This is probably a bad idea, but.
Alongside trying to review everything at Forest Fringe at the Gate (FF@TG) I'm going to see if I can also write a “proper blog piece” every day about some aspect or other of the enterprise that catches my attention and that would doubtless derail that day's entire review if I tried to deal with it within the context of a review. So, instead, I'll be promising myself that I can get to *that interesting thing I spotted/thought of/etc./whatevs* once I've got the review proper written.
I realise this flies in the face of a lot of the brave/ill-advised things I might have said in the past about wanting to experiment with the way that reviews are written. Hopefully I can still do that too. But just without a lot of side-issue verbiage clogging up the actual critique. (Yeah. Get me. I know.)
Anyway, today's piece is, foolishly, me having a look at Lyn Gardner's review of the first night of Forest Fringe.
Her review is here.
Mine, if you haven't seen it, is here.
I'll start by noting that I'm not going to “have a go”. In many ways, I really feel for Lyn. After all, she's pretty much championed Forest Fringe since the word go, and almost certainly wasn't obliged to come along on the evening of Bank Holiday Monday to have a look at this incarnation.
I also feel for her word count. Her review comes in at 296 words. And that's to cover not only the first night, but the next eleven as well. I've gone over 6,000 on the first two days. Doubtless some people might wish that I'd written rather less so that they could have time to read it. Print it out at work and save yourself having to read the Evening Standard on the way to the Gate, I say.
However, while I realise Gardner is landed with a nigh-on impossible task in trying both to review one night of incredibly varied work, and preview another 11 days of largely unseen material, I do wonder if the result does more harm than good.
Granted, Gardner (it feels absurdly arms-length to keep calling Lyn “Gardner”, but I think for form's sake I'll have to stick with it) is well within her rights not to especially go for anything she happened to see on Monday, and to make any comments she sees fit. The problem is, those bloody star-ratings.
Since the programme of FF@TG is different, totally different, Every. Single. Night. what we have here is essentially a preview with a star-rating.
I think that's a difficulty.
Now, granted that's really a problem for the editors/arts editors, rather than the individual critic, but it underlines once again (as if it ever needed underlining again), that the star-rating system has a deadening effect on the prose it accompanies.
What Lyn actually “says” is fair enough. Three stars, as an assessment of roughly, what? 22Hrs? 30 hours of totally unseen work... Well, it's a problem, isn't it? (Not least because I'm emphatically *not* spending 12 nights of my life watching a three star show. a) that's not what I'm doing, b) that's not how it feels either).
But at the same time, would it have been better if she'd stayed away? If two weeks at the Gate Theatre had been completely ignored by the *whole* of the national press? (surprised not to have seen the Standard at least put in an appearance, on that score. But, by the same token, having noted the Sisyphean difficulties in trying to review and preview and assess twelve different nights on the same night while under the cosh of the star-system, they might have decided the game wasn't worth the candle and written it off as a bad idea).
So, yeah. I've just set up a situation where literally no one can win unless they're prepared to do what I'm doing and seeing all 12 nights (well, that's the plan, anyway).
And I suppose that's why I think I'm clever. That said, I think it would be amazing if a national critic *did* decide that these were the next twelve most important nights in London Theatre (precisely, there's also a whole rest-of-country out there that they're theoretically obliged to cover) and came to every single one and over-nighted them as if they were some sort of Live Art Proms (which, essentially, they are).
Since Gardner's is the only review I have to engage with, I'd also like to spend a bit of time with some of the stuff she says.
Partly in the spirit of, well, I guess being the “embedded” critic at FF@TG, and well, partly, because it's more interesting when reviews actualy *do* spark some sort of conversation in “print”.
The first thing I'm interested by is the way in which Gardner configures the Gate as somewhere:
“where, for all its many possible configurations, the relationship between audience and stage remains one of spectator and performer.”
