Wednesday 21 September 2011

Unsent Postcards: Iwanow – Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz

[written 15/02/10]

[On this day in 2008, I posted my review of Kenneth Branagh's Ivanov. Since I've had this review hanging around, unfinished, for about a year and a half, I figured, for a bit of circularity, I'd stick it up today to mark the occasion.]

In a recent [ha!] piece for the Guardian Theatre Blog/CiF ( ), which might as well have been entitled “And another thing...” , Michael Billington gets briefly exercised about “yet another myth currently gaining credence: that English Chekhov productions are full of swooning nostalgia for our own lost rural past”. “This is rubbish”, he claims.

I’m not sure who made the initial claim, but I tend to agree that British productions of Chekhov have precious little to do with British rural nostalgia; on the other hand, they do all tend to follow a certain pattern.

What I’m pretty sick of is writing disclaimers about the fact that just because I like German theater AS WELL, doesn’t mean I hate British theatre, but it seems like I need to keep reiterating them or British Theatre gets all hurt and whiny, so, for the umpteenth time, I REALLY LIKED THE KENNETH BRANAGH IVANOV. Got that? Good. Having said that...

Dimiter Gotscheff’s production of Anton Tschekow’s Iwanow is pretty damn revelatory. It premièred in 2005 and is still running in the Volksbühne’s repertoire five years later. And last night’s production was sold out.

I’m not going to pretend it isn’t a hard watch. Possibly for Germans, but certainly for Brits, particularly those without much of the language (i.e Mich). However, the imagination of the staging and dramaturgy goes a long way toward offsetting such concerns.

The best thing you can do before seeing it is taking everything you think you know about Chekhov and chucking it out of a high window. One of the ones at the top of the Volksbühne will do.

The staging is stark and simple. The absolute back of the Volksbühne stage is a curved sheer white wall, like a cyclorama, designed to improve the acoustics. Generally it is covered, curtained or obscured by the set. Here there is absolutely nothing decorating the stage, which is empty save for a low smoke machine at the back. Samuel Finzi, playing Ivanov, walks up stairs out of a near invisible trap door at the rear of the stage and stands against the back wall. Gradually the other characters join him.

He begins to walk forward. The smoke machine starts. The depth of the Volksbühne’s stage is quite remarkable. Deeper than, say, the Lyttleton by quite some way. By the time he’s reached the proscenium arch – and the stage continues for quite some way out in front of it – the stage has started to fill with smoke/fog. Smoke also pours from vents in the stage floor itself and continues to do so for the rest of the play’s two hour duration. The lights at this point are a bright grey, like cold morning sunshine in winter. Ivanov is suddenly standing alone in a fog.

From hereon in, virtually all entrances and exists are made through the fog. Characters become looming shapes gradually resolving into solidity as they emerge from the swirling smoke.

It’s impressively gorgeous, and often I caught myself just watching the smoke swirling in the lights, but it also serves a cleverer purpose. When I reviewed the Branagh/Grandage production I hit on the phrase “wrapped up in a fog of self-pity”. This is precisely that fog. It is as if we are seeing the text staged in Ivanov’s mind. A relentless fog of depression from which ludicrous characters appear to torment him. The supporting cast’s performances echo this. While Finzi’s Ivanov is still, quiet, bemused and cruel, the other characters almost dance a colourful burlesque around him – as near-grotesques.

It’s worth noting that there isn’t a lot of psychological realism on show here. It’s interesting to note how much this still wrong-foots me. I mean, I’m as big into post- stuff as anyone, but it’s remarkable how difficult I still find it not to think of that approach as “properly”. So, no, they’re not doing it “properly”.

It’s also interesting watching a production which isn’t aiming to really wrench at the heartstrings. It’s emphatically aiming in precisely the opposite direction, in fact. Obviously by watching it in German I’m bringing a pretty significant V-effekt all of my very own to the production, but, even without this minor consideration, it’s pretty clear that Gotscheff isn’t really interested in making us weep.

As Ivanov walks downstage in the first minute he is accompanied by the sound of My Heart Will Go On and Time To Say Goodbye played concurrently, jarringly, almost sarcastically on a tinny synthesiser. Thereafter, little phrases from either song play out at random, like irritating ringtones in/of this troubled mind.

This is a production which isn’t overmuch concerned with love...

[and there it stops. I think there was a “but” coming next, telling us what it *was* concerned with, but somehow I never quite got round to it. Anyway...]

Here's a video of it:

And some more photos

Monday 8 August 2011

Mission Drift - Traverse Theatre

[written for]

New York's the TEAM (their name, preposterously, or marvellously, depending on your tastes, stands for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) have become something of an Edinburgh institution. They've returned a number of times with shows of increasing size, complexity and perplexity. Mission Drift feels like their big crossover moment.

The show is a kind of hyper-speed history of North America since the 1600s, here enacted entirely by youthful, naïve Dutch couple Joris and Catalina Rapalje (Brian Hastert & Libby King), coupled with a kind of Living in End Times narrative set in Las Vegas.

The real stroke of genius here, though, is that the TEAM have also dropped a whole gig onto the thing, led by the blistering presence that is Heather Christian. She's small, bottle-blonde and vampy, and has the most incredible voice you'll have heard in quite some time - a meeting in a trashy motel between Janis Joplin, her out of Portishead and the one from Nouvelle Vague who does the cover of Psyche – pretty much ripping up the whole auditorium from the stage, and forcing a whole new level of engagement from the audience.

The music itself is an ingenious mixture of soul, gospel and blues. Coupled with a self-lacerating rendition of American history, the music has the useful effect of reminding us that whatever we might think of America's past – the near-genocide of the native Americans, the catastrophic atomic adventurism, the naked, aggressive capitalism, etc. – it is by no means a cultural desert. Although, perhaps it is mostly serving to remind us that the Devil has all the best tunes. Indeed, the whole show is soaked in an obvious affection for Americana even as it struggles to resist the structures that underpin it, which makes it a lot better than much of the knee-jerk anti-Americanism often found at the Fringe.

In terms of staging, it looks like the TEAM have been mainlining Volksbühne productions like they're going out of fashion. Perhaps all successful critiques of capitalism have to have big, rangy stages with a drum kit and a load of mess spread out over an astroturf lawn. But whatever. It looks great and gives the production exactly the space it needs.

Curiously, for all this postmodernism, this is actually a very legible show in terms of its narrative structures and how they operate. At its most simple, it's two romances: one brash, sexy and youthful, the other older and more bittersweet. The young, dumb, hot version is the history of America. The older, more careworn version is essentially the effect of that history on those living in the present it created. The great thing about the way the show operates, however, is that none of this feels half as obvious or laboured as I've just made it sound. There's a playful lightness about the way the show pushes its characters around which almost suggests you should dip in and out of the various levels at which it operates. With the added advantage of having Christian – essentially playing the soul of American Capitalism, Las Vegas and the Atomic Bomb – blow the whole thing apart every five minutes with another number. The cumulative effect is pretty special, even if it does feel that the show could probably achieve more by losing twenty minutes from the end, which gets a bit explain-y.

As a kind of theatrical snapshot of the present day, it's hard to imagine a more exciting despatch, though.

