Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Shrine of Everyday Things – Contact, Manchester

[seen 23/07/15]

[I’ve hmm-ed and haa-ed about how to write this review, and decided, given the Very Short Run and the fact it was sold out, that Very Straight-Down-The-Line and Describe-y is the way to go.]

The Shrine of Everyday things takes place a short walk away from Contact on a social housing estate that is gradually being de-tenant-ed, and will then be knocked down to make way for a new, private flats.

On the walk from the theatre to the site, the audience wear radio-receiving headphones and listen first to some slow, post-rock music, overlaid with interviews with former residents of the estate talking about anything from their favourite rooms in their old homes to the reputation of the estate in the nineties, back when the cynical media name “Gunchester” was coined. The voices range from an elderly (Scottish?) woman to young black men. There’s a touching moment, given the probable gulf between their two lives, where both elderly woman and one young black man each conclude that the kitchen is their favourite room in their home, and recount anecdotes about nicking food on the sly.

As we near the estate, we first see the odd, lone balloon drift out of the window of one of the flats. Then our attention is caught by picture-perfect advert-style “residents”, standing on the lawn of the first of newly built blocks that are replacing the old estate, waving in slow motion at us. (It’s exactly like that advert for [I can’t remember what it was for] where a car drives slowly through an Americana-y suburb) The blurb for the piece suggests “David Lynch meets Coronation Street” and here they are already completely nailing that Blue Velvet weirdness. As we cross the road we notice a group of young people cycling out of the cemetery dressed in those ubiquitous animal onesies.

Along with these overtly thearical figures – the residents, the cycling human chimps – there are other people too. A youth leans against the wall of the estate staring at us. Is he part of the performance or a resident? There’s a group of young builders too. Are they part of it or actual builders?

There is always something that feels problematic about wandering into someone else’s unambiguously residential neighbourhood as a tourist. But aside from a few askance looks – we are, after all, a small crowd watching young people cycling round in onesies – no one seems very bothered. And the local children seem very taken with the proceedings, happily running around us and playing with members of the company.

It is also crucial that the theatre which commissioned the piece, Contact, is literally only three minutes from the estate, and has a massive, proven track record of attracting very local audiences as well as people from the pool of Greater Manchester Theatregoers. That the performers of this piece are members of that theatre’s Young Company. And that the directors are Rodolfo Amorim of the Brazilian theatre companies Grupo XIX de Teatro, Grupo Manto and Tablado de Arruar, and Manchester/Brazil-based artist Lowri Evans.

The result is great, thought-provoking, often beautiful art, made with and devised with young people who, clearly have a great sense of ownership over the material. A piece by, with and for the place, not one imposed on it.

The format of the piece quickly resolves into the audience who have walked over being sorted into four groups and led off to one of four flats. [I started in with number 47. It’s quite nice to watch knowing that the piece can be viewed in any order at all.] In the first flat (which I think was my favourite), three performers seem to play a series of couples who might have lived in the flat, or the same couple over various points in time. At several points a fourth performer, a neighbour, pops round and asks if he can borrow a cup of sugar, or if they can take his kids (a hobby horse and a Minion), or – back to the original plan – if he can borrow some sugar after all. The couple, switched with the beautiful, unexpected, simple device of having one performer go into the kitchen and another come out, both bicker and offer interior monologues. There’s a sense of thwarted romantic dreams, of mutual acceptance, of relationships gone cold, or routines adopted. And then one brings out tea for the other, and it’s a cup of sugar, then a cake – a plate of sugar – and so on. By the end of the section (maybe twenty minutes or fewer? It felt like about five) all three performers are all in the room, all standing, all speaking their ongoing internal thoughts, and tickles of sugar start pouring onto their heads from previously unseen holes in the ceiling. It is one of the best surprise moments of visual theatre I’ve seen in ages. Totally unexpected. Really simple. And, thanks to the way the piece has been made, hugely evocative of, well, of many things – it’s pretty open to interpretation. The Nouvelle Vague cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ plays, and while I’d normally deplore the cliché, standing in a living room in an emptied council estate in Manchester, and after that particular performance, it feels apt, sweet, clever, and earned.

The second flat (pictured), offers a different sort of fragmentation, with several of the lines from the verbatim recordings we heard on the way over being woven into a surreal, Lynchian scene in which three women (played by young people, but as old women?), slightly off-kilter and maybe mildly sinister, like vampires or Gorgons in disguise, inhabit a room full of memories. At one point they’re all listening, glass-to-wall, to their neighbours, another moment they’re offering a charming rationale for the little porcelain ornaments (that each one reminds her of a very specific point in her life – it’s really rather hearkbreaking to imagine someone’s memories being invested in such fragile objects). At its end, a young lad burst into the room, being chased by the father of some kid he’s insulted. The weird sisters cover him in bubble wrap and lead him away for lord knows what sinister or benign purpose.

The third flat [I’m realising if I stick to the above level of painstaking detail we’re never going to finish] feels like almost n entirely different genre, from essentially drama theatre to interactive Live Art Lite – we enter the flat and are asked to write a memory of a dream on the wall in felt tip. Then we go into a “bedroom” (it’s the living room, but blacked-out and with a bed in it), and are asked to sit on the bed, get under a big sheet with our host, and tell each other things in response to questions: who read us bedtime stories? What book is next to our bed? Are we scared of the dark, etc. It’s kinda sweet and relaxing, and there’s some nice writing in what our host says. *Then* there’s a bit where we’re lying on our backs on the bed, and looking at the stars projected on the ceiling, and suddenly a ceiling tile is removed and a head pops up above us and starts off on a whole new monologue. As surprises go – the company have literally cut a hole in the ceiling of a room, after all – it’s quite a coup. And this performer too is very strong.

The fourth room – I should note the little holding bits in between that allow groups to experience each room at their own pace: these too are creative and fun, in one we’re required to drink tea from cups with holes in the bottom, in another someone is conducting an archaeological dig in the future unearthing the modern TVs and vacuum cleaners that could indeed end up buried when the estate is torn down – In the fourth room we first meet a bloke hoarding some rubbish in a cupboard in the flat’s hall (something to do with ecological thinking), and then a guy wading through a sea of bottles in an idiosyncratically decorated room (Man Utd wallpaper, self-adhesive pink plastic covering on the cupboards with pictures of pineapples on it – you kinda hope this was all added by the designers).

So, yes, myriad stuff, and somehow it all knits together to present something that feels at once, comforting, artistic, touching, political and angry. For me there was definitely oblique comment on the present politics of housing in Britain, and at the same time, enough optimism to get us from room to room without breeding murderous anti-government anger.

I *hate* outdoors theatre. There you go. It’s not a prejudice, I’ve seen it and frequently hated it. I don’t like standing outside watching theatre. Quite aside from the fact that we live in Britain, and so the likelihood is that it’ll be raining, I also like things like sitting down and lighting design.

But recently I also seem to keep seeing pieces of outdoor theatre that I adore. Because it doesn’t always rain. And because you can’t smoke indoors any more. And because, at its best, it’ll take you somewhere you’d never normally go, perhaps somewhere you have no business being otherwise, and will sometimes blow the artistry of the set designer and lighting designer out of the water just by making the real strange, accompanied by the weather Gods chucking in lighting effects that properly surprise you because they are almost entirely random.

The Shrine of Everyday Things is a remarkable piece of work. That it is also site-specific (yes, I mean specific) *and*: devised, and made with the Young Company, and led by international artists, and put in non-traditional theatre spaces, and a part of the community, all just adds to the feeling that this really is a very real part of the future of theatre.

[music from the show:

The Gambit – Waterside Arts, Sale

[seen 23/07/15]

[Or: how to build a ‘proper’ review]

[explanation for time-rich blog reader /cut] Two self-reflexive reviews in one week isn’t good. Everyone will think I’ve come down with a nasty case of incurable metacriticism, but here we are. It just feels like the most helpful way to write this review.

In a 330/440-word review for the Guardian, I can imagine all the sins of shortcutting I’d commit trying to wrangle my feelings about Mark Reid’s The Gambit into a passable shaped piece.

The long and the short of it is: I was confused about The Gambit. I was confused about what precisely it was about. I was confused by what register it was in. And I was confused about whether (not that it matters) I liked it or not.

[context bit /keep] Mark Reid is clearly something of a dynamo on the Manchester Fringe. [I’ve not really met him (except to say hi last night), but from conversations on Social Media, the existence of the Manchester Independent Theatre FB page, and so on,] one could be forgiven for thinking he *is* Manchester Independent Theatre. [I mean this as a compliment to him, and with no disrespect to the myriad other Independent Theatremakers in Manchester. And] I admired the last project he originated, Better Brutality, very much indeed.

The Gambit is a very different beast to Better Brutality...

