Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Vertical Hour - Royal Court

Woyzeck - Queen Elizabeth Hall (LIMF)

What is it about Georg Buchner's 19th play that continues to exercise such fascination for modern theatre companies? In the past few years there have been at least three significant revivals presented in Britain - two by international companies, neither of them German. Perhaps this is part of the appeal; although there is a clear narrative, it seems that the script itself is not especially highly regarded. Woyzeck seems to be that rarest of things - a play which communicates through a series of events and actions, rather than by its conversations and speeches.

Nowhere is this point more powerfully made than in Korean company Sadari Movement Laboratory’s new production, which scarcely includes more than ten words of English. Instead, a majority of the production is communicated through dance and movement.

However, while the movement manages to communicate the story effectively, it doesn’t ever really cross the divide between telling the tale and making you care about any of the characters or what happens to them. Woyzeck’s chaotic and miserable life looks as nasty, brutish and short as it ever does, but his relationship with Maria and her subsequent betrayal of him with an army captain is deeply underpowered. Their relationship is barely established on stage before she goes off with her new lover, so it is more difficult to credit Woyzeck’s ultimately murderous rage which this precipitates. Maria’s motivations also seem more obscure than ever, particularly since there seems to be little to choose between the two men in this instance.

That said, there is still much here to admire. The skills pressed into service of telling the story are quite extraordinary - in one sequence where Woyzeck is experimented on by a crazed doctor the performer, Jae-Won Kwon, lies supported by two chairs at his shoulders and feet, and remains rigid; almost suspended in mid-air. That this lasts for about five minutes is even more startling. There is also some hugely inventive use of lighting and chairs to create some memorable stage pictures. However, for all this invention, the heart of the piece remains cold - even potentially mystifying for those unfamiliar with the story.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Off the beaten track

This week I seem to have contrived not to see any of the major openings at all, so far. And you know what? It’s kind of nice. I sent other people to the National and to the Hampstead for CultureWars to see Happy Now? and The President’s Holiday, while the nice PR people for The Sea could only offer me a ticket on Thursday night, for which I already had a reviewing gig booked in - of which, more later - with the short notice prevented me from getting anyone else to go. I am, however, seeing The Vertical Hour, on Saturday afternoon - well after press night - and am fascinated to find out in which of the impossibly polarised “love it”/”hate it” camps I end up (for what seems like a pretty fair appraisal, try Charles Spencer, who is always at least candid enough to put all his cards on the table and foreground his preferences).

Anyway, the net result is that I have caught a few shows that have so far eluded national broadsheet coverage this week. On Wednesday night I headed over to the Shunt Vaults, ostensibly with the aim of catching Simon Kane’s Jonah Non Grata, following the ringing endorsement from Chris Goode. I arrived at about nine and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my £5 entry fee entitled me to wander into all three pieces showing that night, free run of the (mostly reasonably priced) bar, and the chance to witness what I can only describe as a kind of avant garde “intervention” in said bar: - at eleven the lights went out, the PA system started playing very loud, horrible music - well, noise really - and a man appeared silhouetted in the doorway, naked and covered from head to toe in mud. Spotlit, he then proceeded to have buckets of viscera pour on him from the ceiling. Then, as he wondered across the bar, further viscera, then sand, rained down on him and any bystanders unlucky enough to be standing too close (seriously, if you’re in the Shunt Vaults Bar at about eleven, do check the ceiling above you before deciding on your vantage point). The whole thing took maybe three or four minutes, and was quite amazing to witness - exactly the sort of thing that every experimental avant garde bar should have.

On Thursday, I got to catch the afternoon performance of Point Blank Hotel, the new production from a group of Dartington students, one of whom had been in the rather excellent Tea Without Mother (11th para) at the NSDF a couple of years ago. Although essentially a scratch performance, there was still much to intrigue in this bizarre forty minute tale of a young woman condemned to work in a hotel owned by sadists and lunatics. It’s not a bad little bit of work. Yes, there is room for improvement, not least in the lighting department; and the multimedia film elements could perhaps do with a little more cinematic panache; but the what the piece does achieve very well is instilling a profound sense of unease. Scenes with the hotelier’s wife wielding a lethally sharp meat cleaver and footage of the young maid’s eye bleeding combine to evoke a kind of David Lynch-type atmosphere of not-quite-placeable nastiness. (Note to self: stop using David Lynch as a default reference, even when it is obviously the main influence. People will think you’ve only seen four films.)

On Thursday night I had the misfortune to witness An Audience with the Mafia for the FT. I’ll link to the review if/when it goes online. Suffice it to say that if for any reason you were contemplating popping along, reconsider immediately. It is without doubt the worst thing I have ever seen in the West End, and one of the three worst things I have ever seen in a theatre in my life. The fact I got paid to sit through it barely makes it any better.

In other news, did anyone else catch the wholly witless item about the Arts Council cuts on You and Yours on R4 this lunchtime? It really was very bad indeed. The chap from the Arts Council was allowed to make a series of baldly mendacious claims, unchallenged by an apparently unbriefed and credulous presenter. They then wheeled out the utterly useless Rosie Millard (erstwhile worst theatre critic in the world when at the New Statesman - the woman who started her Drunk Enough To Say I Love You review thus: “The title of Caryl Churchill's new play is also its first line.”) who trotted out some unverifiable claims about artists having a sense of entitlement and “why should taxpayers subsidise the arts anyway?” claptrap, without even the intellectual rigour to sound like she’d even thought through the position. Sam West was hauled out to oppose the motion, and though speaking beautifully and restraining his probable urge to punch La Millard hard in the face, did rather spoil the counter argument by setting out too vigorously, sounding a bit like he'd oppose every funding cut ever, as a matter of principle, rather than forensically pinning down the Arts Council on its myriad procedural failures and the sheer slapdash nature of the rushed-through botch-job of proposed cuts and the shamefully short time allowed for appeals, not to mention the even more ludicrously brief window allotted to making final decisions.

