Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Vintage reviews: Ghosts – The Gate, 31 Jan 2007

[in response to this year’s Critic’s Circle Awards, won in part by a revolving cube set and a production of Ghosts, here’s my review of Ghosts at the Gate, set in a revolving cube, originally published by CultureWars]

There were high expectations for this show. Director Anna Mackmin and writer Amelia Bullmore enjoyed enormous critical success with their 2005 show Mammals at the Bush Theatre, while Anna Mackmin was the hot directing tip in 2006 for her work on Burn/Chatroom/Citizenship and The Lightning Play receiving warm plaudits. Alas, every great partnership goes through its sticky phases and, sad to say, this revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts appears to be the rough patch for the Bullmore/Mackmin dream ticket.

What is most wrong is the design. Lez Brotherston (also Mackmin’s designer for The Lightning Play) has created a four-sided wooden cube, on a revolve, inside the Gate Theatre’s already cramped space, in which all the action takes place. The basic problem is that there simply isn’t enough room for anyone to behave normally - I’ve been in bigger lifts, for Heaven’s sake - and yet the actors are required to play the action as if arrayed in a comfortable Nordic conservatory. The design also means that virtually no light can be projected onto the actors, since the revolving wooden shed in which they are all stood has a very solid wooden ceiling to it, which renders the majority of the Gate’s usual rig entirely useless. It is all very puzzling.

In the face of all these obstacles, Bullmore’s adaptation of Ibsen’s script is a fine piece of work (in spite some of the usual translationese niggles: Engstrand tells his presumptive daughter Regine to ‘speak English,’ and yet all transactions are carried out in kroner; while occasional clangingly modern phrases are at odds with the clear period setting).

The performances are less sure-footed. But here again the main problem is the set - playing in something little more than a corridor, which could be easily crossed in four decent strides, rather cramps everyone’s style. And the actors each respond to this differently – some choosing to ignore their extreme proximity, and bellowing their way through as if playing to the Olivier (Niamh Cusack and Paul Copley as a bluff Yorkshire Engstrand), while others (notably Christian Coulson) take the chance to indulge in some close-up televisual ultra-naturalism. The overall effect is of casts from wildly different productions being forced to compete for supremacy in a shoebox. That’s not to say that there aren’t some fine performances on show: Niamh Cusack is touching at Mrs Alving, the troubled mother with the hidden dark past and Sarah Smart (in what is apparently her stage debut, following a lot of TV work) is excellent as her servant, Regine, with the dark past unbeknownst to her. Less successful are Christian Coulson as Mrs Alving's son Osvald, with a dark past and fatal inheritance, and Finbar Lynch as Pastor Manders.

The modernity of the script sits uncomfortably with the patent melodrama of the play; the story of a returning son laden with bad news, arriving into a situation which has reached breaking point, feels oddly old hat. In his time, Ibsen was a pioneer, not only of naturalism, but also of difficult, seldom discussed social issues. Now that the modern stage is awash with difficult social issues, and the drama of a family with hidden dark secrets is the preserve only of cliché and spoof, it is hard to know quite what is intended by this revival. It communicates the story of ill-treatment begetting tragedy from generation to generation well enough, but at the same time it also gets laughs at elements which were never intended to be funny. It is perhaps to Ibsen’s credit that 126 years on, people still feel discomforted enough to need to see jokes where there are none, rather than face down the human misery which he has essayed.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Shorts: gender equality

[guest post, reproduced with permission]

Very short post this. Pretty self explanatory. Is an email from a friend, offering a useful, succinct and welcome corrective to my thinking on “gender” for the modest proposal project:

I don’t agree with your system of male and female. I get where you are coming from and I think it is a really important and exciting thread that you should continue following, but the fact is that there are other genders at play out there.

Given that you are basing your assignment of m & f on your own opinion of what the person’s gender is, there may be a discrepancy at play.

I identify as transgender these days. You weren’t to know that as I haven't really spoken publicly about it - I’m going to be doing so later this year, but in the meantime I think if you continue to make this survey (and I REALLY think you should!) I think you should contact the production and ask the people involved as it isn't going to be obvious from looking what someone's gender is.

Then you might consider the categories of cis and trans as seperate - ie: cis-male / cis-female / trans-male / trans-female / non-binary.

[cis/cisgender: meaning someone whose sense of gender is congruent with the gender assigned to them at birth (AAB) as opposed to trans/transgender meaning someone whose sense of gender is not congruent with that AAB]

Of course, everyone has a different agenda and there will be folk who disagree with any selection of genders that you choose, but if you were to include trans / cis in there - even if your main category was m/f/other and then you had a running total of cis people and trans people on top of your other total, then you'd also be highlighting the trans misogyny out there and lack of representation as well as that within the cis binary...

And perhaps others would be encouraged to be open about this.

I know that you are extremely thoughtful and have also seen threads on tweets and things where you've been really thoughtful and open regarding trans/cis gender issues, so please don't take this as an attack in any form. It just struck me that I thought the post was great, but felt personally conflicted by it.

I’m also aware that I’m saying this to you and I am not “out” as in a declaration on my website etc. That’s going to shift, but it is also because there are people in my life that I haven’t had a chance to speak to yet and until I do personally... I don't know what the future holds for me on this and whether I will shift gender presentation or find something in between, but for now I’d rather be counted as “trans” than as m or f...

--- ends ---

So, yes, I'll be improving my thinking accordingly.  And I have to say, I am really pleased that the gender equality thinking that I'm having a stab at is getting engaged responses like this, eager to improve it until it's actually useful and actually equal.  

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Pass – Royal Court

[for my John Donnelly disclaimers, see my The Seagull review]

Thanks to a combination of circumstances, I ended up seeing an *unfixed* Blurred Lines in preview (last Saturday, the night after most critics saw The Pass on Friday night – for the record, I liked Blurred Lines very much indeed – and saw The Pass on Wednesday night, which was Blurred Lines’s press night). As a result of this, and my piece on equal representation; my interview with Hattie Morahan; and, well, y’know, culture in general; I’ve been thinking about “women” quite extensively recently. To the extent that ‘thinking about “men”’ feels like a bit of a retrograde step. But, on the face of it, The Pass, more even than Body of an American, is a play about men.

Actually, as it transpires, the fact that the action of the play mostly revolves around two men is largely incidental. In fact, weirdly, for my money, The Pass is more or less exactly the same play (arc-wise) as The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas before it and Birdland (of which I’ve read an early draft) after. It is a play about a single-minded psychopath/sociopath who rapidly falls from the grace that they’ve clawed up around themselves. In this it could equally be compared to Hedda Gabler (although not many other plays with female central characters that I can think of).

This presents two immediate questions: is a single-minded, borderline-sociopathic, will-to-power in some way a particularly “male” trait (if we want to get into hateful gender essentialism)? And, possibly harder to answer: is there a particular British animus against succeeding that makes this narrative so familiar? I was thinking about this on the Tube home after watching the show and the only characters in English Literature who I could really remember getting what they wanted were mostly Jane Austen heroines. Anyone else in literature who wants, well, anything really, seems to end up getting royally fucked over because hubris, o’erweening ambition, etc. I think you have to turn to Disney before stuff starts working out for people who are trying to get something. And Disney was a fascist. So.

Of course this is a flawed argument. Theatre about people with moderate ambitions achieving them and being content having done so wouldn’t be very interesting. (Ok, it’s Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a bunch of other romantic comedies, but the modest aspirations, achievement of them and contentedness thereafter aren’t really the point, right?) Even so, it does end up making theatre look like it’s got a real downer on determination.

And so to The Pass. Russell Tovey spends much time in his pants as Jason, a footballer. We first meet him in his pants aged seventeen with his team-mate Ade (Gary Carr, also in his pants) in a hotel in Bulgaria the night before a crucial try-out match for... Oh, look, I don’t really understand about football, some try-out match for/against some team or something. The basics are: either he or Ade is going to get the gig depending on how they perform the day after this scene takes place. The pair – surprisingly spry, camp, literate and funny – talk for, oh, just ages, and pretty much flirt more than Julian and Sandy. There’s a deliberate nerviness to the scene which is, I think, slightly undercut by the fact that we’re pretty aware that – astonishing levels of buffness notwithstanding – they’re both actors, not footballers. It’s not going to feel that transgressive when they inevitably snog each other. But we get that it should. And being as it’s theatre, we’re prepared to play along and gasp inwardly. It’s an effective and funny scene. John Tiffany’s production has bags of charm and energy to spare. And it’s very watchable indeed.

