Friday, 27 June 2008

Postcards aus Wiesbaden - yer actual stücke

[work in progress]

Long overdue, here’s a quick trot-through of the plays seen by Postcards in Wiesbaden and Mainz during the Neue Stücke biennale. I’m afraid due to time pressure they’re necessarily a bit on the brisk side, focusing more on what stuck out than seeking to give “proper” review of each. Still, at least that means this post might come in at a manageable length.

Śmierc Człowieka-Wiewiórki (or Der tod des Eichhörnchenmenschen) by Teatr 2xu/ustausta, Warsaw at the Wartburg theatre in Wiesbaden.

Śmierc Człowieka-Wiewiórki is performed in Polish with German simultaneous translation. Since I have neither Polish nor German, I was pretty much stumped. That said, the staging was more than engaging enough to hold the attention for most of the duration, so it was often more a case of feeling mildly frustrated rather than bored. According to the programme bumf, it “tells the story of Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF as grotesque pop theatre”. The aesthetic is a familiar one: flats painted as concrete behind and flanking the stage; projections of pop art and newsreel footage mixed with live video feeds; a white noise soundtrack tuning in and out of sixties pop music and Bach.

It is difficult to talk about the actual performances, since the speech/dialogue/whatever-it-is was unavailable to me, but it seemed pretty serviceable, high-energy stuff. Marcin Liber's staging may or may not closely fit the action, though I suspect, given the level of what could be termed “interventions” or “non-naturalistic moments”, that it was more interpretative than “writer-serving”. This jumped the proverbial shark at the moment where the all-purpose cop/tool-of-the-repressive-state crucifies and then rapes Gudrun Ensslin – or is it Ulrike Meinhof? – against the back wall of the stage. Thanks to the general artiness, this was not so much a moment of gross-out, in-yer-face brutality, but a kind of demonstration or indication of this action taking place – the strategy foregrounds the unreality of what you are watching, while still making you wince at the implied horrors taking place.

ENGLAND - Great Britain / news from nowhere, Brighton

[Coming soon]

Mariella - Sweden / Göteborgs Stadsteater

Mariella is the first bit of European theatre I’ve seen where I felt completely at home. I was back in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs circa 2001 watching yet another drama about disadvantaged youths hanging out on council estates and being sexually abused. Apparently the language of Mariella’s script is rather good; if you happen to speak Swedish. And the acting all looked fine – that odd thing of actors in their mid/late-twenties pretending to be 16, but we're used to that, aren't we?

However, the black box staging, quotidian lighting, and minimalist set – here a park bench, there a chair and a television set – did, if nothing else, reassure me that mainland Europe is not all just regietheater and spectacular innovation. Of course this is monstrously unfair given that I experienced only the design elements and blocking with any level of clarity, but these were dull enough in themselves to be reassuring. I am told that the storyline was also cheap and hackneyed in the extreme, so success and enjoyment were down to the clever use of contemporary Swedish idiom, appreciation of which was limited to only one of our group, who still appeared to find the piece pretty standard. So there we go.

The Pride of Parnell Street - Ireland / Fishamble Theatre Company, Dublin

My views on this are already a matter of public record. What my review doesn’t say is how much a matter of benefit-of-the-doubt was on offer. I saw this the same evening that I saw Mariella; Parnell Street started at ten and finished at eleven forty-five, and from halfway through I was willing it to end with every fibre of my being. Such is sometimes the life of a critic. It seemed desperately unfair to allow these factors to influence me, though. It really wasn’t the play’s fault. It was well-written and superbly acted, even if Irish intercut monologues really aren’t my thing. Although there did seem to be a certain amount of “so what” about it, irrespective of taste. However, this was one of those occasions where all the factors militating against it did it a lot of favours. Also, having seen Barry’s earlier play Hinterland, the simple fact that Pride… wasn’t Hinterland earned it several more brownie points.

hamlet ist tot. keine schwerkraft / hamlet is dead. no gravity - Austria, Schauspielhaus Wien, in co-production with wiener wortstaetten

Review here. There really is a lot more to say about this production. As with my recent mea culpa about Relocated, this was another review where I really don't think I got anywhere close to unpacking the heart of the thing. My review – like a few too many of my reviews recently, turned into something of a meta-review diverted to discussing the problems of experiencing a foreign text at the expense of talking about the actual play.

Discussing the play in this way was partially a strategy of replacing customary appreciation of horizontal and vertical contexts with foregrounded naïvety. It was also the only possible honest response, especially in an extended word-count. Even so, I felt I hadn't even begun to communicate what it was that I found so thrilling about the performance. On the other hand, this is in part due to the fact that I still find it incredibly difficult to communicate meaningfully about stuff that grabs me on a really basic aesthetic level. Like Attempts on Her Life, Simple Girl, Trojan Woman and Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler there was something here that just clicked with What I Like Best. That's very hard to make into a review that can mean something to anyone else, not least when that readership – in this instance the international attendees of a theatre festival – will have fewer of the usual reference points one might hope to be able to deploy.

Verschwinden oder Die Nacht wird abgeschafft / Disappearing or Night Is Abolished - Austria

Oh dear – interesting experience of cultural difference on this one. I went to see this with only one of my colleagues from the Young Critics Forum, the Bulgarian critic Kremena Dimitrova (or Кремена Димитрова in case she wants to Google herself). She was reviewing it for the Biennale Bulletin, I was just there because there were supposed to be English audio-descriptions available. There weren't. More reading from the script, for me, then. What I found fascinating, reading the script for the first time as the events unfolded on the stage was how profoundly what was happening on stage seemed to be at odds with what was happening in the text.

In recent weeks, I guess I've been a bit keen to talk up the idea of “director's theatre”, if only because it seems so universally mistrusted -not even really culturally understood - in here (Hell, I doubt I've got a proper handle on it myself). Well, this was the flip side, this was Where Regietheater Goes Bad. The script itself was a flimsy thing – an odd, allegorical story about an extended family featuring some faux naif ingénue flitting between men and a sexless big brother figure, while these men sought to do each other in. Pretty non-naturalistic stuff. The sort of thing Sarah Kane might have knocked up as a writing exercise along tragic Greek lines when she was about 19. And I could imagine what the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs or Gate production might have looked like in an ideal world, both the literal what's-in-the-script-is-what-happens versions, and the slightly freer versions we might see now.

Anyway, what this production seemed to do was simply give every indication that the director hadn't understood the script at all. The setting didn't help. Playing in a particularly shabby venue, the play looked like student theatre at its diabolical worst: cheap set, cheap props, bad lighting design and acting that simply didn't reach past row one.

[to be concluded...]

Fremde im Haus / Strangers at Home - Italy

[Coming soon]

Transfer! - Poland / Wroclaw Contemporary Theatre

Having seen the worst example of directors’ theatre in Verschwinden, Transfer does an awful lot to remind one why anyone thought regietheater was a good idea in the first place.

Ten ‘real’ old people – i.e. non-professional performers – are seated at the back of the large stage, variously they come to the front of the stage and relate their experiences of living on a strip of land between Germany and Poland at the end of WWII. So far, so testimony/verbatim theatre via Rimini Protokol.

However, Jan Klata doesn’t stop there (i.e. only several miles ahead of Max Stafford-Clark and Robin Soans). Oh no. On top of this already fascinating show, Klata puts actors playing Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin on a massive raised platform and has them perform grotesques of the Yalta conference. Again, not a massive leap, but interesting stuff, nonetheless. Then, periodically they are handed guitars and a keyboard and suddenly start miming to the songs of Joy Division.

As far as anyone has been able to explain to me, there isn’t anything like a rationale for this, but that hardly seemed to matter. As a Joy Division purist, I was mildly troubled that the instruments were a bit on the eighties hair-metal end of things, and that there was a keyboard but no drummer. There was no vocalist either, although Stalin on bass did the honours miming to the vocals...

[to be concluded...]

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Ugly One - Royal Court

Written for

It’s remarkable the extent to which a change of space can alter the feel of a play. With the same director, the same designer, the same overall aesthetic and virtually the same cast, this Downstairs outing for The Ugly One retains much of what made the original so engaging and fun, but the differences are fascinating.

