Jun 29, 2007

In Praise of Imperfection

There is a relatively obscure Bob Dylan song, written and released at beginning of his wrinkly, leather-clad decade horriblis the 1980s, called Every Grain of Sand. Originally released as the final track on the shatteringly mediocre Shot of Love LP, it was a heartfelt if eminently forgettable chronicle of Dylan's (fast fading) born-again Christianity. So far, so unremarkable.

There is, however, another version of the same song - a bootleg recorded in Dylan's own home some time before the studio session. Notwithstanding that the simplicity of this recording suits the song's brittle honesty far better than the more polished final version, at about 2 minutes in something a little bit magical happens. Behind that familiar throaty warble, a dog (Dylan's own dog) begins barking; not loud enough to entirely interrupt the song, but just loud enough to be heard, yapping away occasionally in the background. Now for me there is something about this messy little detail that I find totally enchanting - it brings the whole recording a delicate, almost tangible intimacy. I've seen Dylan live just once, a geriatrically gyrating dot at the other end of plastic arena on the edge of Sheffield - and I felt a thousand miles further away from the great man than I do listening to this recording, and for that reason its one of my absolute favourites.

In theatre, we too often strive for perfection - hoping that it will be alright on the night. As Chris Goode's own recent experience in a flashy spared-no-expense theatre testifies to, improvements in technology only heighten this sense that a smooth show is a good show:
The assumption this whole system is built on is that the ideal is for each performance to resemble the last as exactly as possible; that a brilliant performance is a clean and efficient one that as closely as possible matches some agreed template we determined between us during (or even in advance of) the tech.
Chris rightly identifies that the effect of this is to bottle the show up and thus distance it from that particular group of people on that particular night. There is no give and take. The relationship between the stage and the stalls is stifled by the necessity for a smooth, efficient running. Once again theatre is borrowing all the wrong things from cinema. A successful show relies on a whirring apparatus, once set in motion, to work properly. Without it the show just stops.

And for me this is tragedy because often I find it is at those precise moments that theatre really gets going.

As a performer I was once in a relentlessly dull production of Volpone, playing The Short One in an insufferable comedy double-act between Politic Would-Be and Peregrine. Every night we trudged out to an audience dozing in their seats. Then one night as my friend went to sit down on his bench, it collapsed instantly beneath his weight. He sat for a second on the stage floor, dazed. The audience, as one, sat bolt upright. Without thinking I muttered some appropriately sarcastic put-down and my friend responded with a perfectly pitched "indeed" - nothing particularly clever but full of just the right amount befuddled indignation. It was as if someone had defibrillated the whole production. The next group of actors who were required to use the bench came up with some more inspired silliness. For once, the audience was actually enjoying it. Suddenly here we all were, actors and audience, in a theatre, sharing an utterly unique, utterly theatrical moment.

The same has been true for me as an audience member. When Out of Joint's subterranean Macbeth came to Edinburgh, about a third of the way into the show the power entirely cut. It was pitch black. Suddenly a platoon of techies were waving torches, lighting candles. Just after the show's harrowing murder of the Macduff family someone strode onstage to inform us that the show could not continue because it was now too dangerous without the power. The actors came out onstage to take a bow. And the lights came back. They looked at us. They looked at each other. They laughed. We laughed. They regrouped and redid the scene and carried on to the end. The atmosphere was more powerful than any I have experienced. It is still the most enjoyable Shakespeare production I have ever seen.

For me, theatre is never about convincingly conjuring the illusion of reality. Even an uber-realistic kitchen sink set is fascinating because it is juxtaposed with the oversized velveteen opulence of the auditorium. Consequently, for me, the gaps and flaws and mistakes don't detract from the spectacle. They don't interrupt the smooth running of the apparatus of theatre. Or at least they shouldn't. They should enhance what I feel is the magic of theatre, the sense of being part of a story telling that is fleeting, full of presence and imediacy, and for those reasons utterly memorable. After all, how often is it those shows that ride on the crest of a glorious mistake that really have your heart racing and really live long in the memory?

Which is not to say I'm recommending everyone go out and sabotage their shows for the sake of posterity. Instead its about an attitude to making theatre. If a show can only work one way, it is not theatre. Theatre should be utterly live. It should have room to snake and wiggle. To ride the bumps. To (mis)quote Blackadder - let's be at home to Mr Cock-Up.

Jun 27, 2007

Some Real News (for a change)

A little off-topic perhaps but I thought that you may all be interested to see the internet in its very best light (i.e. no boobies, no mentalists, no AA Gill).

