Tuesday 29 May 2012

Embedded III

[needs an edit - possibly a big one]

Catherine Love has written an excellent Next Piece on the subject of “Embedded Critics”. Or rather, she really specifically hasn't.

Now that I've got the first of my pieces about my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan up, hopefully the reason I originally chose to use the term “embedded” is more apparent.

It was primarily intended as an ironic reference to the “embedded” journalists seen during the invasion of Iraq and I used it fully conscious of the compromise and partial-failure-of-journalism it implied. As such, part of me wonders whether I shouldn't hurry up and find a new term for what we're all discussing before a slightly cynical joke gets picked up and run with and the whole possible enterprise founders thanks to semantics.

Or maybe the problematic nature of the term is helpful. Maybe we need that cynicism about the project as the grit in the oyster.

But anyway, that isn't the subject. Today's actual topic is best presented in Love's own words:
“[The] issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me... 
“[after talking to the artist] I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects. 
“There is the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that you will be unable to distinguish whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to.

“There are even occasions [...] when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.”

The question these observations suggest to me is: "Can there ever be an ideal standpoint for a critic?"  I hope to explain what I see as being the current Prevailing Way of Doing Things, to question some of its underlying assumptions, and to argue that there is no such thing as an ideal position for a critic.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently. In fact, this question runs all the way from Forest Fringe at The Gate, through the Embedded essays, through Three Kingdoms, and the mucky attendant sub-debate about “Xenophobia”, up to reviewing different theatrical cultures at The Globe (on which subject I've written a guest column for The Stage [will link to actual article when/if it's online]).

The question “can there ever be an ideal standpoint?” covers an awful lot of ground.

Thanks to having written “embedded”, I'd recently been thinking about the question in relation to the potential positive aspects of a closer proximity between critic and artist. It is interesting at this juncture to note the article that originally prompted Micaael Billington's neat blog on the subject back in 2007 (significantly also the year when the tectonic plates under theatre criticism really began to shift): Did someone mention courtiers? by the Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones.

The situation Jones describes, both historically and in 2007, is that of an “art world” where the critic is more-often-than-not a friend of the artist. He concedes results, the greatest being Vasari's The Lives of the Artists, but Jones is plainly writing from a position of great irritation.

It is interesting to note that, several years down the line, in Twitter'12, Jones is one of the few critics from another discipline who regularly breaks into my theatre-centric feed with articles like his recent description of paintings by Damien Hirst as “Dictatorship Art” or his attack on The Shard last year as “a flashing warning sign of disease, a terrible vision of the future we have been building”. Granted, this is partly because in these phenomena he is writing about significantly less niche subjects than theatre, but I suspect it's also because he's engaging in some very polemical writing. One can virtually see the fizz of his pleasure at his own moral indignation rising off the articles.

What might interest us more however is that, as Billington rightly points out, theatre criticism has hitherto nearly always functioned in almost exactly the opposite way. This is why it looks so odd when Quentin Letts or Tim Walker attempt to paint “Theatre” (including its critics) as some sort of powerful metropolitan elite monolith which is to be feared and mistrusted. It looks odd because the dynamic between theatre and theatre critic has always contained (rather “theatrically” at times) an element of the adversarial system; at its worst, this is represented by the critic through a pantomime of wariness at being “sucked in”, “taken for a ride”, or “tricked”.

While it is certainly worth taking Jones's exaggerated concerns about the art world on board, it is also worth bearing in mind the successes that he (and Billington, re: his definitive critical biography of Pinter) also highlight.


The issue of whether or not the critic is compromised by personal dealings with the artist is only one aspect of this wider question of an ideal critical standpoint, though.

After all, Love's article isn't about “friendship” with the artist, or even about “immersion” in their process (though “Immersive Criticism” has a ring to it, doesn't it?), it's simply about talking to the makers of a particular show prior to seeing that show.

In MSM theatre criticism (which we shouldn't forget was just about the only theatre criticism we'd got outside of prohibitively expensive academic books and journals until a few years ago), it is the generally accepted current practice that if one critic interviews a company/writer/director/actor prior to a specific production then generally speaking the paper's *other* critic is sent to review that production (designers and stage managers are seldom interviewed. A pity; I suspect many of them are charming and might well shed a good deal of light on oft o'erlooked aspects of a production – Matt Trueman's forthcoming interview with Tom Scutt for the Stage will be, I suspect, a forward-looking exception (although I notice with displeasure that The Spectator *of all places* also has an interview with Scutt online, so maybe people do interview designers all the time and I've just not noticed. Anyway...)).

This approach introduces several elephants into a room that has already resembled an elephantarium for some time. Off the top of my head:

  • It ignores all previous interviews the critic in question might have had with the company/writer/director/actor (CWDA).
  • It ignores whether or not the critic is familiar with all/some/any/none of the CWDA's previous work.
  • It essentially ignores whether or not the critic is even in sympathy with the CWDA's aims/objectives.
  • It ignores the fact that if only one of (typically two, plus perhaps another arts writer or two) the critics at the paper *does* like CWDA's work, then the CWDA are either going to be subject to a preview or review that might take a fairly dim view of their efforts
  • It also discounts the possibility that the critic and maker know each other already.

But, we can see the logic. Or at least, we can see the logic if we accept the model of critic-as-rigorously-unprepared-spectator who never talks to artists outwith professional engagements.

Except, by this point, even that logic already looks a bit flawed.


Another key plank in the current orthodoxy of How To Do Theatre Criticism is “going in blind”.

I frequently refer to, but can't actually find to reference [if you know it, please comment a link], a blog in which Lyn Gardner says that she emphatically does not read programme notes. At least, never before seeing a show, but the process of “going in blind” can (would have to?) start well before that (see Tassos Stevens passim).

Obviously it is linked to the orthodoxy detailed above whereby one critic talks to the CWDA beforehand, and *the other critic* reviews their work, but there are also the lengths to which a critic might seek to avoid “knowing anything before they go in”.

As far as I can guess, this is linked to the British enterprise of the critic *acting as an “ordinary” member of the public*. This pretence strikes me as perhaps the most curious and contradictory aspect of Britain's reviewing culture – it also lies behind a lot of the more specious self-justification on the blogosphere. It is also linked to the phenomenon of the critical pantomime of “not being taken in”.

The reason I think it is “a pretence”, “curious” and “contradictory” is this:

Most people base their theatregoing choices on *preferences*.

Granted, most people I know that go to the theatre also have a professional interest and so their “preference” often tends to be “seeing as much as possible”. So I'm guessing a bit here. But, assuming that the NT and the Royal Court and the RSC and etc. etc. etc. don't sell *all* their tickets to theatremakers and critics, there must be a reasonably sizeable public who *choose* to see plays.

It is my contention that these people do not go to see everything that opens. That they do not go to the theatre four, five, six, or more times a week. That they might only *choose* to see one or two shows a month. Further, it is my contention that to maximise the likelihood of their enjoying the performance that they choose to attend, these *theatregoers* *choose* what to see by taking into consideration a variety of *factors*.

These factors might typically include:

  • The theatre where the performance is happening – they might like the sort of work that a particular theatre seems to be doing; it might be a theatre that is situated particularly conveniently.
  • The fact that they have seen and enjoyed previous work by the CWDA.
  • The subject of the performance.
  • Something they've read about the piece which makes it sound like it will appeal to them.

Now, *none* of these factors really apply to those theatre critics currently working within the general orthodoxy of the MSM. Or rather, they might, but in a funny way it seems like they're not meant to/allowed to. Or because they get hampered by hierarchy. Or financial considerations.

And then, beyond the slightly curious ways in which critics find themselves fitted to plays, we get back to the difficulties of “going in blind”. Now, if you're a mainstream critic and *you've* chosen to see a show, there could be a variety of reasons: it might be the “biggest” opening on a given night and despite being chief critic for, say, forty years, you're still not above territorial pissing; it might be by a CWDA who you particularly admire; it might be in a building which does the sort of work you like; or it might just be that you feel a weary sense of professional obligation.

All of which presupposes a certain amount of prior knowledge. After all, you don't get to be in a position to choose what you review when you're writing for a British newspaper without at least a considerable amount of prior knowledge (unless you're the chief critic for the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail, in which case God knows why you're even writing about theatre at all). None of this is going in blind.

The alternative is that you *get sent*. Plays are divvied up, and your lot is to trot along to the ones that haven't been taken by your elders. This makes going in blind a lot easier, should you wish to.

My question, in this section, though, is: Is going in blind *best*? (I should at this stage apologise to any blind readers of Postcards for trotting out this stock phrase so many times without once thinking about what it really means or implies. Sorry)

There are advantages, certainly. I absolutely won't deny that there are advantages to going into a play with virtually no pre-knowledge. These are, in fact, advantages that might be almost entirely unique to you, the critic-who-has-been-sent. And this is perhaps worth bearing in mind for the-critic-who-has-been-sent. Because you're about the only person who's ever going to see that show those conditions of complete surprise (I'm talking here about work by a CWDA – none of whom you've ever seen do anything before).

