Nov 29, 2007

Let Sleeping Playwrights Lie.

How much do we owe to dead playwrights?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

We cannot seek to revive them. We cannot divine their intentions, their thoughts, their hopes and dreams. We cannot know if they wrote their plays to communicate a very definite and personal message, or whether it was knocked together in a fit of desperation to pay the bills.

By all means honour them but do not revere them. And do not, under any circumstances, try to do them justice. In attempting to do them justice you do the very opposite.

Shakespeare was an innovator, a wild card, an 'upstart crow', a populist who honoured his audience by challenging them. If we pickle his plays in some spurious half-preserved form, like a decaying limb festering in formaldehyde, we do nothing but desecrate the excitement, the danger and the unpredictability that they once represented.

'What matter who's speaking?' Someone once famously said. Ironic then that that person's estate should be the worst perpetrators when it comes to the necrophiliac pursuit of some ghostly, bastardized figure of the author haunting every ensuing production. Did Beckett become the writer he became by obeying convention? How would he feel about the innovators, the exciting young artists, being denied access to his work under the spurious grounds of maintaining some museum authenticity. These hangers on, these preservers, these authenticators - they come to bury Beckett, not to praise him.

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

So said Walter Benjamin. Any play by a dead writer does not belong to them. It belongs to us. It is a ruin, an image of the past existing in the present. You can preserve it as a ruin but that is what it will remain - useless, anachronistic, tired, empty. Or you can accept it as belong to a new time, as being remade - 'seized up at a moment of danger'.

That is what Katie Mitchell is doing. Seizing a dead text at at a moment of crisis. Remaking it for the present. This is the only way that dead texts can be anything other than museum pieces.

Michael Billington may wish theatre to be a dead art, pickling old ghosts for the gentile pleasure of the comfortable and the safe. But anyone who cares about theatre, or indeed the world, should applaud Mitchell's attempts to make it completely relevant and completely vital.

Nov 28, 2007

Women of Troy at the National

The Canadian author Douglas Coupland used to be obsessed with the idea of Armageddon arriving while you were in the supermarket, this most mundane and modern of rituals abruptly interrupted by nuclear apocalypse; finding ourselves eviscerated in the tinned foods aisle, while shelves of baked beans and Kraft Dinner melted around us. This was the image that came to mind as I reached the end of Katie Mitchell’s dark, jarring, magnificent production of Women of Troy; these hauntingly mundane rituals stripped of all importance in a world where life is always more fragile and meaningless than we appreciate.

Euripides' play is, unsurprisingly, about the women of Troy, led by the royal family of Hecuba, her daughter Cassandra and her son’s wife Andromache, in the fallout from their defeat in the Trojan wars. In this production they find themselves in an anonymous coastal warehouse, their glamorous evening dresses hanging awkwardly from their hunched, anxious frames. There’s something decidedly feral about them; about the way they scatter across the stage at a noise from outside, about the way they hold the seam of their dresses in their mouth to climb the steel ladders on either side of the stage. Their Greek captors are seen fleetingly, rushing in and out in an uncomfortably repetitive frenzy of locking and unlocking doors; a beautiful and well-maintained conceit that begins to wear the audience down with sense captivity as much as it does the pack of startled, scared women huddled on the cavernous Lyttleton stage.

Trapped in this uncomfortable prison, awaiting their removal to whichever of the Greek leaders has won their slavery, the women in Mitchell’s production survive on a messy orgy of half destroyed rituals. Fire rituals, mourning rituals and burial rituals rub up against more familiar rituals; the women are constantly ferreting in their glittering purses for make-up or a cigarette, their shaking hands going through the motions of reassuringly familiar actions.

And then there is the dancing - a strange, mesmerising quick step; sometimes at full speed sometimes in slow motion, sometimes with partners, sometimes alone. Often the characters who have already left, even their Greek captors, rush back onstage to take part in the dance; at one beautiful, absurd moment, Helen, naked but for a pair of heels, dances across the stage in the arms of Menelaus, the husband she left to begin the conflict and who has just assured us of the inevitability of her execution.