Following my NSDF post, I’ve stayed off the subject of the funding cuts as much as possible, mainly because so many other people were writing regularly on the matter that an additional voice would have been both superfluous and liable to contribute to compassion fatigue. But since I’ve now brought it up, I’ve been wondering lately if anyone else finding the basic tenets of the new McMaster report irresistibly reminding them of the following... (forward to about 1:40)

No? Just me, then.

Jonah Non Grata - Shunt Vaults

First draft

Simon Kane’s solo performance piece Jonah Non Grata is a remarkable little show. Taking as its starting point the Biblical story of Jonah it creates an abstract impression of the narrative using diverse elements from a Choose Your Own Adventure book to a bunch of mad little songs.

The show stars with the audience packed into a tiny concrete cell close to the entrance of the Shunt Vaults. Kane makes his entrance zipped inside a laundry bag, shuffles and rolls into the space, and disentangles himself to the sounds of ukuleles playing O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Kane is an enormously engaging presence - friendly but with enough edge to keep one slightly uncomfortable. He makes a convincing modern vision of a Biblical prophet, which is essentially the ‘character’ he is ‘playing’ here.

“I am a double act. Half of that act is me who tonight will be played by us.” he tells us. It’s pretty clear that the implied other half is God. The brilliance of this first section is the way in which it reminds us of the Sunday School God of whom many of us have a basic recollection, but here viewed through a prism which, while never naming its subject, deconstructs it through a series of absurd devices until one is left with a sense of the absolute strangeness of the idea of a God, what we are told about Him, and the what we do with the information. At one stage we all rise to sing along with a hymn, which includes the following verses:

O dust. O might. O Trilobite,
Come wash my senses black and white
For my senses are all cut down.

Surround me with three thousand spears
Evolve big death rays from my ears
So no bitches can do me in.

It gets exactly to the heart of what all hymns are essentially saying, and yet is utterly barking mad. At the same time, it is stirring stuff, and even through the nonsense, it still seems to conjure the same God as that of Blake or Milton in some intangible way. There is still the sense of mystery, wonder and grandeur in spite of the strangeness. A tape player repeats the word: “Scourge”.

The second section sees us move from the cramped cell into the Shunt lift and then out the other side into the figurative belly of the whale. Kane covers his head in a porridgy whale-insides-like viscera and warbles in a high pitched voice. The word “scourge” crops up again and reminds us that the general title Jonah and the Whale is a bit of a gloss. After all, kooky detail though the whale is, it merely serves as a cute aside in a story about a religious fundamentalist instructed by God to go to a city with which God is displeased and tell them to mend their ways or face obliteration.

In the third part, having gone back through the lift, we arrive in Nineveh with Jonah, who promptly books into a hotel and starts phoning everyone in the phone book to tell them God’s message, shouting: “You're dead. You should have believed him when he told you he loved you” into the handset. At one point, Kane goes out of the main Shunt entrance and screams the same message at passers-by on London Bridge station, while wearing a dressing gown and cradling a gutted fish in his arms. The show concludes with a song about Sonic the Hedgehog, which somehow manages to make Sonic sound like a perfect metaphor for human free will set against God’s agency in the world.

In many ways, though, it feels wrong to pin the thing down so closely to some of its apparent source material. After all, this is theatre doing what it absolutely does best - creating abstractions and making metaphors while remaining baffling, funny, frightening and hugely entertaining; allowing the mind to be led and at the same time to explore the explosions being triggered in its synapses. This is a glorious, astonishing show. Absolutely essential viewing.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

January blues

A couple of times in the last few weeks Mark Shenton has reflected on the way that keeping a blog opens up one’s private life in often unexpected ways. I always swore to myself that I would never write about my private life on Postcards, so I’m grateful to Andy Field for pretty much summing up my thoughts on January - using exactly the same opening quote as I would have used into the bargain.

What a vile month it’s been, though: the continual dark grey weather, virtually no plays opening for the first two weeks, and the ongoing miserable story of the Arts Council cuts dominating theatre news, providing another launch pad for the depressing ongoing argument between writers and, um, different sorts of writers, and devisers. Beyond that, in the real world, the nigh-on apocalyptic reporting on the state of the global economy has hardly made for cheery reading either.

Well, the month is now nearly over, and it’s time to buck up. The latest round of blog posts and new controversies (step forward Neil LaBute) have lifted everyone’s spirits, and normal service looks like it is slowly being resumed.

LaBute’s recent outburst seems like a good place to start. I have to confess that in spite of the grandstanding and needless belligerence, I quite liked some of the general thrust of the article; not least because it name-checked Wallace Shawn - perhaps the most underrated American playwright I can think of. It is a pity that LaBute, while acknowledging his own shortcomings (“On many levels, I think we playwrights are failing - and again, I include myself in this.”) does little to address them in his latest offering at the Bush.

Far better, though, is the exchange between LaBute and George Hunka - whose work I am increasingly keen to read - under the retaliatory article by Naomi Wallace on the Guardian’s website. What is sad about LaBute’s article is that while it is always nice to have one’s country’s playwright’s praised for “at least giving a shit”, his list of our leading playwrights is virtually exactly the same list that our universities were trotting out over ten years ago when I was an undergraduate, that Michael Billington reiterates at great and passionate length in State of the Nation, and of whose new work the National has just unveiled a virtual Seventies-playwrights nostalgia season. Of course that’s an unfair label. There is no reason to tie Hare, Edgar, Brenton and co. to the specific cultural moment when their talents emerged any more than Ravenhill should still be considered to be In Our Face along with Anthony Neilson when both are making completely distinct work. But it is a pity that LaBute’s list didn’t include, say, Howard Barker, Martin Crimp and Dennis Kelly.