Ok, I'm exaggerating – there might people who will go to the theatre at random, friends of the CWDA who know that they're going and try to avoid seeing anything telling them about the show, people who just block book their theatre tickets at a theatre in advance and take pot luck – but generally, the critic who turns up to a show with no specific expectations/impressions is almost unique among theatregoers (perhaps not least because they'll have least *invested* in the outcome – they haven't paid, and *will* *get paid* whatever they think of the damn thing).

And after all, if you (let's pretend *you*'re a critic) really like something, and review it favourably, probably some people might buy tickets on your say-so. And, well, they'll have read your review for a start, so they'll start out where you've apparently “left off”; they'll go into the show with all the knowledge that you came out of it with and saw fit to share. Plus, quite possibly, they'll go in with *your opinion* in the form of a star-rating out of five. Indeed, in a worse case scenario, it might even have been only the star-rating that they've read; all they know is that can expect to enjoy it 80 per cent.

So at this point, we start to see just what a pantomime *not reading the programme notes beforehand* could be construed to be. And after all that, the chances are that the “regular punter” sitting next to you *will* be reading the programme notes before the, uh, curtain rises .


Beyond this, there does seem to be a bit of a yearning in Brit Crit for the tabla rasa; for being able to eschew not only prejudice but also foreknowledge, and even just plain knowledge sometimes. Most notably, this issue rears its head again and again in the thorny issue of the Previously Seen Production...

The Previously Seen Production is the professional critic's stock-in-trade. Whatever anyone might say about being able to write well, insatiable curiosity, a point of view, or whatever... at the end of the day the way that (I've seen some) critics win arguments is by belligerently counting up the number of times they've seen Hamlet (or whatever), smacking it down on the table and saying: “top that” (we might idly observe that we saw a certain amount of this sort of arguing being done by and on behalf of the closest-to-Death of the White Male critics during the 3K thing).

And, of course – what with theatre being a live medium, and theory being no substitute for experience – one can in a sense, only ever be as good at theatre you've seen and the connections you're able to make between things you've actually lived through. Ok, so you might be able to connect the things you see up to other stuff you've read, to music you've heard, to art you've seen, even to stuff you've read *about* plays or to other plays you've read, but I'd contend that these strike you very differently to the performances you've witnessed (shared?) in person.

At the same time, for all that knowledge there is a price, and that price is Jack's complete lack of surprise.

And I'm not just talking about seeing many directors' “different” versions of Hedda, or Hamlet, or Happy Days. I suppose I also mean types-of-things.

What you get is a critic able to write something off as “unoriginal” because they happened to see something a bit like like it thirty years earlier. The value of this ability is debatable. There is a school of thought that suggests this sort of experience turns our critics into novelty hunters. It's not a school of thought to which I particularly subscribe, though. Not least because of my perception of how the word “unoriginal” tends to get deployed. i.e. - rarely at some of the least original direction, and often at direction that actually looks quite unusual, if an elderly critic (or blog-commenter, come to that) can put their hand to even one faintly comparable production from the mists of time.

But, more than that, you get critics who run the risk of not being delighted by productions in the same way as first-time or occasional theatregoers might be.

The play-off between “expertise” and “being jaded” strikes me as one which is nigh-on insoluble. And I say this from the standpoint of one who is possibly more prone to getting jaded than many (although I don't claim a fraction of the expertise).


Reading back over all that I've just written I realise I'm in dire need of stopped and concluding this a a piece of writing. So:

Love's piece noted that “[after talking to the artist] I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects” and suggested that “there is the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that you will be unable to distinguish whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to.”

She went on: “There are even occasions [...] when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.”

The question all these observations suggested to me was: “Can there ever be an ideal standpoint for a critic?”

I hope that what I've said above demonstrates that despite a current Prevailing Way of Doing Things which perhaps hopes in part to codify a model of Best Practice there can be no ideal position for a critic. Any critic, just like any audience member, brings a specific and unique set of understandings, information and preferences into a performance with them. Those factors have as much to do with how they receive/watch/read a show as whether or not they read the programme before or after they watch the show. Or whether they've ever spoken to the artist.


After all, an artist can tell you what they're trying to do until their hoarse, and you can still either, a) not believe them, or, b) think they haven't succeeded.

In this respect, I think “when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, [it] seems something of a failure of the concept itself” is actually, potentially linked to a different question; partly the question of where and how we attribute fault in a production, partly about hw we think theatre should operate, and partly again about who we should really blame when someone doesn't understand a production...

But I think I'm going to save that for another day...

Sunday 27 May 2012

Game Over - Purcell Room

[Written for Exeunt]

I like Pierre Rigal. Not personally; I've never met him (this isn't one of *those* reviews). But I like the work he's made that I've seen. I first came across Rigal at the Gate when I reviewed his UK debut Press for Time Out (5*/6, since you ask).

Press went on to do good business at Sadler's Wells and Rigal returned to the Gate with the innovative and consequently underestimated show Micro.

This, my third Rigal show, impressed me primarily because it is so unlike either of the other two I've seen. Without a programme/ticket/poster/whatever I'd have never guessed that it was the work of the same man, which often endears artists to me (at least when the work is still also good. People whose previous work I've liked suddenly deciding to make utter crap tends to endear them to me less).

So, what's the new stuff that Game Over brings to the table?

Compared to French choreographer Pierre Rigal's previous works, Press and Micro, Game Over is perhaps less innovative. That said, it still feels stuffed enough with inventions to more than keep an audience occupied for its 75 minute duration.

Surprisingly, for a piece that is inspired by a (n apparently very tense) football match – the 1982 World Cup semi-final between France and West Germany, which the FDR won on penalties – the net effect of Game Over was oddly akin to emerging from a nice long relaxing bath.

In spite of all the abundant physical prowess and sometimes energetic movement on stage, the overall picture, perhaps due in large part to __ __'s warm, fuzzy, ambient electronica score (think, maybe: a particularly snoozy Air), while constantly engaging, the piece also feels incredibly soothing.

The pace is set by quite a trippy, pleasant opening 'number' in which the four performers – invisible: wearing black in the inky depths of the unlit stage – basically move eight small lit squares around – a bit like a hi-tech version of the opening titles for the '70s BBC Schools programme Watch (the brief titles in that clip start at about 0.52). They make some geometric patterns, and some patterns that perhaps suggest more abstract, cubist pictures – maybe even of sportspeople, tho' that could just be the power of the title's suggestion.

Soon after, these 'light-squares' are revealed to be little screens (probably iPads or similar) and they begin to show the (French) broadcast of the football match in question (surtitles are provided neck-craningly high above the performance space). This sort-of sets up the piece's nominal theme – although if I'd not read the blurb, I do wonder what I'd have made of it. This set-up achieved, the performers place the iPads on the floor at the front of the stage and begin to perform, using the screen-glow as footlights.

The next section (that I nearly just called, "the first section, proper") is the bit perhaps most like the thing you'd imagine if I told you this was some modern dance about a football match. That is to say, the four performers ( _ _, _ _, _ _, and _ _), in synch, in tandem, and solo, reproduce bits of the football match. First in a line – the poetry of the kicks, the run-ups, the other things footballers do – then supporting one another, allowing the goalkeeper's dives and saves to be performed in slow motion.

From this section the game gradually seems to mutate into an odd kind of rugby – or at least, the performers don padded body suits; somewhere between those used in American Football and Sumo fat-suits. Thus protected, they charge at each other and throw each other around – there's even a brilliant little homage to that famous repeated hold-and-drop sequence from Pina Bausch's Café Müller, except here it's not the same dancer getting up again, but the others all getting dropped on top of each other.

After this they costumes are discharged and re-worn upside down as kind of monstrous heads. It looks a bit like an slightly abstract dance-theatre version of the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are.

More things happen. The Wild Rumpus dies down (it wasn't *that* wild anyway, the dozy Air accompaniment saw to that). I think the performers retreat to regroup and maybe get their breath back (sorry for my lack of notes on this show, btw – I wasn't meant to be reviewing it. Exeunt's esteemed editor DBY was. I was just his plus-one, until he didn't make it on time.. :-) ).

The next bit (you'll have gathered by now that this show is *Very* Episodic Indeed) involves a bunch of very small light cubes. Each is about the size of dice from a board game and glows from the inside. One performer scatters them and them crawls about trying to pick them up again, putting them on his back, as an illuminated exo-spine. The gradually evolves as more performers come on with some glowing red score boards, which turn out to be made out of red versions of the little light cubes. At one point the crawling performer even puts some in his mouth making his grin glow red. By this stage I have absolutely no idea what this has to do with football whatsoever, but then I don't really understand football any more than I understand contemporary dance, so my coordinates were liable to be a bit skewed anyway.