[self-conscious self-criticism bit /cut] Now, of course, one conclusion that a reader may readily leap to is that I liked Better Brutality more because it was performed in the grungey, squatty environs of Antwerp Mansion[s?], rather than the rather more clean, propose built, wholly nice Waterside Arts Centre in Sale (which is lovely. Right by the tram station. *And*, blimey, Sale’s nice, isn’t it? Like bloody Twickenham or somewhere). I would say that *consciously*, at least, this isn’t the case. I do like lots of different things.

[the wrangling over what The Gambit *is* bit] “The Gambit is a very different beast to Better Brutality...” and here we come to my first problem. For a review of limited word count, I think I’d feel forced to pin my colours to the mast and say: “...much more in the mode of something like, say Frayn’s Democracy or later Stoppard”. And, you see, by asserting this so baldly, I think I set myself up a world of problems for later on. Because, more honestly, I wasn’t *exactly* sure what tone either play or production were aiming for.

The problem of this sort of uncertainty – for a critic, definitely – is that it can also get distracting. And also leads to that most reviled of review-types, the one where the critic acts as uninvited script doctor or backseat director.

Because, if I identify The Gambit as a would be late-Frayn/Stoppard, then what I have to say next is that it doesn’t quite work as this. In reality I’m not at all sure that’s even what it wants to be, but having claimed it is, that’s where I’d have to go next. Something like:

“It has a quality of what you remember from those plays, the unspoken subtexts that you unpack yourself, but here it’s all written down as the dialogue instead of remaining as subtext.”

I think this is a valid enough statement, but it presumes too much about the intention, and then appears to presume to know how to “correct” it (which I don’t, really. I don’t write plays, or running a course on how to do it. I just have the vague feeling that in this mode, if this is the mode that this play is in, that, rather than the characters naming all the things they’re talking about “on-the-nose”, they should mostly talk about immaterial things, details – and in the way that people really speak – and let us in the audience gradually understand the relationship like that. It that right? I think that’s how those plays actually work. How “naturalism” works. By observing the way that people hide and obfuscate, much more than how people argue about an issue head on?).

But, yes: see? Already so prescriptive. Already so many “these are the rules of playwriting”, which a) I don’t believe are set in stone, and b) may not even be from the applicable rulebook.

But perhaps the characters *are* talking round something else. I dunno. The diction of the whole thing feels either like it’s actually incredibly elevated – there were several striking uses of “cannot” and in each case they particularly stood out for me are really idiosyncratic, because they didn’t seem to sit happily in the actors’ mouths, or rush out ‘naturally’. And many other words or lines seemed to exist like that.

At one point someone actually said something like: “You always talk in epigrams when you’re angry.” (I paraphrase. No notebook is a drawback when there’s no printed playtext, I’ll admit.) Now, to me, that exemplifies a few other problems I had both with identifying the mode of the play, and with whatever mode it was. Because that’s more sub-Wilde, isn’t it? (I mean, the effect of the actual line was. My paraphrase is unfair.) And, yes, the whole did have a kind of grandeur to the language, which, to me, seemed to be at odds with how other aspects of the production was working.

On one hand, this could be an experiment; just one whose results I didn’t quite understand, because they don’t fit readily into various patterns I was trying to fit them into, but on the other hand, the production itself might be approaching the text in a way that the director () has quite made work (for me. There are already perfectly glowing reviews elsewhere).

But, to contradict a lot of what I say about the piece being “too on-the-nose” above, something else that bothered me was my sense that I was also missing some REALLY CRUCIAL INFORMATION.

The play seems to be about two men, both Russian (or rather, both from the former-Soviet Union), meeting twenty-five years after a career-defining chess match. I think they are both Chess Grandmasters. One has since gone into politics. Each makes bold statements about the others character. They make bold statements about their own character. And about their relationships. And about the trajectories of their lives.

And my immediate and ongoing reaction to all of this was to worry intensely about whether I should know who they were. Or whether I’d already missed who they were. Or whether they were just made up people. Or, if I should know who they were, whose fault this was? Or worrying about whether I shouldn’t just stop worrying.

But the way the information functions in this piece seems seem be a long way from the most comfortable. All I’ll say by way of prescription, is that it made me personally feel uncomfortable, lost, and unable to just watch the play. All of which are quite unusual feelings for me watching a play. I laugh at MB’s almost self-parodic calls for “more social context”. But, really, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a clanging expository speech saying who people are (if they’re real or imagined), and even what year it is now (is it 2015? They keep saying the cold war ended 25 years ago (1990?). Is this a piece set last year? These tiny details feel so petty to bring up and yet, that was my experience of the thing. Wanting to get my phone out and read the blurb for the play, or look at Wikipedia).

So, yes. I was wrong-footed by the information (or lack of enough of it), by the writing, and also by the pace and style of the performances, which seemed like they were racing through a script that shoulf have taken at least 90 minutes, in order to bring it in at the Fringe’s usual 60 (the show goes to Edinburgh in August).

I don’t know if noting any of this is helpful. It certainly feels more like an audience feedback form from a particularly picky (if hesitant) literary manager than a review. But, as I started by saying, the standard review format seems to encourage assertion and certainty (which can be wrong), which lead to “I’d have done it differently” type statements (which annoy artists more often than not).

The review should report the thing seen and the experience of seeing it.

In a funny way, I think I have at least done that. My experience was concern that I wasn’t getting something, and consequent concern about what you do with that situation as a write-up.

This; apparently.

Obviously in this instance I’ve so far taken 1432-words to say all this. Which is no practical help as “a consumer guide”, but perhaps more help to my ongoing thinking as a critic, and perhaps your ongoing project as a reader-about-theatre (whatever your interest). And also more help than the curt refusal of A Bad Review (or even An Equivocal Review), which is what I worry I’d have have had no choice but to write if I’d have a word-count restriction.
Because form railroads content.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Actress (Thursday Double-Bill) – Flare at Contact, Manchester

[seen 16/07/15]

[introduction[s] cut and repasted at the bottom of the review proper]

[check programme] stands on a small pedestal on Contact’s vast stage. She speaks in a Julee Cruise, breathy, childlike, sing-song voice, and is artfully lit against the giant, reddy-pink lit back wall, on which the title of the piece, “Actress (2015)” is projected like the name of an artwork on a gallery wall.

And, like that other recent Manchester gallery-piece-in-a-theatre, Neck of the Woods, part of my concern here is that I’m not watching it right. Or that it’s in the wrong space. Or that I’m in the wrong seat. Or *something* anyway. Because I’m not watching it properly. In two senses: I’m not watching it with due care and attention, but I’m also not seeing it in the right way, somehow. I’m not comfortably absorbing what it’s doing. It feels partly because I’ve chosen a seat too far away from the stage. And also, because it’s a difficult piece to absorb. It looks *nice*, although I’m not sure about how the human scale works with the architectural scale. And it sounds great: the sound design here is perfect and Contact’s speaker system really makes a virtue of it.

Perhaps my assumption that comfortable absorption should be qualified. It’s basically just what I’d like to be doing. But leaning into it and concentrating hard doesn’t seem to be working either.

Actress is 45 minutes long, and I could describe to you in detail the two or three minutes I really liked. The first minute, where we didn’t know what would happen, where we’re addressed by this floaty, shimmery vision with the other-worldly voice, the bit where the performer picks up a little fluffy toy something-or-other and calls it a “little fella”, and the bit where there are emojis in the back projection.

Most of the rest of the show is – without much variation – very like the first minute. And it is Hard. Work.

And, y’know, sometime I like hard work. So I find myself wondering why I didn’t just straight-up love this.

[And that’s where an interesting thing in criticism happens. I think I’ve floated this idea before, and below, I talk about “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down”s being useless forms of criticism. But they might also be that from which all other thoughts follow. Put more simply: you start by having a gut reaction, and then you look for reasons to explain it. To yourself, if you’re normal; in print, to everyone, if that’s your job. And I think that privileging of personal experience and taste in British Criticism is where some of its more fundamental problems lie – even while also practising precisely this form myself.]

So, I start to wonder why I’m not loving it. Is she “talking too slowly”? Or, is it “the tone and timbre of her voice”? Perhaps “there’s something problematic about the way she’s positioning herself as a woman (and, given the title of the show, women, actresses)”? I think, to an extent, all these things did genuinely occur to me as reasonable objections during the piece, but largely because I wasn’t absorbed in the piece itself. And it wasn’t operating on me in a way that resonated at all. Unlike Tree of Codes, where, even though there was no (spoken) language at all, I was the most absorbed I’ve been recently, completely submerged in this world of the stage. And so I accredited it with probably agreeing with all my politics, and aesthetics, and everything, and would have given it five big old stars if I’d been asked.

Here I just looked, and tried to work out why more wasn’t working for me. And I don’t think I have an answer. It looked like the sort of thing I could like. Have liked things like it in the past. And I think if that had been working for me, then I could have found myself thinking that the voice, the shoes, the dress, the posture, were clever comments on that sort of male-gaze thing, rather than a perpetuation of it.

