Friday 14 December 2007

NSDF funding cut

Sunrise outside the Noises Off Office at the NSDF

The Arts Council Yorkshire yesterday announced its intention to completely withdraw funding from the National Student Drama Festival. This is a catastrophically short-sighted, wrong-headed blunder.

Its reason for cutting the annual grant is the decision to “refocus [their] investment”. The organisation now wishes to support: “the strongest, highest quality building-based producing theatres... the most dynamic and innovative touring companies [and] venues that support the changing nature of theatre.” It claims it is seeking to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts.”

The immediately obvious flaw with their reasoning is that the NSDF, in just one week a year, inspires more passion, enthusiasm and engagement with theatre (and thus “increased attendance and participation”), than any building or company ever could, and for a fraction of the cost.

At this point I should declare an interest: the NSDF introduced me to theatre and made me fall in love with it in a way that I wouldn’t have believed possible. I now edit the Festival’s daily reviews magazine. However, there is something utterly unique about the Festival’s atmosphere that has been changing lives for the fifty-three years of its history. Editing the fiftieth anniversary history of the festival, I was repeatedly struck by the vividness and warmth with which the festival is remembered by those who attended, often several decades earlier.

The sheer number of actors, directors, playwrights, lighting designers, sound designers, stage managers, front of house staff, administrators and producers that the festival has shaped is also quite remarkable. Hell, it was at the NSDF that the Sunday Times drama critic and festival co-founder, Harold Hobson, first discovered Harold Pinter in 1958.

Even just the past few years have seen work from: Gate Theatre co-artistic director Carrie Cracknell, (NSDF‘02), the actress Ruth Wilson (NSDF‘02), writer Lucy Prebble (NSDF‘02), director Jamie Lloyd (NSDF ‘01), and, interviewed in G2 only this week ahead of his starring role in the forthcoming film The Kite Runner, Khalid Abdalla (NSDF‘03).

The Guardian's Michael Billington has said of the Festival: “It was hearing [Harold Hobson] at the NSDF‘60 in Oxford that convinced me that criticism was an occupation that required its own sense of drama as well of natural justice. Once I became a critic myself in 1965, Harold proved a staunch ally, mentor and friend. But I wish now that I had told him how radically he changed my life in 1960.”

Tim Piggott-Smith summed it up best: “The NSDF is a seedbed. People keen on theatre meet up and wallow in drama for days. It is competitive. It is exciting. And it creates relationships that run like threads through the very fabric of our profession.”

If Arts Council Yorkshire really wants to fund “a portfolio of strong, effective organisations that help to deliver increased attendance and participation in high quality arts” then it couldn’t ask for a more perfect candidate than the NSDF.

On this basis, the Festival is appealing the decision. It has until the 15th January 2008 to make its case. There is an online petition to sign - anyone with any interest in the future of theatre should do so. This small, often-overlooked gem of an event has been changing lives for its entire history. It continues to do so every year. It is a passionate engine at the very core of British theatre. The Arts Council should be demanding to be a part of this phenomenal ongoing success.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Premature end-of-year round up

The problem in British theatre at the moment is that, give or take, there really isn’t that much of a problem. Well, that’s not true. There are problems, but everyone writing on theatre knows what they are. An unforeseen consequence of the theatrical comment blogsophere (reviewing is obviously different) is that it has, in roughly a year or two, done an alarmingly good job of identifying all the key issues in contemporary theatre; itemising them; discussing them; and leaving them fully annotated and in a neat handy-to-view package so that anyone with the slightest interest in theatre now has an invaluable guide. The net effect of this is that, unless we are going to start recycling issues just to fill space, we’re going to need something new to discuss pretty soon. But there’s not a whole lot of new on the horizon. This year looks to have reached the point where it will release its Greatest Hits album and shuffle out of the limelight into retirement, rather than hoping to provoke any great controversy with an unexpectedly radical paradigm shift in panto-land, or something.

In such cases, I suppose it is traditional to do some sort of round-up of the year. In fact, since I started writing this yesterday afternoon both Alison Croggan and The Guardian have posted theirs. So, in the spirit of festive reflection, here’s list of my Top Ten shows (in alphabetical order):

Attempts on Her Life
Hippo World Guest Book
Merchant of Venice (Globe)
My Child
Simple Girl
Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat
Taking Care of Baby
The Ugly One
Women of Troy

I’m sure I’ve forgotten to include something wonderful that I really shouldn’t have forgotten [edit: yes, Macbeth]. Apologies for that. However, looking at this list, I’m stuck by how mainstream my year has been. There are only two shows from Fringe venues on the list, and both of those are in Edinburgh - and in Edinburgh terms, neither The Pleasance nor The Underbelly are exactly off the beaten track. So two shows from the National, two from the Royal Court, two from - remarkably - the Hampstead, plus one Globe and one Lyric Hammersmith. And looking at my overall list, those seem to be pretty much the theatres I’ve been visiting most regularly this year. I saw virtually everything at the Court, a high percentage at the National, and a fair smattering at the others. On the other hand, I don’t think I once made it to The Oval House or Theatre 503, despite having often had good reasons for wanting to.

I increasingly worry about the lack of experimental work I’m seeing. Is it me failing to find it, or is it largely not there to be found? Or are there other considerations apart from, until recently, having a job which wrote off theatre-going every other week of the year? There’s an excellent TheatreVoice discussion on criticism, in which the Evening Standard’s Kieron Quirke makes the interesting suggestion that blog-reviewers and website critics (i.e. people like me), should, along with Time Out, be the ones who scout out the best of the work on the fringe. It’s a nice thought, but there is an equally valid case for younger critics seeing the same shows as their senior counterparts in order to provide a different perspective. After all, one of the ongoing highlights of the Guardian’s theatre coverage is the chalk and cheese tastes of Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner who, quite without rancour, frequently post diametrically opposite opinions on various pieces of work. One of my proudest moments this year was when - following the kicking it got from the mainstream press - a quote from my review of Attempts On Her Life was used as the top notice on the National’s website (in fact, it’s still there). It was the first time that I had any idea that my online reviews might carry any weight, or “counted” with the theatres concerned at all.

There is also the question of “importance”. This is a much trickier issue. What constitutes “important” theatre? It’s one of those questions that has been batted around the blogsophere so much that its battered and bloodied form is scarcely still recognisable as a question. Writer and director Richard Hurst, commenting on my Women of Troy review (on Facebook, not under the review), suggested that it was one of those words that, along with pretentious, should be consigned to the dustbin for lazy thinking. I suspect he’s probably right in terms of the actual word, but the concept remains crucial, not least when trying to prioritise a review schedule. Being largely free of anyone else’s wider agenda, I do now tend to view the National and the Royal Court as two of the most “important” theatres in London.

This is a pretty new state of affairs. The National under Trevor Nunn never felt like an especially vital place, while the Royal Court under Ian Rickson slid slowly but inexorably toward becoming a complete basket case. So it’s not simply the buildings or their history. It is to do with the sense that they are trying to engage with both the world and with new ways of making work. The BAC really ought to figure, too, but with the relentless turnover of work there - with the exception of the ultra-long-running Masque of Red Death runs there seem to last about four days at most - it feels like one could spend virtually one’s whole life there and never see anything else. I know this is partly David Jubb’s intention - to critic-proof the building by never having anything on long enough for a printed opinion to be able to catch it during its run - but it still strikes me as ultimately limiting.

At the risk of echoing Peter Bradshaw’s comments on the Donmar’s Othello, I guess it still feels important to me that something should be see-able by the public. This is probably a reaction I should interrogate a bit more closely, since it completely rules out one-off events like The Sultan’s Elephant, for example, from having any claim to “importance” when clearly the reverse is true. But the idea that something only available to a maximum of 200 people can be “important” is a difficult one to negotiate. Obviously it can be the case. And often the exclusivity will necessarily make the event in question all the more special. But “important” often carries an implication of being somehow more wide-reaching. But as Chris Goode has observed, “upstream” work (as opposed to mainstream work) realises its importance through influence, which again is hard for a critic to second guess. After all, influence cannot make itself felt immediately. So, I guess I need to keep working on how I choose what I’m going to see. Of course, to an extent, it is always going to be something of a lottery - Complicité’s A Disappearing Number is a case in point of a work that really should have been important, and just wasn’t in any way shape or form.

A recent email from one of the FIT staff related a comment made by Jan Lauwers of Needcompany:
“Jan said, with quite brilliant insouciance, that seeing work that doesn’t change his definition of theatre is a waste of his time.”