Now, you may well have seen this rather dispiriting little tale of over-zealous religious teenagers and the inevitable claim to free-expression and discrimination:
A 16-year-old girl has gone to the High Court to accuse her school of discriminating against Christians by banning the wearing of "purity rings".

Lydia Playfoot was told by Millais School in Horsham, West Sussex, to remove her ring, which symbolises chastity, or face expulsion.
That of course is the retelling offered by the BBC. An understandably busy corporation what with all the re-runs of 'Allo Allo it has to schedule and its unrelenting attempts to find yet more mediocre panel-shows for David Mitchell to appear on. So in all their haste they (along with every other mainstream media outlet) have effectively echoed the original story as it was handed to them, without any real, well... you know... journalism.

Step up to the plate The Internet (that much maligned young buck with a lot of potential but a rather worrying penchant for unpleasant low-budget pornography and Diana conspiracy theories) in the shape of the dashingly anonymous Unity at a website called the Ministry of Truth. Unburdened by deadlines or word counts and with the world a few keystrokes away, s/he has done some frankly brilliant investigating of the figures lurking in the shadows of this story, unearthing a litter (what is the collective-noun for religious zealots, a congregation maybe) of characters sinister and bizarre enough to put Captain Jack's crew to shame.

[...] one has to question not only the merits of Playfoot’s case but the motives of the people around her, especially if one factors in the ‘elephant in the room’ that the press are assiduously ignoring, the very obvious interest that both the Playfoots (Playfeet?) and Robinsons have, as directors of Silver Ring Thing (UK) Ltd, in obtaining a High Court ruling that gives their chastity campaign the legal cover of the Human Rights Act.

The more one examines the background to this case, the more one has to wonder whether what’s really being sought in the High Court is not legal support for the rights of individual teenagers to wear chastity rings in schools, but legal support for the efforts of an Evangelical Christian group to turn schools into recruiting offices for their particular US-import brand of god regardless of the wishes of schools, their governing bodies or the parents of other children.

Now this is why I think the internet is a wonderful, monstrous thing. It may well be an ocean of noise but in its folds it always has room for quiet and methodical voices with some really interesting things to say that otherwise wouldn't get heard. I don't think you'll see a more comprehensive piece of investigative journalism very often. Do go and read it.

Jun 25, 2007

AA Gill searches for what Theatre is missing... discovers it is AA Gill.

News reaches me from the internet's latest bright (ahem) young things, the West End Whingers, that the critics have taken another savaging - this time not from the theatre but from a fellow critic (of sorts...). Stand up Mr AA Gill.

Now, like the whingers, it came as a surprise to me that AA Gill reads anything other than AA Gill, but, picking up the axe where Nick Hytner sheepishly dropped it, he scythes into our much-maligned reviewers with barely concealed glee - casting them as a small platoon of soggy, anoraked miserablists, scuttling up the aisle like woodlice as soon as the light comes up.

"Where" he asks "are the voices that ring out as being aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining?"

Again, as the Whingers identify, Gill's main criticism of the critics is that they don't write well enough - failing to pepper their prose with the kind of succulent bon mots that he obviously adores so much. They are, apparently, a joyless, lifeless amalgam who all write with such a uniformity that he (the arbiter of all things) can't tell which is which.

And this, he claims, is a major problem because, rather self-aggrandisingly for a critic, he also suggests that reviewing is the lifeblood of any cultural form (nay, the beating heart of western civilisation)...
Look at restaurants and food. The incremental improvement in the quality and sophistication and enjoyment of eating, cooking and buying food has coincided with the rise of good, angry, witty, opinionated writing.
And by 'good, angry, witty, opinionated writing' AA Gill obviously means the good, angry, opinionated writing of one AA Gill. Yes, that's right - if only AA Gill wrote about theatre, then as surely as the sun rises, audiences would abandon Connie and her nuns in their droves to revel in theatre at its most complex and avant-garde. Forget the encroachment of television, the celebrification of Western Society, the rise of the Hollywood film, nay, the whole history of the second half of the twentieth century... if only the reviewers were more like AA... I mean Kenneth Tynan, then theatre wouldn't be in the irreparable state of disrepair that AA Gill says it is.

You can almost hear his coterie of be-suited dinner party chums pleading with him over a tasteful bottle of Pinotage, "please AA, please... lend you're golden touch to those god forsaken no-hopers scrounging in the ashes of English theatre... save them from themselves..."

But no - AA Gill will reserve himself to the easier task of drumming up a few tired cliches and couple of really, really dead white men (Shaw... anyone?). After all, those who can do, those who can't criticise, and AA Gill? Well, he criticises those who criticise, apparently.