The last thing I've got in the brief list of elements from the show that I scribbled down as soon as I got out is:
“A magically animate mashmallow dolphin walking on its hind legs”.
This is a pretty accurate description of one of the final images in the piece. I should now attempt some sort of extended musing on the relationship of football to the arts (much, coincidentally, as Michael's just done with cricket over at the Guardian - 'typical', a cynic may remark, 'that Michael's chosen a game that no one in mainland Europe will ever try to do differently'...).

Well, the last piece of football related art I saw was The Saints, which, I saw at Hamburger Bahnhof (interestingly – to me – with a German dramaturg who was quite bemused that we Brits cared so much about the '66 final, when for Germany the '74 FDR defeat of the Netherlands was much more important to their national psyche – they quite like the British, they can't stand the Dutch, apparently), although to have been more usefully comparable, the latter piece should perhaps have been about Britain's defeat at the hand of Argentina in 1986.

Blimey. I really am getting bad at conclusions. Punchy or otherwise. I'm tired. I'll sleep on it. Maybe there'll be one here in time. All the information's there now. Possibly not all the analysis; although I'm not sure I'm going to come up with anything terribly whizzy. I suppose the problem is, I don't really like snappy conclusions. They seem a bit glib, somehow. I cringed at the one I stuck at the end of the Time Out review of Press for form's sake (although, Jesus, Haydon; they're a lot less self-indulgent than this. Who do you think you are now? Bret Easton Ellis?)

Tell you what, you think of a nice, neat-football punning conclusion.

Here's the trailer, that might help:

Saturday 26 May 2012


[Written for The Stage]

I'm sitting on a mini-bus driving through snowy mountains with several elderly Norwegians, five British actors, an English-Iranian director, a Welsh producer, a Scottish stage manager, and various Kurdish fixers, translators, drivers and hangers on. We are listening to very loud Arabic music. There is much clapping and dancing.

Welcome to the Middle East. Welcome to the first Suleimanyah International Theatre Festival, in Kurdistan, Iraq. Welcome to ATC's travelling production of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig's The Golden Dragon. A play about Chinese immigrants in Europe.

I'm not really sure what I was expecting from an international theatre festival in Kurdistan. I approached the whole thing with a fair amount of trepidation. Ok, so I'd read the Foreign Office reports saying Kurdistan was as safe as houses, but it was still technically part of Iraq, right? And all I'd ever seen of Iraq was footage of bombs exploding in hot, sandy market places, soldiers running to and fro, and bloodied bodies being stretchered away. Wrong. If anyone had shown me a selection of the photos I took on the trip and asked me to guess where they were from, I would have probably guessed Poland or Russia.

A bit of history: while Kurdistan is still technically a part of Iraq to this day (independence is a much-debated issue), following Saddam Hussein's failed invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the Americans (and British) drew up a no-fly zone on the “36th parallel”. This effectively meant that Kurdistan was now protected from a repeat of Hussein's genocidal al-Anfal campaign of the late eighties, which saw between 1,100,000 and 2,150,000 Kurds murdered in death camps and nerve gas attacks on their villages. As such, when the 2003 invasion kicked off, Kurdistan was left largely unmolested. They were no fans of Saddam. Go right ahead and kick his ass, seems to have been the general consensus.

The drive from Suleimanyah International Airport is telling. On one side of the road is a high concrete wall replete with armed sentries (protecting what from whom was never fully explained), but on the other side of the road is a brand spanking new American University. Whilst being far and away the most *foreign* place I've ever been, there is still a clear Western, American influence beginning to show. The company spent one evening in a café with a bunch of locals who were all merrily checking their iPhones, Facebooking on their MacBooks and drinking Heineken.

That said, there seems to be precious little/no professional theatre in Kurdistan. Therefore, in Suleimanyia, the company's first issue was finding a space in which to perform. The space in which the company had been slated to play was the same venue as the grand opening of the Festival – a giant barn of a concert hall, that would be perhaps best suited to a massive orchestral performance. It was less suited to a small, intimate avant-garde piece transferring from Traverse 2 and the Arcola. Imagine putting 4.48 Psychosis in the London Palladium, and you might get some idea of the problem.

The organisers were very understanding and obliging, though, and the company spent a good ten hours of their first day first trooping round possible alternative venues, eventually settling on a slightly lecture-theatre-y space (not unlike London's Shaw Theatre, come to think of it), equipped with at least a rudimentary lighting rig, and a somewhat wayward lighting board.

Another issue slightly worrying the company was the nature of the material itself. We had all been made aware that this was an Islamic country. Quite a liberal Islamic country, but still somewhere where drinking was frowned on, women were expected to at least dress modestly, and presumably where homosexuality wasn't exactly flavour of the month. What were the audience going to make, then, of a play in which men frequently put on dresses and played *very* immodestly dressed women, in which “sex-acts” are simulated, and in which several characters get copiously drunk? Were they unwittingly staging a time-bomb of cultural insensitivity? Ramin had said he'd checked everything in the staging with our hosts and they'd said it was all totally fine. But, it was hard to dispel the faint sense of foreboding as the company took to the stage for the first performance.

The theatre was rammed. Thanks to an abundance of health and safety laws, and basic fire drill precautions, you can usually tell how many people are in a “full house” in the UK simply by knowing the number of seats. Not so in Kurdistan. When the actual seats ran out, additional punters simply started filling up the steps on the aisles.

Would there be one of the region's periodic power-cuts mid scene? Would the company trigger a mass exodus of disgusted patrons and full-on diplomatic incident with their full-and-frank staging? Would the lighting board even hold out until the end?

Ladies and Gents, we really needn't have worried. Rarely have I sat in a theatre with such a high quality of attention. Laughs came loud and hard in exactly the right places. Audible murmurs of compassion washed round the space in the poignant moments. The level of engagement and concentration were palpable. This was a dream audience. And the applause afterwards went on for what seemed like forever.

After the show the actors could hardly leave the building for people wanting to thank each and every one of them personally. When we got to the restaurant we were eating in that evening the whole place burst into yet more wild applause. Apparently everyone in town had been at the theatre.

I confess I was mildly baffled about what had prompted such a reaction. Sure, I liked the show plenty. I wouldn't have volunteered to get “embedded” if I hadn't at least *liked* the show, but I was slightly doubtful about its potential cross-cultural appeal. What did a lot of late-capitalist, post-modern, German angst about the plight of Chinese immigrants have to say to an oppressed people in the Middle East?

Apparently plenty. Everyone seemed to have experience of immigration, having either fled Kurdistan at some point, or having had family members or friends who had done so. And beyond that, there was gratitude for the sheer fact of our having made the effort to travel there at all.

Kurdistan is a very young democracy, and some of the things people we met there said suggested it has teething problems. But the stated mission of the first Suleimanyah International Theatre Festival was to provide an opportunity for Kurds to be inspired by culture from abroad and for it to play a part in the rebuilding of society and the democratization of Kurdistan. Of course, it's impossible to gauge immediately what effects the festival might have had, but it felt like hundreds of vital seeds were sown by this first Festival. I can't wait to return for the next one, and I hope many more British companies will be invited over the coming years.

Friday 25 May 2012

Love, Love, Love - Royal Court

[a (TL:DR) review of the play as seen from one of the the 10p standing spaces on the left hand side of the auditorium]

I love the Royal Court sometimes:

Postcards   Hello, have you got any of the 10p standing tickets left?

Lovely Royal Court Box Office Person   Yes, two.

Postcards   Perfect. Can I buy them, please?

Lovely Royal Court Box Office Person   Certainly. That'll be 20p.

Part of me feels a bit of an idiot for flagging up the seemingly little known fact that the Royal Court sells a few 10p standing tickets for sold-out shows (available only in person and released about an hour before the performance, I think); I might want to use them again. But then, I know how few readers I have, so it feels relatively safe. Even so, there was something incredibly satisfying about turning up to the Court on the off chance there'd be any left and there being precisely the number I wanted half an hour before curtain-up.

It's worth pointing out at the outset that the view from the 10p standing places is not exactly perfect (although, oddly, having paid only 10p I actually felt less inclined to grumble than I have on many occasions when I've been given a free press ticket in the middle of the stalls – this was A Bargain, rather than “work”). You're almost in the slips on the extreme ends of the circle and leaning through an odd little window. As a result, quite a lot of one side of the stage is obscured from view, so this is necessarily a review of the acting that happened on the left hand side of the stage. Still, I quite liked that. There was also something enjoyably Live Art-y about watching a wall of wallpaper while some characters spoke lines that could well have been said in a room with wallpaper that looked like that. (I'd also add that for a play of 2 and half hours (including two intervals) you probably shouldn't take the standing tickets if you've got any neck or back problems as you're kind of bent round for the duration). Still, I'm not complaining. Which is no small testament to James Grieve's excellent production of Mike Bartlett's thoroughly absorbing new (-ish) play.

