Monday, 28 September 2009

Gospels of Childhood - Barbican

[Written for CultureWars]

Teatr ZAR’s Gospels of Childhood is a triptych of pieces which may well challenge some people’s ideas of what teatr is. The first piece Gospels of Childhood/The Overture, presented in St Giles’s Church across the pond from the Barbican’s non-Silk Street entrance, is a sung-through meditation on religious themes accompanied by dark, elliptical, visual theatre. The music is solemn Catholic or Orthodox polyphonic chant. It sounds unmistakably devotional. It is beautiful and serious; monastic; conjuring, inside the plain Protestant interior of St Giles’s, a medieval middle-Europe. There is a starkness about it, accentuated by the almost Middle-Eastern harsh edge to the women’s voices. It’s music that sounds ineffable and ancient, and yet within it you can hear the shifting of tribes, borders and empires across the mainland. Trade routes and religions cutting swathes through cultures. The combination of this music, Polish Catholicism, and the rough wooden stage on which sinewy figures contort in candlelight, or shovel earth in the darkness, is heady and powerful in the extreme. [It also serves as a perfect counterpoint to the appalling picture painted of Polish Catholicism in the National’s Our Class, the night before. Where the former pinpoints modern disgust with the crimes engendered and committed in the name of this faith, Gospels... reminds us why a rational subject might seek a sense of The Divine and how beautiful it can be.]

The second part Caesarean Section/Essays on Suicide, which takes the audience into the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, is enormously different. While the natural elements of the first piece were candlelight, wood, earth and the stone of the church walls, here they are wine, broken glass and cold electric light. Played in traverse, on another rough wooden stage, Essays... opens with the performers mostly dotted about the edge of the stage with string instruments, while another member of the ensemble sits at a piano. The lights go out and there is the amplified sound of smashing glass. You hope that it’s just pre-recorded, but it’s somehow too close and too recognisably real.

The stage is divided down the centre by a thin, shallow, underlit trough filled with broken glass. There is broken glass on the stage. A performer takes off her shoes, puts them on her hands and dances, violently. This is much more fully realised dancing than the movement of the first part. It is also intensely, jarringly difficult to watch. The dance itself is hard enough, underscored by pained strings and wailing voice, the body spasms and rips at itself. All the while, exposed skin flirts with shards of glass.

Essays...’s 50-minute length is divided into 18 fairly recognisable episodes. Most use similar strategies of discomfort. Broken glass remains a constant. The trough recurs as a feature in several sequences. Performers hold wine glasses in their teeth or hands while attempting feats that could easily see them fall and lacerate themselves. And self-laceration is the point; not literal, but spiritual or figurative. It’d be easy to categorise the piece more as contemporary dance or “dance theatre”, but as was pointed out to me afterwards, much of it is pure Grotowski – anguished, over-exaggerated facial contortion and emphatic physical movement.

For a largely abstracted form, by God does it communicate. I was assiduously not looking at the programme or the printed synopses sheet until afterwards to see what I got from the piece without being told what to think beyond the suggestive title. When I read it, it was one of those pleasing moments when you think: “Yup, that’s what I got, too”.

It’s not like it’s particularly oblique. In one section, one of the female performers strains toward a spotlight on the ceiling. Trying to reach out to it, to hold onto it. She uses a chair, and latterly one of the male performers – and all the while there’s that ever present danger; if she succeeds even on standing on his shoulders and reaching out as far as she can, there’s nothing within her reach to hold onto. She’ll simply fall a long way. Face first. The piece keeps up the dialogue with the divine, but here it is more like screaming at the unreachable, unanswering dead God of existentialism, rather than the living, breathing Christ of the Gospels.

The third section, for which I did happen to read the blurb beforehand, turned out to be the least affecting of the three. Although, after the nerve-jangling that Essays... had given me, I was pleased to be returned to the nave of St Giles and a tranquil looking stage overhung with a large canvas sail. Under soft-focussed lights, this gently rose and fell, like the opening of several minimalist productions of The Tempest. Aptly enough as the first episode in Anhelli/The Calling is named The Storm, and starts with an excerpt from Eliot’s Ash Wednesday (in Polish) to open a seafaring-based narrative that pays tribute to the Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Słowacki’s voyage from Naples to the Holy Land.

Reading the rest of the themes Teatr ZAR wanted to explore in this final piece afterwards (as I write this, in fact), it is remarkable how clearly they seemed to come across through the mixture of song/hymn and physical movement. The final piece is a synthesis of the heavy physical exertion of Essays... and the more reflective atmosphere of The Overture....

Gospels of Childhood is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen made by a British company. The best way of describing the whole is more as a choral concert illustrated by stage pictures, but this doesn’t capture the extent to which the songs had a dramaturgy, or how central the action was to the pieces. It was by turns, beautiful, fascinating, reflective, visceral, intensely sad and deeply moving. Here’s hoping for more of this company over here soon.

Photo - Ditte Berkeley, Kamila Klamut in Essays... Photographer: Lukasz Giza

The below gives the vaguest impression of the sort of music I’m talking about, but this is the soft-focus, airbrushed version of what, live, sounded a whole lot more raw and intense.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Our Class - National Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class examines what is still one of the most urgent, pressing questions facing modern Europe: what did you do in the war? Usefully, it examines the question in relation to Poland, and, more crucially, from a Polish perspective.

The British education system – or at least the one I grew up with – paints a very specific, Anglo-centric narrative of the course of World War Two. On September 1st 1939, Hitler invades Poland. Britain asks him nicely if he wouldn’t mind awfully not doing so, no such undertaking is received and consequently this country is at war with Germany. In Britain, Poland then vanishes from the radar, largely because, although we might well have declared war on Germany because they invaded Poland, we didn’t do a terribly good job of defending Poland, or countermanding the attack. Precious little is made, for instance, of the USSR’s subsequent invasion of Poland, 17 days later, from the east. Little figures in our history books about the appalling treatment meted out to the Poles by each side. The massacre of 20,000 Poles by Soviet soldiers in Katyn is passed over as are the thousands of Poles slaughtered by the Nazis.

Poland next crops up in the Anglo-narrative with the establishment of the concentration camps and their subsequent transformation into death camps in 1942. The suffering of the Poles in WWII is oddly abstracted in our history books. At the same time, the way that the Poles regarded their Jewish neighbours similarly goes largely unreported. Poland was an occupied country in which the Nazis killed the Jews, runs the official wisdom. At the end of the war, the way in which Britain, with the flick of a pen, carved off a chunk of Poland in the east to give to Russia, gave it a bit of Germany in recompense, and then handed the whole thing over to Stalin anyway, is reported as a masterpiece of diplomacy.

Our Class is set in the Polish town of Jedwabne before, during and after the Second World War. On the 10th July 1941 virtually all the town’s 1,600 Jewish inhabitants were rounded up by their non-Jewish neighbours and murdered. Most were burned alive inside a barn. Following the war, with Poland under Soviet occupation, the crime was blamed on the Gestapo and a monument erected to commemorate the dead.

The play starts in 1935 (although the programme suggests 1926). The ten characters are school children, classmates, in Jedwabne. They introduce themselves, play, muck-about, flirt and generally behave as children do. Time passes. The play is structured as “A Story in XIV Lessons” and played in-the-round on dark wooden boards bounded by a low aluminium bench, replete with modish under-seat striplighting designed by Bunny Christie. As such, the characters/actors never leave the school-room. The fact they were once in a class together is never allowed to disappear. Instead, the wooden playing space – under adept lighting from Jon Clark – becomes interiors, exteriors, wide-open fields, roads at midnight, pig-stys and Śleszyński’s burning barn.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Having a class of ten stand in for the entire population of a town and by extension Poland has its advantages dramatically. The small tensions can easily be understood as emblematic of the wider malaise. One childhood playground snub or taunt stands in for the thousand or hundred thousand such insults. On the other hand, once characters become such symbols, quirks of fate peculiar to them suddenly seem rather unlikely, when they’re standing in for a tenth of Poland. “What are the chances of that happening?” you wonder. It demonstrates both the power that they achieve as metaphor and the effect that becoming a metaphor has on particularity. By and large, though the play manages to handle these concerns.

The build up to the atrocity, littered with other acts, escalating from unkindness to barbarism, runs concurrently with the suffering and compromises being inflicted on the Poles (Jewish and gentile alike) by the Soviets. Here it suggests that it is Polish identification of the Jews with the Bolsheviks that gives rise to their increased prejudice, but the seeds of their anti-Semitism are already well rooted in the nation’s Catholicism. At the same time, the choice facing the Poles – to collaborate with whichever occupying force happens to have taken over or die – remain stark and impossible.

