Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On casting, and on meaning on stage

[This is something of a work in progress. It’s also already much too long. It currently stands at 7,500 words and, frankly, that more than I expect anyone to read. So I’m putting it up here now so you can browse it at your leisure and we can continue the thing in the comments thread]
Steinstermeier's Deutsche Betonanstalt production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Wig Out!*

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a couple of pieces about the “nationality” of plays and perceptions of plays’ “racial origins”.

I’d meant to come back to this topic sooner with a further piece about the way that plays are cast, but writing up a bunch of shows seemed to get in the way.

Since that point casting seems to have become something of a “live” issue, and in rather a silly way.

The version that’s currently [well, when I started this anyway] raging over at the Guardian Blog at the moment was triggered by Matt Trueman’s piece which begins by noting a controversy over criticism of a “gay actor” playing a “straight” character in the U.S..

It’s as good an entry point as any. Trueman’s piece veers off into an area with which I’m not so much concerned. He says: “...we so associate Hayes with a character who is gay... that we cannot shake off that idea and accept him as straight. The fiction presented, therefore, is judged to have failed. We are not *convinced*. The truth is, however, that this happens all the time...” and goes on to discuss the fluffy, unproblematic issue of how memories of actors’ past performances can intrude into current ones.

The thing that interests me about the whole “casting” debate, though, is what people mean by “convinced”. This subject was recently visited by Alexis Soloski. Her piece, while utter rubbish, is worth picking over. Through its unthinking regurgitation of prejudices and received wisdoms, it does a good job of laying out the issues we’re dealing with.

Soloski’s subject is “unconventional casting”. She opens with an account of seeing a performance in which the part of a teenage girl was played by “a 31-year-old actress who resembled not a pimply teen, but a confident woman with an excellent skin care regime.” Soloski suggests that “the piece would have been much more distressing had an adolescent been cast.”

What she seems to be saying is that, a) watching a 31-year-old “have an affair with her mother's boyfriend, flirt with lesbianism, down Quaaludes and dabble in smack” is less “disturbing” to her (flirting with lesbianism is *disturbing*, btw?) and that, b) she doesn’t understand how theatre might differ from television.

Already she doesn’t go far enough: the show might have been even more “disturbing” if a six-year-old had been cast, for example, and I dare say would have been a good deal more unsettling if the teenage girl in question had been played by, say, David Hoyle.

But, Soloski isn’t actually thinking about the stage or how it works. She’s thinking about trying to make things as literal as possible. Which makes perfect sense for a medium like theatre, where there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever not to suspend disbelief and to want everything in front of you to be as true to life as humanly possible.

Soloski goes on to give historical context: “theatre history is replete with examples of unconventional or less-than-ideal casting.” It’s worth noting at this juncture – given that this is a piece in which Soloski is apparently due to “praise” “unconventional” casting – that she’s just lined up “unconventional” as a synonym of “less-than-ideal”. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that this equates The Convention with The Ideal.

Her examples are pretty depressing: “From the Dionysian fests [“fests”!] onwards, men played women, Greeks played Persians, mortals played gods.” But, fear not, all this compromise is now over: “These days we no longer prohibit women on stage and if your script calls for a Persian, it's no trouble to hire an Iraqi thesp with an equity card.” Or you could even get an Iranian. Funny that she drops the bit about the Gods at this point.

Still, she bravely chunters on:
“With a full range of possibilities available, when should a production plump for an actor who resembles the character in age, race, gender, etc and when and why should less conformist casting occur?”

“Less conformist” she now volunteers, apparently forgetting that she’s already equated “convention” with “ideal” and now perhaps hoping to make less-than-ideal casting sound coolly “non-conformist”. But that mild nudge is countered by all those “should”s “When and why?” she asks, still totally married to this “ideal”.

She chucks a couple of the most conservative ideas for “unconventional” casting imaginable around and then retreats back into her laughable comfort zone of uninterrogated terminology.

“In realistic drama, I prefer more traditional casting,” [my emphases]
“...though in the hands of a thoughtful director an irregular choice can often provide a useful commentary on the social world of the play.” [ditto. I don’t really need to spell out my objections, do I?]
“In more stylised works, I'm eager [!] to accept whomever in the role and I think there's something wonderful about surrendering to an actor who looks nothing like the character,”

Who. Looks. Nothing. Like. The. Character.


But it’s unfair to hold Soloski entirely accountable for airing her ridiculous prejudices. After all, she is using simple, broadly uncontested language to describe uninterrogated phenomena familiar to all Anglophone theatregoers.

She is only describing the status quo. Indeed, tentatively, boringly, she is imagining that her wild fancy to see someone who “looks nothing like the character” play that character is somehow “unconventional”. And in a depressing way, she’s right. She might actually be out on a limb with this one. Maybe lots of people would rather only ever see actors who *do look like the characters* they are playing.

And yet, badly expressed though her point is, I know exactly what she means. Yet, this is the not-properly-debated, or even *-understood*, area from which several of the previous and subsequent debates on the subject have sprung.

The rather prickly issue of writing about performers’ physical appearances was the subject of my first Guardian Blog back in 2007. Re-reading it I’m struck by how few links I included as examples at the time. More striking, though, is how many more examples of this question alone there have been since the piece was published; perhaps most famously Maureen Lipman’s set-to with Charles Spencer over his disobliging comments about her looks. Clearly, *physical appearance* remains a core issue when considering an *actor* on stage.

This question of describing what a performer looks like – or, less exclusively, of how audience members *see* (perhaps “read”) what a performer looks like – is one of the many odd fractures which run through the infinitely problematic (or at least “problematisable”) process of watching theatre.

It’s an issue that Imogen Russell-Williams picks up on part of in 2008 in her blog Big Women on Stage. I responded at the time with the piece When it comes to staging, we play it way too safe.

“Mainstream Anglophone theatre tradition remains so absolutely married to the idea of literal-minded mimesis that there is virtually no hint that anything but the text can invent meaning on stage beyond dumb representation. This is partly why arguments about the “politics” of the physical proportions of actors are possible in the first place. Because a thin woman on stage finds herself representing nothing more than a thin woman, or, by extension, thin women. It’s like we've grasped the idea that something on stage is pregnant with meaning, but, thanks to our abandonment of metaphor and our largely normative, descriptive so-called “political theatre”, this level of representation simply gets plugged into boring complaints about “pretty” girls getting all the jobs.”

Ok, it was a bit of a broad brush, but I still basically stand by it. What’s interesting to me now is the way that – because I was just naïvely excited about mainland Europe’s approach to “unconventional casting” in “realistic theatre” – I didn’t especially engage with the meta-theatrical way in which – in this specific context – the properties of the actual bodies of the performers *were* being enlisted precisely *to* *create* surprise and effect.

But Nübling’s P*rnographie seems to be an exception rather than a rule in that respect, which may account for why I missed it at the time.

Generally speaking, German theatre seems much less concerned with explicitly “naturalistic” (what Soloski myopically calls “conventional”) casting (although, more often than not, men still play men, women women and actors’ ages broadly/loosely correspond to characters’ ages). While I’m not saying that its approach is either better or worse, it does make an incredibly useful alternative model against which we Britons can measure how deeply our attitudes are ingrained.

At the same time, Germany also highlights another – weirdly unaddressed – issue in Anglophone theatre’s tradition of so-called “naturalistic” casting. German theatre tends to be remarkable for the way in which its actors look a bit more like the rest of us. There’s a description of a type of actor in Germany as “too good-looking for theatre”. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about it other than in that Guardian blog, but it does strike me as odd that – in British/Anglophone theatre – at the same time as purporting to be “realistic” in its casting (y’know, casting “actors who look like the characters”), most plays seem to end up with preternaturally “good-looking” casts. This goes double for musicals and treble for the West End – assuming, that is, you’re prepared to sign-up to the problematic, uninterrogated use of the term “good-looking” that I just used about five times above without discernibly flinching.

Because, of course, “good-looking” is a rather loaded ideological judgement.

And this is where yet another dimension of this ridiculous “casting” question can be brought in: the way in which theatre/casting/performers relate/s to the wider world. Which brings us (not very) neatly to a previous piece on the subject Trueman wrote following on from Soloski’s about a month ago.


In the comments on the piece, “JayPeeBee” notes press and audience reactions to the casting of black actor Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen in Sebastian Barry’s play Andersen's English.

The way s/he frames it, the “in favour” comments include: “touchingly and hilariously played by the black actor Danny Sapani as if to emphasise Andersen's outsider status.” in the Telegraph and “Andersen's outsider status is emphasised by the casting of the excellent black actor Danny Sapani” in the Independent

Reviews against the casting: “The creed of ‘colour-blind casting’ insists that a black man can play a white man (it is seldom tried vice-versa) and that audiences, and particularly critics, should not protest, but I’m afraid it’s absurd here” from the Daily Mail and “this troubling reduction and objectification of ethnic difference” in Variety. It’s worth stopping here, and looking a bit more closely at these last two responses.

