Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Shorts: in the club

[or: the unexpected virtue of authority]


Jake Orr has written a thing. The gist of his thing is the question: “theatre is not a club, so why do we make it feel that way?”  To which my first two responses are: “who’s ‘we’?” and then: “we don’t”.

This question was prompted by taking his new boyfriend, Jack (who is a personal trainer and “a culturally engaged guy; he used to do acting at school, he loves art, he goes to the cinema”), to see Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Events. Afterwards he tweeted: “[Jack] feels that most contemporary is for a club, and he isn’t part of that club because he doesn’t understand how contemporary theatre is made and what it is for.”

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “contemporary theatre” here, since theoretically it means “any theatre made now” right? As such, is The Changeling *more* “contemporary” than A Series... because it opened last week, rather than last year. Or, if it’s stuff that’s entirely new, then Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem (snigger) will be most contemporary when it opens at the NT. But I’m guessing it’s an attempt to define some sort of genre. A genre which Jake seems almost at pains to package up as “difficult”.

There’s been quite a long discussion of the post already on Jake’s Facebook wall, with Jon Bradfield making a lot of very good points last night, not least related to the particularly difficult dynamic that springs up when taking a non-theatre-involved significant other to see *any theatre at all*, because it’s your professional life. So you – the theatre professional – kind of need the theatre to be brilliant to justify the amount of time you spend on it, and they – the person who doesn’t work in theatre – well, you’ve just taken them to work, haven’t you? So they feel anxious about fitting in, saying the right thing, etc. As such, I think that’s really where the discussion should have stopped. I don’t really think this is a conversation about theatre, but about taking your partner to work.

However, since the question has been framed, it’s probably worth thinking about a bit. There are a number of approaches. I was *incredibly surprised* earlier this month by Lois Keidan’s Guardian blog in which she candidly suggests: “the problem with the internet is that the underground arts scene – that safe space where risk, dissent and difference are possible – is now only a click away”, or, more bluntly: “The promise of great art for everyone doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything. It means that if you do want to see something funded by the public purse, you are entitled to do so. But increasingly it seems that we all have different understandings of what entitlement means. There are those who expect that whatever alternative cultures they encounter through social media must comply with their own aesthetic or moral framework. They feel entitled, not just to enter spaces and places where they do not necessarily belong, but also to demand censure and closure if they don’t like what they find there.”

That strikes me as a rare admission: theatre companies go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the extents to which they are accessible and comprehensible to all. And I’ll admit that the notion of a space where someone or other “does not belong” unsettles me.

But, let’s look at the facts of this case a bit. No one is going to deny that Britain is a monstrously unequal society, and equality of opportunity is vital to both any kind of arts scene and any society worthy of the name. The opportunities for someone childless with a reasonably paid job in London to see theatre are almost infinitely more than those of an unemployed parent in Shrewsbury (for example). These are simple facts of economics and logistics and they are issues that urgently need to be addressed.

However, these are not relevant factors here: Jack has a job (probably a better paid job than a lot of people in theatre), personal freedom, geographical proximity, and is already an educated cultural consumer of art and cinema. At which point the question becomes: why does “contemporary” theatre feel like “a club” *to him*?

Given the above factors, I wonder if the conclusion to draw isn’t simply either: “because you choose to see it that way” or “because your partner might have unwittingly made it feel that way” (we’re none of us perfect, after all. And Jake does probably know *everyone* involved in Secret Theatre, so that’s already going to make it seem like a bit of a daunting closed shop – although, hardly Jake’s fault, he’s been working in the industry for five years and everyone knows and likes him). Leaving aside option (b), I do wonder what, if anything, can be done about option (a).

On one level, I do think theatres should be at pains to make everyone feel as materially welcome as possible – the cheapest tickets, the most egalitarian booking systems, the widest possible advertising, and perhaps even useful info in programmes about how the “uninitiated” might want to think about approaching more difficult work written clear, jargon-free prose. At the same time, I’m deeply resistant to the idea that *the art* has to change/needs to change. Least of all to people who don’t get a thing the first time they encounter it. I mean, Christ, I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with Forced Entertainment’s 1998 show Pleasure (my first encounter with the group) when I saw it. I think, as a complete novice, I would have found an explanation by group of what they were driving at any why both fascinating and invaluable. I wouldn’t have felt patronised, I’d have felt that my incomprehension was reasonable, and, oh. look, here were a few pointers.

So, yes, while I think it is incumbent on people who turn up to performances not to assume a conspiracy against them, so much as understand that – of course – communities do grow up around things – especially more marginal things. Not necessarily exclusive communities, but communities nonetheless, I also think that maybe we in the theatre might occasionally do well to remember what it was like when we first turned up at things with no reference points, and knowing no one. I think it’s fine, sometimes even necessary, to keep on making difficult work, but I don’t think it breaks any rules of “difficult art club” to just have a few pointers flagging up the stuff that other audience members already know.

Relatedly, I don’t think I would ever have developed such a passion for mainland Northern and Eastern European work if I hadn’t experienced it in the company of colleagues who were already experts and who could explain at least their take on why the work was like it was, the artist’s history, references that struck them, and so on.

As such, unexpectedly (and I absolutely promise I didn’t realise that this was where this piece was going to end up when I started it), Jack’s predicament on first seeing A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts heavily underlines the imperative necessity for good, clear, comprehensive, comprehensible criticism. Criticism which remembers to explain what the critic thinks she’s seen – and a sketch of why it is the way it is – as well as their opinion of it.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Changeling – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe

[seen 22/01/15]


Leafing through the programme for Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Changeling before going in, one line leapt out at me, and I think ended up colouring the entire way I responded to the evening: “When [The Changeling] was registered for publication... it was registered as a comedy” (there’s then a column break). So this was the thought to which I kept returning throughout.

Middleton and Rowley’s1622 text in Dominic Dromgoole’s production is played about as “properly” as is imaginable. Fans of that essay, which inveighed heavily against such practices, might want to look away from the rest of this review. Because, to be honest, while Dromgoole’s production has absolutely no *take* on the play, as such (obviously impossible), the way in which it *seems* to be at pains to avoid *interpretation* a) ends up giving us an incredibly clear index of the director’s (or ensemble’s) concerns, and b) still allows us to imagine more radical or different readings on top of it.

Beyond that, what did keep almost leaping out at me was the extent to which what seemed to be being putatively offered as a not-very-tragic, but definitely bloody tragedy really could be played even more broadly as a straight-up comedy. And a very funny one at that. It’s interesting to notice that there’s a sort of English tone of voice, especially on stage (and on Radio 4) that pretty much signals that *comedy is being done*. That isn’t used in the climatic scenes here – where Beatrice-Joanna (Hattie Morahan) is finally discovered to have commissioned the murder of her arranged fiancé and then her maid in order that she can marry the man of her dreams, Alsemero (Simon Harrison), and that she has paid for this murders by giving herself sexually to the murderer Deflores (Trystan Gravelle) – seems almost a shame. It would, granted, be a very different production, and – weirdly – probably seen as a going out on a bit of a limb. And there’s no reason to do it, this production works just great. For some reason I just couldn’t stop wondering how it would be.

I guess part of it is that the play is already funny, and has an absurd, ostensibly comic sub-plot (although like much early-modern comedy, it is also frequently cruel) about the young wife of an asylum keeper being wooed by two young men who have contrived to get themselves locked up as loonies in order to be close to her. And Dromgoole’s production isn’t without its laughs, most notably from Gravelle, Pearce Quigley as the Asylum gaoler Lollio, and Morahan, in her more deadpan or conspiratorial asides to the audience.

It’s interesting, too, how little I minded the meticulously researched, authentic-looking period costumes. I guess inside the Sam Wanamaker theatre, once you’ve looked at the wooden building, and the candlelit playing area, it seems only natural (and neutral even) that period dress should be a default. Certainly with plays with such weirdly questionable antique morality (perhaps particularly when played as tragedy) the costumes and “authenticity” are a necessary excuse note for the otherwise possible charges of misogyny and stigmatisation of the mentally ill. (But, oh, how much more uncomfortable it would be for a modern audience to have mentally ill and learning disabled actors playing the asylum inmates. Or, hell, what a great production if *everyone* was. Season idea: get Graeae in to do all the most problematic early modern plays which feature disability).

Both play and production are good: solid, definitely, and with real flashes of wit and invention thrown about too. Oddly, having seen Joe Hill-Gibbin’s ersatzDeutsch production in 2012 at the Young Vic, which sadly I never wrote up, part of me felt quite pleased to be seeing all the play presented relatively straight. Although I spend more time being staggered by how little the two productions seemed to relate to the same play at all. It was instructive to the point of shocking how the shifts in dress and aesthetic seemed to move the entire meaning and mileau of the play. I suspect Hill-Gibbins’s production must also have been cut to ribbons. I did wonder if both productions had each cut about half, but magically managed to each cut a different half, but apparently the Sam W. theatre version is more or less full-text minus nips and tucks.

What’s also interesting here is how little the class elements seem to assert themselves. Because the play was (one assumes) intended solely for a contemporary audience (it wasn’t even printed in the playwrights’ lifetimes), I guess * a lot* of the status stuff in the relationships between characters just went without saying at the time, but here, while the servant-owning class characters do still sound posh, and the servants tend to have regional/national accents (a Welsh Deflores, a Manc. Lollio, a Scottish Antonio (Brian Ferguson)), there’s never really a sense of class boundaries. Deflores first touch of Beatrice-Joanna makes her shudder because he is repulsive to her rather than because she is “his better”.

