Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Edinburgh: coverage

[probably an unwise article to write]

This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for ages. However, being in Edinburgh and the recent news that Kate Bassett is to be sacked from her post as theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday, has turned it from a piece about a vague feeling into a discussion of tangible realities. (Incidentally, I think it’s worth reading Michael Coveney’s WOS piece under that link if only because he’s the only critic-with-a-job who still seems to be unafraid to pick fights – in this case with straw target Tim Wanker, but still, I quite admire the fighty spirit of the guy.)

The basic premise of the piece was this: while most considerations of “The Arts” in “The Recession” have focussed on the government’s austerity programme cuts to arts funding there is another attack on the arts which has been slowly, silently gaining momentum: the gradual erosion of coverage.

When I first came to Edinburgh in 1997 (when the students whose flat I’m living in this year were between four and seven, FFS) I think it’s safe to say there was basically no internet. We had something like it at university in the old computer clusters, and we had university email addresses, but there wasn’t much “online”. And it was very slow. The only people who had mobile phones were suspect poshos and show-offs. And they were bricks which emphatically didn’t take photos or connect to the internet.

There were also fewer venues and fewer shows. I seem to remember spending much of those early years at the bar/s of the Pleasance Courtyard (there was no Pleasance Dome then). Around midnight the copy of the next day’s Scotsman would turn up. And pretty much any company who had their Scotsman reviewer in would buy a copy to see if their review was in.

And this was pretty much the model for coverage at the bottom of the food chain. At this stage I think the Scotsman was still trying to cover everything on the Fringe. They took on (unpaid?) student critics – at least, they annually took on the winner of the Harold Hobson Award for Student Criticism from the NSDF (in 1997: Maddy Costa) – and they had a pull out section of page after page of reviews every day.

I haven’t picked up a single copy of the Scotsman this year, although I’ve looked at a couple of Joyce’s reviews online (her review of Grounded is actually excellent, for example) and I look forward to reading Matt Trueman’s Scotsman reviews when he sticks them on his own website.

But mostly the Scotsman is an irrelevance now. Or rather, it doesn’t occupy the huge position of prominence it once did. It no longer tries to cover everything, so its most useful USP has gone. (although the Fringe Firsts are still a nice bonus for the companies receiving them) No one else tries to cover everything now either. On the other hand, the Fringe has, what? Nearly doubled in size in the last fifteen years? Certainly it’s expanded by over a third. So is blanket coverage even possible any more? It’s hard to say, but the young student company with whom I’m sharing this flat have been reviewed (very favourably) four times. Peer-reviewed, you might say, since their reviewers are more likely to be their age than my age.

No chilly midnight Scotsman vigils in the Pleasance Courtyard. They’ve probably got a Google Alert set on one of their smartphones, so whenever a review of the show goes up: ping! There it is, and off they march to their venue to print out another rank of four stars. And they even get interviewed by Guardian Culture Pros.

So there’s still coverage, but the loss of Kate Bassett’s position – not only has she been sacked, but the post from which she’s been sacked has essentially been disappeared along with her – has put the snippy fear of God into The Professionals. (The Independent on Sunday will still apparently still carry reviews but they’ll most likely be done by a freelancer or freelancers – who won’t get a retainer, and who won't cost as much.)

The carping is quite interesting when it comes at the same time as Edinburgh. Enter Mark Shenton who writes in his piece The World Doesn’t Revolve Solely Around Edinburgh – a headline (yes, he writes his own) demonstrating once more the innate way with words that won him the enviable mantle of being A Professional – “There’s always a temptation at this time of year for it to seem like the entire world – or at least its theatre practitioners and reporters, fans and followers – is decamping to Edinburgh. The arts pages will be full of it for the next couple of weeks, at least (until they inevitably lose interest).”

(yes, that’s “a temptation for it to seem like” – professionalism, see).

Except that it doesn’t seem like that. Leaving aside the annual rash of this sort of article (another ill-tempered, poisonous example of bah-humbuggery by Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Tossgraph: “between Stockbridge and the Meadows you will be unable to move for hordes of drunken youths and the detritus of fast-food restaurants... The [International Festival] theatre programme, it has for a long time made my heart sink. Nothing since the sublime Cegada de Amor in 1997 has hit the jackpot for me, and too many of the arcane imports from Europe, Asia and the US seem locked into time-warped clichés, all flickering video screens and jerking marionettes, with prattle about the site-specific and the art installation in their aesthetic hinterland. The Wooster Group, for heaven’s sake! Meredith Monk! Please, not again.” etc. etc. you get the picture. (Actually quite interesting, but it’s all very well for someone whose first Fringe was 1967 to grumble that they’ve seen it all before, but mine was 30 years later, and I’m staying with people who have ever been before, so to an extent, even old-hattery is pretty interesting. I can’t wait to see the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, for example.))

But everyone’s coverage is getting cut back. (ok, Trueman reckons the Times has expanded theirs, but he pays for the paywall, and I don’t). Ian Shuttleworth the fringe veteran par excellence is only putting in two weeks rather than four these days – maybe in part that’s health, age and inclination, but I think it’s also FT cutbacks. Long gone are the days of the FT flat, expenses and so on. And, thanks to a disastrous use of metrics, and not understanding how an ecology works except by counting hits and measure footage of commentary, no matter how toxic, the Guardian’s coverage is also noticeably scaled back from the point when I met their, what, six or seven strong team in 2008. As it stands, I think only the still-excellent (indeed, on particularly acute and sharp form this year) Lyn Gardner is the only “professional” critic from a British (rather than Scottish) paper who is up for the duration.

