Monday 28 April 2008

Static - Soho Theatre

Written for the Financial Times

With Static, Dan Rebellato has creating a blistering meditation on the nature of love, grief and the importance of compilation tapes. Sarah's husband Chris has died of an unexpected brain haemorrhage. Chris was an obsessive music lover, record collector and, until losing his hearing in a car accident, a music journalist. He started a magazine at school with the slogan: “Music isn't just music, music is also everything else.” Going through his possessions Sarah comes across a compilation tape with her name on it and becomes obsessed with trying to unlock its meaning.

The play is a collaboration between Suspect Culture and Graeae. It is a fascinating pairing; Suspect Culture create primarily visual and sonic experimental theatre, while Graeae work with both blind and deaf performers, always incorporating sign-language and audio-description into their work. The pay-off here is a brilliantly intricate performance style that plays with what information is given to audiences – some lines are delivered only in sign-language and others only spoken. The production has its rough edges, but is ultimately ferociously powerful.

This is also a play with a damn fine soundtrack – from a Mozart Agnus Dei to a Rufus Wainwright cover of the same, with plenty ranging from The Smiths to Bob Dylan in between. The narrative is similarly interspersed with descriptions of impossible dream concerts that could have never taken place – Nirvana at Glastonbury '08, for example – recalling rock's own track-record with mortality.

The play brilliantly reminds us about how much it is possible to care about music, about lyrics, and how perfectly songs sometimes sum up the world. At one point Sarah describes a Manic Street Preachers gig: “Richey Edwards smashed up his guitar at the end of You Love Us,” she recalls, “Chris squeezed my hand and said sometimes only clichés will do.” This perfectly encapsulates the way the play operates. Engaging with pop's iconoclasm allows Static's massive themes to take flight. Rebellato's writing offers poetic passages that suggest he'd be no mean lyricist himself, while elsewhere crackles with excellent jokes about pop-culture. Despite being chokingly sad, the play offers a final redemptive message of hope, strung together from song titles: “Somewhere there is a place for us / It's impossible / And / It's all true.”

Saturday 26 April 2008

So much from th' understanding of "himself"...

One of the most interesting posts on this week's Guardian Theatre blogs site was Chris Wilkinson's Noises Off piece looking at the question of blogging and anonymity.

It's not something I'd previously given much thought to, apart from occasional moments where I've wondered if someone popping up in Postcards's comments section to vehemently disagree with something I've written is in fact the very person I've written the thing about.

But, Chris is astute to bring it up. As he notes, in the past couple of weeks it has been a primary bone of contention on both sides of the Atlantic. Our own kerfuffle over anonymity focuses on David Eldridge's sad resignation from the blogosphere. David was already blogging when Postcards... started, and I remember being quite surprised to discover that a writer with David's level of success was writing so candidly about his thoughts. Granted, David strictly observed a rule about not slagging off other playwrights on his blog, and, as he has been at pains to point out, didn't really discuss inside details of the business. However, much of what he did write was a fascinating insight into the working life of a playwright.

Obviously, it is what he felt that he couldn't write about that really interests me. I'm secretly as curious and prurient as the next man, and insider gossip and information is always fascinating. Not least when it sheds light on the reasons why a play or production turned out the way it did. Of course, such information is a bit of a bind for critics. On balance, I think it's probably better not to know that, for example, a director is having an affair with his or her lead actor, prior to writing up as such information will only sit on one's shoulder and colour one's judgement. Look at the write-ups when Trevor Nunn directed his wife Imogen Stubbs's play. Most of them seemed to universally suggest that the only reason he'd gone near such rubbish is that it was by his wife. Now, of course, it appears that he might just have acquired a taste for rubbish in his old age...

The problem here is essentially politics (small p). It would not be politic for David to highlight any problems he might have with a particular director, writer, actor or building. Indeed, it was his initial reaction to a previous Noises Off article's quotation of a comment he made about audiences at the National Theatre on his blog that sparked the long row that seemed to presage his departure. I realised that a similar problem had been growing for me. It's both personal and political (Michael would be thrilled): when I started this blog nearly a year ago, I vowed to myself that I was never going to write about my personal life on it.

Looking back I see that in the early days, I actually referred to stuff that was going on in my life a good deal more than I do now. I also notice Postcards... seems to have been a far more wide ranging creature in those heady, early days commenting not only on theatre, but also the news, newspapers and the personal ads in TheLondonPaper. The reason for this change, I suspect, is that when Postcards... started, no one was paying me anything for writing theatre criticism. I was doing it for free tickets and trying to fit doing so around a 'day job'. Now I am essentially making my living as a freelance theatre critic. In the past year, I've also met a lot more of my fellow critics. As a result, the personal and the political get rather tangled up. There's a strange sort of honour-among-thieves crossed with a kind of Stockholm-syndrome that creeps up on one. The net result of having met people is that it changes the character of writing about their work, while the net result of being employed by various publications is that it utterly alters one's relationship to them.

Now that I write regular posts for the Guardian's Theatre blogs section, I would think twice before laying into something that one of my fellow bloggers had posted, or describing any particular writer's work as a continuous stream of vapid drivel. Or at least, if I felt strongly enough about it, I would probably conduct the attack in a more measured fashion than Postcards... would have done a year ago. At the same time, one critic (you see, one goes all coy about naming one's sources) has a pet thesis that the because the Guardian did so well at picking up so many of the new generation of theatre bloggers, it has effectively strip-mined the blogosphere, because everyone is now writing for them, instead of on their own blogs.

