Saturday, 15 July 2017

10,000 Gestures – MIF, Mayfield, Manchester

[seen 13/07/17]

Review for The Stage. (I know, I know. But, I’m contractually obliged not to post them here.)

Possibly the most interesting 250-word review I’ve ever had to try and write. And interesting to compare my review with (almost all) the responses I’ve seen online. Mostly from people who have “never seen anything like it before”. Because I have. But, I really wish I hadn’t, so I could be one of those people, rather than the jaded git thinking “it’s not as good as Alain Platel’s Out of Context, For Pina” (which I happened to see at Kampnagel Hamburg, which is a similar sort of warehouse-y space), or “nowhere near as fun as Un Peu Tendresse, Bordel de merde!”. Which, in turn, maybe I wouldn’t have loved quite so much if I’d seen the things they were like... Hm.

This is (along with With If...) also co-produced by the new administration of the Volksbühne...    

Fatherland – MIF, at Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 12/07/17]

I can’t remember the last time I went to the theatre with my expectations so “managed”. Away from the largely positive reviews in the press, there has been *a lot* of eye-rolling about Fatherland – the verbatim, “physical theatre” “musical” made by Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – amongst Manchester’s theatre community. And, for much of the show, it’s actually quite difficult to see why. Or at least, if you go in having been primed to expect an absolute catastrophe, you spend a good long while wondering why everyone’s so grumpy. It’s fine!

I mean, sure, there is the fact that – with its narrative of Stockport, Corby and Bewdley’s most famous sons returning to where they grew up for an afternoon or so – it weakly recalls Didier Eribon’s extraordinary memoir Returning to Reims, which Thomas Ostermeier has brought to such vivid theatrical life at HOME. That comparison throws much light on the problems here. Where Eribon has defined a clear set of things to reflect on, Fatherland is far, far too diffuse.

The piece opens nicely enough. We pretty much know what to expect, verbally, visually and even sonically. We’ve seen verbatim theatre before, we’ve seen Frantic Assembly before, we’ve heard Underworld. And it’s exactly that. On a large rusty grille floor, which revolves. The verbatim scenes have been intercut a bit, so there are some bits where people who (presumably) never met seem to give each other looks. And some of it is given physical presentation, be it largely literal (a ladder is extricated from the iron grille floor to illustrate a bit about being a fireman) or largely metaphorical (some post-Hofesh shuffly dancing).

The subject is interesting. Moving even. Sons talk about their dads. Dads talk about their sons (or daughters). Having got a dad of my own, I could relate to this concept. It works partly just because when the verbatimeers ask questions of their interviewees, you can answer them yourself; it’s not like one of those shows where they interview people with a special interest; like terrorism or racism. Of course, this is also why it’s not super-exciting. They do interview someone who never met their dad too, though. Although, perhaps understandably, he doesn’t really have much to say on the subject to three perfect strangers, so that’s a bit of a blind alley.

There’s also the decision to have Stephens, Graham and Hyde played by actors on stage. A lot of people have grumbled about this. And before I’d seen it, I couldn’t really understand why. I mean, it might be a bit clumsy, but at least it’s honest, right? When verbatim theatre hides its constructedness, its interviewiness, everyone grumbles about that too. So – I thought – there’s a certain level of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

However, by the end of Fatherland you do see the problem: that, by choosing to honour – nay, foreground – the (really quite sharp) objections of one of their interviewees, the makers inadvertently turn the piece into a narrative about themselves. Now, again, this *could* be quite interesting. Working-class guilt at successfully-executed class-treachery is, after all, half the subject of Eribon’s perceptive, incisive, searching 245 page memoir. The problem on that score here is, I suspect, a lack of time. And perhaps a lack of substantial enough reflection. And perhaps of failing to see the wood for the trees once in production, maybe.

There’s then also the fact that the piece isn’t just about “Fathers” at all. Indeed, from the title, we can perhaps even guess that it’s not even fully intended to be. Presumably conceived in the aftermath of Brexit, and with Stephens, Graham and Hyde all hailing from working (or lower-middle) class backgrounds, and now all (presumably) earning rather significantly more than the average salary, living in fancy old London. The problem is, because “Brexit” is never really directly addressed as a subject, it seems to come out in the cracks, and the authors have inadvertently set themselves up as “the Establishment”. Which is, I’m sure, not how any of them feel, or especially deserve to be treated, but there it is nonetheless. (There’s also the slight problem that, for my money, Ferdy Roberts’s version of Simon Stephens comes across as snide and patronising in a way that I’ve never once seen Simon be in real life, but maybe that’s a matter of Simon beating himself up in the making process and putting a version of all his worst self-criticisms on stage.)

