Friday, 28 February 2014

Shorts: In praise of libraries


This week I’ve been doing all my work in Chrisp St Library, Poplar. And, no, I shan’t call it an “Idea Store”, you rebrand-crazy, business fascists. It is precisely the opposite of a “store”. And it’s been a genuinely remarkable experience. Yes, it’s been helped by the fact that this week has had glorious sunshine and the vast skies round Poplar have looked spectacular through the library’s long, modernist, stained-glass windows. But what’s really remarkable about it is the fact that you can just walk in here and work. “Like a coffee shop, then?” you ask. No. Not like a coffee shop. Because at no point do I have to purchase my right to sit here and work by buying a cup of coffee. (They do have coffee, though, should you fancy a coffee. Pretty good coffee, really. And. It. Costs. 50p. A. Cup. (hot chocolate 40p.))

This is a public space where, as Someone In Great Britain (I needn’t even be a GB citizen), I can go, for free, and work. They even have free wi-fi and a superabundance of plug sockets. (I haven’t actually worked out how to *log-on* to the wi-fi, there’s an A4 list of instructions that made literally no sense to me whatsoever, but that’s neither here nor there.)

What’s most strange about it, is how shocking it feels. How deeply weird and subversive. How much it seems to undermine my entire understanding of how GB PLC works. The very idea that there are places in Britain where you can go where you don’t have to rent desk space at, well, at roughly £2.50-per-cup, which, if you’re really good at drinking coffee slowly and ignoring glares, might buy you a couple of hours. I’ve been here all afternoon and I’ve spent 90p. Voluntarily.

I could even have read a bunch of books. Free. Hell, if I actually lived round here full-time I could join the library (free), and take books out to read at home (free). Added to this, it has an ethnic mix that the NT (for instance) would kill for. It’s got a really nice atmosphere. It’s quieter than a coffee shop, and they’ve not playing irritating music.

And the really staggering thing is that it’s just been provided for people to use by the state. The entire gesture says: of course, have it; of course it’s free; if you want to come in and make use of our facilities, do it; it’s what we’re here to provide.

It feels like a kind of madness. It almost makes you giggle at how wrong it seems that it should exist in Britain at all at the moment.

A friend once said to me (paraphrase): “in London, you have no public space at all. Or, none of you seem to feel like you have any ownership of your public space at all.” I think I denied it at the time, and muttered something about the South Bank (lined with places where you can buy stuff, and coffee shops).

Sitting here, I kind of get it.

This might be the last free thing that isn’t an absolute essential (and I’d argue it’s damn close) left in the UK.

And you realise just how far down a road to total neo-liberal, free-market economics we’ve been tricked. How much, no matter how much we don’t agree, our minds have been conditioned into accepting the “reality” of paying for everything, that everything costs money, that there’s no space without rent.

The library stands (it would be literally, if the sun obligingly went north-south instead of east-west) in the shadow of the HSBC tower.

And I feel surprised to be able to sit somewhere for free.

The library is what socialism can and should feel like.

And our theatres should definitely feel a lot more like this. And a lot less like £2.50-a-cup coffee shops. You want inclusion and access?  You want to make your building feel like the public own it? Charge sensible prices for a cup of tea, and don’t require that people even buy one to sit in the building and enjoy it and feel that it's for them.   

The One – Soho Theatre

[seen in final preview]

Women really can be utter cunts, can’t they? On the surface, this seems to be the question explored by Vicky Jones’s début, Verity Bargate Award-winning, 65 minute, three-hander, dedicated to, and starring, her long-term artistic partner Phoebe Waller-Bridge; whose Fleabag Jones directed to deserved acclaim last year. Indeed it’s hard not to think of The One as Fleabag II. After all, theoretically it explores *a lot* of the same territory – the itchy edges around contemporary feminism; the same what-ifs? – what if women want to watch porn? What if women make rape jokes? What if women aren’t in the least bit sisterly? What if a woman is apparently so totally without direction that her only pleasure is to torture the lunkish wet that she’s ended up with (at least for the time being)?

I suspect that much of my initial response to The One was due to the imperfect pairing of Jones’s text and its director Steve Marmion. I think *on paper* The One might be a significantly better, at least structurally, rhythmically, and in terms of a building arc, than it feels here. I also think Rufus Wright is badly miscast as as Harry, the crumpled foil to Waller-Bridge’s Jo.

The play itself strongly recalls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: a college professor and his lover torture each other emotionally while getting more and more drunk; and there’s stuff about the child that never was, too. The difference is that they’ve only got one other person (occasionally) off whom to bounce their sparring – Harry’s ex- Kerry, who turns up after being sexually assaulted by her partner, occasioning an incredible tirade of scepticism and rape-jokes from Jo (at the same time potentially re-casting our understanding of the play’s opening as a “rape scene”). They’re much younger (he 39, she 29, says the script) and unmarried, too. There’s only that sense of being trapped in an eternal stasis if you think life ends at thirty (or forty) and four years is a long time to be in a relationship.

But, for all the obvious Who’s Afraid... parallels, the play I find myself thinking about is Blasted. The One, like Blasted, is a(nother) play (by a woman) that no one wanted anyone to write. It is unremittingly unpleasant. It doesn’t seem to understand any of the rules of theatre. You don’t know what it’s for. You don’t know what you’re meant to think about it or do with it. And it has the potential to actually make you pretty angry at it. It feels full of cheap shock-tactics and deliberate attempts to goad a reaction. And yet, it is clearly talking about some important subjects. And talking about them in a way that possibly you haven’t seen them talked about on a stage before. For that reason, I’m incredibly reluctant to actually come out and say The One is a “bad play”. Because no one wants to be that dumkopf again, do they?

On the other hand, I am willing to say that I didn’t like Steve Marmion’s production one bit. Every single aspect of it felt misjudged. There are excruciatingly blocked and scored “movement” sequences between scenes. (Not in the text. And, obvs I’m fine with not-in-the-text” *when it’s good*. This isn’t.) They seem aimed at underscoring the “erotic game” aspect of the text – the blurb for the show suggests, it might just be about: “a relationship based on desire, dependency and dirty games” [their lack of an Oxford comma] and: “a couple trapped in a destructive cycle of love and lust” – but they seem, at the same time, to undermine this by being deliberately cheesy, almost sarcastic; albeit at the level of execution as much as intent. Even this might be deliberate, but there are only so many postmodern bluffs on can take before you have to call nonsense on nonsense.

Another galling aspect to the production is the length. The One is taken at breakneck speed, bringing it in at roughly 65 minutes. Granted, it’s a classic problem of British “Writer’s Theatre” when directed with apparent deference to the text: when there’s “nothing” – no dialogue, on the page – then *obviously* nothing can happen; so everyone just says all their lines, one after the other, person after person, until all the lines are gone and the play stops (apart from the scene-change “movement sequences”).

It might have been seeing Thomas Ostermeier’s version of Blasted, a few years after seeing the Royal Court re-mount of the original, that first made me realise that a production could actually provide a framework through which the content of the play could be better understood. Here was a production (Ostermeier’s) that took its time, and allowed the play to breathe; allowed the audience to think about the meaning; a production that wasn’t hooked on energy and adrenaline and shock. I found myself wondering what The One would look like given a similar aesthetic treatment. What if, rather than being played as a wonky comedy of manners (my God, there’s a lot of mugging), it was taken seriously as drama, and then run through an arty mill.

Nonetheless, all these reasonable thoughts aside, there’s still *the play* to contend with. There is still the fact that you don’t know what it’s for. That unless you’re of a spectacularly callous disposition, you won’t really find the relentless rape-joke humour funny. That all the characters are really, really awful people. It’s odd. It feels like a backlash against the current wave of feminism – a play that really wants to blur some lines, rather than protest about Blurred Lines. But then, this wave of feminism is pretty much a reaction against the snowballing of nineties “lad” culture, which was a reaction against the “right-on” student politics an alternative comedy of the eighties. So, what The One feels like is a nineties throwback. An In-Yer-Face revival. So perhaps it really is the new Blasted. After all, Sarah Kane also made some pretty sick jokes too.

If I’m honest, the first thing I thought when I came out of The One is that Vicky Jones is bloody lucky she’s a woman, because if this trope-y play had been written by a man (that trope being: “women are mad, psychotic and awful”) then he’d... Well, you’d hope it would never have been produced. Written by a woman, the play says a lot more interesting things, simply by dint of their coming from a theoretically different place. But really, isn’t Jo just Nicola Six? Even so, I can’t help feeling, thanks to the production, I didn’t really see the dynamics fully realised enough to understand either the play or even what the director was trying to say with it. Part of that problem, as I’ve said, was Rufus Wright, who without wishing to be personal, was entirely in-credible (literally) as any of the things he was meant to be beyond “a man”, much less a convincing part of a couple with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. W-B is very good at playing the part that was written for her, but since it’s turning into *the* part that gets written for her, it seems a bit unhelpful that she plays it again. Lu Corfield as Harry’s ex- Kerry is faint and weak, but it’s hard to tell here whether that’s acting, production, writing or character.

