Dec 29, 2007

Future Perfect.

As 2007 lies waxily on its death bed, coughing quietly and trying not to make a fuss, I thought it might be interesting to look to the year ahead - what excitements might it hold? What glorious adventures await? Who will I end up needlessly and foolishly offending in 2008? Let's gaze into the tea leaves briefly, shall we...

The London International Mime Festival opens. No one notices.

Following news that the Old Vic’s star studded Speed-the-Plow is not selling well enough, Kevin Spacey jumps to rescue in the only way he knows how. A poorly proofed Old Vic press release lands on in our inboxes proudly announcing that Hollywood sweetheart Denise Richards has become Assistant Stage Manager on the production, while the role of Audience Member Who Has Left His Mobile Phone On will be played by Jonny Lee Miller, with Dakota Fanning putting in a cameo has his embarrassed daughter. No news yet on who will be taking the part of Artistic Director.

Jersey Boys opens. The Bergerac Fan Club leave at the interval, crushingly disappointed.

Struggling for anything else to write, the critics decide to begin a new debate about theatre blogging by suggesting that in an environment where ‘everyone’s a critic’ our theatre culture loses its rigour. Meanwhile in an attempt to devote more space to adverts, newspaper critics are asked if it would be possible to reduce the length of their reviews slightly, replacing the tradition 300 words with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Still with nothing to write about, the critics are getting desperate – regularly calling Nick Hytner begging him to say something incendiary. Finally Martin Crimp’s The City opens at the Royal Court, directed by Katie Mitchell. Critics dine out on condescension for the rest of the month.

Black Watch finally lands in London, to a collective critical orgasm from the first stringers. Billington, Spencer and De Jongh trip over each other to claim that the production demonstrates the perfect alliance between formal experiment and the political content, conclusively (I said conclusively) proving that the Future of Theatre™ is much the same as the Present of Theatre, with a bit more dancing.

Nothing happens in July. Literally nothing.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival arrives to a maelstrom of complaints on the Guardian website from irritated people in London bored of hearing people talk about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. These whingers are quickly repelled by a second wave of commenters highlighting how obsessed people are with London the rest of the year. However, in a haunting echo of the Spanish Civil War, this second group quickly becomes riven by infighting over the issue of whether Edinburgh gives more attention to theatre in the regions or is a distraction from it. Following an article by Lyn Gardner claiming that this was a return to form for the festival the debate grows so large that, unable to retain coherency or structure, it collapses, leaking irately polite comments across the Guardian Website.

Slung Low’s Helium, winner of the Samuel Beckett Trust Award 2008, opens at the Barbican. Despite being a wonderful production, the makers quickly realise that the awfulness of previous winners has opened up a critical vacuum in the Pit Theatre, sucking in positive adjectives and review stars, rendering the show tragically luke warm.

Michael Grandage announces his new season at the Donmar, which will include a half week long run for a production of A View from the Bridge, starring Prince William and the body of John Gielgud. Tickets sell out so fast they actually rupture time, throwing some ticket buyers back in time several years to the moment at which the Donmar last did something interesting.

Guardian critic Michael Billington becomes so obsessed by his dislike of sensory titillation he makes the surprising demand that he hears, smells and sees nothing at the theatre. If only, he asserts, there was some way of imbibing political drama as a purely abstract concept, without the lights and the sounds and the theatre to distract us from the serious business of theatre.

Michael Billington is bought a book for Christmas. He retires happy.

Have a Happy New Year

(Thought let's get a few things straight about New Year. It's a horrible celebration. As a consequence of the fact that everyone is required to celebrate at precisely the same time, it has somehow become this grotesque fun-off, in which bands of anxious revellers are pitted against each other in some kind of joy-sucking battle to identify the coolest people. Why is it that this party, more than any other is required to represent us - who our friends are, what we like doing, how much fun we are capable of having. I simply can't have fun under all this pressure. Anyway, enough of that or Woody Allen will be round demanding royalties.)

Dec 26, 2007

Andy's Christmas Presents #1:

Michael Billington's State of the Nation

(Nothing makes Christmas like a father with a wry sense of humour.)

