Litfest 2014

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‘The Book of Gaza’ – Melissa Parker

Two authors offered a beautiful insight into their lives through an anthology of short stories. The point was to depoliticise the conflict in Gaza and show what life is like there beyond the headlines. It was said that the occasion could not be impassioned and must steadfastly hold on to reason, which was met with some disdain: it is difficult to imagine that such discussions could be held without passion. The stories that were showcased were of anxiety, oppression, and vehemence, but also of resilience and courage, of what it means to be Palestinian.

Atef Abu Saif, the editor of the anthology, stated that “when a human being is made into a number, his or her story disappears.” Depoliticising the conflict means that we must humanise it, we must hear the disembodied voices from the page. Nayrouz Qarmout was one of the authors, born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus in 1984 and “returned” to the Gaza Strip as a refugee as a consequence of the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement. Mona Abu Sharekh, whose family was originally from Ashkelon (her father was expelled from his land in 1948) also prepared a video for the occasion.

Initially, I hoped that the authors would both be present to discuss their work however this proved impossible as a consequence of the fact that the visa office was closed due to recent hostilities in the area. The difficulties in Gaza were once again demonstrated when numerous attempts at Skype communication failed due to the arbitrary loss of power. As one of the contributors noted, the book should be used to see the realities of Gaza, beyond the statistics and superficial media coverage. It was said that the presentation could be summarised thus: the media coverage creates the impression that both sides have strong military powers, and this misconception needs to be quickly brought to a stop.

‘Short Short Story Slam’ – Rebecca Parkinson

When I told my house mates I was going to a short story slam, the responses ranged from laughter to “what on earth?”. In my head I saw some kind of street dance battle, with prose instead of choreography. How it actually worked was that 12 of Flashtag (a Manchester writing collective)’s writers wrote 3 short stories under 200 words; their names were put into a hat, two drawn per round, one to represent the red corner, the other blue. Each writer read one story, then the audience would hold up a red or blue coloured card to vote for their favourite and the winner would proceed in the competition.
For stories under 200 words, the writers had me hooked. The content was eclectic; from talking animals to what I can only call soft porn, dark and harrowing to quirky and hilarious. It was the X Factor of the literary world and I found myself unexpectedly swept up in the fun atmosphere and rooting for my favourites as the hosts kept the audience smiling with some playful banter and cheesy but chuckle-worthy jokes. 12 were brutally cut down to 3, and Karen Featherstone was a much deserved winner (of £50!). It was most definitely a fun evening, and I very much hope they repeat the event at the next Litfest!

‘Stories For Our Not Too Distant Future’ – Bethan Archer

‘Stories for our not too distant future’ demonstrated two possible creative forms for the exploration of climate change – short stories and a one-woman show.  Gregory Norminton, editor and contributor for the book of short stories Beacons: Stories For Our Not Too Distant Future, spoke about the problems of creatively considering environmental phenomenon.  For some time he had been interested in combining his interests as an environmentalist and writer, but kept on wondering how to tell a human story about biological systems. The collection of authors who contributed short stories shows there’s a myriad of ways, and Norminton offered the audience a glimpse on his own spin.

Norminton’s reading was smooth and assured.  I was captivated by his turns of phrase, but I did feel that I needed to read it myself as well to truly appreciate the depth of it. It’s no great criticism of him or the event, given that the man is a writer and it’s what his content was produced for.  However, I was glad that he came first – had he had to follow Julie Wilkinson’s one-woman show, his reading would have been lacking.

Wilkinson’s ‘Spring Tide at Mablethorpe’ was unlike anything I have ever seen.  I lost count of the number of characters she seamlessly slipped between – each one was entirely unique and, through altered voices and mannerisms, instantly recognisable upon their return.  Her thirty minute performance on reactions to an imminent sea-line disaster covered everything from political PR and immigration, to meteorology and medicine.  Her depiction of the government’s mouthpiece proclaiming all was well in the face of unquestionably impending disaster was particularly effective… and worrying.  Most dystopian novels tend to favour the political over the environmental, and while Wilkinson examines the relationship between the two, the most un-settling thing was how impending it all felt.  While the environmental disaster may have been imagined, the picture she painted of reactions and denials almost didn’t need to be, frequently hitting uncomfortably close to home.

‘Adaptability’ – Melissa Parker

The writers behind recently acclaimed Dukes productions discussed transforming both folk tales and novels into play scripts. Zosia Wand crafted this year’s park show, Hansel & Gretel. Debbie Oates made courageous adaptations of Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol, and Ian Kershaw has penned this year’s Christmas production, Cinderella.

The conversation was enthralling and offered some fantastic insight into the intricacies of crafting unique scripts out of well-worn material; a patchwork of old and new. The venue for the conversation was particularly apt: the Round is a stunning and atmospheric 240 seat theatre. The home of many more successful Dukes productions, writers and actors.

A number of factors were discussed that one ought to consider when adapting material for the stage, such as the challenges of reshaping a beloved work of fiction. Debbie Oates believes that an integral part of adaptation is to find one’s own approach to the source material and, when it comes to a theatre performance, expect and plan for all of the elements to come together akin to a “Rubik’s Cube.”

One of the important aspects, we were told, of retelling a fairy tale is recognising that the stories themselves are templates for morality, and that while these stories have evolved through generations, there are certain archetypes that must remain the same regardless of the interpretation.

It was noted that different locations, and indeed different weather conditions, can alter the character of a show indelibly. The writers also acknowledged the limitations placed upon them by expectation; although the characterisation may appear seamless, it was charming to hear that Zosia Wand fought to reconcile and understand the father’s motivations within Hansel & Gretel. She also spoke of a comprehensive and exhaustive e-mail conversation in which a romantic relationship between two animals was dismissed as improbable and questionable because they were simply not personally compatible. It is these anecdotes which made the conversation so engaging, enlightening and an exceptional glimpse into life behind the curtain at the Dukes – a pleasure to witness.

‘A Belly Full of Magic’ – Katie Webster

On the night of Sunday the 19th October I watched the weird and wonderful ‘A Belly Full of Magic’ at The Storey. We were slightly disconcerted at first when the Swedish storyteller Mikael Öberg started by playing the bells for a good five 5 minutes. Safe to say, it improved greatly after a fairly slow start and thanks to Öberg’s enthusiasm and passion I was quickly sucked into the fantasy world he created.

For one hour, Öberg took the audience on a magical journey involving courageous heroes, epic battles and sorcery. His energy was relentless and the whole show rested on his ability to capture the audience with just his voice and movements. His only props were the bells and a drum which he used to great effect when building up tension during the climax of the final story. This was an example of performance storytelling at its finest; Öberg conveyed each emotion his characters were feeling without relying on background effects or other performers. His stories were witty, intense and outrageous, and they enthralled the audience from the first word. ‘A Belly Full of Magic’ could have been a flat and tedious production but Mikael Öberg’s inexorable dynamism and charisma made it a truly memorable experience and a great end to Litfest 2014.

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