Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Les idées claires avec des images vagues

This is probably a bad idea, but.


Alongside trying to review everything at Forest Fringe at the Gate (FF@TG) I'm going to see if I can also write a “proper blog piece” every day about some aspect or other of the enterprise that catches my attention and that would doubtless derail that day's entire review if I tried to deal with it within the context of a review. So, instead, I'll be promising myself that I can get to *that interesting thing I spotted/thought of/etc./whatevs* once I've got the review proper written.

I realise this flies in the face of a lot of the brave/ill-advised things I might have said in the past about wanting to experiment with the way that reviews are written. Hopefully I can still do that too. But just without a lot of side-issue verbiage clogging up the actual critique. (Yeah. Get me. I know.)

Anyway, today's piece is, foolishly, me having a look at Lyn Gardner's review of the first night of Forest Fringe.

Her review is here.

Mine, if you haven't seen it, is here.

I'll start by noting that I'm not going to “have a go”. In many ways, I really feel for Lyn. After all, she's pretty much championed Forest Fringe since the word go, and almost certainly wasn't obliged to come along on the evening of Bank Holiday Monday to have a look at this incarnation.

I also feel for her word count. Her review comes in at 296 words. And that's to cover not only the first night, but the next eleven as well. I've gone over 6,000 on the first two days. Doubtless some people might wish that I'd written rather less so that they could have time to read it. Print it out at work and save yourself having to read the
Evening Standard on the way to the Gate, I say.

However, while I realise Gardner is landed with a nigh-on impossible task in trying both to review one night of incredibly varied work, and preview another 11 days of largely unseen material, I do wonder if the result does more harm than good.

Granted, Gardner (it feels absurdly arms-length to keep calling Lyn “Gardner”, but I think for form's sake I'll have to stick with it) is well within her rights not to especially go for anything she happened to see on Monday, and to make any comments she sees fit. The problem is, those bloody star-ratings.

Since the programme of FF@TG is different, totally different, Every. Single. Night. what we have here is essentially a preview with a star-rating.

I think that's a difficulty.

Now, granted that's really a problem for the editors/arts editors, rather than the individual critic, but it underlines once again (as if it ever needed underlining again), that the star-rating system has a deadening effect on the prose it accompanies.

What Lyn actually “says” is fair enough. Three stars, as an assessment of roughly, what? 22Hrs? 30 hours of totally unseen work... Well, it's a problem, isn't it? (Not least because I'm emphatically *not* spending 12 nights of my life watching a three star show. a) that's not what I'm doing, b) that's not how it feels either).

But at the same time, would it have been better if she'd stayed away? If two weeks at the Gate Theatre had been completely ignored by the *whole* of the national press? (surprised not to have seen the Standard at least put in an appearance, on that score. But, by the same token, having noted the Sisyphean difficulties in trying to review and preview and assess twelve different nights on the same night while under the cosh of the star-system, they might have decided the game wasn't worth the candle and written it off as a bad idea).

So, yeah. I've just set up a situation where literally no one can win unless they're prepared to do what I'm doing and seeing all 12 nights (well, that's the plan, anyway).

And I suppose that's why I think I'm clever. That said, I think it would be amazing if a national critic *did* decide that these were the next twelve most important nights in London Theatre (precisely, there's also a whole rest-of-country out there that they're theoretically obliged to cover) and came to every single one and over-nighted them as if they were some sort of Live Art Proms (which, essentially, they are).


Since Gardner's is the only review I have to engage with, I'd also like to spend a bit of time with some of the stuff she says.

Partly in the spirit of, well, I guess being the “embedded” critic at FF@TG, and well, partly, because it's more interesting when reviews actualy *do* spark some sort of conversation in “print”.

The first thing I'm interested by is the way in which Gardner configures the Gate as somewhere:

“where, for all its many possible configurations, the relationship between audience and stage remains one of spectator and performer.”

As a basic point, I'll take that. At least, as far as Monday night went, there was a certain authority-of-the-stage going on. That said, it's a pity that Gardner didn't stick around for the quiz, as she'd have seen just how flimsy that sense of “authority” can be and just how quickly a space can lose its spectator/performer dynamic.

I do find myself wondering if her view hasn't got it slightly wrong, and that it was simply that the work presented on Monday night wound up *asking* to be viewed in that way.

