Monday, 8 September 2014

On criticism – killing cattle


I’ve been reading Catherine Love’s M.A. Thesis. It is about the theatre criticism and Royal Court, and, frankly, it’s such a clear-sighted, well-argued piece of work that I think it should be published by the Court immediately as an ongoing challenge to itself. I certainly think copies should be widely distributed to both everyone in the Court and everybody practising as a critic.

I won’t spoiler the work here, but it has raised a couple of questions for me relating to my own practice. One question had already been articulated somewhere else – perhaps in Alex Swift and Chris Goode’s recent must-listen conversation, and it’s the sacred cow that criticism should: “approach work on its own terms”.

The second point is where Love describes the endgame of Michael Billington’s critical practice in which he looks for a play’s “thesis” solely in the script of the play. This relates to the above point about “own-terms-only approaches”.

There is also the Tynan quote: “a good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.” Which sets up an incompatibility between “greatness” and “approaching work on its own terms”.

I’m interested in reminding myself, at the start of the new term, not to fall into the trap of accepting work on its own terms, but investigating what those terms are. It’s silly to go to the end – as Žižek puts it – and use an extreme example, but if a play really wanted to be a recruiting tool for Britain First or the EDL, then the more it succeeded on its own terms the more I would despise it. So, yes, criticism can and should be partisan about terms, be they political or aesthetic. Which might well turn out to amount to the same thing.

This leads on neatly to the second point about looking for a thesis only in the script of a play. Love’s essay articulates this much better than I could, but she also quotes Chris Goode’s excellent essay on the question from late 2007, All you get is sensory titillation, which still serves as a useful marker of the problems with approaching *any* piece of theatre while thinking of it as a single-authored piece (or if it’s explicitly something that’s not that, then approaching it as something already-problematic).

I think I’ve got much better at talking about productions in terms of their myriad parts (direction, design, other designs, text, performances ), and at acknowledging how and where these various parts meet, or how they can be attributed, is slippery beyond usefulness. But I do still often slip into shorthands of discussing “script” (as in, the typed thing) at a slight remove from “text” (which might more rightly be seen as *everything* that’s shown on the stage – i.e. if I were doing my job properly, I’d *read* the production, not “the production *and* the script”).

Then there’s the question of context, about which I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations in the last few days. This also sort of relates back (again) to the question of judging work on its own terms. Except in this case, it’s a matter of when – or to what extent – one can even know what those terms are.

As I wrote in my piece about The Vile Blog, there’s often a general feeling that “critics should get out of London more”. (I don’t think I could get out of London any more than I have this year: I haven’t lived there since January. Nonetheless, I still visit it to see theatre with some regularity. More regularity than, say: Bristol (0), Birmingham (2?), Manchester (1), Leeds (0), Newcastle (0) and so on. (Possibly less regularity than Germany, though; almost certainly less regularity than “Europe”)). But I still understand the point – that London, as well as having a disproportionate amount of population and theatres, has an even greater disproportion of critics and reviews-of-shows.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if more London-based critics paying flying visits to other towns and cities is really the best approach. And that’s to do with context.

A German friend sent me an excellent email last night replying to my “what did you think of this review, btw?” enquiry with the sort of frankness that I really miss when I'm in the UK. Of my review of Minetti, they suggested: “I read Minetti as a play about an old actor, not about the specific person Minetti. One of Bernhard's main topics is the contradiction between ambitions and the banality of life. Most of his novels are about megalomaniac artists who fail at their masterpieces. These characters always want to succeed at some impossible task: build a space with perfect acoustics for instance, or create a perfect geometrical form out of wood... The actor in Minetti is such a protagonist: he never got to play big roles because his expectations towards the classics and how they should be staged were too strict for that, now he is spending New Year’s Eve nervously waiting for the artistic director of the Flensburg theatre (Flensburg is a tiny provincial town in the north of Germany only famous for its brewery). This actor is a complete failure and the fact, that the play was named after superstar actor Minetti and dedicated to him is a bitter joke. That sentence about the classics is, in my opinion, not related to the Third Reich and the real Minetti’s career: the Nazis were keen on staging Goethe, Schiller, even Shakespeare and Minetti played many classical roles between 1933-45 – it describes an actor, whose own expectations towards theatre and acting were so high, that he refused to play Shakespeare. For me, your interpretation of that sentence, was not an understanding of the 'German context', but in fact the most English thing about the whole review: taking something as abstract as the topic of the failed artist and linking it to a specific biography.”

I offer this largely in the spirit of: a) a correction to the review, and, b) not being ashamed of my mistakes. It is also c) a really brilliant example about how even seeking to contextualise something can lead to really spectacular “misreadings” (although, “misreading” in itself is interesting, perhaps another act of flawed translation or even simple appropriation).

Obviously, on one hand, it makes me worry a bit, and feel the urgent need to do a whole lot more reading of German literature (learning German better), but at the same time, it makes me wonder about the extent (cf. Confirmation bias) that we can ever really out-think our cultural upbringings. Like, even if I like German (or Croatian, or Polish, or wherever’s) theatre the most an Englishman ever has, will I not always basically like it, and read it, in a way that is somehow uniquely English?

Which is a roundabout way of getting to the question of more local theatre ecologies in the UK. That is to say, if we send someone from London/now based in London to see a production born of a different city’s theatre ecology, are they going to be best placed to understand it in context? Even reviewing a touring production in a specific place that isn’t your locality, well, aren’t you going to appreciate the show in a totally different way?

On this level, it makes me wish that there were *a lot* more theatre bloggers in English cities outside London. And part of me wonders why there aren’t. Yes, Dan Hutton’s blog was based in Warwick, and so he caught an enviable amount of RSC stuff, and also reviewed things going into the Warwick Arts Centre with an understanding of how they were impacting on his local (primarily university) theatre ecology. And I’m gradually becoming dimly aware of some other bloggers operating outside London in England, but in the main, it seems a desolate landscape. And I wonder what can be done about that. I wonder, for example, if Exeunt, and maybe the NSDF, in concert with local theatres, offering workshops on theatre blogging could effect any sort of change.

 Surely other cities in England outside London could sustain a theatre blogging culture. At the moment, I think I read more about theatre in English performed in Melbourne and Sydney than I do about theatre performed in Leeds, Manchester, or Newcastle. And that’s surely silly. Sure, I could (and occasionally do) go to those places, but, as with Minetti, I’m not local to the production (although I’d argue that *no-one* was really local to the Cairns/Eyre production, which was half the problem), and so I’d only be able to bring my increasingly stateless, but apparently enduringly “English”, and definitely too-London perspective to bear on the things. Perhaps this isn’t all bad. After all, a lot of actors and directors move around, and many base themselves in London, even if regularly working in theatres outside London. But then, that also feels like an issue.

It feels like I could go on arguing the toss with myself here more or less indefinitely, and I have to get a train, so I’m going to stop this post here. But I think we’re a long way from this question having any sort of satisfactory conclusion (I’m not even sure there is a “right answer”). Instead, it feels more like just a useful open-ended question to leave out there.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Bwyta Eliffant, Sut Mae Gwneud Hynny Dwedwch / How Do You Eat an Elephant – Aberystwyth Arts Centre

[seen as dress rehearsal 03/09/14 – short “review”]

Disclaimers first: I saw this as a dress rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon (so I could get there and back on the same day), with maybe only a quarter-full house. All the actual performances have apparently sold out to warm, heartily laughing crowds, which is probably the best way to see this piece. Also, Jude’s a mate, but all that means is, if I hadn’t liked it, I’d probably just not have written anything.

Put together in apparently just ten days, How Do You Eat an Elephant is a new devised piece made in collaboration with the cast from the National Youth Theatre of Wales. It’s essentially an episodic verbatim piece, with added gameshow sections, the odd bit of (entirely painless) audience participation, and a lot of songs. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts/Show Five, although where that was kind of emotionally and physically gruelling for the performers, this is necessarily much lighter, trading emotional nakedness for a lot of filthy puns (The Great British Master Bake, anyone?) and youthful enthusiasm. Which is as it should be.