The next scene wrong foots us slightly as the action has leapt forward seven years (we learn from the programme). Jason is still in a hotel room (Laura Hopkins’s design is an astroturfed stage in traverse with two posh hotel beds in the first scene getting bolted together for scene two. At one end there’s a balcony and at the other end a walk-in shower with frosted glass to preserve *a bit* of modesty for the actors who occasionally stand naked behind it). This time, though, he’s in the hotel room with Lyndsey; who, we gradually learn, is a table-dancer, and isn’t his wife. Jason and Lyndsey are obviously pretty cagey around each other. There’s a weird sense of No Lust Whatsoever considering it’s a scenario in which a hot footballer has picked up a hot lapdancer. There is a vague undercurrent of mistrust or paranoia, though. We get to wonder if this is for several reasons. Is it because Jason is actually gay and would rather just chat to Lyndsey? Or, Lyndsey, maybe she’d rather just be having a nice chat with Jason too. He seems quite nice, after all. Sensitive. Y’know? He talks about going and watching ballet, after all. But, no. Turns out that everything and everyone is a bit more cynical than that... [I won’t spoiler it.]

[interval. The running time of the whole is 2hrs20]

A third hotel room. And Ade’s back. It’s 12 years after scene one. Jason has become a Beckham amongst footballers, and Ade has become a happy, successful man with a boyfriend and a small business. Ade isn’t really sure why he’s back in a hotel room with Jason, and Jason doesn’t seem all that sure either. The atmosphere tries to be matey but curdles pretty fast. And then it just keeps getting darker. I thought at one point, when a young hotel porter turns up with a screwdriver Donnelly was going to plunge us right back to the mid-nineties and *that scene* in Shopping and Fucking or maybe everything was going to end up a bit Blasted. But mercifully for squeamish me, that threat just keeps hanging and never lands.

Indeed, a lot of things could happen in that final scene, and the sense of those possibilities never quite leaves. I’m not sure the play itself, as it stands, really wants us to come down hard on any single definition, or “answer” to the apparently pretty wretched place where Jason has wound up. I’m not sure we’re really being asked to judge him. I’m certainly not sure whether Donnelly is entirely suggesting – in a Sliding Doors kind of way – that one specific *pass* made aged 17 in a try-out football match, or the other pass, made in the hotel room the night before it, really go all the way to explaining a character. Arguably, yes, it was one or other of those which perhaps led to Jason having the career he had. But as the rest of the scene has shown, he’s also got a psychology that forces him to chase success in one given field at the calculated expense of every other field going. Until, at least, he becomes so wealthy that even success no longer really matters, so long as its trappings of wealth and feelings of untouchable superiority hold out.

As I said early on, it is strange that this trajectory is so very, horribly familiar. I kind of quite wonder what it’s for. I mean, beyond the obvious fact that it’s an exciting enough story to watch. And stories are there as much for the first hour and fifty minutes of tension and not knowing how it’s going to end, as they are for the ten minutes when they are ending and you’re faced with a kind of literary post-match analysis. But even so, this vindication of ‘being the mousey guy’ time and time again seems, what? Really unfair, almost. As I said, obviously drama needs some kind of, well, drama, to take the audience with it. But doesn’t this finger-wagging arc feel so well-worn that it could almost risk feeling a bit too pat?

It’s unfair to lay all this at Donnelly’s feet. He’s written a great play, and I’m using it as an excuse to wonder what, if anything, is the purpose of this apparent morality kick that theatre has been on since the ancient Greeks. I mean, is there even any sort of proof that this sort of trajectory teaches us valuable lessons? I mean, doesn’t looking at the rest of the world rather suggest that, in the main, people who push hard for what they want tend to get what they want, and don’t seem to suffer from spectacular cosmic retribution? Or is this a case of theatre providing us with a bit of escapist wish-fulfilment: confirming to us that actually, despite having more money than we could ever possibly dream of, footballers are actually deeply unhappy deep down?

Then there’s (briefly) “the gay thing”. If Jason is unhappy and conflicted at all (and, who knows? Maybe he’s not), then isn’t it boiling down to being “because he’s gay”? Of course, on one level, this is an attack on a world which makes it fine to be a billionaire psychopath, but where even then you have to go to extraordinary lengths to deny your same-sex preferences because marketability. But on another level, it feels a bit like an attack on someone for “not staying true to themselves”. And, worse, not being able to see that through. I think probably quite a lot of determined people can and do see that sort of thing through, and maybe it would be more interesting to see a play about someone succeeding on those terms, and deciding for ourselves (at least without a fall-from-grace plot) whether their compromises were worth it.

But this all feels like a lot of unfair carping. The Pass is really well done. Not least by Russell Tovey who really is a revelation here. I mean, sure, he was lovely in The History Boys, and he was good in all that TV stuff he’s done (at least, what I’ve seen of it), but this is actually one of those parts that really let’s an actor off the leash to do a bit of furniture chewing. And here he’s got that same hectoring energy that Rory Kinnear has, or a young Steven Mackintosh had.

Another interesting aspect that The Pass reveals – especially in the light of Blurred Lines – is that if theatre wants to have any stake in being sexy in a mimetic way (i.e. in providing persons for its audience to objectify) until make/female equality is achieved (ha), then this is probably the way forward. Essentially, if this were cross-cast, it would look not unlike the uncensored ‘Blurred Lines’ video. Two ridiculously shapely young men bounce around the stage for a vast majority of the stage time, and seem to pretty much rejoice in knowingly drinking up all the adoring gazes. The only woman who turns up basically keeps her modest attire in place all the way through (in the sense that she is dressed modestly, not that her attire is “modest” in the sense of “brevity is the soul of lingerie”). That said, it is interesting that, at the same time, the traverse staging maybe subconsciously makes it feel like our gaze is being “policed” by those in the audience opposite us.

So, much to think about. And much of it, for me, perhaps annoyingly extrinsic to the actual piece itself. But, yes: incredibly watchable play; fascinating stuff to think about the success/ambition story-arc; and the gender-near-nakedness thing is also interesting. And, y’know, a really well-written, well-realised play. Success!

[this being the internet, of course, no one can police your “gaze” here.

You’re welcome:

“Properly” revisited

[or: “is Simon Stephens representative?”]

Back in March 2011, when I was living in Berlin, I wrote a short series of pieces entitled About, Properly, Professional and Political.

Looking back only three years on, I find several things about them interesting. Firstly, the extent to which – even though I was living in Berlin in what, at the time, felt like a kind of cultural exile – I was still having arguments with England. Secondly, how much – even though in my chapter on Theatre in the 2000s I kind of put all these arguments to bed and claim a kind of Triumph of the Theatremaker in 2009 – this still existed as a mainstream culture to be argued with vociferously two years later. And, thirdly, and most hopefully, the extent to which I no longer really feel these issues as problems.

It is salutary and heartening, cf. last week’s “reviews round-up” for example, that there is now such a thriving selection of writers-about-theatre online, that I can read a selection of takes on the latest Royal Court, or Shed, Yard, or CPT show without even having to trouble what was “the print media” for an opinion. Sure, I still read Lyn for an additional perspective, and hell, I always read Trueman wherever he pops up; I’ll still read Time Out and even occasionally the Indie. But those “mainstream” voices I used to worry about now seem very easily ignored.

As such, my essay “Properly” feels far and away the most dated of the four. Now, instead of reading reviews of Shakespeare where I ground my teeth in irritation at the complacency and wrong-headedness of the reviews, I now get to read intelligent and incredibly funny take-downs of Henry V or lovely detailed praise of the new King Lear.

This is all preface to introducing the thing that started me thinking all this again. Over the weekend, the USA/Canadian section of writing-about-theatre-online have been involved in another iteration of that fight about “doing plays properly”. It starts with Howard Sherman’s piece “Who thinks it’s ok to ‘improve’ a playwright’s work?” (don’t bother reading it unless you want to be really annoyed: basically some theater company in the US had streamlined Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! Friel said no. They unchanged everything and got back on with it). Sherman’s piece apparently makes a load of the usual dim arguments against anyone ever changing anything ever. It draws first this rebuttal from Alexander Offord, and then another reply from Holger Syme.

I don’t want to engage at all closely with the initial argument because I’d like to hope that here we’re done with at least the intellectual wrangling over it now. Basically, sure, playwrights can object to anything they like for as long as they’re in copyright. The more enlightened ones don’t and, by coincidence, the more enlightened ones are the most popular and the most performed, while writers of stringently naturalistic plays, which they insist be performed exactly the same way every time they’re produced (despite the nonsense of this insistence), tend to have short shelf lives, generate little interest and are rarely if ever revived.

Holger’s piece is interesting, though, for its view on Britain. On the truism that the playwright holds a position of much greater authority in English-speaking theatre cultures than elsewhere he notes: ‘That this is not necessarily a good thing even from the playwright’s perspective has been suggested recently by Simon Stephens’ reflections on his collaborations with the German director Sebastian Nübling. In the prefatory materials to Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, he describes the rehearsal process as one in which the director, the dramaturg, the designer, and the actors “responded” to what he had written — their job was not to “realise” his vision, but to develop their own in reaction to his text.’ (He also writes interestingly on the subject of Beckett’s Not I later on.)

Holger asked me if I thought that this perspective of Simon’s was now the dominant one in Britain. And I had to have a bit of a think. The below is essentially an off-the-top of my head answer on Facebook. I’m posting it here mostly to see what other people think, and to generate a bit of discussion, both in writing online, and hopefully between literary departments and directors.

