Jan 24, 2008

The Arcades Project #1: The Docklands

[As promised, the first part of a new project to map various parts of London]

This stretch of the Thames from London Bridge to the Albert Docks is to other watersides of river ports what a virgin forest would be to a garden. It is a thing grown up, not made. It recalls a jungle by the confused, varied, and impenetrable aspect of the buildings that line the shore, not according to a planned purpose, but as if sprung up by accident from scattered seeds. (Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea)

I arrived at the docklands early Sunday morning, stepping off the Jubilee line at Canary Wharf tube station. The train was disappointingly busy. Where I’d quite self-consciously gone looking for an almost sinister emptiness the train was actually relatively full. Mainly with people who looked like they were going sailing.

Canary Wharf tube station is a self-consciously bombastic, the proclamations of its own importance (a half-cut city trader on a late night booty call) echoing noisily across its cavernous interior. At one end a bank of escalators tower out of the gloom, their destination bathed in sunlight. Like an irritating acquaintance at a costume party the escalators demand you acknowledge what they look like – the the stairway to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death, the gleaming tasteful edifices of Gattaca, something from that movie that you can’t quite place.

Like everything in this particular part of the docklands they feel unreal, borrowed from fiction. As you walk past 6ft high electronic billboards screen displaying CNN, the DLR glides overhead on thick, smooth rails, crunching into the station like a state-of-the-art rollercoaster. From the centre of canary Wharf you gaze out at a cinematic landscape, an anonymous near future all-too-familiar for anyone with a childhood as wasted on over-hyped movies as mine was.

In one of his books (I can't remember which) Douglas Coupland explains away the ridiculous number of mediocre action films made in Vancouver as being a consequence of its anonymous familiarity – its generically imposing skyscrapers and its cultured lawns and its city monuments that could be anywhere important. Signifiers of the flashy urbanity of New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Metropolis. The Docklands however seems to come at film from entirely the opposite angle. As it scrambles breathlessly into existence it seems desperate to quote cinema, rather than be quoted by it. It stitches itself into the shape of a finely tailored business district from an infinite patchwork of Hollywood films made between about 1985 and 2002.

It speaks of its own importance through the language of big budget multiplex cinema – a language its prospective inhabitants implicitly understand. And thus it constructs itself as a singularly modern image of aspiration. This is where you could work, this is where you could live, this is what you could become, like something from the movies.

When I was growing up, the sortof-town next to our tiny village was just about big enough to have its own miniature business park. Every time we drove into Cambridge we would pass one office that seemed to be made entirely of a glistening, sky blue glass. I was always transfixed. Imagine, I thought to myself, imagine working in a place like that; imagine staring out through a window of tinted glass at the world around you – that’s the life. As impressed as I was by a miserable-looking two story office in a meek little business park just north of Cambridge, I can barely imagine what I would have thought, at the age of about five, of the Docklands. It would have struck me with all the wonder of Disney’s tomorrowland; a freshly moulded simulacrum of what Hollywood told us the future would look like.

But of course, at that point I couldn’t have visited the Docklands. Not in the sense that it exists today. It was at that time a half-started building site. Once the biggest docks in the world. Then eight square miles of wasteland for around twenty years. Then, in complete contrast to the organic jungle described by Joseph Conrad, it was resurrected; carefully planned and consciously remade by a government-funded Quango. Born around 1980, the new docklands is only as old those people they are desperately trying to populate it with, aspiring city-workers in their late twenties. Like them it is rising fast, relaxing its still slightly awkward frame into expensive new habits. But like them it is barely even half-completed.

To my quiet delight, once you strike out a few streets away from Canary Wharf you are quickly engulfed by building sites and cranes, tarpaulin flapping eerily on an otherwise empty street – a different kind of movie. The docklands are still endearingly tatty round the edges, their naked, fevered ambition showing through the cracks. Black and white photos of imagined dockside complexes are plastered up in front of looming skeletal frames. I found myself walking through a shopping centre-like complex consisting entirely of estate agents, all of them decked out in dynamic, tastefully complementing primary colours – like a series of Microsoft Powerpoint templates. All of them offering for sale grown-up looking pencil drawings of expensive apartments. Ready to be snapped up by aspiring young graduates from Liverpool, Leeds, Sussex, small villages north of Cambridge; buying unbuilt houses with the six figure salaries they’re soon to be earning.

