Jul 28, 2007

The Day Trip

As a bit of break from the frantic drama of the fringe I thought I'd finally finish up the picture diary/rambling commentary that I have been putting together to detail our weekend in the country. Photos are by myself or Ben Yeoh...

On Sunday 22nd July, surrounded by the rolling hills and suspiciously picturesque villages of the Darrent Valley, our site-specific extravaganza finally came and went. Meteorological speaking it was the perfect day and our merry troupe of nearly 50 performers (amateurs, professionals who volunteered their time, whingers... the list goes on) did themselves (and us) absolutely proud. So here, for those who might be interested is a sort of photo-journal of the day.

For the audience from London, things started at Victoria station where their tickets had informed them to meet, without any prior knowledge of where they were going or what they would be doing. Here they were collected by a bowler hatted gentleman from the freshly resurrected London Necropolis Company, who put them on a train down towards Shoreham, in Kent. On the train various characters appeared and we began to weave an Agatha Christie style murder mystery. The idea being that a structure as simple and recognisable as the detective story would propel the audience through the unusual form/landscape they were exploring. Almost immediately we began to bombard this story with interuptions, non-sequiteurs and red herrings. A messiness

At the station we had a variety of characters and installations waiting for the audience. Almost as they stepped off the platform the audience found themselves bombarded with interuptions, non-sequiteurs and red herrings, undermining the simplicity and obvious superficiality of the story with a glorious messiness, a rambling, contradictory, multi-layered environment for the audience to chew on. From the station small groups of audience members were led off at ten minute intervals down one of two routes - the country route or the village route - before they were gathered together again, first all the groups on each side seperately and then the whole audience (and anyone who'd been picked up along the way) in the village hall for a grand finale.

We had no one leading these groups through the environment, instead we offered clues and signs and characters dotted along the route, inviting the audience (inspired by their detective story) to lead themselves around. We wanted the audience to feel like more than a tour group, we didn't want them to feel like they were being led between a series of stages or sets. We wanted the joins between our work and the real countryside to be seamless, to force the audience to see everything, to try and make some sense of everything - to not just focus on the parts that were obviously theatre.

Those things that we had placed there we wanted to both harmonise and clash with the environment around them. We wanted the audience to feel at once that they were in a story, a dream, a nostalgic vision of the past, a charming murder mystery that needed solving, and a living place with its own history and its own people (a home). More than this we wanted the village and the country surrounding it to be all these things at once. We wanted these different layers to show through each other and reflect each other, creating an almost carnival environment in which no one (audience, performers and villagers) quite knew who they were or where they were.

Over the course of the show the audience played a variety of roles. They were detectives, visitors on a day trip, audience members at a show, actors in a rehearsal, bohemians in a field, (drinkers in a pub). Sitting down, being quiet, is only one of the roles an audience can play (admittedly they do it very well - they've had a lot of rehearsing).

As for our 'actors' they similarly were performing several roles all at once. This was their village, some were performing in or around their houses. And yet they were also something else - exaggerations of themselves or other characters all together. And they were as much experiencing the show as anyone in the audience. Or indeed anyone who happened to be wandering through the village that day - early in the morning as we were setting up I talked to a couple who had followed our paper trail of wanted posters and Village placards and threatening letters up the country path, wandering what was happening, recounting the memories and histories that they recalled.

For more information on any of this please feel free to drop me an email at andy.t.field@gmail.com. Myself and Polly are now starting work on another (even larger...) project, so I may well be back on the recruiting band wagon very soon. You have been warned.

Jul 27, 2007

Aaron Sorkin and the rise and rise of Cinematic Television

Last night I watched the pilot episode of coke-addled genius Aaron Sorkin's most recent televisual extravaganza, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It was glossy and quick and diverting, camera shots and one-liners competing for the speed and poise with which they could come and go. It must be said that it was by no means his best effort but undoubtedly I was entertained and spent a good while afterwards roaming the wrong side of the internet tracks looking for the next episode (any tips most welcome). What it really made me think however, was quite how good some television really is.

