Monday 31 March 2008

God of Carnage - Gielgud Theatre

Yazmina Reza's new play is basically a French, four-handed Vertical Hour. Instead of a father and son plus girlfriend it offers two couples who between them embody various ideological types across the political spectrum. Ralph Fiennes is Alain, a ruthless corporate lawyer, who is acting for a major pharmaceutical company facing one of those periodic outbreaks of bad news as one of their drugs proves to have some fairly disastrous side-effects. His wife, Annette (Tamsin Grieg) is in “wealth management” (cue both titters and knowing laughter from various parts of the audience. Perhaps also worth noting that the titters came from further back in the theatre). They are meeting up with well-to-do hardware wholesaler Michel (Ken Stott) and his impeccably liberal, arty writer wife Veronique, who is writing a book on Darfur.

The ostensible reason for their meeting is to discuss the small matter that Alain and Annette's son, has whacked Michel and Veronique's son in the face with a stick, knocking out two teeth and causing a good deal of consternation all round. The real reason for their meeting, of course, is that Yazmina Reza wants to shunt them all around the stage for an hour and a half to show us all something about how she reckons the world works.

Over the course of the play, we are treated to surprise revelations, bad behaviour, some drinking of brandy, worse behaviour, some spectacular on-stage vomiting and several cartloads of home-truths, all artfully served up on an impeccably tasteful minimalist red set (think Art, then change the colour). Michel, for example, moves from waxing cod-philosophical seeing humanity as “lumps of potter's clay - unformed” to railing at his wife's “infatuation with a bunch of Sudanese coons.” You get the picture. All this activity – and there's a fair old amount crammed in – amounts to another go at the furrow ploughed by last year's much-vaunted liberal-baiting The Pain, The Itch at the Royal Court; even down to using the execution of a household pet as a means to skewer the apparently liberal father (where does this recurring link between liberalism and animal cruelty come from?).

So, the son of a very wealthy couple both working in professions typically characterised as right-leaning (corporate law and wealth management) has smacked the child of a self-made man and a bleeding heart liberal in the face. Could it get any more obvious? Well, no; but it can get several layers more opaque. Allegiances form and crumble with surprising alacrity. Couple against couple, husbands against wives, various combinations of three against one; the whole piece starts to resemble one of those elaborate, regimented partner-swapping dances of the 19th century.

What's interesting here, is how the play shifts away from its original French assumptions in London's very different cultural climate. It is interesting, for a start, that Christopher Hampton's translation retains all the original French names and locations, and yet Matthew Warchus's direction has clearly ordered the actors to play their characters as British (three posh RP and one Scot). This decision skews the play's dynamics as what we see is some very English middle-class types moving very suddenly from buttoned-up middle class niceties to explosions of rage with a matter of minutes. Clichés about “Gallic froth” notwithstanding, if the characters had been played with even a hint of the culture from which they originally came, perhaps their actions would look a trifle less far-fetched.

The other interesting shift in cultural meaning is the question of whether London audiences are actually getting Reza's point. Of course where one's sympathies ultimately lie depends in part on one's own politics and worldview, but I was left with the impression that, to the sort of audience paying West End prices to see a new French play starring a number of more upmarket actors, the supposedly unsympathetic Alain and Annette appeared largely sympathetic throughout. Reza is a subtle enough playwright to offer shifts in perception – indeed such turns and reverses are the very substance of the play. However, I'm not sure that they all necessarily hit their mark. Perhaps the point of the play is that none of the characters are sympathetic, but at the same time, it seems as if Reza's impossibly do-gooding Darfur-worrying Veronique, is afforded considerably more sympathy by the script than by this audience.

Similarly, it was hard to tell whether the implicit equation of means of making money, the playground violence of children, the death by exposure of a pet hamster and the horrific slaughter in Sudan was a neat way of drawing themes together or an impossibly cheap and simple-minded running together elements of human experience into a parody of a moral to the story. The play is mostly well acted and well directed. The initial scenes are a bit stilted, but that could well be a stylistic choice – albeit one that doesn't come off terribly well. There is also a smattering of some good jokes. But there is a sense that Reza is really trying to get at something, to say something, with this play. And there is the sense that it remains largely unsaid in this production. Are we meant to conclude we should all be nicer? Or that chaos and carnage are an inevitable part of human existence? Or should we be wondering if secretly all liberals are only “moderate on the surface”? Whichever way, God of Carnage is a deftly executed, nicely produced piece of work, but one with ideas way above its intellectual range.

