Friday 30 May 2008

The Country - Tabard Theatre

Written for

First seen at the Royal Court in 2000, written by Martin Crimp and directed by Katie Mitchell, regular readers might assume that the original production of The Country ranks among my all-time top five theatrical experiences ever. They would be mistaken. Perhaps it was my age, perhaps it was the play, perhaps the production, but on the strength of its premiere, I’d always regarded The Country as a weak moment in Crimp’s recent output. However, with the recent premiere of companion piece The City at the Court, this revival of The Country at The Tabard Theatre – itself virtually in the country – offers a timely opportunity for reassessment.

There is nothing worse than watching one production through the half remembered veil of the original. But here is feels imperative to do so. The basic facts of Crimp’s story remain the same. A middle aged, middle class doctor and his wife have moved out to the country with their children. The husband has found a young woman unconscious by the side of the road and has brought her back to their home. The wife is disturbed. Concerns and conflicts reveal themselves. Then the young woman wakes up and it all gets even stranger.

Where Katie Mitchell’s original, starring Juliet Stevenson and a young Indira Varma, played on a clean white modernist stage with a veritable forest of dead fir trees hung menacingly above the stage, here we are in a half-timbered black box offering no more than a couple of tables by way of set.

The original production had been so mannered as to suggest that the whole play was nothing more than an elaborate exercise in knocking up a Pinter pastiche from nothing more than repetition, lengthy pauses and silences. Here the dialogue flows more naturally. The take on the relationships portrayed is softer. While Crimp’s writing always evokes a kind of abrupt froideur, here it seems couched in terms of people who at least have a halfway plausible marriage.

Similarly, Rebecca, the interloper, is shifted from Indira Varma’s wired, druggy, frightening, desperate junkie to being a ballsy American history student who's maybe a bit nuts. Where Varma was unreliable, uncertain and clearly unstable, Jennifer Kidd seems mostly to have her head pretty well screwed on. There is a sequence in which Rebecca recounts a narrative to the husband – in the original it seemed quite possible that it had been made up, delivered half as speculative threat, here it becomes a definitive version of events. One finds oneself missing the original ambiguity at the same time as embracing the new sense of certainty.

What is most impressive in this new version is the power that it gives to the last scene. I had pretty much forgotten the surreal twist from the original. The version delivered here is likely to stay with me for some time to come.

Simon Godwin’s production, while not perfect, provides a welcome opportunity to see what turns out to be a finely wrought intriguing thriller from one of our country's foremost writers.

Thursday 29 May 2008

The Common Pursuit - Menier Chocolate Factory

Written for

Simon Gray’s 1984 play The Common Pursuit follows a group of Cambridge University friends from their college days through to their early middle age, tracing their largely successful literary or academic careers from the first meeting of an undergrad literary magazine - the titular The Common Pursuit, named after the collection of FR Leavis essays from his own magazine Scrutiny. It also follows their markedly less illustrious love lives.

It is, in short, about as familiar as territory gets. There’s the heroically literary one with the glamorous girlfriend, the solid un-artistic business-minded one, the brilliantly talented gay one, the self-conscious virgin one and the one who gets all the girls. By the end of the second scene, set ten years after they’ve graduated, it is pretty clear the only real question is who going to end up screwing whose wife.

As a view of humanity it is pretty bleak. The characters are ultimately selfish and cowardly, while all commitment to higher ideals result in failure or disappointment. Their failings are all the more depressing for ringing so horribly true. Publishing and the media are depicted as cynical and largely worthless, while academia and work of artistic merit are by turns elitist or futile.

The script mixes this bleakness with some moderately good jokes, albeit mostly ones about the superiority (particularly moral) of Cambridge to Oxford, and some moments of genuine shock and pain for the characters. However, there is a corrosive misogyny running though characters, while the only woman to appear on stage is given absolutely no interior life whatsoever.

Fiona Laird's production is solid if uninspiring. The performances hold up well enough: James Dreyfuss turns in the best performance as the inevitably tragic gay moral philosopher and Reece Shearsmith the least, playing a man with two main character traits - a nervous laugh and a smoker's cough - neither of which he does convincingly.

Once the play has reached its chronological conclusion, the final scene, set back at the beginning of the play, where the characters meet for the first time, young, idealistic and hopeful, is still quite shattering for all the sadness that we now know is in store for them.

All that was just... play

Wandering through YouTube the other day I was delighted to discover that someone has uploaded a vast majority of the Beckett on TV series, so expect semi-regular postings from now on. No, YouTube isn't an ideal medium for experiencing the plays of Samuel Beckett, but I daresay it's slightly better than not experiencing them at all. Similarly, the whole question of adapting works that were so definitively for theatre straight to television is an interesting one.

The late Anthony Mingella's Play, starring Kristen Scott-Thomas, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson, is a case in point. Watching this gives only half a sense of the original. Gone are the interogating lights, replacing by slick camera work, and gone is the black room, replaced by a wasteland in hell offering the implication of an infinite number of figures in their jars condemned to repeat their arguments for eternity. It is quite amusing to note that this version has been uploaded in two parts, allowing viewers, should they so choose, to just "repeat Play" over and over again...

Pt I


(The full text for Play can be found here)

Monday 26 May 2008

Rosmersholm - Almeida


The town of Rosmersholm is in the grip of seismic political upheavals. Free-thinkers and radicals are unseating the long-dominant Conservatives. Caught in the midst of this tumult is Johannes Rosmer (Paul Hilton); living in his ancestral home outside the town, but clearly still exerting considerable influence. Since his wife committed suicide a year earlier and he renounced his faith, giving up his position as pastor, he has been living a life of quiet, chaste reflection with his friend Rebecca West (Helen McCrory). He is a troubled, conscientious soul while she is a passionate friend and committed idealist.