It was interesting to me, for example, that in the first half of Monday night, the audience remained lit thoroughout and in the second part it was in darkness (I think that's right).

“That audience-performer relationship may well be smashed in the course of a 12-day programme”

Obviously I'll have to wait and see too, although I suspect TORYCORE might have a fair stab at it tonight...

Of the performers, Gardner characterises them as “all... prodding away at the nature of theatre itself” having previously noted “there is a world of difference between listening to a story read in a room and hearing it read from a stage”.

One thing that does occur to me at this point is that it's Pretty Unusual to see someone just sit behind as desk, or in a chair, and just read/tell you a story. Full Stop. I mean, it's well outwith the usual boundaries of what gets presented at, say, the NT, the RSC or the Royal Court. On Monday night, I'd say “the nature of theatre itself” had been given a pretty solid prod, even if there have been more *interactive* nights at the theatre and at FF.

I'm also not wholly sure I agree that it was so very different experiencing Chris Thorpe read me the same story on Monday night as he had in Edinburgh three years ago. He sat in a chair, had a microphone and was spot-lit on both occasions; I was sat on a chair in the comparative gloom. Twice. I didn't *particularly* feel a difference.

I should note at this point that I was sat a few rows further back than Gardner, and as such, thinking about it, was probably on a level with the stage, whereas the performers would have been looming a bit more over her. Maybe that plays a part too. Interesting.

At the same time, I do wonder if it's necessarily entirely fair to judge FF@TG simply as not being in the same space as FF. Not that this is necessarily what Gardner has done here, but.

Perhaps the bit with which I actually do disagree is:

“curation is an art, and even the experimental can sometimes feel a little old-fashioned. It would only have required everyone to don turtleneck sweaters and smoke Gitanes for Monday night's dauntingly word-heavy programme of work, which included poetry and earnest performance lectures, to feel like a Left Bank gathering circa 1959”

Not least because I *was* wearing a roll-neck and would have been smoking had fire regulations permitted.

But, silliness aside, well a) I think “dauntingly word-heavy” is a shame. I'd have run with something more like “surprisingly text-heavy”. Because FF doesn't have much of a reputation for its text work. Which, thinking about it, is i) strange, and ii) a pity. Because, after all, most of the artists appearing this week have done their thing at Forest. And *their thing* has often been, well, just saying the words wot they've written.

To be honest, if anything, I really welcome this facet of FF getting a whole week's worth of explicit promotion. In the past, I've worried slightly about the creeping effect of The New Twee. Of a bit too much lo-fi cutesiness. Of a bit too much goofing around making sweet shows which largely side-step the uglier bits of life.

Damnit, I like the blackness and the word-heavy and the smoking. And, yeah, the knitwear that goes with it.

However, b) Well, I didn't think any of the actual *writing* was old fashioned. Or 1959-ish. At all. Or the mode of presentation.

And, lest we forget, in 1959, In Britain, we we most piddling about with Arnold bleedin' Wesker and John bloody Osborne. And the mainstream has barely budged an inch here since. So, frankly, even if it were like the Left-Bank circa 1959, which it wasn't, that wouldn't be an especially bad thing.

I suppose I might be able to see what Gardner is driving at, but then I think perhaps she ansd I might part company when it came to picking our favourite FF acts. And, as I say, I think this acknowledgement of the darker side of experimental work is in fact long, long overdue. Indeed, it was something that bothered me a lot in Edinburgh last year – that everything seemed to have this comforting, home-baked quality to it. If this represents a bit of a fight-back against that tendency, or just an attempt to balance it out, then I'm all for it.


theron said...

Hi Andrew,

(Despite what I think I'm about to say about valuing diverse forms of writing in relation to performance, I feel a bit awkward writing to you directly, whom I know a little bit but not really, in this public way - particularly as I'm not too practiced with blog comments/etiquette/etc. Anyway, I should just get on with it.) Anyway, I'm just getting on with it. I mostly wanted to write to say thank you for opening up this space, in general, and also specifically for the really useful points you interrogate regarding criticism and FF.

