Sunday, 21 September 2008

Ivanov - Wyndham's

[Written for]

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

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

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

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

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

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

in-i - National Theatre

[Written for]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Now or Later - Royal Court

[Written for]

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

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

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

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

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

Sons of York - Finborough Theatre

[Written for]

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Six Characters in Search of an Author - Gielgud

[written for]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 September 2008

Hedda - The Gate

[Written for]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 4 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

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


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

This Wide Night – Soho Theatre (FT)

A Slight Ache – National Theatre (FT)

The Shadowmaster – King's Head (Time Out)

The Mikado - Union Theatre (Time Out)

Edward II – BAC (Time Out)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...some trace of her - National Theatre

Review expected shortly.

Postcards from Estonia II

Again, placeholder to maintain chronology.

While We Were Holding It Together -

Review shortly. Hopefully.