Jun 24, 2007

A Mystery

Rather strangly I've noticed that at the beginning of this week the number of people seeing nosing around here went up by over 1000% to somewhere in the region of 300 for Monday before settling back down again to a reassuringly compact usual number. Which, with the help of David Suchet, I have deduced must mean that someone or something big and clever sent a whole bunch of people in this direction. If anyone knows more than me, I'd be very interested to find out who it was...

Jun 23, 2007

Floating at the Barbican

If you have the chance do go and see Floating at the Barbican - my review of the show is over here if you need some more persuading.
As I watched the audience reluctantly leaving the auditorium after Floating , they were, almost without exception, grinning widely from ear to ear. They glowed with delight as they clutched the badges the actors had handed them; they examined each other’s hands to see the stamp they had all been given of the island of Anglesey in North Wales. I have very rarely seen an audience so unwilling to leave a theatre. Within those four walls they had found themselves captivated, transported, by an utterly compelling performer.
See - you get a free badge at the end. What more could you want from a show?

Jun 18, 2007

The Forest of No Return

Jokes about the 'Forest of No Beginning' would be cheap considering that Hal Wilner and Jarvis Cocker's gloriously Epic Disney-themed variety show began began only an hour late. All the talk before hand had (inevitably) been about the galaxy of stars that had been tapped for the show - no Bryan Ferry but Nick Cave, Pete Doherty, Beth Orton, Shane MacGowan, Jarvis Cocker himself, Grace Jones... regardless of what might happen on the stage it was a Green Room that deserves its own screenplay. But the reason that Wilner has developed a reputation for his variety shows is not simply by having a gargantuan celebrity address book but by going for broke on the truly spectacular. So here, to complement the indie stars there was a magnificent and hastily assembled orchestra that, in between the crowd pleasing numbers that had cameras twitching across the hall, wandered instrumentally through the depths of Disney's classic songbook.

This was an evening of Disney songs with ambition and pretensions to grandeur to match the cavernous (and breathtakingly renovated) Royal Festival Hall. Hence swirly fog and a myriad of coloured lights played across the crowded stage while the orchestra roamed jazzily through the Jungle Book overture, the Pink Elephant Parade and others, accompanied at points by the faintly self-indulgent a-melodic free-jazz of Marshall Allen. This was an attempt not just at smug celebrity Disney sing-a-long but as a genuine voyage through the nostalgic waters of Walt's classic early fantasies, a stroll through Disneyland at night with a bottle of expensive scotch and a guy playing lounge piano. If at times it didn't come off, and had the children and the Pete Doherty fans bored senseless, so be it - it was a classy attempt.

And it certainly had its moments. Ed Harcourt and Skye Edward's Drip, Drip, Drop Little April Showers was laid back and beautiful. Nick Cave's Heigh-Ho was a pounding re-imagining full of menace. Grace Jones (when she finally showed up 2 hours late) stood on a table, with a wind machine billowing her black silk cloak around her oversized purple headress, and diva'd through Trust in Me like the 80s never went away. Pete Doherty's pared-down Chim Chimney was a slight and delicate beauty - probably the performance of the night.

And for those looking for an anecdote there was Jarvis Cocker, Shane MacGowan, Pete and Nick Cave howling like dogs through Lady and the Tramp's Home Sweet Home, while Ed Harcourt accompanied on Piano. Ridiculous. Glorious.

In the end this typified the sort of semi-serious sillyness everyone concerned seemed to approach the evening with. It left you with the sense that Walt Disney's legacy is not just a few rose-tinted cartoon films and a corporation that runs childhood. Instead what Walt's better years have left us is a dated, flawed but magnificent attempt at concocting something fantastically magical. And that pretty much sums up last night's show as well.

Jun 16, 2007

Its The End Of The World As We Know It

Last night I found myself in the Trocadero Centre in Piccadilly for the first time since I was about 12 years old and my word, is it ever a horrible place.

The Trocadero Centre is a bustling, awful cathedral of arcade games, shops, and mass-produced entertainment. Electronic blips and beeps compete with thrashing disco noise and the sound of a thousand Dance Dance Revolution machines. Everything is lit by at least a dozen lights all attempting to outdo each other for quite how gaudy and unpleasant they can be. Unlike Las Vegas there's no sense of faded glamour or over-the-top bombast - it's just a relentless, sugary, overcrowded, overstocked, overpriced black hole of electric excess. It must have a carbon footprint the size of Kent, I mean there's just so much waste - I half expected to find a Native American sitting in a corner weeping. Its a shopping centre without the manufactured calm. Its a theme-park without the sense of wonder. Its a drug trip you have to share with a bunch of sinister, unattractive people you don't know. It's dirty. It's characterless. It is about as entertaining as gout. It's a great festering pustule in the middle of London's face. As I left all I wanted to do was take a shower and plant a tree.

