Sunday, 31 January 2016

Julius Caesar – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw

[seen 23/01/16]

[preamble *after* review]

Have you ever seen a production of Julius Caesar that actual felt modern, relevant, or – most crucially – fast? More than this, have you ever seen a production that surprised you? (Full marks to those who saw Castellucci’s Guilo Cesare at LIFT in ‘99)

What is most fascinating, watching Barbara Wysocka’s production was the way that it felt so fresh. It made me realise the extent to which even the best British Shakespeare is completely hidebound by the ancient language in which it’s written. And the overwhelming, ENORMOUS BAGGAGE that brings with it. And the ways of speaking the text seem to unavoidable – I mean, even if it’s spoken in a non-RP accent, it’s still *incredibly wordy*; the sentences, the thought processes, are *very long* no matter how it’s said. But more than this it’s the unconscious ways we have of seeing/thinking about the characters that seem to make so many productions feel like tired re-treads.

In Julius Caesar, for example, don’t we tend to think of Mark Antony, Brutus and Cassius as relatively noble and well-intentioned, to some degree? A degree usually backed-up by impeccable public school accents, evidencing Britain’s unfathomable, ongoing (at least until recently), apparent respect for the “political class”? (Or, at the very best: desire to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) They’re “heroic” in some form or other anyway. Here, I was surprised to see an almost complete contempt for *everyone*. No noble motives, it seemed. No one was to be admired. No one’s motivation was to be *understood*. This was a tragedy of gangsterism and thuggery. And the tragedy wasn’t for the characters on stage, but for the country they govern/ed.

To say that this reflects the political reality as it’s being experienced and lived in Poland at the moment is an understatement. As we know, the far-right Law and Justice Party has the first overall parliamentary majority in Poland since 1989. And the party *is* popular in the country. But at the same time, there are protests on the streets every weekend, or every other weekend. There are protests on the streets because the Law and Justice Party are essentially passing law after law dismantling what we would call the essentials of a democracy. Their most recent move is a law that co-opts the (formerly theoretically impartial) state broadcasting company into the party’s promotional machine.*

This is an apocalyptic Julius Caesar that *actually resonates*. It’s not Tito Fiennes and a cast of hundreds of (probably unpaid) extras on the stage of the Barbican Theatre making it completely clear that the audience’s relationship to the events depicted is one of spectatorship. This is seven people performing Shakespeare as a live and dangerous reflection that feels like a critique of live and dangerous times. I should say, though, these possible parallels aren’t laboured or even stated. The production itself is – in many ways – a totally “straight” modern-dress production with some serious editing (2hrs straight through).

Its design (Barbara Hanicka  – excitingly, there are more women called Barbara on the production team than men) is spartan and impressive. Opening with a slightly scaled-back, theatre-based version of the raked seating set (cf. Benedict Andrews’s Caligula), the exciting thing is firstly that this rostrum is on a revolve, and then secondly, that it’s later tipped into an angle and set on fire (well, politely set on fire in a couple of limited flame-proof sections, but even so...). But, within this apparently simple set you have all the playing spaces you could possibly need. Conspirators can cluster in a downstage corner while Caesar lounges in a high-up central seat, and – while completely lacking fussy naturalistic detail – the dynamic is perfect, while also avoiding the godawful “stage secrecy” often deployed.

The performances, in common with the dramaturgy (Tomasz Śpiewak) and the design, are brutally effective and unshowy. I mean, look, I don’t speak Polish, so I’m at a disadvantage, but you can kind of see whether someone’s compelling or not *even more* if you’re still interested in watching them even when you don’t actually understand the words coming out of their mouth. To me they seemed completely *real*, in-the-moment, energetic performances – think so many Lars Eidingers. The connection with the audience, established when they were talking to them, doesn’t just cut off when the cast are talking to each other. This is neither fourth-wall nautralism, nor that Globe Shakespeare playing to the crowd. Rather it’s just a set of very engaging exchanges that we’re invited to contextualise and re-imagine for ourselves taking place on a design that guides our thoughts about why those exchanges might be resonant.

