Tuesday 29 March 2011

Crave (Gier) – Schaubühne

The stage of Schaubühne's Saal C is a shallow semi-circle backed by a high curved concrete wall. On it are four low rectangular platforms. On those sit four functional chairs. Every lo-fi technological element has been placed just so; the mics, the bulky speakers, the starkly visible lights – above, in front, behind and on the floor, pointing at the concrete. This is the aesthetic of determined functionality.

Thomas Ostermeier's Crave premièred in the year 2000. A lovely thing about the German rep. system is that, as far as is possible, it keeps the same actors in a production as long as that staging runs. Last night it had the exact same cast as the premiere 11 years on.

Knowing this adds an interesting dimension to the production. Watching it, one imagines the number of times these performers have spoken these lines. Just the fact of the show's ongoing survival suggests one possible reading of this staging as a newer take on Beckett's Play. Four souls condemned to pour out their stories forever on these plinths in an ante-room to purgatory.

It also makes for is a disconcerting awareness of how the production's resonances might have altered. At one point, the soundscape crackles with static and a voice says, in English, possibly American, something about “all passengers the...” (died?). Evocative enough in '00, perhaps planting the faint suggestion that Kane's “nameless” speakers are all already perished. Post 9/11, the meaning changes again. You consider the way that reality and events will have textured and pock-marked this staging down the years and if the production might have grown or warped to accommodate these new meanings.

At the same time, it's incredible to watch actors who have been performing their parts for 11 years (not solidly: Gier is currently playing about once a month and has probably dropped in and out of the repertoire). Another interesting (if obvious) feature is the fact that they have all aged by 11 years. At a guess, when the run started they were probably your typical casting for Crave: A and M middle-aged, B and C younger, perhaps early/mid/late twenties. Now, of course, they're all middle-aged. B has greying hair. A's hair is much thinner than it is in photos of the premiere.

Partly this feeds into that question about “naturalistic” casting. Its white (but at least male) Othello aside, the Schaubühne tends to cast broadly to type – even if a lot of its leading mens' “types” happen to be Lars Eidinger. However, there's something more at work here. We're not, for instance, seeing several Bs and Cs being pensioned off like so many Billy Elliots once they stop passing for vulnerable teens. As such, this presentation of a slowly ageing ensemble is at once touching and profound. You start to hope that the show will run another 11 years with the same cast. There certainly doesn't seen any decrease in demand – last night's show was still all but sold out.

And it's great to see B (Thomas Dannemann) gone middle aged, not suiting his hoodie so much as once he might. Still trapped, but completely inhabiting, the movements of a younger self. Cristin König as C performs painfully thin and ill; wrapped in a dressing gown and jogging bottoms she looks as if she is trapped perpetually in a hospital or mental health facility. Perhaps here it's just because you know she's 11 years older than when cast that you start to imagine all the changes – physical, mental, emotional – this must mean and imagining them onto her wan face.

Falk Rockstroh seems to take A's early ambiguous statement “Ich bin pädophil” as a keynote for his performance. He delivers the line with unwavering, pained sincerity. Then, throughout the play, he seen undressing and re-dressing; compulsively fiddling with his collar, his tie, his trousers, his crotch. Dressed in a navy pin-stripe suit, you wonder if he's also being played as “an Englishman”. What's also fascinating about his performance is that – even when not catching everything he says – you get the impression that he's constantly signally that he's lying. Something about his gestures, or the direction he looks before speaking. It's beautifully detailed bit of acting.

Furthest away was M (Michaela Steiger) [Q: was M seated third along in the original prod?] who comes across as having least to do, although perhaps this is because she was least convenient to watch. Nevertheless, the brief episode in which she tears at the flesh of her arm with her fingers remains chilling.

That brief moment and short physical segments – breaking the original's stream of consciousness into acts with fits of spasmodic twitching suggesting a plague ward or mental hospital – are rare, however. The primary quality of both the action and of the performers voices is calmness. There is much less hysteria; none of the shrieking that graces many a student production.

Neither do the performers shirk direct-audience address. Almost without realising, we the audience slip between being ourselves – a nameless faceless mass to address – and the other person onstage whom speaker appears to be addressing. Variously we're B to M and C to A and so on. Occasionally they do look over at one another, but such moments are rare. Mostly it feels as if their solitary promentaries are enclosed on three sides by invisible walls, with only the fronts actually open toward us.

The entire production is underscored by Jörg Gollasch's soundscape. This ranges from low level hum to indistinct music; an orchestra tuning up; that sound of a news report mentioning “all the passengers...”; sporadic, insistent beeps.

Toward the end, there is another brief interlude: films of bodies bathed in green light are projected onto each performer. A's figure is near-naked, drawing, scribbling frantically on himself with a marker pen while A stands stock still, his back to us. C's remains crouched or sat, the projection aimed at her breaking over her head, across the floor and up the back wall. This is accompanied by hospital noise – the Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. of a heart monitor machine.

In the final moments, the words “In the mountains, there you feel free” - nicked straight off p.1 of The Waste Land, apparently in German in Kane's original text – stand out here in English. At the close the lights slowly start to shine on the back wall before the front lights fade down leaving the performers briefly sihouetted. And it is briefly beautiful. An obvious enough kind of beauty, albeit just about the most austere sort of obvious there is.

[Note: the above photo is from the original, original staging in the main space - the performers aren't ever on blocks this high in the smaller studio space. Pity. I like the look of the above]

[above: scan of a spread from the programme. Below: programme cover - because you want to see these too, right?]

Monday 28 March 2011

Prinz Friedrich von Homburg – Maxim Gorki Theater

When the Donmar Warehouse staged Dennis Kelly's version of Heinrich von Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg last year, it was accompanied by a fairly bad-tempered, largely uninformed debate, about the fact Kelly had had the audacity to change the ending.

That said, those who had seen what the Germans had done to Kelly's Taking Care of Baby earlier that year might have wryly imagined he was merely indulging in a bit of proportional retribution.

One of the most interesting things about Armin Petras's production, then, is the different alterations which he'd made. Unlike Kelly's sole noted alteration – changing the ending so that the Prinz, sentenced to death, is indeed executed rather than being given the last-minute reprieve in the text; having his blindfold removed; him asking “was it all a dream?” and being answered in the affirmative – in Petras's version the still Prinz lives. He doesn't, however, ask if it was all a dream, because here it seems like all references to dreams and dreaming have been radically downsized, if not expunged altogether.

The production is designed by Katrin Brack, who also created the wall of fog for Dimiter Gotscheff's Volksbühne Ivanov. Here, instead of fog it's a constant downpour of stage rain onto a black polyurethane floor. The production is 1h45 and it rains almost throughout. There is one moment when it stops, very close to the end, and the effect of the silence is astonishing. The effect of this fake rain perpetually tapping the plastic is incredibly unpleasant, however; if grimly, effectively atmospheric. Visually, on the other hand, it looks great – and is perhaps the most dream-like element that remains in the production.

Oddly, it also makes the production also at least look oddly like the sort of thing you might expect to find in the Donmar. The monochrome blue/white lights shining a high angles through the mist of rain onto ersatz historical costuming (Aino Laberenz) all looks terrible Grandage. On the other hand, at the Donmar, one would expect the rain to stop once you'd got the point. Here it feels like the gratuity is the point.

Interestingly, Petras's take on the text also comes across as very similar to Michael Billington's take on Kelly's version. Again, the target seems to be the historical trajectory of Prussian militarism. Except here the Prinz is clothed in the get-up of the modern neo-Nazi. His fellow Brandenburgers might be dressed in slack Prussian blue suggestions of the period's military uniforms – albeit topped off with American GI(?) helmets, his dream-girl Natalie and the Kurfürstin might be laced up inside a plasticky period ballgown (which might well *not* be plastic, but very wet material), but he's come straight out of Romper Stomper.

