Thursday, 5 February 2015

True Brits – The Vaults

[seen 04/02/15 – in preview with permission. embargoed until after press night.]

Vinay Patel’s professional debut True Brits premièred at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe to widespread acclaim. Like an ass, I managed to miss it then, and so am enormously grateful that Tanith Lindon’s original Hightide-connected production has been revived with a new actor (David Mumeni) in the role of Rahul.

Patel has already written eloquently (and better than I could hope to) on the reasons behind “Why [he] wrote this play”, but it’s worth saying here that every rationale given in that piece is readily identifiable and well-served within the show itself.

In essence, this is a story of a British Asian young man told around two intercut time-streams: 2005 – around 6/7 and 7/7, and 2012 around the time of the Olympics. The wedding of the Olympics to the worst bombing in London since WWII, familiar already from both real life and most vividly in theatre from Simon Stephens’s Pornography. This revival is timely, if for no other reason than that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings.

What, in theory, makes True Brits such vital viewing, is that it offers a British-Asian “insider” perspective on how the actions of four British-Asians impacted on the rest of that community: a first hand account of how Britain’s usually *only-a-bit-racist* society gets that bit nastier after the bombings. Although, let’s be honest, David Hare could probably intuit and write that. Albeit without the stamp of “authenticity”. But what’s actually great about True Brits is that its protagonist would rather that the whole “Asian” thing didn’t keep interfering with his life. He’s a Blur fan from Bexleyheath – six and a half miles away from where I grew up, and indeed where I bought the 7’ of She’s So High in 1990. And the narrative is as much a “coming-of-age” tale of getting a girlfriend (with a Tory dad – occupational hazard of South East London) and working out what to do at Uni. Indeed, apart from being young than me Rahul is pretty much the most relatable fictional British character for me since Karim in the Buddha of Suburbia (also set in Bromley and London). Except they both keep on having to deal with the whole “Asian” thing, despite not necessarily being all that enthusiastic about “heritage” – and, Christ, what teenager is? It’s a fascinating tension, and one rarely properly explored on our stages. And even more rarely with such an admirable lack of histrionics or cliché.

In fact, it feels slightly like a disservice to the piece to frame in so solidly in terms of its Asian dimension; like it’ll speak most to 4.9% of the population, which simply isn’t true. Rahul is a real everyman figure (though, every*man* might be *a thing*), But, in fact, as theatre, and as a story, it almost has more narrative in common with, say, Mark O’Rowe’s 1999 Bush debut Howie The Rookie – that harrowing, unforgettable tale of a night out gone horribly wrong. Except, while True Brits does have one sequence which is properly, stomach-churningly hard to listen to, it is always aiming for a positive, upbeat outcome.

In terms of the production, it is played on a near-empty stage – there are a couple of, what? upturned crates to occasionally sit on, and white “wing-space” flats, which are more likely part of the venue. The lights are general washes of yellow or pink or blue. There is some sound, mostly skillfully dropped into the background as crowd, or music – much of it indistinguishable from the sound-bleed in the multi-space Vault space itself, with its rumbling overhead trains and tunnel-like rooms. (Which suit the 7/7 aspects all too well.) Mumeni is a likeable, charming, convincing stage presence.

The central event of the piece, which we only discover late in the day, makes for a fascinating statement about where Rahul is at as an 18-year-old, and the contrast with his older, wiser, happier self in 2012 is a kindness to the audience.

What is sadder, perhaps, is remembering the hope-filled atmosphere of Britain in 2012 around the Olympics and then stepping out into the freezing February of 2015, which is almost laughably, symbolically bleak by contrast. To note that in three years the Conservative coalition has not simply squandered but actively reversed all the Olympic good will – achieved, lest we forget, in unity at their expense – is too simple. But to keep remembering that it was even possible only three short years ago is crucial.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Why New?


After last week’s engagement with the crazy world of David Edgar, I was left slightly confused. Confused because the picture of divisions within British theatre that he described didn’t even remotely relate to recent debates.

