Nov 23, 2006

Drunk Enough to Say I Love You at the Royal Court

Before I left for the brutal north I had a chance to see Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You with Ben Yeoh (a stupidly talented man who I hope to be seeing a lot more of in the future), amongst others - his more coherent and well informed opinions on the piece can be found over here, for those who like that sort of thing...

As for me, I was tantalised more than I was impressed. There were hints of the greatness in there that make Churchill the most important British playwright alive to day (Pinter can shove it up his Krapp-hole).

The play's a two hander about the US-UK 'special relationship' played out as a gay romance in which (union) Jack will do anything for (uncle) Sam. At its best the play toys beautifully with the surreal synthesis of the political and the personal as the lovers flirt, fight and fondle over points of international diplomacy (who to invade, who to support). The names of enemy combatants (North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq) are flippantly tossed out as the couple nuzzle on the sofa and Vietnam, Kyoto and 911 are handled like lovers tiffs - that time you got drunk and kissed someone else, or the fact that you never put the lid on the toothpaste.

In so doing Churchill begins to conjure the absurdity of a world in which tabloid newspapers split every double page evenly between politics and celebrity gossip. Is it any surprise within such an environment that our relationship with the US is as schizophrenic as it is, aghast as we watch their actions on the news, then laughing along with Friends or Frasier as it comes on afterwards. Appalled by Guantanamo Bay but still taking our children to Disneyworld on Holliday.

America is the most dangerous, aggresive, powerful country in the world and yet still attempts to perceive itself as the home of freedom, innocence and the sit-com. It is this absurd dichotomy that Churchill seems to suggest, allows us to perceive the UK's 'special relationship' with the US within the personal narrative of a relationship (with undertones of the homosexual) between Bush and Blair.

It is when this schizophrenia is at its most absurd that the play really chimes. As Sam refuses to budge on Kyoto protocols only to cattily demand that Jack put his cigarette out. The laughter in the auditorium was as hollow and ironic as you will find.

Episode 4 (wherein I return to our nation's capital and appologise to William Carlos Williams)

This is just to say

I am back from
where it is
an icebox

and where
I was probably too
for posting

Forgive me
it was just vicious
so wet
and so cold


Although I have spent the last four years living either in Edinburgh or places much colder I was still left pretty gobsmacked by quite how miserable weather-wise Scotland was for the entire five days I was there. I think maybe it was the wetness that really got to me, though this is my own damn fault for only bringing a pair of shoes notable only for their numerous holes. After several days of the kind of intense puddles that you only get in cities with 600 years of cobbles and no sense of purpose I think I was pretty close to developing trenchfoot.

As I failed to mention it before I left I should probably say that I have spent the last few days flitting between Scotland's grand old dame and her slightly younger, slightly trendier sister Glasgow (the Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret of metropolises (metropoli?)), directing a scratch night at the Arches. For those unfamiliar, the Arches is a theatre venue that stretches out under the railway arches of central station (you can hear the sound of the trains occasionally shuffling to and fro above). Its a spiffy, exciting space run by a whole bunch of truly lovely people so if you happen to be in the area do check it out.

The scratch itself went stupidly well and from being the pretty much entirely unknown wildcard on the bill that the organisers confessed they were worried could be (for all they knew) cornea-tearingly awful, by the end they were all really keen to help us develop the piece into a full show. We may also get a chance to do some work at the BAC out of this as well, so all in all the wind and rain were definitely worth it.

I also discovered rather delightfully that this blog has a reader (albeit a friend of mine) - so hello to you.

Nov 11, 2006

Blasted at the Barbican

For me the problem with Sarah Kane is the idea of Sarah Kane. At the age of 23, her debut Blasted became the first play that people really tried to be self-righteously scandalised by since the 60s. Five years later she killed herself and the hard work of manufacturing a myth entirely incongruous with her body of work could begin. She became the manic depressive, writing her pain in ever more shocking, ever more outrageous ways. And thus a generation of budding young things imagined the path to posterity to be paved with outrageous sex and violence and unrelenting misery. Problem is, without the thought, care, ambiguity, intelligence and hope beautifully laced through Kane's ethereal writing, the entirely artificial 'shock' over Blasted would have faded quickly and left nothing behind.