Nonetheless, director Jude Christian has managed to shape the material (much of which I’m assuming came straight from the youth, in terms of what questions got asked, and which answers from the public got “played”) into something which very gently prods away at some of the same questions that we saw so much of in Edinburgh this year. Without ever really appearing to be relentlessly pessimistic, or even downbeat, even the title of the show How Do You Eat an Elephant could be read as a study of an overwhelming sense of futility. It might equally have been called How Do You Change An Entire Culture Which is Destroying Us? There’s the same sense of being dwarfed by a task.

__ __’s brilliant-looking neatly underlines the generational thing, although I’m guessing all the performers were probably born well after that ultimate eighties icon the Rubik’s Cube was invented, while the Gerhard Richter-like walls, equally recall Elmer the Elephant. The performers themselves are – as is often the case with youth theatre shows – ludicrously charming. And, yes, they’re obscenely good at being on stage too. The singing, especially, is first-rate. And there’s lots of it; from (original?) compositions [will fill in the blanks when someone whizzes me a programme] to covers of some well-known standard with altered words, the musical elements propel the whole with an enjoyable force. There’s also neat video work by __ __ (also of Foxy and Husk fame), and at one point, a mass dance sequence where each performer comes on and dances with their videoed self.

For something apparently made in only ten days, it’s bloody impressive, really. With another week or two of devising time, I imagine it could really hit some profound highs and lows, but even as it stands, with charm as its main weapon, backed up with some impressive technology and a bunch of talent, it’s a hugely likeable bit of work that makes me want to see more NYTW stuff, and more devised pieces from Jude Christian.

The other nice thing about Aberystwyth is that it’s got sea and sunsets...

Friday, 5 September 2014

Shorts: in praise of... The Vile Blog

[Scottish independents]

This week, I’ve finally got down to writing my chapter for Duška Radosavljević’s book about theatre criticism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my chapter is about online criticism and “the blogosphere”. Predominantly in the UK, which mostly means England, which in turn, seems to have mostly meant London. I’m constantly aware of that thing where someone says “the UK” and fails to have quite the epic sweep of knowledge that such a generalisation would ideally entail, and how much it winds up theatremakers. Hell, even saying “British theatre is/isn’t such-and-such” usually alienates some bunch of even London-based makers.

One argument I/we often hear is: “you should travel more”. And I agree, we could and should (although travel and accommodation expenses are still a thing that needs to be thrashed out). However, much more useful would be *more people writing about their home towns and cities*. Yes, a lot of critics seem to move to London as part of that apparently inexorable, unstoppable vicious circle of “that’s where all the work is, so that’s why we have to move there to make our work” which is slowly but surely making London unaffordable and uninhabitable. Part of me thinks we should have an enforced dispersal around the country of artists and critics (not to mention affordable, efficient railways). However, in the absence of this, I think local criticism is vital. It would be vital even if some critics based elsewhere came up/down/over to see the work from time to time. Because I don’t think there’s a substitute for being local to a place.

Which is where The Vile Blog comes in. Written by Gareth K. Vile (he promises it’s his real name; the pun is just the sort of happy coincidence one would kill for), who’s the Theatre Editor for Scotland’s The List magazine. At the moment, Vile is doing a long survey of Glasgow’s performing arts scene. Shamefully, this blog is relatively new to me (I think we friended on Facebook earlier this summer and I’ve been reading since then, albeit intermittently, because of work and Edinburgh and me trying not to read FB the whole day through), but it’s been running since 2011, so there’s also a massive archive which I’m looking forward to checking out.

But the stuff at the moment feels like the best possible use of a blog. Reading back through recent posts, there’s a real clarity of purpose and an evocative sense of place that I find really exciting. Like the sort of thing I was talking about in that piece about Melody Maker and reviewing European theatre I wrote in Portugal. Over the course of a sustained series of posts (post-Edinburgh Fringe, pre-new season), Vile is quite methodically going through a bunch of questions he’s got about what (if anything) makes the work being made in Glasgow Glaswegian. There are also brilliant little sketches of the theatre ecology, with posts about the venues centrally, in the West End and on the city’s Southside. And, most recently, some really pertinent questions about how we do criticism at all.

It’s really exciting to discover a new(-ish) blog that both speaks to some stuff that you’re always thinking about anyway (criticism, how to) with some original insights, refreshing the dialogues you’re already involved in; at the same time introducing you to an almost entirely unfamiliar geography and ecology. (I mean, I’ve been to Glasgow twice, and I’ve seen the work of a fair few Glasgow-based artists in both Edinburgh and London, so it’s basically all new/s to me.) It’s also really reassuring that two of Vile’s biggest touchstones – which he talks about in a Scottish response to Lyn Gardner’s “Why UK theatre should look beyond its borders” piece (making the central point: “what’s with this ‘UK’ thing? Scotland already does...”) – are Les Ballets C de la B and Forced Entertainment. That these two groups are his go-to references contextualises his tastes perfectly and establishes the fact that I now totally trust his judgement. (This in itself also possibly underlines something else about the importance of international touring.)

So, yes, a rich, vital portrait of a theatre scene, namechecks of a whole host of books I’ve not read which sound really interesing, and fine, lucid prose; not to mention a load of older reviews that he’s currently uploading in the present, giving an interesting sense of pinging back and forth across Glasgow’s recent performance history, and the growth of the scene that Vile is considering. Exactly what you want from a theatre blog, in short. Great.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Shorts: Goodbye, Mr Spencer

[lest we forget]

On Monday it was announced that Charles Spencer would be standing down after 25 years as the chief theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s most right-wing broadsheet. Tributes seemed to immediately flood commending his “honesty” and etc. Michael Billington wrote:
“I think the theatre industry and Telegraph readers will sorely miss a critic who was fearless, forthright and breathtakingly honest in expressing his opinions.”
 So, just for a bit of balance, let’s remember what “breathtaking honesty” actually looks like:

“Reviewers should be honest about their prejudices and one of mine is a great dislike for the Arcola Theatre in darkest Dalston. It’s a nightmare to get to, and when you finally arrive in the neighbourhood you find yourself on a menacing main street, often patrolled by terrifying hooded youths, and with shops that seem to consist entirely of cut-price supermarkets, kebab establishments and, rather bizarrely, gentlemen’s hairdressers.”

“While the blindness of Maria is an integral part of the plot, no one actually mentions the fact that the portrait painter is played by a Thalidomide victim with truncated arms. This seems odd, considering his occupation. And are we even meant to know that the actor playing Maria's neighbour, who regularly drops round to masturbate while she is talking, is deaf? In other words, the play mysteriously ducks the very issues it ought to be exploring - the problems those with disabilities face when it comes to sexual relationships, and the chasm that exists between the able-bodied and the disabled.”

“Before seeing this women-only Julius Caesar I vowed that I wouldn’t resort to Dr Johnson’s notorious line in which he compared a woman’s preaching to a ‘dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all’.”

“Eventually (and boy do they take their time), they get her to a hospital, and here they are struck by a bright idea. Why not turn the accident into an artwork by taking pictures of her bruised and twisted body? At first they feel guilty, but the temptation is too deep to resist. They snap away cheerily and, this being Ravenhill, use their apparently insentient friend as a sex toy.”
[Ravenhill famously didn’t write that scene]

“I may be wrong about this, but I have a strong hunch that Stephens has no children on his own, for I cannot believe that any loving parent could write with such arty attenuation on so harrowing a subject.”
[Stephens did have children in 2004]

“[Philip Ridley’s] past form as a writer, and the evidence of this play in particular, persuade me that he is actually turned on by his own sick fantasies and is offering no more than cheap thrills. And as is so often the case in sensationalist art, graphic cruelty is accompanied by a creepy, and in this case homoerotic, sentimentality.”

And let’s not forget his celebrated reduction of an actor to a theatrical equivalent of something created solely to give men erections.

So there we go: honesty.

No further comment.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


[written for Time Out]

Last night I was riffling through my old Hotmail account looking for an email sent before the days of widespread Twitter use, and I came across this blog which I wrote for Time Out five years ago. Since Time Out pretty much junked all their old online, pre-takeover material, it seems fair enough to repost it here. I found what’s changed and what’s stayed the same fascinating (most of the links are now broken, btw):

In my twelve years of coming to the Fringe, a good deal has changed. The proliferation of the mobile phone, the seemingly unstoppable rise of the super-venues, the arrival of the internet... all have subtly altered the way we experience Edinburgh.  But this year, it feels like the biggest sea-change is in Fringe coverage.