The play tells the story of Lette, a 'plug designer' who one day learns from his boss that he has always been considered horrifically ugly and that his colleague Karlmann is to undertake all the public-facing duties of his role. Disturbed, he asks his wife, Fanny, if it is true. He notices she only ever looks him in the eye and never at his face. He goes to Scheffler, a plastic surgeon, who agrees to build him a new face completely from scratch. The result, however, is spectacularly better than anyone could have imagined, opening a new world of possibilities for Lette.

The original production benefitted from the intimacy of the Theatre Upstairs coupled with Jeremy Herbert's perfectly designed appearance of an un-dressed theatre. Downstairs the artifice behind that conceit is slightly harder to achieve, with the actors needing to raise their voices, and with more of an atmosphere of playing out to the audience. The fluidity of the staging remains, though, with the excellent cast of Frank McCusker as all the Karlmanns, Amanda Drew as a clutch of Fannys and Simon Paisley Day replacing Mark Lockyer as the various Schefflers all swapping in and out of the various namesakes they play around the excellent Michael Gould as Lette. Day's Scheffler's are more posh British than Lockyer's slightly smugger, sleazier readings, but work just as effectively.

What is interesting is the effect that this slight increase in the “theatricality” of the surroundings has on the penultimate scene in which Lette seems to suffer a split personality and starts to argue with his reflection in the mirror. This works much better on the main stage, although it’s hard to tell whether this is down to a more subtle performance, the way in which the trajectory of the play has been finessed or simply the change of space.

Perhaps as a consequence, it is the ending that seems most transformed. While in the original, it seemed to offer a neat, if slightly cold bookending of the narrative, with a slightly pat ending that simply tied up the story rather than offering a final conclusion. On this outing the ending suggests a whole new theme about narcissism but also about the possibility of love between two such narcissists who see themselves in one another. Rather than appearing cynical, the conclusion this time is oddly touching.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Lost in translationese

Since returning from Wiesbaden I’ve been feeling that my mind has been stuffed beyond capacity - that my ability to process information has stalled by dint of there suddenly being way too much information to order into a form that communicates to anyone else. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is the fact that in Germany my English compatriots and I spent most of our time speaking in “Conference English”.

It is a curious phenomenon that despite the fact that English is the default language of international conversation, the British are at a distinct disadvantage when speaking it. Everyone else speaks clearly, slowly, and with a number of words that aren’t quite correct English, but that are nonetheless internationally understood. On the other hand, native English speakers (well, me at any rate), speak rapidly, indistinctly and colloquially. Our words run together into one long noise littered with impenetrable turns of phrase. So much for a natural advantage.

What was fascinating to see was how the English contingent gradually adopted Conference English in preference to normal speech. After only a few days we were all sounding more European, speaking more slowly, littering our speech with Europeanisms and gesticulating more than any self-respecting Englishman would ever dare. I expect my transition was far from complete or entirely comprehensible, but it was interesting to notice nonetheless.

That language delineates what is sayable, and therefore thinkable, is an accepted commonplace. However, when the focus of what is being discussed is the communication of ideas and how best to say things, it starts feeling like you’re setting up a violent feedback loop.

In the Young Critics Forum everyone was writing in their own language, with their work then being emailed to various translators, and returned in English and German versions for publication in the Biennale Bulletin. It gradually became apparent that what was in fact being created were three distinct, separate entities. Due to the speed necessary, these were not the most refined translations, so once returned, I often found myself sitting alongside a piece’s author (usually outside the festival’s beer tent-cum-disco after a couple of glasses of wine) translating the translations from translationese into English while taking care not to alter the actual intention of the original sentence. Similarly, I’m told that the German rendition of my Pride of Parnell Street review reads as “very English”.

An interesting additional issue was that although writing in our mother tongues the editor of Biennale Bulletin, the German critic Jürgen Berger, was keen that we tended toward German conventions of criticism, rather than producing the sort of “critics” (the Conference English word for “reviews”) we would normally write. This seemed largely to accord with the default British way of doing things, so it wasn't too much effort for me, but some of my colleagues were surprised at the amount of difference between the modes of thinking expected of them.

There was also the issue of writing for an audience. Looking back over my reviews of Parnell Street and Hamlet is Dead. No Gravity, I think that both reviews (neither of them perfect by a long stretch) were influenced by their immediate audience – i.e. the likely festival attendees. Both were quite immediate responses, and largely lacking in the sort of background detail that I'd have probably filled in had the reviews been written for a British readership. There are lazy, but useful shorthands (“very European/German” being the worst) which simply wouldn't have worked in Germany. There was also the matter of writing to length, which in Europe is universally done by number of characters (or “signs” in Conference English) rather than words. My pieces were 2,000 and 4,000 signs respectively (not counting spaces), roughly translating as 320 words and 630 words (go figure). Since the character count was also supposed to be the same in both English and German, translated usually from the same character count in the original language, another interesting problem was thrown up by the fact that different languages take wildly different numbers of signs to say the same thing.

Perhaps the most interesting question, though, was the way that, even discussing in English about the way in which we wrote about theatre, it became clear that different language, or rather different a register, was used in different countries. On returning to England I happened to catch the latest edition of Newsnight Review on the BBC's lovely iPlayer device. I was struck by the way in which the guests were perfectly happy to discuss the Cy Towmbly exhibition with some interpretative seriousness, and yet the pair of films and the novel under discussion were dealt with much more at the level of technical achievement and plot. This all bleeds back into the long, ongoing conversation here and on the Guardian blog about modes of critical thinking and levels of engagement; the way in which other countries' theatre-critical cultures function, and the differences between them and Britain's dominant model.

On this subject, I'd like to thank George Hunka for drawing my attention to the post on his blog which quotes someone discussing one of my Helsinki pieces. I can't tell you how moving it is to read someone referring to “his beautiful text...” and saying that “Haydon poignantly concludes...”. It's always nice to discover that one isn't just talking to oneself.

That said, the range of pieces - the above-mentioned Helsinki one, the should we have judgement? one, the should we read the play? one, and today's critical ethics one – when taken together, display a pretty divided opinion of British criticism. On one hand, yes, I think it could be more arty, more passionate, more interpretative, more open to new ideas, and just less afraid of experiment and regietheater. On the other hand, I am resistant to the idea that critics should be trained (usually by the state) for up to seven years in theatreology, that they should be considered part of the theatre industry or the academy rather than as journalists, or that they should subscribe to any sort of code of ethics. While I often deplore and bemoan the spectacular Philistinism that is brought to bear on works of heart-racing beauty in the theatre, I concurrently admire the free-market buccaneering spirit that suggests that anyone in Britain can make it as a theatre critic if they want to - at exactly the same time as being appalled by some of the people who do.

I don't think I have a final position. There is plenty that is different about the way that Britain does theatre compared to much of mainland Europe, particularly Germany and beyond - both northwards and east into the former Soviet bloc. And much from those countries that I would love to see adopted here. At the same time, I still can’t quite get my head round their dismissal of performances which have not been subject to directorial interpretation/intervention. While I do find much British theatre painfully staid and literal, sometimes, if it’s a good play, I don’t honestly mind just seeing it, y’know, acted out like it’s written down. The withering looks I get for expressing this opinion, in front of Poles and Germans in particular, is fascinating. I guess a lifetime of cultural conditioning on either side is hard to totally break down. Still, the problem we have here in Britain is that it often feels as if hardly anyone is rocking the directorial boat, and worse, that there would be little support in the critical community were anyone to start. The conference also threw up an interesting linguistic third way for the text/non-text-based theatre argument - on the mainland, there is a useful distinction between ‘text’ and ‘script’. It is one that we may do well to adopt.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Relocated - Royal Court

Written for

Without wishing to give too much away, Anthony Neilson’s new play for the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is essentially a fantasia on Maxine Carr being abducted by Josef Fritzl - the ‘Austrian basement guy’. It’s a reductive description, but it gives the bare bones. The mode of operation here is pretty much that of the ghost train. The forbidding black set behind a haze of gauze, under a lowered false black ceiling of Miriam Buether's design all serve to ratchet up an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The audience is frequently plunged into complete darkness. We hear screams and the echoey sounds of children playing in a playground. We hear sinister voices. A single bulb suddenly snaps on. A shadowy figure lies on the floor. You get the picture.

