Friday 31 August 2007

On adaptations and liveness

I had intended to spend today’s entry thinking about comedy. It is my comedy reviews from Edinburgh that are still gazing mournfully up from my computer screen saying, “Hey, what’s wrong with us? Huh?” as I resolutely fail to polish them off and file them. Comedy is bloody hard to write about. The main problem is that it is largely composed of jokes. Jokes are based on some element of surprise. It is the unexpectedness of a punchline - the neatness of the observation - that makes an audience explode into laughter. Therefore, repeating them willy nilly to give some idea of what’s on offer isn’t really an option.

When discussing this dilemma with comics in Edinburgh they agreed, saying that they’d rather not have a single joke from their act repeated in reviews. At the same time, there is often precious little else to discuss. There’s frequently no plot, no characters, no set - there isn’t even lighting or sound very often. So, many of the things that compete for the theatre critic’s attention are removed. It is material and the delivery thereof that is key; and when the material is secret that’s a pretty hard write. There’s also the fact that I’ve not had much practice at comedy reviewing. Although from the dark mutterings about one particular comedy critic in Edinburgh, who shall remain nameless, concerning his apparent laziness in just repeating swathes of a comedian’s set in lieu of much actual review, perhaps inexperience may be just the thing required.

Anyway, I’ve been diverted. Andrew Field, in his latest blog article, attacks a piece by Marcel Berlins from the Guardian in which the latter confesses himself to be disturbed by theatres making adaptations of films. I do understand where Berlins is coming from. It’s not that I think theatre shouldn’t "do" film - Field skewers him on all sensible points on this score - but I do find the current slew of film adaptations surprising.

As I noted yesterday, The Cut has been fairly stuffed with adaptations of European cinema’s best-loved recent transvestite melodramas. Birmingham Rep/West Yorkshire Playhouse boast a forthcoming Emma "Kneehigh" Rice adaptation of Brief Encounter (incidentally, would anyone else describe Emma Rice as having a "lush romantic sensibility"?). Meanwhile, following the success of The Producers, the West End is awaiting the arrival of what feels like dozens of adaptations of films into musicals (to which Berlins does not object) with Broadway’s Hairspray (which has already been transformed back into a film) and Desperately Seeking Susan (turned into a Blondie jukebox musical) opening in the next month.

Granted, Brief Encounter was a film adaptation of Coward’s one-act stage play Still Life in the first place, which maybe legitimises attempts by theatre to reclaim it. But even so, I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed at the prospect. For heaven’s sake, it’s Kneehigh: I’m not sure Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) will cope well with Mike Shepherd in his y-fronts. Moreover, you’ll note that Still Life and Brief Encounter are different titles. Some acknowledgement, perhaps, that the two items are different products. Berlins is correct to note that theatres, when doing these adaptations, do seem to retain the titles of the plundered artefacts for ease of advertising. After all, if you’re significantly adapting one work with the aim of making something new, shouldn’t you stick your neck out and call the new thing something, uh, new? Or is this the area in which the British finally get all European on an original text and claim some sort of auteur-ship in a way which, by and large, our directors don’t with text-based plays - e.g. Shakespeare - without the addition of "On...", "...Project", "Escaping..." or similar?

In passing, I find fascinating Berlins’s assertion that he doesn’t "object to plays made into films, of which there are thousands, many of them clearly better in their new guise." Which films is he thinking of? Almost without exception, every film that has been made from a play in the past decade has endured reviews which all contain the same chestnut "does not escape its theatrical roots" or some variation thereon - The Libertine, The History Boys, Closer, Some Voices, Mojo, etc. the list just goes on. The only unqualified success I can think of is The Madness of King George [III], and that’s going back a while.

As Field notes: "The original still exists... - Berlins talks as if they've made the Young Vic's version of All About My Mother from the dismembered remains of every print of Almodovar's original film." So why would anyone get antsy about an adaptation? Berlins does so because he thinks it’s not theatre’s job. This point is moot to say the least. Berlins is a (very fine) legal correspondent who happens to like a film and doesn’t want to see it spoiled. He then extends this anxiety well beyond its remit into a plea for theatres to produce more new writing, so it seems silly to engage with him on arguments about what theatre should "stand for". (Field, incidentally, estimates the National’s ratio of new to old plays at 10% new to 90% extant. I am reliably informed that the actual ratio is closer to 50-50).

But the point Berlins inadvertently raises - concerning cinema’s fixity versus theatre’s de facto fluidity - is a fascinating one. One of the only things of value that I found in the recent Roger Scruton book that I read for Culture Clash was his interesting observation that pop music was a medium defined by its fixity. Scruton doesn’t know enough about pop music to make this assertion stick (think of all those gigs, bootlegs, unreleased demos and cover versions before claiming that the pop song is defined by its existence in a single recording), but the fact that pop music, and similarly cinema, can offer something even suggesting a definitive article is a stark contrast with theatre (and by extension sheet music/folk music/opera etc. which only exist properly in performance).

Theatre’s own relationship with fixity is quite problematic. Chris Goode’s description (you’ll have to scroll down - the entry is "Straight back down, y'all, straight back down to earth", on Monday, May 28, 2007) of the technical set-up for Speed Death... in Plymouth is a good example:

'Like most machines, this machine has no intelligence within itself... There is something incredibly estranged about [its] experience. That radio that Gemma turns on in scene 7: that's the DSM, who can just about see and hear the performance, slightly anticipating the motion of Gemma's thumb and saying "Sound cue 18 [or whatever] -- Go!" to the sound operator, who is one floor up and listening to the DSM's voice on headphones, and cannot see and can barely hear the performance, and whose job it is then to press the button that launches the sound effect of the radio which then plays from a speaker in roughly the right area of the stage, at a pre-ordained volume level and for a pre-determined duration. This is what "she turns on the radio" now means.'

