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.

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