Thursday 29 April 2010

Pressure Drop - Wellcome Collection

[In the interests of full disclosure, while he's (ironically) not actually a relation, I have known Pressure Drop director Chris Haydon for well over a decade and we’re friends. I hope this doesn’t have any bearing on my opinion of the show, but since it has given me a small amount of backgrohnd on how the show got made, rather than pretending I don’t know anything, I’ll just write whatever I feel like. As such, this may or may not *count* as “proper review”].

Pressure Drop is On Theatre’s (that’s the name of the company) latest “theatre essay”. The methodology behind these theatre essays is essentially that (in this instance) writer Mick Gordon and director Chris Haydon interview a number of people either intimately or intellectually connected to the subject under scrutiny – Pressure Drop began life as On Identity, before finding a home at the Wellcome collection as part of its own investigation into identity – and then go away and write a play in which these some of views or reflections resurface in or inform what the characters think or say.

From this process, emerges a play, crossed with an installation, crossed with a gig. Like the other recent gig-show Micro, it’s a lovely idea, but what of the practice?

The subject of Pressure Drop is, topically enough, English/British nationalism/racism (even more so since Gordon Brown’s election-trail faux pas on the subject seems to have gone nuclear this morning). Specifically, if not explicitly, the rise of the British National Party in Barking, Essex and takes the form of a promenade performance across three stages – a funeral parlour, a living room, and the corner of a pub, plus a fourth stage on which Billy Bragg and his band play songs and provide background and scene-change music and a bit of light-hearted banter.

The play tells the story of the Cleggs (again, amusingly, unintentionally topical), a working class family living in Barking. Jack (Michael Gould) has lost his father, his more successful brother, Jon (Justin Salinger) is returning from New York where he works as a banker. His best mate Tony (David Kennedy - brilliant) is trying to persuade him to stand as a local councillor for the BNP. This is all complicated by the fact that Jack’s dead father, a WWII veteran, had an abiding love of reggae music and black culture ever since his life was saved by a black soldier in the war.

As plays go, on a micro level it works quite well – the family stuff is quite moving, and there’s a nice focus-pull moment early on which raises the text above workaday naturalism. On the other hand, the politics end of stuff still feels somewhat schematic. That’s not to say that the characters don’t ring true, or that their arguments aren’t methodically researched, but it still feels a bit like the central antagonists each shoulder a thesis/antithesis position while the supporting cast are applied as light and shade around them.

There’s also the fact that, as drama, only one character – Jack – really has any decisions to make and his modus operandi is largely to stand looking helpless and be buffeted as his brother and best friend argue their positions.

I also found the casting slightly problematic. Because David Kennedy’s Tony is this built-for-violence, larger than life BNP skinhead lager lout, the other characters seem hopelessly outgunned. We never see, for example, what makes Tony want Jack to be the local councillor. Tony tells us that it’s Jack that’s the foreman – perhaps Jack is now too shell-shocked by the death of his father – but Gould’s performance suggests a man who has never been comfortable in his own skin, who has been bullied by his best friend his entire life. A man steeped in disappointments and quietly shamed by his younger brother’s success. He does “nice bloke” and “reluctant racist” well, but behind this, there isn’t quite the writing to flesh out this basic position.

There’s a sense that the text would suffer if presented as an end-on drama, but since it was conceived as a whole, along with the ‘installation’ and ‘gig’ elements, there doesn’t seem much point in criticising it for not achieving something it’s not intended to. And the presentation does alter things.

There are a couple of interesting meta- points that having the performance in promenade raises – firstly, it strikes me as excellent that in a play about resentment of immigration the entire audience is made to negotiate peaceably amongst themselves for space. Secondly, it was very interesting to watch the entire audience trot up and down the space like a big herd, all looking in the same direction at the same time. Quite early on, I took the not-as-perverse-as-it-sounds decision to try to stand somewhere else so I could watch the audience as well as the play. Standing slightly outside the crowd led to a few moments where I felt I perhaps appreciated the dramaturgy of the space slightly better than someone stood right up close to the action. On the other hand, choosing to set oneself analytically apart does make for a different experience, and perhaps not the full one, but I’ve always been suspicious of crowds.

Beyond this, the staging works well at a concrete level as well as metaphorical. There’s clearly an awareness of the likely constituency of an audience who’d come to see a play about politics with music by Billy Bragg staged at the Wellcome Collection in a converted exhibition hall, and the production ironises the sort of “let’s go and look at how the other half live” voyeurism of which this sort of play is often accused by confronting it head on, and almost highlighting the way in which these characters are being put on show in an exhibition space. Rather than saying: “Come! See the proles in recreations of their natural habitat!”, it seems to be saying: “look at yourselves looking at this, and have a think about that”. Indeed, it makes a strong case for every play purporting to be anthropological being staged in glass cases in museums so that everyone watching is made aware of this.

I should probably say a word or two about Billy Bragg’s contribution too. I’d never considered myself a huge fan before, but the new songs written for the play are musically sound enough – his voice isn’t quite as stridently Essex in all of them as it used to be, and the musicianship on show is undeniable, and, well, they’re not bad, really. The version of Pressure Drop at the end, while not perhaps as good as other versions, is still enough to have had the damn thing stuck in my head for three days. And having the music played live to a clearly appreciative audience adds an excellent extra dimension, even if lyrically, some of the new numbers seem to be a bit on-the-nose/direct compared with the more subtle way in which drama works.

What was most interesting to me, though, was the amount of research done and fact that the text of the play itself seemed to have deliberately left it out (at least explicitly). In this way, my earlier assessment of “thesis/antithesis” is slightly unfair. The conversations do actually run more like conversations – albeit it ones in which everyone talks in blocks of text – than “whoops! Exposition!” levels of research being put into people’s mouths. Except it felt that the research needed to be put somewhere. As if, in editing for realism, necessary information and perspectives had been excised.

As it was, what did we actually end up with? A slightly under-powered narrative trajectory possibly using a particular decision-moment in one family’s life to shed light on the whole question of the “white working-class”’s (call me an old Marxist, but the colour of a worker really doesn’t matter and discussion of it is just so much false-consciousness) alleged feelings of disenfranchisement. It’s a big ask, and I’m not sure the piece quite gets there – hedging its dramatic bets between not wanting to be too didactic or schematic and not being didactic or schematic enough.

For all this to-ing and fro-ing, with my opinion, though, perhaps the most ringing endorsement of the show I can offer is that it was my second promenade piece of the day (having also seen Would Like to Meet earlier on Monday) and I’d been told it was an hour and a half long. At the end of its actual two-hour running time, I was surprised that it’d been half an hour longer than I’d been told. So, one way or another, I’d been fully engaged and interested throughout, even if some of the sorts of things that play does aren’t necessarily my favourite sort of thing for plays to do.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Would Like to Meet - Barbican

Non Zero One’s Would Like to Meet (henceforth WLTM) is a perky, charming bit of programming on the Barbican’s part. The company, formed by Royal Holloway graduates last year, were apparently picked up after one of their number, who happened to be interning at the Barbican invited someone in programming to come and see his graduation piece. She loved it, and consequently the thing has been re-made for the Barbican. It’s an appropriate back-story for a piece which suggests a fragmented take on fairy-tale romance and happy endings.

The basic set-up of the thing is that you and five others – yup, it’s one of those profitable six-at-a-time shows (well, Internal+1, Guru Guru+1, et al) – assemble in the Barbican foyer, are sat down on a bench marked with six coloured panels, are left for a bit, and are then led over to a set of headphones which you put on and leave on for the remainder of the show’s 45 minute duration.

As such, without having shirked my duty at all, I can only accurately report one-sixth of what the show’s like. I can’t decide whether I should even say what colour route I took (and, indeed, whether the colours remain consistent to the audio-route I was given).

I did happen to see the show with Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times and Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard, so if you’re interested to find out more, perhaps also go check out their reviews (they also both waffle a good deal less than me).

I should also point out, before you get excited and think this sounds like exactly your kind of thing, the show has apparently already sold out – although you could always go queue for returns, I guess...

And so, WTLM itself: well, the experience I had was very pleasant. Indeed, all six of us in the group I saw it with agreed that it was a pretty charming little piece. And not so little, really. While it’s relatively short and gentle, the themes (urg, bleugh, horrible word) are still some of the biggest available – memory, desire, mystery, love, the unknowability of the past and of others, the comfort of strangers, etc.