I don’t think I particularly believe that there’s an objective reality of a thing, other than maybe the colour of the lights on the back wall (unless you’re red colour-blind, in which case they might look different), or what the actual words spoken were (if i’d taken them in), though. And as such, what’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down now, but giving a number to how much the person I am was able to enjoy themselves?

[I’m now writing this review backwards, this written after the line below, and so on...]

I’m starting to wonder if the infinite recursions in my inability to start writing about this piece somehow reflect the piece itself.

[second introduction also moved]

In not sure how I feel about Sleepwalk Collective. Actress is the third piece I’ve seen by them. The first – Karaoke – I saw at Forest Fringe last year, in a one day marathon that also included This Is How We Die, Getinthebackofthevan’s Number One, The Plaza, and then Kiln’s The Furies. (Out of which, only TIHWD eventually got a review before I kind of gave up on Edinburgh and reviewing for a week or so). The second – As the flames rose we danced to the sirens, the sirens – I saw on the opening Monday of Flare (13/07/15) and couldn’t really see clearly, as I’d played a small part in brokering the Contact livestream on the Guardian website, and so was a) totally wrongly (for a critic) invested in it, b) watching it with half an eye on the vision-mixing desk, wondering how various bits were working for online viewers, c) defending it against imaginary trolls.

So Actress is the only thing I think I saw *properly*, with some residual reservations carried over from Karaoke and Sirens – both mine and others’ – and Meg Vaughan’s comment that she “fucking love[s] Actress”...

[Original introduction]

What should good criticism do? Obviously this is one of those questions that people writing about theatre (should) continually ask themselves. The reason I ask at the top of this review, is that I just had a conversation with a colleague about another critic who I described as “actually having very timid tastes and just following the crowd”. Of course, with any accusations of “following the crowd” one then has to carefully look at oneself to check one isn’t doing likewise. As Billington argues: “critics live or die by their independence of mind”.

This age of mainstream media star-ratings makes a nonsense of such a claim: no matter how independent your mind is, you ultimately have to submit to one of five numerical options (six if you count zero as a number – please, mathematicians, don’t write in). But, being viewed as a camp-follower does no one’s reputation any good. The real problem, though, is how one demonstrates this independence of mind.

[The “independence of mind” thing is also *completely untrue*. If anyone’s judgement was continually, resolutely opposite to *everyone elses*, then well, their “original thinking” would start to look deliberately contrary, damagingly unrelatable, or else just plain unbalanced. And, in a plural enough critical landscape, I’m not even sure it’s possible not to have a view that’s similar to someone else’s.]

I mention this, and mention it in relation to asking what good criticism should do, because one clear strategy for establishing one’s independence from a group is to be particularly damning about work that might be considered part of a particular set. (And, conversely, to give thumbs ups to things one wouldn’t be expected to like.)

This risks damaging the criticism itself. Making the thumbs-up and thumbs-down the main feature, when really, much more often it should be seen as the annoying adverts before the event itself.

All of which is a circuitous way of getting round to saying, I’m not sure I particularly liked Sleepwalk Collective’s Actress, and had the odd reservation about Scenes for a Conversation after Viewing a Michael Haneke Film too. Having once been dubbed “the Kenneth Tynan of the Forst Fringe Generation” (by Chris Goode. He was taking the piss, don’t worry), the obvious thing to do would be to take this uncertainty and turn it into a copper-bottomed example of me not “following the herd”.


I now really want to see Actress again.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

J.U.D.I.T.H – Flare at Martin Harris Centre, Manchester

[seen 16/07/15]

Shown as one part of the Future Flares International programme, J.U.D.I.T.H by Marja Christians and Isabel Schwenk of Hildesheim University, Deutschland, has already been seen at the 100° Berlin Festival and won a prize there. As such, it’s interesting to see it repositioned for its first UK showing in terms of its creators’ still-at-uni status.

What the piece is, is a fierce deconstruction/staging of famous Enlightenment German Playwright Christian Fredrich Hebbel’s 1840 text, Judith. Hebbel is quite an iconic deal in Germany playwriting history. My guess is that he comes in fourth behind Schiller, Goethe and Lessing (in pre-C20th terms) – he’s the Hebbel for whom the Hebbel-am-Ufer theatres are named, after all. In Britain, Judith is perhaps more familiar to us as the play by Howard Barker (who also rewrote Lessing’s Minna), the paintings, or from Horizontal Collaboration, seen at the Traverse in Edinburgh last year.

What’s interesting to note, before we kick of saying what the show *does* do, is noting what it doesn’t do. Despite the play’s striking potential relevance – unsurprisingly, given Germany’s history approx 100 years after the play was written – revivals of this play about a Jewish woman in Israel beheading the general of the army besieging her city are incredibly rare. And this version absolutely strips out all ethnic and religious content. This is a piece about gender.

This is a piece about gender in the modern world, and modern theatre’s relation to its history. One of first best moments of the piece is the bit where one of the women says: “The next scene is just some men talking about women so we’ve cut it”. There’s also a brilliant bit, early on, where they not only situate themselves as women, but also self-identify as "white, cis-gendered, and *educated*” (the less-squeamish German equivalent of “privileged”; university education itself being free there). There are many, many other great moments, though. The whole aesthetic is about as lo-fi as it gets. I think the entire thing might have been performed under house lights and workers (the house lights of the stage, basically). There is one spotlight on stage on a stand, and one of the women points it at the other sometimes when she does stuff on the cross-bar hanging from the lighting rig.

One of the first things to happen is the women both coming into the audience and sitting amongst us, and talking frankly about how they and their friends used to make themselves come when they were children. It’s incredibly frank, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually talk about the female orgasm in a theatre quite so directly. Let alone starting the discussion in childhood experiences.

Another thing that happens, quite often, is that the women take off all their clothes (they might put their socks and trainers back on, because practical). They do this in a way that is entirely uncontroversial, straight-forward, and not-at-all-sexualised (or “funny” or “rude”, if you’re English). We tend not to see so much of that on our stages, and certainly not in student work. Indeed, one of our leading (feminist, forward-thinking) directors once wrote a memorable piece in which she declared: “I always feel a bit queasy at the notion of people getting undressed on stage”.  J.U.D.I.T.H (and a million other pieces like it, mostly from the mainland) demonstrate precisely why such an attitude is insupportable in a progressive theatre. Apart from anything else, it demonstrates that actually any and all clothes are more loaded and symbolic than no clothes at all. That no clothes is, after all, just the most basic form of humanity. And people just getting on with doing some stuff after taking the clothes off takes all of about two seconds to get used to (probably even fewer in countries where nudity isn’t such an astonishing, sexualised taboo).

That’s not to say the show isn’t provocative in other ways, though. The meeting of Holofernes and his executioner-to-be, includes Judith dressing up in a sort of dildo-mohican harness, a bit like those strange costumes made, worn and photographed by Rebecca Horn. At another stage, the other Judith (assume that both performers are Judith sometimes, I did), crosses the stage with an armful of hollow dildos which she pops into one another to form a sort-of dildo daisy-chain garland. And then gleefully unpops them all again. Possibly around the point of the beheading.

There’s also a bit where one of the women sings into the vagina of the other one. For quite a while. Schubert, I think, but I could be wrong. This obviously sounds like the sort of thing that would have Quentin Letts releasing the safety catch on his Browning. But in practice, it’s rather charming and sweet (although it might have further resonance if you knew what the song was and what the words were – it’s the only bit performed in German, and it’s also pretty muffled).

But, yes. It they were handing out prizes for Most *Avant Garde* Thing then on so many levels, even if just by dint of checking so many boxes, I think J.U.D.I.T.H would be walking off with an armful of the things.

Something I did find fascinating about the piece, though, was how resolutely *un*like regular State Theatre German theatre it felt. Even though the latter makes all the same noises about deconstruction and onstage nudity and etc., this definitely felt much more related to “Live Art” practice, or contemporary-dance-pieces-with-speech-in-them than even the least conservative German theatre. I find that gap very interesting.

Am I sad that this isn’t the Flare piece I had to review for the Guardian? Yes, and also very much no.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Wednesday Triple-Bill – Flare at Z-Arts, Manchester

[seen 15/07/15]

Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue? – Daan van Bendegem (NL)

You Need The Glass and You Need The Milk – Dorian Šilec Petek (SL) (pictured)

Fight, Fight, That’s All We Can Do – Ja Ja Ja Ne Ne Ne (PL)

[The Flare Festival’s Wednesday Triple-Bill comprised the 11th, 12th and 13th shows of the Festival (see Tuesday’s Triple-Bill for the 5th, 6th and 7th pieces). So, as you can see, I’ve doing an excellent and logical job of covering the thing, and punctually – the fact of the matter is, what with editing the Festival’s daily reviews freesheet, filing for the Guardian, *seeing* all the shows, and walking between venues, I seemed not to have an awful lot of yer actual writing-time left. Still, hopefully I’ll get it all up to date soon. Then I can get back to that Poznań and London backlog and start covering the Greater Manchester Fringe. Ah, the pre-Edinburgh lull...]