Actually, the entire Deflores – Beatrice-Joanna relationship is fascinating: indeed, some of her asides, played admirably straight by Morahan, suggest the possibility that she even starts to fall for this hated tormentor, when, in her service, he repeatedly proves himself far more ardent and practical than her intended. The unlikelihood of this to the modern mind (even when intelligently accounted for as a possible sort of Stockholm Syndrome) and perhaps Morahan’s urge to think the better of her character, prevents Beatrice-Joanna from becoming a possibly-more-frightening carpicious nymphomanic (which in turn might also aid the conversion back into comedy?).

But I’ve started doing that Michael Billington thing of re-directing the play instead of attending to what was in front of me. And what was in frontt of me was very good. Maybe ultimately a tiny bit too trad. for me not to start thinking of ruses to make it less so, but nonetheless this is a fine, fine rendition of a fascinating play.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Islands – Bush Theatre

[seen 23/01/15]


From the moment I read accountant Philip Fisher’s strangely affronted, and entirely inadequate, review of Caroline Horton’s Islands, I couldn’t stop thinking of one particular comparison: the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. Michael Billington’s predictable hrumph, and Matt Trueman’s surprising violent echo of it, both served to solidify that impression. In the week after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, after the initial shock wore off, British comment writers recommenced on their Herculean task of finding a counter-intuitive angle to every story. The angle that they all hit upon – after a cursory Google Image Search through a few of CH’s more inflammatory cover cartoons, a tiny bit of thinking, and with absolutely no understanding of the context (or even of French) – was: “aren’t these cartoons a bit grotesque?”

Outside of Slavoj Žižek’s celebrated example using toilets, there has rarely been a better, or more stark illustration of the differences between British and French culture. British satire tends to be pretty dry and superficially polite. It might bite, but it does so with the best possible taste, and often softens its blows with a fair amount of whimsy and absurdism. Beyond the Fringe’s Harold Macmillan probably remains the best possible example. French “satire” (I’m not even sure we Brits recognise it as such), on the other hand, appears to be savage and grotesque. And we Brits find it disquieting. It doesn’t speak with the voice of the establishment to mock the establishment (coming, as British satire does, largely from within the establishment), it apes the lowly and seems unafraid to paint the disadvantaged or disenfranchised as grotesques. It pisses all over the somewhat hypocritical British idea that satire should only punch upwards (hypocritical, insofar as British satire seems to afford many already privileged types enough money to give them a vested interest in society carrying on in precisely the way that they’re theoretically attacking).

And, well, whether it’s Horton’s Gaulier training or director Omar Elerian’s time at Lecoq, or neither of those things, Islands explodes onto the British stage like shit from a burst drain. Only very occasionally are the prized traits of British satire even remotely glimpsed. Instead, it is messy, grotesque, violent, and utterly tasteless.

The story, weirdly reminiscent in approach to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, uses the Garden of Eden played out in a mythic, post-apocalyptic, grimy, drained swimming pool to explain the financial crisis (just as Brecht uses Richard III set in Chicago gangster-land to explain Hitler): Mary is some sort of psychotic God/venture capitalist, who buys up an island floating above our own Shitworld in order to horde her cherries away from the prying taxes of Big Government. She then pays Adam and Eve, the lumpen prole inhabitants of the island, to do her bidding, along with her cross-dressing archangel accountants (or something). When the crash happens: Mary and co. dissemble wildly, but in the end [no spoiler warning necessary] carry on getting away with murder. Figuratively and otherwise.

In a lot of ways, the “story” sort of isn’t the point. Or rather, it and the situation with which it’s analogous *are* exactly the point, but it’s all so familiar – the Garden of Eden, the financial crash – that we’re not really watching for the story, but for what commentary these grotesques bring to bear on it. (In passing: “grotesques” seems a bit unfair. Both cross-dressed angels are actually pretty cute and the time has long passed when anyone thinks transvestism is “grotesque”, right?). Indeed, for much of the show, it feels more like a Weimar Cabaret or Satire Boom sketch show on themes around the recession than *a play* (doubtless the source for much of Michael’s discontent).

Yes, as everyone else has said, some people might find the frequent diversions from streamlined storytelling irritating. Ditto the refusal of the thing to map exactly onto either crisis or Biblical source material. But another approach to this is to be constantly intrigued by these gaps and disparities. For my money, I’d have done away with any concrete references to the real financial crisis just a Brecht never has to mention Hitler – I’d have been intrigued to watch it as something with no stated target whatsoever and seen whether I wound up in the same place. (Perhaps, if anything, it all still feels a bit too lead-by-the-nose for my tastes, but, y’know, I didn’t even begin to write it, let alone have the wit to stage it like this, so I can just shut up, really).

Instead, what kept on striking me throughout the evening was how *original* it felt. No, no single element was especially never-seen-before, but the bundling them all up together with this relentless, restive invention, and with darkness piled onto comedy onto misery onto slapstick, the sheer over-abundance, and seamy grandeur of it all, it felt like something almost entirely new. Halfway through, I tarted thinking this is how we should be staging *a lot* more plays. Brecht, Shakespeare, Simon Stephens, you name it. (Ooh, actually, Pomona had a passing similarity. One more and I’m calling “trend” on it.) Oliver “Grounded” Townsend’s set is brilliantly specific, while the five-strong ensemble make all their mucking about, singing, multi-instrumentalism and just sheer commitment look log-fall-off effortless.

In short, I can see where the criticisms come from, but, like Stewart Pringle (genius review here), I’m not sure they’re the most useful. Many seem to take the view that this simply isn’t *how* to handle the subject. Instead, I’d suggest that rather than being analytical, Islands – perhaps a bit like TORYCORE – creates a kind of squalid *feeling* that instead expresses the situation, rather than neutralising that disgust with anodyne number crunching. Yes, it’s sometimes much more “on the nose” than is my preference, but even that seems as much like it might be a deliberate strategy to wrong-foot and make unfamilar, to get away from British satire, and perhaps open up something more savage and less polite instead. Which feels like the only real response to the current state of things.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Fever – Almeida at The May Fair Hotel

[seen 21/01/15]


Is there a smarter theatre in London at the moment than the Almeida? Following Rupert Goold’s electrifying first season (American Psycho, Charles III, Mr Burns), his second season – themed around frightening wealth – is as timely and vicious a commentary on the spirit of these horrible times as you could wish for.

The latest addition to this season, playing alongside Goold’s excellent Merchant of Venice (review forthcoming), is Almeida associate director Rob Icke’s new production of Wallace Shawn’s 1990 play The Fever.

What The Fever is, is a monologue – originally performed by Shawn himself in friends apartments around New York – about your average, well-off, massively privileged, middle-class, left-liberal, apparently in the throes of some tropical disease in a hotel room in some newly revolutionary developing country.

The piece is really a game of two halves: emphasised here by a transition between the sitting room and the bedroom of this enormous hotel suite. In the first half, we hear about the character’s childhood and upbringing. Precious gifts and precious treatment are lovely described with such fanciful detail that it’s hard to know if the character is taking the piss, or genuinely reveling in vividly remembered delight. A bit of both, it seems. And the narrative here is on e of growing self awareness. A gradual sense of emerging from the layers of wrapping and cosseting and warnings not to go to “bad neighbourhoods” where the “tough kids” live, into sweaty, sticky, sickly third world reality.

The second half [spoiler of sorts] sees the same character – having obsessed about Marx, and about commodity fetishism; some brilliantly acute observations and explanations – ever more feverishly go to the logical end of his train of thought, concluding that he, that we, the privileged, *need* this war against the poor just in order to carry on with our pleasant lives.

In Shawn’s schema, “the poor” (quite rightly) ranges from the people who clean his hotel to nearly entire countries in the developing world. The genius of Icke’s production is finding pretty much the cuntiest venue imaginable and sitting us right down in it, so we as an audience can really revel in the shitty, shitty situation that the world’s in. The May Fair Hotel (who, in fairness, are at least letting the Almeida use their space to destroy them) is about as vile a display of ostentatious opulence as you could ever wish to avoid. The menu on the wall for the attached restaurant has side dishes that cost what a reasonable person might expect to pay for a meal, and a veal chop (£40) that costs more than my weekly food shop. (Although, weirdly, each room is dominated by a vast television set (even the sodding bathroom). It might be fucking expensive and bling, but the hotel clearly takes a pretty dim view of its guests’ interior lives.) Being immersed in this absolutely real manifestation of vertiginous inequality almost does all the play’s work for it.

However, to suggest it does is grossly unfair to Tobias Menzies, who plays this first-person narrator-cum-fellow-traveller. I’d only ever seen Menzies on telly before now. And, well, he’s never been typecast as sympathetic or not-posh, has he? Indeed the only note he ever seems to have been given by directors is “could we have a bit more more sneering, Tobias?” It’s a real pleasure to discover that in the flesh he’s a tonne more warm and likeable than his TV parts, and with a far more mobile, sympathetic face, while still remaining noticeably posh enough to remind us of the privileged life he’s talking about (indeed, in this, it feels like Icke has deliberately cast Menzies *and* his back catalogue of upper-class roles).

