Sunday 30 December 2012


Will add some words and thinking when I’m not doing something else, but here is the click-through-to-original-review-able list (yes, it's more than ten):

Three Kingdoms

Reise durch die Nacht

Three Sisters


Meine Faire Dame

Gods are Fallen and All Safety Gone


In The Republic of Happiness

Monkey Bars

There has Possibly Been an Incident

Small Narration

Scenes From an Execution


Sam Halmarack and the Miserablites

Plus a special mention to The Trial of Ubu, which was the first play I saw this year, after the longest break I’d ever taken from theatre.

So, yes; more soon...



[“this is just a scene change to inconvenience Mark Lawson”]

Hello, I’m Andrew Haydon. A “tired reactionary-in-waiting”, thank you, Sean.

Embarrassingly, Sean has just said a lot of what I’m about to say.

So: “How is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?”

My initial reaction was: “It. Isn’t”.

I expect that’s what a lot of you have come here today to hear people say.

But, then the Bush asked me to come up with a title for my bit of these talks, and I offered them “Interrogating the Terms”. Having a fag outside just now, I realised I now want to call it “Alan Bennett: Our Contemporary”, but anyway. “Interrogating The Terms”:

Because, In a way, that’s my job.

Because I think it’s a good idea to interrogate terms.

And because, I thought, if the worst came to the worst, I could probably do it off the top of my head.

So, interrogating the terms:

What do we mean by “contemporary theatre”?

And: what do we mean by “critical discourse”?

Do we mean “all the theatre that is being made today” and “all the reviews that are written about all the theatre that is being made today”?

Interrogating the question:

what I take the question to be asking is not about the means by which “critical discourse” or “theatre criticism” does or does not keep pace with contemporary theatre, but the extent to which it manages to do so.

And, if that’s what we mean; actually, the answer is that not only does “critical discourse” keep pace with “contemporary theatre”, most of the time it’s ahead of it.

Contemporary British Theatre is not such a complex and rapidly moving creature that it is constantly out-pacing the critics.

Indeed, if we’re picturing this in terms of a race – as the question seems to invite us to – then, most of the time, the critical discourse is standing-about having a bit of a natter while contemporary theatre runs backwards and forwards over a very small section of the track from about 50 years ago.

Let’s think about contemporary theatre:

I would argue that most of it is pretty easy to keep pace with.

What’s opened over the last week?

There was a new, modern, updated version of Euripides’ Women of Troy at The Gate

There was a new, modern, updated version of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Southwark Playhouse.

There was Lucy Prebble’s new play about updates to the modern world, The Effect, at the National Theatre.

And there as Hannah Silva’s new-ish piece of “experimental theatre” about modern political rhetoric at the Oval House.

And, well, actually, the “critical discourse” is pretty much on top of that... They know what that stuff is. [with the possible exception of Silva’s Opposition]

“Critical Discourse” is generally up-to-speed on “Contemporary Theatre”.

For the last month I’ve been writing a chapter for Methuen’s Modern British Playwrights: Decades series. I’ve been doing the Oh-Ohs. The book has chapters on: Simon Stephens, David Grieg, debbie tucker green, Tim Crouch, and Roy Williams, which is interesting in itself.

My introductory chapter deals with The Rest of Theatre in the Oh-Ohs.

In 20,000 words.


While writing it, I noticed a few things that are relevant here:

Firstly: it made me think about the extent to which criticism does and does not frame the terms in which we think about theatre.

[hint: journalists are quick to parrot terms from interviews and press releases. I’m not sure they make up labels half as often as they repeat them.]

Secondly: I thought about where that where criticism (the “critical discourse”) could be found. And how that has changed over the last 12 years.

[hint: it’s gone from Time-Out-and-Lyn-if-you’re-lucky to an explosion of blogs, plus Lyn-if-you’re-lucky, and Time Out online only, unless you’re incredibly lucky.

The overall result is that there is A LOT more coverage now than there was in 1999

And it’s both more obscure and more accessible than ever before in terms of both location and availability. This is also perhaps true in terms of its contents.

