May 31, 2007

A Little Story

O Muses, o high genius, aid me now!

Picture, for yourselves, a scene.

It is AD9, somewhere around Colchester. A weary, satisfied man stands over a hot fire, from its embers he picks a freshly minted coin and hands it to the intimidatingly large figure in the corner. The King gazes down with satisfaction at his image imprinted on a thin slice of metal - he is Cunobelinus, otherwise known as Cymbeline.

And suddenly the scene freezes, and the images blurs and we are off, galloping through history like a smug but anxious horse who dismounted her jockey at the first fence.

We lurch to a stop.

Here is a new scene. We are now in a city. The pungent smell of smoke and mud and human waste makes the air feel thick and threatening. Nearby a bear cries out in pain, dogs bark, people cheer. A man sits in a room, idly picking grime from under his fingers with his quill. (If you must he can look like Joseph Fiennes, though you're only spoiling it for yourselves...). He gazes out of the window, finishes a glass of a sinister looking dark red liquid and sighs with boozy desperation. Playwriting is hard. He looks at his almost-blank page. He quickly counts the words scrawled on his page for the 19th time that day and lets out another sigh.

His eye is drawn to the shelf above him, filled with musty collections of stories and plays. Suddenly it hits him. A Way Out. And this was it - the first recorded time in history that a great genius in a tight spot had got by with a little help from his friends and his back catalogue - though there was no phrase yet for the feeling of relief spiked with a hint of shame that he felt, later there would be, and it would be Greatest Hits Collection.

With a sudden fury he tore pages from the scattered parchments across his room. Boccaccio, Chaucer, Fairy Tales, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet... tattered fragments were spread out across his desk. Yes, he thought, Thank God. Put in a bit of politically-motivated stuff about conceding with dignity to a larger power... wham, bang, thank-you mam. But what to call it... The man stares down at his scraps and one name stares back at him. Cymbeline.

And our horse is on the moving again. Cantering into the present and clattering into the floor like Devon Loch.

We are in an auditorium. An Auditorium so terribly designed the theatre company occupying it seem to have decided to build a better one with scaffolding over the top. Around us sit old people and school groups, flicking through their programmes with disinterest.

The play appears to be coming to an end. From the looks of the faces of those around it us it looks like it has been a long and fairly uninspired evening. In the second half particularly it seems that precision has given way to cliche and the potential in the intriguing stylised staging of the first half has been drowned in a sea of poorly spoken verse, forgettable battle scenes and an unimaginative finale. The lighting seems nice though.

Finally it all comes to an end. A waste of time and talent and money on a show that barely deserves it. One person turns to us and says 'What an awful play... I hear he wrote some classics." That he did. As did many other writers, in his time and beyond. But their second-rate dross doesn't get put on by esteemed companies to full houses in big auditoriums in bigger cities. They haven't been bardified.

Not everything he did is worth doing without a bit of insipration. Come to think of it, not anything he did is worth doing without a bit of inspiration so these guys were backing a loser from the start.

The scene, and the audience, fade into the night. Our journey is over. Our horse has been put down. And we are left to wonder, as we so often are in the theatre - what really was the point of it all?

May 29, 2007

Alaska at the Royal Court

Alaska’s writer DC Moore is the latest shiny new talent to step off the much-esteemed Royal Court Young Writers production line, and it shows. His intriguing debut play is built on a series of sparkling dialogues that bristle with energy and wit, complemented by a subtly palpable sense of menace.

With these carefully polished bricks Moore constructs a slight but thought-provoking story of the murky racial politics of ordinary Britain, with the action largely taking place in the suitably mundane multiplex cinema in which most of his young characters work.

Fred Meller’s design effectively suggests this averager-than-average environment through fragments of miserable looking carpet and a stainless steel table that could have been pulled from any cinema or nightclub or student union in the country. Similarly Maria Aberg’s direction politely and effectively realises Moore’s interesting script, drawing a series of wonderful performances from her young cast. Particularly from Rafe Spall in the central part of Frank, a character whose zealous prejudices Moore uses to reach under the skin of his nondescript environment.

