Thursday 25 July 2013

Re: Chimerica

[ALL SPOILER. This is based primarily around a discussion of Chimerica's ending. If you don’t want the ending spoilered then don’t read this until you’ve seen it]

At the end of Matt Trueman’s review of Chimerica, he rhetorically asks:

“The plot grips, the ideas engage and, for those that like it, there’s the semblance of political urgency to boot. Lyndsey Turner’s production does everything that’s asked of it with Es Devlin’s rotating cube motoring the story forwards. So yeah. What more do you want?”

And it’s where Trueman ends that I’d like to begin.

I’m not going to write about the production itself for a number of reasons (that I only saw the piece in preview, that I’m way too close to people involved, that I consequently know too much inside information, and etc.).

[Indeed, I’m deliberately publishing this now in the dead-space between the end of the Almeida run and the beginning of the West End run in order to neutralise the effect of any perceived equivocation herein as much as possible.]

If you want to read some excellent, favourable, and non-spoilery reviews I wholeheardedly recommend Megan Vaughan’s sharp (and very funny) analysis of why Chimerica is so incredibly watchable and satisfying. Catherine Love doing the business with a characteristically lyrical and smart evocation of the whole, and Dan Hutton’s best-case-scenario analysis of the piece’s politics.

And it is the piece’s politics I want to look at.

Chimerica is essentially a detective story. This is a smart move by Kirkwood. Because, let’s be honest, quite a lot of even the best new writing for the theatre is a bit floppy in the “momemtum” department. No bad thing in itself, but if you want to write popular drama that can be a hit in the mainstream, then I can’t think of many genres better than the detective story. Think about how many of the best DVD Box Sets are detective stories of some sort. And films. Having a character who really wants to find out something is a great thing for a plot. No matter how loopy the plot gets, there’s a clearly understandable and defined goal, so it’s easier to hook an audience’s attention.

In Chimerica the thing that Joe, a fictional New York photographer (played by Stephen Campbell-Moore), wants to find out is the identity of the man standing in front of the tank in the iconic photo that he took. In the play Joe is the guy who took that photo – Joe is a made up version of the five or six photographers who actually did take this shot in 1989, Kirkwood’s note at the beginning of Chimerica explains.

And – problematically – he does find out. It turns out that the man stood in front of the tank in Joe’s photo is Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong), the Chinese guy who has been Joe’s Chinese Best Friend all the way through the play, who Joe coincidentally met a few years after the Tiananmen Square massacre when he returned to China maybe twenty years before the present day. Throughout, Zhang Lin has been the audience’s primary contact with the Chinese-set bits of the play. A telling measure of this is that Benedict Wong is the only Chinese actor who doesn’t play multiple roles (just as Stephen Campbell-Moore as Joe and Claudie Blakely as Joe’s bird are the only two “western” actors not to).

In flashbacks dropped in throughout the play we gradually learn Zhang Lin’s backstory that leads him to be standing in front of those tanks in the middle of the road on that day. He is a young student, recently married or engaged to a fellow student, Liuli, who has a penchant for peaches and standing inside fridges (although I think that bit is a strange flight of magical realist fancy). Gradually, as the student protest of 1989 plays out, we realise that she’s been shot. That she’s been killed. And that, in a climactic scene near the end, he’s been handed her clothes in a white plastic bag...

Part of my problem with this version of events – or this take on telling them – comes from my familiarity with Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident – a set of monologues, one of which imagines watching the man standing in front of the tanks from the Tienanmen Square massacre from the crowd. I first saw it a year ago at Forest Fringe at the Gate and was knocked out by how good it was then, performed by Thorpe just sitting in a chair reading into a microphone. I described it thus:

‘The story fixates on the white plastic bags that the man in front of the tanks is carrying (I’d never consciously noticed them before). It’s precisely this fixing on detail that lifts the writing well clear of just describing something emotive for a cheap effect. Rather, it fully re-makes your relationship with this iconic image. And ultimately it makes you think about how it affects you and everyone else ethically. It invokes molecules, distant stars and the whole universe and then up-ends the entire edifice to re-focus on “a man standing in front of a fucking tank”.’

The lines from There Has Possibly Been an Incident that encapsulate the core of the piece are these (the narrator is imagining what the man in front of the tank might want to say):

“If you know my name then everything about this becomes pointless. I'm going to be much more powerful, longer lived, whether I survive or not, as the guy who did this. Rather than a name.”

The the difficulty for me, therefore, was firstly this issue of Chimerica seeking to personalise this anonymous figure. And then, having personalised him, its making this unknowable act into something that can clearly be understood primarily as a response to romantic grief. The reason Zhang Lin stands in front of a tank could be understood to be a romantic, suicidal, nihilistic response to the loss of his loved one. A “moment of madness”. In comparison with Thorpe’s imagined anonymous, blank figure with bags of cabbage and onions standing up for something, Benedict Wong’s Zhang Lin, carrying in his bags the clothes of his dead wife, looks like nothing so much as King Lear carrying on stage the body of the dead Cordelia. A revolution becomes a family drama.

I find that problematic. Because I don’t think the revolution is about your wife. And to suggest that it is, to personalise it like that, seems to make the revolution into something personal and selfish. Something Westernised and Captialist. It reminds me (yet again) of the René Pollesch quote about wanting to talk to the capitalists about money (although it could equally be about power, or oppression) and them only wanting to tell stories about love.

I was reminded of this issue with Chimerica again reading Andy Horwitz’s brilliant account of his week at TheaterTreffen for Culturebot. Specifically, his review of Luk Perceval’s adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone, published in Britain as Alone In Berlin). Of which he had this to say:
“There is no need for me to recapitulate Arendt and Adorno, but if we think we can convey the scope of the Nazi horror through comprehensible narratives, we are de facto reducing the collective hypnosis of an entire nation through psychic terror on a mythological scale to a single person’s inadequate moral struggle. 
“Even within the limits of conventional narrative, Every Man Dies Alone is the opposite of insightful. It is psychically comforting, even palliative, to see a story of resistance, no matter how futile. Through empathy with the lead characters, this narrative reinforces the desire of the individual spectator to imagine that he would have behaved differently, that he too would have struggled to maintain a shred of moral outrage and resistance in the face of evil... 
“It seems to me, now, after this long and bloody 20th Century and its international legacy of genocide, the more pressing concern is not to retrospectively reaffirm our belief in individual acts of meaningless resistance but rather to undertake a rigorous examination of complicity.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think on its own terms Chimerica is a hugely successful play. It’s the terms themselves – British theatre's, Western Culture's; not Kirkwood’s – that I’m interested in questioning.

I think Kirkwood’s impulse to write a serious play, with research, about America’s relationship with China is a fine impulse (indeed, she comes across brilliantly in this interview with Time Out). And it’s interesting to compare something like Chimerica with the other serious contender for (mainstream) Play of The Year so far – Circle Mirror Transformation.

And yet still, I found something unsettling about the extent to which America seemed iron-clad against criticism compared to China. That the play runs straight through The War on Terror and only China’s record on torture is criticised concerns me. The fact that even making the comparison feels like lining up a bunch of people to tell me that China is totally evil and you can’t compare that with America, despite the fact that America throughout the 2000s was busily sticking justifications for torture into virtually every popular TV programme they made from 24 to Battlestar Galactica.

There was also the slight structural imbalance meaning that the American sections of the story, as well as having a stronger dynamic – detective story versus mopey flashback-land in China – also took up significantly more stage time. Which on one hand is fair enough – Kirkwood can write a play about whomsoever she wants with whatever ratios she wants – but on the other hand does feel slightly (and honestly only slightly) like “we” (the audience) is expected to be seeing the world through western eyes. Perhaps that point is unfair. The play is about America as well. This isn’t really that trope of putting a white character in any play/drama about somewhere foreign so “we” (an assumed white, western audience have a “sympathetic” point of contact), but it does get close at times. Minutiae of American politics are discussed, while it is entirely possible to come away from the play not actually know what sparked the Tienanmen Square protests in the first place (although, at the same time, this is also a triumph of avoiding “Whoops! Exposition!” style dialogue).

