Monday, 31 August 2015

Can I Start Again Please? – Summerhall

[seen 26/08/15]

1 The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2 The world divides into facts.
1.21 Any one can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remain the same.

The last Edinburgh Fringe review I wrote in 2012 is my incomplete account of Wojtek Ziemilski’s Small Narration at Summerhall. Which I loved. The review, like the show, started with a quote from Wittgenstein:

“#471. It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not try to go further back”.

Completely by coincidence, watching Can I Start Again Please, I was sat just down the row from Lucy Ellinson, whose first piece of writing-for-theatre I ever saw (back in 1999), featured the phrase “Can I start again please?”. Also in its opening moments.

It is so difficult to find the beginning.

Can I Start Again Please? also very quickly introduces a quote from Wittgenstein. The first of several. It is the one line punchline to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen. Here it is given as: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” It is entirely stripped of context. It is not “7...” It is: “Wittgenstein said...” It is not: “What Wittgenstein wrote in German, and was elegantly translated by Frank P. Ramsey and C.K. Ogden in English as...”

It is difficult to begin at the beginning.

I make this pedantic note because Can I Start Again Please is a piece about language and translation. In this piece, it is about translation of English into BSL. It is not so much about translation of German into English, English into BSL, and then, perhaps, BSL into DGS (which, crucially, is one-handed, not two.)

The top of the programme – which I read moments before the piece started – says:

Can I Start Again Please 

“is about the capacity of language to represent traumatic experience, in particular childhood sexual violation.”.

On the stage, Sue McLaine the writer and performer, and Nadia Nadarajah, performer and BSL interpreter, sit wearing similar (Grecian?) dresses, gradually scrolling a long script across their laps like two of the Fates.

The next bit of Wittgenstein quoted was about context. I scribbled it down wrong, so had to do a word-search in the book itself.

The six mentions of “context” in the Tractatus are:

from 2.0121 ... If I can think of an object in the context of an atomic fact, I cannot think of it apart from the possibility of this context.

3.3 Only the proposition has sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning.

4.23 The name occurs in the proposition only in the context of the elementary proposition.

5.451 If logic has primitive ideas these must be independent of one another. If a primitive idea is introduced it must be introduced in all contexts in which it occurs at all. One cannot therefore introduce it for one context and then again for another.

These handily random line from Wittgenstein’s philosophical treatise give some indication of what troubled me about the use and subsequent interpretation of the first line.

“One cannot speak the truth if one has not yet conquered oneself” (Culture and Value, Wittgenstein – quoted in McLaine)

 Quoted, McLaine: “Qui tacit consentit” Latin, meaning: “who is silent consents”. In this instance, McLaine uses the phrase to condemn a patriarchal world in which silence is taken as consent. An alternative interpretation is the maxim “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people say nothing”.

For the reasons quoted above, I found Can I Start Again intensely problematic. I didn’t know the piece was about child abuse. At the bottom of the programme an “I” makes it seem likely that it is first hand experience of abuse by the writer/performer. If I’d known that, I’d have probably skipped seeing the piece. (Because I find writing reviews of pieces in which someone relates a personal trauma ethically dubious at best. Yes, we could debate the extent to which any piece of art is ultimately a result of the artist’s personal traumas, but even if they have the good grace just to give them to a made-up character, then it feels that bit more acceptable to write about it. Because, really, how am I going to tell anyone the way they related their personal trauma is good or bad? I’ve done it in the past, and I didn’t like it one bit. So...)

Since I have seen the piece, though, and since it has won prizes, and got wonderful reviews, it seems ok to wonder about the use of Wittgenstein. Because the way the piece evokes him, and especially that last line, seems deeply problematic. Out of context, it sounds like he’s saying “don’t speak about unspeakable things”. However, I *think* – and I’m a long way from being a student of logic – this is a conclusion to the world being “a totality of facts, not things”. I *think* W. is asserting that opinions are not the province of logic. Only facts and unfacts.

The piece, I suppose, explores abuse from the perspective of the person who has been abused. That person wants to make the abuse go away. MacLaine desribes (her?) six-year-old self’s method for making it unreal. It is obviously an acutely uncomfortable thing to watch, no matter how beautifully done it is. And the problem with the bandied about Wittgenstein is that is keeps reasserting that the world is made up of facts in one’s head.

[Fwiw, the person I saw it with didn’t read the programme thing before seeing the piece, and so mostly enjoyed how hypnotic and playful it was. I just sat their seeing everything leading up to the abuse. Which was powerful, yes, and well done, but also incredibly difficult.]

Oddly, it also reminded me very much of Tim Crouch’s The Author. The phrasing and concerns just as much as the subject(s).

Except, where The Author was really about the audience, and how meaning is/was created by us, this was more concerned with how the performers create the meaning to transmit. Unfortunately, even though we in the audience weren’t quite as primary a target, we were still creating meaning for ourselves out of the materials we were given. Which, I suppose, is where my getting side-tracked by whether this was a fair representation of Wittgenstein came in.

I’m not really sure what Wittgenstein had done wrong to be treated with such disdain (apart from maybe to be misunderstood), but I did spend much more time than I think I was meant to worrying about it, and trying to remember the rest of the Tractatus, and, well, you get the picture. I was both present and miles away all at once.

None of this is criticism. I think this is probably a really good show. I just got distracted by something in it. And possibly that in itself is because I don’t really get on with shows about personal trauma. Yes, I *know* it’s unimaginably worse to actually suffer an actual trauma, don’t write in. The suffering still doesn’t mean I’m obliged to watch the resultant artwork, or, if I do see it, not obliged to like it. But that’s where we came in on this discussion, isn’t it?

So, re: my opinion: “The proposition exists only where there are facts. Where there are no facts (i.e. the mystical, the metaphysical, the ethical), there is no corresponding proposition. If there is no proposition, no statement can be made in regards to these topics (mystical, metaphysical, ethical). So, what should we do where we cannot make any statement?

“Remain silent.”

Lanark – Lyceum (EIF), Edinburgh

[seen 27/08/15]

Lanark is one of those pieces of theatre that makes the entire practice of writing about theatre feel entirely idiotic. What do you do with those? Where do you even start?

It seems to make most sense to start at the end; after the show has finished. The ending is so beautiful, so bittersweet, so beautifully clever, and so cleverly beautifully judged, so thump-in-chest winding, and so full of everything that the previous four hours have been about, that you (I) leave the theatre in a bit of a daze. I probably bandy around “perfection” too much as a term, but it really is an incredible feeling.

Perhaps this is why Lanark is so hard to write about (two and a half days putting it off and counting). Because the level where it really works is *feelings*. You find yourself feeling a fuck of a lot. Which is great. Obviously. Yay theatre! Yay feelings! But it’s no fair to someone who has to write about it. I mean, it’s not like Lanark – an adaptation by David Greig (tho’ even the play itself acknowledges a certain amount of devising) of Alasdair Gray’s brilliant novel – doesn’t have ideas in it too. And it’s not like Graham Eatough’s staging doesn’t deserve a full description and discussion as well. But lists and descriptions and discussions won’t really do. Lanark is one of those pieces where without you ever really realising that it’s happening, you’re somehow completely transported somewhere else by the end. Emotionally, intellectually, everything. And, probably well past half-way you could have carped maybe a bit about this element or that aspect, and then there you are; without anything signaling “perfection” you’re frankly a bit of a mess and the whole kind of shimmers behind you (in time, in memory) as this perfect *thing*. It’s a weird thing, theatre.

So, having fronted up to the fact that everything I now say is going to be a bit prosaic by comparison to what I think I saw, shall I tell you the plot a bit, and what it looked like, and some of the ideas in it?

The novel Lanark, and consequently the piece of theatre, confusingly tells the story of a young Scotsman’s life – *probably* from childhood to death. I say probably, because a) the thing is told out of order, and b) lots of the parts are “unreliable” (as in “unreliable narrator”) to the point of hallucinatory. Do we take on trust, for example, in part one, that our (anti-?)hero is growing dragon skin on his arms. Is it a fancy, literary way of him talking about his eczema? No. It really is dragon skin. How do we know? Because later he discusses it with other character, and they talk about gradually turning into dragons. And then, later still, he goes into, well, *another world* – The Institute – and his girlfriend, Rima, who also *disappeared*, has actually turned into a dragon. We, the audience, see her, as a dragon, on stage. There is an actual dragon there. With her voice. And her arm. And... I really don’t want to spoiler this any more. Read the book. (No. Really. If you haven’t read the book anyway; do: it’s awesome.)

