Sunday, 22 November 2015

Ali McDowall Interview: writing Pomona

[written for the programme of Pomona at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester]

So, what the hell is it all about?

I’d been obsessed with Pomona for ages. You go from Manchester City Centre to Salford Quays – which are now these two steel and glass places – and in the middle there’s just this inexplicable wasteland. I was particularly interested in it at night. Because there are no street lights there, when you go past it, it just looks like this blank – like someone forgot to fill the rest of the map in. There’s just this hole.

A few years previously I’d driven back from Newcastle very late. I was on the M60 when there was no one on it. It was three in the morning and I missed my exit, so I had to keep going round. And there was this odd sensation that you could just stop the car and stand in the middle of a road... Just to keep myself awake I started having conversations with this imaginary guy who operated out of his car. I just thought there was something fun and interesting about that.

I’ve also got a lot of anxiety problems and it seems to me like I’m living in the best possible time for anxiety. Like, there is the most fuel for my anxiety imaginable. Everything is jittery and the internet is... You don’t have to look at anything for more than five seconds... You can just click, click, click, click, click... Everything is just bite-size and everything is just going in and going in and going in...

So, I had all these elements that I didn’t quite know what to do with and they gradually began to coalesce.

I wrote Pomona straight after I wrote a big three act history play – a murder mystery, which hasn’t been staged yet – and to help me get through that I thought “the next thing I’m going to write this really free-associative thing where I’m going to plan it very little and just allow all the elements to just spiral off each other and be more impulsive.”

As things started slotting into place, I realised there was this big plot going on and there were all these characters who just started emerging who were all circling this spot in the middle of the city – as the M60 was circling the city. My model for that was partly the film Chinatown. In Chinatown they also don’t go to Chinatown until the end, but it also forms this kind of greater metaphor for the whole.

How did the Cthulhu figure from HP Lovecraft get in?

While the play didn’t end up as free-associative as I’d intended it to be, I did try to leave space for things to happen in the writing of it to surprise me. This was a play where I was just going to allow the background noise to seep into the foreground. And the HP Lovecraft references turned up because they operated on a similar frequency to the rest of the material. And because I’d been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

I didn’t know the ending when I was writing it either. Which was weird. Normally I’ll have the beginning and the ending, and the middle will gradually bubble, but this time I had everything except the end. I had characters, and *they* knew what was going on. Or they seemed to. And as it went down underground it became clearer and clearer what was going on down there.

And that was a surprise to you?

It was. It was a weird surprise. Like when you find your keys. It’s like, oh, they’re there. Of course they’re there.

By the time I’d gotten to that point a huge amount of the play had revealed itself to be about consumerism, and capitalism, and people buying things and selling things basically, and how we operate when *everything* is globalised. When every product we buy is available in every country in the world.

Even though that stuff is not on the surface all the time, it dictates how the characters relate to each other. It’s not a coincidence that the scene audiences seem to really connect with is the scene where two people actually do connect with each other – where Mo talks to Faye; when he goes to visit her in the brothel – that’s pretty much the only scene where two people directly connect to each other truthfully. And that’s the scene where he’s paid to be in her presence.

I remember the sensation watching the play was like this incredibly fast helter skelter or a spiral or something... And then there’s something mobius-strip-like about it...

It kinda loops back on itself by the end, yeah.

And there’s no way in linear space, or time, or whatever, that it’s possible. Is that right?

It depends how you’re reading it as well. Some people who’ve talked to me about it are convinced that the whole thing is a game – like we are just watching that game he’s creating in the middle of the play. And some people are convinced about whether or not she has a sister is just psychosis. And then some people are just totally convinced that she does have a sister. So.

I have my own explanations for everything. But, those are like the least interesting explanations ever. Like, I wouldn’t want someone to actually explain Mulholland Drive to me.

I was just about to say Mulholland Drive. Is it the blueprint for this kind of story?

Absolutely, yeah. Anyone who’s doing anything like that with narrative... But what’s so weird about Lynch is that he’s so resolutely American. His films are just drenched in a particularly fifties Norman Rockwell kind of America...

But what’s interesting about Lynch’s films, and I guess about Pomona as well, is that there’s a real commitment to Story. It’s not like A Vague Thing Vaguely Happening In A Universe of Vague Things.

No it’s not. It’s different though, because Lynch seems to write more like dream-logic which I could never do. I mean, he’s a true artist, that guy. Pomona was written in the order you see it. I didn’t muck around with it. I knew exactly when things were coming. I knew exactly what was happening when. Even though in the initial writing of it, I didn’t know the precise nature of what was going to happen at the end.

Even thought the initial impulse was to write something really impulsive and free, it’s actually one of the most aggressively structured and plotted things I’ve ever made.

The nature of its structure makes you second guess yourself and break everything at every turn. Recently with my writing I’ve been thinking it’s far more interesting to just explain as little as possible; to deliberately leave as much space in there for the audience as possible.

Does that way of telling a story have a meaning in itself for you?

It’s symptomatic of the fact that life doesn’t generally feel naturalistic to me. Everything feels like black and white and technicolor at the same time. And everything feels like quiet and loud. And everything feels like it’s got like completely weird competing beats and rhythms to it. So if I want to write about human behaviour, or the way I see things, or or whatever I want to write about, I get to a certain point where I need to not be as rigidly in reality any more. My recent shift away from linear narrative is a reaction to that as well. It’s part and parcel of the same thing.

By the end of your day, you can make sense of your day by going, “I got up, I ate, and then I did this, and then I did this, and I did this” But, actually, when you just allow the memories and things to buzz around in your head, certain things will take prominence, and certain things will fall away, and certain things will mesh over and and blend and muddle about.

In Pomona the big shift – my way in to write that feeling – was “Ok, I’m going to write about a city.” It’s not about Manchester, it’s not about London, it’s just about A City. It’s what it feels like to be in a city. If I’m going to do that then the form has to be the form of a city and the way I thought about doing that was if you walk down a shopping street, like Market Street here, or Oxford Street in London, you’re like hearing about fifty conversations that are streaming past you, if you really open your ears. And you’re seeing all the everything at once and you’re walking past shops that are playing like, I don’t know about shops, but, like chart music, and that place plays jazz, and that place plays whatever, and everything is just really just busy and chaotic, but because of how we’re able to live we can find a kind of clarity through it. And that’s what I wanted the play to feel like.

That was the real thing about writing it. When people ask: “why can’t it be in the right order?” And “why can’t it be this?” It’s like: *because*. It would be dishonest, if I’m writing a play about a city, for the form not to be a city. The play had to be city. Every scene has a different kind of architecture. I really had to think carefully about that in order to faithfully recreate what it was like in my head, you know...

Interview: Sibylle Berg

 [written for Exeunt]

Ok, so...

Historically I haven’t really done a lot of interviews. Part of the reason is that they’re extremely time-consuming. An hour of conversation can cover ten pages of Word no problem. Typing it up takes *hours*. And then there’s the fact that the accepted convention for feature interviews in mainstream media is highly editorialised. All the power lies with the “interviewer”, because they go away with the tape of the conversation and then create a narrative around it: the writer gets to describe their subject, to refer to other pieces of information about their subject taken from the internet that were never mentioned in the room, and so on and so on... Viewed charitably, this is just to make the piece easily digestible, and to add a sense of what it was like to actually talk to the person. So often, though, it resorts to clichés about actresses wafting into rooms and everyone turning to stare at their perfect skin and blah, blah, bullshit blah. The general format for any mainstream media interview is, I think, predicated on those weird merry-go-round interviews that film stars do 20 of in a day in a hotel suite. Stretching out 15 minutes of bland, repetitive material over 1,000-2,000 words. Theatre people seem happy to offer more time, and are maybe prepared to say more, or more that they are prepared to put out there in the public sphere. (The extent to which even very successful actors self-censor is both fascinating and scary.)

My project when doing interviews has been, wherever possible, to be as honest about the process and to the conversation that took place as space and likely interest will allow. Very few people actually speak in perfect grammatical sentences. Most people have a “like” or a “y’know” or an “I think” that they use to slow down words and give themselves time to think. It doesn’t make people stupid to leave these in, it makes them sound human.

At the same time, the dynamic of the interview is really weird. On one hand, as often as not, you meet a perfect stranger and ask them intrusive questions. You’re like a drunk bloke on a bus trying to start a conversation. You’re an annoying barber asking about the weekend. On the other hand, they know you’re coming, and will have been interviewed a hundred times before.

