Dec 29, 2007

Future Perfect.

As 2007 lies waxily on its death bed, coughing quietly and trying not to make a fuss, I thought it might be interesting to look to the year ahead - what excitements might it hold? What glorious adventures await? Who will I end up needlessly and foolishly offending in 2008? Let's gaze into the tea leaves briefly, shall we...

The London International Mime Festival opens. No one notices.

Following news that the Old Vic’s star studded Speed-the-Plow is not selling well enough, Kevin Spacey jumps to rescue in the only way he knows how. A poorly proofed Old Vic press release lands on in our inboxes proudly announcing that Hollywood sweetheart Denise Richards has become Assistant Stage Manager on the production, while the role of Audience Member Who Has Left His Mobile Phone On will be played by Jonny Lee Miller, with Dakota Fanning putting in a cameo has his embarrassed daughter. No news yet on who will be taking the part of Artistic Director.

Jersey Boys opens. The Bergerac Fan Club leave at the interval, crushingly disappointed.

Struggling for anything else to write, the critics decide to begin a new debate about theatre blogging by suggesting that in an environment where ‘everyone’s a critic’ our theatre culture loses its rigour. Meanwhile in an attempt to devote more space to adverts, newspaper critics are asked if it would be possible to reduce the length of their reviews slightly, replacing the tradition 300 words with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Still with nothing to write about, the critics are getting desperate – regularly calling Nick Hytner begging him to say something incendiary. Finally Martin Crimp’s The City opens at the Royal Court, directed by Katie Mitchell. Critics dine out on condescension for the rest of the month.

Black Watch finally lands in London, to a collective critical orgasm from the first stringers. Billington, Spencer and De Jongh trip over each other to claim that the production demonstrates the perfect alliance between formal experiment and the political content, conclusively (I said conclusively) proving that the Future of Theatre™ is much the same as the Present of Theatre, with a bit more dancing.

Nothing happens in July. Literally nothing.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival arrives to a maelstrom of complaints on the Guardian website from irritated people in London bored of hearing people talk about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. These whingers are quickly repelled by a second wave of commenters highlighting how obsessed people are with London the rest of the year. However, in a haunting echo of the Spanish Civil War, this second group quickly becomes riven by infighting over the issue of whether Edinburgh gives more attention to theatre in the regions or is a distraction from it. Following an article by Lyn Gardner claiming that this was a return to form for the festival the debate grows so large that, unable to retain coherency or structure, it collapses, leaking irately polite comments across the Guardian Website.

Slung Low’s Helium, winner of the Samuel Beckett Trust Award 2008, opens at the Barbican. Despite being a wonderful production, the makers quickly realise that the awfulness of previous winners has opened up a critical vacuum in the Pit Theatre, sucking in positive adjectives and review stars, rendering the show tragically luke warm.

Michael Grandage announces his new season at the Donmar, which will include a half week long run for a production of A View from the Bridge, starring Prince William and the body of John Gielgud. Tickets sell out so fast they actually rupture time, throwing some ticket buyers back in time several years to the moment at which the Donmar last did something interesting.

Guardian critic Michael Billington becomes so obsessed by his dislike of sensory titillation he makes the surprising demand that he hears, smells and sees nothing at the theatre. If only, he asserts, there was some way of imbibing political drama as a purely abstract concept, without the lights and the sounds and the theatre to distract us from the serious business of theatre.

Michael Billington is bought a book for Christmas. He retires happy.

Have a Happy New Year

(Thought let's get a few things straight about New Year. It's a horrible celebration. As a consequence of the fact that everyone is required to celebrate at precisely the same time, it has somehow become this grotesque fun-off, in which bands of anxious revellers are pitted against each other in some kind of joy-sucking battle to identify the coolest people. Why is it that this party, more than any other is required to represent us - who our friends are, what we like doing, how much fun we are capable of having. I simply can't have fun under all this pressure. Anyway, enough of that or Woody Allen will be round demanding royalties.)

Dec 26, 2007

Andy's Christmas Presents #1:

Michael Billington's State of the Nation

(Nothing makes Christmas like a father with a wry sense of humour.)

Dec 14, 2007

National Student Drama Festival Crisis

When I was younger I never went to the theatre. We were more of the Clint Eastwood Thriller on a Sunday night kind of a family. Not that I'm scorning this - there's nothing I love more than a gratuitous overdose of CSI of an evening... there's something comforting about naked exposition, the feeling of pure undiluted plot coursing through your veins.

When I started at University I knew almost nothing. I would sit for an unsociable number of hours in the Drama section of James Thin attempting to read plays and invariably failing to find anything that could hold me for longer than a handful of pages. I must've read the first page of almost every canonical drama text there is. I am the undisputed Michael Billington of openings. Yet I felt no closer to knowing anything. I had all of this unchannelled enthusiasm and nowhere to put it.

And then, as a wide eyed first year who looked closer to 14 than 18, I was lucky enough to get cast in a play called Like Skinnydipping by a guy called Chris Perkin. And with this play, we went to the National Student Drama Festival. And undoubtedly, nothing (no play, no performance, no person, no opportunity) has had more of an effect on me than that festival.

Simply being surrounded by this bubbling, intoxicating enthusiasm was incredible. Surrounded by people desperate to learn, desperate to prove themselves. Young people in love with theatre. How exciting is that?

Not all of the shows were great. In fact some were awful. But others were still some of the most memorable shows I've seen. I remember a company called Deer Park from Dartington who did a beautiful, haunting piece with nothing but several potted plants a handful of school uniforms - a melodic, lyrical mesmerising show. We left the theatre and could barely speak for the next half an hour. I remember a show called the Freudian Slip (by a company that have now become Pegabovine) - still one of the wittiest, most surreal and brilliant comic shows I've ever seen. I remember a production of Enda Walsh's Bedbound, that was evisceratingly painful to watch, in the best possible way. I remember seeing all these things and being staggered, astounded by what theatre could be.

But the festival is so much more than its programming. There was a workshop in which Richard Hurst manage to somehow make me humiliatingly aware that I am utterly incapable of working with actors. There was a magazine, written daily by a pale faced, underslept battalion of inspired writers. A totally open forum in which anyone could drop in and write something, which has spawned some of the best young writers around.

And then I remember being introduced to Mark Ravenhill in the bar, to vomitting questions on this playwright who I'd heard of but who's work I had never seen. Asking him how he got to know plays, what should I read, what should I do? I remember talking to him for almost an hour. Him recommending to me Howard Barker, who's play Victory was the first major show I directed and who's inspiring writings I devoured throughout the rest of university and ended up writing my dissertation on.

I remember the spirit of the place. I remember how perfect a location Scarborough was. It's own intimate melting pot, a quiet seaside town suddenly infused with faintly drunken excitement.

And I know that the place has had the same effect on dozens of other people. And that thousands of the people creating work today do so as a direct consequence of having a chance to partake in this joyous week-long experience on the Yorkshire coast.

And now Yorkshire Arts Council have withdrawn its funding, choosing to focus on regional producing houses and companies. And I cannot stress how bad a decision I think this is. In an industry where people are constantly talking about the need to get young people involved, to interest young people, to make theatre relevent and exciting. Nowhere does this better than NSDF, nowhere is as challenging and exciting and enlightening for the next generation of theatre makers. And there are few better services for Scarborough than the bevvy of theatre makers, and school groups and press that descend on the town for a week in the Spring.