Speaking of Mark Ravenhill, did anyone else hear him talking about My Most Memorable Experience of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love on Radio 4’s Soul Music yesterday lunchtime (not a bad half hour documentary, charting the song’s history from the original Gloria Jones record through to the Coil cover and its appearance in Doctor Who, oddly)? What he said - that he remembers kissing a girl called Sarah Johnson while it was playing at a teenage party - was less interesting than the fact that he popped up at all. Clearly the man is making a bid to become the most public playwright since George Bernard Shaw, and succeeding.

It doesn’t seem to be doing him much good, though. His latest Guardian blog, which for my money raised some pertinent and interesting questions about the extent to which a playwright’s name guarantees a production of their work, more than the actual quality of said work, seemed to be wilfully misconstrued by all those who commented on it.

Similarly, his “putting down my pink pen” piece before Christmas raised some interesting questions for me, especially when considered alongside the frankly worrying comments under Chris Wilkinson’s recent piece, suggesting “Hytner needs to be careful. His version of the National Theatre is becoming increasingly shrill and camp and heterophobic... the kind of thing Binkie Beaumont would have rejected as too screaming sixty years ago” (it is the commenter was making these accusations, not Wilkinson). I realise I’m not in an ideal position to write about Queer Theatre or whether there is such a thing as a distinctly “gay aesthetic”, but as an abstract question, it interests me greatly, and would welcome any pointers on what to read, or discussion on the matter.

I seem to have written mostly about writers in this post, which is odd, since more than half the work I’ve seen in the past week or so has been either movement-based/visual or otherwise devised. Also, interestingly, I have yet to see anything this year much longer than an hour. I’m not complaining, but it does strike me as unusual. If I’m not forced to sit quietly for three hours in a darkened room soon, I’m worried I’ll lose the knack and start fidgeting, texting, and commenting loudly to my neighbour, whenever I’m next faced with some Shakespeare.

In other news, I’m currently reading Greg Giesekam’s new academic tome Staging the Screen to review for Theatre Notebook. As a partial survey of some of the video-projection/multimedia/intermedia (his word, a useful distinction for work which actually incorporates video/film rather than simply playing before a projected background, for example) it looks like being quite interesting, if a little too much like an unreconstructed PhD thesis - more on this as and when.

Finally, during this season of not blogging or going to the theatre, I have been enjoying the myriad delights of YouTube, so I will leave you with a bit of the excellent Monroe Transfer’s video for I Dreamt I Was a Hammer and Everything Was Glass (not the greatest recording of the song - and doesn't get to the great guitar swell in about minute eleven):

Alternatively, for uncomplicated pop fans everywhere, is there anything more fun than this? (the video is unimportant - you should probably listen while reading something else, frankly)

* Ok, so it wasn't quite that bad

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

White Boy - Soho Theatre

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

Tanika Gupta's White Boy tells the story of a collection of types who have less interior life between them than my teapot. Ricky, the titular white boy, is a loveable, loyal loser who spends his time looking up to his black best friend, Vic - a sporting hero, hard-worker and all-round good egg. Ricky has even adopted a thick Jamaican patois (cf. the white Rastafarian, Gary, in Citizenship) to underline how much he wants to be his best friend - who, curiously, doesn’t have a Jamaican accent at all. Meanwhile, the school bully, “Flips”, is chasing after the school Sudanese refugee, who is called “Sorted”. This all carries on for a bit, until in a sudden and tragic denouement Flips accidentally bashes Vic in the face with a baseball bat, killing him outright, and Sorted stabs Flips to death with a tiny penknife he is looking after for Vic’s girlfriend. It is curiously like watching a whole series of Grange Hill magically condensed into the longest hour I have spent in a theatre for quite some time.

Director Juliet Knight has sprinkled in some neatly done dance sequences, a slow motion replay of the final showdown and a whole three minutes of tragic singing while the school gates festooned with floral tributes after the fatal thwacking. She has also set the young cast a dazzling array of tics and mannerisms to deal with, seems to have ordered them to stand much too close to each other all the time, and appears not to have decided whether she thinks she’s directing Fame or something gritty. For all this, the young cast do an amazing job. The principle characters are, by and large, utterly convincing. Obi Iwumene makes an affable Vic. Luke Norris manages to sustain Ricky’s strangely affected accent while still presenting a likeable front, and Ciaran Owens as Flips only occasionally lets his accent drop enough to hint at the long string of RSC roles which no doubt await him on the other side of Rada.

However, in spite of its hurried exposition, largely immaterial middle and sudden ending, White Boy captures something of the listlessness, futility and the accidental escalations of aggression that mark out teenage life. It is probably also worth noting that the default racism into which both the white male characters descend at several points is so hackneyed and cheap that it is almost mildly racist in itself. As a comment on youth violence, though, it suggests that these deaths are little more than tragic accidents - the results of unchecked bravado. While this may not be the whole story, it is at least good to see a play which doesn’t dissolve into hysterical conspiracy theorising and panic mongering. Instead it reduces the lives of the capital’s youth to streams of unthinking boredom relieved only by cheap music, throwaway platitudes and sudden, unintended fatalities.