It is telling that, compared to what felt like the febrile activity of last summer and autumn, the Noises Off column now frequently needs to dig through the American theatre blogs because no one in Britain has posted anything all week, except on the Guardian site. I know I'm certainly more guilty of this than anyone. And obviously the Guardian's Theatre blogs have a different character to that which Postcards had when it started up. For a start, this sort of unfocused rambling is wisely discouraged. Sure, I can try to get a few friends to wade through the unedited reams poured from my head onto a keyboard, and use the comments thread to see what people think, but that's hardly good practice on the international website of a globally respected newspaper. At the same time, alongside David Eldgridge's public closure,
Alex Ferguson's ...Unknown Persons... (25.05.07 – 14.01.08),
Dan Bye's Pessimism of the Intellect... (23.05.07 – 15.12.07),
and The Reduced Michael Billington (27.10.06 – 17.09.07)
have all quietly folded for undisclosed reasons. So it goes... The blogosphere, like the universe, after an initial, vastly exciting explosion, seems to have been quietly contracting ever since (I'm no astrophysicist, I could have got that universe analogy completely the wrong way round).

All this gets us quite a long way from the starting point of anonymity. What is interesting about posting at the Guardian is that it removes a certain layer of that anonymity. While I am entirely realistic about the likely number of readers anything I post there may achieve, it does feel slightly more like being on public display than merely tending to a blog in the backwaters of the internet. By the same token, writing for Time Out and (very, very occasionally) the Financial Times, comes with an obligation that one should do anything that lets those publications down. Well, not unless one wants to alienate one's employers and get a reputation for being deeply unprofessional into the bargain. There are also the unwritten codes of the critical cosa nostra to worry about. I remember being mortified reading through AA Gill's rather ludicrous set of charges in his attack on critics last year, thinking – Christ! I don't insist on an aisle seat! I don't not clap or not laugh at jokes during shows! I haven't even been told how many notes it is considered proper to take! I don't even fall asleep during shows! I can't be a proper critic at all.

Then I started looking around me and seeing critics laughing, clapping, not sitting on the aisle seats, and staying awake throughout the shows they were reviewing and started to feel relieved that it seemed unlikely that Gill had been entirely correct in his summations. At the same time, there are the other rules – the not discussing the show with other critics, the adherence to probity, the not sticking around for the free drinks on press night and the most hotly debated – what one does with reviewing the work of people who, by no fault of one's own, one turns out to know to some extent.

I don't think anyone wants to see theatre criticism turn into 'me-journalism'. It has its place, sure – I'm as happy to waste a couple of minutes reading about Sam Leith's World of Warcraft addiction as the next man – but that place isn't in theatre reviews. Even AA Gill's TV reviews are a world away from his restaurant reviews. It seems to me that the ideal critic can foreground themself in a way that remains entirely focused on the work under consideration. Consider the recent reviews of Gone With The Wind – for Michael Billington it was a failure of politics, for Charles Spencer it was a failure of Theatre. I find the way that Billington can so seamlessly make his agenda seem like a definitive judgement absolutely fascinating, but it is Spencer's analysis that seems to nail the problems of the actual production. The problem is, Charles Spencer and I have pretty different tastes, so when reading the problems nailed, one's mind is always cast back to 'problems' of other productions that he has nailed, and remembering that such 'problems' are the elements that one really loved, or vice versa – that he loved most the bits you found most flawed.

So where does all this get us? Yes, we need to know enough of the person to assess where they are coming from. A review or blog should hopefully make this pretty clear (as should any anonymous comment on a blog – after all, from even the position of a given argument, a position should be discernible). As for writing about myself, obviously all the above is about what I think, but doesn't touch on my personal life, and that's how it's going to remain. Thing is, I deeply respect Chris Goode's blog for its candid emotional honesty: cf. here and here for example - the second piece in particular makes a beautiful case for the inclusion of the personal in blogging. I am concerned that part of my rationale for never discussing how I might be feeling is that it feels too much like a giveaway. After all, whatever the point of a critic may be, it certainly isn't to bring all their baggage into a theatre with them. Certainly a couple of critics do foreground a bit of hand luggage; Charles Spencer's recovery from alcoholism being the most obvious example. I'm not really sure how I feel about it. Obviously if Spencer feels it is necessary in the spirit of a “statement of interest”, then he should mention it. On the other hand, should a divorced critic feel the need to admit as much whenever watching a bedroom farce or traumatic break-up drama?

Might it not be better for critics to retain a bit of anonymity, at least until the publication of their scandalous, posthumous diaries and memoirs?


On a not entirely unconnected note – given how personal a selection of subjects the play tackles - on Thursday I saw Suspect Culture and Graeae's production of Dan Rebellato's new play Static. I was reviewing it for the FT, so until they've published or spiked it, I guess I should wait before posting the review here (no doubt with a ream of extra detail that 375 words simply doesn't allow). Suffice it to say, Static is a gorgeous, warm-hearted, funny, intelligent, astute and magical bit of work about love, grief and the fundamental importance of compilation tapes. The production might not be to everyone's taste (much like most compilation tapes), but once gotten used to is blisteringly powerful and nearly reduced the FT to tears every other minute (to which the FT did not admit in its review).