In this dance, which takes the position of some kind of bizarre mourning ritual carried out every time a woman is torn from the throng and forced off stage, all these absurd, meaningless rituals come together. Ancient Greece melts into Mitchell’s modern setting, religious mourning bleeds into the glamour and decadence of secular society; it’s a disorderly, beautiful, haunting, meaningless ritual, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This production must surely put paid to Brecht’s ideas about the reassuringly cathartic quality of Greek drama. Euripides’ play is undoubtedly that of an outsider, bristling with fury at the oppressive brutality nestling at the heart of Grecian history and society. The play slips under the skin of the Homer’s mythic history and tears it apart from the inside out. Status, religion, war and history are rendered meaningless in an apocalyptic vision of suffering.

Mitchell’s play flits awkwardly between messy realism, song, dance, and choral proclamation; jarring the audience from any sense of continuity. It’s alienating in a very Brechtian sense, Hecuba’s assertions about the emptiness of God and Power flying from the stage like soap box aphorisms, spat out into the audience. Indeed, Hecuba is just cruel and aloof enough to render any hope of comfortable sympathy null and void.

This is not about the suffering of these women, it is undoubtedly about the meaningless suffering of anyone in the face of god, history, power, and empire. In this sense it is resonantly political; not in a patronisingly limited way that might have the women running around in orange jumpsuits, but in a way that opens up the whole of human history to criticism. And in the final few bombastically apocalyptical moments, as the sirens and the helicopters whirr behind the black safety curtain, you cannot but realise the desolate pointlessness of the endless war and suffering on which our comfortable lives are built. And hidden in there somewhere is the additional nagging feeling that someday it will be our turn to suffer.

Nov 20, 2007

You've got to Need it.

I heard an interesting thing the other day.

A friend of mine who works in the tantalisingly mysterious world of alternate reality games (ARGs) was describing the nuts and bolts of how exactly they are put together. These events are beautifully logical fictitious stories involving scenarios, puzzles, false businesses and fake characters all played out across real locations, phone, video, letters and, of course, the wide open spaces of the internet. For my friend however the most interesting, the most exciting and the most enjoyable elements were always those moments of live performance (of theatre) that occurred as part of the game. He also noted that these elements weren't just thrilling in the context of the game but, indeed, were simply thrilling moments of theatre, more so than most of what goes on onstage and suggested that this might be a consequence of the fact that these people came to theatre (or, indeed, live performance) only when it most suited what they had, or needed to say.

And this is what interests me, this need for theatre, as the absolute only way in which we can do what it is we want to do.

Looking back a little, the same might be said of the group of Artists in the US and Europe in the 60s who were involved in the development of what became known as happenings. Beginning with art that simply transcended the pictoral (art that wasn't of something), they moved first towards art that was either in some ways a document of performance (Pollock wading through his canvases brush in hand) or incorporated real world objects (Rauschenberg and his assemblages) towards installations and then finally into live performance, through a desire or a need to explore to its fullest the 'give and take between art and the physical world'.

In performance they found the possibility for an art that could properly embrace chance and unpredictability and in doing so refer to (and be a part of) the real world. And it is apparent simply looking around at a lot of the most interesting work that is happening today (from the sweaty huddled archetypes of Particularly in the Heartland and their relationship with ClaesOldenburg's Ray Gun Theatre, to the programmed performances of Rotozaza or, even Chris Goode's Homemade and their relationship to John Cage and Allan Kaprow's work) that this moment in art history has had a radical and thrilling impact on theatre.

The point being (and there is one but its late so you'll forgive me if its hazy), that some of the time the most interesting people making theatre arrive at live performance from somewhere else entirely. And the reason for this I believe is that these people, a lot of the time, are chasing something that those in theatre absolutely take for granted. That immediacy, that unpredictability, that hand-made, visceral, unrepeatable, interactive quality that is theatre at its essence. Theatre that, in Tim Etchell's words, is an 'invitation to be here and be now, to feel exactly what it is to be in this and this time.'

