Saturday 31 January 2015

Fat Man – The Vaults

[seen 30/01/15]

Assuming this review is going to be a bit spoilery, I’d advise you to go DEFINITELY GO AND SEE THIS knowing only what I did: Fat Man is a new one-man version of the Orpheus myth, and if that doesn’t grab you as a concept (which it didn’t me, very much), then just accept that this is extremely intelligently and elegantly done and buy that ticket anyway. Rest of review under picture.

How often do you get to see a “one-man-show” that truly feels like an ensemble piece? Writer and performer Martin Bonger’s Fat Man is one such. Given that it’s performed on an almost empty stage, even the simple fact that it feels brilliantly designed (Harriet De Winton), lit (Paul O’Shaughnessy), and soundscaped (Philippe Nash) feels like a major breakthrough. I thought the hand of director Alex Swift – best known for Caroline Horton’s Mess – was also very much in evidence. That, or he and Bonger have uncannily similar post-clown, John-Wright-at-his-best mindsets, and make for a brilliant collaborative pairing (both, probably, thinking about it).

The piece is a modern version of the Orpheus myth, told, at first, as self-deprecating, self-loathing, failing stand-up; where we, the audience, are cast as the gods of Olympus. It’s a great conceit: this brilliant, famed musician filling obligatory club-slots with bitter tirades,, having retired from music because of bereavement. The show travels through his relating the story again. It feels as if he does this every night. And maybe even that every night the gods return in the hope he won’t. Imagine Bill Hicks doomed to an eternity in a Samuel Beckett afterlife and you might be in the right sort of zone.

You might think you know the Orpheus myth, but Fat Man does a brilliant job of really thinking it all through, unpacking it, and making you hear it all again new-minted. All the more bitterly for you already knowing the ending. And why Orpheus can’t stop drinking. Or comfort-eating. Or talking. There are pretty much all the stages of grief jumbled around together: bargaining, anger, disbelief. Pretty much everything except acceptance. And, *of course* acceptance is hardest. It’s his fault that Eurydice is dead, now. Not his fault she died, no. Not at all. But his fault for failing to bring her back from the dead, right? As it turns out, this last bit is subtly altered to create Fat Man’s biggest coup. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Bonger manages to suddenly up-end the hitherto abject lack of female agency in the myth, and does so with a sequence that is quietly, unshowily, hauntingly beautiful, and game-changing in terms of the dramatic trajectory.

All this, and the fact that the piece as a whole gently reflects on themes of loss, and love, and heartbreak in such subtle-but-suggestive and heartfelt way, means you (well, I) come out of the show feeling, well, “usefully bruised” is the best way I can think of putting it. You think about all those losses of your own, and this guy’s loss, and about the cruel jokes that fate plays on you, and somehow, from somewhere – I’d say probably from the sheer talent and artistry on display in the making of the piece as much as anything – you somehow don’t feel crushed by the experience, but rather moved, a bit emotional, and ultimately “uplifted”. [As you can see, I’m perhaps not at my most emotionally literate yet this morning. Blame the early start and the train I’m writing on. But, yes: “people with *feelings*, will love this show about *feelings*.” Jesus, this is pitiful, get a grip, Haydon.]

What’s also brilliant here is *the writing*. In common with the stand-up form that it so lovingly pastiches (although, if something *pretending* to be stand-up in a “theatrical context” is still funny, is it not also still stand-up? I honestly don’t know) it’s hard to think of it as *writing*. But this is great writing. Lovely phrases just chucked about and away as if the sodding things grew everywhere. Although I was already completely won over in the first five minutes when I coughed at the end of a joke and Bonger, without missing a beat, said: “Thanks. I’ll take that as a laugh”. Brilliant, even if pre-prepared.

And, yeah, the delivery, totally natural-as-stand-up; which is, perversely, not really a very natural anything. So, yes: really interesting stage set-up all round. Noticeably beautifully lit. Definitely intelligently scored. Put together minimally by a designer who plainly understands how space works, and directed and written/performed (respectively) by a duo with an instinctive feel for the myriad virtues of theatre as the most live of media. Essentially a beautiful example of theatre’s alchemical ability to create a fully-realised, vivid world in your head with only the barest of means.

Exeunt/Bruntwood: Why I write (about theatre)

[published 30/01/15]

The Bruntwood Prize, in conjunction with Exeunt, commissioned a series of pieces asking critics what plays make them want to write about theatre.  This was my response.  I'm actually quite pleased with how it turned out.

[pic: still from Gisele Vienne's I Apologize]

Exeunt: On Islands

[published 28/01/15]

I contributed a short final few paragraphs to Exeunt's conversation in print follow-up piece about Islands.

[pic: Sum of All Evil by the Chapman Brothers, similar to the one referenced by Stewart Pringle in the piece.  (Does Pringle have my favourite set of cultural references in a critic since Chris Goode?  Why, yes. Yes he does.)]

Friday 30 January 2015

Refusing the premises

[or: could David Edgar just stop this now, please?]

Another day, another article by David Edgar alleging a conspiracy against playwrights and playwriting (or playwrighting, depending), this time in the Guardian (there was one I didn’t even bother reading in The Stage before Christmas, I think. Let’s just assume it says more or less the exact same stuff).

The problem with this article Edgar keeps writing is that it bears little relation to reality, to the point of seeming deliberately disingenuous. Worse; this iteration ignores evidence; uses unverifiable, single-source, anecdotal evidence; merrily mixes time periods from the 1960s to the present day; and egregiously ignores context. All to debunk an idea that NO ONE IS PROPOSING.

So, let’s have a look at this thing so we can put it to bed once and for all. Again.

The problems start in the third paragraph:

“... playwrights became increasingly concerned that the kind of experimental company they’d learned their craft with was no longer using playwrights to write shows but devising them from scratch themselves.”