Into this cosy life comes Doctor Kroll (Malcolm Sinclair), Rosmer’s brother-in-law. He is much disturbed at how the balance of power has shifted against the right-wing, and wants Rosmer - a natural Conservative whose family has ruled Rosmersholm for centuries - to edit the Conservative paper, the Standard (“I’m sorry, you want me to become editor of the Standard?” - cue knowing laughs on press night). The trouble is, under Rebecca’s influence Rosmer has tacitly aligned himself with the liberal cause, as espoused by Rebecca’s dead foster-father and Peder Mortensgaard – an adulterer-turned-freethinker who Rosmer sent from the town when he was a pastor. Kroll is shattered by what he sees as a total betrayal, and vows to ostracise Rosmer from society.

This set-up is an absolutely watertight encapsulation of all the themes and events that will unfold over the course of the play. It’s so neatly done it would feel painfully contrived were it not for Ibsen’s skill as a dramatist for making every detail so engaging that the conversations scarcely ever feel like mere exercises in exposition. Indeed the first act’s forty-five minutes whip by so quickly it is a surprise to find oneself at the first interval – the Almeida have inserted two, primarily to facilitate scene changes. In the light of the Thomas Ostermeier’s blistering straight-through Hedda seen recently at the Barbican, and given the cracking pace on display here, it seems a bit of a shame that director Anthony Page hasn’t followed suite.

What Rosmersholm does brilliantly is to slip seamlessly between the political and the personal. Each is irrevocably bound up with the other. And, like their politics, it seems that each character’s tragedy is tied to their emotional inheritance. Paul Hilton’s portrayal of Rosmer as a likeable, honest but naïve man whose former faith and ongoing decency prevent him from ever being happy is a beautifully measured performance – radiating compassion and a desire to do right even as his world starts to burn around him. McCrory’s Rebecca is equally impressive. Dressed in a blonde wig and (I think) blue contact lenses – looking unexpectedly like Nicole Kidman – her physical transformation is just a small part of an incredibly nuanced depiction of a woman who could easily be turned into little more than a display of histrionic fireworks. Instead, the clash between West’s committed intelligence and her desires becomes a drama all of its own.

Malcolm Sinclair’s Kroll is slightly less controlled, offering more stagey bursts of anger and red-faced, eye-bulging Tory fury. It works to an extent as a picture of a certain sort of patrician, but reduces the power of Kroll’s arguments and the depth and dignity of his beliefs. Worse is Paul Moriarty as Ulrik Brendel, whose entire performance seems to have been largely informed by the throwaway comment that Brendal has been working as an actor in the north since being fired from his position as professor. Moriarty offers pretty much every cliché of Ageing Thespian Soak in the book, as well as some incredibly annoying drunk-acting. This could be a matter of taste, but it had me grinding my teeth in irritation every time he opened his mouth. Far better is Peter Sullivan as the radical, Mortensgaard, offering a laconic, amused, wryly bitter man, oddly reminiscent at times of the late Bill Hicks.

While the politics of the play are clearly an important part of the play, offering a critique of radicalism and the behaviour of radicals just as stringent as its attack on the right, it is the play’s romantic tragedy that really grips. In the course of trying to achieve her goals, Rebecca West makes a series of catastrophic miscalculations, while Rosmer’s trusting nature allows him to sleepwalk unsuspectingly toward his own destruction. The love between them seems to blossom precisely because of their impossible circumstances. The final act, in which they circle one another warily, unable to reconcile themselves to happiness, almost perversely determined to bring about a catastrophe, is agonising to watch. The sheer extent of their love, and the appalling impossibility of it achieving a happy resolution, makes this final act quite hauntingly beautiful. The spectacle of two people who had tried to change society being ultimately undone by it is horrifying. The final moments, though perhaps a little overwritten and over-played, remain a beautiful, bleak hymn to the overwhelming power of desire.

________________________________Photo by Johan Persson

Saturday 24 May 2008

Ebberöds Bank – Q Teatteri

Sweden’s Teater Tribunalen are a “purely political” theatre company who have been making work since 1995. They want to “expose, question and criticise political and economic power structures”. Ebberöds Bank is no doubt typical of their work toward this end. Unfortunately, performed in Swedish with Finnish surtitles, it is virtually impossible to offer an assessment of their success.

That said, even though the piece was pretty dialogue heavy, it remained hugely enjoyable for the most part for the hour and a half first half that we stayed for. It seemed likely that this was the best work we had seen at the Baltic Circle festival. Working very much with foregrounded liveness and performance the show seemed like a more chaotic bit of Kneehigh or Told By an Idiot, a less polished The Right Size, or how one imagines early Complicité to have been. After a bit of preamble involving shouting, clowning around with a drill and someone attaching a whole bunch of clothes pegs to their face, the audience is ushered to their seats and the narrative commences.

As far as I could make out, this involved a foreigner turning up in a small community with $22 million in a massive trunk. Perhaps the dollars weren’t in the trunk, but that was definitely the sum in question. I think everyone wants the money, and set about sucking up to the new arrival. There are two identical blondes, dressed in the same black mac and blonde bobbed wig, or perhaps it’s the same character being played simultaneously by two actresses.