The staging is admirably straight-forward. There are no costume changes and few props, while the lighting design and stage – the cold lights on the dark wood and aluminium contrive to foreground the minimalism. The cast are excellent. While the acting is ostensibly psychological realism, it isn’t laboured or over-played. The pace moves too fast to allow for self-indulgence. This is also partly down to the style of the piece, which involves a lot of characters narrating themselves, their actions and what is happening to them. People take up each other’s stories from their own perspectives. It makes a nonsense of the theatrical maxim “show don’t tell”, but the cumulative effect of an unbroken but disputed narrative line – ten different versions of the same story – is an effective way of handling a subject that needs more than to just be acted out.

Being written by a Pole, Our Class allows perhaps less optimism than an external eye might have granted. This is a document of savage national self-criticism, unflinching in its accusations. It points at quislings and failures of heroism, it shows that – unprompted, unbidden – a townspeople took it upon themselves to commit mass murder. It doesn’t mark them out as exceptional. It allows for no excuses. Most stringently of all, it does not allow either of the Polish characters who offer refuge to Jews to bask in uncomplicated heroism. Instead, they are characterised by self-interest and still-lurking prejudice. At worst, the Polish connive with the state and with the church to wash their hands of any responsibility. This is a play as much about Poland’s anti-Semitism since the war as before and during. Undoubtedly Poland was a victim in WWII and beyond, but, Słobodzianek argues, no amount of victim status excuses these actions.

Enron - Royal Court

[Written for CultureWars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the spring, you might already have heard that Enron is very good. Going to see these blockbuster, multi-five-star awarded shows is always a slightly strange experience. You kind of forget beforehand that you still have to watch the play. Even if you’ve read the reviews, because of the cumulative effect, you don’t really know *why* something’s meant to be good, you just get this impression that you’re in for a rollercoaster of perfection. Which isn’t how theatre actually functions. Things that are good are good because you have to watch them carefully and think about them (or at the very least *feel* them) and where they end up being good is inside your head (or heart, or wherever). For all that, Enron is, of course, very good.

What’s fascinating about Enron is its formal qualities. Essentially it’s a musical about capitalism. Except, it’s not actually a musical. It does have a handful of songs and a few non-sung dance sequences, but that’s not why it feels like a musical. That said, the songs that there are are rather good and a few more wouldn’t have hurt - the first, for instance, is a Philip Glass-like number about the stock markets with the stock and prices of the metal markets sung against a projected matrix of ticking, pulsing numbers (see above). What’s interesting about it, though, isn’t the points where the piece clearly *is* a musical – i.e. when the cast are singing or dancing – but the way that this aesthetic informs the wider bulk of the play’s dialogue-based substance.

It’s hard to forget Howard Barker’s description of the musical as the authoritarian art form. And it’s intriguing, in the light of this, to see how the piece positions itself in relation to the ideologies that it presents. By and large, the piece resists taking cheap pot-shots at targets that might be regarded by many of a leftie bent as so many fish in a barrel. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling (Sam West) is instead given a coherent, logical and persuasive worldview. It’s one with which, of course, we’re free to disagree, but you get the feeling he wouldn’t care. And moreover, our disapproving wouldn’t get us anywhere. Skilling is just one man who is articulating something far more widely held, believed and, crucially, something of which we are all a part. Even though most of the play is just people talking to each other in variously flashily designed interiors it still *feels* monolithic like a musical. It’s got a kind of steamrolleriness about it. In short, it feels a bit like watching global capitalism itself. It’s not the characters making assertions and explaining how markets work, it’s the knowledge that what they’re talking about is real. It’s like an attempt to make an ideology tangible.

Of course, there’s always inevitably going to be something inexorable about watching a story to which we all know the outcome – like United 93, we know it’s going to crash at the end. In one of the production’s few false moves, the crash of Enron is played out – as in life – uncomfortably close to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Historically this might well be true; visually, it comes perilously close to drawing the unintended parallel that, like Enron, the WTC had it coming. I don’t suppose for a minute this is the intention, but equating the shredded documents of a criminally corrupt company with the ashes that rained on New York is a step too far.

A couple of scenes close to the end of the play – Skilling attending Kenneth Lay’s funeral, Skilling being plainly bonkers in a New York street, feel slightly over done – possible missteps toward the judgemental, which jar with the way the rest of the text operates. But Prebble’s script pulls it back in the final scene in which Skilling, defiant and angry, directly addresses the audience. By making him a scapegoat we are trying to banish something of ourselves. The stock market is a testament to human ingenuity. That, sure, it’s not perfect, but look at the world, look at ourselves, and consider the advantages it has given us. It’s a difficult argument to refute. Here we all are, after all, in a lovely theatre, where we have paid to be, watching the people we’ve paid tell us a story about money.

If the comparison isn’t too much, it is reminiscent of the Jews in Auschwitz who put God on trial, who found him guilty, and then immediately fell to praying. Here we are living within a system which that has collapsed around our ears – Enron now stands as a harbinger of the subsequent far wider collapse – and yet we cannot conceive of anything else.

Enron isn’t a play that preaches resistance or suggests alternatives. On a very basic level it isn’t trying to. It ably and entertainingly tells how a handful of very clever men tried to conjure a lot of money out of thin air and weren’t quite clever enough to be able to do so.

Here, Rupert Goold’s customary directorial flair looks strangely normalised. If he’d taken all the elements on stage here can applied them to, say, Hamlet, certain critics might bridle at the imposition. The production has actors in suits dressed as giant mice; or pretending to be Jurassic Park raptors, which represent the embodiment of complex financial debt restructuring mechanisms; or performing choreographed sequences wielding light sabres to represent Enron’s blitzkrieg on California’s deregulated energy market. Where elsewhere there’d feel like a certain radicalism about men dressed as dinosaurs, in the service of this not-actually-a-musical they feel perfectly safe. Perhaps musicals just allow for more spectacle as default, where in “the classics” it would still feel subversive.

So, what are we to make of Enron? Is it theatre’s admission of defeat? A mea culpa from the Royal Court who, after decades of counter-capitalist rhetoric, still charge money for tickets, pay actors, and cannot move outside the system it sought to criticise? At the same time, isn't it all the more deadly in its critique precisely because of its refusal to accuse? It shows us people being clever, having money, enjoying the money and the material advantages it brings. It also, crucially, locates their desire to look after not themselves, but their families. The flitting presence of Skilling’s infant daughter, slowly counting millions of dollars, is as much a symbol of his humanity as the implacability of the dollar.

As we all know, the show has already sold out its run at the Royal Court and transfers from there to the West End in January (tickets on sale from the Royal Court Box Office now), and no doubt from there to Broadway. I suspect in each of these new locations it will feel ever more contradictory and strange.

Monday, 21 September 2009

the other night i dreamt the world had fallen over – BAC [scratch]

[in the spirit of writing about a scratch performance, this is very much scratch-criticism]

I’ve been thinking about theory a lot, recently. I’ve been reading a few books – Nicholas Ridout’s Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems and Theatre & Ethics, and Joe Kelleher’s Theatre & Politics – that suggest disconcerting and often difficult-to-imagine models of theatrical engagement. The conclusion to Ridout’s ...& Ethics, having made a nonsense of the idea that theatre can meaningfully posit an ethical argument straightforwardly or behave ethically, suggests: “Theatre’s greatest ethical potential may be found precisely at the moment when theatre abandons ethics”.

Kelleher’s ...& Politics concludes: “...The system is thick with interference ... In this image the actors will be waving still, transmitting nothing beyond the act of transmission ... the ‘message’ and its transmission may never have as much to say to us as the renewed image of those performing bodies crossed by language and linked by the distance that separates them, from each other and from ourselves ...”

The brief programme description/introduction for the other night... reads:
“Outside it was getting dark. A Storm is coming. Dogs are howling. People run in the street.
In here no one seemed to have noticed.
People shift awkwardly in their seats, and wonder if they should be doing anything.”

I like the way the two passages seem to complement each other. Kelleher’s analysis tipping into a sort of romantic apocalypse. Both remind me of the voiceover at the start of Dead Flag Blues (YouTubed below).

For all its claims to reflect the influence of David Lynch – this weekend’s theme for BAC’s Scratch Festival – the piece was much closer to Tim Etchells at his most bleakly beautiful. What was also brilliant was how perfectly the work chimed exactly with the works of theory.

The form of the work was as follows:
A girl sits in front of a television set with a piece of paper taped over it covering most of the screen.
The audience were sat down and twenty members were selected to sit in ‘an audience’ on the stage.
[note to scratch: Was it important that they became “an audience” on the stage in front of us? What would the effect be of staging the piece in a space regularly used in traverse? It would still work, IMHO, but it would be different. How central is the idea that the “real” audience of the piece is the one watching from the stage?]

Above this “audience” now facing us – the rest of the audience – was a large screen onto which scrolled white instructions on a black background. Endearingly slightly askew, a white edge round these instructions mirrored the chinks of static visible behind the paper on the TV screen.

