A Review of ‘Carol Ann Duffy & Friends’ at the Royal Exchange Theatre
Presented by the Manchester Writing School
There’s something incredibly intimate about a poetry reading. Sitting in the hidden intimacy of ‘The Studio’ at the Royal Exchange only adds to that. Juxtaposed against the grand entrance through the multi-domed hall, once dubbed the ‘The biggest room in the world’, it is a cosy haven. But I’m not entirely sure that’s where the appeal for these event comes from. Although it helps – Sipping a drink in the interval with so much literary talent is an added bonus.
Rather than intimacy, the & Friends series seems to me to be all about interpretation. The opportunity to hear a poem read by the author, and sometimes find quite new meanings than those you found from your own reading of it; whether that is down to pronunciation, facial expression, or just an extra pause. That’s not to say I believe for a moment the readings resonated with each audience member in the same way.
I’d previously considered performance poetry to be the route to the one ‘true’ interpretation. Yet, when I asked Daljit Nagra about the difference between written and performed poetry, he suggested something further. As a poet, he suggested that ‘the value and challenge is in interpreting your own work – in doing it justice’. His warm, funny and nuanced reading of The 13 O’clock News did exactly that.
Speaking to MA students from MMU’s Manchester Writing School, I got a sense of how much they valued taking part in these events. George Alaimo, said, as a young poet, it was about ‘practicing performing and expression’. This was something he was honing that evening, reading from his beautifully dark first collection, Cross-Threaded.
From her captivating performance, it would appear Jen Bailey has already had the chance to do that. Returning to read her poems for the second time, she talked enthusiastically about the ‘community of interest’ she’s built through her MA.
For Richy Campbell, it has been ‘getting in touch with industry’ and taking part in events such as the & Friends series which have added the most value. Richy gave a gripping reading of the recently published Manchester Piccadilly – Stoke on Trent 06.15am.
The value of performance was also noted by Carol Ann Duffy, as she stated that ‘It is only by performing … that poets can learn to be themselves in front of an audience’. Perhaps that’s what keeps the audiences coming back to these events too… the chance to see the poets being themselves. Such as the honest reverence and pride Carol Ann showed when describing being invited to the RSC as ‘like being invited to Bethlehem’.
Daljit, meanwhile, described the student poets as ‘strong on the page’ – but their performances showed they could equally be strong off it. It was also the conversations with the audience which added depth to the evening. This was something utilised by Carol Ann, Daljit, and the MA students. So too, it was used by the Royal Exchange’s house poet, Liz Venn, before reciting her haunting poem The Bone Man. These mini-prologues and verbal footnotes were both fitting and valuable. Something you just can’t quite get from a printed page in an anthology.
So, why does the & Friends series work so well? All I can say with certainty is that the answer is open to interpretation. Now in its ninth series, they must be doing something right.
Carol Ann Duffy & Friends Series 9 continues at the Royal Exchange throughout summer. More information is available here.