Finally, it is interesting that something which could have been a big old sprawlly mess (I use the term affectionately) has been repeatedly streamlined and is now heading into the West End to make a small number of people at the top a lot of money. I can’t help wondering if, regarding this play of compromised ideals, that meta-narrative might ultimately make all its points much more forcefully than the story it tells.

A Season in the Congo – Young Vic

[written to word-count due to time pressures, and because it makes Trueman happy]

Martinican Aimé Césaire’s 1966 topical drama A Season in the Congo offers a pretty straight-forward run at events in what was the Belgian Congo, between 1955 until a year or so after its independence in 1960. Film director Joe Wright’s theatrical début (as far as I can make out) delivers it with a surprisingly unfussy theatrical élan.

Indeed, it’s tempting to say that the production here outstrips the play. Césaire’s text (at least as far as we can guess it from the production: the programme isn’t a playscript) is very much of the rolling-events school of historical dramatisation. The major players – Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Colonel Mobutu (Daniel Kaluuya), Katangan secessionist leader Moise Tshombe (Brian Bovell) and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarsköld (Kurt Egyiawan) – all dash on stage with their supporting casts and deliver rapid, functional dialogue outlining mostly recent events and their ideological position to them. There’s a fairly literal, Brechtian quality to it all, from which Wright extracts a mapcap energy.

What Wright (and possibly more so his co-director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) also bring to proceedings are a bunch of nearly-narrative dance sequences, musical breaks and increasingly amusing wry, philosophical interjections from the Likembe player, Kabongo Tshinsensa. Indeed, as I followed the action in the programme’s timeline of events as the scenes rolled, I did wonder what a piece made solely of these “scene-changes” might have felt like. But the staging of the text also yields plenty of fine moments. My checklist of what these are more-or-less identical to Quentin Letts’s list of complaints, except I thought they were all excellent additions: there are “Muppet-style puppets playing a chorus from a gallery. At another point, toy parachutists float down from on high, to represent a Belgian re-invasion. European evacuees are shown by tiny, Chapman Brothers-style figures being pulled across the stage. The American and Soviet ambassadors are... played by black actors — as are the Belgian colonialists, who sport oversized fake white noses, to distinguish them from the Congolese.”

In fact, this last point (contrary to Letts’s concern that “colour-blind casting is wilfully self-destructive here, failing to seize a chance to accentuate the arrogance of the white powers”) is a particularly fine innovation. Instead of recolonising the stage with a bunch of white actors graphically demonstrating imperialist oppression, the device unfussily satirises it in a way that is at once completely comprehensible and totally theatrical.

However the real stand-outs of the night are Ejiofor and Kaluuya. Ejiofor (who I’ve not seen on stage before) really is a strikingly charismatic actor, and in an age where “charisma” is not really the done thing, he reclaims it and makes an outstanding case for it, the few political speeches he is called on to make are suddenly electrifying and vital. And while Kaluuya has the more thankless task as the unsympathetic usurping dictator-in-waiting Mobutu he seems to effortlessly embody the necessary low cunning and pragmatic violence.

If there are “buts” then the length and infrequent longeurs in explain-it-all dialogue are two, but perhaps more so is the “unreliable narrator” quality of the script. Granted, there are good historical reasons for this – Césaire was a committed anti-colonialist at a time of violent struggle (in a similar vein to his communist contemporaries who might still have sought to excuse Stalin’s crimes). However, looking back from the (doubtless unhelpful) ethical safety of the early 21st century, one can’t help being concerned by the initially triumphalist and unquestioning tone the piece takes toward the massacres ordered by Lumumba against secessionist regions of South Kasai and Katanga, painting these secessions as unambiguous power/land-grabs by Belgian imperialists and the UN’s condemnation of the massacres (genocides in the play) as reactionary. The massacre of a lot of native villagers is hardly excellent anti-imperialism, whichever way you want to cut it. And is the preservation of the national borders of a country arbitrarily stapled together for a number of disparate tribal regions by the Belgians really a laudable ambition? It wasn’t a country before imperialism. Why would the first anti-imperialist government of a de-colonised country wish to enforce these borders with such an iron will? Of course, I have no better answers than the play, but I don’t think it would hurt if the production had questioned the ethics of the text more.

Nevertheless, this is ultimately a laudable, bold bit of programming and well worth watching, not only for the rare chance to see the play at all, but for some fine staging and excellent performances.

what happens to the hope at the end of the evening – Almeida Festival

what happens to the hope... is a new piece made in collaboration by a smith, Karl James and Tim Crouch, the same team who made The Author. But where The Author was a play written by Crouch, directed by smith and James, the text of ...hope... is attributed to smith and Crouch, who also perform.

If The Author – with its performers sat amongst the audience and mode of direct address – was formally “difficult”, then ...hope... is both more and less so. Plonked on the un-dressed stage of the Almeida, it both does and doesn’t look and behave as theatre should. a smith (playing “Andy”, a character who appears to share many autobiographical details with Real-World smith) is sat on a chair behind a music stand with the script placed on it. He talks directly to us, the audience. He asks the usher “is everyone here who said they were coming?” He’s really there. He might almost be really himself. We’re really there too. And he’s talking to us.

Crouch is playing smith’s friend (called “Friend” in the script). Crouch’s performance of “Friend” is even more theatrically complex. He’s definitely on the stage with smith, and he doesn’t sound unlike Crouch, but as rapidly becomes clear, “Friend” is probably not very like Crouch. For a start, there’s almost a chippy resentment in the way he stands (resenting the fact that he can also see the audience and they can see him?), certainly in the hectoring way in which he addresses smith. Firstly in a “phone-call” and then in person.

smith (or “smith”, or Andy) seems slightly pained and discomforted by “Friend”, but addresses him at all times in the manner of a calming therapist, or perhaps hostage negotiator. He calls him “mate” an awful lot too, deploying the word like a series of verbal halt signs. When “Friend” arrives at smith’s house, he almost immediately begins to populate the stage with bits of furniture, which he goes and fetches from off-stage. “Friend” even seems to resent having to do this. As if to say: if you’re going round to your friend’s house, they could at least make sure some naturalistic furniture was put out before you arrived so you didn’t have to pretend. When smith suggests that something might be in the kitchen, “Friend”’s derisory laugh seems to indicate his disgust that there’s clearly no such kitchen on this stage, and moreover at the lack of a possible set designer who could have solved this oversight.

In this respect, it would be very easy to view what happens to the hope... as an amusing exercise in meta-theatre – the story of a progressive, avant-garde-ish performer, au fait with gentle, lo-fi staging techniques suddenly being visited by some monster of ‘70s, or ‘90s realism – that “Friend” is also chippy and violent adds to this impression, with his swearing and drinking and his talk of fighting and thieving.

And in part, I think that is what it is about. Where ...hope... gets more complex is that Andy’s Friend has turned up to visit him off the back of joining an anti-fascist protest in Bolton (“The EDL are planning a sort of quaint little reconstruction of Kristallnacht on the Chorley Road... We thought we’d come and say hello to the racists, you know, a little welcome party, show them the error of their ways. Like old times, remember?”). So, in some way, we might also be being asked to consider what the best form of resistance to fascism is. And this might also echo and reflect the culture-clash between the two sorts of theatre. The sense that this sort of theatre/thinking is (or was) a friend from whom we’ve grown apart, and this sort of anti-fascist violence is a force which we not only recognise but which we probably used to support if not take part in.

