Anthology

HANNAH MIRSKY is impressed by an evening that tries to take the pretension out of poetry.

ADC theatre anthology Freddy Sawyer hannah mirsky laura batey poetry poppy damon rivkah brown Victoria Fell

ADC Bar, 8pm, Monday 6th May, £5/6

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The programme for this night of poetry readings assured me that the purpose of the event was to challenge assumptions of pretension and exclusivity in poetry. The evening that followed involved feigned American accents, guffawing at ADC in-jokes and at least one cravat. Not quite the democratising free-for-all the directors envisaged.

Yet in spite of Anthology’s failure to exclude the general snobbery that all too often accompanies poetry, there was, on the whole, something surprisingly genuine about the evening. Very few people – whether actors or audience members – were trying to do anything more big-headed than enjoy good readings of good writing, in a friendly and supportive environment. And as if that wasn’t enough to justify enjoying this one-off event, lollipops were scattered abundantly over the tables. It’s pretty difficult not to enjoy an evening of quality poems and free sweets.

My biggest problem with the evening was the over-emphasis on the performance of the poems. Anthology was organised by thesps and took place in a theatre bar, and it showed. The readers of poems were, slightly oddly, referred to as ‘actors’ throughout the evening, and some of them were trying a little too hard to perform. Freddy Sawyer and Poppy Damon, reading Frank O’Hara and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both put on slightly unnecessary accents, while Rivkah Brown and the cravatted Ed Eustace slightly bulldozed the nuances of the poems they read by tending towards dramatic declamation (or, in Eustace’s case, simply shouting). In the second half of the event, the audience members were invited to submit poems for reading and explain their choices, but not to step up and read the texts themselves. That was the job of the ‘actors’. For a night that proudly proclaimed its intentions of interactive inclusivity, this felt like an unnecessary theatrical division between performer and spectator.

But the majority of the readings were very enjoyable. Some were expectedly sincere: Laura Batey reading ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, for example, or Hugh Stubbins reading Ted Hughes. Yet more surprising were the comic poems – Oliver Marsh’s reading of Wendy Cope’s brilliant nursery rhyme pastiches of Eliot and Wordsworth was a particular highlight – and those which combined the two, such as Victoria Fell reading Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary ‘You Fit Into Me’ and Yaseen Kader’s inspired take on e.e. cummings. These performances were, quite rightly, very well received. Admittedly, the whooping and laughing of an audience clearly made up of the readers’ friends sometimes made the whole thing feel a little smug: self-congratulatory on the part of the thesp coterie. Yet it was also entirely understandable, and demonstrated not only the clear enjoyment of everyone in the room, but the fact that people were really listening. In this sense, the evening did achieve its aim: in the friendly bar setting, poetry was no longer high literary art, but inclusive social entertainment.

I was struck by the fact that the directors, doing their thankyous at the end of the show, invited the audience to chase up some of the poets they’d encountered that evening to find out more. Not in a dull ‘further reading’ kind of way, but in a way which demonstrated the honest enthusiasm lurking behind all of the night’s performances. Anthology may have been smug, it may have been thespy, it may have bordered on pretension at times, but all of this was born out of a genuine passion for the poetry being read.