It’s an admirable standpoint for an artist, but feels slightly less tenable for a critic. After all, someone needs to go to see Desperately Seeking Susan just to check that it’s every bit as dreadful as everyone suspects, in order to save their time, or else shout from the rooftops about how wrong they are and how unmissable it is. It’s filthy work, really, but someone has to do it. To this end, you can all look forward to a very grumpy review of the Barbican’s “posh panto” Jack and the Beanstalk, once I’ve also seen its main competitor at the Old Vic on Thursday.

In other news:

My colleague from the Munich trip Anna Teuwen’s blog continues to find and describe some fascinating corners of German theatre, while the dazzlingly industrious Ott Karulin is also well worth keeping an eye on. Then there’s Chris Goode’s baffling festive quiz - well, baffling insofar as I haven’t listened to the MP3s yet - which, unusually for a quiz, is more of a pleasure to read than it is possible to answer.

And, if you haven’t already read it, I should also point you in the direction of my latest cynical offering, at the Guardian’s Theatre Blog.

Off the blogsophere, I should draw your attention to the interview with Postcards’s Most Famous Friend, Khalid Abdalla, from yesterday’s Guardian about his starring role in the forthcoming film of The Kite Runner.

Finally, in spite of Postcards’s legendarily poor nightlife, I did catch the excellent up-and-coming young popular beat group the Official Secrets Act yesterday (review forthcoming, I hope) and was forcibly reminded just how great they are. I heartily recommend them to music lovers and theatre fans alike.

Sunday 9 December 2007

Women of Troy - National Theatre

With her production of Attempts on Her Life at the National earlier this year, Katie Mitchell created the finest and most important theatrical event of the year. With her new production of Women of Troy, she comes damn close to bettering it.

To read some of the initial reviews, you’d think that Mitchell has put on stage the most obscure, inhuman, baffling, deliberately contrary piece of avant garde theatre ever staged. In fact, quite the reverse is true. Compared to Attempts... or Waves, this production of Women of Troy is surprisingly straight-forward. It is predominantly ultra-naturalistic, but, more importantly, it is utterly, achingly human. This is the first production of a Greek tragedy I’ve seen that has totally immersed me in the absolute desolation felt by the characters.

In a cavernous warehouse (an incredibly detailed, perfectly realised set from Bunny Christie) the surviving wives of the murdered Trojan leadership are imprisoned while their fates are decided by the 29 Greek generals. As the play progresses, the sheer misery and hopelessness of their situation becomes increasingly unbearable.

Mitchell’s production is unfussily modern-dress, with the woman looking as if they have just been forcibly taken at gunpoint from after dinner drinks at a posh dinner. It is a brilliant conceit, and one which absolutely achieves the often-intended but rarely realised feat of suggesting the action of the play could plausibly be taking place somewhere in the world right now. Michael Gould’s understated performance as Talthybius, making a weary, apologetic official of this Greek herald, creates a perfect understanding of exactly the world into which these women have been thrust. It is his remorseless, tactful efficiency that really horrifies. Far more than posturing or declaiming could achieve, his careworn attempts at reasoning with Andromache (the excellent Anastasia Hille) to give her child up to be murdered are terrifying precisely because they are so human.

Sinead Matthews’s performance as Cassandra is similarly intelligent. With her words virtually unintelligible and near-hysterical she absolutely conveys the idea of a woman half-crazed by a curse that bestows unbelieved prophecy upon her. Even we the audience cannot really understand what she is doing or saying, only that she is in the grip of madness. Although the play really revolves around Hecuba (Kate Duchêne) and Andromache, the way in which Helen (Susie Trayling) is portrayed is inspired. We first see her through the windows of an upstairs office within the warehouse, which has been utilised as a makeshift cell. The way she is kept apart from the other women, and can be seen pacing frantically about, dabbing at her nose and repeatedly checking her appearance in a small compact mirror, quietly adds to the horror of the mise-en-scene. Here is a woman who knows that every possibly violence is to be visited on her, and is terrified beyond comprehension.

While a majority of the play is largely naturalistic, the production also deploys some gorgeously impressionist moments. It is these which lift the whole production from being simply a fine reading of a play to being a work of art. At several points the women break off from their conversations and begin to dance to amplified big band jazz music. At another point Cassandra leads the women in an attempt to sing the Carpenters’s Close To You. Near the end, while listening to classical music on the radio, the women suddenly break into chokingly gorgeous choral song. Indeed Gareth Fry’s sound design is perhaps his best yet, evoking alongside the carnage of war a kind of David Lynch other-worldly shuddering industrial noise. Elsewhere, for the chorus-speaking moments, there is the sound of the imaginary “fourth wall” being slowly raised, like the vast metal door at the far end of the warehouse, and the supposed light from outside that fourth wall floods the stage - and for those moments, the women can talk to the audience. In many ways, it makes excuses for the play’s prevailing naturalism - to represent physically moving the fourth wall in order for the characters on stage to be able to acknowledge the audience could be considered a step too far, but here it comes across as both witty and inspired.

What this production achieves is both a viciously lucid telling of the story and a sublime comment on human capacity for inflicting suffering, and what the effects of that suffering actually look like up close. Without once suggesting any direct contemporary parallels - fewer than Euripides himself intended when writing the play during the Peloponnesian War - this bleak picture of the suffering of a nation’s ruling class manages to suggest the all too real victims of any war or revolution you care to imagine. It does so without once preaching, seeking to score points, or sacrificing any artistic integrity. Its use of metaphor - the way it engages the audience, requiring them to interrogate as well as be “shown” - is perfectly judged. The whole is moving beyond words, visually ravishing, and utterly harrowing.

Trailer and photos.

Friday 7 December 2007

The Arsonists - Royal Court

The final main stage production of Dominic Cooke’s first year as Artistic Director at the Royal Court neatly synthesises two of his new regime's most notable features: a new spirit of internationalism, and the much-discussed ambition to ask difficult questions about the theatre’s predominantly white, middle-class, liberal audience. It also continues Cooke’s brilliant use of the main stage to revive some of the Court’s greatest hits from years gone by, apparently selected with an acute eye for the way that their once-unambiguous, impeccably liberal, anti-Nazi meanings have been subtly and ineradicably altered by the intervening years. Ramin Gray’s production of The Arsonists, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton, is an electrifying vindication of all these ideas.

Gray and Beaton had already collaborated this year on the dismal King of Hearts at the Hampstead Theatre, and while Gray since redeemed himself with an excellent production of Marius von Meyenberg’s The Ugly One, Beaton’s irritating brand of “political” sub-farce remained a concerning factor. As it turns out, Beaton has delivered a precise, elegant translation of the play, his gift for middle class idiom finding a perfect home in Max Frisch’s script. Similarly, Gray’s apparent enthusiasm for stripped down minimal staging - beautifully realised here in Antony Ward’s two storey room, standing like an island in the middle of an otherwise bare stage - dovetails well with the play’s post-Brechtian meta-theatricality.

The play tells the simple story of how a well-to-do middle class business man (Will Keen) and his wife (Jacqueline Defferary) allow two strangers (Paul Chahidi and Benedict Cumberbatch) into their house during a spate of arson attacks, despite knowing that the invitation of an alien presence into a middle class home is precisely how all the attacks have been committed. The couple, in their desire not to hurt feelings, to be polite and not to think the worst of their guests, allow the sinister duo to go about moving numerous petrol drums into their attic, and to set about wiring them up in order to cause a massive conflagration, while they agonise about what the two men might be up to, and whether they are doing enough to make them welcome.

And it is very funny. Will Keen gives an outstanding performance as the hapless Biedermann, swinging between attempts at upper middle class authority and Basil Fawlty-like paroxysms of farcical despair; Jacqueline Defferary provides excellent support with pitch-perfect essaying of a neurotic, nervy posh wife. Even better are Chahidi and Cumberbatch as the mismatched former-wrestler and former-waiter arsonists. While Chahidi exudes a thuggish menace, it is Cumberbatch’s insouciant, educated manner that really steals the scenes, implying chilling threats in the off-hand manner of someone ordering more wine at Whites.

