Saturday 15 March 2014

Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love – Nicholas Ridout

[For a more succinct review-review read Dan Hutton’s]

It is before eight o’clock on the 12th of March, 2014. I am in the lobby/café of the Thalia Gaußstraße drinking a Rhabarberschorle. I have just finished reading Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love by Nicholas Ridout. The book itself finishes on 15th March, 2012, at a performance of Chris Goode’s God/Head, at which Ridout and myself were both present. It closes with one of the most gorgeous sentences I’ve read about what Ridout has termed “professional spectatorship”. The sentence requires a bit of a run up, so I’ll quote from a bit before:

“We are used to thinking and feeling as if such feelings [love, friendship and sensual perception] are authentic rather than commodified and, if we are romantic anti-capitalists, to value them accordingly. To experience something of these feelings within the realm of necessity – as part of one’s professional activity, that is – is to enjoy (if that is the right word) a momentary disruption of the normal relations between freedom and necessity. It is to love one’s work through the work of another, to find real pleasure in the manufacture of that love as a commodity.” (p. 162)

I experienced a very similar sensation reading Passionate Amateurs. While perhaps also reading it *as work*.

There is a passage in the prologue where Ridout movingly describes watching, in 2003, the Berlin episode of Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogonida at the Hebbel Theater – where I was on Monday night – in which a number of Yetis invade the stage after a long, harrowing depiction of a mother losing her daughter; “like sorrow played as a history lesson” according to Joe Kelleher.

“Sitting in the circle, looking down across the impassive rabbit collective, one member of the human gathering attempted to make sense out of some disordered feelings about loss and grief, about solitude and collectivity, about Berlin and communism. After the event this attempt resolved into a very particular question. Why had an experience of deep sadness brought about by watching an impossible resurrection resembled so closely another experience from fifteen years earlier, when sitting on the edge of a bed early one November morning in the south-coast town of Hastings, about to set off to run a workshop for a community opera in a local school, I had cried tears, not of jot but of loss, at the news footage of people taking down the Berlin wall?” (p.3)

I bought the book at its launch at QMUL on 6th December, 2013. I had just returned from Berlin myself. My own affinity for that city, combined with my politics, perhaps make me a sitting duck for this opening. I have since read the book in Zagreb, Vienna, London and Berlin. And this evening in Hamburg I am quietly killing a few ghosts of my own (cf. this review, in which I refer to Orlando as “a love-letter” in a review that was also a love-letter.) I am seeing In der Republik des Glücks, which I also want to see redeemed). But this sort of sentimental love or affinity isn’t the kind with which Ridout is concerned in Passionate Amateurs.


In the last few years of late-capitalism, particularly since the economic crisis that began in 2008, and since the election of the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, and the implementation of its “austerity” programme – a concerted effort to bring to bear a programme of extreme Thatcherite privatisation and cutting of public spending on education, welfare, health and the arts – the topics of “work” and “payment” have become hotly contested, debated, and argued-over.

Last year, the artist Bryony Kimmings wrote a hugely influential blog, “You Show Me Yours”. The basic point was Kimmings outlining her desire to be paid more for her labour. It is worth quoting at length. She says:
“This year I have been on a budget of paying myself £1500 a month after tax. That is a salary of £22,800 per annum. £900 of this is my outgoings (debts, rent, phone, studio, bills etc). The rest is MINE for food, entertainment and travel. This might sound a lot but I live in LONDON. £150 a week for the OTHER category is not much at all in this city, and £35 of that is travelcard, £40 of that is food budget. A night out in London is usually about £75 (more if you are flashy like me!) drinks, taxi’s etc so you go figure how much FUN I can have with the rest of my allowance. 70% of my paid work is in London, so moving out is not an option.
“I am 32 years old. 
“When I was the Artistic Director of Chisenhale Dance Space 3 years ago now I earnt [sic] £30,000 per annum. The first year I was self employed I made £9k to pay myself, the second year around £16k. 
“I am an ‘award winning’ artist. 
“I do not own a property OR have any savings. I am beginning to try and save £100 a month. But its pretty hard. I want us to have children soon and would love to own a house one day. For everyone else I know who isn’t an artist this is happening, for me… it seems a very long way off. 
“I don’t have a pension. 
“YET I am seen as a relatively established and successful artist now. 
“PLEASE DON’T think I am not paid that much money because I am not a good business woman… because I would say I am one of the best. I worked for a long time on the funding side of arts, the arts council use me as an example of a successful and excellent application, I negotiate hard but I am friendly, I am GOOD at planning, selling and marketing. I pride myself on that. It’s just there isn’t much money in theatre. 
“NOW I am constantly asked to de-value my art work by venues, education establishments, independent producers and sometimes even funders.”

Ridout’s book offers the necessary, urgent, overdue corrective to this marketisation. An alternative to the way in which the modern artist has learned to pride themselves on “planning, selling and marketing”, and also the way in which work might be said to be “valued” by being priced.

Or, at the very least, it re-engages us with the deeper ideological issues. It asks us to think about the relation of the artist to the audience, the artist to labour, the audience to the artist’s labour, and to the artist’s *work*, and often to the artwork’s depiction of labour/work.

The book is arranged into six chapters. Most deal with an historical moment in recent theatre history: the Moscow Arts Theatre and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Walter Benjamin’s Programme for a Proletarian Children’s Theatre, the Jean Luc Godard film La Chinoise, the work of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and, in a final chapter, isolated single moments from the work of Slovenian performance collective Via Negativa, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, and Chris Goode.

Each chapter looks at another facet of the work/art divide, and another economic moment in the recent history of (mostly) western Europe. We see how the way in which labour is understood and how the possibilities of alternatives exist at these moments through time.

What is chilling, and what echoes deeply throughout the book, particularly given the introductory passage, is what feels like the gradual narrowing of possibilities. Either for dissent, or for a way to live outside the system, or for a way in which labour might be understood in a different way.

I am reminded, reading the book in relation to Kimmings’s desires for all the trappings of a more than averagely waged bourgeois lifestyle, of Rose Fenton’s account of setting up the London International Festival of Theatre, during which, she says, she and her co-founder Lucy Neal “squatted, and then waitressed for half the year”.

Passionate Amateurs does not suggest that for any artist to be taken seriously they must first renounce all worldly possessions. On the other hand, I’m reminded of Chris Goode’s flagging up of John Holloway’s question about how to “stop making capitalism”. The answer isn’t, I would humbly submit, by being paid more. In one of Passionate Amateurs’s most surprising sentences Ridout – after wryly describing he and his friends working a post-graduation job in a market-research call centre – suddenly, starkly concludes: “If you can serve the man while convincing yourself that you are really fucking with the man, then you can count yourself really fucked.”

