Wednesday 12 September 2012

On Criticism: Was ist ist / Was nicht ist / Ist möglich

[a discussion about naturalistic plays, non-naturalistic text, ways of staging, and how critics can get it wrong. Also, an optimistic assessment of the current theatre ecology]

Yesterday's On Criticism piece dealt largely with what we do about it when we like something and don't always know why. Today's piece is about when we don't like something, and if we really do know why.

This has in part been prompted by Hannah Silva's fascinating but problematic interview with the playwright Joanna Laurens, which follows Silva's equally fascinating and equally problematic polemic for Exeunt magazine: Crisis of Naturalism.

I recommend reading both pieces. However, since I've described them as “problematic” as well as fascinating, I should try to outline briefly what I see as the problems before continuing.

Both pieces strike me as heavily writer-centric. Fair enough: both Laurens and Silva are playwrights/writers of texts-for-theatre. However, it means that both pieces appear to consider acceptance of a script for production as the end point. Silva's polemic is confusing on this point, on one hand complaining: “As a playwright I’ve discovered there is no other place to send this work.” While on the other suggesting: “If we want things to change, perhaps it is not the directors, literary managers and critics that will make the difference, but the playwrights themselves.”

Silva doesn't help her case by quoting Sarah Kane – perhaps one of Britain's most produced playwrights of the last fifteen years (and if not, then apparently blame her Beckett-like estate, not a lack of interest) – who in turn lists “Beckett, Barker, Pinter and Bond as playwrights who have been criticised not so much for the content of their work, but “because they use non-naturalistic forms that elude simplistic interpretation”.” Elsewhere Silva cites Caryl Churchill.

Certainly they may all be been criticised for the non-naturalistic form of their work at some point, but there's also the fact that Beckett and Pinter were awarded Nobel Prizes for Literature and are considered two of the most important English-language playwrights (ignoring for the time being that Beckett wrote En attendant Godot and Fin de partie in French and Spiel premièred in German) of the past century. And that both Howard Barker and Edward Bond continue to enjoy enviable reputations as fearsome dramatists – not to mention the recent revivals and seasons of new work by Bond and the fact the NT is just about to open Barker's Scenes From An Execution. While not only Caryl Churchill's new play, but also something else she knocked up in a lunch break, are currently showing at the Royal Court.

That we should all have such troubles, one might say.

Beyond this, it feels as if the polemic also ignores inconvenient facts that contradict it. Don't get me wrong, God knows I've spent enough time writing about what I perceive to be a massive level of timidity on the part of some literary departments; some times.

At the same time, I'm also a pluralist, and don't think any type of play, or even any type of production should be junked wholesale in favour of another. Some types of play (and even the notion of a type of play feels unfairly flattening or reductive) might appeal to my individual tastes more than others, but I'd be mad not to recognise that some people like different stuff to me.

I don't want to get into a thing where I start polarising naturalism and other forms of writing. It's bad if literary departments do it in one direction (and I'm not saying they do), but it's not much use if I just counter that perceived sin by committing it again in reverse. It gives the impression of an unthinking, entrenched position, perpetuates an unhelpful binary which in turn gets in the way of dialogue.

So on one hand, I completely sympathise with Silva's broad point – that it can feel like there is no literary department really catering to writers working outside the “New Play” model (which, if I wanted to be really picky, I'd argue wasn't exclusively “naturalistic”). On the other hand, I think it is incredibly important to recognise that the terrain does feel like it is changing (even “changing back”: the RSC, NT and Royal Courts of the 60s and 70s were, after all, hives of experimentation).

Consider, for example, the Court's Wallace Shawn season and Tim Crouch's The Author; the way that the NT has made space for companies like Non Zero One and 1927 and its continued support of British international director Katie Mitchell; or the way that the RSC has supported productions like Anthony Neilson's Marat/Sade, the Wooster Group/Ravenhill Troilus and Cressida, and the Camille Rape of Lucrece, not to mention Ben Power's experimental Romeo and Juliet rewrite, A Tender Thing.

Look also at the recent appointments being made: Headlong's Ben Power moving to the National; the force behind the eclectic Northern Stage at St Stephens season, Erica Whyman, moving to the RSC. Look at the incredibly exciting appointment of Purni Morell to the Unicorn, Madani Younis to the Bush and Chris Haydon to the Gate. Look at the trajectory of work being undertaken by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Young Vic. And that's just the “mainstream” theatres in London. I'd argue that there hasn't felt like a more optimistic moment in the way things are going in terms of an increased diversity of types of theatre being produced since I started going to the theatre regularly in London.

