Saturday, 29 September 2012

Continu – Sadler's Wells

[proper review. first draft/stab-at]

Sasha Waltz's Continu is apparently two works, one made for the (re)opening of the Neues Museum in Berlin and the other for the Maxxi Museum in Rome designed by Zaha Hadid. It feels like three pieces, however. Two before the interval and one afterwards.

The first piece (which I'm quite happy to believe is an opening act of the whole first half) is set to the percussion piece Rebonds 'B' by Iannis Xenakis (incidentally, I am staggered afresh that YouTube has all this stuff readily available to watch – this Information Age of ours is a wonderful thing, and not just because it might save me a lot of work trying to describe everything to the last detail). It is performed by six female dancers, dressed in similar long black or near-black navy dresses.

The interesting thing for me here was the way even in its brief duration, it taught you how to watch it. At first glance, it looks like it might be a very rough stab at synchronised movement, but as each dancer in turn is given a break-out solo section we learn to perceive them as individuals rather than as uniform members of a group, and so the individual interpretation of the group movement sections grows to feel more deliberate.

For some reason – and, God knows this is probably a useless observation – I didn't much go for this first brief section. Although having gone in more-or-less blind, and not knowing the shape of the evening, other than at some point there'd be a twenty minute interval, I was working pretty hard on reconciling myself to watching a lot more of it, and so had started to warm to the piece – concentrating on specific dancers, alternating my attention between the live percussionist (Robyn Schulkowsky) and the movement. Admiring the use of the stage and Daniel Hermann's large, looming, austere black-walled “set” (a high, dark, sheer, matte black, three-walled room, basically). And there was something interesting and admire-able about the way that the individuality of the dancers seemed to create layers within the group dynamic.

But then it stopped. After only about ten minutes. The lights went off, and when they came up again, there was no live percussionist. Given that, if I had to try to pin it down, I think it was the music I wasn't really into, I confess I was a bit pleased.

Interestingly, the second piece also begins with a piece by Xenakis: Concret PH. However, without the programme and YouTube, I'd have just described this as a slightly treated recording of some of those “rain sticks” you find in new age shops. Even with this information, I'm not especially tempted to alter that description. However, played initially in the dark the sound is nicely spooky and evocative, partly because of the sheer quality of the sound recording. There's a brittle, hi-fidelity to this treble-heavy that is pleasantly jarring at this volume.

All the dancers cluster in the northwest corner of the stage. 24 of them (though I thought I counted 25). Bent double, hands pressed against the floor. They shuffle forward, feet before hands, heads hanging down, looking like Figures at the Base of Bacon's Crucifixion.

The music for this piece is Edgard Varèse's Arcana. It's a piece I've never heard before, so I was relieved to discover post-fact that even Wikipedia agrees that it's strongly influenced by Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. The combination of this music and the shuffling group reminded me incredibly of Pina Bausch's Frühlingsopfer; to such an extent, in fact, that I started to false-memory-remember some idea that the piece was some sort of direct hommage or quotation; along the same suggestive lines as Alain Platel's Out of Context.

But it's not just the music and choreography that initially recalls the Bausch. There's also something about the way that the piece seems to make narrative and the narrative that it seems to be making. Admittedly at first the ensemble didn't seem to especially divide along any tangible lines. Waltz's company is comprises a diversity of performers that theatre can only envy for how effectively people from Africa, America, South America, the near east, the far east, the middle east, Australasia and Europe can communicate on stage. They are dressed, at random, in single colour costumes of black, gunmetal navy and tan/khaki. Shirts or t-shirts and trousers for the men and similar long dresses to before for the women. The cuts are clean, classic, minimal and modern.

The group divides into three smaller groups, still arched on all fours (I think). The groups' patterns of movements shift. Figures from the groups start to break away, pair up, dance solos. There is a sequence in which a small number of the performers cower or skulk at the stage's eastern wall, while the rest apparently riot in the northwest corner, held back by only one of their number.

A narrative – still reminiscent of The Rite of Spring – seems to emerge of fairly forcible courtships. Men and women are divided. The men perhaps the aggressors against a community of women. But then there also appear to be tribal or familial groupings. Dancers seem to emerge as specific characters. Characters with developing relationships to other characters.

At the same time, Waltz plays interesting games with impossible divisions of our attention. Several different threads, narratives, sub-plots, seem to break out simultaneously on opposite sides and ends of the stage so that it is impossible to to take them in at once. There seems to be an abduction or a rape, and retribution for it. Perhaps also a forbidden romance between members of opposing factions, and perhaps the destruction of the male party in this affair. There are stand-offs and arguments, competitions and feats of strength.

As well as the pictures of pagan Russia Stravinsky might have evoked, here it seems to owe more to the profusion of classical mythology. Something like a mash up of The Bacchae, the whole of the Trojan war and a fair bit of Ovid's  Metamorphosis all vying for attention. This sense is perhaps advanced by the way that the “stories” seem to emerge from this one central stem, this sole body of an ensemble. I wondered if this was simply a product of me over-reading the connection of the piece to a museum housing classical statuary or whether the movement and tableaux also referenced these. The piece, when standing alone, was (with happy synchronicity) originally entitled Dialoge 09. I think that dialogue is between the mise-en-scene and the ancient artefacts of the museum. (Although, looking into this a bit more (and by “a bit” I mean a Google image search), Neues Museum seems to be primarily famed for its Ägyptische stuff than its Griechischen und Römischen collections.)

What I found staggering – knowing next to nothing about the genesis of this work – was the sheer extent of it. There seemed to be more clear stories being told here than you could possibly get away with in a play. And they seemed to run like quicksilver, almost tumbling over each other, for too fast to keep a hold of or pin down. And yet this didn't seem to matter. There seemed to be a joy of cumulative effect that communicated more than underlined “meaning” or simple moral structures.

At one point close to the end all but one of the entire company line up against the back wall. The other company member shouts as if gunshots. One by one members of the company drop, as if dead until all but one is left standing.

Again, one has no clear idea of what precisely has happened or to whom, and yet at the same time, the primary meaning is totally clear. Elsewhere a pair of women seem to dance a dance of raw sexual frustration, swishing their skirts like a couple of shirty peacocks during mating season. At once abstract but incredibly, unmistakably clear in meaning. The performers, without speaking, are clearly acting. And they are great actors. And the use of the stage, the sheer pleasure of these repeated stage pictures which seem pleasurable solely because of the artfully informal positioning of bodies in space was a revelation to me. (The nearest comparison I can think of was the tangible fluency of Katie Mitchell's choreography of the crowd scenes in Idomeneo).

If the first half could be characterised by a yearning tension between wildness and formality – its most striking recurrent motif was the almost right-angled stretch: both arms and whole body from the waist up bent to the right. – then the second half perhaps distilled this into two separate bottles. It opened with a solo man in off-white (beige?) pants, in a kind of angular rictus. Toes splayed and waved like fingers, muscles seemed to spasm. He is joined by three more men, and they are spread across the large white sheet that forms a stage upon the stage in the black room. Each like a kind of pinned butterfly or low statue of a writhing form.

The rest of the ensemble enter severally dressed now in blacks, khakis and whites. Cooler, more classical. Like so many chic gallery attendees, with these near-naked men as the statues.

The music here is Claude Vivier's Zipangu. (Never has there been a less onomatopoeic title.) It starts like a fitful modernist cross between the beginning of Mahler's O Mensch! Gib Acht! from his 3rd Symphony and Bartok's Concerto for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and then just gets more violent.

(I should say at this juncture, I don't think I've ever spent such an enjoyably evening in the company of “difficult” modern orchestral music. Here the music is played at an admirably loud volume throughout, and the way that it is offset with such a strong visual component means that your attention somehow tunes in and out of appreciating the music at the same time as trying to take in all the movement, colour and potential meaning, like the best sort of information overload imaginable.)

Where the second part could be characterised by a sort of primitive aggression, this third part (or second piece?), in contrast to its accompaniment, was most memorable for moments of formal precision. There's a stunning section where three women appear to walk round the walls of the stage sideways, apparently balanced on the shoulders of three men. It is at once clever, breathtaking and incredibly elegant.

The piece builds to an unexpected conclusion (well, Ok, I peaked at my programme and knew that by fifteen minutes before the end, we still hadn't heard the adagio from Mozart's Oboe Quartet). But, even knowing it was coming doesn't quite prepare you for the way it's staged.

A single man and woman are suddenly alone on the enormous white sheet of paper, which for the duration of the piece has been getting more and more marked as dancers drew on it, and smashed dried pigment into it, leaving traces of every step in earthy red, raw umber, burnt sienna and black.

Gradually this vast page is lifted by five or six performers, who hold it as a human height, light backdrop as the couple almost waltz to the pretty, Viennese tune. After almost two hours of a solid black box, the different that this sudden marked white horizon makes is strangely hopeful all by itself. It might or might not be saying something about Kunst and Kultur, but the combination of this necessarily naïve art-on-paper and the sublime effect of Mozart feels significant and makes for a beautiful close.

It's not quite the end, however, since, as the quartet fades, so the performers left holding the paper high above their heads, with only their fingers clasping it visible, these hands gradually seem to scurry across the top of the paper bunching up on the east side, looking like they're preparing to make a run for it. While one pair of hands has been left stranded on the west hand side.

