Wednesday 30 March 2016

People, Places & Things – Wyndhams, London

[seen 23/03/16]

“I’d like to believe that my problems are meaningful. But they’re not. There are people dying of thirst. People living in war zones and here we are thinking about ourselves. As if we can solve everything by confronting our own defects. We’re not defective. It’s the world that’s fucked. Shouldn’t we feel good for all those who can’t? Don’t we owe it to them to say ‘fuck this, let’s drink’? If I deny myself choice then what am I? I want to live. I want to live vividly and make huge, spectacular, heroic mistakes. Because what else is there? This? Shame and boredom and orange fucking squash? Let’s have a real drink. One drink just to know that the world won’t end.”
“Emma”, People, Places & Things (p.95/137)

People, Places & Things is a fascinating play. Yes, yes, it’s very good, and Denise Gough is excellent at acting, but the chances are, you’ve read that review.

The other day Michael Coveney wrote a grumpy little article suggesting that online criticism was mostly about criticism. And I daresay he’s right to think that my reviews are maybe a bit specialist. Which is rather like complaining that not everybody’s going to get much out of reading The Lancet. (No, ok, I’m not *that* good, nor that unreadable, but you get the point.)

One of the most striking theatre reviews I’ve ever read is Charles Spencer’s attack on a revival of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed.

It’s not that it’s particularly well-written, or even that it prosecutes its case very well [“In his defence I can imagine Hare loftily declaring that his entrepreneur, Victor Quinn, is merely a character with a point of view, and a flawed character at that. At the end, we learn that he has been killed in a car crash while three times over the permitted alcohol limit...” Well, yes. And it would be a pretty sound defence]. No, it’s the force of feeling in the review. Force of feeling and the fact that it has fucked *that review* for the rest of us forever. Spencer, admirably in many ways, cornered the market in alcoholism-confessional-criticism. Indeed, at times, it felt like a director only had to pop a glass of wine on stage and Spencer would courageously tell us the story of how he beat his alcohol dependence with the help of The Priory and the AA. Again.

Because People, Places & Things is so very acutely observed, so rousing, and so intelligent, I think it possibly engenders exactly this sort of Spenserian response, and ducking it would just feel like cowardice. So, [people who dislike me-journalism; look away for the rest of the paragraph] for the record: I’m an alcoholic. I haven’t had a drink in one year one month and seven days. And I’m not going to have another one. I didn’t go a clinic. I haven’t been to AA. I just stopped. Theoretically, this puts me in a slightly weird position in relation to a play which places such emphasis on programmes. Like “Emma”, I’m far too bloody minded to submit to AA’s “higher power”; unlike Emma, I only had alcohol to contend with, so just stopping (albeit with medical supervision) seems to have worked.
(If I have one other issue with AA, it’s its slightly annoying raised-eyebrow implication that if you’re not with AA, then you’re not really admitting to the problem. I know plenty of alcoholics who have stopped drinking permanently without AA. It is also possible and valid.) In the event, though, I thought the play was very good, what it said was very intelligent, and I didn’t have the slightest problem that its main character didn’t have precisely my life. (well, while watching, maybe occasionally, but we all over-identify, right?)

What I found absolutely fascinating about the play [you can come back now, I’m done with the icky stuff] is that while being absolutely brilliant on the subject of addiction, it takes those specifics and cunningly transforms them into part of a three-way, co-dependent metaphor for theatre and precarious life in advanced-neoliberal society, (The “advanced” there refers to how far the neoliberalism has got, not some spurious idea that such societies have some objective quality of advancement. They absolutely don’t. If anything, the reverse. Why it’s not called liberal-feudalism is beyond me. Presumably because that would detract from the West’s rhetoric about ISIS being “medieval”. Sorry, back to the play...)

Watching the play, I was continually struck by how closely the pre-publicity West End Transfer interviews with Denise Gough, and her narrative about “nearly giving up acting”, chimed with the contents of the play. I have to say, I found the way that these interviews were written up incredibly naïve. I don’t deny for a second that Denise Gough is an incredibly talented actor (WE KNEW THAT), and it would have been a loss to the profession if she had given up. But is it really responsible to suggest that the ridiculous, anti-art, capitalist marketplace really catches everyone who “deserves” catching? For every Denise Gough who does survive long enough to get a break like this (and, Christ, can we emphasise just how well she’d already done, and how ludicrous this situation is?) there are hundreds who don’t. And, how broken must this way of treating people be before it is declared unfit for purpose? So this journalistic exceptionalism is incredibly damaging, and promotes a completely idiotic narrative where an individual triumph somehow justifies a completely fucked system.

“Emma” in the play lives inside the exact same system. And, in part, I think the play is an argument with how damagingly theatre treats its employees. This is as much a play about how precarious labour damages people, as it is about “addiction”. Addiction and mental illness are just the symptoms, neoliberalism is the disease. In that speech that I quoted at the top, it would be completely plausible to substitute “theatre” for “drink” (although you’d have to choose your own analogy for orange squash). This is another thing the play does brilliantly; precisely skewering this romantic ideal of “living vividly” and “heroic failures”. But, Christ, it reminds you how appealing those romantic ideals are. I would hesitate before actually recommending this to anyone in recovery, if only because it makes such good arguments against it. Even if you have made your peace with putting all that romance of self-destruction behind you. (Something, that I think Katie Mitchell’s Ophelias zimmer will further examine, perhaps.)

“Emma” even uses Žižek’s Wile E. Coyote metaphor for the financial crash to explain her relationship with addiction. (“Wile E Coyote only ever falls when he looks down. He runs off the cliff and just keeps running in mid-air. It’s only when he looks down and sees that he should be falling that gravity kicks in.”) Does this clinch the capitalism/addiction thing? We should learn to envisage capitalism as a kind of gambling addition more often.

All the way through, we see how theatre relies on capitalism relies on the romance of self-destruction, triumph and how individualism (“‘You’re a lone wolf.’ ‘Exactly’ ‘Who else here is a lone wolf?’ Everyone in the Group puts their hands up.”) relies on addiction, and vice versa. Having the play opening “on stage” in a performance of The Seagull is a masterstroke (and we might note that while “Emma” is playing Nina, there’s also a playwright in that scene who’s about to shoot himself in the head. I was fascinated to read that Macmillan had also essentially given up on theatre/being-a-writer for a couple of years, feeding in again to the same phenomenon of precarity noted above.) The play quietly deconstructs theatre’s romanticisation of self-destruction. Beyond The Seagull, there’s a brilliant reference to Hedda Gabler, a veiled nod to Blanche in Streetcar, and even a direct quote from Blasted (you only have to look at the recent reviews of Cleansed to see how intractably Kane’s depression has been seized upon in some quarters).

Macmillan’s ultimate argument – while never explicitly made – is that modern society is making us sick, and the idea that theatre can cure it while subject to the same conditions, is dangerously flawed.

People, Places & Things is a near-perfectly constructed, precise diagnosis of a sickness at the heart of everything, cleverly disguised as a wise, compassionate, warm play about addiction. Presumably so everyone involved can also pay their rent. At the end [spoiler], “Emma” returns to an audition for some commercial casting, giving a speech about the brand identity of a company called Quixotic. *OF COURSE* they’re called Quixotic. There literally couldn’t be a better name for some venture capitalists. Who could understand the-romance-of-self-destruction-of-capitalism than some Ayn Rand-toting investment bankers? The speech she’s auditioning to give actually is kinda rousing. And kinda what we all think rousing speeches should be like. It is all about “freedom”, and it’s “Emma”’s “I love Big Brother” speech; conducted so deep within the machinery of our economic circumstances that you can barely even see the contradictions. And just for a moment, right in this moment of triumph-over-adversity, you completely see where the impulse for self-destruction comes from. And there is no actual answer except revolution.

It’s incredibly quotable too:

Doctor:  Do you lie to protect yourself or your addiction?

Emma:  It’s not lying. It’s admitting there’s no truth to begin with. Have you read Foucault?

Doctor:  Not lately.

Emma:  Or Derrida? Baudrillard? Barthes?

Doctor: You’re an addict because of Post-Modernism?

“When I’m on stage I know it’s all pretend. I’m not the person I’m pretending to be. Everyone else knows that. But somehow it doesn’t matter. We all just sort of decide that it’s real. It’s the same with the programme. With everything, really. Language. Politics. Money. Religion. Law. At some level we all know it’s all bullshit. A magical group delusion.”

Tuesday 29 March 2016


[from 03/02/16]

When the National Theatre announced their new season in February, I joked that this was the day that I’d officially become mainstream.