After an initial burst of ambient noise, there’s a voice in your ear. A pleasant, slightly ironic, young, perhaps playfully seductive male voice. The stuff it says is pretty clear and straightforward for the most part. Imagine this, stand up, look at that, turn left, do you see that? Go towards that. Stop. Look around. Think about this or that.

It doesn’t look like much on paper, but when placed in situ, played into your ears, and delivered in this warm, likable tone, it’s all rather comforting. Not enervatingly so, though. The voice also asks a few difficult questions as it’s leading you around – but of course, it can’t hear your answers, and you never have to say them out loud. But, it does ask you to write things down. Sometimes. Well, it did to me. And while you and your five co-audients are being led around different journeys around the Barbican, sometimes your paths cross. Or narrowly fail to cross (setting up the odd feeling of playing Don’t Look Now with Ian Shuttleworth)

It sets up this mini-meditation in which you drift round the Barbican, sort of at the centre of your own wistful romantic reverie, as if you’re the star of your own rom-com or spy thriller. As such it’s kind of encouraging us to behave in the same sort of solipsistic behaviour we probably undertake on our own anyway, except here it’s validated because we can actually here the voiceover. And there’s an enjoyable loss of our agency.

Part of my route took me to a small bar tucked down some stairs and round the corner from the main Barbican Theatre. Requested to pick up a small camcorder playing back a video of the room filled with people at a party, you are invited to wander round the room, looking at it both on the camcorder screen and at the mess left over from the party in the empty room in which you’re standing. It’s a beautifully spooky sensation, watching the empty spaces where people once stood. And somehow it manages to make the room feel like it stands for pretty much any party that’s ever ended.

At another stage, I was brought back-to-back with a stranger from my group for only a few seconds while she slipped and envelope into my hand and was then moved quickly away again by the instructions in the headset, as if in some John le Carré or Graham Greene novel.

The piece works beautifully. There are little points where you step outside the narrative and think – blimey, this must have taken ages to work out and set up. Not least because of the way your paths cross with the paths of the other people in your group and your headset guide remarks, entirely accurately, on what they are doing. So, while you’re aware that obviously the guide in your head(set) knows what they’re doing because he/it’s telling them what to do on their circuits. But even so, the nifty intricacy in creating likeable mise-en-scene using your fellow audience members – and no doubt putting you unwittingly into some of their scenes – is beautifully realised. Perhaps my favourite moment of the show was watching Evening Standard critic Henry Hitchings standing on a balcony in the Foyer throwing a paper aeroplane at one of the other members of the group a floor below, while the audio-guide wondered aloud why they were doing that. WLTM also has a GSOH.

So, overall, a nice, uncomplicated complicated little pleasure. Possibly not hitting all the high notes it could, but as a first piece of work from a young company, this is a remarkably accomplished bit of work. Here’s to lavish R&D grants and grander ambitions being realised for Non Zero One in the future.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Racial Papers – Slight Return (part two)

In yesterday’s first half to this blog, I deliberately left two elephants in the room of my argument:

The first elephant is the question of how one defines a play’s nationality.

The second elephant is what we mean when we say “national” theatre.

Until I read the Lynn Nottage interview, I’m not sure the first question had ever occurred to me before. But once it had, it seemed to keep growing as a question. Up until now, if asked the nationality of a play, I’d have probably given the nationality of its author. As such, her Pulitzer-winning Ruined is an American play. Except, that if Nottage self-identifies as an African-American, goes to Africa to research her play, and then writes a play about Africa, does that make it an “African-American play”?

My unease originates from the fact that when I was growing up enlightened thinking on How Not To Be Racist started with the phrase “They were born here, they’re as British as you or me”. This was pre-“Cultural Diversity”, “celebrating difference” and Etc. This was “Inclusion”, I think. One big, lovely, not-racist, “English” (then serving as a culturally-insensitive synonym for “British”) group-hug. The basic idea then was that we ignored “difference” (i.e. skin colour, accents, etc.), and were all meant to respect each other. That seemed in keeping with the wider idea of what “the British” were meant to be like. We were meant to be decent, cricketing folks (which, back when the majority of immigrants came from India/Pakistan or the “West Indies”, excluded no one). As such, everything produced within a country by people born there, or who had settled there, would be uncomplicatedly seen as “British”. Perhaps I was being told the wrong things, but that is what my impression of what nice people were meant to think.

Perhaps this simplistic former explanation of mine wants a bit of looking at. After all, the language a play is written in often tells you little. Plays written in English could be English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, American, Australian, Canadian or from New Zealand. Plays written in German could be German, Austrian, Swiss, or potentially, given the way Europe’s boundaries have shifted, could have been written by a German citizen in German, in the German city Danzig before 1945 – now Gdansk in Poland. What nationality would that play have? And what if it was set in, oh, I don’t know, Vilnius when it was occupied by Poland, or something?

Not that he was a playwright, but I was surprised to learn – much more recently than isn’t embarrassing – that Kafka wrote all his books in German. I mean, I’d only read them in translation, and knew that he lived in Prague, so I just assumed that they were written in Czech. Fair assumption, I’d have thought, but no. Wrong. So, does that make him a German writer? I mean, literally it does. He was *writing* in *German* - that makes him a “German writer” by definition. But the fact that he did so in Prague and the fact that his writing is held by the Czechs to be exemplary of their culture... And let’s not even get started on the genre of plays in English (I nearly called them “English plays” there) christened “French farces”.

On the other hand, I have a Lithuanian playwright friend who once said that his primary motivation for writing plays was to reassert Lithuanian as a language following the Soviet occupation. Much the same sort of sentiment accompanies literary endeavour in Poland, parts of the former Yugoslavia and etc., where the assertion of the national language, of a national identity, is a matter of rehabilitation, of restoration. Writing a play in “English”, meanwhile, says virtually nothing about its origin, save for perhaps a few quirks of spelling and dialectal variants on words like “pavement”, “underground” (as in metro) and “flat” (as in apartment).

This elephant/question occurred to me really when considering the nature of the second elephant – what we mean by “national theatre”.

In short - if Lynn Nottage’s play is a play about Africa, researched in Africa, written in English by an American (or African-American. Whichever she wants) why should it be even the slightest matter of surprise that it isn’t being staged at the National Theatre of Great Britain?

This is partly the question Andrew Field raises in the comments under part one:
“The NT is the National Theatre and its funding, profile, building and everything else about it reflects its status *as a national theatre*. As a consequence it absolutely does have a responsibility to be more 'national' in scope than other theatres. A responsibility to encompass more, to accommodate more, to challenge and to inspire, to do things that only it can do with the funding and space and profile that it has.”

I do agree with the general thrust of this argument, but what I didn’t address yesterday, and what Field also doesn’t really touch upon above, is what we’re meaning by “National” here. Or rather, what purpose that word serves in the title of this institution. As far as I see it, there are two basic options for a “National” theatre: either it is a theatre *of* the nation, or it is the theatre *for* the nation. At its best, I’d say the NT (as it feels so much less oppressive to call it) does both.

*For* is reasonably simple, but what does *of* mean in practice?

But Field is also raising a wider point: “Form is as important as content, as you well know and it's no good being a thousand miles wide if you're half a metre deep.”

I suspect, knowing him and knowing the work that he has championed though Forest Fringe venture – and indeed, has championed overseas for the “British Council” (another interestingly National-sounding term) – what he’s particularly interested in is the normative aspect that putting the word “National” in front of what is our best funded non-opera-producing theatre (after all, the venues in which operas are produced are also “theatres”, as are some places where films are shown (cf. Movie Theater).

In short, by calling one building “the National Theatre” is there not an extent to which that building will then go on, in a way, to partially define what this nation understands theatre to be?

I think the answer must be both yes and no – and, for the record, I think “half a metre” is a bit harsh, even if I do understand the point he’s making; there are certainly sorts of work, which can (*should*?) be defined as theatre, that never appear at the NT. But let’s not start discussing “What Is Theatre?”

I notice in the two options I’ve suggested four paras above, I missed out the third option traditionally linked to those first two I’ve suggested: theatre made “*by* the nation”.

