Sunday, 7 December 2008

It's All About Me

Yup, it's been another month-long gap between posts. And, yes, the absence includes another trip to a mainland European festival and no other discernable good excuses for the lack of writing other than a prolonged dose of keyboardphobia, writer's block and an increasing sense that I might have said everything I've ever thought that was appropriate to say about theatre. Or at least that hasn't been said better by someone else elsewhere.


In short, I was getting a bit worried that by banging on repeatedly about Europe and postdramatic theatre, and worried I was starting to paint myself into a professional corner and at the same time was starting to repeat myself. And don't a lot of writers go through periods of inertia where anything that doesn't have a specific deadline just gets put off, or, if it doesn't *have* to be written, it doesn't get written? Hence the fact that I've managed to file a whole bunch of Time Out reviews, and did at least type for what felt like hours on end in Slovenia, but haven't thought of a suitable Guardian blog post since I got back from Slovenia or written anything here.

I also seem to have been going to the theatre less. Partly this is due to a lack of organisation, partly it's been because I've been visiting my parents, and partly because I get a bit theatred-out (and written-out) after these European jaunts. It's a shame, not least because I feel like I should be writing about all the stuff I see there, if only because it feels like I'm practically the only Brit who is seeing it and people might be interested to hear what it's like, but thanks to the concern about marginalising myself here and the tiredness, it doesn't seem to happen. So, I'll tempt fate and say that it is at least my intention to try to cover some of the stuff currently missing in action in the next couple of weeks.

Personal life

Beyond this, as I've mentioned before, I tend to be wary of letting too much of my personal life spill into Postcards..., and in the absence of many theatre visits and seemingly little discussion on the blogosphere, the last month has - by virtue of technical necessity - been mostly personal life: seeing friends; pottering around. You know, life. At the same time, as I've also said before, while I greatly admire Chris Goode's candour about his emotional life, and while I think that level of honesty works well for him as an artist, I'm not sure it would be the best policy for a critic. That probably says something about my view of how critics should be seen, and is probably wrong since Kenneth Tynan is both probably the most famous theatre critic and the one about whose private life we know most. On the other hand, Harold Hobson probably comes a close second in terms of fame and, as far as I know, his private life is just that. Private. Moreover, pretty much all of what we know of Tynan's private life comes from the posthumous publication of his diaries (edited), rather than from a weekly blow-by-blow (no pun intended) account.

On the other hand, in spite of regular readers being given access to a fairly wide variety of information about his private life, Charles Spencer still doesn't seem to be as highly regarded a critic as Michael Billington in terms of authority, even if many consider him to be the more entertaining writer. I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that this could in part be down to the fact that alongside reviewing, Billington has written two big books on theatre (his Pinter biog and State of the Nation) while Charles Spencer has knocked up some detective novels (in which Will Benson - cuckolded, overweight and in career meltdown, is at his lowest ebb, attempting to concentrate on his column in the shambolic trade rag, Theatre World, through a fog of lunchtime drinking - solves crimes. Brilliant! For the record, they're perfectly good detective fiction, even if the character of Will Benson is pretty much the most authorially self-lacerating creation since any number of characters called Keith by Martin Amis).


How much it is desirable to know about the private lives of critics is an interesting question. And one which has become more interesting and relevant with the explosion of the blogosphere. After all, part of the point of the blogosphere is the licence for a more personalised approach, as well as the increased word-count, which is limited only by the expected tolerance of one's readers (and, yes, sorry about this one, it's too long). Mark Shenton has written on the subject a number of times and Ian Shuttleworth also deals with the question in a recent Theatre Record editorial. After all, a review merely gives a personal opinion/report/interpretation of a play. Blog entries (or ,er, Theatre Record editorials) being freer, tend to announce, even if indirectly, the blogger's more personal agendas and obsessions.

Of course reviews can do that too, one only has to search how many times Michael Billington tells us he left a show feeling pleased to be “better informed” about a subject to get a picture of what it is that he's after from a play. Similarly, my increasingly self-parodic attempts to get the term “postdramatic” into everyday use (see my Time Out review of Station House Opera's Mind Out for the latest example), probably say a bit too much about my theatrical preferences. But knowing someone's taste in theatre isn't really the same thing as knowing about their string of mistresses, their depression or their alcoholism.

Turning “professional”

This all feeds into the wider question about a) how much a person's circumstances inform their work, and b) questions of “full disclosure”. Over a year ago, before I started being paid for any reviewing or blogging, I wrote an alarmingly candid piece about my concerns about being friends with people who made theatre. Since “turning professional” (hollow laugh), I've been more guarded about this, and about my personal life in general. I suppose being paid has made me much more “establishment” than “anti-establishment”. Sure there are things I disagree with that co-writers say, but now I'm not “on the outside”, it seems more unfair to start throwing stones at others in the same, er, boat (good use of mixed metaphor, well done). Especially when my position is still very much on the periphery of things.

Similarly, I think I've gradually restricted my musings. For example, calling another Guardian blogger an idiot publicly, is essentially to question my editor's judgement, now. At the same time, I think I tend to be less flippant on Postcards... on the few occasions I actually get around to writing anything at all. After all, short though they be, I realise that my Time Out reviews of some fringe shows are going to be nigh on the only press they get, and I don't want to undermine that review either by sounding like an ass elsewhere, or by saying something about my private life that makes them mistrust the review (for the record, they shouldn't mistrust the review, I am as scrupulous as humanly possible), but I wouldn't want to cause uncertainty or compromise Time Out's integrity.

The rules of attraction

I'm also interested by the way that blogging feeds into the wider sense of what has been called the rise of the “Me generation”. As I note in the piece I tagged above, “I was taught [I'd now suggest “told”] (by Robert Hewison, theatre critic of the Sunday Times) that egotism and personality-based grandstanding was to be avoided at all costs. His simple formulation: ‘Don’t say "I think". God knows it should be apparent enough to everyone that it is what you think because you’re writing it. Remember that the play is the subject of the review, not you.’” This seems to be fast-becoming untrue. Sure, saying 'I think' remains “bad writing” (don't go back through and count them. Please), but “personality-based grandstanding”? Is it really avoided so much now? Aren't critics increasingly being asked by editors to put more of themselves into reviews?

Is it not the case now that pretty much every editor would adore it if their theatre critics were a bit more like AA Gill and a bit less interested in theatre? Look at the size of byline photos these days. I can't remember what paper it was that I opened recently and was surprised to see a large selection of their writers with almost full-length body shots. What extra information is this supposed to communicate? Are we soon to enter an era where one's knowledge of one's subject is secondary to how buff you are and how much you're willing to disclose about a rock'n'roll personal life in snappy prose? Part of me can't help hoping so, the other 99% is utterly depressed by the whole notion.

All this also feeds back into the question about “full disclosure”. It's as if papers believe that their readers demand a picture of the person who has written the piece they're reading in order to scrutinise the critic's face to see if they like the look of them or not. Do they have shifty eyes? Are they attractive enough for their opinion to even matter, or conversely, are they a bit too attractive to be clever? Should theatre critics aim to look like wise professors, suave gentlemen, yummy mummies or reliable librarians? Can we use old photos from when we were younger and prettier? Please?


Sorry, I've rambled. All this is an elaborate way of saying I've been a bit up myself recently, and a bit too self-involved to do any writing. No doubt it'll happen again some time, but hopefully not before Christmas.

In the meantime, you should all go and start assiduously reading Matt Trueman's dynamic new blog, the fancifully named Carousel of Fantasies. It talks about the sort of thing this blog used to talk about, and with the same erstwhile productivity, and in better prose, and with more insight. You can't tell I'm jealous, can you?

Nice to see you again, though. If you've managed to pick any kind of train of thought through the above, do comment below and let me know what it is.

Until next time...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Excuses, excuses

Let's dispense with the traditional apologies. It's been a while. Again. Postcards has been busy elsewhere. The problem with having a blog over a year old, though, is that posts from the same week the previous year suddenly start looking like a standing rebuke to this year's inaction. I was amused to notice that on 30th October 2007 I posted a brief note entitled My blog, my blog, why hath I forsaken you? which opened with the line “The observant among you might have noticed that I haven’t exactly been prolific this month”. Plus ça change. Except that October 2007 saw 13 posts here compared with, oh, none this year. Pretty good they were too, some of them. And then on Tuesday 6th November, I wrote a post called Productivity Tuesday as if to really stick the boot in to my future self. That post headed up two reviews posted that day which in turn followed a long review of the film Lagerfeld Confidential from the day before and my long article Commission me not for my complexion attacking some rubbish by Bidisha the day before that (4th November 2007, as it happens).

