Friday, 27 May 2011

Betrogen (Betrayal) – Renaissance Theater

[Long, unnecessary intro at the end]

The most surprising about Torsten Fischer's production of Harold Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal, now in rep. at Berlin's Renaissance Theater, is how normal it is.

As it opens two men are playing squash in an exact replica of a squash court, complete with glass 4th wall. On the back of the court, the precise time (20:01:etc 24/5/2011 is projected). The lights go down. The play's title, “Betrogen”, flashes up and the clock winds back the years to 1977 for the first scene of the play as Pink Floyd's Time plays.

It's quite, uh, cinematic.

In a small nod to being German, the entire play turns out to be set in a squash court. Or rather, the set doesn't change. The glass 4th wall does gradually recede throughout the action, which at least has the effect of situating each scene in a different space. Even if they are all white with a red line running round them about halfway up the wall. But even this hardly feels like an outrageous exercise in regietheater-gone-mad.

The squash court is no doubt a cunning reference to one the famous motifs of Pinter's text being Jerry and Robert (I don't need to go through the plot, do I? We all know it backwards, right?) repeatedly mentioning that they haven't played squash together for years. Here the squash court surrounds them like an emblem of this failure, and a monument to the reason behind it.

Having spent recent days [this review was written on Weds, but then Blogger went to pieces] wondering at a tendency toward nit-picking in British theatre criticism (the partial modernisation of School for Scandal, swearing in the Cherry Orchard, and Merchant of Venice in Las Vegas), I find myself doing precisely the same here (you can take the critic out of England...). After all, if you go to the effort of projecting the fact that it's 1977 on the back wall before the first scene, why are the blokes wearing totally modern squash gear? But, no matter. It's an otherwise totally conservative modern dress production of a play set in 1968-77. In a squash court. It's fine.

The other thing that amused me was noting that the play was still set in England, and the characters still nominally English. I wondered from time to time if little things they said or did (“cheers” remained in English, for instance) were there to point up this fact. Whenever two characters met up, for example, one would pour the other about half a pint of neat gin. Not so much as a sniff of tonic water. Just half a pint of neat gin.

Gin apart, the characters didn't really come across as especially English. It was hard to tell, for example, whether the potentially homo-social aspect of Robert and Jerry's friendship was being foregrounded, or whether they were two men who were just a bit more relaxed in each other's company on account of not actually being English. At one point, Jerry even stroked the top of Roberts head. Of course, by this point in the scene, he'd drunk about a pint of neat gin, so maybe that was it.

Similarly, what I'd always understood as the crucial chilliness of the dialogue – essentially a play of gritted teeth and quiet control – seems to be more or less discarded. The crucial turning-point scene where Robert discovers Emma's affair here involves him giving her a bit of a beating, rather than the more usual English reading of a cold verbal interrogation. Making his subsequent (chronologically) claim that his hitting Emma “a bit” had nothing to do with Jerry a deliberate lie.

All of which is fine too. Indeed, it's mildly surprising to see the play done “straight” - i.e. with really no hint that the director is doing anything other than what they believe the script is asking them to do (oh dear, bad explanation) – and finding it turning up in such a different place. Part of this may of course stem from Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt's German translation. In one instance, for example, it changes Emma's (now somewhat dated-sounding) admission: “We're lovers” to (the German for) “We are in love” - which potentially alters not only this crucial moment but possibly the entire meaning and trajectory of the play. Or not.

However, elsewhere in the production there are hints of, well, at best a well-meaning naïveté or at worst carelessness. The Venice scene is flagged up by a film of an aerial view on a canal ineptly projected on the back wall of a the Squash Court and the table-cloth which Emma later/earlier presents with a flourish looks like the cheapest of afterthoughts. And in the final scene (i.e. the first, chronologically) Pink Floyd's Time is played again. A full five years before it was released.

All of which suggests that the whole was flung together without much thought, which therefore may have had an impact on the acting as well. But niggles aside, the production isn't actually too bad. In the context of the apparently TV-starry cast, Heikko Deutschmann and Anika Mauer run rings around the stolid, macho Peter Kremer in the acting stakes (and indeed, in the line-learning stakes), but the show rattles along pacily enough, in spite of this.

On the whole, though, this is much more of a curiosity than an out-and-out pleasure.


There's an interesting phenomena in Germany. It is this: there is a total disconnection between the state-funded theatre and the commercial sector. More than this, I am given to understand that the commercial sector receives almost no coverage from the serious theatre critics. The state theatres put on their mixture of incessantly revived, and always freshly re-imagined, texts from the canon (the Schiller, the Goethe, the narrow band of Shakespeares done here, the Aeschylus, the Euripides, etc.), new writing and modern classics (plus the surprising number of literary adaptations), the Off-theaters continue with their experiments in production and reception, and it appears that no one serious ever gives the slightest thought to the commercial sector.

Coming from London, this first struck me as utterly wonderful. Having been sent as a theatre critic for the Financial Times to such “theatre” as An Audience with the Mafia and TV magician Derren Brown I was more than a little jealous. Imagine a world, I thought, where I wasn't responsible for having to have an opinion on Lloyd-Webber's latest telly placement or jukebox musical.

At the same time, I was acutely aware that this distinction – as applied to Britain – was flawed. After all, there is nothing like the same gulf between British commercial theatre and its state-funded sibling as there seems to be in Germany. On one hand, we happily produce musicals and boulevard comedies in our state houses and, at the same time, as Simon Stephens recently noted, the possibility of a West End Transfer is something of a status symbol and not one to be sniffed at. As such, apart from anything else, there is basically no point in drawing a line between “commercial” theatre and the theatre made in British state theatres. Britain has always been one for blurring the lines between “popular” and “high” art, I'd argue, and now many argue that the terms themselves are meaningless.

As a result, the rejection or ignoring of a whole section of a city's theatres just isn't in my critical DNA. Also, criticism is sort of journalism, too, right? And Berlin's commercial sector is, if nothing else, a news story. Something to be reported on...

Armed with such reasoning, I find myself about the furthest out West I've ever been in Berlin (apart from a trip to Schloss Charlottenburg or the lakes on the edge of the city), outside the Renaissance Theater for a production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal.

As it turns out, the Renaissance Theater is a rather pleasant, modest-looking building, with few nods to glitz and/or glamour. The interior foyer is a bit ironic- (or, more worryingly, perhaps *not*ironic-) chintzy-posh (think The Ambassador's Receptions), but the auditorium itself is pleasantly intimate and oddly not unlike a scaled down version of Deutsches Theater – with a similarly low rake for the audience and plush walls and carpeting – quite unlike anything in either the West End or the subsidised sector. Perhaps try imaging the Royal Court or the Duchess redecorated by the people who did Kensington Palace. It was also interesting to note that its audience was far more like those that used to be the mainstay of Britain's own National Theatre, an almost solid wall of comfortably-off retirees.