[all photos © Rachel Chavkin]

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Herzlichen Glückwunsch, Postcards


Today is the fourth birthday of Postcards From the Gods.

Looking at the above screen cap I notice that not a single thing I said then is still true.

I'm no longer theatre editor for, I don't do occasional programmes for TheatreVoice any more, the internet channel 18 Doughty Street no longer exists, and I stopped working as a script reader a couple of months after starting this blog. Similarly, the purpose of this blog hasn't really been to 'provide a space for “unofficial” comment or reviews that don’t quite come within the remit of any of the other places for whom I write stuff' since I started posting my reviews for CultureWars here and writing blogs for the Guardian.

Mercifully, a 4th birthday is hardly meant as a time for “taking stock”. I imagine by my own fourth birthday I'd learnt to talk and learnt to walk. I'm not quite sure Postcards has done quite as well, although I think it just about stands up.

As ever, I've got a whole bunch of half-written, half-thought-through pieces sitting on my desktop – the rest of those pieces about narrative, those reviews of Die Heimkehr des Odysseus and Ghost Machine, a bunch of thoughts about the second incarnation of the theatre blogosphere – and then there's a pile more sitting in a folder called “Unsent Postcards”. If there is one thing I have learnt in the past four years, it's not to make rash promises about when, if ever, they'll see the light of day.

Anyway, here's a cheerful little song:

Thursday 16 June 2011

doubleplus Unwin

[apropos of nothing]

The artistic director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Stephen Unwin, has written a blog for the Guardian, apparently asking “Do we stage too much Shakespeare?”.

Having tried to work out what he was trying to say, or ask, several times, I've resorted to offering an edited version of the above piece here in the hope that it'll make more sense.
In the below version, I've pruned the verbiage, the filler and the weasel-words in the hope of uncovering his argument or question.
I have left aside the headline and the standfirst as they are seldom the work of the author, and in this case directly contradict what he says in the piece.

So: (orig. para. breaks)

Is British theatre addicted to Shakespeare?

Let me try to call for fewer productions.

There are several intellectual flaws in the argument: "the plays are universal in their appeal,"
or that: "Shakespeare has something for everyone and every new production is an addition to the sum of what we know"
This places a huge pressure on directors and designers to come up with new ideas.
Critics need novelties to write about and capture their imagination.
Theatre managements want their productions to have a unique selling point.

The result is celebrity-led productions of a few of the most famous plays.
Without this packaging the plays might not survive the commercial rigours of the modern theatre.

But we should still ask: "what is it that these first-time audiences are being offered?"
Are we revealing the heart of the play to those among the audience who are experiencing these masterpieces for the first time?
A handful of plays have become so familiar that it can be hard to see them objectively.

We take the plays and the astonishing language in which they're written for granted.
Theatre's endless circling round a few well-known titles is making it hard for both audience and producers to engage in a direct relationship with the original material.

We should reassess our assumptions about Shakespeare's contemporary relevance.
My argument is for a more scrupulous engagement with the complex web of social, psychological and political realism that is the mark of his genius – and a greater scepticism about the claim that Shakespeare can be all things to all people.

A discussion about our addiction to a few popular titles and our priorities in staging them is overdue.
Especially when we are concerned with the enormous number of people who come to the plays for the first time every year.

Even when edited to basic points, it still makes little logical sense. Interestingly, it reads much better backwards:

[especially when] We are concerned with the enormous number of people who come to [Shakespeares's] plays for the first time every year.

A discussion about our addiction to a few popular titles and our priorities in staging them is overdue.

My argument is for a more scrupulous engagement with the complex web of social, psychological and political realism that is the mark of his genius – and a greater scepticism about the claim that Shakespeare can be all things to all people.

We should reassess our assumptions about Shakespeare's contemporary relevance.

Theatre's endless circling round a few well-known titles is making it hard for both audience and producers to engage in a direct relationship with the original material.

We take the plays and the astonishing language in which they're written for granted.

A handful of plays have become so familiar that it can be hard to see them objectively.

Are we revealing the heart of the play to those among the audience who are experiencing these masterpieces for the first time?

Without this packaging the plays might not survive the commercial rigours of the modern theatre.
The result is celebrity-led productions of a few of the most famous plays.

But we should still ask: "what is it that these first-time audiences are being offered?"

Theatre managements want their productions to have a unique selling point.
Critics need novelties to write about and capture their imagination.

This places a huge pressure that it places on directors and designers to come up with new ideas.

There are several intellectual flaws in the argument: "the plays are universal in their appeal,"
or: "Shakespeare has something for everyone and every new production is an addition to the sum of what we know"

Let me try to call for fewer productions.

Is British theatre addicted to Shakespeare?

Arranged like this, we can see much more clearly where the argument falters and fails, what is extraneous, and where false jumps of logic are made.

Allow me to run it as a dialogue:

Stephen Unwin: I am concerned with the enormous number of people who come to [Shakespeare's] plays for the first time every year.

Postcards: Are you, Stephen? Why so?

SU: A discussion about our addiction to a few popular titles and our priorities in staging them is overdue.

Postcards: Ok.

SU: My argument is for a more scrupulous engagement with the complex web of social, psychological and political realism that is the mark of his genius – and a greater scepticism about the claim that Shakespeare can be all things to all people.

Postcards: Well, as long as you realise that asserting that “the complex web of social, psychological and political realism” is “the mark of his genius” makes the second bit, which would otherwise sound quite interesting, sound quite suspect.

SU: We should reassess our assumptions about Shakespeare's contemporary relevance.

Postcards: That's better. I'm all ears.

SU: Theatre's endless circling round a few well-known titles is making it hard for both audience and producers to engage in a direct relationship with the original material.

Postcards: Hang on, are we still “concerned with the enormous number of people who come to Shakespeare's plays for the first time every year”? And what do you mean by “a direct relationship with the original material”? What is the “original material”of Shakespeare's work aside from the words themselves on paper? An audience in a theatre really cannot possibly not have those words mediated before them. Otherwise you'd be proposing just having a book on a stage for people to read (a “direct relationship”). Or perhaps surtitles.

SU: We take the plays and the astonishing language in which they're written for granted.

Postcards: If we're not “the enormous number of people who come to the plays for the first time every year” (who I'm beginning to suspect are not, in fact, those with whom you're concerned. Nor, more importantly are they the easily identifiable constituency you appear to imagine with this glib catch-all term) then we know how they're written, yes. I'm not sure if that's “taking them for granted” though. Isn't it just “knowledge”? On the other hand, if I'd never heard of Shakespeare before, I'd now already have your entirely unverifiable assertion of his genius to go on. And isn't that kind of how nearly everyone – certainly in Britain – first comes to Shakespeare; with an assurance of National Genius and a dog-earred copy of R&J or Macbeth in the third or fourth year at secondary school? It is still, I believe, a legal requirement, for that to be the case, in fact. So when you say “people who come to the plays for the first time every year”, do you in fact mean "14-year-olds"? Or do you mean “seeing Shakespeare” (“live”, or, indeed, “mediated”?)?

SU: A handful of plays have become so familiar that it can be hard to see them objectively.