It is Spall’s explosive performance, all sullen, simple charm and concealed venom, that sets the audience on edge, forcing their attention onto the quiet inconsistencies and aching hypocrisies of our day-to-day attitudes to race and discrimination. Black face, absurd impressions and casual digs at gypos, spastics, women, black men and “pakis” all fly by at the same nonchalant pace. The audience is left constantly re-evaluating - is that offensive? Should it be? Moore also hints at, though never fully explores, further complications; whether class is used to explain or legitimise prejudice and whether sex can similarly influence our attitude to race.

Moore’s play is not about the sharp end of race problems in Britain; it is not about race riots or hate crimes. It’s set in St Albans. Yet it is in these softer, greyer places that the patchwork of prejudices that Moore’s play revels in can exist most comfortably. Yet Moore never falls back on lazy assumptions that these undercurrents lead inevitably to violence – his characters are deliberately almost all talk. The audience is left to decide for themselves what the connection is between what makes it to the news and these quiet scenes of mutual distrust and disdain.

Against such a muddled, messy Britain, the thought of Alaska, when it finally comes, seems a welcome escape to simplicity and purity (not of race, but of meaning and intention). But it is only a thought. The play remains firmly rooted in a more familiar and complicated landscape.

May 27, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: Part Three

After reaching as deeply as we could into our pockets to pay the £10 (concession price) for a ticket to the third part of The Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut at the Odeon Tottenham Court Road, my friends and I retreated to the Sainsburies down the road with our meagre change to stock up on enough provisions to last us through the three hours and twenty minutes (running time + trailers) we were about to spend sitting in the dark bowels of the cinema. After loading ourselves down with fruit and chocolates (Malteasers of course, a king amongst sweets) we took our seats in the auditorium and waited for the show to start.

And wait we did, wading through car adverts, phone adverts, (rather ironically) anti-piracy adverts, adverts for films, adverts for the cinema we were in, adverts for the phone company that sponsored the cinema we were in... at this point my friend glanced down at her watch to note we had already been in the cinema, eating and sitting for forty minutes. My raspberries were all gone. As were the Strawberries. The Malteasers were just being opened. Finally it looked like it might start, just a couple of flashy digital adverts for the company that made the film and the company that distributed the film and finally we were in.

Precise looking rags, carefully applied dirt, a restlessly moving camera roving up and down the orderly ranks of grimy extras, the music that was ceaselessly blaring behind the scene already slipping out of our notice. Yes, this was definitely the film we had come to see.

And for a while it was magnificent, glorious fun.

I gorged myself on malteasers, throwing two or three into my mouth with a crunch, melted chocolate glazing the front of my teeth. On the the screen the action was similarly sickly and satisfying. The colours were magnificent. The sets were enormous. The actors looked perfect. Not a single shot, not even a single frame was overlooked. Each one meticulously, expensively prepared. Each one dribbling with technological wizardry; every prop, every costume, every face, every wave, every inch of the screen thickly-sugar coated in Hollywood gloss.

And the action simply fizzed. There were pirate songs. Spectacular fight scenes. Lingering close-ups on flawless (and flawlessly disfigured) faces. Explosions. Pirate ships. Monkeys. More Explosions. More fighting. Clashing swords. Quippy dialogue. Jumps and jump cuts (the camera moving as fast as the actors). Shouts and gun fire and cannonfire. A magnificent musical crescendo. A daring escape. A wistfully perfect one-liner. An expansive, ocean-encompassing pan-back. A single ship disappearing towards a perfect horizon... and a fade to black.

And the audience breathed.

This was what made the first film such a success. Like the malteasers this was a product manufactured to perfection. Gloriously, deliriously, rich and satisfying. Twists and turns and breathless somersaults. This was not a theme-park ride turned into cinema. This was cinema turned into a theme park ride - as the film began to slow down you wanted to release the safety harness you imagined must be pulled down over you. But before you had the chance the ride began to speed up again, taking us round another time. And another.

