Sunday 30 September 2007

Macbeth - Gielgud Theatre

Written for

Rupert Goold’s new production of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, transfers to the West End from Chichester on the back of some of the warmest reviews and critical plaudits imaginable. And much though my inner contrarian would have liked to disagree, it is hard to fault the praise. Though not “perfect” (whatever that would mean), this is a very strong production.

Goold has set the production in a meticulously detailed vision of Scotland as Stalinist Soviet Russia - perhaps a comment on the former country’s continuing attraction to the far-left, but probably not (in spite of Stewart’s George Galloway moustache). Either way, it’s a set-up which makes absolute sense of the power relationships within the play. When Macbeth orders his dinner guests to be merry, or gives orders to the murderers in his employ, he wears his power as a constant threat of violence. When Banquo leaves the castle, his expression demonstrates that he is under absolutely no illusion what is going to happen to him. Stewart’s Macbeth is a tyrannical dictator of a tin-pot country exhibiting the same sort of unpredictable violent psychopathy as Saddam Hussein or Idi Amin. The relationship between Macbeth and Kate Fleetwood’s much younger Lady M. is also perfectly pitched. As perhaps two of the most famous characters in English literature, it is probably fair to say that we come to the theatre pretty much knowing what they say and do - and a vast majority these days will have sat an exam on why they do it, too. It is surprising, then, when actors actually get it right without making a big song and dance about some psychological nuance or tick that they’ve dreamed up. This is essentially a very pure, clear, uncomplicated (but never less than thoroughly intelligent) reading of this crucial relationship.

In spite of the production's cinematic qualities, it is not afraid of theatricality. Soliloquies are directed at the audience, not passed off as some sort of improbable staring-into-space talking-to-yourself. The action takes place within a grimy, white-tiled basement room, painstakingly designed by Anthony Ward, which is variously cast as a military hospital or castle kitchen. It suits the production perfectly, and conjures up the horror film aesthetic which is another key plank in the production’s success. One of the problems that Macbeth has as a play for modern audiences is that so much of it hinges on ideas with which we have little truck. It is ironic that theatre, for all its potential for the imaginative, tends to be rather grown-up and serious in its subjects nowadays, largely ignoring genre fripperies like horror and the supernatural. What Goold does is remind us that actually we’re perfectly credulous about such things elsewhere - that cinema has a fine, long history of scaring out of our wits with things we don’t believe in at all in the normal run of things. While his weird sisters aren’t quite Blair Witches, their appearance as clinical ghoulish field hospital nurses, seemingly butchering patients and channelling messages through corpses, is properly frightening. Similarly, Banquo’s ghost is so drenched in blood that Macbeth’s fear seems wholly understandable. Here Goold pulls off another neat trick, putting the ghost’s appearance either side of the interval - rather like a cliff-hanger before an ad break - with the ghost visible pre-interval and then removed post-, so that we see the scene first through the eyes of Macbeth and then those of his dinner guests.

Indeed, Goold has nipped and tucked the text subtly but extensively throughout, in places entirely reimagining the dynamic by which whole scenes function. Several scenes of quite perfunctory exposition gain new life through a re-setting, or some piece of business. In one, a mundane exchange between Lennox and Ross becomes a police-state interrogation, while the murder of Banquo is played out in a train carriage as he is poisoned then shot repeatedly in the head, conjuring Litvinenko and perhaps, naughtily, Jean Charles de Menezes. The scene in which Macbeth briefs the murderers all turns on Patrick Stewart making himself a ham sandwich - carving knife follows butter knife follows bread knife as he talks, with his two listeners absolutely rooted to the spot with terror lest he suddenly attack one of them. It’s the sort of thing you expect in the Godfather; in Macbeth it is wholly unexpected, and all the more powerful for it.

There is also video projection. Macbeth’s coronation is suggested by newsreel footage of massed Soviet army parades, while the creepy world of the witches is supplemented with (Ringu-style?) static - the latter doesn’t perhaps make much intellectual sense, as it suggestively connects these convincingly pagan fiends with an unwonted level of technology. Similarly Macbeth’s monologue following his second visit to the witches is somewhat dwarfed by the blurry, unsettling images playing out on the vast walls behind him. Just for a moment, the human scale is briefly subsumed. There are other possible gripes: Michael Feast’s Macduff seems on a lonely mission to out-Berkoff Berkoff and there may have been better Malcolms than Scott Handy’s, but these are minor points. In the main this is a wonderfully modern, inventive take on the play which both serves the text and offers enormous directorial fecundity. I’ve not seen enough Macbeths to make the “best Macbeth I’ve seen” tag properly meaningful - it is, but in a field offering barely any competition. But it is bloody good nonetheless.

Rhinoceros - Royal Court

Written for

When he became artistic director of the Royal Court, Dominic Cooke ruffled a few feathers by mentioning that he might put some “middle class” subjects on his stage. There was a bit of clucking about the disenfranchised and “access” and “the Royal Court’s historic role”. Well, here’s as eloquent an answer as such accusations are ever going to get. French absurdist writer Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros - given its English premiere at the Royal Court in 1960 with a production directed by Orson Welles, starring Laurence Olivier - reminds us this Sloane Square theatre has a long distinguished history of staging important international work, in which the class of the protagonists barely figures as a consideration.

It is still a strange beast of a play, depicting as it does the life of an alcoholic Frenchman - Berenger (Benedict Cumberbatch) - turned upside down when his friends and neighbours start turning into rhinoceroses. It’s a big beast, too, lasting over two and a half hours. This generous time-frame gives Ionesco plenty of time to faff around setting up the scenario, and, to be honest, the early scenes can become a little tiresome after a while. It all rather depends on one’s fondness for quaint, fussy, bookish French comedy. Mine, I confess, is limited. One gets the impression that translator Martin Crimp’s sympathies may also lie elsewhere in these initial routines. Crimp is a strange choice of translator for Ionesco (despite his earlier version of The Chairs for Complicité) with his obvious preference for sardonic wit, rather than surreal buffoonery, in his own plays. However, as the play moves on both Ionesco and Crimp raise their game considerably. By the interval, the joking has stopped and it is clear that despite the absurdity of the situation, it is no less than deadly serious.

The production similarly shifts gear. Whereas in the early stages the actors offer a selection of rather supercilious provincial types, as soon as there is something meaningful at stake the acting falls right into place. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a convincing, if slightly posh, Berenger. Jasper Britten as his friend Jean turns in a fine stab at the difficult job of playing pernickety man slowing transforming into a rhinoceros.

What is interesting about the play is the transition of its meaning. When first produced, only years after the end of World War Two and the Vichy Regime, this story of mass conformity, of changing into unthinking monsters, of the attraction of power, was clearly understood as a metaphor for Nazism. Nearly fifty years on, this is still the most obvious interpretation. But at the same time, there is the opposite interpretation that would cast Berenger’s determined individuality in quite a different light, in a similar way to Harold Pinter’s production of Twelve Angry Men in which Juror Eight’s stubborn refusal to go with the flow became a metaphor for the malign powers of oratory and a symbol for the rise of Hitler. After all, apart from a few more pointed references to the physical power and behaviour of the rhino, couldn’t Berenger’s objection that “it isn’t natural” for a human to turn into a rhino simply be seen as so much prejudice and bigotry? It is also interesting that while much else in the play is slightly vague and fuzzy, Berenger’s descriptions of alcoholism are on a par with Leo McGarry’s in The West Wing. Indeed, at several points, one wonders if it is the alcohol that protects Berenger from succumbing to pachydermal metamorphosis. If so, what does that then make the rhinoceri? Elsewhere there is much that appears to make pertinent comment on our own troubled times with judicious but sparing use of modern buzzwords like “insurgent” and “religious fundamentalist”. At root, the play remains a parable of a lone man’s struggle against his society. And, despite the intervening years, one which still resonates.

Richard III - Southwark Playhouse

Written for

You have to feel sorry for the poor bastards who find themselves opening a small-scale fringe production of a Shakespeare play featuring a regal psychopath the night after Patrick Stewart opens on the West End in Rupert Goold’s lauded-to-the-skies production of Macbeth. As it turns out, comparisons between the two are as pointless as arguing the toss over who’s better between Marcel Marceau and Laurence Olivier. Where that Macbeth is spectacular polish at a distance, this Richard III is spit and sawdust right in your face. The new Southwark Playhouse’s adaptable space is set in traverse, with the long runway of the stage enhanced with Naomi Dawson’s rough wooden catwalk rising gradually to a severe metal throne at the far end.

The small multi-ethnic cast enter from all sides to the sound of live drumming - it takes a while to work out that this massive noise is live, as the drummer is tucked up on top of a breeze-block-built back stage area, and is consequently in what is essentially a high-up echo chamber, which amplifies the sound, lending it an unexpectedly impressive quality. It’s one nice touch of many. Another neat idea is the little puppets which are used to depict the various murders carried out by Richard and his cronies. Although it feels that if the show hadn’t been designed partially with massive numbers of primary school age children in mind (this production is commissioned with the aim of providing several free performances for local schools along with the usual adult evening show), these moments could have been made much more violent and gory. The foreknowledge of this predominantly school-age audience is probably responsible in part for the massive cuts which have been made to the text. The piece runs and hour and a half straight through, and the text has been absolutely stripped to its bare essentials. It is not a decision which wholly works, since, when coupled with a small cast and a lot of doubling, at times it becomes incredibly difficult to work out exactly who is conspiring with whom against who.

