Saturday, 16 August 2014

Chapter 31: bread&circuses: Wot? No Fish!!

I found this fridge magnet at the weekend at Fishbourne Roman Palace, circa (the) A27 and bought it in honour of Danny Braverman, of theatre company bread&circuses.  His one-man show Wot?  No Fish!! was on at the Battersea Arts Centre recently and blew me away.

Let me start by saying I'm not a theatre critic.  State the bleeding obvious Luce, I hear you say. The thing is I don't  attempt to review shows not for want of trying, but because every time I try my hand my writing bombs.  I know, because my husband starts to yawn. Instead I enjoy writing virtual thank you letters to performers for shows where I've emerged, renewed. And on occasion I buy them a fridge magnet (Danny, if you send me your address, it's yours!).

When I first heard about the show, it was the name bread&circuses that attracted.  So it's a figure of speech,  describing the opium of the masses way back when in Roman times.  But as I've been recently rather evangelical (kinder folk refer to it as "enthusiastic") about circus as a current zeitgeist, and the Battersea Arts Centre is my local theatre, I thought it was meant to be.

Danny Braverman inherited, through his mother, shoeboxes of doodles on the back of old paypackets that his great-uncle Ab (Abraham Solomons) a shoemaker, would pen each week to his beloved wife Celie. Over decades.  What emerges is the portrait of a Jewish family in the East End, their joys, heartaches and aspirations (pictured right).

See the trailer below. 

At the start of the performance, we are greeted with fishballs.  Real, home-made ones. Are there any other kind?!  Each member of the audience, takes one, dips it in the sauce should they wish and passes the box it on.  This very act seems to bring us into communion with the story before Danny has even begun.   Danny begins with a dream of his ancestors, a hilarious anecdote in the telling, which brings him to the realisation that life is neither a straight line nor a matter of going round in circles.  Rather, his(family)story is a helix, where certain spiral patterns map themselves onto events to come.  It's like viewing current events with a sense of deja-vu on the periphery.

And there are connecting instances between the past and the future. Danny ends up, by sheer joss, living in the house where his Great-Aunt Celie had grown up.  I later find out from my mother,  who like Danny's mother is the repository of family history, that a cousin had once ended up in a small terraced house in Liverpool, that had been home to her great-grandmother a century before.   Danny would not be surprised at such coincidences, or the fact that people invariably want to share their own stories with him afterwards.  Because that's what his show does, it connects.  It encourages each member of the audience to chime in with their own personal experience or recollection.   And thats the beauty of it.

And it has been ever thus.  The storyteller in society is the guardian of cultural memory.  Not all storytellers are writers, but given it is an art rooted in oral tradition, with stories passed from generation to generation, it strikes me that all performance is storytelling.  And Danny Braverman is a master storyteller.

When we bumped into Danny on the staircase afterwards, another member of the audience was asking him if he still writes political theatre.  Before I could help myself, I chimed in "But the personal is political." Jeez, I haven't said that since university. Or, to put it another way, Danny Braverman is a micro-historian.  He is one who "focusses [his] attention on people who can illuminate the socio-historical context of the period from ground level", a definition by Julia Barclay-Morton in her article  (click here) on writing about the "lived history" of her own grandmothers. 

There is an extract of a poem called Ancestral Poverty that I read recently which brings this home.  It is by a Cuban poet, Georgina Herrera, currently sponsored by a growing publishing house Cubanabooks in the US, which gives a voice to Cuban women writers by publishing them in translation. As a Spanish speaker who has spent time on the Island I obviously support this.  But also because it ties into my world view that the greater the diversity of voices we listen to, the more we engage in life around us, and that maybe the myth of the destruction of the tower of Babel is in essence a challenge to reconstruct our humanity. So I read:

We were so poor in my house.
So much so 
there was never enough for portraits;
family faces and events
were preserved through conversations.

It is this universal need to bear witness to life and hand down to future generations that drives storytelling, and justifies the odd blog into the bargain. Ultimately, for me, bread&circuses is food for the soul,  and manna from heaven.  Get your basket at the ready.

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