But that’s surely the business of those companies? Note that it’s not *the* companies that these unspecified playwrights “learned their craft with”, but “the kind of...”. And this ignores “the kind of experimental company” that *was* still “using playwrights”. Wasn’t 2006 the year that writer Al Smith’s company, Kandinsky, produced *two* totally different productions of of Lucy Kirkwood’s Geronimo? Wasn’t Ella Hickson’s Eight in 2008 again produced by precisely the same sort of company? So what if some other emerging theatre makers preferred making work in other ways?

“Having battled, as we saw it, for new work against old, we sensed the drawing of a new fault line, between a dusty, out-of-date text-based drama (everything from Electra to Educating Rita) and a vibrant, innovative theatre based on devising and physically-based performance. In 2005, Guardian critic Lyn Gardner’s article celebrating the Edinburgh fringe programme was headlined ‘Playwrights? They’re so last year’.”

Yes, it was. Because sub-editors tend to choose the most inflammatory, click-baity headline they can think of. Lyn didn’t write that headline, as well you know, David. The actual conclusion of Gardner’s infinitely sensible article, which was merely pleased that some other stuff was *also* being given a chance, is:

“Too often those working in classical or new-writing theatre and those working in visual or physical theatre have viewed each other with distrust. The time has come to strike a balance. Maybe this year’s Edinburgh Fringe will go down in theatre history as the time that started to happen.”

Wise words a decade ago, and perhaps ones worth remembering now. (Except, I’d argue it’s mostly only David Edgar espousing distrust now.) Hell, the history books have already been written. Duška Radosavljevic’s Theatre Makingmy own modest take on the 2000s in Decades, and many more, have already called time on this needless wrangling and conflict, highlighting the syntheses, diversity, and general positive atmosphere all round in theatre-making by the end of the 00s.

Edgar goes on to note the catastrophic pre-2008-overhaul Arts Council making some noises about circus, but then doubles back to note that the British Theatre Consortium’s 2009 survey which finds that new plays are thriving. He concludes: “So to put it mildly, the death of the British playwright” which NO ONE HAD CLAIMED “has been greatly exaggerated”. Well, if you invent a lie yourself, it’s pretty easy to disprove it, right?

“However,” Edgar contunes “there are two clouds on the horizon.”

One is the result of the austerity cuts. Which is unarguable. Although it seems a shame that Fin Kennedy’s In Battalions report focussed solely on New Writing and not all forms of theatre, which, it seems fair to assume, are all similarly pinched, at risk, and embattled.

“The second cloud is this: playwrights’ concerns about work devised by performers is not just about protecting the presence of their craft within the industry... It’s that, for at least a generation, there has been an orthodoxy in university theatre departments that playwriting is an inherently hierarchical practice, promoting a false and reactionary view of the world.”

This would be the same “generation” during which David Edgar started the first playwrighting MA course at a British university and which saw an exponential growth in such courses across the country? The same decade when virtually every subsidised theatre started a young writers’ group? Where playwriting courses of every imaginable stripe blossomed in the UK?

I’m not even convinced that this “orthodoxy” exists. It certainly doesn’t exist in the work of any academic I know at all. Not any of the five or six leading academics who contributed to each of the six books in the Methuen Decades series on British Playwrights. Not in the work of theorists like Nick Ridout, whose work encompasses all manner of productions of texts ranging from Shakespeare to Chris Goode, alongside films by auteur and writing *on* theatre by the likes of Walter Benjamin. Surely the growing body of scholarship on playwrights like Martin Crimp and Simon Stephens points to a serious, dedicated, and ongoing admiration of playwrights by the academy. (Indeed, of the two chapters for academic books on which I’m lucky enough to be working, the first concerns Katie Mitchell’s productions of Greek plays and the second: interviews with directors of the plays of Simon Stephens. Nothing could be more text-based or less “devised” (in the sense that Edgar intends), surely?)

Maybe *some* academics do espouse those views. While others, perhaps, cleave to a more hardline version of playwright-centric history. I mean, Aleks Sierz still teaches at a university, doesn’t he? So, orthodoxy is something of an overstatement. At the very least.

It’s the final few paragraphs where the logic falls apart and the article really starts to feel like a man just flailing about, taking pot shots and failing to land a single blow. In one paragraph it is claimed:

“In a 2013 edition of a leading academic theatre journal, tutors in three major universities revealed that they discourage young playwrights from linear, dramatised narrative, inventing convincing characters or developing a personal vision or voice.”

Ok. *maybe* that’s true. (And, to me, it sounds like a really awesome development as part of a wider, more plural whole.) But it’s still *teaching playwrighting*. Just because some rare course in Britain is apparently equipping its students with the skills to write Heiner Müller plays rather than David Edgar plays doesn’t mean that *playwrighting* is under threat, does it? Precisely the opposite, in fact. It is being strengthened by diversifying.

Edgar then makes this unfathomable lurch from playwrighting being taught to, in the next paragraph the observation that “by the mid-2000s, two of the leading progressive venues in London could proudly declare themselves script-free zones.” Two. TWO. (BAC and CPT. I presume.) Two. IN LONDON. That’s maybe *nearly* 4% of theatres in the capital? Pfft.

The next two paragraphs are worth reproducing in full, because, with the exception of the querulous tone, I agree with pretty much every word:

“In reality, the divide between performance and text-based theatre was and is being breached by playwrights like Bryony Lavery, Abi Morgan, Dan Rebellato and David Greig, who have worked and are working with performance companies like Frantic Assembly, Lightwork and Suspect Culture. Plays at the Domnar take the form of seminars, and at the Royal Court lectures. And the idea that the individual writer is trapped within linear narrative and picture-frame settings is belied by the work of Simon Stephens, Martin Crimp and Caryl Churchill.