And Chris is pretty rigorous about this sort of thing. In Edinburgh one very popular Fringe First winning show I saw was I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath. This consisted of an (un-mic-ed) actress performing in front of, and with, a video film playing on a giant screen that took up the whole back wall of the set. The acting also took place in the face of a loud barrage of pre-recorded sound over which she had to provide the voices for the on-screen actors herself. There was so much that took place on the screen, it often felt that the removal of the sole live element would not have deprived us of very much (even less if there had been a soundtrack). More significantly though, the actress could do nothing to interfere with the speed of the film. If she wanted to go faster, she couldn’t. If she wanted to pause for a laugh, she couldn’t or she would have been out of sync. Even in less extreme examples (the use of recorded music or voiceovers) theatre’s increasing use of technology - wonderful though it can be - is forever chipping away at the idea of liveness, and introducing fixed elements.

The obvious answer, and one to which many theatre-makers are increasingly turning, is to become a kind of "liveness" zealot. In extreme cases - and don’t get me wrong, it’s an aesthetic of which I’m very fond - this sees lighting and sound desks operated on stage, all lights visible and even foregrounded, and an explicit acknowledgement of the stage effects being employed. Even the National is very canny about having its musicians unobtrusively visible as they provide the live incidental music in the Olivier, although it tends to shy away radicalising the same option in the more conventional pros. arch Lyttleton and studio Cottesloe spaces. I’m not sure that it is absolutely necessary for everyone to adopt this approach to forestall the calcification of theatre as a live medium. After all, another growth branch in theatre is the ultra-technical show - think The Elephant Vanishes. There is room for all sorts of different approaches as long as those in control don’t lose sight of what’s important and accidentally create something from which the removal of all human involvement would make no significant difference.

Following yesterday’s brief excursion into my limited acquaintance with Godard, this discussion recalls another of his films: One Plus One - his film of the Rolling Stones recording Sympathy For the Devil intercut with footage of leftist militants - as a fixed article recording the gradual evolution and eventual fixing of another fixed article, all made to look as live and inventive as possible. It is an interesting second front to consider.

Finally, in an extraordinary attempt to make this look like a well thought out and tidy article, I’m currently listening to Love Songs You Can Dance To, the new album by The Popsocks - recorded pop music by Stefan Golaszewski, one quarter of the comedy sketch group Cowards. It’s not live, but it is very funny and sweet. And I'm not going to tell you any of the jokes.

Edit: Mark Shenton's Stage blog today offers an even broader context of how much new work this autumn is an adaptation.

Thursday 30 August 2007

Coming soon...

The shattering "eyeball-eating scene" from Mark Ravenhill’s one-man Edinburgh version of The Complete Sarah Kane*.

I’m still in Edinburgh detox mode. To this end, I have finished the latest Ian Rankin Inspector Rebus novel, and played on YouTube. I can’t recommend the Rebus novels highly enough as a mode of de-Festivalisation. They are all set in Edinburgh and almost all of them totally ignore the Festival. It is a good way to reclaim the city as a functioning place rather than a three-week drinking binge. Reading them while actually there is even better. I was very pleased with my morning routine this year, which included buying a newspaper and getting on the bus and reading it on the way into town from Morningside - yes, I know it’s lazy, but it was lovely to keep pricking the Festival bubble every day.

On the bright side, it’s nearly September and thus the new rash of London openings kicks off pretty soon...

The Cut sees an unlikely twin-set of films about cross-dressing adapted for stage with Ma Vie en Rose already running at the Young Vic (already drawing a stinking review from Charles Spencer). A more hopeful bet may come in the form of the Old Vic’s star-studded production of Almodovar’s All About My Mother. I emphasise “may”.

Also recently opened is the Emperor Jones at the National, which also reopens the doors on its enormously popular Enda Walsh/Mark Ravenhill pairing from last year’s NT Connections, Chatroom/Citizenship.

I suppose everyone who has ever cared about theatre should probably try to get excited at the prospect of the new Complicité show A Disappearing Number which opens next week at the Barbican. With original music by Nitin Sawney, we are promised. As if that helps.

Over in Hammersmith, the Lyric chucks on the first of the long march of Edinburgh refugees with the NTS Bacchae and Subway from the Traverse. Similarly, at the Soho, Tam Dean Burn in the adapation of Luke Sutherland's novel Venus as a Boy opens shortly.

Over at Hampstead their inventive and interesting Daring Pairings season kicks off the week after next, with a collected/edited selection from Mark Ravenhill’s excellent series of shorts that comprised this year’s Ravenhill For Breakfast, followed by a selection of works created by collaborations between diverse writers. This is followed by another verbatim play from Robin "Talking To Terrorists" Soans - Life After Scandal - which is based on interviews with Neil and Christine Hamilton, Charles and Diana Ingram, Jonathan Aitken, Edwina Currie and Craig Murray (again).

Probably the most exciting forthcoming London season is the Royal Court’s ambitious international season, kicking off with Martin Crimp’s new translation of Ionesco’s seminal anthropomorphic fascism parable Rhinoceros running in rep with a new version of Max Frisch’s Fire Raisers (here translated as The Arsonists) from Alastair Beaton, while upstairs there is: The Ugly One by Germany’s Marius von Mayenburg, Kebab by Romanian Gianina Carbunariu, Free Outgoing by India’s Anupama Chandrasekhar and in a double bill, The Good Family by Swediah Joakim Pirinen alongside The Khomenko Family Chronicles by Natalia Vorozhbit from the Ukraine.