It’s not at all clear cut. For all that “Friend” is clearly a mess – we later learn that he’s thrown over a decent-sounding relationship for an affair and is clearly accustomed to drinking for too much on a regular basis – are we 100% sure that “Andy” doesn’t feel some discomfort at his pleasant, non-confrontational life as a lecturer in theatre studies at the University of Lancaster – at having “sold-out”? Isn’t some of “Friend”’s anger not misplaced? Aren’t some things worth fighting about?

I wonder if, in part, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is a play about growing up. “the hope” might partly be raging youthful idealism. And in the question (or statement) of the title “the evening” could well stand in for one’s later years. What do we do with all that idealism when we realise that we’re older? And were the ways in which we practised this youthful idealism ever that ideal anyway?

Perhaps this is most strikingly captured in a single exchange:
FRIEND   It’s all so fucking easy for you. You don’t get caught up in it. Not everyone does a bit of yoga, has a little think, gets their organic veg box, has a little think, loves their mum and dad, has a little think -

ANDY      Well, maybe they should! Maybe it’s that simple, you know? Don’t fuck that person who isn’t your partner. Don’t open that third bottle of wine. Don’t make assumptions. You talk as if these things are out of our control, well maybe they are not.
It’s hard to find fault with either position, really. Or rather, it’s easy to sympathise with both points of view. Of course Andy comes off looking wiser and more mature, but I do wonder if his character doesn’t also contain a sadness at his own position.

There even comes a point a little later where I briefly wonder if Friend is even real: through the piece Andy has a refrain which runs “It is such-and-such a time. I am waiting for my friend”. On one level it can be read as a recap; on another, the sad reflection that the person who is/was his friend has yet to turn up – or the things he likes about his friend have yet to re-establish themselves; and then there’s the possibility that everything we’re seeing on the stage is imagined by Andy and to let us know that he keeps reminding us that he’s still waiting for his friend to actually arrive.

What is striking about the piece, is the very real feeling that this couldn’t be the product of a single author. I’m not precisely sure how the text was made, whether it was improvised, written separately and merged, pinged back-and-forth as an ever lengthening Word.doc, written by the two in the same room or a combination of all of the above. Nor, with this sort of project – performed by two writer/directors, is it easy to discern where Karl James’s directorial hand comes into play.

Because, alongside Friend’s chippiness, there’s also a playful, clownish element of just trying to de-rail Andy (or a smith)’s performance style. To really fuck it up. And this element of two obviously distinct styles and entities vying for control certainly gives the thing a whole new motor that singly-authored thesis-plays aren’t often able to fake.

What’s also interesting (though perhaps only to me) is that this is one of the last things I saw before seeing Circle Mirror Transformation and the first thing I’d seen in the Almeida since Chimerica. There’s an interesting moment in ...hope... – the follow-up to the above-quoted exchange, as it happens – where Andy says: “I don’t know if we know what we want anymore”. The “we” in this case feels like it means both society, and those of us present in the theatre that night. And, watching it on an Almeida press night, with a slightly Almeida-audience-heavy audience what it made me think was: “Well, what a lot of people want seems to be Chimerica”. Which was a thought that troubled me, since ...hope... is a piece that, for all its "roughnesses" and “imperfections”, speaks to the world a good deal more directly and urgently than the finely tuned detective story with added research and social comment does. But obviously it’s not the thing that’s got the West End transfer. And probably never will be. (Although, if it sits funnily in the Almeida, how much more funnily would it sit between the gilded pillars of a West End stage? And why oh why is the West End transfer the only measure of success in British Theatre anyway? etc.)

Similarly, the dynamics and way of exploring some pretty fundamental, pressing ethical questions about what we do, how we should live, how we should act. I do wonder if it wasn’t this combination of simplicity and range that made me that bit less accommodating toward Circle Mirror Transformation (although as Dan Hutton’s new review succinctly puts it: “Throughout, however, I couldn’t help feeling that though [CMT] had strong bones and a beautiful exterior, the flesh itself was not quite meaty enough”). It was this aspect that made me wonder at the comparisons with Chekhov that the piece had attracted. I suddenly realise I couldn’t think of a single play by Chekhov in which the characters weren’t engaged in a conversation about the wider society in which they lived. Big conversations about the direction of art or of massive social upheaval. And this is the difference between ...hope... and CMT – on the face of it, ...hope... is just a story about two former friends meeting up again, but what they talk about, and the way they populate the world beyond the stage with images and ideas so vivid that you’d swear you were shown photos of them, makes this piece incredibly powerful and outward-looking.

what happens to the hope at the end of the evening is an object lesson in what political theatre can look like, and a striking illustration of how structural difficulty, collaboration and multiple-authoring are perhaps a deeply necessary part of it.

Three other brilliant reviews by:
Dan Hutton
Catherine Love
and Dan Rebellato

what happens to the hope at the end of the evening plays at Forest Fringe from 18th – 24th August (for free // pay-what-you-can/will/like)

On 'Theatre Criticism'

This is a link to a short piece which I wrote for Intelligent Life about Irving Wardle's book Theatre Criticism. I rather like the idea of writing for anything called "Intelligent Life".  

Sunday 14 July 2013

Gym Party – Made in China at the Almeida Festival


What to make of this year’s Almeida Festival? Well, probably nothing conclusive after only two shows. The obvious temptation is to view the whole as, at worst, a tottering edifice of the Ancien Régime; or, at best, a generous, well-meaning gesture that always looked suspiciously like a ghetto.

The problem with the Almeida Festival has always been its separateness. Pre-existing artists or companies brought in to enjoy a bit of largesse, but seemingly ignored by – and having no impact whatsoever on – anything that happened for the other fifty weeks of the year. A kind of avant-garde fig leaf that Michael Attenborough tastefully positioned over the middle of the year while he went on holiday.

Compare with the National where you could see that the “alternative” work that was brought in gradually started to impact on the “mainstream” work there. So much so, that by the end of the 2000s, it felt like such a division had started to become meaningless. Or compare with the Forest Fringe at the Gate seasons, where Gate Artistic Director Chris Haydon firstly has the decency to admit to the fact that it’s not Gate programming, per se, and allows Forest Fringe credit and recognition (and in doing so, gets massive credit for inviting them in); and secondly, where you get the sense that he – and his admittedly smaller-than-the-Almeida staff – are actually interested in the work, and that elements from it, or performers associated with Forest Fringe, aren’t incompatible elements to the “normal” work of the building. (As an excellent example, see the Gate’s forthcoming Traverse show starring Forest Fringe solo artist and #TORYCORE member Lucy Ellinson). But actually, this is slightly unfair. While one doesn’t see Michael Attenborough turning up, tearing tickets and watching the shows with a demonstrable hunger for invention, Almeida staffers Jenny Worton and Lilli Geissendorfer were both there.

But, for now, in lieu of reviewing the show, I will review the space.

Putting something like Made In China’s Gym Party on the Almeida stage – especially as a quick turnaround, two-date gig – perhaps exposes something about both the show and the space.

It’s interesting watching a Live Art Lite (as I tend to think of this genre – I promise it’s not meant reductively) show in a “proper theatre”. And not only a “proper theatre” but one that the group can’t really materially alter. After all, this genre of show is used to playing in much rougher and readier spaces. End on black boxes like CPT, sprawly found-spaces like the original Forest Fringe venue above the Forest Café, or improvised hipster joints like The Yard. The theory is, the work is so audience-responsive and so rough-and-ready that it can withstand anything. As it turns out, it feels a bit more like it can withstand anything except a really well appointed, posh, arty, “proper theatre”.

Actually, that’s not true, but watching Gym Party (and indeed what happens to the hope at the end of the evening), you realise that the Almeida’s stage is actually pretty damn big. Or at least, that it goes back quite a long way if there isn’t a dirty great revolving cube plonked slap bang in the middle.

