Oct 28, 2007

Field of Dreams

I am unashamedly a lover of sport in very nearly all of its myriad forms.

Oh! The feel of damp grass on a Saturday morning. The fizzle of anticipation watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The intoxicating perfume of chlorine hanging on the off-white tiles of a leisure centre swimming pool. The hours idled away with the dulcet tones of Peter Allis shimmering over the emerald greens of Augusta. The sweat! The tears! The glory! The lingering feeling of anti-climax.

I blame my mother, she used to be a PE teacher and her ability to raise me to be competent at every sport it's important for a young boy to be able to play meant my secondary school years were spent as a hardworking if critically ungifted everyman in a variety of school teams. She is also to blame for an addiction to that far (physically if not emotionally) easier role of spectator. I have measured out my life in great sporting events, and now, crippled as I am by an almost insatiable need for competition, I can watch any sport and within a minute have been unconsciously transformed into an utterly partisan supporter. For me there has never been such a thing as neutral spectating.

All of which serves as an interesting contrast to the reams of theatrical bombast that is more the norm hereabouts. In fact I think this is almost the first time I have mentioned this particular fascination.

You see, the relationship between theatre and sport hasn't been a rosy one, less a love story and more Kramer vs. Kramer. In which case sport has definitely been playing the Dustin Hoffman role, ending up with all the exposure, the supporters, the money and the freedom of the cities of first Manchester and now London. All the while theatre is absent, crying in an elevator somewhere.

Sport is the nation's favourite past time, it is The People's diversion of choice. As I have already suggested with myself as a particularly pathetic test case, it is a lifelong commitment and a manufacturer of era-defining events (it is, after all, 1966 and all that, not 1956 that causes (most) people of a certain age to lapse into teary eyed nostalgia).

Primarily theatre's only response to the rise and rise of sport (and not just football but rugby, tennis, cricket and even formula one) as a headline grabbing, nation-captivating glitzy entertainment phenomenon has been staggeringly dull. With its focus on content rather than form, we have had a series of workmanlike plays about how much sport becomes a site of hope and community in the otherwise mediocre lives of (generally working class) men; so we've had Up n Under, An Evening With Gary Lineker and its follow up Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson, and, of course, Andrew LLoyd Webber's The Beautiful Game. In addition to this, dance and physical theatre have discovered a collection of interesting ways to turn sport into a pale and cloyingly precious series of smug vignettes, most of which end up becoming a part of the opening ceremony of some big sporting event or other. For examples see the utterly silly Kataklo (at Aurora Nova at Edinburgh last year) and the superior (and funnier) though no more interesting Score by French company Au Cul de Loup (at the same venue this year).

Problem with all of these productions is that they borrow all the wrong things from sport. Sport is not about personalities. In all honesty most of those magical stories and marvellous characters involved in sport are utterly cliched and predictable. Sport is not good at telling stories; mainly because it only knows about five of them. The down on their luck losers who (almost) triumph against all odds. The local boy done good. The wisened old master, soaked in drink and full of wise aphorisms and a moments of cuddly misogyny. The victory clutched from the jaws of defeat in the last minute. We know all this. We've seen all this. It offers nothing to us but the same faintly warming glow of familiarity as the Hollywood movie.

People do not play sport or watch sport for these mediocre narratives. What sport offers is actually the complete opposite. It offers chance. A framework in which for people to challenge themselves and each other. When people in sport talk about performance they are referring to something far more dynamic and interesting than the way that most people would use that term in theatre. In sport performance is about a relationship with chance, an acknowledgement of the unrepeatability of this particular moment and this particular action. While the actor rehearses his performance, the sportsman rehearses for his performance; he practises, he trains, he prepares and when the whistle or the gun goes he pitches himself knowingly into the unknown. Hence while most mainstream theatre tends towards the uniform, sport is always tilting at the impossible.

It's no surprise therefore that the one area of theatre that had taken up the form of sport (its language and its structures), rather than merely its detritus, is improvisation. In improv you frequently have games, competitions, exercises - no surprise then that people have been using the term theatresports for a certain kind of improv since the legendary Keith Johnstone coined it in the 70s. And, indeed, most of the improv shows I have been to have more of the feeling of a sporting event about them than the theatre, there is a flavour of something urgent and unrepeatable in the air (normally sadly drowned out by an offensively loud soundtrack of jaunty remixed 80s pop music) and regardless of the quality (which is frequently as terrible as the music) the audience is almost always enthralled.

But what of the potential for borrowing from sport in some other form than a bunch of energised comedians playing games? As much as I love the idea of having two competing productions fighting over stage space for the audience's delightful (The Seagull finally losing out to Sarah Kane's Cleansed when a rat runs off with the former play's titular prop), in practise I can't see it working out. Perhaps what's needed is a sense that of that reaching for the impossible - of theatre not as a product to be honed to perfection but as a unique event to be prepared for and played. What the script needs to represent is less a guideline or blueprint for the production and more a set of boundaries within which to play.

Either that or let's simply turf the Theatre Royal stage, invite Wayne Rooney in and have done with it.

Oct 25, 2007

The Curious Dichotomies of Mr Billington

Its just Us and Them
Over and over again
Us v. Them
Over and over again
(LCD Soundsystem)

Africa, many, many years ago, before Doctor Livingstone had been presumed or anyone had decided it was a Heart of Darkness, was a continent constantly in motion. The tribes scattered across its unbordered lands were not static entities, defined by race or geography. You were not the member of a single group. Instead your collective identity was plural; you at once belonged to families, neighborhoods, communities, tribes; first comers were only defined in opposition to late comers, who, once someone else new arrived, were amalgamated into the first comers. Which is not to say this was paradise, people fought and people died. But it was an elegant, and universally understood system. That was, until white people arrived, with their flags and their guns, and their 'evolved' ideas about nationhood. And they didn't have a clue how this old system worked. And did they ever mess it up.