There was a pretty plausible explanation as to why they might have chosen the latter option. One of the two actresses, as well as appearing in the play, also seemed to be heavily involved in childcare duties. We know this because, rather than get a baby-sitter, the actress in question – I can only assume the baby’s mother – had her offspring in a pram on the stage. Occasionally, being a very young baby, said child would start to cry and need picking up. So the character would disappear off for a moment and reappear shushing the infant when not giving her lines. The baby seemed pretty happy with all this, mostly wide-eyed with interest and admiration for the spangly silver strands that made a curtain at the front of the playing space. These s/he would grab in tiny fistfuls whenever the opportunity presented itself. The silver curtain, however, was no competition of for the wig of the woman playing his/her mother’s opposite number. The baby’s irresistible urge to tug at said wig, causing the actress to clutch it to her head while delivering lines, became far and away the most entertaining segment of the show. As far as liveness goes, this was a cat test par excellence. It completely fitted in with the rest of the work - or at least did not derail anything in the performance style – was easily worked into the show, and indeed actually enriched the experience.

Having said that, an hour and a half, seemed quite long enough for a play that none of our group could understand, and we departed at the interval for a few well-deserved drinks at the festival’s last night party. As such, it would be disingenuous to offer any conclusions relating to the show’s overall success or its content, but in terms of form, this was a resounding and hugely reassuring demonstration of the way that this school of ultra-live performing translates well, whatever language it’s in.

Radio Doomsday / Smeds Ensemble - Club Semifinal

Kristian Smeds is pretty big news in Finland at the moment. Not only is his production of The Unknown Soldier – an adaptation of the recent Finnish novel about the unheroic exploits of ordinary soldiers fighting the Russians in WWII, pithily summarised by Rose Fenton as Finland’s Blackwatch – playing at the country’s National Theatre, his Houkka Brothers’ project Radio Doomsdei features in the Baltic Circle festival programme. Not content with this, he also curated a three-night series of gigs by bands composed entirely of people who work in theatre (including one from the cast of his own Unknown Soldier), under the banner Fuck Off Festival Club.

Radio Doomsday is the third and final part of the Houkka Brothers’ trilogy of pieces around religious themes, following their adaptation of The Wanderer and a “living room musical” about St Francis of Assisi. Radio Doomsday is apparently about Martin Luther, and takes the form of a three-hour installation/performance that consists mostly of the making of a radio talk show in a large, white semi-transparent tent on the stage of Club Semifinal. There is also an impressive quantity of wood to one side of the stage, which audience members are invited to chop up as and when they please. There is also an open mic placed in front of the stage which audience members are free to use, should they wish to make a point in this mad little programme. This is interactive theatre at the most unplanned I have ever seen it.

It’s also uniquely difficult to review the overall impact of the piece, since I was actually *in* it for a good forty-five minutes. The thing with this radio talk show – which I believe was actually broadcast on Finnish radio in the evening – is that it relied largely on a huge number of guests. Of whom my fellow critics and I constituted several. We were asked to debate a number of religious matters as they related to our respective countries. It was very interesting to note that a vast majority of my co-contributors’ perspectives were based almost exclusively on matters of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, state atheism and in one instance Estonia’s pre-Christian “tree-hugging” pagan heritage. If the same discussion of faith had been staged in, say, BAC, I imagine Islam and Judaism would have figured far more. But northern Europe doesn’t seem half so preoccupied with issues multicultural, largely due to the miniscule proportion of non-Christian faiths represented within these nations.

Part of the interactivity also involved guests drinking generous amounts of lethally strong Finnish vodka (which came from those boxes that we get wine in in Britain – this is a country that evidently takes its drinking very seriously), so quite how useful our contributions were is a moot point. It seemed unsporting not to try to join in as whole-heartedly as possible, in spite of the show’s afternoon time-slot.

Despite having been a participant – a “performer”, even – Radio Doomsday is one of those pieces which still tempts me to start wondering if it is “actually theatre”. I suppose not experiencing it in the usual way made it harder than normal to assess, and the drop-in, drop-out bar setting, with the temptation of many cigarette breaks, also distracted from the usual level of concentration applied for watching theatre, but nonetheless, given that this was real people actually making a real radio programme – albeit within a tent, on a stage, accompanied by sporadic wood-chopping. It did seem as if a greater number of performative elements could have been brought to bear on the piece. That said, after a while, it did acquire a sort of shape and momentum and I suppose could be termed loosely as installation performance. Maybe I need to broaden my definitions, or just stop worrying so much about terminology. And maybe to drink significantly less vodka when watching theatre.

Thursday 22 May 2008

The Official Secrets Act


Postcards has gotten a bit text heavy in recent weeks, so by way of a diversion before getting back to the serious business of writing far too much under-edited rambling about theatre and criticism, it's time for a photo-heavy plug-fest for my favourite affordable live band – The Official Secrets Act. The above photo comes from a magazine called Noir et Blanc, which has a Facebook page here and looks like a real triumph for the extreme use of Photoshop's contrast function.

The band are playing the Buffalo Club on Highbury Corner tonight and hopefully they'll be headlining so that those of us enjoying three hours of Ibsen down the road at the Almeida will be able to whizz down afterwards and dance away some of the inevitable Nordic blues such an experience is liable to engender.

As well as the inevitable MySpace page, their second single, Victoria, has just been released and their best song, The Art of Being Sure, can be found in a live version from an earlier Buffalo Club gig on YouTube. Pretty much the definitive break-up song of the decade, youthful verve and passion doesn't get much better than this...