Karen Fricker’s Variety review has above been particularly unfairly shorn of context. The full paragraph reads: “But the biggest question about the production is Sapani's casting: given that the rest of the actors are white and the costuming and set design are faithful to the Victorian period, it seems that his race is meant to underline the sense of him being an outsider -- a troubling reduction and objectification of ethnic difference.”

Quentin Letts’s Daily Mail review is similarly truncated. The original reads: “Danny Sapani's Andersen is, however, a disaster. First, he is black. The creed of 'colour-blind casting' insists that a black man can play a white man (it is seldom tried vice-versa) and that audiences, and particularly critics, should not protest, but I'm afraid it's absurd here. Why go to all the lengths of making Mr Rintoul such a ringer for Dickens - and then cast chunky, big-voiced, still youthful Mr Sapani as a white, elderly, Danish bore?”

Ian Shuttleworth in his editorial to the relevant edition of Theatre Record (which to the best of my knowledge doesn’t include Variety) suggests: “Quentin is here making a basic error of implicitly equating “should not protest” with “should not notice”; it doesn’t seem to occur to him that we may have been meant to pay attention to the casting of Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen. Aleks Sierz, on the same page of this issue, grasps it entirely and deals with it almost in passing: Andersen’s “Danish otherness”, he notes, is “emphasised by the fact that he is played by a black actor”.

Of course, Letts cocks his objection up by trying to maintain the Daily Mail’s stance as punk rock rebel in the face of The Establishment’s pesky “political correctness” (not such a laughable equation – lest we forget, the Sex Pistols wore Swastikas) and by not knowing much about theatre. Thus, he labels the decision “colour-blind casting”. In fact, as Fricker notes, it’s the opposite. But, unlike Sierz, Spencer and Taylor, Fricker suggests that casting a black man to represent a white character’s “otherness” in what is otherwise a totally naturalistic production of a historical play based on real people, might not be all that clever after all.

It is actually the opposite of “colour-blind”. It is asking the audience to note that specific, physical fact about the performer and to interpret that one physical fact (their skin colour) as symbolic of something. It strikes me, on an intellectual level – I didn’t see the play, so can’t judge the actuality –, that this might be argued to be some pretty dim thinking.

JayPeeBee goes on to note: “In the bar after a performance an audience member was overheard saying “I didn't know that Hans Andersen was black”. Which raises questions as to what people expect of theatre that offers a representation of “real” people and of any factual theatre. Can the appearance of an actor be metaphorical as well as literal?”

This does frame the question pretty much perfectly, but it dodges specifying precisely *what* about the actor might be a metaphor for *what* about the character. Which brings us back to this idea of a performer having “*real world* properties”. It also brings up an interesting question of how these might co-exist simultaneously.

After all, both Letts’s and Fricker’s objections to Danny Sapani’s casting stem from the fact that apparently *nothing* else in the show was being asked to signify anything other than exactly what it “looked like”, and yet Sapani’s skin colour apparently *was* being asked to signify something, yet at the same time to not exist literally in the world on stage.

There was less certainty when the issue blew up over the casting of Jenny Jules in the 2008 Almeida production of Pinter’s The Homecoming. I remember being hugely impressed by Mark Shenton’s unequivocal response at the time, and it still bears re-reading (not least, as well, for its round-up of other critics’ positions). Here, despite Jules (again a black actor) playing another *other* (in this case, the only woman, and, again, the only non-member of a family), it seemed clear to more reviewers either before or after consideration, that the actress had been selected because of her qualities as an actress and that her race had nothing to do with it.

It’s interesting that Shenton mentions white Othellos in his stout defence of colour-blind casting, with the rider that “We imagine we wouldn't countenance a white Othello any more. But when British director Jude Kelly surrounded Patrick Stewart in the title role by an otherwise all-black cast, in Washington DC in 1997, Peter Marks wrote a New York Times review praising how “in the race reversing, the company seeks to shatter stereotypes and remind playgoers of the endlessly adaptive nature of Shakespeare's exploration of otherness”.”

Except, of course, that changing *everyone’s* race so that a black character can be played by a white actor isn’t really “colour-blind” so much as, uh, “negative casting”. By “shatter stereotypes” presumably Marks means “we get to see black actors playing a range of rounded characters rather than people defined by their colour”. But of course we *would* be pretty shocked to see a white man playing Othello here in Britain. Infinitely more so, if he were “blacked-up” to do so. Back once more to Germany, where the question is viewed in almost the exact inverse to the way it’s seen here.

Here are three links to photos of recent productions of Othello in German-speaking theatres:

Stefan Pucher’s production at Schauspielhaus, Hamburg

Luc Perceval’s at Münchner Kammerspiele (you have to scroll down to fotos)

and lastly Jan Bosse at the Burgtheater

I know. It takes a bit of explaining to Anglophone eyes [if you see what I mean].

Ian Shuttleworth has addressed the question of Germany’s stage conventions relating to black characters here. He starts out noting the stage directions to Dea Loher’s Innocence, which had recently been staged at the Arcola:

“I noted that director Helena Kaut-Howson had chosen not to follow author Dea Loher’s suggestion that the two black characters need not be played by black actors. “‘No need for pretence of authenticity,’ notes the stage direction, which is rather less true in a country whose discourse of race and multiculturalism is more complex than that in which the play was written and is set. I do not think a British writer would be allowed to deploy such figures so baldly as emblems of otherness.””

This last point is interesting, in relation to the Andersen’s English debate, where a black actor has been directorially deployed as to symbolise a white character’s “otherness” and the decision has been commented on approvingly. However, I think in the above quoted passage Shuttleworth misunderstands both what Loher means by her note and the convention/culture to which it is addressed.

In Loher’s script two characters are black, but she says they need not be played by black actors. “No need for *pretence* of authenticity” she says. It’s a canny differentiation. What she’s actually saying is: “I, a white, female, German writer, have created these two black characters. Having them played by two black actors, won’t make them any more authentic.”

It comes at the question of “being patronising” or “imperialism” from completely the opposite direction. Instead of thinking that having these characters *played* by black actors, it’s suggesting that it is perhaps more questionable to get a black actor/performer to perform a white writer’s imagination of their race. By this logic, doesn’t a white person playing Othello actually make just as much if not more sense, not least as a comment on precisely the sort of thing that we think we’re not saying by solemnly vowing that from now on only black actors will ever play Othello again?

I certainly see the internal logic of the argument. Although I’m not sure I honestly believe either the German or British position is ultimately *correct*.

But there are other reasons that the conclusion falls this way across the North Sea. Firstly, as I’ve already noted, in Germany an actor’s talent is considered before the way they look, cf. the earlier debate about “conventional” casting, and about physical attractiveness. How much less condescending, again, to give the part to the best actor, rather than whichever actor happens to be the right colour, they might reasonably argue.

Secondly, and more pressingly, one might imagine, Germany has far, far fewer black actors. In this respect, Britain’s desire to ensure that Othello is always played by a black actor (not yet a female black actor, though, to the best of my knowledge), is – given our mostly still “traditional” casting methods – just basic fairness. There are precisely two explicitly black characters in Shakespeare. If everyone’s being cast to “look exactly like the character” then it’s hardly fair to take those two parts away. Instead, the rest of the system needs turning on its head. When the system has been turned on its head, however, there is no logical reason why Othello shouldn’t be played by a white actor.

This argument again turns partly on what we are expected to see of what a performer “brings to the part”. What of them signifies something, and at what level.


In Trueman’s later piece, he opens by noting the furore caused by an article which includes a description of an actor Sean Hayes, best known for playing a camp homosexual in the U.S. television series Will and Grace, who recently came out himself, playing a heterosexual character in a play, as a “big pink elephant in the room”.

The original piece starts off in a silly place with the strap-line “Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn't it ever work in reverse?” It’s such a big, dumb generalisation that of course the article is going to get a kicking. It further muddies the waters of my argument by mixing film, television and theatre. But its worst problem is that it never really says what it means by “gay”. Does this just mean "camp"?

Well, momentarily leaving aside the question of “acting” for a moment, even in “real life” there are camp heterosexuals and (what’s the non-loaded alternative to this?) not-camp homosexuals.

But the article isn’t really an argument about acting (indeed, it’s barely *about* anything – it certainly fails to follow a coherent through-line). The Sean Hayes thing is a silly place to start, though, since the piece’s main worry is about whether people will suspend their disbelief while watching a film if they know a lead actor playing a straight character to be gay in real life. It’s an argument with its roots buried deep in the oppression of homosexuals and their place in U.S. society even now. But, in part, it’s an argument about what anyone means by “gay”.

As far as I understand it, the gay community is about as united on the idea of what constitutes “being gay” as the Anglican Communion is about what it thinks of them. Put simply (and hopefully succinctly), it’s about wider questions than simply the gender of the people one fancies. For example: is “camp” a doctrine of faith, or an embarrassing relic from the past? Or: should gay couples demand the right to marry, or is aping heterosexual relationship models “selling out” gay culture? I’m far from ideally qualified to comment on the rights and wrongs of any given party’s point of view, so I shan’t. I’ll just note that “gay identity” isn’t a fixed point.