Actually, I haven't been all that inert. Since my last post here I've written a bunch of blogs for the Guardian:

Lip-synching: the new kitchen sink
“Over the past couple of years, lip-synching and the use of the recorded voice has become the new kitchen sink... this new use of recorded voice, radio mic, lip-synching and audience uncertainty goes straight to the heart of post-futurist anxieties about authenticity, an increasingly media-centric world, fractured societies and dislocation. It is the perfect metaphor for our times.”

When it comes to staging, we play it way too safe
“Mainstream Anglo-American theatre tradition remains so absolutely married to the idea of literal-minded mimesis that there is virtually no hint that anything but the text can invent meaning on stage beyond dumb representation.”

Hamlet is the touchstone for our troubled times
“...audiences don't want to go to the theatre to run away from their problems, but to stare down the heartache, the thousand natural shocks and the sea of troubles. ”

With friends like the ICA, live art doesn't need enemies
“No matter how complex [Live Art] is, descriptions and analysis are far more effective when designed to communicate rather than to dazzle and obfuscate...”

Fringe theatre is too conventional
“The fringe now often seems to be less forward-looking in terms of staging and material than the Lyttleton or the Gielgud. Its receiving houses are all too often home to productions by directors seeking to showcase their mainstream talents and its producing houses play it safe with solid revivals of tried and tested classics.”

I’ve also been to two European festivals – Divadelná Nitra'08 in Slovakia and Sirenos in Vilnius, Lithuania – both of which included watching about seven performances each. I also saw The Girlfriend Experience for the FT; 1,800 Acres, Bacchaeful, A Disappearing Number, Lola, Follow and Measure for Measure for Time Out and Cradle Me and How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found for CultureWars, as well as managing to get along to the first three evenings of Paines Plough’s Later series at the Trafalgar studios. At the same time, I've been editing the texts produced across a number of the FIT Mobile Labs by my colleagues, the fruits of which should soon be online.

That all of this flurry of recent activity has taken place away from Postcards... has got me thinking. I remember back in early/mid December 2007 in my end of year round-up arguing that:

“An unforeseen consequence of the theatrical comment blogsophere is that it has done an alarmingly good job of identifying all the key issues in contemporary theatre; itemising them; discussing them; and leaving them fully annotated and in a neat handy-to-view package so that anyone with the slightest interest in theatre now has an invaluable guide. The net effect of this is that, unless we are going to start recycling issues just to fill space, we’re going to need something new to discuss pretty soon.”

Of course, shortly after that we got the Art's Council's cuts which reawakened British bloggers in an instant, but as I've noted elsewhere a lot of blogs did seem to fall off the perch this year. Looking through Chris Wilkinson's Noises Off blog-round-up series at the Guardian it is striking how rarely he ever gets to chase a thread of argument between British bloggers nowadays. Even posts at the Guardian now tend to function more as discreet provocations or featurettes rather than part of ongoing conversations. Yes, some of Lyn's recent posts – particularly those on The ICA Live Art dept closure and Ontroerend Goed's Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen – have thrown up some excellent discussions in their comment threads, but I haven't seen them picked up and discussed in other blogs much - perhaps I'm reading the wrong places these days – but given that the Guardian shuts down comments on any given blog after about a week, these discussions are necessarily short-lived. Similarly, my experience with recent blogs is that I've tended to get into interesting email or Facebook discussions about what I've written, but rarely do the articles themselves seem to relate to a wider blogosphere as they might have done a year ago.

This is partly due to the “difficult second album” syndrome that I outlined last Christmas. The first year or so of blogging is pretty easy, you can say everything you've ever thought, or at least thought recently, and it might even come across as original and fresh. Once you've been going a while, though it starts to get harder not to repeat yourself. Looking back through what I've written in the past year, I notice a couple of topics which recur more times than I'd have liked. While my previous concern with the failures of political theatre in Britain has faded into the background – how long, by the way, before the next “Where are all the right-wing plays?” article? - it has been replaced by my new concern with Britain's lack of European integration.

For all that, I do still have a fearsome backlog of reviews and articles I'd like to write for Postcards... There are three European festivals' worth of shows along with the issues some of these raised, and hopefully at some point soon, I'll find time to write about some of them.

In the mean time, on Thursday I've been invited to take part in the Arts Council's theatre funding assessment studying the impact of the additional £25 million invested in theatre from 2003 onwards.

I've been asked to consider the following questions:

Looking at the last five years -
- what have been the major developments and changes in theatre? Have they improved or worsened the situation?
- in what ways have relationships between theatre organisations and locally based companies/artists, and theatre organisations and their local communities, changed?
- has there been more engagement with diversity and if so, what effect has this had on theatre and on audiences?
- in what ways have audiences and their expectations changed?
- what effect have economic and political changes or any other external interventions had on theatre?
- what has been the impact of the Arts Council's Grants for the arts scheme, since it was introduced in 2003?

Anyone with any thoughts or or opinions they'd like to see represented, do give me a shout or leave a comment below.

Anyway, it's nice to be back, however fleetingly. I just hope my reader is still checking Postcards... regularly enough to notice there's a post.

P.S. As ever, it looks like I spoke too soon regarding the imminent collapse of the Blogosphere. Only last month Performance Monkey seems to have been born (David Jays in the sidebar here), and looks like it's well worth a read.

P.P.S. Picture at the top of post from Sebastian Nübling's astonishing production of Simon Stephens's Pornographie. No especial reason, other than that I loved it and the way it looks - more on the production can be found in my Guardian blog When it comes to staging, we play it way too safe which is trailed above.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Ivanov - Wyndham's

[Written for]

Ivanov is a young man’s play, Chekhov’s first - written when he was 27. It at once romanticises suicidal despair and ruthlessly rips the piss out of it. It is also a deeply Russian play. It is strange, then, that in Michael Grandage’s new production the title role is taken by the 47-year-old Kenneth Branagh, and transposes the characterisations into a recognisably English milieu.

Indeed, for much of the first scene – played against an unconvincingly painted drab sky with all the odd stage-y-ness that sometimes overcomes large casts of British actors faced with a proscenium arch and a classic text – it looks like the whole thing might miss its mark altogether. Branagh’s Ivanov seems too animated for someone who’s meant to be so depressed, while Lorcan Cranitch’s Borkin is just a bellowing muddle of accents and apparent alcoholism; Malcolm Sinclair’s Count Shabelsky acts like little more than a cardboard cut-out upper-class twit, and it is left to Gina McKee as Ivanov’s dying, tubercular, Jewish wife – Anna Petrovna – to inject any sense of realism into proceedings. Curiously, amongst all these heavy-weight, middle-aged theatrical big-hitters the young Tom Hiddleston as Anna’s doctor, Lvov, looks oddly slight. I’d had him down as quite a strapping young man, but here he looks as thin as a rake, and his character nervy as anything. He also speaks – perfectly audibly – at about half the volume of the rest of the cast. One briefly wonders if his degree of naturalism is going to overturn this whole applecart of over-theatrical showing off.

Gradually, though, as if by some strange alchemy, the thing starts to cohere. In the second scene, seeing the tensions and difficulties set up in act one discussed by a new set of characters brings the play alive. We know a little of this new set at Lebedev’s house from act one, so the interplay of these different perspectives sets sparks flying as this poisonous coterie bitches about Ivanov and his dying wife while trying to stab one other in the back. By the same alchemical magic, the style of acting suddenly comes alive. By the time Ivanov and Shabelsky arrive on the scene, their presence has been so neatly set up that we are as pleased by their arrival at the party as those on stage. What looked like Malcolm Sinclair playing Shabelsky as a caricature is suddenly understandable as Shabelsky’s presentation of himself using a brittle veneer of upper-class-twittery to hide a bereaved man soaked in self-pity and drink. Even Cranitch’s Borkin starts to make sense in this new wider context.