And another.

I continued to funnel malteasers into my mouth. I couldn't stop myself, they were right there beside me. I kept going, popping one in after another, crunching some, sucking the chocolate off others. My teeth were feeling ever more coated thickly coated in sugary gloop. And still it went on. Round and round. Another explosion. Another fight. More quips. More twists. More characters. Is that Keith Richards? No time to dwell on it. Another explosion. More vast, ornate sets destroyed. More sickeningly perfect deep blue oceans filled with more galleons. More deafening musical crescendos. By now the film was bursting at the sides with expense, the rich Hollywood gloss threatening to leak out at the edges of the screen and dribble onto the floor like syrup.

Everything was too much. Everything was sickly, gooey. I was dizzy with spectacle, nauseous with chocolate. I wanted to get off (If truth be told I needed the toilet). I just needed it to come to some kind of stop. But no.

It. Just. Kept. On. Going.

Bigger ships. Bigger characters. Bigger fights. Ever trying to raise the stakes, to cram another explosion in. The composer trying to discover a new, impossible pitch of excitement.

Until finally, in a last, great orgy of special effects, beautiful people, outrageous visuals and deafening music, the final battle was done and the film was almost spent. We knew we were coming to an end. The malteasers were all but gone. We struggled wilfully through the inevitable tying-up scenes, by turns excruciatingly, painfully embarrassing (Keira and Orlando), relatively underwhelming (Johnny) and fundamentally uninspired (everybody else), and then we were left with Captain Jack Sparrow in a little boat. Setting sail into the same wide startling too-blue sea he appeared from around 10 hours of film ago.

Little had changed in the interim, just a few thousand spills and thrills and the odd comic interlude. Like in a real theme park we were back where we started. The longest Roller-coaster in history. The sickliest sugar-binge imaginable. Drink up me hearties, yo ho.

May 24, 2007

Michael Billington being rather silly.

Just off to bed but happened to notice a train wreck of an article by Michael Billington on the Guardian Blog which I can only imagine was written by the animated paper-clip on microsoft word while he tottered off for the evening to read some extracts from Kenneth Tynan.
On a purely pragmatic level, Hytner's argument is absurd. It's like suggesting that papers should change their political editors every time a new government is elected or that sports writers should be swapped around whenever our national soccer or cricket teams change coaches.

No Michael, I'm afraid it's not at all like that. Both the examples you cite represent a transfer of personnel within a field that by no means changes the notions or conventions that govern that environment. Or, in other words, it doesn't matter how many England managers you go through football is still a game played by 11 men under a strict code of laws in which the goals (no pun intended) have remained the same since time immemorial. Now if one young scallyway was to one day pick up the ball and run with it, that might require a 'critic' who at least acknowledged (and maybe even supported) this transformation; or who at the very least was able to admit that any time this happened it wasn't simply cheating.

He then goes on to unfurl a banner proclaiming the importance of the indi... I mean his individual voice. Though I thought the problem in the first place was that his voice isn't sounding that individual these days. In fact, it's sounding remarkably similar to those of all the other daily critics for, though they may have different tastes and prose styles, they all share a fundamentally limited notion of what theatre can or should be - a notion that sees Billington dismiss Katie Mitchell's the waves as a 'sterile piece of theatre about theatre' that is nothing but a 'celebration of technical ingenuity' in much the same way as Nicholas De Jongh calls her work 'a dreadful form of directorial embellisment' and Spender states that all devised theatre is becoming 'more like an acrobatic display than a piece of real drama'.

And yet Billington has the gall to defend himself by arguing that 'much of the finest postwar criticism has run counter to prevailing views'.

Well yes. it has.


Gave a talk today about what I see as some of the consequences of the curiously morbid way in which we in the West have chosen to make theatre. It went very well though now I'm a little fuzzy on the free wine and the congratulations.

For the sake of space and interest will just put an excerpt here but if anyone is interested please let me know and I can send you the full transcript.