I guess what makes for such a marked contrast is the fact that rather than being a person operating their power viewed by the external eye of the camera, here Menzies inhabits the space with us. And, rather than us observing his actions, his whole time is spent talking directly to us, face to face: his unflinching eye-contact throughout is mesmerising. And the character is, by turns, charming, ingratiating, plausible, convincing, hectoring, and, by the end, chillingly direct.

The play leads us; the deliberately (at least) middle-class, privileged audience – no matter how much we wish we weren’t so – from our comfortable, well-meaning, good-intentioned, Left- or Green-voting happy place, into the slums of the developing world to watch the execution of a Marxist rebel, to see the squalor in which others are forced to live, simply in order that we can carry on the lifestyle to which we’re accustomed. And this is the text’s genius, it doesn’t try to present a solution. It doesn’t for a second suggest we can or should even want to change. It’s more challenging than that. It just forces us to admit to ourselves, privately, that this situation, that the world, is disgusting. And to acknowledge that we’re all responsible. And that we will keep on being responsible for it. Even if we’re not the worst offenders (and, looking round the audience, I’d guess that most of us weren’t. We stuck out like 25 sore thumbs in the posh hotel lobby, in our relatively shabby clothes and our £40 weekly food shopping budgets), we’re still offenders. Even if we don’t live in the lap of absolute luxury, I’m guessing that for £30 theatre tickets, we’re hardly up against it. (indeed, why my outrage at a £28 sirloin steak if you think it’s reasonable that people can afford to spend more to watch someone talking for 90 minutes while drinking a free glass of very pleasant red wine and eating some free Lindt chocolate). It’s nothing new. We already knew the world was unequal. What’s brilliant is the violence with which it proposes that we deliberately maintain the status quo *precisely* as we do. This sheer confrontation of us with our darkest selves – the bits of us that, while perhaps campaigning for social justice or Tweeting outragedly about this or that terrible thing, make damn sure we’re campaigning all the harder for a nice flat to live in, and nice things to surround us, and nice amounts of disposible income, that we may come and pay £30 to watch a similarly comfortably off actor deliver a stern rebuke, executed with perfect judgement and panache in a hotel in one of central London’s most expensive districts.

“Self-reflexivity” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Icke knows absolutely what he’s doing by creating this performance. And it’s the very way that the piece refuses to agitate for change, or to suggest that there’s any likely solution to our greed or self-interest that ultimately makes it so powerful. And, ironicially, might just provoke small, gradual, tiny, not-self-interest-threatening attempts at change in those who see it. Or, as the fevered protagonist suggests, maybe it won’t at all. Because we don’t ever, ever want to fall through the cosy, necessary, protective blanket of of our privilege.

___

Straight after the show I suggested The Fever was the theatrical equivalent of this, which I still kinda stand by:



(a song 35 years old this year, fact fans)

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Goodbye, Mr Walker

[such fish, so barrel, very shooting]


The erstwhile Sunday Telegraph “theatre critic” Tim Walker has written a piece for the Guardian about his recent sacking from the post. In it he mourns the passing of an “enriching and time-honoured conversation” conducted with “insight and style”.

In fact (as I have noted before), the decline of this “conversation”, if indeed it has declined, dates from around the point where newspaper editors started appointing gossip columnists and celebrities as theatre critics. (While “theatre critic”, Walker also continued in his role as writer/editor of the S.Tel’s “Mandrake” “diary” column. Quentin Letts performed a similar role at the Daily Mail alongside his parliamentary sketches.) Indeed, of the “biggest names” that Walker saw “bumped off were Michael Portillo (the New Statesman), Libby Purves (the Times) and Nicholas de Jongh (the London Evening Standard)”, only de Jongh had any background as a critic (and was pretty near universally disliked), and all three were immediately replaced by an at least slightly more suitable candidate. And, as I’ve also previously noted, everyone has to start somewhere, and aside from the Pollyanna star-ratings, Purves was no worse than many writers starting on AYT.

So, on one hand, Walker is merely reheating the online vs in-print battle, albeit with his customary lack of any insight into the field whatsoever, familiar to us all from his terrible, terrible theatre reviews. For a start, it is simply untrue to claim that (even West End) theatres don’t publish notices from online publications. Michael Coveney at WhatsOnStage.com is as respected now as he was when he was at the Mail or the Guardian. Similarly, I’ve seen Exeunt reviews quoted on posters outside the Royal Exchange every time I’ve been there. And Edinburgh is a veritable explosion of the sodding things.

But, as I’ve said many times before, to hold up newspaper reviews as a gold standard of excellence requires those newspaper reviews to be the best reviews being written in the country. And they aren’t always.

Even decent, committed newspaper critics will agree that they feel compromised by having to give star ratings, that their wordcounts are constantly being squeezed (or paragraphs are disappeared by careless subs suddenly needing room to squeeze in another advert), and they often feel marginalised even within their own newspapers by their culture section editors who privilege more universally available artforms like films, books and television.

There are also a few “professional” newspaper critics who appear to actively dislike most theatre being made in Britain, and whose chief function is apparently to criticise the very concept of public subsidy; in publications privately owned by free market fundamentalists. Indeed, note Walker’s use of examples drawn largely from the profit-driven West End, rather than any discernible fondness for the subsidised sector, which he doubtless views as a racket that's in cahoots with the new-fangled “blogosphere” as part of a Bolshevik plot to bring Britain back under public ownership. (If only.)

[Elephant in the room time: I’m exactly the same, albeit from the left. Both my glee and my vitriol comes purely from my belief that Walker is just plain wrong about a lot of things. For the record, my dislike of his ideology is precisely that: dislike of his ideology. It doesn’t come from any kind of personal animus whatsoever, even though he has written some pretty nasty, personal things; not least about Ian Shuttleworth.]

The problem for Tim Walker, however, is that his own system has just proved that it doesn’t give a fuck about Tim Walker. Or theatre. It’s tempting to gloat that he who lives by profit-driven analysis also loses their job because of it; or that Walker’s appeals to the values of “enrichment” “time-honoured-ness”, “insight” and “style” come a little late in the day, after a decade of particularly trite and spiteful typing. He’s absolutely right, of course. Those things are good. But he’s absolutely not the man to make the argument.

And, lest we forget, Walker refused to join the Critics Circle, labelling it “a ghastly chorus”, preposterously comparing his brave decision to that of protesting the Holocaust in Nazi Germany in his review of Berlin Hannover Express. Indeed, Googling for that linked article throws up a whole raft of sniggering articles from 2009 that do little to ground Walker’s new found love for the traditions of criticism in any kind of reality beyond opportunism.

No, of course you don’t have to join Critics’ Circle or like any other critics to be good at the job. But taking a third of your wordcount in a review of Katie Mitchell’s Pains of Youth to write about another critic’s physical appearance is not the job. And let’s not forget Walker’s recent (entirely inaccurate) review of the temperature of the Almeida theatre.  Hell, just for a laugh, let's also remember that time he fearlessly asked the question on no one's lips: "Would even Larry [Olivier] have been allowed to black up as Iago today?"

Annoyingly, however, Walker wasn’t fired because he was an atrocious theatre critic. He was made redundant at the same time as his job ceased to exist. So, like only Kate Bassett before him, he left a position that was being folded up at the same time. To reiterate, there’s no comparison here between Libby Purves being replaced by Dominic Maxwell, or Nick de Jongh being replaced by Henry Hitchings. In theory, there’s also no comparison between Charles Spencer retiring and being succeeding by his deputy, except that the Daily Telegraph seems to be running notably fewer reviews now that Spencer has left, and no clear deputy has been assigned to fill Cavendish’s shoes.

As such, it does seem like there is an emerging trajectory for the British Newspaper Theatre Review, and it is: into crapness, and then unto extinction. Of course, the apparent commitment on display at The Guardian, the Financial Times, probably at the Times (I don’t have paywall access), the Evening Standard and even the attempt to keep things going as best they can at the Independent, all suggests that such panic is misplaced, but it’s true that there are two or three fewer jobs writing theatre criticism for money than there were 13 months ago. And after two, you can’t help but wonder where it’ll happen next.

***

Where this discussion goes from here is asking: what can best be done about this? Having just taken two months off, I can say with some authority that if you don’t look for theatre criticism, it definitely doesn’t come and find you. While pop music, news stories, and most of all that sodding John Lewis penguin advert seem unavoidable, theatre criticism is not. And that’s *mainstream* criticism. The most powerful argument in favour of newspaper criticism was that it was part of a wider whole, and as such, was put in front of the reader along with a whole load of other stuff as part of a curated vision of what our culture comprises; of what we should be concerned with.

Now, thanks to Google, algorithms, and ever-expanding choices, even that level of directed-ness sounds weirdly old-fashioned, patrician, almost intrusive. Sure, done well it sounds like a lovely idea, but if, like me, you were always throwing the sports section of the Guardian in the recycling without reading a word fifteen years ago, back when newspapers were printed on paper, criticism similarly depended on people actually bothering to read it. Even when the Guardian sold over 500,000 paper copies, there was no way that Michael Billington could confidently claim that was how many readers he had.