But the most striking thing is that here Pinter is relegated to the same status as Yasmina Reza (the Renaissance Theater is also showing “Kunst”(!)), Hello, I'm Johnny Cash and Ewig Jung (Forever Young!). It's a bit like the discovering the Birmingham Hippodrome includes an Elfriede Jelinek staging in its repertoire (at least in terms of comparable Nobel-winning national stature)...

[you can now go back to the start of the review...]

Monday, 23 May 2011

50 Aktenkilometer

50 Aktenkilometer (50 Kilometres of Files) takes the form of wandering around the centre of ex-East Berlin (so, actually, what is now the centre of Berlin, what was the western edge of ex-Ost Berlin) with a map. This (or at least as much of the map as would fit in the scanner...):

Wearing a pair of headphones, plugged into a GPS/mobile phone/receiver thingy. This:

The (approx 100) Orange Points marked on the map, signify the epicentres and radii of signals being transmitted around the city which are receivable by your headset/device-thingy.

Whenever you hove into range, your headset starts playing you the recording attached to that site (yes, *Starts*. They're not on a loop. You get each one from the start whenever your headset moves into range, and it keeps playing it for pretty much as long as it can. It struck me as tremendously clever and complicated).

The subject of all the recordings is the East German secret police or Stasi.

There are recordings of actual telephone conversations and interviews, there are readings of files performed by actors and there are interviews with former victims of the Stasi. There are also patriotic DDR songs. Many of the recordings relate specifically to the location in which they're played.

Some might be recordings of someone making a phone call from or relating to the spot you're standing on over 22 years ago.

Others might have been recorded in the last few weeks by someone audibly moved to be revisiting this specific spot.

The clips range from the workaday business of an organisation dedicated to spying on the entire population of a city – perhaps one of the most striking things is the deadpan tones of voice of the bored agents making and taking calls, and the occasional fact of them having a bit of a laugh about something – to heartbreaking stories of betrayal, separation, torture, and imprisonment.

Some of the clips would even be quite funny if they weren't so sinister: an agent getting phoned up by a series of people all watching the same diplomat repeating the same one piece of trivial information – that he'd checked into his hotel.

I did the piece by bike (– and, as always, with sketchy German). What was striking, taking the piece this way, rather than doing it on foot, was the extent of both the project (remarkable), but also of the source material.

It was a beautiful, sunny, Saturday afternoon in late May. Berlin was full of tourists. Some doing the beautiful old buildings, some, naturally, on the Ostalgie trail. Others again no doubt looking at the city as the former capital of the Third Reich. As such, there is both a massive disconnect between the evidence of one's eyes – Berlin, the (sunny, hot,) modern, Western, capitalist shopping and tourism centre – and the evidence being beamed into your ears.

You started to feel that everywhere, every corner, ever street, every nondescript shop-front or easily overlooked side-street had a story to tell. Indeed, just cycling around for three or four hours, hearing constantly new material, new stories, new evidence, was exhausting. And this was only 100 recordings. The total running time of the recorded show is upwards of ten hours. Then you think that this was going on for forty-odd years. And not just in Berlin.

One of the strange effects of Rimini Protokoll's wider project of telling one about the world is to open your eyes to the sheer impossibility of taking it all in. When you factor history upon geography upon population, just the extent of the experience of the world starts to feel impossibly enormous. That so much of it is also composed of misery is not a cheering thought.

That said, it feels like a necessary project. It's almost a shame that the thing is voluntary and ticketed. It felt a bit like this sort of experience ought to have been mandatory for everyone in the city – an important exercise in not just papering over the past with a bunch of new shops and upmarket bars or restaurants.

Check Point Charlie today (well, Saturday). The iPad 2 advert marks the start of the Russian Sector.


Above: The cover of the map. Below: The “control room” at the bottom of Berlin's most prominent landmark, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) (see top) on Alexanderplatz.

You can also listen to specific recordings in the control room by finding them on large computer monitors:

The TV Tower reflected in the glass of Park Hotel Berlin.

The thing itself. Again.

The Killing Machine

[In lieu of any work materialising]

Over the last weekend I saw another new show by Rimini Protokoll and a revival of an older show by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Both of those and Die Heimkehr des Odysseus at Schaubühne are proving oddly resistant to being written about. So, in the mean time, this is a video of a previous Cardiff & Bures installation which was part of the exhibition of their stuff at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 2008 (Chris Goode wrote a lovely piece about it at the time here), which I'd been meaning to share on here for ages. Take four minutes and put it on full screen.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Das Werk / Im Bus / Ein Sturz - Theatertreffen – Potsdamer Platz

[Incredibly lazy Video Special!]

“So, it'll be a Sunday afternoon. What show from Theatertreffen shall we stick on at Potsdamer Platz?”

“Oh, let's give them the 3hr40 non-naturalistic staging of theatertexts about natural disasters.”

Das Werk is possibly one of the best things I've ever seen done in a theatre. Except, a) I didn't see it in a theatre, b) I only saw about half of it, & c) I understood slightly less of the text than normal – well, I got that it was about an accident in an industrial plant, and The Workers, which turns out was pretty much the size of it, but at the time I felt less like I was following it than seeing it whizz past in front of my eyes. But, blimey, what a sight.

And what a way of dealing with text. This is what was really exciting. I've had a stab at reading Elfriede Jelinek's texts/plays online and haven't had a lot of luck imagining how on earth they'd work on stage.

This arrangement of three of her texts apparently owes quite an artistic debt to the most celebrated interpreter/director of her works, the late Einar Schleef, whose Ein Sportstück (that linked clip really worth a watch – though possibly with the sound down) still stands as a landmark in German stage history.

Perhaps unwisely, given that I was outdoors and armed with my cameraphone, I've uploaded a bunch of footage to YouTube. Annoyingly, it doesn't even give anything like a sense of what it was like watching the work on a Sunday afternoon in a public space – which in turn was doubtless no substitute for being in the actual theatre. But here, third hand, it does at least remove a bit of a burden from my powers of description, which I'm probably going to need for the Schaubühne's Die Heimkehr des Odysseus [review currently forthcoming].

The first video (top) contains many of the elements that recurred throughout Das Werk: stamping, speaking in chorus, cut-up/sampled text, mass panting, high voices, the musicality of speaking...
This second – I did a bad job of recording the best bits, getting distracted by watching them - captures a late bit of a section of some declaiming over singing...

Here again, different ways the chorus was used to deliver the text. The thing I found incredibly hard to remember (no wonder German critics read the texts before they see the shows) was how none of this was “organic” to the text. And yet, how much it felt as if this was how the text was meant to be done – like it was “serving the text” perfectly (which of course it was, but at the same time, as far as I'm aware, it's not legislated for at all)

One bit I missed filming wasn't a million mile from this performance of Einstürzende Neubauten's Was Ist Ist:

The piece ended with some beautiful singing, like something out of Mahler or Strauss:

Im Bus

The second piece, Im Bus, deals with an accident during the building of a U-Bahn station.

The stage is a mess of debris. The few performers have shaken flour over themselves, daubed their faces, poured water over one another, have smoked, used a smoke machine.

Although this was possibly the end of Das Werk.