Sunday 30 March 2008

On the hoof

Hopefully the sudden flurry of activity posted beneath goes some way toward mitigating the inexcusable recent lack activity on here. Beyond having been away for a few weeks, Postcards has variously been moving house and having its laptop nicked while its desktop was in storage. All of which means Postcards is currently ‘net-less except in cafes, which is obviously not ideal for a blog. It also means I haven’t had much of a chance to catch up with everyone else’s blogs, which I’m looking forward to, following the reinstatement of some sort of internet access.

That said, I’m now settled (mostly) at my new place and should be back to normal service as soon as humanly possible. In the mean time, my reviews of The Tempest, Involution, Hanging by a Thread and Woyzeck for Time Out are all still online, I'm on a TheatreVoice discussion here and there are reviews of God of Carnage and Peter Pan – The Musical in the pipeline. Annoyingly, my reviews of I’ll Be The Devil, Hedda Gabler and the NT’s Baby Girl / DNA / The Miracle were pretty much the only things on my laptop not backed-up elsewhere. I suppose I should try to knock those up at some stage, but at the moment, they don’t seem especially pressing, particularly with Spaniards and a French to put in their place.

Such is Postcards’s current organisational regime, that at the moment forthcoming shows are still very much a trade secret, but hopefully some sort of April Highlights preview will hove into view at some not-too-distant point in the future.

In the mean time, it’s lovely to be back. Hello!

NSDF 08 reviews - 4.48 Psychosis

I'll post this review when I find the Word document on the server, or when I've got time to type it up from a paper copy. It was quite an astonishing performance, though. If I'd been doing it for Time Out I'd have almost certainly given it five stars.

Noises Off editorials - Thursday

There has been a lot of talk about responsibility in various forms this week. In these pages over the last couple of days there has, rightly, been passionate debate back and forth on the question of a critic's responsibility to those he or she is critiquing, with the added consideration of the fact that this is a festival and the strange dynamic that this creates. After all, in the Real World, performers are far less likely to find themselves standing next to the person who slated their show at a bar or seated next to them in successive performances.

While student critics at this festival might be viewed by some as spineless, cowardly assassins, bear in mind that firstly, they are required to sign their articles. Unsigned articles are not published. As a result, any member of any company can stand up in a discussion and ask a critic to stand up and reveal themself. Secondly, there is the oft-forgotten fact that Noises Off also publishes a fair amount of denunciations, both general and specific, of various critics or sets of reviews. It is worth noting that these criticisms of criticism often display a far more savage tone than many of the articles to which they are objecting. It's a curious feature of these kinds of meta-reviews that they forget that in writing about a review, they are in fact writing a review. And by calling the first writer all sorts of stupid, they are actually committing much the same sort of offence as that to which they theoretically object. That's fine. But it should be acknowledged that student critics, by writing for a public, are putting themselves on the line too. After all, it does take a certain amount of bravery to put your writing in front of anyone else.

Another sort of responsibility that has been considered is that of the theatre company to their audience. I suspect that this subject will get a good deal more attention in the discussion of Metamorphosis on Friday. Curiously, the reverse position – the responsibility of the audience to that which they are watching – has been largely ignored. Do audiences have responsibilities? Sure, there have been notes in the daily discussions about being sensible enough to take cough medicine and switching off your mobile phones, but this is scarcely more than common sense and courtesy. Beyond this, there is the perennial question of walking out and/or leaving at the interval. A recent article by the West End Whingers asked When Did Audiences Get So Polite? After all, disapproving tuts at someone walking out in disgust is hardly in the same order as the rioting at the première of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or the throwing of rotten fruit 'n' veg by early modern and Restoration theatregoers.