How representative is Simon? Well, Simon is an interesting case: I think at the moment he must be Britain’s most successful playwright by some considerable margin. Last year he had four plays being staged professionally in the UK and none of them were new (which is incredibly rare for a start). I think he also must have have at least another five or so showing in Germany (I definitely saw two, and missed another couple, and that’s just the ones I know about). Tomorrow a new play by Simon Stephens opens in Manchester and a month later another new one opens in Hamburg. Then a further new one opens at the Royal Court in April, then in September a new version of the Cherry Orchard opens at the Young Vic. There’s no other writer getting even half this much work on (and few, I imagine, with the capacity to knock out plays at this speed)*. There’s another one going to New York some time about which I know no details.

So, in this, he is not representative. But, I do think he is a bit of a hero to most writers younger than him. I think the fact that he taught the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme also helps. That he is directly responsible for nurturing Mike Bartlett, Lucy Prebble, Duncan Macmillan, DC Moore, and that lot... Well, it makes him not so much representative, I think, as influential.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that once he’d seen Sebastian’s production of Herons (in 2005) he started getting commissions from Sebastian as well as from British theatres. The first of which was Pornography; the text of which was unlike anything he’d previously written (and, actually, anything he’s written since) in that it was what we might call an “open text”. That is to say, a play that a director can’t just “stand up” – a text through which there is no “path of least resistance” (in this it is like Crave, Attempts on her Life, 4.48 Psychosis, Fewer Emergencies, and precious little else by British authors).

Now, because Simon is Simon, he can do this. And it’ll still get produced. I think in this Simon represents a lot of writers’ desires (and a lot of younger directors’ dream-writers). However, until very recently, apart from Martin Crimp he’s probably the only writer who’s been allowed this latitude. There are other writers (Tim Crouch, David Greig, Anthony Neilson and Mark Ravenhill all spring to mind), who are closer-to-the-productions-of-their-own-work who also make stuff like this. But my impression is, until Vicky Featherstone took over at the Royal Court last summer there wasn't really an artistic director who was really comfortable with accepting scripts like this (ok, not entirely true, Ramin Gray at ATC is a powerhouse of this sort of world, albeit with a really limited capacity to make many productions each year). So those writers tended to either produce/direct their own more experimental work, or often would end-up working rather closely with the director (possibly a director of their choosing). This is obviously positive in terms of “collaboration”, but interestingly does little to dislodge the idea of the writer occupying a privileged position of authority.

And, Featherstone’s own productions are pretty (*British*) conventional really. They nod toward “experiment” (as we Brits have it), but there’s absolutely, emphatically no dramaturgical content. No sense of the director as an artist trying to *tell something* *through* *her production* rather than her just standing up the play (albeit in a more interesting way). No reason why she should, of course, she’s British, we’re in Britain, we have a theatre culture and traditions of our own. But, I think Featherstone would at least consider staging a play written by a writer who left stuff up to the director. (Dennis Kelly, who has also been produced quite a bit in Germany, is a good example. Tim Crouch (forthcoming) is another.)

Where all this optimism falls down a bit is that if a writer wrote something conventional (but let’s say good, for the sake of argument) then I suspect it would be produced in a way that “respected their intentions”. Basically, writers still have to write a note at the the start of their play saying: “Dear director, please *do something* with this play...” In your native Germany, Holger, I guess that in an unwritten part of the contract. In Britain I think you have to make it explicit, or someone will just put it in a living room. (Unless you've just got dashes instead of character names and only dense slabs of poetry and theory and no story, in which case, unless you’re already incredibly famous, you won’t ever see it staged.) A neat illustration of this might be the difference between the British première of Lungs and the Katie Mitchell production for the Schaubühne. Nothing wrong with the first version. It’s *theatrical* and everything. But compared to the Mitchell (and Lamford, and...) production, which adds a bit of thinking to the staging, the first production looks flat and stillborn by comparison.

So, yes. I think the UK has moved forward both in terms of coverage, and in terms of preparedness to experiment, and yet, I think thee are still some huge underlying assumptions which have yet to be fully shifted.

And, in having written this piece, I now want to write a second piece looking at how we do stage new plays, trying to establish maybe some ways for talking about what our “default” “style” is (if there is a default), looking at the ways we do position our writers, and perhaps looking at the dramaturgy of design.


*[Edit: Mea culpa]

A writer picked me up on: “There’s no other writer getting even half this much work on (and few, I imagine, with the capacity to knock out plays at this speed).” I'm happy to set the record straight -- paraphrasing from original message (so it's in two voices):

I’ve mentioned this a few times, and so it’s probably worth addressing. It’s just not accurate to say that Simon has a greater capacity to write at pace than other writers. There are plenty of other writers who write as quickly (not that this is a barometer of anything in itself, but given I mention it) but their work isn’t all theatre based/as high profile/produced. Simon, like David Greig, another writer who gets a lot on, writes almost entirely for theatre (rather than TV or film). But you could easily point to the work rate of someone like Jack Thorne or Dennis Kelly or Abi Morgan both in terms of output/quality.

For instance, in the last year, John Donnelly had two full length plays open (The Pass and a show at the Unicorn), as well as a half hour piece of telly for channel four, and he’s been writing another 3 hours worth of telly (2 co-written hours of telly, one of his own). This isn’t even that much by most people’s standards. DC Moore has a shitload going on. Jack Thorne seriously has a phenomenal amount out there. Joel Horwood also had a comparable number of new plays (and a revival of shorts) out last year. Or Chris Thorpe, who also spent a large amount of time also touring and performing in Oh Fuck..., ...Lonely, #TORYCORE and Everything I Heard About The World.

This is the only element of the perception of Simon that rankles with me enough to challenge: that he works harder or faster or produces more stuff. Absolutely he has a tonne of theatre stuff on compared to the rest of us. But his work rate is “normal high”. As in the high rate of work that most working writers produce; but no more.  Arguing about quality is one thing, but there’s something of the protestant work ethic in me that gets a little pissed off about the implication that the rest of us can’t do as much. Or as quickly.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Zavodljivi svijet

[written for]

Trojanski kolektiv hamburške grupe Ligna, izveden sklopu UrbanFestivala, tekstualno je efektan i inteligentan, a vizualno neobično moćan...

I’ll post the English version here in due course. For now, click here and use Google Translate... :-)

Modest proposal: progress report #1

[up to last Saturday]

Productions seen to Saturday 18th Jan 2014 in numbers:

Blurred Lines 
W:21 / M: 7 (female director, male writer, female designer. Eight female actors)

Fiji Land
W: 5 / M: 7 (male writer, female director, female designer. Three male actors)

W: 8 / M: 11 (female writer and director, male designer. Cast: two women two men)

Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby
W: 2 / M: 8 ((dead) male writer, male director, male designer. Cast: one woman)

From Morning to Midnight
W: 21 / M: 24 ((dead) male writer, female director, female designer. Cast: eight men, eight women)

W: 4 / M: 15 (male writer, female director, male designer. Cast: two women, ten men)

The Day Shall Declare It
W: 10 / M: 7 ((dead) male writer, female artistic director, female choreographer, female designer. Cast: one woman two men)

A Bas Bruit
W: 3 / M: 6 (male director. Cast: two men, one woman)

L’apres-midi d’un foehn / Vortex
W: 8 / M: 6 (AD, chor, scen: all done by one woman, dramaturgy: man: performers woman/woman)

Don Quijote
W: 2 / M: 4 (collaborative: three male performers, one guest female performer)

Overall totals so far:
W: 84 / M: 95

A note on the method:

It’s pretty self-explanatory, really. The first set of figures (W: # / M: #) is basically the number of people from each gender named on the credits page of the programme. These include all writers, directors, choreographers, performers, stage managers, ASMs, DSMs, dramaturgs, fight directors, lighting designers, sound designers, tech supports... whatever.

The second bit – the bit in brackets – are what I’m controversially thinking of as the “core team”. I know theatre is massively collaborative, and I know lighting designers, sound designers, stage managers (et al.) are crucial; so I suppose what I mean by “core team” are “the most visible elements of a given production. Indeed, I’ve sometimes allowed for variations (like: where a dramaturg is clearly a crucial part of a show’s make-up, like where a choreographer is as-if-not-more-visible than a director... and so on).

Oh, and so far I'm just seeing shows which looked interesting and which I'd booked for before I wrote my "modest proposal".


Well, I’m pleasantly surprised that the numbers so far don’t seem to be too wildly uneven (only 11 fewer women overall out of 179). Of performers, there are seven more men than women appearing on stage so far. Again, that doesn’t feel wildly OTT, but again, it is men in the lead (although women would have been ahead if I’d skipped The Faction’s ridiculously man-on-stage-heavy Thebes).

