Sunday, 31 January 2016

Julius Caesar – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw

[seen 23/01/16]


[preamble *after* review]

Have you ever seen a production of Julius Caesar that actual felt modern, relevant, or – most crucially – fast? More than this, have you ever seen a production that surprised you? (Full marks to those who saw Castellucci’s Guilo Cesare at LIFT in ‘99)

What is most fascinating, watching Barbara Wysocka’s production was the way that it felt so fresh. It made me realise the extent to which even the best British Shakespeare is completely hidebound by the ancient language in which it’s written. And the overwhelming, ENORMOUS BAGGAGE that brings with it. And the ways of speaking the text seem to unavoidable – I mean, even if it’s spoken in a non-RP accent, it’s still *incredibly wordy*; the sentences, the thought processes, are *very long* no matter how it’s said. But more than this it’s the unconscious ways we have of seeing/thinking about the characters that seem to make so many productions feel like tired re-treads.

In Julius Caesar, for example, don’t we tend to think of Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius as relatively noble and well-intentioned, to some degree? A degree usually backed-up by impeccable public school accents, evidencing Britain’s unfathomable, ongoing (at least until recently), apparent respect for the “political class”? (Or, at the very best: desire to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) They’re “heroic” in some form or other anyway. Here, I was surprised to see an almost complete contempt for *everyone*. No noble motives, it seemed. No one was to be admired. No one’s motivation was to be *understood*. This was a tragedy of gangsterism and thuggery. And the tragedy wasn’t for the characters on stage, but for the country they govern/ed.

To say that this reflects the political reality as it’s being experienced and lived in Poland at the moment is an understatement. As we know, the far-right Law and Justice Party has the first overall parliamentary majority in Poland since 1989. And the party *is* popular in the country. But at the same time, there are protests on the streets every weekend, or every other weekend. There are protests on the streets because the Law and Justice Party are essentially passing law after law dismantling what we would call the essentials of a democracy. Their most recent move is a law that co-opts the (formerly theoretically impartial) state broadcasting company into the party’s promotional machine.*

This is an apocalyptic Julius Caesar that *actually resonates*. It’s not Tito Fiennes and a cast of hundreds of (probably unpaid) extras on the stage of the Barbican Theatre making it completely clear that the audience’s relationship to the events depicted is one of spectatorship. This is seven people performing Shakespeare as a live and dangerous reflection that feels like a critique of live and dangerous times. I should say, though, these possible parallels aren’t laboured or even stated. The production itself is – in many ways – a totally “straight” modern-dress production with some serious editing (2hrs straight through).

Its design (Barbara Hanicka  – excitingly, there are more women called Barbara on the production team than men) is spartan and impressive. Opening with a slightly scaled-back, theatre-based version of the raked seating set (cf. Benedict Andrews’s Caligula), the exciting thing is firstly that this rostrum is on a revolve, and then secondly, that it’s later tipped into an angle and set on fire (well, politely set on fire in a couple of limited flame-proof sections, but even so...). But, within this apparently simple set you have all the playing spaces you could possibly need. Conspirators can cluster in a downstage corner while Caesar lounges in a high-up central seat, and – while completely lacking fussy naturalistic detail – the dynamic is perfect, while also avoiding the godawful “stage secrecy” often deployed.

The performances, in common with the dramaturgy (Tomasz Śpiewak) and the design, are brutally effective and unshowy. I mean, look, I don’t speak Polish, so I’m at a disadvantage, but you can kind of see whether someone’s compelling or not *even more* if you’re still interested in watching them even when you don’t actually understand the words coming out of their mouth. To me they seemed completely *real*, in-the-moment, energetic performances – think so many Lars Eidingers. The connection with the audience, established when they were talking to them, doesn’t just cut off when the cast are talking to each other. This is neither fourth-wall nautralism, nor that Globe Shakespeare playing to the crowd. Rather it’s just a set of very engaging exchanges that we’re invited to contextualise and re-imagine for ourselves taking place on a design that guides our thoughts about why those exchanges might be resonant.

Added to these elements is a soundtrack of 80s cult Polish post-punk protest (apparently) music, which adds another layer to the production. The aim here isn’t just to reflect the current political situation (because, really, why would you use Julius Caesar as a play to talk about a resistance you want to see succeed?). The presence of this music – obliquely against the communist times of the 1980s when it was written – suggests instead (to me) a process of ongoing disillusionment with overturning governments. The liberation from communism has led, now, to the increasingly illiberal Law and Order Party: “what hope is there, really?” the production almost demands.

By presenting this old play, based on ancient history, it feels that this production harnesses those centuries upon centuries of tradition to hammer home two points: 1) revolt is necessary, vital and exciting, 2) the results of revolt necessitate further revolt. Always.

It feels like an accurate and timely reading, but an exhausting prospect.

***

[preamble to the above]

After I saw Julius Caesar, I sent the following email (slightly expanded below to make sense to those of you who have not seen the show) to the theatre’s dramaturg:

“Which bit of text were they doing at the very start? (The first two people who come on stage. Cassius and Brutus, I think? Or was it Cassius and Mark Antony? Argh. What were they addressing directly to the audience?”

[Now, looking at the text, perhaps thanks to the multiple doubling up – or *not* doubling up – my guess is that the normal, “original” opening lines of Marullus and Flavius are here being performed without the scripted replies from on-stage plebs. Who the characters speaking the lines were was never clear, but in this cast of seven – five men and two women, with one woman playing multiple parts, some female, some not – and with the other woman on stage being the director...

The other reason it wasn’t clear was because the people speaking sounded exactly like normal people... Hang on to that thought in particular...
]

“Was there ad-libbing? What was that *really* big laugh? And those other laughs in Mark Antony's funeral speech? They felt very specific and loaded.”

[And no one in Britain ever laughs at these bits, do they? No one *really laffs* at “honourable men”, do they? Even though rherotically it’s so good and so well written. No actor manages to make it surprising enough to be funny, do they? It’s always more hectoring, in UK, isn’t it?]

“And when Barbara Wysocka did the Mark Antony speech – had it been it reassigned? To Calphurnia? Or was she “playing” Mark Antony? Or am I being *WAY TOO LITERAL* here? Need there be that degree of continuity or ‘character’? Was she doing it *as herself*? As the director?”

“How do your Polish critics approach performances like this? This is really interesting to me, because I think the UK approach would be simply to describe how it deviates from the written play – in part just because that’s the simplest way to outline the things that are most interesting (to me), and because people who read theatre reviews tend to know the basic plots of Shakespeare's major plays – but it feels then that I’d end up reviewing what’s not there and what’s *not as it was written in 1599*, which seems silly since something obviously coherent was there... Shouldn’t I just review that as if it was a new play?”

Of course, part of the reason I feel like this about approaching Wysocka’s production (and need to ask some of those questions at all) is because I don’t speak Polish. And there were no surtitles. So, much more than the problem of “preconception” here is the problem that my prior knowledge of the play is also the blueprint for my understanding in the moment. [Perhaps this is always a problem we have with watching extant plays in Britain. But I don’t fully understand why it would be so specific to Britain. But even so, I guess in part it’s put-downable to something akin to that “It’s not how I imagined them” feeling you get when you see “the film of the book”.]

***

As the famous American philosopher once noted:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”** [my italics]

It was Slavoj Žižek who pointed out that there is a missing fourth category, the Unknown Known, which – he claimed – describes ideology; unconscious assumptions, things we don’t even think about knowing.

Taken as a full set, they are an incredibly useful way of approaching talking about what we see when we see “Shakespeare” performed in a foreign country; and then, beyond that, how we see something about our own Unknown Knowns about Shakespeare...

I haven’t yet had a chance to read erstwhile Guardian theatre editor Andrew Dickson’s book Worlds Elsewhere on the subject, but I’d be lying if claimed I didn’t enjoy with great schadenfreude the description of his chapter on Germany as: “a total waste of time. Facile about Germany, facile about Shakespeare, unspeakably ignorant about contemporary theatre: why bother travelling to another country, ostensibly to research what Shakespeare means to its theatre, if you're not going to make the slightest effort to understand what you're seeing on stage? The worst kind of reactionary claptrap.”***

But, at the same time, I absolutely felt the implied chill of such criticism about my own modest efforts in this department:


Known Knowns (things I know I know):

Julius Caesar, the play written in early-modern English by William Shakespeare
A passing acquaintance with the text’s recent performance history in the UK
The last performance I saw at Teatr Powszechny
Some other performances of Shakespeare in Poland (WATCH THE TRAILER UNDER THAT LINK: best Hamlet opening EVER)
The political context in Poland that necessarily provides the social backdrop to this production


Known Unknowns (things I know I don’t know):

Polish
The performance history of Julius Caesar in Poland
When it comes down to it: Poland’s more over-arching reasons and/or methods in theatre – neither (in general terms) definitively “text-based” (so problematic a term) British, nor the pure “regie/concept/abstraction” of Germany. [my suspicion is, like maybe Nübling and Ostermeier, Poland has a less doctrinaire sort of directors’ theatre that is less to do with intellectual concept and more to do with visceral excitement, but with an more naturalistic/realist inheritance in its acting style?]