Then three curious refugees from some sort of Brecht piece have turned up to deliver some more text. This little intervention might be the whole of Im Bus. In which case, it's about ten minutes long and this is the final fifth...

Ein Sturz

The final piece, Ein Sturz (A Fall), was commissioned by Schauspiel Köln, and is a text about the library that collapsed in Köln overnight.

Annoyingly I had to leave to get to Schaubühne before it got really good, but it had just started to get messy as I was leaving...

Again, the division of the text amongst people and, here, objects – large amounts of the text spews forth from laptops or over loudspeakers – is little short of revolutionary to my mind; although I'm well aware it's been going on here for donkey's years and is nothing to get excited about.

On the other hand, the little mostly naked woman running around as “Earth” is possibly an eco-catastrophe all of her own. I'm all for metaphor and everything, but this one errs toward massive overstatement.

For all that, I suspect the two and half hours or so that I saw of this show will probably inform the way I think about how text is treated on stage for the rest of my life.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Nora oder Ein Puppenhaus – Theatertreffen – Potsdamer Platz


If Verrücktes Blut was pretty atypical of “German Theatre” (if an excellent “public event”), Theater Oberhausen's production of Henrik Ibsen's Ein Puppenhaus (well, Ibsen's Et dukkehjem, or A Doll's House as we Brits have it) presents an excellent example of one particular school of Regietheater. Director (and, here, designer) Herbert Fritsch was an actor in Frank Castorf's Volksbühne company while it was revolutionising post-Mauerfall German theatre. And it's clear that he's taken much of his former comrade's style on board in his directing style.

You know A Doll's House, right? Pretty typical Ibsen: bunch of people standing around in a room in a 19th century Norwegian house, dressed in period costume. The acting is incredibly subtle; a maasterpiece in naturalism.

Not here.

Fritsch's production is a garish, grotesque nightmare. Opening to the queasy, insistent strings of Bernard Herrmann's music for Hitchcock's Vertigo, the stark square playing areas is lit with alternating reds and greens.

Manja Kuhl's Nora is a disturbing Tim Burton fantasia on infantalised womanhood. Decked out in a short, voluminous chiffon pink baby-doll dress, ballet pumps and a shock of auburn ringlets, but lethally long legs. By contrast, Torsten Bauer's Helmer is a violent caricature of old age: all pealing-latex bald-wig, powery whiteface, and a wardrobe hymning the joys of beige.

The playing style offers a similar fantastical bluntness, almost as if the cast were assaulting the play rather than performing it. Lines are delivered at a pitch of near-hysteria, while the cast physically play out just about the most extreme reading of the subtext imaginable. If A Doll's House is secretly about sex and power, then it's not a secret here. Nora is forever being pawed, groped, mauled and spanked while, in turn, coquetting and flouncing, flirting and virtually forcing herself on people. A sexuality the text only hints at is here brought alive and then weaponised.

It's not a style I've always warmed to. I think there were many similarities in this performance to Castorf's recent hit Nach Moskau! Nach Moskau!, which I really tried to like, but didn't. But here, I really got it. It's perhaps easier to watch a sexual subtext physicalised than a socio-economic one, but even so, seeing this is already feeding my retrospective appreciate of the Castorf – and so perhaps apart from anything else, this Nora is an excellent entry-level performance for this style of direction. Castorf-lite, or Volksbühne-für-Beginners or something. And, yes, this took a bit of warming to, too. But once I got there, I thought it was great.

What was fascinating about the performance was the way that you could almost see the play being dismantled in front of your face. The idea that the lines the cast were shrieking at one another were the same lines that are delivered with as much understatement and earnestness as possible in other productions of Ibsen (Ostermeier's wonderful Hedda Gabler, for example) was almost reward enough for sticking with it. And yet, it was still the play. But not really functioning in anything like the way you (I, we?) think it's meant to.

Of course, there was again, here, the extra dimension of the fact that this wasn't actually *live* to consider. Unlike Verrücktes Blut, I don't think the Theater Oberhausen staging could possibly have been a recording of a live performance in front of an live audience. Instead, while this was still very defiantly a stage production, it was very much a stage production for the cameras. What might be direct-audience-address live was here close-up, to-camera work, while the way the cameras weaved in and out of the action, cutting rapidly and dancing about the performers also suggested a lot more than one take.

I also wonder again if, the freedom of watching, of being outdoors – seeing the thing on a massive screen, with close-ups available, and a whacking great sound system definitely making the performance the biggest noise-polluter by a country mile almost drowning out the occasional police siren, let alone the general low-level chatter of a public space – had a bearing on reception. Well, of course it did. I could smoke, go to the loo without upsetting anyone, and stretch my legs from time to time, all while feeling the wind on my face and seeing the blue sky above. In this respect, it was pretty much the opposite of “theatre”, and it didn't feel like a bad thing at all. That said, I would still like to sit in the same room as the original and experience it as it was meant to be intended.

While I'm not sure it said a great deal about anything very seriously, as a way of delivering the play – serving the text, indeed – it worked totally. And pretty much turned my ideas of what you could do with Ibsen on their head. Essential viewing if you can get hold of a copy.

More videos:

You get a vague sense of overall style from this clip, although this might be a particularly overwrought moment:

Although this, from very close to the end, is better – note burning cardboard fir tree in background and the music to another Hitchcock film, this time Psycho. I also love how untroubled this Nora is by the collapse of her marriage.

Verrücktes Blut – Theatertreffen, Potsdamer Platz

[written for]

Broadly speaking, Germany, or at least Berlin, doesn't seem to go in for the social-realist problem play so much. You know, those plays that are the absolute staple of English theatre: the dinner-party conversation play; the “About” play; the “liberal angst” play. Everything from George Bernard Shaw to the work of Davids Hare and Edgar.

Verrücktes Blut looks like it's already making a significant dent in this theory. Created at the Berlin theatre Ballhaus Naunynstraße, located in the heavily Turkish-populated district of Neukölln – sort of Berlin's Arcola – it is a play about young Turks in Germany.

The first interesting, or at least unexpected, thing about Verrücktes Blut is that it isn't a piece of new writing. It's an adaptation of the recent, similarly themed French film La journée de la jupe (Skirt Day!), or as blurb has it: “Frei nach einem Motiv aus dem Film...” (roughly: freely after a motif from the film...). In both, a teacher finds a gun in one of her students' bags and takes her class hostage.

Here, the piece gets off to a rather rocky start. The first few minutes involves little more than the Turkish cast rehearsing an exaggerated Masque of the Surly Youths. Then, the gun is discovered. Nine. Minutes. In. And for a good long while after that, the production consists of the whole cast screaming and shouting at maximum tension-level. Or rather, mostly the teaching screaming and shouting and the kids looking terrified and screaming or shouting only when the gun is pointed at them.

Then comes another potential pitfall. The class the teacher is taking is on Schiller's repertory classic Die Räuber. The class in meant to be memorising large chunks and performing them (apparently, yup, that really does happen in German schools. Read and weep, British teachers), so we've now got the handy contrivance of having these Turkish youngsters having to perform large chunks of Schiller. It's practically Our Country's Good for immigrants at gunpoint (not that Our Country's Good isn't immigrants at gunpoint, but...).