All of which is preamble to excusing the amount I’ve got to interpolate and explain this forthcoming piece. Sibylle Berg is a German novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, little known in Britain, but directed by Sebastian Nübling at the Gorki in Berlin (which gives you some idea of the disparity). Her English is excellent, but non-native, and I’ve left that, as I think it reads more honestly. What you really have to understand, though, is that she’s mostly joking.

So, do you want to talk about this play?

[beat] No?

Ok. You started as a novelist...

A hundred years ago...

And then also started writing plays...

I think the first book – maybe it’s boring – the first book came out in ‘95, I think? Until now I have sixteen or seventeen novels. Twelve years ago – because unfortunately I can’t make a living just from the books – I think, ‘What else can I do?’ I love theatre, but I get bored most of the time in theatres; so I think, ‘I have to try and do it better...’ So that is why I started [writing plays].

Did you have any literary inspirations in the theatre?

Yes! Not from the words side, but I don’t know if you know Alain Platel? This was my theatre awakening. For ten years [I saw] all this German classic theatre bullshit... Die Rauber... / Bleugh...

/Poor old Schiller...

/And then I saw this Platel and think I go mad, and I thought, ‘Aha! This is how theatre can be!’ The same time, the same year as this, I saw Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter, and these two pieces gave me hope. I thought, ‘Ok, you can do something wild in the theatre.’ So I started with a really wild thing. Helges Leben [2001]. I think it’s translated into English, but the translation is bullshit.

[some discussion of the play and translation]

Well, you can hear my English is okay, but I can’t really say if something is a good translation. For example, Nils, my theatre agent, he is also a translator, and I think it’s hard to catch the humour...

[some talk about cultural difference]

So that is why I don’t have success in the UK!

Well, Elfriede Jelinek has no success here...

She doesn’t? [pauses to think] But then she’s not funny...


Well, no, she is funny...

I had also a bad experience here with a book. It was a bestseller in the German speaking world and the Queer scene love it. It’s about a hermaphrodite... And then I had an agent here and he just gets all the publishers saying no. I think maybe – really – it’s because you have your own people here.

We are bad at selling/buying “foreign” authors.

[Agent: talks about difficulty of selling work by foreign playwrights to English theatres]

I think that’s not so... I mean, the Brits have quite brilliant writers. So maybe they don’t need others. I don’t know.

[Agent: but the Germans have brilliant writers and the French have brilliant writers and the Argentians have brilliant writers, but they still bring others...]

But the German [writers] are boring.

A lot of our writers are boring, too...

I don’t know any Argentinian writers. The French they have Houellebecq, but who else a little bit funny, a little bit modern? In Germany it’s the same, what do you have there? I mean, Elfriede’s quite funny in the theatre, but the books... oof.

They are quite heavy.

And then you have all this German [thing of]: “My grandfather was in the Waffen SS...” I mean, really boring shit...

Maybe that’s another thing that happens in Britain. That we perhaps have pre-prepared narratives for German writers. If you write about how it was very sad in the DDR, great start; if you write about the terrible things the Nazis did, we’ve got all the time in the world for German books about that. Normal life in modern Germany? I don’t think many British people see that it’s relevant.

Although maybe now people are more interested in the/a perspective from the New Europe. I mean, you’re Swiss now, aren’t you?

I’m a good Jewish Swiss now, ja.

You were granted Swiss citizenship in 2012. Does that affect things? The perspective from which you write?

No. It only makes me happy not to be in Germany. I haven’t made it to LA, so I sit there...

Is that serious, or er...

It’s serious, ja.

You want to go to L.A.?

Yes, but I need a fucking bestseller for this.

That’s interesting. You want to write novels for the Americans?

America is completely another story. A friend of mine is in Rammstein – I don’t know if you know them [I do] – and they tried for ten years to go to America. Now they’ve made it in America, but it takes them ten years. Oof. That is hard, and I’m too old for this bullshit. I must stay in fucking Switzerland.

Switzerland’s very...

Cute. [spits word]

It’s very clean.


And the trains run on time...

Yes, ok. But they piss me off a little bit now. They are all over the right-wing, they’ve gone a little bit more right wing now. And you think WHY? You have no problems here. You have money. What reason is there to vote right-wing?

You feel that, even in Switzerland (which is outside the EU)? That Europe is becoming more right-wing?

Sure. The whole society is becoming more right-wing and angst[y]. And you think, What? You all have to die. What’s this angst? They’re all loaded with money and they have this angst. This is so all over Europe. The Germans go completely nuts. Angst! ANGST!

You’re writing about young people, now.

This was not actually my idea. Nübling, the director, suggested we should work together... I don’t know if you know the German theatre scene: we have Pollesch, he is funny, and then from the directing side we have Nübling and he works mostly with youngsters and he’s really oof! Anyway, he has the idea to do something with young women, and I say, ‘Ok, let’s do something with young women.’ So before I write this play I meet a couple of young girls – the actresses [in the Gorki production] – and talked with them, and I realised that they are the same like in my time. Nothing has changed. Ok they have iPhones now. Big deal. But all their problems are the same. They are young and they think the know everything better. But they do all this body torture bullshit. For women especially; this ‘how you have to look’ – the way you are comparing yourself with some Kardashians and bullshit – this is a little bit heavier than in my time.

Did living in the DDR have no impact? Being a young woman in East Germany then is essentially the same as being a young woman in United Germany now?

No. Well. There are differences. Ok. First difference is that I never see myself as a “young woman”. That was not really a thing. There was complete equality. There was nothing where I think, ‘Oh, I can’t be a cosmonaut’ or whatever. More, in the other direction, as a woman you felt a little bit stronger, because most of the men you saw in the daily life were alcoholics. [laughs] It was actually the women who ruled everything in the East. Another difference, but I’m not sure it’s to do with the East, is all this what you have today, this: “I have ADHD,” or... They all have sicknesses today.


You are aspergers or you are this and... If you are complicated you are complicated and if you are sad you are sad. You’re not depressive. This bullshit didn’t exist...

[I don’t agree with this, for the record. Something else I realise during this interview, is that it’s not really my job to change an interviewee’s mind. Also, that I’m not wholly convinced, had we been speaking in German, the above would have come out the way it does in English here, but maybe it’s a generational thing. Perhaps erasing it from the transcript would be better? I don’t know.]

But it’s nothing to do with being a young woman. Also the system was very hopeless. I grow up and I thought, I have to stay here for the rest of my life? It’s fucking boring.

It’s interesting because in the West we had this story about what living in the East was like sold to us over and over, about the terrible fear you all lived in...

No. It is bullshit. They get drunk like all over, the fuck like all over. We listen to the same music, in a way... It was only a little bit more... Fuck! There’s the wall and you are here.

So you prefer united Europe?

I think it’s going to the dogs. I think this European idea was complete bullshit. I don’t know if my English is good enough to answer. But you know it for yourself. This capitalism... The same [currency] and we do it only to sell our products to all over without borders. It’s bullshit. I think the Europeans before, they felt like Europeans, you don’t need all this bullshit and all these laws from Bruxelles, I think it can’t work. And now you see with all this refugee bullshit how it goes kaput.


But I’m really too stupid to understand all the details. Every day now I think ‘I don’t know enough’ about this refugee situation. I don’t know who in Syria? What? Where? Who’s really behind all this bullshit. Every day I feel a little bit more stupid. But I think I share this feeling with everyone.

I don’t know how it is here, but it feels like there is a “they”. But who are “they”? “They” keep the humans busy with hating each other... It’s a little bit like Nazi times, they make them hate the foreigners, and hate the homosexuals, but the real people to hate are there sitting in Nestlé or...

So, I give up. I’m too stupid. What I do is stupid.


Yeah. A little bit. I have the feeling it’s not really important. Stupid little plays. You know?

[Agent: connects the above to both the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the feeling of information overload also present in And Now: The World!]

I am on my computer, online 24 hours. I don’t know why, but I get bored if I’m not connected. They make us... They? “THEY” make us addicted to this bullshit!

What sort of things are you watching/reading

Actually all day I have the TV on. I have seven TVs.


Yes really! They cost nothing any more, so... I have two flats and in every room I have them on, so they talk, and I have the computers. So, I am a little bit...

And you write with all that going on in the background?

Absolutely. I don’t listen to music I just... You have all this information now, but your life didn’t change. I don’t know, maybe your life changed. But really we just live our normal life still, but we feel some pressure, some new electricity, but where’s the problem actually? And you have to work more. This I realised. I thought as I get older in the German speaking area I’m quite comfortable, but the generation above – Elfriede, Haneke – they live quite well now. I live *good* but I thought I could work less when I get older. But I work three times more and have the same money. So this is maybe... Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis.