Unknown Unknowns (The things I don’t know I don’t know):

Well, I don’t know, do I?


Unknown Knowns:

[return to top]

***

These are the songs from the soundtrack:

Kult – Po co wolność [For what is freedom?]



Republika – Gdzie są moi przyjaciele [Where are my friends?]
sorry about the video for this one. Only one I could find on YouTube.pl...



Brygada Kryzys – Centrala





* I mean, of course the fucking Tories have as near as dammit done the same to the BBC, and everyone in Britain has sat about, moaned a bit on Twitter, and mostly decided that “It’s probably fine really”. And this is kind of the difference I’m talking about. It’s much easier to be in control in Britain. You know; proper, stranglehold control. I mean, sure, it’s ghastly in Poland, but at least they have people protesting on the streets against a government that is infinitely more popular than the Conservatives are in the UK. The weird difficulty that both Britain and Poland have, is that neither party is actually doing anything *that bad* compared with the worst case scenarios of history. (Ditto Hungary.) It feels as if a widely understood term needs to be coined to discuss this problem that if a modern regime isn’t committing genocide, doesn’t have a Gestapo, isn’t rolling Soviet tanks into the town centre, it’s somehow ok...


**I was reminded by this [today] by Vinay Patel, so thanks, Vinay.


*** “2013. I’m in Berlin, where I've just seen Raphael Sanchez' Coriolanus. Not a great production, but one that had me reflecting on the difference between German and Anglo theatre, and the differences in critical cultures. So I wrote a blog post about it, in which I said the following:

‘Even the most conservative critics seem to have accepted that performance is necessarily a dialectic – that any production that doesn’t transform the play it brings to the stage isn’t really doing what theatre is supposed to do. And that strikes me as a fairly profound difference in attitude to the way most reviewers write about theatre in the major English and North American papers. The German critics’ consensus on this Coriolanus was something like “Stellar actors, some nice scenes, but conceptually a mess; lazily thinks it’s enough to rely on Shakespeare and add some ornaments from the toolkit of modern theatre. Same old, same old. Mr Sanchez needs to think harder and give his actors something more interesting to do.” I have a sense that English reviews of Sanchez’s take on Coriolanus, by contrast, would have said something like “A lot of incomprehensible nonsense and heady stuff, but some very well-acted scenes; Mr Sanchez should have trusted his actors and Shakespeare more and given us more of the latter”.’

‘Flash forward to 2015. Andrew Dickson, former Guardian theatre critic, publishes a book about international Shakespeare, featuring a pretty terrible chapter about Germany, in which he writes about that same Coriolanus. And AMAZINGLY, he makes my 2013 fantasy a reality: “By the time I returned to the Deutsches Theater, this time to see a performance, I felt I was clutching at straws. A friend of a friend, Ramona Mosse, had kindly offered to talk about her work on postwar political theatre; we’d settled on combining this with a new production of Coriolanus. The show was even more self-consciously baffling than the productions in Munich: acted by five female performers wearing wigs to a soundtrack of corny eighties pop music, its logic largely eluded me.

‘“One reason it was liberating to encounter Shakespeare in translation was that he could be the best of both worlds: both ancient and modern, both canonical and contemporary. The Romantic Schlegel-Tieck now being deeply un-hip in Germany, most theatres re-translated him each time they mounted a new production. Given everything I’d discovered about culture in the Third Reich, a suspicion of received wisdoms and the classical canon was understandable. But was this still Shakespeare? I felt we’d gone over the edge”.’

Fun!

Anyway. I think we’re done with talking about Julius Caesar now.

On criticism

[written 27/09/15]


How would you describe the experience at Belgrade international theatre festival?

I loved it. That’s not a very precise or scientific answer, but this was the first time I’d been, and I found pretty much every show absolutely fascinating in one way or another. It helped that I though most of them were also brilliant, but even the ones that didn’t work for me were so different to the normal things I see that I was pleased to have experienced them.

What are your impressions of Bitef's programme this year? What would you say that is important about a festival’s selection?

Well, I didn’t realise before I was asked these questions that the theme of the festival, or its main focus, was ‘Political Theatre’. But, now I’ve been told, that does make a lot of sense of what I saw. That said, I’m quite old-fashioned, and think *all* theatre should be political, and theatre which isn’t is just lazily endorsing the status quo, so...

That said, I think the sorts of politics, and the really very different approaches toward examining them, were fascinating. And the selection brilliantly varied and exemplary. And, that probably betrays what else I hope for at international festivals – programmes which are bold, varied, and somehow both typical (of types of theatre) but full of unique or outstanding things.

A tendency that was in the focus at this year’s Bitef was political theatre. What impression of this theatre tendency did you get?

Certainly the impression that political theatre is alive and thriving in ex-Yugoslvia (and France!). But, also, reassuringly, that there is no consensus on what a performance with political themes/ambitions should look like, or how it should behave.

How would you explain what is important about having political theatre performances? Why this type of theatre is important now?

If we accept that all Art is political, then I’d rather see theatre that is aware of its own politics and is trying to do something with them. A-political theatre is not only impossible, but theatre which thinks it is invariably fails.

Political theatre is important now because theatre – perhaps by virtue of being marginal, or local, or non-transferable in any bulk sense – seems to have resisted the neo-liberal consensus whitewash rather better than most other artforms (particularly television and film, books and music).

From your experience, how does theatre treat political topics?

From my experience here or in the UK? In the UK I think we might *sometimes* have had a tendency in the past for the most mainstream pieces of “political theatre” to be somewhat blunt, and unhelpfully didactic, within an ostensibly naturalistic frame. This has often resulted in rather futile reproductions of the problems such pieces seek to discuss.

What I loved about the work here was the sense of being given both critical apparatuses and enough space within the dramaturgy of the diverse pieces to apply them usefully.

On your blog, you have already written critiques of performance from Bitef's programme, what performances particularly made an impression on you?

It’s now a week on and – for various very different reasons – I think the Ibsen as Brecht, the Iliad, and Discreet Charm of Marxism all really made very big impressions on me. I also really loved Adieu, but in a way that perhaps didn’t change the way I thought so much as just being a virtuousic display. It’s ironic, because I didn’t really think the performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism was a success at the time, but in fact, because in the performance I saw the audience rebelled against what it seemed they were supposed to do, I think it made much more impression than anything that could have been planned-for.

What would you say are the values that Bitef nurtures?

Artistic excellence across a diverse selection of engaged theatrical modes? (I’m not sure I think in “values”.)

As you have seen many theatre festivals, you have met many different audiences as well. How would you describe Bitef's audience?

It’s a good audience, I think. It felt like the festival is very much a part of the city. I didn’t have that sense that you sometimes get a festivals of “where are the people who actually live here?” This felt like a festival that the people of Belgrade – at least some of them – are proud of and attend.

What is important for you as a theatre critic at a festival?

Apart from a decent wi-fi connection and time to actually write (and selfish things like air-conditioning, surtitles and maps – all wonderful, btw), I suppose – boringly – I like it when I like the work, and feel some sort of affinity with the programming. Actually, that is an interesting thing: you *can* go to a festival and see some really great work, but feel nothing toward the festival as a whole. Or, you can go to a festival and see nothing you like and still find the festival’s atmosphere and ethos charming. At BITEF49 I was lucky enough to feel both things.

What is your opinion on how and why is it important that theatre critics are guests of festivals?

Well, most obviously – at least in my position – to describe what I’m seeing as best I can for an absent audience back home, and perhaps, of secondary interest, to report *from my perspective as one foreigner* to the people who have made the work. To maybe give an impression of how work looks from the very outside (i.e. not only outside the work, but outside the culture that produced it).

What is the role of theatre critic at a festival?

Well, I imagine every critic (and perhaps every Festival) will give different answers. In the UK’s Edinburgh Fringe, for example, the role is often reduced to that of a consumer guide with no possibility for all but the briefest analysis. I guess, from my perspective, the ideal is to report the work as accurately as possible – while acknowledging one’s subjectivities – and to put it into as many useful and interesting contexts as possible for what readers I have.

What is your approach to writing critical view of a theatre performance?

Blimey! That’s quite a big question. The short version: try not to be formulaic. Try to report the event. Try to acknowledge your own subjectivity without putting yourself before the performance in the report. Try to provide context. Try to be interesting. Try to make a review as accessible as possible without simplification. Remember that people can Google things they don’t understand.