In conclusion. I’d like to see a different production, taken entirely out of the hands of those involved in the creation of the piece, it’s dedicatees and close friends. I think someone else rigorously working the entire thing through, with a burning sense of why they’re doing it, is the only possible way for it to work. This felt a bit too much like watching an in-joke between friends which had rather lost sight of where it was going or why.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Designers: the British dramaturg

[delayed follow-up to Properly Revisited]

What I want to talk about today is *how* texts get “served” on the British stage these days.

I think I first attempted a macro-description of The Style With No Name (in which plays are staged) in my 2010 review of Bijan Sheibani’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s rather twee play Euridyce. In my review I wanted to try to get to grips with what sort of “style” the show was, because it was quite a prevalent style and yet we didn’t really seem to have a word for it:

“’s taken me a while to formulate this idea because the acting in such productions errs toward the sort-of naturalistic. At least, there seems to be a degree of “psychological realism” behind the performances... So in that respect, it looks like it’s “serving the text”, yes?

“But then there’s the design. And this often tends not to be naturalistic, per se. As often as not, there won’t be any “set” at all. Or else the playing space will be an artfully constructed kind of symbolic space – think of the long wooden trough for Sheibani’s production of Our Class at the NT, or perhaps the mostly undressed expanses of stage used in National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch.

“[It looks like] a cross between expedient economising (building barely any set, or just having a nicely made floor is presumably cheaper (and more practical on tour) than having half a dozen elaborately detailed model interiors relying on lengthy installation, a revolve, or fly-tower. These hardly “draw any attention to themselves” at all. This sort of bare-stage approach looks like it is [edit: or is understood as...] “serving the text” – at least to the extent that there’s not a design *concept* “drawing attention to *itself*” (and thus – so the thinking might go – away from the all-important text).”

And I’m quite interested to know what we actually call that. It’s a style that’s been pretty current for as long as I’ve been going to the theatre (basically 1997). [Thanks to The Internet, it seems nigh-on impossible to turn up images from back then, so let’s consider recent examples...]

The Vertical Hour:

Off The Endz:

The Knot of the Heart:


The One:

What I take from these pictures is the following:

What we think of as “naturalism” doesn’t actually look in the least bit “natural”, does it?

Isn’t the dominant “style” of British theatre now seems to be a strange sort of mish-mash of a tonne of elements from the last seventy or more years, all dumped on top of each other? I have no issue with this, except that it’s left us at a loss as to how to actually talk about what sort of style a production (or even a design) is. No, I agree: “really great/accurate pigeon-holes” are still pigeon-holes. And pigeon-holes aren’t the best things in the world. But that’s not really the object of this exercise. It just seems incredibly strange that we don’t have a fit-for-purpose vocabulary for describing the sort of theatre that happens on our stages. Maybe “theatre” is enough on its own. But is it? People writing about these productions seem to end up describing them using terms more-or-less at random.

We think of something like Off The Endz as being a “naturalistic play”, right? And yet the set (as far as I remember it) was kitchen units standing starkly in blackness. I don’t remember it having any walls (until the end when the kitchen units were flown/trolleyed out). Or, more recently, The Pass: again ostensibly a “naturalistic play” and yet it was played in traverse in three “hotel rooms” that had astro-turf floors. I think I subconsciously think of this style as “naturalism-but...” or “naturalism-and...”. In terms of lineage, I’m not sure I know where it comes from. My guess is that from one direction it is a direct result of that visit by the Berliner Ensemble to London in 1958. I’ve joked before about the idea that when the British borrow, they tend to do so visually, and almost content-free – from all the principles and all the dramaturgical thinking behind Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble the British took the idea that we could have different sets.

But it’s inaccurate to credit it to the Berliner Ensemble visit, because Peter Hall’s Godot (with a design based on the original by the French director Roger Blin?) had already happened. Granted, Beckett is pretty stipulate-y (and having been living on the mainland must have seen all sorts).

And looking further back, there’s also Britain’s folk memory of The Globe and the Medieval Mystery Plays before it – basically as Ur-bare-stage as the amphitheatres of the Greeks. I don’t imagine we’re special in this, but it’s interesting that the further you look back the more theatre abandons any pretence at mimesis/realism/”getting-it-right” in favour of an uncompromising drive to tell whatever fantastical story it fancies however it damn well pleases. An approach that still largely informs the work of nineties alt-theatre companies like Kneehigh and Improbable (most obviously).

Having acknowledged that we have a weird language-gap when it comes to describing the currently ascendant style we use for presenting plays on the modern British stage (think maybe The Knot of the Heart, or Chimerica), what I really want to talk about is the role that I think design plays in all this.


I’d like to propose an idea: the designer is the unacknowledged dramaturg of British theatre. I think it’s something I’ve been gradually coming to believe over the last few years, but now it feels like an idea worth saying out loud.

I am thinking of the German sense of the word “dramaturg”, both in its incarnations of “building dramaturg” and “project dramaturg”. The British barely ever have a remotely equivalent job credited on productions, and, when they do, rarely does the dramaturg wield anything like the same acknowledged power or influence. In Germany they think of the dramaturg as the “in-house critic”. Or the “philosophy and political science department” of a production. The dramaturg is also kind of in charge of the context through/in which a play is approached/understood.

I would argue that in Britain this position falls to the designer.

Because, as I have suggested, Britain – counter-intuitively – actually has quite a “visual” culture. It’s not a very *developed* visual culture, but I think it is powerful. Perhaps rather than “has a visual culture” I mean “we’re pretty superficial”. What we see when we look at a play on stage *seriously* influences how we think about it as a piece of theatre. Perhaps this is true of any theatregoing culture. And, what we see when we look at stages are a series of signs and shorthands – either intentionally, or intuitively.

Something that fascinates me at the moment is the extent to which some of these have been absolutely absorbed – see the examples of “naturalism” above – and some haven’t. (As an aside: it strikes me as fascinating, for example, that you can take all the walls away from an ostensibly naturalistic play like The One and it still be understood to be taking place in the real world, while something like Katie Mitchell’s Trojan Women can be held up by the mainstream press as all kinds of obscure when it has a totally 100% realistic set (apart from, y’know, the massive wall missing at the front which means we can see into the room).)

What also seems fascinating is the extent to which a snappy design can completely alter our sense of a play’s genre or *modernity*, perhaps. Consider Tom Scutt’s superlative design for Constellations (of which I’ve only seen photos, but even so...). The very fact of its buoyancy and lightness *must* have had a massive effect on what it felt like to watch that play. Or Johannes Schütz’s design for Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters; if it hadn’t also been for the superlative acting and the brilliant new version of the text, practically could have been the whole show.

Given the absence of political and aesthetic essays or manifestos in our theatre programmes (hell, in our whole theatre *culture*, give or take), I would argue it falls to the designer to fulfil that entire function for an audience. To tell them, not only where a play is set *in the world of the play*, but also within our theatre culture, and indeed within a wider social and political culture.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Embedded Criticism Revisited – a few reflections

[Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in]

Embedded below is a link to the fascinating discussion about Embedded Criticism which took place last week at Brock University, Toronto at a colloquium on theatre criticism convened by the excellent Karen Fricker, starring friends-of-Postcards... Maddy Costa and Andy Horwitz (elsewhere from the same series there’s also an excellent round-table about the state of Canadian, or Torontonian criticism featuring Postcards’s favourite German-Canadian Holger Syme).

Being the person who coined the term (although certainly not the concept/s), it feels high time to reflect on the original concept, and how far it has since then.

The three original articles were :


Embedded II

Embedded III

What’s interesting is that fact that in none of them do I really seem to be talking about spending time in rehearsals. That seemed to take off after those essays. In the original “Embedded” pieces, I was talking firstly about spending time with ATC in the back of a tour van in Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2012 (hence “embedded”), and then about wider questions related to knowing artists, being friends with artists, knowing artists’ intentions, the position of the critic in relation to the work, and about pre-knowing information about a piece.

Looking back, it is clear that I was concerned with renegotiating the contract between both critic and artist and also critic and reader; concerned with seriously interrogating the strange assumptions in the rules of mainstream criticism that project a critic with a false “exteriority”. A critic who is “outside” the world that she reviews.

Since then, “embeddedness” has gradually come to mean “spending time in the rehearsal room”.