The teacher menaces them for incorrect pronunciation, bullies and taunts them, and calls them “monkeys” (Affen). The strapline for the show could almost be “When you teach the word culture, reach for a gun”. All this is more than a little problematic, especially for me, a total outside observer (being neither Turkish nor German). In the first instance, the production paints a more-or-less relentlessly negative view of Turkish youngsters; it then seems to suggest that German culture is forced down the necks of these youngsters basically – now literally – at gunpoint.

The subjects of the teacher's anger are considerable. At one point she is attacking male Turkish youths' propensity for over-using the word “muschi” (pussy); at another, she forces a young Turkish girl to remove her headscarf at gunpoint.

I don't know whether this latter scene is also in the French original, but it would seem fittingly emblematic for a “debate” which is raging across Europe – whether or not to introduce headscarf bans. Here the removal of the headscarf is shown as a moment of female liberation and/or empowerment. Somehow, the fact this empowerment takes place at gunpoint seems to get lost. Which seems in keeping with the direction in which the debate seems to be going: legislating to enhance people's personal freedoms by making something people do illegal.

In fact, though, it might well be the presence of the gun which keeps the play's examination of the issues interesting. In short, while it might be a bit of a crass, or symbolically heavy-handed motif, it does have the useful effect of undermining both sides at once, while at the same time proving to be an effective tool for classroom control. But I wonder if it pushes the envelope of hopelessness a bit too far. As if to suggest that there can be only violence. That brutal control is the only option.

At the end, it has emerged that one of the group has done Quite A Bad Thing and there's a quick balloon debate about whether he gets executed or not. The pupils quote a range of leading enlightenment lights (Schiller, Goethe, Voltaire, etc.) to the teacher's amazement, pleasure and ultimate irritation. It's a bit on the heavy-handed side, like the kids are all suddenly channelling Dead Poets Society. Now, if they'd managed to make the same arguments using the Koran, then we might have been onto something, but curiously, this was a play which seemed to brook virtually no multi-culturalism at all.

By German standards the staging was deemed rather conservative. i.e. the youths wore precisely the clothes Turkish youths wear, and were played by yer actual young Turkish youths (an aside: I have no idea what the correct term is for 2nd or 3rd gen. People of Turkish extraction living in Germany. They don't seem to say “Germans” and neither do the Germans, so “Turkish” I guess it is, even though they speak German, and were born in Germany). This set up a minor problem of its own – at the end of the play, a big dramatic reveal is that the teacher also turns out to be Turkish. This does not come as a big surprise to anyone with eyes. Prior to this “big reveal”, however, there's a certain uncertainty as to whether it's a Turkish actress playing a “German” teacher, or whether it's meant to be a Turkish woman. This might be complicated further by the fact the teacher actress's hair could well have been a blonde wig, rather than dye. So, yes, it did feel as if, if they were doing “naturalism” they weren't fully on top of it.

That said, I say “by German standards” advisedly, however. After all, when was the last time a British social-realist drama had a massive grand piano hung menacingly over the stage. Much less one that periodically interrupted the action to play various antique songs of German national pride – mostly about the beauty of the nature and so on. This element of the staging also added to the problems of the message the play might or might not have been intentionally delivering. After all, this grand piano looming over them did take on an immensely powerful symbolic role. It looked a bit like they'd decided to put up a symbol for God, and that they'd decided God was probably German culture.

Of course, having been made by “Turkish people”, the play gets a lot of points for “authenticity”, and apparently the actual script here was partly devised around the motifs, or *plot*, or the film. And it does seem to hit all the current discussion points – often with an enviable lack of flinching.

What is surprising to my British eyes is that it volunteers absolutely no positive things abut Turkish culture whatsoever. The teacher accuses the girls of wearing headscarves and only having anal sex so they can marry as virgins because they're frightened of their fathers and their brothers. The boys mostly behave with relentless violence and abuse. Coming from inside the Turkish community, this self-lacerating commentary on the problems of their society as they see it is fair enough. In that respect, it's like the Beat Poets' portraits of small town America. It's like Thomas Bernhard's Vienna.

Perhaps a crucial key to understanding their position is an incredibly brief moment before the play even starts where the actress playing the Turkish girl who wears a headscarf puts it on, before going on stage. At the time, I thought it was just a kind way of defending our sensibilities but I wonder now if it wasn't a way of her signalling her own opposition to the headscarf. Perhaps this is a play arguing against multi-culturalism and for enlightenment values in precisely the way that, coming from a small English town, I would argue long and hard against the German government tolerating a Small English Town community still practicing its absurd, dated, misogynist beliefs in their midst.

As a piece of theatre, it might not be the most refined at Theatertreffen, but it might well prove to be the most talked-about.

One of the songs (my footage, apologies for the slightly rough quality):

A lot of the shouting:

Couple of picutres of the screeing:

This one almost gives an impression of how many people there were, but not quite.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Robert Wilson and the power of the underdog

This week, along with “Narrative” and “Britain”, I've been wrestling with what I'd been thinking of as “The Problem of Robert Wilson”.

This came about as a result of seeing his Věc Makropulos at Stavovské Divadlo in Prague and absolutely hating it.

Věc Makropulos is a frivolous little thing by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek and was later turned into an opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček.

This version by Wilson is a massively pared-down version of the original text, but starring leading Czech opera diva Soňa Červená and with an extensive new score by Aleš Březina, who created the excellent, not un-Philip Glass-like score for the Czech show-trial verbatim opera Zítra se bude...(roughly: Tomorrow There Will Be...), also starring Soňa Červená.

But, mostly I was exciting to be finally seeing some Robert Wilson.

Yes, Robert Wilson is another party I've turned up late for. Granted, this isn't entirely my fault. His most important work, Einstein on the Beach (which is being re-done for the Barbican next year), premiered the year I was born, and hasn't been see-able anywhere for 20 years.

On the other hand, he's still working an awful lot since.

And this is where it gets tricky.

I suppose I've known that he was kind of a big deal for a while, but the last thing I remember coming/going to London was the Anglicised-cast version of his 1990 Thalia, Hamburg show Black Rider in 2004. Looking back at the reviews written at the time (Indie, Guardian, Shuttleworth for Teletext and again in Theatre Record) I remember a) not really having the first clue about Wilson's importance, b) not especially caring about Tom Waits (I still don't, really. Sorry), c) finding that the points made by the nay-sayers struck more of a chord than those made saying it was good, d) thinking it sounded a bit too much like a “super-group” and, perhaps most crucially, e) not really being anywhere near “proper-ish” critic enough to get a freebie (or, indeed, being on the treadmill/merry-go-round of seeing shows almost daily enough for this to bother me). And, as Shuttleworth and Billington note, Black Rider turned up off the back of an even more unloved Woyzeck.