The screen tells us the girl is not important. This isn’t about her, it says. It’s about us. And what happened that night. And now we’re going to show “the audience” how it went. “people shifted awkwardly in their seats” it tells us. We do so. “people coughed”. Again, we do. “people checked their phones” and so on.
[note to scratch: this could have gone on longer. It felt that if the instructions had been slower – if this were a fuller piece – then they the signs of discomfort might even come slightly before the instruction – maybe add in, “someone laughed knowingly”]

The instructions get more and more specific, singling out one person to do something – “someone run outside the theatre and came back in to say what the weather was like”; “someone in the back row tried to get up and leave but couldn’t get past their neighbours”; etc.

By this point, the audience was doing quite a good job of co-operating. Someone always stepped up to the plate for each instruction. After a while longer, the instruction comes to leave. We are standing up, filing out, still looking at the screen, still acting together as a unit and still following, and interpreting the instructions.

There are two final moments: 1 – we are all huddled together on the stairs staring at the ceiling – beyond the ceiling into the sky as music deafens us, then: 2 – the girl watching the TV keels over. A scratchy recording of Blue Velvet plays and we are all dancing slowly together on the stage.

It Ends.

There’s some other detail I should have threaded in about static-y scratchy white noise occasionally interrupting the building, climactic soundtrack anthem [what was that, Field?]. There are bits of description of apocalyptic stuff on the screen sometimes, as well as the instructions. Many not dissimilar to these from an earlier piece.

There was something oddly exhilarating about the piece. The breathless, apocalyptic romanticism, combined with a childlike sense of playing. And of mucking about in what’s meant to be a serious space. The way it sets up audience as almost unwatched actors. The way that our spectatorship was returned *in kind*. I haven’t got to the relevant chapter in Ridout’s Stage Fright..., about eye contact, but the wider theses seem directly echoed here. This did feel like a piece of political theatre of the sort described/suggested by the Ridout and Kelleher. It seemed to be a piece that suggested in ten minutes much more than could have been asserted in fifty.

Today’s “cover” image is a photo of a Pistoletto installation in Vienna from Tim Etchells’s blog.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

2nd May 1997 – Bush Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

Set on the first day of New Labour’s landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative rule, Jack Thorne’s new play offers three half-hour duologue snapshots from three different bedrooms around the country. Unsurprisingly, given the play’s political theme, these are divided between the three main parties: Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour. I’ve got a horrible feeling that the pre-scene lighting state for each might even have been blue, yellow and red accordingly. The scenes also run the full gamut of human sexuality from gay to straight to Old.

The piece starts promisingly enough, with an Alan Bennettish couple fussing around. It soon becomes clear that he is a Tory cabinet minister about to lose his constituency. It isn’t quite clear why he isn’t at the count, but his ailing health – he is perpetually on the verge of a heart attack – might provide the answer. His wife fusses around him as he looks through their daughter’s holiday snaps. Dramatically, it’s all going quite well until he suffers some sort of minor seizure, staggers across the room, falls to the floor and is apparently able to get up again. There then follows a passage in which this 1997 Tory cabinet minister praises the political career of former Labour Home Secretary and Chancellor Roy Jenkins.

The speech feels like this erstwhile Tory has got a Labour playwright with a gun to his head making him say these meticulously researched, but almost anachronistic points. Jenkins’s achievements that he praises seem mostly to date from the sixties and early seventies, while his estimation of the man as a political player unaccountably overlooks the hash he made of Labour in the early eighties as part of the Gang of Four (the SDP leadership, not the band). In short, it is a curious bit of hagiography to surface and from a wholly unbelievable source. From here, there are a few little bits of Tory callousness, a monologue from the wife about her dutifulness, and both seem to have stopped being people and turned into ciphers for some ideas about the Conservative Party, which don’t ring nearly true enough. That is to say, they don’t sound like people who believe in Conservatism, but like the people that people who don’t believe in Conservatism think Conservatives sound like, while the minister’s heart condition feels like a vindictive metaphor too far.

Faring slightly better, the second scene offers a would-be one-night-stand between Ian, a Lib Dem party member, and a drunken young woman called Sarah he’s met at a Party election night party. This is Thorne on his home territory. Awkward, socially self-conscious, fumbled sexual encounters – á la Fanny and Faggot or When You Cure Me. And all in all, it mostly works. Granted the political content seems almost incidental, but this seems to work better. That said, perhaps the caricature of a Liberal bloke who really is much too nice for his own good is too clear an authorial comment. “But you’re not going to win the whole thing? You can’t win the whole thing?” Sarah asks him at one point, pretty much summing up his prospects as a human being. “Oh no... No... Definitely not” he replies with a perfectly judged smile that suggests a lifetime spent deliberately avoiding success.

If there’s a problem here, it’s more that designer Hannah Clark’s attractive, traverse box set – raised floor, walls at either end and a ceiling – built inside the Bush’s tiny above-the-pub space means that both actors are virtually hunching themselves in order to fit – especially when Phoebe Waller-Bridge is required to stand (well, semi-stand) on the bed.

The last scene – New Labour – is again an awkward negotiation, this time between two vaguely northern ‘A’-Level schoolboys. Both keen politics students and New Labour supporters – tellingly both presumably born at the beginning of Mrs Thatcher’s first term in office. One is gay and nursing an enormous crush on his apparently cleverer, richer, more attractive probably straight friend. The result is a direct toss up between The History Boys and Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. The boys themselves, their awkwardness, gaucherie and ingenuous bravado are fairly well-drawn, although their sheer charmlessness is played rather too convincingly to make them sympathetic. Both, in fact, come across as so awful that watching becomes nail-bitingly embarrassing.

More problematically, again, the politics feel way too heavy-handed. Both are New Labour supporters. The poorer, less successful, more northern-sounding one is in love with the Cambridge-bound, posher, more attractive one. Have we got that metaphor now? Yes? Labour has won again, but it’s not what it were. It’s gone all posh, and the poor are still going to get left behind. Labour isn’t nice like what it used to be.

Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to read it so starkly, but it feels like these themes, which could be slowly, subtly occurring to us, are instead so underlined and flagged-up that it feels like Lehrstück. Moreover, the randomness of the scenes makes it feel like the whole should have more of a through line. Some sense of the overall dramaturgy adding more to the sum of the parts. Granted there’s a simple metaphorical chronology – from aging, nearly dead Tories through to bright, young, but set-to-be-disappointing New Labour, via a nice-but-pointless Lib Dem – but even this feels as if it would benefit from being shuffled. Given the heavy-handedness of the Labour and Tory segments, the piece is never going to feel anything other than didactic, but even so, choosing this most direct path through the early hours of election night still seems too much. It feels as if it needs more characters, more variety, much more randomness and much less overstated connectedness to the actual events. Thorne still has a gift for amusing dialogue and sympathetic characters, although one still yearns to see him produce a female character who isn’t a victim. Ultimately, though, 2nd May 1997 doesn’t show his undoubted talents off to their best advantage.

Everything Must Go – St Augustine’s

In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have written a word about Everything Must Go, or; The Voluntary Attempt to Overcome Unnecessary Obstacles. The show, you see, is a one-woman piece about the performer’s father. Apparently it was to be a two-person show also starring her father. At the time of entering the show for the Fringe he was suffering from terminal cancer. The one-sided A5 photocopied programme sheet reads as follows:
“Dad performed the show with me three times.
He died of pancreatic cancer on 2 June 2009
The show will continue to tour after Edinburgh. This is a labour of love.”

Now, I’m a theatre critic, not a labour-of-love critic. This is a piece that demands to be put beyond criticism. Ordinarily there’d be no point in just writing about how much one didn’t like this show. If one’s tastes don’t coincide with it, why harp on about it? Simply let the matter drop. Yes, it was recommended to me by people to whom I listen. They had found it moving, so I went along – misery junkie that I apparently am – fully expecting to be moved. Having not been moved in the slightest, this review would have stopped there. On leaving the theatre I would have – did, in fact – make a mental note not to write about it. Except.

Except, Everything Must Go (not to be confused with Tim Etchells’s amusing alternative Fringe programme pastiche written for Forest Fringe, the recent strand of Soho Theatre shows, the somewhat more distant play by Patrick Jones or indeed the album by Jones’s brother) won a Total Theatre Award, beating Icarus 2.0, If That’s All There Is and Company F/Z’s Horse in the Devised Performance category. It is also, now, apparently going to transfer to the Barbican. At this point, it becomes legitimate to start treating the show as a piece of theatre. As such, uncomfortable though it is to say so, and without wishing to cast the slightest aspersions on writer, puppet-maker, prop-maker, costume-maker, camera operator and performer Kristin Fredricksson’s feelings for her father, it fails.