The Newsweek article itself, though, seems to be suggesting is that Sean Hayes is too irrepressibly camp to play a “straight guy”. Leaving aside the hundreds of “straight guys” who are irrepressibly camp across the Atlantic, perhaps the article is less relevant here, because the UK has less of a culture of definitively signalled sexuality – I mean, look at our middle classes; watch an episode of Yes, Minister, for instance, then tell me which, if any of them, are *meant* to be “gay characters”, and for that matter, which of the actors are gay. It simply isn’t the same thing.

Or consider the Carry On films. I mean, seriously, what was going on there? Kenneth Williams playing a series of apparently heterosexual letches, with no discernable lack of camp. Perhaps it was because I was only a kid when I saw them, but I was basically happy to buy into what I was being asked to buy into. I didn’t have pronounced ideas about how men or women should (or even did) behave, so, to me, Kenneth Williams (or Frankie Howerd for that matter) was a man with a particular set of mannerisms (signifying nothing) and a penchant for busty ladies.

Perhaps there’s also the question of the tradition of British Theatre acting. Thanks to Nick de Jongh’s Plague Over England, we’ve recently been reminded of the fact that Sir John Gielgud was homosexual, for example. Is that relevant to a consideration of his stage (or indeed screen) acting? I’d say not. Not least because he is such a stylised actor to begin with that sexuality of any sort barely gets a look in. Much the same is true of most other actors (of either gender) of his vintage.

But this whole question of whether “you can tell that someone is gay” seems to be a particularly weird red-herring. It seems nastily plugged into the idea that it is something that people have to hide; or else is attached to a notion that heterosexuality is a “norm” that gets “deviated from”. As prejudices go, homophobia is particularly strange, in that it seems scared of both visible manifestations of the gay community, and at the same time, deeply paranoid – seeing and seeking homosexuality where there is none. At least racism is simple. No twelve-year-old has ever been bullied on *the suspicion* that they’re black, for instance.

But this all gets us away from the question of how it relates to theatre.

Recently at the National Theatre, I saw London Assurance and Love the Sinner. Both speak interestingly to this question of “being convinced” and of how external knowledge might play a part. In London Assurance Simon Russell-Beale’s character, Sir Harcourt Courtly, becomes enamoured of Fiona Shaw’s character, Lady Gay Spanker (just don’t. it’s not helpful). I think it’s a matter of public record that both actors aren’t especially interested in the opposite sex in “real life”. On stage, it doesn’t matter a jot. Russell-Beale’s performance is, as it happens, ludicrously, exaggeratedly camp, but not in a way that indicates any sort of sexual preference and certainly not because he’s “gay in real life” and thus irrepressibly camp in all his acting. One is content to accept that Sir Harcourt has fallen for Lady Spanker because he tells us so and acts it entertainingly. It’s not about “being convinced” – as if theatre audiences default position is one of extreme scepticism.

On the other hand, in Love the Sinner, Jonathan Cullen’s character Michael is a repressed homosexual who (well, the script is desperately unclear) at the very least has sex with an African man, Joseph (Fiston Barek), and might even have fallen in love with him. Similarly, Joseph might have fallen in love with Michael, or he might just be saying that (it really is a dreadful play). I have no idea whether either actor is “gay in real life”, but on stage (which is what matters), neither was convincingly *attracted to*, let alone “in love with”, the other on stage. Fiston Barek was, however, for the record, convincingly black and Jonathan Cullen convincingly white. I believe both to be so in real life too.

Because Love the Sinner was, nominally at least, a drama of psychological insight, it all started to fall apart at precisely the moment where these two men were meant to have just had sex with each other. They didn’t “look like” they’d just had sex; they didn’t “act like” they’d just had sex. Neither of them “convincingly” portrayed someone who found the other person sexually attractive.

Even encyclopaedic knowledge of their personal lives wouldn’t have made what they were doing on stage any more (or less) convincing (although, it might have distracted just enough to take the edge off the boredom).

Of course, part of their problem seemed to be the script. They weren’t really given any lines to say that made their job any easier. As I’ve discussed before, it is notoriously difficult to ever really know where praise and blame should be apportioned. Perhaps it’s a great script and they just acted this aspect of it very poorly. Or were directed to act it very poorly. Or it was just staged in a way that killed it.

Added to this, there are my own tastes and preferences. Perhaps they were acting a great script excellently, as Michael Coveney appears to believe (although his use of the phrase “putting the jizz into Jesus” seems like a plea for us not to take him seriously).

So where has this got us? Cullen and Barek “looked like the characters” – or how we might reasonably expect a generic middle-class Englishman and a *generic* young “African” (from a totally unspecified and probably made-up part of Africa) to look. But they didn’t “convince” at all.

This question of “casting” seems to keep throwing up more and more abstruse questions of how meaning can and/or “should” be created on stage.

What do we allow to be a signifier? Moreover, what do these elements signify to us, and why? And with what effect? To what end?


As I admitted quite close to the beginning of this (now ridiculously over-long) piece for all the scorn I poured on Soloski’s desire to see characters played by “actors who looked like them”, I understood what she meant.

When the decision has been taken to cast a naturalistic play in a naturalistic way, details of the performers’ appearance seem to take on new significance. The audience is almost invited to scrutinise the performer as if they *are* the character. As if whatever they look like, whatever they sound like, is all fair game for *reading* the director’s intentions, are all keys to the piece’s total meaning.

It's not a brilliant idea. It might, for example, encourage us to be horribly judgemental. It perhaps encourages directors to try to find someone with “shifty eyes” to play the villain (are there ‘villains’ in drama any more? Does anyone actually do this?). The worst of it is when Cordelia is almost invariably cast as a youthful “innocent” blonde and Goneril and Regan as “experienced” forty-something brunettes, as if British theatre casting were the allegorical tool of Josef Goebbels.

But beyond an almost comic basic level of how it should be "read", ultra-realism poses other problems.

An interesting case recently was Chris Haydon’s production of Mick Gordon’s Pressure Drop. Haydon (no relation – but a mate, in the interests of full disclosure) scored himself what was, in the abstract, a remarkable cast, headed by Michael Goold, Justin Salinger and David Kennedy. However – with echoes of Matt Trueman’s’s “fatal flaw” piece (terrible title. Not his) – I was amused that it was only a few month earlier that I’d last seen Salinger and Goold together on stage in Our Class at the NT (I note with less amusement that my review carries literally no mention of the play’s character’s individual stories whatsoever). In it, Goold and Salinger play Polish gentile and Polish Jew respectively, both in love with the same woman. In Pressure Drop, Goold and Salinger play two brothers (also both in love with the same woman, oddly). Goold’s character has become a potential BNP local councillor, swearing about, among other things (amusingly), Poles stealing British jobs; Salinger’s character has gone off to New York and come back a successful banker. I have no idea if Salinger is Jewish “in real life”, but the way the Our Class casting echoed – in a play full of racial slurs – in the Pressure Drop casting did disturb me.

Prosaically, Goold and Salinger also made for unlikely-looking brothers. Much more important was the impact of David Kennedy as Goold’s character’s best mate Tony. Put simply, Kennedy was “perfect casting” as a Barking-based BNP supporter. Totally, authentically cockney and physically intimidating; he looked and sounded every inch the part. As a result, though, the scene in which he and Salinger are required to have a fight, and Goold is required to pull them apart; well, it’d have been fine if it wasn’t meant to be detailed naturalism. As it was, one did sort of wonder why Salinger wasn’t dead within seconds and how on earth Goold managed to pull them apart and hold Tony back.


A slightly different angle on this question is provided by comparing the reviews of That Face from Britain, Australia and America. What we’re really looking at here is the question of class – primarily as established and communicated by accent. And also, in the latter two cases, of how accent also establishes or dis-establishes location. And how actors' "real selves" impinge on the fictional "real".

It was the comments thread of Alison Croggan’s review of the Australian production which got me thinking about how this relates to the subject of “casting” and “authenticity” or the impact of “in real life-ness”. Obviously (or at least, nigh-on inevitably), the Australian production casts Australian actors. And they have Australian accents. “Yes, we have class in our society, but it's quite a different deal here.” she says.

“We might even have colonial imitations of the British class system, but they don't function in the same ways or with the same codes. Consequently director Sarah Giles's decision to stage That Face with Australian accents effectively reduces it to an enclosed family psychodrama. It still works, but you have to listen hard through the unfocusing that results: and aside from the ramifications of class, the diction remains too specifically English to sit easily with Australian accents.”

Croggan’s inference (or the director’s implication) is that by not “doing the accents”, the play has been totally transposed from London to Australia, which is interesting in itself. Much the same approach is applied to Australian plays here, to the best of my recollection, though. The said, perhaps not so many plays are quite so accent specific as That Face.

Without class it has only half a subject, as Croggan’s review suggests and the New York review seems to confirm, totally lacking any mention of class and not liking the play very much as a result; reviewing a show as a simple drama about a bad mum. Which, I guess it is, if you take away the element of class, which, aside from my prefatory notes, I hardly even bother mentioning explicitly in my own review. Perhaps because at the time I was writing my reviews solely for an English audience, who I figured would all have experience of living in England’s class society.