You see, in absence of any sense of understanding, and struggling to differentiate themselves from these heathens, they assumed that the tribal system in Africa was merely a less evolved version of our system in the west. They arbitrarily, and tragically/hilariously, assumed tribes were entirely separate entities, with a territory, a race, a past, an identity all of their own. And so, before they placed everyone in shackles, they placed everyone in brackets. You vs. you vs. you. And the massacres begun.

Because whenever you construct an opposition, its a) to simplify things and b) to cause conflict. Because we love dialectics and we love fighting.

Which brings me to Mr Billington. Mr Billington loves dialectics and he loves fighting. Nary a review goes by when he doesn't take the opportunity to point out the categories of theatre he is reinforcing. Take, for example, his review of Water by Filter, at the Lyric Hammersmith, which is begun not by any note on the show, but by this:
Devised theatre, at its worst, often leads to narrative and political flabbiness.
And then there is this from another four star review, this time of The Masque of the Red Death:
I still see this kind of magical mystery tour as an alternative to, rather than a substitute for, conventional drama
And then, earlier this week freed from the straight jacket of actually having to review the shows he has been sent to review, he is allowed to truly mount his soap box in an exclusive tribute to his new book:
although the phrase "text-based theatre" has acquired a ludicrously pejorative ring, I still see the writer as the medium's creative mainspring. Collective research is important. But out of the dramatist's truculent solitude derives our portrait of a nation still struggling, after all these years, to discover its true identity.
Piece by agenda-driven piece Mr Billington is building his brackets. On one side he places "text-based theatre" and the lone writer, tippy tapping her/his way into the annuls of real theatre. And on the other side he has a cartload of "experimental" forms governed and marshaled by that most beloved of umbrella terms "Devised Theatre". But of course, it would be churlish of me to suggest that Mr Billington is forging this dichotomy in truculent solitude. Here is Charlie Spencer from in the Telegraph, on, again, Water:
In a weak year for new plays, devised theatre has led the way, with first Complicite and now a company called Filter coming up with work that dazzles the eye, enchants the ear, and stimulates both the mind and heart.
And you'll notice here that Mr Spencer speaks of these productions with nothing but heartfelt praise to lavish on them (after all, even Mr Billington gave Water a four star review).

No, what is happening here is something far more interesting. Like people have done with so many movements before, they have given to a smorgasbord of shifting, undefinable theatrical forms that they don't understand, a name - Devised Theatre. And in this way they can simplify it, and ghettoise it.

They can dismiss a desire, a need, a gallant attempt by dramatists, directors, writers, actors, artists and theatre makers to challenge the forms in which they are working. They can take universal creative development, an attempt at finding new (more effective) modes of political and personal expression, and reduce it to a movement, a fad, in opposition to (and unable to replace) the static theatrical form with which they are comfortable.

But of course, it isn't as simple as this. People haven't discovered a new trick, learnt a new language - this isn't a theatrical gold rush to mine every last nugget of this novelty form "Devised Theatre" before they shuffle back to real theatre.

No - the term "devised theatre", and the resulting productions it has come to represent, is not something happening in a corner. It is one visible facet of a larger sensibility in theatre, affecting and encompassing a myriad of theatrical forms.

In order to show you what I mean, let's quickly take these terms apart shall we.

Devised Theatre. What does this mean, devised theatre? It's not improvised theatre, so someone must have written it down. Complicite have scripts. Nowadays they are mainly the product (and bear the hallmarks) of the companies artistic director, Simon Mcburney. Water certainly has a very definite script, with echoes of the work of David Greig. So does it mean work that is the product of a devising process?

And this devising process, it has no controller, no transcriber, no editor? Is the script just the vast, unwieldy verbiage of a year or so of thinking, vomitted up on the page? How do playwrights get their ideas. Do they talk to their friends, have read-throughs of scenes - steal from things they've heard, friends and passers by? Is truculent solitude the necessary state? So Brenton and Hare - they're not writers. Or David Eldridge on Market Boy, he's not a writer. Or David Greig, again - sometimes he's a writer and sometimes he's not.

And what about theatre devised from a pre-existing text? Like Inspector Sand's Hysteria, based on TS Eliot's poem. What is the difference between a version of The Wasteland and a version of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life - both offer a startling ambiguous text, that the director is required to piece together, to devise a show from. One is a poem, one is a play text - so one is devised and the other is not?

What about Chris Goode and (much as Chris may flinch at this coupling) Anthony Neilson. Writers, devisors, directors... Where is the tribe to put them in?

Text Based Theatre. Is not every show based on a text. Not necessarily a written text, maybe a text written on the body - in movements, or actions. In this context is not every text worked over, slaved over, edited, refined, dreamt on in solitude by one part or another. The work of Derevo - a text in movement undoubtedly written only by the companies head Anton Adasinsky - do they create text-based theatre? For better or for worse he spends years labouring over his pieces, believes them to be incredibly refined, political, exact. Is he writing text-based-theatre, simply in a language that Billington doesn't understand?

What these pieces represent - from people like David Greig, David Eldridge, Martin Crimp, Simon McBurney, Derevo and Filter, is a desire. A desire to find their own language, to explore their medium. What they all represent is mainstream theatre remaining vital. Mainstream theatre moving forward. Because while Mr Billington desperately scratches his line in the sand, theatre makers are waltzing round him in circles. But while they may not notice his line, his readers undoubtedly do. And this is something that must be addressed.

There is another, untouched upon element of this constructed divide. Another reason that Mr Billington seems ever more keen to assert that it is Us vs Them. And that is that the them he constantly posits as 'devised', 'experimental' and 'new' is anything but. Filter and Complicite are hardly cutting edge - in fact remove the label and they are as mainstream as you like, crafting scripted narrative dramas for large proscenium auditoriums. Punchdrunk, with their versions of canonical texts and their largely passive 'masked' audience following (not leading) the action around a contained environment, are hardly representative (and certainly don't claim to be) of most interactive, audience-led or site-specific theatre.

