Tuesday, 30 October 2007

My blog, my blog, why hath I forsaken you?

The observant among you might have noticed that I haven’t exactly been prolific this month. There have been a variety of factors at play, not least that last week on Monday I had organised the final Finborough Forum - which turned out to be a brilliant discussion between panellists Chris Campbell, Ian Shuttleworth and James Graham.

This came shortly after watching Michael Moore’s SiCKO and Lagerfeld Confidential for a recording of Culture Clash (a review of the latter is in progress, a review of the former is largely unnecessary) on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before going on to see two of the plays in Daniel Goldman’s Tangram Theatre Casa Latina festival (review again forthcoming). On Wednesday I saw War Horse at the National and Kebab at the Royal Court. Thursday saw me knocking up a piece on Short Plays for the Guardian. I also spent a good proportion of last week running around like a headless chicken organising this Sunday’s Political Theatre, Political Animal debate at the Institute of Ideas’s Battle of Ideas weekend. The results of that debate should be turning into a blog post shortly, probably for the Guardian. So that was what I laughingly call my week off. Now I’m back at work it might all calm down a bit.

All of the above has left me curiously little time for writing, much less reflection. Hopefully I’ll be back in the habit shortly. Still, at least while there are a steady stream of spambots making tracks for my Ugly One review - Lord knows why they love that one so much - at least my stat counter will be happy.

I have also embarked on reading Michael Billington’s epic The State of The Nation - his survey of British theatre since 1945. All the early indications are that it is an impressive bit of work, all the usual objections - which he himself concedes graciously in a very modest introduction - notwithstanding.

In other news, Andrew Field and Chris Goode have both been putting me to shame on the productivity front. And both continue to be quite brilliant. If you’re not already a regular reader, I can’t recommend them highly enough. Also, Maxie Szalwinska’s stuff at the Guardian continues to be essential reading. Also worth a look is Chris Wilkinson’s latest piece on the lack of support networks for young actors. Finally, there is some excellent new stuff on Alison Croggan's Theatre Notes blog.

War Horse - National Theatre

In a recent Guardian Blog post, American critic Matt Wolf tried to suggest that the reason that British audiences were so moved by the Nick Stafford’s new adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book can be simply explained away by the “fact” that the British are ludicrously sentimental when it comes to animals. The theory is, frankly, horseshit.

Granted, from the get-go War Horse is well and truly aimed at the tear-ducts. Indeed, by the end of the opening sequence - mechanical swallows flitting across projected pencil sketches of pre-WWI agricultural idyll all to the lush strains of some very fine ersatz Vaughn-Williams - the audience was well on its way to a collective welling-up. But the real engine of the play is a very human story of love lost and found. Albert Narracott (Luke Treadaway - twin brother of Joy Division drummer Harry) is an awkward sixteen-year-old. When his father drunkenly outbids his step-brother for a half-thoroughbred riding horse at the local market he takes it upon himself to train the horse, who he names Joey, spending hours with the creature building bonds of mutual trust. After getting into, and out of, a few scrapes and having clearly established a real bond the outbreak of the First World War sees Joey sold to the army for use as a cavalry charger. The parting between the boy and his horse is sad enough, knowing the carnage that the horse is being sold into makes it impossibly tragic.

Even though this is nominally a children’s show, directors Marianne Eliot and Tom Morris do not flinch from making the War utterly hellish. The cavalry’s first doomed charge sees Joey’s rider shelled off the horse in slow motion and thrown to the back of the stage. Later when Albert runs away from home to follow his horse across the channel, his platoon is greeted with the sight of blasted men and puppets being stretchered back to Blighty. Sensitive children may have nightmares populated by the ragged, skeletal horses that have been pressed into service pulling a piece of heavy German artillery for weeks.

Impressive as the human actors are - the sheer force of Luke Treadaway’s emotional honesty as a lovelorn 16-year-old boy is utterly heart-rending - the puppetry does have a habit of quietly stealing the show. Mostly though how unobtrusive it contributes wholly credible presences to the stage. That the horses achieve a startling degree of life-likeness, without once ever once appearing naturalistic is a fascinating achievement in itself. Indeed, Rae Smith’s overall design for the play cleverly echoes Vorticist war artists, rendering heavy ordnance, trenches and even a tank as thick-lined Futurist versions of the reality. Wrapping such a simple and affecting story in such bold design is an effective decision and lifts the entire production several notches above the sentimental soup that could have resulted.

No, the play isn’t ashamed to have a big heart at its centre. It is a play about love, and about how love can make normally fragile humans to endure dreadful suffering in search of the thing they love. In this case it happens to be a horse. It could just have easily and more usually would have been a girl or boy. Somehow, because it is a horse, the play crosses all manner of cultural, class, religious and sexual boundaries, and becomes readable as a simple triumph of good fortune and Dickensian coincidence in the face of incalculable odds.

Kebab - The Royal Court

First draft - written for CultureWars.org.uk

For a while at the start of Kebab you think you know exactly what you’re getting. As we meet Mădălina and Bogdan on their flight from Romania to Dublin, as Mădălina gushes gauchely about her boyfriend Voicu, as Bogdan plays the diffident student, we have a pretty good handle on the situation. As the next scene opens, a month later, with Voicu and Mădălina facing up to money worries - Voicu revealing that he has sorted out a whole new job for Mădălina - we are right back in 1996 in a kind of Romanian immigrant Shopping and Fucking. Plus ça change. Perhaps Mark Ravenhill unwittingly created a blueprint for all subsequent underclass dramas and Kebab is acknowledging that debt while pointing up the differences in the make-up of today’s newly emergent underclass of Eastern European immigrants.

There’s a change of lights - and suddenly we’re out of the bedsit squalor and into a red-neon lit interior monologue. Mădălina is comparing Romanian prostitutes to Romanian gymnasts. She’s the Nadia Comaneci of sex work.