The show also features a neat soundtrack, on which when I do post my review, I might go YouTube-tastic. But, since I've spent a lot of today listening to bits from the show, here's Sonic Youth's Tunic from the show -

The play-in track - Wire's Outdoor Miner:

And lastly, a rather adorable boy-in-his-bedroom painstaking re-creation of How Soon is Now (also from Static), sans vocals – turn it right up and do Morrissey karaoke. Go on, you know you want to...

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Fucked - Old Red Lion

Written for

The title of Penelope Skinner's new play isn't so much provocative as cleverly punning. This hour long monologue traces the sexual history of a young woman, F, from the present day back to the point where she loses her virginity. The title, however, could well be referring to the pretty bleak circumstances in which our heroine finds herself - nursing a spiralling cocaine habit, working in a lap-dancing club, and sleeping with men for money, F's life is indeed looking pretty fucked.

By starting at this bleak beginning and tracing her life back through her series of sexual partners, there is a sense that the play is seeking to find the roots of this ending in the earlier encounters. It's a fair enough m.o., but starting at the end lends the tale a weight of fatality. On top of this, at the beginning of each scene F holds up a little card with the date of the scene, when it happened in relation to the last scene (two years earlier. etc.), and then folding the card back over, reveals a categorisation of F's role as, variously, “Girlfriend”, “Bitch”, “Whore”, “Virgin” and so on. As these accumulate around the stage, it all starts to feel a bit like a lesson in seventies feminism.

These are minor gripes in the face of what is an entertaining, witty and hugely enjoyable bit of writing, however. For the most part, Skinner's script is canny and acute as well as boasting a range of laugh-out-loud jokes. While F comes across as someone who would be quite annoying as a friend, her observations on men, sexuality and life in general often ring horribly true, as does her propensity for disastrous relationships.

Aside from the exciting script, the other main reason to go and see Fucked is the excellent performance from Becci Gemmell. She and director Daniel Goldman have created one of those monologue performances that end up surprising you when only one person comes onto a bare stage at the end for the curtain call. Such is the range and acuity of Gemmell's characterisations, married to her frenetic movement around the space, that the mind vividly fills in the gaps - as with a radio play - leaving a vivid and lasting impression of the world she has created.

Tuesday 15 April 2008

I Saw Myself - Vanbrugh Theatre

Written for

“Try to understand why little, whilst it is too little, also is enough.” - Sleev, I Saw Myself

I Saw Myself is one of Howard Barker's most impressive plays to date. It is a dense, richly allusive piece which appears to reference enormous swathes of cultural history. It might be going a bit far to describe the play as Barker's Hedda... but the comparison – a self-willed, unfaithful wife driving herself headlong into self-destruction – holds no small amount of water. Here the heroine, Sleev (all the characters have faintly silly names, one just ignores it and proceeds), is a recently widowed medieval wife working on a tapestry to commemorate her husband's death in battle. However, Sleev - prodigiously promiscuous - decides to reinvent the tapestry as a testament to her own infidelities and the futility of her husband's death. As she works with her three ladies-in-waiting she carries on an affair with her daughter's husband, and with a man whom she has concealed in her wardrobe. All the while the war in which her husband died moves closer to her home, and her eyesight begins to fail as she struggles to complete her compulsive labours.

The piece evokes a huge number of plays, from Oedipus Rex and Women of Troy up to Ravenhill's The Odyssey and the work of Sarah Kane: the scene where an armed soldier bursts into a room where a man is attempting to rape a woman makes a fascinating parallel with Blasted, especially given Kane's known penchant for Barker. In places the language borders on Beckettian territory, with fractured admissions of adultery reminiscent of Play. Elsewhere the aphoristic wit and arch delivery – nearly bordering on Quentin Crisp's mannered disdain – bring to mind Coward and Wilde. Consider:

Sleev: I will find a husband... I do not want a fat man and he must know theology. Oh if he’s fat it’s not significant. Let him be fat. Do you know of such a man? A fat man might be better. Let him crush me. Ask in the vicinity or beyond
Sheeth: A fat theologian?
Sleev: Let him subdue me, if he can, by volume. Or by argument.
____________--__________[my punctuation, Barker provides none]

More than these, presumably unintentional, allusions, the play contains many hundreds of Barker hallmarks. The plot and themes are almost distilled Essence of Barker. The language, the constant references to arses and cunts, the trademark exchanges hinging on the word “obviously”, all almost self-parodic, are still integral to the verbal texture. And, as with some of Barker's greatest works, he has created another phenomenally powerful central female character - as with Bradshaw, Galactia and Gertrude before her - in I Saw Myself's Sleev.

Similarly characteristic is the obvious commitment and talent of the actors. Geraldine Alexander as Sleev offers precisely the right mixture of acidity and raw sexual allure, by turns coquettish or imperious, wracked with lust or dismissive, while Julia Tarnoky as the most idiosyncratic of Sleev's maids is an incredible study in detailed performance – flighty, adoring and almost camp, but undercut with an edge of sarcastic wit.