The argument being made is clear enough – in the military codes of Prussian history lie not only the seeds of the Third Reich but in the fringe far right of today – but it's neither a terribly original point, nor an especially creative way of making it.

Indeed, many other aspects of the production also don't really work. Perhaps the most irritating is the choice of music – the play opens (?) and closes with a terrible MOR ballad by the German neo-Nazi band Böhse Onkelz, which at least makes sense given the costuming, but then most of the rest of the piece is intercut with this melody from Michael Nyman's music for Prospero's Books.

That's not to say Michael Nyman's music for Prospero's Books isn't good, and the music does work quite well on at least 60% of the occasions it's used, but: surely using bits of Michael Nyman music from a film is something you should stop doing once you're no longer a student. Was the whole of Nyman's collaboration with Peter Greenaway intended? Was there a link to The Tempest that Petras was hoping to evoke? Or, was this a move roughly as thoughtful as choosing the music used behind trailers for science documentaries on BBC4? There's also some similarly artless use of video (Chris Kondek) – looking mostly like newsreel footage of Nazi parades, which is projected meaninglessly through the rain onto the back wall of the stage to no real effect.

More problematic, however, was the acting (and indeed “macting”), or rather the way the actors are on stage. It's almost unwatchably unfocused. Nothing anyone is doing or saying really seems to connect with anyone else. Moreover, this isn't down to a clever directorial conceit-gone-wrong (or even gone right-but-not-enjoyed). This is some pretty conservative story-telling-acting just failing to get started. It's almost like a study in one-note acting, or even no acting at all. Lot of things happen in this play. You wouldn't realise it watching this production. And this isn't down to some over-elaborated V-effekt or post- something or other, it's just a strange kind of energy lag, or charisma vortex. Perhaps it's just the rain, but this Prinz Friedrich von Homburg looks distinctly under the weather.

Unsent Postcards: Taking Care of Baby – Deutsches Theater

[written 19/01/10]

I first saw Dennis Kelly’s play Taking Care of Baby at its London premiere in 2007 (the production was co-produced with Birmingham Rep and so had done a month up there before transferring to the Hampstead). I liked it enormously. Indeed, it was one of my top ten plays of 2007. The play is also much-admired in Germany. It was nominated as several critics’ choice of Best Foreign Play 2009 in Theater Heute’s annual end-of-season round-up. This might seem strange to us, since those nominations came solely on the basis of the translation, which was published in 2009, but had yet to be performed. With such ringing endorsements already in, it makes a lot of sense that the rights to the German language premiere were snapped up by Deutsches Theater, Berlin.

Prior to seeing the show, I was curious to find out how what to me seemed a very specific, very British play would play in another country. Taking Care of Baby, after all, is playing a game that is very specific to British theatre with a subject that was very current when it opened in 2007. It pretends to be a piece of verbatim theatre on the subject of a woman wrongly imprisoned for killing her children, largely on the basis of the testimony of a doctor with a theory. It seemed to be a horribly plausible, only thinly fictionalised version of the events surrounding the discrediting of Dr Roy Meadow and the overturning of the convictions of Sarah Clark, Trupti Patel and Angela Canning. Germany has far less “verbatim theatre” and an entirely different relationship to “Münchhausen’s Syndrome by Proxy”. Equally, it doesn’t seem to go in for relevance fetishism in anything like the same way, so they’re in the weird position of liking the play as a piece of writing, rather than for its meta-theatrical properties and social commentary. Interestingly, re-reading the play before seeing the production (when in Germany, etc.), I could see the Theater Heute panel's point. It is a great text. Subtle, playful and much less context-dependent than I'd imagined.

Not that you’d realise this watching this production.

Regular readers will know I’ve got a bit of a thing for German regietheater. I still count Sebastian Nübling’s Pornographie as one of the best productions of a British play I’ve ever seen. However, Sascha Hawemann’s Taking Care of Baby won’t be joining it on the podium. In fact, it compares very poorly with Anthony Clark’s original production.

I’m all for cutting texts, imposing interpretations, and creating something that might almost be counted as a new work – even in the premiere of a new play – [but I'll save that argument for another time]. I would suggest, however, that the result should at least try to be as intelligent as the original.

It's one thing to cut or play-against-the-text for a reason. It's another thing entirely to cut things, or re-attribute speeches for no readily discernible reason, while leaving large tracts of script intact while seemingly flapping undirected just because they are in the play.

There are things I like very much about the productions – small, strange and, to me, inexplicable things like the character of the child's father wearing a too-small plastic Donald Duck mask when he appears;.and the fact that the Roy Meadows character – who, in the British version, was played (brilliantly) in the only way I could have imagined: the archetypal tweedy, mid-fifties, grey-haired, slightly academic, slightly vain professorial doctor – is here played by a much younger man in a garish orange turtle-neck with trendy glasses and floppy hair.

[As such, it was perhaps these marked cultural differences that kept me from actually putting this review online for over a year. What I wondered, as I expand on here, was the extent to which my take on any play, performed in a language I didn't understand at all, in a cultural context that was all new to me, was of any earthly use to anyone.]

On the whole, however, it feels very much as if the production here has failed to gel. And beyond that, rather than making intelligent cuts or astute choices of interpretation, the director has simply ironed a fine an textured piece of work flat.

[I'm not entirely sure why I was shy of posting the review at the time, since pretty much the German reviews all seemed to have much the same issues...

See here: “Denn eigentlich hatte Dennis Kelly darauf bestanden, dass alle seine Figuren die gleiche Glaubwürdigkeit für sich beanspruchen dürften. Diese Balance aber haben Hawemann und seine Schauspielerinnen nachhaltig gestört. ”

and here: “ „Taking Care of Baby“ ist damit vor allem ein Theaterstück, das sich selbst problematisiert. In Berlin dagegen führt Hawemann zwar mit seinem Bühnen- und Kostümbildner Alexander Wolf die Relativität der Wahrheit mittels Videowänden und aufgebockter Kameras vor und scheint sich bestens auszukennen, wie gewissenlos Mediziner ticken oder wie Politikerinnen aussehen, die mit ihren Wählern auch gleich noch ihre Kinder verraten. Aber seine eigenen Gewissheiten hinterfragt dieses Theater nie. ”


Still, no matter, it's here now]

Thursday 24 March 2011

Lovers of Latvian Avant Garde Drama...*

[Written for Guardian theatre blog]

Like Matt Trueman, I've also just finished reading Aleks Sierz's Rewriting the Nation.

However, fittingly, given that Remembrance Day opened last night night at the Royal Court, one of the the things I found most interesting about the book was Sierz's omission of precisely this sort of play from his consideration of New Writing in Britain.

The character of the plays which are produced under the auspices of the Royal Court's International Programme, and what is taught at their International Emerging Writers Residency, is a subject that has interested me for quite a while now.

Put bluntly, I have wondered in the past whether the scheme does more damage than good.

In short, I have wondered if the Court's practice of identifying promising young writers from across the world, shipping them bodily to London and teaching them how to write “the political explored through the personal” State-of-their-Nation plays is the best way to proceed.

Apart from anything else, it strikes me that this approach could steamroller precisely the thing it is theoretically enabling – the internationality of the writers. Rather than allowing for the breadth and depth of other theatrical cultures, it might just be forcing them into a very British model.

Similarly, with the international seasons, there's the interesting question of what happens when you give a text written by someone used to a culture of directorial interpretation to a director from our “serve the text” culture.

I now wonder, though, if these objections aren't also grotesque simplifications. Isn't it equally possible to argue that it is precisely this hybrid approach that makes the work so exciting?

Consider again Remembrance Day. It is described as a family play which explores one of the biggest faultlines in Latvian history and society – the country's successive occupation by Nazi and Soviet forces and the fact that as a result, since the country's independence from the USSR in 1990, Latvian veterans of the Waffen SS annually parade with pride through Riga.