Luckily, on Monday Theatertreffen announced its selections for TT15. And, yesterday, the excellent German-theatre-academic-in-Canada, Holger Syme, constructed a *really* brilliant essay about why those selections disturbed him.

Go and read it. Now. Read it all.

Done that? Good. Ok.

Obviously that post isn’t an argument about British Theatre Culture at all. It’s a particular take on the perceived direction in which another nation’s theatre culture might be headed. And, in the process, a clear-sighted description of what the merits of Germany’s theatrical present are. What is also interesting is that that direction sounds like “towards the British model”. As Dan Rebellato notes, in his ineffably sane presentation of the same report that Edgar made such a meal of: “new work (whether written by an individual writer or devised) represents 59% of [British] productions, 64% of performances and 63% of attendances of all forms of theatre.”

The interesting question then was never: “should new things be written or devised?” – which is a nonsense binary anyway (given that devised things can be written down, and, more crucially, written things can be devised within) – but the much more interesting questions: “What should our repetoire be?” And: “How do we go about staging that repetoire?”

Consider Syme’s praise of Auseinandersetzung:

“I would argue that a theatre that doesn’t wrestle with its own past, openly, repeatedly, continually, also lacks a vital element. I remain convinced that what is so vital about German theatre, and so vitally different, is that commitment to the struggle: the Auseinandersetzung with the works of the past. Auseinandersetzung is a great word: it means both fight or debate or argument and analysis or coming to terms with something or attending to something. To come to terms with a play from the 18th century, to terms that make sense now, isn’t easy. It requires commitment and seriousness; and in the theatre, it requires playfulness and openness and daring. It requires a dedication to bridging an unbridgeable gap. The staging of an old play can feel and look like a fight to the death with the text. Nothing, to me, is more exciting than watching that struggle — that impolite encounter between a classic play and a modern actor or director, free of deference or compromise.”

Something like this should be nailed above the entrance of every directors’ course in the country. And directors might consider bringing similar thinking to their productions of new plays too.

It is striking in Edgar’s piece that he rejoices in the reduction of the proportion of new works to established classics. I wonder if that is really healthy. Of course it’s possible to argue that *any* new work is marginally preferable to any classic staged badly; at least there’s novelty, right?  But neither situation is something to hope for.

It strikes me that Britain it at an interesting point right now. It feels as if the best of our domestic productions of classics are better than they’ve ever been in my theatregoing life (Katie Mitchell, Rupert Goold, Ivo Van Hove, etc.), and do indeed wrestle urgently (albeit in a more British way, perhaps) with questions of how and why we stage a classic text. Meanwhile, our best new work is consistently more interesting, more diverse, and more interestingly/excitingly staged than at any prior point I can remember. And yet, at the same time, there’s still an awful lot of *default* – in writing, direction, and devising – around. Of course, maybe a lot of that “default” work can be chalked up to “reassuringly old-fashioned, and part of a thriving plurality”. Although some absolute shockers do creep through in the more progressive venues from time to time. But reading Holger’s defence of the classics did make me wonder whether we don’t over fetishise The New over here, rather than necessarily considering the proper importance of new stagings and what those can achieve.

And perhaps, taking over from how we make our new work, or how new plays should be directed, the question of “Why a New Play at all?” is set to return as our biggest theatrical culture war. And with it, a raging row about directors taking classics to bits in order to say anything meaningful with them.

(*Of course* the sensible answer is: “A healthy balance of both classics and new, please. Thanks.” But that isn’t going to stop everyone writing intemperate articles for a year or so first, so I might as well get credit for calling the trend, right?)

[Edit: while writing, it was reported that THE BRECHT ESTATE OF ALL PEOPLE are grumpy abut Frank Castorf’s production of Baal, which has just been selected for Theatertreffen. Presumably that means they’re prepared to stump up for all those plays that Brecht rewrote as he saw fit while at the Berliner Ensemble.]