It’s just struck me, that this is perhaps the most significant feature of NT productions. In short, irrespective of a text’s provenance, they tend to be directed by “British” directors and acted by “British” actors. I keep saying “British”, although the question of what *nation* the National Theatre is the national theatre *of* is also interesting.

With the recent establishment of both National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Wales, does this make the building on the South Bank (and, by extension, its tours, West End transfers, and outlying operations) the National Theatre of England and Northern Ireland? (I mention Northern Ireland with the greatest of trepidation, and already wish I hadn’t). After all, if there is an NTScotland and an NTWales, does this make the NT like Parliament across the river in Westminster? Sort of *speaking for* all four elements of the “United Kingdom”, while at the same time devolving powers and responsibilities to these other national companies/assemblies? Leaving that tangent there, and returning to the main thread – and leaving aside Field’s questions of whether the *sort* of theatre the NT seems to create for a second – let’s go back to the nationality of plays (or texts) and productions.

Another striking feature of the NT, now I think about it, is that it basically never imports *productions* (or directors, and very few actors) from abroad. So, in that sense, we get an idea of one way in which the theatre is national. Everything there is “home-made”. Fair enough, perhaps. London has the Barbican which does an admirable job of importing theatre from abroad. It has the Old Vic to import copiously from America now that it’s under Kevin Spacey, and perhaps the Young Vic most notably to import directors from Europe (although that plays only the smallest part in their programming).

So, what the NT stages is extant texts, from anywhere and everywhere; old and newish, new commissions – mostly from British writers, a smattering of in-house devised work; and the occasional transfer from a regional theatre (cf. The Pitman Painters or the current Spring/Horizon double bill), or the odd production from an extant company (cf. Tara Arts’ The Black Album, Complicite’s Measure for Measure, Kneehigh’s A Matter of Life and Death or the sort-of Punchdrunk collaboration on Every Good Boy Deserves Favour). It also had that link-up with Shunt, and actually gets in a remarkable range of international work for its Watch This Space outdoor season.

And, its choices of text seem to be pretty remarkable for their eclecticism and internationalism. Yes, granted they are choices of *text*, for the most part, and granted, it is at this level where the NT might be seen to be perhaps holding back ideas of all the things that “theatre” might mean - because it can still be seen as primarily “text-led” rather than, with the exception of Katie Mitchell, “director-led”. So it does still *seem* to propagate a very particular model of making work.

And, this is in fact a way of working which seems largely peculiar to this island. Well, no, that’s not accurate, but the presentation of works “as written” or “as intended by the writer” rather than, for the most part, “staged by” or “interpreted by” a director is more British/Anglophone than it is European.

I suppose what both the elephants I’ve addressed here encompass, is the question of whether there is something “national” about the way we make theatre, write plays, tell stories, even how we gather together to watch them. And, beyond that, whether this is somehow intrinsic to some sort of “national character” – which strikes me as deeply unlikely – or as some manifestation of what various commonly experienced external social forces collectively produce – our pre-existing conceptions of ourselves, being replayed to us, amplified several times over if the words on the outside of the building, even if only subliminally, are inviting us to experience these reproductions as part of some sort of sense of collective identity.

As such, as a closing thought, I wonder if, after all this, whether the National Theatre ends up reflecting, endorsing, perpetuating, or challenging any of these ideas, and whether all four contradictory positions aren’t all part of its curiously unclear job description.

...of course, the real reason the National exists is for its excellently stocked bookshop :-)

Monday 26 April 2010

The Racial Papers – Slight Return (part one)

In September 2007 I wrote: “For some reason everything theatre-related written over the last few days seems to have been somehow related to race.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Ok, not *everything*, but race on stage seems once again to be a topic of discussion. Depressingly, it seems to be exactly the same discussion as last time.

The first example occurs in this Guardian interview by Nosheen Iqbal with the American playwright Lynn Nottage:
‘I tell her I'm surprised the National theatre weren’t the first to stage Ruined here. “They told me they'd already done their Africa play last year,” she flashes back. ‘

This brief exchange raises a number of interesting points. The first is the number of assumptions and implications that Iqbal’s prompt makes about the National Theatre. The second is the curious attempt to paint the NT as some sort of box-ticking monolith of mildly racist Anglo-centricity.

As a point of fact – I went back and checked – The National actually staged two plays about Africa last year: Death and the King’s Horsemen one by Nigerian Nobel Laureate (and Leeds Uni alumnus) Wole Soyinka, and The Observer by British Writer Matt Charman.

This year - and it already feels absurdly reductive to be pigeonholing bits of theatre by continent like this – there’s Nigerian-born Inua Ellam’s 14th Tale and the American musical celebration of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Fela!, produced by, among others, Jay-Z.

Difficult, then, to work out which single “Africa play” Nottage imagines “they told [her] they’d already done” [my italics].

Perhaps Iqbal has an axe to grind with the National Theatre regarding its criteria for selecting plays – unless, of course, the printed interview doesn’t record the bit where Lynn Nottage says: “Now, ask me what happened when I approached the National Theatre about staging Ruined…”.

Why would any arts journalist ask why a play that *is* going on at The Almeida isn’t going on at the National? Did anyone ask why Headlong’s The Trial of Judas Iscariot wasn’t at the NT, for example? (because the NT had “already done *their* biblical play in Paul a few years earlier?)

Will anyone be worrying Jenny Worton with question about why her adaptation of
Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly
isn’t opening at the National instead, prior to its premiere at the Almeida in June? One suspects not. So why here?

Bluntly: what’s so “National Theatre” about Ruined that isn’t “National Theatre” about one of Rupert Goold’s best bits of work, or the World Premiere of a staging of an Ingmar Bergman script? (After all, the NT hasn’t staged *anything* Swedish since 2001’s Money. Why is no one asking if this is a conspiracy to deprive Scandinavians of their voice?)

Iqbal is implying (deliberately. I checked) that what the NT has done amounts to “dutiful box-ticking which is patronising and something they need to grow up about”. It’s as if, despite the National clearly staging other plays about Africa, there’s something racist about them not also staging this one.

I disagree. In the past year the National Theatre have done “their” Polish play, three of “their” Russian plays, “their” German play, a few of “their” American plays (a category into which Nottage’s Ruined squarely falls – the fact it happens to be about Africa is neither here nor there), “their” Greek play, “their” French play, “their” play by an Irishman who sounds like he should be French, “their” Austrian and “their” British-Asian play. It’s also worth noting that “their” German play last year was Bert Brecht’s Mother Courage, the play on which Ruined was apparently based...

Yes, it’s won a Pulitzer Prize, but that’s no guarantee of a staging at the NT either. Indeed, looking at the list of recent winners far more have gone to the Royal Court or Almeida or nowhere in Britain at all.

The National Theatre manifestly produces *the* widest selection of work produced by any single theatre in Britain. Fair enough – and no slight intended to any other theatre. Other theatres don’t have the same number of stages or anything like the same level of funding. The NT is the only theatre which has the space and the money to do what it does. Even so, they almost certainly wouldn’t have taken Enron even after it’s sell-out run in Chichester because they already had The Power of Yes, for example (“their” financial crisis play). This isn’t box ticking so much as really not being able to do all the great plays that get written.

Rather than issues about “being patronising”, isn’t another the issue here: plays that sell themselves by subject? After all, the real selling point of Nottage’s play is its subject matter, and, as a subset of this, its specificity to Africa. This isn’t even a play claiming to trade on “universals” (not that I believe in them, but Hamlet never seems to get promoted by virtue of its relation to its exploration of “Danish issues”, does it?). As such, I'm not sure that it’s in the literary department the NT where the imaginary box-ticking starts.

Let’s say they get sent a script and its subject is Africa, about which they've already had two plays last year, one the year before that, and two plays this year – two, incidentally, by Africans, two from America and one by a white British writer.

I think I'm right in saying the NT opens about 30 plays a year. Only half of these are new plays. Of those 15 (let’s say) texts, they are expected to comment on Britain, Europe, North America, the Middle east, the near east, the far east, South America, Australia, and now Icelandic volcanoes, no doubt. Not to mention: all of history, every item in any given newspaper on any given day, politics, philosophy, science, religion... All the while appealing - in theory – to *everyone* in Britain *and* everyone happening to visit Britain during a play’s run, of every age, race, sexuality, class, and so on.