What’s also fascinating is the extent and variety of ways in which it’s been used, experimented with, and tried out. Maddy with Chris Goode and Company, Catherine Love with Greyscale, Matt Trueman, both at Oval House and at the China Plate/Warwick University series This is Tomorrow, and myself in the RSC/Wooster Group Troilus and Cressida and Secret Theatre rehearsal processes.

I think spending time inside rehearsal processes has been an incredibly useful exercise for me personally. It’s certainly made me rethink the lazy shorthands that exist for attribution within reviews – that “the writer means...”, that “the director decides...”, that “the actor shows...” – You appreciate how much more multi-faceted and collaborative *all* theatre-making is. Not just yer “art performance installation sort of bonkers thing” (Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat).

Also, it makes you appreciate that even when spending all day, every day, for several weeks, that you actually don’t ultimately *get inside* a piece. There’s still stuff you don’t see happen. Actors still go off and learn lines. Directors, designers, whoever, all go home, sleep on things, have sudden flashes of inspiration on the tube, wake up and scribble ideas down and go back to sleep. Of course you also learn about how visions get shafted by contingencies, how woods can get overlooked for a superabundance of trees. Most interestingly, you see how critics and theatre-colleagues arrive armed with interpretative faculties which can find genius where none was intended, or faults where a rigorous intellectual defence is available.

The very concept of “Embeddedness” being *a thing* also throws up a few assumptions that I realise are peculiar to British (and more specifically, London-based) criticism. Still, so many elements of our understanding of “how criticism works” are specific to the ecology with which we’ve grown up and which we see happening around us – the vastness of London’s theatre scene, the ongoing dominance of critics-who-have-always-been-critics, the either lack- or lack-of-acknowledgement-of- the fluidity between criticism and other jobs in theatre, the thumbs-up/thumbs-down consumer-guide understanding of “what criticism is for”. The more I travel and encounter, or read about, or hear about other theatre cultures, the more I realise that all these “hard and fast rules” are very much time and space specific. I mean, Christ, I’m not sure its an understanding of “how criticism works” that’s even applicable in Scotland.

Something else that came up as a possible objection to “Embeddedness”, both in the debate, and also, I seem to remember, as an objection at the NT’s Future of Criticism debate at The Shed was the idea that embeddedness would lead to critics who were “too *in bed*” with a production. And that they sure as hell couldn’t write about it. What I’ve found interesting, spending a bunch of time in rehearsal rooms, is that actually, embeddedness also offers precisely the opposite opportunity. That you can potentially end up with a critic who *deeply* dislikes a piece well *before* “press night”. Yeah. No one’s really talked about that, yet. So there’s also the question of what one does with that. And what one does with oneself in the rehearsal room.

I suppose part of what I’ve been arguing for is could be construed as something a bit akin to a UK adoption of something a bit more like the German “dramaturg” model, where they have the (building/production) “in-house critic”, who can critique a production and provide vertical and horizontal context as rehearsals progress. However, without being employed specifically as such, the potential for the embedded critic to provide these services could go untapped. Or, having next to no precedent in the UK, might seriously wrong-foot a director presented with them.

At the same time, the other side of what I’ve been arguing for is essentially professional development – simply the chance to learn practically about the nuts and bolts of the thing that we’re writing about the whole time. A chance to see how things are put together, but also a chance to undermine our own assumptions. A chance to see what does get talked about and what doesn’t; how decisions are actually arrived at; the degree of rigour actually involved; even whether rigour is actually any use.

While thinking about the difference between embedded criticism and other sorts of criticism, I wondered if the difference might be something like the difference between painting and photography. With painting you have to spend a considerably longer time with the subject and the result is necessarily far more personal and subjective than a photograph. That said, photography – lest anyone think I’m being partial – is also absolutely an artform; and is as much to do with the subjectivity and skill of the photographer. Obviously there are also snapshots, and pix taken on mobile phones. Some of which can also be beautiful. Just as much as some (many) paintings can be a horrible mess. I’m not sure if it’s a useful comparison, but I think it’s a helpful way of thinking about the differences, perhaps. After all, even between painters there are so many different schools – compare Monet to Richter to Bacon – that even acknowledging “embedded criticism” as a thing is not the end of the line for a discussion of it. People will adopt their own approaches. Shape the medium to their own tastes, emphasise what they wish and create their own versions.


It’s just another thing. Ok? I’d just like to make that clear too.

For the record, I still very much enjoy (yes, I thought about this, *enjoy* is the word), going to see a production about which I know, well, anything between *nothing* and the *usual amount of information*, and writing about it as an act of interpretation, description, or, yes, even *journalism*. Sometimes knowing nothing and learning as you sit and watch can feel pretty dizzying too.

[Cover photo: another shot of the road between Sulaymaniyah and Arbil (Googlemaps-spellings), as per the original “Embedded” pieces. This one taken by Ramin Gray]

Monday, 24 February 2014

Shorts: on adaptation

[torching the straw man]

I daresay you’ve read Michael Billington’s generally glowing review of 1984. If so, you won’t have failed to notice its unusual coda:
“I have a wider concern. There is a long line of work, from War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to Let the Right One In and American Psycho, which suggests that our increasingly interpretative theatre is drawing its strength from new versions of existing books and films. Some of these productions are remarkable. So, too, is this 1984. While I know that the Almeida has two new plays in the pipeline, I worry that the theatre is rapidly becoming a place of dramatisations rather than original drama.”



Ok, let’s leave aside the fact that theatre isn’t “becoming a place of dramatisations rather than original drama”, in the sense that Michael means, rapidly or otherwise. Ignore that. Let’s instead concentrate on “concern” and “worry”. (Although let’s also briefly rejoice about “increasingly interpretative” issued without too much apparent side.)

Because the thing is, I actually rather like “adaptations”.

No. Sorry. That needs qualifying:

I’m not terribly excited about versions of books on stage. I notice Michael doesn’t, for example, include the RSC’s new version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall when delineating the deluge of four versions of books to hit the stage in the past seven years. So we’re not thinking of plays that effectively just lift the dialogue from the page and knock it into the shape of something that looks pretty much like a “traditional play”. We’re talking about pieces of theatre that, as the Germans have it, are “nach motiven aus...” (“after motifs from...”) – a great way of explaining the necessary distance between the source material and what appears on stage. And I like those ones. A lot.

Yes, it’s another German thing. Perhaps because in Deutschland they fetishise “the director” a lot more than “the playwright” – and perhaps also because they have the concept of “the postdramatic” – it makes a lot more logical sense that the material a director chooses to stage might not always be “a drama”, written by “a playwright”/”a dramatist”*. The greater ease with postmodernism as a dramatic expression is also perhaps crucial.

The result is, at best, I think, really exciting programmes for theatres (see poster: below). Rather than being “a threat” (why must everything always be “a threat”, Michael?), I’d say the possibility for any given bit of stage-work to be either a new play, a classic, a revival, OR a version of a novel, or a version of a film can only be more exciting rather than something to be feared.**

I find the the possibility that alongside challenging original texts-for-theatre, we might start seeing versions – director-led responses to – things like a novel by Michel Houellebecq, or Dostoyevsky, or Virginia Woolf or films like Stalker, or Mulholland Drive.

Something I think that’s crucial here is a pre-existing critical understanding (hell, an understanding generally), that the new adaptation will be new. It won’t necessarily have to be the whole plot done live right before your very eyes. It will be an interpretation. Obviously the interpretation can reference the ideas, themes and modes of the source material, but as with any transfer of printed word to live stage (yes, that includes “playscripts”) something changes.

As such, I wonder if, at root, this “worry” about “adaptations” is just a simple philosophical difference. That, if we already accept that any printed source for a piece of theatre is necessarily adapted by the very fact of its transfer from page to stage, then the use of a novel or a film as the source instead is no more worrying than another revival of a play by George Bernard Shaw (far less so, actually, for my money). And, if this becomes more widely and generally accepted, doesn’t it also free up our playwrights to experiment far more with the sort of forms that they’re expected to produce – setting problems for directors to solve, rather than solving every last problem themselves with minute stage directions which, if ignored, might even allow them to withdraw performance rights?

[“cover” photo – Gerhard Richter’s Matrosen (sailors) – one of the artist’s photo pictures – i.e. a painting of a photo – usually ones he found in the mass market news magazines of the sixties. Which kind of makes my point about how you can make art from adaptation rather more quickly. 

 Directly above, the current spielplan of the Thalia (appropriately enough) Gaußstraße venue, listing numerous adaptations for stage...]

*Although, are the Germans starting to slow down a bit on that? And is a bit of writer-idolatry starting to creep in, especially when it comes to the staging of “rock star” British writers? No one seems to have “done a number” on Wastwater yet – they’ve all just sunk trying to do it “properly”, and that In der Republik der Glucks at Deutsches Theater? Jesus wept.