The paper drops briefly. The stage is empty, before a solitary, black clad man rushes to the far corner, picks it up and runs across the stage folding the page into a briefly billowing sail and then a collapsed, changed sculptural form.

[original place-holder "review" below] 

[very quick “review” for reasons of urgency. Proper long one to follow asap]

Work in theatre? You have to go and see Continu. Don't work in theatre, but like “The Arts”? You have to go and see Continu too.

I went solely on the basis of Sasha Waltz's reputation and didn't know anything about the show when I went in, other than checking that the running time when arriving at the theatre (it's two hours including a 20 minute interval). As such, I'm slightly loathe to give too much away (actually, I should also be trying to manage expectations a bit more efficiently...).

It took me maybe five minutes to slightly warm up to the first piece – I'd say there are three distinct pieces overall, although the first is very short and might be an intro for the second. Anyway, by the time I'd decided I could just about watch it for an hour or so, it stopped.

And then the second piece started. And was pretty different. Any misgivings I had about the first piece were eradicated within seconds.

This second piece – probably about an hour long? – is just stunning. I really don't want to say too much about it in this initial MUST SEE rave. Suffice it to say that I think it's pretty much essential viewing for anyone who wants to make or watch work for the stage. It presents possibilities about the movement of bodies on stage, the architecture of space and stage pictures involving large (-ish. 24) numbers of performers like nothing I've seen for a while. It also seems to say some really interesting things about narrative. It seems to present more ideas of stories and sub-plots than would ever be allowed – or even feasible – on the theatre stage. And, oh, look, just go, will you? It's great. Promise.

The third part (after the interval) is also pretty damn awesome. Not as all-out awesome as the second part, but frankly that's kind of a relief. The second part left me genuinely kind of speechless, or at least not-wanting-to-say-anything-and-just-think-about-it. The third part is just slightly clinical or remote enough to let you have some coherence at the end of the evening. Even so, while slightly reusing motifs from the first two pieces, it would still be a great bit of work if standing alone.

Now, while you're trying to book your tickets, I'll go away and try to write a hopefully more measured account that might be of use to people who won't get to see it, or who believe that reviews should maybe offer a bit more than breathless PR copy... :-)


Thursday, 27 September 2012

Three Sisters – Young Vic

[long overdue. apologies. experiment in trying to review production by writing about the actors.]

Benedict Andrews's production of Three Sisters at the Young Vic is brilliant. Let's just say that now.

It manages to combine a clean, moderate version of that German “director's theatre” aesthetic with some of the best sorts of British (/anglophone) acting going. Played on Johannes Schütz's gorgeous minimalist set – a thrust stage made from umpteen matte grey, waist-high tables beneath a matte-black-framed, shallow, white box ceiling; all before a small mound of earth – it is at once clinical and warm; like getting tipsy on surgical spirit.

The cast are dressed in modern clothes, which still hint at the correct period. There are small disruptions of – or supplements to – the literal, naturalistic reality: characters putting on garish animal-themed face-masks; Kulygin and Olga return from a staff meeting at the school wearing fancy-dress animal costumes; the first “scene change” plays Pussy Riot while jets of snow briefly coat the small upstage mound of earth. But at root this is a very pure production of the play. Andrews's spare version of the script is as stark as the staging, and the best English translation of the play since Chris Goode's.

What's fascinating here is how much in the service of the play each of this devices is. In no way is this production a challenge to the text. It is a reading, certainly – in the way that all stagings of every play are – but, in truth, it's a very traditional reading. Were one so minded, one could perhaps grumble that the elements pressed into play here almost come to signify less than themselves by virtue of their co-option. But that would be to overlook how hard they also resonate within the frame of the play itself. The real star of the show here is the cast, however.

It starts with Anfisa (Ann Queensbury) sitting and listening to the radio while the three sisters work. Thanks perhaps to the unusual way it opens – the sisters are all sitting at various sides of the tables that make up the thrust stage so no one dominates the playing area at first – one's eye is as drawn to her as the “principles”. And there is something remarkable and detailed about just this simple action of sitting and listening. A picture telling a story.

There's another lovely moment early on when Orion Ben as an unnamed maid standing in line with other “minor” characters happens to just turn an look as another character in reaction to something someone says. It's just a little reaction shot, and yet it completely crystallises the relationship the servants have to their master and mistresses.

Similarly Harry Dickman's Ferapoint, a thankless bit-part of a man, is turned into a lovely doddery, comic turn, with oversize, thick glasses and an endearing hapless, old-aged hard-of-hearing-ness. At one point Andrey uses his presence to rant about his lot in life. When he's finished the old man asks: “What did you say? My hearing.” Andrey replies “If your hearing was good I wouldn't be talking to you.” It's a good joke. What makes it beautiful is the way that you feel for both of them in that moment.

If there's an element that usually trips British Chekhov up, though, it's usually the way that we map our obsession with class onto his deceptively similar-looking but temperamentally-different terrain. It is through this knowledge that we can view with gratitude Paul Rattray's Solony. Rattray is perhaps most well known for his lengthy tour of duty in Blackwatch. And here again he's another chippy, hard, Scottish soldier. There's a sort of steely look that feels disctinctly Scottish, a kind of squint that suggests both perpetual-underdog and a victorious arrogance all at once.

Perhaps the real brilliance here is in his pairing with Sam Troughton's Tuzenbach. Often, we see Tuzenbach's aristocratic roots, perhaps also his oft denied German heritage, over-played. We're used, perhaps, to a sort of Boris Johnson figure of fun. A comedy posho whom we cannot take seriously. Or else a romantic, doomed aristo. Troughton is none of these things. Or rather none in excess. Sure, Tuzenbach is slightly absurd, slightly, painfully doomed. Sure, his adoration of Irina, in this version as much as any other, is never going to end well for him. But here we have the situation simply stated and not endlessly overplayed. The Count (Baron?) does love Irina hopelessly, as much as Solony loves her violently and unreasonably. The mutual antipathy between the two men hangs thickly in the air between them, not over-manifested in some ancient Celtic resentment of the landed gentry, but like the atmosphere that enters a room where two personalities perpetually clash.

Though in command of both these men Vershinin (William Houston) seems to live in another world altogether. Oddly, I haven't knowingly seen Houston in anything since the RSC Troilus and Cressida from '99. I've seen him mentioned in dispatches from more recent outings at Stratford in the past decade, though, and he now sounds like he's spent ten years soaking in a vat of that company's Voice Department. As such, Vershinin runs closest to doing a bunch of stuff that I'm really not over-keen on actors doing. There was a point where I realised that the performance was irresistably reminding me of Douglas Renholm from The IT Crowd. And once thought, it was a hard image to displace. However, at the same time, it doesn't just feel like an actor in a different production. You get the sense that he could easily do it different, and instead, the great big, amazing, old-school, Olivier voice is a character choice for Houston the actor. There's something about the big oaky disconnect between life as it is usually spoken and Vershinin's interior world that seems to make sense of the performance. Teetering, in the world of the play, between being a preposterous ham and the plausible, cultured, charming romantic and crucially Muscovite man for whom Masha falls.

Vanessa Kirby has apparently been on TV. As such, a bit too much of the pre-publicty for the show did seem to focus on interviews with her of the “She wafts into the room, everyone stares” school. It is important to remember that she didn't ask anyone to write like an idiot about her.

But we can ignore all that because Kirby is genuinely brilliant. Primarily, she's brilliant because she's very funny and, without being “meta-”, very self-aware. She also pins down more than any other woman I've seen on stage precisely her class of posh-but-not-that-posh- girls in their early twenties. The ironic twangs, the questiony inflections, the sometimes mid-Atlantic borrowed speech patterns, The whole postmodern accent mash-up that references everything from patois to Patsy (AbFab). She's also brilliant because she's plainly not afraid to play Masha as an utter cunt. Self-involved to the point of callous, cruel and uncaring, and yet richly sentimental and capable of appalling feeling – the moment when she realises she has lost Vershinin forever, the howl, the breakdown, the sheer snot and mess of it all is something else.

But the performance does not exist in isolation. Her other counter-point, Adrian Schiller's Kulygin also avoids the pitfall of comic caricature and, as such, makes richer the portrayal of the horrible gulf in the marriage between Kulygin and Masha. Because we can see the vestiges of a perfectly nice, small-scale ambitious, intelligent guy here. And we see how much just that small-scale thinking grates on Masha, and in turn, how it grating on her panics him, making him more needy, more desperate, less attractive. The eternal vicious circle of a failed and unequal relationship, where someone loves someone else who is gradually growing to despise them. That this is all readable in the smallest of gestures, body-language and even perhaps costumes design – the way his gunmetal blue bomber jacket compares with her slightly cheaply provincial, but still effortfully glamorous lacy tops – reveals yet more of the intricacy and depth of the thinking behind the production.

It is striking, what with Andrews being an Australian, that he makes the biggest outcast in the Prozorov household, Natasha (Emily Barclay), an Aussie. Until I started reading a couple of Australian theatre blogs, I had no idea of the extent to which the Australian's perceive a total lack of respect for them from the British. I wonder if this casting by Andrews is intended to reflect that, and I wonder if it resonates more strongly for him and Barclay than it will for anyone British in the cast or audience (since I really don't think the theatre-going British really think anything in particularly snobby about Australia. I mean, Nick Cave's Australian. End of).