The job they do is enormously impressive, even when particular productions don’t pan out. With Hytner’s regime, you can at least pretty much always see why someone thought something was a good idea at the planning stages. And, as programmes go, it does seem to offer something for everyone.

At the same time, the NT are aware that they’re not the only theatre in town. I’m pretty sure it’s not unknown for them to horse-trade with scripts which might fit other spaces better. And it’s hardly a prestige drop for Nottage that Ruined is going to the Almeida.

But, because *they’re* called *The National Theatre*, they somehow have to behave, to programme, more “Nationally”, more, well, State-of-the-Nation-ly. As if something like London Assurance, for example, somehow has to be a National Comedy, rather than simply a well produced entertainment. As if a refusal from the NT is somehow Britain turning its back on a piece. It must be a bit of an albatross, really. And it somehow allows the NT’s choice of plays to be criticised in a way that, say, the Donmar or Almeida’s choices of plays just aren’t.

After all, no one’s going to have a go at the Almeida if they don’t stage another play about Africa for ten years now, are they? I'm not convinced that them doing so now amounts to box-ticking either, though. I think it's just common sense/sensible rotation of types of play, themes, topics, etc.

Who goes to see what plays, and whether certain plays attract different audiences and why, is such a huge and unknowable topic that it’s pretty much impossible to even speculate. Mike Bradwell (formerly of the Bush) once remarked that if he put on a play about lawyers (for example), they'd get more lawyers in the audience, etc. (much the same phenomenon is being observed of Posh, Enron and The Power of Yes at the moment). So, I guess stuff that is about specific communities or countries do play, in part, to a specific constituency - perhaps to the exclusion of other constituencies (the notable exceptions being plays about the BNP and heroin addicts, one supposes). Does the British-Asian community go to see plays dealing predominantly with “gay themes”, for example? Does the gay community go to see plays about African women? Does the white middle class differ in its theatre-going habits from the Asian middle class? And so on and so on.

It’s at about this point that I start wishing people weren’t so keen to pigeonhole themselves and also start wishing that audiences weren't apparently motivated to go to the theatre by what appears to be largely a problematic tendency toward narcissism.

Which neatly brings us to the other article on race-related theatre.

To be honest, Amardeep Sohi’s Guardian blog yesterday virtually had me leaping out of my chair and cheering. Well, until the very end, anyway.

His basic thrust, which cannot be repeated often enough until it stops being true, is that “British Asian theatre” (and also “Black theatre”) is stuck in a rut of tired clichés.

His conclusion begins:
“We need characters who are layered, complex and don't break out into a dance routine mid-speech.”

This is exactly right.

However, he then goes on:
“They need to be placed in real scenarios, and encourage the audience to question preconceived ideas. Let’s... revel what it's really like to be British and Asian in 2010.”

This is more of a moot point. Well, it’s three moot points really. Let’s take them one by one.
“They need to be placed in real scenarios.”

This is the least true of the three assertions. But let’s pretend for a moment that he didn’t say “real” and meant, well, interesting, speculative, possibly poetic or metaphorical situations *or* interesting real scenarios.

“[They need to] encourage the audience to question preconceived ideas.

Well yes, possibly. Although, when allied with those “real scenarios” which are detailed above it starts to sound perilously like we’re heading for the same sorts of dramas which he has wisely deplored. Yes, as he notes, Shades was a pretty good play. Largely because it was funny, likeable and had some great performances. But let’s not kid ourselves that it didn’t also make some pretty clangingly schematic points at the same time. I think that tended to get excused because on the whole it was more like fun than the usual po-faced lecturing one gets from “issue-based drama”. But it was still cast from the same mould. Just a much better version of it. A bit like Posh, if you like. But when you compare it with something like Tim Crouch’s The Author, it’s clear that it’s not functioning at anything like the same level.

“Let’s... revel what it's really like to be British and Asian in 2010.”

The idea of plays that “revel in” what something’s “really like” sounds like the worst dramatic void imaginable. The list of reasons against is probably too long to even compile.

I think it probably starts somewhere around the problematic nature of trying to evoke a “reality” using a medium like theatre. I mean, it’s not that theatre can’t evoke things, but it just doesn’t evoke them best by trying to build a replica of, well, what it’s really like inside a British-Asian home in 2010 and filling that set with the things that “really” happen within such a place in “real” life. Mostly because what anyone’s “real” life is “really” like is generally pretty undramatic. Drama – not even theatre – does tend to focus on the exception and the exceptional. As such, using it as a means of presenting some kind of living fly-on-the-wall experience is pretty much doomed to failure.

Of course I understand the impulse. After all, the over-praised Angry Young Man movement was driven by much the same sort of desire to rip off the front off so many northern terraces and push their contents into the face of theatre audiences – to confront them with unseen realities.

And perhaps there used to be a merit in this approach, in the same way that George Bernard Shaw’s tightly constructed little fables might pass for a way of “getting people to think about [such and such]”.

But again, it’s not what theatre does best. After all, going back to Hamlet again – which, let’s be honest, a lot of people are prepared to stand behind and say is one of the best plays written in the English language – how much does it really tell us about “what it’s really like to be a Danish Prince circa 990AD” (much less “revelling in it”)? And yet, how readily it seems possible to empathise with this prince, his friends, his family.

It’s more than likely that we don’t believe in ghosts and probably don’t share Hamlet’s apparently huge faith in God. But we’re moved when his father’s ghost appears to Hamlet as he screams abuse at Gertrude; we understand his decision not to kill Claudius while he is at prayer. But more than this, it is as if something else floats above the direct meaning of the text.

In theory, Hamlet is just a very wordy thriller with an almost frustratingly inept protagonist, set in a world which, if we thought about it for a moment, we wouldn’t really credit for a second. And yet, it’s fascinating, endlessly rewarding, beautiful, mysterious, horribly moving, and somehow capable of seeming to say something about what it’s like to be alive, to love, to be bereaved, to be depressed, to lose hope and to find hope.

It strikes me that, compared to the above, having as the pinning down exactnesses about specific social situations of any given community in a contemporary or historical location as the ultimate goal for a piece of theatre is a pretty low aim.

Of course, by all means set a play wherever, and fill it with all the details you like, but who really goes to the theatre to see what taps another “community” have on their kitchen sinks? A play placed on stage before an audience won’t communicate that. It’ll communicate what’s floating above what the play directly says. And if there’s nothing there beyond just this anthropological exercise, then the audience is doing little more than looking at painstakingly costumed puppets yapping at one another in an Ikea showflat.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Posh - Royal Court

[written for]

What with it following Off the Endz into the Downstairs space and seeing it the day after the lamentable Behud, I wasn’t really looking forward to Posh. On reflection, I reckon that’s largely down to all the pre-publicity I’d seen – not the theatre’s own, so much as the stuff in broadcast and print media – which had mulishly focused on how “in the run up to the election, Posh would be really, like, *relevant*, because David Cameron is, like, posh.”

You see, Posh focuses on the activities of an Oxford dining club not a million miles removed from the Bullingdon Club of which David Cameron, his shadow chancellor George Osborne, and his Eton contemporary and London Mayor Boris Johnson were members. From this one extrapolates the gloomy impression that one is going to be subjected to two and three quarter hours of heavy-handed lecturing about how Conservatives are Very Bad Indeed. Super for the political journalists who apparently decide what makes for good theatre (answer: “theatre that takes their articles and puts them in the mouths of actors on stage”), not so good for people who like theatre.

As it turns out, Posh is a rather excellent play.

An hour or so of it was performed three years ago in the inaugural Rough Cuts season and it’s interesting to see what’s been done to it since (as an aside, it’s also mildly terrifying to consider that, like Lucy Prebble’s Enron, it has been some three years and no doubt innumerable drafts in the making – so much for “overnight success”). As such, it is fascinating to get a small insight into the way that Wade has carefully, intelligently crafted strong raw ideas and situations into an impressively subtle bit of drama.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the play is its shape. Running at 2h45, the interval doesn’t come until maybe 1h45 in. And in this first half virtually nothing happens. No. That sounds wrong and it’s unfair. Things do happen, and there’s a fair bit of introducing, explaining and contextualising as well. For the most part though, aside from a brief intro scene, it’s just closely observed interaction between the ten members of “The Riot Club” assembling/assembled in the private dining room of a country gastro-pub.