Thirdly: I realised how little of “contemporary theatre” some people actually mean when they talk about “contemporary theatre”.

And it’s important to address this last point.

There’s a passage in Aleks Sierz’s book Rewriting The Nation – a survey of – capital N, capital W – “N”ew “W”riting in the Oh-Ohs – where he totally dismisses Alan Bennett’s The History Boys for being – and I quote – “simply not contemporary”.

He also dismisses all newly-written history plays as – quote – “mostly costume drama”. We might wryly note that it’s a good job Shakespeare’s editors did not make the same distinction.

His book; his rules. Fine. Whatever.

In Michael Billington’s book, State of the Nation, there’s a bit where – having laid into Shunt’s 2004 show Club Topicana for a couple of pages – he concludes: “In the end, the future of the theatre rests with its playwrights.”

Again: his book, his rules, his taste. He’s free to say what he thinks and to be judged on his judgements.

I’m also troubled by the assumption that seems to be contained within the question we’re here to hear about today: that “critical discourse” is not “keeping pace” with “contemporary [British] theatre”

[I keep adding the “British” because I think that’s what we’re really talking about here]

I’m troubled by the idea that it’s a critic’s job to “keep up”.

I mean, yes, on one hand, basic comprehension should be a minimum requirement for the job.

On the other hand, to understand something – to have kept pace with it – is not the same as endorsing it.

Long-windedly, the conclusion I’m aiming towards is that this isn’t a question of “critical discourse”. And it isn’t a question of “keeping pace”.

I believe Michael and Aleks are both pretty much up-to-speed with almost all of what goes on in Contemporary British Theatre.

No, I do.

About once every year, every other year, once every three years, they might see something that they totally fail to get. We all might.

A Blasted, A Romeo Castellucci, A Forced Entertainment, A Three Kingdoms.

One a year, I reckon. If that. And I notice that two of those aren’t British anyway.


In each case, I’d argue that there was a valid case to be made that these were not failures of comprehension resulting in poor reviews, but differences in taste between director and critic. Or maybe between writer and critic.

The question raises a question about the extent to which theatres put faith in the critics.

The extent to which critics have a “chilling effect” on the work that theatres are prepared to risk their necks making.

And then there’s the question: is it really the critics – in the case of these rare cases of incomprehension/differing tastes – who make the crucial difference?

“The critics” loved that West End Show about a pig, which closed early.

“The critics” loathed that show with Queen songs that is still running about a million years after it opened.

The critics can be surprising in their tastes.

Theatre managements can be less surprising.

After all, critics go to the theatre night after night. They can be quixotic. They can like Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters but not Nübling’s Three Kingdom’s, they can prefer the Russian Vanya to the British one with people off the telly in it, that people might have expected them to prefer.

So, to an extent, where applicable, I think theatres should stop blaming their own timidity on the imagined tastes of old men and ignore them.

They should grow their own audiences, and should just make work that they believe in.

There are a lot of critics and if there’s a discourse at all, it’s because they are a more catholic bunch than they’re sometimes given credit for.

In the mean time, I’m looking forward to seeing more contemporary theatre that is also genuinely *New*.

So, from my perspective, you run faster, we’ll keep up...

Volpone - Schauspielhaus Bochum

The German town of Bochum lies roughly 55 minutes outside Köln if you take the high-speed ICE train. And what a strange little place it is. Low, mostly new-build buildings; it looks like the kind of places you wake up in if you fall asleep on a night bus home in London: a one horse town with an open stable door. And a very well-hidden theatre. Doubtless, if you know Bochum, or live there, the location of its theatre makes perfect logical sense. Even if you bothered to take a map with you, it might be relatively easy to find, but if you happen to only look at Googlemaps before leaving the house, then it’s harder than you’d think. But more than this, it’s a surprise to find that a) it has a theatre at all, and b) it’s hosting a production by the internationally acclaimed director Sebastian Nübling (première March, 2012).