Barclay inhabits the role to perfection, however. So much of Natasha's character is either reported by other characters or in her behaviour, that I would argue that her actual social class doesn't even necessarily matter. It's the sisters' treatment of her, of her-and-Andrey's burgeoning romance, and then her subsequent transformation into a semi-monster – lording it up over the sisters and their servants, while carrying on an affair with the leader of the council, under her husband's nose – that matters.

And while all this is perhaps stated more plainly than other relationships – we see her dashing out of the house to meet her lover dressed in a fur coat, high heels and a nightie; we see her fretfully carrying a baby alarm/intercom about with her everywhere; we see her padding softly through rooms carrying only candle looking for all the world like Lady Macbeth (Not the only Shakespeare quotation in this theatre-literate production – elsewhere __ declares “The Rest is Silence”, recalling Chekhov's obvious love of W.S. – cf. Ivanov).

Interestingly, there is a self-containment to this Natasha. The Otherness, her lack of belonging to any class – thinking herself better than the servants and being picked on as “less than” the Prozorovs – and the myriad motifs which float around her all give a sense that there was never any real connection between her and Andrey. An impression brilliantly fostered by Danny Kirrane's performance.

Kirrane was last seen (by me) in Ella Hickson's Boys (about which I wrote plenty here) playing an overweight tragic sad-sack. He fact that he's playing more or less exactly the same sort of character here did make me initially uncomfortable. I find the idea of a kind of biological determinism in casting a deeply ugly spectacle. The idea that someone's physical appearance plays a meaningful part in their destiny strikes me as pretty much counter to everything progressive I believe. So, yeah, having Kirrane as a slightly big bloke doomed to be dumped on by life again didn't sit comfortably.

Thing is, Chekhov is no Ella Hickson. Here we see everything that (was it "Benny" in Boys?) could have been. Yes, Andrey's still dumped on, but in Three Sisters *everyone* is being dumped on. It's be weird if some of the shit flying around didn't stick to someone. So rather than being presented with a sad-sack with no agency we get a present actor feeling their way through to their character's end-point in the play. And Kirrane is an excellent actor. Nimble, ironic, and very funny. Not a one-note depressive, but a mercurial tumble of diffidence, anger, reserve and excess.

Interestingly – much more interestingly than Natasha's Australian-ness – Kirrane pretty much hangs on to his (Yorkshire? Lancashire?) accent, and it's not really used as any kind of index of class, or anything else. Perhaps in part this could be down to Andrews's lack of know-how when it comes to the intricacies of the British tradition of putting people in a pigeon-hole within ten second of them opening their mouths, but the effect feels more continental than that – that the reason Kirrane is playing Andrey is essentially down to talent and spirit rather than looks and accent. He's got a slightly world-weary-before-his-time demeanour which gives Andrey a lovely kind of crumpled gravitas that you don't when having him played as the whiney, picky, student loser of other productions.

Also a revelation is Michael Feast's Chebutykin. I mean, sure, we know Michael Feast is a Great Actor. He was good in Rupert Goold's Macbeth, and I saw him in a lovely close-up performance of something otherwise forgetable at Theatre 503. It says something that I didn't even recognise him until I looked at the programme at half time. True, he's grown a beard, but he's also doing some serious acting here. Where I'd (naïvely) suggest that most of the other performers are pretty much inhabiting the characters as if they were versions of themselves, Feast – unless he's been being someone else in every other performance I've seen, which also seems plausible – has made up an entire set of characteristics for himself here, and lives them with utter conviction.

Conversely, in this Three Sisters, Olga (played by David Tennant's Hamlet's Ophelia, Mariah Gale) seems to do very little. She succeeds almost by functioning as an absence. Totally in keeping with her position as an unmarried schoolteacher who has all but given up on any hopes of getting married, nurses a secret love for __, and whose face seems to weather and harden as the years mount up through the play. She doesn't have a big moment, she never seems to say anything world-shattering, and it's this play of incremental defeat that totally defines her character and presence on stage. In it's way, it is the most generous performance of the night – letting others shine more noticeably in the pale light of Olga's failures.

Gala Gordon's Irina, by contrast, is problematic to a (/this heterosexual, male) critic in the exact opposite way to Danny Kirrane's Andrey is. That is to say, Gordon is distractingly beautiful. A kind of cross between Juliette Binoche and Bambi. Huge brown eyes, an appallingly attractive mouth. Exactly the sort of thing you don't want to read a middle-aged man writing about. But (bear with me here, this isn't mere objectification), that's part of the key to how this Irina works. Several characters are entranced by her. Sure, it's a bit literal-minded to actually have someone arrestingly beautiful play someone arrestingly beautiful, but it does have the effect of demonstrating to the audience where those characters are coming from. As such, Irina's slightly sappy sentimental version of work: “The only thing that matters is work... It's the only thing that gives life any meaning, any purpose, any chance of happiness.”

Granted, this innocence and virtue of this is, on one level, true. And I imagine Chekhov – apparently a master of seeing every side of an argument and its drawbacks all at once – knew this. But at the same time, putting these sentiments in the mouth of a privileged provincial rich-kid must have also been deliberately grating. Thanks to Gordon's guilelessness, we at least see the earnestness and sincerity of Irina's beliefs while being able to feel how annoying they might be to others in the world of the play, but thanks to her doe-eyes, we also understand why the otherwise resentful Solony is smitten rather than spoiling for a fight.

Last, and not least are Gruffudd Glyn and Richard Pryal playing two soldiers Fedotik and Rodé. Neither has more than a handful of the most functional lines (that I remember), but they do also provide the basis for some of the most exciting moments in the play – arriving toward the close of the first half in giant clown-heads with guitar and (balalaika? ukulele?) for the rendition first of some 12-bar blues, and then, at the drunk Tuzenbach's instigation, the hair-on-neck-raising rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit as a kind of drunken singalong folk song.

And that's the production. A beautiful set, dismantled during the second half, and some of the best performances currently available in London running through this ever-older play like it was finished just before the Olympics. At once, not trying to say anything noticeably huge or meta- about the world, but somehow pinning down so much that seems true and funny and sad about it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

On Criticism: The Ecologist and The Curator

[a slight introduction to some of the things knocking about in my head]

When we discuss “the critic” it feels that subject tends to be confined to “reviews”. How to write reviews? What should be in reviews? What shows should be reviewed? And so on.

Something that never seems to be addressed, or articulated, is the role of “ecologist” in which the critic also finds herself.

Let me first explain what I mean. There is a lot of talk these days of “the theatre ecology”. I don't know who coined the term, but it strikes me as a useful one (even if it does use the word incorrectly). Wikipedia defines ecology thus:

“Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of"”) is the scientific study of the relationships that living organisms have with each other and with their natural environment. Topics of interest to ecologists include the composition, distribution, amount (biomass), number, and changing states of organisms within and among ecosystems. Ecosystems are composed of dynamically interacting parts including organisms, the communities they make up, and the non-living components of their environment.”

It strikes me that much of the ancillary work undertaken by the critic beyond reviews-of-productions is precisely this. Looking at how the theatre ecosystem is functioning. Seeing what it contains; assessing how well it seems to be functioning; looking at the structures that underpin it; identifying evolutions within this environment.

In the past week, a second job-title has kept on recurring in relation to ecologist: that of “curator”.

In other sections of the arts, the concept of the curator is already the subject of some irritation at its overuse (this article seems typical of the sorts of dissatisfaction being voiced). Perhaps it's a sign of theatre's interesting separation from other disciplines that this backlash against the concept would be wholly irrelevant in theatre, since it feels like even the concept of curation is in its infancy here – if that.

However, I propose that the ideal contemporary writer on theatre already performs both these roles.

Something that came up a lot in the discussion at the DIALOGUE event at BAC was the articulation of the newly perceived differences between the widely read blogger and the n-string critic of a national daily newspaper (the role of the Sunday critic perhaps allows slightly greater latitude). That difference was not one of taste, style, age, or ability, but of freedom, expectation, and even “duty”.

The job of the newspaper critic, as befits their employment by a newspaper, is primarily journalism. It is the reporting of an event – of course – but it is also subject to the strictures of “newsworthniness”. In very basic terms, in relation to theatre this boils down to economics and unusualness (or perhaps “Michael” and “Lyn” in Guardian terms). That is to say, either the things that cost the most to put on, or things that strike the general reader as interestingly offbeat or quirky. “Best”, “Most artistically exciting” or “Important” are perhaps more difficult items for which to make an argument (though plainly not impossible).

The remit of the individual blogger can (and I will argue, should) be more diverse.

Since returning to blogging/criticism/writing-about-theatre in April, I've felt much more confident about ignoring economically significant work and just trying to see stuff I think will be interesting, and even about writing mostly/only about stuff that did indeed turn out to be interesting.

After all, in London, as in Edinburgh, it's not possible to see everything. It is perhaps possible to see nearly everything, depending on how much you also want to write about it. But if you're reviewing long-form, hoping to write anything beyond reviews, have any desire to ever see people socially, cook, wash, eat, etc. If you also want to see stuff outside just theatre, then there have to be choices.