Directors Dan Goldman and Donnacadh O’Briain have assembled a solid cast which boasts a handful of outstanding performances. Thomas Armstrong as Edward, Stanley and Clarence offers a series of military generals with icy, Ian Richardson-like demeanours. Alex Britton does a nice line in textual jokes as Rivers, doing “quotation marks” with his fingers every time he addresses Gloucester as “noble”. Jotham Annan who plays Buckingham and Richmond is a real discovery. His verse speaking is outstanding, while his portrayal of his two parts is both strikingly committed and emotionally “true”. Of course the real question of any production is the quality of the actor playing Richard, and John Lightbody is very good. His style of playing is deceptively simple. There’s not a lot of psychological jiggery-pokery here, just an honest, intelligent and intelligible delivery of the script. He is suitably candid and charming, and his account of Richard’s deformities is well handled. More impressive, though, are his reactions. In the scene where Richard’s mother, Margaret, curses her son, Lightbody’s face remains impassive throughout, with tiny trances of emotion - both misery and rage - flitting briefly across it. It doesn’t hurt that he is faintly reminiscent of a young Nigel Hawthorne, albeit minus the slightly arch, mandarin manner.

Overall this is a credible, theatrical stab at one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable plays and certainly deserves a wider audience.

Normal service resumption

West End might not be doomed, shock!

Following my recent post about the miserable state of the West End, it is only natural that my concerns should be eloquently minced by the newly refurbished Gielgud. Not only was the production quite excellent (although transferred from the subsidised Chichester Theatre), but the theatre functioned well, was comfortable and even had a sensible number of toilets.

Walking down Shaftsbury Avenue I also noticed that the next big play to open is a revival of David Mamet’s much admired Glengarry Glen Ross starring, coincidentally given the recent bus trip, Jonathan Pryce. Shamefully, I’ve never seen the play (having missed Raf Kinston’s near-legendary Cambridge production starring, among others, the director and cute Guardian blogger Chris Wilkinson and the quite indecently talented Khalid Abdalla), I’m very much looking forward to getting the chance.

More surprising is the news that following its revival of The Country Wife - itself a pretty bold move for a West End theatre - The Haymarket, under the new artistic directorship of Jonathan Kent, has programmed Edward Bond’s The Sea for the new year. If restoration comedies are “bold”, then Edward Bond is little short of “courageous” - in the sense used by Sir Humphry to imply suicidal. But it is an exciting decision. I mean, this is a play that was a set text at Leeds when I studied Eng. Lit. there, which essentially means is that it must be a classic of modern hard left writing. Bond’s plays are about as far removed from a sop to the money-men as you can imagine. Where will it end? Blasted?

Yes, it still has a big name casting (Eileen Atkins), but she’s hardly “celebrity”. She’s an actor who is well known thanks to a long and distinguished career. It is important to distinguish between the two. By the very nature of their work, actors who do well will become well known. It’s very different to someone well known for their part in a reality TV series (not the audition ones) or sex scandal being given acting jobs.

Books sell!

Speaking of which - sort of - I’d like to write something on the subject of The Secret Diary of a Call Girl which, to judge by the papers, seems to be the only drama in the world at the moment. Sadly, not having access to ITV2, and being at Macbeth on Thursday, and knowing the writer well enough to make liking it potentially suspect or disliking it awkward, I can’t*. As a result, I have no idea whether or not it glamorises prostitution, if it will lead hundreds of girls into lives of vice, or if it will have a disastrous impact on house prices. What I do know is that having been successfully published and sold the rights to telly, our anonymous, eponymous heroine has turned her back on her former profession. Draw your own conclusions.

*Edit: I've now watched two episodes for a Guardian piece suggested by the series and its coverage.

Who calls me coward?

Elsewhere on the net, my sometime colleague on Culture Clash, the Sunday Times drama critic Peter Whittle - who, I should warn lefties of a sensitive disposition, is quite right-wing - has written an interesting J’accuse on the subject of our theatrical establishment’s failure to stage a stringent attack on Islamist fundamentalism. Irrespective of what you might think of Peter’s politics, it is an interesting question. If theatre is to be usefully political - and I imagine a majority of Postcards readers, at least in part, think it should be - is this a failure? Or has this already been started? I didn’t see Jihad the Musical in Edinburgh this year, but from what I read, it sounded like a pretty serious stab at attacking Islamist terrorism with satire. That said, I can’t think of many upcoming London openings likely to provoke a riot in the near future. Perhaps the Finborough’s new Thatcher play Little Madam will provoke a bit of grumbling in the Tory press, certainly Jack Thorne’s play Stacey (transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in a new production starring Ralf Little, playing in a double bill with Thorne’s Fanny and Faggot) raises some uncomfortable ideas and, yes, Theatre 503’s astonishingly bang-up-to-the-minute Final Shot dramatises a fascinating, contentious and still-raw ethical issue - but no one is going to be throwing bricks over them. Yes, we have a remarkable culture of intelligent playwriting at the moment, but should it be doing more? I wonder if the most contentious forthcoming event might not prove to be the National’s planned season of Israeli plays, if the recent boycott of Israeli academics by British lecturers is anything to go by.


On the subject of controversy, does anyone else find the Almeida’s decision to stage a revival of Cloud Nine just a little bit baffling? Don’t get me wrong, I am quite a big fan of the play in many ways - certainly as an historic moment, and as a nicely playful, theatrical piece of theatre. But surely its arguments are pretty much won now. Without wishing to get embroiled in an argument about exactly how much more liberal things are now than they were thirty years ago - even if only in terms of legislation and the noises the government makes - surely a play saying that it’s ok to be gay and that Imperialism wasn’t maybe so great isn’t breaking much ground. Particularly in Islington. But then, just because its original function could be seen to have been served, is that any reason to consign it to the dustbin of history? Having said that, when I was doing a bit of classroom assisting at a North London comprehensive back in 2001, we were doing a production of Cloud Nine with the lower sixth drama group. At some point, the idiotic woman teaching this class did actually explain to me they had tried to cut the bits about homosexuality from the script because of Section 28. I don’t think I’ve ever been more gob-smacked. Not least because Section 28 had been repealed four years earlier in one of New Labour’s first moves on gaining power. But on what planet can you cut “the gay bits” out of Cloud Nine and still have a play? And more to the point, why on earth would you want to? Suffice it to say, things got rather frosty after that conversation. Maybe, sadly, we do still need to hear what Cloud Nine has to say. But then, like the brain-washing leftie I secretly am, I fear the people who most “need” to hear it probably won’t be rushing to book tickets.

And finally...

Get this! Clearly the days of critics and bloggers alike are numbered - while we’ve all been rearranging the deckchairs the cartoonists have stolen a march on us.

There can only one reply - comic cartoons drawn by poets*

*Cartoon by the excellent Forward Prize-nominated poet Luke Kennard, lifted from the website for the sketch comedy group/theatre company Pegabovine, of which he is roughly one quarter (unless it's by Tom, in which case I'm very sorry and will amend this a.s.a.p.).

Wednesday 26 September 2007

This is what you want, this is what you get

Following the recent discussion of “celebrity casting” at the Finborough Theatre, I’ve been having troubled thoughts about the nature of the West End. Thanks to a small and, in some cases, brilliantly incisive audience, the discussion turned into a heated debate - not so much on the merits or otherwise of casting celebrities in plays, but of why the concept was employed, by whom, for what reasons and to what effect.

What was most immediately apparent was just the sheer size of the gulf between the thinking of West End theatres and the subsidised sector. More interesting was hearing the raisons d’etre of West End theatre put so frankly and bluntly. Paraphrased only slightly the basic argument ran: “We are in the business of making £45-per-ticket events for people who have got that sort of money.” In these days of outreach programmes, subsidised ticket costs and price reductions for the under-26/unwaged, it is quite a culture shock to hear someone effectively say 'if you can’t afford a [very expensive] ticket, that’s your problem'.

This point was quickly followed by the frank admission that, since this was their policy, they were in the business of trying to make theatre, or rather “events” - this was the word that kept cropping up - that would specifically appeal to this moneyed demographic.

I should record that the Old Vic has an ongoing commitment to subsidised tickets for under-25s, and £5 tickets for members of the Old Vic’s immediate geographical community. The excellent work done by the theatre’s youth programme since its inception, and the help this gives to young emerging artists should also be noted. But these very elements make the Old Vic wholly distinct from the other West End theatres.

The West End proper is essentially like private education: if you’ve got the money, you can go. There might be a few sops by way of bursaries or scholarships to squeeze in a few of “the deserving poor” but basically, it is only an option for the wealthy. The irony with this comparison is that it suggests a universe where British state-education is some of the best in the world. Compare the National to any West End venue you care to name: it’s hardly like comparing a bog-standard comp with Eton, is it? And the West End knows it. If you ask any commercial producer about the subsidised sector - stand well back; their irritation is explosive, their contempt blistering. Subsidies are viewed as cheating spinelessness, the compromises forced by the arts council’s politics as an untenable, bureaucratic burden.

And yet, in spite of the Arts Council’s admittedly often ridiculous box-ticking, British subsidised theatre continually artistically outstrips commercial theatre. When Matt Wolf in the Observer a few weeks ago wailed “where, oh where, is the new play?”, he only managed to broadcast his narrow West End-centric agenda (Lyn Gardner quite rightly tears him a new one here). Already this month (in London alone, and off the top of my head) the New Play could be found in the Hampstead, the Bush, the Royal Court, the Gate, Theatre 503, the Oval House and the Lyric Hammersmith.

Yes, the West End appears to be abandoning new plays at precisely the moment that new plays are enjoying their strongest bloom since the mid-nineties. And it seems harder and harder not to blame a narrow-minded, corrosively cynical management structure which appears to be utterly risk adverse. That said, when there is no funding safety net and the consequences of failure run to potential millions of personal loss, risk-aversion seems like an infinitely sensible option.