The book isn’t a guidebook to making a revolution. It’s a careful, and at times incredibly philosophically dense academic consideration of some ways of thinking about some performances, which relates them to an economic history of (mostly) the twentieth century. It doesn’t exactly offer ready-made solutions so much as offering us reminders of what has been possible before in late-capitalism, and perhaps pointing us toward some ways of thinking about artists, labour, work, and art in ways that – even if only temporarily – allow them some value outside price.

I think that’s it, anyway. I think it’s also a book I’m going to have to read several more times, and will have to read several other books as well, before I honestly think I’ve fully grasped everything it’s saying.


It’s now the 15th March two years after where book ends, upstairs at the Oval House, watching Chris Goode tell us about God. And, as far as I can make out, nothing about the situation in which we find ourselves has improved. Indeed, it could reasonably be said to have deteriorated further.

Artists and theatres find themselves ever more preoccupied with how to survive within a system which many profess a desire to question, attack and destroy. It feels like there needs to be a serious reconsideration of this position. Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love – in its rigorous, difficult way – feels like it has described a second front, an alternative, and what some of the thinking there might look like.

Hamburg, 15 March, 2014

Friday 14 March 2014

Faust I – Thalia Theater, Hamburg

[written for Exeunt]

Nicholas Stemann’s Faust (I and II) has already pretty much won all the prizes going. It went to Theatertreffen in 2012. It’s been to Avignon and Salzburg. And apparently the eight hour whole is really something (and, annoyingly, part two is reportedly better than part one. But Part One was what was on when I was in Hamburg...).

If you want some (annoyingly condescending) notes about Goethe’s Faust I, then my blog about Michael Thalheimer’s Deutsches Theater production, which I saw in 2010, is very explain-y.

As it happens, watching Stemann’s production – my second German production of Goethe’s Faust I – really shed a lot of light on what Thalheimer had done, and likewise, having already seen Thalheimer’s gave me much more of an appreciation of what Stemann was up to. I guess it’s like seeing your second Hamlet or Macbeth. You start to appreciate “the play” (by which I mean “the text”) as a place where lots of different people can come and find lots of different things.

Stemann’s Faust I is, for my money, astonishingly good, then ok/a bit meh, then astonishingly good again.

It opens on a more-or-less empty stage. Ok, there are a couple of data-projectors at the back and lights, and the odd table, but the stage of the Thalia feels so vast and cavernous here that these occasional items get completely swallowed up in the blackness of the whole.

Enter Sebastian Rudolph, who is ostensibly playing Faust (don’t worry, I’ll get back to “ostensibly”). He’s carrying (or picks up) a copy of the ubiquitous Reclam Faust I (those little yellow editions, more immediately recognisable than even a classic white and orange Penguin). He reads from it. Quietly. He wander round the stage. He wanders into a corner and reads out loud inaudibly to himself.

There is then a beautiful moment where he places the book upright, open toward the audience, and walks away from it. It’s like that threat to “let the play speak for itself” made manifest. *Of course* the *play* *says* *nothing*. He returns to the book. He rips out its pages and manipulates it like a sock puppet’s mouth, giving it a silly little voice. This read – perhaps only to me – like a giddy rush of piss-taking out of the idea of letting the text speak for itself. And also like a brilliant comment on the very heavy literary-ness/weight of literary expectation of the text.

He shouts text at the audience. He rips the pages out of the book. He drags on a large door. He reverses the door to reveal a large sheet of paper. He brings on tubes of paint and squirts the paper with colours. He slams bits of the book into the paint. He slams himself into the paint. Pages of the book stick to his body. I am reminded of Simon Russell Beale’s suggestion that acting is a sort of live literary criticism. This is deconstruction rather than Leavisite close-reading.

Rudolph is brilliant. Think Scott Shepherd/Mark Rylance brilliant. For some alchemical reason you get totally drawn into whatever he’s saying or doing. This is a production which likes to keep things moving and inventive, but with Rudolph taking you through it’s that mile easier to go along with.

For something like the first forty-five minutes to an hour, Rudolph/Faust is alone on stage. For a lot of that time, Goethe’s Faust is also alone, but there are interlocutors – just as there are in the Marlowe. People come to his scholarly room to bug him. Rudolph does all these, in different voices. It’s a tour-de-force without ever feeling either self-indulgent (on the part of either director or actor) or one-man-show-y. Indeed, the solitude itself feels like a clear, and astute dramaturgical decision.

Then Mephistopheles arrives. First as a projection of a poodle on the back wall (Stemann’s decided to take “poodle” at modern face-value) (oh, if you didn’t read my other Faust review, in the Goethe version Faust first encounters Mephistopheles in the form of a large black “poodle” (which was apparently generic for a medium-sized dog then, not the weird small lapdog things we mean) which follows him home). Then as Philipp Hochmair, dragging on an identical desk, chair and mic stand to Faust’s. Sitting down with an identical Reclam Faust edition and beginning to read from the beginning, speeding through, perhaps until the speech of two are is in sync and then in dialogue. It’s a lovely moment.

From the get-go you have the impression of Mephistopheles almost as Faust’s alter-ego. They are even dressed identically to begin with, and spend much of their stage time edging closer and closer together, even sharing a protracted stage-snog at one point, which seems to have a lot less to do with some sort of homoerotic desire than the fact they just couldn’t physically get any closer to each other and then just start eating each other’s faces. It’s more like an attempt to crawl inside each other and occupy the same space than lust (ok, maybe extreme lust is a bit like that too, but, well, this doesn’t feel lusty). Perhaps it was partly the lingering memory of Dissolved. But Stemann does seem to have organised his Faust as three hour long sections, each dominated by a different character. Indeed, only three actors appear. There’s Rudolph, Hochmair and Patrycia Ziółkowska as Gretchen. I first saw Ziółkowska in Die Brüder Karamasow (“a study in astonishing stage presence”) and then in Hedda Gabler a week later (“absolutely knocks it out of the park... astonishing”), where I remarked that she was: “completely unrecognisable from Die Brüder Karamasow”...

Well, she did it again. Ziółkowska must be the most adaptable actor I have ever seen, suiting perfectly each production she appears in. Never (so far, that I recall) repeating a bit of shtick that gets her through her career. No tics, no tried-and-tested back-up way of acting, and not even a look that carries from one show to the next. Indeed, here she’s so muted, understated, here as to seem almost neutral at first. And she has, even within this performance, an apparent ability to shape-shift just by means of her physicality (and without *ever* doing crappy “physical theatre” things). I reckon she might be a bit of a genius, to be honest.