Postcards: Now what do you mean by objectively? I'm hoping that you mean “subjectively, but without the baggage of having seen lots of other productions of them”, because that really, truly is all anyone is ever going to see, Stephen. You don't hold the key to “objectively” understanding Shakespeare any more than Jan Kott, Rupert Goold or David Tennant do. (I'm giving you an easy time, by the way. I could have gone for “can be hard to” - when you know full well it is impossible to see anything objectively) (also, for whom, precisely is it hard?).

SU: Are we revealing the heart of the play to those among the audience who are experiencing these masterpieces for the first time?

Postcards: Now, let's assume plays do have a “heart”. What would that look like, and how would it manifest itself on a stage? Do you have an answer for that? What is “the heart” of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing?

I'm not a medical man, but my understanding is that hearts function much better when not “revealed”. Their function is to pump blood around the rest of the body and do so better when nestled happily behind layers of skin and flesh and the ribcage. It's also my understanding – and, look, you started this metaphor, so don't look at me like that – it's also my understanding that, over time, the heart's function can decrease with age. People (or, uh, plays) benefit from advances in medical science. Hearts can be operated upon. Improved. Put back to working order. Have pacemakers fitted. Yes, it's possible to look at an old heart pickled in a jar. You could even put that jar on public display, but that's not really the same thing as a working heart, is it?

SU: The result is celebrity-led productions of a few of the most famous plays. Without this packaging the plays might not survive the commercial rigours of the modern theatre.

Now, let's think about this for a moment. Is that actually true? I pruned your examples, but they were David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. Now, what are David Tennant and Patrick Stewart? That's right, they are actors. What's more, they're both actually rather good actors. David Tennant, especially, is great. I saw him in The Pillowman at the National years ago. Did you see that? He was great. So were Jim Broadbent and Adam Godley (who are also a bit famous).

Now, yes, since then he's been on telly in Dr Who; so more people know who he is; because Dr Who is quite popular. Which might also be down to the fact that David Tennant is a pretty good actor. So, yes he's famous, which, I suppose, sort-of makes him a “celebrity”. But he's hardly famous-for-being-famous. As soon as there's a Jedward-led revival of A Comedy of Errors, I'll be right there with you smelling a rat, but until that point, is this “celebrity-led” or is this “famous-excellent-actor-led”?

Was the first incarnation of the National Theatre “celebrity-led” because Lawrence Olivier was the first artistic director? Was it “celebrity casting” to have John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in all those plays? Or were they famous because a lot of people all agreed that they very much liked watching them act? (Of course, your very use of the word “celebrity” mires the middle of this debate with so much unconscious class-contempt that I don't even want to start to get into it...)

SU: But we should still ask: "what is it that these first-time audiences are being offered?"

Postcards: Well, apparently it's: great actors in a really good production of a play by William Shakespeare according to all the reviews (including blogs). (x2 if you include the Globe, with its £5 tickets and its Eve Best off of The Shadowline in a bit of “celebrity casting”)

SU: Theatre managements want their productions to have a unique selling point.
Critics need novelties to write about and capture their imagination.

Postcards: Well, that's horseshit, isn't it? Theatre Critics need theatre to write about and capture their imaginations, sure. And you might well dispute the particular things happen to capture the imaginations of particular critics, but, “novelties”? Come on. You can do better than that. I mean, seriously, what strikes you as more true: “Britain's theatre critics, as a breed, are in the thrall to novelty”, or: “On the whole, Britain's theatre critics tend to have an instinctive mistrust of anything they perceive as novelty”?

SU: This places a huge pressure on directors and designers to come up with new ideas.

Postcards: It's tempting just to say “good” and leave it at that. But.
Well, it's even easier than that. The question is: what do you think would happen if there wasn't this “pressure” which you perceive being placed on directors and designers (apparently largely by novelty-hungry critics)? And are you seriously proposing that the sole driver of “new ideas” in the field of Shakespeare production is the novelty-needing British theatre-critical establishment?

Take the critics out of the equation. There are no critics. Imaginary scenario: you will get exactly the same audience – let's say you'll sell out – no matter what you do. Let's say you've sold out the entire run in advance. So, what do you do?

Do you see my point? You still have to do *something*. What do you really want to be doing? I know, I know. You want to “reveal the heart of the play”. Well, fine. But the actors still have to wear something (or not. Still a choice). And they'll have to stand on something. And they'll presumably have to be lit in some way or other – even if it's just the house lights, or a really clever trick of lighting design making it look like they really are right outside in the open air.

Let me put this as gently as I can: there is nothing you can do which isn't going to put you and your designer's vision of the play between the written text and the audience.

Of course you're welcome to argue for the primacy of your version of events. I think that's almost a crucial prerequisite of being an artist/director. Of course you can think it can only be done your way, and that is why you're doing it your way. I do think it's crass not to recognise that it is only your way, though. No matter how right you might believe you are.

SU: There are several intellectual flaws in the argument: "the plays are universal in their appeal,"

Postcards: Sure. Although, as we see above, we're all of us subject to the odd intellectual flaw. If that's not a rationale that works for you, ditch it. All I'd say is that it has clearly worked for other people (even though I'd agree and that I think it's “wrong” too). It's a bit like the fact that Katie Mitchell often seems to make this transcendent, arty work, while thinking she's strictly observing some sort of Stanislavskian method, even as her performers dance and look straight through the fourth wall – even from some really wonky theory, great productions can spring.

SU: [there are also several flaws in the argument that] "Shakespeare has something for everyone and every new production is an addition to the sum of what we know"

Postcards: Might it not be the case that people (directors) actually argue: “I want to do this play because it speaks to me (perhaps: “this is what I think its heart is”), and I'd like to make it speak to as many other people as possible”? And further people (the audience) argue: “well, crumbs, that certainly spoke to me and to the people I've spoken to about it. And, yes, it made me think about the play in a totally different way, for which I'm grateful”.

SU: Let me try to call for fewer productions [of plays by Shakespeare].

Postcards: Why? This seems to come from nowhere.

I wasn't going to bring this up, but, do you remember what you said in April?

Your application for Arts Council funding had just been unsuccessful, and you wrote a blog about it for the Guardian. The bit I'm thinking of in particular (you'll notice that I haven't dragged Dame Judi Dench into this for a bit of cheap point-scoring at all) is your conclusion:

“We wanted to become a theatrical centre for the huge number of people across south-west London, who for no fault of their own have been underserved. ACE's latest carve-up does nothing to redress that imbalance.”

What I find curious is that now you're not making a slightly contentious claim for south-west London's under-servédness in terms of theatres, you're saying that an “avalanche of Hamlets that engulfs us every other year”.

Now, as far as I'm aware, the Rose, Kingston, hasn't done a Hamlet yet (although you're hardly making much of a case for attendance of The Rose Youth Theatre's all-female (novelty!) production (set in the 1930s(!)) starring Grace Molony (Michael's daughter? “Celebrity”-by-proxy?!) on 7th & 9th July). And yet you're still content to allege that “we” are “engulfed” by an “avalanche” (3, plus Sheffield), even while the poor people of south-west London are underserved.

Come on. Buck up. Which is it?

Yes, you have a point about a local theatre being excellent for a community. And, yes, local is different to 20 minutes away by high-speed rail connection. But, really, who is being “engulfed” by the “avalanche”? “Local” aside, surely people can pick and choose which productions they want to go and see. Especially in London.