The theatrical text gives new life to dead performances. But it is a different life, not the live performance itself, but a textual memory, a recreation. An afterlife.

These theatrical texts provide a way of remembering and a way of mourning. Frequently, within at least the conventions of the British theatre, on leaving the auditorium, even during the interval, the theatrical text is immediately available for purchase. At the National Theatre Bookshop, every major production in London is represented, under the name of the venue at which the production is being performed, by a theatrical text. The commodified text has come to serve the same purpose as the holiday photograph or more specifically, the theme park photograph that captures the screaming rollercoaster-riders in mid flight. It becomes, in the truest sense, a souvenir of the performance; both the photograph and the text are at once a ‘spur to memory’ and a remembrance of something irretrievably passed.

The theatre text as ghost is both the memory of what remains and the mourning of what is lost, or, to borrow Eduardo Cadava’s Benjaminian description of photography, ‘simultaneously what passes away and what survives this passing, that is, passing itself.' The text is a locus of ‘ghostings’, hauntings, memories of what has been lost, mourning and death. And in the western text-based theatrical tradition it is upon those haunted spectres that ‘survive this passing’ that new performances are continually built. Even new work is created in the knowledge of the textual afterlife that it will inevitably have.

The text haunts the performance with its own death, with its certainty that it is ‘all that will remain of what passes into history.’ And perhaps this explains the curiously morbid nature of the western theatre tradition built upon these spectral texts; a tradition in which ghosts are mistaken for characters, memorials are mistaken for blueprints, and everybody wants to play Hamlet. Indeed, as Marvin Carlson states, ‘not only all Ibsen’s plays but all plays in general might be called ghosts.

May 23, 2007

Some Sad News

I had a piece of very sad news at the start of this week when I was informed the Director Robin Midgely had died at the age of 72.
Midgley, an energetic and unfailingly courteous figure, abstemious and vegetarian, was a doughty and resourceful director. His exterior may have been officer class, but he was not really "old school". He had an inquisitive intellect and was deeply concerned about political injustice. Tariq Ali, in his book, The Leopard and the Fox, published last year, recalls that a three-part drama series about the trial and execution of Zulifkar Ali Bhutto following the 1977 military coup in Pakistan, commissioned by Midgley when he was head of drama at BBC Pebble Mill in 1985, was suppressed when it became too controversial within the corporation hierarchy.
I worked with Robin Last year on a small show of ours he directed at RADA and he was without doubt one of the gentlest, warmest people I've ever met, but with a real theatrical intelligence and an openness to new forms and ideas that puts people 40 years his junior to shame. He will be sorely missed.

May 20, 2007

A Matter of Life and Death at the National

The National’s Olivier Theatre is, for want of another word, big. No. It’s more than big. While other large theatres disguise their bigness with gold and crystal and plush red velvet the Olivier seems to exist for the sole purpose of being enormous. Stepping out into this coolly monstrous cavern you gaze around; at its uniform purple seats disappearing up into infinity, its sleek roof towering above your head, the curly grey and slightly doddering figures spilling into the auditorium. Despite all this, the real attention grabber, however, is always right in front of you: the vast, empty Olivier stage. A smooth black void at the heart of the auditorium, the impossibly large circular floor is unfettered by silly, antiquated things like arches and backdrops. Blue light plays upon the mist that hangs above it, obscuring the walls that you guess must exist somewhere back there in the darkness, giving this emptiest of spaces a tantalising aura of limitless possibility.

Kneehigh’s A Matter of Life and Death is the latest in a series of thought-provoking shows that seem fascinated by the cinema. For me, the last few months have been a thrilling exploration of the possible relationships between film and theatre in shows as diverse and exciting as Attempts on Her Life, The Wonderful World of Dissocia and now A Matter of Life and Death. For the critics, however, these shows have nothing in common other than the indignation they have caused, leaving in their wake a series of articles so poisonous that they came close to dissolving the pages they were printed on; Nicholas De Jongh’s venomous little tirade against ‘Miss Mitchell’ being the very worst of a bad bunch.