Branagh’s Ivanov is brought alive by these ever-changing refractions. What looked in act one like a surprisingly animated depressive becomes a man restless with self-loathing and rage against a world that has found himself hating. Describing himself as a “hand-me-down Hamlet” – a wry irony given how readily Branagh is still identified with the part – he lashes out at everyone around him, but mostly he lashes out at himself with lacerating, withering contempt. It is not his fault he has fallen out of love with his wife, and can no longer see the point in being alive. At the same time, he knows he is pathetic and contemptible for wallowing in this self-pity. Yet he seems powerless to change this destiny. In a beautifully judged moment, Lebedev comes to Ivanov and offers to lend him the money that he needs to pay off a debt he owes to Lebedev’s wife; we see Ivanov crumble from the inside out and sink to his knees weeping in despair. Branagh's is an Ivanov who can take almost anything except kindness. The offer of a lifeline drives home precisely how weary, flat, stale and unprofitable he finds the world.

Chekhov continually presents the characters from new perspectives. He is neither interested in allowing simple tragic heroism in so squalid and ignoble a world, nor is he content with merely poking fun, pointing fingers and apportioning blame. This is life at its most prickly and difficult. No one is beyond reproach. Some characters try to act with the best of intentions – although even good intentions are suspect – and make everything worse; others, wrapped up in a fog of self-pity, are at once both brutal and ludicrous. It is a harsh, painfully funny and all too recognisable vision of life. Stoppard’s translation creates a cannily textured dialogue with modern demotic expressions happily rubbing alongside more poetic passages, while neatly interweaving moments and quotations from Hamlet to underline Ivanov’s self-description.

Michael Grandage allows his production to swing from moments of sublime misery to points where the unhappiness tips over into absurd melodrama. Rather than attempting to over-egg a tragic pudding at the expense of the play’s comedy, or trying to level out the gloomier troughs of despair with false levity, the production lets particular audiences and individual audience members find their own meaning within the intricacies of a performance that allows for both the laughs and the sudden lurches. The final moments of the play, however, deliver an absolutely electric charge to the audience and the applause at the curtain call is as spontaneous as it is shell-shocked.

in-i - National Theatre

[Written for]

At first glance Nicholas Hytner’s decision to stage a piece of international contemporary dance on the National Theatre’s Lyttleton stage looks courageous in the extreme. Once you take into account the fact that one of the performers and the piece’s co-director/creator is arthouse darling Juliette Binoche, the decision starts to look less like courage and more like an enormous cash cow. Despite this ironclad box office draw, the question remains, is in-i any good?

What Binoche and her co-director/performer Akram Khan offer is an hour and ten minutes of fairly standard contemporary dance moves with a bit of voiceover and a couple of monologues thrown in for good measure. It is performed in front of a giant square wall that was apparently designed by Anish Kapoor. So far, so impressively high-art and cosmopolitan sounding. The piece opens with Binoche and Khan entering around the sides of Kapoor’s backdrop, which is bathed in red light faintly suggesting a continuity from his Marsyas and Svayambh. Their initial movements exactly mimic one another and it is immediately apparent that Khan is a trained dancer and Binoche simply is not.

There is a huge gap between the quality and precision of their movement. When Khan moves an arm or repositions a foot there is absolute assurance, steadiness, and almost observable muscle-memory at work. Binoche, by contrast, makes the same shape, but more vaguely, less definitely. This isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, Pina Bausch has been working with non-dancers for years. Viewed generously, there is something interesting in the contrast between these qualities of movement. Conversely, it seems questionable whether it was a good idea that Binoche’s abilities should immediately be held up for comparison with Khan’s in quite such a forensic fashion.

This mirroring is quickly replaced by one of the strongest sections of the piece: Binoche sits in a chair downstage; flickering lights play on Kapoor’s wall; a monologue about a fourteen-year-old girl falling for a stranger in a cinema, read by Binoche, is played and Khan performs a solo dance upstage, which perhaps suggests the inner life of this unsuspecting paramour. This is followed by some chasing about, which gradually resolves into intimate embraces and passionate kissing.

The scene – and style – changes again. Khan and Binoche are now sharing a small apartment suggested by shadows thrown on the minimal set, and through a series of mildly amusing mimes, tell the story of a woman frustrated by her partner’s inability to lift the seat when he goes to the loo. It’s charming to a point, but pretty much the choreographic equivalent of Men Behaving Badly. Elsewhere, however, monologues about a young Muslim being ferociously threatened by an Imam for falling in love with a ‘kaffir’ and domestic violence seem to suggest more serious intentions.

The way the piece is constructed, with imperceptible jumps between its separate sections, suggests an ongoing narrative. As inconsistencies between characters and places become apparent, it starts to read more as a series of unrelated episodes. Perusal of the programme reveals that Binoche and Khan have in fact created fourteen scenes, each seeking to illustrate one of the fourteen types of love posited by the ancient Greeks. Quite how effective these illustrations are depends on whether one reads the programme before the show starts, since this schematic organising principle is in no way apparent from anything presented on stage. Perhaps allowing the audience to create its own meanings with the material presented is the aim, except that the introduction of voiceover and monologues (both of which would, I suspect, be rejected out of hand by even the lowliest fringe venues without La Binoche being attached to them, let alone staged at the National. The theatre’s literary department – not to mention countless writers – must be wringing their hands in irritation) suggest at least a partial desire to pin down meaning.

Ultimately, this is a perfectly watchable creation. Dramaturgically speaking it’s a bit of a mess, and it almost certainly doesn’t deserve the audience numbers it is going to get. However, if it persuades even half those audience members that they can cope with a bit of abstraction and movement, then it may end up doing the country’s theatrical scene no end of good. It’s just a shame that it is not an especially shining example of the form - a kind of contemporary dance lite - rather than something truly astonishing.
photo by Marianne Rosenstieh

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Now or Later - Royal Court

[Written for]

American playwright Christopher Shinn’s new play is set on the night of a fictitious presidential election. The Democrats are about to win and the soon-to-be-president-elect’s son John (Eddie Redmayne) is holed up in a hotel room with his college buddy Matt refusing to join in the celebrations. The problem is that some photos of John dressed as Mohammed at a college party have turned up on the internet and his father’s people are panicking. What follows is a taut 75 minutes of dense political argument underpinned by youthful angst and familial tension.

In this short length of time, Shinn manages a pretty thorough exploration of contemporary America’s position on Islam, liberal America’s self-loathing, the obsession with image, spin and ‘being in control of the narrative’ which dominate politics and the way in which the internet has impacted on the political scene. At the same time he manages to create a central character who is at once bright, likeable, disarmingly vulnerable and volatile.

The perennial problem with political plays set in one room with a small cast of characters is that they frequently turn into a ping-pong match of tritely opposite positions or else a ‘debate’ in which a playwright apportions lines from a fiercely dull essay into the mouths of various characters. For the most part Shinn largely avoids these pitfalls. Granted there is a moment when political science student Matt rehearses all the arguments for relativism against the black, female member of the campaign team who argues “You’re putting [Muslims] on a level playing field with yourself and that is not the case. You are more sophisticated than they are...” Mostly, however, the arguments presented are cogent realistic positions which appear to actively wrestle with the problems. Dealing with a thin band of liberalism means that rather than debate across a gulf in generalities, this is largely a finely nuanced bit of thinking. It does, however, play to a [liberal, secular] choir. While addressing the problems of liberal American self-hate, it does so from a liberal American standpoint.

The main reason that the play side-steps the pitfalls of much naturalistic political drama, though, is Dominic Cooke’s excellent direction of his impressive cast. Eddie Redmayne as John is almost too perfect a poster-boy for liberal sensibilities. Pretty, pouting, petulant and fiercely intelligent, he comes across as a kind of idealised Democrat Hamlet. Similarly, his back-story – formerly suicidal and still in pieces over a recent break-up with his boyfriend – rather than feeling contrived as a sop to characterisation is an integral part the play. His position is also the most interesting. Rather than offering comfortable relativism and revulsion at American foreign policy, it is John who questions why American free speech should be curtailed at the behest of foreign powers and religious fundamentalists.

The structure of the play suggests John as both a latterday Christ in the desert and a modern Hamlet; stuck in his father's court, and repeatedly prevailed upon to renounce his principles and give in to the honeyed words of his tempters. As such, the conclusion of the play is surprising in a number of ways, and it feels as if Dominic Cooke’s production chooses to cast the final moments – what the play appears to *say* – in a very specific light. Here it feels as if the right decision has been arrived at. I do wonder though, whether this is perhaps a reflection of a particular sensibility (presumably Cooke’s), and whether there is a production in which the final moments – even without the introduction of the expected Chekhovian finale – reflect a darker, more tragic reflection on what has just taken place.