Land of the Dead / Helter Skelter - The Bush Theatre

In a recent article for the Guardian, trenchant American playwright Neil LaBute made the startling claim that “most writers are pussies”. He went on to ask of his audience: “Let us know that if we are brave enough to write about the stuff that matters, then you'll come and watch... when I sit down and put pen to paper, I can promise to write about a subject of some importance, and to do so with honesty and courage.” Well, if Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter represent the stuff that matters - subjects of some importance - we might as well all go home now.

Land of the Dead offers two intercut monologues, of a woman going for an abortion and her partner going to work. The woman gets the abortion, the man phones and says she needn’t go through with it and then some terrorists fly a plane into his office in the World Trade Center. And that’s that. I would apologise for spoiling the plot, but thanks to LaBute’s article noting that Land of the Dead is about 9/11 and the design of the set being heavily suggestive of the WTC’s exterior combined with the New York skyline, it is obvious within two minutes exactly what is going to happen. After that it just becomes a matter of sitting and waiting for the trite to hit the fan.

Helter Skelter also builds up to the most obvious conclusion since, well, Land of the Dead. As soon as the wife figure walks in with an enormous pregnancy, in a bright, white dress and sits at a table ostentatiously laid with steak knives, and her cheating husband pleads: “Will you stop? Please? [...] I do not want this becoming some... big... thing here, OK? One of those Greek dramas” we know exactly where this is going. We already know all about LaBute’s Greek tragedy fixation from his earlier monologue sequence, Bash, here he seems to be offering us his Medea Redux redux.

However, LaBute trades brilliantly on this mounting apprehension. The dialogue between the betrayed wife and her faithless husband is an object lesson in creating tension. The husband’s increasingly hopeless evasions as the wife demands to see his phone to check the last dialled number are unflinchingly precise. Every time the situation seems like it has nowhere left to go dramatically, a new difficulty arises, while all the time the certainty of a sudden and bloody conclusion hangs over the audience, making it almost impossible to keep watching at times. Toward the end both parties become increasingly, impossibly, verbose - the husband’s final speech is so packed with reassuring platitudes that the thought briefly occurs that he could be standing for the emptiness of modern American political rhetoric. Although, given what follows, this seems unlikely.

The writing in both pieces is admirable and tightly constructed, but are we seriously being told that this is the “stuff that matters”? After all, apart from the Grand Guignol finale, the piece is little more than a particularly tense vignette from a typical Adultery In NW3 drama. Does the play communicate anything beyond the narrow rat-run of the narrative? Not really. It is ironic that, in a week when a man has gone on trial for attempting to kill himself and his two children in similar circumstances, Helter Skelter feels so utterly removed from human behaviour. Worse, though, is the potentially invidious comparison that Land of the Dead appears to invite between abortion and the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. Yes, there is some nice iconoclastic crackle in the use of images - Helter Skelter, as well as describing the feel of the piece perfectly, also references the mention made of Charles Manson's murder of the pregnant Sharon Tate - but ultimately these two nasty little playlets achieve precious little.

Hiroaki Umeda / S20 - Barbican Pit (LIMF)

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

Quite what falls under the remit of the London International Mime Festival these days is an interesting question. It seems pretty safe to say that virtually none of it is “mime”, as the term is generally understood (or was originally meant). The three pieces by Hiroaki Umeda are a case in point; to all intents and purposes this is simply contemporary/modern dance meshed with video art. This presentation is a triple bill of two live dance pieces - Duo and while going to a condition - sandwiching a shorter video piece, Montevideoaki.

The premise of Duo is simple; Umeda stands before a large white screen on the left hand side of the stage. On the right is a slightly pixelated, video-projected twin. As slowly raises his right arm, the projected double raises his. This continues for some time, with Umeda slowly raising and lowering his right then left arm in graceful fluid motions. On the right hand side of the screen we see the movements mirrored, albeit with short bursts of signal interference. Each such instance is accompanied by a moment of white noise. After a set cycle, the form of the interference alters, along with the white noise sound which accompanies it - variously we see the doppelganger digitally flicker, de-tune, explode into pixels, and suddenly become vast on the screen.

Gradually - and, boy, do I mean gradually - these sequences become faster; the white noise starts to create an industrial beat; Umeda’s movements become freer, more dance-like; while the sequence of video effects starts to take on a more frenetic life of their own, with flickers being followed by a suggestion of pixel explosions and sudden size shifts. It’s all very clever, but, as the density of the soundtrack increases and the video effects pile up, it becomes irresistibly reminiscent of a Gap advert, or an Eighties pop video. However, the piece never quite reaches the flat-out meltdown that the build-up suggests; instead it gradually fades away into a section of curiously anodyne lift-music, reminiscent of the muzak played on the Tokyo underground.

The second piece, Montevideoaki, simply presents footage of Mr Umeda busting more of his moves in front of a selection of gritty urban landscapes and tranquil ocean views, along with another thumping industrial soundtrack. The video is played on both screens, with the left showing a mirror image of the right. With the live element removed, the whole enterprise moves a step closer to MTV territory. Not that there’s anything wrong with MTV, per se, but the piece as a whole is oddly suggestive of Justin Timberlake crossed with Ian Curtis dancing in a Nine Inch Nails video. Presenting a video as a discrete component of an otherwise ‘live’ performance also raises some interesting questions about the nature of the event.

The final piece of the three operates along similar lines to the first, with a painfully slow build-up of tiny movements incrementally resolving themselves into a complex dance pattern. Meanwhile, in the background, the screens show a sequence of punishingly bright, strobing black and white geometric shapes. This last piece also features the single most arresting moment of the hour-long show: a retina-scorching minute of intense strobe-lighting flashing directly into the audience’s eyes, silhouetting Umeda against the rapidly pulsing bright white glare.