Beyond this, though, there is a more interesting question of audience responsibly concerning the way that they actually engage with theatre. Last year I attended the SpielArt festival of experimental theatre in Munich as part of a programme for critics run by a group called Festivals in Transition. What was most fascinating, beyond the obvious appeal of many of the works, was the difference in the way that the audiences in Germany habitually approached theatre. On mainland Europe there is a far more ingrained culture of reading signs, of semiotics. It is an approach which has some currency among the cognoscenti over here, but is still very much a minority position. The predominant reason for this is educational. In Britain theatre is still initially presented as a subset of Eng. Lit. Most Britons' first exposure to Shakespeare, for example, will be in an English lesson. Elsewhere in Europe theatre is often attached to the Visual Arts faculties of universities, and of course this impacts enormously on both the sort of theatre that gets created and the way in which it is approached. There are complex reasons for this. To reduce them to a simplistic level, Britain has a phenomenal writing culture and a deep-seated mistrust of abstract thought.

What was most heartening about yesterday's discussion of When You Cry in Space the Tears Go Everywhere was the ease with which virtually everyone who spoke seemed to have approached the piece. The company's initial trepidation at the outset was completely understandable. Here was a group of obviously intelligent and committed young theatre-makers whose working methods and end product were demonstrably leftfield (perhaps Chris Goode's favoured expression for non-mainstream - “upstream” - should be used here) at a festival where the majority of the selected work is revivals of extant texts. Indeed, the level of engagement on display was impressively sophisticated. Audiences for the most part didn't seem at all perturbed by the fractured structure, lo-fi aesthetic or non-linear (non-) narrative. People also appeared to be quite happy making their own meanings out of the work.

When I was in Munich, one of my German colleagues explained that their understanding of theatre was essentially that the contract between performance and audience was a compact of signs: that a piece of theatre would provide something which the audience in turn could “read”. This is a mutual relationship of both responsibility and trust. It is a model that the British could profitably adopt more widely, but yesterday's discussion suggested that such a move is a very real possibility.

NSDF 08 reviews - Metamorphosis

You don't so much enter York University's Metamorphosis as get bodily dragged in. A gaggle of grotesques in whiteface clutch at your, take your coat , thrust you into a different one and drag you into the theatre space, which has been transformed from an end-on, black box studio into an impressionist vision of a seedy crumbling living room, with peeling wallpaper and raised playing areas suggesting different rooms. The grotesques swarm about the audience, prodding, petting, and generally interfering with them. The lights dim and James Wilkes's Gregor Samsa sets the scene. His delivery is commendably un-Berkhovian; more RSC with Welsh-lilt than astringent cockney.

Something is definitely afoot here. There is very little here redolent of Students Doing Berkoff, instead the audience is thrust into a nominally interactive scenario – frequently beckoned to and whispered at by the group of urchins who squat at the peripheries of the action. The central cast acquit themselves admirably, offering some of the week's finest performances so far. Belt Up Productions have stumbled across a very exciting way of staging an extant text. This isn't actually an interactive experience per se. Or rather, it is a one-way exchange; the cast are free to molest the audience at will, but there is no real room for the audience to interrupt the main action of the stage. However the effect of the interventions is to electrify the atmosphere in the room. It is commonplace to note that while cinema audiences are passive, theatre audiences are active viewers; Belt Up's approach takes that attention to a whole new level.

That said, there is an issue with the company's demands on audience complicity. After some pretty full-on haranguing of random punters, at one point, one of the grotesques, stepping into the role of a family of lodgers in the Samsa household, basically dry-humps a girl selected at random from the audience. It is an uncomfortable moment, and one which I'm not sure the company has fully thought through. That said, this discomfiture aside, the genuine edginess of the overall experience is quite something. Belt Up urgently need to look at the contract with their audience, but in the mean time, for achieving the freshest imaginable production of this extant Metamorphosis they deserve a good deal of praise.