Although moving to Switzerland... I mean, it’s expensive there...

Yeah. This was bullshit actually. I could live in Ukraine in a palace. How is the life here?

I think it’s got much worse for people recently. It’s a catastrophe.

Yes. I should move to Poland. Poland has a nice government now...


I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make that joke work on paper. Right-wing playwright Sibylle Berg said...

This could be my success. This could be my way to Benedict Cumberbatch...

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch, have you seen any theatre since you’ve been in London?

I look in the internet to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, and I was like ‘What the hell are they doing here? It’s like theatre in Germany fifty years ago. There was a table, and some old fucker. He plays Churchill. I think he plays Churchill [pause] But they speak nicely. But who the fuck would watch these kind of plays?

Oh, everybody. Everybody does.

But now he plays some Shakespeare bullshit? And they transmit it all over the world in cinemas? That is fame! This is what I want.

That’s true. Yes. If you get Benedict Cumberbatch in one of your plays...

And this little girl from Game of Thrones. I want her. The little one with the sword. I want her and Benedict.

[cackles] You should write it! Obviously it’ll have to be done in the Gorki Theater and directed by Sebastian Nübling first...

No. I have this nice play, you must read it. It’s a monologue for a man. An angry man. I don’t know if you have them, but in Germany you have all this Pergida, and it’s this middle-class, middle-aged men and they are so ANGRY, and you ask why they are so ANGRY, so I wrote this. It’s a fucking good play. Really. That’s for Benedict, I think.

I’m not sure how I’m going to make this joke fly in a written interview.

I’m not so serious.

It’s my big problem in Germany. They don’t know really where to put me.

That must be true.

They go mad. Most of these men... Middle-aged men hate me. Really, Hass, Hass. I don’t know why, I’m cute. And in the theatre before the Nübling – I start now for the first time to direct by myself – I don’t know, it was a disappointment. But, er, they don’t know what to do with me. They seem that the German humour is something, I don’t know, so they put the jokes, they put some funny hats and found it funny. Or the take the set apart... I don’t know.

But that is diffcult isn’t it? Because the whole German *thing* could be characterised as being very serious/ and straight-forward.

/Fucking serious.

/And it hadn’t struck me about you, but maybe saying something and not meaning it, in that context...

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Jewish thing, or maybe it’s the... I don’t know. But I realised from the beginning that they take everything so seriously and half of my stuff is jokes. They hate me for this. I don’t know about over here, but now in Germany they are all making political theatre.

The second part of this play [this play = And now: The World! Second part = Und dann kam Mirna] – I think the idea is me and Nübling, we do it now until we die, until the end of our lives, we make every play with these four girls – the second part of this play is fucking funny. (In Germany it’s four girls playing the protagonist.) And in this one they have a ten-year-old. Really funny. In the Gorki again. And the first review I read was all, “Ja, it is nice, but aren’t there more important subjects at the moment?”


This is the 900th piece on Postcards From The Gods. Christ.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Roar, China! – Teatr Powszechny, Warszawa

[seen 11/11/15]

11/11 is Independence Day in Poland. The independence they’re marking is from Poland being divided up and ruled by Russians, Prussians and Austro-Hungarians, essentially ended by the Russian revolution of 1917, the German surrender in 1918, and the associated collapse of the Habsburg Empire because reasons. Poland enjoyed almost 21 whole years of independence before next being invaded, and occupied for the subsequent 50 years (and two months). On 11/11, right-wing/far-right/nationalist football fans have a bit of a march to Warsaw’s National Stadium (built for 2010’s European Cup). This happens to be right next to Teatr Powszechny. In previous years, this march has tended to end with paving stones being ripped up and flung about. However, two weeks previously the right-wing, nationaist Law and Justice Party won a parliamentary majority in the general election here. It’s the first time they’ve won an election, and the first time any party has achieved an overall majority in the free elections established after the fall of Communism. The result is a complete catastrophe for Poland, but apparently good news for the paving stones of Warsaw’s Praga district.

Roar, China! is a 1926 (or 1930 according to Wikipedia) play by the Soviet Russian playwright, Sergei Tretyakov, and in its original form and intent is full-on agitation and propaganda. Given Poland’s history with Russia, a contemporary revival is *obviously* not as simple as an attempted resurrection of “authorial intent”. I don’t imagine anyone would even begin to approach it as such. At the same time – almost half a century of Soviet occupation between when the play was written and now notwithstanding – this Polish production is clearly making use of Tretyakov’s anti-Western-imperialist message, largely by just putting it onstage and letting it resonate how it will.

I watched the piece with a synopsis, rather than full text, so I was at one remove from any immediate resonances there were to be had, but, on the plus-side I didn’t have to keep looking away at surtitles, and the staging was such that I was more thasn completely engaged throughout. Even without understanding a single word that was said (my Polish isn’t all that) it was completely possible to follow the action, to be moved by it, and excited by the staging.

This is the first paragraph of the synopsis:

“The story takes place at the beginning of the 20th century, in the Chinese province, in the Wansien city by the Yangtze River. During this period Western countries economically exploited the region, treating Chinese people as slaves. The events unfold in two places: on a ship, where white colonists are gathered – the Captain, the Lieutenant, de Bruchelle family, and on a river bank, where we take the perspective of poor Chinese people (Boatmen, representatives of the administration, the Student, the trader). The Page serving on a boat and on the land is a link between those two worlds.”

There’s an excellent summary of the play’s narrative and theme here:

[I should note, for the benefit of British readers, that everyone in the production is white. Given that Poland’s population is 98.6% white, this seems understandable. (Poland’s Vietnamese population runs to a whole 0.1% (either 29,000 or 50,000 according to different places in the same Wikipedia article) of her population.) It is interesting to see a play essentially about racial tensions performed by a cast that is entirely racially homogeneous – at least visually. (Indeed, it seems statistically unlikely that there would be even one non-white actor anywhere in Poland (employment in the live performance sector is 71,000, 0.5% of Poland’s total employment).) It goes without saying that *of course* I would find it deplorable if Poland’s overwhelming whiteness were ever cited as an excuse not to train or employ non-white actors.]

For what it’s worth, there is actually very little discernible comment in the narrative on “racial difference”. This is, after all, a strict Marxist-Leninist piece which analyses the situation seeing the British and Americans’ white supremacist arrogance as a symptom of their Imperialist bourgeois capitalism. I do wonder if this analysis is entirely correct. It’s interesting that white workers are largely absent from the story, and as a result, their false class consciousness – scenes of white soldiers and sailors allying themselves along racial lines with those exploiting them rather than with their fellow (Chinese) workers along class lines – is absent.

The stagecraft itself here is wonderful, particularly after having been in England for a while*. As it happens, I’d seen something Paweł Łysak directed before. [His production of Danton’s Case from Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz was at Warsaw Theatre Meetings in 2009 (“one of the best I've seen in any language this year”), so I was incredibly pleased to discover he was now the director here.]

His style (if it’s fair to extrapolate from two productions) is maybe closest to Sean Holmes’s work with Secret Theatre, or perhaps Joe Hill-Gibbins in The Changeling. But more *relaxed* than either, somehow (I mean that as a positive). I mean, it’s not *relaxing* to watch (have a look at the trailer), but the actors just seem to move more freely on stage. I think this is related to what Holger Syme was talking about. There’s also that greater sense of abandon in the staging. Comparing it to Joe H-G’s recent Measure For Measure, which I loved for its successful embrace of so many “European” visual tropes, it makes the M4M still seem remarkably hidebound, strict, and mannered. Which surprised me. But, yes. The stage itself is simply designed. I think we the audience are seated on what’s normally the stage of Teatr Powszechny’s main house, while the auditorium has been built over so that the playing space was kind of “in-the-round” (well, actually an extreme thrust, with loosely configured seating). In the centre of the stage was a shallow trench and then a deep section of it filled with water – enough to submerge a couple of actors standing up next to each other. There is also a lot of hose action. I know it’s cheap to be excited by something so simple, but there was something brilliant about both how casually it was just *there* and then how violently it was used. Like, you knew it would get used, but even so, when it came, it didn’t felt like the usual UK concern for not getting the audience annoyed/wet. There was also a HUGE bag of squeaky plastic chickens.

It’s difficult to review a local production in its local context when you are not also local. However, it seemed incredibly clear to me that this was a horribly urgent-but-accurate bit of programming. No one could have known the election result when the theatre was programming the play, even if Poland’s rightwards drift began some time ago.