Obviously that joke is multi-faceted. Part of the joke is that by most available measures, I’m already a living definition of what “the mainstream” is: white, male, middle-aged, middle-class, and university-educated. And the other part of the joke is that my tastes have repeatedly been characterised as niche, rarefied, otiose. The idea of me being not-mainstream is ludicrous. The idea of me being mainstream is ludicrous, too. [Which should put me in an excellent position from which to look at “the mainstream”, but it doesn’t.]

So, what do we mean when we talk about “the mainstream” in British theatre?

The short answer to this, I suspect, is that the answer will vary from person to person, from taste to taste, from age-bracket to age-bracket, maybe race to race, gender to gender, etc.; or all of these things. What’s perhaps strange is that it’s not a thing that many particularly aspire to be, or profess to “being really into”. No one staggers out from seeing their new favourite piece of theatre praising its centrism. At the same time, there is still a problem of exclusion.

I do wonder if “mainstream” is a peculiarly Anglophone expression? And when did it become common currency? How did calling things “mainstream” become mainstream?

I guess like anyone (anyone white, male, middle-class who was emphatically not-mainstream) my age, I probably picked up “mainstream” as a term of abuse somewhere in the pages of NME or Melody Maker where the ironising of unreconstructed indie-snobbery wasn’t anywhere near a powerful enough disincentive from practising it. *Of course* we also took the piss out of anyone who actually *said* “I was into Nirvana when they were still signed to Sub Pop,” but that’s because we *really* were, right?

Back then, music snobbery at least had available measures. In basic terms: “obscure” music really was obscure. You couldn’t just open Amazon on your phone and order pretty much anything ever recorded, much less find whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, on YouTube. But then, as you get older, you realise it also had other inbuilt, paradoxical elements: getting in at the beginning of something (a band’s career, a musical movement, whatever) was clearly important, but so was not being old. In short, the perfect music fan, circa 1990, had seen The Clash live when they were roughly four-years-old.

Of course, music fandom was just a pantomime of pledged allegiances and invented antipathies masquerading as deeply reasoned political rationales for liking what you already happened to like, so it’s nothing at all like theatre, right?

One way that considering music instead of theatre is useful is the way it illustrates something about the lack of (necessarily) inherent qualities ascribed to form, content and intent. When I was growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, The Smiths and Joy Division (say) were both still relatively obscure. Wilfully so, in the eyes of non-goth/indie types, who were sometimes even moved to violence by how much they didn’t like that kind of thing. Fast forward twenty-five years, and The Smiths have a song in Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s Desert Island Discs (what could be more mainstream or “establishment”?). That its inclusion is widely assumed to have been a cynical measure of good faith/everymanism is possibly more remarkable. But now they’re the soundtrack of adverts. They’re *obvious* choices for an arthouse jukebox revuesical. Nothing about them says “weird” or “obscure” any more. The media explosion surrounding the death of David Bowie could maybe stand as the pinnacle of this phenomenon. The death of the most successful, popular, mainstream “outsider” imaginable.

In the same way, we might think of all the things in theatre that were once deemed non-mainstream – Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh, puppets, live-feed cameras, Live Art Lite – that are now a part of the National Theatre’s core programme. Things that it now seems impossible to imagine once being championed as “alternative”, “subversive”, or “challenging”.

But none of this really answers the question of what makes something “mainstream”.

In music it seemed to be a simple matter of popularity, of sales, of visibility. Subversion was pretty much always trumped by success – i.e. it scarcely mattered what a record *said* if it sold/made millions. The money would drown any message. (Even while it would be snobbily suggested that “normal people” didn’t even “get it”.)

Or: if everyone just likes it, then it’s irretrievably flawed, because *everybody* is clearly a bunch of bastards. Looked at more charitably: people who want their art to be “subversive” are put in a difficult position when it turns out that lots of people find their work likeable and entertaining. Particularly if those people who like the work continue to buy the Daily Mail and vote Conservative. The Art that the artist wants to change people’s minds hasn’t.

I think this paradox comes from some seriously stupid thinking conducted right in the heart of capitalism itself.

In the 1950s, Rock‘n’roll was sold to an unwitting generation of teenagers with the message that it was subversive, that it was rebellious, that it was a great way to show their individuality. Rock‘n’roll was their way of “sticking it to The Man”. Of course, in reality it was neoliberal ideology on a fucking stick. It’s hard to think of a better distillation of capitalism’s principle drivers.

Everything in the history of popular music since has been complicated by this paradox. Selling resistance ultimately benefits a system founded on selling. Asserting your individuality was always the whole point. Literally no one is trying to stop you “assert your individuality” (apart from some commies, apparently).

As such, trying to understand subversion through the model of punk music is a doomed enterprise. In many ways it would be incredibly easy to argue that punk was the musical precursor of Thatcherism. A movement with no respect for the social achievements of the post-war Labour government, with no regard for history, a nihilism that ultimately only said “me, now, alone”.

Applying thinking about “mainstream” to theatre is difficult. It seems difficult in the first instance because theatre itself isn’t fully mainstream. I mean, theatre is really weird. It’s hitherto been the least reproducible artform (maybe now technology has caught up, the recorded live transmission may in time become a saleable cultural commodity in its own right, but even then there’s a question of whether it will ever eclipse the live incarnation, at a time when all recorded media sales are tanking thanks to the internet). Sure, seeing a photo of a painting isn’t the same as seeing the painting, but it counts for something. And a CD of an opera is a bloody long way from the full story, but it’s allowed to stand, in a way that I’d suggest the reading of playscripts generally isn’t (let’s leave the fact that playscripts certainly aren’t all of theatre for the moment).

So, part of why the idea of “mainstream” is so difficult to apply to theatre is that the numbers are either so small, or accrued over such a long period of time. Another aspect, at least in England, is to do with class. It is widely perceived to be the case that the National Theatre, and probably a large part of (at least) London’s subsidised theatre sector, is predominantly very white and very middle class. It may also be perceived to be largely male, largely heterosexual, and possibly even largely protestant-atheist. In this, it largely reproduces the post-Thatcher, dominant “political class”. And the press. And the finance industry. And the legal profession, accountancy, broadcast media, etc. As such, it is theoretically “mainstream” but also “elite”. Not so much an expression of the centre, or of the majority, but as a top-down instruction to the next tier down of how and what they should like and think.

Obviously, this is both true and untrue.

The National Theatre (of where? GB? UK? Just England? England and Northern Ireland? England and Wales, even though Wales has its own?) is in a difficult position. Unlike *basically every other “National Theatre” in Europe* it was founded in 1963. By contrast, the Comédie-Française was founded in 1680, and has been in its current premises since 1799. In Germany, the concept of National Theatres pre-dated the actuality of Germany as a nation state, and was closely allied to that drive toward unification (the 1850s unification, not the 1990 one). Indeed, it was the struggle for nationhood *at all*, in an era when much of Europe was carved up and ruled over by the Habsburgs or the Russians, or the Germans (or the Ottomans), that prompted the foundation of national theatres across Europe between the 1860s and the 1890s. It is also not unusual for a city’s oldest theatre to be called The National Theatre of [City]. There are Deutsches Theaters, or Deutsches Schauspielhauses all over Germany, for example. Poland also has several national theatres. Etc.

Where the national theatres of Europe could be said to have had an explicit purpose, rooted in nationalism and a determination to define a national culture, the one in London turned up at the beginning of the age of postmodernism and multiculturalism, in a country/set of countries that had been the same shape forever, last invaded almost a thousand years earlier.

Nevertheless, it seems that the model that the NT has always followed, is an (necessarily flawed) attempt to represent the whole of the nation. With theatre. (Which, for the theatre/class reasons noted above, is already a paradox).

It therefore finds itself in an uneviable position. We might formulate it like this:
The National Theatre cannot be radical, because it is the National Theatre.
It can stage work that would have been radical anywhere else, but, by virtue of it being on at the National Theatre, it is effectively (seen to have been?) made a part of official ideology. The effects of whatever radicalism there had been, whatever subversion, are absorbed by the comforting, familiar layers of concrete.

I find this idea fascinating.

(Of course, there’s equally a sense that you could import something that would seem positively tame/mainstream in, say, LADA, into the NT, and it would accrue a sense of “shock” within the NT. A shock cancelled out again, maybe, by the theoretical absorption into this idea of “official art”, but an initial shock nonetheless.)

At the same time, there is the sense that the National Theatre needs to represent everyone in Britain, across race, across cultures, across class, across political beliefs(?), and across gender, across dis/ability, etc. And all this at a point in time when there is no consensus/agreement on how anyone wants to be “represented”. Only that there are, at present, too many white men and not enough anyone else.

