Saturday, 26 February 2011

100° Berlin – Freitag, Sophiensæle

I admit it, I’m green with envy. No sooner than I bugger off back to Berlin does the ICA offer a whole weekend of brilliant-looking, Shunt-curated Live stuff . For FREE.
Happily, Berlin hasn’t let me down. This weekend it’s 100° Berlin - vier Tage marathon Festival des freien Theaters; a collaboration between Berlin’s two biggest free theatres, HAU and Sophiensæle. Sadly, “free theatre” here doesn’t mean it is free, it’s just the German word for the off-scene, or “fringe” as we might, sort-of, problematically, call it in Britain. Tickets are €16 for a kind of all-you-can-watch performance buffet. Last night (Friday), that meant in theory one could have started at 6pm and carried on seeing things until an after-show party kicking off at 12.30am. There was even a shuttle-bus service running the couple of miles between the two theatres so you could whizz back and forth between shows, although I opted to do one night at Sophiensæle and aim to sample the HAU menu another night (or not, as it turned out).

The festival’s curatorial policy is an odd one: apparently the first 100 groups who apply get to perform. That’s it. Although, judging by last night, there might be a bit of post-application selectivity on the part of the venues as to what time slot and perhaps space any given performance is allotted, but perhaps that’s unfair of me and it was mere chance that the stuff I saw just happened to get progressively more ambitious.

One reason I wanted to stay at Sophiensæle all night is that I wanted to see as many of its spaces as possible. I’d only visited once before, for a kind of promenade jukebox musical based on the music of Arnold Schoenberg (how could one refuse? I know. I must write that up sometime), and was keen to see what else it had. The building might have been some sort of old factory or perhaps, I dunno, ballrooms (?). It is set on a surprisingly quiet street, considering its immediate proximity to Hackescher Markt and has got something of the Arcola or BAC about it; although its peeling paintwork and cultivated atmosphere of faded grandeur is more reminiscent of the old Shunt Vaults or perhaps the original Underbelly in Edinburgh, with comparably enviable spaces. I admit I’m a sucker for peeling paintwork and crumbling plaster in Really Big Rooms, combined with ex-industrial spaces, in one instance even retro-fitted with a heavy iron circle/balcony. This is surely venue heaven.

Anyway, I should talk about the work. The first thing I saw was:

Psych* – S*phia B*rth (I’m too soft to want this to be Google-able) – Sophiensæle Virchowsaal

Lest anyone accuse me of only ever watching German performance through rose-tinted spectacles, let this piece serve as the ur-proof that it ain’t so. I have no idea at what stage Psych0 is supposed to be (like the BAC’s Scratch Festival, 100° Berlin also takes works-in-progress), but after fifteen long minutes, I didn’t much care and crept away. There are some pieces for which the best advice is just, “Stop, and maybe start something new”. Just so you know, Psych* is a one-woman show, for performer, small fake wall and large puppet. It also features a bit of (very basic) live-feed video (performer sits behind screen and leafs through an old family album of B&W photos while holding a video camera. Results are projected onto screen. etc.).

Mostly, it features the one-women talking to herself (or, I suppose, to us – the audience – although I’ve rarely felt less addressed), in character either as Norman Bates, or as Norman Bates doing his mother, or as the actual mother. It wasn’t terribly clear whether the puppet was standing in for the actual, living mother, or a younger version of the mother’s famous corpse. At other points it was like a clown-show being performed behind the fourth wall. Either way, douple-plus ungood.

Loveline – White Horse - Sophiensæle Foyer

Given the longer-than-expected break between shows occasioned by the above, I was grateful that as well as sit-down performances, there were also a few installations dotted about the place. White Horse’s Loveline – which has apparently been doing the rounds of this sort of event, maybe a bit like Rotozazza’s increasingly ubiquitous Etiquette – was handily located in the bar. It’s a brilliantly simple, self-contained thing. You go into a phone box, and pick up a receiver to hear the soundtrack to the film being shown in the bit where you used to dial from (with a choice of nine (?)).

The films show people making declarations of love into their mobile phones in various locations. The one I watched seemed to be quite a saucy declaration of love being made on the U-Bahn (yes, that works here. The underground is really shallow so mobiles have full coverage). Oddly, the most compelling aspect of this little film is the reactions of the two young men sitting next to the – presumably – actress making the “call”. They’re at once in on the joke – the person filming the “phone call” will have been clearly visible to them. At the same time, they’re clearly also almost beside themselves with a mixture of embarrassment and, well, finding it sexy.

Whatlolawants – Virus Casino – Sophiensæle Festsaal

[To Be Completed...]

There are a lot of the yellow ones of these, and this...

Next in: 100° Berlin - vier Tage marathon Festival des freien Theaters - Freitag, Sophiensæle...

Tremor – Sebastian Mattias – Sophiensæle Hochzeitsaal

[Continued from here]

If, after something of a false start with Psych0, Virus Casino provided an amiable warm-up, Sebastian Mattias’s Tremor pretty much single-handedly justified the cost of entry.
Tremor is an exquisitely made piece of contemporary dance. Annoyingly, my vocabulary for discussing contemporary dance is more limited than my German (which, alas, still says nothing for my German), so apologies in advance for the limited co-ordinates used to map it.

Sophiensæle’s Hochzeitsaal is a bright, white attic room. Kind of the same dimensions as a scaled down Barbican Pit, or maybe (at a push) a square Bush. For Tremors, it has been lit with 27 painfully bright strip lights around the edge of the space’s floor. Mid-stage right, centre-stage front and on the far left of the seating rake, at the back, are three large speakers, each with a snare drum carefully perched on top.

The piece is for three performers, two men and a woman (Mathias, Lisanne Goodhue and Isaac Spencer). Each is carefully dressed in fashionably cut muted colours. There’s even attention paid to their differently coloured socks. In short, before it’s even started, the whole thing looks superbly thought through: minimal, but not blank or bleak. The three performers have been twitching and jerking a bit as the audience filed in. Once we’re settled, the soundtrack is allowed to bring them to life.