On the day of the Independence Day March, the literary manager of the theatre took me to a new exhibition at the Zacheta museum on the rebuilding of Warsaw of post-war socialist art, architecture and propaganda. On our way back to the theatre we passed the crowds peeling away from this year’s completed march. One large group of young men with Polish-flag armbands, Polish flags and flags of 1930s Polish fascists posed around a large banner proclaiming their resistance to ISIS. The banner was of course written in English, for the benefit of the world media.

The arguments of the play seem relatively simple and clear-cut in their own context. Their multiple meanings and resonances in a modern Europe are far more complex. That its concerns with imperialism and racism seem entirely modern is on one level deeply depressing, but the fact of its beings staged, and its success and popularity are at least a small reason for hope. And God knows we seem to need a lot of both reason and hope in Europe and beyond at the moment.

And not this sort of hope:

*It’s been striking me a lot recently that it’s odd that Britain ended up fixing on Germany as a point of theatrical reference-for-change. I suppose [broad brushstroke analysis] that it’s *so* different, with so few fixed points for comparison, that it is easier to feel swayed by, and so to take as an example with which to try to change our own culture. But, for my money, I think there’s actually more comparison between British and Polish theatre. Perhaps as a direct result of our recent interest in Germany. Polish theatre, it seems to me, exists in a similar place to where Britain’s now is, with on one hand a good grasp of conceptual ideas, but on the other hand a recent strong tradition of naturalism and emotional empathy, so that a synthesis of the two doesn’t feel like a complete betrayal of a philosophy in the same way as it does in Germany. At the same time, I know it’s as foolish to talk about “Polish Theatre” as it is to imagine there’s one “German Theatre” or one “English Theatre”, and that there are easily as many internecine squabbles between schools of thought.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Je suis homme blanc / Wir sind alle weißen Männer

[on representation, equality and narcissism (in theatre)]

Now’s not a great time to be a white man.

No, no, stop laughing.

Of course it *is* a great time to be a white man. It’s never not been a great time to be a white man [depending on how we’re designating the Ancient Greeks or Romans, depending on how we’re choosing to classify European Jews, allowing that we’re excluding homosexuals from counting as “men” for long periods of time, assuming that we’re often only comparing the white men in question to white women in comparable social brackets, etc.]. And it’s *still* a great time to be a white man, if you have absolutely zero social conscience, and the means by which you can continue to avoid reality in an increasingly unstable society.

But let’s assume that you’re a white man who is left-leaning, avowedly anti-racist, anti-sexist, trans-positive (or whatever the best term for that is), etc. etc. etc. Maybe you’re gay, disabled, Jewish, Muslim, a trans-man, or “white” only because your mixed heritage is invisible in/on your skin, and so on. Or, even if you’re a straight, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian-atheist man (i.e. the God you don’t believe in is by default the Christian God first – it would never even occur to you to confirm that you also don’t believe in the Hindu Gods, for example), maybe you feel marginalised (though, God, you’d be the first to point out that you’re not as marginalised as anyone else) by your mental health, or by addiction, or by your physical health, or even just by your minority political beliefs. You are the sort of white man who would be the first to admit that, by comparison, you are still privileged by your “white identity”, and your “maleness”.

What are you going to do?

It’s tricky isn’t it?

Because the best thing you can do is resign. Now.

[This essay is about theatre, but I’m reasonably sure it holds good for everything else in Great Britain too.]

If you are a white man holding a prominent position in an organisation (or even just starting on the ladder towards one), it is numerically probable that it would be better for society if you resigned your job and it was given to a woman and/or someone from an ethnic minority. And, ideally – in many, many cases – not just given to the white, upper-middle-class, privately-educated woman who’s already in the office next door to you.

If we want The Arts in Britain to resemble society in Britain, Then only 10% of those working in The Arts can have been privately educated. Only 50% may be university educated. 40% AT EVERY LEVEL in London must be BAME; although nationally that figure is only 20%. And 51% of all arts jobs must be occupied by women. And it would not be enough that the totals add up. If most of the artistic directors are still white men, then it’s still unbalanced and unrepresentative. And if, even after a shake-up, 51% of artistic directors are women, if 95% of them are white and privately educated, then it isn’t a triumph for of feminism but a further failure of equality.

Now, as a good socialist – irrespective of my race, gender or class – I find this level of mass redundancy, especially during such a period of ongoing economic fuck-up, troubling. But there is not nearly enough “natural wastage” to achieve anything like equality coming up any time soon, and apparently there isn’t the money to expand the arts to achieve equality simply by adding all the people necessary. So it is the only way. A few fig-leaf appointments won’t do. Just putting someone different in charge of the National Theatre won’t make everything okay (although it would be a start). No. There has to be a systematic root and branch purge of white men.

Or, at the very least, plans have to be put in place to ensure that this gradually becomes the future – over the next ten years, say. Of course, ironically, given who’s mostly in charge now, those plans will, like-as-not, have to be drawn up by white men. Which will, of course, be a problem...


I wrote the other day about Critical Tribalism, or “teams”, considering a modest division into two teams (the existence of which I was denying anyway). And I stand by that as an analysis of the current situation. In criticism We *Are* All Individuals. But that situation – even in the self-selecting, do-it-as-well-as-your-day-job world of having a blog – is, with painfully few exceptions, *still* very white and very middle-class.

As such, it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that there is only one real “team”, and all it does is quibble about minor differences in how best white, middle-class interests are represented on stage. Criticism has at least pulled its socks up a bit in terms of gender, to the extent that at least 50% of the critics I read are women (personally I’m not really interested in the pretend hierarchies of newspaper critics’ ranks, or divisions between “blog”, online, and print. With those taken into account, a) it’s doing a bit less well, but b) so is what it covers, and c) how it covers it).

What interests me about this state of affairs in criticism, is how much it affects the situation in theatre (might we extend this to the equally self-selecting world of audiences?). Implicitly, explicitly, whatever. And where the fault-lines lie most deeply.

I like to hope that theatres know better than to try to please “the critics”. I like to imagine that good reviews and bad reviews have no impact on what theatres do. I do also imagine that this is a somewhat naïve view to take. I’m not a theatre, I don’t know. But it would be a catastrophe if all our theatres programmed to please the tastes of whomsoever is writing about their work. Of course, the argument can be made that while the critics resemble the race, age and class of a theatre’s core demographic (and indeed its artistic directorship), there’s already a certain confluence of interests there, and the rest is merely quibbling about approach and outcome. A realist might point out, however, that the reason the core audience coincides so exactly with the race and age of the critic is not simple coincidence, and the elision of interests began a lot longer ago than them all happening to turn out to be in those positions. At which point the appointment of the artistic director of the theatre becomes rather inevitable-looking. (In this respect, it is an oddity that more women go to the theatre, proportionally, than run them or (until recently) wrote about them. Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s recent speculative comments were fascinating on this subject.)


I’ve been nursing a vague question in my head for a few years about how much theatregoing is narcissism. Put bluntly, to what extent do we want to go and see things that we “identify with”? And, to what extent is something being “relevant to our interests” a deciding factor (in whether or not we go and see it; or, if we’re already there, in whether or not we like it)? Is “identification with” the same thing as “something we’re interested in/by,” and does that matter? [I wrote most of this piece on 8th November – bookended by watching Andy Brooks’s Blake Remixed at the Royal Exchange and the first series of Master of None on Netflix – a week before the terrorist attacks on Paris refocused this debate on “relevance” “narcissism” and coverage.]

My perspective is obviously white, male, middle class, able-bodied, ostensibly heterosexual, lapsed-protestant, and socialist. The most important of those things (to me) is socialism. And I suspect that’s because it’s the only one of the things that (for me, unconsciously,) make up my identity which is in any way in opposition to the (hitherto?) main-stream of British culture. I’m also apparently “quite bright” (at least, arts-bright; I’m fucking hopeless at languages, maths and natural sciences) according to the way that UK society is set-up.

It may or may not be relevant to note that I smoke at least 30 cigarettes a day, and am consequently not terribly sporty or fit (although: chicken and egg; maybe I started smoking because I don’t like sports), and have never been much of a dancer (understatement). I preferred drawing to writing, and then alternative music to chart music when I was growing up. I’m probably more shy than people realise and dislike speaking in public immensely. I could go on, listing more and more niche aspects of myself until someone could write and stage a play that is tailored solely to my interests. And there’s every chance that I’d think that play was better than Hamlet (that other great play about an indecisive ex-goth, right?).

You get the point. Troublingly, there aren’t, as we might have been brought up to believe (and that might depend on how old you are), “universals” in quite the same way we hoped. White men are not the neutral figures someone once imagined they were.