As I'm sure you know, the probing of different ways to place critical responsiveness in relation to performance is an interest that is very dear to me and soemthing I've been involved in - from the daily, scruffy, hard-copy pamphlet 'We need to talk about Live Art' at the NRLA ( - an approach that, perhaps naively, I was surprised wasn't picked up by other festivals) to the variety of critical responses around the SPILL Festival (, - incidentally, for the latter, one idea we kicked around was taking over the Guardian blog for a week, not just to talk about SPILL but stage conversations around 'infection' [the festival theme] more broadly - but the PR team didn't think this was viable). As I expect you're discovering, having you at FF is not just about reportage but is changing the nature of the event -- weaving critical reflection and continuity and context into the experience of what it is to present work there and what it is to encounter it.

I also want to comment on the interactivity/old-fashioned thread you've picked up on from Lyn. Of course there's something a little frustrating and disappointing about her response, which, you've suggested, maybe reflects the thinking that for 'interaction' and 'experiment' to happen, the performer needs to give away her power and the spectator needs to throw off her passivity. One of the things I was hoping to realise in my piece that evening was something of a challenge to this idea, based on an opposite presumption: that spectating is already active, already the place where the piece gets made, and so me talking while you listen, this time around, can be deeply interactive. More so than work that assigns you a part to play. (This is all cobbled from Ranciere, which I mention not to name-drop, but to acknowledge that I know I'm not saying anything new! And on debunking the fantasy of 'power-sharing', I think Tim Crouch has been particularly astute.) But I also think I didn't do this particularly successfully, in this attempt, and that Lyn's experience of being 'daunted' by an experience that was 'word-heavy' is totally valid. If I want the listener to feel active and enlivened in the way the move through the language of the piece, it's up to me to make that possible. Although I do think that Chris [Thorpe]'s texts, and particularly the one on that night, are similarly interested in opening up the way in which what seems like a representation of a story (that happens in some other real or fictional place) is also (or even primarily) the setting for an exchange, a slippery encounter, in the here-and-now, in which all parties have parity (though not the same role). And in my opinion Chris is very good at this indeed.

Right - so - the performance needs to create the conditions for what it wants to happen to happen. No validity in locating the fault anywhere else. Except - that the context around the event, and the kinds of conversations we have before and afterward, and the language those conversations makes available, also play an important role. Which of course takes me back around to the generosity of the critical role you are playing. So: thank you.


Diana Damian said...

Hi Andrew,

Partly in response to the conversation you've opened, and partly to Theron's own comment, I think it's worth clarifying how we are considering the event of a critical response. I think what you’re doing in your twelve day residency is one thing, and Lyn Gardner’s response is another.

I think it’s fantastic that FF did get a review in a national paper, albeit one that tried to set the tone, speculate, open up some conversations and raise awareness. That’s an impressive lot of things to do in three hundred words. The stars are a hanger-on- they change the entire purpose and tone of a review because there’s a deliberate pressure to assess the value of something in relation to nothing. Perhaps something monetary, but no one knows. They’re reductive, and of course to some extent they turn the review into something reductive.

I’ve dedicated a considerable amount of time to trying to understand the mechanics of criticism, the nature of it as an event and the way it can respond to work. I’ve specifically tried to remove myself from the specificity of mainstream (or national press of whatever you call that) criticism because I don’t want to spend my phd moaning about a system that is, to my mind, fundamentally problematic and constrained by various factors which I won’t list.

But I don’t think FF is intangible; I don’t think every critic needs to spend the whole twelve nights there to get a feel for what it is, and I don’t think their response is necessarily a value judgment- unless it is a national paper, and I don’t want to linger on the problems of that which you very aptly underline.

I think Theron rightly points out –as indeed Ranciere does- that spectatorship is inherently a duality- it’s not active or passive. And I think we’re still developing an approach to talking about experimental work in a way that is constructive; I think Lyn made a great point about how each space comes with its own rules of engagement which are either acknowledged or not. I also thought that the first evening was surprisingly text-heavy (in my response on Exeunt I think I even used that word), but also felt that it needed to mould into the space- Torycore was a fantastic way for that to happen. I think it raises a really interesting question not on how to write criticism, but what to make visible when doing so (to appropriate Ranciere again which I also feel compelled to acknowledge).

I do believe that relativism can sometimes kill criticism, but as long as the frame of reference is there, there’s no need for value judgments- but a conversation. What strikes me as the most potent thing about FF is the way it opens up conversations and deliberately kills hierarchies in the casual but intelligent way it couples pieces together; but errors and wrong directions are part of experiments, and there’s an imperative to discuss those in equal measure.

I’m so sorry this is rather epic.