It is separate, concentrated and detailed. Each of the three performers begins a developing cycle of their own movements, initially suggesting three different states. One of the men (Spencer?), stuck on the floor, dressed in a mustard t-shirt and beige(?) PVC(?) shorts(?), uses his arms to wrestle his apparently spastic legs. While Mathias (?), dressing in light grey sleeveless t-shirt and light grey, tight jeans, struggles with a torso intent on curving the opposite direction to hips and legs. Goodhue – a fitted pink dress – stuck against one wall (and, from where I was sitting, pretty much behind-a-pillar – beautiful tho’ it be, Hochzeitsaal has a couple of sightlines issues), struggles with her arms.

The soundtrack similarly stutters and clicks, building with painful deliberation toward a promised crescendo which never quite arrives. The sonic architecture here is quite astonishing. Yes, it’s recorded, which always has the effect of making the movements feel slightly remote-controlled, but thanks to the presence of the snare drums in the room there’s also a tiny unpredictable live element as they rattle more and more urgently as the sound shakes the speakers on which they rest.

The combination of the fluorescent lighting, beautifully engineered soundscape and the painstaking movements gives the initial impression that the piece is somehow also emotionally cold and remote. It’s clearly intelligent, but I do wonder if under red lighting it would look even faintly intellectual. Funny how a lighting state can control how one *reads*. That this thought occurred to me not long into the show, suggests that there’s something in the movement that disputes it. Certainly this is a long way from the gutsy passion displayed by something like Pina Bausch’s Café Müller (I only saw Pina the night before, so it was much on my mind, it’s a fairly crude compassion, really – although Spencer’s early struggles with his legs certainly recalled a Bausch routine). But there’s also a fluidity along with the deliberation. All three performers are incredibly talented and precise; at all times entirely focused on their cycles of movement, almost living, introvertedly, *inside* these strange sequences.

The piece as a whole consists of (I think) six of these cycles. Each accompanied by a gradually building noisescape. The cycles are separated by punctured silences accompanied by sporadic jerks. With each cycle running at roughly eight minutes, by the end of cycle four, with the intricacy and “rules” firmly established, part of me wanted to see a cycle broken, and perhaps at least one crescendo actually achieved – perhaps see the distance between the performers finally snapped and to see one rush across the space and leap into the arms of another to the long-promised crash of drums. It never comes. But this almost perverse, infinitely deferred gratification somehow manages to keep the piece fascinating and hopeful long beyond the point where by rights it should start to drag.

As Tremors is co-produced by Tanzplan, Hamburg, and Dampfzentrale, Bern, it’s unlikely that Mathias needs my inexpert praise, but this is definitely a choreographer to watch.

Next in: 100° Berlin - vier Tage marathon Festival des freien Theaters - Freitag, Sophiensæle.

We Love Africa and Africa Loves Us – Institutet / Nya Rampen / Markus Öhm – Sophiensæle Festsaal

[Continued from here]

From contemporary dance to postdramatic/live art/performance/installation.

We Love Africa and Africa Loves Us (I promise, cf. my recent blogs, I actually don’t go looking for this stuff, it just finds me) is still a work in progress. Full performance is scheduled for 2012. In that spirit, this emphatically isn’t “a review”, it’s a report of what I saw and a description of what those things made me think and feel. And a few thoughts. I say this, not so much with an eye to the recent British kerfuffle about previews, as to a spirit of possible co-operation between amateur critics (in the best senses of both words) and makers (see also: the other night i dreamt the world had fallen over).

Of course, it helps that I really, really liked about 90% of We Love Africa... (WLAaALU), otherwise, I might just have kept my mouth shut, but this is a really exciting piece and I wanted to share what I’d seen with my reader.

The stage set-up of WLAaALU involves a pair of large projection screens hung over a kind of large, white tent/small marquee/gazebo (see murky photo, above). If you’ve seen Gob Squad’s Kitchen or stuff by René Pollesch you’ll know the deal – it’s performed live, but you never see the actors in-the-flesh. They’re behind an actual fourth wall, and there’s just the live-feed video projection to rely on (presumably at some point, someone will question whether this is “really theatre”, for my money it definitely is, especially when it’s done with the understanding that it’s breaking the "rules").

The interior of the marquee/gazebo is sparsely furnished with the sort of shelves you might find in a garage or shed, a potted palm, a map of Africa hung on the near wall and a white plastic table over which is hung one of the five cameras. Four (white) men enter and don scrubs. Slowly they lay out the array of surgical instruments familiar to us all from hospital dramas on television.

When this is done, one of the “surgeons”goes and fetches the object of their operation. It is a small doll. It is a small doll which has been painted brown. It is – I think crucially – not a doll which began life ethnically moulded as “black”, but a “white” (i.e. pink) one which has been painted. It still has blue eyes and those disturbingly heavy, adult eyelashes that some dolls have.

The doll is placed on the table and is patted, calmed and creepily stroked. It is at once ridiculous, horrible, incredibly loaded and deeply silly. The symbolism, let’s be honest, couldn’t be more simplistic, you’d think. But, somehow, thanks I think to the care and attention, and just sheer poker-faced seriousness of the actors, the performance not only contains both the crassness and the absurdity, but also seems to be using them.

The first operation involves the slow and meticulous filming of a scalpel being slowing lifted, ritualistically washed (– Oh yes. Rewind a bit. Before commencing, the four surgeons all hold hands and make as if to pray to their makeshift operating table. There’s already a heavy hint of The Spooky about proceedings. Now on with the show...) and then scratched tentatively at the join on the dolls leg, all this lovingly – too lovingly (no surprise that the group’s last show dealt with the imprisonment of Natascha Kampusch) – observed in extreme, somehow pervy, close-up. Bits of the brown paint are scratched away with the end of the knife before it is worked into the joint itself. And the leg is prised gently off. A flowery towel is immediately applied to this open doll-wound to staunch the flow of nothing at all.

There’s a brief pause and then the operation continues. Over the next, what? Ten? Fifteen? minutes, all the doll’s limbs are removed with increasingly less care. Again, I’m thinking this is so blunt as to be almost first-level-of-signification. But somehow the way it’s performed still manages to suggest something more.

The best bit, however, the most surprising thing, is when a pink wind-up hippo toy is placed on the table next to the increasingly limbless child. It buzzes like a dentists drill, and at the same time looks both sinister and ridiculous, as children’s toys do. Later there’s also a rattle shaped like a duck, which is waved in a way that suggests it holds a totemic power for the surgeons. At the same time, the level of conviction is only akin to that of a parent waving a favourite toy at their screaming progeny in the hope of mollifying them. It’s funny how within this sinister set-up everything seems to get ever more loaded with potential meaning.

