Sep 30, 2007

It's all me, me, me these days...

Well, it's been a rather breathless few weeks. Let's do a bit of a round-up shall we...

First and foremost, the show I was directing at The Arches in Glasgow came and went.

The show itself went well, I think. It was an interesting experience coming back to directing a piece of new writing after a year spent fizzing around the countryside for our site-specific project - plotting routes, co-ordinating volunteers, writings scripts, cobbling together a story. There is something immensely satisfying about the experience though.

When I was 11 or 12 I, like so many boys of my age/generation, worshipped at the alter of Games Workshop, a sort-of strategy game based in dizzyingly dense universe of magical armies, valiant heroes, and the kind of utterly earnest, and staggeringly epic narratives that Homer/Tolkien would have been proud of. The thing that really made this particularly gaming world (the only which I was ever a part of) truly captivating though was that to create your own unique army, you would buy the characters you wanted/needed (depending on how my parents/I looked at the matter) and paint them yourself.

This was undoubtedly my favourite part. I would spend hours labouring over each inch-and-a-half high figure, starting with the undercoat, choosing the main colour scheme, picking out highlights, detail, adding symbols, transfers, covering the little stand on which the character stood with grass and the occasionally decorative rock (or, severed arm depending on just how evil said character was meant to be) - the whole thing was a joy that I spent far, far too many days of my childhood on (days that could have been better spent learning that once you hit 13, an ability to paint small metal representations of wood elves well does not impress girls or boys).

I think that its this very same precise, meticulous joy that I take in directing a show. This is especially true when it's one written by someone else. You already have a shape, a figure, same as anyone else who was given that play. The joy comes from bringing that to life - colouring it, adding your own flourishes, completing it - turning it into something utterly unique, a beautiful, polished, discrete entity in its own right. This is how I go about creating a show. And although directing in this way is never going to truly excite me in the same way as some of the other projects I've done/am planning, there is an undoubted sense of childish contentment that comes from the whole process.

And as for the show itself. Well take your pick: Our internet friends at View from the Stalls were staggeringly generous:
Although it didn't quite have that magical spine tingling or jaw dropping moment of "Black Watch", "Lysistrata" or "The Recovery Position", "Your Ex Lover Is Dead" is right up there as one of the most enjoyable productions I've seen this year.
Joyce MacMillan in The Scotsman, less so:

A predictable collage of ideas from every recent date-movie about the fact that relationships - shock, horror - don't always last, the show is presented as a mock film experience, with great theatrical invention and skill.

Well, I liked the last part. Though she does go on to call us Talent Wasted, which I suppose is better than no talent at all.

Also I must at this point mention The Arches, for those who have never been there. It is a gorgeous, labyrinthine arts centre, nestled in the centre of Glasgow, under the citie's railway arches. During the festival in particular its a thrilling hub of activity, shows, club nights and music gigs filling the dark, cavernously atmospheric brick arches that make up the space. What I particularly love, going back to my earlier post on theatre buildings, is that they have made no attempt to transform the space into a Theatre. Concrete floors below you, great brick arches and air-conditioning units glinting metallic silver overhead - it feels real, industrial, mysterious and exciting. It also feels not like a (heavily subsidised) resource or a (utterly worthy) gift to Glasgow, but a part of the city, the events and the work there connected to the city in a very real, physical way.

Fortunately for us, Jackie, who programs theatre for them, was more on Statler than Joyce's side of the fence on our show and would love us to go back in some capacity - and the idea of creating a show specifically for that space is one that I am absolutely relishing.

[On the subject of which, for anyone who might be interested, it looks like very soon I might be developing Exposures with a similarly exciting theatre dahn Sarf. Will tell you more when I know more...]

So Thursday night I left The Arches and headed straight for the overnight megabus to get back to London to go back to work Friday morning. (glamour, darlings, oh the glamour of the theatre). The coach was appropriately crowded, hot and uncomfortable and made bearable only by the fact that I had finally treated myself to a copy of From Hell, to pass the journey. Now I am not a regular graphic novel/comic book reader but Alan Moore is, frankly, a genius and as with anyone who is truly great in their field, regardless of whether you know anything about what he does who will undoubtedly enjoy it. From Hell, unlike the diabolical, cardboard-setted, Johnny-Depp-Starring Cock-a-ney catastrophe that was the film version, is a rich, thoughtful and utterly compelling look not just at the Whitechappel Murders, but at late Victorian society as a brutal incubator for the 20th century. Go buy it.