The main problem here is the cost of tickets. Putting on a new play and asking audiences to punt £10-£15 of their own money seems like a fair enough deal. It’s the price of a bottle of wine in a pub - and for much of the audience, often a straight swap. But somehow the West End has found itself in a situation where it cannot stage plays cheaply. It needs to sell large numbers of tickets which cost a minimum wage-earner’s daily pay packet (before tax) in order to break even. Putting on an untried new play and charging £45 a head is a big ask.

Worse is the fact that by and large West End theatres don’t seem to have much faith in their audience. There is more than a hint of condescension, of corrosive cynicism, and of scorched earth policy theatre-making. The whole beast is stuck in a cycle of attrition: bad production begets poor takings begets increased conservatism begets bad production, and so on. The situation seems to be such that soon the only projects generated for the West End by the West End will be Shaw, Wilde and Shakespeare acted by former-Big Brother housemates, -EastEnders and a handful of the more frequently televised theatrical knights and dames. Of course there will still be TV-backed audition musicals, American transfers, and a smattering of great work with commercial potential from subsidised theatres.

The oddest thing about the West End is - despite its apparent “event-y-ness” and the so-called glamorous atmosphere - no one actually has any affection for the buildings. Rightly so. They are, in the main, pretty dreadful. Give me the Olivier or the Barbican over anything on Shaftsbury Avenue any day. And this is another of the problems. One of the comments beneath Lyn’s piece about new work argues that it is sad that new writers are not given access to big stages. Quite right. It would be. That is why many theatres frequently bend over backwards to facilitate young writers’ access to such spaces, even if only for rehearsed readings and workshops. No one, on the other hand, is saying that it’s a shame that new/young writers aren’t writing more plays for deadly pros. arch spaces. Sure, it is a skill, and plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf make an enduring case for that model, but in general, don’t most people prefer different sorts of auditoria? Does every West End theatre have to be kept in this configuration? The Trafalgar Studios - in spite of its ridiculous pricing policy which refuses to let companies visiting Studio 2 charge less than £22 for full-price tickets - seems to point the way forward.

But of course, refurbs don’t come cheap, and so there needs must be countless more series of Lloyd-Webber grooming “unknowns” for musical theatre stardom before anyone can afford one. Unless, that is, either the government or a consortium with a serious amount of money step in to save the day. As it stands, the West End seems increasingly part of an entirely different universe, and one which has precious little to do with theatre.

Having said that, I’m terrifically excited to be going to see Patrick Stewart in Macbeth in the West End tomorrow night, in Rupert Goold's production that every initial review from the Chichester run assured us was an absolutely seminal production. So maybe I'm wrong about the West End after all.

Meanwhile, Michael Coveney in his latest WhatsonStage blog proves that the subsidised sector can be every bit as star-struck with his name-dropping-tastic report from the opening night of Life After Scandal. For the record, I beat Mr Coveney's star-spotting hands down last night, since by some strange stroke of fate I spent the whole bus journey back from the Hampstead sat next to a rather bemused looking Jonathan Pryce. I find it oddly comforting to know he still gets buses.

Life After Scandal - Hampstead Theatre

First draft - Written for

Robin Soans hit verbatim gold in 2005 with his edited collection of interviews Talking to Terrorists. It was showing at the Royal Court on 7/7, and what had been relevant drama became urgent, required viewing. Its level-headed compassionate inquiry became a vital corrective to the media hysteria that followed in the aftermath of the bombings. His new play Life After Scandal, perhaps inevitably, lacks any such immediacy and punch.

As the title suggests, the piece looks at the effects on the lives of those who have been vilified in the national press. It is an interesting subject, but the nature of verbatim theatre casts a long shadow over the evening’s proceedings. For a start, the subjects are a self-selecting sample. The piece begins with a barrage of refusals from potential interviewees, all saying that they don’t want to talk on the subject. Others do, of course - at great length in many cases. But what of those who wouldn’t/didn’t? Perhaps as a result of this reticence, or perhaps as a result of Soans’s specific interests, the range here is remarkably narrow - Two disgraced former Tory MPs (three, if you view Edwina Curry as a disgrace), two MP’s wives, four or five hereditary peers, but no Jeffery Archer, and not a single guilty party from a sex-scandal.

At a stroke, the piece stops being so much about Scandal in general and starts looking at the important results of some serious investigative journalism. Granted, elsewhere Lord Brockett pops up, as does Charles “the coughing major” Ingram from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? But then we’ve already seen these people (Lord Brockett, the Hamiltons, etc.) on television innumerable times since their “scandals” broke, rehabilitating themselves as media-friendly figures of celebrity fun eating jungle insect life at the behest of Ant ‘n’ Dec. The subjects here are those who have made a living from their notoriety.

Beyond this, there is the problem that one only has the subjects’ insights to illuminate the subject. Only if they betray themselves, or cast new and unexpected light on the subject, can the play really take off; which, by and large, those interviewed do not. There are exceptions - Robin Cook’s ex-wife gives a chilling insight into the circumstances of her divorce from the late Foreign Secretary - but mostly what we are offered is a lot of self-pity and anger. All quite understandable, but it feels that in order to get the interviewers to talk, Soans threw nothing but underarm balls while offering tea and sympathy. There is a spark when the words of Guardian journalist David Leigh, who broke the Jonathan Aitken story, are intercut with Aitken’s personal attacks on him and vice versa.

Ironically, one ends up making precisely the sort of judgements that the subjects of the play rail against so vociferously. The Hamiltons come out of it fine, as does Edward Lord Montague; Charles Ingram is understandably angry, if unintentionally hilarious; Lord Brockett is bluff, blokey and fine. Edwina Currie and Margaret Cook are both enormously sympathetic characters, although this may have as much to do with Geraldine Fitzgerald’s portrayal of both, which lends humour and gravity in precisely the right measures. Jonathan Aitken fares less well at the hands of his actor; Philip Bretherton often crosses the boundary from portrayal into pastiche. The potential for Aitken’s words to sound pompous, self-deluding and grandiose is gleefully seized - with the odd result that he comes out of it looking and sounding much more like a louche, self-ironising Alan Clark. David Leigh doesn’t do himself many favours either, preferring to remain vitriolic against Aitken and the Hamiltons, where simple indifference would have looked more humane. Craig Murray, despite being by far the most courageous character on stage, at times runs worryingly close to sounding every inch the paranoid mess that the British establishment paint him as.

The play’s arguments and presentations are a little muddled, and come across more like a mass of source material than a finished product. That said, the acting is consistently engaging throughout and, on a moment to moment basis, the play is never less than interesting. Sadly it never manages to go much beyond this to offer new insights into the nature of scandal, other than to suggest that “the establishment” deliberately use it as a weapon of control to uphold the status quo.

This suggestion is rather punctured by the fact that virtually every scandal-struck interviewee is at least very upper-middle class, if not actually aristocracy, while the press are uniformly presented as cockerney oiks en masse and, when interviewed, are clearly from less privileged backgrounds than their targets - giving the overall impression that all scandal reporting is an elaborate form of class war being waged against our rulers by a bunch of ill-bred, uppity proles. Ultimately, however, despite the interesting subject matter and, no doubt, good intentions, Life After Scandal is too polite to make enough noise to hit any big targets.

Monday 24 September 2007

Lit candles and everything

Sorry it’s been a while. The computers at work have been on the fritz all week with the result that shifts have been rather longer than they’re meant to be, leaving me a bit on the tired side. And since (the utterly, utterly lovely) Natasha Tripney described Postcards as “passionate, humorous and intelligent” in her Guardian blog, I’ve been feeling a bit like I’ve got something to live up to - which is hard to do when news-soaked and sleep-deprived.

Also, what with the Northern Rock farrago taking up every last inch of newsprint and with the blogsophere mostly split between further dissections of A Disappointing Number and the rolling discussion about blogging versus reviewing - both of which I’ve already had a say about - it seemed like as good a time as any to be overtired and under-productive.


That said, I did come across what is possibly my favourite ever personals ad in TheLondonPaper on Thursday. No, I’m not looking. But, as literary forms go, the personal ad is hugely underrated - little haiku-like mini-windows onto rolling vistas of desire and despair and all in 160 characters (unless it’s the LRB personals, which are in an altogether different league). What more could a bus journey need? Certainly I’d rather read a page of personal ads than yet another account of a hapless pop moppette having a few too many in one nasty nitespot or other. The ad reads as follows:

Exotic Asian princess, late 30s, fashionable, vivacious, kind, seeks tall, slim, dark hair/eyes, single, quiet, Catholic man, 38-45, for...

For a Graham Greene novel, surely?

Actually, what she’s after is “friendship” - if any of you dear readers do happen to fulfil her stringent requirements and want such a chum, her number is 0904 245 0200 with the voicebox 08569. Just don’t come complaining when it turns out that she has been working for the communists all along, and became a nun once she realised that she had fallen in love with you - the man she had been sent to betray.

Nanny State Gone Mad!

Elsewhere in the papers this week, aside from the endless soul-searching over the “first run on an English bank in 148 years,” the police seemed to be getting a good kicking. Mostly over the rather depressing tale of how two community special constable types were instructed by their superiors not to dive into a lake to save two drowning boys because they had not had the necessary training. Having scented blood and established a theme, however, the press do like to expand a one-off into a trend. So it wasn’t especially surprising to see a story about Greater Manchester Police being banned from using bicycles surface in a few papers this morning being paraded as a further example of health and safety regulations Gone Mad ( - a prize of some conkers to the first person to spot a “conkers banned in school” story this year, btw).

That said, the last we heard from the police was their clamour for more firepower. It’s come to something when anyone thinks that a bike is more dangerous than a gun.

