Mar 30, 2007

Easter Special

Following on from this, I like hope that the Passion was completed by a marshmallow Judas, a fudge St Peter and a Mary Magdalene made entirely out of chewed up fruit pastels.

With typical restraint the Catholic league call it "one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever". Worse than say, the idea of celebrating the death and resurection of Jesus with a giant chocolate egg delivered by a magic rabbit.

Mar 25, 2007

lazy old me.

I've been at home this weekend in Cambridge recovering from the ravages of a collaborative project that leaves me virtually praying for death after every rehearsal. Its been a little like 18 people trying to row a cruise liner through quickly drying cement without first deciding where it is any of them is actually planning on going - a floating calamity not helped by our mentor/benevolent-pseudo-director rearranging the deck chairs every 2 minutes seemingly for his own amusement. If all of this makes little sense its only because talking about said project in anything other than elusively metaphorical terms makes me sick a little bit in my mouth.

Anyway, as part of the above project I began thinking a little about animation or reanimation in cinema and thought I'd share my ideas - mainly because I'm too exhausted/lazy/full of homemade crumble to write anything new. Appologies if its all a little dry and dusty but there's a picture in there to jazz things up at the 3/4 mark...

‘What happens when the still photograph begins to move?’

In answer to his own question Sean Cubitt quotes Maxin Gorky’s response to seeing the Lumiere brother’s Cinematoscope in 1896.
When the lights go out in the room in which Lumiere’s invention is shown, there suddenly appears a large grey picture, “A Street in Paris” – shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into immobility. All this in grey, and the sky above is also grey – you anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture springs to life.

Cubitt also notes that this response echoes that of La Poste’s review on the morning after the first projection:
Imagine a screen, placed at the end of a room as large as one can wish. This screen is visible to a crowd. On the screen appears a photographic projection. So far, nothing new. But suddenly, the image, lifesize or reduced, is animated and springs to life.
From the beginning then the animation of the cinema is about bringing things (back) to life. If the photograph is an image of death, of inevitable decay (‘What passes away and what survives that passing’ as Eduardo Cadava would have it), then the cinema seems, at first at least, to astonish with its powers of resurrection – taking that dead image and imbuing it with life.

And this is the important thing. That something in cinema seems to have sprung to life. Cinema gives life to images of the past, reanimating them for the present. If Proust was In Search of Lost Time, it is in cinema that that lost time is to be found. As Andrei Tarkovski states:
I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience – and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer.
We live in a world governed by the clock. Cinema and Greenwich Mean Time developed and spread alongside each other, almost hand in hand; hourly time signals were first broadcast from Greenwich in 1924, the year that Louis B. Mayer’s acquisition of Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures created the world’s most powerful film studio. Under the incessant ticking of the clock time moves ceaselessly, ineluctably forward. ‘Nothing permanent gives things any kind of anchor against time.’

In a world of such inevitable, global passage, cinema seemed to offer some possibility of regaining time swept away. In the darkened room of cinema the ticking clock is replaced by the heartbeat of the whirring cinemascope and the audience is lost in the flickering pictures that bring the past back to life, or take you to another world entirely. For a few moments, or a few hours, the incessant movement of time outside of the auditorium is replaced by a rhythm of the director’s own choosing – he is, in Tarkovsky’s phrase, ‘a sculptor in time’.

Cinema is at once an animation and a pause. Its very movement appears to be a suspension of the normal rules of time – a few ‘artificially arrested scenes’ ripped from life’s inevitable passage. When we leave the movie theatre, we must also leave the film, and its temporality that our thoughts had so intimately embraced, to rediscover our own time and our own life. For an instant, we remain suspended between two times.

No director is more aware of this quality in cinema than Ingmar Bergman. He has stated that he made The Seventh Seal to conquer his fear of death. I would argue that all his films are in fact an attempt to conquer death itself, artificially arresting time. In Cries and Whispers clocks tick incessantly – a haunting reminder of rhythm we have come to the cinema to escape. Quickly however, the film constructs its own rhythm, drifting back and forth through time – ending at the beginning with the dead resurrected.