And so we come back to this vexed question of “professionalism”.

Last Friday Ismene Brown wrote a ludicrous, vain, nonsensical piece for Guardian Culture Pros (which is plainly where all the action is now).

The entire thing is a blizzard of rubbish but her claim that “The balance between professional critics and web amateurs is switching so fast that performing companies now routinely email and tweet press releases into the digital space without contacting arts specialists about an in-depth story” is especially irritating. Because no one on the internet is a specialist, and because newspapers love nothing more than to print specialists. Right?
“At The Arts Desk, we swim at the forefront of this storm.”
with our mixed metaphors.
“We are Britain's first professional critics website (all web, zero print)”
and with zero payments for articles. This is where the Arts Desk argument really falls down. Or rather, where the Brown definition of “professional” falls over. Essentially, the theatre critics at the Arts Desk are the spare ones. The ones who are “professional” by dint of years at The Times, or at Time Out, or at The Stage, etc. But who no one’s really employing at the moment. So, yes, they can claim to be “professional critics” in that that’s something that once happened, but they’re not paid for what they’re writing for The Arts Desk. That’s not “professional criticism”. At which point, we realise again, that “professional” is a pretty stupid measure for anything. Well, it’s a fine way of asking “did you get paid to write it?” but that’s all. I think most writers-on-theatre I know now regard their paid work as the worst, the most laborious, the most thankless, the least inspiring. Largely because of the imaginative drought afflicting most newspapers.

Newspapers were going down the tubes before the recession, but before the recession it felt like they still had the brave new world of the internet to explore and expand into. There was a lot of content, and far fewer bean-counters. There was an attitude, certainly at the Guardian, of trying stuff out. That quite niche and marginal work could be explored – at least it could if you could find a way of getting it into a blog which asked a sort of tagged-on question. I’ve got no idea who thought that bit up.

Anyway, to return to the Arts Desk:
“We aim to put greater critical depth and – I'd argue – bolder, faster reviews out to the public than any of the print megaliths manage, rising 7,000 articles by some 100 arts journalists of proven repute.”
and they have failed to do so. The sad fact is, the Arts Desk reads like precisely what it is: the spiked copy of second-rate, middle-of-the-road writers. And no one reads it. I doubt many theatre professionals could even tell you who writes for it. Hardly essential stuff. And, for God’s sake, critical depth? Really, Ismene? Do you ever read your website or can’t you be bothered either?

Have you read this (star-rated) review of The Events on The Arts Desk for example?
“[the fact there is] a different choir singing at each performance may mean that some nights are more polished than others. There were times, too, when The Events felt like a work in progress (there were departures from the published text), but there are two strong and vivid performances at its heart and this is a play that will stay in the memory.”
Bold. Fast. Critical. Deep.


Nica Burns took up the same theme with her “Endangered Critics” speech at the launch of, oh, I dunno, some comedy award probably. The Stage says: “She said that while she welcomed the spread of online reviewing on blogs and social media, it should not rise at the expense of criticism of culture, of all sorts.” This doesn’t make the distinction she intended clear. But it seems to make online sounds somehow like a second class version of "professional" or "print".

And this is now nonsense. Go and read the reviews of Dan Hutton, or Catherine Love or Stewart Pringle, all of whom review primarily online, and honestly tell me they’re not better than the 350-word, star-ratinged, news-agenda-led reviews in the papers. And then maybe go and look at the work that can be found elsewhere on Exeunt by critics like Diana Damian and Daniel Yates. And then, for contrast, look at the teeming hordes of reviewers at A Younger Theatre, making up in enthusiasm for what they might sometimes lack for want of practice. And then, for brilliant fun, looks at blogs like Meg Vaughan’s and Eve Nicol’s...

Online is where the criticism is, Nica. And a load of other, fun stuff about theatre. You’re just talking about reviews-by-people-who-have-seen-a-lot-of-shows (and if you talked to them, ?i bet they're bloody frustrated with the situation too). There’s apparently neither room nor appetite for actual criticism in the papers at present, so I suggest you recalibrate your vocabulary accordingly and stop badying the word professional about like it was a by-word for quality, which, when Shenton, and Walker, and Letts, and Evans are professionals, it simply cannot be.

Which brings us circularly to arch-reviewer Mark Shenton, reporting on Nica Burns’s speech (or rather, copying and pasting huge chunks of it flinging a couple of sentences in between them and calling it a blog).

He says:
“It’s an irony, too, that she should also say this in Edinburgh, where at this time of year there seem to be as many people reviewing shows as putting them on. But as she also points out, though she welcomed the spread of online reviewing on blogs and social media, it should not be at the expense of professional criticism.”
Which is a particularly tricky thing to fathom, since Shenton has already explained five days ago that he didn’t want to come to Edinburgh. And yet here he is (online) worrying that online critics might cost professional reviewers their jobs. At this point it becomes rather tempting to wonder: if they’re prepared to actually do the job, then maybe they’d be better candidates for the job.

There’s a lot of talk of the crisis in criticism, but if you look at the best of the blogs – which is pretty much all I ever read now – then it strikes me that criticism is in its healthiest state for years.

Yes, the editors of our national newspapers appear to be philistines of the first water. But in part that explains why we’ve got so many of the critics we’ve got. We’ve got editors who would rather have misanthropic, snide diary-columnists writing their theatre reviews than people who know even the first thing about theatre. Or who care about it. Or who take it seriously... We’ve got editors who then point to the dwindling audiences for these “critics” as evidence that there’s no appetite for theatre criticism. And they cut their Edinburgh coverage, which they’ve made less and less good, because fewer and fewer people are reading it.  And (if it’s the Guardian) they still run pieces elsewhere arguing that investment in the arts repays with better arts, better attendance of the arts, and so on.