For a while now, the dominance of the national press has been being challenged, first by independent free reviews papers such as Three Weeks and Fest, and now by a growing proliferation of internet reviewing sites. This year it seems that the papers have been largely superseded by the online world.

There are a variety of factors at play here. The most significant is the dwindling coverage by the print media, speeded this year by the lack of resources occasioned by the recession.  Put simply, there are fewer professional critics on the ground and for less time than in previous years. Then there are the issues of speed and space.  Newspapers are only published once a day; they only have so much space that they can allocate to reviews; pieces get commissioned and then gather dust waiting for room to print them.  Online sites can be updated at any time of day and night and there are no space restrictions.

However, online review sites tend to rely on volunteers to provide their copy. As a result, quality tends to vary a wildly.  This year Three Weeks, for example, is fielding 80 reviewers. A lot of companies now just quote the name of a publication and the number of stars awarded to their show. With 80 possible levels of experience to choose from, this renders the Three Weeks banner completely meaningless as their reviewers range from incisive and astute to hilariously incompetent.  At the same time, reputation of the Scotsman’s coverage has also diminished, with certain contributors becoming a watchword for ropey prose.

All this has prompted a certain amount of hand-wringing.  If reviews are reduced to a star-rating awarded by a complete unknown, how can such information be of any use?  The answer is that star-ratings should be largely ignored in favour of reading the actual reviews.  These give a much clearer insight into the critic’s rationale.  They should, at the very least, foreground the rationale behind the rating, but sometimes, the writing itself is laughable enough to bring a critic’s judgement into question.

The so-bad-it’s-good show has long been a staple for Fringe ambulance chasers, but now the jaw-droppingly dreadful review has become required reading for jaded aficionados.  The best one-stop shop for truly dire prose is One4Review. It’s hard to tell whether it’s intended as a spoof or not. My favourite is perhaps this assessment of Becoming Marilyn or this beautiful illustration of why punctuation matters disguised as a review of Why do All Catherines Call Themselves Kate? Elsewhere, the surprisingly dogged literalism in this write-up of Glyn Cannon’s Coffee should give those who demand more objectivity from their reviewers pause for thought. [God, I wish those reviews were still online]

However, it’s not all dispiritingly hilarious prose.  The winner of this year’s Allen Wright award for young critics went to Matt Trueman writing for website CultureWars.  Granted I’m the theatre editor for CultureWars, and as such more than a little proud. However, it is interesting that of the Allen Wright shortlist, he was the only critic not bounded by word counts or having to give a star-rating.  Depressingly, this means CultureWars gets quoted on far fewer flyers.

Performers’ grumbles about critics are well known. In Edinburgh the boot is on the other foot.  Artists hand out the tiniest fragments of critics’ work stapled to their flyers shorn of all context or nuance – “...brilliant... **** - Three Weeks”, “Perfect... *** - The Scotsman” etc.  This helps no one.  Not the critic, not the artist, not the publication and certainly not the poor members of the public who are trying to work out what to see.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Les Troyens – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

[seen 28/08/14]

There’s a sense of almost spiralling international and historical vertigo generated by this production of Les Troyens. Sat in Scotland, yesterday, we watched contemporary Russians of the Mariinsky Opera perform Hector Berlioz’s 1858 opera, written in France’s Second Empire, based on books two and four of Virgil’s Aeneid (Rome, 29-19 BC), which in turn owes everything to the stories of ancient Greece (notably Homer, (circa 760-710 BC?)), about a bronze age conflict in Troy (950 BC). Directed by Greek Yannis Kokkos.

The geography of the piece is fascinating too: Kicking off in Turkey, about to be destroyed by Greeks, we then travel to Tunisa, where a city’s Lebanese/Syrian queen falls in love with a young Turkish prince whose destiny is to travel to Italy to found Rome.

These, anyway, were the filters through which I found myself watching at least acts one and two of Kokkos’s production.

For the first stage design (also Kokkos, as are the costumes) a vast forward slanting mirror constitutes the whole back of the stage, reflecting the slightly sunken floor beneath it, on which there is a huge composite picture of the city of Troy. A couple of floor sections of this sometimes move to reveal another version of the same picture below this. Once the (vast) cast start filling the stage, their numbers are swelled by the strange, upside-down slanted reflections of themselves above. When the stage is all but empty, we see the principal characters reflected (as we did in Ostermeier’s Hedda, but on a far grander scale) like tiny creatures viewed from above. The mirror also does a version of that “Pepper’s ghost” thing, whereby the mirror proves to be semi transparent, and behind it video projections (Eric Duranteau) play on gauzes and further figures can be shadily glimpsed.

The costuming is also fascinating. I hadn’t checked the programme for the director beforehand, so I watched it through the prism of Russian and Eastern-European-ness. And that certainly works. The men and women look very much like the people we Westerners saw on the news throughout the war in ex-Yugoslavia and the current conflict in Ukraine. Irregulars, partisans, in casual clothing with Kalashnikovs, and women in black wearing head-scarves. But, then, modern dress jackets, trousers, odd jumpers and shirts, look pretty much the same the world over now, you realise, as, when a black flag is suddenly raised (and, Jesus, mate, I’m not sure that was as loaded a decision when you took it as it is now, but, crikey...) you realise that they could equally remind you of those guys rioting in Turkey or the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, or the Kurds and Iraqis fighting ISIS. And it’s that realisation that really brings the rest of this first act home. Just how horrifically resonant the sack of Troy still feels if the clothing is brought up to date and the rationale ignored.

I’m guessing we all know what happened at the end of the Trojan war, so I won’t bore you with details. What is interesting here is the number of liberties that Berlioz (or it might be Virgil, I’m more of a Greek man than a Roman) has taken with the versions more familiar to us from Aeschylus and Euripides. The whole thing is very much centred round Cassandra, who here has been given a leaden love-interest for no discernible reason (other than it adds an emotional dimension to the person who’s her excuse for explaining all her thoughts to the audience). This gets things off to an interminable start. However, it warms up when some messenger or other comes on to relate how the priest Laocoön, trying to lead a crowd to set fire to the mysteriously-appeared wooden horse, is suddenly attacked by two serpents which set fire to him with their breath (!). This is taken as a sign that the Gods have protected the Trojans from making a terrible mistake. It’s like a demonstration of confirmation bias on a national scale. “We must be in the right, therefore everything that happens is proof that the Gods are on our side!” is the implication. And you can’t help but warm to Berlioz/Virgil for his/their cynicism. As the inevitable murder of the Trojans moves inexorably closer, the opera pretty much hits what turns out to be its dramatic high-point.

Anyway: horse, city burns, alarums. Aeneas somehow escapes and promptly fucks off, leaving behind all the Trojan women but taking the city’s treasure with him to stop the Greeks getting their hands on it. The last scene of Act II sees Cassandra and a whole massive chorus of Trojan women valiantly committing suicide in front of a platoon of Greek soldiers. Which, while basically misogynist, also brings home with depressing force (cf. ISIS, ex-Yugoslavia, the Russians in Berlin, every other war ever, it seems...) that the treatment of women in warfare hasn’t improved or changed in 3,000 years. Christ.

Then there’s a 45 minute interval. We’ve had an hour and a half so far of 5hrs30 of opera (of which 1hr15 is interval). So far I like it an awful lot, in the main. Yes, the script is clunky as hell (“You’ve retreated to the forest like a thoughtful elf!” was the highlight of Act I), and, no, the acting isn’t really all that. The music varies, but is performed well, even if Cassandra (Mlada Khudoley) sounded like she could have given it a bit more oomph. The direction feels, well, slightly all-over-the-shop, but while the costuming and situation remain so pertinent, you’re engaged enough with the overall thing to be optimistic about the oncoming four hours.

And then Acts III and IV happen.

Gone is the dark set and vast mirror, to be replaced by, what? A sort of large, low iceberg littered with oversized architects models. A boring, blue, Robert Wilson-y backdrop. All the cast dressed in white. Oh, gawd, it looks awful. I think I’ve got a CD of something by Wagner staged in the mid-seventies, the cover for which looks similar. Just hideous. “Classical” by numbers. The sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in Glee. Oh, man.