What has now changed – most likely because of the their websites supplying pinpoint accurate metrics – is that newspaper owners can now see which cuts *theoretically* affect fewest readers. Because, with the exception of the Guardian (and Observer), British newspapers are private businesses run by multi-billionaires, any commitment to culture is merely matter of prestige, or a polite fig leaf over the real business of maximum profit, and power. To an extent, ‘twas ever thus, but, once their profit machines start to show signs of haemorrhaging money, newspaper owners are demonstrating that they will shred almost everything to maintain continued profit and influence. Walker’s point that newspapers “are... dispensing with their critics” “as a direct consequence” of “Theatre managements cutting back on their print advertisements” is as accurate as it is cynical and chilling. Arguments about the value of culture, about how one thing influences another, about the merit of being able to be informed about what’s going on artistically around the country... Well, you might as well be asking (Telegraph owners) the Barclay Brothers to start paying tax, rather than keeping their wealth in offshore accounts on Jersey and the British Virgin Islands.

So, yes. Things look a bit gloomy for mainstream newspaper theatre criticism, but largely because things look gloomy for Britain generally. We have a largely right-wing, Europhobic, anti-intellectual press, which promotes a brand of Conservatism for which even Cameron’s coalition isn’t vicious enough, and which is increasingly promoting the unknown quantity of UKIP as a means of driving the UK further to the right. We live in a country where fundamentalist free-market capitalism is presented as the norm, rather than as a deeply flawed, weird aberration; and where dog-whistle racism is taken for granted in the press. Where only the most angry, irrational, frightened and frightening voices ever seem to be reported or heard. And where we seemed to be being deliberately panicked into borderline fascism. At which point, worrying about whether reviews of plays could be better starts to look a bit silly. Except that the condition of the press generally, *of course* informs the condition of its cultural criticism. The question is almost *why would we* expect better from a paper apparently committed to climate change denial and the demonisation of the poorest by the wealthiest?

The panic about newspaper criticism should start with the sheer horror at the people whose interests you work to further if you write it anywhere other than at the Guardian or Observer, and work backwards from there. But, of course, while the vast majority of liveable wages are (or used to be) at newspapers, the concern is underatandable.

I would argue that alternative models are beginning to emerge. Jake Orr’s genius for funding applications has made A Younger Theatre and Dialogue start to look like they might one day become viable streams of revenue, while at Exeunt, the editorial team’s newly renewed panache continues to ensure reliable, intelligent criticism continues to flourish and have a standard bearer.

In the current climate of cuts, cuts and more cuts, it seems optimistic to hope that the Arts Council will fund any criticism in the next funding round, but perhaps in time it will happen. And, in the mean time, it strikes me that for the right “producer”/publisher, there is probably an untapped wealth of potential sponsorship as arts organisations, theatres, and trusts realise that actually they actually quite like being written about intelligently.

Granted, at present, this model feels like it runs the risk of creating a somewhat specialist niche product, but then, consider this: have newpaper owners not already discovered that on their websites, even the grossest, most populist writing about theatre attracts a fraction of the number of readers as a picture of Miley Cyrus shopping? And isn’t anything thoughtful "just a bit niche" now?

Yes, *of course* it would be wonderful if incisive, stylish theatre criticism were part of everyone’s daily cultural diet, but it pretty much isn’t. So perhaps criticism needs to learn again from the best theatres, rather than the most cowardly profiteers, that by staying true to a strong, high standard, and not being afraid of difficulty, you will achieve houses sold out to an increasingly loyal and grateful audience who value your work and keep you afloat.


---ENDS---


Blimey.  That was long.  Have an apt Siouxsie and the Banshees song as a reward for getting to the end:

“Too many critics, too few writing...”


 

Unsent Postcards: Romeo and Juliet – Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

[seen 9/10/14]


O, Manchester! O, HOME! How I have wronged you. When I reviewed your Romeo and Juliet, I thought it wasn’t all that good. I am so sorry. I was measuring you against some sort of Platonic ideal. I had expectations. Well, Cardiff has shown me the error of my ways. You didn’t even get close to how bad R&J can get. Sure, I took against your Romeo for seeming impulsive, vain, posh, and a bit hard to like. But, Christ! At least I listened to what he had to say. And, well, yeah, maybe I wasn't hugely enamoured of your concept, but, fuck! At least you had one.

Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre is regarded as a bit of a poisoned chalice in Welsh theatre circles. Essentially, the problem is, it had a large tranche of cash taken away in the last funding round. It has just been refurbed, with the old car park now hosting an art museum-y foyer lit like a downtown strip club, but incoming Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan can only afford two home-grown productions a year. And both have to sell. A lot. On the evidence of last night, no matter how bad this R&J is, the tyranny of the National Curriculum set-text will ensure financial stability in the short term. However, it will also poison the well of future theatre audiences as surely as anthrax in the water supply. This is precisely the sort of production that made me believe as a teenager in Birmingham that theatre was a poor substitute for simply reading the play, or better still, just reading novels. Why subject yourself to hours in a darkness you can't leave while actors more wooden than the stage on which they stand speak the words of the text less convincingly than you can imagine them?

O’Riordan’s production is terrible. Jaw-droppingly, giggle-inducingly so. It sets a new Gold Standard for train-wreck theatre (although I avoid a lot of stinkers, so this could be a slightly unfair judgement. Still, it set me a new nadir for principal theatres in capital cities).

Why so bad? Well, let's tick off the pitifully few positives first. Kenny Miller’s set is actually pretty great. A massive concrete monolith. Impressive, layered, subtle, menacing. Like something out of a post-apocalyptic Marthaler show. I could have lived without the flown-out upper wall, revealing the Capulets’ bling colonnaded home (which didn’t make a lick of sense, but then neither did any of Ostermeier’s Volksfiend), but even that *worked*. And a couple of the cast were still managing to turn in watchable performances.

So what is the problem? Well, the entire thing is so godawful it really is genuinely difficult to know where to start.

We could start with the “concept”: the production is set in a kind of impressionist sink estate where cardboard cut-outs of Britain's underclasses make gang warfare against one another. Put another way: imagine the Little Britain R&J and you're pretty much there. Juliet’s nurse is, well, a “comedy Jamaican”. The messenger is a “comedy homosexual” with a Northern Irish accent (although, Tony Flynn doubles up as The Prince, who he seems to play as the Revd Iain Paisley). Yes, The Kidz tittered at these “comedy” characters yesterday in a way that would have felt racist and homophobic, *had they been dignified portrayals of human beings*. As it was, the kids were just responding to a lowest common denominator dogwhistle. They sounded almost embarrassed of their own laughter.

Up against this minstrelsy, was basically a Topshop/Topman advert, with parents pulled in from the worst Danny Dyer films about gangsters and their molls imaginable. In the initial fight scene, more or less an entire theatreful of adolescents fell apart when Lady Capulet walked on wearing a nightie apparently designed to illustrate that “brevity is the soul of lingerie”. Christ. It was like sitting in the middle of a teenage maelstrom. The boys, devastated; the girls, unsure whether to slut-shame, cheer, or re-route their whole sexuality. It's not often you see a single (dubious) costume choice do that to an audience.

Chris Gordon’s Romeo has much the same effect when he walked on. Not a dry seat in the house. What was instructive was the way that this effect lasted for all of about two lines once he opened his mouth. Turns out good looks are still no substitute for either charisma or an actual ability to act, in theatre. Christ knows what the director was thinking.

Elsewhere, and less specifically, one repeatedly finds one wanting to scream either WAKE THE FUCK UP or WHAT ARE YOU DOING? at the stage. Which isn't super. Sean O’Callaghan plays Romeo’s father with all the Snapelike-ness appropriate to an erstwhile Wrestling School actor. However, it turns out there are reasons you'll not have seen Alan Rickman ever playing an incomprehensible drunk Irish priest... Meanwile, the entire demeanour of Paul Rattray as old Capulet at the banquet, as he looked out over his colonnaded veranda, seemed to scream “I was in Black Watch less than a decade ago. What the fuck went wrong?”

When Romeo and Juliet turn up at the cell of the incoherent friar to get married, they have both inexplicably changed into red polo shirts and black jeans. “Why are they dressed like that?” I idly wondered to myself. “They’ve just come from their Saturday jobs in McDonald’s” my friend whispered. It scarcely mattered that I spent the next five minutes trying not to laugh, since the audience around us were mostly giggling away to themselves as absurdity piled into absurdity.

I can honestly say this was one of the most risible things I’ve ever seen in a theatre. Lacklustre beyond measure, stilted, and yet still self-aware enough to project wave after wave of shame from the stage into an already restive and uncomfortable audience. I can’t even begin to imagine what the school pupils made of it. Probably, having been told that Romeo and Juliet is a great work of literature, their options were either conclude that they dislike great literature, or conclude that it was they who were somehow at fault for not liking it.

Well, young people of Cardiff, I’m here to tell you [albeit somewhat belatedly, now], it wasn’t you. And it’s not Shakespeare. Theatre is an unstable medium, and it can fuck up the best of works. And this was about as fucked up as good plays get. Please consider giving the artform another try. Cheers.

[Lyn Gardner saw it the same night as me and found it in her heart to give the wretched thing two stars...

Somehow The Stage gave it three, but most of the bits where their reviewer says something was good, it wasn’t.]

Monday, 1 December 2014

театр любит капитализм

[a response almost as inevitable as the award winners]


Where to begin? Following last year’s debacle, after which three judges (notably three of the five actual critics on the panel) resigned, this year’s Evening Standard Awards – nominally for “best” things in theatre – enjoyed an entirely revised format and criteria for success.