In Persona similarly, Bergman begins with a sound, as the film projector whirs into life – the traditional harbinger of cinema’s arresting animation. And yet, Persona does something else. It reveals cinema’s resurrection for what it is. An image. As the film camera whirrs we can see the pictures as they flicker through it one by one. Bergman’s montage deconstructs cinema’s slight of hand. The cartoon girl who seems set to come to life shudders to a halt again. Film is reduced to images – the spider, the slaughtered sheep, and, most crucially, the crucifixion – and as Sylvianne Agacinksi states ‘the image really is different in nature from the lived experience, even the visual experience, and cannot restore it’.

Despite the illusion of life that so astonished Gorky and the rest of Paris, this is all cinema is – not resurrection at all, but those same old images of death. For me the most striking image in Bergman's montage is the final one. A boy presses his hand up against the blurred image of woman projected behind him.

No matter how close we want to be, no matter how much we long for cinema to bring us life, it is merely an image. We are utterly distanced from it. Bergman uses the same image later, inserted into the narrative of the film. Breaking our relation to the striking female faces that are so famously writ large across the screen – reminding us that any life that cinema seems to offer us, any escape from time, is an illusion.

The film is already complete, it already has an end and thus it already belongs to the past. It is peopled by untouchable phantoms.
Our universe is peopled with faces of the dead as well as the living, to the point that we might wonder whether our descendants will not one day be tempted by a new iconoclasm to escape the armies of phantoms that we will have left them.

Mar 21, 2007

Anthony Neilson

Interesting piece from Anthony Neilson on the Guardian Theatre blog, on quite how boring theatre can be. I totally agree - so much of the theatre that I hear about bores the pants off me just reading the synopsis.

Much of Neilson's piece mirrors what I have been saying recently about the stultifying affect on the theatre of writers with literary pretentions (or as Neilson would have it - who allow ego to spill into their work) who imagine that theatre should be nothing more than a platform for their work. Often these days it is only those much denigrated west end musicals that are produced in full knowledge of the power of theatre as live performance and as spectacle, as Neilson says:
Much as the synopsis of We Will Rock You sounds abysmal, it's pulling in more punters a night than some "serious" shows attract in a week. There's a dangerously dismissive response to this uncomfortable truth among many of my fellow practitioners, but it's not hard to figure out why this might be. Musical theatre offers song and dance, of course; a certain unpretentiousness; a tangible sense of "liveness"; magic; and, most importantly, spectacle.

It is time the "serious" theatre learns this lesson. We have to give the audiences what they can't get anywhere else. Debate they can get in a newspaper. Reality - well, they can get that on TV. We can offer them "liveness", but few plays, or productions, take advantage of this. Too many screenplays masquerading as plays and an over-reliance on mixed media have imbued the theatre with a heaviness it's not best suited to. Some may argue that technology is the key to spectacle, but most theatres can't compete with the West End technologically. The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I've heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment. There is nothing more magical and nothing - nothing - less boring.

Mar 19, 2007

Attempts on Her Life (part the third (and last...))

This is, I utterly, utterly promise, the last time for a while that I will return Attempts on Her Life though I do so now not as an observer but as an observer of the observers.

Encore, in their typically bold and heartfelt piece, suggest that the production serves to underline tensions and divisions latent in our little theatre universe. Katie Mitchell and her company (like black clad Gavrillo Princips wielding cameras rather than hand grenades) have struck a blow for metaphysics, poetry and continental philosophy at (oh! horror of all horrors!) that bastion of the establishment the Royal National Theatre, and as a consequence all hell has broken loose. Quentin Letts, no doubt wearing nothing but a tattered military vest and a pair of Union Jack Y-fronts, has come out with all guns blazing, a Rambo-esque one-man-army, defending all that is decent and utterly moribund in theatre, ably supported by Michael Billington, swatting at metaphors that fizz over his head with his well worn copy of Look Back in Anger. As Encore put it;
when veiled threats are made to Nick Hytner over the production, when the level of abuse gets heated and personal, when the comments reveal not merely dislike but hatred, you know that you’re in the middle of a battle for the soul of our theatre.
And, fantastical critic imagery aside, I would tend to agree with encore's previously outlined (and consciously polarising) metaphysical vs. litteralist stance.