But wait. Now that Mădălina is turning tricks in Dublin’s red light district, who’s this in the car with her? It’s Bogdan off the plane. He’s in a bad way. His course in Visual Arts at the University isn’t going so well because he feels alienated, lost and blocked. So the two form a kind of co-dependency. But more than that, he’s filming her. Filming her talking about her life as a sex worker in Dublin. Well, as long as Voicu doesn’t find out... Oh dear. Voicu’s come back. He’s found Bogdan filming Mădălina in her skimpy sex worker’s clothes. But what’s this? He doesn’t seem to mind? He’s got a business proposition for Bogdan? He wants them to start making films for the internet. Of Mădălina. So far, so modern. Here we are trotting through a veritable checklist of contemporary anxieties at quite a rate.

But the dynamic has changed. Little by little we’re being moved away from the social-realist mode to something much more domestic. Pinteresque, almost. Gradually, as Bogdan moves in with Voicu and Mădălina the three work up into a situation resembling a queasy cross between Entertaining Mr Sloane and The Servant. All the while we’re wondering who really wields the power. Allegiances shift: who does Mădălina really love? Do either of the men actually care about her? From here on in the interior monologues start cropping up with greater frequency. And they are getting increasingly sixth-form. They’ve started deploying that irritating ersatz Angela Carter “I am Little Red Riding Hood” level of fairy-tale-as-sexual-signifier trope that was so popular in the Eighties. And then cutting back to the increasingly laboured sub-Pinter three-way. Eventually the dual dei ex machina of pregnancy and murder intervene and the play is finally allowed to keel over and die.

It is difficult to fully assess Gianina Căbunariu’s play (originally bearing the far better title mady-baby.edu) since neither Philip Osment’s prosaic translation nor Orla O’Loughlin’s leaden direction do it any favours. As an idea, it has some potential, but precious little of it is realised here. It would, I suppose, be traditional to round-off with some sort of kebab-related punnery (blah, blah skewered; only enjoyable if drunk; etc.), but the title is as glancingly irrelevant as the rest of this thin, undercooked piece.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

OK Computer

The Friday Play - Radio 4

Friday 19 October

By Joel Horwood, Chris Perkins, Al Smith and Chris Thorpe.

Paul........Tom Brooke
Sarah .....Liz White
Helen .....Federay Holmes
Owen .....Pieter Lawman
Boss .......Chris Thorpe

Producer Lu Kemp
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the release of Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer, Radio 4 - remarkably - commissioned - even more remarkably - a play to mark the occasion. It’s a curious idea. Albums don’t tend to inspire plays. A jukebox musical perhaps - and imagine what that would be like with the Radiohead back catalogue - but seldom actual drama. Albums tend, by their very nature, to be hotch-potches of ideas. Not since the largely defunct concept albums and rock operas of the Seventies have albums really sought to tell stories. So how to go about ‘adapting’ one for radio?

The answer provided here by director Lu Kemp and her team of four writers Joel Horwood, Chris Perkins, Al Smith and Chris Thorpe (all of whom, I should admit, I know and am friends with) is taking themes suggested by the albums music and lyrics and creating a narrative which at once reflects and builds on them. The story itself involves a man called Paul who has been involved in a car crash in Berlin. He wakes up in hospital and has no memory of who he is, or where he comes from. Moreover, he has trouble retaining information subsequently given to him. Eventually his wife comes forward, and he returns to his home in England. Except that he is unsure that it is his home at all, that she is his wife, or that the work he is doing - processing vast lists of data - is actually real at all. Another major selling point is that sound designer extraordinaire Gareth Fry has created new pieces of ambient incidental music from the original studio tapes made by Radiohead when recording the album. In the main these are simply dropped in as “scene-change” music, although there are also some fine effects used throughout - the quality of care and attention is forcibly noticeable.

And remarkably - all the more remarkably for their being four writers at work here - the whole thing seems to come off. While not a blow-by-blow literalist account of how the album works, anyone who knows it can see what the play is doing. I should say at this stage, OK Computer is a very fine radio play in its own right - dealing in a kind of thriller-genre sense of disquiet and unease without anything ever explicitly putting a finger on exactly what is wrong. As such it is a perfect foil for Radiohead’s anthems of alienation and angst. Of course drama (arguably) needs to tie itself down to specifics far more than, say, the impressionistic musing of rock lyrics. But here again the team come up trumps with a collection of characters who seem to flit in an out of reality with a surprising ease, while the fragmentary nature of the scenes fits perfectly with both the story and the original concept.

What is remarkable for a multi-authored piece of work is how much it sounds like a unified whole - the four writers have reined back their stylistic tics with admirable restraint (although I’m willing to bet it was Al Smith who couldn’t resist “Looking for astronauts” - unless it was one of the others taking the piss). Moreover, the play contains several images which occur across the various writers’ episodes. Most noticeably the ladybird, which in one excellently chilling scene is just casually dropped in as Paul’s boss seems to reveal to him the extent to which he is trapped in a system which he cannot hope to understand.

While dealing with ideas of dislocation, fragmentation and memory loss, the whole play also works on another level of an ordinary man who is dissatisfied with his life suddenly going into crisis. He does not trust and cannot relate to his wife. He finds himself talking to strange women in bars who appear to offer some way out. While the thriller aspect of the play trades on this as a plausible reality, at the same time it completely allows for it being delusion on Paul’s part - almost a convenient rationale for a more simple loss of faith in his life hitherto.

As a whole although not claiming to have made a definitive narrative out of the album - there is room for hundreds more such projects, which would be fascinating in itself (imagine a festival of 10+ dramatic interpretations of a sole starting point by different artists) - there is something about OK Computer which absolutely taps into Thom Yorke and co’s vision of humanity as millions of traumatised, dislocated little aliens who have somehow ended up totally lost in a world that makes no sense.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Systematic Death

At the risk of turning Postcards... into a covers bands appreciation blog, I can’t emphasise strongly enough how much everyone needs to hear 12 Crass Songs by Jeffrey Lewis. Jesus Christ, it’s good*.

Jeffrey Lewis is a New York folk singer of apparently some standing. Needless to say I’d never heard of him. 12 Crass Songs is an album whose neatly punning title partially disguises its does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin nature. Yup, this is 12 songs by the legendary anarchist punk band Crass covered in alt.folk style. And, remarkably, it is in no way post-modern, ironic, knowing, novelty-value kitsch. Lewis is a talented musician and his arrangements for the songs are at once perky, punchy and pretty. But, crucially, never once piss-taking. For some reason the term “folk music” always seems to conjure up the idea of melodic, lilting balladry. 12 Songs reminds you that before punk, especially in America, folk was *the* protest music of choice throughout the 60s, throughout the Vietnam War; that lyrical savagery needn’t be delivered with equally savage vocal register. Lewis can smile, and eviscerate while he smiles. I can’t remember the last time I was shocked by a record. I was shocked by 12 Crass Songs.