When these people therefore arrive at theatre frequently (though not all the time) it is these qualities that their work absolutely revels in, joyously embracing those qualities of liveness that previously weren't open to them - that heart-jammed-in-your-throat excitement of being caught up in an event, of being a part of it. That visceral quality of being close enough to someone to see their flaws, to smell them, to see them fuck something up, to know that they are present in front of you - that you can talk back and they will hear, and can respond.

Without coming to theatre looking for these qualities it is too easy to assume theatre as your default mode of engagement - without asking yourself why that is. How many people on young writer's courses up and down the country ask themselves why they're writing a play rather than a book or a movie or a poem or a diary (other than that as they are indeed, on writer's programme it stands a much better chance of actually being seen by someone and produced than any of the others)? How often when a writer is sitting on her laptop is she thinking about the bodies that will be sharing the same air for a few hours at some point in the future?

Not that this is all about writers by any means. God knows how many directors get trigger happy when they've been giving a few pennies to spend and lavish it on microphones and video-players and complicated stage mechanics and possibly forget why it was they were making theatre not movies in the first place.

So long live those interlopers (the gamers, the artists, the craftsmen, the sportsmen) for reminding us what makes theatre such a damned desirable medium, fizzing with possibilities.

Nov 14, 2007

Guardian Blog

I've got a new post up at the Guardian's website, which, as Alison has identified, is a pretty exciting place at the moment.

This one's about the length of shows and builds, to some degree, on the things that Dan Bye and Alex F had to say about Sport back here. Personally, my dream is still to get hold of a remote island somewhere (possibly somewhere like the delightfully remote Colonsay off the coast of West Scotland) and for three months or so have a theatrical event of some kind taking place, part instalation, part interactive experience, part festival that people could arrive at and stay for as long as they like, becoming as much or as little a part of the experience as they wanted.

The whole thing would be based around the marvellously doomed attempts of various utopian thinkers to found their own perfect communities - at once both an incredibly long show about these gloriously hopeless, magnificently naive utopias and (in some small way) a little society of its own, growing its own rules out of the infinite possibilities of theatre. Well, that's the theory at any rate - though, Lord of the Flies II is always a possibility...

Nov 13, 2007

Small Metal Objects at Stratford East Station

It's been a little while since there's been anything approaching a review around here.

Maybe its a consequence of the 'near civil war' footing that I've been on for the last while, rattling around in the basement in a confederate bandanna, naming rifles after old girlfriends and whistling The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Happy Times.

I did, however, find the time to bustle my way across East London to Stratford station for Australian company Back to Back's Small Metal Objects, part of the fascinating Ozmosis season at the Barbican celebrating some of the exciting work from our antipodean friends that Alison waxes so magnificently lyrically about at Theatrenotes.

First thing to state is that this show is almost as fascinating before anyone has arrived as it is once the theatre nominally begins. Quick stepping into the grand airport-like terminal of Stratford station with my standard flustered overpunctuality, I gazed around confusedly at the sheer wall of windows, the commuters spilling through each other across the off-white floors, the un-moving silverlink trains jutting out into the centre of this showy modern edifice. I searched in vain for some sign of theatre - there must be a show round here somewhere... and then I saw it. Up on the balcony, a perfectly ridiculous, utterly conspicuous bank of bright red plastic seats, gazing down on nothing in particular.

It's a gloriously absurd piece of installation art in its own right, that I could quite happily imagine touring to various unexpected places. A frame around reality, a command to look, either at the magnificence of the world we daily overlook or the absurdity of the rituals and routines that make up our every day lives. It's fair to say traditionally I'm not a big fan of auditoriums, but this one I absolutely loved.

And then of course, the show begins. And it begins awfully well. The audience each puts on a set of headphones through which to hear the show, there are a few preliminary checks and then suddenly a shimmering few bars of echoing piano play, scoring beautifully the ebbs and flows of the people flocking through the station turnstiles beneath you. It's a wonderful moment - with a genuine, grand yet fragile magnificence to it that truly transcends theatre. Suddenly two Australian voices begin to interrupt this reverie, a plodding, naively profound conversation between a wise squeaky voice and a deeper, slower more ponderous one.