What is most extraordinary, however, is the apparent intention behind the production. When Frisch’s 1958 play Biedermann und der Brandstifter received its British premiere at the Court four years later, it was understood as a clear parable about the rise of Nazism. Gray and Beaton’s production appears throughout to hint heavily at having re-aimed the play’s questions at the issue of Islamist fundamentalism. I dare say in 1961 it was relatively easy for audiences to accept an, “evil happens when good men do nothing”-type message, which pointed at already historical events that took place overseas. What makes this revival of the Arsonists so vital is the difficulty of the questions it asks. When applied to the question of what middle-class liberals should be doing in the face of Islamist terrorism, suddenly the play's amusing satire of terribly English attempts not to offend start to look and sound a lot more like Martin Amis’s recent “thought experiment” or the paranoid horrors of Melanie Philips’s Londonistan. Fortunately, the play’s arguments necessarily lack any sort of racial dimension - as, of course, should all arguments concerning Islamist terror.

That said, this is nonetheless the most electrifying critique of the British response to the War on Terror yet seen in a theatre. In the final moments of the play, as the chorus - dressed as New York firefighters - delivers its final warning about complacency in the face of terrorism, polystyrene packing chips begin to rain from the skies. The symbolism is absolute and precise: for Ramin Gray, clearly the message of The Arsonists has already been delivered too late, and we are now suffering the consequences of permitting terrorism to grow in our midst.

King Lear - The RSC, New London Theatre

Trevor Nunn’s new production of King Lear is a reassuringly traditional affair. It opens, confusingly enough, with the same massive organ swell as Arcade Fire’s Intervention, although, sadly, doesn't follow through with the rest of the song. Instead, a tableau establishes the Lear family as a 19th century Russian dynasty: all Cossack hats and military uniforms, greatcoats and elegant ball dresses. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it is to reflect the play’s pairing in rep with Chekhov’s The Seagull in a kind of bad mother/bad father play-off. More likely, it is to provide a suitably lavish-looking historical excuse for lush costume design. Unfortunately for Nunn and co. it has the unintended consequence of forcibly recalling the other big-name, Russian-set, Shakespeare tragedy that is currently running in the West End. Cheap jokes about the RSC being about a hundred years behind Rupert Goold sudden become all too easy.

Another striking comparison with Goold’s Macbeth is that both it and King Lear take place on sets that depict a very definite room, requiring the audience occasionally to simply pretend it's not there, or that it is somewhere else. So, while this Lear is, on many levels, the essence of traditional, it still deploys some pretty theatrical devices. Indeed, much of what makes the first half so strange, is coming to terms with the way that traditional RSC acting looks on stage. After all, who really enters a room, strides across it until they are right in front of the person they intend to address and then bellows in their face? My disbelief is as suspended as anyone’s, but really, why did this ever become a convention?

It took me a good long while to warm into this production. My patience started to ebb when Goneril and Regan both turn out to be brunettes (again), while Romola Garai's Cordelia is a blonde in a pure white dress. Yes. We know she’s the nice one. Do we really need the heavy underlining? Francis Barber and Monica Dolan as the wicked sisters start badly. Barber appears to be channelling everyone from Zoe Wanamaker to Felicity Kendall, while Dolan sounds like a disappointed suburban housewife from a seventies sitcom. You almost expect her dealings with her father to be concluded with a despairing, “Oh, Frank!” It’s hardly regal.

Sylvester McCoy as Lear’s fool is something else. I’m prepared to believe it is a matter of taste, and that some people find him perfectly amusing, but his performance set my teeth on edge. Judging by the polite silence that greeted a majority of his clowning, prattling and spoon-playing a majority of the audience felt much the same. The real problem, though, is that he is so wrapped up in his shtick that he rattles through his lines at such a rate that they are barely comprehensible. When he is hung at the conclusion of the first half of the evening, it felt as if there was a collective sigh of relief.

McKellen’s Lear is in an altogether different class, though. In a production where people seem to be speaking purely because the script dictates it, standing where they are told, and barely feeling it at all, McKellen is a model of sheer presence, meaning and clarity. Sure there are some pretty normal decisions taken regarding his path through the text, but nothing that doesn't come fully to life in his hands.

By the interval - about two hours into a total 3 hours 40 - I am underwhelmed to say the least. But the second half knocks the first into a cocked hat. Perhaps it’s the sudden alteration of pace - scenes fairly tumble over each other to get onstage. There is also a welcome transformation in Barber’s Goneril once her affair with Edmund gets under way. Suddenly, from having no discernable motivation other than Pure Evil, she becomes wholly comprehensible as a woman eaten up by lust. William Gaunt, sans eyes, achieves a whole new level of credibility as Gloucester when no longer required simply to stand on stage and look disapprovingly at Goneril and Regan. But the real revelation comes when Lear and Cordelia are reunited - yes, the scene is written for maximum tear-jerk factor, but few productions come this close to reducing a whole audience -doubtless already familiar with the play - to a sobbing, blubbering mass. The pitiful wretchedness of the characters is almost unbearable. In the main this is a polite, middlebrow reading of a great and stormy tragedy. But toward the end, silly swordfights not withstanding, it begins to achieve a hint of greatness.

For the odd reader who doesn't also regularly follow Dan Bye's blog I proffer the clip which he recently posted of Sir Ian explaining how he acts, on Extras.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Big in Lithuania

Following The Reduced Michael Billington’s recent Finnish exposure, Postcards… is pleased to report that, continuing the British theatrical blogosphere’s internationally extended hand of friendship, it has become the toast of Lithuanian arts coverage, following its recent championing of dancer/choreographer Lora Juodkaitė both here and on the Guardian blog.

Articles about my piece can be found here and here. There was also a printed article.

Strangely the above represents the first time since university that any of my writing has appeared in a printed format (other than in Raw Talent). Curious that the writing appears in a country I have never visited, in a language that I don’t speak. I’m sure Tynan started out exactly the same way, though. It’s even more strange to have one’s name translated. For the first time I get an inkling how odd Germans must find it that the English have changed the names of all their major cities into, well, English. Whose idea was that, anyway?

While we’re on European Internationalism, Ian Herbert’s report on the recent Belgrade Festival - to be found underneath Ian Shuttleworth’s, acute as always, round-up of the latest London critics from the op-ed pages of Theatre Record - is well worth a read. It also provides a link to this theatre magazine which here reprints the text of a new Serbian play in English. I note this as much for myself as for you as I haven’t yet had a chance to read it. Elsewhere, I heartily recommend Anna Teuwen’s lovely review of the first show for children she has seen without hating it.

In other news, I now appear to be a “real” journalist. Worryingly, the site also has a rudimentary word-search feature which paints a rough picture of one’s output:

“Andrew Haydon” it notes, “has written...
More about 'Billington' than anything else
A lot about 'Shakespeare' in the last month
Fewer bylined articles than the average journalist”

Oh dear.

At some point I really am going to have to confront this Oedipal obsession with the gigantic Laius-like figure of Michael B. I mean, does anyone obsess like this about Charles Spencer?

The thing goes on:

"The topics Andrew Haydon mentions most:
andy field antony apathists billington britain british cambridge dogstar drywrite english literature even head jane eyre katie mitchell nabokov national theatre observer rough cuts shakespeare theatre"

Obviously this isn’t wholly accurate - “even head”? - and is culled from only a few of my Guardian pieces. That said, I am still interested, and slightly disturbed, by the way that Britain, British and Cambridge all crop up as regular tics. That sounds all too plausible, and is probably something I should watch. So, for the next month, I shall try to avoid all such mentions. As I manifestly haven’t managed to do in my most recent Guardian Blog piece.

The theatrical blogsophere seems to be going through a period of ineffable good sense at the moment. Bye and Field both continue frighteningly prolific in their output, while Lyn Gardner’s posts on the Guardian blog are in danger of talking such sense that the whole comment business will soon be rendered unnecessary - assuming everyone listens to her, that is. Meanwhile, Chris Goode has posted what he thinks might be his last theatre-related post of the year, and it seems that holiday season is starting to kick in. Well, after my rather annoyingly-longer-than-planned hiatus, I’m hoping to be writing far more regularly again now, so no holidays here, in spite of the fact that almost all the years openings are done and dusted, save for innumerable pantomimes. Of which, expect more after the weekend.

The Family Plays: a double bill - Royal Court

The Royal Court's final offering in its largely excellent international season (Kebab excepted) offers a double bill of one Swedish and one Ukrainian play. Clocking in at one hour fifteen, including a fifteen minute interval, this is theatre-going at its most relaxed.

Adding to this impression of ease, the Court's Theatre Upstairs has been totally repainted in a restful, breakfast-room shade of yellow; wooden flooring has been installed throughout and the audience is seated around the edge of the space, with bright lighting left on continually throughout both plays. Indeed, so relaxing is the ambience that Wednesday's press night felt not unlike an end of term party.