I would argue that my discomfort with the arguments as they are presented in Silva's two pieces also stems from the way that she appears to suggest the script as a self-contained entity. Granted, she furthers that impression by quoting from the unimaginative rejection letter to Laurens from the Soho theatre which baldly asserted: “the language is not dramatic and would not work on stage”. This was in 2000, so only fifteen years since Forced Entertainment were formed, only a year after Postdramatic Theatre was published in Germany and four years before Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for literature. So perhaps the ignorance was forgiveable back then. Even if the note was already ironic, given that the play was being presented by the more forward-looking Gate.

However, the impression that a text is a self-contained end unto itself is also furthered by many of the critics who reviewed Laurens's second play Five Gold Rings. Of the reviews that I've managed to find I would gently argue that a Telegraph-against/Guardian-cautiously pro- split doesn't quite constitute “ripped apart by the critics”, but that's nit-picking.

I am far more interested here by what I see as a total failure of imagination on the part of the critics. As I discussed yesterday, there's not much anyone can do about one's taste. I also fully believe that the critics were being honest when those that didn't like 5GR simply said so, much though one could take issue with the way that Charles Spencer sometimes chooses to express himself (but, Christ, we've all written unkind reviews, so I've got no moral high ground on that score).

On the other hand, it is striking that almost uniformly they commend a “handsome production” with an “all-star cast”, and proceed to trash the script. This strikes me a perverse, doctrinal, failure to understand how theatre works. After all, what is a production, if not a presentation of a take on a script. If a lot of people can all agree that the script is “bad” after seeing a production of it, in way way can the production be said to have been a success, or “handsome”?

Consider the following piece of writing for the stage:
There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply. Oh, just remember, don't decide.
 I've got no reason, it's all too much.
You'll always find us... 
[a beat]  
Out to lunch 
Show it to your average literary manager, and I'm reasonably sure that they would assert that it's not great writing, and it lacks a sense of drama. Give it to Michael Attenborough to direct with an all-star cast, and I daresay “the critics” circa 2003 might not go for it.

Here it is in performance:

See what I mean?

It turns out not to have been the text that was the problem at all, but the way it was read.

Conversely, one of my favourite stagings of anything was also of a piece of Austrian experimental writing on the subject of families (sort of. Sort of experimental, in that Eward Palmetshofer basically cuts off the auxillary verbs which gather at the end of German sentences; sort of on the subject of families, insofar as I could make out). This video gives a good impression of the various elements (and is definitely worth watching through):

However, many of my friends, especially the German-speaking ones, weren't especially inspired by the text. So we may have an example there of a production making a play look far better than it was.

(While we're still on the subject of experimental writing, the German writer by whom I'm most intrigued is Handl Klaus whose latest work Meine Bienen opened at Salzberg Festspiele recently. I'm intrigued, not only because anyone who writes a play called My Bees has got to be great, right?, but also because I was assured that it would be impossible to translate his plays and get any of the value of them into another language because they are so much about the experimentation with language. Perhaps that's just a challenge to a translator, but it's also a hell of a challenge to a writer of experimental texts.)

To return to the subject at hand, reading between the lines of Five Gold Rings's reviews (I didn't see the Almeida production) all I can see is a description of a production that totally failed a script.

I did see Laurens's first play, Three Birds, and remember thinking it was quite good. Not especially my thing, then or probably now, but good for what it was. What I remember much more about seeing Three Birds than the script, however, was seeing the Gate Theatre, as far as I remember it (and this is 12 years ago) turned length-ways, with a wall with arches constructed across the corridor where you usually enter. I remember non-naturalistic shapes being thrown by actors in a gathering gloom. I remember actors and space being used with intelligence and fluidity. Compare those impressions with the mental picture one builds of Damian Lewis, Helen McRory and David Warner standing on a prettily lit white disc set against the brickwork cyclorama of the Almeida.

It sounds as if Attenborough took and read the script and then dropped in into a sort of stylised naturalism that in the event had the effect of taking the text and staking it out on a hillside overnight. But in such a way that apparently none of the blame for the text's demise sticks to either cast or director.