Anyway, in the Hochmair/Mephistophiles section the rather beautiful preoccupation with deconstruction and stage-craft is dispensed with in favour of rather more showy stage effects and a bunch of videos (not even live-feed ones, but recorded ones. When did anyone last use one of those?). It’s all a bit like Complicite’s Master and Margarita, or McBurney’s recent ENO Magic Flute. Which is to say, perfectly good, but not nearly as inspiring as the first half. It feels like there’s *a lot of business to get through* in the second hour and it’s all noses to the grindstone to trot out some pretty trope-y nightclub scenes for Auerbachs Keller and the Hexenküche. There’s a supporting cast of dancers and musicians (soprano, piano/organ, violin – classy musicians, mark you), and, oh, men in boiler suits and all sorts of stuff. But, really, it’s just *fine*. I found myself missing the charismatic lit.crit. approach.

Then there’s the scene where Faust sees Gretchen on the street. First delivered by Gretchen (although they’re Faust’s words) straight after her being a witch in the previous scene, it’s kind of mesmerising all of a sudden all over again...

[and the interval is here, but...]

After the interval the last bit is briefly repeated and we see the third part, Gretchen’s tragedy, if anything, being played out. And I think Stemann, for all that his costumes might be a bit male-gaze-y, (although no more so, less so, in fact, than Anne Lenk’s for Republik), manages to convey this. That claiming the various misfortunes which lead to Gretchen’s child-murdering and imprisonment. (Hang on. In the Thalheimer one she cut her own throat. Where the hell did that come from? Bloody hell. Anyway...).

This last act/hour is pretty punishing. It is, after all, just a desperate, squalid love affair followed by lies, betrayal, and death after death. And in such a short period of time (comparatively), and without part two after, it ends very starkly indeed – with just a neon sign saying “Ende erster teil”.

So, yes, seeing just the first half of a production plainly designed to play the entire thing feels slightly inconclusive. That said, there’s much here to admire. Mostly in the first and third hours. If only there were two intervals so one could cut out the middle man.

[It’s tempting to stick a kind of note on the end here noting that after two weeks of theatre-going in Germany I’ve still only seen one animal head and no nudity at all. At the this rate, we’re going to have to start re-thinking our stereotypes. It’s also worth noting that the performances in this Faust was significantly more like “British” acting than those you often see in Berlin. I had a conversation last week with a director-friend (apropos the current regime at the DT, which came in from Hamburg) who proposed that Hamburg acting is quite different to Berlin acting... Of which, more another time, perhaps.]

[on another note, annoyingly there aren't any decent whole-stage photos.  Also annoyingly, these were probably taken at the premiere in 2011, and stuff has possibly altered/refined since then...]

Dissolved: The Uncanny Valley – Sophiensæle

[seen 20.30, Sat, 8th March, Berlin]

Pre-show, Berlin. Taken by me, obviously.

The premise of Dissolved: The Uncanny Valley is a fascinating one. The piece is performed simultaneously in London and Berlin with a live video link up. The set incorporates a large projection screen on which we can see both the London and Berlin sets. The two stages are overlaid, but have been made so precisely that in most places they just seem to blend into one another. At the start a couple of chairs tucked under the two identical tables (or rather one table per set) are slightly out of sync. So one of the performers – Julian Maynard Smith, I think – goes and adjusts the London ones, so that they’re completely matched to the position of the Berlin ones.

There are three performers in each city. At the start we see the concept of whether they can see or are meant to be aware of each other being played with. We can obviously see only our actors on the stage, but at the same time we can see what the London actors are up to on their set, overlaid with the video version of the stage we’re also looking at for real. As such, we can appreciate the disconnect between the reality and the technological fantasy which has been created. The performers variously pretend to react to a London-performer – knowing the place they’ll be standing and basically doing blue-screen acting at it. Or else they equally “pretend” to ignore them.

Then there is the playing with the ability for two performers to occupy the “same” space. This constitutes quite a lot of the rest of the stage time. Different performers stand in as the “other halves” of each other – although there seem to be quite a fixed set of correspondences that occur most often, between the two white, older men, the two younger women (black and south Asian respectively), and the older woman and younger, possibly more flamboyant, youngish man. I did wonder briefly whether these grouping were worth worrying about, but it didn’t seem so.

The pairs do all sorts of things together. One pours wine and drinks. His opposite number accuses him of serious alcoholism. He responds that his opposite number in London is a pathological liar. Already we don’t know the truth even of these characters, accepting quickly that we also have no idea where they are, who they are, or what even the situation is. There is a delay of a couple of second on the link between the video screen, the sound, and London, so we can hear our performers speaking again, amplified in what sounds like a much more echoey room in London.

The walls are also half fake, it turns out – giant pieces of polystyrene which can be re-placed, re-erected at a moment’s notice. The most interesting ting about this is the way that they can then be used to create “blank” spaces in the scene, in the room, effectively hiding parts of the London or Berlin stage so that when the walls of the room don’t correspond performers can simply “disappear” from the camera’s view and therefore from the view of half the audience (or rather, all the audience in one of the places).

In common with the only other piece of Station House Opera’s work I’ve seen, Mind Out, it did feel like some of the material was largely demonstrative, and beyond that, almost random. No. Random is unfair. It’s clearly serving purposes and dramaturgically exciting and astute enough to take you on a mental journey through the hour-and-a-half duration. You end up thinking about a load of stuff. I thought about London, of course, and our comparative arts venues. I thought about gender and race and sexuality and representation. And about what it meant when performers’ faces were “mixed” like this. And what the mirroring meant. Actually, I ended up going off into several I think pretty profitable streams of consciousness while watching, but these seem to have proved to have been rather ephemeral. I wish I’d taken notes. Although I wonder if they’d have made any more sense outside the room than the hastily scribbled note on waking from a particularly provocative dream does in the morning.

There were also a few technical hitches. I like technical hitches, because they make you realise just how technical a thing is. If you see the seamless show, then you appreciate that it’s happening, but it’s not until it stops happening, it goes away, you lose it briefly, that you get to see just how impressive a feat it really is. The technician standing in Berlin, listening on his headset, presumably to the technician in London – it’s not clear where the error is, but the screens have frozen (there are two cameras and the screens don’t seem to like switching back and forth between them).

What’s interesting about the whole, which goes back to what felt like an interesting or “important” argument which was going on in March – May 2011 about narrative – when, coincidentally, I was spending a lot more time at Sophiensæle – is the way that it really does feel entirely postdramatic. Completely without “a narrative”. Of course the “events” unfold in real time, and you could try to make a story out of them, but it strikes me now, as it struck me then, that there’s more to “a story” than simply one thing happening after another. If the events appear to have no logical continuity from one moment to the next, why is it a story? We don’t watch sketch shows as a continuous narrative, so why should we claim that theatre always creates narrative. Perhaps little fractured narrative*s*, but here even that possibility is problematised by the presence of “invisible” or phantomic figures, who have to possibility of sharing the “same” space as another performer. And all the multiple meanings that this possibility could intend or evoke.