This year was plainly a matter of simply showing the (perfectly reasonable, if largely timid and conservative) shortlists to a panel of *no critics whatsoever*, and asking them which actor, “actress”, or project was most famous. Then, having no interest in theatre at all, and every interest in famous people who would get the Evening Standard in the news, the panel easily identified the correct answers.

The winners of the 60th London Evening Standard Theatre Awards are as follows:

Best Actor: Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse)

Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress: Gillian Anderson (A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic)

NOOK Award for Best Play: The James Plays (Rona Munro, Edinburgh Festival Theatre & National Theatre's Olivier)

Ned Sherrin Award for Best Musical: The Scottsboro Boys (Young Vic & Garrick)

Milton Shulman Award for Best Director: Jeremy Herrin (Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies, RSC Swan & Aldwych)

Emerging Talent Award in Partnership with Burberry [WTF?]: Laura Jane Matthewson (Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse)

Best Design in Partnership with Heal's [!]: Es Devlin (American Psycho, Almeida)

Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright: Beth Steel (Wonderland, Hampstead)

Lebedev Award: Tom Stoppard (The greatest living playwright)

Editor’s Award: Kate Bush for Before the Dawn (A new high in music performance)

Beyond Theatre: Here Lies Love (For pushing the boundaries of the musical)

Revival of the Year: Skylight


Now that the awards have been given, it feels churlish to knock anyone’s success. I like Tom Hiddleston very much, both as a person and as an actor. That I wasn’t such a huge fan of that particular production of Coriolanus should be neither here nor there, and I’m happy to accept it brought a great deal of pleasure to a majority of those who saw it. But let’s be entirely honest here, it wasn’t Mark Strong in A View From the Bridge, was it? (or Tim Piggott Smith in King Charles III)  Nothing else this year was. But Hiddleston is a lot more famous. Indeed, it actually feels rather unfair that Tom’s been put in this position. Being an entirely affable and modest sort of a chap, I’d be willing to bet money that he’d have given the award to Strong.

Meanwhile, Gillian Anderson for Best “Actress” (Dear Evening Standard, no one says that word any more...) for Streetcar...? I’m happy for her and everything, but Jesus wept, she wasn’t even the best female actor in Streetcar, let alone the best out of all the female actors who performed in everything that was on in the last year.

I didn’t see the Best New Play Award-winning The James Plays or the Best Direction of Wolf/Bodies so I can’t compare them with the things on their respective shortlists that I did see (or everything else in London that might have been eligible). The James Plays I missed just because of my location, but Wolf/Bodies I didn’t see entirely because of my complete lack of interest, and word of mouth that said “this is the most normal-but-boringly-directed thing you will ever see in a theatre”. So that’s ironic.  Do I imagine Wolf/Bodies was better than A View From The Bridge?  I do not.  But Ivo van Hove is Belgian, which probably doesn't play well in these UKIP-y times.

Perhaps the oddest award given last night is the one for design. There was nothing wrong with Es Devlin’s functional, minimalist set for American Psycho, but surely a crucial point of her cunningly crafted collection of white walls was that the video design by Finn Ross would be projected onto them. Indeed, Ross’s video work was a crucial component in the overall look of American Psycho. It seems ludicrous to simply give the award to the one person named as “Designer” when the entire project was clearly a close collaboration between the two (plus lighting, plus sound, etc. etc.).

Beth Steel isn’t the most promising playwright to emerge this year any more than Tom Stoppard is the greatest living one, but whatever. That Kate Bush got a theatre award at all seems fucking strange. And especially so when the next award down is called “Beyond Theatre”, and was given to a musical at the National. And if Skylight really was the Best Revival of 2014 we might as well all kill ourselves now. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t. You don’t even have to watch it to know that.)

So yeah, there we go. Somehow a celebration of theatre manages to make it look like an artform that exists to confirm the ideological prejudices of a Russian billionaire oligarch. No, we shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised by this, and yet, as the extent to which the awards are a tawdry publicity exercise, using an artform to generate free advertising, becomes ever clearer, it becomes more and more difficult not to at least register dissent. Even while hating oneself for even giving the sodding things yet more of the publicity that they’re purpose built to generate.

Shorts: big paws

[self indulgent rambling]


Hello. Sorry. Bit more of a hiatus than I intended. Basically, my laptop was in a terrible state, so I took it to in to be mended. (Currys PC World, if you’re curious.)
“About a week” they cheerily assured me.
“Give it a few more days,” they suggested a week later, “we’ve had to send for parts.”
“They’ve sent us the wrong replacement part” they added. A week later.
After about a month they decided the laptop was unfixable.
That was about the middle of November.
So, now I’ve finally got a new laptop (and thank Christ the first one was covered by a warranty or I’d still be laptopless).

But surely I could have got hold of another laptop? Just borrowed one for the duration of my laptop’s alleged convalescence. Well, yes, I probably could. And in a couple of cases definitely *should* have done. But, at the same time as my laptop went into decline, I think I’d hit that theatre fatigue wall. I mean, whatever the Mark Shentons of this world say about theatre criticism (and he’s not wrong; as a profession, the mainstream does appear to be more unstable than it was even two years ago) it is basically the best job in the world. You just get to watch your favourite artforms non-stop. For free. And all you have to do in return is say what a thing was like. (Yes, ok, bit more complicated than that in reality, but not much more.)

But you do have to love it. And possibly one of the great unspoken problems of the profession – at least in its current configuration – is the (generally self-generated) expectation that one tries to see *as much as possible*. In real terms, that’s at least five nights a week in the theatre, more likely six, and probably chuck in the odd catch-up matinee too, if you’re feeling especially conscientious. And, days and days spent writing (especially if, like me, you’re an idiot who writes too much). Now, if you’re being paid well to do that, I daresay the cash will see you through those weeks when you’re *not really in the mood*. But I’m not even sure that’s a good thing. After all, who wants to read the grudging reports of a salaryman? But anyway, *being paid too much* isn’t really a problem for me. There’s also an awful lot in the world that *isn’t* theatre. And a real problem of the way that the work of theatre criticism is set up is that you don’t get to see so much of anything else. Let alone having much by way of time for a normal social life.

So, yes, at the same time my laptop was dying, my enthusiasm was not all it could have been. Which, when you’re frequently volunteering to be subjected to 2hr30 shows is Not A Good Thing. Yes, I realise all this whinging is #firstworldproblems of a particularly privileged sort. “That we should have such troubles!” I hear my justifiably irritated reader say. But, well, while this is ostensibly a choice for me, it seemed like a good idea to use the opportunity of the dying laptop to take a kind of (longer than intended) sabbatical. To cut right down on the amount of theatre I saw. Watch other things. Do different stuff. Read some books. To not do writing until I was figuratively chewing my hands off in frustration at not having a laptop on which to write.

I sometimes get the vague sense that some in the profession believe one of the critic’s chief tools is their jadedness. How they won’t just fall for enjoying something like a member of the public who hadn’t been the the theatre every other night that week would. A kind of snobbery, looking down upon the poor plebs who just go to the theatre because they like it.

Well, I think that’s balls. And it’s the kind of attitude which ensures that theatre criticism is increasingly viewed as a faintly unpleasant and unnecessary footnote in the history of newspaper publishing. After all, one of the best things about coming back to the internet after not having really read any theatre reviews for over a month was having a whole month’s worth of Megan Vaughan’s back catalogue to plough through. I know I’ve praised Meg to the skies already this year, but it struck me especially, looking through five or ten of her pieces in quick succession, that her model of largely only engaging with stuff that she’s really loved (or occasionally *really hated*), pays incredibly rich dividends. Not least in terms of how it leaves you feeling about the art in question. There’s a lot to be said for that level of positive energy. And, as anyone who’s ever written about theatre knows, the review that just says “Meh. It happened. It was fine” is the dullest thing to write ever.

So, on balance, I thought it would be more useful if I starved myself of theatre for a while, until I was really dying to see it again.

As it happens, I did see a bit of stuff; an early casualty of my laptop’s death were reviews of two Cardiff shows – Adventures in the Skin Trade and Romeo and Juliet – which I’ll post shortly. There was also Ostermeier’s Ein Volksfiend and Nicholas Stemann’s rehearsed reading of Elfreide Jelinek’s (somewhat underpowered) thing about the financial crisis at the Lyric, which I think between them might have served to crystallise my feeling that I needed a bit of time off (In short, “yeah, fine, whatevs” didn’t really feel like nearly enough of a response, and little else seemed possible). Later, I also caught the Almeida’s rather lovely Our Town, and the Katie Mitchell double bill: 2071 and The Cherry Orchard. (For which I paid for my own tickets, and if I’d had a laptop, would have written about straight after. Probably. Still might. That Cherry Orchard was pretty neat. Ditto Our Town (which closed on Saturday. Nothing like having one’s finger on the pulse)). Beyond that, it felt for most of the time I was off like nothing very much happened that I couldn’t live with having missed. I do wish I’d seen the Australian Wild Duck and the JMK Young Vic Far Away, and in the normal run of things it would have been good to see Longwave, Confirmation, Nothing and Spine again. John at the NT also sounds worth a look (if only because it made Quentin Letts so unhappy – the only review which made me want to see it immediately), and I was vaguely interested by Henry IV at the Donmar. But, by and large, the misses seemed manageable. Which, let’s face it, is either a bit of a worry, or indicative of how jaded I’d got (Since I’m now officially un-jaded, and still think that, we might conclude Autumn doesn’t seems to have been exactly a bumper season (especially if you saw nearly all the good bits in Edinburgh).)