Swedish writer Joakim Pirinen’s The Good Family, does nothing to spoil this convivial atmosphere. Indeed, the dramatic action is conviviality itself. The play shows us an evening in the life of what must be the first truly happy family to ever feature on stage. Everything about their life together is perfect. The parents are both happily employed in interesting jobs. They also find time to write plays and poems, while enjoying an enormous love and respect for one another and a happy, passionate sex life. Their two children both adore their parents and each other, are doing well at school, and are both founding mature, happy, supportive relationships of their own.

The piece plays a game of building tension and expectation. At every turn the audience waits for the piece of bad news, shock or offence that is going to bring this perfect edifice crashing down until the expectation becomes almost palpable. Will it be the game of dice, the joke the mother tells, the phone call from outside, one of the presents given to the daughter on her birthday, or the son's sudden piece of revelatory news?

What is most interesting about the production is how just plain weird it is seeing four English actors trying to portray plain, uncomplicated, un-ironic happiness. First we look for the creeping subtext of incest or abuse, then laugh at the absurdity of the O.T.T. demonstrative affection before finally starting to worry that maybe other countries really have worked out how to be happy without being barbed, ironic or reserved. Of course, the point of the play is to satirise both ideas of Sweden as a liberal paradise and the lies told about Western capitalism, but over its course, it also becomes a powerful and worrying meditation on happiness and how little we actually accept it.

The Khomenko Family Chronicles by Ukrainian Natalia Vorozhbit is altogether a more depressing affair, opening as it does, with a ten-year-old boy - bald from chemotherapy - lying on a grimy hospital bed. He is visited by his pregnant mother and his apparently brutish father. It quickly becomes clear to the audience, if not the parents, that the child's disease is more than likely connected to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, and that he is almost certainly going to die. The unborn child in his mother's womb is likely to suffer a similar fate. In spite of these depressing circumstances, the family turns out to be a strong and surprisingly robust unit. This resilience is partly undermined by the grim irony of their situation - with the parents drinking themselves into bed largely on occasions of national and international disaster - the son was conceived on 9/11, the unborn daughter during a recent anti-government coup.

At the close of the play, the son removes the drip from his arm and steps off the stage into the audience to recount a strange dream-like sequence which could signify either his death or simply a nightmare. The performance by the small, shaven-headed ten-year-old, Lewis Lempureur-Palmer, is quite extraordinary. The moment totally transforms the piece from a slice of fairly interesting naturalistic business into something far stranger and more metaphorical; elegiac almost. While it doesn’t perhaps pack quite the emotional punch that such a moment could, it is nonetheless haunting and beautiful, bringing a strange ending to an unexpectedly thought-provoking evening.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Not “I”

Rough Draft:

This "review" is mostly by way of an experiment. Following Saturday’s post on the understanding of "signs" it seems to fit rather well. Following my trip to Munich, I realised that I saw way too much mainstream theatre at the expense of interesting experimental work. Fuelled in part by this new impetus to open my mind a bit and in part by the need to research my latest Guardian Blog piece; rather than catch-up with the Bush’s latest offering, I headed off to The Place in Euston to watch some Lithuanian Contemporary Dance made by acclaimed practitioner Lora Juodkaitė.

To say I have a fairly minimal grounding in contemporary dance doesn't begin to cover the state of my ignorance. That said, in many ways the boundaries between "dance" and "theatre" have never been thinner. While groups like Frantic Assembly and DV8 play in theatres, Rambert and Pina Bausch seem to stick to dance venues like Sadler’s Wells, and yet international companies, such as are found at Aurora Nova - St Stephens, Edinburgh, are quite happily dealt with by theatre critics during festival time.

If most contemporary dance is even half as exciting, accomplished and realised as this, I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in performance and the possible future of theatre to expand their normal venue circuit, and look beyond the Theatre section of Time Out (I realise this sounds terribly pompous and that many of Postcards’ readers already do so - much of this is an admonitory note to self, really).

There were two pieces presented: Trimatrix. Three movements and Salamandra’s Dream. Picture. In the first, three dancers in turn lay down strips of white tape under tightly focused corridors of light barely wider than the strips themselves and proceed to perform an acrobatic series of moves to a live soundtrack created by percussionist Tomas Dobrovolskis, who switches between a series of objects using a delay pedal to create elaborate drum loops. As the piece progresses, further strips are laid until they join to create a triangle. The turn-taking disintegrates and the three dancers’ previous isolation is broken, while the percussion reaches an almost industrial intensity, with sheets of paper being cracked into the microphone to create drum machine-like effects.

The second piece is even more impressive. While Trimatrix felt as if it could be quite safely be filed under dance, Salamandra’s Dream. Picture is altogether more "theatrical". In four movements Juodkaitė proceeds to do more with the human body than I would have thought possible. In the first section, backlit by a single dim light, she creates shapes with her body that I would have thought impossible - one looking like a substantial boulder dropped onto a still twitching mess of arms and legs, another like one of the Figures at the base of Francis Bacon's Crucifixion - all linked by tortuous crawling on bandy legs and elbows. The second section sees the dancer spinning for minutes at a time, arms variously flailing, pinioned and seemingly suspended - it is dizzying and hypnotic to watch.

The third part consists of Juodkaitė responding to a soundtrack of amplified clock ticking and/or dripping with a developing sequence of staccato movements, apparently triggered by one another, and by the soundtrack. Even simply as a display of breathtaking physical discipline, it is quite astonishing. There is none of the physical uncertainty that marks out a lot of British Physical Theatre here. Every movement is perfect, deliberate, technically difficult and totally controlled. Backward rolls are executed at an angle, in slow motion, and with the utmost precision.

It is the final section of Salamandra which is most theatrical. Juodkaitė rolls herself into length of paper, so that she is totally bound from head to foot in a paper cylinder. She then gradually tries to free herself again, like the titular salamander shedding a skin. The playing area of the stage is surrounded by what appear to be several similar papery cast-off cocoons. The loss of the identifiable human form in this final section peculiarly deepens the pathos of the action. Watching a paper tube struggling with its contents is a strange way to spend a Friday night, but the effect - the necessary concentration and the image itself, combined with the heady amplified soundtrack of rhythmic crunching paper noises - is near-hallucinogenic. It took me a good fifteen minutes to half an hour after leaving the space to get back to normal.

I suppose the real problems start here. When writing about theatre I have ten-odd years of theatre-going, reading and conversations with actors, directors and critics on which to draw. It short, I know where I am with theatre. Similarly, I kind of know, almost instinctually, at least what a normal review is meant to do. I know the sort of analysis that is appropriate well enough to experiment occasionally with the form. Watching Trimatrix and Salamandra I had no such safety nets. That is why the above is so description heavy. I might have a tendency to get bogged down in description anyway - that deft two lines of set, costume and effects common to the 350-word British standard has always struck me as woefully inadequate if there is anything interesting to explore. And there of course isn't room to explore more, unless it is at the expense of plot details, what the writing’s like, how the direction “serves the text”, how the actors are doing, plus comment on and maybe argument with “the play’s thesis” - or similar. None of this is intended to sound dismissive of the 350-word British theatre review, by the way. It is a real skill to successfully negotiate how to satisfactorily make them communicate and illuminate. And by and large, given the form, our critics do a remarkable job.

So, firstly I should probably seek out some other reviews of contemporary dance to see how it is dealt with by others. But there's still the issue of "expertise", and of having any useful points of reference. I am unable to - as the West End Whingers laughingly put it - locate the piece in the wider discourse. At least not in the discourse of its own form, which is surely part of the point for a critic. Especially since here I would be happy to stick my neck out and suggest that Lora Juodkaitė isn't really concerned with The State of the Nation or making big points about philosophy or politics. But if it was, I simply wouldn't have the mental furniture to deal with it.

Lithuanian theatre during the Soviet occupation developed a secret language of signs and ways of criticising the Russians, while the critics developed a similarly secret way of approvingly describing such comments. On Friday night at The Place I felt as clueless as a cultural attaché from the Kremlin. This provides a useful illustration of what I was talking about in my last piece - in short, that I'm groping toward a feeling that Britain is peculiarly fixated by a need to locate The Meaning, even in work where such an approach might not necessarily be the most helpful.