The tracklist is as follows (for those who know their Crass):

1. End Result
2. I Ain’t Thick, It’s Just a Trick
3. Systematic Death
4. The Gas Man Cometh
5. Banned From the Roxy
6. Where Next Columbus?
7. Do They Owe Us A Living?
8. Securicor
10. Big A, Little a
11. Punk Is Dead
12. Walls (Fun in the Oven)

From the off, the most striking about this record is the politics. It’s kind of easy to forget just how committed and radical Crass were. As the years roll by – we’re coming up for the 30th anniversary of their seminal e.p. The Feeding of the 5,000 – the music itself, simply in terms of its style and ferocity, can become a barrier between listener and message. It turns into a stylistic unit – medium and message meld together and become an historic moment. The most valuable service 12 Crass Songs performs for these songs is completely transforming them so that they can be heard afresh (in much the same way that a new production of a play can unlock fresh understanding of the text, while continued revivals of an old production lead to admiration of the production rather than the play – if that).

Moreover, Lewis’s replacing the snotty, inchoate, bile-fuelled snarl of the original vocals with tuneful, faintly melancholic, urbane singing makes the thoughts communicated infinitely more palatable. Yes, part of the point with Crass’s overall aesthetic was that it was difficult, and of its time; but it is fascinating how much power these words accrue for not being nearly choked into a microphone to the extent that they are all but unintelligible without a lyric sheet (OK, less so the Eve Libertine numbers, but...).

The most shocking thing, though, is how hugely removed from contemporary thinking the ideas and ideologies are. The idea of “social change” has been totally neutered in the past thirty years. To listen to this is to be reminded what “uncompromising” really means. It is astonishing to find yourself moved, appalled and thinking seriously about ideas that now appear to have been buried forever. Also surprising is the sheer level of intelligence, wit and persuasiveness on display. It was always pretty hard to take Do They Owe Us A Living? (answer: “course they do / course they do / course they fucking do”) seriously. Here, it briefly becomes almost credible. It is at least possible to follow the line of thinking for the first time. But, it is the totality, the completeness of Crass’s alternative worldview, that is most striking. How much it can still resonate is at once heartening and deeply alarming.

In the recent Guardian review of the album Dorian Lynskey suggests, “The language is inescapably rooted in the days when Thatcher and Reagan bestrode the Atlantic.” Wrong. Feeding of the 5,000 from which five of the songs are taken was mostly an attack on Callahan’s Labour. Crass’s defiantly utopian anarchism had no truck with socialist Labour’s “death in life” statist work ethic. It is the subsequent 18 years of Conservatism that seems to have inextricably linked all protest with The Left. As it stands, there are a number of curious synergies between Crass and today’s libertarians (consider, for example: “It's up to you to change your life and my life's up to me / The problems that you suffer from are problems that you make / The shit we have to climb through is the shit we choose to take / If you don't like the life you live, change it now it's yours / Nothing has effects if you don't recognise the cause” from Big A, Little a. Of course the proposed solutions vary, but the ideology of self-reliance is apparent enough).

It is a cliché of The Right that Socialism is ultimately de-humanising because it doesn’t trust people enough to do the right thing without state guidance. It is equally a cliché on The Left that The Right’s doctrine of “personal freedom” is “freedom to exploit” – rather illustrating The Right’s anxieties about The Left, but at the same time, in a manner that is easily demonstrable. Magically, Crass offer an impossibly hopeful Third Way of no state and total personal responsibility to one another. It’s as undeniably attractive as it is probably impossible (if history is anything to go by). “Some listeners may tire of being addressed as anaesthetised drones under the capitalist yoke.” Lynskey continues. Many more, I humbly submit, might recognise a long-forgotten starkness in the descriptions of their situation.

Of course there are differences between Britain in 1978 and, well, the world in 2007. Lewis addresses some, exchanging Iraq for (Northern) Ireland in Where Next Columbus? and Sarah Jessica Parker for Farah Fawcett in I Ain’t Thick... Lewis also rather sweetly cuts down the amount of swearing in the songs. Not in a censorious fashion, but rather like a good script editor might: picking the occasions where it really counts and hitting those dead-on while avoiding some of the occasions where it just forms alternative punctuation.

To modern eyes, it seems incredible now that Crass were courted by the KGB and IRA for their support and were spied on by MI5. But for thirty years of modernisation, including ten under New Labour, the division between rich and poor is still wholly recognisable. The biggest change, it seems, is that an attitude of mute acceptance and “aspiration” has replaced every last vestige of this once impressive defiance.

Jeffrey Lewis’s website is here and his MySpace here. The highest relevant Google hit for Crass is here - anyone with a better one, leave a comment and I’ll update/add.

* I know I should write something about theatre. I did see a reading of a European play this week: those involved should be grateful I haven’t the energy to write it up. I do have a glowing review of Radio 4’s OK Computer brewing, though.

Edit: Actually, it turns out that much of this post rather neatly forms a counterpoint to Andrew Field’s latest.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Make it stop!

The theme this week seems to be moratoria, with an unexpectedly substantial side order of Martin Amis.

One of the most memorable things Mark Ravenhill ever wrote, at least when wearing his “cultural commentator” hat, is on exactly this first subject. It must be memorable; I just looked it up for the link and it turns out that it’s now seven years old. I still even remember the little woodcut illustration of a man being force-fed words which accompanied it when it was originally printed.

When I first read it, something in the introduction really chimed with my mood. Reading it again – subconsciously replacing all the dated references with contemporary ones – if anything, it feels even truer now:
“There’s a lot of art about at the moment. It's everywhere. It's really stressing me out. It's making me feel guilty. And I wish it would stop. For starters, there’s all those books on the Booker shortlist. I ought to read them... It’s not just art I want to be aware of. There’s culture, too. I mean, I’m not an elitist... Look. Isn’t there too much art around at the moment? Isn’t there too much culture? Isn’t it making us all unhappy? Clearly there’s a big problem. And we’ve got to find a solution.”