The narrative is anything but linear. And it is while it is at its most confused that it is most frightening. While there is a sense that anything could happen, the piece builds real tension. It is the sense of the unknown, the fear of what could be lurking in the darkness, that really works. For better or for worse, Neilson (who also directs) doesn’t choose to keep within this shadowy, David Lynch world. Instead, while different characters do seem to swap bodies – it is interesting that here this doesn’t feel like mere meta-theatrical mucking about, but something far more pointed and sinister – scenes resolve themselves into fragments of linear sense. A creepy scene of a couple arguing at cross-purposes is replayed as something suggesting the conversation between Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr following the deaths of Holly and Jessica.

There is much speculative dialogue around the subject of women’s relationships to their abusers, particularly those within their own family. It's pretty heavy going, made no easier by the fact it is conducted in near-blackness, and with the intention of making the audience jump – an old trick from The Exorcist is cleverly deployed at one moment, while the penultimate scene owes a great debt to the Blair Witch Project.

Using a framework of horror films to explore the subject of child abuse and murder sounds pretty much as misjudged as it is possible to get. And that argument carries a lot of water. On the other hand, Neilson could cannily defend himself by first arguing that theatre shouldn’t shy away from difficult subject matter (although whether theatre should have “subject matter” per se remains a moot point). And at the same time, theatre shouldn’t shy away from theatricality.

What is interesting is how Relocated doesn’t make explicit how it expects to be read. Too ambiguous to be social realist *message* theatre, but too anchored in the real world and comments upon it to be pure abstraction, part of what makes the piece so unsettling is one’s uncertainty about what it’s trying to do. The horror elements seem to have the effect of making one cling to anything recognisable, no matter how horrific. Analogous situations, strategies of understanding, become vital as a way of blocking out fear of what might be lurking in the dark. The banality of evil becomes a weapon against the fear of fear itself.

This could be pure theatre located right at the heart of something horribly real. It could be a deplorably cheap co-opting of personal tragedy for theatrical gain. Or, elsewhere, some of the speculative dialogue around questions of loyalty, duty and even love within abusive relationships, suggest a more serious enquiry. Without doubt this is a remarkably effective piece of theatre. It is up to individual audience members to determine what that effect is.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Hamlet ist tot. Keine scherkraft - Malersaal, Wiesbaden

Written for Biennale Bulletin #2

In einem Universum ohne Gott und Moral, in dem alles möglich und denkbar ist, verzehren die Geschwister Mani und Dani sich in einer nihilistischen Atmosphäre existentieller Langeweile. Ewald Palmetshofers „hamlet ist tot. keine schwerkraft” ist eine Lehrstunde über die Schwierigkeiten, die bei der Übersetzung eines Text-Theaters über internationale Grenzen hinweg auftreten können. Eigentlich sollte die Inszenierung in englischer Simultaneübersetzung präsentiert werden, im Fall von Palmetshofer war das aber unmöglich. Also genießen nicht deutsch sprechende Zuschauer die Produktion, während sie die englische Übersetzung lesen.

Zudem experimentiert Palmetshofers Originaltext auf eine Art und Weise mit Sprache, die eine Übersetzung sehr erschwert. Wo im Deutschen am Ende eines Satzes die Verben sitzen, eliminiert er sie häufig. Eine stilistische Eigenart, die man in einer Übersetzung nur schwer nachvollziehen kann. Also keine idealen Bedingungen für einen Theaterbesuch. Trotz dieser Schwierigkeiten ist aus „hamlet ist tot. keine schwerkraft“ doch ein überaus anregender Theaterabend geworden. Gespielt wird auf einer großen, weißen Bühne und in hellem Licht. Die Schauspieler spielen Figuren, die wiederum miteinander verhandeln, wie sie sich gegenseitig ihre Geschichte vorspielen könnten. Das wirkt, als seien Romanfiguren im Theater inhaftiert und nun gezwungen, Episoden ihres Lebens nach zu spielen.

Die Geschichte beginnt mit der Beerdigung von Manis und Danis Großmutter. Sie ist nach einem Treppensturz gestorben. Im Verlauf des Stückes wird deutlich, dass Dani wohl eine Schnur oben an der Treppe gespannt hatte. Und es sieht so aus, als pflegten die Geschwister eine inzestuöse Beziehung. Während der Beerdigung treffen sie sowohl ihre Eltern, Kurt und Caro, als auch die alten Freunde Oli und Bine. Dani, die denkt, Bine sei schwanger, wirkt seltsam aufgebracht. So ungefähr, denke ich, könnte sich das alles abgespielt haben.

Die Figuren verhandeln allerdings nicht nur ihre Lebensgeschichten, sie diskutieren auch das aktuelle Geschehen, sprechen zum Publikum, kommentieren und warten mit längeren philosophischen Überlegungen über das Leben an sich auf. Die Monologe erinnern an Michel Houellebecq oder Chuck Palahniuk und werden in einer bemerkenswert entspannten, dem Inhalt widersprechenden Atmosphäre, angeboten. Zum Beispiel: „am Ende vorm Fernseher, vorm Computer und den Schwanz in der Hand und die ganze Welt bei dir am Bildschirm und der Schwanz in der Hand und die Welt am untergehn und du wichst mit der Welt um die Wette ... und plötzlich wird dir klar, was du tust ist Hoffen ... das ist kein Wichsen, nein das ist die Hoffnung, das ist die Religion bitte, Akt schlechthin, allein zuhaus mit dir und der Welt und einem kühlen Kopf und ein harter Schwanz und alles wird gut.”

Das ist alles sehr interessant. Interessanter wäre allerdings gewesen, hätte man der Inszenierung folgen können. Abseits der leichten Verwirrung, die dadurch entsteht, dass man den Text auf Papier liest, verschärft der Inszenierungsstil das Gefühl von Fragmentation. Manchmal unterbrechen die Schauspieler eine Szene und tanzen zu Synth-Pop-Hits aus den Achzigern, wie „Take on me“ und „Enola Gay“. An anderer Stelle wird ein Luftballon aufgeblasen und zerplatzt. Oder das Ensemble bewirft sich mit Bühnenblut und hinterlässt den Eindruck von Nebendarstellern in einem Splatter-Film. In einer anderen Szene inhalieren zwei Schauspieler Helium aus einem Ballon, bevor sie sprechen. Es sieht so aus, als gebe es keine besonderen Gründe für diese Aktionen, aber zusammen mit dem ständigen Kostümwechsel und der direkten Ansprache an das Publikum, entsteht eine überaus präsente Lebendigkeit. Der anwachsende Müll auf der Bühne ist ein Echo der allmählichen Auflösung der Figuren, macht außerdem Spaß und ist ein Genuss fürs Auge.

Man kann den Ideenreichtum der Inszenierung allerdings kaum genießen, weil man immer wieder zwischen Text und Bühne wechselt. Alleine das erzeugt eine distanzierte Haltung. Verstärkt wird diese Haltung durch die postmodernen Mittel der Inszenierung, die eine Identifikation mit den Figuren erschweren. Ironische Distanz scheint das Gesetz des Tages zu sein. Also ironisieren die Figuren sich selbst und spielen sich selbst in verschiedenen Versionen. Bricht Dani am Ende aber blutverschmiert zusammen und liegt auf dem Boden, ist die Inszenierung unglaublich bewegend. Dani schreit „habe keine Schwerkraft, denk ich mir, bin ein Planet ohne Schwerkraft und rund um mich die anderen ... die fetten anderen mit ihrer Schwerkraft ... und die zieh’n dann alles an sich, und ich keine Schwerkraft und keinen Mond und möcht, dass etwas in mich fällt”. Gleichzeitig hat man das Gefühl, aus der Leere der Monologe spreche eine düstere, herzzerreißende Einsamkeit. Das letzte Bild eines Himmels ohne Gott, in dem ER von einer Maschine ersetzt wurde, ist gleichsam überaus bewegend.

Once again, I much prefer the German. Indeed, it is quite tempting to knock up a new, more Anglo-centric review. For what it's worth, here's what I came up with the first time round.

Set in a universe where God is dead and morality has no meaning, where everything is possible and thinkable, brother and sister Mani and Dani are burning themselves out with nihilism and existential ennui.