How would you describe the position of theatre criticism today? Who is the target audience for criticism?

Well, there’s no single position. There are a lot of things that count as “theatre criticism” and each one has a different audience. And, given that those audiences tend to be self-selecting, in one way the target audience is anyone who reads it and likes what they’ve read. Theatre criticism necessarily preaches to the converted. It’s not much of a tool for evangelism, more’s the pity.

How important in your critiques is responsibility towards the author of an artwork?

There’s an interesting implied question here about who the author of an artwork is. Certain poststructuralists would argue that it is the emancipated audience member, the active “reader” of the work of art. Let’s assume you don’t mean that, and you don’t mean the literal author – say, Homer – when they’re dead. Let’s assume you mean whoever made the piece.

There’s a truism in British criticism – which used to be more widespread – that your duty is only to your editor and/or your reader. I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s useful to be able to reassure the person whose work you’re writing about – even if you hate the work, and possibly their perspective, their take on the world, and everything they think about art – that you’re not actually a moron. That might make them at least take your critique at least more seriously (And I don’t think this seriously damages a critique’s relationship with its other readers). But then, if there’s just a complete mismatch of outlook between critic and auteur, then it’s probably best that the auteur doesn’t bother reading the critic and possibly better that the critic avoids the auteur’s work too. I mean, if they’re just this idiot, what do you do with that?

How important is responsibility towards the audience's opinion of that artwork?

Oof, I dunno. I’m not sure that ever really comes up for me. Like, the way criticism works in UK is that (critics) tend (in theory) to see the work before anyone else. Obviously this has changed a bit with the combination of previews and Twitter. Ultimately what anyone else thinks about a thing should kind of be entirely irrelevant to what you think about it. Nothing exists in a vacuum – especially things resting on the status of a play, or of its star, or something – but I think either trying to prove you know more than an audience, or pandering to their (imagined?) pre-opinion is entirely dishonest and so best avoided.

Whose point of view you are trying to “meet” in your critiques and are you trying such thing at all?

Again, really hard question. I think, if anything, my own. I mean, you think such a lot during a play, and see so much, and so many things happen, that *obviously* it’s impossible to write down everything you’ve thought about it, even at the time. And that information isn’t necessarily what would be useful to anyone else reading it. So I guess the point of view you’re trying to relate is a meaningful version of your own, that will communicate it to anyone else, and even to yourself in later years. It’s very satisfying, when you read a review back years later, and think “Yes! That was it. That was what I saw and how I felt. That is honest and right.” Just making that happen is harder than you’d think.

This year BITEF welcomed the AITC/IATC symposium? One of the topics was a theatre festival’s role and the theatre festival as part of the globalisation of theatre. What is your opinion on that topic?

It’s an interesting one. And maybe it’s more pressing than I realise. How globalised do I think theatre currently is overall? Not very. How globalised do I think it will get? Well, hard to say, but not too much more, I hope. Although I think there’s also a positive version of this narrative where we see cross-cultural collaborations which actually create something entirely new, and alien to all the component cultures, and that *is* good.

Yes, there is can be a cynical feeling that there’s a sort of “International Festival Theatre Show” which is tending towards a certain “globalisation”, but I dunno, I wonder if that isn’t too easy a criticism. Without other defining factors it feels just like a generalised term of abuse.

What in your opinion does the phrase “Embodied critic” mean?

Well, I wasn’t at the AITC/IATC symposium, but *I think* it relates to the idea of a critic owning their own presence and what the facts of that presence mean. A bit like Observation Principle in science – that the results of an experiment are always going to be affected by the fact of their being observed. I’m not sure how much experience of things we aren’t at we will ever achieve in order to test this theory, though.

What forms of theatre critiques do you favour? (The “form” can also refer to writing “form” or style of written critique.)

I seem to always write things that are much too long when left to my own devices. See the four pages above.

Can a theatre critic be creative and how important is the signature (style?) of a critic?

Yes, a critic can be creative.

How important is a given critic’s style? It’s hard to say. I mean, it’s partly down to a reader’s personal taste right? Perhaps there’s something about various styles that is also connected to the content. In the mainstream, our more right-wing critics in Britain tend to make more jokes (generally directed at the work, the artists, and the concept of theatre) and understand less (or pretend to understand less).

How does a critic watch theatre performances, and what does your process of writing a critique look like?

Well, I don’t use a notepad, so, as far as I’m aware, I watch theatre in exactly way as anyone else. But, well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? I suppose I do watch with an awareness that I’m going to be writing, but generally speaking, I write about *the whole thing* *afterwards*, so during I guess I try to watch like anyone else – albeit like anyone else who goes to the theatre quite a lot.

I’m afraid, there’s also no real method to my writing a critique/review either. I tend to sit down with my laptop – usually the next morning – and just write what I thought. I guess, because I’ve usually got unlimited space (on my blog), I can do this in any order, and at any length, and can theoretically take as much time as I like. Obviously that’s different for publications who want a specific number of words (330 – the Guardian, for example) by 10am the following day. Then I maybe take more time over word-choices and selecting what’s most important, but with the loss of some fluency and detail.

What must a theatre critique take into consideration for the perception of the work?

I think that probably depends on both what the critic herself has perceived, and what the work itself is like. I guess it also depends on the reader. When reading other people’s reviews, if I get to the end and they haven’t discussed what it looked like, I can feel like I’m missing something. Equally, I think it’s important for a review to engage as much as possible with a piece of work’s intellectual arguments (which, I’d argue, includes its visual aspect). This is a difficult thing about reviews – they exist in the present (and may work a bit like an advert, if the critic likes the work), but also into the future as possibly the best record of the work that no longer exists to be seen.

At the same time as both of these things, they exist as a part of culture in their own right; arguing with current politics and aesthetics, etc. In short, you have to take everything into consideration. How much of what you’ve considered can usefully make it into the piece varies. I think, even in reviews, there’s a lot of unwritten material lurking between the lines. As with anything, the more of the context for the review you know, the better you will understand it. Stupidly, there’s probably even a whole life’s trajectory being mapped in the ongoing reviews filed by any given critic, and the events taking place in the wider political and cultural climate that surrounds them.

Színház: The National Theatre Festival/s of Great Britain

[written 14/10/15]


I was [recently] sent the following invitation to write a piece about The National Theatre Festival of Great Britain, by the Hungarian theatre magazine Színház.

It was a very reasonable request. They even sent me a very helpful set of things I might want to think about; questions I might want to answer in my piece about the National Theatre Festival of Great Britain. Look:

Is the national theatre festival in Great Britain a showcase of the supposedly “best” shows from all around the country, not only from a region?

We would like to have a critical view on:

How representative is the festival?

What are the selection criteria?

Who are the selectors?

What are its values?

Which aesthetics are preferred by the Festival?

How would you describe it currently? Progressive? Old fashioned?

Are there any conflicts around the festival, and why?

Is it supported by current politics/cultural-politics?

Does it have a serious audience supporting it?

Does it have an international audience?

I imagine it would have been a great piece, but for one small problem: there is no National Theatre Festival of Great Britain. Or England, or Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland separately. I’ve been abroad. I know exactly the sort of festival Színház’s editors meant: Theatertreffen in Germany, Warsaw Theatre Meetings in Poland, the Teaterbiennale in Sweden and so on. So, why don’t we have one in Britain?

The most obvious answer is: British theatres are organised almost entirely differently to those in mainland Europe mentioned above in terms of contracts and ensembles. Almost everywhere else in Europe (it seems), each theatre has a permanent ensemble who are contracted for at least a season at a time and productions are designed to play in rep. In Britain, with painfully few exceptions, companies are assembled on a play-by-play basis. They rehearse, play the show for however many weeks, and then disband. It would be a logistical and economic nightmare to try to reassemble the ten most artistically successful shows of the previous season; it any time; in any city in the UK.

Beyond that, there is also the question of Britain’s prevailing economic/ideological culture. As an Englander, it’s not until you travel outside the UK (and, by extension, the USA; from where we seem to be gradually re-inheriting a lot of economic policies at present) that you realise quite how profoundly based in neoliberal capitalism even our “art” culture is. In Britain, if we have an equivalent to the National Theatre Festival, it is, I suppose, the West End Transfer.