Elsewhere, coming back to social media (and the news) after largely ignoring it except to occasionally reassure people I wasn’t dead, it seems Britain has now pretty much finished going to Hell; in the sense of “has arrived at its destination”. Anyway, enough of this for now. Here’s a cheery song to start your day...



Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Teh Internets is a Serious Business – Royal Court

[seen 22/09/14]


Fuck me, the Royal Court is on fire at the moment. Barely has the new season begun, and it’s put out two plays which, if not entirely redefining what plays/theatre can be, both feel effortlessly original, intelligent, are hugely entertaining and very funny to boot.

I went into Teh Internets... knowing little more than the title, the contents of the slightly weird Time Out preview they did, and the smile on Meg Vaughan’s face after she saw it on Monday night. (Vaughan’s review has already won the internet, btw.) As always, I’m going to spoiler the fuck out of it in order to a) discuss the stuff that’s in it, and b) leave posterity a better idea of what it’s like than is possible with a miniscule wordcount. (cont. under photo...)


If you want a vague thumbnail sketch of what Teh Internets... is like, imagine ENRON played as the first half of Anthony Neilson’s Wonderful World of Dissocia. Or, if you have reference points that aren’t solely other plays, imagine any heist movie played out in a borstal ball pool: bright colours, animal heads, written in the most bracingly abrasive language possible.

How one responds to Teh Internets... might rather depend on the amount of time you’ve spent on the internet. I think I did rather better than I deserved thanks to spending a bunch of time with my ex-’s two thirteen-year-olds. Watching the show it finally felt like I was seeing something in the main house of a mainstream theatre that was squarely going to appeal most to under-twenty-fives, and which had *no primary educative or moral function*. And it felt fucking exciting. Indeed, I bounced out of it with my critical faculties melted by what amounts to a hardcore theatrical sugar-rush.

...is a Serious Business, when shorn of all the trimmings – of which there are many, and prey God no one ever shaves them off – is essentially the story of the rise and fall of LulzSec. A collective of six anonymous hackers who met online, never knew each other’s real names, and together hacked the websites and servers of the Tunisian Government, the CIA, the FBI, a bunch of banks, entertainment organisations, Westboro Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology. (I was going to say something about 4Chan, but since they’ve gone to the trouble of denying they’re anything to do with the Emma Watson nude photos threat and even issued a note of support, that bit of topicality is now redundant, or differently purposed...)

Nevertheless, lurking around all this is *The Problem* for lefty, feminist, anti-homophobia “moralfags” like me, which is: along with all the fucking cool and deeply admirable stuff they did (attacking Scientology, Leaving the Westboro’ Baptist Church’s website with a message saying God Hates Bigots, facilitating the Tunisian Revolution... etc. etc.) 4Chan, Anonymous, and LulzSec also had a “nothing’s sacred” attitude toward offence which crossed pretty much every boundary of taste, decency, and often progress. And, being anonymous, leaving others to fill in the gaps, this winds up looking pretty frightening. A group teenage boys egging each other on to be the most out of order, while cloaked in complete anonymity, with the most kudos to the person who goes to the worst place... well, it’s never going to end well, is it? And, in the main, the “play” puts a tiny bit of that side of things out there, and leaves it to the audience to decide what they do with that. On one level, it’s great to have properly morally complicated “heroes” for a left-liberal audience. They’re not flawed in a cosy way that you can easily accept. They often say aggressively misogynist, homophobic, utterly vicious things. They’re frightening like the Sex Pistols were when they wore Swastikas and adopted a total blank-face attitude to accepting any sort of moral responsibility. At the same time (also like the Sex Pistols) LulzSec also seem to display a peerless grasp of civil liberties, anti-censorship, freedom of speech, and even social justice. On the other hand, they’re also (mostly) just (frighteningly clever) kids. I’m not sure I’d stand by much of what I said when I was 16 either (and theoretically I was pretty “right-on”). So, yeah. No easy answers.

What’s bloody wonderful about the play (which I’m using to include what’s said, what you see, *everything in the production*) is that it doesn’t even attempt to lead you by the nose to a moral conclusion. Weirdly, because the play follows the course of real events, the story arc it’s got is basically the same trajectory as Macbeth, or Julius Caesar, or The Italian Job: some very clever mates (who also say some problematic things) plan to do a thing, get well hubristic, ultimately overstep the mark and are undone. One hopes the script of this version is eventually printed (props to any rehearsal process which so thoroughly does a number on what the “director” was handed by the “writer” to the extent that a script can’t be printed by press night), A-Level students in years to come will study “LulzSec’s tragic flaw”.

But I’m talking about generalities here. And there’s so much detail to adore too. Christ. The “script” (or at least what the actors say), is really admirably un-literary (no “fine writing” here), but rammed with great jokes, and some genius set-pieces of smart-assery – the bit where one of the hackers, a South London schoolboy – demonstrates to his maths teacher why he shouldn’t do his homework using statistics is especially memorable. Chloe Lamford’s design (and esp. costume design) offers a Three Kingsdoms-like grey-walled room of the utmost simplicity, full of doors, windows and trapdoors through which characters and other performers DRESSED AS MEMES appear. Oh, and there’s a massive ball-pool at the front. Which is frankly genius.

Hamish Pirie’s staging has the sort of lightness of touch that must have nearly killed the cast to achieve. It feels casual and random in exactly the way the piece, and subject demand. The (shorter) first half feels more like a party than *theatre* (what a heavy, leaden word that sometimes seems). If it wasn’t for the way in which The Plot (plot!) keeps nudging its way through, we could be happily putting this in the same bracket (or *unhelpful pigeonhole*) as Forced Entertainment or GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN. Emma Martin’s choreography is interesting. It’s primary impulse seems to come from an attempt to dance bits of computer coding. Which, at a purely conceptual level, is a great idea. Because choreography is even more subjective than music, I’m going to admit I’ve have imagined it a bit more angular and jagged – more Gisele Vienne and less Frantic Assembly, pls. The music (James Fortune), on the other hand, is objectively perfect. :-)

This has turned into the weirdest shaped “review” I’ve written in an age. The analysis is at the top and the explanation later, and then the credit-y bit after that. Which is pretty much upside-down to how it’s usually done. But that feels like how you experience the play on one level. Like – even despite the vivid visual presentation – it’s the ideas fighting each other that happens first, then realising what it looks like, then realising belatedly that people must have made it. I love the attempt to present the internet on-stage. Next week, this article I wrote for the Guardian Theatre Blog about putting online on stage is seven years old. Now, finally, it feels like we’re starting to explore these potentials, and it’s beyond heartening that the Royal Court is in the vanguard of this progressive experiement with work that’s also intellectually and morally challenging. And compellingly watchable to boot.

[and, pace Dan Rebellato’s brilliant piece responding to Bryony Kimming’s provocation about the state of UK criticism, I think it’s clear this “review” is just an initial bundle of thoughts and reactions. I think there’s a tonne more to say about Teh Internets... and I’m looking forward to reading more in this conversation. What I will hazard as a “definitive judgment” is that the direction that the Royal Court is heading in is properly exciting. The last two nights I’ve spent there have been incredibly rewarding, and have totally rebooted my optimism for “mainstream” British theatre post-Edinburgh, where you get a bit used to all the best stuff being “marginal”. At last it feels like an audience is once more being sought *and found* for properly progressive work, and theatre that opposes the direction in which Britain seems to be heading (Tories, UKIP, privatisation, an almost entirely right-wing press). If it’s a curse to “live in exciting times”, it feels like a good time to be cursed.]

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Wolf From the Door – Royal Court

[seen 23/09/14]

[picture when Google Image Search stops fucking about]

Rory Mullarky’s new play is undoubtedly the most original thing in the Theatre Upstairs for quite some time. Indeed, it’s pretty radically unlike most plays. It’s possible to plot an impressionistic route through it saying, well, this bit is a bit like this, and that bit is a bit like that (try: Mr Sloane meets P.G. Wodehouse at a train station, made up by N.F. Simpson. They then embark on a Godard road movie with additional scenes and dramaturgy by Caryl Churchill. One is reminded of the freewheeling dramaturgical freedom in the plays of Ali McDowell). But that’s a stupid thing to do.

Perhaps a better route in is attempting to describe the sense of delight. Wolf From the Door is a pretty delightful play. Calvin Demba and Anna Chancellor are both completely charming. Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley in particular border on genius as All The Other Characters. The dialogue is spare, crisp, and frequently very funny. But it’s not delightful in a relaxing way: it’s quite a frowny play. Frown-causing. Perhaps this is more A Thing for the critic, but I suspect not. Frowny, because you spend quite a bit of energy wondering what sort of a play it is. And you wonder what it’s driving at. And you wonder how much the larkiness adds to or detracts from The Seriousness. For, yes, there is also The Seriousness.

The plot (a plot! Imagine!) is a kind of English revolutionary romp set in the very near future. Lady Catherine Dean (Chancellor) is a leading light in an impossibly vast network of revolutionary cells. When she meets Leo (Demba) they set in train the series of events necessary for the complete overthrow of The British Establishment and capitalism in Britain. Which, I have to say, if nothing else, is bloody satisfying to watch.