** I suppose that some of Michael’s concern originates in the same place that makes him worry about regietheater threatening the practise of “doing plays as they’re written” – which, as has been discussed into infinity, is also just the adoption of a particular set of stylistic codes and signifiers. Hence also the possibility to believe that our theatre is “increasingly interpretative” (suggesting that some productions of plays can be not interpretative – a proposition that I don’t believe, but I understand the shorthand).

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Wunschloses unglück – Burgtheater im Kasino

[“review” in four parts]


Wunschloses unglück is an adaptation for stage of Peter Handke’s short book of the same name. The name seems to have settled into English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. I prefer Unimaginable Unhappiness. It has been created for the Burgtheater by director Katie Mitchell, the adaptor Duncan Macmillan, the bildregie (cinematographer?) Grant Gee, the stage designer Lizzie Clachan, the video designer Finn Ross, the sound designers Melanie Wilson and Gareth Fry, the composer Paul Clark, and lighting designer Jack Knowles.

The book, published in 1972, is a meditation by Handke on the suicide of his mother. The opening paragraph reads: ‘THE SUNDAY edition of the Kärntner Volkszeitung carried the following item under “Local News”: “In the village of A. (G. township), a housewife, aged 51, committed suicide on Friday night by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.”’

The adaptation is a “camera show”. Above the stage hangs a large screen. On the stage itself all the audience can see is a large, single storey expanse of plywood with windows set into it. On the far left hand side of the stage is a small voiceover booth, and on the far right is a similar cabin for a foley artist. Various lights and cameras point at the windows.

When the piece starts, sometimes sections of this impenetrable front wall will lift out and we can see “inside” or “behind” the set. There are rooms even further behind these, which we see on screen, that we can never see from the auditorium.

The book by Handke is a forensic excavation of his mother’s life. It contains this striking passage:
‘City life: short skirts (“knee huggers”), high-heeled shoes, permanent wave, earrings, unclouded joy of life. Even a stay abroad! Chambermaid in the Black Forest, flocks of ADMIRERS, kept at a DISTANCE! Dates, dancing, entertainment, fun; hidden fear of sex (“They weren’t my type”). Work, pleasure; heavyhearted, lighthearted; Hitler had a nice voice on the radio.’ 
[the caps are Handke’s – words in capital letters are scattered across the pages.]

Where the book, though short, is copious with words, the text of the adaptation is stark and minimal. Delivered as voiceover by either Peter Knaack, playing Der Sohn (i.e. Handke), or Petra Morzé – Die Mutter – according to whether they are his words, or words that she has written. She sent him a letter before she killed herself, enclosing her will.

The action on the screen cuts between black and white and colour. In the black and white parts we see Die Mutter – Dorothee Hartinger – preparing to kill herself. Eventually, over and over again. Intercut with this, we see, actually see on screen, Der Sohn – Daniel Sträßer – receiving the letter in his apartment, catching a plane back to his family home, walking into the family home, meeting his sister (Liliane Amuat) and mourners, seeing his mother lying in her coffin. The action on screen flicks backward and forward between the two time periods – in theory only days apart, but thanks to the switch between black and white and colour feeling like decades apart. The mother, still caught in the film stock of the past, in a house dressed largely like the 1950s she moved there during; the son, a part of the present, in the early seventies – his room, for example, has a poster for his early play Kaspar hanging on the wall.

The screen action shows Der Sohn sorting through his mother’s personal effects, trying to make sense of her suicide, and especially trying to make sense of a small, postage-stamp sized photograph of her which he finds. It has evidently been cut from a larger picture. He looks through photo albums, sorts through drawers. Imagines her journey from kitchen sink, emptying the contents of several packets of sleeping pills into a single glass, mixing them with water, taking it to bed and drinking it.

All the while, while this takes place seamlessly on screen, the performers and camera operators scurry industiously around the intricate stage floor setting up shots, performing actions, creating dislocated close-ups, taking down and moving cameras and rostra. Setting up new shots. Dorothee Hartinger (Die Mutter) running disconcertingly backwards and forwards between life and death as she appears in black and white, alive and preparig for death, then nimbly hopping back into her coffin for a colour shot with Der Sohn at her side, mourning, bereaved. The performer almost creating a jarring parody of the “reality”.


Rather than immediately talking about my response to the piece, I want first to discuss the reviews by the Austrian critics. There is a reason I want to do this. Mostly, it is because I read them when I was processing my own response to the show, and so much of what I thought subsequently was a meditation on these responses as well as on the show. They were, largely, impressed by the technique, but most, in their own ways, found fault with the way that the book had been presented. I wondered about this. I wondered a lot.

Teresa Präauer in Nachtkritik suggests: “Der Wille zur Mimesis illustriert hier wohl genau jenen biographical approach, gegen den Handke so skeptisch anschreibt im Wunschlosen Unglück.”
(roughly: The will to mimesis illustrated here probably exactly those biographical approach, against which Handke writes so sceptically in Wunschloses unglück.)
And concludes: “In der Gesamtheit, und gerade bei diesem Stück Literatur: leider wohl, auf hohem Niveau, ein Missverständnis.”
(As a whole, and especially in this piece of literature: Unfortunately, probably, at a high level, a misunderstanding.)

Roland Pohl in Der Standard writes: “Technisch bis an die Zähne bewaffnet, übersetzt Mitchell Handkes Erzählung, ein unsterbliches Stück Weltliteratur, in ein Kriminal-Fernsehspiel.”
(Armed to the teeth technically, Mitchell has translated Handke's narrative, an immortal piece of world literature, into a TV crime drama.)
And even more damningly: “Der Springinsfeld ruht nicht, bis er Mamas Geheimnis auf die Spur gekommen ist. Sie schämte sich ihrer NS-Begeisterung 1938. ‘Ja, das war es!’, sagt sich Handke in Gedanken. Damit hat Mitchell Handkes Text auf eine Binsenweisheit heruntergebrochen. Viel Applaus für einen sterilen Abend.”
(The happy-go-lucky young fellow does not rest until he is able to track down Mama’s secret. She was ashamed of their Nazi enthusiasm in 1938. ‘Yes, that was it,’ Handke says in thought. Thus, Mitchell has broken down Handke’s text into a truism. Much applause for a sterile evening.) [an analysis which I find frankly chilling. Seriously? A *truism*?]

Norbert Mayer in Die Presse redeems Austrian criticism a bit, while cavilling on the same point – that the book suggests the suicide is about more than the Nazi past (so does the staging, but...) – he argues: “Bei Mitchell wird die Suche nach dem Geheimnis der Mutter symbolisch überhöht. Das bringt Dramatik, simplifiziert aber zugleich die Vorlage. Den schönsten V-Effekt gibt es jedoch am Anfang. Auf der Leinwand sieht man den Schluss einer Folge der beliebte TV-Serie „Wenn der Vater mit dem Sohne“. Man hört nur eine Frage: „Papa?“ Und sieht den Subtitel: „Happy End“.”
(In Mitchell, the search for the secret of the nut is too high symbolic. This brings drama, but also oversimplifies the template. The most beautiful V-effect, however, there at the beginning. On the screen you can see the final result of a popular TV series ‘When the Father with the Son’. You hear only one question: ‘Dad?’ And see the subtitle: ‘Happy End’.)

Those reviews were all published pretty much with 24 hours of seeing the piece. I was still thinking. I was sitting in a kind of stunned silence and thinking. If I had had to give you an account of my immediate, visceral reaction, I couldn’t. In a way, because it isn’t/wasn’t that sort of piece. It doesn’t have an adrenaline punch as such. It has *moments* which make you jump out of your skin, or that clench your teeth involuntarily. But the piece as a whole is more meditative than that. And sad. It’s a slow drip, drip, drip, of thought, and sadness, and seriousness. Image, sound, voice, language (though obviously that last largely unavailable to me in-the-moment, which is also significant), action.

It is true that Mitchell and Macmillan have, in their staging highlighted that one available reading of the reason for Handke’s mother’s suicide – the same reason for the cut up, hidden photographs of her seig heiling ecstatically at the Anschluss – is her shame at her complicity with the Nazis. Their point, as Handke’s: that Die Mutter’s personal tragedy reflects the vast, greater tragedy of the nation. The difference, Handke implies – “proud” of his mother for her suicide – is that she at least took responsibility for herself in the end: she took the only honourable course of action.