And again, yes, the fact there were three Hamlets in London in the past couple of years did mean that three other (possibly Shakespeare) plays weren't performed. On the other hand. All three Hamlets sold out. To the extent I didn't get to be engulfed in the avalanche of a single one of them. Nor did lots of other people. So where does that leave us?

Doesn't it suggest that there was sufficient public appetite for these productions to have run for longer, had there been the resources and had the cast been available? Moreover, where's this novelty you're scared of in these avalanchey Hamlets? Granted, I didn't see any of them (apart from the one I saw ont telly at Christmas), but weren't they actually all quite concerned with “doing the play”? Nothing I read about any of them suggested any significant degree of heart-obscuring.

In conclusion, I think your argument is flawed. It's flawed because you're being dishonest about what you want to say. What you seem to be edging toward asking is this:
“Why should Shakespeare's plays ever be done differently to what I imagine to be “correctly” or “properly”? The only reason these directors do them differently to “how they're meant to be done” is that they're either pandering to the plebs, updating them to make them “relevant” (a concept which I don't understand) and chucking in people from the telly. Or else it's the critics, who are all so eaten up with ennui by the thought of seeing Shakespeare done exactly as it's meant to be done that they'd clearly much rather see Pete Postlethwaite with a big train set than King Lear done properly.

As a result, despite the fact only about 400 people a night can see any given performance of a play, I propose we stop doing all the plays I've seen hundred of times before, until the critics and the public come to their senses and pay my revolutionarily pure stagings the respect that I'm certain they deserve.”

SU: Is British theatre addicted to Shakespeare?

Postcards: This is a completely different question to the one that you discuss.

Good night.

Friday 27 May 2011

Betrogen (Betrayal) – Renaissance Theater

[Long, unnecessary intro at the end]

The most surprising about Torsten Fischer's production of Harold Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal, now in rep. at Berlin's Renaissance Theater, is how normal it is.

As it opens two men are playing squash in an exact replica of a squash court, complete with glass 4th wall. On the back of the court, the precise time (20:01:etc 24/5/2011 is projected). The lights go down. The play's title, “Betrogen”, flashes up and the clock winds back the years to 1977 for the first scene of the play as Pink Floyd's Time plays.

It's quite, uh, cinematic.

In a small nod to being German, the entire play turns out to be set in a squash court. Or rather, the set doesn't change. The glass 4th wall does gradually recede throughout the action, which at least has the effect of situating each scene in a different space. Even if they are all white with a red line running round them about halfway up the wall. But even this hardly feels like an outrageous exercise in regietheater-gone-mad.

The squash court is no doubt a cunning reference to one the famous motifs of Pinter's text being Jerry and Robert (I don't need to go through the plot, do I? We all know it backwards, right?) repeatedly mentioning that they haven't played squash together for years. Here the squash court surrounds them like an emblem of this failure, and a monument to the reason behind it.

Having spent recent days [this review was written on Weds, but then Blogger went to pieces] wondering at a tendency toward nit-picking in British theatre criticism (the partial modernisation of School for Scandal, swearing in the Cherry Orchard, and Merchant of Venice in Las Vegas), I find myself doing precisely the same here (you can take the critic out of England...). After all, if you go to the effort of projecting the fact that it's 1977 on the back wall before the first scene, why are the blokes wearing totally modern squash gear? But, no matter. It's an otherwise totally conservative modern dress production of a play set in 1968-77. In a squash court. It's fine.

The other thing that amused me was noting that the play was still set in England, and the characters still nominally English. I wondered from time to time if little things they said or did (“cheers” remained in English, for instance) were there to point up this fact. Whenever two characters met up, for example, one would pour the other about half a pint of neat gin. Not so much as a sniff of tonic water. Just half a pint of neat gin.

Gin apart, the characters didn't really come across as especially English. It was hard to tell, for example, whether the potentially homo-social aspect of Robert and Jerry's friendship was being foregrounded, or whether they were two men who were just a bit more relaxed in each other's company on account of not actually being English. At one point, Jerry even stroked the top of Roberts head. Of course, by this point in the scene, he'd drunk about a pint of neat gin, so maybe that was it.

Similarly, what I'd always understood as the crucial chilliness of the dialogue – essentially a play of gritted teeth and quiet control – seems to be more or less discarded. The crucial turning-point scene where Robert discovers Emma's affair here involves him giving her a bit of a beating, rather than the more usual English reading of a cold verbal interrogation. Making his subsequent (chronologically) claim that his hitting Emma “a bit” had nothing to do with Jerry a deliberate lie.

All of which is fine too. Indeed, it's mildly surprising to see the play done “straight” - i.e. with really no hint that the director is doing anything other than what they believe the script is asking them to do (oh dear, bad explanation) – and finding it turning up in such a different place. Part of this may of course stem from Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt's German translation. In one instance, for example, it changes Emma's (now somewhat dated-sounding) admission: “We're lovers” to (the German for) “We are in love” - which potentially alters not only this crucial moment but possibly the entire meaning and trajectory of the play. Or not.

However, elsewhere in the production there are hints of, well, at best a well-meaning naïveté or at worst carelessness. The Venice scene is flagged up by a film of an aerial view on a canal ineptly projected on the back wall of a the Squash Court and the table-cloth which Emma later/earlier presents with a flourish looks like the cheapest of afterthoughts. And in the final scene (i.e. the first, chronologically) Pink Floyd's Time is played again. A full five years before it was released.

All of which suggests that the whole was flung together without much thought, which therefore may have had an impact on the acting as well. But niggles aside, the production isn't actually too bad. In the context of the apparently TV-starry cast, Heikko Deutschmann and Anika Mauer run rings around the stolid, macho Peter Kremer in the acting stakes (and indeed, in the line-learning stakes), but the show rattles along pacily enough, in spite of this.

On the whole, though, this is much more of a curiosity than an out-and-out pleasure.


There's an interesting phenomena in Germany. It is this: there is a total disconnection between the state-funded theatre and the commercial sector. More than this, I am given to understand that the commercial sector receives almost no coverage from the serious theatre critics. The state theatres put on their mixture of incessantly revived, and always freshly re-imagined, texts from the canon (the Schiller, the Goethe, the narrow band of Shakespeares done here, the Aeschylus, the Euripides, etc.), new writing and modern classics (plus the surprising number of literary adaptations), the Off-theaters continue with their experiments in production and reception, and it appears that no one serious ever gives the slightest thought to the commercial sector.

Coming from London, this first struck me as utterly wonderful. Having been sent as a theatre critic for the Financial Times to such “theatre” as An Audience with the Mafia and TV magician Derren Brown I was more than a little jealous. Imagine a world, I thought, where I wasn't responsible for having to have an opinion on Lloyd-Webber's latest telly placement or jukebox musical.

At the same time, I was acutely aware that this distinction – as applied to Britain – was flawed. After all, there is nothing like the same gulf between British commercial theatre and its state-funded sibling as there seems to be in Germany. On one hand, we happily produce musicals and boulevard comedies in our state houses and, at the same time, as Simon Stephens recently noted, the possibility of a West End Transfer is something of a status symbol and not one to be sniffed at. As such, apart from anything else, there is basically no point in drawing a line between “commercial” theatre and the theatre made in British state theatres. Britain has always been one for blurring the lines between “popular” and “high” art, I'd argue, and now many argue that the terms themselves are meaningless.

