Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Songs From The shows!

[Lemsip-fuelled madness]

I sometimes joke that I get out so little the only place I hear new music is in the theatre. This is of course nonsense, I just need to stop listening to Radio 3. And you never really hear new music in the theatre anyway. Nevertheless, here’s my countdown (alphabetically) of my favourite tunes from this year’s theatre!

Clapton, Erich von – Let it Grow, from Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok?

I should have banged on more about just how good and how revolutionary Susanne Kennedy’s production of Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? was in my Best of 2015, but banging on about it here will do. The play follows Herr R. while he has an abiding fixation with a song he’s heard on the radio. He goes into a record shop, asks colleagues, and tunelessly sings a meaningless refrain from the song with – in this production – no real notes at all. Snippets of the song get played until Herr R. has a full-on breakdown and murders his wife and children, at which point the song gets played in its entirety while an old woman dances on stage. It remains perhaps the most theatrically revelatory thing I saw last year, though not because of this. Still, uhrwurm-city for weeks after.

DAF – Der Mussolini, from Die Unverheiratete

Also at Theatertreffen, and probably my favourite stage design of the year, Robert Borgmann’s production of Eward Palmetstoffer’s The Unmarried was superlative in many ways, but few moments beat the bit where the action of the text was broken off for a re-recorded version of this German electro-punk classic from 1981, playing loud under flashing lights chucking of bits of set around. Basically the other half (see previous song) of what we go to Germany for.

Fall, The – Blindness, from Stewart Lee’s A Room With A Stew

Slightly cheating, since it’s play-in/pre-show music, not technically theatre, and possibly only from the Leicester Square gigs, not the Edinburgh ones. But still, seeing and reviewing Stewart Lee’s show in Edinburgh seemed to do Postcards’s reader numbers no end of good (write about things people have heard of and there’s a ready-made audience! Who knew?). And led to my getting to interview him for Exeunt in October, which was nice. The other reason to include a song by The Fall is that they’re probably one of the best bands to ever come out of Manchester, and moving to Manchester in March this year still feels like one of the other best things I did this year.

Hawkwind – Master of the Universe, from The Angry Brigade

Ok, so I haven’t really explained the rules of this game, have I? Basically, it’s my favourite songs/music that were used in theatre productions that I saw this year. In theory I didn’t really get on all that well with The Angry Brigade at the time – although I did like the bit when they played this. That said, it’s worth saying that, along with the other political pieces I mentioned in my Best of 2015 round-up, a lot of the facts and ideas in Angry Brigade really stayed with me. It strikes me that there’s maybe another examination of this to be made by theatre and soon. Maybe by Breach Theatre next time...

Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills, from La Mélancholie des Dragons

So far I’ve been doing a fine job of writing these little commentaries while listening to the songs. That is not possible here. Phillip Quesne’s La Mélancholie des Dragons was a remarkable, tender, fragile, brilliant, beautiful piece of theatre which played in Manchester for all of about three nights thanks to Walter Meierjohann’s remarkable good taste in international imports. The opening of this delicate thing was four blokes listening to heavy metal in a car (on stage) for about ten minutes. This was one of the songs. (The fact it’s a violent dual perspective narrative of British soldiers slaughtering Native Americans didn’t seem to impact on the play.)

New Order – Age of Consent, from The Shrine of Everyday Things

It’s funny, writing this list. Shrine of Everyday Things was *such* a good show. Should probably have been included in Best of 2015 too. It was a kind of site-specific promenade piece around an old estate in Manchester, just by Contact Theatre, which is going to be knocked down (the estate, not Contact). As we walked to the estate we listened to people who had lived there’s memories of the place. This song came on just as we walked into the estate itself, and it really did feel like we’d been shifted back in time. Utterly beautiful.
[Edit: And, Christ! What a video on YouTube! Not the version they used, but great.]

Purcell, Henry – Music For a While, from Adieu

The whole first half(-ish) of Adieu consisted of solo performer Jonathan Capdevielle standing alone on a sparsely lit stage singing snatches of Madonna songs into a microphone. Pretty much note perfectly, but still, it was eerie, disorientating – there would also be long pauses – and almost daring the audience to leave. As the thing mutated and started to cohere into something, at some point he also sang most of this. Also unaccompanied. Also beautifully. And it was somehow the most wrenching, ghostly thing imaginable. And then it segued into Hung Up or even Music. Most arresting use of music award right there.