Put in the most positive terms, this means: taking a show that has proved to be enormously popular in a smallish theatre that receives small amounts of state funding (all British theatres, even state “funded” ones receive a significant proportion of their budgets from corporate sponsorship and private donations), and transferring it to a larger, privately owned theatre; often charging a lot more money for tickets. These West End transfers tend to last for 12 weeks in their original form (because it is still difficult to get the entire original cast to commit, due to the fact that they may have prior film or television obligations), although second and third casts are not unheard-of. At best, the West End transfer is a meeting of artistic excellence and popular acclaim. In this trajectory, the next stage is the transfer to Broadway, where I’m given to understand ticket prices are even higher (a seat roughly the same distance from the stage for the same play could plausibly rise from £9 (€12) in previews at the Almeida to $239.25 (£156/€211) for a Friday night on Broadway). One does not have to be a genius to see the less positive aspects of taking art out of a public context and into a private one.

Beyond this, I have a sense – perhaps one which is mirrored by controversies at other National Festivals of Theatre Excellence – that the UK would be quite resistant to this level of top-down organisation in quite such an explicit way. And there’d be yet more grumbling if it was held in London. Or not-in-London. And no one would be able to agree on what should be shown anyway. On balance, with UK theatre in its present fractured and immiserated form, I think we might have had a lucky escape.

Almeida Questions: on naturalism

[recorded 17/12/15]


Before Christmas, I was lucky enough to chair a discussion between Dan Rebellato and David Eldridge, discussing the question: Is naturalism still a viable way to make theatre? I think they’re both absolutely fascinating on the subject.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Songs From The shows!

[Lemsip-fuelled madness]


I sometimes joke that I get out so little the only place I hear new music is in the theatre. This is of course nonsense, I just need to stop listening to Radio 3. And you never really hear new music in the theatre anyway. Nevertheless, here’s my countdown (alphabetically) of my favourite tunes from this year’s theatre!


Clapton, Erich von – Let it Grow, from Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok?



I should have banged on more about just how good and how revolutionary Susanne Kennedy’s production of Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? was in my Best of 2015, but banging on about it here will do. The play follows Herr R. while he has an abiding fixation with a song he’s heard on the radio. He goes into a record shop, asks colleagues, and tunelessly sings a meaningless refrain from the song with – in this production – no real notes at all. Snippets of the song get played until Herr R. has a full-on breakdown and murders his wife and children, at which point the song gets played in its entirety while an old woman dances on stage. It remains perhaps the most theatrically revelatory thing I saw last year, though not because of this. Still, uhrwurm-city for weeks after.


DAF – Der Mussolini, from Die Unverheiratete



Also at Theatertreffen, and probably my favourite stage design of the year, Robert Borgmann’s production of Eward Palmetstoffer’s The Unmarried was superlative in many ways, but few moments beat the bit where the action of the text was broken off for a re-recorded version of this German electro-punk classic from 1981, playing loud under flashing lights chucking of bits of set around. Basically the other half (see previous song) of what we go to Germany for.


Fall, The – Blindness, from Stewart Lee’s A Room With A Stew



Slightly cheating, since it’s play-in/pre-show music, not technically theatre, and possibly only from the Leicester Square gigs, not the Edinburgh ones. But still, seeing and reviewing Stewart Lee’s show in Edinburgh seemed to do Postcards’s reader numbers no end of good (write about things people have heard of and there’s a ready-made audience! Who knew?). And led to my getting to interview him for Exeunt in October, which was nice. The other reason to include a song by The Fall is that they’re probably one of the best bands to ever come out of Manchester, and moving to Manchester in March this year still feels like one of the other best things I did this year.


Hawkwind – Master of the Universe, from The Angry Brigade



Ok, so I haven’t really explained the rules of this game, have I? Basically, it’s my favourite songs/music that were used in theatre productions that I saw this year. In theory I didn’t really get on all that well with The Angry Brigade at the time – although I did like the bit when they played this. That said, it’s worth saying that, along with the other political pieces I mentioned in my Best of 2015 round-up, a lot of the facts and ideas in Angry Brigade really stayed with me. It strikes me that there’s maybe another examination of this to be made by theatre and soon. Maybe by Breach Theatre next time...


Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills, from La Mélancholie des Dragons



So far I’ve been doing a fine job of writing these little commentaries while listening to the songs. That is not possible here. Phillip Quesne’s La Mélancholie des Dragons was a remarkable, tender, fragile, brilliant, beautiful piece of theatre which played in Manchester for all of about three nights thanks to Walter Meierjohann’s remarkable good taste in international imports. The opening of this delicate thing was four blokes listening to heavy metal in a car (on stage) for about ten minutes. This was one of the songs. (The fact it’s a violent dual perspective narrative of British soldiers slaughtering Native Americans didn’t seem to impact on the play.)


New Order – Age of Consent, from The Shrine of Everyday Things



It’s funny, writing this list. Shrine of Everyday Things was *such* a good show. Should probably have been included in Best of 2015 too. It was a kind of site-specific promenade piece around an old estate in Manchester, just by Contact Theatre, which is going to be knocked down (the estate, not Contact). As we walked to the estate we listened to people who had lived there’s memories of the place. This song came on just as we walked into the estate itself, and it really did feel like we’d been shifted back in time. Utterly beautiful.
[Edit: And, Christ! What a video on YouTube! Not the version they used, but great.]


Purcell, Henry – Music For a While, from Adieu



The whole first half(-ish) of Adieu consisted of solo performer Jonathan Capdevielle standing alone on a sparsely lit stage singing snatches of Madonna songs into a microphone. Pretty much note perfectly, but still, it was eerie, disorientating – there would also be long pauses – and almost daring the audience to leave. As the thing mutated and started to cohere into something, at some point he also sang most of this. Also unaccompanied. Also beautifully. And it was somehow the most wrenching, ghostly thing imaginable. And then it segued into Hung Up or even Music. Most arresting use of music award right there.


Ukrainian National Anthem, from Maidan Diaries



Eagle-eyed observers amongst you will have noticed that I go to Eastern Europe more than the average theatre critic. And those of you who know me will know I have a bit of a sentimental spot for a fair few Eastern European National Anthems.

It’s easy to forget, what with all the fun going on in Syria right now, that there’s still basically an unresolved war in Ukraine right now. A war that is so incendiary to European peace that many Eastern European friends were predicting that we’d be at war with Russia by Christmas. Instead, we seem to be fighting a proxy war with Russia through the medium of Syria on the pretext of ISIS, which literally no one understands, least of all the civilian population in Syria. Meanwhile, Ukraine seems to have been split in two, and no one even remembers what the protest in Maidan Square (literally Square Square?) was about anyway.

Anyway, yes, the Ukrainian National Anthem was sung in this piece of verbatim theatre about the Maidan Square protests, and was very moving, even if, at the time, I didn’t know the words or what they meant. Fans of Eastern European National Anthems will spot the similarities to the Polish National Anthem, and consequently Israel’s and Yugoslavia’s. Fans of logic will notice that despite the assertion that their enemies will vanish like dew in the sunlight, there is subsequently a lot of talk of sacrifice. :-/


Bonus track:

Chameleons Vox – Singing Rule Britannia, from (cheating) the Chameleons Live at the Manchester Academy II, 18/12/15



It’s odd, isn’t it? Going to a gig shouldn’t feel quite as alien as it does, but, hell, I’m nearly 40 and I never much liked standing up all night anyway. Still, if you live in Manchester, you have to go to gigs; it’s the rules. And there seem to be more, and more reasonably priced, and more local, and more Relevant To Your Interests. But, yeah, went to this last Friday and it was just amazing. Pretty much all my favourite songs played back-to-back for an hour and a half. Brilliant atmosphere. The nicest audience. Just lovely.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

2015

[including a tiny bit of a think about Best-of lists...]


Entries in reverse chronological order. As close to ten as I could reasonably get it.

La Mélancholie des Dragons – HOME, Manchester

Adieu – BITEF, Novi Sad

The Iliad – BITEF, Belgrade

Lanark – EIF, Edinburgh

Tonight I’m Going to be the New Me – Forest Fringe, Edinburgh

The Encounter – EIF, Edinburgh

The Beanfield – Edinburgh Fringe

Tree of Codes – MIF, Manchester

Skriker – Royal Exchange/EIF, Manchester

hang – Royal Court, London

Oresteia – Almeida, London

Iphigenia in Splott – Sherman, Cardiff

Warum lauft Herr R. amok – Theatertreffen, Berlin

Carmen Disruption – Almeida, London


End-of-the-year Best-of lists are daft, aren’t they? (Maybe individual ones more so than voted-for ones, those I find fascinating) I mean, what kind of criterion is “Best”? What does it mean? And, if you’ve been reading my reviews, wouldn’t you know all the above anyway?

In the above list, “Best” means all sorts of things. There are things there that are “Best” because I found them incredibly moving, but there are also things there that I didn’t find even remotely moving. There are things that completely changed my idea of how theatre works best, or what it can do, and things which didn’t really surprise me in that way at all. There are a couple of things that while I was watching them I wouldn’t have thought would have made it onto my Best of 2015 list, but which haven’t left me alone since, coming back as a reference point for all subsequent work. Is the compilation of a Best-of list really about “Best”ness or about politics and canonisation? (Yes, yes it is.) Or is it about a genuine emotional or intellectual response to Things Seen In An Artform Over One Year (ok, yes, it’s that too).