Celebrity Love Lost

While we’re here, I should also put in a quick plug for the discussion that I’m producing and appearing in at the Finborough Theatre tonight. It is on the subject of “celebrity casting” in theatre. It starts at half seven. If you happen to read this in time, do come along if you’re not busy. No doubt a more detailed post on the subject will appear tomorrow.


Aside from some lovely new stuff from the usual suspects in the blogosphere (names listed to your right), a couple of arts pieces did catch my attention over the weekend:

In a recent Financial Times, Clement Crisp’s review of Tango Fire is worth a read if you’re interested in critical writing. I hardly ever remember to read dance reviews properly - partially because the prose style of the ones I’m more usually exposed to isn’t really my bag - but this struck me as fascinating. Obviously I’ve no idea how likely he is to be right, or even whether its accurate - but it's great to read engagement with a largely separate artform being conducted in a different idiom. It makes me keen to read up on the debates that surround dance criticism, and see if they compare, or if there are lessons to be learned.

Also on the subject of critical pursuits, Mark Kermode’s piece for the Observer about his battle to overcome his film-centric ignorance of television is something to which I intend to return when I have time to read it properly - interesting to note, in passing, that he refers to the recent Nick Hytner/theatre critics rumpus. Obviously even those without a vested interest were taking notes.

And finally, anyone with a taste for the sublime and ridiculous should immediately read this remarkable interview with 17-year-old actor Nicholas Hoult off of Skins talking with great enthusiasm and frankness about his obsession with Nando’s:

"I do romantic meals with my girlfriend. Lit candles and everything. But I take her to Nando's too. She knows that I'm obsessed with it, and she's pretty understanding about going there for dinner."

Thursday 20 September 2007

The Ugly One - Royal Court Upstairs

Written for

There seems to be a growing fashion for brevity in theatre. Marius von Mayenburg’s new play, which opens the Royal Court’s new season of international writing, clocks in at around 55 minutes. It is a model of concision with not an ounce of fat to be found anywhere in the script. Ramin Gray’s production sets the action on a bare stage flanked by three of the Theatre Upstairs’ leather and burlap benches, artfully littered with backstage detritus – here a step ladder, there a power-drill - all scattered as if left by some recalcitrant stage crew who are yet to make good on their promise of a set. The space’s house lights are left on throughout the action, supplemented by rudimentary additional lighting on the stage.

The play itself is much concerned with appearances: Lette (Michael Gould) is a successful engineer who has designed a new sort of plug. He should be going to a conference to deliver a paper on the product, but his boss, Scheffler, informs him that his face is “unacceptable” and that his colleague Karlmann will be doing the presentation. Lette is surprised. He’d never realised. He goes home to his wife, Fanny. She confirms that he is indeed “unspeakably ugly”. He is perturbed. He goes to a plastic surgeon – also called Scheffler – and demands reconstructive surgery. The effects of the surgery and their subsequent effects should probably remain a surprise. Suffice it to say that the surgery has a profound effect on the quality of Lette’s life, and the play becomes a fascinating meditation of the effects of one’s appearance – like four or five different morality parables running in tandem.

One of the most appealing aspects of the production is the almost rehearsed-reading style employed. The four actors are costumed only insofar as they wear shirts appropriate to their characters. There are no props. They spend quite a bit of time sitting ranged on the benches while Lette whizzes between them on a wheeled office chair. The delivery and dialogue, while not exactly deadpan, is understated and rapid. Thanks to the wholesale binning of any pretence at “realism” the actors switch characters in an instant. Aside from Gould, the other three actors - Mark Lockyer (Scheffler), Frank McCusker (Karlmann) and Amanda Drew (Fanny) – each play another couple of characters, who in each case have the same name. If this sounds like a recipe for total confusion, von Mayenburg’s script deals deftly with any such worries, using the sudden flicking between scenes as a clever device to jolt the audience like a train going over a set of points. Gray has assembled a first-rate cast who are a pleasure to watch. Gould – who ironically has a lovely, watchable face – manages to suggest changes of a man’s whole temperament with the barest hints of a smile here, a frown there, the terrifically enjoyable Mark Lockyer turns in a series of very funny studies of the self-satisfied, while the intangible transformations which Amanda Drew uses to essay the difference between a foxy housewife and a 78-year-old nymphomaniac plutocrat are quite astonishing.

If the play has a weak point, then one could point to a slightly unconvincing “madness”/split-personality scene, but this is passed over so quickly that it should scarcely be allowed to matter. It weakens von Mayenburg’s thesis slightly – if a thesis is intended – concerning the meaning of the face, but generally speaking the play puts forward only interesting and occasionally provocative ideas at such a break-neck pace that it becomes difficult to even process them, let alone dwell on the ideas raised.

It might seem premature to bracket this, along with Mike Bartlett’s recent Royal Court hit My Child, as part of a new movement in playwriting which has learnt lessons from the best recent television – hour-long shows, plunging the audience straight into the action without lengthy set-ups, rapid cutting between scenes – and re-made it as a thoroughly theatrical medium that adds the positive virtue of unapologetic presence and liveness. This production’s glorious lack of even costume, lighting, sound or set changes underlines such an approach – reasserting theatre’s potential for immediacy.

Incidentally, does anyone know anything about the poster design (above)? It is credited to Jeremy Herbert, but really reminds me of some (I think) 1930s, (I think) German surrealist art. Either way, I like it an awful lot.

As You Like It (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

However you look at it, this really is a terrible film: bad cinema, bad Shakespeare, bad everything. Over the past twenty years or so Kenneth Branagh has a made a selection of accessible, popular, well-made and generally enjoyable adaptations of Shakespeare for cinema. It is hard to guess what went so dreadfully wrong this time. Where the previous films were light, witty and textually acute (if a little over-fond of flashback and visual underlining) his As You Like It is turgid, unfunny and lazy.

The action of the play is relocated to 19th Century Japan for no readily discernable reason. This new location sheds absolutely no fresh light on the play, and indeed causes innumerable problems with the text. The Forest of Arden is still spoken of as a location in England and a majority of the cast are still English; a fact explained away in a brief pre-title gloss about how Japan was opening up to trade in the 19th century and many Brits made private fiefdoms there. It might have been more honest to explain that modern Japanese funding and markets suggested the location and leave it at that. Far sillier still is the re-imagining of Charles the Wrestler as a hulking Sumo champion, while retaining the line later that describes him as “sinewy”.

It is perhaps significant that Branagh himself does not appear in the film. His previous ventures have at least always been able to boast his very able central performances, even when some eccentric casting decisions (Keanu Reeves, anyone?) haven’t quite cut it. Without Branagh or his erstwhile leading lady, Emma Thompson, the cast appear a little at sea. Indeed, the film manages to make the usually excellent Adrian Lester (as Olivier de Boys) look inept, while relative newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard (Happy Days’s Richie Cunningham’s daughter, folks) makes a terrible fist of Rosalind. All the brilliant ambiguity of the play’s central romance between Orlando and Rosalind - who is dressed as Ganymede, who is “playing” Rosalind - is rendered incomprehensible by the fact that, pretty though she may be, no one could possibly imagine Ms Howard’s attempts on masculinity even faintly credible. David Oyelowo as Orlando gets around this by apparently not making a single decision about what his character thinks, remaining utterly, blankly unreadable. This might pass for enigmatic in some films, but with this many lines (even after the unsympathetic evisceration that the script has suffered) it simply doesn’t cut it. All the potential levity, playfulness and even, dare I say it, potential for an erotic frisson is reduced to a near-pantomime of simpering and gushing. Romola Garai as Celia fares slightly better, playing Rosalind’s cousin as a kind of kooky cross between Peaches Geldof and Ophelia. It’s an appealing enough performance and in a better production with competent direction might have worked well.

Brian Blessed as both exiled Duke Senior and his nasty brother Duke Frederick displays the full range of his abilities from SHOUTING with slicked-back hair (Duke Frederick) to talking very quietly while, curiously, dressed as Karl Marx (Duke Senior). Kevin Kline’s Touchstone is one of those performances in which an actor seeks to underline just how serious they (and their character) are by saying all their lines very. slowly. indeed. with. a. good. deal. of. thinking. in. between. each. word.

Beyond this, the cinematography is unbelievably bland. Even running the whole thing through Photoshop and upping the level of contrast would improve it severalfold. As it is, the characters frequently risk merging into the uniform leafy background. There is some nice use of tracking shots where whole scenes are followed by a single handheld camera, but even these have the feel of a good idea imperfectly executed more than a genuine achievement. It feels almost as if the film is trying desperately hard to iron out all the play’s wonderful strangeness and turn it into something more akin to Jane Austen in Japan. With a running time of 205 minutes and no possibility of escape, I really did try to enjoy this film, and wholly failed. Purgatorial. Avoid at all costs.

Here's the trailer, incidentally, which covers at least a few of the sins I've mentioned, and also serves to remind me just how godawful the soundtrack was.

Monday 17 September 2007

Thoughts: in three parts*

Cooke: Court still says ‘Cunt’

Ahead of tomorrow’s press night for the first play in the Royal Court’s exciting new season of international plays, The Ugly One, Dominic Cooke offered a series of ineffably sane and reasonable comments on his plans for the Royal Court in yesterday’s Observer (under a somewhat excitable sub’s headline).

As I’ve commented many times before, Dominic Cooke has done unbelievable good for the theatre since he took over as artistic director. His programming has been consistently intelligent and interesting. Also, not noted in this article, but far more important in many ways - although less headline-grabbing - he has already demonstrated that he is open to looking at new models of making work for theatre. The two week Rough Cuts mini-season this July was perhaps the real coup of his directorship so far. It is fantastic news that the artistic director of perhaps the leading new writing theatre in London is prepared to look beyond the literary model of play-making. In the meantime, it is surely worthy of note that he has programmed an entire season of work by non-English-speaking writers.