[It comes to something when David Hare says theatre is too middle-aged and too middle-of-the-road, and I’m sitting in the NT watching Cleansed going “Yup! This is what it’s all about.” (Even if, on paper/in theory, Sir David is only moderately more privileged than myself and I should at least flag-up my awareness this argument has all the cultural urgency of so many middle-class white boys scrapping over which is the best conker.) (see also: Matt Trueman’s piece for WOS.)]

So there’s now a sense in theatre where the mainstream is at once being rejected and demanded.

Obviously my main point of reference for this idea at the moment is Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. On one hand, I think it’s a beautiful, rigorous, thoughtful piece of work, that is unimpeachable in its feminism (although, yes, I really did wonder about the all-white cast). On the other hand, it was also precisely the work I thought the NT should be doing (albeit with better diversity).

I suppose, for me, Cleansed represents the apex of my impasse. I found it completely stunning; beautifully made, beautifully realised; beautiful full stop. Intelligent, difficult, uncompromising. At the same time, it felt completely reasonable that it was at the NT. That the only horses it seemed to frighten were a couple of right-wing hacks, and it reassuringly didn’t do much for Michael Billington. At the same time, it felt perfectly “contained”. While it was artistically energising and overwhelming, it didn’t actually break anything. And that also seemed fine to me. It was beautifully realised art. And I didn’t need it to break anything. It made me think, yes. And it completely changed the way I felt, mentally, emotionally, and physically, while I was watching it. And it stayed with me until, well, it hasn’t really gone away yet. I don’t think it changed my mind about anything, but then (in common with most people, perhaps,) I already think I’m right, and don’t think I really want to be changed (because I’m already right).

Part of that anxiety, perhaps comes from the fact that I think in Britain we’re very bad at talking about what Art is For. Or rather, we’re very bad indeed at accepting the idea it isn’t “for” anything, in that sense. It’s not necessarily meant to have an observable function. But then, perhaps this too is a generational conflict, rather than a national ideology. “Art For Art’s Sake” is on one hand held up as irretrievably decadent and liable to uphold dominant ideological positions by not challenging them. But on the other hand, is the best antidote to “functional” art, measured by targets, metrics, tables of social inclusion, communities “healed”, persons redeemed, souls ennobled, and revenues generated, or whatever the government of the day is hoping to get in return for its funding. While it’s felt a bit to me like my generation have pushed away from functional realism toward metaphor and art, in much of Eastern Europe, it’s the older generation who are their Rupert Goolds and Katie Mitchells, and the young generation who are the David Hares and Max Stafford-Clarkes.

In Norway, Forced Entertainment became the first group to be awarded the Ibsen Prize. In Britain they have yet to be shown at the National Theatre. In Europe, they are a mainstay of the biggest, most prestigious international festivals. The idea of “mainstream” is not fixed. I’m sure plenty of people (even in UK) would argue that Forced Entertainment are mainstream. Equally, others will surely still describe them as wilfully difficult, perverse to the point of self-defeating, and “definitely not even theatre” let alone in the mainstream of it.

As such, perhaps all we can conclude is that meaning and terminology is relative. Anyone so minded will probably be able to establish a case for why so-and-so are, or are not, a mainstream artist, or a marginalised artist. The facts and figures suggest that the mainstream is decided upon (disproportionately) by a white, male middle-class. And common sense adds that if that’s also you, then you probably don’t even notice it, even if you try. And since it’s me, I’m in the worst possible position to have a personal feeling on the matter.

What’s interesting, running this argument about “Art” alongside the argument about “mainstream representation” is how far apart they feel. This, perhaps, is a big problem for theatre today. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this new-found fondness for what feels like it is now the centre ground is just me becoming the dead white man I am destined to be. Perhaps the marginal, radical black, Queer, whatever work is still out there, still unlikely to be invited to the NT, and maybe I’ve just reached a stage where, because the narrow field of my interests is slightly represented (no, of course it’s not, it’s hardly like they’ve got Frank Castorf or a re-staging of an Einar Schleef going up in the Olivier, or a bunch of Heiner Müller in the Lyttleton), I’m just happy to sit back, and ignore the stuff made outside my comfort zone. Equally, of course, there’s the very real sense, that I’m plausibly not the right [white, middle-class man] to either appreciate it or write about it.

At this point, this post runs out of stream and ideas. We know the arguments about “gatekeepers” and we know the arguments about neutralisation. If [insert whatever journalist or artistic director] is too white and middle-class to recognise the value of something, then on one hand it’s plausibly succeeded in doing and saying something new and radical, but on the other its influence is massively limited.

And I don’t know how to square that circle.

[cover image: Office interior, 1998 by Richard Forster, who is my new favourite hauntological artist. He basically does near-perfect reproductions of old photos or photocopies or pictures in minute graphite pencil detail.  Such good copies that they're almost pointless.  And of very mundane photographs.  Incredibly appealling on so many levels.]

Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring – Old Granada Studios, Manchester

Wednesday 23 March 2016

German Skerries – Orange Tree, Richmond

[seen 22/03/16]

There’s an interview in the programme for this new revival of Robert Holman’s early-career play (1977), in which David Eldridge bemoans “this age of directors and designers waving at the audience” and Holman later concludes their interview by saying that this sort of play* “is deeply unfashionable. And deeply not-allowed.”

As a card-carrying member of this imagined Theater Gestapo, I have a couple of questions: if such plays are so unfashionable, how come they’re so widely produced – here by a company so young they could almost be the play’s children? And, if they’re so deeply not-allowed, how come they’re so warmly received? (Four stars in the Guardian, Time Out, Financial Times, WhatsOnStage, Evening Standard, The Arts Desk, etbloodycetera.) Indeed, were any of these accusations remotely true, how in God’s name would we account for the deeply fashionable Annie Baker?

So, yes, let’s start by scotching this idea that there’s any agenda here. All that we have now is an age where it is sometimes accepted that there might be more than one way to stage a play, that “theatre” isn’t just “plays”. I don’t think there’s anything beyond that. I mean, sure, there’s politics: it would, arguably, be unusual to see a play written now, set in the North of England, which only had white characters, as there are here. Or with only one woman to three men. But I’m sure it still happens. More than I notice, too, no doubt. The stated politics of the play – and its interest in “ordinary people” – are clearly on-message. And the fact that it hails from 1977, talks about the nationalised British Steel Industry, prophesies the necessity of it, notes the potential for environmental harm. Oh, yes. In this respect it’s positively “relevant”. It’s like Annie Baker got herself a Tardis.

In fact, what issues I had with Alice Hamilton’s mostly faultless production sprang largely from the failures of naturalism, rather than from the naturalism itself. As I think we’ve established across about a million reviews of Katie Mitchell, I really don’t have a problem with naturalism. Indeed, I find the idea of the theatre diorama, which is essentially what we have here, with the little grassy plot surrounded by audience, strangely appealing. In the abstract. Look, I found it so pleasing that I even took a photo*.

The flip-side of finding naturalism pleasing, is finding oneself getting incredibly nit-picky, and finding all deviations from it incredibly distracting. It seems like one reasonable definition of naturalism is that it replaces directorial/dramaturgical comment with all the necessary detail. As such, it seems reasonable to wonder when this production of the play is set. It seems to still be 1977, but a modern dress production, which is a curious thing. Similarly, you wonder if all the accents are really as authentic as they might be. Are they also period-accurate, as well as place-accurate? Are they consistent? Etc. And you look a lot more at the lights. And at the grass. Is it *meant* to be foregrounding the unreality of the scene? Is the decision to have only the briefest shiver when two scenes are set overlooking the North Sea in the middle of the night a “directorial wave”? Where is all the light coming from in this night time scene? How can a lighting designer really hope to recreate full daylight in-the-round? Etc.

Am I convinced by the script? Not particularly. But I’m happy enough to be in a tiny, unfashionable minority on this. There’s been such a successful effort to canonise Holman that it would be beyond churlish to object. I completely get why people are into his plays: they’re quiet, and personal, and personable. To object makes one sound like all one wants in theatre is big bangs and loud, impersonal noises. And, while I do like all those things very much, it’s more that I just prefer other writers’ quiet plays. Or that haven’t yet seen the production of a Holman which properly sells the work to me. Still, no harm done. Lovers of the plays of Robert Holman can see one of them, produced with middling attention to detail, until 2nd April, in Richmond, London.


*He's talking about how German Skerries came into being, so "this sort of play" is presumably "plays like German Skerries".

Tuesday 22 March 2016

The Maids – Trafalgar Studios, London

[seen 21/03/16]

[A confession: I’ve kind of missed almost everything Jamie Lloyd has done. I saw his utterly heartbreaking production of Falsettoland at NSDF2001 (Alan Lane and I wept like babies), I saw his Sisters of Mercy-video version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome for Headlong, in 2010. And then nothing. This really isn’t down to antipathy. I’ve actually quite admired the choice of plays in the Trafalgar Transformed seasons, the casting, the posters, the whole incredibly successful media chutzpah thing. I always just assume it’s really hard to get press tickets for West End shows, and that they’re too expensive to buy your own. Plus, y’know, I have been busy, too. Still, I’m bloody glad I’ve managed to get to something, and now more than slightly sad I didn’t do something about getting to The Homecoming, or Richard III, or a bunch of other things...]