Eventually the baby’s head is also removed, by that point wearing miniature green bunny ears, and is placed in some sort of shrine. It watches, then, as more and more dolls are brought out and butchered, first systematically, then just pointlessly. The surgeons don’t know what they’re doing. They can’t reassemble anything out of this mess of limbs before them. By this point the sci-fi/horror film soundtrack which has hitherto been underscoring the action builds into the sort of thing you might more reasonably expect as the opening track on a Swedish heavy metal album.

And then there’s the ten per cent with which I have issues. Time-wise it’s probably less than that. Anyway, the flyer we’ve been handed when we enter reads: “On the imagery of Africa and Africans in the drama of the helper and the helped. Humanitarian aid workers, just like the explorers of colonialist times, sacrifice their safe and comfortable family life for the adventure and for the cause – to bring light where darkness reigns. The Dark Continent must be penetrated, enlightened and saved!”

For my money, this analysis, even when couched in irony/sarcasm as it is, and even while it deconstructs the self-undermining attempts of white theatre makers to even critique their own culture’s incursions into Africa, doesn’t go nearly far enough. Moreover, to then show the scientists behaving almost as if possessed – three leave the tent while another screams curses at the map of Africa; now sounding like a cross between Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse. It’s so crassly ineffective it makes one question the intricacies and febrile meanings one has been managing to construct for the past forty-five minutes or so.

Perhaps my bad for over-reading in the first place something that might not have been as clever, either a) as it would have liked or, b) as I would have liked. But I don’t think that’s it. There was much about the thing which reminded me of the brilliance of the Pythons, and they never knew how to finish a sketch either. Even their best. However, if this piece has a year before it opens, I would say, with some confidence, that the first 45 minutes or so are great. The ending, on the other hand, needs to be cut and entirely rethought. Oh, and if you’ve got the resources, get it performed by children. That would be amazing.

The whole already reads like this fairly forceful critique of “the West” as essentially childlike in their tendency to explore, sometimes destructively, while retaining total faith in their own essential rightness. But perhaps that again would be falling into the trap of being obvious. Not sure.

Still, the collision of the cringe-inducing, almost total unacceptability of the imagery (at least to my British eyes), and the knowingness behind that is startling. The knowingness and handling just needs to be that bit more fine-tuned, though, until it really does know, rather than aiming in a hopeful direction and striking out too quickly.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Pina (dir. Wim Wenders)

[first draft]

In case you don’t know, Pina is the new film about the work of choreographer Pina Bausch made by Wim Wenders . It is given added poignancy by the fact that Bausch died two days before shooting commenced. As such it is hard not to view the film as a eulogy, a celebration of what was given to the world and has now been taken away. But there’s a greater sense of “what might have been” to the film.

I should start by noting that you really must go and see it. The first ten minutes alone are some of the most extraordinary I’ve ever spent in a cinema , although this could well be to do with the film’s other big selling point besides its subject. Pina is a 3D film. Or a Digital 3D film. Or a "Real D 3D" film (as the inevitable glasses necessary to view it proclaim). I’ll be honest, I’d hitherto missed out on the massive wave of 3D films which apparently swamped cinemas last year. And if the trailers for forthcoming 3D attractions are anything to go by – Justin Bieber’s Triumph of the Will in 3D, etc – I doubt I’ll be seeing many more in the near future.

So, partly the first ten minutes were just me being agog at the visual trickery which made even the film’s titles seem to float metres before the screen. It’s ridiculously impressive stuff. Pretty early on there’s a panning shot which makes a gauze curtain appear as if it’s just about to brush your nose, and throughout the new sense of depth achieved in a hundred panoramic shots is repeatedly remarkable. The rest have you have probably already seen a recent 3D film, right? If not, and like me, your last experience of the medium involved cardboard glasses with red and blue coloured cellophane lenses and a curiously greeny-grey picture, you’re in for a surprise.

That said, for all that it is massively impressive and an undeniable technical achievement, it’s clear that it is a technology still in its infancy. Essentially, sometimes it works brilliantly, and other times it draws attention to itself by not quite working – quite often the level of 3D-ness achieved is precisely that of a moving version of those old 3D “viewfinder” things there were in the Seventies. You know the ones? There’s the same sense of distance being achieved by way of a carefully regimented sequence of layers, each further away than the last, but like cut outs, with just distance rather than substance between each layer. Beyond that, there’s also something mildly disconcerting about watching a whole film with your eyes slightly out of focus, and I fancy by the end it was starting to give me a headache.

The strangest thing about watching this film about this particular subject rendered with this particular new(ish/at least to me) technology is how the 3D served a) almost as a V-Effekt for film itself – every time the 3D clunked slightly you were forcibly reminded that you were watching a film, b) as a rather strange way of reminding you of the fact that the actual thing this film is about – live performances on stage – are 3D as a matter of course. This didn’t always feel entirely helpful.

But what of the film itself? Well, it’s both wonderful and frustrating, and a bit of an odd shape to boot. On one hand, it gives an good survey of Bausch’s shows; opening with Das Frühlingsopfer (Le Sacre du Printemps, 1975), continuing to Café Müller (1978) and Kontakthof (also ‘78) through to Vollmond (2008), with snippets from numerous other choreographies in between. But, while those named (hit/signature?) pieces get a fair crack at some proper screen-time (although never quite enough), others are skipped through pretty fast or skipped altogether. Similarly, while some of the editing is inspired, at other points it feels abrupt or clumsy.

There is no documentary voiceover, nor is there any historical contextualising, analysis of the/a work’s impact or even biographical detail. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but as documentaries go, this one is pretty thin on yer actual facts. Instead there are mute-head interviews with principle members of Bausch’s company (yes, “mute-head”; a new genre, perhaps. Basically it’s like talking heads, except that the interviews are recorded and then played over film of the dancer, either as filmed portrait or while dancing) in which they share their personal experience of working with Bausch.