Another striking passage from the book:
‘For my mother the war was not a childhood nightmare that would colour her whole emotional development as it did mine; more than anything else, it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders. A new feeling for distances, for how things had been BACK IN PEACETIME, and most of all for other individuals, who up until then had been confined to the shadowy roles of casual friends, dance partners, and fellow workers.’
Of course, this does play down the rest of her unhappy life, her evident depression, her loveless marriages, and deep disappointments. Probable deep depression. Ongoing. Perhaps a desire for death for years. But, at the same time, there is still his pride in her suicide: the suicide of someone who was perhaps even *missing* the war – missing the excitement and glamour of the Nazi party, or at least missing the transition and relative freedom that the turmoil and conflict threw up. Perhaps this is more striking to me, and to Mitchell and her British team, than to the Austrians. I would dispute, though, that this constitutes “a truism” or an error of analysis.

Also, it feels strange to be discussing “errors of analysis” within a German-language theatre context. Perhaps Austrian Theater is much more conservative than its German cousin. Perhaps there is more reverence for the text here; hunting the chimera of “The Author’s Intentions”...


Something which I happened to read in the essay 'The Act and The Author' by Calum Neill two days after seeing Wunschloses unglück:
“ ‘a signifier is what represents the subject to another signifier.’
(Lacan, 2006: 694)
“In such a chain, with each signifier signifying something to another signifier, something must halt the process or be seen to halt the process. If not, then nothing is represented. This halting takes place by virtue of a signifier, not the subject. The subject is the something represented. And it is represented for another signifier. This latter signifier is then that which would allow the possibility of something having been said, it allows the coherence of some sort of sense. It is important here to distinguish sense from meaning. The two operate in different registers. The movement of signifying, from signifier to signifier, seeks sense and anchors sense in the operation of this ultimate signifier to which all signifying speaks. Meaning, on the other hand, accrues in the realm of the imaginary. As the subject emerges through representation from one signifier to another, the subject imagines itself and “imagines himself to be a man merely by virtue of the fact that he imagines himself” (Lacan, 1977: 142). Each encounter with language thus produces both a sense, which allows signifying to unfold with a stability of its own, and meaning, which would be the subject’s encounter with its own emergence in language.”
Extracted, it might not make all that much sense (and, hell, I find that level of theory very difficult to really process at the best of times), but I wanted to contextualise what clarified for me my problem with the way that the Austrian critics had dealt with what they had been presented. That there had been a surprising one-way, literal-mindedness to their interpretations.

To me, then, the idea of the multiple elements of the piece and the extent to which the disparity and separateness of those elements is foregrounded is absolutely crucial to an understanding of why Mitchell would choose to adapt first *this* “story” in *this* way, and then why at all.

It demonstrates a very real commitment to trying to explore – and make explicit the exploration of – precisely those elements of problematic signification which were being discussed by both Lacan and Handke. (As in The Waves and Waves before it.) This is not only a serious examination and experiment with how to present a text – and a text that in itself is an examination and an experiment – but a question about how the stage can possibly hope to ever speak to “reality”.

In the auditorium at many given moments there are: “Peter Handke” the author of the text; “Peter Handke” or “Sohn” played by Daniel Sträßer; the voice of “Peter Handke” being played by Peter Knaack; and then there is the image on the screen where in our minds – seeing Sträßer “think” the words written by Peter Handke as Knaack reads the words which Duncan Macmillan has chosen to represent the book for the theatre piece with the same name – everything compresses into one “reality”.

To reduce this intricate matrix of signification to “a TV crime drama” is a catastrophic error. Television rarely wants us to think that it’s television; this piece won’t stop showing us the multiple elements that are being used to achieve the illusion of a coherent single reality. We are constantly being asked to question the way that we look at these constructed “people” in this “realistic” setting. We can see with our own eyes that they’re not “real” at all. (On a very basic level, Mitchell and co. could all have been hidden behind a big black wall if this was all about what was *on screen*, FFS. I’m pretty sure even the Burgtheater’s troubled budget could at least have run to a big curtain had one been called for.)


I found the text on which the piece was based incredibly heavy emotionally. The literary postmodernism of it, the coldness and abstraction of it, just seemed to speak all the more eloquently of the kind of desolation where you can’t put the damn thing into mere words. “Being clever” about something never fooled anyone. And the blankness in Handke’s prose could also be read as the most appalling depression. Beyond that, the sheer weight of the subject matter: the micro – the mother’s suicide – and the macro – an apparently civilised nation’s sudden tip into the insanity of fascism and genocide felt overwhelming.  At the same time, Vienna is kind of hard in the same way.

So, yes, I took a long time to get to grips with Wunschloses Unglück. It is a difficult piece to process. The multiple elements do make focussing on what is being said incredibly difficult. Trying to watch more fragments than the eye can see at once is hard. Trying to appreciate elements both as separate parts and a whole is an impossible trick for the brain to perform.

And, yes, I did wonder if the superficial similarity of approach – the “camera show” – was simply a pre-existing form being placed on top of another text. It took some proper thinking to conclude that the reverse was true. And more than that, while *superficially* the “same approach” the whole feeling of Wunschloses Unglück was immeasurably different to Die Gelbe Tapete or Reise durch die Nacht. The set-up of the stage feels different. The rabbit warren of rooms totally dissimilar to the single-file rank of a train carriage or the open-plan rooms of the flat in Yellow Wallpaper. And, more than this, the atmosphere of the thing just felt appallingly heavy from the start – a seriousness and sadness around the subject and piece like I’ve rarely felt before. The sort of thing you really can’t explain, but that feels like it sits within you, a kind of unplaceable sense of sorrow or dread.

Faced with something like that, do you come out and say “Yes! I loved it! Five stars!” I wonder if, in part, even the fightyness of the Austrian critics was in part due to having to write about this confrontation with the aftermath of evil so soon after watching it. Wunschloses Unglück feels like it lingers inside you like a stain for a long, long time afterwards. Like a hangover lasting for days. Like an illness that won’t quite let go. And that’s just watching the piece in a theatre and reading the text of the Handke. I’ll admit that it didn’t quite define for me what it was I was thinking about in the following days – or perhaps, more strictly, it didn’t really try to “pin anything down” like that. In a stark and horrifying way, it makes questions about the past part of the present, and makes them about how we understand and construct the world around us. It asks about conservative societies; in particular, about their capacity to suddenly erupt into something even more horrific. It looks at what we can really call “civilisation” and reminds us why that comforting word might be one of the worst misnomers or glosses ever applied. As a concession to my Austrian counterparts, I do now wonder if the piece that Mitchell, Macmillan and co have made is only partly about Austrian history and whether a lot of it isn’t informed by the British present. Rather than looking back to 1938 and 1971 “on the continent”, I wonder if, in part, this isn’t a terrifying and increasingly accurate speculation on the future of the UK, and beyond us, the world.

The Globe and Gove-ing of history

[airing a concern]

Recently, an Arabic theatremaker FB friend posted the following on Facebook:
This is utterly shameful copy from the Shakespeare’s Globe:
Holy Warriors is a kaleidoscopic tale of holy war and revenge in the struggle for Jerusalem, taking in over two millennia of bloody conflict, as Richard the Lionheart marches east to face Saladin, the Romans take Jerusalem; and Hamas militants explode suicide bombs on buses.
Keen to get an expanded version of this argument, I innocently suggested:
To my untrained eyes “utterly shameful” seems a bit strong. Explain?
(No, of course I knew what s/he meant really)
Their reply, however, is important:
You’re probably right - I might be asking too much considering the parochial, self-congratulatory liberal state of British theatre. But I will hold it to account and expect more. To be honest, I don’t think it requires much training. Putting aside the Eurocentric and problematic potted history of Jerusalem, to end on such a false and incendiary note considering the current plight of Jerusalemite denizens is shameful. As shameful as any copy for a play offering, say, a similar two hundred year history of Southern Africa ending on a note characterising Apartheid as militant black Africans killing white settler farmers and necklacing collaborators. Such wording doesn’t come out of naivety, but an unquestioned ideology – and I always thought one of the tasks of a playwright was to unsettle such structures of thought and language. But maybe I’m wrong.
I replied:
I imagined that would be what you’d say. On the other hand, maybe the marketing copy will simply be reflecting the content of the play. That is to say, in a worst case scenario it’ll be three acts – or intercut scenes from these three acts – with made-up or historical characters from these three points in time, using them to offer a bit of whitesplaining of “the problems of the region” and a shrug saying “I dunno! It’s always been a bit of a problem over there, hasn’t it?”
Indeed, it sounds like it might be a sort of geographical transposition of The Romans in Britain.
And, yes: Richard I “marching *east*”, and “Hamas militants doing X”... Well, as you say, the blurb it wears its Western position very plainly.
And, FWIW, I think you’re right to hold it to account. Indeed, I think your longer explanation of why it’s offensive should be posted somewhere a bit more public – if only to engender some more public questioning of these assumptions.
Whether it’s misguided – or merely reflecting the content of the play – is rather beside the point. The issue of ignorance you raise poses a particular challenge to cultural gatekeepers, tastemakers and artists – the systematic relationship between the cultural production of ignorance and the relationship of ignorance to power.
And now the properly chilling bit (s/he continues):
And I agree with you – there really needs to be larger, broader, more public questioning of these assumptions. But unfortunately, whenever there has been an attempt to spark such a conversation, those raising these difficult questions have been portrayed as ungrateful, jealous, bitter or carrying some kind of unfortunate (historical) chip on their shoulder.
Which is why “critics” are useful: the (only) thing I’m not going to be accused of is being bitter or jealous (at least, not in the same way as if I were a playwright, actor or director). And I’m not going to lose work for saying any of this out loud. It’s also, problematically, why being white, middle class, and privileged is useful. No one is going to accuse me of having a historical chip on my shoulder or being ungrateful that I’m being represented on stage *at all*.