So please do sign the petition set up to help protest this decision, which must be done before 15th January.

Dec 13, 2007

2007 (Part the Second)

Intimacy. It’s an oft-used word. It’s an oft mis-used word. People talk about intimate gigs and intimate theatres. But in those contexts what they essentially mean is small.

I feel that genuine intimacy is something more complicated. Yes, it is about closeness. But closeness both in its literal sense and in a messier one; it’s about desire, honesty and reciprocity. There were undoubtedly two shows at Edinburgh this year that had these qualities in spades and, in the midst of the festival’s increasingly unbearable whirligig of hype and tat and superficial spectacle, utterly stopped me in my tracks.

Rotozaza’s Etiquette is sweetly mesmerising little show, perfectly combining high-concept happening-inspired participation with a charmingly simple story borrowed from Jean Luc Godard. Two people sit opposite each other at a café table scattered with props. Through instructions relayed to them via headphones they begin to talk to each other; a conversation, a story and a discrete private universe follow.

Whether it would pass Chris’ cat-test is debatable and technology-wise the show is dictated almost entirely by a pre-recorded score. And yet in the stumbling intimacy of the words that you and your partner speak, the show is remade every time, entirely singular, unpredictable, meaningful and resolutely intimate. Its joy lies in the fragile relationship conjured between two friends. Gazing into the eyes of your partner you are at once staring at a friend and a character; locations shimmer in and out of being. And buried somewhere in lines you feed each other, and the actions you carry out, there is a wonderful, liberating honesty.

The same could absolutely be said of Melanie Wilson’s Simple Girl, a similarly fragile and self-consciously fictional little show, full of gentle sadness and fading romance. Dressed in a long black coat and looking like something that had slipped unnoticed out of a cold war spy thriller, Mel told a series of increasingly meandering stories into an old radio microphone, gazing longingly out at the audience in front of her. Her conversations with the them in between these stories had exactly the kind of stumbling intimacy of Etiquette, drawing us into her melancholy little world.

Together these shows (along with Chris’ own Hippo World Guest Book) absolutely made my festival. All three had a subtle, unspectacular beauty to them. They may not have been important, they may not have happened in big rooms and (indeed) none of them were particularly financially successful (or at least that’s what I’ve heard from the people who made them). And yet, lost as they have been in the Edinburgh scrum, they nonetheless sparkled with humour, warmth and ideas. And though none could be called explicitly political, to me they all seemed to throb with a sadness; a loss of hope in people’s ability to communicate with each other and to love each other. But rather than just saying this, they all seemed in their own ways to be doing something really meaningful about it.

And with that it’s back down to London. Although, after a year and a half I still feel like I’m searching for a purchase on where things actual happen down here. Beyond the usual suspects (National, Young Vic, BAC etc) I’m somewhat lost. Unsurprisingly then the two shows that really stood out for me were both at major theatres.

Again, it won’t surprise people to know that one of them was Attempts on Her Life. Before we even get to Katie Mitchell, it’s absolutely worth saying that Martin Crimp’s text is an example of the best, most tantalising, most theatrical writing for theatre that you can imagine; a spectral, poetic, complex bundle of character-less lines of dialogue, longing to be realised in some specific, local way.

It’s little wonder then Crimp and Mitchell seem to enjoy each other so much. This year they have had numerous collaborations at the National and the Young Vic (on a translation of a short Brecht play) and next year they are off to the court for Crimp’s new play The City. Unperturbed by the catcalls of critics demanding she honour a text by rendering it tepid and utterly bland, untainted by direction, Mitchell resolutely re-interprets a text for her, unencumbered by any claim to universality or definiteness (certainly you could never accuse her of creating the definitive version of anything).

Though far from perfect, Attempts was brave, it was ambitious, it was thoughtful, it was thrilling. More than any other show I have seen it demonstrated the potential for video technology in theatre. Not as some kind of dynamic backdrop but as a way of conjuring two competing worlds. Losing oneself in the fractured unreality of both, it became impossible to say which was a simulacrum of the other. The swirling figures in red dresses seemed hopeless, lost ghosts in a world so permeated and dictated by cinema, television and digital spectacle that it had written itself out of existence.

If the Edinburgh shows underlined the importance of an intimate, personal, local engagement, of people coming together in a room and looking at each and talking to each other (telling stories together), then Attempts undoubtedly spoke of the hopeless alternative.

Undoubtedly these three or four shows stood out for me. They were the first that sprung into mind when I began thinking about this list. The last took a little longer. I’d almost completely forgotten it, and yet, in its own way it was every bit as wonderful as the previous shows.

It’s not entirely my fault, Debbie Tucker Green’s Generations at Young Vic was only 40 minutes long. It was a seemingly simple piece of writing, presented fairly realistically in the round; a bustling extended family cooking in an African kitchen while a chorus of singers stood with the audience crammed around the edges. And yet, as I think I said at the time, I have rarely seen a show that resonated with so much loss.

As a simple six or seven minute kitchen was repeated each time with a new member of the family missing, until the same once-crowded joyful scene was played out with only two mourning grandparents left, lines took on new sadness, spoke of new absences. It was a simple, hauntingly effective technique beautifully executed; you could feel the silences in the air. And again it was a show that in its intricate form, without mention of wars or famines or AIDS epidemics, said something profoundly political. Debbie Tucker Green, like Crimp, is undoubtedly a writer for theatre, with breathtaking love for and understanding of her medium.

And that’s it really. I also enjoyed Australian company Back to Back’s Small Metal Objects, Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy and puppeteers Blind Summit’s loving homage to Charles Bukowski, Low Life. I wish I’d seen Uninvited Guest’s It is Like it Ought to be, Chris Goode’s Speed Death of the Radiant Child and Third Angel's Presumption but try as I might I was utterly useless at doing so.

Music-wise Jens Lekman, Andrew Bird and the National all released beautiful melancholy albums, full of lovely turns of phrase, sweet, simple melodies and some gorgeously lush arrangements. LCD Soundsystem were once again effortlessly catchy and clever, and Of Montreal, Animal Collective and Battles created amazing albums; bouncy, dense, infectious and utterly awesome.

And undoubtedly my favourite film of the year was David Fincher’s Zodiac; a grand, rambling saga following a series of gruesome murders in San Francisco. Masquerading as a simple detective thriller it slowly teased itself into a psychological study of obsession, it’s unstructured, sprawling style mimicking the futile attempts to ensnare the killer.

And in the New Year I’m mainly looking forward to the chance to actually stop boring people endlessly with the shows that I’m going to do and actually get up and do them. Hopefully we have a couple of things lined up in various corners of the South Coast and maybe one in London as well. We’ll see. It’s all very exciting and undoubtedly you lovely people will be the first to know when anything’s confirmed.

Happy Christmas.

God in Ruins


As I took my seat in the characterless and sanitised Soho Theatre auditorium, I was in the strange position of knowing more about the process that went into making this show than the show itself. Tales of nineteen painful weeks of devising with a cast of male RSC actors who happened to find themselves between Shakespeares had been aired extensively in preview pieces. Anthony Neilson, the writer/director, seemed faintly ambivalent and the some of the cast openly frustrated. Distracted by this intriguing collision between a vast traditional institution and the messy, unpredictable methods of Neilson, I’d rather managed to forget that there was an actual show at the heart of it all. And so it was a rather nice surprise to be able to sit down without a clue what was to follow.

