Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Gambit – Waterside Arts, Sale

[seen 23/07/15]

[Or: how to build a ‘proper’ review]

[explanation for time-rich blog reader /cut] Two self-reflexive reviews in one week isn’t good. Everyone will think I’ve come down with a nasty case of incurable metacriticism, but here we are. It just feels like the most helpful way to write this review.

In a 330/440-word review for the Guardian, I can imagine all the sins of shortcutting I’d commit trying to wrangle my feelings about Mark Reid’s The Gambit into a passable shaped piece.

The long and the short of it is: I was confused about The Gambit. I was confused about what precisely it was about. I was confused by what register it was in. And I was confused about whether (not that it matters) I liked it or not.

[context bit /keep] Mark Reid is clearly something of a dynamo on the Manchester Fringe. [I’ve not really met him (except to say hi last night), but from conversations on Social Media, the existence of the Manchester Independent Theatre FB page, and so on,] one could be forgiven for thinking he *is* Manchester Independent Theatre. [I mean this as a compliment to him, and with no disrespect to the myriad other Independent Theatremakers in Manchester. And] I admired the last project he originated, Better Brutality, very much indeed.

The Gambit is a very different beast to Better Brutality...

[self-conscious self-criticism bit /cut] Now, of course, one conclusion that a reader may readily leap to is that I liked Better Brutality more because it was performed in the grungey, squatty environs of Antwerp Mansion[s?], rather than the rather more clean, propose built, wholly nice Waterside Arts Centre in Sale (which is lovely. Right by the tram station. *And*, blimey, Sale’s nice, isn’t it? Like bloody Twickenham or somewhere). I would say that *consciously*, at least, this isn’t the case. I do like lots of different things.

[the wrangling over what The Gambit *is* bit] “The Gambit is a very different beast to Better Brutality...” and here we come to my first problem. For a review of limited word count, I think I’d feel forced to pin my colours to the mast and say: “...much more in the mode of something like, say Frayn’s Democracy or later Stoppard”. And, you see, by asserting this so baldly, I think I set myself up a world of problems for later on. Because, more honestly, I wasn’t *exactly* sure what tone either play or production were aiming for.

The problem of this sort of uncertainty – for a critic, definitely – is that it can also get distracting. And also leads to that most reviled of review-types, the one where the critic acts as uninvited script doctor or backseat director.

Because, if I identify The Gambit as a would be late-Frayn/Stoppard, then what I have to say next is that it doesn’t quite work as this. In reality I’m not at all sure that’s even what it wants to be, but having claimed it is, that’s where I’d have to go next. Something like:

“It has a quality of what you remember from those plays, the unspoken subtexts that you unpack yourself, but here it’s all written down as the dialogue instead of remaining as subtext.”

I think this is a valid enough statement, but it presumes too much about the intention, and then appears to presume to know how to “correct” it (which I don’t, really. I don’t write plays, or running a course on how to do it. I just have the vague feeling that in this mode, if this is the mode that this play is in, that, rather than the characters naming all the things they’re talking about “on-the-nose”, they should mostly talk about immaterial things, details – and in the way that people really speak – and let us in the audience gradually understand the relationship like that. It that right? I think that’s how those plays actually work. How “naturalism” works. By observing the way that people hide and obfuscate, much more than how people argue about an issue head on?).

But, yes: see? Already so prescriptive. Already so many “these are the rules of playwriting”, which a) I don’t believe are set in stone, and b) may not even be from the applicable rulebook.

But perhaps the characters *are* talking round something else. I dunno. The diction of the whole thing feels either like it’s actually incredibly elevated – there were several striking uses of “cannot” and in each case they particularly stood out for me are really idiosyncratic, because they didn’t seem to sit happily in the actors’ mouths, or rush out ‘naturally’. And many other words or lines seemed to exist like that.

At one point someone actually said something like: “You always talk in epigrams when you’re angry.” (I paraphrase. No notebook is a drawback when there’s no printed playtext, I’ll admit.) Now, to me, that exemplifies a few other problems I had both with identifying the mode of the play, and with whatever mode it was. Because that’s more sub-Wilde, isn’t it? (I mean, the effect of the actual line was. My paraphrase is unfair.) And, yes, the whole did have a kind of grandeur to the language, which, to me, seemed to be at odds with how other aspects of the production was working.

On one hand, this could be an experiment; just one whose results I didn’t quite understand, because they don’t fit readily into various patterns I was trying to fit them into, but on the other hand, the production itself might be approaching the text in a way that the director () has quite made work (for me. There are already perfectly glowing reviews elsewhere).

But, to contradict a lot of what I say about the piece being “too on-the-nose” above, something else that bothered me was my sense that I was also missing some REALLY CRUCIAL INFORMATION.

The play seems to be about two men, both Russian (or rather, both from the former-Soviet Union), meeting twenty-five years after a career-defining chess match. I think they are both Chess Grandmasters. One has since gone into politics. Each makes bold statements about the others character. They make bold statements about their own character. And about their relationships. And about the trajectories of their lives.

And my immediate and ongoing reaction to all of this was to worry intensely about whether I should know who they were. Or whether I’d already missed who they were. Or whether they were just made up people. Or, if I should know who they were, whose fault this was? Or worrying about whether I shouldn’t just stop worrying.

But the way the information functions in this piece seems seem be a long way from the most comfortable. All I’ll say by way of prescription, is that it made me personally feel uncomfortable, lost, and unable to just watch the play. All of which are quite unusual feelings for me watching a play. I laugh at MB’s almost self-parodic calls for “more social context”. But, really, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a clanging expository speech saying who people are (if they’re real or imagined), and even what year it is now (is it 2015? They keep saying the cold war ended 25 years ago (1990?). Is this a piece set last year? These tiny details feel so petty to bring up and yet, that was my experience of the thing. Wanting to get my phone out and read the blurb for the play, or look at Wikipedia).

So, yes. I was wrong-footed by the information (or lack of enough of it), by the writing, and also by the pace and style of the performances, which seemed like they were racing through a script that shoulf have taken at least 90 minutes, in order to bring it in at the Fringe’s usual 60 (the show goes to Edinburgh in August).

I don’t know if noting any of this is helpful. It certainly feels more like an audience feedback form from a particularly picky (if hesitant) literary manager than a review. But, as I started by saying, the standard review format seems to encourage assertion and certainty (which can be wrong), which lead to “I’d have done it differently” type statements (which annoy artists more often than not).

The review should report the thing seen and the experience of seeing it.

In a funny way, I think I have at least done that. My experience was concern that I wasn’t getting something, and consequent concern about what you do with that situation as a write-up.

This; apparently.

Obviously in this instance I’ve so far taken 1432-words to say all this. Which is no practical help as “a consumer guide”, but perhaps more help to my ongoing thinking as a critic, and perhaps your ongoing project as a reader-about-theatre (whatever your interest). And also more help than the curt refusal of A Bad Review (or even An Equivocal Review), which is what I worry I’d have have had no choice but to write if I’d have a word-count restriction.
Because form railroads content.


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