Ravenhill carries on for some while (well worth reading), before finishing with this modest proposal:
“I’d like to propose a year-long moratorium beginning on January 1 2001. No reviews, no cultural commentators on radio or television, no profiles of artists in magazines. Stop the presses at Time Out. Pull the plug on Front Row. Ban the Guardian listings. Just a simple sign up outside each gallery or cinema or opera house saying what's on. And let gossip and rumour do the rest. Go on. I dare you.”

Note the date. Imagine if nine months and twelve days later there hadn’t been the unmistakable sound of stampeding novelists and playwrights all galloping, water buffalo-style, to their desks to Address The Nation.

Oddly, fittingly, and ironically - given the rest of this week’s news - the other piece from the Guardian that has really stayed with me from that period is by Martin Amis. OK, it turns out to have been written over a year later – and, as such, sadly, wouldn’t have been caught by Ravenhill’s proposed prohibition – but in my mind both articles were printed on successive weekends around about November in 2001. Although, I can still remember where I was when I first read the Amis*)

Given the veritable media circus which Amis has magicked up, it is well worth going back and revisiting his musings from 2002, if only for their stark contrast to Now-Amis. Then-Amis is still impossibly straight-faced and self-regarding (the best parody Craig Brown ever did in Private Eye is the Amis one that begins: “I am a serious”). Consider:
“After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.”

But, Then-Amis is still, in ‘02, a man who pretty much thinks What-Liberals-Used-To-Think. What are odd are the subtle changes of inflection between Then- and Now- that seem to bespeak tectonic shifts. Yes, there’s a bit where Then- blithely refers to “the medieval agonism of Islam; the Bronze Age blunderings of the Middle East.” But it is partially balanced by his note:
“We recall that Ronald Reagan habitually anathematised the Soviet Union as ‘godless’. This epithet could hardly be unleashed on Osama bin Laden. So Bush, who is religious, and Blair, who is religious, offered the patent falsehood that the war on terrorism was ‘not about religion’. Iraq is godless too, but this fact is unlikely to be parlayed, just now, into another good reason for invading it.”

These are surely the usual cynical musings of the Hampstead-dwelling peacenik muesli eater that so enrage Ann Coulter and her ilk. Astonishing, then, that in just five years he has shifted so far. But then Amis is very much a follower when it comes to Big Questions. He just hitches (Hitch-es?) his wagon to whichever engine seems to be producing most steam and periodically shouts about it thereafter.

The bit that really stayed with me, and became a part of my mental furniture, is the following:
“My own page, as an additional belittlement, ended with a book called The War Against Cliché. I thought: actually we can live with “bitter cold” and “searing heat” and the rest of them. We can live with cliché.”

I mean obviously it is rot and his original premise probably hogwash (but then, I love clichés way too much), but there was something in the slightly befuddled, patrician manner - so graciously conceding that, ‘OK, I might have been a little harsh on cliché back there, all things considered’ – which was at once unintentionally hilarious and oddly moving. Yes, Amis might come out of it sounding like a knob, but at least he’s a knob with a shaken heart. A sadder and wiser bear than the previous year. Much less sad or wise than this week, perhaps.

The last sentence of the above-quoted para, which I left off because it hadn’t stayed with me, is: “What we have to do now, more testingly, is live with war.” – which completes the handy play on his own title. What seems to have happened to him, to all of us, is precisely that.

* Market Square, Cambridge, with Emily Haworth-Booth, laughing about Martin Amis’s monstrous ego and purple prose, if I recall correctly (which I often don’t).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Prolific once more!

I've got a new piece on the Guardian's Theatre Blog page.

It's essentially a round-up of this and this. But I felt it ought to try out in front of a wider audience.

Far be it from me to make observations about the hand that feeds me, but I find it interesting that for "On Beauty", "On-line" and "On top" they've happily stuck on an accompanying photo, but as soon as race is the issue it all goes strangely non-visual.

No doubt there will be a photo there within minutes, and I shall literally eat my words (seriously, watch them disappear when they become obviously wrong). If not, it's an interesting reflection of how our visual culture deals with its polite attempts not to offend.

Update: I've just noticed that Chris Wilkinson has also whizzed up a critique of Peter Whittle's piece on representing Islam, which is well-worth reading.

I also notice that it doesn't have a picture either.

In praise of... Nouvelle Vague

The idea behind the band Nouvelle Vague was apparently suggested itself originally by the disparity between the French new wave and British/American new wave, and the desire “to forget the initial punk or new wave background of each song, keep simple fundamental chords, work with young singers who never heard the original versions, and make the quality of original songwriting happen in a completely different way [using] bossa nova, jazz style and sixties pop”. The big selling point here is not amusing cover versions of classic songs, but a clever way of getting the less accessible end of one’s record collection played in polite company at dinner parties and the like without anyone referring to it as “a racket” (Buzzcocks), “really, really depressing, actually” (the Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division) or simply “crap” (Bauhaus). On top of this, the band - a handful of international session musicians and singers gathered together by the project’s originators Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux - are well beyond merely credible.

The first album’s track-listing offers pretty much the standard early Eighties compilation experience: Joy Division - Love will tear us Apart, The Undertones - Teenage Kicks, The Sisters of Mercy - Marian, The Cure - A Forest and Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough all make an appearance. In the main these are dispatched with an unshowy stylishness, and while obviously dissimilar to the originals, they don’t feel like radical departures. Pretty much what one might expect, in fact. Love Will Tear Us Apart benefits particularly well from the treatment, but they remain pretty much superior cover versions. While their take on XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel fails to improve on the dreary original.

More surprising are the versions of The Guns of Brixton (orig. The Clash) and Public Image Limited’s (This is not a) Love Song. Never has medium been more dislocated from message in the case of the former. While the Clash’s original both lyrically and musically evoked a gritty, violent London Nouvelle Vague’s version turns the whole thing into a sassy come-on while retaining the words. The challenge “You can crush us, you can bruise us, even shoot us” transforms from an embattled challenge from the streets to a submissive French mistress. More so, “...how you gonna come?” is just filth. Similarly P.I.L.’s original left little doubt that it wasn’t a love song, but this Girl from Ipanema treatment moves the ambiguity several notches to the leftfield.

