Wednesday 24 September 2014

Teh Internets is a Serious Business – Royal Court

[seen 22/09/14]

Fuck me, the Royal Court is on fire at the moment. Barely has the new season begun, and it’s put out two plays which, if not entirely redefining what plays/theatre can be, both feel effortlessly original, intelligent, are hugely entertaining and very funny to boot.

I went into Teh Internets... knowing little more than the title, the contents of the slightly weird Time Out preview they did, and the smile on Meg Vaughan’s face after she saw it on Monday night. (Vaughan’s review has already won the internet, btw.) As always, I’m going to spoiler the fuck out of it in order to a) discuss the stuff that’s in it, and b) leave posterity a better idea of what it’s like than is possible with a miniscule wordcount. (cont. under photo...)

If you want a vague thumbnail sketch of what Teh Internets... is like, imagine ENRON played as the first half of Anthony Neilson’s Wonderful World of Dissocia. Or, if you have reference points that aren’t solely other plays, imagine any heist movie played out in a borstal ball pool: bright colours, animal heads, written in the most bracingly abrasive language possible.

How one responds to Teh Internets... might rather depend on the amount of time you’ve spent on the internet. I think I did rather better than I deserved thanks to spending a bunch of time with my ex-’s two thirteen-year-olds. Watching the show it finally felt like I was seeing something in the main house of a mainstream theatre that was squarely going to appeal most to under-twenty-fives, and which had *no primary educative or moral function*. And it felt fucking exciting. Indeed, I bounced out of it with my critical faculties melted by what amounts to a hardcore theatrical sugar-rush. a Serious Business, when shorn of all the trimmings – of which there are many, and prey God no one ever shaves them off – is essentially the story of the rise and fall of LulzSec. A collective of six anonymous hackers who met online, never knew each other’s real names, and together hacked the websites and servers of the Tunisian Government, the CIA, the FBI, a bunch of banks, entertainment organisations, Westboro Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology. (I was going to say something about 4Chan, but since they’ve gone to the trouble of denying they’re anything to do with the Emma Watson nude photos threat and even issued a note of support, that bit of topicality is now redundant, or differently purposed...)

Nevertheless, lurking around all this is *The Problem* for lefty, feminist, anti-homophobia “moralfags” like me, which is: along with all the fucking cool and deeply admirable stuff they did (attacking Scientology, Leaving the Westboro’ Baptist Church’s website with a message saying God Hates Bigots, facilitating the Tunisian Revolution... etc. etc.) 4Chan, Anonymous, and LulzSec also had a “nothing’s sacred” attitude toward offence which crossed pretty much every boundary of taste, decency, and often progress. And, being anonymous, leaving others to fill in the gaps, this winds up looking pretty frightening. A group teenage boys egging each other on to be the most out of order, while cloaked in complete anonymity, with the most kudos to the person who goes to the worst place... well, it’s never going to end well, is it? And, in the main, the “play” puts a tiny bit of that side of things out there, and leaves it to the audience to decide what they do with that. On one level, it’s great to have properly morally complicated “heroes” for a left-liberal audience. They’re not flawed in a cosy way that you can easily accept. They often say aggressively misogynist, homophobic, utterly vicious things. They’re frightening like the Sex Pistols were when they wore Swastikas and adopted a total blank-face attitude to accepting any sort of moral responsibility. At the same time (also like the Sex Pistols) LulzSec also seem to display a peerless grasp of civil liberties, anti-censorship, freedom of speech, and even social justice. On the other hand, they’re also (mostly) just (frighteningly clever) kids. I’m not sure I’d stand by much of what I said when I was 16 either (and theoretically I was pretty “right-on”). So, yeah. No easy answers.

What’s bloody wonderful about the play (which I’m using to include what’s said, what you see, *everything in the production*) is that it doesn’t even attempt to lead you by the nose to a moral conclusion. Weirdly, because the play follows the course of real events, the story arc it’s got is basically the same trajectory as Macbeth, or Julius Caesar, or The Italian Job: some very clever mates (who also say some problematic things) plan to do a thing, get well hubristic, ultimately overstep the mark and are undone. One hopes the script of this version is eventually printed (props to any rehearsal process which so thoroughly does a number on what the “director” was handed by the “writer” to the extent that a script can’t be printed by press night), A-Level students in years to come will study “LulzSec’s tragic flaw”.

But I’m talking about generalities here. And there’s so much detail to adore too. Christ. The “script” (or at least what the actors say), is really admirably un-literary (no “fine writing” here), but rammed with great jokes, and some genius set-pieces of smart-assery – the bit where one of the hackers, a South London schoolboy – demonstrates to his maths teacher why he shouldn’t do his homework using statistics is especially memorable. Chloe Lamford’s design (and esp. costume design) offers a Three Kingsdoms-like grey-walled room of the utmost simplicity, full of doors, windows and trapdoors through which characters and other performers DRESSED AS MEMES appear. Oh, and there’s a massive ball-pool at the front. Which is frankly genius.

Hamish Pirie’s staging has the sort of lightness of touch that must have nearly killed the cast to achieve. It feels casual and random in exactly the way the piece, and subject demand. The (shorter) first half feels more like a party than *theatre* (what a heavy, leaden word that sometimes seems). If it wasn’t for the way in which The Plot (plot!) keeps nudging its way through, we could be happily putting this in the same bracket (or *unhelpful pigeonhole*) as Forced Entertainment or GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN. Emma Martin’s choreography is interesting. It’s primary impulse seems to come from an attempt to dance bits of computer coding. Which, at a purely conceptual level, is a great idea. Because choreography is even more subjective than music, I’m going to admit I’ve have imagined it a bit more angular and jagged – more Gisele Vienne and less Frantic Assembly, pls. The music (James Fortune), on the other hand, is objectively perfect. :-)

This has turned into the weirdest shaped “review” I’ve written in an age. The analysis is at the top and the explanation later, and then the credit-y bit after that. Which is pretty much upside-down to how it’s usually done. But that feels like how you experience the play on one level. Like – even despite the vivid visual presentation – it’s the ideas fighting each other that happens first, then realising what it looks like, then realising belatedly that people must have made it. I love the attempt to present the internet on-stage. Next week, this article I wrote for the Guardian Theatre Blog about putting online on stage is seven years old. Now, finally, it feels like we’re starting to explore these potentials, and it’s beyond heartening that the Royal Court is in the vanguard of this progressive experiement with work that’s also intellectually and morally challenging. And compellingly watchable to boot.