Ukrainian National Anthem, from Maidan Diaries

Eagle-eyed observers amongst you will have noticed that I go to Eastern Europe more than the average theatre critic. And those of you who know me will know I have a bit of a sentimental spot for a fair few Eastern European National Anthems.

It’s easy to forget, what with all the fun going on in Syria right now, that there’s also still an unresolved war in Ukraine. A war that is so incendiary to European peace that many Eastern European friends were predicting that we’d be at war with Russia by Christmas. Instead, we seem to be fighting a proxy war with Russia through the medium of Syria on the pretext of ISIS, which literally no one understands, least of all the civilian population in Syria. Meanwhile, Ukraine seems to have been split in two, and no one even remembers what the protest in Maidan Square (literally Square Square?) was about anyway.

Anyway, yes, the Ukrainian National Anthem was sung in this piece of verbatim theatre about the Maidan Square protests, and was very moving, even if, at the time, I didn’t know the words or what they meant. Fans of Eastern European National Anthems will spot the similarities to the Polish National Anthem, and consequently Israel’s and Yugoslavia’s. Fans of logic will notice that despite the assertion that their enemies will vanish like dew in the sunlight, there is subsequently a lot of talk of sacrifice. :-/

Bonus track:

Chameleons Vox – Singing Rule Britannia, from (cheating) the Chameleons Live at the Manchester Academy II, 18/12/15

It’s odd, isn’t it? Going to a gig shouldn’t feel quite as alien as it does, but, hell, I’m nearly 40 and I never much liked standing up all night anyway. Still, if you live in Manchester, you have to go to gigs; it’s the rules. And there seem to be more, and more reasonably priced, and more local, and more Relevant To Your Interests. But, yeah, went to this last Friday and it was just amazing. Pretty much all my favourite songs played back-to-back for an hour and a half. Brilliant atmosphere. The nicest audience. Just lovely.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


[including a tiny bit of a think about Best-of lists...]

Entries in reverse chronological order. As close to ten as I could reasonably get it.

La Mélancholie des Dragons – HOME, Manchester

Adieu – BITEF, Novi Sad

The Iliad – BITEF, Belgrade

Lanark – EIF, Edinburgh

Tonight I’m Going to be the New Me – Forest Fringe, Edinburgh

The Encounter – EIF, Edinburgh

The Beanfield – Edinburgh Fringe

Tree of Codes – MIF, Manchester

Skriker – Royal Exchange/EIF, Manchester

hang – Royal Court, London

Oresteia – Almeida, London

Iphigenia in Splott – Sherman, Cardiff

Warum lauft Herr R. amok – Theatertreffen, Berlin

Carmen Disruption – Almeida, London

End-of-the-year Best-of lists are daft, aren’t they? (Maybe individual ones more so than voted-for ones, those I find fascinating) I mean, what kind of criterion is “Best”? What does it mean? And, if you’ve been reading my reviews, wouldn’t you know all the above anyway?

In the above list, “Best” means all sorts of things. There are things there that are “Best” because I found them incredibly moving, but there are also things there that I didn’t find even remotely moving. There are things that completely changed my idea of how theatre works best, or what it can do, and things which didn’t really surprise me in that way at all. There are a couple of things that while I was watching them I wouldn’t have thought would have made it onto my Best of 2015 list, but which haven’t left me alone since, coming back as a reference point for all subsequent work. Is the compilation of a Best-of list really about “Best”ness or about politics and canonisation? (Yes, yes it is.) Or is it about a genuine emotional or intellectual response to Things Seen In An Artform Over One Year (ok, yes, it’s that too).

When I stepped out of Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Measure For Measure at the Young Vic, I was certain it would be on the list, but for some reason, in the cold light of day, it’s currently been pushed off. (Although already it’s starting to creep back.) But I do wonder if it doesn’t deserve to be on the list anyway for offering one of the biggest headrushy, gut-reaction shows of the year.

Similarly, for the number of times I’ve referred to it since I saw it, Rob Icke’s production of The Fever (at the May Fair Hotel for the Almeida) surely deserves a place, but that would make it the third Almeida show and the second Rob Icke show, and it’s so hard to compare The Fever with, say, Tree of Codes in terms of Bestness that we might as well give up on the idea altogether.