Let’s set up some sort of assessment criteria: without a doubt, this was accomplished work - the physical skill on display was incredible. There is no doubt in my mind that the piece was worthy of "serious" consideration. It was clear that definite decisions had been made by the musician/percussionist, choreographer, director and dancers. We’re not dealing here with people flinging down something wilfully opaque - cobbled together from half-understood theory, with little discernable talent or value on display - in front of an audience and then blaming them for their incomprehension. But nevertheless, I didn’t have the tools to unpack it. Now, that could simply be down to my lack of familiarity with contemporary dance and how to "read" it. I enjoyed - was enthralled by - the performance, so it’s not an issue of this putative opacity getting in the way of appreciation, but even so, I still have this unshakeable (perhaps very English) feeling that I want to "know" if I'm "getting it right".

But it's not just contemporary dance. To throw some random top-of-head examples up, I probably feel similarly about Chris Goode's Longwave, JH Prynn’s Poetry, Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures and, say, Schnitke’s Violin Concerto. All of which I love. And all of which I know I don't fully understand. In the case of Longwave, having written a review which Chris was very generous about, I was more than a little disconcerted when Shuttleworth came out from seeing the piece a month later in Edinburgh and asked if the drawings of the birds on the walls of the shed in which the two men in the piece live were connected to the message “It is worse than I had feared” via an Edward Lear poem. They were. I hadn't picked up on that at all. In the ensuing conversation, Chris ran through a lot of the other “hidden” references contained in the piece. So there was obviously a whole world of meaning that I hadn't even begun to comprehend when I watched the piece. I had loved it, but totally failed to pick up a vast majority of its subtlety. Did that invalidate me as a critic? Shouldn't critics, if anyone, be the ones to spot this sort of thing? Okay, Shuttleworth is a critic and he did. But does that mean the rest of us should go home? This, I guess, is where my newfound anxiety about “comprehension” lies.

In Munich we talked a lot about subjectivity. And I suppose at the time I was mildly nervous of the concept when taken to its natural, potentially AA Gill, conclusion. Yes, of course all criticism is subjective - but that subjectivity is carefully not foregrounded much of the time. After all, do readers really need to know about the bad week, money worries, emotional turmoil and lousy transport that have informed my viewing of the play (for better or for worse, for the play - sometimes I'm pretty sure it is possible to like a play more than it deserves, simply because it took your mind off everything else and there wasn’t anything especially wrong with it). As a result, one can kind of ignore that fact that one is sticking one’s neck out and making judgements for money. One relies on the sense that even though it is “only my opinion”, it is an opinion that you believe to be right, and would firmly and stoutly stand by if challenged. Taken further, one relies on believing in how right you are. At the same time, I am ever conscious of Robert Hewison’s age-old advice to “avoid egotism” - not to use “I” in reviews: “You've signed the review; of course it's you who thinks it. Just say ‘it is’.”

But in the end we return to the idea of “expertise”. It’s an idea that gets a fair amount of bad press these days. Not least, ironically, from the blogsophere, where some critics make a positive virtue of their “amateur” status. That said, the best of these (West End Whingers, View From The Stalls) absolutely do display a very real sense of knowing what they are talking about. Much though the Whingers won’t thank me for it, surely it is their ability to wear their considerable knowledge as lightly as they do that makes their reviews as credible as they are funny. After all, unless they had seen and written up Punchdrunk’s Faustus, they would never have been able to construct this masterpiece of a Red Death review, for example. It’s obvious they know whereof they speak. Meanwhile, over at View From the Stalls, consider the opening sentence from this review of Hidden: “We’d seen this group of RSAMD students in The Winters Tale and Women Beware Women earlier in the year and a few of them had already cropped up in other professional productions, but I was keen to see them tackle a contemporary piece.” Pure credential flourishing. I know what I’m talking about, it says. Which is very different to merely proclaiming an opinion. It suggests that the opinion will probably be worth something, because you have seen something else, which gives one’s ideas a bit more depth. On the other hand, one can see lots of examples of a thing, and simply not like it. Or can one’s taste start to suffer Stockholm Syndrome?

In the mean time, I need a crash course in Contemporary Dance appreciation. All pointers gratefully received.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Munich - part two

First draft - links still to come. Ditto: italics, bold, spelling, grammar and sense checking, and, oh, everything else...

As I mentioned yesterday, running alongside the SpielArt festival - and the other reason I was in Munich - was a series of workshops run by Festivals In Transit (FIT) under the banner of their Mobile Theatre and Communication Lab. Led by Lyn Gardner, these sessions sought to explore the challenges facing critics and writers-on-theatre dealing with about new forms of work. As yesterday's post on the work we saw in Munich hopefully suggests, the SpielArt festival was an ideal setting to confront this issue.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these workshops, however, was finding out about where theatre criticism was at in other European countries. The situation in Britain, for better or worse, is that theatre critics here are untrained journalists whose interest in theatre is most frequently evidenced (if at all) by their directing or acting in amateur, university theatricals during their student days (often at Oxbridge, or, if not, almost certainly at a “red-brick” university). In this respect, they differ very little from those who have run the NT, the RSC, the Royal Court and so on.

Theatre reviews appear in all five of the “quality dailies” (formerly “broadsheets” until they all went format-crazy), The Daily Mail and occasionally in the Express [is this true?], as well as across the equivalent Sundays. Strikingly, the Sun/News of the World also has a theatre critic (along with a wine critic!) in the form of former Fleet Street editor Bill Hagarty, who is dispatched to report on the opening of occasional West End musicals. Aside from this, a majority of the remainder of writing on theatre comes from academic journals, and is conducted in characteristically dense, idiolectal, and frequently opaque language.

As a result of this situation, there can be observed a disjuncture between the demands of the newsroom and the needs of the artform. Mark Ravenhill recently mooted the possibility of reducing word counts for reviews of West End musicals and correspondingly expanding them for densely written plays of ideas. Apart from the incorrect idea that there is less to say about a West End musical - there may be less intentional intellectual content, but imagine if our critics had space to deconstruct the semiotics(!) - Ravenhill's basic idea is doomed since reviews are largely commissioned according to mass news values. Open The Sound of Music after a ten-week TV series to find its star and even if there are only fifty words in the review (plausible), they will be accompanied by a photograph taking up enough column inches to write a minor treatise on the Western musical since 1939. Being British, we love to grumble about this situation and despair.

The differences across Northern Europe - the group of twelve writers included two Brits, three Germans, two Poles, an Estonian, a Latvian, a Lithuanian, a Slovakian, a Slovenian and a Finn - are quite pronounced. Most notably, there is a clear divide between the continuing dominance of the academy in former "Eastern Bloc" countries and the more free-market ethos which flourishes in capitalist Germany, Finland and the UK. That said, the Channel/North Sea does seem to put a good deal of distance between mindsets in terms of ways to approach theatre. Watching a panel debate including a presentation by __ __ of UK theatrical pioneers Blast Theory, in which he suggested that theatre was a contract between audience and performer (I paraphrase - a lot), the German sitting next to me turned and asked, “but isn't theatre the contract between the artist and the audience, that everything staged is a sign?” (cf. Berliner Erika Fischer-Lichte’s 1983 book Theatre semiotics). It's a fascinating difference in perception. Similarly, in a conversation with Tomas, the Latvian writer, he explained that he was studying/had studied in his university's faculty of visual arts, which - naturally, he thought - included theatre. Obviously this is surprising to a Briton who is brought up to think of theatre as a subset of "Literature". The gulf in thinking could not be more usefully and starkly rendered.

Elsewhere, Ott Karulin, the Estonian critic, explained the requirements for writing about a production in his country. Admittedly this was for a theatre magazine article, but his description was of watching the “play” (almost certainly the wrong word) several times, seeing everything else that the company had produced, and doing a good couple of months of background reading. My inner sadist briefly pictured Charles Spencer being subjected to the same rigours. Of course, this is writing of an entirely different order - but one of the subjects we discussed was what reviews are actually for. Who are they for? What purpose are they supposed to serve? Are they simply consumer guides? Should they seek to provide a definitive artistic judgement? If we are scared of alienating non-aficionados with complexity, can we hope to get close enough to the subject to talk meaningfully about it? One thing that seemed nice was that there appeared to be far less anxiety about the possible ignorance of audiences coming from the other critics. On the other hand, underestimating the intelligence of “the masses” is a British pastime from time immemorial, which should be resisted.