Ultimately, I suppose what I’m saying is: this is a great experiment. I would really love to see it developed a lot further. And it does make you think about a bunch of stuff, from stuff-about-performance to stuff-about-the-world-and-how-we-understand-it. At the same time, I think in terms of content that it could easily be stronger and could work with the meanings and ideas it evokes a lot more closely. But at the same time, perhaps doing so would cheapen it.

Thursday 13 March 2014

In der Republik des Glücks – Thalia Gaußstraße

[Deutschland erlöst sich selbst]

Seeing the catastrophic German première of In der Republik des Glücks at Deutsches Theater last November I wondered long and hard if there was any point in Germans tackling this play at all. I backtracked pretty hard on my initial impressions of Dominic Cooke’s world première production of the play at the Royal Court. Well, Anne Lenk’s production for Thalia Gaußstraße teaches me that I needn’t have worried, or backtracked half so much.

My God. It’s brilliant. It’s an absolute revelation. It’s like Forced Entertainment taking a hammer to the second and third acts of the Royal Court production. Suddenly you see just how limiting that static stuck-on-stage, fourth-wall literalism was.

The first genius idea in Lenk’s production is remembering that the whole thing is taking place in a theatre. In this respect it reminded me a little bit of Katie Mitchell’s still-world-beating production of Attempts On Her Life back in March ‘07.

The first scene is still staged “in a room”, but here the room – while observing the niceties of the Christmas tree, chintzy wallpaper, and large Christmas Dinner Table (this one replete with giant turkey, glasses of wine, roast potatoes and so on...) – is in a relatively small glass display cabinet, and on a significant raised platform. It’s like this family are in trapped in a reptile house. There is barely any room around the table for them to even move.

The family here are perhaps more stylised than “naturalistic”. Perhaps like something out of Wes Anderson or early Tim Burton. And they’re played by perhaps a younger-(or older in the case of the teenage daughters)-than-realist cast in appropriate wigs and costumes. Interestingly the focus here is mostly pulled by the daughters. In very short skirts, and constantly fidgeting, one flirts and touches herself while the other sulks, smokes, and a pulls a bottle of gin or vodka from under the table and necks several glasses. They then pop under the table and swap costumes. It all totally supports what’s going on in the scene, but it also adds an additional layer of movement and theatricality. Their relationship to “Uncle Bob” (who here “pops up” by ripping away a hole in the wallpaper of the rear wall, and is apparently played by the German Dan Stevens, below) is also interesting. 

Overtly flirtatious and sexualised rather than frighteningly hinting at some old and half-buried shameful history of abuse. When Madeleine turns up in her dress that’s “like being zipped into my own vagina” (here a white fluffy number, rather than Michelle Terry’s tight silvery one) she does so *outside the box*. Uncle Bob joins here outside. There are spotlights on them. The darkness in the hangar-like space around the little, suspended, reptile-house room lights up with strip lights on the floor. Madeleine’s song, I Never Go Deep – the tunes and mostly the arrangements are the same (can we say original?) Roald van Oosten as the court, but here performed with a pile more welly and a bunch more volume, so that they actually work.

I have to admit, I’ve probably listened to the In the Republic of Happiness original soundtrack more in the past couple of years than quite a lot of other things. As a result, I guess watching this production there’s an element of me being a bit like one of those people who goes to see Wicked every other week. By the end of the first act I was just grinning from ear to ea, beaming away at how great it all was. Then it got a fuck-tonne better.

The “difficult second act” (“THE FIVE ESSENTIAL FREEDOMS OF THE INDIVIDUAL”) comprises, as we remember, of five parts with different titles – The Freedom to Write the Script of My Own Life; The Freedom to Separate My Legs (it’s nothing political); The Freedom to Experience Horrid Trauma; The Freedom to Put It All Behind Me and Move On; and, The Freedom To Look Good & Live Forever. In the Cooke/Court version these were all played together with the cast seated on (original production of) Crave-like chatshow chairs, and the songs which intersperse them were (I think) also performed seated.

Here, instead, the raised glass room is turned round and later pushed off to one side. The first section sees the cast all running to and fro across the stage, rapidly putting on and putting off different costumes. It’s all manic energy and playing a game. There’s no poise, no *seriousness*. It’s incredibly refreshing. And it works brilliantly. The songs – with the whole cast on their feet and mobile, and with one using a guitar radio-miked to an amp over which runs the titles of the individual scenes – feel like they organically arrive when they need to; like the scenes almost *logically* build to a pitch where there can only be a song. The running about only lasts for the first section. Beyond this there are various different distinct routes taken through the (unassigned) lines. What’s beautiful about the way that this section is handled as a whole is that it gives the whole a sense of movement. A journey for the actors (and consequently audience) through the developing themes. There’s a movement from the anarchy of the first to a louche second, an angsty third – there are perhaps divisions between the speaking actors and others who scrawl in white marker on the glass walls of the abandoned family room. Four (The Freedom to Put It All Behind Me and Move On) is a kind of group therapy session conducted quietly at the back of the stage while a another performer in a giant cat head (Yes! Animal head! Result!) stalks the abandoned plates of the vandalised family room, culminating in the howl-of-angst Theraputic Song. Except here the therapy plainly works (well, ironically, at least). The final part, The Freedom To Look Good & Live Forever, is delivered by the whole cast looking slinky and relaxed in bathrobes. This investment, even just a bit, conceptually, in the things that are being said in the script/by the cast has the unexpected effect of making it look and/or feel much less like the “roll call of contemporary obsessions and afflictions” and much more like some things that people actually do say, or think, or go through. Of course many are still preposterous, hilarious or sardonic, but the way that this production finds a way of moving through them, and creating brilliant, messy stage-pictures at the same time puts Cooke’s Court production to utter shame.

And then there’s the final scene. Uncle Bob is just on stage. In a spot-light. Alone. Madeleine eventually turns up in another spotlight. And that’s the entire staging of the scene. A scene which at the Royal Court they built a whole room for, and contrived to have the actors pretend that there was no audience. And the room they were in was real.

The idea of the end-point, the Republic of Happiness being *the stage*. With us, the audience, kind of present and acknowledged, perhaps as “the society”. It’s so simple and yet utterly, utterly brilliant. Having seen it, I now can’t really imagine anything better. Rather than being perplexing or opaque it feels immediate and raw. Uncle Bob’s “Happy Song” at the end of the scene also feels funnier and more painful than ever before.

Overall, rather than making the play feel like an oblique series of propositions with which one could agree or disagree as the mood took you, instead it felt like an actual, organic, functioning piece of theatre. The cast are uniformly terrific, charismatic, and stupidly attractive. The intelligence of the original script remains, but rather than being thinly supported (i.e. unwittingly murdered), it has here been given a staging that augments the intelligence of the text with an additional intelligence, offering propositions and motion. A gorgeous, energising production and one which totally rehabilitates Crimp’s play. Best 1hr50 I’ve spent in a theatre for quite a while.