I should say at the outset that I watched shows one and two slightly wrong-footed by the wholly inexplicable presence in the audience of Russell T. Davies (!). Well, I suppose it’s not all that inexplicable, he’s got strong Manchester and theatre connections. Why shouldn’t he come to Z-Arts and watch bonkers experimental European theatre if he fancies it? I would if I were him. But, yeah, still seemed surprising.

Wednesday’s marathon kicks off with Netherlands’ Daan van Bendegem’s Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue?. The piece takes its title from a series of four paintings by the American painter Barnett Newman. van Bendegem’s piece is essentially a full-on, straight-forward, rapid-fire narrative which, halfway through the Festival, felt *incredibly welcome* and was fallen upon eagerly by Festivalgoers. Don’t get me wrong, I love innovative, challenging, non-linear, abstract work as much as the next man, but the odd cracking story, well-told doesn’t half look tempting after ten pieces of the former in a row.

It gives the context of the paintings’ creation and then describes how one of the paintings (III) was slashed multiple times in an attack at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1986 by Gerard Jan van Bladeren, a Dutch anti-Semite. The piece then tells how its restoration was eventually undertaken by Newman’s friend Daniel Goldreyer in 1991. The restoration initially cost some $400,000, but was heavily attacked by critics who claimed that subtle nuances in the three monochrome sections had been lost and that Goldreyer had used house paints and a roller. According to critics, the painting had been destroyed twice: first during the attack, and again during the restoration. Goldreyer filed a $125 million suit against the City of Amsterdam and the Museum, claiming that his reputation was damaged.

From here, van Bendegem narrates – complete with renditions of hold-music (including a bring-the-house-down Elton John number) – his Kafkaesque attempts to see the various reports, transcripts and etc. on the above-described legal cases. Perhaps the story itself is a bit inconclusive – van Bendegem eventually abandons his quest to find out what happens in order to make this piece, we assume. But, yes, as a simple, somehow joyful excursion into art history, a painter of whom I knew nothing before, and an incident of which I was entirely ignorant, it feels like a great way of spending an hour. (And, expressed as a fraction of the triple-bill entry price, either £4 to £2.66 make it pretty much the theatre-ticket bargain of the century.)

[It would be remiss of me not to note that RTD also seemed to like it, as well he might, being a fellow sampler of the Who’s Afraid... motif. And, yes, I did think it’d have made a nice Doctor Who story. So sue me.]

If you were looking for an evening of stark contrasts, Dorian Šilec Petek’s You Need The Glass and You Need The Milk (Slovenia) couldn’t be more different to the above. Involving NO LIVE PERFORMERS AT ALL, it is essentially a movement for recorded sound, video projection, live lights and a smoke machine, as well as a few objects on stage: seven plastic heads placed on the floor in a semicircle, stage right; and a park bench and tree upstage.

And what happens? Bloody hell. Well, it starts and ends with a recording of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing. This particular recording takes into account the fact that Cage is a composer, treats the spaces on the page seriously, and as a result actively resists the meaning of the sentences, treating the words as music rather than sense. It is consequently intensely difficult to listen to, and at times, as the text repeatedly suggests, irritating.

In between these Cage bookends are six? seven? other bits of text, seemingly culled from various extant sources. One is the talking asshole bit from The Naked Lunch, another involves a voice like Richard Burton’s, though reading I know not what. While these piece play, and a head on the floor is spot-lit, as if we’re hearing its thoughts, the video projector plays, well, the sort of videos that Psychik TV used to think were a good idea in their heavy LSD use phase.

At various points you tune in, turn on, turn off again, tune out, tune back in and so on. The overall effect is pretty impressively spacey, though. And the final minutes descend into a battle of wills between those who (correctly, apparently) think that we’re just meant to walk out in the last bit of Cage. And those who, knowing it’s only the middle show of three, reasonably deduce that it can’t go on forever, and so stay until the bitter end, with the house lights up on them, the stage in darkness, and the Lecture on Nothing burbling on seemingly, potentially forever.

I confess I have no idea what it was *for* (apart from the the vintage psychedelia enthusiast), but I was strangely pleased to have seen it. And to know that somewhere in Slovenia, this sort of work is being made. Perhaps even as a matter of course by most people. Who knows?

[I don’t think RTD liked this one as much. I think he might have nipped off after it – but who knows, he might always have had a prior engagement...  Oddly, I did have a go at watching it through his eyes, and I have to say, there was plenty in there that a fan of 70s Who could have really gone for. The whole thing entirely comparable to one of those early television attempts at showing the the world as seen through the eyes of someone who’s just been sprayed with some sort of poisonous Martian mind-altering substance, perhaps. Thinking about it, that’s not a bad way of selling a lot of Slovenian work... But I digress]

The last piece, Fight, Fight, That’s All We Can Do by the Polish company Ja Ja Ja Ne Ne Ne was apparently developed in Slovakia (therefore neatly encompassing my last two trips abroad). And, I have to say, it a) bore no relation to anything I saw at either of those festivals, and b) confirmed once again that in terms of what looks like mad freewheeling innovation on stage is still most readily found in stuff we might file under “dance” here (or “live art”), but still strangely often counts as “theatre” on the mainland.

Whether intentionally or not, the title reminded me of that Pina Bausch line, “Tanzt, sonst sind wir verloren”, which I always misremember as: dance, dance, otherwise we are lost. What happens in the half-hour piece is that the two performers – – come on stage in silly seventies, or wrestling costumes, or not very many clothes at all, and do sort of fighting/sort of dancing, to a seletion og bits of music. Some of the fighting is quite real. (And it’s tempting to say that the dancing is less so.) There’s an amusing bit where one of the performers comes on topless to Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind’ with a bunch of blumen clutched to her otherwise naked chest and gradually giving them out. I have literally no idea where they were going with this or why, but I was at least pleased to get a joke in German. At another point they sing ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’, to everyone’s acute discomfort (even if it is the best song in Carbaret).

At the end of the day, it’s one of those pieces where you’re not sure (i.e. I wasn’t sure) whether it was you not speakingthe stage-language/semiotics right, or whether they just weren’t saying anything particularly important. I’m quite prepared to put my hands up to the former, but it felt like this largely wordless piece had nonetheless failed to cross some sort of language barrier. It might also have been that I was knackered by that point in the evening. I think I thought a lot more things at the time, and even had a vague theory about the history of male aggression that the piece illustrated, but maybe a useful acid test of a thing is the longevity of an emotional or intellectual response. And that theory doesn’t seem to have lasted even seven days.

That said, for all that this write-up might read a bit draggy or tired, it was a great evening, despite the reservations I might have noted above. And the first two pieces were properly invigorating (or, in the case of glass/milk, rather, enervating in a *really interesting way*).

Shorts: why even theatre?

[959 words]

Cate Blanchett in David Hare's Plenty back in 1949

Having recently moved flats (well, March), I’ve been very gradually going through my Old Boxes of Stuff. Yesterday I happened to be going through one which had a bunch of old theatre programmes, Edinburgh flyers, and copies of the then print-only NSDF magazine Noises Off all dating from ‘97 to‘02. This was the period when I started having any interest in theatre *at all*. It’s also from when I was at Leeds, through two years of living in London, up to the end of an abortive PGCE in Cambridge (I’ll spare Nuffield Southampton Artistic Director Sam Hodges’s blushes by not scanning his short piece on “My first year as a student actor” from Varsity).

Given how much I fell for theatre as an artform at NSDF‘97 – I’d never studied it at school or college, and wasn’t studying it at university, except as the written texts of William Shakespeare et al as part of Eng.Lit. – you’d think that this box would hold the key to a whole load of great memories of inspiring productions. Not so. In fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. Programmes of stuff I remember seeing and hating (why was I ever even at Martin Night at the King’s Head?), whole wretched season brochures of stuff that didn’t even remotely appeal – Jesus, the Almeida, the RSC in London (although, silly me, I should have gone and seen David Tennant’s Romeo). At the same time, stuff that I would now have killed to have seen – HEINER GOEBBELS DID STUFF AT THE LYRIC HAMMERSMITH??? – but that back then no one was making a fuss about. Or if someone was making a fuss, I was completely missing it. I mean, did I buy a paper every day? No. Did I buy Time Out every week? No. Did they write about that stuff anyway? No.  And, Christ, the internet? Useless. I mean, I say this as someone who was reviewing occasionally for a website from August 2000, but I don’t remember there being much by way of A Conversation. But, yeah, apart from maybe Howard Barker’s Wrestling School production of Scenes from an Execution at the Barbican in 1999, I don’t remember seeing much mainstream theatre when I first came to London that excited me.

All of which points me towards three conclusions.