As a result, the rejection or ignoring of a whole section of a city's theatres just isn't in my critical DNA. Also, criticism is sort of journalism, too, right? And Berlin's commercial sector is, if nothing else, a news story. Something to be reported on...

Armed with such reasoning, I find myself about the furthest out West I've ever been in Berlin (apart from a trip to Schloss Charlottenburg or the lakes on the edge of the city), outside the Renaissance Theater for a production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

As it turns out, the Renaissance Theater is a rather pleasant, modest-looking building, with few nods to glitz and/or glamour. The interior foyer is a bit ironic- (or, more worryingly, perhaps *not*ironic-) chintzy-posh (think The Ambassador's Receptions), but the auditorium itself is pleasantly intimate and oddly not unlike a scaled down version of Deutsches Theater – with a similarly low rake for the audience and plush walls and carpeting – quite unlike anything in either the West End or the subsidised sector. Perhaps try imaging the Royal Court or the Duchess redecorated by the people who did Kensington Palace. It was also interesting to note that its audience was far more like those that used to be the mainstay of Britain's own National Theatre, an almost solid wall of comfortably-off retirees.

But the most striking thing is that here Pinter is relegated to the same status as Yasmina Reza (the Renaissance Theater is also showing “Kunst”(!)), Hello, I'm Johnny Cash and Ewig Jung (Forever Young!). It's a bit like the discovering the Birmingham Hippodrome includes an Elfriede Jelinek staging in its repertoire (at least in terms of comparable Nobel-winning national stature)...

[you can now go back to the start of the review...]

Monday 23 May 2011

50 Aktenkilometer

50 Aktenkilometer (50 Kilometres of Files) takes the form of wandering around the centre of ex-East Berlin (so, actually, what is now the centre of Berlin, what was the western edge of ex-Ost Berlin) with a map. This (or at least as much of the map as would fit in the scanner...):

Wearing a pair of headphones, plugged into a GPS/mobile phone/receiver thingy. This:

The (approx 100) Orange Points marked on the map, signify the epicentres and radii of signals being transmitted around the city which are receivable by your headset/device-thingy.

Whenever you hove into range, your headset starts playing you the recording attached to that site (yes, *Starts*. They're not on a loop. You get each one from the start whenever your headset moves into range, and it keeps playing it for pretty much as long as it can. It struck me as tremendously clever and complicated).

The subject of all the recordings is the East German secret police or Stasi.

There are recordings of actual telephone conversations and interviews, there are readings of files performed by actors and there are interviews with former victims of the Stasi. There are also patriotic DDR songs. Many of the recordings relate specifically to the location in which they're played.

Some might be recordings of someone making a phone call from or relating to the spot you're standing on over 22 years ago.

Others might have been recorded in the last few weeks by someone audibly moved to be revisiting this specific spot.

The clips range from the workaday business of an organisation dedicated to spying on the entire population of a city – perhaps one of the most striking things is the deadpan tones of voice of the bored agents making and taking calls, and the occasional fact of them having a bit of a laugh about something – to heartbreaking stories of betrayal, separation, torture, and imprisonment.

Some of the clips would even be quite funny if they weren't so sinister: an agent getting phoned up by a series of people all watching the same diplomat repeating the same one piece of trivial information – that he'd checked into his hotel.

I did the piece by bike (– and, as always, with sketchy German). What was striking, taking the piece this way, rather than doing it on foot, was the extent of both the project (remarkable), but also of the source material.

It was a beautiful, sunny, Saturday afternoon in late May. Berlin was full of tourists. Some doing the beautiful old buildings, some, naturally, on the Ostalgie trail. Others again no doubt looking at the city as the former capital of the Third Reich. As such, there is both a massive disconnect between the evidence of one's eyes – Berlin, the (sunny, hot,) modern, Western, capitalist shopping and tourism centre – and the evidence being beamed into your ears.

You started to feel that everywhere, every corner, ever street, every nondescript shop-front or easily overlooked side-street had a story to tell. Indeed, just cycling around for three or four hours, hearing constantly new material, new stories, new evidence, was exhausting. And this was only 100 recordings. The total running time of the recorded show is upwards of ten hours. Then you think that this was going on for forty-odd years. And not just in Berlin.

One of the strange effects of Rimini Protokoll's wider project of telling one about the world is to open your eyes to the sheer impossibility of taking it all in. When you factor history upon geography upon population, just the extent of the experience of the world starts to feel impossibly enormous. That so much of it is also composed of misery is not a cheering thought.

That said, it feels like a necessary project. It's almost a shame that the thing is voluntary and ticketed. It felt a bit like this sort of experience ought to have been mandatory for everyone in the city – an important exercise in not just papering over the past with a bunch of new shops and upmarket bars or restaurants.

Check Point Charlie today (well, Saturday). The iPad 2 advert marks the start of the Russian Sector.


Above: The cover of the map. Below: The “control room” at the bottom of Berlin's most prominent landmark, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) (see top) on Alexanderplatz.

You can also listen to specific recordings in the control room by finding them on large computer monitors:

The TV Tower reflected in the glass of Park Hotel Berlin.

The thing itself. Again.

The Killing Machine

[In lieu of any work materialising]

Over the last weekend I saw another new show by Rimini Protokoll and a revival of an older show by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Both of those and Die Heimkehr des Odysseus at Schaubühne are proving oddly resistant to being written about. So, in the mean time, this is a video of a previous Cardiff & Bures installation which was part of the exhibition of their stuff at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 2008 (Chris Goode wrote a lovely piece about it at the time here), which I'd been meaning to share on here for ages. Take four minutes and put it on full screen.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Das Werk / Im Bus / Ein Sturz - Theatertreffen – Potsdamer Platz

[Incredibly lazy Video Special!]

“So, it'll be a Sunday afternoon. What show from Theatertreffen shall we stick on at Potsdamer Platz?”

“Oh, let's give them the 3hr40 non-naturalistic staging of theatertexts about natural disasters.”

Das Werk is possibly one of the best things I've ever seen done in a theatre. Except, a) I didn't see it in a theatre, b) I only saw about half of it, & c) I understood slightly less of the text than normal – well, I got that it was about an accident in an industrial plant, and The Workers, which turns out was pretty much the size of it, but at the time I felt less like I was following it than seeing it whizz past in front of my eyes. But, blimey, what a sight.

And what a way of dealing with text. This is what was really exciting. I've had a stab at reading Elfriede Jelinek's texts/plays online and haven't had a lot of luck imagining how on earth they'd work on stage.

This arrangement of three of her texts apparently owes quite an artistic debt to the most celebrated interpreter/director of her works, the late Einar Schleef, whose Ein Sportstück (that linked clip really worth a watch – though possibly with the sound down) still stands as a landmark in German stage history.

Perhaps unwisely, given that I was outdoors and armed with my cameraphone, I've uploaded a bunch of footage to YouTube. Annoyingly, it doesn't even give anything like a sense of what it was like watching the work on a Sunday afternoon in a public space – which in turn was doubtless no substitute for being in the actual theatre. But here, third hand, it does at least remove a bit of a burden from my powers of description, which I'm probably going to need for the Schaubühne's Die Heimkehr des Odysseus [review currently forthcoming].