Where were these disembodied figures? The audience scanned the busy station, noting huddled figures in various corners, suddenly imbued with a sense of mystery and fascination - a life-size, living, breathing Where's Wally book. And then, amidst the confusion and the mess and the commuters flowing ceaslessly through it all, I picked out at the back of the station two stationary figures, no more than colourful, delicate smudges, taking in the whole view. It was the third startling moment in this show already, as the intimacy of the conversation suddenly slotted into the context of this overbearingly grand and busy station. There was something incredibly powerful in the image of these tiny figures, so distant and yet so close; so alien and unknown and yet so intimate and familiar - forcing us to hold in our heads at once our own local, personal world and the impossibly vast, overpopulated, bustling world that surrounds it.

Understandably after beginning with such force, the gentle, brittle story (if story is really the right word) that unfolds, while touching in a slight way, never regains these heights.

Having constructed such a fascinating form, I wanted them to explore it just a little more. There was one delightful moment as the characters moved closer and I suddenly realised that the voices that I had instinctively put to the actors' physiques were in fact reversed, but beyond that there was little surprise. And indeed, some of the ambiguity of the event was removed (as it was at GridIron's Roam) by the necessity for the actors to have their radio mics prominently taped to the side of their faces - leaving you in no doubt who was acting and, more frustratingly, who wasn't.

GridIron's Roam, performed around Edinburgh airport in 2006 (imagine the government allowing that to happen any more...) is indeed, an interesting show to bring up at this point. The company's director Ben Harrison recently left a comment on my article at the Guardian where he described the show as attempting to
interact with the world and connect intimately with the its theme, the emotions and politics of air travel. The two audiences, our paying audience which encircled the performers like a bubble, and the 'accidental' but omnipresent audience of air travellers using the airport, added to the layering of the piece and its social and political relevance.
And with Roam this was undoubtedly the case. Groups of travellers joined the formal audience, watching along with them, occasionally walking through the action, becoming (to a degree) performers in the show. The event felt fluid and open, generously inviting passers-by to engage with it, to follow the show and become a part of it.

The same could not be said about Small Metal Objects, although the headphones gave the show a powerful intimacy, they certainly excluded passers-by from anything other than a passive, unknowing involvement in the event. At one point one character asks commuters if their name is Gary, to the delighted snorts of the audience, while at the end as the actors clapped the commuters moving around them, with the same reaction. Both moments seemed to move alarmingly close to a smug elitism - a joke at the expense of the passers-by - like a candid camera show. Such a feeling was only compounded by the make-up of the audience and the cast (almost exclusively white) when compared to the rest of the station; like a little corner of the Barbican had been transported to the East End, to use it's station and its people like a dynamic, living cinematic Green Screen, without any attempt to include them in our spectacle.

And yet without this exclusivity there wouldn't be the anonymity for the actors that allows the show to reach moments of positively magical beauty; particularly the very last image - of two figures, lost in the crowds, standing on the balcony staring silently out across the station. It's an interesting conundrum raised by a fascinating show - I just would have liked to have seen them attempting to resolve it.

Nov 12, 2007

Louis Armstrong is a Big Fat Liar.

"We have all the time in the world" Louis Armstrong once famously sung on the soundtrack to the much-maligned post-Connery Bondathon On Her Majesty's Secret Service (So, George Lazenby isn't a good Bond, but you try following Sean Connery - you'll feel like Barry Island after a weekend at Disney World.) Armstrong was obviously a big fat liar. There is no time and so much to comment on.

First off there's Jay Rayner's scandalously rubbish article in the Observer this weekend. I mean what is it about Food Critics and knowing absolutely nothing about theatre, or indeed Britain.
We can argue long and hard about the political hue of New Labour's economics, but only those on the very fringes of the debate could deny that the establishment is now both liberal and left of centre. Even the Tories have been drawn towards the consensus, with an increasingly touchy-feely social policy which makes the old Conservative grandees look like bigots (which is what too many of them were). Yet where is the theatre that challenges that liberal consensus, which makes those of us who consider ourselves a part of it think a little? Where is the theatre of the right?
He opines, marvelling at his own contrariness - look at me, he seems to say, an outsider looking in at theatre and seeing what none of them can see.