Of course, it's all well and good to berate a bunch of critics, half of whom have since retired, nine years after the event, for having “wrongly” diagnosed where the “fault” in a specific production they didn't enjoy was. But, as I said, I don't think, hand on heart, I think I would especially have gone for that particular production either, and one line saying “I would be interested to see how a different director would have handled this script” hardly mitigates an unfavourable review. I'm in no way certain that I share Laurens's convinctions about what poetry is best or what the most interesting things to write plays about are. (Although, what can you tell about a play from a thumbnail sketch of its characters' relationships to one another? On that basis I'd never bother watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Three Sisters.) But whether I imagine I'd have liked that play or that production or not is irrelevant to the questions that Silva's radical intervention raises:

I think I have effectively presented a glass-half-full counter-argument to the depressing evaluation of the chance that non-naturalistic work currently stands in this country. Of course more can be done, but it is important to recognise what there already is.

I hope I have also underlined my belief that if there is a problem in supporting different forms of writing in this country, some of it lies in the lack of a plurality of approaches that directors take with the text – or in the ways that some literary departments might envisage a text being staged when they read it. And I have said that I am optimistic that this lack is already beginning to be addressed.

I also hope that I have been sufficiently respectful of the right of those within the mainstream critical establishment to their own opinions, although I have limited my discussion of the role that reviews played in this specific case, since I believe that the critical landscape in Britain now is unrecognisable from what it was ten years ago. And while it is all easy and fun to paint the MSM critics as a bunch of Philistine dinosaurs, that is neither an accurate nor nuanced approach and indeed falls fouls of all the worst accusations levelled at their increasingly diverse collection of tastes, politics, views and interests.

I really hope that by writing this, and presenting this parallel positions – perhaps better seen as a bit of fine-tuning of the original essays rather than any sort of refutation of them – I have furthered their cause.

Silva ends her polemic: “Next time I Google words like “form” “language” “innovation” “playwriting”, it would be nice to get a few more results.” Hopefully this will now show up on Google as a useful addition to that discussion.

*Title of today's blog from this song:

Which always reminds me of this way of staging text:

Which I like. A lot.

**Cover photo by Nan Goldin


Anonymous said...

Hasn't non-naturalistic stage action given up on the mainstream and found it's own places and audiences amongst experimental theatre / live art? And therefore rejected the opportunity to be judged by mainstream critics?

I observe that those writers who really want to make good on their experimental writing are obliged to direct it themselves.

Andrew Haydon said...

I wouldn't have said so, no.

Certainly not entirely by any means.

Leaving aside what gets put in front of "mainstream critics" at the Barbican, Edinburgh International Festival, LIFT and so on, I'd say there's still plenty of it about in places like the the Lyric Hammersmith, The Young Vic, sometimes at the National, the Royal Court and the RSC.

Similarly, while, say, Anthony Neilson, Chris Goode and Howard Barker do tend to direct their own work, Tim Crouch, Simon Stephens, Caryl Churchill and many others do not.

And as I say, I think the situation is always very much in flux.

Hannah Silva said...

Hi Andrew,
I think I'll be reading this in bite size chunks (and your previous one too) but just to respond a little to the bits where you mention me... :)

- Thanks for picking up on the kind of contradiction between my talking about a 'play' as opposed to the performance etc. I've wondered how to communicate this. Because on the one hand I've been brought up on Dartington College of Arts, The Wooster Group, Forced Ent, Complicite - Lehmann's idea of 'postdramatic theatre' and various others etc etc , I didn't even think about a 'play text' until a few years ago. But then I wrote a play. And it is something different to a devised text, or to my show Opposition, or to the work I'm making right now with a group of artists in a park in Nottingham. I stayed up through the nights and I wrote a play. It does play with language and form and all that as that's just how I write...And after a while of sending it (and the next ones) off and meetings with people I discovered that there's actually no point in sending this play to a 'new writing' theatre - that it is something in between what people are calling 'new work' and 'new writing'. That the process that those theatres use to get the work from page to stage isn't appropriate for my work. I’ve accepted this actually and am looking forward to directing ‘Hunger’ myself, but still think the wider debate needs to continue. I can give you some examples of how non-naturalistic work has been battered back in this new writing world, but would rather do that by email...

And anyway, I totally agree with you - it's a very exciting time to be making work and the 'new writing' theatres and climate are changing. I wrote a rave blog about my first experience of the Bush under Younis etc, and the others you mention make things very exciting too, it seems - I'm not really in that world so can't say. But it seems like a kind of renewal. Brilliant. It'll raise more questions about how to find 'plays' 'plays?' in a different to ‘develop?’ writers…but that's all very exciting.