It’s interesting to imagine Australians playing English characters but not bothering to do the accents. Similarly, it’s interesting to consider that in this instance taking away the accents also transposes the play’s location. The example makes for a useful reminder of the actual leap that we Britons make when doing likewise with Australian plays – the last of which I saw (that I recall) being the West End revival of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues, which happened to be one of those plays in which an ensemble of four play lots of different characters. This being Britain, each had a different regional accent for easy, immediate differentiation. Lord knows how any of that impacts on our understanding of the play or the intentions of the playwright. Presumably he never imagined any of his characters were Welsh, but what does it say to us in the audience if one of them suddenly is? Does it matter in this context or is Welshness, unlike class, not necessarily a factor in how we think of someone? Perhaps the character’s Welshness was lessened by our knowledge that Ian Hart isn’t *really* Welsh “in real life.

But – especially in “realist” drama – accent is frequently presented as a vital, intrinsic part of a character – perhaps it is even partially understood as a a key to “understanding” the character’s “personality”. So much so, in the tradition of social realist playwriting, that playwrights will often go out of their way to write dialogue in phonetic form to ensure that the importance (to them) of a particular regional/ethnic accent is not overlooked.

In broader terms, the staging of an actor’s accent and physical appearance (or the accent they’re asked to perform, at least) can also sometimes serve as a useful index of the conscious or unconscious ideology behind a director (or possibly individual actor)’s take on the world. Akin, perhaps, to the way that Max Stafford-Clark’s suggestion of “otherness” by using “blackness” ends up saying more about how Max Stafford-Clark perceives black people in Britain, than about how the Victorians viewed Danes. (I’m not, for the record, trying to suggest that M S-C is racist, per se. He’s clearly got a long track record of trying to be helpful in this respect, but it strikes me that his politics are stuck around 1979 (cf. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, in which, to make apparently “progressive” political statements, an “effeminate” man is played by a woman, and a black servant who “wishes he was white” is played by “a white”). I just wonder if his depiction of “otherness” really strikes the chord he intends in this day and age). Similarly, it’d be nice to think that the days of “comic” northern or West Country accents were on their way out, but there doesn’t seem much evidence.

Indeed, watching some productions – Shakespeare seems especially prone to this – it often feels like stereotype after stereotype is trotted out as a kind of desperate short-hand employed by a director terrified that, without telegraphing “the sort of person the character is”, Shakespeare’s language will completely baffle modern audiences. This approach also often plugs into the crudest possible physical castings (think Juliet’s nurse in R&J, the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the gravediggers and Osrick in Hamlet, etc. etc. etc.).

While we’re on this topic of accent/“regional character”, the way that British regional accents, or perhaps actors from those regions (“in real life”), or at least actors *acting* *as if they’re from those regions*, are made to “mean” also needs noting. Beyond the “comic” accent issue, there’s an interesting study to be done of which parts of Britain are most frequently aligned with other parts of the world. What I mean is, the way that particular regions get chosen as the location or accent-of-choice for plays written in other parts of the world (I know, this sounds like a Guardian theatre blog: “Which parts of Britain are most like other parts of the world?”). for example, watching The White Guard at the NT recently, I was struck, not for the first time, that I tend to believe Scots playing Russians get a whole lot closer to behaving at least a bit like Russians than a bunch of impossibly mannered, stiff, upper-middle-class English actors ever do (and, yes, please try to ignore the massive generalisations for the time being. I’ll get to them).

It’s a similar question to the class thing in the three English-language versions of That Face. It’s partly the question of how and at what level we want our “meaning” to be manufactured.

For example, watching Chekhov’s The Seagull played by dainty, polite, ever-so-English actors, you end up imagining a whole set of British values (either modern or antique) (and, yes, obviously what “British values” might be is another big question which I’ll skip for the time being, thanks) onto Russians from another century. Fine. Ish. I suppose. Except that by doing so you often lose the “comedy” bit of the “tragicomedy” that Chekhov says he’s written. Which is kind of fine, too – I’m all for a bit of appropriation when it’s deliberate. But in these instances, it never really seems to be. It just kind of happens because of the disparities between the two cultures and the way that the transitioning between one and the other is realised.

Perhaps, this just partly stems from some rather general ideas I have about Russia and about Scotland, which can, embarrassingly, be boiled down to “they’re both colder than the South of England, and each has a reputation for a lot more spirits being drunk there”. Crass though that may be, though, it strikes me as a better rationale for a “realist” representation than: “Well, these characters are all middle class, so let’s call the Redgraves (this thought goes back to (I think it was) Summerfolk at the NT) and do the whole thing with cut-glass English accents and lots of fine china”.

(as an aside: there’s almost a parallel study that might be done on the casting of alcoholic drinks-of-choice in plays. In Russia – vodka, in Scotland – whisky, in the north of England – bitter, in France – vin rouge, in the south of England – Chardonnay or lager, depending on milieu, etc. and what these intend, connote and perhaps the sorts of drunkenness that are supposed to result from them)

Similarly, I recently saw the British premiere of Romanian Gabriel Pintilei’s Elevator which transposed the action to Stockwell. In an otherwise hugely credible production, this was the one element which really didn’t work. After all, the play was at once an examination of quite specific things about two specifically Romanian teenagers and a metaphor for the way that their society was falling apart. The specific facts about teenagers in Stockwell are quite different as are the ways in which Stockwell/London/Britain might be considered to be falling apart. Given the (unspoken) centrality of Romania’s still hugely culturally influential Catholic church, I wondered – in the interests of “realism” – if the play were to be transposed geographically at all, it might not have been better served with a more Catholic backdrop. Liverpool, perhaps, or maybe Cork or somewhere? Or perhaps this is too literal-minded and needn’t be a consideration. Except in this case, not knowing the play was from Romania might well have wrong-footed some (much, even) of what the teenagers were saying, the rationales behind it, and thus our understanding of the characters.

In that case, however, it was nothing to do with the casting per se, since it was changes to the script which established Stockwell as the location. On the other hand, if the changes to the script had specified Liverpool, Cork or even Romania, it might have felt problematic if the cast had retained their estuary accents.

All this has moved us a bit away from the area I wanted to discuss in relation to accents, and feeding back from accents, to “the right” physical casting.

After all, for the stereotypes I mention some paragraphs above to work, there needs to be some sort of commonly accepted pool of stereotypes for a director to draw on. Annoyingly, if you’re brought up here, a map of Britain matching regional accent to an accepted set of stock characteristics might as well be stamped on your DNA. I won’t list them here, but you’ll have a version if you’re British, and will have probably heard about a few of them if you’re not.

I shan’t bother to point out, either, that the shifting emphases as to how the map functions depending on where on it you come from does much to demonstrate how ludicrously far from being the “objective” document it often seems to be presented as.

In much the same way as only an aging *white* director would think to use a black actor to signify “otherness”, I find it unlikely that a local Birmingham theatre company, for example, would find as much mirth in giving a stock comic figure a Birmingham accent – as much of the rest of the country might (actually, they’re probably give him/her a Black Country accent and find it hilarious, while much of the rest of the country failed to discern the difference, but there we go).

CONCLUSION (of sorts - and I think there's a bit of slippage here, so do comment)

My point then (finally! At last!), is that, rather than by way of any sort of rigorous political/ideological/ethical thinking, much of our way of staging things seems dependent of a widely shared set of crude stereotypes or positionings of class, region, race, sexuality, age and appearance. And that, even more tragically, even in the 21st century, these are still so ingrained in our culture that it’s often seen as “being a bit radical” to “cast against type”. It’s why “regional” playwrights and/or theatres feel the urge to create scripts that specifically dictate accent and location – because otherwise, thanks to the overwhelmingly normative way in which British theatre still seems to stage the world (or at best, that playwrights fear that their plays might be staged), they’d be RP. It’s why “BME” (bleugh, horrible term) writers and theatre companies feel compelled to write stories with *BME* characters and stage them thus.

Perhaps this is also why blogs about casting seem to draw such angry comments: because casting in theatres (theatres, for heaven’s sake) can all too often feel like it takes place on all the faultlines of British society. Where people are valued monetarily on the basis of their appearance, rather than their ability. Where “the regions” are taken to be a divergence from “the norm”, as are non-middle class accents. Where “black” still basically means “other” and where homosexuality still seems to be an issue.

This, in short, is why I find it problematic when an adult who writes about theatre for a living is happy to say “unconventional or less-than-ideal casting”; who is “eager to accept whomever in the role and think there’s something wonderful about surrendering to an actor who looks nothing like the character” only in “more stylised works”. Not least because theatre’s “realism” often looks a lot more prescriptive than reality and because far too much of the time, when someone says “unconventional”, the conventions they seem to be imagining are some of the most right-wing imaginable.