At the same time, the only reason we Britons ever came to know this is that David Cameron and the Conservatives allied themselves with members of the Latvian far-right in the European Parliament leading to a rash of expository news stories.

As such, it strikes me that what the “International” department at the Royal Court have provided us with is not only a play about “over there”, but a piece specifically tailored to how “over there” relates to Britain, right here, right now. It might not relate much to what Latvian theatre is actually like – for that you want to check out some Alvis Hermanis – but it proves that these days that elements crucial to understanding the state of our nation extend far beyond our national borders.

[Interestingly, Sierz has reviewed Remembrance Day for TheArtsDesk.com]

* Blog title from here

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Rewriting the Nation – Aleks Sierz (Methuen)

[Order here - there's a way of doing this link so I make money, isn't there? Never mind]

[Preamble-as-footnote*, alternative opening**]

Like In-yer-Face Theatre before it, we might guess that Rewriting the Nation is set to become perhaps the book about British Theatre in the first decade of the 2000s (the decade that never found a name, the “noughties”; the “oh, something...s”).

It is for this reason much more than any other that I suspect it will be vigorously contested and pilloried, possibly, ultimately, in every quarter. We can see from Chris Goode's blog that this process has already begun. And, yes, there is much to object to, but there are also reasons to like the thing.

Sierz is perfectly clear and up-front about what he's doing with this book. It's a survey of “New Writing” [his/their/its-own capitals]. He also candidly admits that it's a personal survey. “Theatre is all about location, location, location” he observes, continuing: “Because I happen to live in London, this book happens to tell stories from a Metropolitan persepective.” [no, that doesn't follow at all, but...] “Obviously I am well aware that the view from other audience members and indeed other cities... is different.” (p.11)

On one hand, this is slightly disingenuous. Not only is Sierz a “metropolitan” Londoner, he's also a theatre critic and -academic, and one who sees a lot more outside London than the average London theatregoer. Beyond this, there are references to watching filmed performances in the National Video Archive of Performance Recordings at the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. And, being as this is a book about New Writing, there are also references to published playtexts and collections. There are page numbers quoted. He could, in short, have cast his net a lot wider, should he have wished to. On the other hand, we might at least admire the fact that for the most part, this partiality – and the open admission of it – make for an engaging, personal vision of the past ten years.

But is “being up-front” about the limits of the book's scope enough? Of course, on first glance this is a stupid objection. It is not possible to write a book about everything that happened in British theatre, even in London theatre, in the past decade without making more omissions than inclusions. Even so, it feels that at best, many of the depressing conclusions the book draws might have been mitigated if a wider variety of work had been included.

In short, Sierz describes a ghetto, an artistic cul-de-sac, and then concludes by lamenting that it isn't more varied.

This is not to say that the ghetto described is Sierz's invention. The “New Writing Industry” he describes in “Chapter 1 – Context” is not a work of imagination. It is a blunt, at times pessimistic and uninterrogated version of pretty much the first answer anyone familiar with the theatre industry would give if asked to describe what constituted New Writing in London/the UK (see above for disclaimers). However, his taking this as a working model and offering his own reasons for discounting certain plays and/or practices even from the compass of what might be considered to be a new play is deeply frustrating. For example, Sierz's dismisses all history plays thus: “History plays can also act, in the words of director Ramin Grey, 'as a corrective to our own myopic and self-regarding times'. True, but more often they are costume dramas with little relevance to today.” (p.64). Similarly, in a passage of pure semantic nonsense the History Boys is described as “simply not contemporary”, despite being newly written for 2004.

As such, the only pieces of theatre which make the cut for consideration are either those which fit a pretty narrow set of definitions or, in some exceptional cases, the work of the canonical and emergent-canonical plawrights – Caryl Churchill, David Hare, David Edgar, Martin Crimp, Simon Stephens, David Eldridge, David Greig, debbie tucker green, Dennis Kelly, Roy Williams, Richard Bean, Mike Bartlett and maybe Jez Butterworth (a list which, like that Tory cabinet has more Davids than women). Although it's worth noting that many plays by the above aren't necessarily mentioned (fair enough in the case of David Greig, who seemed to write about a million plays a year, and with such varied subjects they couldn't hope to be accommodated by such a narrow book, mildly annoying when it means David Hare's boulevard work doesn't come in for a bit of stick).

But, like In-Yer-Face... before it, the game here is bending all the work to the theory, rather than maybe seeing what the work itself might be up to.

The theory in this case is much more general and far less persuasive. Rather than taking the work of five key writers and associating their work via a certain level of violence and (mostly coercive) sex demonstrably evident at least in their first works, and then magicking up a movement from the association; here Sierz takes the umbrella “state-of-the-nation” and holds it up over what could be taken by the unwary reader for the entire theatrical output of a whole decade, and not just a narrow ghetto thereof. Moreover, he uses sections of this umbrella as the various thematic compartments into which he slots those plays which have made the grade for consideration in the first place. All the while, continually underlining the problems even he has with his approach.

In his conclusion, Sierz argues: “If you can blame playwrights for failing to write these kinds of plays. You also have to hold theatres to account for neither commissioning them, nor taking steps to widen their rather narrow repertoire of plays.” (p.237) Which might be a fair assessment to make at the end of a book which had actually considered the total output of any given theatre, including the foreign plays, the revivals, the new writing which isn't New Writing, the devised work and everything else. But this isn't that book, at which point the whole problem with the way the thesis he's been using is exposed.

Instead, one comes away from the middle of the book – the part where, with no small amount of attention, he relates the plots and/or themes of many, many of the decade's most notable, and some far less notable plays of the New Writing genre – rather depressed.

Because the theatrical output of the country (or London in most cases) that he describes seems hopelessly and hideously dictated to by a largely right-wing press. It is a picture of an artform chasing buzzwords, tag-lines and neologisms. It is a theatre which has forgotten, by this analysis, to refuse the premises of the question. It is a theatre which appears to have picked up its anxieties about race, for example, from worrying about the Daily Mail.

It is worth noting that Sierz frequently, approvingly quotes from Amelia Howe Kritzer's disastrous Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain: New Writing 1995-2005, a book which is in every conceivable way far worse, more reactionary and backward-looking than Rewriting the Nation could ever be. Kritzer's thesis: “there is no question that postmodern theory and its theatrical offshoots have played a part in delegitimizing socially activist theatre and inhibiting recent development of issue based drama.”

But Sierz also provides plenty of his own conundrums: “Most playwrights wrote against traditional and stereotypical images of Englishness,” (p.227) he claims, shortly before suggesting: “If every decade throws up a new type of fictional hero... who would fit the bill in 2000s new writing? The most obvious is the underclass yob... this foul-mouthed lowlife, with or without the trademark hood, appeared in play after play.” (p. 231) What is “The Hoodie” if not perhaps *the* defining cultural stereotype of the decade (even if “subversively” framed as “hero” - a problematic enough concept in itself)? If writers were creating characters that could be pressed into service as members of such an easy exercise in stereotyping, how were they “writing against” stereotypes? Or, more pertinently I suspect, if they weren't, why then bunch their characters together as if they had been created as stereotypes?

On a different tack a few pages later, he complains: “Difficult foreign work was rare. Scared of the effect that new, or radically different, plays might have on audience attendance, most theatres played safe.” (p.237) Which might be fair enough, except a page later he goes on to say: “Cooke spent most of his first year reviving the Court's tradition of staging international work. Unintentionally, perhaps, this focus on foreign writers, followed by several American plays [an interesting distinction in itself], suggested that British playwrights had little to offer.” (p.238). One is tempted to add that while leading critics continue to choose the subject of their books as the narrowly figured State-of-the-Nation drama, theatres might continue to be persuaded that this is what critical opinion is clamouring for.

The style of binary oppositions ranged against one another in an unwinnable critical oppositions continues throughout, along with an enraging stylistic tic which sees Sierz start his mini-chapters with a (non-)statement of the bleedin' obvious and conclude them with a nugget of impenetrable gnomic wisdom.

