Feb 21, 2008

Wouldn't it be nice to be Dorian Gray, just for one day?

A little all about me this brief misif but that's largely so that it can act as some means of justification as to why its been a little quiet round here recently.

Rather brilliantly everything has suddenly got delightfully busy on the actually making some theatre front. Our show in Brighton is getting tantalisingly close and I'm quite excited about it. Although it's nominally an extension of the Exposures show I did in Edinburgh last summer it's actually taken on a faintly uncontrollable life of its own and (much like the baby in overlooked Disney sequel Honey, I Blew Up the Kid) keeps wondering off in unforseen directions, while I run in circles around it panicking, trying to let it blossom without losing those things that people seemed to so enjoy first time round. It's a careful balance; fundamentally I want to offer this audience more than I offered to those in Edinburgh in the frantic 14 hours I spent coming up with the idea and the putting it together, without losing the show's initial simple charm.

Fundamentally, I want the audience to be invited to create not just a series of discrete images but a narrative; I want the photographs to have a larger coherency - through taking these shots I want the audience to transform the landscape around them (the sights (or sites) of Brighton) into a place (of invented history, of fictional community, a place of stories). I want them to think about the difference between looking and seeing. I want them to see a fictional world of their own creation shimmer in the streets in front of them. I want them to get lost in this world; and with the involvement of hidden local performers I want the borders between this world and the real one to blur, Brighton transforming into a site where place and theatrical space collapse into each other.

Yet at the same time, as Tough time, nice time displayed beautifully, narrative can be overbearing to the point of totalitarian; it can subsume freedom or the potential for originality within its familiar arcs. And possibly part of the piece's original joy came from its incoherency; that in refusing a predetermined narrative the participants didn't feel manipulated into any particular response to the questions that I posed of them. Like the figures in The Hour we Knew Nothing of Each Other, each question was in itself a beginning (a signifier of a potential story) that they were offered the opportunity to complete for themselves. If the questions had been too obviously connected together into an overarching narrative the locus of creativity would have been wrested from them and remain with me, the theatremaker, who was merely asking them to jump through a series of meaningless hoops in pursuit of one inevitable conclusion that was never in doubt; like leafing apathetically through the multiple-choice answers of a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book.

So all the time that we are conjuring this narrative, this gloriously seedy, intoxicating underworld to Brighton (telescoping everything from Brighton Rock to the second summer of love in one long relentless grey-tinted binge of counter-cultural excess) I'm constantly hauling it back from the point of coherency, constantly attempting to undermine any narrative super-structure, keeping each of the photographic instructions as a single unfinished moment; a question, or a challenge or a hint - leading the audience off in unexpected directions.

Anyway - it should be an exciting experiment and I hope you'll all be able to venture down for any weekend in May. And, as with The Day Trip, if you know anyone in Brighton who might be interested in being involved - please do let me know, there's room for everyone...

I'm also off to Ireland next week to start work on the next instalment of Exposures which'll be hitting the streets of Dublin in September. And, rather excitingly, I'm also there to begin a brand new project that I'm creating specifically for a festival in June (but more on that later).

And if that weren't enough I'm also beginning work on the programme for the Forest Fringe in Edinburgh this summer, which Debbie Pearson (who ran it last year) has very kindly asked me to co-direct with her. It looks like it's going to be an incredibly exciting project and, again, there will be more on this anon!

For now however I can look up just long enough to direct you towards Chris Goode's exhilirating, inspiring and down-right brilliant post at Dennis Cooper's blog. Let it consume you.

Feb 16, 2008

Being Harold Pinter at the Soho Theatre

For CultureWars.org.uk

In the run up to this production all the attention has been focussed on its context rather than its content. Here is a company banned in their own country, frequently imprisoned, performing shows in front rooms and secret locations; uniting political dissidents and private citizens in their opposition to an oppressive political regime. And there is, as you might imagine, a cathartic sense of anguish to Being Harold Pinter. This is a show bristling with images of frustration, anger and despair – a lone figure scrambling desperately under a suffocating tarpaulin, a broken old man huddled on the floor, screaming in impotent fury.