The plot also gives up. Well, it doesn’t. It’s Dido and Aeneas, which was fine when Purcell wrote it in 1688, and I can’t help feeling it didn’t need a bloodless Orientalist update from an imperial Frenchman. Anyway, Aeneas turns up, Dido swoons, and then Aeneas and her mates joyously declare that they’re off to fight “the blacks”. They actually say that. In surtitles. They’re off to bash some Nubian or other, which, I think, by happy coincidence, is what the French were also up to when this opera was written. Still, no need to worry about that, or anything else, right? Jesus.

Then there’s a bunch of projections of a wood, and Dido and Aeneas getting it on. And, oh, whatever. Then Dido mopes a lot. And Aeneas is all like “Well, I did say I had to go and fulfil my manifest destiny and go to Italy, so thanks and everything, but...” And Dido’s all “What?” And Aeneas is all “Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Besides, the Gods told me.”

And then in Act V he’s gone and she kills herself. And the design hasn’t improved much.

Perhaps the design in acts III, IV and V is mostly aimed at making us close our eyes and listen to the music. Which isn’t a bad thing to do. The music isn’t half bad and the singing is also pretty good. But, Christ, why not just do a concert performance of III and IV if that design is the alternative. Oh, and at one point there’s about quarter of an hour of pointless acrobatics and perhaps the most racist (cod-“Middle Eastern”) dance I’ve seen this century. Oh, Jesus.

I think the last three acts of this opera could also be good. The music certainly doesn’t sound like it wants to be carelessly thrown away. And, if I’m fair, even if the staging of the final act did appear trapped in the seventies, and even if what passed for “acting” from Ekaterina Semenchuk playing Dido was beyond atrocious camp, there was still at least a bit of dramatic force salvaged from the wreckage.

Indeed, the final chorus, after Dido’s death, is here a declaration of war on Rome by Carthage (as I’m sure it is in Virgil, given that he was writing a simultaneous Roman foundation myth and apologia for the Punic Wars). What’s neat, is that we know – like we knew that the Trojans were just about to come to a sticky end in Act I – that Carthage fighting Rome doesn’t end well for the Carthaginians. Problem is, grim irony tho’ it be, it doesn’t especially feel like Berlioz is making any better point here than he has been anywhere else in what is, really, a faintly repulsive, imperial-fascist tact about manifest destiny, fate as a concept with no irony applied to it whatsoever, and a kind of might-is-right steamrollering of anything more thoughtful; all wrapped round a “love story” rendered here with neither tenderness nor passion, but simply emphatic statement after emphatic statement. Since Kokkos has pretty much reinforced this “message” with the sort of fit, blonde, white people dressed in ersatz classical garb most popular around the time of the 1936 Olympics, it’s kind of bewildering what the hell message the Edinburgh International Festival is trying to send. Hopefully not the one it looks like.

So, visually, you go from this, and the picture at the top...
To THIS! for acts III and IV, FFS.
Then this sub-Robert Wilson nonsense for Act V (looks better in photo, too)
Before ending up with the good old red-cloth-as-big-old-bloodstain to finish.
[Oh, and this production was sponsored by BP and Russian government-owned oil giant Rosneft, fact fans.]

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Front – Kings Theatre

[seen 20/0814]

If there’s one problem with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s that it really breeds your mind into thinking that every show is going to last one hour, which does a disservice to the International Festival of which it is supposedly the “fringe”. I wonder this partly because I found the first hour of Belgian director Luk Perceval’s staging of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Western nichts Neues (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) and Henri Barbusses’s Le Feu: journal d'une escouade (“Under Fire: the Story of a Squad”) and *some other stuff* brilliant. Harrowing, upsetting, relentless and without hope in all the ways that something dealing with the trench warfare in Belgium during WWI should be. I found the second half relentless, increasingly hopeless, and verging on the harrowing, as an experience of having to still be sitting in a theatre.

Is it the Fringe’s fault? After all, I saw Perceval’s Brothers Karamazov in its home at the Thalia (from which this production also comes) *without surtitles* and that is nearly twice as long, and I somehow loved that. Here I was almost chewing my arm off by the end. Maybe I should have seen it in Hamburg without surtitles. But I don’t think that’s the only problem. Instead, the problem lies with the fact that Front has so many false endings.

Ok, I didn’t really have my German theatre head on, but even so, the problem with the way that the piece has been put together is that in the second half, it keeps having these brilliant, epic moments of conclusion that would have been a perfect place to stop, and would probably have had half the audience on their feet immediately. Instead, such a scene finishes, and another immediately begins. Halfway through the second half, I began to wonder if this effect was in fact intentional. That Perceval was creating a sense of the endless grinding groaning intensity of the war by simply refusing to stop and instead renewing the shelling.

The piece is multilingual. The German, French, and Belgian bits were fine. There were however occasional passages in English. And, Christ, these might have been the worst thing I’ve seen on stage all Edinburgh. The key to why can actually be found in the programme interview with Perceval: “the sections in English make me think of film dialogue, full of clichés – the language of westerns.” And I’m like, dude, that’s THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, not THE ENGLISH. And then swear quite a lot – in Lancashire, and Yorkshire, Brummie, Cockney, and every other sodding English accent that has nothing to do with a fucking western and everything to do with a bunch of war memorials in Every Single Town In England, you Belgian prick. Anyway. Those scenes were pretty sucky.

Which is a shame, because, as I say, in the main the show was capable of being phenomenal. It evokes a list of adjectives that make you sound like Polonius – complex simplicity, epic intimacy, that kind of thing. Annette Kurz’s set is a towering, textured, flat, black screen which dwarfs the ensemble below, and over which Philip Bussmann’s video design – which consists mainly of pictures of soldiers – plays. Composer Ferdinand Försch’s sound design (although there are also three other sound designers credited) creates ominous rumbling and a dark atmosphere of implied violence. And then there’s the text. I suppose the dramaturgs Christina Bellingen and Steven Heene should take *some* credit (although see above, re: Jesus Christ, you could have made it a bit less stoppy-starty), but really the power here is in the starkness of the original writing.

It’s plain, direct, and doesn’t need flowery literary embellishments. It’s just description after description of true things that actually happened to real people and how the hell it feels living through that. And how it feels is hell. And even sitting in a darkened theatre a hundred years later, knowing that something similar is still going on in countless places outside the theatre walls is enough to make you weep. And that’s all the piece needs really. On some appalling level it just kept on hitting home again and again how stupid and pointless and violent and miserable humanity makes life for other bits of humanity. Front doesn’t offer any answers to that, or even really ask the question why. It just reports it. And, at its best, more powerfully than I’ve ever seen before.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 round-up

Minetti – King’s Theatre

[seen 16/08/14]

I’m starting to wonder if it’s really possible to translate Thomas Bernhard into English. Obviously it’s possible to translate the words into English, you might think. And I am thinking more about context. But even with the language I think there’s a weird little gulf where, writing in Austrian-German, Bernhard is making little word games and allusions which we simply can’t transpose into English. And without these little ironies the very dimension that made him one of Austria’s most successful playwrights falls into the little cracks between our languages. But then there is the cultural context too. I do often wonder if there’s a particular sort of amused detachment bordering on outright cruelty about the Austrian sense of humour. And, without being Austrian, watching or reading in English, my first reaction to Bernhard’s work is usually that he is just this appalling misanthrope. Which of course he is anyway. But beyond worrying about the blackness of Bernhard’s long-departed soul, there’s also the other cultural context: that of shared knowledge.

Minetti is (here) a 90 minute monologue, written in 1976 about the incredibly famous German actor Bernhard Minetti. In the original production, directed by the equally famous Claus Peymann when he was still at Schauspielhaus Bochum, the part of Minetti was played by Bernhard Minetti. Here, in Tom Cairns’s 2014 Edinburgh International Festival co-production sponsored by the US Embassy (what, no protests?), Minetti is played by Peter Eyre. So, *obviously* it made more sense in the original language with the part being played by the man it was written about. (This sort of thing seems part of Bernhard’s strangely misanthropic shtick. He later, I shit you not, went to write a piece called Claus Peymann kauft sich eine Hose und geht mit mir essen (Claus Peymann buys himself some trousers and goes out to eat with me). I saw it in Vienna at the Burgtheater with Peymann (still?) playing himself as a satirised, egomaniacal monster. And, yes, the title is entirely literal.) But, what I think is more crucial, is both the timing of the original, and this contemporary audience’s probable lack of knowledge of any of it.