So you get the sort of territory. That is Act II. Which comes first. Just as, in the printed book, Part III comes first. Act I conflates Parts I and II of the novel. And, where part one – in terms of staging – is like a really relaxed, seventies, Brecht-meets-Dr Who (70s Who) thing, we’re suddenly back in on something less set-based; more architectural. In the first bit blocks of things, staircases, screens, are trundled about. In the second bit a lighting rig-high sort of climbing frame becomes everything from schoolrooms vertically populated by an identically-dressed ensemble-Lanark speaking in chorus to near-literal depictions of the church where Lanark is painting the ceiling.

Actually, I say “near-literal depiction” but of course it isn’t. No more than Simon McBurney’s stage at any point *actually* resembled a jungle or a study. Instead, the tall gantry here stands in for the scaffold Lanark uses to reach the ceiling, and you (I) find yourself filling in the church around it so vividly that you’d swear you’d seen it and could describe it perfectly.

(Similarly, Sandy Greirson’s performance is remarkable in precisely the same way. You'd be willing to swear it’s quite understated and he’s not really doing much *acting*, but, my God! How does anyone do that little and achieve so much with it?  It’s like alchemy.  It really is one of the finest stage performances you’ll see all year.)

It’s funny, re: the set  –  because after the Second Act (i.e. the first) I’d have sworn I thought the staging was quite sweet – that 70s Dr Who/Hitchhiker’s cheap set thing gets me every time – but was kinda wishing it had been designed by Robert Borgmann. But, no. There’s an inexorability and a logic to it, and also that very British love of narrative/story underpinning it. This emphatically *isn’t* conceptual in that way at all. It *looks* kind of mildly European, and there’s a fine bit of Pirandellan meta-theatricality later on too, but, no. Really, this is Scottish/British theatre doing what it knows best – telling a great story and essentially containing most of the metaphorical content *inside* that frame, rather than outside it.

I know I’ve agitated in the past for trying to open our island up a bit to other approaches, but Lanark (and The Encounter, actually) are both beautiful examples of times when we really don’t need to. When the idea of a story told “theatrically” is a more than satisfactory validation of another approach.

And, yes, Christ, that meta-theatrical ending. I’m not going to say what it is, or what happens, suffiice it to note that it does have a parallel in the book. But here it feels like Greig also well and truly makes it his own. And makes it not only about life and death, but also, powerfully, beautifully, movingly, about the possibility of Scottish Independence (I think). It suddenly gathers everything that the piece has always been about and ties it all together in a way that allows the audience, almost, to accept the inevitability of tragedy and sadness and death at the same time as our protagonist.

It is worth noting in passing that as far as is visible, the entire cast and creative team are white, and it’s very definitely A Man’s Story. Against this (and, yes, I know, shaky ground) in its treatment of a life’s struggles, I’d say it gets as close to being something that *anyone*/*everyone* could identify with as is imaginable. This is properly thrilling, epic story-making. It’s ambition feeling like a gift to the audience as much as anything. It’s theatre that makes the entire medium feel like a vast act of generosity.

I hope it tours bloody everywhere.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me – Forest Fringe, Leith

[seen 25/08/15]

Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me is brilliant. It’s also going on from Forest Fringe to the Soho from 7th September until the 26th, so just buy a ticket now and read this later?

The piece is a bloody strong, late contender for smartest, best thing on the Fringe. You want a thumbnail sketch of what I’m telling you to spend money on? Imagine Martin Crimp writing a Live Art One-Woman Show that lines up every godawful, exploitative, confessional solo-show in Edinburgh against the wall and shoots the lot. And then takes all the worst examples of men writing female characters with no agency and machine guns all those too.

Is that what anyone else wants from their theatre, or am I just putting you off now? Look, it’s really good. Just go and see it we can argue about how best to write its PR blurb later...

[rest of review after the photo, in case you want to go without much more info...]

Before I saw Tonight..., Matt Trueman suggested that I should watch it with my Stewart Lee review in mind. Advice which I duly spent much of the show trying to ignore. Unsuccessfully. It’s true, something like Lee’s layered ironies is also reflected here.

The set-up of Tonight I’m Going To Be Thr New Me is essentially that Jess (Latowicki) is performing a script written by her boyfriend, Tim (Cowbury). (I’m not sure whether it helps or hinders to know they are indeed a real-life couple, are using their real names, and are the two core founder members of Made in China, the company whose show this is. In real life, however, you can pretty much bet your ass that the script will have been written in collaboration between them.)

As a general rule – albeit one with many exceptions – I *hate* one-person shows that are basically just the performer telling us about their life. What’s brilliant about Tonight... is the way that it absolutely crucifies this genre. At the same time, it brilliantly explores this mode of performance. It absolutely both has cake and eats it.

At the same time, through the idea that the female monologue has been authored by a man, it explores the idea of the female performer with no agency, the male-gazed performer, the angsty male writer-artist... And it does all this within a show purporting to look – entirely relatably – at the modern relationship. In the same the way that Lee uses stand-up as the functioning medium, the tool to take stand-up apart, *and* the subject of the stand-up; this is a show that can be watched (and enjoyed) on at least five levels simultaneously.

More than Stewart Lee, though, I was reminded of Sleepwalk Collective, in the sense that Tonight... answered all the questions that Actress raised for me. This was Actress’s self-aware, spiky sister with a PhD in Performance and Gender Studies; the performer absolutely having her own agency after all. An idea conveyed – sometimes – by a *performed* complete lack of agency in Tonight...

The piece also executes the same literary trick as (for example) Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, but on a far cleverer level that works all the better for having the nominal “author” in the room with where the performance is happening. Hell, “Tim” is also performing in Tonight...

As well as being reminded of the elegant, deadpan music of Crimp’s prose, there’s a pretty neat pastiche of Bret Easton Ellis’s consumer-autism style (that thing in American Psycho (and others) where people are unknowable mysteries, but every single detail of a designer dress is reeled off word perfect).

I saw Tonight... as part of a four-show day at Forest Fringe on Tuesday, piled on some extra stuff since then, as well as reading *a lot* of other (unrelated) stuff. I’m not sure I’m going to manage to do it justice in this review (or, rather, I might have started in the wrong place).

To recap.: This is an incredibly intellectually exciting, brilliantly clever, also-very-funny-indeed piece of theatre. Go and see it.

I’ll go and see it again in London – and try to get hold of the script – and next time I’ll not let intellectual vertigo get the better of me, and will try to pin the damn thing down.

Except, I’m not sure it’s pin-downable. Or pinning down is what it wants. Really, perhaps what it demands in the first instance is being watched/experienced/thought-about. And for people to have that experience of all those thoughts being caused in your mind in such rapid succession that you can’t pin them down, or quite keep up with their meaning. Maybe that experience is really the show.

Oh, I haven’t said anything about the performance (outstanding), the design (understated, perfect-for-the-task, intelligent), and everything else that isn’t the cleverness...

But, Christ, yes. See this. It’s awesome.

A letter from an imaginary female critic


O, Michael,

Dear Michael,

I’m not sure you should have told people about me. But, now the cat is out of the bag, I feel it is important that I set the record straight. I know I’m just invented, but godammit I still have my dignity. And now that confounded book of yours is going to come out and my reputation will be in tatters.

You invented me, you say, to “offset any built-in male bias”. But, Michael, you have made it look like I didn’t put up much of a fight, haven’t you? I know I’m only a few months old, but you did at least have the good grace to invent me with precisely the same life story as yourself, didn’t you? Except in my case, I happened to be female.

Was I there with you, back when we were sixteen, and neither of us were critics yet, and we both sneaked out of school and get a train to London to watch that performance of Look Back in Anger?
[Why am I also a critic, by the way, Michael? I never really got that. Hell, I don’t even understand why I had to be a female critic to question your choices about the gender of playwrights (not to mention race, bloody hell...). But, what do I know? I’m just a feebly ventriloquised literary device, even here.]
Did I feel the exact same level of excitement as you watching Look Back in Anger? Even despite my feeling, even back then, that Osborne didn’t really seem to understand or care much about me? That this brave new world of kitchen sink drama still seemed quite keen to keep women at said sink (and ironing board), while the Angry Young Men thought their angry young thoughts. Half the time, they didn’t even really seem angry about very much at all beyond the fact that my gender weren’t putting out for their gender...

Yes, I am glad my unconscious influence steered you away from including Look Back in Anger in your book, but really I think it’s a shame that you chose to include Osborne at all. Because it’s disingenuous, isn’t it, Michael? You say I’m here to “offset any built-in male bias”, but I don’t remember you even talking to me about John Osborne. Sure, he represents a special point in time for you, Michael. But is The Entertainer really even all that good? Better than I thought A Taste of Honey or Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven were?

I mean, I do get that you aren’t really all that serious about the title – The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present. I do see that it’s is just pure mischief on your part. In fact – and I think you’ll be surprised to hear this coming from me, Michael – I don’t mind you having 101 favourite plays. I don’t even mind you playing the tabletop general and arranging all your favourite plays in a long line and saying that they represent the whole history of theatre. I really don’t. And I know you know you’re being subjective, Michael; not least because you keep saying so.