[and, pace Dan Rebellato’s brilliant piece responding to Bryony Kimming’s provocation about the state of UK criticism, I think it’s clear this “review” is just an initial bundle of thoughts and reactions. I think there’s a tonne more to say about Teh Internets... and I’m looking forward to reading more in this conversation. What I will hazard as a “definitive judgment” is that the direction that the Royal Court is heading in is properly exciting. The last two nights I’ve spent there have been incredibly rewarding, and have totally rebooted my optimism for “mainstream” British theatre post-Edinburgh, where you get a bit used to all the best stuff being “marginal”. At last it feels like an audience is once more being sought *and found* for properly progressive work, and theatre that opposes the direction in which Britain seems to be heading (Tories, UKIP, privatisation, an almost entirely right-wing press). If it’s a curse to “live in exciting times”, it feels like a good time to be cursed.]

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The Wolf From the Door – Royal Court

[seen 23/09/14]

[picture when Google Image Search stops fucking about]

Rory Mullarky’s new play is undoubtedly the most original thing in the Theatre Upstairs for quite some time. Indeed, it’s pretty radically unlike most plays. It’s possible to plot an impressionistic route through it saying, well, this bit is a bit like this, and that bit is a bit like that (try: Mr Sloane meets P.G. Wodehouse at a train station, made up by N.F. Simpson. They then embark on a Godard road movie with additional scenes and dramaturgy by Caryl Churchill. One is reminded of the freewheeling dramaturgical freedom in the plays of Ali McDowell). But that’s a stupid thing to do.

Perhaps a better route in is attempting to describe the sense of delight. Wolf From the Door is a pretty delightful play. Calvin Demba and Anna Chancellor are both completely charming. Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley in particular border on genius as All The Other Characters. The dialogue is spare, crisp, and frequently very funny. But it’s not delightful in a relaxing way: it’s quite a frowny play. Frown-causing. Perhaps this is more A Thing for the critic, but I suspect not. Frowny, because you spend quite a bit of energy wondering what sort of a play it is. And you wonder what it’s driving at. And you wonder how much the larkiness adds to or detracts from The Seriousness. For, yes, there is also The Seriousness.

The plot (a plot! Imagine!) is a kind of English revolutionary romp set in the very near future. Lady Catherine Dean (Chancellor) is a leading light in an impossibly vast network of revolutionary cells. When she meets Leo (Demba) they set in train the series of events necessary for the complete overthrow of The British Establishment and capitalism in Britain. Which, I have to say, if nothing else, is bloody satisfying to watch.

James Macdonald’s production is interesting. It’s played on a simple, square, end-on platform, with four green plastic chairs and two plasticky trestle tables. This is bordered on each side by miniature, sarcastic versions of village fête marquees in which the actors get changed. There’s a slightly unnerving deadpan wit to both the staging and the delivery. This is Macdonald in the same playful mode as his production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, things happen in the stage directions and – when unstageable – they are represented by a quick lighting change, a projected still photograph, and a noise: for instance, the decapitation of Tesco assistant manager, Derek. Unlike Cock, though, we do get props, actual eating (Demba’s Leo *says* he never eats/doesn’t need to eat. Demba is forced to wolf down a mackerel, an Eccles cake, several scampi, a Little Chef haddock portion, and suck on a peppermint teabag), and real nudity (just Demba again. Fans of the unclad male form should probably note that he has a particularly buoyant bottom).

There’s also the constant moving of the six pieces of stage furniture into new configurations between scenes to represent the seats on a railway station, train, bus, village hall, Tesco check-out and so on. So the thing that’s most noticeably, viscerally missing from the staging is any blood. Or even attempt at blood. Perhaps this is written in, I haven’t checked the script-programme. But whether the impulse comes from writer or director, it has an enormous effect. And that effect is to retain the effect that this is all jolly and fun. It’s very interesting, given that a photo-realist version of the story would be sickening to watch, whereas this production is about as hard to watch as Tom and Jerry. It’s an interesting tension, because it does make us think about the violence – at one point Lady Catherine stabs a wet blanket revolutionary colleague with a pair of scissors through the cheek. What would we make of that if we had to watch it? Chancellor’s character would suddenly look frighteningly unbalanced. Instead, thanks to the lack of gore, she manages to pull off this mutilation as a charming eccentricity. But we still think about it.

This seems to be the way that a lot of the script (or/and production) intends to operate. All the way through, with snowballing insistence, we think about revolution. A vast majority of the things that anyone says about revolution are to some extent true. The necessity, the urgency, the near-inevitability... And yet, up against that there’s always the fact, or the concern, about what revolutionary violence tends to lead to. (Hint: post-revolutionary violence, instability, not the result the revolutionaries are after.) It’s perhaps no coincidence that Mullarky is hitherto best known at the Royal Court as a translator of plays from Russian and closely related Slavic languages. Spending time in the language and with the culture that birthed perhaps the world’s most catastrophic revolution (irrespective what you think of the west, you’d have to have a soul made of nothing but dogmatic ideology to deny that the sheer numbers and cruelty of the gulags are a catastrophe). And even in this Very English revolution we can also hear the echoes of the fall-out from Tahrir Square and the maniacal ultraviolence of ISIL.

Nonetheless, even the violence is an interesting, seductive question. I’ll probably write this up as a separate feature sooner or later, but it’s fascinating to watch Wolf... in the light of Men in the Cities and other pro-revolution plays in Edinburgh this year. Sat in the Theatre Upstairs last night, it did briefly feel as if the question was fast becoming “when?” not “if...?”.