(the usual qualifications about videos of live performances apply in triplicate)

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Call-cutta in a Box

Rimini Protokoll are big news on the European International Festival circuit. Their Big New Idea – Theatre of Reality – is essentially a step beyond verbatim theatre. Instead of recording people talking about themselves and then getting actors to play them, they simply get real people and present them as themselves. The material they cover seems to be largely related to various occupations – at Munich’s SpielArt festival Rimini Protokoll founder Stefan Kaegi presented a fairly typical example where members of Munich's and Sao Paulo's police forces talked about their work. Other shows have seen audiences driven around in the backs of lorries while being addressed by the drivers.

Call-Cutta in a Box is a development of last year’s Berlin-based show Call-Cutta in which participants (audience seems the wrong word to describe the one-on-one interactive experience of this show) were directed about the city by someone from a call centre in Calcutta (geddit!?!?), while being told about Ghandi, apparently. …in a Box transfers the one-to-one experience into a small makeshift office built in the lobby of Helsinki’s Kiasma museum of contemporary art. The participant enters alone, having been instructed to pick up the ringing Skype phone inside. You are connected to someone in a call centre in Calcutta. They ask you questions and prompt you to undertake various actions. Without describing the nature of the questions or the actions that is pretty much the whole of the 50 minute show.

Seeing the show as one of a larger group, it was possible to compare notes and discover how much was similar and how much variation occurs between these ‘personal’ experiences. In many ways, it is reassuring to discover that the majority of their side of the conversation is if not exactly scripted, then at least certainly follows a clear sequence of events and directions to specific questions. Beyond this, the personality and personal circumstances of one’s interlocutor certainly play a part and there is enough latitude to actually get to know them a bit.

To an extent the success or failure of each performance of this show will depend partially on the interaction of the two parties on different continents. I found my opposite number, and consequently the show, to be charming and interesting. As a piece of theatre, it is harder to get to grips with. Questions of ‘acting’, the performing of the self and participation - not to mention the fact that fifty per cent of the performance is taking place on another continent - all raise their heads.

While the content of the show is perfectly charming and engaging it is the construction and form that really fascinates (more 'meta-interesting'): the way that it evokes an actual call to a call centre, the questions it raises about globalisation and distance both geographical and cultural. It also raises less comfortable questions: do call centre workers get paid Equity minimum? Should they be? Is outsourcing in general ultimately exploitation or invaluable investment in emerging economies. It is impressive that such a small piece can raise so many questions, and there is a sneaking feeling that it is these concerns which underpin the direction the much of the scripted questions take. So while feeling slightly politely bland, there is a sense that we are being led in a certain direction. That this direction is not fully signposted allows us to be at least partially responsible for the creatiuon of meaning within the piece. And it is this, more than anything, that suggests that this is indeed challenging theatre at the same time as not being at all difficult.

Miss Landmine Expo - Kiasma-teatteri

Having hopefully conveyed some impression of the workshop programme in the below post, it seems only reasonable to try to give an impression of the pieces that we saw at the Baltic Circle festival. I should firstly point out that we were only there for the final four days of the festival so the descriptions/reviews/write-ups that follow by no means constitute a definitive account of the overall quality of the festival. In fact, I get the impression that we might have missed some of the best work that was shown.

Unlike Munich’s SpielArt festival in November, Baltic Circle seems to be much more of a grab-bag of an international festival. Where the work we saw at SpielArt - despite coming from several different countries - seemed to share a common direction of experimentalism, the work at Baltic Circle felt far more disparate, sharing nothing more than the common umbrella of the festival itself. Artistically, too, it did feel as if the standard of the work – at least what we saw – was slightly lower than that of Munich, or at least, less to the collective taste of the group. That said, it was still great to see work from other European countries somewhere other than the Barbican (or Sadlers Wells, I guess).

Miss Landmine Expo / "Can art change the world?" debate – Kiasma-teatteri

The first event we attended, following a somewhat statistic-heavy lecture on the history of Finnish Theatre (some of which I may try to reprise here if I ever get the time), was a debate on the question “Can art change the world?” This was held in the theatre auditorium of the Kiasma museum of contemporary art, where the MobileLab’s seminars were based throughout the week (the museum, not the theatre – we had a little seminar room all to ourselves and lunch vouchers for the museum’s excellent café). The auditorium was playing host to Norwegian Morten Traavik’s Miss Landmine Expo – which gained some notoriety in Britain when it was first launched. The panel for the discussion included Traavik himself, along with controversial Finnish artist Ulla Karttunen and Unicef’s campaign leader Veera Videnius. Aside from the fact that as well as working as a visual/conceptual artist Traavik is also an actor and director this was pretty much tangential to any idea of theatre; the Miss Landmine Expo was certainly not considered in terms of a performance of any sort, but Baltic Circle, while predominantly a theatre festival, does seem to have a pretty wide remit.

The Miss Landmine exhibition itself could perhaps most usefully be described as “meta-interesting” (a concept to which we shall regrettably return elsewhere). That is to say, most of what’s interesting about the ‘art’ is outside the work itself. As you might have read, the idea behind Miss Landmine was the organisation of a beauty contest in Angola (and later again in Cambodia) open only to women who had been injured by landmines. The exhibition largely consisted of huge poster-sized bright, colourful photographs of these women wearing the usual sashes and tiaras of the beauty contest beaming at the camera and generally looking jolly happy. That all the women are missing at least one leg seems hardly relevant at all. The exhibition has apparently attracted some criticism – from “feminists”, as Traavik dismissively explained in the discussion – over the use of such an outmoded trope to raise awareness of the issue. Traavik would do well to listen more carefully to such concerns.