For example:

“Other plays also used intriguing metaphors.” (p.174)
“But if couples-in-crisis plays suggest a nation in constant disagreement, they also picture the British as a passionate lot.” (p.176)

“The 2000s saw the rise of the teen angst play”(p.189)
“If Britain really was, according to New Labour, a young country, its young were almost a country unto themselves.”(p.192)

“Although the War on Terror dominated the way playwrights viewed the state of the world, there was plenty of room for other subjects.”(p. 94)
“Yet, if playwrights have had mixed success at representing the world's woes, how have they fared closer to home?”(p.99)

“The acutest crises were represented by the unsuitable couple play”(p.176)
“Here, as in so many other plays, breaking taboos seemed to be a national characteristic. And both the cause and result of unsuitable coupling was solitude, which evoked a sense of a nation of loners.”(p. 182)

I could go on.

Which is a shame. Because, for all the above, there's a lot to admire and like about the book. I do wonder if it's the book's own surprisingly hectoring, combative tone that causes one to react to it with initial hostility. It's not a gentle guide by any means, but when Sierz gets into something he's actually great. Insightful, provocative, throwing up unexpected comparisons between seemingly disparate plays. The point where he speculates about the reach and influence of David Greig's San Diego (p. 9) is just lovely – I won't quote, go into a bookshop and read it. If only there could have been more moments like this.

Similarly, when he gets to a playwright whose work he is actually, properly enthused by, the content just lights up. Rewriting the Nation has made me desperate to get my hands on the collected works of David Greig, to reassess my initial scepticism of debbie tucker green and – most remarkably – I'm even very keen to read David Edgar's Testing the Echo.

In part, this reminds me of the observation that the best work on stage can often bring the best writing out of critics. Which brings me, circularly back to the wish-list version of the book. In considering a form in isolation – replete with its triumphs and not-so-triumphs – it feels like Rewriting the Nation, ultimately reduces even the very form it sets out to chronicle. If there had been a consideration of the real raging plurality of British theatre (and “performance”, and “Live Art” - a distinction scarely even recognised on the mainland), not only might British theatre have looked a whole lot less stunted, insular and cramped, but New Writing itself might have seemed much more like the generous partner to revivals of classic texts, “alternative” work, musicals, international work, boulevard comedies, “proper” versions of Shakespeare and post-modernist stagings of Greek tragedies that it really is.

The tragedy of Rewriting the Nation is that by so limiting the scope of its inquiry it becomes unable to celebrate the future it hopes for which might very well have already begun to arrive.

*Let me say a few things before getting started. First off, I like Aleks Sierz. I like the idea of Aleks Sierz too. I like his energy. In starting and running TheatreVoice along with Dominic Cavendish, he's probably done as much for the cause of theatre online (and not just “British Theatre”) as anyone in the past decade. His book In-Yer-Face Theatre had an unarguable effect on the way that period is remembered. And he followed it up, lest we forget, with the first (very accessible, totally readable) study of the plays of Martin Crimp – one of my favourite living playwrigthts. I also quite admire his punky spirit. I don't think I'm misrepresenting him too much if I paraphrase a thing he once said to me (perhaps not entirely seriously, but meaning-it) that one “shouldn't worry too much about the actual writing, its the getting it out there that matters.” And there's his willingness to have a bit of a fight. “I do 'ave a go, missus,” we might imagine him saying. None of which, nor the "thank you" in the acknowledgements, however, mitigate my opinion of Rewriting the Nation, which, I regret to say, is mixed to say the least...

** alternative opening: As Jeremy Paxman suggests in his introduction to his book The English: “Být Angličanem bývalo kdysi jednoduché. Stačilo mluvit anglicky jako Angličan, chovat se jako Angličan a pít vědra čaje - jako Angličan.” (sorry, only have the Czech version to hand)

Monday 21 March 2011

Souvereines, Chuck Morris - Sophiensæle

[written for Freischwimmer Blog Fight!]

Having written a piece yesterday for the Guardian about deutsches freies Theater [this gives you some idea when I started these damn reviews], it seemed only right and proper that I should go and see some. Emblematic of the difficulties with such labels, the first group I saw as part of last night's Freischwimmer programme were the Swiss-Danish performance duo Chuck Morris.

Roughly speaking, Souvereines is a performance suggested by the idea of “queens” (entirely in the heterosexual, regal sense – neither the unreconstructed, nor reclaimed connotations of the Queer version of the word appear to figure in the translated version – which, we should note is “Souvereines” and not “Königinnen” anyway). It begins with the audience being asked to observe certain protocols before stepping into the auditorium, briefly suggesting a degree of interactivity, which turns out not to materialise. Instead, we're presented with a meticulously timed (the duration of each routine is set out precisely in the accompanying programme), highly stylised performance.

Opening with the two performers (no credit except “Chuck Morris”) sitting bound, back to back, Gemini-style on a kind of mobile sideboard – clad in white body-stockings, with identical blonde hair piled on their heads. It takes a little while to put the words “student drama” (along with all their most unfair connotations) from your mind.

The substance of the piece alternates between spoken text and movement. The text is a list of things “the queen” is. Various contradictory adjectives pile on top of one another. Conflicting accounts? Different queens? One is strongly reminded of the attempts to pin down Martin Crimp's Annie, with shades into Viola's “two lips, indifferent red”. I am also strongly reminded of not doing too badly in a vocab. test far more than of watching a play. No matter. These former elements, mixed in with a quiet vein of gentle ironic humour.

The same can be said of the piece's initial movement sequences, in which descriptions of queens' portraits are posed with faux high-seriousness and courtly, or not-so-courtly (“New York, 1970s”), dance-steps are named and executed.

One (this one, me) is variously reminded of bits from Angela Carter – the pre-occupation with conjoined twins and arcana – in other instances of Alice in Wonderland and at other points, all those student devised pieces about Victorian feminism (whatever happened to those?). Sitting out here in Germany, though, I'm mildly mystified as to why anyone has thought to make a show about queens at all. It feels very remote from one's British associations with the wonderful job our Helen Mirren does (although the Danes still have a Royal Family, yes? Yes). But, perhaps it's a condition of fairy tales, Disney and iconography, though, that the idea of “a queen”is no longer – perhaps has never been – dependent on any sort of a reality. And perhaps that's a lot of the point being made here.

With hindsight, all this felt a bit like pre-amble, and so it turns out to be. The main event turns up in the form of a big dress. Chuck Morris stand back to back, and don the various layers of a regal 18th century dress (think Marie Antoinette). However, both performers are encompassed within the same pannier so that the subsequent petticoats, and silk Robe à la Française have the effect of binding them together one more. There then follows an extended sequence of movement to the already persistent music which recalls both Michael Nyman and Wendy Carlos's previous takes on Purcell, culminating in a gorgeous, perplexing tableaux of one performer, skirted legs aloft, balanced on the back of the other, who is bent double beneath her.

The piece is concluded by something of a postmodern/meta-theatrical step-outside-the-performance in which Chuck Morris talk about the company Chuck Morris.

If I were in the business of trying to draw conclusions, I'd say that there were some fine visual moments on show here, as well as enough charm and ideas for the rest to pass the time. The production values are high, but not faultless (and apparently this premier was plagued by technical hitches). The piece doesn't do a lot of work for you – despite clearly having a subject, bringing a lot to the table, and having a take on it. But apart from the blossoming of music and image, I'm not sure what it really achieves. But I'm equally prepared to believe that's my fault for not working at it hard enough, or coming from the right direction. Who wants star-ratings anyway?

For an interesting second look at the piece through another pair of British eyes – albeit ones which did better in the vocab. test – here's the view of from the seat next to me.

There are also the other Freischwimmer blogs here, here, here, here and here if you can read German or bear what Google translate does to them.

