Friday 9 January 2009

Upstream, upbeat

__________________________________________*see endnote

I’d been promising myself I wasn’t going to do a “My Top Ten of 2008”, my reasoning being that they are cheap space fillers concocted in the absence of anything very real or proper to write about. Andrew Field made this argument reasonably convincingly over at the Guardian, and subsequently the Guardian’s Theatre Blog seemed to go into post-meta-round-up overdrive, or something. In the interim, the usual suspects (Michael, Susannah, Charlie, et al) all dutifully filed “proper” lists, which in the main selected perfectly good but mostly very mainstream plays, solidity and reliability seeming to be the main watchwords. All of which means that we end up with a largely uncollected year as far as more alternative work goes. Annoyingly, my own Top Ten, for want of a better sort of list, doesn’t do half as much as I’d like to change this.

Hedda Gabler – dir. Thomas Ostermeier (Barbican, London)

I Apologize – Gisele Vienne (Spordikirik, Rakvere, Estonia)

Static – by Dan Rebellato (Soho Theatre, London)

P*rn*gr*phie – dir. Sebastian Nübling (Andrej Bagar Theatre, Nitra, Slovakia)

Hamlet – dir. Oskuras Korsunovas (Arts Printing House, Vilnius, Lithuania)

Jonah Non Grata – Simon Kane (Shunt Vaults, London)

Press – Pierre Rigal (Gate Theatre, London)

When You Cry in Space Your Tears Go Everywhere – Tinned Fingers (NSDF, Scarborough)

Hamlet Episode – Daegu City Modern Dance Company (Rocket@Roxburghe Hotel, Edinburgh)

Six Characters in Search of an Author – dir. Rupert Goold (Gielgud, London)

Narrowly missing out on a place in the top ten were Dave St-Pierre’s Un Peu de Tendresse, Bordel de Merde!, seen at the Exodos festival in Ljubliana, Slovenia; Little Bulb theatre’s Crocosmia, which I caught in Edinburgh and [damn it, it’s gone, will try to remember]

It’s certainly a more diverse list than last year’s, which induced a bout of soul-searching about why I hadn’t been to more fringe venues/seen more experimental work. On the other hand, it’s also more diverse mainly because, thanks to the FIT Mobile Lab workshops and the IATC Young Critics’ conference in Wiesbaden, I seemed to spend weeks on end overseas.

Having said that, there isn’t anything from the National or the Royal Court this year either. And, unlike last year, thanks mostly to a lot of reviewing for Time Out, I *did* make it to a lot of fringe venues – pretty much one a week for almost the whole year. And yet only one show that I saw for Time Out made it into my top ten – Pierre Rigal’s Press (which is soon to be revived at Sadler’s Wells as part of the Paris Calling season), and that was at the Gate, which is hardly West End. Indeed, of the four Five Star reviews (out of a possible six for Time Out) I remember giving in ’08 (Press, Contractions, The Mikado and Cinderella - Lord alone knows why they’re all archived in “Sport”) only the Mikado at the Union could really be counted as “fringe”. Although, remembering how good it was is making me feel slightly stingey for not putting it in the Top Ten. Oh dear, how I actually hate hierarchy after all... Indeed, as I wrote in a blog for the Guardian after a particularly bad run fringe luck, much of the work seems to be well-meaning-but-pointless-at-best and often badly executed or in dire need of serious script-editing, if not complete re-writing. But, of course, there are the gems too. So no conclusions there.

One conclusion I did draw is that much of the good work on the fringe wouldn’t be at all out of place in a more “mainstream venue”. There are two reasons for this, firstly that quite a lot of good fringe work, Gemma Fairlie’s production of Hangover Square at the Finborough is a good example, isn’t alarmingly “radical” in any way. It’s good, solid, well-produced drama. Nothing wrong with that. The second reason is that “mainstream” theatres like the National and the Royal Court have actually started producing much more experimental work than they did even five years ago. Even in what felt like a relatively staid year for the National (Afterlife, Fram, Never So Good and Gethsemane) there was also in-i and To Be Straight With You.

Moreover, last year, I had only the faintest inklings about the live art or contemporary dance scenes. Sad to say, my knowledge on the domestic front isn’t much improved this year, or at least it doesn’t feel like I’ve “gone native” just yet, even if I am starting to recognise more of the names and perhaps the idiolects involved. Having said that, it does feel as it 2008 saw massive leaps ahead in the gradual elision between dance and theatre. Admittedly much of my perspective on this coming-together was informed by my experiences on the mainland where events nominally described as theatre festivals would quite happily programme work which would until recently have been firmly delineated as dance in this country.

You only have to consider that Press is the second show from The Gate to be transferring to Sadler’s Wells to get an idea of the significant shifts starting to take place. Oddly, this creates its own problems. At the launch of the hugely exciting Paris Calling programme I chatted to Alistair Spalding, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, about the difficulties that having dance theatre presented causes by dance venues with regard to who is supposed to review it. Essentially, papers have their dance critics, who are on the mailing list of Sadler’s Wells and their theatre critics who are on the mailing list for the Gate. So when a work transfers from one space to another, it seems to fall from one bracket into another, giving no real sense of continuity. Ivana Müller’s While We Were Holding It Together (which I really must write up), which I saw at the Baltoscandal festival in Estonia, is going to Sadler’s Wells in Febuary and I’d love to see it again, but as a theatre reviewer, I worry that I won’t be familiar enough to their press office – nor will any of my Theatre section colleagues at Time Out. This gradual crossover of interests needs to be addressed. I can only hope that in these increasingly straitened times, editors’ solutions won’t be to simply merge theatre and dance review sections with concomitant redundancies.

Worries about employment aside, I am hugely optimistic about the way that theatre seems to be headed in this country. A blog I’ve written for the Guardian (to be posted on Monday) looks at the huge amount of international work coming up in the next six months, and overall there have been a lot of imperceptible improvements. I was recently reading through the back numbers of Theatre Record editorials, all now gathered together from 2003 on the magazine’s revamped website, and was genuinely surprised by an editorial from 2004 in which Ian Shuttleworth wrote:

“We are, we Brit-critics, predominantly white, middle-aged, middle-class and male. A number of us - meaning no disparagement to their femininity - are to all intents and purposes honorary males; a number of us are flatteringly still referred to as middle-aged despite the advances of Father Time; some of us (myself included) are “scholarship boys”, not middle-class by background though firmly so by acculturation. In terms of perspective, though, we come pretty much from the same mould.

How, then, do we react to work which is outside our more accustomed province? It's an interesting matter to consider, in a fortnight when we're presented with new pieces by both Forced Entertainment and Shunt, each a collective dedicated to presenting non-scripted, non-linear work.”

Compare this with Shuttleworth’s reviews of, for example, Chris Goode’s recent work, and indeed engagement with, at Thompson’s Bank... and it looks like we’ve got proof positive of the paradigm shift that has been effected by the blogosphere.

There has been a massive change in perception in the past four years, and while it hasn’t necessarily gone far enough yet, it is hugely reassuring to come across something which appears to chart the progress already made. I’m still planning to make it to Devoted and Disgruntled tomorrow, but I have to say, while the devotion is up and running again, I’m not sure my disgruntlement is going to make the grade.

* picture inspired by recent friending on Facebook of the Italian performance company/person Ricci/Forte, who was using it as a profile picture. It seems to come from here originally.

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