* (Re: photo) Not really.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

I, Malvolio - BAC

Despite there being three preceding examples of Tim Crouch doing first-person narrations of Shakespeare stories for children (I, Caliban; I, Peaseblossom; and I, Banquo - all of which I’ve cleverly managed not to see), I, Malvolio somehow sounded like an odd proposition when considering Crouch’s work for “grown-ups”. Then there’s the fact of him “playing” Malvolio. It’s hard to imagine anyone less Malvolio-like than the infinitely sweet-natured Crouch. Indeed, it’s now difficult, despite Crouch’s erstwhile career as a “proper actor”, to imagine him “doing acting”, as what he’s written and performed (My Arm, An Oak Tree, England, The Author) since has been intricately concerned with the very nature of performance, the performer’s relationship to the audience, how meaning is constructed on stages, and so on. So the idea that he’s about to “play a character” (although, of course, that’s sort of what he does in the other pieces too) seems like a step backwards.

Turns out there was no need to worry.

I, Malvolio is incredibly funny, utterly heart-breaking, deeply sophisticated, beguilingly simple, hugely compassionate, completely uncompromising and incredibly intricate. All at the same time.

The set-up is simple. We enter one of the upstairs rooms in the BAC, and Crouch is standing at the other end dressing in a ridiculous costume of stained, one-piece kind of romper suit, red turkey wattle attached to his neck and a pair of horns on his head, trying to retain some level of dignity. Which is pretty much impossible given the costume.

This immediately sets up a brilliantly giggly atmosphere. It’s often observed that one secret of comedy (so, not much of a secret, then) is putting characters who try to appear dignified in undignified situations. This is an object lesson in how this succeeds, almost without effort. Wearing this costume, all Crouch has to do to have the entire room in helpless hysterics is to ask us not to laugh, to try to maintain some sort of dignity, to look hurt by our laughing at him.

“I am not mad” he tells us. Seriously. It is very funny, despite the tone of deep hurt.

This first room revolves mostly on this theme (the piece is in promenade and takes us through three rooms). Crouch/Malvolio talks to us, insults us and pleads for himself. He is not mad; we are insensitive brutes. He is just trying to keep things in order; we are litterers, drinkers, revellers and louts.

Perhaps the funniest line of insult is his repeated satirising of the audience. “This is you” he says (oddly reminiscent of the History Today sketches from the Mary Whitehouse Experience), trotting out accusations which range from the neatly observed (accusing us of taking “Meow Meow” - "aha, the laughter of recognition" he drily observes) to the cleverly acute: stuff about laughing at the “funny man” until he cries.

And this gets us to the real core of the piece. I, Malvolio deals with a lot of complex, conflicting elements. We’ve got Malvolio’s character: Crouch gives him a fair hearing; much fairer than Shakespeare, in fact. Listening Malvolio just recount in simple language the events that befall him through Twelfth Night (with a bit of back-story) from his own perspective is appallingly sad. But at the same time, Crouch doesn’t try to whitewash the difficulty of Malvolio’s Puritanism. You can discern a certain amount of understanding for his position, but the character still goes too far to be fully sympathetic. You do get to imagine how Malvolio might have been backed into the extremity of his position through a combination of simple opposition combined with, well, unrequited desire – a slightly less brutal version of Richard III’s “if I cannot prove a lover, then I am determined to prove a villain” – though.

While all this is going on with Malvolio, there’s also the game that’s being played with the audience. As our sympathies for him slide this way and that, we are also forced to look at ourselves as an audience. Because Malvolio remains utterly, hilariously ridiculous, and keeps making us laugh – theoretically against his will – we are forced to question the ethics of our laughter. Are we just bullies? Is it nice or kind to laugh at someone in distress like this? His distress only gets funnier as we contemplate this. In the second room he’s toying with a noose which he throws over a beam and gets two volunteers to hold, while a third is recruited to kick his chair from under him, for example. It creates a genuine frisson, even while feeling nominally “safe”.

In many ways this insightful, touching, funny piece of children’s theatre is a natural follow-on from The Author. It’s more direct – dealing with actual, personal responses to something immediate rather than questions of a wider more generalised acceptance of a particular theatrical genre, but it does still boil down to questioning what we’re doing when we’re watching something on stage. Like The Author, it asks us “is this alright?” “Are you ok with this?”

So, yes, in an hour Crouch manages to tell the whole story of Twelfth Night, surprisingly rehabilitates one of Shakespeare’s most one-dimensional straw targets and forces his audience to have a good hard think about their ethical responses to comedy at the same time as making them laugh a good deal more than most theatre ever will.

This is a brilliant, brilliant little piece and it’s beyond criminal that it isn’t already booked for an enormous tour to schools and theatres up and down the country already.

Monday, 17 May 2010

A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky – Lyric Hammersmith

The big story with A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky is that it’s a three-way collaboration between leading British playwrights Simon Stephens and David Eldridge and the playwright both describe as a personal hero, the playwright’s playwright, Robert Holman – whose work, perhaps because I’m not a playwright, I’m not very familiar with.

It’s an exciting proposition. Expectations are high. But, what are we expecting?

Entering the theatre you’re struck by the raked stage which juts out in thrust about five rows into the auditorium. There’s a black screen virtually cutting off most of the upstage, and the lights spill from the proscenium into the auditorium.

There’s something warm, relaxing, about the way the stage is tipped toward us and the lighting isn’t tightly confined to it; a comforting lo-fi aesthetic to the whole thing.

This continues as the action begins. A cancer ward symbolised by a single institutional strip light and a hospital bed. Two of the actors I recognise with pleasure: Nigel Cooke – the brilliant Kent from Rupert Goold’s King Lear and Harry McEntire – outstanding in Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock. The third, Pearce Quigley, quickly establishes that he’s more than equal to his impressive company.

It’s not immediately clear, but the style of acting is definitely up to something. There’s a kind of directness about it. It’s not like the performers are trying to suck you into listening to them by pretending that they’re someone else, somewhere else; instead it feels like they’re saying these words, written by these writers, and inhabiting them with charisma and saying the words as if they are true, rather than, trying to psychologise them.

There’s an availability about the words, about what they’re saying, that doesn’t seem like its necessarily trying to be passed off as “normal speech” or “how people really talk”, but it isn’t being done as rhetoric either. It feels quite new. It’s pretty exciting to see. I’m now talking about much of the first act. There keep on being these flashes of writing. Kind of these impressionist shafts of light.

The text doesn’t seem to be functioning in the manner we’ve been led to expect texts to function. We gradually become aware of possible shapes that the narrative is taking – there’s stuff about illness, about families, about death, about love, about history, about marriages, about generations at the end of the world when one thousand stars will line up and destroy the earth.

It’s kind of like watching the birth of the bastard child of British family dramas and magical realism while Ibsen, Chekhov and Brecht fight over the adoption rights.

And, yes, it feels like that’s the kind of sphere and company where this is aimed.

It is impossibly huge, big, gorgeous, hopelessly romantic stuff – played out through tiny details, in stark interiors by unglamorous folk.

There are great lines too. But looking at the ones I scribbled down on Wednesday night, it becomes clear that they’re great lines *for actors*. The words come alive in the context of character and situation, not because they’re inherently clever or funny. It strikes me that that kind of funny must be a lot harder to write.

And there are in-jokes. At least I think there are in-jokes, albeit pretty available ones. The appearance of a black Labrador recalls David Eldridge’s dog Rascal. The repeated references to herons are surely no coincidence. And, there’s a description of Eldridge’s alma mater Exeter as “a shithole filled with too many posh boys” (I paraphrase). It’s hard to tell if these are signatures or the other writers laying false trails as the provenance of different lines, or sections, or locations; because, for a collaboration, it’s very hard to see the joins. There are some lines or ideas that seem more likely to have come from one writer than another, but I wouldn’t swear to spotting a single one as a dead cert (and I’m flying blind when it comes to Holman anyway – is there a “collected plays” anyone could lend me?)

It’s a funny piece of work though. I suspect it’ll get a lot of flak in some quarters simply for not doing things which it isn’t trying to do. Put another way, I don’t think for a moment this is a failure to construct a naturalistic play *properly*. I don’t think the acting is just a matter of performers just not emoting enough. But this is a play that trades on and plays with deferred gratification.

It is unlikely that Stephens, Eldridge and Holmes suddenly don’t know what they’re doing. So I think we need to take on trust that what’s on stage is all intended to be as we see it. Perhaps the collaborative nature of the script opens a bit of room for doubt for some. But I don’t think that’s it. This is a very deliberate piece of work, directed in a very specific and detailed way.

It does feel strange saying all this in the review after Love the Sinner, but where that felt someone trying and failing to write a very specific sort of play – one which should function in a specific way, about which the audience are invited to hold certain expectations – A Thousand Stars repeatedly signals its difference from that form.

While it plays with well-worn tropes, at the same time, it feels like it is robustly exploring how they work; what they’re for; what they need and don’t need to keep functioning. Indeed, to an extent, this seems to be the ultimate wider game of the entire piece, both text and performance: asking again and again what a play needs in order to function as a play.