One: I am deeply envious of young people leaving university this year. No; obviously in many, many ways, I’m really not. I graduated with about 50p left in my bank account, and no debts, having had a free university education and a full maintenance grant as well (which went a long way in Leeds in 1996). But, at the same time, I hardly knew anyone except the people I’d met at Uni, at NSDF, and in Edinburgh. Proper Theatre felt pretty much like an impregnable fortress. Perhaps it still does to people leaving uni now, but, my God, the amount of information out there now, the discussions you can have access to just by following a few people on Twitter, or Facebook, and opening your laptop (*laptop*!), getting wi-fi in a café (*wi-fi*!), or just on your phone (*ON YOUR FREAKING PHONE*!!!)...

Two: When I got into theatre, I didn’t get into it because I thought what existed was great, but because I loved its potential. I mean, Christ, I went to Leeds with a guitar, a battered copy of T.S. Eliot’s Greatest Hits, and bunch of Sisters of Mercy CDs and black clothes; I didn’t *plan* to become a theatre critic, FFS. But as the lead singer of that silly band once said, “I really like doing things the hard way. I always seem to head for the nearest spot of trouble...” (3.31 if you can really be bothered), and I think my 14-year-old self might have unconsciously adopted that as A Really Good Maxim To Live By.

Three: Theatre in Britain now is in a better state than it has ever been before, as far as I’m concerned. I like more of the work I see now than I did (nearly) two decades ago by, what? roughly 80 per cent? (rough guess). And more even than just a decade ago (by maybe as much as 60% or 70%? Does anyone remember 2005 as a particularly vintage year for theatre?)


There is an inevitable “BUT” to all this, though, isn’t there? Since 1997 I’ve also got 18 years older. I’m nearly forty now. I am, to all intents and purposes part of *The Establishment*, no matter how much I might like to kid myself otherwise. (I’m equally willing to concede that this might be news to The Establishment, and know I’m definitely not a big or important part of it. Just that I can’t really claim *outsider* credentials any more.)

As such, I suppose I have to face the fact that this is probably as good as it’s ever going to get. From now on, what I can look forward to is a bunch of similarly difficult young people with tastes diametrically opposed to my own, for no other reason than some generational quirk, and their gradual struggle to remake a proportion of theatre to their own tastes, which I don’t even fully recognise as theatre, let alone art. Is this the inevitable fate of the ageing theatre-lover? Looking at the Billingtons and Hares, I guess maybe my generation now has about a decade to get a bit more complacent as everything goes our way, before we really start to see a younger generation who think that we’re talking complete shit, and are entirely out of touch with the way the world actually works now. And what theatre even means, or how it should work. When you think about it like this, you can’t help envy Tynan dying at 53.

(But I don’t.  Might write about why tomorrow...)

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Tuesday Triple-Bill – Flare at Contact, Manchester

[seen 14/07/15]

Written for the Guardian: three shows, three hours, three hundred words. (Four stars.)

The Privileged – Flare at Contact, Manchester

[seen 15/07/15]

[SPOILER WARNING: If you’re going to see Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged you’re probably better off going and interacting with the piece with no prior knowledge. HOWEVER, as it’s only playing to audiences of 40 – and with only two sold-out shows left – you might be curious to read an account of what happens in the piece, or rather, specifically, what happened in Wednesday’s show.]

[For my previous work on polar bears, see here]

The set-up for The Privileged is as follows: 40 audience members enter Contact’s upstairs studio space. There are forty chairs set out in a kind of rectangular enclosure. There are also ten envelopes numbered one to ten set out on some of the chairs. In the middle of the enclosure there is a man in a “polar bear” costume. The floor is littered with pieces of fried chicken.

When the show “starts”, nothing happens. Then someone thinks to open the first envelope, and reads the instructions it contains out loud. We are introduced to “Cuddles, the polar bear,” and our position as an audience – as visitors at a zoo that allows us to meet the creature and interact with it – is established. The second sheet tells us polar bear “facts”. The third sheet gives us instructions on how to start interacting with the bear.

[Full disclosure, I read Meg Vaughan’s superlative choose-your-own-review online ages ago, so I knew where the piece was going.]

Knowing something of where the piece was headed, I hung back, not wanting to implicate myself too much in what would transpire. The *problem* of the piece, you see, is that it plays very deliberately with racism, racist tropes, and with the idea of privilege. Seen in that light from the start, even the amusing games we’re asked to play with the bear are horribly loaded. Descriptions of the bear as lazy and pretty much unable to even feed itself should have us squirming in our seats. But, on the other hand, it’s just a bloke in an amusing polar bear costume, right? And Harewood’s “polar bear acting” is, for what it’s worth, completely charming, disarming, playful and funny. Lots of the audience are all “awwww” when he flops into someone’s lap who’s giving his polar bear suit a good stoke.

The instructions on the sheets get darker, until we’re asked to nominate three audience members to take off the bear’s costume. That two of the volunteers – we were already perhaps flunking the piece as an audience by not nominating, but allowing self-selection – were black women perhaps slightly diffused the next visual section of the bear chasing around the room unwilling to have its skin removed. First the feet, then the white-fur onesie, then the head.

This done, Harewood stands naked in the middle of the room – stands, now; no polar bear acting here, his knees bleeding from having spent the last half hour shuffling round and round for our entertainment. And the instruction sheet tells us to order him to eat his fried chicken snacks.

And this is where the version I saw got interesting: a white American man flatly refused to go along with it. Citing his whiteness and American-ness as the precise reasons why not. On one level, this is the danger of the extremely theatre/performance-literate audience – which is obviously a privilege in itself. What followed, proves that the piece itself doesn’t get broken by people suddenly refusing the instructions. The situation is still the situation. The way that the audience is situated by the title as *the privileged* (at least, that’s how I read it), pretty much ensures that whatever we do can be interpreted through that – not inaccurate – prism.

The make-up of the audience was interesting to, though. There were a lot of international performers and a diverse selection of locals, many members or graduates of Contact’s own youth programmes. The room was reassuringly diverse in terms of age, race and nationality. Part of me did wonder what it would have been like to see this piece maybe through a theatre like the Barbican or Almeida – off-site, expensive tickets, maybe at the May Fair Hotel like the Almeida did with The Fever, or in a private flat like some shows in Edinburgh, with what might be an all-white, all-wealthy, all-middle/upper-class audience.

What was fascinating in yesterday’s performance, when the piece turned from being a matter of the spectators doing what they were told to being the focus of the piece – where our discussion *became* the content – was the extent to which it could still be viewed as a brilliant exploration of privilege, or, perhaps more accurately, of entitlement. Of who felt entitled to challenge the fact that we had to do what we were being told. Of who felt at home with the idea that *we* were allowed to do what we wanted. Of who, in effect, felt so privileged that they could demand their right not to be implicated as a racist by a black performer whose piece explores that precise relationship. What I found most chilling was the small section of the audience who, thanks to the authority of the relationship of the stage (or building, or audience contract), were still most keen to “only follow orders”.

Of course, the relationship between interactive performance and audience is a tricky one. The desire to “only follow orders” doesn’t make someone a would-be guard at Auschwitz in this context, but instead means the audience member is someone who wants to allow the performer to show us what they designed to the piece to do.

But, if what the performer wanted to make us do was bully and humiliate them, the desire to short-circuit the piece is, initially, laudable. What was fascinating, was that it gave the show an even more provocative meaning: that the greatest privilege of all is to refuse to participate in structural racism (hardly an option open to those against whom it is directed), and, by doing so, fail to fully confront the reality of it.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Camelot: Shining City – Crucible, Sheffield

[seen 11/07/15]

The best way to approach Slung Low’s Camelot: Shining City might be to mainline a lot of your favourite episodes of Doctor Who (the new ones with the whizzy music and effects) and remember how much fun nonsense can be. That’s not to say Camelot is just nonsense – it’s got learned references and philosophical ideas and everything – but first and foremost it’s a massive spectacle, with tonnes of extras running about (mostly outdoors), dressed as soldiers and riot police and rioters and proper machine-gun fire and explosions and flame-throwers and EVERYTHING.

I saw it on Saturday (in preview apparently, tho’ it didn’t show), and as Saturday Evening Telly, outdoors, LIVE!, with a sell-out audience consisting entirely of locals (of every age, ethnicity, disability, etc.) (so much more fun and genuine than the press night mix of critics and papered friends of the theatre, locked in an eternal stand-off) it felt like the best way of spending an evening imaginable.

What’s also absolutely wonderful, and fundamental to the show on a number of levels, is the sheer size and mix of the community volunteers who swell the ranks of the piece. Like the audience, the volunteers completely ran the gamut of race, age, disability, etc. so that what we – an audience who looked like UK society at large – were watching precisely mirrored us. Young, old, black, white, people with disabilities and without.

The meat of the piece is a modern re-telling of the King Arthur story(/ies). In it, Arthur becomes Bear(sp?), a mixed-race woman, and “Merlin” is the nick-name a college lecturer with a degenerative muscular disease. Elsewhere a “Dragon” turns out to be the names of a flame-throwing tank. Brilliant. Much else remains almost completely unaltered, though, with Lancelot and Galahad wielding swords and red crosses on white tabards.