Anyway, thanks to this variety of factors, I wind up getting to 35 without seeing any Robert Wilson, by which time, having been to a bunch of international festivals and talked to a lot more people (and, indeed, read a lot more stuff, including Chris Goode's long love-letter to Wilson's work on Thompson's Bank...), I'd gathered some unhelpfully epic expectations.

The other thing I'd gained, was the impression of Wilson being incredibly successful and powerful. Which isn't inaccurate. These days, it seems that Wilson can fly about the world, demand huge fees for his work, and essentially behave as if he is a genius beyond questioning. Not least because that's how other people seem to treat him (indeed, talking to Czech sources “close to the production” one got the impression of Wilson behaving with significantly less tact and local knowledge than the American army in Iraq).

Inevitably, none of this did much to endear the idea of the man (or at least Brand Wilson) to me.

Nor, annoyingly, did I subsequently find my attitude melted in the presence of his work.

I found it chilly, un-engaged, un-engaging unintelligent, and lazy.

At the same time, I was vaguely aware that this was a (the?) common criticism of his work.

This needed more research, so I watched the documentary Absolute Wilson which is excellent, at least for giving a sense of his early work and the comparative struggle it took for it to be made, but also for giving a rolling cavalcade of faces assuring you how important his work is.

Granted filmed footage of (Anglophone) theatre work tends to be unsatisfactory at the very least. But this did at least give a sense of what earlier work had looked like – what had been exciting and exotic about the stuff he'd made in the seventies, and also it gave a sense of the very different social context from which the work had sprung. This emphatically wasn't the world of Business Class lounges and exhorbitant fees.

Annoyingly, Absolute Wilson rather glosses the leaps between Wilson's struggles in America, his acceptance in Europe, the opening of Einstein on the Beach at the New York Metropolitan Opera in apparently pretty unfavourable conditions (“My father said to me, I didn't know you were even smart enough to lose $150,000”), and the leap to being in a position to be in charge of the Artisitic Programme meant to be run alongside the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the subsequent catastrophic tanking of his project Civil Wars. From there, it positively leaps to the 1990 success of Black Rider in Hamburg and beyond and then finishes pretty rapidly with a montage of the awards and honors bestowed upon Wilson Triumphant.

Watching the documentary made me think two things. One: that I wasn't especially sure that Wilson's somewhat geometric aesthetic was ever going to be wholly my thing, but that I was willing to give it another few goes. Two: that there was a much more interesting question concerning power-relations that seemed to go to the heart of how we (and by “we” here, I specifically mean “the English”, possibly “British”) view work. Both American, not least as evidenced by this documentary, and German culture, both have their own different difficult relationships with “power”, or “success” or “authority”.

If I was going to have a stab at characterising the British attitude, (and, yes, I appreciate this is going to entail some stupidly large generalisations, and probably some contradictions, so bear with me) to “power” and/or “success” (let alone “authority”), I think it would rest largely on what strikes me increasingly as a hard-wired cultural predisposition toward “underdogs”, coupled with a resolute antipathy toward “being talked down to”. It's a trait I definitely have myself, but it's also something I find myself noticing more and more in the discussion around theatre in Britain more generally.

On one level, it's something I admire and think is crucial to a lot of the good things about British theatre. The fact that there's often a very healthy attitude of “says who?” which allows people to start doing precisely what they like. On another level, it turns into a deeply unhelpful, corrosive attitude of dissmissal, insularity, and downright stupidity which makes it feel like any sort of change is nigh-on impossible.

I noticed it mostly when I started writing for the Guardian Blog, and later for Time Out etc. And now I notice it more in the comments people make about other writers there, and about the productions/artists they write about.

The thing is this. One might have a pretty sane picture of oneself as just one person with one person's opinion. But many people who comment on the Guardian blog have a very different conception of what the very fact of writing on it makes you. One is variously needed to be “an expert”, a Guardian staff member, a member of a powerful London-centric media elite, and a theatre critic.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me, was the discussions that would typically spring up around any article about Forest Fringe. Now, I know Andy Field and Deborah Pearson quite well. I was at the first day of the first Forest Fringe. I knew how big it was (not very), but also how important and inspiring I found it (very).

What was interesting is how quickly, almost instantaneously, after a bit of coverage by the Guardian, Forest Fringe went from being seen as a total outsider, worthy of a bit of championing and talking-up – it was, lest we forget, an almost impossibly foolhardy venture; programming a fortnight of free performances in a free venue, staffed entirely by volunteers – to being some kind of “new orthodoxy” and some sort of grotesque, overblown giant in serious need of cutting down to size. Much the same attitude seems to be applied, variously, to (for example): any Guardian bloggers, Katie Mitchell, Simon Stephens, Martin Crimp, Michael Billington, Matt Trueman, Chris Goode, etc. etc. etc. (obviously that's a fairly random list of the ones I just happen to notice).

Reflecting on how annoying I find this tendency when applied to the above, gives me pause when (to return to the subject) we get back to Robert Wilson.

Should perception, or even knowledge, of his position, colour my attitude to his work?

Here, I would argue there is a greater degree of relevance. The examples I give above are irritating, and stand out, primarily because of the degree of inaccuracy involved. The strange (and incorrect) perception of some bored souls that they are being persecuted by a tiny two-week venture into free Live Art (and more), is really not my problem.

Knowledge and understanding of how a piece of work has come into being, particularly if it accords with one's perceptions of how the work has failed, is of a different order.

As such, at the end of this perhaps unnecessarily lengthy bit of soul-searching, I draw the following conclusions:

a) I'm not sure I would have ever been a huge fan of Robert Wilson's aesthetic sensibilty.

b) If I ever would have been, it would probably when he was far more mentally and bodily immersed in its creation from start to finish, and it would have been during a time when his work really was new and original.

c) Theatre seems oddly resistant to being mass-produced.

Now, with any luck, having got that off my chest, I'll be able to look at Wilson's Lulu (currently playing at the Berliner Ensemble), his Deutsches Theater Woyzeck (going to Nottingham's NEAT festival in June) and his forthcoming new Manchester International Festival piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic with an open mind.

(although, just clicking through to the MIF website for the link and seeing another “avant garde super-group” cast does make my cynicism reflex crunch somewhat...)

Edit: I suppose “d)” might be something to do with my increasing feeling that I function better as a critic when trying to understand as fully as possible what a work is trying to do before writing it off. But I dare say that'll turn into a whole other piece sometime soon.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The mid-North Sea sensibility

[written for the Guardian blog. Annoyingly spiked because of the sell-by date on Wilkinson's Noises Off. But, happily, the below version might now get expanded when I've got a moment...]

On Sunday, the British playwright Simon Stephens delivered the keynote speech at the opening of Stückemarkt, at Berlin's Theatertreffen – Germany's most prestigious theatre festival.

You can read the whole thing here. Highlights include: Stephens describing Britain's “theatre culture with the playwright at its heart” as “flattering, lucrative, creative and deadening” and the British of having the “polite arrogant assumptions of a small-minded nation ” and being “an island nation that looks largely inward ”.