That said, the idea of “masses”, or even “a lot”, seemed pretty remote in many of countries represented. It is important to remember the sheer scale of everything in Britain. We have a population of 61 million, and rising rapidly (hilarious conversation on first night. Me: “So how many people live in Lithuania?” Her: “Well, about 3m, but about 100,000 of them are in your country right now.”). Aside from Germany and Poland, most of the other countries were populated so sparsely as to make any Londoner, living two to a floor in a sectioned-off semi, green with envy. Many of their theatre scenes were on so small a scale that they knew literally everyone else working in the industry. Do you know how many people graduate annually from drama school in Slovenia, for example? Seven to ten. And that’s too many, apparently (from the same conversation, after trying to explain how actors might find work in Britain, having explained that there are probably around 1,000 drama school graduates a year and plenty more actors who don't even train, and describing the agent system, my interlocutor said: “Oh yes, we have an actress in our country who has an agent. She is considered very exotic.”).

There is a similar emphasis on training for critics in former Eastern Bloc countries. Very few people are admitted to the courses, and there is essentially no chance (if I understood correctly) of being a critic without such training. On one hand, one marvels at the commitment and rigour, but at the same time, feels a slight swell of pride at the more buccaneering spirit of the British free-market commentariat, where anyone who likes can attempt to prove themself in an open arena. On the other hand, there is a concomitant pang of regret when a brilliant piece of work is pulled to pieces because the attendant critic didn’t have anything approaching sufficient mental furniture to deal with the concepts on offer. In Britain, it does often feel like critics are required to be primed with a hair-trigger radar for “pretension”, which Must Be Stopped At All Costs. The converse situation in mainland Europe might be that over-trained critics enjoy work which appeals to their extensive understanding, but which would alienate a lay-audience. However, the European laity does, on the face of it, look a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with what would be considered “extremely challenging” work. It goes back to the point about anticipating a contract of signs. If that mode of semiotics is woven throughout one’s entire education, rather than being presented as an exotic add-on at degree-level, then clearly one’s approach to the work is bound to be different.

These differences aside, the core question remained: how do we usefully describe work that is, for example, largely visual? Rose Fenton, the founder of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), commented that much the same problem had faced her, when writing brochures for the Festival, as had faced the few critics who came to consider the work. Namely that without sufficient terminology and a set of protocols which largely denied the possibility of writing something subjective or - God forbid - “heartfelt” about the work, it was very hard to adequately sell it. She admitted that often spurious intellectual/social-realist notions would be tagged on to descriptions of work in order to make them more comprehensible to British critics and audiences. But, when faced with largely visual work, an interesting problem emerges. If nothing much is given by way of context, then the interplay of signifiers, signified, and signification becomes, in a perfectly Barthesian way - wholly subjective. A fascinating early example was provided in the second workshop where we were all reading out our deliberately subjective response to Stifter’s Dinge. While Mark Romisch (German) and I both likened the early troughs of brightly-lit white power gradually covered in dark water to sand being covered in oil or blood (or both), Goda, a Lithuanian, swore blind that it was clearly meant to be snow. And while for me and Mark the visual symbolism suggested the war in Iraq (isn’t everything about the war in Iraq?), for Goda it was about snowy landscapes and state oppression. Cultural specificity is a fascinating area, but in the field of international theatre, does it matter that readings across national/geographical boundaries vary wildly? If part of a critic’s contract is to read the signs, does it matter if the language in which they are reading is different to that in which they are written? Do we need to be anxious about fixing meaning at all, or might there be room for a multiplicity of meanings, out of the creators’ hands, which can be accorded equal weight and value? If so, where does that leave the critic?

Friday 23 November 2007

Munich - part one

First draft

As is becoming alarmingly traditional, I must begin by apologising for my lengthy absence. This time I've actually got a valid excuse, though. For the last five days I've been attending the SpielArt Festival in Munich under the auspices of the concurrent FIT Mobile Theatre and Communications Lab programme, as one of two British representatives acting partially on behalf of the LIFT festival (my co-Briton was, confusingly, the British-born, Australia-raised, Britain-domiciled creative director of the Total Theatre organisation Pippa Bailey). Snappy introduction, huh?

I actually got back from the Festival on Wednesday, but have been putting off posting because attempting to summarise the experience of the festival and the FIT Lab seminars is dauntingly similar to being asked to put the North Sea in a jam jar.

Over the four days we were there, we saw a total of six pieces, alongside a packed programme of discussions and workshops. And "pieces" is about the only catch-all term that comes even close to being able to encompass the sheer range of work on show. The theme of the workshop strand was the need to discover new ways of writing about emerging and innovative forms of "theatre". As with the recent debate on ways of talking about non-mainstream forms of work, terminology immediately becomes a significant preoccupation. By the end of our stay we were starting to ask where the boundaries of what you can describe as “theatre” actually lay. We had seen accomplished work that had so challenged our understanding of the term. Hell, some of the work made me wonder whether there was much value in having terminology at all. Below, I’ve tried to give a rough idea of what the pieces we saw were like, and have given them all faintly reductive possible genre-labels to break up the text a bit. In the next day or so, I'm hoping to offer a similar overview of the ideas that arose from the workshop programme. In the meantime, get this:

No-performer theatre

The first piece we saw, after a long day's travelling, was Heiner Goebbels/Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne’s Stifter’s Dinge (trans. Stifter’s Things - Stifter being a 19th century German writer, who one of the Germans in the group described as having a reputation for being fiercely boring).

The most striking thing about the piece was that it contained ABSOLUTELY NO ACTORS. No performers either. Apart from a couple of stage-hands who appeared early on to construct three low troughs and shake salt over them, there were NO HUMAN BEINGS ON STAGE. In a densely contested field, this must still rank as a pretty extreme example of boundary-breaking radicalism. I'm pretty sure that most definitions of theatre I've ever read have specified that there at least have to be people watching people for the act of theatre to be engaged. Well, Goebbels blows that idea clean out of the water. Instead of human subjects moving, standing and speaking, the piece consisted of a virtuoso display of special effects, lighting and sound technology. As a display of technology it was astonishingly accomplished. But at the same time, it still felt satisfyingly "arty". Without even the ability to understand the occasional extracts of German speech, the "performance" became an exercise in decoding signs to create narrative, or meaning. An interesting issue which arose from this, to which I intend to return, was the difficulty of cultural baggage and/or specificity.

Durational work / Installation

Deconstruction made by the Belgian group Needcompany seemed almost tame by comparison. For British readers, as far as I can make out, the best shorthand the best way to imagine Needcompany is by picturing a Belgian Forced Entertainment. Not wholly typically of their work, Deconstruction is a durational performance installation, which was housed in Munich’s Haus der Kunst art gallery. It took the form of a sort of large island made from wooden packing crates and polystyrene shapes, taking up most of the centre of a large gallery space. Within this, a cast of wackily attired performers moved around: a girl in tight t-shirt and shorts go-go danced while wearing a large, shiny, white, plastic, bullet-shaped, stylised rabbit head; a Japanese girl dragged herself across a different platform wearing a large animal pelt. A band experimented with reverb and delay effects, producing something that might turn up on a Radiohead b-side. Elsewhere an actress read text into a video camera behind a two-way mirror. This was shown on one of the many television screens woven into the fabric of the island’s haphazard structure.

At one point during our time there, the band suddenly launched into a song (unknown to me, but possibly extant - sounded not unlike some Nick Cave or possibly Will Oldham) and the whole cast joined in singing. This moment was quite hauntingly beautiful. Parts of the lyrics from this song were written on one of the packing cases. It suggested a hitherto unsuspected coherence to this seemingly random assemblage. If we hadn’t had to rush off to the next piece, this moment would have easily seduced me into staying for the whole afternoon to see what else would happen.


Following Deconstruction we saw two of the films in the Tragedia Endogonidia cycle made by Italian director Romeo Castellucci/Societas Raffaello Sanzio - a beautifully made record of the series of performances which Castellucci devised in various cities to reflect the particular tragedies of those cities. We watched Strasberg and London. Strasbourg was perhaps a little opaque, revolving around a bus load of people arriving in a square at night to watch Hitchcock's Psycho projected onto the side of a building. While another sequence saw a Panzer tank advancing and reversing round a floodlit sandy ring like some sort of a dancing horse.

London, on the other hand, was gripping: part contemporary dance, part nightmare, it sees a woman disrobe, be seduced by a gargoyle door knocker, go mad and part bury herself in a large old fashioned stone tomb, before bleeding to death on the floor. A second sequence sees a man before a mirror, seemingly tortured into madness by curious bearded children and voices in his head, cut out his own tongue. What it all means was anyone’s guess, but somehow felt irrelevant. It didn’t feel as if the project was all that interested in exact meaning, but in a whole panoply of pregnant signs and possibilities, combined with a very immediate, visceral sensibility.