But the important thing is that this utterly decadent monument to 21st century entertainment is every day becoming more of an anachronism. When even this man, in his own weaselly way, concedes that major changes are going to have to be made for the sake of the environment, it is clear that we are at the tipping point of a major sea change in the way we think about waste. Excess is already growing more stigmatised. Even if we don't care enough to do it, we care enough now to pretend that we recycle. Restaurants compete for the number of times they can have the phrases organic and local-sourced in their menus. Companies scatter their promotional material with aphorisms about carbon neutrality and waste management. And even if all this is just sweet talk and hot air, it is I believe the vanguard of a wholesale transformation of what we consider acceptable waste.

And this is inevitably going to affect theatre.

In a fascinating talk with Soutra Gilmour yesterday we began to think about the ways in which the demands for greater environmental awareness are going to transform theatre practise.

For a start she suggested there will be less theatre - fewer productions, fewer performances, fewer buildings. And she saw this as a very good thing. I agree in part. There is far too much pointless, excesses theatre gets spat out (in the West End in particularly) just for the sake of it. A little less action and a little more conversation might be a very good thing for the quality of theatre in this country. Though the idea that there will be fewer productions for which everyone involved is paid more is an easy enough idea for her to support from within the theatre establishment. If you're in, you're in - if you're out your chances of actually getting in are even harder. However, even at the moment almost all the jobs in theatre seem to be shared between about 7 people who are constantly working on several projects at once, without the time to put enough care or attention into any of them, so perhaps the difference for those still trying to make it would be negligible.

But beyond merely scaling down we believed there will be some fundamental changes in the way in which people think about theatre production.

For a start the idea of shows existing entirely independently of each other will become seen as a more and more pointlessly wasteful experience. Within any big producing house recycling and more importantly reincorporation should become second nature - fundamentally, they should stop making new things simply because they can afford to. Borrowing from the expediency of fringe and amateur theatre, big producing houses should look at what they already have and how they can build new shows around that.

The RSC's History cycle is an interesting yet obvious example of the way in which continuity in style (props/costume/etc) can prove an interesting spectacle over the course of a season but why can't this be extended to a series of unrelated plays? How about a season in which The Duchess of Malfi, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and a piece of new writing share props, set and costume? As Gilmour pointed out, a company like The Wooster Group is constantly reincorporating props from previous productions into their new ones - it has become a vital and interesting part of their theatre vocabulary. Maybe some of the playwrights out there could tell me how they would feel about being offered a set or a rummage around in costume/props to inspire them to a new play?

And if we start to move away from the theatre building there is even more that can be done. Take, for example, the work of a company like Wrights and Sights in Cornwall, who have created a series of performative guide books for walks around Exeter. Here theatre is created by just placing a frame around something very ordinary. Sometimes that's all you need to do. Get audience's to really look at what is already there. If you want to create a show about a country house, don't bring the country house to the actors and the audience; take the actors and the audience to the country house.

To take this to its extreme, theatre can actually have a positive effect on the environment; re-developing, restoring, recycling wasted buildings, props, whole areas. When Punchdrunk first came across the site for their version of Faust in Wapping it was derelict, an overlooked hole full of carpets soaked through with dog food and human faeces. Much of their budget was spent on restoring the building before they even began to put anything in it. The National Theatre of Scotland have ably demonstrated that a large production house doesn't need a, well, a large production house. Go out - leave the Olivier and its big trundly revolve - and find spaces for theatre to inhabit - for theatre to redevelop.

Of course its not for me or anyone else to say what will or won't happen as theatre (a famously slow learner) comes to terms with a world that's having to take a long good look at itself. But it seems apparent that at some stage we will have to abandon the notion that everything has to be new in order to be original. Punchdrunk are again leading the way with their production of Masque of the Red Death, in which they will be exploring different ways of using a space very common to a lot of fringe-goers - the Battersea Arts Centre. But we can still go further - what could someone like Katie Mitchell do with the set/props/costumes of the Lion King? Where might you go to find the right Kitchen for your Kitchen Sink Drama? What places do you know that you can just put a frame around and take people's breath away?

Jun 14, 2007

Edinburgh Festival Preview

Ah... the Edinburgh Festival. There is no experience like it - apart from possibly having your loud, fat nephew come to stay for the whole of August, draw all over your antique wallpaper, take a crap in the sink and leave again with the chilling words 'same time next year'.