Well, partly. As Ravenhill’s recent speech suggested (and, yes, it did amuse me that I had it up online five hours before the Guardian did), you can make art as outsiders and guerillas. We can do criticism that way too. Sure, it’d be nice to be paid and distributed widely, but while the papers follow an increasingly philistine agenda they will continue to feel the effects of more and more interested readers going elsewhere. And no amount of speechifying by dinosaurs who don’t understand the terrain will make “newspaper criticism” any better, or “online criticism” any worse.

The Events – Traverse

[a big rambly mess, but hopefully vaguely insightful (this review, not the play. Although...)]

At its best, The Events is a brilliant, swirling rush of inquiry, speculation and metaphor. “It’s best” probably constitutes between 80-85% of the running time. There’s room for a further edit, though. An extra cutting away of the more “normal”, “fixed” elements would make it fly. As it is, it’s still a deeply intelligent, and frequently exhilarating piece of work.

At the outset, The Events seems inspired by Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage on Utøya in 2011. Here the event(s) in question is/are the massacre of a “multicultural” choir somewhere in Britain. But for every detail and piece of precision that Greig drops in, the mind almost immediately recalls or imagines the many analogous situations. As well as Utøya, the ghosts of Dunblane and Lockerbie feel particularly present watching it here in Scotland.

This exciting interplay between specificity and symbol is exploded by Ramin Gray’s effortlessly European production. The first and most obvious stroke of genius is the casting of Rudi Dharmalingam (last seen in the excellent McIntyre/Donnelly Seagull) as “The Boy”. The Boy is only one of two “characters” in the text. The other is Claire played with a beautiful, nuanced sensitivity and warmth by Neve McIntosh. There is also a small choir on stage with the actors (maybe 15 on Sunday’s press performance – there is a different choir every day). The Boy actually takes on a number of roles, from Claire’s counsellor and girlfriend through to the Breivik-alike neo-fascist gunman.

The reason that having him played by a British-Asian actor (in a production directed by a British-Iranian director) is so good, is partly that it diffuses that appalling sensation of watching someone deliver racist speech after racist speech with great charisma and clarity from the largest stage of a national theatre. You can listen to the rhetoric and at the same time marvel at the totality of the disconnect between speaking and sentiment. By the same token (while I have no idea of Dharmalingam’s specific background), just the fact of his non-white-ness also reminds us of other terrorists in other parts of the work, perhaps deliberately critiquing the fact that when the Norway massacre took place, many newspapers immediately leapt in with presuming-Islam-to-blame headlines.

The casting also worked perfectly for me on another level. Namely that, with an all-white choir, and with the other actor being white, the racial mixture on stage was roughly precisely what it was in my school and my neighbourhood when I was growing up in the south London suburbia of Petts Wood – i.e. approximately 15 whites to every Asian. I mention growing up since the other major external factor in watching the press performance of The Events was the timing. It was at 10am on a Sunday morning. And it had a choir. It was more or less exactly a precise stand-in for going to church. I have no idea whether this was intentional, or particularly brilliant thinking on anyone’s part, but given the insistence of Breivik-alike on a “traditional” “British” culture – although he’s more keen on pagan/Viking heritage than Christian – it felt rather eerie to be sat in front of a choir on a Sunday morning. [Indeed, it only occurs to me several days later to note that Claire is a minister-of-religion, dressed in dog-collar shirt and jeans. That both my parents were ministers perhaps partially explains not only why this added a further level of familiarity, but also why it took me ages to remember that dog collars aren’t what most people wear on a Sunday morning.]


There’s an interesting thing that happens when acutely intelligent left-liberal playwrights write plays about racist, neo-Nazis fundamentalists (although The Boy is les fixed in his identity than this). And the thing is: left-liberal playwrights usually manage to construct much better arguments than neo-Nazis ever do. Early in The Events The Boy describes an aboriginal boy watching the first ships from England approaching the shore of Australia.
“If you could go back in time and speak to that boy, what would you say? 
You would stand on the rocks and you would point at the ships and you would say – ‘Kill them. Kill them all.’”
And we, the (mostly, I assume) liberal audience of the play, are that “You”. We are presented with a classic liberal dilemma. Because we know The Boy isn’t really talking about aborigines, he’s drawing an analogy with the – as neo-Nazis see it – threatened death of Western European culture, usually, specifically at the hands of Islam, but more generally at the hands of “multiculturalism”. But we also recognise that, yes, we probably would advise Australian aborigines, and native Americans, and etc. to vigorously, violently resist white Western imperialism. Of course we know that beyond this, “Western culture” is not under threat from “multiculturalism” or “creeping Islamification”. But it’s Greig’s talent as a dramatist that makes us understand all to clearly how this neo-fascist thinks. How thin the membrane between his defenceo f what he sees as his birthright and we what’re happy to understand as the stolen, destroyed birthrights of the conquered and enslaved peoples of history.

Elsewhere, I think Greig is on a less interesting path with his inquiry into “evil”, and The Boy’s speech in which Arendt’s banality of evil becomes Greig’s, well, the dopeyness of evil with The Boy offering the strikingly lame conclusion that the shooting took place because: “I think I just got a bit obsessed with the [vikings/aborigines]” (the former is what I remember him saying, the latter is what the printed text has). Perhaps it’s just the way this scene is played by Dharmalingam, but here you don’t get a sense of someone who has done the shooting at all. Perhaps this short-circuiting of expectation is useful, though. Perhaps the only way of side-stepping our expectations. Although given Breivik’s ongoing commitment to his actions, it seems a bit of a cop-out.