“The fact that playwrights are finding new ways of working creates an opportunity to concentrate on what they can do rather on what, allegedly, they can’t. The revival of all of the late Sarah Kane’s plays at Sheffield, a season that starts next Wednesday, is an opportunity to revisit work which has spread across the world, demonstrating Kane’s extraordinary structural and dialogic skills as well as reinventing what constitutes a play.”

It’d be cheap to note that the above listed playwright/company alliances directly contradicts the bit where Edgar earlier says “playwrights” are “increasingly concerned that the kind of experimental company they’d learned their craft with was no longer using playwrights to write shows”. And even cheaper to recall that Sarah Kane had nothing but contempt for David Edgar’s Birmingham University Playwriting MA, which, I think I’m right in saying, rather failed to spot the brilliance of the first half of Blasted, which she wrote there. But, y’know...

The final para is a puzzle:

“Now that new work is predominant, it’s time to dismantle narrow ideological prejudices and to acknowledge the different skills that go to make up a collaborative art form which has so successfully shown society to itself. That’s not all that theatre does, or should do, but it’s one of the things British theatre does best.”

Wha? Who’s got ideological prejudices? This either invalidates the whole of the article, excludes Edgar himself, or implies that only writers can show society to itself (or only plays that are written do). Whichever way you slice it, it seems a fairly barmy place to end up after all the mud that’s just been slung.

Playwrights are fine. I missed the launch of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize (which is FOR A NEW PLAY) because I was watching the Donmar Warehouse’s utterly faithful production of *proper play* My Night With Reg which has now transferred to London’s posh West End because of the demand for tickets, but, even as I wandered from the Apollo to The Vaults to see a new avant garde opera in which an aborted foetus starts a nuclear holocaust (also *written*. And, yes. Really), I didn’t see any pickets outside the numerous theatres showing written plays. New, revived, or classic. No disgruntled “devisers” cornered me, demanding to know why I was carrying on in this reactionary fashion. Indeed, not one audience member seemed to show outward signs of caring one iota as to how a piece of work had been arrived at as long as it was good. Oh, and apparently there’s a new Tom Stoppard on at the National too, now.

I’m not even convinced that there is all that much “devised” work even still being made, least of all without the presence of a writer. Perhaps another massive sea change in the current landscape of British theatre is precisely the resurgence of a new sort of writer. Writing-for-theatre is on the up, and hugely respected. Look at Oberon’s “Best Plays of 2014”: Mr Burns, Men in the Cities, Adler and Gibb, This is How You Will Die, Confirmation, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland, Lippy, Spine, The Body of an American, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again...

Look at *all those published texts* (and add Pomona and King Charles III), and honestly tell me British theatre has a problem with new writing or scripts.

It’s nonsense.

Please stop pretending otherwise.  

Unborn in America – The Vaults

[seen 30/01/15 – subject of show is abortion, if that wants/needs a trigger warning, consider yourself warned]

Be careful what you wish for. Yesterday I concluded my review of Mike Bartlett’s Bull worrying that I wasn’t going to see any new work that wasn’t concerned with the Crisis of Global Capitalism. I then posted said review and wandered off to the Vaults to catch my first show from that temporary, multi-space venue’s six-week festival of theatre and performance.

(It’s not a bad programme of mostly very young companies trying stuff out in a much less expensive way for them than Edinburgh. Although the new sound installation of wall-to-wall public school accents in the bar might be the best piece about the arts in contemporary Britain. Had it been deliberate.)

((Another aside, I was reminded yesterday of the phrase “a classless society”. I’m amused/depressed to see this has now been nailed down at “very nineties”.))

Anyway, Unborn in America is a new, experimental opera-based thing. Its blurb hopefully suggests that it is: “a fast feisty trash-punk new cabaret opera. Brecht/Weill on acid!” Leaving aside the exclaimation mark and the use of the worst-thing-in-journalism-ever-“like ___ on ___”-formula™ this sounds pretty bloody good on paper, right? The result is mixed.

UiA tells the story of Ziggy (Jessica Walker, the awesome soprano (surely it should now be soprana?) last seen by me in Mark Ravenhill’s equally awesome Coronation of Poppea), an aborted foetus who we meet in the bit of the afterlife set aside for aborted foetuses, working as a cabaret singer in a bar called the Petri Dish. (Ho ho?)

[Spoiler alert]

She then meets Jesus, asks to be born, is put on earth as a living, singing foetus, meets her mother, becomes president, and ends the world with a nuclear holocaust. Ends up back in the Petri Dish, having taken everyone else down with her.

[end spoilers]

I have a feeling that the phrase “a bit Charlie Hebdo” might become increasingly useful this year. It will mean: “maybe it is funny in French”. What’s weird about Unborn in America is mostly its location. It feel strange that two Englishmen (composer Luke Styles and director/librettist Peter Cant) have devoted so much time and energy to outraging literally no one with their spirited gross-out attack on American abortion policies. It’s like pointing out that America’s lack of healthcare, or total failure to subsidise the arts, is stupid. We all know. We all agree. This is like consensus-satire: straw-target immolation as preaching to the choir. Actually, it’s more like a double length episode of South Park, but done as contemporary opera (which is actually the thing we should be focussing on here, and will be soon, however...).

Did I miss a real shift in those months between September and December last year when I didn’t really see so much theatre? Both Unborn... and Islands seem to have sprung from no discernible precedent. I mean, obviously they have antecedents in both theatre (Hello, Jerry Springer – the Opera) and culture (anything from Viz to South Park via The Young Ones), but I totally didn’t see the big new thing for 2015 being grotesque cartoons.

Anyway, while I admired Islands, I found myself a lot more at sea with Unborn. It takes a while to establish its narrative. The first fifteen minutes or more (of an hour) are set-up, and then the story moves so fast that you can barely keep up, let alone invest (not, perhaps, that that’s the point). I should just admit that this sense of humour isn’t especially my favourite, and that I prefer my political satire a lot more dry, and then get on with describing what does actually happen rather than reviewing the thing as a failure to be what I’d have preferred it to be.