This feels like a perfectly excellent way to have approached making the film, albeit one which in this instance doesn’t quite work. The dramaturgy, as we might have it in theatre terms, isn’t quite there. Of course, having the film’s subject, and much more importantly the close colleague of the other interviewees, die two days before shooting starts must have had a massive impact on the process. Perhaps in part then this is a document bearing testament to that sense of shock and loss.

On a different tack, something interesting is the extent to which Wenders, variously, has and has not appropriated the choreographies for cinema, and the effect this has on them. As you’ll notice from the trailer (here, and also at the bottom of this review), Wenders has taken a number of pieces and filmed them in locations in and around Wuppertal (the otherwise undistinguished, industrial West German city where Bausch made her work ). This has two principle effects, firstly, it does suggest a willingness to engage with and interpret the works for the screen. It moves the film from being a simple documentary of existing theatre work to something much more excitingly collaborative. But, secondly, it does also sometimes feel like the particular locations chosen to re-set the work might often have been chosen for their vertiginous aptitude for presentation in 3D. There’s probably more whooshy cliff-work than is suggested by the actual choreography, frinstance. But, even while one acknowledges this, one can’t help but admire the whooshy cinematography, even as one wonders about it.

The interpretations are interesting. Strange, I’d say, insofar as they bring an awful lot of fresh air and sunshine into the work – although there are also an array of beautifully shot interiors, mostly of the particularly spacious and architecturally Modern and German variety, and again, mostly all sunshine and fresh mountain air.

But, for all one might have imagined them into different climes and settings, it's good they’re there. They give a much better sense of Wenders’s engagement with the work than any filming of a pre-existing stage choreography ever could.

Turning to the filming of the works on stage; again it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, often gorgeously done – the colours almost too vivid and the ability have close-up shots at once both exciting and somehow curiously wrong. The camera, you see, takes us, as an audience, to vantage points we’d never normally experience (reminding me of Michael Billington’s piece yesterday about where critics ought to sit). Here we’re not even consulted, at one point finding ourselves watching from the viewpoint of the dancer in Frühlingsopfer as he is approached by the potential sacrificial virgins.

Another oddity, perhaps connected to the 3D-ification, is the way that sometime the pieces look far too well-lit. My previous knowledge of Bausch’s work comes mainly from grainy clips on YouTube like this:

In Pina it’s often like watching a glorious colorized version. Which is sometimes ravishing, and sometimes feels like something much more poignant has been plasticised, almost Disneyfied – sometimes making the performers look oddly like painted miniatures (although there is a brilliant screen trick at one point which makes a positive virtue out of this).

So, overall? Breathtaking, brilliant, beautiful, occasionally quite annoying and wrong-headed. But: worth seeing? Absolutely.

Other reviews:

Of Pina:

Guardian Film

Charlotte Higgins’s Arts Diary

On Pina Bausch:

Katie Mitchell on The best performance she’s ever seen - Café Müller

Chris Goode on Das Frühlingsopfer and Café Müller (you need to scroll past the Jérôme Bel review to get to the Pina stuff, although you could just read both and the rest afterwards is really good too)

Matt Trueman on Kontakthof

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Esprit d’escalier

While I’ve been quietly thrilled by the intelligence and articulacy of all but a few of the responses to my latest Guardian blog, I’ve also been kicking myself.

It was just after lunch yesterday that I realised the Google search I should have done before writing the piece: “Black History Month” “Telegraph. And there it is, the Britain which inspired the following passage:

“It's as if the transportation [as “livestock”] of tens of millions of human beings, whose descendants were denied basic legal rights until a generation ago and who still account for a disproportionate percentage of America’s poor, is something that can or should now be laughed off.”

The original draft also contained the phrase: “it’s like a play-off between a culture of national shame and a culture of national pride”. The articles that Google search throws up illustrate precisely the sort of thing I was thinking of.

Look at James Delingpole’s 2009 article Isn’t Black History Month a bit Racist? (I hate to pick on James, since apparently Delingpole-bashing is currently enjoying something of a vogue at the moment. I can only say that his article came first in the Google search when conducted in Germany. Besides which, given that he essentially makes his living as a free-range, pre-emptive, lefty-baiting troll – i.e. he’s given the space to deliberately start fights or, uh, “outrage” “lefties” online without even having to wait for a comment thread – the complaining seems disingenuous to say the least. Anyway...).

Read that? Good. Now maybe mentally swap Black History Month with Holocaust Memorial Day, or The Holocaust Memorial Museum, or perhaps The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or maybe the striking new exhibition centre on the site of the former Gestapo Headquarters. Then, if you like, you can also imagine if the new article had been written by a German for a national newspaper (hint: I severely doubt it would be published. I imagine the journalist would be lucky to keep their job).

This is what I mean by the difference between a country which understands the shame of its past, and one which really believes it has done nothing wrong.

Because in Britain we are taught we haven’t done anything wrong. Or at least, we were when I was at school. Perhaps things have improved a bit now. Certainly if the grumbling of right-wing commentators is to be believed, education is a bit more progressive now than it was in the ‘80s, but the fact that comment-writers even feel justified in raising such objections strikes me as a problem – they genuinely don’t seem to think Britain has anything to apologise for. That the Empire was somehow justifiable.

(passing observation: and “the right” accuse “the left” of “relativism”; what could be more relativist than justifying something which is no longer acceptable with the excuse that it was “in the past”? That “that was how people behaved then”? Also, why is it mostly (but not exclusively) “the right” who fear admitting that Britain has an ugly history? From the available evidence, national shame clearly does one’s economy no harm whatsoever)

When I was at primary school, the six houses into which we were divided were named after Clive, Livingstone, Wolfe, Drake, Shaftesbury and Scott.

In short, that’s: the chap who took India for *us*, the chap who “discovered the source of the Nile”, the chap who beat the French in Canada, a slave-trader credited with beating off the Spanish Armada, a Tory “philanthropist” who I’d somehow got the impression was responsible for the abolition of slavery, but wasn’t, and, in a last-ditch attempt to recoup a bit of British self-deprecation, our man who failed to get to the South Pole (perhaps inevitably, my house).

Bear in mind this was 1982/3-1987. This was the recent England in which I grew up. These are the first six historical figures to whom I was deliberately exposed by my (state) primary school, apart from perhaps William “the Conqueror”.