As such, Made in China’s decision to stick the opening sequences of their piece quite far back feels like quite a mistake (although, for a two-day run, it hardly matters, right?). There was a moment about halfway through (perhaps sooner) when the performers stepped forward into a different set of lights and suddenly it felt like the show came alive. Perhaps it was meant to feel a bit distant or dislocated before that, but it really wasn’t helpful.

What’s even more interesting, though, is how resistant to this sort of work the Almeida’s seating and auditorium feels. I’d always thought I rather liked the Almeida – at least as an auditorium. From the first play I saw there (The Jew of Malta with Ian McDiarmid in 1999 directed by a pre-boring Michael Grandage). But I think it’s a lovely room with issues. Sit any further back in the stalls than where the circle sticks out and you’re suddenly watching a big widescreen telly. The room transforms from being a lofty, vaulting tramshed to being a cinemascope production.

I think recent directors to the Almeida might have recognised this. Certainly my recollections of Chimerica and Rosmersholm bear this out – although oddly, my memories of sitting quite far back in the stalls for Rupert Goold’s The Trial of Judas Iscariot don’t involve widescreen at all, but an incredibly present staging. I have no idea how he achieved that, but I’m once again bloody glad that he’s taking over.

And, in fact, even this version of seeing everything as either widescreen or present isn’t consistent. When the three performers of Made in China were stood at the back of the stage: widescreen. When, however, Chris Brett Bailey is stood on a stage block playing the electric guitar in a narrow beam of hazed light – probably the single best stage-image I’ve ever seen at the Almeida, FTR – I don’t remember feeling the circle above me at all. Perhaps this is all to do with where and how your attention is focussed – in a way that hardly ever happens in cinema and never on TV.

Re: the venue and the Festival, there’s also the slightly weird feeling of not knowing who you’re watching with. It seems perhaps a betrayal of many good Arts Council initiatives to say that generally speaking, when you go to a theatre, you know who’s in there with you; what they’ve paid and what they’ve paid to see. Because hitherto the Almeida has had a pretty strict programme of work – classics and new plays About A Thing, generally speaking, staged in a way that acknowledges convention and rarely tries to up-end it – you get the feeling that the core audience it’s built up might not be entirely in sympathy with a bunch of fresh-faced punks physically abusing themselves in the name of anti-Cameron agit-prop. (Yes. Gym Party is pretty blunt.) And so there’s a weird mix in the room of Made in China fans, plus hardcore theatre-goers, writers-about-theatre and industry types, plus bemused Almeida regulars who mostly go to see Attenborough and his ilk direct Ibsen and Shakespeare.

And Made in China’s aesthetic doesn’t really feel like a softly-softly gentle invitation. What is interesting, in this context – the context of feeling slightly awkward for the work – is second-guessing how much you feel you could actually defend it to a grumpy-but-theatre-literate Almeida regular; someone who “gets it” perfectly well, but might not like it overmuch.

To be honest, I’m not sure I like it 100%. There are definitely elements which worked (on this showing) far more than others, the transitions still feel a bit scrappy, and the being-walloped-over-the-head-with-the-message I could have lived without. If you’re going to do political allegory, you don’t also need to say what it’s an allegory of, would be my thought.

That said, the solo-spot monologues – about which, in keeping with this not being a review, I shall say nothing – work well and the final sickening climax of the show actually made me feel physically ill. Which, depending on what Made in China want, is probably a total result.

Anyway, THIS ISN’T A REVIEW*, so I should probably stop shortly.

Perhaps, re: the Almeida Festival I’m being too hard on what is after all probably quite a welcome initiative for a number of artists. Perhaps my cynicism about the Almeida’s motives being cynical is misplaced. But this question about whether its space is resistant to certain theatrical forms strikes me as an interesting one. As does the question of audience. Is it the theatre, or is it a company’s failure to recognise/spot the increased ratio of noise to signal which is at play here?

Further reviews from the Almeida Festival will arrive as and when the shows come.

[and maybe in the next week, I’ll get to a venue which isn’t the Royal Court or the Almeida...]

*Reviewing Gym Party is embargoed until it premières in Edinburgh. Presumably because of arcane, pre-internet laws of the rather proprietorial Edinburgh-based awards (Total Theatre, Fringe First, etc.) stating that if something receives too many (any?) reviews before the Festival itself, it becomes ineligible for consideration. As a side issue, it’s worth pointing out to these awards that on one hand, their criteria is obsolete and restrictive, but, on the other hand, pointing out to companies that playing a show as “work-in-progress” across umpteen festivals before “opening” in Edinburgh hardly makes their shows the “Edinburgh discovery” such awards were set up to recognise. I mean, the Almeida Festival isn’t the only Festival now that seems to be composed largely of press-embargoed pre-Edinburgh work-in-progress try-outs. (While we’re being honest, I should also slap myself down for wanting to at once be recognised as perfectly legitimate writing-about-theatre while also feeling that I should be allowed to do whatever the hell I like because I’m “not proper”. Anyway...).

Also, the embargo is new, so there are ALREADY REVIEWS OF THE SODDING THING

Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court (off-site, Haggerston)

[if you read to the end (2963 words) you deserve some sort of medal]

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (CMT), directed by James Macdonald at the Rose Lipman Building in Haggerston as part of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local initiative, is a two hour play about the lives of five people attending a six-week adult Creative Drama class at a community center in Shirley, Vermont.

We only see the characters when they’re in the room where the drama class happens – which in this production, is an actual room in an actual community centre where actual drama classes actually happen. The characters are still played by actors, though. There’s Marty (short for Martha), 55, played by Imelda Staunton, who leads the class and who is married to James, 60, played by Danny Webb, who is also attending the class. Then there’s Schultz, 48 (Toby Jones), Theresa, 35 (Fenella Woolgar), and Lauren, 16 (Shannon Tarbett).

We gradually come to know the characters through watching them perform drama exercises – there’s the lying on the floor and counting to ten as a group one, the walking round at different speeds being aware of everyone else in the room one, and there are a lot of interview your partner and talk about them ones. It’s a clever conceit, only slightly punctured by the fact that Baker lets herself off the hook and also shows us a bunch of before-class and in-the-break conversations between the five attendees as well.

What we get to know is [necessarily spoilery. But then the run’s sold out. But then, if it isn’t aiming for a West End transfer with a cast like that, I’ll eat my hat (and have even more respect for New Royal Court). Anyway...] what we get to know is: there’s a palpable tension between Marty and James. Schultz is initially socially awkward, divorced a year ago but still wearing his wedding ring. Theresa is also a bit awkward, has recently broken up with her emotionally manipulative live-in boyf in New York and has abandoned her acting aspirations to retrain as an acupressure therapist. Lauren is sixteen. Her dad has been in trouble with the law and her mother’s mother who lives with them wants her mother to leave her dad. Actually, Lauren’s a bit of a red-herring: the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club, but without an Emilio Estavez to get off with in the final reel (so, Brian, actually).

The emotional motor of the play is Theresa. She quickly falls into having *a thing* with Schultz, and then breaks it off. She the flirts with James, who promptly falls for her (we suppose) who then reveals as much in a game of “write a secret on a piece of paper”. Meanwhile, we’ve learnt that Marty (deliberately? Accidentally?) sabotaged James relationship with his daughter (from his previous marriage) by casually referring to an affair he had. And then, that Marty might have been abused by her father. This last bit seems a bit crow-barred in, casually cropping up as a possible reason for her suffering Night Terrors suggested by Schultz in Week Four and being dropped in as (we assume) her secret in Week Five.

Actually, it’s the “write your secret down” bit, where, for me, the wheels came off the script a bit. In theory, it is quite ambiguous. In Macdonald’s production, but definitely prompted by the stage directions of the script, we’re not really left in any doubt as to who put in which secret. Watching, it occurred to me that the play would have been much more interesting if it turned out to have been James who worries that “My father may have molested me”, and if it was Lauren (rather than Schultz, we assume) who might be the one who has a “problempossibleaddiction [one word] with internt pornography”. As it is, “Lauren giggles” when “I secretly think I am smarter than everyone else in the world” is read out, leaving us to be a bit, ‘well, duh’, when Theresa’s self-analysis “I think that everything I do is propelled by my fear of being alone” is the last to be revealed.