Dec 14, 2007

National Student Drama Festival Crisis

When I was younger I never went to the theatre. We were more of the Clint Eastwood Thriller on a Sunday night kind of a family. Not that I'm scorning this - there's nothing I love more than a gratuitous overdose of CSI of an evening... there's something comforting about naked exposition, the feeling of pure undiluted plot coursing through your veins.

When I started at University I knew almost nothing. I would sit for an unsociable number of hours in the Drama section of James Thin attempting to read plays and invariably failing to find anything that could hold me for longer than a handful of pages. I must've read the first page of almost every canonical drama text there is. I am the undisputed Michael Billington of openings. Yet I felt no closer to knowing anything. I had all of this unchannelled enthusiasm and nowhere to put it.

And then, as a wide eyed first year who looked closer to 14 than 18, I was lucky enough to get cast in a play called Like Skinnydipping by a guy called Chris Perkin. And with this play, we went to the National Student Drama Festival. And undoubtedly, nothing (no play, no performance, no person, no opportunity) has had more of an effect on me than that festival.

Simply being surrounded by this bubbling, intoxicating enthusiasm was incredible. Surrounded by people desperate to learn, desperate to prove themselves. Young people in love with theatre. How exciting is that?

Not all of the shows were great. In fact some were awful. But others were still some of the most memorable shows I've seen. I remember a company called Deer Park from Dartington who did a beautiful, haunting piece with nothing but several potted plants a handful of school uniforms - a melodic, lyrical mesmerising show. We left the theatre and could barely speak for the next half an hour. I remember a show called the Freudian Slip (by a company that have now become Pegabovine) - still one of the wittiest, most surreal and brilliant comic shows I've ever seen. I remember a production of Enda Walsh's Bedbound, that was evisceratingly painful to watch, in the best possible way. I remember seeing all these things and being staggered, astounded by what theatre could be.

But the festival is so much more than its programming. There was a workshop in which Richard Hurst manage to somehow make me humiliatingly aware that I am utterly incapable of working with actors. There was a magazine, written daily by a pale faced, underslept battalion of inspired writers. A totally open forum in which anyone could drop in and write something, which has spawned some of the best young writers around.

And then I remember being introduced to Mark Ravenhill in the bar, to vomitting questions on this playwright who I'd heard of but who's work I had never seen. Asking him how he got to know plays, what should I read, what should I do? I remember talking to him for almost an hour. Him recommending to me Howard Barker, who's play Victory was the first major show I directed and who's inspiring writings I devoured throughout the rest of university and ended up writing my dissertation on.

I remember the spirit of the place. I remember how perfect a location Scarborough was. It's own intimate melting pot, a quiet seaside town suddenly infused with faintly drunken excitement.

And I know that the place has had the same effect on dozens of other people. And that thousands of the people creating work today do so as a direct consequence of having a chance to partake in this joyous week-long experience on the Yorkshire coast.

And now Yorkshire Arts Council have withdrawn its funding, choosing to focus on regional producing houses and companies. And I cannot stress how bad a decision I think this is. In an industry where people are constantly talking about the need to get young people involved, to interest young people, to make theatre relevent and exciting. Nowhere does this better than NSDF, nowhere is as challenging and exciting and enlightening for the next generation of theatre makers. And there are few better services for Scarborough than the bevvy of theatre makers, and school groups and press that descend on the town for a week in the Spring.

So please do sign the petition set up to help protest this decision, which must be done before 15th January.

Dec 13, 2007

2007 (Part the Second)

Intimacy. It’s an oft-used word. It’s an oft mis-used word. People talk about intimate gigs and intimate theatres. But in those contexts what they essentially mean is small.

I feel that genuine intimacy is something more complicated. Yes, it is about closeness. But closeness both in its literal sense and in a messier one; it’s about desire, honesty and reciprocity. There were undoubtedly two shows at Edinburgh this year that had these qualities in spades and, in the midst of the festival’s increasingly unbearable whirligig of hype and tat and superficial spectacle, utterly stopped me in my tracks.

Rotozaza’s Etiquette is sweetly mesmerising little show, perfectly combining high-concept happening-inspired participation with a charmingly simple story borrowed from Jean Luc Godard. Two people sit opposite each other at a café table scattered with props. Through instructions relayed to them via headphones they begin to talk to each other; a conversation, a story and a discrete private universe follow.

