Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald) is a film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It was premiered last year at a weekend festival celebrating Sebald in Aldeburgh and, unable to get there, I’ve wanted to see it ever since.  On our first afternoon on a short break in London there was, fortuitously, a one-off screening at the Renoir cinema in Bloomsbury and so we grabbed at the chance to see it.

The emergence of this film reflects the huge rise in Sebald’s reputation:  a contributor to the film even suggests that, had he not died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001, he might by now have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Gee’s film explores Sebald’s profound influence on contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film.

Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany constitute a recurrent strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.

The Rings of Saturn is an unclassifiable work – Sebald’s idiosyncratic style absorbs elements of travel writing (a walk along the Suffolk coast), history book, Holocaust literature, biography, poetry, essay, and photography.  On one level, Patience (After Sebald) takes the form of Grant Gee walking in Sebald’s footsteps along the route taken in the book, filming the landscape in grainy black and white, like the images in Sebald’s book, and evoking the book’s powerful sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator.  These are atmospheric passages in the film, enhanced by Sebald’s words which are voiced superbly by Jonathan Pryce.

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.
– WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, opening lines

Embarking on a film about The Rings of Saturn there is obviously a strong temptation to do this – to follow in Sebald’s footsteps-  but Gee is aware of this, and several contributors to his film comment on the futility of such an endeavour, such as Robert Macfarlane, who tells of his  attempt to retrace Sebald’s melancholy-drenched steps. He arrived in Lowestoft, and the weather was lovely, and everybody was smiling.  He quickly realised that he was having too much fun, so he went and had a swim in the sea and gave up the venture.

Patience is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so there isn’t the usual gamut of people who knew Sebald talking about the man, or literary critics talking about his work. Gee’s film is more subtle than that; what we hear are responses by some of those who have been touched by his work, including writers Robert Macfarlane, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and artist Tacita Dean.

Gee weaves their words into the film with great sensitivity: sometimes they are heard  only on the soundtrack, while at others their heads fade in like ghostly apparitions over the landscape. The pace is measured, and the minor key mood is reinforced by the soundtrack music contributed by Leyland Kirby working under his moniker The Caretaker in which snatches of Schubert’s Winterreise are treated electronically – I quote – ‘subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear’.

Gee’s film opens with a Google map created by Barbara Hui: Litmap uses Google to digitally map literature, to create a tool that can be used alongside traditional methods of close reading in order to critically examine narratives in terms of their geospatiality. She explains:

In keeping with spatial theorist Doreen Massey, I contend that places be defined as the nodes that are constituted by the intersection of multiple lines or paths of social networks. As she describes it:

What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, a region, or even a continent.

This approach is certainly appropriate to The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald’s musings, as he walks along his Suffolk path, spiral outwards through time and place and across the globe.

Gee’s film is largely successful in capturing the book’s sense of physical meandering that provokes disparate mental associations.  Tracing Sebald’s path in grainy black and white, the film segues into archive footage and back, collapsing present into past and echoing the ghostly images that punctuate Sebald’s text, the originals repeatedly photocopied until their lines were sufficiently blurred. As in Sebald’s book, we are brought sharply back into the 20th century by a high definition colour segment, such as when his friend and translator Michael Hamburger speaks of the man he knew.

Grant Gee’s documentary is a labour of love, its elegiac tone making an engaging tribute to Sebald’s work.  There is only one questionable moment – the sequence in which some besotted Sebald follower decides to set of a firework at the roadside location where Sebald died and then claims to discern his facial features in the drifting smoke should have been excised. Overall, the film provides a useful guide to The Rings of Saturn (when Jonathan Pryce reads an extract the page number appears on screen), though someone who has not read the book may find themselves adrift.

It is those passages in which Jonathan Pryce reads from the book itself, augmenting Gee’s photography with the author’s sonorous words that are the best moments in which words and image synchronise with absolute perfection.

See also

Pete Postlethwaite: a sense of loss

Driving past The Everyman this morning I felt sadness and a sense of loss, thinking of Pete Postlethwaite and the times I’ve seen him perform there.  Most recently, of course, it was as Lear in the 2008 production for Capital of Culture year; aspects of that production may have been questioned, but there was no arguing with the power and conviction of Postlethwaite’s performance.  And that was the man: his acting always convincing and forceful, whether on stage or the big screen.