There’s something incredibly endearing for me about the docklands. As well as feeling like a 1000 films I sat and watched with my parents on a Sunday evening with a gluttonous plate of roast dinner piled on a tray in front of me, it reminds me of how I felt then. Of the reassuring vision of my elderly parents slowly coasting down a row of houses in the car, an address gripped in my mum’s hand – no, surely it couldn’t be this one, goodness – the admiring beams on their faces as I lounge in the doorway of my make-believe hollywoodised superhome. My parents who grew up in council houses or in their grandparent's terrace house in Croydon. It reminds me of the stinging ambition that used drive me to the point of distraction. That still does if I’m honest though converted by a force of will from the glossy apartments of the docklands to the nominally more worthy accolades of academia and theatre. But I still remember wandering round the motorshow at the NEC, dreaming of the car I would use to go and visit my parents.

Blueprint for a Show

Get a little way from the centre of the docklands and it still has the feel of an edgeland, as if you’ve stumbled into a half-finished makeover, revealing something authentic and endearing disappearing fast under a sea of simulated sophistication.

I found that on a Sunday morning you could wonder along empty quaysides, only seeing maybe a distant figure on the opposite side of the water. I like this. I also like that the awkwardly placed bridges make it impossible to get to that person with any great haste.

Perhaps you could create something a little like Small Metal Objects, taking advantage of the discontinuity between the great distance and the intimacy of a spoken voice. But more desolate. Not in a crowd. Perhaps you and another are connected by telephone. But with hands free headsets (a gadget that still gives me that same frisson of grown-up futuristic excitement that I once got from a cheap glass office block).

Across an empty wharf littered with building works and static cranes, you can see a figure. In your ear you can hear their fevered talking. They are looking for something.

They are a representation of everything around them. A product of bad Hollywood films. A little like Mel Wilson’s wonderful solo show Simple Girl, they are attempting to live out a borrowed ideal and are failing. But rather than longing for wistful European romance, this is the universe of the mediocre Hollywood action thriller. Demolition Man keeps springing to mind, I don’t know why. Die Hard and its imposing LA skyscraper. Yippee ki-ay motherfucker. The character's language is a patchwork of Americanisms (not even… Hollywoodisms). There is a frenzied ambition to this pulpy dream and like the docklands itself it is pretty tatty and half-formed round the edges.

What were those films always about? Saving a city from bombs or terrorists. Appropriately docklands has its own rather messy history of that. Perhaps this character, a young over-eager city boy of some kind, believes himself to be the only one able to solve an imminent threat. And here he is rushing around full of bluster and slightly hopeless Hollywood bombast, the trappings of his young success quickly sacrificed at the alter of this increasingly obsessive action plot.

Of course if it was a direct telephone link between you and this person, you’d be able to talk back. The audience member would have to be implicated in this world somehow. Maybe they see you as the cowardly side-kick, or the evil mastermind, or a love interest. Perhaps we could have all three – some kind of conference call, with three audience members co-opted into this story played out on the enormous movie set that is the docklands. In some way all three are needed to validate this absurd narrative, and their failure to live up to their roles makes this fiction increasingly fractured.

I’d like it if it ended in a very public place, with a very public scene. Lots of shouting. And in which the audience could implicate themselves – in front of the unknowing general public – with some big cinematic display fitting of their ‘character’, or from which they could quietly back away, leaving our hopelessly protagonist all the more ridiculous, a tragic broken figure lost in his own fantasy.

Jan 22, 2008

Dead Wedding at the Barbican (London International Mime Festival)

For CultureWars.org.uk

Dead Wedding
, the latest show by the staggeringly brilliant puppeteers Faulty Optic, is a startlingly uncomfortable experience. Draining, desolate and riddled with off-kilter melancholy, this is a brooding, lyrically bleak hour and a half of netherworldy puppetry.