I think it might be more honest if you’d called the book “My 101 Favourite Plays...”, but then it wouldn’t have this crackle of controversy about it. You wouldn’t have to write spurious articles “defending your choices”, and most of all, you wouldn’t have had to invent me.

But since you have, let’s have another one of our chats. You say: “I can only say in my defence that I felt it would be patronising to start allowing questions of gender and ethnicity to dictate my choice.”

Well, yes and no, Michael.

It would indeed be disingenuous of you to include plays you liked less just because they were written by a woman, or “an ethnicity” – I notice you didn’t bother even trying to imagine a black critic (either or both genders), or any critics from China or Japan, or Mongolia, or India, or Israel, or Palestine, or Iraq, or Iran, or Nigeria, or Rwanda, or... well, let’s not do the whole list now – who might also take issue with your choices.

But – and this is a very big but, Michael – it is equally disingenuous of you to mistake “personal favourites” for “Greatest”. Or, if not “personal favourites”, then “plays which accord with my impression of how theatre and history work and with what things are important”. An impression which cannot help but be informed by your identity as a white, upper-middle-class man, born in the heart of the British Empire when it was still occupying India (for example). You know your perspective would be different if you had been born in France, or Germany, or Czechoslovakia, or Yugoslavia, or America, or Australia, or the Soviet Union, or Greece, or Italy; let alone outside the Western World, that you later admit is your only subject. And you know your perspective would have been different if you had not been white. And you know your perspective would have been different if you had not been male.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice list as much as the next woman, and I’m crazy interested to see another one written by a privileged white male. There have been so few, after all. But I do resent being conjured into existence just to be ignored. That does seem a bit much. I could cope, I think, with the experience of my gender being largely immaterial to your experience of the world – although, as you might have noticed, I am gently trying to achieve some level of parity for my own experiences. What irritates me, Michael, is that you don’t really listen to me when I try to explain all this.

It’s a bit like those panels you’ve taken part in lately, which you claim have “argued the future lies with group creation rather than the solo author”. It’s funny; when I was with you at those panel discussions, that isn’t what I heard those people say at all.

Yes, some artists/groups-of-artists make theatre a different way. And you ignoring them, and/or misrepresenting them, is your right. This isn’t even about me, but I do think that claiming “passionate advocates of the devised play assume that democratising the work process automatically leads to work of radical intent” is untrue. “Assume” and “automatically” aren’t things I’ve ever heard them say. And I think you know you’re also disingenuously conflating devised work with the work of directors who also author meaning. WE ALL KNOW that you “cherish an obstinate belief in the subversive voice of the individual dramatist”, but, my God Michael, we all also know that THEATRE is different to PLAYS*. I am willing to bet you two years of my imaginary salary that you have seen terrible productions of most of these PLAYS you claim are GREATEST. In short: plays cannot exist without theatre, but theatre can exist without plays. Even if you don’t much care for the results.

But we’re getting side-tracked by something else we’ve never really seen eye to eye about.

To sum up:

No one really minds that your favourite scripts are mostly by people who share your class, ethnicity, and gender. I imagine some of us might even concede it’s probably inevitable.

I guess a few more of us look askance at the fact that, having listed your favourite scripts, you’ve chosen to categorise the work of your class, your gender, and your ethnicity as “Greatest”.

But, Christ on a bike, Michael, don’t make me up, and then expect me to be quiet. Having favourite things is fine. Inventing me as proof that you’re somehow objectively in the right is a ludicrous and unfathomable insult to my gender.  

*Especially leaving aside the fact that, in the case of the Greeks, what you are essentially including in your book of Greatest... is the libretto for a day-long opera(-kinda-thing), and almost every production of those plays that we’ve enjoyed has been AN ADAPTATION of that “playwright”’s original intent... Even leaving that aside, without a production you’re just talking about a weird sort of narrative poem or dialogue-heavy novel.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Shorts: Hamlet review is put back where PRs planned it

[words, words, words]

Did everyone who read The Times protest too much? Methinks no.

The writer of the new review of Hamlet has responded to criticism by trying to sound like less of a literal-minded theatrical hobbit, but to little effect...

And so on and so on.

The other reviews are faintly interesting, but all too short, and lacking any kind of real analysis beyond the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, so are the rest of the company, and that there is a big old set.

Billington’s review reads almost exactly like his review of Three Kingdoms, making me incredibly keen to see Hamlet, and very keen indeed that the Guardian stop sending him to any theatre that has any visual component at all.

Andrzej Lukowski’s is amiable and eminently sane and sincere, but sacrifices a lot of his wordcount summarising the ugly press bleugh around the production.

Meanwhile, over at The Stage, Mark Shenton has opted to deliver an excitable word salad instead of a review.

And that’s more than enough Hamlet round-up.

[Declaration of interest: Germany’s leading theatre reviews website, Nachtkritik, did commission a review from me, but apparently Premier PR, who were handling the press allocation, didn’t have any tickets – which I completely understand. I mean, the thing is sold out anyway, and every press ticket given away is 125 quid not recouped. And the financial value of stage semiotics appraised in German is probably not high. Commerce gets the critics it deserves, and all that...]

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Shorts: how to review the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

[982 words]

Let’s be honest, I’ve been slacking a bit this year. At present [24/08/15 – before posting the Jesus Queen of Heaven review] I’ve seen 29 shows in Edinburgh this month, written about ten of them, have every intention of writing about another two or three of them (and am trying to be constructive, so there are other things I’ve seen that I’ve hated and just not written about). There’s a whole week of the Fringe left [6 days now], and this still feels like an incredibly low work-rate.

Granted, my reviews tend to be a bit longer than most. Across the ten reviews I’ve written there are 10,044 words (plus the odd feature which I’m not counting). Which is the same as 40 250-word reviews. Or 50 200-word reviews. Except it isn’t at all. Because it’s much easier to write more on a single subject than it is to write less on four or five times as many subjects. *And*, it takes less time to put in the time seeing the things to write about. And there isn’t the rushing between venues to see them. Let alone the time that seeing four or five shows in one day takes up – leaving no time to write about them...

But isn’t all this a bit mad? In the ordinary run of things, how much work is a critic expected to do? How much work is anyone expected to do? On one hand we have an unhealthy long-hours culture in the UK. And on the other hand we have our (apparently likeable) attachment to amateurism and “mucking in”, which also amounts to Long Hours – but *for fun*. These two things combine in Edinburgh to make it feel that if you’re not watching something every hour you’re awake and then reviewing it (presumably while you also catch a couple of hours sleep), then you’re just not trying. I think this is silly.

The work of the critic is not normally measured in mammoth word-counts or stupid numbers of shows seen in one week. I’m loathe to tell anyone who’s enjoying this pace to slow down or stop. But is the Edinburgh reviewing schedule really realistic? Let alone enjoyable? Does it serve either the work it is reviewing or the readers? (Manifestly in the cases of, say, Tim Bano, Stewart Pringle, Tom Wicker, Tash Tripney and Lyn Gardner, the long hours and too-many-shows aren’t hurting the quality of output one bit, although this piece from Exeunt perhaps bespeaks a bit of edge-fraying.)

Part of the reason I’ve scaled back the amount I’ve been seeing this year – apart from being old and wanting to look after my health – is that I quite like being able to think about what I’ve seen. That is not possible (for me) if as soon as you’ve seen something you have to whizz across town and go into something else. And if you end the day with five or six shows that you half-remember and a faint sense that you ought to be writing something intelligent about them... Well, it’s hard to resist the idea that this month – while theoretically great for the profile of critics and criticism – can be very bad for the practice of criticism itself. And critics themselves get a terrible sense that they’re not doing enough, even if they’re already doing more than is really humanly possible. I think this last point probably applies to Edinburgh, even if you’re not required to write about shows.

But perhaps this feeling is perennial. In the first year of this blog’s existence, towards the end of my first time covering Edinburgh on Postcards, I wrote (on this day eight years ago): “despite probably achieving a thirty-plus show count, I can’t help feeling I’ve been criminally remiss. Apart from the fact that I keep taking whole days off from seeing anything because I can’t face another hour of trying not to cough while constantly wiping my red nose as silently as possible [evidently I caught a cold that year], I worry that I’ve allowed far too many things to drift. Partially this has been because “if it’s any good it’ll transfer”, and partially because, despite things being recommended, the recommendations have been pretty lukewarm. It seems you’ll always be able to find someone to applaud your decision not to bother going to something.”