Now, no one but white men needs this pointing out to them. The best recent comment on this was made, almost identically and nearly in the same week, by theatre director Rachel Chavkin and writer Vinay Patel. Here: “I’m a woman, so I think in women. I think through women. When I read Astrov or Hamlet on the page, I see qualities I identify with. Often, in production, I don’t.” Cast a woman and, hey presto, it’s back.” and here “I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones.” (Both those pieces very much worth reading in their entirety, btw.)

Obviously, if you are a white man, then your base rate for specificity has hitherto been set very high. Almost all the celebrated high-points of your culture have been made by white men, been designated as the high-points by other white men, and agreed upon (or quibbled over) by countless further white men. We white men (and all the other things that we are that we never think about being) can then happily oppose Hamlet with King Lear, or argue the toss over Marx against Friedman, or Martin Crimp versus David Eldridge, David Hare or Heiner Müller, Rupert Goold or Jeremy Herrin, etc. etc. etc. without ever once leaving our cul-de-sac. And of course these things do *matter*. A bit. At least to us. (More than just a bit in the case of Marx v. Friedman, I’d say.) But we should also acknowledge that all the above could also reasonably be construed as entirely narcissistic as well.

That isn’t to say that only white men care about those things. And it’s not an admission that white men care *only* about these things – it was near impossible not to bring white women Katie Mitchell and Sarah Kane into those oppositions of writers and directors I just gave, for example.

*OBVIOUSLY* for *ME*, those things matter a lot. They’re my favourite things. I’m a white man and some of my favourite things are: Joy Division, Sleaford Mods, Beethoven, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Heiner Müller, Martin Crimp, Marx and Engels. Some of my other favourite things are the work of Katie Mitchell, Sarah Kane, Gisèle Vienne, Cornelia Parker, Jenny Saville, Megan Vaughan, Sixth June, Onutė Narbutaitė, Lizzie Clachan, Rosa Luxemburg and Ulrike Meinhof. I also like debbie tucker green...

Ok, so maybe I’m overstating a point, but you see what I mean. My tastes up to this point in my life have probably been overwhelmingly white, and probably more male than female. They’re just one person’s subjective tastes, and I don’t think anyone has a problem with that, per se (after all, apparently all *anyone* wants to see is *themselves* represented. I should go and read some Freud on Narcissism and the Mirror-Phase). The problem bit starts immediately afterwards when my tastes become my work, and my work then occasionally becomes a matter of record and maybe influence. And then that record/influence goes on to contribute to a knock-on effect. (A very grand way of putting it, but suggested in the spirit of concern, not boasting or delusion).

And I’d be the first to say that my views are relatively minor in the grand scheme of theatre in Britain; compared to more senior critics, compared to literary managers, compared to the artistic directors of theatres, compared to the people who appoint those artistic directors of theatres. On the other hand, it would be stupid not to recognise that while my tastes are my tastes, informed by who I am, so are those other, more important views, and while we all keep coming from a relatively narrow background, is there not going to be, at the very least, the risk of an unbroken cycle?

Moreover, what is absolutely crucial to recognise is that my tastes – while they might record my favourites – do not, can not, amount to any kind of objective or pseudo-objective index of “quality” (or, ahem, “Greatness”), even though I do have *really good taste*.

I mean, Christ, after everything I’ve outlined above – and what with none of it being news to anyone – I REALLY CAN’T SEE HOW ANYONE CAN’T SEE THE PROBLEM.

Basically, while there are any people with different lives to mine living in the UK, those people’s life-experiences and conseuquent tastes need to be represented at every level of any artform that wants to account itself relevant. It is in no way good enough for me to have tastes and for everyone else to have to shut up and listen to me (or people like me) about them.


That said, this isn’t a counsel of despair. Indeed I kind of hope it’s the opposite.

At the same time, what my idea of hope is might not necessarily be everyone else’s. So that’s complicated. My hopes are after all, the hopes of a [we know the drill now, right?]...

My hope is that if theatre in Britain were more diverse, more cross-cultural, and more inclusive, then the net result would be that *everyone* – both audiences and those involved in making it alike – would end up feeling more represented. Theatre would feel more “relevant” to all of us because we all live in the same society. (By extension, we might also one day get round to watching theatre from other countries while understanding it as itself, rather than as examples of failures to be more like British theatre (as if such a single monolith exists anyway).)

But perhaps I’m kidding myself here. And this is the bit I really don’t know, or can’t know. After all, just as my tastes don’t even necessarily represent anything like even those of just the next white middle-class man (etc. etc.), I don’t for a moment believe that Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic taste or experience is a single thing. Or that working class taste and experience is one thing. Or that female taste and experience is. Or that gay taste and experience... And so on. Etc.

So, something else that fascinates me is: along what lines theatre may differ in a more diverse future.

Is society (helped along perhaps by the internet?) becoming more fractured and entrenched in its smaller, more niche communities? (Or was it ever thus, with the internet just making it more apparent?) Will taste and experienc be divided not just by race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., but smaller and smaller intersectional subdivisions of these? And will micro-communities want to pursue a theatre dedicated more and more specific to themselves? Or, if we ever manage to achieve greater equality (and, well, Christ, not just in theatre obviously), will we watch and engage with less narcissism? Will it be discovered that people have more things in common than not, or will difference continue to be emphasised? Indeed, is the internet not already bringing more and more members diverse communities into contact and making collaborations that cross every previously described division (except maybe political) ever more possible? [Or are other cultural boundaries also as immutable as politics?]

Frankly, who knows?

What remains unarguable is that the issue of equality can’t keep on being dodged. Representation needs to be tackled properly and tackled now. Only when everyone feels represented at the table is there any point in arguing the toss about the things that get put on the table. Right?

Friday, 13 November 2015

As You Like It – National Theatre, London

[seen 09/11/15]

I’m not sure I really *got* Polly Findlay and Liz Clachan’s As You Like It. [and I certainly didn’t enjoy writing this review one bit.] I think maybe by the end I’d warmed to it, or got into it; or maybe it’s that the ending is yet another gear change in a production of gear-changes, and the final one was the most readily comprehensible.

It opens, wittily, in at sort of modern-but-eighties stock brokers. “As You Like I.T.” perhaps. Or Enron van Hove – a mash-up of Goold’s Prebble with the latter’s Roman Tragedies. As an opening setting it’s fine. It gets the job done. The “wrestling match” is the first time it really comes alive and they could probably cut everything before that, since it’s all set-up that gets reiterated upteen further times anyway. Maybe keep the scene before with Orlando’s brother telling Charles the Wrestler that he’s welcome to do Orlando in, but otherwise bin it. (Let’s be honest, it’s a shit set-up: woman fancies bloke she sees at wrestling match; bloke and woman and woman’s mate get thrown out of the place they are in after wrestling match. They fuck off to a forest...)

The opening set is doubtless saying something quite obvious about how we might not like capitalism terribly much at the moment. Then...

[VERY STAGING-SPOILER ALERT – not that everyone else hasn’t already spoilered it already...]

...the low back wall and ceiling of the brokers’ office lifts into the flies, AND DRAGS ALL THE CHAIRS AND DESKS WITH IT. It is proper bloody fantastic. Good. The net result is that the Forest of Arden looks like Cornelia Parker’s s Cold Dark Matter meeting Gisele Vienne’s This is How You Will Disappear.

And, well, THE REST OF A PLAY IS SET IN THE LANDSCAPE MADE OUT OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A STOCK MARKET GOES KAPUT. DID ANYONE REALLY NEED THIS EXPLAINING? [But if this the intention, I kinda of wish it had been more thoroughly or legibly pursued in the production itself.]

So, yes, the set is very good as an artwork or installation. The lighting of it (Jon Clark) is more various. It looks bloody wonderful in its night-time aspect, with cold moonlight filtering through the smoke and branches. In its various daylight aspects – and I think we get several different times of day, and sorts of daylight across the play – it varies. The best are good, but the worst almost have the effect of creating a sort of jagged camouflage of shadows and bright light in both backdrop and foreground, so that actors’ whole bodies seem to blend suddenly into the shards of shadows. It’s quite and interesting effect, but it does take some getting used to/tuning in to while trying to work out what you’re meant to be looking at.

But the main thing that takes some tuning in to is the wealth and variety of acting styles on display. I *loved* Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Measure For Measure for the way that each character quite rightly seemed to occupy their own walk of life, both theatrically and somehow *locally*. Here it seems a bit less certain than that. There are many different styles, but several of them are styles of which I am not fond. I’m afraid I didn’t warm to Joe Bannister’s Orlando one bit. I mean, yes, As You Like It is a comedy, but Bannister’s affable performance made Rosalind’s love-at-first-sight for him fully incomprehensible, then ongoingly mystifying, and, well, I dunno, he was kind of a nice-but-dim posh boy with a loud voice. A kind of background figure from a Richard Curtis film. In a jumper. God knows. I sure the actor is a nice bloke and a lot more dynamic in real life, but on stage we were asked for a lot of investment for no discernible return.