There are a clutch of real stand-out tracks though, which, in the main were songs which I previously didn’t know. The version of Modern English’s I Melt with You is a genuinely pretty, stand-alone pop single. Similarly Tuxedomoon’s In a Manner of Speaking has all the jagged corners of the original smoothed and polished away leaving a perfect, bitterly saccharine four minute love song.

Friday Night, Saturday Morning (orig. The Specials) enjoys some atmospheric studio production treating the vocals and adding discreet background noise that locates the song in the environs described. The song itself seeming to move from loutish Coventry to a dreamy a Julie London-style 60s Chelsea.

Conversely, the version of the Dead Kennedys’s Too Drunk to Fuck, while only a distortion pedal and a bit of speed away from the original, in terms of the music, enjoys a vocal track which genuinely sounds like the singer means it, and finds the whole thing pretty funny. Although, as an aside, apparently Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra has expressed dismay that this version had been given the green light to accompany a rape scene in the Grindhouse double-bill. Which makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps the most radical departure, is also one of the albums biggest gems. Killing Joke’s snarling agit-punk tune Psyche turns into a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory bit of batshit-crazy-girl gothic psychedelia, with the vocalist hissing the once-yelled lyrics into something that sounds like it wouldn’t sound out of place in Rupert Goold’s Macbeth.

The second album - Bande à part (clever huh?) - takes much the same approach, albeit with an endearingly wacky calypso-themed “concept” behind it. Don’t worry, as concepts go it’s not in the least bit intrusive - this is still some fine musicians playing some idiosyncratic cover versions. Although, if you read the sleeve notes there are some entertainingly nuts explanations of what Marc and co. think they are up to.

Again, there is an admirable spread of songs being covered here. Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon and Buzzcocks’s Ever Fallen in Love are possibly two of the most obvious. Both are dispatched quickly - pretty much at the same tempos but more, uh, acoustically. Other less interesting items on Bande... include Blondie’s Heart of Glass, which suffers for already having had a female vocalist on the original and thus not making much of an imaginative leap. Also, missing its staccato drum machine pretty badly, New Order’s Blue Monday is pleasant but little more. In a slightly different league, the version of Visage’s three note drone Fade to Grey only remains as pointless as the original, which is to say, utterly pointless, but sometimes exactly what you want to listen to.

Elsewhere, more interestingly, the Cramps’s Human Fly is turned from its deliberately dumb rockabilly horror original into a slinky New Orleans kind of bluesy Eartha Kitt growl. Bauhaus’s seminal nine-minute chilly minimalist Goth masterpiece Bela Lugosi’s Dead becomes a spooky voodoo stomp, taking inspiration from the synths in 70s horror film Day of the Living Dead with added Haitian voodoo drumming, while Billy Idol’s nonsensical Dancing with Myself turns into a excellently jaunty bit of upbeat lounge music

But best of all is the version of Dance with Me by Lords of the New Church. I have to confess I have never heard the original – even the sleeve notes acknowledge that the song has little currency outside France and is largely forgotten, but this is a perfectly dreamy, wistful bit of pop genius.

Nouvelle Vague aren’t really terribly YouTube friendly - a lot of the stuff on it is fairly ropey audience-shot videos of live gigs. As we know from theatre, pointing a video camera at something on stage tends to have abysmal results. There is, however, this rather beautifully done video for their cover of Dance with Me combined with an edited clip from Godard’s Bande à part

I can’t find the original on YouTube but this seems fairly representative.

One drawback of the live videos is that they can undermine the difference made by the new studio versions. That said, Goth nonsense though it may be, this live version of Bela Lugosi’s Dead is kind of fun if you like that sort of thing.

The band’s website has a few stream-able tracks, as does their MySpace, and iTunes has excerpts.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The aura of election

It feels like it’s been a while since there was a proper bun-fight in the miniscule world of theatre. Obviously there was the bit of unpleasantness in the comments section under Lyn Gardner’s recent blog piece on Masque of Red Death, but as that seems to have sorted itself out there is no need to dwell.

I think I spy the opportunity for one in Tim Carroll’s new piece, but that rather hinges on Chris Goode making good on his Edinburgh promise of a moratorium list - all the elements of devised and avant garde work that should be forbidden for a few years due to overuse. Puppets were right up there, along with accordions, if I recall correctly*.

Instead, this week we’ve had the exciting spectacle of a literary bun-fight. Terry Eagleton has said some disobliging things about Martin Amis. It all hinges on the introduction that Eagleton has written for his new book Ideology: An Introduction, in which he calls Kingsley Amis, “a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals” and attacks a fairly old essay by Amis, which barely caused a ripple on publication and was met mostly with polite indifference, on much the same grounds. In the essay Amis indulged some hair-raising rhetorical flights of fancy regarding the position of Muslims in Britain post-9/11 and 7/7. Eagleton likens the remarks in question to those of a “British National Party thug”

Following the furore blowing up, Eagleton took the opportunity to defend his corner in the Guardian. Odd behaviour, one might think, since it was after all Eagleton who started it - indeed Amis Jr. has yet to comment** - although his father’s widow and gay brother-in-law did both write letters to the Telegraph. But, given a majority of the British press’s pronounced antipathy toward left-wing academics, his defensiveness is quite understandable. Except that he then seems to spend a lot of the time arguing with John Sutherland’s perfectly reasonable Guardian Books Blog post.

Less credible is Eagleton’s bald assertion that “there is something rather stomach-churning at the sight of those such as Amis and his political allies, champions of a civilisation that for centuries has wreaked untold carnage throughout the world, shrieking for illegal measures when they find themselves for the first time on the sticky end of the same treatment.”

As opposed to the enormous, state-operated mechanisms of oppression that have been introduced by every Marxist/Marx-inspired government ever to seize power? Isn’t there an arguable short-sightedness in a "Marxist" criticising someone for racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and, most laughably, alcoholism, when one remembers the Marxist governments of Zimbabwe, Russia, Cuba, Burma and China?