Another couple of interesting items come in the form of Punchdrunk’s Masque of Red Death at the BAC and the new production of The Country Wife at the Haymarket, which marks the theatre’s new lease of life as a producing house.

Somewhat less inspiring on paper, but no doubt deftly executed are: Awake and Sing! at the Almeida and Flight Path at the Bush (whose entire first season under Josie Rourke lacks the same excitement as the Court under Cooke, but we shall wait and see). Similarly Fragile and (what sounds like a woefully misconceived) Merchant of Venice at the Arcola both sound slightly on the worthy-but-dull end of the spectrum.

Meanwhile, for those of you unable to achieve Edinburgh closure just yet, there’s still Hippo World Guest Book - Redux if your afternoon isn’t quite the same without sitting in Brooke’s Bar listening to Chris Goode yelling: "AND I AM NOT A MORON OR I WOULDN'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO TYPE!" through the wall at tea time.

Alternatively, this mad little song from Jean Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, which I was overjoyed to find on YouTube, might just do the trick.

* not really.

Monday 27 August 2007

Edinburgh round-up: stab two

Walking through the Assembly Rooms foyer just now it struck me that there are absolutely no original playscripts for sale here this year (the script of the verbatim World War One drama Forgotten Voices is, however, available). For a venue that used to be regarded as one of the more prestigious of the Big Five (Pleasance, Underbelly, Traverse, Gilded Balloon and Assembly) this seems incredible. In the past, the Assembly Rooms has hosted tours of Shopping and Fucking, Disco Pigs, etc. and seen the premieres of plays by Liz Lochhead and etc.

This year it is hard to think which of the shows housed here actually demand publication. Perhaps, in retrospect, the sell-out success of Scarborough will prompt a London transfer – but with its deliberately fringe-friendly standing audience configuration, it is difficult to imagine the venue that will want to stick its neck out. Soho studio, perhaps? Trafalgar Studios Two?

The same scriptlessness is true across other venues (with the obvious exception of the largely published output of the Traverse). Following past Fringes, plays like Peter Morris’s Age of Consent and Guardians, or Adriano Shaplin’s entire oeuvre have been transferred and subsequently published. It is hard to imagine what might receive the same treatment this year*. I would love to read Melanie Wilson’s Simple Girl, and also Hippo World Guest Book. Similarly, I think La Femme est La Morte might profitably unleash an enjoyable rash of student productions if it were published – although given the vast amount of copyright material within the show, which is in part effectively jukebox musical, I foresee problems. But, depressingly, I can’t imagine any publishing house touching them in a month of Sundays.

Overall, this feels like a Fringe during which the written word has been utterly steamrollered by the devised and the performance-based. So many shows, even if written in part, seem to take much of their life from the specific performers involved. Roles have not so much been allocated and assumed as created from scratch. I’m not complaining, or even sounding the alarm just yet – one year’s worth of successes on the Fringe certainly doesn’t represent anything like a trend, but I do find it interesting. Not least because if the Fringe represents artists doing what they most want to be doing, then the way that most theatres are currently run seems to amount to a vast obstruction to this material.

The pervasive management model of a literary department and the requirement of an extant script prior to rehearsal would disallow many of this Fringe’s greatest successes from inclusion. In one respect this is why the Fringe is so valuable – it allows artists to stage the work and potentially achieve entry into theatres without having to submit non-existent scripts or draft exactingly detailed proposals. They can simply do their thing, prove that it has an audience, and wait for the offers of a transfer to roll in. That’s the theory, at any rate. But then a new problem arises: given the way that London theatres have chosen to brand themselves, there don’t seem to be many plausible spaces for these deserving shows to go. There’s the Lyric Studio, The BAC, The Shunt Vaults, possibly the Arcola, and God help us, the Soho, but off the top of my head, those are about the only places in London that I can imagine seeing any of the innovative, non-literary work which I’ve been enjoying on the Fringe. And there are problems with each – the Lyric, and Arcola are already programmed well in advance. The BAC has an almost pathological aversion to a decent length run and the Soho already has a problem with its image as a scattergun receiving house with nothing even faintly resembling an artistic policy.

Okay, there are all the non-producing, non-artistically directed Fringe theatres, but these generally have such appalling hit-and-miss reputations that audiences tend to stay away in droves. Come on. When did someone last go to the Oval House, White Bear, Etcetera or CPT with the same confidence that they go to the National, Royal Court or Almeida, without a friend being involved? Sure, I’ve seen some astonishing work in some of the spaces on the former list and some utterly abysmal work in the latter, but at least with the latter one has a sense that there is some guiding intelligence behind the work rather than an ongoing desperate struggle to pay their rent by filling the space with any company prepared to stump up the exorbitant weekly-rental charges.

So, what to do? The Fringe is dominated by a sort of a work that while prevalent and wonderful for a month in Scotland, seems largely unable to find anything like the same homes in London. A show can sell out Edinburgh for a month, but totally fail to even reach London (or anywhere else) or to make an impression once it has finally snuck in. Perhaps it is something about the rare atmosphere of the Fringe. For one month, people put their prejudices on hold, shelve their preconceptions and simply go to work hoping to be amazed. Do audiences in London behave in the same way? Perhaps it also has something to do with the almost tapas-like way in which theatre is consumed during the Fringe – shows are never even one’s sole daily, let alone weekly or fortnightly theatrical fix – they are one piece of a multiple-show puzzle. So the hour-or-under format rises to the fore. What might feel unforgivably brief in London seems mercifully compact in Edinburgh. Audiences want a brief intense hit, not a feature-length thought-provoker. Attempts to recreate the heady Edinburgh atmosphere in London would ultimately lead to the collapse of all concerned. The Fringe can only be intense because it has parameters, if it was as long as everyday life, it would be approached as sensibly.