[The whole “Jamie Lloyd Directs...” thing is really interesting. I mean, here’s a young director who’s not really come through the subsidised sector, and yet, apparently just by force-of-will and proven track record, seems to be running London an extra National Theatre in the West End. The choices of plays seem pretty inspired to me, too. Solid classics that nonetheless, you haven’t necessarily seen all that recently. And all packaged up with really appealing casts and publicity. You might think I’d be cynical about it, but when it’s selling a massive bunch of £15 tickets, has the sort of demographic that anyone applying for ACE funding would kill for, and unshowily has the performance surtitled in English (presumably for both deaf and English-second-language audiences), well, there’s *a lot* to like even before we get to the actual production...]

And, for a cold, grey Monday, there was a hell of a pre-show buzz in Trafalgar Studio One last night. Which you’ve got to love. Pre-show music included Strict Machine and Fuck The Pain Away (and even a bit of Zadok The Priest...), while on stage sits a kind of fancy museum case in polished wood, with the blinds down. The sort of thing they used to have rows and rows of in the Natural History Museum, if I remember rightly. The sort of thing in which large, savage, stuffed animals were displayed in their natural habitats. Here, of course, it doubles up implying the opulence of the Paris/Southern States apartment that the titular maids – Claire and Solange – are cleaning. The point is made so cleanly that it only really registers subliminally at the time.

Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton are fucking great. The first scene – the incredibly famous one where Claire is pretending to be the mistress – is just on fire. And *strange* too. It’s not delivered in a way where you fully feel you’ve grasped everything that’s going on in their psychology. Or if we’re even looking at “psychology” at all. I’ve got a vague feeling that Aduba, Ashton and Lloyd really worked out *a thing* and while, yeah, the basic thing of it is totally clear, it really feels like there’s a ritual we’re observing here that we’re only meant to understand we can’t understand. I like that idea very much.

I mean, I say “the incredibly famous scene”, but is it? Is The Maids one of those plays that literally *everyone* who studied drama at university has seen produced with three blokes in drag, and that’s it? For extra points, I also saw a version in Estonia with three late-middle-aged women acted completely naturalistically. *Appallingly*. It still stands out as being one of the worst productions of anything I’ve ever seen (sorry National Theatre of Rakvere, :-/ ). But as a result, I realise I don’t actually know The Maids well enough to spot/know significant deviations from the “standard” version. I don’t remember previous versions I’ve seen having this ending – which is great, and powerful here. So you’d think I’d remember it from other productions, but I don’t, although maybe they dragged so much that I’d stopped really taking anything in by the end. So I find myself wondering if this is an invention of Australian adaptors Benedict Andrews (of Young Vic Three Sisters fame) and Andrew Upton (most familiar from some very fine versions of Russian plays at the NT).

And, it’s reading reviews of Andrews and Upton’s original production (in Sydney and New York), that you suddenly get a sense of just how much further Lloyd has improved on the original adaptation.

I find The Maids a tricky play. Like Endgame, ten years later, it seems to hail from a school of post-war French absurdism that tips into complete nihilism. But where Beckett displaced, de-personalised and distilled those instincts, with Genet they feel raw and lived at the same time as poetic and abstract. The fear of surveillance, and of reporting the mistress’s partner/husband to the police reek of a country only just released from the grip of Nazi-occupation, and perhaps the subsequent witch-hunting of collaborators. Meanwhile, Genet’s own, now near-mythical status a rent-boy, thief, and jailbird, the original Queer artist, all adds not just literary-interest, but also the stamp of something authentic, something more than mere posey speculation.

The most obviously brilliant thing about Lloyd’s production is that Claire and Solange here are black. Everyone’s doing an Southern-States American accent – which has an iconic resonance of its own, independent of context, but here resonates much, much further. There is a result where you (I) end up watching post-war France through the veil of distant American problems, but as the internet and history prove, America’s problems are our problems. And, beyond this, *actually*, even though I’ve (obviously) never been “in service”, you can watch this as a socialist, and see a fairly obvious political and psychological truth being articulated. (I dislike the word “universal”, but this gets pretty damn close to something very essential indeed.) Another part of the reason it’s brilliant is because they’re the *stars*. I’ve never watched Downton, but I was pretty excited to see her off of Orange is the New Black live. And Zawe Ashton is now pretty famous as this generation’s Neil from the Young Ones, as Vod from Fresh Meat (although I remember her as Lloyd’s Salome, and from Crimp’s Rhinoceros, and from hanging around bunch of Paines Plough Lates...). But this is incredibly important. How many plays ever get promoted in the mainstream off the back of famous black actors? Still incredibly, incredibly few, and even fewer of those are women. I think Lloyd and his team have been incredibly canny spotting that this situation is bullshit. And fuck any critic who says they’re “telly actors”. Sure, they’re *famous* because of telly (who gets famous from theatre?), but clearly they’re both seasoned and excellent stage actors. It seems unfair to compare and contrast The Maids with Made Visible, but I will say that here you get a real feeling of actors who have real agency, and whose performances are a statement of power.

Moreover, it’s *The Maids*. It’s not like this is a sort of chocolate-boxy papering-over-the-cracks pretending that we live in anything like an equal society by putting on a nice comedy. This is accusatory as anything you could hope to see on the far edges of the fringe. What’s fascinating, in fact, is that Lloyd seems to actually advance something much more progressive here, than Genet’s original nihilism. Where the original could be seen to trade on a kind of existential despair, and psychology of the downtrodden, annoying those who saw the original case on which the play was based as a hopeful sign of a nascent workers’ revolution, here I think we get a vision of a society so traumatised that something is inevitably going to give way. Yes, watching two women fantasising about killing their mistress feels, if anything, more relevant now than at any prior point in the 59 years since the play was written. Watching it a few days after George Osborne’s most recent disastrous budget, you could virtually feel people itching to wander off down Whitehall and start throwing things. Not long now, perhaps.

Gender-Reversed Midsummer Night’s Dream – Pleasance Theatre, London

[seen 20/03/16]

“Gender-reversed” Shakespeare always needs a bit of explaining, as to which sort of gender-reversal it is. In this instance, it means that all the female parts are played by men, and all the male parts are played by women. The genders have also been switched in the script (although, annoyingly, the names haven’t; so you have to do the mental gymnastics that make “Helena” a man’s name and “Demetrius” a woman’s, rather than simply changing them to Demetria and, er, Helenus). The “male” actors play their characters play their characters “as men”, and the “female” actors perform their characters “as female” (I’ll stop with the scare-quotes now, but let’s just acknowledge that this is a problematically binary account of gender, and I don’t know the trans*status of any of the performers, or anything, which feels at least like a thing that should be acknowledged – like “reversed” already contains a bit of a problematic implication that genders definitive and opposites rather than a series of negotiated positions in a constellation).

Having spent the last review worrying at race, it’s disconcerting to discover that everyone on stage here is white (8/8) and all doing at least excellent impressions of being pretty privileged. (Indeed, when Duchess Theseus says “I have some private schooling for you both” I *might* have inadvertently snorted.) But, since we’re being hyper-aware of power-imbalances, let’s also note that I’m probably getting on for twice the age of anyone/everyone in this company. Yes, they’re all white, and *sound* quite posh, but so am I, and I’m twice their age, so let’s not get too arch here. At least they’re doing work about gender, right?

There is also the slight problem, that some of the actors here are better than others. I guess that’s an occupational hazard of young fringe companies, but occasionally here it obscures intent. Similarly, the school-of-Shakespeare production that the direction seems to conjure is maybe a *bit* too much of the “text, clarity and volume” school, which always feels particularly unnecessary in small fringe venues. Still, no names, no pack drill, etc.

So, ok, it’s not *a great production*. But at the same time it really is properly fascinating. And, as such, I quite think it’s an experiment worth persisting with. The only comparable production I’ve seen was a completely unspeakable gender-swapped Tempest at the Cock Tavern, which, as well as being abysmally acted also ran up against the sheer difficulty of having to rethink the whole of renaissance Italian history on the basis that it had been a matriarchal society. Here the cuts to the script and the modern-ish/no-period dress banish our problems with conceiving of this period Athens. Here instead are just mostly women, and a couple of blokes (there’s a lot of doubling), telling a new version of the story.