The music element is pretty special. Styles is clearly a gifted composer in the modern opera idiom. Admittedly this means it does a lot of stoppy-starty experimentation with instruments which militates against any song or aria ever gathering any sort of pace, which seems, here especially, a bit of a drawback in terms of Ziggy’s character’s drive and will to offend oratorically. Styles’s treatment of percussion – here an augmented standard rock drum kit, I think – struck me as especially original (and is perhaps where that desire for more through-lines and drive in the music comes from). The acoustics of the space perhaps take the edge off the overall sound, sludging the finest points of sharpness and clarity, but it’s impressive stuff nonetheless.

The staging is perhaps best seen as a series of necessary pragmatic compromises due to limited budget (it’s mostly a red curtain for the Petri Dish, opening to reveal with a painted, fairy-lighted Statue of Liberty when Ziggy is in the real world) and if someone chucked a tonne of money at the thing, then I’ve no doubt it could look awesome. The decision not to actually have foetus Ziggy look anything like a foetus, save for a forlorn looking umbilical cord hanging out of Walker’s t-shirt is probably the right one, but it sort of strips out the most obvious visual comedy and incongruity of the piece, and the libretto (for me) doesn’t quite get it all across by itself.

I’d be a shit not to record that this opening night was met by a largely rapturous response from a sell-out audience in what turns out to be a pretty big auditorium for avant garde chamber opera, so my gripes might best be taken with a pinch of salt. Not for everyone, definitely, but clearly made with great care and a ridiculous amount of talent.

Thursday 29 January 2015

Bull – Young Vic

[seen 28/01/15]

As it happens, I first saw Bull as a rehearsed/staged reading at the Finborough in 2010. Apparently the piece had initially come into being as a writing exercise that Bartlett had set himself when he got a bit stuck on Cock. Back then, seen as a companion piece to Cock, years before the magisterial triumph of King Charles III, well before the Tory coalition had made Britain nigh-on unliveable, and on a cosy *undressed* stage, it seemed like a pretty benign thing. A short, sharp, Mamet-y burst of bullying on some sort of The Office-style sales team. Stuck into the Young Vic after a Sheffield run last year, in the midst of a freezing January, and while everyone’s bloody miserable anyway, it’s a much harder watch.

Weirdly, there’s not an awful lot to say about the “plot” – or rather, the “dramatic action” – itself. Two workers, who have been bullying a co-worker for ages, intensify their efforts ahead of a meeting/interview when one of them will be made redundant. The outcome is more or less a forgone conclusion. The bullied co-worker has a child and an ex-partner (both unseen), and the loss of his job is going to impact hard on his life.

For the shape that this bullying takes, Bartlett has turned to the bullfight for inspiration. Following hard on the heals of Caroline Horton’s Islands last week, it seems that, merely by coincidence of programming, the bullfight has become 2015’s early go-to image for the way that capitalism destroys the worker. Just as Cock mimics the cockfight (and, as with Cock, the arena is similarly resonant), Bull’s structure very precisely recalls the way the bullfight is conducted, as so horribly described by Horton. The picadors – here the two co-worker bullies (the word “bully” here gets a bit confusing) – stab the poor creature in the back repeatedly, until the matador, here their boss, finishes him off with a few choice flourishes. (Except, as with Horton’s example, the bull tends not to die in the ring, it just looks dead, so the picadors finish the wretched animal off afterwards.)

An interesting question posed by a couple of colleagues is that of complicity. By virtue of having paid to see this play “as entertainment”, what are we saying about ourselves? Well, the bullying is vile, it’s true. And if you were watching it because you like simulations of people being bullied, then I’d suggest more counselling and fewer theatre trips of your own choosing. But no one is watching it for that, are they? We go to see Mike Bartlett’s fizzy writing and a quartet of actors at the top of their game. It’s only pretend, at least in the theatre, and we go to watch it approvingly as a metaphor for the savagery of contemporary capitalism, right?

So, how does it do as a comment on capitalism, or bullying, or bull-fighting? Oddly, it’s the bull-fighting element that seems to map least well, to my mind. Yes, the picadors and the back-stabbing is very clever, but the character of Thomas, the bullied worker, is scarely comparable with the doomed animal of the Spanish bloodsport. I mean, yes, that is an absolutely abhorrent practice, but at least the Spanish have the decency to bullshit (!) a lot about the supposed dignity and magnificence of the beast they’re about to torture. And at least there’s an outside chance that the bull can take down a matador or two before they’re murdered. Here, Sam Troughton’s Thomas is more of a sad-sack fish in a barrel. He also starts out almost entirely unsympathetic. He is, we note, *not* a particularly nice person himself. Perhaps as a consequence of the bullying, or perhaps the initial cause of it. *Of course*, we feel for him as he crumples, but he’s a misogynist and creep, and maybe we should harden our hearts, while still deploring the others’ lack of scruple. No one here, Bartlett decrees, is nice at all. Oddly, this, along with perhaps a natural disinclination of arts-leaning types, toward sympathy for ghastly corporate drones (yeah, I’m being ironic), means this is not a game in which any of us has much investment. Indeed, perhaps the greatest risk the play runs, is that arts types (who, after all, are the only people who watch theatre, right?) will simply wish a plague on all their houses, and be jolly pleased that they don’t have to worry about how expensive their suits are. (Fwiw, not having to worry about conspicuous wealth, and not having to work with cunts is *precisely* why I work in the arts.)