Noises Off editorials - Wednesday

In 2004 the then recent-graduate actor Khalid Abdalla – since seen in United 93, The Kite Runner and Paul Greengrass's forthcoming film Imperial Life in the Emerald City – wrote an eloquent piece in Noises Off on the sudden, systematic erosion of the festival's intellectual dimension during Andrew Loretto's artistic directorship, in favour of discos and karaoke. His comments are worth reproducing at some length:

“In the middle of last year's daily schedule came two 9 o'clock discussions - Mike Leigh in conversation with Mike Bradwell, and a Provocations event in which our own Robert Hewison interviewed fellow critics Michael Billington, Alex Sierz and Sam Marlowe on the point of theatre criticism, giving us the festgoers an opportunity to give some of the establishment's critics a difficult grilling. Meanwhile, each night there was a late-night discussion, chaired by Richard Hurst, which in its own words, took 'the form of the well known TV show Question Time', in which selectors, students, workshop leaders, and others, were invited to answer whatever questions the festival goers asked of them. So, unlike this year, the bar and Noises Off were not the only places keeping the festival going into night.

“What worries me is the forum the festival has lost in losing public discussions that are about important issues that face the theatre as a whole. At the moment our only public discussions have been about the shows we have seen. Great. But we need more. What I am arguing for is the return or re-inauguration of discussions that take us beyond the experiences we have had at the festival - surely something we all need. I say re-inauguration because there were faults with the system as it was. Importantly, the late-night discussions did not draw big enough crowds. But still, they drew the interested, and no doubt they could interest more. Indeed, for the good of the festival and those in it, the festival should do it damnedest to draw in as many people as it can.

“I can't help but feel that the chances I've had to come into contact with the opinions of others about the larger scale have been limited. I know that's where I make real contact. We need more places where we're supposed to talk and argue, challenge each other and learn.”

The situation in 2003 that he describes now seems impossibly remote. Between 2004 and 2006 a programme of night-time entertainments was instigated, which both put numerous possible venues for late-night discussions beyond use, but also, more damagingly, caused a significant drain on possible attendees for such events. As a result, several longstanding elements at the core of the festival's culture were severely damaged. It is, after all, very easy to replace something quite difficult that requires engagement and thought with something much easier to consume. It has happened in television, newspapers, literature and music. It is far harder to change back.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. Festival director Holly Kendrick has laudibly introduced a couple of debates on wider topics into the main show discussions – Mark Ravenhill's Increasing Access question on Sunday and yesterday's more abstract consideration of Why We Make Theatre. However, if the apparent mute incomprehension with which this topic was greeted in yesterday's discussion is anything to go by, things have already slid an awful long way. Perhaps it was the way in which it was introduced. Perhaps it was the way that the first few speakers all hailed from what – for want of a better term – we'll call the “grown-ups”; but it seemed suddenly, horribly significant that everyone who spoke in this second part of the discussion was not a student. Perhaps it was to do with the disconnectedness of the question from the general student theatre scene. Of course the direction taken by the Arts Council affects everyone who hopes to work in theatre. But it isn't half as immediate a concern to a lot of students as a Student Union making it difficult to put on plays, or a student newspaper flatly refusing to pay them any attention. Yes, the real world is important, but I got the impression that a lot of those attending the discussion were, at best, feeling like they were being told what's what, or suddenly being party to a public conversation between industry professionals to which they did not feel invited to contribute. Perhaps I'm guessing the reasons wrong, but I was disappointed not to hear a single student voice addressing the question. This is after all the National STUDENT Drama Festival. If students can't feel a sense of ownership and entitlement to share their opinions here, then we are lost.

In today's Noises Off, Kate Owens, writing on precisely this question, asks “Surely all opinions are valid?” It is crucial that we bring some nuance to bear on this question. Everybody has a right to their opinion, and to express that opinion. However, everyone else has a right to disagree with this putative thought. Opinion and comment should be part of a process of negotiation. Let me tell you a story – at NSDF2000 one of that year's festival judges, Mike Alfreds – the founder of Shared Experience and a director for decades – described the programme notes of a selected show called Counterbalance as “pretentious and confused” and wrote the show off as utter rubbish. This September Alan Lane's company Slung Low will present their Samuel Beckett Award-winning show at the Barbican's Pit theatre. The connection? Workshop leader Alan Lane was the director of Counterbalance. Was Mike Alfreds right? I'd have said not at the time, and the criticism, though unpleasant, doesn't seem to have permanently damaged Lane's desire to make work.