However, I am equally interested in how Attempts on Her Life reflects (or effects) another equally fascinating (and by no means unrelated) battle front that as been brewing in previous weeks in response to Edward Albee's well-publicised broadside at directors and companies for daring to imagine they should have some creative investment in the production of his plays. The arguments have been made most ably by George Hunka and Chris Goode, with the latter creating the useful distinction between playwriting and writing for theatre.

For me, the former suggests a narrow and innately limited (yet utterly prevalent) convention by which a text (often the result of one man tapping a keyboard furiously on his own in an attic somewhere) precedes and dictates the performance that is assumed, by Letts and those that moan of pretension and embellishment, to be nothing more than the act of politely realising the written text.

The latter however (writing for theatre) suggests a looser, broader definition. Writing could mean the creation of any kind of blueprint for a vaguely reproducible performance, whether this be writing lines on to a piece of paper or writing movements on the body.

Secondly, writing for theatre reasserts the primacy of the theatrical event in the act of writing theatre. During our audience with him, mentioned briefly by myself earlier, Bill Gaskill talked briefly about the functioning of the writer's group at the royal court in the 50s/60s. The most interesting point that he made was that everything that the writer's group did (whether it be Brecht, Stanislavsky or improvised mask work) was based on the writer’s actually getting up and performing. Hence they were always aware of the centrality of the medium (theatre) to whatever (or however) it was they were writing.

And here is the important point. This lauding of writing for theatre over playwriting does not seek to lock the doors of the theatre to the playwright. It merely re-emphasises that the writer is writing for performance, rather than the performance serving as a platform for the politics or posing of the writer.

In this context the criticism of Mitchell's involvement in Attempts on Her Life, ably defended by Encore, are very interesting. Crimp is clearly writing for theatre. As encore suggest, his text, like the texts of Sarah Kane, is innately incomplete. Its ambiguity, its elusiveness (or in the case of Kane's cleansed, its impossibility) demand collaboration with directors, performers, designers. Plays such as Crimps are only complete when their creativity is accompanied, supplemented and realised by the creative weight of the full apparatus of theatre.

David Eldridge (whose daring and hugely enjoyable Marketboy undoubtedly represents an engagement with the medium of performance, an instance of a talented writer writing for theatre) commented that, for him, in Attempts on Her Life it is 'the actor who is celebrated'. I would undoubtedly agree. Crimp's text is written for them, for performance in general and thus represents theatre at its most collaborative, its most immediate and its most powerful. It celebrates the medium rather than denigrating it, as Albee, Letts and others do when they assume that it should be nothing more than a capable manifestation of the written word.

Mar 18, 2007

Attempts on Her Life (part II)

David Eldridge had some wonderfully kind things to say about my notes on Attempts on Her Life.

In his post I can feel the same excitement that myself and my friend Polly had as we came tumbling out of the National - the sense that we had just seen something joyously, bravely new and utterly necessary. The end of David's post is worth quoting in full because there's little else that I could add to it.
The conservatives will mewl and puke as they once did at 'Waiting for Godot' and turn away from the NT in droves. But their places in £10 seats will be filled a hundred times over by the young professionals that laugh at the inanities of modern TV advertising, that fly to the cities of Eastern Europe for stag and hen weekends and pay to fire Ak-47's on former Warsaw Pact army bases, nodding to MP3 players to the strains of Franz Ferdinand's 'The Dark of the Matinee' on budget airlines as they pass the time with 'Hello' and 'GQ' and the rest.