The fact that I am white, English and was raised within the Christian faith, does however leave me wide open to accusations of both racism and anti-Semitism. So I would like to begin by simply acknowledging that I agree that by *only* mentioning Hamas in conjunction with present-day Jerusalem, the Globe’s marketing copy appears to lean somewhat further in one direction when describing a situation considerably more complex.


However, Euro-centricity, and Anglo-centricity? Now there’s a subject I can really go to town on. Self-interestedly, and in the interests of my country, as it happens.

I put “Gove” in the title of this blog. As you may recall, our esteemed Secretary of State for Education recently took it upon himself to bemoan the way that history was being taught in British schools (warning: Daily Mail). He was thinking of the First World War. It was a shame, he thought, that WWI was being presented as senseless carnage in which millions of British working men died in to protect the class interests of an imperial aristocracy. History, while already being taught in a lamentably Anglo-centric way, wasn’t being quite Anglo-centric enough, he grumbled.

To be honest, that thought itself is so preposterous that it’s not worth engaging with. However the wider point about Gove’s Anglo-centricity does need thinking about. The fist two points in time named in the Globe’s blurb for Holy Warriors are the sole two points in the 3,000+ year history of the city of Jerusalem that I ever heard about at school when I was growing up (ok, actually, school might have done better with occasional Old Testament mentions as well, but...).

That is to say, the only two points when Jerusalem comes up in “history” is when it related directly to Great Britain (in a positive light): the Biblical period, most specifically around the crucifixion of Christ (the founder of The Church of England, obviously), and: the bit when “Richard the Lionheart” from out of the Robin Hood stories goes off there to fight Saladin. Now, of course we can add “the present day”, which – post-9/11 – is linked in some spurious, murky way to “The Threat of Islamic Terrorism™”.

So, yes. Total Gove Syllabus thinking cleaving to its central dictat: Only mention anywhere else in the world when Britain is involved. (Involved, that is, apart from those times – say, the British Mandate for Palestine between 1922 and 1948 – where the British were the land-grabbing oppressors.)

Back to the Globe’s blurb. The first half suggests:

“Saladin’s great army have corrected a great wrong by taking Jerusalem back for Islam, after the barbaric slaughter of their people one hundred years ago. But for Muslim and Christian alike Jerusalem is a Holy City. Across England and Outremer, nobles answer the call to arms from Richard the Lionheart to march on Jerusalem in the third crusade and retake the Holy City from Saladin.”

There are a couple of amusing points worth noting here too. At the start of the Third Crusade in 1189, England was an occupied country. In 1066 it had been invaded by the Normans, who were still the ruling class. Native Britons laboured under a foreign oppressor. Indeed, “Richard the Lionheart” was actually Richard Coeur de Lion, who also ruled as Duke of Normandy (as Richard IV), Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes, and Overlord of Brittany at various times during the same period. Richard spoke langue d'oïl, a French dialect, and Occitan, a Romance language spoken in southern France and nearby regions. He lived in his Duchy of Aquitaine in the southwest of France and spent very little time in England, preferring to use his kingdom as a source of revenue to support his armies. (Wikipedia).

Moreover, the Third Crusade was not simply a matter of Richard vs. Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, or, ahem, “Saladin”. Calling it “Outremer” hardly covers the sheer scale of how-not-about-England-this-was. Even the belligerents listed *by Wikipedia* are: Knights Templar, Teutonic Knights, Knights Hospitaller, Kingdom of England, Angevin Empire, Kingdom of France, Dukes of Burgundy, Holy Roman Empire (Swabia, Austria, Montferrat, and Bohemia) and the Kingdom of Hungary.

Nor was it even a matter of Christian versus Muslim. Even a quick glance at Wikipedia will note the mystifyingly-overlooked presence of THE ENTIRE BYZANTINE EMPIRE (Christian) fighting alongside the Muslims.

At which point, we may begin to appreciate that calling it “The Crusades” (literally War of the Cross, right?) was little more than an appreciably smart PR branding move on the part of the Knights Templar, Teutonic Knights, and Knights Hospitaller, who all, coincidentally, had crosses on their shields. Unlike *anyone else involved* on the “Christian” side, who were all still pissing about with lions and fleurs de lys and other such heraldic fun.

Once you factor in the Byzantine involvement on the side of the defenders, we see that this was nothing more than a territorial war; a Western European land-grab.

So, to recap so far: the blurb is Anglo-centric to the point where the statement: “taking in over two millennia of bloody conflict” is possible, we see that whatever happens in the thousand or so years between “Biblical”, “Crusade”, and “Now” need not concern us one bit. Also, remember that this is a version of English history which totally buys into a myth of monarchic succession supposing an absentee Frenchman to be meaningfully representative of England, probably because Robin Hood.

And then we come to another issue. The issue of “regional instability”. There is the heavy implication in the title and time-span of Holy Warriors and the phrase “over two millennia of bloody conflict” which repeats the canard: ‘the middle east is a notoriously unstable area, historically’. Apart from the point between 1517 and 1917, say, where, generally speaking, Jerusalem was pretty peaceful (Wikipedia – worth a read, though).

I mean, sure, that’s not *uninterrupted* peace, and the previous millennia was clearly no walk in the park either. But is it any more “regionally unstable” than the Europe of that period. The period 1517 and 1917 *in Europe*, FFS. When we had the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, the rise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, the constant wars between the Ottomans and the Balkans, probably a bunch of fighting between the Poles, the Lithuanian, the Russians... And during which time, Britain committed two genocides in North America and Australia and the Spanish one in South American. You begin to see why someone Arabic (or Jewish, for that matter) might begin to feel a) incensed at the language and mindset used to portray the region, or b) deeply concerned about the way that Britain uses a history which it doesn’t understand to legitimise a set of prejudices against a region with which it only cares to engage with in short, millennia-separated bursts.

Consider the graphic that the Globe has produced for the piece (top). The visual equation is clear, a medieval painting of “the crusades” is cut out into the shape of a modern-day tank. There is a seamless, uninterrupted progression from point a to point b, it implies. It is a view that only the British, with their catastrophically insular view of world history could allow to stand.

It’s like if someone wrote a play called “Always Fighting The French” about Britain based solely on 1066, 1415, and 1815. I mean, we have done other stuff. We do have other stuff to offer the world. We do have a rich and varied history and culture. Why, if that’s so obvious and easy to see about Britain, can we not see it about any other country in the world?

Disclaimer: this is mostly a polemic about the disgraceful way that Britain teaches and understands history. Yes, it was triggered by a bit of blurb written for a play that will appear at the Globe theatre this summer. Given that that play is five months or so away, this – necessarily – cannot be any comment on the play, since no one has seen it and I haven’t read it. For all I know, the play might actually be making precisely all the points I've raised above in a spectacular and dramatic fashion. It is a bit of a comment on the Anglo-centricity and perhaps unconscious political racism (or the playing to a Very White Gallery indeed) of the blurb. Blurb which rather a lot of people found worryingly ignorant. Which perhaps the Globe wants to think about.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Konstellationen – Schauspielhaus, Vienna

[darf ich Ihnen mein Herz zu Füssen legen?*]

Should you read a new play before you see it? It’s a question I’ve wondered about since June 2008 when the concept was first suggested to me. Now, obviously I should have just seen one of Michael Longhurst’s London runs of Nick Payne’s play. Then, not only would I not have been reading the play in English for the first time ahead of seeing it in its German language première production, but I’d also have something useful to compare it with.

As it happens, having seen photos from the Tom Scutt-designed production and read the script, I think I can pretty much imagine what it would have been like with Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall animating the words I had to imagine for myself while reading them. (Although, while reading, I couldn’t quite stop thinking of Payne himself as the ideal Roland, Marianne was – interestingly – more of a blur.)

But reading; and, much more, reading as “a critic”; the thing it chiefly made me wonder about was the extent to which the play crucially depended on the element of surprise. How the gradual revealing of bits of information, and then a key with which to contextualise those bits of information, needed to be a surprise. Something for which you could pat yourself on the back for understanding as it unfolded.