When I stepped out of Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Measure For Measure at the Young Vic, I was certain it would be on the list, but for some reason, in the cold light of day, it’s currently been pushed off. (Although already it’s starting to creep back.) But I do wonder if it doesn’t deserve to be on the list anyway for offering one of the biggest headrushy, gut-reaction shows of the year.

Similarly, for the number of times I’ve referred to it since I saw it, Rob Icke’s production of The Fever (at the May Fair Hotel for the Almeida) surely deserves a place, but that would make it the third Almeida show and the second Rob Icke show, and it’s so hard to compare The Fever with, say, Tree of Codes in terms of Bestness that we might as well give up on the idea altogether.

If I was more intellectually honest (or adventurous), or more politically-minded, I think added to the two BITEF shows already mentioned should be: Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as Brecht’s Learning PlayThe Discreet Charm of MarxismThe Death of Ivan IlychOnly one of which I even really enjoyed watching at the time, but all three of which made me think about politics, and theatre, and theatre & politics, more than anything else I’ve seen for some considerable time. Indeed, as you can see from the list, apart from a bit of radically joyous vintage French fluff (La Mélancholie des Dragons premièred in 2008), the stuff I saw at BITEF kinda made made everything I saw after it for quite a while feel pretty flimsy by comparison. But also, who can account for moods, anyway? I do wonder if the running order in which I saw plays were reversed, would BITEF (now in April) have cast the same shadow across the Edinburgh and Manchester international Festivals (now in April and May respectively) as it did across this autumns already slim pickings?

Internationally, also close to the list were Young Stalin from the Warsaw Drama Theatre, seen in Slovakia, Romeo Castellucci’s Doktor Faustus at the Malta Festival, Poznań, Roar, China! – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw, and TWO different versions of Agota Kristóf’s A Nagy Fuzet / The Notebook.

Bloody close to inclusion were Seeping Through at Forest Fringe and Blood Wedding by Graeae at the Liverpool Everyman.  And, if shows could get in on set design alone, I think Robert Borgmann’s Bergtheater production of Die Unverheiratete, which I saw twice – in Berlin and Bratislava – would definitely have been top five.

I also very much liked Hamlet is Dead, Fat Man, Anna Karenina, Work, A Doll’s House, Velveteen Rabbit (late, I know), Violence and Son, Lemonsx5, and Some People Talk About Violence. I also thought, when I’d just seen them, that Untouchable and Kingsize, both at the Royal Opera House, would have been dead certs for the Best of list. And I saw Quizoola again, this time at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh rather than on the internet. And I still love it, but it’s been on two Best Of lists since 2012 already, and this one was “only” six hours long.

I do wonder, looking at what did get onto the list and what didn't quite, if you could make some sort of map of my mental priorities for theatre, although unless you'd been in my head while I was watching them and since, I'm not sure how accurate it’d be.  Unexpectedly, I'd say the thing that unites most items in in the Best list is a kind of hallucinatory, light-headedness during watching, a lasting visual impression, a sense of something changed inside, and a violent emotional response by the end (not all, but most).  Which is maybe a bit unfair on theatre that performs more normal functions, but, hell, why not demand the impossible from this strangest of mediums?


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Some answers...

[written 27/09/15]


 Occasionally I get sent these sorts of interview questionnaires. This is one I filled in for an online magazine in September.It never really occurs to ask myself these sorts of questions, so I often find the answers I give quite interesting about myself. Anyway, in the spirit of my ongoing end-of-year clear out/tidy up, here it is.

When did you start writing a blog and what do you wish you’d known then?

July 2007. And, if you want a really boring/honest answer, I wish I’d known that Wordpress was going to get infinitely better than Blogger. Also; if I’d known it was going to last eight years (and counting), and would start getting quoted on posters and in my biogs, then I’d have chosen a name a bit less daft than Postcards From The Gods.

Which other theatre blogs do you read?

Meg Vaughan. Maddy Costa. Holger Syme. Miriam Gillinson. I know Exeunt isn’t a blog, but that. And a lot of the new stuff that The Stage is doing should also get a very big cheer indeed. When Dan Rebellato writes something, that’s invariably brilliant too.

What’s also great about the (awful phrase) “theatre blogosphere” is that as people move on (farewell, Dan Hutton), brilliant new voices seem to pop up to replace them. Kate Wyver and Ben Kulvichit are new this year, and Andrew Latimer in Newcastle and Dave (Murray) in Manchester are new to me...

[edit: annd since I originally wrote this, Simon Bowes! Bloody hell, Simon Bowes!]

How much of your time do you spend on blogging?

Between “professional” reviews, chapters for books (on theatre), articles for magazines (paid or otherwise, UK or foreign) and the blog, that’s pretty much what I do with my time. I don’t really draw a distinction between those various parts, except for maybe trying to observe the niceties of someone else’s house-style when I know I’ll get asked for re-write if I don’t. But, yeah; really it’s all one project, just spread across as many platforms as I get invited onto. Hopefully it all adds up to something coherent in the end.

Have you turned your blog into a profitable business or do you write it just for fun?

No. [Horrible phrase. Ghastly idea.] The blog itself makes no money, but it’s been quite useful for opening other doors. I’m not sure that I do it “for fun” though; that makes it sound frivolous. I treat it *as work* and I’m quite serious about it. Most of the work I review is pretty serious; I try to respond to it seriously. That feels like the very least I can do, given the amount of space I’ve got. But, because it’s not professional, I do occasionally write things to amuse myself too. Those things invariably get about five times as many readers as lengthy analyses of Slovenian politcal theatre do.

What advice can you offer someone who is thinking of starting a theatre blog?

Give it a nice, sensible, neutral-sounding title. Theatre Today or something. Then you’ll sound cool and authoritative. You’ll get quoted on posters and won’t wince when you’re introduced at panel discussions.

And, as general advice: always be completely honest. Don’t try to second guess an audience or try to have an opinion that pleases them. You’re only any use at all if you’re just completely upfront about everything you think. On the plus side: you’ve got years. There’s no rush. You’ve got all the space and time you want. The only thing you need to worry about is being interesting enough to keep people reading. Also, it’s probably best not to go into writing about theatre because you want to make a lot of money because you won’t. I reviewed for seven or eight years for free tickets alone while working a succession of variably dull day-jobs and even that felt like a brilliant trade-off. Get involved in A Younger Theatre if you’re young enough too. They’re a brilliant organisation. I wish to God they’d been around when I was little. Noises Off at the NSDF (which did get me started) is still running, and is invaluable too, I think.

Which show is your guilty pleasure?

Oh, God, I dunno. The History Boys? War Horse? After the Dance (Sharrock/Rattigan, NT, 2010)?
I don’t really like the term, but sadly I fall right into it.

If you could have dinner with any actor, living or dead, which would you choose and why?

Probably a living one. Less likely to put you off the food.

The use of mobile phones in theatres has become a major problem...

No it hasn’t (at least not in my experience). Occasionally one goes off and that’s a bit annoying. The tutting and hrumphing that comes after it seems to go on much longer and is probably louder and more distracting. Self-righteous indignation is usually more annoying than an accident.

How do you propose we tackle the issue?

Switching them off seems to stop them ringing.

No, but seriously, I like Relaxed Performances [see also Extra-Live]. I tend to think all performances should be relaxed. If you go to the theatre to, I dunno, celebrate our shared humanity, or something, but can’t cope with the person sitting next to you, then, well, what’s the point? People kinda need to chill the fuck out a bit. But, that goes both ways. I mean, love your fellow man and all that, but, hey, fellow man, don’t wave the bright thing with the shining screen around when we’re all sitting in the dark for a reason, yeah?

Which performers do you think will head the Olivier nominations for 2016?

God, I don’t know. The year’s only halfway through, and I can never remember what’s eligible and what’s not anyway. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine. They are the Society of London Theatre Awards. They should always be referred to as such. I think more than half the stuff I’ve seen this year isn’t eligible (because abroad, or outside London, or during the Edinburgh Festivals, or in the wrong theatres in London, etc. etc...). Bloody silly criteria for the Oliviers, really.

 – FIN –

[as we can see, maybe a bit of a mismatch of agendas there, but interesting to write nonetheless. Interesting too, to feel myself gradually becoming the patrician death-eater I’m predestined to be...]

 “cover” image: detail from Levittown Variation I (2013) by Richard Forster

Monday, 14 December 2015

2014

[what’s a year between friends?]