I was also interested by the fact that the production was of early-modern English playwright Ben Jonson. Shakespeare’s contemporaries don’t seem to get done an awful lot in Germany. And there’s no especial reason why they should be; strip out the language and the direct sense of historical precedence and you’re left with some pretty odd plots and a lot of archaic knob-gags to translate, right? So I was intrigued to see what Nübling had found in this piece to make all the extra effort worthwhile.

Perhaps unfairly, I expect a rather a lot from Nübling. As we might have established now, I loved Three Kingdoms just a bit too much. And I was totally seduced by his production of Pornography, which I saw in Nitra. In between, however, I also saw Alpsegen at Deutsches Theater in Berlin, which I didn’t much go for. Although I also should add that that production also marks the only time I’d ever seen a German audience boo a playwright.

Anyway, my new theory on Nübling is that I’m going to love one, then be a bit meh about one, then love one, then meh, and so on. Either that, or it’s only his productions of Simon Stephens plays I really like. We shall see. I certainly don’t intend any kind of boycott any time soon. And I am being unfair. Because on lots of levels, this Volpone is pretty good. Just not half as good as either the photos or Three Kingdoms might have led me to hope. And the photos are good, aren’t they? (one at top, one a bottom.) Also a bit misleading.

The actual set for Volpone (bühne – Dominic Huber) is essentially a rough wooden staircase flanked by a kind of false-perspective set of receding proscenium arches painted to look like, what? Seventies wallpaper? It probably looks better from the centre of the auditorium about half way back. I was on the relatively extreme right near the front.

It’s not a *bad* set by any means, but nor is it especially inspiring. Apparently the rising flight of steps motif is common to *a lot* of German stagings of tragedy. This is perhaps a slightly steeper set of steps than those, but then Volpone isn’t a tragedy either, so perhaps there’s some sort of ironic concept going on here that I’m only on the periphery of understanding. Perhaps, thinking about it in connection to the costumes, there’s a bit of Ost/ex-Ost-knocking also going on – the costumes might have come straight from Goodbye Lenin, or perhaps just the seventies in general).

Then there’s the matter of the play. Now, obviously pretty much anyone who reads this blog probably knows about the attendant discussion about misogyny that followed Three Kingdoms. And those readers will also know that I put up a fairly strenuous defence of why I didn’t think it was misogynist. Which I think I’m still pretty happy to stand by. At the same time, it was impossible not to take what others were saying on board. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a terrible habit of being able to carry on an argument believing in what I’m saying, even while the premise of what I’m arguing against somehow gets into my bones and my bloodstream and makes me think after the argument that it was me who was being unreasonable. I offer to as background to the mindset with which I went into Volpone.

Which is problematic, since Volpone isn’t exactly a play which treats its – relatively few – female characters well. Wikipedia dispassionately summarises their places in the plot thus: “Mosca mentions to Volpone that Corvino has a beautiful wife, Celia... Volpone insists that he must have Celia for his own. Mosca tells Corvino that Volpone requires to sleep with a young woman to help revive him. Corvino offers Celia in order to please Volpone... Volpone is left alone with Celia, and after failing to seduce her with promises of luxurious items and fantasies, attempts to rape her.”

“There are episodes involving the English travellers Sir and Lady Politick Would-Be. Lady Would-Be annoys Volpone with her ceaseless talking.”

Lady Would-Be has been cut.

So we’re left with the awkward proposition of just a beautiful wife and her attempted rape representing womankind for the 2-hour passage of this play. For what it’s worth, Celia is played by a perfectly normal-looking member of the ensemble and not an unreasonably pneumatic Estonian (one of the objections raised re: 3K). Yes, she’s dressed in some pretty high heels, but this is largely for comic effect. And she doesn’t seem to be picked on for especially poor treatment because she’s a woman. This is a cast made up to look like grotesques – one of Volpone’s retinue wears a body stocking under some skimpy Vegas-style outfit and a beard. Others include a skimpily clad overweight man and a kind of devil-clown-dog (really similar to the one in Oskaras Koršunovas’s Hamlet - it this a *thing*?). There’s also a rather pretty man dressed as a woman (I don’t know if in the play he’s a man-dressed-as-a-woman or a woman, like the Trickster in 3K he might not even be *in-the-world-of-the-play* at all) who sings a number of songs.