If I was more intellectually honest (or adventurous), or more politically-minded, I think added to the two BITEF shows already mentioned should be: Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as Brecht’s Learning PlayThe Discreet Charm of MarxismThe Death of Ivan IlychOnly one of which I even really enjoyed watching at the time, but all three of which made me think about politics, and theatre, and theatre & politics, more than anything else I’ve seen for some considerable time. Indeed, as you can see from the list, apart from a bit of radically joyous vintage French fluff (La Mélancholie des Dragons premièred in 2008), the stuff I saw at BITEF kinda made made everything I saw after it for quite a while feel pretty flimsy by comparison. But also, who can account for moods, anyway? I do wonder if the running order in which I saw plays were reversed, would BITEF (now in April) have cast the same shadow across the Edinburgh and Manchester international Festivals (now in April and May respectively) as it did across this autumns already slim pickings?

Internationally, also close to the list were Young Stalin from the Warsaw Drama Theatre, seen in Slovakia, Romeo Castellucci’s Doktor Faustus at the Malta Festival, Poznań, Roar, China! – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw, and TWO different versions of Agota Kristóf’s A Nagy Fuzet / The Notebook.

Bloody close to inclusion were Seeping Through at Forest Fringe and Blood Wedding by Graeae at the Liverpool Everyman.  And, if shows could get in on set design alone, I think Robert Borgmann’s Bergtheater production of Die Unverheiratete, which I saw twice – in Berlin and Bratislava – would definitely have been top five.

I also very much liked Hamlet is Dead, Fat Man, Anna Karenina, Work, A Doll’s House, Velveteen Rabbit (late, I know), Violence and Son, Lemonsx5, and Some People Talk About Violence. I also thought, when I’d just seen them, that Untouchable and Kingsize, both at the Royal Opera House, would have been dead certs for the Best of list. And I saw Quizoola again, this time at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh rather than on the internet. And I still love it, but it’s been on two Best Of lists since 2012 already, and this one was “only” six hours long.

I do wonder, looking at what did get onto the list and what didn't quite, if you could make some sort of map of my mental priorities for theatre, although unless you'd been in my head while I was watching them and since, I'm not sure how accurate it’d be.  Unexpectedly, I'd say the thing that unites most items in in the Best list is a kind of hallucinatory, light-headedness during watching, a lasting visual impression, a sense of something changed inside, and a violent emotional response by the end (not all, but most).  Which is maybe a bit unfair on theatre that performs more normal functions, but, hell, why not demand the impossible from this strangest of mediums?

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Some answers...

[written 27/09/15]

 Occasionally I get sent these sorts of interview questionnaires. This is one I filled in for an online magazine in September.It never really occurs to ask myself these sorts of questions, so I often find the answers I give quite interesting about myself. Anyway, in the spirit of my ongoing end-of-year clear out/tidy up, here it is.

When did you start writing a blog and what do you wish you’d known then?

July 2007. And, if you want a really boring/honest answer, I wish I’d known that Wordpress was going to get infinitely better than Blogger. Also; if I’d known it was going to last eight years (and counting), and would start getting quoted on posters and in my biogs, then I’d have chosen a name a bit less daft than Postcards From The Gods.

Which other theatre blogs do you read?

Meg Vaughan. Maddy Costa. Holger Syme. Miriam Gillinson. I know Exeunt isn’t a blog, but that. And a lot of the new stuff that The Stage is doing should also get a very big cheer indeed. When Dan Rebellato writes something, that’s invariably brilliant too.

What’s also great about the (awful phrase) “theatre blogosphere” is that as people move on (farewell, Dan Hutton), brilliant new voices seem to pop up to replace them. Kate Wyver and Ben Kulvichit are new this year, and Andrew Latimer in Newcastle and Dave (Murray) in Manchester are new to me...

[edit: annd since I originally wrote this, Simon Bowes! Bloody hell, Simon Bowes!]

How much of your time do you spend on blogging?

Between “professional” reviews, chapters for books (on theatre), articles for magazines (paid or otherwise, UK or foreign) and the blog, that’s pretty much what I do with my time. I don’t really draw a distinction between those various parts, except for maybe trying to observe the niceties of someone else’s house-style when I know I’ll get asked for re-write if I don’t. But, yeah; really it’s all one project, just spread across as many platforms as I get invited onto. Hopefully it all adds up to something coherent in the end.

Have you turned your blog into a profitable business or do you write it just for fun?

No. [Horrible phrase. Ghastly idea.] The blog itself makes no money, but it’s been quite useful for opening other doors. I’m not sure that I do it “for fun” though; that makes it sound frivolous. I treat it *as work* and I’m quite serious about it. Most of the work I review is pretty serious; I try to respond to it seriously. That feels like the very least I can do, given the amount of space I’ve got. But, because it’s not professional, I do occasionally write things to amuse myself too. Those things invariably get about five times as many readers as lengthy analyses of Slovenian politcal theatre do.