My initial plan was to pore my way through the programme (drink in hand, of course) and offer you a carefully crafted guide to my picks for this year. But having gawped defeatedly at its positively biblical proportions I've decided I'm not really up to the job - and besides Ben Yeoh has already done some sterling work highlighting a variety of interesting bits and bobs.

Instead I am going to create the definitive guide to other things you could be doing in edinburgh rather than spending £15 to watch Les Dennis performing in a sweaty corner of some fringe venue/fire trap. So without further ado I present to you:

My Top 10 Edinburgh Un-Festival Tips 2007 (in no particular order)

1. Buy some Liqueurs
Halfway up Victoria street, a politely beautiful, winding, cobbled alleway shameless plaigerised by JK Rowling, there is a liqueur store called Demi-Johns. There is undoubtedly something magical about its vast glass couldrons of Port, Brandy and Whisky. Get yourself a flaggon of port, buy some nice crumbly blue cheese from the shop next door, sit in the park and party like its 1899.

2. Have a lovely meal
I would recommend either Maison Blue on the aforementioned Victoria Street or the Reform on the Royal Mile. Both less flashy and expensive than some and always with tantalising and pretentious menus. Plus I once ate ostrich and Kangaroo at the Reform. Tasty.

3. Go to the beach
North Berwick is but £7 and 40 minutes away from Edinburgh Waverly. You can swim, you can fly kites, build sandcastles, shop for second hand John Grisham novels, eat fish and chips and relieve yourself in the award winning public toilets.

4. Go to the Pub
Cloisters in Tollcross is musty, wooden floored pub with a wonderful wine/real ale list. The Barony Bar on Brougham Street in New Town has the city's (nay the world') best pub band, Bedford Falls, who pound out Crowded House to a packed bar every sunday like it'll be their last. Check out the man mountain on lead guitar - a local legend, rumour has it he is in fact Eric Clapton in a fat suit.

5. Stay in and watch a film
Might I recomend 'Beautiful Girls' - a carefully crafted, gently sad little film with a wonderful performance from Natalie Portman as Meryl Streep trapped in the body of a 12 year old Jewish girl. Either that or go for the zietgeist-defining teen triple bill of The Breakfast Club followed by Clueless and then Mean Girls.

6. Take a walk by the river
It took me two years to discover Edinburgh had a river but if you can actually find the path down to it, its about the most beautiful walk in the whole of the city. Mainly because you feel like you are no longer actually in the city. This I find is the key to any city's most desirable spots.

7. Go to the Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo has the only Koalas in the whole of the United Kingdom and a large colony of relentlessly entertaining penguins. Last time we were there we bought matching badges and met a strange man who told us all about the chimpanzees. These are just some of the treats you can look forward to.

8. Listen to some good music
Marvel at the absurd disco-pop of Of Montreal's new album Hissing Fauna Are You the Destroyer, like swallowing sequens and cough syrup. Or if you want something a little more sedate try Boxer by the National - a rich melodic album that sounds like U2 would if they weren't such pricks.

9. Find a Scottish Person
It's harder than you'd think. (N.B. Going to Glasgow is cheating)

10. Go on Holiday
I hear London's lovely this time of year.

In praise of the amateur.

Sorry all - it's been a busy week and posting has been but a distant dream for most of it.

Our event in the mossy bosom of the Kent Countryside will be happening with or without the help of you (seemingly) shy, retiring internet dwellers... though a pair of shiny gold stars to the West End Whingers and one to Ben Yeoh who have all declared their willingness to spend an glorious summer afternoon jollying around in England's green and pleasant pastures. Now how about the rest of you - has rascal's literary debut, whetted his appetite for a bit of theatre to boot?

On the subject of said event myself and my co-creator spent a delightful evening on Tuesday in the company of the committee of the Shoreham Village Players amateur dramatics company, sitting on the banks of the river darent drinking wine with a collection of strangers who seemed to have fallen out of an episode of Midsummer Murders - it truly was a delight. And their willingness not just to get stuck but to be engaged in what we are attempting to create was wonderful.

