Rainbird Completed-The Playwright’s View

Cloud Nine’s artistic director PETER MORTIMER  muses on finishing the Rainbird play.

As one writer once said about ‘completed’ work, it is ‘never finished, only abandoned.’

How true that is!  Writing the play about the tragic North Shields painter Victor Noble Rainbird has consumed me over a two year period.

Its completion you might think would be a cause for dancing in the streets, releasing generous quantities of coloured balloons and wearing a large silly hat.

Instead of which I find myself silently asking, who are the twenty-five characters on these pages?  Will anyone be remotely interested in them?  Will the actors be performing to rows of empty seats?  Or, just as bad, to ensuing loud raspberries from the critics (should any critics bother to turn up)?

Against this, there is the silent sense of satisfaction to print off the script, hold that wadge of pages in my hand and know that not single soul in the entire universe has created anything the same as this.  Which is not to say it is good or bad, just unique.  Contrary to common belief, the word ‘unique’ implies no other value judgement than it is not the same as anything else.  Every writer that has ever lived (with a few outrageously plagiaristic exceptions) can claim to be unique.

Rainbird cannot claim too much ‘uniqueness.’  The play is based on a real person, whereas most of my two dozen odd plays have been based on fictional characters.  It is fair to say I am generally more interested in people who have never lived than those who have, a fact which could explain several social shortcomings and a partial dislocation from reality.

Being tethered to a once-living person and one from hereabouts come to that, brings certain restrictions for a writer.  For a start turning Rainbird into an alien in act two, or having him fall in love with a tadpole (the kind of anarchic invention that can bring great job satisfaction) would be considered bad form. The time-line to Rainbird’s life, kindly provided for me by David Young, the great Rainbird aficionado, (without whose support this play could simply not have been written), gave me a rough structure.

But within that structure, a writer can travel boldly.  Thus the play also has a modern-day thread (Rainbird lived 1887-1936), based on an unpublished short story of mine about a newly discovered self-portrait from a forgotten painter.  A few characters have historical legitimacy, many others are invented.  Many scenes will never really have happened.  My few excursions into historical drama have shown me that here is no absolute ‘factual truth’ in theatre, only whether or not a finished play can claim to speak with a true voice.  Writers have to learn that while history is to be respected, it must never enslave us.  Hilary Mantel has written copiously about this.

Now all those characters who have been merely words on a page will begin to take a real shape as the play is cast.  Someone will dream up a design for the set. Director Neil Armstrong will bring his own vision to the work.  Lighting and sound will be worked out, costume, props.  What was for two years the amalgam of just me, a laptop and a small silent room, will now writhe restlessly to be properly born.

It is a transformation which, as ever, both thrills and terrifies me.  In theory few experiences in life should be as satisfying as a writer witnessing the opening night of his or her new play.

In reality, few experiences can compare with such damp palmed anxiety, such racing heart stress or the squeaky bottom obsession that it will all go horribly wrong.

And let’s face it – sometimes it does.

 Rainbird – The Tragedy of an Artist opens at The Exchange Theatre, North

Shields on Monday April 23rd.

 

The Tragedy of Rainbird

BY PETER MORTIMER

My first interest in the North Shields painter Victor Noble Rainbird came in July 2015 and the exhibition of his work at The Old Low Light Heritage Centre in his home town of North Shields.

There was also, at the same venue, a talk on the painter given by Dave Young, Rainbird aficionado and the man mainly responsible for the renewed interest in the artist.

Young raised more than £6,000 to give Rainbird a proper headstone at Preston Cemetery in North Shields where he had lain in a pauper’s grave for more than 80 years. A beautiful monument it is too, created by the sculptor Neil Talbot and containing images from many scenes and objects which Rainbird knew and painted so well.

So who was this man? And why the upsurge of interest?  And why am I moved to write a full length play about him?

Rainbird’s life was poignant, even tragic. He was born in the tough fishing port of North Shields in 1887 and such was his early creative promise as a young artist at school and college that in 1911 he was the only northerner to be accepted for the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he went on to win several awards. A glittering future seemed to lay in store for Rainbird. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

He served in the Northumbrian  Fusiliers in  World War One, which he survived, though at a cost, suffering both from shell shock and mustard gas poisoning, part of that doomed young generation indelibly marked by the First World War. Rainbird was never the same again and though he continued to paint some fine work, his deteriorating health saw him turn to alcohol. Returned to his native North Shields he would often knock out quick paintings on pieces of card or whatever was at hand to fund his drink.