Added to these elements is a soundtrack of 80s cult Polish post-punk protest (apparently) music, which adds another layer to the production. The aim here isn’t just to reflect the current political situation (because, really, why would you use Julius Caesar as a play to talk about a resistance you want to see succeed?). The presence of this music – obliquely against the communist times of the 1980s when it was written – suggests instead (to me) a process of ongoing disillusionment with overturning governments. The liberation from communism has led, now, to the increasingly illiberal Law and Order Party: “what hope is there, really?” the production almost demands.

By presenting this old play, based on ancient history, it feels that this production harnesses those centuries upon centuries of tradition to hammer home two points: 1) revolt is necessary, vital and exciting, 2) the results of revolt necessitate further revolt. Always.

It feels like an accurate and timely reading, but an exhausting prospect.


[preamble to the above]

After I saw Julius Caesar, I sent the following email (slightly expanded below to make sense to those of you who have not seen the show) to the theatre’s dramaturg:

“Which bit of text were they doing at the very start? (The first two people who come on stage. Cassius and Brutus, I think? Or was it Cassius and Mark Antony? Argh. What were they addressing directly to the audience?”

[Now, looking at the text, perhaps thanks to the multiple doubling up – or *not* doubling up – my guess is that the normal, “original” opening lines of Marullus and Flavius are here being performed without the scripted replies from on-stage plebs. Who the characters speaking the lines were was never clear, but in this cast of seven – five men and two women, with one woman playing multiple parts, some female, some not – and with the other woman on stage being the director...

The other reason it wasn’t clear was because the people speaking sounded exactly like normal people... Hang on to that thought in particular...

“Was there ad-libbing? What was that *really* big laugh? And those other laughs in Mark Antony's funeral speech? They felt very specific and loaded.”

[And no one in Britain ever laughs at these bits, do they? No one *really laffs* at “honourable men”, do they? Even though rherotically it’s so good and so well written. No actor manages to make it surprising enough to be funny, do they? It’s always more hectoring, in UK, isn’t it?]

“And when Barbara Wysocka did the Mark Antony speech – had it been it reassigned? To Calphurnia? Or was she “playing” Mark Antony? Or am I being *WAY TOO LITERAL* here? Need there be that degree of continuity or ‘character’? Was she doing it *as herself*? As the director?”

“How do your Polish critics approach performances like this? This is really interesting to me, because I think the UK approach would be simply to describe how it deviates from the written play – in part just because that’s the simplest way to outline the things that are most interesting (to me), and because people who read theatre reviews tend to know the basic plots of Shakespeare's major plays – but it feels then that I’d end up reviewing what’s not there and what’s *not as it was written in 1599*, which seems silly since something obviously coherent was there... Shouldn’t I just review that as if it was a new play?”

Of course, part of the reason I feel like this about approaching Wysocka’s production (and need to ask some of those questions at all) is because I don’t speak Polish. And there were no surtitles. So, much more than the problem of “preconception” here is the problem that my prior knowledge of the play is also the blueprint for my understanding in the moment. [Perhaps this is always a problem we have with watching extant plays in Britain. But I don’t fully understand why it would be so specific to Britain. But even so, I guess in part it’s put-downable to something akin to that “It’s not how I imagined them” feeling you get when you see “the film of the book”.]


As the famous American philosopher once noted:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”** [my italics]

It was Slavoj Žižek who pointed out that there is a missing fourth category, the Unknown Known, which – he claimed – describes ideology; unconscious assumptions, things we don’t even think about knowing.

Taken as a full set, they are an incredibly useful way of approaching talking about what we see when we see “Shakespeare” performed in a foreign country; and then, beyond that, how we see something about our own Unknown Knowns about Shakespeare...

