York International Shakespeare Festival: Coriolanus

By Rachel Atkin

York International Shakespeare Festival works to bring worldwide celebrations of Shakespeare and his plays into one city, where England’s most recognisable writer can be experienced through a diversity of cultures.

On Monday 15th and Tuesday 16th, I had theCoriolanus in Iran, Titus Company 2017 pleasure of being invited to see an Iranian production of Coriolanus, performed by the Titus Company from the University of Tehran. Though the company themselves were absent, due to the British Embassy’s decision to not provide visas, we were provided with a recorded version of an alienating, experimental, and yet hugely emotive piece of theatre.

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Lunch Poems: York LGBT History Month

by Amy McCarthy and Rachel Louise Atkin

To celebrate LGBT History Month, a group of poetry enthusiasts gathered together in the Eagle and Child to discuss Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lunch Poems’ alongside other legendary LGBT writers – appropriately over lunch. We leave the streets of York to go to the bustling streets of Manhattan. As O’Hara composed his poetry during his lunch hours, the group bounced off each other’s analyses.

Frank O’Hara’s ‘Song’, a poem about people watching ‘where the tough Rocky’s eaves hit the sea’, seemed particularly relevant to us as we were able gaze out and watch the people bustling about in the city below us. This is a poem about movement, evident in its use of enjambment as though the words move too fast for the lines to catch up. The objects around O’Hara take on human forms – books have ‘trousers and sleeves’ and trains ‘run and shout’. New York becomes a people city, and specifically a fast one, where even inanimate objects absorb the speed and activity of those around it. It seemed appropriate to be reading such a poem, and hearing the clinking of glasses and footsteps from the rest of the pub.

‘Ave Maria’ has many layers to it as a poem about sexuality. The overarching theme is censorship of sex. O’Hara argues the youth of America should be allowed to go to the cinema and experience storylines besides their own narrative and therefore understand their sexuality. Yet, the mothers of America would also have the time to engage with their sexuality. The poem says ‘they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual experience / which only cost you a quarter’; sexual encounters are an exchange and the cinema becomes a place of pleasure. With gay bars being regularly raided and patrons harassed by police, (which led to the Stonewall Riots of 1969), the cinema was a queer space to occupy and to safely meet other people.

Throughout the poem, tension between pleasure and the drama of encounter is explored

Cheryl Clarke’s ‘living as a lesbian on 49’s final eve’ explores sexuality later in life – in comparison to the other poets discussed this lunch time. Clarke explores the nature of desire and whether sex is patriarchal and an experience of power. Throughout the poem, tension between pleasure and the drama of encounter is explored as the narrator writes: ‘Tear off my clothes in the middle of the road’. It is a transitional poem as the narrator first says she shouldn’t be happy to be chosen by a woman just because she is an older woman, but then the poem shifts to acceptance of love.

The group moved on to discuss ‘Many Loves’ by Allen Ginsberg and its explicit content. ‘Many Loves’ contrasts the hyper-masculine figure of Neal Cassady with the delicate body of Allen Ginsberg. Written early in Ginsberg’s career, it is subversive even now as early sexual awakenings are unearthed. Ginsberg allows his masculinity to fade from the picture. Walt Whitman’s epigraph chosen for the poem: ‘Resolved to sing no songs henceforth but those of manly attachment’, is from the Calamus poems from Leaves of Grass – which explores homosexual love. As Whitman was revolutionary in the nineteenth-century, Ginsberg takes on the batten in the twentieth-century to normalise non-heterosexual sex.

When we reached the poem ‘I want a president’ by Zoe Leonard, we thought it had been written yesterday. It was, in fact, published in 1992, but the phrase ‘I want a president that had an abortion at sixteen and I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two evils’ seemed more relevant now than ever. In a space where we could discuss queer poetry with confidence, we examined the way Leonard used words such as ‘dyke’ and ‘fag’ as a method of empowerment rather than demonization. Although some argued that there was an attempt to normalize these words, Leonard relies on the obscenities to create a contrast. She wants ‘to know why this isn’t possible’, and the language in this poem is an attempt to place these two spheres together.