Actually, Love, Love, Love (Lovex3) has been around for a while now. I'm not sure if the writing pre-dates the current Conservative coalition (although there's now a line inserted to acknowledge it), but it does feel like a play from slightly happier times. Which, given what I'm about to say, might sound a bit odd.

The basic subject of Lovex3, well there are two: on one hand, it's a three act play that traces a couple from the beginning of their relationship in 1967, through seeing them with their children in 1990, to seeing them in early retirement in 2011 when their children are almost the age they were in the second scene. On the other hand, it's essentially a play looking at the aspirations and subsequent economic fortunes of the baby-boomer generation.

Granted, the sodding baby-boomers are hardly the most under-represented demographic going – from Our Friends in the North and the recent (and unwatchable) White Heat on TV (which curiously, also featured Claire Foy) to things like Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in theatre (and there are *many* things like Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in theatre). There are probably also countless novels.

Indeed, growing up as a child of the baby-boomer generation, such has been the reach of their cultural influence, anyone born a generation later would be forgiven for thinking more or less everything in the universe was invented between the release of Sergeant Pepper and the Prague Spring, Paris Student or Grosvenor Square riots, and that everything since has been a crashing disappointment (David Hare's Berlin is an excellent example of this sort of thinking).

What makes Bartlett's play more interesting than being merely a well-written addition to this bloated corpus, is that it is written from the perspective of that generation's children, who are now unwillingly approaching their forties. My generation, in fact. (indeed, I'm more or less exactly the same age as the son in the play, although, for the record, I should note that my parents are both a bit older and a lot nicer). Or rather there is an equal focus on them here. Bartlett is far too good a dramatist not to actually have every character's perspective well-rounded, fully-represented and even if never entirely sympathetic, then at the very least completely understandable. If I have a slight misgiving, it is that Bartlett seems to be developing a growing tendency to over-underline, or to too emphatically drive home the point he is making. Although, in fairness, I'd argue he is still a long way away from the point where whole stories feel as if they have been contrived simply to make these points. Of course, they presumably have been (as in much (most?) theatre), but the story here also feels interesting and engaging on a purely human level.

The best scene of Lovex3 is the first. An old-fashioned curtain rises (it says everything about Mark Lawson's recent embarrassingly out-of-touch article for the Guardian that most theatres now only attach curtains to normally curtainless venues to emphasise “this is the Fifties or Sixties” (see also: Clybourne Park)) to reveal a perfectly realised down-at-heel flat in Sixties London (designed by Lucy Osborne. Top marks).

The scene is a simple one. Kenneth (Ben Miles) is staying at the flat of his older brother, Henry (Sam Troughton). Kenneth is down from Oxford for the summer holidays. Henry hasn't been to university, but both are avoiding the family home out in “the provinces”. The awkward Henry's apparently ingrained resentment of his luckier, cockier, sexier young brother is amplified by the fact that he wants him out of the flat because his new girlfriend, Sandra (Victoria Hamilton), is coming round.

Bartlett's obviously done some research, the date is the 25th June 1967 – the day of the Our World broadcast, screened in 26 countries, for which the Beatles, representing Great Britain, wrote All You Need Is Love (the source of the play's title. obviously) specially. It's an excellent moment to choose to illustrate the sense of excitement and potential that young people in the 60s felt excited about.

Kenneth and Henry (and later Sandra) – significantly all from less-than-posh, provincial backgrounds – discuss almost a checklist of zeitgeisty ideas: feminism, the bomb, Vietnam, pop music, pot, and their own potential futures with naïve enthusiasm and optimism (Kenneth, Sandra) or with suspicion, mistrust and resentment (Henry). All this would be quite irritating, if it were not for the other things Bartlett (and the production) does with the scene.

For a start, it's actually a lot more contemporary – i.e. postmodern – than it initially appears. Just as Three Kingdoms pastiched the theatrical styles of the three countries where the scenes were located, Lovex3's opening scene offers a pretty pitch-perfect evocation of the early plays of Harold Pinter – stuff like The Caretaker or his script of The Servant. There's also mention made of Joe Orton and the three-way power struggle here is not unlike that of Entertaining Mr Sloane.

However, this is more than just playful postmodernism. If anything, it's only the costume, setting and accents that put Pinter in mind, since actually, this beautifully observed, almost clockwork-precise power playing is also classic Bartlett territory (cf. My Child, Contractions, Cock, and Bull)

There's also the interesting phenomenon of the casting. Given that this is a play which runs over the course of 40-odd years, there's going to be an obvious problem with the “naturalism” here. The fact that director James Grieve basically doesn't worry about it at all is one of the things that endears the production to me. On one hand, you see, we have this flawless naturalistic play/production, on the other, in the first scene, we've got three actors in their, what? Early forties? (no, Sam Troughton is only 35, sorry) all playing 19-23 year olds. It's not quite Blue Remembered Hills, but there's something more interesting about watching grown-ups trying to (and largely succeeding in) capturing the mannerisms, physicality and speech patterns of younger selves from a bygone era (Victoria Hamilton in this scene seems to be doing a brilliant job of channelling Marianne Faithful).

The next two scenes are slightly less exciting theatrically speaking. In the second we see [SPOILER ALERT] Kenneth and Sandra married with teenage children. Their self-presentation as groovy free-spirits has wound up with them as proto Squeezed-Middlistas struggling with their mortgage, children's school fees and stuck living in Reading. The nominal crux of this scene – set on the eve of their older child, Rose (Claire Foy)'s 16th birthday – is essentially the age-old chestnut of middle-class adultery. However, if anything, this is simply used by Bartlett as a way of illustrating how the seeds of Kenneth and Sandra's blithe unconcern for anyone other than themselves, planted and nourished by half-baked hippy ideals of “freedom”, have flourished over 23 years into a bloom of myopic, post-Thatcherite selfishness.

And this does rather seem to be Bartlett's *point*. In scene three we see the family – a few months after Henry's funeral – Rose is 37, her younger brother Jamie (George Rainsford) is 35 and the “grown-ups” are 64 (perhaps another amusing Beatles related joke – another 3K echo). This is the “morning-after” scene of the three-act play (Structurally Lovex3 also reminds me a lot of Noel Coward's Private Lives). Here we learn about the fall-out from Act 2 where Kenneth and Sandra [SPOILER] decide to split up before their children's very eyes. They're now both wealthy, retired and divorced, while Jamie is clearly a bit of a basket case – Rose puts it down to his being traumatised by his parents' behaviour, although his faded Screamadelica t-shirt hints at another possibility. Rose is a pretty normal, impecunious, struggling, arts-'n'-temping type (i.e. pretty much anyone who works in the arts). She's come to her dad's – clearly huge – house, inviting her mother too, because she wants them to buy her a house. This sets the scene for the final stand-off, the play's big denouement. Rose throws all the accusations at the baby-boomer generation: that it wasn't all about “Love”, it was about money; that they have bought up the world and priced their own children out of the property market; that when they were her age, they had jobs for life and their house half paid off. They in turn round on her accusing her of wanting everything handed to her on a plate; of not knowing the meaning of hard work; of being overly dependent, and; expecting life to be “fair”.

It's pretty much the standard set of inter-generational accusations that we frequently hear bandied about in opinion columns – perhaps most usually in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail (who frequently trot out both sets of accusations since the Tory press won't ever be able to decide who to hate more between The Young, and soi-disant Soixante-Huitards).

What's great about this sort of Big Topic “Thesis Play” is that you can really engage with its analysis (or at least, with one's reading of what that analysis is, or how it comes across). For me, while Bartlett's portrait of these *specific people* is deftly rendered and convincing, it strikes me as possible to see them as embodiments of entire generations (surely intentionally, to a point), and here it gets a bit more tricky.

On one hand, Bartlett does have the advantage of history, in being able to point to the present day and suggest that myriad current malaises have their roots in what turn out to be the selfish ambitions of the baby-boomers. On the other hand, I'd suggest he perhaps makes things a bit easy for himself.

Sandra and Kenneth (in that order) have already demonstrated their propensity for thoughtlessly putting themselves first by the end of Act One. And none of the characters are especially “political” (although, while Sandra's feminism is initially derided by Henry and Kenneth, it is perhaps the most successfully realised of any of their ambitions given that by the end of the play she seems to have had a very successful career). It would have perhaps been more significant if we'd seen people with a real commitment to social justice and change gradually sell-out their principles (he said, sounding like Michael Billington) - but it's hardly a shift from materialism to, uh, materialism here. On the other hand, that narrative has been a bit done to death, so perhaps Bartlett has been canny by side-stepping this well-worn trope.

But, as a result, I did wonder if Lovex3 ends up selling short the actual social changes of the Sixties (which were in fact put in place by the previous generation in the aftermath of WWII). But then, Bartlett does at least make a strong case for having done so with his vision of what came next.

Post Three Kingdoms, it's kept on striking me that I wind up writing about different sorts of productions very differently. It's probably not the first time I've had this thought, and I'm pretty sure I've definitely written how my half-theory that how one *reads* a play very much influences how one writes about it – possibly even down to having one's prose style slightly altered (I'd certainly argue that the fact I could overnight my Belarusian King Lear review was largely down to the energy of the production).