Yet while they may be very much a consequence of particular (depressingly omnipresent) political circumstances, the company never limit themselves to narrow agitprop declarations. Rather the show seems very much the consequence of an entire century of anguished false starts and flawed reconstructions; the political theatre of a continent almost irreparably scarred. Rather than demand any trite political transformations the piece reaches for a larger universality, stitching together the entire career of Harold Pinter, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Belarus' own contemporary trauma.

This scope is apparent in the careful, intelligent way that Pinter’s work is used, borrowing slithers of dialogue from a variety of plays, early pieces like The Homecoming through to more explicitly political shows such as Mountain Language, a one-act written in the late 80s. What is conjured is a fascinating through line highlighting the relationship between the bullying and brutality we experience every day and the political atrocities that we normally see only on the news or in films.

The company telescope these disparate threads together through a visceral, powerful physicality. Speaking (often shouting) in a foreign language, the company are brilliantly adept at creating big, hauntingly powerful images out of meagre materials; an apple crushed to pieces under a boot, accusing torch beams peering out at the audience and a single burning paper aeroplane floating across the blackness. This violent imagery is used to telescope these scenes of domestic and political atrocity into a single horror in a manner reminiscent of Fassbinder’s brutal Pre-Paradise Sorry Now with its juxtaposition of the Moors murderers and the petty fascisms of everyday life. Indeed, in one particularly memorable image an enraged lover screams out at the audience, his arm shooting up in a Nazi salute so sickeningly familiar from the footage of Hitler at his Nuremburg Rallies. Thus the show powerfully suggest that we are never far from censor or oppression, whether it be personal or political.

In response to this omnipresent danger the show, through Pinter’s words, demands renewed rigour in what we say and how we say it. A quest for an unreachable truth. A theatre that rises to challenging of balancing political activism with theatrical subjectivity. With particular reference to their own society the company seem to demand not merely a change of leadership but a change of mentality. They demand a society constantly questioning its own truths and its own principals. A society that embraces dissent and celebrates political rigour. At the end of the show the closing lines of Pinter’s speech echo in our ears:

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

Yet in the audience’s fulsome response to this cri de coeur I felt an unsettling air of self-congratulation at merely being present at this event; the company lauded almost as a prized curiosity. Which is a shame because beyond the deafening focus on their sad yet valiant circumstances, the company have created a show that says as much about their audience as it does about their political overlords. It is a show that doesn’t discriminate between private and public cruelty, between being actively involved in something and passively allowing it to happen.

Consequently it seems to point a scathing finger at the invisible atrocities in faraway (and not so faraway) places that we are tacitly implicated in merely be deign of doing nothing, while our freedoms are slowly stripped away one by one. As both Pinter and the Belarus Free Theatre assert, simply going to the theatre and clapping vigorously is never going to be enough to instigate the kind of transformation both our countries require.

Tough Time, Nice Time at The Barbican

For CultureWars.org.uk

Two lithe, well-groomed middle-aged men sit naked in a sleek white bath, whispy spa vapours drifting across the blackness all around them. As the lights rise and fall in delicate, subtle patterns the two men each nurse a single Heineken, sweat slowly glazing their bodies as they wriggle and stretch in their luxurious confinement. They babble flippantly, incessantly, in soft German accents. Literally nothing else happens. Time slips by unnoticed. After 70 minutes the show ends as suddenly as it began and the audience reels back into reality having seen one of the most simple, effortlessly brilliant pieces of theatre they will see all year.

Ridiculusmus (or Jon Haynes and David Woods) reference Beckett in their programme notes and undoubtedly his dark, absurd intelligence pokes through in a lot of places. There is definitely something very Beckettian in the aimless, nihilistic repartee of the these two wealthy Germans enjoying an expensive Bangkok bath; their sparky, needling conversation subtly looping back on itself, meandering indefinitely through barely-defined time. You feel this pointless banter could last forever, all of us waiting here in this chic abyss, biding our time until death finally arrives in all its anti-climactic, meaningless finality.