[Now let me pause for a second and clarify here, we are talking about some television. On the major terrestrial channels this evening at prime time 8.30pm we have this rogues gallery:

BBC2: Gardener's World
ITV1: A repeat of Midsommer Murders
Channel 4: Big Brother
Channel 5: The Black Mamba, The Austin Stevens Adventure

I am not talking about this television. I am talking about Heroes, Dexter, Dead Wood, Life on Mars, Lost and House to name just the first seven current or very recent shows that leapt into my mind]

And, without becoming one of these blurry eyed nostalgists banging on about the good old days, I think its fair to say that this quality is thrown into even starker relief by the bottom-feeding sequel-obsessed awfulness of mainstream cinema. Although this is like shooting dead fish at the bottom of an empty barrel, just take for example the latest releases to hit our big screens; A movie based on a toy, third sequel of a twenty year old franchise and a movie based on, you guessed it, a television show.

This last example is a useful segue into my main point. That the differentiation between television and cinema in recent years been redefined; someone has shifted the goal posts. As movie rentals and film channels increase exponentially, while art house cinemas get smaller and home cinemas get bigger, any distinction between film and television based on a big screen/small screen opposition becomes ever more problematic.

A better distinction is the one that Phillip Auslander makes between the televisual and the cinematic. This is a distinction based on the actual process of making moving pictures. For Auslander the televisual is an extension of live theatre, filmed predominently from one angle and existing in a coherent and defined space and time. This was how cheap and cheerful television was made, quickly and plenty of it. A panel show, for example, or any traditional sit-com from I Love Lucy to Will and Grace.

The cinematic however is founded on the principal of the cut. The cut is the basic building block through which a universe, and a film, are created. We know two actors are talking without seeing them in shot together because we understand the principal of the cut. The Cut allows cinema freedom to control time and space. Universes are invented, patched together from various shots and locations, time is reorganised entirely. A scene is invented from various strands that never need meet until the editing room. For anyone after Georges Melies, this was how cinema was made.

Using this distinction then most of the shows I am referring to when I talk about the quality of television are essentially not television at all but cinema. They are cinema for people that don't go to the cinema any more.

The cinema as a building, as an evening out, has been quite comprehensively handed over to the under 25 bracket. People who will just choose to go to the cinema regardless of what is on. Consequently what you will find at the cinema has been by and large tailored to them. Hence the endless stream of sequels, safe in the knowledge that those who liked it once will likely go for some more of the same if they happen to be there anyway. Hence the plotless exploitation slasher flicks that are now your standard multiplex fare. Hence the multiplex, in fact - a big flashy unpleasant, sub-shopping centre roof-over-your-head; the perfect loitering hole for people too young to drink on a friday or saturday night. Mainstream cinema is now pretty conclusively theirs.

In its stead, television has become cinema for grown-ups. And this is therefore where all the best, grown-up, intelligent, glossy, fun, cinematic stuff can be found. And this is why I believe it is a pretty safe bet to say that the best mainstream cinema of the last few years has been on the television. Take for example, the first four series of the West Wing. Some of the most fantastic cinematic fare of the last ten years. Band of Brothers blew any other recent war film out of the water. And Lost, in its early days at least, was the most intelligent action film you could want to see.

The only problem with this is that often this means you fail to have that Shawshank effect that cinema offered - a really quality piece of work that grows in acclaim as it gets older. Television, so dominated by ratings, snuffs out anything unsuccessful very quickly, with the producers having to hope and pray on healthy DVD sales, the televisual equivalent of a defibrillator, to bring them back to life. Take a look at say the wonderful firefly, with a lifespan about as long as the bug of the same name. Or indeed, Studio 6o on the sunset strip, which is back where we started. No sooner have I been tantalised by the first episode than I discover the whole thing has been cancelled after one series. Still, unlike the movies that still leaves a good 14 hours to sit through, which should be quite enough for me.

The Manifesto for a Revolutionary Theatre

(A rather silly idea I've had brewing for a little while now, though hats off to anyone who would actually have the cojones to do it... I wonder what would happen...)