Diffused violence aside, other formal considerations of Mullarky’s play should be observed. In my “things it reminded me of a bit” round-up, I mentioned Caryl Churchill, and the events of the “Revolution” itself felt like they owed a great debt to the surreal last part of her Far Away the bit where increasingly odd groups of things fell to warring with other unlikely things (“QUOTE” [need to go find script]). It’s almost Goon Show-ish, in places. And obviously those bits do make a person feel a bit sheepish for having just written such an earnest examination of how serious the thing might be about the possibility of revolution.

Inside the piece somewhere there also seems to be a structure that questions exactly how the class system in Britain works. It’s no coincidence that Leo is hand-picked and mentored by a hot, posh, older woman, right? Or that his back-up read on their relationship is that of son surrogate. Lord knows if we’re even meant to be paying attention to things like that, but you’d imagine so, and one does. Even with the joking, the things said pile up into all the stuff you take out of the play to think about. And somewhere in there seems to be the implication – which is being trotted out all over again (at the rate of at least one article per day by The Guardian at the moment) thanks to the release of the idiotic-looking film version of Royal Court sell-out Posh – that we, the English, have a bit of a love affair with our upper classes, and we actually need them about to mother us a bit. Hope that’s not intended, or if it is, then that it’s at least tempered with an idea that that mentality is itself a product of ruling class propagandising.

Is there an ultimate thing we’re meant to do with this play? It feels pretty open-ended to me. Maybe I’m missing some really big, obvious, signposted *meaning*, but I don’t think so. And that inself feels pretty radical. Especially for the Royal Court where we used to be used to being bashed over the head with foregone conclusions. Instead, now, we’re given open-endedness and having to think for ourselves, having been generously gifted with 1hr25 of entertaining, oblique cues for imaginative engagement with ideas. That seems a pretty good state of affairs to me. And the jokes really are charmingly droll. Yes. Good.


Monday 22 September 2014

Little Revolution – Almeida, London

[seen 09/09/14]

Alecky Blythe’s new verbatim piece is perhaps best seen after reading some reviews. I read Megan Vaughan and Stewart Pringle before I went. These happened to be the only two pieces (because who cares what the MSM thinks? It says nothing to me about my life, etc.), and I read them because I thought I probably wasn’t going to get round to going.

They’re both excellent pieces. Both prosecute their cases with real wit and flair. And neither of them went for Little Revolution one bit. Or rather, they went right for it. Right for the jugular, and there’s blood everywhere. The crux of both their points is “If this is a play about the riots of August 2011, then fuck off, basically.”

Which turned out to be an excellent way into watching the piece. Because you go in knowing exactly what the play isn’t going to give you, so instead you watch what it does give you much more carefully. My subsequent first thoughts have already been pretty much perfectly expressed by co-“second-wave”-viewers Matt Trueman (who saw it the day before me), and Dan Rebellato (who I sat next to while watching it and chatted to about it afterwards), both of whose pieces also conduct an extensive survey of earlier reviews, both settling on the fact that those who didn’t much like the piece had misdiagnosed what the piece was doing. In short: “It’s not meant to be a play “about the 2011 Riots”; you fuck off, Aleks Sierz.” Which in turn links up to the last thing I wrote before I saw it about whether we approach a piece on its own terms, or whether we as audience members are allowed to dictate our own terms too.

There’s a bit of both going on here. Blythe’s play isn’t really about the riots, per se, although several scenes from Little Revolution take place within one of them. And it’s not really about the rioters, although a couple of them are recorded, sensibly telling Blythe to delete their photographs from her phone (an interesting moment where a) she’s working in a visual medium as well as sonic, and b) where she apparently totally forgets that the bodies which form the shapes of a riot are also people, and people who (obviously) won’t want to be easily identified). But Little Revolution doesn’t really claim to be – brilliant (if perhaps misleading) poster image aside. And, I guess it is fair enough to voice the opinion that it should have been. However, for my money, what it actually is, is also something valuable.

What it is, is a play about class privilege, the aftermath of the riots, perhaps about the limitations of verbatim theatre, and, in common with Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, and, now, topically, the No victory, Britain’s apparent lack of capacity or appetite for change. Or maybe, the way that any desire for change is whitewashed, glossed over, shamed, ridiculed, criminalised, ignored or rewritten. And on this score it is a subtle, successful, uncomfortable piece of theatre.

It is also the best bit of Joe Hill-Gibbins direction I’ve seen. Where I thought his Edward II suffered from a surfeit of untethered, unearned “German” borrowings (and was also a bit luke-warm about his main-space-transferred Changeling), here direction, concept, and Ian McNeil’s deceptively simple no-design design, combine to create a piece of art that is sculptural and central to the overall meaning of what we see, hear, and “read”. (It’s also far and away the best staging of any verbatim play I’ve ever seen. Yes, of course including Rufus Norris’s concert-with-flower-baskets production of London Road. Makes me wish Joe H-G had directed that too.)

The Almeida’s auditorium has been transformed from the familiar deep, low-slung end-on thrust/proscenium into what feels like a small, makeshift, intimate, high-vaulted, in-the-round space. The back of the stalls have been cut off so there’s no comfy hiding out in the darkness under the balcony. There’s often a lot of full light on the audience, and we can all see each other, and the numerous players – the cast of Little Revolution is swelled by a “community chorus” (who may or may not be being paid, which may or may not be an issue). The audience itself is the most mixed I’ve ever seen at the Almeida. Much more like the street outside than the sea of white-haired white folks that Michael Attenborough’s programming used to attract.

What’s most striking of all, is that, in the centre, there is a small “stage” area, but this is frequently not used, in favour of people stood haphazardly (obvs. not really haphazard) around elsewhere talking over it, round it, ignoring it altogether. The stage almost becomes a void at the very centre of the thing, while the audience is almost implicated by the action going on right next to us. Which physicalises an crucial point. I was strongly reminded of that other masterpiece of arthouse audience-complicity fingering, The Author, more than once. And that line in Gogol’s Government Inspector “You’re laughing at yourselves”. Except no one has to point it out. We’ve sat opposite ourselves. And others of us have been taped and are having their exact words spoken by actors.

