Friday, 1 March 2013

Lord of the Flies – a depressing novel?

Martin Chilton has recently written an interesting article in the Telegraph on ‘depressing books’ and on his list of the ’20 great depressing reads’ is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I should point out that Chilton is advocating the enjoyment, and even benefits, of reading bleak novels, and indeed, on reading through his list, there are some immensely dark but brilliant tales; Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road and Kafka’s The Trial, for instance. And these books, as much as I’m a fan of both, really are bleak. McCarthy’s is a terrifying vision of the future, written in beautiful but sparse prose, and relentlessly haunting and harrowing. Kafka’s novel is both dizzying and frustrating in its portrayal of a man who is helpless in the face of persecution (for an unspecified crime) from an oppressive and unknown organisation.
            Of course, when you really think about Lord of the Flies, it is, on the surface, rather depressing. Two children are murdered by their peers; one child is beaten as punishment (Wilfred); and a third murder is only averted by the arrival of an adult. The arrival of this adult, the Naval Officer, does not represent a happy ending however. It is at this moment that Golding’s allegory of war is fully realised. As the Naval Officer gazes out to sea at his cruiser, we see that the adults are no better than the children; they are engaged in their own war which will produce even more destruction.
            But, as the narrative unfolds in Lord of the Flies, things never really feel bleak and utterly hopeless, as perhaps they do in The Trial. The novel is exhilarating – the final chase of Ralph across the island an excellent example of this – and the unfolding events are so engrossing that the book often doesn’t allow the reader to even catch their breath. I asked the members of our Facebook page if they thought Lord of the Flies was a ‘depressing novel’ and the responses were very interesting. Kasia felt that it ‘gives hope that you can protect your beliefs to the end’ and Nikitash thought that Golding’s choice to ‘frame’ the ‘depressing themes in the boundary of a children’s story brings a balance between exhilaration and depression’.
             Chilton is right to include Lord of the Flies in his list and it is certainly in esteemed company. And when society begins to break down on the island, I do feel depressed and sad for the boys – particularly Simon, Piggy and Ralph. But the strength of Golding’s narrative and the sheer force of his imagination doesn’t allow us to dwell on this while reading the book. It is only after we’ve finished, and the cries of the characters are still echoing in our minds, that we truly realise the impact and importance of this masterpiece of literature.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Spire at Salisbury Playhouse

The Spire at Salisbury Playhouse – 1-24 November

The Spire is without doubt my favourite William Golding novel.  I love the beauty of the symbolism and the way Golding plays with narrative techniques to chart Dean Jocelin’s descent into madness. A quick search on the internet will reveal that a film version of the book has at least been discussed and planned although sadly, is not yet in production.  I was therefore, really excited to hear that Salisbury Playhouse was to present the first ever stage adaptation of The Spire. This of course has particular local significance because the construction of the spire in the novel was inspired by the real-life spire on Salisbury Cathedral.  Golding taught at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury (beside the cathedral) before becoming a full-time writer.
            Prior to the viewing the play, I was intrigued as to how the set designers and director would portray the building of the spire.  Golding describes the construction in great detail at times, and we get a sense in the book of the noise, smell and disturbance that the builders bring to the peaceful atmosphere.   Could this be replicated on stage? The other challenge is that most of the action occurs in Jocelin’s mind and he is such an unreliable narrator that often the reader isn’t sure whether Jocelin’s version of events is correct.
            Of course, the stage could not realistically portray the building of a 400-foot spire, on top of an already massive cathedral!  However, the set was imaginatively designed to show the construction of various stages and eerie choral music accompanied set changes enhancing the atmosphere of the play.  ‘The pit’ was impressively hidden on the stage until it was revealed to the characters to show how the earth under the cathedral was ‘creeping’.  The pillars are present for much of the performance and ‘sing’ when the weight of the spire becomes too much. 
            Perhaps the best aspect of ‘The Spire’ is the performances.  Mark Meadows plays Dean Jocelin and his fine performance adds nuance to Jocelin’s increasingly unravelling mind.  The scene where Lady Alison (Sarah Moyle) tells Jocelin that he was not chosen by God – that it was in fact Lady Alison who persuaded the King during an affair that Jocelin should be promoted – is unbearably tense.  Jocelin’s realisation that he was merely a pawn in their game is devastating and beautifully played by Meadows.  It is here that the audience, and Jocelin himself, finally understands the ‘cost’ of Jocelin’s vision and unshakeable pride..
            Roger Spottiswoode, director of films including The 6th Day and Tomorrow Never Dies, adapted the script for the play from Golding’s novel.  He adds welcome contextual detail to characters like Goody Pangall and shows the development of the affair between Goody and the master builder, Roger Mason, who is impressively played by Vincenzo Pellegrino. Spottiswoode’s biggest challenge is to reflect Jocelin’s unstable narration and for the most part, he succeeds.  For instance, Golding never makes the outcome explicit when Pangall is killed by the workmen at the end of chapter four.  Jocelin just won’t accept what he has seen and rages at Pangall for running off and leaving Goody. In Spottiswoode’s adaptation, Pangall’s murder is also never quite confirmed.  We see the builders attacking Pangall in a series of tableaux punctuated with dramatic lightning – a wonderful achievement from sound designer Tom Gibbons and lighting designer Philip Gladwell.  After this scene at the end of Act 1, Jocelin frequently chides Pangall to other characters for leaving Goody, particularly as she is pregnant (although Jocelin really knows that Pangall isn’t the father).