– if you haven’t seen Constellations, it goes like this: a man and a woman meet at a rainy barbecue. The chat briefly. Then the conversation begins again, but runs a bit differently. This happens several times before the point to which the conversation begins again from moves on. Like in Caryl Churchill’s Heart’s Desire. Or that sketch by David Ives. Or a bunch of other plays. You know the thing. Anyway, as the story “progresses” we learn Marianne is an astrophysicist (and Roland is a beekeeper). In her explanations of quantum mechanics an string theory and stuff, Marianne spells out the theory that there is an infinity of possibly universes in which every possible version of events plays out. (Don’t think about it now. You’re dying in thousands of different ways right this second in so, so many parallel universes that it’s too horrible to contemplate.) –

But it’s when you do begin to contemplate infinity – far easier when you can look up from the book and stare out of the window at all the cars and people, who wouldn’t be there in billions of other versions of the universe, than in a theatre where the plot won’t stop (at least, probably not in your universe) – that the fact that it’s just this rom-com (rom-tragi-com, I suppose) starts to rankle. But *of course* Payne can’t put infinity on stage. And why shouldn’t he write a clever, funny, touching little play?

In some sections – rendered in italics mostly, in the text (the changes in universe are generally bold to not-bold) – Marianne is dying from brain cancer. Roland isn’t, in any universe that we see, btw. Just Marianne. Dying. In between all the bits where they meet, or don’t really meet, and fall in love, or don’t really fall in love, and break up or not. And cheat on each other. Or don’t. And then, just after the final cancer scene, we get one last look back into an “older” alternate universe bit, where there’s a will they/won’t they possibility. And it’s so tear-jerking, and calculating, that I’d have thrown my copy across the room if it hadn’t been a PDF.

I mean, it works; and it’s a pretty clever play. But at the same time you quite resent it when you can see how it’s being done rather than experiencing it being done to you. You wonder vaguely if there’s a universe where there’s a version of Constellations which isn’t quite so crowd-pleasingly manipulative and determined to make you heave a big sob or sigh and wonder at the cruelty of the universe and, oh, how eternal love is, or grief is, or fucking something. The sort of thing that never fails to make Charles Spencer spunk his stars.

The question is: after that, can it do it to you properly, when you’re watching?

Well, in Ramin Gray’s version (in German), at least on Tuesday, when the production was returning after a bit of a break, and with me watching with a streaming cold, trying mostly not to cough too much all the way through, it was hard to say.

Gray’s production is a bare stage affair, save for a gaudy, reflective, golden brick wall at the back (for no other reason than the Schauspielhaus had one from a production, and Ramin liked the look of it, apparently). Above it hangs a gradually upward curving semicircle of stage lights (licht – Oliver Mathias Kratochwill). It looks like the sort of thing you might find in a Hofesh Shechter show. Semi-regular haze highlights the wash of warm, or cold glare.

As you might expect, each change in universe is signalled by a snap change in which lights illumine the performers. (Although I can’t help thinking Ramin has been a coward here. This was the German language première, FFS – I reckon he could have taken his time and had a costume change for Every Single Change Of Universe). It’s unshowy, but effective. Not really a patch on Scutt’s conceit of hanging the stage with precisely the balloons that Marianne says she will throttle Roland if he ever brings to festoon her death bed, also symbolising, of course, stars, and atoms, and sperms, and, oh all sorts of glowy round things of cosmic (in)significance. In a bunch of different universes.

The performers – Nicola Kirsch (last seen by me being UTTERLY BRILLIANT in Hamlet ist tod. keine schwerkraft) and Thiemo Strutzenberger – are, well, fine. Perhaps a bit under-powered, and the style of acting, if it was being nailed, still seemed to fall slightly awkwardly (or interestingly) between the German school of post-Brecht and British precise naturalism. And a few of the choices felt a bit weird. The costumes (Christina Sandner), well, Thiemo’s was fine, and Nicola’s looked a bit, well, kitschy-fifties-Mad-Men-Barbie. Which felt odd.

But, you know what? You know how some people (in fact Charles Spencer usually), find Simon Stephens plays egregiously depressing? Well, I don’t think I can remember a play that I’ve found more depressing than this. Which is some achievement since only two nights earlier I was watching possibly the most depressing meditation on a mother’s suicide in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide. Constellations is depressing for precisely the opposite reason: less the banality of evil and more the evil of banality, perhaps.

None of this meditation comes directly from my experience of watching Ramin’s production, and I daresay it’s just a combination of circumstances that makes me think it all at all anyway, nevertheless, yeah: Constellations, my new most depressing play ever.


Thursday, 13 February 2014

Shorts: 52 Conversations

[pithy comment]

I haven’t written in a while. After posting the last review I had a stupidly hectic couple of days in London and then had to fly to Vienna. In Vienna I saw Ramin Gray’s production of Constellations, Claus peymann kauft sich eine hose und geht mit mir essen, and the new Katie Mitchell show Wunschloses unglück. Reviews all forthcoming, along with some other pieces on stuff I’ve been thinking about.

In the mean time, I thought it would be nice to kick back off with a Short about another new My Favourite Website.

52 Conversations is a new project by director and performer Alex Swift. The concept is really simple. Each week this year Alex is going to have a conversation (they tend to be about an hour and a half each) with a different person. His stated rubric is: “there will be one a week for all of 2014. we will try to have a conversation that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. we will try to really meet. i will ask you to bring along either one (1) story or one (1) idea. you can take this to mean whatever you want it to mean.”

And, well, they turn out to be really rather wonderful. This endorsement comes with a couple of tiny caveats. I know Alex and all three people that he’s interviewed that I listened to so far. So I come to these with a certain amount of massive warmth already. I think these people are lovely. So, obviously it’s really nice to listen to them happily chatting away.

The second caveat is that, while I was in Vienna, I did come down with a fairly hallucinatory cold/flu and listened to these lying in bed unable to sleep for all the coughing I was doing (man, it was some coughing) and feeling pretty spaced out generally. Occasionally I would even fall asleep and have strangely directional dreams about talking about theatre to a couple of my friends, albeit in various psychedelic locales.

However, I think they are genuinely good any way. It’s really interesting to listen to a couple of obviously intelligent, thoughtful people tussle around with some big ideas. There’s also a lot of real warmth and affection between all the speakers, which, it struck me, you never really hear as *a thing* normally. But there’s also the fact that everyone is *really interesting* and actually incredibly good value. It’d be bad to pick favourites since they’re my friends, but it was fascinating to hear more about Kate’s work as a psychotherapist, there’s Eve reading an awesome story by Isaac Beshavis Singer (until the sound cuts out and you have to read the second half yourself), and hearing about Paul’s ongoing artistic project and influences is also inspiring. What staggers me, actually, is how much everyone brings to the table in terms of ideas, influences, stuff I’d never heard of... And then there’s the thing it does to your synapses, so while they’re still talking you’re grabbing for a pen to write down a new idea you’ve been given. So far, as well, there’s a sense of them tracking a particular part of a generation of theatremakers and former theatremakers. In this it also feels like an incredibly important snapshot of a troubled time in the arts in Britain.

So, yes. I like 52 Conversations very much indeed.

The three I listened to so far are:


Eve Leigh

Paul Hughes

[for some reason the Jennifer link goes to a soundcloud version which my laptop seems not to get on with]

Monday, 3 February 2014

Blindsided – Manchester Royal Exchange

[All spoiler. Get over it. It’s better to know going in...]

On the surface of it, Blindsided is my least favourite play that I’ve seen by Simon Stephens for a decade (Country Music, 2004).

“On the surface of it” is important here.

An interesting thing about Stephens now is that on one level it would be very easy to argue that he has turned into at least two – more probably three – different playwrights. There’s the Stephens who argues his work has been irrevocably changed by his encounter with German-language theatre (Motortown?, Pornography, The Trial of Ubu, Three Kingdoms, Morning). There’s Stephens the medium, conduit, or adaptor (I Am The Wind, A Doll’s House, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, The Cherry Orchard). And there’s the Stephens who wrote Bluebird, Herons, Country Music, and now Blindsided.

What’s interesting about this is that there are definitely seams running through all these works which bind them together as an oeuvre. There are insistent themes – parenthood, abandonment, fidelity, madness, murder, drinking and “home” – but, formally, *on the surface*, Blindsided does initially feel like a conscious decision to re-explore the naturalism of his early years. Or, if one were to view it more cynically, to give the “home crowd” what they’re more used to – to fulfil a commission from the Manchester Royal Exchange with a straightforward play set in the Stockport of his youth.

On the surface of it.