Possibly the most interesting figure is the writer:director ratio. Yes, given that it’s Mime-Fest season, the whole concept of “a writer” comes into question as a credit at all (Simon Stephens’s concept of “language designer” even falls by the wayside when the “language” involved is non-verbal, perhaps?), and with devised work like Blurred Lines and The Day Shall Declare It, we either don’t know what went on in the rehearsal rooms, or what weight or power we can really ascribe to the figure of “the writer” in that context. Nevertheless, all that said, I have only seen one play written by a woman so far this year (Ciphers), which doesn’t seem super by any measure.

On the other hand, out of the eleven shows seen so far, only two were directed by men...

Next week (i.e. the week just gone) I think these early optimistic indicators might falter somewhat, so let's enjoy this bit of relative equality while we can... 

Friday, 24 January 2014

Body of an American – Gate

[seen Monday 20th January]

Nominally, The Body of an American is “a play about a war photographer”. In fact it is a hard, harrowing, exhilarating play about personal demons, black dogs and white male privilege.

James Dacre’s production takes Dan O’Brien’s text and slams it into a bunker. Literally. Alex Lowde’s design builds a grey curved shell inside the Gate’s already small room. On a prosaic level it’s like sitting inside an upturned boat, or perhaps the fuselage of a crashed aircraft. More metaphorically – thanks to the low seating and curving walls – it makes us all hunch up: it’s like sitting in a panic-knotted stomach or inside someone’s depression. It’s a space that provokes tension. We’re seated in traverse too (do people really know this bit of stage jargon? It means “arranged like the House of Commons” – here, lengthways rows only two deep on each side). The stage is only maybe a metre across. It’s partly like forced intimacy, and partly like enforced claustrophobia.

Dan O’Brien’s text in performance comes on like a freight train from a Johnny Cash song – inexorable, hard, symbolic and craggy. And in William Gaminara and Damien Molony it has found the best imaginable interpreters. The text itself is made up of emails sent between O’Brien (Molony) and his absolutely real-life subject, the Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson (Gaminara), transcripts of conversations, and other documentary material. That makes it sound like the dullest thing imaginable. It really isn’t. The transcripts contain innumerable other voices, which the pair deliver with seamless switches of accent. Here a South African cab driver, there an Indonesian fixer, and so on. So there’s this brilliant, energetic performance going on – one displaying such a staggering level of virtuosity on the parts of the two actors that even with material half as good it would be a great night in the theatre. But Body of an American has got a text that matches the actors’ talents all the way.

I said it’s about black dogs and white male privilege. The first of these aspects is more or less continually picked over. Body... is savage on the subject of depression, or of that self-destructive instinct people have. About being haunted by the things you’ve done, or even setting out to do those things so that you can hang that sense of being haunted you had anyway onto something tangible. It talks about the holes inside people. It talks indirectly about blistering self-hatred. And it does all this mostly without veering into self-indulgence. Fuck it, it’s an incredible, frank, generous piece *of theatre*. Anyone “indulging themself” to this extent is also sharing an incredible amount. And for my money it’s an extraordinarily courageous, open text which offers an unusual degree of insight into how people work.

The second of these aspects – wite male privilege – is never named as such. But it’s cleverly, surprisingly there; implied at every turn. Every exchange contains it. The very fact of photojournalism contains it. The very choice – even if Watson experiences it more as a compulsion – of photojournalism holds up a massive neon sign advertising it. Paul chooses to travel into other countries, into other peoples’ lives, and points a camera at them. As a choice. An excellent definition of privilege that came up recently was someone describing it as “the ability to think hypothetically about [subject]”. And these wars, conflicts, famines, disasters are things that Paul is outside. Necessarily. Unflinching, courageous, dynamic and vital, though his work absolutely is, there’s that aspect of his being outside the problem, even when he’s right in the thick of it. He can get out. Whatever the slaughter he’s witnessing, it’s not his world or his life, even when it’s threatening his life and it absolutely is the same world he lives in. He chooses to go and visit Mogadishu, he is not the Somalian child sitting on a pile of corpses. Even while staring into the hearts of this darkness, and trying to capture it, he is exercising a privilege. That the play and the production manage to articulate this sense as an almost tangible subtext feels like a real achievement.

Another almost unspoken but clearly present aspect to the play is way that it seems to deal with the idea of men’s relationships to their masculinity, and to their fathers – difficult fathers, here. That O’Brien here look about young enough to be Watson’s son seems crucial. Their relationship has the same fractured, Joycean epic quality as Ulysses.

The American body of the title is that of Staff Sgt William David Cleveland an American Marine whose body was hacked up by Somalians in Mogadishu on October 4, 1993; the man of whose fate Watson took the defining photo – much like “Joe” did for “Tank Man” in Chimerica, in fact. It is his voice most of all that Watson feels haunted by. At the point where he takes the photo, he hears, or imagines, the man – who was hanging between dead and alive at that moment – say: “If you do this, I will own you forever”. Watson never decides whether the voice was real or imagined. It is enough that it rang out in his head at that moment. It is the vocalisation of knowing one is making any life-changing decision: “you will have to recognise and remember and re-play this moment over and over again for the rest of your life, and you know that fact in this instant” is what your inner voice tells you.

The production, though fast paced, gives us all the time we need to absorb this idea. There is an interesting effect that, because we are seated opposite each other, while the images are projected on the far end walls of our metaphorical bunker, we never have to confront the images of the war, or the violence, or the atrocities (or the huskies and snowstorms later, for that matter). And largely, I chose not to, because I’m not good with blood, or death, or the horrific pornography of violence that sways public opinion. But that was also a choice I was conscious of making. I know I could Google all those pictures now and probably find them, and I won’t. This is a play that at the same time as dealing with the not-unseeable (as in: once seen, you can’t un-see it), but also, gently and intelligently, it is about choices.

For my money it’s one of the most intelligent, brilliantly acted plays about this raft of important subjects that I’ve seen in a long time. It has the feel of an authenticity of experience, which, although I find authenticity appalling and bogus most of the time, here just feels like a necessary part of the deal. That William Gaminara has the best face for looking craggy and careworn this side of some idealised mash-up of Beckett and Johnny Cash is added good luck.

Along with Grounded, The Body of an American feel part of the realisation of Chris Haydon’s real, serious project at the Gate. Something which I think I’d initially misunderstood as an infatuation with the States. It’s not that. It’s much closer to something the lead singer of the Sisters of Mercy (bear with me here) said when asked why their 1990 album Vision Thing was so much about American politics said something along the lines of: “Well, they’re quite global, aren’t they? If you care about the world you have to care about American politics.” This doesn’t feel like the product of an infatuation, but of a serious inquiry. Dacre’s production here, as Haydon’s of Grounded did before it, places the show at once in the best tradition of British theatremaking and an also into an enviably global one.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Shorts: you love a review, don’t you?

[title taken from the one-line message a friend sent me on Facebook earlier today]

It’s true, I do. Possibly this week I’ve loved reading them a bit too much, and at the expense of writing enough of my own. But I reckon being up on what my peers/colleagues/friends have written is as important, more important even, sometimes, than just bashing out my own stuff. That thing Chris Goode said in his return-to-blogging post was important. “The blogosphere” (as I hope never to call it again) only really works if there’s a load of people making it work; making it feel like a community and a conversation.

For my money, the most interesting thing recently has been the responses to the Royal Court’s Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby triple-bill.

The sequence of Not I reviews, at least in the order I read them, was fascinating. Stewart Pringle turned in a beautifully written review for Exeunt: “One is a play struggling to undo its own artfulness, Footfalls and Rockaby are practically lacquered. Dwan excels in all three, and director Walter Asmus presents them like a collection of gemstones against rich, impenetrable velvet.”.

Next, Dan Hutton knocked up an enviable bit of literary ventriloquism in a review that mimicked Not I’s idiosyncratic text.

Then, Matt Trueman wrote a properly courageous piece in which he wrestled with the fact that: “it’s not really an intellectual thing, but a visceral one. Or rather, it’s not visceral at all. It just doesn’t get me and so I just don’t get it”. I have to admit that I had a lot of sympathy with it. By the time I read it, I’d been wrestling with my own still-not-appearing Not I review for a week. And on the similar grounds that I really hadn’t got on with the production, and wanted a lot of time to think about that.

Catherine Love played an absolute blinder with her piece on Not I, using the coverage of the piece to open up a discussion of how we think about theatre as “hard work”. Inspired by Nick Ridout’s essential new book Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism and Love. Which, marvellously, Dan Hutton had just reviewed for A Younger Theatre.

Also feeding into this discussion of hard work was Maddy Costa’s piece for her blog about her own life and work as a critic, which is a pretty hard read in places, in terms of its honesty, but is nonetheless an important bit of public soul-searching.

At the same time, there’s been Dan Hutton’s review of #TORYCORE, and then, today, Dan and Catherine’s discussion piece/joint-review on #TORYCORE for Exeunt, Catherine’s review of Hippo World Guest Book and Stewart Pringle’s Body of an American write-up...

We got all this in ONE WEEK.

It feels worth shouting about.  It feels like writing-about-theatre has hit its stride pretty early this year and that it's never been in a healthier or more intelligent state.

And, I should now get back to writing some actual original copy rather than noting everyone else’s magnificent industry...