Perhaps the most interesting decision here is to carry-over our contemporary performances of gender in everyday life into the piece. Therefore, _ _ as H__ and Titania is still a big, bluff, posh bloke. A sort of rugby type with a beard (but all young men have got a beard now, it seems). It’s amazing how just these facts make you appreciate the differences that “men” and “women” likely experience in their everyday lives. In short, this bloke look like he can look after himself. He looks like he’d win a majority of fights. His situation, say, in terms of domestic violence, looks pretty solid. So, male-Titania – surprise, surprise – seems to carry over an advantage, so that now female-Oberon looks like she’s on the back foot.

Similarly, we see how much even contemporary productions of MSND actually subconsciously rely on rather dated clichés of male/female sexuality – that men will basically fuck anything at the drop of a hat, and women generally won’t. I mean, don’t we believe the original Bottom seduction scene, largely because we reckon Bottom just would, right? Whereas, as soon as Bottom is a woman, it becomes a pretty unconvincing seduction, although here it was still played with pretty much the same dynamic as the original, and _ _ as Bottom maybe just failed to find any kind of convincing motivation for her weaver’s lust, just as _ _ failed to provide any spur for it.

Oddly, the scenes with female parents didn’t seem that much more incredible, except for the threats of violence and death. Which was again interesting, but I wonder if other actors could have created more convincing versions of a female parent who would threaten her son with death. There is still, here, the problem that the production doesn’t always fully inhabit even its own world.

So, yes. Not only does this version confront us with our perhaps rather arch ideas of what Shakespeare’s gender-politics are like, but also with some very interesting questions about those of our own age (and maybe just occasionally about the company’s too). It’s fascinating to have seen this in the same week as Filter’s version at the Lyric, and even more so to see it ahead of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s all-out assault on Hamlet/Shakespeare’s misogyny, and the centuries of misogyny in performance that the play has occasioned.

Made Visible – The Yard, Hackney

[seen 19/03/16]

Thesis: in Made Visible Deborah Pearson uses playwri[gh]ting as a tool to examine white privilege because, consciously or unconsciously, she hates playwri[gh]ting.

Or, rather, she seems to hate a particular model/vision of playwriting, and lets it stand in here for a particular model/vision/version/perception of “white power” or “white privilege”.

As such, it’s actually a pretty good dramatised attack on this model of writer>meaning relations within theatre.

Sub-thesis: while at first glance it might look mildly irresponsible not to go along with the idea that the show really is about white privilege, I already know every bit as much about white privilege as *the author*, and learnt it in the same first- and second-hand ways (first by having it, then by it being pointed out to me that I had it by people who didn’t). So that wasn’t the interesting bit for me here. (Commissioning thought: plays about the existence and exercise of white power probably reinforce white power less if their authors aren’t white. I get that it’s important to talk about it, and I get that it’s probably good to have had this piece written, but let’s look forwards now...) The interesting thing here (for me) is about power and theatre. (Emphasis on “the author”, not only to remind ourselves again of Tim Crouch’s play, which similarly (post-?)dramatised slippage of meaning and abuse of power, but also to highlight the strangeness of such an old-fashioned construction of how I’m proposing that “meaning” or “power” might be transmitted/exercised here.) The basic “plot” of this meta-theatrical playlet is essentially Multicultural Zoo Story In Search of An Author: “Deborah” (Haley McGee) meets Ila (Mia Soteriou) on a bench in Victoria Park, after 24 pages of dialogue and digression they are joined by Ayesha (Anjali Mya Chadha).

Rather than simply write a drama depicting this encounter, Pearson has “Deborah”, Ila and Ayesha come out of character, but not off-script, to deliver commentaries on the situation, and particularly the power imbalance of all three actors speaking her (actual-Deborah)’s words. “Isn’t it terrible,” the piece seems to say, “how I, Deborah Pearson, can have all the power in the room, can make all these performers say what I demand; even while pretending to extend freedoms and courtesies to them?” Which *is* a good analogy for the privilege enjoyed by white people in Britain, but a somewhat old-fashioned view of how plays can work.

The elephant in the room here is that the director – Stella Odunlami – is black. And is made spectacularly invisible. This is completely fascinating to me. The poster image is a picture of a young woman who looks a lot like (real-)Deborah (albeit with her face cut out). And these are all the words on it:

‘Who said anything about a racial lens?’
15 March – 9 April 8PM
Written by Deborah Pearson

No named director. No named actors. Just title, slug-line, author and hashtag. Such is the default theatre culture of Britain (and beyond that, the anglophone theatre world): the writers’ theatre culture (in the age of social media), perhaps. But, apart from the hashtag, isn’t it already a bit out-of-date? (and, ironically, in part because of the work that Pearson, along with Field and Brand has done with Forest Fringe) Directors’ names *are* used to sell tickets now. And actors’ names always were, lots. I wonder if this marketing image sets up an extra bunch of problems for an already “problematic” project? I mean, unusually for British theatre, there isn’t actually a single white English person actually involved in the main creative team. Or any men. (The designer is Hyemi Shinn (again! Twice in one week!)) There are only two white women involved, and they’re both foreign. But you wouldn’t know any of that from the poster (because posters can’t give themselves away with a Canadian accent). So, yeah, on one level, the poster is about the assumptions that the play is addressing. But it’s also the main marketing tool for the piece. And to whom will it appeal? If the – non-press-night – audience I saw it with on Saturday is indicative, it appeals to a small-ish number of mostly white people who are interested in seeing a piece that has been trailed in the Guardian as being concerned with white guilt. So as well as addressing assumptions, the poster also makes some more of its own, and sets up further assumptions for others to infer, perhaps.

[I mean, sure, maybe there are not-actually-racist white people who have somehow missed the memos about their ongoing disproportionate power (I’m assuming racist white people either a) don’t believe the memos, or b) don’t care). And they do seem to be the target demographic for the show. Although I’m sure anyone not-white who sees it will be hugely reassured that a small sub-group of middle-class whiteys are all so worried all this power they’ve got, although I daresay they already knew that.]

What’s interesting, is how poster does largely reflect how the production *feels*. Or perhaps it leads you to that conclusion because of how it looks. Who can say for sure?

Because, yes, how this production looks is: like the director and designer have tried to serve this “anti-theatre” script as invisibly and faithfully as possible. Ditto that cast. To be fair, as an example of script-serving theatre, Odunlami should be incredibly proud of it. It really does achieve precisely the feel of some actors speaking the words they’ve been given, as if they have literally no agency at all. Indeed, it’s properly fascinating that it’s so disciplined. Because, by what is that discipline really enforced? I mean, on this level, it really asks some questions about the sublimated power-structures of theatre. There’s even a bit where the two Asian actors are given a minute each to say what they really think of the piece, and the white actor is given 30 seconds. From this we perhaps glean that there is a certain amount of discomfort the piece within the company too. It’s interesting that I do take on trust that this bit *really isn’t* scripted. I mean, it’s interesting how much of any of it we take on trust. In this, we’re right back with the questions The Author asked.

There’s a much longer essay to write about the extent to which anyone/everyone’s theatre-going habits are entirely dictated by narcissism. But, just as I was completely fascinated to be in a theatre packed with white working-class English men watching a play about football last Friday, I’m equally fascinated by the extent to which other audiences are apparently largely repelled by anything not about themselves too. Obviously I’m white and middle-class (although the male bit makes me more of anomaly among theatre-goers than not according to statistics) so I’m not ideally placed to comment on any of this, since “theatre” in Britain is apparently a white, middle-class, and still disproportionately run-by-men activity, so I can go to all of it with a massive feeling of entitlement. (And I really can’t dispute that analysis at all). I don’t even go out of my way to seek out theatre outside the white mainstream.

Obviously I’m hugely privileged and totally white, so probably the best thing I can do is to shut up, though, since I’m plausibly too unconsciously predisposed to “my own” culture (white, middle-class, middle-aged, male, ex-goth, modernist/postmodernist, Northern European, Germanic, socialist, etc. etc.) to be able to even really truly appreciate anything outside it.

It’s odd, though, if this piece *hadn’t* been directly addressing the subject of white (and male?) privilege/power; in simple terms of the people involved, it would surely have felt like one of the most progressive independent-theatre shows in town.

I wonder if there’s a thing where a certain sort of theatre breeds a resistance to whatever it is it’s saying? Even if it’s something that you already agreed with. Especially if it’s something you already broadly agreed with? Something about directness? Or something to do with the idea (cf. The Author) that, actually, it’s in our heads – in the heads of the audience – that meaning is actually constructed, so it’s with us that the ethical duty lies to resist these conclusions. Stuff to think about, anyway.

Thursday 17 March 2016

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me – Young Vic, London

[seen 16/03/16]

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me has possibly the best track list of any piece of British Theatre ever.

And it murders it.