The Life and Loves of a Nobody – The Albany

[seen 03/02/15]

I should come clean straight away and say that I didn’t get on with Third Angel’s new show at all. What was more interesting to me, was that at last night’s performance I happened to be sat pretty much exactly behind Tom Morton-Smith, whose new play Oppenheimer I had just eviscerated after seeing it at the RSC. Which was sobering. It’s one thing to give “the RSC” a kicking. It’s quite another thing when you’re forced to remember that “the RSC” is made up of individual people – like Tom, who is a fellow-human being, whose feelings you might have recently hurt – not just a faceless, powerful monolith (which, of course, it also is). It is hard to attack the monolith made of people without hurting those people. I don’t know the answer to this yet, but will think on.

Of course, the other thing that distinguished last week was the David Edgar Question. And, of course, Oppenheimer falls squarely into the camp of His Most Favoured, whereas The Life and Loves of a Nobody is an example of Edgar’s false binary opposite: devised. So there’s a temptation to let both works become symbolic. Which should be resisted.

But enough preamble. Let’s talk about the show.  Life and Loves... is essentially an hour long play-within-a-play sandwiched between two segments of very thin postmodern defence or something akin to it. The postmodern defence essentially runs thus: “Yes, this is crap, but we know it’s crap, and it’s crap on purpose, so that’s good”. This isn’t actually “postmodern defence” proper, because the company have actually written in the defence too. As such it’s more like a version of The Seagull which mostly comprises Konstantin’s play, and then a bit before and after establishing that Chekhov knows that K’s play isn’t very good.

The before and after sections are set in a futuristic dystopia. In the before section, we, the present-day audience, are welcomed as the futuristic audience and apologised to for the “protestors outside” who have thrown shit and stones at us. So, the thing we’re going to see is controversial or contentious for some reason.

The “after” section reveals why: the intervening “play” we’ve seen, in which the life of an “ordinary” 36-year-old woman is shown through a series of lack-lustre scenes, is the evidence we, the futuristic audience, have been given before deciding if we vote for her to be “immortalised” by being murdered (with her consent) on stage, or to return to her life and essentially be forgotten.

It is, I suppose, an intriguing, if slightly clunky, and definitely under-explored premise. The problem with the show is more the entire hour-long middle-section which feel like it hasn’t quite found its feet in terms of the compromise between showing how a regime/future-theatre would present this woman’s life, and possibly remainders from before the postmodern defence was added.

Yes, the show asks questions about who decides what’s important. And highlights the way that “ordinary people” (always a vile concept) are presented. And probably has a pop at that whole X-Factor (or whatever) narrativising of contestant’s lives. And all sorts of other stuff that I suspect the audiences of Fringe theatre already have a perspective on. (And probably a similarly concerned, leftie perspective to that of the creative team.) But here it mostly seems unsure as to what register to adopt. There was also the problem that because it was playing with ideas of the presentation of someone’s life by people entirely refusing to engage with it. People completely disinterested and uninterested in the person (but without enough set up as to why). There weren’t enough tensions in this portrayal of the portrayers, in short. They, not the story they seemed to be telling, should have been the real focus, perhaps.

During the hour, I wondered about Forced Entertainment, and their exploration of boredom; Caroline Horton’s Islands and critics too keen to judge and on the wrong terms; and even how to watch work as sculpture rather than the acting and engagement itself. I also wondered about the ceiling of the venue, the people sitting opposite me in the traverse space, the contents of the other brochures at the Albany’s season launch (some good stuff, people), and what I was going to have for supper (chicken casserole and mash, as it turned out).

Not all of this was directly the company’s doing. Amongst the last to take a seat in the space, I found myself parked in front of the giant speakers providing ALL THE SOUND FOR THE SHOW. These were about a foot away from my ears, so that any time any music or a sound effect was used, I couldn’t hear a bloody thing on stage. Even the humming and feedback made it tricky.