Sons of York - Finborough Theatre

[Written for]

With Sons of York, the Finborough’s playwright-in-residence James Graham makes a fair stab at establishing himself as a British Arthur Miller. His tale of life and death across three generations in working class Hull during 1978’s Winter of Discontent nails the beginning of the end for British trade unionism. It does so with the same deadly accuracy as Death of a Salesman does the American dream, while doing for Callahan’s Labour Party what Osborne’s The Entertainer did for Eden’s Tories.

Set against the backdrop of the general strike, the microcosm of the family becomes a clear metaphor for the wider political struggles taking place outside. The grandfather – named only as ‘Dad’ in the programme – a retired haulier and staunch trade unionist, refuses to acknowledge his wife’s chronically deteriorating health while continuing to browbeat his son, Jim, who in turn lashes out at his own son in impotent fury.

What is immediately striking about the play is how of-its-period-setting it is. It is as if by engaging with the era Graham has, perhaps unconsciously, completely adopted kitchen sink realism most associated with it - intercut with Pennies From Heaven style musical interludes where the grandparents sing songs from their working man’s club circuit entertaining youth.

For all its lack of theatrical innovation, however, Graham’s play is, for the most part, an assured example of the genre. If anything, its problems stem from a modern audience’s mistrust of such straightforward narratives that run the risk of bordering on self-parody. The whole school of Grim Up North drama has been so mercilessly parodied in the interim it should be nigh-on impossible to take these scenes of a family shouting at each other in northern accents even slightly seriously. It is a tribute to Graham’s writing, Kate Wasserberg’s excellent, detailed direction and the fine acting of the cast, that such worries hardly ever raise their heads. Perhaps the climatic penultimate scene strays a little too far into melodrama, perhaps some of the arguments over the pros and cons of trade-unionism seem a little contrived and research-oriented, but for the most part the emotional intensity at the core of the play overrides these concerns.

It is clear that the family embodies the death of British trade unionism, and indeed socialism. It is a damning judgement of trade unionism that, despite his superficial warmth and heart, the grandfather is ultimately shown to be a bully with his head in the sand. There is clearly far more sympathy for the grandson seeking to get out of the family trade with ‘A’ levels and maybe dreams of university. Having no characters from outside this extended family unit, the play almost pitches the Thatcherite ideals of ‘individuals and their families’ against ‘getting on your bike’, while suggesting that strikes are counter-productive to both the country and local communities alike. When coupled with such a (small-c) conservative style of theatre, it feels as if, for all its talk of socialism, concern for the plight of the working class, Sons of York could just as easily be held up by Conservatives as a perfect illustration of everything that was wrong with Britain before their 18 years in power as it can be understood as a left-wing paean to bygone days of solidarity that are now lost forever.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Somewhere there is a place for us / It's impossible / And / It's all true

Everyone on the theatrical blogosphere seems to have been writing in a more personal capacity recently. That should be a stupid thing to say. After all, we all know the drill on the necessary subjectivity of theatre criticism, commentary and indeed theatre-making: it's subjective; it's personal. What I mean is that people have been talking about themselves and their feelings more than usual recently.

The blog that started me thinking was Andy Field's incredibly sweet opening to a recent post on his excellent new blog where he admits that he is “chokingly, distractingly, giddily in love for maybe only the second time ever”. I was almost charmed enough by the youthful enthusiasm not to admit that my first thought was “that's one hell of a hostage to fortune”.

Elsewhere, in a post actually titled Personal, Alison Croggan candidly talks about her frustration with the more witless end of abuse and invective in the comments section under some of her recent reviews. In particular her review of Joanna Murray-Smith's Ninety.

Even Chris Goode's blog, which I've always admired for the openness with which Chris talks about his personal life - his frustrations and despairs - as frankly as he does his artistic opinions, seems to have been more personal of late, with tongue-in-cheek self-interviewing and details of room tidying.

What's interesting is that Chris's blog, of those that I manage to check reasonably regularly, also contains the highest number of recent obituaries. In his (currently) most recent post, he notes the deaths of David Foster Wallace and Reginald Shepherd. The same post flags up Thomas Moronic's ongoing account of the death of his mother's recent death. And it is still only just over two weeks two weeks since the death of Ken Campbell.

Meanwhile, on the 8th of September Guardian theatre blog, Lyn Gardner wrote a beautiful tribute to her mother, who died unexpectedly in August. Lyn suggests that “one of the functions of theatre is to help us to discover how to live even in the face of death, and that all great storytelling helps to heal”. And I’ve just realised I unwittingly made a similar claim in this morning’s review of Six Characters in Search of an Author, albeit at one remove.

That said, theatre isn’t a self-help manual. Indeed, theatre, much more than many other popular artforms, positively venerates melancholy and often revels in despair, from the grief and revenge of Clytemnestra through Hamlet up to Beckett’s lost souls. On the other hand, recent pieces like Slung Low’s Helium, Lucy Ellinson’s In State, Dan Rebellato’s Static and numerous Chris Goode pieces – Kiss of Life, Homemade and The Speed Death of Radiant Child immediately spring to mind – have all seemed to offer some kind of message of hope in the face of seemingly impossible pain.

Quite what the hope actually *is* remains obscure, but the very fact of their beauty suggests to me that rather than offering an “answer”, or even an alleviation of suffering, what links these pieces is the way that they suggest that in the terrible pain of bereavement, for the secular mind, art might just be able to present enough beauty and hope to confront the worst despair, while at the same time not seeking to “fix” it.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Six Characters in Search of an Author - Gielgud

[written for]

Having grumbled recently about the lack of observable actual adaptation in the Gate’s recent “free adaptation” of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Rupert Goold and Ben Power’s new version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author more than makes up for it. They start by transposing the action of the 1921 play from a rehearsal of Pirandello’s previous play to the post-production offices of a team of documentary film-makers working in Denmark on a film about a boy called Andrew who is committing assisted suicide.

Rather than feeling like redundant contemporaneity for no other reason than a fear that audiences can only identify with people dressed like them, this device adds a whole new set of resonances and meanings to the questions posed by Pirandello’s original text. From simply asking questions about theatre and the nature of reality, this new setting brings these questions sharply into focus by drawing our attention to how constructed so much of what we happily take on trust as reality in the world around us actually is.

The story set within this frame revolves around a central moment of horror in the lives of a broken family where the erstwhile father of a single child with an unfaithful wife visits a child prostitute who turns out to be one of the mother’s later children with her erstwhile lover. The mother’s subsequent discovery of them, her scream, the father’s guilt and the daughter’s self-disgust become the moment at which the family’s tragic future is crystallised. That Pirandello’s tale essentially concerns prostitution and paedophilia, child abuse and family breakdown is one that makes the choice of a documentary-making frame all the more canny, since these subjects often seem the only subjects explored by documentaries.

By taking the action of the *characters* intervention out of a theatrical setting, Goold and Power set up far greater scope for investigating not only the horror of their story, but also the questions and ethics of our reactions to such narratives. When the characters - doomed to keep playing out the same one story for eternity - begin to re-enact the moment that the father violates his ex-wife’s daughter, the producer becomes transfixed and while other crew members start to voice their horror, the producer starts questioning characters about ‘how they felt at that moment’ and insisting that the cameras keep rolling.

There is something comparably inexorable between her desire to make the film as the father’s desire for the daughter. What is fascinating about Goold’s staging here is that as the action progresses within the scene, the movement becomes increasingly stylised, and when the mother bursts into the room becomes staccato, jerky opera; almost a standing rebuke to television’s desire for realism at any cost; as if demonstrating that abstraction – art – can communicate sheer horror more effectively than having to see it painstakingly reproduced.

Goold’s mise-en-scene throughout is terrific. Set in the large white box of a modern partition built office complete with ceiling tiles, with a whole other room wheeled into it at one point, the commitment to creating a series of brilliant images, as well as to textual invention, is admirable. Equally bold is his and co-writer Ben Power’s creation of an entirely new fourth act in which the action of the piece telescopes out even further than in the original, seeing the producer actually becoming part of the world of the characters, before a series of increasingly meta-theatrical scenes present us with the viewing of the “director’s commentary” on the first scene of the play, before a scene in which two actors playing characters looking suspiciously like Goold and Power explain their entire concept for this version of Six Characters... to an executive producer, including an incredibly funny new riff on the number of Hamlets coming into the West End.