Romantic afternoon, Billinger & Schulz – Sophiensæle

[written for Freischwimmer Blog Fight!]

If I found Billinger & Schulz's Romantic Afternoon fascinating, it was primarily for the contribution it made to my thoughts on the recent English-language or at least British/Anglophone debate across several blogs and Facebook walls on the subject of “narrative” or “story” (this article links to the key recent texts on the subject).

The starting points of several contributors' positions can be seen in the following comment under the above-linked blog:
“Plays are linear. We can't get away from that given our current relationship to the laws of physics: plays consist of moments, of events, as we move in one direction in time whilst perceiving them. Narrative is not just a natural but, I'd argue, an inescapable response to that arrangement in anyone with any significant memory or attention span... But that's what we do with data that we receive in succession.”

Yes, this does stipulate “plays” rather than “theatre” or “a performance”, but given the way in which the properties of experience of linear time are figured, the distinction doesn't seem especially exclusive or important.

Why is this relevant? Well, because that argument was stuck in my head at the time. And because Romantic Afternoon struck me as being one of the most defiantly non-narrative pieces of “theatre” / “performance” / whatevs. I've ever seen (defiant is the wrong word in these context, since no one here seems to be having that argument, but..).

To describe: The stage action of the piece consists entirely of the six performers on stage – three men, three women – kissing one another. For 45 minutes.

Ok, that glosses over a certain amount of moving around, time spent standing apart, the bits where they swap partners, and the leanings toward certain moments of disinterested choreography. But that's the main event. Bodies on stage with their mouths variously pressed against those of another. But what was fascinating was the extent to which the piece seemed to be actively seeking to exclude the possibility of “a story” happening.

Yes, the piece was – as per the laws of physics – theoretically experienced (at least by me) with my body and “mind” moving forward in time with the performance taking place in front of me, with all the performers also moving forward in time – and ageing – at precisely the same speed. Although, I imagine that Einstein might have amusedly noted that the time was passing significantly more quickly for the six performers on the stage than for anyone watching them.

Back to “story”, though. The way in which the action on stage took place was able to suggest that the performers were not necessarily “playing” the same person from one exchange of saliva to the next. At the same time, there was never any suggestion that they were anything other than themselves. But not an actual “themself” - so to speak. At no point was there ever any sense of who these people were in what might, in another context, be called “the world of the play”. There was no sense that these kisses had “back-story”. More importantly even than this, was the sense that none of the actions had consequences. Or at least hardly ever. This was an ongoing performance of some kisses with scarcely a backward glance.

There was also barely ever any performance of anything attempting to pretend actual desire. Equally, though, it wasn't implied that these kisses being performed represented some sort of absence of desire in a postmodern world, either.

Indeed, some of the rolling around kissing, and some of the first, tender tentative steps toward the kisses, did seem to open to the possibility of readings of tenderness. But it felt that that would be largely a process of some very heavy freighting from outside. Very much the projection of the viewer's desire to see that story/feeling manifested much more than something the company had intentionally presented.

Instead, we (the audience) were presented with roughly 42 minutes of six performers not all of whom, if any, had any attraction toward one another, demonstrating kissing of all sorts. Occasionally, in the show's more choreographic moments, they'd even be making out on their own – hands stroking the back of nothing, open-mouthed, tongues wangling away in a void (or, rather, not “in a void”, but the empty space* in front of them on the stage of a performance space).

I say 42 minutes of a 45 minute piece, because at the end, for no discernable reason whatsoever (which isn't to disregard it one iota, nor to refuse an attempt at discerning, not that there need either be reason or that the reason be discernable), the company danced a charming Gap-advert's worth of bouncy dance to the equally inexplicable German children's hit Fred vom Jupiter (see bottom of review). Which I did wonder about in the context of whatever had gone before.

Still, the success of the refusal of narrative was fascinating. What I mean is, even going forward through time with the performers just didn't help. The fact that there were six of them, constantly swapping partners (yes: woman-woman, woman-man, man-man, man-woman, WWM, MMW, WMW, MWM, MWW, WMM etc.), at a rapid enough rate, and far enough apart on the stage, that it was impossible really to keep an eye on all of them at once, and so even if there had been an intended “narrative” or “story” - and I'm not even sure I'd swear that the order of what happened on the night I saw Romantic Afternoon would be what was repeated the next time, or whether that would alter or not the substance of the idea of the piece having a “story” or “narrative” - like some kind of six-way Closer. On acid!* one wouldn't have been able to keep up with it. But I'm pretty sure this wasn't even remotely the case. This was as close to a series of islated moments as its possible to have when the moments occur sequentially in an enclosed space.

What I mean is – the moments – even while being so “of a piece” were so isoloated in meaning from one another, and lacking in that sort of content, that it would have felt utterly pointless to even want to bother placing the context of a story on them. I'm not sure I can put it any more bluntly or clearly than that.

Which feels briefly like it leaves a bit of an England-shaped question-marky hole about what one is meant to do with this piece.

Actually, it doesn't. If there was a “problem” here – or if I brought one with me, or made one up while watching – I'd argue that “problem” was nothing to do with the lack of “story” or “narrative” (see Tremor for a reverse case - I absolutely promise I didn't experience even a tiny bit of story in that either) as the lack of excellence – or perhaps more accurately: focus – on the part of the performers. Two were noticeably just much more alert, and perhaps more energised, trained, or whatever, than the others. And it really made them a great deal more watchable.

It was, however, definitely a mistake to use the same piece by Purcell as Pina Bausch did in Café Müller.

Themes? Themes! Understanding of what the piece might have been driving at – if intentions of driving anywhere were even a remote consideration of the piece – then indications of where or what come more helpfully from the fact of the Freischwimmer Festival's overall theme - “[the private in the public]?”. One could certainly read the piece easily in the light of this, but oddly, despite being such a determinedly illegible piece – and one either whose form or execution made it a pretty hard watch – this possibility of a single strand of explantion feels somehow disappointingly narrow. Perhaps this was also what the piece is about, perhaps it wasn't.

But it ended with this!

Fred vom Jupiter.

* thanks to Chris Goode for identifying and locating where that piece about X+Y on Z comes from – although take a moment to tick off Stewart Lee for his youthful use of the term "prostitute" using his older self (5.30 onward)

CMMN SNS PRJCT, Kalauz/Schick - Sophiensæle

[written for Freischwimmer Blog Fight!]

If Romantic Afternoon seemed to touch on questions I'd already been asking myself about “non-narrative” performance, CMMN SNS PRJCT (henceforth CSP) seems to exist far more happily within my comfort zone. And it was performed in English, God bless their Argentian/Swiss hearts.

In British terms, this was exactly the sort of show one could confidently expect to see at Forest Fringe (indeed, I have no hesitation in recommending Andy and Debo to invite Kalauz/Schick to this year's). In short it was confident, charming, demonstrably “Live”, interactive, fun, funny, smart and generous.

If you wanted a strap-line, I'd suggest billing it as a Marxist performance raffle. The thing starts with Laura Kalauz and Martin Schick standing on stage in their pants (and socks. Aw) as the audience enter. There's a table with a bunch of household possessions on it. These they give away. They then try to buy or hire clothes from the audience.

After this there's an uncomfortable moment when they return fully clothed and seem to be doing some very heavy handed alluding to Waiting for Godot. But that turns out just to be an un-introduced party game of guess-the-play. Which turns out to be terrific fun. There's all the usual playing with being a performer and what it means to be on stage and who one is, and who one's character is. This is later demonstrated again with one of the performers apparently doing/saying something heartfelt and the other than asking for the bit of paper that bit is written on and then doing it again. You know the kind of thing. This is one of them and a rather nice one of them it is too.