The surface of the thing is constructed almost entirely from banter between the chaps; all turning phrases, cracking jokes and generally trying to better each other through verbal fencing or simple put-down. Beneath this, moving more slowly, is a wider power struggle. Through their showing off, the young men are trying to impress one another. Some to win any recognition, some to achieve presidency of the club, others simply exercise quiet superiority or just chunter on as the affable blunderers they affect to be.

It’s a bit like watching that game where you have to guide a marble around a maze in a box by tilting the surface over which it’s rolling being played. The power in the room lists and tilts this way and that. Never stable, never stopping. Allegiances shift as weaker club members ally themselves with old top dogs or emerging pretenders to their thrones, while those suddenly granted power sift through their supporters cutting those whose endorsement would lessen them.

And all this is achieved through ten blokes basically drinking too much, boasting and calling each other dickheads. Imagine a wine-fuelled Twelve Angry Men crossed with a pack of wolves and you’d be pretty near the mark.

While the script is subtle, acute, well-observed and intricate, Lyndsey Turner’s direction is never less than immaculate and is perfectly housed in Anthony Turner’s spot-on, detailed reproduction of a recently tarted-up back room in a country pub (which, importantly, is set slightly in from the sides of the pros. arch so that we see the height and depth of the theatre stage all around it). There are also some lovely directoral decisions – the best: three or four scene changes are accompanied by the boys singing á cappella/barbershop style covers of “gritty”, “urban” R‘n’B tracks.

This is a stroke of genius on (I assume) Turner’s part (i.e. it isn’t mentioned in the script, so I’m assuming it came from the director – do put me right in comments if it ain’t so). It pretty much tackles the other theme of the play head-on. Or at least challenges the implicit charge repeatedly levelled at the characters: that “the posh” are essentially “not like *us*” and, furthermore, are a bunch of charmless cunts with whom none of “us” would want to sleep.

By having them delivering R‘n’B *hits* (well, I assume they’re hits. I haven’t really got the faintest idea) with élan, charm and no small amount cool, and crucilally, delivering them in an idiosyncratic, “posh” kinda idiom, these scene changes – much more than the text of the play – offer a working suggestion as to how or why we might like or even admire “the posh”. It rips up the “chinless wonder”, “Tory boy” stereotype and replaces it with the other end of “posh” – the rake. The cavalier cavalier, if you like.

Indeed, the cast should figure on the New Year’s Honours list for services to The Posh. Along with the three non-U parts, the ten chaps are quite outstanding. The full line-up press shot did them a disservice, making them look like an identikit roll-call of Gap models. In fact, the play shows off ten very individual young actors each of whom is possessed of a frankly disgusting amount of talent, a great singing voice and oodles of charisma. Moreover, in terms of the play, they are all pretty much spot-on casting.

What’s most interesting about the play, though, is the possible disparity between what it might be trying to do, and what ends up doing. Put simply, the script levels some pretty blunt accusations at members of this privileged elite, from the opinions it puts in their mouths to the behaviour, both reported and seen, it attributes to them. But somehow it all seems strangely mitigated.

Let me explain: primarily, this is a play about young people and, despite its curiously long first “half”, the play in which a group of young people do A Bad Thing and then fall out is a pretty tried and tested model. It’s Trainspotting, Mojo, The Secret History, Shallow Grave, Spring Awakening, Saved, hell, it’s Macbeth, Paradise Lost or even The Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden. As such, we’re pre-primed to sympathise with those who commit the crimes. More than this, though, thanks to the combination of youth, what these putative poshos are angry about, and the fact that they’re played by good-looking, charismatic actors, the theoretical class resentment angle flies out of the window. I don’t think Wade intends anything so crass as trying to teach Royal Court audiences to hate the posh through a composite scenario crammed with a melange of plausible-sounding things that the hateable-posh might do or say. But if it was, she’d have failed.

The first problem is the actors’ charm (not to mention, yet again, talent and charisma). They’re actors. They’re all great on stage. Of course they’re likeable and watchable. You get the vague sense that if we really were watching the goings on of the Bullingdon Club we’d probably be more appalled. After all, theatre isn’t a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but entertainment (or an intellectual pleasure, or whatever). What it isn’t is an exposé. I don’t think that’s what the text is trying to do, though. It certainly isn’t what the production does. What with the set’s nod to acknowledging its theatricality, the R‘n’B scene changes and, well, the fact of sitting in a theatre, watching actors, we the audience are granted a good deal of remove to consider the implications of the staged dialogue and action within a wider framework.

However, that framework needn’t just be “the forthcoming election”, “privilege”, “the Conservative Party” and “David Cameron”. One of the things that struck me, watching the Riot Club trashing the pub back room was the extent to which it was simply the social class of these characters which is supposed to make the act seem theoretically despicable. After all, if this were a play about, say the Sex Pistols or Rolling Stones, then we’d probably be encouraged to view this youthful vandalism as “rock‘n’roll” rather than tut-tutting at it as the Daily Mail might.

Which brings us neatly to the next point of surprise. On one hand, I’m sure Wade did a fairly hefty amount of research into the viewpoints of those whom she purports to depict. On the other hand, what’s interesting about the dialogue is how many similarities there are between the snobbery of these Old Etonians (&c.) and the sorts of things one hears either verbatim or equivalents-of from London’s leftie arts crowd. The Riot spit the words “Daily Mail” with the same distaste as a Guardian reader might, for example. The only real difference we’re invited to notice is that these young posh types also have a lot of money and, theoretically, power.

Except that they don’t have power. Ultimately this is a play about what powerlessness does to people. It’s both telling and accurate that these young Conservatives satirically use the language of the politically correct to describe their plight as disenfranchised outsiders. Elite or otherwise, they are, after all, very definitely a “minority”. While these characters might think they’re taking the piss by whining about how they are discriminated against and bewailing violations of their human rights, if we imagine this play was called “Black” or “Jew” and contained the same level of disobliging stereotype – even if mitigated by charming actors – well, you start to see their point. And the play also points out that while they wield a lot of theoretical power, consider themselves above the law, and to some extent are seen to get away with their crimes, one is also made acutely aware that this power of theirs is both limited and compromised. There are situations in which their “social rank” won’t protect them – two of the characters describe being mugged and all seem acutely aware that much of the rest of the country wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire.

As such, the play offers a kind of unsympathetic sympathy. On the other hand, thanks to the factors I’ve mentioned, I found the ending (which I shan’t reveal, but might well be guessable) oddly cheering. I know I wasn’t meant to. It’s meant to be chilling, I think. But behind all the class stuff, it feels like there’s something even more fundamental going on. A kind of punk spirit. A Clockwork Orange for the upper classes. Sid Vicious’s My Way sung in the Queen’s English. Something about our tendency to side with underdogs. The same sort of thing that makes Shakespeare’s Richard III so attractive.

Spat back onto the pavement of Sloane Square on a gloriously sunny, plane-free Saturday afternoon, Posh left me – quite wrongly, I imagine – with a massive grin on my face. The real achievement of the play, beyond the simple pleasure of watching a great production, is how much this reaction simultaneously worried me. Posh is a lot cleverer than it likes to let on.

Photo: Johan Persson – David Dawson (Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt), James Norton (Miles Richards), Leo Bill (Alistair Ryle), Joshua McGuire (Guy Bellingfield), Kit Harington (Ed Montgomery), Jolyon Coy (Toby Maitland)

The Empire - Royal Court

[written for]

The Empire is a misleadingly huge title for DC Moore’s four-men-in-a-room scenario, but it offers a pretty clear statement of intent. Set in Afghanistan in 2006 (although it might as well be now), it gives us Gary, a corporal in the British army; Hafizullah, a stoned Afghan National Army recruit; Simon, Gary’s Captain; and Zia, a man captured in a recent engagement, who turns out to be from Wanstead Park and may not may not be a Taliban fighter or a kidnapped Briton.

As such, you can see how Moore envisages this thinly drawn empire – Britain’s imperial past, its class system and the way these all echo in our current conflicts are embodied by these four men, neatly encapsulated by corporal Gary’s pithy reduction of 200 years of British history to: “thick cunts, led by posh cunts, hitting brown cunts.”