Dead wedding takes as its starting point the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a story that seems to returning with a troubling regularity; as if there is something about it, the doomed attempts at overcoming death, the inevitability of human weakness, that nags at us. In Faulty Optic’s retelling the story has an almost political resonance to it, the feel of a show created while war reports blare from the television in the background. Indeed, we begin like something out of a piece of scathing anti-Neo Con agitprop, with bloated half naked Pluto, god of the underworld, sat squatly over a grave stone that he is ringing like a slot machine, sending coins fountaining up around him to his obvious glee.

From the start the myth, as far as we know it, has run its course. We are already in the underworld. A post-apocalyptic scrapheap Hades of rusting tin drums and salvaged bric-a-brac. Eurydice washes her memory away repetitively in a crude industrial shower and an amputee Orpheus, like a ghoulish down-and-out Vietnam veteran, scuttles around on a tiny wooden cart, unable to find the legs ripped away by the frenzied Bacchae. This Hades is a desolate, listless place, bathed in palid green light and echoing to a soundscape half-heard sentences drowned in dissonant blending of electronica and live string music.

In this post-traumatic universe Orpheus struggles to grasp the normality of his previous life, setting up Kodak moment dates with the distracted Eurydice that feel distorted, dangerous and hollow. Playing his lyre (and with two crude puppet masks made from Jiffy bags) he tries to recapture normality, his tiny erratic gestures bristling with a fierce, doomed hopefulness.

There is a haunting absence of humanity in this disturbing little world, even the faces of the puppeteers are concealed behind sinister black vales. The smooth, near-perfecct manipulation of the puppets is a striking contrast to the halting, juddery movement of their creations – crawling in stylised bursts across their tattered landscape.

This unworldly movement is brilliantly effective when it serves the company’s most punchy and disturbing scenes, crudely metaphorical vignettes that touch the dark absurdity of Terry Gilliam. Possibly the best of the of them all is a beautiful scene in which the dainty figures of Orpheus and Eurydice dance jaggedly on the top of great white wedding cake, slowly however a giant sinister creature (like a winged Cerberus) hovers into the scene pecking Eurydice to pieces in front of the tiny devastated figure of Orpheus. While he still grasps at her headless torso Pluto blusters in, threatening Orpheus with a long knife before brutally slicing the cake in two, amputating the lovers from each other, and scoffing from its centre. Almost Punch and Judyish in its absurd cruelty, the scene is beautiful, macabre and effortlessly haunting.

At times though the relentless inhumanity of this scarred universe does become almost unbearable. Mira Calix mesmerising and deafening loud musical score writhes under your skin with a prikly jerkiness that perfectly matches the small figures cavorting across the stage. By the end of ninety minutes there is little surprise, indeed only a crushing inevitability, in the bleakness of the show’s ending, as Orpheus abandons his futile attempts to reclaim love, the past and normality, instead cutting the strings of his Lyre and drowning himself in his own forgetting; a cruel reflection of our own listless response to a world mired in tragedy.

Jan 21, 2008


April is the cruelest month, an American once said. He was wrong, of course. It's undoubtedly January.

Today was fittingly the day on which you are most likely to commit suicide, the brief respite of Christmas and fast-abandoned New Year's Resolutions giving way to the unremitting greyness of an extended English Winter.

Self-immolation appears to be all the rage in this barren corner of the internet these days, with the theatrical blogosphere fast becoming an e-version of the Wisconsin Death Trip, the dusty corpses of once devoted scribblings slowly flaking into oblivion. Even the Guardian blog, in all its professionally maintained glory, is drowning in a quagmire of inanity and mindless vultures chewing on the bones of the increasingly puerile Arts Council debate.

Apologies if this all comes off a trifle glum but, well, I am left wondering what it is I'm doing here these days.

I worry that my thoughts are switftly moving beyond crystalized to a sort of mindless litany, where words like intimacy and liveness are unthinkingly regurgitated as a response to almost anything. It may be as a consequence of banging my head against the mercilessly unresponsive wall of theatres and funders who claim interest in your work and then disappear for several months without even the courtesy of fake out-of-office autoreplies, but I am feeling a little, well, stale.