I haven’t yet had a chance to read erstwhile Guardian theatre editor Andrew Dickson’s book Worlds Elsewhere on the subject, but I’d be lying if claimed I didn’t enjoy with great schadenfreude the description of his chapter on Germany as: “a total waste of time. Facile about Germany, facile about Shakespeare, unspeakably ignorant about contemporary theatre: why bother travelling to another country, ostensibly to research what Shakespeare means to its theatre, if you're not going to make the slightest effort to understand what you're seeing on stage? The worst kind of reactionary claptrap.”***

But, at the same time, I absolutely felt the implied chill of such criticism about my own modest efforts in this department:

Known Knowns (things I know I know):

Julius Caesar, the play written in early-modern English by William Shakespeare
A passing acquaintance with the text’s recent performance history in the UK
The last performance I saw at Teatr Powszechny
Some other performances of Shakespeare in Poland (WATCH THE TRAILER UNDER THAT LINK: best Hamlet opening EVER)
The political context in Poland that necessarily provides the social backdrop to this production

Known Unknowns (things I know I don’t know):

The performance history of Julius Caesar in Poland
When it comes down to it: Poland’s more over-arching reasons and/or methods in theatre – neither (in general terms) definitively “text-based” (so problematic a term) British, nor the pure “regie/concept/abstraction” of Germany. [my suspicion is, like maybe Nübling and Ostermeier, Poland has a less doctrinaire sort of directors’ theatre that is less to do with intellectual concept and more to do with visceral excitement, but with an more naturalistic/realist inheritance in its acting style?]

Unknown Unknowns (The things I don’t know I don’t know):

Well, I don’t know, do I?

Unknown Knowns:

[return to top]


These are the songs from the soundtrack:

Kult – Po co wolność [For what is freedom?]

Republika – Gdzie są moi przyjaciele [Where are my friends?]
sorry about the video for this one. Only one I could find on

Brygada Kryzys – Centrala

* I mean, of course the fucking Tories have as near as dammit done the same to the BBC, and everyone in Britain has sat about, moaned a bit on Twitter, and mostly decided that “It’s probably fine really”. And this is kind of the difference I’m talking about. It’s much easier to be in control in Britain. You know; proper, stranglehold control. I mean, sure, it’s ghastly in Poland, but at least they have people protesting on the streets against a government that is infinitely more popular than the Conservatives are in the UK. The weird difficulty that both Britain and Poland have, is that neither party is actually doing anything *that bad* compared with the worst case scenarios of history. (Ditto Hungary.) It feels as if a widely understood term needs to be coined to discuss this problem that if a modern regime isn’t committing genocide, doesn’t have a Gestapo, isn’t rolling Soviet tanks into the town centre, it’s somehow ok...

**I was reminded by this [today] by Vinay Patel, so thanks, Vinay.

*** “2013. I’m in Berlin, where I've just seen Raphael Sanchez' Coriolanus. Not a great production, but one that had me reflecting on the difference between German and Anglo theatre, and the differences in critical cultures. So I wrote a blog post about it, in which I said the following:

‘Even the most conservative critics seem to have accepted that performance is necessarily a dialectic – that any production that doesn’t transform the play it brings to the stage isn’t really doing what theatre is supposed to do. And that strikes me as a fairly profound difference in attitude to the way most reviewers write about theatre in the major English and North American papers. The German critics’ consensus on this Coriolanus was something like “Stellar actors, some nice scenes, but conceptually a mess; lazily thinks it’s enough to rely on Shakespeare and add some ornaments from the toolkit of modern theatre. Same old, same old. Mr Sanchez needs to think harder and give his actors something more interesting to do.” I have a sense that English reviews of Sanchez’s take on Coriolanus, by contrast, would have said something like “A lot of incomprehensible nonsense and heady stuff, but some very well-acted scenes; Mr Sanchez should have trusted his actors and Shakespeare more and given us more of the latter”.’