Rosalie Craig’s Rosalind was apparently a late(?) substitution for Andrea Riseborough. And I kind of wish I hadn’t known that. Because I spent a bunch of time wondering what that meant, and why, and how that would have changed the production and so on. Craig, I think, is actually one of the better things in this production, acting-wise. Possibly. I mean, she’s doing something entirely different to anything I’ve seen anyone do with Shakespeare before, which is to treat it precisely as if it is a musical theatre script. (Ok, I might have thought this partly because I know she also does musicals very successfully, but it’s true.) Now, you might think this means I thought she was bad. But I absolutely promise it doesn’t mean that. Craig is putting in a performance that would be 100% expected in thousands of other contexts, and, moreover, is doing it very well. She’s totally on top of the lines. You completely see what her character’s about. She has a much better, more robust, chippy take on Rosalind’s “Ganymede” than many actors in the role (and without panto thigh-slapping, thank Christ). But, yes, sometimes when she has a real run up at a long sentence, it sounds like we should expect a song to strike up when the line ends. But that’s not really a bad way of doing Shakespeare. It’s kind of fun. It gets us though. At the other end of the good things, Alan Williams, as the morose (and partly made-up/other-character(s?) folded-in) shepherd Corin, inhabits a kind of Beckettian universe where taking all day with one line would seem perfectly ok. I reckon I could have taken even more long pauses and disgusted silences. Patsy Ferran plays Celia – as Maddy Costa (literally the same cardigans, I think) – and is probably the best at making Shakespeare’s language her own. No one else in this production really holds a candle to her. And that sort of feels like a problem too.

But, well, here’s the real thing, I saw this a week after press night, and a week and a half after my friend and colleague Holger Syme saw it in preview. And, well, Holger and I had disagreed about Measure For Measure (or rather, I probably saw all his points, but still loved it anyway), but he said one thing that I just couldn’t shake out of my head, and it was this:

“Why can’t English actors move at the same time that they’re speaking?”

And that’s it. Once you’ve heard that, you’re fucked. Look at them. Standing there, standing still and speaking. Occasionally in this production they have a bit of a stab at sidling while they talk. Maybe. But mostly it feels like there’s a lot of striding or strolling to the next stop, so they can say their next thing. Now, Obviously I’m as English as the next person, and I did quite like this production by the end, but it was also hard to drown out the fact that THIS IS A SHOW THAT DIVIDES OPINION!

Up to this point, I haven’t read any of the reviews. But, my God, even unread reviews don’t half make a lot of noise.

I shall now go and read some of them.

Holger Syme – “Visual magic; artistic bankruptcy” is harsher and more strict than I’d be, but it’s a brilliant review. (By a real German, Michael)

Matt Trueman: “It is, in short, one for the history books” – if history begins in 2010 (or is exclusively English.)

Michael Billington: “Our march towards a Germanic directors’ theatre continues apace.” – if you’ve only seen half a dozen shows by “Germanic” directors in the last decade and have no idea what any of them were doing or why, this probably seems true.

Susannah Clapp: “not as it has been seen before. Polly Findlay has blown winter winds through the Forest of Arden...” – like, for example, Sam Mendes’s properly dreadful Old Vic production did in 2010.

Quentin Letts: not read – if we start actually reading his ridiculous reviews it’d be like his opinion mattered, which it simply doesn't.

So: in short, I don’t think the performances gelled. Not with each other, nor fully with the play, or the set. It feels like you could take the set out and replace it with trees and you’d have quite a traditional version of AYLI, albeit with a more interesting Rosalind. (Somehow, Celia’s been interesting for longer hasn’t she? Because fewer lines?)  So I don’t get the reactionary grumbling about the set *spoiling* the play.  It doesn’t.

Perhaps the reason this production maybe feels annoying (when it does, if it does) is because it feels like there’s all sorts of good thinking here, but it hasn’t been allowed to go far enough. The ideas feel hampered by the fact they’re still being railroaded by the the play. Intellectual energy has been diverted from making ideas communicate and flow to simple stage-problem solving.

I can’t ever hear a forest sound-scape made by the actors without thinking of Excalibur by Bad News (from about 3.30. “Flap flap flap flap...”). Could everyone just agree not to do those? (In truth, I’ve never liked them, but post- The Encounter, I think the world has categorically moved on.)

All that said, I quite liked it. It’s not the revolution it’s being painted as in some quarters, nor is it the sacrilege others have claimed. It’s a modern British production with some uneven acting, some lighting that didn’t really work for me, but a nice enough spirit (even if all the leads are unnecessarily white).

But, like I say, when lit right, what a gorgeous thing to look at:

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Lines – The Yard, Hackney

[seen 28/10/15]

I love The Yard. Have you been to The Yard? The Yard Theatre, just by Hackney Wick station, is literally in one obscure corner of what looks like a builder’s yard. Sure, across that yard there’s also the White Building, which houses the Live Art Development Agency and a nice-looking pizza place. And beyond that there is a canal and then the Olympic Park. One day soon, it’ll all be fully gentrified and cleaned up and won’t be any fun any more. At the moment, though, around The Yard, the buildings are still grubby, crumbling, and covered in graffiti. There’s overgrown plantlife and barbed wire that looks like it still means business. The theatre itself is an auditorium built of out MDF (I’m guessing) at one end of a long low shed with a corrugated iron ceiling. There’s no wing space. There’s no fly tower or “backstage”. There’s just raked seats (plundered from everywhere and nailed down) facing a wall and, in between the seats and the wall, an expanse of concrete floor constituting the stage.

The programme of work shown at The Yard is massively varied and incredibly astutely programmed. Most of the year (it feels), is given over to double bills of scratch performances, works in progress; put on with – I imagine – minimal risk to performers’ financial wellbeing.

What you don’t tend to see there, on the whole, is things that self-describe as “plays”. Now, obviously we’ve written about how this isn’t a value judgement, we’ve recognised that there might be *text* in a not-a-“play”, and have rejected the critical tribalism presumed around such demarcations. And my impression might be wrong. But that’s my abiding impression of The Yard’s programming.

But there’s still some value in saying what sort of thing a thing is, right? (Or is that where people start freighting every term with loaded agendas?). What I found interesting – properly fascinating, in fact – about Lines (which I saw in preview, but loved, but still didn’t manage to write-up until now, so Christ knows how that works with The Rules; it might have got a bit better?) is that on the face of it it walks like “a play” and quacks like “a play”, (ok, like a specific sort of social realist contemporary play), but I don’t think it is one of those at all. Or, rather, you *could* equally view it as an installation with a lot of dialogue and acting. Or, in terms of the text, something more like a staging of a poem.

Pamela Carter’s writing is brilliant. Crisp, funny and contemporary as dialogue, it also seems (I’ve not read it, only seen the production, so am guessing) to contain an architecture that forces non-naturalism. Lines’s 90 minutes are divided into two wildly uneven parts with a short interval. The first part shows a series of snapshot-quick scenes in which four new army recruits in their barracks bond and bicker while learning the ropes, barked at occasionally by an unseen (voiceover) sergeant. Put reductively, one is black, one is gay, one is northern, and the last one, well, the last one is the weak link who might have a problem with all those things. He also seems to be a bit lazy, a bit disorganised, a bit distracted. In dramatic terms it’s of course interesting to see the normal expectations of plays-about-soldiers subverted and rather than being about racist or homophobic bullying, it’s about a lovely diverse group of soldiers turning violently on the bigot in their midst. Weirdly, you could bring Quentin Letts to see this, and he wouldn’t be entirely mad to be able to discern a parable about the “violent forces of political correctness” or something. I don’t think it’s a point the play is making, but it certainly gives lazy liberals like me who hate militarism something different to chew on. Whether it’s likely or real, researched or imagined, the insight that an army is primarily about killing an army as a tightly functioning unit is powerfully made. These soldiers are less worried by constructions of masculinity, race or sexuality, as the efficiency of the guy who’s got your back. It’s not about like or dislike, it’s about not getting killed. There’s a fair bit of shirt-offery, and some (pants-on, weirdly) showers, and, well, I imagine it’s fairly homoerotic. I happened to see it the same night as Chris Goode, whose Ponyboy Curtis at The Yard I sadly missed. But, having read the latter’s reviews, I was curious about what consonances/departures there were between this play about aggressive, weaponised “men”, and PBC’s attempt to rethink masculinity.