And this generation will revel as their decadence is both celebrated and skewered in equal measure. They will marvel as they spill out on to the South Bank that they've seen at last a piece of theatre that neither lectures nor patronises but simply has the measure of them and is able to treat them with both the wit and contempt they know they deserve.

The word is out. This production of 'Attempts on her Life' is a major event in our theatre.
I'll be going again as soon as I get the chance...

Mar 15, 2007

Update on me

Crushing news the other day that because of the price of bringing some spiffy Russian company over to perform we will not be making the cut for The Arches April festival. Probably only fair really as one 10 minute scratch does not a succesful theatre company make and we now have (in theory at least) a few more months to get the piece (now tentatively titled Your Ex-Lover is Dead) a good as it can be for September when we shall hit Glasgow like a introspective, faintly whimsical brick to the the face.

Problem at the moment is that what 2 months ago was an achingly important subject for myself and Debbie (my collaborateur (I like to think I've just made this word up - someone dash my vocabularial hopes and tell me otherwise) on the project) - that is, the false hopes and crushing truth of making real your longed-for reunion with a rose-tinted ex-partner - has faded like the cover of a book you once thought it was utterly impressive to have planted on your bedside table but now look at with a kind tepid embarassment. This distance will now doubt lead to a piece that is slightly less endearingly earnest but possibly a little bit (c)older and a little bit wiser, though (fingers crossed) without losing what made it so warm-heartedly appealing in the first place.

Rest assured once the next month is out the way and I have buried the agonising piece about Bergman/Fassbinder that I am academically obliged to be a part of we can begin in earnest.

In other news - a couple of shows that I am desperately looking forward to in our nation's glorious capital. First Dublin By Lamplight at the Riverside Studios - saw this show in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, a magical and sumptuously beautiful journey through one night in Dublin. Secondly, Grand Finale which I honestly know very little about but that sounds tantalising. Plus, having moved to London but a few months previously I have yet to explore the much-talked about Shunt Caves. Will it live up to the hype? Will it be no different from the various stoney, underground places I used to trawl people around in Edinburgh that assume that damp and darkness equates to atmosphere? Stay tuned to find out, folks....

Mar 12, 2007

Attempts on Her Life at the National

With the body of Jean Baudrillard still relatively warm, it is fitting that Katie Mitchell has managed, to such a large extent, to craft her stupendously, courageously ambitious version of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life in the great man's image.

And image is the important word. From the moment that the safety curtain crunches open to reveal a set-less Lyttleton stage littered with recording equipment it is clear that the production will rely heavily on the moving image, a feeling that is confirmed by the dauntingly huge screen that drops into place after the first scene; what is not immediately apparent however, is quite what a fascinating deconstruction of the medium the show will become.

With staggering precision Mitchell presents Crimps disjointed scenes and their ambiguous heroine using cinematic jump cuts, 360 pans, cross fades and split screens, documentary interviews, live press conferences, dubbed foreign language advertisements, television panel shows and rock and pop music videos - all of which are realised beautifully live on stage and then projected onto the giant screen above the seamless ensemble who scuttle across the cluttered stage, hauling lights, cameras and instruments with a grace and naturalness that is breathtaking.

On an aesthetic level what they create is wonderful. The images that rear up on the screen are almost universally breathtaking. Delicate compositions, perfect digital altering and editing and some simply superb acting that manages to be at once theatrical and cinematic and never less than utterly convincing.

And yet without intelligence and intent all this magnicent(ly complicated) visual experimentation would be showy but meaningless. What Mitchell's dense storm of genres and mediums lay bare is the artificial, superficial and essentially constructed nature of the film and television as a means of representation. Crimp's elusive narratives allow Mitchell to deconstruct the apparatus through which truths are told to us.

Baudrillard is most remembered (in the US at least) for once bodly asserting that the Gulf War did not take place, in part because it consisted almost entirely of images that stand in for (and hence, necessarily replace) reality. He described the war as:

a masquerade of information: branded faces delivered over to the prostitution of the image, the image of an unintelligible distress.