The action of the piece – such as it is – sees Minetti pacing an hotel lobby on New Year’s Eve waiting to meet the artistic director of a (Rotterdam, was it?) theatre, who is to discuss with him the possibility of playing King Lear. Minetti exchanges a few words with a posh lady (Sian Philips) also waiting in the lobby, and occasionally a whole lift-full of young people charge out of the lift and out of the revolving lobby doors into the New Year night. Thus is Minetti cast as both a latter-day Lear railing and monologuing about “thirty years in the wilderness” because he “turned his back on the classics” and a less latter-day Vladmir or Estragon, solo, waiting for a Godot who we suspect will not turn up.

That  “thirty years” is crucial. Without knowing the date of the première, and the country of origin, it’d pass you by completely, but we’re looking at the thirty years post- 1945. Minetti might blame “turning his back on the classics” for his wilderness years, but history might more likely blame that fact that he played the lead in Hitler’s favourite modern play, Schlageter, in its performance in 1933 on Hitler’s birthday, and continued to perform as a leading German actor throughout the next twelve years: a kind of Nazi Laurence Olivier.

So we might say that “turning you back on the classics” is something of a euphemism. However. Not a jot of that seemed to be apparent in this production. I only worked it all out afterwards looking at Wikipedia. I might have been being dense, but I think not. I suspect that the translation is faithful to the *text*, and the text wouldn’t have needed to say anything in 1976. Not in Bochum to an audience only thirty years after the Nazi regime was ended. All but the very youngest theatregoer would have got exactly what Bernhard was needling them for. As such, how can a play specifically designed to needle an audience made up of the generations later labelled Hitler’s willing executioners, how can that play act on us now? Or, what should we take from it.

Oddly, it feels like there is a strange way in which it does still make a kind of sense, as a weirdly Germany-specific play about futility, the text takes on a kind of metaphysical Beckett-y quality. However, Cairns’s set – a beautiful, fully naturalistic, wood-panelled hotel lobby, seems to work vigorously against this possibility. As does Eyre's Very English, almost compulsively too-engaging performance.  Like, it would have been much easier if he’d just left the set out entirely, and Eyre had just barked at us from out of the blackness. But perhaps that’s the strange point – that he’s making us work at reinterpreting this thing which we already don’t understand properly. I’m almost inclined – a week down the line – to give him the benefit of the doubt.

There is a final image in which Eyre/Minetti finally dons the Lear-mask “designed by Ensor” (and it's only looking for a photo and checking who Ensor is that I realise that all the teenagers also have "masks by Ensor" - clever, if entirely lost on me at the time) as he’s been boasting throughout (and we get the impression that maybe Bernhard is being eye-rolling about this), and the set all suddenly flies out, and we’re left with Eyre/Minetti/Lear standing suddenly in pouring rain (oh, yes, they’ve got budgets at the International Festival), in this harrowing mask, and it is properly moving (I thought). At the time my reaction was: “Oh, you bastards. You never earned that. How dare your final image be so good.” Now I’m not so sure that the waiting mightn’t have been part of the point, and that, even though I doubt the original intent was transcendence, this production makes a valiant stab at entirely appropriating this text and making a case for it in an entirely new and alien context.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

This is How We Die – Forest Fringe

[seen 07/08/14]

I’m sorry for this welter of positive reviews. Spine kinda re-energised my writing thing so I’m clearing the backlog and this is next up, and, well, hell, here’s a review I don’t feel equal to writing...

Meg Vaughan has already nailed reviewing This is How We Die so hard, that literally no one else need ever bother.

And, while I was watching the show, I kind of swore that all I’d do to review it was assemble YouTube clips that give some impression. And just open with the words:

“This is How We Die is basically Patti Smith reading The Story of The Eye, except it starts with writing that sounds like this:

then it turns into this:

then this:

and then it ends like this:

But that won’t really do at all.

So: This is How We Die is the third part of the unofficial “Chris Trilogy About Men” (parts one and two there). Where Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation is the visceral lesson in theory, and Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities is the tender, thoughtful, evocative question, Chris Brett Bailey offers a kind of Howl as a conclusion. And, yes, the capitalisation is deliberate. If there’s a single other live event I could point to as a comparison it’d be the nights at Forest Fringe in 2008 where Chris Goode (perhaps coincidentally) read both his own poem An Introduction to Speed Reading and Alan Ginsburg’s Howl. This is possibly the finest bit of poetry I’ve seen live since that night.

This is How We Die opens with a contradiction: the cute observation that the cliché phrase “political correctness gone mad” absolutely contains its own refutation. And so does TiHWD. Attacking language throughout, it closes with the lines:

“and with our savage tongues
we lick our loved ones clean
we spray our enemies’ blood all up these walls,
and we pronounce this language dead.”

And, having just committed pretty much the best electric-shock resurrection of the language for the previous hour, I guess I don’t buy that [the English] language dead. But, fuck me, it’s so compellingly told that you absolutely do believe it at the time as the words dissolve into feedback, and guitars, and two amped violins and ten solid minutes of Monroe Transfer or Godspeed You-style post-rock riff, rage and feedback.

In between the opening and this sonically spectacular ending, the main body of the text relaxes, if that’s the word (it’s not), into a kind of fitful, fantastical, sexy, road-movie of a thing where the narrator and his girlfriend seem to travel to the edges of their minds on highways from American films lined with cool jokes and wry puns and peopled with, like, a smoking mouse, a human Swastika (literally), and a murdered priest.

Maddy Costa, it turns out (I’ve literally just paused writing this to read that), has knocked up the best actual analysis of what the thing is plausibly “saying”, which is well worth a read if you’re into meanings. I read the script of TiHWD just to remind myself of how it went, but really *didn’t* want this writing/review to turn into lit.crit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Maddy’s wrong to do it, or that the piece is resistant to it – quite the reverse, Maddy’s prising it open and considering the words and how they mean, make the text shine all the more brightly. But it’s not at all how I experienced the show. Instead, I was letting it wash over me, sense, seeming nonsense, and narrative, all conjuring these glorious postmodern filmic images of sex and violence and a kind of idea of a teenage freedom that no teenager could ever hope to either describe or appreciate fully.

Reading other reviews also makes me realise I haven’t covered the basics. Partly because half of them seem obvious: Chris Brett Bailey looks like he always looks and I’ve known him for ages; and *of course* he’s sitting at a desk talking into a mike with the script also on the desk, who isn’t these days?, etc. And the other half – whatever I was thinking of when I opened this sentence – are... Whatever.

But, yes. This is *one of those shows*. One of those shows that we’re all going to oversell to you, dear reader, and you’ll presumably not be able to like quite as much as “us” for having read and imagined it first. So, unread this review. Forget it ever happened, book a ticket for it in October at the BAC, and go and be completely surprised.

Maybe there’s something in this: “this language [is] dead” thing after all.

And, oh, look, there’s a neat trailer:

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Spine – Underbelly

[seen 11/08/14]

Rosie Wyatt is a properly, properly brilliant actor. And that’s a real problem. Because, well, great acting presents the same problem for theatre criticism as the Bad Sex Award bear testament to in literature. That is to say, great acting is bloody hard to write about well. We all know what it’s like, and we know when we’ve just experienced it, but actually putting those feelings into words is nigh-on impossible, and also risks reaching for the risible in the process.

One could dwell on the technical. In Spine, Wyatt plays an old lady, Glenda, in her eighties(?) or more, and a young woman, Amy, who’s only a year or so out of school, both have brilliantly observed working class London accents: the old woman’s of a vintage that reminds you of Carry On films and Ealing Comedies, the young woman’s that new post-cockney sound that seems to mix the accents of every immigrant community in London into something as recognisable as it is unplaceable. Both accents are flawlessly observed, and delivered with such machine-gun intensity, that you’re almost pinned to your cliché for the first ten minutes, hardly breathing under the torrent of wide-eyed, swear-heavy, enthusiasm and cursing.

