Review: CHORALE, A Sam Shepard Roadshow, The War in Heaven


The War in Heaven (Photograph: Nina Sologubenko) CHORALE: A Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Presence Theatre Company

The War in Heaven, Sam Shepard

“I died the day I was born and became an Angel on that day”

Whilst the non resolution of The Holy Ghostly was resolved powerfully both in terms of the scenography, the visual imagery and the performance by John Chancer this did not translate successfully in The War in Heaven which Usher describes as “a moving plea from both a fallen angel and a man struggling to be heard once more.” I would argue important contextual information was missing for the audience in the interpretation of this play especially following the The Holy Ghostly since the full title is The War in Heaven: Angel’s Monologue. Whilst The Animal You and The Holy Ghostly were connected conceptually and through the characters there was absolutely no connection to the final instalment except the fact that it was Sam Shepard’s work.

As a general rule visually I  found the scene to be completely incoherent, which in itself is not a dismissal of the aesthetic, sculptural and conceptual qualities of this kind of work and its inherent complexities however it felt largely unresolved from a formal perspective. There was simply no connection between the performers in space and the set. Clearly narrative and visual incoherence are  conceptual strategies and the production appeared to commit to this concept as an overall architecture to the work. The play itself is on many levels trying to find form through language within a stream of consciousness speech but my feeling is it didn’t go far enough and was therefore caught somewhere between the concept and the execution. If this disconnection is a formal aspect of the work it is possible to resolve the visually incoherent formally but there seemed to be a failure to commit to the intention and make it concrete.

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Review: CHORALE, A Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Holy Ghostly

The Holy Ghostly, (Photograph: Arnim Friess), CHORALE: The Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Presence Theatre Company

The Holy Ghostly, (Photograph: Arnim Friess), CHORALE: The Sam Shepard Roadshow, The Presence Theatre Company

“Sam Shepard begins and ends with the road where the route to promise and fulfilment, or damnation seem perilously interwoven…imagine luring Beckett onto the back of  a flatbed truck with Jack Kerouac, Corso and the Beats driving across America, hard, fast and furiously in search of a new sublime.”

Contrary to my usual approach I did not do any research prior to attending the performance in order to receive it as it was given. One of the main issues that has appeared for me as a visual artist in relation to this production and my own work is the intention or challenge To explain or not to explain the work”. That is the question critical to the reception of any visual art form and this work is packed with its own explanation, visual, textual, critical and contextual. This review is my attempt to unpack the work which is fittingly existentially burdened with its own history of making. I have not reviewed the first part of CHORALE The Animal You; contrary to Beckett I couldn’t go on.

CHORALE: The Sam Shepard Roadshow is highly challenging both in terms of its visual proposition, existential subject matter and its embeddedness within the mythology of the American landscape. There is a tremendous degree of  conceptual and contextual complexity embedded in the work, not least the intricate interrelationships of the part to the whole which includes the work of the playwright Sam Shepard (The Holy Ghostly and The War in Heaven), Shepard’s relation to actor, director and writer Joseph Chaikin and in turn the director of The Presence Theatre Company, Simon Usher who first directed Chaikin in 1987 in the The War in Heaven (co-written by Shepard and Chaikin). Although the relations between these parts are writ large in the supporting material they were not contextually clear leading to a lack of clarity, certainly where the audience is concerned, in terms of the overall visual proposition (i.e 3 plays, 2 films, 1 gig). The substantial amount of depth, labour, pathos and knowledge involved in this work is, to the uninitiated, largely inaccessible. There is an effort to address this within the production itself with the inclusion of rarely seen films by Shirley Clarke of Joseph Chaikin performing Shepard’s work in Savage/Love (1979) and Tongues (1969). These were aesthetically, conceptually engaging and successful pieces of work, yet in this presentation format they were reduced to explanation, contextual props and footnotes to the production. These films were critical to an overall understanding of the work however if you had not attended the workshop during the production you would not have seen Chaikin in Tongues which I certainly felt further contextualised The War in Heaven.

Whilst it had perhaps not been the intention it was natural enough as an audience member to read the production as a trilogy and although the relations were expanded and connected in terms of the characters, mood, narrative and the overall existential highway presented in the first two instalments The Animal You (developed from the work of Sam Shepard) and The Holy Ghostly, the last instalment The War in Heaven entered an entirely different psychological and theatrical realm and I really could not understand the decision to perform the latter two plays back to back. Since the performance of The Holy Ghostly was 90 minutes this was a substantial amount of time to inhabit a particular form and location which changed direction radically in the 2nd performance (an excruciating 35 minutes) severing the connection with the audience.