However, the real business of the play itself is the hour and a half real-time encounter, played in detailed naturalism, mostly between Gary and Zia. It’s worth noting at the outset that Joe Armstrong went down with tonsillitis at the weekend, so he’s being played by John Game, on book. Game does a pretty impressive job for someone who’s seen the show a couple of times and had maybe a half a dozen shots at the part, so everything else might possibly need to be read in the light of this.

The basic problem with Moore’s script – and perhaps this got laid a bit more bare than necessary with the late substitution – is that the dynamic between Gary and Zia doesn’t really work. At least not in Mike Bradwell’s otherwise impressively detailed production. It feels like Moore has a written a script that is far more packed with comic potential than has been tapped here. At one point Simon refers to Zia as “Ali G fucking… terrorist”. The problem is that here that insult seems to arrive from thin air, whereas actually it sounds like it is the missing key to what’s gone wrong with the dynamic. It feels like Gary should be played by a reasonably frightening Tom Hardy type: pretty resentful, pretty racist, and pretty violent – one of those people who is a bit scary even when they’re being friendly – while Zia should be a much more mouthy, funny, wideboy version of a London Asian. Perhaps it’s to Bradwell’s credit that they’re not so obvious, but a bit of “obvious” would have perhaps made for a bit more drama.

But even with this revised casting, I’m not sure Moore’s scenario quite carries an hour and a half of dramatic material. The basic question, once we discover Zia is British, is whether or not we believe his story that he was kidnapped. Perhaps it’s daft to make character judgements based on actors playing people who are made up anyway, but it never really seemed likely for a moment that Nav Sidhu’s Zia was any kind of a Taliban fighter. But then, it’s not especially plausible that Game’s Gary is a member of the British army either (any more than Armstrong’s looks). I suppose that’s a problem with naturalism – it’s always done by actors. But even so, I reckon there are actors out there who would have made this situation seem a lot more fraught than it felt last night in the Theatre Upstairs.

Moreover, it feels like all the characters are functioning in a strange sort of information void. I suppose it’s a function of the four (plus one walk one extra) hander, but here it seems like a) there should be more people running about, b) that everyone on the ground should know more about the situation, and c) that there are a lot of chases deliberately not being cut to. It feels like neither Zia nor Gary have watched the news more than twice in the past nine years. Both seem impossibly ill-acquainted with stories about British Muslims fighting with al Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

You can kind of see the play Moore is after. Two British men, one white and working class, one Muslim and working class, from neighbouring parts of east/North-east London meeting in a bombed out ruin in Afghanistan and trying to work out if they are, or ever were, on the same side or not. But even this back-of-a-postcard summary suggests pretty much why I’m not especially convinced it’s a play that really needed to be written – let alone taking the title The Empire into the bargain. It also includes at least two of “those speeches” which tend to crop up toward the end of such plays that Never Happen In Real Life, where a character suddenly sets out their whole socio-political stall in a lengthy monologue.

What there is is pretty neatly executed, if a bit dull. It’s perfectly competent play, too, if a little unnecessary. By the end, one isn’t really any the wiser as to whether Zia is or isn’t a Taliban fighter, nor has one had any real insights into the nature of modern warfare, the British army or what we are or are not achieving in Afghanistan. I suppose as a portrait of a confused, confusing war seemingly stuck in a stasis of stalemate one couldn’t ask for much more. As a piece of theatre, though, I might have preferred it to do *something*.

Photo: Nobby Clark - Rufus Wright (Simon), Nav Sidhu (Zia)

Saturday 17 April 2010

Behud (Beyond Belief) – Soho Theatre

[written for CultureWars]

In 2004, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti (Dishonour) was cancelled after a small proportion of Birmingham’s Sikh community essentially rioted it into cancellation, objecting to a scene depicting sexual abuse which takes place in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple).

As I said some years ago, Behzti is “one of the worst published plays I have read in my life - from the leaden naturalistic dialogue, the negligible yet clichéd characterisation and the naïve way that [the script] specifies how the stage should be laid out (“different parts of the stage should represent different rooms” - astounding), through to the abysmal, clanging melodrama of the plot... The whole play would have sunk utterly without trace, were it not for the disgrace of its being rioted off stage.”

I’ve no doubt that becoming the centre of a media storm, being sent death threats and being cast as a pariah by one’s “community” are all deeply harrowing experiences. And now, six years on, Bhatti has written what the blurb on the back cover of the printed text describes as “a playful response to the events surrounding Behzti” in which “a playwright attempts to make sense of the past by visiting the darkest corners of her imagination” [my italics].

And this is pretty much where the problems start. Behud (Beyond Belief) tells more or less the exact same story, but is about a female Sikh playwright called Tarlochan Kaur Grewal (played without a scintilla of likeability by Chetna Pandya) and appears to be set in the present day (at least if the repeated references to a May 6th election are anything to go by), albeit in some sort of parallel universe where the offending play (here called Gund (Dirt/Filth)) goes on just before Christmas (as Behzti did) but the date of May’s election is already known. This kind of imprecision is emblematic of the lazy thinking on which the whole thing is built.

From the outset we are faced with a wall of dissembling evasiveness. None of the characters in the play are *actual people*. Fair enough. Bhatti probably doesn’t want to add several legal cases for defamation to her sea of troubles. Except that, by doing so, she abdicates all responsibility – at best what she’s chucked together could be seen as a kind of impressionist rendering of what her situation was like.

Except that she pushes her excuse-making further. Not only does she have the surrogate playwright figure on stage pretty much the whole time, but she has her indulge in the most banal meta-theatrical tricks imaginable. While other actors trot through the (unbelievably badly written) scenarios in which predictably incensed community leaders meet with caricatured artistic directors, racist coppers wax ignorant and the worse clichés of highly strung actresses rehearse their scenes, this “playwright” figure interrupts them to shout things like “No, that’s not how it happened”, or “This is too static. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down”. Essentially she repeatedly disowns everything that she’s written in repeated postmodern climbdowns. She pre-empts any criticism that the play is clunky, banal and trite by saying so herself. The “I’m a Writer, but I Don’t Know How to Write This Play” genre is loathsome. Every fledgling writer is allowed one stab at it and the result should never be staged. What on earth makes Bhatti think that her inability to actually write is interesting or important enough to make people watch it? Anyone who’s read Behzti already knows she can’t write. Behud only serves to confirm that a bit of suffering doesn’t have the slightest effect on ability nor does it confer nobility on the attempt.

And what a depressing exercise in massive egotism it is. Not that Bhatti is fond of herself. Oh no. The playwright (I think we’re allowed to assume that we’re meant to closely identify her the endlessly irritating “Tarlochan”) is full self-loathing. Her cipher continually self-describes as fat and untalented.

Interestingly, other characters on stage – notably the intentionally ridiculous character of the artistic director of the fictional theatre where the fictional playwright’s fictional play is staged (a hefty stab in the back for whichever idiot at Birmingham Rep ever thought Bhatti was a playwright) – argue passionately for her as a writer. Countered by a (incompetently drawn, grab-bag of assorted local government clichés) town councillor, “Joanne Stevenson” (played on auto-pilot by Lucy Briers doing a Patricia Routledge impression, apparently hoping that no one will blame her if she appears not to be there) who says all the things about the play that anyone sensible thought about Behzti, albeit mired in a set of ugly arguments that seek to equate not liking the play (Behzti or Gund, take your pick, they're more or less entirely interchangable) with being a mildly corrupt, slightly racist, careerist patsy.

Bhatti’s insights on “race” in Britain are non-existant. Indeed, Behud makes Off the Endz look like a doctoral thesis. Where that contented itself with “When the stock markets crashed and all the banks were losing money – how many black faces did you see on TV? How many of our stories did they show?” and “Life is ten times harder for us” Behud offers (from the mouth of an older male Sikh): “They [that’s All White Britons, one assumes] don’t mind us living here but they don’t want us taking part. It’s easier if you’re a woman, like Tarlochan. The Goreh [Hindi for ‘whitey’] feel sorry for you. If you’re a man, you’re the oppressor. Truth is they’re frightened of us. And jealous. They crave the power our culture gives to our sex. So they’re on a mission to emasculate us.” [my italics]

Right ho. That’s “us” told.

There’s also a white Detective Chief Inspector who gets to say: “That lot outside, they’re not like us. Don’t think the same, don’t have the same values. I’ve said it before, you can’t reason with terrorists...” and then a bit later in the same scene: “Feels like I’m living the white man’s burden all over again.”