While Barker isn't keen to present works of 'social utility' or narratives from which the audience can derive easy messages, I Saw Myself does deal, if not in psychological acuity, then in characters and situations that appear to contain recognisable truths about the way in which the human soul operates at the very edges of desire and pain. The characters are compelled to commit their actions, they speak their thoughts candidly. It is not naturalism, but almost the sound of interlocking soliloquies, or perhaps spoken arias, given the heightened emotional states and the musical precision of the language and vocal performances. This is a fascinating and quite unique work from a writer who remains a continual challenge to received notions of what theatre should be.

Monday 14 April 2008

The Internationalist - The Gate

Written for

Lowell has arrived at the airport of an unspecified eastern European country. He is an American. He is met at the airport by Sara. After some initial confusion establishing their status as colleagues she takes him to a restaurant and then on to a bar to sample some of the potent local spirits. The two talk, they get on. Sara is intelligent, sparky and fun. Lowell is charming, bright and handsome. The two go back to Sara's flat without even checking Lowell into his hotel room. Thus is the scene set for Anne Washburn's bittersweet comedy of international misunderstandings.

The Internationalist is a charming enough play, with some nice jokes and sections featuring characters talking in a totally made-up eastern European language - these are both neatly observed and brilliantly acted, especially so since there is no translation of what they are saying provided by the script. However, the story itself is lifted several notches higher by Natalie Abrahami's stylish direction coupled with the effect of Tom Scutt's elegant set, which manages to suggest the chic minimalism of anonymous European hotels and bars, and the basement rooms of archive files where it transpires Sara works. The set works brilliantly alongside Ben Pacey's beautifully realised lighting design. The play has also been given an enjoyable 40s jazz soundtrack lending the whole the atmosphere of a contemporary Cary Grant movie.

Alongside the modish design, Abrahami has added in some beautifully judged dance sequences (choreographed by Pedro Pires). Normally the sudden introduction of physical sequences into ostensibly straight plays feels a bit too much like a misplaced nod to trendy physical theatre, here the not-quite tango of Lowell and Sara -silhouetted against a bright white screen - is a perfect a way of staging their burgeoning romance; certainly far better than the fumbled pretend-sex scenes of naturalistic theatre.

If there's a downside here, it could be argued that despite the taut direction and incredibly detailed performances - Elliot Cowan's Lowell pretending to stand outside in the cold waiting for a taxi is the first time in ages that I've seen an actor on stage, indoors who has actually looked like they might be outdoors in the elements; the way he stands in relation to the imagined space is spot on - it is that the middle of the play does sag slightly. After a fascinating introduction and a clear setting up of the story's trajectory, there are a few scenes which seem to go nowhere very important, and with no great sense of urgency, but this is a minor gripe. It could be argued that the play is also largely inconsequential fluff, but in fact with a production this neat and acting this good, it hardly matters. What's more, it's intelligent, highly enjoyable fluff, and fluff which actually manages to score some well aimed points about Western attitudes to social status into the bargain.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Enter the Dame - BAC

Writing about early scratch performances of shows is a bit of a minefield if one also works as a critic. It feels slightly like a breech of etiquette, like writing up a pre-press night performance. However, at the same time, this first couple of outings for Melanie Wilson's new show Enter the Dame at the BAC last night and tonight had capacities of twenty per night and were sold out within minutes to interested, pre-warned parties. Even if all the other 39 people there read this blog (which is unlikely) that leaves a fair few readers who could well be curious to hear the first dispatches on what it's like.

So, what follows emphatically isn't “a review”. Hopefully it's reportage and useful musings. Also, hopefully, I think most of the suggestions I make here I already discussed in person after the show. That said, do write any thoughts on how, if at all, scratches could and should most usefully be blogged – toward the concept of a “Scratch review” where the review itself is a kind of first draft, I suppose - in the comments section below. Dear me, why this sudden enthusiasm to establish conventions? Anyway, the show...

Enter the Dame begins in darkness. The small audience is seated on four sides, arranged in fours around café tables. There is a pre-show bar in the space itself – in the good old days, I daresay we'd have been smoking, too. Actually, since we're on the stage, and there is audience participation, maybe we still could – this would fit brilliantly with the slightly suggested air of European glamour that Wilson's texts seems to evoke.

Single piano notes sound in the darkness. Music from (I think) either Górecki's Third Symphony or Mahler's 2nd or 3rd (annoyingly can't find online to check which) begins. There is a recorded voiceover explaining disjointedly, that everything in the story takes place in a future past preceding a catastrophic “Third War”.

Lights above the tables come up dimly and fade. There is a dense, bleak soundscape. More lights up and down. Wilson crosses into the centre of the space and begins to speak. The lights are still very dim. Her face is only elliptically available. This establishes the pattern much of the show, which is divided between near-complete darkness (theatre darkness – the darkness available in spaces with sound-desks and exit signs) and dim lighting, voiceovers, soundscapes and live direct audience address. The is something rather Beckett-y about it. The lights up, lights down routine with the tables is reminiscent of Play. The tone is darker than Simple Girl. At one point a smoke machine fills the space with a foggy haze. I'd have been quite happy if this had been even more extensively used. This is the sort of show that works beautifully when only half-visible through thick smoke.