Katie Mitchell / Complicité

Secondly, I’d like to address a couple of the comments that have arisen from my comparisons between Complicité’s A Disappearing Number (henceforth ADN) and Katie Mitchell’s last two plays at the National.

Anonymous says: “I'm intrigued that you like Katie Mitchell's recent work so much when much of what you write [in your review of ADN] could most certainly be applied to, for example, her Attempts on Her Life or Waves.

I really don’t think the same can be applied. I’ll try to explain why.
The primary difference between the NT stuff and ADN for me is that in the former virtually everything that you saw and heard was being created on stage. The creation of the cinematic projected images was a direct result of live human behaviour that you could watch taking place, both in the sound effects and video trickery of Waves and the vast screen projections of Attempts on Her Life. This struck me as an intensely theatrical approach to using multi-media because it foregrounded its creation and use - much like when Fecund had their sound and lighting desk on stage in Intimate Male back in 2001 (there are no doubt countless other examples). It seemed to take multi-media use to a whole new level. It wasn’t *between* the actor and the audience; it was something that the actor was doing right in front of the audience. Beyond this, I particularly liked the aesthetic employed. That the actors were also ‘performing’ their use of the technology - the running around and faux ramshackleness was all meticulously choreographed - added a further fascinating dimension.

I should make it clear that I don’t have an objection to video-projections at all. I quite liked the way they were deployed in The Elephant Vanishes, for example. But I think there needs to be an acknowledgement of what they are, how they operate and what they do to a piece of theatre. For example, in an earlier Fecund piece - their production of The Cherry Orchard - there was a scene in which the characters acted in front of a vast projection of a dance while thumping, deafening techno music played over the speakers. The only character whose speech could be heard was screaming into a microphone. This fitted perfectly with the overall aesthetic of the piece. It also seemed entirely appropriate, since it acknowledged the way that the music and projection was steamrollering the human scale. In ADN, similar steamrollering (or at least wallpapering) felt to me like it was taking place while the actors pretended it wasn’t.

Further on ‘Davis Wateracre’ (who I know, in case you’re wondering), asks: “Don't you weaken your argument by saying rather snottily that they are ‘review-proof’ and then attempting to take them down a peg? I completely understand the urge, and similarly I completely understand that this production left you cold, but should we as reviewers start from a clean slate every time?

I would draw a distinction between what I wrote on ADN and a ‘review’ proper. I didn’t see the show on a press ticket, and had sent someone else to review it for CultureWars - partially for exactly the reasons I raise in my piece about the show. As such, I felt completely free from the constraints of reviewing/criticism proper; the piece is partially more essay than review so I felt freer to engage with the aspects of it which I found problematic and to foreground the subjectivity of those problems. Which leads me rather neatly on to...

Billington blogs on blogs
(or, The Wolf just gets crazier)

Michael Billington has written a new post in the Guardian’s theatre blog section in which (ironically) he comments on theatre blogs. He asks: “Is blogging changing theatre criticism?” And argues that it undoubtedly is. If it is, it is hard to see quite how it is changing it. Newspaper reviews today look pretty much like they did a couple of years ago before theatre blogging gained any sort of momentum.

I pretty much fall between the two (perhaps illusory) camps which he sets up - professional critics and bloggers - since I both review plays (sometimes even for money, thus “professional”) and write (keep? what is the verb?) a blog. I try to keep the two things faintly separate. If I am reviewing a play on a press ticket I will write a “proper review” for the publication under whose auspices I have been given the ticket. If I am seeing something that I’ve paid for - or am on a press ticket for the blog like I was at the Hampstead last week - then I feel freer to write what I like. Mostly on the blog I write about issues around theatre (and around reviewing it). This is obviously different to the West End Whingers site, which is almost solely a reviews website. And one which makes an absolute virtue of the independence that paying for tickets brings. While Chris Goode and Andrew Field offer a mixture of reviews and comment.

Beyond his disobliging suggestion that “the blog, in its voracious desire for news and opinion, is in danger of too much pre-emptive guesswork,” (which appears to be more a criticism of the Guardian’s own theatre blogs than those outwith - since the example given is precisely one such piece) Billington’s main point is interestingly conflicted. His central point is “I still cherish the idea of the printed review”. He makes a number of fine claims for the art of the critic. At the same time he acknowledges the many frustrations that his art endures - “The restrictions of space and time are considerable, but they force one to focus on essentials.” One can’t help wondering, despite the admirable insistence on structure (and lord knows, Postcards... could sometimes do with a bit of structuring, restricted time and space) whether he wouldn't relish just a bit less restriction.

Writing this blog, I am often reminded of that Balzac (I think) quote, which - paraphrased - says: “I would have written less, I didn’t have time.” That said, one obvious advantage with blogs and online review sites is precisely that one isn’t pressed to restrict one’s word count. Yes, discipline can be a useful, uh, discipline - but by the same token, it is lovely to read something that takes all the time it likes to go into real detail and is afforded the space to discuss the wider implications of the work. It is also great that there is now online a growing corpus of work which is discussing issues at the cutting edge of theatre-making and discussing theatre criticism in real depth. A national newspaper could never be expected to publish all that. It is not its job. I’m interested in reading it, but I’m realistic enough to know that most people aren’t.

Another benefit of the online review and blog is that it offers the opportunity for writers to experiment. I think Michael is quite right to suggest that there is a critical discipline and an acknowledged way to write reviews, but it is exciting to read people who are writing outside that box. Quite apart from anything else, being online allows reviews to hyperlink, putting the rest of the net at their disposal. I would argue that not all blogs are like informal letters - some are certainly possessed of great elegance and eloquence. Conversely, a lot of online reviews actual follow the general pattern much more than one might imagine they would.

A further bonus for online reviewers is the simple lack of duty - they are also under no obligation to cover something that they really don’t want to see. Obviously there are advantages to having one or two people covering a majority of theatrical events in the country per paper, but at the same time a different advantage would be had if those people weren’t forced to see so much with barely a nod to their tastes, and with their schedules dictated largely by commercial considerations. For example, I’m sure there are nights when three or four press nights clash and the two reviewers employed by a paper will be sent to the two plays in, say, the West End and Stratford rather than the studio production with no star names or massive subsidy in which at least one of the reviewers might be far more interested. Perhaps I’m wrong, but big openings never seem to get missed, while interesting work may be, simply because of “News Values”. There’s an interesting wider question there about what makes theatre "important", but now isn’t the time or the place.

When Michael argues that, “The nature of the newspaper review is always changing, of course... reviews are increasingly seen as an instant guide for the reader: the existence of star ratings is proof of that.” One gets a real sense of his frustration. It seems a shame that he doesn’t appear to acknowledge that a lot of those writing blogs share precisely this frustration, which is why, in part, they are writing them.

And finally, Mark Ravenhill’s piece from today’s Guardian is clever and thoughtful as always. And elsewhere, it is great to see a new post from Alex Ferguson on his Unknown Persons blog.

* Title suggested by Wallace Shawn’s play A Thought in Three Parts, one of the most exciting and provocative bits of American experimental writing for the theatre that I have read.

Saturday 15 September 2007

Complicité's A Disappearing Number - Barbican

Complicité are perhaps The “experimental” theatre company par excellence. Advance ticket sales for their new show A Disappearing Number at the Barbican have been impressive to say the least. It is one of many signs that Britain has a far healthier theatrical culture than often suggested - a fact to be celebrated. As such, Complicité are essentially review-proof. Whatever anyone says, they now have such momentum that they will continue to sell out their shows on the basis that they are required viewing for anyone with an interest in theatre.

I came to the company slightly late. I didn’t get to see Street of Crocodiles, starting instead with Mnemonic in ‘99, which I found impressive, even if the overall thing left me a bit lukewarm. I liked The Elephant Vanishes more, although it didn’t raise strong feelings. So why did this latest show leave me so cold, disappointed - slightly cross, even?

The reason is that Complicité have got where they are today by being innovators. When they started it is my impression that they were among the first to bring the techniques taught at the Lecoq school to the British stage - and with an English flavour added to this continental sensibility. One of their first shows won the second ever Perrier Award, which - lest we forget - is awarded for comedy, not theatrical innovation. The fact that their show won it rather says all that needs saying about how funny it must have been. Subsequently, the company was talked about in reverential tones throughout university days. Street of Crocodiles seems to have inspired more artists working in theatre today than Look Back in Anger ever did.

Simon McBurney is probably one of the most influential theatre-makers of the past quarter century. Ideas which he pioneered now crop up in theatres across the country time and time again. And this is part of the problem. Because they’ve been around so long, and have been inspiring people for so long, it feels like they have been eclipsed. Those innovations which they brought to the stage have now become part of the new orthodoxy. In Edinburgh this year you could barely move for Lecoq and Gaulier-trained companies. When Mnemonic opened, their use of video projection looked pretty advanced and sophisticated. Now any student company with the time and inclination can edit together some hugely impressive multi-media wizardry on their laptops and beam it at their plays using the data projectors that have become de rigueur in even the lowliest fringe spaces. Similarly, their use of physical theatre and movement has spawned an aesthetic which is applied, sometimes almost without thought, to all but the most naturalistic productions of any play you care to think of.

None of this is Complicité’s fault, of course, and it would be churlish to hold it against them. After all, if one’s stack of laurels is that big, resting on them must be pretty darn comfy. Yes, it is a shame that the excitement of waiting for a new Complicité show, once like getting dispatches from the front-line of theatrical thinking, has been replaced by a dull feeling of aesthetic inevitability - we all know what a Complicité show is going to be like before we go in these days - but that isn’t the main problem here. Funnily it’s far simpler than that. The piece is so mired in its own multi-media-ness that it just feels impossible to get close to its characters.