And all the while they're doing it in your clothes! This isn't even what they'd be wearing if we, the audience, had given them something else to wear (unless they had a hell of a lot of plants in the audience – which I doubt. Actually, I would have been fascinated to have seen the show on another night to check out how much of the liveness really is live. Pretty much all of the crowd-based stuff, I'd have guessed, and if not, it's some of the best pretending of “live” I've ever seen). You can't even judge them by their clothes! Let alone by what they're saying, when another of them says the same thing a minute later...

These meta-theatrical heads-ups are fun enough, and their more-or-less non-stop bantering with the audience is so perfectly judged – perhaps given a helping hand by the fact both performers are both attractive and charming – that when we get to a moment where Laura starts reading out a speech about how great it is that we're all together in the same room and how it's great that we all like and respect one another, it isn't until she gets to the bit about “purity of the blood” that we realise where that particular text has come from (I might be wrong about that, but there were certainly echoes and moreover there was a sudden chill in the room – discomfort and tangible hatred of the sentiments). Most chilling was how warm and fuzzy the first bit was, though.

Beyond this there's more business with guess-the-play and then even an auction of performing rights of the play – in this particular performance this struck me as being very funny. There aere also all sorts of echoes – tiny little reverberations – of the financial crisis, a mounting problem with credit and debit. It's so light that you'd think it could be missed, but at the same time somehow incredibly obvious, but charmingly so. Thinking about it, Kalauz/Schick actually have got a pretty good line in resonance going on...

They then build a big wall, briefly play with the audience's notional willingness to intervene in an act of Abramovic-style self-harm, offer a quick, neat demonstration of Marx's Kapital and Proudhon's maxim “property is theft”, give away the cash profits of the show and then, Fin! Fun!

Bis dass der Tod uns Scheidet – mariamagdalena & Gäste, Sophiensæle

[written for Freischwimmer Blog Fight!]

This is probably not finished yet

Where CMMN SNS PRJCT felt like familiar theatrical territory, mariamagdalena's Bis dass der Tod uns Scheidet (Until Death do us Part) is remarkable for being both the most familiar thing imaginable, and a likely contender for the title of “thing least like a piece of theatre I've ever sat in”.

Because what Bis dass der Tod uns Scheidet is, is a wedding reception. And that, ladies and gentlemen, might be just about all it is. When I think about it, I'm surprised I've never seen anything like it in a theatre/performance space before. Actually, I almost have – the Uninvited Guest's Love Letters Straight From Your Heart has the same U-shaped table configuration and again places its audience at its centre – but still, much more different than similar.

But, I've been at wedding receptions before. And this is one. Albeit, one for someone we've never met (Polish-born, Austrian-domiciled performance artist mariamagdalena herself and a bloke playing her new husband), and it's not people who have *really* just married (they might be married for all I know, but certainly not just enough to warrant a reception).

Which is all very interesting. After all, one spends a pleasant evening at a wedding reception. And this one is no different. Drinks are brought round – the theme here is unmistakably Polish, albeit largely conducted in German – so the drink is vodka (no, I don't, fear not), the wedding band plays, and there are party games. Many party games (again, I don't). And dancing. Much dancing (Nope, don't do that either). And more drinks. And so on. So, yes, I'm having all the fun a teetotal wallflower usually does as a boozy, dance-y wedding reception. Which is more than you'd think, actually.

There are perhaps three or five moments of what might be identified as the usual sort of “performance” one “sees” in a “theatre” – there are the speeches by the bride, groom and father-of-the bride; there's a strange interpretative dance interlude in which the burly band-leader and the bride's-best-friend quick-change into preposterous leotards and prance a mock-ballet, before disappearing off to change back again. And then toward the close, there is a “first dance” in which the bride and her best friend seem to be danced ragged and drunk by the band-leader and groom.

In my enthusiasm for “stories” (I am still English, it doesn't just go away overnight the day after you read Post-traumatic Theatre, you know) I wonder if there's meant to be one about the bride being more in love with the band-leader than her somewhat insipid husband. But it seems unlikely. In short, there's no more story or organising principle here than if we really were at a wedding reception. Where, of course, there is a “story”, but it's one which has already happened, and we're sat in the beginning of “happily ever after”. Or, conversely, there are a hundred (or more) people in a room, all with their hundreds of stories. But since they are mostly strangers, you never get to hear them. You just acknowledge that they're probably there, and reconcile the narrative strategies of the strangers with your own take on the political nature of story-telling.

What Bis dass der Tod... might be doing is playing games around the idea of eastern Europe, kitsch, clichés about the Polish life as perceived from the West and about the enjoyability or otherwise of 80er/90er Europop (is that what it's called here? Probably not, on reflection).

Again, because this isn't at the heavy atmosphere end of things where one sits in one's seat in the dark auditorium and gets to contemplate the multiplicities of meaning in what one's seeing – quite the reverse: one sits in a wedding reception watching fellow gästen playing disco-musical chairs and burst-the-ballon-by-leaping-on-someone's-lap-with-it – this is *so* experienctial that one struggles to reflect much at all.

Actually, is that true? I think, actually, I reflected quite a lot. But not necessarily on the piece itself, so much as *in* the piece. Which is an interesting variation on the usual way in which “immersive theatre” appears to expect to work usually. Instead of being any pressure to “join in”, per se, instead you're joined in by virtue of being there. And just watching is taking part. You don't even need to properly configure the “wedding reception” with “willing suspension of disbelief” for it to work as a “wedding reception”. Does that make any sense at all? What I mean is, you're already there in a hall with one's own (real) boundaries about how much you ever join in with dancing, silly games, etc. and it's no different to how you'd be if the wedding reception were a real one. And, frankly, it matters not a jot, once the motions are being gone through, whether it is the real wedding of people you don't know, or an entirely pretend one.

I'm not fully sure to what end mariamagdalena made this piece – repairing to the “staging the private in public” motto again might cast some light – but, yes, interesting. If I liked wedding receptions more then I might have found my new favourite form of theatre. As it is, I imagine this might be similar to all those Duckie events at the Barbican – except without anyone taking their clothes off or bringing class into everything.


Friday 11 March 2011

What is theatre criticism for?

[Given as a contribution to the University of Kent's panel event What is theatre criticism for?*]

Hello, I'm Andrew Haydon.

I'd like to start by saying how flattered I am to be invited to join such a distinguished panel. Irving Wardle's book, Theatre Criticism, served as my bible for many, many years, while Lyn Gardner has been a tremendous support and, perhaps inadvertently, one of the most formative influences on my career so far by first suggesting I go visit a German theatre festival.

On the face of it, the question “What is Theatre Criticism For?” is one which can be answered relatively simply.

What theatre criticism is *for* is, as its name suggests, for critiquing theatre. Not criticising it, critiquing it.

However, in modern Britain, where the vast majority of “theatre criticism” is printed in our national newspapers, a better working definition might be: “theatre criticism is a journalistic report on what happened in a particular theatre last night”.

Which, I'd like to make clear, for the record, I don't believe to be a bad thing.

Per se.

That said, I'd like to quote you something from the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, from his essay The Empty Wheelbarrow. He says:

“In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”, things we don't know that we know ”

The Unknown Known is ideology: things that we know without even thinking about the fact that we know them. And it's the “unknown knowns” of British Theatre Criticism that I'd like to talk about briefly.

Consider the following opening to a review:

“Last night, the management of such-and-such a theatre handed out tickets – each worth one week's income support – to the theatre critics of every national newspaper in Britain and several eminent broadcasters. They gave away the rest of the seats in the house to minor celebrities and friends of the theatre and cast.

“The seating in the theatre was arranged so that those who had the most expensive tickets could sit nearest the stage and see the action best and those with the cheapest tickets were sat at the very back of the theatre or behind inconveniently placed pillars. The play was an argument in favour of socialist principles.”

I'd argue that is a more neutral set of observations than those which usually open any given review. And it strictly adheres to the model of British Theatre Criticism as reporting upon the event.