What these critics seem to have missed is that while they have been fossilising in their aisle seats the world has changed. We live in an era saturated, almost drowning, in cinema. For almost everyone growing up at any point in the last fifty years film and television are our frame of reference, theatre, an anachronistic curio. We understand implicitly the jump cut and the cross fade; we are more comfortable in the imaginary spaces of cinema than the enclosed rooms of the theatre. How then can theatre survive in this world? What can it do that cinema can’t?

In their stage version of Powell and Pressburger’s film Kneehigh offer some interesting answers to these questions by using the dauntingly vast Olivier auditorium in some joyously imaginative ways.

The first thing to note about this production is that it is not an adaptation. Nostalgic recollections of David Niven et. al. are rather tiresome. This is a new work in a new medium. And for once, theatre does feel entirely new in this re-telling of the story of a WWII airman who should have died after jumping from his plane without a parachute but who, through the combination of an administrative cock-up and some typically English weather, was not conducted up to heaven. For this reason he has the chance to fall in love with a woman he never should have met, while the heavenly authorities, not God but a delightfully stern matron, fret as to how they might resolve this worrying situation.

Kneehigh used this surreally charming wartime drama as a launch pad for a series of ever-more audacious, and consistently glorious set-pieces. The cavernous space of the Olivier acted as the perfect blank canvas, allowing the company to hastily construct impossible objects out of the utterly mundane; Bicycles and Staircases became a Lancaster bomber, the bare walls were suddenly transformed into a magnificent camera obscura, and a row of hospital beds flew upwards, forming a stairway to heaven. This is what theatre can do that film can’t. Gathered together in a darkened room, sharing this space of limitless possibility, the audience can, even wants to believe anything that is told to them. Everything (the songs, the dances, the sets, the actors) is so fabulously unreal (so theatrical) that it sets our collective imagination free to run riot. And imagination is what Kneehigh do like no one else around.

All of this is done with such heartwarming eagerness that you long to follow them on any flight of fancy they might make, whether that be a rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream that suddenly becomes a sassy song and dance number or a slow-motion, Matrix-style kung-fu table tennis match. It has a wonderful, childish quality that doesn’t feel at all contrived. Instead it adds a hauntingly wide-eyed perspective to the horror of a story that is at its heart about the tiny hope for love in a world jaded by so much coldly efficient death.

This is by no means a perfect show. At times the story telling flags, the acting suffers in such a vast auditorium (though not that of the wonderful Douglas Hodge), and the razzmatazz seems at times to be too nakedly to be there merely to drag the plot like a stubborn child from one big number to the next. But you forgive it these faults because it is an utterly loveable show. A show (and a company) that is in turn in love with its medium; with the immediacy, the intimacy, the collective joy and the unpredictability of theatre – all of which are present in the show's audacious coin-flipping finale, which had me surprised by how truly gripped I was by such a simple (almost gimmicky) trick.

For me, the daunting Olivier Auditorium has rarely tingled with such child-like creativity and joy. No amount of cinema comes near the experience.

May 15, 2007

My Two Cents on Hytner and his Dead White Men

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

(with a nod of course to the great man)

May 12, 2007

The Maysles Brothers

If you look up the word “entertainment” in the dictionary, it’s first defined as “diversion.” But the second definition is “engagement.” And the second one, I think, is the best one.
I just happened to drop into the BFI the other night and caught a series of stunning documentaries by the Maysles brothers.

Back in the sixties improvements in technology allowed the brothers, as a two person crew to 'go out with a camera, not on a tripod, but on the shoulder and with a sound person that was in sync and disconnected.' It is in essence this innovation that is at the heart of their films, whether it be following around Hollywood producers, Salesmen or Truman Capote.