The day after I wrote about the lack of critical consensus, noting the new proliferation of review sources, and how put out people seemed to be about them. What’s interesting, eight years on, is how different the landscape feels. The Fringe is bigger now (yay Forest Fringe; yay, Summerhall; etc.), but so is the coverage. In 2007, Exeunt didn’t exist at all, Fest was a very long way from being the brilliant collection of critics it is now, and The Stage’s coverage was, well, printed on paper and hidden in The Stage and published by a very different regime. But despite the Fringe being bigger, and there being more and better critics than there were eight years ago (plus Lyn, who is timeless and indefatigable), the amount that one critic can do can’t really change.

Do I have solutions for this? No. I suppose the inevitable conclusion is that the Fringe is a chaotic beast that will continue to somehow busk all sorts of self-correcting solutions; and that the best of these – say Forest Fringe and Exeunt – will enhance the whole, but perhaps papering over some worrying cracks in the process. I suspect, like much else in the UK, something much more fundamental is going to have to give at some point.

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 23/08/15]

Forgive me for being personal, but, well, hopefully it’ll justify itself. As I’ve already noted at least once this month, both my parents were ministers. Happily, their denomination – the United Reformed Church – is one of only two which gets a note acknowledging its support in the programme of writer/performer Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven. Which made me rather proud. It also partly explains why, rather than finding this show either challenging or revelatory, I found it – watched at 10.45 on a Sunday morning – surprisingly familiar to an almost Proustian extent. Yes, its format does echo a Sunday morning church service (minus any singing, hymns or otherwise), but, more than that, the beautifully written, colloquial retelling of Christ’s parables and moments from the life of Jesus felt entirely in keeping with what I grew up with. (Albeit with more of an emphasis on trans*women, Queerness, and gender equality.)

As a result, I think I took most of what is perhaps surprising and useful for other audience members in my stride – the idea of Christ is a radical whose life and works are entirely incompatible with Conservatism, capitalism, bigotry, intolerance, etc. – and instead spent a lot of my time wondering about the possibility of critical engagement.

I’m not a Christian. And one of the main reasons that I’m not is that I don’t particularly believe in God. Much less heaven (or any other kind of supernatural post-death loyalty scheme). And this is a real sticking point when it comes to what Christ said. Which, interestingly, is not wholly resolved by Clifford’s Gospel either.

– on this point, I’ve just realised I should at least explain that this is a one-woman show in which Jo Clifford essentially plays Christ. But a Christ so closely identified with herself that there’s either seamless slipping between them or no distinction between “performer” and “character” at all. This isn’t because Clifford is claiming to be Christ, so much as it’s just a very workable way of performing the stories, making the points, and shifting the ground that needs to be shifted. It’s emphatically not delusional David Icke territory, but instead something more akin to that Christian message that Gods is with us and within us all always –

But, to return to the sticking point, the unresolved problem with Christ’s teaching is the endless forgiveness of others, the praying for them, the loving thy neighbour, the not condemning, the not judging others, etc. I get how it’s wonderful too. I do see that. What I don’t see (in common with Simon Peter) is quite how you’re meant to turn that into any sort of meaningful act of resistance. No. Not quite that. I see that being loving and forgiving in a world like this is quite the act of resistance in itself. I do totally get that. But, if we love and forgive, do we not also accept, condone, allow, and permit? Sure, in the context of the woman taken in adultery, no one throwing any stones is A Good Thing. I’m less convinced that letting he who is without sin sort out – oh, I dunno, anything from welfare cuts to genocide – is enough. On this point, Christ is frustratingly passive. We sort ourselves out, live life to the best of our abilities, and just hope we don’t come across too many people who require us to turn the other cheek, it seems. And this too, is, I think, what Queen of Heaven ultimately says. My problem with this is it seems as much like a complete recipe for slavery as it does for goodness and enlightenment.

Of course, it’s not a church service. Clifford isn’t directly telling us it’s the word of God. But then, on the other hand, she’s not not. The piece is offered with a very particular atmosphere around it, and it offers a version of Christ’s teachings which de-problematise those lovely ideas for a bunch of new people. All of which is well and good. It feels trite to mention, but I did like this piece an awful lot. I have almost complete sympathy with what it says...

However, this is a piece which essentially tells us to love one another, and bless those who work against us, but, in its slightly secular way – the afterlife is here pretty much massaged into the background if not oblivion – it also leaves us without any sort of backline, not even one as radical as “Heaven for everyone” as outlined in The Christians. So, taken to its logical end, we love and we bless. And we don’t judge, and are not self-righteous. And where the hell does that leave any kind of resistance?

It’s a lovely Gospel, definitely, but I wonder if, in these vicious times, we don’t need one with a lot more critical intelligence and a lot more fight in it.

Shorts: on self-indulgence

[613 words]

There are few accusations made about theatre that piss me off more than that it’s “self-indulgent”. Take, for example, the recent example in Kate Maltby’s stupid review of Hamlet: “It’s a wasted opportunity: pure theatrical self-indulgence.”

Who or what is even the “self” in this charge? The director? The leading actor? The playwright? Anyone else? The play itself? The production itself? Does a play or a production even have a self to indulge?

This is why the charge of self-indulgence usually pisses me off. It’s the sheer naïvety of the accusation. Theatre productions are, in general, a bit too bloody big for any one person to be able to indulge themselves. There are long, long chains of command and accountability which pretty much ensure that, unless something has gone very awry, no one can be self-indulgent.

There’s then the question of intent. Of what does this so-called “self-indulgence” actually consist? Unless a director is putting the show on for their own private amusement and not letting members of the public see it, then surely unless they’re a very unusual creature indeed, then they are in fact putting on the production *for* other people. If you were feeling especially grumpy, you could even argue they were putting on the production to indulge the audience’s appetite for seeing that particular play. Or that particular actor. Similarly, if the “self-indulgent” party is judged to be the actor, then they’re, what? Acting in a way calculated not to be pleasurable to the audience but only to themselves? Seriously? I mean, everyone is free to disagree with most choices made by most actors, but jumping to the conclusion that they’ve made those choices to indulge themselves rather than (sometimes incorrectly) judged them to convey their idea of the character? Does that even seem likely? To anyone? At all?

And yet still the feeling persists. Perhaps more so in Edinburgh, where there are fewer checks and balances than in most of the rest of the industry. What other reason can their be for such unasked-for excrescences as (for example) A History of Feminism (As Told by A Sexist Pig). Who else is being indulged by this? Even that small constituency of arts-going, hard-done-by, right-wing misogynists can surely find better things to spend their money on.

So, yes; in Edinburgh I guess some people are indulging themselves. But, when they’re not the right-wing theatre critic of the Spectator, I dunno, it seems both impossible to dislike them for having a go, and equally impossible to want to go and see the result.

Something I’ve been wondering about, following on from the stuff I wrote at the beginning of the month about the Free Market, is something like How Do Artists Make the Leap from being unsupported, (especially when) solo, unknown, and open to the charge of self-indulgence, to being seen, supported, programmed, curated, and therefore no longer potentially open to accusations of being self-serving but instead able to defend themselves with the fact that other people like their work, have programmed it, believe in it, and so on. (See, for example, the fact that the British Council have programmed Caroline Horton’s Islands for their Showcase. It’s now even more nonsensical than it was before to claim she’s being “self-indulgent” since she’s clearly doing the piece here because someone else has seen it and asked her to do it again.) I suspect it partly has something to do with reviews.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting up here worrying that I’m not seeing nearly enough shows, and those I am seeing are all a bit too “tried and tested”. Would it be more or less self-indulgent of me to write another post about that? We shall see.

[cover image: pixellated result from a Google Image Search on "Edinburgh Fringe Self Indulgent", originally from this article]

The Encounter: an appendix


It didn’t really fit with the tone of the review (although there’s a reference in there), but I really do hope that Simon McBurney and Gareth Fry’s relationship is like the first bit of this.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Stewart Lee – Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

[seen 19/08/15]

The other morning I had a read through pretty much the whole of Fringe Pig. I didn’t mean to, it’s just very easy to read; it’s amusingly written and insightful about its subject. In case you don’t know, Fringe Pig is another Edinburgh Fringe reviews site, except that instead of reviewing comedy it reviews comedy reviewers. Among its many bêtes noire are theatre critics who come to Edinburgh, mostly review theatre, and then get a press ticket to one comedy show because it’s by their favourite comedian and then give it a hopeless write-up because they know zip about the context. Hopefully, the fact that I paid the full £12.50 (plus booking fee) for my ticket will mitigate their scorn a teeny bit.

Re: context – No, I’m in no position to compare Stewart Lee to any other comedians performing live in Edinburgh, because I haven’t seen any other comedians performing live in Edinburgh. Not for a few years now, thinking about it. I have seen some other stuff that’s been thought about, written down, and been performed, though. Sometimes all by the same person. And sometimes that’s also included talking to the audience and jokes. So let’s think of this “review” as an experiment or a work-in-progress. Which Stewart Lee’s A Room With A Stew also is.  (And, fuck it, he casually namechecks Brecht's V-effekt and drops in a line from Gogol’s The Government Inspector without even crediting it, so theatre-literacy doesn’t seem an entirely misplaced standpoint from which to watch.)