Anatomia Publica – Barbican Pit

[London International Mime Festival]

Catalan choreographer Tomeo Vergés’s French company Man Drake’s Anatomia Publica begins with her charmingly and candidly telling us a bit about herself: her mother was a doctor, her father was a butcher. She herself trained as a doctor before becoming a dancer. Her mother’s mother, her grandmother, her husband went off to fight on the front in WWII just after her mother was born. He did not return. Her grandmother began a new relationship. Then he returned. And from then on, the three of them lived together. Vergés confesses that she often wonders what it was like to live in that house.

That takes two or three minutes tops.

The lights go off and come up again on Maxime Kurver’s minimal grey dancefloor and few Spartan white wooden flats upstage left. There is a noise. It sounds like a warm, fuzzy, base-y recording of one of those mechanical processes in which the various constituent parts form a looping rhythm. Perhaps a photocopier doing non-stop copies of a long document, or some industrial canning machine. It has the feel of a more ambient version of something by Einstürzende Neubauten. It is perfectly judged. In a slightly synaesthetic way, it feels like exactly the right colour of music/noise for the lighting design, the set and the costumes.

The piece opens with a man and a woman. The man in dressed in three or four shades of grey. The woman wears a vivid red dress. (I was glad it was a female choreographer. That “put a woman in a red dress” thing can sometimes feel stupid and trope-y. Here it feels necessary and effective.) She is sitting on a chair in the centre of the room, he’s hovering by one of the walls. Their movements begin slight and barely perceptible. They are each performing one small adjustment to their stance. You gradually come to realise that they are repeating the same tiny gesture over and over again. The gesture develops. The repetition of the newly developed gesture continues. The same small movement is repeated over and over again. Then a new movement, perhaps “the next movement” in whatever the two figures are doing. Again it repeats over and over again.

The dramaturgical sleight of hand deployed here is quite brilliant. I guess it’s become a cliché for us to talk about art that teaches us how to watch it, but Anatomia does it perfectly. The two or three minute introduction cleverly plants every idea of how to watch the piece gently in our minds. Without any overt or clanging underlining the short tale of the ménage à trois, the professions of the parents, all these elements completely frame how we understand the fifty or so minutes of abstract movement that follow. Instead of being utterly opaque in purpose, we can choose to focus on how the stuttering, looping sequences might reflect and describe the situation we’ve been told about. It feels like this bit of focussing is incredibly helpful. It also frees us up, I think, to worry less about “meaning” and to notice smaller, more complex elements of the choreography. At first you think the game is to do with both (and then “all three of”) the performers being in sync. Then you notice that individual repetition cycles can vary in length from performer to performer. And variations are introduced. Breaks into continuous movement occasionally occur. The at-times, borderline-unbearable soundscape is broken by bursts of pop music. I found myself reflecting on the extent to which the rhythms of the piece seemed to brilliantly second-guess how I was feeling, how something would go on almost precisely “a bit too long”, but no longer. As if the piece knew what people could take.

Watching contemporary dance is an odd thing – perhaps especially if you’re “a critic” (or, rather, if you’re going to write about it afterwards). Nick Ridout’s point about how being “a professional viewer” changes your relationship to a work always feels much more nakedly present for me. Because there is effectively “no narrative” and there are no words, I find that I have a more-or-less continual commentary running in my head which feels weirdly similar to writing a review in my head as I watch – explaining the thing to myself, thinking about how I’d explain it to anyone else, all the way through. But I can’t quite stop myself believing that this is also how other people experience it too – albeit without the strange fact that after the show they won’t have to write all those thoughts down in some semblance of order.

But, this thing of experiencing a work of art primarily as something you talk to yourself about in your head for its entire duration feels like something worth, I dunno, thinking about. Contemporary dance (and, yes, even if this is part of the London International Mime Festival, I would put this firmly in the box marked “contemporary dance” and actually proper, right-up-to-the-minute *contemporary* contemporary dance, which feels like it’s actually moved on from copying Pina Bausch. The piece I’ve seen before it reminded me of most is Sebastian Mattias’s Tremor, which at the time felt like the most futuristic, advanced bit of contemporary dance I’d ever seen which included actual movement and no talking), contemporary dance seems to be the medium in which I experience this sensation most strongly, although watching modern orchestral music has a similar effect, and maybe even wandering round some art galleries – but also, I guess, it’s how one experiences life. It’s how we walk around a supermarket, or catch a tube – with a strange narration of ourselves, or argument about some abstract concept or other, or a strong memory suddenly tumbling unbidden from out of nowhere into the forefront of our minds.

It’s interesting to consider, in the light of our unruly minds, how hopeless it might be therefore, to try to relate my experience of watching some contemporary dance. I think it’s a testament to the dramaturgical genius going on here, then, that Matt Trueman and I came out having had more or less an identical set of shareable thoughts. (Full disclosure: thoughts which we did indeed then go and discuss afterwards for a good half-hour or so. But then, I think that *can* be useful and clarifying for writers-on-theatre even if it is meant to be “against the rules”.) The fact that we were both reminded of a bleached-palette Francis Bacon, the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, the fact found similar things suggested by the repeated movements; the ideas of lives negotiating themselves, of a moment of trauma replayed, perhaps; the way that we could infinitely interpret and re-interpret the “meaning” of the movements, even within the carefully drawn frame of the opening narrative. That fact we could also both agree that the piece felt more like an invitation than a declaration, and that it had worked beautifully for us in this way. And the fact that it was going to be a bugger to write about...

I now have absolutely no idea if this piece is communicating anything about the piece. It feels a bit more like long-form free association. Which, on one level, is a perfect reflection of how watching this piece might feel (even if I’m now free-associating about writing about the piece, rather than on themes suggested within the piece itself), I do worry it’s a bit self-indulgent. Hopefully not.

If you want a strong, concise conclusion: Anatomia Publica is a fine, crisp, clear piece of beautifully choreographed contemporary dance – a shattered crystalline structure which perfectly reflects the fragmented lives and thoughts of its protagonists.

There you go. :-)

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Hattie Morahan interview

[written for Exeunt]

Click here for interview.

I do want to write a bit of a commentary on this, but that will have to come later...

Fiji Land – Southwark Playhouse

[see my review of Sand for all my “I know Nick Gill” disclaimers]

Nick Gill’s Fiji Land is brilliant. It’s certainly the first play I’ve seen in Britain in an absolute age that I didn’t fully understand. And I love that. It’s a play that has an almost luminous metaphoric quality, but which keeps you working incredibly hard on what those metaphors are, and what we are meant to be doing with them. I should also add that Alice Malin’s production – and Ruth Hall’s design for it – are the best I’ve seen on the Fringe in a very long time.

The play itself was written in 2007 – in fact, I’ve still got the email dated 08/08/2007 when Nick emailed it to me (“Hey man. Et voila- A Play. It probably needs a bit of tweaking...”) – and on a very immediate level, it is clearly a play about the torture and abuse being carried out as part of the The War On Terror™. As such, I did spend quite a bit of time in the theatre wondering if it was a shame that it hadn’t had an immediate production there and then in 2007. That said, theatre was thick with plays about the War on Terror back then, and, original though Fiji Land is, it might have just blended into the general melee. What’s interesting about watching it now is the immediate initial impulse to bunch it in with War on Terror plays and wonder if it’s just dated. It’s chilling to then remember that despite having been nominally “closed” Guantánamo still holds 155 prisoners. And you wonder about a news-cycle’s capacity to provoke and revoke outrage. Because, y’know, we’re all about the drones now, right? So those 155 prisoners don’t matter any more. And the crimes committed across the last decade are “a bit 2007” now? So that’s one pretty major, effortless and originally unforeseen victory for the play right there: making us reconnect with an ongoing reality that we seem to have somehow consigned to being “recent history”. This point is further brought home when one of the characters suddenly, chillingly spits the appalling abuse of Hamlet: “shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt” (whoever said that Art humanises?).

Being Nick Gill, this isn’t *just* a play *about* torture, though.

What’s fascinating about the play is that it’s basically two metaphors running in parallel. One is a play about three men in some military-style installation who are taking it in turns to guard ranks of potted plants in the room. The plants quite clearly stand in for the prisoners of Guantánamo or Abu Grahib. It is one of the most *legible* metaphors I have ever seen on the stage.

The other, parallel thing going on, however, is that two of the soldiers/guards begin to feel the temperature of the room differently. It starts off reasonably enough with the sort of disagreement about whether a room is warm or cold, as experienced by different people who perhaps just have different personal preferences, but it gradually escalates to something entirely absurd – and something that is apparently taking place in the world of the play – where one is stripped down to open Hawaiian shirt and shorts, while the other is wrapped in a tinfoil blanket and it is snowing on him from an air vent. It is one of the most opaque metaphors I have ever seen on a stage. What’s wonderful about it, though, is that the sheer fact of its myriad possibilities and how, because it keeps you working at the sheer face of its WTFness, the way you start reading the rest of the piece is affected. It’s a brilliant strategy. Because you feel that there’s definite craft and an elegance to this second metaphor, you are happy to let it run away into complete absurdity while you try to get your head around it.