The piece itself offers a slightly choppy look back over Karl Fredricksson’s life, from his conception to old age, noting a wealth of eccentric traits – he got his taps metered and then did his utmost to get his water from elsewhere, for example – and showing films of him as a young man and giant blown up cut-out photos of him through his life. And that’s about it, really. There’s some moving around. A bit of half-hearted puppetry, a rather ill-advised sing-along with
Serge Gainsbourg’s Lemon Incest
. The problem is, the show isn’t affecting because of its content, the skill with which it’s made, or its insights into grief. It is affecting (if it is affecting at all) because the person on stage in front of us is actually very sad. It’s not a performance of grief, it’s not even an overt display of grief, it’s simply our knowledge that losing a parent hurts like hell and that the person in front of us is telling us about a parent who died two months earlier.

I couldn’t help wishing that the whole show was an elaborate meta-theatrical game. That “Karen Fredricksson” was a made up character, that the man of whom she had photographs and with whom she’d videoed interviews was simply another performer. That he was safe and well somewhere else and that her dad was similarly alive and well. Somehow then the scrappy, charmless aesthetic would just about make sense.

It’s hard to see, for example, how the show would have worked if he had lived. His absence, though loud and clear throughout the show, didn’t make any actual sense in terms of where he was missing in the piece. Obviously the show will have been rethought, but even so, it’s hard to see how it might have worked any better had he not died. So, morbidly, the piece seems to depend on his death. Were it not suddenly a piece about loss and bereavement, this would have been perhaps at best an eccentric father-daughter piece about an odd life well-lived. Although, with a terminal cancer patient on stage, I can’t quite see how it wouldn’t still have been more than a little exploitative.

The thing is, without the death there’d be nothing here. And somehow bringing the actual fact of an actual death onto the stage feels here like the worst sort of emotional pornography. I’m pretty sure other performers have made similar work, and that their work has been good. Everything Must Go, on a very basic level, is not good. It is poorly designed and poorly executed. Fredricksson is not a very engaging performer. She is, however, unimpeachably unhappy. And that invites us to reflect on our own sadness. I don’t doubt some people got an awful lot out of the piece, and for entirely honourable reasons. I’m afraid, though, that the whole exercise left me utterly cold and with a taste of unwitting exploitation in my mouth.

Put simply, nothing about the piece suggests that Fredricksson has anything that even approaches another show in her, and praising this piece because of its proximity to a sad event is to promote her well beyond her abilities as an artist.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Punk Rock - Lyric Hammersmith

[Written for CultureWars]

The prospect of a new Simon Stephens play is greeted by pretty much the same excited anticipation as we used to wait for new records by the Pixies. Formally inventive, intelligent, raw, Stephens’s work frequently demonstrates what is great about New Writing.

Set in the present day, in a fee-charging grammar school in Stockport, Punk Rock is a one hour fifty minute slow build in tension and intensity to an explosive, yet oddly calming, climax, with a static/feedback coda.

William Carlisle (Tom Sturridge) is a model of intelligent, alienated youth everywhere. His obvious and immediate attraction to pretty, spiky, clever new-girl Lily (Jessica Raine), an evident dislike of his fellow six-formers and increasingly erratic behaviour set up a chain of events leading to an apparently inescapable tragic conclusion.

Thanks to the pre-publicity – interviews with Stephens in which he talks about the Columbine shootings, for example – the audience already knows in which particular direction this messed-up kid is heading. Carlisle seems pitched as a school-age Hamlet: given his intelligence and his situation, the shape of his tragedy seems almost pre-determined.

Sarah Frankcom’s production is a strangely mixed affair. Designer Paul Wills’s set conjures a lofty, semi-circular gothic library, seemingly situated at the top of some distant turret. The looming dark wood recalls Muriel Gerstner’s design for the Hamburg world premiere of Stephens’s Pornography. Brueghel’s Tower of Babel is here replaced by the equal impossibility of a weight of knowledge represented by the unreadable number of dusty leather bound tomes.

The black school uniforms suspend the characters half way between a Harry Potter romantic ideal of school life and the modern world of mobile phones, short skirts and faintly ludicrous bright green puffa jackets. Stephens’s script also sees the characters shift between fully realistic dialogue and something more knowing or stylised. Characters themselves pastiche different registers. Bennett Francis in particular, played here by Henry Lloyd-Hughes as a kind of aesthete school bully (not a million miles away from School Bully in Ripping Yarns (05.35)), frequently deploys antique schoolboy slang lifted wholesale from the pages of PG Wodehouse or Anthony Buckeridge with a host of ironic “I say”s and “old chap”s. The text is at once on a level with the pupils and knowing a lot more about them than they know about themselves, sometimes resonating with precisely the sort of constructions used by precocious teens and other times sounding wise well beyond their years, like disaffected, nihilist History Boys.

At times it feels as if Frankcom hasn’t quite decided how she wants to approach the text. Some of the actors (Banks, West) dealing in fine-tuned naturalism and others – Lloyd-Huge and Sophie Wu as Francis’s girlfriend Cissy – turning in much more stylised performances. Tom Sturridge’s Carlisle seems to fluctuate between “being” and “showing”. That’s not to say any of the performances are bad – quite the reverse, they are all fascinating, but sometimes the whole feels a little over-directed. Similarly, because of the ostensible naturalistic casting – albeit with the audience having to overlook that 17-year-olds are plainly being played by actors in their mid-twenties, and with accents obviously playing a part in the construction of the world of the play – I started longing to see the German premiere, ideally with all the characters played by 70-year-olds so that one could appreciate the text, without worrying about nit-picky issues of detail and realism. There’s a sense that because the play itself isn’t just simple naturalism – it’s somehow too intelligent, too knowing for that – and the bits of naturalism that do filter in end up distracting from one’s appreciation of the play.

There’s the strange question of “being convinced”. Do we buy Carlisle’s slightly too sign-posted mental illness? Are the bits of research on Columbine that have filtered into the text perhaps a little too noticeable? When Carlisle talks about his sense of feeling better than everyone else in the school, are we not hearing a playwright’s précis of Harris and Klebold? It feels that this production wants us to put that out of our heads, but at the same time, its attempt to create a hermetic world continually draws our attention back to its constructedness and its relation to a wider reality. Perhaps that is the point.

For all that, this is an electrifying piece of theatre. Stephens has a real feel for amping up tension. The way that the play trades on the accumulation of small cruelties, both deliberate and unintentional, winding a situation toward breaking point, is perfectly pitched. The penultimate two scenes are masterclasses in stretching an audience’s nerves to breaking point. Sharp bursts of fractured grunge tracks (the White Stripes, Nirvana, Mudhoney) are administered like electric shocks in the scene breaks.

The play resonates on a number of levels, like an If... for the post-ideology generation. It suggests the way that intelligence and sensitivity can be curdled into unacknowledged proto-fascism by pettiness and the meaninglessness of everyday teenage life. As a title, “Punk Rock” is brilliant. Crucially, no actual punk music is played or mentioned in the show (no, of course the White Stripes and Nirvana don’t count). Someone at press night suggested that, in common with Country Music, Stephens has structured the play like the songs. I disagree. Punk music was, at its inception, about as formally reactionary as it gets. Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar break, chorus, end. Punk Rock, by contrast, is a long, slow deliberate build with a white noise fade-out. It’s more like Einstürzende Neubauten than The Damned. However, it’s precisely that reactionary tendency within something theoretically rebellious that Punk Rock identifies and explores – how teenage rebellion winds up spouting the rhetoric of the far-right and the individualist.

We already know that Stephens is a playwright of enormous compassion and moral anger, here we see that manifested almost as a blunt end result. “Look at this,” he seems to say. “Is this what we want? Because it’s what we’re making.” As with his earlier play Herons, with which Punk Rock shares a number of similarities, or indeed Pornography, it’s not a piece that claims to offer answers or a unified theory of everything, instead it shows a human situation and forces the audience to ask the questions and then go out and look for the answers.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Oh, My Green Soap Box - Pleasance Courtyard

One of the luxuries of writing long-form, post-fact reviews of shows is that it gives an opportunity to engage with other reviews of the same piece which simply isn’t available to the overnight critic. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for not knowing what everyone else is saying, it avoids knee-jerk contrarianism (is that a word?) for a start. At the same time, without wanting to turn into a review of the reviews, of meta-criticism, having other reviews as co-ordinates can be very helpful in clarifying one’s own thinking.

I already touched on Lucy Foster’s Oh, My Green Soap Box in my first post-Edinburgh post, in which I called it “adorable” and “heartbreaking” without much by way of explanation. Since one of my biggest bug-bears in Edinburgh this year was the ludicrous proliferation of decontextualised words of praise, here’s some context...

