Tuesday, 31 July 2007
"The kids want misery and death..."
I'm not about to argue that TV must re-embrace Reithian principles. But the interview with BBC3 Controller Danny Cohen in yesterday’s Media Guardian (satirised here) did briefly make me wonder why anyone bothered with anything any more. This has nothing to do with the recent spate of specious nonsense written about TV phone-ins being rigged, the treatment and coverage of which has been preposterously po-faced - but that’s another issue. No, what concerned me about the interview with Mr Cohen was the following (from the real article):
"Building on the success of Baby Borrowers, the channel’s next big factual “event” will be Pramface Mansion, in which 10 single mothers and their offspring will live together for a month... The insulting title is nothing compared to some of those for which the channel was pulled up in last month’s annual report... Fuck Off I’m Fat [sic] springs to mind."
It is difficult to come up with a sensible way of responding. The problem is that raising any sort of objection a) plays into their hands and creates precisely the sort of media furore that such titles and programmes are created to generate, but worse b) to attack from positions of compassion or concern makes one look like a hopelessly ineffectual liberal, while to attack from a position of high-minded contempt or moral fury makes one sound like Peter Hitchens or Roger Scruton. Other options available pretty much take the Charlie Brooker satirical route, which - quite apart from making one sound like a potty-mouthed puritan with an unusually vivid imagination - obviously doesn’t work, since the programme makers are clearly raiding back issues of TVGoHome for inspiration.
While researching an interview for The Times Online with Roger Michell recently, I noticed that he had been the director of the excellent BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and was immensely pleased to discover that its DVD release is imminent. But when was the last time there was a really great adaptation of a modern novel made for TV? From what little I saw of it, White Teeth was dreadful, and also was ages ago now. Has there been anything else since? Brick Lane went to film; Vernon God Little - surprisingly - went to theatre, and so on and so on. Admittedly, Buddha... was probably a rarity even at the time, and possibly I loved it more than most, since it was set where I lived in Bromley, was about people roughly my age, it involved punk music and threw in an awful lot of sex for good measure. The fact that it goes on to get involved with theatre, which I couldn’t have given less of a toss about when it was first aired, only makes the re-watching all the better (BBC4 showed it again in 2003).
The thing is - and I could be remembering this all wrong - in the same year or so Channel 4 aired its amazing "Banned" season, which included Alan Clark’s Scum and Derek Jarman’s Sebastian, followed in the autumn by its Punk season (or was it just a weekend? Or even a night?), which included a couple of documentaries, Julien Temple’s Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, at least one show which collected pretty much everything that was to inform my taste in music for the next ten years into an hour or two of music videos and Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. At roughly the same time, Twin Peaks was running for what seemed like forever on BBC 2.
It is cheap to suggest that such inspiring programming wouldn’t see the light of day now. It might. But I’d be out when it was on, having learnt not to trust the telly. And there was plenty of rubbish on TV back then too (remember The Word?). What’s more, culture - such as it is - doesn’t operate in the same way now. For example, you don’t need the BBC or Channel 4 to broadcast the documentary. A cursory YouTube search reveals that much of that programme of punk/post-punk videos is online anyway: hire the DVDs, search the songs, and do it yourself. But then, that rather misses the point - what was great was that someone else had seen fit to introduce me to all this stuff. It was an education.
Maybe I'm worrying unduly. As Johnny Rotten observed: "The kids want misery and death, they want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy." They probably don't want no education.
This isn’t to say there’s not some excellent Television these days. Quite apart from all the American stuff, State of Play, Life on Mars and Shameless were all great. I didn’t see any of Skins, but apparently that had its moments too. But I do miss the sense that there is someone in charge out there who really knows what they’re doing, and who knows more than you do, and wants to share it with you.
That’s much of what appeals to me about many of the blogs I read - they are the products purely of people sharing their enthusiasms, and bringing to your attention things which might otherwise pass you by.
That said, nearly everyone has probably buggered off to Edinburgh by now, so Lord alone knows who I’m writing this for - apart from the two Finns who turned up yesterday attracted by my sarcastic use of "porn" as a tag for yesterday’s entry.
Reading list for this week:
Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie - which, from what I’ve read so far, is just great: laugh-out-loud funny along with some beautiful phrasing and playfully handled erudition. Highly recommended.
Mark Watson’s A Light-hearted History of Murder - which I’ve only just started, but looks like it will be a lot of fun indeed.
Also, from Tesco, the new Inspector Rebus novel by Ian Rankin: The new Rebus paperback always seem to crop up just before the Edinburgh Festival, and so every year, I succeed in scaring myself witless with tales of the city’s violent, criminal undercurrents just before going up. I don’t read a lot of detective fiction/crime novels. The only reason I started with Rankin was that a) there were a lot lying around at a friend's house, and b) he had quite promiscuously deployed the names of at least three or four songs that I like as titles - which were the ones I read first.
Which reminds me, I have another grumpy old man piece to write about "Whatever Happened to Literate Pop Music?" - citing everything from Killing An Arab, and Atrocity Exhibition through to Jacques Derrida by Scritti Politi. The basic thrust is that when I was a teenager - and admittedly listening to music much of which was already ten-odd years old (strange to think that to my fifteen-year-old self Never Mind The Bollocks was newer then than The Stone Roses is to me now) pop music was not hermetically sealed in a world of its own references and nothing else. As a fifteen-year-old, had any teacher asked me to read Camus’s L’Etranger I would have resented it greatly. But because of boyish one-upmanship, of course I went out and did the research on the say-so of The Cure. Similarly - though I blush to admit it - the only reason I had even a passing acquaintance with Theatre of Cruelty was not because of any inspirational theatre studies teacher (I never took the subject - I’m not even sure it existed - certainly not at my school it didn’t) but because of the song by Bauhaus.
I’ve also just received a review copy of Andrew Keen’s fascinating-looking The Cult of The Amateur - How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, of which a review and probably numerous blogs should be coming your way soon.
In the meantime, from the heady days of 1991’s Channel 4 punk special, here is a recording from an earlier Granada (I think) studio performance of Joy Division doing Shadowplay. This is what TV is really for.
Monday, 30 July 2007
This are not the blog you are looking for...