‘Flash forward to 2015. Andrew Dickson, former Guardian theatre critic, publishes a book about international Shakespeare, featuring a pretty terrible chapter about Germany, in which he writes about that same Coriolanus. And AMAZINGLY, he makes my 2013 fantasy a reality: “By the time I returned to the Deutsches Theater, this time to see a performance, I felt I was clutching at straws. A friend of a friend, Ramona Mosse, had kindly offered to talk about her work on postwar political theatre; we’d settled on combining this with a new production of Coriolanus. The show was even more self-consciously baffling than the productions in Munich: acted by five female performers wearing wigs to a soundtrack of corny eighties pop music, its logic largely eluded me.

‘“One reason it was liberating to encounter Shakespeare in translation was that he could be the best of both worlds: both ancient and modern, both canonical and contemporary. The Romantic Schlegel-Tieck now being deeply un-hip in Germany, most theatres re-translated him each time they mounted a new production. Given everything I’d discovered about culture in the Third Reich, a suspicion of received wisdoms and the classical canon was understandable. But was this still Shakespeare? I felt we’d gone over the edge”.’


Anyway. I think we’re done with talking about Julius Caesar now.

On criticism

[written 27/09/15]

How would you describe the experience at Belgrade international theatre festival?

I loved it. That’s not a very precise or scientific answer, but this was the first time I’d been, and I found pretty much every show absolutely fascinating in one way or another. It helped that I though most of them were also brilliant, but even the ones that didn’t work for me were so different to the normal things I see that I was pleased to have experienced them.

What are your impressions of Bitef's programme this year? What would you say that is important about a festival’s selection?

Well, I didn’t realise before I was asked these questions that the theme of the festival, or its main focus, was ‘Political Theatre’. But, now I’ve been told, that does make a lot of sense of what I saw. That said, I’m quite old-fashioned, and think *all* theatre should be political, and theatre which isn’t is just lazily endorsing the status quo, so...

That said, I think the sorts of politics, and the really very different approaches toward examining them, were fascinating. And the selection brilliantly varied and exemplary. And, that probably betrays what else I hope for at international festivals – programmes which are bold, varied, and somehow both typical (of types of theatre) but full of unique or outstanding things.

A tendency that was in the focus at this year’s Bitef was political theatre. What impression of this theatre tendency did you get?

Certainly the impression that political theatre is alive and thriving in ex-Yugoslvia (and France!). But, also, reassuringly, that there is no consensus on what a performance with political themes/ambitions should look like, or how it should behave.

How would you explain what is important about having political theatre performances? Why this type of theatre is important now?

If we accept that all Art is political, then I’d rather see theatre that is aware of its own politics and is trying to do something with them. A-political theatre is not only impossible, but theatre which thinks it is invariably fails.

Political theatre is important now because theatre – perhaps by virtue of being marginal, or local, or non-transferable in any bulk sense – seems to have resisted the neo-liberal consensus whitewash rather better than most other artforms (particularly television and film, books and music).

From your experience, how does theatre treat political topics?

From my experience here or in the UK? In the UK I think we might *sometimes* have had a tendency in the past for the most mainstream pieces of “political theatre” to be somewhat blunt, and unhelpfully didactic, within an ostensibly naturalistic frame. This has often resulted in rather futile reproductions of the problems such pieces seek to discuss.

What I loved about the work here was the sense of being given both critical apparatuses and enough space within the dramaturgy of the diverse pieces to apply them usefully.

On your blog, you have already written critiques of performance from Bitef's programme, what performances particularly made an impression on you?

It’s now a week on and – for various very different reasons – I think the Ibsen as Brecht, the Iliad, and Discreet Charm of Marxism all really made very big impressions on me. I also really loved Adieu, but in a way that perhaps didn’t change the way I thought so much as just being a virtuousic display. It’s ironic, because I didn’t really think the performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism was a success at the time, but in fact, because in the performance I saw the audience rebelled against what it seemed they were supposed to do, I think it made much more impression than anything that could have been planned-for.

What would you say are the values that Bitef nurtures?

Artistic excellence across a diverse selection of engaged theatrical modes? (I’m not sure I think in “values”.)