That said, there are also sequences of more brightly lit lightness. At several points Wilson sits down next to audience members, treating them as the other character in the scene, at once narrating to the rest of us, describing the character imposed on the audience member and at the same time almost “playing the scene” with them. The potential for this technique becoming a bit intrusive and off-putting is completely dispelled by Wilson's stage presence. It's almost like the seriousness with which children tell stories; at once both light and concentrated, it is completely charming.

The best of these sequences involves Wilson playing a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure with one audience member (shades of Jonah Non Grata, here), but without using the book. The audience member's collusion actually adds to the narrative. This is perhaps the area which could most profitably be expanded within the show. More sections of this could potentially work brilliantly.

The story of the show – though pretty fragmented and, in this version, without readily apparent conclusion – concerns a woman pursuing a man by whom she has become transfixed. I think that's it, anyway. I'm not sure I completely took in all the nuances, but that was the impression. In one way, I suppose this sounds like a plea for greater clarity. I'm not sure it is. Yes, parts of the story seemed unclear, but at the same time, the lack of clarity felt like a perfectly viable artistic choice.

For my money, there's probably more to be said about this pursuit. The interplay between the story and the bleaker, soundscapey bits could also be made more explicitly meaningful, but, then again, the opacity of the relationship between the sort states could be equally fruitful. If I'd been told this was the finished product rather than something where one is encouraged to give feedback, I daresay I would have probably worked harder on making my own meanings, instead of thinking of ways that it could be changed to accommodate the meanings I was coming up with - I guess that's partly my own problem, and partly a condition of watching things as scratch performances.

Although the BAC's little studio space isn't an ideal home for the piece – it's tempting to think that in an ideal world it should go to a disused cabaret bar, albeit one fitted up with a very good lighting rig. All in all its an exciting beginning, full of enormous potential and brimming with possibilities for further development. The current work-in-progress aesthetic suits its current form well, but it would/will be fascinating to see a fully realised, technologically advanced version.

(oh, and I've just discovered a 5 minute clip from Simple Girl on the website of the Dublin Fringe Festival. And another one here at Last FM.)

Monday 7 April 2008

Just showing off now...

While I'm at it, there's also this (quite brilliantly subbed) new Guardian blog piece and this review of Three Sleepless Nights / Fourplay at the Tristan Bates Theatre for Time Out now online, if you're not already sick to the back teeth of all my typings.

Instructions for Modern Living - Barbican Pit

Written for

In theory Instructions for Modern Living should be great. The two performers (New Zealand writer/performer Duncan Sarkies and musician Nic McGowan) enter and sit amidst a cluster of hi-tech gadgetry, microphones, a sound desk, keyboard, video camera and laptop. There's even a xylophone and a theremin. A live-feed video projection starts up. Sure, cynics could happily dismiss this approach as 'avant-garde by numbers' and namecheck everyone from the Woosters or Throbbing Gristle through to Katie Mitchell, but then if you're making a certain sort of work, then the stage is going to look a certain way.

Sarkies starts talking slowly into his microphone about a ghost who lives in his flatshare. His companion starts playing slow melodic keyboard music. The video projection fades from the musician to an unwavering shot of a clapboard house. The commentary goes on. And on. One senses the audience asking themselves if they could actually endure 85 minutes of this. Then, after an agonising ten minutes a new section starts. This one is a bit faster, more upbeat, it also features Sarkies neatly using a pitch-shifter on the microphone allowing him to talk in voices pitched higher or lower than his own. He does both halves of a conversation between two blokes in a pub - or maybe its a guy and a girl - who are talking about racism in Britain, and how it's worse than racism in New Zealand. This is a good deal more interesting the the ghost bit, but not terribly acute or incisive. Scenes continue to change, hopping between the solo monologue and these solo duologues. There's one which, as well as having the high voice and the low voice, also has Sarkies doing accents and the computer providing the atmospheric crackle and white noise of the radios used to talk to the Apollo space missions.

All the while McGowan plods through his tunes, making much use of a loop sampler that allows him to record what he's playing and then start playing new bits over the top, building each section's accompaniment into quite a bulk of sound. Annoyingly, these all sound very similar, with the various layers turning up in much the same order every time, so that after a while one's patience starts to wear a bit thin.

Then there's the content of Sarkies's text – the pages of which he throws to the floor once they are completed, so the audience can see precisely how many pages are left – it is downbeat, not especially acute and generally offers precious little insight or hope. His vision of the world, unless he was being ironic – in which case he might want to flag it up a bit so was can all enjoy the joke – was pretty much that capitalism sucks and we are all powerless. Beyond this; our personal lives suck, and no one is very happy. Men and women don't get on. All we can look forward to is dead end jobs and loveless marriages. The overall effect is like listening to a nasal weasel complain bitterly for 80 minutes to the slower songs from Air's Moon Safari.
Close to the end he asks “When did you last feel truly alive?”
“This afternoon, thanks.” I think.

Unknown unknowns

In the comments section under my recent Guardian blog wondering why science fiction seemed to be largely absent from theatre as a genre, a couple of the commenters accused me of having no sense of theatre history, which prompted a fair bit of soul-searching. What follows isn't really intended as a defence against the accusations – although I do think “no sense of theatre history whatsoever” is a bit strong – so much as a ramble through the musings on the subject to which the accusations gave rise. (And hopefully the spelling will all be okay this time).