Still, I can't help being disturbed by the American who found me thus:
"07/30/07 10:27:52 Jew Racist Postcards (Google)"
I'm hoping he/she was a research student of some sort.
Sunday, 29 July 2007
Monroe Transfer - The Luminaire
There were two support bands: the first, Blanket, are a three-piece dealing in a sort of alt.countryish Julee Cruise kind of sound, with a slight pop sensibility sprinkled over the top - imagine a lo-fi Lily Allen covering Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. They play fragile, acoustic guitar-based songs, run through some atmospheric effects boards, and then dusted with little jingle-like melodies in between the verses and choruses, tapped out by the singer on what looked like an odd mini-keyboard or xylophone (I was at the back and there was a pillar in just the wrong place). Despite the fact that while they were playing people kept on arriving, the whole audience was absolutely silent throughout - I’ve been in noisier theatres. This, combined with these incredibly delicate songs played at hardly any volume at all and the Luminaire’s red curtained back walls and slowly revolving glitter-ball, all served to enhance the idea that the whole experience had been lifted wholesale from a David Lynch film. Not a bad way to be at all. (their MySpace here)
Her Name is Calla were, well, Not My Bag so much. They were talented, hugely proficient musicians, and between songs seemed charmingly self-effacing as well. As far as their songs went, it sounded like they had aimed squarely at Radiohead’s OK Computer and fallen short. Musically they were up to it, but they lacked the lyrics and just the sheer febrile inventiveness that stopped Radiohead turning into full-on prog-rock. Lots of people there, many of whose judgement I think is sound, enjoyed them a lot though. (MySpace here).
The Monroe Transfer are something else altogether. The easiest thing would be to liken them to GodspeedYou!BlackEmperor, or maybe Arcade Fire at their most inventive, and be done with it. This would be both lazy and inaccurate.
The seven-strong band consists of two electric guitars, drums, double bass, 'cello, viola and violin, plus AM radio and samples. It’s not often you get to see a band which includes a whole string quartet, albeit with the bass situated between the two guitarists rather than actually functioning as a discreet set. This is just the first of many aspects that set them apart from the common run of things.
I’ve had the album for a while and am very fond of it, but there is absolutely no comparison with the live version. If some bands have 'chemistry', The Monroe Transfer have narrative. Rather than any sort of outward "showmanship" - although frontman Nick Gill does a nice line in between-song patter - there is meticulous concentration. Each member of the band bent on their own intricate task, and on working as part of the whole - just watching band member look up to check with band member, the occasional flinches, the furrowed brows - is satisfying in itself. There is also the fact that the band's overall aesthetic is immensely cool - visually they could have stepped out of any era from 1967 onwards. Most of the boys are wearing nondescript white shirts, Neil the viola player has an excellent George Harrison/John Bonham haircut and moustache, Rhiannon the violinist is wearing a smart frock á la the LSO, Nicole the cellist has a deeply enviable air of French nouvelle vague cool, while their drummer, Ed, looks not unlike a brilliantly psychotic cartoon Mexican. The onstage interplay is like a cross between the subtext of a Chekhov play and scientists at work, and somehow overall it all contrives to be gloriously theatrical. It's almost exactly how you would imagine a Katie Mitchell production of a gig to look (indeed, guitarist Martin bears a passing resemblance to tousle-haired Mitchell regular Paul Ready).
And then there’s the sound, which is just incredible. The Monroe Transfer trade heavily on the steady build: small motifs develop and grow on one another until they reach almost unbearably explosive peaks. The band played three songs in 45 minutes: one word written on my side with a knife was about five minutes long and featured Gill sawing away at his guitar with a violin bow. i dreamt i was a hammer & everything was glass, which was accompanied for a while by a rather splendid animated film made by Gemma Burditt, was 18 minutes long, and reached a point about ten minutes in that sounded like a glorious, exact mid-point between Metallica and Stravinsky, with both guitars being thrashed and the ‘cello and viola being almost beaten with their bows. Their final number, frozen field, burning field, was about 25 minutes long and contained some moments of yer actual prick-you-in-the-tear-ducts beauty.
If there was any justice in the world, The Monroe Transfer would have an Arts Council grant, and month-long residencies in venues like St Stephens in Edinburgh or the Union Chapel in Islington.
Nick tells me, the band are in the process of making a proper, studio recording of i dreamt i was a hammer (a live version recorded for Resonance FM can be found on their MySpace page) and are hoping to have something released by the end of the year. He goes on to say that they're also making a thing called Vox Humana, in which Nick will assemble and mess around with everyone else’s improvised recorded material. That should be out later this year, too. (their MySpace here).
There are a couple more gigs toward the end of August (one at the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, which promises to be surreal at the very least).
Finally, while we're looking at MySpace, I also urge you all to check out The Official Secrets Act - an adorably youthful punky Siouxsie/Gang of Four three piece from my alma mater.
Meanwhile, here are two videos of Blanket.
Thursday, 26 July 2007
The Camera Loves You
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I can get pretty boring on the subject of quite how much I loved this production. Even so, I still think it's a real shame the National didn't release the song as an MP3 without the bit from Scene 9 - The Threat of International Terrorism™ spliced in, but you still get an idea of it from this. As a corrective to all this terrible grovelling, here's Michael Portillo reviewing a student production of Attempts... at one of London's most off-the-beaten-track venues. Lord knows what he was doing there, but the collision of former Tory MP with seminal post-structuralist text through some young women who don't sound terribly original with their stagecraft is fairly fascinating.
Not as fascinating, however, as the following from Quentin Letts in this morning's Daily Mail (I am paid to read it, don't worry) on Playing God at the Soho Theatre:
"I had never seen deaf people on stage before. They stroke each other an awful lot."
Wednesday, 25 July 2007
It is called The Harbour Beyond The Movie, is published by Salt Publishing, and has a whole page to itself here including the rather sweet recording of Luke reading his Gerald Variations, and some pretty specific information about the book:
Height: 216 mm
Width: 140 mm
Thickness: 5 mm
Weight: 120 gms
An audio recording of Luke reading his poem The Murderer is here (confusingly described as a video). While we’re at this plugging lark, lots of the other stuff there, particularly the songs of Tom Davies/Davis Wateracre (whose new Facebook group celebrating Luke's work reminded me of all this stuff in the first place), especially The Patron (live) and Flowers, are also well worth a listen.