In many ways, Oh, My Green Soap Box is a pretty straightforward one-woman-show. Long-time Improbable Theatre associate Lucy Foster talks to the audience, tells us stuff, shows us videos (see above), does a little dance and generally *is*. On stage.

The nominal subject of the piece is Foster’s concern with matters ecological. The piece opens as the launch of a campaign. On the surface it’s a campaign to save the polar bear. As the ice-caps melt thanks to global warming, polar bears will have nowhere to live and will eventually become extinct, so the thinking goes.

Mercifully, Foster doesn’t really go into the thinking too much. This is not a piece that wants to bash us Al Gore-style over the head with proof, or lists of things that we ought to be doing to save the planet. Anyone looking for a fiery bit of eco-propaganda will be disappointed – everyone else can breathe a sigh of relief. What follows is in fact a nifty subversion of the one-person “confessional”/“biographical” show. Again mercifully, Foster doesn’t actually come right out with: “When I was younger I did such and such” – instead the piece somehow contrives to make the extinction of the polar bear play out like a reflection on the most devastating break-up you’ve ever experienced. And it’s all the more moving for it. So much so, that I’d say the eco- thing is a bit of a blind and that actually the real subject here is heartbreak and loss. Imagine Improbable doing Crave, only about Polar Bears, and you’d not be far off.

Foster’s stagecraft is similarly subtle – so much so that you don’t really realise it’s happening until, looking back, you are confronted with an imaginative arctic world created – like a child’s game – from bedding and a sheet draped over a couple of chairs that had been unobtrusively hanging about. I disagree with Matt Trueman that as a performer “she is always a touch too controlled and measured in her delivery” nor did I “find myself wishing that she’d let go, abandon the fixities of the text... and really talk to us as people”. For my money, Foster does exactly that – there’s a brief section where she looks each audience member in the eyes in turn and makes a brief gesture. Touching or silly, there is a real sense of being connected with the performer on stage. Nor did I find her “too controlled”. Perhaps it’s a matter of seeing different performances, or having different perspectives/emphases. It may even be something as trite as having been touched by different things, but I found ...Soap Box sparky, insightful and almost chokingly sad in places. A beautiful piece of work.

Oh, My Green Soap Box transfers to the Oval House from Tuesday, 03 November to Saturday, 07 November at 7.45pm

Vanya - The Gate

Vanya is the latest in what could flippantly be termed the Gate’s occasional “Half the title, half the play” series – stripped-down, modernised or experimental new versions of classic texts by Ibsen and Chekhov (we look forward to Gho and …nov). In truth, there’s not much of a common thread within this strand beyond the venue and the quirk in titling. Three different directors, three different writers and three wildly different apparent intentions and results.

Sam Holcroft’s Vanya is a stripped-down, minimalist, modernised version of the Chekhov classic taking the four central characters – Vanya, Astrov, Sonya and Yelena – and playing their tragic trajectories stripped down to stark interactions with one other. In her director’s notes, Natalie Abrahami likens their plight to the heads in Beckett’s Play, cyclical and doomed to keep repeating their tragedy every time the play is read or performed.

To this end, designer Tom Scutt has created a neat, revolving, packing crate-like shed of a set, in which Vanya and Sonya are boxed at the beginning and end of the play. Actually, it’s a stage design that owes a lot more to Enda Walsh’s Bedbound than Play, but the (already similar) meaning is unmistakeable. Every time the box – poignantly marked “Fragile” – is opened, the same thing will happen. They begin alone, together; they end alone, together; these are people who have no chance to learn or grow.

Holcroft’s script is a less elegantly structured affair. Stripped of the other characters and the finesse as Chekhov’s four act model, the timescale of the piece becomes slightly blurred. Moreover, some of the transition into colloquial English does mean that characters often blurt rather more bluntly than they do in the original. It initially feels as if there’s less build, less subtlety. Fiona Button’s Sonya sets the teeth on edge for quite a while, while Robert Goodale’s Vanya is so nakedly, appallingly needy that you just want to give him a good kick. Perhaps it’s the effect of removing some of the Russian-ness from the story, but you just want him to pull himself together and to stop being so painfully gauche.

However, somewhere before the half-way mark, the tragic momentum takes hold. As it becomes clear that Simon Wilson’s diffident, indifferent Astrov – turned here into something of an eco-campaigner with his talk of “squandering our resources” and veneration of ant societies – has cast his spell, not only on the awkward Sonya, but however briefly on her beautiful stepmother Yelena (Susie Trayling), the inevitability of all four’s emotional desolation suddenly makes the action horribly, grippingly compelling and Holcroft’s script takes off.

There are some oddities thrown up by the approach that has been taken. On one hand, it feels like we are simply watching some of Uncle Vanya in a modern translation, and as such it is informed by the other Vanyas we have seen. The names haven’t been changed, so we assume they are still in Russia. But a more modern Russia, perhaps, apart from the candles and oil lamps. But then why the modern dress? Perhaps the setting is unimportant. The play has, after all, been stripped of its social comment, although the new, louring environmental dimension is an interesting addition, and one that I can’t help feeling is going to start permeating more and more theatre as concern over forthcoming eco-catastrophe mounts.

There is also the question of overt theatricality – something that this version both foregrounds and retreats from in equal measure. The obvious artifice of the set – the way it almost creates a stage upon a stage – has the effect of heightening our awareness that we are watching Theatre, while at the same time seeming to enclose the actors, the characters, behind what is almost an eighth wall – literally so at the beginning and end. The style of acting – the British-do-classics modern naturalism, basically – doesn’t suggest the performers’ awareness of their being actors, even as the staging emphasises precisely that. They are ‘being’ their characters, it seems. Curiously, though, there are several direct audience address monologues. One, by Yelena toward the end, is explicitly accusatory on the subject of male attitudes to beauty, and appears to be directed straight at the male members of the audience. However, it is the staging rather than the performances that force us to consider the theatricality of the presentation - the curious pretence that the actors are people who don’t know they’re part of a play, even as their boxy wooden world tries to tell them otherwise.

At root, however, this is a Vanya that is interested in the deeply painful human tragedy on display. And, by God, it’s very, very sad indeed. Perhaps more could have been done to draw out quite how painful Yelena and Astrov’s situations are, but the final image of Vanya and Sonya, utterly destroyed, shutting themselves back up in their little crate marked fragile until tomorrow night, and the night after that, and the night after that, is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

production photo by Simon Kane

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Où sont les Intellectuels du Publique?

Playwright Steve Waters has written an intriguing piece over at the Guardian blogs which demands a fuller response than the usual 5,000 characters. His question seems to boil down to: “Why don’t public intellectuals talk about the theatre any more?” To throw this question back, I’d counter: what public intellectuals?

Britain has never had many essayists in the tradition of Sontag or Barthes. Or if we did, they were awfully well hidden (or I’m forgetting something very obvious). And of those we arguably have had – and really, who?: Raymond Williams? Roger Scruton? Malcolm Muggeridge? Richard Hoggart? John Berger? John Tusa? Germaine Greer? – none of them, with the possible exception of Berger, hold a candle to the international figures Waters mentions. True, with the exception of Williams, our paltry trickle of “public intellectuals” is pretty silent when it comes to theatre (Greer’s occasional, wilfully uninformed interventions notwithstanding). I’d suggest this is because most of them were primarily engaged – most quite single-mindedly – with another artform. The British tend not to do eclecticism very well. We do specialisms. People who hop about tend to be regarded with suspicion.

If we’ve got even one fully functioning public intellectual today, it’s probably Slavoj Žižek (albeit adoptively) and he’s actually pretty good on the work of, say, Neue Slowenische Kunst, whose output included a lot of Slovenia’s theatre, back when the country was a part of Yugoslavia. But Žižek is perhaps now much more preoccupied by film as it is now a far more dominant artform than theatre was in the ‘50s and ‘60s in the west and up until the demise of communism in the east.

It strikes me that theatre might also get the thinkers it asks for. If you look at our big public plays now – say Gethsemane, England People Very Nice or Seven Jewish Children from the last 12 months – and look at the sort of additional coverage they get beyond their allotted overnight review: comment columns in the press, perhaps a slot on Newsnight Review and acres of blogspace – we see how the content of those commentaries demonstrate why big thinkers (of whom we’ve already established there aren’t [m]any) aren’t urgently addressing British theatre (I’m assuming Waters intended the question to be applied to British theatre, since, despite the fact that his examples from the past are mostly drawn from the US and mainland Europe, he doesn’t appear give any sign of knowing who’s saying what about what theatre on mainland Europe at the moment).