Something else, that I think only Rebellato has really gone into, is that the piece very specifically charts two different post-riot campaigns. One is to replenish the stock of a local small businessman whose shop was looted and whose insurance wasn’t up to date. The other is a much wider campaign attacking the treatment of Hackney Youths by the police and subsequently their vilification by the media. One is briefly put in mind of Brecht’s famous question: who is the bigger criminal, the bank robber or the man who owns the bank? And we see how media attention focuses on the “feelgood, community coming together” narrative of everyone chipping in to help the small business owner, whose shop they all use, who simply didn’t fill out an insurance form, eventually leading to a Marks & Spencer-sponsored street party. While the two women trying to actually highlight the need for social change are roundly ignored. Even in the play itself they get less stage time, and there’s only two of them.

What they’re doing is “boring”. It’s not really funny or fun, just two women (plus Blythe) plodding round housing estates knocking on doors and putting leaflets through letter boxes. Against this there’s a massive machinery around the “community pulls together to save local businessman” story, which is picked up by the telly, even unto encouraging corporate sponsorship. And if this isn’t a perfect picture of how British politics has failed, I don’t know what is. Rather than the media actually talking about the issues, it prefers a nice story which at once vilifies the “rioters”, lionises entrepreneurial, turns communities into individuals and their familes (thereby rubbishing the idea of systematic discrimination because “we’re all individuals”), and most importantly papers right over any actual cracks that need serious attention by pretending that they had nothing to do with why the riots started.

In this, the play is pretty merciless. Granted, being verbatim, it “says” these things through editing and focus, rather than putting this entire argument into someone’s mouth as, say, David Hare could. But nonetheless, the argument is there, embedded in the very structure of the piece itself. In fact, if anything, it feels like a strategy that underlines too little for a theatre culture too used to be being spoonfed its take-home moral message (hello, Sierz). Little Revolution makes its audience work for its meaning, which is a risky strategy, as they could end up digging out completely the wrong message or no message at all (or indeed, there’s no “message” per se, and this version I’m seeing within it is a product of my own politics plus a confirmation bias-style desire to see those politics adequetely, respectfully and intelligently portrayed on stage).

The fact that Little Revolution has generated such a wide variety of responses, but more than this, has felt like an itch that so many writers-about-theatre *needed* to scratch – that feels like just about the best result possible for something which could easily be seen as “not actually Art, of course” or “not even theatre, really”. In this especially, it strikes me as yet another perfect bit of programming from the new regime at the Almeida, absolutely on a continuum with American Psycho, King Charles III and Mr Burns (1984 doesn’t count because it totally pre-dates the Almeida and I didn’t see it there, so it doesn’t quite feel part of the same story, although it also fits...).

Oh, and two new pieces on Little Revolution just came out...

on Dave Hill’s London Blog for The Guardian

and Jessie Thompson.

(from this interesting piece on the blog of the graphic design company who made the Little Revolution poster (scroll down, until someone tells me how the fuck you link to a specific piece on Tumblr. Stupid thing.)

Sunday 21 September 2014

Romeo and Juliet – HOME at Victoria Baths, Manchester

[seen 20/09/14]

Manchester again. Shakespeare again.

Do you know about HOME yet? It’s basically a new theatre building currently under construction in Manchester. Apparently it’s the replacement for the Library Theatre, but with a new building, a new name, and a new artistic director. People who know stuff about it are dead excited about HOME. I don’t think their planned opening season has been announced yet, but the open secrets are definitely cause for cautious, putative celebration. Think: a northern equivalent of the Young Vic (at last). *And* the artistic director is German/Dutch Walter Meierjohann. Exactly! “German” (like Sebastian Nübling!) and “Dutch” (Like Toneelgroep Amsterdam!). So, y’know, no pressure.

I should start by being scrupulously honest and say that I saw the Saturday matinee of R&J (because travel). Playing at the Victoria Baths, which have large vaulted frosted glass ceilings (think a smaller scale King’s Cross), matinees take place under the full glare of whatever little daylight Manchester deigns to offer. But even yesterday’s thunderous cloud cover is nothing like night. As a result, I think I probably saw the “production without atmosphere” version. I bet it looks smashing in the dark with its purpose-designed lighting. When I’ve finished writing, I’ll have a look at the production photos, just to torture myself. Still, we’re all pretty used to Shakespeare in daylight, right? The Globe, Regent’s Park, all that outdoor touring stuff. So... I guess what we might be less used to is seeing arthouse/”German” productions in those sorts of conditions. But then, I’m not entirely convinced this was one of those.

Those hoping for a bracing, hardcore dose of Deutsch regietheater will be disappointed. Meierjohann’s R&J doesn’t explore ideas or concepts any more than Sarah Frankcom’s Hamlet did on Wednesday. In fairness, neither are trying to (although it’s interesting to note that R&J does have a production dramaturg). It’s sad to report that this feels as much like a trot-through-the-story as the broadest production at the Glob. Ok, yes, it has enough deviations-from-text, irreverent cuts, and added swears and sings to probably piss off a real purist, but it’s neither revolution nor revelation. For an unadorned “story first” production to work, the acting has to be first rate and you have to really care about the characters.

Instead, here the Star of the Show is its idiosyncratic venue. The Victoria Baths are some amusingly of-their-time public swimming pools (three entrances: Males – First Class; Males – Second Class; Females) which are currently being refurbished by a local charity. As a result, the production is necessarily site-responsive. Or rather: I refuse to believe that Meierjohann sat down at the first R&J planning meeting and said: “Right, I’ve got this great plan for Romeo and Juliet, but we need to find a building with a big room that contains an empty swimming pool that we Ti Green can build an interesting mirrored drawbridge in the middle of. We’ll do nearly the whole of the production in there, but the building also needs to have a huge empty room which we will use for one minor scene before the end. This is crucial. The venue also has to have a functioning swimming pool which we can bridge with a massive Orthodox cross, because wherever we find will have to vaguely remind me of *all of Eastern Europe*. We’ll do the last scene in there: it’ll have nice echoes for all the screaming and crying that goes on, and then some singing after. And we can have floating candles in the water. These things are crucial to my intellectual conception of this play. I am absolutely not an opportunist.”