Back in the early 1970s, that classic period of the Everyman, I saw him in several productions, including The Good Woman of Setzuan, Cantril Tales (a typical Everyman scouse adaptation of Chaucer’s original) and – most memorably – as a fearsome Gunner O’Rourke in John McGrath’s The Bofors Gun.  He also appeared in Under New Management, the story of the workers who resisted redundancy at the Fisher-Bendix factory in Kirkby by occupying the plant, in the role of Jack Spriggs, the union convenor.

Postlethwaite was born just down the road in Warrington, the son of a barrel-maker.  His original ambition was to be a priest, but he became a teacher before pursuing his real passion for the stage in the early 1970s: “I thought, ‘You can’t possibly be an actor, somebody from Warrington. It’s not what you do.’ So I thought I’d go and teach for a couple of years, and if at the end of that time I still wanted to act then I’d do it.”

At the Everyman in the early 1970s, he worked alongside talents such as Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bleasdale, Matthew Kelly and Antony Sher, and under artistic director Alan Dossor.

Peter Bradshaw’s piece in today’s Guardian was a reminder of how many films Pete Postlethwaite has appeared in – and  why film directors loved him:

His face could suggest brutality, cruelty and violence – or precisely the opposite. It could be the face of a man who was stoically enduring these things, and quietly and heroically declining to reply in kind. His face had a gentleness and sweetness that the brush of Lucian Freud could not, I think, catch. But the camera lens did.

Postlethwaite’s performances as the authoritarian and father in Terence Davies’s film Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) was outstanding, as was his portrayal of Danny, the leader of the Yorkshire colliery brass band struggling to survive following the closure of their pit in Brassed Off.  Perhaps his finest moment comes with Danny’s speech when the band have won national brass band competition.

In 2009, Postlethwaite made a documentary, The Age of Stupid, on climate change, a subject he felt passionately about. In the film, he plays the last man alive. Postlethwaite was a political activist who practised what he preached: he lived in Shropshire in an eco-house complete with wind turbine and solar panelling.

In an interview at the time of his performance as Prospero at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2007, Postlethwaite spoke of a strong sense of mortality governing his life-choices:

Let death be your adviser…you have to live every day as fully as you can.


A New Everyman: a preview of how the new will arise from the old

A New Everyman: a preview of how the new will arise from the old

Everyman presentation

On Friday afternoons through the summer the Everyman are inviting people to drop in for a back stage tour and a presentation previewing the plans for the new Everyman.  I went along this afternoon.

We began the tour in a deserted auditorium, with the stage cleared for the summer break.  Our tour guide explained that what we were going to see, backstage and below stairs, would demonstrate that the building was no longer fit for purpose (and would be unusable in three year’s time when new building regulations come into force). So the management had been faced with the choice of refurbishment or a total rebuild.  It’s going to be the latter – at a cost of £28 million.

In July the Management Trust heard that they would not be receiving £2.4m towards the capital costs from the North West Development Agency, as a result of the £52 million the government has cut from the NWDA budget.  However, the Arts Council grant of £15 million is secure, and the management hope to find the rest from public and private sources.

The rebuild, designed by prominent theatre architects Haworth Tompkins, will preserve the essential features of the building that Liverpudlians have known and loved for the last 40 years. It will still be a 400-seat theatre, and will retain the distinctive ‘thrust’ stage auditorium, the basement Bistro and the iconic Everyman sign.

Before leaving the stage by the back door into Arrad Street, I turned and looked back: what you see clearly from that position is the old projection booth, harking back to the early 1960s when most of the time it was films that were shown here.  I remember, as a student, seeing Yellow Submarine here in 1968.

Then it was down the stairs to the facilities below the stage.  When Jonathan Pryce arrived at the Everyman 40 years ago, the first thing he did, apparently, was go out and buy a pot of white emulsion and paint the dressing room. “I spent most of the technical rehearsal redecorating,” he later told an interviewer. “Not because I was told to, but because it was such a bloody shithole.”  It’s not a whole lot better now: the dingy and cramped facilities haven’t been updated since the 1970s.  There are three dressing rooms, not small, but if there’s a cast of 17 or so, there might be half a dozen actors sharing a room like the ones above.