The real subject of his speech, though, was the effect on him as a writer of having seen his plays produced abroad. It's worth noting in passing that the world premiere of his latest play, Wastwater, was directed by Katie Mitchell. And that later on Sunday he was able to go to Berlin's Schaubühne theatre and see Mitchell's production of Fräulein Julie which has been playing there in rep. since September.

If I were him, I'd have also derived some pleasure from being out of the UK after the rough ride that Wastwater was given by a majority of the British critics, who variously deemed it:
elliptical... it is a relief to escape this manipulative, cruel and cold-hearted play” (Charles Spencer, Telegraph),
elliptical... I was left simply with a feeling of impotent disquiet” (Michael Billington, Guardian),
elliptical... it is hard to grasp its true purposes” (Henry Hitchings, London Evening Standard) and
insubstantial... the play is frustratingly imprecise” (Sam Marlowe, TheArtsDesk).

I joked with him that when the production transfers to Vienna Festwochen, the German and Austrian critics are all going to find it too obvious; unless they spend time being puzzling as to the possible meaning of all the characters standing in rooms that look precisely like the rooms they're meant to be standing in.

If they did, it wouldn't be the first time that a play had fallen between the two cultures – finding itself too complex or arty for British tastes and not nearly complex enough for those of Germany.

Living in Berlin, but regularly coming back to London, I've started to notice an odd phenomenon which I've christened the mid-North-Sea sensibility. It is this: playwrights do well in Germany, come to Germany more, and see more German work. It influences their writing. They return to Britain and write plays which seem to alienate more people than previously for being “too German”. These plays then transfer to Germany only to sometimes be deemed “too English”.

But, the reverse is also true. The Schaubühne – the German theatre which enjoys most success in Britain, both with transfers of productions to the Barbican, and of plays to the Royal Court – is considered by many German theatre-makers of my acquaintance as being strangely English. Certainly compared to, say, the rigours of the Volksbühne or even the more typical German-ness of Deutsches Theater.

I am overstating this slightly to make the point. But it does make me wonder again about the extent to which our sense of nationality influences not only how we write for or about theatre, but even what we want from it. Does one have to make a conscious decision – almost akin to treachery – to get into bed with a different country's theatre-culture? Or is it that some aesthetics just appeal to some people more than others? Counter to this, is there even a sort of unconscious national resistance which some theatregoers experience when confronted with work from a different tradition. Where do these feelings come from? What factors decide them?

I also wonder how much it's a matter of translation. As Stephens's speech suggests, both we and other cultures adapt, almost cannibalise texts into our own traditions. Stephens notes the Anglicisation of foreign plays by Britain, but there's equally the Germanicisation of his own works going on here [here being Germany].

I think it's at these intersections that work can be at its most exciting – but it's almost as if the most exciting work that can be made, is doomed always to be work without a homeland.

[post script: having seen the comments (currently 12) under the Noises Off blog, I'm rather glad my piece isn't on the Guardian Theatre Blog.]

Monday, 9 May 2011

all the actors on meat hooks / they are silent

Skydiving without a Parachute

Yesterday, Simon Stephens came to Berlin to deliver the keynote speech at the opening of Theatertreffen's Stückemarkt.

The full text of his speech can now be found here (on the Theatertreffen blog) or here (on Nachtkritik) (both in English).

I think it's a great provocation and it touches tangentially on a number of things I was already thinking about. Hopefully that piece will see the light of day in amidst the piece on narrartive shortly...


I also had a bit of a chat with Simon and asked him about a textual point re: Wastwater which had been troubling me since I read the text after seeing it.
I don't know if you've read Wastwater, but the opening of scene one reads:

One June 25th, 9pm

The beginning of scene two:

Two June 23rd, 9pm

and three:

Three June 23rd, 9pm

What was the significance, I had wondered, that the first scene was two days later? Was it a conscious reference to the way that Country Music ends with the first scene chronologically? Or to the way that the scenes are numbered backwards in the text of Pornography?

No. It is a typo. I put this out there in the hope that students using the first print run of the script for years to come don't spend fruitless hours pondering the significance of this perplexing time-signature. It's a mistake. There is no significance.

Apparently, if you're in the mood for trainspotting, there's also a similar error in the text of Pornography (the Complete Plays 2 version, at least). You know how between each scene is the stage direction:
Images of hell. They are silent.

Except between Four and Three. Also a mistake. It should be there as well. You can write it in at the bottom of p.255.
You can then, of course, ignore it and all the other instances of that stage direction, as every other director to tackle the play so far seems to have done. More's the pity.

Horizon(s) – Sophiensæle

[More of a description and burble than a "review"]

Stupidly, the first thing I found striking about Laurent Chétouane's Horizon(s) was that it was the first piece of contemporary dance I'd seen in ages which had a full-length original score (possibly the one before that was Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray - 3.ix.08 – [if that had an original score – check]).

It's stupid, primarily because there is a lot more in the show to admire. This was some incredibly fine, fascinating contemporary choreography. But first, soundtracks...

It's also stupid to say it, because it's not strictly accurate. Sebastian Matthias's Tremor has a full, original score, but it is composed of static, white-noise, interference. So, I guess what I mean is “proper music”. Shame on me.

But that is striking. Much (most?) contemporary dance seems to be performed either to no soundtrack at all – with the noises that the performers make deliberately taking the role of the accompaniment – or else to an industrial soundscape, devoid of recognisable notes, let alone instruments. (which, I am emphatically not against. I'm just noting the fact)

So hearing a recorded piano, or, later, string quartet (? quintet? section?) is striking.

And _ _'s score is for the most part a nice bit of work. It's evocative.

Curiously, what it evoked for me most often, and quite probably unintentionally, was a kind of deconstructed Twelfth Night.

I strongly doubt that's what it was supposed to evoke (at least, not specifically), but that's what it evoked for me. (this is another entry for the ever-growing, never-to-be-written “Coming from a very specifically British background and how that influences watching performances in Germany” piece)

There are three performers, two female, one male.

Close to the start (if not at the very start) there's some piano music.

It's a bit like Glenn Gould's treatment of Bach. Not the really early, total jazz stuff, or the terribly slow last Goldberg Variations recording. But somewhere in between (a bit more stately than the clip linked above).

At other points, the music, when it's at its best, suggests Michael Nyman scores for Greenaway films (mostly notably there's a bit that recalls his extended dirge for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover/Heysel Stadium Memorial) , Purcell's Funeral of Queen Mary and maybe a bit of Philip Glass.

It uses that curious arpeggio effect that suggests those early modern twills – like when Greensleeves is played on a harpsichord – which can wind up sounding strangely like jazz.
In its less successful moments, it does sometimes wind up sounding a bit like slightly wallpaper Serious TV Drama incidental music. Probably something by Stephen Poliakoff. The sort of music they always give his stuff. Often one piano note held and digitally treated for a portentious length of time. Followed by the same note again when it finally fades. Several times. Until you're just about ready to kill just for a different note.

Another thing that made me think of Twelfth Night is that nature of the dance here. There is something very deliberate about it; as if director Laurent Chétouane were purposefully setting about taking apart all those galliards and pavanes. You know, those dances you see in historically researched Shakespeares, yes? Well, imagine their movements taken out of context, with the partners and formality removed. It sometimes looks a bit like how that might look.