The problem is that while those details are neither untrue nor superfluous, they go without saying. Not least because the same will be true for many critics on at least four nights out of five. Week in, week out.

After noticing this, one then notices how much else theatre criticism leaves uninterrogated.

There's a rather nice unwritten rule in British Theatre Criticism which holds that critics should try to review a play on its own terms. That is to say, it's generally considered “a bit off” to condemn a frothy, escapist musical for failing to deliver a penetrating State of the Nation analysis of the economic collapse.

But there's another dimension to this.

Because most British Theatre Criticism is published in newspapers, the form itself exists at the whim of newspaper proprietors. The vast majority of British newspaper proprietors are right-wing multi-millionaires. As such, it is a miracle that theatre criticism even continues to exist at all.

It is not a surprise, though, that the last couple of decades have seen the reduction of word-counts, the introduction of star-ratings, and the sacking of more than one critic for not toeing the editorial line.

In such a situation, Theatre and Critic suddenly find themselves on the same side of the barricade.

It is in the Critic's interests to promote theatre: to talk up its importance and emphasise its successes lest, by damning its failures too often, it be yet further sidelined and their job further marginalised.

By a similar token, I would suggest that – aside from the occasional “bitchy savaging” - newspapers prefer their “entertainment coverage” to be triumphal. They love pushing a “First Night Review” of a massive musical to the front of the paper, accompanied by massive photo of a reality talent show winner's night of glory, complete with the authoritative endorsement of the man who also writes the paper's parliamentary sketches or the definitive critical study of Harold Pinter.

“Artistic Excellence” on the other hand, seldom gets a review shunted forward, any more than fine writing or brilliance of perception do. So, one thing theatre criticism is now primarily for, is its own preservation at almost any cost.

None of this is to disparage the critics themselves. In many ways, I admire the majority greatly. These are people who, in an almost impossible intellectual, political and artistic climate, continue to fight their corner as hard as it can be fought.

Therefore, I would argue the the real issue facing criticism isn't: “What is it for?” but rather: “For how much longer will it be able to perform its function?”

Wednesday 9 March 2011


Three years ago, a fellow critic and I were discussing Michael Billington. As one does. My fellow critic made the following assertion:

“The problem with Michael is that he isn't so much a critic as a Soviet-era censor: he marks plays on their politics.”

At the time (late Feb 2008), I thought this was a spot-on bit of analysis. But it's a remark that has haunted me ever since.

Why? Well, one of the basic tenets in the unwritten laws of British Theatre Criticism (also here) – at least as I've always understood it – is: “Judge work on its own terms”. Or, to put it more caustically as “Fred2006” does under Michael's review of Tiger Country: “I wonder what you think the reviewer's job is here.... Is it to lament the fact that she hasn't written the play you think she ought to have written?”

Of course, Michael is perfectly open and candid about his tastes (I wish I could now find the blog I read yesterday where he actually spells it out word by word, something like: “I favour plays that foreground the personal and the political”). Indeed, I'm tempted to suggest that it's precisely this candour that sees him being pilloried so often. Or rather, its the combination of candour and the star-rating system. Because, once his remarks have to be translated into a kind of score, one gets much more of a sense that he's docked a point from a playwright for leaving “no room to ask the really big questions. Who, one would like to know, is responsible for creating the kind of selfish society we now inhabit?” For example. As an observation in a piece of writing, one might let it pass as a foible far more easily if it wasn't seen as the justification for a lower score than might otherwise have reasonably been expected.

I say “might” advisedly. One could get the feeling these days reading Michael's reviews and some of the comments under them that his "foible" might have become a bit of a one-note rut; his position becoming a parody of itself. Praising shows which conform precisely to his prescriptive requirements, and ticking off those with whose argument he takes issue or which just don't do “about” “properly”.

The most interesting example being perhaps the contrasting reviews given to Seven Jewish Children and England People Very Nice within a fortnight.

“[England People Very Nice]'s prime flaw is that it substitutes generalised caricatures for detailed investigation of particular ethnic groups. ...while the gags come thick and fast, and the play theoretically pays tribute to Defoe's idea of “that heterogeneous thing, an Englishman”, the abiding impression is that Bean doesn't think much of our modern multiculturalism.” Two Stars.


“[Seven Jewish Children] confirms theatre's ability to react more rapidly than any other art form to global politics... Churchill, I'm sure, would not deny the existence of fierce external, and internal, Jewish opposition to the attack on Gaza. What she captures, in remarkably condensed poetic form, is the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter.” Four Stars.

It could be cynically implied that one man's “generalised caricatures” might be the same man's “remarkably condensed poetic form”, when they happen to agree with the politics.

But, of course, that's nowhere near the whole story. I said earlier, “it's precisely this candour that sees him being pilloried so often”. But it's not just that; the other reason that Billington gets the stick he does is, I would contend, because of the massive respect in which he is held, and the affection (yes, affection) which he also inspires. Much more even perhaps than out of frustration. I think I'm right in saying this year marks Michael's 40th at the Guardian. During that time, he has also published pretty much the definitive study of Harold Pinter, the best history and guide to the sort of plays he likes imaginable and a pretty neat collection of reviews from his first twenty years at the Guardian. Much more impressively, he's stuck to his guns. He has his beliefs and I think it would be well nigh impossible to even begin to argue that he's ever betrayed them.

Of course people argue with him. He's The critic whose mind people want to change. Perhaps that's partly down to the fact that he has such an identifiable, and thus challengeable, agenda. It's probably also a lot to do with the fact that he's the chief theatre critic of The Guardian. Which, let's be honest, is the paper that pretty much everyone working in the arts reads. As such, because of his curiously hierarchical system, it also means he winds up being the critic who covers nearly all the openings at the National Theatre, Royal Court, most of the RSC, and probably the majority of Donmar, Almeida, etc. etc. (although, part of me wonders how much of this is chicken, egg, and clever manoeuvring – i.e. by putting in enough time at the NT and West End, he is able to make his presence at The Cock or The Finborough seem like they've really arrived).

And then, beyond that, there are his politics themselves. As Chris Goode has previously suggested: “What's frustrating is that if Billington were to actually engage with the collaborative practice and collectivist principles that have inspired so many devisers, I think he might find them congenially compatible with his own politics, which are obviously amiably leftist and impatient with rigidity and deference.”

Exactly. Another part of the frustration is precisely because Billington isn't Quentin Letts or even Charles Spencer, harumphing at Martin Crimp or Katie Mitchell on the basis of their politics. He's harumphing because his politics, or more properly, a combination of his personal taste and his politics have suggested an entirely different set of solutions as to how theatre might work best.

And this is where this whole edifice I've been carefully building spins 180° on its axis...

This is why the accusation: “he isn't a critic, he's a Soviet-era censor: he marks plays on their politics” turned into the biggest question I've ever had about criticism, and about my place within it.

First, because on one level, I'm not at all sure I'm at all different.

Second, because of that assertion's close relationship to the mantra of “Judge a play on its own terms”.

This is probably the point toward which the last three pieces in this series (“About”, “Properly” and “Professional”) (or , perhaps, “thes Sieris”) have always been heading.

Oddly enough, the narrative, the story (Yes, in other news, there's a post forthcoming about “narrative” as soon as these are done), the back-story here picks up pretty much where yesterday's back-story left off. Yesterday it was late September 2007 and I was just about to have my first blog published by the Guardian.

Today's story starts two months later on in 2007 and I've just got back from Munich. The post begins:
“For the last five days I've been attending the SpielArt Festival in Munich under the auspices of the concurrent FIT Mobile Theatre and Communications Lab programme...” and goes on to detail the work I'd just seen. To cut a long post short, Munich had blown my tiny mnd.

Over the next year, thanks to the Festivals in Transition (FIT) MobileLab and also an International Association of Theatre Critics Young Critics event at the Neue Stücke aus Europa festival in Wiesbaden, I saw a lot of work from the rest of Europe.