            This is an ambitious production, which manages to capture the bleakness of Golding’s novel.  The playhouse’s location – so close to Golding’s inspiration – contributes immensely to its outstanding achievement.  Highly recommended!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Interview with Sarah Moyle: The Spire at Salisbury Playhouse

Salisbury Playhouse will be showing the first ever stage adaptation of William Golding's novel The Spire from 1st to 24th November.  We spoke to actress Sarah Moyle, who is starring in the production in a dual role, as Rachel and Lady Alison.

Prior to your casting, had you read The Spire?  Or any of Golding’s novels? 
I knew Lord of the Flies pretty well but I hadn't read The Spire. I read it as soon as I got offered the job... Not your average light holiday read but I read it whilst I was on holiday in New York.  

The book is incredibly detailed in describing the construction of the spire.  Is it difficult to portray the sheer scale of the build on the stage?
The audience will of course have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief but I think with clever staging and the set by the incredibly talented Tom Rogers, you will be able to get a sense of the scale of the project.

Have you and the other actors been inspired by your visits to Salisbury Cathedral?
We had a tour of the tower on the first day of rehearsals and I am anxious to go back now we are further along in rehearsals.  It really is awe inspiring.  I am staying in digs near the Cathedral and every day I pass it on my way to work and without fail I always look up for my day's inspiration.

You play Rachel who is one of the victims of Jocelin’s obsession with the spire.  Do you think Rachel is sympathetic to Jocelin?  Is he a character that invites empathy from the audience?
In addition to Jocelin several other characters are consumed by obsession.  Rachel is obsessed with the need to give birth; Roger is obsessed with his desire for Goody.  At first I think Rachel admires the Dean and she confides in him but as time goes on she begins to resent the obsession and the effect it has on her and her husband.  I think the audience will be torn between admiration, understanding, sympathy and horror at Jocelins obsession. 

Can you briefly sum up the experience so far of rehearsing The Spire?  Do you think it’s a production that will excite the audience?
What a privilege to get to tell this story in Salisbury and to be able to look out of the window of the rehearsal room and see the spire.  It is such an epic story that to tell it is a daunting prospect .  We are working hard in rehearsals and the script is evolving every day.  I do hope audiences will be excited by what we hope will be an honest, interesting and fulfilling experience. 

Sarah Moyle pictured above.

You can book tickets by following the link to Salisbury Playhouse's website

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Dreams of William Golding - Arena Documentary