So, no, it doesn’t feel like it should be seen as sexist, much less misogynist. At the same time, it doesn’t feel either as careful or as carefully constructed as it might be in Britain. On the other hand, given the sexism that is rife in so many of our domestic productions, especially of early-modern plays, I’d feel a long way outside my comfort-zone condemning this production on any such grounds. It’s an odd thing: I’m generally pretty keen to call sexism out when I see it, but this doesn’t feel even like Everyday Sexism. At least, not the British variety. This is more *about* sexism, than sexist. It’s also worth noting that Jonson’s Celia has plenty of lines, and here is funny in her own right and a long way from being presented as mute or servile. Actually, I can imagine a lot of British productions doing this a lot more uncomfortably and getting it under a lot more people’s radars. And yet, coming off the back of the 3K debate, this doesn’t exactly sweep all the charges about representation away half as tidily as I might have wished. Perhaps theatre in general needs to take a good long, hard look at the way it deals with representing women on stage and to start making a few changes pretty sharpish.

Beyond this, I was at the usual disadvantage with the language – something which you feel a lot more acutely with a comedy than with something that depends more on urgent, painfully, emotionally-charged exchanges – especially when the comedy is verbal – and it’s only right to report that the audience at large seemed to find the whole thing perfectly amusing. But, so far, this is hardly a review at all, so what of the rest of the production?

Well, it’s lively, it’s engaging, it talks to the audience more-or-less continually. There’s no pretence at a fourth wall – indeed it feels like there’s no barrier between the audience and the players at all. The piece opens with the players descending the stairs on their side of the stalls to assail a vast metal safety curtain at the front of the stage. Once this is prised open, with much “comic” gurning (not my bag), the breach between audience and cast is hardly re-established. Indeed, while Volpone (a superbly ill-looking and sleazy Matthias Redlhammer) addresses us, most of the figures of the play who are not members of his retinue emerge from the auditorium as if members of the public – which, given that this is a play concerned with Volpone’s duping of the public, makes perfect sense. There is much extended comic business when Celia scrambles or strides over the seats and audience members of the stalls to get on and off stage.

[returning to this review after an almost two-month break to finish an post it, I find that my basic recollection is that it is a sound, competent production. But, lacking, for me, the modernity and real *attack* of Pornography or Three Kingdoms. It’s fine, and might still knock spots off a number of other productions of Volpone, but compared to the imaginative excesses of which Nübling is capable, it feels distinctly under-powered.]

White Noise

[originally published by The Stage]

So, earlier this month, provocative white US playwright Bruce Norris withdrew the rights to perform his play about racial tension, Clybourne Park, from Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. He did so because he was concerned that the director had cast a white actor in one of two parts where the character is specifically black.

Norris said: “After much evasion, justification and rationalising of their reasons, they finally informed me that the colour of the actress’ skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with make-up’. At this point, I retracted the rights to the production.” An open and shut case, you might think, but I would argue that this obscures several issues which are worth trying to understand.

We might first note that there’s nothing to indicate that the Deutsches Theater director, so far as we’ve been told, did actually intend to use ‘blackface’ at all. “Experiment with make-up” could just as well have meant precisely that. The actor in question could have ended up naked and painted blue to signify the ‘Otherness’ that the white playwright’s script demands. Equally, having “experimented with make-up” the production team might have concluded that none should be used, and that the actor would have gone on stage white, and his character’s properties of ‘blackness’ would have had to have been imagined by the audience. I have seen both things done – an Asian actor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse playing Ariel to Sir Ian McKellan’s Prospero was painted blue, while two white Germans – one male, one female – played Othello (at the Schaubühne and Deutsches Theater respectively) without any make-up at all.