Adam James and Eleanor Matsuura as the picadors, Sam Troughton as the bull, and Neil Stuke briefly as the matador, are uniformly excellent at the chosen fast-paced, action driven style of action. (Although lord knows what Adam did to Mike to be playing his *third* Bartlett villain after My Child and King Charles III). Having seen it done in this eminently suitable style, surrounded by Soutra Gilmour’s apt arena-like space with Christopher Shutt’s sound design (which maybe overstates the bullfight motif in the final moments), obviously I’m curious to know what effect other styles might have on the action, and on our reception of the piece. This version is so *sympathetic* to the text, that it almost feels inevitable: although obviously it isn’t and the fact Clare Lizzimore’s production makes it look so is entirely to her credit.

More broadly, with only The Changeling excepted, Bull adds to the weight of plays currently showing in London that simply seek to stare the state of capitalism in the face and largely despair. I might institute some sort of prize for the first one I leave feeling even remotely optimistic about the future. At the moment, we have a lot of descriptions of the horror, the sorrow and the pity, and next to nothing that sees any way out. (I’m not saying theatres should stage policy documents, or that critiques of capitalism have to be uplifting or optimistic, but three pieces suggesting we might as well all give up because humanity is so rotten to the core in a near-row (and it’s not like The Changeling is exactly brimming with optimism about humanity) starts to feel a bit: well, y’know...)

So, yes, “capitalism brings out the worst in people”. Got that. I’m dangerously close to saying that we might have started to hit the Gulf War II wall with The Crisis of Global Capitalism now. But fuck. What else is there that’s worth even thinking about? And at least the approaches are admirably various...

[stop now. right-o]

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Shorts: in the club

[or: the unexpected virtue of authority]

Jake Orr has written a thing. The gist of his thing is the question: “theatre is not a club, so why do we make it feel that way?”  To which my first two responses are: “who’s ‘we’?” and then: “we don’t”.

This question was prompted by taking his new boyfriend, Jack (who is a personal trainer and “a culturally engaged guy; he used to do acting at school, he loves art, he goes to the cinema”), to see Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Events. Afterwards he tweeted: “[Jack] feels that most contemporary is for a club, and he isn’t part of that club because he doesn’t understand how contemporary theatre is made and what it is for.”

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “contemporary theatre” here, since theoretically it means “any theatre made now” right? As such, is The Changeling *more* “contemporary” than A Series... because it opened last week, rather than last year. Or, if it’s stuff that’s entirely new, then Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem (snigger) will be most contemporary when it opens at the NT. But I’m guessing it’s an attempt to define some sort of genre. A genre which Jake seems almost at pains to package up as “difficult”.

There’s been quite a long discussion of the post already on Jake’s Facebook wall, with Jon Bradfield making a lot of very good points last night, not least related to the particularly difficult dynamic that springs up when taking a non-theatre-involved significant other to see *any theatre at all*, because it’s your professional life. So you – the theatre professional – kind of need the theatre to be brilliant to justify the amount of time you spend on it, and they – the person who doesn’t work in theatre – well, you’ve just taken them to work, haven’t you? So they feel anxious about fitting in, saying the right thing, etc. As such, I think that’s really where the discussion should have stopped. I don’t really think this is a conversation about theatre, but about taking your partner to work.

However, since the question has been framed, it’s probably worth thinking about a bit. There are a number of approaches. I was *incredibly surprised* earlier this month by Lois Keidan’s Guardian blog in which she candidly suggests: “the problem with the internet is that the underground arts scene – that safe space where risk, dissent and difference are possible – is now only a click away”, or, more bluntly: “The promise of great art for everyone doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything. It means that if you do want to see something funded by the public purse, you are entitled to do so. But increasingly it seems that we all have different understandings of what entitlement means. There are those who expect that whatever alternative cultures they encounter through social media must comply with their own aesthetic or moral framework. They feel entitled, not just to enter spaces and places where they do not necessarily belong, but also to demand censure and closure if they don’t like what they find there.”

That strikes me as a rare admission: theatre companies go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the extents to which they are accessible and comprehensible to all. And I’ll admit that the notion of a space where someone or other “does not belong” unsettles me.

But, let’s look at the facts of this case a bit. No one is going to deny that Britain is a monstrously unequal society, and equality of opportunity is vital to both any kind of arts scene and any society worthy of the name. The opportunities for someone childless with a reasonably paid job in London to see theatre are almost infinitely more than those of an unemployed parent in Shrewsbury (for example). These are simple facts of economics and logistics and they are issues that urgently need to be addressed.

However, these are not relevant factors here: Jack has a job (probably a better paid job than a lot of people in theatre), personal freedom, geographical proximity, and is already an educated cultural consumer of art and cinema. At which point the question becomes: why does “contemporary” theatre feel like “a club” *to him*?

Given the above factors, I wonder if the conclusion to draw isn’t simply either: “because you choose to see it that way” or “because your partner might have unwittingly made it feel that way” (we’re none of us perfect, after all. And Jake does probably know *everyone* involved in Secret Theatre, so that’s already going to make it seem like a bit of a daunting closed shop – although, hardly Jake’s fault, he’s been working in the industry for five years and everyone knows and likes him). Leaving aside option (b), I do wonder what, if anything, can be done about option (a).

On one level, I do think theatres should be at pains to make everyone feel as materially welcome as possible – the cheapest tickets, the most egalitarian booking systems, the widest possible advertising, and perhaps even useful info in programmes about how the “uninitiated” might want to think about approaching more difficult work written clear, jargon-free prose. At the same time, I’m deeply resistant to the idea that *the art* has to change/needs to change. Least of all to people who don’t get a thing the first time they encounter it. I mean, Christ, I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with Forced Entertainment’s 1998 show Pleasure (my first encounter with the group) when I saw it. I think, as a complete novice, I would have found an explanation by group of what they were driving at any why both fascinating and invaluable. I wouldn’t have felt patronised, I’d have felt that my incomprehension was reasonable, and, oh. look, here were a few pointers.