The Dreams of William Golding’ was an illuminating, and often rather moving portrait of William Golding, directed by Adam Low.  Low was granted access to Golding’s unpublished ‘dream diaries’, read in the film by Golding’s daughter Judy, and the documentary featured a number of interviews with Golding’s family and friends, as well as archive footage of Golding himself.
            The extraordinary novels written by Golding throughout his career were given centre stage in the film; beginning with the obvious Lord of the Flies and ending with his Sea Trilogy – Rites of Passage, Fire Down Below and Close Quarters. The trilogy had been filmed by the BBC in 2005 and its award-winning star, the rather wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch, also featured in this documentary, reading extracts from Golding’s novels. 
            The programme begins with Judy Golding remembering the night Golding died, in his house in Cornwall.  She recalls that he had been drinking and at some point must have gone to his son’s room and sat on the sofa.  Judy believes he must have seen the sun from the east-facing window before he died.  Golding’s biographer, John Carey, tells how Golding couldn’t be alone at night – he always needed the light on.  This was no doubt due to his frequent nightmares which he described in his unpublished ‘dream diaries’ which amount to over two million words.  Judy reads from the diaries throughout the programme, revealing some terrifying images which clearly haunted Golding. For instance, in his entry on Dec 13 1971, Golding writes that the dream takes place at his childhood home.  His brother Jose (but not actually his brother Jose since the character in the dream is taller and stronger) has got hold of a baby and a knife.  He stretches the baby’s arms out to resemble a crucifix and begins to dissect the baby’s hands and fingers while the baby wails. Golding is terrified and revolted but can either not do anything or is too terrified to do so. He also had a recurrent nightmare in which he is hanged.
            Golding was a school teacher when Lord of the Flies was published and archive footage of him teaching his class at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in 1959 is nicely cut with modern day film of pupils at the school studying the novel. Nigel Williams, who later adapted Lord of the Flies for theatre, states that ‘the novel could only have been written by someone who had been a schoolmaster’.  We are shown the original manuscript, which had been written in a school exercise book, and the narrator reveals that much of the novel was written in school time.  Later, Golding’s pupils recalled being asked to count the words in his later manuscripts!
            Golding’s appearance on the South Bank Show in 1980 shows his preoccupation with the English class system and he reveals the class divisions of his childhood in Marlborough, Wiltshire. Presenter Melvyn Bragg recalls that Golding was just coming out of a deep depression and needed some persuasion to do the show. In 1930, Golding went to Brasenose College in Oxford where he was the only grammar school boy.  Just before graduation, the University Appointments Committee (which told graduates where their career may lie), wrote that Golding was  ‘Not top drawer’ (NTD) …  not quite a gentleman … would be all right for a day school but not a public school’.  Golding’s struggle with the inequalities in English society is later a main feature in his novel The Pyramid.
            The documentary does not flinch away from portraying the struggles of Golding and his family.  Judy reveals the extent of Golding’s self-loathing and resulting drinking problem and says: ‘after a while he would drink it as if he disliked it.  As if it was evil-tasting medicine’.  Judy’s older brother, David, suffered a mental breakdown whilst a student at Oxford and in the interview, David states that this was due to a ‘bio-chemical imbalance’, possibly caused by Ann Golding having contracted German measles when pregnant. Judy states that David’s life-long illness was Golding and Ann’s ‘great tragedy’ and John Carey believes that Darkness Visible was written about David.
            In 1966, an American student, Virginia Tiger, contacted Golding as she was studying his work.  He usually declined such requests but met Tiger in Salisbury.  Judy thinks that Golding fell in love with Tiger and Tiger herself felt that Golding was infatuated with her.  However, she strongly denies any kind of love affair although concedes that Golding’s wife suspected that there was.
After the family’s boat Tenace collided with another ship and after the strain Golding’s friendship with Tiger had placed on his marriage, Golding sank into a deep depression. Golding wrote in his diary that ‘life seemed pointless’ in 1971 and found it impossible to write.
            Having recovered from this desperate period of writer’s block, Golding’s novels of the late 70s and 80s were immensely successful and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983 and the Booker Prize in 1980 for Rites of Passage
            Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the documentary is the inclusion of Golding’s novels. Adam Low shows just how relevant they still are today by interspersing the readings and film footage with contemporary images. For instance, the bestselling author Stephen King reminiscences about reading Lord of the Flies in 1960.and places the book in the context of 1960s America:  civil rights unrest and the Vietnam War. He identified with the novel because of its realism: ‘The difference  [in Lord of the Flies] was that they acted like real boys’.  One of the pupils at Bishop Wordsworth's School points out that the disregard for rules and order in the novel has a striking similarity with the riots that swept across England in the summer of 2011 and Low adds news footage to illustrate this. With regard to The Spire, a novel about Dean Jocelin’s obsession with the erection of a spire, Golding says: ‘any human endeavour can never be wholly good; it must always have a cost in people.  Jocelin was a fanatic and we are in the presence of religious fanaticism.  Its cost in suffering, death and sorrow is immeasurable’.  Here, Low displays images of the 7/7 bombings and terrorist attacks; Golding’s novels, it seems, were often prophetic.
            ‘The Dreams of William Golding’ was a fascinating exploration of one of Britain’s greatest writers. Try and catch the repeat if you can!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Interview with Sell A Door Theatre Company - Lord of the Flies

Sell A Door 2012 Lord of the Flies UK Tour
Interview with Ben Wiggins and Daniel Ash

Sell A Door Theatre Company are currently touring England with their production of Lord of the Flies which has received excellent reviews. Ben Wiggins (Ralph), and Daniel Ash (Percival) kindly answered our questions about the play.

How does it feel to be working on an adaptation of such a well-known novel?  Is it more challenging than working with an original script?

Ben: It feels great! There is obviously a lot of pressure to do the story justice because it has made such a massive contribution to English literature and holds quite a special place for many people. The only slight difference there is when working with such a well-known piece as opposed to an original script is that people hold certain expectations about and attitudes towards the characters. This means that my interpretation of Ralph may conflict with how someone else had perceived him when they read the book. Unfortunately, there isn’t much anyone can do about that!

            Daniel: Such an iconic and well known novel. It sells itself. People oooh and ahhh when I tell them what play I’m in and want to come and see it! It’s just as exciting being in it. The stage adaption rushes through the action so quickly; the audience won’t be bored. It’s a challenge conveying everything             in the book in just a few lines on stage, pace and time pass so quickly from page to page in the script. An exciting piece to be working on.