What advice can you offer someone who is thinking of starting a theatre blog?

Give it a nice, sensible, neutral-sounding title. Theatre Today or something. Then you’ll sound cool and authoritative. You’ll get quoted on posters and won’t wince when you’re introduced at panel discussions.

And, as general advice: always be completely honest. Don’t try to second guess an audience or try to have an opinion that pleases them. You’re only any use at all if you’re just completely upfront about everything you think. On the plus side: you’ve got years. There’s no rush. You’ve got all the space and time you want. The only thing you need to worry about is being interesting enough to keep people reading. Also, it’s probably best not to go into writing about theatre because you want to make a lot of money because you won’t. I reviewed for seven or eight years for free tickets alone while working a succession of variably dull day-jobs and even that felt like a brilliant trade-off. Get involved in A Younger Theatre if you’re young enough too. They’re a brilliant organisation. I wish to God they’d been around when I was little. Noises Off at the NSDF (which did get me started) is still running, and is invaluable too, I think.

Which show is your guilty pleasure?

Oh, God, I dunno. The History Boys? War Horse? After the Dance (Sharrock/Rattigan, NT, 2010)?
I don’t really like the term, but sadly I fall right into it.

If you could have dinner with any actor, living or dead, which would you choose and why?

Probably a living one. Less likely to put you off the food.

The use of mobile phones in theatres has become a major problem...

No it hasn’t (at least not in my experience). Occasionally one goes off and that’s a bit annoying. The tutting and hrumphing that comes after it seems to go on much longer and is probably louder and more distracting. Self-righteous indignation is usually more annoying than an accident.

How do you propose we tackle the issue?

Switching them off seems to stop them ringing.

No, but seriously, I like Relaxed Performances [see also Extra-Live]. I tend to think all performances should be relaxed. If you go to the theatre to, I dunno, celebrate our shared humanity, or something, but can’t cope with the person sitting next to you, then, well, what’s the point? People kinda need to chill the fuck out a bit. But, that goes both ways. I mean, love your fellow man and all that, but, hey, fellow man, don’t wave the bright thing with the shining screen around when we’re all sitting in the dark for a reason, yeah?

Which performers do you think will head the Olivier nominations for 2016?

God, I don’t know. The year’s only halfway through, and I can never remember what’s eligible and what’s not anyway. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine. They are the Society of London Theatre Awards. They should always be referred to as such. I think more than half the stuff I’ve seen this year isn’t eligible (because abroad, or outside London, or during the Edinburgh Festivals, or in the wrong theatres in London, etc. etc...). Bloody silly criteria for the Oliviers, really.

 – FIN –

[as we can see, maybe a bit of a mismatch of agendas there, but interesting to write nonetheless. Interesting too, to feel myself gradually becoming the patrician death-eater I’m predestined to be...]

 “cover” image: detail from Levittown Variation I (2013) by Richard Forster

Monday, 14 December 2015


[what’s a year between friends?]

Ok, so, everyone’s sticking up their Best of 2015 lists. I’m a bit behind, and I’ve still got at least five shows to see before the year finishes, any or all of which could be better than other things I’ve seen this year so far.

But, because everyone loves lists, and because I never got round to posting this last year, I thought now’s as good a time as any to stick up The(/My) Best of 2014.

The rules are: I’ve tried to keep it as close to ten as possible, the ranking is strictly chronological, the double/joint entries are generally linked in my mind by proximity (temporal, geographical, or stylistic) and indecision.

Body of an American / Don Quijote

In der Republik des Glücks

A View From the Bridge

King Charles III




Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland

Men in the Cities


Show Five

This is How We Die



Should also be on the list:

Teh Internets / Adler and Gibb / Idomeneus

Speak Bitterness / And on the Thousandth Night

What’s fascinating, looking back on this “2014” list, is how many of these shows I’ve either seen again, or could have seen again this year: of the main list, only Body of an American, Ali Pidlsey’s Road, CRIME and Spine (that I’m aware of) weren’t revived/still in rep. *somewhere* this year (and, for some people who saw them for the first time this year, were probably some of the best things they saw in 2015).

So, yes; see you again in about two weeks for THE BEST OF 2015!!!

Friday, 11 December 2015

What if...?

[expanded from this report on]

What if one of Europe’s leading theatre directors turns out to measure about 99.9/100 on the Trump Scale?

Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has terminated his contract with the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg because he doesn’t like the theatre’s pro-refugee stance.

Let’s just take a minute to absorb that.