As it is, play, production, and location all seem to sit awkward, uptight, inert alongside each other, like three cold English people who don’t know each other on a railway bench.

There are several other problems added to this. Problem one is radio mics. I’m sure I’ve had this gripe before recently, but something they really ought to teach on the first day of drama school (and directing courses) is what a microphone does. This production has a voice coach credited. Fine. Shakespeare needs some breathing, I imagine. But it might have been worth mentioning to the voice coach that there’d be mics. Because the cast sound like they’re trying to fill the Albert Hall with their naked voices. Which doesn’t work for the mics and speakers (millions dotted round the room), and consequently for the acoustics of *a swimming pool*. (Interestingly, in the final scene, thanks to all the water, the radio mics had all come off, and suddenly all the acting made sense. A pity that this accounts for only the last ten minutes of 165 plus 20mins interval.) So, yes, point one: don’t shout into a radio mic. And, probably don’t RSC-act into one either. Oh, and, if you’re in a *really echoey room* the louder the noise you make, the more it bounces off the tiles and makes itself incomprehensible. Just saying.

Then there’s the casting. If there was one thing that was great about the Royal Exchange Hamlet (and, there definitely weren’t two) it was the casting. Women as men, women playing fresh-minted female characters, a man as a woman, kids. etc. (indeed, the only place it fell down was how white most of the cast remained). Here the casting is about as clichéd as [insert familiar similie here]. R&J look (and sound) like hipster knock-offs of Wills and Kate. The nurse is doing a hispanic accent (made-up, I assume, since she’s also in The Archers). Montagues and Capulet Pères are played as rival cockney gangsters. And Mercutio reprises Baz Luhrman’s insistence that he be a ludicrously attractive black man given to flamboyance and occasional cross-dressing. Although here he also has a hot Scottish accent, which is new. And hot. The one original idea is making Paris an ineffectual Indian, replete with heavy accent.

Within the logic (or otherwise) of this world, individual performances vary wildly. Ruth Everett as the leopardskin-print-clad Lady Capulet does the best job of bending her lines to the situation and Sara Vickers at least invests considerable effort and sincerity in her Juliet. Meanwhile, much too much emoting aside (which is just a taste-in-acting thing), the main problem with Alex Felton’s Romeo is that he is all too convincing as the most annoying, self-absorbed gap-yah-in-love you’ve ever met. I mean, it’s stow-stoppingly convincing. But the reason you’d stop the show would be to throttle him. And they have Romeo keep bursting into song, or singing his lines. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve met people like this, and this is a painfully accurate depiction. But, Christ, it’s hard to spend three hours in their company, let alone trying to give a fuck about how they feel. I wanted Romeo dead by halfway through his first scene. None of this, I hasten to add, is against the actors. We’re talking about the fingernails-down-blackboard characters here. But what are we meant to do with these broad, stock characterisations, echoing about in their empty swimming pool?

I do worry that a lot of the problems described above might well be mine rather than the production’s. Like a “German”-addicted version of going all Michael Billington when he hasn’t been given enough “social criticism”. But I honestly don’t think it’s that. This is more the flip-side of Anglo-Euro collaboration. That, for every View From the Bridge (an incredible synthesis), there are going to be productions which try a similar thing and wind up as soup. I daresay, as well, that without the darkness and lighting effects (I’ve just looked at the photos), I missed a vital element of the seductions this production offers. But here it feels like a stark warning to a production – that if it can’t sustain interest in its performances and ideas without the bells and whistles, then it should take a deep breath and think harder about what it’s really doing.

But, y’know; pretty.

Friday 19 September 2014

Hamlet – Royal Exchange, Manchester

52 Conversations: #10

[from 10/09/14]

Having written about Alex Swift’s 52 Conversations project back in February, he and I finally got around to having one ourselves last week. I am Conversation #10 (I should be #37, this is how organised we both are).

In the spirit of the thing
I say a load of personal stuff that I’d never dream of writing down here. So, there you go. Do have a listen if you like.

  Conversation here.

Monday 8 September 2014

On criticism – killing cattle


I’ve been reading Catherine Love’s M.A. Thesis. It is about the theatre criticism and Royal Court, and, frankly, it’s such a clear-sighted, well-argued piece of work that I think it should be published by the Court immediately as an ongoing challenge to itself. I certainly think copies should be widely distributed to both everyone in the Court and everybody practising as a critic.

I won’t spoiler the work here, but it has raised a couple of questions for me relating to my own practice. One question had already been articulated somewhere else – perhaps in Alex Swift and Chris Goode’s recent must-listen conversation, and it’s the sacred cow that criticism should: “approach work on its own terms”.

The second point is where Love describes the endgame of Michael Billington’s critical practice in which he looks for a play’s “thesis” solely in the script of the play. This relates to the above point about “own-terms-only approaches”.

There is also the Tynan quote: “a good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.” Which sets up an incompatibility between “greatness” and “approaching work on its own terms”.

I’m interested in reminding myself, at the start of the new term, not to fall into the trap of accepting work on its own terms, but investigating what those terms are. It’s silly to go to the end – as Žižek puts it – and use an extreme example, but if a play really wanted to be a recruiting tool for Britain First or the EDL, then the more it succeeded on its own terms the more I would despise it. So, yes, criticism can and should be partisan about terms, be they political or aesthetic. Which might well turn out to amount to the same thing.

This leads on neatly to the second point about looking for a thesis only in the script of a play. Love’s essay articulates this much better than I could, but she also quotes Chris Goode’s excellent essay on the question from late 2007, All you get is sensory titillation, which still serves as a useful marker of the problems with approaching *any* piece of theatre while thinking of it as a single-authored piece (or if it’s explicitly something that’s not that, then approaching it as something already-problematic).