The Holy Ghostly, Sam Shepard (1969)

“What if I was to tell you there was a Chindi out there with more faces and more arms and legs than the two of us put together? You really think we’re alone, don’t ya boy?” *
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Ragley Hall Gallery and Studios

Dear Readers

Please accept my apologies for the lack of manual dexterity on my blog of late. I can assure you that even if it appears my fingers have been idle my feet have not and although I have been otherwise indisposed there are changes afoot!. Normal service will be resumed shortly but in the meantime I am pleased to announce that I now have a Studio Space at Ragley Hall in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside. Ragley Hall is a working Estate, Stately Home, Gardens, Butchery and Saw Mill open to the public at the weekends. I will be taking part in the Warwickshire Open Studios Event June 28th 2014.

“Harris Visual Arts was established by Dawn Harris and is based in Ragley Gallery and Studios at Ragley Hall. Operating as a community for artists to develop their practices their aim is to provide affordable artist and gallery spaces to graduates, early career and established artists from the surrounding communities. Currently there are few viable options available to graduating students and artists wishing to develop their practice within this area. Often ignored in terms of producing artistic talent, the West Midlands represents a particular challenge both in terms of the commercial arts scene and artists who wish to sustain their practices in this region after graduating. Harris Visual Arts at Ragley Hall is pushing forward to develop an arts market and keep artists in the region. The unique position of the Gallery and Studio, in a site with an audience interested in heritage and culture, will benefit emerging artists by highlighting quality emerging talent and offering a crucial bridge between training and a professional career. This is a positive step; as London continues to draw in talent from across the UK (and the world) developing off–centre scenes offers an alternative view and a chance for artists to shape their own community.

Many arts organisations work in partnership with a variety of host venues, whether locally loved destinations, tourism, heritage sites or historic gardens with an established visitor base. This encourages audience participation,  creates new audiences and cross-fertilisation between the contemporary arts and heritage sectors. All of which we aim to achieve but critically different is the provision of a permanent gallery and studio’s within an established site where a sense of place and reputation can contribute to the growth and development of the Arts. This will also provide opportunities for education and outreach programmes at the heart of our activity encouraging participation, discussion and reflection about contemporary art.”

Quoted text paraphrased/Images reproduced from

The Gender of Place: Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber

“The faery solitude of the place…his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea…. evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day…at home neither on land or water, a mysterious amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and waves…That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!." The Blood Chamber, p.8-9

“The faery solitude of the place…his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea…. at home neither on land or water, a mysterious amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and waves…That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!.” The Bloody Chamber, p.8-9

This very brief analysis explores how we can approach gendered relations from the perspective of location to reveal the symbolic and metaphorical significance of Mont. Saint- Michel as it is employed in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This analysis was given recently in a very short presentation. Examining Mont. Saint- Michel I explore its potential to represent feminine and masculine principles, nature and culture and how it is central to relations between the bride, her mother and the Marquis. Working through visual and sonic imagery highlights the relations between female anatomy, biology and the cyclical feminine flow ontology of the ‘sea-girt’. My interest lay specifically in the concept of the sea-girt, as a border or boundary surrounded or enclosed by the sea and how we might consider this in relation to the porous and the feminine. Continue reading

Metamorphosis of the Feminine – The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Georges Méliès, Bluebeard, 1901.

Georges Méliès, Bluebeard, 1901.

The following essay performs a close textual reading of two extracts from Angela Carter’s, The Bloody Chamber. Given the constraints of the assignment [1,000 words] this is a rather crude analysis which, unable to unpack its implications, leads in some respects to the generic and the obvious. In spite of these concerns I have nevertheless aimed for perceptual depth. Since the two passages are analogous I have privileged the former while drawing upon the latter. Rather than litter the post with copious footnotes you can read the Angela Carter Extracts here.I have given the page numbers for reference.

“His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” [p.6]

Carter’s employment of language here is extremely precise. The idea of clasping, of holding fast suggests power and possession (to have and to hold until death do us part?), as if the Marquis’ hands are literally round her throat. If we read this metaphor as asphyxiation, of becoming unable to breathe, and the ‘choker’ as a restriction of the body, particularly the neck (an erogenous zone) and vocal cords this would also increase the awareness of one’s own body as an object. His apparent gift is not just a symbol of wealth but a contractual exchange to which the female protagonist is committed by receiving and wearing it. At this point the choker metaphorically pre-figures the female protagonists fate in the final act and what appears to be her inevitable decapitation.

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