As Brian Logan has recently argued in the Guardian, am-dram is that impossibly rare thing in professional theatre - an environment in which the cry is constantly going out for larger casts and grander projects. Without their involvement a project like ours would be impossible.
Chris Chamberlain is one of the five professional actors in the company. He grew up watching am-dram ("that was the West End to me") and thinks it does not get the respect it deserves. Amateur shows frequently have bigger budgets than some professional shows. They are rehearsed for months on end. And the people involved are very highly skilled, says Chamberlain. "I knew an amateur lighting designer who had done 86 productions in 20 years. He's as skilled as a West End lighting designer."
But I would go further than Logan. I think that amateur performers come into their own when they stop trying to replicate the talents that professional performers have honed over the course their career and are given free reign to what they have that the pros don't. Which is not to say they should create shows that are merely a rogues gallery of well rehearsed pub tricks, but their memories, experiences and creativity can be a revelation when they break free from the constraints of conveyor-belt London theatre.

A recent show such as Wildwork's Souterrain demonstrates that volunteer or amateur performers, brought together in the with right sense of riotous adventure, can create the kind of impossibly grand, moving theatrical event that is a thousand miles from the 3 hours of stilt-walking and fireworks that is currently injuring itself all over the Theatre Royal stage.

I'm with Gavin Stride when he says "There is an increasing appetite for participation, for saying, let's encourage people to be creative, whoever they are". And I believe that the kind of site-specific journey performance that we are creating, filled with any number of delightfully meandering and co-existent stories, is a perfect vehicle for the diverse and eccentric performers and personalities that can be dug up in every small village up and down the country.

Already we have unearthed a man in his seventies who will perform from his wheelchair and another who has developed a way of tucking his cello under his chin so that he can play as he wanders. We also have actors who have lived in the village 60 years, who tell us stories of when during the war they carried unexploded bombs to the police sergeants house. Others who will be performing in the gardens of their own houses, on the street on which they walk to school; any amount of Laban will not reproduce the relationship with space that this creates.

David Elridge
has been championing recently the quality of the performers at RADA and having seen several productions this year I would have to agree - 3 years of intensive training at the one of the most esteemed acting schools in the country produces some of the most polished performers you will see grace a stage in this country. They are sublime.

But once you abandon that stage and its conventions... well, I'll take the man with a cello tucked under his chin, please, and can you ask if he's got a brother who can play the banjo.

Jun 7, 2007

Edinburgh Festival

Today the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Programme 2007 is officially launched. As an aid to anyone that desides to sift through it's positively homeric list of shows I give you the Edinburgh Fringe Drinking Game - something myself and my flatmate came up with in one of our darker days sat in a theatre cafe between shifts (me at the underground ghost tours him at said theatre) several years ago.
Get booze ready and open your fringe programme to a random page. Every time you hear any of the following you take a drink:

1) ANY THREE NOUNS IN A ROW (eg. A tale of romance, intrigue and danger) - 1 drink
+ IF TWO OF THESE ARE METAPHYSICAL AND ONE PHYSICALl (eg. a tale of love, life and bathroom slippers) - 1 drink

2) ANY TIME SOMEONE QUOTES A REVIEW OF THE FIRST PRODUCTION OF THEIR PLAY (n.b. I don't care if The Sunday Times thought Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy was 'hilarious' in 1974, that will not prevent yours from being an embarassing spectacle involving 3 sixth formers in oversized jackets and someone's dad rather sheepishly playing the lead) - 1 Drink



Edgy, dark, provocative, compelling, intense, wacky, madcap, off-the-wall, ground-breaking, site-specific, verbatim, Laramie Project.

6) ANY UNNECESSARY ALLITERATION (n.b. that includes Love's Labour Lost) - 1 drink


JOHN 'THE SHANE RICHIE OF THEATRE' GODBER ROUND: Girls - for each production of Shakers - 1 drink, Boys - for each production of Bouncers - 1 drink

THE LES DENNIS FORFEIT - any show starring Les Dennis - finish the bottle.
I have had this up on the facebook (friend me... you know you want to...) and there have already been several wonderful suggestions for further rules - please feel free to leave your own in the comments... together we will make this the magical success story of the festival this year... I can see Fringe Firsts, Herald Angels, Lyn Gardner giving me a back rub... etc.

(N.B on the subject of the fringe do pop over to www.festbitch.blogspot.com - you're one stop shop from festival information that could shatter glass with its cynicism.)

Jun 6, 2007

Howard Barker

More casualties from the relentless machine-gunning inflicted by the Arts Council's recently imposed cuts are coming stumbling back from the front line. The latest is Howard Barker, who is screaming and shouting about the fact that cuts to the funding of his very well respected Wrestling School will essentially mean the end of the company.

In the comments there's a discussion/banging of heads about the fact that Barker's company has been going for 20 years and still requires life support from the Arts Council to sustain itself. The commentator who is demanding theatre remain self-sustaining is, in my opinion, missing a couple of important points:

Howard Barker is one of the few playwrights who has likes to remain Big. His plays are absurd, glorious, (slightly self-important), brave, angry monstrous things. A wild, messy bridge between John Webster and Sarah Kane (who was an enormous Barker fan, playing the lead in Victory while at university) and one of the most important playwrights this country has produced in the last 30 years.

