Friday 26 April 2013

narrative about Narrative – Royal Court

[apologies for prolonged absence. I’ve been doing a bunch of writing for other places and it got in the way of writing here]

If “The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.”, then I suspect Narrative might wind up having a much longer run than One Man, Two Guvnors.

For me, Narrative began on the 5th November 2012 with a press release from the Royal Court. It was called “A New Play” then. The press release blurb read as follows:

“Why no title?

“Because I want to write from passion, not obligation.

Because I want to write for the actors I’ve cast, not cast for the parts I’ve written.

Because I want to be stupid enough to do the wrong thing when it’s right.

Because risk is everything.

Because everything is changing.

Because I'm doing something else right now.

Because I want to surprise myself.

Because I want to surprise you.

That’s why.”

Anthony Neilson”

Which I thought was good.

Narrative continued as an argument on Twitter, perhaps later that day, with a young director who thought that the above was “pretentious” or “shit” or something like that. I disagreed. I liked the spirit. I particularly liked that Neilson had said “Because I’m doing something else right now”. (although quite a lot of the rest of it reminded me mostly of this song from the Fight Club soundtrack)

Narrative continued when I bumped into Anthony at the bar of the Soho Theatre and we had a chat about it, and about his production of Marat/Sade, and about his views on some of the critics, with which I agreed.

Or perhaps bumping into Anthony happened before the press release. Something Simon Stephens said recently when I interviewed him as part of the All Change festival, was – quoting his son, Oscar – that we don’t remember our lives, our histories, stories, in a strictly linear fashion. This seems relevant, both to my recollection of these events, and to the piece itself.

Narrative continued with a conversation with Matt Trueman, who had just interviewed Anthony. This was before the interview had been published. Perhaps even before it had been written. Matt had spent a day or so watching the rehearsals. He showed me his note book, in which he’d drawn a kind of diagram of the play’s structure. It was a picture of a box criss-crossed with incomplete lines, some crossing, some unrelated to anything else in the box. I remember being intrigued and excited by this as the proposition of a piece of theatre.

Then (I think this is next), unrelated at the time to my experience of Narrative, I spent from 12am on Saturday April to 12am on Sunday April watching the live-stream of Forced Entertainment’s show Quizoola. It was at the Barbican. I was at my parents’ house in Shrewsbury. For 24 hours on and off, I watched Quizoola, chatted to my friends who were also watching it on Twitter. It was the best bit of performance/theatre that I’d seen all year.

My next experience of Narrative was getting an email from Trueman, post press-night, expressing his irritation at some of the reviews which Narrative had received. Matt framed Narrative as an important theatrical event and critical fight. This year’s Three Kingdoms, in fact. I should confess, I felt a small amount of scepticism. The main difference for me was that Narrative had already sold out its entire run, whereas with Three Kingdoms the reviews had impacted directly on attendance, and the counter-reviews and the buzz of conversations of Twitter had significantly turned that around and sold out the final few performances as *everyone* suddenly wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Nothing anyone writes about Narrative will actually alter ticket sales.

Nevertheless, I put in a late request to the Royal Court’s press office for them to hold one of the day seats for me (so, yes, I actually paid twenty pounds of actual money to see this) on the only night I was in London before flying to Zagreb last week.

Another thing that had been happening a bit before seeing the show, was reading a variety of tweets – some by friends, some retweeted by the Royal Court – the tenor of which was largely “Woah! WFT? Amazeballs!”.

So, there you have a rough account of the mental landscape with which I had no choice but to enter the piece. I’d not read “the reviews” (but had read Matt’s interview with Anthony), but nevertheless, basic exposure to social media and a general professional interest had already given me a load of unverifiable, unmediated and largely-unprocessed-by-me information.

So, annoyingly, part of my experience of the show was a reaction to all this information. Perhaps this is always partly going to be the case for anything, especially anything seen post- press night, even if one hasn’t read the reviews. Or perhaps even post first-preview, now that some blogs (even if you don’t read them yourself) are in the business of routine financially expedient or cynical embargo busting. Either way, information seems to seep into the world.

