Aug 30, 2007

Goodbye, Berlins

Marcel Berlins used part of his Guardian column yesterday to bluster in fine drunk-uncle-uncle-at-Christmas-dinner style about all these damned plays "based on" films.
How dare they take a great work of art and mangle it into some other format, for which it was not designed and envisaged... I suspect the very words "based on", so often the precursor of a work that demeans the original.
Now without getting at all hyperbolic, for me this is exactly the kind of preciousness and reverence that is creatively retarding the whole of Western civilisation.

No work of art is wholly original, no work of art is created in a vacuum. Artist's must be given the freedom (afforded to everyone from Shakespeare to Bob Dylan) to beg, borrow and steal stories, melodies, memories, one-liners - in short anything they can get their grubby, underpaid hands on in their pursuit of greatness. This kind of instinctive dislike of anything "based on" anything else is as dangerous as the encroachment of the dark knights of copyright theft on the health and well-being of the artistic community. (at this stage I'd recommend you go and watch this fascinating 20 minute documentary on musical copyright and the 'Amen Loop' the world's most important 6-second drum loop)

If you like the original then treasure it, value it by all means, but understand that what follows is a new work of art in a new medium. Have the good sense to view it as a discrete entity. The original still exists for Christ's sake - Berlins talks as if they've made the Young Vic's version of All About My Mother from the dismembered remains of every print of Almodovar's original film.

But then, a couple of brandies with Christmas pudding later, Berlins is off again on a completely different (but equally bonkers) track:
Yet I don't object to plays made into films, of which there are thousands, many of them clearly better in their new guise. Nor do I have any problems with stage musical adaptations of movies. But film dramas turned into plays have, until recently, been uncommon. I wish they had remained so. It is a lazy way out for a theatre. It saves the trouble of commissioning new plays from playwrights... it's also a negation of what theatres are supposed to stand for. I get particularly annoyed when Britain's most eminent theatres - the National (public money) and Old Vic included - stoop to the practice. They, above all, should be dedicated to developing and performing original works by playwrights with their own ideas rather than resort to material from the movies.
And note before I get on to the rest, that rancid old chestnut being hurled in Nicholas Hytner's direction again - you, with all of your Public Funding, how dare you not do exactly what I think you ought to do?

The main problem, however, is that Berlins is labouring under (and seemingly being crushed by) the misapprehension that theatre stands for something. It does not. It is a vast, staggeringly wide and unfathomably deep ocean of conflicting ideas, artists, forms, styles and philosophies. It is not a production line for the development of New Playwrights. It is not a medium in which sole possession of ideas or creativity belongs to the guy with the pen in his hand.

Some of the most startling thoughtful and creative artists working today are not writers. Kneehigh's A Matter of Life and Death, 'based on' the Powell and Pressburger movie, being the best example Berlins could have come up with to prove my point - a fascinating, brave and thoughtful piece of theatre, bristling with more ideas and insight in its staging than a dozen tired new plays about polygamy or middle class dinner parties. The point being that the words written down on the page do not have to be the sole (or even the primary) source of ideas, argument and creativity within the theatre. As Lyn Gardner identifies, one of the most interesting and challenging pieces of theatre at the Edinburgh Festival this year, had almost no words at all.

And, besides, what Berlins also seems to have failed to notice is that 80-90% of the theatre churned out by the two institutions he mentions is not new writing at all but restaging of old plays, something which is, apparently, absolutely fine.

Aug 25, 2007


Lyn Gardner has written a lovely article mentioning my show, Exposures, here:
Exposure was a brilliant and simple idea, giving participants a disposable camera and inviting them to go out into the city and take 24 exposures each on a different theme. Exposure One asked you to take a picture of the place you would go if you wanted to tell someone you loved them; exposure nine asked you to snap the future; while Exposure 16 asked you to find the place where you would start an uprising and Exposure 22 demanded you find someone you could fall in love with. The trick of the piece is that it can be done quite alone or in groups; it transforms the entire city into one vast film set and makes you engage and look at the city and the people on the streets with entirely new eyes.
As Lyn mentions I am hoping to go on and develop the show further, and rest assured you will be the first people to know if and when it happens.