And yet if these companies can be happily positioned as one side traditional/experimental text-based/devised dichotomy that constitutes contemporary theatre, people working beyond and outside of these constructed categories are left in suffocating silence. Because Mr Billington et al. are already confronting (and dismissing) what they have decided is the other side of theatre. Mainstream theatre has had its fill. Their boxes have been ticked and their consciouses are clean. Everything else can be fed to the professors.

(N.B. Slightly edited as written in awful hurry...)

Oct 22, 2007

Do you bite your thumb at me sir?

Stage fighting is rubbish.

Really, it is. Awful. And the main reason why it is so awful is because stage fighting (fighting on stage) has become Stage Fighting, a particularly annoying and pointless theatrical sub-industry. You can take courses in Stage Fighting, you can hire Stage Fighting ‘experts’ to come in and teach you how to Stage Fight. You can buy books on it.

And thus stage fighting becomes a skill, a technique in the actor’s repertoire, like juggling or ballet; another needless tool that the drama schools can use to convince theatre that acting is a job that can be taught. Except that stage fighting shouldn’t be like ballet. Stage fighting shouldn’t exist as a thing at all. The moment that stage fighting becomes a thing, with its own rules and techniques, it is instantly divorced from what it is there to represent, which is people fighting.

So unless we're watching a Disney Wild West Show or an Errol Flynn movie made flesh (both of which I assure you I am a huge fan of), when we see those familiar moves we are torn from whatever reality it is that the show is conjuring and treated to five minutes of the work of some mediocre stage combat expert, a peculiarly boring symbolic dance representing the act of fighting that invariably goes on far longer than it need do and adds precisely nothing to the event it parasitically feeds off.

Well, enough I say. Burn the books. Lock up the trainers. Unlearn those pulled punches and those staggering dull sword fighting routines.

But, then, all that done – what’s the alternative? When we stumble upon the words ‘they fight’ what’s to be done?

Well the first alternative is of course actual fighting, which although it does have a certain visceral urgency to it is liable to make long runs somewhat of a trial. And so it becomes the responsibility of directors to invent their own theatrical language. Just look at the choreography of Maxine Doyle, a scandalously overlooked part of what has become known as the Punchdrunk experience. Doyle has created a way of fighting that blends what is essentially dance with something more breathlessly unpredictable and spontaneous, and in doing so she imbues her fights with a dynamism (and a truthfulness) that goes way beyond the laboured faux-realism of so much stage combat. And even without the thrilling young dancers that Doyle so frequently has at her disposal, there is a message to take from this, that fighting on stage (as opposed to Stage Fighting) should be an element of and derived from the rest of the show, not an imported skill dropped into the show to fill a gap in the director’s imagination.

And while we’re about it, I’m not too keen on stage guns either…

Oct 20, 2007

A New Political Theatre

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival comedians John Oliver (he of sitting near John Stewart being English fame) and Andy Zaltzman (he of the big ginger hair) created an event called Political Animal, a late night political stand-up show at The Stand - Edinburgh's premier comedy venue. On its first night featured Perrier nominated Reginald D Hunter and the legendary Mark Thomas. I have rarely seen the place emptier. At one point John Oliver had to ask a friend of mine to laugh less, as it was kind of awkward in the otherwise mood-less room.

The moral of this story is Politics (unlike, say, Hitler or Michael Ball in a dress) does not sell.

I'll be interested, therefore, to see how many people struggle out of bed on a peaceful Sunday morning to attend a debate on Political Theatre - "What is it? Where has it been? Where is it going? Why on earth does it exist?"

I would love to go but alas fear that the only way to get in is by purchasing a ticket to a whole day of other events with dauntingly earnest titles like "what does music mean" and much as I am a sucker for a good debate on the nature of political theatre (especially one involving the omnipresent Andrew Haydon), the thought of spending 10 lunches on it (Unlike Prufrock, I measure out my life in deli sandwiches) does put me off a mite. So maybe someone could just drop them this note (an expansion of something I said to Mr. Haydon at some point but the link fails me):

For me, Political Theatre (or rather, plays about politics, which are what will be being read as part of the debate) is a curious contradiction; a revolutionary fist in a silk glove, a class warrior in a tailored suit. But then considering the grandad (or at least the overbearing uncle) of a lot of modern political theatre was the best kind of fine-dining California Marxist, maybe that's unsurprising.

I believe form is as important as content. And I believe that any radical political message a play might contain is neutered by a form I think is bourgeois and outdated.

Without sounding alarmist, I think we are fast reaching a point where our own complacency is placing democracy in crisis. On the simplest level, no one is voting. A system of government that relies on the the will of a people who aren't willing to engage with their system of government is, implicitly, in crisis. But then, maybe our system of government has always been in crisis - you can certainly draw a line from the rotten boroughs of 200 years ago to a few over-influential swing seats being flooded with millions of pounds of attention by one of the hundred richest men in England to win them for his party. Meanwhile people are being tortured in secret prisons on British soil, we can't protest outside our own parliament and we continue to be joined at the hip to one of the most shamelessly hypocritical and staggeringly inept US governments of all time.

What we need is change, not a change of government - we thought that would work last time but things have turned out pretty much the same. What we need is wholesale change on a local not a national level. We need a re-engagement with our communities, a re-establishment of our own ability to be involved in political change and a renegotiation of how we are governed and by whom (and for whom). We need to stop being told what to think by the omnipresent mouthpieces of dubious moguls. We need to remind people what activity means.

All of which does not need to be done by means of a lecture. Quite the opposite - we've had enough lectures, we've had enough debates - we need to get people on their feet.