Whether it would pass Chris’ cat-test is debatable and technology-wise the show is dictated almost entirely by a pre-recorded score. And yet in the stumbling intimacy of the words that you and your partner speak, the show is remade every time, entirely singular, unpredictable, meaningful and resolutely intimate. Its joy lies in the fragile relationship conjured between two friends. Gazing into the eyes of your partner you are at once staring at a friend and a character; locations shimmer in and out of being. And buried somewhere in lines you feed each other, and the actions you carry out, there is a wonderful, liberating honesty.

The same could absolutely be said of Melanie Wilson’s Simple Girl, a similarly fragile and self-consciously fictional little show, full of gentle sadness and fading romance. Dressed in a long black coat and looking like something that had slipped unnoticed out of a cold war spy thriller, Mel told a series of increasingly meandering stories into an old radio microphone, gazing longingly out at the audience in front of her. Her conversations with the them in between these stories had exactly the kind of stumbling intimacy of Etiquette, drawing us into her melancholy little world.

Together these shows (along with Chris’ own Hippo World Guest Book) absolutely made my festival. All three had a subtle, unspectacular beauty to them. They may not have been important, they may not have happened in big rooms and (indeed) none of them were particularly financially successful (or at least that’s what I’ve heard from the people who made them). And yet, lost as they have been in the Edinburgh scrum, they nonetheless sparkled with humour, warmth and ideas. And though none could be called explicitly political, to me they all seemed to throb with a sadness; a loss of hope in people’s ability to communicate with each other and to love each other. But rather than just saying this, they all seemed in their own ways to be doing something really meaningful about it.

And with that it’s back down to London. Although, after a year and a half I still feel like I’m searching for a purchase on where things actual happen down here. Beyond the usual suspects (National, Young Vic, BAC etc) I’m somewhat lost. Unsurprisingly then the two shows that really stood out for me were both at major theatres.

Again, it won’t surprise people to know that one of them was Attempts on Her Life. Before we even get to Katie Mitchell, it’s absolutely worth saying that Martin Crimp’s text is an example of the best, most tantalising, most theatrical writing for theatre that you can imagine; a spectral, poetic, complex bundle of character-less lines of dialogue, longing to be realised in some specific, local way.

It’s little wonder then Crimp and Mitchell seem to enjoy each other so much. This year they have had numerous collaborations at the National and the Young Vic (on a translation of a short Brecht play) and next year they are off to the court for Crimp’s new play The City. Unperturbed by the catcalls of critics demanding she honour a text by rendering it tepid and utterly bland, untainted by direction, Mitchell resolutely re-interprets a text for her, unencumbered by any claim to universality or definiteness (certainly you could never accuse her of creating the definitive version of anything).

Though far from perfect, Attempts was brave, it was ambitious, it was thoughtful, it was thrilling. More than any other show I have seen it demonstrated the potential for video technology in theatre. Not as some kind of dynamic backdrop but as a way of conjuring two competing worlds. Losing oneself in the fractured unreality of both, it became impossible to say which was a simulacrum of the other. The swirling figures in red dresses seemed hopeless, lost ghosts in a world so permeated and dictated by cinema, television and digital spectacle that it had written itself out of existence.

If the Edinburgh shows underlined the importance of an intimate, personal, local engagement, of people coming together in a room and looking at each and talking to each other (telling stories together), then Attempts undoubtedly spoke of the hopeless alternative.

Undoubtedly these three or four shows stood out for me. They were the first that sprung into mind when I began thinking about this list. The last took a little longer. I’d almost completely forgotten it, and yet, in its own way it was every bit as wonderful as the previous shows.

It’s not entirely my fault, Debbie Tucker Green’s Generations at Young Vic was only 40 minutes long. It was a seemingly simple piece of writing, presented fairly realistically in the round; a bustling extended family cooking in an African kitchen while a chorus of singers stood with the audience crammed around the edges. And yet, as I think I said at the time, I have rarely seen a show that resonated with so much loss.

As a simple six or seven minute kitchen was repeated each time with a new member of the family missing, until the same once-crowded joyful scene was played out with only two mourning grandparents left, lines took on new sadness, spoke of new absences. It was a simple, hauntingly effective technique beautifully executed; you could feel the silences in the air. And again it was a show that in its intricate form, without mention of wars or famines or AIDS epidemics, said something profoundly political. Debbie Tucker Green, like Crimp, is undoubtedly a writer for theatre, with breathtaking love for and understanding of her medium.