In terms of story, the piece cleaves quite closely to a lot of Arthurian legend, particularly Malory. That throwaway bit where it’s revealed that our Bear’s General father raped her mother? That’s in the original. The whole separate factions and civil war thing that happens? That’s in there too. The somewhat barmy reasons *for* the civil war. Yup, all part and parcel of the whole King Arthur deal. What writer James Philips achieves here, for me, is reminding us that, contra the subsequent Disneyfication of the story, really the whole Knights of the Round Table thing is a tragedy of betrayal and civil war, first published the same year as the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Modernising the material has several effects. It reminds us, of course, that the Malory version was itself an adaptation of earlier versions of the stories, which added extra bits to fit the times for which it was written – a civil war for when England was in the grip of a civil war, for instance. It also makes us wonder about the morality of the original too. Is this stuff – of which airbrushed, white-washed versions have been held up as exemplary to us – not actually pretty questionable from the get-go? Or, is it the white-washing of the complexity that has been the problem?

An effect of staging this version now is both situating modern Britain as a country on the verge of a civil war, which feels pretty much plausible, and at the same time – regrettably, if sensibly – counselling against revolution.

Bear’s post-Occupy-style military coup, with its colourful melange of symbols *is*, on one level, just so much sci-fi, but at the same time, while respecting the source material, definitely worth thinking about as a comment on where we might be headed today. A populism of vague ideas and platitudes and a radicalised version of the same, with strict adherence to the literal versions of attractive slogans are both shown up to be deeply problematic. Probably correctly, although I’d have been just as up for watching a live-action how-to guide to armed revolution.

In a way, this might even the reason for this counter-revolutionary pageant. A reminder that it’s maybe a bit easy, the piece suggests, to get carried away with wanting to arm the poor and machine gun The Establishment. But ultimately, does doing that ever work, are the governments that follow revolutions ever an improvement? they ask. It’s actually a properly difficult question that they articulate, and offer nothing by way of an answer (I’m not proposing that they should).

But, still, yes, in amongst all the fun, and explosions, and Dr Who-ness, there is stuff to think about beyond the nonsense, should you wish to. I daresay hundreds won’t, though, and will still have a brilliant evening out with a great story and spectacle.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Neck of the Woods – HOME (as MIF), Manchester

[seen 10/07/15]

Neck of the Woods is 90 minutes long. It is a sort-of take on the Red Riding Hood story. It has been made by the visual artist Douglas Gordon, whose installation Silence, Exile, Deceit I loved so much at the Ruhr Triennale two years ago, with the pianist Hélène Grimaud, the actor Charlotte Rampling, writer Veronica Gonzalez Peña with the Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir. It could, as is clear from this stellar line-up, have gone one of two ways. Sadly, it went precisely the opposite way to the beautiful, haunting, ingenious Tree of Codes.

The most charitable way to look at Neck of the Woods, as it stands, is as a virtuosic piano recital during which some other things also happened. It would be wrong not to acknowledge that some other bits of that happened on were also ok – at the start and the end we sit in absolute darkness for a long time – you can’t see your hand in front of your face dark – and listen to a loud recording of someone chopping down a tree, breathing hard, and the tree eventually falling. That is very loud and suitably impressive. I think that’s pretty much it for good bits. No, Charlotte Rampling has an excellent voice. And actually, there’s a recording of Gordon reading some stuff too, and he too has a nice voice to listen to. Oh, and the choir at the back – revealed occasionally, waving about and, weirdly for a choir, not actually singing or anything – look nice.  And that is honestly about it for the good stuff.

The experience isn’t quite purgatorial – the piano playing is too good, and the visual stuff – what little there is of it – is perfectly pretty. The problem is the level at which it’s being shown and containing one’s irritation that it’s not just infinitely better. If this was the ambitious A-level piece that it theatrically resembles, I suspect it would get a decent enough mark, even though it is dramatically and intellectually inert. But seeing it at HOME as part of the MIF the impression is that no one who has the faintest idea how theatre works has been involved. Every element that gets added – from the darkness, to the barely lit pianist, to Charlotte Rampling’s demeanour of intense boredom, to the fake snow – each manages to detract further from the whole being watchable.

And it’s the piece’s poor fit *as theatre* that seems key here. I thought back to that installation, and, yes, granted, it did also benefit from being housed in a totally seductive space – an old abandoned steel works. I think I described the overall impression as like being *inside* a Nine Inch Nails video. And, I think this would also have worked well as an installation. Something that you could encounter *as Art*. The blurb for this show somewhere or other describes it as an encounter between fine art and theatre. This is true. But I think that once you put that encounter in the theatre, not in the gallery, and the audience are required to sit still and be quiet (unless you’re the Douglas Gordon who was sat in my row on press night and was neither still, nor quiet, and even noisily wandered out half way through – a glowing endorsement of his project), then the trajectory of that encounter needs A Lot More Work. Yes, curation in a gallery is an art too, but ultimately people can short-circuit it by walking round an exhibition backwards, half of it witrh their eyes closed, at different speeds, etc. In short, the gallery audience has the agency to change their relationship to the way that their time moves. In theatre no such option is even remotely possible.

Intriguingly, somewhere on the MIF site, the photo I've used as the "cover" for this post exists*. And I think that’s the version of this piece I’d have liked to have seen. Free coming and going. Choosing where you stand. Probably staying for an hour tops. Making your own discoveries and narratives. *Not* being pinned to a chair by people who don’t really understand the relationship of stage to audience.

*An American colleague notes: "the photo in your piece is of a different show (but also Gordon and Grimaud) at the Park Avenue armory in NYC. They opened it as an exhibition during the day but the performances were seated as you describe".

[Edit: this surprising story about D.G. taking an axe to HOME's lobby also deserves a permalink]

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Tree of Codes – Opera House (as MIF), Manchester

[seen 09/07/15]

Tree of Codes is a spectacular piece of work. I watched several minutes of it with my jaw actually dropped, and much of the rest with a stupid grin plastered all over my face. I also watched most of of it with my synapses whizzing. I have no idea what anyone else thinks about when watching abstract performance. I think about how the hell I’m going to write about it. I never take notes *during*, so maybe part of watching is also an act of memorising.

And how I think I should write about Tree of Codes is by I guess talking about information...

[but I’ve cut and pasted the second half this post and put it first]

The choreography is by Wayne McGregor (whose work I’ve (criminally) never seen before), the “visual concept” is by Olafur Eliasson, and the music is by Jamie XX (from The XX, who I was also listening to a lot around the same time I saw an O.E. exhibition in Berlin). And it’s possibly the best example of this sort of “random Art supergroup” collaboration that I’ve ever seen. (At least since the last Gisele Vienne, anyway.)

What’s interesting is how distinct each of the collaborators’ work is. The music, light/stuff and choreography are all fairly recognisably separate.  At the same time, each element seems to be rather beautifully attuned to what the other two elements are up to. Each element could, I think stand up on their own. The music you could quite happily listen to on its own. The visual stuff could equally work in a gallery setting, with visitors providing the interactivity needed to show off what’s happening, and the dance could easily be performed in a naturally lit white-box rehearsal studio and still be sublime. But, with the addition of each aspect to the other, the effect is almost, at times, overpowering (in the best possible way).

Not knowing the first thing about what’s been adapted is always interesting. I (obviously) can’t say anything about how what I saw relates to what’s in the book, or even what that book’s relationship to its original is. But I do love that the response to the book is essentially entirely abstract. As with Cassellucci’s Doctor Faustus, I am suddenly a big fan of people making an incredibly *realised* piece of art and it having the title of another work of art, and it being an adaptation into another medium, rather than “a response to” (as we more often tend to call them here).

In terms of action, well, I’m pretty hopeless at writing about long dance pieces. This is in the vague are of “contemporary ballet”, rather than “contemporary dance”. If it reminded me of anything, it was of Alain Platel’s For Pina, but with the jagged edges and fragments transformed into fluidity and grace.

But, in a funny way (and perhaps what irritated the “proper” dance critics), is that the dance is only one part of this story. Olafur Eliasson’s lighting is kinetic, clever, and frequently disconcerting in its ability to make you spend minutes getting your head around what he’s done. Like the Weather Project, and, more so, the exhibition in Berlin, it plays on coloured lights and mirrors. Coloured lights are shone through filters on stage – at once stage a whole extra pros.arch sized gel is lowered, at another point, a two-way mirror, which could also tilt on its massive axis. All this has the effect of showing the dancers in prisms, muliple reflections or just single ones, different coloured images of the same reflection. Different lighting from different angles, and strange sun/moon-like spotlights/searchlights playing over the stage or the auditorium and audience, sometimes creating mirror images of those too, at the back of the stage. As an effect, this last particularly seems to have the clever result of making the piece feel not only about itself, but also about its being watched, and about everyone in the room that we’re in.