Eagleton would no doubt plead that those were hardly powers with whom he would associate himself or condone. But surely tarnishing Amis with advocating “centuries of untold carnage” is precisely the same sort of tactic. Much the same, in fact, as implicating all British Muslims in the activities of a dangerously fanatical few. This sort of broad-brush, impressionistic, mud-slinging does nobody any favours. If people are to disagree then it would be helpful if the disagreer disagreed with what the disagree-e actually says, rather than simply bracketing them in with some things that the disagreer finds objectionable.

Interestingly, doing a quick search for Eagleton on the Guardian’s website turns up this interesting slew of letters from July. It seems that Mr Eagleton’s bonnet-style bee containment unit is full to overflowing. I miss the good old days of Harold Bloom and Naomi Wolf. At least that featured the mostly absurdly overwrought chat-up line ever delivered.

Still, onwards and upwards. If the West End Whingers (brilliantly funny) review of War Horse is anything to go by, the world needs that moratorium list and needs it soon...

* Which I may well not - see comments.

**Although his condemnation of Saudi Arabia for, uh, everything his father is accused of by Eagleton is faintly reassuring.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Control (dir. Anton Corbijn)

If you achieved a legendary status in British music and then killed yourself aged twenty three, you probably wouldn’t want the person with most discernable input into the film of your life to be the wife you were cheating on at the time of your suicide.

Control, photographer Anton Corbijn’s new biopic of seminal Manchester post-punk band Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis, is precisely that. It is based extensively on Ian Curtis’s widow’s book Touching From a Distance, while Curtis herself has an executive producer credit.

As a result, the focus of Control is very much on Ian Curtis, the private man, much more than Ian Curtis the singer/lyricist or Ian Curtis the member of Joy Division. There is a tension around this - Corbijn, after all, did meet and spend time with the band during its brief lifespan - but, time and time again, it is the personal and specifically the amatory path of Curtis’s life to which the film returns. It is central in a way that is at once both fascinating and frustrating.

Essentially, this is an incredibly powerful, bleak film about a depressed man having an affair and killing himself. That he was the lead singer of one of Britain’s most important bands seems almost incidental. Of course it isn’t. The band and their music do take up a significant proportion of the film. But compared to, say, 24-Hour Party People - Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film about the late Tony Wilson, which included a significant section on Joy Division - it doesn’t display anything like the same passion for the music.

What is also curious is the way in which the film treats its central character. Sam Riley’s Ian Curtis is an astonishing performance, but it is a portrayal of enigmatic, withdrawn, unarticulated suffering. The net result is that Curtis seems virtually mute. As a consequence it feels as if we are only seeing the man to whom Deborah was married and never quite “reached” (if this film is anything to go by, Touching From a Distance is an excellent title for the book). Conversely, as Deborah is shown in the film to have been quite removed from Ian’s band life - an early scene shows her arriving at a bar while Ian is having a drink with the band, and him immediately shepherding her away from them - his relationship with the band is also one of moody silences and few words. Of course other accounts of the band’s life exist, and have obviously been taken into account.

Indeed there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the episodes treated in both Control and 24-Hour Party People: Tony Wilson signing Joy Division in his own blood, or the recording of She’s Lost Control (Control’s Ben Naylor is no comparison with Andy Serkis’s Martin Hannett from 24-HPP). Most interesting are the disparities depending on which people either film is trying to make look cool - it is interesting to note, for example, that when watching the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, in 24-HPP it is Wilson stood still with a look of inspiration illuminating his face; in Control it is Curtis.

Of course a perennial problem with the biopic is the temptation to make idiotically literal-minded comparisons of the “he doesn’t look much like...” school. That said, in spite of a fine performance, Sam Riley does occasionally seem like an odd choice to play Curtis. There is a passing physical similarity, but Curtis’s haunted pale blue eyes are replaced by Riley’s pair of smouldering Byronic near-black ones. Curtis’s stiff-limbed, spastic, epilepsy-inspired dances - which are still uncomfortable to watch even now - become something altogether more fluid in Riley’s hands, at times even oddly Bez-like.

The rest of the band vary: Harry Treadaway’s Stephen Morris is introverted and slightly pained; James Anthony Pearson fails to capture the young Bernard Sumner’s floppy-fringed dash - playing his guitar like someone who really needs to watch his fingers, keeping it strapped higher than any self-respecting guitarist ever would. On the other hand, Joe Anderson should have earned himself a lifelong place on Peter Hook’s Christmas card list bringing a spectacularly sexy, smouldering presence, piercing eyes and chiselled jawline to Hooky’s professional grumpy Manc persona. Oddly Anderson’s passing resemblance to Billy Boyd, coupled with Pearson’s not-dissimilarity to Dominic Monaghan, does lend the film version of the band a fleeting similarity to a bunch of hobbits. Samantha Morton turns in a characteristically committed, emotionally raw and honest performance as Curtis’s abandoned wife, making her at once wholly sympathetic, but also credibly flawed. It is tempting to describe the portrayal of Curtis’s Belgian lover Annik (Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara) as precisely the image that a betrayed wife has of her husband’s lover - she is beautiful, but thinly sketched - never fully allowed her own drive or impulses. She does, however, unwittingly deliver the film’s one knock-out gag.

The real star of the show, however, is Anton Corbijn’s cinematographer Martin Ruhe. Every frame looks like it could have just won a photography competition. The composition, the use of light, the observation of texture, is absolutely flawless. There are points where the artfulness takes over from any narrative drive and a beautifully lit shot of Sam Riley’s tear-stained cheek communicates more about Curtis’s isolation than any amount of voice-over ever could. Ranged against this, there are slight irritations: some of the dialogue clangs pretty badly; Love Will Tear Us Apart turns up as incidental music at exactly the point you expect it to, while Atmosphere’s appearance is perhaps even more predictable.

Stylistically, as Peter Bradshaw notes in his laudatory Guardian review last week, Control is almost an homage to Fifties kitchen sink British cinema and the French nouvelle vague. It certainly owes more to A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar than anything as crass as Oliver Stone’s The Doors, et al. It doesn’t ever quite manage to make the music hit you in the gut as hard as it might - although there are moments of spine-tingling beauty. What it offers instead is a bleak, harrowing and desperately sad story about someone who, for reasons known only to himself, decided not to make it past 23.