And that’s it really. I also enjoyed Australian company Back to Back’s Small Metal Objects, Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy and puppeteers Blind Summit’s loving homage to Charles Bukowski, Low Life. I wish I’d seen Uninvited Guest’s It is Like it Ought to be, Chris Goode’s Speed Death of the Radiant Child and Third Angel's Presumption but try as I might I was utterly useless at doing so.

Music-wise Jens Lekman, Andrew Bird and the National all released beautiful melancholy albums, full of lovely turns of phrase, sweet, simple melodies and some gorgeously lush arrangements. LCD Soundsystem were once again effortlessly catchy and clever, and Of Montreal, Animal Collective and Battles created amazing albums; bouncy, dense, infectious and utterly awesome.

And undoubtedly my favourite film of the year was David Fincher’s Zodiac; a grand, rambling saga following a series of gruesome murders in San Francisco. Masquerading as a simple detective thriller it slowly teased itself into a psychological study of obsession, it’s unstructured, sprawling style mimicking the futile attempts to ensnare the killer.

And in the New Year I’m mainly looking forward to the chance to actually stop boring people endlessly with the shows that I’m going to do and actually get up and do them. Hopefully we have a couple of things lined up in various corners of the South Coast and maybe one in London as well. We’ll see. It’s all very exciting and undoubtedly you lovely people will be the first to know when anything’s confirmed.

Happy Christmas.

God in Ruins


As I took my seat in the characterless and sanitised Soho Theatre auditorium, I was in the strange position of knowing more about the process that went into making this show than the show itself. Tales of nineteen painful weeks of devising with a cast of male RSC actors who happened to find themselves between Shakespeares had been aired extensively in preview pieces. Anthony Neilson, the writer/director, seemed faintly ambivalent and the some of the cast openly frustrated. Distracted by this intriguing collision between a vast traditional institution and the messy, unpredictable methods of Neilson, I’d rather managed to forget that there was an actual show at the heart of it all. And so it was a rather nice surprise to be able to sit down without a clue what was to follow.

What did follow was, in the end, as frustrating as it was enjoyable. A grotesque, deliciously sordid, incoherent montage of metropolitan Christmas clichés slung loosely over the season’s most inevitable narrative, that of the fallen man and his redemption.

The opening sets the scene perfectly. In front of an incongruously chic modern apartment set, littered with expensive spirits and knowing pop culture artefacts, a familiar Dickensian Bob Cratchit character sits working at a wooden desk. Scrooge enters bubbling over with the kind of relentlessly annoying Christmas spirit normally reserved for local news reporters and Americans. It is three years on from A Christmas Carol and Cratchit is absolutely sick of his redeemed master; painfully aware that a damascene conversion is for life, not just for Christmas. The scene works beautifully, a one note gag dragged out into painful realism; a comic skit tortured into tragedy. It’s a hugely funny dissection of the superficial myths and aphorisms that fuel our intoxicating relationship with this anachronistic celebration.

Following this prologue we are launched into the main story, of a typical anguished London TV producer, drunk, miserable, estranged from his wife and the daughter he has let down. There is never any doubt that he is our modern day Scrooge, a man so pathetic he didn’t even manage to do anything particularly bad; just usher some barrel-scraping reality TV into the world and post naked photos of his wife on the internet. Over the course of an hour or so he takes the road most travelled towards a Christmas redemption and the inevitable meeting with his daughter.

So far so utterly predictable, but what makes Neilson’s show watchable, even enjoyable (and at points absolutely hilarious) is the chaotic, meandering, seedy journey to this inevitable conclusion. The show, and the Christmassy London it conjures, is beguilingly charmless. A sickly cocktail of addiction groups, festive pizzas, shamelessly low-concept television shows, drink, drugs, internet sex, and the most truculent ghost of a dead father since Hamlet with a mouth like a fucking sewer. In possibly the show’s best scene the stage is slowly flooded by festival dressed men signing carols and chugging obscene amounts of various drugs, as the space becomes a whirling, raucous melee of coke, pills, booze and songs the scene is suddenly interrupted by a figure in white carrying a baby Jesus. All the actors begin to gather like carol singers at the front of the stage before the baby’s head is ripped off to reveal a stash of pills and the orgy of drug taking and out of tune singing continues.