The first video (top) contains many of the elements that recurred throughout Das Werk: stamping, speaking in chorus, cut-up/sampled text, mass panting, high voices, the musicality of speaking...
This second – I did a bad job of recording the best bits, getting distracted by watching them - captures a late bit of a section of some declaiming over singing...

Here again, different ways the chorus was used to deliver the text. The thing I found incredibly hard to remember (no wonder German critics read the texts before they see the shows) was how none of this was “organic” to the text. And yet, how much it felt as if this was how the text was meant to be done – like it was “serving the text” perfectly (which of course it was, but at the same time, as far as I'm aware, it's not legislated for at all)

One bit I missed filming wasn't a million mile from this performance of Einstürzende Neubauten's Was Ist Ist:

The piece ended with some beautiful singing, like something out of Mahler or Strauss:

Im Bus

The second piece, Im Bus, deals with an accident during the building of a U-Bahn station.

The stage is a mess of debris. The few performers have shaken flour over themselves, daubed their faces, poured water over one another, have smoked, used a smoke machine.

Although this was possibly the end of Das Werk.

Then three curious refugees from some sort of Brecht piece have turned up to deliver some more text. This little intervention might be the whole of Im Bus. In which case, it's about ten minutes long and this is the final fifth...

Ein Sturz

The final piece, Ein Sturz (A Fall), was commissioned by Schauspiel Köln, and is a text about the library that collapsed in Köln overnight.

Annoyingly I had to leave to get to Schaubühne before it got really good, but it had just started to get messy as I was leaving...

Again, the division of the text amongst people and, here, objects – large amounts of the text spews forth from laptops or over loudspeakers – is little short of revolutionary to my mind; although I'm well aware it's been going on here for donkey's years and is nothing to get excited about.

On the other hand, the little mostly naked woman running around as “Earth” is possibly an eco-catastrophe all of her own. I'm all for metaphor and everything, but this one errs toward massive overstatement.

For all that, I suspect the two and half hours or so that I saw of this show will probably inform the way I think about how text is treated on stage for the rest of my life.

Monday 16 May 2011

Nora oder Ein Puppenhaus – Theatertreffen – Potsdamer Platz


If Verrücktes Blut was pretty atypical of “German Theatre” (if an excellent “public event”), Theater Oberhausen's production of Henrik Ibsen's Ein Puppenhaus (well, Ibsen's Et dukkehjem, or A Doll's House as we Brits have it) presents an excellent example of one particular school of Regietheater. Director (and, here, designer) Herbert Fritsch was an actor in Frank Castorf's Volksbühne company while it was revolutionising post-Mauerfall German theatre. And it's clear that he's taken much of his former comrade's style on board in his directing style.

You know A Doll's House, right? Pretty typical Ibsen: bunch of people standing around in a room in a 19th century Norwegian house, dressed in period costume. The acting is incredibly subtle; a maasterpiece in naturalism.

Not here.

Fritsch's production is a garish, grotesque nightmare. Opening to the queasy, insistent strings of Bernard Herrmann's music for Hitchcock's Vertigo, the stark square playing areas is lit with alternating reds and greens.

Manja Kuhl's Nora is a disturbing Tim Burton fantasia on infantalised womanhood. Decked out in a short, voluminous chiffon pink baby-doll dress, ballet pumps and a shock of auburn ringlets, but lethally long legs. By contrast, Torsten Bauer's Helmer is a violent caricature of old age: all pealing-latex bald-wig, powery whiteface, and a wardrobe hymning the joys of beige.

The playing style offers a similar fantastical bluntness, almost as if the cast were assaulting the play rather than performing it. Lines are delivered at a pitch of near-hysteria, while the cast physically play out just about the most extreme reading of the subtext imaginable. If A Doll's House is secretly about sex and power, then it's not a secret here. Nora is forever being pawed, groped, mauled and spanked while, in turn, coquetting and flouncing, flirting and virtually forcing herself on people. A sexuality the text only hints at is here brought alive and then weaponised.

It's not a style I've always warmed to. I think there were many similarities in this performance to Castorf's recent hit Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau!, which I really tried to like, but didn't. But here, I really got it. It's perhaps easier to watch a sexual subtext physicalised than a socio-economic one, but even so, seeing this is already feeding my retrospective appreciate of the Castorf – and so perhaps apart from anything else, this Nora is an excellent entry-level performance for this style of direction. Castorf-lite, or Volksbühne-für-Beginners or something. And, yes, this took a bit of warming to, too. But once I got there, I thought it was great.

What was fascinating about the performance was the way that you could almost see the play being dismantled in front of your face. The idea that the lines the cast were shrieking at one another were the same lines that are delivered with as much understatement and earnestness as possible in other productions of Ibsen (Ostermeier's wonderful Hedda Gabler, for example) was almost reward enough for sticking with it. And yet, it was still the play. But not really functioning in anything like the way you (I, we?) think it's meant to.

Of course, there was again, here, the extra dimension of the fact that this wasn't actually *live* to consider. Unlike Verrücktes Blut, I don't think the Theater Oberhausen staging could possibly have been a recording of a live performance in front of an live audience. Instead, while this was still very defiantly a stage production, it was very much a stage production for the cameras. What might be direct-audience-address live was here close-up, to-camera work, while the way the cameras weaved in and out of the action, cutting rapidly and dancing about the performers also suggested a lot more than one take.

I also wonder again if, the freedom of watching, of being outdoors – seeing the thing on a massive screen, with close-ups available, and a whacking great sound system definitely making the performance the biggest noise-polluter by a country mile almost drowning out the occasional police siren, let alone the general low-level chatter of a public space – had a bearing on reception. Well, of course it did. I could smoke, go to the loo without upsetting anyone, and stretch my legs from time to time, all while feeling the wind on my face and seeing the blue sky above. In this respect, it was pretty much the opposite of “theatre”, and it didn't feel like a bad thing at all. That said, I would still like to sit in the same room as the original and experience it as it was meant to be intended.

While I'm not sure it said a great deal about anything very seriously, as a way of delivering the play – serving the text, indeed – it worked totally. And pretty much turned my ideas of what you could do with Ibsen on their head. Essential viewing if you can get hold of a copy.

More videos:

You get a vague sense of overall style from this clip, although this might be a particularly overwrought moment:

Although this, from very close to the end, is better – note burning cardboard fir tree in background and the music to another Hitchcock film, this time Psycho. I also love how untroubled this Nora is by the collapse of her marriage.

Verrücktes Blut – Theatertreffen, Potsdamer Platz

[written for]

Broadly speaking, Germany, or at least Berlin, doesn't seem to go in for the social-realist problem play so much. You know, those plays that are the absolute staple of English theatre: the dinner-party conversation play; the “About” play; the “liberal angst” play. Everything from George Bernard Shaw to the work of Davids Hare and Edgar.

Verrücktes Blut looks like it's already making a significant dent in this theory. Created at the Berlin theatre Ballhaus Naunynstraße, located in the heavily Turkish-populated district of Neukölln – sort of Berlin's Arcola – it is a play about young Turks in Germany.