Stewart Lee’s A Room With A Stew is, on one level, an hour and a bit of him trying out and honing the material for his new six-part BBC series. On the day I saw it, at 2.15 in the afternoon, he had pretty much filled up the Assembly Rooms Ballroom space. Which isn’t small. I imagine at the very least he covered his costs. Which, for R&D, is a pretty neat trick. Under-funded Avant Garde Theatre Companies should take note. (Christ, so should Lyndsey Turner and Sonia Friedman: fuck worrying about “previews”, charge entry for every minute of the rehearsals too...)

I say “on one level”, because really Lee’s whole shtick is something of a double-blind. He tells you exactly what he’s going to do and then both completely fulfils and entirely subverts that promise. Yes, it’s a preview, but it equally feels like 1hr20(?) of the best *polished* stand-up you’re going to see all year (part of the polish in question being the seemingly effortless lack of polish). He says he doesn’t do jokes and then both does and doesn’t. He says he obviously can’t do his proper material for this audience, because this audience doesn’t get him; *at the same time as explaining that that statement both is and isn’t true*, even fully deconstructing the truth and otherwise of the idea via theatre critic Dominic Cavendish’s idiotic (first) write-up of the show for the Telegraph. (We should note the existence of a second review, in which Cavendish at least upgrades his star-rating, even if refusing to acknowledge the glaring lack of thinking in his first piece.)

It’s a maxim of “difficult” “experimental” theatre that, in order to also be accessible, it needs to teach its audience how to watch it as the audience is watching. This is pretty much precisely how Lee’s show also operates. Indeed, maybe half the show is about the mechanics of “the show” – even unto the bit where there are bits deconstructing the deconstruction. All the while telling us that we don’t get it, and all to the massive amusement of what would appear to be the entire audience. The biggest joke being: this is a very famous comedian off of the telly, whose work is watched by, well, probably millions, whose persona is a grumpy middle-aged man who believes he is much better and cleverer than everyone else, like some sort of petulant six-form anarchist poet. And at the same time, consequently, actually kind of is better and cleverer than everyone else (as I might secretly believe that petulant sixth-form anarchist poet is).

The other night at Forest Fringe at their impromptu How To Be An Artist event, the equally peerless Chris Thorpe – as part of his n-point manifesto – sang the whole of eighties hair-rock band Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn solo with an acoustic guitar, to conclude: “#4: Fuck Irony”.

It was a troubling moment (maybe just for me), because, a) post- Stewart Lee, I’d been thinking irony was probably alright again, at least in some very clever triple- or quadruple-bluff kinda way, but also because b) I wasn’t entirely convinced that performing Every Rose..., no matter how sincerely, *does* escape irony. I mean, it just is quite ironic. (And, yes, I could explain how.) Rather than trying to fuck irony, Lee’s show accepts its inevitability, and tries to work with it in order to produce something more sincere by working around and with the fact that irony is inevitable. Really, what Lee is doing is forcing people not to listen and agree, but to think for themselves. There’s very little (if anything) here which even hopes to be taken at face value. Or at least, it does, but at the same time, it demands a pretty thorough examination of what face-value is and why anyone would even want something to exist with so few facets.

Anyway, that’s what I thought about during A Room With A Stew. It’s incredibly intelligent. It’s brilliantly written. And it strikes me that it could just as reasonably stand comparison with Tim Etchells and Aisha Orazbayeva’s Seeping Through, McBurney’s The Encounter, or Barrel Organ’s Some People Talk About Violence as other stand-up. And, mercifully, because it’s just as much about meaning, performance, intelligence, irony, resistance and thinking as those shows, I don’t feel like a dick for making those comparisons. Indeed, more than that, this is a performer at the top of their game who it’s a privilege to get to see live, and for so little money. And one that I’d recommend to everyone making live work, whatever genre.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Encounter – International Conference Centre (EIF), Edinburgh

[seen 16/08/15]

What is The Encounter?

The straightest answer to this is that it’s new “solo” show from Simon McBurney/Complicité.

“Solo” gets scare marks because while McBurney is the only person on stage there is such a remarkable level of artistry not only in his writing and performance, but also in the sound design, lighting design, video design, and the operation of these elements, that calling it a “solo” is a bit like only giving a medal to the member of the relay team who crosses the finish line. This is every inch the ensemble piece. McBurney even stops his tumultuous applause at the end to verbally acknowledge this; particularly the “musicians” of the sound and lighting boards.

And he’s absolutely right to do so. I watched the show from row N. Right at the back of the not-too-deep auditorium and right in the middle, slap bang next to the light‘n’sound desk. It was frankly a brilliant seat. If you like being able to watch the orchestra at the opera you’ll understand why. As well as everything you’re “meant” to look at and listen to, there was also the pleasure of seeing the “hidden” performances of the operators; the fact of the auto-cue reminding me that, no matter how improvised it might seem, most of it is already written down.

I think it’s safe to say that The BIG THING with The Encounter is the sound design. Everything else – writing, performing, direction, design, lighting, video – is also pretty bloody transcendentally astonishing, but it’s the sound design that is essentially introduced as another performer. The piece opens with McBurney chatting to us, essentially telling us that it hasn’t started yet until it has.

He invites us to put on our headphones, and then continues talking to us through a radio mic. Then, via the head-shaped binaural microphone, he demonstrates how we’ll hear his voice, and movement, according to his relationship to this device. He demonstrates this by walking round it talking and, yes, he does indeed seem to be walking around each of us. It’s probably the sort of thing we’re subconsciously slightly used to in cinemas, and perhaps if we listen to well-recorded radio dramas on headphones. But it still feels *incredibly space-age* and immensely satisfying. Other sound-tricks are demonstrated, one obvious one – lowering the pitch of his voice speaking into a microphone creates the American central character of the piece. A photographer travelling to the Amazon and getting obsessed with photographing a lost or hidden tribe.

The shifts, sometimes even leaps or massive jump-cuts, are so seamless and light that over and over again you find yourself not noticing that everything’s changed until you’re right in the middle of a new “scene” or “place” or “thing”, and, even though you’ve known exactly what’s going on the whole time, suddenly you’re somewhere else. This sense of lost-ness is crucial to the story being told – essentially an adaptation of Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming. Publisher’s plot synopsis: “In 1971, after years of searching, the photographer and writer Loren McIntyre flew deep into the Amazon interior to look for the source of the great river, and for the Mayoruna tribe. Never before contacted by the outside world, they were rumoured to be the only people who knew the true source of the Amazon. Lost in the jungle and kidnapped by the Mayoruna, McIntyre was at the mercy of the extraordinary war-painted “cat-people” with spines bristling out of their lips. He claims to have reached his goal by communicating telepathically with the tribe’s head shaman.”

But it’s only partly about this narrative. The way The Encounter tells it is well over half the point. The staging, the recordings, intersperse McBurney the narrator, with McBurney playing Loren, with McBurney, the father of a little girl who keeps coming into his room when he’s making Biaural recordings. (We suppose these recordings are genuine.) Being friends with Sound Designer Gareth Fry on Facebook, I’ve occasionally seen photos of him crouched in some Very English Woodlands with a group of game mates stamping and rustling around in wellies for him in order to create some of the ambience of the vast forests we imagine ourselves in during The Encounter. Other times, they really are in the Amazon, though. “Recording the silence” for all I know. It’s trite to say the man is a genius, and somehow disingenuous, given that we’re on first-name-terms. But, Christ, the sound on this production really is something else.

What’s fascinating as well is the seamless mixing of recorded sound with live foley, created by McBurney himself on stage often using nothing more than miles of discarded video tape and a loop pedal.

*Of Course* we’re reminded of Katie Mitchell’s pioneering work in this field, from Waves right through to Fry’s work with her on Wunschloses unglück. But, in terms of the staging, this is something altogether different. Essentially cinematic, but without a single concrete visual image. Or rather, not one single literal visual image. McBurney stands throughout on an essentially empty stage – there’s a table, a box of videotape, several crates of plastic water bottles, a few mic stands, and the back wall is a huge gloriously overstated foam sound-proofing thing of regular chunky pyramids jutting out of the wall.

The use of video is – as far as I remember – entirely non-naturalistic. Patterns emerge, are superimposed onto..., appear to ripple and float across the back wall, but there’s never a film of some jungle. There is haze and lighting. The spaces of the stage – for something that is essentially a long, flat, continuous space – feel cleverly demarcated, marked out, differentiated. We feel the movement, not only round the stage, but through the story, through even the jungle. And the sound, all the while, drags us deeper and deeper into believing it all.