Aug 18, 2007

Festival Round-up

Well the festival has now stumbled drunkenly into its second week. Hope, enthusiasm, fatigue, despair and nausea have all come and gone and its possibly time to (heaven forbid) to reflect a little.

For some this has been a festival of circus and spectacle, of bright lights, loud music and dazzlingly euphoric images. Still glowing from its rapturous reception at the Roundhouse earlier in the year, Fuerzabruta is undoubtedly the big show of the festival, if only in the number of wide eyed and over-enthusiastic flyerers it has lingering on every street corner, their t-shirts emblazoned with the show's trademark image. Elsewhere the polish company Biuro Podrozy have torn from Macbeth a grand night time spectacle of revving engines, flickering flames and dangling skulls. And at Assembly the Canadian company 7 fingers of the hand are selling out houses for what is essentially an astounding gymnastic display with a smattering of story.

These remarkable spectacles are invariably successful in Edinburgh. The festival is a sea of white noise, every pore of the city saturated with a kind of bubbly mindless excitement. Rushing from venue to venue there is little time or space to stop and think. The moment the clapping dies down the memory of the show is being drowned out by deadlines, timetables, flyerers and the incessant thronging of the crowds. In such a maelstrom it is understandable that the things that you remember are those that pick you up shake you, leaving you gasping in awe.

For me however, this festival has been about smaller, subtler, quieter shows. About absences, loss, ghosts and the simple art of storytelling.

Tim Crouch's latest show England is one such meticulous and devastating tale of absence. Billed by the traverse as a site-specific performance taking place in the Fruitmarket gallery, I entered (burdened by the baggage that term carries with it) with expectations of grand installations and rooms transformed. What I encountered was simply the gallery itself, bare white walls and slick laminate wood flooring. From out of the assembled throng two nondescript voices rose, thanking us for coming. As they spoke, sharing and swapping the lines of a monologue, somewhere in the air between them the outline of our anonymous narrator began to take shape; an absence, a character without a body, a ghost.

Like the spectral figure at the centre of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, the character is a nameless, fractured urbanite. The beautiful elusive text carefully draws this blurry figure; a man or a woman, surviving heart failure in a high-brow London filled, like the gallery itself (a former fruitmarket now stripped of its history and its purpose), with art, empty symbols, referring to nothing but their own beauty.

In the second half, as we move downstairs into an even barer, emptier room, this devastating sense of loss and emptiness spills out of this insular London world, to the unnamed country in which our narrator's boyfriend has found him/her a replacement heart. Here it is the foreign husband and wife, the heart donor and his widow, who are the greatest absence; unseen, unheard except through the mouth of a translator, unwilling lifesavers for this western stranger. Their identity, their very lives, torn from them to fill a deep emptiness festering at the heart of our slick metropolitan existence.

Rotozaza's Etiquette is similarly an elusive, tantalising insight into metropolitan life. You arrive in a cafe and sit at a table opposite your partner, an assortment of props lined up on one side. A set of headphones buzz with the recorded sound of a cafe, similar to that in which you actually find yourself, and a voice calmly tells you what to do and say. Again, slowly, characters and a conversation form between the two of you. Somewhere in the space between the voice speaking to you and the words coming out of your friend's mouth a scene (almost like a mirage) shimmers and appears - a man and a woman, two strangers, sitting talking in a cafe in Paris.

But it is never as simple as this. You stare across at your friend, they are at once known and unknown, two separate people. At points the tapes you are both listening to diverge, while you continue to carry out actions together they now have different meanings, exist in different worlds - a balcony in the rain and a quiet walk up a hillside. This glorious, intricate kaleidoscope of identities and fractured conversations is punctuated by moments of real intimate beauty shared by the two of you. The kind of connections, the conversations late night with strangers in bars and cafes, that make it feel like the world is whirling ceaselessly around a bubble containing just the two of you. This is the feeling that Etiquette leaves you with. Of having shared something special, and just a little magical.