What did follow was, in the end, as frustrating as it was enjoyable. A grotesque, deliciously sordid, incoherent montage of metropolitan Christmas clichés slung loosely over the season’s most inevitable narrative, that of the fallen man and his redemption.

The opening sets the scene perfectly. In front of an incongruously chic modern apartment set, littered with expensive spirits and knowing pop culture artefacts, a familiar Dickensian Bob Cratchit character sits working at a wooden desk. Scrooge enters bubbling over with the kind of relentlessly annoying Christmas spirit normally reserved for local news reporters and Americans. It is three years on from A Christmas Carol and Cratchit is absolutely sick of his redeemed master; painfully aware that a damascene conversion is for life, not just for Christmas. The scene works beautifully, a one note gag dragged out into painful realism; a comic skit tortured into tragedy. It’s a hugely funny dissection of the superficial myths and aphorisms that fuel our intoxicating relationship with this anachronistic celebration.

Following this prologue we are launched into the main story, of a typical anguished London TV producer, drunk, miserable, estranged from his wife and the daughter he has let down. There is never any doubt that he is our modern day Scrooge, a man so pathetic he didn’t even manage to do anything particularly bad; just usher some barrel-scraping reality TV into the world and post naked photos of his wife on the internet. Over the course of an hour or so he takes the road most travelled towards a Christmas redemption and the inevitable meeting with his daughter.

So far so utterly predictable, but what makes Neilson’s show watchable, even enjoyable (and at points absolutely hilarious) is the chaotic, meandering, seedy journey to this inevitable conclusion. The show, and the Christmassy London it conjures, is beguilingly charmless. A sickly cocktail of addiction groups, festive pizzas, shamelessly low-concept television shows, drink, drugs, internet sex, and the most truculent ghost of a dead father since Hamlet with a mouth like a fucking sewer. In possibly the show’s best scene the stage is slowly flooded by festival dressed men signing carols and chugging obscene amounts of various drugs, as the space becomes a whirling, raucous melee of coke, pills, booze and songs the scene is suddenly interrupted by a figure in white carrying a baby Jesus. All the actors begin to gather like carol singers at the front of the stage before the baby’s head is ripped off to reveal a stash of pills and the orgy of drug taking and out of tune singing continues.

With seedy, effortless élan Neilson tears tradition and convention to pieces, revelling in a nihilistic excess that reminds us how shallow and meaningless have become the affectations of spirituality and good will that Christmas is supposed to be about. Neilson is clever. His gags are frequently brilliant. He has a turn of phrase that is as poetic as it is stinging and cruel. It feels appropriate that the RSC should be putting on his show because at his best, his relentless wordplay is as witty and as rude as any of the crowd pleasing dick jokes that Shakespeare used to churn out.

And if anything this show was further proof that Neilson is at his best when he is writer/director – giving him the freedom to mercilessly disrupt the form of the show in the same way that he chews to pieces the narrative. It’s just a shame that what could have been this show’s most meaningful and powerful moment, as the auditorium is invaded by a homeless man, was almost entirely deflated by the fact that the actor had already been seen on stage. Nevertheless his presence was brutal, uncomfortable and intimidating; a soldier and a beggar, the two characters we’d rather not think about when we’re trying to be festive.

And yet I never felt like there was enough beyond all these tricks and turns of phrase, through the sludge of nastiness and excess. The structure on which it all lay felt trite and mechanical. I never felt convinced that Neilson gave a shit about our stereotypically guilt-ridden TV producer or his inevitable redemption when it finally came. Unlike Wonderful World of Dissocia, Neilson’s last show, there was nothing haunting or honest or meaningful beating at the heart of all this chaos. I stepped out into the cold streets of Soho with the ending almost entirely forgotten, left only with the slurry of shameful, seedy excesses that had proceeded it. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need a shot of sourness at this time of year, to counter the sugary sentimentality that coats everything like a thick layer of snow.

Dec 11, 2007

2007 (Part The First)

Well, that's it then. We've scrambled another year onwards, almost all accounted for.

As much as I agree with Andrew that it's been a year stuffed with an exhilarating, exhausting series of conversations, arguments and, well, some actual theatre, I can't help feeling that the suggestion that we've solved everything and have run out of things to talk about is somewhat premature.

There's surely plenty of thinking and talking needed to be done, for example, on the relationship between the mainstream and the, umm, not-mainstream (upstream, alternative, experimental... pay your money and take your choice). Only today Brian Logan has an interesting article up at the Guardian about another fractured attempt at amalgamating alternatives modes of practise into the turgid British theatrical tradition. And I'm sure that anyone reading this is already aware of Chris Goode's fascinating ramble on the means by which the adherents of that same tradition are already peeling the skin off experimental theatre and draping themselves in it like a grotesque theatrical version of Silence of the Lambs (an idea that, surprisingly, no one at Tristan Baker has come up with... yet).

Indeed, just today in his round-up of the theatrical year Michael Billington reiterated his spurious claim that the only thing experiemental theatre was missing was a decent playwright. Chris has already aptly demonstrated the ways in which this assertion misses the fundamentals of alternative theatrical forms, taking its aesthetic to be its essence. Fixated on the hip location or the dazzling technology you miss the unpredictability, the intimacy, the risk, the authentic sense of participation that is what absolutely constitutes exciting experimental theatre. When Billington cites Complicite's clinical and uninspiring A Disappearing Number as a sign of the proper way that mainstream theatre can diversify, you know that there's a long way to go.

Yet although we (or indeed Chris) may have thoroughly dissected this problematic appropriation, surely this conversation is only half-done. Where do we go from here? How do we forge a more meaningful relationship between mainstream and the 'upstream'? How can the Royal Court or the National or the RSC accomodate ways of working that are incompatible with their complex technical apparatus and their play-making philosophy?

Indeed, should they? There's a piece I still mean to write about a localness that is missing from a theatre world that is still built around events; can any theatre that is as singularly located claim to be a National Theatre? Rather than worrying about the quality of this particular show or that, should we not instead be building a localised theatre, a dispersed series of events and happenings, that does not pretend to the universal but is instead focused on its immediate context and its individual participants?

And while we're on it, let's talk a little about the internet's favourite pinata, Mr Michael Billington. Surely a lot of the frustration vented at this generous and passionate elder statesmen is a product of the fact that somewhat stupefyingly he is still in the forefront of forging the theatrical agenda after 30 years in the same job. His attitude to what theatre can or should be, relatively unchanged after everything that has happened to the world (the internet, the end of the cold war, the rise of postmodernism, 9/11, the continued existence of Simon Cowell) in the intervening years, is still the orthodoxy in theatre. And as we're well aware, he's not the only one. So while our tiny internet pot may be bubbling over with exciting new ideas, its hardly like we're forging a brave new world quite yet.

One of the things I have enjoyed so much about writing for the Guardian is that it has required me to go back and repeatedly explain, justify and underline those points of presumed knowledge that are essentially givens in our online discourse. Because for all that our little community forges an exciting collective theatrical vision (primarily by enthusiastically agreeing with each other), it's not necessarily having that much impact on the wider theatre community yet. I know from personal experience that some artists are beginning to be informed by the subjects thrown about on the internet, but what of the Dominic Cookes and the Nick Hytners - are they avid readers?