Essentially is it not because our theatre is predominantly a news-led, issue-based form? As such, are the commentaries it gets not by those who are employed to comment on the news, on social issues and on politics? I’m not saying, or meaning to imply this is a bad thing, but it is a different thing. There’s a side issue here – aren’t our “public intellectuals” nowadays people like Simon Jenkins or maybe Mark Lawson? No, neither is in the same league as Sontag, Barthes or Adorno, but then that’s not the bracket they’re aiming for. They tend to concentrate on the concrete rather than the theoretical. It’s a different sort of engagement.

Having established this, the next question is: what would be the point of a post-structuralist analysis of something like, for example, Gethsemane? It wears its issues pretty baldly. We know what it’s about because it flags it up, signposts it, and underlines its themes three times in red. That’s not to say Hare is a bad playwright, it’s just that the thing he’s doing is part of a different conversation. He is concerned with issues of public life, public policy and political probity. He doesn’t think deeply, searchingly hypothetically about the philosophical underpinning of all this, he is happy to take generally agreed social mores as his co-ordinates. It would feel slightly OTT if someone brought massive post-structuralist apparatus to bear on his work. It’d be like using nanotechnology to solve a grazed knee. Sometimes all the thing calls for is a plaster. Of course one could approach Hare as philosopher, post-structuralist, Marxist or aesthete, but surely the result would find the work wanting because that is not the way it invites itself to be read.

Along his way, Waters makes a series of fairly irritating generalisations. “The brisk review is hardly fit for purpose” he suggests. It’s hard to tell if he means the purpose he’s now waving a flag for, or the purpose for which it’s intended – i.e. to be a brisk review. Adorno’s musings on Endgame might well be a good read but I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t help you know what any given specific production was like. Similarly, Sontag mentioning Artaud’s schoolboy manifesto in a much longer piece about all sorts of things might make her writing perky, but it doesn’t tell you if a specific play is – in her opinion – any good. So bashing the review as a form seems misguided – even if we could all wish for longer word-counts. The philosopher’s essay is an entirely different creature. To describe a review as a “view of the marketplace” also seems somewhat unjust, but we’ll let that pass for the time being.

“Who would dare such eclecticism now?” might more properly be framed “Who would commission such eclecticism now?” It’s all well and good to propagandise in favour of a particular sort of thing – even one with virtually no (recent?) history in this country – but there are practicalities to bear in mind and Waters’s polemic seems to be blaming people with specific jobs for not doing other, different work which has no discernable means of transmission on the terms that he seems to desire.

His peevish quest next alights upon: “Have contemporary writers and directors lost that gift or taste for the panoramic?” No. Matt Trueman’s concise reply under the initial piece pretty much covers that line of inquiry, with the additional bonus of pointing up the fact that Waters might not actually know half as much as he makes out. After all, claiming there’s a vast absence of something when there isn’t is a rather elementary mistake, no?

“Good writing on the theatre needs to be as bold and experimental as great theatre” he intones, bringing us neatly back to my initial question of whether this isn’t just so much nanotechnology for a scrape – the “good” (odd choice of word) writing we have on theatre is quite frequently every bit as bold and experimental as the great theatre it’s about – i.e. not terribly bold or experimental at all. Note, please, that I don’t say that such theatre isn’t great. There was nothing at all bold or experimental about Branagh’s Ivanov, for example. I still thought it was great, though. Others may disagree on either ideological grounds or on grounds of taste, but “reactionary” though the staging might have been, I found it moving in pretty much the way I think it wanted to be moving. Anyway.

Waters concludes: “Profound and pertinent reflection yields better work; if we don't do that work, we leave the field vacant to the short-term riposte of the overnight reviews and angry circular blogs.”

Who’s this “we”? Moreover – and this is the terrible elephant in the room throughout this briefest of essays – isn’t Waters response to the lack of “Profound and pertinent reflection” essentially just an “angry circular blog” itself? – well, ok, not *terribly* *angry*, but... Is he part of the “we” he’s expecting to offer this new school of pertinent and profound reflection? On the strength of this article it doesn’t appear that he’s actually proposing to step up to the plate. It is, after all, a short piece on the Guardian Theatre Blog. Guardian blogs offer around 500 words to make one’s point. That’s roughly as long as one of the “brisk” reviews which he criticises for not having enough space to include “profound and pertinent reflection”. Of course. Fine. Sure. It’s an interesting piece for the format that he’s chosen/been allotted, but let’s not let him kid himself that he’s written what he’s exhorting others to write.

At this point, his dismissal of blogs as “angry” and “circular” seems particularly hypocritical. Perhaps he’s seeking to differentiate between “angry, circular” blogs and other, longer, linear, more considered blogs – of which there are many. His initial impulse for this article came, after all, from George Hunka’s blog, which you’d generally be hard pressed to call either angry or circular. Sadly, though, it sounds more like Waters has fallen into the unthinking trap of bunching blogs together as a tool of the uninformed, marginal and “unprofessional” – heaven forefend.

In fact, blogs are pretty much where you frequently do find precisely this form of long-form, more eclectic, more philosophical, more intellectual approach. And you find it on blogs these days precisely because the print media and broadcasting doesn’t appear to have much space for it or interest in it. I’m not sure why Waters writes off blogs in the way that he does – but it seems utterly counterproductive, makes him sound hypocritical in the extreme – given that he’s saying it on a blog – and, worst, makes him again sound like he just hasn’t been looking very hard.

Similarly, his earlier off-hand dismissal of academia seems about as hilariously mistimed as possible. I’m thinking in particular of Palgrave Macmillan’s excellent new pocket-size series of books Theatre &.... It’s a new collection of books on Theatre’s relationship to another area – politics, the city, human rights, etc. all by leading academics like Dan Rebellato, Nicholas Ridout and Joe Kelleher. As well as being wholly accessible and intelligent yet conversational in tone, they also completely scotch the charges of un-panoramicism. Of the three I’ve dipped into so far (...Ethics, ...Globalisation, and ...Politics) there is a dizzying level of eclectic knowledge being lightly bandied around in service of strong central arguments. These books also have the useful and hugely welcome effect of pointing to the longer, weightier books in academia that are leading thinking in theatre at the moment – none of which are studies of the “small print of Restoration aesthetics, Chekhov's punctuation and the ritual implications of the mask” (rather a cheap way of characterising academia). And all of which, quite crucially, “offer the kind of telling and personal engagement with theatre practice as it stands”. Waters suggestion to the contrary suggests someone who doesn’t have the faintest idea what’s being written on theatre by academics at the moment. It also overlooks the fact that several leading academics are also theatre practitioners or critics as well.

A final point. Waters should perhaps be careful what he wishes for. Sadly, I didn’t see his last play, The Contingency Plan, at the Bush, but I did see World Music at the Donmar. And, well, given a long-form free-ranging essay size article to fill, I can’t help wondering what Susan Sontag would have made of some of the most gratuitous and uncomfortable-to-witness stage-toplessness I’ve ever seen on the part of the young actress playing a young, black African (although admittedly this could have been director Josie Rourke’s fault). Or, alternatively, I’d have been fascinated to read what Edward Said made of the fact that a play purporting to be about an African genocide analogous to Rwanda had to have a white, male central character. Or perhaps Žižek could have rehearsed his theory about how this use of an exception means that the work ultimately means precisely the reverse of what he, Waters, might have intended. It’s all well and good to lament in the abstract the absence of hardcore thinkers from the arena of theatre, but what would they find if they did come back? World Music is hardly an Endgame – as far as I remember it was little more than liberal hang-wringing spiced up with ethnic-genocide-porn. Bring any kind of intellectual artillery to bear on that, and you’re looking not at appreciative analysis but wholesale slaughter. Perhaps I’m remember uncharitably, though.

Ironically, given all the above, I do think it would be nice if Britain had some “public intellectuals” – ghastly term, but there we go. It would be nice if they were on telly and the radio, and it would be nice if when they were theatre were an obvious port of call for their cultural references. It’s not like we don’t have a thriving theatre scene – from Tinned Fingers and Melanie Wilson to Rupert Goold and Katie Mitchell; from Tim Crouch and Mike Bartlett to Mark Ravenhill (who should have got a mention earlier as one of our most “public” playwrights since George Bernard Shaw with his Guardian columns and appearances on Newsnight Review), Martin Crimp, Lucy Prebble and Dennis Kelly. The list, if not endless, is certainly bloody long and incredibly cheering. Sure, let’s grumble a bit from time to time, but why be witless with it? It strikes me that while, yes, there are some things that could be better, there’s a hell of a lot that’s already rather wonderful already.

In the interests of eclecticism, today's "cover image" is by Postcards' favourite German painter Gerhard Richter. Expect essays comparing his Cage paintings with the work of Martin Crimp via Martin Heidigger before the week is out...

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Guest Post - Duška Radosavljević on Internal

I recently came across this long-form piece on Internal written as a Facebook note by academic, dramaturg, critic and Stage blogger Duška Radosavljević. Since she hasn’t got a blog of her own, she’s kindly said I can host it here. I should point out that her views are entirely her own. This doesn’t constitute an endorsement per se, so much as a growing interest in the critical work that is growing up around the piece and a desire to see the conversation continue.