It’s the sort of show that there really *can’t* be photographs of (obviously not literally, see top). But I look at the photos there are online and think “Christ. Surely there was a jungle in that bit” or “I wish they could have taken photos of what I was seeing *inside* my head at that point: that was visual theatre at its finest”. This also feels intimately bound to how both the story works and how the piece works: the protagonist can’t really be in the situation he is, might well be hallucinating, and yet it also is happening. Similarly, while we know – really – none of this is happening in front of us, it absolutely bloody is.

What’s most impressive is the way the thing leaves you feeling (left me feeling. Whatever). It achieves a kind of hallucinogenic transcendent feeling. Something as close to mystical as I’m prepared to acknowledge. Something also weirdly like a modernist sermon or parable. Something about time, and humanity, and life and death, and about reality. Christ. It really does feel like an intensely profound piece of theatre. I’m not sure I could write down what precisely I *learned* from it, and I don’t think that was the aim. Instead what we have is this kind of raw mass of feeling and thought and art/artfulness all offered to us as a kind of benign, message or offering of hope. And what we leave with is a feeling of having been imperceptibly rewired the better to receive it. “The Encounter” is an excellent name for it.

This is what the EIF website has by way of credits:

Simon McBurney Director and performer
Michael Levine Designer
Gareth Fry Sound designer
Paul Anderson Lighting designer
Will Duke Projection designer
Kirsty Housley Co-director
Jemima James Assistant director
Pete Malkin Sound associate

It feels somewhat incomplete to me, but printed programmes were £4 and I didn’t see any little photocopied free ones. But, yes; each and every one of those people is a bloody marvel, as are the unnamed people involved in any way with this show.

Seeping Through – Forest Fringe, Edinburgh

[seen 20/08/15]

Imagine a continuum of British writers that runs: Mark E Smith, Tim Etchells, Stewart Lee, Sleaford Mods. You’d struggle to give it a decent name. The one I came up with yesterday was “fitful realism” (which is crap). I’m thinking of the way that they take the language of cliché, the commonplace, the everyday, and smash unexpected bits of it together. A motorway pile-up of familiar images and sounds turned into a twitching, menacing, surreal (and I *hate* that word) landscape. Stuff – all of which you’ve heard before, in different contexts – suddenly clusters together to create a picture of a world, or a language, that is savage, alien and out to get you. It’s like if you put all the words and phrases you’re used to hearing in a row, but rather than arrange them like normal to feel comforting, they are instead juxtaposed in such a way that they draw attention to the problems that they usually paper over. That language itself is one of the problems. And the idea of narrative. That’s one thing that Seeping Through made me think about.

Seeping Through is a new, improvised, durational piece made by the writer/performer Tim Etchells (artistic director of Forced Entertainment) and the astonishing violinist Aisha Orazbayeva.

The outline of the thing on the Forest Fringe website is pretty much perfect:

“...a rolling improvisation that combines and moves between spoken text and music. Taking place over an intense, continuous four hour period, the performance allows the public to arrive, depart and return at any point. Shifting from a looped interpretation of Etchells’ monologue Erasure, to a set of spontaneous fragmentary improvisations – text and music are treated as fluid forces in the same space, fading in and out of each other, breathing together, cutting and cancelling each other, creating a dynamic and always unstable landscape.

“Constructing the accumulating text collage of the work, Etchells draws on fragments from his notebooks as well as on excerpts from performance texts and works in progress, creating collisions, loops, and unexpected connections between different spoken materials. In Etchells’s solo work language is somewhere between its semantics and its ephemeral materiality as sound vibration, texture and rhythm. The technical virtuoso Orazbayeva meanwhile, plays the violin in a way that tests the instrument’s limits, deconstructing and at the same time uncovering new sound potentials as well as radically remixing and quoting from elements of classical repertoire.”

I saw the first and last hours of the piece – having to disappear in the middle, annoyingly, to be on a (lovely) panel discussion about fringe theatre at Leith’s only year-round pub theatre, The Village. I do wish I could have seen all of Seeping Through too, though.

The way Etchells speaks lines here is sometimes like the words of a man trapped in a dream. The non-sequiturs uttered by the sleeping. And every line is repeated. Several times. Possibly in groups of four, possibly not. Definitely not as uniformly as that suggests.

Each repetition of a line has a different emphasis. The lines – or, let’s be honest, not “lines”, but fragments of text, sometimes just a few words – intend something different thing every time. It reminded me of that bit in Some People Talk About Violence when they briefly do exactly the same thing (while eating cream crackers). Here it feels less like a fun drama school exercise, and more like each time the line is reiterated the sense is being interrogated. And like it’s Etchells’s duty to say the line in every possible configuration of the way it could mean something or be said before he can move on. Like every possibility/meaning/version has to be explored/spent. It’s a really great way of speaking text. I idly wish Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet was eight hours of BC going through his lines in the same way until he’s said each one in a way that satisfies every single member of the fucking audience. We are hearing the words anew, over and over again. One result of this is that the text seems often to refer to itself and everything else as well.

Aisha Orazbayeva’s use of the violin is more inventive and holistic than the usual strings/bow interface familiar from, well, most violin music you’re likely to have heard. Some notes do still feature, repeated sometimes jaggedly for minutes at a time. Sometimes half-chords or even sequences of notes. But, just as likely are intricate scrapes, bashing the bow against the wooden body of the instrument, or playing the parts of the string past the bridge where only strangulated, high-pitched white noise is possible. In my notes I wrote “Helmut Lachenmann”. The German composer is really the only point of reference I have for this kind of anti-music. I was delighted to see that Lachenmann does indeed feature in Orazbayeva’s CV.

The interplay between music/anti-music and words (anti-prose) is sometimes subtle, unnoticeable, untraceable, subconscious, and sometimes stark, startling, and pronounced.

The is also an interplay between performance and performance space. The light-coloured wood. The orangey lights. The oppressive heat (it really is ridiculously hot in Forest Fringe’s studio, espciailly when a performance is four – or six – unbroken hours long). The whole thing gets rather yellow-coloured. It’s a bit like watching art in a sauna. Even the door to the outside takes on a kind of artistic function, the occasional cool breeze, cold light, and burst of chatter when it’s opened both welcome but distracting. A sort of random white-noise generator.

The text continues, mixing fairy tale trees and hard-boiled phrases.

I think of the random Dostoyevsky quote “O, you horses, what horses!” from Deer Park’s See You Swoon, NSDF 2003, which Andy Field and I were telling Lyn Gardner about on Monday.

“The way that the tape is decaying...” says Tim Etchells, which reminds me how I’d already thought how Seeping Through was like a textual equivalent of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops...

I was also thinking about the conversation we had with (an)other Forest Fringe co-director, Deborah Pearson, about her PhD, which is partly about narrative in Performance (I’ve almost certainly misrepresented that). And how this piece plays with ideas of narrative. How our understanding of, well, almost all performed sentences, lead us to initially conclude that what we’re hearing is a “story”. And how, because of familiarity, these stories don’t even need to be told us in full. So cinematic/imaginative are our brains that we maybe immediately imagine the speaker, and the room and the addressee, and everything else, just from one fragment of text. (I suppose I’m referring to “text” because we can see Etchells picking up cue-cards and notebooks and suppose that he’s reading from them.)

More lines from everyday life: “Please do not reply to this message.”

“Unknown error.”

There are descriptions redolent of of urban decay. Depopulated wastelands. My own Pomona visual-default.

Etchells is pacing, the pacing, the pacing, the pacing. I think about the Pina Bausch commission that he told me about for that Guardian interview we did.

the pacing, back and forth, back and forth, movements describing, movements describing a square, back and describing, square, violin, screech, square, Bausch piece, square, dance, screech, violin, Bausch...

Violin: sounds like anything except a violin. There are whole stretches where it sounds more like a horn...

The bit that sounded like the results of torture, or interrogation. The stuff about torture and interrogation...

The eye-contact. The disconcerting shifts of mood. Quietness. Understatedness...

“I’m considering my position”

The language of business...

“Love like film/love like cartoons”

Films. Guns. Animals. Guys...

A sad drunk in a pub. The failed memory of last night. [+ note to self RBQC]

Violin: sounds like a violin...  Suddenly almost Vaughan-Williams-y.

“There was a speech I was going to read out... It’s a fucking catastrophe... Don’t let anyone tell you anyone tell you any different... ETFs are a complex investment vehicle intended to mimic a market’s movements...”

The idea of the paranoid performer. “Why are you all looking at me?” his glances at us seem to ask. He looks behind himself. Sitting on that chair.

“A kind of amnesia of the hands...”

“It’s a problematic business model...”
“It’s a problematic business model...”
“It’s a dubious business model...”
“It’s a problematic business...”