James Macdonald’s production is interesting. It’s played on a simple, square, end-on platform, with four green plastic chairs and two plasticky trestle tables. This is bordered on each side by miniature, sarcastic versions of village fête marquees in which the actors get changed. There’s a slightly unnerving deadpan wit to both the staging and the delivery. This is Macdonald in the same playful mode as his production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, things happen in the stage directions and – when unstageable – they are represented by a quick lighting change, a projected still photograph, and a noise: for instance, the decapitation of Tesco assistant manager, Derek. Unlike Cock, though, we do get props, actual eating (Demba’s Leo *says* he never eats/doesn’t need to eat. Demba is forced to wolf down a mackerel, an Eccles cake, several scampi, a Little Chef haddock portion, and suck on a peppermint teabag), and real nudity (just Demba again. Fans of the unclad male form should probably note that he has a particularly buoyant bottom).

There’s also the constant moving of the six pieces of stage furniture into new configurations between scenes to represent the seats on a railway station, train, bus, village hall, Tesco check-out and so on. So the thing that’s most noticeably, viscerally missing from the staging is any blood. Or even attempt at blood. Perhaps this is written in, I haven’t checked the script-programme. But whether the impulse comes from writer or director, it has an enormous effect. And that effect is to retain the effect that this is all jolly and fun. It’s very interesting, given that a photo-realist version of the story would be sickening to watch, whereas this production is about as hard to watch as Tom and Jerry. It’s an interesting tension, because it does make us think about the violence – at one point Lady Catherine stabs a wet blanket revolutionary colleague with a pair of scissors through the cheek. What would we make of that if we had to watch it? Chancellor’s character would suddenly look frighteningly unbalanced. Instead, thanks to the lack of gore, she manages to pull off this mutilation as a charming eccentricity. But we still think about it.

This seems to be the way that a lot of the script (or/and production) intends to operate. All the way through, with snowballing insistence, we think about revolution. A vast majority of the things that anyone says about revolution are to some extent true. The necessity, the urgency, the near-inevitability... And yet, up against that there’s always the fact, or the concern, about what revolutionary violence tends to lead to. (Hint: post-revolutionary violence, instability, not the result the revolutionaries are after.) It’s perhaps no coincidence that Mullarky is hitherto best known at the Royal Court as a translator of plays from Russian and closely related Slavic languages. Spending time in the language and with the culture that birthed perhaps the world’s most catastrophic revolution (irrespective what you think of the west, you’d have to have a soul made of nothing but dogmatic ideology to deny that the sheer numbers and cruelty of the gulags are a catastrophe). And even in this Very English revolution we can also hear the echoes of the fall-out from Tahrir Square and the maniacal ultraviolence of ISIL.

Nonetheless, even the violence is an interesting, seductive question. I’ll probably write this up as a separate feature sooner or later, but it’s fascinating to watch Wolf... in the light of Men in the Cities and other pro-revolution plays in Edinburgh this year. Sat in the Theatre Upstairs last night, it did briefly feel as if the question was fast becoming “when?” not “if...?”.

Diffused violence aside, other formal considerations of Mullarky’s play should be observed. In my “things it reminded me of a bit” round-up, I mentioned Caryl Churchill, and the events of the “Revolution” itself felt like they owed a great debt to the surreal last part of her Far Away the bit where increasingly odd groups of things fell to warring with other unlikely things (“QUOTE” [need to go find script]). It’s almost Goon Show-ish, in places. And obviously those bits do make a person feel a bit sheepish for having just written such an earnest examination of how serious the thing might be about the possibility of revolution.

Inside the piece somewhere there also seems to be a structure that questions exactly how the class system in Britain works. It’s no coincidence that Leo is hand-picked and mentored by a hot, posh, older woman, right? Or that his back-up read on their relationship is that of son surrogate. Lord knows if we’re even meant to be paying attention to things like that, but you’d imagine so, and one does. Even with the joking, the things said pile up into all the stuff you take out of the play to think about. And somewhere in there seems to be the implication – which is being trotted out all over again (at the rate of at least one article per day by The Guardian at the moment) thanks to the release of the idiotic-looking film version of Royal Court sell-out Posh – that we, the English, have a bit of a love affair with our upper classes, and we actually need them about to mother us a bit. Hope that’s not intended, or if it is, then that it’s at least tempered with an idea that that mentality is itself a product of ruling class propagandising.

Is there an ultimate thing we’re meant to do with this play? It feels pretty open-ended to me. Maybe I’m missing some really big, obvious, signposted *meaning*, but I don’t think so. And that inself feels pretty radical. Especially for the Royal Court where we used to be used to being bashed over the head with foregone conclusions. Instead, now, we’re given open-endedness and having to think for ourselves, having been generously gifted with 1hr25 of entertaining, oblique cues for imaginative engagement with ideas. That seems a pretty good state of affairs to me. And the jokes really are charmingly droll. Yes. Good.

End.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Little Revolution – Almeida, London

[seen 09/09/14]


Alecky Blythe’s new verbatim piece is perhaps best seen after reading some reviews. I read Megan Vaughan and Stewart Pringle before I went. These happened to be the only two pieces (because who cares what the MSM thinks? It says nothing to me about my life, etc.), and I read them because I thought I probably wasn’t going to get round to going.

They’re both excellent pieces. Both prosecute their cases with real wit and flair. And neither of them went for Little Revolution one bit. Or rather, they went right for it. Right for the jugular, and there’s blood everywhere. The crux of both their points is “If this is a play about the riots of August 2011, then fuck off, basically.”

Which turned out to be an excellent way into watching the piece. Because you go in knowing exactly what the play isn’t going to give you, so instead you watch what it does give you much more carefully. My subsequent first thoughts have already been pretty much perfectly expressed by co-“second-wave”-viewers Matt Trueman (who saw it the day before me), and Dan Rebellato (who I sat next to while watching it and chatted to about it afterwards), both of whose pieces also conduct an extensive survey of earlier reviews, both settling on the fact that those who didn’t much like the piece had misdiagnosed what the piece was doing. In short: “It’s not meant to be a play “about the 2011 Riots”; you fuck off, Aleks Sierz.” Which in turn links up to the last thing I wrote before I saw it about whether we approach a piece on its own terms, or whether we as audience members are allowed to dictate our own terms too.

There’s a bit of both going on here. Blythe’s play isn’t really about the riots, per se, although several scenes from Little Revolution take place within one of them. And it’s not really about the rioters, although a couple of them are recorded, sensibly telling Blythe to delete their photographs from her phone (an interesting moment where a) she’s working in a visual medium as well as sonic, and b) where she apparently totally forgets that the bodies which form the shapes of a riot are also people, and people who (obviously) won’t want to be easily identified). But Little Revolution doesn’t really claim to be – brilliant (if perhaps misleading) poster image aside. And, I guess it is fair enough to voice the opinion that it should have been. However, for my money, what it actually is, is also something valuable.

What it is, is a play about class privilege, the aftermath of the riots, perhaps about the limitations of verbatim theatre, and, in common with Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, and, now, topically, the No victory, Britain’s apparent lack of capacity or appetite for change. Or maybe, the way that any desire for change is whitewashed, glossed over, shamed, ridiculed, criminalised, ignored or rewritten. And on this score it is a subtle, successful, uncomfortable piece of theatre.

It is also the best bit of Joe Hill-Gibbins direction I’ve seen. Where I thought his Edward II suffered from a surfeit of untethered, unearned “German” borrowings (and was also a bit luke-warm about his main-space-transferred Changeling), here direction, concept, and Ian McNeil’s deceptively simple no-design design, combine to create a piece of art that is sculptural and central to the overall meaning of what we see, hear, and “read”. (It’s also far and away the best staging of any verbatim play I’ve ever seen. Yes, of course including Rufus Norris’s concert-with-flower-baskets production of London Road. Makes me wish Joe H-G had directed that too.)

The Almeida’s auditorium has been transformed from the familiar deep, low-slung end-on thrust/proscenium into what feels like a small, makeshift, intimate, high-vaulted, in-the-round space. The back of the stalls have been cut off so there’s no comfy hiding out in the darkness under the balcony. There’s often a lot of full light on the audience, and we can all see each other, and the numerous players – the cast of Little Revolution is swelled by a “community chorus” (who may or may not be being paid, which may or may not be an issue). The audience itself is the most mixed I’ve ever seen at the Almeida. Much more like the street outside than the sea of white-haired white folks that Michael Attenborough’s programming used to attract.

What’s most striking of all, is that, in the centre, there is a small “stage” area, but this is frequently not used, in favour of people stood haphazardly (obvs. not really haphazard) around elsewhere talking over it, round it, ignoring it altogether. The stage almost becomes a void at the very centre of the thing, while the audience is almost implicated by the action going on right next to us. Which physicalises an crucial point. I was strongly reminded of that other masterpiece of arthouse audience-complicity fingering, The Author, more than once. And that line in Gogol’s Government Inspector “You’re laughing at yourselves”. Except no one has to point it out. We’ve sat opposite ourselves. And others of us have been taped and are having their exact words spoken by actors.