Beyond this, I'm increasingly keen to catch more opera, contemporary dance, Live Art, music, Art and gigs. It can't be done if you're wedded even to the best combination of 1st and 2nd string critical lists for a week. Because that means pretty much every evening and several afternoons taken up with theatre (and possibly even only one sort of theatre).

So, why would I want to? Because, in short, I'm increasingly convinced that breadth might be as importance as depth. Or, put differently: because it feels like it's too easy for writing about theatre to start to situate it (both the writing and the theatre it's about) only in relation to itself. Even just small subsections of itself.


Some of the best feedback I get from writers/directors/performers is when I make unexpected comparisons between their work and a performer/writer/director working in what is usually positioned as a totally partitioned-off area or artform. It feels much more possible in Edinburgh, where part of the joy of reviewing is the sense that within that slightly sealed environment unexpectedly parallels and synchronicities can suddenly suggest themselves. Glimpses are caught of a new angle that writing seems to have taken, or a new mode of direction which seems to be taking shape. But I wonder if we might not be able to treat the broader ecosystem or systems as our own Festivals.

The critic Robert Hewison (stop me if you think that you've heard this one before) tells a lovely story about getting a letter from Steven Berkoff, following Robert's review of Berkoff's Decadence. Robert, having also worked extensively as an art historian, found it second nature to compare the aesthetic of the piece with the paintings of George Grosz. Berkoff, I think from the story, hadn't happened to come across them before, or at least, not consciously, or something, but anyway, the upshot was, he'd found the comparison really useful, and actually inspiring.

Not “embeddedness” by a long chalk, but it's perhaps my favourite story about criticism that I know. It represents for me, the most hopeful, useful dynamic that can exist between a critic and an artist – where the critic appreciates and understands what the artist/s has/ve done, but where the artist also gets an unexpected insight into their own work, or catches sight of it in a new and productive way.

So, that's the direction I'm hoping Postcards... is headed. And not alone.

A large part of the reason for Postcards... currently feeling more productive than it has in an age is the strength of the other blogs and reviews currently being written. And the ever deepening sense of community and respect between those writers. This new criticism represents a significant plurality of views and approaches, as well as diverse specialisms and tastes. But it is a plurality also underpinned by massive care and interest in each other's work.

As always, this might only be a snapshot of an optimistic moment. And it's impossible to know what will happen next. But at the moment, not only does Britain's theatrical ecosystem seem to be thriving and throwing out interesting work at a remarkable rate, but there is an incredibly wide, smart generation of writers covering it warmly, searchingly, rigorously and innovatively.

At some point soon, hopefully I will articulate some of these ideas about curation and ecology a bit more clearly. Part of the original impetus for this piece was a niggling concern that if we critics/writers-on-theatre are to act as theatre's unofficial ecologists, then perhaps we need a bit more training. And following on from that, there is a question about where that training might be found and what forms it might take. But for the time being that concern seems to have been leapfrogged by optimism.


Big Hits – GetInTheBackOfTheVan, Soho Theatre

[or: review as object lesson in why self-reflexivity isn't as good as getting to the point]

There are a million different ways I might start this review. Each plausibly reflective of a different facet of a show that is variously “essential viewing”, “funny, sexy, frightening” or “smart, hard, awesome”; caustic, casual, obscene and innuendo-riddled. Instead, I already seem instead to have reflected the fact that it is a bit overlong and perhaps unsure where it's going.

I might also start with a“what I did with my weekend” approach: I came to Big Hits straight from DIALOGUE at the BAC. I was terrifically wired on coffee, and probably hadn't had enough to eat. I had also been talking to some incredibly smart theatre makers and fellow writers-about-theatre all afternoon, so perhaps my critical faculties were also buzzing a bit too hard.

Mention could be made of the fact that I didn't see company GetinTheBackofTheVan's inaugural production External – a response to Ontroerend Goed's Internal – robbing me of the chance to chart the company's development as Matt Trueman surely will.

All these things are relevant. And none of them make for a good intro.

There's also the temptation to start off with smut: “Last night ended, as so many nights do, with me staring up the naked bumhole of a performer.” etc. So I'll stop trying to introduce the thing cleverly, or with writing, and will just get on with the thing and stick this in as an appendix.

(Thinking about it, though, the above is more or less exactly how the show itself starts – self-consciously talking about itself as a show and not getting started.)

Big Hits opens with Lucy McCormick dressed in a little black dress – all plunging, gauzy neckline, visible bra and white high heels – and Jennifer Pick in a massive rabbit costume with a microphone gaffer-taped to her head (Lucy: “I said 'Why not dress as a bunny girl?'...”). They're introducing their show Big Hits. Their show Big Hits is “on a mission. [We'll] learn SELF-IMPROVEMENT with [them] here tonight and [we] will COMPLETELY improve [o]ursel[ves]. That way [we] can be better in the world”.

They want a show with balls. Enter the hapless Craig Hamblyn – stripped to the waist and covered in blood in a way that suggests he's just stepped out of Thalheimer's Die Orestie – as their bearer of the aforementioned necessary actual and figurative extras.

You've grasped the aesthetic, right? No set; visible *means* (microphones, speakers, iPod, floodlight and disco ball); that tacky arthaus kinda thing. The kind of thing I have plenty of time for, but of which I have consequently seen a lot. If you want a shorthand, think: the carnage at the end of an imaginary Gob Squad office party; an existential vision of artists photocopying their bums wearing animal masks.

One of the things discussed at DIALOGUE yesterday was the relative redundancy of “theatre criticism” containing an “assessment”. But then there are interesting side-effects of the non-judgement-wielding or -yielding review. No, I won't star-rate Big Hits. I don't star-rate anything. And I can avoid talking about what might or might not specifically have worked (or: worked-for-me). But, for reasons that will shortly become apparent, a description of the “plot” or even the arc of the show isn't much use for a consideration of the work...

What happens is that Lucy sings Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah about a dozen times while __ hops about in the rabbit suit, performs a rabbit death and then continues on stage as a kind of browned-off compère figure. Craig also remains on stage enacting his own trajectory of dejection, performing a series of increasingly difficult tasks, mostly involving the holding of some very heavy-looking speakers. Lucy's performances of Hallelujah become increasingly desperate, “attention-seeking” and sexualised. By the end, she has shown us her right breast, simulated a considerable amount of aggressive sex, spanked herself so hard that, by this final performance of the group's week-long run, her derrière looks rather badly bruised, and finally has presented us with a long view up her bottom.

In light of the non-judging review, the interesting question with which these antics leave this self-reflexive critic is what the hell one does say about them.

I might start by positioning myself in relation to them (no, that's not a double entendre, although this is a show dripping with them). Reassuring you, my clever, unshockable, avant-garde reader, that I was not in the least bit offended by anything I saw.

I might go further than merely reassuring you by showing off: that I have seen every single one of these elements on a stage before (ok, not specifically Lucy's bottom, but bottoms like Lucy's); or even more show-offy: I lived in Berlin, dammit: this sort of thing is just a quiet night in a club there. I could point to specific artistic precedents – the “cake-fucking scene” in Dave St. Pierre's Un Peu de Tendresse – Bordel de Merde, the performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit in Superamas's Big Third Episode – and note that both go a lot further. But that would be missing the point.

But instead, let's go back to the first principle of trusting that the company know what they're doing and talk about what they have done.

Perhaps the most obvious influence (to an outside eye) on the genesis of the work could be seem to be the ever-more-ubiquitous TV format of the talent show. To position myself as a critic in relation to that: I can say with pride/appalling-cultural-ignorance/unashamed-snobbery that I haven't seen even five minutes of a single one of these shows.

I couldn't give a fuck about X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Pop Idol, or Britain's Got Talent. Obviously, having lived in the UK for a while, I do have a peripheral awareness of Simon Cowell's existence, and of Alexandra Burke's hideous version of Jeff Buckley's massive improvement on Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. I am also aware of that godawful version of Heroes that some maniac thought would be an appropriate song with which to try to raise money for the British Army. I could even make the pat observation/attempt-at-witticism that the only line in Hallelujah that might have any relevance in its new-found status as a squawky anthem for the godlessly godawful is: “But you don't really care for music, do ya?”

I am, however, aware of the critical discourse, and the *social* discourse, around this sort of programme (I might not watch the programmes themselves, but I do still read newspapers and listen to the news, so they're more or less unavoidable. Which I profoundly resent), and it is an interesting subject on the macro level. On the other hand, I'm not sure that talent shows are so pervasive in our culture yet that the best response isn't just to ignore them – that making theatre/Art *against* them (if that's what this is; which certainly isn't the whole story, if it's any of the story) doesn't just dignify the wretched things far more than they deserve and that ignoring them altogether wouldn't be a better solution.

But Big Hits goes a lot further than just being a witless critique of the TV Talent Show format. Really it's “about” (difficult word) the commodification of human (particularly female) sexuality, the way sexuality is sold back to us through pornography, television and advertising, about labour in general and about performance. Well, that's some of what it seemed to be about to me. Perhaps largely because of my British desire to pin things down to a purpose and some sort of utilitarian comment function. Maybe it wasn't meant to be about any of that and was just a strange, wild and oddly readable bit of art that I should have been thinking about in a totally different way.

That said, if it was about those things, we might, as critics, be able to discuss the extent to which the piece brought something/anything new to the table of that discussion, or to the artform.