And like Beckett what makes this joyously transfixing and eminently theatrical is the beautifully observed dialogue and the brilliance of the brittle, flinty relationship that it conjures. A lawyer with a penchant for young Thai boys, attempts to tell his story (or stories) to a darkly charismatic and fundamentally disinterested publicist fascinated by atrocities and his own half-invented past. This basic context is constantly undermined by interruptions, interjections, non-sequiturs, and a seemingly endless litany of recent Hollywood films; Blood Diamond, Munich, Walk the Line, Syriana, Michael Clayton, One Day in September and The Constant Gardner. Especially The Constant Gardner, endlessly The Constant Gardner, a nagging thought that won’t go away.

It is in this that the show makes a decisive leap away from Beckett and towards something decided more (post)modern. In this world (in our world) the whole of human history, every story, every epic tragedy, every personal anecdote has been appropriated by cinema. Anything that was once truthful has been borrowed and structured and given its own manipulatively emotive soundtrack. Even the most brutal, the most astoundingly awful genocides and holocausts have been appropriated and turned into a familiar narrative arc. Anything that once might have meant something to us has been taken from us and rendered meaningless by imposing on it a story we (fundamentally) already know.

It is this world that these characters are seeped in. Where we know atrocities through the films that have been made of them and dictators through the celebrities who have played them. And so these nonchalant German sex-tourists flit unconsciously from Auschwitz to Hollywood without a second thought because the two are now fundamentally the same thing (an idea beautifully, hilariously typified by a joke about Sharon Osbourne and Ariel Sharon that I won’t give away here as I pretty much demand that you go and see this show for yourself). Indeed, so soaked in the narrative structures of American cinema are they that their own lives are unconsciously constructed as a series of potential screenplays, rendering their own existence nothing but a potential commodity – a simulacrum of living that we can only consider as possible pitch (to a new partner, to a biographer).

In this context the show itself could be seen as a very conscious other to this process of narrativisation. It is an anti-story – devoid of any discernable structure, plot, character development or tension. It refuses any attempt to turn itself into a story, and in doing so offers a glimmer of hope amidst all this second-hand barbarism; that we can still create something new, something meaningful and something authentic. And so despite the casual horror and the flippant nihilism of the characters sweating away in their bath, I left the auditorium with the nagging hope that possibly we’re still not totally doomed; a hope that theatre like this still offers the potential for ways of telling that are meaningful and vital.

Feb 5, 2008

The Arcades Project #2: Westminster

[The Second part of a new project to map various parts of London, if you have any recommendations of places I should make a visit to please do let me know]

Victoria Tower Gardens is a peculiarly unprepossessing kind of a place, especially for Westminster. An anaemic slither of green between the river and the road, a thin wedge of almost-park tapering off into nothing. Unlike most of London’s other parks it isn’t big enough to revel in its own marvellous green expansiveness, instead the whole of this apologetic triangle of land seems in thrall to the great wall of Westminster palace that rises like a threat behind it. Gazing up at its smug gothic grandeur you’re liable to miss the crowded plinth that squats by its base until its right on top of you.

Rodin’s flurry of haunting dark-grey figures, The Burghers of Calais, seem every bit as clumsily placed as the park itself. What are they doing here, these abject French nobleman, cluttering up a park so close to centre of English power?

Edward III laid siege to Calais and let it devour itself from the inside out – starvation, disease. Fear. Finally the city came crawling. Edward offered to save the city if six of its leaders would present themselves to him. Inside the desolate walls six wealthy leaders came forward, stripping themselves down to their underclothes, thick Hessian nooses hung on their necks in preparation for what they assumed must happen to them now. Out of the city they traipsed towards the waiting armies, somewhere between the outfoxed, ridiculous rich men of early Chaplin films and the ashen-faced wraiths in the dock at Nuremberg.

Rodin didn’t want his figures placed on a plinth. In truth they’re imposing enough anyway, their enormous hands and their theatrical expressions of anguish and defiance dragging them away from portraiture and into myth. To stick them on a plinth anyway seems a strange thing to do. They stand there almost meekly, cast into shadow by the Palace, such a bombastic symbol of power. It’s as if the Westminster holds them up delicately in the palm of its thick gothic hand, this little band of figures a tiny example of the powerlessness of defeat, the spoils of victory. Jean d’Aire’s look of rigid defiance hardly seems to matter in the face of such smug indifference.