I think I’ve got much better at talking about productions in terms of their myriad parts (direction, design, other designs, text, performances ), and at acknowledging how and where these various parts meet, or how they can be attributed, is slippery beyond usefulness. But I do still often slip into shorthands of discussing “script” (as in, the typed thing) at a slight remove from “text” (which might more rightly be seen as *everything* that’s shown on the stage – i.e. if I were doing my job properly, I’d *read* the production, not “the production *and* the script”).

Then there’s the question of context, about which I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations in the last few days. This also sort of relates back (again) to the question of judging work on its own terms. Except in this case, it’s a matter of when – or to what extent – one can even know what those terms are.

As I wrote in my piece about The Vile Blog, there’s often a general feeling that “critics should get out of London more”. (I don’t think I could get out of London any more than I have this year: I haven’t lived there since January. Nonetheless, I still visit it to see theatre with some regularity. More regularity than, say: Bristol (0), Birmingham (2?), Manchester (1), Leeds (0), Newcastle (0) and so on. (Possibly less regularity than Germany, though; almost certainly less regularity than “Europe”)). But I still understand the point – that London, as well as having a disproportionate amount of population and theatres, has an even greater disproportion of critics and reviews-of-shows.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if more London-based critics paying flying visits to other towns and cities is really the best approach. And that’s to do with context.

A German friend sent me an excellent email last night replying to my “what did you think of this review, btw?” enquiry with the sort of frankness that I really miss when I'm in the UK. Of my review of Minetti, they suggested: “I read Minetti as a play about an old actor, not about the specific person Minetti. One of Bernhard's main topics is the contradiction between ambitions and the banality of life. Most of his novels are about megalomaniac artists who fail at their masterpieces. These characters always want to succeed at some impossible task: build a space with perfect acoustics for instance, or create a perfect geometrical form out of wood... The actor in Minetti is such a protagonist: he never got to play big roles because his expectations towards the classics and how they should be staged were too strict for that, now he is spending New Year’s Eve nervously waiting for the artistic director of the Flensburg theatre (Flensburg is a tiny provincial town in the north of Germany only famous for its brewery). This actor is a complete failure and the fact, that the play was named after superstar actor Minetti and dedicated to him is a bitter joke. That sentence about the classics is, in my opinion, not related to the Third Reich and the real Minetti’s career: the Nazis were keen on staging Goethe, Schiller, even Shakespeare and Minetti played many classical roles between 1933-45 – it describes an actor, whose own expectations towards theatre and acting were so high, that he refused to play Shakespeare. For me, your interpretation of that sentence, was not an understanding of the 'German context', but in fact the most English thing about the whole review: taking something as abstract as the topic of the failed artist and linking it to a specific biography.”

I offer this largely in the spirit of: a) a correction to the review, and, b) not being ashamed of my mistakes. It is also c) a really brilliant example about how even seeking to contextualise something can lead to really spectacular “misreadings” (although, “misreading” in itself is interesting, perhaps another act of flawed translation or even simple appropriation).

Obviously, on one hand, it makes me worry a bit, and feel the urgent need to do a whole lot more reading of German literature (learning German better), but at the same time, it makes me wonder about the extent (cf. Confirmation bias) that we can ever really out-think our cultural upbringings. Like, even if I like German (or Croatian, or Polish, or wherever’s) theatre the most an Englishman ever has, will I not always basically like it, and read it, in a way that is somehow uniquely English?

Which is a roundabout way of getting to the question of more local theatre ecologies in the UK. That is to say, if we send someone from London/now based in London to see a production born of a different city’s theatre ecology, are they going to be best placed to understand it in context? Even reviewing a touring production in a specific place that isn’t your locality, well, aren’t you going to appreciate the show in a totally different way?

On this level, it makes me wish that there were *a lot* more theatre bloggers in English cities outside London. And part of me wonders why there aren’t. Yes, Dan Hutton’s blog was based in Warwick, and so he caught an enviable amount of RSC stuff, and also reviewed things going into the Warwick Arts Centre with an understanding of how they were impacting on his local (primarily university) theatre ecology. And I’m gradually becoming dimly aware of some other bloggers operating outside London in England, but in the main, it seems a desolate landscape. And I wonder what can be done about that. I wonder, for example, if Exeunt, and maybe the NSDF, in concert with local theatres, offering workshops on theatre blogging could effect any sort of change.

 Surely other cities in England outside London could sustain a theatre blogging culture. At the moment, I think I read more about theatre in English performed in Melbourne and Sydney than I do about theatre performed in Leeds, Manchester, or Newcastle. And that’s surely silly. Sure, I could (and occasionally do) go to those places, but, as with Minetti, I’m not local to the production (although I’d argue that *no-one* was really local to the Cairns/Eyre production, which was half the problem), and so I’d only be able to bring my increasingly stateless, but apparently enduringly “English”, and definitely too-London perspective to bear on the things. Perhaps this isn’t all bad. After all, a lot of actors and directors move around, and many base themselves in London, even if regularly working in theatres outside London. But then, that also feels like an issue.

It feels like I could go on arguing the toss with myself here more or less indefinitely, and I have to get a train, so I’m going to stop this post here. But I think we’re a long way from this question having any sort of satisfactory conclusion (I’m not even sure there is a “right answer”). Instead, it feels more like just a useful open-ended question to leave out there.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Bwyta Eliffant, Sut Mae Gwneud Hynny Dwedwch / How Do You Eat an Elephant – Aberystwyth Arts Centre

[seen as dress rehearsal 03/09/14 – short “review”]

Disclaimers first: I saw this as a dress rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon (so I could get there and back on the same day), with maybe only a quarter-full house. All the actual performances have apparently sold out to warm, heartily laughing crowds, which is probably the best way to see this piece. Also, Jude’s a mate, but all that means is, if I hadn’t liked it, I’d probably just not have written anything.