The play also closes with an act of such nerve-jangling violence that (at least if you’re anything like me), having already spent most of the play in a state of mental turmoil you’re also served up enough of a shock to really kick-start the adrenaline. (This isn’t spoiler. I’d already read the play – albeit seven years earlier – so having a vague sense of foreboding detracts from the shock not one bit.) It’s the first play I’ve come out of since Landscape II that left me absolutely reeling and spaced-out: totally thrilled and completely unable to process all the information.

Things a “proper reviewer” ought to notice about the play: It really reminds you of Pinter; The Dumb Waiter most of all. Then: there’s also a real vein of English absurdism running through it – metaphor or no, this is a play asking us to take three men watering plants for an hour and twenty minutes Very Seriously. Two more recent pieces of theatre that it recalled vividly for me are Small Change Theatre’s 2005 piece about Iraq and torture Making the Difference and Chris Goode’s scientists-with-obscure-purpose-in-a-shed show, Longwave. The short scenes and, later, the snowing indoors recall Sarah Kane’s Blasted.

But, this is all largely about the play. Alice Malin deserves an enormous pile of praise all of her own for the direction. Even the casting choices – northern Jake Ferretti, Scottish Stephen Bisland and Welsh Matthew Trevannion – struck me as fresh, unusual and unexpected (I possibly have the most default RP setting for reading outside the RSC). The three actors are also notably excellent. There’s a real assurance and polish to the whole thing, topped off by Ruth Hall’s beautifully detailed set, Tom Wickens’s excellent lighting and Max Pappenheim’s really intricate sound design.

I don’t fell like I’m really managing to give a sense of the play, here, yet, though. It’s like a kind of sick, disturbing, extended Monty Python sketch, albeit one made with unimpeachable moral seriousness. There’s something ineffably British about it. That sense that we can only really understand horror properly when we’re laughing like idiots about it. That kind of urge to giddy funereal laughter that we’ve all experienced. Like when things are so bleak, and so black, and so wrong, you can only laugh at how bad everything is. It at once demonstrates our complete comprehension, and the impossibility of any meaningful or useful comprehension at all. This hopelessness is all contained in the very structure of the play, designed not only to provoke thought, but to illicit stunned, inappropriate responses. But then, the fact of the play’s existence at all – and the urge of someone to write it, others to produce and perform it, and for audiences to commit to it – all that shines a tiny light of hope through the seemingly insurmountable blackness of torture. A hope that one day people might manage to be better than this.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Ciphers – Bush Theatre

[apologies in advance for not liking]

Oh lord, this is hard.

Ok. I didn’t really like Ciphers. And it feels a bit like this review is just going to go through why.

So, positives first. At no point was I bored. The play, whatever its faults, isn’t boring, which is the worst thing a play can be. So that was good. James Perkins’s set – a series of upright shallow square boxes, some of which occasionally glide across the stage was attractive, effective, functional and evocative. Gary Bowman’s lights and Gregory Clarke’s sound were both very fine. And as a whole Blanche McIntyre’s production seemed to be the right sort of production for this sort of script.

After that, it all gets a bit more nit-picky.

I should start off by saying this is not about genre. At least, it’s not about my objecting to genre drama (which I don’t). Ciphers, as you probably already know, is about spies. Or rather, that is its nominal subject; the thing that’s plastered over the marketing blurb. Maybe that question of genre is pertinent after all; not because of my objecting to it, but precisely because I actually really love spy films, novels, etc. For my money, impenetrable though his books are, I think John le Carré pretty much raised the spy novel to the level of art. Not difficult art, sure, but there’s something masterful about the way that he made cold war espionage into a metaphor for the human condition. Members of the secret services, he seemed to imply, were possibly actually the most honest humans going, since at least for them the daily evasion, lying about who you were, and small everyday deceits were all part of a job, and were – at least during the cold war – being undertaken for ostensibly ideological reasons (although le Carré also does a pretty good job of scotching any notion that attachment to an ideology can be a clean, noble or effective course of action). So perhaps I went in with too rigid an idea of what I want from a spy play. On the other hand, I’d like to think I was open to persuasion to something else.

And, actually, Ciphers opens really well. Ok, the first scene in this production is pitched a bit high – Gráinne Keenan as GCHQ/MI5/MI6 interviewee Justine is almost impossibly on-edge and Shereen Martin as her interviewer Sunita maybe a bit too pointedly “cold”, but the second scene, introducing us to the Russian spy Koplov is played all in Russian. Which pretty much knocked my socks off. When Bruce Alexander (Koplov) is later revealed to be a British actor, I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed.

I get the impression that the play was partly inspired by one of those stories that seem to crop up in the papers where a British agent is found dead in mysterious circumstances. [As an aside, Snowden and the NSA stuff apart, when did British papers start thinking it was Ok to publish stories about our secret services as idle gossip-fodder and tittle-tattle? (possibly when half of them were bought by ex-KGB Russians, perhaps :-) )] It all takes a bit of a while to unpick. Scenes jump backward and forward in time, and we gradually realise that each actor is playing two roles – which, yes, is sort-of a nice comment on the nature of a secret service, and sort of quite a distracting way of designing a play for staging (the doubling is stipulated in King’s script).

What emerges is the story of Justine, this incredibly jumpy, nervous former marketing manager, who, thanks to a load of language skills, gets accepted by whichever branch of the secret service this is meant to be (given that she goes straight from domestic MI5 stuff to spying on a Russian, which is MI6’s territory, I’m not sure it’s meant to be any reflection of the real British intelligence community). Her first job is trying to convince a Muslim youth club worker to turn informant and then run him – trying to gain intelligence on a suspect who has gone off the radar.

At the same time, at the art gallery where her sister works (sister – not meant to be a twin, is also played by Gráinne Keenan), she meets a reasonably famous, married British painter, Kai (played, like the Muslim youth group worker, by Ronny Jhutti. His wife, Anoushka, is played by Shereen Martin – the MI? Controller). Kai and Justine start an affair almost immediately, and it feels like the already diffuse focus of the play shifts mostly onto this. For a while it feels a lot more like watching Patrick Marber’s Closer occasionally intercut with the odd scene from Spooks. And yet, for all that the themes of adultery and espionage seem almost inextricably linked, here the threads here don’t seem to be pulling together, even as you understand how they could.

What’s hard, I think, about the play is that it’s hard to really know what it’s about. Well, no. I’m not a child. It’s about lots of things: the pressure on an agent, the pressure on someone having an affair, the pressure on a double agent, the impact of your job having fatal consequences for others... Lots of things. And all familiar tropes from spy stories. And yet here, it don’t really feel like this is a play either about the secret services, or adultery, or about gender, or about the politics of having a secret service.

Another problem is that frequently the dialogue just gets distractingly direct. People speak in direct statements almost as if they’re frustrated that a particular bit of plot isn’t being explained quickly enough. I think I could have taken about another half an hour of the play (as it is, it runs as two 50 minute halves of a 15 min interval) if everyone had been more relaxed and talked more in euphemisms and subtexts. Here, it often feels frustratingly bald.

(cf. Kai: I love you. Justine: I love you too. Kai: This isn’t just an affair for me. Justine: Ssh. Kai: No, I need to... because I feel like you’re holding back. Justine: Holding back... how? Kai: I can’t get near you. You don’t really tell me anything... you...)

And then there’s the way its been played. The production style has opted largely for creating a sense of urgency by having most of the actors behaving pretty urgently most of the time. There are exceptions: every time Bruce Alexander comes on, he seems to bestow a sort of calm on the other actors. He is excellent, and the other actors, in their interactions with him, seem to step up a notch. They’re suddenly in a scene with a real person, so they start behaving a bit more like real people themselves. It think it would be easy to blame the script here, but just as an experiment I tried reading a bit of it to myself imaging Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson from the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (not seen it? Do yourself a favour and take seven hours out of your life to watch it. Probably every year) and actually, it felt totally plausible that that sort of lifelikeness, character and deliberation could easily be equally found here. Of course, that seems to amount to something of an admission of desire – that I really want this to be a ‘70s BBC serial (peopled almost entirely by men). I don’t think that’s the case, though. Despite its being frequently ridiculous, I also found Spooks hugely watchable (and its dialogue is far worse and its over-urgency much more so than here – which is interesting in itself). I suppose really I just found the levels of tension unconvincing. Or rather, they made sense on a human level, but I’m not sure having them so surface visible makes any sense. Unless this is a play and production whose principle aim is to demonstrate that modern Britons simply aren’t cut out for roles in the secret world because they are altogether too emotive, then I think it just needs a lot of reining in. As it stands, Justine should never have been given the job in the first place as she is plainly too anxious and is the world’s worst liar. I’m afraid I found both of Martin’s performances – one at either end of the heightened emotion spectrum – equally unconvincing. And as Kai and Kareen, Jhutti seemed to just pick different irritating mannerisms to differentiate between them.