World history, as I was taught it, consisted largely of the world being discovered by the English. Europe figured only when we were at war with it. We were never taught about the Ottoman Empire or the Swedish “deluge”, nor even the Franco-Prussian War. Instead it was The Romans, The Normans, and then Britain in France (Agincourt etc.), Spanish Armada, Napoleonic Wars, WWI, WWII. Fin. As regards teaching about the slave-trade, we were taught about the heroic way in which it was abolished in Britain, with the note in passing that we did so *ages* before the Americans.

It is this flawed understanding of history that allows an argument such as Delingpole’s even to be made, and why I compare it with Germany’s where there is no such question.

At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, I might return to another strand of this topic to examine the implications of David Cameron’s impossibly slippery Munich speech on “multiculturalism”.

In the mean time, further reading on this subject/other pieces I read while writing the above (as much as a reminder to myself as anything) include/s:

Boris Johnson is right to cut funds for black History Month

Black History Month: racial equality not black and white

And, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius by George Orwell.

[edit, 24/02/11: Also - Jeremy Paxman to front BBC1 series on British empire - "Jeremy Paxman is a brilliant and distinguished broadcaster – who better to weigh up the complexities of the British empire – its glories, its tragedies, the winners and the losers, its triumph and its curse?" said the BBC arts commissioning editor, Mark Bell"]

While in other Clybourne Park news, it looks as if it premieres in Germany in April. Yes, I’m very seriously tempted to go and review it.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Under the paving stones, the beach


I spent a good deal of yesterday afternoon sitting in a café not getting very far in writing a piece about British theatre criticism. So I gave up, went home and read a book.

At the moment I’m alternating between Stefan Aust’s Baader Meinhof Komplex (a remarkably good bit of journalism on which the catastrophic film of the same name is based) and Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus’s book about the Sex Pistols, which draws on everything from Guy Debord, the situationists to Theodor Adorno in one of the most page-turning bits of cultural history I’ve ever read.

As it turns out, the latter offers plenty that resonated. So here, in lieu of an actual essay on British theatre criticism, theatre-making and the blogosphere, are a bunch of quotes and scans from Lipstick Traces. Think of it as a series of reflections and provocations.

Early on Marcus quotes from Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age (not a novel I’d previously heard of):

“All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said, “Goodness me,” or “Whatever next,” or “I give up,” or “Well, fuck that,” before embarking on an evening’s viewing of colour television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country, people blamed other people for the things that were going wrong – the trades unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle, good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody; only a few were stunned into honourable silence. Those who had been complaining for twenty years about the negligible rise in the cost of living did not, of course, have the grace to wish they had saved their breath to cool their porridge, because once a complainer always a complainer, so those who had complained most when there was nothing to complain about were having a really wonderful time now.”

A few pages later, Marcus is quoting the banner Malcolm McLaren hoisted over the last stages of the New York Dolls: “WHAT ARE THE POLITICS OF BOREDOM?” and compares it to the old Situationist slogan: “Boredom is always counterrevolutionary.” He observes: “– the line was typical of the situationist style, of its voice, a blindside paradox of dead rhetoric and ordinary language floated just this side of non-sequiteur, the declarative statement turning into a question as soon as you heard it; what does it mean? You already know, the situationists had answered: all you lack is the consciousness of what you know.” (p.49-50)

On punk’s sudden, massive proliferation (see also: Chris Goode’s recent reminder of Scritti Politi’s DIY call-to-arms): “Over the next few years, far more than fifteen thousand groups of people made records. They made a blind bet that someone might be interested in they sounded like or what they had to say, that they themselves might be interested. Some were bent on fame and money, and some were not; some wanted most of all a chance to announce themselves, or anyway to change the world.” (p.65)

Four pages later he’s quoting Benjamin: ‘“The art of the critic in a nutshell,” Walter Benjamin wrote in 1925-26 in One-Way Street: “to coin slogans without betraying ideas. The slogans of an inadequate criticism peddle ideas to fashion.”’ (p.69)

“People cut records not so much on the off-chance that they would hit, but to join in: to say “I’m here” or “I hate you” or “I have a big cock” or “I have no cock.” Teenagers discovered the thrill of shouting “FIRE” in a crowded theater – or even in an empty theater.” (p.76 – Marcus, not Benjamin now)

Lester Bangs: “The punk stance is riddled with self-hate, which is always reflexive, and any time you conclude that life stinks and the human race mostly amounts to a pile of shit, you’ve got the perfect breeding ground for fascism.” (p.80)

The book also shares this four-page situationist-inspired leaflet from London at the beginning of the 1980s, which reminded me of London's ongoing demonstrations:

[click on image to enlarge]

Hope that helped in some way.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Game, the (ahead of...)

Having read the reviews of Greenland and The Heretic, I’d just like to remind everyone of this piece which I wrote for the Guardian on 30th December 2009:

Polar bears

“Perhaps it's just me, but particularly in Edinburgh and afterwards, the polar bear seems to have become a subliminal byword for impending ecological catastrophe. Even when a piece has got nothing to do with the environment, polar bears still seem to crop up. And it's one of those things that once you've noticed it, you can't stop. Notable occurrences include Lucy Foster's O My Green Soap Box and Im Pelz

I would draw polar bear fans’ attention in particular to Chris Goode’s comment beneath the piece wondering if “the polar bear in [Anthony Neilson’s play The Wonderful World of...] Dissocia is the ur-polar bear in respect of the trend [I’d] identified.”:

(Wonderful World of Dissocia screen cap from a promo video on YouTube)
– and then to the representative of ursus maritimus handled by Juliet Stevenson in The Heretic:

I’m currently mulling over writing a piece about theatre which tackles the subject of climate change myself. Not having seen either Greenland or The Heretic (or Water, or If There is I Haven’t Found It Yet, or The Contingency Plan for that matter), I reckon I’m in an ideal position to do so (I did see Earthquakes in London, though).

In the mean time, anyone who is genuinely interested in the subject and how coverage of it has evolved in the last few years should go and look at Chris Wilkinson’s Guardian blog archive. If we really want to talk about ‘ahead of the game’, it’s worth noting that the first piece he ever wrote for the Guardian Theatre Blog, back in Sept 2007 asks when the climate change was going to start being taken seriously by theatres (2011, as it turns out), and it’s clearly been an abiding concern of his work since (most notably: May 2008, Edinburgh 2008, Jan 2009 and June 2010).