The piece is also much more fluid than previous contemporary dance I've seen. And much less mannered, in a funny way. Ok, it starts off “mannered”. One of the performers stands on the spot, exploring their own body. Flexing, bending, raising arms, hands, head etc.

There's a moment in this brief first section where the performer-on-the-spot just lowers herself by bending her legs at the knees. And you see the incredibly muscles in her calves. They're totally unnecessary for this little action that almost any of us with the use of our legs could perform – bt they're there. Like massive artillery being deployed to pick off something a slingshot could do just as well.

But, while it's obvious the performers are all clearly ferociously well-trained – there is absolutely none of the physical pyrotechnics we (I) associate with any sort of dance (now that I think about it).

Horizon(s) is all performed at a kind of walking pace. (Of course, as soon as I noticed this in the performance, about 45 minutes [guess] in, they did a bit of running, but that was it).

Thinking about dance from ballet, through to Pina Bausch and Frantic Assembly, there's always (very often) that edge of blackmailing an audience into being impressed just by the sheer virute of the, well, balletics, the virtuousity. The sheer astonishment at seeing people leaping *that high* or lifting one another, or vaulting into one another's arms. Etc. None of that happens in this. Actually, there is one very slow, deliberate sequence (or maybe two) where one person lifts another person up. But, it's not done in such a way as to make you astonished.

Instead, where the interest lies here, is almost in the intelligence of the movement. Like the music that accompanies it, there's a real sense of, well, sense, to the repetitions of movements here. The developments, while largely opaque as to any actual meaning they might contain, suggest at least an internal consistency or rigour. There seem to be purposes here. Purpose to the movements and to the sequences in which they occur.

I wonder if in part that might be down to the more classical sounding soundtrack. The slight suggestion of mathematical logic implied by something that even faintly recalls Bach acting to somehow “legitimise” or suggest an order to or for what might otherwise appear more “random” movements.

But I don't think that's entirely it.

There's also a lot of canny “being-in-the-space”. Which is to say, the performers look at the audience from time to time. And actually see them. They don't just look in our direction. They make eye contact and you can see/sense that the eye contact is held and felt. It's pretty occasional, though. Just the odd look as they're walking toward or away from a particular moment, on the whole.

Another fascinating moment in the piece is a sequence where the two female performers were doing perhaps the most “balletic” part of the show; a kind of breaking down nod to Swan Lake or at least to that school of graceful sitting on the floor bending at the torso in improbable ways. While they do this, the male performer walked around in a large circle, jumping over them on each circuit. It was at once quite funny, but more than that, had the curious effect of seeming to turn their more intricate choreography into something more like living scenery, while making his movement seem all the more real for not being so “artificial”.

And yet the show has no horror of the non-natural movement.

It's another example of the sort of thing where I feel like I might be better off knowing more of the dance-vocabularly being deployed, but at the same time, am almost reluctant to discover it, for fear of losing the pleasures that watching the work with an entirely naïve, untrained eye brings.

Of course, it probably makes my descriptions of it no earthly use to anyone, but.

Another interesting thing for me, was watching Horizon(s) after having re-started thinking about narrative for yesterday's article. For some reason, as soon as I start thinking about narrative, I seem to wind up seeing some contemporary dance.

It was fascinating sitting there watching this piece with the sure conviction that even though it was moving forward through time and space, there really wasn't a discernible narrative that one could necessarily hold in one's head.

More, that there was definitely a sense of an underlying architecture or structure, but that this didn't seek to be either a story, or necessarily even a development or “progression”. At least not in a linear sense. That said, at the same time, I tended to identify the performers as consistent “selves”. And, rightly or wrongly, I identified them with their own genders – whether or not that was relevant.

On the other hand, where the movement suggested, if not “stories” then “moments” or “situations”, I was struck by the extent to which the sorts of situations it suggested were almost deliberately ones which one doesn't find in the theatre so often. Ideas of space, the outdoors and stillness which are perhaps antithetical to the more frenetic pace of drama.

As you might already have noticed, this is the sort of work I could carry on describing for pages without ever landing a meaningful conclusion. I hold myself chiefly responsible for this, for not particularly being the best person for an analytical or assessment-style role when it comes to contemporary dance. Though, of course, you could re-name it “theatre”, and I'd still be at the same loss.

What I loved abut this piece was the way at it opened up a space in which one could sit and watch movement, completely absorbed by it – I don't remember being “bored” once (ok, maybe once) – and yet at the same time, be able to be constantly thinking, but without necesaarily constantly producing “story” or even always “meaning”.

As I happens, I did read the director's notes before I went into the piece (I've decided after some thought that not reading them is only one of two choices, rather than a necessity). As it happens, while obviously fiercely intelligent and articulate, I didn't find that my experience of the piece tallied too closely with them.

But, again, this didn't seem like either a failure (theirs or mine) or a problem.

I think there was probably some exciting liminality going on as well, but I'm never sure how one spots that. I do think the work would find plenty of admirers in the UK as well, were it to ever transfer – The Place or Edinburgh, at a guess.

It'd be nice to be able to have more of a dialogue about it. But at the same time, after seeing it, I felt like I'd experienced quite a complete work which I didn't feel any real urge to discuss straight away. There was something incredibly restful about the sensation.

Top photo - the production's own choice of stock photo, which just happens to bear a happy resemblance to Postcards's own recent colour scheme. Bottom photo, company porduction shot. Apols for lack of credit. Leave a comment below if you know who to credit it too, or object to my using them...

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Narrative and Story

Preamble / Background reading

Two months ago (the 8th of March, coincidentally enough), I opened this blank Word document, gave it the title Narrative and Story and left it on my desktop, intending to come back to it when I had a moment.

It was inspired by the discussion which I had suggested to Chris Wilkinson for his Noises Off column at the Guardian, and which was also taking place across several Facebook walls and in various email exchanges. It's worth re-reading that original blog, and the pieces to which it links. And also, Andy Field's brilliant response.

At the time I was halfway through writing “About”, “Properly”, “Professional” and “Political”. During that period, I also went to Hamburg to see (the not-very-“narrative” piece) This is How You Will Disappear, and the Gerhard Richter show Bilder einer Epoche at Bucerius Kunst Forum. A fortnight later, I was at the Berlin Philharmonie to see, among other things, a performance of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen. In between, I visited the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park.

As a result of having this unresolved essay about narrative rattling around my head, I ended up thinking about all three non-theatre works and the recent dance-piece Tremor in relation to it, as well as spending much of my review of Romantic Afternoon thinking about the subject.

Happily, the debate seems to have been reawakened across the Atlantic by George Hunka linking to Deborah Pearson's original Exeunt piece, which in turn caused it to be picked up by Halcyon Theatre's Tony Adams, Isaac Butler and “99 Seats”, before being subsequently written up as another Noises Off blog by Wilkinson.

At least I get to be (almost) timely, by finally writing something on the subject.