It brought to mind, for me, Stephen Colbert's staggering brilliant (and almost Shakespearean in its tragedy - Lear's Fool, jigging and joking hopelessly while the lords carry on regardless) performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, in which he intoned "We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

That seems to be about the extent of Rayner's piercing inquiry into the state of theatre in this country. Bravely seeking an imbalance in reportage where none exists. Enslaved to the redundant notion of a binary politics that he understood when he was fresh out of University in the 80s. Everyone in theatre has certain liberal standards (namely tolerance, a dislike of racism/sexism/our Labour government lying to us), so this must be a conspiracy? People are no longer illiberal (bigoted, intolerant...) and this is a bad thing? While he's about it, drunk on his anachronistic, oppositional, red/blue notions of politics, how about he takes on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another product of this famed false liberal consensus. Where are those voices raised against that piece of boring, predictable consensus thought? You don't need an opposite to make people think. Often, as Crossfire in the US has undoubtedly proved, this is the very worst way of asking people to think.

And what is the one fig leaf he keeps raising to conceal the modesty of his flaccid argument? Where is the play saying that Multiculturalism is a bad thing? I'm sorry, what - you want a play that isn't racist, yet criticises the embrassing (or indeed, just the tolerance) of a myriad of cultural groups within British society? How would this work - sure, you could critic the way that multiculturalism possibly breeds a culture of oppositional, close-knit communities, that can frequently become hostile towards one another, but how is this an argument of the right? What else can he want - Enoch Powell: The Musical ("They're stealing our work/the Pole and the Turk/and the rivers of blood run deeper every day...")?

And as too many people to mention have already pointed out - there's a 'right wing politics' (individualist, conservative... even capitalist?) latent in the form of so many of the musicals that litter our stages that simply because there aren't angry young things demanding tighter controls on abortion and the sanctity of marriage from the stages of our studio theatres, that doesn't mean that theatre is shameless a red-wash going on under our snooty, liberal (spat out - like Fox news does) noses.

Anyway. I'm not the only one that feels like a whinge, Chris Goode has churned out this fascinating interrogation of Michael Billington's latest attempt to prove the old Nazi adage about a lie repeated often enough.
theatre, at the moment, is in an extraordinarily fluid state. But there has to be some way of combining the kind of interactive experience that young audiences crave with the emotional resonance of a writer's vision: otherwise, all you get is sensory titillation.
This is, it must be noted, is the third time that Billington has repeated this very same adage in print about the last month, all with particular reference to Punchdrunk (who Chris eruditely points out, he enjoys using as a stick to beat a particular mode of theatre of which they are entirely unrepresentative). Here he is in his review ofPunchdrunk's 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 here he is, popping up a week later in an article about his own book:
It's like being invited to a mad party but, while I found it fascinating, it strikes me as a pleasurable diversion from the main business of theatre, which is to grapple with social reality and change our perspective of the world.
Now, I've taken a couple of swipes at his dismissal of any theatre that isn't overtly political as lacking content, but Chris gets really stuck in to some far bigger and more difficult questions raised by Billington and Cooke's conversation. It's pointless quoting - you'll just have to go and read the whole thing through.

I've mentioned in the past the ways in which Site-Specific is a term simplified by the press for their own not-necessarily malicious (but not necessarily-not-malicious) ends.
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.
But as Chris points out, what this mis-labelling also does, is obscure both artists and audiences from what would be constituted by a piece that was genuinely site-specific. A piece that was a specific product of the site (or environment) in which it was created; the conjuring of a theatrical ghost out of the landscape the artists have chosen to engage with.

Stripped of this imperative, we are instead presented with groups such as Punchdrunk being constantly heralded as the torch holders for site-specific theatre when their decidely un-specific work takes pre-existing classic texts or stories and constructs a world for them that bears little or no relation to environment chosen to house them. Indeed the company go out of their way to obscure anything real that shatters their immersive world. I reiterate, this is no bad thing. It just isn't site-specific. And while they are heralded, criticised and imitated in equal measure (while those fathers of site specific theatre like Mike Pearson struggle to get their staggeringly brilliant work published by any academic publisher) for a crime (or a genre) they didn't commit, no wonder the 'revolutionary potential' of the genre has rarely been fulfilled. As Chris states:
So no wonder Cooke can welcome -- and has welcomed -- with open-arms the notion of site-specificity; in the state in which it comes to him, there's absolutely no reason why site-specific work should disturb the status quo as regards the sacrosanct power of the single author.
Or, I would add, (coming back to my earlier post on site-specificity) the power of the Theatre Industry to churn out centralised, mass-marketable, long-running theatrical spectaculars that stagnate theatre within buildings and forms that are becoming increasingly out-dated.