As you have seen many theatre festivals, you have met many different audiences as well. How would you describe Bitef's audience?

It’s a good audience, I think. It felt like the festival is very much a part of the city. I didn’t have that sense that you sometimes get a festivals of “where are the people who actually live here?” This felt like a festival that the people of Belgrade – at least some of them – are proud of and attend.

What is important for you as a theatre critic at a festival?

Apart from a decent wi-fi connection and time to actually write (and selfish things like air-conditioning, surtitles and maps – all wonderful, btw), I suppose – boringly – I like it when I like the work, and feel some sort of affinity with the programming. Actually, that is an interesting thing: you *can* go to a festival and see some really great work, but feel nothing toward the festival as a whole. Or, you can go to a festival and see nothing you like and still find the festival’s atmosphere and ethos charming. At BITEF49 I was lucky enough to feel both things.

What is your opinion on how and why is it important that theatre critics are guests of festivals?

Well, most obviously – at least in my position – to describe what I’m seeing as best I can for an absent audience back home, and perhaps, of secondary interest, to report *from my perspective as one foreigner* to the people who have made the work. To maybe give an impression of how work looks from the very outside (i.e. not only outside the work, but outside the culture that produced it).

What is the role of theatre critic at a festival?

Well, I imagine every critic (and perhaps every Festival) will give different answers. In the UK’s Edinburgh Fringe, for example, the role is often reduced to that of a consumer guide with no possibility for all but the briefest analysis. I guess, from my perspective, the ideal is to report the work as accurately as possible – while acknowledging one’s subjectivities – and to put it into as many useful and interesting contexts as possible for what readers I have.

What is your approach to writing critical view of a theatre performance?

Blimey! That’s quite a big question. The short version: try not to be formulaic. Try to report the event. Try to acknowledge your own subjectivity without putting yourself before the performance in the report. Try to provide context. Try to be interesting. Try to make a review as accessible as possible without simplification. Remember that people can Google things they don’t understand.

How would you describe the position of theatre criticism today? Who is the target audience for criticism?

Well, there’s no single position. There are a lot of things that count as “theatre criticism” and each one has a different audience. And, given that those audiences tend to be self-selecting, in one way the target audience is anyone who reads it and likes what they’ve read. Theatre criticism necessarily preaches to the converted. It’s not much of a tool for evangelism, more’s the pity.

How important in your critiques is responsibility towards the author of an artwork?

There’s an interesting implied question here about who the author of an artwork is. Certain poststructuralists would argue that it is the emancipated audience member, the active “reader” of the work of art. Let’s assume you don’t mean that, and you don’t mean the literal author – say, Homer – when they’re dead. Let’s assume you mean whoever made the piece.

There’s a truism in British criticism – which used to be more widespread – that your duty is only to your editor and/or your reader. I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s useful to be able to reassure the person whose work you’re writing about – even if you hate the work, and possibly their perspective, their take on the world, and everything they think about art – that you’re not actually a moron. That might make them at least take your critique at least more seriously (And I don’t think this seriously damages a critique’s relationship with its other readers). But then, if there’s just a complete mismatch of outlook between critic and auteur, then it’s probably best that the auteur doesn’t bother reading the critic and possibly better that the critic avoids the auteur’s work too. I mean, if they’re just this idiot, what do you do with that?

How important is responsibility towards the audience's opinion of that artwork?

Oof, I dunno. I’m not sure that ever really comes up for me. Like, the way criticism works in UK is that (critics) tend (in theory) to see the work before anyone else. Obviously this has changed a bit with the combination of previews and Twitter. Ultimately what anyone else thinks about a thing should kind of be entirely irrelevant to what you think about it. Nothing exists in a vacuum – especially things resting on the status of a play, or of its star, or something – but I think either trying to prove you know more than an audience, or pandering to their (imagined?) pre-opinion is entirely dishonest and so best avoided.

Whose point of view you are trying to “meet” in your critiques and are you trying such thing at all?

Again, really hard question. I think, if anything, my own. I mean, you think such a lot during a play, and see so much, and so many things happen, that *obviously* it’s impossible to write down everything you’ve thought about it, even at the time. And that information isn’t necessarily what would be useful to anyone else reading it. So I guess the point of view you’re trying to relate is a meaningful version of your own, that will communicate it to anyone else, and even to yourself in later years. It’s very satisfying, when you read a review back years later, and think “Yes! That was it. That was what I saw and how I felt. That is honest and right.” Just making that happen is harder than you’d think.

This year BITEF welcomed the AITC/IATC symposium? One of the topics was a theatre festival’s role and the theatre festival as part of the globalisation of theatre. What is your opinion on that topic?

It’s an interesting one. And maybe it’s more pressing than I realise. How globalised do I think theatre currently is overall? Not very. How globalised do I think it will get? Well, hard to say, but not too much more, I hope. Although I think there’s also a positive version of this narrative where we see cross-cultural collaborations which actually create something entirely new, and alien to all the component cultures, and that *is* good.

Yes, there is can be a cynical feeling that there’s a sort of “International Festival Theatre Show” which is tending towards a certain “globalisation”, but I dunno, I wonder if that isn’t too easy a criticism. Without other defining factors it feels just like a generalised term of abuse.

What in your opinion does the phrase “Embodied critic” mean?

Well, I wasn’t at the AITC/IATC symposium, but *I think* it relates to the idea of a critic owning their own presence and what the facts of that presence mean. A bit like Observation Principle in science – that the results of an experiment are always going to be affected by the fact of their being observed. I’m not sure how much experience of things we aren’t at we will ever achieve in order to test this theory, though.

What forms of theatre critiques do you favour? (The “form” can also refer to writing “form” or style of written critique.)

I seem to always write things that are much too long when left to my own devices. See the four pages above.

Can a theatre critic be creative and how important is the signature (style?) of a critic?

Yes, a critic can be creative.

How important is a given critic’s style? It’s hard to say. I mean, it’s partly down to a reader’s personal taste right? Perhaps there’s something about various styles that is also connected to the content. In the mainstream, our more right-wing critics in Britain tend to make more jokes (generally directed at the work, the artists, and the concept of theatre) and understand less (or pretend to understand less).

How does a critic watch theatre performances, and what does your process of writing a critique look like?

Well, I don’t use a notepad, so, as far as I’m aware, I watch theatre in exactly way as anyone else. But, well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? I suppose I do watch with an awareness that I’m going to be writing, but generally speaking, I write about *the whole thing* *afterwards*, so during I guess I try to watch like anyone else – albeit like anyone else who goes to the theatre quite a lot.

I’m afraid, there’s also no real method to my writing a critique/review either. I tend to sit down with my laptop – usually the next morning – and just write what I thought. I guess, because I’ve usually got unlimited space (on my blog), I can do this in any order, and at any length, and can theoretically take as much time as I like. Obviously that’s different for publications who want a specific number of words (330 – the Guardian, for example) by 10am the following day. Then I maybe take more time over word-choices and selecting what’s most important, but with the loss of some fluency and detail.

What must a theatre critique take into consideration for the perception of the work?

I think that probably depends on both what the critic herself has perceived, and what the work itself is like. I guess it also depends on the reader. When reading other people’s reviews, if I get to the end and they haven’t discussed what it looked like, I can feel like I’m missing something. Equally, I think it’s important for a review to engage as much as possible with a piece of work’s intellectual arguments (which, I’d argue, includes its visual aspect). This is a difficult thing about reviews – they exist in the present (and may work a bit like an advert, if the critic likes the work), but also into the future as possibly the best record of the work that no longer exists to be seen.

At the same time as both of these things, they exist as a part of culture in their own right; arguing with current politics and aesthetics, etc. In short, you have to take everything into consideration. How much of what you’ve considered can usefully make it into the piece varies. I think, even in reviews, there’s a lot of unwritten material lurking between the lines. As with anything, the more of the context for the review you know, the better you will understand it. Stupidly, there’s probably even a whole life’s trajectory being mapped in the ongoing reviews filed by any given critic, and the events taking place in the wider political and cultural climate that surrounds them.