Owens is exactly right to identify the right - hell, the need - for everyone to take part in the discussions, but she is absolutely wrong to think that they should do so on the understanding that whatever they think or say is entirely beyond reproach. Conversation is a two-way process. Are all opinions valid? They are opinions. Agreement or otherwise is part of that negotiation. These are opinions, not facts. It is excellent that students are writing on their desire to have their opinions. It is deeply depressing if they want those opinions to go unchallenged. Let's be a bit braver, let's say what we think, and if someone else thinks something else, then let's listen to them and see why they think something else. We might never agree, but at least we'll both have been involved in a fruitful process.

NSDF 08 reviews - Strict Machine / When You Cry in Space Your Tears Go Everywhere

Tuesday was retro day in the Holbeck, offering back-to-back tributes to the seventies and eighties. Taken in reverse, Off Kilter offer a dance-based return to the student politics of the Thatcher years with a morality tale about a pair of career girls working in An Office. One, we are told in an excellent, witty Brecht/Weill-cum-Chicago opening song, is all about success-at-any-price and adopts “male” strategies to achieve it. Her friend doesn't, and is consequently left in the slipstream.

Having been explained the story is then danced through in the following forty minutes. Helen Goalen and Abby Greenland are more than proficient as dancers, and offer an enjoyably thumping soundtrack of sleazy electronica by way of accompaniment. Much of the actual choreography errs on the somewhat literal side and while deftly executed, often looks like nothing so much as two thirds of a Bananarama video.

More annoying is the absurd moralising of the narrative. This is knee-jerk anti-capitalism at its absolute worst, painting anyone who happens to work in an office as either rapacious monster or a hapless drone. The piece even offers a symbolic scene where Ambitious Spice takes off her skirt and put on a pair of trousers. Trousers! Imagine! For all this, from moment to moment Strict Machine is actually quite a fun, little piece - tightly performed and engaging.

Off on an entirely different planet is Tinned Fingers's When You Cry In Space Your Tears Go Everywhere – a lovely lo-fi, performance-piece constructed around childhood ideas of heroism, exploration (Arctic, mountain and space) and the strange realisation that “space is a bit seventies”. The five performers read lists into microphones, dress up one of their number in a paper cut-out mountaineering outfit, re-enact the Boney M bit from Touching the Void – considering at length their own worst song to have stuck in their heads as they lie dying. The also blow handfuls of paper-as-snow at each other (a motif fast-becoming the symbol of this year's festival). You get the general idea.

This is half an hour of hugely likeable observations and artsy mucking about, performed with an admirable degree of audience-responsive liveness. Tinned Fingers clearly know a thing or two about performance and have well and truly tapped the rich vein the runs from the Wooster Group through to Chris Goode and Melanie Wilson. Indeed, Ella Good's deadpan delivery is very similar to Wilson's own.

The exciting thing about the piece is the way in which, without appearing to make much effort at all, seamlessly pinpoints the cultural Zeitgeist of “post-futurism” (my invention) – essentially a feeling that can be summed up by the T-shirt slogan “This Was Supposed To Be The Future” - the idea that we have now passed all the major dates that, when we were growing up in the seventies and eighties, signified the future – Space 1999, 2000AD, 2001 A Space Odyssey etc. When You Cry... paints a picture of gently punctured childhood imaginings, and then offers a sense that in spite of this, everything is still kind of all right, really. This is a warm, clever, funny little show and one that suggests that Tinned Fingers have a very bright future of their own.

Noises Off editorials - Tuesday

After writing a rather disgruntled review for yesterday's Noff of Lost in the Wind, I happened to come across several Lost Spectacles in the bar, and so I ended up reiterating everything I wanted my review to communicate directly to the company. (Actually, one last thing; change the title – I've lost count of the number of people who have called it Gone with the Wind). Yes, I had my problems with the piece, but at the same time, I also really liked a lot of it, and I was impressed enough by what I liked to want to tell the company about what hadn't worked, because I think they stand a good chance of making some absolutely outstanding work in the future.