Which brings me to theatre. Theatre can do all these things. But often it doesn't. Often theatre isn't about a re-engagement with our surroundings. Its about sitting in a darkened room as cut off from where we are as possible (which is what made the Camera Obscura moment in A Matter of Life and Death so wonderful - it suddenly reminded you exactly where you are and what you are doing). Often theatre isn't about the audience's potential to be active and involved. It's about making them as passive as possible, quiet, anonymous imbibers of whatever the person who wrote/directed the show wants them to see. Often theatre isn't about renegotiation
of anything. It's about one person telling everyone else what they think. The stage is a platform. The stage is a television screen. Michael Wynn says,
It is the interaction between the stage and the audience that makes theatre the perfect medium for political debate, discussion and ideas. It is live and interactive, and in some ways the audience can drive the play.
But I don't see liveness on a lot of stages. And when it comes to politics, when the writer is the major creative force and he's not even in the building, there's not a lot of room for interaction.

Even theatre buildings have their own politics. Most of them are great bastions of bourgeois values, ampitheatres for displaying and admiring, where people are sorted and classed, where the more you pay for your ticket the better view you get of the action.

I find that too often the radicality of a play's message is undermined by the form in which it is delivered. That form should be as dynamic as that which is being said. It's not always about telling. As in dreams (where we believe ourselves to be moving and yet it is all in our head), doing can be a form of thinking. Effective political theatre will have the audience as its central creative force. It will be outside of theatres. It will be engaging with an environment and the people who inhabit it.

Let's not celebrate the mundane politics of the Tricycle or the hollow laughs of the satirist. Look to the work of Augusto Boal, who staged impromptu political debates in restaurants and who later used theatre as a form of government, as a way of working through problems and coming to solutions. Or closer to home, the work of Jeremy Weller and the Grassmarket Project, devising shows with the homeless, the disenfranchised - not as social work but as a means of creating electrifying, inclusive theatre. Look at Brith Gof's incredible site-specific installations, engaging people in a very physical sense with Wales' dying industry. Look at the work of Welfare State International, their incredible all-embracing lantern march through the streets of Glasgow, what Baz Kershaw sees as a model for a reimagined governance; inclusive, flexible, organic, in which the local and the personal can exist and flourish within a larger project.

None of this may necessarily be describable as political but for me it is theatre's most significant and most vital challenge to the way we are governed, and the way we live.

Oh, and in other news, Dumbledore is gay.

Oct 17, 2007


mor·a·to·ri·um n. pl. mor·a·to·ri·ums or mor·a·to·ri·a
1. Law
a. An authorization to a debtor, such as a bank or nation, permitting temporary suspension of payments.
b. An authorized period of delay in the performance of an obligation.
2. A suspension of an ongoing or planned activity
I like the idea of a moratorium. In part because I like the word Moratorium. It's starched and solemn and faintly sinister, like a musty victorian assylum, full of thick leather straps and decaying specimen jars, where ideas are taken by kind but misguided relatives when they stop doing what they're supposed to.

I like the idea of a theatrical moratorium. As I have said before, the best ideas come from friction, discomfort, something gnawing at your peace, as Howard Barker once said. Yawning blank spaces are no good. We should be tied, constricted, challenged - fighting our way to a brilliant solution that would have been lost in the crowds if all our ideas were allowed to roam free.

For me, blank pages, are all awful. Blue sky thinking makes me nautious. I like puzzles and I like solving them. Thinking while running - slamming into problems and scrambling over them. It's messy and its urgent. I don't want to sit under and apple tree and think. In those circumstances I can't think about anything other than that a) I'm hungry b) I want to climb a tree.

Given free reign I will invent myself obstacles. I once had 1 night and a 90 seater auditorium to do what I liked with. I panicked and did nothing for a month. Then I demanded of myself having no set and no tech. Within a week I had a 40 minute monologue, delivered from the velveteen stalls by an unhinged woman in a shabby evening dress, obsessed with a crime she might have overseen, to an audience huddled on the stage clutching torches that lit the action.

There's no such thing as constricting ideas. The potential for ideas is infinite. Infinity minus a few locked rooms is still infinity. So let's lock a few things away for a while and see what happens. Here are my suggestions. I make explanations and no concessions - make of them what you will:

There will be no duologues
There will be no plays set indoors
Any stage shall have no edges
There will be nothing that can't be carried by two people
There will be nothing based on real events
Nothing shall be pre-recorded

So that's my contribution - your suggestions?

Oct 14, 2007

Messing about on the river

Yesterday I had the pleasure of helping out with a little piece of agitprop performance art/riverside fun organized by James Erskin and Carrie Craknell of Hush, whose Mobile Thriller was a beautiful little show set in the back of a car chasing through the streets of a city.

In order to add their voices to those raised in protest against the expansion of heathrow, and to highlight the staggering number of flights that this will mean are traversing London's skies every day, the company created a touchingly simple piece of dance and a glorious paper-aeroplane making/throwing extravaganza for anyone who happened to be walking by. Unsurprisingly with the mouth-watering prospect of balloons and paper aeroplanes there were plenty of people (young and old) milling excitedly for the whole of the hour and a half that we were able to be there before being inevitably moved on by bankside security for blocking the pavement.

Beneath the air of delightful silliness surrounding the whole event I think there's something utterly important about this kind of thing. As I've said before, in London we are now living at a time when protest itself has to be sanctioned by government, essentially reducing it to the status of a pantomime, a state-approved dance of opposition, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

In such circumstances we need to find alternatives modes of protest. If the government reduces protest to theatre we must make theatre into a form of protest. Let's harness all of the creativity, dynamism and innovation of modern theatre to create a startlingly political new theatre on the streets of London. With balloons and paper aeroplanes and dance and games we can take to streets with political messages delivered in baffling and marvelous new forms.