The same could be said of Brian Haw. His little caravan of affordable dome tents and charred baby posters seems at first almost pathetically hopeless, Haw himself sat there in the middle of it all, his jaw set firm in exactly the same way as Jean D’Aire’s. This Technicolor monstrosity and its earnest slogans seem to be treated with the same embarrassed smirks as Greenpeace protesters in dinghies trapping themselves between whaling ships, and earnest middle-aged socialists marching through the streets of London. As an anachronism. As politically naive. As a joke. As a waste of time. I have stood nonchalantly outside a theatre in Edinburgh laughing with the crowd as protesters in matching T-shirts march against the G8 through the streets of the city.

When did caring about things go out of fashion? When did not giving a shit about anything become a position of strength?

Its now of course illegal to protest outside our own parliament, unless you have a licence – effectively transforming protest into theatre, as comedian Mark Thomas has shown with a series of theatrical satires more potent than anything dreamt up at the big theatre just across the river. We have been banned from protesting in front of our own parliament – only Brian Haw left, a designated mourner for a disappearing movement.

The politicians would have us believe we are have turned from besiegers to the besieged. That there is an invisible army ever encroaching on London, on the country. An entity so terrifying our laws are not capable of coping. We need identity cards, and terror warning systems, and more time to question suspects (90 days or 42 days or whatever the government can bargain themselves into… their protestations for the importance of one figure forgotten in their acceptance of the next). We need stricter stop and search powers and less need for explanation of why someone is stopped (to cut down on the paperwork). We are facing the threat of a legion of freedom-haters (except for those in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who are invited to walk with Princes and dine at number 10). Yet who will be accountable for all this? Who will walk out of the gates of Westminster Palace with the noose around the thick noose hung around the neck? Not Tony Blair as he waltzes off to become a peace envoy to the region he declared war on.

Blueprint for a Show

I want this to be something incredibly simple. Something that could be done without a licence in Parliament Square. Something that slips fuzzily into the grey area between the government’s Anti-terror legislation and its obsession with its own public image – after all, half the reason for introducing the protest zone in the first place was an attempt to evict Brian Haw for largely aesthetic reasons.

I also want something that slips between the public and the protester, something that implicates the apathetic public. The protest equivalent of the opt-out organ donor system - something that turns an everyday act into an act of protest. What is the one thing (other than Brian Haw) that you can guarantee to see in Parliament Square? People taking photos.

The idea is very simple, possibly too simple - possibly still too much protest and not enough theatre. Maybe on this occasion that’s a good thing. For one day, on the hour, every hour from one in the morning, people will be invited to come to Parliament Square and as Big Ben strikes they will take a photo of the Houses of Parliament. Then they will disappear. They can come only once or they can continue to return throughout the day. What they absolutely must do is convince as many people to come with them. As many as possible. This would only ever work in large numbers.

Hopefully as the day progressed people around Parliament Square would begin to acknowledge that something strange was happening. Police would have little ability to arrest or question such a nebulous and fluctuating mass and besides, anyone can claim simply to be a tourist. It would also hopefully with enough people begin to have the same effect as those scavenging groups of Paparazzi do outside expensive London restaurants. Luring in the inquisitive and the nosy, tantalised by the fact that something is happening here and they don’t know what it is. Their attention is drawn to the object of everyone’s fascination– the houses of Parliament, implicating them in this invisible protest. More people are drawn through curiosity, each hour the crowd returning stronger, word of mouth spreading. And what stares back at them every time. Nothing.

Parliament in its own haughty indifference is a more than adequate political statement.

You've got to admit it's getting better, a little better all the time...