After all, that’s not a secret. Either about her, or about anyone else, really. And everything Theresa does is actually propelled by her class identity and economic circumstances, so her self-analysis can go to hell.

The level of textual fidelity here is quite remarkable. The author’s note, addressed “To anyone interested in putting on a production of this play” is normally the sort of thing I find compellingly hideous. (My thoughts on Bruce Norris’s anal obsession with people doing what he says are well documented.) However, Baker’s note, while making a similar request, seems to come from almost exactly the opposite direction. Where Norris says “don’t question my play”, Baker’s note is more like a plea for people to understand her good faith. It wouldn’t take a genius to infer that this note is probably a direct result of Peter Gill’s notably catastrophic misunderstanding of Baker’s earlier play Aliens at the Bush. Sentences like “Without its silences, this play is a satire, and with its silences it is, hopefully, a strange little meditation on theatre and life and death and the passing of time” and “I hope you will portray these characters with compassion. They are not fools” just seem to be missing the word “Peter” at the end of every line.

And, with an author’s note like that, it’s hard not to warm to the thing. Or at least to the impulses and intentions behind it. Although, at the same time, you also kind of notice that Chekhov it ain’t (Although doubtless Chekhov wrote similarly distressed notes to Stanislavsky, albeit the other way round: “Stan., this play is a goddamn satire. With all these silences you’re making it all sentimental. These characters are all fools, FFS! Yours in despair, Anton”).

I wonder if that’s a problem. I wonder if this demand for respect for the characters points to a certain lack of robustness about the situation of the play. Or perhaps it’s guilt. Baker’s guilt at having creating characters who could so easily be mistaken for the sorts of comic car crashes found in Untitled Matriarch Play. Part of me would really like Baker to see Frank Castorf’s angry, vicious, (and unendurable) five hour evisceration of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau! before she thinks she’s been badly served by a director (although, yes, there’s a massive difference between having a staging deliberately attack your play for political reasons and simply having it misunderstood).

So what to make of it all?

Well, hype can be a deadly thing. I already did an ‘apologising for/worrying about not liking a play as much as my peers piece’ in my review for Narrative, so I’m not going to re-tread old ground.

But, CMT has given me much cause to think again about the nature of internet hype. One thought which did occur is that the human animal is instinctively generous. If people really liked something, they tend to broadcast their approval long and loud to share their discovery with their friends. If they don’t really like something so much, then they tend to keep their mouths shut about it, not wanting to hurt the feelings of those involved or piss on the parade of those who liked it. At least in public. Unless they were mortally offended by something. So I wonder how accurate a reflection of the overall public mood this indisputable wave of good will toward CMT really is. Certainly the only person I knew at this afternoon’s matinee performance at the Royal Court’s new experimental off-site sauna agreed with me that it wasn’t really all that.

But hype also blunts the precision of the reaction. Did I “not like” Circle Mirror Transformation? Not a bit of it. I liked it just fine, really. I thought it was – in the main – very well acted and very well directed. I think I’d probably have also found lots about the script kind of admirable if I hadn’t had its virtues pre-praised to the skies for me.

“That’s why there are press nights, Haydon”. Well, no. That might have been an answer once. If you happened to be a critic who had no friends who ever went to previews and never spoke to anyone in the industry, then once upon a pre-internet time it might have been possible to go virgin-like into a production. But even that’s nonsense. Matt Trueman’s incredibly persuasive and totally charming print-media profile of CMT author Annie Baker for the FT a couple of weekends back would still have been knocking about beaming its positive vibes into the ether.

But there’s also the nature of the hype, of our the response to it. Which is to say, some hype is more equal than others. When the MSM lot come out of something predictably godawful, tailor-made to their baleful tastes it hardly feels like hype; it feels like the death-rattle of an obese dinosaur, to which: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” feels like the only possible response.

When the hype comes from usually trusted friends whose similar(-ish) taste in theatre is probably how you met in the first place, then you worry more when you’re not really feeling it. Because, let’s be honest, the hype for CMT hasn’t been hectoring, or self-righteous, or preachy, or factional, or I-told-you-so, or point-making. It’s been good-natured wonderment, adoration and joy. And who wants to be the guy who isn’t on that train?

So, while I feel no compunction in writing savage reviews against the opinions of my senior colleagues, this sort of thing initially leaves me feeling a bit inward-looking and wondering what’s wrong with me. Did everyone else’s enthusiasm for CMT make it impossible for me to like it? I wouldn’t have said so. I’m pretty sure I’ve come late to other shows everyone else has already praised and still been able to like them (Rupert Goold’s Enron and Macbeth spring to mind).

But after the worrying about yourself (“What is wrong with me?” “Maybe I just hate people?”), a slightly toxic second phase turns up, where you just feel irritable with everyone who’s still insisting that the thing is still the second coming. The “What do you know, anyway?” phase. Is this review really a review of the play any more or a review of my colleagues’ Tweets (I’ve not read the actual reviews yet).

Ultimately, I think it’s a combination; a combination not helped along much by the conditions in which I saw it – sweltering heat and a matinee performance, meaning that the poor actors had another two-hour performance looming ahead of them while doing this show yesterday. (Also, spending the last ten weeks watching the Secret Theatre company not only doing the same sorts of drama exercises sometimes, but also watching a group of people all negotiating getting to know each other in a rehearsal room – and indeed only really seeing those people in the rehearsal room.)

I mean, the acting here really is very good. But it is still acting. Even quite demonstrative acting at times – although, what was remarkably good was the quality of the attention-paying: the bits where the actors were pretending to be their characters seeing something for the first time. The bits where people aren’t *on* are where all the best performance is.

Actually, when thinking about the performances, I could easily be seduced into writing a good five-hundred words on just the small intricate things that each performer brought into the room. The small winces that Danny Webb’s James makes, or the way his whole physicality notably altered when Theresa started flirting with him. Or how refreshing it was to see Fenella Woolgar not playing another of the uptight poshos she’s normally typecast as, and instead seeing her playing a complicatedly sexy American young woman (on that note, it’s also nice to see Danny Webb not playing the captain of a space ship for once). And the degree of compassion that she seemed to have invested in that character – again, a moment best typified in one scene where she’s just watching James and Marty playing Lauren’s parents fighting, and the look of concern on her face. Or the inner strength and deep breath-taking that Imelda Staunton brings to Marty. It’s one of those performances that’s so natural at times, that you forget that it’s remarkable that she’s doing it so well because it looks like she isn’t doing anything at all. Toby Jones’s Schultz is, for me, perhaps the most mannered – no, mannered is unfair – the most overtly amusing performance. Jones’s Schultz’s physical awkwardness – while not overtly unsympathetic to the character – does make him frequently the funniest thing on the stage, and so it feels a bit more telegraphed. Even though other people’s physical awkwardness in real life can be quite funny. Shannon Tarbet (who I was going to say is the only actor here I’ve never seen before, but who was apparently in Spur of the Moment) is, well, it’s a cliché to say “is a revelation” but, really, she is remarkable. Easily the best at the stillness and deadpannery (or perhaps its just a gift of a character in this respect), you get the sense that she’s possibly the performer on stage who’s had least to unlearn in order to achieve this level of natural-ness.

So, yes, the acting is good.