Ok, so, everyone’s sticking up their Best of 2015 lists. I’m a bit behind, and I’ve still got at least five shows to see before the year finishes, any or all of which could be better than other things I’ve seen this year so far.

But, because everyone loves lists, and because I never got round to posting this last year, I thought now’s as good a time as any to stick up The(/My) Best of 2014.

The rules are: I’ve tried to keep it as close to ten as possible, the ranking is strictly chronological, the double/joint entries are generally linked in my mind by proximity (temporal, geographical, or stylistic) and indecision.

Body of an American / Don Quijote

In der Republik des Glücks

A View From the Bridge

King Charles III

Road

Nothing

CRIME

Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland

Men in the Cities

Confirmation

Show Five

This is How We Die

Spine

Pomona


Should also be on the list:

Teh Internets / Adler and Gibb / Idomeneus

Speak Bitterness / And on the Thousandth Night


What’s fascinating, looking back on this “2014” list, is how many of these shows I’ve either seen again, or could have seen again this year: of the main list, only Body of an American, Ali Pidlsey’s Road, CRIME and Spine (that I’m aware of) weren’t revived/still in rep. *somewhere* this year (and, for some people who saw them for the first time this year, were probably some of the best things they saw in 2015).

So, yes; see you again in about two weeks for THE BEST OF 2015!!!

Friday, 11 December 2015

What if...?

[expanded from this report on NachtKritik.de]


What if one of Europe’s leading theatre directors turns out to measure about 99.9/100 on the Trump Scale?

Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has terminated his contract with the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg because he doesn’t like the theatre’s pro-refugee stance.

Let’s just take a minute to absorb that.

He is not in favour of a theatre being pro-entry for refugees.

In the original statement from the Thalia, he is quoted as having said: “The German enthusiasm to open the borders for refugees would be extremely dangerous for the whole of Europe, because among them are terrorists.

“Simultaneous support of terrorists and the Parisian victims is not possible. While not all refugees are terrorists, all terrorists are refugees or their children. The attacks in Paris show that we are in the middle of a war. In any war we must choose a side, the Thalia Theater and I are on opposite sides. The days of political correctness are over.”

In a subsequent clarification, he issued his own statement:

“I asked to cancel my production in Hamburg Because of the very private reasons. I am currently working in Paris and living in exactly the same part of the city where the massacre happened. Everyday life here feels like in Israel. Permanent paranoia. Even worse because the Paris Jewish community are the first who are abandoning this city. Everywhere we are surrounded with a threat and fear. We all are traumatized here after what happened two weeks ago.

“I am a father of seven children and I am not ready to work in another potentially dangerous town. As we know, the people who participated in 9/11 came from Hamburg. We know that even the German government changed the refugee politics after Paris tragedy. So the price paid to finally admit the connection between emigration policy and terrorism was the death of 132 young people in Paris.

“Is the silent taboo in Germany to connect emigration policy and terrorism?

“After speaking with a people from Thalia Theater I understood that they are not open to different opinions. They are identifying themselves with a refugee-welcome centre. No, I do not want to participate in this. Can I afford to have my own choice and my own opinions? What about democracy?

“I do not think did my political opinions are more radical then Those which are shared by a majority of Europeans. We do not support this enthusiasm to open the EU borders for uncontrolled emigration. Especially in Eastern Europe we do not understand this euphoria. Do you really think that 40 million citizens of Poland, For Example, are neo-Nazis and racists?*”


It’s so startlingly stupid and wrong, that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin.

Of course, that faint plea to the principles of democracy and free speech – that he should also be allowed to have his views (despite it being him who has walked out on the Thalia because of theirs) – does briefly sound worrying. Like, maybe theatre’s should also be putting on anti-refugee screeds in order to better represent the interests of ignorant fascists. (5 million Poles can’t be wrong!)

It is a welcome wake-up call, though, to those within theatre (particularly here) who believe that theatre, simply by virtue of it being theatre, is an ineffable good in and of itself. Or that a *particular style of theatre* will be beyond reproach. Hermanis’s work is reputedly excellent. The one piece I’ve seen (Sonja in Riga, 2008 – no review, annoyingly) was indeed beautifully made (even if I do remember having vague reservations about a possible overly cruel, bullying sense of humour that seemed to lurk at the outermost margins). And his work spans a range from detailed theatrical naturalism (cf. Sonja) to full-on postmodern regietheater. So there’s no hiding in any of that for anyone.

It’s fascinating to see the Thalia at the centre of this storm. I saw the theatre’s most famous, direct, successful engagement with Europe’s refugee crisis, Die Schutzbefohlenen, at Theatertreffen this year, and, discussing it with Annegret Maerten, Meg Vaughan and Theresa Gindlstrasser for the Theatertreffen podcast, I remember us worrying that the production might still come across as *a bit racist* (even if impeccably well-intentioned). Hermanis level of ignorance and prejudice absolutely blows that kind of fretting out of the water (wrongly. We should still think about the micro-level, even while some dick reminds us of what the macro-level looks like).

I don’t really know what sort of conclusion one can hope for in a piece like this. I like to hope that a vast majority of people understand and subscribe to the You ain’t no Muslim, Bruv school of thinking – that you can’t associate the actions of a few violent psychopaths with whatever school of thought to which they happen to ascribe their actions. I would have liked to have hoped that this was a minimum understanding of humanity for a theatre director. But apparently not. Bleak.


*In fact, the population of Poland is 38.3million, of whom only 5,711,687 voted for the amusingly acronymed Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party. Sadly, this did consitute 37.58% of the vote, and gained PiS an overall majority in Poland’s recent general election. Are their voters neo-Nazis and racists? Possibly not *all* of them, there are further-right parties/gangs for the *really* hardcore fascists, but they’re pretty right-wing: imagine UKIP underpinned not by a buffoon in the pub, but by hardline Catholic views on LGBT issues, abortion, etc. All my Polish friends without exception (all of them theatremakers) are appalled beyond words by the result. (See also: far-right Hungary, which has just deteriorated further and further since I wrote that report in 2011.)

[cover photo, Hermanis’s previous Thalia production, Late Neighbours. From stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The irony.]

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Ali McDowall Interview: writing Pomona

[written for the programme of Pomona at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester]


So, what the hell is it all about?

I’d been obsessed with Pomona for ages. You go from Manchester City Centre to Salford Quays – which are now these two steel and glass places – and in the middle there’s just this inexplicable wasteland. I was particularly interested in it at night. Because there are no street lights there, when you go past it, it just looks like this blank – like someone forgot to fill the rest of the map in. There’s just this hole.

A few years previously I’d driven back from Newcastle very late. I was on the M60 when there was no one on it. It was three in the morning and I missed my exit, so I had to keep going round. And there was this odd sensation that you could just stop the car and stand in the middle of a road... Just to keep myself awake I started having conversations with this imaginary guy who operated out of his car. I just thought there was something fun and interesting about that.

I’ve also got a lot of anxiety problems and it seems to me like I’m living in the best possible time for anxiety. Like, there is the most fuel for my anxiety imaginable. Everything is jittery and the internet is... You don’t have to look at anything for more than five seconds... You can just click, click, click, click, click... Everything is just bite-size and everything is just going in and going in and going in...

So, I had all these elements that I didn’t quite know what to do with and they gradually began to coalesce.

I wrote Pomona straight after I wrote a big three act history play – a murder mystery, which hasn’t been staged yet – and to help me get through that I thought “the next thing I’m going to write this really free-associative thing where I’m going to plan it very little and just allow all the elements to just spiral off each other and be more impulsive.”

As things started slotting into place, I realised there was this big plot going on and there were all these characters who just started emerging who were all circling this spot in the middle of the city – as the M60 was circling the city. My model for that was partly the film Chinatown. In Chinatown they also don’t go to Chinatown until the end, but it also forms this kind of greater metaphor for the whole.

How did the Cthulhu figure from HP Lovecraft get in?

While the play didn’t end up as free-associative as I’d intended it to be, I did try to leave space for things to happen in the writing of it to surprise me. This was a play where I was just going to allow the background noise to seep into the foreground. And the HP Lovecraft references turned up because they operated on a similar frequency to the rest of the material. And because I’d been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

I didn’t know the ending when I was writing it either. Which was weird. Normally I’ll have the beginning and the ending, and the middle will gradually bubble, but this time I had everything except the end. I had characters, and *they* knew what was going on. Or they seemed to. And as it went down underground it became clearer and clearer what was going on down there.

And that was a surprise to you?

It was. It was a weird surprise. Like when you find your keys. It’s like, oh, they’re there. Of course they’re there.

By the time I’d gotten to that point a huge amount of the play had revealed itself to be about consumerism, and capitalism, and people buying things and selling things basically, and how we operate when *everything* is globalised. When every product we buy is available in every country in the world.