Beyond the ideas which the piece animates and explores, one of the chief pleasures of The Events is ATC’s production itself. Apparently the process of the commission was one which involved the play turning up in fragments, and then being shaped by either Greig, Gray, perhaps the two dramaturgs credited in the programme-script Oda Radoor and Brigette Auer (although they may equally just be the building-dramaturgs attached to the production from the co-producers Drammatikkenshus, Oslo and Schauspielhaus, Vienna), or a collaborative combination of all the above – perhaps with additional input from the actors, designer Chloe Lamford and others. Alongside the openness of the production style, there is something of this writing process recognisable in the “final” “product”.

Chloe Lamford’s design is also another knock-out – essentially a bare stage with a rostra for the choir to stand on, a piano, two dozen plastic chairs, a tea urn and cups on a table at the side and an orange curtain which is flown up at the start and flown out at the close of the piece. Indeed, the beautifully artful artlessness of such a design echoes earlier Ramin Gray greatest hits like Motortown and The Ugly One, while the presence of the choir suggests his passing acquaintance with Karin Beier’s production of Das Werk, while at the same time confirming that Lamford can work in mediums other than the fold-out wooden box (a relief, since cubes-on-stage must surely be nearing their sell-by date now. Can Grounded be the last one for a bit, please? Let it go out on a high...). Actually, it’s worth taking a moment just to praise the proportions of the design. These things aren’t accidents, right? So the way that the playing area is really precisely demarcated by the width of the rostrum and the distance from it that the piano is placed just so, it closes up a trickily large stage while appearing to have done nothing so much as to place some necessary elements willy nilly. It’s bloody brilliant, frankly. You only need to go and see a less well designed show in Traverse One (both the others that I’ve seen, frankly) to appreciate how much you can lose an actor in that space.

So, to conclude, and post this horribly over-long ramble – boy do I look forward to reviewing it elegantly when it comes to the Young Vic later this year – The Events is, for my money, a rather brilliant example of British European-ism. It’s not perfect, and it might well yet improve further, but it reminds us that Ramin Gray is one of Britain’s most effortlessly stylish directors, that David Greig is still an outstandingly intelligent and insightful experimental playwright and that Chloe Lamford should increasingly be thought of alongside the Tom Scutts and Johannes Schutzes of this world.

Chalk Farm – Underbelly (Cowgate)

[written for]

Link to the review on As last year, I'll stick the text in here too, when WOS have had their money's worth...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Postcards From The Cods

Ok, Postcards... knows when its beat. Eve Nicol has clearly aced the Edinburgh reviewing this year with her Edinburgh Furinge blog. But, well, if you can’t beat ‘em...

Ciara – Traverse Theatre 

 At first I was like

 And then I was all

 And then I was totally like

Cadre – Traverse Theatre 

At first I was like

And then I was all

And then I was totally like

[actually, seriously, both pieces should be grateful I’m just using them for a cheap joke rather than laying into them with long lists of their endless flaws (as I saw it. Other opinions are, of course, as always, available). But, yes, for my money, both pieces are deeply miss-able. And Ciara might well be the worst thing I’ve endured in a theatre all year.]

* "Postcards From the Cods" concept actually typo-ed into existence by @J_JCoates 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Fade – Bedlam

[written for]

"Chippers" (Luke Murphy) – "a wild-eyed camp, cockney gypsy musician occupying the exact mid-ground between Captain Jack Sparrow, Mick Jagger, and one of those mental animated sidekicks in a Pixar film.

Link to the review on As last year, I'll stick the text in here too, when WOS have had their money's worth...

[photo by Mihaela Bodlovic]

Grounded – Traverse

[written for]

Link to review on As last year, I'll stick the text in here too, when WOS have had their money's worth...

[photo: very Photoshopped version of Iona Firouzabadi's original. I just wanted it to look more like Joy Division...]

Lorne Campbell's Northern Stage opening speech

[on the day Mark Ravenhill made his speech to mark the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe, I happened to catch Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell’s speech at the opening shindig at St Stephens. It’s shorter than the Ravenhill, but was eloquent, timely and moving. And he’s been kind enough to let me reproduce it here...]

So, those are all of the friends we wanted to thank for making this transformation of St Stephen’s church possible and this is the programme we will fill the building with this year. Before we show you some extracts of that work, I’d like to talk about why we are bothering to do all of this at all.

Why we pack up most of a theatre in Newcastle, why we load trucks, recruit volunteers, invite artists, sleep many to a room, come to this church, turn it into two theatres, fill it with all of these unlikely people and join this glorious unsolicited outpouring of human spirit that is the Edinburgh Fringe.

This is happening now, in this moment when we as a society are doing the most terrible things to ourselves.

We are closing libraries and swimming pools.

We are increasing class sizes and ratcheting up tuition fees.

We are removing benefits and inventing new taxes for the poorest while the richest grow exponentially richer.

We are waging a war thousands of miles away, where drones bomb subsistence farmers on the say-so of intelligence gathered through rendition and torture.

We are cutting funding to the arts.

We are consciously and deliberately reducing the spaces and moments that we we can enter with the expectation and responsibility of being treated like a citizen, while teaching our children to approach their experiences of education and healthcare as customers.

And yet, in the middle of all of that. This happens.