Which is not to say that what we need is protest with a few gimmicks attached to throw the authorities of the scent. Instead we should begin with the incredible theatre already flooding the streets of London (from huge spectaculars such as the Sultan's Elephant to companies creating fascinating, intimate interactive projects like Blast Theory, Rabbit, Lone Twin and, of course, Hush themselves) and look at ways in which these forms of work can fill the vacuum of meaningful political process created by the government's protest ban.

Guess Who

Pop quiz, theatre fans, who said this:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.
Kenneth Tynan maybe? Susannah Clapp or Lyn Gardner? Maybe even one of our own?

Nope, nope and, well, nope.

Find out here.

Rider Spoke at (or indeed around) the Barbican

What do you get when you combine renowned performance collective Blast Theory with a cutting edge media lab at the University of Nottingham? Ralph McTell's Streets of London on a Bicycle, apparently, or at least a beautiful concept undermined only by the technology required to realise it.

Like Wrights & Sights' Misguides and Forced Entertainment's Nights in this City (as well as my own modest addition to this little family of pieces), Rider Spoke dispatches its audience into the heart of the city, asking them only to look and listen, to acknowledge the stories and the theatre and the people that drench the streets with character.

At twilight on Saturday night I took a bike with a touch screen console strapped across its handlebars and set off into the clean grey expanse of the city. Listening to an appropriately folksy plinky-plonk score fed through a pair of headphones I wove my way through a concrete labrynth of wrought iron gates and cobbled back streets graced only by the occasional streetlight and the gaze of CCTV; a empty paradise trapped somewhere between the 1960s and the end of civilisation. This in itself was a wonderful experience, one entirely devoid of creative input from Blast Theory other than the bike and the music, reminding me once again of Tim Etchell's words; Sometimes it seems as if all we have to do is gesture to the window and ask people to look.

After a little while through my headphones a soft, sad female voice asked me a question, requiring me to find a hiding place and record my answer. Once this was done I could listen to the responses of other players who had been ask different questions nearby. Then I cycled on again, the same process repeated as I weaved my way with aimless glee across London, finding myself inexplicably (as it seemed so many of the players did) at St Paul's, before all too soon being required to return to the Barbican.

On this almost particular empty evening it seemed to me that the questions I was asked and the answers I heard worked best when their startling intimacy was juxtaposed with the grey anonymity of the city -the fuzzy warmth of recalling holding hands with an ex-girlfriend as I stood against a barred security gate; listening to someone describing with stumbling honesty how a secret had ruined their life just a little bit while I gazed into black windows of an empty office block. At these moments the show seemed to be mining the same melancholic seam that has made Postsecret and Found Magazine such a phenomenon; a desperate, sentimental longing for personality and honesty in the bustling, overpopulated, celebrity obsessed western metropolis.

The whole thing seemed a quiet and faintly sad experience; disembodied, lonely voices scattered across a disinterested city.

Yet while conjuring this divide between The City and those individuals that fill it, the technology the show relies on places it awkwardly between the two. Despite the valiant attempts of the company to imbue its chic handsets with a bit of handmade friendliness, the touch screen lit up by cute hand drawn cartoons and patterns and the aforementioned proto-Sufjan-Stevens plinkyplonk, it still felt false; like an orange advert or a innocent smoothie.

The interface is slow, with the music frequently giving way to 'Please Wait...' screens that leave you in a kind of limbo, not cycling around engaging with the city around you and or with the stories we are telling/told. This limbo takes up far too much of this hour long experience; which wouldn't be such a problem if you weren't constrained by such a limited amount of time. And despite the claims for some kind of personal responsiveness from the handsets, which tell you when you have found an appropriate hiding place to record your answers, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a generic timer, arbitrarily informing you that you have found a good place to hide regardless of where you are or what you are doing.

It felt to me like the company wanted this show to be more than the technology,or the logistics of doing a major show at the Barbican would allow. For their to be more engagement with each individual player than their generic devices were capable of. There was a yearning here to create a beautiful journey through the city, a delicate network of small voices listening to each other. To a degree the show achieves this. And yet, the time limitations and the sense of alienation from the technology, make you feel less like a player in a game and more like an audience member consuming a product, spending 60 minutes experiencing something that has the potential to be so much more.

Oct 10, 2007

It ain't what you do, it's what it does to you...

Well, hats off to Andrew Haydon, who has made a gloriously successful transition from lowly theatre blogger to the Guardian’s latest pin-up boy (Get your 2008 calendars now, he’s December, concealing his modesty with nothing but a copy of The Empty Space and some tinsel).

In his most recent post Andrew (or at least his bi-line editor) asserted that Belle de Jour (apparently the scandalous tell-all book on which Billy Piper’s new televisual exercise in barrel-scraping is based) wouldn’t shock onstage, reeling off an impressive medley of plays from the restoration onwards extensively covering the subject of that oldest of professions.

My own feeling is, as I believe some of the comments point out, that the furore over this particularly staggering piece of mediocrity has less to do with its subject and more to do with its presentation. Shows from Kay Mellor’s sublime Band of Gold to the ridiculous Moll Flanders (starring the equally absurd Alex Kingston and a young Daniel Craig) have covered the subject in no small detail with nary a flutter of a coach potato’s eyebrow. The difference with The Secret Diary of a Call Girl is only the jaw dropping cynicism of its slickly packaged, half hour of guilt-free titillation masquerading as some kind of ‘true’ confessional.

Whilst expensive West London hotels remain flooded every night by £60 eastern European hookers and pub philosophers still puff out their chests and suggest that a girl with a short skirt and few drinks in her is asking for trouble, any show that suggests that prostitution is a bit of cheeky, harmless fun has a lot to answer for. I don’t care if one middle class girl managed to make a bit of money and quit the game intact, she’s hardly representative. I’d say she’s the exception that proves the rule in a society in which sex (and the female body) are a commodity, available for purchase 24 hours a day.