At the same time, I was conscious that there was another monologue running in my head to do with originality. And I pretty much tried to keep a lid on it, both in my review and in the discussion yesterday morning. The argument runs something like this: I have seen quite a lot of work which is strikingly similar to Lost in the Wind. A lot of other people haven't. The company may well not have seen half the shows that their show reminds me of.

So, on one hand, Lost Spectacles *are* re-inventing the wheel – “Look at this!” they say. “Wow!” says everyone who hasn't seen a wheel before. “Hey, that's not a bad wheel you've got there,” says everyone else who has. On the other hand, isn't one of the best ways of learning anything to discover it for yourself? And isn't that part of the point of this festival: allowing student companies to put their work on show and learn more about it through its exposure to a wider audience? Exposing students to the new work being created by their peers and offering them the chance to engage with it up close.

At the same time this festival offers those same companies the chance to tangle with practitioners, and even (whisper it) critics, older and uglier than them. And those parties may well tell them that their work isn't half as original as they might have thought. An example; at my first festival, eleven years ago, I was having a chat with Robert Hewison about criticism and he made the (to me, then) revelatory comment that eras of theatre have a dominant “sign”. Back in 1997 he cited the battered brown leather suitcase as the dominant “sign” that stood for a certain eastern European sensibility in current visual theatre. So I smiled when I saw one eleven years later still being used by a student company.

I was similarly interested to hear the company themselves admit to having been influenced by Slava's Snowshow. Indeed, much of what was great about Lost... seemed to be connected to the company's taste in borrowings, rather than especially original inventions. Improbable's newspaper man makes an appearance, as do anthropomorphised household objects, which are common to several recent shows from the same tradition.

It was a shame, then, that in yesterday's discussion – or, perhaps “Feedback Session”, given how little actual *discussing* actually happened – that when Ian Shuttleworth asked the company about the round of spontaneous applause that had occurred in the Saturday afternoon performance, his question, having been answered intelligently by the company, was then also fielded by another member of the audience, who seemed to feel the need to a) shut down what had already been flagged up as a simple enquiry and b) interpret it as some form of criticism of the show. Judging by the round of applause that this proxy defence raised it seemed clear that this sort of Brook No Dissent policy had many sympathisers.

What concerns me about this approach to the discussions by members of the audience is that it will ultimately limit what any company stands to gain from taking part in a debate about their work in a very damaging way. If everyone is '”nice”; if everyone refuses to name faults in a production, or identify areas which were “less successful” (which failed, or didn't work, in old money), then no one will learn anything. At the same time, companies – like Unlimited in Sunday's discussion – must keep faith in their work. If Katie Mitchell (to pick one example entirely at random) listened to the critics of the national press when her production of Attempts on her Life opened, and had made changes accordingly – or, worse, demanded Nicholas Hytner remove it from the Lyttleton immediately, then London would have been robbed of what was the theatrical event of '07.

So, to conclude, critics and discussion participants: be brave enough to voice your dissent, to own your opinions and knowledge, and to fight your corner. Companies: own what you have done, remember why you did it, listen to what is being said, and then sort out for yourselves whether the person addressing you has a point or not. Yes, it's a tall order. It's difficult stuff. But trust me here, it's worth it.

NSDF 08 reviews - Lost in the Wind

With Lost in the Wind the theatre company Lost Spectacles create a series of beguiling, often seductive vignettes. This is the Fast Show approach to visual theatre. The problem is that these sketches don't really add up to much. Not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but what is frustrating is the series of false endings – the show contains at least three beautiful, poignant endings, one of which even drew spontaneous applause: the piece then carried on for another twenty minutes.

There was the sense that the sketches could have arrived in any order and achieved much the same result. Granted there was a vague sense of characters being introduced at the beginning and the sense that they ended up somewhere else by the end, but similarly interesting results would have occurred had the scenes been entirely rearranged. The company could make a positive virtue of this – offering the audience the chance to pick out scenes on cards before the show starts and thus determining the show they see. The closing image of the various characters each trekking through a blizzard is a strong one, but having the stage covered in shredded paper snow from the off would have offered an equally strong visual element.