Another roster of disembodied voices and characters fill Chris Goode's marvellous Hippo World Guest Book. Taking 400 or so pages of conversation from a long-since abandoned Internet message board, Chris has carefully constructed a beautiful parable for, well, the whole of civilisation really. We begin with the creation -an introduction informs us that the page was created by a pleasant looking middle aged man from somewhere in the US called Ramon Valencia, to share his innocent fascination with and love of hippos. As the introduction goes on to tell us how a disillusioned Ramon abandoned the site about a year, Chris carefully builds a little shrine, a stuffed toy, a candle and a photo of this most beneficent of creators; yet another ghostly absence, leaving in his wake a fascinating petrie dish, teeming with modern life.

Slowly and painfully this little society begins to fall apart. In the shows most beautiful and absurd segment a single voice cries out to Ramon, his absent creator, beging and pleading him to answer. By the end even this desperate human voice has died off, leaving only blank spaces and automated spamming machines. And as the lights dim and the music soars, from one man reading from an Internet message board the image was conjured of a lonely barren future, peopled only by automated robots, picking through the last broken debris of civilisation. And its quite funny at points as well.

What these clever, beautiful little shows seem to share is a fascination with fractured, elusive characters; the shadows that we all become passing through the bright lights and the bustle of a big city. And they find ways of representing these characters, of exploring them, embracing them, telling stories about them, through three joyously inventive theatrical forms. And it is these forms that convey this sense of absence as much as their content. In each case you are left with the sense of people you've almost met; the neighbour's intimate conversation overheard in a cafe, the lonely looking girl on the underground, the anonymous note, carefully typed in an internet chatroom.

Aug 17, 2007

A New Show

For anyone who hasn't gorged themselves to Creosotean proportions on the Edinburgh Festival, I am doing a wafer-thin mint of a show for you to savour on Monday 20th. It's completely free and is likely to last up to 2 hours. I don't want to explain too much - suffice to say that you will walking around outside and that you will need to bring a camera. Please do come along - it would be delightful to meet you all in the flesh.

For more information please feel free to contact me at andy.t.field[at]gmail[dot]com.

Aug 11, 2007

Site Specific

"As soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene." Some French guy once said, and he was right.

700 years before anyone had ever been overcharged for their interval drinks at the Lyceum Theatre, groups of guildsmen paraded through the muddied streets of York, Wakefield and Chester. From the back of their wooden carts they performed plays that collapsed epic Christian folklore and mundane social reality beautifully into one another.

400 years before anyone had left Lord of the Rings feeling faintly disappointed, dozens of companies of actors travelled endlessly across the country, the purpose-built auditoriums of London being reserved for only a few exclusive companies.

Then 20 years ago some bright spark came up with the term site-specific theatre. And it caught on.

Site-specific theatre is a horrible Frankenstein term. An entirely made-up theatrical 'movement' stitched together from any number of diverse styles, forms, concepts and performances. Languishing in this verbal dungeon are Shakespeare plays performed in underground vaults, tours around the city of Sheffield in a bus and a series of sculptures in an abandoned hotel; in the last six months alone a warehouse remodelled to look like a town in the Deep South, a Jean Genet play in a hotel in Brighton and two men walking round the Barbican in a big spiral have been rounded up and dumped in this crowded chamber.

The problem is of course that in a 300 word review (or for that matter a 3 sentance press release) there isn't necessarily the space to effectively explain exactly where and exactly how a performance outside of a theatre occurred. Journalistic short-hand exists for a reason. Because it's shorter. Site-specific is an easy and quick way of explaining that a piece of theatre didn't involve an audience sitting down in a purpose-built auditorium and to move on to the far more pressing concern of whether it was any good or not.

The problem is that, like most short-hand, the term is at best so vague as to render it utterly useless. At worst it is a sinister way of pigeon holing
anything not shackled to an auditorium as some kind of gimmicky minority pastime - a small, exciting and eminently controllable pocket of a larger theatre universe. An eccentric second-cousin whose tricks grow tired very quickly. Indeed, already at least one major critic has suggested that site-specific theatre has just become a treasure hunt for the most atmospheric location; a high-brow guided tour of the country's hidden secrets.