Now with a link that Jeremy Paxman would be proud of, Alan Moore also wrote V for Vendetta about a future (though I think the 'future' date that he used was about 1997) fascist government ruling great britain. Which leads nicely into this:
Thousands of demonstrators planning to march on Parliament to call for the withdrawal of troops from Afrghanistan [sic] and Iraq have been told that their protest has been banned.

The Metropolitan Police told organisers of the Stop the War Coalition that no march would now be allowed “within one mile of Parliament” while MPs were in session.
Now forgive me if I'm wrong but surely its parliamentarians that are being protested against here. Hence to be most effective is it not required for them to be in session. Why should MPs be protected from loud bellows of disaproval at their actions more than anybody else should? Or has sitting and jeering at the opposition in parliament suddenly become an activity that can only be carried out to quite whistle of birdsong and the occasional click of a tourist's camera.

The exclusion zone is another of of those pieces of our recent history that stagger me every time I think about it. As David Rees said, "Hello, history? Umm... you are judging these people right?"

Sep 24, 2007

Your Ex-Lover is Dead

A message for all you folks North of the Border, (or adventurous travellers).

I am directing a delightful little play at The Arches Live festival in Glasgow Wednesday and Thursday this week.

The latest in a much under-represented market of plays with titles from melancholy Canadian Indie songs, Your Ex-Lover is Dead is a playful but (hopefully) touching show about trying (and invariably failing) to make up for lost time. It's written by a good friend of mine, a wonderfully talented young Canadian writer called Deborah Pearson.

If you're free (and, of course, actually in Scotland) it would be great to see you - I might even buy you a drink in The Arches' swanky bar. Do drop me an email to andy[dot]t[dot]field[at]gmail[dot]com if you want any more details.

Sep 23, 2007

A Little Bit Serious for a minute

From Amnesty's website:
Amnesty International deplores acts of terrorism and acknowledges the right of governments to protect their citizens when they face such hostile challenges and threats. We all value our safety and that of our loved ones after all.

For too long the 'war on terror' has been used to justify acts of torture, 'rendition', discrimination and unlawful detention. Amnesty acknowledges that the perpetrators of terrorism must be brought to justice but believes this should be achieved without eroding the very values we are fighting to defend.

Governments, including the UK's, have manipulated public fears, exploiting them to excuse actions that under normal circumstances would never be thought of as acceptable.

Actions that include the rendition and detention of terror suspects without adequate legal representation or fair trial in prisons like Guantanamo Bay. Prisons where guards are ordered to use torture to break the will of detainees in order to obtain information.

The rule of international law and the protection offered by fundamental human rights mechanisms is being seriously violated. Governments assume you support such actions in the ‘war on terror’ but the truth is you’ve never been given a choice.

Until now.

This is your chance to voice your concern and join a movement of people who feel the same way. A movement that believes everybody deserves basic human rights no matter what their beliefs or what they are alleged to have done. A movement that feels accepting such immoral, illegal, even barbaric actions, undermines the society they live and believe in.

This is your chance to Unsubscribe if you haven't done so already or invite everyone you know to join you if you have...
After the second world war, in the aftermath of the shock (in most cases genuine, in other cases feigned) of the discovery of the extent of the Nazi atrocties, the American Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to determine the extent to which people's human decency is curtailed by obedience. (n.b. I had a psychology tutor at one point who suggested that the ostensible goal of the experiment was to prove that atrocities on the scale committed in Europe could never have happened in The Land of the Free as, it was theorised, German's were more inclined to obedience than Americans).

In the experiment (which I imagine most of you are already familiar with) applicants (told they were taking part in a teaching experiment) were placed into pairs with a stooge (who they believed was another participant). The participant was then 'randomly' assigned the role of teacher and the stooge that of student. The participant would see the stooge being strapped into an electro shock machine. They were then taken to another room with a large machine for delivering electric shocks. They could hear (but not see) the stooge. For each question he answered incorrectly they were instructed to shock him.

As the incorrect answers increased so did the strength of the shocks. After a while the 'stooge' (actually a pre-recorded tape) was heard to moan out in pain, beg the participant to stop, to complain that he had a heart condition, and then, eventually to fall silent.

65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment's final 450-volt shock. Many continued to administer the 450 shock long after the victim had fallen silent. Further, as Philip Zimbardo identified, None of the participants who refused to administer the final shocks insisted that the experiment itself be terminated, nor left the room to check the health of the victim without requesting permission to leave.

I am pretty staggered when I recall how much has been done (and then tacitly accepted) in the name of fighting spurious notions over the course of the last half a decade. But I am more terrified by the fact that the rest of the time I forget.

Sep 20, 2007

Joined Up Thinking

Dear Reader,

In a rather foolhardy attempt at what I think I once heard called joined-up thinking (but in all likeliness is going to end up more closely resembling a bunch of separate ideas barely held together by a rather scraggy piece of thinkstring) I'm going to try and pull together some ideas from previous posts into a giant theoretical quilt, to keep you warm as the first winter winds begin whistling through streets still waiting for Summer to arrive.

A Disappearing Number, Complicite's recent maths-themed orgy of digital-projections at the Barbican, has caused a fascinating rift between the main-stream media's lavish praise (in The Guardian's review of the reviews the show received 8 across the board apart from one rather sheepish 4 out of 10 from, I think, The Sunday Times) and a decidedly colder and noticeably more underwhelmed reception here in the Mean Streets of the Internet. Compere and contrast:
All these ideas are realised with Complicite's customary elan by the nine-strong company and Michael Levine's design. A spinning screen whisks us from Chennai to Cambridge. A white-sheeted bed turns into an evocation of Greenland glimpsed from an airplane window [...] Even maths duffers will respond warmly to a show that confirms theatre's ability to make the sciences manifest. (**** Michael Billington, The Guardian)
The piece seemed to quickly resolve itself into what was effectively a cavalcade of scene changes. It felt as if hardly any scene really had a chance to really get going before it was cut off. As a result, our relationship to the characters felt continually on hold, deferred. Ultimately it was this distance that really finished me off. (Andrew Haydon)
Something is always happening, thanks to projections and mime which mean that the world bustles and races across our sightlines: Madras streets, trains, planes, Cambridge quads and high tables, even a Greenland iceberg that suddenly becomes a bed. It’s bravura stuff, perhaps sometimes overdecorative, yet also more than that. (**** Benedict Nightingale, The Times)
Sitting in the middle rows of the stalls I have rarely felt so distant from the performers in front of me, they seemed no more real than the images of Bombay or Cambridge flickering on the screens behind them. I certainly marvelled at this staggering televisual universe, enjoyed its careful teasing apart and soldering together of ideas and histories and stories, but undoubtedly, I never felt a part of it. (Umm... me - is this bad form - quoting oneself?)

Complicite's artistic director Simon McBurney has once again come up with a thrilling and beguiling show that combines high-tech stage effects with enormous heart, whisking the audience from Cambridge during the Great War to present-day India with the help of video film and an evocative score by Nitin Sawhney. (**** Charles Spencer The Telegraph)
We went with high hopes and it’s had some great reviews, but after a strong start it quickly descends into a tableaux, intercut with banal ITV drama about 40 somethings having a miscarriage. The only fully realised character is the Indian lady at the other end of the phone in a Bangalore call centre. Never mind the maths, clearly it was all a bit too hard trying to understand the enigmatic mathematician they claim is the heart of their story, so he pretty much never says anything! (The West End Whingers)
So what does this tell us? Well according to Michael Billington it should show us the 'Independence of mind' that professional theatre critics live or die by. Go back and read those again, you'll see what he means.

Much as I hate to disagree with Mr Billington (as you all well know), I believe there's more to this rift than the fact that he and his colleagues are a good deal more focused, and well-written than the likes of us scruff (as if the only reason we had anything bad to say was that we all just kept on writing until something negative came out, like shaking out the flaky fragments at the bottom of a cereal packet).

For a start it may have something to do with the fact that the A-string critics were among the 10% of people who were able to have a decent seat in the cavernous, obstacle-littered monstrosity that is the Barbican's main auditorium and that we, minor critics and paying members of the public, found ourselves not so meticulously catered for. Maybe, after all, this is the real reason for professional theatre criticism - to inform the rest of the audience exactly what is going on in the parts of the stage we can't see from where we're sitting.

And yet there is still something more to this - a growing, nagging dissatisfaction that doesn't seem to have quite reached the ivory-lacquered stall seats occupied by those wot write properly and don't waste their evenings with 'informal letters' on the subject of theatre.

In my review I mentioned a quotation from academic Victor Turner:
To look at itself a society must cut out a piece of itself for inspection. To do this it must set up a frame within which images and symbols of what has been sectioned off can be scrutinized, assessed, and, if need be, remodelled and rearranged.
Now, I used to see this as an almost definitive definition of Theatre, covering everything from the trivial and diverting to the King Lear's and Waiting for Godot's of this world. More recently, however, I'm not sure. There's something about its terms, like those with which the major critics lavished praise on Complicite's show (and indeed, like the show itself), that seems, fundamentally, outdated.

The problem for me is that Turner goes back to that metaphor of theatre being like a painting. Theatre happens within a frame. Within this frame there is nothing real - merely images and symbols of the real world, constructed within the safe and neutral space of the theatre stage.

'I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all you need for an act of theatre to be engaged.' I believe someone said once, rather famously, in another quotation that has been taken up as some kind of First Principal of theatre.

Except that (and for those who have been paying attention this is where the joined-up bit comes in), as I recently stated, there is no such thing as an Empty space. The comfortable boundaries that we put up between the real world and the world of the theatre (the edges of the empty space, the applause the bowing that assures us that all the Theatre is out of the way and done with) only serve to create the illusion that there is some empty space, some blank canvas, some neutral 100 square feet of stage in which the real world is converted into symbols and metaphors for us (or specifically for the All Powerful writer or director) to play with.

Reality does not cease to exist at the edges of the empty stage. An example of this came up recently in a piece by Alex Ferguson on Told by an Idiot's Casanova at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, a show in which (as you may have noticed from the nudgenudgewinkwink flyers designed entirely it seems to send a shiver through the kind of theatre going middle-class gentleman who scorns Sun and Zoo Magazine readers while being happy to sit through endless BBC montages of slow-mo close-ups female tennis players arses) history's greatest lover is played by a woman. In an article in the Guardian the company admit that a lot of the sex scenes in the show were edited out as, regardless of the position adopted, they still made Hayley Carmichael (playing Casanova), look like a Victim. In response to this Ferguson asks some very interesting questions.
All of this makes it seem like the stage is an aggressively male gendered space, and maybe it is. Of course, in the real world we can't fix the effects of several thousand years of patriarchy in an instant, but the theatre isn't the real world - in's much better than that, and in the theatre space we can do whatever we damn well please. But in the theatre nothing is easy. Is it a theatrical problem or a broader cultural one which also manifests itself in the theatre? Are the structures of power inscibed into the theatres themselves or is it that they are etched into the psyches of audience and actor alike?
In answer to Ferguson's last question what I would suggest it is undoubtedly the latter, that this demonstrates real-world values washing over the edge of the stage and colouring everything that happens on it.

After all, if in your publicity material you specifically play upon the longing male gaze and the objectified female (if it had been a production with a male Casanova would we have had a picture of arse on the flyers? No, probably a picture of his head smirking to camera, in on the joke) and you probably also have that image on the programmes handed to people as they enter the auditorium, how can you not expect the whole history of the male invention of woman as sex object (from restoration comedy, through Marilyn Monroe and back again) to cause the people watching (and the people acting) to feel as though the woman having sex on stage simply couldn't be in control.

We need new models for theatre, and new definitions. The most interesting theatre happening today does not rely on the notion that it is playing with symbols and images in a closed-off space of theatre. It has a far more immediate, far less controlling relationship with it's environment.

This can happen through the direct relationship between a performer and her audience, or in the strange relationship between a performance and the world it describes.

It can also happen by discarding the stage all together - by moving from a model of theatre that happens in an enclosed space to a model that sees theatre as draped over the real world like a vale or a ghost. Interestingly, there are some fascinating examples of this type of theatre appearing later this year in same programme as A Disappearing Number. For example, Blast Theory's Rider Spoke will see audiences cycling around the barbican in what is part treasure hunt, part interactive game, part theatre, using the architecture of the city as its set.

And on the other side of town the Soho are launching what is by far the most fascinating thing I have seen them attempt - engaging with the location of the theatre (and the relationship that the local community has with it), Moonwalking in Chinatown will take audiences on a walk through the streets of Chinatown, meeting along the way local performers and professional actors in a way that sounds fascinatingly similar to our project in Kent though with an entirely different (and possibly vastly more interesting and significant) subject matter.

This for me is the kind of theatre that today feels valuable, fascinating and important. A theatre engaging with its location rather than cutting itself off from it. A theatre plays with the real world rather than with symbols and metaphors. After all, as Tim Etchells (of forced Entertainment) once said, 'Sometimes it seems as if all we have to do is gesture to the window and ask people to look.'

Sep 13, 2007

A Disappearing Number at the Barbican

As the lights begin to dim we find ourselves in a lecture theatre. A young maths professor, nervously scratching her arm, begins to write numbers on a large white board. Sequences. 1 2 3 4 5. And then series. 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5. She explains her workings as she goes, in the slightly rushed yet pleasantly jovial tone of someone explaining something completely obvious to a room full of people for whom she is aware it is not so. We stay with her however, for a little while at least, following her logic, understanding her workings. But then quickly the logic outpaces us; numbers become letters, letters become symbols. Soon she her lecture is soaring over our heads and disappearing off into another reality. A world of Maths (capital M); a place of logic and ideas that the audience, delightedly chuckling at their incomprehensibility, simply cannot penetrate.

And just as this moment passes, another actor enters, introducing himself to us as an actor; a performer in this play. None of this, he assures us is real. He takes the glasses from the professor and shows us they have no lenses. He slides the edges of the lecture theatre set off into the wings. Then suddenly, with barely anything actually happening other than his accent changing, he too leaves us. Launching himself off, into the world of Theatre (capital T), he is now a physics professor, in a taxi in India; the sound of traffic erupts across the auditorium and suddenly a projection of a busy Indian street fills the space where the white board was just a second ago.

It is with these beautifully paralleled moments that A Disappearing Number begins. Moments of take-off that play with the gap between everyday life and a space of ideas and imagination. Inviting us to see other worlds in the process of being made.

This show is, as I'm sure most of you know, the latest from Simon McBurney’s hugely acclaimed company Complicite. Much like their earlier piece, Mneumonic (for which, in form at least, this could practically be a sequel), the show elegantly balances complicated ideas, famous historical moments, and more intimate narratives.

We are told the story of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his friendship with the Cambridge professor Godfrey Hardy over the first few decades of the 20th Century. Yet at the same time, we also see a modern-day maths lecturer, obsessed with Ramanujan, and her relationship with an American hedge fund manager and second-generation Indian who has never returned to his parents’ original home. Between these two stories float numerous other characters, beautifully realised by the incredibly talented cast; a Indian physicist delivering a lecture on String Theory, a student, working as a maid at a Ramada Inn near Heathrow, an Indian lady working in a BT call centre in Mumbai.

To realise these disparate narratives and places, the show commands the full extent of the Barbican’s expansive stage. Behind the traditional lecture theatre ‘set’ are numerous opaque divides that move ceaselessly, rising and falling, sliding aside and rotating. Onto these divides are projected an unending series of videos and images, some conjuring whole cities, others simply forming a window or quietly shadowing the actions of the characters on stage. As the screens silently shift and the images on them appear and dissolve, they create an impossible (almost indeed, infinite) depth.

We move seamlessly between India and Cambridge, in a moment a study melts into an airport or a bedroom or a river. At its most staggering moments, the stage is all these places at once, the small company of actors darting unendingly through this geographical maze; dancing, talking, moving props and scenery and playing countless extras.

The anthropologist Victor Turner once stated that theatre is a way in which society can cut out a piece of itself for inspection. This show in many seems an attempt at the complete opposite. The fluid space of the stage, in its very instability and ambiguity, becomes a gap in reality; an empty space that works like a black hole, sucking everything from the real world into it – war, history, maths, immigration, commerce, globalisation, death, love. This is a play about everything.

More specifically this is a play about a different way of looking at everything – a mathematical way of looking at everything. The play seems to see the history of the world as one huge impossible series, summing to infinity. In the empty space of the stage, away from reality (on the other side of the equals sign) Complicite go about creating that infinity. A space in which everything is connected. Everything is joined in a series of elegant patterns. Characters from different times mirror each other’s movements, a woman trying on her shoes becomes an example in a lecture taking place a year and several hundred miles away, three entirely separate deaths in three different times and places are collapsed together into one single act of passing.