But, also, like the Skriker, this again felt like a really lovely present to the people of Manchester (low-waged tickets £12, which is pretty bloody good – better, indeed, than Travelex’s offer to *anyone*). And, best of all, even off the back of these slightly snotty reviews from *experts*, it has completely sold out every last ticket on word of mouth. Everyone I’ve talked to absolutely loved it. If I’m completely honest, my mind wandered for about ten minutes at about fifty minutes in, but then came right back after five or so minutes away. And, at the curtain call I was somehow feeling at once elated and completely spaced-out. If you go with literally no preconceived idea of what you’re going to at all, and just look at it, and think about it, and listen to it, and let it do its thing I think you’d have to have a soul made of pedantry and *really specialist objections* not to just adore it.


I think I first heard about Tree of Codes at some point after I’d heard about the rest of the Manchester International Festival programme. Or rather, after I’d heard about everything in the MIF *theatre* programme. My eyes had probably skimmed over the words, which held no especial meaning for me. I might even have thought, “hmm, that’s not a terribly prepossessing title. Bloody hippies.”

A bit later on, I noticed it was Ballet/Dance and it was “the Wayne McGregor piece”, which made me more keen to see it. Then I noticed it was a collaboration with Olafur Eliasson. And I was even more keen.

Obviously I have a tonne of residual love for Olafur Eliasson. I think everyone who saw his Weather Project at the Tate Modern does. Indeed, two years ago (31.10.13), I posted this photo on Facebook with the comment: “It's not often I miss a work of art, but I bloody miss this”:

And, ha! – I promise I’d forgotten this – my second comment, in reply to something Ramin Gray said, is: “You should get the guy to design a set/lighting for you. I saw a later exhibition of his stuff in Berlin and he's all about the clever lights...”. More on the Berlin exhibition later [earlier].

Having established I was quite keen to see it, I whizzed off emails the the press office people, who weren’t sure whether there’d be tickets (I couldn’t do press night because London, and being backed up on other MIF openings and etc.) So, not knowing if I’d go, I did catch the headline, standfirst and star-rating of Luke Jennings’s review for the Observer (“ALL ACTION AND NO CONSEQUENCE – It looks awesome, but Wayne McGregor’s adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel contains none of its source’s poetry – three stars”). This kind of dampened my urge to see it.

Happily, though, I got into a chat on Twitter about it and I totally owe Megan Marie Griffith (who I don’t know at all) one for saying: “Tree of Codes is INCREDIBLE!I was nearly crying for the 1st 20 mins just because it's so stunning!” Someone else went on to say they’d had the most intense physical reaction to it since This is How We Die. An immediate conclusion we should draw from this is that like-minded folk on Twitter a damn sight more useful than “experts”. Three stars, indeed. Pfft.

Nevertheless, (thanks partly to misremembering the tweet as “I cried for all 120 minutes – no mean achievement in a show which only last 75 minutes) my expectations had been ridiculously raised. Which isn’t always helpful. Here I was – press ticket confirmed for Thursday eve – *really* looking forward to something I still knew next to nothing about.

And I’d still done no background reading. And had all but forgotten Luke Jennings’s reference to Jonathan Safran Foer.

So, Thursday evening arrives. I’ve had a lovely day generally. The sun is shining. The walk to the venue from my flat is all of about fifteen minutes. The crowd outside is somehow just pleasing in itself – seemingly all ages, colours, and classes have come along (not altogether surprising when there are £12 tickets available for any low-waged residents of Greater Manchester – God bless this Festival).

Then, just before it starts – there was a lot of time to kill between the 20.00 advertised start time, and the 20.18 *actual* start time, I have a tiny look at the programme notes by Sarah Crompton, which explain that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes is a novel, or artwork, or poem, made out of his favourite book, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. So actually, really, it should be called ___ _tree_ of ___cod__es. Which I love. And obviously I wish I’d read (both).

This also sets me off thinking how I also wish I’d seen Complicité’s Street of Crocodiles. And, now, writing this, how cool it would have been for this performance to have been a cut-up version of that. But anyway...

So, what’s the sodding thing like? I imagine you’re thinking...

[return to start of cut and paste]

Shirtology – Studio Słodownia, Poznań

[seen 27/06/15]

There’s a way of writing about “Live Art” that focuses on what we might called ‘the transformed individual’s response’. Megan Vaughan does it rather brilliantly, for example. Indeed, I’d say that it’s a genre of review which is fast becoming (has become?) the default for responses to a certain sort of performance.

Technically, Jérôme Bel is not a Live Artist. He is mostly filed under “choreographer” and “dance”; but, as we know, not all that much “dancing” or even *movement* necessarily happens in “dance” these days. And fair enough. That fight was won before I even turned up. And, apart from some residual cognitive dissonance at calling things-in-which-no-dancing-happens “dance”, I tend to think it’s a rather brilliant development. Not least because, well, there’s not as much to write about people moving around as there is to write about ideas.

Nevertheless, if writing about Live Art now focuses on individual experience and for the sake of this argument Bel is a live artist, what does the critic do when his experience of the piece is something like: mild pleasure; satisfaction; amusement; a sense of enjoying a simple idea executed well?

In Shirtology Jérôme Bel takes off t-shirts. He starts off wearing a thick wad of the things and one by one takes them off, pausing between each shirt so that we can admire its design. Once down to the last shirt, or skin, he goes and gets another set of t-shirts. Twice. This is almost the entirety of the show. It lasts around half an hour and is lovely, warm and droll. (My feelings that it was “lovely” and “warm” may proceed directly from the contrasting weather outside.)

Twice or three times Mr Bel also dances. Actual straight-up dancing. A couple of times he reads the t-shirts out for us, because the writing is too small, or faded, and because it’s funny. His doleful French accent hilariously contrasting with the bright, energetic logos on the shirt.

I *think* *really serious* analysis of the piece by someone with a mind less sluggish than mine currently is might yield all sorts of richness, but equally, there’s every chance that such a display would simply be uncovering pre-existing riches of an already fertile mind, rather than anything intrinsic to the show itself.

Yes, it plays with its own liveness, and with tension, and surprise, and all that stuff. Beautifully too. Imaginatively, you travel through worlds and possibilities with each t-shirt – things, places, things, astonishingly poor taste, everything you might find on a t-shirt, or in the interplay of words, colour and movement, in fact.

Did I manage to make a through-line through it? Reader, I did not. Blame Festival fatigue, blame a career of being raised on English concrete meanings instead of French jouissance. Blame whatever you like, but there it is. I just had a nice time watching the funny French man taking lots of t-shirts off. I wholeheartedly recommend it, but annoyingly I can’t begin to articulate why.

Ooh! A 17 minute version is online! Have a watch:

And, Googling further, I found a lovely Guide To... by Sanjoy Roy from a few years back, which seems to arrive at roughly the same place, but from a place of expertise, which was reassuring to read.

The Trial – Young Vic, London

[seen 30/06/15]

Oh, this is a bugger of a “review” to write.

As we know, I like Nick Gill and Nick Gill’s writing very much. My feelings about Richard Jones’s work are more mixed. I loved his Rodelinda at ENO (designed by Jeremy Herbert), and absolutely loathed his Enemy of the People at the Young Vic (designed by Miriam Buether, who also designs here). [And, yes; remarkably, that seems to be all I’ve seen of Jones’s prolific career – a shame, since I think I’d have liked a lot of his operas. Perhaps fewer of his theatre pieces.]

As such, you might feel disinclined to read what will doubtless be an attempt to extricate my mate’s play from what I thought was, in the main, *not the best possible production of his script*. So I’ll try to avoid that. Instead, there are a few *in principle* things that might be interesting to look at – primarily because they shouldn’t be mistaken for “in principle” things at all. For instance, the not-really-an-argument-anymore thing about directors and text is interesting. The published version of Gill’s script, for example, contains the following notes:

“K’s subvocal lines in italics are inaudible to anyone else.”

“There were no stage directions in the rehearsal script; they are present in the playtext for ease of reading and to reflect Richard Jones’s production.”

As I’ve argued a thousand times, a director is entirely free to ignore everything from an author’s stage directions onward. Even when, as here, there aren’t any. However, I’ve never argued that a director should use that freedom to make decisions which make the overall experience less good. (Yes, bright spark, “good” is indeed subjective. And I fully recognise that there will be people for whom this is the best imaginable production. And I’m both happy for them and envious. After all, yes/no reviewing is pretty drab, but sometimes “no” is the experience you have, and so you’re left with writing that tries to excavate why.) Actually, watching Richard Jones’s regietheater-goes-wrong production, I did wonder whether it might have saved time if I’d never argued any such thing.