It isn’t so much that by seeking to highlight these women’s beauty Traavik winds up accidentally objectifying them – although it could easily be argued that he does – it is more that the smiling faces and apparent unconcern rather makes the small matter of having one’s leg blown off look like a mere trifle. Certainly these women should not feel ashamed of their injuries, and seeking to present them as “beautiful” is, in many ways, a perfectly admirable impulse.

The exhibition raises far more questions than it appears to intend. The idea of beauty itself remains uninterrogated – we seem to be being asked only to accept that missing a limb need not be the end of “beauty”. This is really a point so trite that it is hardly worth making. Beyond this, the reality of the landmine themselves is curiously absent. Yes, there is the title of the exhibition, and some of the sashes worn by the women reiterate the message, but these women in their tranquil, idyllic surroundings make the weapons seem like a distant memory. The pictures serve to make the landmine seem like a problem of the past, rather than an ongoing problem. The purpose of the exhibition is apparently to raise awareness as start a debate. Unfortunately the subject of the debate seems unclear. I don’t think there’s anyone defending the motion that leaving landmines lying around is good, but these pictures and a beauty contest aren’t going to stop either the production of landmines or their use in future conflicts.

The discussion, surrounded by these huge pictures, similarly failed to even address its central question – can art change the world? Part of the reason for this was the congratulatory atmosphere within which it took place. The Unicef woman began by congratulating Traavik and telling him that his work had already changed the world. So there we go, debate over. She went on to suggest that this “art” would make an invaluable marketing tool. One idly started wondering how much money Traavik, as an artist, had made out of the pictures, and whether the models had been paid anything at all for their pains. At the very least, he’d had a nice paid-for trip to Finland while they were presumably still sitting about in Angola in precisely the same state as before they had been snapped. Plus ça change, indeed.

The other artist on the panel was Ulla Karttunen. On Friday 16th May, two days after the debate, she was due to appear in court charged with some sort of offence connected to internet pornography. The exact nature of the charges and alleged offence remained pretty opaque throughout the discussion, thanks to a combination of understandable legal requirement, the artist’s reticence, her incredibly quiet voice, and her apparent dislike of readily comprehensible explanations. As far as I could gather (mostly after the debate) she had put on an art exhibition in which she had downloaded and printed some images from “Teen” porn websites and displayed them in a gallery. She was at pains to argue (I think, anyway) that this was not “child porn” but, uh, teen porn, of the legal variety.

The nature of the charges seemed to be something between questioning whether all the participants were of a legal age to have taken part in the pictures and something to do with the fact that while it was apparently legal to view such images online, printing them out, and/or displaying them in a gallery simply wasn’t cricket. From the way she talked about the images, it sounded for most of the debate, as if she had staged and taken the photos herself, but this was apparently not the case. As such, her ‘art’ seemed to amount to nothing more than copying and pasting. Perhaps I’ve got this wrong though. She seemed pretty confused about what she’d done herself, and even more confused about why she’d done it. I haven’t heard quite so much rubbish talked by one person in a very long time. (If you're curious, and can read Finnish, there might be a more comprehensible account here)

Since the police confiscated all the images along with her laptop, it is impossible to judge the ‘art’ itself, or gauge its possible effect. Karttunen said its purpose was to “start a debate” but, like Traavik, seemed to have absolutely no idea what the purpose or even topic of such a debate might be. Her perspective on pornography was similarly unclear, although disapproval looked like it was the order of the day. Since for most of the debate, it sounded like she’d been accused of filming her own child pornography in the name of art, it was difficult to follow much in her subsequent ramblings. One hopes that those orchestrating her defence don’t let her speak for herself, although in fairness her English was significantly better than my Finnish. The debate closed without any tangible resolution having seen precious little actual debate.

Postcards from Helsinki

Ok, here’s a question: should theatre criticism necessarily include an assessment of whether or not a piece of theatre is good or bad?

At time of writing, Postcards is flying over the North Sea on its way back from another of its increasingly frequent overseas junkets (another two coming up in the next month or so), this time returning from Finland where the third of the Festivals In Transition (FIT) MobileLab workshops series was hosted by the Baltic Circle Festival in Helsinki. Having not been to the second MobileLab a couple of weeks ago in Cracow, apart from anything else, it was lovely to be reunited with many of my friends and colleagues from Munich, and to meet a number of new additions to the expanding circle of MobileLab participants.

It was also great to be flung back into this series of incredibly challenging and rewarding seminars. Theatre criticism, as I may have noted before, can be a bit of a lonely old job. After all, while most people go to the theatre for fun and can go to have a meal or a few drinks afterwards, theatre critics go because it’s their job and, if they’re doing their job properly, often have to go straight home afterwards and write it all up; so it’s great to get to spend whole days in the same boat as people who are in the same boat as you.

MobileLab has the added advantage of having gathered some of the brightest and most committed young writers and thinkers about theatre that I’ve met, from across a massive stretch of northern and former Soviet Bloc European countries. As a result, alongside the shared articulate, intelligent, informed passion for theatre, there is also a healthy disparity in what we all mean by ‘theatre’ and in our approaches to writing about it.