At the same time, the style of the performances seems to foreground the writing. The style of speaking the lines with a certain blunt, often Northern directness, illuminates the poetry of the lines alongside their humour and sometime acuity.

On the other hand, this style does affect a certain amount of remove. So, while we’re not being led in very obvious ways; while the narrative doesn’t really build to manipulative peaks and troughs; as an audience, the thing doesn’t perhaps strike us with the immediate visceral emotional response as the same material, the way the stories of the same characters might have done, if they’d been presented differently.

Instead this feels like a kind of emotional Brechtianism. Instead of thinking about social issues and politics, we end up ruminating on the nature of families, illness, life, death and love, but not necessarily *feeling* them so much.

On the other hand, there is an incredibly touching scene in which William Benton (Cooke), dying of colon cancer, takes off his pyjamas and stands in a tin bath and is flannel-washed by his aged mother. No one speaks for about five minutes. There’s just the sight of a frail-looking middle-aged man standing naked in a pool of light being washed and it’s incredibly moving.

The end is rather beautiful too, but it’d be unfair to say what it is or why.

Without the text for back-up (all theatres should have playtext programmes. Seriously), or sacrificing actually watching the play in order to take enough notes, it is nigh-on impossible to discuss this infinitely fluid, shifting thing in nearly enough detail. And it feels like trying to watch the details would be a rather perverse way of taking in the whole. Like trying to pick out and comment on individual lilies in a Monet. This is theatre as vast impressionist canvas. Perhaps not the best possible example of such a school, but while it feels like such a bold new direction, that it doesn’t perhaps attain perfection on its first outing seems hardly worthy of comment.

More like this, please.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Love the Sinner - National Theatre

[This review contains a blow-by-blow account of everything that happens in Love the Sinner. Mostly for reasons of catharsis. Traditionally this would be called a “spoiler alert”. However that would imply there’s anything to spoil]

I first saw Love the Sinner by Drew Pautz, directed by Matthew Dunster, on Sunday 4th March 2007 at Nabokov’s present : tense / four (as it was then fancifully punctuated), along with other ten minute playlets by, among others, Mike Bartlett and Joel Horwood all responding to that week’s major news story – the schism over homosexuality in the Anglican Church. It was unusual for this sort of event in that it had a cast of ten (including playwright Dennis Kelly, fact fans), and I seem to remember it being a pretty intelligent piece of work.

Love the Sinner by Drew Pautz, directed by Matthew Dunster mkII has neither brevity nor intelligence to recommend it.

Put simply, this is a spider diagram, not a play.

It’s still “responding to the schism in Anglican communion”, but seems torn between wanting to be a State of the Nation/s play, and a “the personal is political” play – to this end, scene one is set in what appears to be a meeting of some randomly selected members of the Anglican communion sitting in a conference suite in a hotel in Africa with the white ones being a bit grumpy that the black ones won’t just sign a thing that says everyone can basically make up their own rules for their own country as long as everyone still signs up to being in the club.

Scene two, however, jumps upstairs to one of the hotel’s bedrooms where two men stand fully clothed facing each other, as two men do when they’ve just had sex with each other. Apparently. As these two men – Michael (Jonathan Cullen) and Joseph (Fiston Barek) – just have. According to their dialogue. Having established this, they then have a conversation which runs quickly from the implausibly instrumental to barking hysteria. Joseph naïvely demands that Michael take him back to Britain with him. Michael demurs in just about the least convincing ways possible – to the extent that one starts to wonder whether this isn’t actually a really interesting bit of experimental writing/non-naturalistic theatre. They then fall to fighting.

Scene three – all the scene changes, by the way, take place behind some enormous blinds which close at the end of every scene and then stay closed for the minute or so while mobile chunks of wall section in Anna Fleischle’s unnecessarily changeable set are trundled back and forth – takes us back to England where Michael and his wife Shelly (Charlotte Randle) pace around their Karlstad armchairs worrying about squirrels in their attic, his extra bible reading these days since he came back from Africa (yes, the underlining feels like it’s there in the play too), and the fact that she’s 39 and they haven’t even had a single baby yet.

This goes on and on. Then there’s an interval. The mineral water is nice.

Scene four. Jesus. Scene four is set in Michael’s place of work. He owns a company that makes envelopes. Envelopes are getting phased out by the modern world. The audience collectively pats itself on the back for intelligently grasping this clever parallel between sending letters and believing in Jesus Christ both being replaced by email which is more popular, easy, modern and civilised. In this scene Michael displays all the signs of a guilty Christian man – poor business sense, a sudden inability to function at any level in the workplace, and sudden and complete inability to judge how to behave appropriately in front of other people; breaking out into evangelical Christian shouting during a meeting. Then his wife turns up and tells him that Joseph from scene two has turned up at their house very early in the morning throwing stones at their window. Michael responds to this first with a lot of acting. And then by taking all his clothes and most of his wife’s clothes off. Except her skirt. Because Christian wives keep their skirts on during sex, of course.

The scene ends. Much of the (predominantly grey-haired) audience giggle and discuss the nudity.

The next scene is set in the basement (no, not crypt. It’s a very modern church) of Michael’s Church where Joseph is now living. He is discovered by the bishop/archbishop(?) Stephen (Ian Redford) and his twitchy aide Daniel (Scott Handy) – yes, all the “church” characters have New Testament names and all the non-church characters have “English” names (Bill, Harry, Shelly and, uh, Dave, which is obviously Old Testament, but never mind); none of which seem to usefully map onto their characters, although I’m sure some spurious significance could easily be grafted in, making the whole thing seem both more programmatic and more specious simultaneously.

Joseph is discovered topless, with his back to the audience, so we can see the scars on his back from the *savage* beating he has received in return for his transgression with Michael. Then Michael turns up and it’s a bit awkward for a bit; there’s a bunch of people upstairs in the church, the church is still all conflicted about its gay issues. And we’re in England. Where illegal immigration is also frowned on. Often by those who aren’t awfully big on homosexuality, we’re reminded. There’s a lot of talk about “forgiveness” and at the end Joseph walks up the stairs at the rear of the stage toward the light of the large stained glass cross, while Michael falls to his knees in prayer to the swelling of a nice hymn being sung.

And there we have it.

I’m not sure precisely what it was about this play that I found so objectionable. Sure, there’s plenty to object to. Indeed, it’s one of those plays where as a white, heterosexual Englishman, I could have spent most of my time taking offence on behalf of black people – the African contingent are largely portrayed as child-like, simplistic, dogmatic savages; homosexuals – well, there are only two and neither of them even seem that interested in each other; and women – there’s only one who has more than three lines, and she mostly gets to be hysterical and talk about babies.

Which only leaves me the portrayal of Christianity. Which I’m pretty sure couldn’t offend anyone. Sure it’s terribly done – imagine for a minute an episode of The Wire where no one knew anything about either police work or drug dealing; that’s what the stuff about the church is like in Love the Sinner is like. But it’s not offensive to Christians half so much as it is to dramatists.

Beyond that it all gets a whole lot more mucky. By starting the play in Africa, by having all the objections to homosexuality raised by African representatives, Love the Sinner – without exploring anything about the Anglican church in Africa – winds up looking awful condescending to say the least. Of course, this is a reflection of the way the issue is portrayed in the British media. Tolerance to homosexuality seems to have been picked up as the new gospel which “more civilised” nations are obliged to take to Africa, just as the original missionaries spread the word of God. It’s embarrassing to see it portrayed so starkly and with so little nuance here.

There’s precious little in this play that examines this phenomenon. Instead we have a narrative which basically proposes that Fatal Attraction has much to say about modern Anglicanism. Or, more simply, a play that appears to try to make the sensible observation: “if you’re married and trying for children, don’t sleep around when you go to conferences, lying isn’t healthy or nice, and has a nasty habit of catching up with you” into a metaphor for the schism in the church. You can sort of see why, but it’s not a terribly good idea, and worse, it falls into that nasty trap for “personal as political” plays, where as a consequence of the enormous load placed on the narrative, the story can’t just function as a story, the characters become symbols of nations and ideologies instead of just people, so that the human angle doesn’t work, while the politics acquire ludicrous simplifications and downright weird character traits.

Beyond this, it’s a play about faith that’s seemingly set in a Godless world (I mean that quite literally – nothing in this play suggests for a moment that even the characters on stage believe that God exists). Even that makes it sound more interesting than it is.

Really, though, beyond the crassness of the instrumental plotting, the first-idea-that-popped-into-your-mind characters and scenarios, it’s the remarkable lack of skill with which the thing is made that really crucifies it. If the dialogue is meant to be accurate, then it fails absolutely. If it’s meant to be more textured and experimental, then it’s been handled in an awfully odd way. Similarly, the staging swings between looking like it’s meant to be ultra realistic and strangely allegorical/metaphorical and winds up looking like it just doesn’t know what it’s meant to be doing.

Even that needn’t be have been a problem (but was). Acutely aware of how much I was hating the play, I did try to interrogate my responses. I didn’t want to decide what the play should have done and then condemn it for not doing it, or not doing it well. There’s nothing worse than a review which watches a play and then tells it off for not fulfilling a brief it wasn’t attempting.