I guess the obvious, if boring, answer is that since the Fringe cannot be recreated, we should simply give thanks for its existence, enjoy it when it arrives, and then go back to normal life. However, there are clearly lessons regarding alternative modes of creating work aside from the single-playwright method which need to be learned by producing houses across the country if they are to capitalise on some of today’s brightest young talents.

*Yes, SilverTongue Theatre’s Man Across the Way at the Underbelly is also published, but as a consequence of its pre-arranged post-Edinburgh transfer to Theatre 503, whose chief script reader Will Hammond also works for Oberon.

Sunday 26 August 2007

Consensus: right and wrong

As I mentioned briefly yesterday, one of the most frequently made comments on the Fringe this year is the perception that critical opinion is more scattergun than usual. Of course, on one hand, this is disquieting and disorienting for Fringe punters. With hardly any time to get to know the tastes and/or prejudices of individual critics/reviewers on the larger, multiple review titles (The Scotsman, Three Weeks, The List) trust becomes a precious resource. And corroboration is about as useful a way of establishing trust as anything. If five independent voices all agree that something is good/bad then they must be right, right?

And here’s where the other hand comes in. I’m not a big believer in the oft-voiced theory that the usual critical cadre (Billington, Spencer, Nightingale, de Jongh et. al.) all speak with one voice (see critical furores passim). But I am amused at the alarm with which the opposite situation is greeted. All year, a significant number of artists, other critics, and voices on the blogosphere have been calling for a more diverse range of opinion in the critical panoply. And now here one is. So much so that it feels roughly equivalent to the Infinite Monkeys school of criticism – at least one will write the review that you want to read. Of course there’s no guarantee that they will write it well, but you can’t have everything. And, surprisingly, no one seems very pleased with it. Well, those whom the Gods wish to destroy...

Many of the other criticisms levelled at critics remain. The lack of space being one. The Scotsman’s policy of only allocating 50-80 words for any one- or two-star show continues to appear as damaging as it is pragmatic. Curt dismissal with barely an adequate explanation is never going to be pleasant. At the same time, I appreciate the position of the reviewer who has seen potentially four or five shows every day who does not wish to spend further hours rehearsing their misery for any longer than is strictly necessary. Another criticism often aired is the editorial policy of sending, well, people who aren’t going to like a show to a show. Yes, in London it does sometimes seem perverse that the papers don’t have a wider range of critics, or that they send critics in order of seniority, rather than likely appreciation, to various openings –Lyn Gardner, for example, is manifestly more suited to assessment of much of the work now being produced at the National than Michael Billington, if only for the simple reason that she likes it and has sympathy for and interest in it and he frequently doesn’t. In Edinburgh it is often much harder to tell who will be “right”, since no one has anything like the same measure of one another. With few rare exceptions (Johann Hari), and contrary to popular opinion, critics don’t actively seek out turkeys for their own amusement. Few normal people actively relish sitting through shows which they don’t enjoy. No one enjoys being bored and irritated by something which is not to their taste.

What I found interesting is how similarly unreliable word-of-mouth recommendations can be. Edinburgh is a potentially testing time for many otherwise firm friendships. Greater love hath no man than that he lay down ten quid and an hour of his life on someone else’s say-so to watch Russian clowns/a one-woman-show/an eco-friendly mime cabaret.

I’ve also noticed that my own personal tastes this year are oddly out of step with the mainstream this year, with almost spookily tidy parallels. Three of the most widely recommended shows I’ve seen are Hugh Hughes in..., I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath and Mile End - a one-man show, a one woman show and a new experimental piece respectively. The three shows that have impressed me most this year have been: Hippo World Guest Book, Simple Girl and La Femme est Morte - a one-man show, a one woman show and a new experimental piece respectively. It’s not that the popularity of the “mainstream” hits is wholly incomprehensible – all three have obvious merits and skill behind them, but without exception each lacks the spark, originality and excellence of its opposite number. And yet the shows on the mainstream list are gaining large audiences and my favourites less so. I find it somewhere between perplexing and mildly depressing. On the other hand, I do wonder if my continued championing of the three aforementioned shows is partially attributable to their “underdog” status. If each had been picked up by a huge audience, transferred to a larger space, and been awarded multiple garlands, would I feel as affectionate toward them? I’d like to think I would. But, perhaps, if I had seen Hughes, Plath and Mile End with small audiences and “discovered” them for myself I would have spent more time trying to promote them and less time saying “Yes, but...” to their many fans.

Edit: Melanie Wilson's penultimate show sold out, so I had probably better stop referring to her as an underdog. 

Saturday 25 August 2007

Edinburgh round-up: stab one

The general consensus seems to be that Edinburgh has been a bit flat this year. Several plausible theories have been advanced as to why this might be. Looming large in many is the mostly foul weather and the widespread Festival Flu that has been doing the rounds as a result. Another theory is that there aren’t as many stand-out shows as there can be – and, oddly, those that there are seem to be struggling to find audiences. There is also the widely touted belief that the critical consensus this year is more scattergun than usual with 5 star/2 star splits not uncommon. I do wonder if this consensus spreads much further than my friends. Maybe we’ve all just got several notches more cynical and lazy. After all, innovation is only innovation once, after that it goes from being enjoyable re-tread to tired cliché all too quickly.