You literally couldn’t hope to hear a worse versions of these songs. (Even that clip in the trailer above makes it sound a million times better than the full live godawful reality.) Nor see stagecraft more likely to make you wish you’d just stayed at home and listened to the records.

It kills all these great songs on a totally pointless stage design (a big plug and socket by Bunny Christie), under the ugliest lighting design this side of anything by Robert fucking Wilson (lighting design by regular Robert Wilson collaborator Andreas Fuchs). Director and choreographer Alleta Collins’s choreography, what there is of it, also feels ugly and pointless. When you can even be bothered to look at it. But the worst crime here is the fucking guitar playing by “Kipper”. Kipper plays guitar like a session musician; an irony-free, nuance-free, *American rock* session musician. Jane Horrocks is actually fine; but in the face of all the above, what’s “fine” going to achieve? Some of the notes are flat, but, y’know, she’s fine. There’s even a bit early on where she does some Ian Curtis dancing, and is very briefly electric. That lasts all of about two minutes.

But what an absolutely atrocious way to spend time this is. Please don’t go and see it.

What IYKM² is is one of those pieces of theatre made out of songs. Like the ones that Christoph Marthaler has been making for a zillion years. Like that Macbeth David Marton made for the Volksbühne, like that sublime Jacques Brel show by Anonymous Society – although this is, obviously, rather a lot more like their disastrous Smiths-based follow-up. So, theoretically there’s nothing to worry about here. This isn’t some radical new idea, it’s not “the gentrification of the gig”, it’s simply the worst example of this particular genre of theatre that I’ve seen.

Now, having got all those subjective value judgements (WHICH I PROMISE YOU ARE 100% FUCKING ACCURATE) off my chest, let’s have a look at what actually happens. How I’m going to do it is put the title of the track. The embedded YouTube video, and then the commentary/description.

Spoken passage from Anthrax – Gang of Four / Anthrax – Gang of Four

The concept of this show, as suggested by the blurb, etc. is that Jane Horrocks really loves these songs, and wanted to put them together and make a show out of them. The spoken passage from Leeds University Marxists Gang of Four’s ‘Anthrax’ – out of context and nearly forty years later, and audible – still makes sense on its own terms, but those terms are kind of weakened without the context of either the rest of the song, or of the times. Of course they’re still *relevant*; capitalism hasn’t changed that much, and neither has pop music. But it’s such an extreme and damning sentiment to open the show with. I mean, it machine guns half the other songs dead in the water. After all, what are the Buzzcocks doing but singing about love? (Well, quite a bit actually, but you wouldn’t guess it from this show.) So, yeah, rather than causing a big-bang with Gang of Four’s polemic, from which the other ideas of pioneering electro- and punk and whateverthefuck law-unto-themselves that The Smiths and The Fall were could spiral, this use of the extract has the effect of reducing itself and everything else to being about love. Gah.

Atrocity Exhibition – Joy Division

I think there are only dancers on for this bit. If that. The most mangled version imaginable of the song plays. It sounds like a recording. At this stage, we haven’t seen the band. I wondered if it really was a recording. I don’t think there are many contexts for post-punk music where saying “Blimey! I thought it was a recording” is a compliment. Even if it’s dinner-partyfied post-punk, it’s still a fucking insult. As is this version of ‘Atrocity Exhibition’.

Fiction Romance – Buzzcocks

Ok, so the version of ‘Anthrax’ was terrible. We can forgive a bad cover. Hell, even Gang of Four’s own reunion album didn’t really nail their material (see: a long way below). And the cover of Atrocity Exhibition’ was almost impenetrable. So this is where the sinking feeling really kicks in. The band are wheeled out. They’ve got Rat Scabies on drums! Literally! The original one from The Damned! And he’s really good to be fair. And the bassist and keyboard person are fine. Whatever. They’re musicians. But the guitarist is unforgivable.

Ok, this is probably going to be a pretty niche complaint, and if it’s the sort of thing you don’t care about, then maybe go see the show, but frankly I don’t understand how you can like the music and not care. Basically, look, if punk, and new wave, and “alternative music” had any point at all, it was that it sounded a certain way. And that sound was partly defined against all the things it wasn’t. Now, yes, absolutely fine, all the songs here from this Great Northern Alternative Music Canon will survive a new arrangement. But that’s not what this is, this is like the Buzzcocks being covered by a fucking soft rock band from L.A. I’m pretty sure “playing like a session guitarist” used to be a really specific insult. And it’s certainly the first one that came to mind tonight. This sounds like the guitar work of someone more used to recording electric guitar incidental music for car chase sequences in 1980s police series. It’s guitar playing by someone who *can play guitar really well*. Yuck. And, fuck, that guitar sound. “Polite overdrive”. FUCK OFF. Please, please, please, not that fucking guitar sound. I’d literally they rather played the whole of ‘Unknown Pleasures' as flamenco than this Joe Satriani widdly widdly bollocks.
[edit: So I Googled “Kipper” for the wikipedia entry linked earlier. He played on 90s records by Gary Numan and Sting. There you go. That’s what this guitar playing sounds like.]

Isolation – Joy Division

Still, hate the guitar sound or no, at least they used the right notes for 
Fiction Romance’. Not so much here. Which is a shame because the original tune is kind of why it’s good. Joy Division wisely elected not to have a guitar part on ‘Isolation’. Kipper decides otherwise, and Kipper played guitar for Gary Numan and Sting. What godawful smug coffee-table bullshit could go wrong?

Nag Nag Nag – Cabaret Voltaire

This is the first song they nearly don’t screw up. I mean, no, let’s be precise; listen to it above. Listen to the instrumentation. Bear in mind that pretty much nothing had ever sounded like that before that song was made, except maybe Suicide and bits of Throbbing Gristle or something. This is like a cruise ship cabaret version by comparison, but without being even slightly as interesting as that sounds. But at least in the show it
’s got a bit of drive in the moment.

What Do I Get? – Buzzcocks

Slow. Do you know those Nouvelle Vague records that they made in the 00s? They were kind of kitschy and appalling, and clearly aimed squarely at middle-class New Wavers who had grown up, moved out to the suburbs, but still had their taste in music and consequently had nothing to play at dinner parties. Also, EVERY SINGLE COFFEE SHOP IN BERLIN FOR THREE YEARS. Well, this is a bit like that, but without an ounce of the charm, wit or, ahem, jouissance. Ugh. Those dancers are probably all still on stage too, under the crappy Robert Wilson lights, looking like History Boys The Musical – or, more accurately, like a few kids from a local sixth form college’s Musical Theatre BTEC who have been told to take the piss out of the idea of ballet on the stage, but still look faintly embarrassed to be doing it in front of people. Horrocks stares at us a bit, maybe.

Empire State Human – Human League

The first song I don’t have a personal relationship with. And what’s there to say about it? Why this song? Fuck knows. But equally, why not? It’s kind of fun. It doesn’t add anything to a dramaturgy that’s been making it increasingly clear that it isn’t going to show up. It’s probably worth noting that the song, even in its original form, is so borderline-jaunty that it sounds here like they’ve accidentally added a cover from Oliver! Oh, man. I just want it to stop.

Hot on the Heels of Love – Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle, man! Thobbing fucking Gristle. I mean, admittedly, it’s like Throbbing Gristle’s most commercial record ever. It’s not like Horrocks and co. took a third of the running time out of the middle of the show to perform 
Very Friendly’– Thobbing Gristle’s twenty minute “song” about Ian Brady and Myra Hindley drinking German wine – but still, it’s nice that it’s on the playlist, which remains awesome in terms of the originals. Although what this song made me reflect was that having had Suicide down the road at the NT, what’s shocking was that hearing the recorded version in Cleansed was more potent, cool, and downright thrilling than anything happening live in front of us here. That said, Christ! Listen to it (the original). I mean, sure, on several levels they made it to annoy fans and confuse people, but also, it’s so in advance of its time. It’s subversive – a concept SORELY LACKING here – and sarcastic, but also kind of playing with the idea of “sexy” records. Obviously here it is none of those things.

My New House – The Fall

Jane Horrocks is not Mark E. Smith. Without Mark E. Smith, and with these hideous arrangements, this could be a cover of literally anything. As it turns out, it ends up sounding like it could be an off-beat re-write/cover of 
Failure by Swans. This in turn made me think about the ongoing, unmitigated failure going on in front of me. Blimey, it was stiflingly mortifying. Christ. How still the people sat. How enervated they looked. How much they cheered at the end. It did occur to me that this evening was, in many ways, more successful than the whole of punk in terms of making you hate your useless generation. If anyone’s looking to really feel some hatred for an hour, this is better than the Sleaford Mods live.