But Love the Sinner isn’t clear at all what it wants to do and with each new scene feeling even more inevitable than the last – and with the heavy-handed symbolism of scenarios and lines clanging ever more heavily – whatever it’s trying to be, it is an obvious play that says nothing intelligent and one which uses an unbearably trite narrative to do so. No one says anything clever, moving, profound, honest or even convincing. The situation is silly. This is neither art nor journalism; human interest nor theology. And it’s pretty lousy drama and stagecraft to boot.

Still, it is also a two and a half hour advert for forgiveness (possibly), so we probably shouldn’t hold it against anyone.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Musashi – Barbican

Dear Lord, two happy plays in as many days. Something’s clearly up.

As won’t be at all clear from the order in which things have appeared on this blog, I actually caught Musashi last Wednesday, the day after I saw London Assurance. Seeing one happy play in a week seemed odd enough to comment on. Seeing two in the same week felt downright odd.

In actual fact, Musashi is a significantly more complex creature than London Assurance. Written by the recently deceased contemporary Japanese playwright Hisashi Ingoue, it is essentially a Japanese period drama. Set in 1612 it is a reworking of the well known story of Musashi Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki who famously duelled on the small island of Funashima. The original legend has it that Musashi accepts the dual and then deliberately turns up late, when the sun has risen to a point where it shines directly in Kojiro’s eyes and Musashi is easily able to fell him with an oar which he has whittled on the boat.

In the original myth Musashi’s blow kills Kojiro on the spot – or rather, he leaves him to die. Here he calls for a doctor and scarpers. The play is built on Ingoue’s speculation about what would have happened if Kojiro had survived. He imagines these two master swordsmen locked in this eternal enmity.

The play begins with them encountering one another, for the first time since their fateful duel, at a humble temple which is also home to a curious band of pilgrims on a meditation retreat.

For the first twenty minutes or half an hour, the tone of the piece (not to mention pace) is slightly uncertain. The opening scene has an epic kind of quality to it. Then the introduction of the temple and those on retreat seems incredibly solemn. But then the whole thing seems to explode into this alternation of broad physical comedy and all sorts of wry jokes and charming surrealism. When the two would-be duellists refuse to stop fighting, they find themselves tied the legs of the monks occasioning some fairly amusing slapstick business, made all the more amusing by the apparent seriousness with which they still seem to take themselves. Meanwhile one of the pilgrims (man, am I probably getting these terms wrong) turns out to be an erstwhile aging Noh dancer. There a scene in which she shows her young female companion her most celebrated dance – the story of the Ghost Octopus. There are also semi-frequent references to the Ghost Badgers that live over the hill. It’s very strange indeed.

This was pretty much the point I completely warmed to the piece. After the uncertain start, it had relaxed into being charming entertainment that, aside from wishing the Barbican’s seats were a bit more cushiony, I was happy to sit back and enjoy for as long as they wanted – about two and a half more hours, as it happens.

And this is how the thing continues to unfold. A few fairly profound-seeming bits punctuated by these bonkers little dances, strange slapstick sequences, some pretty funny plotting, and the odd sword fight.

In the second half, it starts to look for a good long while like the basic thrust of the play is going to turn into a C17th Japanese Importance of Being Earnest. And then, just as you think you’ve pretty much got a handle on what’s going on, there is a final twist [which, even though the run’s now over, it still feels unprofessional to reveal].

And there you have it. Three hours of what is, I suppose, contemporary Japanese theatre – albeit feeling, for all the world, like you’ve just witnessed a modern staging of a much older epic.

Of course, part of the reason for this is a tower of sheer ignorance on my part. Obviously I don’t speak any Japanese – and it seems from the amount the performers speak on stage compared with the amount the surtitles give us to read, there’s a lot of nuance falling by the wayside. But even if the translations were as nuance-perfect as translations can get, unless they also came with footnotes, I’d still be mostly all at sea.

Apart from anything else, this is – shamefully – the first Ninagawa production I’ve seen. And beyond that, my knowledge of Japanese history, culture, philosophy, theatrical styles and genres is near-as-damnit to nil. The Barbican’s programme goes some way to answering the most pressing questions about the immediate context for this performance and the influences behind the play, but beyond that I was all at sea.

In many ways, though, it’s not an unpleasant sensation – to be forced to make sense of a performance largely on the strength of your own perceptions. On one hand, you’re kind of aware of your cultural limitations – for example, I found the very mention of ghost badgers hysterical. I wasn’t at all sure if this was the right response, but it still kept me amused. On the other hand, you do get the impression that in spite of the inevitable lack of shared cultural inheritance you do get the impression that some things tend to be funny or tragic in any language – primarily people with their legs tied to other people’s legs trying to be serious, as far as the former is concerned. Perhaps somewhere there’s a context that’s the traditional way of mourning the dead, but on this showing it looks like it might actually achieve a certain amount of universality. On the flip-side, bowed heads and sombre expressions similarly seem to communicate much the same in either culture.

So, another unexpectedly charming night in the theatre, and yet another opportunity to feel grateful for the existence of the Barbican, which at the moment is feeling once more like one of the most essential theatre destinations in London.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Eurydice – Young Vic

[written for]

Now here’s a thing: before this blog stalled for Christmas, I think I’d got into a bit of a rut – if not here, then certainly at the Guardian blog – grumbling about the lack of regietheater (or “directors’ theatre”) in Britain, and championing what few domestic examples I could find.

I suppose it stemmed from two years of seeing hand-picked examples of the specie at various international festivals. Having subsequently seen a few more run-of-the-mill examples in their local context on the mainland I might have calmed down about it a bit.

At the same time, seeing those more workaday bits of regietheater has opened my eyes to the fact that, like Britain’s “serving the play” culture (one which I think I might have been a bit prone to over-stating), regietheater can potentially be just as predictable in its way.

The other thing that struck me – and this dawned on my watching Bijan Sheibani’s production of Eurydice at the Young Vic on Friday night – is that Britain does actually have a kind of default school of “directors’ theatre”. (I can’t believe I’m about to apply this as a near-perjorative, but here goes...) That is to say, a set of (admittedly different) conventions that can be applied to a production, which don’t appear to be decisions suggested by the actual text. In fact, in this respect, this British version of Directors’ Theatre is perhaps more perverse than its European cousin, in that while mainland directors’ theatre might foreground itself more and look more like it’s perversely chosen to ignore how the play seems designed to function, it does at least take the text as its starting point. I’ now wondering if the same could be said of the British model I’m about to outline.

I suppose it’s taken me a while to formulate this as an idea because firstly, the acting in such productions still kind of errs toward the sort-of naturalistic. At least, there seems to be a degree of “psychological realism” (as my European colleagues despairingly note it) behind the performances – i.e. the performers, you know, act sad and cry and stuff when their characters are meant to be sad. And so on. So in that respect, it looks like it’s “serving the text”, yes?

And then there’s the design. This often tends not to be naturalistic, per se. As often as not, there won’t be any set at all. Or else the playing space will be an artfully constructed kind of symbolic space – think of the long wooden trough for Sheibani’s own production of Our Class at the NT, or perhaps the mostly undressed expanses of stage used in National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch.

This gets in under the critical radar (well, mine anyway) by looking like a cross between expedient economising (building barely any set, or just having a nicely made floor is presumably cheaper (and more practical on tour) than having half a dozen elaborately detailed model interiors, perhaps relying on lengthy installation, a revolve or fly-tower) and by hardly drawing any attention to itself at all. Again, this sort of bare-stage approach again looks like it’s “serving the text” – at least to the extent that there’s not a design concept drawing attention to itself (and thus – so the thinking might go – away from the all-important text).

But Sheibani’s Eurydice made me have a look at all these aspects of what we might call British “serving-the-text” directors’ theatre.

The action is set in the round on a nicely designed floor made from large sections of black metal mesh flooring (there must be a better word for this – you know the sort of thing I mean – the sort of thing that all the gantries in Aliens are made of, for example). Above it are hung the frames of two further black metal squares with neon lights running round them. At a couple of points, sprinklers erupt, fountain-like, in the centre of the floor. And there are various lighting states, mostly providing either gloomy full cover or stark down-lighting of specific areas. You’ll have seen it all before, I expect; but it looks nice enough.

Enter Orpheus and Eurydice: two attractive black actors in swimming clothes and goggles. They talk at each other for a bit about being in love and, you know, how Orpheus is a musician and how Eurydice is a bit clever. Then they decide to get married and run off again. Then Eurydice’s father enters. He is dead. We can tell this because he’s in a blueish-white light. And because he says so. Anyway, the whole thing goes on like this until the end, and you know the story anyway, right? (here it is, if not).

Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s contribution to the myth is this addition of this dead father, the shifting of most the focus to Eurydice and the time she spends in the underworld, the almost total removal of Pluto, king of the underworld – who in the text is denoted as “Child” – the addition of a chorus of stones to help explain the underworld and then make the ending more sad, by having Eurydice not only fail to be reunited with her earthly love, but unable to return to the apparent comfort of being with her father in the underworld. All of which is fair enough, and kinda highlights how male-centric the original version was.

