afternoon drinking I had to rehearse in another performer to “do” her Janet Street-Porter.  Robin Day is now a humanist minister, JSP now one of the most influential people in publishing.  They made spectacularly unpredictable journeys.

In the same cabaret was my friend and then housemate – the incandescently brilliant singer Pinkie MacClure.  Pinkie’s journey in thirty years has seen her hone her craft. This year at Summerhall in Pumajaw’s Song Noir, I was staggered that her voice has matured to have an almost superhuman range.

In 1983, we stopped coming to the fringe.  With director Nick Philippou, performer/writer Mark Billingham and a bunch of others we created Bread & Circuses Theatre Company.  We made a bit of a splash for a few years and learned a lot, often quite painfully, as we tussled with being a collective (does anyone do that now?)  Mark Billingham is now a hugely successful crime writer, appearing at the book festival this year.  Nick Philippou has continued his directing career with amongst others the RSC, Theatre de Complicite and as Artistic Director of ATC.  I went on a community theatre odyssey, taking me into an area that has since become “applied theatre” and to my spiritual home at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Nick and I are now working together for the first time since the eighties on our show Wot? No Fish!!, also at Summerhall.  We have reformed Bread & Circuses as bread&circuses; we’re not quite back at the same place.

I imagine that Nick, Mark, Pinkie and I may well all meet up this year and toast our teenage selves.  We’ll see students on the Royal Mile and we’ll probably disparage their juvenilia, but see in them the ghosts of who we used to be.

Danny Braverman  (24)Wot? No Fish!! at its heart is about how history works; an area that obsesses me now.  It’s not a straight line with dates, as our history books tell us, nor a circle where “history repeats itself”.  The metaphor that works for me is that history is a helix, the shape of a spiral staircase.  You turn a corner and you sense that you’re in the same place; that some things never change.   But of course, many things do change – in 1981 there was only a handful of comedy shows, no twitter, no mobile phones and no double-shot macchiatos – but the essence of the fringe doesn’t change.  I’m reassured by that.

Louder and funnier

louder and funnier

I’d love to know the occasion behind this one.  It looks like Ab was presenting some kind of a talk, not something I think he did very often.  The paper in his hand suggest he’s got a script.  Although the people at this gathering are depicted impressionistically, you can somehow tell that there are various ladies-of-a-certain-age turning round in their chairs to eyeball the heckler.

And of course this is the kind of note that my director, Mr Nicholas Philippou, never gives me!

Some toilet humour

It's not condensation - your aim is terrible

One of the remarkable features of Ab’s art is his capacity for self-denigration.  But, looking closer at the picture, is he actually making a joke at the expense of his own decrepitude?  Well, we see Celie pointing to the ceiling, so my guess is that there really was condensation in the smallest room and, in a week without much incident, Ab decided to make a funny from a banal everyday detail.

But then again, note the detail of the toilet seat being up ….

A balcony scene

Oh Abbo Abbo

This cartoon seemed appropriate to me today as I’ve been preparing to run a week-long Summer School based on Romeo & Juliet.  One of the things that I love about Ab’s cartoons is that he sometimes characterises the two of them as coming from two different worlds – when in fact their backgrounds were very similar: Ashkenazy Jews, first generation born in London, aspiring and making their way (painfully) up the social ladder.

TGI Shobbas

Shlap on shobbos

So, as it’s Friday, here’s an Ab cartoon for anyone hoping for a day of rest sometime soon.  Perhaps the phrase “You want that I should schlap on shobbas” requires some unpicking?  A”schlap” is a shlep, in my view particularly associated with carrying a burden.  “Shobbas” is Shabbat  – that is the sabbath.  So Ab is saying:  “Are you asking me to carry a burden during the day of rest when it is religiously forbidden to do so?”  Only, of course, he says it in the poetry of Yinglish, with all the layers of irony and self-deprecation one would hope for.