With seedy, effortless élan Neilson tears tradition and convention to pieces, revelling in a nihilistic excess that reminds us how shallow and meaningless have become the affectations of spirituality and good will that Christmas is supposed to be about. Neilson is clever. His gags are frequently brilliant. He has a turn of phrase that is as poetic as it is stinging and cruel. It feels appropriate that the RSC should be putting on his show because at his best, his relentless wordplay is as witty and as rude as any of the crowd pleasing dick jokes that Shakespeare used to churn out.

And if anything this show was further proof that Neilson is at his best when he is writer/director – giving him the freedom to mercilessly disrupt the form of the show in the same way that he chews to pieces the narrative. It’s just a shame that what could have been this show’s most meaningful and powerful moment, as the auditorium is invaded by a homeless man, was almost entirely deflated by the fact that the actor had already been seen on stage. Nevertheless his presence was brutal, uncomfortable and intimidating; a soldier and a beggar, the two characters we’d rather not think about when we’re trying to be festive.

And yet I never felt like there was enough beyond all these tricks and turns of phrase, through the sludge of nastiness and excess. The structure on which it all lay felt trite and mechanical. I never felt convinced that Neilson gave a shit about our stereotypically guilt-ridden TV producer or his inevitable redemption when it finally came. Unlike Wonderful World of Dissocia, Neilson’s last show, there was nothing haunting or honest or meaningful beating at the heart of all this chaos. I stepped out into the cold streets of Soho with the ending almost entirely forgotten, left only with the slurry of shameful, seedy excesses that had proceeded it. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need a shot of sourness at this time of year, to counter the sugary sentimentality that coats everything like a thick layer of snow.

Dec 11, 2007

2007 (Part The First)

Well, that's it then. We've scrambled another year onwards, almost all accounted for.

As much as I agree with Andrew that it's been a year stuffed with an exhilarating, exhausting series of conversations, arguments and, well, some actual theatre, I can't help feeling that the suggestion that we've solved everything and have run out of things to talk about is somewhat premature.

There's surely plenty of thinking and talking needed to be done, for example, on the relationship between the mainstream and the, umm, not-mainstream (upstream, alternative, experimental... pay your money and take your choice). Only today Brian Logan has an interesting article up at the Guardian about another fractured attempt at amalgamating alternatives modes of practise into the turgid British theatrical tradition. And I'm sure that anyone reading this is already aware of Chris Goode's fascinating ramble on the means by which the adherents of that same tradition are already peeling the skin off experimental theatre and draping themselves in it like a grotesque theatrical version of Silence of the Lambs (an idea that, surprisingly, no one at Tristan Baker has come up with... yet).

Indeed, just today in his round-up of the theatrical year Michael Billington reiterated his spurious claim that the only thing experiemental theatre was missing was a decent playwright. Chris has already aptly demonstrated the ways in which this assertion misses the fundamentals of alternative theatrical forms, taking its aesthetic to be its essence. Fixated on the hip location or the dazzling technology you miss the unpredictability, the intimacy, the risk, the authentic sense of participation that is what absolutely constitutes exciting experimental theatre. When Billington cites Complicite's clinical and uninspiring A Disappearing Number as a sign of the proper way that mainstream theatre can diversify, you know that there's a long way to go.

Yet although we (or indeed Chris) may have thoroughly dissected this problematic appropriation, surely this conversation is only half-done. Where do we go from here? How do we forge a more meaningful relationship between mainstream and the 'upstream'? How can the Royal Court or the National or the RSC accomodate ways of working that are incompatible with their complex technical apparatus and their play-making philosophy?

Indeed, should they? There's a piece I still mean to write about a localness that is missing from a theatre world that is still built around events; can any theatre that is as singularly located claim to be a National Theatre? Rather than worrying about the quality of this particular show or that, should we not instead be building a localised theatre, a dispersed series of events and happenings, that does not pretend to the universal but is instead focused on its immediate context and its individual participants?