The performances here are excellent, I thought. Still English acting rather than what we might call “Live Art *being*” but very good acting, nonetheless; but, interestingly, along with the intensity of the performances, the thing that really raises the game of Jay Miller’s production is the sound design by Josh Grigg . [edit: when originally scanning the programming I credited the sound design to Manni Dee who was the composer on the piece. What I said next still stands, though: "Actually, it’s credited as “composition” and I’d agree".]  They should have CDs of the Lines soundtrack on sale at the exit. It’s this urgent, thumping, slightly-too-fast throb that hardly ever fully goes away. And it transforms the piece from *just a play* to a full-on collaborative work of art. The sound is a fully-realised-in-its-own-right element that when placed alongside the performances of the text and the lighting and the design – stark pale blocks of lockers and beds on a low bare platform.

Then there’s the second part. Now, personally, I’d wouldn’t have had an interval but a lighting/loud-music intervention as a kind of “palette cleanser”, but the interval serves the same purpose roughly, and feels in keeping with the Yard’s rough and ready aesthetic. It works, so why worry? The second part is different to the first. The first part ends in incredible tension. I don’t think it’s referred to once in the second. Instead, three of the soldiers just describe deaths. Deaths from films? Their own deaths in combat? Some combination of the two? This could, esp. given the interval, have gone on for about an hour and I’ve still have loved it. Instead it’s pretty short. But, blimey. Clever. And evocative. Really evocative. It somehow moves your mind expertly from considering these soldiers as people to being, well, multiple symbolic tragedies. Soldiers keep on getting killed. It’s almost like something from Kipling. The clear-eyed imperialist wryly observing, “A scrimmage in a Border Station / A canter down some dark defile / Two thousand pounds of education / Drops to a ten-rupee jezail”. 

Hopefully, as a postmodern audience, we’re a bit less bothered about the nationality of those being killed so much as the fact of there being killing at all, and I think, in a funny way, even though these soldiers are apparently British, the piece achieves that. You’d have to be a pretty stern bigot not to see parallels between those trained by the British Army and those trained by IS/al Qaeda/Taliban/Republican Guard. It’s very good on not asking its questions too directly. And it’s always difficult to pin-point how much of what one thinks about during a show is directional sleight-of-hand and how much personal preoccupation (not to mention confirmation bias and seeing what you want/expect to see), but for my money this is powerful, intelligent, evocative work that contains just the right mixture of force and space. A powerful achievement all round.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Pomona – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 04/11/15]

[intro after review]

Pomona is a difficult play to write *about*. It’s a bloody gift to write *around*, but a nightmare to describe. This is because, in essence, it describes a nightmare. The scenes occur as if shuffled from their “proper” order. You get a sense that there is a linear narrative in there somewhere, but you’re just not being fast enough. And then things happen. Characters you’d presumed were figments of another character’s imagination suddenly meet other characters whom you’d assumed were real. The lights all go off. We see brief tableaux in strobe flashes. Charlie (Sam Swann) is talking Keaton (Sarah Middleton) through a role-playing game (RPG) about Cthulu, except the next minute it’s Zeppo (Guy Rhys) talking to Ollie (Nadia Clifford).

The basic plot – yeah, I’ll give it a stab – is that Ollie is looking for her twin sister in Manchester. In flashbacks (?) we see her sister start work at a brothel, chatting to Fay (Rebecca Humphries). When she (the sister, also played by Clifford) disappears, Fay starts asking awkward question of the brothel’s owner(?), Gale (Rochenda Sandall). Gale is then in trouble with her boss, Keaton.

Or: Charlie and Moe (Sean Rigby) work on Pomona guarding the only road entrance; their boss, Gale, orders them to murder a woman. In their private lives Charlie is meeting Keaton who’s responded to his advert to play an RPG with him; Joe goes to visit a woman working as a prostitute, Fay, because – thanks to his anger management – he’s been finding it difficult to just have human contact. The woman they’ve been ordered to murder is Fay. Gale’s boss is Keaton. Ollie is almost invisible.

Or. Or. Or...

The plot feels slippery, illusory. It could all be in the minds of any one of the myriad characters, Ollie might not have a sister, or she could *be* the sister. “Ollie” could be made up. Keaton’s role as a master criminal could be role-play fantasy or deadly reality. And Zeppo – the most fleeting figure of the piece – he might really own most of the city and “not get involved,” or he could really be a seagull talking to a dead girl all along.

What’s utterly brilliant is that while the structure glides and shimmers in front of us, it neither stops us caring about the characters, nor about the story. Think: those David Lynch films where some twist halfway through essentially makes the story impossible in a linear sense. But, Christ almighty, what a journey it is. It feels – something reflected in Georgia Lowe’s design, echoed and enhanced by Elliot Griggs’s lighting design – like you’re being sucked into a vortex. The structure of the play, the feelings of the characters, even the shape of the Exchange, contrive to make it feel like everything is spiralling into this central plughole in the middle of the city, in the middle of the stage.

A big black hole in the middle of the city.

Along the way, the play also manages to feel like one of the best metaphors for life in late-capitalism ever written. (Having done the programme interview, I happen to know this isn’t entirely coincidence. But, well, hats off to McDowall, it totally fucking works.) The characters have a way of saying things that are not only true in the moment or to their reality, but also refract a far wider sense of what something is like. So much of each of their situations reflects some vile facet of life in our economy. The opening is at once once a brilliant comic aria on Indiana Jones and McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, a key describing the themes of the play, and a kind of horrible warning about how we live now akin to Ten Billion. The whole is both a brilliant joke that it’s possible to take entirely seriously, and an incredibly sobering analysis that you’d have to try very hard not to find gripping and exciting. Moreover, Pomona is (hold the quotes slot) PROBABLY THE BEST PLAY ABOUT MANCHESTER EVER WRITTEN. Beyond this, the performances are blistering good; proper barnstorming rhetoric in authentic Manc accents offset with subtle, emotional moments, beautiful “reaction shots” (watching in-the-round, you get to really focus on someone just listening sometimes, and the cast pull it off perfectly). And Christ, the look of the thing, and the sound of the thing (Giles Thomas – absolutely outstanding work as composer and sound designer)...

So, yeah. Go see Pomona.

[Forgive the personal intro: When I first saw Pomona last year at the Orange Tree I had never heard of the titular place. Now, just under a year later, I live so close to it that I receive letters from Manchester City Council when people put in planning applications on it. (And, fuck those planning applications, frankly. What kind of demented cunt thinks those buildings would be good anywhere?) Pomona is now almost literally my back garden. I won’t say that the show actually played a part in my moving from London to Manchester. And, really, the location of my flat is basically just a coincidence. But it certainly didn’t hurt my decision-making process when I found out where it was in relation to Pomona, and it’s a coincidence of which I’m incredibly fond.]

So, last night Pomona came home.

I really wish I’d reviewed the production when I’d first seen it at the Orange Tree a year ago.

I’ve still got the start of that review on my laptop:
Once in a while a play comes along that is so good that the first three lines etch a grin onto your face that you just don’t lose for the next 1hr45 (no interval). Ali McDowall’s Pomona is one of those plays. It’s one of those plays that’s almost embarrassing to write about, it’s so good. I mean, Jesus Christ, who expected *THE ORANGE TREE OF ALL PLACES* to put on what is possibly the best new play this year?...
Clearly after scribbling that down I must have [and this joke only makes sense if you’ve seen the play] jizzed over everything in the city and then gone to sleep for millions of years.

What’s annoying [apart from how many brackets there are in this review] for me, as “a critic”, is that it would have been nice to have had more record of what I first thought to compare to what I thought last night. Because, as my TMI intro makes clear, I now have an entirely different relationship to almost everything in this play.

You know how when you watch a play, only half of what you “see” – especially in something like Ned Bennett’s production here – is actually on stage. The other half (maybe more) are the things you picture in your mind’s eye as characters describe them.

What’s absolutely fascinating for me is that when I first saw Pomona I had no mental picture of Pomona. Or of Manchester in general, really, save for the walk from Piccadilly station to the Royal Exchange. That situation is now entirely altered. So, last night, when someone described Pomona, or the city, or the M60 my original mental pictures were completely updated. I could imagine the cine-realist version in my head, rather than making something up according to the available information. I wonder what that sort of disruption does to your relationship with a work of art.

Still, this is all so much navel gazing (“Pomona, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Po-mo-na...”), and some of you might actually want to read about the play...