In terms of meaning, Hiroaki Umeda’s programme notes insist: “What I want is to transmit sensations, rather than messages, to the audience. Therefore there are no conceptual themes in my shows, which I empty of everything that might constitute a meaning.” It’s a lofty claim, and one on which I’m not sure he fully delivers. Umeda might have tried to divest his work of “meaning” but it remains pregnant with potential meanings, and is enormously “readable” or suggestive - particularly on ideas of urban alienation effected by technology - whether he intends it to be so or not.

Nuit Sur le Monde - Purcell Room (LIMF)

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

Compagnie Mossoux-Bonte’s Nuit Sur Le Monde is a triptych of pieces: Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me), Ad Mortem Festinamus (We Rush Towards Death) and Sola Sub Nocte (Alone in the Night). The first part opens with a slow-moving, starkly lit, grey-painted female figure against a similarly grey concrete wall, in a tightly framed doorway of light. The initial visual impression is of a living Banksy graffito. She runs through a sequence of jerky movements and the lights go down. When the lights go back up she has been joined by two near-identical figures in the same frames of light. The three run through a similar sequence of physical patterns and the lights fade once more. This process is repeated with the full six-strong company, before the light boxes fade and the group - while still pressed against the back wall - become a unified tableaux. In many ways, this is the closest you can get to a literal meaning of “performance art”. The way that the daubed performers stay pressed against the wall - their movements virtually two-dimensional - lends the piece the appearance of a gradually mutating, moving painting, or perhaps more accurately a moving Parthenon frieze.

The second of the pieces is faster, livelier and unconstrained by the same spatial stricture. The six performers emerge, one by one, from the right hand side of the stage, clad in white dressing gowns, and cross the stage to exit on the left - walking, stumbling, crawling. Gradually their movements and interactions build up into a near-narrative suggesting negotiations of trust and games of power and domination, conducted to an unremitting soundtrack of white noise and hospital machines - suggestive of the sinister mental health facilities and state torture of Sarah Kane’s work. Just as the patterns start to become familiar the actors are gradually unclothed, and retreat gradually behind the sheet of thick transparent plastic hung across the stage, here their actions resume, but in a more frantic, agonised manner. At times it is suggestive of the closing moments of Salo, albeit without the blood and gore. The final brief piece repeats many of the motifs previously seen, with the performers first on their knees, then standing, all the while bathed in a bright red light.

Aside from a few movements common to each piece, there is very little overt linking of the three pieces. Each has a distinct aesthetic, and different purpose. The harsh painterlyness of Noli Me Tangere makes a stark contrast to the clinical frenzy of Ad Mortem. During the former, one is assailed by a stream of reference points - from the Banksy-like opening moments, through the Bacon-like triptych to the various tableaux of the figures, suggesting various classical and Biblical scenes. Viewing is accompanied by an incessant interior monologue of recognition and speculation. This sense of half-imparted sense makes the audience an active participant in the full realisation of the piece. A similar sense emerges watching the second part. Here, rather than recognising allusions, one is constantly drawing and re-drawing a kind of narrative network of relationships between the six performers. While the whole is not seeking to create a ‘story’ in any traditional sense of the word, there is a sense of progression, of development. The final piece, by contrast, is brief and valedictory - as if the performers are tying up the loose ends and bidding the audience farewell. There is a sense of melancholy about it, as if the conclusion, now reached, is not a wholly happy one.

How It Ended - Camden People's Theatre

Written for CultureWars.org.uk

How It Ended tells the story of Lillian (Kate Hewitt), a Welsh teenager growing up during World War Two, who meets French trainee RAF pilot, Raymond (Roger Ribo). She marries, falls pregnant, and, at the end of the war, returns with him to France to bring up their child. The tale does not end happily. In fact, as a start to the theatre-going year, one could not have wished for a bleaker outlook. As tragic trajectories go, How It Ended offers nothing less than a sudden and steep decline into total, unbroken, claustrophobic misery, as Lillian is rejected by her sister Nerys (Fran Moulds) and then by her new French mothering-law (a superbly frosty Nathalie Meyer).

It is rare to see something in a theatre these days that is so unapologetically straight-forward, linear and narrative-driven. All the more remarkable given that the piece was devised by the company and director Emily Watson-Howes. The seven-strong company perform the story with an effective mixture of visual theatre techniques and naturalistic acting, with live sound effects provided by members of the cast. In spite of the way in which these devices have been deployed, the actual structure of the scenes is almost wholly cinematic. They are short, contain a salient piece of action, build to a climax and then move on. The result is curiously reminiscent of a (probably European) costume drama. Alternatively, it could easily have been an adaptation from a period novel. That it is an original piece of theatre is most surprising.

It is also interesting that the piece doesn’t appear to be seeking to offer any kind of wider comment or analysis - simply an incredibly depressing story delivered like a punch to the gut. There are no lessons to be learned, no changes to society that could perhaps prevent similar tragedies happening in the future - simply a sense that sometimes the optimism and fearlessness of young love can collapse, leaving the survivors as shattered as those returning from a war.

Thursday, 3 January 2008


Most of the papers seem to be doing a pretty good job of offering Things To Look Forward To features at the moment. Never one not to follow a journalistic fad, Postcards humbly commends the following to your attention...


Much of the most interesting sounding work opening this month falls under the auspices of two festivals: the reasonably well publicised London International Mime Festival, and the virtually invisible Lithuanian Festival at the Southwark Playhouse - which, judging by the reviews of that venue's recent production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, will at least be suitably freezing. That said, this latter looks like it deserves a good deal more attention than it's getting...