“Where time is measured in fractions of seconds...”

“I dreamt I was in Alaska...”

“...shooting the breeze.”

It makes more sense written down once. You lose the sense of words or meaning connected during the repetitions...

Helicopter. Rain. Darkness. Outside.

Heat in the venue.

Violin: Tiny bristles against ridges of wound steel...

Las Vegas.

“Bad things happen, not only in literature.”
“Add injury to insult.”
“Keep it simple” x 32.

Violin : Daa daaaaah da. Like a one-note morse code.

“Still simple.”

“Keep it.”

“Keep it.” x 8

“Keep it simple...”

Looks at clock. Two minutes left.

“I need words...”

“More than words...”

“Something more than words...”

“Modern words...”

“Keep it simple...”

Not a pre-planned end-point. Almost – seemingly – arrived at whimsically. But a whimsy of endurance.

There is nothing else like this on the Fringe like this, this good, that I’ve seen. And while I’m pleased to have seen something so brilliant and one-off, I’m also kind of furious that there isn’t more like this. It’s the 21st Century. Why are the so many “finished” “plays” FFS?

[and there's never a bad time to link to this again]

Guardian: Warwick

[written for the Guardian]

Will doubtless add something about it at some point. For the time being, read the piece itself?

(cover image from video of Warwick tuition fees protest embedded in this article.)

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Man to Man – Underbelly Potterow, Edinburgh

[seen 11/08/15]

Man to Man has already received a glowing five-star review from Mark Lawson in the Guardian, and he writes well and persuasively about it.

It’s interesting going back to his review after seeing the show. Because, it’s not an *inaccurate* review (although Berliner Zeitung puts the date of the play’s Bochum première as 1982, not ‘83, in their review of the 2009 Berliner Ensemble revival. And I thought the Swastika in the snow he refers to was drawn with piss, not a stick), but – well, we’re different people; however – it feels like Lawson has just recognised the unavoidable facts of the matter: that the piece is indeed a masterpiece of technical skill on every level, and has marked it as such.

For my money, while, yes, the production is very well made indeed, it didn’t especially work for me in any meaningful sense. I don’t know much about Manfred Karge, although the fact that he seems to be part of Claus Peymann’s lot means we’ve almost certainly missed the boat with him.

The play was written in 1982, 37 years after the end of WWII. It reflects on (then) recent German history – pre-war depression to post-war Soviet occupation. It is now nearly as long since the play was written (33 years ago) as the end of the war was then. And, I’m not sure I really bought the fig-leaf Mauerfall update added by Karge, well, some time after the Berlin wall came down. Obviously.

The original feels quite carefully crafted around this central metaphor of a woman dressed as a man. It reminded me a lot of little Oskar’s refusal to grow in The Tin Drum – Gunther Grass’s classic novel about Germany during fascism. Jacke wie Hose (the original title – Jacket like trousers, a colloquialism for “same difference”, but obviously apt, given the cross-dressing in the play) was written when no one envisaged an end to the Cold War, or ever foresaw the possibility of German reunification.

So, yes, the question of what we’re watching and why felt quite crucial. In terms of the production, Alexandra Wood’s translation is a good rendition of how the text might operate as literature in German. Obviously/annoyingly, Wood can’t also translate how we as Britons receive that information, and so Bruce Guthrie’s Best of the Nineties Physical Theatre production (think: Shared Experience meets Shock-Headed Peter with added (masterful) 2015 video projections) always feels a bit like a bog-standard English monologue that’s forgotten to put in all the bits anglophone writers rely on.

That’s the what, anyway. I have no idea about the why. Because it’s there? Because it’s good to see modern classics from another culture? Because it lends itself to virtuosity? Not offensive reasons to put something on, at all. And they have done it very well, technically. But, for whatever reason, I think it’s the thing that I’ve seen on the Fringe that has left me coldest, so far this year.

Fans of technical accomplishment will love this technically accomplished production...

[Oh, and, to forestall the self-important troll who lives under Lawson’s review: yes, I’m well aware that a different production of the play was on at the Park Theatre last November, thanks. I’m not sure what you wanted Lawson to do with that information.]

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Ross & Rachel – Assembly, Edinburgh

[seen 10/08/15]

Imagine if the powers that be had let Wallace Shawn, writer of Grasses of a Thousand Colors, The Fever and A Thought in Three Parts, write the last ever episode of Friends.

I was about to say, “Ok, so maybe writer James Fritz doesn’t hit quite the same wild hallucinatory heights as Shawn...”, but actually by the point where Rachel’s sitting in that bathtub about to open her veins in the suicide pact that she and her terminally husband have agreed...  You get the picture, right? This is every bit a black-hearted and viciously funny, and – actually – politically/critically incisive as well.

The piece is (technically) a one-woman monologue. And its performer, Molly Vevers, has already won an acting award from The Stage for her performance in it. Rightly so. She’s a proper force-of-nature, pay-to-see-read-the-phone-book kind of an actor (and how fierce that phone book would seem in her hands). It’s directed by Thomas Martin, who recently appeared at the Flare Festival in his own one-man show, and used to run the young critics training-thingy, FringeBiscuit. I’d never seen any of his work before, and, in monologues, find in intensely difficult to guess what a director has done. But whatever it is, it is exactly right. God, this is a beautifully made little show. (It even has a designer – Alison Neighbour, who designed last year’s Spine (which I saw a year ago today, apparently) – which for a show performed in a black-walled shipping container maybe initially feels silly; but, no, it makes a difference. And just the fact of there being a small staging conceit – you’ll see – really adds a whole extra dimension to the thing.)

But, yes, Fritz’s script is also quite a thing of brilliance. R&R is perhaps a duologue for two people. Those people are grown-up versions of Ross and Rachel from the popular sit-com Friends. Vevers doesn’t do their American accents, and maybe only slightly hints at their all-too-well-known mannerisms, if at all. Ultimately, maybe she’s always only Rachel, remembering? Flashing backwards and forwards in time, seeing into the head of Ross, inhabiting his thoughts in first person. Perhaps some sort of Fury, seeing into both of them.

And maybe Fury is right. R&R is a hallucination, yes, and a kind of elegy to a lot of things – perhaps mostly “being young” and “the nineties”; two things which I incorrectly see as inextriably linked – but it is also a peerless take-down of uninterrogated male privilege. Ross’s refrain here, that Rachel is “mine”, his repeated claims of ownership, it just gets darker and darker. It’s not a grotesquely unfair reading of his behaviour in the series either. Rachel, by contrast, is dignified with a bit more of an interior life than we ever saw on screen. She has a brain and ambition, and is no longer sure how she ended up with this guy who never listens to her and isn’t interested in anything she cares about. She’s on the verge of starting an affair at work when Ross gets ill. There’s some beautiful writing here too. And some bloody insightful stuff too, about couples going through an illness together – although, here tempered by the fact that the couple in question maybe, deep down, actually rather hate each other.

There’s something brilliant about a monologue that does so many things at once. ON various levels it’s about relationships, love, and serious illness, but also somehow about people being property, famous people being public property, the expectations of others, about performance itself, and then it’s also this great big glorious iconoclastic assault on Friends. What more could anyone want during a rainy lunchtime, frankly?


cover image taken from this remarkable thing:

Weekend Rockstars – Underbelly, Edinburgh

[seen 10/08/15]

Star-ratings are rubbish. We all know that, right? Middle Child Theatre’s Weekend Rockstars is a perfect example of a show that would be a bleeding nightmare to star rate. In terms of raw potential, energy, performances, and pretty much re-inventing the idea of musical theatre from the smouldering ashes of everything you thought you knew about musical theatre: full marks. I definitely want everyone I know to see this show. And for the company to be picked up, worked with, collaborated with, and to go on to make A Lot More Theatre Like This.

At the same time, I’m keen to flag up that I also had a few reservations. And I’d like to be able to talk about those reservations without putting people off from seeing it. Is that ok? Could you book the ticket now before reading on? Ta. (Not least because, well, I think the idea of theatre having to be/aspiring to be “perfect” is silly and wrong anyway. We’re all good with seeing some work which has a few crunchy issues that we can chew over, right?)

It’s hard to know where to start with talking about the good bits. The format of the show is essentially theatre-as-gig. Take everything you know about musical theatre and set fire to it. I’ve always wondered how it was that I could really love gigs (although, pfft, standing) and really love theatre, and yet so very, very rarely see a musical that I liked. Or even understand why the music in musicals is like it is. Weekend Rockstars essentially does what I’ve long hoped someone would do and makes a gig into a piece of theatre – one that tells a story, one with characters, one that works pretty much brilliantly, and *is still also a pretty good gig*. Brilliant. The performances are also outstanding. The company of five are all great actor/performers, and bloody talented guitarists/bassists (plus ‘cello and synthy/keyboard/laptop/stuff at the back). And they’ve all got northern accents, which I realised, watching the show, I’d been missing quite a bit since I got here. The music is broadly a sort of Pixies/Blur hybrid, with maybe hints of Oasis (boo) and Joy Division (yay) thrown in.