Memorabilia – Soft Cell

Oddly, probably the best version of the lot so far. Predictably the song I care least about out of the whole lot, but, y’know. I think we’re all ready to go home now, right?

I Know It’s Over – The Smiths

It’s worth remembering that, back in the day, Morrissey was quite funny, and quite wry, and quite ironic. It’s particularly worth remembering this if you’re singing one of his songs. 
I Know It’s Over’ is probably the runaway success of the evening. By which I mean: it wasn’t execrable. No. Bits of it were even ok. And, at this late stage, dramatic even! I mean, really it was much too dramatic, milked as the song was, for every last droplet of pathos and agony and without the eye-roll-to-self that stopped the original being the self-parody that people often took it for. It’s fine. Oddly, it’s also the only one of these songs I’ve seen sung live in a theatre before (by Michael Colgan in Alex Silverman’s brilliant arrangement for Anna Ledwich’s Headlong/Gate Lulu). Do I need to tell you how much better that version was?

Spoken passage from Anthrax – Gang of Four (2005 re-recording) [from 18.20]

Home strait now. This version refers to itself as “an exercise in archaeology”. But unless you were also reading the track-list, you’d think this was Horrocks claiming what IYKM² was. And I’m sure that’s the intention. Except that Gang of Four re-recording some material they were really serious about in 1978 almost thirty years later is quite interesting (not that I bought it), whereas this show runs dangerously close to conjuring the phrase “vanity project”. I’d like to believe it’s not. I’d like to hope that like, say, the Macbeth here before Christmas, everyone tried something out in good faith, but because no one said no to the fucking guitarist, it all went to shit.

Life is a Pigsty – Morrissey

I guess this is where everything dovetails, and we see that eventually even poor old Steven M. is making records that sound like unimaginative pastiches of his former glories. Life is a pigsty indeed. 


To be honest, I had a big old bunch of thinking to roll out alongside this review, since *in theory* the whole concept fits incredibly neatly with a lot of what I’ve been thinking about recently. Obviously all that’s rendered completely redundant by the fact of the show being utterly, utterly dreadful. So, yeah. Let’s leave this alone now. It’s done. No real harm done. It’s only an hour long.

But, Christ. Seriously. What a maddening, dispiriting, wasted opportunity.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Lyric, Hammersmith

[seen 15/03/16]

Ok, let’s try something stupid.

If you want a “proper” review of Filter’s MSND I’m sure you’ll be able to find one. To review this “properly” you’d basically have to reflect the gales of laughter, the continuous hilarity, the shedload of wonderful performances (namecheck a few: Hammed Animashaun’s astonishing dancing and brilliant vocal stylings, Jonathan Broadbent’s perfectly-pitched self-punctured dignity and physical comedy, and possibly my favourite moment of the whole thing, Victoria Moseley’s into-a-mic-through-vocal-effects turn as a sarky Scouse sprite). Probably say “inventive” or “postmodern” or “meta-theatrical”. Note the plot. Characterise it as something (either: “dark” and “menacing”, etc. or: “joyous” and “riotous” etc.) Note directors: Sean Holmes and Stef O’Driscoll. Note designer: Hyemi Shinn. [No dramaturg.] Say the evening belongs to Ed Gaughan’s Peter Quince. Say he acts as a kind of super-live, stand-up, compere. Note that he’s Irish (what?)... Got any wordcount left? No? Cool. That’s pretty much the show. Funny. Shakespeare. Doesn’t feel like hard work. Shakespeare. Funny. Live music. Comedy. Extemporised humour. Liveness. Funny. Shakespeare. Comedy. Fun. [174 words. Bingo.]

So, no, let’s instead try: The Work of Art post-The Age of the mechanicals Reproduction?

What’s fascinating about (this iteration of) Filter’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that it’s kind of the most effortlessly “European” Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen in Britain. I’ll concede that in the first instance this is based on what it looks like, and a fairly generalised idea of “Europe”. But I think it goes deeper as an analysis. In terms of translation, dramaturgical intervention, and the way that the actors play with the text, and break the play... It’s all that stuff everyone was going on about after Three Kingdoms right there, isn’t it? But this is a revival of pretty much the show that played before 3K... And we’d had Filter’s Twelfth Night, so Christ knows what we were feeling so hangdog about back in 2012. We can so plainly do this.

I think the reasons it never occurred to me to frame it like this with Twelfth Night are largely shallow. For a start, Twelfth Night – which I saw at the Tricycle Theatre late in 2008/9(?) – didn’t really have a set. (That I remember. Did it?) Of course, there’s the fact of it being completely joyous and laugh-until-you-cry funny too. That does distract from “recognising inventive dramaturgy” too, but I think the aesthetics had a lot to do with it too.

Here we’re in a scrappy, dirty white-walled room, tiled up one corner with a grotty bath and shower taps. It looks now – forgive me – like an hommage to Three Kingdoms, and to Blasted, and to Peter Brook’s MSND, and to the kind of indicative, nowhere, hinterland rooms that aren’t anywhere, which you put plays in to have them put somewhere. Somewhere with walls. That this room, like the one in Negative Space, ends up smashed up – blasted – cannot fully be coincidence, can it?

And then there’s the costuming and the music. As you might have noticed, if you’ve been reading Postcards... since the beginning of the year, I’ve been very influenced by Mark Fisher’s thinking in his book Ghosts of My Life, which in places seems to argue something like the inescapability of the Seventies. And it feels like there’s something very like that here. Something about the humour, and the costumes, and the styles of music used, and the Radiophonic Workshop effects... even the choices of voices and accents feel slightly like they owe a lot to the Seventies(/early Eighties). Of course, this makes perfect sense. It’s basically when the vast majority of the people on stage (and director) were children. That decade’s TV will be the most levelling, common language available. So, it seems right that Johnny Broadbent’s posh, ineffectual Oberon sounds like he’s from Bank Holiday repeated Carry On films and looks like an escapee from Tiswas. Similarly, it’s right that Hammed’s Demetrius is wearing a black polo-neck top and suit jacket. Or that the excellent John Lightbody’s Lysander-in-love also recalls Stephen Toast, who is the very essence of this inescapable Seventies/Eighties interzone.

Perhaps the intervention that brings it home most of all is Ed Gaughan’s Irish comedian, Peter Quince (perhaps at the same time conjuring the ghost of Griffiths’ Comedians). Not just in terms of accent and/or costume – although very much those too – it’s more in the routine with which he kicks off the show. Yes, on many, many other levels, this is just brilliant thinking when it comes to Shakespeare: what better way to make it feel relevant and contemporary than to pick an analogous event and heavily imply the link verbally. It certainly saves A Lot of time with silly costuming and signposting. And means we can then just ignore it, but let it resonate throughout. This is, I think, the genius stroke here. And, indeed, it recalls that other most urgent MSND, Dmitry Krymov’s, mechanicals perform for Russian new money A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It). This somehow hints at the same overall catastrophe, talking about all of us in the theatre in the midst of this never-ending “Austerity”, but at the same time, evokes a similar catastrophe through the medium of Seventies Children’s TV, pop music and food fights. It *does* the play. And does it without overt comment on the disastrous gender politics, or horrible drug-rape logic of Oberon’s “trickery”, and yet it’s all there. Not dwelt on, but not prettified or excused. In a lot of ways it’s not remotely kind to Shakespeare or his play, but nor should it be. And the agency it finds to exact this revenge also seems to come from within the play itself. Which is fascinating and complex. The well-meaningness and forelock-tuggingness of the mechanicals is removed. Not quite replaced with the coming insurrection, yet. But gone, all the same. And replaced with agency and music. There is the comic ineptitude of their graceless theatre, but also the aptitude of their musicianship. And the violence (or at least the genuine bite) of the stand-up.

So, yes, wittingly or otherwise, on purpose or not, watching this Midsummer Night’s Dream we’re given about as acute and chilling portrait of contemporary Britain as we’re likely to see on stage – a Britain in the grip of a neverending financial crisis, a Britain where power is invisibly exercised in places we never get to see inside, and where decisions are taken right out of our hands. Where our only real recourse is to lose ourselves in childish bunfights, nostalgia, or pointless, arbitrary romantic entanglements, and if it all gets too much, pretend it’s all a dream.


this review brought to you by Magazine’s 1978 debut album Real Life. If we’re all inevitably going to drown in nostalgia, we might as well drown in the good stuff:

Every One – BAC, London

[seen 14/03/16]

Not me.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

The Damned Utd – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

[seen 11/03/16]

To pick up where Michael leaves off: “It’s a good evening, but one, I suspect, for the fans.”

Well, it’s safe to say I’m not a fan. Not of football, at any rate. But reducing what The Damned Utd is about to “football” is a bit like suggesting that Coriolanus doesn’t really have much appeal to anyone beyond fans of C5th B.C. Roman politics.