And the production as a whole is good. Chloe Lamford’s design is – well, it’s hard to know what’s Chloe Lamford’s design when we’re in a real room in a real building that already performs the same function as the room that the characters are in in the play, but if it extends to costumes (it probably does) then those are spot on. (especially Marty, whose abiding love of purple and magenta clothing over the six weeks could easily have tipped into Abigail’s Party-style character assassination by costume kitsch). The only small solecism is the dream catcher given by Schulz to Marty in Week Six, which takes the sole textual clue “I love the little purple – ” to be a bunch of purple feathers hanging off it – making it far and away the most broadly comic thing in the play – rather than, say, a particular purple stone/crystal in it. Tsk. But other than that small niggle, flawless.

Beyond that, there’s the slightly annoying presence of two different lighting states – although brought into the world of the play by there being a lighting board controlled by Marty. More annoyingly, there are also A Lot of Blackouts. In an air-conditioned room, I might have forgiven these (although they feed the structural problem with the piece), but yesterday, no, not so much.

Does writing down more or less everything I thought, wondered about, etc. constitute a review? I just don’t know any more. This probably needs a good edit and a through line. Still, if nothing else it’s a reasonably accurate record of my conflicted feelings about having misgivings about a play that everyone else (except Ian Shuttleworth) seems to think is the second coming, in which they are seeing things that I just couldn’t see.

It’s hard to pin down precisely why it didn’t quite work for me. I’m not actually absolutist about plays having to not be about people’s marital breakdowns or problems with self-esteem, although I’d rather if they were about those things, then I think it would be nice if those things were also looking outward. Except here I think they are looking outward, so that can’t be it. Perhaps it’s that I think they’re only looking outward a certain distance. They catch a certain way of seeing the world and yourself in it, but it’s a very small world, made only out of self-improvement and personal relationships.

Another, quite random thing that happened to me while watching the play was a curiosity about how it came into being. I suppose this came from a) Secret Theatre, but also b) watching the Anthony Neilson-led Collaboration project last week – especially E.V. Crowe’s piece set in a rehearsal room. If Annie Baker just locked herself in a room and made this up, then the intricacy and perfection of it is almost frustrating to me. Because, yes, it is brilliantly done, I’m not going to deny that, but she could have made this with some actors in a room in about three weeks flat. And, thanks to Secret Theatre and what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, I also missed the messiness that the not-single-voice vision brings to such work. The production doesn’t feel as a fraction as collaborative as a piece which might ultimately about the value collaboration perhaps usefully could.

So, yes. There we go. Because everyone else said it is about “so much more” I think I expected something like Chris Goode’s Longwave, which it ain’t, and ain't trying to be.

That said, I think it’s still bloody wonderful that perhaps the piece I thought about most when trying (and failing) to articulate why this hadn’t really done it for me was the Royal Court’s own Surprise Theatre offering Commonwealth.

For any theatre to be putting out and containing such an exciting dialectic (yeah, I went there), is surely an incredibly positive and healthy sign – even if I do wish that it was Commonwealth getting the four-week run and massive campaign of adulation.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Untitled Matriarch Play – Royal Court

To say I absolutely hated Nikole Beckwith’s Untitled Matriarch Play would be boring, blunt and inaccurate.

That a colleague who’d seen it the previous night provocatively suggested I (or anyone) would find it impossible to enjoy while still in possession of a penis (or more accurately, without possession of a womb) ensured that I certainly gave enjoying it my best shot. And on the face of it; yes; this does feel like a play that will be assessed along gender lines. (Indeed the Royal Court wryly tweeted as much yesterday)

The story contains seven female characters – Sylvie, the grandmother; Lorraine, the mother; Karen, Mimi, Claire and Beckah, the daughters; and Sera, the surrogate mother of Lorraine’s putative next child.

The plot essentially consists of the four daughters, aged 35, 33, 28, and 15 being alarmed to discover that their caustic and not very noticeably loving mother intends to have a son via a surrogate and sperm donation. A second plot strand briefly emerges 1hr20 in when 28-year-old daughter Claire – she’s the one with allergies to everything and severe depression (or maybe “issues”) – reveals that she is going to move in with Sera (in what context is unclear) and sue Lorraine for custody of the child. The grandmother sits in a wheelchair and makes bitter observations throughout.

So one problem is that the play is largely dramatically inert. God knows, I of all people don’t mind a lack of drama. But when it feels like that’s what’s been aimed for and missed, rather than a deliberate stylistic choice, that’s different. Instead, the cavernous 1hr45 running time of this comedy is filled with more-or-less non-stop wise-cracking. And the subject is more or less entirely centred around motherhood and/or child-bearing, with a hefty side order of complaining bitterly about not having partners, boyfriends, husbands (or in the case of Lorraine, of complaining about the ex-husband). It feels like the revenge play written by someone who got dumped by the Bechdel Test.

In common with the other American play downstairs in Open Court, Death Tax, every character is narcissistic, solipsistic, selfish, and unable to comprehend anyone else to the point of autism. (Until – SPOILER ALERT – the last minute, when Lorraine has did, and suddenly everyone decides to be lovely to each other.) That said, given the near-total apparent lack of agency that anyone in this play has over their life (other than the freedom to be completely and exclusively absorbed by it), it feels more like what Friends might have been like if it had been written by Samuel Beckett. Which, staged right, might actually be quite interesting.

Which brings me to what I think is the real problem here (aside from the grotesque late-capitalist characters, who might be satire for all I know): I think – at least on Wednesday night – the production (dir. Vicki Featherstone) hasn’t quite nailed the play. Which, obviously, on a week’s rehearsal is totally fair enough. But the flip side of knowing why it’s fair enough that a production hasn’t gelled is that it doesn’t make it any easier to sit though.

I spent a good deal of time wondering about this (Mostly during the monologues (oh, yes, there are “to-camera” monolgues too), which I found particularly hard to remember to watch.) And wondering what might be done differently. What has been done is that an ensemble cast of very fine British actors have donned New York accents and essayed a range of sassy or shrinking types. In a way, I think it is the slightly broad-brush-y-ness of these characterisations and the drive to hit the jokes which hides the problems of the production and makes it look more like the problem of the script.

Initially I was reminded of the strange burlesques of René Pollesche, in which (typically) large female casts offer an almost transvestite parody of femininity. And I’d have been interested to see the version of Untitled Matriarch Play staged like Ein Chor Irrt Sich Gewaltig. But then I went the other way, and wondered if it wasn’t the amped-up-ness of the quick-fire delivery that was the problem. Rhythmically, it did lapse into long stretches where the dialogue felt like a two-way version of Robert de Niro asking if someone was looking at him. I wondered if, given a bit of space, breathing, and humanity, the jokes might have been less the point and more the by-product, and funnier for it. I dunno, I’m not a director.

The last thought I had, was wondering whether the real saboteur here was the ensemble principle itself. I know this is going to sound like rank hypocrisy, given my general position on how all theatre should be gender-, disability-, colour-, age- and accent-blind – and in general I think this still holds, certainly for all imaginatively staged theatre with a proper rehearsal time. However, for boulevard theatre which relies on certain cultural types, I wonder if the path of least resistance might also make the most sense.

For example, while it might be interesting – if controversial – to stage plays which hinge on a strong ethnic identity like The Amen Corner or Fences with mixed casts and non-naturalistic settings, it occurred to me that that might be pretty much what had been done here. I don’t know if the play is specifically Jewish, but that’s my guess at the mileau in Beckwith’s mind. So, in a way, I wonder if the problem here might best pictured by imagining a British ensemble doing Annie Hall with a week’s rehearsal. My guess is, it might be harder to gauge the true comic potential of the script.

Also, if it is a play about Jewish characters, and that has got lost in this staging, then I wonder also what additional resonance has been lost along with it. The Grandmother, Sylvie, is old enough in the play to be a Holocaust survivor. The brief explanation she gives of the death of her son – “he drowned on a train” I’m pretty sure she said – well, people tend not to drown on trains. Trains are generally pretty water-free. So what train did she mean? And drowned? By his mother, in preference to arriving alive at that train’s destination? I’ve no idea, but I did suddenly realise in retrospect that there was perhaps something bigger behind this text than simple worries about biological clocks. Perhaps a huge lot more.