Maybe I'm just getting slowly suckered in to the desolately brilliant Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton - an endless round of suffocating drinking and desperation played out across London and Brighton in the restless year prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. It's a wonderful book, though its bleakness is as intoxicating as the endless rounds of whiskies and beers that its characters survive on.

Anyway, not wanting to go gently into that good night, I've been thinking a little about what I can, or indeed, should do about it. And after a Christmas of deliberation, I needed, I decided, a project.

For Christmas I got myself a copy of London: City of Disappearances and I've been enjoy it ever since. It is a brilliant, discordant, breathtakingly wide-ranging collection of essays and stories and poems and anecdotes by people including Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Will Self amongst others. Peeling back endless layers of skin from across the length and breadth of the city, the book is a meandering encyclopedia of forgotten characters, unremarkable streets, grubby metropolitan histories and magnificent impossible mythical bullshit. It also made me realise that a passing knowledge of three bus routes a couple of decent bars does not really make a city a home.

So here is my plan. In some long-delayed attempt to live up to my stolen name I am going to try and make my own map of the city in which I have been squatting for the last year and a half. It will be a map of walks, of places I find interesting or frightening or wonderful. I am going to try and get out more. Out of the house. Out of Zones 1 and 2. So if you have any recommendations please do let me know. (And if anyone enjoys an early morning walk of a weekend, ditto.)

And for each I am going to write something. But more than this. With the same incessant mumbling as Chris suffers ringing in my eyes ("How is this like theatre? How can I make use of this?") I want to map the city as an endless series of theatrical possibilities. Borrowing from Mike Pearson's completely brilliant book In Comes I, for each location or walk or point of interest I want to suggest a piece of theatre; or rather, a few half collected thoughts that could with time become a piece of theatre. I want to think about how theatre can reflect the city, how theatre can use it as a playground, and how it can change it, or change our relationship with it.

Each post should be hopefully be a map, a story, a few semi-coherent ramblings and an open invitation to collaboration, all sweetened by a few pretty pictures.

So that's the plan. We'll see how it works out. Hoepfully the first one should be up in a couple of days or so...

[UPDATE: Turns out I completely unfairly slandered the good Mr Billington here, who I had heard was reviewing Paso Doble but in fact didn't. So Apologies and have removed the offending segment.]

Jan 19, 2008

The Day Today

This pleased me.
CHRIS MORRIS, the satirist whose television act features jokes about paedophilia, drugs, incest and rape, is to make a movie intended to show the funny side of terrorism.


It will use some real absurdities around Islamist terrorism as its basis. It cites Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the ringleaders of the September 11 attacks, who, after inviting a journalist to a secret location in Pakistan to record a tell-all interview about 9/11, spent two hours trying to select clothes that would avoid making him looking fat.

At terror training camps, young jihadists argue about honey, accidentally shoot off one another’s feet or get thrown out for smoking. Back in Britain, they spend evenings having rows over whose turn it is to do the washing-up.

As someone in the comments of the article points out it's a fairly brainless summation of the work of a comedian who has been fearlessly brilliant for over a decade. The Day Today not only continues to be some kind of comedic Nostradamus predicting the increasingly absurd lengths that television news is willing to go to to remain 'accessible', not only launched the magnificently incongruent careers of Steve Coogan and Patrick Marber, not only pretty much invented the faux docu-drama format that Ricky Gervais would be so lauded for later, but it also produced what I still find one of the funniest things in the world.

That is all. (for now.)

Jan 17, 2008

Paso Doble at the Barbican

Review for CultureWars.org.uk

The Barbican’s cavernous auditorium is an imposing beast; a cathedral of expensive greys, acres of lavish shiny surfaces disappearing upwards towards the distant gods. Someone’s hopeful (but misguided) idea of a theatre for the future. All of which makes a wonderful contrast to the simple set (if it can be called a set) that adorns the empty stage at the beginning of Paso Doble, part of this year’s London International Mime Festival. Sat squat and solid in the middle of the stage are two giant flat chunks of wet clay, one horizontal and one vertical, earthy and hand made and glistening in the lights. Over the next hour they will be used by Miquel Barcelo and Josef Nadj (a Paris based artist and dancer respectively) to create an epic absurd monster of a production; a show that is at once art, performance, theatre and, almost, myth, smudging those narrow definitions in a visceral, visual feast of flying clay.