What strikes me in the light of that thought, and in the light of 3K, is actually, how playful, and how *auteured* Lovex3 actually felt.

Sure, on the surface it looks like a textbook example of “serving-the-text” (with which, I don't necessarily have an issue), but actually, I'd argue that reading Grieve's production like that means you end up overlooking some very real (but possibly unattributable) jouissance on the part of the production team.

In fact, I reckon there's as much going on here regarding the use of *apparently* realist costumes and recorded music as there was in 3K with the more obviously *readable* costumes and the (sometimes) live music.

I've already noted that Mike has woven All You Need Is Love into the very fabric of the show (thus causing the La Marseillaise to get stuck in my head all over again). But elsewhere Grieve has done some neat stuff. For a start, there's the use of Pink Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive, which deliberately-or-not echoes its use in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in this very venue six years ago for the Court's own 50th birthday show. Using Kula Shaker's version of Hush being played to usher out the 90s and usher in “now” is even neater, linking as it does contemporary music's “Retromania” (the song was originally by Billy Joe Royal and released in, yup, 1967) to the history of the stage again, this time via Kula Shaker singer's grandfather Sir John Mills, part of the original cast of Veterans by Charles Wood from 1972 – one of the plays given a revival reading during the Court's 50th anniversary celebrations. (if I wanted to write a book on Love, Love, Love I would go into the lyrics as well, but there just isn't time).

Similarly, the costumes don't just look authentic, they also look like costumes looking like authentic costumes. Coupled with the V-Effekt casting in the opening scene and the echoes of Pinter and Orton, this is the stage commenting on how we stage the past.

I should also say something about the performances, since they are universally excellent. I'm not sure I've ever actually seen anything James Grieve has directed before (it feels like I ought to have done, he and George ran Nabokov for, like, *forever*), but if Love, Love, Love is anything to go by he should be being regarded as one of our best directors of realism and being spoken of in the same breathe as Marianne Elliott and Thea Sharrock. But, as I've commented before, it's hard to know who does what, and it could equally be the case that the cast here are just so good at acting that they'd have come up with the goods irrespective of who was in the room with them.

I don't often get that excited about actors managing to pretend to be real people on stage, but there was something about the tension between wit, warmth, commentary and nuance that really appealed. You could see the *character's* thought processes – little guilty tics (Ben Miles), the journey a voice takes as it ages (Victoria Hamilton), trying to have a thought-process at all (George Rainsford), simmering resentment (and communicating that resentment as an almost imperceptible appeal-to-the-audience – Sam Troughton).

I think I disagree slightly with Dan Rebellato (whose excellent consideration of the play is well worth reading at least twice). On the first hand, as I've outlined above, I disagree that “it’s a play asking very difficult questions about radicalism”. Then, secondly, I didn't as Dan felt that: “watching this on Saturday, that the audience was simply enjoying the impersonation of types rather than feeling, in any way, skewered.”

My experience, seeing this last Saturday (albeit matinee), was of standing looking out over an audience composed almost entirely of that '68 generation, with their nice clothes and their paid off mortgages and their quite possibly poorer children reduced to buying 10p standing tickets thanks to jobs in the arts (hem hem). And that audience looking *quite uncomfortable*. Interestingly, the most electric moment in the auditorium was during the scene where both parents [SPOILER] confess to having had affairs [END SPOILER]. It was like watching The Mousetrap (Hamlet not Christie), with about 300 Claudiuses. But another line also struck home; where Rose screams at her retired parents: “It's not just me. Everyone I know has less than their parents did at their age. They're bringing up their children in these tiny little houses, these tiny little flats, the best they can afford, while their parents sit on all the money, in huge houses, with big empty rooms. It's disgusting.”

I don't think I've ever heard or read something that seems so almost universally true ever said or written about the status quo before.

Of course, one can immediately qualify Rose's assertion – she's living in London, her parents' had a big house *in Reading*, she could probably get much the same for the same rent if she was prepared to move to Reading. But that's not the point here. The point is the almost audible shockwave round the auditorium about a beat later where pretty much everyone in the audience experienced a collective Oh Fuck moment.

If there is a real criticism here, it might be one best summarised by the Jewish joke punchline: “If only we should have such troubles!”  Because, while I'll argue it *is* skewering something very precise, it's not exactly the thinnest end of the wedge in Britain. Yes, it accurately presents what seems to be a unique point in recent history where, in the post war years, the welfare state was founded, the NHS was created, state education was apparently the best it ever got, new universities and polytechnics were founded, and some of the working-, lower-middle and middle-middle classes were able to pretty much move up at least one “class” bracket. And it looks at what is now happening to that generation's children.

But what that problem boils down to is someone not being able to sustain the lifestyle to which they'd become accustomed in adult life. It's regrettable, sure. It's a shame. A bit of a pity. And, when it comes to that meaning that they might have to think twice before having any children of their own, it gets that bit sadder. On the other hand, we're not talking about slums and starvation here. Jamie, after all, is shown to be having a perfectly nice time pootling round his dad's house doing essentially bugger all except keeping him company on trips to the pub. Even if, thanks to Bartlett's aptitude with discomfort, we're kept speculating as to how happy he really is, how much his dad is really coping, and what the ending might spell for this cosy set-up.

So, no slick conclusion here. Although the review could probably use one.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Belarusian King Lear – The Globe

Belarus Free Theatre have one outstanding USP – they have a good claim on the title “the most endangered theatre company in the world”. Banned in their homeland, they have been threatened with imprisonment, rape and torture, by Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship.

I have to confess, I wasn't hugely bowled over by their scratch performance of Minsk 2011 at last year's Edinburgh Fringe, but it was a scratch performance, so allowances can be made – even if almost everyone else decided to review the unimpeachable integrity rather than the slightly sloppy undergraduate devised piece aesthetic.

Nevertheless, apart from Eimuntas Nekrosius's Hamlet from Lithuania, thanks to massive celebrity support in Britain BFT are about the most famous company performing in the Globe to Globe season. And they've been given King Lear in recognition of this fact, one imagines. It is possibly the most poetic of all Shakespeare's tragedies. Perhaps even the most tragic.

I was about ten minutes late to this evening's performance. As I entered an grey-haired man in shabby modern dress was sitting in a wheelchair having a conversation with a violent-looking shaven-headed youth in vest and military boots. The old man is pissing from his chair into a bowl. This is Gloucester and Edmund.

That tells you about all you need to know about the style. It's fast: they'd already whizzed through the whole of the 332-line first scene in which Lear divides his Kingdom in the ten minutes before I arrived. It's scatological: Gloucester's first act after relieving himself was to grab Edmund's head and grind it into his crotch to indicate his anger at what Edmund had just told him. And it's urgent: this urgency is mostly drawn from the company's “poor theatre” aesthetic and their mad dash to bring King Lear in at about two hours plus interval.

There is a generalised contemporaneity to it – Goneril and Regan are dressed in the now-regulation high heels, fur coats and tight mini-dresses of many post-Soviet bloc theatre traditions. The boots look like those issued as standard to the Belarusian army, but Lear is wearing an enormous shiny metal gauntlet on his right hand – perhaps a symbol of his kingship, but surely also a nod the the play's original medieval setting. In the main this is a Lear of suit jackets over dirty white vests, quicky stripped away to three examples of the de rigueur full frontal male nudity for the madness on the heath.

To cut the play so short, there must be innovation and cuts aplenty. Until the end, I think pretty much every soliloquy has been excised (this seems to be a common way for G2G companies to bring down running times – although the results of those which have remained have been fascinating). The action is fast and frenetic, the language into which the text has been rendered is demotic, not poetic. And the characters run about cursing one another in order to get through the plot.

The ensemble's chief virtue is energy and invention and they attack the play like angry clowns jabbering, accompanied by onstage piano and saxophone played from the balcony. The storm is played with Lear atop a large blue tarpaulin as buckets of water are thrown at him as he rages. The climactic battle between England and France is played out under a red tarpaulin with punches flying out on all sides like those cartoon fights in dust clouds.

This is a compelling, watchable King Lear. There is always something new happening. Gone are the solitary figures pacing their lonely sterile promontories doing nothing but telling us what their plans are, what they think and how they feel. Instead, no one gets a minute to themselves as the action rushes onwards. The downside of this is that we do lose here all sense of the play's tragedy. We don't really get to know the characters well enough to start to feel for them.

That said, in this production, you get the impression that they'd spurn our sympathy anyway. In a lot of ways, if this King Lear seems like the least tragic you've ever seen, it's because none of the characters ever even give way to self-pity. They're too wired. It is only at the (very sudden) end that Lear delivers something like his mourning speech over Cordelia's topless corpse and yet even here he is flanked by the entire company, alive or dead, standing, watching and singing that in that jagged, haunting Eastern European style also used by Teatr ZAR or Voix Bulgares.