As Mark Ravenhill said on Twitter: “Last performance tonight at Soho Theatre of Big Hits. I urge you to see it. Funny, sexy, frightening, essential.” perhaps because of the relative rarity of work like it in a mainstream UK performance space.

As Matt Trueman, also on Twitter, said: “Institutional context: an arsehole on a stage at the ICA is a very different proposition to an arsehole on a stage at the Soho Theatre.

And, I think both writer/director and critic are right. Ecologically speaking I'm pleased that this show exists.

I do think, however, that side-effects of this ecological context had a lot to do with how I wound up watching it on Saturday night.

That is to say, I'm not sure this is the sort of show that benefits from the above sort of bigging-up. I saw it with an expectant sold-out audience – though of what they were expectant was less clear. Some people had definitely decided it was going to be a funny show and laughed at all the jokes. Loudly. Other people were presumably watching more intently for the meaning behind the jokes. As an audience it felt fractured, and slightly frustrated as a result of that fracture. (That sense of at least two factions in an audience mentally tutting at, or worrying about, their co-audients' audible responses/lack-of-audible-responses. We've all been in those audiences, right? We sometimes can't help but be in one or other of those factions, right?)

Big Hits feels like a show that would do well for being discovered for itself, rather than being sold out on a wave of probably un-meet-able hype. i.e. – if I'd seen it for myself as a matter of course rather than going on the recommendations of three notoriously hard-to-please friends, then I'd have probably been going wild about it too. Instead, I went pre-armed with all these slightly unqualified recommendations.  So, the position one goes in with tends to wind up being modified to: “Well, it was fine, but I'm not sure it's as good as everyone else said it was.” And I don't think it's just critics who have an instinct to bridle at hype.


I still haven't said anything meaningful about the show, only about my experience of sitting in it and thinking about other peoples' responses to it.

So, to get back to the show...

Plainly the most striking thing in the show is the extent and nature of Lucy's self-abuse (to which I will return). However, in an interesting way I found the difficulty of Craig's tasks far more absorbing. There was some astute use of dual/triple focus where, while Lucy was doing something absurd and sexual, and Jennifer was being a wryly cute or cutely wry rabbit, Craig would be in real pain undertaking some actually physically painful labour. There's an available reading that would note about what a very Victorian-to-the-Sixties model of masculine and feminine roles. Sure, people can argue that these roles still hold far too much currency, and that Victorian women weren't really encouraged into high heels and belt-length skirts to snap up a mate. At the same time, hard physical labour seems to be something of which we see less and less as Britain's economy moves away from any kind of manufacturing. I don't suppose the piece was intended as a comparison between lap-dancing and labouring, but it's an available critical endgame, I think.

Primarily, though, it does seem to be aimed at eviscerating (or perhaps *re*viscerating) the contemporary picture of female sexuality. Or rather, not sexuality, so much as the performance of it in the service of the entertainment industry.

Looking at the elements here, we have the idea of the narrative, the sub- misery-memoir backstories that are much beloved of the TV talent show – the end-of-the-line bastardisation of the idea that one has to suffer for one's art. Part of Lucy's character arc is the questing to perfect her performance of Hallelujah by putting herself through some suffering. This includes an incredibly uncomfortable ten minute (?) “domestic violence” routine, in which Craig repeatedly stage-punches her in the face. While one could easily accuse it of trivialising violence against women, I think it transcends the accusation by the way that Lucy plays the scene – continually looking over her shoulder between each punch in that staple cliché of pornography, and, in this context, a way that suggests she's just checking we're still watching her. But with wide eyes that disturbingly recall that most tasteless of pop titles “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” (which in turn recalls both the Adam Curtis/Punchdrunk collaboration and the more recent news stories about Chris Brown, his new album, that review of it that went viral, and his deeply strange new neck tattoo).

This emphasis on being watched and on the lexicon of pornographic semiotics form the cornerstone of the piece. Lucy's non-stop stream of filthy double-entendre and incredibly graphic gesticulations – so graphic that you might well choose to believe that that can't possibly mean what it looks like – clash interestingly with Craig's joke-puncturing shtick and Jennifer's slightly more wide-eyed, clownish stare into the audience – her face always looking only two steps away from breaking into a smile or giggles.

So that's the stuff that's in the show. A sort of story about someone beating themselves up in order to feel the pain so they can sing Hallelujah better, assisted and then turned on by a 5'-something bunny with a spooky voice, that dies before the end and is reincarnated as a kind of talent show judge, and a bloke holding heavy speakers at arms length whilst trying to avoid looking like Christ (Paraphrase: “There's enough religion in the song already” – which is some neat irony right there, given Cohen's (obvious, pronounced, ancestral) first-half-only approach to the Bible.)

So, yes. What does it all mean? Pretty much what you like. Obviously there are some strenuous pointers. Definitely some really interesting material in there. Almost certainly to slightly over-long feel of it is deliberate in order to bang home the point (fnarr) and to make you feel the repetitions.

I suppose (on a personal note), I'd have liked it to maybe tell me/suggest some stuff I haven't thought of before. Or to have gone just that bit further into The Unacceptable, so that I had been genuinely appalled. But if that's not what GetInTheBackOfTheVan wanted to do, it felt fine that it wasn't what they'd done.

Basically (and this is an assessment. Sorry), I liked it (in retrospect more than in the watching, although there was enough smut, jokes and near-nudity to keep me entertained). I look forward to seeing more of their work. It feels like a great (almost) starting point for a young company. Perhaps some of their shtick will start to feel a bit less borrowed in time (That Gob Squad, and slight Forced Ents debt could do with fading a bit, maybe – although it's an interesting question whether that debt is actual or just a result of talking in quite a deadpan way into a microphone.)

...fades out...

...lights suddenly shut off...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Three Sisters [tracklist] – Young Vic

[review coming.  In the mean time, here's the tracklist]

Possibly some Bulat Okudzava/булат Oкуджава:

Golden Years:

Unchain My Heart:

Some Pussy Riot (possibly not this one):

Smells Like Teen Spirit:

Night and Day:

Love Calls You by Your Name:


something that sounds like Liz Frazer singing Song to the Siren:


And full marks for non-inclusion of neither:


or indeed this:


The chosen tracklist did make me think they could have profitably used this:

or this:


One day I'm going to end up review a show just using songs-used and songs that it made me think of.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Love and Information – Royal Court

[reviews in the vague style of...  and this one is way too long]



So here it is then.

Here it is.

Dominic's Big Last Season.

The Big Last Season, yes.

All the stuff.

All the big stuff, yes.


There are many voices telling us what they want us to write, how they want us to write it, how they want us to re-write it, and exactly what will happen to it if we get all of that right. As a poet I know which journals will publish my poetry and which ones will always refuse it. As a playwright I’ve discovered there is no other place to send this work.

Right. So how do you explain this, then?


So everyone's here then?

Yup. It's like a Royal Court Greatest Hits Museum.

You can't really watch a play like this, can you? Not when you know the work of every damn person in the room, can you? You can't even trust the laughter, can you?

Ooh, look. There's Andrew Scott.

So it is. And he's started dressing like Nick Cave!

It looks good.


You all know about Caryl Churchill, right? I don't need to outline her massive reputation, explain that she's considered a big deal, or tell you that new texts from her are as rare as hen's teeth, right?

Sure. But do you think you should admit that (you missed A Number) you haven't liked anything she's written (including her letters to the Guardian) for over a decade? Should you confess that this antipathy has begun to corrode your acceptance of the reputation of her earlier plays?

Churchill can write, don't get me wrong. Sure, sometimes her writing can be a bit tic-y. Yes. But it's her politics that rankle. Which is odd, because her politics are the same as mine. So why are her politics so incredibly annoying?


I was wondering... If you can deal with Israel/Palestine in 10 minutes, why does this play take 100?


You seem very hostile


But you seem hostile

I'm not sure how you have arrived at that conclusion

Well, a lot of the things you're saying, these situations you describe, they're very

I don't see how you can construe any of this as hostile

But it all adds up, doesn't it?

Does it?

Don't you think it adds up?

You tell me



How is it arranged?

Carefully. Like this.

No names?

No names.

No scenes?

Oh, yes. Scenes.

No names?

No. Names.

Scenes with names?



Yes, acts. Seven acts.

Seven acts and scenes with names?

And “Random”.


I was just wondering something.


You see where it says “Schizophrenia” here?


I was wondering about that.

What about it?

We didn't see that, did we?

We're looking at it now. We can both see it.

We can see it now. But we didn't see it then.

Oh. I see what you mean.

And there are all these names. And we didn't know about any of them.

We could have looked.

But we didn't, though. We didn't look until afterwards. While it was happening we didn't know the names.


Hey, did they give you the little speech?


When they gave me my book they also gave me this piece of paper.

Oh yeah. I got that.

And they said “Some of the scenes are in different places now to the place they are in the book. So here's a list of all the places that they're in now.”

What's your problem?

Well, why do we need it?

So we know.

But we'd know by seeing the thing and looking at the book and seeing they were different.

But it's helpful.

I suppose it's for the old ones. They like to know everything's been done by the book.

But, at the beginning of the book it says: “the scenes can be played in any order within each section”.