There is of course a lot invested in sustaining the attitude that auditoriums of all stripes are the home of true theatre. That they aren't (like playwriting in fact) merely one amongst many potential forms that has gained somewhat of a foothold in the public consciousness over the last 400 years. The people within an investment in this attitude are fundamentally the producing houses and drama schools and broadsheet reviewers that constitute what is unironically known as the theatre industry - the bastard love child of art and commerce.

The prefix site-specific allows people to maintain the notion that the resurgence of a myriad of theatrical forms that break with the conventions of the (predominantly Victorian) auditorium is merely another new-fangled and eminently bracketable subdivision of straight theatre. A gimmick that will no doubt pass, allowing them to get on with the important task of complaining about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the titanic.

I think I am suggesting that perhaps there is a little more going on. That perhaps we are seeing people beginning to rediscover theatre outside of the theatre industry. After all, the mystery plays were not, I believe, ever referred to in their day as site-specific community based promenade performances.

Aug 10, 2007


My post on our glorious day out in the country is now available to have a read of here for those who are interested.

For those who aren't... well, don't read it.

In other news, I keep finding myself in semi-aborted standing ovations. One person rises. And another. And another. I feel it coming. Rising up from the pit of my stomach and lifting me to my feet, clapping uproariously and shaking my head in sage admiration. And then it peters out. Should I stand with the tiny few? Does the show really deserve it or am I succumbing to the euphoria of the mob? These are anxious days. The answer is of course to stop watching really good shows. Either watching incredible ones, or the shatteringly mediocre. 5 stars to the first person who figures out which is more readily accessible in Edinburgh.

Aug 9, 2007

Aurora Nova Profiles: John Moran

John Moran should not be here alone. As the title suggests, his show is a duet between the composer and his partner and former neighbour Saori. However, as the lights dim there is only John, sitting cross-legged on the floor, all in black with a smart waistcoat and his hair neatly parted to one side. He informs us that Saori should have been here, should have been performing with him, dancing to his music. But in order to raise a little extra cash for their voyage to the festival she was working in a restaurant, and just before they were due to fly out she stepped in boiling oil, scolding her foot so badly that she was hospitalized and has had to stay at home. So here is John Moran, performing a duet, solo.

This is just one of the stories that John tells. There is the time that he and Jeff Buckley fought for the affection of a beautiful girl in a grand musical game of one-upmanship. There is the other time he lived in a secret garden for artists in the centre of Paris, and buried the mementos of a lost relationship under a famous statue in the city. Or the time he was a member of a Jungian cult who asked him to commit suicide. These stories filter through John’s music, filling the gaps and covering the entire performance with a soft veneer of mysticism. They are marvellous stories. Beautifully performed. Beautifully honest. Beautifully fantastical. But it is for his music that John Moran is known.

For a long time in New York John Moran was known for his grand theatrical spectacles. Huge operas in spaces like the Lincoln Centre. Shows with dozens of projectors, months of tech, with performers and artists including Allen Ginsberg, Uma Thurman and Iggy Pop. However, after a few years of incredible success these ever grander, ever more extravagant enterprises left John feeling, well, disenchanted. Until one day, sat on his porch in Brooklyn, he happened to see Saori walking gracefully down the steps of the neighbouring apartment block. He asked if she’d come to New York to dance. Quickly she was drafted in as a replacement dancer for a tour of John’s work. Since then he has made nothing but portraits of Saori.

Although in many ways these small intimate pieces are radically different to his former extravaganzas, allowing John the freedom to improvise and play off an audience in a way you simply can’t do when your show requires a dozen technicians, they are still fundamentally an extension of the same philosophy. John calls his music a study of naturalism, presented as music and choreography. He meticulously stitches together hundreds of samples to create the illusion of voices, characters, and environments; Charles Manson, A McDonalds or an assortment of sleazy characters in a grimy LA Bar. As one jaw-dropping scene in the Edinburgh show demonstrates, all of these seemingly naturalistic environments are built upon a delicate, precise musicality; rhythm, phrasing, tone, and pitch are all present in John’s work, they are simply in disguise.