Indeed, Wyatt is so good a bloody actor, that you find yourself completely forgetting how theatre works, and writing the first three paragraphs of your review of A New Play about the performer, because the performance is so good that you’re made to forget that all the words were in fact written down in a script (Clara Brennan), and that there is a director (Bethany Pitts), a designer, a lighting designer (neither credited in press release), who were also involved. Which is breaking pretty much every unwritten rule of theatre criticism that there is. It also feels weirdly like that’s because this is a production that’s broken the rules of theatre a bit. Ordinarily, when you see a new play performed in Britain – and this production has only just made me realise the extent to which this feels true – while the productions nominally “serve the text”, what that partially means is that the actors take something of a back seat? Like, one sense in which they’re “serving the text” is like “serving it up” or “serving it *to* you”. Like they’re saying the words in as ego-less a way as possible so literally nothing is getting in between you and The Writing. So you can appreciate The Writing, in as “pure” a fashion as possible. Wyatt isn’t doing that. She’s doing something that feels almost completely opposite to it. Without in any way feeling like a selfish act of diva-y attention-seeking (because it’s not, it’s the characters that feel terrifyingly present, and yet still totally “theatrical”, not the performer), Wyatt is like a sort of non-stop barrage of language, fury and passion.

But. It’s important to stop and acknowledge that this is a piece that’s been written. Because the writing is actually extraordinary. Spine – I’ll keep the synopsis brief – narrates in a rush the story of Amy turning up on the steps of Glenda’s house, looking for a cheap room in this austerity wreck of a country of ours, and, over the course of the next hour, being transfigured from angry aimless “pikey” (her words), into... oh, go and see it yourself. There’s even a bit of magic-realism in there. And, Christ, the thing contains at least half a dozen moments that run the risk of tipping even the most jaded hack into an embarrassing amount of weeping (for the record, I didn’t. Mostly because I was sitting next to Lyn Gardner, and I didn’t want to alarm her. I quite wish there was a video version that I could watch with a couple of glasses of wine when this sodding festival is over and get it all out of my system properly).

And. Not only does this thing contain the single most extraordinary performance in anything that you’re going to see all year – at least, equally tied with Mark Strong in ...Bridge (yes. It really is *that* level of good, ladies and gents) – and some of the most virtuosic writing (yup. Really), it’s also got a narrative and drive that are actually about something that properly matters. And, rather than the (admittedly brilliant) reflections of the despair and darkness that we’ve living through that are playing elsewhere on the Fringe, it angrily offers a vision of potential for change, not to mention some neat observations (“what you need is a feminist man who thinks you’re the funniest person alive” (I paraphrase)) and the best slogan to represent feminist refusal and determination ever (“Less twat, more cunt”). I’m tempted – even if only for the sake of having some, *any*, reservation in this rush of enthusiasm – to say that it’s a worry when the best form for talking about socialism is as a ghost story. That’s a crude way of putting it, and Spine isn’t *really* “a ghost story”, but there is a sense that just as it’s at its most hopeful, it’s also at its most fairy-tale. That the promise and possibility of hope and change are its most fantastical element. But maybe that’s just my personal pessimism, and complete lack of faith in humanity to ever stop actually being shit to each other. And my ongoing mistrust of revolution as a means of delivering anything, really, more than violence and ongoing slaughter. And, assuming those are things that we also want to avoid, along with the entrenched violence of capitalism against the proletariat, the hell we do about that is still hard to say, even if Spine does make the most beautiful (if impossibly optimistic) case for people becoming the change they need on an individual basis, and transforming their communities from the molecular level upwards.

But. Fuck it, you *must* go and see this. And probably let yourself have a bit of a cry. And be moved by the possibility of human potential. And the idea that maybe we can change things for the better. And that maybe libraries can end oppression. And then wrestle with the fact that even in this brilliant, beautiful play, we’re still so fucked that the most optimistic play about the possibility of social change that I’ve seen on the Fringe so far has a conclusion that rests on a social revolution effected by private philanthropy and London’s obscenely inflated property prices. And trying to work out whether, if those are the terms by which social change can happen, it’s even going to be a social change at all. (Ultra-pessimists among you might also note that the venue complex making even seeing this possible is the profit-machine of two Old Etonians a couple of years below David Cameron at school.) But, yeah. Still brilliant. Still inspiring, and still one of the performances of the year, a stunning bit of new writing, and direction so tight and assured that you can’t even imagine the process. And/but something that bitter-sweetly leaves you wanting so much more from the rest of the world.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Show Six – Summerhall

[seen 06/08/14]

Is Mark Ravenhill Britain’s best science fiction theatre writer? Show Six adds another compelling, urgent play to the Yes camp. Show Six, directed by the excellent Caroline Steinbeis and performed in Paines Plough’s newly tarted-up Roundabout space – itself looking not unlike something out of Blakes 7 – is a kind of classical dystopia. Or, put another way: Oedipus meets Dr Who.

A young man (Stevie Webb, white singlet and gold lamé Kylie shorts) has driven his car into “a chav” in “the favela”, but the “chav” has not died. Instead, the young man gets out of the car with the hope of finishing him off, but the “chav” whispers something in the young man’s ear that causes him to go back to his car, speed off, while still “monged” on drugs from his dealer, and later record a twenty-minute crying jag where he screams “Who am I?” over and over again. Cut to a scene with his bad slinky mother (newest Secret Theatre company member, Matti Houghton, in a frankly devastating white bathing costume and red high heels), reassuring him and spelling out the realities of the Brave New World to us in the audience. Drugs are commonplace, she’s got a friend’s dealer on speed-dial. These are the complacent rich. A J.G. Ballardian über-elite: privileged, armed, rich and powerful without consequence. Webb and his friend (girlfriend? – Cara Horgan in a black bathing costume) go off to find the “chav” that the young man ran down. In a seamless scene change, Horgan is now “the chav” and Webb is pleading with him to tell him what he said to him last night. Suddenly the “chav” reveals that the young man’s mother is not his real mother. That he is not who he thinks he is. And so on. That the old(ish) “chav” wears sunglasses and walks in a fashion suggestive of blindness should perhaps make us all think “Aha, Tiresias!” That the young man’s (now presumed-adoptive) mother is all over him, and that he’s nearly killed some guy he doesn’t know at the cross-roads in the favela... Oh, you get the point. The old “chav” tells the young man about a right-wing military coup which his real parents were on the wrong side of. The young man begins to real to recall his former childhood, which seems to have been drugged and influenced and lied away from him; a childhood of workers’ rights and conversations about “the nascent power of the proletariat”.

The world Ravenhill conjures is classic sci-fi, indeed, the whole feels like it’s just missing the bit where the Doctor comes in and sorts it all out. It also feels like an amalgamation of numerous coups, state atrocities, and power-grabs: the favelas of Brazil, the forced adoption of aborigine children in Australia, the coup against the Allende regime in Chile, but also the recent catastrophes in Egypt and Syria. At the same time, the sclerosis-rigid class system suggests modern Britain as much as anywhere, with a demonised, and now free-to-murder underclass.

There’s much to admire here, both in Ravenhill’s script and in Steinbeis’s production, the three Secret Theatre ensemble performers, all here at the top of their respective games. It’s interesting to finally see an ST show which *doesn’t* make use (however small) of all ten performers. And, while we might mourn the resultant lack of diversity (although as Chris Goode pointed out at Northern Stage yesterday, you can’t really represent diversity with two people. Or three, I’d suggest) and the loss of company’s previous commitment to gender-, race-, and disability-blind casting, I guess it streamlines the comprehension process for prospective audiences in what is only a short piece with plenty of other potential theatrical confusions for the potentially wider range of punters found in Edinburgh.

It is good, though, to finally see (having admittedly missed Show Four), the ST team doing a new piece of writing for theatre that seems in line with their modernist and socially aware origins (no, social-stereotype-reinforcing farces about the death penalty which accidentally come out in favour of it *don’t* count, no matter how much one brings the iron up at the end).

So, yes, beguilingly inconclusive, admirably global and, ahem, “continental”, and as sleek and stylish as anyone could hope for, Ravenhill, Steinbeis and Secret Theatre make for a fine way of worrying more about the state of the world for an hour and beyond.

A Journey Round My Skull – Summerhall

[seen 06/08/14]

There’s a haunting moment in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis where one of the unnamed speakers says: “Fuck you. Fuck you for making me fall in love with someone who doesn’t exist.” Which, in a curious way, is also how A Journey Round My Skull works, on at least two levels.

Based on Utazás a Koponyám Körül by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, Journey... turns out to be a remarkably straightforward bit of solo-performance. Olivia Winteringham even does *proper acting* and a pitch-perfect middle-European accent. The deal is, we in the audience are playing the patient, and our neurosurgeon is explaining to us what’s happened before. We have a brain tumour, you see, and it’s pressing down on a bit of our left temporal cortex, affecting all sorts of bits of our memory, causing unpredictable violent mood shifts, and making us experience auditory hallucinations.

The twist is our neurosurgeon is also falling in love with us. And we are falling in love with her. Winteringham’s performance of a slightly nervous, intensely intelligent, slightly-goofy-joke-making, beautiful, slender woman, with a devastating accent, makes this part of the show ridiculously plausible. The problem is once we have the tumour removed, will we be the same person? Will we still be in love with her? Will the person we were still be the person she fell in love with? On this level, it suddenly feels like the piece could be about any number of conditions – depression, alcoholism, whatever – you name it; this anxiety seems common to all such sufferers. On one hand, of course they want the cure, on the other hand, would they really want to lose all the up-sides and the rushes and creativity and stupid excess passion that comes along with the suffering. Numerous interviews and, well, hell, whole lives, bear testament to the fact that the answer is never as simple as you might hope.

Rather depressingly, the conclusion is that, no, with the tumour (or whatever thing you’ve made that a metaphor for) removed, the love affair abruptly ends. And we only meet of neurosurgeon one more time, in the middle of Budapest, near Heroes Square (does every central European city have a Heldenplatz?), and we go off on a ghost train ride together.

[posted as placeholder. Needs final para.]

Blind Hamlet – Assembly Roxy

[seen 05/08/14]

[no decent image. someone nip into the venue and just take an arty shot of the empty stage and dictaphone with their iPhone?  Thanks!]

Blind Hamlet is Nassim Soleimanpour’s follow-up to his massively acclaimed Fringe (and elsewhere) hit, Red Rabbit/White Rabbit (which I’ve still not gotten round to seeing). The external shtick around RR/WR was that Soleimanpour couldn’t leave his native Iran – you can’t get a passport there without having completed national service, apparently – and so wanted to make a show/production which could travel without him. Not having seen it, I’m not really sure how it differs from emailing a script, but there we go. It was dead popular and seemed to say some things about the situation of an artist who wasn’t able to leave their own country by their government.

Since then, thanks to a deteriorating eye condition, the government of Iran has relented on his ban on Soleimanpour’s travelling. Indeed, I met him myself at the Internationales Forum at this year’s Theatertreffen, where it was incredibly funny to watch him effectively explain to Omar Elerian that the entire access policy of the Bush was bullshit (there was some a bit more nuance than that, but not a lot).

The deal with Blind Hamlet, thanks to to eye condition, is that he’s made this piece by speaking into a dictaphone (or whatever they’re called these days) about Hamlet. It’s his father’s old dictaphone and the piece begins with his father reading “To be of not to be...” in Farsi. I don’t know how true any of this is, but it’s what the dictaphone tells us. The dictaphone also tells us that Soleimanpour is in Moscow getting treatment for his eyes. Possibly the dictaphone is lying. There’s a point close to the end where the play stops and the stage manager reads out a notice that says Soleimanpour died in a car crash before finishing the play. Now, I happen to now for a fact that this isn’t true, so, while it’s an entertaining way of wrapping up your play – and certainly it got a nice wave of shock round the audience with which I saw it – it does also cast increasing doubt on the veracity of anything else that you’ve said into the microphone. I’m reasonable sure, for example, that the words he puts into the mouth of “handsome playwright from Manchester” Simon Stephens were almost certainly never spoken by Simon. Not least, because Simon would have probably put him straight about Stockport before continuing.

So, yes, what we’ve got in Blind Hamlet is a dictaphone in a spotlight on a nondescript chair, on a rather nicely designed and lit stage (directed by Ramin Gray, no designers credited) – not a million miles off the set for ATC’s The Events last year – which gradually brings a total of seven audience members on stage for a game of Mafia (you know, that game where one (two here) person is the murderer, someone else is the policeman, see also: wink murder).

Annoyingly, there’s a more-or-less total disconnect between many of the individual thoughts here. The reflections on Hamlet are interesting and diverting enough. The various games that the audience members play on stage are also entertaining (although, on the day I saw it, the participants ranged from a bit too embarrassed to actually too dense for the games to work 100%). But none of it really adds up to a whole. I’m a big fan of just putting a bunch of stuff on stage and letting the audience make its own connections, but here it feels like either Soleimanpour believes it all adds up in a way it doesn’t, or else the way the show works makes it feel like we should perceive active, workable links between the various elements which either aren’t really there or that I missed. As such, just making our own connections seems somehow more unavailable than usual, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Perhaps because the things made available to us to draw the connections between simply refuse to tessellate in a satisfactory way. Which is a shame. I’d have quite liked to have got more out of what is definitely a interesting premise or two, but it feels like it still needs another re-write/re-think before it fully hits its mark.

 [I reckon, fwiw, it needs either more Hamlet or more blindness or more Iran or more theatre or all four, and tied together with a slightly stronger conclusion – although, the random elements; the unpredictability of the participants, also possibly want a few more failsafes built in. If the game is to be the conclusion, then either its result should be rigged – which seems possible that it is – but then that conclusion perhaps needs to speak to something else in the piece. Or, if someone already thinks it does, then what it’s speaking to should at least be reasonably apparently to a critic of average intelligence while they’re watching...]

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Amongst Millions – Paradise in the Vault

[seen 04/08/14]

Amongst Millions is the sort of show that single-handedly justifies a day of taking wild punts in the Fringe brochure. It’s also the sort of show that I reckon everyone at the Edinburgh Fringe wants to see, although I admit it might be an acquired taste and Not For Everyone.

What it is, is a piece of contemporary dance – and, at last, contemporary dance in the sense that I understand it; that is to say: the sort of thing that people who like ballet walk out of, saying “he hardly moved at all.” – in which the solo performer (and self-choreographer) Pedro Goucha Gomes stands naked in a spotlight for half an hour. Perhaps twice, achingly slowly, he gradually collapses to the floor. In short, the “action” of Amongst Millions is simply the act of watching an unclothed human body tense, writhe, shudder, and spasm, over and over again, for 30 minutes.

As an aid to this, the piece also has an immense sonic landscape composed by MiguelAngel Clerc. The “music” (and this is to music what the dance is to ballet) is also properly stunning (again, if you like that sort of thing. No one’s judging you if you don’t. I think I’m explaining this clearly enough for people to make up their own minds...). It seems to come from the lineage of Sunn O))) with maybe a hint of a screechy power-electronics influence. For the first few minutes, you knew there was music, but it was almost inaudible as sound. It was something playing at so low a frequency that you first really became aware of it because it was rattling every loose metal fitting in the small, narrow, ascetic room where the piece plays.

Writing analytically about such minimalist work feels – in the abstract – like it ought to be intensely difficult. Like, in theory, all you’ve got is one silent, naked human body, and “no plot”. In the event, here, it feels as if, if anything, at points Gomes actually gets a bit too demonstrative and explain-y. Only maybe twice, but even so, it’s there. Admittedly, obviously, this is just my take on the thing, but to me it felt like the piece presented a really clear set of, well, pointers to direct how you thought about this theoretically opaque, abstact thing. For a start, Gomes doesn’t even smile until about twenty minutes into the piece. And even then it’s only brief, and too forced to represent pleasure. Instead what we mostly see if either a staring blankness or else rictuses of agony.

 As a whole, the piece feels like spending half an hour in front of an animate painting by Francis Bacon or Egon Schiele. What’s remarkable about it, is the way that watching it feels like it’s almost clearing your head – or rather, by forcing you to concentrate so intently on one thing, that it’s like giving your mind a good scrub. Everything else somehow gets replaced (well, this is my experience anyway) by the analytical soundtrack in your head. Precisely because of the lack of any narrative to distract you, you’re constantly writing your own script, story, interpretation of what’s happening in front of you. The whole thing feels like an almost audible exercise in highlighting the human tendency toward explication because that’s what you hear yourself doing, loudly, internally, for its entire duration.