While at times it feels as if this extra material might spiral out of control, in fact the final moments bring the whole thing right back to the beginning with an unexpected simplicity that hammers home points about both the nature of art and reality, and about what use they can be in understanding the pain of life.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Hedda - The Gate

[Written for]

In a sound production, with a fair translation, can Hedda Gabler ever fail to jolt an audience with the visceral momentum of the tragedy it depicts? By its conclusion, this Hedda, despite its problems, still manages to be thrillingly shattering.

The new “modern adaptation” of the Ibsen, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Gate co-artistic director Carrie Cracknell, was always going to suffer from comparison with Thomas Ostermeier's recent astonishing modern dress production from the Berlin Schaubühne, which was shown at the Barbican in February. What is remarkable how well the production does emerge from the comparison. Granted, it was difficult not to watch the production filtered through memories of the Ostermeier, and where the German production managed with extreme economy to leave huge spaces for the audience to study the relationships while absolutely pinpointing moments of realisation and decision, Kirkwood's script and the design of this performance don't allow for anything like the same level of clinical dissection.

While both productions are nominally set in the contemporary world, the Ostermeier version, by staying more faithful to the original text, created a world where the way that Hedda is trapped within her marriage that did at least make sense within the universe of the play, if not necessarily the real world. Here, Kirkwood tackles the whole subject head on. The question is: why on earth doesn't she leave her new husband? She has married someone who, within six months, she realises does not love, who infuriates her, whom she can hardly bear touching her. She is mortgaged to the hilt and yet refuses to get a job. None of this rings true in a modern context, and Kirkwood's only solution is to paint Hedda as an appallingly spoilt snob, refusing work which is “beneath her” while dripping with boredom and ennui.

It is a pity this question is not properly resolved, since much of the rest of this translation is really rather good. Kirkwood displays a real facility for modern speech patterns, and though some of the mildly irritating wackiness more evident in her Bush début Tinderbox remains, a strong dramaturgical hand is clearly in evidence when comparing the published text with the staged version; duff lines have been ruthlessly pruned. That said, “adaptation” seems far too strong a term for the minor tweaks that Kirkwood has introduced. While the language has been modernised, and the locations moderately so, the structure of the conversations, the mentalities and the things the characters speak about – the way that they relate and react to one another – are all still firmly embedded in 19th century Sweden. Kirkwood could certainly have been freer in her “adapting”.

Similarly, Cracknell's direction of the piece, while generally excellent, also feels as if it could go further. In between scenes and when the men go clubbing for George Tesman's "belated stag do", there are some short moments of choreography which add a whole extra dimension to the piece. But they are short. It feels as if Cracknell has dropped them in politely, knowing full well that they are excellent in and of themselves, but at the same time not wanting to upset Ibsen purists and attract the same kind of opprobrium that was heaped upon Katie Mitchell for similar, longer sequences in Women of Troy. Granted that production wasn't to everyone's taste – possibly not Cracknell's – but the presence of the choreography at all suggests that there was a far bolder production waiting in the wings here.

Caveats aside, there are some excellent performances on display here. The cast is pretty much nigh-on uniformly excellent. Cara Horgan's Hedda communicates precisely the mixture of deliberatly provocative seductress, wired fear and almost childlike psychopathy, snapping from cooing and flirting to sudden hard froideur at the mere mention of an unpleasant subject. Perhaps these moments are a little too demonstrative, but she is nonetheless a compelling presence on stage. Similarly, the supporting female roles: Cath Whitefield as the self-describing “frumpy” sister-in-law and Alice Patten as the frantic, brittle ex-, Thea – or 'T' as she is generally referred to – are both beautifully drawn performances.

Christopher Obi's Toby Brack - a ludicrously good-looking, self-assured, black, Oxford-educated lawyer - is relentlessly charismatic, giving no hint of the final revelation of the cynical, exploitative opportunist revealed in the play's final moments. Tom Mison's George Tesman is convincingly attractive and sweet-natured enough for Hedda's initial attraction to be understandable. Indeed, Mison's obvious affection for this kind, loving, mild-mannered academic makes Hedda's contempt for him all the more difficult. His declaration of love for her is genuinely moving and rather than feeling like the net tightening around her impossible situation, we suddenly see the tragedy of his impossible, unreciprocated love for this women whom he clearly adores. Adrian Bower as the brilliant, former-alcoholic genius Eli Longford has perhaps the hardest job, and is a slightly odd bit of casting; coming on like a lank haired, post-punk Jim Morrison – all skinny jeans and unshaved glamour – he looks, and acts, just a bit too rock 'n' roll to convince as a man who has managed to write two academic tomes in the last year, looking almost like he has dressed for his relapse into alcoholism.

However, whatever niggles there are about text and context pale into insignificance at the moment when Hedda hands her suicidal, former lover a revolver and sends him, smashed, on his way. It remains one of the most shocking moments ever written for stage, loaded with cruelty, hope, romance and futility; if a measure of any production's success is the frisson it generates, then the Gate has achieved a production of no mean distinction.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

...emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture

Since Mark Shenton was kind enough to write a lovely paragraph noting my return to the blogosphere at his own unstinting blog for the Stage, it feels like I ought to justify the compliment by actually doing some actual writing. There's still the epic pile of stuff I saw in Riga to plough through writing up, not to mention starting to fill in some of those blanks a couple of posts below.

My good intentions were mildly derailed yesterday by a commission from the Guardian blogs for a piece on YouTube's effect on theatre. The result was a bit of a top-of-my-head whizz through all the relevant points that I could call to mind at half eight on a Wednesday morning, but it did lead to an interesting conversation with David Benedict yesterday evening after Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray about the way in which audiences actively construct meaning in the theatre, and with audio recordings – essentially both involve the willing suspension of disbelief – in a way that isn't as true for filmed performance. It is a strange phenomena. I'm not sure it's wholly true that TV or film, or videoed performances *necessarily * make it impossible to suspend disbelief, but our familiarity with reading the medium differently certainly means this is far from the default method of watching. It reminds me of a beautiful description that Anna Teuwen, one of my colleagues in Riga, came up with in a stream-of-consciousness meditation that she wrote on the performance Appel d'Aire, in which she reflected on the dream-like transitions in the pieces dramaturgy and mise-en-scene:

“the performance can be seen as being about another dream as well - the spectator’s dream. The tiny little piece of reality that all people in the theatre-space share, vanishes and transforms into endless individual imaginary landscapes each with their own stories that everyone who is watching lives through. In this way, this piece exemplifies the experience of individual perception in theatre, the dream of art of being a source of dreams*.”

[*In the subsequent discussion of her critique, some focus did centre around discussing the last clause with the conclusion that the second use of “dreams” might be more usefully read “individual imagination”, or similar]

A lot of the discussions we had in Riga centred around this curious phenomena of the individual perception from within a communal experience. This seems to be quite a central and fascinating area at the moment, from Chr*s W*lkins*n's recent altercation with the boys from The F*ctory (like it needs any more exposure online), back to Chris Goode's discussion of audience. It also taps into the movement in upstream theatre/live art/performance concerned with interactivity, immersive experiences and shows with individual audience members seeing a piece one at a time, as well as the equally prevalent movement that creates work of such abstraction that the signs presented on the stage need to be actively constructed and assembled by each audience member as they watch. Given that such pieces are generally still watched in silence, conferring with one's neighbours in order to achieve any sort of degree of communal understanding is probably frowned upon.

It's a subject to which I expect I'm going to end up returning both in my Riga posts and no doubt again and again in various musings prompted by performances, so I'll stop turning it over for now.

One of the nice things about being back in London for an almost sensible amount of time (my next international jaunt isn't until the end of the month), is that I've been able to gradually start catching up on all the blogs and things I didn't really get time to read during August. Not only was I not writing, but I was barely reading, either. As a result, when I got back from Edinburgh, it felt like I was totally out of the loop with anything that was going on back in London, let alone having the faintest idea of what was going on in the rest of the country.

A great new blog that is well worth looking at has been recently started by the uncompromising playwright and musician Nick Gill. As well as talking about some of the projects he's working on, and sharing audio files of bits of sonic engineering he's done, it also offers some interestingly provocative views on musical theatre and, in his latest post, a description of writing a new play over the course of a single weekend. It also anthologises the passage on writer's block from The City, which I loved as a piece of writing when I saw it. I would be linking to these posts individually, but I can't work out how to. Perhaps my browser is just being silly.