What is the relationship between theatre and criticism anyway - there's a chicken and an egg really should throw together for a while. Especially as one thing the internet riotously does is blur the boundaries between the two - how many of those who so passionately write about what they feel theatre should be are at the same time creating (either writing or directing or, very often, both) their own work? The majority, I'd say.

The Guardian website is a fascinating entity in all this. There's now a wee bevvy of wonderfully talented people writing there and already it's surely beginning to challenge the orthodoxy suggested above - if only in that for every painfully inevitable Billington tirade, Lyn G is able to provide a refreshing counter narrative to absolutely cheer.

How though might we take this further? And if, as Andrew suggests, we are already running out of topics for your typical several hundred word blog post how might we begin to forge a more dynamic dialogue in the infinite spaces of the internet? If the internet is the future of theatre criticism, we who are here in the early days have an opportunity to try and construct that criticism as something meaningful and radical and new - but what and how?

I've enjoyed immensly reading everything that has been written over the past 12 months. I've been exhilerated, challenged, confused. I've felt jealous, awed and faintly inadequate in equal measure. And I'm undoubtedly looking forward to what happens in the 2008.

Coming up in part II later this week I'll try and write a little about some of the actual theatre that I've seen and enjoyed this year along with music/films and other such cultural bric-a-brac.

Dec 5, 2007


... and on the subject of things over there at the Guardian, I have a new post up about the (mis)use of the word Pretentious, and Andrew Haydon has a lovely bit about theatre in school.

On the subject of which. I went to my first ever show at the age of 17, when our sixth form drama teacher took us down to London to see Deborah Warner's Medea with Fiona Shaw. Which was, frankly, staggering. That same English teacher also had us studying The Duchess of Malfi, Bond's Lear and (unrelatedly) the wonderful 100 Years of Solitude. Needless to says eyes were opened, career goals hastily rewritten, parent's hopes dashed etc etc.

And the moral of this story? I don't know - English teachers should like better theatre? Maybe there's some kind of training programme they can go on - I can hear the fresh gurgles of a newborn government job on the horizon Mr Haydon...

A Poor Man's Art

I feel that Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian's esteemed film critic (whose review of Sleuth was one of the most glorious, passionate pieces of critical bile you will read this year), may have just unleashed an avalanche of vitriol on himself. At present the comment count stands at one but with that trademark sub-ed subtlety the headline is likely to cause a bit of a stir.

The Donmar's Othello Should be a Movie.

Now, Bradshaw had my hackles up almost immediately with this statement:
I'm sure the production is great, but the coverage has caused my old, bad feelings of rage and loathing for the theatre to surface once again, like a recurrence of malaria. More than the grandest event at the grandest opera house in Europe, it seems to me, the Donmar production effectively announces: this is a pastime for rich people.
However, the more I actually think about it, the more I have a great deal of sympathy with his position. It was something I felt myself while watching The Wooster Group's Hamlet in Paris earlier this year.

The Wooster Group being, well, the Wooster Group, rather than their version of Hamlet being based on the reasonably well known W. Shakespeare text, they set out with the intent of remaking a stage version from the 1960s featuring Richard Burton as everyones favourite angst-ridden 3o year old. And this is where my problems with the piece began.

Burton's Hamlet was a staggeringly ambitious show for its time and its location. Not only was the show performed on a minimal set with rehearsal room costumes, but the entire thing was filmed by 19 cameras and edited together into a cinematic experience sent out to cinemas across the country, being screened only once before all copies were to be destroyed (though invariably at least one survived). The idea was that the residents of Des Moines and Jacksonville would have a unique experience, once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this show, just like in the theatre.

What an ambitous, hopelessly misguided but gloriously honourable mission. To bring Broadway to the masses. To appropriate the immediacy, the liveness of theatre in the cinema. A nationwide experiment in poking at the permeable membrane dividing theatre from film. A chance to send East Coast high culture flooding out across the barren plains of 60s America. Its everything that was once magnificently, naively, bombastically optomistic about the US of A.

And here we were, 4o years and too many wars later, sitting in a room in Paris, watching the country's most acclaimed theatre company perform for an exclusive audience of well-educated, English speaking French people and well-connected people like us able to make it as far as Paris. Teasing out an elegantly strangled Hamlet that, in some ways, attempted to reclaim this performance from the masses. Although beautiful, and provacative, there was something uncomfortable about this Hamlet, and something uncomfortable about its audience.

It should also be apparent by now that I am unlikely to add my voice to those who will hold up some spurious magical quality in live theatre that means it is implicitly untranslatable to any other medium. Liveness has to be fought for and hard earned. In a theatre that increasingly relies upon effects and microphones there is often little to separate it from a cinematic experience than than the superficial thrill of attending The Theatre. That having been said this Othello does appear to be a production that retains at least traces of a authentically live experience. Michael Billington (what, not taken in vain? Is the world still turning?) comments on the unfussy, musicality of the verse - something I think is important in good Shakespeare; that in the auditorium, as with all good poetry, you are feeling the words as much as you understanding them.

And I do like Bradshaw's idea that the theatre could have open performances, like Wimbledon. Perhaps the atmosphere at such events would have a similarly reviving effect as those days always do at the aforementioned tennis tournament; a vast improvement on the smugly contented hum that otherwise prevails.

However, I think that in some ways Bradshaw fundamentally misses the point of theatre, understandably considering his job seeing it as some kind of antiquated live cinema.

Theatre is not a 'product' for consumption in the same way that cinema is. Theatre is an experience, a participatory event. A theatre ticket is a contract, not a receipt. To this end theatre is as much about the making as it is about the watching. And in that respect it's a fundamentally more socially levelling experience than cinema will ever be. As I said recently, theatre can happen in a power cut. It can happen in an empty room. It can happen on a street. It can be made by anyone and watched by anyone. Cinema can not. Notwithstanding the jaw-breakingly exhuberant costs involved in the meaningless, purile, decadent nonsense spewed out by Hollywood (and I mean everyone from Wes Anderson to Paul Anderson), on the simplest level to be able to make a film you need to be able to afford a camera. And to then actually have that film then seen by anyone you need a lot more than that.

Cinema and television may reach more people but its not just about the reaching. It's what you do with that audience.

Theatre is about intimacy not spectacle. It is exclusive, eclectic, obscure and, well, special. Theatre can be an experience for two people. Hell, it can be an experience for one. It's not about everyone getting 'the same experience', as Bradshaw says, in fact it's quite the opposite.

Spectacle washes through us, it overlooks us, it shouts at us. It tells us.

Intimacy invites us, it looks at us, it listens to us. It asks us.

And intimacy isn't necessarily about small numbers. You can have an intimate crowd, indeed the company Grid Iron often refer to their work as intimate spectacle. Intimacy is about an attitude. It is about collective understanding of the particular group of people in this particular place (the audience, the actors, whoever) being part of something unique, something, well, intimate. You can have intimacy in an auditorium. You can be without it in a room with one person (I certainly have been during some so called one-on-one experience that felt more like soulless conveyor belt titillation than any sense of genuine intimacy).

But of course, if theatre doesn't do these things, if it is merely an exclusive spectacle, what does that mean? Unlike there earlier work, there was nothing intimate or engaging about The Wooster Group's hollow spectacle. Their knowing simulacrum of both liveness and film was clever, but it was also empty.