At the beginning however the clay is static and pure. Perfect - a fresh jar of peanut butter or satisfyingly thick layer of snow. It is an alien landscape, barren and desolate. That is until it begins to move, the unseen performers thumping the back of the upright wall of clay to force thick bubbles into its surface. Suddenly it becomes strangely alive, imbued with a fleshly malleability. It is squelchy, soft and thick – undeniably sensual. You can hear it slurping, you can feel its texture and its weight as it bends in the performers’ hands. As this primordial skin continues to blister and burst, hands can be seen appearing of it stretching open gaps in the clay. The audience giggles with delight.

When the two performers finally appear it is not, as might be predicted by bursting through this wall of clay but calmly walking out from behind it, dressed in pristine black suits and carrying huge sinister looking tools. Striking a pose and staring out at the audience they look like a bizarre version Grant Wood’s American Gothic, po-faced homesteaders ready to set to work on this barren landscape.

When they do begin to carve the clay however it is with a startling ferocity that absolutely took me by surprise. Thumping, slapping, pummelling, flaying – thick chunks of fleshy clay ripped away by huge metal tipped instruments, a spray of wet clay glinting in the light like blood spatter every time another blow is landed. At first the audience is giggling along but after a while the savagery becomes almost unbearable. Delivered with an exhausting impassiveness it reminded me at once of Jackson Pollock’s expressionistic assault on his canvas, Mel Gibson’s pornographically masochistic torture scenes in The Passion of the Christ and of the relentless toil of hacking away at the earth during a long summer spent farming in the muddy Fens. During this slow but relentless savagery the show becomes a mesmerising ritual, a telescoping of the creation of art, earth and man into a single dance of exhausting violence.

The interludes of silence during this attack, when the artists disappear behind the wall of clay, feel like much needed relief, both from their breathless work and Alain Mahe’s discordant musical accompaniment. As the lights dim slightly the audience is left gazing in dazzled wonder at the brutalized clay, scarred and beautiful.

If this all makes the show sound horribly earnest it absolutely isn’t. Both performers certainly have their tongues firmly stuck in their respective cheeks and their deadly serious personas come across like delightfully absurd Cohen brothers caricatures. This comic seriousness becomes more pronounced as the show goes on, the performers straight-facedly squashing a series of soft clay pots over their own heads and moulding them into ridiculous masks, resembling pigs and bulls and variety of appropriately mythic looking monsters. All the while the artists are increasingly becoming engulfed by their creation. The white and red clay splattering across their dark suits.

Slowly this repetitious comedy act builds into something far more disturbing. One of the performers becomes suffocatingly engulfed by the masks, with pot after pot squelching over his head and his arms and finally (magnificently) he is sprayed with wet clay until entirely engulfed by his creation. In a single haunting image he collapses into the fleshy wall behind him, all the while the spray of clay raining down over the scene to an almost deafening soundtrack. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. It is a beautiful, viscerally physical vignette – god absorbed by man, man engulfed by nature, the artist subsumed by his creation. A fitting climax to a magically unreal show.

For me this is what the Mime festival is all about. A confrontation with something startling and barely explicable (I have undoubtedly failed here). An absurd and hugely enjoyable spectacle that does not announce its meaning like a political address, but haunts you with a series of mesmerising movements and images and ideas. It is at once universal and abstract and yet ephemeral and immediate – in the smell of the clay, the whirling physicality of bodies in motion and the random shapes and images that they fleetingly create. Rarely have I seen a show that can bring such a sense of epic near-mythical spectacle and make it feel so very viscerally in the room with you.

This is a wonderful show – a ritualistic visual feast that only left me yearning that we couldn’t all skip over the Barbican’s plush seats and throw ourselves into this sublimely ridiculous act of creation.

Jan 13, 2008

The Tedious Hour

For a truly disturbing experience this weekend you needn't look any further than AA Gill's interview with David Hare in the Sunday Times today.