Put together in apparently just ten days, How Do You Eat an Elephant is a new devised piece made in collaboration with the cast from the National Youth Theatre of Wales. It’s essentially an episodic verbatim piece, with added gameshow sections, the odd bit of (entirely painless) audience participation, and a lot of songs. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts/Show Five, although where that was kind of emotionally and physically gruelling for the performers, this is necessarily much lighter, trading emotional nakedness for a lot of filthy puns (The Great British Master Bake, anyone?) and youthful enthusiasm. Which is as it should be.

Nonetheless, director Jude Christian has managed to shape the material (much of which I’m assuming came straight from the youth, in terms of what questions got asked, and which answers from the public got “played”) into something which very gently prods away at some of the same questions that we saw so much of in Edinburgh this year. Without ever really appearing to be relentlessly pessimistic, or even downbeat, even the title of the show How Do You Eat an Elephant could be read as a study of an overwhelming sense of futility. It might equally have been called How Do You Change An Entire Culture Which is Destroying Us? There’s the same sense of being dwarfed by a task.

__ __’s brilliant-looking neatly underlines the generational thing, although I’m guessing all the performers were probably born well after that ultimate eighties icon the Rubik’s Cube was invented, while the Gerhard Richter-like walls, equally recall Elmer the Elephant. The performers themselves are – as is often the case with youth theatre shows – ludicrously charming. And, yes, they’re obscenely good at being on stage too. The singing, especially, is first-rate. And there’s lots of it; from (original?) compositions [will fill in the blanks when someone whizzes me a programme] to covers of some well-known standard with altered words, the musical elements propel the whole with an enjoyable force. There’s also neat video work by __ __ (also of Foxy and Husk fame), and at one point, a mass dance sequence where each performer comes on and dances with their videoed self.

For something apparently made in only ten days, it’s bloody impressive, really. With another week or two of devising time, I imagine it could really hit some profound highs and lows, but even as it stands, with charm as its main weapon, backed up with some impressive technology and a bunch of talent, it’s a hugely likeable bit of work that makes me want to see more NYTW stuff, and more devised pieces from Jude Christian.

The other nice thing about Aberystwyth is that it’s got sea and sunsets...

Friday 5 September 2014

Shorts: in praise of... The Vile Blog

[Scottish independents]

This week, I’ve finally got down to writing my chapter for Duška Radosavljević’s book about theatre criticism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my chapter is about online criticism and “the blogosphere”. Predominantly in the UK, which mostly means England, which in turn, seems to have mostly meant London. I’m constantly aware of that thing where someone says “the UK” and fails to have quite the epic sweep of knowledge that such a generalisation would ideally entail, and how much it winds up theatremakers. Hell, even saying “British theatre is/isn’t such-and-such” usually alienates some bunch of even London-based makers.

One argument I/we often hear is: “you should travel more”. And I agree, we could and should (although travel and accommodation expenses are still a thing that needs to be thrashed out). However, much more useful would be *more people writing about their home towns and cities*. Yes, a lot of critics seem to move to London as part of that apparently inexorable, unstoppable vicious circle of “that’s where all the work is, so that’s why we have to move there to make our work” which is slowly but surely making London unaffordable and uninhabitable. Part of me thinks we should have an enforced dispersal around the country of artists and critics (not to mention affordable, efficient railways). However, in the absence of this, I think local criticism is vital. It would be vital even if some critics based elsewhere came up/down/over to see the work from time to time. Because I don’t think there’s a substitute for being local to a place.

Which is where The Vile Blog comes in. Written by Gareth K. Vile (he promises it’s his real name; the pun is just the sort of happy coincidence one would kill for), who’s the Theatre Editor for Scotland’s The List magazine. At the moment, Vile is doing a long survey of Glasgow’s performing arts scene. Shamefully, this blog is relatively new to me (I think we friended on Facebook earlier this summer and I’ve been reading since then, albeit intermittently, because of work and Edinburgh and me trying not to read FB the whole day through), but it’s been running since 2011, so there’s also a massive archive which I’m looking forward to checking out.

But the stuff at the moment feels like the best possible use of a blog. Reading back through recent posts, there’s a real clarity of purpose and an evocative sense of place that I find really exciting. Like the sort of thing I was talking about in that piece about Melody Maker and reviewing European theatre I wrote in Portugal. Over the course of a sustained series of posts (post-Edinburgh Fringe, pre-new season), Vile is quite methodically going through a bunch of questions he’s got about what (if anything) makes the work being made in Glasgow Glaswegian. There are also brilliant little sketches of the theatre ecology, with posts about the venues centrally, in the West End and on the city’s Southside. And, most recently, some really pertinent questions about how we do criticism at all.

It’s really exciting to discover a new(-ish) blog that both speaks to some stuff that you’re always thinking about anyway (criticism, how to) with some original insights, refreshing the dialogues you’re already involved in; at the same time introducing you to an almost entirely unfamiliar geography and ecology. (I mean, I’ve been to Glasgow twice, and I’ve seen the work of a fair few Glasgow-based artists in both Edinburgh and London, so it’s basically all new/s to me.) It’s also really reassuring that two of Vile’s biggest touchstones – which he talks about in a Scottish response to Lyn Gardner’s “Why UK theatre should look beyond its borders” piece (making the central point: “what’s with this ‘UK’ thing? Scotland already does...”) – are Les Ballets C de la B and Forced Entertainment. That these two groups are his go-to references contextualises his tastes perfectly and establishes the fact that I now totally trust his judgement. (This in itself also possibly underlines something else about the importance of international touring.)

So, yes, a rich, vital portrait of a theatre scene, namechecks of a whole host of books I’ve not read which sound really interesing, and fine, lucid prose; not to mention a load of older reviews that he’s currently uploading in the present, giving an interesting sense of pinging back and forth across Glasgow’s recent performance history, and the growth of the scene that Vile is considering. Exactly what you want from a theatre blog, in short. Great.