His productions have the audacity to include streams of characters as long as your arm; they are long, rambling, poetic, esoteric and require a lot of intensive work to do well. Since the second World War as actor's rates have (quite rightly) risen considerably it has become nigh on impossible to produce work that will ever be profitable with a large company of actors. If even the big West End Musicals who pack in tourists and day trippers at £45 a seat 8 performances a week are struggling to make ends meet there is little chance for a company the size of the Wrestling school to ever be financial viable and continue to produce Barker's work, while he remains defiantly, well, himself. There are few places that can afford to straight drama with large casts these days, and the two (the RSC and the National) that do rarely have any interest in Barker's writing.

The idea that theatre is product that should live or die on its commercial success is similarly problematic for me. To the same degree that it is entertainment theatre should be a challenge, a provocation. Thanks to the exclusion zone, protest in London has been transformed into a form of state-sanctioned theatre. They gather in parliament square and they wave their banners and the government claps along - how worthy, how democratic - but it is the illusion of dissent. Any protest vetted by the government is no longer a protest. Theatre rid itself of those shackles with some help from Gaskill and Bond back in the 60s (though some would see them reimposed). Now theatre needs to become a force for protest. Like Mark Wallinger's State Britain, glossed as art we can bring loud, angry, voices back into the centre of London. That's why we need Barker, he is (as he himself would no doubt state) a voice. A glorious, discursive voice that should have the chance to speak.

As has been Barker's standard line for over 20 years, people will not want to listen. People will not rush to buy out the best seats. Ticket Hot lines will not sell out in under 10 minutes. But this is not the purpose of his drama. It is different kind of voice, in an era when so much (blue, red, yellow...) sounds the same.

Barker being the kind of guy that seems to breath quotations, it's inevitable I will end with one (though not the prologues to Bite of the Night - which everyone should read):
A new theatre will be over-ambitious. It will not settle for anything less than a full company of actors. The stage should be swarming with life. No new writer should be taught economy, no matter what economy demands. The new writer should be shown that the stage is a relentless space and never a room.

Jun 5, 2007

Nakamitsu at the Gate Theatre

Translation is an impossible task. Transforming a text from one language into another without losing any of the meaning is like to trying to rebuild a brick house in wood.

The wonderful thing about Ben Yeoh's play is that while most translations conceal the difficult and pragmatic process of re-structuring and re-invention are necessary to any translation, Nakamitsu places that precarious balance between two cultures centre stage.

The primary reason for this is the very nature of the drama that the playwright has chosen to translate. As Ben has highlighted himself, the Japanese Noh tradition from which the play is drawn is grammatically, culturally and historically so distinct that any attempt to directly replicate it would be destined to failure from the start:
"A Noh actor has 20 or 30 years of training, like a ballet dancer, in a specific technique," says Yeoh, who has been working closely with director Jonathan Munby. "To imitate that with a bunch of western actors would be wrong, in the same way that you can't do Greek tragedy today the way the Greeks did it unless you are expert in maskwork and have an amphitheatre at your disposal. To try to copy what is a living tradition in Japan would be a mistake. We want to hint towards the original."
What Ben has ended up with is a beautiful series of echoes, inflections of our own experience delicately blended with the play's Japanese origins. Nowhere is this more effective than at the beginning of the play, as a scene of seedy familiarity begins to be played out in a strip club, men dressed as schoolboys and army officers gyrating on the shiny, white traverse stage. But when this scene is interrupted by a sharp suited white man and his hooded gun-wielding assailant, the language streaming from their western mouths is startlingly alien. This effect is then brilliantly reversed when the almost stereotypical Japanese sounds and costumes of the rest of the play are accompanied by English voices that now, after the opening, seem so comforting and familiar.

and his directors continue to toy between their contradictory frames of references, the stylised movements of the actors at once suggesting the Noh origins of the play and the contemporary nightclub strip-teases of the play's beginning. This translation is unashamedly a new work, as informed by London as it is by Japan and by today as much as it is by the long heritage of Noh drama.

As a consequence of this, and also of the sweaty immediacy of the staging in the tiny Gate Theatre, the story does not feel like a cultural artifact or a museum piece. It's simply narrative of honour, subjection and tragedy have real emotional clout. Some effective pieces of stagecraft, particularly involving a bloody book, dripping red spots onto the white stage, and the incredible music further enhance a thoroughly affecting story.