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
"Too much talk of 'going on journeys'..."
Firstly, it reminded me of how difficult it is to interview incoming artistic directors. I did a similar interview with Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson who had just been appointed as ADs of Theatre 503 for TheatreVoice back in January, and remember realising as the interview progressed that it was much easier to talk about concrete products and the ideas which surround those, than about future plans and "artistic direction". OK, that’s not wholly true. As an artistic director I would imagine it is enormously easy to wildly fantasise about what you’d like to do, but to actually describe plays which have yet to be created – well, that is the job of a playwright (unless it’s devised, or created via some other method, of which more later).
That said, I was struck by Jane Edwardes’s brutal honesty concerning her initial impressions of Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell (both of whom I know at one remove – i.e. I have friends who are friends with them, so I felt slightly, if unaccountably, defensive on their behalf). At the same time, I admired Edwardes for her honesty. It really isn't easy to say things like that in print, whatever people might say about critics. The problem which the Gate interview encountered was no doubt similar to the one which Tim, Paul and I came up against in January – that without having a bit of a track-record running Theatre 503 to discuss, speculating wildly can run the risk of soundly like woolly-minded posturing, mimsy babble, or worse, like pretentious or arrogant nonsense.
In the TheatreVoice interview, I was keen to avoid this happening to my hapless interviewees. It had been my idea to do the interview, so I was damned if I was going to make Tim and Paul sound like arses because I had chosen to do the interview before they had actually had a chance to direct a single play at their theatre. Of course, from a journalist's point of view a bit of bile at the beginning of a feature always adds a touch of spice to the thing. Why else run with the Gate first? And to be fair to Jane, she piles up the caveats pretty high after her initial attack, and lets the forthcoming work and past glories speak for themselves.
Which leads on to the next question: When did journalists start expecting great copy from artistic directors anyway? I suspect for most incoming ADs, especially those taking on their first building or company, there must be a good deal of nerves mixed in with the excitement and sense of possibility, so the most natural response when asked, "So, what are you going to do?" is probably to want to run away and hide until you’ve done it and then point and say, "that". But then theatre does attract some terrible show-offs.
Increasingly the model of a great artistic director, along with a capacity for the deft programming of exciting work, appears to be one who talks a good game - who has something of the showman about them. Two of the best current examples are Dominic Dromgoole and Nicolas Hytner. Dromgoole, in particular, is an expert self-publicist. Hell, he even generates copy from the launches of the Globe’s seasons - no mean feat when one considers the headline is always essentially "Globe to stage a selection of plays by Shakespeare". Meanwhile, Nicolas Hytner’s occasional broadsides, fauxs pas and off-the-cuff remarks are becoming a mainstay (not to mention a failsafe fallback in a quiet week) for arts journalism.
Before them Stephen Daldry’s term at the Court, and before it the Gate, was characterised as much by his charismatic presence as the work produced. Peter Hall was much the same in his heyday - always willing to take a position and generate a story. Even Dominic Cooke, by all accounts a more retiring sort, managed to whip up a flurry of interest with a well-aimed controversy about "satirising the middle classes" when he took over at the Court. Of course, all such pronouncements are the enemy of good sense, and trenchant pronouncements - while making for excellent reading - aren’t actually half so much use as the ability to negotiate and compromise. But then we seem to like our theatrical heroes dogmatic, and a certain amount of surety is par for the course as a director, just as a similarly hard-nosed attitude often makes for great writing.
The last thing the article highlighted for me was how much the theatre establishment - even at non-establishment venues like Theatre 503 - is still so totally wedded to the centrality of the written script to their mode of production. Sure, Dominic Cooke has already established a kind of laboratory scheme at the Royal Court to explore alternative methods of working - but by and large it is the idea if the writer which looms largest in all these interviews. The idea that a director can only be as good as the text they’re working on (or “for” as it seems to be here). It does all make me wish that just once in a while a few more of our directors would be a bit more, well, German about the whole thing. (Do check the link, there’s a brilliant anecdote about David Greig - about halfway down - which illustrates exactly what I mean).
Edit: Ben Yeoh's blog also has an entry looking at the Time Out piece, written from his unique vantage point of having just had his much praised translation staged at the Gate.
Monday, 23 July 2007
St Joan - National Theatre (mk. ii)
George Bernard has very much fallen from fashion in recent years, despite the best efforts of the Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, who seems to run a one man Shaw-revival pressure group. So it initially looks like an act of extreme perversity for the National to revive him as one of the playwrights for their Travelex £10 ticket season. In fact, director Marianne Elliott’s new production of St Joan makes the strongest case for the playwright’s continued survival that has been seen in years. With an hour of material cut from the original script - down to a wordy-but-manageable 3hrs - the play emerges as a highly intelligent, thought-provoking and timely look at the clash between religious fundamentalism and realpolitik.
The primary reason for this success is the play’s surprising even-handedness. Of course Shaw has a thesis; he is a pacifist atheist writing about religion and war. But it is precisely because of his lack of any natural affinities that he creates a play without heroes or villains. One the one hand is a young peasant girl who swears that the voices in her head are messages from God, and on the other is a church and state concerned with avoiding a potential collapse of their powers.
Anne Marie Duff, in spite of an irritating wandering (mostly) Irish accent, is luminously brilliant, presenting Joan as a girl wholly convinced of her divine inspiration and at the same time quite plausibly mentally ill: fragile but steely, with a kind of certainty mixed with desperation. The cast also boasts some excellent supporting characters: Paul Ready’s ineffectual, Frank Spencer-ish Dauphin and Oliver Ford Davies thoughtful and humane as the Inquisitor both stand out, while Warwick and his chaplain excel as dry, witty, Sir-Humphryish Englishmen, more concerned with victory than troublesome questions of fairness or justice.