At the Court, there’s the first British production of David Hare’s latest - The Vertical Hour. About which I shan’t leap to conclusions. More excitingly (whoops), is the second Rough Cuts season Upstairs. Discussions about scratch culture and the helpfulness of such events notwithstanding, I’m looking forward to seeing the new stuff from last year’s success stories Alexander Wood, Polly Stenham, DC Moore and Mike Bartlett. There’s also a pile of verbatim stuff - which I’ll no doubt to try to see too.

Young people!

Away from the producing houses, there seems to be a lot of work opening by up and coming young things (most of whom I seem to know to some extent). At the Camden People’s Theatre, there’s How It Ended, while at the Trafalgar Studios, MahWaff are reviving Ben Woolf’s ’05 Fringe hit Angry Young Man (which I certainly liked a lot when I last saw it) in a double bill with Woolf’s new play.

There’s also The British Ambassador’s Belly Dancer at the Arcola. Apparently a pretty much first-person account of Craig Murray’s time in Uzbekistan delivered by the woman he met there, with whom he now lives. Will it be theatre or “an audience with...”? Who knows? Although, given Murray’s track-record as a tireless campaigner against human rights abuses, the piece may offer something significantly less airy than the title suggests.

Slightly further off, is the National’s next “experimental” work, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other - “twenty-seven actors, 450 characters and no dialogue: a play without words by the great experimental figure of European theatre, Peter Handke.”

Beyond theatre, I should probably plug the next gig by loveable pop-punk funsters the Official Secrets Act, who are playing Camden’s Koko on Friday under the banner of some NME event. Oh, and The Kite Runner again, obviously.

Further reading

In my rush to get everything back up and running yesterday, I neglected to offer my usual round-up of what’s going on on other blogs.

Andrew Field’s look ahead to the coming year in theatre is extremely funny - although Postcards detects a hint of world-weary cynicism.

On an entirely different tack, Ott Karulin’s most recent musings on writing about theatre tackle the question of why one would write about indifferent plays if not compelled to.

Chris Goode’s immense Furtive Fifty is a continual pleasure - although perhaps one best dealt with by dipping in and out rather than trying to read and process all in one go (silly me). Among other things, it contains possibly the most thrillingly intelligent analysis of a Britney Spears album you are ever likely to read.

Mark Shenton’s stuff over at the Stage has been particularly interesting of late. While over at the Guardian, apart from Lyn Gardner’s acute harrying of the Arts Council, things have been pretty quiet really (although I was rather pleased with the responses to my piece on being squeamish - a subject that I’m not sure I’ve quite got a handle on yet).

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

New year / old debate

Yes, I know it’s been a while. I’ve finally [mostly] got round to posting the ream of reviews from the end of last year - . After seeing those shows, the final week before Christmas got rather chewed up by the threatened Arts Council funding cuts, particularly those to NSDF, combined with an increasingly lethal round of Christmas drinks parties. And then everything stopped. The conversation around theatre seemed to take to its bed and nothing could be done to rouse it for the remainder of the holiday season. As a result, I’ve actually watched some TV and read a few books. Strange to think that there are ways of entertaining oneself that don’t involve leaving the house - or that books needn’t be read solely on public transport.

As if to demonstrate the palpable lack of a new issue to discuss, Dominic Cavendish at the Telegraph has reheated the corpse of “Where are all the right wing plays?” You’ll be pleased to hear that I really can’t be bothered to rehearse those arguments again (or again, or again). Instead, let’s think about trying to move this discussion forward - or at least onto some new territory.

Cavendish’s article is a good starting point for a discussion of the elusive/putative Right Wing Play as it is written without rancour or sneering (unlike some such articles). It does seem to be genuinely interested in finding out what such a thing might be like.

Perhaps the most helpful starting point comes from the artistic director of the Soho Theatre, Lisa Goldman, however. She makes the following startling series of claims and accusations:

“At Soho I am looking for work that flies in the face of received wisdoms. I don’t programme work because I ideologically “agree” with it – sometimes far from it. I programme work that I find provocative and artistically innovative. Yes, most of this work comes from – broadly speaking – the radical Left, but I think that’s because most great art has a rebel heart, a restless search for change. What would a Right-wing play have to offer? Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home? How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place? In my view what theatre needs is not more Right-wing plays but better Left-wing ones.”

What a depressing roll-call of nonsense. It is tempting to rip it apart line by line, but since that would be no fun to read I’ll resist, and will try to avoid making catty comments about the Soho’s utter lack of anything even faintly resembling an artistic policy as it increasingly becomes a receiving house for, well, whatever’s around really, at the same time.

There are two main planks to Goldman’s reductive thesis. The first is that work from “the radical Left” is “provocative and artistically innovative”, which she attributes to her view that “most great art has a rebel heart, a restless search for change”.

This all smacks of someone seriously failing to recognise the extent to which their own prejudices inform their thinking. The most interesting claim is her association of “left” with “rebel”. This is simple sloganeering. Moreover, it is built on some pretty shaky thinking. After all, there is very little about the structures and aims of the left that encourage rebellion (at least no beyond an initial revolution). The left, as I understand it (and, ok, there’s some slightly broad-brush portraiture going on here), is interested in fostering *communities*. Think of the utter disgust at Thatcher’s claim that there was “no such thing as society”. It is about everyone helping each other - at least in the eyes of the left - yes? Hardly the same as everyone being a rebel. If you’re aiming at a society of which you want to be a part, why would one be a rebel?