A Disappearing Number tells the story of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sent a letter to Cambridge professor GK Hardy offering his theory of, oh, some clever maths thing. The piece intercuts this historical narrative with a modern-day romance between a rather sweet Indian-American hedge-fund manager and a maths professor, whom he marries and who then dies.

At the start of the show the maths professor begins to delivery a lecture to the audience in the theatre. It is a lovely bit of direct-audience address, which displays an admirable self-awareness of precisely how far over everyone’s heads the maths is going. It is very funny and clever. Then another actor comes out, and explains that he is an actor. He acknowledges that the set is a set, pushes it around, and demonstrates that the maths professor’s glasses don’t even have lenses (why not? They could have glass in them - still, no matter). It is all looking hugely promising: we are entertained, involved, seduced. Then there is a rush of sound effect and a projection of an Indian street and all this contact is lost for pretty much the rest of the show. Suddenly the actors seem to become subsumed by this welter of video projection and recorded sound.

As Andrew Field has already noted, I wrote about this very idea of intrusive, fixed technological elements in a recent blog entry. I would like to make it quite clear that this issue is not a matter of doctrine for me. There is nothing worse than someone writing off a piece of theatre because it does not fulfil some wholly external criteria which they bring to it. I have thought hard about this and I’m pretty sure that’s not what I’ve done. Even though A Disappearing Number did seem to confirm a number of the things which concerned me in that previous article. Most significantly was the way that the actors seems entirely dwarfed by the scale of the projects. Occasionally when the actors were standing as if within a film sequence it was a nice trick, and effective - but never more than that. More frequently the films seemed to provide nothing more than attractive moving wallpaper. Then there was the nature of the projected material - picture postcard views of Indian streets and Trinity Cambridge, rippling water and numbers falling like snow (or like they do in The Matrix screensaver on your PC circa ‘03). This is not beautiful; it is simply pretty - like the pictures that fill the frames sold in Ikea - much less sublime.

Beyond the actual nature of the images themselves was the fact of their being projected. I shall try not to dwell too much on comparisons between these films and the projected images used to such astonishing effect in Waves and Attempts on Her Life. Suffice it to say that once one has seen the images that are projected being made live, it seems like several steps back to simply pre-record. Especially given the speech at the beginning that draws our attention to the artifice of the theatre. It is as if McBurney views film with rather more reverence. And it was the irreverence of his approach to theatre that was part of the initial brilliance, wasn’t it?

Elsewhere in the play, a significant section of plot finds the hedge fund manager spending a night trapped in the lecture theatre, while trying to transfer his late wife’s phone number into his own name. To this end, he speaks to an Indian call centre operator. These conversations are clearly intended as broad comedy, and I wondered if the fact of their being (presumably) recorded had impacted on that. I didn’t find them especially funny anyway, although I’m happy to record that much of the audience did, in much the same way as people are still laughing at “Not even for ready money” in The Importance of Being Earnest - theatre often has a strange way of making audiences laugh because they know something is a joke, rather than because it is funny. [I’m afraid from the seat that I was in, there are any number of details which might have passed me by, since a proportion of the stage simply wasn’t visible - so if he was in fact talking to an actor wearing a mic at the back of the stage, I wouldn’t have known.]

There were other troublesome elements too. The piece seemed to quickly resolve itself into what was effectively a cavalcade of scene changes. It felt as if hardly any scene really had a chance to really get going before it was cut off. As a result, our relationship to the characters felt continually on hold, deferred. Ultimately it was this distance that really finished me off. The narratives were so slight, and the cuts between them so numerous I found it very hard to keep caring, no matter how hard I tried. So when at one stage the maths professor woman has a miscarriage, of course it was tragic, such an event always will be, but in the circumstances it felt like it had been dropped in from nowhere for no apparent reason. The sudden lighting effect that accompanied it also seemed forced. Shortly before (or after) when they brought on a little puppet child to represent the young Ramanujan rather than enchanted, I was actually irritated. It seemed wholly contrived to wring a little more wonderment out of the audience while the whole scene in which it featured meant nothing, added nothing and appeared wholly superfluous, other than to introduce a cute puppet. Similarly, the use of Nitin Sawney's music, traditional Indian dance forms and a virtually redundant live Tabla player at best added litle beyond an additional layer of multicultural goings on, but more frequently put one in mind of getting stuck in the college rooms of a stoned maths student trying to explain the world while showing his gap-year photos.

I’m sure hundreds, possibly thousands of people will love this show, and I don’t think that they shouldn’t. But for me something absolutely failed to click, and we were left with what felt like nothing more than Complicité by numbers (no pun intended).

Edit: I nearly forgot, there is a video on YouTube posted by Warwick Arts Centre promoting the show which gives a very vague idea of some of the music and projections:

Merchant of Venice - Arcola

Written for - posted here until online:

It’s been hard to avoid director Julia Pascal’s think-pieces about her new production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Arcola, which have been popping up in the press in the last couple of weeks. Her perverse contention is that, as a Jew she finds the play deeply problematic, and in at least one of her articles she goes so far as to suggest that it shouldn’t be performed. As self-publicity goes, suggesting the play that you are putting on shouldn’t be put on is an unusual ruse. But, Pascal thinks she’s cracked it - in her production Shakespeare’s text is framed by a mini-narrative in which a 78-year-old Jewish lady, Sarah (Ruth Posner), who survived the Warsaw Ghetto is visiting Venice. Just before she is about to go on a tour of Venice’s Jewish ghetto she happens upon a group of actors about to start a run through of Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic text. She professes to wish that the play had never been written, and then sits down to watch the entire thing.

As ideas go, it isn’t an especially promising one, although it does add a potentially interesting new layer to the play, and meta-theatrics - the business of watching actors performing being actors acting, while other actors pretend to be their audience - can yield thrilling results. Not here. The main problem is simply that this is not a very good production of the actual play.

A majority of the acting is hopelessly generalised, few of the actors give even halfway decent accounts of their roles and the relationships fail to materialise between characters. Beyond this, there are some very strange directorial decisions: when we first meet Portia she is lying in bed with a half-naked youth (credited in the programme as Portia’s lover), which makes a nonsense of her subsequent claim that she will “die as chaste as Diana” - delivered with no irony whatsoever. Add to this textual rough-housing some third-rate physical business, and weirdly inconsistent use of some blue planks - used at only two moments to represent some doors or doorframes, and elsewhere the odd bridge or, uh, ramp (no, I have no idea why there were ramps in this vision of renaissance Venice, but there they are) - along with a bizarre costume choice that sees the girls in the company when not taking a specific role wandering around self-consciously in only white bras, thermal leggings and mini-skirts.

For a production that is meant to be trading on its multi-layered vision of the text, it is oddly one dimensional. There is no negotiation of the position of the actors to either their imagined audience or to their present one. No meaningful use is made of the fact that this company-within-a-company exist when “off stage” for at least one of the people who is actually on the stage watching them. Yet more baffling is the fact that Pascal has inserted new scenes between Jessica and Shylock into the production - presumably, therefore, into this production that is being performed by the ‘actors’ that ‘Sarah’ is watching. Equally bizarre is the fact that on odd occasions, the lady will make interventions. When Jessica is about to run away from her wicked father the old lady begs her not to leave, claiming “I am your mother, or grandmother”. The fictional actor-playing-Jessica’s reaction to this is just as confusing, not dealing with the intervention in any naturalistic way, but as if in character. By wholly failing to delineate the various levels, and sign-post their level of reality, the whole business becomes hopelessly mired in confusion.

Having set up a dynamic in which the woman can and does interject, the points at which she does so consequently seem random in the extreme. Fine, she is moved to remonstrate with Jessica when she is leaving her father - what with these new scenes, and the production’s overall desire to humanise Shylock as much as possible without cutting the entire script, it is plausible, if still unlikely, that a viewer might want Jessica to remain at home with her villainous dad. But if that is the case, why does she remain silent throughout the whole trial scene? After all, if Jessica is rather letting the side down running away from her father, surely Shylock’s behaviour in the court is worthy of at least a brief talking-to. The whole business of Sarah’s interjections distracts far more than it clarifies any useful point about Judaism or anti-Semitism.

There is a point before the final scenes where Sarah asks “Where’s Shylock” and is answered that it is time for the happy ending. This, of course, makes no sense since the production-within-a-production has curiously been painting the play’s romantic leads as vile bigots from the word go. In her hurry to point up the anti-Semitism of the Venetians, Pascal has placed her watching holocaust survivor before a presentation of the most damning imaginable versions of Bassanio and co. For example Lorenzo who marries Jessica is shown getting off with some sort of early-modern lap-dancer prior to his arrival at Shylock’s house to rescue her, and is depicted as only being interested in her money. A directorial decision rather unfairly further flagged up by making Jessica as frumpy as possible, and costuming her in a garish cerise Thora Hird-style blouse. If this is the production that the lady is watching - why is she worrying about the play? It is being undermined quite thoroughly by this company without her interventions. Or, when the actors commence their play is the (actual) audience supposed to imagine that what we the are seeing is in fact some sort of definitive version - in which the Venetians are revealed as bastards and Shylock as a misunderstood victim, despite the ongoing use of Shakespeare’s original (if admittedly eviscerated and appended) text?

Certainly Shakespeare’s play is problematic, and there is no getting away from the fact that anti-Semites over the centuries have revelled in the fact that one of the world’s greatest writers produced a play in which the central villain was “a Jew”. Shakespeare was very much a product of his time, and so to an extent Shylock’s Jewishness is simply a word, an exotic gloss painted over a fairly stock antagonist, in much the same way as the Venetians’, uh, Venetian-ness is wholly bogus. Italians might as well object to being depicted as almost compulsively promiscuous bisexual spendthrifts. They are all merely conjurations of a romanticised far-flung location with absolutely no meaningful connection to their alleged situation. Of course it is regrettable that Shakespeare created a character with such long-term ramifications, but this is no excuse, if you are going to produce the play, for wholly failing to make it watchable.