The revolutionary war is a war of the masses; it can be waged only by mobilizing the masses and relying on them. (Mao Zedong)

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see? (Herbert Kretzmer)

Comrades, Friends, Countrymen... how long have we toiled in the shadows? How many times have we wept and fretted late into the night? How often have we struggled bravely to the end, only to be broken by the knowledge that its just the interval?

From Drury Lane to Victoria, ours is a nation of islands, ruled by a cadre of sinister overlords. These besuited Batistas, these velveteen czars, these backstage bougoisie govern with an iron fist. Freedom of expression? No! A voice for the people? No! Drinks for under £5? No! Instead they subject us to the cruel excesses of their monkey-faced rasputins while we, the people, cower in the darkness. Well, comrades, we have cowered enough.

Now is the time for fighting! Now is the time for revolution! The aisles will run red with blood and the auditorium will ring with the sound of a thousand cheering warriors!

They have the money, they have the power, but we, we have the people.

But, I hear you cry, the people will never rise. They are too long in the thrall of the hegemony of these dress circle demagogues. They sit meekly in their seats like mice. They are afeared to make a sound, even the slightest noise that might incur the ire of their overlords. Their phones are switched off and their hearts are burnt out. They daren't even leave at the interval.

What they need is a push. They need us, a guerilla army. We will fight not with the people but for the people. And when they see our valiant deeds, they shall flock to us like the man selling little tubs of dairy ice cream.

The time has come to stage a coup! Propaganda by deed! We shall strike at the epicentre of the empire. We shall sever the head of the regime. If the theatre is an island, then the stage is its palace. And we shall take this palace. We shall take the stage!

Their tired celebrations have been whirring on long enough. We all know the blueprints of the palace inside out. We all know it all; the cardboard barricades, the giant chandaliers, the grown men in gazelle heads, the witches and orcs and ballet dancers and the soap stars in fishnet tights singing about prison. We know it all so well. We have suffered through it all so long. We know what we have to work with. All we must do is come up with something better.

A better story. A better cast. Better costumes. Better songs.

We will sweat and fight and toil. We shall write and rewrite. We shall rehearse and re-rehearse. We shall hire Les Dennis. And then we shall fire him. And eventually we will craft something unsurpassable.

And then one night, one blessed night, we shall take our seats amongst the people. We shall sit in the stalls, hidden amongst our masses. And as the island grows dark and the soldiers of the old regime prepare to wheel out their tired spectacle we shall storm the stage! And our show shall begin. And the audience will marvel, for they will have seen little like it. They must love us, they must want us, truly, this is a theatre of the people.

And as they rush to throw us from the stage, either the audience will sit placidly, then we have failed, or they shall rise to our defence, then we have succeeded! We will have built a new theatre of the people. They will not be able to stop us.

Oh! Our masters are growing weary, they are running out of ideas. The people are growing restless. Now is the time. Now they are ready. This is our moment. This is our perfect moment.

Join us! Together we shall forge a new nation. A new world order. All for one and one for all! This is the manifesto for a revolutionary theatre. Go forth and conquer. Thank you. Good Night. Adieu, adieu, adieu...

Jul 19, 2007

Brian Responds

Following on from my last night's rather silly polemic against Time Out reviewer Brian Logan he has (to his eminent credit considering I didn't really deserve it) given me a full reply:

I’m sorry that you didn’t like my review. I stand accused of being lazy, half-arsed and, worst of all, Johnny Vaughan-inspired. That’s hard to bear.

I do take my responsibility to the productions that I review very seriously, particularly when writing for Time Out, which we all know has a disproportionately high influence on the fate of London fringe shows. I know what it’s like to make theatre; I don’t take lightly the effort involved. If I ever seem to – well, I regret that.

I don’t pretend to be objective, even if (I’m just agreeing with Mark Fisher here) I see no need to explain in every review that this is just ‘one person’s opinion,’ blah blah. I think that would make for boring writing. And I do try to write entertainingly, which might be just another word for ‘glib’, ‘superficial’ or (an accusation frequently levelled at me) ‘like a giddy schoolgirl.’ According to taste.