Still feeling slightly guilty after last night's tirade (and the ensuing Guardian blog on the misappropriation of the term Site-Specific Theatre that should hopefully be up in the next couple of days or so) I feel I should try and glaze my fruit-cake of negativity with a sugary coating of theatrical hope. So, here are some of the things I'm looking forward to soon:

- On Saturday I'm off to Jerome Bel at Sadler's Wells for The Show Must Go On. This is mainly a consequence of Alison Croggan's dramatic yet mysterious recommendation over here. Beyond that (and because of that) I've tried to avoid reading anything else about this show so that I can go and be shocked and surprised and confused and delighted and all those other things we all hope for. (n.b. if any of the previously mentioned emotions fail to materialise Alison will be exclusively to blame and the poison pen letters will begin in earnest...).

Again, as with Small Metal Objets, there's something very lovely about being able to share thoughts and ideas with someone who is about two seasons away from us (suffering through an unrelenting antipodean summer - though that having been said I saw a ski show about Australia the other day, who knew they had mountains? I have so much to learn - and to think I thought I Bill Bryson's help I already had them sussed).

- Next Tuesday you should all head over to the Dana Centre for the second part of Coney's Rubbish Game. And while on the subject of playing around while almost unconsciously assisting in the betterment of the entire world - you should all have a looksy at this game. Free Rice for the needy! An improved vocabularly! The almost absolute certainty that all the people I know are likely to trump my puny 45 and reveal me for the snivelling macroverbumsciolist that I am (dig yourself out of the irony heaped at the end of that sentence, sports fans)

- Then finally on Wednesday or Thursday you should then siddle over to The Shunt Vaults for Rotozaza's Five in the Morning. They remain completely brilliant. I haven't seen this show yet and its becoming a little like the theatrical equivalent of the film Don't Look Now, just disappearing at every opportunity I think I have of finally catching it. I only hope then when I finally get into the auditorium I'm not assaulted by a pscyopathic axe wielding venetian midgit (speaking of which, the clear take home message from that film: The dangers of mass produced off-the-rail winter wear... damn you Gap Kids!).

So that's about it. Maybe I'll see you there.


The promised Guardian piece has now arrived.

Feb 4, 2008

Dido: Queen of Carthage at Kensington Palace Gardens

For CultureWars.org.uk

Rarely have I left a piece of theatre so utterly disappointed as I was by this crushingly mediocre production, a laboured and clichéd renaissance restaging drowning in the borrowed robes of a form it superficially appropriates and barely understands.

Beyond the fact that they had a cute Paul Simon lyric all lined up for a name, I can think of little reason why Angels in the Architecture have chosen to label themselves a ‘site-specific’ company, seemingly having little interest or ability in the form they purport to utilize. In this cack-handed production there is little to no delicacy or sensitivity shown to the relationship between the performance and its environment, almost a complete absence of awareness of the spatial possibilities of the site and a frankly contemptuous attitude to an audience herded interminably from stopping point to stopping point with even less decorum or theatricality than the most overcrowded museum fodder.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that there seemed such a fascinating potential in this piece. So much potential for a delicate and playful relationship between the over-preserved Regality of Kensington Palace (its waxy portraits and its tabloid ghosts) and the troubled questions of queenship raised by Marlowe’s (relatively rubbish) play, which although hardly The Duchess of Malfi does have some interesting things to say about the troubled relationship between greatness and womanhood, sex and power. Indeed as I wandered down the palace’s tranquil and needlessly majestic driveway I was bristling with excitement at what might be done with such a self-consciously theatrical location; how its grand halls and its carefully trimmed gardens might be highlighted or subverted by the lightest of touches (discarded coronation mugs or almost-overhead flirtations – like some of the best of Alison Jackson’s faked royal photographs).

Yet almost immediately I began to feel a nagging sense of deflation, finally arriving at the end of the temptingly long drive to be confronted by only the most perfunctory of vignettes, a silhouetted figure at a window, a man telling me his name was Hermes and that I should got and get a drink before the show starts.

Once the show proper begins the specificity of this site appears to be nothing but a burden, the production crudely superimposed over the elaborate rooms with an almost criminal absence of thought. Although seemingly chosen for its appropriateness, the potential immersion in the grandeur of the palace was completely undermined by the series of self-consciously industrial lighting stands that adorned the centre of almost every scene. Outdoor scenes were conjured in these pampered little rooms by the crude application of a flashlight or the prerecorded sounds of foxes yelping, while the full extent of the Palace’s grounds lingered dark and inviting through the latticed windows. At one point the characters gestured towards the paintings on the wall, declaring them (as the script suggested) to be ‘all of kings’, when even a cursory glance would tell you they were almost all crowded biblical scenes.