I should start by saying I don't have automatic contempt or dislike for plays (or productions, or work) over ten years old, and, while I don't have any academic qualifications on theatre (although I did several Theatre modules at university) I have actually read a fair few books on the subject, several of which have covered pre-1956 theatre.

In fact, I found the accusation that I had no sense of theatre history quite ironic since at this year's National Student Drama Festival I'd been saying much the same about some of the students there ten to fifteen years my junior. It was also notable this year that virtually all the extant texts selected had been written within the last ten years. Only Pinter's The Dumb Waiter (1960), and Berkoff's Metamorphosis (1969), were older, and both are by writers who have also written plays recently. I know it is a source of continual consternation to NSDF board chairman and Sunday Times drama critic Robert Hewison that older and rarer plays don't seem to be getting through. Similarly, I'd love it if students actually brought plays to the festival that I either hadn't seen before, or hadn't heard of. In the event, both Metamorphosis and what must be the millionth student production of 4.48 Psychosis proved to be the week's two biggest revelations. York Uni's Berkoff totally destroyed received wisdoms about students doing Berkoff, while Emma Waslin's performance in 4.48 was pretty much the best I saw at the festival. But this is getting away from the point.

In the wake of the festival, getting called on my sense of theatre history actually came as something of a useful wake-up call. Being told I came across as someone with contempt for anything older than a decade, while not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear, was also a very useful and timely heads-up. While I don't think it's especially true, and could have happily lived without the contemptuous phrasing, it seems unlikely that either commenter would have made the accusation up. So I wondered what it was about my writing and/or criticism that gave this impression.

My first instinct is that it is partially a matter of taste. If I'm honest, a lot of my favourite work is contemporary (although a longer version of contemporary than just the last ten years. Let's say 1953 onward). Not all of it by a long stretch of the imagination, but still a significant proportion. I tend to prefer, let's say, Martin Crimp to George Bernard Shaw as a playwright, although obviously a bad production of a Crimp is infinitely less preferable to the excellent Shaw revivals London has been enjoying recently.

Similarly, as a critic, one is largely focused on new work. Pretty much every night one goes to the first nights of plays opening across the capital. That many of these openings are of new work further compounds one's sense of theatre as being very much of-the-moment. For this reason it often feels like the most fruitful comparisons between works is between one recent play and another. It is almost part of the game of spot-the-growing-trend that keeps journalists amused, frustrates playwrights and ultimately informs the 'second draft of history' written in academia. After all, perceived movements are much easier to write about than vast numbers of discrete entities. Look at the way, for example, that Aleks Sierz's In-Yer-Face umbrella has informed the historical view of nineties theatre – works that don't quite fit the thesis often feel like they exist outside the era precisely because they don't conform to the school that defines the decade.

There is also the question of both relevance and, again, taste. Much though I admire and am jealous of critics with thirty or forty years' play-going experience, who seem to have seen pretty much every production of every play and every new play ever written (although there will always be some startling gaps), there is also a sense that a lot of readers sometimes wonder whether they need to be told that a new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream isn't quite as good as one that a critic saw back in 1968. Of course it depends on the way that the comparison is drawn. If it sheds light on a particular aspect of the new production, or illuminates something about the way in which theatre or the world has changed in the intervening period then obviously it is an observation worth making. If the comparison goes unqualified, however, just namechecking one's own theatre-going credentials feels a bit like indulging in a fruitless pissing contest. Whose experience of this play goes furthest back, they wonder. Yes, there's something to be said for reassuring a readership about one's credentials, but after a while, surely it can be taken for granted that a senior theatre critic has seen more than one Othello.

I was also interested by the time-frame mentioned. One commenter put it at ten years. That is, give or take, pretty much how long I've seriously been going to the theatre. Not nearly as solidly as a professional critic for much of it – possibly still not, compared to many - but probably a good deal more than all but the most hardened theatre-lover, thanks to having access to numerous press tickets through my work for CultureWars. So, ten years is how it apparently reads; and pretty much ten years is what it is.

This made me wonder if there is really any way one can have a sense of theatre that existed before one started going? I can read as many plays as I like, or as many histories of both the British and foreign stage, but the whole point about theatre is being there. It is about attending the event. I can read Michael Billington's collected reviews, but I wonder how much of a sense of theatre history they will actually communicate. Richard Eyre's Changing Stages told me plenty, but not much I didn't know, and very little that makes me feel like I've been there. It's one thing to know the facts, even to have an in-depth knowledge of a particular playwright's work, or a specific period of theatre's long, long past, but it's nothing like the same as seeing a play performed.

None of this means I'm blameless or infallible. The real shock of being pulled up on my lack of a sense of theatre's history was the inevitable self-doubt it prompted. I was having a conversation recently with a friend about the concept of things that you don't even know you don't know. Stuff that hasn't even registered on your radar. Unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld once memorably called them. These are pretty horrifying to contemplate when one is ostensibly selling oneself in the “knowledge economy”, where – although never half so much as prose style and angle – what you know pretty much defines how much you are worth. I was pretty shocked a few years ago at the NSDF, for example, when the then 16-year-old Imogen Walford brought a production of Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789 to the festival. My 26-year-old self had never consciously come across the name in my life. I daresay I had, and had forgotten it, but it was by no means part of my mental furniture. And it's never nice to have gaps in one's knowledge pointed out to one by a sixth former.