Rae Smith’s design also helps to modernise the play no end, setting it on a cleverly designed, evocative set comprising a charred, wooden hydraulic platform which variously rotates, and rises to become the walls of Orleans. This is surrounded by blasted trees taken straight from pictures of the Somme. Similarly, the military costumes used variously suggest the French uniforms of WWI and a modern take on the armour of the Middle Ages. The atmospheric look of the thing is beautifully complemented by Jocelyn Pook’s excellent original score, which - far more than functioning as mere background music to scene changes - takes a commanding role in evoking both the battles and the heady medieval religious atmosphere.
It is easy to see the play’s attractions as a candidate for revival in today’s Britain. Elliott does well not to play to the obvious, but ultimately spurious, potential readings of Joan as a religious fundamentalist seeking to liberate her country from an invading foreign power. We are spared the foolishness of seeing Jeanne d’Arc in Iraqi/Palestinian/Chechnyan fatigues. Shaw’s concerns are far more wide-reaching. Through the prism of the Hundred Years War the play examines emerging ideas of nationalism at a time when France was several kingdoms, and England was ruled by “the French”. The play imagines the anticipation of Protestantism, looking at the need by religious leaders to suppress those whose religious fervour ultimately weaken their own power bases. Central to the play is the question, “what will it be when every girl thinks herself a Joan and every man a Mahomet?” In his highly theatrical coda to the play, in which a ghostly Joan revisits her executioners, Shaw wryly suggests that in the fullness of time even the most reviled insurgents can be reclaimed as folk heroes and saints.
Sunday, 22 July 2007
Harry Potter hiatus
Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
Friday, 20 July 2007
William Shakespeare: middlebrow racist?
This is all particularly annoying since I want to write a piece here about the combination of Othello and Merchant which I saw in a marathon (that really should be capitalised, shouldn't it?) seven-plus hour trip to the Globe yesterday (short version: Merchant - v. v. good. Othello - not so much) entitled "Shakespeare's Racist Plays". After describing our national playwright as "middlebrow" on Culture Clash the other night (even though I don't especially believe in the distinctions) I'm feeling a renewed interest in the Bard's work.
I think I stand by "middlebrow" incidentally: Shakespeare is, after all, far less concerned with flaunting his erudition (such as it was) than either Marlowe before him or Jonson after. If one allows that one's "brow"-rating is essentially elective (cf. Eliot and Pound choosing to self-describe "high art" for example) I don't think for a moment that "highbrow" is what Shakespeare was about. I like to imagine he'd have dismissed the entire notion of brows as hogwash. Conversely, if it is a label to be foisted upon work by critics, I really don't think that the "highbrow" label at all communicates even slightly the experience of what one sees when watching his plays.
I ought to clarify that I'm not imagining high- to low-brow as a sliding index of quality so much as intent. If anything Shakespeare gets "middle" by default for his mixture of "high" and "low" tropes. Still, I'm interested to know what other people think, both about Shakespeare and about the odd tendency to try to categorise art.
In the mean time, there's another fine example of the warring-critics school on Andy Field's blog, albeit one of the most civil and quickly concluded that I have seen.
p.s. In the most reassuring step yet taken by a Labour Arts Minister at 3.54pm James Purnell MP joined the group What Would Leo Do? on Facebook.
Thursday, 19 July 2007
Readings, Potter, aesthetics and irresponsible behaviour
Given that it was a private reading and was performed largely for the benefit of prospective producers, I’m unsure of the etiquette that surrounds such an event as regards write-ups on blogs. Well, no: I’m entirely sure. I would like this blog to function as a kind of back room/repository for all the longer, more rambly stuff that I don’t put in reviews, or write-ups of shows that I am not seeing in an “official” (ha!) capacity. Unfortunately, being as this is up on the web for all and sundry to peruse, I think there are still boundaries, and closed rehearsed readings are therefore off limits. I’m more than happy to tell anyone who wants to know what I thought of The Water’s Edge, in the pub (well, outside the pub while smoking), but no write-ups, I’m afraid.
While the first two Chris Columbus-directed movies offered a wholesome, kiddy-friendly feel and Y Tu Mamá También director Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban took an wrong turning into slacker chic and not much sense, Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire - while dealing with the novel that of the six made by and away the least sense - focused (at least some of the time) on some of the book’s more interestingly adult problems, and drafted in an aesthetic stolen almost wholesale from Brazil and 1984 - the world of British wizarding turned in one film from being a cutesy, medievalised theme park to a pretty dark vision of English totalitarianism. The flashback sequence from Goblet..., in which David Tennant is brought before a court in striped Auschwitz-style prisoner’s garb puts an entirely different complexion on how the audience is allowed to view the Ministry of Magic. It turns from a comforting upholder of justice to a suspect, totalitarian order which deals with its political enemies (admittedly, these are avowedly evil psychopaths) by sentencing them to life imprisonment and psychic torture/ As ideas go, it’s not all that deep, and a good proportion of my enjoyment derives solely from the fact that I do just love the Brazil/1984 look that the film has. But still, it kept me happy for a good while.
After all, as a critic you only have your judgement, your own personal subjective response, as a means to tackle anything. What are you meant to do with something which acutely appeals to your own personal tastes so strongly that you are completely seduced by it - rendered almost pre-rational by something which operates on a different part of your psyche to the bit normally employed when experiencing music/art/theatre? More on this when I’m more lucid, I think.
Harry Potter V (Contains moderate fantasy violence and horror)
Shrek III (Contains mild language and comic fight scenes.)
Die Hard 4.0 (Contains frequent action violence and one use of strong language)
Transformers (Contains moderate action violence)
Mr Bean’s Holiday (Contains irresponsible behaviour)
Wednesday, 18 July 2007
Battle of Ideas
I have been asked to chair, and essentially curate, a debate for the Institute of Ideas at this October's Battle of Ideas event. http://www.battleofideas.org.uk/
The blurb for the event reads:
Political theatre: political animal?
In the seventies and eighties British political theatre was a byword for uncompromising attacks on the Thatcher regime, capitalism, sexism and homophobia; it preached radical social change and revolution. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, the defeat of the Conservatives, the rise of New Labour, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, where does political theatre now stand?
Actors perform a selection of extracts from plays covering the last thirty years to illuminate the development of, and relationship between, theatre and politics. Is political theatre the snarling political animal it once was, or has the beast been tamed? Is a fresh injection of politics needed to enliven British theatre, or might political theatre serve to enliven politics?