The Helsinki seminars were led by a Slovenian critic, magazine editor, thinker and all round great bloke called Rok Vevar. If the workshops in Munich run by Lyn Gardner were challenging – and they were – they did for me at least have the advantage of being challenges to the traditions with which I have grown up. What was fascinating this time was that Rok’s thinking on criticism starts in an entirely different place. In the first discussion we had as a group - establishing what we would like to cover in the forthcoming sessions - there quickly emerged a real schism between critics who felt that an actual judgement of a play’s success or failure was not the aim of theatre criticism, and those (including myself) who couldn’t quite sign up for such a radical departure (at least as far as I saw it). The discussion did get a little bogged down in semantics with one Finn, who was both a performer and a critic, insisting that ‘judgement’ was unnecessary, making it easy for those in favour of saying whether pieces were good or not to score points by noting that, while subjective, ‘judgement’ was necessary at every step of the critical process.

However, lexical choice aside, the division remained between those who said that criticism should say whether something worked or not, and those who said that critiques should essentially offer (admittedly necessarily subjective) interpretations and explanations of the work presented. The following day (?) – or possibly after one of the numerous cigarettes breaks necessitated by having a roomful of nicotine addicted writers starting to loose concentration and grind their teeth pretty much every hour or so – the discussion turned to the first performance we had seen as a group, Büro Für Zeit + Raum: Past is in Front of Ego (review or at least write-up to follow in the next day or so). None of us had been especially impressed with the piece. I had snoozed for a good ten minutes at the start until it stopped repeating itself and anything happened. It was, as one of our number put it, a collection of every cliché of contemporary dance imaginable – “the movements that people put in theatre pieces when they want to have some movement sequences”.

Nonetheless, the piece was discussed. And once we had moved past registering our myriad grumbles about it’s vacuity, lack of technique and overall emptiness as an experience, we started discussing what it might have meant; what it was actually *about*. And then the discussion started to get properly interesting. There had been a pretty general consensus about its failure. We hadn’t been moved or especially enjoyed it. The discussion of its possible meanings was of a whole different order. Rok offered a startlingly eloquent explanation of the piece, interpreting the meanings of various movements and sequences, deftly invoking Lacan and Zizek, the history of dance notation, and ideas of the self-narrating subject whose present and future are defined by their past (or something like that. I’m having one of those moments of feeling comprehensively out-flanked intellectually, but in a nice way).

In short, Rok made the piece fascinating. Even though he hadn’t liked it at all, he had the mental furniture available to offer an analysis of the piece that was far more interesting than watching the piece had been. This immediately raised the question, if we had read Rok’s analysis before we had watched the piece, would we have enjoyed it more? I would argue not. Certainly there would have been more to think about, and his hugely persuasive commentary on how to *read* it, if it had been digested before, could have opened up a possible path through which to follow the piece. And yet, Rok hadn’t particularly liked the piece as he watched it. Even while sitting there, synapses apparently exploding left, right and centre, he hadn’t thought much of the thought behind the piece or the execution.

My concern was, then, if one presents simply beautiful interpretation of the piece without any mention of the fact that it isn’t much fun to watch, one isn’t doing one’s readership any favours. As I said in the seminar, I’d have far rather watched Rok’s analysis than the actual piece. As a result, aren’t people going to be seduced into seeing work that isn’t much fun to watch by persuasive critiques filled with high-quality thought that fail to mention that while the critic has an extraordinary brain they were also pretty pissed off by the work in question. After all, the “is it good or isn’t it?” question is no more or less subjective than the reading they are offering, so it isn’t a matter of additional authority being assumed, it is simply a question of whether or not it should be deemed relevant.

All the while that I was arguing that whether or not one enjoyed a piece is central to any subsequent explanation of it I was dimly aware of a slight feeling of unease that perhaps criticism had been way too co-opted into the PR industry. Have British theatre critics, along with pretty much every other branch of journalism, been tricked into moving away from serious analysis and into giving things the thumbs up (where possible) in order to sell tickets? I’m not suggesting any sort of grand conspiracy, but, as far as theatre PRs go, aren’t the occasional raft of poor reviews worth taking on the chin so that the raves can be harnessed to sell tickets? After all, while some shows might take an absolute pasting, there are plenty of others that can be larded in quotations plastered over every available bit of space in front of the theatre. This would be harder if the reviews in question were lengthy interpretations invoking Zizek and Lacan. While I still ultimately believe that it is the job of the critic to report and describe, the concept has certainly given me a lot to think about.

When compared with a rigorous, extensive and articulate interpretation of a play, the way that some British critics simply shut down and refuse to engage with writing or direction that they have decided is nonsense starts to look like the heights of ignorance. It looks like they don’t understand, and more than this, they don’t care that they don’t understand, and furthermore, that they don’t care not understanding – parading their ignorance as if it were a gold standard for understanding theatre. On the other hand, the elephant in the room here is that this interpretative school of criticism could of course fall prey to finding meaning where there is none – dignifying work with little or intellectually negligible thinking behind it with critiques so intelligent and eloquent that the work seems ultimately vindicated when it would perhaps have benefited more from someone pointing out that it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was.

All of these musings do make me wonder what it is in our national psyche that makes us so suspicious of being *caught out* or tricked by tricksy intellectuals; why we prefer to see pseudery everywhere rather than allowing for the fact that some ideas might actually be quite clever. Indeed, there’s an example par excellence at in the comments section under my review of The City where the (necessarily) anonymous commenter says: “It's the exercise of a fine critical vocabulary in the service of an artistic vacuum - or "French", as it's sometimes expressed.” It’s a good joke, and achieves laughter-of-recognition at exactly the same time as making me rather sad that we Brits don’t seem to have much of an intellectual culture of our own, perhaps partly *because* we prefer to define ourselves in opposition to those who do.