So prolific was he that many of the pubs in Shields – which in those days numbered hundreds  – had a handful of Rainbirds under the bar counter – a witness to his ‘trading’.

It was this prolific nature of his work, his need to churn  out  the paintings to supply his ‘basics’ that partly explains  his meagre reputation thus far. He was seen as a jobbing painter, though his best work is much more than that. Also, there was the much vaunted Cullercoats school of painters only three miles distant up the coast.  That small fishing village’s reputation as ‘Little Bohemia’was boosted by the famous US artist Winslow Homer living there for two years .North Shields’ artists tended to be overlooked.

Rainbird later developed cancer, his marriage fell apart and he died at the young age of 48 in 1936. In his final years he was living in Sunderland and two of his paintings had to be sold to pay for his funeral and bring his body back to his native town, after which he was condemned to his eighty years of obscurity  in a grave, of two roughly stuck together pieces of wood bearing his handwritten name.

Rainbird painted in oils and water-colours and created many pencil drawings.. His subject matter was varied; North Shields scenes, European cities, biblical stories, seascapes and  Greek mythology. One Northumbrian millionaire boasts of owning more than 300 of his paintings. He also created stained glass windows in several churches here and abroad. Newcastle has a school named after him. During the war he was commissioned to do drawings of enemy positions and peace time also brought him many commissions. Ironically, given it was the war that changed his life drastically, his last commission was

a portrait of Earl Hague, wartime commander of the British forces.

Writing the play will, I hope help establish Rainbird’s rightful reputation as a painter of real quality, one who was also often forced to, as it were, sing for his liquid supper.

Part of the process of creating the play involved me going to art classes the better to get inside the head of a painter – a unique experience.

Rainbird has lived inside my head for more than two years and I suspect will be there for a good while longer. To write a play about anyone, real or fictitious rarely works I find unless that same person can haunt you. It is a haunting a writer should welcome.

 

Peter’s painting (above)

The play Rainbird will be produced by Cloud Nine at The Exchange Theatre, North Shields in  April 2018.

To see examples of Rainbird’s work, just Google Victor Noble Rainbird.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Post From Peter Mortimer

Read the latest from Peter about what Cloud Nine are currently involved in-

Noreen Rees

FULL HOUSE AT THE WORKSHOP

Introducing our new Chair…

Cloud Nine recently had a swapping of chairs-not of the musical variety, but on our steering group (which our new chair Steve Chambers has elevated to a board!  And one of talent and experience as well!)  So now that he has massaged our egos, Steve has written a blog (see below) about how he sees his role.  

We’re also grateful to Mike Jessop who has been the previous chair for several years-for his support of Cloud Nine, and for keeping us all in order and on message in meetings.  I can’t recall a punch up or a hissy fit on Mike’s watch, but perhaps that was why he always made sure we were supplied with strong tea and spicy nibbles!  Noreen Rees

So, over to Steve….

As the new chair of Cloud Nine Theatre, I see my principle role as providing a sounding board for Peter Mortimer and a voice of experience in board meetings. Pete and I go back a long way. We’re both from Nottingham (although tellingly he supports County and I’m a diehard Forest fan) and over the years we’ve seen and read a lot of each others’ work. IRON Press published two of my plays and Pete has reviewed most of the others. Most of my early work was in community theatre and youth theatre so I know something about the trials of low-budget productions. The board is already replete with talent and experience and I suspect that my most useful role will be discussing future play ideas with Pete. Chatting informally is a great way of flying kites and finding out what works and what doesn’t. Who knows? I might even write something for Cloud Nine myself.

We’re extremely grateful to Steve for taking on this role, particularly as he is a well established full time writer.  For those who are unaware of Steve’s background, his CV is below.