He is not in favour of a theatre being pro-entry for refugees.

In the original statement from the Thalia, he is quoted as having said: “The German enthusiasm to open the borders for refugees would be extremely dangerous for the whole of Europe, because among them are terrorists.

“Simultaneous support of terrorists and the Parisian victims is not possible. While not all refugees are terrorists, all terrorists are refugees or their children. The attacks in Paris show that we are in the middle of a war. In any war we must choose a side, the Thalia Theater and I are on opposite sides. The days of political correctness are over.”

In a subsequent clarification, he issued his own statement:

“I asked to cancel my production in Hamburg Because of the very private reasons. I am currently working in Paris and living in exactly the same part of the city where the massacre happened. Everyday life here feels like in Israel. Permanent paranoia. Even worse because the Paris Jewish community are the first who are abandoning this city. Everywhere we are surrounded with a threat and fear. We all are traumatized here after what happened two weeks ago.

“I am a father of seven children and I am not ready to work in another potentially dangerous town. As we know, the people who participated in 9/11 came from Hamburg. We know that even the German government changed the refugee politics after Paris tragedy. So the price paid to finally admit the connection between emigration policy and terrorism was the death of 132 young people in Paris.

“Is the silent taboo in Germany to connect emigration policy and terrorism?

“After speaking with a people from Thalia Theater I understood that they are not open to different opinions. They are identifying themselves with a refugee-welcome centre. No, I do not want to participate in this. Can I afford to have my own choice and my own opinions? What about democracy?

“I do not think did my political opinions are more radical then Those which are shared by a majority of Europeans. We do not support this enthusiasm to open the EU borders for uncontrolled emigration. Especially in Eastern Europe we do not understand this euphoria. Do you really think that 40 million citizens of Poland, For Example, are neo-Nazis and racists?*”

It’s so startlingly stupid and wrong, that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin.

Of course, that faint plea to the principles of democracy and free speech – that he should also be allowed to have his views (despite it being him who has walked out on the Thalia because of theirs) – does briefly sound worrying. Like, maybe theatre’s should also be putting on anti-refugee screeds in order to better represent the interests of ignorant fascists. (5 million Poles can’t be wrong!)

It is a welcome wake-up call, though, to those within theatre (particularly here) who believe that theatre, simply by virtue of it being theatre, is an ineffable good in and of itself. Or that a *particular style of theatre* will be beyond reproach. Hermanis’s work is reputedly excellent. The one piece I’ve seen (Sonja in Riga, 2008 – no review, annoyingly) was indeed beautifully made (even if I do remember having vague reservations about a possible overly cruel, bullying sense of humour that seemed to lurk at the outermost margins). And his work spans a range from detailed theatrical naturalism (cf. Sonja) to full-on postmodern regietheater. So there’s no hiding in any of that for anyone.

It’s fascinating to see the Thalia at the centre of this storm. I saw the theatre’s most famous, direct, successful engagement with Europe’s refugee crisis, Die Schutzbefohlenen, at Theatertreffen this year, and, discussing it with Annegret Maerten, Meg Vaughan and Theresa Gindlstrasser for the Theatertreffen podcast, I remember us worrying that the production might still come across as *a bit racist* (even if impeccably well-intentioned). Hermanis level of ignorance and prejudice absolutely blows that kind of fretting out of the water (wrongly. We should still think about the micro-level, even while some dick reminds us of what the macro-level looks like).

I don’t really know what sort of conclusion one can hope for in a piece like this. I like to hope that a vast majority of people understand and subscribe to the You ain’t no Muslim, Bruv school of thinking – that you can’t associate the actions of a few violent psychopaths with whatever school of thought to which they happen to ascribe their actions. I would have liked to have hoped that this was a minimum understanding of humanity for a theatre director. But apparently not. Bleak.

*In fact, the population of Poland is 38.3million, of whom only 5,711,687 voted for the amusingly acronymed Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party. Sadly, this did consitute 37.58% of the vote, and gained PiS an overall majority in Poland’s recent general election. Are their voters neo-Nazis and racists? Possibly not *all* of them, there are further-right parties/gangs for the *really* hardcore fascists, but they’re pretty right-wing: imagine UKIP underpinned not by a buffoon in the pub, but by hardline Catholic views on LGBT issues, abortion, etc. All my Polish friends without exception (all of them theatremakers) are appalled beyond words by the result. (See also: far-right Hungary, which has just deteriorated further and further since I wrote that report in 2011.)

[cover photo, Hermanis’s previous Thalia production, Late Neighbours. From stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The irony.]