Here's the She's Lost Control section from the film Control (with French subtitles), with the band recording in the studio cutting into a live performance. The dialogue at the end is between Tony Wilson and Deborah Curtis:

And here's pretty much the same bit as envisaged by Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People. If nothing else, the juxtapostion points up quite how wildly the two film's priorities differ - that said, searching these clips after the cinema last night, it was quite jarring to see anything like broad comedy after seeing Control:

And the real thing (imperfect sound quality):

OK, I’ve linked to this recording of Shadowplay before - but this YouTube clip has the original (unbelievably louche) Tony Wilson introduction, which is reproduced verbatim in the film - albeit before the (film) band go on to play Transmission.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Little Madam - Finborough Theatre

James Graham’s new play Little Madam starts as a child’s game and ends up as a shockingly visceral theatrical kangaroo court. The "little madam" in question, you see, is one Margaret Hilda Roberts, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham.

As the play opens, Margaret has been sent to her room for insulting her older sister’s baking, and is not allowed to come down until she has admitted she was wrong and apologised to everyone. There is a sense that this is also the playwright’s position. From the off, there are benefit-of-hindsight jokes at Mrs T.’s expense. “I’m not apologising, I was right. It’s not that I’m insist on being right, it’s just that everyone else is wrong” says the twelve-year-old Margaret (I paraphrase, but you get the idea).

That, at least, is the initial impression. While the writing is never less than sparky, for the first few minutes one does worry whether the next two and a half-plus hours (including interval) are going to simply poke fun at a twelve year old girl for her future self’s actions. Graham soon puts us at our ease. No sooner has her father has stormed out of the room in disgust at his offspring’s impertinence than Margaret is reaching inside her toy chest (or Cabinet?) for her favourite teddy. She sits it on the bed and talks to it in the earnest manner of a child that expects an answer before beginning her chores – at which point an arm from under the bed reaches out, takes the bear and the bear is magically transformed into a balding, grey-haired man in his late middle-age sitting on the bed, wearing teddy bear ears and bow-tie. No straightforward biographical play, this!

All at once an assortment of Margaret’s other teddies and dolls have popped out of wardrobes, chests and drawers and the child is surrounded with a sort of toy Cabinet. It is through the games that she plays with her toys that scenes from her future are played out. We see her headmistress’s sneering at her Oxford ambitions, a vision of an alienated Conservative girl at university, and her first meeting with Dennis – the man who was to supply her with the iconic surname. Gradually through these scenes we see a more sympathetic version of Margaret emerge. Yes, there is still the odd gag about determination or iron will, but in the main we are made to see a human, at times fragile, creature. Her meeting with Dennis is particularly touching. Played as a kind of Four Weddings and a Funeral celebration of English reticence. The point later when Dennis asks her to marry him is incredibly sweet – so much so that a couple a few rows in front of me actually snuggled into each other as couples are wont to do when watching romantic scenes.

By the interval one is more than a little bamboozled. Has Graham brought so thoroughly into historical inevitability and the rehabilitation of the Thatcher reputation of the 16 years since she was hounded from office that he can do no more than paint what is a critical but essentially favourable portrait? There is a nagging sense that, while there are jokes at the Iron Lady’s expense, there is no serious or intelligent opposition to her ideas being made. Many of her ideals start to sound oddly laudable – oddly, at least, in the context of a broadly left-wing fringe theatre on a Friday night. There's no way the play would have been allowed to get this far, had it even been staged, during the Eighties.

It is in the second half that things start to kick off. Margaret and her toys giddily play out the privatisation of Britain’s state-controlled industries, and then all at once she is catapulted back to 1984 and the Brighton bombing. You know it’s coming, and it still makes you jump out of your skin. From here, things go from bad to worse. There is a fascinating sequence in which the Irish republican hunger striker and MP Bobby Sands appears at the window of the twelve-year-old Margaret’s room. She has been sent to bed without any supper and he is starving himself to death. A weird kind of equivalence is drawn between the two, which could be gravely misjudged. Instead serves to point at the sheer bloody-minded, deeply principled stubbornness that characterised both sides in the conflict. By presenting Margaret as a stubborn child Graham completely humanises her defiance in the face of violence, without at all flinching from demonstrating its effects. That Sands is played by the actor who also plays her father simply introduces a further level of complexity into this already intricate matrix.

However, it is the miner’s strike that Mr Graham has been building up to. The playwright’s biography casually notes that Graham “grew up in the mining community of Mansfield” – and, by God, the absolute rage that suddenly erupts on the stage is electrifying. Yet, even here, in spite of a tangible, almost quivering fury, Margaret Huilda Roberts is allowed a defence. And a cogent one. It is an impasse. Unstoppable force meeting immovable object. The sheer strangeness of mining as a profession is discussed – the fact that it was brutal, hard and often fatal, is admitted to and it is weighed against the suffering that these communities endured when it was taken away. And there isn’t an answer given. Simply an insoluble void.

The coda to this astonishing passage - the end of the play - is both clever, funny and almost unbearably cute (I won’t spoil the surprise – suffice it to say that the twee control gets cranked up to eleven, and that I have never heard so many people making whimpering “aww” noises in a theatre).

Kate Wasserberg’s production is broadly sympathetic to the demands of the play, is well served by an accomplished cast and, crucially, largely manages to maintain an engaging theatricality throughout. Rather than allowing Graham’s script to slide into becoming a fatally episodic biopic-type narrative the production continually plays with the idea that everything on stage is taking place within the imagination of a twelve-year-old girl and that the characters are being played by enormous animated toys. As a result what becomes particularly striking about Catherine Skinner’s excellent performance as Margaret is the way that her voice fluctuates through between the girlish northern accent of her youth and the ever-deepening strident tones of Thatcher's premiership.

While Graham may not have any natural sympathy for Thatcher, the Prime Minister, he displays a deeply humane compassion for Margaret Roberts. It would be simplistic to suggest that he merely blames her father’s example for Thatcher’s ideological drive, although the seeds of her ethos are made quite explicit. Instead, perhaps even unintentionally, his play traces a quite tragic trajectory of a woman whom history forced to make enormous personal sacrifices for – as she saw it – the good of the country. Moreover, while the play may table objections to the form that this “good” took, it does not advance any serious alternatives. As a result we are left with a strange sense of Thatcher having been made a scapegoat for a necessary, almost fatalistically inevitable, series of contentious but ultimately successful radical reforms, albeit at an acknowledged, unacceptable human cost.