The back of the published playtext quotes the New York Times claiming the play is “The most moving exploration of the theme of loss that the American theater has produced.” Assuming this quote hasn’t lost the word “Hardly” or “Not” from the beginning, it’s clear that something has gone deeply awry with this production.

It’s nice, sure. It looks completely competent – although actually it drags like nobody’s business – but most of all, in no way is does it really communicate a moving exploration of loss, least of all the *most* moving one produced by American theatre.

At such junctures, it seems fair to wonder if the production is to blame. This isn’t, after all, a transfer, but the first British production of the play. And it seems hard not to conclude that – assuming the New York Times isn’t given to insane hyperbole (which seems a safe bet) – it’s this production which has drained the text of whatever power it achieved in New York.

So I had a bit of a read of the script on the way home. Not an exhaustive one, you understand, but enough to notice the extent to which this production seems to run almost at a divergent right-angle from what the play seems to be trying to do.

In fact, the show that the script seems to describe – there’s another whole essay to be written looking at the Anglophone tradition of playwrights basically directing their plays themselves through specific stage directions, set descriptions and so on, but – would, I imagine, look a bit more like actual “directors’ theatre” than Sheibani’s production does.

And yet, by ignoring all this – stage directions, seemingly the tone of the play, perhaps the best way of making the dynamic of the text work – Sheibani’s production is actually total regietheater, albeit, a sort of British *stealth* regietheater which looks like it’s making a modest, serving-the-text version of the play.

I’m not sure why this interests/bothers me so much. Perhaps it’s the level of disingenuity I’m inferring. By creating a production in which no elements really draw attention to themselves, Sheibani seems to be “letting the play speak for itself” in the manner that we (the British) understand by that phrase (i.e. – there absence of “wanky” bells and whistles – there is a chorus, for example, but they’re dealt with in the usual, slightly embarrassed, understated we-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-choruses kind of way). But, in actual fact, has put on a production that almost amounts to a tin-ear for the dynamics of the play while dressing it up in such an unshowy manner that it makes it look like it’s all the play’s fault.

Now, none of the above is to say that I’ve had some massive Damascene conversion as regards “serving the text”. I still have a lot of time for productions of texts which might be said to “run against the grain of what the text appears to be doing”. Ultimately, I guess a play is only as good in the moment as any given production is making it, be that running in the same direction that the text appears to, or radically against it. Pre-conceptions of how texts *should* be staged still aren’t helpful, but once something seems not to have worked, it seems reasonable to investigate why that might have been the case.

Hope that all makes sense, and you can still get a sense of the play which, I fear, I’ve rather allowed to become a hostage to a wider question.

Might revise a bit, once the above has had a little time to breathe.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

London Assurance – National Theatre

[written for]

London Assurance is perhaps the nicest play ever written. It’s a mid-C19th confection that makes even Shakespeare’s happiest comedies before it and Wilde after look chippy at best and steeped in impenetrable gloom at worst.

On the surface it seems to have no grudge with anyone (apart from lawyers), the characters are largely likeable – or at least are rendered with such sympathetic charm here, that it’s impossible not to warm to them – with the exception of the lawyer, Meddle, and he hardly suffers in the same way as, say Malvolio. The play’s scenario – the planned execution a marriage dictated by a will – is hardly presented as the potential tragedy which it might have been. And while the characters do have stuff at stake, it’s a) very lightly worn, b) easily resolved, and c) resolved to everyone’s betterment.

There’s none of the cruelty of Twelfth Night, none of the fear at the heart of Much Ado, and none of the snippiness that underscores Wilde’s comedys. It also feels a damn sight nicer than any of the romps of the Restoration. Hell, it even makes Four Weddings and a Funeral or Love, Actually feel like Kafka or Conrad. Perhaps the only other comic plotter who comes close in terms of fondness for their characters, pleasant absurdity and painless fun is P.G. Wodehouse. Everyone else suddenly looks like they’re obsessed with tragedy and just tack on “happy” conclusions having tortured their audiences for the preceding few hours.

That the play feels this way is curious, because on pretty much all levels there’s potential for London Assurance (originally entitled 'Country Matters' - and plainly the NT should have changed the title back) to be rather troubling. After all, one of its main characters is a upper-class, fox-hunting enthusiast, her sometime suitor is a horribly affected elderly rake, while his son is a feckless one-man credit-crunch. There’s also a very strange sequence which seems to play entirely on a number of the characters’ apparent discomfort with Jewish money-lenders.

In a way, one wonders if this isn’t the stealthiest manifestation yet of Nick Hytner’s search for the Great Right-Wing play. There’s certainly much here to delight everyone from the Countryside Alliance to the Daily Mail.

And yet it’s a complete delight. Indeed, I only mention these potential ideological stumbling blocks upfront to forestall the saccharine gush which is about to follow.

The plot is the classic young lovers initially thwarted by circumstance situation, which seems to date back to the dawn of non-tragic drama.

The feckless Charles Courtly (Paul Ready doing an uncanny of Hugh Grant playing Edward Fox (a link worth clicking, for once) playing a likeable version of Prince Charles) returns drunk in the early morning to his room at his father’s house with Richard Dazzle (Matt Cross). Thanks to a series of misunderstandings and tricks, Dazzle is mistaken for Charles and manages to get himself invited to the country house of Squire Max Harkaway, to whose 18-year-old niece, Grace (Michelle Terry), Charles’s father Sir Harcourt Courtly (Simon Russell-Beale) is due to be married, thanks to a convoluted will made by her father, Harcourt Courtly’s best friend, which only allows her to come into possession of his land if she marries said friend.

So, Richard and Charles trot off to the country to escape Charles’s creditors. Inevitably, Sir Harcourt Courtly isn’t far behind, and so everyone winds up in the country together, with Charles pretending to be an entirely made up person who just happens to be the dead spit of Sir Harcourt’s son Charles. Of course, Charles immediately falls in love with Grace, his father takes a fancy to married friend-of-the-Harkaway’s Lady Gay Spanker (it’s a mark of the conviction with which this ridiculous play is being acted that this hostage-to-fortune of a name doesn’t raise a single smirk on stage, beyond the simple innocence of it hearty intentions), played with gusto by a game Fiona Shaw. Richard Briers even turns up playing her octogenarian husband, Adolphus, of whom Lady Spanker seems enormously fond.

There’s not a lot of point in relating the myriad twists and turns of the plot. If you’ve read any P.G. Wodehouse you can imagine the basics, but [SPOILER ALERT – well, sort of...] Dazzle and Courtly Jr. enlist the help of Lady Spanker to flirt Sir Harcourt away from Grace so Charles can make a play for her, albeit in disguise. Grace is a bit too bright for all this. Sir Harcourt and Adolphus nearly come to blows and then everything is suddenly resolved completely amicably with everyone proving remarkably considerate and generous.

And this is the strange thing. The plot really doesn’t seem to bear anyone any malice. Generally in comedies, you can get a sense of whom the author really likes by how the characters all end up, but here pretty much everyone seems to come out of the story happy and improved, with the exception of Meddle, the lawyer, who doesn’t come out of it any the worse for having been through it.

Indeed, there’s a rather touching scene in which Sir Harcourt Courtly suddenly has this vast moment of self-revelation and immediately reveals himself to be a kind-hearted, decent chap who just happened to fancy himself a bit before. It’s all incredibly light and sweet.

However, the real joy and generosity about this show is generated by the performances. This is, after all, a first-rate cast by anyone’s estimation (anyone? Really? I bet I could find people who’d disagree, but...) – at least three actors who are regarded as National Treasures in Shaw, Russell-Beale and Briers, one of the best, least-showy-offy and most unsung actors of his generation in Ready and the NT’s ongoing choice of quirky leading lady in Terry (previously the eternal love-interest in England People Very Nice), along with an exceptional supporting cast.

More than the theatrical starriness, which you can take or leave, it’s the sheer expertise and enjoyment flowing off the stage that really gets you: Simon Russell-Beale’s willingness to make himself look utterly ridiculous, his enormous eyes turning imploringly or imperiously upon the audience – kind of like a wounded-but-inflatable Frankie Howerd; or the way that previously-thought-of-as-frightfully-serious actress (Three Men and a Little Lady and the Harry Potter films notwithstanding) Fiona Shaw is basically having a tremendous laugh mucking about; although it’s perhaps Richard Briers’s brief cameos as the befuddled Adolphus Spanker that take the funniest-character-acting biscuit.

There’s not really much point in any analysis beyond that, although I’m sure some would be possible. And if one worried away at it for long enough, I’m sure one could make finding the whole enterprise fun quite morally suspect and theatrically recidivist, but for once that doesn’t seem all that important. Sure, it’s hetero-normative, status-quo-endorsing, reactionary twaddle, but it’s enormously comforting, generous-spirited and brilliantly performed, so why worry?