I’m not suggesting for a second that I wanted a naturalistic realisation of the world of the show, merely that the theatrical ghost conjured by the company seemed to stand in such obstinate opposition to the site they had chosen that it rendered any relationship between the two almost null and void, the show being no more specific to this site than it would be to a series of offices or a lay bay on a major city ring road. ‘Site-specificity’ was reduced to a hazy ambiance lazily stolen from the imposing stairways and wooden-panelled grandeur of the Palace itself – a superficial aesthetic barren of meaning that bore no relation to the show itself.

Within this context the audience was dragged from room to room with barely any sense of why; without any motivation to move other than that the scene had come to an end and no discernable reason for the next scene to be in the following room other than the architecture of the space had dictated that it had to be. Even the one moment where it looked like something more interesting might be happen as the audience was asked to choose between one route and another was quickly discovered to be nothing but the showiest of window dressing, the audience soon reforming into one passive anonymous lump without anything of significance (or even interest) having happened in the interim.

Even within the fairly well-acknowledged conventions of this kind of promenade theatre the production failed miserably. Either through negligence or greed the show was vastly too crowded and the audience shuffled irritably between spaces that required too long to get into for too little reward once you got there – the show dissolving into fragmentary moments of almost-theatre. Even the walk-bys (the little scenes on loops complementing movement from location to location that are normally the most shamelessly charming feature of a good promenade show) were about as uninspired as you can imagine – no fleeting glimpses, no almost-missable little flourishes, no clever moments of atmospheric brilliance (like the sinister figure in GridIron’s The Bloody Chamber glimpsed through a low window hammering a dead rabbit, or the angelic airport cleaners in Roam, dirty red overalls and wings, sitting on the railings outside having a fag). Instead we got simply got characters standing, characters lolling around looking miserable, characters getting dressed.

Buried somewhere in this confused, superficial and poorly realised aesthetic was a very traditional production of Marlowe’s Dido. Sadly this was not even a particularly good production. It came across more like a litany of clichés for the restaging of classic texts that should have been banned long ago:

- Working class soldiers being the only characters speaking with broad Sheffield/Leeds accents
- Characters in love holding hands and spinning each other round while laughing
- Men in sharp black suits and women in elegant shiny dresses
- Madrigal-like dirges sung or hum whenever the atmosphere is running a little dry

Beyond that there was the part of Iambus being played by a Derek Jacobi look-a-like with the most overdone limp since Herr Flick, an incredibly irritating attempt at a creepy child voice, and a faintly bemusing bit-part player who appears in the very last scene only to mumble a couple of lines and disappear again. There was lots of unconvincing Shakespeare-acting knocked off from too many nights spent watching the RSC and a pretty reliable line in taking the absolute most predictable and choreographed road at any given junction. In one dining scene there was an incongruous little set of steps set up against the dining room table so that at the appropriate moment in the scene a character could step easily up on to the table top to make their grand speech. Something about this seemed to some up the whole evening for me.

I feel like I’ve gone on about this too long now. Far, far too long. These are not bad people. They are not doing terrible things. I admire them for getting the permission to stage this play at this site. I admire them for wanting to do so. I have heard very good things from people I respect a lot about their previous work. I do not mean to be smug and I do not enjoy being able to write about how much I’ve disliked something.

But this show seemed to suffer from such an absence of care, an absence of thought, an absence of research, an absence of sensitivity, an absence of imagination – everything that I think can and should make site-specific work completely vital and compelling and undoubtedly one of the forms most bubbling over with radicality and real meaningful political and social engagement. And maybe this is why I had such an extreme reaction to a show that was by no means as bad as a lot of work I have seen. It left me angry and defeated because I felt that if this piece and those like it become are what the mainstream is willing to acknowledge as ‘site-specific’ work and set space aside for, then our theatrical landscape will be a lot poorer for it.