Meanwhile, my latest Guardian blog post – with appropriately hair-raising sub-editor-supplied headline – can be found here.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Guest writer - comment on The Racial Papers

Today’s entry is a piece which has just been posted at the bottom of the string of comments on an
article I wrote about racial representations about a month ago. Since that article is now archived, this comment would perhaps not receive the attention its eloquent and passionate argument deserves if it were just left on that thread, so I have taken the liberty of re-posting it here in its entirety.

Pali said...

I’ll keep my comments general. If there is such a thing as Asian theatre in this country, a theatre that can be roughly aggregated as plays with themes relating to the British South Asian experience, written by British Asians, it seems to me to exist in a kind of soft tyranny, in which Arts Council ledgers are used as the benchmark for production, and a similarity of theme and form has become the stunting, stultifying norm.

The numbing sub-mediocrity of naturalism, social realism all integral to the thrust of what is proffered (without irony) as ‘authenticity’. It demands obeisance, despite its self-righteousness, obviousness, banality, cliché, contempt for imagination. Theatre as an adjunct to social work, theatre that has a kind of strange Marxist-like insistence on its own innate righteousness. Theatre that is complicit in its own co-option by a section of the mainstream theatre establishment (see David Edgar) which is terrified of its own impotence and irrelevance, and crass in its hunger for controversy and ‘importance’. A theatre that seems incapable of how to address the innate ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ implications of the form when writing for white people --- absolute falsity of language and situation, a bowing and scraping and prurient theatre, rejoicing in its own tokenism and serving up slop and pandering to the prejudices and ignorance of that audience. A self-satisfied, pompous theatre heady on its own imagined importance, eye-glazing in its predictability and utterly oblivious to itself.

When plays full of rumbustious dance and the broadest comedy come along, despite their vulgarisms, I rejoice a little because at least it has a sign of impudent life, and is not written with a wagging instructive finger, and knows its froth is froth. But at least things are not too bad when you can identify what you have identified in this blog entry --- at least I know I am not imagining things, the judgments I have made are not based on some innate bias I have, and amongst other things (I hate to bring ethnicity into this), white theatre critics sometimes seem unable to make the judgments and say the things you have said here. You have no idea how good it was to read this post of yours.


This is a debate which needs bringing much further out into the open. But it is extraordinarily heartening to read such an acute appraisal of the potential damage some Arts Council policy may be doing.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The Absence of . . .

‘I love crap TV’, admits NT boss

Nicolas Hytner’s tenure at the National has thus far been marked with a genius for programming. It has put the building right back at the centre of the theatrical map with an intelligent mixture of classic plays, rare revivals, new writing and adaptations: supporting both the unashamedly popular and the spectacularly avant garde. On this basis, one hopes it is Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins’s journalistic instincts which manage to make the theatre’s forthcoming season sound slightly less than wholly appetising.

Of course, it is silly to second guess what productions are liable to be like before they're actually on – this summer’s St Joan was little short of a revelation for Shaw doubters (myself included). And it’s always possible that David Hare’s new plays will be good. Besides, it’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Although the news that ‘Hytner was tight-lipped about [the new Hare]'s content, simply saying: "It will be a very big play"’ does little to allay such fears. It might have been more reassuring if he’d used the word “good” rather than “big” and had not been gritting his teeth at the time.

Making (yet again) the case for the sheer usefulness of the blog in the interminable, ongoing (non-) dispute, Mark Shenton’s report on the same event comes as a great relief, spared, as it is, the need to identify and quickly dispatch a (mainstream) “news” story. Shenton’s position as both a critic and a blogger (a journalist by any other name...) is interesting, particularly since he appears to use it allow him to cast himself outside the media rabble and make perceptively spiky comments about them. Of especial interest is his observation:
‘Nor did [Hytner] rise to the bait thrown down by one journalist to dismiss reality TV casting programmes: “I was totally hooked on The Sound of Music one”, he admitted – but then admitted to “loving crap TV”.’
Evidently the journalist in question had heard tell of Hytner’s near-legendary capacity for thinking off the top of his head with immensely quotable results which find themselves magically taken out of context. Although “NT boss: ‘I love crap TV’” isn’t a bad start, had this been a slow news week.

Edit: Thrillingly, Michael Billington has just filed his own version of the above piece, only an hour after mine, so now we can all indulge in exciting compare and contrast exercises.

Nice things

Meanwhile, in the absence of an end to the blog I started the other day, I shall instead note the welcome return of Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog. In case you haven’t already devoured huge portions of it, its early middle-English pastiche of spam emails in particular has to be seen to be believed.

Meanwhile, Postcards’s Unseemly Puerile Smirking Department wishes to give thanks to the Arcola Theatre for services to ludicrous innuendo in wholly inappropriate circumstances.

Elsewhere on the web, the Department of Theatre in Unlikely Contexts offers you two brief interviews with the excellent Roy Williams and the utterly adorable Jenny Worton.

Also, in case you haven’t been diverted there by Unknown Persons yet, you really must read I Am The Movies - particularly its review of The Devil Wears Prada. Then leave comments begging for more. It’s the only way.

Silly thing

Finally, my ongoing love affair with my blog stat-counter’s Last Ten Referrers function continues apace with the news that someone found Postcards by asking Google:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows too sexualised?”
The result is the following answer, about five entries down on the first page of results.

Postcards from the Gods: September 2007
The sexualised politics of incursion and occupation as a language to imagine a real ...... Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 56479 people; 8963 reviews......”
postcardsgods.blogspot.com/2007_09_01_archive.html - 198k - Cached - Similar pages

I do hope that the combination of a Shoot / Get Treasure / Repeat review and a Facebook Visual Bookshelf commentary was useful to them. If not, to paraphrase a former Latin master, it is a question which expects the answer ‘no’.

Edit: Although the above search may have just been replaced in my affections by the American who Googled: 'Roger Scruton Metallica'.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Kierkegaard’s sweet trolley

I went out for dinner tonight. This was the insert for today's special dessert: