Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Not “I”

Rough Draft:

This "review" is mostly by way of an experiment. Following Saturday’s post on the understanding of "signs" it seems to fit rather well. Following my trip to Munich, I realised that I saw way too much mainstream theatre at the expense of interesting experimental work. Fuelled in part by this new impetus to open my mind a bit and in part by the need to research my latest Guardian Blog piece; rather than catch-up with the Bush’s latest offering, I headed off to The Place in Euston to watch some Lithuanian Contemporary Dance made by acclaimed practitioner Lora Juodkaitė.

To say I have a fairly minimal grounding in contemporary dance doesn't begin to cover the state of my ignorance. That said, in many ways the boundaries between "dance" and "theatre" have never been thinner. While groups like Frantic Assembly and DV8 play in theatres, Rambert and Pina Bausch seem to stick to dance venues like Sadler’s Wells, and yet international companies, such as are found at Aurora Nova - St Stephens, Edinburgh, are quite happily dealt with by theatre critics during festival time.

If most contemporary dance is even half as exciting, accomplished and realised as this, I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in performance and the possible future of theatre to expand their normal venue circuit, and look beyond the Theatre section of Time Out (I realise this sounds terribly pompous and that many of Postcards’ readers already do so - much of this is an admonitory note to self, really).

There were two pieces presented: Trimatrix. Three movements and Salamandra’s Dream. Picture. In the first, three dancers in turn lay down strips of white tape under tightly focused corridors of light barely wider than the strips themselves and proceed to perform an acrobatic series of moves to a live soundtrack created by percussionist Tomas Dobrovolskis, who switches between a series of objects using a delay pedal to create elaborate drum loops. As the piece progresses, further strips are laid until they join to create a triangle. The turn-taking disintegrates and the three dancers’ previous isolation is broken, while the percussion reaches an almost industrial intensity, with sheets of paper being cracked into the microphone to create drum machine-like effects.

The second piece is even more impressive. While Trimatrix felt as if it could be quite safely be filed under dance, Salamandra’s Dream. Picture is altogether more "theatrical". In four movements Juodkaitė proceeds to do more with the human body than I would have thought possible. In the first section, backlit by a single dim light, she creates shapes with her body that I would have thought impossible - one looking like a substantial boulder dropped onto a still twitching mess of arms and legs, another like one of the Figures at the base of Francis Bacon's Crucifixion - all linked by tortuous crawling on bandy legs and elbows. The second section sees the dancer spinning for minutes at a time, arms variously flailing, pinioned and seemingly suspended - it is dizzying and hypnotic to watch.

The third part consists of Juodkaitė responding to a soundtrack of amplified clock ticking and/or dripping with a developing sequence of staccato movements, apparently triggered by one another, and by the soundtrack. Even simply as a display of breathtaking physical discipline, it is quite astonishing. There is none of the physical uncertainty that marks out a lot of British Physical Theatre here. Every movement is perfect, deliberate, technically difficult and totally controlled. Backward rolls are executed at an angle, in slow motion, and with the utmost precision.

It is the final section of Salamandra which is most theatrical. Juodkaitė rolls herself into length of paper, so that she is totally bound from head to foot in a paper cylinder. She then gradually tries to free herself again, like the titular salamander shedding a skin. The playing area of the stage is surrounded by what appear to be several similar papery cast-off cocoons. The loss of the identifiable human form in this final section peculiarly deepens the pathos of the action. Watching a paper tube struggling with its contents is a strange way to spend a Friday night, but the effect - the necessary concentration and the image itself, combined with the heady amplified soundtrack of rhythmic crunching paper noises - is near-hallucinogenic. It took me a good fifteen minutes to half an hour after leaving the space to get back to normal.