This sort of work written by someone who has an informed, long-standing interest in the subject is a useful corrective to the sort of glib reporting most recently offered by the New York Times which, while paying a gratifying amount of attention to polar bears (“Both plays resort to polar bears. Greenland has two actors in a polar bear suit lumbering onto the stage at one point (deemed by some critics as the play's high point), while The Heretic uses a line drawing of one standing on the tip of an iceberg as the motif on its programs.” – um, yes. It’s also got Juliet Stevenson holding a cuddly one...), does rather seem to have been written by someone *pretending* to have seen both plays.

Anyway... I should go write something proper now.

In the mean time, I can’t remember if I’ve posted this song before (apols if I have), but, on topic:

(and, no, they’re Swiss, actually; since you asked)
Or, if you prefer:


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Othello – Deutsches Theater

[First draft]

[Not so much a review as a blow-by-blow account running to 2,000 words. As such, there are a fair few staging spoilers. In my defence, it’s on in Berlin, and this is an English Language review for what I still consider to be a British-based blog. As such, this review is mostly aimed at people who don’t think they’re ever going to get to see it.]

Okay, there are two headlines to choose from here: 1) I’ve just seen the best production of Othello I’ve ever seen. 2) I’ve just seen a production of Othello in which Othello is played by a white woman in a gorilla costume.

My job, then, is to explain how (2) manages to be (1). Perhaps unfairly I’m anticipating a certain amount of scepticism.

Actually, there’s a third headline. Well, it’s more of a question really: When was the last time you sat waiting for a production of Shakespeare to start with a genuine sense of anticipation about what you were going to see? Like: you really had no idea what was going to happen on stage – how they were going to do it...

Director Jette Steckel’s (2009- premiered) Othello opens with a bloke in a white shirt and black trousers standing up in the middle of the audience (the DT’s Kammerspiele space is a small/medium sized hall with a smallish pros. arch stage – think the Royal Court Downstairs stage at the end of a smaller version of one of the halls in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms) with a small video-camera. What it sees is projected onto the flat, black wall at the front of the stage. He focuses the camera onto a female couple snogging in the front row. The frame freezes. Another white-shirted figure stands. Iago (Jago - Ole Lagerpusch) and hails the cameraman. Gradually other characters stand in the audience as their characters are called on to speak. It is striking how beautifully blocked it is. Perfect “staging” even without a stage.

As the opening scene disperses, the actors mount the stage and exit through a door in the black wall at the front of the stage, their character’s name projected, scribbled on the wall. A kind of rough-mixture of Brecht and Tarantino.

Othello is played by Susanne Wolff – a white woman – wearing the same white shirt/black trousers as the other players. What’s most striking is how little this feels like a problem. Meike Droste’s Desdemona is sweet and boyish. Iago is unusually cute for an Iago – looking more like the sort of actor you might expect to see playing the good-looking best friend in anything from Romeo and Juliet to The OC. Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Helmut Mooshammer) – standing right in front of me in the audience – is also really rather fine; dignified, slightly crumpled and obviously angry, but most crucially, actually like a person. Properly *live* and *a*live, somehow.

Then a storm destroys the Turkish fleet which was going to attack Cyprus. This is created by a bloke blowing into a microphone attached to a delay pedal, while fuzzy footage of the audience projected again onto the black wall at the front of the stage serves as the stormy sea. It should be emphasised that the bloke-with-mic. is stupidly good at doing waves, winds, the crack of timber and the destruction of a fleet at sea. That you get to watch this soundscape created from scratch and then swell and becoming impossibly evocative is all the more exciting.

At the height of the storm, the back wall crashes backwards creating a jaggedly raked stage jutting back into the dark undecorated stage dock (Bühne: Florian Lösche).

From here on in, much of the “action” is reasonably standard. After all, it is still Othello. People need to say the lines to each other. What is special here is the way in which the lines are delivered. Which is to say, there was notably little *acting* going on. Iago wasn’t “evil”. Desdemona wasn’t wet, flat, insipid and/or caricatured as she often seems to be. And Othello wasn’t black or male. Nor was he *Black* or *Male*. It’s a tricky one to explain. The three leads – all excellent – play their parts with a real intelligence and sensitivity to what their characters are doing, thinking, feeling. And yet it’s somehow not *psychological* acting, per se. Their emotions are readable, but not laboured. There’s an intensely watchable matter-of-factness about it. At the same time clearly there’s control and intelligence.

That said, while they do “get on and do the play” there are still some lovely directorial touches. A sequence involving a messenger deploys bloke-with-mic to provide the sound effects to a possibly overdone, but still fun, mime sequence involving cars, horses, a squelching swamp and the opening and closing of many squeaky doors. Elsewhere, during his early scene with Cassio, where he lays his plot, Iago performs a kind of “masque of blackness” the waves bloke-with-mic returns to beatbox while Iago pastiches a number of classic “black” dance music tropes: Michael Jackson, Shabba Ranks, MC Hammer, etc. It’s not especially clear if Iago is being deliberately crass and/or racist, or just mucking about, but it adds a frisson. The sense of Othello’s Otherness being at once conjured, marked-out and disliked. Even while the actual Othello we have so far seen is as deliberately far from “Black” and “Male” as it’s possible to be.

As the play continues, we start to see the character of Othello being further explored, or rather exploded, or deconstructed. The stage lends itself to this sort of treatment. The long black rake of the fallen wall causes the performers to treat carefully across the criss-crossed grid of the construction (see photos). The fact it is at once its concrete self and an abstract space facilitates the other disjuncture: that between performer and character.

The costumes are for the most part effortlessly contemporary. Think Reiss and All Saints, nice casual suits for the blokes and a particularly nice chunky knitted jumper/dress for Desdemona, who also wanders about in oversize t-shirts and boots looking like an appealing indie girl with short hair circa Reading ’93.

The gorilla costume makes its first appearance with Desdemona pissing about wearing just the head (early production shots suggest the full costume, this is no longer the case), at first on her own and then in the scene with Cassio, who at one stage also puts on the mask.