As this suggests, the debate will kick off with about half an hour of "clips" from relevant texts performed at the event by actors. This, by necessity, will pretty much preclude using company-based devised work or physical theatre. While such work will, and should, figure in the discussion, since they want clips performed by the same small group of actors (and short clips at that) my current list of suggestions is:
Romans in Britain - Howard Brenton (1983)
Masterpieces - Sarah Daniels (1984)
Serious Money - Caryl Churchill (1987)
Some Explicit Polaroids - Mark Ravenhill (1999)
Stuff Happens - David Hare (2003)
Drunk Enough to say I love You (2006)
My Child - Mike Bartlett (2007)
This is obviously a very partial picture of 'political theatre' and wholly ignores non-text-based and non-explicit political texts as well as revivals such as Hytner's Henry V, which, while politically freighted in production would just be Henry V if we were to do an extract, if you see what I mean.
The extracts should take up the first half hour of an hour and a half discussion, and should succeed in raising enough interesting points to at least launch a discussion which could take in the methodology, intent, and formal change and innovation in the "British Political Play".
If anyone has any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.
Watch it here.
I'm also on the newest TheatreVoice programme discussing the Edinburgh Fringe with performer and Perrier winner, Will Adamsdale; Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance; and Kate McGrath, producer of Fuel - chaired by Aleks Sierz.
Meanwhile, my review of Elling at the Trafalgar Studios is online at CultureWars here.
Edit: I've just noticed that my final thoughts on the Edinburgh Fringe have been used as the quote on the page for the TheatreVoice programme, which has made me absurdly happy.
Monday, 16 July 2007
If this is a review...
That said, I am gobsmacked by this double review by M B at the Grauniad. As I have noted before, his current phase of Shaw-adoration is particularly rampant at the moment. Even so, this division of attention seems preposterous in the extreme.
Of course, I don’t know the circumstances of the review's production. It could well be that M B filed two beautifully turned pieces and they were mercilessly put to the scissors by an ill-mannered sub. Or it could be that M B had to argue hard for the inclusion of any word on the second production at all. And yes, he’s done a favour for what sounds (from what little one can glean) like a perfectly good production, insofar as they can now boast "vivacious... performed with a gusto... should appeal to adults and children alike."
But, 64 words? Jesus.
Edit: Out of curiosity, I just word-counted the above. It is 195 words long, or 3 x 65...
Edit v2.0: Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh to Michael, Benedict Nightingale doesn't seem to have been able to drum up much more enthusiasm for writing about it here.
Saturday, 14 July 2007
Royal Court - Rough Cuts II
Posh / The Girlfriend Experience
The second offering in the Royal Court’s promising Rough Cuts season is another pairing of two works-in-progress, this time both first halves of longer plays rather than fragments – this week looked to be full-first-draft week – from the writer Laura Wade, in collaboration with director Lyndsay Turner and the company Recorded Delivery. As it turns out, where the first Rough Cuts night stood out for the vast differences between the two pieces on show, this double bill is notable for the many unexpected congruencies which spring up between the pieces. If this was not at least partially deliberate, then it was certainly fortuitous. Indeed, one of the impressions I was left with was that it was a pity that the two pieces would subsequently be being developed in isolation and shown separately since they had worked so brilliantly in tandem.
What they were about was, at root, class (well, class and sex in the case of the latter).
There are probably still a million books to be written on why class continues to exercise such a peculiar hold over the imaginations of the English. And those books will, of course, be devoured in their thousands because, as I say, the English just can’t get enough of it. So I’ll try not to dwell on that question here.
First up was the putative first half of Laura Wade’s new play Posh. Starting as an inquiry into the lives of the moneyed classes who live in the immediate environs of the Sloane Square theatre (one senses the commissioning hand of the Artistic Director’s mission statement), the brief introduction to the piece explains that this brief quickly led to a fascination with the secret Oxbridge drinking and dining societies, such as are now regularly detailed by outraged articles in the Daily Mail centering on pictures of a young David Cameron/Boris Johnson/George Osborne wearing floppy fringes and expensive togs.
We meet our hero attempting to tap his godfather for enough money to cover the damage that he and his friends – members of The Rioteers (I couldn’t help imagining The Riot Group for some reason), essentially an exclusive gang dedicated to upper class vandalism. As his tale unfolds, his godfather becomes more and more disenchanted with his young charge – the problem? The damage described simply wasn’t extensive or flamboyant enough. So the godson is sent off with a bee in his ear about doing something to restore proper hell-raising to the club. From here we see the club plan greater excesses (ten bird roasts, prostitutes under their tables, chartered flights to Lebanon...), although, rather like Britain’s latest round of terrorists, the planned destruction doesn’t really come off. There is an intriguing scene later (which I very much hope continues as a strand through the play) when the hero appears to be speaking, in similar circumstances to those at the start, with a long-dead ancestor who was once a member of the Rioteers – a sort of George Etherege/Lord Rochester figure (cf. The Libertine) – who is similarly disappointed by these bungling aristos’ attempts at carnage. The whole thing builds up to a situation where, following another attempt at hell-raising, the club are caught, arrested and told by college authorities that one of their number is to be sent down as an example, and that they have an hour to decide. The scene is closed by a rousing speech by one of the club who discourses like Harry V outside Harfleur on his hatred of the poor.
In fairness, Wade picks his targets well. If his coda were not that he blames the poor, then the lengthy list of targets for opprobrium would probably strike chords left, right and centre in varying degrees – reality TV, dumbing-down, people who keep cheese in the fridge, etc.
Of course, Wade has not written a Right Wing Play on the subject. Hell, apart from the actual club members themselves, very few of The Right actively condone this sort of behaviour, even if they tacitly endorse the privilege which creates it. Even the Telegraph will tut-tut when the Bullingdon boys run amok and trash another out-of-town restaurant, and it - at an informed guess - has the highest proportion of ex-club members, Old Etonians, &c. on its staff.