It doesn't feel as if Belarus Free Theatre have taken the play and used it to say anything about the situation in their own troubled country. Instead, the political act here is the fact of their being here at all. They've certainly inhabited the play and made it theirs. This is King Lear as a strange, savage act. A relentless unfolding of brutality. As such, while not what I was expecting, that feels like more than enough of a statement.

While writing this piece I had a look back to see what other King Lears I'd seen. I seem to have reviewed more-or-less a Lear a year since 2006 (apart from when I was in Berlin).

The Russian one at the Barbican

Trevor Nunn/Ian Mckellen for the RSC

The Dominic Dromgoole/David Calder one at the Globe

The Rupert Goold / Pete Postlethwaite one for Headlong at the Young Vic (Six stars - Time Out)

and Jeremy Hardinham's Unfolding King Lear A Model

It's quite interesting (to me, at least) to see how much the way I write, or maybe my tone, has changed (also, I've got better at not making clangers like that first review where my memory of the plot is really quite embarrassing).

(all photographs copyright Simon Kane)

Friday 18 May 2012

Three Kingdoms and Misogyny

“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as "moral indignation", which permits envy and hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue”  
Erich Fromm 


 People who I like and respect have raised the question, so it feels like it is worth looking at in detail. Although rather than being a conversation about “misogyny”, it is actually a conversation about how we watch theatre.

A couple of initial points: using the word “misogynist” pretty much slams the brakes on a nuanced discussion. There's no “moderately misogynist”, “quite misogynist”, or “perhaps a bit misogynist?”. It is one of the most black and white words imaginable.

A Misogynist is “a man who hates women or believes that men are much better than women

It's a word that brooks no discussion. Using it about Three Kingdoms makes it feel like there's suddenly no room left to attempt a “reading” of the production, and talking about anything else means that you hate women.

Maddy Costa, in her Guardian blog yesterday underlines this point:

“it all the more alarming that the one thing that most online writers gloss over is the problematic representation of women (Catherine Love at Love Theatre is the notable exception)”

It is a sentence with which I take some issue. For a start, I didn't gloss over it, I explicitly said that I wasn't sure that the production had fully cleared the hurdle of how to portray subjugated women. Nor, for the record, did Daniel B Yates “gloss over” it.  The problem with the above quote is that it takes Maddy's opinion that the “representation of women” is “problematic” as a fact. It's not a discussion point, it's already a fact, and one which it's “alarming” that other writers “gloss over”. That doesn't feel like the most productive way to instigate a discussion. There is definitely a discussion about the portrayal of women in Three Kingdoms to be had. But it's a discussion about how we think plays work.

Mentioning it opens up the possibility of a discussion. Deeming the play “misogynist” immediately closes that discussion again and makes anyone who wants to discuss it further look like an apologist for the unquestionable woman-hating which the play apparently definitely enacts.

Consider the next paragraph [which I've split up a bit]:

“The violence against women in the language is appalling,”

Yes. Although I'd contend, a) it is *some characters'* language which is appalling, b) that that's pretty much inevitable in a play about cynical people-traffickers, c) it's a bit like complaining when a play about Nazis contains some people saying anti-Semitic things, d) what is the alternative? A play about sex-trafficking that *doesn't* make us uncomfortable?

“So is the meticulousness with which the death of a prostitute is detailed”

Same again, really. It is powerful and horrible. It's meant to be powerful and horrible. Assuming that we want a theatre that can admit that there are horrible things in the world, then I don't see any way around this. I would contend that there's no more sadism or relish on Simon's part than there ever was in the work of Sarah Kane. Nor did the scene strike me as gratuitous – the matter-of-factness of Peeter Koepell, the home office pathologist, is a well-worn trope of the detective genre that Simon is exploding here.

“the silence of the women on stage – who are spat at, transfigured as deer (the powerless prey of hungry wolves), or reduced to blankly mopping the floor [is also appalling]. Yet the general consensus is that the end justifies the means: that the modern world is excoriated through representation.”

Actually, my perspective isn't that the “end justifies the means” but that these “means” *work*.; these “means” *mean*. It's perhaps also worth noting in passing that six of the seven people who hold mops during the play are male performers and that the deer heads were “conceived and designed by Ene-Liis Semper” (Simon Stephens). But maybe, on the other hand, that is a) irrelevant and b) part of the separate problem of the *under-representation* of women on stage.

Then we get to the even more difficult bit:

“I appreciate where this is coming from: almost nothing about the play's depiction of women worried me while watching. Afterwards, though, one question resounded in my head: why are women the commodity here and not, for example, drugs or guns?”

Well, the simple answer to that is that drugs and guns don't have feelings and no one really cares about how they're treated. They're not a human story. To be about drugs or guns, the play would have to be about the people moving them around. The trafficking of people is a uniquely disgusting crime. At the same time, yes, this is the crime that Simon has chosen to explore.

Three Kingdoms offers no explanation”

Aside from what I've said above, I'd also disagree with this. The subject seems woven into not only the fabric of every line of the play and production, but moreover, that it's the play's thesis (which makes it sound much more lofty than the play ever is) that this activity is indicative of a much wider problem in capitalism.

“which makes it look dangerously like a play that uses women to tell a story set among men who use women to make themselves rich.”

Given that this is *A Subject* (something that perhaps on one level we *should* think about – in the tradition of British theatre that Worries About Issues and on another level, *can* serve as a metaphor for much wider issues), I'm at a bit of a loss what anyone would rather. Edinburgh for the past three or four years has served up all sorts of pieces offering the female perspective, sometimes based on interviews, sometimes more speculative, in which various actresses have pretended to be trafficked sex-workers and detailed their appalling experiences. This has often struck me as sometimes potentially and sometimes actually crass. I mean, what are we being invited to look at there? Is that better?

If we're going to accept that this issue is so gendered that writers, directors, whoever, can only represent their own sex's part in the sex-trade, then isn't it fair enough that Simon (who, let's not forget, is no slouch when it comes to also writing strong women's parts – Wastwater, Pornography, Harper Regan, etc.) has, in this instance, written a play about the male side of the equation? If a writer is troubled by an issue, then isn't is fair enough that they unpack it in the way that they can? Some men in the world do treat women like this, and it isn't solely a woman's prerogative to write a play deploring that fact.

I'm not being at all flippant when I say that the piece of theatre with which I most closely identified Three Kingdoms in terms of content was actually Chris Goode's Infinite Lives, another narrative of male loneliness, alienation, the internet, pornography, exploitation and global capitalism. (although, granted, I don't think there's a single woman even mentioned in Infinite Lives) (and, as we'll later see, Chris and I have slightly different views re: content, insofar as I do still occasionally find the contents of something formally reactionary interesting and Chris tends to think – to paint a very broad picture of his position – that if the form is reactionary then the content is basically a bit stuffed).

“By not tackling this issue in real depth, the online writers risk seeming as entrenched in their approbation of Three Kingdoms as the newspaper critics in their wariness and/or hostility.”

Whereas it now feels like this one aspect of the production has become the only aspect that is a valid point of discussion. No one has condemned anyone for not looking hard enough at the representations of the various nationalities involved in the play in their review, or for not thinking deeply enough about the European (and beyond) history involved, or for not fully unpacking the ways that slavery relates to the different countries – from Britain's slave-owning Empire, through the forced-labour of the Third Reich to the more-or-less slave/cannon-fodder status of the Baltic states in the USSR/Afghanistan war.

No. None of the online reviews really managed to fully unpack any aspect of Three Kingdoms. But then I reckon you could write a book on this production of Three Kingdoms and still not have covered everything. None of which is to say that I think it's flawless, FTR; just that it opens a hell of a lot of doors, and the production emphasises this, and behind those doors are yet more doors. And in that respect, it is one of the most exciting fully staged productions I've seen all year – and the fact that it's playing in a theatre big enough and for just about long enough to have been seen by about half the people who think hardest about theatre that I know is also exciting.

“This matters, because theatre criticism has a role above and beyond the star rating that tells potential audiences whether or not to purchase a ticket.”

Yes. I agree and I have made a similar point many times. On the other hand, the reviews, or critiques, or discussions do have to *get* written to be posted online. The possibility of going on forever doesn't mean that one doesn't get tired, or feel the need to post a first salvo, a work-in-progress, or some initial ideas. In part, this is both an initial failure of presentation on the part of some online critics, but also of imagination on Maddy's part, for assuming that there won't be more at some point. For assuming that online the review is the end of the conversation like it tended to be in print.

However, Maddy also notes:

Three Kingdoms plays in London for just two and a half weeks, yet it has the potential to affect British theatre far beyond that.”