Apparently David Hare asked for AA Gill specifically - 'I'm only doing one piece of publicity for the play, so I thought it might as well be The Sunday Times, and it should be you.' In a staggeringly unconvincing display of the modesty he is famed for failing to possess, AA Gill claims to assume this is because Hare will consider him a 'soft touch'. It seems more likely however that both believe Hare was demanding a journalist of the imagined standard that he believed he deserved, as he begins with mundane and predictable side-swipe at The Critics, his main criticism being that they don't talk enough about David Hare any more - AA Gill to the rescue.

As part of his ongoing crusade to prove that AA Gill is better than all of theatre, AA Gill has taken this opportunity to attempt to best David Hare, an icon of what Gill sees as the theatre establishment and a man almost as pompous as he is. And so Gill ends every quotation from Hare with a snide rejoinder and finishes with a sneering affirmation of the fact that (like much of Hare's drama) when you are the one doing the writing, you can always come out looking cleverest. AA Gill must have poured himself a large glass of expensive but difficult wine and given himself a firm pat on the back when he finally emailed this of to the editor - another job well done, another mountain conquered.

In reality though, the whole thing comes across far more like too bald men fighting over an aphorism - and despite his belief in the importance of entertaining, the funniest and most insightful things Gill can muster are quotes from Stephen Fry and Michael Gambon, gentlemen who you can be sure would never feel the need to indulge in such an embarassing display of smug dick measuring.

The whole sad affair feels rather like rubber necking a car accident with egos. You end up swinging to and fro as to what's worse - Hare's tired theatrical binaries ("There are two sorts of playwright: those that use events and the real world, and those that just write out of their head" - so where do Kane/Crimp/Barker fit into this facile dichotomy?) and Gill's equally brainless put downs ("Theatre director is a new profession and, with a few exceptions, the ones we've got at the moment are pretty desperate."). Apparently the two are friends - the long nights of cigars on the veranda must absolutely fly by...

So where to next for the self-designated saviour of British Theatre. Perhaps AA Gill to direct a West End Revival of George Bernard Shaw? AA Gill to chair a live primetime debate on the future of theatre on BBC4?

I've heard it rumored that Arts Council England might need a spot of restructuring - anyone have a number for the Sunday Times?

Jan 10, 2008

My Inevitable Two Cents on the Arts Council Hootenanny


Arts Council England.

Where do we start?

It’s not been a good week. Following several bouts of preparatory sparring, the theatre community yesterday were able to give executive director Peter Hewitt the bloodthirsty pummelling that they so wanted to – huing and crying and soapboxing and sound biting and generally performing a faintly repulsive and entirely unhelpful pantomime of aphoristic declamations, neatly rounded off by a headline grabbing and debate-suffocating ‘vote of no confidence’. Well done, well done all of you.

The problem for me is that arts community is now ostensibly holding a knife to its own nose and threatening to cut it off. Everything, everything, should be done to salvage the Arts Council. The alternatives are frankly terrifying – money handed out directly by a government who, in a couple of years time, are likely to be run by a man who has already demonstrated his contemptuous and smugly populist attitude towards theatre and the arts. A party and an ideology that fundamentally questions why theatre that is not able to make a profit should receive government funding to allow ‘artists’ to ponce around enjoying themselves.

Without the Arts Council what’s going to happen when funding quickly begins to be cut funding altogether, or to be channelled into what Mr Cameron terms ‘right[or should that be Right] causes’? Are we going to wheel out Sir Ian McKellan and Kevin Spacey again, to complain about our livelihoods being taken away? Will they be greeted with anything more than the disinterestedly amused tone of Mark Brown’s article (in The Guardian, for Christ’s sake, heaven forbid what the Daily Mail or The Telegraph would say)?

The Arts Council must be saved. This for me is a first principal – good theatre in this country (of any stripe) will not survive without it. Which is why I look at events like yesterday’s, and comments like Christine Payne’s (suggesting the ACE are "fundamentally and possibly irreparably damaged") as being almost as damaging to theatre as anything the arts council is doing. It’s all well and good rich Actors and Artistic Directors making melodramatic votes of no confidence in the ACE – it’s not their careers that are staked on its survival.