[a bunch of production photos follow]

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Korijolánusz – HAU Eins

[Hungarian Coriolanus, w. German surtitles]

Let’s be honest, this could have gone either way. And I won’t even be so pompous as to suggest that it’s “the duty of the critic”, or somesuch, to find out. I was intrigued by the prospect of a Hungarian production of Coriolanus, so I went along, and in the event I didn’t get much out of it. I would argue, however, that this might have had much less to do with not really getting the Hungarian (the German surtitles were more than enough to follow what was being said/where we were in the – much truncated – story), and a lot to do with really having no idea where the production was *coming from*.

The HAU’s current/new short season, Leaving is not an option, of current work from Hungary, largely in response to the country’s frightening drift/gallop rightwards, politically, is obviously an astute and urgent bit of programming. And in a lot of ways you can easily imagine how a production of Coriolanus might fit into it. Certainly if you’re English you can imagine that. The Titular figure of the play, Caius Martius Coriolanus, is pretty much Shakespeare’s most right-wing “hero”. It’s not even clear if he is meant to be heroic at all.

When last reviewing the play (in a Chinese production at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe) I described Caius Martius as “a militarist fascist beloved in Hitler’s Germany” (where he really was treated as a misunderstood hero). Here he’s a stocky, paunchy, skinhead with a beard and tracksuit. And I’m really not sure where that puts him.

There's much less of this sort of silliness, though. 
What’s interesting is that the political situation in Hungary – power-grabs by a populist, working-class, grassroots, neo-fascist party – is almost precisely the opposite to the situation depicted in Coriolanus. At the same time, lots of the original has been sheared off the bones of the play here – that first conflict with Volsces that he has to have the shower after seems to have been excised entirely – but it doesn’t seem to have been cut in a way that makes its politics more relevant, it’s still the same dynamic and story, just a lot less of it (a merciful 1hr45 straight through. Still a bit too much, but much better than a full 3hrs+).

But ultimately it’s not really the lack of mapping politics that hampers the production. I’d have been perfectly happy to watch a modern-dress non-auteured production of Coriolanus in a foreign language if there’d only been a bit of oomph to it. As it was this felt relaxed to the point of indifference. I guess this might be a very British way of thinking, but despite the evident truthfulness of the performances, somehow they really didn’t seem to be getting even to the edge of the playing area.

I say “playing area” since one of the better things about this production was that they’d stripped all the seats out of the HAU Eins auditorium (see photo, bottom), the audience were sat on a temporary seating rake reaching up from the floor to the stage, facing the lovely wood-panelled auditorium, balcony and circle. It was a great, unfussy way of making a familiar building strange, and creating a much more rough-and-ready space for this rough-and-ready production. I don’t know if there was a consequent problem with the acoustics, or whether the production was always just going to feel a bit comatose, but there it was.

The company had also woven a bunch of sacred music into the piece (a Catholic mass, as far as I could make out from the Latin), as well as Volumina’s very secular rendition of Abba’s The Winner Takes It All, which she delivers seductively sprawled on top of the large chest freezer that constituted pretty much all the set, her legs wrapping ever more round the mic stand. So, yes, there was that. I have literally no idea why. Post-drama? Post-Brecht? Satire of some politics I couldn’t hope to identify? Still, as a moment within the performance it rather stood out, along with the other singing, as being approximately 300% ore engaging than the stumping around and taking to each other that constituted the rest of the play. It’s true that the British way of doing Shakespeare can often seem bloody strange and more than a little embarrassing, at least until one tunes into it and decides to give it the benefit of the doubt, and believe that probably everyone shouting is somehow for the best, but it does at least jolly you along. Even though I mostly scowled through the download of the recent Donmar NT Live broadcast version on the coach to Hamburg yesterday, I think I was probably less resentful of it than I was of this Hungarian version – although there’s every chance that could also have been because I could have switched it off whenever I like and paused it as many times as necessary, but, in amongst the nonsense, there was also a certain amount of clarity and even in one or two cases a bit of characterisation which felt lacking on Monday night.

Friday 7 March 2014

Small Town Boy – Maxim Gorki Theater

[written for Exeunt]

It’s strange. In Berlin theatre terms the Gorki Theater is leading something of a renaissance. It’s recruited pretty much the only ethnically diverse ensemble in Berlin, or Germany, really, that I’ve ever noticed, and is actually tackling topics like immigration, post-migrant status, and now, here, gender politics and homosexuality. The ethnic diversity thing feels way overdue and pretty much crucial. I was much more surprised that “gay theatre” should turn out to be *a thing*. After all, living in Berlin, with its gay major, the work of Rene Pollesch, its massive gay scene, and its apparent complete acceptance of all things queer, it doesn’t feel like there’s so much need for a piece like this exploring it all.

Small Town Boy (STB), however, makes a strong case for its own existence. It’s a project created by the writer and director Falk Richter. I don’t know enough about the circumstances of its production to say *how* precisely it was created, but I can describe what I saw and perhaps speculate a bit.

The starting point for STB is the Communards song of the same name. One of the performers (Mehmet Ateşçi, Niels Bormann, Lea Draeger, Aleksandar Radenković, Thomas Wodianka, I think this would have been Bormann, wearing a long straight seventies wig) offers what sounds like a heartfelt autobiographical account of their own parallel experiences to those described in the song, reading Burroughs, watching Fassbinder, listening to Lennox and Bowie, and needing to get the hell out of small-town Bavaria.

Actually, the piece feels quite like a gay version of Blurred Lines (the NT theatre piece, not the song), albeit running at 2hrs not 1hr10, and taking a lot more time with the songs that intersperse the action. There’s a similar mixture of scenes popping up with no particular introduction exploring similarly trope-y relationships. But here, rather than feeling like stock situations, the pieces feel freshly minted and might be verbatim, or else autobiographical. This yields mixed results. While the object of the projekt (as it is titled, we might say “devised piece”) is to explore: “Is it possible to be a different kind of man? A different kind of woman? Can you ever stop being a son or daughter? Is it possible to reject authority, and live and love in a different way? Love, in theory and in practice, appears to still be the discursive battlefield on which our many contemporary conflicts about gender, sexual and cultural identities in everyday life are carried out. What can and should a ‘man’, a ‘woman’ be today? How will we define family, nation and belonging in the future?” it does sometimes veer close to being a bit of an exploration of #erstenWeltprobleme, while some of the meta-theatre stuff, where we’re being shown scenes purporting to be about the making of a theatre projekt about homosexuality, feels maybe a bit to self-referential to no especially effective end, even if these scenes are among the more amusing. There’s also a rather protracted sequence taking the piss out of Fifty Shades of Grey, and suggesting some sort of link between conservative business-women and the fetishisation of migrant men. To be honest, this part could very easily be construed as catastrophically cheap and not a little misogynist. Indeed, from the point early on where in Bormann’s monologue the group enact paroxyms of disgust at the advances of a somewhat over-physical mother, it does seem that women occupy a largely secondary place in the pecking order here. There’s only one on stage, and she seems to have the least autonomy as a performer.