OK, I’ve made my mind up about it. It’s a week since I ‘did’ Internal. (It doesn’t seem appropriate to say ‘saw’ or ‘attended’ – the way one would say about any other theatre piece). In that time I have endlessly discussed it – first with my fellow ‘attendees’/ audience-members; then with my colleagues from the Stage, then again with my fellow audience-members when we bumped into each other in a different show’s queue, then with other friends who have done it, with Stage colleagues as part of the awards adjudication, and even eventually with some company-members too. I have heard many different reactions to it – vaguely divided into ‘loved it’, ‘hated it’, ‘intrigued by it’ and ‘afraid of it’ (by those who chose not to do it). I have also seen one of my friends receive a cold shoulder as he over-enthusiastically ran up to his Internal partner when he saw her on the street. But most interestingly, just as I thought I’d left it behind the moment I left Edinburgh, I continue to witness my own and other people’s struggles with this particular piece of theatre.

Theatre critics, who continue to write about the piece in their blogs and personal pages, seem particularly plagued by the piece’s inherent challenge to their professional objectivity. How do you maintain the critical distance required by your job in relation to someone who is flirting with you, showing you naked pictures of themselves or even worse just touching you seductively without saying a word? The natural – and possibly quite unfortunate – outcome of that effort seems to be a kind of cynicism. In an attempt to keep hold of our critical faculties and stay on duty, we tend to perhaps over-emphasise the fact that this is a construct, an illusion, a piece of theatre which despite seeming as though it features a great deal of ‘reality’ cannot ultimately be trusted. We think about it in line with other one-to-one or immersive pieces of theatre proliferating this year (as in Lyn Gardner’s write-up of the show) and quite a few older colleagues are dismissing even the idea of it on the grounds of ‘been there, done that’ in the 1970s.

My question is: why are we so afraid of this piece of theatre? In everything that I have read about it – and I have read almost everything I could find on the internet – most reviews seem to be – quite rightly – reflecting on the ‘experience’ of the show, raising issues of ethical dubiousness against it, but rarely getting to the point of reflecting on the content of the piece. This surprises me.

Before I get to my own interpretation of the content I would like to offer a few thoughts about the form too. Yes, it is true that even though its one-to-one format appears innovative, there is nothing new about this show. However, this is not solely because it is reminiscent on the 1970s avant-garde. No, this is a typical three-act Aristotelian piece of theatre which even features the Hegelian dialectical structure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. What gives it a contemporary edge is the emphasis – potentially inspired by post-colonialist studies – on the ‘experiential’ and the ‘kinaesthetic’ rather than the verbal means of communication. Yes, it does unsettle a Western viewer – particularly a critic whose main means of expression is verbal – to just be asked to stare into somebody’s eyes or submit oneself to an entirely tactile communication and consider this to be a meaningful theatre event. But then again, many a Western theatre practitioner would say that theatre has everything to do with the instinctive and the intuitive and less so with the solely verbal. (This potentially represents a particular challenge in an Anglophone context.)

However, what about the perceived manipulation involved in the seduction ritual that the audience-member is subjected to by the performer within the ambiguous terms of a theatre situation? Everything seems real (including the said seduction, with the twist being here that the audience members are being seduced individually and directly), yet everything is illusory by virtue of being a theatre event. The rules are not re-defined for this particular situation, so we assume that we are expected to respond as we usually do in theatre in order to obtain pleasure from the event – i.e. ‘suspend our disbelief’, go with the flow and suspend judgment until afterwards. Yet, how does one go with the flow in an event such as this one which might well end up in a transgression of physical boundaries (and like Andrew Haydon has suggested – in the question of real/illusory romantic in/fidelity if the audience member happens to be attached). The ambiguity is enhanced by the fact that even after we leave the theatre space – not only do we continue thinking about it and discussing it – we also receive a letter from our date at our home address some days later. Should we reply to it? Or should we expect once again to be shown that the situation should not be trusted (as we are shown in what I would call Act 2 of the piece).

Yes, the piece definitely raises ethical questions (as Bill McEvoy’s blog piece points out), but I would not like to dismiss it on those grounds. In fact my question would be, how is this experience any less ethical than any real life romantic interaction which ends badly or where one party is let down by the other? Of course the question of theatre and ethics is huge, and there is definitely a flip side to the disruption of boundaries in a theatre event (as illustrated very clearly by last year’s production The F*ct*ry by B*d*c Theatre where audience was cast into Holocaust victims on their way to a gas chamber, and the company members infamously took their work outside of the theatre by continuing to intimidate two critics who refused to participate in the ‘script)’. It is hard to claim this with any certainty, but it seems to me that the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s intentions were a bit more noble than those of B*d*c theatre (even though they too, according to Nick Awde's review, turn the audience into 'actors' - albeit actors without a script). Conversely and interestingly, another Stage reviewer, Natasha Tripney has in her blog likened her experience to that between a shop assistant and an overly needy customer.

On one occasion of an informal chat about Internal on the streets of Edinburgh, Ian Shuttleworth has said that ‘you get from it what you put in’. I agree with this entirely. Even in the ‘treacherous’ Act 2 of the piece – even though I felt uncomfortable with the situation - I never felt judged by my partner; all I got back was exactly (‘verbatim’) what I’d put in!

So, a word about the content. What Internal offers us in 25 minutes is a take on contemporary relationships. What starts off as a quick (perhaps even a speed-dating generated) relationship ends up in a group therapy session. We don’t know how to deal with each other any more or how to gain real and meaningful intimacy capable of helping us resolve our own problems between ourselves. Far too often, (in the culture which fetishises reality TV and celebrity lifestyle) our dirty laundry gets aired in public. I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I blame my older bra-burning sisters, mothers, aunts from the 1970s who perhaps did win sexual freedoms for themselves but whose heritage to me is an expectation from men that a one-night-stand is a fair deal. This kind of deal could only be fair for a man! The loss of mating dances, courtship and pre-matrimonial rituals however restrictive, sexist and backward they might have seemed (think dowry etc), is a loss for women only. Apparent sexual equality is a loss for women only – I do want to see the man in my life dress up for me, take me out, open doors for me and pour me a drink (even if it can only happen in theatre nowadays)!

So the reason I loved Internal, despite everything, is because it was an incisive but optimistic social comment, ending with a romantic dance and a handwritten letter. (I genuinely thought my date was asking me for an email address and found it very refreshing that he meant otherwise). There is hope for us if we are all able to look into ourselves and see where our own romantic boundaries, desires, expectations and needs are, and Internal provokes us to do exactly that. As a result of the experience, I will know a bit better what my strengths and weaknesses are. And another reason I loved Internal is because it was definitely the most romantic experience – however illusory – I have had in years. Now, that’s what is truly alarming!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Unfolding King Lear A Model

I’m struggling to remember the last time a show as small as this, in a venue this obscure, gathered such a rapid buzz about it. From one comment left by Chris Goode on Lyn Gardner’s What to See This Week blog (“mind-stretching, disorienting, harrowing, exhilarating”), to Lyn’s subsequent Twitter report (“Terrifying, painful and utterly compelling”) and then by word of mouth by friends and Facebook (“you might want to keep tomorrow clear, and just reassemble yourself piece by piece”) by the time I entered the tiny space in the Vault (under St Augustine’s, accessed by an easily overlooked side street off ) I was surprised that there wasn’t a queue round the block with everyone who’s anyone in the avant garde lining up for returns. So it’s safe to say I had quite high expectations.

High expectations are not a useful thing to go into a theatre with. Particularly if they are based purely on sense impressions. While I’d heard a lot about how Unfolding King Lear A Model had made other people feel, I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was, what happened, how it happened, or why it left such apparently profound impressions on them. This isn’t a good thing either. Not least, because I’m quite resistant to people trying to disorientate, harrow and terrify me. Least of all in an obvious or overt way, which seemed to be the implication. “Here is a piece that sets out to be upsetting” was what I had inferred.

Not knowing how this process was to be conducted, I was apprehensive to say the least to see that the “set” for UKLAM consisted mostly of a high wooden bench strewn with various sinister-looking apparatus. As I’ve said a thousand times, I’m *very* squeamish. I also know that there’s plenty in King Lear that can be made very upsetting indeed.

So, what is Unfolding King Lear A Model (I think that’s the correct capitalisation. The slightly wonky, wrong-looking capital ‘A’ certainly seems in keeping with the feel of the piece)? It’s a one man show. Quite literally. As well as being the sole performer, Jeremy Hardingham also operates his own distinctly lo-fi lighting and presses the buttons on his own sound desk.