That said, once I warmed into the Festival atmosphere, and before I got too bogged down in Festival flu, I had a really lovely time. I’ve seen several shows which made coming up well worth while, and a couple which I wouldn’t have missed for the world – particularly Chris Goode’s utterly wonderful Hippo World Guest Book and Melanie Wilson’s astonishing Simple Girl. Other notables include Shalimar Theater's La Femme est Morte, Unlimited’s Ethics of Progress, Third Angel’s Presumption, and Real Circumstance’s Limbo. That said, despite probably achieving a thirty-plus show count, I can’t help feeling I’ve been criminally remiss. Apart from the fact that I keep taking whole days off from seeing anything because I can’t face another hour of trying not to cough while constantly wiping my red nose as silently as possible, I worry that I’ve allowed far too many things to drift. Partially this has been conducted on the “if it’s any good it’ll transfer” principle, and partially because despite things being recommended, the recommendations have been pretty lukewarm. It seems you’ll always be able to find someone to applaud your decision not to bother going to something.

That said, the shows are only part of the fun. What has been really nice this year is to get a chance to spend a bit of time with a selection of people I see far too rarely; and in conditions where everyone is at their most switched-on and critically engaged. As well as catching up with people, it’s been nice to meet some new and apparently brilliant people – of whom I can now also fail to see enough until about this time next year despite living in the same city all year round.

On my way to my current position (the computer in the Assembly Rooms club bar – I swear I am never doing Edinburgh without a laptop again) I bumped into fellow blogger Andy Field who drew my attention to Lyn Gardner’s lovely write-up of his recent site-specific/sympathetic thing (which I, of course, inevitably missed). In a way this encapsulates the whole way Edinburgh seems to work. You potter along and once in a while you just run into someone or something which makes your day. Generally speaking, it's not a bad way of being. I haven’t seen Lyn this year, but have felt more than ever before that the whole Fringe benefits from her presence like she is some sort of theatrical Mother Theresa. Lord knows where she gets the stamina from, let alone the ability to keep on turning in acute readable prose. She is an example to us all and I am not a little awed.

Saturday 18 August 2007

Has the world changed, or...?

This is something of a stop-gap post to fill space until my first batch of reviews get polished and posted on CultureWars, and also to give me time to dry out a bit in the Pleasance Dome before seeing the much-praised Mile End at half two.

I'm not feeling especially reflective - or indeed clever - so I daresay this "My Edinburgh so far..." might end up a bit perfuctory. I finally made it to Edinburgh at about half nine on Tuesday night, and in the past three days have managed to cram in eleven shows and roughly 2,000+ words of review. Those that think I'm on holiday should reconsider.

On the first day I somehow contrived to see five shows: both of Dan Bye's; a sketch comedy by some ex-Lamda types called Idiots of Ants; Mark Watson's stand-up show; and, at the beginning of the day to kill time, an odd little show from Cambridge called Coat at the Underbelly. These were all at the very least entertaining and proficient, and at best a great deal of fun. Since Edinburgh seems to be sinking under a mire of sound-bite sized reviews lacking engagement, I han't add to it, and you can wait for my (over)long proper pieces.

Second day, to the Traverse for a somewhat punishing schedule of the main house plays - four of them - across the day: Ravenhill For Breakfast, Rona Monro's Long Time Dead, Enda Walsh's Walworth Farce and David Grieg's Damascus. That's eight hours of theatre in one day stretching from half nine in the morning until nine fifteen at night. I'm sure there was a better way of doing that, but whatever it was, it didn't strike me at the time. It did also feel useful to have got those big hitters out of the way in one go.

Yesterday, either side of a marathon write-up session, I also managed to make it to the the utterly lovely Coat of Arms by Pegabovine and Fecund Theatre's latest show Special.

Reviews of most of this should appear first here and then on CultureWars hopefully some by the end of today, if not tomorrow.

Shows I've yet to see, but fully intend to, include: Chris Goode's Hippo World Guest Book, Third Angel's show, Unlimited's Ethics of Progress, Richard Hurst's Potted Potter, Joel Horwood's Stoopud Fucken Animals, David Grieg's Yellow Moon, The Georgian marionette production of The Battle of Stalingrad, and Rotozazza's Etiquette. There's also a whole raft of NSDFers' shows that I'd like to see. Right now it all seems a little like it is going to be impossible to cram it all in, along with the passing recommendations that keep cropping up. And then there's the moderate attempts at socialising to consider...

The title for the blog (nicked from The Smiths) was suggested by something that seems to be a recurrent theme for this year's fringe. A lot of my near-contemporaries starting to lean toward the "Is it me, or is the Fringe not as good as it used to be?" position. I'm not convinced this is a particularly golden year - nothing seems to have caught the imagination in the same way as Blackwatch last year, so there is no big buzz - and also, most of the really good work out there seems to have been made by people of whom good work is expected, with the net effect of very little surprise. That said, my ear hasn't been nearly as close to the ground as it should be, but people that I've talked to don't seem to be really raving about anything.

But, for all that, I don't think this means the Fringe isn't as good as it used to be - after all, when I first came as a student, pretty wide-eyed and generally astonished by much of what was going on, I a) saw some utter rubbish, and b) hardly had any benchmarks by which to judge it. After all, this days, for better or for worse, I probably won't ever go and see a student production of The Dumb Waiter or Saved as I did in my first year - I think that is one of the main changes: past the age of twenty-five or twenty-six, the idea of watching university companies performing extant texts becomes largely unappealing. Obviously there are exceptions, but if we're honest, there are increasingly few volunteers to discover that University of Such-and-such's production of Macbeth/Medea/The Misanthrope is an absolute gem and better than anything at the National or the Almeida.

Perhaps tomorrow I will make a point of only seeing shows that I know nothing about. But probably I won't.

Monday 13 August 2007

Pre-Edinburgh preamble

Yesterday I suffered a sudden pang of professional jealousy. I was reading Hermione Eyre’s TV criticism column in the Independent on Sunday (I would put a link, but the Independent’s effing website is unnavigable). It's not that I want her job, or even the theatre reviewing gig at the Sindie. No, my pang was this: in writing about the Channel 4 documentary Malcolm & Barbara: Love's Farewell, Hermione was essentially fulfilling the role of critic as social commentator - of reviews as a location of serious, intelligent discussion on an issue of national import. My pang wasn’t so much on my behalf as on the part theatre criticism.

Theatre criticism simply never gets to act in the same way, because it is close to the opposite of a post-fact TV review - rather than offering an intelligent take on something that your readers have already seen in the same time week as you, you are forever describing something that, at most, a couple of thousand people might have seen before the review is published and maybe a few thousand more will see subsequently. Frequently the numbers are far, far lower - consider the 700 people who saw Harold Pinter’s Krapp last year. On top of this, there is nothing like the same level of national interest.

What was also striking, reading the review of Love's Farewell, was that it was the culmination of a week or so when the programme had dominated the news - at least in the soft news and comment sections. It also tapped a zeitgeist - this was also the week when the Court of Appeal upheld the decision by the National Institute for Healthcare and Clinical Excellence (still unfathomably acronymed as NICE) not to recommend NHS prescription of various Alzheimer’s treatments to early-stage sufferers of the disease.

Now, there are a number of good reasons why theatre criticism doesn’t do this. Not least because theatre is - quite rightly - very rarely a documentary: it is art, or at least entertainment. Theatre isn’t usually journalism. Nonetheless, I do still sort of wish that my field wasn’t so frequently reminded of its supreme irrelevance.

Anyway, that was the upside of my reading the last week's press. The rest of it was largely dispiriting. There are times, especially when confronted with the seething pile that is the Sundays, that the future of this country looks very black indeed. If, as Mark Twain famously observed, a newspaper is the sound of a country talking to itself then much of Britain's national conversation seems to be conducted in an ignorant hysterical shrieking. It is also interesting to note that all too frequently these hysterics on the part of the media are actually about the media. This is the sound of a lunatic shrieking to itself about itself. If you get enough buses, you’ll know exactly how disturbing this is.

I should point out that this concern is largely prompted by the fact that due to the peculiarities of my job. I have to read a large proportion of everything published in the country’s newspapers in seven-day blocks every other week. While a lot of the papers are just reasonably unpleasant on an individual level, when taken en masse they start to look deeply troubling. The thing is that no one sane ever has to do this. Newspaper articles aren’t intended to be read in eleven different versions, and I can thoroughly recommend you don’t start doing so. That said, it is instructive on any given story to work one’s way down from the Financial Times (it really must be news if it’s made it into the FT) through what were "the broadsheets", where most of what varies is slant, through the Independent, Mail and Express, where the numbers and facts start getting a bit less similar to those reported uniformly hitherto (they don’t make it up per se, they just find slightly more dramatic ways of extrapolating information - usually by projecting a ten-year worst-case-scenario trend). Then you get to the tabloids, where the main object is packing the greatest level of possible sensation into a headline - often in tabloid code (perv, feral kid, migrant, tot, yob, thug, sir, caged, monster, so sad etc.) and sometimes at the expense of sense. The best example this week was the legend: 23 years for Skunk Monster - which, as it happens, this was a grim story about drug addled child torture and murder, but one whose headline irresistibly conjured images of a giant Pepé le Peu menacing the metropolis.

I’m sure there was a conclusion I was trying to reach by this point, but it has temporarily escaped me. I shall fill it in if and when I remember what it is.

In other news - My two reviews (left and right, as I’ve started to think of them) of Richard Bean’s excellent In the Club at the Hampstead Theatre are now up on CultureWars and the New Culture Forum website. One day I might have to write about the strange state of affairs that finds me writing theatre reviews almost exclusively for two of the most polarised cultural think tanks around. For the moment I shall just be grateful for the work.

Elsewhere, if you haven't already had a chance to look at my Michael Billington NSDF piece for the Times online it is worth do so if only to giggle at just how wrong a picture editor can be

Finally, it is tempting to leave you with a whole playlist of YouTube videos - it really is a terribly useful way of linking to music online, albeit with the frequently irritating fact that the videos attached frequently do the songs no favours (see below, and listen while working in another window). However, it really slows uploading the pages at this end, so I'll spare you the politically dubious delights of the quasi-Nazi band Death in June singing a song from the apparent perspective of Waffen SS soldiers called We Drive East that's been stuck in my head for the last couple of days, and instead offer you Annie Lennox doing Keep Young and Beautiful - I would have linked to the original, but it's Eddie Cantor in blackface, and I'm not sure Postcards wants to support that kind of thing.

Friday 10 August 2007

Szalwinska revisited, plus Edinburgh round-up

I haven't been well this week, which, coupled with being at work, has led to a bit of a slide in my productivity. Apologies. Anyway, here's a bunch of stuff. Edinburgh first, then some actual thoughts.

First up, from Andy Field’s excellent blog are the first two entries in his project to profile all the companies at Aurora Nova. As well as being brilliantly written, these offer a real insight into the companies discussed, far more than yer Fringe Programme 40-word blurbs can ever manage. Field has a real journalist’s eye for what makes an interesting story, so even if you’re not planning a visit to the Fringe, these make excellent reading. The first two are John Moran and Rotozaza.

Next, the welcome return of Chris Goode to his blog, offers the first (of many, one hopes) installment of his Edinburgh diaries. Typically uncompromising, he shares his thoughts on the first few shows that he’s seen on the Fringe.

Dan Bye gives characteristically well-crafted director’s-eye-view on Fringe foibles (my God, this is starting to read like Wogan or something) on his blog, while elsewhere, in the mainstream, Ian Shuttleworth's first few articles are up on the Financial Times site. I would especially recommend his review of Tim Crouch’s England, for is acute generosity (OK, I haven’t read it properly, because I want to come to the show fresh, so if that’s not strictly accurate, let me know, but the beginning and end seemed to point that way)

Also recommended is his trot through a worryingly large number of musicals on the Fringe – I hate to think how many hours of irrecoverable viewing time this represents. The article has the additional pleasure of an end gag which, it is hard to help suspecting, is better than any contained in the shows reviewed.

Back in the real world – of which I am still nominally a part, massive flu notwithstanding - Maxie Szalwinska takes a wider view (admittedly triggered by an Edinburgh show) wondering if theatres get too intimidated by big-name writers to ask for re-writes.

This is an interesting premise, and one which is as completely wrong as it is wholly right – that is to say, there are at least two other possible explanations to which she ought to give serious consideration, alongside her attractive thesis. She is right, that some theatres may suffer for having a literary manager who, in spite of many luminously positive qualities, may not have quite the temperament to front up to some of the biggest names in theatre and say: "Oi, Alan/Harold/Dave, rewrite please!" I am told that this was the conspicuous failing of one particular longstanding, high-profile literary manager of a major London theatre.

On the other hand, there are the two opposite positions to consider – rather than being too meek, a literary manager or department can equally be responsible for dramaturging a play to death. There is at least one London theatre with a terrible reputation for this - to the extent that writers now think at least twice before letting their scripts anywhere near it.

The other consideration is that is it hard to tell what any play is like until it is actually fully rehearsed and in front of an audience. If this weren’t so, why would all such elements be necessary for a play to properly exist? It is a cliché to observe that modern plays play better than they read – and indeed literary departments are often suspicious of the play that reads well. And this point leads on to the fact that taste is also deeply subjective. For all that Maxie didn’t seem to think much of Damascus (a pity, since I was looking forward to it), she might not be "right". Some people might think the last hour, which she didn’t go for, is terrific. I’m sure everyone can think of innumerable instances where if they’d listened to a critic, they’d have missed their favourite play of the last decade (Attempts on Her Life, anyone?), and probably a good few other examples of following someone’s recommendation to their eternal regret. Maybe Damascus is simply not cut out to be some people’s cup of tea. But, it is an interesting question to ask, nonetheless.

Finally, I notice that someone else has fallen into the trap of using the Guardian’s Right-to-Reply-type column. Having just blogged my disagreement with a critic, I’m not sure why I find this feature so questionable – probably because the real thing is only mainly used by/offered to(?) those who have been personally stung by a critical response, and so their arguments are not simply those of an interested bystander/co-commentator but of an injured party. That said, in this case, it does simply appear to be a case of an advanced withering of the writer's sense of irony. It is all very well to argue that "theatre can be instructive, challenging, empathetic and cathartic", but it does seem a bit grandiose to do so when your CV destroys your argument so thoroughly. Further down, the article continues:
"Many theatre companies, including ours, have been creating new productions, with new writing, which meet the demands of a modern audience: populist shows about contemporary issues, dealt with sensitively. The Naked Truth, for example, which is about to launch its third run in the provinces, centres on five normal women learning to pole dance; but its emotional core deals with subjects such as self-confidence, female sexuality and the social and psychological implications of breast cancer."

I really wish I thought this was satire.

Perhaps dignified silence is always the best way to respond to criticism. That said - I recently read a playwright's private email response to the reviews that his latest play had received. And his comments were as acute and as they were savage. They were also, crucially, private.

Edit: I notice that CV link has gone dead. Funny that.

Monday 6 August 2007

Pining for the Fringe

Still another week before I get to Edinburgh, but there are advantages in this. Not least that I can keep an eye on the early coverage. Which looks like it could be a full-time occupation this year with the broadsheets' online features looking more fulsome than ever before.

The Guardian, as the natural paper of most Fringe performers, has an eviable variety of guest writers and contributors including an ongoing story written an episode at a time by various comics, a blog by Mark Ravenhill on his premiere-a-day show Ravenhill For Breakfast and a daily podcast from critic Brian Logan and comedienne (-ette?) Lucy Porter.

Interestingly, the Telegraph's coverage is easily comparable - and benefits from a slightly more user-friendly design with the features mixed in with the reviews, allowing for a slightly more potted read. Of course, being the Telegraph, it also offers some excellent examples of philistine harrumphing and a picture of Stewart Lee (accompanying a charming interview) labelled "Stewart Lee studied English Literature at Oxford University" like a justification to the paper's normal constituency for its inclusion ("Why's this chap here, eh? Studied at Oxford, did he? Capital fellow, then. Spendid. Carry on...").

The Times online's stuff, once the sodding page has loaded, isn't especially impressive (my own tiny contribution to the NSDF stuff notwithstanding). The news report on the international festival is standard journalism at its press conference-attending best, while the lead article is little more than a collection of half-minute phone interviews based on a handful of flyers and virtually no connection to its initial premise.

The Independent's coverage is a characteristically sloppy mess: badly laid out, uninspiring, and, in the case of a non-story report on Ricky Gervais charging a lot for tickets managing to make the schoolboy error of confusing the Fringe with the International Festival.

And of course the Fringe wouldn't be the Fringe without Ian Shuttleworth from the Financial Times seeing more shows than all the other critics put together in his frankly masochistic, Salo-like efforts to see every damn thing out there.

Friday 3 August 2007

Edinburgh Hit List

Yesterday I had the surreal experience of being a guest on Matthew Wright’s "Weekender" Show, which goes out tonight at ten on Radio 2. I am talking about Merchant of Venice and Othello at the Globe, Playing God at the Soho and offering an Edinburgh must-see round-up.