After the last MobLab festival finished I wrote this post. It was only just over a year later. I am slightly staggered by how many of the embryonic forms of this series it contains. And how much it prefigures what I'm saying in this piece.

Lyn Gardner remarked a year after that post, “I do worry that our sending you to Europe utterly ruined you”. Ironically, I think it was outside the Barbican after The Roman Tragedies.

Which is where the Billington comparison comes in, I guess.

First of all, there's the question of “marking plays on their politics”. Initially, at least, this is largely unrelated to Europe. But, surely, don't all critics (that's professional, amateur, and very much academic) actually “mark plays on their politics”? Or rather, all other aspects of a production being equal, aren't critics *obviously* going to prefer a performance that appears to “say” something they find palatable?

This is a slightly difficult thing to describe, because I'd rather not just go straight back down the road to “About” or – Christ help us all – the “Where are all the Right Wing Plays”.

Possibly one of the most striking reviews of a play's “politics” is Lyn Gardner's one-star review of Romeo Castellucci's Purgatorio (go on, read it). I don't think I've ever disagreed more with a piece of analysis, and certainly never more with a star-rating – the piece was, even if absolutely nothing else, spectacularly well made. The production values alone should have set it apart from [anything else Lyn one-starred] (although, I suppose Lyn is one of the more regular contributors to the Zero Star Hall of Fame, so perhaps the single star was for those production values).

At the same time, who am I to argue. Lyn makes her case perfectly clearly. She saw something that she felt was utterly morally repellant, and said as much. What other mark should she have given it? And yet, isn't this precisely marking for “politics” (admittedly in the wider sense of the word)?

Quite apart from the fact that I'd argue that Purgatorio could just as easily (although I won't swear to anything – opaque doesn't begin to cover this work, and I'm not even going to try to claim I really understand Castellucci's work; although I certainly got a lot more out of it on a personal level) be trying to provoke that response, or suggest those thoughts, in order to question them. It briefly reminds me of the old NSDF catch-all term for what should be selected: “dramatic effectiveness” was the only criteria.

But can dramatic effectiveness ever be value free? (This is a whole blog all of its own, so forgive the brevity with which I'm about to skip through it now) I'd argue, almost certainly not.

What's interesting, though, is the extent to which it seems also to be controlled by context. For example, if the National Theatre were to announced tomorrow that in their next season they were going to stage Hanns Johst's Schlageter (it's the play, by Hitler's favourite playwright, from which the quote “Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver” originally comes), would anyone seriously imagine Nicholas Hytner was putting it on to promote National Socialism? I imagine instead it would be received very seriously as a way of looking at a horrifying document from the past which might shed light on Britain's own current atmosphere of febrile racism.

But, extreme examples aside, don't critics review morally? Ethically as well as aesthetically? If a play was basically really good, and really well acted, apart from the homophobia, or the racism, would it get past the critic? Equally, does anything which advocates to much the reverse ever get past Quentin Letts or Tim Walker without getting a long telling-off? Did Christopher Hart not use his review of a play about homophobia in the 1950s to explain to his readers that he could not look at two men kissing in 2010?

I've always tried to resist the idea that particular dramatic forms are inherently political in a particular direction. Although, I'm not sure I succeeded. Is The Musical the “ultimate authoritarian artform” as Howard Barker once claimed? Is the problem play irredeemable after Johst's Schlageter as many Germans now argue? Is so much of theatre made within and utilising right-wing structures that its nominally left-wing message can't possibly hope to succeed? Or, conversely, is the view of theatre as irretrievably leftie such that even when we're shown the most right-wing play imaginable, we muse over it as a fascinating provocation, while the right grumble about how they're always the targets and never the snipers?

I have absolutely no idea, despite having read some convincing arguments for and against in my time.

Ultimately, my problem boiled down to the simple one of taste. Where for Billington, the taste question often seems to be one of content and authorship (fair enough, if intensely annoying for a lot of those not doing that – although there is other stuff he likes. Like "smut", surprisingly); for me it was (no surprises here) staging.

I'd always tried to like alternative theatre as well (as opposed to "instead of"). And the change in my tastes was a gradual thing. Have a look at my hilariously bemused review of Thomas Ostermeier's Zerbombt (Kane's Blasted) from 2006 (an irony being, now that I live in Berlin, the Schaubühne strikes me as the most English theatre in town. At the time, I remember thinking Zerbombt was the most German thing imaginable). But, gradually, I knew that in my reviews there was increasingly an element of either thinking-it-but-not-saying-it, or was just coming right out with it.

While Billington would frequently be: “longing for some acknowledgement of the way the NHS is ultimately the beneficiary or the victim of conflicting political ideologies.” (Tiger Country), I'd be “longing to see the German premiere, ideally with all the characters played by 70-year-olds so that one could appreciate the text, without worrying about nit-picky issues of detail and realism. ” (Punk Rock) ; or arguing “The problem is that directors in Britain still seem largely reluctant to stick their necks too far out in terms of staging. I can't imagine any British premiere of a new play by one of our leading playwrights being given such non-literal treatment as the world premiere of Stephens's Pornography was in Germany.” (When it comes to staging, we play it way too safe); or even “The new 'modern adaptation' of the Ibsen, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Gate co-artistic director Carrie Cracknell, was always going to suffer from comparison with Thomas Ostermeier's recent astonishing modern dress production from the Berlin Schaubühne” (Hedda at the Gate). And we all know there was so much more.

Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't a teary confessional. I'm not even sure it's a mea culpa, per se. I'm certainly not saying I was wrong to like all that German staging (I wasn't. It's ace). And, if criticism is about writing one's most honest response, then I can't apologise for the reviews either. And realising as much reconciles me to Michael's expression of his incompatible-with-mine taste more than any other thought experiment I've ever tried.

Of course, it's both easier and more difficult for me than it is for Michael. He has his position, which I imagine is pretty secure, from which he can ask for what he wants. But then, what I wanted had a whole country (continent, possibly) where I could just go to get it. And I now live there.

Because my position, certainly when at bottom of the food chain at Time Out, was pretty much untenable. I'd argue it would have been untenable, or at least unfair, in any position, though.

I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not that I had totally fallen out of sympathy with All British Theatre. Ironically, I think the best thing I saw in Britain last year was Thea Sharrock's incredible production of Rattigan's After The Dance. But then, that worried me too. Perhaps the was the moment when another penny dropped – that if I was actively disappointed by myself for liking something on the grounds that it was deeply old-fashioned, albeit perfectly executed – then I was really in trouble. That I was definitely not playing the critical game “properly”.

I do wonder about this. After all, Tynan didn't make his name by signing up for the status quo. On the other hand, the much-heralded championing of Look Back in Anger also clearly adored the way that Shakespeare was staged in Britain. Then again, he also travelled abroad, and was also able to report from Paris, Berlin and Moscow. And, when literary manager of Olivier's National Theatre drew up a massive list of world theatre classics (downloadable list at bottom of page) only a fraction of which have yet been staged.

I suppose my conclusion – AT LAST – is that I think I'm doing the right thing. I'm enjoying being back in rotation for the Guardian blog, and more than that, I'm enjoying writing here on Postcards... again. It's a slightly odd feeling admitting that I'm sort of stepping out of being a “professional” critic back into doing it online just because I think it's something worth doing. Of course, if anyone wanted to pay me for review of stuff out here, I'd be very pleased, but I think that might have more to do with just feeling a bit more chilled out generally.

Anyway, sorry, this all seems to have gotten rather personal, but I kind of felt it wanted saying. Perhaps it didn't and in a couple of months I'll take it down. But anyway, here's hoping this new rate of productivity holds up (maybe not quite this rate) and that you find it interesting, worth reading, worth recommending and, more than anything else, helpful and inspiring.

[Top picture, a Picassa treated version of a picture from here, bottom picture, author's own]

[Edit: or, to put it another way... ]