Audiences and Artists of every race, colour and creed travel to this place, this Athens of the north, to meet, to barter themselves, to change and be changed. To act like citizens, not customers and service providers. This glorious unplanned civic moment that becomes ever more precious as it grows ever more rare. A space in which we are invited to imagine and experience ourselves in new liberating and terrifying ways. That is the space we are thanking our friends for helping us to form, that is the space we will try to inhabit for the next three weeks and that is the space we would like to invite you to join us in.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Fight Night - Traverse

A strong company identity can be a blessing and a curse. Drop the name of Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed into a conversation and these days the reaction is likely to be a weary rolling of the eyes. There’s a feeling now, isn’t there, that they’re a bit hit and miss, non? Added to which, maybe we’re all a bit tired of being relentlessly trolled by our Flemish friends.

All of this makes it important to report that Fight Night is actually a pretty good show. Sure, it still works in classic O.G. style: provocative jokes, playing with audience discomfort and capacity for self-disgust, and banking heavily on the performers’ dubious charms. They might even be trading on audiences’ unease and irritation carried over from their previous shows. Or perhaps I was just feeling irritable when it started.

Fight Night is a show about voting. Or rather, it’s an interactive popularity contest. And [*anti*-spoiler alert], that’s pretty much the full extent of it. You are issued with a little electronic voting pad at the beginning. Using it to cast your votes (should you so wish) is the full extent to which you’re going to be co-opted in “audience participation”, unless you also wish to vote with your feet and actually walk out. But there’s no zooming a video camera between your legs, no sudden revelations of everything you’ve told someone in confidence, no people describing a hidden video camera’ed you. You’re just a dumb statistic. A more or less entirely inaudible voter.

And this is where Fight Night gets interesting...

Now, I reckon FN is only really going to be usefully discussed if it’s spoilered to death, so consider the above “The Review”. I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s a successful bit of work. It makes its point well, and though you’ll find it irritating for a good while, I’d urge you to stick with it, because I think it ends up saying/showing something quite important. (Four stars, in Edinburgh-speak)


[so, to reiterate, read on only if you’ve seen, aren’t going to see, or don’t mind seeing when you know what happens]

Part of the reason there’s a point in describing what happens in the version of Fight Night I saw yester-yesterday (2 August’s press performance – so the same one being reviewed by Lyn Gardner, Fiona Mountford, Ian Shuttleworth, Joyce Macmillan, et al) is that, on the face of it, the outcome of the show will differ day on day, depending how you and your fellow audience members vote.

It opens with five contestants randomly picking a numbered card. Urged on by our laconic, bearded MC, we immediately have to vote for which one we like most – based on nothing more than just looking at them. Two women, three blokes (on the day I saw it – no idea if there are multiple cast combinations possible). The scores are revealed. Then they’re allowed to tell us a wee bit about themselves before we have another vote, our opinions now modified by what we thought of what they had to say.

[oh, and before or after this, we’re asked to “fill in” various survey type questions about ourselves. Age. Sex. Income... Sort of stuff]

What they had to say was generally pretty ugly. They’re all a bit needy, a bit vain, a bit conceited; needlessly (and somewhat hopefully) sexualising their possible charms, putting crude spins on wonky psychology.

We vote for the least worst and then look at the new scores.

Of course, there are already two possible unreliable narrators here, alongside our lugubrious host. On one hand, our votes might literally change nothing. The show might not be interactive at all. They might have a powerpoint presentation of fixed results and since there are no independent UN monitors watching these elections we have no idea whether our ballots are being counted or not. [having now talked to Dan Hutton who saw a subsequent show, I think we’ve established that the numbers are at least different in every show, so I think we can assume that the voting element is real]

The other unreliable narrators are our fellow audience members. They could be up to anything. Voting exactly as they feel. Voting for effect. Voting to make the show more interesting according to how they see the clashes of personalities. Voting for the precise reverse of what they think. In short, I’m not sure you’re going to learn much about ‘what people think’ from Fight Night.  I think I did most of the above on one round or other. I nearly claimed I was a woman. I almost certainly overstated my income.

After the next voting round, having established who the least popular candidate is (on 2 Aug 20-year-old “”) the most popular candidate (unaccountably, 29-year-old “”) declares the possibility of coalition. Part of me thought – well, this is all well and good coming from a country which managed without a government for 541 days – or indeed for any mainland European country where proportional representation guarantees no majorities in any election. And this isn’t normally how British politics work. So now, added to my irritation at voting for moronic candidates, and being frustrated that even while voting for the least moronic, my fellow audience members are voting for even worse candidates, there’s now added the irritation that the process gets taken completely out of our hands by the candidates and so the most central, least divisive candidate ends up getting ejected, since both the highest scorers would rather side with those with the least votes.  Ok, that bit feels suddenly, horribly familiar.

Things take a couple of twists for the edgy in the next couple of voting rounds. We’re asked to vote on things we think, and the candidates who are most and least in-step with out views move forward and backward in line with the results. We’re asked which words we find most offensive between Cunt, Nigger, Faggot and Retard. The only other option is “none”. “All” is not an option, apparently. Rank misogyny, racism, homophobia and eugenic discrimination. Or don’t care. No choice to reject all four categories absolutely. It felt like it was actually a cleverly devised question (once I’d got over thinking it was pure shock tactics). I was surprised anyone at all voted. That anyone thought deciding one form of discrimination was more bad than all the others was acceptable or possible.  Elsewhere pick the statement we agree with most strongly, “I’m a bit...”: racist, sexist, violent... Or, none of the above.