That said, she has not peopled the club solely with upper class caricatures – although some of the minor characters firmly occupy such territory. The boys are accorded a certain amount of nobility in amongst their ignoble carryings on. But then it would be illogical to create a play in which the audience was repelled utterly by all of the characters all of the time. Instead we are given what could well be reasonably acute depictions and left to worry about our allegiances. It is also interesting to consider that Wade is trading heavily on the mythology and glamour that surrounds those old public schools even at the same time as seeming to implicitly deplore a certain strata of their alumni. It will be very interesting to see how the rest of the play develops this material. Here’s hoping for a speedily written second half and a full production early next year.
- Interval -
In complete contrast, Recorded Delivery’s The Girlfriend Experience is a verbatim show consisting of taped scenes from an independent Bournemouth brothel. It has been set up by ____ who, tired of working for other madams and pimps, has struck out on her own along with her friend ___. Unlike most depictions of prostitutes/sex workers/call-them-what-you-will both are in their forties and at the upper end of the dress size register. What we get in the first forty-five minutes is both straight-to-audience/interviewer explanations of various aspects of the job, and interactions between the women.
It is almost as if the piece’s creator, Alecky Blythe, has stumbled across a perfect piece of tape-your-own-Beckett or Pinter, with added social commentary and relevance. There is plenty of humour here, as the women discuss their working lives, but also an overarching feeling of desolation. I was reminded of a comment made by one of the characters in Dennis Kelly’s recent pseudo-Verbatim show Taking Care of Baby – she is describing the way that life-sentence prisoners in a women’s prison spoke to one another, they are all, she notes, people who have committed horrific crimes – but they spend the whole time talking to each other in little-girl voices. I don’t know where Kelly got that observation from or whether he made it up, but the same happens here – everything is kept light – there is a constant level of enforced jollity, as if no one really wants to face what they are doing – at least not in their moment-to-moment interactions. At the same time, however, the interviews are disarmingly forthright and frank, and don’t given the impression that these women either feel sorry for themselves or seek our sympathy. And yet that sympathy is terrifically hard to let go of. A scene close to the end, in which the two women are sitting watching TV, waiting for the phone to ring with a client, is incredible theatre. We know they need the money, we can see they are bored, and so we both want the phone to ring, but at the same time can’t help feeling that maybe it would be better if they didn’t have to have sex with men for money. It is amazingly powerful stuff, like a staging of Godot in the middle of a relativist’s moral quagmire.
Posted from work, so apologies to readers who catch this before I’ve had a chance to check the programmes and put in the names/details/facts I’ve forgotten, and any links I might add.
In the mean time, and at the risk of turning my blog into little more than an alerts service for - and running commentary on - the Guardian's Theatre Blog, I shall draw your attention to this story from Lyn Gardner yesterday...
Oh, and I saw the much-praised Elling last night. Expect a CultureWars review, and possible meta-commentary here if I can't reasonably fit the questions it raised for me as part of a continuum about depictions of the relationship between madness and artistic/divine inspiration (cf. ...Dissocia, Speed Death..., St Joan) into the review proper...
And then expect millions of further posts about why I feel the need to divide my reviews into "proper" and "other" as my contribution to the brewing debate on what makes for good theatre criticism/writing-on-theatre (to borrow and paraphrase a better man's distinction) some time in the future.
. . stop press . . . stop press . . . stop press . . . stop press . . .
Another Google search for Ms Wade has just tipped someone onto the site. I just had a look to see if Postcards had somehow got to the top of Google's Wade references. It has not. It is on page 11. Someone is looking very thoroughly through mentions of her. How very strange.
Thursday, 12 July 2007
Writing what you know
If, as I’m starting to suspect, all blogging is a long game of follow my leader, then, following Mark Ravenhill’s recent Guardian Arts blog post, this week’s hot topic is biographical readings of writers’ work. The subject has already kicked off a heated exchange on David Eldridge’s blog between him and critic Ian Shuttleworth*. Ravenhill’s original post is as fair-minded and witty as it is light, but he raises an interesting point. The most striking passage for me is his admission ‘I'd bump into friends from university and see they were longing to ask: “How long were you actually a rent boy for?” In the end, I decided all this gave me a grungy glamour. Without ever actually lying, I never disabused them of the notion.’
Of course he did. We all wanted to look grungy and glamorous in ’96. But there’s something else going on here. It is David Eldridge who connects it to Max Stafford-Clark, to whom the quotation “all plays are either autobiography or journalism,” is attributed. The way this belief manifested itself in Stafford-Clark’s work with writers has cast an extremely long shadow in its legacy for the Court.
A writer friend of mine, who shall remain nameless – for reasons which shall become clear – once wrote a provocative (and immediately countered) article for Noises Off magazine arguing that Graham Whybrow’s claim that he could identify the work of any Royal Court writer on the strength of a single page of their work was probably predicated on the fact that within the given page there’d either be a character who was a one-legged black lesbian; so it was probably by the Court’s one-legged black lesbian writer, or... so on, and so on.
I wouldn’t go that far, but it seems fair to say that for a while a certain brand of identity politics was at the very least not-discouraged, particularly around the young writers programme. I shall give a biographical example: - a few years ago a (different) writer friend who I knew from university had a play staged as part of the
This idea has turned on Max Stafford-Clark and bitten him on the arse at least once. There is a passage in Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia in which the young Karim (a thinly veiled, wish-fulfillment version of a young Hanif Kureshi, m’lud) is working as a writer (as Kureshi did) with a director of strong left-wing inclinations, who is widely thought to be a thinly veiled version of M S-C (with whom Kureshi did indeed work when he was a young Royal Court playwright). The book contains a scene in which the director, along with his wife, seduces Karim and his girlfriend with the aim of essentially stealing the girlfriend. So much for teaching people to write what they know. This story has an amusing – if wholly apocryphal coda: when filming the excellent BBC adaptation some years later, the set for this (enormously memorable – at least to this impressionable young thing) scene was dressed to exactly resemble M S-C’s house. Shortly after this has been televised – so the apocryphal story goes – M S-C had invited a couple of people back to his house. They arrived at the house, and entered the living room in question.
“So, this is where it all happened, then?” says one of the party, with a knowing look.
Awkward silence descends for the rest of a much-shortened rest-of-evening.
But I digress.