It's also been nice to catch up on reading the notebook section of Tim Etchells's website. Etchells has a great eye for a story or thought, and writes beautifully, as you might expect. Halfway through the August entries, there is also the exciting news that there is to be a performance of his piece Drama Queens at the Old Vic on the 12th of October. No doubt it has sold out now, but if nothing else, it is fascinating to see a theatre, which is generally quite conservatively positioned, opting for a gala performance by an artist quite as upstream as Etchells. One can hardly dare hope this bespeaks the shape of things to come at the building, but it's a nice thought.

Elsewhere, one of the more unexpected experiences I had in Edinburgh this year – again at Forest Fringe, of course – was meeting Deborah Pearson while she was doing her “Advice Booth” and being thanked by her – mide advice session - for a note that I left on her blog bemoaning the lack of recent activity, which, she said, had caused her to start writing it again. Alas, her Forest Fringe co-artistic director Andy Field is still insanely busy, currently preparing his show Exposures for the Dublin festival. It is probably as a result of this ludicrous level of artistic productivity that the promising Forest Fringe blog itself seemed to suffer a premature death only a few days into the festival. That said, flicking through the aforelinked blogs I did come across this enormously warm piece by Lyn Gardner from early in the festival, which again reminded me how much I had loved the shows I caught there.

Another blog to which I should direct attention is that of the director Tom Hescott (another “Confessions of...”, interestingly), not least because its most recent post carries a fine personal tribute to the late, great Ken Cambell.

Lastly, not that I didn't plug it all heavily in my last post, I should point any of my readers who aren't already also avid readers of Chris Goode's Thomson's Bank of Communicable Desires to head over there immediately. Apart from anything else, there's been a flurry of recent activity all of which is shot through with Goode's inexhausible wit, warmth, rigour and dazzling breadth of reference and intelligence.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

And where the Hell do you think you've been?


Ok, I admit it. It’s been far, far too long. For reasons too many and various to go through here, as you may have noticed, Postcards ended up taking a lengthy summer holiday. This is partly because every time I started to write a “Hello, yes, it has been a long time since I last wrote” piece, the laptop on which it was written would get stolen or die. I’ve been through two since I last posted. The other main reason is that after Estonia I was completely burnt out from watching theatre, talking theatre and writing about theatre. Knowing that Edinburgh was coming up, and since July was very quiet in terms of openings, news or discussion, I thought I’d take a couple of weeks’ break from writing about theatre. As it turned out, I did end up seeing and writing about quite a lot, it’s just none of it was here, but there was a Guardian blog about Gob Squad, a Guardian blog about Hamlet, a Guardian blog about something Nick de Jongh wrote in the Standard about radicalism, and then yesterday a Guardian blog about the need for British theatre to stop ignoring Europe, there were also reviews of:

This Wide Night – Soho Theatre (FT)

A Slight Ache – National Theatre (FT)

The Shadowmaster – King's Head (Time Out)

The Mikado - Union Theatre (Time Out)

Edward II – BAC (Time Out)

As a result of this “break”, however, I never got round to writing the piece I wanted to about Michael Billington’s review of Six Characters in Search of an Author (although that was also partly down to politics and cowardice), or my reflection on the remarkable page-sized non-review of Rimini Protokoll’s Call-Cutta in a Box. I don’t suppose I ever will now. Tragic, I know. Here, I have also put in place-savers for While We Were Holding It Together, the second part of my reflections on the BaltoScandal festival and my review of the new – well, it was new when I saw it on press night – Katie Mitchell piece at the NT, ...some trace of her. Hopefully, sometime this week I'll find time to write them all up.

After this largely uncharted second half of July, Postcards, like everyone else in the known universe, went to Edinburgh. During Edinburgh what little I had to say that was printable went to the Guardian, for reasons of sound financial sense. Thus:
The myth of the golden age of the Fringe, a reflection on how one experiences theatre, something about the Total Theatre Awards, and a more theoretical macro look at the economics of “Fringe”.

After all, the primary purpose of this blog is for longer, wider, less user-friendly and more recondite (read: nerdy) discussions than those that the Guardian hosts, and for collecting my non-printed reviews, and I didn't really have much time for that, for reasons discussed below.

Someone did suggest that I should also post my printed reviews here too – I’m not sure about the legal position on that one. I can’t imagine I’d be depriving Time Out of too much revenue by having the reviews here as well as on their website, but then it’s mildly less work to post a link than to copy and paste the article from their website: - unless they make a howling cock-up by mistake, I firmly believe that editors/subeditors improve my writing every time they go near it. With the FT, there is the problem that the review goes behind a pay-per-view screen after about a week or so, but by that point, it’s often a fortnight since I wrote the piece, and so pasting it up then rather buggers up the otherwise useful (well, it was kind of useful before July) chronology. Anyway, I’ve strayed miles from the point already without having even managed to say anything useful yet.

As I’ve already noted elsewhere – twice – Edinburgh was unusual for me this year as I was chair of the selection panel for the Total Theatre Awards. This basically meant that rather than hitting the ground, along with the rest of the press, by heading for the Traverse for two days underground working my way through their programme and then heading over to the Pleasance, Underbelly and Assembly Rooms to cherry-pick their offerings before starting to pick up shows by friends and companies whose previous work had impressed, and waiting for word-of-mouth recommendations to start trickling in (this year ‘trickling’ is right). Instead, I arrived in Edinburgh and was promptly plunged into a fairly heavy schedule of shows that I would never have chosen to see in a million years. As you’d expect, this had pretty mixed results. For some reason, I mostly seemed to get sent to south Asian dance pieces, or at least that’s what it felt like. This eventually paid off with me seeing one of the most unexpected highlights of my Fringe, the sublime Hamlet Episode. I also saw a lot of utter dross, the worst of which – which I shan’t embarrass by naming here – completely recalibrated my idea of what “unremittingly dreadful” can mean. There was also a lot of well-meaning, middle-ground stuff with which, in a four or five show-per-day schedule, I started to lose patience very quickly indeed.

Outside of the rigours of the Total Theatre selection procedure, I saw a reasonable smattering of shows, most of which I enjoyed, and will try to write-up in at least some form at some point, but by the time I left Edinburgh I had again hit my theatre wall and knew that I only had until the following Wednesday to get my enthusiasm back before hitting the Homo Alibi festival in Latvia. As a result, I think I probably missed most of the agreed artistic “hits” of the Fringe. Not ideal, but there it is. That said, I suspect that very little on the Fringe could have cheered me up as much as what little work I did manage to catch at the wonderful Forest Fringe. Tinned Fingers’s By Morning It Will Be Dry Enough For Tennis (twice), Paper Cinema and Kora’s The Night Flyer, Lucy Ellinson: In State and the first two parts of Chris Goode’s live anthology of upstream poetry (some of which is now available online as sound recordings – and is still well worth a listen) all left me with the feeling that the whole day, if not week, or even month, had all somehow been worth it. Chris's own account of the Forest Fringe experience says everything I'd like to and more. Similarly, his account of the excellent Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller installations at the Edinburgh Fruitmarket Gallery makes the urgency of writing that up seem much less pressing.

Over the next few days, I'm hoping to get back into the swing of regularly blogging here, as well as at the Guardian, along with ongoing reviewing for Time Out, the FT and CultureWars. After all, there's the whole of the Homo Alibi festival in Riga to tell you about. By the time I've got all that up to date, along with editing a lot of texts for the FIT Mobile Lab workshop and keeping on top of the new stuff coming it, it'll probably be time for me to bugger off to Nitra in Slovakia for the next of the FIT festivals. This one is showing the German version of Simon Stephens's P*rn*gr*phy (I can do without the extra web-traffic, thanks), to which I'm looking forward immensely. I didn't see the British premiere in Edinburgh, and now I'm rather glad that I didn't, as I'll get to experience the proper premiere version before seeing the Brit version in its inevitable London transfer.

So, yes, hopefully it won't be so long before the next post. And hopefully I'll have remembered how to write and/or think again by then too. Nice to be back, though.

[egotistical author photo at the top of this piece by Iona Tallia Firouzabadi - I wouldn't normally put a picture of myself, but I'm really rather fond of this one, and it somehow manages to capture pretty exactly the spirit of the last couple of months :-) ]

...some trace of her - National Theatre

Review expected shortly.

Postcards from Estonia II

Again, placeholder to maintain chronology.

