Monday 7 June 2010

The Man - Finborough Theatre

[written for CultureWars]

[With shows like The Man, there’s a massive advantage to not being a “proper” critic. For a start, I was under no compulsion to go, see the play, and then file my review by midnight, one in the morning, or half nine the following day (which was fortunate, since I was also keen to catch Mike Bartlett’s Bull, of which more another time, perhaps). Second, it meant I didn’t feel as embargoed from talking to The Man’s author James Graham about a few details of the show’s construction. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it meant I could go and see the show a second time (after I came back from Pulse).

Of course, all these factors modify my experience of the piece, and in ways that “proper” critics aren’t really supposed to modify their experiences, but I think there’s a pretty compelling argument for approaching Graham’s piece in this way [is the British school of critics trying to preserve the purity if their perceptions against external (often useful) information necessarily *best*?]. It also means I don’t feel obliged to start the review: “Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. The Man is a monologue about both...”]

The big thing with The Man is its liveness. The piece is being performed by a rotating, or, rather, fluctuating cast of four actors. But, more excitingly, despite there being a printed text of the play, the piece is different every night of its run. The premise of this monologue is its narrator, Ben, going through his receipts for the last year as he attempts to fill out his first tax return form. As the audience enters, each member is handed a receipt. The order in which any given audience hears the narrative depends entirely on the order in which these receipts are given to the performer.

At the conclusion of my first viewing of the show, I was more or less convinced that this “live” element was actually a bit of a cheat. I thought there was probably a certain amount of forward planning, or perhaps Derren Brown-style trickery so that we the audience *thought* we were feeding the performer receipts entirely at random, but in fact were just handing precisely the props he needed when he needed them. There isn’t.

Talking to Graham, consulting the script, chatting to other actors doing the show, and then seeing the piece for a second time – with the narrative delivered in an entirely different order – it’s entirely true: the order is complete chance. Which makes the show, a) a bugger to review (how to avoid “giving away the ending” when you don’t know which section is going to end any given performance?), and b) a pretty impressive testament to Graham’s strength as a writer.

On first viewing, you experience the unfolding narrative as completely logical. More than this, it feels as if the order you’re hearing it in makes *most sense*. Yes, it jumps about chronologically – first you hear about something from quite late on in the year, then a new receipt takes you back ten months, then forward five and so on – but it feels completely natural for it to do so. Like when someone is telling you an anecdote and then realises that you need a bit of context about their relationship to the person in the anecdote, and so they go back and tell you a bit about how they know that person, which in turn leads to another anecdote...

The way that the randomised order of the receipts appears to prompt these “memories” is about as unforced a way of achieving this effect as I can imagine. It also reveals something about the way in which we in the audience construct links between events and anecdotes ourselves. Perhaps the first order we hear the monologue in will always feel more definitive to us than it ever will to anyone involved in the production, because we’ve just heard the stories for the first time and have therefore forged all the information around it and the pictures it has created for us into a cohesive whole. It’s interesting that people I saw the show with on both nights swore that their (entirely different) orders of the script seemed like the ideal order to hear the play in.

Importantly, the randomised order doesn’t just feel like a gimmick. In fact, it seems like a beautifully judged way of owning up to the way that the audience and performer share the space. At the same time doesn’t seek to introduce some spurious notion that we’re “controlling” the action – the effect on the show’s order would be exactly the same if the performer just picked the receipts out of a hat, but it does make the whole experience feel much more “shared”.

It’s tempting to say that the narrative itself (or rather the events that are covered in the piece) is “classic Graham”. Except that looking back at the reviews of the other two plays by James Graham (Little Madam and Sons of York) I happen to have reviewed, that claim seems a little hard to back up. Where previous plays (see also: Eden’s Empire and Tory Boyz) have worried hard at Britain’s class-based politics, The Man, while touching on political themes (not least the question of taxation, which lies at the heart of every British election), is unashamedly personal. It deals primarily with attempts at love and coping with death. It’s also a smartingly funny snapshot of what it’s like being a non-native, twentysomething Londoner, living on precious little money in the early 21st century.

The first performance of The Man that I saw had James Graham himself playing the protagonist. This fact, coupled with the myriad receipts we had been handed, did make me wonder if the show might be a clever way for a writer to recycle the clutter of their tax receipts. But, no, in fact all the receipts are worryingly perfect forgeries – even the train tickets and Sainsbury’s receipts. Indeed, the receipts from iTunes (a clever way of seamlessly providing the show with a soundtrack) even have the character’s name and address on them.

Graham’s performance initially struck me as something of an essay of the part: the author gamely stepping up to undertake the same pretty difficult task of learning an hour an a half’s worth of material and then delivering it in a random order every night that he'd inflicted on his actors. By “essay”, I suppose mean I thought that Graham wasn’t really doing “proper acting”. Sure he was a hugely likeable presence on stage, but if anything he seemed a bit too “live”, somehow. Like he wasn’t really “pretending” enough to be “acting”.

His delivery of the emotional bits, for example, was somehow a bit too much like how someone really would brush away the actual emotional content of what he was saying with one too many silly jokes (which were, of course, in the script anyway) and nervous laughs. At which point, you realise that this really is an incredible performance. Graham really has a talent for stage-delivery. He captures the character perfectly, completely blurring the boundaries between himself and the person he’d made up; to the extent that, aside from the more writerly touches, you’d be happy to believe at the end of the show that he’d been talking about himself. Except without the self-indulgence that this would imply.