In many ways, partly because of this lack of a serious intellectual culture in British public life, having a more creative, interpretative critical culture wouldn’t make much sense as there simply aren’t that many plays being produced that would benefit from such rigours being applied to them. While say Martin Crimp and Howard Barker might enjoy such a regime change, current critical favourites from Alan Bennett to Roy Williams would find themselves left a bit out in the cold. The fact of the matter is, not much British theatre is actually very arty. It wears its messages and meanings plastered all over its sleeves and generally prefers to offer stories that anyone can readily understand with messages that it would take serious concentration to overlook. I generalise, but not by much. At the same time, this divergence of critical thought does explain why both Crimp and Barker, not to mention Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, receive so much warmer receptions on mainland Europe than in Britain. It also provides the answer as to why so many normally intelligent, thoughtful British critics treat work by some of Europe’s more successful but idiosyncratic directors as if it is something to be debunked and dismissed.

So, I’m interested to see if there is a synthesis possible. Without wanting to lose commissions because I’ve suddenly started writing dense philosophical treatises and started refusing to give star-ratings, I am interested to see whether it is possible to involve more interpretation in reviews while at the same time still letting readers know whether the damn thing is actually worth seeing or not. That said, if you happen to see “A confrontation between idealism and materialism expressed in Lacanian terms between idealism's purported ability to theorize the All versus a Materialism's understanding that an apparent All is really a non-All” - Andrew Haydon, Time Out, plastered across a fringe theatre near you any time soon, you’ll know I’ve succumbed to continental drift.

That Face - Duke of York's Theatre

Written for

Now that the dust has had a chance to settle after the whirlwind of excitement generated by 20-year-old Polly Stenham’s Royal Court debut the play has finally transferred to the West End. It is one of those occasions that critics dread: will the play that they so lavishly praised the first time round be revealed as a hollow shell, making them look like idiots?

The transfer of an intimate, 80-seat, in-the-round show to the 650-odd seat pros. arch space certainly has the potential to crucify a show, or at least to expose weaknesses in pieces that depend on the intimacy of the venue for their effect. However, That Face always felt like it was written for end-on viewing. There is something about the unwavering scrutiny of the characters – as if they were insects pinned on microscope slides - coupled with the continual changes of location, that makes it seem totally right for the West End. As I remarked at the time, it felt like an old-fashioned play (at least, as old-fashioned as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) given unwontedly groovy staging.

As it turns out, when transferred to a proper old-fashioned stage, one begins to see the modernities of the play. The short scenes become more noticeable, the tele-realist dialogue initially sounds odd echoing off the bare walls of Mike Britton’s white box minimalist set, as the actors raised their voices trying to reach the back row of the upper circle.

For all that, the play has retained its power to engage and surprise. Lindsay Duncan's role as the alcoholic mother being cared for by her son, for whom she nurses near-explicit incestuous desires, remains one of the most luminous roles written for an actress in recent years and her note-perfect performance from the Court remains blisteringly powerful here. Matt Smith as Henry has, if anything, managed to improve his performance as her son, who is gradually being ripped apart by the effort of trying to keep his mum together. Hannah Murray, taking over from Felicity Jones as his sister, is perhaps more plausibly teenage than her predecessor, but at the same time displays less of the necessary poshness; the lack of theatre credits on her CV is also observable in her stage presence, which suffers from a slightly over-emphatic delivery and limited emotional range. Catherine Steadman as her sadistic boarding school head of dorm, Izzy, remains distractingly gorgeous, and while she is never quite convincingly vile enough, her performance does a subtle job of hinting at the brittle but provocative young woman trapped behind a deliberately callous exterior.

While the play remains hugely watchable and engaging, the final denouement now feels as if the play is stopping too soon. As an ending for a studio play, screaming hysterics worked very well, and the proximity ensured blistering intensity. Now removed from their immediate vicinity, vivid emotional fireworks aren't quite enough. In spite of the ending’s nods to both Who’s Afraid… and Look Back in Anger, it doesn’t achieve quite the same burnt out resolution of either. As if not all passion is really spent at all The play remains cruel, witty and astute, but exposure in a larger space leaves it needing more insight and wisdom alongside the horribly convincing pain.

Friday 9 May 2008

The City - Royal Court

Written for

Martin Crimp's new play, The City, opens with Chris and Clair (Benedict Cumberbatch and Hattie Morahan), a comfortably off, young, middle-class couple talking about their respective days. Chris is slightly worried because North America are restructuring their division and such upheavals often spell similar rounds of redundancies over here. Clair has a more interesting tale. She was on Waterloo station when a man asked her she had seen his daughter. She had. The girl, dressed in a pair of pink jeans was being led away from the station by a woman dressed in what looked like a nurses uniform under a coat. The man, it turns out, was a writer, Mohammed, who had been tortured in an unnamed country before escaping to Britain to become a best-selling literary recluse.