Gradually our contestants thin out. Then there’s a surprise – the compère steps up as a candidate. On the day I saw it, thanks to a not-very-convincing stump speech, he was immediately knocked out again.

We’re gradually left with an idealist spouting total nonsense, a violent refusenik, and a racist who is repeatedly getting the most votes. The idealist walks. The refusenik opens up the possibility of handing in your voting pad as a protest. The racist populist carries on playing the game straight. So we’re left with a choice between not voting, registering the fact we’re not voting, or voting for the only candidate, the racist populist.

And you find yourself wondering how the hell we all got here, when you hadn’t really liked any of the people to begin with, and while voting was pretty irritating anyway, and while none of the candidates really spoke about anything that mattered to you, but they were the only five people there were to vote for.

And when the vote comes, the result is 100% in favour of the popular racist, opposed only by the egomaniac thug. And I was suddenly reminded as much of the people of Egypt who keep on having to refuse the results of their apparently “fair” elections, and then refuse the thugs who step into the power vacuum, all to the bewilderment of the “international community” who don’t get how a “free” and “fair” election can yield a result which is so out of step with the entire nation’s ambitions.

And you get to reflect on how this whole process, which felt trivial all the way through, still leads to a catastrophic result. And how this reflects more or less precisely how I feel about the “democratic process” in Britain. How it’s like some vague game that barely ever relates to what I actually want, and even while trying to do least harm with my voting, we end up in the situation we’re currently in. And how not-voting doesn’t change anything, just like voting doesn’t really change anything when two sets of people – neither of whom you voted for – decide to club together to beat the shit out of the poor and the defenceless on behalf of the wealthy and most powerful.

[ultra meta: when I came out of the show, the first two people I discussed it with were a British-Iranian and an Austrian. Me and the Brit were both pretty fully in favour, the Austrian said that she could see where it was going to go from about halfway through. I wondered about history. After that, I talked to people who hadn’t liked it. And, yes, I can see how that would happen. There is a sense that it’s almost too slow and too irritating all the way through. This felt like a necessary part of the process, but if the big reveal doesn’t do it for you, then I can see how the entire show would be intensely annoying for you. Still, I think the way in which the frustration became an essentially, experiential part of the show was what made it for me.]

[both photos are screen caps from the company’s trailer]

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Inaugural Opening Address of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by Mark Ravenhill

[here is the full text of the Inaugural Opening Address of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival written and delivered by Mark Ravenhill yesterday. Reported today by the BBC under the headline "Mark Ravenhill: Cuts 'could be good for arts'", almost as if they didn't bother actually listening...]

Yesterday I woke up, checked my Facebook feed first off as I always do and read this status update from a young playwright:

“Dreamt I was arriving at a dinner with a family where the husband had arranged to have the wife killed. She knew it and had chosen to accept it. I was the only other person at the table who knew. But if I let on, I’d die too. Plus, the man had an empire of van rentals and I’d been told I could have one for the Edinburgh Festival really cheap. I woke up before I'd decided what to do. But it wasn't looking good for the wife. I feel so bad knowing that the offer of a cheap van could weaken me to that point”.

Welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This is a unique performing arts festival. Nowhere in the world is there such an enormous range of work performed in one city in a few weeks. And nowhere is there such an open festival: if you can find a space, anyone can perform here at the Fringe. In this way, it’s a democratic festival. And yet like all democracies, it’s incredibly hard work – enormously costly to be here, to find a space to perform in and live in and to promote your performance.

And so I’m sure the young writer is not alone in dreaming about the dilemma of a choice between murder or a van. And in your waking hours I’m sure you’ve faced – not maybe not the possibility of murder – but some pretty sharp practice to make sure that the show goes on.

Because that’s the curious paradox about being an artist, particularly one who decides to do something as reckless and rewarding as bringing a show to the Fringe Festival. At the same time, to be a good artist you have to be the person who walks in to a space with integrity and tells the truth. That’s what marks you out from the audience and why they’re sitting over there and you’re standing up there: you are the most truthful person in that room.

And how do you get to be there? Chances are by being a liar, a vagabond and a thief. Now, maybe as you get to be a bigger name, you can subcontract out the shadier aspects of the job. Liar? That’s what my publicist does for me. Vagabond? That’s what my agent’s there for. Thief? What else does a producer do?

But certainly at the beginning of your career you’re going to have to be – to use a well worn but suitably Edinburgh based metaphor – DR Jekyll (I’m the one who tells the truth) and MR Hyde (yes, damn it, kill your wife if it means that I get that deal on the van).

It’s a schizophrenic existence. If you allow any of the hucksterism, fakery and swindling to seep in to what happens on the stage then your work as an artist is compromised and so then why frankly bother doing the thing at all? But if you allow any of the honesty and integrity from the stage to enter in to real life then chances are you’re not getting that van, that venue, that audience.

The performing artist, I’d like to suggest, has got to slice their personality as neatly as they can right down the middle, just like a Bertolt Becht heroine. In Brecht’s play Shen Te, The Good Person of Szechuan, was only able to do good in the world because she was also able to disguise herself as Shui Ta who collected the debts owed to her and saw off her rivals I business. And Anna 1 was only able to survive in the world (and send her family in Louisiana the money to build a new home) because her sister Anna 2 inverted the seven deadly sins and insisted that each of them were necessary virtues for survival in the modern world. Although Brecht didn’t set out to write a survival guide for performers at the Fringe Festival, I’d suggest that you could do a lot worse than read The Good Person of Szechuan and The Seven Deadly Sins and use them as your inspiration for how to conduct your affairs.