What sets the company apart is the effortless beauty with which they fold these disparate worlds into each other. Time is no longer linear, is not even fragmented or disrupted, but is stirred through the space like milk in tea. And to the subtle soundtrack of Nitin Sawhney’s music, this has an almost spiritual resonance; there is in fact a telling reference to the importance in Hinduism of this form of cyclical, interconnectedness. Indeed, A Disappearing Number, like its central figure Ramanujan, undermines the opposition of a logical (and typically Western) mathematics and an illogical (Eastern) spirituality; demonstrating the two (like everything else) to be innately connected in their explorations of the infinite.

And yet. There is something missing in all of this. Undoubtedly, the show exploits beautifully the conceit of the stage, as an Empty Space, becoming an indefinable, infinite reality unto itself. A world of limitless (im)possibility. And yet, the audience always remain very much back in reality – on the other side of the equation, looking in. And this has very little to do with the nonetheless sterile and cavernous Barbican auditorium, along with the Shaw Theatre possibly the worst theatre space in London.

What this comes down to is a matter of liveness, an issue that has already been discussed at length by Chris, Andrew and myself. The actors are entirely dislocated from the audience. Their voices come to us through microphones; when we hear the words they say, they are in essence, already second-hand, already recorded. Similarly the actors must move in time to the sound and video recordings projected all around them. They are no longer live beings, performing and reacting to a given audience on a given night. They are cogs in a vast and beautifully realised digital spectacle. Sitting in the middle rows of the stalls I have rarely felt so distant from the performers in front of me, they seemed no more real than the images of Bombay or Cambridge flickering on the screens behind them. I certainly marvelled at this staggering televisual universe, enjoyed its careful teasing apart and soldering together of ideas and histories and stories, but undoubtedly, I never felt a part of it.

Reading the programme before the show I noticed both that the company are now completing work on a screenplay and that the Barbican Cinema is showing a series of recordings of their earlier shows. It certainly felt from this show, as beautifully conceived and realised as it was, that this is the direction in which the company is moving – away from the visceral liveness of theatre, towards a different kind of spectacle.

Sep 9, 2007

Way Out West

From the murky backstreets of the Internet (which in my mind resembles a cross between the British Library and Soho on an overcast Thursday), to the bright lights and late nights of Hollywood where everyone (particularly feature-writers adept in the age old journalistic skill of bandwagon-jumping) is getting excited about The Big Story of 2007 - the Western Renaissance.

Yes, miraculously that most long-buried of genres is up and about, hanging around in the studio bar downing revitalising cocktails of stubble, dirt and melancholy machismo. Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson are presently breezing through the local multiplex in Seraphim Falls stalked relentlessly by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in 3.10 to Yuma, meanwhile in another dusty corner The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has just won Brad Pitt the best actor award at the Venice Film festival. All of which should reasonably be greeted with the kind of almighty shrug reserved for any of the American film industry's pre-pubescent fads, except that this one particularly interests me.

The first reason for this being that the trend is predated by the most recent directorial offering of that doyen of the Avant-Garde (and as long-time readers will know, my own personal cinematic hero) Kevin Costner - Open Range, a majestically epic piece of unabashedly old fashioned Hollywood cinema, starring Robert Duvall and the aforementioned sad-eyed former-megastar as free-range cattlemen victimised by Michael Gambon's bullish Irish landowner, came out in 2003. Magnificent stuff.

And certainly, Costner is an interesting figure to raise his mulletted head at this point, wedging himself as he does, between two genres that have defined Hollywood cinema. For as the Western was breathing its last in the late 70s, George Lucas was transforming cinema with Star Wars, to the point that in 1980, as the multi-million dollar catastrophe of Heaven's Gate utterly killed off the Wild West as anything other than a stage show at the Disney Theme Parks, The Empire Strikes Back was the biggest selling movie of the year. Science-fiction had undoubtedly reached the top of the Hollywood pile and with the Alien, Star Trek and later the Terminator franchises (along with Blade Runner et. al) it would stay there for the next couple of decades.