In his performances with Saori, John takes this one stage further. He and Saori become characters in their own show, performing exaggerated versions of themselves. Their words and actions are carefully scored and choreographed, recorded on a track that they then lip-synch to for large chunks of the show. Thus the entire event becomes an illusion. Like the art of Tim Noble and Sue Webster the show first appears as a messy catastrophe, the precision of which slowly (and terrifyingly) dawns on the audience. For some, it is all too much. John has had nights when audiences have sat icy with disapproval. For those who go with it however , the slow revelation of the artistry behind these bizarre scenes takes your breath away.

And without Saori it is this relationship between John and the audience that has become the most fascinating element of his Edinburgh show. In his low-fi, late night slot he is free to experiment with the show, to play with the audience, to create, each night a truly unique experience. This freedom took on an added dimension in the last performance when John asked Silvia Mercurialli of Rotozaza, who he had met since arriving in Edinburgh, to perform one of his pieces with him in the show.

Silvia spent the day wandering round the venue in headphones trying to drill herself in the complex naturalistic moves that John’s pieces require; picking imaginary beers out of fridges, walking five paces to the other end of the room, turning to the left, all timed exactly to the voices of the score. According to both the evening was a lot of fun and from now on it is likely that she may be a regular part of John Moran’s fascinating late night Edinburgh universe.

John Moran and his Neighbour Saori is at Assembly Aurora Nova until August 27th, at 11pm. Tickets from the Aurora Nova box office.

Aug 8, 2007

Aurora Nova Profiles: Rotozaza

Throughout August I have been asked to write a series of profiles on the companies performing as part of Aurora Nova's 2007 Fringe Festival line-up, beginning with the English company Rotozaza.

Rotozaza was formed in the late 1990s by Silvia Mercurialli and Anthony Hampton, having first met at a rather uninspiring workshop in Italy.

In their earliest work they created a series of large, gloriously ambitious events in various parts of mainland Europe, where they had both trained. These early works were what might be called by some site-specific – a vague and comfortable term to bracket together anything that doesn’t occur in an auditorium. In Rotozaza’s work, audiences walked through landscapes, a graveyard or an abandoned school, encountering strange, beautiful, disturbing images.

After moving to London they continued to create unconventional pieces of theatre, frequently in collaboration with many other artists and companies. Despite their diversity and inventiveness these events were however still in some ways fundamentally theatrical, still relied on the discrete division between audience and the actor or environment they were encountering. As well-hidden as it was, scattered across the four corners of an underground vault and chewed up by disorientating installations, the remnants of the stage (on which any performing should be done) was still there.

This began to change almost by necessity when Ant decided that he wanted to do a show with a friend of his who was not by profession a performer. In order to get him on the stage he devised a show in which he would receive instructions as to what he should do. In this way he could be alleviated of responsibility for every action, every word, every gesture. In this way a hole was punctured in the wall between the stage and the auditorium. Suddenly you didn’t need to be an actor, or a pre-rehearsed part of the show, to become part of the performance. Quickly Ant and Silvia realised just how fascinating it would be to put other people in that same situation, to compare their responses to this a list of instructions, to see quite how they would perform.

In this way the emphasis in their work began to fundamental shift. A new seam of questions was opened up – about who should be performing and how (or how much); about whether this having to obey a list of instructions limits you or, divorced from responsibility, frees you up to be more yourself. In a series of shows, including Doublethink and Five in the Morning, the company explored the possibilities of this blurring of the line between audience and performer. Etiquette is in many ways the next logical step.

Two audience members arrive at a café, they sit at a table arrayed with a series of props, they each put on a set of headphones and they begin a conversation (loosely inspired this piece of Jean Luc Godard). Through their headphones they are told what to do and say. There are stories, dialogue, locations, a world is conjured as easily and beautifully as in any more traditional show. Yet it is a world that exists only for two people, or at times only for one, as the two sets of instructions splinter off into separate universes. Etiquette is, as its flyer suggests, a private experience.