Ewald Palmetshofer’s “hamlet is dead. no gravity” is an object lesson in the difficulties of translating text-based theatre across international borders. The performance was to have been simultaneously translated into English, however, this proved near-impossible, so
non-German speakers watched the performance while following a printed English translation. Moreover, Palmetshofer’s original text experiments with language in a way that makes translation even harder – where in German the verbs all come at the end of the sentence, he often removes them. It’s a stylistic choice that is impossible to translate
fully. So, not ideal conditions for experiencing a play.

In spite of these difficulties, “Hamlet is Dead. No Gravity” is enormously enjoyable. Played on a large white stage under bright lights, the performers essentially play the parts of the characters who in turn are trying to negotiate a way to perform their story with one another. As if the characters of the narrative have been trapped in the space and been forced to re-enact this episode from their lives. The tale in question seems to begin at the funeral of Mani and Dani’s grandmother, who died after falling down stairs in her home. Over the course of the piece, it becomes clear that this is because Dani tied a piece of string across the top of the stairs deliberately. It also emerges that the brother and sister are engaged in an incestuous relationship. At the funeral as well as their parents, Kurt and Caro, they also meet their old friends Oli and Bine. Dani thinks Bine is pregnant and this seems to enrage her. At least, I think that’s what happened.

As well as playing scenes ‘inside’ the story, the characters discuss the scenes as they are happening. They also talk to the audience, commenting on the action or offering longer philosophical musings on life as they see it. These monologues, reminiscent of Michel Houellebecq or Chuck Palahniuk, are delivered in a remarkably engaging, laid-backmanner with a sort of friendliness that belies their contents. Consider: “ front of the TV, the computer, and your cock in your hand and the whole world on your screen and your cock in your hand and the world perishing and you’re wanking... And suddenly... you realise that what you’re doing is hoping... This is not wanking, no, this is hope, this is religion... alone at home with yourself and the world and a cool head and a hard cock and everything will be ok.”

None of the above really communicates the experience of watching the piece, however. Apart from the mild confusion engendered by having to follow the text on paper, the style of the performance increases the sense of fragmentation. Occasionally the performers will break off from a scene to dance to eighties synth-pop hits – “Take On Me” and “Enola Gay” feature heavily.

Elsewhere, a pumpkin is disembowelled, smashed and stamped on. At one point the cast take a bucket of stage-blood and throw it to each other, covering themselves in blood and ending up looking like extras from a splatter flick, while another scene between two characters sees both actors inhaling helium from balloons before speaking. There appears to be no particular significance or rationale behind any of these interventions, but together with the performers swapping costumes and wigs and the direct audience address, they combine to create a real sense of liveness. The accumulating mess on the stage neatly echoes the gradual unravelling of the characters, as well as being visually exciting and enormous fun to watch.

It is hard to assess the overall impact of the piece, as the language barrier and continual switching of attention between script and stage constitutes a significant distancing device. That said, the amount of post-modernity deployed creates an aesthetic that discourages ‘identifying with the characters’. Ironic distance seems to be the order of the day, with the characters themselves also self-ironising and playing versions of themselves. But when Dani appears to break down at the end, covered in blood, lying on the floor and screaming “have no gravity, I think / a planet without gravity / and all the others around me / … / the fat ones with gravity / … / and they attract everything / and me without gravity and no moon and I want / something to plummet into me” it is somehow incredibly moving. Similarly, the blankness of the monologues translates into a heartbreaking, lonely bleakness. The final image – describing a heaven without God where He has been replaced by a machine – is also powerfully evocative.

Postcards aus Wiesbaden

This was written in Wiesbaden, but for reasons of time pressure and annoying internet connection issues, didn't get posted at the time, so the tenses are mostly wrong. More accounts of the work and issues seen and raised in Wiesbaden are expected shortly.

Hot on the heels of Helsinki, Postcards finds itself on yet another Euro-junket. This time under the auspices of the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Young Critics Forum. Like the FIT programmes in Munich and Helsinki (and shortly London and Estonia) the seminars are running alongside a theatre festival – in this case Wiesbaden’s biannale Neue Stücke aus Europa (New Plays From Europe).

Unlike the festivals under the FIT umbrella, the work here is not so fiercely avant garde. Also unlike the other festivals - and quite probably as a consequence of the more mainstream programming – there’s also some representation of the British Isles with Tim Crouch’s England and Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street both making appearances. As well as the Young Critics programme, there is also a Young Playwrights course running, so I had a lot of fun sitting in the huge marquee on the lawn outside Wiesbaden’s main theatre as familiar face after familiar face (Joel Horwood, Tim Crouch, Ben Musgrave, Mark Ravenhill) walked in and waved. By the point where I’d chatted to Mark – who is virtually worshipped as a God in eastern Europe – one of my colleagues leaned over and asked exactly how famous I was in London. If only they knew, dear reader (singular)...

The critics’ workshops here are also less intensive than those organised by FIT. Yes, they’re rigorous, and there’s more writing to be done here than there was in Helsinki, but at the same time, a lot of what we’re talking about is to do with issues in current theatre critical practice. The FIT Mobile Lab series is intended to speculate about and develop new ways of writing about theatre, and most specifically new forms of theatre, which are have yet to evolve a useful language (at least in English) with which to be described – one only has to think of the way that the term ‘site-specific’ is bandied about to imagine the problems. Here the format is geared more to discussing the issues that we face as critics in our respective countries.

What is fascinating is the way in which similarities and differences manifest themselves. Between the eight young critics and two seminar leaders, Germany, Sweden, America, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Großbritannien are represented, and everyone is a “professional theatre critic”.

One immediately noticeable difference is how often we see plays. Few critics seem required to slog their way through as much stuff as we British. When one thinks of the number of plays people like Shuttleworth and Shenton see in a week – even if not to write up every single play – and compare it with the apparently more usual three-a-week rate of Sweden, the British do start to look somewhat overworked. But then the London theatre ecology alone is simply without parallel. Nowhere on earth appears to have such a ludicrously high number of theatres and theatrical spaces, nor as much work being premièred every week. Another reason that British critics are overworked, however, is that unlike apparently any of our European colleagues, we are required to cover a far wider range of work. None of my colleagues here are ever sent to see musicals, it seems, let alone Derren Brown at the Garrick.

It is strange to consider the extent to which simple logistics can impact on the way in which criticism is written and even imagined. For example, a Slovenian with one review to write a week, apparently infinitely patient editors and an elastic work count, with the option of seeing the work under review more than once (seemingly not uncommon in former Eastern Bloc countries), is in a very different position to someone having to file for the following morning’s paper after a show that ended at 10pm.

Once again I find myself experiencing the same concurrent waves of pride and concern for British criticism. Of course it’s great that there’s so much going on, and that we see so much. Yes, it’s pretty impressive that every day our critics turn out readable, detailed accounts of the previous night’s theatre (let’s not get into whether one agrees or not, nor start worrying about style or word count diminution right now). On the other hand, does this break-neck turnaround ensure that analysis is limited to snap judgement? With time for thoughts to percolate, wouldn’t even the best of our critics improve dramatically?

One solution, as recently practised by the Royal Court for the premiere of Contractions (in this case thanks to its limited audience capacity), is to have a staggered series of press nights, with all reviews embargoed until a pre-arranged date. This could also have the useful effect of reducing the impression that the British critic is some sort of scruffy pack animal, prone to comparing notes with colleagues during intervals and after shows.

On the other hand, there is still something oddly appealing about the excitement of a proper press night, and while critics are pretty rigorous about not comparing notes before they’ve written their reviews, there is something quite nice about being able to see one’s colleagues and discuss at least the previous night’s offering on which you have both already written. I do wonder though, if the fact of this slightly collegiate atmosphere does have the subliminal effect of limiting British criticism’s capacity for change, and indeed self-criticism.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Pride of Parnell Street -

Written for Biennale Bulletin #1

„The Pride of Parnell Street“ ist eine umherschweifende Geschichte vor dem Hintergrund der allmählichen wirtschaftlichen Wiederbelebung Irlands. Janet und Joe sind ein Pärchen aus der Arbeiterklasse. Sie ist kaum aus der Schule, er arbeitet als „Nachmittagsmann“ und ist einer jener Kleinkriminellen, der Nachts lange wach bleiben und nachmittags schlafen.