The Argument

It strikes me that there are two completely separate arguments going on here.

The first strand of the argument is presented –

by FT theatre critic Ian Shuttleworth here:

“Plays are linear. We can't get away from that given our current relationship to the laws of physics: plays consist of moments, of events, as we move in one direction in time whilst perceiving them. Narrative is not just a natural but, I'd argue, an inescapable response to that arrangement in anyone with any significant memory or attention span (and I say that not as a clever-dick judgement but in its medical sense). We may constantly review and revise our narrative interpretations, both retrospective and prospective (i.e. our assumptions and expectations about moments/events to come) - arguably, all the best plays do this. But that's what we do with data that we receive in succession. We have to live with that, or do the other thing.”

by Tony Adams here:

“You cannot have a work of performance free from narrative. Something happens. That is an event. Our brains are hard wired to create them even if they may not exist. Even if you were hypothetically able to create a performance in a laboratory, where nothing happened. There were no events. The act of performing that work before an audience would create its own narrative. ”

and by playwright Glyn Cannon (on my Facebook wall), thus:

“My standpoint is that narrative is a feature of all performance, be it dance, words, movement, music etc. I've never experienced any performance that escapes duration and frame, and I think the two of these inevitably activate a process of narrative in those attendant at the performance. My personal experience is that process is then deeply and implicitly connected to my sense-making of the world. Short version [his original reply was longer]: 'non-narrative' makes no sense to me, seems a bit superior, I don't think you can exist outside it. 'Anti-narrative' seems a bit more up-front and useful.”

The position could be characterised thus: “Non-narrative theatre is impossible.”

The second strand of the argument is presented –

by Isaac Butler here:

Even if the performer does make an ostensibly narrative-less work, the audience in its hunger and desire for a narrative will impose one on the proceedings. If you want to work in performance and don’t want to deal with story, go make modern dance (which, by the way, would be fine, I vastly prefer non-narrative dance to narrative dance).” [my bold & italics]

or by "99 Seats" here:

“I made a choice to be a narrative-based artist, to tell linear, discrete stories, to employ the tropes and styles I do.
I don't do it because I didn't learn any other ways or because I lack the fortitude or courage to see past the surface. I don't do it because my only goal is to entertain and give people a good time and send them out into the street, tapping their feet. I have very, very specific reasons that I employ this very, very specific artistic style [...]
It's not an accident or the path of least resistance. In fact, I face quite a good deal of resistance. My work doesn't meet people's expectation of the work of a black artist. That's purposeful. Sure,
I could embrace the long, proud and excellent tradition of non-linear black theatre. I chose this because of the audiences I hope to reach, to bring together. This is my project.”

This position might be summed up as “Not in my artform” or “Not in my practice”.

Over the next week, I [hostage to fortune coming right up] hope to write about (emphatically not "answer") the following three questions:

What is narrative?

Is narrative theatre somehow bad?

Is “non-narrative theatre” possible?

In the mean time, I've got a review of some contemporary dance to write up (no narrative; tricky), but it really is worth reading up on the stuff linked to above...

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Peaches Does Herself – HAU Eins

What should we expect from a show called Peaches Does Herself, created for one of Berlin's foremost centres of avant garde performance?

Surely nothing as simple as a gig, but probably not the sheer commercial suicide of Peaches just reading to us from Judith Butler and Stephen Greenblatt for three hours either. Sadly.

“Does Herself” is, of course, an amusing provocation. Playing, as it does, with the post-modern notion of the performative self and the far older idea of playing with oneself. The show starts by acknowledging its title's double meaning with an amusing faux-lecture. Alas, this only lasts about a minute before being interrupted by a drums-and-guitar-only rendition of Rock Show. This in turn is carted off (the guitarist and drummer were playing on a wheeled plinth [what is the proper word for this?]) and a first set of curtains is drawn to reveal a large bed set atop a bunch of light cubes, with a disconsolate-looking Peaches (aha, but is it really Peaches?) perched on the edge, fiddling with her small keyboard.

Cue another song, and the descent of a large vagina made from flashing lights from the flies. From behind which steps... Another Peaches! (¡) The covers of the bed are whipped off, to reveal... another large vagina. Numerous dancers clad from head to toe in pink bodystockings emerge from this. Cue lascivious cavorting on bed, the striking of many poses, and another song...

As the website blurb has it:
“[Peaches] has created an absurd themed Opera (there will be no dialogue besides the songs themselves) that will represent her work and her concerns about gender, beauty and age.

Expect big dance numbers, odes to favorite [sic] past musicals and fantastic surprise guests.

Peaches: 'I want it to be a fantastical musical that broadway [sic] would never be able to present.'”

And this is kind of the problem. Sure, it is unlikely that you'll find Peaches Does Herself on Broadway any time soon, but in seeking to create a show that would be unstageable in the most conservative, risk-averse environment that exists for theatre, she hasn't exactly set herself a difficult target.

The fact is, by European standards, Peaches Does Herself is rather tame. After all, shows like I Apologize get state funding and garner their creators main stage billing at Avignon. By comparison, PDH is like an I Apologize tribute, performed by the cast of Glee. For the most part it's just “a bit risqué”. There's a likeable clunky amateurishness to it all, but it's still more like the local goth club doing a kind of burlesque version of the heyday of Madonna's stageshows than anything seriously subversive.

Part of the problem is that the musical format at which Peaches is tilting turns out to be bigger than the subversive abilities of the show. As such, no matter how much irony and post-irony abounds, rather than turning the jukebox musical on its head, the jukebox musical rather tames the performer.

It's even got a story! It starts off with Peaches in her bedroom alone with her keyboard, possibly goes on to include an apparently Psychik TV/Laibach-inspired dream about a transsexual stag, and then goes on to show Peaches meeting the hermaphrodite of her dreams, being thrown over for an ageing trashy stripper and ultimately winding up alone again. It's the classic tale of girl meets boygirldreamstag, girl loses boygirldreamstag, girl sings Fuck The Pain Away. Fin.

Obviously, as such, there are plainly elements that would have the American religious right reaching for their shotguns. But in Berlin it comes across as remarkably old-fashioned, narrative-based musical entertainment; naked 6ft transsexual (the striking Danni Daniels) notwithstanding. Indeed, oddly, it's probably got more in common with YMA at Friedrichstadtpalast than radical theatre.

There is even a bit where one of the songs is performed by three of the band playing [expletive deleted] “laser harps” like Jean Michel Jarre. Which really is unacceptable.

But, nah. It's all fine really. It's a likeable enough bit of fun. It's probably the least radical thing the HAU will put on this year, but that's ok. Basically, the songs suffer a bit for being plonked into the context of a slightly wonky stage show (written by Peaches, directed by Peaches. Verdict: she's a fine musician but doesn't know much about staging) and the stageshow suffers for aiming itself at Broadway rather than Hammersmith or indeed at the HAU itself – I'd love to see the version of this show that Alain Platel would have come up with, for example – but, yeah, as long as you don't expect too much from it, you'll have a perfectly nice time.