Consequently, my first reaction after seeing the show was ‘That wasn’t “difficult” AT. ALL. What’s everyone going on about?’ Annoyingly, this was by far my strongest immediate reaction. I just felt irritable that a lot of people had gone on about “difficulty” when, to my mind, Narrative was the easiest thing in the world to follow. Which seemed to be what everyone was talking about. “Woah. What just happened?” people seemed to wonder as we left the auditorium. “Did you understand that?” another asked their friend, cautiously. Well, what had/has just happened is, on a superficial level, quite simple. Over the 1hr50 running time, we get a cross section of little narratives. Mostly linear, naturalistic, and about as difficult to process as dipping into four consecutive episodes of a television soap opera – i.e. it feels a bit tricky at first because at the beginning characters hurtle from out of nowhere and you immediately have to start collecting information about them. But it’s no harder than that.

There are some slightly more random elements. The piece begins with a description of “the first example of narrative art”. A picture of a bison with its intestines hanging out killing/goring/knocking over the prehistoric huntsman – armed with a spear and a hard-on, dressed apparently in a bird-mask. To be honest, I was surprised that this was classed as “narrative”. It’s a freeze frame. The narrator (ha ha!) imposes a story onto the picture – some things have happened before the moment the picture depicts, some things will happen afterwards, but I was intrigued by the idea that the picture itself constituted a narrative at all.

This bison seems to crop up a couple more times in the piece. One of the characters, having stabbed her mate by mistake, appears to grow a pair of bison-like horns, which, given the way her story goes, appear to symbolise her guilt, and/or her relationship to death. Her story intersects with that of a mother who is blaming the suicide of her teenage son on some medical drugs that he was meant to be taking. When she discovers he wasn’t actually taking the drugs which she supposes to have caused his suicide, she also grows a pair of these horns (I think. It’s almost a week since I saw the thing and the details – perhaps thanks to the non-linearity of the thing – feel a little hazy). One of the final images of the show (again, I think) is a film of a modern-day bison running into a man and knocking him flying. Perhaps again fatally. Perhaps not. We’re not told. The oldest story, we might infer, is a story of death. Of mankind’s attempts to make sense of death. Indeed, for a piece showing us so many lives (or perhaps *because*), death casts a particularly long shadow over the whole piece.

The early use of Bowie’s "Where Are We Now?" partly echoes this as well as neatly framing one of the play’s/production’s constant questions. But, just as with the Bowie song, there’s a hint of the ersatz about the question. We quickly pick up where we are at most points during Narrative, and there’s a slight sense that if we don’t then it doesn’t especially matter, something new will be along any second anyway.

At one point – around the introduction of two characters who are actors sharing a flat – I wondered if every scene contained a hidden reference to a pop song. One of the two actors is about to play “Elastic Man” in a new Hollywood movie. "How I Wrote Elastic Man" is, of course, a song by The Fall. I now can’t remember the other couple of songs that I thought might have been obscurely hinted at, but you get the idea. There was a sense that there might well have been a bunch of semi-obscured “clues”, but ones which could only possibly have hinted at some sort of deeper personal set of resonances for either Neilson or another member of the cast with whom he devised the piece, rather than a set of outward facing clues, which, if correctly identified and assembled would have spelled out some larger meaning of the piece.

Actually, it is this whole question of “a devising process” which most interested me about Narrative. Matt Trueman’s interview with Neilson already describes the process itself in plenty of detail. But what is interesting is the blur of those boundaries. For instance, the cast are using their own names, but are plainly not *really* playing themselves, and yet they are wearing T-shirts with photos of their younger selves printed on them. (Later, in the final scene, apparently set after death, they are wearing plain T-shirts.)

For Dan Hutton, this raised the question of whether the performers were perhaps, in part, “fictionalising” their own experiences. The best-observed bit of comedy in the evening does, after all, hinge on Zawe Ashton’s very real height – in one scene she complains about feeling too tall. In the next scene, clad in some heel-less high heels, she totters across the stage almost bent double in paroxysms of trying to make herself and her height disappear, as if failing her urge to combat some particularly preposterous aversion therapy.

The question this process of (structured?) improvisation, countered?/supplemented? by Neilson going away and writing new material at night, made me wonder something more fundamental –

...It all folds back to the question of the title, and perhaps the marketing image (see top). If the piece had been called something else (Shit Happens springs to mind as a possible alternative) and didn’t have an picture claiming “form is dead” then perhaps I wouldn’t feel such an urge to put the whole thing through some sort of post-structuralist autopsy, but it is called Narrative. So it’s asking for it, frankly...

– so, you've got actors in to improvise. The question which occurred to me – and this sprang very much from watching the piece rather than theorising – was “Aren’t these stories that they’re telling *absolutely* reliant on *very old-fashioned* narrative structures?” Perhaps that’s the point, but why claim “form is dead”. I think without exception the stories in Narrative are deeply, almost primally formal. It’s not a “well-made-play”, but that’s never been the only formal option for theatre.