Site-specific verbatim theatre without actors

Monday offered two further puzzles. The first, Soko Sao Paulo, made by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi (the latter being one of the founders of newly seminal European festival circuit group Rimini Protocol), takes two of the most hotly debated forms currently on the margins of mainstream British theatre - verbatim plays and “site-sympathetic” work, combines them, and in the process makes the British approach look hilariously stage-y and old-fashioned.

The nominal subject of the piece is the use of guns by police in Sao Paulo combined with insights into the life of the Munich police force. It is easy enough to imagine the British verbatim play on the subject: conduct the interviews, cherry-pick the strongest moments, edit the whole into a satisfyingly play-like dramatic shape, complete with thesis and easily grasped message and deliver the finished script to Max Stafford-Clark. The approach here is somewhat more radical. Yes, they have conducted video interviews, and they have people relating stories, but they have arranged them over two sterile floors of a largely disused downtown office building, Punchdrunk-style. Moreover, all the “performers” are the actual people whose stories are involved. No actors playing other people here.

The audience is free to wander around an impressively large number of installations. Several rooms offer various video recordings, in others members of the German police force sit, telling their stories, while further rooms offer a series of practical demonstrations of police training methods.

What is striking about the installation was how comment-free it seemed. Impressive, given that in one demonstration, a Brazilian police officer smilingly demonstrated with paintball gun and life-sized drawings how not to shoot civilians before shooting a sketched gunman in the head. By the time I saw his demonstration, it must have run a fair few times, so there were, what? seven bloodied paintball explosions on the crudely drawn head? The resonance was inescapable, and it sat uncomfortably with happy films of German police choirs merrily singing away.

After an hour and a half of wandering around, the audience was herded downstairs to don headphones and sit around a miniature football pitch on which the various “performers” from the installation played a full on game of football, while we listened to the roar of a football crowd and a running commentary on the game by one of Munich radio’s real sports commentators. It was a surreal ending to a fascinating piece.

As a non-German speaker, much of the information was lost on me, but it is striking how far beyond anything we’d be prepared to call “theatre” in Britain Soko Sao Paulo goes. In fairness, there was some mixed dissent among my German speaking colleagues as to how successful it was as either a piece of theatre or as a “living museum”. Perhaps experiencing much of the thing in an alien language set up a greater series of resonances and a profitable sense of dislocation which worked better for the subject matter than straightforward information could.

Technology and Liveness

Monday’s next piece - O_Rex made by Belgium’s Eric Joris/CREW - was perhaps the most fascinating of the week. Along with Stifter’s Dinge it set up a series of challenges to where the boundaries lie in the field of “innovative” “theatre”.

The basic set up was as follows: At the beginning, members of the audience in the bar volunteer to be “inside” the show. One is selected by a show of hands and is ushered off while the rest of us file into the auditorium. The thing begins. Brilliantly. A soundscape is followed by a little remote controlled car - audible in the darkness - writing on the stage in a luminous marker while telling the whole of the Oedipus story. The lights come up and a compere welcomes the audience to the Muffathalle Theatre. While he does so, a giant projection of Google Earth on the floor around him zooms in on our location, until he is standing on a projection of exactly where he is standing. As uses of technology actually enhancing “liveness” go, this is a pretty neat one. Most of the computers, lighting boards and sound desks are also on the stage, adding the extra dimension of the use of technology itself being a performance.

The compere reintroduces the guy we’ve chosen to be our Oedipus, Zlatko, standing outside, shown on CCTV. By means of a radio headset, the compere talks him back into the building through a series of rooms as we watch his progress on a large screen. Eventually he is wheeled into the auditorium on a stretcher, and to symbolise Oedipus’s self-blinding, a large virtual reality-type video helmet is placed over his head. Zlatko is told that the helmet has video cameras on it, which feed into the screen inside the helmet. In fact, what he is shown is the video feed from an entirely separate set of cameras, elsewhere in the building - or perhaps pre-recorded (or both, it wasn’t entirely clear).

For the rest of the piece, Zlatko wanders around the stage lost in a virtual world, while the compere talks to him, sketching out a sort of memory/dream sequence for this lost Oedipus. It is fascinating stuff - perhaps most especially for Zlatko - but it is also limited. In spite of the extra visual elements on stage - laptops on remote controlled cars showing video sequences of crawling men and body parts - and the occasional live soundscapes provided by a female singer, there is nowhere near enough content to justify the length of time we get to watch Zlatko/Oedipus in exile. The conclusion of the piece, when our man removes his helmet and realises he has been nowhere like where he thinks he has been returns a sense of human drama and interaction to the thing, but it may be too little too late.

The fascinating thing about the show is the sheer level of advanced technology on display. Eric Joris at a subsequent post-show discussion, and on panel discussion the next day, comes across as a near-messianic Timothy Leary-style advocate of virtual reality as the future for theatre. The problem is, as he readily admits; only one person is really “inside” the show, and the rest of the audience is “outside”. While it is reasonably interesting to look into the fictions being beamed into another’s mind, without any real interaction or tension, the audience becomes slightly superfluous after a while. If this is to become theatre, Joris and CREW need to find a way of presenting its fascinating work in a more outward facing way. That said, the frequent question asked about work termed “experimental theatre”: “What’s the experiment?” cannot be applied here. CREW’s work is pure experimentation. And there is an ongoing risk that temperamental technology may cause the entire show to seize up. But, in terms of the technology/liveness debate, this is as live as anything I’ve seen. The compere talks directly to the audience, Zlatko/Oedipus is directly in the moment. What he is watching (to the best of my understanding) is totally live, and, I rather suspect, it would pass Chris Goode’s Cat Test with flying colours. Actually, the introduction of a couple of cats, or maybe a goat or two, might liven things up a bit.

Science and Theatre

We only saw one piece on the final day (following the final workshop and a panel discussion in the afternoon) - Tip of the Tongue by Plasma Theatre. Plasma are a German group who seem to be interested in exploring ideas about science in theatre - apparently this is quite a significant movement in Germany, with books and conferences on the subject. Despite being performed in German, the piece is easily the most comfortably normal bit of experimental theatre I saw all week. Imagine a Frantic Assembly show as performed by a four-strong Oxbridge sketch comedy group - that’s about where Plasma are at. The show is one of those slightly mathsy devised pieces where identically dressed performers go through similar routines with one occasionally falling out of step for comic effect. The piece is pretty text-heavy, but since the text itself has apparently been taken from learned scientific research journals, knowing German isn’t apparently even much help to the Germans in the room. The point here is not to communicate the science as it is with, say, Unlimited’s Ethics of Progress, but rather to use the text as pretext for routines, humour and perhaps some sort of reflection on the implications of the neuroscience described. While it is an enjoyably enough trot though some nice routines and funny material, a selection of false endings toward the close seemed to highlight a feeling in the room that Tip... has run its course and could do with maybe fifteen minutes knocking off.

Saturday 10 November 2007

Our theatre, right or left

For some reason, someone has felt the inexplicable urge to ask “why are there no right-wing plays?” again. As if it hadn’t been adequately addressed in March here, here, here, here, here, here, etc. [I'll add some more when I have more time].

It is striking that this question seems to be asked most often and most loudly by those who have no apparent background in theatre. There are three possible explanations for this. Those of us who actually do work in and around theatre are such tools of a left-liberal - or even further left - consensus that they are a) happy with this apparently liberal-consensus-centric status quo, or b) so soaked in their ideological stance that they do not realise that it is the case. Alternatively, c), those who work in theatre, or as its attendant critics, tend to see enough to convince them that there is in actual fact quite a spread of work being staged. After all, Quentin Letts, Charles Spencer and Lloyd Evans, as the three most prominent non-leftie critics, do grumble from time to time about how much writing seems to be of the left - but none of them, to my knowledge, has ever said there are 'no "right-wing plays"'.

Obviously, since Rayner’s blog is a partial take on his Observer piece, it is difficult as yet to engage fully with his queries and qualms. But since this question has been raised a million times before, it should be pretty easy to trot through the available positions.

Firstly - to define terms - what do we mean by “a right-wing play”? Christopher Campbell, the Literary Assistant of the National Theatre is very interesting on this point: “When Nicolas Hytner made his comment about wanting a ‘good, mischievous right-wing play’, we were suddenly inundated with plays arguing that Hitler was right.” he says. I’m assuming that this is not the sort of right-wing play that anyone (well, hardly anyone) wants to see.