This German production, at the Barbican as part of its impressive Bite '06 season, goes back to Kane's first play and takes pains to point out everything that was missed just over a decade ago. The infamous scenes of sex and violence are downplayed, hidden behind sofas and beds and coats, played out in darkness or half light. There are no loud and angry shocks here; even the blast between the Acts is a lyrical dream, the set slowly and smoothly seperating as a heavy rain of rubble pours gently onto the stage.

The play consequently becomes a quiet, slow, achingly painful dissection of the potential for inhumanity. It is the timing that is most startling in this production. Every silence, from Cate's first entrance and her long, careful examination of the glossy hotel room to magnificent last few moments, is teased out to perfection. Most startling of all is Thomas Thiem as the anonymous soldier. He describes his own horrifying atrocities and carries out brutal acts of violence onstage with a quiet, calm melancholy that is as terrifying as it is achingly sad.

Like Fassbinder's Pre-Paradise Sorry Now, Blasted explores the cruelty and a brutality latent in the everyday and its manifestation in the torture and genocide of war. However, in contrast to Fassbinder's unrelenting bleakness, Blasted, like Cleansed, its pseudo-sequel, is a play of hope. Here, as with everything in this production, the final image of humanity amidst the devastation of war is played slowly, carefully and, it must be said, beautifully. This is a production by a company that truly understands Kane, and in eschewing shock and awe for a deliberately slow naturalism they honour the complexity and the beauty of her writing.

Why is it then, that it has required a German company for such a powerful reading of a very English playwright (the references to Elland Road and Joeys being the only thing that really jars in the German translation). Well for a start they have been doing Kane well for a lot longer than we have. Her work was almost immediately embraced in Germany even while it was still scorned and simplified in this country. And that comes down to what we in this country, and they in Germany, are used to seeing in the theatre.

Kane's fierce, postmodern works are for me far better understood as part of a post-Brechtian German tradition that includes Fassbinder and Heiner Muller, than alongside Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson as some fatuous 'In-Yer-Face' movement deliberately constructed by certain smug tossers in the media to parallel the publicity hungry YBAs. Such a frame of reference does Kane and her work no favours.

Nov 7, 2006

Hamlet at the Pompidou Centre, Paris


Go on, say it to yourself, out loud.


It is a heavy, magical word, the saying of which instantly conjures a storm of signs and meanings; skulls, and stages, TS Eliot and Laurence Olivier, To Be's and not To Be's. If even to pronounce the word carries with it such a caravan of cultural baggage, then staging a production under this banner must be done in the knowledge that you are reaping the whirlwind.

Rather than keeping this intimidating knowledge somewhere in the back of their minds, The Wooster Group confront it head on. A company not unused to messing with 'The Greats' (their production of Miller's The Crucible, L.S.D, had the playwrite foaming at the mouth with indignation) this is nonetheless the first time the company has retained the original title of a work. Clearly this is set up as a confrontation from the start - Liz Lecompte the plucky David to this most mammoth of all cultural Goliaths.

And yet (as should be expected from the Wooster group) before we have even entered the auditorium the goal posts have been shifted. A slither of white paper insterted in the programme informs us that this is not a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet but a recreation of Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway version (recorded at the time to be screened across the country in thousands of cinemas in groundbreaking scheme known as 'theatrefilm'). Hamlet the play, no longer takes centre stage, the limelight instead shifting to the relationship between this present Hamlet and a past imagining of the text. Here then is Liz Lecompte and her company not as David but as a Matador, tempting the bull into charging then skipping sideways at the last minute. It is this that is the somewhat tantalising yet frequently frustrating game that the show proceeds to play for the next two and a half hours.

What the audience is confronted with is a cast of indisputably talented actors mimicking as exactly as they can the movements and speech of the figures from the 1964 broadway Hamlet that is projected behind them, and on television screens across the stage for them to take their cues from. Every camera change (there were 17 recording the broadway show), close-up, editing malfunction and screen flicker is represented. Closer to a gym work-out than a dance, the actors leap in jagged movements across the stage to change camera angle, arms and heads jerking back and forth as we see the figures on the screen behind do as the aging filmreel flicks and skips.