But look at me, getting distracted by a passing soap box. The real reason for all this chatter was that young Mr Haydon’s post got me thinking. What is still taboo on stage?

Recently of course, we learned that the word nigger can echo across London’s most prestigious auditorium to nothing but rapturous applause (though perhaps, in a mouth other than Paterson Jospeph’s it would foster a different response). And at no less a prestigious event than the Edinburgh International festival last year, Calixto Bieto’s stage adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s Platform bristled with projections of hard core pornography and throughout featured a disturbingly anonymous, voiceless young women walking around the rotating stage in nothing but a pair of heels. Nearby the Edinburgh fringe (great theatrical cesspool that it is) has been host to shows featuring Hitler, gang rape, torture, paedophilia, Les Dennis, a gay Jesus, Harold Shipman jokes and (of course) terrorism. In poor taste possibly and hopelessly inevitable in their attempts to be edgy and provocative, but genuinely shocking? Hardly.

There is an argument that in the sealed off space of theatre nothing is taboo. Separated as it is from the real world by the edge of the stage and a hearty round of applause, in the bubble of theatre, anything can happen without undermining the values we live by. Hence while transvestism out in the real world is a fabulous and (for many) uncomfortable challenge to our narrow conceptions of male and female, on stage it is the oldest joke in theatre. And it is interesting to note that in Bieto’s Platform, the moment the first few claps signalled the end of the performance, the actress who had remained naked throughout the previous two hours was quickly covered by a robe.

However, as I argued recently, this membrane protecting the world of theatre from the real world is an imperfect barrier. Certain values bleed over the divide. For example, as the Told by an Idiot’s experience on Casanova might suggest, while watching a heterosexual couple simulating sex, it is almost impossible for the woman not to appear to be in a position of weakness or inferiority. Clearly there have been several too many images of the likes of Billy Piper sprawled, doe-eyed and scantly clad, across giant billboards, magazine covers and advertisements and when we see the same on stage its almost impossible to abandon the values that these images implicitly reinforce.

So what else might have this same effect? Or what else might we see on stage that would reach out into the stalls and prick us from our cosy, cosseted safety? What will remind us that actually we’re not so far from the real world after all, and have us squirming with discomfort?

Anything that toys with illegality seems to have the desired effect – jerking the audience into an acknowledgement that the stage is still part of the wider world and (most) of its laws. Someone carefully rolling a joint and that (for most of our present cabinet at least) familiar smell wafting over the stalls would likely have people scanning their row nervously to judge the appropriate response.

Possibly, another alternative, one that similarly undermines that neat division between theatre and the real, might be to see someone genuinely suffering on stage. I was told recently of a solo show in which a performer delivered a monologue while drinking four bottles of whisky, lined up as an almost endless series of shots, glistening across the breadth of the stage. As the show got into its stride there were contented gurgles of laughter as the audience watched the performer slurring and swaying across the space. By three quarters of the way in the guy was unable to stand, collapsing on the floor with a loud, resonant slap. Now the audience were uncomfortable, gazing on helplessly, even desperately at an image of reckless, drunken suffering sprawled on the stage in front of them.

However, as uncomfortable as this may have been, was it really taboo? The audience by the end was exhausted, traumatised but almost universally thankful for the experience.

Oct 7, 2007

Performing in Galleries/Fighting in the Streets

The great turbine hall at Tate Modern is about the most theatrical of gallery spaces imaginable. Occupied by a single installation at a time, each new, specially commissioned piece is unveiled with all of the fanfare and press giddiness of a big theatrical opening.

Even when the space is empty it still feels fizzes with theatrical potential; walking down the wide sloping ramp from the gallery’s entrance (Modern Art’s equivalent of a landing bay on the death star) you step out into a perfect rectagonal expanse, a giant grey space bordered on three sides by balconies that tower above it. It undoubtedly has the feel of a gargantuan studio space – not an environment in which to display, but an environment to be inhabited. The audience, immersed within this performative installation, do not admire it from a distance but engage with it, interact with it; sometimes wandering through giant mountains of white boxes, lying on the floor gazing up at a vast artificial sun, sliding down spiraling silver slides.

Although there have been installations that have had a theatrical quality, for example Bruce Nauman’s sound installation and the sinister grey figures of Juan Munoz gazing ceaselessly down at the wandering masses from the lift shafts that housed them, there has been no major installation (as part of the bombastic unilever series) that has incorporated live performance. Which is a shame.

I did hear a rumour that it was one of the places being considered (though I’m not sure how seriously) for the much anticipated/delayed London run of Black Watch. In the end I don’t think this would have been the right type of show for the Turbine Hall. For me, the looming post-industrial space yearns for the work of the likes of Brith Gof or, more recently, the Shunt collective. With the kind of support Unilever have offered, the space could comfortably be transformed into a labyrinthine environment that is part installation, part live-performance; an exciting, challenging, theatrical experience that seeks to bridge the 500 or so metres between Tate Modern and the National Theatre.

The most recent artist to be commissioned to create a new piece for the turbine hall is the Columbian political artist Doris Salcedo, who will embed a fence along the space, evoking those barriers through which numerous photos have been taken of the orange-jumpsuited, water boarded, indefinitely held inmates of Guantanamo Bay. To do this she has excavated a trench in the concrete floor of the gallery.

In the Guardian on Saturday Charlotte Higgins, in her article on the preparation of this new installation, highlighted an interesting comment from Salcedo that seemed to chime with my recent tirades about the emptiness (or otherwise) of space:

I don’t believe that space can be neutral. The history of wars, and perhaps even history in general, is but an endless struggle to conquer space.

Like Mark Wallinger (who’s recreation of Brian Haw’s anti-war banners tellingly traversed the Government’s exclusion zone that bans spontaneous demonstration within one mile of parliament), it seems Salcedo is someone who understands what it means to have fought for (and won) a space within the heart of London in which to express oneself politically, an increasingly difficult task and one that is more and more reserved exclusively for those ‘safe’ spaces of art and culture.