I don’t measure plays against ‘a standard seemingly set at some meeting in about 1965’ – which was, incidentally, long before I was born. Although I do agree that that standard exerts a tyrannous influence over British theatre criticism. If I have a bias, it’s for devised theatre of the Improbable / Complicite / Told By An Idiot school – which isn’t known for its ‘coherent plot’ and ‘political and social themes.’

That apart, most of your comments, about 300-word reviews, the star system, et al, are truisms with which most theatre writers (as opposed to arts editors or newspaper editors) would heartily agree. Myself included.

So: apologies again for making you so angry. I soldier on, trying not to be fatuous. Best wishes with your blog.

So there you go.

Thanks to Brian for getting back to me. And for Mark and Andrew for commenting as well. And it wasindeed slightly lazy of me to just pull out the usual '1956 and all that' sledgehammer when I should know that Brian's own company are so consistently imaginative and inovative.

And I would have to agree - my main point is hardly radical - 300 words suffocates both engagement with a performance and the style with which someone can express that. But what can you do?

Answers on a postcard to Arts Editor at The Guardian...

Jul 18, 2007

Brian Logan reminding us all why theatre criticism is dying in a corner.

Following on from my previous post I, Young Turk that I am, am going to be so bold as to describe Brian Logan's sub-300 word un-review of the same play in Time Out as one of the most lazy pieces of theatre criticism I have ever had the misfortune to come across.

Now before you all sigh wearily and shake your heads at the rather futile game of Cannon Fodder that continues to be waged between Theatre Critics and, well, Everyone Else. Let me just say that:

a) I know that it is hideously boring and thoroughly unproductive to spend time that could valuably spent writing about exciting interesting things (brown paper packages tied up with string, mittens, etc) firing petulant salvos at people required to see 4 shows a week and submit their review almost as soon as the applause has died.

and b) That Time Out is glossy listings magazine with all of the critical weight of The Argos Catalogue.

But frankly, theatre makers deserve at least a smidgen of the effort and a gnat's breath of the thought they put into making their shows to be put into the act of writing a review. This kind of half-arsed self-aggrandising journalism-by-numbers is an insult to those who it purports to criticise.

So enough preamble. Let's take a look at the three paragraph's Logan scribbled on the back of a chewing gum wrapper, sitting on the Victoria line on the way home, giggling like a giddy school girl at his own witticisms.

First though I just want to preempt anyone leaps to his defence by stating that it is not his fault that he is straight-jacketed into writing such a puny amount about each show he sees. True, undoubtedly he has a word limit and as George Hunka and Alison Croggan amongst others have argued, it is this brutal brevity that is one of the main reasons for the hyperbolic, cliche-ridden garbage that is passed off as reviewing in the main stream media; because frankly unless your show stars Madonna or was written by an ageing white guy who made his name in the 70s, the reviewer is simply not given the space or the word count to properly engage with the piece they have seen and instead falls back on a series of superficial and lazy platitudes or smug and uninspiring digs. Enter, stage left, the review in question:
I’ve made some excuses for crying off work in my time, but this takes the cake. Yun Chin is a town clerk who throws a several-week sickie after seeing a ghost on his bike-ride home. Not surprisingly, his colleague Ku finds this hard to believe – and so Yun Chin re-enacts the cycle with her help, bringing the story of that night-time ride back to life.
So for those of you at the back who aren't keeping up what Brian has rather cleverly done here is to waste almost one third of his review with a series of Johnny Vaughn inspired Nuts magazine gags about pulling sickies. Yes, it is hi-larious to juxtapose the metaphorical excesses of a theatre script with the mundane realities of our work-a-day lives. In fact, here, let me have go.
I've made some excuses for having a bit of a swingers party in my time, but this one takes the cake. Four lovers do a runner into a Forrest and all ending whacked out on some magic potion. Not surprisingly they all end up trying to get in each other's knickers, and the rest of the play is spent trying to sort out all the mess.
How very clever and what an utter waste of time. And don't get me wrong, I am big fan of reviewers who enjoy nothing more than mercilessly mocking the puffed-up silliness of theatre, but when you're confined to a meagre three hundred words and your review is about the most high-profile piece that will be written on said production, surely the hard-working folk involved deserved more than your posturing ladishness. You're a theatre reviewer man, act like one - or do everyone a favour and go write on Nicolas Cage movies for FHM.

