Performance poetry’s place in theatre is usually met with an emphatic groan from Fringe visitors. Its strong and vehement leftist message is hardly an informed dialectic on the modes of production, and instead comes across as a sort of spoken pamphleteering. I found this to be the case with Kate Tempest – I know, an unpopular opinion – and found her recent play at York Theatre Royal, “Wasted,” to be painfully ignorant. Somehow the fame of performance poets dislocates them from the local problems in which they originally started writing. Henry Raby, a Yorkshire performance poet still uses his local roots for inspiration. His new show is set to follow in Tempest’s footsteps in terms of dramatising the poetic, however Raby’s play “Letter to the man (from the boy)”, produced by Pilot Theatre, will be an interesting break from the anti-establishment drivel we have come to associate with Tempest’s brand of performance artist.
Raby’s solo project is a collection of poems centred around growing up. He traces his journey as an artist through a love of comic books, his first romances, and a series of teenage hangovers. Raby visits memory through the objects of his youth, and decides to write a letter to the man he will become. We are to be encouraged as audience members to write our own letters to our selves by remembering what mattered to us in previous times, and learn what should still matter to us today. Already this form appears to be far more functional than Tempest’s less fruitful attempt to convey her rhymes through a sort of theatre in education piece.
This local poet has enjoyed a series of recent successes. Learning his craft on the Royal Court’s Young Writer’s Programme he won the “Barefoot in the Park Slam” in 2011 and the “Contact MCR Poetry Slam” in 2012. Raby has also supported the legendary John Cooper Clarke and John Otway, amongst others. This impressive record is a necessary requirement in order to stand out amongst the swathe of poets, comedians, and theatre companies at the Fringe Festival this year.
With regard to politics, Raby follows in the tradition of most performance poets with a leftist outlook on Britain. Raby opposes the cuts and gave a stirring performance outside of the Minster to rally people in support for a larger protest against the government. Although his Fringe show doesn’t seem to have a political core, Raby the artist does. These poets are finding a language in order to articulate the struggle of those supposed without a voice. Performance artists are vying to inherit from Shelley, Kipling, and Blake the title of “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I’m not convinced that these new voices can handle the rough with the smooth like their poetic ancestors. They desire “love and fame” rather than the “light and air” which Shelley find to be the nobler food for artists, in his seminal work, “An Exhortation.”
The jury is out on whether Raby is capturing the zeitgeist of his time, or is another unimaginative political upstart. However his Fringe show is very promising indeed, especially with the influence from highly successful poets of his ilk. For something a bit different from the salvo of pantomimic face-painted student theatre in Edinburgh this year, Raby might be worth a look.
He is performing at the Dehli Belly at 13.10 from 2nd to the 26th Aug 2012 (apart from the 13th).