To this end, I was finally forced to knock together a (necessarily brutally short) Edinburgh "hit list". What I got an opportunity to mention in the recording was sadly far briefer even than this short list, and I haven’t got the faintest idea at the moment how much of that will get transmitted.

Anyway, here is the full text of my Edinburgh picks (written slightly with a mind to pseudo Radio 2-ese):

One of the most exciting things at the International Festival this year is the chance to see the legendary New York performance artists The Wooster Group in a piece called La Didone - this has the most amazing premise - based on the story of Dido and Aeneas, taken from Gian Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone, a baroque opera written in 1641, this version combines that with Mario Bava’s 1965 sci-fi horror Planet of the Vampires. It is billed as "a 21st century retelling of an ancient Greek myth with opera singers in leather spacesuits battling zombies on a distant planet." Brilliant.

Also from the International Festival is The Bacchae - directed by John Tiffany who had the hit of last year’s Fringe with Black Watch in new translation by the Scottish playwright David Grieg. Grieg has a reputation for being one of the most prolific writers working at the moment. This is borne out by the fact that this year the Traverse is producing the premiere of his new play, Damascus, while TAG’s production of his play Yellow Moon, which has been touring Scotland, is also doing a spell at the Traverse.

It’s also a classic year for writers: Tim Crouch - England; Enda Walsh - Walworth Farce; and Rona Monroe - Long Time Dead, all must-see writers, all on at the Traverse. Meanwhile, the never-less-than-indispensible Mark Ravenhill is doing something called Ravenhill for Breakfast - 17 world premieres in 17 days; short 15 to 20 minute plays about “right now” with titles taken from famous films and songs. These are subsequently going to be mashed into a single play, an early draft of which will be seen briefly at the Hampstead in the autumn.

One of the most exciting theatre makers working in Britain today is Chris Goode. He has two shows up at the festival: there’s revival of his brilliant piece Longwave (19th Underbelly Pasture) - the hour long wordless piece about two scientists in a shed - as part of the British Council Showcase, and a new one-man show called Hippo World Guest Book.

Also well worth checking out is Stoopud Fucken Animals by Joel Horwood - Traverse 3 (drill hall) - a new ‘play with songs’ about life in the flatlands which promises to use “live music, thick dialects and pitch black comedy” to drive the myths of British farming into the wall of the modern economy.

Unlimited Theatre have their play about astrophysics and morality The Ethics of Progress at the Underbelly. Following on from Unlimited, founder member Chris Thorpe also appears in Third Angel’s Presumption, a play in which the characters build the set around themselves in a dry, witty look at modern relationships after the magic dies. This is on at Theatre Workshop, starting on Monday 20 and playing for five days at 11.45 in the morning.

In the innovative uses of space camp, Gemma Brockis and Silvia Mercuriali are doing a version of Pinocchio - A performance-based installation for an audience of 3 set in car driving through the city (Aurora Nova based - 18 - 25 Aug 2007). Also at the Aurora Nova is Rotozaza’s Etiquette - a piece for two in which both participants listen to instructions on a headset and effectively make the show for one another. Meanwhile at the Underbelly, new comedy company The Umbrella Birds (featuring the brilliant actresses Kate Donmal and Emily Watson-Howes) are doing a show called WC in the toilets at the Udderbelly Pasture (I think, check) to an audience of eight with blurb proclaiming “A show that’s prepared to sacrifice the capacity to accommodate more than 8 audience members for the joy of staging a spectacle that none of those eight is likely to forget.”

I’m also keen to catch Stewart Lee’s new thing: Johnson and Boswell - Late but Live! which promises more of this intelligent comedian’s dry wit, this time through the medium of Enlightenment wits.

Also likely to be excellent is Pegabovine’s Coat of Arms. Interesting, not least because they must be the only sketch comedy group in Edinburgh who have got an award winning poet on their team - Luke Kennard who has just become the youngest ever nominee for the Forward Poetry Prize is one of the creators of this new sketch show, from this group who got five stars with their show last year in Edinburgh.

Other comic highlights include William Adamsdale who won the Perrier award in 2005 has a new show called The Human Computer. Josie Long - Trying is Good - Best Newcomer - Pleasance, and in another of his legendary durational stand-up gigs we have Mark Watson Saves the Planet. A 24 hour show being held outside the Fringe ticket office across the 13th and 14th.

From the Telegraph’s highlights, Tony! The Blair Musical (C, I think) sounds interesting, not least because it features one Edward Duncan Smith, the son of the former Tory leader, playing Alastair Campbell. Not to be confused with Tony Blair, the Musical over at Gilded Balloon Teviot.

I’ve never seen Fuerzabruta, by the Argentineans behind De La Guarda, or Leith. Now I can do both (Fuerzabruta - Black Tent, Ocean Terminal, Leith)

I also intend to see a lot of stuff at the Aurora Nova, which I always find impossible to either preview, summarise or review, and a lot of shows by friends (in particular, Dan Bye’s excellent pair of companies Sliver Tongue and Strange Bedfellows).

Wednesday 1 August 2007

NSDF pieces for The Times online

Here are those pieces on about the NSDF for Times-online. Anyone with a copy of Raw Talent can probably skip them. That said, I am enormously gratified that they didn't cut the backhanded final line of the Michael Billington one.

The National Student Drama Festival - a brief history

Roger Michell

Tim Pigott-Smith

Michael Billington

p.s. I should point out, the subbing and headlines are entirely down to the Times, and also that Joanna Caird should be co-credited for the Billington piece.

p.p.s. I hadn't seen the new photo they put on the Billington piece. Astonishing.