Even though that stuff is not on the surface all the time, it dictates how the characters relate to each other. It’s not a coincidence that the scene audiences seem to really connect with is the scene where two people actually do connect with each other – where Mo talks to Faye; when he goes to visit her in the brothel – that’s pretty much the only scene where two people directly connect to each other truthfully. And that’s the scene where he’s paid to be in her presence.

I remember the sensation watching the play was like this incredibly fast helter skelter or a spiral or something... And then there’s something mobius-strip-like about it...

It kinda loops back on itself by the end, yeah.

And there’s no way in linear space, or time, or whatever, that it’s possible. Is that right?

It depends how you’re reading it as well. Some people who’ve talked to me about it are convinced that the whole thing is a game – like we are just watching that game he’s creating in the middle of the play. And some people are convinced about whether or not she has a sister is just psychosis. And then some people are just totally convinced that she does have a sister. So.

I have my own explanations for everything. But, those are like the least interesting explanations ever. Like, I wouldn’t want someone to actually explain Mulholland Drive to me.

I was just about to say Mulholland Drive. Is it the blueprint for this kind of story?

Absolutely, yeah. Anyone who’s doing anything like that with narrative... But what’s so weird about Lynch is that he’s so resolutely American. His films are just drenched in a particularly fifties Norman Rockwell kind of America...

But what’s interesting about Lynch’s films, and I guess about Pomona as well, is that there’s a real commitment to Story. It’s not like A Vague Thing Vaguely Happening In A Universe of Vague Things.

No it’s not. It’s different though, because Lynch seems to write more like dream-logic which I could never do. I mean, he’s a true artist, that guy. Pomona was written in the order you see it. I didn’t muck around with it. I knew exactly when things were coming. I knew exactly what was happening when. Even though in the initial writing of it, I didn’t know the precise nature of what was going to happen at the end.

Even thought the initial impulse was to write something really impulsive and free, it’s actually one of the most aggressively structured and plotted things I’ve ever made.

The nature of its structure makes you second guess yourself and break everything at every turn. Recently with my writing I’ve been thinking it’s far more interesting to just explain as little as possible; to deliberately leave as much space in there for the audience as possible.

Does that way of telling a story have a meaning in itself for you?

It’s symptomatic of the fact that life doesn’t generally feel naturalistic to me. Everything feels like black and white and technicolor at the same time. And everything feels like quiet and loud. And everything feels like it’s got like completely weird competing beats and rhythms to it. So if I want to write about human behaviour, or the way I see things, or or whatever I want to write about, I get to a certain point where I need to not be as rigidly in reality any more. My recent shift away from linear narrative is a reaction to that as well. It’s part and parcel of the same thing.

By the end of your day, you can make sense of your day by going, “I got up, I ate, and then I did this, and then I did this, and I did this” But, actually, when you just allow the memories and things to buzz around in your head, certain things will take prominence, and certain things will fall away, and certain things will mesh over and and blend and muddle about.

In Pomona the big shift – my way in to write that feeling – was “Ok, I’m going to write about a city.” It’s not about Manchester, it’s not about London, it’s just about A City. It’s what it feels like to be in a city. If I’m going to do that then the form has to be the form of a city and the way I thought about doing that was if you walk down a shopping street, like Market Street here, or Oxford Street in London, you’re like hearing about fifty conversations that are streaming past you, if you really open your ears. And you’re seeing all the everything at once and you’re walking past shops that are playing like, I don’t know about shops, but, like chart music, and that place plays jazz, and that place plays whatever, and everything is just really just busy and chaotic, but because of how we’re able to live we can find a kind of clarity through it. And that’s what I wanted the play to feel like.

That was the real thing about writing it. When people ask: “why can’t it be in the right order?” And “why can’t it be this?” It’s like: *because*. It would be dishonest, if I’m writing a play about a city, for the form not to be a city. The play had to be city. Every scene has a different kind of architecture. I really had to think carefully about that in order to faithfully recreate what it was like in my head, you know...

Interview: Sibylle Berg

 [written for Exeunt]


Ok, so...

Historically I haven’t really done a lot of interviews. Part of the reason is that they’re extremely time-consuming. An hour of conversation can cover ten pages of Word no problem. Typing it up takes *hours*. And then there’s the fact that the accepted convention for feature interviews in mainstream media is highly editorialised. All the power lies with the “interviewer”, because they go away with the tape of the conversation and then create a narrative around it: the writer gets to describe their subject, to refer to other pieces of information about their subject taken from the internet that were never mentioned in the room, and so on and so on... Viewed charitably, this is just to make the piece easily digestible, and to add a sense of what it was like to actually talk to the person. So often, though, it resorts to clichés about actresses wafting into rooms and everyone turning to stare at their perfect skin and blah, blah, bullshit blah. The general format for any mainstream media interview is, I think, predicated on those weird merry-go-round interviews that film stars do 20 of in a day in a hotel suite. Stretching out 15 minutes of bland, repetitive material over 1,000-2,000 words. Theatre people seem happy to offer more time, and are maybe prepared to say more, or more that they are prepared to put out there in the public sphere. (The extent to which even very successful actors self-censor is both fascinating and scary.)

My project when doing interviews has been, wherever possible, to be as honest about the process and to the conversation that took place as space and likely interest will allow. Very few people actually speak in perfect grammatical sentences. Most people have a “like” or a “y’know” or an “I think” that they use to slow down words and give themselves time to think. It doesn’t make people stupid to leave these in, it makes them sound human.

At the same time, the dynamic of the interview is really weird. On one hand, as often as not, you meet a perfect stranger and ask them intrusive questions. You’re like a drunk bloke on a bus trying to start a conversation. You’re an annoying barber asking about the weekend. On the other hand, they know you’re coming, and will have been interviewed a hundred times before.

All of which is preamble to excusing the amount I’ve got to interpolate and explain this forthcoming piece. Sibylle Berg is a German novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, little known in Britain, but directed by Sebastian Nübling at the Gorki in Berlin (which gives you some idea of the disparity). Her English is excellent, but non-native, and I’ve left that, as I think it reads more honestly. What you really have to understand, though, is that she’s mostly joking.

So, do you want to talk about this play?

[beat] No?

Ok. You started as a novelist...

A hundred years ago...

And then also started writing plays...

I think the first book – maybe it’s boring – the first book came out in ‘95, I think? Until now I have sixteen or seventeen novels. Twelve years ago – because unfortunately I can’t make a living just from the books – I think, ‘What else can I do?’ I love theatre, but I get bored most of the time in theatres; so I think, ‘I have to try and do it better...’ So that is why I started [writing plays].

Did you have any literary inspirations in the theatre?

Yes! Not from the words side, but I don’t know if you know Alain Platel? This was my theatre awakening. For ten years [I saw] all this German classic theatre bullshit... Die Rauber... / Bleugh...

/Poor old Schiller...

/And then I saw this Platel and think I go mad, and I thought, ‘Aha! This is how theatre can be!’ The same time, the same year as this, I saw Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter, and these two pieces gave me hope. I thought, ‘Ok, you can do something wild in the theatre.’ So I started with a really wild thing. Helges Leben [2001]. I think it’s translated into English, but the translation is bullshit.

[some discussion of the play and translation]

Well, you can hear my English is okay, but I can’t really say if something is a good translation. For example, Nils, my theatre agent, he is also a translator, and I think it’s hard to catch the humour...

[some talk about cultural difference]

So that is why I don’t have success in the UK!

Well, Elfriede Jelinek has no success here...

She doesn’t? [pauses to think] But then she’s not funny...

[laughs]

Well, no, she is funny...

I had also a bad experience here with a book. It was a bestseller in the German speaking world and the Queer scene love it. It’s about a hermaphrodite... And then I had an agent here and he just gets all the publishers saying no. I think maybe – really – it’s because you have your own people here.

We are bad at selling/buying “foreign” authors.

[Agent: talks about difficulty of selling work by foreign playwrights to English theatres]

I think that’s not so... I mean, the Brits have quite brilliant writers. So maybe they don’t need others. I don’t know.

[Agent: but the Germans have brilliant writers and the French have brilliant writers and the Argentians have brilliant writers, but they still bring others...]

But the German [writers] are boring.

A lot of our writers are boring, too...

I don’t know any Argentinian writers. The French they have Houellebecq, but who else a little bit funny, a little bit modern? In Germany it’s the same, what do you have there? I mean, Elfriede’s quite funny in the theatre, but the books... oof.

They are quite heavy.


And then you have all this German [thing of]: “My grandfather was in the Waffen SS...” I mean, really boring shit...