While Ravenhill suggests that it is a little odd to be confused with a character from your play, he then goes on to note the useful critical insights that such a school of criticism can sometimes offer. Eldridge, however, uses the occasion to take some issue with his work being read autobiographically –understandably, given the personal repercussions which he describes. What is fascinating is the fact that he does not comment on the fact that the play has also been reviewed autobiographically. He cites some initial comments from Ian Shuttleworth’s review, but omits to mention the end:
“I come from a similarly sacrificing working-class family, and I keenly feel similar debts to the departed. I could therefore be expected to connect profoundly with Eldridge's play. But not a sausage, I'm afraid.”
As a critic (ha!), not a writer, I find this sort of thing fascinating. Shuttleworth, after all, is giving explicit and personal grounds for the reason that he didn’t like the play. No pretence of objectivity or Olympian judgment here. This is explicitly a man with a history, sitting in a theatre, watching a play about another man with an apparently similar history. While on one hand it suggests it should have been a pushover for the play to have *got* him, it simultaneously admits the possibility that as someone so strongly identifying with the subject matter, he may not be the best judge.
Critics are often criticised for the dual, contradictory sins of both pretended objectivity and excessive of subjectivity. I find it interesting (not to mention brave) how readily Charles Spencer will talk about his position as a recovering alcoholic to contextualise his response to works dealing in similar themes of addiction. Similarly, if you can find a review of a play about
I guess the point of all this is that all writers, not to mention directors, actors, probably sound-designers and lighting designers, and other artists of any stripe you care to mention, will bring something of themselves to their work - both wittingly and unwittingly; and those watching their work, whether writing about it or not, will speculate over it, as much as they will appreciate other elements and the whole. But is it really, as David Eldridge says, “reductive” or “wrong-headed” to speculate? In much the same way as his play pricked the curiosity of his reviewers with its incidental spatial and temporal intersections with his own life, isn’t it precisely these same sorts of starting points that often ambush writers with ideas?
At the same time, I do hope we have gone beyond the era of identity politics into one where “write what you know” is only a helpful suggestion rather than an absolute and final restriction. I don’t want to be party to a culture, which, when faced with two plays on any given issue, will always pick the one written by the person who has the closest personal connection to the issue over the play that is best, irrespective of its author.
So, write what you know. Or don’t. Some part of you will creep in anyway and give your biographers and critics something to agonise over. But, if you are writing about what you know, please don’t do what John le Carré does and forget to tell everyone what it is you know before continuing the story; it makes it almost impossible to understand.
*In the interests of full biographical disclosure, Ian and I have a long personal history; I don’t know Mr Eldridge at all.
Tuesday, 10 July 2007
St Joan - National Theatre
George Bernard Shaw has somehow acquired a reputation for being fiercely boring. This could in part be down to Michael Billington’s almost ceaseless lionising of the man as one of Britain’s Greatest Ever Playwrights. After a while the record starts to sound a little broken, and the plays still aren’t getting any younger. They’re not getting any shorter, either. Even this new yoof-friendly, £10-ticket version at the National Theatre comes it at around three hours including interval. So, given the National’s apparent obligation to stage some Shaw, if only to stop Billington moaning, what to do? Hytner and Co.’s solution is probably about as neat a reply as you’re likely to get. They chosen one of Shaw’s history plays - useful as it is not so much mired in minute Edwardian detail and arguments about a century-old status quo - and given it to one of the most robust, inspired directors currently working in mainstream theatre. On top of that they’ve chucked in one of Britain’s favourite actresses - Anne Marie Duff (of Shameless fame) - in the lead role. If that doesn’t attract audiences and please the critics, then Shaw is beyond help.
In terms of style, this is very much in the school of the open-stage, minimal, suggestive design - in this case a charred wooden hydraulic rake set on the Olivier’s revolve, surrounded by blasted trees taken straight from photographs of the Somme. It is perfectly suited to the sort of ensemble playing that Marianne Elliott deploys. Indeed, the battle scenes in St Joan function almost as a standing rebuke to the stage version of Lord of the Rings across the river. Without a single slow-motion sword being crossed the ensemble suggest Joan’s whole campaign across English-held France in a single, continuous assault on the props; smashing chairs against the stage, drumming on metal at its flanks, as the burnt rake gradually rises to become battlefield and city wall. Credit here is also due to Jocelyn Pook’s score, which - far more than functioning as mere background music to scene changes - takes a commanding role in evoking both the battles, but also the heady religious atmosphere crucial to the play’s success. Without some reminder of what God had the potential to mean the play would utterly fail.
It is easy to see the play’s attractions as a candidate for revival in today’s Britain. Elliott does well not to play to the obvious - but ultimately spurious - potential readings of Joan as a religious fundamentalist seeking to liberate her country from an invading foreign power. We are spared the foolishness of seeing Jean d’Arc in Iraqi/Palestinian/Chechnyan fatigues. Annoyingly we are not quite spared all possible commentary since Duff speaks in a broad Irish accent throughout - it could well be her own accent, and, fine, it represents well enough Joan’s position as a peasant girl moving in noble France; it is also more than a little freighted in terms of England’s more recent military occupations.
However, Shaw’s concerns are more wide-reaching. It is salutary to remember that when the play was written, Shaw was almost as close in time to the Napoleonic Wars as we are now to World War One, which had concluded only five years earlier. And it is with this, through the prism of the Hundred Years War, that the play really deals, examining ideas of nationalism in an earlier Europe when France was several kingdoms, and England was ruled by the “French”. The play imagines the anticipation of Protestantism, looking at the need by religious leaders to suppress those whose religious fervour ultimately weaken their own power bases.
To this end, there is no small amount of debate. At its best, it resonates like several Sir Humphries set one against another - dry English understatements meeting with parries by drier, more understated understatements. (Interestingly, this vein of similarity with well-loved characters from British comedy does not stop at Yes, Minister, as the excellent Paul Ready’s Dauphin is, near-as-damnit, played as Frank Spencer). Occasionally the dialogue does lapse hard into portions of an essay divvied out between characters, and when sometimes actors deviate from wryness to passion, the corresponding loss of diction sometimes misplaces the odd minute of dialogue comprehension. But there are plenty more minutes of dialogue to make up for the few that go awol.