I'm telling the Germans on them.


sometimes there aren't capital letters

At the beginning of sentences?


and is there any consistency in this

not even within scenes

And what about punctuation?

it varies too


seen this pattern before


can't deny there are

think it's the same ?

years ago now


and changed. We know what he's

not the same guy


but similar



As you can see, it covers a lot of ground.

Yes, so I see. It's got a very impressive range.

I'm sensing a “but”.


Yes. I'm getting the impression that you have reservations.

Well, ok. I suppose I am concerned about the ethics of it.

The ethics?

The ethics. Having so much range. It feels... when it's launched... When we launch it... When it is launched on our behalf... We're so far away from the targets when it lands.

But isn't that the beauty of it? Isn't that the point?

But so many targets and in such a short amount of time? At least in the past you had to get your hands dirty...

You'd rather be twisting a bayonet in someone's guts while looking into their eyes?

Well, it seems more honest that way, yes.



It's so open out here.

Yes, it's wonderful. Very freeing, I've always found.

Mmm. Exactly.

Like you could be anyone.

Yes. Yes, exactly. Like I could be anyone at all out here.

It almost feels unreal?

But in a good way, right?

Oh, yes. In a good way.

No. What is it?

Well, it's just, this is going to sound silly.

No. Go on.

It's just... Out here, with you, now... And knowing I could be literally anyone, I feel kind of disappointed that I'm just me. Do you know what I mean? Does that sound silly?

No. I feel that way too.


“in China white is death and here black is death but ghosts are white of course so a chessboard is death against death”

did she say that?

it's right here

and a chessboard is eight squares by eight squares

and there are seven sections with seven acts?

yes, but they've added an extra one line act into each scene

so it's also eight by eight?

not quite. The last section only has one

but here, where we're standing is like a white cube with 8x8 grids drawn on it

yes. Like a five-sided chessboard of Chinese death

do you think that's why?


imagine I keep coming back

coming back?

as different

reincarnation you

except that everyone I come back as, nearly everyone I come back as seems to be from the same sort of background. We're all wearing the same Western


imagine everyone else coming back

but not really changed

maybe different relationships. maybe slightly different backgrounds but basically we all keep coming back as people who could the the person we were last time


I wish you wouldn't keep turning out the light.


Because everything takes twice as long. If you didn't keep switching off the light we'd be done by now.

But it's the only way of stopping them seeing what we're doing.

Why do we have to hide what we're doing? You chose to do this. Why did you choose this if you're embarrassed?


I hear noises.

You hear noises?

Yes. Sometimes distantly, sometimes quite loudly.

What are the noises you hear?

Oh, it varies. Sometimes children playing in the street or shouting, sometimes a kind of banging sound or maybe glass breaking. And sometimes it's Sailing By or the theme tune of the The Archers.

Sailing By?


Well that's original.

What do you think it all means?


Yes. Do you remember years ago?

Yes. You were still at university.

Yes. Everything still felt possible.

Yes. And unexpected things happened.

Yes. Like a giant emu coming through a door.

Yes. Or like hundreds of children bursting out of the cupboards.

Yes. I miss that.

Yes. What's strange is that it could still be like that.

Yes. But it isn't, is it?

No. Not this time. No.



It works.

Yes. It works.

It works very well, doesn't it?

I'm not sure.

But it works.

They're very charming.

Yes, they're very charming.

And that makes it work.

It makes it feel like it works.

You can't fault the charm.

No. you can't fault the charm.


director James Macdonald has done a clever thing

yes. He's got an actress who looks not unlike Caryl Churchill and given her all but one of the scenes where the writing sounds most like Churchill writing a letter to the Guardian about her views on terrorism or Israel/Palestine or The War on Terror or whatever

this has the interesting effect of making those views seem slightly more anchored to the playwright than to the play. Right?

right. while leaving the lines intact it's like MacDonald has managed to stage them so that they are definitely just Churchill's opinions /to which

/which she's entitled /to of course

/entitled, yes. But making sure it's obvious that they're not necessarily endorsed by either director, theatre or actors whose opinions they might not necessarily be


nice mix of people

its good for

really nice that

not about being nice

about being real


real nice


Nikki, Linda, Scarlett, Amanda, Susan, Laura, John, Joshua, Paul, Billy, Justin, Amit, Rhashan, Nell, Josh, Sarah.



I had a friend who once coined the phrase “theatre-laugh”.

What's a “theatre-laugh”?

It's a joke that people would only laugh at in a theatre.

I can't help feeling it actually is a table.



but the


but effortless

don't see the

believe the

do believe it. Mostly

is an achievement

once you stop


that they could be anyone and start accepting who they

never worried about who they might

worried about who else they could have

didn't occur to me to worry about what wasn't happened. What hadn't

see how a person


I'm bored.

Me too.

Do you think they're bored?

Oh, God. I hadn't thought of that.

We've been doing this for ages now.

Yeah. Maybe we'd better liven it up a bit.

Do some funny voices you mean?

Funny voices, yes. Maybe a few more jokes. Just so they don't leave.

Do you think they'd leave if we didn't do funny voices or jokes?

Why take the chance?



She grew up in an upper middle-class home in

She read voraciously; one of her favorite books was

She compared it to

She attended college in

She received both a bachelor's and a master's degree

She came under the tutelage of

She married in

She would later state that

She had extensive knowledge of

He mentions within the text that she named her goldfish after one of his closest friends


Can we try to quantify the amount of information we have?

We could count it.

Would there be any point?

Perhaps. But is the information itself the point?

The specific information contained isn't the whole point, no.

It stands for various fields of human inquiry.

We could as well go to the front page of Wikipedia and turn some articles into dialogues?

About the procedure of how you inject radiation into the brain of a chick and then track that radiation as it spreads through the chick's synapses mapping a learning process?

For instance.

And that information is information about information.

Neat, isn't it?


do you ever get frightened?

frightened of what?

frightened by the way that there seems to be too much of everything. frightened that there is no way of knowing everything

it is a frightening feeling

and that there's no way we can possibly hope to even organise the information we do have logically

it is completely bewildering. yes


What makes you think that you'd be the right person for this job?

Well, I have a lot of experience.

I see. Experience of what?

Experience in this field.

So I see, but why do you want this job?

Because of my experience in the field.

But your experience in the field isn't really related to what this job requires.

I'm sorry, but what this job requires more than anything is experience in the field.

I think you might have misunderstood the nature of the field.

So you're saying despite all the time I've spent with this company, my experience isn't enough?

Ok, I'll be honest with you, I think the fact that you haven't grown up inside your subject is a problem.

But surely that distance gives me perspective?

Perspective, yes. But also a lack of understanding.


In the mountains, there you feel free.

Up here in the mountains Google looks like a footnote.


For all the information you've given me, you've said surprisingly little about the other thing.

You want to know what love is?

Well, I wondered. There are so many types. So many examples.

This has got lots of types and lots of examples.

The love is a lot more implied or inferred than the information, though.

But then love is mostly made up of information as well.

Is that what you're trying to tell me?

I'm not trying to tell you anything.


I think it's nearly finished. Would you like to come and see?

Oh, yes. That seems very good indeed.

You think I've got it right?




Hang on. I've done all this work for you and you're not going to tell me if it's right or not?

That's not the point of the work you've been doing.

But do you like what I've done?

It doesn't matter if I don't like it.

But I was only doing this work because you asked me to.

You needn't have agreed.



You do trust me don't you?


So it's a meditation on these two things.


Why those two things.

Well, they're important, aren't they?

Absolutely, they're central question of our age.

The Information Age


The Knowledge Economy.

Got it in one.

And Love?

The Love Economy, yes.

That's not a thing.

No. But without love it's all just rape, isn't it?

So what's the problem?

The problem is that they're not the only things.

I don't think anyone's claiming they are the only things.

But even the title, it seems to say those are the important things, even though there are plainly lots of other things.

So? It makes you think about those things, doesn't it?

I think I probably think about those things anyway.

But this makes you think about them differently?

I'm not sure it does. I think it shows lots of things people have already thought about those things again.

Isn't that how information works?

If you don't leave now, aren't you going to miss your train?


Have you seen the script?

The one from a first-time writer?

No, the one from the famous writer.



Well, I thought it was from a first-time writer, so I just put it in this drawer.

Oh, but it's from the famous writer.

Oh, well that's different.

Quite different.

If it had been from a first-time writer...

Oh, of course.

But it's from the famous writer.

So we'll put it on.

Of course we'll put it on.

Well, now I look at it again, I do see marks of genius.

Of course you do. It's by a genius.

A Genius, yes.

Not a first-time writer.

Not a first-time writer, no.


[several people]

Look, it doesn't matter what you think.

It's there now.

There's nothing you can say to change it.

But I don't want to change anything. I'm not saying I object. I was just asking some questions wasn't I?


but don't you think the rest of the body impacts


of work


not just standing alone


stands at the end of this long


development yes

themes. Strategies


What happened to trusting people?

I haven't stopped.

You sound sniffy.

I'm not sure I sound conclusive at all.


There's a lot of stuff. All I'm saying is that there's a lot of stuff. There's a lot of stuff and there are a lot of blackouts.

So it that good or bad?

Depends how you feel about stuff and blackouts and white cubes. I think it does some quite obvious things and makes those things seem cleverer by ellipsis. In a lot of ways, it's only as clever as the viewer.

So no one is going to be very willing to say it's not very good?

Clever, isn't it?