But when haven't the superficial signifiers of 'upstream' work been appropriated for conservative, consumable mainstream forms? From Dada and Surrealism we are left with a bric-a-brac of fashionable outsider paraphenalia (old poscards, broken dolls, lace, vintage patterned fabric...) that adorns the covers of major-label indie albums and popular Hollywood films and seemed wearily nostalgic and meaningless to people like Allan Kaprow in the 60s. And yet the whole of the hip, trend-setting areas of East London are still in thrawl to this kind of dated, dirty-bourgeois aesthetic. While this detritus floated downstream, those people upstream (like Kaprow) started rebuilding and restructuring - Site-specific Art was born out of Minimalism. And Happenings were born out of site-specific Art and site-specific theatre... I think you can see where I'm going with this.

At present then we may feel like we are clutching at those hopeful fragments like site-specific theatre that are floating eagerly into the awaiting arms of Billington and Cooke, but possibly we're just between moments, desperately seeking an impetus (or a funding body) that will re-animate the upstream elements in theatre and render those forms that the mainstream is busy playing with (or, more accurately, playing with the box it came in), if not an irrelevance, then, at least, not as important as it still feels at the moment.

I also just want to flag up Chris' response to another oft-repeated untruth closely related to Billington's sensory titillation - that which states that 'devised theatre' is always flabby and self indulgent:
I agree that a lot of "devised" work is unsatisfactory, but actually it's most often unsatisfactory for exactly the same reasons that a piece of conventional literary theatre made with the same lack of analytical rigour would be unsatisfactory. There is a real problem with devising becoming a set of orthodoxies, as it now is; it's badly and vaguely taught, and groups who aren't aware of the different aesthetic and ideological parameters of devising as a practice will inevitably end up replicating the synthetic vanilla ghastliness of third-rate literary performance. It's not devising that's at fault there, it's badness.

Nov 9, 2007

King of the Court

Dominic Cooke's latest programme at the Royal Court is receiving a healthy dose of press attention at the moment, and justifiably so, as I think its about the most dynamic and exciting programme that the place has had in years and, regardless of how you might feel about the limited scope of the typewriter totalitarianism of traditional playwriting, one of the most mouth-wateringly ambitious programmes I've seen since I've been in London.

The most interesting thing about the programme is watching Cooke gracefully balancing the fulfillment of the expectations of the Court's traditional audience with elements that subtly challenge or even undermine those expectations. Or, put more simply, after throwing the State of the Nation brigade a juicy slab of David Hare, he has the them eating out of his hand.

And so with the old school pacified those with a more adventurous bent get a new Katie Mitchell/Martin Crimp collaboration and a new (and as-yet entirely un-started) piece by Anthony Neilson. Add to that an intruiging french-canadian play translated by Caryl Churchill and new work by Mike Bartlett and the astounding Debbie Tucker Green (whose Generations was about the best defence of the power and depth and subtlty of the short play (or indeed the playscript itself) you are likely to see) and what you have is a programme that is unashamedly pawing at the limits of traditional playwriting; experimenting with form, location and structure in myriad of fascinating ways.

And no element of the programme represents this better than the Rough Cuts season, a forum for theatrical experimentation that I feel, far from being a new feather in the Court's
much admired hat, harks back to those misty eyed golden years of the 50s and 60s in terms of the scope that it gives young artists to play not just with ways of writing theatre, but ways of making it. After all, as I have said before, when Edward Bond, Arnold Wesker and the like were hanging around the place like a bad smell in the post-Look Back in Anger days, they weren't sitting in conference rooms learning how to create characters or write pithy well-structured dialogues, they were up on their feet, playing with masks, reading Brecht, exploring theatre as a medium rather than merely as a platform for their own literary virtuosity.

