By Matt Fox
Photo by Puttyfoot Photography (www.puttyfoot.com)
Welcome to the Madam Renards blog! Madam Renards is a brand new organisation that produces and promotes professional arts in the Swindon area – please see our website http://www.madamrenards.co.uk
This blog is about what Madam Renards is up to, our views on Swindon’s cultural scene, and a chance for reviews and opinions on arts, cultural events and productions we witness.
As this is our first blog, I really wanted to give a view of Swindon’s current cultural scene, the companies and artists who I think are really doing great things in the town, and some areas where I think things could be improved.
I recently had the pleasure of writing and producing the lottery funded production Swindon: The Opera, which received unprecedented interest for the national and local press and involved over 250 local people including musicians, actors, singers, dancers and artists, telling the story of 60 years of the town’s history.
One of the main reasons for deciding to create the opera was to highlight the many cultural achievements of the town and the many unsung people who have made a mark on it and the nation’s history; in fact one of the key elements was an exhibition of art by four of Swindon’s leading artists - painters Ken White, Billy Beaumont and Nick Smith, sculptor Gordon Dickinson and photographers Puttyfoot Photography (who designed the Swindon: The Opera image).
On writing and producing STO, however, I realised that the opera actually had far more universal themes than I had initially thought. Indeed the show could have covered the history of any maligned industrial town or city in the country; and the people in it could have been the residents of any place which is generally viewed as low brow or uncultured.
I think there’s a huge issue with certain places and certain regions being seen as culturally superior to others; predominantly because of their historically associated with such endeavours. There is certainly movement to change this – the European city of culture awards going to cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow; two of the most notorious ex-industrial cities in the UK, being a case in point - however, I think these gestures still haven’t effectively swayed public opinion on the matter, and certain places continue to carry the burden of ‘cultural wasteland’ status.
I believe, however, that these opinions can be altered if enough contrary evidence is visible. I have already given the examples of Liverpool and Glasgow, but there are also London Boroughs such as Hackney, which have previously had terrible reputations, but with support and funding from the local council and bodies such as the Arts Council, have really found their feet and are now thriving centres for arts and culture.
I think it is this support, or indeed lack of it, which is actually the crux of Swindon’s problem. There are many artists, musicians, actors, director etc either from or working in the town, who get no council interest or support in their endeavours. Similarly, there is a major problem regarding affordable access to council owned buildings for arts and cultural activities. Swindon council owns two theatres, an art gallery, and several other venues in which arts activities could take place; however, the costs of hiring these often make it financially impossible for small companies, and those working in more niche fields, to present their work. This is a real problem and means that only very mainstream, and unfortunately often less artistically interesting activities can be produced in these venues. As these are the primary sources for Swindon’s public cultural barometer, it means that the town will always be publicly marginalised as a cultural backwater.
There are many more things that could be said about this, and I’m sure further blogs will address individual issues; however, I’m keen to end our first blog with a positive view, as I genuinely feel there are some gems which have emerged in Swindon’s cultural scene over the last twelve months.
Last March I had the pleasure of going to see ‘The Pillowman’ perfomed by TS Theatre at the Victoria Pub in Swindon’s Old Town. The 2003 play, by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is a hard hitting piece of theatre, concerning itself with the immediate aftermath of a series of child murders committed within the framework of a tough totalitarian political regime. You usually have to travel to London’s Soho, Bush or Royal Court theatres to see this sort of play, so it was brilliant to have a local company putting on something so challenging. I have to say that I was sceptical as to whether the company could pull off this difficult subject matter; however, I was very much impressed. The lead performance by Peter Hynds (who also directed the piece) as Katurian, a writer of grisly stories, who is accused of carrying out the murders that he writes about, was excellent. The other characters in the play, though not equally as well acted, were portrayed proficiently enough to pull off the challenging work and bring something really quite exciting and subversive to the Swindon theatre scene. TS have since gone on to perform an adapted version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ both in Swindon, and under invite from the RSC, in Stratford upon Avon. They are now set to perform the play version of the great 1962 novel ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ by Ken Kersley, which was famously turned into a film in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson. TS have chosen to perform this production at The Wyvern Theatre, and I hope they get the audience they numbers they deserve, to cover the high costs of hiring the venue.
Another theatre company that I must also mention is Wrong Shoes Theatre Company, who along with Swindon ACT, last month produced a fantastic piece of immersive theatre, entitled ‘Nightlife’, which was presented at Swindon’s Furnace nightclub over three nights in August. The piece was entirely devised by the cast and directors (Luke Marquez and Aaron Parsons) and was again a highly refreshing event, held in an untraditional performance venue - for theatre at least. The show’s standout performance for me was from Ellie Lawrence, who along with another actor became a kind of ‘anti-master of ceremonies’, challenging members of the audience to undertake forfeits and generally bringing a voice of sardonic hedonism to the whole affair. Immersive theatre is again something which is very challenging to produce successfully, and Wrong Shoes should be incredibly pleased with their maiden production.
The tide of theatre and arts in general is slowly turning in Swindon, and hopefully, if there is some successful lobbying of those who hold the reins of power within the council’s culture wing, those artists who are currently attempting to turn Swindon’s cultural output into something truly interesting and exciting will get the financial and promotional support needed, and show that Swindon actually does ‘Do Arts’, rather than simply saying it does.