So we are talking about plays which effectively advance, endorse, or at least do not attack mainstream “right-wing” positions, yes? Or is there a wider question at work? If, once a Conservative knows a particular playwright is left-leaning in his or her personal life, will that colour their conception of their work? For a play to satisfy the criteria, does it actually need to be written by someone who actually votes Tory?

Another pressing issue is: which element of the right-wing are these plays to advance? Currently the spread of values among just the Conservative Party and its published commentators, let alone its grassroots support base and life-long non-party-member voters, ranges hugely from Neo-Cons, Libertarians and Free-Market fundamentalists to paternalists, patricians, old-school (and old-school-tie) social conservatives, and every possible stripe and combination in between. The gulf between David Cameron and Norman Tebbit, or between Michael Gove and Simon Heffer, or between Peter Hitchens and Peter Whittle, rather suggests that if this putative right-wing play were to be devised by committee, it would be a conflicted, confused beast indeed. In much the same way, many so-called “left-leaning” plays are attacked just as vociferously from the left as they are from the right: which hardly points to a “liberal consensus”. So why pretend that there is a single entity that is “the right-wing play” that is not being produced? There are a lot of writers I know who while privately left-wing or centrist in their outlook would be mortified to be told that they had created a “left-wing play”.

And are all the plays currently being produced really left-wing? Looking at the irritatingly scant number of plays I’ve seen in the past week or so: there was Joe Guy - Roy Williams’s morality tale about a British-Ghanaian footballer; Present Laughter - Noel Coward’s amoral-but-conservative light comedy; Casanova - an historic, semi-sexualised romp; Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s intellectually demanding chamber epic about particle physics and the invention of the atom bomb, and on Monday I’m catching up with Ramin Gray’s Royal Court production of The Arsonists - Max Frisch’s tale of how a well-meaning middle-class couple take in a pair of lodgers who turn out to be terrorists plotting their destruction - a play that Gray has explicitly talked about in terms of containing a clear critique of Islamism and Britain’s role in the War on Terror.

Now, call me blinkered, but I’m not seeing all that much to upset a middle of the road Tory in there. Perhaps some at the more Mary Whitehouse end of things may find the humorous, unapologetic promiscuity of Casanova a bit much. However, because of the company’s impeccably concerned and feminist ethics, the way that this sexuality is handled makes it totally appropriate, if potentially baffling, viewing for children.

And this leads to another point. Hundreds of “right-wing” positions find analogous positions on the left. For every anti-globalisation protestor moaning about McDonald's, there will be some Home Counties Tory bemoaning the vulgarisation of his/her local high street. Each conservative Church-going objector to an increasingly sexualised culture will have an opposite number in the feminist-intellectual camp. Every Marxist writing off the church as a superstitious opiate of the masses will have a cool-headed Richard Dawkins-type rationalist agreeing whole-heartedly. These culture wars are being fought on deeply asymmetric territory. There is perhaps an impression given by the right wing press that “British Theatre” is left-leaning, precisely because it employs such as range of voices that at least one will find something to object to in any given play, leaving an overall impression of a unified front against another unified front, whereas in fact the truth is much more subtle.

As Ian Shuttleworth points out in his comments on the Jay Rayner blog piece, compared to the sixties and seventies, economically there is now hardly any playwright who appears to subscribe to any sort of radical departure from current fiscal policy. And if there are more than a handful, it certainly isn’t being reflected overtly in their work. Indeed, I would argue that in practical terms the old argument that “the right won the economic argument, while the left won the culture wars” seems to offer a far more decisive victory for the right’s victory than that of the left.

At the same time, is it really a triumphalist liberalism to argue that it is a good thing that homophobia, racism and misogyny are now widely understood to be wholly unacceptable? Would a “mischievous right-wing play” be a Richard Littlejohn-penned caper in which comic caricatures of homosexuals and immigrants cavorted with clear criminal intent until brought to book by heroic, stout Englishmen? One suspects not. That said, it is worth remembering, irrespective of how one feels about his columns with their perceived racism and homophobia, that even Richard Littlejohn was good friends with the (gay) Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker (is there no end to this liberal conspiracy?).

So, firstly we should not accept this uninformed prejudice trotted out that the views of the right are uniformly rubbished or ignored on the British stage. When this teacup bothering tempest last blew into town The National was showing Etherege’s Man of Mode - about as right-wing a play as you could wish for on many levels - while the Royal Court was showing Mike Bartlett’s blistering assault on the failure of liberal values in a capitalist society My Child. Now it blows into town again, the National is doing Coward and the Court is doing the Arsonists as a kind of “warning from history” about Islamic fundamentalism. The longest running play in the West End is still The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, who was hardly a Marxist. Andrew Lloyd-Webber - himself a Conservative supporter - still packs out theatres with his musicals, many of which contain at least soft-core messages, which could easily be argued to be pointing rightwards. And increasingly adaptations of Hollywood movies and jukebox musicals fill in other spaces. Of course both Hollywood and pop music are reviled by certain sections of the right - but broadly speaking, such productions, especially in view of their attendant prices and aura of commercialism, put off many more theatregoers with leftist leanings. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, The Finborough has made a point of staging plays by writers with contentious political stances, such as David Irving’s friend Rolf Hochhuth.

But of course there is an elephant in the room here. While it is possible to make a case that there are in fact plenty of “right-wing plays” and many others which, through seeking to have no political position whatsoever, could be equally enjoyed by right- and left-leaning audiences alike; the fact remains that a seemingly vast proportion of those who work in theatre in some way self-identify as “leftish”. Sure many of these claims wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. And there is also what feels like a growing tendency for increasing numbers of actors to be quite Tory nowadays. But at the same time, that also leaves a lot of left-wingers of various types working in and around British theatre. In much the same way that, I suspect, there are an awful lot more Conservative voters working in investment banks. The question is, does this mean that there is the potential situation where plays which propound right-wing ideals get binned, shelved, censored and vetoed? Is there a conspiracy of left-leaning artistic directors, directors and writers that ensures that no right wing play ever makes it to stage? Well, quite aside from the previously discussed examples - I think the honest answer is that it varies wildly.

I don’t think for a moment that Lisa Goldman the artistic director of the Soho Theatre - and formerly artistic director of the Red Room Theatre company (a company whose name was quite deliberate in its implied associations) - will ever stage one, for example. Her political acumen does however appear to be limited enough to let all sorts of apparently non left-consensus arguments be made on her stage, provided they are made by the right sorts of minority - not so much in the case of Joe Guy - which has its moments - but certainly the summer’s Deafinitely Theatre show made a lengthy argument for deaf separatism which would put it right at odds with anyone with any sort of “inclusion” agenda, for example.

On the other hand, Dominic Cooke (like Ian Rickson before him) and Nicholas Hytner both seem quite comfortable with accommodating and representing a plurality of views on their stages. Is Nicholas Hytner even left wing? We don’t know. Apparently when Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll was discussed at the Royal Court, there were some furious arguments made against it, and against allowing its conservative writer a platform in a theatre that used to be regarded as a preserve of the left (especially by one particular female left-wing playwright). However, the play was staged. And no one actually did resign over it. And it did good business both at the Court, where it sold out its run, and in the West End.

It is fascinating that while many are inveighing against a preponderance of leftist plays in the theatre, many of those of the left - commentators, theatre-practioners, critics and, uh, Bidisha - view theatre as conservative, Conservative, reactionary and all manner of other tropes considered right-wing by such accusers.

Without wishing to bandy platitudes or get all Panglossian about it, this tentatively suggests a potentially healthy state of affairs. Being accused from all sides of being against whatever it is that the accuser would rather you were for, particularly when the accusation is spread so widely across the political and artistic spectrum, rather suggests that there is some even-handedness at play. More heartening, though, is the fact that anyone cares enough to be making the accusations. As long as there remains a fierce battle for theatre’s soul, at the very least it suggests that there is a soul there that is worth fighting for. And the battles themselves, both the political battle and the attendant artistic one, create an air of vital urgency on which the artform itself thrives.

In other news: Anyone who cares at all about theatre should read Chris Goode's new essay on the relationship of mainstream theatre to experimental work prompted by the announcement of Dominic Cooke's forthcoming programme at the Royal Court, of which Andrew Field offers a more upbeat assessment.

There should also shortly be reviews from me of Told By An Idiot's Casanova and the excellent revival of Copenhagen at the Tabard Theatre, along with a review of Michael Billington's State of the Nation and, oh, I dunno, some more bloggy stuff, I expect.