Seeing Samuel Barnett’s performance only six days later was perhaps a bit unfair (on Barnett) – not least for the reasons mentioned above about the extent of the relationship one builds with the first version of the story you hear. Barnett’s is an excellent performance, but one which feels much more assured and controlled in comparison with Graham’s. But then, I also knew the twists and was enjoying comparing the delivery of the jokes, rather than just laughing at them as I had done in the first version of show I’d seen.

That said, having four actors rotating in the part feels like an excellent idea for a new play, as it offers four different takes on the material in an way that new plays are hardly ever afforded. Granted it’s only got one director (the excellent Kate Wasserberg) and one “staging”, but it feels like the actors here – clearly with the two I saw (and I haven’t ruled out trying to catch more) – haven’t been shoe-horned into a role “created” by another actor, but are each offering their personal interpretation of the part.

So, what does one get out of the whole experience? I’ve rabbited on at unhelpful length mostly about the theatrical properties of this production – because that’s kind of what I like about theatre: its theatreyness. But actually, The Man is also a lovely, big-hearted, very funny story about getting round to growing up a bit. It’s really sweet and it leaves you feeling generally cheered up and the better for having seen it. Which isn’t a bad result for an impressive exploration of the relationship between audience and performer, performer and text, and text and audience.


Ian Shuttleworth said...

Here's an interesting one to gnaw at, actually. You nod towards it with your use of the term "purity of... perceptions", but I think that has connotations of preciousness whereas I think it's really more a matter of proportionality, of phenomenological accuracy etc. Anyway, it's this:

You begin your review proper by saying "The big thing with The Man is its liveness" (although you later acknowledge that randomness does not equal liveness), yet you've just prefaced it with a number of remarks suggesting that the optimum critical way to approach the piece - "compelling" is your word - is as a work, as a construction, rather than precisely as an event. Your insight comes from a perspective that's gained from triangulating the work itself from a plurality of event-PoVs, i.e. from defining it as a work, yet even as you do so you state that those aspects of it that you find most appealing are those that pertain to event.

At bottom, then, what is not just theatre but any live art reviewing for or about? What is it we're telling people about? The work or the event?

Obviously I'm not about to say it's all one or all the other, but I do think that it is a matter of finding a more or less static point on a continuum between the two, rather than mixing and matching and darting around from moment to moment as you do in this article. I think you're trying to have your cake and eat it. I think we can probably agree that we can do a little bit of each, eat some and still have some... but I don't think it's a quantum cake that we can do both with in its entirety :-)

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Look, that last one may partly be a product of lack of sleep. But I think there's something in there. Try to see that, and not the superstructure of me laying it on :-)

Andrew Haydon said...

"you later acknowledge that randomness does not equal liveness"

Do I? You sure that wasn't Trueman? To clarify - obviously the bits where the actor is given the receipt that prompts what he says next are totally live. What he then says next is *said* live (obv.: it's theatre), but is pre-written. Anyway...

"yet you... suggest that the optimum critical way to approach the piece is as a work, as a construction, rather than precisely as an event...
What is it we're telling people about? The work or the event?"

Righty. More clarification time. Hmm. Ok, the "purity of perception" thing is an unfair characterisation of a blog Lyn once wrote (and, no, she's not all British Theatre Criticism - but she's th only person I've read who's made a definite statement either way) about how she tries to avoid being friends with artists, reading programme notes or reviewing shows by companies she's interviewed. While I understand the basic point she's making - that directors'/writers' work should speak for itself - at the same time, I wonder a) how that meshes with her adoption of Tassos/Coney's maxim about a piece of theatre beginning when you first hear about it and ending when you stop thinking about it, and b) whether when a work has got A Thing (in this case, randomised order), whether the job of the critic gets a bit closer to that other bit of journalism - the bit where you give context for *the event* (*the work*) before explaining what *the event* is like.

Put simply, I felt my *perceptions* of the *event* benefitted from a bit of fact-checking. And the luxury of going twice offered a bunch of new stuff about the nature of this piece's *event*ness. After all, the *event* in theatre is the presentation of *the work*, yes? (it's early, I'm thinking off the top of my head).

I suppose this slightly fits into the *expertise* question: Is it good that experienced critics already have a pretty good measure of Hamlet, for example, before they enter the latest production? (A: Yes and No) Here it felt useful to get the opportunity to familiarise myself with *the work* a bit more, since *the event* (which could be seen as the 30 performances, as much as the event of the particular night) was partly about how *the work* changed.

It's also that other, getting-forgotten element of *criticism* - being in a position to *explain* what the work's up to a bit.

Thus, because I had questions about how the show worked (pretty silly questions, to be honest) - or rather how on earth it had worked so well - I asked around, putting myself in a position to be able to report back with more accuracy, and because I didn't have a deadline, I was interested to see what it'd be like to see the show with a second performer.

Another thing that's just struck me - which kind of follows on from my weekend of watching apparently biographical monologues - was my desire here to distance this work (esp. as I first saw it performed by James) from undue claims my brain was worrying about relating to autobiography.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

context for *the event* (*the work*)
- interesting idea, which itself deserves further attention, but it seems to me inconsistent with
the *event* in theatre is the presentation of *the work*
which puts the work at the core of the event rather than on its penumbra or con-ness.