And in that sense this programme is truly in the spirit of those much cooed-over years, throwing off the albatross that has hung around the theatre's neck for so long and genuinely living up to what Cooke calls 'tradition of innovation and experimentation which is at the heart of the Royal Court’s mission.'

Nov 2, 2007

Jean Charles de Menezes

I don't really have much to say that hasn't already been said as regards the jaw-dropping ineptitude and shameless face-saving of London's police force in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes except to reiterate the simple fact that an innocent man was shot dead in public and no one has been called to account.

That cannot be said enough times. An innocent man was shot in the head several times. 19 seperate 'catatrophic' errors led to his death. And our police force has propogated lies, half-truths and vicious rumours to try to conceal those flagrant errors that led to this man's death. They have done everything in their power to avoid responsibility for the fact that they murdered an innocent man on a tube train in the middle of London.

That they can get out of bed in the morning and look themselves in the mirror is beyond me, let alone how they can continue go to work, or even award themselves a £25,000 performance related bonus.

I urge you to go and read all of these articles on the subject. Everyone should be staggered by this.

Oh! The Horror...

le Grand-Guignol devient le théâtre de Montmartre. Il représente un quartier, ses habitants, son esprit’ (Guy Sabatier)

The Union Theatre has created a line-up of terror plays to coincide this most peculiarly ghoulish time of the year (because as if a night derived from a peculiar pagan ceremony where small children stalk the dark streets of our cities threatening innocent passers-by, we have a celebration of burning catholics to look forward to...), the foremost amongst them written by the terrifyingly prolific Mark Ravenhill, who clearly doesn't have enough to do writing the Guardian, collecting other people's awards, and being had for breakfast.

The Theatre have called this 'a festival of Horror and Grand Guignol' which is all well and good except that, as I have said before about Grand Guignol, I think they're rather missing the true spirit of it all; or at least, what I see as the very best things about it. See, the terror in Grand Guignol was not merely about the plays - there's a reason that the name of the theatre itself came to represent the whole genre.

As most people know, Pigalle is not a nice part of Paris. In the theatre's golden years between the wars, the audience exiting the Pigalle Metro would stumble out into the dark narrow streets, passing smokey, tempting doorways, salacious posters advertising the seedy, erotic cabaret of the Moulin Rouge and its like. Prostitutes and the other sinister hangers-on of the city's thriving sex-industry loitered on the dirty cobbles. In short, as Richard Hand and Michael Wilson argue, the streets around the theatre throbbed with the exact cocktail of the erotic and the dangerous that made a night at the Grand Guignol so alluring.

The theatre itself was situated at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac (a point of no return); squat and dark and threatening, it was a deconsecrated convent - again that peculiarly French combination of sex, religion and death. The audience, already tingling, would be ushered in to the auditorium, Paris' smallest, which was still filled with the remnants of its previous religious incarnation. Audiences in the boxes were trapped behind iron bars and in the ceiling of the convent, two giant angels stared down at the horrors before them. As if not atmospheric enough, the theatre's most famous master Max Maurey had a doctor on standby, rushing back and forth through the crowded grotty stalls, ensuring that the audience were medically prepared for the chilling experience awaiting them.

This was the true theatre of the Grand Guignol. A rich, disturbing combination of its seedy location, its perverted religious architecture and the brilliant theatrical flair of the theatre's director. The audience was titillated and terrified before it got anywhere near the plays, which were of course, written specifically for this unique venue (or site-specific, as we might have it today). A night out at the Grand Guignol was dark and tempting voyage into the unknown, a libidinous journey through the wrong district of Paris; full of sex and death, where even an old convent had become a temple to the cheap and gory and forbidden.

Now, as wonderful a place as the Union Theatre (and I genuinely do mean that - it is a fantastic little venue) its location, tucked away in a quiet part of Southwark, is about 400 years to late for that particular district to retain the needed atmosphere of lusty spookiness. And although the 'warm wood-burning stove... eclectic selection of furniture... and a wonderful, vibrant display of artwork' in the theatre's cafe bar is undoubtedly a delight the other 11 months of the year it does little to instigate the necessary sense of danger to elevate the horrors inside above the level of the cosily gruesome.