As a basic point, I'll take that. At least, as far as Monday night went, there was a certain authority-of-the-stage going on. That said, it's a pity that Gardner didn't stick around for the quiz, as she'd have seen just how flimsy that sense of “authority” can be and just how quickly a space can lose its spectator/performer dynamic.
I do find myself wondering if her view hasn't got it slightly wrong, and that it was simply that the work presented on Monday night wound up *asking* to be viewed in that way.
It was interesting to me, for example, that in the first half of Monday night, the audience remained lit thoroughout and in the second part it was in darkness (I think that's right).
“That audience-performer relationship may well be smashed in the course of a 12-day programme”
Obviously I'll have to wait and see too, although I suspect TORYCORE might have a fair stab at it tonight...
Of the performers, Gardner characterises them as “all... prodding away at the nature of theatre itself” having previously noted “there is a world of difference between listening to a story read in a room and hearing it read from a stage”.
One thing that does occur to me at this point is that it's Pretty Unusual to see someone just sit behind as desk, or in a chair, and just read/tell you a story. Full Stop. I mean, it's well outwith the usual boundaries of what gets presented at, say, the NT, the RSC or the Royal Court. On Monday night, I'd say “the nature of theatre itself” had been given a pretty solid prod, even if there have been more *interactive* nights at the theatre and at FF.
I'm also not wholly sure I agree that it was so very different experiencing Chris Thorpe read me the same story on Monday night as he had in Edinburgh three years ago. He sat in a chair, had a microphone and was spot-lit on both occasions; I was sat on a chair in the comparative gloom. Twice. I didn't *particularly* feel a difference.
I should note at this point that I was sat a few rows further back than Gardner, and as such, thinking about it, was probably on a level with the stage, whereas the performers would have been looming a bit more over her. Maybe that plays a part too. Interesting.
At the same time, I do wonder if it's necessarily entirely fair to judge FF@TG simply as not being in the same space as FF. Not that this is necessarily what Gardner has done here, but.
Perhaps the bit with which I actually do disagree is:
“curation is an art, and even the experimental can sometimes feel a little old-fashioned. It would only have required everyone to don turtleneck sweaters and smoke Gitanes for Monday night's dauntingly word-heavy programme of work, which included poetry and earnest performance lectures, to feel like a Left Bank gathering circa 1959”
Not least because I *was* wearing a roll-neck and would have been smoking had fire regulations permitted.
But, silliness aside, well a) I think “dauntingly word-heavy” is a shame. I'd have run with something more like “surprisingly text-heavy”. Because FF doesn't have much of a reputation for its text work. Which, thinking about it, is i) strange, and ii) a pity. Because, after all, most of the artists appearing this week have done their thing at Forest. And *their thing* has often been, well, just saying the words wot they've written.
To be honest, if anything, I really welcome this facet of FF getting a whole week's worth of explicit promotion. In the past, I've worried slightly about the creeping effect of The New Twee. Of a bit too much lo-fi cutesiness. Of a bit too much goofing around making sweet shows which largely side-step the uglier bits of life.
Damnit, I like the blackness and the word-heavy and the smoking. And, yeah, the knitwear that goes with it.
However, b) Well, I didn't think any of the actual *writing* was old fashioned. Or 1959-ish. At all. Or the mode of presentation.
And, lest we forget, in 1959, In Britain, we we most piddling about with Arnold bleedin' Wesker and John bloody Osborne. And the mainstream has barely budged an inch here since. So, frankly, even if it were like the Left-Bank circa 1959, which it wasn't, that wouldn't be an especially bad thing.
I suppose I might be able to see what Gardner is driving at, but then I think perhaps she ansd I might part company when it came to picking our favourite FF acts. And, as I say, I think this acknowledgement of the darker side of experimental work is in fact long, long overdue. Indeed, it was something that bothered me a lot in Edinburgh last year – that everything seemed to have this comforting, home-baked quality to it. If this represents a bit of a fight-back against that tendency, or just an attempt to balance it out, then I'm all for it.