And, I’ll admit, it took me a bit of a while to get past the surface.

The first half of Blindsided is essentially a domestic, kitchen-sink romance. Cathy Heyer meets John Connelly – he’s sizing up her house for a possible break-in, she already knows all about the trainee accountancy course that has moved him to Stockport. It’s 1979 and he’s all dressed in black: tight jeans, long trenchcoat – the uniform of the angry, disaffected young man. And, here, Cathy is a bit of a mod/ska-girl.

On paper they’re both great parts. John reads like a proto-Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked crossed with Malcolm McDowell in anything from If... to Clockwork Orange. And, my God, would I have killed to see a young Malcolm McDowell or David Thewlis tackle it. Or Chris Thorpe. I think it’s a terrifically playable character. I wasn’t sure I fully bought Andrew Sheridan’s version.

And, yes, I agree there’s nothing worse than “a critic” projecting their “ideal production” onto an existing one, but it’s just something that sometimes happens. I was watching Sheridan and really wanting him to be different, or better: more menacing, charismatic, credible – less clean-cut and gym-bodied. I wanted his clothes to feel more period-accurate; his skinny jeans to look less All Saints; his brand new black mac to look more like the sort of trenchcoat a self-respecting angry young man might wear and less Gap-ersatz.

Similarly, I was a bit worried by Katie West’s Cathy Heyer. She was forever on the verge of tipping into being Man(i)c Pixie Dreamgirl by way of Emily Lloyd in Wish You Were Here.

Their burgeoning romance is opposed by Cathy’s mum Susan (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh in a 70s wig) and her German-Jewish refugee friend Isaac Berg (Is.berg??) (Jack Deam, who seems to have been instructed to take out or down-play every character trait that seems embroidered heavily into the texture of his part).

You’re getting that I wasn’t entirely down with the casting, right? It’s a shame. I really tried incredibly hard to buy into them. Granted, thanks to the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round setting, they’ve been blocked to death, always hopping around the stage – consciously, conspicuously and copiously changing ends so that we can all have a look at one of their faces most of the time. And you do *get* the characters. The people on stage *are* watchable. But, it felt (to me - subjective) like there was a strange gulf between the actor and character that didn’t feel like a deliberate “distancing” “performance device” designed to acknowledge some philosophical school concerning inhabitation of character. It felt like, well, not-good acting.

Anna Fleischile’s set is initially very exciting. It’s an off-centre concrete island of blank, clean paving stones; above it hangs another flat slab of concrete, which lowers to create “indoors” ceilings. The sides are flanked with occasional cutaway metal girders and the odd concrete gantry. It looks like the sort of set people often do modern-dress Shakespeare or Greek plays on. Which is a nice sort of set to do “New Writing” on. Lee Curran’s (comparatively under-stated) lighting design complements it beautifully with cold daylights, cold interiors, and a dusky red/brown half-light state for scene changes and “movement” half-sequences – some of which work better than others. Peter Rice’s sound design is notable chiefly for the angry crackles of feedback in scene breaks – oddly reminiscent of the Royal Exchange/Lyric co-production of Punk Rock. However, re: the set – it does do *a thing* in the second half of the second half which feels so bluntly illustrative that you kind of want to strangle All Of British Theatre (water gradually seeps out making the concrete island into a real island, at precisely the point where we discover the action has moved to the Isle of Man. ARGH. If the water had been there from the start, I wonder if that reveal would have felt better (yes)).

Then there’s the second half. Seated three people down from Gary Lineker, it would have been super to be able to claim that Blindsided is a play of two halves. But it’s not: it’s a play of one half and two quarters. Having gotten all my misgivings out of my system in the first half – or perhaps because the second half just feels like it immediately starts heading toward a new trajectory – I liked the second two quarters *a lot more* than I liked the first. Where the first half, in hindsight, feels necessary, I can’t help wondering if maybe the whole plays needs a shuffle (a bit like Country Music, in fact), with the first half of the second half coming before the whole of the first half. Because in the first half you really don’t know where you’re going. It’s interesting enough (misgivings about the performances in this production notwithstanding), but you really don’t get any sense of where it’s going, or what it’s actually about. Apart from *these people*. Which is, of course, fine. If one of my less favourite things (preferring the mythic-metaphorical people who people Three Kingdoms, Morning, Carmen Disrupted or even Wastwater).

What’s interesting is that in the first part of the second half, you suddenly realise *exactly* where it’s going. Way before it happens. “Oh!” you think, suddenly, “It’s Stephens’s seventies Medea!” Which is more or less exactly the first half of the second half. I’m not sure I fully bought it, psychologically – the action, the gesture, or Cathy’s path to it. But then, partly I wouldn’t know where to locate that not-buying-ness (production, acting, or writing?) and secondly it only seemed to matter because the first half seemed to have set us up for realism. I didn’t mind when Stephanie battered the crap out of her boyfriend’s brains in Morning even though it didn’t seem a very likely thing for her to do. And for all I know that bit is based on really impeccable research.

But, even more interesting: this is only the first half of the second half. There’s a second half. Eighteen years later John’s seventeen year-old son goes to visit the grown-up Cathy who is living on the Isle of Man. And there’s half an hour of clawing toward redemption. Which, once you’ve got over any residual Tory-leaning hanging-and-flogging instincts you might have knocking about toward Cathy – and the immediate juxtaposition of child-murder and twenty-year-on murderer does make it hard to switch – you find utterly compelling.

It’s strange. There’s a school of Simon Stephens criticism which seems to chart and then mark the hopefulness of each play out of five. Because Stephens started off writing bleak, bleak tales of ultimate redemption and hope-found-in-the-unlikeliest-tiny-chinks, there seemed to be a certain section who moved against his “bleaker” more “nihilistic” later works. Despite the fact the fact that Stephens is on record as saying that once you have children you kind of write off that sort of teenage nihilism in your thinking. Even without having children, I’d tend to agree that the only real way people can keep getting up in the morning is some sort of hope. Doesn’t mean that hope isn’t bullshit and we’re not all kidding ourselves if we think things are going to be ok, though. Probably, the more nihilistic and “irresponsible” the analysis, the more accurate it is.

What’s fascinating about Blindsided – and perhaps this is where the title comes from? – is that the first part is set in 1979. One of John’s first lines is his lie about canvassing for the Tory party for the forthcoming election. It’s the Winter of Discontent. This is something that they briefly mention. The scene where they attempt some sort of reconciliation with the past – with the horrific thing that happened in 1979, where Cathy murdered her baby – takes place after Blair’s victory in 1997. This is something that they briefly mention. You don’t need to be the sharpest tool in the box to notice the potential significance of this. If, in the most simple terms, the coming Tories in 1979 are the murder of a tiny potential life, and the Labour victory of 1997 is the point at which we wonder if maybe the past might be recoverable somehow, well ... if that’s the metaphorical plane on which we’re functioning, then I don’t think it’s stretching the point to suggest that a lot of what happened after 1997 doesn’t back up the play’s outwardly optimistic ending. “Hope and reconciliation are possible,” Stephens seems to say, giving critics of hopelessness what they want. “Fat lot of good it’ll do, though” he seems to add.

And it’s strange, both Julie Hesmondhalgh as older Cathy and Andrew Sheridan as John’s son suddenly seem to come right into their own as these second characters. Blindsided spits you back out into central Manchester moved, exhilarated, and thinking furiously about precisely the extent to which Stephens is saying we might as well all give up now.

It’s interesting, in writing workshops, and in interviews, Stephens talks a lot about home. It seems to be his starting point for why or how characters exist in the world. I wonder if this is a slightly wonky analysis on his part. I think it’s a locution which disguises the bigger question: how do you keep going? Who or what for? It’s not about where. It’s about why?

At one point Cathy levels the following accusation at Isaac: “I think you're just scared of what would happen if you did what you really wanted to do most of all in all the world. I think that's why you talk about politics all the time. As a distraction.”

It’s an incredibly powerful accusation precisely because it’s so seductive. It sounds like Cathy is the rock‘n’roll one and Isaac is a terrible bore. Except in this moment Cathy is the embodiment of proto-Thatcherite, Ayn Rand-y self-interest dressed up, as it usually is, as “the opposite of ideological”.

I’m now wondering if on some conscious or unconscious level whether Cathy/Medea is even meant to stand as a Thatcher analogy with the irresponsible, working class, cheating shitbag John representing the unions (i.e. what he does really isn’t super all the time, but does anyone deserve *that*?). Probably I’ve just jumped the interpretative shark, but this gives you a sense of just how much further on it is from being “just some naturalistic play about a couple of teenagers having a pretty crappy doomed relationship”.

So, yes.  Interesting play. Not sure about this production of it.  Look forward to seeing it many times again in the future, though...