It would be nice to see theatre makers responding to the challenge (or, indeed, the responsibility) to voice those criticisms forbidden elsewhere as forcefully as Wallinger and Salcado, rather than using our most high profile spaces to restage self-indulgent Noel Coward comedies. Hopefully, Katie Mitchell’s forthcoming Women of Troy will have something more to say. And perhaps once theatre starts to acknowledge this responsibility, the dream of finding performers skipping across the floor of the turbine hall will become a less forlorn hope.

Oct 6, 2007


"There's a song that will linger forever in our ears" sung an aging Bob Dylan on Hard Times. And his wrinkly, universe-weary features must know about that than most people. This week sees yet another utterly unnecessary Greatest Hits collection released (the inspiringly titled Dylan: His Greatest Songs) with each title on the track list crashing down like a great sighing bong of soul-destroying inevitability:

Blowing in the Wind... bong.
Times they are a changing... bong.
Like a Rolling Stone... bong, bong, bong...

I defy anyone to find one person amongst the soulless music-hating automatons who put this piece of marketing fluff together who genuinely, with all his or her heart believes that what the world really needs more than anything right now is another compilation of every Dylan song that anyone's ever heard of. Think I'm exaggerating? From Pitchfork - a few facts about Dylan: TGS.

Songs from Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (1967) that appear on DYLAN: 9 out of 10
Songs from Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1971) that appear on DYLAN: 11 out of 21
Songs from Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1994) that appear on DYLAN: 13 out of 14
Songs from The Essential Bob Dylan (2000) that appear on DYLAN: 27 out of 30
Songs from The Best of Bob Dylan (2005) that appear on DYLAN: 15 out of 16
Previously unreleased recordings that appear on DYLAN, unless you get it from iTunes: 0

Bong, bong, bong, bong...

So as some small act of defiance against the constant industry reinforcement of what the Dylan Legacy should be, I offer you an alternative Dylan compilation - a road less traveled by. Just 10 songs, but hopefully enough to whet your appetite for something other than the 19 overplayed classics that history has seen to devour eternally. (all of these tracks are available on itunes, should you so wish)

1. Hard Times in New York Town - Bootleg Series Volume 1

Come you ladies and you gentlemen, a-listen to my song.
Sing it to you right, but you might think it's wrong.
Just a little glimpse of a story I'll tell
"Bout an East Coast city that you all know well.

A delicate, very early song to start. A breezy mix of cockiness and naivety, it perfectly sums up the Dylan who struck out for the Big A at the beginning of 60s, doped up on Woody Guthrie and ready to drink dry the various talented characters gathered in Greenwich Village.

2. I don't Believe you (she acts like we never met) - Live 1964 - Bootleg Series Volume 6

Three years later and Dylan is already performing solo to a sold-out Philharmonic Hall. The atmosphere on this recording is warm (and probably faintly high) as Dylan giggles his way childishly from song to song. Already in this song (and indeed on the album it came from) Dylan has left behind the folk movement's po-faced activism and is writing quiet, melodic little songs about lost love and absent women - this is probably (with Boots of Spanish Leather) the best.

3. Ballad of a Thin Man - Highway 61 Revisited

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read
It's well known

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

Dylan in his absolute rock and roll pomp - a dense, scornful wild-eyed tirade from the peak of his fame. When he rasps out the stinging question of the chorus, you can almost see him in all his big haired, drug addled splendour leering out of the stereo at you.

4. Visions of Johanna - Blonde on Blonde

Possibly one of the most beautiful songs ever written from an album that demands to be listened to in a quiet room thick with smoke at about three in the morning.

5. You Ain't Goin' Nowhere - The Essential Bob Dylan (n.b. not the edition that features on the Basement Tapes)

As most of you probably know in 1967, at the peak of his fame Dylan had a perfectly timed motorcycle accident and disappeared for a period, reappearing with a series of albums that he has almost admitted were meant to deflate the hype surrounding him. This is a song written in that quiet and restful intervening period, a merry, contented track perfect for a bit of a sing song.

6. Tonight I'll be Staying Here With You - Nashville Skyline

The problem with some of Dylan's more romantic songs (and the reason why he's eternally popular with music magazines run by aging once-upon-a-time trendsetters now being dragged into middle age) is that once he starts talking about the women wot have ruined him, it can all become a little, well, self involved. This is particularly the case when you learn of some of the brutally heartbreaking things he did to people he loved upon the way. Far from celebrating the kind of heartache that self-important male music journalists get all melancholy over, this song (from the much underrated Nashville Skyline) is about as sweetly happy and, well, lovely, as you can imagine.

7. Up to Me - Biograph

And if we never meet again, baby, remember me,
How my lone guitar played sweet for you that old-time melody.
And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free,
No one else could play that tune,
You know it was up to me.

That having been said Dylan does do heartbreak marvelously well. This is an outtake from the achingly sad Blood on the Tracks and a soundalike to the more well known Shelter from the Storm. In many ways its a more personal, sadder (as opposed to angry), fragile song, perhaps that's why it didn't make it as far as the album.

8. A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - Rolling Thunder Review (Bootleg Series Volume 5)

One of the most important things about Dylan (as opposed to those compiling his Greatest Hits compilations seeking to keep churning out the same few recordings time after time after...) is his constant reinvention of his own back catalogue. Few are as fun as this rollicking, (seemingly Status-Quo inspired) reimagining of this early anti-war classic. Tells you about all you need to know about the difference between the early 60s and the late 70s.

9. Every Grain of Sand - Biograph

I've talked about this recording before
. Lovely. Just lovely.

10. Ain't Talkin

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

Off the latest Dylan album, which is lots fun, this is the final track puts Dylan's voice ('like sand and glue' according to Bowie) to its best use in years.