Of course, any idiot playwright can probably find people who do say these things, can even claim that such things were said to her (albeit in a way that resembles how anyone actually talks), before ultimately falling back on the tiresome defence that this is a “playful response” from “the darkest corners of her imagination” conveniently forgetting that “playful” needn’t be a synonym for “rubbish” and that she plainly has no imagination whatsoever.

It’s unfair to lay all the blame for this at Bhatti’s door. Even leafing grumpily through the script on the bus home you get a sense that this play could have been better served by a halfway competent production. Case in point: the first – admittedly trite – stage direction is “Dawn. The stage is black. The lights go up slowly to reveal an Asian woman, TARLOCHAN, lying on the floor in front of a plain desk and chair…” Director Lisa Goldman has subtly altered this so that Tarlochan is laid *on* the table, which, laid with white cloth, is looking suspiciously like an altar, suggesting the writer sacrificed, martyred according to all the best Western Judeo-Christian traditions. Perhaps that’s meant to be ironic, but it looks misjudged (not to say imperialist) to say the least. But then this is a play in which the fictional writer at one point objects to the packets of rice that the fictional director has put on the fictional stage having Arabic writing on them as demonstrative of his cultural insensitivity rather than his boring stagecraft, so why even bother thinking about it?

But none of it matters anyway, because Bhatti keeps crawling backwards out of actually saying anything with the ridiculous cartoonish post-modernism, amplified and indulged by the production at every turn.

Circling around somewhere in the ether is a recurring hint that Bhatti knows/experienced Something Very Bad. But she won’t say what it is. This too is a recurring motif – the irritation of interviewers that she won’t pin down whether she’s making specific allegations with her play, or whether she’s just created something deliberately sensational. Gallingly Bhatti quotes Picasso in the playscript: “Art is the lie that reveals the truth”. Fair enough, except this isn’t art and neither was Behzti and for Bhatti to claim otherwise reveals a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what art is. And what she’s peddling is simply journalism that refuses to say what the story is. Of course everyone is irritated.

Oddly, the comparison that keeps suggesting itself throughout Behud, perhaps in part because of Bhatti’s assertion that she is an artist or even a playwright, is that between Bhatti and Sarah Kane. Suffice it to say that this comparison provides any of the remaining nails needed to keep down the lid on the coffin of Bhatti’s claim to be an artist. Where Blasted – Kane’s Behzti, if we want to be crass about this – was completely misunderstood metaphor, the deeply trite Behzti, while it might also have been a metaphor, wasn’t a profound one – functioning at about the same level as, say, a death metal album cover’s metaphorical attack on Christianity by depicting a goat deflowing a buxom virgin over an altar beneath and upside-down cross, for example. Behud, by contrast, is Bhatti’s petulant stab at a 4.48 Psychosis. However, instead of creating a painful meditation which looks outward, it staples together scraps of ignorance and makes them scream “me, me, me, me, me, me, me”. Over and over again.

There are lots of quotes about “good writing” in the play that it’d possible to cheaply use as a conclusion, but this review is already roughly 1,500 words longer than Behud deserves anyway and you’ve probably got the point.

Behud is worth seeing only if you want to know what the new low for professional theatre looks like. Beyond belief indeed.

Sweet Nothings (Liebelei) – Young Vic

[written for]

It’s not hard to see why Arthur Schnitzler seems to exercise more of a hold over the British stage than pretty much any other German-language dramatist, with the possible exception of Brecht. Who hardly counts as ‘popular’. A purveyor of mildly pervy tales now lent a veneer of respectability thanks to their increasing antiquity, dismissed by Hitler as a “Jewish pornographer”, he’s an almost ideal candidate for delivering arty European exotica for intelligent audiences who wouldn’t ordinarily admit going to see “relationship dramas”.

I should probably note at the outset that even on paper this was always going to tick a huge number of boxes for me. A Mittel-European text (written in 1895, it’s Austro-Hungarian, since you ask), directed by an “international” director (Swiss-Jewish Luc Bondy who works in France as a “German director” and in Germany and Austria as a celebrated director of French stuff like Marivaux – his production of Genet’s Les Bonnes is still in rep at the Volksbühne), and best of all, it’s on in London (or was. It closed last Saturday).

What’s most fascinating about watching it here, performed in English by British actors, is seeing what does and does not tessellate with the rest of our domestic theatre scene and where these disparities spring from.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about a re-staging of Liebelei in this context – an English language version (by David Harrower – whose translation/adaptation doesn’t sound like he was terribly sure what he was doing) with a “foreign” director – is quite how little “relevance” there is to this strangely shaped drama.

Apart from being preternaturally preoccupied by sex (apparently he kept a diary which he told about every orgasm he had for a number of years), Schnitzler was also quite the keen social critic. It turns out that the main theme of Liebelei is, in fact, class. As such, Fin-de-Siècle Wien offers an even more rigidly stratified system than that of contemporary Britain. The thing is, you’d be hard pressed to spot it here unless you were really up on the period’s specific social codes and signifiers. What would be more obvious to a German-speaking audience is that the names of the two girls, Mizi and, to a lesser extent, Christine, would immediately have pegged them as the social inferiors of their dilettante lovers Fritz and Theodore.

However, it doesn’t occur to Bondy, in common with the work of most German directors I’ve seen, to deploy that simple, crucial British signifier of class: the accent (apparently accents don’t carry anything like the same weight in German-speaking countries, and Austrian accents are themselves considered slightly rural and ridiculous in metropolitan Germany. As such, Mizi and Theodore, Christine and Fritz all speak like pre-Waugh bright young things, so there’s precious little to point up what is in fact the crucial issue of the drama. It’s gettable, but certainly not as a central point of the play. A British director would have heavy-handedly gotten, oh, I don’t know, whoever today’s Martine McCutcheon is, times two, and put them opposite, well, probably the two actors who are playing Fritz and Theodore – then at least the contrast would have been tangible.

Still, it’s enjoyable seeing British actors negotiating a more German school of playing. It ends up as a kind of mid-North Sea compromise not dissimilar to Polish acting – some of Germany’s restraint and stylisation coupled with elements of Anglophone/Russian psychological realism.

So what of the play itself? The basic narrative of Liebelei (perhaps better translated as Little Crushes or Small Loves – rendered originally as Flirtation, or by Tom Stoppard’s 1986 adaptation as Dalliance) introduces us to young blades-about-town Theodore and Fritz. Jack Lasky’s Theodore is a reckless, wired young thing, with a proto-punky shock of hair and nervy disposition. He’s dating Natalie Dormer’s Mizi, a seductive bottle-blonde, erstwhile shopgirl glamourpuss (a dead ringer for Sheridan Smith from where I was sitting). His friend Fritz (Tom Hughes), the straighter, quieter, more artistic army reserve lieutenant, is dating Mizi’s similarly reserved best friend Christine (Kate Burdette).

The first scene amounts to little more than lusciously staged revelry – hints that Fritz and Christine are only just getting together, that Fritz has been carrying on an affair with a married woman, and the clouds that hang over these unions are barely essayed at all. Instead mostly it all looks like a lot of youthful drunk fun.

Thus, the tone of the second and third scenes comes as something of a surprise. Instead of retaining the light tone, everything gets very overcast very quickly. The scene changes from Theodore’s decadent pad to Christine’s Spartan room in her father’s house, where she is being lectured by her shrewish neighbour Katharina (an excellent caricature drawn by Hayley Carmichael) about her reputation.

Christine floats about, agonises to Mizi about having fallen in love with Fritz, worries that he prefers this married woman he’s been having an affair with, and generally pines until Fritz turns up to say goodbye to her. His affair has been rumbled and he is to fight a duel with his mistress’s husband. A duel almost certain to end in his death. We know this, Christine doesn’t. From this performance, none of us are that certain whether Fritz really means it when he says he loves her.

The final scene [spoiler alert; but since the London run has finished, and the last production before this one was 24 years ago, you’re probably safe reading it – unless you’re going to see one of the mainland tour dates] shows Christine waiting for Fritz to come back “from his father’s estate” (his excuse), and then falling apart when she’s told that he’s been killed in a duel. Nothing else. The text doesn’t play any of the metaphorical/theatrical tricks of Reigen (or La Ronde, as we tend to know it), it’s simply a study of crashing sadness. We watch someone crying, howling, and railing at the world while her friends and family look on absolutely powerless to help, unable to say anything that could possibly provide comfort or even answers.