Now at this stage I'd like to try and get a little vague and political. For me the comparison of the two genres is an interesting one. Science Fiction is a genre rooted in the fundamentally leftist utopias/dystopias of everyone from William Morris to Phillip K Dick, an inheritance that can be seen in both the dank, rainy corporatised world of Blade Runner and the liberal wet-dream on the control deck of Star Trek: The Next Generation's USS Enterprise (where all mankind is united and the advice of a compassionate emotion-sensing councillor is as important as that of the gung-ho 2nd in command).

The Western, however, is a very different beast. Although any attempt to glean a consistent theme or ideology from such a mammoth genre would be problematic, there are at least reoccurring tropes - the lone hero taking law into his own hands, a nostalgic longing for a lost world of freedom and independance etc - that might suggest a fundamentally more conservative leaning (exemplified in its favourite leading men - John Wayne and James Stewart).

Now perhaps it could be argued that the transition from the Western to Science Fiction plays a part in the imagined 'liberalisation' of Hollywood (where the ever-more earnest (and, it must be said, honourable) pursuits of George Cloony, Susan Sarandon et. al. are par for the course). Though I imagine we can juggle chickens and eggs on how the relationship actually works all day long.

Now it is in the light of this that we can (and you might need to run with me on this one which, if you have bothered reading this far, you're probably already doing) read Kevin Costner's much-maligned, 3-hour long, Tom Petty-starring, Shakespeare-quoting calamity The Postman as more interesting than simply a grandiose piece of self-indulgent nonsense that it admittedly probably still is. Because what it could be argued that Costner, self-confessed 'old' conservative that he is, is doing is creating what amounts to a sci-fi Western - a wolf in sheep's clothing (or visa-versa depending on your politics) - in which his lone hero sets out across a lawless (future) wasteland, uniting disparate communities through faith in a great American institution.

There is however more to this than a very long-winded and brave if misguided apology for Kevin Costner's The Postman. I guess I'm trying to ask a few leading questions about what the return of the Western really means? Especially in an age when people are simulteanously mourning the death of the blockbusting Sci-Fi film.

The rerise of the Western isn't the consequence of one successful genre movie (such as with Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean) and it appears to be slightly more than the Hollywood rule that all half-baked film ideas come in pairs (Ants and A Bugs Life, Volcano and Dante's Peak, or most recently The Illusionist and The Prestige). Perhaps it could be argued that it represents the resurgence of a stream of traditional American conservatism that has been somewhat suffocated by the rise and rise (and finally it would seem the fall) of the neo-cons. That there's a longing for a republicanism not tarred by the deaths of American soldiers and and an frankly shameless series of political lies and blunders (both personified by the frankly ridiculous figure of Alberto Gonzales) that finds its cinematic realisation in the melancholy nostalgia of the Western. Either that or this generation of Hollywood's leading men just want a chance to look good in chaps.

Sep 7, 2007

I Think Ringo Starr put it best when he said...

Just noticed that I have been criminally lax in updating the coterie of fellow bloggers I have rather tweely called 'The Little People' and so thought it best I use a whole post to draw your attention to the additions as recompense. Though, as Ian Shuttleworth has sortofkindof identified in the comments section of Chris Goode's post (more on this I half-promise, in a later post once my eyes have sunk even further down towards my navel) this theatrical corner of the internet being the giant no-name-tags-necessary electronic thought-orgy it is, you probably know these people already or, in fact, actually are them, so really this is more a means of apology than any concerted attempt to engage the theoretical (and frequently slipping unnoticed into fictional) unaffiliated reader.

Amongst them is Andrew Haydon - wordsmith, trendsetter and bastion of good taste that he is. Andrew's been on somewhat of a hot streak of late, vomiting eloquent well-thought out commentary like the internet was going out of fashion. His piece on critical distance is particularly worth your while, thinking his way round the subject without recourse to the fairly crass but faintly endearing never-give-up-never-surrender polemicising that seems to have become my stock-in-trade.

However, Haydon quotes from Robert Hewison (who, wikipedia informs me is the author of Footlights!: A hundred years of Cambridge comedy - there's a factlet for you...) one those weighty nuggets of wisdom that sounds like it was carved from the rock of ages - Remember that the play is the subject of the review, not you. Balls to that, I say. The subject of the review is both, and the curious, undefinable relationship between the two. Theatre can send us to sleep, it can summon a breathless, euphoric exhilaration, it can seem to be nothing very much at all and yet keep us awake that night. It can remind us of something that once happened or a story we once read or a play we once saw. None of these things happen on stage. Thank god for 'foregrounded subjectivity' - what on earth would we be able to write without it.