It’s a affectionate, funny and troubling all at once, and gives a new edge to what Othello thinks he is seeing. His new wife is wandering around in this gorilla mask, making fun with it, and in the company of another man. With no foreknowledge of what’s to come, it sounds more than a little racist to immediately associate a gorilla costume with Black masculinity. But here there is no doubt that old racist trope which is being intentionally conjured and played with.

Steckel’s approach is arresting – and not only because it makes this white Englishman squirm, being about as far as is possible from the ways in which we choose to examine racism in Britain. There’s a fair part of me that did just keep thinking “Can you do that?”, as regards the casting of a white person as Othello, and again when one learns that there’s a gorilla costume involved.

The full costume is deployed at the moment when Othello thinks he’s learnt of Desdemona’s infidelity. As a symbol of, well, it’s very much in the eye of the beholder, but it’s such a loaded bit of symbolism it seems to clearly suggest an “animal rage” which no one else in the play displays. And to associate that rage with a particular animal. And a particular animal which has a history of being used as a racist symbol. Which is an uncomfortable thing to put on stage. Even though here it is very clearly as much a comment on the play’s, of Shakespeare’s construction of a “Black man” (although, yes, it’s the director’s decision to apparently take “Moor” as a licence for “Afro-Caribbean” than what is historically more likely to intend North African).

It’s incredibly disturbing. I mean properly, electrically uncomfortable. Because as ways of pissing about representing race on stage go it’s pretty full on. It’s confronting the audience with a question about how “Black” characters are constructed by white writers in the baldest imaginable terms.

Thanks to the rest of the deconstructed staging, the image works perfectly. Indeed, beyond the signification of questions about race, it is actually, curiously, enormously touching. The gorilla costume looks heartbroken, all the more touching for being momentarily deprived of language. I think it’s also important that we see Wolff put on the costume on stage and take it off again some minutes later also onstage. It entirely foregrounds the symbolism in its own constructedness (if that makes sense).

It also marks a fascinating contrast between the effect having both Othello and Desdemona played by women, which, thanks to these two particular performances, makes the relationship seem far more tender, playful and affectionate than I’ve ever seen before. Wolff, while not going out of her way to be gruff, or affecting an impression of “a black man”, does manage to convey a commentary of a certain masculinity.

It’s worth noting that immediately after Othello/Wolff takes off the gorilla costume and the other performers return to the rake for the scene in which Othello abuses Desdemona in front of her family they begin with Lodovico (Desdemona’s cousin, also played by Helmet Mooshammer (Brabantio)) handing out the German sweets which are still apparently popularly known as “negerkuss”. It’s a startlingly acute way of at once implying both Othello’s “outsider” status and really picking at German society’s apparent casual racism.

The next time we see Othello he’s dressed in a red dress and a long blonde wig.

He looks like another racist archetype – that of the idealised trophy white woman. I think this might be genius. At the very least it’s asking the audience to do some serious work on its own understandings of the constructedness of characters and how we think performers on stage *mean*. In this sequence, there’s an utterly charming moment where D. perches on O’s arm like a little bird. Actually, Desdemona does quite a lot of bird-related physical/movement work. It’s terribly sweet yet subtle enough not to feel like a Big Thing. Perhaps in stating it so baldly here it sounds like it might be a bit over-symbolic, but in the moment it comes across as wonderfully light and playful.

The plot carries on, nearing its inevitable tragic denouement. Desdemona comes in wearing a Clawfinger t-shirt for bed, bearing the backprint Deaf Bumb Blind. Othello comes in, Susanne Wolff returned to her own long brown hair and wearing a Public Enemy t-shirt* and does Desdemona in. Then does himself in too. Sarcastically. With one of those knives with bouncy retractable blades while a series of photographs of Wolff in various guises, black, white, male, female, young, old are projected against the back wall of the stage. Iago returns and makes short work of Emilia – a hand pressed to her face removed to reveal a bloodied mess. And it all abruptly ends, with a good deal less of the protracted speechifying and explaining than usually holds the end of the play up by about ten minutes.

In conclusion, this is at once a dizzyingly intricate intellectual take on the play, and at the same time, one which displays a curiously conservative aesthetic – at least as far as German theatre goes. It always looks nice, and, in a strange way, aside from the intense questioning of racial politics, it doesn’t feel like theatre which is really seeking to turn the status quo on its head. At the same time, it reminded me more than anything I’ve seen since last August why I think theatre, when it’s working flat-out, is just brilliant. So, yes. If you get the chance, do go see it. Or badger the Barbican for a transfer.

* Interestingly, the T-shirts worn in the final scene by Desdemona and Othello actually form a dialogue of their own. Clawfinger are a ridiculous 90s Swedish rap-metal outfit (who are all white) and their album Deaf Dumb Blind opens with a track called “Nigger” in which the band lecture black people who use the N-word about why they shouldn’t do so, with apparently no irony whatsoever. That Othello wears a Public Enemy t-shirt while strangling Desdemona suddenly makes his actions seem almost reasonable given the circumstances :-)

Monday, 14 February 2011


Mark Titchner, 2009 for Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre (found on Tim Etchell's blog)

So, preview performances – fair game for the non-professional reviewer or not?

You’d imagine by this point in proceedings that pretty much every argument for and against would have been aired and I’d be loathe to undertake a point-by-point rehash of a 50-comments-+ thread as well as articles broadly in favour of his position from Jake Orr and Dan Baker and varying shades of against from: Laura Tosney, Corinne Furness, Glen Pearce, Ian Foster, “Sans Taste” and even half a podcast on the subject, not to mention some rather unpleasant tweets. But, annoyingly, so far no one seems to have made some very obvious points.

Trueman has accused “bloggers” of “the cynical practice of reviewing previews”.

As is clear from Tosney and Furness’s defences, the term “blogger” is far too broad. Clearly neither of these blogs is primarily or exclusively a theatre reviews blog. The front page of Tosney’s [at time of writing] takes you back as far as September 14th 2010, with not so much as the slightest hint of a review of anything in a theatre, preview or otherwise. Similarly, Furness’s Distant Aggravation blog, while clearly more theatre-oriented, gets back to 12th Jan (an article about tie-dying, I think) without any actual reviewing. There’s a bit of personal grumbling about the Old Vic’s A Flea in Her Ear (22nd Jan – A Year in Theatre: Show # 2 – no idea if it was in preview or not at that point), but it is in no way seeking to be “a review” in any conventional sense. It’s an entirely personal set of observations ranging from “I suspect that I would prefer to sit through a glorious failure than a well made-nothing.” to “I have an ongoing debate with some friends about which theatre has the best looking ushers. Two words: Old Vic”.