What is interesting is that here improvement in technology facilitated (or created) a philosophy of filmaking. Their equipment allowed an intimate 'liveness' in their work - following rather than dictating the events happening around them, as Albert Maysles says:
A true documentary is shot with no control. You might even call it the uncontrolled cinema. Because once you begin to control the audience it’s not even the real thing. And so that’s part of the problem with the reality shows. They want to control things, so we get the control but lose the reality.
Their films are beautiful. And full of reality. They play out as a series of overheard conversations and anecdotes - moments of chance recorded for the first time by a camera that just happened to be there. Watching the series of films that played out in BFI showing I have never felt closer to the era they portrayed or the characters in them. That apparently Phillip Seymore Hoffman studied their 30 minute film of Truman Capote religiously for his Oscar-winning turn as the little man, is entirely understandable - through the Maysles un-selfconscious lens Truman feels so close you could almost touch him - and for the first time I found his charisma utterly irresistable.

The same was even more the case for their film of Marlon Brando, for which they simply filmed the actor during a day of press interviews. What you get is about the most beautiful portrait of Brando as a fiercely intelligent, funny and staggering charismatic human being quietly trapped in a role he has almost open disdain for. The 30 minute short got a joyous round-of-applause in the BFIs crowded auditorium.

The documentaries are showing again on Wednesday night - as part of a whole season of their work - I urge you to go. It's a truly engaging piece of cinema, history and cinema history.

May 8, 2007

Patrick Moore

Just a quick note to point you towards reactionary old fool/national institution Patrick Moore embarassing himself when someone lets him out of late-night-TV-cupboard for five mintues:
I used to watch Doctor Who and Star Trek, but they went PC - making women commanders, that kind of thing. I stopped watching.
As opposed to the country, which has never been... oh, wait.

Patrick then went on to blame women for sinking the Titanic, stealing his socks and faking the moon landing before he was wheeled back to the planetarium.

May 7, 2007

Here came the sun

Like most people brought up on the kind of rain-blighted (and hence primarily indoor) holidays that Britain has to offer, when the sun does come out I have this in-no-way wholesome or satisfying compulsion to go and make the most of it for fear that to not do so is somewhere between criminal and sacriligious. Although this in no way condones my abysmal lack of posting it goes someway to explaining it.

And for Debbie, the Kevin Costner post is coming - I just want to take my time and ensure its all that it could (nay, should) be.

In the meantime I have been reading, and rather enjoying, Baz Kershaw's book The Radical in Performance - a interesting meander through the potential sites (geographic, social, and almost spiritual) of radicialism in performance in a world torn between the postmodern and the modern, like an arrogant 12 year old and his knowingly annoying younger brother fighting over a football they both only want because they know the other does.

On one point I disagree though. Kershaw very openly dismisses performance based within the traditional theatrical institutions as even the most radical of form and content is commodified and undermined by the hegemonic architectual and social environment in which it is housed. In other words, it doesn't matter how radical you're being onstage if you're in a West End proscenium theatre and you paid £45 for your ticket, £15 for your programme and £65 for your interval drinks, then there's no way that show can have its desired political (or radical) effect.

Though I see Kershaw's point I want to try at least to disagree. If for no other reason than the amount of money that goes support them and the number of people whose relationship to performance is shaped by them, it would be criminal to abandon theatre to the system (whatever that may be). It is our responsibility to find new ways to undermine the architecture and the contracts the audience is bound into by going to The Theatre.

Treat the theatre as site-specific. Begin to play with the things that make it a theatre. Frighten, annoy, frustrate the audience. Undermine, double, deconstruct The Theatre, as a building and as a institution. Tear it down from the inside rather than turning your back and playing in the corner.

Through Nick Hytner's time at the national there are elements of what Kershaw might see as radical performance amazingly beginning to sneak into the beating heart of British theatre. People who bought tickets for Punchdrunk's Faust found themselves not walking comfortably along the southbank but stepping out of Shadwell Tube station and across a council estate, trawling through parts of London they had likely never seen before in search of the performance. And even inside the building itself, Katie Mitchell's work is exploring the same avenues as The Wooster Group (with equal levels of consternation amongst audience and critics).

So let's not give up on the dog yet.

Read it though. It's a very good book. I'll be back soon.