But what if he had intended to use ‘blackface’? It is worth making a few clarifications. When Bruce Norris says ‘blackface’ he specifically invokes memories of the US and Britain’s recent, racist past. A vaudeville act in which white performers would ‘black-up’ specifically in order to present burlesques of ‘blackness’. When a German theatre director says ‘make-up’ they might intend any number of non-naturalistic devices.

It is worth noting that, for historical reasons, Germany has no such tradition of ‘blackface’. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Germany had few colonies in Africa, and played an all but non-existent role in the slave trade. As a result, Germany has a small black population compared with the UK and US. Also, while Germany committed racist mass murders in the 20th century, the Nazi genocide was directed against Jews and gypsies, not black people.

The second crucial point is theatrical: German theatre tends not to be naturalistic. The basis of this is also historical. Partly it is due to the enormous influence of Brecht, but also to history and the fact that Hitler’s favourite playwright – and Brecht’s teacher, against whom his plays were a reaction –Hanns Johst, was a committed naturalistic playwright (and the man who originally wrote the line “Whenever I hear of culture… I release the safety catch of my Browning”). For the German directors that I know, naturalistic theatre is regarded in the same bracket and with the same contempt as torchlit parades and book-burning. This isn’t an artistic choice, it is the burden of serious history.

As such, with no history of racist entertainment based on white people painting their faces black, with an anti-Nazi theatrical tradition eschewing realism, and with precious few black actors, the German position at least becomes more clear.

Indeed, at this point, Bruce Norris’ insistence that every theatre in the world that ever performs his play does so in the exact manner he has prescribed starts to look like the worst sort of tactless cultural imperialism. It also strikes me as regrettably short-sighted.

Let’s imagine briefly that the boot is on the other foot. Let’s imagine that for some reason Germany has a rule against telling racist jokes on stage and that Clybourne Park (which includes such a joke) had just been banned, or at least censored. We’d be up in arms in support of Norris’ artistic freedoms.

And let’s consider Mark Lawson’s piece in The Guardian last week in which he blithely asserts:
[blackface] would be unthinkable in Britain and America, at least in straight theatre. (It is still common in opera, where Verdi’s Otello is frequently sung by white tenors – perhaps because operatic drama continues to be regarded as a more artificial form).
At a stroke Lawson destroys any notion that this is about race and makes clear this is entirely to do with how we imagine theatre works.

Germany suffers from the same problematic casting issues as other Western nations – see the current furore over the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao (News, page 5, October 25) or the production by La Jolla Playhouse, California, of a new musical based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale; both of which have been criticised for putting white actors in some of the relatively few parts written for east Asian characters. This is the problem that we need to address. There is still a tendency to unconsciously view white actors as the norm and neutral, while non-white actors are often seen as ‘other’. It might also be worth observing in passing that Norris doesn’t appear to be half as touchy on the subject of the casting for the deaf character who appears only in the first scene, and who, thanks to having to double as a hearing character in Act II – and a lack of directorial imagination – has hitherto always been played by hearing actors.

It is now impossible to know whether the Deutsches Theater production was going to use make-up to intelligently deconstruct the problem of a white playwright writing a white play about racism (mostly for white audiences); and making black actors say his words to demonstrate his single-viewpoint, white, perspective on the world; or whether it would have transpired to be some baffling, literal-minded representation, along the same lines as a child painting their face grey and drawing whiskers on in order to symbolically represent a cat.

The furore does, however, usefully give us pause to reflect on the state of the industry at large. What does Norris dictating the terms by which his naturalistic comedies about racism are produced really tell us about the uncomfortable facts around casting? And is a naturalistic comedy written by a successful white playwright, and sold on the names of famous white actors appearing in it, really challenging anything at all?

In an interview with the Evening Standard when Clybourne Park opened in the UK, Norris said: “There’s nothing better than coming into a room and feeling that something dangerous is happening”. Unless, it seems, the dangerous thing happening is someone staging his play in a way that draws attention to the inconsistent means through which it operates.