This I think is where Bradshaw's rage justifiably arrives. Because here the frisson of excitement you feel, that magic quality people talk so often about, is not to do with theatre its to do with exclusivity. It's that same box ticking satisfaction that people have at the Mona Lisa. And it is at these moments that theatre feels anachronistic and outdated; the poor man's hand-made art absurdly dressed up in suffocating velvet.

Dec 4, 2007

Sunday Sun

The inestimable Daniel Bryne (The Guardian's own Keyser Soze) has drawn my attention to this delightful way of wasting my time.

1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer

1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
Spec Bebop – Yo La Tengo
Turns out I'm actually Robin Williams' Mork

2. What would best describe your personality?
Seventeen – Forward Russia
Seventeen was, as I believe someone else once said, a very good year, I'd like to think I'd moved on just a tad in the intervening *mumble* years...

3. What do you like in a girl?
It's the Sun - Polyphonic Spree
Someone radiant? Someone gaseous?

4. How do you feel today?
Teenage Labotomy - The Ramones
No comment.

5. What is your life’s purpose?
Evil Bee - Menomena

6. What is your motto?
Cello Song - Nick Drake
A little unecessarily ambiguous methinks...

7. What do your friends think of you?
A Cautionary Song - The Decemberists
"I knew this one guy... went into theatre... last someone heard of him he was scavenging for out of date readymeals behind a Tesco in Tooting Broadway"

8. What do you think of your parents?
The Water - Feist
I have nothing for this.

9. What do you think about very often?
From Here to Fame - Aim
Ha. Nary a truer word said in meme.

10. What does 2+2=?
Easier - Grizzly Bear
Oh yes.

11. What do you think of your best friend?
Remember Me as a Time of Day - Explosions in the Sky
If he were a time of day, he'd probably be about seven thirty. Don't look for meaning in that.

12. What do you think of the person you like?
The Beatles - Devendra Banhart
Baby you can drive my car? Anyone? Bueller?

13. What is your life story?
A Night at the Hip Hopera - The Kleptones

14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Domine Jesu - Mozart

15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
On Your Way - The Album Leaf
Whose on their way? Her or me?

16. What do your parents think of you?
Fireworks - The Animal Collective
Disapointing and expensive.

17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
Fight! - Art Brut
It's going to be a good one...

18. What will they play at your funeral?
Sweet and Dandy - Toots and the Maytals
Now that would be a funeral.

19. What is your hobby/interest?
Shankill Butchers - The Decemberists
That's right, when I'm not writing for the Guardian or working for a popular London theatre, I torture and murder catholics to take the edge off.

20. What is your biggest secret?
Another Day - Air
Well aren't I just a tease...

21. What do you think of your friends?
In My Life - The Beatles
Ah. Well that's just lovely.

22. What should you post this as?
Sunday Sun - Beck

Dec 2, 2007


And the award for this week's least surprising piece of news goes to the closure of Desperately Seeking an Audience after one horrifying month. Who knew a mediocre Madonna film with the music of Blondie superficially grafted on top of it would be an abysmal failure? Oh wait, everybody.

Perhaps the staggering failure of this abortion of a musical will finally put an end to the West End's desperate pop-cultural barrel-scraping, pillaging music, film and television to equally shameless degrees in a hopeless scramble for audiences; dressing themselves with borrowed success and secondhand glamour. Filling our stages with trumped up tribute concerts and meaningless nostalgia-fests that are only a few thousand pounds and a stage manager away from sing-along-a-Sound of Music.

Probably not, though.

That having been said I'm by no means getting on the 'we're all doomed, captain' death-of-the-West-End bandwagon. In fact, there are some very creditable things going on. Look at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Edward Bond's fascinating play The Sea will be arriving at the end of January, a far braver, more exciting piece of programming than most of the Donmar's showy star-orgy at the Wyndhams. If either of those ventures is deemed enough of a success maybe there's even the giddy possibility of producers flocking to the theatre bookshop rather than HMV for their next big idea.

Like Hollywood in the early 70s
, we could be on the verge of something very exciting.

Of course there is a downside to all of this. I think that the failure of Desperately Seeking some Dignity will probably mean a very early demise for the new genre of pop music/film crossover musicals. Which is a crying shame. There's mileage there... I was looking forward to Saving Private Ryan the stage show, featuring the music of Status Quo.

Nov 29, 2007

Let Sleeping Playwrights Lie.

How much do we owe to dead playwrights?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

We cannot seek to revive them. We cannot divine their intentions, their thoughts, their hopes and dreams. We cannot know if they wrote their plays to communicate a very definite and personal message, or whether it was knocked together in a fit of desperation to pay the bills.

By all means honour them but do not revere them. And do not, under any circumstances, try to do them justice. In attempting to do them justice you do the very opposite.

Shakespeare was an innovator, a wild card, an 'upstart crow', a populist who honoured his audience by challenging them. If we pickle his plays in some spurious half-preserved form, like a decaying limb festering in formaldehyde, we do nothing but desecrate the excitement, the danger and the unpredictability that they once represented.

'What matter who's speaking?' Someone once famously said. Ironic then that that person's estate should be the worst perpetrators when it comes to the necrophiliac pursuit of some ghostly, bastardized figure of the author haunting every ensuing production. Did Beckett become the writer he became by obeying convention? How would he feel about the innovators, the exciting young artists, being denied access to his work under the spurious grounds of maintaining some museum authenticity. These hangers on, these preservers, these authenticators - they come to bury Beckett, not to praise him.

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

So said Walter Benjamin. Any play by a dead writer does not belong to them. It belongs to us. It is a ruin, an image of the past existing in the present. You can preserve it as a ruin but that is what it will remain - useless, anachronistic, tired, empty. Or you can accept it as belong to a new time, as being remade - 'seized up at a moment of danger'.

That is what Katie Mitchell is doing. Seizing a dead text at at a moment of crisis. Remaking it for the present. This is the only way that dead texts can be anything other than museum pieces.

Michael Billington may wish theatre to be a dead art, pickling old ghosts for the gentile pleasure of the comfortable and the safe. But anyone who cares about theatre, or indeed the world, should applaud Mitchell's attempts to make it completely relevant and completely vital.

Nov 28, 2007

Women of Troy at the National

The Canadian author Douglas Coupland used to be obsessed with the idea of Armageddon arriving while you were in the supermarket, this most mundane and modern of rituals abruptly interrupted by nuclear apocalypse; finding ourselves eviscerated in the tinned foods aisle, while shelves of baked beans and Kraft Dinner melted around us. This was the image that came to mind as I reached the end of Katie Mitchell’s dark, jarring, magnificent production of Women of Troy; these hauntingly mundane rituals stripped of all importance in a world where life is always more fragile and meaningless than we appreciate.

Euripides' play is, unsurprisingly, about the women of Troy, led by the royal family of Hecuba, her daughter Cassandra and her son’s wife Andromache, in the fallout from their defeat in the Trojan wars. In this production they find themselves in an anonymous coastal warehouse, their glamorous evening dresses hanging awkwardly from their hunched, anxious frames. There’s something decidedly feral about them; about the way they scatter across the stage at a noise from outside, about the way they hold the seam of their dresses in their mouth to climb the steel ladders on either side of the stage. Their Greek captors are seen fleetingly, rushing in and out in an uncomfortably repetitive frenzy of locking and unlocking doors; a beautiful and well-maintained conceit that begins to wear the audience down with sense captivity as much as it does the pack of startled, scared women huddled on the cavernous Lyttleton stage.