The precision and skill with which the movement is executed is somehow incredibly reassuring. As if it’s the most normal thing in the world to sit for half an hour concentrating hard on the nude male form. Gomes’s body itself – obviously that of a trained dancer – also exercises a strange fascination (not least for this out-of-shape critic, among whose more banal thoughts might, more than once, have been the reflection: “wow. I really need to do some more exercise”): because it is so *trained*, it’s almost not like a human body at all, so much as a perfectly tuned machine. All the muscles – not overdone, not ludicrously, steroid-y, but functional; existing to perform difficult physical tasks with ease – look like they’re in optimum shape, this is more like considering sculpture than a person. (Which, reading back, sounds like it’s “less human” as a result, my point is somehow partly the opposite: that Art is more “person” than an actual “person” would be (cf. Am I).

Overall, playing at 19.30, and tucked away in the Vaults venue, off that street which curls up from the Grassmarket to Bedlam, this show feels like a real break from the normal run of the Fringe – a kind of mental spa, crossed with a vigorous workout for the synapses. Like I say, it might not be for everyone, and aficionados of this sort of work might have their own specific issues with it, but for me, it was a case of exactly what was needed at exactly the right moment: muted, subtle virtuosity that trusts an audience to understand properly difficult work.

Am I – Spotlites @ Merchants Hall

[seen 04/08/14]

Continuing my day of dance/physical theatre, picked largely at random from the first couple of pages of the section in the Fringe guide, we come to Am I. And it turns out to be a piece of danc-theatre about sex trafficking. Perhaps – following on from Theatre With Teeth’s dance version of Posh, we might like to consider this as the dance version of Three Kingdoms.

As it happens, I did end up spending a large amount of time thinking about Three Kingdoms through the show, largely because, post-Birdland, and then post-Streetcar..., I’d been party to a couple of *those conversations* about Whether The Plays of Simon Stephens are Misogynist. Interestingly, the thing that And I highlighted for me about Three Kingdoms was what an original bit of thinking 3K actually was. Put simply, I think I’ve seen Am I in various guises about a million times now. It tells the story of one trafficked woman, and is based on a “Sunday Times Bestseller”. What is striking is that the story of one trafficked woman tends to be the same as any other story. There is essentially next to no variation in the story. As someone recently noted about the stories of Holocaust survivors, it’s an awkward fact that *all* the stories are the same, and fatigue sets in at a certain point. As such, Am I is literally no different at all from Bodies in Transit which I saw on the Fringe eight years ago. It’s a difficult observation to make. Obviously. It also made me realise why Three Kingdoms was so interesting. At the time, one of the sticks used to beat it was that the women in it were largely voiceless: silent, doe-eyed (literally), victims. Actually, in theatrical terms at least, seeing this show I was reminded that I’d seen those “voiceless” women’s stories about a million times before, and since. And that 3K was unique in that it was attacking sex-trafficking as a male problem, as a power structure, and rather than telling a story which enforces the idea of women as victims – much like those “Don’t Get Raped” campaigns – it was tackling the real problem: the men who perpetuate the trade, both traffickers and customers – the wished-for equivalent of a “Don’t Rape” poster campaign.

Thinking about Am I through the prism of the criticism that was levelled at 3K, you also notice again another problem of portraying the sex industry (or the rape industry as it might be better termed) – that is: the objectification of women. In Am I, the audience is invited to watch five twenty-something women dancing in fishnet hold-ups, underwear and lacy tops for an hour and ten minutes. There’s also a cute, Italian(?) boy with a floppy fringe and undercut playing their improbable pimp. The dance routines they perform are frequently what could be described as barely-disguised, barely-stylised lap-dance club style-stuff, grinding pelvises against their chairs, and thrusting themselves about this way and that. It wouldn’t take a great leap of imagination for blokes who were so inclined to find the show mildly erotic.  And not in any way that would be useful to the furtherance of the pieces undoubtedly noble aims. And this is Am I’s problem – a problem throughout of stultifying literalism. If a woman has been dressed as a sex-worker by her pimp, then so is the dancer. If the woman is forced to perform “sexy” dances, then so does the dancer. And so on. (All, incidentally, to a soundtrack composed largely of what sounds like bad Nine Inch Nails off-cuts from the point in the band’s history where they stopped being an interesting industrial band and started being a dull, sludgy metal cabaret act.)

As such, I would say Am I more or less entirely fails its subject. The visual literalism means that all we’re looking at is a representation with no interpretation or analysis. The passages of the book which are read out, while miserable and appalling (obviously), also add nothing more than a key to *explaining* the dance moves we already understand. And, where the violence is necessarily stylised, it simply doesn’t connect with the audience on any visceral level. Where this should be a piece of theatre that is should be near-unwatchable because of the sheer level of human misery, violence and suffering involved, instead it is close to unwatchable both because of its failure to communicate this, and the point-blank fact of its lack of imagination in the choreography and presentation.

It’s only fair to mention that all six dancers are clearly capable of more and better, and I imagine the choreographer is young enough for this work to still count as developmental. For their work to blossom, I’d say that a greater understanding of how dance can actually communicate as a medium is needed. Rather than a mimetic walk-through of what happened using moves we’ve all seen a million times before, there needs to be an appreciation of the power that abstraction can bring.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Dirty Decadence – C Nova

[seen 04/08/14]

We were somewhere around Barnes when the drugs began to take hold

Dirty Decadence is a piece of dance theatre “Inspired by Laura Wade’s Posh” (Fringe Programme, p.182). And, well, I was intrigued...

The first thing to say about the company, Theatre with Teeth, is that they are young. Very, very young. Possibly university age, but I’d be surprised. They’re all clear skin, springy flesh, and bits of blurb that say: “Think Matthew Bourne on LSD.”

Apparently, in Matthew Bourne’s trip, he’s stuck in a tiny room in Edinburgh, tasked with making a dance version of a two- or three-hour-long play having only seen the hideous trailer for the disastrous-looking film.

Luckily for Matthew, the seven-strong company of adolescents he’s been given to work with seem like talented enough dancers. Of course the room is still a problem for him. Its walls look like they’re made of black curtains, which are forever threatening to swallow him up. Because it’s so small the moves his dancers can perform are necessarily quite timid.

Nevertheless, despite his acid-addled state, he soldiers on. The company he’s been given to work with are four girls and three boys. This puts a pretty big hole in trying to adapt Posh, since the whole point of it is that they’re all blokes (apart from the the waitress and, was there a prostitute?), and it’s a play about white male privilege. One of these blokes isn’t even white. “Ok, let’s just say ‘inspired by’, then,” Matthew breathes, hoping that he’s only imagining the spiders.

The company get to work, and, to be fair, they’re adept enough at dancing. In his head, the hapless Bourne can only hear classical music backed with old Portishead beats, and some dubious early 90s synth music made by me and my mates when I’d just bought a drum machine and we were all quite into the Sisterhood. “It’ll have to do,” he softly moans to no one real.

Meanwhile, the group seem to have worked out some sort of replacement story without Bourne’s help. It basically revolves around six poshos having teenage relationship issues. One of the girls is a bit too snobby to be paired up with the mixed-race guy, but that’s just her good luck, since he’s carrying on with one of the other blokes, while the last bloke is more interested in making a pas de deux at the waitress (who here, contra Wade, seems pretty into it; rolling around on the shiny table and touching herself suggestively). In the end, one of the girls stabs the waitress and they all get away with it. The final scene sees them all sitting round in another restaurant having got away with it.

Bourne sits with his head in his hands. I should never have taken this LSD, he thinks to himself.

No, but seriously: I don’t see much not-contemporary dance, so seeing people mostly doing ballet-inspired dance is interesting. It feels a bit like it comes from a parallel world where Pina Bausch never happened, and feels pretty old-fashioned. The company, as I say, are very young, and I don’t think it’s wrong to say that they should be given a lot of credit for an imaginative thing to attempt. I think C Venues logistics work against them, but they’ve come up with a credible and committed piece of storytelling, and I hope they stick together as a company and adapt some more plays.

Actually, I already totally want to see their dance Punk Rock next year...