Friday 14 September 2007

Website-specific theatre*

So here’s a funny thing, I was just checking my Facebook account and noticed that I had two new friend requests. Neither were from people whose names I recognised. One had a message attached saying “John Donnelly said I should get in touch”, and then, more oddly - since these two requests were supposed to be from different people - the message from the second prospective ‘friend’ just read: “Same here.” Was it mere coincidence that I had just joined the Facebook group for Donnelly’s forthcoming play Songs of Grace and Redemption at Theatre 503, or had I just made friends with two fictional characters?

As a way of marketing a piece of fringe theatre, using Facebook came into its own as a virtual Royal Mile throughout August with at least three new groups springing up every day to shove paperless flyers in your face in the months leading up to the Fringe. But this is far more interesting. By putting characters from a play on Facebook (or similar) writers, performers or directors can offer tantalising glimpses into the play, characters’ back-stories, or even playing out parts of the script in “Wall posts” - interacting all the while with potential audience members. It’s a clever new variant on the old guerrilla-marketing tactics deployed by films like The Blair Witch Project, or the LonelyGirl_15 phenomena on YouTube.

I wonder if we’ll reach a stage where this sort of thing becomes de rigueur. As West End musicals start to crank up their publicity campaigns ahead of opening, will we all be being invited to make “friends” with Edna Turnblad and Velma Von Tussle and watch videos of these fictional creations singing in real-lfe settings, while reading about their likes and dislikes? When the RSC comes to the Roundhouse, is Hamlet going to be friend-requesting me, so I can continually watch him update his status: “Hamlet is too much i’ the sun”; “Hamlet is a rogue and peasant slave”; “Hamlet is but mad north-north-west” etc. Will it become the natural first step for any method actor playing a part to immediately register their new character on Facebook? (Incidentally, on the subject of Hamlet, who thought this was a good idea?)

Of this current experiment, Donnelly says:
“If Songs of Grace and Redemption is about anything, it’s about living in the moment. And the characters try and sometimes fail to do that. Partly they do this by reinventing themselves, and Facebook seems like a good way of doing that, so it’s not completely random. The characters who’ve poked/made friends with/bitten you are doing it because they’re lonely. So be nice to them.”

The Facebook group in question is here.

Theatre 503's website

Update: Ian Shuttleworth reminds me that the Channel 4 series Skins was probably the first to use this virtual character interaction, with its cast of characters all having their own MySpace profiles.

In the meantime, fragments of Donnelly's imagination have now started flirting with me. I was surprised to discover that one had written the following on my Wall: "Hey sexy boy. when am I going to see you next for cocktails and gossip?"


I saw A Disappearing Number last night and when the red mist clears I'll write it up. Andrew Field describes the show brilliantly here and has pretty much the same problems with it that I did, albeit with an apparently better temper about the whole thing.

*Term first coined as attempt to describe Hippo World Guest Book. Remind me that at some point I want to write an article about representations of the internet in theatre.

Thursday 13 September 2007

Daring Pairing #1 - Hampstead Theatre

The first of the Hampstead Theatre’s Daring Pairings proper, after the two company curated nights (Talawa and Paines Plough), sees Amy Rosenthal teamed up with Cosh Omar. The pair were introduced six weeks ago, spent a couple of days brainstorming ideas for a script, which was then written in two weeks and developed over the following month. The result is Thank God it’s Friday!, a very funny Rom-Com of deferred gratification built on themes of racial/religious identity.

When writers collaborate it is always interesting to try to guess which writer wrote what bit. Omar and Rosenthal appear to have made the job slightly easier by taking it in turns with the scenes, and each offering work characteristic of their previous output. Of course, I could be doing both writers a grave injustice and Omar may have proved as adept at writing Jewish family comedy as Rosenthal has at heavily researching and depicting the Turkish Cypriot community around Dalston. But probably not. The big draw here is that Rosenthal and Omar are both writers whose previous work has drawn heavily on their backgrounds - Rosenthal’s evident love of Jewish culture and humour, and Omar’s engagement with the conflicted issues surrounding Turkishness, Islam and Britishness ( Omar - Battle of Green Lanes: Shuttleworth, Billington; Rosenthal - Sitting Pretty: Shuttleworth, Gardner '99, Gardner '05) - and that there is, at the very least, a hint of mutual antipathy between their respective camps. Given the circumstances, a play which at least touched on the divisions between Islam and Judaism within Britain, within North London even, was almost inevitable. What is more unexpected is how well the pair’s writing styles complement each other. With single authored plays, there is always that nagging doubt, except in the rarest of cases, that one side has never been given quite the full intellectual backing and forceful arguments it deserves - a sense that someone has been set up as a straw target for the playwright to prove wrong.

The play works as a pair of parallel narratives: on one side, Rachel, a determinedly single 34-year-old history teacher (perfectly captured by Susannah Wise), lives with her aging father Sam, who has started to suffer from panic attacks. On the other, John and Jan are arranging a dinner party to set Rachel up with a lawyer friend of Jan’s. Their progress impeded by the arrival of John’s friend from school Zeki, a Turkish Cypriot rockabilly, and Jan’s planned meeting with Muslim human rights lawyer Aiyse.

Given the nature of the timescale involved in its creation, it is probably fair to note that the piece isn’t yet perfect. That said, it is quite remarkable just how good it already is. Rosenthal and Omar have chosen their themes astutely and the way that they resonate across the two strands goes a long way beyond simple cohesion. Rachel’s vintage dresses from the Forties, which she wears much to her father’s irritation - “The Forties weren’t a great time for Jews, you know” - is mirrored by Zeki’s fascination with all things Fifties: Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly; while her father Sam’s fear of persecution, seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, is mirrored by Zeki and Aiyse’s experiences as Muslims in post 9/11 and 7/7 Britain.

If there is a weak link it is in John’s increasingly bigoted girlfriend Jan who over the course of an evening is increasingly revealed to be largely intolerant of Muslims, while casually dropping in a few slurs against the Jews for good measure. Of course bigots exist, but it seems improbable that the mild and unflappable John would have stayed with one for so long or not noticed her changing perspective hitherto. As a character, her position in the play’s structure would have been infinitely more interesting if, when confronted with a lengthy and reasoned feminist argument for the Hijab, she had had any comeback beyond bluster. Too often Jan was allowed to slip into a caricature of an unlikeable, ignorant racist, when in fact there are some perfectly intelligent questions about what precisely atheists do stand for in the face of relativist arguments on one hand and increasing religious fundamentalism on the other. However, this is a small gripe and overall it is to be hoped that the play will be developed further and polished a bit and given a full staging in due course. It is an intelligent addition to the growing corpus of plays examining the fissures in multicultural Britain, and beyond that is frequently extraordinarily funny.

In addition to this full length play, following the interval, there was a chance to see 1 in 5 by Penelope Skinner. A short twenty-minute piece from the theatre’s StartNight initiative (I think - email me if I’m wrong on the details) presented as a fully-staged work in progress.

It is one of those plays that will have theatre traditionalists rolling their eyes and groaning, coming as it does from that post-Crave school of plays-for-unnamed-voices (although, thinking about it, isn’t Crave just an Under Milk Wood for depressed postmodernists? - No, Andrew. Stop being silly). These particular voices, amalgamate and loop back and forth through time to tell the story of a boy meeting a girl on Euston station, a binge-drinker made pregnant by her boss and an abusive relationship between husband and wife. As the details mount up it becomes apparent that the girl met by the boy is (possibly) the product of the drunken union of boss and binge-drunk, who marry to become the violent relationship. The narrative fragments are interspersed with the sorts of statistics that newspapers publish when reprinting the headline-grabbing press releases of spurious surveys commissioned by corporate PR firms as a way to keep their client's name in the press (cf. this one in today’s Times).

As a piece of writing it is fine and accomplished, boasting some excellent jokes and one-liners, along with a neat way of having the overlapping speeches resolve themselves into interventions across one another that nail a subtext or provide a punchline with one speaker finishing another’s sentence (kind of Two Ronnies style, but funnier). If the play is to be developed further, it could usefully play up how the store set by this sort of statistical barrage affects the behaviours of the piece’s protagonists at a more fundamental level. At the moment it feels slightly like the myriad elements haven’t quite finished meshing together. Similarly, it would be nice if the piece developed its already-present outward-looking aspect more. At the moment it runs the risk of wasting its inventiveness on a piece which doesn’t quite transcend the personal stories to a level where these really speak to the audience. That said, it is hard to envisage the piece gaining greatly from getting too much longer. But it is clearly the work of a writer blessed with acute theatrical thinking and I look forward to Ms Skinner’s next work.

Additional praise is due to director Michael Longhurst and his excellent cast of young actors (Simon Darwen, Sian Hutchinson, James Kermack, Alison O’Donnell and Gary Shelford - not a weak link between them). Longhurst displays a real facility for staging what must have looked like bewildering slabs of text on the page in a clear-sighted, witty and theatrical fashion. I can think of established directors with far longer CVs who would have consigned the whole thing to a turgid sat-down slog without a hint of the evident spark on show here.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat - Paines Plough @ Hampstead Theatre

[First draft - mine, not Ravenhill’s]

Paines Plough’s Ravenhill for Breakfast was one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was a major event. From Tuesday to Sunday, at 9.30am, audiences could see the world premiere of a new 20 minute play by leading British playwright Mark Ravenhill every day - 17 new plays across the whole festival. Such was the demand that the show transferred almost immediately from the studio space of Traverse 2 into the main 256-seat* auditorium. The original plan had been for Ravenhill to write 17 entirely discrete plays - each with the title of a pre-existing novel, poem, song, film or play - with no linking structure, but during the writing process themes began to emerge, characters from one play turned up in another creating a cycle, which has been called Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. There is a growing possibility that the plays will at some stage be staged together, hopefully culminating in a full-on 17x20minute marathon.