So, yes, while I think it is incumbent on people who turn up to performances not to assume a conspiracy against them, so much as understand that – of course – communities do grow up around things – especially more marginal things. Not necessarily exclusive communities, but communities nonetheless, I also think that maybe we in the theatre might occasionally do well to remember what it was like when we first turned up at things with no reference points, and knowing no one. I think it’s fine, sometimes even necessary, to keep on making difficult work, but I don’t think it breaks any rules of “difficult art club” to just have a few pointers flagging up the stuff that other audience members already know.

Relatedly, I don’t think I would ever have developed such a passion for mainland Northern and Eastern European work if I hadn’t experienced it in the company of colleagues who were already experts and who could explain at least their take on why the work was like it was, the artist’s history, references that struck them, and so on.

As such, unexpectedly (and I absolutely promise I didn’t realise that this was where this piece was going to end up when I started it), Jack’s predicament on first seeing A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts heavily underlines the imperative necessity for good, clear, comprehensive, comprehensible criticism. Criticism which remembers to explain what the critic thinks she’s seen – and a sketch of why it is the way it is – as well as their opinion of it.

Sunday 25 January 2015

The Changeling – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe

[seen 22/01/15]

Leafing through the programme for Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Changeling before going in, one line leapt out at me, and I think ended up colouring the entire way I responded to the evening: “When [The Changeling] was registered for publication... it was registered as a comedy” (there’s then a column break). So this was the thought to which I kept returning throughout.

Middleton and Rowley’s1622 text in Dominic Dromgoole’s production is played about as “properly” as is imaginable. Fans of that essay, which inveighed heavily against such practices, might want to look away from the rest of this review. Because, to be honest, while Dromgoole’s production has absolutely no *take* on the play, as such (obviously impossible), the way in which it *seems* to be at pains to avoid *interpretation* a) ends up giving us an incredibly clear index of the director’s (or ensemble’s) concerns, and b) still allows us to imagine more radical or different readings on top of it.

Beyond that, what did keep almost leaping out at me was the extent to which what seemed to be being putatively offered as a not-very-tragic, but definitely bloody tragedy really could be played even more broadly as a straight-up comedy. And a very funny one at that. It’s interesting to notice that there’s a sort of English tone of voice, especially on stage (and on Radio 4) that pretty much signals that *comedy is being done*. That isn’t used in the climatic scenes here – where Beatrice-Joanna (Hattie Morahan) is finally discovered to have commissioned the murder of her arranged fiancé and then her maid in order that she can marry the man of her dreams, Alsemero (Simon Harrison), and that she has paid for this murders by giving herself sexually to the murderer Deflores (Trystan Gravelle) – seems almost a shame. It would, granted, be a very different production, and – weirdly – probably seen as a going out on a bit of a limb. And there’s no reason to do it, this production works just great. For some reason I just couldn’t stop wondering how it would be.

I guess part of it is that the play is already funny, and has an absurd, ostensibly comic sub-plot (although like much early-modern comedy, it is also frequently cruel) about the young wife of an asylum keeper being wooed by two young men who have contrived to get themselves locked up as loonies in order to be close to her. And Dromgoole’s production isn’t without its laughs, most notably from Gravelle, Pearce Quigley as the Asylum gaoler Lollio, and Morahan, in her more deadpan or conspiratorial asides to the audience.

It’s interesting, too, how little I minded the meticulously researched, authentic-looking period costumes. I guess inside the Sam Wanamaker theatre, once you’ve looked at the wooden building, and the candlelit playing area, it seems only natural (and neutral even) that period dress should be a default. Certainly with plays with such weirdly questionable antique morality (perhaps particularly when played as tragedy) the costumes and “authenticity” are a necessary excuse note for the otherwise possible charges of misogyny and stigmatisation of the mentally ill. (But, oh, how much more uncomfortable it would be for a modern audience to have mentally ill and learning disabled actors playing the asylum inmates. Or, hell, what a great production if *everyone* was. Season idea: get Graeae in to do all the most problematic early modern plays which feature disability).

Both play and production are good: solid, definitely, and with real flashes of wit and invention thrown about too. Oddly, having seen Joe Hill-Gibbin’s ersatzDeutsch production in 2012 at the Young Vic, which sadly I never wrote up, part of me felt quite pleased to be seeing all the play presented relatively straight. Although I spend more time being staggered by how little the two productions seemed to relate to the same play at all. It was instructive to the point of shocking how the shifts in dress and aesthetic seemed to move the entire meaning and mileau of the play. I suspect Hill-Gibbins’s production must also have been cut to ribbons. I did wonder if both productions had each cut about half, but magically managed to each cut a different half, but apparently the Sam W. theatre version is more or less full-text minus nips and tucks.

What’s also interesting here is how little the class elements seem to assert themselves. Because the play was (one assumes) intended solely for a contemporary audience (it wasn’t even printed in the playwrights’ lifetimes), I guess * a lot* of the status stuff in the relationships between characters just went without saying at the time, but here, while the servant-owning class characters do still sound posh, and the servants tend to have regional/national accents (a Welsh Deflores, a Manc. Lollio, a Scottish Antonio (Brian Ferguson)), there’s never really a sense of class boundaries. Deflores first touch of Beatrice-Joanna makes her shudder because he is repulsive to her rather than because she is “his better”.

Actually, the entire Deflores – Beatrice-Joanna relationship is fascinating: indeed, some of her asides, played admirably straight by Morahan, suggest the possibility that she even starts to fall for this hated tormentor, when, in her service, he repeatedly proves himself far more ardent and practical than her intended. The unlikelihood of this to the modern mind (even when intelligently accounted for as a possible sort of Stockholm Syndrome) and perhaps Morahan’s urge to think the better of her character, prevents Beatrice-Joanna from becoming a possibly-more-frightening carpicious nymphomanic (which in turn might also aid the conversion back into comedy?).