Aesthetically, I suppose the thing is part attempt on Mr Burns and part Hat Parade in Churchill’s Far Away. But it really doesn’t come anywhere near the awesome grandeur of either as an artistic statement or visceral experience.

So, yes, I (think I) could see what the company were driving at. But the central hour neither had its cake nor ate it, and this felt like a real problem.

To return to my initial starting point, though, what is curious is that I liked Life and Loves *far* less than I liked Oppenheimer, and yet this review would almost certainly be an easier read for those involved. Partly, I think this might be that watching the entire show over the shoulder of a man whose play you’ve just tried to murder is a humanising experience. But also, because Third Angel aren’t a monolith. Their people-ness is a much clearer factor. There isn’t the feeling of endless institutional buffers, and five-star reviews in high places. Which is an interesting thing to realise in a show that’s trying to make you consider a similar kind of ethical question.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Oppenheimer – Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

[seen 31/01/15]

Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer is a blow-by-blow dramatisation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Wikipedia entry, staged by Angus Jackson as a scathing satire on contemporary productions of Shakespeare. The main reason I booked to see it was because Matt Trueman swore blind to me that it was really good and important (with a side order of my never having been to Stratford before). But, having seen it, I’m puzzled why anyone thinks this sort of thing should be put on stage at all.

I get that thanks to Morton-Smith’s deployment of often heightened language, this exact script would probably seem very odd if it were used as the basis for a straight biopic film/TV movie. At the same time, the language that has been heightened is still ordinary language. And it hasn’t been versified, as it is in Bartlett’s King Charles III, so it still feels incredibly strange when everyone strides around in the Swan bellowing it. More than this, Jackson has not one drop of Rupert Goold’s native theatrical panache (nor in this instance is Robert Innes Hopkins’s design a patch on Tom Scutt’s). While, if KCIII could be accused of anything, it would be of being too clever, no one is going to accuse Jackson of seeming like he’s interrogated any of the problems at all.

The biggest problem aesthetically is the Swan Theatre itself. Putting Oppenheimer in there is a bit like putting a play about Thomas Edison in the Sam Wanamaker. Put simply, the entire theatre it made out of heritage and wood. The two elements least associated with the invention of the atom bomb. For a short while, it seems like Jackson has acknowledged this, and the large company of white men do scribbling on the floor in chalk, like a lo-fi Curious Incident (see above). BUT THEN THEY GO AND USE VIDEO PROJECTIONS ANYWAY. This sort of inconsistency serves as a perfect example of problems of the whole.

The next biggest problem is the stoppy-starty, *every damn incident* dramatisation. Richard II was the King of England for twelve years, this play covers only the years 1939-1946. That comparison should perhaps have been pointed out to Morton-Smith, because, while I’ll accept this is a play for the stage linguistically, in terms of it’s structure it owes more to Olivier Stone’s The Doors, in which structure is dictated by Jim Morrison wandering around doing daft things and Stone slavishly recording pretty much every one of them. And, my God does it drag. The actual stage-time of this play is only 2hrs30 – the same as Ostemeier’s Hedda Gabler and shorter than Nübling’s Three Kingdoms, two of the shortest-feeling nights I’ve spent in the theatre. Even Frayn’s elegant Copenhagen might also have been an instructive example. Yes, there’s a bit of momentum, and the play raises some questions, but OPPENHEIMER INVENTED THE ATOM BOMB. *Of course* there’s momentum and a complex moral dimension. But that’s where the script stops: events – one thing after another – until a lot of talking has happened and the bomb goes off. Leadenly given the outward appearance of pace with the deploymment of that most hackneyed Shakespeare staging trick of people coming on quickly talking while other people walk off quickly talking.