The problem is, Goldman has bought into that confusing 1950s mythology of The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, which has left an indelible mark on subsequent cultural representations of political positions. And it is a mark which curiously few seem to have tackled since. The central difficulty is that these original rebels were railing against a conservative, straight-laced middle America (or England). However, their mode of rebellion was straight-forwardly individualistic. So there’s a paradox. There’s also the issue that everyone now seems to want to buy into this myth of being the lone rebel. Goldman’s “rebel heart” is reminiscent of everything from the romantic view of lone writers knocking out their angry young plays (John Osbourne is an excellent illustration of the paradox, since he was both rebellious and reactionary) through to, oh, Tom Cruise’s “maverick” behaviour in Top Gun (often cited as one of the most right-wing films ever made). It is worth remembering that George W. Bush’s vision of America is still of a lone cowboy riding into town in the face of insuperable odds (the rest of the world, pretty much: Old Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, the Middle East etc.). And by the same token, elements of the left frequently characterise America’s behaviour as Empire-building or imperial. It’s like global politics reduced to everyone in the schoolyard arguing about who gets to be Luke Skywalker.

The second interesting plank of her argument is how she chooses to characterise the right: “Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? Let’s get back to a white Britain? That the slave trade had a civilising influence? That women should stay in the home?”

Certainly all these viewpoints have been espoused by one or more right-wingers at some point in history. I refuse to believe that none of them have ever similarly been held by those on the left. Are all right wingers automatically anti-democratic, misogynist bigots? I think not.

At this point in the argument, left wingers and right wingers alike usually start putting distance between themselves and others who are supposedly on their side of the political spectrum with whose views they disagree, while unfairly characterising the views of the other side as more extreme and immutable. It is a stupid way of arguing, and one which leads to no understanding of anything. Since the left (well some of it, anyway) prides itself on its tolerance and understanding, it might do well to actually sit down and talk to its political opponents. From this series of claims, it would appear that Goldman has never even actually met a Conservative, or has been remarkably unlucky in those few that she has met.

Her final question - “How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place?” - is an interesting one, but one which a) only describes a particular form of right-wing thinking: for example, Thatcher was more radical and modernising than, well, *conservative*; Bush and the neo-cons are pretty much entirely forward-looking in their foreign policy - not isolationist or laissez faire. Moreover, b) it forgets history - look at, say, Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and the Italian Futurists. All pretty right-wing, as far as I understand it, and yet creating the diametric opposite of old-fashioned work. Although, from what I remember of Lewis’s journal, Blast!, it was indeed still underscored with nostalgic leanings, alongside its radical futurist manifesto. Indeed, Blast might well serve as the most optimistic model for what right wing theatre might look like. Artistically valid, innovative, experimental and yet undoubtedly political.

The best possible outcome for politically informed theatre that we could hope for this year is the cessation of childish, ill-informed attacks like Lisa Goldman’s. Of course political factions will still disagree with one another, but without this fatuous process of claim and counter claim, the arguments may actually go somewhere, and theatre may even be significantly enriched as a result.

Much Ado About Nothing - National Theatre

Review forthcoming.

Dealer's Choice - Trafalgar Studio One

Having done storming business at the Menier Chocolate Factory, this acclaimed new production of Dealer’s Choice has transferred to the West End in time for Christmas. At first glance, Patrick Marber’s testosterone-fuelled 1995 debut may seem an odd choice for a Christmas show, but watching this new production, there seemed to be a more than a hint of an A Christmas Carol-style redemption story here.

If the original National Theatre production, directed by Marber himself and starring such hard-man cockerney luminaries as Phil Daniels and Ross Boatman, gave a searing picture of tough masculinity’s hidden underbelly at the fag end of 18 years of Tory administration; Sam West’s revival offers a far softer, noughties, metrosexual take on the play’s dynamic.

Reminiscent of the late John Thaw, __ __ as the steely, poker school-running restaurateur, ___, is more Inspector Morse than The Sweeney, while the unfailingly sweet Samuel Barnett doesn't make any surprising transition into East End barrow boy. While the remaining three members of the poker school retain the play's more working class roots, they do so with a softer, less threatening edge than previous productions. Ross Boatman (a long time poker friend of both West and Marber, who played Muggsy in the original production) looks tough, but as ___ has his heart on his sleeve from the word go, with his need to miss the traditional Sunday night game in order to take his estranged daughter out the following day. ___ __'s Muggsy, the comic turn and butt of jokes, is bafflingly camp, to the point of virtually becoming Frank Spencer. Roger Lloyd-Pack, completing the line-up as the professional gambler Ash, to whom __ owes £4,000, while compelling from moment to moment, never fully realises the physical threat that the action of the script suggests.

While some of these decisions might play against more obvious readings of the text, the production remains hugely, thrillingly watchable. The quality of Marber’s writing is just superb - at once tightly constructed, harsh, tender and consistently very funny indeed.

The Adventures of Tintin

Review forthcoming

Cinderella - Old Vic

Two posh pantos, not alike in dignity at all. Stephen Fry’s new writer-led pantomime for the Old Vic is so effortlessly superior to Jonathan Harvey’s effort at the Barbican that comparison seems unkind. The real question is: is what Fry has created actually a panto?

On the surface it looks like it ought to be. All the characters are in place, the shouting at the audience is there, and there is, inevitably, enough filthy double entendre to kit out a whole series of Graham Norton. And yet, somehow, it just doesn't feel like the “real thing”. The acid test, I suspect, is that I don't really like pantomimes; I enjoyed this hugely; QED.

From the off, despite a string of jokes about "Old Vic budgets" and a lack of subsidy compared with the National just up the road, the whole business has a real touch of class about it. So much so, in fact, that a joke about the purpose of Tesco being to “keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose” draws by far the loudest and longest laugh from Thursday's, predominantly adult, matinee audience. And, blimey, when they got two children from the audience up on stage they were so advert-perfect, nicely dressed, well-spoken, and polite that if they hadn’t also been so shy (and I hadn’t read accounts of different children elsewhere), I'd have sworn they were stage schooled plants.