Meanwhile the film itself as been digitally touched so that Richard Burton and the other actors fade hauntingly, at many moments disapearing entirely to leave nothing but an empty set and the camera focused on an unseen body that the audience can only imagine from the actions of the live actor in front.

This exhausting, constraining exercise becomes the perfect metaphor for Hamlet itself, a narrative play hideously distorted by the weight of cultural reference that both company and audience bring to the show. A weight that means that a speech about suicide is greeted with warm familiarity and the report that two minor characters have been unjustly executed is always accompanied by knowing sniggers. All actors performing Hamlet are bound by the past, here, those chains are made visible, not disguised by gimicry or cod naturalism, but centre stage for all to see.

Within this context, the moments that work most effectively are Shakespeare's own irony-laden comments on theatre. The mousetrap becomes a fascinatingly anarchic experience in which the number of levels of performance taking place are dizzyingly impossible to pin down. Hamlet's famous solilquys are also imbued with a new sense of despair and absence in the production, as the actor jinks and stammers to an alien rhythm, while the ethereal half presence of Richard Burton (part actor, part Hamlet, part ghost) appears and disappears behind him, his famous voice echoing certain lines or even words. In addition the haunting presence of the ghost audience (laughing still from beyond the grave, or at least the end of the show) represent an uncomfortable reminder of the all to brief and transitory nature of all that takes place both inside and outside of the theatre.

And yet, is this clever meta-Hamlet enough to sustain the full length of the show? For all their quick footwork (both metaphorically and literally) the company never tackle the play head on, never attempt to subdue it or dismember it, leaving it respectfully intact. Indeed, by the end it appears that the undoubted power of Shakespeare's text has in fact subdued the company, as, stagefighting and all, the audience is treated to an almost traditional, almost, dare we say, naturalistic, finale.

And then of course, there is still a third Hamlet to consider, Richard Burton's 1964 broadway version. In its time considered revolutionary Broadway material not only for its simple set and its insistence on rehearsal room clothes instead of costumes, but also because in its filming and screening across the country it looked to give theatre to the masses, to democratize the medium by bringing Broadway to Des Moines and Jacksonville. In comparison (and indeed, in comparison with the company's own earlier work) The Wooster Group's knowing dance around the play comes off badly - an all too clever metatheatrical treat for those select few who can make it to the Pompidou centre in Paris.

Nov 2, 2006

Work Theatre Collective at the B.A.C

Last night I nipped on my bicycle and braved the autumn evening (now it would seem, testing its bite again after a long, lazy, slack-jawed summer) to go see Project E: An Explosion at the Battersea Arts Centre.

The show is the latest in a series of alphabeticalised spectaculars by the Work Theatre collective and for this particular piece they had an obscenely tasty £30-something grand from the Samuel Beckett memorial trust (nice to see the great man's name used by someone other than the estate that is so intent on condemning him to the status of a museum curio in the 'faithfullness' they impose on any new production - a batshit crazy notion - how much would still remain unknown about Shakespeare or Johnson if they had only ever been performed unedited, by an all male-company on a thrust stage?)

The show took the explosion as metaphor, image, and cultural artifact in our time - plucking from the either men (and it was just men) from Baudrillard to Alfred Hitchcock to sit alongside their fictional creations. This was when the show was at its most interesting - when Hitchcock's discussion on the nature of suspense nestled snuggly within a very Hitchockian suspense thriller that left us guessing when and where the bangs were going to come. And at its best the charming sunday evening BBC drama narrative was carried along on a heady stew of interesting ideas bubbling beneath it - the explosion as a tool for decentering subjectivity, and (most prominently) the explosion as an image, whether in film, propaganda or as 'a work of art'.

When these ideas didn't complement the central narrative so well it could feel a little like a reasonably acted C-rate thriller with excerpts postmodernism insterted like ad breaks to raise the brow a little higher. But generally it was a thoughtful piece and for that you are willing to forgive it its failings. So go see it.