Neither amalgamated into our own culture and experience or kept as an exotic, distant curiosity, Nakamitsu is a piece of theatre that shares its nature with its most tantalising and intriguing musical accompaniment, an instrument called the Hang, created only in 2000, that incorporates parts of the steel drum and various other percussion instruments and is only made in a small area of Switzerland. Both are fascinating, hybrid creations, that look and feel startling new and yet ancient and familiar. Both are also worth travelling a very long way for.

Jun 3, 2007

My Last Word on the Subject (I promise...)

A lovely article in the Observer this morning from Nicholas Hytner in which he spends a little more time clarifying his position on the absurd brouhaha that he created a couple of weeks ago with a few undiplomatic words about some aging Caucasian theatre critics.

In the article he first takes back his particularly contentious argument regarding the institutional misogyny of theatre critics (thought he does imply that their is an undercurrent of it in their nonchalantly patronising references to naughty school girls and little miss Mitchells). Instead he focuses on the aspect of the debate that myself and others, including Encore and David Eldridge have been interested in - that the 5 nights a week theatre critic who has been in his (and it is always his) job for 30 years and who's seen '50 Hamlets' might have a limited frame of reference for more contemporary performance vocabularies that are as informed by Luis Bunuel or Ingmar Bergman as they are by George Bernard Shaw and George Devine.
The best new plays have always found fresh subject matter, but my experience now is that theatre makers are equally excited about breaching cultural barriers and experimenting in form. Their dialogue is often less with theatre than with other artforms.
Although Hytner goes on to suggest that the critics should go 'to the movies and to the opera' once in a while, this is merely the tip of very large iceberg. For example much of the work that we are now seeing tickling the main stream can be easily traced back to the American-led performance art scene (and its various happenings) that developed particularly around New York in the sixties. To site the most obvious example, in a work such as Richard Schechner's (in)famous Dionysus in 69 can be found the origins of work (site-specific theatre, physical theatre, devised ensemble performances...) that is nearly 40 years later still dismissed as gimmicky novelty.

As Hytner suggests, it is a question of perspective and vocabulary. And as performance art, cinema, opera, dance, carnival and whatever else you might care to mention continue to bleed into each other it is completely right that Hytner should seek to open the National's doors to the new theatrical forms that are a consequence of this exciting mix. If theatre is not to become, as Schechner once famously said, the 'string-quartet of the twenty-first century', a suffocating, nostalgic anachronism, it must remain open to engagement with these different ways of thinking and performing.

In this potentially joyous environment of cross-breeding and mutation, the hermetically sealed theatre critic, despite all their intelligence and experience, is never going to the right person to write about forms and styles and sensibilities that they still consider fundamentally alien to theatre.

Jun 1, 2007

A Call to Arms (or at least Kent)

Dear Reader,

You may or may not be aware that for the last year or so I have been completing a postgraduate course at RADA and King's College, London. For the final part of this programme a friend of mine and myself are creating a site-specifc event in the middle of the Kent countryside.

The small audience will told only to meet at a Victoria station at a given time and then will be whisked out of London and down to a remote railway station near the wonderful, beautiful village of Shoreham, wandering through the village and the surrounding countryside before it all ends in a glorious party at the village hall and the pub opposite. On the route they will encounter various things - scenes, stories, instalations. Echoes of our past, the village's past, reminders of their own walks in the country all within the frame of a Hitchcock meets Agatha Christie-esque romp.

We have been working for the last few months on research and developing links with the village - to the Historical society, the Village players etc. and planning our routes, writing our content and getting the logistics sorted.

All this has been going well but now what we need are volunteer PERFORMERS. And this, my wonderful friends, is where you come in.

Anyone (and I mean anyone... the nature of the show means you can be doing anything from delivering the odd monologue, improvising with the audience to just sitting in a field and having a free drink on us at the end) who is free on SUNDAY 22nd JULY we'd love for you to be involved. We'll pay return train fair to Shoreham - it's only 45minutes each way. It won't require any commitment beyond the Sunday itself and possibly the day before or a couple of hours in the week for preparation.

It's going to be a joyous little celebration of theatre and the countryside - a day trip about day tripping - plus a chance for a bit of a party at the end. So anyone that would like to be involved (in any capacity) please leave me a note in the comments or email me [Andy AT Auroranova DOT org]. Please also if you know anyone else (actors, non-actors, mistresses, cousins) who you think might enjoy a day in the countryside and a bit of performing do spread the word and tell them to get in touch.

Also if anyone is interested but can't make it please let me know and I'd be happy to tell you some more about what we're doing.