Then there's the soundtrack. Former Noises Off editor Ian Shuttleworth once wrote at some length in these pages in praise of the soundtrack for Chris Perkin's excellent 2003 play Like Skinnydipping. His point was that using found music can amount to little more than a romp through one's iPod. Getting a soundtrack right isn't simply a matter of picking pleasant ambient beats. Yes, there were moments in Lost... that felt like the music was in some way integral to the action and the meaning. In a lot of other places I started wondering whether it wouldn't be quite nice to reset the thing to Handel or Nyman or GodspeedYou!BlackEmperor, for example.

All this carping isn't to say that Lost in the Wind doesn't achieve some very fine moments of affecting tenderness and drama. This is clearly a talented group of performers with a fine sense of what works visually. When they stop making vague commentaries on whimsy and dreams and start dealing with something that matters they could well be a force to be reckoned with.

Noises Off editorials - Monday

In yesterday's inaugural discussion session, Mark Ravenhill wearing his Member-of-the-NSDF-Board hat (presumably that's the huge furry one he's been sporting), asked us to consider the question: “Does everyone have the opportunity to make student theatre?” There are a number of simple, quick answers to the question; and a raft of longer, more culturally difficult ones. In the quick answers section: no, not everyone has the opportunity to make student theatre, because not everyone is a student. Even counting sixth-formers and those at FEs, the rigours of A-Level courses and lack of drama societies can mean that a whole bunch of students won't have any opportunity to make theatre.

And this is where the difficult bit starts. Assuming that 16-18-year-olds aren't so overworked that they have no time in which they can indulge in a hobby, we start to look at the issue of culture. This is where things start getting sensitive. If there are two areas where British society gets terribly tied up in knots those areas are “cultures” and “class”. Despite the best efforts of the Arts Council's extensive programmes concerning “diversity”, there often exists a perception – at least amongst the middle classes – that theatre (-going and -making) remains a largely white, middle class activity. Although, It sometimes feels tempting to give ourselves a pat on the back for the extensive numbers of women and homosexuals who are included.

So, there is a certain amount of concern amongst the middle classes that they are excluding those from different backgrounds. Judging by the pieces in this issue of Noises Off, this is a somewhat skewed perception. Two teachers of ethnically diverse, working class areas both report numbers of students with an obvious passion for the artform. Granted, they have their grumbles, which I hope are noted by the powers that be. But they also point up a certain attitude of noblesse oblige being affected by large numbers of those suffering from Liberal Guilt (henceforth “Lilt”).

Of course, those running the festival should absolutely be keen to attract the largest number of people to apply for selection to the festival and for the largest number of people possible to want to buy tickets. But, on the other hand, in spite of its spectacular track record regarding future theatre makers, the NSDF is not responsible for British culture. We can seek to win as many hearts and minds from as wide a range of people as possible. But what we are is a drama festival. And the simple fact of the matter is that theatre doesn't appeal at all to some people.

If you look through this magazine you will notice through the glowing and glowering reviews of the same shows that even people who are all “passionate about theatre” can't actually agree on what's good and what's not good. Great. All grist to the creative mill in the context of a festival, but surely also suggestive of a further set of people who won't like any of it for any number of complex reasons which might be informed by anything from personal taste to personal prejudice. In fact, “taste” is a strangely neglected area of study or discussion – save for disparaging mudslinging from various quarters in the class war, where We Will Rock You is written off as “for the masses” and Women of Troy is written off as “for affected middle class ponces”.

But all this good sense can distract us from the question of whether opportunity is simply a matter of choice. Of course it isn't. Furthermore, we all know that there is opportunity and opportunity. There are also questions of cultural aspiration. One of the most questionable things claimed in the discussion this morning was Steph Street's bold assertion that acting is a “noble profession”. Perhaps in Germany or Russia where glorious state-subsidised repertory companies provide jobs for life and allow for a modicum of dignity. But, come on, in Britain acting is a frightening, insecure, demoralising career choice that leaves precious little room for nobility. Small wonder that many without the luxury of significant private income streams from the bank of mum and dad eschew the profession in favour of law, banking and medicine. God bless those who don't, but let's not pretend that it's easy.