Das Paar erzählt getrennt voneinander die Geschichte ihrer gemeinsamen Jahre. Es geht um die Nacht in der er sie verprügelt hat, und es geht um ihr anschließend getrenntes Leben. Die Erzählung schleppt sich durch den Tod des sechsjährigen Sohnes Billy, landet beim Mörder von Janets Vater, feiert Irlands anfänglichen Erfolg bei der Fußballweltmeisterschaft 1990, verweilt bei Joes tiefem Fall in die Heroinabhängigkeit, bei seiner Gefängnisstrafe und HIV-Infektion und bei Janets Erinnerung an die terroristischen Bombenanschläge 1974 in Dublin.

Sowohl Karl Shiels als auch Mary Murray als seine entfremdete Frau Janet überzeugen mit einem perfekten Spiel. Murray ist eine von leidenschaftlicher Selbsterhaltung getriebene Frau, während Shields, bedeckt von Tätowierungen und Verletzungen, den Selbsthass und die Verzweiflung eines Mannes einfängt, der alles verloren hat und sich selbst zerstört.

Das Stück von Sebastian Barry knistert und liefert nadelscharfe Beschreibungen, einnehmende Anekdoten und einen sehr feinen Schreibstil. Es schafft es allerdings nicht, die Schwungkraft aufzubauen, die nötig wäre, um die Spannung über eindreiviertel Stunden des aufrecht zu erhalten. Zwar entzünden sich die beiden Monologe aneinander. Es geschieht allerdings zu selten und zu spät, so dass das Stück mehrfach in rührselige Sentimentalität abzustürzen droht.

Während sich durch die Literatur Irlands Geschichten von Mittellosigkeit, Gewalt und Sucht wie Eisenerz durch Felsgestein ziehen, zieht „The Pride of Parnell Street“ eine interessante Parallele zwischen Terroranschlägen und häuslicher Gewalt. Faszinierend ist die Art, wie das Resultat aus dem Schlagen seiner Frau aus dem Opfer einen Täter macht. Am Schluss ist es keine Frage, dass Joe sich selbst mit seinen Handlungen zerstört hat.

Beide Figuren haben einen Menschen, auf den sie ihren ganzen „Stolz“ projizieren. Bei Joe ist es
seine idealisierte Janet. Für Janet ist es eine Frau aus der Gegend, die nach einer Bombenexplosion die Hand eines sterbenden Mannes hielt. Zum Schluss knüpft das Stück diese kleinen, erlösenden Momente zusammen, indem er nahe legt, dass das Talent der Menschheit für sinnlose Brutalität fortlebt – ihr Vermögen zu empfindsamer und notwendiger Vergebung aber auch.

Frankly, it reads better than the English:

“The Pride of Parnell Street” is a rambling tale of partial redemption, set against the background of Ireland’s gradual economic revivification. Jeanette and Joe are a working class couple, she barely out of school and he ‘working’ as an Afternoon Man – local slang for a petty thief who keeps a late waking hour – when they meet.

The couple separately narrate tales of their years together, the night when he beats her and their subsequent lives apart. It trawls through the death of their six-year-old, Billy, the murder of Jeanette ’s father, Ireland’s initial successes in the 1990 World Cup, Joe’s descent into heroin addiction, imprisonment and HIV infection and Jeanette ’s recollection of 1974 terrorist bombings in Dublin.

Both Karl Shiels and Mary Murray as his estranged wife Jeanette turn in pitch-perfect performances. Murray is all nervy apologies and fierce self preservation while Shiels, covered in tattoos and lesions, exactly captures the self-hate and despair of someone who has lost everything that they ever cared about and has set about trying to destroy himself.

Moment to moment Sebastian Barry’s script crackles with needle-sharp descriptions, engaging anecdotes and some very fine writing, but the play never quite builds the momentum necessary to sustain its one hour 45-minute length. The two monologues do spark off one another, but too rarely and too late, as the whole thing repeatedly threatens to collapse into mawkish sentimentality.

While stories of Irish indigence, violence and addiction run through the country’s literature like iron through rock, “The Pride of Parnell Street” draws an interesting parallel between acts of terrorism and domestic violence. What is fascinating is the way that the fall-out from the wife-beating here makes a victim its perpetrator. There is no question that by the end, it is Joe who has been destroyed by his actions.

Both characters have their own figures who they consider to be the eponymous ‘Pride’; for Joe it is his idealised wife, while for Jeanette it is a local woman holding the hand of a man dying in the aftermath of a bomb blast. The final moments of the play tie these small redemptive moments together, suggesting that while mankind’s talent for senseless brutality continues, so does its capacity for tender and necessary forgiveness.

Afterlife - National Theatre

Annoyingly, the West End Whingers got to the Wilde paraphrase before I had a chance, but, yes; one bio-play written in verse is a misfortune, two starts to look like a bit of a worry. After several years of putting out pretty consistently good stuff, the National seems to have hit a bit of a fallow period, with no less than four plays based on biographical material since the beginning of the year, with all four garnering less than fulsome praise in some quarters. Sad to report, Afterlife does nothing to buck this trend.

... Sisters - Gate Theatre

First draft

Chris Goode is basically a God in the eyes of those who care about there being any sort of a British avant garde, the Gate Theatre is currently enjoying a renewed sense of vitality under the new joint artistic directorship of Carrie Cracknell and Natalie Abrahami, while Olivier Award winner Rupert Goold’s company Headlong are pretty much one of the hottest around. So it’s no small cause for celebration that Goode won Headlong’s recent search for a director to present an idea for radically reinterpreting a major European text at the Notting Hill venue. His proposal was essentially to conduct a controlled explosion within Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Rather than simply presenting the play from beginning to end as it is written with the right number of actors, Goode takes six performers, all of whom have learnt the entire script – a new version by Goode himself – and through a process of collaboration and experimentation the company have created a kind of ongoing improvisation structure within which fragments of the play are brought to life with performers apparently free to slip between characters, backwards and forwards in the text, intervening in one another’s decisions and moments, joining in, usurping or tacitly directing.

The result is as intriguing as it is review-proof. There is the distinct feeling that certain moments have a certain amount of fixity - each scene delicately builds to a distinct climax. However, the route taken could vary enormously. As such one can only relate what one saw, and resolve to return at the earliest possible opportunity for a second look.

The choice of six performers looks like a who’s who from Britain’s alternative theatre scene. Each retains something of the unique qualities that make them such engaging performers, while at the same time still managing to form a coherent unit.

The idea of liveness is very much foregrounded here. The visible elements of chance and negotiation between the performers become as fascinating as the fractured narrative itself, while the introduction of an actual bunny rabbit onto the final stage – another completely unpredictable random element – seems to confirm that this is indeed liveness of a very different order to the norm.

What is interesting, however, is the way that through the performers shifting through characters taking different parts and doubling up as the same person different passages of the text become highlighted and through repetition and differing emphasis, seem to acquire additional resonance, often building into plaintive, polyphonic mantras as perhaps only one or two lines are repeated over and over again.

In this way, although there is nothing so simple as Stanislavskian naturalism, the piece frequently creates an emotional charge. Goode’s translation (adaptation?) of the script renders the language as very modern, surprisingly fresh and almost punky in the way that the sisters express their suffocating sense of being betrayed by life. In some ways it is surprising that the adaptive elements don’t mess more with the sense of the play, but at the same time this very point suggests that this is indeed a successful and imaginative way of working with a classic text and, rather than obscuring the play, is indeed a fascinating way of re-seeing it.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Black Tonic – Camden People's Theatre

Written for

Black Tonic is one of the growing corpus of theatrical pieces that take place in non-theatrical spaces. Those wishing to see the piece (generally in pairs, although I saw it alone) book their tickets through the Camden People's Theatre and are given the address of a rather plush-looking hotel and a time at which to arrive. You are then ushered to a waiting area in the hotel lobby, are sat down and gradually become aware that the couple sat opposite you could well be part of the performance. Similarly, that slightly tipsy looking woman seated nearby, maybe she's part of the piece too. They are all drinking the same cola and vodka-based cocktail detailed in the piece's programme.

The couple are chatting quietly but audibly. It is like listening in to any conversation in a bar, except that you feel entitled to stare directly at the performers. The woman doing the ushering reappears with a key card for a room and instruction in an envelope to go there. On stepping out of the lift, which you have coincidentally shared with the couple who were sat opposite you - who are magically staying on the same floor - you are greeted by the sight of the drunk lady from earlier lying flat out in the corridor having apparently fallen and cut herself on a broken glass. The couple help her up and take her off to their room. You enter your room.