The first interesting, or at least unexpected, thing about Verrücktes Blut is that it isn't a piece of new writing. It's an adaptation of the recent, similarly themed French film La journée de la jupe (Skirt Day!), or as blurb has it: “Frei nach einem Motiv aus dem Film...” (roughly: freely after a motif from the film...). In both, a teacher finds a gun in one of her students' bags and takes her class hostage.

Here, the piece gets off to a rather rocky start. The first few minutes involves little more than the Turkish cast rehearsing an exaggerated Masque of the Surly Youths. Then, the gun is discovered. Nine. Minutes. In. And for a good long while after that, the production consists of the whole cast screaming and shouting at maximum tension-level. Or rather, mostly the teaching screaming and shouting and the kids looking terrified and screaming or shouting only when the gun is pointed at them.

Then comes another potential pitfall. The class the teacher is taking is on Schiller's repertory classic Die Räuber. The class in meant to be memorising large chunks and performing them (apparently, yup, that really does happen in German schools. Read and weep, British teachers), so we've now got the handy contrivance of having these Turkish youngsters having to perform large chunks of Schiller. It's practically Our Country's Good for immigrants at gunpoint (not that Our Country's Good isn't immigrants at gunpoint, but...).

The teacher menaces them for incorrect pronunciation, bullies and taunts them, and calls them “monkeys” (Affen). The strapline for the show could almost be “When you teach the word culture, reach for a gun”. All this is more than a little problematic, especially for me, a total outside observer (being neither Turkish nor German). In the first instance, the production paints a more-or-less relentlessly negative view of Turkish youngsters; it then seems to suggest that German culture is forced down the necks of these youngsters basically – now literally – at gunpoint.

The subjects of the teacher's anger are considerable. At one point she is attacking male Turkish youths' propensity for over-using the word “muschi” (pussy); at another, she forces a young Turkish girl to remove her headscarf at gunpoint.

I don't know whether this latter scene is also in the French original, but it would seem fittingly emblematic for a “debate” which is raging across Europe – whether or not to introduce headscarf bans. Here the removal of the headscarf is shown as a moment of female liberation and/or empowerment. Somehow, the fact this empowerment takes place at gunpoint seems to get lost. Which seems in keeping with the direction in which the debate seems to be going: legislating to enhance people's personal freedoms by making something people do illegal.

In fact, though, it might well be the presence of the gun which keeps the play's examination of the issues interesting. In short, while it might be a bit of a crass, or symbolically heavy-handed motif, it does have the useful effect of undermining both sides at once, while at the same time proving to be an effective tool for classroom control. But I wonder if it pushes the envelope of hopelessness a bit too far. As if to suggest that there can be only violence. That brutal control is the only option.

At the end, it has emerged that one of the group has done Quite A Bad Thing and there's a quick balloon debate about whether he gets executed or not. The pupils quote a range of leading enlightenment lights (Schiller, Goethe, Voltaire, etc.) to the teacher's amazement, pleasure and ultimate irritation. It's a bit on the heavy-handed side, like the kids are all suddenly channelling Dead Poets Society. Now, if they'd managed to make the same arguments using the Koran, then we might have been onto something, but curiously, this was a play which seemed to brook virtually no multi-culturalism at all.

By German standards the staging was deemed rather conservative. i.e. the youths wore precisely the clothes Turkish youths wear, and were played by yer actual young Turkish youths (an aside: I have no idea what the correct term is for 2nd or 3rd gen. People of Turkish extraction living in Germany. They don't seem to say “Germans” and neither do the Germans, so “Turkish” I guess it is, even though they speak German, and were born in Germany). This set up a minor problem of its own – at the end of the play, a big dramatic reveal is that the teacher also turns out to be Turkish. This does not come as a big surprise to anyone with eyes. Prior to this “big reveal”, however, there's a certain uncertainty as to whether it's a Turkish actress playing a “German” teacher, or whether it's meant to be a Turkish woman. This might be complicated further by the fact the teacher actress's hair could well have been a blonde wig, rather than dye. So, yes, it did feel as if, if they were doing “naturalism” they weren't fully on top of it.

That said, I say “by German standards” advisedly, however. After all, when was the last time a British social-realist drama had a massive grand piano hung menacingly over the stage. Much less one that periodically interrupted the action to play various antique songs of German national pride – mostly about the beauty of the nature and so on. This element of the staging also added to the problems of the message the play might or might not have been intentionally delivering. After all, this grand piano looming over them did take on an immensely powerful symbolic role. It looked a bit like they'd decided to put up a symbol for God, and that they'd decided God was probably German culture.

Of course, having been made by “Turkish people”, the play gets a lot of points for “authenticity”, and apparently the actual script here was partly devised around the motifs, or *plot*, or the film. And it does seem to hit all the current discussion points – often with an enviable lack of flinching.

What is surprising to my British eyes is that it volunteers absolutely no positive things abut Turkish culture whatsoever. The teacher accuses the girls of wearing headscarves and only having anal sex so they can marry as virgins because they're frightened of their fathers and their brothers. The boys mostly behave with relentless violence and abuse. Coming from inside the Turkish community, this self-lacerating commentary on the problems of their society as they see it is fair enough. In that respect, it's like the Beat Poets' portraits of small town America. It's like Thomas Bernhard's Vienna.

Perhaps a crucial key to understanding their position is an incredibly brief moment before the play even starts where the actress playing the Turkish girl who wears a headscarf puts it on, before going on stage. At the time, I thought it was just a kind way of defending our sensibilities but I wonder now if it wasn't a way of her signalling her own opposition to the headscarf. Perhaps this is a play arguing against multi-culturalism and for enlightenment values in precisely the way that, coming from a small English town, I would argue long and hard against the German government tolerating a Small English Town community still practicing its absurd, dated, misogynist beliefs in their midst.

As a piece of theatre, it might not be the most refined at Theatertreffen, but it might well prove to be the most talked-about.

One of the songs (my footage, apologies for the slightly rough quality):

A lot of the shouting:

Couple of picutres of the screeing:

This one almost gives an impression of how many people there were, but not quite.

Thursday 12 May 2011

Robert Wilson and the power of the underdog

This week, along with “Narrative” and “Britain”, I've been wrestling with what I'd been thinking of as “The Problem of Robert Wilson”.

This came about as a result of seeing his Věc Makropulos at Stavovské Divadlo in Prague and absolutely hating it.

Věc Makropulos is a frivolous little thing by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek and was later turned into an opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček.

This version by Wilson is a massively pared-down version of the original text, but starring leading Czech opera diva Soňa Červená and with an extensive new score by Aleš Březina, who created the excellent, not un-Philip Glass-like score for the Czech show-trial verbatim opera Zítra se bude...(roughly: Tomorrow There Will Be...), also starring Soňa Červená.

But, mostly I was exciting to be finally seeing some Robert Wilson.

Yes, Robert Wilson is another party I've turned up late for. Granted, this isn't entirely my fault. His most important work, Einstein on the Beach (which is being re-done for the Barbican next year), premiered the year I was born, and hasn't been see-able anywhere for 20 years.

On the other hand, he's still working an awful lot since.

And this is where it gets tricky.