Beyond the Unknown unknowns, there are of course the Known unknowns. I know, for example, that my knowledge of the contents of Alan Ayckborn's massive oeuvre is pretty limited. For one reason or another, I've seen only a few of his plays on stage, another few in Alain Resnais's Smoking/No Smoking and have maybe read one or two. That probably leaves fifty or sixty. As a critic, is it my job to know what's in all of them? Would I remember if I did read them all? And what other potentially useful stuff might such a massive programme of reading dislodge from my mind. And when would I find the time? And that's just Ayckborn. Then there's all that Edgar I've not read. Or Shaw. Or Wing-Pinero (none whatsoever so far, in the latter case – should I read some?). Harley Granville-Barker seems to have written a lot, judging by the shelves of Waterstones – should I be reading those? When am I going to have time to go to the theatre? There's just yards of the bloody stuff. It sometimes feels like it's pretty hard to keep up with everything that's coming out at the moment. Adding to that the need to work up an exhaustive knowledge of everything past as well, and it starts to look like an impossible task.

So this is something of a mea culpa. I'm not admitting to knowing nothing by any means. There's some stuff I definitely do know. Hopefully quite a bit, in fact. But there are what schools tactfully describe as “areas for development”. At the same time, there is a sense that such learning, while interesting, is mere gloss. It might be useful to know performance histories and myriad anecdotes, but unless is it relevant to the play at hand, all that information could turn out to be just so much window dressing. While a sense of history is important, a personal history can be just as crucial. It is the age old play-off between knowledge and experience. What can be taught/learned compared to what must be felt/seen/heard. Granted, Experience is enriched by Knowledge, but Knowledge can only really operate on Experience.

In conclusion: I should probably read more books and keep going to the theatre as often as possible, while at the same time trying to wear all the knowledge lightly when it comes to writing up for fear of missing the show in amongst all the referencing.

Thoughts? (and reading lists)

Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat - v.3

Written for

At last year's Edinburgh Fringe, the Ravenhill For Breakfast series of 17 new 25 minute plays was one of the highlights of the festival. The facts of the project's inception are well known, and related excellently in Ravenhill's recent piece for the Guardian. Now the entire cycle of plays (curiously reduced down to 16 for their London outing) are being shown in scattered fully mounted productions across London. Alas, there is no full-cycle back-to-back performance, but over the next three weeks it will at least be possible to see every play.

First up are the National Theatre's stagings of Intolerance b/w Crime and Punishment in the Cottesloe and The Mikado b/w The Odyssey - the original plan stipulated that each play would have a title taken from a major work of Western culture.

Intolerance also kicked off Paines Plough's selection of six of the shorts shown at the Hampstead Theatre shown straight after the Fringe last year. In it, a woman recounts her attempts to control a crippling pain in her gut through various therapies, charms, vitamin supplements and finally by identifying caffeine intolerance. The comparison between Harriet Walter's performance here and the Hampstead Paines Plough version is interesting. Walter, directed by Anna Mackmin, is altogether more naturalistic. Where the Paines Plough version seemed to emphasise the deeper meanings of the piece – the moment where the woman doubles over in pain after making an anti-Semitic comment seemed far more cause and effect than in this production. Paines Plough's woman seemed much more both the target of satire and a desperate, sad creature. Walters manages to pull off the descriptions of past life regressions with a lot more charm. Here she seems less merely satirised, asquite sweet and a rather interesting person. This is perhaps partially due to Walter's own significant reserves of charisma and charm.

In my original review of Crime and Punishment, I suggested that “is a brilliant example of the power that theatre can still wield to inspire the intellect and imagination if it is allowed to function away from the demands of the purely naturalistic”. The National's new fully staged and costumed production goes some way to corroborating this point – as noted by Maxie Szalwinska in her new Guardian blog. Locating the characters very distinctly in an unnamed occupied country, but dressing the soldier in Iraq fatigues and giving the woman middle eastern dress and accent, locates the dialogue in a much more concrete locale. The metaphor becomes more clunky and starts to feel like it is banging you over the head with A Message. To an extent, it is, of course, but the piece feels like it needs a lighter touch if it is to breathe.

While I'd seen both the Cottesloe offerings before, both The Mikado and The Odyssey in the Lyttleton were completely new to me. It could be part of the reason why I found them more interesting – although that could equally have been to do with the fact that it was no longer ten in the morning on a Saturday, and the coffee had started working.