It’s a very strange shape and trajectory for a piece of drama, but its sheer unexpectedness makes it all the more powerful. It’s pretty visceral at the time, if rendered slightly theoretical by Bondy’s cool, mildly abstract staging – still halfway between that post-Brecht, semi-V-Effekt where we’re asked to think not feel. Ultimately, this is stylish, art house stuff and not the delivery of thumping melodrama. I remember thinking as the house lights went up that I’d enjoyed an excellent night in the theatre. However, coming back to put the finishing touches to this review, the sensations have faded, so I’m left with the feeling that this was a nicely presented production which might not have quite hit all the notes that the script makes available. In many ways it bears direct comparison to Katie Mitchell’s NT production of Krankheit der Jugend in November last year. Same city, similar epoch and the same curious failure to achieve resonance. Not that resonance is the be all and end all of theatre, but it’s curious all the same.

These plays are about the romantic travails and failures of the young and idealistic. If anything, it’s the gulf between their romantic idealism and our own cynical times that makes the most noise during these productions. ‘Imagine people willing to die for love!’ we briefly marvel, before going back to being sensible, having lived vicariously for a couple of hours.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Micro (préambule) – The Gate

[written for]

I suspect that the Gate Theatre’s Micro is going to get rather a lot of people in a tizz. Or at least it would, if it got the attention it deserves.

The problem is this: by conventional British rules, you’d be hard-pressed to call this “theatre”. And yet it’s in a theatre! Created by French choreographer Pierre Rigal, who made the excellent Press for the Gate back in 2008, you might expect this to be the usual “but it’s dance, really” objection. But it isn’t. Yes, Micro contains some “movement”, but what it most resembles is a gig, or rather an extended jam session, or perhaps a postdramatic, new wave reincarnation of those shows that Anonymous Society used to make.

As propositions go, it’s an intriguing one. Rigal has collected together four extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists-cum-dancers, stuck them in black band t-shirts (the Ramones, Joy Division, Aladdin Sane-era Bowie and plain black, since you ask) and essentially created a band as much as a piece of performance.

The piece starts with a wall of their equipment being gradually, invisibly moved, pushed forward, turned on and switched off. Hands appear from behind the amps. Leads are plugged in and the amplified buzz of exposed jacks fills the air. It feels and sounds like an imaginary Heiner Goebbels/Kraftwerk drum’n’bass collaboration or Stomp for post-punks.

The strangeness doesn’t stop there. Once out from behind their amps, the performers do a kind of dance scraping electric guitars against each other mid-air, while another performer pretty much fits himself into a bass drum with only his legs protruding and stomps about the stage like a disgruntled troll. It’s like Dada meeting Stockhausen in a very confined space. Some of it is very funny and rather charming.

Gradually the wackiness recedes and the music – proper identifiable songs, no less – begins to dominate. There’s still a good deal of physical, as well as musical cleverness on display – at one point the performers pair off and between them each play two two-handed instruments using one arm each per instrument (if you see what I mean) – but from quite near the start it seems to be much more about the music.

And this is where there’s a slight problem. The movement is nice enough, but it’s hardly relentlessly, rigorously choreographed, while some of it is just people clumping around or throwing shapes that are barely evolved from ‘music and movement’. I’ve got a lot of time for the school of non-dance dance, or just “being” on stage, but this isn’t always an entirely successful mixture of the two.

The music is better, although this is obviously a matter of taste. Happily, Micro’s taste in music seems to dovetail neatly with my own. Aside from the hints at Kraftwerk and Stockhausen, an enjoyable aspect of the piece is the simple trainspottery joy of trying to work out what bits of various songs you’re being reminded of. It basically flits between the cooler end of French pop from the Sixties and the more angular end of post-punk/and early eighties guitar’n’synth – think The Cure or perhaps John Foxx-era Ultravox.

There are also suggestions of Bowie, Bauhaus, the Clash, Penetration, Joy Division, Interpol, Editors, Throbbing Gristle, Serge Gainsbourg, the Divine Comedy, Neu, Air, St Etienne, Nouvelle Vague, maybe Brigette Bardot and definitely Laibach. Regrettably, there are also worrying stretches of stuff more akin Yes or Spinal Tap. At least that’s what I heard. I’m sure other audience members could come up with a similar comparisons referencing completely different bands (I’d be fascinated to read any in the comments section below if any of you do happen to see it). Anyway, some sort of noise is a constant from the get-go and, like the movement sequences, more time might profitably be spent on the dramaturgy of the segueways.

The piece bills itself as “an experience that tries to capture the different poetries of a rock concert and which... attempts to hear but also see the music”. This comes across quite clearly even without recourse to the programme. Oddly, it’s pretty much the sole discernable “point” or “narrative” in the piece. Actually, its “a-narrativity” (ok, I just made that word up) or the quality of, uh, postdramatic-ness isn’t a problem here. After all, who watches gigs for a story?

That the performance is most like a gig does a lot to mitigate this sort of complaint – also raising some interesting questions about oft-repeated received wisdoms (repeated, not least by me, recently) about how things/bodies “automatically” become “symbolic” on stage. They do here too – *sometimes* – but at other times, because they’re doing pretty much exactly what people do onstage at gigs – i.e. playing instruments – and are no more symbolic or “readable” than those on stage at an open mic night or drunks at karaoke.

Indeed, it’s striking that the “gig” bits of the show are in fact the points at which it becomes most apparent how comparatively sealed off and hermetic the performers/performances are compared to those stage presences of their real-life counterparts (i.e. actual bands). And so, curiously, it is in the very act of *doing* that the performers become most like performers, with all the allied sensations that they are “playing a part”, that the person we’re watching playing the guitar isn’t *really* the same as the person playing the person playing the guitar.

Due to the myriad variables mentioned above, it’s kind of hard to tell whether this show will ultimately be bought into by avant-garde music fans, upstream theatre types, the Live Art crowd (unlikely: there's no bleeding or nudity at all) or yer contemporary dance aficionados. I’m pretty sure it won’t do the same sort of business as the more crowd-pleasing Press, but that’s not to dismiss it. Its problem is/might be that it walks perilously close to that most damning of lines drawn by the British mind: the suspicion that it “might be a bit wanky”. Mostly it’s charming and playful enough to shrug off such charges, but there are definitely moments where you’re not sure whether it’s walked over the line into self-parody or even self-indulgently not-caring-about-being-wanky.

That said, I was much more in favour of Micro before it offered an extended encore after the audience had applauded it at what seemed to be the end. Of course it’s part of the lexicon of a gig, but not, of course, of theatre – at least not like this. Also, encores at gigs tend to be for the song/s that the band has been teasing everyone by not playing all night – and the number chosen for this encore would never be that song, I fear.

However, to an extent, my individual bone-picking and carping should be pretty much regarded as an irrelevance. I do think that with an even better band and perhaps tighter choreography the piece would be stronger, but that’s not the point. The point is that – well, at least in my experience – this is an exciting step into virgin territory. Well, I’ve never seen it done before, and as genres go, I think it’s one that deserves a good deal more exploration.

From Cartoon de Salvo’s recent much maligned Pub Rock to Chris Haydon/Mick Gordon/Billy Bragg’s Pressure Drop, putting bands on stage seems to be a bit of a vogue at the moment. And – not that I’ve even seen the other two examples of this spuriously-cobbled-together “trend” – this certainly appears to be the most formally innovative and inventive.

For that reason alone (although I did really like a lot of the music) I reckon theatremakers should be sitting up and taking notice of this little show, because, even if they disagree with individual decisions taken by the creative team, it seems like a show that’s worth thinking about, being inspired by, and taking into account when making future work. It’s the first show I’ve seen in ages that feels like it’s asking a few questions about performance, what to perform and how to tackle performing it. It’s the first show I’d be interested in seeing a scratch night of “responses to the work” for ages, too. It’s also mildly terrifying that we live in a theatre-critical culture in which this sort of work will far more likely be ignored for “not counting as theatre” than engaged with, but that’s theatre criticism’s problem, not the Gate’s. What the Gate have commissioned is a brilliant idea, irrespective of something so trite as whether you actually *like* it or not.