I suppose I've known that he was kind of a big deal for a while, but the last thing I remember coming/going to London was the Anglicised-cast version of his 1990 Thalia, Hamburg show Black Rider in 2004. Looking back at the reviews written at the time (Indie, Guardian, Shuttleworth for Teletext and again in Theatre Record) I remember a) not really having the first clue about Wilson's importance, b) not especially caring about Tom Waits (I still don't, really. Sorry), c) finding that the points made by the nay-sayers struck more of a chord than those made saying it was good, d) thinking it sounded a bit too much like a “super-group” and, perhaps most crucially, e) not really being anywhere near “proper-ish” critic enough to get a freebie (or, indeed, being on the treadmill/merry-go-round of seeing shows almost daily enough for this to bother me). And, as Shuttleworth and Billington note, Black Rider turned up off the back of an even more unloved Woyzeck.

Anyway, thanks to this variety of factors, I wind up getting to 35 without seeing any Robert Wilson, by which time, having been to a bunch of international festivals and talked to a lot more people (and, indeed, read a lot more stuff, including Chris Goode's long love-letter to Wilson's work on Thompson's Bank...), I'd gathered some unhelpfully epic expectations.

The other thing I'd gained, was the impression of Wilson being incredibly successful and powerful. Which isn't inaccurate. These days, it seems that Wilson can fly about the world, demand huge fees for his work, and essentially behave as if he is a genius beyond questioning. Not least because that's how other people seem to treat him (indeed, talking to Czech sources “close to the production” one got the impression of Wilson behaving with significantly less tact and local knowledge than the American army in Iraq).

Inevitably, none of this did much to endear the idea of the man (or at least Brand Wilson) to me.

Nor, annoyingly, did I subsequently find my attitude melted in the presence of his work.

I found it chilly, un-engaged, un-engaging unintelligent, and lazy.

At the same time, I was vaguely aware that this was a (the?) common criticism of his work.

This needed more research, so I watched the documentary Absolute Wilson which is excellent, at least for giving a sense of his early work and the comparative struggle it took for it to be made, but also for giving a rolling cavalcade of faces assuring you how important his work is.

Granted filmed footage of (Anglophone) theatre work tends to be unsatisfactory at the very least. But this did at least give a sense of what earlier work had looked like – what had been exciting and exotic about the stuff he'd made in the seventies, and also it gave a sense of the very different social context from which the work had sprung. This emphatically wasn't the world of Business Class lounges and exhorbitant fees.

Annoyingly, Absolute Wilson rather glosses the leaps between Wilson's struggles in America, his acceptance in Europe, the opening of Einstein on the Beach at the New York Metropolitan Opera in apparently pretty unfavourable conditions (“My father said to me, I didn't know you were even smart enough to lose $150,000”), and the leap to being in a position to be in charge of the Artisitic Programme meant to be run alongside the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the subsequent catastrophic tanking of his project Civil Wars. From there, it positively leaps to the 1990 success of Black Rider in Hamburg and beyond and then finishes pretty rapidly with a montage of the awards and honors bestowed upon Wilson Triumphant.

Watching the documentary made me think two things. One: that I wasn't especially sure that Wilson's somewhat geometric aesthetic was ever going to be wholly my thing, but that I was willing to give it another few goes. Two: that there was a much more interesting question concerning power-relations that seemed to go to the heart of how we (and by “we” here, I specifically mean “the English”, possibly “British”) view work. Both American, not least as evidenced by this documentary, and German culture, both have their own different difficult relationships with “power”, or “success” or “authority”.

If I was going to have a stab at characterising the British attitude, (and, yes, I appreciate this is going to entail some stupidly large generalisations, and probably some contradictions, so bear with me) to “power” and/or “success” (let alone “authority”), I think it would rest largely on what strikes me increasingly as a hard-wired cultural predisposition toward “underdogs”, coupled with a resolute antipathy toward “being talked down to”. It's a trait I definitely have myself, but it's also something I find myself noticing more and more in the discussion around theatre in Britain more generally.

On one level, it's something I admire and think is crucial to a lot of the good things about British theatre. The fact that there's often a very healthy attitude of “says who?” which allows people to start doing precisely what they like. On another level, it turns into a deeply unhelpful, corrosive attitude of dissmissal, insularity, and downright stupidity which makes it feel like any sort of change is nigh-on impossible.

I noticed it mostly when I started writing for the Guardian Blog, and later for Time Out etc. And now I notice it more in the comments people make about other writers there, and about the productions/artists they write about.

The thing is this. One might have a pretty sane picture of oneself as just one person with one person's opinion. But many people who comment on the Guardian blog have a very different conception of what the very fact of writing on it makes you. One is variously needed to be “an expert”, a Guardian staff member, a member of a powerful London-centric media elite, and a theatre critic.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me, was the discussions that would typically spring up around any article about Forest Fringe. Now, I know Andy Field and Deborah Pearson quite well. I was at the first day of the first Forest Fringe. I knew how big it was (not very), but also how important and inspiring I found it (very).

What was interesting is how quickly, almost instantaneously, after a bit of coverage by the Guardian, Forest Fringe went from being seen as a total outsider, worthy of a bit of championing and talking-up – it was, lest we forget, an almost impossibly foolhardy venture; programming a fortnight of free performances in a free venue, staffed entirely by volunteers – to being some kind of “new orthodoxy” and some sort of grotesque, overblown giant in serious need of cutting down to size. Much the same attitude seems to be applied, variously, to (for example): any Guardian bloggers, Katie Mitchell, Simon Stephens, Martin Crimp, Michael Billington, Matt Trueman, Chris Goode, etc. etc. etc. (obviously that's a fairly random list of the ones I just happen to notice).

Reflecting on how annoying I find this tendency when applied to the above, gives me pause when (to return to the subject) we get back to Robert Wilson.

Should perception, or even knowledge, of his position, colour my attitude to his work?

Here, I would argue there is a greater degree of relevance. The examples I give above are irritating, and stand out, primarily because of the degree of inaccuracy involved. The strange (and incorrect) perception of some bored souls that they are being persecuted by a tiny two-week venture into free Live Art (and more), is really not my problem.

Knowledge and understanding of how a piece of work has come into being, particularly if it accords with one's perceptions of how the work has failed, is of a different order.

As such, at the end of this perhaps unnecessarily lengthy bit of soul-searching, I draw the following conclusions:

a) I'm not sure I would have ever been a huge fan of Robert Wilson's aesthetic sensibilty.

b) If I ever would have been, it would probably when he was far more mentally and bodily immersed in its creation from start to finish, and it would have been during a time when his work really was new and original.

c) Theatre seems oddly resistant to being mass-produced.

Now, with any luck, having got that off my chest, I'll be able to look at Wilson's Lulu (currently playing at the Berliner Ensemble), his Deutsches Theater Woyzeck (going to Nottingham's NEAT festival in June) and his forthcoming new Manchester International Festival piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic with an open mind.

(although, just clicking through to the MIF website for the link and seeing another “avant garde super-group” cast does make my cynicism reflex crunch somewhat...)

Edit: I suppose “d)” might be something to do with my increasing feeling that I function better as a critic when trying to understand as fully as possible what a work is trying to do before writing it off. But I dare say that'll turn into a whole other piece sometime soon.