Do you like it?

It's lovely, darling. What's it for?



"O My [lines],
Why do you look so eagerly and so curiously into
people's faces,
Will you find your lost dead among them?"




One person tells a story to another

"Speakings from the tongue of an experienced simpleton who obviously would rather be an emasculated, infantile complainee. This note should be pretty easy to understand. The fact is, I can't fool you, any of you. It simply isn't fair to you, or to me. The worst crime can think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having one 100% fun.
"I'm too sensitive, I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasm. I still can't get out the frustration, the guilt, and the sympathy I have for everybody. There is good in all of us, and I simply love people too much. So much that it makes me feel too fucking sad. The sad little sensitive unappreciative pisces Jesus man! why don't you just enjoy it? I dont know!
"And that terrifies me to the point to where I can barely function. Thank you from the pit of my burning nauseas stomach for your letters and concern during the last years. I'm too much of a neurotic moody person and I don't have the passion anymore, so remember, it's better to burn out, than to fade away. Peace, love, empathy"




The sound of high-pitched electronic static. A click


Crackle. The sound of an old fashioned modem logging onto the internet


Silence. stillness



god, it's just blacked

is looking for a pattern in the noises a sign of

it's not like I need it to make

isn't an interval


Friday, 14 September 2012

The Magic Flute – ENO, Coliseum

This run of ten performances marks the final outing of the (then) young Nicholas Hytner's apparently seminal 1988 production of W.A.Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. And, much admired though the production might have been, on this showing it doesn't feel that this retirement is premature.

It is difficult to assess the impact of a production or situate it in its proper context for a critic who was eleven when it premièred. Any innovations it may have brought to bear on opera, any social relevance it might have once had – I think I spotted a sole “topical” reference to Section 28, which was also introduced in 1988 – are now veritable antiques in theatre terms.

Of course, this shouldn't matter. One can only assess what is put in front of one in the moment. And yet, it was precisely what I did end up thinking about. Partly this might be a product of the publicity framing this farewell run. As press, we are handed pamphlets detailing the show's longevity, while it is sold to the public on the prospectus that this outstanding, long-running achievement is about to disappear forever. An operatic equivalent of those “You'll Miss Saigon” posters (also directed by Hytner, coincidentally) perhaps.

At the same time as it being hard to fathom what may have made an impact 25 years ago, it's also difficult to know what of the spirit of the much-loved original production remains. Many of the young principals now can barely have been out of nappies when it first opened.

All this anxiety abounds largely because worried I wasn't feeling suitably impressed last night. Of course, this could be down to a combination of raised expectations and taste. I have a horrible feeling it might also partly be down to the ravishing, pared-down performances of bits from Die Zauberflöte in Meine Faire Dame, which are still playing in the back of my head on a fairly regular basis.

None of which feels especially fair or helpful, so I shall get on with saying what this does do, and shall try to keep what I might have preferred it to do out of the way.

If you don't know the The Magic Flute (and I don't claim to be much of an expert), it's essentially the ridiculous, confected tale of how the young prince Tamino (Shawn Mathy), saved in a forest from a monstrous serpent, vows to go and rescue princess Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis) – with whom he falls in love immediately on the strength of her picture. Pamina is the daughter of The Queen of the Night (Catherine Young) and has been abducted by the naughty wizard Sarastro (Robert Lloyd), who has unaccountably left her in the care of rapey gaoler Monostatos (Adrian Thompson). Tamino is helped by the bird catcher Papageno (Duncan Rock), a happy-go-lucky singleton of limited aspirations.

Given opera's reputation for fearsome complexity, the plot is lower on twists than the average Hollywood blockbuster. There's one. That Sarastro turns out to be the good guy (if you like your “good guy” patriarchal, Teutonic and masonic) and the Queen of the Night, well, the clue's in the name, folks. The whole is either all utterly inconsequential, with less at stake than your average pantomime, or else a telling tract on the German Enlightenment to be mined for Freudian subtexts, post-colonial readings, French Revolutionary anxieties and the seeds of the Holocaust. Hytner has rather sat on the fence in this respect.

The production (designed by Bob Crowley in 1988) is set in that conveniently a-temporal Everywhen. It stands what look like a lot of Austrian or perhaps 1790s American volk, clothed mostly in tasteful Sunday Times supplement beiges and whites, in fromt of a large off-white fractured cyclorama. This periodically opens to reveal various bits of extra scene-settery (a big moon, a big tree, etc.), with the masonic Temple cunningly conjured by three extendible library stacks abutted with classical columns. And all the Masons have ponytails.

I daresay this was revelatory stuff 25 years ago, but now it looks like as stock an opera set as one could wish to see, with the odd echo of Robert Wilson here or foreshadowing of, well, most of Hytner's subsequently favoured stage-sets.

There is also plenty that is still charming about the piece, though. Obviously Mozart's Magic Flute is good, right? So it's got a pretty solid start. And Jeremy Sams's English text is spry, witty and droll (though not as pretty as the German). There are also some excellent live doves and amusing people-pretending-to-be-bears.

Re: the music itself. I don't know if it's a matter of taste, upbringing, inclination or habit, but for my money, the orchestra (and vocalists) at ENO always sound a bit more quiet than I'd like them to. Now, I don't know if this is down to where I'm sat (Stalls, centre of row N), what I'm used to (recorded music, heavily amplified gigs, headphones, miked singers and amplified instruments in theatres), or if it's just what I'd like more of. By very similar tokens, I thought the music could have been played faster and with a bit more attack. For the most part, this feels like a sweetly lyrical take a score that could as well be rendered sharply with painful mathematical precision. I think, on balance, I prefer that latter approach almost as much as I'm sure most other people wouldn't.

The singing is, of course, massively impressive. This sort of thing probably never occurs to a proper opera reviewer to mention. But, coming out of theatre-going for an evening, it is startling to be reminded what some people can do with the human voice. In opera terms, this is presumably a bit like commending actors for remembering all those lines: it should be a given. So, givens aside, what to make of the performers? Well, being a Singspiel rather than sung-through opera, there is regrettably also demand made on the singers to act. This is gamely undertaken in a spirit of Brechtian pantomime. At no stage is the point not getting across, and you couldn't really describe it as “bad acting”. More like “no acting at the requisite volume with all the emphases in the right place”. But as I've said, this is kind of a low-stakes production of a what can be seen as a fairly silly opera. We're just being asked to invest here. Rock's Papageno especially comes off so much as “Aussie Soap-Star playing Buttons” that he even gets audible audience responses (and the biggest laugh of the night). Though the night really belonged to Xanthoudakis's sweetly sung Pamina.

But there's something slightly hateful about finding such a glib, happy-seeming artefact dating from the height of the Thatcher years. I couldn't help wishing that there was some tangible hint of a critique of that dreadful decade, rather than some cosily “apolitical” (apart, possibly from the Section 28 dig) entertainment that a bunch of Tories could go along and watch with their vile views intact.

That said, I do wonder if The Magic Flute would ever be the opera from which to launch such an assault. (answer: it would be perfectly possible. All requires is the will.) It is, after all, rather a confused document of its own intentions. On one hand it has these terrific hymns to the Enlightenment, but they're sung by a bunch of Masons who dedicate them to the Egyptian gods Isis und Osiris while standing about in their wacky heiroglyph-heavy interiors. And, while in the programme Daniel Heartz gamely tries to persuade us that Mozart is “raising women to the level of equality and enlightment achieved by Pamina at the end of the opera” (an awkward sentiment in itself), the opera jovially invokes the threat of rape as an amusing plot point. A fact that I'm not sure Hytner's production does much with, other than possibly make yet more uncomfortable with its blithe acceptance and trivial stylings around it.

Of course I wonder if any of this critique is helpful, telling or relate-able. I don't suppose for a moment it would put off anyone with the money to afford the seat next to mine last night. And I do wonder if I've gone a bit far with the whole politics thing. But, one can only say what one sees, and sometimes one sees an opulent Tory meringue.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

On Criticism: Was ist ist / Was nicht ist / Ist möglich

[a discussion about naturalistic plays, non-naturalistic text, ways of staging, and how critics can get it wrong. Also, an optimistic assessment of the current theatre ecology]

Yesterday's On Criticism piece dealt largely with what we do about it when we like something and don't always know why. Today's piece is about when we don't like something, and if we really do know why.

This has in part been prompted by Hannah Silva's fascinating but problematic interview with the playwright Joanna Laurens, which follows Silva's equally fascinating and equally problematic polemic for Exeunt magazine: Crisis of Naturalism.

I recommend reading both pieces. However, since I've described them as “problematic” as well as fascinating, I should try to outline briefly what I see as the problems before continuing.

Both pieces strike me as heavily writer-centric. Fair enough: both Laurens and Silva are playwrights/writers of texts-for-theatre. However, it means that both pieces appear to consider acceptance of a script for production as the end point. Silva's polemic is confusing on this point, on one hand complaining: “As a playwright I’ve discovered there is no other place to send this work.” While on the other suggesting: “If we want things to change, perhaps it is not the directors, literary managers and critics that will make the difference, but the playwrights themselves.”