Then there’s the overwhelming male whiteness of the whole thing. To be fair to Morton-Smith, he shares his company with a production of Thomas Dekker’s early modern silliness The Shoemaker’s Holiday. And we all know that the pre-Restoration C17th stage didn’t even have real women on it at all, and that at the time apparently everyone in England was white. And this company hasn’t gone in for colour- or gender- blind casting. And, well, WWII America was still an institutionally, legislatively racist country (lest we forget). And, maybe sitting in the middle of the UKIP wet-dream that is Stratford-on-Avon and being forced to watch a bunch of white people plot the murder and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, well, maybe that’s the biggest moral problem the play offers us. Also, being fair to Morton-Smith, he does try to do as much with the women as a biopic about Men Doing Science allows. Oppenheimer has two whole girlfriends, and at least one of whom is granted a bit of an interior life (but then has to kill herself, because women with opinions seldom fare well, right?). And there’s a librarian lady at the Manhattan Project who isn’t allowed to watch the bomb go off, because sexist America. So, y’know, it is addressed. (By Tom, and Angus, and Robert, hem hem).

The performances also vary wildly. I’m not going to attempt to deny that John Heffernan is a fine, fine actor, but his version of Oppenheimer felt somehow too absent and like a void at the centre of the story to really register as a performance as such. Of course *really* that’s a tremendous skill. And, yes, the actual story of what’s going on in the six years depicted means that you find yourself watching the politics and the ethical problems much more than The Man. But even so, it didn’t do to me what great, empathetic performances do. Or else, Heffernan has judged Oppenheimer, and also condemned him. I find this option far more appealling. I think Morton-Smith has too. But maybe this condemnation itself is a problem for the drama.

William Ganimara turns in far and away the best performance of the show in his small role as the Army commander in charge of the Manhattan Project. And Catherine Steadman is still brilliant as Oppenheimer’s first girlfriend, although it is sad to see her so sidelined after her incredibly powerful performance in That Face. Much of the rest of the ensemble (mostly the ones (needlessly) doing American accents) seem preposterously young, and not very focussed at all. Jackson should maybe head off to Katie Mitchell bootcamp to learn how to make an ensemble intense rather than sluggish and borderline resentful for having to even be there. (I mean, I sympathise; I resented it too. But once we’re all in the building anyway...)

So, yes, it’s a play that combines the personal and the political, which is apparently the extent of some critics and playwrights ambitions for theatre. (I’d be intrigued to see someone write a play about a man who hung out with communists, lived at all, and also invented the atom bomb that managed to side-step those two elements.) OF COURSE it’s personal and political. Everything is. One might as well demand plays in which the characters breathe. Does it mesh those two things convincingly, or even at all? Beyond the realms of recorded facts (“Oppie, the FBI have tapped my phone because I’m a communist, darling!”): not really. While clearly fallen on with much love by Billington and Edgar as a new example of their favourite sort of play; judged on its own terms, rather than as a symbolic victory of commissioning, it needs a good few more drafts and a far, far better production before it achieves anything even approaching the full potential of its form.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the play is the time it gives us to contemplate that (Western) history is written as if we were not only the victors, but also the moral superiors. The obscenity of Nazi Germany is, of course, indisputable. And Stalin’s murderous regime in the USSR: the facts speak for themselves. And yet, here is America starting the arms race, guaranteeing the unstable global future we still live in, and inflicting unimaginable suffering on Japan, being presented as a kind of question. Or perhaps, presented as a noble tragedy of fait accompli. The fact of America’s racist society and Britain’s near-genocidal empire are both entirely ignored. It still feels as if “us” getting the bomb first is – if there has to be a bomb at all – the best result. No consideration is really given to the fact that if another side had got the bomb first, we’d still think *that* was the best result, because in all probability they’d have been the ones teaching our parents and grandparents history. For a play in which there is so much paranoia about “treachery”, there’s very little asking us what there was to betray exactly. No real nitty-gritty examination of our unshakeable belief that we are the good guys. But perhaps it is these voids that are intended to be the point.

[also, note to photographer: a jaunty angle does not a leaden staging disguise.]