[That said, I went the night after press night, and the initial most striking things about Friday night’s performance of The Damned Utd. were a) that the thing was pretty much sold out, and b) that there were more men in the theatre than I have ever seen in my life. And men it’s fair to say that I haven’t seen so many of in theatres, full-stop.

Now, No, I know that “white men” are, in theory, hardly a poorly served demographic. These are apparently the guys with all the power and money that everything’s for. Well, possibly not these men, and not theatre, so often. And it felt genuinely nice to be at something that felt so welcoming and inclusive to this non-traditional audience. I mean, if we’re serious about theatres being for “everyone”, and we accept that – really – “everyone” is not interested in the same things, then it’s at least salutary to see that there’s nothing off-putting about “theatre” itself, when the subject is of interest. And, when the subject is this well-handled, “theatre” itself is hardly losing out. Indeed, people who might think there’s nothing in this for them (i.e. me) would be well-advised to go anyway.]

In fact, Coriolanus is pretty much the tragic trajectory also followed here. I’ve not read the David Peace novel (or any of his others, despite fully intending to; along with all those Karl Ove Knausgaard books). Nor have I seen the film (eviscerated by Mark Fisher [not the theatre critic one] in his book Ghosts of My Life: “Hooper and Morgan didn’t adapt Peace; they eliminated him.”).  It is nonetheless fascinating to note where the parameters of the story are set. Anders Lustgarten’s adaptation does a much better job of honouring “Peace’s fractured and abrasive modernism” (Fisher). The story essentially cuts back and forth between Brian Clough’s time at Derby County, where he did very well, and Leeds Utd, where his stint as manager lasted 44 days. The novel/play then stops. Apparently – according to a bloke overheard by me on the way out – Clough subsequently went on to have a long and sporadically illustrious career at Nottingham Forest where the team topped the league, won the European Cup, and generally accomplished all the stuff that makes football teams happy.

As such, it’s key that the novel just dwells on the absolute low point. It also completely cuts out the year or so spent at Brighton and Hove between the time at Derby and the time at Leeds. Again, like Shakespeare, you’re not really here for undiluted facts. If, at times, it might seem like there are a lot of facts, and stats, and information about matches won and lost; really it’s the rhythm of the writing and its masterful delivery by Andrew Lancel (him off of Cardiac Arrest) as Clough that resonates here.

This isn’t a play about football, it’s a half-tragedy about hubris, arrogance and vanity, while at the same time being apparently, ostensibly in the right. Leeds under their previous manager, Don Revie, are envisioned by Clough, fairly or unfairly, as completely corrupt. Referees bribed, fouls committed, dives taken. He takes the job as manager precisely because of his contempt, it seems. And because of his self-belief. Because his time at Derby and his time at Leeds are both run largely concurrently, his fall from grace at the former also coincides with his much faster dismissal from the latter. And his mother dies. I daresay I was the only person in the theatre who didn’t know the story, but it’s a bloody good one, and one well told here. Yes, the football details might as well have been being reported in a language I don’t speak, but since I’m on record advocating for watching plays in languages we don’t understand, I didn’t have the slightest problem with that. Urgency and tone communicated everything.

So, that’s The-Play-as-script. As a production, Rod Dixon’s première for this Red Ladder/WYP/Derby Playhouse co-pro. is a fascinating, mixed beast. Signe “There Has Possibly Been An Incident” Beckman’s design is blank, black and monolithic. Boxy. A bunch of gauze panels make up the walls of the set. The play opens with a painted line describing the playing area being picked out in light, until a bloke comes on and completes it with one of those pitch-painting thingies. At a couple of points a big boardroom table is lowered from the ceiling. It’s coldly effective, and almost, ahem, German in its rejection of the obvious. (The obvious in this instance surely being a cavalcade of brown and beige wallpapers evoking Britain’s nicotine-strained brutalism-and-broken-biscuits past.)

Similarly (in a way), the majority of the stage time is, as you might expect, Lancel-as-Clough narrating himself, chatting to people in scenes as they become relevant, and dialoguing with his indefatigable mate Peter Taylor (Tony Bell). And it pretty much works excellently. There’s also some thrown-in nineties “physical theatre” of the “throwing demonstrative football shapes” school, which, frankly, I could have lived without and so could the production. Similarly, the wheeling on of shop-window dummies as the teams felt like it fell between two aesthetic stools in this version (i.e. I think there are at least two wildly different ways to make it work – although maybe not with this set – but this wasn’t either of them).

But, yes. To get back to the main event: overall this felt like a more-than-decent stab at adapting what must be almost insurmountable source material, and a damn good night out, not least for a lot of people who seem to generally feel excluded by theatre.

“Fans only?” Definitely not.

Friday 4 March 2016

Endgame – HOME, Manchester

[seen 02/03/16]

First seen in England in 1957 (although Tynan’s review is from 1958), Samuel Beckett’s Fin de Partie is now pushing sixty. And yet, thanks to the pathological insistence of the Beckett Estate, it hasn’t changed a bit. I first saw Endgame as a student production in 1997, when the play was a mere forty – already a revered relic of a “Royal Court Golden Age” that had passed into legend and then into academia before I was even born. It’s strange to think now, that such an age is still so recent that certain of our living critics can still remember it. I remember the production I saw as punishingly long, brilliantly done, very “pure”, and tortuous. I didn’t feel any great need to see another one for the next twenty years.

The good news here, or not, is that this production is a good deal more bearable. Entertaining, even. And runs at 90 minutes without interval. (Indeed, the visit, including travel to and from HOME, fitted comfortably inside the running time of Husbands and Sons, currently playing up the road at the Exchange). All of which endears the thing to me greatly, but makes me worry that it’s maybe not doing its existential job properly. This is a production that pushes the whole thing as close as possible to being entertaining without being estate-vetoed.

David Neilson (whose Coronation Street screen-wife famously died of cancer at the Exchange throughout January) wheedles and blusters his way through Hamm. He’s amusing and imperious. A bitter, flamboyant, tart, old stage turn, condemned by circumstance to play out his days at once in a draughty room, and somehow also always on a stage, addressing us the unseen audience.

As we know, he is attended upon by stiff-legged, hunched servant Clov...

[There’s probably a lot to be said about the extent that society has moved on from this kind of use of disability to signify thwartedness. I mean, how many actually blind wheelchair users have played Hamm? It’s starting to feel a bit like watching white actors black-up to play Othello now. This is one of THE great disabled roles of the canon. Whether disabled actors would want to condone it is another question, and one that I’m not remotely qualified to answer. I will say, though, watching from a seat next to someone with cerebral palsy made these questions feel a lot more urgent.]

Chris Gascoyne as Clov is really interesting, with a strong take on how to perform the part. It’s slightly detached. Slightly disconnected. It’s certainly not always psychological realism as I understand it, but maybe the reality that Clov’s psychology inhabits wouldn’t be very recognisable anyway. Gascoyne plays Clov as someone who has lived every scenario we see him in before. His answers to Hamm often seem to come without listening. Like delivery of lines he just knows he has to say. At once the actor in this situation, and the character in exactly the same bind. This possibility is reflected in the way Hamm tortures the audience with teasing, double-edged meta-theatrical jokes about the possibility that “it’s” nearly over. “All this is just play” perhaps, as another Beckett has it.

Peter Kelly as Nagg is much funnier than I remember the part, but (picky me) I think both he and Nell (Barbara Rafferty) suffer for not *really* being in their dustbins the whole time; instead transparently popping off through a trapdoor for a cups of backstage tea between their infrequent scenes.

Designer Tom Piper has made this iteration of Hamm’s “bare interior” (lit by Lizzie Powell) something like the inside of a large cargo container with high rusting metal walls. This might resonate more in erstwhile ship-building/port city Glasgow, than derelict cotton mill Manchester, but it’s fine. Moreover, the sawn-off edges subtly imply that we’re all in the container with them *really*. And I guess that’s the sense that Beckett’s aiming for. This is, after all, a big old meditation on the bleakness of life, the inevitability of death, etc. etc. Right?

Being dimly aware of “the reviews”, I vaguely remember some grumbling that Beckett’s 1950s post-nuclear war apocalypse no longer resonates any more. No war is specified, so I’d say that this historical reading is unnecessary. It *could* definitely feel like a very relevant vision of our globally warm future, cf. a certain Hamburg production of Happy Days. It doesn’t here, paerticularly, but I suggest it the play has an active or effective future, that is it.

Meanwhile, this feels like a very serviceable museum piece. Lovingly restored. Accurate, somehow, but not fully present. A helpful reminder of history and our recent past. A way to think about the old times, as the play also does. But perhaps here seduced by those memories too much to talk about what’s next, or even what’s present.