[return to top]

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Shorts: critical tribalism

[addressing a misconception]

Earlier today [now a few days ago] a colleague sent me a message saying “I liked the new David Hare, I must be off the team now, right?” Of course, he was joking. There aren’t really teams in criticism, even if Matt Trueman did once propose the appealing idea that there should be (almost exactly a year before suggesting theatre fans should be more like sports fans, weirdly). That said, *obviously* my colleague’s joke refers to a more widespread perception (in theatre terms; so, like, thirty people) or it wouldn’t work.

This perception of critical “teams” – at least in its current incarnation – goes back to that Nicholas Hytner comment in 2007 when he called the then “top rank” of British theatre critics “Dead White Males”. Back then, everyone was also publishing “Bloggers versus Critics” articles every other sodding minute. If you left aside nearly all the facts you could come up with quite a plausible sense of two “sides” in conflict. Although even this claim dates me as a critic. Far more people would perhaps date the current division of “teams” from Three Kingdoms in 2012. And, again, if you ignore enough facts, that’ll also do nicely. Doubtless older critics can name even more ancient largely illusory schisms between one sort of critic and another – young against old, men against women, whoever against whatever – over some even older then-new thing in theatre... It’s also interesting to note in passing that this false Team/Off-the-team binary seems to be echoed by that other hoary old binary of served-texts and every-other-fucking-thing on a stage, with liking a served-text being a sure-fire route to off-the-team-dom(s).

Insofar as anything in criticism is “really important”, I think it’s really important that we keep on rubbishing these sort of lazy lumpings-in. I still remember (nine years on, Christ!) my intense irritation at this early blogpost by Michael Billington (boo! Hiss!) in which, while trying to ascertain whether “audiences” have “forgotten how to think”, he argued: “ audiences today adopt one of two postures: collective reverence or atomised selfishness. Alan Bennett is the person who has best pinned down the former. In Untold Stories he recalls going to a matinee of Complicite’s Street of Crocodiles and finding himself surrounded by worshipping acolytes.” Billington went on:
My experience coincides exactly with Bennett’s. As our theatre has become more sectionalised, so audiences have increasingly turned into clannish fans... [A]udience partisanship is equally prominent amongst supposedly progressive groups like Kneehigh, Improbable or Frantic Assembly. Watching Kneehigh’s current production of Cymbeline – which retains Shakespeare’s barmy narrative while junking his sublime poetry – I couldn’t believe that intelligent adults were happily sitting through this faux-naif nonsense. But I was, of course, missing the point: I was surrounded by rapt fans for whom Kneehigh are the Man U of avant-garde theatre.
Now, if you’ve read Simon Stephens’s Twitter feed – like, ever – you’ll have noticed that supporting Manchester United is very far from a process of “uncritical acceptance”. But that point is probably true of theatre (and everything else) too. The “fan” is not uncritically accepting, full stop. [I should say right now that “Fandom” isn’t really my area and I don’t really like the word, or self-identify as a “fan”. Irrespective of that, though, even the quickest look at Meg Vaughan’s writings on fandom (which I now can’t find) confirm that “the fan” is hardly an identity that precludes critique.]

Instead, all we have  – all any of us have – is our taste. And it’s an inexplicable thing. I’ve never found a book that explains where it comes from, why it exists, or what having it achieves. I suppose there are hints in Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation (scroll down for current tour dates) about how societies/communities construct themselves around shared values, and maybe even “tastes”. After all, where would youth subcultures be without shared tastes in trousers and tunes? (Bloody nowhere, that’s where.) So, while it’s galling to read Billington paint the people who happen to like something he doesn’t are unthinking sheep-like masses, it is at least understandable. After all, people who don’t share my exact tastes are utter morons, and it’s the work of criticism to tell them so repeatedly. (Lol/jk)

All of which is a meandering way of saying that, on one hand, lumping people together and assuming you know what they’re going to think of something – either because someone in a superficially similar demographic thought it, or because they’ve liked something different by the same people in the past – is pretty stupid. And yet, on the other hand, what we’ve liked before and suggested affinities are pretty much what we base our decision making processes on.

In short: I’ve disagreed with each and every one of my contemporaries about one show or another in the past month alone. (And, in each case, I’ve been right while they’ve gone suddenly, inexplicably mad...)

Or, to quote the Late Review pastiche in Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life, “Theatre has nothing to do with this and I bitterly resent the implication that I'm some kind of Nazi.”

[cover photo: Dimiter Gotscheff and friend in A Midsummer Night’s Dream]

Boat – Theatre N16, Balham (SW12)

[seen 26/10/15]

Have you ever wondered what Life of Pi crossed with Blasted would be like? No. Of course you haven’t. Why would you? Why would anyone? Nevertheless, I think that’s basically what Boat is.

And... Well, it’s 1hr25, it’s not perfect, there are bits of the script I’d definitely cut, and not *every single second of every performance is perfect*. But, blimey, there’s a fuck load in Max Barton’s production that’s just great too. Really great.

[I think “ultimate verdicts” (bleugh anyway) will probably vary depending on individuals’ tolerance for twee, and on trusting writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s walk down the fine line of gender presentation. (This is a fascinating example of a script that, if it had been written by a bloke, could kind of have fucked off, you know? (I watched it not knowing) I do wonder what that means for theatre generally, or for me as a critic, or for members of the modern world as audiences...)]

Have you seen The Encounter yet? Boat kicks off with a very gentle audience participation version of that! It’s pretty inspired. The sound guy (Jethro Cooke) is just perched on a shelf at the back of the playing area with his keyboard and his Mac in plain sight. He just talks to us and records us doing some sounds that he can pitch-shift and loop. To be honest, I could live with that happening in every show I ever see. It was a bit of a shame that lighting guy wasn’t sat next to him, in fact (doubtless for good practical reasons, like the size of lighting desks, rather than sudden half-assed squeamishness about realism).

Pia Laborde Noguez plays “Girl” – 14 according to the play – who is standing alone in the titular boat. It’s a rough structure here, composed of white-painted wooden pallets and surrounded by a sea of cellophane under which a bunch of tatty living room furniture sits. This kinda-abstract, kinda-not set meant I’d pretty much correctly guessed the wider trajectory of the story within about two minutes of the thing starting. But that honestly doesn’t matter; it’s the getting there and where there is and why that’s at stake here. [side note: it’s interesting, isn’t it though, how, because something’s theatre and we’ve suspended our disbelief or our literalism anyway, we can simultaneously believe her fantasy that she’s in a boat, and our fantasy that she’s *really* in her bedroom?]

The rest of the cast crop up to populate Girl’s bizarre dream-world, with two blokes taking the roles of a seagull (Grabriele Lombardo) and a slightly pushy turtle with sexual undertones (Matthew Coulton). Cristina Catalina plays Girl’s twin sister Twin [Bechdel Test fail right there. Silly Bechdel Test].

I’ll try not to spoiler the thing – not least because a) I’m not sure I could accurately, and b) because it actually does seem to exist in a strange dramatic hinterland where an entirely logical explanation is never fully offered. Things that get mentioned or hinted at – so tangentially as to all feel optionally real – are: an environmental catastrophe, the wiping out of most other life on earth, fighting outside, a kind of war outside, some sort of abusive relationship, a murder, a death, blokes actually pretending to be these funny sea creatures, the blokes pretending to be sea creatures being figments of the girl’s imagination, the blokes being real, all the pretence being theatricalised imagination.

The script has a kind of Beckettian sense of urgency, which is to say; none at all. Instead, it builds up allusion by accretion. More and more stuff gets said. Not always in English. I guess it does gradually increase our understanding of the situation and the problem. But, as – arguably – a memory play, we’re already at the end. It’s also a bit like After The End (the Dennis Kelly play). There’s a sense that we might gradually be breaking out of the fantasy layers protectively woven around a terrible incident (cf. the dreadul fairy tale of Can I Start Again Please?), but we never quite break the surface. Nothing ever becomes explicit. On balance I think I’m glad about that.

Something that occurred to me watching this was that, while written by someone whose day-job is poet and novelist, in this production the most dispensable element was the language. Or rather, because Barton creates such a rich physical and theatrical world for the performance – there’s a particularly good bit with some clay covering a person’s face (just trust me on that) – that I think I could have watched this performed entirely in Slovenian (for example) and probably got *more* out of it for not having all the *writing* happening at me as well. It seems a perverse thing to say, but, to echo that Simon Stephens quote “language is noise”, I think what is properly remarkable about this script is that it entirely works *as music*, as a score for performance, and give-or-take as a fine dramatic template; a map of the peaks and troughs. What it seemed not to need, in the playing, was the actual words.