While We Were Holding It Together -

Review shortly. Hopefully.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Big 3rd Episode: Happy/End - Rahu Hall, Rakvere

[Originally written for Baltoscandal Ajaleht nr3]

Ever wanted to know what Sex and the City would be like if it wasn’t funny? Or what pornography would be like if it wasn’t meant to be arousing? Or even what Smells Like Teen Spirit would sound like if its brittle, explosive brilliance were reduced to sludge by an inept pub band? Wonder no more; Franco-Austrian company Superamas have all the answers.

Big 3rd Episode: Happy/End really should be great. The wide stage houses a full rock band, an intriguing metal dancefloor and a gym changing room while a large screen hangs above it. The piece opens with members of a band breaking off rehearsals to drink beer as their married bassist reveals he’s got their absent female vocalist pregnant. The action freezes and then the piece starts again. And again. And again. Sometimes the action moves a little bit further on, or is interrupted by more freezing mid-scene, but mostly it is increasingly grinding repetition.

The irritation is compounded by the fact that the performers are actually lip-synching to a poor-quality recording of the threadbare dialogue. Occasionally the sequence is interrupted by moderately diverting videos projected on the screen; twenty-somethings are shown making out in a surprisingly explicit video while the voiceover of an anthropologist arguing that humanity hates and fears love plays on.

The band and stage suddenly explode into life as the female lead singer screams through Teen Spirit, writhing around the floor in a tiny red dress aggressively exposing her breasts and pretty much showing everyone the contents of her knickers before collapsing into a heap of ecstatic masturbation. Then more videos, more sneering at modern life and more ironic distance. Three glamorous young women undress in the changing room of a gym while discussing their sex lives in desultory detail. The net effect is rather like seeing Carrie, Samantha and co. played by lap-dancers. This sequence also repeats over and over. The result feels as exploitative as it is dull. One of the women talks about getting cancer. Another appears to die in a car crash stolen from a David Lynch movie. Some Derrida happens on the video screen. And roll credits.

The real problem here is the corrosive cynicism at the heart of the piece, coupled with an approach to structuring that most closely resembles tearing pieces from magazines, books and scripts, throwing them up in the air and calling where they land a dramaturgical solution. While again, this sounds like it could yield interesting results, here it simply bores. The smug contempt, the straw targets and the sheer lack of intelligence or articulation of the objections make for tedious viewing.

Superamas clearly despise much of modern culture but at the same time display a horror of admitting as much, let alone suggesting any alternative. Their approach boils down to the spectacle of someone commenting on the objectification of women by putting a woman on stage and objectifying them. Thus run all their arguments with modern life. They take things they don’t like, subtract the things that other people might well like about them, and then show us their joyless parodies to prove what a terrible place the world is. It is the sound of someone repeatedly banging their head against their own postmodernism. Happy/End is sex without passion, jokes without humour and life without hope. It’s like capitalism without the shopping.

This is what the majority of the show looked like...

The Nirvana opening section and a bit of some dancing from later can be found here should you wish to live some of the tedium for yourself.

I Apologize - Spordikirik, Rakvere

[First draft plus]

Giselle Vienne’s first collaboration with iconic writer Dennis Cooper, I Apologize is a perfect marriage of dance, text, puppetry, music and sheer intelligence. A young man (Jonathan Capdevielle) paces listlessly on a brightly lit white stage among a large number of blood spattered plywood packing cases. He opens one and fetches out life-like mannequins of 12-year-old girls dressed in a fetishistic schoolgirl outfits. Dennis Cooper’s voice reads out a description of marital violence. Peter Rehberg’s soundtrack – a kind of distillation of terror into noise – builds to an appalling pitch of intensity.

Anja Rötterkamp dressed in the same short skirt and heavy fringe as the schoolgirl dolls and wearing vertiginous shiny black S&M heels circles the stage, her movements suggesting permutations of violent sex; climbing the towers of packing crates, crawling on all fours, spreading and closing her legs with agonising slow-motion deliberation, arching her back as if in continual agony and ecstasy. Her counterpoint, Jean-Luc Verna - shaved head, red contact lenses, metal teeth and a body covered in tattoos - looks utterly terrifying and satanic. His stage presence, however, is strangely graceful, striking poses that quote Nijinsky combined with moments of jerky, intricate nightclub-dancing; at once menacing and magnificent.

The fragments of text to combine with the onstage action to increase the sense of tension and gut-wrenching fear, opening up incredibly disturbing worlds of violent, abusive sexual fantasy. In one, a man talks with a computerised voice answering his online advert for a young man who wants to be sexually abused. The man questions the voice about being abused as a child, clearly gaining sexual pleasure from the details, demanding more and more explicit information.

More dolls are unpacked, seated and threatened, many left to sit ratcheting up the already disturbing mise-en-scene. Scenes suggesting the torture, sexual abuse and murder of young girls combine with Rötterkamp’s disturbingly seductive, sexualised dance of submission. Capdevielle puts scary animal masks on the doll’s faces, while elsewhere he enters wearing a Jar Jar Binks mask - the effect is at once extraordinarily creepy and very funny.

Every moment opens multiple narratives and suggestions. The performances, the music and the text intermingle to create a powerful exploration of the darkest parts of the human psyche. Rather than making the audience piece together a story, or search for meaning, the performance opens a space where the intellect is fired by multiple stimuli while the nerves are assaulted by visceral sensation. The viewer is completely surrounded by and immersed in a nightmare, while every new element creates and refines its possible meanings. The overall effect is shocking, shattering; leaving one’s body adrenalised and the mind racing. It is the single most exciting, thrilling night I have ever spent in a theatre, both physically and artistically. Despite the horror, I Apologize also somehow manages to be extraordinarily beautiful, with the final moments achieving a sense of catharsis. An incredible achievement.

No videos of I Apologize on YouTube that I've been able to find, but if you want a rough idea of Peter Rehberg's work, this clip from subsequent Vienne/Cooper collaboration Kindertotenlieder gives some idea - play very loud indeed for full effect.

More photos:

Postcards from Estonia

Once again, this is [was] being written at an altitude of 35,000 ft over the North Sea as Postcards flies back from a six-day jaunt in Estonia under the auspices of the FIT Mobile Lab. This time for the country’s “Baltoscandal” festival in the town of Rakvere. Baltoscandal, it should be noted, apparently has nothing to do with “scandal” (although the Estonian word for scandal is confusingly similar), but with its roots as a festival of Baltic-Scandanavian theatre/dance/performance/live-art.

Of the four FIT festivals I’ve attended so far (Munich, Helsinki, London and Rakvere), Baltoscandal was perhaps by far the most artistically successful. It faces stiff competition from Munich, largely because the programme at Munich exposed me to work that absolutely floored me in terms of how far it was beyond what gets produced in Britain, in terms of experimentation. Interestingly, what stuck out about Munich was the level of technology being deployed in the works shown. I don’t know if that is a peculiarity of the festival director’s taste, an intentional theme for that particular festival or just pure coincidence – after all, SpielArt in Munich ran for much longer than the five days we were there – showing a huge range of works, including Tim Etchell’s collaboration with Victoria That Night Follows Day.

Either way, my perception of what theatre could be was comprehensively re-wired permanently. Even if the work doing the re-wiring wasn’t necessarily the most realised I’d ever seen, there was something about the level of experimentation and difference that really excited me. Similarly, because of that European way of somehow not drawing the same boundaries between “theatre” and “dance” or perhaps drawing them in less definitive, more mutable ways, I was exposed to purer forms of the stuff that Frantic Assembly and co had been drawing on for years. I remember how exciting it was to go to The Place for the first time afterwards and write about it as a “theatre critic”.

Baltoscandal, by contrast, felt kind of cosy and familiar. Cosy and familiar radical experiment, sure, but more like the kind of stuff you might find in Shunt or the BAC - if Shunt or the BAC were having their BEST WEEK EVER. Okay, that’s overstating the case slightly, but only very slightly. Due to a particularly heavy schedule – roughly fourteen hours a day – of planned things, and only then maybe a drink in the festival tent, one’s spirits did tend to wax and wane. There was still an amount of work that was “fine” or “perfectly nice”. Similarly, there were at least two pieces that completely divided opinion. However there were at least three pieces that were outstanding in different ways and several others that were fascinating to see.

Thanks to the festival’s brevity, despite our concurrent workshop programme (only four days), and the fact that we could get into performances we weren’t specifically booked into with our festival passes, it felt like we Mobile Lab types were seeing a very good chunk of what the festival had to offer, rather than being bolted on for what can feel like a random four days a some point in a much longer festival. Similarly, like Wiesbaden, the festival having a popular hub – again in a marquee outside the theatre – gave the event a sense of community that gave both festivals a brilliant extra dimension, where meeting the performers and the visiting programmers from other European festivals, as well as hanging out with the other critics, becomes perhaps the most invaluable part of one’s education at these festivals.