Trapped in this uncomfortable prison, awaiting their removal to whichever of the Greek leaders has won their slavery, the women in Mitchell’s production survive on a messy orgy of half destroyed rituals. Fire rituals, mourning rituals and burial rituals rub up against more familiar rituals; the women are constantly ferreting in their glittering purses for make-up or a cigarette, their shaking hands going through the motions of reassuringly familiar actions.

And then there is the dancing - a strange, mesmerising quick step; sometimes at full speed sometimes in slow motion, sometimes with partners, sometimes alone. Often the characters who have already left, even their Greek captors, rush back onstage to take part in the dance; at one beautiful, absurd moment, Helen, naked but for a pair of heels, dances across the stage in the arms of Menelaus, the husband she left to begin the conflict and who has just assured us of the inevitability of her execution.

In this dance, which takes the position of some kind of bizarre mourning ritual carried out every time a woman is torn from the throng and forced off stage, all these absurd, meaningless rituals come together. Ancient Greece melts into Mitchell’s modern setting, religious mourning bleeds into the glamour and decadence of secular society; it’s a disorderly, beautiful, haunting, meaningless ritual, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This production must surely put paid to Brecht’s ideas about the reassuringly cathartic quality of Greek drama. Euripides’ play is undoubtedly that of an outsider, bristling with fury at the oppressive brutality nestling at the heart of Grecian history and society. The play slips under the skin of the Homer’s mythic history and tears it apart from the inside out. Status, religion, war and history are rendered meaningless in an apocalyptic vision of suffering.

Mitchell’s play flits awkwardly between messy realism, song, dance, and choral proclamation; jarring the audience from any sense of continuity. It’s alienating in a very Brechtian sense, Hecuba’s assertions about the emptiness of God and Power flying from the stage like soap box aphorisms, spat out into the audience. Indeed, Hecuba is just cruel and aloof enough to render any hope of comfortable sympathy null and void.

This is not about the suffering of these women, it is undoubtedly about the meaningless suffering of anyone in the face of god, history, power, and empire. In this sense it is resonantly political; not in a patronisingly limited way that might have the women running around in orange jumpsuits, but in a way that opens up the whole of human history to criticism. And in the final few bombastically apocalyptical moments, as the sirens and the helicopters whirr behind the black safety curtain, you cannot but realise the desolate pointlessness of the endless war and suffering on which our comfortable lives are built. And hidden in there somewhere is the additional nagging feeling that someday it will be our turn to suffer.

Nov 20, 2007

You've got to Need it.

I heard an interesting thing the other day.

A friend of mine who works in the tantalisingly mysterious world of alternate reality games (ARGs) was describing the nuts and bolts of how exactly they are put together. These events are beautifully logical fictitious stories involving scenarios, puzzles, false businesses and fake characters all played out across real locations, phone, video, letters and, of course, the wide open spaces of the internet. For my friend however the most interesting, the most exciting and the most enjoyable elements were always those moments of live performance (of theatre) that occurred as part of the game. He also noted that these elements weren't just thrilling in the context of the game but, indeed, were simply thrilling moments of theatre, more so than most of what goes on onstage and suggested that this might be a consequence of the fact that these people came to theatre (or, indeed, live performance) only when it most suited what they had, or needed to say.

And this is what interests me, this need for theatre, as the absolute only way in which we can do what it is we want to do.

Looking back a little, the same might be said of the group of Artists in the US and Europe in the 60s who were involved in the development of what became known as happenings. Beginning with art that simply transcended the pictoral (art that wasn't of something), they moved first towards art that was either in some ways a document of performance (Pollock wading through his canvases brush in hand) or incorporated real world objects (Rauschenberg and his assemblages) towards installations and then finally into live performance, through a desire or a need to explore to its fullest the 'give and take between art and the physical world'.

In performance they found the possibility for an art that could properly embrace chance and unpredictability and in doing so refer to (and be a part of) the real world. And it is apparent simply looking around at a lot of the most interesting work that is happening today (from the sweaty huddled archetypes of Particularly in the Heartland and their relationship with ClaesOldenburg's Ray Gun Theatre, to the programmed performances of Rotozaza or, even Chris Goode's Homemade and their relationship to John Cage and Allan Kaprow's work) that this moment in art history has had a radical and thrilling impact on theatre.

The point being (and there is one but its late so you'll forgive me if its hazy), that some of the time the most interesting people making theatre arrive at live performance from somewhere else entirely. And the reason for this I believe is that these people, a lot of the time, are chasing something that those in theatre absolutely take for granted. That immediacy, that unpredictability, that hand-made, visceral, unrepeatable, interactive quality that is theatre at its essence. Theatre that, in Tim Etchell's words, is an 'invitation to be here and be now, to feel exactly what it is to be in this and this time.'

When these people therefore arrive at theatre frequently (though not all the time) it is these qualities that their work absolutely revels in, joyously embracing those qualities of liveness that previously weren't open to them - that heart-jammed-in-your-throat excitement of being caught up in an event, of being a part of it. That visceral quality of being close enough to someone to see their flaws, to smell them, to see them fuck something up, to know that they are present in front of you - that you can talk back and they will hear, and can respond.

Without coming to theatre looking for these qualities it is too easy to assume theatre as your default mode of engagement - without asking yourself why that is. How many people on young writer's courses up and down the country ask themselves why they're writing a play rather than a book or a movie or a poem or a diary (other than that as they are indeed, on writer's programme it stands a much better chance of actually being seen by someone and produced than any of the others)? How often when a writer is sitting on her laptop is she thinking about the bodies that will be sharing the same air for a few hours at some point in the future?

Not that this is all about writers by any means. God knows how many directors get trigger happy when they've been giving a few pennies to spend and lavish it on microphones and video-players and complicated stage mechanics and possibly forget why it was they were making theatre not movies in the first place.

So long live those interlopers (the gamers, the artists, the craftsmen, the sportsmen) for reminding us what makes theatre such a damned desirable medium, fizzing with possibilities.

Nov 14, 2007

Guardian Blog

I've got a new post up at the Guardian's website, which, as Alison has identified, is a pretty exciting place at the moment.

This one's about the length of shows and builds, to some degree, on the things that Dan Bye and Alex F had to say about Sport back here. Personally, my dream is still to get hold of a remote island somewhere (possibly somewhere like the delightfully remote Colonsay off the coast of West Scotland) and for three months or so have a theatrical event of some kind taking place, part instalation, part interactive experience, part festival that people could arrive at and stay for as long as they like, becoming as much or as little a part of the experience as they wanted.

The whole thing would be based around the marvellously doomed attempts of various utopian thinkers to found their own perfect communities - at once both an incredibly long show about these gloriously hopeless, magnificently naive utopias and (in some small way) a little society of its own, growing its own rules out of the infinite possibilities of theatre. Well, that's the theory at any rate - though, Lord of the Flies II is always a possibility...

Nov 13, 2007

Small Metal Objects at Stratford East Station

It's been a little while since there's been anything approaching a review around here.

Maybe its a consequence of the 'near civil war' footing that I've been on for the last while, rattling around in the basement in a confederate bandanna, naming rifles after old girlfriends and whistling The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Happy Times.