Of course, I might equally be massively over-reading that, and they might just as easily be W.A.S.P.s. And perhaps, even the Jewish reading had been the case, the relentless flippancy and gag-o-rama of the whole thing might still have turned my stomach enough to make me dislike the piece intensely. And even dislike it all the more for trying to bring the Holocaust into something that may still ultimately be revealed as a dispiritingly shallow excuse of an examination of women’s reproductive needs, desires and rights.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Inexcusable New Writing pile-up

A funny thing seems to have happened to British theatre, and it turns out that it has rather dire consequences for writing about it. The problem is this: the Royal Court is now turning out so much work that you could have seen something new there every night last week. There is also the problem of the brilliant atmosphere. Every night you turn up there now, you probably bump into a minimum of five people you know. The nights are warm, the bar is cheap(-ish), and so rather than scurrying back to your cold, dark flat and writing luminous copy about the trove of riches being displayed there, you end up sitting outside, drinking white wine, and discussing the plays with your friends like a normal person. Lovely. But not very productive. Especially when the knock-on effect is a week of hangovers rather compromising one’s morning efficiency.

Another slightly different problem is *how* to write about work being tossed out at this speed. We know, for example, that Caroline Steinbeis’s production of Mintwas rehearsed in only a week. One week! I mean, I thought it was pretty sodding good, full stop. But knowing it was made in a week changes your relationship to it. And knowing it’s only on for a week also changes your relationship to a piece of work.

And if that feels extreme, the four pieces I saw from Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration workshops were workshopped, written, rehearsed and performed after only eleven and twelve days respectively. And each shown only once.

Similar processes might also have played a part – to varying degrees – to the initial writing of the pieces included in the retrospective of Joel Horwood short plays, Short and Stark. I’m not sure where any of these were first shown – perhaps as parts of short play events run by groups like the Miniaturists or DryWrite.

[Below are reviews of all the above, or you can jump to particular reviews using the above links...]
Short and Stark – Southwark Playhouse

Everything I've Ever Done Wrong / Fairtale of New York / Polly Brown / The Dim

As it happens, I’d not seen any of the pieces in Short and Stark before, and have no idea what process lies behind their curation. I don’t know if Joel just handed the company responsible – UrgentTheatre – every short play he’s ever written (of which he says there are a frightening number) and let them choose, or whether he gave them specifically these four. For example, I’d have been quite interested to see the two short plays I remember seeing by Horwood again – his piece for Paines Plough’s Come To Where I’m From and his contribution to Slung Low’s Beyond the Frontline.

This latter, I described at the time as: “typical of [Horwood's] writing: touching recollections of adolescence, some excellent jokes, and a real emotional kick at the end. Simple but effective.” Which I think reflected my experience of his other long plays that I’d seen (Mikey the Pikey, Food, I Caught Crabs in Wallberswick) up to that point.

The pieces in Short and Stark are notably a bit grimmer and more gross-out than the above description suggests (well, ok, maybe not more grim or gross-out than the blood-soaked, heavy-metal-singing abortionist scene in Mikey...). And I think they’re mostly older pieces. Mostly older than 2010, would be my guess. Which is interesting, since I think Horwood has kind of changed as a writer since then. I happened to have a chat with the designer (not of Short and Stark, I hasten to add) Tom Scutt after seeing the show on Wednesday and he reminded me of the sheer change of gear that I [heart] Peterborough had been in Horwood’s writing. And of course there were all those Lyric pantos that I cleverly avoided by being in Germany (and by never going to pantos).

As such, whilst reasonably well-directed and performed, these do already feel a bit like stagings of baby photos. Or perhaps that’s me just reacting to the less-than-idealised or optimistic picture of humanity that these four pieces collectively create.

[and then, when I’d written that, I got this useful note through from the Southwark Playhouse of Joel’s programme notes for the evening which I think usefully both comfirm some of my above perceptions, but also make me realise how others are quite off-beam]

"The short-plays you are seeing tonight were all written some time ago for the many and various ‘shorts nights’ that proliferate the London theatre fringe. Although some of these ‘shorts’ went on to form the spines or starting points for other projects, I intended to explore how a writer can create a complete experience or communication in a limited amount of time.

"The short form is something that Beckett mastered and involves skills entirely different to the writing of full-length plays but that flex some of the same muscles. I found that the short form was incredibly useful for my experiments in theatricality, dialogue and form. I am still hoping to write a short play that achieves anything like the effect of Not I or Play.

"The Dim was originally written for a short plays evening hosted by Nabokov in 2006. I used it as a work in progress showing to establish how I might write in my own dialect and how I could use music to support action. This went on to become a full-length play entitled Stoopud Fucken Animals which played at The Traverse in 2007,

"Fairytale of New York was written for PlayList at Christmas 2010. PlayList asked writers to select a song to take as their starting point. It being Christmas I selected the song of the same title by Kirsty McColl and The Pogues.

"Everything I’ve Ever Done Wrong (Amplified) was commissioned by Nabokov in 2008 to complete a trilogy entitled Is Everyone OK? Each of these three plays, with inspiration from Lucy Kerbel (of Tonic theatre company), were designed to be played with a microphone as per a stand-up gig. This cycle of short plays toured with Nabokov for several years due to an ingenious ‘pop-up’ tour schedule devised by George Perrin and James Grieve.

"Polly Brown was conceived as part of, a theatre sketch show for The Bush. For various reasons, it was not performed as part of that show in this form, so I re-visited it as the underscore to a piece of contemporary dance choreographed by Ann Yee for DryWrite’s Dance Radio. It has since been published as a short story and has peeked my interests in both working more closely with contemporary dance and for writing prose."
Collaboration #2: The Travel Agent / MeanRoyal Court

Collaboration #3: Some of these things... / Add Your Workplace Royal Court

Happily, the brand newest piece by Joel Horwood is the second piece on the friday night (#2) edition of Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration strand, presented as part of Open Court.

The Big Idea here was for six writers to try out a short version of the method which Neilson himself uses to create his plays, which is to say, going into rehearsals with a group of actors but no script, and then generating the script partly inspired by the actors’ improvisations.

This is a fascinating area, around which my thoughts are still coalescing. Not least due to watching the rehearsals for Secret Theatre at the Lyric and Chris Goode’s week of workshops at the National Theatre Studio, both of which are using actors to break open extant scripts – which feels like more or less the same process, but precisely in reverse. Although I haven’t worked out yet what this reverse means for theatre yet...

Neilson’s method – as I think he pretty much candidly admitted (twice) – is a result largely of him not liking the process of going away and sitting in a room and agonising over a script alone for the length of time it takes to write a play. So instead he forces himself to do it in five weeks, mostly in overnight sessions, while having the company of a bunch of actors to keep him active and focussed during the day. As someone who might also wish that the process of writing could be a bit more sociable, and who might well work better when there are immediate deadlines with human faces and social consequences attached, I completely see where he’s coming from – although I might say it’s also one of many reasons why I’ve never been tempted to be a playwright.

The results of making six (four discussed here) other playwrights try this method sounds like an excellent idea, even if only as an experiment. For my money, the results are mixed (although I worry that by Saturday night I was possibly a bit too theatred-ed out (and sweltering in the Royal Court Upstairs without air-con) to have fully appreciated the second two I saw).

Janice Okoh’s The Travel Agent and Joel Horwood’s Mean both struck me as little short of remarkable (especially given previously discussed time restraint factors). E.V. Crowe’s Some Things That Happened in the Workshop, and Some Things That Didn’t, and I Made Up The Story About Kitty (approximate title) is a sustained piece of meta-theatre – of writing about writing for theatre with endless Pirandellan recursions. While Robin French’s Add Your Workplace (a title given as “Ad Your Workplace” on Saturday, which confused me all weekend – while I think “Add Your Workplace” is actually a really good title) ended up feeling more like a series of sketches – perhaps almost a sketch comedy show. (I won’t say “felt more like... than a play”, though, because I reckon a Sketch Comedy format could equally work as a play. Given the time possible here, I shan’t say this one quite did, but, oh, you see what I mean, right?)