Lord of the Flies was published in 1954.  Do you think the book still has relevance today?

Ben: Certainly! Apart from the fact that a war is mentioned in the novel, there is very little else that places the action into any specific time frame which means that one has the ability to transport it to any era. The story isn’t really about when or where the action takes place: it focusses on the collapse of humanity and morality. Also, the fact that the story centres on a group of young boys who are still mainly in the bosom of innocence means that there is a timelessness about the tale. I think if a group of young boys today were stranded on a desert island with no adults and only their ‘morals’, the consequences may will be similar! The primal instincts that become evident within the boys are, I believe, in all of us and without the protective structure of society and authority this savagery could well manifest itself.

            Daniel: Definitely. The climax of the play is based around group/mob mentality; getting caught up in the excitement/horror of a situation. You only have to look at the riots last summer for a striking parallel. And I suppose the book says whoever you are, rich, poor, well bought up or not, that aggression and animalism is in everyone.

How the play is being staged? Is it challenging to create a deserted island in a theatre?

Ben: The staging of the play may be somewhat different to other productions. Sell A Door liked the concept of having the whole island story as a flashback. The stage is set up like a school gymnasium with punch bags, boxing bags, ropes and large treads. During the opening scene, a gym class is in progress until one incident (a boy being pushed over and having his glasses taken) breaks the routine and the boys begin to get out of hand. The teacher (an older Ralph) loses control of the boys and chaos ensues. During the disorder, the stage is transformed into a beach with sand and the play actually begins (it is quite difficult to fully explain without seeing the performance!) In the closing scene we return to the gymnasium with the teacher in a complete state about having these violent memories return to him.

            Daniel: Sell a Door’s adaptation has a very clever set design and well thought out concept. The play starts in a gymnasium at a school and a moment of havoc spirals out of control until the kids have turned the gymnasium into the island, using the punch bags, ropes, treads etc.
            The staging is very adventurous. Such a physical adaptation. From rehearsal one, warm ups involved press ups, sits up, jumping, running, a proper work out; very testosterone fuelled and high energy. Great choreographed physical routines and set changes too.

Were the cast and crew familiar with the novel before getting involved in the production?

Ben: I had studied it at school so was familiar with the story but decided to reread the book at least twice before rehearsals started in order to get a real sense of who my character was and what William Golding was trying to say. I also watched both of the films, not so much to see how the boys played Ralph but to watch/remember how children that age interact with one another. However, the Nigel Williams stage adaptation does differ somewhat from the novel and I think that it is important to treat them as separate works and I believe that some members of the cast actually deliberately didn’t reread the book so that they could make fresh choices with their characters.

            Daniel: I read the novel pre audition but of course was familiar with the story. I was surprised at how brutal the story actually is.

Recent productions have placed the play in a more modern setting i.e. characters having iPods, Ben 10 bags etc.  Is this something you have done or considered?

Ben: I’m not sure whether the production team considered this but we have kept the props/staging quite minimalistic and plain. It’s certainly not set in today’s Playstation/Xbox/wifi world!  I feel that the story is accessible and relevant enough to all ages without the inclusion of modern technology or reference to current trends.

Is it difficult to inhabit the roles of such iconic characters?

Ben: Yes and no. I think all the actors in the cast know they have a big responsibility to ensure that they keep the essence of the characters the way in which William Golding intended but as with any text, the characters are very open to analysis and interpretation. It is very likely that two people can read the book/play and have a completely different idea about how a particular character behaves/walks/speaks/interacts with others etc.

            Daniel: All the other boys play 10/11 year olds, whereas Percival is 6/7 so personally playing so young has been a real challenge. In rehearsal we did a lot of improvisations, games, playing to take us back to that boyish childhood. It’s been a lot of fun discovering our young inner selves again.

The play contains many elements of threat and violence. Is it difficult (and exhausting!) to portray this on stage?

Ben: As a whole, the performance is very tiring both physically, owing to our very energetic concept and the nature of the play, and mentally because all the characters embark on huge emotional journeys. We have included several choreographed fight sequences, routines, tribal dances, transition pieces etc. which means the space is always animated. Whilst we are all aware of our own and each other’s safety, the movement pieces along with the text allow us all to ‘lose ourselves’ in the moment as much as possible. I think more than anything being able to lose control is a fun and exciting aspect of the play!

            Daniel: Well thought out choreography, constant rehearsal and working strongly as a cast has meant we tackled this in our stride. A good warm up is essential to avoid injury. Making these elements as real as possible I’d say is essential to the whole concept of the play.

With thanks to Sell A Door Theatre Company.  Lord of the Flies is in selected theatres now!