Maybe that’s another thing that happens in Britain. That we perhaps have pre-prepared narratives for German writers. If you write about how it was very sad in the DDR, great start; if you write about the terrible things the Nazis did, we’ve got all the time in the world for German books about that. Normal life in modern Germany? I don’t think many British people see that it’s relevant.

Although maybe now people are more interested in the/a perspective from the New Europe. I mean, you’re Swiss now, aren’t you?

I’m a good Jewish Swiss now, ja.

You were granted Swiss citizenship in 2012. Does that affect things? The perspective from which you write?

No. It only makes me happy not to be in Germany. I haven’t made it to LA, so I sit there...

Is that serious, or er...

It’s serious, ja.

You want to go to L.A.?

Yes, but I need a fucking bestseller for this.

That’s interesting. You want to write novels for the Americans?

America is completely another story. A friend of mine is in Rammstein – I don’t know if you know them [I do] – and they tried for ten years to go to America. Now they’ve made it in America, but it takes them ten years. Oof. That is hard, and I’m too old for this bullshit. I must stay in fucking Switzerland.

Switzerland’s very...

Cute. [spits word]

It’s very clean.

[laughs]

And the trains run on time...

Yes, ok. But they piss me off a little bit now. They are all over the right-wing, they’ve gone a little bit more right wing now. And you think WHY? You have no problems here. You have money. What reason is there to vote right-wing?

You feel that, even in Switzerland (which is outside the EU)? That Europe is becoming more right-wing?

Sure. The whole society is becoming more right-wing and angst[y]. And you think, What? You all have to die. What’s this angst? They’re all loaded with money and they have this angst. This is so all over Europe. The Germans go completely nuts. Angst! ANGST!

You’re writing about young people, now.

This was not actually my idea. Nübling, the director, suggested we should work together... I don’t know if you know the German theatre scene: we have Pollesch, he is funny, and then from the directing side we have Nübling and he works mostly with youngsters and he’s really oof! Anyway, he has the idea to do something with young women, and I say, ‘Ok, let’s do something with young women.’ So before I write this play I meet a couple of young girls – the actresses [in the Gorki production] – and talked with them, and I realised that they are the same like in my time. Nothing has changed. Ok they have iPhones now. Big deal. But all their problems are the same. They are young and they think the know everything better. But they do all this body torture bullshit. For women especially; this ‘how you have to look’ – the way you are comparing yourself with some Kardashians and bullshit – this is a little bit heavier than in my time.

Did living in the DDR have no impact? Being a young woman in East Germany then is essentially the same as being a young woman in United Germany now?

No. Well. There are differences. Ok. First difference is that I never see myself as a “young woman”. That was not really a thing. There was complete equality. There was nothing where I think, ‘Oh, I can’t be a cosmonaut’ or whatever. More, in the other direction, as a woman you felt a little bit stronger, because most of the men you saw in the daily life were alcoholics. [laughs] It was actually the women who ruled everything in the East. Another difference, but I’m not sure it’s to do with the East, is all this what you have today, this: “I have ADHD,” or... They all have sicknesses today.

Hmm.

You are aspergers or you are this and... If you are complicated you are complicated and if you are sad you are sad. You’re not depressive. This bullshit didn’t exist...

[I don’t agree with this, for the record. Something else I realise during this interview, is that it’s not really my job to change an interviewee’s mind. Also, that I’m not wholly convinced, had we been speaking in German, the above would have come out the way it does in English here, but maybe it’s a generational thing. Perhaps erasing it from the transcript would be better? I don’t know.]

But it’s nothing to do with being a young woman. Also the system was very hopeless. I grow up and I thought, I have to stay here for the rest of my life? It’s fucking boring.

It’s interesting because in the West we had this story about what living in the East was like sold to us over and over, about the terrible fear you all lived in...

No. It is bullshit. They get drunk like all over, the fuck like all over. We listen to the same music, in a way... It was only a little bit more... Fuck! There’s the wall and you are here.

So you prefer united Europe?

I think it’s going to the dogs. I think this European idea was complete bullshit. I don’t know if my English is good enough to answer. But you know it for yourself. This capitalism... The same [currency] and we do it only to sell our products to all over without borders. It’s bullshit. I think the Europeans before, they felt like Europeans, you don’t need all this bullshit and all these laws from Bruxelles, I think it can’t work. And now you see with all this refugee bullshit how it goes kaput.

…?

But I’m really too stupid to understand all the details. Every day now I think ‘I don’t know enough’ about this refugee situation. I don’t know who in Syria? What? Where? Who’s really behind all this bullshit. Every day I feel a little bit more stupid. But I think I share this feeling with everyone.

I don’t know how it is here, but it feels like there is a “they”. But who are “they”? “They” keep the humans busy with hating each other... It’s a little bit like Nazi times, they make them hate the foreigners, and hate the homosexuals, but the real people to hate are there sitting in Nestlé or...

So, I give up. I’m too stupid. What I do is stupid.

Really?

Yeah. A little bit. I have the feeling it’s not really important. Stupid little plays. You know?

[Agent: connects the above to both the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the feeling of information overload also present in And Now: The World!]

I am on my computer, online 24 hours. I don’t know why, but I get bored if I’m not connected. They make us... They? “THEY” make us addicted to this bullshit!

What sort of things are you watching/reading
?

Actually all day I have the TV on. I have seven TVs.

REALLY?

Yes really! They cost nothing any more, so... I have two flats and in every room I have them on, so they talk, and I have the computers. So, I am a little bit...

And you write with all that going on in the background?

Absolutely. I don’t listen to music I just... You have all this information now, but your life didn’t change. I don’t know, maybe your life changed. But really we just live our normal life still, but we feel some pressure, some new electricity, but where’s the problem actually? And you have to work more. This I realised. I thought as I get older in the German speaking area I’m quite comfortable, but the generation above – Elfriede, Haneke – they live quite well now. I live *good* but I thought I could work less when I get older. But I work three times more and have the same money. So this is maybe... Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis.

Although moving to Switzerland... I mean, it’s expensive there...

Yeah. This was bullshit actually. I could live in Ukraine in a palace. How is the life here?

I think it’s got much worse for people recently. It’s a catastrophe.

Yes. I should move to Poland. Poland has a nice government now...

[laughs]

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make that joke work on paper. Right-wing playwright Sibylle Berg said...

This could be my success. This could be my way to Benedict Cumberbatch...

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch, have you seen any theatre since you’ve been in London?

I look in the internet to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, and I was like ‘What the hell are they doing here? It’s like theatre in Germany fifty years ago. There was a table, and some old fucker. He plays Churchill. I think he plays Churchill [pause] But they speak nicely. But who the fuck would watch these kind of plays?

Oh, everybody. Everybody does.

But now he plays some Shakespeare bullshit? And they transmit it all over the world in cinemas? That is fame! This is what I want.

That’s true. Yes. If you get Benedict Cumberbatch in one of your plays...

And this little girl from Game of Thrones. I want her. The little one with the sword. I want her and Benedict.

[cackles] You should write it! Obviously it’ll have to be done in the Gorki Theater and directed by Sebastian Nübling first...

No. I have this nice play, you must read it. It’s a monologue for a man. An angry man. I don’t know if you have them, but in Germany you have all this Pergida, and it’s this middle-class, middle-aged men and they are so ANGRY, and you ask why they are so ANGRY, so I wrote this. It’s a fucking good play. Really. That’s for Benedict, I think.

I’m not sure how I’m going to make this joke fly in a written interview.

I’m not so serious.

It’s my big problem in Germany. They don’t know really where to put me.

That must be true.

They go mad. Most of these men... Middle-aged men hate me. Really, Hass, Hass. I don’t know why, I’m cute. And in the theatre before the Nübling – I start now for the first time to direct by myself – I don’t know, it was a disappointment. But, er, they don’t know what to do with me. They seem that the German humour is something, I don’t know, so they put the jokes, they put some funny hats and found it funny. Or the take the set apart... I don’t know.

But that is diffcult isn’t it? Because the whole German *thing* could be characterised as being very serious/ and straight-forward.

/Fucking serious.

/And it hadn’t struck me about you, but maybe saying something and not meaning it, in that context...

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Jewish thing, or maybe it’s the... I don’t know. But I realised from the beginning that they take everything so seriously and half of my stuff is jokes. They hate me for this. I don’t know about over here, but now in Germany they are all making political theatre.

The second part of this play [this play = And now: The World! Second part = Und dann kam Mirna] – I think the idea is me and Nübling, we do it now until we die, until the end of our lives, we make every play with these four girls – the second part of this play is fucking funny. (In Germany it’s four girls playing the protagonist.) And in this one they have a ten-year-old. Really funny. In the Gorki again. And the first review I read was all, “Ja, it is nice, but aren’t there more important subjects at the moment?”

ENDS

This is the 900th piece on Postcards From The Gods. Christ.