Indeed, as I said in the last past on the subject, and has been undoubtedly confirmed by their more recent show, The spirit of Grand Guignol is alive and kicking not at Terror 2007 but in the form of the now-much-lauded Punchdrunk.

In Faust last year, the audience arrived out in an unknown, daunting area of town. Heading out of a rundown tube station they ducked through a council estate, arriving finally at a derelict and abandoned looking warehouse, looming above them - already the geography of the city is working to their advantage before you even start the convoluted conveyor belt of characters, lifts and corridors that you are required to traverse before you arrive at anything approaching narrative.

The same is true, though to a lesser extent, in their more recent show - demonstrating that a showman's sense of the theatrical, and a commitment to creating a truly all-encompassing theatrical environment can elevate the silly melodramatics of gothic horror to something tinglingly macabre.

Moving up in the World

My inaugeral post at The Guardian blog is now up.

Not a word in it will be particularly new for anyone who is a regular reader of this place - it's more of a statement of intent and, even more so thanks to a sub-eds (unconsciously I imagine) provocative hyperlink to a Michael Billington article, a thinly veiled criticism of a certain modes of thinking when it comes to political theatre:
In a time when we are saturated by political messages I think theatre needs to realise that the form in which we say something can be as political as what it is that's being said. And this is where theatre can be a more effective vehicle for change than film or television. Because theatre is about doing as much as it is about describing. It's about being somewhere in time and space, being part of an event. Theatre that embraces this liveness and this localness can really achieve something.
As I said, it's an oft-repeated view amongst some of the most interesting people writing about theatre today (and in fact, funnily enough after I finished it off the other day I chanced upon a far denser and more interesting debate on the same subject over at Alison's site), but I felt it was one that deserved an airing in its boldest, simplest terms.

With that as a basis, hopefully there will be more interesting things to come in future weeks.

Nov 1, 2007


The transformation of All Hallow's Eve from an often somber, quiet, pagan festival to a kitsch explosion of tacky ghosts and pop culture horror, I think represents an interesting shift in our perception not only of what we are afraid of but what fear is.

For several years I worked as a ghost tour guide under the streets of Edinburgh, I worked for some wonderful fascinating places and some fabulously tacky horror-fests. I met ghost hunters, Wicca witches, farting dogs and an almost unending stream of ordinary people with personal stories to tell of dark figures, moving objects and slamming doors.

I also got to learn a little about the history of some of the ghost stories in Edinburgh. Stories of ghosts that date as far back as the 17th Century when the streets were said to be haunted by the victims of the plague. Now in this period people spoke with genuine reverential fear of ghosts. Because a ghost represented something other than it does today. Ghosts represented the dark side of the afterlife. In a Christian community that fundamentally believed in heaven (and possibly also hell), ghosts represented a chilling possibility of death gone wrong, dangerous, pitiable spirits trapped between worlds, crying out for help or possible able to drag you down with them.

Today however, in a predominantly secular world, I think something has changed.

The people that came on these tours were almost entirely preoccupied with one thing – were these dark rooms haunted? The spectre of spectres haunted these journeys. Frequently people would come up to me afterwards and ask me if others had seen dark figures following the tour, or they would tell me of other ghosts – I learnt of violent deaths and foggy apparitions from Belfast to New Orleans. Almost all said they were afraid while on the tour. I would disagree.

What the people on my tours experienced was nervous excitement - a tingly, bubbling anticipation. There was nothing sombre about their fear. Like Halloween revelers this was a fear to be savoured, to be enjoyed. When they came to me afterwards they didn’t want comfort, they wanted confirmation. Reassurance that what they really had felt what they so desperately longed to feel. They wanted to know that it wasn’t just their imagination – that something, not God but some spirit of the afterlife had reached out and touched them.

Like the Victorian spiritualists gripping for dear life to the hope of something impossible and magical in an era of reason and science, in our godless world ghosts are no longer a fear but a hope.