Obviously Trueman’s piece isn’t aimed at them, although this could have been made clearer in his original piece.

Furness’s A Flea... review, however does offer an excellent example of what Trueman isn’t talking about. A common complaint about his argument is the reductio-ad-absurdum conclusion that to stop “bloggers” or indeed any “paying punters” from blogging about, Tweeting, or discussing a show they’ve just seen, be it in preview or otherwise, is essentially to stifle a genuine human reaction – albeit channelled through some oddly contrived means. But if we accept “To Tweet is Human” as a maxim, or at least put it on the level of “as natural as chatting” then I suppose we have to live with it.

I don’t think Trueman would really argue otherwise.

On the other hand, surely anyone can see that there’s a qualitative difference between someone who blogs many mundane details of their life, their to-do lists, and so on, to someone keeping a blog which consists entirely of reviews of plays, perhaps round-ups of reviews of plays, “What’s On” features and monthly round-ups of plays and has a Twitter account named after such activities: @Dave’sTheatreView or somesuch. There is, in short, a qualitative difference between marketing yourself as a person and marketing yourself as an opinion on theatre on social media, n’est pas?

So, let’s focus this discussion on Theatre Review Blogs.

And so to the charge of cynicism...

To be honest, I’m rather surprised it’s this which has generated all the outrage. This is reflected in the way that many respondents have floundered in their attempts to refute the charge. There Ought to be Clowns’s Ian Foster in the “As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast” seems to admit as much while claiming that regularly booking into one of the earliest possible previews in order to steal a march on embargoed “professional” critics “isn’t” cynical. Of course it’s cynical. The only question is why bother denying it?

There are two main points which torpedo this innocent “What? Me? Cynical?” stance:

Firstly, if a preview period runs for let’s say two weeks, if you’re only buying preview tickets because they’re cheaper, why not buy them on the last night before press night? That way, if you’re aiming to write about the show, you’ll get the closest thing to the finished version that will be “opening” the next day.

Secondly, if you’re not chasing ratings by having your review out two weeks before the critics, and you only blog “as a personal record of what you’ve seen”/“as a hobby” why not observe the press embargo anyway?

I mean, if it’s only just this hobby of yours and you’re basically only there/writing for your personal satisfaction, why not hold back your review until press night, and then post it on your blog along with a full disclaimer saying “I saw this on its first preview because I like to see plays as soon as it’s possible to pay to do so, I hope you like this entirely personal record of that first preview”?

Otherwise, why not cut the cant and admit what you’re up to?

It’s fine. You’re cynical. You’re saving yourself *some money* so you can see a show. You’ve weighed up the pros and cons of seeing a preview and have decided in favour, and are then writing about the show you saw. You’re also blogging your thoughts in a way that very frequently purports to be authoritative. Theatres are unlikely to stop selling you tickets, and you’re unlikely to stop buying them and writing about the show you saw. Fine, and fine. But why pretend otherwise?

Unlike Trueman, I’m not sure I have an enormous problem with people writing about previews on the internet, per se. After all, the West End Whingers have made it their stock in trade for years now, and apart from the not unwelcome discomfort which they caused Andrew Lloyd-Webber, it doesn’t seem to have deeply troubled the theatre establishment. Indeed, let’s be honest, the Whingers are now more a part of the theatre establishment than ANY PROFESSIONAL CRITIC. A point worth remembering, I think.

Indeed, I think in many cases what I see as the mainstream-theatre blogosphere *can* - and I stress *can* - act as a welcome corrective to the equal cynicism of commercial theatre producers whose "previews" *can* (again *can*), be ludicrously expensive and whose product might well just be a cynical attempt to exploit a perceived market. As with all ethical considerations, I’m not sure it’s just a matter of black or white right or wrong.

On one hand, if theatres are charging virtually the same (or actually the same) for a preview as for a post-press night performance, there does seem to be justification for missing the distinction which the theatre is pleading.

On the other hand, if there is a reasonably generous discount and three or four different theatre bloggers arrange to all attend a show on its first preview... Well, perhaps the bloggers in question should be prepared to weather accusations of cynicism for trying to get in as quickly before the press as possible.

After writing the main part of this, a playwright friend suggested that perhaps very-first-previews really should be considered properly off-limits and correspondingly enormously discounted – with perhaps a change of title to “Public Dress” or similar. Although, currently enough, I note that “Theatrigirl” has just published a “review” of the Royal Opera House’s Anna Nicole Smith opera, the conditions of which she describes thus: “On Saturday morning, the ROH allowed a small audience – mostly students –in for a rehearsal/run-through of their much-talked-about new work”. Given the unbashed rave she’s given it, I don’t suppose the ROH are going to be too cross, and I'm sure she wouldn’t have written up a dress rehearsal unless she was going to be so positive, but even so, it does seem to be reviewing public dress rehearsal as final product, albeit with a disclaimer and glowingly.

Still, Actual Theatre Bloggers might want to have a think a bit more about Trueman’s initial premise. Maybe there should (and, quite possibly already is, in the mind of many) be a sliding scale of correlation between size-of-discount and nearness to observation-of-embargo, for a start. And maybe also a bit of slack cut for more laudably artistic ambitious projects in order that they might find their feet (i.e. go on the last preview before press night if the tickets are substantially discounted and it's the sort of work that might plausibly need time to fully find its feet).

Given the public facing-ness of blogs, behaviour will probably continue to be dictated by public interest. Hence the two reviews [at time of writing] of the NT’s Frankenstein already circulating. Of course, being solidly sold out, such reviews can’t really do anything more than tell people who haven’t got tickets what it’s like (really great! or really not-great! depending who you read).

However, as ultimately a question of public interest, it boils down to whether you consider the embargo-breakering bloggers to be Wikileaks or Andy Coulson, in much the same way as some readers will ultimately return to blogs because they find them well-written, reliable, entertaining and insightful and others will read any old badly written drivel if it’s “an exclusive”.