Over the next couple of days I hope to write up some of the shows I saw either in long form, proper review form, or in brief précis. I’m also keen to try to construct a kind of overview of the festival. For the first time it felt like themes emerged from the work, along with a surprising number of shared motifs, and it would be interesting to discuss how these might suggest some sort of commonalty between apparently disparate bits of work.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Postcards aus Wiesbaden - yer actual stücke

[work in progress]

Long overdue, here’s a quick trot-through of the plays seen by Postcards in Wiesbaden and Mainz during the Neue Stücke biennale. I’m afraid due to time pressure they’re necessarily a bit on the brisk side, focusing more on what stuck out than seeking to give “proper” review of each. Still, at least that means this post might come in at a manageable length.

Śmierc Człowieka-Wiewiórki (or Der tod des Eichhörnchenmenschen) by Teatr 2xu/ustausta, Warsaw at the Wartburg theatre in Wiesbaden.

Śmierc Człowieka-Wiewiórki is performed in Polish with German simultaneous translation. Since I have neither Polish nor German, I was pretty much stumped. That said, the staging was more than engaging enough to hold the attention for most of the duration, so it was often more a case of feeling mildly frustrated rather than bored. According to the programme bumf, it “tells the story of Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF as grotesque pop theatre”. The aesthetic is a familiar one: flats painted as concrete behind and flanking the stage; projections of pop art and newsreel footage mixed with live video feeds; a white noise soundtrack tuning in and out of sixties pop music and Bach.

It is difficult to talk about the actual performances, since the speech/dialogue/whatever-it-is was unavailable to me, but it seemed pretty serviceable, high-energy stuff. Marcin Liber's staging may or may not closely fit the action, though I suspect, given the level of what could be termed “interventions” or “non-naturalistic moments”, that it was more interpretative than “writer-serving”. This jumped the proverbial shark at the moment where the all-purpose cop/tool-of-the-repressive-state crucifies and then rapes Gudrun Ensslin – or is it Ulrike Meinhof? – against the back wall of the stage. Thanks to the general artiness, this was not so much a moment of gross-out, in-yer-face brutality, but a kind of demonstration or indication of this action taking place – the strategy foregrounds the unreality of what you are watching, while still making you wince at the implied horrors taking place.

ENGLAND - Great Britain / news from nowhere, Brighton

[Coming soon]

Mariella - Sweden / Göteborgs Stadsteater

Mariella is the first bit of European theatre I’ve seen where I felt completely at home. I was back in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs circa 2001 watching yet another drama about disadvantaged youths hanging out on council estates and being sexually abused. Apparently the language of Mariella’s script is rather good; if you happen to speak Swedish. And the acting all looked fine – that odd thing of actors in their mid/late-twenties pretending to be 16, but we're used to that, aren't we?

However, the black box staging, quotidian lighting, and minimalist set – here a park bench, there a chair and a television set – did, if nothing else, reassure me that mainland Europe is not all just regietheater and spectacular innovation. Of course this is monstrously unfair given that I experienced only the design elements and blocking with any level of clarity, but these were dull enough in themselves to be reassuring. I am told that the storyline was also cheap and hackneyed in the extreme, so success and enjoyment were down to the clever use of contemporary Swedish idiom, appreciation of which was limited to only one of our group, who still appeared to find the piece pretty standard. So there we go.

The Pride of Parnell Street - Ireland / Fishamble Theatre Company, Dublin

My views on this are already a matter of public record. What my review doesn’t say is how much a matter of benefit-of-the-doubt was on offer. I saw this the same evening that I saw Mariella; Parnell Street started at ten and finished at eleven forty-five, and from halfway through I was willing it to end with every fibre of my being. Such is sometimes the life of a critic. It seemed desperately unfair to allow these factors to influence me, though. It really wasn’t the play’s fault. It was well-written and superbly acted, even if Irish intercut monologues really aren’t my thing. Although there did seem to be a certain amount of “so what” about it, irrespective of taste. However, this was one of those occasions where all the factors militating against it did it a lot of favours. Also, having seen Barry’s earlier play Hinterland, the simple fact that Pride… wasn’t Hinterland earned it several more brownie points.

hamlet ist tot. keine schwerkraft / hamlet is dead. no gravity - Austria, Schauspielhaus Wien, in co-production with wiener wortstaetten

Review here. There really is a lot more to say about this production. As with my recent mea culpa about Relocated, this was another review where I really don't think I got anywhere close to unpacking the heart of the thing. My review – like a few too many of my reviews recently, turned into something of a meta-review diverted to discussing the problems of experiencing a foreign text at the expense of talking about the actual play.

Discussing the play in this way was partially a strategy of replacing customary appreciation of horizontal and vertical contexts with foregrounded naïvety. It was also the only possible honest response, especially in an extended word-count. Even so, I felt I hadn't even begun to communicate what it was that I found so thrilling about the performance. On the other hand, this is in part due to the fact that I still find it incredibly difficult to communicate meaningfully about stuff that grabs me on a really basic aesthetic level. Like Attempts on Her Life, Simple Girl, Trojan Woman and Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler there was something here that just clicked with What I Like Best. That's very hard to make into a review that can mean something to anyone else, not least when that readership – in this instance the international attendees of a theatre festival – will have fewer of the usual reference points one might hope to be able to deploy.

Verschwinden oder Die Nacht wird abgeschafft / Disappearing or Night Is Abolished - Austria

Oh dear – interesting experience of cultural difference on this one. I went to see this with only one of my colleagues from the Young Critics Forum, the Bulgarian critic Kremena Dimitrova (or Кремена Димитрова in case she wants to Google herself). She was reviewing it for the Biennale Bulletin, I was just there because there were supposed to be English audio-descriptions available. There weren't. More reading from the script, for me, then. What I found fascinating, reading the script for the first time as the events unfolded on the stage was how profoundly what was happening on stage seemed to be at odds with what was happening in the text.

In recent weeks, I guess I've been a bit keen to talk up the idea of “director's theatre”, if only because it seems so universally mistrusted -not even really culturally understood - in here (Hell, I doubt I've got a proper handle on it myself). Well, this was the flip side, this was Where Regietheater Goes Bad. The script itself was a flimsy thing – an odd, allegorical story about an extended family featuring some faux naif ingénue flitting between men and a sexless big brother figure, while these men sought to do each other in. Pretty non-naturalistic stuff. The sort of thing Sarah Kane might have knocked up as a writing exercise along tragic Greek lines when she was about 19. And I could imagine what the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs or Gate production might have looked like in an ideal world, both the literal what's-in-the-script-is-what-happens versions, and the slightly freer versions we might see now.

Anyway, what this production seemed to do was simply give every indication that the director hadn't understood the script at all. The setting didn't help. Playing in a particularly shabby venue, the play looked like student theatre at its diabolical worst: cheap set, cheap props, bad lighting design and acting that simply didn't reach past row one.

[to be concluded...]

Fremde im Haus / Strangers at Home - Italy

[Coming soon]

Transfer! - Poland / Wroclaw Contemporary Theatre

Having seen the worst example of directors’ theatre in Verschwinden, Transfer does an awful lot to remind one why anyone thought regietheater was a good idea in the first place.

Ten ‘real’ old people – i.e. non-professional performers – are seated at the back of the large stage, variously they come to the front of the stage and relate their experiences of living on a strip of land between Germany and Poland at the end of WWII. So far, so testimony/verbatim theatre via Rimini Protokol.

However, Jan Klata doesn’t stop there (i.e. only several miles ahead of Max Stafford-Clark and Robin Soans). Oh no. On top of this already fascinating show, Klata puts actors playing Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin on a massive raised platform and has them perform grotesques of the Yalta conference. Again, not a massive leap, but interesting stuff, nonetheless. Then, periodically they are handed guitars and a keyboard and suddenly start miming to the songs of Joy Division.

As far as anyone has been able to explain to me, there isn’t anything like a rationale for this, but that hardly seemed to matter. As a Joy Division purist, I was mildly troubled that the instruments were a bit on the eighties hair-metal end of things, and that there was a keyboard but no drummer. There was no vocalist either, although Stalin on bass did the honours miming to the vocals...

[to be concluded...]