So what are we getting out of Narrative? Well, there are a lot of jokes – and I think Anthony Neilson and I have quite different senses of humour, so I’m not really qualified to comment on those. Love and Hutton both say it was very funny.

And there are the stories themselves: interestingly, what’s perhaps annoying about these is that they’re *not* schematic. You don’t get neat pat-on-the-back examples of different narratives so clearly laid out that you can spot them and pat yourself on the back for *getting it*.

Instead, they seem quite random, diffuse tales. While on one hand that’s quite laudable – the unexpectedness, the randomness – it’s also kind of annoying. It’s a bit like the sort of annoyance that you get when faced with infinite choice in a restaurant. Why this? Why these stories, in particular? You wonder. I mean, if they really are this random, might they not have been some totally different stories? This feeling of total artistic free-fall is disconcerting. Alternatively, they’re not random stories. In which case, then perhaps the mechanisms justifying *these* stories as against any others, are perhaps a little too submerged. We don’t know why we’re seeing, but more oddly, it feels like we *should* understand. After all, I’ve seen plenty of things where I’ve had no idea why one thing has followed the previous (see my last review of Pina Bausch, for example) but it hasn’t bothered me, so I’m curious why it bothered me so much here. I think partly because of the title (It’s a terrible pity debbie tucker green got to the title Random first).

And this is where we get to The Problem of Quizoola:

I’m going to write a proper review of Q. at some point, so I won’t go on about it too much here. The basic set-up is very effectively described here. One of the things I found really interesting about Quizoola was the way the two performers on stage would lapse into actually playing out little dramatic scenes, or scenes from dramatic tropes: the jealous lover, the sadistic interrogation, the failing relationship. This trope-hoping – which was only one small and occasional element of Q. – is sort of the whole of Narrative. But where Quizoola was fleet, nimble, unanchored to a set-text, totally negotiable; Narrative, by sheer bad luck of timing, turned up like its clumsy ancestor. You can see the ambition behind Narrative, but I’m not fully convinced that it really paid dividends. In the end, Narrative felt completely safe, completely conservative. Only the deepest reactionary could find Narrative’s polite prodding at a sequence of events even remotely troubling.

Of course, it is unfair to assume the claims a thing is making for itself and then behave grumpily and ungratefully when it doesn’t fulfil these claims, but in this case, I do think the claims were made, and I don’t think the radical solution hoped for materialised.

All of which is fine.

That said, I’m afraid I don’t especially share Catherine Love’s optimism that this piece is edging anywhere near to finding (along with Love and Information and In The Republic of Happiness) a theatrical solution to The Information Age.

I think Quizoola online might, without trying, have inadvertently shown us one possible manifestation – something intriguingly allied to the place we go to watch something continual that Chris Goode speaks about in The Forest and The Field (another review I owe you, dear reader – the link is to C-Love’s excellent write-up) – of what theatre/performance dealing with the online world might look like.

However, in the context of “writing more experimental texts” I think there is an urgent necessity to flag up that fact that, aside perhaps from the process by which it came into being (which ultimately still seems mysterious, with actors providing we-know-not-what, and a sole author disappearing into the night, squirrelling away these ideas and returning like Moses from the mountain with a script) there wasn’t much either unfamiliar or experimental about Narrative. Not. At. All. The means and process may have been, but these elements didn’t seem to manifest themselves in the final product.

Moreover – and this is a general point, much more than one aimed at this particular production – the problem with Britain’s new writing lies, I would argue, with neutered, muzzled, discouraged or just deeply unimaginative directors than with the writers – although things like the Writers’ Guild’s new guidelines and Fin Kennedy’s laudable-only-in-spirit re-Balkanisation of the whole theatre landscape, In Battalions, Really Don’t Help.

Yes, it’s unfair to dump all this extraneous stuff down at the end of what is not even really a review of Narrative. And it would be idiotic to pre-judge the results of Vicki Featherstone’s forthcoming regime at the Court in a piece looking at a commission from the tail-end of Dominic Cooke’s time there. However, to return to the point with which I started this article: “The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.” As such, Narrative will continue to run, and will bleed into the Featherstone regime. And experiences of that regime will be experienced through the prism of Narrative, just as Narrative couldn’t escape being experienced through other prisms.

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