We were also made vividly aware of the technical limitations of the present set-up.  Down below the stage it is far from glamorous, a clutter of narrow passageways, cables and lifts that project an actor onto the stage.  All of this out of sight technology will be brought up to date in the new theatre.  For example, the new theatre will incorporate a new fly tower, allowing, for the first time, sets or flats to fly-in. Many touring theatre companies that have wanted to bring their productions to the Everyman have not been able to because of the absence of fly facilities.

The green room seemed more like a squashed kitchenette than a place where a dozen or more actors could relax.

Back upstairs, Pippa Taylor gave us a presentation of plans and drawings of the new build.  Although using the existing site, the new building will extend out into the theatre car park in Arrad Street and into the next door building which the Trust has acquired.  So at last there will be space for vital facilities the theatre currently lacks, many of which will also serve its sister theatre, the Playhouse. These will include: a Youth and Community space for the theatres’ extensive and growing work with education and community groups, which can be open independently over the weekend and in the evenings; a rehearsal room, workshops and offices for production staff; a hub for writers to develop their work; and public and private meeting facilities.

Front of House areas will feature an open and welcoming street presence with a glass frontage, a new pavement café, a first floor theatre bar with balcony over Hope Street, and the well-loved Everyman Bistro in the basement.  For the first time there will be natural light in the Bistro, the result of  heavy-duty glass paving stones in the street above. There will be excellent access throughout the whole building for disabled people –  and for the first time the theatre will be able to employ disabled lighting technicians, as the gantries above the stage will be accessible by wheelchair.

A signature feature of the new frontage on Hope Street (apart from the iconic Everyman sign) will be 105 life-sized, abstracted portraits of Liverpool people transferred onto cut aluminium shutters, which will cast a golden glow and be a representation of the community in which the Everyman has played such an important part.

The Everyman and Playhouse theatres and architects Haworth Tompkins consulted widely with audiences, youth groups, drama teachers, community forums, writers, and actors about the proposed plans for the new theatre, to get a sense of what people wanted to see changed and preserved in the new building.  Materials from the existing building (such as bricks, pillars and columns) will be retained and used in the new building.

Before: the Hope Street frontage now.

And after: what the new building will look like.

Before: the rear of the theatre in Arrad Street.

And after: the extension into the car park area and the heightened roof line, housing offices, rehearsal space and the fly tower.

I took some photos to record the old Bistro before it disappears: the bar area and the Bistro serving counter, and those distinctive lit wall recesses with small plants.

I also wanted to capture the painting made by Sam Walsh of the Bistro in its earlier incarnation.  Sam Walsh (1934-1989) was a member of the Liverpool art scene in the 1960s who lived for many years in Falkner Square and painted portraits of many of the city’s creative talents, including John Lennon, Adrian Henri, George Melly and Paul McCartney.  Walsh’s portrait of Francis Bacon, to whom he was introduced by Liverpool jazz performer, surrealist and raconteur George Melly, was selected for the 1963 John Moores exhibition and subsequently bought by the Walker Art Gallery.

Walsh was a graduate of Dublin College of Art and musician before later training as a teacher and moving to London in the mid-1950s. In 1960 he came on a visit to Liverpool, and like many others who fell under the spell of the city, never left. His portrait of Paul McCartney, painted in 1964, is in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

In 1980 Walsh created one of his most ambitious artworks called The Dinner Party which featured not just friends such as Adrian Henri and Roger McGough but also his bank manager, neighbour and solicitor.

The first memories I have of the Everyman from when I was a student in 1968 – poetry readings with the Liverpool Scene (more usually encountered upstairs at O’Connor’s Tavern), an early screening of Yellow Submarine, and Joe Orton’s Loot, one of the first plays to be directed by Alan Dossor.

The Everyman was born in 1964, when Martin Jenkins, Peter James, and Terry Hands founded a new company on a shoestring budget, operating out of a building that was still licensed by its landlord as a cinema and nightclub at the weekends. Hope Hall had previously been a chapel, originally built in 1837 and later closed in 1853, when it was turned into a concert hall. In 1912 the hall was converted into the Hope Hall cinema, which lasted until 1959.

Knowing that their venue would still be in use as a cinema on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, Jenkins, James, and Hands had to find other ways to draw in audiences. They decided to produce plays on the syllabus of schools within a 30-mile radius of Liverpool,whilst also putting on evening performances aimed primarily at an adult audience.