None of this makes me happy to say. I would really have liked to have loved this, but it just got more and more difficult. Then the penultimate scene actually kills the entire piece stone dead. Possibly this is a grotesque failure of imagination or understanding on my part, but nothing about the rest of the play really sets it up, so rather than feeling like a clever twist it feels like a preposterous shark-jump that totally fails to clear the shark in question.

It’s a shame. The entire thing feels like it was made in extremely good faith. There’s not a hint of ego, or arrogance, or anything like that. It just feels (at least to me, and I almost hope I’m just wrong and in a minority) like everyone just got really involved and it went off somehow in a direction that didn’t work. That happens. It’s fine. It’s a shame but it’s fine.

Shorts: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

[press nights, “embeddedness” and the role of the critic]

Today’s Short is essentially a guest-post:

“Isn’t it time that the whole role of criticism and how it relates to theatres, audience and newspaper readers now, be discussed coolly and seriously by authors and critics, by actors and editors, by managers and non-professional consumers? Plays have changed in construction and in subject matter, so has the intellectual awareness of performers and the education – and age – of the audience. Perhaps they haven’t changed enough; but journalistic criticism has hardly altered. Sometimes it seems out of touch; often the standard just isn’t high enough.

Of course, there are those within the theatre who think that criticism has no validity, anyway; there are others who still believe that a good critic is one who gives a ‘good notice’ and a bad one means a bastard. But I’m fairly certain they are in a minority and won’t be satisfied until the Revolution. In the meantime, surely a confrontation between those whose business is in the theatre and those who buy the tickets and read the critics could only help the critics themselves to stand back, take a fresh look at the job and rethink, if necessary drastically, the whole way the system is working at present.

Of the points which come up, the following seem to me the most obvious – and the most easily tackled:

1. The dailies’ deadline. There is often only an hour between curtain down and copy delivery zero-time. Every critic will tell you that it is possible to learn the instant-opinion trick, of having half the notice written in your head while diving out down the aisle. But few would defend the system as ideal. (It’s not because they pay better that the weeklies are regarded as Nirvana – because they don’t.) Would taking really suffer if, in these days of frenzied show-biz publicity, the public had to wait 36 hours instead of 12 before reading a review? Already in Scotland, the north of England and other areas serviced by the first edition this happens anyway.

An alternative to a day’s delay would be a weekly essay-type survey which is what most of the film critics write.

2. Editorial flexibility. Or why does a quality daily devote the same amount of space (give or take an inch) to Time Present and My Giddy Aunt? I don’t for a moment believe its because their readers are infinitely catholic and this is what they want; but simply that this is a sloppy way of solving that deadline problem. If, however, reviews were not written on the night, then space could be allocated according to how much the critic had to say, not predetermined by a guess or whatever is going. Then he need not launch off about the first play by a young author as though he were Chekhov and perhaps set him back a good bit in the process; n the other hand, if he indeed turned out to be an embryo Chekhov then space could be found to say so.

3. The First Night. Still beloved by commercial managements and hairdressers, but by few others. It’s an institution which is very unfortunate for professionals on both sides of the footlight as actors, still, are often over-nervous after a bleak week in Brighton, direction is often uneven on a strange stage and the critic’s neighbours in the stalls are inevitably either ladies wearing clanking bracelets, or deeply involved in backers twitching and drumming their fingers on the balance sheet. How much better if the system, introduced by Michael Codron, of a week of public previews could be introduced everywhere and followed up by an Opening Week rather than an Opening Night. The critics would then have a choice of six evenings – and it might even split them up a bit so that there was less chin-wagging in the interval, another tradition which is swept under the carpet but is still messy.

Traditionally, too, it’s been thought best if performers and critics don’t become too pally. Again, I think with the waning of the ‘super-star’ system and the growth of a generation of immensely self-critical actors and directors, much of the prejudice against coming together on neutual territory is out of date. William Gaskill’s annual lunches at the Royal Court, mingling authors, critics, actors and journalists, have proved that no one is dumbstruck and that both sides look less fierce off-duty. The forum could well be extended.

So could Peter Brook’s idea of open lab work at the Round House. And there’s no reason why critics should necessarily feel that time is wasted if they’re not writing about it. A couple of hours spent at a rehearsal can be more worthwhile for critic, cast and director – and ultimately for the critic’s readers – than 600 words on the revival of an ancient musical which would be equally well served by a picture and its caption. This might just stem the tendency in today’s critics to be over-literary in approach, to back away from a great performance and to take experiments in basements too seriously for fear of being caught out – square. (It’s a fault which applies to many people within the theatre, too.)

Not that the relationship should ever become too cosy. Severe, intelligent, informed criticism is vital; but ignorant criticism can lead, in extremis, to nasty illnesses or, at any rate, catching suspicions (vide Broadway). In London, the critics – who undoubtedly do love the theatre – could still fight a bit harder for it, and that means campaigning their editors and the theatre managers for help.”

– Ends –

It’s from the September 1968 edition of Plays and Players, which I just happened to stumble across in the Bush Theatre’s excellent library last night. But isn’t it amazing how much of it feels like it is speaking to precisely the issues which we’re all still writing about almost fifty years later? It feels to me like there are more similarities in the debates than differences – mostly brought about by changes in technology. It was written by Helen Dawson who was at some point the arts editor of the Observer. She also married John Osborne a decade after this piece was written.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Thebes – New Diorama

[bit overdue. Sorry about that]

The Faction’s world première production of Gareth Jandrell’s new play Thebes is a two hour (plus interval) conflation of Oedipus Rex, Seven Against Thebes and Antigone (plus one scene from Oedipus at Colonus). As such, its middle bit occupies roughly the same territory as Martin Crimp’s latest play, Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino (it being an adaptation of Phoenician Women, which is Euripides’s version of Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes).

As a result of Alles weitere... the last version of Oedipus I saw was Pasolini’s astonishing, hallucinogenic, more-or-less-unwatchable, brilliant 1967 film, Edipo Re, which completely removes the usual classical dignity we’re used to in theatre and replaces everything with an intelligently conceived bronze-age realism.

Both Alles weitere... and Edipo had done a lot to sell back to me the idea of Greek tragedy as something that still has some point in the modern world and Jandrell’s new play carries that good work forward.

The brilliance at the heart of Jandrell’s script is in its structure and conception. Rather than stretching just one of these narratives out over a similar length of time, each story has been filleted down to a lean 40 minutes or so. Even so, you would probably have to be a Classics student of profound scholarship to really miss anything. And what you gain as a normal theatregoer (i.e. me) is a profound gratitude for a real sense of momentum. But it’s not just momentum, here possibly for the first time, you get a real understanding of why anyone is actually doing what they’re doing. Granted, it might have been useful for Jandrell to have even gone further and included the bit where Oedipus defeats the Sphinx and is thus made King of Thebes in the first place. But as he has gone to the trouble of pretty much stripping out all the other supernatural elements (apart from the accuracy of the prophets/seers), perhaps that would have sat oddly.

This added momentum works especially well in Antigone, which, without the backstory (as I’ve always hitherto been watching it), you do come to Creon as an unreasonable dictator who just seems to get off on being difficult. When you see the ferocious war which Polynices waged, and imagine the number of the dead, you suddenly understand why Creon is so adamant that he doesn’t get to be buried. However, when modernising the language, I’d have gone for “fascist” rather than “terrorist”. It would have made for a more knotty problem. Don’t audiences now tend to automatically mistrust any leader using “terrorism” as a reason for anything?

Elsewhere, though, Jandrell’s modernisations feel pretty rich and pregnant. Pinning Thebes to nowhere in particular except perhaps a modern version of itself, it resonates as everywhere from variously Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia. The language itself is pretty interesting. There’s a certain roughness to it, at once lyrical and abrasive. There are a tonne of new coinages, or slightly off-kilter uses which could be incredibly irritating, but actually end up being quite arresting – by drawing attention to themselves, making you actually consider the word, and the meaning, rather than just letting familiar sentence after familiar sentence roll by like an agreeable countryside.

All this praise duly lavished, I should talk about the actual acting/direction/chosen performance style. Which, I ended up rather admiring without quite knowing how. Put bluntly, I don’t think Thebes is done in a style I’ll ever much go for. There’s no set, and the stage of the New Diorama feels especially flat and shallow in comparison particularly to the steepness of the seating rake. Added to this is director Rachel Valentine Smith’s lamentable decision to include a bunch of ensemble-made sound-scapes. (I think a lot of these are speculatively included in the script, but that could have been ignored.) There are few things more wretched in theatre than a bunch of actors all making a whooshing sound with their mouths in the semi-darkness. I can try to respect them, and their impulse, and their right to choose that aesthetic, but I’ve yet to ever fathom why anyone would ever do it. Later, though, they mostly stop with the whooshing and whistling, and turn instead to stamping, shouting or plainsong, and these bits are much better.