[apologies if I get this next bit slightly wrong] It either opens with Hardingham simply dressed in grubby neutral-coloured top and trousers or enrobed and wrapped in a chain wearing a small slate chalkboard. Then, depending whether he started off wearing the robe or not, he either takes it off and puts it back on, or puts it on for the first time. He does this again later. The space remains dimly lit, mostly by spill from the two lights glaring into the faces of the small audience. There’s some disorientating white noise playing in the background.

The more I write this review, the more uncertain I become as to the details and the order in which they occurred.

Hardingham brutally wraps gaffa tape round the lower half of his head, and then half stabs, half cuts a hole for his mouth using a pair of scissors. Although not actually self-harm, but it is deeply uncomfortable to watch. He paints his face white, takes off his hat, fills it with chalk dust and replaces it. He opens an envelope with the number 1 marked on it, takes out a sheaf of papers and begins to read.

His voice is a surprise: full-on orotund RSC English. The disjuncture between his now hellish appearance – his eyes an angry, irritated red peering out of a chalky, funereal mask – and this voice is quite startling. What he’s saying momentarily falls by the wayside. It soon becomes clear that the words are cut and pasted from King Lear. From Act One of King Lear, in fact. The sheaf of papers from this first envelope is reassuringly slender – the show only runs for an hour after all – so we settle, unsettled, to take in this bizarre, painful-looking spectacle.

At the same time the mind does a fair bit of racing. You’re cross-referencing the snippets of speech. Who says that? Is it all Lear? Is he doing different voices? Yes he is. Do the different voices relate to different characters? Possibly. I’m still struggling with the RSCness of the accents. Also, slightly, with the apparent linearity – although I’m only guessing at that. It starts fairly close to the beginning with a flurry of “Nothings” sounding like vocal epilepsy. What follows could be in virtually any order at all. It’s not that the speech is garbled – much of it is clear as a bell – but the way it’s decontextualised, shredded and regurgitated - sometimes at speed, sometimes mumbled, sometimes with all the poetic gusto of the actor-manager that renders much of it down to jarring, fragmentary noise pierced by shards of words.

Vocally, Hardingham turns out to be something of a wizard. He skips from voice to voice, line by line, sounding like a manically spliced recording of King Lear from the mid-sixties – there’s a lot of that heightened RP, old-school posh. There are touches of, say, Gielgud or Richardson mixed occasionally with that spooky, talking-backwards voice frequently favoured by David Lynch. It’s a stunning performance but it’s often hard to discern why it is how it is.

While doing this, Hardingham potters about his work-bench, threatening it with a hammer here, cajoling a metronome on it there. All similarly unsettling, but mapping only infrequently onto something that concretely marries to the text being spoken. The real departure from this comes in Act Three, which is mostly given over to Gloucester’s blinding. In this, “Gloucester” is “played” (can we just assume that any traditional words to do with stagecraft have scare marks round them from now on?) by a bare lightbulb clipped onto a mirror lent against the side of the space’s small archway-cum-mini-proscenium. A tape of clanking medieval torture noises, along with recorded speech from the text. This is voiced by Hardingham, I think, who recites along with the recording or engages it in dialogue. He threatens the "Gloucester" with a murderous-looking set of map compasses, before pouring stage blood over the shining bulb. It’s pretty disturbing stuff, as is his increasing playing with an axe, which he taps against the side of his head.

From this point on, the piece seems kind of galvanised by the horror. The pathos of Gloucester’s later suicide attempt, and Lear’s madness in the storm (which may or may not have been the point where Hardingham tries to perform a speech through mouthfuls of Red Bull) both make recognisable, poignant appearances.

The final coup – best not to read if you’re likely to see the show – is, if anything, even more wince-making. At the bit in the sequence where – if this corresponds to the Shakespeare, which I think it does – Lear is presented with Cordelia’s lifeless body, Hardingham eats a handful of salt and tries to do the subsequent speech without being sick. He then went out and was sick. This was proper self-abuse in the service of art. No mucking about here, you could see precisely how unpleasant a time he was having. And it made for just about as piteous spectacle as Lear should be at that point.

I realise over the course of writing this that my reading of what I was looking at has tended to lean toward the hugely literal. I’m interested in where this response comes from. Given Goode’s championing of the performance as poetic text, I found it strange – in view of the way in which it had been cut, shaped and delivered - how hard it was to hear it as the sort of poem concrete you’d imagine it would turn into. Similarly, I was surprised – given the other elements of dramaturgy present in the staging – that the text itself still ran forwards. Coupled with the RSC voices it made the piece seem strangely tamed, still accepting Shakespeare’s chronology of the text.

The piece also does little to signpost any intended effect. It’s got King Lear in the title (and as its source), so it seems fair to view it in the light of the play and as a commentary on it. But precisely what that comment is is never made clear. None of this is intended as a criticism, but as an observation. However, having gotten over my surprise at the more mainstream elements of the performance, I did find it curiously difficult to settle into a rhythm through which I could absorb it. Sure, of course this is a rhythm in its own right – the piece plays with that aesthetic of continual unease and sudden shift. But, between the disruption and the linearity, I found it hard to attach to anything in particular. Certainly moments – the obvious blinding and salt-in-mouth bits – have stayed with me, but on the whole I found the constant buffeting made it near-impossible to get close enough to the piece to find it actually upsetting or troubling. Yes, it contained troubling images, but, for me, they didn’t attach to anything enough to get under my skin. Other elements distracted from- rather than added to-. Of course the interplay of these parts was fascinating in itself, but in a far more cold, intellectual way than advance word had led me to expect.

In many ways, I feel I kind of failed the piece, rather than that the piece failed me or simply “failed”. Like taking a running jump at a high hurdle and not quite clearing the bar somehow. I’m fascinated to know how and why the piece clearly operated on some at a far deeper level, though.

Comments more than gratefully received.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Our Fathers' Ears - Forest Fringe

Tinned Fingers are rapidly turning into one of my favourite young/new/emerging companies. Actually, scratch the qualification, they can easily hold their own around far older, more established groups. It’s strange. A lot of what they do really should come off as annoyingly twee and cutesy. Their self-consciously lo-fi aesthetic ought, by rights, to grate like mad. But it doesn’t.

Here’s why: First of all there’s their wry, deadpan wit. They are very, very funny and display absolutely no sign that it’s on purpose, which makes it all the funnier. There is their ability to make a group of people who have come to watch a performance immediately feel completely at home with the company, each other and the space they’re in. Our Fathers’ Ears at various points involves audience members shouting out suggestions, switching table lamps on and off to create the lighting effects and making giant paper boats and flags. I *hate* “audience participation”. This, on the other hand, felt like terrific fun and I’ve got no idea how they managed to create that dynamic.

Then there’s the level of guiding intelligence behind their work. The jokes are all well and good and having a nice time making paper boats might be fun, but it’s the care and attention with which the show is crafted that makes it special. What feels like harmless scenario leading to harmless game suddenly finds the audience confronted with the ethical unpalatability of Darwinism. This is part of the joy of the thing, you spend your time in the space enjoying the stories and diversions, and every so often you catch a little hint of something serious – sometimes playfully undercut with deadpan delivery or so underplayed you’re not even sure it’s there.

There are also the moments of quite brilliant improvised stagecraft. In the penultimate scene the three performers stand on the space’s low stage each caught in the glare of an Ikea desk lamp which demands them to speak. The lamps are controlled entirely at random by members of the audience. People come and go, switching between speakers, sometimes highlighting one, sometimes all three and sometimes switching rapidly between them like some sort of DIY version of Beckett’s Play.

The real game here, though, is a lifeboat debate – which of the performers will we choose to leave behind “for the greater good”. On the day I saw it – and also the following day, according to a friend – from an audience of 24 (the maximum allowed), each of the three performers got eight votes. Somehow, an hour in each other’s company had made everyone decide that we didn’t want to chuck someone overboard; that we liked being friends; that we didn’t want to make any of them feel less popular. That was kind of lovely in itself.

But the piece had to go on. Eventually someone (naming no names) swapped groups. The performer from whose group he’d moved was duly cast out and the rest of us were herded together and given wine to celebrate the continued survival of our species now that the dead weight had been cut away. On paper it sounds slightly simple, but at the end of an hour or so of fun and games, it felt oddly moving, and also like one of the most lightly worn but brilliantly sharp illustrations of how putting idealism into practice can have monstrous results. Suddenly the piece went beyond its nominal inquiries into Darwinism and climate change (there was a fair bit about polar bears on melting ice caps) to a pretty acute reflection of how ideologies fail. The way that a piece so seemingly delicate and fragile can support such weighty ideas is pretty much a perfect illustration of why Tinned Fingers are one of the most interesting companies out there at the moment – a real blend of the playful and the intellectual, and dead funny into the bargain. Here’s hoping for a lot more very soon.