But I’ve started doing that Michael Billington thing of re-directing the play instead of attending to what was in front of me. And what was in frontt of me was very good. Maybe ultimately a tiny bit too trad. for me not to start thinking of ruses to make it less so, but nonetheless this is a fine, fine rendition of a fascinating play.

Saturday 24 January 2015

Islands – Bush Theatre

[seen 23/01/15]

From the moment I read accountant Philip Fisher’s strangely affronted, and entirely inadequate, review of Caroline Horton’s Islands, I couldn’t stop thinking of one particular comparison: the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. Michael Billington’s predictable hrumph, and Matt Trueman’s surprising violent echo of it, both served to solidify that impression. In the week after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, after the initial shock wore off, British comment writers recommenced on their Herculean task of finding a counter-intuitive angle to every story. The angle that they all hit upon – after a cursory Google Image Search through a few of CH’s more inflammatory cover cartoons, a tiny bit of thinking, and with absolutely no understanding of the context (or even of French) – was: “aren’t these cartoons a bit grotesque?”

Outside of Slavoj Žižek’s celebrated example using toilets, there has rarely been a better, or more stark illustration of the differences between British and French culture. British satire tends to be pretty dry and superficially polite. It might bite, but it does so with the best possible taste, and often softens its blows with a fair amount of whimsy and absurdism. Beyond the Fringe’s Harold Macmillan probably remains the best possible example. French “satire” (I’m not even sure we Brits recognise it as such), on the other hand, appears to be savage and grotesque. And we Brits find it disquieting. It doesn’t speak with the voice of the establishment to mock the establishment (coming, as British satire does, largely from within the establishment), it apes the lowly and seems unafraid to paint the disadvantaged or disenfranchised as grotesques. It pisses all over the somewhat hypocritical British idea that satire should only punch upwards (hypocritical, insofar as British satire seems to afford many already privileged types enough money to give them a vested interest in society carrying on in precisely the way that they’re theoretically attacking).

And, well, whether it’s Horton’s Gaulier training or director Omar Elerian’s time at Lecoq, or neither of those things, Islands explodes onto the British stage like shit from a burst drain. Only very occasionally are the prized traits of British satire even remotely glimpsed. Instead, it is messy, grotesque, violent, and utterly tasteless.

The story, weirdly reminiscent in approach to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, uses the Garden of Eden played out in a mythic, post-apocalyptic, grimy, drained swimming pool to explain the financial crisis (just as Brecht uses Richard III set in Chicago gangster-land to explain Hitler): Mary is some sort of psychotic God/venture capitalist, who buys up an island floating above our own Shitworld in order to horde her cherries away from the prying taxes of Big Government. She then pays Adam and Eve, the lumpen prole inhabitants of the island, to do her bidding, along with her cross-dressing archangel accountants (or something). When the crash happens: Mary and co. dissemble wildly, but in the end [no spoiler warning necessary] carry on getting away with murder. Figuratively and otherwise.

In a lot of ways, the “story” sort of isn’t the point. Or rather, it and the situation with which it’s analogous *are* exactly the point, but it’s all so familiar – the Garden of Eden, the financial crash – that we’re not really watching for the story, but for what commentary these grotesques bring to bear on it. (In passing: “grotesques” seems a bit unfair. Both cross-dressed angels are actually pretty cute and the time has long passed when anyone thinks transvestism is “grotesque”, right?). Indeed, for much of the show, it feels more like a Weimar Cabaret or Satire Boom sketch show on themes around the recession than *a play* (doubtless the source for much of Michael’s discontent).

Yes, as everyone else has said, some people might find the frequent diversions from streamlined storytelling irritating. Ditto the refusal of the thing to map exactly onto either crisis or Biblical source material. But another approach to this is to be constantly intrigued by these gaps and disparities. For my money, I’d have done away with any concrete references to the real financial crisis just a Brecht never has to mention Hitler – I’d have been intrigued to watch it as something with no stated target whatsoever and seen whether I wound up in the same place. (Perhaps, if anything, it all still feels a bit too lead-by-the-nose for my tastes, but, y’know, I didn’t even begin to write it, let alone have the wit to stage it like this, so I can just shut up, really).

Instead, what kept on striking me throughout the evening was how *original* it felt. No, no single element was especially never-seen-before, but the bundling them all up together with this relentless, restive invention, and with darkness piled onto comedy onto misery onto slapstick, the sheer over-abundance, and seamy grandeur of it all, it felt like something almost entirely new. Halfway through, I tarted thinking this is how we should be staging *a lot* more plays. Brecht, Shakespeare, Simon Stephens, you name it. (Ooh, actually, Pomona had a passing similarity. One more and I’m calling “trend” on it.) Oliver “Grounded” Townsend’s set is brilliantly specific, while the five-strong ensemble make all their mucking about, singing, multi-instrumentalism and just sheer commitment look log-fall-off effortless.

In short, I can see where the criticisms come from, but, like Stewart Pringle (genius review here), I’m not sure they’re the most useful. Many seem to take the view that this simply isn’t *how* to handle the subject. Instead, I’d suggest that rather than being analytical, Islands – perhaps a bit like TORYCORE – creates a kind of squalid *feeling* that instead expresses the situation, rather than neutralising that disgust with anodyne number crunching. Yes, it’s sometimes much more “on the nose” than is my preference, but even that seems as much like it might be a deliberate strategy to wrong-foot and make unfamilar, to get away from British satire, and perhaps open up something more savage and less polite instead. Which feels like the only real response to the current state of things.

Friday 23 January 2015

The Fever – Almeida at The May Fair Hotel

[seen 21/01/15]

Is there a smarter theatre in London at the moment than the Almeida? Following Rupert Goold’s electrifying first season (American Psycho, Charles III, Mr Burns), his second season – themed around frightening wealth – is as timely and vicious a commentary on the spirit of these horrible times as you could wish for.