Because there’s little doubt that the Mr Hyde – the dark killer – aspect of our natures are going to have to be working even harder in the years to come if the shows are going to carry on going on.

Let’s say it again – because still it somehow doesn’t seem quite real in our bubble of existence – capitalism has experienced its biggest economic crisis since the 1930s depression, a depression which brought us genocidal dictatorships and world war. Our world, in ways that we can’t yet understand, is totally different from the one we were living in six or seven years ago. The paradigm has shifted and new ways of living and behaving are going to be needed if we’re going to make our way forward. There’s no possibility of pressing a restart button and going back to – when exactly? What about 2005? When it was all really lovely and that nice New Labour were in power and the economy seemed to doing splendidly and the arts were really, you know, valued. That’s a false memory of course and we’re not going back there. Any party that gets in to power in Westminster at the next election will be committed to the ideology (and plain wrong mathematics) of austerity. So we’re going to be making our art in increasingly tough times for at least a decade or more. We’re going to have to be complicit in more metaphorical wife murdering if we’re going to get the metaphorical van for our show.

But let’s look on this as a good thing. Didn’t the arts become safe and well behaved during the New Labour years? I think they did. I think they weren’t telling the truth – the dirty, dangerous, hilarious, upsetting, disruptive, noisy, beautiful truth – as often as often as they should have done. Why? Because most artists are decent, liberal, if only everyone were nicer to each other and let’s heal it with a hug sort of folk and so voted New Labour. And when New Labour came in to power there was much Gallagher brother greeting and talk of ‘creative industries’ and after a while for a few years a modest but real terms increase in government funding for the arts. And we artists were so grateful for that relatively modest bit of attention and money that we changed substantially what and who we were as artists.

Suddenly, we were talking about working in the creative industries, about the parts that the arts could play in urban renewal, about business plans and strategic thinking, about sponsorship relationships with the corporate sector that would allow us to fund educational work with our developing audiences, about the role that the arts could play in social inclusion.
What were you doing Mummy in the decade before the world hit the biggest economic crisis in almost a century? 
Well, darling, I was learning not to talk and think like a grungy, angry artist but think and act more like New Labour cultural commissars and their friends in the banking sector. 
Mummy, would they be the ones who got us in to the whole mess that I’m going to be dealing with for my whole life time? 
Well, now you put it like that darling, yes I suppose they rather were. 
And you spent a decade trying to be more like them, Mummy? 
Well yes I rather did. 
And wasn’t that a rather stupid thing to do?

Well, not at the time, darling, no; because you see I thought it would get me some funding and then I could build a career path for myself in the creative industries. 
And did that work out for you Mummy? 
Shut up and go a nick a can of beans for your tea.
In short, I think the arts sector as a whole went astray during the last couple of decades. Just as the Titanic was heading towards the iceberg, we were attending seminars and workshops, learning how to facilitate more effective refrigeration in our sector of the cultural industry when we could have been looking through the telescope and plotting an entirely different course. The bankers and the politicians weren’t looking ahead to spot the approaching iceberg. But neither were we: we were entertaining the same bankers and politicians at our latest gala, corporate sector friendly, socially inclusive performance evening.

As we were heading towards systemic collapse, the arts sector were teaching themselves to think and talk and act the language of the problem and not the solution.

Of course none of us were blessed with supernatural foresight – although there were plenty of signs that the economy that we were living in in the last decade of the old millennium and the first decade of the new was an unsustainable bubble. But let’s not regret what we did wrong then. But let’s look at where we are now. A moment in time when the political vocabulary is bereft of any other ideas than the barren path of austerity, with no major attempt to change the way the banking system or housing market or any other part of the system which proved itself to be so at fault. Politicians and a large part of the electorate are still playing that ‘bit of local difficulty, hang on for a couple more years then we can get back to 2005 again’ game.

Which is why the artists are needed more now than ever before. You’re the ones who have the freedom if you choose to use it to think of new possibilities, crazy ideas, bold, idealistic, irrational, counter-intuitive, disruptive, naughty, angry words and deeds. Because these are the only things that can adequately respond to such a huge meltdown in capitalism and the only way that we might find a way forward in to a different future.

Now is the time to ask the impossible questions and try out the wildest answers. What really is the value of love, of friendship, of work, of sex, of education, of gender, of ownership? Question them, destroy them, rebuild them. What is the value of money? And is capitalism as both practice and ideology the best way to live? The least worst way to live? The terrible but only thing we can come up with way to live? Something that we need to dismantle and start all over again to save ourselves and our planet?

Questions, questions. No easy answers. But we have to think that big if we’re going to catch up after the lost years of cosying up to bankers and politicians.

So thank god we’ve got a government in Westminster that we can properly hate and whole-heartedly attack. Because anger and hatred are some of the best fuel for the artist – strong enough fuel to maybe take us all the way in to imagining totally different ways of living our lives.

I said the freedom to think the impossible but of course the freedom to choose what to think is a difficult place to get to and often an economically costly one. The challenges before us all – particularly new, young artists from who we so desperately need our new ideas and new ways forward – are massive.

For a start there’s the real possibility that in the next decade we may see the end of all public investment in the arts – maybe not in Scotland if it goes its own way - but in the rest of the UK. I feel it’s worth saying this. There are lots of people I work with in the arts who won’t even think that thought ‘the possible end of all public investment in the arts’, as though if you don’t allow yourself to think it then that somehow makes it less likely to happen. But I feel we need to say it if we are going to come up with a full blooded concerted defense of public money for the arts.