The script finds Fry on good form, with an impressive jokes-per-minute ratio, while at the same time delivering a surprisingly engaging, not to mention oddly touching, narrative. It is the moments of “proper” pantomime business that feel tagged on as an afterthought. When the scene in which Cinderella learns that she won't be going to the ball descends into a custard pie fight, it seems beyond surreal. Fry also manages to work a fair bit of slightly darker material into the song lyrics along with the fluff, nearly turning Prince Charming into Sondheim’s self-loathing singleton Bobby in the process.

What is most interesting, however, is the nature of the filth on display here. In a recent piece for the Times, David Aaronovitch made the point that the British attitude toward intimacy - predominantly to snigger at it as smut - paints us as a chronically sexually immature nation. Here, smut is deployed in a very different way. These are knob gags written by someone who sounds like he might actually be quite fond of knobs. The humour here is not so much tittering as envelope-pushing knowingness - a dreaming Cinderella, half woken from her dreams of the prince by an early morning rooster, remarks: “what an urgent, insistent cock” - witty, yes, but certainly not coy. Elsewhere, one of the ugly sisters shrieks, “Don't palm me off with margarine, if you're going to palm me off, use butter." Pure filth, but probably the first time a pantomime has even faintly invoked the spirit of Last Tango in Paris. Elsewhere, Fry’s trademark erudition is on display, with quotes from Plato and the best version I’ve heard of the old actor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream joke with Sandi Toksvig claiming: “I gave my Bottom to John Humphrys’s Snout”

The performances here are also a cut above what one generally expects from a panto.

__ __ as Buttons comes on like a cross between a likeable Blue Peter presenter and a lovelorn sixth member of Take That. Much has been made of this Buttons’s part in the first ever “out” gay pantomime romance, and it would take the most hardened bigot imaginable not to find it sweetly tender. Although, for all that it is laudable, the same-sex romance is still kept very much at a level where parents could make their own decisions about what to explain. In-yer-face it ain’t.

Pauline Collins is effortlessly efficient as a tough-talking, no-nonsense fairy godmother, criticising Cinders for her insipidity and inanition. Sandi Toksvig is clearly in her element as a moustachioed Stephen Fry-ish narrator. While Mark Lockyer (last seen, appropriately enough, in The Ugly One at the Royal Court) rounds off a successful year with a brilliant turn as ugly sister Dolce (his sister is Gabbana), looking almost libellously like a certain troubled contemporary North London, be-beehived singer.

At the end of the day, it is nonsense, of course, but good quality, highly enjoyable nonsense, nonetheless. Lord knows how much they're charging for tickets, though.

Jack and the Beanstalk - Barbican

I suppose it augurs well for the state of British theatre that alongside powerful, beautiful works like Women of Troy, proletarian artforms like the pantomime, with its roots in variety and music hall, continue to co-exist. How much longer the pantomime survives, however, will depend on its continuing success in providing entertainment. If the Barbican’s new urge toward “designer” pantomimes gains a foothold, that looks unlikely to be long. Following last year's experiment with grafting a well-known and enthusiastic theatre writer onto the tacky body of an ailing form, resulting in Mark Ravenhill's ambitious failure Dick Whittington, this year it is the turn of Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing; Gimme, gimme, gimme) and once again the result is a mess.

The main problem here is that writing funnily for theatre, or even for popular TV, is a world away from being able to breathe fresh life into panto’s numerous hackneyed routines. The point of pantomime is to induce giddy idiocy in its predominantly youthful audience, while delivering enough smut and topical gaggery to keep the adults happy. It should at least be a demonstration of theatre’s liveness and immediacy par excellence. Never mind that this liveness is put to entirely pointless ends, it should still be live. Giles Havergal's production feels virtually hermetic. Granted, it still incorporates plenty of shouting, audience response sections and "look behind you"-ing, but as was demonstrated by yesterday's lukewarm crowd, the actors can continue to play along with the game even if given only the most muted of responses.

The performances are a mixed bag too. Granted I saw a Saturday matinee, nonetheless the whole thing felt flat. Andy Gray is a competent enough dame, but seemed lost without a proper rough and tumble audience to play off; Steve Furst was barely adequate in his villainy. Helen Baker as Jack was suitably tuneful, but hardly inspiring or heroic, while Alison Pargeter as his/her love interest Princess Melody barely got a chance to do more than simper. More annoying was Ashley Campbell as Jack’s brother Matty - the Buttons role of the piece - too Musical Theatre to come across as the big brother figure the role demands, he was instead a continual one-man self-showcase. And after a while, such self-regard wears very thin indeed.

The combination of half-baked script, underpowered performance and unsympathetic space - the Barbican's excellent main theatre, while well-suited to housing arthouse productions, is too airily cavernous to facilitate easy audience address - the energy of the crowd, by which the spectacle should be buoyed along, is too thinly spread across the wide rows and comfy chairs. Harvey has opted for a foolish half-way house invoking the rituals of the pantomime, but keeping them at an ironic distance. You’d think this makes for easier viewing for pantomime-phobes such as myself, but in fact creating a restrained, middle class spectacle for similarly restrained, middle-class audiences makes a nonsense of the whole idea.

At the same time, there seems to be something of a mis-match between audience and material. For something being marketed as a posh panto - and I swear in the audience with which I saw it, there was honestly a seven year old boy wearing plus-fours - this is very much stuck in tabloid culture. The re-heated Catherine Tate routines, jokes about TV programmes, adverts and celebrities seemed to be well wide of the mark and consequently generating very little by way of hilarity. Overall, there is precious little to enjoy and much to endure. Avoid.