However, there is another element to Small Town Boy. For about half an hour, very close to the end, there is a remarkable monologue. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in the theatre before. It is direct audience address, but it’s mostly aimed at people who aren’t in the room. Angela Merkel; Vladimir Putin; the Putin supporting soprano Anna Netrebko, who sings in Tchaikovsky in Vienna; Ilse Aigner; and Erika Steinbach. It’s just a direct, frank attack, in speech form, against Russia’s homophobic laws, Germany’s lack of equal marriage, Merkel’s standing shoulder to shoulder with Putin and never once commenting on his regime’s appalling stance. And then wider, on to the Catholic church, right-wing, bigoted politicians in Germany, the war being waged against the gay community. It’s a remarkable, scorching, bruising piece of rhetoric, and one which gets several spontaneous rounds of applause. Of course one could say that Wodianka, who performs it, or Richter – who presumably wrote it (?) – is/are preaching to the choir here – the audience at the Gorki is, after all, self-selecting. But then, perhaps this level of anger *is* refreshing to see. Certainly it was for me. As my opening comments suggest, there might be a certain level of complacency, especially in large metropolitan centres, about the need now for this sort of work. But clearly there is a need. And it’s good to be shocked into feeling properly angry about injustice, rather than knowing, intellectually, that it’s going on, and, yes, oh, it’s very bad.

On another hand, I do wonder if the concentration exclusively on Russia, while ignoring Uganda and so on, doesn’t wind up looking a bit racist – like we can only reasonably expect white folks to have humane laws regarding homosexuality. And I did wonder about just how important the more maundering sections in the middle about how bleak it was being a single man in Berlin were. Against this, there’s also some quite good stuff, generally, about love, and people stopping being in love, and then there’s some – I’m guessing writing by Fassbinder – about how the institution of marriage destroys people. Although this is more at the level of “quite interesting historically” than “at all convincing”.

As you’ll have noticed, this review is all about the content, and precious little about the event as a theatrical experience. To be honest, that’s pretty much how it feels. There is staging, some of it even mildly inventive (although no inventions you haven’t seen before), but it mostly this feels like a content delivery system. There’s minimal fuss, a stripped-back aesthetic, stark projections and use of metal stands and picture. And the performers are without exception kind of remarkable and sparklingly charismatic, while at the same time being somehow unshowy and incredible casual-seeming.

So, yes. Bunch of music, some of it gorgeously sung, some very timely political intervention, and quite a bit of First World R/ship Angst as well. But, despite a few longeurs, ultimately Small Town Boy is a vigorous, angry, and bruisingly harrowing look at the modern world. Well worth a look if you’re visiting Berlin. (and, being the Gorki, always surtitled into English.)

Thursday 6 March 2014

Tauberbach – HAU

[seen at HAU 1, Berlin, but touring to Sadler’s Wells on 8 & 9 April]

I went into Tauberbach pretty much blurb-free. I went because it was “the new Alain Platel”. That was good enough for me. Since putting in my ticket request, I was pleased to see that this co-production between les ballets C de la B and Münchner Kammerspiele had also been selected for this year’s Theatertreffen, but I’d still managed not to read anything about it. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a chance remark beforehand by a friend who works for HAU about the genesis of the piece, I’d have gone in with literally no more information than the title, and I hadn’t really even thought about that. All of which is to say, I’m now going to rabbit on about both the concepts behind the work, which I’ve since read up on, and a bunch of impressions I formed during the show, so if you’re thinking of going to see it, there’s possibly some value in just going in as blind as possible, but, equally, I think going in with a bunch of knowledge might be no bad thing either.

[continues after photo]

“Tauber Bach” translates literally as Deaf Bach and is the name of a project by the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski in which he got deaf people to sing various works by Bach. This music, accompanied by a soft (recorded) church organ, is the soundtrack to large swathes of Platel’s new 90 minute choreography. Another strand of the piece is a, what? an investigation into-, an exploration of the life of Estamira, a schizophrenic woman who lives in a waste dump in Brazil, and who was the subject of a documentary by Marco Prado. This was apparently brought to the table by actor/performer Elsie de Brauw who also plays Estamira in the piece – the six-strong company comprises both actors and dancers (Berengaria Bodin, Elie Tass, Elsie de Brauw, Lisi Estaras, Romeu Runa, Ross McCormack).

Playing on a stage strewn, covered, with copious piles of colourful clothes (stage design is credited to Alain Platel and les ballets C de la B), the piece opens with de Brauw speaking, shouting, at the audience (mostly in English). Her words are sometimes picked up, underscored, questioned or mocked by a deep, disembodied, amplified voice (weirdly, it most reminded me of a reverse Strindberg and Helium where Strindberg is the floaty, echoey one). Six microphones hang to mouth-height from the flies. There is also the constant recorded sound of flies buzzing.

The overall effect of all this was to put me in mind of a whole load of different plays by Samuel Beckett. That constant refrain about “the buzzing, the buzzing” from Not I, the rubbish strewn stage of Breath. The things hanging from the ceiling of Act Without Words I. Even the voice feels familiar from Beckett (though I couldn’t name a specific play. Is there one?), it feels like a distillation of how that Beckettian universe feels, how it functions; it’s like the voice of a mocking, cruel or indifferent universe. So that was one strong impression created by the piece.

Another is the effect of the Bach music – quite aside from the voices of the deaf singers – is to strong recall that sense of period; that mittel-European, early protestantism aesthetic. This underscored by many of the poses struck by the frequently unclothed, or largely unclothed, performers, one of whom, at one point, hangs from a lowered lighting rig bar like a crucifix. This sense of the nearly-medieval also seems to speak to the scale of poverty from which the piece draws part of its inspiration.

Having largely forgotten about the literal translation of the title, the voices of the deaf singers, rendering Bach’s music as they imagine it to be – as they imagine the notes might sound with no chance of having even heard the original pieces of music, or indeed any music, period – is a strange experience. I didn’t find it comic, as it’s suggested some might. Nor did I find that it felt exploitative or unkind, which is perhaps also a potential possible reading. I’m not sure exactly what I thought it brought to the piece, though. Obviously as a spur to the imagination of Platel and the company is was crucial as a source of inspiration – something to try to get inside – but as what felt like a partially detached sonic experience it didn’t *read* as suggestively as many of the other elements. (I’m actually quite keen to see the piece again at Sadler’s Wells having read up around it to see if that changes my relationship to its various parts.)