Something else, that I think only Rebellato has really gone into, is that the piece very specifically charts two different post-riot campaigns. One is to replenish the stock of a local small businessman whose shop was looted and whose insurance wasn’t up to date. The other is a much wider campaign attacking the treatment of Hackney Youths by the police and subsequently their vilification by the media. One is briefly put in mind of Brecht’s famous question: who is the bigger criminal, the bank robber or the man who owns the bank? And we see how media attention focuses on the “feelgood, community coming together” narrative of everyone chipping in to help the small business owner, whose shop they all use, who simply didn’t fill out an insurance form, eventually leading to a Marks & Spencer-sponsored street party. While the two women trying to actually highlight the need for social change are roundly ignored. Even in the play itself they get less stage time, and there’s only two of them.

What they’re doing is “boring”. It’s not really funny or fun, just two women (plus Blythe) plodding round housing estates knocking on doors and putting leaflets through letter boxes. Against this there’s a massive machinery around the “community pulls together to save local businessman” story, which is picked up by the telly, even unto encouraging corporate sponsorship. And if this isn’t a perfect picture of how British politics has failed, I don’t know what is. Rather than the media actually talking about the issues, it prefers a nice story which at once vilifies the “rioters”, lionises entrepreneurial, turns communities into individuals and their familes (thereby rubbishing the idea of systematic discrimination because “we’re all individuals”), and most importantly papers right over any actual cracks that need serious attention by pretending that they had nothing to do with why the riots started.

In this, the play is pretty merciless. Granted, being verbatim, it “says” these things through editing and focus, rather than putting this entire argument into someone’s mouth as, say, David Hare could. But nonetheless, the argument is there, embedded in the very structure of the piece itself. In fact, if anything, it feels like a strategy that underlines too little for a theatre culture too used to be being spoonfed its take-home moral message (hello, Sierz). Little Revolution makes its audience work for its meaning, which is a risky strategy, as they could end up digging out completely the wrong message or no message at all (or indeed, there’s no “message” per se, and this version I’m seeing within it is a product of my own politics plus a confirmation bias-style desire to see those politics adequetely, respectfully and intelligently portrayed on stage).

The fact that Little Revolution has generated such a wide variety of responses, but more than this, has felt like an itch that so many writers-about-theatre *needed* to scratch – that feels like just about the best result possible for something which could easily be seen as “not actually Art, of course” or “not even theatre, really”. In this especially, it strikes me as yet another perfect bit of programming from the new regime at the Almeida, absolutely on a continuum with American Psycho, King Charles III and Mr Burns (1984 doesn’t count because it totally pre-dates the Almeida and I didn’t see it there, so it doesn’t quite feel part of the same story, although it also fits...).


Oh, and two new pieces on Little Revolution just came out...

on Dave Hill’s London Blog for The Guardian

and Jessie Thompson.



(from this interesting piece on the blog of the graphic design company who made the Little Revolution poster (scroll down, until someone tells me how the fuck you link to a specific piece on Tumblr. Stupid thing.)

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Romeo and Juliet – HOME at Victoria Baths, Manchester

[seen 20/09/14]


Manchester again. Shakespeare again.

Do you know about HOME yet? It’s basically a new theatre building currently under construction in Manchester. Apparently it’s the replacement for the Library Theatre, but with a new building, a new name, and a new artistic director. People who know stuff about it are dead excited about HOME. I don’t think their planned opening season has been announced yet, but the open secrets are definitely cause for cautious, putative celebration. Think: a northern equivalent of the Young Vic (at last). *And* the artistic director is German/Dutch Walter Meierjohann. Exactly! “German” (like Sebastian Nübling!) and “Dutch” (Like Toneelgroep Amsterdam!). So, y’know, no pressure.

I should start by being scrupulously honest and say that I saw the Saturday matinee of R&J (because travel). Playing at the Victoria Baths, which have large vaulted frosted glass ceilings (think a smaller scale King’s Cross), matinees take place under the full glare of whatever little daylight Manchester deigns to offer. But even yesterday’s thunderous cloud cover is nothing like night. As a result, I think I probably saw the “production without atmosphere” version. I bet it looks smashing in the dark with its purpose-designed lighting. When I’ve finished writing, I’ll have a look at the production photos, just to torture myself. Still, we’re all pretty used to Shakespeare in daylight, right? The Globe, Regent’s Park, all that outdoor touring stuff. So... I guess what we might be less used to is seeing arthouse/”German” productions in those sorts of conditions. But then, I’m not entirely convinced this was one of those.

Those hoping for a bracing, hardcore dose of Deutsch regietheater will be disappointed. Meierjohann’s R&J doesn’t explore ideas or concepts any more than Sarah Frankcom’s Hamlet did on Wednesday. In fairness, neither are trying to (although it’s interesting to note that R&J does have a production dramaturg). It’s sad to report that this feels as much like a trot-through-the-story as the broadest production at the Glob. Ok, yes, it has enough deviations-from-text, irreverent cuts, and added swears and sings to probably piss off a real purist, but it’s neither revolution nor revelation. For an unadorned “story first” production to work, the acting has to be first rate and you have to really care about the characters.

Instead, here the Star of the Show is its idiosyncratic venue. The Victoria Baths are some amusingly of-their-time public swimming pools (three entrances: Males – First Class; Males – Second Class; Females) which are currently being refurbished by a local charity. As a result, the production is necessarily site-responsive. Or rather: I refuse to believe that Meierjohann sat down at the first R&J planning meeting and said: “Right, I’ve got this great plan for Romeo and Juliet, but we need to find a building with a big room that contains an empty swimming pool that we Ti Green can build an interesting mirrored drawbridge in the middle of. We’ll do nearly the whole of the production in there, but the building also needs to have a huge empty room which we will use for one minor scene before the end. This is crucial. The venue also has to have a functioning swimming pool which we can bridge with a massive Orthodox cross, because wherever we find will have to vaguely remind me of *all of Eastern Europe*. We’ll do the last scene in there: it’ll have nice echoes for all the screaming and crying that goes on, and then some singing after. And we can have floating candles in the water. These things are crucial to my intellectual conception of this play. I am absolutely not an opportunist.”

As it is, play, production, and location all seem to sit awkward, uptight, inert alongside each other, like three cold English people who don’t know each other on a railway bench.

There are several other problems added to this. Problem one is radio mics. I’m sure I’ve had this gripe before recently, but something they really ought to teach on the first day of drama school (and directing courses) is what a microphone does. This production has a voice coach credited. Fine. Shakespeare needs some breathing, I imagine. But it might have been worth mentioning to the voice coach that there’d be mics. Because the cast sound like they’re trying to fill the Albert Hall with their naked voices. Which doesn’t work for the mics and speakers (millions dotted round the room), and consequently for the acoustics of *a swimming pool*. (Interestingly, in the final scene, thanks to all the water, the radio mics had all come off, and suddenly all the acting made sense. A pity that this accounts for only the last ten minutes of 165 plus 20mins interval.) So, yes, point one: don’t shout into a radio mic. And, probably don’t RSC-act into one either. Oh, and, if you’re in a *really echoey room* the louder the noise you make, the more it bounces off the tiles and makes itself incomprehensible. Just saying.

Then there’s the casting. If there was one thing that was great about the Royal Exchange Hamlet (and, there definitely weren’t two) it was the casting. Women as men, women playing fresh-minted female characters, a man as a woman, kids. etc. (indeed, the only place it fell down was how white most of the cast remained). Here the casting is about as clichéd as [insert familiar similie here]. R&J look (and sound) like hipster knock-offs of Wills and Kate. The nurse is doing a hispanic accent (made-up, I assume, since she’s also in The Archers). Montagues and Capulet Pères are played as rival cockney gangsters. And Mercutio reprises Baz Luhrman’s insistence that he be a ludicrously attractive black man given to flamboyance and occasional cross-dressing. Although here he also has a hot Scottish accent, which is new. And hot. The one original idea is making Paris an ineffectual Indian, replete with heavy accent.

Within the logic (or otherwise) of this world, individual performances vary wildly. Ruth Everett as the leopardskin-print-clad Lady Capulet does the best job of bending her lines to the situation and Sara Vickers at least invests considerable effort and sincerity in her Juliet. Meanwhile, much too much emoting aside (which is just a taste-in-acting thing), the main problem with Alex Felton’s Romeo is that he is all too convincing as the most annoying, self-absorbed gap-yah-in-love you’ve ever met. I mean, it’s stow-stoppingly convincing. But the reason you’d stop the show would be to throttle him. And they have Romeo keep bursting into song, or singing his lines. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve met people like this, and this is a painfully accurate depiction. But, Christ, it’s hard to spend three hours in their company, let alone trying to give a fuck about how they feel. I wanted Romeo dead by halfway through his first scene. None of this, I hasten to add, is against the actors. We’re talking about the fingernails-down-blackboard characters here. But what are we meant to do with these broad, stock characterisations, echoing about in their empty swimming pool?

I do worry that a lot of the problems described above might well be mine rather than the production’s. Like a “German”-addicted version of going all Michael Billington when he hasn’t been given enough “social criticism”. But I honestly don’t think it’s that. This is more the flip-side of Anglo-Euro collaboration. That, for every View From the Bridge (an incredible synthesis), there are going to be productions which try a similar thing and wind up as soup. I daresay, as well, that without the darkness and lighting effects (I’ve just looked at the photos), I missed a vital element of the seductions this production offers. But here it feels like a stark warning to a production – that if it can’t sustain interest in its performances and ideas without the bells and whistles, then it should take a deep breath and think harder about what it’s really doing.


But, y’know; pretty.