Anyway, onwards and downwards we go.
That’s the premise of ‘Bicycle’, the UK premiere of a 1983 play by Korean playwriting ‘master’, Oh Tae-Suk. And it’s not quite as intriguing as it thinks it is. If a play is conceived as a mystery to be solved in one extended, frequently interrupted flashback, with all the reduced immediacy that entails, it had better engage the audience in its mystery from the get-go. This one doesn’t. The characters of Yun Chin (Vincent Manna) and Ku (Bodelle de Ronde) are introduced so obliquely, I barely knew who they were, far less why I should care about them.
Now we'll leave aside the nasty, smirking scare quotes hovering around the word master and lets go straight for my Number One Bugbear. The resumptuous imagined objectivity of mainstream theatre reviewers. Unless our good friend Brian gathered up the audience and metered out a quick straw poll of Those Who Were Engaged and Those Who Weren't (and I think we can safely assume that this is unlikely to be the case) then we can only presume that when he grandly refers to the audience, he rather more modestly means Brian Logan. Brian Logan was not engaged. Which is no crime. As Michael Billington does nothing but tell us these days, every man is entitled to his opinion. I'd just rather that His opinion wasn't assumed to be the de-facto final verdict on whether this play is engaging or not.

For the record I found its scarred and contorted storytelling and its shadowy Brechtian characters utterly engaging. I may not have cared about them, and the plot may not have been rattling along on straight steel rails like a steam train but I found it compelling. Why should playwriting that fails to comply with a standard seemingly set at some meeting in about 1965 be instantly assumed to be merely a failure to achieve that standard. Maybe the writer didn't want clearly defined characters, or a coherent plot that conveyed the play's political or social themes through personal conflict. Maybe this limited model of quality playwriting can take its outdated rhetoric and shove it where the stage lights don't reach.

But here's the real kicker:
But, while you can’t fault the commitment of the eight-strong cast, dramatically this ‘Bicycle’ seldom gets out of first gear.
*The sound of one manning slow clapping in an otherwise empty room*

Oh well done. Bravo.

So let's see. You started with a hundred wasted words fatuously compering the play to real life, continued by describing the play as objectively a failure because it didn't engage you by fulfilling a standard you have imposed upon it, and then finished with a pun.

Job. well. done.

Now if you've made it this far I commend you. And as a reward I promise this is the last time I shall waste my breath writing about the mainstream media critics. And here I my final words on the matter; I believe that:

- The task of theatre criticism is not to inform a reader, that is the task a marketing department.

- Criticism that pertains to any form of objectivity or objective standard is like a man who thinks he can talk to cats.

- Theatre criticism is about personal engagement.

- For the reader, theatre criticism is about discovering someone else's opinion, not finding out whether the show is worth seeing or not.

- The star system is criticism for people who can't read.

- Reviewing, on the scale that is allowed for it in the national newspapers is a promotional tool, not theatre criticism.

- Theatre criticism reduced to three short paragraphs will invariably replace genuine engagement or effort with lazy aphorisms and cheap jokes. Small reviews lead to small-minded reviewing.

I may be gone some time...

Unfortunately as you may have noticed real life has become all too real in the last couple of weeks and I have been totally run off my feet, hence my extended leave of absence from our rather cosy imaginary village of about 17 theatre bloggers. But to tide you over till the end of this week (when I expect the ticker tape to be out to welcome me back...) check out my review of Bicycle at The Camden People's Theatre which is now up on the Culture Wars website.
Like The Wizard of Oz, Bicycle is a mythical journey in search of home, upon which the hero encounters a series of strange and wonderful characters before the whole thing ends up back where it started. However, unlike the Technicolor jollity and the safe return to Kansas of the American fable, Master Oh’s beautifully crafted play is haunted by mutilation, disease, death, war, hunger and genocide; what director Min-Jae Kang refers to as a unique feeling of sorrow and regret that sits at the heart of the Korean condition.
Its a lovely little piece and definitely worth a trip up to Euston Road.

Back soon, I promise.