Elsewhere there is perhaps the best onstage “sex-scene” I’ve ever seen. The cast are all ridiculously attractive anyway, but here, unusually, that fact seems to be more explicitly acknowledged than in much contemporary dance.

All of this does make for a strange disconnect between subject matter and the feelings evoked by the piece. If one was so minded, one could probably feel quite worried that Platel and company have created such dazzling, beautiful art out of profound disadvantages (I’m thinking more of the poverty and schizophrenia than the deafness, although obviously getting deaf people to attempt to sing something that they have never heard – and can’t hear the results of their attempt either – also compounds the sense of their disability). On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely this seriousness of subject matter that enables the piece to have such an impact.

As with much (most?) dance, in a way what you take out of it is as much to do with your own preoccupations, and where your mind wanders during the performance, as it is to do with the actual content of piece itself. Granted the contorted shapes created by some of the performers, the lingering eroticism, the jarring voice, the stage-pictures have a bearing, but, even while one is admiring the dramaturgy (Koen Tachelet and Hildegard de Vuys), one is also probably supplementing it with a wealth of material that no one connected to the production ever considered.

I’d quite like to be able to be more conclusive, but it’s not that sort of piece. I loved it very much, I think, but it’s incredibly difficult to say why in a way that even begins to do it justice. It looks great, the performers are brilliant, and the whole is so well made and put together that you could just go and bask in its well-made-ness, although I’d defy anyone trying not to get caught up in reflecting on the action as well.

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Rodelinda – ENO, Colosseum

[It’s not the Messiah...]

[written for Exeunt]

Richard Jones’s new production of Handel’s 1725 opera Rodelinda is pretty much an unmitigated triumph. I’ve been to *a lot* of press nights, and I don’t remember the last time I saw a reaction quite so joyfully rapturous. And, this wasn’t first-night, papered-house sycophancy, it was genuine appreciation at the wit of the staging and the gorgeous treatment of the music.

Plotwise, Rodelinda... well; if you think Handel’s music is baroque... Apparently it’s based on heavily fictionalised episodes from seventh century Lombard history (the ENO’s programme is a wealth of useful information). Boiled down: it opens with the titular heroine (Rebecca Evans) alternately weeping for her recently deceased husband, Bertarido (Iestyn Davies), the banished king, and trying to try the advances of his deposer Grimaldo (John Mark Ainsley). Grimaldo, meanwhile has to break off his engagement to the dead, banished king’s sister, Eduige (Susan Bickley), and manage his ally Garibaldo (Richard Burkhard), who seems to be plotting his own advancement at the expense of anyone who stands in his way. In turns out that the husband has faked his own death, and the rest of the story concerns his plans to romp back to power and depose his usurper.

It’s really hard to make out quite what sort of tone Handel might have originally envisioned when he sat down to write this, let’s be honest, quite bizarre little piece. It is entirely to the credit of Jones, and also his libretto-translator Amanda Holden and designer Jeremy Herbert, that they haven’t let this problem of authorial intent trouble them one iota. This production takes the opera by the horns, presents the music gorgeously, the plot in a way that makes sense, and in a production that strives at every turn to wring as much movement and drama from it as humanly possible. Given that a majority of the music exists at a pretty stately pace, I for one was enormously grateful that at the same time as executing beautiful singing, the cast were being put through their paces moving between the rooms of Herbert’s multi-room set and always being given new things to do or to react to extrinsic to the action of the music itself.

To say that the design of the piece feels like it owes more than a little to Katie Mitchell’s recent work in opera (especially Written on Skin) would be an understatement. However, where Mitchell’s operas are all poise and rigour, Jones (and Herbert) allow for a great deal more humour, occasionally bordering on the Pythonesque – there is a brilliant running gag in the third act where Bertaldo mistakenly stabs his long-lost servant Unulfo (Christopher Ainslie). Doubtless, in the original, not very seriously. Here, almost to death. Making Unulfo’s repeated protestations that he’s fine really, when all the while following the king around on the point of death from blood loss, incredibly blackly funny. At the same time, the set reflects this directorial panache hopping from the Mitchell-esque trio of rooms to a neon bar and back again.

Jones has also added a whole new (silent) character, that of Flavio, Bertarido’s son, mentioned in the text, but unseen in the score or libretto. Flavio, like the trickster in Three Kingdoms before him, he bespeaks not only a director completely in control of his take on the material, but a welcome, and seearingly intelligent way of adding in modern touches and intrigue, not to mention making possible a blink-and-you-miss-it coda which, totally strips away Handel’s desire for an Enlightenment reconciliatory ending.

Christian Curnyn’s conducting seems to me to capture the precise tension between the lyrical and the almost-mathematical in the music. The score itself is a richly varied thing, making use sometimes of the whole orchestra for passages of both lyrical beauty or spiky tension, but elsewhere there is much use of mostly woodwind (and recorders?) or mostly harpsichord/s with just the barest underscoring to bring out the texture of its treble-y picking.

Another interesting feature of the music is the inclusion of two counter-tenors (Bertarido/Davies and Unulfo/Ainslie). While this did admittedly put me in mind of the Blackadder music a bit(has any TV theme tune ever put a whole musical genre to the sword more pitilessly?) – and here, given Holden’s frequently amusing English libretto-translation, the humour was clearly often at least partially deliberate – it also offers some richer rewards. Most notably in a rare duet (this is pretty much the only one, in fact) where Bertarido and his wife sing together in more or less exactly the same key in Io Io t'abbraccio, their voices blending and spiralling into something more spectral and unexpected than the usual tenor or bass-alto/soprano male-female duets.

I’m not sure that there’s much to be extrapolated from the piece in terms of “meaning” or it’s politico-philosophical standpoint. I’m always wary of reviews which declare any work of art to be apolitical. And I’m sure that there’s plenty that could be dug up around what Handel intended at the time (given his fairly Royal credentials, it’s probably not so very progressive), or what ENO/Jones intend now. But I don’t think I’d be sticking my neck out too far to suggest that mostly what they seem to want – and achieve by the bucketload – is t tell the story as interestingly and effectively as possible and to make the music sound bloody brillint. Which, for once, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at all.

Hannah – Unicorn Theatre


This new commission for the Unicorn, by its presiding genius artistic director Purni Morell, sees Chris Thorpe creating a new version of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus for young people (I think the posters say 14+). In [iambic pentameter/blank verse]. Here Herr Doktor has become Hannah, an unremarkable teenage girl (played with tonnes of youth-theatre appeal by Kae Alexander) who lives with her mum and her lizard, Dave, in a pleasant suburban house. Her mum (Irma Inniss) is a research scientist looking into marine pollution, btw. So far, so not-Faustus.