It is a promising start. Throughout modern literature and cinema, hotels have gained a [reputation] as the scene for adulterous liaisons and a general atmosphere of slightly sinister mystery (think The Shining or Twin Peaks). Black Tonic trades heavily on both tropes, creating a slightly spooky off-kilter world where nothing is quite as it seems. On entering the room the televsion fizzes into life and a pre-recorded DVD showing snow falling, fluffy clouds and waves begins as a disembodied eastern European chamber maid narrates poetic reminiscences of cleaning hotels and being left by her lover.

Watching TV in a hotel room is less like theatre than one might hope. The video, while competently made, is not as compelling as it could be. Were this a truly interactive experience, surely the audient should be free to flick over to some curious Spanish language MTV channel to watch eighties pop videos for the remainder of the show if they want. As it is, the interactivity (as previously discussed) is very directed. Once the film snaps off, the telephone rings with instructions for you to look out of the hotel door. Another brief vignette takes place and then it's back into the room for more telly.

Granted interactivity in this sort of performance is still in its infancy, with audiences unsure of what they can do, and companies concerned about making everything run smoothly. Once a set of conventions and understandings emerge, this sort of feeling of being quite so railed roaded will no doubt dissipate. If a commotion takes place outside your room it should demand attention, rather than having attention directed to it beforehand. Part of the problem here is that you are unsure of your role in the proceedings. Half-way between observer and participant, it feels like the mechanics of involvement need to be more carefully addressed. The most exciting part of the show takes place when you are invited to root around the room belonging to one of the characters across the hall from your own. It is genuinely unsettling to watch the (fictional) occupant set off down the hallway and 'break into' their room using a spare key card slipped under your door with a note attached.

The main problem with this forty-minute piece, however, is how slight it feels. It half tells a heavily fragmented Lynchian narrative about a professional honey-trapper hired by women to get their swaying partners back by sabotaging subsequent relationships. This is mixed with some rather vague, floaty imagery concerning snowfall and feathers courtesy of the chambermaid who may have been this honey-trap’s client, and, in a scene watched in the reflection on bathroom tiles from behind an almost closed door, may even be this mysterious woman’s double. Granted, forty minutes isn’t very long to set up a scenario and explore it fully, but when you consider what Fawlty Towers manages to achieve in half an hour, in a hotel...

Monday, 9 June 2008

Video killed the theatre star?

Apparently Michael Billington is writing something very similar to the below as I write, so you can read my piece here and not at the Guardian theatre blog where it was headed. Such is life.

Has theatre lost the ability to create stars? In his new book for the Social Affairs Unit, Look At Me, Sunday Times film and theatre critic Peter Whittle notes, “the days when the theatre made its own stars – stars who were as familiar to the general public as any movie idol – are well and truly over”. The book is an attack on a culture of narcissism and “the media's coverage of nonentities whose thirst for fame outstrips everything else”. The observation is made in passing while lamenting the wider phenomenon of instant celebrity. While Whittle’s own position is probably significantly to the right of most Guardian readers [and, uh, Postcards... readers], the issue should be of interest to both right and left alike. Why, in the midst of a culture that thrives ever more on celebrity, has theatre apparently opted out?

Similarly, it was interesting a few weeks ago to read Matt Wolf opine that the RSC shouldn't “try to hide that fact” that Jonathan Slinger was 'a star' and argue that “the RSC has always been in the business of creating stars. ”. My initial reaction was that surely the RSC was not in the business of creating stars so much as the business of putting on plays, mostly by Shakespeare. Under Michael Boyd, the company has returned strongly to the company’s original ensemble ethic of the 60s and 70s. The question of ‘stars’ in theatre was also one of the central questions raised at the Society of London Theatre’s recent panel debate, chaired by Michael Billington at the Royal Court.

In this age of mass and increasingly fragmented media, it certainly seems true to say that theatre can no longer create stars. Or rather, the goalposts of ‘stardom’ or ‘celebrity’ have been moved so far into the stratosphere that it takes repeated newspaper, magazine and television coverage for someone to count as a modern celebrity.

Another reason, however, could derive from a certain snobbery in theatre on one hand, and the result of decades of left-wing thought on the other. In the first instance, fame, the trappings of fame, and any attempt to court it are viewed as irredeemably vulgar. The second case, perhaps not entirely unrelated, is that thanks to decades of writers, actors and theatre companies adopting left-leaning to Marxist ideologies and methodologies, there has been a significant growth in ideas of The Ensemble, and of sharing out stage time, even distributing lines more fairly. This deliberate move away from hierarchical structures and ‘star statuses’ obviously has the effect of completely disabling theatre’s ‘star-making’ capacity.

Meanwhile ‘proper fame’ must now be measured in millions of people seeing one’s work. Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum – recently seen together in Speed the Plow are properly famous. So, I guess, is the Donmar Warehouse's recent Iago Ewan McGregor. The reason, however, is not their work in theatre but their long and illustrious film careers. Even British television struggles to create stars with as much glitz and glamour as the American film industry.

That said, it is an interesting development that now television is starting to create stars for theatre, albeit for the largest possible scale West End musicals. What is most fascinating about these shows is the way in which they ‘take the audience on a journey’ with the putative stars. The viewers invest in the candidates. In short, the way that these programmes turn a nice normal young woman into ‘a star’ is primarily to create a sense of public ownership.

This shift in the way that celebrity operates could partially explain why many actors are not keen to become involved in ‘celebrity’. The demands, it seems, are that one lays bare one’s entire personal life for public perusal if one is to stay on the front pages. Witness the media scrum a couple of years ago when Sienna Miller split up with Jude Law while starring in a spectacularly underpowered West End revival of As You Like It.

The question is, should we mourn the passing of stage celebrities, or rejoice that, by and large, theatre seems to get left alone by the tabloids and parasitic celebrity magazines? Would getting Rory Kinnear on the front of Heat actually make theatre appear more accessible, egalitarian and 'of the people', or would it simply cheapen everyone involved?

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Time to steal it back

Earlier today Postcards... was having one of those desultory flicks through bookmarked MySpace pages seeing if any bands were playing live soon, and came across this rather excellent five track studio video of the pretty excellent John et Jehn. I first came across the band at Shunt and wrote a rather ambitiously flowery article about them for the Guardian Music blog (posted below), which for one reason and another I never quite got around to sending. I've been meaning to write a post about them here ever since, but have never been all that happy with the stuff that could have accompanied it. But I reckon this video gets closer than most to capturing something of what I saw at Shunt – with the added advantage that it makes them look like something out of Katie Mitchell's Attempts... (if you're going to have aesthetic preferences, Haydon, make sure they're predictable)...
(If you're pushed for time, I reckon the second track, starting at about 05:15 is about the best shot and most listenable)

The below was originally written for

As a theatre critic I don’t generally get to see many bands playing live, so I was pleased that after Unlimited Theatre’s excellent The Ethics of Progress at the Shunt Vaults, there was also a live band. John et Jehn are French. They’re also a couple. Their music live sounds like, well, like the most comprehensive tribute to my record collection that I’ve ever heard. It’s all there, in glorious live monochrome; imagine Siouxsie Sioux fronting the Stranglers, playing the Clash, with lashings of Joy Division, Johnny Cash, the Cramps, Nouvelle Vague, the Glitter Band (before such comparisons were a dirty word) and God knows who else thrown in for joyous good measure - then you’re about halfway there. I’m not sure I’ve ever been at a gig which contained so many people just smiling broadly at their sheer good luck at happening to catch such a great band.

The strange thing is, listening to them afterwards on their MySpace page, and the odd promo video on You Tube, only a fraction of the brilliance of the live article comes across. Granted, my tinny laptop [told you it was an old article] reduces even the most complex sonic engineering to something that sounds like Crass playing inside a biscuit tin, but I think there’s something more significant at play here.

What is crucial about John et Jehn is the performance. The band have an absolutely arresting stage presence. Imagine the White Stripes if they’d been invented by Tim Burton. John is all painfully thin and ill-looking; a sort of four-way cross between Lux Interior, Ian Curtis, John Cooper-Clarke and Paul Weller. Jehn, by contrast, looks like a feral Audrey Tautou cut with equal parts of Wednesday and Morticia Adams. While John is all laconic, dismissive French wryness, Jehn's onstage presence seems carved from raw sexual passion.