The latest addition to this season, playing alongside Goold’s excellent Merchant of Venice (review forthcoming), is Almeida associate director Rob Icke’s new production of Wallace Shawn’s 1990 play The Fever.

What The Fever is, is a monologue – originally performed by Shawn himself in friends apartments around New York – about your average, well-off, massively privileged, middle-class, left-liberal, apparently in the throes of some tropical disease in a hotel room in some newly revolutionary developing country.

The piece is really a game of two halves: emphasised here by a transition between the sitting room and the bedroom of this enormous hotel suite. In the first half, we hear about the character’s childhood and upbringing. Precious gifts and precious treatment are lovely described with such fanciful detail that it’s hard to know if the character is taking the piss, or genuinely reveling in vividly remembered delight. A bit of both, it seems. And the narrative here is on e of growing self awareness. A gradual sense of emerging from the layers of wrapping and cosseting and warnings not to go to “bad neighbourhoods” where the “tough kids” live, into sweaty, sticky, sickly third world reality.

The second half [spoiler of sorts] sees the same character – having obsessed about Marx, and about commodity fetishism; some brilliantly acute observations and explanations – ever more feverishly go to the logical end of his train of thought, concluding that he, that we, the privileged, *need* this war against the poor just in order to carry on with our pleasant lives.

In Shawn’s schema, “the poor” (quite rightly) ranges from the people who clean his hotel to nearly entire countries in the developing world. The genius of Icke’s production is finding pretty much the cuntiest venue imaginable and sitting us right down in it, so we as an audience can really revel in the shitty, shitty situation that the world’s in. The May Fair Hotel (who, in fairness, are at least letting the Almeida use their space to destroy them) is about as vile a display of ostentatious opulence as you could ever wish to avoid. The menu on the wall for the attached restaurant has side dishes that cost what a reasonable person might expect to pay for a meal, and a veal chop (£40) that costs more than my weekly food shop. (Although, weirdly, each room is dominated by a vast television set (even the sodding bathroom). It might be fucking expensive and bling, but the hotel clearly takes a pretty dim view of its guests’ interior lives.) Being immersed in this absolutely real manifestation of vertiginous inequality almost does all the play’s work for it.

However, to suggest it does is grossly unfair to Tobias Menzies, who plays this first-person narrator-cum-fellow-traveller. I’d only ever seen Menzies on telly before now. And, well, he’s never been typecast as sympathetic or not-posh, has he? Indeed the only note he ever seems to have been given by directors is “could we have a bit more more sneering, Tobias?” It’s a real pleasure to discover that in the flesh he’s a tonne more warm and likeable than his TV parts, and with a far more mobile, sympathetic face, while still remaining noticeably posh enough to remind us of the privileged life he’s talking about (indeed, in this, it feels like Icke has deliberately cast Menzies *and* his back catalogue of upper-class roles).

I guess what makes for such a marked contrast is the fact that rather than being a person operating their power viewed by the external eye of the camera, here Menzies inhabits the space with us. And, rather than us observing his actions, his whole time is spent talking directly to us, face to face: his unflinching eye-contact throughout is mesmerising. And the character is, by turns, charming, ingratiating, plausible, convincing, hectoring, and, by the end, chillingly direct.

The play leads us; the deliberately (at least) middle-class, privileged audience – no matter how much we wish we weren’t so – from our comfortable, well-meaning, good-intentioned, Left- or Green-voting happy place, into the slums of the developing world to watch the execution of a Marxist rebel, to see the squalor in which others are forced to live, simply in order that we can carry on the lifestyle to which we’re accustomed. And this is the text’s genius, it doesn’t try to present a solution. It doesn’t for a second suggest we can or should even want to change. It’s more challenging than that. It just forces us to admit to ourselves, privately, that this situation, that the world, is disgusting. And to acknowledge that we’re all responsible. And that we will keep on being responsible for it. Even if we’re not the worst offenders (and, looking round the audience, I’d guess that most of us weren’t. We stuck out like 25 sore thumbs in the posh hotel lobby, in our relatively shabby clothes and our £40 weekly food shopping budgets), we’re still offenders. Even if we don’t live in the lap of absolute luxury, I’m guessing that for £30 theatre tickets, we’re hardly up against it. (indeed, why my outrage at a £28 sirloin steak if you think it’s reasonable that people can afford to spend more to watch someone talking for 90 minutes while drinking a free glass of very pleasant red wine and eating some free Lindt chocolate). It’s nothing new. We already knew the world was unequal. What’s brilliant is the violence with which it proposes that we deliberately maintain the status quo *precisely* as we do. This sheer confrontation of us with our darkest selves – the bits of us that, while perhaps campaigning for social justice or Tweeting outragedly about this or that terrible thing, make damn sure we’re campaigning all the harder for a nice flat to live in, and nice things to surround us, and nice amounts of disposible income, that we may come and pay £30 to watch a similarly comfortably off actor deliver a stern rebuke, executed with perfect judgement and panache in a hotel in one of central London’s most expensive districts.

“Self-reflexivity” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Icke knows absolutely what he’s doing by creating this performance. And it’s the very way that the piece refuses to agitate for change, or to suggest that there’s any likely solution to our greed or self-interest that ultimately makes it so powerful. And, ironicially, might just provoke small, gradual, tiny, not-self-interest-threatening attempts at change in those who see it. Or, as the fevered protagonist suggests, maybe it won’t at all. Because we don’t ever, ever want to fall through the cosy, necessary, protective blanket of of our privilege.


Straight after the show I suggested The Fever was the theatrical equivalent of this, which I still kinda stand by:

(a song 35 years old this year, fact fans)