Left alone in the house with chores, and with her lizard escaped from its tank, Hannah invokes all the powers that be in her wishes for everything to be done, for the lizard not to be missing, and, well, the general wishes of all children (and Doctor Faustus) for unlimited personal power. At this point her lizard, transformed into human form (either Ian Keir Attard or Rhys Rusbatch – the other one is the excellent narrator and I can’t find a programme), returns and offers to grant her wishes in return for her soul.

It’s an interesting premise. Thorpe’s Mephistophiles/Dave figure certainly has an easier job than his original counterpart. After all, as he points out, the concept of “the soul” is a pretty airy-fairy one in the modern, scientific age. Hannah’s misgivings certainly don’t even amount to the informed consent given by Faustus. What’s also interesting, and well-imagined/captured, is the different scope of Hannah’s ambitions for her new-found power. Mephistophidave creates her a friend, but admits that his power cannot run to conjuring a new human from scratch, so this gambit flounders.

Indeed, in common with the original, there’s a certain bagginess to the middle of the piece, which is just to do with the fact that it’s the spectacle of someone who can theoretically chose to do anything being faced with that level of choice an not really having either much of a plan, which in turn leads to not very much dramatic tension. Actually, it’s better here than in the Marlowe, which is just a cavalcade of nonsense and (ironically) quite childish ideas (Helen of Troy, the deadly sins, being invisible and prodding the pope, etc. after silly etc.). Here instead Hannah wants to try to use her powers for good. Mephistophidave inspires her mother with a solution to clean up global pollution. Hannah wants to go further. Having unwisely previously wished for global fame, superstardom and adoration (as someone wise once said, “before you wish to be rich and famous, try just being rich first”), and essentially kicked off a global conflict over her acclaimed beauty (perhaps a not very thinly veiled attack on organised religion), Hannah wishes for the entire conflict to be finally over forever and for there to never be any more fighting. Mephistophidave leaves planet earth a scorched pebble in response.

Simon Evans’s production is a rather beautifully realised multi-media affair. Starting off in a lovely plush bedroom (although gallingly much bigger than any that anyone in the audience is ever likely to have lived in, myself included), which then slides back enabling the whole front apron of the stage to become a large projection floor presenting whizzy zoom-in, zoom-out Google Earth type images, and then, much more impressively a large moving sea replete with moving (and later talking) turtle. (Design: Ben Stones, Lighting: David W Kidd, Projections: Andrzej Goulding.)

So, yes, it’s a gorgeous production of an interestingly knotty bit of writing – Thorpe’s command of poetry here shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s actually quite remarkable how closely he manages to fit his voice to the form or vice versa. Yes, you can still hear the sardonic Manc. accent of There Has Possibly Been an Incident in this play for young people, turned down maybe only a couple of notches, but with much of the same patterning and phrases.

There’s an interesting negotiation at the heart of Hannah, though: how does one re-tell a myth when the foundations on which it rests – a belief in God, Satan and the afterlife – have been all but completely removed from modern society. Granted, there’s the Harry Potter option – that you can just tell people that this is how this fictional world functions and deal with it – but Thorpe opts for the more interesting discovery of contemporary parallels. I mean, sure, there’s still an element of magic about the piece (we no more believe that lizards can shift shape than in heaven and hell, unless we follow the teachings of David Icke), but the “message” of the play, if that’s not too clunking a formulation, is ultimately about the dangers of unfettered individualism. It’s a fascinating thought, and one which I didn’t see coming. Even trying to “be good” on our own is tantamount to secular wickedness, is Thorpe’s basic assertion. “We either try together, or everything is ultimately doomed to failure” is the message. It side-steps questions of secularism versus religion altogether and asks a much more fundamental question about our political reality. And hopefully it’ll spawn a bunch of proper hard-thinking in the young (and not so young) minds who get to see the piece.

Monday 3 March 2014

Archive: Does Britain have a problem with foreign theatre?

[written for The Stage 23 May, 2012]

[Re-reading my original Embedded articles last week, I came across a reference to a piece refer to “reviewing different theatrical cultures at The Globe (on which subject I've written a guest column for The Stage)” but no link. And I never posted it. So, here you go...]

In a recent article for the Guardian, Michael Billington proclaimed “We have shed our xenophobia and our theatre is all the richer for it”. However, he then worried that “the pendulum has swung rather far in the opposite direction,” wondering: “Do we now have an uncritical acceptance of anything foreign?”

If the critical reaction to the arrival of the astonishing international collaboration Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith recently is anything to go by, Michael needn’t start losing too much sleep about “uncritical acceptance” just yet.

It would be crass to imagine that it was the simple fact of Three Kingdoms’ “foreignness” that put its detractors off, but Michael’s article does raise the interesting question about how best domestic critics can respond to work from a different theatrical culture.

Looking at comments on reviews and under blogs, there seems to be a certain amount of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” flying around this issue. in both directions. On one hand, praise has been criticised as either “uncritical acceptance” or “patronising yea-saying to exoticism”, while negative reviews are attacked for “insularity” or “xenophobia”.

The issue has been brought into much sharper focus by the sudden influx of theatre from all over the world by the mass of cultural events preceding the Olympic Games. Suddenly, there are 36 foreign-language productions at the Globe, opportunities to see an incredible range of international performances at the Barbican and World Stages shows popping up all over the place. And that's before the biannual LIFT festival even kicks off.

It suddenly seems like a bit of a problem that we've only got the usual critics to report on it all for us – like it might have been useful if, as the theatres started importing productions, our newspapers had maybe started commissioning a few foreign critics to explain them to us.

I exaggerate for rhetorical effect, but isn’t one of the chief assets of a critic their ability to put shows in both a vertical and horizontal context? Put simply: to be able to understand (and explain) how a show exists in relation to both the theatre ecology and to our wider culture.

The interesting problem with a foreign production is that the shows immediately gain an additional cultural context as soon as they are shown here. They now relate not only to their home country's theatre and culture, but to ours.

And it's this dual context that is difficult for our domestic critics. Because, obviously, they can’t be expected to be instant experts on both national and theatrical cultures of dozens of different countries across the world. And at that point, they potentially become no better informed than any other member of the audience. They might even be worse off, since they will still have the baggage of having seen a lot more British theatre than most people in the audience.

But then in Britain expect our critics to try to behave like “ordinary” members of the audience. We want them to be unqualified, except by experience. It's an attitude that stems both from Britain's long-standing love affair with the amateur, a dislike of being talked down to and a mistrust of “expertise”. It's also the facet of our critical culture that most mystifies most other Europeans.

However, thanks to these charming qualities, at the moment we risk failing much of this rich work from other countries with our cultural naivety.

Whilst it can be interesting to read how someone steeped in 40 years of the many and varied ways that we Brits have made theatre responds to work informed by an entirely different tradition, if they then judge it to have failed by that criteria it begs the question: is it really the work that has failed or the critic?