The Mikado shows a middle-aged gay couple sitting on a bench in an ornamental Japanese garden discussing one of the partners' cancer. Seasoned pros Philip Voss and David Bamber bring a real sense of compassion and warmth to the reading of their characters. It is this kind of performance that really highlight's Ravenhill's range as a writing displaying not only his exceptional ear for the ludicrous 'speak' of PC and political Britain, but also its myriad registers, argots and purposes. Here is Ravenhill offering rounded, plausible naturalistic drama about characters we feel for. Yet, even here, the language again starts throwing up the same images that run through the plays like tiny veins, or seams of ore in a rock. Again the Garden Centres, again Hell, again a headless soldier – swingball, Lucifer, democracy, choice – the pieces are literally crawling with these pregnant meanings, and with each new play the symbols accrue new value. Some of us already know that the child's drawings of headless soldiers in Intolerance will take on physical form in a different play. That the fall of Lucifer, and the idea of hell, will continue to surface throughout the cycle. The use of Christian iconography in particular is fascinating, perhaps offering a sideways reference to George W. Bush's own religious leanings, and coupling those with the visions of hell in Iraq both before and after the occupation.

If the Mikado obliquely suggests connections between personal pains and global conflicts, The Odyssey puts war absolutely centre stage as a group of soldiers prepare to depart from a country to which they have “brought democracy”. We see the country's dictator kicked (unconvincingly) to death by the soldiers, and urinated on by the members of the country's liberated population. For much of the play, it feels as if Ravenhill is scoring cheap sarcastic points off all the talk of liberation, freedom and democracy. When the news comes that a new war is planned and the weary soldiers are not in fact going home, but going to overthrown a fresh oppressive regime, it sounds very much like the playwright might be not very subtly attacking the US for its perceived erstwhile stance as “policeman of the world” or self-appointed guardians of justice. Then Ravenhill produces a small child from the liberated regime, who praises the soldiers efforts and sends them on their way to their next mission with her blessing. This introduces a welcome note of ambiguity into what could have so easily been an exercise in tub-thumping anti-intervention. The child isn't necessarily right, but puts the other side of the argument with a forceful poignancy.

It is touches like this – Ravenhill's refusal to simply trot out uninterrogated truisms of either side – plus the impressive array of recurring devices which bind the plays together, which confirms Ravenhill's reputation as an impressive thinker as well as a leading writer. Yes, sometimes the polemics and the themes sound a little shrill, and already the still-urgent questions about global politics that the cycle poses feel like they are of less immediate concern than they did last summer. Nonetheless, this is an exciting project and it is great that London is playing host to such an ambitious and fractured piece, in which audiences can chase elusive meaning across various sites in the capital constructing their own sense of the ideas on offer.

Bliss (Félicité) - Royal Court

Written for

This is one of those reviews that almost needs a spoilers warning. I saw Caryl Churchill's new translation of Olivier Choinère's play with absolutely no foreknowledge of what the hell it was, and that seems an ideal state for watching it. It's really good. You should go and see it. If you want some kind of context before the spoilers, its got that same three or four actors - interrupting each other, talking over each other - trying to tell one story straight to the audience (can we get a word for this style of theatre? There's an increasing amount of it about) - think Crimp's Fewer Emergencies or Kane's 4.48 Psychosis. The story they're telling, however is impossible to talk about without inserting:

Warning: Plot Spoilers

The story that the four (uniformly excellent) Wal-Mart staff jacketed performers are telling – well, three telling with Hayley Carmichael's enigmatic character darkly prompting from the shadows – is such an intricate Chinese puzzle box/Möbius strip of a tale that to discuss it at any length requires some of its numerous surprises to be blown. It starts off with a wryly ironic, dewy-eyed description of a Celine Dion farewell concert and ends up pretty much back where it starts. In the interim it has telescoped out through the lives of an abused girl and a strange Wal Mart worker who vomits her entire body out through her mouth and turns inside-out, and who may or may not be at once the girl, and Celine Dion, and a mysterious other-worldly agent who links the two.

The way in which this happens is through a disconcerting series of sudden shifts which are not flagged up in any way. So, for a while, the audience is left wondering whether what Choinère has just described happening to someone we think is still Ms Dion might be legally actionable. As further shifts take place we begin to recognise the signs, and the process of negotiation becomes easier. Its the same sort of disconcerting device as David Lynch employed in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, made all the more disconcerting for not being visually accessible.

The tone of the piece is at once playful and horribly serious - the same sort of sarcastic, ironic voice as the one that permeates Martin Crimp's more post-modern offerings, with a fair amount of Chuck Palaniuk-style viscera thrown in for good measure. The way that the piece ranges through the lives of the three or four women it describes sets up a fascinating matrix of possible comparisons and commentaries. That said, Choinère is smart enough not to draw parallels between Celine Dion and either an abused child or a downtrodden Wal-Mart worker, or use the disparity between her enormous wealth and their extremes of poverty and misery to score dubious political points. [I'm not sure I fully agree with Michael Billington's reading of the play as an attack on celebrity worship. But then I'm not wholly convinced that Michael Billington knows who Celine Dion is, although, granted, her full name is never used and she is referred to throughout as simply “Celine”, prompting a good joke involving her fascist French novelist namesake].

Choinère has a real ear for a story and Churchill's translation, well, it doesn't feel like a translation at all. It blows Christopher Hampton's efforts with God of Carnage right out of the water. Add to this Jeremy Herbert's ingenious, subtle through-a-looking-glass design; four perfectly judged performances from Brid Brennan, Hayley Carmichael, Neil Dudgeon and Justin Salinger; plus direction of marked clarity from Joe Hill-Gibbins. This is a fascinating short script (80 minutes, no interval) that has been perfectly realised. Well worth seeing.