And while we're on it, let's talk a little about the internet's favourite pinata, Mr Michael Billington. Surely a lot of the frustration vented at this generous and passionate elder statesmen is a product of the fact that somewhat stupefyingly he is still in the forefront of forging the theatrical agenda after 30 years in the same job. His attitude to what theatre can or should be, relatively unchanged after everything that has happened to the world (the internet, the end of the cold war, the rise of postmodernism, 9/11, the continued existence of Simon Cowell) in the intervening years, is still the orthodoxy in theatre. And as we're well aware, he's not the only one. So while our tiny internet pot may be bubbling over with exciting new ideas, its hardly like we're forging a brave new world quite yet.

One of the things I have enjoyed so much about writing for the Guardian is that it has required me to go back and repeatedly explain, justify and underline those points of presumed knowledge that are essentially givens in our online discourse. Because for all that our little community forges an exciting collective theatrical vision (primarily by enthusiastically agreeing with each other), it's not necessarily having that much impact on the wider theatre community yet. I know from personal experience that some artists are beginning to be informed by the subjects thrown about on the internet, but what of the Dominic Cookes and the Nick Hytners - are they avid readers?

What is the relationship between theatre and criticism anyway - there's a chicken and an egg really should throw together for a while. Especially as one thing the internet riotously does is blur the boundaries between the two - how many of those who so passionately write about what they feel theatre should be are at the same time creating (either writing or directing or, very often, both) their own work? The majority, I'd say.

The Guardian website is a fascinating entity in all this. There's now a wee bevvy of wonderfully talented people writing there and already it's surely beginning to challenge the orthodoxy suggested above - if only in that for every painfully inevitable Billington tirade, Lyn G is able to provide a refreshing counter narrative to absolutely cheer.

How though might we take this further? And if, as Andrew suggests, we are already running out of topics for your typical several hundred word blog post how might we begin to forge a more dynamic dialogue in the infinite spaces of the internet? If the internet is the future of theatre criticism, we who are here in the early days have an opportunity to try and construct that criticism as something meaningful and radical and new - but what and how?

I've enjoyed immensly reading everything that has been written over the past 12 months. I've been exhilerated, challenged, confused. I've felt jealous, awed and faintly inadequate in equal measure. And I'm undoubtedly looking forward to what happens in the 2008.

Coming up in part II later this week I'll try and write a little about some of the actual theatre that I've seen and enjoyed this year along with music/films and other such cultural bric-a-brac.

Dec 5, 2007


... and on the subject of things over there at the Guardian, I have a new post up about the (mis)use of the word Pretentious, and Andrew Haydon has a lovely bit about theatre in school.

On the subject of which. I went to my first ever show at the age of 17, when our sixth form drama teacher took us down to London to see Deborah Warner's Medea with Fiona Shaw. Which was, frankly, staggering. That same English teacher also had us studying The Duchess of Malfi, Bond's Lear and (unrelatedly) the wonderful 100 Years of Solitude. Needless to says eyes were opened, career goals hastily rewritten, parent's hopes dashed etc etc.

And the moral of this story? I don't know - English teachers should like better theatre? Maybe there's some kind of training programme they can go on - I can hear the fresh gurgles of a newborn government job on the horizon Mr Haydon...

A Poor Man's Art

I feel that Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian's esteemed film critic (whose review of Sleuth was one of the most glorious, passionate pieces of critical bile you will read this year), may have just unleashed an avalanche of vitriol on himself. At present the comment count stands at one but with that trademark sub-ed subtlety the headline is likely to cause a bit of a stir.

The Donmar's Othello Should be a Movie.

Now, Bradshaw had my hackles up almost immediately with this statement:
I'm sure the production is great, but the coverage has caused my old, bad feelings of rage and loathing for the theatre to surface once again, like a recurrence of malaria. More than the grandest event at the grandest opera house in Europe, it seems to me, the Donmar production effectively announces: this is a pastime for rich people.
However, the more I actually think about it, the more I have a great deal of sympathy with his position. It was something I felt myself while watching The Wooster Group's Hamlet in Paris earlier this year.

The Wooster Group being, well, the Wooster Group, rather than their version of Hamlet being based on the reasonably well known W. Shakespeare text, they set out with the intent of remaking a stage version from the 1960s featuring Richard Burton as everyones favourite angst-ridden 3o year old. And this is where my problems with the piece began.