This is “playing live” of a whole different order. Here we have drama, passion; a pair of performances that cross cathartic display with a display of ongoing, unstoppable sexual attraction. I’ve seen a fair amount of faked sex on stage in my time as a theatre critic, most of it pretty dreadful; this was the first time I’ve ever felt like the I was watching the raw human desire that actually drives people into bed.

But, crucially, it was also performance. This was two artists who knew a thing or two about stagecraft. This wasn’t just two people who fancied each other annoyingly having to interrupt their sex-life to play a gig, it was perfect theatre. And, Jesus, was it effective. Rather than two people standing on stage, looking into the crowd playing their instruments, the audience sees interaction, a real dynamic, and human desire. There’s also a neat line in understated cool and a very Gallic irony at play.

Theatreland has been making some pretty extensive, and often ill-advised borrowings from popular music in recent years. John et Jehn prove that live music stealing a couple of good ideas back is long overdue.


Written for

Right, let's get this straight; “site-specific theatre” is “theatre” that is “specific” to a “site”. It is not simply taking a bunch of performers and dropping them anywhere not purpose-built for performance that might superficially appear to bear some relation to the theme of their work.

So, sticking Grupo XIX de Teatro's Hysteria (no, not the Terry Johnson play, nor the Total Theatre Award winner from 2006), a work about the privations suffered by women institutionalised as mentally ill in 19th Century Rio de Janeiro, into the bright, airy, echoey Grand Hall of St Bart's is about as unspecific as it gets.

In fact the setting works against the piece, since the hall is decked out with wooden panels bearing the names of countless benefactors who donated money to the hospital. All this evidence of selfless generosity and Christian charity conflicts with the apparent tales of repression and Catholic dogma heaped on the Brazilians. Furthermore, there is no apparent connection between the venue and mental health patients. And it's not only the outward appearance of the hall that works against the piece; the acoustics and ambience of the hall could not be less suited to performance. Certainly not to a piece clearly not made without such a high-vaulted cavernous space in mind.

Beyond this there are profound problems with the piece itself. Granted many of these stem from inaudibility thanks to a combination of the abysmal acoustics and incredibly thick accents, but the problems seem to start a long way before that. The 90 minute piece seems to have no discernable structure. Instead, having divided the audience along gender lines with the men seated in raked seating on one side of the hall and the women on benches and the floor in a semicircle facing them around the performing space, the five performers drift about the women reading them fragments of letters and interacting with them in various ways from intimate conversations and questions to, at one stage, a large scale hokey-cokey.

In the main it is pretty interminable stuff. The general drift is that women weren't happy to be locked up, that some of them were pretty mad and others less so; that the institution had some fairly fixed ideas about female sexuality and behaviour thanks to its Catholic basis, and that the women locked up still had internal lives and desires of their own. Despite the care and seriousness manifestly invested in the work, the whole really fails to come off in quite spectacular fashion, leaving audience members awkwardly looking at each other across the fully lit hall as they realise they're stuck for the next hour and a half.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy - National Theatre

Written for

The Revenger's Tragedy is a lot of fun. It's fun for everyone: academics get to argue about whether it's by Thomas Middleton or, as previously thought, Cyril Tourner; socially minded critics get to envisage it as a comment on Jacobean proto-socialist uprisings; and everyone else gets a ripping yarn about a guy merrily avenging his way through a whole tier of Italian nobility with a series of cunning strategies, disguises and just honest to goodness violence. There's also plenty of enjoyable cynicism and dry wit, alongside some somewhat less enjoyable misogyny.

The fearsomely difficult-to-condense plot revolves around Vindice (Rory Kinnear) who has vowed to wreak bloody vengeance on the Duke who nine years earlier poisoned Vindice's fiancée Gloriana. The Duke's youngest step-son is imprisoned for rape. The Duke's only legitimate son Lussurioso, meanwhile, is hanging out in houses of ill repute and trying to seduce Vindice's sister, while his illegitimate son has designs on his dukedom. Thanks to an introduction from his brother Hippolito, Vindice enters the Duke's court disguised as a pimp, and sets up a chain of events which will result in the death of pretty much everyone mentioned above along with a few hapless attendant lords.

Taking its cue from Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy seems much-influenced by Shakespeare's tragedy of revenge, but where Hamlet is predominantly a play of procrastination, The Revenger's Tragedy is an all-out no-questions-asked frontal onslaught. The only moments of deferral stem from good sense and timing. There is no question of Vindice troubling himself over questioning his course of action. He is, however, something of a stern moralist, spending part of a diverting sub-plot persuading his mother, while disguised, to effectively pimp out his sister, her daughter, to the lascivious Lussurioso as a test of her moral character.

Melly Still's production is something of a mixed bag. The first ten minutes are pretty diabolical. The play opens with the large three way revolve set slowly turning as assorted party-goers, dancers and hookers cavort their way around it throwing shapes and tableaux. It is remarkably similar to the opening of Nick Hytner's own Man of Mode (also starring Rory Kinnear) in the Olivier last year. In fact, it's rather as if someone were trying to reproduce precisely the effect of that production without having the faintest idea why. The costumes too aim for the achingly modern look of Man of Mode, but appear to have got stuck somewhere between Hoxton and 1987. The choreography is similarly markedly less successful, with inept moves being liberally splashed about – including a misconceived interpretative sequence later in the play, seemingly transposed from Shared Experience's equally galling Mrs Rochester in a red dress from Jane Eyre.

Kinnear's first appearance is similarly concerning, dressed in a long wig and unconvincing beard and speaking the text pretty ponderously, one starts to wonder if one is going to make it as far as the interval. However, it all soon livens up, and once divested of the ludicrous wig and beard for his disguise, the play snaps into life and the caustic misanthropy of the plot takes hold. From here on in, aside from the occasional dull patch, the play whizzes along at quite a pace. Kinnear's performance is incredibly precise. His ability to make text come alive, imbued with nuance, wit and purpose is remarkable. The supporting cast, especially Elliot Cowan as Lussurioso, have a good stab at keeping up, but this is definitely Kinnear's play. His great strength is how little showboating his performance involves, relying on clarity and understatement rather than bombast and histrionics.

While not perfect – particularly where matters of design are concerned – this is a hugely enjoyable way of spending an evening. And if it's not necessarily a definitive production of the play, then it boasts a central performance that is worth the £10 Travelex-subsidised price of entry alone.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Better title expected shortly

One of the odd things about having a blog of one's own alongside writing freelance reviews and blogs for the Guardian is that occasionally you come up against these weird hiatuses (hiati?). Let me explain. Last Friday I saw The Wolves at the Window at the Arcola for Time Out. On Saturday I saw Troilus and Cressida.

On Sunday, well, on Sunday I went to a party at Sunday Times drama critic Robert Hewison's house which has nothing to do with this story, but which did irresistibly put me in mind of an alternative, altogether more pleasant narrative for The Common Pursuit - one of whose characters wants to be drama critic for the Sunday Times – this one set in a parallel Oxford-educated universe, rather than the Cambridge-based one in the play as it stands. Robert tells me he wasn't at all kind to the original when he saw it for the Sunday Times back in 1984. Sadly the Times's online archive doesn't stretch back far enough to find out *how* not kind. I did wonder, though, if Gray's legendary spat with another Sunday Times drama critic (and another former NSDF Judge), James Fenton, had anything to do with the character's genesis.

Anyway, getting back to the point: On Monday I filed my review for Wolves at the Window, posted my review of Troilus and Cressida here, sent a blog piece to the Guardian and went to see Topless Mum at the Tricycle Theatre for the Financial Times, wrote it up, and had filed by about midnight or so.

On Tuesday, the Guardian and I had a whole world of woes with our email connections with the net result that my blog piece didn't get anywhere near the Guardian, let alone the Blog. I posted another piece on here (originally intended for the Guardian, but superseded by time and circumstance) and then went to the Royal Court to see Mike Bartlett's new play Contractions for Time Out.

And this is where it gets strange; Friday's Time Out review came out yesterday, and can be found online here. The FT review is yet to be published, if at all. And last night's Time Out gig won't see the light of day until next Tuesday (although all Contractions reviews are embargoed until Thursday). Meanwhile, today my Guardian piece found its way online and can now be found here. All this has the net effect of making it look like I haven't seen any plays since Saturday, but have been jolly busy blogging.