Such a description is a fitting summation of the production and it could be similarly argued that in Mitchell's hands Crimp's play does not take place. It is always displaced, dislocated and rendered entirely artificial. And yet such a treatment feels entirely appropriate to Crimp's haunting, ambiguous text. For what is at the heart of Crimp's play - underneath all the representations and simulations? Precisely nothing. A woman who is 'an absence' and a large red bag that is only full of stones. Crimp, like Baudrillard, believes only in the surface, the object.

Mitchell seems to grasp that Crimp's text is so seductive precisely because it is constantly evading meaning, reason and depth. The protagonist is an empty red dress that drops into view as if from the gallows. Occasionally it is worn by one of the ensemble but it is always apparent that it is the hollow dress that is the character with actor inside it. In one magnificent scene Mitchell harnesses Crimps voices into a televised Newsnight Review style panel (replete with stand-in Tom Paulins and Germaine Greers who bought guffaws of laughter from certain sections of the audience) who critique scenes from an experimental film that are created on the other side of the stage without pastiche or parody. Both the panel and the film are projected onto the giant screen without bias. The piece becomes at once the film and its opposite, the criticism of the film, and both are demonstrated to be equally constructed. In another scene of similar evasive beauty, what begins as an English press conference with a Spanish translation is slowly transformed to the point where the English press conference is a translation of the Spanish. Opposites colide and are demonstrated to be the same.

It all only feels real.

The play and the ensemble become trapped in this procession of images, in this apparatus of representation. They are at once the apparatus and the subject. Indeed it is significant that all the actors are recognizable from film and television; from the start their faces already feel incorporated into the all-consuming multi-media simulacrum that we are fed every day as news, documentary, information and entertainment. By the end their language (and the viewer) is so exhausted that we have ceased to imagine there is meaning in their superficial play; and as they sink into the stage still talking it is quite conceievable that they could continue to do so indefinitely.

As has already most likely become apparent, for those (and there are many) who find Baudrillard unbearable, this piece will likely be equally so, for all the same reasons. It is ironic, evasive, glib and contradictory, and it doesn't have an interval. People continued to walk out throughout the two hours it ran for and the old man sitting beside us tutted and wrung his hands until I thought he might chew one off and throw it at the actors.

I however loved almost every moment. It was a wonderful, challenging and effortlessly entertaining exploration of the loss of self in an era that is ever more dominated by the moving image. It is also the kind of bold, theatrical experiment that, technically and financially, could only happen at the National, so hats off to Mitchell and Hytner for putting together such a memorable show. With this and Faust Hytner's serious faith in some wonderful young artists has resulted in undoubtedly my two favourite shows of the last twelve months. Go see it. Now.

Mar 9, 2007

Generations at the Young Vic

The problem with showing death in the theatre is that, put simply, its unshowable. Even dying, no matter how gruesome, is always ultimately unconvincing. The reason for this is that the living, breathing actor on stage, no matter how still he lies or how long he can hold his breath for, remains a presence, and death is always an absence.

Debbie Tucker Green's Generations is, in its brief 30 minutes, about the most simple and effective representation of absence imaginable, and hence rarely have I seen the spectre of death so hauntingly and powerfully shown in a theatre.

The audience is ushered from the packed bar at the Young Vic, all dim lights, trendy surfaces, trendier music and the lingering smell of overpriced food, into a brightly lit African Kitchen, surrounded on all sides by sand on which are scattered crates and plastic stools that the audience is guided to by a melee of characters, singing and dancing beating out an irresistable rhythm on the coloured walls. The vibrancy of this opening image, that had the audience beaming contentedly and clapping along, is carried over into the first scene in which the characters fluster round the kitchen, bickering, laughing and interupting one another. All this energy only serves to heighten the effect when the scene is cut short abruptly by the singers, still stood around the edge of the space, whose song ushers the youngest daughter out before exactly the same scene is begun again without her.