Burton's Hamlet was a staggeringly ambitious show for its time and its location. Not only was the show performed on a minimal set with rehearsal room costumes, but the entire thing was filmed by 19 cameras and edited together into a cinematic experience sent out to cinemas across the country, being screened only once before all copies were to be destroyed (though invariably at least one survived). The idea was that the residents of Des Moines and Jacksonville would have a unique experience, once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this show, just like in the theatre.

What an ambitous, hopelessly misguided but gloriously honourable mission. To bring Broadway to the masses. To appropriate the immediacy, the liveness of theatre in the cinema. A nationwide experiment in poking at the permeable membrane dividing theatre from film. A chance to send East Coast high culture flooding out across the barren plains of 60s America. Its everything that was once magnificently, naively, bombastically optomistic about the US of A.

And here we were, 4o years and too many wars later, sitting in a room in Paris, watching the country's most acclaimed theatre company perform for an exclusive audience of well-educated, English speaking French people and well-connected people like us able to make it as far as Paris. Teasing out an elegantly strangled Hamlet that, in some ways, attempted to reclaim this performance from the masses. Although beautiful, and provacative, there was something uncomfortable about this Hamlet, and something uncomfortable about its audience.

It should also be apparent by now that I am unlikely to add my voice to those who will hold up some spurious magical quality in live theatre that means it is implicitly untranslatable to any other medium. Liveness has to be fought for and hard earned. In a theatre that increasingly relies upon effects and microphones there is often little to separate it from a cinematic experience than than the superficial thrill of attending The Theatre. That having been said this Othello does appear to be a production that retains at least traces of a authentically live experience. Michael Billington (what, not taken in vain? Is the world still turning?) comments on the unfussy, musicality of the verse - something I think is important in good Shakespeare; that in the auditorium, as with all good poetry, you are feeling the words as much as you understanding them.

And I do like Bradshaw's idea that the theatre could have open performances, like Wimbledon. Perhaps the atmosphere at such events would have a similarly reviving effect as those days always do at the aforementioned tennis tournament; a vast improvement on the smugly contented hum that otherwise prevails.

However, I think that in some ways Bradshaw fundamentally misses the point of theatre, understandably considering his job seeing it as some kind of antiquated live cinema.

Theatre is not a 'product' for consumption in the same way that cinema is. Theatre is an experience, a participatory event. A theatre ticket is a contract, not a receipt. To this end theatre is as much about the making as it is about the watching. And in that respect it's a fundamentally more socially levelling experience than cinema will ever be. As I said recently, theatre can happen in a power cut. It can happen in an empty room. It can happen on a street. It can be made by anyone and watched by anyone. Cinema can not. Notwithstanding the jaw-breakingly exhuberant costs involved in the meaningless, purile, decadent nonsense spewed out by Hollywood (and I mean everyone from Wes Anderson to Paul Anderson), on the simplest level to be able to make a film you need to be able to afford a camera. And to then actually have that film then seen by anyone you need a lot more than that.

Cinema and television may reach more people but its not just about the reaching. It's what you do with that audience.

Theatre is about intimacy not spectacle. It is exclusive, eclectic, obscure and, well, special. Theatre can be an experience for two people. Hell, it can be an experience for one. It's not about everyone getting 'the same experience', as Bradshaw says, in fact it's quite the opposite.

Spectacle washes through us, it overlooks us, it shouts at us. It tells us.

Intimacy invites us, it looks at us, it listens to us. It asks us.

And intimacy isn't necessarily about small numbers. You can have an intimate crowd, indeed the company Grid Iron often refer to their work as intimate spectacle. Intimacy is about an attitude. It is about collective understanding of the particular group of people in this particular place (the audience, the actors, whoever) being part of something unique, something, well, intimate. You can have intimacy in an auditorium. You can be without it in a room with one person (I certainly have been during some so called one-on-one experience that felt more like soulless conveyor belt titillation than any sense of genuine intimacy).

But of course, if theatre doesn't do these things, if it is merely an exclusive spectacle, what does that mean? Unlike there earlier work, there was nothing intimate or engaging about The Wooster Group's hollow spectacle. Their knowing simulacrum of both liveness and film was clever, but it was also empty.