None of this is a grumble, but it does make one lose one's sense of self a bit. I don't know if other critics find this, but often these days seeing a review I've written will remind me off a show I've seen, rather than remembering the show itself. Are there a finite number of performances one can hold in one's head? Does anyone else ever clear out old cupboards and come across stacks of old Edinburgh ticket stubs from years gone by and find themselves astonished by the number of hours they had managed to forget?

Speaking of Time Out, I should draw reader's (yes, singular) attention to this interview with the brilliant Chris Goode ahead of the opening of his incredibly exciting sounding deconstructed Three Sisters at the Gate.

Postcards... is going next Tuesday, when he seems to have managed to sandwich the performance with the launch of Sex Addict playwright Tim Fountain's new book launch and subsequent bash also in Notting Hill. An odd combination. Expect Postcards to be found seated somewhere at the back of aforementioned bash lost in a thoughtful artistic reverie while assorted swingers and, uh, doggers (doggists?) cavort around him, like some sort of H.M. Bateman cartoon of The Man Who Went to See a Chris Goode Show Before a Tim Fountain Party.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Burst - BAC

Written for

[The problem with attending the same event as two other Guardian bloggers – Lyn Gardner and Andy Field in this case – is that one needs to be that bit quicker off the mark at writing up, or else one runs the risk of filing pieces which run far too close to something that has just been published. So, rather than bother Big Chief Guardian Theatre Blogs I’m posting this here as a companion piece to Lyn’s excellent musings on a similar theme at the Guardian]

Interactive theatre, games or ‘playgrounding’ and the exploration of new spaces formed the cornerstones of BAC’s Burst festival. All three areas are at the forefront of the current directions in which the theatrical avant garde is developing across Europe. I had originally intended to blog my way through BAC’s Burst festival, but realised I was already committed to spending a week at the Baltic Circle festival in Helsinki slap bang in the middle of Burst, while other reviewing commitments meant that I was liable to wind up missing important work.

So it was fascinating to discover that even travelling two timezones east to within a few hundred miles of the Arctic circle an enormous number of concerns linked the two events. At the Replay discussion that rounded off Burst the two main areas of exploration were the ways that the interactive events had worked and effects of the first scratch performances held in the massive Grand Hall, newly available to artists following its starring role in Punchdrunk’s now fabled Masque of the Red Death.

One of the most interesting elements to be highlighted by the discussion about interactive theatre, was the question about exactly *how* interactive all this much-vaunted interactivity really was. The discussion quickly homed in on three performances Ontroerend Goed’s The Smile Off Your Face, The 14 Stations in the Life of Adrian Howells and a scratch performance in which five “incredibly attractive Belgians” each picked a member of the five-strong audience and took them to a secluded booth, where the performer spent [15?] minutes faking intimacy and connection with their audient before returning the group to the room and repeating everything that he or she had said to them. A number of the younger male members of the group were still prepared to insist that they had indeed felt a real connection to their interlocutor, with several apparently even having spent time kissing her.

Meanwhile in Helsinki I was watching seminal German avant gardists Rimini Protokoll’s Call-Cutta in a Box in which, yes, solitary participants – “audience member” sounds wrong – spent fifty minutes locked in a room in one-to-one conversation with someone generally of the other sex. The main difference is that my interlocutor was in India, in a call centre in Calcutta. Curiously, while the nature of the flirtation was necessarily more chaste, …in a Box still traded heavily on the inevitability, as one of my colleagues put it, of two persons of opposite sexes talking for an hour on the internet “being hit on by someone they didn’t know”.

The question that persisted through discussions of both works was how much of this apparent “interaction” was actually, well, interaction. If we said something to our interlocutor, were they responding to what we had said with an original thought – either “in character” or “as themselves” – or were they simply performing a stock response, following a script? Of course, even triggering an actor to speak a line is interaction, but there is a real curiosity about how *true* interactivity might be achieved while at the same time maintaining some sort of frame that makes the overall experience perhaps a work of art, or a piece of theatre, or a performance of some kind, rather than a chat between one nominal artist and one nominal audience member.

One possibly strategy is the introduction of game theory, and the ideas of “playing” – it is significant the BAC never refers to “plays”, but “play”. This is the other growing theme in modern avant garde theatrical thinking. The Burst festival kicked off with a Trashy Multi-Artform Bingo Blowout, which saw the building given over to a night of chaotic game-playing alongside scratch performances and music in what at times looked like a fight to the death between art and alcohol. The Society of Wonders created a live version of the iconic children's TV programme Knightmare, while a collaboration between Hide & Seek and Coney is also offered a whole range of team games. Sometime Guardian blogger and BAC press officer Andy Field was also to be found wandering around trying to tempt people into his one-on-one game “Motorcycle Baptism” based on US college hazing rituals.

The building that night evoked the spirit of anarchy and playfulness described by academics talking about the theatres of early modern Britain. BAC is the natural inheritor of the chaotic feasts of misrule from Britain’s theatrical past.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Troilus and Cressida - Barbican

Written for

Troilus and Cressida
was long held to be one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. Morally ambiguous, lacking a definitively tragic or happy resolution, with fractured narratives and no clear heroes or villains, it has recently been resuscitated as one of Shakespeare’s most contemporary dramas. Sadly, none of this matters a jot if you make a complete pig’s ear of staging it, which is precisely what Declan Donnellan’s new production does.

Played in traverse on the stage of the Barbican’s main theatre, the space runs front to back with the audience raked up into the wings. Nick Omerod’s set cunningly suggests the Greek tents at one end and the sheer walls and towers of Troy at the other, with five continuous strips of distressed off-white cloth forming catwalk-like runways in between the two camps. These catwalks are not pure coincidence, since much of the rest of the thinking behind the production seems to be heavily concerned with ideas of glamour and self-display. Indeed, the whole of the Trojan war seems reduced to a fight between a Vauxhall gay S&M club and an Abercrombie and Fitch advert. The Trojans are all white vests, khakis and linen jackets, while the Greeks wear black combats, leather, and the occasional SS-style uniform. While Paris and Helen pose for Hello!- style photoshoots like a classical Posh and Becks (see above), the venomously bitter Greek Thersities is reduced to a mildly catty drag-queen.

None of this need matter, of course. Shakespeare is robust enough to withstand a few dim design ideas. What the play cannot take is virtually inaudible dialogue and characters who display no sign that anything that they are doing matters to them in the slightest.

Yes, Cressida is one of Shakespeare's most difficult female protagonists, with her vows of fidelity to Troilus undone almost immediately when she returns to the Greek camp under the protection of Diomedes with an eye to self preservation. And, of course, a perfectly plausible response to this is to play her as a Bridget Jonesy Sloane where knowingness becomes ditsy indecision and horrifically painful self-preservation causes little more than a bit of a frown and a pout, but it does make it fiercesome difficult for the audience to see what all the fuss is about.

That said, when faced with a Troilus whose overwhelming love looks like a high-school crush that has got him in a bit of a tizz, her underwhelming emotional response starts to look somewhat overwrought in the circumstances. Alex Waldmann (a fine actor in other circumstances) seems to have been asked to be as brattish and unlikeable as possible; at once preening and totally lacking any sexual charisma, Troilus's devotion is sold down the river here as laughable naïvety rather than tragic irony.

There are a couple of scenes that work well. When Troilus and Cressida wake after their night together and then learn that they are to be separated, within the world of the play their joy turned to anguish comes across convincingly enough. While elsewhere, the scene in which Thersities rails against both Greek and Trojan heroes is re-made as a nicely handled cabaret act. However, while this looks and sounds perfectly clever and nice, it licences all the comments he makes, turning a stream of real bile into toothless entertainment.

Similarly, Ulysses's excoriation of the Grecian generals in his speech on degree (“Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.”) is delivered as an accountant's lecture. It is as if Donnellan had deliberately set out to strip the play of any potential for passion whatsoever. Add to this the funereal pace of the dialogue and the erratic staging that sees characters flung to all corners leaving the centre of the stage empty for whole scenes at a time - making observing the drama something like watching a tennis match - and you have the perfect recipe for a purgatorial three and a half hours.