I did, however, find the time to bustle my way across East London to Stratford station for Australian company Back to Back's Small Metal Objects, part of the fascinating Ozmosis season at the Barbican celebrating some of the exciting work from our antipodean friends that Alison waxes so magnificently lyrically about at Theatrenotes.

First thing to state is that this show is almost as fascinating before anyone has arrived as it is once the theatre nominally begins. Quick stepping into the grand airport-like terminal of Stratford station with my standard flustered overpunctuality, I gazed around confusedly at the sheer wall of windows, the commuters spilling through each other across the off-white floors, the un-moving silverlink trains jutting out into the centre of this showy modern edifice. I searched in vain for some sign of theatre - there must be a show round here somewhere... and then I saw it. Up on the balcony, a perfectly ridiculous, utterly conspicuous bank of bright red plastic seats, gazing down on nothing in particular.

It's a gloriously absurd piece of installation art in its own right, that I could quite happily imagine touring to various unexpected places. A frame around reality, a command to look, either at the magnificence of the world we daily overlook or the absurdity of the rituals and routines that make up our every day lives. It's fair to say traditionally I'm not a big fan of auditoriums, but this one I absolutely loved.

And then of course, the show begins. And it begins awfully well. The audience each puts on a set of headphones through which to hear the show, there are a few preliminary checks and then suddenly a shimmering few bars of echoing piano play, scoring beautifully the ebbs and flows of the people flocking through the station turnstiles beneath you. It's a wonderful moment - with a genuine, grand yet fragile magnificence to it that truly transcends theatre. Suddenly two Australian voices begin to interrupt this reverie, a plodding, naively profound conversation between a wise squeaky voice and a deeper, slower more ponderous one.

Where were these disembodied figures? The audience scanned the busy station, noting huddled figures in various corners, suddenly imbued with a sense of mystery and fascination - a life-size, living, breathing Where's Wally book. And then, amidst the confusion and the mess and the commuters flowing ceaslessly through it all, I picked out at the back of the station two stationary figures, no more than colourful, delicate smudges, taking in the whole view. It was the third startling moment in this show already, as the intimacy of the conversation suddenly slotted into the context of this overbearingly grand and busy station. There was something incredibly powerful in the image of these tiny figures, so distant and yet so close; so alien and unknown and yet so intimate and familiar - forcing us to hold in our heads at once our own local, personal world and the impossibly vast, overpopulated, bustling world that surrounds it.

Understandably after beginning with such force, the gentle, brittle story (if story is really the right word) that unfolds, while touching in a slight way, never regains these heights.

Having constructed such a fascinating form, I wanted them to explore it just a little more. There was one delightful moment as the characters moved closer and I suddenly realised that the voices that I had instinctively put to the actors' physiques were in fact reversed, but beyond that there was little surprise. And indeed, some of the ambiguity of the event was removed (as it was at GridIron's Roam) by the necessity for the actors to have their radio mics prominently taped to the side of their faces - leaving you in no doubt who was acting and, more frustratingly, who wasn't.

GridIron's Roam, performed around Edinburgh airport in 2006 (imagine the government allowing that to happen any more...) is indeed, an interesting show to bring up at this point. The company's director Ben Harrison recently left a comment on my article at the Guardian where he described the show as attempting to
interact with the world and connect intimately with the its theme, the emotions and politics of air travel. The two audiences, our paying audience which encircled the performers like a bubble, and the 'accidental' but omnipresent audience of air travellers using the airport, added to the layering of the piece and its social and political relevance.
And with Roam this was undoubtedly the case. Groups of travellers joined the formal audience, watching along with them, occasionally walking through the action, becoming (to a degree) performers in the show. The event felt fluid and open, generously inviting passers-by to engage with it, to follow the show and become a part of it.

The same could not be said about Small Metal Objects, although the headphones gave the show a powerful intimacy, they certainly excluded passers-by from anything other than a passive, unknowing involvement in the event. At one point one character asks commuters if their name is Gary, to the delighted snorts of the audience, while at the end as the actors clapped the commuters moving around them, with the same reaction. Both moments seemed to move alarmingly close to a smug elitism - a joke at the expense of the passers-by - like a candid camera show. Such a feeling was only compounded by the make-up of the audience and the cast (almost exclusively white) when compared to the rest of the station; like a little corner of the Barbican had been transported to the East End, to use it's station and its people like a dynamic, living cinematic Green Screen, without any attempt to include them in our spectacle.

And yet without this exclusivity there wouldn't be the anonymity for the actors that allows the show to reach moments of positively magical beauty; particularly the very last image - of two figures, lost in the crowds, standing on the balcony staring silently out across the station. It's an interesting conundrum raised by a fascinating show - I just would have liked to have seen them attempting to resolve it.

Nov 12, 2007

Louis Armstrong is a Big Fat Liar.

"We have all the time in the world" Louis Armstrong once famously sung on the soundtrack to the much-maligned post-Connery Bondathon On Her Majesty's Secret Service (So, George Lazenby isn't a good Bond, but you try following Sean Connery - you'll feel like Barry Island after a weekend at Disney World.) Armstrong was obviously a big fat liar. There is no time and so much to comment on.

First off there's Jay Rayner's scandalously rubbish article in the Observer this weekend. I mean what is it about Food Critics and knowing absolutely nothing about theatre, or indeed Britain.
We can argue long and hard about the political hue of New Labour's economics, but only those on the very fringes of the debate could deny that the establishment is now both liberal and left of centre. Even the Tories have been drawn towards the consensus, with an increasingly touchy-feely social policy which makes the old Conservative grandees look like bigots (which is what too many of them were). Yet where is the theatre that challenges that liberal consensus, which makes those of us who consider ourselves a part of it think a little? Where is the theatre of the right?
He opines, marvelling at his own contrariness - look at me, he seems to say, an outsider looking in at theatre and seeing what none of them can see.

It brought to mind, for me, Stephen Colbert's staggering brilliant (and almost Shakespearean in its tragedy - Lear's Fool, jigging and joking hopelessly while the lords carry on regardless) performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, in which he intoned "We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

That seems to be about the extent of Rayner's piercing inquiry into the state of theatre in this country. Bravely seeking an imbalance in reportage where none exists. Enslaved to the redundant notion of a binary politics that he understood when he was fresh out of University in the 80s. Everyone in theatre has certain liberal standards (namely tolerance, a dislike of racism/sexism/our Labour government lying to us), so this must be a conspiracy? People are no longer illiberal (bigoted, intolerant...) and this is a bad thing? While he's about it, drunk on his anachronistic, oppositional, red/blue notions of politics, how about he takes on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another product of this famed false liberal consensus. Where are those voices raised against that piece of boring, predictable consensus thought? You don't need an opposite to make people think. Often, as Crossfire in the US has undoubtedly proved, this is the very worst way of asking people to think.

And what is the one fig leaf he keeps raising to conceal the modesty of his flaccid argument? Where is the play saying that Multiculturalism is a bad thing? I'm sorry, what - you want a play that isn't racist, yet criticises the embrassing (or indeed, just the tolerance) of a myriad of cultural groups within British society? How would this work - sure, you could critic the way that multiculturalism possibly breeds a culture of oppositional, close-knit communities, that can frequently become hostile towards one another, but how is this an argument of the right? What else can he want - Enoch Powell: The Musical ("They're stealing our work/the Pole and the Turk/and the rivers of blood run deeper every day...")?