It's classic Crimp territory all in one scene: the operations of capitalism, the ever-present children, the constant awareness of the wider world and the stark descriptions of torture. The language, too, is classic Crimp: staccato, brisk, self-interrupting. Even the names – Clair, Bobby – resonate from earlier plays. In the second scene Chris and Clair are in their Garden – at least, there is now a strip of turf running down one side of the Vicky Mortimer's Spartan white-box set. The doorbell rings. It is a nervy woman dressed in a nurses uniform under a coat. She explains, hesistantly, that she is called Jenny and that she lives in the flats opposite Chris and Clair's garden and that their children are keeping her awake when they play in the garden. The air of slight dislocation, of fracture and menace, that was present in the first scene is ratcheted up several notches. The recurrence of the nurses uniform under the coat, the slightly threatening way to which the children are referred, and most of all, Jenny's jumpiness make for an unsettling time. Jenny seems petrified of Chris, as if there is some unspoken fear of violence from him, perhaps from men in general.

From here the play continues to build, with the tension and genuine spookiness becoming more and more pronounced. One of the couple's children turns up, first dressed in a nurses uniform under a coat, and then wearing a pair of pink jeans. Jenny returns, wearing precisely the same pink jeans outfit. The stories that Chris and Clair tell one another seem to become confused and intertwined. Anecdotes seem to take on physical form in subsequent scenes, like the way that in dreams events of the preceding day will re-emerge in a totally different context.

The performances are quite remarkable. Cumberbatch and Morahan talk and react to one another with the sharpness, intensity and focus of duelists, while Amanda Hale's Jenny manages to be at once frightened and frightening, at one point rolling on the couple's lawn in slow motion like something out of a David Lynch film – at once inexplicable and deeply unnerving. Whichever child actor it was I saw (the cast rotates between Matilda Castrey and Ruby Douglas) was also excellent, delivering a series of increasingly disturbing limericks and lurching revelations with an eerie calm. Sound designer par excellence Gareth Fry has created another magically subtle soundscape with the sounds within scenes barely audible (at one point Jenny's previously mentioned piano-playing barely breaks the silence of the room) while filling the blackouts with nightmares of tangled voices and white noise.

The final focus pull in the last scene appears to alter the course of the play entirely. However, it could equally be argued that it simply adds another inconclusive layer onto the play's already kaleidoscopic structure. The way that the piece delights in thwarting expectations – hinting at both child abuse and adultery within this troubled relationship, but refusing to confirm either – needn't be entirely dismissed by the play's final revelation, but nor would it matter if it were. The very concept of a desolate bombed-out city becoming the symbol of a writer's broken mind is pregnant with both Adorno's “no poetry after Auschwitz” and Amis's somewhat less convincing echo of the same in the wake of 9/11. Both seem entirely possible in the huge world that Crimp's play encompasses, passing from suburbia to secret war in the flash of a sentence. This is literary conjuring at its most convincing treated to an outstanding production. The City is at once intricate, enormous, and quite, quite brilliant.

King Lear - The Globe

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I have a confession to make: I am pretty squeamish so I never look forward to the middle of King Lear. I am also not good with heights. For the press night of Dominic Dromgoole's 2008 Globe season opener King Lear I was seated in the front row of the uppermost circle of the theatre. The Globe has built a thrust stage into the courtyard from the stage so at times in the upper levels, it feels like one is staring directly down onto the action. I lasted about an hour before having to go and have a good few deep breaths, before rejoining the play in the courtyard.

Given such circumstances, it is always tempting to wonder if maybe the performance couldn't have done more to distract me. King Lear is one of those Shakespeare plays the set-up of which can often veer into tedium, and veer into tedium this indeed did. Act one scene one is generally a pretty good index of how the entire production will pan out. The most striking thing is the costumes. Authenticity is the watchword here, with the whole cast decked out in full Jacobeathan garb of a muted autumnal palette. Nor is there any clanging symbolism; Goneril and Regan look perfectly normal, as does their sister Cordelia. Similarly, David Calder's Lear doesn't start the play either foaming at the mouth with madness, nor so hopelessly senile that one wonders how he has got this far. No, Lear here is a perfectly normal chap who is dividing his kingdom between his three daughters, and is mortified when nothing comes of nothing.

Dromgoole's approach treats the play logically and sensibly, showing the characters as developed, almost Chekhovian personalities. The problem is, although more outward-facing than Russian naturalism, this is a difficult way of bringing Shakespeare alive in a large outdoor space. What might be deeply moving in the Cottesloe, is not necessarily going to reach past the groundlings in the Globe. An exception to this is Danny Lee Wynter's Fool. Although married to a curious set of directorial decisions, his very presence on stage immediately puts the others in the shade. With his vocal technique alone being a pleasure to hear, even if hampered by some needlessly baroque ornamentation. It's one of those performances that makes you wish that Dromgoole had also observed the likely original doubling up between the parts of Cordelia and the Fool – they never actually speak in the same scenes, and indeed the Fool's early exit from the play seems only explicable because of her sudden return. Wynter would make a fascinating, strange and troubling Cordelia, a far cry from the usual wets asked to essay her woes. Elsewhere, Edmund and Edgar are both surly youths with (Welsh? Geordie?) accents, while Paul Copley's Kent spends most of the play disguised as a bluff Yorkshireman.

For much of the play the psychological realism pays differing dividends, interspersed with medieval song and rumbunctious Herne worshipping dance sequences, plus a very stylised battle between English and French armies that seems to have been plundered straight from Black Watch or the National's St Joan. However, it does render the conclusion of the play one of the more moving that I have seen. With the characters and their motivations so clearly delineated, the sheer misery and futility of the end is truly tragic, helped here by a gorgeous final burst of choral singing by the cast. But it's a long time coming, and with no real charisma from Edmund, no sparks between him or either of his adulterous lovers, and with much of the play's tension dissipated by the rigours of the space, it seems a long time to stand.