Possibly my favourite was Janice Okoh’s The Travel Agent. (Because having favourites is good, right?)  It opens in, well, unsurprisingly a Travel Agent’s shop with some light-hearted banter from various people wanting different stuff from their holidays, and ended up half an hour later with what might have been a voice-shifting alien/fly-creature in a jungle having stolen several people’s identities. In fact, it was more or less exactly as if Martin Crimp had written the Doctor Who episode Midnight (sorry, that’s a bit niche, isn’t it? But it is more or less precisely what the thing is). Actually, it’s never really that clear/explicit what the voice-stealing creature (Sophie Russell) is all about, but if anything, that greater latitude for interpretation feels welcome.

Joel Horwood’s piece, Mean, starts with (or near as damnit starts with) a young women (Sophie Russell again, IIRC) having a chat with a magically articulate Ken™ doll (as voiced, and later hilariously played, by Jonjo O’Neill in a ridiculous blond wig) and essentially travels through her entire life in the space of half an hour, barely ever stopping to explain that’s what’s happening, or bothering to catch us up or make formally tidy. And it’s all the better for that. Somewhere in the middle is an arresting five-minute speech about why yhr 37-year-old woman doesn’t want to have a child, which feels like a sudden, more brutal version of the whole of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs slammed into your brain at impossible speed.

And then there’s the ending. Up until then, there had been a lot of quite funny stuff and jokes. So it was kind of fair enough that when Russell first misses her mouth with a spoonful of very melty-looking Haagen Dazs that the audience laughed. The slippage is incredibly sudden. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen that switch to the Sixth Age of Man (and then on inexorably, and here rapidly, to the Seventh) made quite so painful quite so succinctly.
Mint - Royal Court

Claire Lizzimore’s Mint is almost an antidote to all this frenetic activity. It’s a *proper play*. It’s an hour and a half long. You have to sit down, concentrate, and possibly slow down your body’s natural rhythm to properly digest it.

It’s also another example of Not My Favourite Sort of Play, but it’s different to Pigeons (which also wasn’t). Instead of fast-paced urban-yoof thriller, this is your big, serious, adult drama. And I think it’s a very good one of them. (It not being my favourite sort of thing, that’s kind of hard to tell, because you (I) don’t fully feel it instinctively, but it appeared to me to be a work of real substance, integrity and quality.)

It’s a play about Alan (captured astonishingly in Sam Troughton’s mesmerising performance), who is in prison for a robbery – probably an armed robbery, given the length of his sentence – and his relationship with his family for the duration of that sentence, and beyond into the early days of his release.

It reminded me a great deal of Simon Stephens’s Country Music (from before Simon’s first brush with Germany, when he was also a writer of very good examples of Not My Favourite Sort of Play). It also had something of the economy and style of Mike Bartlett’s taut, painfully precise dialogue. For others, it had something of the Saved, about it (it’s been way too long since I saw Saved to feel that connection).

But, while Not Strictly My Bag, I was pretty impressed by Mint as a piece of writing. And on a few beautiful occasions, it totally transcended the starkness of its form to deliver a couple of genuinely stop-you-in-your-tracks monologues – one from Alan’s father (another beautiful performance, from Alan Williams) and then one about being in prison by Alan. It was in these moments, much more than in the carefully handled dialogue and well-structured chronology, that it felt we really saw the best of what Lizzimore the playwright might come up with in the future.

Caroline Steinbeis’s production of course astonishes just by virtue of being Very Good Indeed after only a week, but there was a canniness and crispness to it that felt like even if it were left for a Full British Rehearsal Period™, perhaps not much would have needed to be substantially rethought. This week, Chloe Lamford’s versatile box (see Open Court reviews passim, for other iterations of my fondness for this increasingly sorry euphemism) has opaque plastic not-quite-see-thru walls, which is also nice. Lizzie Powell’s Lighting design is perhaps the best yet for Open Court, all pillars of uplighting against the back wall and a tiny bit of swirling stage fog. Similarly, Giles Thomas’s sound design is also the best yet (although possibly trumped on energy by Pigeons’s use of Tinie Tempah et al.), making big echoey clanging noises to mark scene changes (I know it’s an old effect, and probably a terrible cliché, but I still bloody love big echoey clanging noises when lighting states suddenly shift).

In a way, I wonder if the Open Court Aesthetic serves Mint as well as a “proper” run in a theatre would, however. I wonder if (at least for me) it falls victim to the sort of expectation that everything is going to be pretty whizz-bang. (Maybe, for example, why it gets a much better write up from Paul Taylor, than it’s getting from me, on the grounds that he’d not seen as much else, and so hadn’t adjusted his pulse-rate forwards.)

The buzz around Open Court as a whole is an interesting question, as I mention above. Matt Trueman in his excellent second report on it wonders:
“[whooping is] an almost nightly occurrence at Open Court. Actors bow to a chorus of cheers, whistles. It’s extraordinary... It’s so uncouth. It’s ruddy brilliant, but it’s not like every piece is an out-of-the-park success. Far from it. Seen in the cold light of day, most are pretty good. Decent. Enjoyable enough, you know. Yet, in the heat of the moment, we’re going wild for them.
“...there’s a sense of event that’s long been missing from the average Royal Court show. Open Court has restored it in a single swoop. This is new writing as live performance, not staged literature.
“...each show is keen to admit that process – both as get-out clause and aesthetic choice – and it’s genuinely more exciting. It begs a pretty massive question of a writers’ theatre: do we go to the Royal Court to see a play or a performance?”
Leaving aside the thing about literature (which I think is a matter of semantics), I think Trueman’s identified something. I’m not sure I completely agree with his diagnosis of what it is, however. Yes, some of what feels exciting is the liveness and the in-the-moment-ness, but I think – perhaps especially for critics and people who work in the theatre – there’s also something about the rate of turnover that’s important. That we can keep coming back to just this one place and there’s something new for us every time. I think that adds to the atmosphere. But against that, there’s also something liberating to the extent to which you can back something so transitory.

Put nakedly (and perhaps it’s “cynically” too), I think you judge something differently when it’s been programmed for a week, or for one night, than if it stands for six weeks of what a building wants to tell people – what that building wants to say about itself. It isn’t something that had ever occurred to me before, but it feels like it makes a lot of sense. If you feel a bit luke-warm about a play, and it’s basically bed-blocking an important London stage (Upstairs or Downstairs) for a month or so, you’re going to feel that displeasure a lot more accurately than if it’s only on until Saturday. Or it’s already gone. “Never mind, there’ll be a new one any minute” is also an incredibly seductive mantra.

And, as I said before, I think the “festival” atmosphere of being able to keep on coming back is also incredibly important (and it’s being helped enormously by the current weather). The fact that once you’ve seen a show (or both shows) at a building doesn’t make it a slightly dead space for the next month or so also helps the feeling here enormously. I’ve got no idea what their actual repeat bookings figures are, but my betting is that they’re higher than usual. Well, apart from anything else, in the period of a month, they are almost certain to be tonnes more, unless loads of people went to Ingredient X or The fucking Priory twice. Which I bloody doubt.

But, as revisiting my horrid memories of those two plays also suggests, this is also better just for the simple fact that it is just actually better work than pretty much everything that the Royal Court has done since the end of 2009. (Except Wastwater, which was magical.)

There we go: that should be enough hostages to fortune to ensure I hate everything else that the Featherstone regime puts out, but let no one diminish the extraordinary gesture and effect of this first month.