Suddenly there are pauses where there weren't before; her exclamations and bickering are painfully missed. Her absence tears a whole in the scene, where before there where ripples of laughter, suddenly the same lines are tempered with sadness and received in silence.

The same pattern is then continued with characters disapearing until only the grandparents are left in a kitchen (and a scene) that is now achingly empty.

One of the reasons the play works so effectively is because it is so beautifully, delicately constructed. Each of the almost verbatim repetitions are able to work as a scenes in their own right. The lines and characters that are missed each time sting the audience so hard because, despite the clever theatrical games, the action never fails to be utterly natural and utterly convincing.

And this is what truly blew me away. While I sit around like a rather self-important goon, worrying whether to try and create theatre that is political or naturalistic or experimental or entertaining (as if these elements are almost mutually exclusive), in 30 minutes Green creates a piece that beautifully and powerfully encompasses all four. At once a reminder of the extent and impact of the AIDS crisis in Africa, an intruiging experiment in theatrical form, a portrait of family life and an ingenious way of representating the unrepresentable - making absence so utterly present in the theatre - Generations is a thrilling way to spend half an hour.

Anyone reading this should most definitely head to the young vic website and get themselves a reduced-price online ticket. Oh, and by the by, much thanks to Ben - for to turning me on to it in the first place.

Mar 4, 2007


Finishing the day on a high with the utterly fabulous Kombat Opera Presents - a series of half hour opera's on BB2 in which the Jerry Springer: The Opera team get stuck in to various other TV programmes - this week Wife Swap. From the Radio Times:
A down-home Alabama wife, Adey Winchester, swaps her double-wide trailer abode for a life of domestic bliss with Roy Gay, a Philadelphian interior designer. Meanwhile, his partner Darryl Gay runs the gauntlet of bible-belt homophobia during his swap in the Mid-West.

And the highlight? The responses of the trailor trash after Daryl has converted them into the ultimate cosmopolitant family:
I'm painting a picture of a Kumquat
In the pointllism style of Seurat

Bill Gaskill and New Writing

We were fortunate enough to have an audience with the mighty Bill Gaskill last week. I'm informed that age has mellowed what was once a venomously stinging tongue so alas not too much looking back in anger (boom boom - I'm here all week etc. etc.) although there was a rather scathing reference to new Royal Court Artistic Director Dominic Cooke's shift towards an investigation of the 'privaledge and power' of those you were once more likely to see in the audience than on the stage.

Fascinatingly, what he did tell us a little about was the muscle and sinew of what went on at the Court in those rose tinted revolutionary days of yore. Apparently Arden, Wesker, Bond, Kool and the gang would meet weekly under George Devine's enigmatic direction (a man who Gaskill still talks about with the enamoured twinkle in his eye of a true acolyte), where they would be up on their feet, exploring all manner of theatrical styles and theories. More of a drama-school short course than a writer's group, one week Devine would have them trying out Stanislavskian theory or Brechtian techniques (or, as Gaskill had it, 'what we thought were Brechtian techniques'), and the next they would be improvising with masks. The fundamental point being that although ostensibly a group of young writers, in Devine's workshops they were always all about practise - about getting up and actually doing something.

For me this method goes a way to explaining the kind of exciting theatre the Court at its peak inspired. Devine gave these young writers a forum in which they could explore form as much as content and performance as much as writing. And perhaps this is the problem with the locust plague of young writer's groups that seem to be multiplying ad infinitum across the country - that although they purport to be creating writers for theatre, their focus is too much on the writing and not enough on the theatre, leading to a drama that all too often is rather lacking in invention.

After all, apparently the biggest keener of them all at these weekly meetings was a wide-eyed unknown called Edward Bond, who just happened to go on to write a series of the most challenging, exciting plays of the 1960s.

And on that subject, I must be honest and say that there was something truly reassuring in knowing that one of the biggest and most well respected names in theatre was once-upon-a-time one of us desperately earnest, desperately annoying types who never-miss-a-class.

In other news, Rory Bremner still isn't funny.