For that to happen, *people* (a vital element of British Theatre) do have to go and see it. An MA Thesis-length discussion of whether or not the production is “misogynist” isn't necessarily going to get many people through the doors. There is an argument that these first shots *needed* to reflect the sheer excitement of watching the thing (best example so far here, btw)

I also resent the suggestion that my position is “entrenched”. Granted, some people are liable to snort at that, given that I've liked a lot of Simon's previous work a hell of a lot and loved 50% of the other (two) shows I've seen directed by Sebastian Nübling (wasn't such a huge fan of Alpsegen, although that could be down to several factors outwith the direction, including me *really* not getting it – again several factors, not least it being in un-surtitled German and being a pastiche/satire about a particular regional dialect within German), but I don't think liking something and saying as much is “entrenchment” any more than not liking it and saying so is.

As a general note about the perceived “misogyny” in the piece, I should confess at this juncture that I find the assumption that the piece was made solely by two named men (invariably Stephens and Nübling), and that neither the (female, FTR) designer nor the play's two female actors have any actual agency whatsoever incredibly problematic.

As if, because they are playing silent “victims” on stage (in the case of the actresses), they've also got no voice in the rehearsal room; that they don't have strong feelings about the value of the production. It's probably worth noting that both women are part of the respective ensembles of Munich Kammerspiele and Teatr NO99. They have much stronger relationships with the other members of the cast from their country than the English actors necessarily have (although Simon does mention in the Lyric Hammersmith trailer that Ferdy and Nicholas are friends in real life).

 I don't know about the precise conditions under which they make work in Munich or Tallinn, but I do know that NO99 are very much an ensemble company like, say, early Theatre de Complicité, and that job security for actors in Germany is such that I think I'm right in saying that it even has provision for maternity leave. I also know that both female actors and the designer are passionate advocates of the show. Which may or may not count for anything. But I find it significant. Although, of course, other people are welcome to disagree with them for being proud of the work they've made, and to assert that it is “misogynist”.


I'd also like to have a stab at responding to the comment/s left by Chris Goode under my review of Three Kingdoms, and perhaps some of the stuff he's said since on the comment thread under Maddy's piece...

First off, I think Chris and I sometimes (often?) watch theatre in different ways, and sometimes *want* different things out of it. Which I think means I'll be slightly less-than-useful at really getting to grips with his points. By way of example, I shall first quote from his initial comment on Maddy's Guardian blog:

Three Kingdoms creates a stage world in which acts of physical violence are simulated (a kick that doesn't connect with a body, etc.), and in which sexual acts are simulated (dildos and squirty cream). My guess is it thinks it's simulating misogyny in the same register. I don't think it can. I think it creates a misogynistic situation, for real. It might, as Daniel B. Yates's brilliantly executed review suggests, "make us complicit with the worst"; but it seems to want its playfulness to exempt it from its own complicity. But it does not show us misogyny, it makes things happen for real which are blatantly, energetically and exuberantly misogynistic.”


“I won't bang on about this here but I do suspect this question -- about the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things -- will, in various forms no doubt, be the defining one in British theatre over the next few years. Because theatre is always shaped by successive versions of this same basic question: essentially, how does theatre relate, or want to relate, to the world around it?”

My first thought is about “representation” and about what I think is a difference between first the socio-political/intellectual and then the theatrical cultures of Germany and Britain:

I've been thinking about Chris's comment on my blog since he made it and trying to work out why I arrived at such different conclusions to me.

What I really wanted to do was point to what I think is a difference between the way that elements signify on stage between Britain and Germany. And I started wondering if this point concerning “representation” about which I'd worried was the logical conclusion of Britain's love-affair with mimesis: the point where our (over-)long tradition of naturalism meets contemporary multicultural society and demands that everything is fair and that Art is no excuse for anything.

Or, put much more simply, in Germany they think nothing of having a white woman play Othello. In Britain, this casting would just seem infinitely more problematic. The main reason that it would be more problematic here is that Britain just has *a lot* more black actors (of both sexes/genders) than Germany (almost a case of “i.e. *any at all*” ). It is also frequently noted that there are “very few parts for black actors”. As such, while theatre-in-Britain has areas where it infrequently allows for colour-blind casting (mostly Shakespeare), Othello is pretty much ring-fenced for black actors. A similar complaint is made about the availability of “parts for women” in Britain, while in Germany, I'm not sure the same complaints are made. Perhaps they are. Perhaps I still only have a very narrow understanding of German theatre, informed largely by quite a progressive bunch of people who might have chosen to just ignore practices of which they didn't approve in Germany's mainstream theatre.

Given the way that British theatre – for the most part, at least – seems to operate: casting “to-type”, “as-written” etc. (and we've been though this before, several times), I think, somehow, the net result is that we in Britain can still think of the people on stage as necessarily still owning certain properties/identities/constructs (race, ethnicity, age, sex/gender, disability) that they are also understood to own in life.

Sometimes a production asks us to pretend we don't identify them with these properties, and sometimes a production hinges on its “authenticity” and we are asked to specifically identify performers with foregrounded properties. There are pretty vexed arguments in favour of and against both positions.

[in Three Kingdoms, for example, is Ignatius's wife Caroline *actually* “European” - as opposed to British – or is that the actress playing her? And is Ignatius actually the same age as Nicholas Tennant or is he closer to the age of his wife in the “world of the play”? I've no idea how old Nicholas Tennant is, but I reckon his character could be anything from 35 upwards... Is it relevant what age Simon had in his head when he was imagining the character? Did he even have such a thing in mind? Was Simon anticipating Sebastian cutting the character altogether and replacing it with a mechanical penguin, causing him to not worry too much about particular human traits? etc.]

In Germany, that relationship – at least as it was explained to to me by a particular couple of German directors – is conceived differently (they both also swore blind to me, in Café Moskau on Karl-Marx-Allee, that after Hans Johst's Schlageter all naturalism was a fascist catastrophe).

I can't argue that there aren't fewer female characters on the stage, but I can offer some other thoughts:

Firstly, that I don't believe that there should necessarily be an equal division of parts between men and women in a play, or that there should necessarily be equal employment of male and female performers.

Secondly, the one time Vera, the murdered trafficked Estonian, appears on stage (at least as I read it), she is played by a man. This strikes me as one way in which the play significantly differs from a production designed and directed by misogynists. Although, as I noted in my original review, and as has been echoed more eloquently elsewhere since, I did wonder about the cross-gender playing only going in one direction.

Thirdly, in the orgy/porn-shoot scene, given that costume is a primary signifier of gender elsewhere, do we even know what gender those naked actors are meant to be? Is the performer wearing nothing but PVC pants and a strap-on, actually *meant* to *be* a man or a woman? And, following that scene, when performer Mirtel Pohla washes herself off, and then dons a blonde wig, blue dress and prosthetic cock/strap-on, well... I dunno. It could be read in all sorts of ways, surely?

Elsewhere, Michael Billington's point (in the comments section of his own review) that he “felt there was something brutally voyeuristic about one particular scene, in the Estonian section, where a young girl is taunted and abused by a group of capitalist traffickers. That struck me as a product of Nubling's staging rather than the writing.” strikes me as curious.

Why is *this* bit *too much*? By this point we have been *told* that a woman has had her head sawed off (no attempt made to show this, significantly); we have watched the two detectives recoiling in horror watching this decapitation on a mobile phone (again, all we see is their faces and the sound of tinny screaming); we have seen a female character terrified into silence by her pimp boyfriend; we have seen dance/movement sequences in which the relentlessness of sex-trafficking has been suggested by a near-ballet suggestive of relentless misery and the terrifying inexorability of people-trafficking. And yet it's *this* scene that's too much?

Further, that this accusation comes from a critic who defended the stoning of the baby in Saved? Who eventually came to understand the rape and cannibalism of Blasted as metaphor? Yes, the scene is unpleasant, but I don't think it's meant to be anything but. But the fact of there being a scene in which totally unsympathetic characters behave incredibly unpleasantly doesn't, for me, make the play something that manufactures its own misogyny any more than people pretending to be concentration camp guards in – to give a couple of examples of plays I've seen – Pip Simmons's An Die Musik or Arthur Miller's Playing For Time manufacture anti-Semitism or fascism (although that piece about An Die Musik is worth a read since it concerns a revival of a then-25-years-old/now-37 bit of radical theatre which certainly tried to blur the lines to provoke its audience...).

As such, I have questions about whether *showing* something happening, when it's portrayed by actors, is the same thing as essentially *making that thing happen*. I'd say there was a world of difference between actually punching someone in the face and two performers being complicit with one another in pretending it. I think that's almost the exact opposite.

To return to Chris's earlier point again: “I do suspect this question -- about the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things -- will, in various forms no doubt, be the defining one in British theatre over the next few years.” I've been trying to work out what it was that disturbed me about that that sentence, and I think it's the fact that Chris seems to have removed the audience from the equation entirely and seems now to be saying that audiences play no part in how meaning is created. It feels here like the person who decides what a theatre has made (or shown) is decided by Chris and he's decided it's *made* some misogyny, and now, whatever anyone else thought, is wrong. Which isn't how I think theatre works.
My second thought is about “intent”:

Chris asks: “If Three Kingdoms had been made by out-and-out misogynists, in what ways would it look or feel any different?”