By the way, I wasn't 'complaining' that there isn't any other place to send the work, I was just stating an interesting fact - the playwriting scene is very different to the poetry scene in that sense. Not that I'm applauding the divisions within the poetry world. And I don't think that comment is incongruous with my final comment about the playwrights themselves changing things. Personally, I hope that sometime I'll get to a stage where I can produce work of other playwrights who I think need to be heard and are not in a position to produce their own work.

Just starting to think on the other issues - you mention Barker's reputation etc. Well, I don't know him, or what happened in the past that resulted in him being banished to Exeter University and for his play Blok/Eko to run for a few nights in Exeter, only one night in a college in London and for my review to be the only response.....but.....I don’t think I could be laughed at for describing him as the best living playwright so something doesn't seem quite right there. Good news about the NT revival. Wouldn’t it be how the world should be if they went on to produce the plays he is writing now?

I'm aware I've done a bit of ranting about new writing theatres /non-naturalistic writing etc for a little while, and perhaps next the debates will move into new territory. I think my next Exeunt article will reflect that. And my last one was also intended as a bit of a celebration of some incredible writing by some of my favourite playwrights.

I like your unpacking of the critics approach to reviewing play/production, might come back to that. Laurens wrote a bit about this too in an unpublished section of our interview….

Thanks for adding to my request for more entries on Google!

BigFrenchy said...

RE: Hannah Silva on Barker.

"Good news about the NT revival. Wouldn’t it be how the world should be if they went on to produce the plays he is writing now?"

Really honestly not. No. Really. Have you read or heard some of his recent wrestling school stuff? No. Jesus. No.

Andrew Haydon said...

I'll do a proper reply to Hannah's post when I've woken up a bit, but since Arguments for a Barker are always interesting and fun, I'll post a piece I wrote for Noises Off magazine at this year's International Student Drama Festival in response to a student critic's total annihilation of the (new) Barker play, Five Names, that was presented by Aberystwyth University:

“Was there something I missed, or is Five Names really as barren and plain as the white make-up on the actors faces?”

Thanks to editorial privilege, I've been able to read your review and can answer: yes, William Carlisle, there was something you “missed” – although I'm not going to claim it was necessarily your fault.

Earlier in your review, you assert: “If you have to read the programme or have the meaning explained to you in order to understand a piece of art then something has clearly gone wrong.” Coincidentally, I wrote a piece for my blog recently arguing precisely the reverse of this proposition; it's far from a watertight refutation of your claim, but it does, I hope, make a reasonably strong argument.

I won't re-hash the whole thing here, but the crux of my counter-claim is that you're always going to go into a piece of theatre with a huge, rambly, undefined amount of your own knowledge. Whether that knowledge happens to coincide with the knowledge that the playwright displays in the play is largely a matter of luck. To take an easy example, imagine knowing nothing about Hamlet before seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

All of which is to say, there is available knowledge that would possibly have changed your understanding of the play. Your discussion of the play's alleged “meaninglessness” is relatively brief, so I don't know if you *got* who the characters were. I'm not at all sure I *got* all of them, but the central three vignettes – Sarah and Abraham, Penelope and Odysseus, and Charles VII and his servant – are all clearly figures taken from Biblical, classical and historical sources. At which point, Barker's meditations on their situations – pregnancy at 90, a wanderer's sense of “belonging”, and a King with a recently poisoned mistress – became, variously, much more funny, interesting, imaginative and iconoclastic. Even the fact that the first and last characters – “Corporal Webb” and “Mrs Williams” *don't* appear to have particularly legendary status suddenly seems more significant.

Other information I found useful when watching Five Names came from my 14-year relationship with the plays of Howard Barker (coincidentally, the first time I ever saw anything by him was his monologue Und, in the Studio of the Crucible. In 1999). It just so happens that I've read more-or-less everything he's written (at least up until the mid-00s), including his seminal, maddening, contradictory and brilliant manifesto Arguments For a Theatre.

None of which is to say that I want to change your opinion of the piece. If anything, reading Arguments..., it is possible to get the impression that Barker would prefer your response to mine. He writes a lot about wanting to make plays that people don't understand. And, yes, perfectly valid responses to this can range between “why?” to “Oh, fuck off”. But, I'd argue those aren't the only responses.

Your review is couched in a context of enviable certainty. You know how you felt, and evoke it well. On the other hand, I hope this response shakes your convictions enough to make you want to explore the man and his work a bit more. After all, this is partly Barker's strategy too; to irritate and plant something that gnaws at his audiences; something that makes them want to wrestle more with the work. And in this, here supported by an excellent production by Phoebe Patey-Ferguson and William Pritchard, I think Five Names succeeds admirably.