So, yeah. While maybe not the best piece this company are going to make, all these aspects are bloody exciting to witness at the raw early stages.

Then there’s the story itself, with which I had a few more issues. Basically, Weekend Rockstars tells the story of “the best week of my life” as told to us by Terry, a 26-year-old working in Tescos, going out with an 18-year-old college student, living at home with his mum, smoking weed and taking grams and grams of, well, presumably speed or coke. By the end, [SPOILERS] his girlfriend has revealed that she’s got into university in London (*and left for university*???), his gran has died (leaving him her house, which doesn’t seem to get mentioned again???) and he’s gone off on a bender with his mates where in some narcotic fuelled haze he decides his whole life is totally excellent, or something. [/END SPOILERS]

This is the bit where I go full-Billington, basically, I just wanted a bit more politics. It’s difficult, isn’t it? I mean, I know I’m just some privileged tosser anyway, and this piece is committedly (and successfully) as unpretentious as it’s possible for anything that’s still theatre to be. No problems there. But at the same time, I think there’s a pretty strong line of working class political resistance to the status quo, in both music and theatre – think The Fall to the Sleaford Mods doing Brecht, for example – where A Good Night Out doesn’t need to be sacrificed in the name of progressive thinking.

It’s interesting. Because, on one level, I think Weekend Rockstars does already contain this critique. Terry is clearly a problematic figure. And, no, I don’t really want the thing to suddenly present a big old finger-wagging at the end so we all know what to think. At the same time, his maleness, the male-focussed-ness of the narrative, the mother/girlfriend/checkout girl axis of female existence in the piece is a pity, not least because there are more women than men among the cast, and as musicians, singers and performers they’re pretty fierce. But the women they get to play aren’t really. So, yeah, I guess, as well as showing me how the world is/can be, I wanted a bit more hope/critique/aspiration of what we’d like it to become. (Also, if the company could recruit a few non-white members, that would also be super. This piece is – in many ways – the most English/British thing you can imagine; but, while the people who appear in it are all white, it feels incredibly dubious to describe it as such.)

Anyway, enough of the carping. I do think those things are important, but I really don’t think they derail the show. At all. I do think the show is hugely intelligent about what it’s doing, but I wonder if it doesn’t also just run the risk of glamorising a life of passive drug-taking and acceptance of powerlessness. (Bottom line: Terry needs addiction counselling, not celebrating).

Nevertheless, this is a properly exciting company. Go see them. Programme them in your venue in the autumn. Commission them to make a new piece. Weekend Rockstars feels like the start of something incredibly exciting.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The Christians – Traverse, Edinburgh

[seen 09/08/15]

It’s interesting. I didn’t really go for Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax, playing as part of Vicky Featherstone’s inaugural Open Court season, directed by John Tiffany. I snarkily suggested it was the work of a guy who had “read Oleanna until he’d absorbed more-or-less everything you could learn about playwriting from it.”

I’ve no idea if The Christians is an earlier or later play, but whichever it is, in Chris Haydon’s splendid UK première production, without stinting on specifics or tightly constructed characters and arguments, it achieves something close to the universality of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (which is probably the single best “proper” American play ever written).

The set up of The Christians is as follows: We’re in a church. An American “Mega-Church”. The pastor, Paul (William Ganimara), is thanking us and giving a sermon. The large choir behind him sings. He recalls how we’ve built this church up from nothing. How *our* money has finally paid off the debt for this huge building we’re sitting in. And, now, he wants to deal with “a crack in the foundation of this church”. Not a literal crack, but a metaphysical one. Paul is worried about Hell. Paul is worried about the concept of Hell. Paul basically explains that the concept of Hell is inimical to his idea of Christ’s love. He recounts a story told by a missionary at a conference he attended in which a young man who wasn’t a Christian saved his sister from a burning building and died in the attempt. The missionary was saddened that he had not converted that young man thereby saving him from the fires of hell. In Paul’s scheme of things, that is not how God works. Nor is it what Christ says. Or what the bible says. (It’s a great speech, by the way. Properly moving.) It expresses a faith – evidently heretical in parts of America – that Christ didn’t die so that 21st Century Preachers would have something to threaten “sinners” with. Quite the reverse: that, as Paul puts it, God is unimaginable; God doesn’t think like a a small-minded man. It is, in short, about a believe in goodness. Pure goodness, even. An attempt to believe beyond vengeance, and malice, and judgement, and to actually believe in fairness, equality and God’s infinite love. It is A Good Idea. Period.

Almost immediately there’s a counter argument. Paul’s Associate Pastor, Joshua (Stefan Adegbola), *does* believe in Hell. Hell is part of what he’d been believing up until now, and Paul can’t just take it away. Hell is even part of *why* he believes. Joshua leaves and takes fifty congregation members with him. I won’t go through the whole plot now, but you get the point. Later there’s another exchange where a congregant called Jenny (Lucy Ellinson) puts the point again, not only that she’d donated to the funds to pay off the cost of getting the church built on the basis that there was a Hell, but also that isn’t it a bit convenient that Paul didn’t mention this radical change in the church’s direction until after that debt was paid off? And this is perhaps the trickiest part of the play; that Paul has, despite the goodness of his idea, behaved with pragmatism and disingenuity as well. There is a certain amount of bad faith in his good faith, so to speak.

Watching the play, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Labour Leadership election. And the idea of Socialism generally. The play offers one of the most simple, striking images of Conservatism you are ever likely to hear: that a lot of people are happier paying for Hell, and that the Hell they are paying for is for other people. Here they are, this congregation, presented with the watertight, convincing, Biblically backed-up, absolutely supportable suggestion that God loves us all so much that we have all already been redeemed through the blood of His son. And some people prefer the idea that other people – who maybe haven’t worked as hard as them, or made the sacrifices they’ve made, or been as “good” as them – will be eternally damned. They need their “sinners” to suffer.

But it’s not simple. Obviously believing in anything comes with a cost, or at least with a very deep breath. The problem of evil is still a huge theological debate. The hypothetical man who murders their son, or Hitler... Where does God draw the line with this new (to this congregation) forgiveness we’re talking about? Similarly, Associate Pastor Joshua’s own mother was not a Christian. By his absolute, unwavering vision of there being a Hell for unbelievers, he puts his own mother into it.

In short, one possible reading of the play is a study of bad faith, of most people being generally lousy. Of a good man’s good idea being rejected *because* people are either vindictive, or because they lack the imagination for something better. This is the version where Pastor Paul is Jeremy Corbyn (a reading made all the more plausible by William Ganimara’s white hair and short beard – although his folksy American accent and mild manner reminded me of a likeable version of Reagan). However, against this is the idea that he’s prepared to haemorrhage church members, and maybe even sacrifice his marriage for his beliefs. Certainly, as far as the member-haemorrhaging goes, this also could be seen to be a terrible warning re: Corbyn.

It’s interesting that the play – running time 1hr20 – stops where it does. The narrative, though by no means cut and pasted, does echo the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pastor of precisely such an American mega-church who did indeed decide that Hell is what is around us, not some burny afterlife dimension, and that all people are saved. Apparently his story does indeed see him excommunicated from his former church, but subsequently begin a new, successful ministry with a different constituency who found his teachings more plausible and compassionate. That is to say, stopping the narrative where Hnath does, does make this tight, plausible, dramatic and really a very fine study of almost any disagreement between leaders of men – as much Julius Caesar as the Labour Leadership Contest or The Crucible. I was also reminded of the God of Chris Goode’s God/Head, which I don’t think I’ve actually thought nearly enough about.

Haydon’s production is bloody good proper theatre, but actually, it’s also got a lot more avant garde-y oomph than you first suspect. Oliver Townshend’s set is – as required – a big old front end of a church, and Pastor Paul and Associate Pastor Joshua address us through microphones. But then, there are scenes where Paul and his wife Elizabeth (Ha! I knew there was a reason I kept thinking of the Crucible) (played by Jaye Griffiths) are in bed, in their home, and they’re *still* talking to us through microphones from the front end of the church. This strikes me as good and interesting.

So, yes, The Christians is a properly good play. This is a properly good production of it (bleugh, consumer guide-y), but what’s best about it, is the fact that it feels like quite an unusual beast in modern theatre: a play about a good man with (what I’d say is) a(n indisputably) good idea/point, and what happens to good ideas when they go out into the world. That said, seeing the play like that, I wish it could have had a more unapologetically upbeat conclusion. It’d be nice to see the good guys actually win on stage once in a while, wouldn’t it? God knows we see precious little of it in the real world.