After the food and poetry was over, the group dispersed onto the busy streets of York, perhaps with just a little more to say on the queer history of 20th century poetry.

For more information on the York LGBT History Month events, follow this link: http://yorklgbthistory.org.uk/


Moby Dick at the Guildhall

Theatre Mill’s production of Moby Dick is alive as soon as you walk into the Guildhall. My ticket was stamped on the door as I became part of the ‘crew’ and I followed the stewards who, dressed in thick jumpers and boots, asked for my ‘papers’. I was led to the quarterdeck to take my seat, and around me were ladders, ropes, and lanterns hanging from the rafters. Everything including the set was part of the performance, and as an adaptation of a book with such universal themes that spans the entire globe this sense of involvement between the audience and our surroundings was a wonderful addition.

The Guildhall isn’t a traditional theatre space, and despite Graham Kirk’s intricate set design this was able to provide a challenge for some of the actors. “You’ve no idea until an audience is in there, until the whole set’s in there, what’s going to happen,” says Zach Lee, who plays a multitude of roles including Rob, Starbuck, Peleg and Elijah, and was kind enough to chat to me before a performance. “It was only sort of twenty-four hours before we opened where we realised, hang on, there’s an acoustic issue in there.” Yet the setting is so important to the story of Moby Dick that without this design element the significance wouldn’t come across. “To me,” he continues, “that’s magical going in there – I think it’s amazing.”


But it wasn’t just the set that brought this to life – the actors seamlessly weaved in and out of various voices under Gareth Tudor Price’s wonderful direction, and they each took on more than one role. It sits well next to Melville’s novel considering the complexity of the narrative; one of the things widely explored in the text is the issue of whether Ishmael is a character or narrator, and whether his voice is constant or weaved in between Melville’s himself. The actors were able to shift their identities without the need for extravagant costume changes or set switches, meaning there was always something new to see them do in every scene. Lee noted how this bought a sense of theatricality to the production: “To me it’s more interesting to do it with no props. At the beginning of a play you set a tone – how’s this going to play, going to look? What are we telling you within the first five minutes? We’re talking to you directly, so you’ve got to be involved or have some sort of investment in it or else it just doesn’t work.” This production is unique in its decision to move the story from its original setting in Massachusetts to the ports of Hull. The use of accents gave the whole production a traditional Yorkshire feeling, yet still retaining the American sense of boyish adventure captured in the novel. As a story which touches on themes of good and evil, madness and sanity, and right and wrong, there doesn’t seem to be much that the setting could change about its messages. But Lee draws attention to the importance of universality in the setting. “It only changed the story in reflection that we’re doing the counter pointing of having the Hull trawlers. It’s a story of working class guys trawling – it’s the same here, it’s the same in Iceland, it’s the same strand of society.”  


The one thing that struck me the most about this production was their intense focus on the idea of fate and the question of who controls it. It’s a major theme in the novel and I was particularly struck with the way the line “Ahab beware of Ahab” hauntingly lingered on stage long after it was said. The white make-up on the faces of each actor made them look strangely like ghosts, and heightened the sense that each character was tied to their fate by foreshadowing what is to come. Yet despite the ghostly undertones, I was kept enticed by the lively shifts between actors as characters and the movement of their bodies to mirror the sea and the motion of the boat. The music that ran through the production was a lovely addition. “I love playing music,” Lee confessed. “If we’d have had a bit more time we’d have had a bit more music. Playing in a venue like this – this was unique.”

Condensing such a huge, complex was always going to be a challenge, but Nick Lane and John Godber have proved that in can indeed be possible. Whilst still maintaining the adventure and liveliness, it is a story of a man who becomes his own downfall. Seeing the production in such a unique place with such a talented cast is an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.

Moby Dick is on at the Guildhall until 3rd November. Tickets can be purchased through York Theatre Royal.