Thursday 4 September 2014

Shorts: Goodbye, Mr Spencer

[lest we forget]

On Monday it was announced that Charles Spencer would be standing down after 25 years as the chief theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s most right-wing broadsheet. Tributes seemed to immediately flood commending his “honesty” and etc. Michael Billington wrote:
“I think the theatre industry and Telegraph readers will sorely miss a critic who was fearless, forthright and breathtakingly honest in expressing his opinions.”
 So, just for a bit of balance, let’s remember what “breathtaking honesty” actually looks like:

“Reviewers should be honest about their prejudices and one of mine is a great dislike for the Arcola Theatre in darkest Dalston. It’s a nightmare to get to, and when you finally arrive in the neighbourhood you find yourself on a menacing main street, often patrolled by terrifying hooded youths, and with shops that seem to consist entirely of cut-price supermarkets, kebab establishments and, rather bizarrely, gentlemen’s hairdressers.”

“While the blindness of Maria is an integral part of the plot, no one actually mentions the fact that the portrait painter is played by a Thalidomide victim with truncated arms. This seems odd, considering his occupation. And are we even meant to know that the actor playing Maria's neighbour, who regularly drops round to masturbate while she is talking, is deaf? In other words, the play mysteriously ducks the very issues it ought to be exploring - the problems those with disabilities face when it comes to sexual relationships, and the chasm that exists between the able-bodied and the disabled.”

“Before seeing this women-only Julius Caesar I vowed that I wouldn’t resort to Dr Johnson’s notorious line in which he compared a woman’s preaching to a ‘dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all’.”

“Eventually (and boy do they take their time), they get her to a hospital, and here they are struck by a bright idea. Why not turn the accident into an artwork by taking pictures of her bruised and twisted body? At first they feel guilty, but the temptation is too deep to resist. They snap away cheerily and, this being Ravenhill, use their apparently insentient friend as a sex toy.”
[Ravenhill famously didn’t write that scene]

“I may be wrong about this, but I have a strong hunch that Stephens has no children on his own, for I cannot believe that any loving parent could write with such arty attenuation on so harrowing a subject.”
[Stephens did have children in 2004]

“[Philip Ridley’s] past form as a writer, and the evidence of this play in particular, persuade me that he is actually turned on by his own sick fantasies and is offering no more than cheap thrills. And as is so often the case in sensationalist art, graphic cruelty is accompanied by a creepy, and in this case homoerotic, sentimentality.”

And let’s not forget his celebrated reduction of an actor to a theatrical equivalent of something created solely to give men erections.

So there we go: honesty.

No further comment.

Tuesday 2 September 2014


[written for Time Out]

Last night I was riffling through my old Hotmail account looking for an email sent before the days of widespread Twitter use, and I came across this blog which I wrote for Time Out five years ago. Since Time Out pretty much junked all their old online, pre-takeover material, it seems fair enough to repost it here. I found what’s changed and what’s stayed the same fascinating (most of the links are now broken, btw):

In my twelve years of coming to the Fringe, a good deal has changed. The proliferation of the mobile phone, the seemingly unstoppable rise of the super-venues, the arrival of the internet... all have subtly altered the way we experience Edinburgh.  But this year, it feels like the biggest sea-change is in Fringe coverage.

For a while now, the dominance of the national press has been being challenged, first by independent free reviews papers such as Three Weeks and Fest, and now by a growing proliferation of internet reviewing sites. This year it seems that the papers have been largely superseded by the online world.

There are a variety of factors at play here. The most significant is the dwindling coverage by the print media, speeded this year by the lack of resources occasioned by the recession.  Put simply, there are fewer professional critics on the ground and for less time than in previous years. Then there are the issues of speed and space.  Newspapers are only published once a day; they only have so much space that they can allocate to reviews; pieces get commissioned and then gather dust waiting for room to print them.  Online sites can be updated at any time of day and night and there are no space restrictions.

However, online review sites tend to rely on volunteers to provide their copy. As a result, quality tends to vary a wildly.  This year Three Weeks, for example, is fielding 80 reviewers. A lot of companies now just quote the name of a publication and the number of stars awarded to their show. With 80 possible levels of experience to choose from, this renders the Three Weeks banner completely meaningless as their reviewers range from incisive and astute to hilariously incompetent.  At the same time, reputation of the Scotsman’s coverage has also diminished, with certain contributors becoming a watchword for ropey prose.

All this has prompted a certain amount of hand-wringing.  If reviews are reduced to a star-rating awarded by a complete unknown, how can such information be of any use?  The answer is that star-ratings should be largely ignored in favour of reading the actual reviews.  These give a much clearer insight into the critic’s rationale.  They should, at the very least, foreground the rationale behind the rating, but sometimes, the writing itself is laughable enough to bring a critic’s judgement into question.

The so-bad-it’s-good show has long been a staple for Fringe ambulance chasers, but now the jaw-droppingly dreadful review has become required reading for jaded aficionados.  The best one-stop shop for truly dire prose is One4Review. It’s hard to tell whether it’s intended as a spoof or not. My favourite is perhaps this assessment of Becoming Marilyn or this beautiful illustration of why punctuation matters disguised as a review of Why do All Catherines Call Themselves Kate? Elsewhere, the surprisingly dogged literalism in this write-up of Glyn Cannon’s Coffee should give those who demand more objectivity from their reviewers pause for thought. [God, I wish those reviews were still online]

However, it’s not all dispiritingly hilarious prose.  The winner of this year’s Allen Wright award for young critics went to Matt Trueman writing for website CultureWars.  Granted I’m the theatre editor for CultureWars, and as such more than a little proud. However, it is interesting that of the Allen Wright shortlist, he was the only critic not bounded by word counts or having to give a star-rating.  Depressingly, this means CultureWars gets quoted on far fewer flyers.

Performers’ grumbles about critics are well known. In Edinburgh the boot is on the other foot.  Artists hand out the tiniest fragments of critics’ work stapled to their flyers shorn of all context or nuance – “...brilliant... **** - Three Weeks”, “Perfect... *** - The Scotsman” etc.  This helps no one.  Not the critic, not the artist, not the publication and certainly not the poor members of the public who are trying to work out what to see.