Silva doesn't help her case by quoting Sarah Kane – perhaps one of Britain's most produced playwrights of the last fifteen years (and if not, then apparently blame her Beckett-like estate, not a lack of interest) – who in turn lists “Beckett, Barker, Pinter and Bond as playwrights who have been criticised not so much for the content of their work, but “because they use non-naturalistic forms that elude simplistic interpretation”.” Elsewhere Silva cites Caryl Churchill.

Certainly they may all be been criticised for the non-naturalistic form of their work at some point, but there's also the fact that Beckett and Pinter were awarded Nobel Prizes for Literature and are considered two of the most important English-language playwrights (ignoring for the time being that Beckett wrote En attendant Godot and Fin de partie in French and Spiel premièred in German) of the past century. And that both Howard Barker and Edward Bond continue to enjoy enviable reputations as fearsome dramatists – not to mention the recent revivals and seasons of new work by Bond and the fact the NT is just about to open Barker's Scenes From An Execution. While not only Caryl Churchill's new play, but also something else she knocked up in a lunch break, are currently showing at the Royal Court.

That we should all have such troubles, one might say.

Beyond this, it feels as if the polemic also ignores inconvenient facts that contradict it. Don't get me wrong, God knows I've spent enough time writing about what I perceive to be a massive level of timidity on the part of some literary departments; some times.

At the same time, I'm also a pluralist, and don't think any type of play, or even any type of production should be junked wholesale in favour of another. Some types of play (and even the notion of a type of play feels unfairly flattening or reductive) might appeal to my individual tastes more than others, but I'd be mad not to recognise that some people like different stuff to me.

I don't want to get into a thing where I start polarising naturalism and other forms of writing. It's bad if literary departments do it in one direction (and I'm not saying they do), but it's not much use if I just counter that perceived sin by committing it again in reverse. It gives the impression of an unthinking, entrenched position, perpetuates an unhelpful binary which in turn gets in the way of dialogue.

So on one hand, I completely sympathise with Silva's broad point – that it can feel like there is no literary department really catering to writers working outside the “New Play” model (which, if I wanted to be really picky, I'd argue wasn't exclusively “naturalistic”). On the other hand, I think it is incredibly important to recognise that the terrain does feel like it is changing (even “changing back”: the RSC, NT and Royal Courts of the 60s and 70s were, after all, hives of experimentation).

Consider, for example, the Court's Wallace Shawn season and Tim Crouch's The Author; the way that the NT has made space for companies like Non Zero One and 1927 and its continued support of British international director Katie Mitchell; or the way that the RSC has supported productions like Anthony Neilson's Marat/Sade, the Wooster Group/Ravenhill Troilus and Cressida, and the Camille Rape of Lucrece, not to mention Ben Power's experimental Romeo and Juliet rewrite, A Tender Thing.

Look also at the recent appointments being made: Headlong's Ben Power moving to the National; the force behind the eclectic Northern Stage at St Stephens season, Erica Whyman, moving to the RSC. Look at the incredibly exciting appointment of Purni Morell to the Unicorn, Madani Younis to the Bush and Chris Haydon to the Gate. Look at the trajectory of work being undertaken by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Young Vic. And that's just the “mainstream” theatres in London. I'd argue that there hasn't felt like a more optimistic moment in the way things are going in terms of an increased diversity of types of theatre being produced since I started going to the theatre regularly in London.

I would argue that my discomfort with the arguments as they are presented in Silva's two pieces also stems from the way that she appears to suggest the script as a self-contained entity. Granted, she furthers that impression by quoting from the unimaginative rejection letter to Laurens from the Soho theatre which baldly asserted: “the language is not dramatic and would not work on stage”. This was in 2000, so only fifteen years since Forced Entertainment were formed, only a year after Postdramatic Theatre was published in Germany and four years before Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for literature. So perhaps the ignorance was forgiveable back then. Even if the note was already ironic, given that the play was being presented by the more forward-looking Gate.

However, the impression that a text is a self-contained end unto itself is also furthered by many of the critics who reviewed Laurens's second play Five Gold Rings. Of the reviews that I've managed to find I would gently argue that a Telegraph-against/Guardian-cautiously pro- split doesn't quite constitute “ripped apart by the critics”, but that's nit-picking.

I am far more interested here by what I see as a total failure of imagination on the part of the critics. As I discussed yesterday, there's not much anyone can do about one's taste. I also fully believe that the critics were being honest when those that didn't like 5GR simply said so, much though one could take issue with the way that Charles Spencer sometimes chooses to express himself (but, Christ, we've all written unkind reviews, so I've got no moral high ground on that score).

On the other hand, it is striking that almost uniformly they commend a “handsome production” with an “all-star cast”, and proceed to trash the script. This strikes me a perverse, doctrinal, failure to understand how theatre works. After all, what is a production, if not a presentation of a take on a script. If a lot of people can all agree that the script is “bad” after seeing a production of it, in way way can the production be said to have been a success, or “handsome”?

Consider the following piece of writing for the stage:
There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply. Oh, just remember, don't decide.
 I've got no reason, it's all too much.
You'll always find us... 
[a beat]  
Out to lunch 
Show it to your average literary manager, and I'm reasonably sure that they would assert that it's not great writing, and it lacks a sense of drama. Give it to Michael Attenborough to direct with an all-star cast, and I daresay “the critics” circa 2003 might not go for it.

Here it is in performance:

See what I mean?

It turns out not to have been the text that was the problem at all, but the way it was read.

Conversely, one of my favourite stagings of anything was also of a piece of Austrian experimental writing on the subject of families (sort of. Sort of experimental, in that Eward Palmetshofer basically cuts off the auxillary verbs which gather at the end of German sentences; sort of on the subject of families, insofar as I could make out). This video gives a good impression of the various elements (and is definitely worth watching through):

However, many of my friends, especially the German-speaking ones, weren't especially inspired by the text. So we may have an example there of a production making a play look far better than it was.

(While we're still on the subject of experimental writing, the German writer by whom I'm most intrigued is Handl Klaus whose latest work Meine Bienen opened at Salzberg Festspiele recently. I'm intrigued, not only because anyone who writes a play called My Bees has got to be great, right?, but also because I was assured that it would be impossible to translate his plays and get any of the value of them into another language because they are so much about the experimentation with language. Perhaps that's just a challenge to a translator, but it's also a hell of a challenge to a writer of experimental texts.)

To return to the subject at hand, reading between the lines of Five Gold Rings's reviews (I didn't see the Almeida production) all I can see is a description of a production that totally failed a script.

I did see Laurens's first play, Three Birds, and remember thinking it was quite good. Not especially my thing, then or probably now, but good for what it was. What I remember much more about seeing Three Birds than the script, however, was seeing the Gate Theatre, as far as I remember it (and this is 12 years ago) turned length-ways, with a wall with arches constructed across the corridor where you usually enter. I remember non-naturalistic shapes being thrown by actors in a gathering gloom. I remember actors and space being used with intelligence and fluidity. Compare those impressions with the mental picture one builds of Damian Lewis, Helen McRory and David Warner standing on a prettily lit white disc set against the brickwork cyclorama of the Almeida.

It sounds as if Attenborough took and read the script and then dropped in into a sort of stylised naturalism that in the event had the effect of taking the text and staking it out on a hillside overnight. But in such a way that apparently none of the blame for the text's demise sticks to either cast or director.

Of course, it's all well and good to berate a bunch of critics, half of whom have since retired, nine years after the event, for having “wrongly” diagnosed where the “fault” in a specific production they didn't enjoy was. But, as I said, I don't think, hand on heart, I think I would especially have gone for that particular production either, and one line saying “I would be interested to see how a different director would have handled this script” hardly mitigates an unfavourable review. I'm in no way certain that I share Laurens's convinctions about what poetry is best or what the most interesting things to write plays about are. (Although, what can you tell about a play from a thumbnail sketch of its characters' relationships to one another? On that basis I'd never bother watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Three Sisters.) But whether I imagine I'd have liked that play or that production or not is irrelevant to the questions that Silva's radical intervention raises:

I think I have effectively presented a glass-half-full counter-argument to the depressing evaluation of the chance that non-naturalistic work currently stands in this country. Of course more can be done, but it is important to recognise what there already is.

I hope I have also underlined my belief that if there is a problem in supporting different forms of writing in this country, some of it lies in the lack of a plurality of approaches that directors take with the text – or in the ways that some literary departments might envisage a text being staged when they read it. And I have said that I am optimistic that this lack is already beginning to be addressed.

I also hope that I have been sufficiently respectful of the right of those within the mainstream critical establishment to their own opinions, although I have limited my discussion of the role that reviews played in this specific case, since I believe that the critical landscape in Britain now is unrecognisable from what it was ten years ago. And while it is all easy and fun to paint the MSM critics as a bunch of Philistine dinosaurs, that is neither an accurate nor nuanced approach and indeed falls fouls of all the worst accusations levelled at their increasingly diverse collection of tastes, politics, views and interests.

I really hope that by writing this, and presenting this parallel positions – perhaps better seen as a bit of fine-tuning of the original essays rather than any sort of refutation of them – I have furthered their cause.

Silva ends her polemic: “Next time I Google words like “form” “language” “innovation” “playwriting”, it would be nice to get a few more results.” Hopefully this will now show up on Google as a useful addition to that discussion.

*Title of today's blog from this song:

Which always reminds me of this way of staging text:

Which I like. A lot.

**Cover photo by Nan Goldin