The first vocal thing that happens in this production of Nick Gill’s The Trial is Rory Kinnear (K) pretty much bellows his way through that first *subvocal* italicised speech like he’s Henry V outside Harfleur. Well, well, it’s one approach, certainly. Do playwrights have a right to create material that the audience can’t hear? [Yes.] Not here, thinks Richard Jones. And, if we’re going to ignore the fact that we shouldn’t be able to hear K’s mutterings, was shouting them like they’re Shakespeare ever going to be the best way forward? Apparently so. I mean, really I should be standing on my seat and applauding the sheer “Fuck what the text wants me to do”-ness of it. And I would, if any of the decisions actually made the theatrical experience of the whole better. But, I really didn’t feel they did.

We can’t get much further without talking about Miriam Buether’s set, however. And again, like Jones’s directorial instincts, it’s slightly perplexing to me why I don’t like it. In theory, I really should. In theory it’s really good – a low conveyor belt in traverse staging, feeding into two monstrously ugly orange blocks at either end. And a big old rising ceiling (more orange. In the shape of a large Freudian keyhole. Possible readings range from Peeping Tom symbolism to a big old vagina) á la AVFTB. It might *even* be a really good set for something else, *as it is*. And I kind of thought that *maybe* if the acting, and costumes, and whole feel of the rest of the thing had been different, then maybe it’d have been ok here. In no way do I pretend to understand Buether and Jones’s Seventies shtick that seems a fixture in their Young Vic partnerings, but, well, it’s perplexing, isn’t it? Because surely Susanne Kennedy’s Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? was no less Seventies-shticky, and yet that was one of the best things I’ve seen this year. But, for some reason B&J’s version of the 70s grates like polystyrene being caressed. Indeed, I dislike the design so much that I’m starting to wonder why I ever thought MB was any good. Sure, that wooden enclosure she made for Mike Bartlett’s Cock was good, but that feels like the last time that she an outright positive contribution, rather than something merely fine (don’t we all retrospectively wish Tom Scutt had done Earthquakes in London for example?), or something that actively worsened a production (Public Enemy). Yes, obviously period costumes would be *much worse*. And no one wants more of that Tim Burton crap that usually comes with revivials of Kafka. But, no; for me: wrong type of ugliness.

But really, how facile does this sound? I’m not big on the production because I don’t like the set or costumes, or the fact that Jones didn’t follow the stage directions? Well, partly, but mostly it’s something to do with Jones’s way of working with actors. I have no privileged insight and no particular knowledge here (I should make it abundantly clear as well that Nick and I haven’t had a single conversation before or after I saw the show about it – we do at least observe *some* professional niceties – so I have no idea what he thinks of it, or how involved he was in the staging, I’m just doing the maths based on other stuff of his I’ve seen tackled by other directors and other stuff of Jones’s). *Something* about whatever Jones does in the rehearsal room results in productions (well, two plays so far, the opera was super) that I just find straight-up difficult to get on with. Normally I find Rory Kinnear, Hugh Skinner and Kate O’Flynn incredibly watchable. Here, I think it was Richard Cant who I found myself most warming to, and him only in one of his two roles (there was also a person with a straggly wig he played which maybe have come under the wardrobe malfunction disconnect clause), while RK and co. all seemed to be somewhat below par (or, let’s be honest, just doing something that I clearly don’t get/get on with).

But, yes. Basically, I’d like another theatre to give this script to another director, and to go and see that production of this play instead of this one, which I didn’t like as much as the script deserves. You know how you see bad productions of Shakespeare. Think of it like that.

So, to answer Michael Billington’s worry (“Michael B found himself waiting for the evening to end... was the fault in him or in the concept of adapting The Trial?”), no, I don’t think it’s the script or the idea of doing The Trial. It’s the production (“visual bravura of Richard Jones as a director?” Wha?*). That can happen in theatre: bad productions of good scripts. Happens all the time.

*If you want to see visual bravura in a production of The Trial, this is what you want. (Bet the text of Nick’s adaptation was more interesting than that one, though.)

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Skriker – Royal Exchange (as MIF), Manchester

[seen 04/07/15]

It’s a funny world where a 21-year-old play about an ancient faerie feels infinitely more relevant, timely, and urgent than a brand new thing about the internet, but that’s preciselty the neat trick that Sarah Frankcom’s production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker pulls off.

And, Christ, what a production it is. I’m not usually one to be wowed by a big budget (I’m assuming there was more money on the table than the Royal Exchange usually have to play with), but, Jesus, when it’s spent like this, it feels more like a brilliant, wise, generous investment in Art and culture, than frivolity or ostentation. Yes, I suspect more than half of what’s achieved here *could* have been done in “own clothes” in a plain black box with the same configuration – in the Royal Exchange’s always-strange, marooned glass-tardis thing, the stage-level seating has been ripped out, and the audience sit at tables; action happens all around them. But Lizzie Clachan’s design not only enhances this use of the space, it adds a whole extra level of interpretation and dramaturgy to the thing.

The stage level has been completely transformed. The glass box itself has been put as if under one of those parrot-cage “night-time” covers, so full blackout can be achieved (hallelujah!). But more crucially, in the spaces where banks of audience usually sit, Clachan has created little low-ceilinged, damp-infested rooms, flanked with the concrete of the Sixties brutalist estate gone to seed. It’s even a tribute to the design’s brilliance, that this interpretation – that it’s a “sink estate” – only occurred to me when it became relevant. Before that, its faintly futuristic, faintly anywhen atmosphere evoked precisely the fairyland or secure mental health institution in which the action might be taking place. Oh, and fuck me, the lighting (Jack Knowles) is brilliant too. And there’s so much of it. Hyperactive, effective, dividing space, picking out single figures, splashing colour across scenes or reducing the entire auditorium to a monochrome. Yeah. If everything else wasn’t also awesome, I reckon it’d still be worth seeing just the for the lighting design.

But everything else *is* awesome too.

It turns out that The Skriker is Caryl Churchill’s This Is How We Die. Or, put another way; in her no-two-plays-the-same, no-play-like-the-last oeuvre, this is Caryl Churchill’s Elfriede Jelinek moment. Compulsive wordplay and punning, machine-gun oratory, a fighting, tumbling babble of violent, sinister language screaming forth from the mouth of some ancient, malevolent pixie like a curse. And, bloody hell, Maxine Peake earns every last drop of the high esteem in which she’s held by Manchester delivering it. This is the bravura performance that everyone was hoping for, and, well, here it is delivered by the truckload. Mercurial, intense, frightening, ceaselessly inventive and relentless.

There is a plot too, I think. It’s gloriously elliptical, making us pick and scramble through the play, as – while seating amongst the action – we twist and turn in our chairs, picking out what to look at from the 360° rush of living images around us. (And, dear reader, I normally *hate* being this close to the action. Here it feels like an absolute privilege and a joy.) The plot is about this vicious faerie I think trying to steal children, or make their mothers murder them, or establish some sort of familial foothold in the real world. In this, and not only visually, it recalls both Silviu Purcărete’s Faust, but also Peter Harness’s excellent BBC adaptation of Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange.

Because of this, it feels like there’s something weirdly contemporary about “English Magic”. Just as there is about The Greeks at the moment. And if, as Dan Rebellato convincingly argues in that linked piece, the attraction of the Greeks as dramatists is “austerity in the sense of unadorned severity. There is something austere that we can find in those plays. Stripped of the fuss of naturalism, the flinty poetry of the work presents a series of archetypal conflicts” then I wonder if the attraction of “English Magic” as a subject is perhaps the opposite. A kind of weird, fulsome, subversive, rich metaphor for something troubling and uncontained. I don’t really want to pin this metaphor down. I think, actually, that it exists on several levels at the same time. On one level, the sheer malice of this Skriker creature, attacking the mentally ill, feeding on the misfortune of those at the bottom of the social food chain... Well, you’d have to be pretty right-wing not to see what that might be seen as a metaphor for. At the same time, that spirit of home-grown anarchy, something as intrinsically English as the soil here, that perhaps speaks to a troublingly nationalist vision of some sort of essential Englishness (in which I do not believe – soil-praise is about as reactionary as it gets), which is at least familiar as an idea. Landscapes, are, after all, something that feel like they become a part of us? So yes, it’s a play about “underclass” women fighting both the Tories and Manchester’s nationalist rain? No. But somehow, at the same time, yes. It feels somehow as atavistic and real as King Lear or Mojmír II. Alebo Súmrak Ríše, at once a hurtle through history and a fight with the contemporary.

So, yes. It feels like this incredibly rich tapestry of ideas and folklore and social thinking and commentary smashed into a blender and poured out as one of the most exciting theatrical events I’ve seen in a UK theatre. There is something joyous about the excess here, especially in times of “austerity”. I’ve already written about how admirable the sense that the Royal Exchange is owned by the people of Manchester is. And when this is the case, luxury productions like this feel like a lavish gift. That there’s a massive feast scene, swelled with a choir and music by Nico Muhly and Anthony too... Oh, it’s just great. “Difficult” theatre, beautifully served, and offered in the best faith imaginable. It feels how I wish every single thing I ever saw in a theatre felt. Brilliant.