And as too many people to mention have already pointed out - there's a 'right wing politics' (individualist, conservative... even capitalist?) latent in the form of so many of the musicals that litter our stages that simply because there aren't angry young things demanding tighter controls on abortion and the sanctity of marriage from the stages of our studio theatres, that doesn't mean that theatre is shameless a red-wash going on under our snooty, liberal (spat out - like Fox news does) noses.

Anyway. I'm not the only one that feels like a whinge, Chris Goode has churned out this fascinating interrogation of Michael Billington's latest attempt to prove the old Nazi adage about a lie repeated often enough.
theatre, at the moment, is in an extraordinarily fluid state. But there has to be some way of combining the kind of interactive experience that young audiences crave with the emotional resonance of a writer's vision: otherwise, all you get is sensory titillation.
This is, it must be noted, is the third time that Billington has repeated this very same adage in print about the last month, all with particular reference to Punchdrunk (who Chris eruditely points out, he enjoys using as a stick to beat a particular mode of theatre of which they are entirely unrepresentative). Here he is in his review ofPunchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death:
I still see this kind of magical mystery tour as an alternative to, rather than a substitute for, conventional drama.
And here he is, popping up a week later in an article about his own book:
It's like being invited to a mad party but, while I found it fascinating, it strikes me as a pleasurable diversion from the main business of theatre, which is to grapple with social reality and change our perspective of the world.
Now, I've taken a couple of swipes at his dismissal of any theatre that isn't overtly political as lacking content, but Chris gets really stuck in to some far bigger and more difficult questions raised by Billington and Cooke's conversation. It's pointless quoting - you'll just have to go and read the whole thing through.

I've mentioned in the past the ways in which Site-Specific is a term simplified by the press for their own not-necessarily malicious (but not necessarily-not-malicious) ends.
The prefix site-specific allows people to maintain the notion that the resurgence of a myriad of theatrical forms that break with the conventions of the (predominantly Victorian) auditorium is merely another new-fangled and eminently bracketable subdivision of straight theatre. A gimmick that will no doubt pass, allowing them to get on with the important task of complaining about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the titanic.
But as Chris points out, what this mis-labelling also does, is obscure both artists and audiences from what would be constituted by a piece that was genuinely site-specific. A piece that was a specific product of the site (or environment) in which it was created; the conjuring of a theatrical ghost out of the landscape the artists have chosen to engage with.

Stripped of this imperative, we are instead presented with groups such as Punchdrunk being constantly heralded as the torch holders for site-specific theatre when their decidely un-specific work takes pre-existing classic texts or stories and constructs a world for them that bears little or no relation to environment chosen to house them. Indeed the company go out of their way to obscure anything real that shatters their immersive world. I reiterate, this is no bad thing. It just isn't site-specific. And while they are heralded, criticised and imitated in equal measure (while those fathers of site specific theatre like Mike Pearson struggle to get their staggeringly brilliant work published by any academic publisher) for a crime (or a genre) they didn't commit, no wonder the 'revolutionary potential' of the genre has rarely been fulfilled. As Chris states:
So no wonder Cooke can welcome -- and has welcomed -- with open-arms the notion of site-specificity; in the state in which it comes to him, there's absolutely no reason why site-specific work should disturb the status quo as regards the sacrosanct power of the single author.
Or, I would add, (coming back to my earlier post on site-specificity) the power of the Theatre Industry to churn out centralised, mass-marketable, long-running theatrical spectaculars that stagnate theatre within buildings and forms that are becoming increasingly out-dated.

But when haven't the superficial signifiers of 'upstream' work been appropriated for conservative, consumable mainstream forms? From Dada and Surrealism we are left with a bric-a-brac of fashionable outsider paraphenalia (old poscards, broken dolls, lace, vintage patterned fabric...) that adorns the covers of major-label indie albums and popular Hollywood films and seemed wearily nostalgic and meaningless to people like Allan Kaprow in the 60s. And yet the whole of the hip, trend-setting areas of East London are still in thrawl to this kind of dated, dirty-bourgeois aesthetic. While this detritus floated downstream, those people upstream (like Kaprow) started rebuilding and restructuring - Site-specific Art was born out of Minimalism. And Happenings were born out of site-specific Art and site-specific theatre... I think you can see where I'm going with this.

At present then we may feel like we are clutching at those hopeful fragments like site-specific theatre that are floating eagerly into the awaiting arms of Billington and Cooke, but possibly we're just between moments, desperately seeking an impetus (or a funding body) that will re-animate the upstream elements in theatre and render those forms that the mainstream is busy playing with (or, more accurately, playing with the box it came in), if not an irrelevance, then, at least, not as important as it still feels at the moment.

I also just want to flag up Chris' response to another oft-repeated untruth closely related to Billington's sensory titillation - that which states that 'devised theatre' is always flabby and self indulgent:
I agree that a lot of "devised" work is unsatisfactory, but actually it's most often unsatisfactory for exactly the same reasons that a piece of conventional literary theatre made with the same lack of analytical rigour would be unsatisfactory. There is a real problem with devising becoming a set of orthodoxies, as it now is; it's badly and vaguely taught, and groups who aren't aware of the different aesthetic and ideological parameters of devising as a practice will inevitably end up replicating the synthetic vanilla ghastliness of third-rate literary performance. It's not devising that's at fault there, it's badness.

Nov 9, 2007

King of the Court

Dominic Cooke's latest programme at the Royal Court is receiving a healthy dose of press attention at the moment, and justifiably so, as I think its about the most dynamic and exciting programme that the place has had in years and, regardless of how you might feel about the limited scope of the typewriter totalitarianism of traditional playwriting, one of the most mouth-wateringly ambitious programmes I've seen since I've been in London.

The most interesting thing about the programme is watching Cooke gracefully balancing the fulfillment of the expectations of the Court's traditional audience with elements that subtly challenge or even undermine those expectations. Or, put more simply, after throwing the State of the Nation brigade a juicy slab of David Hare, he has the them eating out of his hand.

And so with the old school pacified those with a more adventurous bent get a new Katie Mitchell/Martin Crimp collaboration and a new (and as-yet entirely un-started) piece by Anthony Neilson. Add to that an intruiging french-canadian play translated by Caryl Churchill and new work by Mike Bartlett and the astounding Debbie Tucker Green (whose Generations was about the best defence of the power and depth and subtlty of the short play (or indeed the playscript itself) you are likely to see) and what you have is a programme that is unashamedly pawing at the limits of traditional playwriting; experimenting with form, location and structure in myriad of fascinating ways.

And no element of the programme represents this better than the Rough Cuts season, a forum for theatrical experimentation that I feel, far from being a new feather in the Court's
much admired hat, harks back to those misty eyed golden years of the 50s and 60s in terms of the scope that it gives young artists to play not just with ways of writing theatre, but ways of making it. After all, as I have said before, when Edward Bond, Arnold Wesker and the like were hanging around the place like a bad smell in the post-Look Back in Anger days, they weren't sitting in conference rooms learning how to create characters or write pithy well-structured dialogues, they were up on their feet, playing with masks, reading Brecht, exploring theatre as a medium rather than merely as a platform for their own literary virtuosity.

And in that sense this programme is truly in the spirit of those much cooed-over years, throwing off the albatross that has hung around the theatre's neck for so long and genuinely living up to what Cooke calls 'tradition of innovation and experimentation which is at the heart of the Royal Court’s mission.'