There is also something incredibly strange about the chosen acting style – which feels more mannered than anything I’ve seen on the British stage for an aeon. What it felt most like to me – and I say this with (obviously) no experience of the real thing – was a kind of impressionistic version of what some of those old National Theatre or RSC productions of the classics might have seemed like. There is An Awful Lot of RP speaking going on, and at totally unnecessary volume. I notice in the programme that someone is credited as “Voice Coach” – and I can see how this might be that weird problem you also find at the RSC: that if a director isn’t careful, whatever work they do is totally undone by the Voice department coming in and telling everyone how to speak their lines like they were Mariah Carey and all of literature was the Star Spangled Banner. Trippingly on the tongue doesn’t even get close. Interestingly, the only actor who dodges the RP bullet entirely is Derval Mellett (Antigone), who is properly fierily intense and angry, funny and totally credible. Her Ophelia might well turn out to be the best thing in Faction’s Hamlet.

But, as I say, despite all these massive misgivings about the vocal style, the ensemble soundscapes, and, let’s be honest, a bit of the “physical theatre” element that has also been grafted on (just don’t do it, kids. It’s not the 90s any more), the production completely won me round to itself. No small achievement, given the above. But it never once stopped being watchable. And that – much more than whatever tired, middle-aged artistic reservations I might have had – is what matters. Not only does it stay watchable. It becomes increasingly compelling. So even while maybe wincing a bit at the way a line has been done, you’re much more interested in what’s happening, and the story, and the politics of both the story and those that have been added to the text: there are bits where you think it might almost have been profitably called Occupy Thebes.

Indeed, this is perhaps the text and production’s most compelling overall quality – that by the end, it has made Antigone especially feel very much like a play for our time: a play about a ruling class utterly divorced from any kind of a reality ignoring popular sentiment until ultimately their refusal to listen brings about their destruction. Which, for a tragedy, is a pretty cheering ending.

Genre, ecology and economy

[was going to be a short, then it got longer]

Over at Exeunt, playwright Duncan Gates has published an interesting essay about genre in theatre. Interesting, but with some deep flaws, I would say. Gates’s contention is this:
“theatre[’s] assumption that the consumer is driven by the form, rather than the story, is why anyone ever struggled to sell any art they ever made. It unhelpfully sets theatre up as a genre against other art forms in a ‘fight’ that quite simply it’s not capable of winning because its reach is so much less. 
“To me, the ‘What’s On’ page of most producing theatre buildings or companies reads like a massive piece of horizontal marketing, identifying fans of ‘the genre of theatre’ and targeting them – to the exclusion of those who don’t like the genre.”
Gates’s point of comparison here is film, with its many genres. What Gates unhelpfully fails to note is that the film industry is pretty much just as rubbish at identifying the “genres” that cover most of what we see in theatre. I mean, any industry which has as a category “World Cinema” needs to have a bit of a look at itself, right? Even breaking “World Cinema” down by country or continent is pretty bloody meaningless, unless “Japan” is actually a genre, rather than a country. And a country capable of creating comedies, thrillers, horror films, and some very slow productions of Shakespeare, at that.  Moreover, most of the films that are most like plays, or even ones that originally were plays (interesting discussion under the link from the Chicago Tribune complaining about film reviewers saying “the film exposes the flaws in the play” when they didn’t see the play), get classified as “Drama” anyway. Which is what most (straight) plays that aren’t comedies, tragedies, or art-house, get classified as.

It strikes me that Gates’s wider gripe is really a bemoaning of the loss of other genres in theatre. And, while it might not be a gripe that especially irks me (although I did say in 2008 that I’d like to see more good Sci-Fi plays), it’s certainly a case that can be made. The commercial theatre of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s pretty much existed on a staple of murder mysteries and country house comedies or melodramas. Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders and Downton Abbey on revolve, I imagine. And there’s not so much harm in wanting bit more variety, maybe a bit more lightness, maybe some more genre-stuff and lightness. Probably. I guess.

There’s an interesting bit in Michael Blakemore’s Stage Blood where he’s talking about Peter Hall’s plans to simply play Pinter’s No Man’s Land in the NT at the Old Vic for one booking period only and then transfer it straight to the West End. Blakemore is aghast, noting that under Olivier, because of the rep company, a production that was doing well could extend indefinitely before transferring to the West End:

“My mind was racing. If the author of a new play knew that by giving his script to the National Theatre... if it succeeded it would move in no time to the West End, why would he be offering his play to anyone but the National Theatre? Would the West End now wither away? Or be forced to become something else – a purveyor of down-market entertainment.”

Writing with the benefit of forty-odd years hindsight, Blakemore’s prophetic soul (assuming you agree with his analysis of the current West End) might be taken with a pinch of salt. Although, Sir Peter Hall’s West-End-only production of Simon Gray’s Japes in 2001 remains one of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life, upmarket or otherwise. But, cheating at prophecy or not, it’s a startling paragraph just because it is so much now the status quo (ok, add in the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Chichester Festival Theatre, and the private Menier Chocolate Factory and you’ve got a clearer view of the last decade, but...). No one blinks twice at the automatic West End transfer of anything successful that will sell. And sell at vastly inflated prices. And for the personal enrichment of a few individuals, as well as the NT itself.

By coincidence, a piece from August 2012 by Lyn Gardner has been being re-circulating recently on Facebook and Twitter. It is garishly titled: Why major theatre institutions should be left to die – which isn’t really what it argues – but it does wonder if Arts Funding might be better spent at a more grassroots level. It’s an interesting question, sharpened, perhaps, by the fact of one West End Theatre being in such a state of disrepair that its ceiling fell down on the people watching (the National Theatre-generated) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

At the same time, the government has just announced an inquiry into the work of the Arts Council (England), reported by The Stage as an investigation into London funding bias as a follow-up to the “rebalancing our cultural capital” report last year.

The problem with this government having anything to do with public spending is its comprehensive failure to grasp that money can be spent on things other than subsidising tax cuts for the enormously wealthy, and making Britain a nicer place for the enormously wealthy to live. The idea that Britain is something in which the conservative Party might invest seems an anathema, even while it sees Germany consistently beat us in every available measure of civilisation, and fails to understand it’s because they spend on education and culture.

If I thought for one moment that the Tory solution was going to be anything other than cutting funding, I’d totally support it. As it is, I suspect the “rebalancing” will just involve chopping off a lot of London funding to make things “more equal”. Yes, under a progressive, left-wing government, or even one that just understood arts funding, this would be an important and useful exercise. Conducted by the current lot, it will only result in yet more vandalism, and probably selling off the fucking NT to property developers, as if it was theirs to sell. Like the Royal Mail. (If you want an excellent summary of how the Tories deal with public assets Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece on North Sea oil from the Guardian two days ago should probably tell you everything you need to know).

Which brings us back to Peter Hall, Michael Blakemore and then to Duncan. Thanks to Peter Hall, we do have a slightly funny situation with the National, and one which has been continued under Nicholas Hytner. That funny situation is: the National has a lot of resources, and it can use those resources to create shows which do incredibly well, and transfer not only to the West End, but to Broadway and even to the boulevard theatres of West Berlin. I should say, I don’t have any particular personal animus against War Horse. Indeed, I liked it very much when I saw it, but I also think War Horse is atypical. Certainly the version of its making that has passed into legend is that everyone was terrified before previews (even during) that is was going to bomb horrifically. And it was made by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot. And used “alternative theatre” techniques from Morris’s old BAC days (indeed, Morris’s move to the NT and transfer of all that old BAC learning could be seen to be the point where it was proved that “form” is in no way actually “political” at all...). But, similar successes seem more deliberate: One Man, Two Guvnors; The History Boys; Curious Incident...

And, in the rubric we’ve come to accept about theatre, these have tended to be trumpeted as massive successes, vindications of public funding of the arts, and proof of the popularity of theatre. And, in many, many ways, I don’t think I’d especially dispute that. But I’d also argue that none of them have anything whatsoever to do with art. And I think the biggest argument now facing British Theatre is about Art versus Entertainment.

I think Duncan’s article essentially calls for much more entertainment-based theatre. He doesn’t, for example, talk about the cinema or Lars von Trier, Jean-Luc Godard or Tarkovsky (go on, what “genre” are they?). He just talks about different sorts of films that should be grouped together under “entertainment”.
Britain has an intensely conflicted relationship with Art vs Entertainment. We’re pretty much taught to hate, fear and mistrust art. And the one defence usually left open to theatre-makers is that they’re being entertaining. But this plays right into the hands of those who would seek to cut funding to the arts. If it *can* pay for itself (largely by turning out to be entertaining), then it doesn’t need funding. If it can’t, then: well, look at all that stuff that can – this just clearly isn’t very good. Seems to be their circular argument.

Now is probably a bad time to propose anything – given that Britain is hurtling backwards into the middle ages, and we’ll be lucky to emerge from the next general election with anything left of modern Britain to save – but if we ever do get a left-wing government and proper arts funding to continental levels, I think we might need to go right back to the drawing board and work out what that funding really should be used for.

Arts Council money for *art*, not entertainment, I might provocatively suggest.