This I think is where Bradshaw's rage justifiably arrives. Because here the frisson of excitement you feel, that magic quality people talk so often about, is not to do with theatre its to do with exclusivity. It's that same box ticking satisfaction that people have at the Mona Lisa. And it is at these moments that theatre feels anachronistic and outdated; the poor man's hand-made art absurdly dressed up in suffocating velvet.

Dec 4, 2007

Sunday Sun

The inestimable Daniel Bryne (The Guardian's own Keyser Soze) has drawn my attention to this delightful way of wasting my time.

1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer

1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
Spec Bebop – Yo La Tengo
Turns out I'm actually Robin Williams' Mork

2. What would best describe your personality?
Seventeen – Forward Russia
Seventeen was, as I believe someone else once said, a very good year, I'd like to think I'd moved on just a tad in the intervening *mumble* years...

3. What do you like in a girl?
It's the Sun - Polyphonic Spree
Someone radiant? Someone gaseous?

4. How do you feel today?
Teenage Labotomy - The Ramones
No comment.

5. What is your life’s purpose?
Evil Bee - Menomena

6. What is your motto?
Cello Song - Nick Drake
A little unecessarily ambiguous methinks...

7. What do your friends think of you?
A Cautionary Song - The Decemberists
"I knew this one guy... went into theatre... last someone heard of him he was scavenging for out of date readymeals behind a Tesco in Tooting Broadway"

8. What do you think of your parents?
The Water - Feist
I have nothing for this.

9. What do you think about very often?
From Here to Fame - Aim
Ha. Nary a truer word said in meme.

10. What does 2+2=?
Easier - Grizzly Bear
Oh yes.

11. What do you think of your best friend?
Remember Me as a Time of Day - Explosions in the Sky
If he were a time of day, he'd probably be about seven thirty. Don't look for meaning in that.

12. What do you think of the person you like?
The Beatles - Devendra Banhart
Baby you can drive my car? Anyone? Bueller?

13. What is your life story?
A Night at the Hip Hopera - The Kleptones

14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Domine Jesu - Mozart

15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
On Your Way - The Album Leaf
Whose on their way? Her or me?

16. What do your parents think of you?
Fireworks - The Animal Collective
Disapointing and expensive.

17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
Fight! - Art Brut
It's going to be a good one...

18. What will they play at your funeral?
Sweet and Dandy - Toots and the Maytals
Now that would be a funeral.

19. What is your hobby/interest?
Shankill Butchers - The Decemberists
That's right, when I'm not writing for the Guardian or working for a popular London theatre, I torture and murder catholics to take the edge off.

20. What is your biggest secret?
Another Day - Air
Well aren't I just a tease...

21. What do you think of your friends?
In My Life - The Beatles
Ah. Well that's just lovely.

22. What should you post this as?
Sunday Sun - Beck

Dec 2, 2007


And the award for this week's least surprising piece of news goes to the closure of Desperately Seeking an Audience after one horrifying month. Who knew a mediocre Madonna film with the music of Blondie superficially grafted on top of it would be an abysmal failure? Oh wait, everybody.

Perhaps the staggering failure of this abortion of a musical will finally put an end to the West End's desperate pop-cultural barrel-scraping, pillaging music, film and television to equally shameless degrees in a hopeless scramble for audiences; dressing themselves with borrowed success and secondhand glamour. Filling our stages with trumped up tribute concerts and meaningless nostalgia-fests that are only a few thousand pounds and a stage manager away from sing-along-a-Sound of Music.

Probably not, though.

That having been said I'm by no means getting on the 'we're all doomed, captain' death-of-the-West-End bandwagon. In fact, there are some very creditable things going on. Look at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, where Edward Bond's fascinating play The Sea will be arriving at the end of January, a far braver, more exciting piece of programming than most of the Donmar's showy star-orgy at the Wyndhams. If either of those ventures is deemed enough of a success maybe there's even the giddy possibility of producers flocking to the theatre bookshop rather than HMV for their next big idea.

Like Hollywood in the early 70s
, we could be on the verge of something very exciting.

Of course there is a downside to all of this. I think that the failure of Desperately Seeking some Dignity will probably mean a very early demise for the new genre of pop music/film crossover musicals. Which is a crying shame. There's mileage there... I was looking forward to Saving Private Ryan the stage show, featuring the music of Status Quo.