Színház: The National Theatre Festival/s of Great Britain

[written 14/10/15]

I was [recently] sent the following invitation to write a piece about The National Theatre Festival of Great Britain, by the Hungarian theatre magazine Színház.

It was a very reasonable request. They even sent me a very helpful set of things I might want to think about; questions I might want to answer in my piece about the National Theatre Festival of Great Britain. Look:

Is the national theatre festival in Great Britain a showcase of the supposedly “best” shows from all around the country, not only from a region?

We would like to have a critical view on:

How representative is the festival?

What are the selection criteria?

Who are the selectors?

What are its values?

Which aesthetics are preferred by the Festival?

How would you describe it currently? Progressive? Old fashioned?

Are there any conflicts around the festival, and why?

Is it supported by current politics/cultural-politics?

Does it have a serious audience supporting it?

Does it have an international audience?

I imagine it would have been a great piece, but for one small problem: there is no National Theatre Festival of Great Britain. Or England, or Scotland, or Wales, or Northern Ireland separately. I’ve been abroad. I know exactly the sort of festival Színház’s editors meant: Theatertreffen in Germany, Warsaw Theatre Meetings in Poland, the Teaterbiennale in Sweden and so on. So, why don’t we have one in Britain?

The most obvious answer is: British theatres are organised almost entirely differently to those in mainland Europe mentioned above in terms of contracts and ensembles. Almost everywhere else in Europe (it seems), each theatre has a permanent ensemble who are contracted for at least a season at a time and productions are designed to play in rep. In Britain, with painfully few exceptions, companies are assembled on a play-by-play basis. They rehearse, play the show for however many weeks, and then disband. It would be a logistical and economic nightmare to try to reassemble the ten most artistically successful shows of the previous season; it any time; in any city in the UK.

Beyond that, there is also the question of Britain’s prevailing economic/ideological culture. As an Englander, it’s not until you travel outside the UK (and, by extension, the USA; from where we seem to be gradually re-inheriting a lot of economic policies at present) that you realise quite how profoundly based in neoliberal capitalism even our “art” culture is. In Britain, if we have an equivalent to the National Theatre Festival, it is, I suppose, the West End Transfer.

Put in the most positive terms, this means: taking a show that has proved to be enormously popular in a smallish theatre that receives small amounts of state funding (all British theatres, even state “funded” ones receive a significant proportion of their budgets from corporate sponsorship and private donations), and transferring it to a larger, privately owned theatre; often charging a lot more money for tickets. These West End transfers tend to last for 12 weeks in their original form (because it is still difficult to get the entire original cast to commit, due to the fact that they may have prior film or television obligations), although second and third casts are not unheard-of. At best, the West End transfer is a meeting of artistic excellence and popular acclaim. In this trajectory, the next stage is the transfer to Broadway, where I’m given to understand ticket prices are even higher (a seat roughly the same distance from the stage for the same play could plausibly rise from £9 (€12) in previews at the Almeida to $239.25 (£156/€211) for a Friday night on Broadway). One does not have to be a genius to see the less positive aspects of taking art out of a public context and into a private one.

Beyond this, I have a sense – perhaps one which is mirrored by controversies at other National Festivals of Theatre Excellence – that the UK would be quite resistant to this level of top-down organisation in quite such an explicit way. And there’d be yet more grumbling if it was held in London. Or not-in-London. And no one would be able to agree on what should be shown anyway. On balance, with UK theatre in its present fractured and immiserated form, I think we might have had a lucky escape.

Almeida Questions: on naturalism

[recorded 17/12/15]

Before Christmas, I was lucky enough to chair a discussion between Dan Rebellato and David Eldridge, discussing the question: Is naturalism still a viable way to make theatre? I think they’re both absolutely fascinating on the subject.

Saturday, 23 January 2016