STEVE CHAMBERS grew up in Nottingham. He read mathematics at Imperial College and writes and teaches scriptwriting in the North-East of England. Steve has written original plays for Newcastle’s Bruvvers and Live Theatre, NTC in Northumberland and adapted WOMEN IN LOVE for Derby Playhouse while his feature film HOLD BACK THE NIGHT  (prod Parallax, dir Phil Davies) starring Sheila Hancock, opened Critics Week at Cannes ’99 and won the Prix du Publique Forum.

Network TV includes WALLPAPER WARRIOR (Yorkshire/Tyne Tees) and a five part series ‘ZIGZAG Invaders’ (BBC Scotland) as well as epsiodes of ‘CASUALTY’ and ‘BYKER GROVE’.

Steve has written extensively for radio. VICTORIA STATION, his series set in a victorian railway station in Nottingham were recently repeated on BBC R4 Extra. He undertook the first adaptation of James Ellroy’s extraordinary autobiography MY DARK PLACES for BBC World Service. He has adapted iconic works for BBC R4’s classic serial including THE GRAPES OF WRATH, WATERLAND (WGGB Best Radio Daramatisation) and ROBINSON CRUSOE as well as writing a number of orginal plays for Radio 4. His acclaimed original play about Mary Wollstonecraft, SCANDINAVIAN DREAMS, was commissioned by BBC R3. His successful sitcom HIGHLITES (co-written with Shameless writer Phil Nodding) went to six series, an afternoon play together with a pilot episode for TV commissioned by Hattrick Productions. A musical version for the stage is currently in development.

His first novel GLADIO: WE CAN NEITHER CONFIRM NOR DENY was published by Zymurgy in November 2013. He is currently working on a sequel.

A review of our Latest Production, ‘An Excess of Overcoats’

Zoe Hakin and Robbie Lee Hurst in the title sketch

Zoe Hakin and Robbie Lee Hurst in the title sketch

Theatre review of An Excess of Overcoats (A Comedic Medication of Mime Sketches-Peter Mortimer and the cast) from Cloud Nine at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle, reviewer: Peter Lathan

Mention of mime nowadays will likely conjure up a picture of a white-faced clown, eyes wide and mouth in an O of surprise, trying to find a way out of a glass box (an invisible glass box, of course), and elicit a sigh of “oh no. Not again…”

But in fact mime has a long and honourable tradition in theatre. Our pantomime grew out of the Italian Commedia dell’ Arte, which was mime. In fact the mimed Harlequinade, which arose from the Commedia, was an essential ingredient of that most British of art forms, panto, until well into the nineteenth century when it gradually vanished, although its slapstick comedy remains central to this day in chase or slosh scenes.

But mime was rescued from the doldrums into which it had sunk, surprisingly enough, by technology—the invention of the motion picture, which, although it did have its serious side, lent itself particularly well to comedy as the enduring populartity of Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops and Charlie Chaplin proves.

It is from this modern mime tradition that Cloud Nine takes its inspiration for An Excess of Overcoats. The titles, for example, are presented to the audience on black cards which exactly mimic silent movie dialogue screens—but there is also another influence at work, writer Peter Mortimer’s fascination with the Absurd—Ionesco, N F Simpson et al—which has been a feature of many of his plays since Marmite, or A Goat in the Wilderness in October 2012.

There are six sketches—Bedding Down, A Baby Called Biff, Suicide, Banking on It, An Excess of Overcoats and The Waiter—performed by a company of four—Arabella Arnott, Zoë Hakin, Robbie Lee Hurst and Torin Pearce. The sketches are accompanied by continuous live music on two guitars and a kazoo by Bugman (Ryan Siddall and Simon Fitzpatrick), music which captures the essence of silent movie piano accompaniment whilst being wholly original.

It has to be said that it’s not all mime; there is a small amount of speech. In A Baby Called Biff, for example, Hurst and Pearce provide the baby screaming noises and in An Excess of Overcoats there is a little dialogue between Hakin the Wife) and Hurst (the Husband).

But who wants to get embroiled in a minor semantic quibble when you’re being entertained? And entertained we were. The pieces are funny and the cast throw themselves into the performance with great gusto and obvious enjoyment, keeping just on the right side of grotesque, for reaching that line but not stepping over is the essence of this kind of comedy.

It’s an interesting and fun departure for Mortimer and Cloud Nine. One wonders where they’ll go next.

Peter Lathan

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