I would first ask some different questions: “Would it have looked different if it had been staged by Gisele Vienne?” and “Would this make a difference?”

For those of you reading this who don't know, Vienne is one of my favourite directors (my reviews of her shows I Apologize and This is How You Will Disappear). I Apologize features something like twenty startlingly life-like, life-sized models of 13-year-old school girls and much of the action of the piece involves their choreographed torture and murder, while the soundtrack includes author Dennis Cooper reading out pieces he's written that revolve around sexual abuse of both boys and girls. This is How You Will Disappear, while slightly more illusive, it is also revolves around the suggestion of possible rapes and murders. No one – to the best of my knowledge – has ever accused either piece, or Vienne as a director/maker of “misogyny” – although I'm not sure I could answer if I was asked how, if those pieces “had been made by out-and-out misogynists, in what ways would it look or feel any different?” There is, if anything, less of a clear tone of condemnation in either. They are Art. And they are Abstract. But at the same time, some of the most concrete moments within them are surely those moments identifiable most simply as “violence against women” or “rape”.

I suppose what I'm asking is: if people knew the director was a woman (or if the writer wasn't a heterosexual man), would they be asking the same question? Which is more or less precisely the same question as “how would this differ if made by misogynists?” backwards. But the implication seems to be that Simon and Sebastian possibly could be by dint of the simple fact of their being men.

Something else I wonder about: if a work of art is A Work of Art, do we do it a disservice by kind of gendering it according to quite old-fashioned ideas about from whence its *authority* springs? (i.e. not least by crediting Stephens and Nübling with *all* the power in a rehearsal room in which we were not present). Are we not also dis-empowering ourselves as an audience who might not being making what we see into a “misogynistic situation, for real” but into a depiction of that situation which we fully understand to be, when it's presented in the space in front of us on a stage, *made up* (yes, it's *about* something real, but it's not the real thing itself).

Following on from this, my next question is: “Since the piece is designed by the internationally renowned (female) Estonian artist Ene-Liis Semper – since all the costumes, animal heads and all – are her conception, does this [similarly to the above question] mitigate our perception of the production as a whole?”

I'd also like to have a stab at answering how it would be different if it had been made by misogynists: -

I'm assuming we're thinking here of misogynists who also want to fuck women, as well as hating them, rather than people who simply have no interest in them at all. In this case, in the first instance, we'd have seen a good deal more violence against the women. Nübling's direction – which, let's be honest, could have inserted any scene it liked, including some deconstructed version of the head being sawed off or any amount of simulated rape – includes very few examples of violence against either gender.

I also think, ironically, there would have been *more* women on stage, and in far fewer clothes. After all, for all its implied sexualisation, Three Kindoms doesn't actually contain any full female nudity, while it does contain a fully naked man – viewable from pretty much every angle. I reckon I can probably imagine whether or not it would appeal to yer actual misogynist (or at least a reader of Zoo or Nuts, if there's a difference): “one pair of tits, a naked bloke, and a bloke in a dress *pretending* to be a girl? And one of the girls has got an animal head on? And it's all a critique of capitalism anyway? You're asking me to have a wank about that? Are you fucking kidding?” is my guess.

As part of my background reading for this article, I went back to Chris's (excellent. If you've not read it, read it) lecture Some of the Futures, to remind myself about some of the things he said about “Theatre”. What I was looking for wasn't there, though. It turned out to be here. What it is, is a short couple of paragraphs from July 2010 where Chris is being cross about Marina Abramovic's “standard-issue live art rejection of theatre”. I wanted to see what his objections were, contra to her suggestion that: “theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real”.

Interestingly, that piece also takes us right back to the Lyric Hammersmith and Chris watching Improbable's Lifegame. Chris describes it as crossness: “at everyone who's ever spun the idiotic line about the supposed 'passivity' of the theatre audience, as if that condition were a structurally embedded and insoluble predicament”. And, while I, a) didn't see the Lifegame, and, b) completely realise that it and Three Kingdoms must occupy two pretty different ends of some theatrical spectrum or other, I think the affirmation of trust in an active audience that Chris found at Lifegame is very much of a part with what I experienced in 3K. Obviously, in the light of several people disagreeing about the outcome, we can conclude that our reactions are obviously personal. On the other hand, I think it pretty much rules out the possibility of a definitive judgement about what Three Kingdoms *makes* on stage.

Going back to the accusation of misogyny: on this level, it reminds me a bit of the people you sometimes find who are prepared to argue until they're blue in the face that Laibach are Nazis. It also seems to disallow a whole tactic that has been identified by people much cleverer than me as being an actual and unimpeachable Leftist Win.

At a much more basic, simple level, I do also worry about the implications for theatre if some of the ways that these allegations have been made were taken to their logical conclusions. I'm not now thinking of Chris, or anyone else in particular, but just wondering aloud what the alternatives might turn out to be.

One would seem to be having the exact same piece, but making sure both the writer and director were women, so that everyone could feel more reassured that this wasn't a product of “what they really thought about women”. Another possibility might be including some “strong female characters” or “better parts for women” into the piece – although, given things like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I think is variously argued to be both totally feminist and utterly misogynist (I tend to agree with the latter camp in that case – and it might make an excellent example of what 3K would look like if it was made by misogynists).

Finally, I'd like to flag up the fact that I'm not trying to deny that anyone's discomfort or claim that any perspective is any the less valid than my total lack of the same reaction. I can't argue with how a thing made some people feel, But by the same token, I don't think they can any more necessarily tell me that I'm wrong (or a worse person) for having not felt the things they felt.

And, obviously, this is where it all gets a lot more difficult and even more subjective. I think it probably is possible to argue with cast-iron watertight cases, on any level at all that you care to choose, that Three Kingdoms both is and isn't utterly and not-at-all misogynist. It ultimately boils down to a question of one's premises and one's unshakeable belief in those premises.

The place where a conversation happens is when all parties put aside their unshakeable faiths out of interest in what actual thoughts or solutions other people might think.

Something I find interesting about this whole debate and the quarters from which it has sprung is the apparent similarity of political perspectives of the participants – all broadly speaking quite a long way left-from-centre (and that's the old centre. We all even further left from what's currently supposed to be the centre). In that respect, it also reminds me a bit of the way that The Left lost the Spanish Civil War.

What concerns me about the allegation of misogyny is that it closes down the conversation about how theatre works, which is by no means an open and shut case.

I'm going to leave this here for now, so people stand a chance of being able to get though it. I don't regard this as the end of the conversation or a parting shot. I think wondering about how theatre works and the various ways in which people read it is fascinating. I even concede that strong feelings probably have their place.  I do think, however, that there needs to be a bit more nuance and listening and a bit less of what feels like intractable assertion in this discussion.

[edit: Aha. Am now catching up with the reading on Maddy's Guardian Blog post and I see Chris Goode made many of my points above yesterday afternoon here. He says:

"I have absolutely no reason to doubt (or, indeed, any reason to be sure) that the women involved in the production -- who include the designer, a dramaturg and the stage management team as well as the two women actors -- were fully engaged in collaborating fully and equitably in the process and that they would endorse the production and speak to the unimpeachable intentions behind the entire project. But the nature of patriarchy is that it's no easier for women to opt out of its tangles and snares and contradictions than it is for men; in some ways, of course, it's harder. We are not all just standing around here in a neutral space making our art. Women actors and creatives are obliged to sell their labour in a context of massive cultural inequality, and their status as collaborators even in the most enlightened process is consequently extremely complex right from the start. That complexity can be alleviated to some extent in the process; or not. This is a production helmed by two powerful and highly respected men and dominated (at least numerically) by male actors and creatives. In that context, creating work which did not replicate the misogyny it may (plausibly) be trying to critique would always require a massive effort of struggling upstream, regardless of the details of the content and the dynamics of the staging.

 In a sense it's plain here that the intentions are good and, in a way, accurate: misogyny is not a women's issue, it's an issue for men, and I can see why Stephens's and Nubling's depictions of a number of intersecting, brutally misogynist male cultures must have felt that it had the capacity for just such a degree of critical accuracy. But what fosters misogyny is patriarchy, and patriarchy's obviously inextricably wound with capitalism, of which we are all the victims (however highly you rate Tesco's, Robert); Three Kingdoms is very obviously concerned with those questions too. This is all really good. The rub, for me, fundamentally, is that they haven't got to grips with how theatre functions in relation to patriarchy -- not only, but not least, in a heavily male-dominated production. Whether, and how, theatre can comment from outside the system it's critiquing, or whether it's ineluctably part of that system: and if it is, how it can make something happen within that system that is resistant to it rather than a further replication of its terms and conditions, and what that might require. All I can say is that I think if Stephens and Nubling are thinking through those questions at all, and if Three Kingdoms is in any way an account of that thinking, then I deeply and forcefully (though not unrespectfully) disagree with their current position." ]