Sat in a corner of a café two people perform for each other, and for themselves, their actions mirrored in those of the other people sitting around them, talking and drinking in the real world. To these other people watching the show is also fascinating, a curious naturalistic dance between two people; a delicately choreographed piece of everyday life.

Stripped of its performers and the idea of putting on a show for someone, Rotozaza see Etiquette almost as a gift; an experience offered to anyone. Indeed, the show can be packed away in a box and centre to any corner of the world.

Etiquette will not dazzle you with spectacle or the virtuosity of its creators. It is a more democratic experience; an open invitation, offering anybody the chance to complete the show. As one person who has written in the comments book supplied by the company has suggested ‘it is nice to have a more active role at the fringe.’ And this is precisely what makes it such a wonderful idea.

Etiquette is at Assembly Aurora Nova until 27th August, every 30 minutes from 11.00 to 23.30. Tickets from the Aurora Nova box office.

Aug 7, 2007

Our big trip to the country.

Thank you to everyone who has expressed an interest in discovering a little more about how our spectacular escapade in the country went. At present, I am putting together a bit of a photo-record of the day, with some notes and such like, to give you a good sense of how the whole thing went. This will probably be ready by the end of the week but suffice to say for now, it was a wonderful day and thank you to everyone involved. And here's a little teaser...

(p.s. I see the excitement of the day has already gone to some people's heads. Actors, eh?)

The Edinburgh Festival

Well, the Edinburgh Festival is in full swing, colourful t-shirts and ugly posters litter the cobbled streets and the air heaves thickly with the heady scent of enthusiasm and disappointment. For those who have never experienced the sensual assault that is The Royal Mile during August, it is something to behold - a gauntlet of flyerers, street artists, tourists and tour guides and alchoholics. A marketing mardi-gras. All of the overcrowding and adolescent posturing of Oxford Street without any of the shops.

"Would you like a flyer?"


"Come see my show?"

"What is it?"

"Oh it's great"

"Take a flyer"


"Come see the Laramie Project!"

... and on it goes. What is possibly most frustrating about all of this is the shuddering lack of originality to it all. Year after year companies come up, new companies, young companies "fresh, vital, original" (The Scotsman 5/8) companies and yet all they can muster to sell the piece of art that they have slaved over, that they have laboured and sweated and plundered their bank accounts to bring to the festival, are the same old tired gimmicks year after year.

A grizzled, shell-shocked veteran of numerous Edinburgh campaigns, I barely notice someone lying prone in the middle of the street covered in blood and surrounded by flyers; words written in foot high chalk letters scrawled on a street corner barely receive a glance, mimes are swatted away like so many late-summer flies; I no longer see costumes, only that fools inside them.

What I like, what I respect, admire, nay even, on a hazy afternoon spent wandering peacefully through the carnage, enjoy, is someone who will quietly, politely, gently offer me a flyer and exlain a little about their show. I don't want some clever line. I don't want some arse to tank by dressed as a chicken, followed by his inevitable entourage, carpet bombing anyone foolish enough to turn their heads and look with flyers for their no doubt hilarious Sketch Comedy troupe or their version of Intolerable Acts of Genocide: The Musical. I want to meet people. Nice People. Nice people who have something to say about what they are doing and why they are doing it.

A Theatre Festival is always a procarious balance, emphasis see-sawing between the first part of that name and the latter. As I sloshed through the rain at the Edinburgh Fringe Launch party, puddles forming around the corporate sponsored chicken stands and running in little streams down the well worn red carpet, it occurred to me for about the thousandth time that Edinburgh has undoubtedly tottered critically towards the latter at the expense of the former. Which is not to say that there aren't a great number of shows of a remarkably high standard. But where is the sense of unity, of dialogue or exchange, of artistic expression in the way they are presented?

Truth is, although some venues do their best to present a thoughtful, challening programme, as a whole the fringe is simply a gaudy, garbled, groggy, incoherent mess. Like the pitiable acts performing at the Fringe Launch Cabaret, companies, venues and performers all bellow for attention over the raised voices of the drinking, talking, laughing masses, who either can't or won't listen.