And, as Haydon seems to be suggesting, perhaps the New Theatre Establishment (a silly term that nonetheless delightfully summons in my mind images of Ian Shuttleworth, Lyn Gardner and Mark Shenton in a V-formation sporting matching wrestling uniforms) and their admirable and frequently brilliant engagement with this marvellous medium we call The Internets are a reflection of a changing critical landscape in which informality, personality and (yes) subjectivity have a burgeoning significance.

Sep 5, 2007

The Messy Space

There are few anachronisms quite so pleasurable as a crumbling auditorium. The velveteen opulence, the gaudy grandeur masquerading as sophistication, the musty smell of wasted years and the gentle snores of a well dressed man napping in the darkness. Oh the Faded Glamour. There's nothing brings a song to my heart like it.

So you can imagine my response when I read that that Young Turk, that famed eviscerater of traditions, that reckless theatrical radical Michael Billington in his latest article advocates either doing them up or tearing them down altogether...
So what do we do about old theatres, not least those in London's West End, many of which are in a state of visible disrepair? I recently advocated that lottery money should provide the £250m the Theatres Trust says is needed to make the buildings safe and attractive.
No I say! Safety be damned, and as for attractiveness - there is no circle of hell low enough.

Billington seems to advocate an almost clinical formula for the ideal auditorium. A perfect, comfortable, unobtrusive space - a blank canvas to be painted on by assorted theatrical maestros. All of which suggests that the best theatre is produced (and presented) in some kind of vacuum. A neutral environment, a space that is entirely empty, or I suppose you might say, an empty space, in which every last detail is provided by the masterful creators.

For me however this simply isn't the case. I loathe the clinical neutrality of the Cottlesloe and the Young Vic, am bored to tears by the Soho and if I have to see one more show in either auditorium at the Trafalgar Studios I may well end it all. For me theatre is not like art at all, and the best theatre is not created on a blank canvas. Theatre is, if anything, a renaissance fresco, graffiti, or something somewhere in between. The best theatre is created in the friction between the art and reality, in that murky grey area between the imaginary and the all-too-real.

Theatres shouldn't be the ideal forum in which to display a work of art. In their decrepitude or their opulence or their damned inappropriateness, they should fight the imposition upon them, they should challenge the use that is being made of them. This is what makes the perfect theatre space for me as an audience member, being forced two hold two contradictory ideas, two inconceivable places (even universes) in my head at the same time - the musty auditorium or the crumbling town hall or the subterranean vault and the impossible theatrical world conjured by the piece.

This is also, I feel, what makes for an exciting, challenging creative environment. A space that is still very much part of the real world. A space that demands that you, as a theatre maker, acknowledge it, think about it, incorporate it in some way, even overcome it.

In their day the two most exciting venues in the city were The Royal Court and The Theatre Royal Stratford East - which also at that time happened to be two of the most run down, miserable, leaky auditorium in London. George Devine and Joan Littlewood both loathed their respective miserable relics and yet they proved the most fertile, exciting environments for young theatre makers in the whole of the city. Now of course this had as much to do with these two crumbling theatres being the only place these already talented artists were actually able to put on work, but I genuinely believe that the physical presence of these fading theatres made a significant contribution (both for the artists and the audience) to the power of the shows you could see there. John Arden (or it might have been Arnold Wesker) even famously wrote a play that deliberately incorporated the sound of the London underground that can be so frequently heard rumbling through the Royal Court.

Today however after years of Lottery money being plowed into renovating our theatres to the point of sterilisation, there are few places left that have such an uncomfortable presence. This (rather than some spurious notion of novelty or gimmickry) is perhaps why some of the most exciting young theatre makers in London have collected around the SHUNT vaults - because it offers them a space that confronts them, challenges them; a space that demands the audience acknowledge it while at the same time being transported somewhere else entirely.

And in an ideal world I hope that when the crumbling theatres of the West End finally become unusable for big budget musicals, rather than having lottery money strip them and sanitise them and make them over like some fading Hollywood star , maybe we'll fill them full theatre-makers instead, providing them with a new environment to explore, and a new (and very messy) space to make theatre in.