Ultimately this is a patchy play. Its curious structure runs something like: debate, debate, fight, debate, debate, moments of searing brutality, debate, surreal epilogue. Some of the debates are thought-provoking, others crucial to the plot. Were it not so well-turned a machine, though, it would be tempting to suggest it be cut by a further half-an-hour for the comfort of all concerned. That said, one’s personal tolerance for endless discourse and Fabian pamphleteering notwithstanding, the point at which it is decided that Joan is to be burnt at the stake is astonishingly powerful.
The short version of this is: I pretty much enjoyed it, but I'm not sure how many other people would.
Edit: Turns out I'm pretty much with the West End Whingers on this one - if noticeably preoccupied by the ideas of the play where they focus on the acting. Good place to go for an account of what Anne Marie Duff's like, though. Rather a weak point of my review.
Edit v2.0: OK, so the critics enjoyed it too. Charles Spencer, Michael Billington, Susannah Clapp.
Monday, 9 July 2007
Blog backlog (blogklog?)
However, none of this is likely to happen today since I've got a party to go to in about an hour and several emails to write before then. Instead, here's a quick selection of interesting bits from the weekend's press which may be of interest.
First up is a somewhat breathless whizz through some of the theatre on offer at this year's Latitude Festival from The Independent, although sadly not mentioning Postcards' friends Small Change or Pegabovine.
The second article is an account of one of the new Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport's first speeches after his appointment. There's already a fine commentary on this over at Dan Bye's blog, so I shan't waste my breath, other than to observe that I wholly heartedly approve of the minister's access policy when it comes to adding perfect strangers on Facebook. I should also use this space to observe that his claim to have seen "Kneehigh's Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National" is patent nonsense, or poor reporting, since no such show exists.
The last thing, which you've all undoubtedly read as well, is this very sweet article from Friday's Film & Music supplement in the Guardian about the odd mutual appreciation between playwright Alan Ayckborn and French auteur Alain Renais. As a devotee of Scarborough thanks to firstly grandparents and now also the National Student Drama Festival, it's nice to know that it exercises its strange charm beyond our narrow national boundaries.
Friday, 6 July 2007
Royal Court - Rough Cuts
I know there is a fair amount of debate around the usefulness of scratch culture. Chris Goode has gone on record to attack (albeit with a careful and nuanced set of objections) the prevailing scratch culture, and Mike Bartlett in an earlier interview on TheatreVoice made many of the same points about "scratch" potentially offering so much of a safety net that writers need not commit to their work, and also of running the risk of drowning in feedback forms and the sort of well-intentioned dramaturgical advice that can leave plays utterly stripped of the initial spark that made them worth writing in the first place.
That said, I’m real sucker for experimental works-in-progress and readings. All the more so when they constitute a significant programming decision on the part of one of London’s foremost producing theatres. Whatever you think of any given individual play, or about the politics of scratch, it is hard to deny that Dominic Cooke’s first six months at the court have been little short of miraculous.
Wednesday’s offering was a double bill of fragments from two potentially longer, larger, as-yet-unfinished works - one by long-standing Royal Court writer Leo Butler, who teaches on the Court’s Young Writers Programme and whose first professional play was staged at the theatre several years back, and the other by one half of The Right Size: Sean Foley.
In terms of a double bill it is hard to imagine a greater distance between two pieces: Butler’s Airbag - the result of a collaboration between him and the Nigerian choreographer Anthony Odey - is a perplexing series of fragments in which an old lady in sheltered accommodation describes seeing a number of gorillas outside her window, intercut with spectacular and vigorous displays of Nigerian dance, accompanied by tribal drumming and continually underscored by a slow heartbeat sound effect. Sean Foley’s A Liability, by contrast, offers short scenes from a potentially longer light comedy about a man who can stop telling the truth. It’s hardly an original premise (the Jim Carrey Liar Liar, for starters, apparently), but curiously the hardly-staged reading of half-an-hour’s worth of material served what there was very well indeed. With its jaunty live guitar breaks between scenes and little songs to move the action along, it worked very well as a half-hour radio comedy.
It’s no surprise that Foley writes a good comedy - he is a comedy writer and performer, after all - although this was less in the clownish vein of The Right Size and more like, well, writing. Directed by Terry Johnson, it is quite easy to imagine A Liability morphing into a slick West End product. This would be a shame, as much of its charm derived from its lo-fi production values, which chimed well with much of the more whimsical comedy - the play opened with its main character (played by Sean Foley himself) being gradually drawn into a conversation with a woman on the tube’s teddy bear.
Of the two pieces, Airbag was the more inconclusive experience. The juxtaposition of the rich imagery of the old woman’s speech - much of it couched in uncomfortably racist terminology concerning the size, physique and colour of the “gorillas” she can see - when interspersed with sequences of African dancers opened up a strand of inquiry which remained explicitly unaddressed throughout. Talking to Leo afterwards, he agreed that the tension was deliberate, and that in the pieces that we saw, it wasn’t directly addressed. In fact, talking to him clarified a lot of things about the piece for me, about which I had previously been unsure. It also offered an insight into how he saw the piece developing. It sounds like it could turn out to be a really exciting project, and quite unlike anything else the Court has staged. Even if it doesn’t get picked up for further development, a small number of people can at least claim to have seen a piece of partially dance-based theatre at the Royal Court - something unimaginable 12 months ago.
This week's offerings:
My most recent appearance on Culture Clash, discussing the Royal Court’s comedy The Pain and the Itch and Bernard Manning’s career can be found here:
A new interview for TheatreVoice with the very wonderful Chris Goode is here:
While my somewhat lengthy attack on Bruce Norris’s The Pain and The Itch can be found that the New Culture Forum’s lavish new website, here:
I am the theatre editor for CultureWars.org.uk, I do occasional programmes for TheatreVoice.com, and am a regular guest on Culture Clash on 18 Doughty Street. I also work as a script reader for Theatre 503, Paines Plough, The Royal Court Young Writers Programme and the Old Vic.
The purpose of this blog is to provide a space for “unofficial” comment and reviews which don’t quite come within the remit of, well, any of the other places for whom I write stuff.