The first years were a knife’s-edge operation for the fledgling Everyman, with the threat of closure always looming. The company braved intense cold inside and out of the theatre, primitive conditions, cuts in wages, and spiralling debt. But some impressive productions, such as Murder in the Cathedral, Henry IV, The Caretaker, and An Enemy of the People drew in the audiences.

The early years saw the Everyman develop what was to become its own distinctive style in plays such as the musical documentary The Mersey Funnel, written to commemorate the opening of the neighbouring Roman Catholic Cathedral, which  included interviews with local people. The late 1960s also saw a flowering of poetry readings, art exhibitions, and late night film theatre, as well as the opening of the Bistro by Dave Scott and Paddy Byrne, firmly entrenching the Everyman on Liverpool’s cultural map. In the basement of the old ‘Hope Hall’,  with little more than a domestic cooker and a trestle table or two Scott and Byrne turned out food that had never been seen in Liverpool  before at that time: fresh food made with prime ingredients at low prices. The Bistro continues to be highly recommended in every major guide for food and drink.

You can see this photo of the legendary Everyman company in the foyer.  It shows the cast from the production of  The Taming of the Shrew in 1974 and features, from left to right: Kevin Lloyd, Del Henney, David Peart, Nick Le Provost, Stephanie Fayerman, Kate Fahy, Michael Radcliffe, Julie Walters, Matthew Kelly,Nicholas Woodeson, Bill Nighy, Roger Phillips,  Nick Stringer.

BBC Radio Merseyside presenter Roger Phillips who appears in the photograph told the Daily Post: “The one person missing off the photo is Jonathan Pryce, because he was directing the show and it was really a cast photograph rather than one of the company. When I saw him recently he was a bit upset that he’s not on it – it was his company, after all.”  Pryce’s future wife, Kate Fahy, whom he met at the theatre, is featured, as is a young Julie Walters, who played Bianca in the production as her first role with the Everyman. Phillips added: “Almost everyone on the photograph is doing very well but people may not know their names because they haven’t been on television or in films. They are all actors making a good living.”

During the 1970s the Everyman enjoyed a celebrated period with Willy Russell writing a number of plays for the theatre, including Shirley Valentine and the Beatles-inspired musical John, Paul, George and… Bert.  Actors who started their careers with the Everyman included Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy, Pete Postlethwaite and Julie Walters.

The 1970-1971 season at the Everyman saw start of a trend, with emphasis given to social plays – productions that dealt with the history, social issues, and life of Liverpool.  Stephen Fagan’s The Braddocks’ Time was a history and mythology of former Liverpool Council leader and MP for Liverpool Exchange Bessie Braddock, set in a boxing ring and – in part – to music. Under Artistic Director Alan Dossor, productions such as Welfare and Unruly Elements continued this trend, which was to reach an apex in the following season with John McGrath’s urban social musical, Soft or a Girl.

The highlight of Ken Campbell’s time as artistic director, from 1980-1981, was his production of  The Warp – a twenty-hour odyssey through alternative culture, using as much of the Everyman’s space as possible: several stages, uprooting the chairs from the theatre and encouraging the audience to sit on unused parts of the set. The Warp was split into ten parts and shown over ten weeks – a soap opera of hippies, wizards, new age cults, and personal discovery.

“I think the most significant thing I did was The Warp – out of all the plays that have come my way I think The Warp‘s the best one. It’s my favourite.”
– Ken Campbell,

Another production I recall from that time was Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, directed by Ken Campbell and Terry Canning.  In this one man show told the story of Hank’s life conceived as a flashback at the moment of his death in 1953. Carl Chase had left his job as a cab driver to take on his first role as actor at the Everyman.

To mark the end of a chapter in the theatre’s history, and to celebrate the start of a new one, the iconic picture of its most famous company of actors has been recreated for a new generation. The new image features the ensemble cast and writers behind the upcoming Everyman Unbound season, which aims to capture the unconventional and energetic spirit of the theatre.

The theatre was substantially rebuilt in 1977, when the new frontage with its familiar red neon Everyman sign was bolted onto the Hope Hall building. It will be interesting to see if the old facade re-emerges when the rebuild starts next year.

The new theatre will extend into the neighbouring building, on the right in the photo above, though the facade will only extend the length of the current building.

Predominantly Georgian Hope Street remains a lovely mix of buildings of varying size and elevation built at different periods – with a mixture of residential, cultural and business uses.