Saturday, 27 July 2013

A curious celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution took poetry to the stage

Karl Dallas

Taking Bradford By Storm

BACK in 1999, Bradford-based activist and poet Karl Dallas took to the stage with a literary and theatrical celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution. In this article that first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper, he told Mark Cantrell why he wanted to put on such a show, and how he found help from a local 'apolitical' writers' group



EIGHTY-TWO years ago [at time of first publication], the Bolsheviks led the Russian workers and peasants into the limelight of history. They took the Winter Palace, Russia and the world by storm. This was an epic performance, and rehearsals were a luxury they could not afford.

For the two grey-bearded men plotting in a mildew-scented basement somewhere in Bradford, that's not such a problem. One is stern of face as he meticulously goes through the plan of action. He mercilessly drills the other man, who has an enthusiastic gleam in his eyes from contemplating their plan becoming reality. For them, rehearsals are an absolute necessity as they prepare to follow in the footsteps of the Bolsheviks and take the city by storm.


Karl Dallas and Howard Frost
Fortunately, for the theatre-goers of Bradford, director Howard Frost and producer/performer Karl Dallas are not plotting insurrection, although the latter is a self-confessed revolutionary. Instead, they are putting together a stage performance to celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Some will undoubtedly ask why anybody would want to celebrate the Russian Revolution, particularly ten years after the symbolic demolition of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, the world today would be horribly familiar to the Bolsheviks. Their battle-cry of 'Land, Bread and Peace' still carries a dreadful resonance for millions of people living in a world of unprecedented disparities between rich and poor.

The dust has settled on the bones of the Soviet age, but its builders in 1917 still speak to people today. The words of Lenin and Trotsky and Marx - voted Man of the Millennium - still inspire hope and struggle for a better world built from the bottom up.

And this is the reason for the celebration that is Red October. The show is a literary performance described as a multimedia experience. Computer generated slides and music by Stravinsky will play alongside performances and readings of poetry and prose. Featured authors include Akhmatova, Bertholt Brecht, Hugh MacDiarmid, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Lenin, William Morris, Pasternak and Yevtushenko. The performance is to be rounded off with a reading of J B Priestley's They Came To A City.

The centrepiece of the evening, however, will be a complete performance of the narrative poem The 12, written by Aleksandr Bloc in 1918, and translated from the original Russian by the producer. Its warts and all depiction of a bunch of Red Guard patrolling the streets of St Petersburg generated much controversy in its day - as did its depiction of Christ leading the way with the Red Flag held high.

A Christian sub-text, such as that depicted by Bloc's poem, is an important element in the show, which the more secular-minded might miss. This isn't simply an expression of the producer's personal religious convictions, they are also an expression of his politics. "Christianity, like communism, has been perverted for oppression, but in its true sense Christianity is a revolutionary movement. To me Christianity and communism are just two sides of the same coin," Karl says.

In preparing for his stage debut, Karl is benefiting from the acting experience of his director Howard Frost, a poet, actor and opera singer with experience of over 250 dramatic productions. He agreed to work in the role because of its challenging nature. "It's always a challenge to do a one person show," Howard says. "Karl won't mind me saying that acting is new to him. The challenge has been to create something worth watching for its own sake without overtaxing the abilities of the actor, at the same time as giving someone who lacks previous experience of acting an idea of how to approach his subject. It's working. I think at the end of the day we'll both be able to say that we've achieved what we set out to do."

When he shuffles out before the lights and the audience at the Priestley Centre for Arts on Saturday, Karl will have realised a ten year old ambition. "I've been wanting to put on this show since I first came to Bradford in 1989," he says, "but it was met by a lack of interest from the local communists when I suggested we do something to celebrate October. Then I mentioned it to this group of 'non-political' poets and they agreed to do it."

The group of poets in question is the Bradford Interchange Writers' Network, of which both Karl and Howard are members. Several of its regular participants have agreed to perform work, though some have misgivings about the subject matter of October, or indeed its secondary aims of raising funds in support of the Morning Star newspaper. Such misgivings haven't dampened their enthusiasm for the project, however, and several admit to finding the project thought-provoking and informative.

"The poem I am reading is very much about the relationship between poets and the way that poets are shaped by their society," says performer Bruce Barnes. "Also, it's about what happens to poets when they confront the system. It's made me want to read a lot more Russian poetry. I think it was some of the finest work that was being written in Europe at that time."

In the main, as might be expected from a group of writers, it's a love of literature that is firing up the performers. From the selected works and the rehearsals it is clear that a tantalising selection of literature has been chosen, promising a good night of enthralling entertainment. But, and this probably won't embarrass him in the slightest, the willingness to help with Red October is a testament to Karl's popularity at the regular Interchange meetings.

A celebration in literature is certainly unusual, at least for those not overly-familiar with life in the Soviet Union. Poetry was taken immensely seriously during its 75 years of existence. Ideological battles raged through the rhythm of poetic thought and action.

"The audience is in for something different," Howard adds about the 12. "It's a different presentation of the subject matter from what I've usually come across. Previously the October Revolution has been done either through out and out drama, or purely in documentary terms. This is more a dramatised presentation of a poem rather than a full blown drama."

The assemblage of poets and writers selected for Red October were chosen not just for the celebration of a political event but also for a celebration of the literature. Indeed, many of the works show that the two go hand in hand. Like the aspirations and the dreams of ordinary people that lay at the heart of October, the writing has a contemporary feel and a modern resonance.

It would give too much away to provide even a cursory run-down of the works that the Interchange performers are to bring into life on Saturday. Suffice to say the show promises to be entertaining and thought-provoking.

It explores both the human and the inhuman faces of the Soviet age, its successes and its mistakes, its contradictions and, of course, its creator's vision of its importance to the history of this century and beyond.

(Red October played on Saturday 13th November in the studio theatre at the Priestley Centre for Arts, Chapel Street, Little Germany, Bradford. Proceeds were shared equally between the venue and the Morning Star.)




This article was first published in the Morning Star newspaper, 12 November 1999.


Copyright (c) November 1999. All Rights Reserved.

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