Yesterday Paines Plough staged six of the plays at the Hampstead theatre as a one off, again in rehearsed reading format, allowing an audience to experience for the first time the extent to which the plays had created a meaningful, ongoing corpus. At the beginning of the relevant section, I’ve linked the title of each play to the relevant excerpts which appeared daily on the Guardian website throughout the festival.
[Index of excerpts from all 17 plays]

Intolerance - named after DW Griffith’s 1916 response to those who criticised his previous film, Birth of a Nation, for its racist content - the second of the plays to be staged in Edinburgh, is a monologue by Helen, a middle-aged woman discussing her caffeine intolerance. The title cleverly trades on the way that intolerance can mean two of contemporary society’s greatest preoccupations: bigotry and health issues. The play itself is a meandering affair, parts of which could easily have been transposed from a particularly sharp Victoria Wood sketch. Many of the laughs come from a similar trope, ridiculing the middle-class, faith-healing, regression therapy and organic wholefoods lifestyle described. Being Ravenhill it quickly gets a whole lot darker. She talks about her husband Tom and her son Zachary, who draws endless pictures of headless soldiers that his parents duly stick to the fridge anyway. There is a moment when she realises that they have both gone out when a look of sheer misery crosses her face that neither bothered to say goodbye. But at the centre of the story is Helen’s caffeine intolerance. She describes the agony it caused and how it prevented her from even working - but it’s all fine now that she’s cut caffeine out of her diet. Except that after embarking on an anti-semitic rant about her Jewish regression therapist she doubles over in pain again. Visibly shaken she takes back what she said.

Next, War and Peace, finds a seven year old boy, Alex, in conversation with the headless soldier that visits him at night. The script is written as a sort of two-part bedtime story, so despite essentially playing Alex and the soldier, the two actors intersperse their dialogue with “Alex said”s and “he said” - so the whole looks like a kind of parlour game in which each character must narrate himself. It’s a nice device that works superbly with the material. As the scene unfolds, it becomes apparent that the soldier wants to steal the child’s head. It plays like a multi-lateral Grimms’ fairytale, initially playing on fears of child abuse, moving through some potential innuendo-laden discussion - where the boy wants to feel the soldier’s gun (nudge-nudge) in exchange for letting the soldier feel his head (wink-wink) - to a point where all the potential for metaphor gathers into a very fine reveal where the soldier talks (don’t ask me how a headless soldier talks) about The War on Terror. The way that this simple phase resonates when uttered by the headless soldier from a child’s nightmare beautifully highlights how “terror” is a basic, fundamental part of human experience and suggests the idea of a war against it to be palpably absurd. As a debunking of this Orwellian phrase, it is more effective than any number of “Not in my name” marches.

The last peace of the first half is stranger still. Paradise Lost - recalling the description of the fall of Lucifer from Intolerance - opens with an air-hostess remonstrating with the woman from the flat downstairs about her continually screaming in the middle of every night. The piece draws much of its power from the sheer strangeness of the scenario. As a staged reading, with only the title projected onto the blank wall at the back of the stage and four plain chairs set out, the audience tries to place the action with only the script as clues. There is a sense of freedom about the whole project that allows us to imagine that this action could be set anywhere. As a result the piece teems with possibilities. The action could be taking place in a kind of Beckett-y no-man’s land; the sort of metaphorical space where Not I or Play are located. The air hostess from the flat upstairs, dressed in a faintly diaphanous bright yellow dress could be an angel visiting hell. This possibility is deliberately played on, it seems, when it transpires the silent, clearly terrified inhabitant of the downstairs flat reveals that she is covered in burns; that the flat stinks of burning human flesh. The air hostess character, inside this ambiguity, reacts in a continually naturalistic way, talking about self-harm, domestic violence and women’s refuges. Then two men enter, and the play lurches into a darker, more Pinteresque mode. Ambiguities fade to be replaced by a miasma of shifting sympathies. The piece starts to look at ideas of torture, and liberal objections to it. It is a mark of Ravenhill’s excellence as a writer, combined with director Roxana Silbert’s acute direction that the first use of the word “extraordinary” - totally out of context - hangs in the air automatically conjuring “rendition” out of the air in the minds of the audience. Still, this is no liberal out-an-out condemnation of torture. It asks far harder questions about the role of ordinary members of society and their reactions to it, flatly refusing to offer anything even approaching an easy answer.

Following the interval we return to Love (But I Won’t Do That) - a negotiation between a middle-aged woman and a young soldier who has been billeted to protect her house. This had incidental similarities to the Eighth instalment, which was the one I caught in Edinburgh (Crime and Punishment). It rapidly becomes clear that in this version of the world - it is unclear whether the soldier is part of an occupying invading force or of allies such as GIs were in WWII - the billeting includes “benefits” for the soldier, courtesy of the housewife. What follows is a fairly straight-forward dialogue wherein the soldier pleads, wheedles and threatens as the woman demur, protests then submits. There is once again that sense of intellectual free-fall as possible reading after possible reading of the situation becomes clear. The sexualised politics of incursion and occupation as a language to imagine a real invasion work well here, as they have in other plays (notably a passage from Peter Morris’s Guardians). While the graphically lewd language deployed keeps the piece as a whole fairly funny, it is an uncomfortable sort of laughter since its objects are both the sexual subjugation of women and the suppression of whole countries. That said, for my money Crime and Punishment went further with a similar theme, and - given the non-naturalism of the previous two pieces, may have sat more comfortably in this particular run of six.

The Mother (cf. Hanif Kureshi) is the most straightforwardly naturalistic piece of the evening. It depicts two soldiers attempting to inform a slovenly, long-term-unemployed mother that her son has been killed (in Iraq or Afghanistan, one assumes). It is as linguistically inventive as it is straightforward. Describing it as naturalism doesn’t quite do justice to the sheer explosive power of the mother’s speech - brilliant delivered in one of the evening’s (many) outstanding performances by Lesley Sharp. As a part of the set, standing alone as a piece of reasonably straight realism, it seems somewhat stranded - it will be interesting to see what else from the full set of seventeen crops up to put it in a more comfortable context.

The final piece - also the final piece from Edinburgh - written during the festival itself and, like the evening’s first, named after a DW Griffith film, Birth of a Nation - is the most riotous of the evening. It pictures an (or “the” - perhaps there is only one common to all the scenes) invaded country (all the terms used here suggest Iraq) after the occupying forces have left. The action is an address from the stage by four speakers direct to the audience. For a while it is pure Crimp - the use of his characteristic overlapping speakers, all helping each other out as they try to describe the same thing or tell the same story. It rapidly becomes clear that the speakers are artists from four disciplines (painting, dance, writing and “Art performance installation bonkers thing”) who have arrived in this war shattered country to bring art-therapy and devised pieces to help heal the population. Of course it is risible, and then, it is increasingly sinister. One can almost hear the Festival fatigue in the apparently savage contempt for the idea that art is going to be any use whatsoever in a war zone. But then it’s never as simple as that with Ravenhill. There is an excellent passage in which the dancer describes his upbringing in a Yorkshire mining town destroyed in the eighties and in a moment of unplanned candour (“I’ve never said this before, but...”) confesses to thinking that on the whole it was probably better that the mines had been closed down, and that over time Yorkshire has been reborn with a reputation for great shopping and arts facilities - mining, after all, gives you cancer and 16-hour-days working in the dark in a hole in the ground. It is almost shocking to see such a sacred cow of the left taken out and unceremoniously shot on stage in front of you.

While there are plenty of cheap laughs to be had elsewhere for an audience of - last night - mostly arts professionals (and who wasn’t wondering exactly how close some of these caricatures got to being personal attacks rather than simple stock types?), it is hard to say whether the darkness of the questions asked was fully intended to damn the enterprise out of hand. At the climax of the piece, a terribly injured survivor of the war is pushed on stage - blind and with her tongue cut out - and asked, almost forced, to dance; to paint; to write. In last night’s production this felt like the final nail in the coffin of the protagonists’ enterprise - they had been so warped by their agenda that they would pursue it beyond humane means (shades of Pool- No Water). In Enda Walsh’s Edinburgh production the part was taken by Natalie Best - the slightly built black actress from his own Walworth Farce - and instead of the triumphal strains of Beethoven’s 9th seeping in, the music used was apparently taken from The Lion King - while instead of looking obviously destroyed, Best (I quote) “really went for it” with the result that the ending became far more troubling and ambiguous.

Overall, the way in which just these six pieces interacted with one another was quite astonishingly demanding - pinging off synapses faster than is strictly comfortable. As an evening of theatre it was incredibly exciting. Not least because even in “experimental” writing one rarely gets to see something quite so fractured and abstract presented unashamedly as a whole. Admittedly this had a long enough tail of qualifying factors to mitigate its existence, but nonetheless, whole productions of Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat could very well become a staple of the Fringe and the student repertory in years to come. It joins the ranks of only a tiny handful of plays which offer a totally non-linear experience, while trading in metaphor and uncertainty over research and specifics. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts, Barker’s The Possibilities and Crimp’s Attempts... and Fewer Emergencies that do the same sort of thing (although this is doubtless due in part to my thinly-read frame of reference, and all suggestions of similar sorts of thing that I should be looking at will be gratefully received).

*Edit: see 1st comment.

Also: my Chatroom/Citizenship review is now online here.