Looked at as generously as is possible: the creative team met this person who challenged the ethics of their project, and rather than ignore that person or hush them up, they put those objections centre stage. The problem is, they didn’t answer the objections in the interview (as far as we’re shown), they’re not answered anywhere else by the piece, and the fact that they’re the focus of so many of the questions means that Fatherland turns into a piece about Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – *because* they want to prove that they’re not above sharing the same information about themselves as everyone else. As a result you have this one extraordinary moment where on-stage Simon Stephens is bellowing “I don’t think I could have written the plays I did, if my father hadn’t drunk the way he did” (I paraphrase) while music and crowds of men swirl around him, and it feels like it’s actually the point of the show. And I’m not sure I understand what exactly that point is.

Yes, there’s still lots of other material, much of it touching. But most of that also fairly inconclusive. It feels like the creative team duck the central challenge of the piece: to name the problems of inequality (in terms of both economics and social capital); to examine the extent to which they are complicit in their making; and beyond that, to look properly at the even tougher problems of working class violence, racism, far-right sympathies (which they touch on), and either find counter-narratives, or to say something about their conclusions.

Cotton Panic! – MIF, Upper Campfield Market Hall, Manchester

[seen 11/07/17]

Well-meaning Jane Horrocks vehicle doesn’t quite hit the spot. (Looks nice in the photos, though.)

Returning to Reims – HOME, Manchester

[seen 08/07/17]

Thomas Ostermeier told me that this review (of his show, Returning to Reims) wasn’t my best work. :-)

Available Light – MIF, Palace Theatre, Manchester

[seen 06/07/17]

A revival (which has been doing the rounds for two years) of a 34-year-old American piece by Lucinda Childs, who choreographed Einstein on the Beach.

Reviewed for The Stage.

What If Women Ruled The World – MIF, Mayfield, Manchester

[seen 05/07/17]

Would things improve much if women *ruled* the world? I’m not particularly convinced of the gender essentialist claim that women are by definition more virtuous, kind, compassionate, or understanding than men. I suspect that the problem might instead be “ruling,” and all that that entails, rather than one gender or another.

Brief description of piece: it opens with a pastiche of the end of Dr Strangelove (takes fifteen minutes, feels like 3 hours). The parts are play by female actors in “men's” clothing.

Then there’s a bit of set-up shtick about how we’re in a post-apocalyptic future where women now outnumber men ten to one and, contrary to Dr Strangelove’s pervy fantasies about how having ten women to every man for the purposes of repopulating the earth with his Aryan dream, this is proposed as an imaginary matriarchy.

On the night I saw it (the guests change every night), this imaginary matriarchy was represented by five female experts (all Northern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere (which on my globe includes “the middle-east”), so not everything changes, evidently*). Their task is to discourse on their area of expertise, while the actors basically interrupt them with some monologues in dire need of context and some “amusing” skits in which a “classically attractive” beefcake-in-pants comes in as the tea boy.

The irony of these scenes is, having opted for “classically attractive” to mean “built like a tank that’s been to the gym too often,” the sheer disparity between tea-boy and women is all too apparent: he could probably kill each of them with his bare hands. No problem. The problem of control (so “ruling”) is a problem of oppression and violence. A more interesting title/discussion for the piece (if it has to exist), might be: “How Can Women Get To Rule The World?” which, if nothing else, would perhaps have laid bare the ways in which we actually understand power, violence, labour and capital. (But only if not interrupted by decontextualised monologues.)

What the experts said – what you could hear of it, with the lousy acoustics, and the radio-mic problems – was quite good. But basically like an Agree-y Question Time that could have been held anywhere. Sure, there’s a faction in theatre who believe that a panel discussion can be construed as theatre. I’m not sure I agree with them. And neither do the makers of this piece, clearly, hence the added Extra Theatre Bits).

It strikes me that if one of theatre’s many strengths is the possibility of putting yourself in someone else’s position, then both Fatherland and What If... would have been much improved if they’d been made by the opposite production teams. Then, instead of two of the laziest, most comfort-zone-based pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, we’d have some genuine inquiry and an attempt to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes.

The absolute worst thing about this, though, is that it is part of the programme of the new Volksbühne, while Manchester gets to see nothing from the old Volksbühne (and in a space that could have almost supported it). How much better it would have been to have transferred Castorf’s Faust, or Marthaler’s _ _ _ _, than hosting this hideous neoliberal chat-show because Chris Dercon was happy to throw money at us.

*There was also a problematic thing the night I saw it, where one of the panellists repeatedly referred to the problem of “the middle-east” being “dictatorships”. Which, to my mind, rather glossed over another problem of the middle-east... (That the lead artist on the project is Israeli only serves to amplify this discomfort. Unwontedly, I’m sure. And I’m sure on other nights, when the panel was different, this concern wouldn’t have arisen.)

Thursday, 6 July 2017



Today is Postcards' tenth birthday.

This is a placeholder for something a bit more substantial when I get round to it.