But also I think we need to have a Plan B. What if the public funding of the arts, which has earned itself an unassailable position in some other countries, was a passing moment in British life? After all, it didn’t even begin until the 1940s, had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s and has been eroded and shrinking since the 1980s. Historically, that’s a very short period of time. Business as usual would be the arts operating entirely within the marketplace with patrons and sponsors. Can you in any way see yourself making your work and speaking to an audience in that context? Or is that so abhorrent to you that you will enter in to a massive fight for public investment in the arts over the next few years? And if you are going to enter in to that fight – what are you really saying art is for to your community?

Because I think the message in the last couple of decades has been very mixed, in many ways downright confusing: we are a place that offers luxury, go on spoil yourself evenings where in new buildings paid for by a national lottery (a voluntary regressive tax) you can mingle with our wealthy donors and sponsors from the corporate sector and treat yourself to that extra glass of champagne but we are also a place that cares deeply about social justice and exclusion as the wonderful work of our outreach and education teams show. So we’re the best friends of the super-rich and the most disadvantaged at the same time? That’s a confusing message and the public has been smelling a rat. If the arts are for something, who are they for? And what are they doing for them? Does the Westminster government’s attack on the very poorest in our society amount to a class war? Might an artist have to choose what side she is on? In a society which has reached such a wipe gap between the rich and the poor as ours – as wide a gap as almost a century ago – then the artist can’t I suggest be for everyone and if we don’t do something pretty brave then we will be by default for the super-rich.

So it’s at least worth thinking: ‘no public money’. Would that mean all of the performing arts becoming safer and duller? Would I be able to choose to ask the impossible questions without public investment? Or maybe even would I be more able to ask the impossible questions without it? Maybe the artist free of any relationship with any public funding body is freest of all? If I didn’t have to fill in forms, tick boxes, prove how good, nice, worthy me and my project are to a well meaning gatekeeper maybe I’d make something better – more truthful, more radical? Anything and everything is worth thinking about and questioning.

But I would suggest that if anyone tells you to think and act more like the business sector, laugh at them and tell them that we tried that and it didn’t work and it meant us colluding with a system in collapse. And if you meet young artists here who use the words ‘this industry’ or ‘my career path’ or ‘ working on our policy document so that it fulfils all the criteria for the next funding round’ smile at them with sympathy for they are speaking a language that became redundant some five years ago.

Because the truth is that you are already fantastic entrepreneurs but you just find that word for what you is a bit naff and rightly so. Who wants to be like some wanker off Dragon’s Den? You’re much better than those tossers who line up and try to get themselves a mentor for their business plan. You have raised, begged, borrowed, stolen the money to get your work here, you are pounding the streets day and night with your flyers in your hand talking your audience one at a time to come and see your show, you are sharing overcrowded vans and flats and working out how to build the most incredible teams to get your shows on. And you do all this using your own ways of doing things, using your own vocabulary. You don’t need to be more like those in the corporate sector. They need to be more like you: your inventiveness, your imagination, your ability to co-operate, to promote yourselves, to genuinely engage with the people who come to see your show.

You are artists. You are making art. You have your own language. You have your own unique way of doing things. You are making your own rules. You don’t want to put yourself in front of a panel of people who’ve been successful in this ‘industry’, who will turn their chair around if they like the sound of your voice, who will mentor you to do things in the same way that they did them. Do you want to be like the X Factor runner up who speaks in today’s Guardian about his delight at being invited to perform at the Walmart shareholder’s convention? Delighted to sing cover versions for a bunch of arseholes who profit from scandalously low paid workers on zero hours contracts? Do you want to be doing your stand up routine at next year’s debt collector of the year awards ceremony? Sure, it might pay a few bills but it will another step deeper in to the shit when you could be finding a way that all of us might get out of it.

Don’t look for mentors, I would suggest, who are decades older than you. People like me – ignore us. Don’t look for business models from last year. Make it up as you go along. Do everything as if for the first time. As one of the most beautiful men who Scotland ever produced once sang: ‘Rip it up and start again’.

Because the audience here isn’t going to pay money to see you seeking a consensus, avoiding conflict, making do with the way things are right now, being nice and obedient, ticking the boxes that someone else has defined for you. The audience are paying money to see you be new, a freak, challenging, disruptive, naughty, angry, irresponsibly playful – whatever form telling the truth takes in your act. But always telling the truth.

So in a dream you’re sitting there knowing a man will kill his wife but you don’t want to stop him because then he won’t cut you a deal on your van for the Fringe Festival. What are the possible solutions? Yes, collude in the wife’s murder is an option and get your van. Stop the murder and lose the van and so carry your set by foot all the way to Edinburgh is another. That’s surely the most morally correct thing to do and like most morally correct things it’s incredibly hard to do. But if year after year you stop the murders and carry your sets for hundreds of miles you will have a free conscience and maybe that will allow you to make the best art. Or maybe all those hundreds of miles of set carrying will knacker you so much that you’ll produce terrible art. Are there any other solutions? I suppose become rich enough yourself that you own the van company or socialize van ownership so that we all own the van and share its use equally. Or carry a gun at all times and shoot the man before he can murder his wife and then steal the van and ask the wife to join you for an adventurous few weeks in Edinburgh. Many possibilities, many choices. But you’re artists – and the wonderful thing about being an artist is that any of those choices and many many more are choices that you can make. You’re our dreamers, our explorers of new possibilities and we’ve never needed you more than we do today.

Have a great festival.