What we need is to begin to lobby for practical steps that can be taken to help revive an Arts Council who desperately need it. A new Chairman is about to be installed. Let’s prepare a series of positive changes to suggest to him (that may include reference to specific cuts) rather than machine gunning his predecessor – a man, who, frankly, is in no position to make concessions about the future of the ACE when he’s clearing his desk out in a couple of weeks time.

At Devoted and Disgruntled the two things that came up repeatedly from both those who were being supported by the arts council and those who were being cut, was more transparency and the inclusion of more peer review. Boom. There you go. That’s a start (one that the ever valiant Lyn Gardner has continues to trumpet on the Guardian Blog repeatedly, seeming ever more like an increasingly desperate Cassandra, watching the predicted disaster unfold in front of her).

There are two many agendas swilling around at the moment. People are too freely using ACE’s obvious failings as a stick with which to beat them for the decisions they have come to. People are all too quick to fly from these specific failings into a wholesale battle for the soul of theatre. I don’t support the idea of an arts council because I think it is likely to promote the kind of theatre I want, I don’t criticise it because it isn’t; I do both because with an Arts Council I simply won’t have the opportunity to make work, period. Or at least, it’ll be an awful lot harder. In this unreasoned maelstrom the claims of those with perfectly valid reasons to complain are diluted and misappropriated.

Look at the Bush for example. The Bush has my unqualified support in its attempts to reinstate its funding. It is an institution that continues to discover and support wonderful, talented theatre makers. It is unashamedly a small theatre and all the better for it. For a theatre to have so much influence and so much scope and such a legacy when it has less than 90 seats is a cause for celebration not for punishment. It is exactly the kind of place that can’t sustain itself on turnover and deserves the ACE’s support. That is all there is to it. Now how about we stop using this to draw a spurious line in the sand between modes of practise that, like some petty-minded War of the Roses, asks us to pick between two arbitrary constructs that relate nothing to the actual production of work.

Who’s voices are missing in all of this? Most of the time it’s the young companies. Those companies that don’t have a voice yet but in a few years (with the support of the Arts Council) might be doing some of the most exciting, wonderful, relevant things in theatre. For now, they remain obscured. They are the flipside to these cuts. They are the reason for these cuts. And though I don’t begrudge anyone failing to go gently into that sweet night, it’s important to remember that they must be given an opportunity to blossom, and that that opportunity will come at someone else’s expense. It’s tough. Brutal, in fact. And almost anyone making theatre must feel that their work is vital and significant and deserving of the ACE’s support, but there will never be enough to go round. While the water continues to be muddied between what the arts council has done and how they’ve done it, it is these young companies that will essentially suffer.

Or rather, it is everyone who will eventually suffer, for not cherishing a flawed, vital concept enough. For reaching for the knife when everybody else was, for joining a confused legion of conflicting agendas and collectively delivering ACE a vindictive death blow. If we don’t watch out, in the sweltering heat of this year’s messy protestations, we’ll do more harm than any ACE Chief Executive ever did.

[For the record, although I have worked for a variety of institutions that have been well-supported by ACE, in my capacity as a theatre maker I have had work directly funded by them]

Jan 7, 2008

Glasses (Half-Full/Half-Empty)

Well, the year is nary a week old and already I've been accused of harbouring a world weary cynicism (he says, while sinking back into a rich upholstered chair and taking pointed drags on a decaying Gauloises). So attempting to recapture the twinkling hopefulness of my ailing youth, I've written a relentlessly upbeat article for the Guardian, praising the Brave New World of the internet.
Through this burgeoning little network of writers and theatre makers, people can start to find the shows, the companies and the performers they might otherwise have missed; secrets that might have remained the domain of those shadowy people referred to as "in the know". People can be connected with those tiny, wonderful experiences that make theatre a place of magical possibilities.
I also recommend a few things that I'm looking forward to in the next month or so, from Rotozoza to the mighty Chris Goode (he of the most sparkling music reviews you can possibly imagine). But now, dear reader, I'm calling on you to prove me right - what can you recommend that I should see in the coming months? I'm handing my (purely metaphorical as I'm utterly incapable of maintaining one) diary to you and asking you to scribble all over it. So please, do your worst.