So there you go. That's your lot. A flying tour, but a worthwhile one. And rest assured, by the time the next unremittingly dire Dylan Greatest Hits collection comes out, I'll have prepared the next installment.

Macbeth at The Giulgud

This is, by all accounts, a very good play. I've avoided reading any of the reviews since it rode proudly into London from Chichester on the back of a bandwagon full of critics braying about The Greatest Macbeth of All Time (which brings to mind the delightful idea of Billington et. al. sitting carrier bags in hand in the posh seats at the Globe, circa 1599, protesting (too much) that the indoor at Blackfriars was not the future of theatre, regardless of what the kids might say).

It was therefore with a heady cocktail of excitement, trepidation and (I'll admit) cynicism that I took my seat in the almost garishly opulent Gielgud Theatre, a vision of anachronistic splendour wonderfully at odds with the sparse, cold war bunker that was the set for this 400 year old play.

And it must be said, as a precise polished product, it is practically faultless.

Inside a sparse white concrete bunker, characters in grand Russian trench-coats stride purposefully back and forth, while trilby wearing diplomats, anonymous servants and trench-coated assassins scuttle around them. And beyond all this, three (and that should be all the clue you need to their identity) sinister nurses in grey smocks keep a meaningful eye on proceedings.

The show is beautifully choreographed; scenes and characters sweep back and forth at a pace that is almost relentless - steaming through Shakespeare's shortest play like a great soviet locomotive. Sounds boom suddenly across the theatre, the greying walls crackle into life with projections of speckling blood and great Eastern-Bloc marches. And behind it all the design's great conceit; a huge industrial lift that shudders into life, dragging character's inevitably downwards into this gloomy, bloody abyss.

Yet despite all this bombast and grandeur there are moments of sublime delicacy, mainly in the figure of Patrick Stewart, giving a staggeringly enjoyable performance. You can't help but relish all the little details that are there to notice; how Stewart's iconic bald head remains defiantly covered by a peaked military cap while the soldiers around him doff theirs to King Duncan, Stewart's bald pate only later being revealed, in a passionate first embrace with his wife. Rarely have I seen a subtler, and yet more telling, acknowledgment of where Macbeth's heart and loyalty truly reside. Stewart fizzes with energy and humour, imbuing the character with an appealing lightness that (like Fiona Shaw's Medea) only underlines his cataclysmic descent.

Elsewhere the performances are equally strong and the most searingly memorable moment is the long and utterly perfect silence that follows the reporting to Macduff of the death of his family. This single moment is an apt summation of the entire evening. A perfectly realised moment of grim horror, a precise, inventive theatrical realisation of Shakespeare at his most gruesomely thrilling.

And yet, and yet... Will it frustrate the hell out of you if I say it was all just a little too perfect?

Perfection is admirable and all but, well - let me explain.

A couple of years ago I saw Out of Joint's Macbeth in a series of abandoned catacombs in Edinburgh.

Now, even in terms of a direct dramaturgical comparison, for me OOJ's Macbeth wins it by a nose. Like it's more recent sister, it built its historical relocation on a 20th century dictatorship - but rather than Cold War Russia, this Macbeth was set in an anonymous African dictatorship with more than a nod to that latter-day King of Scotland, Idi Amin. And whereas Goold's use of a historical context felt more like a clever (and relatively safe) aesthetic choice that borrowed uniforms and stock footage to complement Shakespeare's play, OOJ's staging seemed to offer more balance -the two timeframes complementing each other, neither predominant, both enlightened by a heady dose of riotous mysticism and brutal militaristic fervour.

In addition Shakespeare's famous lines were balanced by an heady dose of disrespect for The Sacred Text, play play being sprinkled with moments of ad-libbing, modern speech and glorious invention. The result was a riotous atmosphere full of faux spiritualistic ceremony, brute violence and desperate money-making scams; the witches delivered their speeches in chanting bursts of French, the porter extorted money from members of the audience, and we were all ushered at gun point from one cave to another by a terrifyingly edgy military posse.

This production felt rough and messy; you could smell the sweat and the suspicion. So when after about 40 minutes the lights all failed, it seemed logically to be part of the show. It fast however became clear that this was not so. Techies rushed around with torches, lighting candles and edging them into the stage space. Actors made knowing hints towards the lack of light (none more so than the porter in his half-improvised speech). At a certain point it became too much and during the incredibly powerful lady Macduff murder scene we were told by the stage manager we would have to leave the space for safety reasons. The actors laughed, sighed, bowed... and the lights came back on. After a brief pause we restarted the scene and the show ran to its close.

Almost never have I had a more memorable experience at the theatre. The relationship between the actors and the audience was more meaningful, more intimate than any Shakespeare show I have ever seen. The sweaty, desperate, urgency of the show (in no small part due to all the problems) was captivating. The unpredictability of the performance only added to the bloody excitement of Shakespeare's play. The show felt like conclusive proof that theatre is never about sustaining one's disbelief, that when we see the nuts and bolts (and, indeed the actors and the techies) behind the theatrical apparatus it only enhances the glorious, euphoric experience of theatre at its best. And I will undoubtedly never forget the finale of the show as the actors (as they had been earlier, half themselves, half the characters they were portraying) grabbed instruments, from bongo drums to bagpipes, and began blasting out an exhilarating chorus into the crampt, crowded confines of a concrete underground chamber - it was one of the moments that reaffirmed my love of the medium.

So maybe my dissatisfaction with this production is entirely, subjectively unfair. But I just didn't feel it had that sense of urgency, of danger, of unpredictability. It did not feel alive in the same way. And that's undoubtedly a consequence of the necessities of producing a show for a long run in a major West End Theatre.

And so possibly, it would be fairer to say that this is as good a production of Macbeth as you are ever likely to see in the West End. What that means for the West End, I'll leave up to you.