I suppose the real problems start here. When writing about theatre I have ten-odd years of theatre-going, reading and conversations with actors, directors and critics on which to draw. It short, I know where I am with theatre. Similarly, I kind of know, almost instinctually, at least what a normal review is meant to do. I know the sort of analysis that is appropriate well enough to experiment occasionally with the form. Watching Trimatrix and Salamandra I had no such safety nets. That is why the above is so description heavy. I might have a tendency to get bogged down in description anyway - that deft two lines of set, costume and effects common to the 350-word British standard has always struck me as woefully inadequate if there is anything interesting to explore. And there of course isn't room to explore more, unless it is at the expense of plot details, what the writing’s like, how the direction “serves the text”, how the actors are doing, plus comment on and maybe argument with “the play’s thesis” - or similar. None of this is intended to sound dismissive of the 350-word British theatre review, by the way. It is a real skill to successfully negotiate how to satisfactorily make them communicate and illuminate. And by and large, given the form, our critics do a remarkable job.

So, firstly I should probably seek out some other reviews of contemporary dance to see how it is dealt with by others. But there's still the issue of "expertise", and of having any useful points of reference. I am unable to - as the West End Whingers laughingly put it - locate the piece in the wider discourse. At least not in the discourse of its own form, which is surely part of the point for a critic. Especially since here I would be happy to stick my neck out and suggest that Lora Juodkaitė isn't really concerned with The State of the Nation or making big points about philosophy or politics. But if it was, I simply wouldn't have the mental furniture to deal with it.

Lithuanian theatre during the Soviet occupation developed a secret language of signs and ways of criticising the Russians, while the critics developed a similarly secret way of approvingly describing such comments. On Friday night at The Place I felt as clueless as a cultural attaché from the Kremlin. This provides a useful illustration of what I was talking about in my last piece - in short, that I'm groping toward a feeling that Britain is peculiarly fixated by a need to locate The Meaning, even in work where such an approach might not necessarily be the most helpful.

Let’s set up some sort of assessment criteria: without a doubt, this was accomplished work - the physical skill on display was incredible. There is no doubt in my mind that the piece was worthy of "serious" consideration. It was clear that definite decisions had been made by the musician/percussionist, choreographer, director and dancers. We’re not dealing here with people flinging down something wilfully opaque - cobbled together from half-understood theory, with little discernable talent or value on display - in front of an audience and then blaming them for their incomprehension. But nevertheless, I didn’t have the tools to unpack it. Now, that could simply be down to my lack of familiarity with contemporary dance and how to "read" it. I enjoyed - was enthralled by - the performance, so it’s not an issue of this putative opacity getting in the way of appreciation, but even so, I still have this unshakeable (perhaps very English) feeling that I want to "know" if I'm "getting it right".

But it's not just contemporary dance. To throw some random top-of-head examples up, I probably feel similarly about Chris Goode's Longwave, JH Prynn’s Poetry, Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures and, say, Schnitke’s Violin Concerto. All of which I love. And all of which I know I don't fully understand. In the case of Longwave, having written a review which Chris was very generous about, I was more than a little disconcerted when Shuttleworth came out from seeing the piece a month later in Edinburgh and asked if the drawings of the birds on the walls of the shed in which the two men in the piece live were connected to the message “It is worse than I had feared” via an Edward Lear poem. They were. I hadn't picked up on that at all. In the ensuing conversation, Chris ran through a lot of the other “hidden” references contained in the piece. So there was obviously a whole world of meaning that I hadn't even begun to comprehend when I watched the piece. I had loved it, but totally failed to pick up a vast majority of its subtlety. Did that invalidate me as a critic? Shouldn't critics, if anyone, be the ones to spot this sort of thing? Okay, Shuttleworth is a critic and he did. But does that mean the rest of us should go home? This, I guess, is where my newfound anxiety about “comprehension” lies.

In Munich we talked a lot about subjectivity. And I suppose at the time I was mildly nervous of the concept when taken to its natural, potentially AA Gill, conclusion. Yes, of course all criticism is subjective - but that subjectivity is carefully not foregrounded much of the time. After all, do readers really need to know about the bad week, money worries, emotional turmoil and lousy transport that have informed my viewing of the play (for better or for worse, for the play - sometimes I'm pretty sure it is possible to like a play more than it deserves, simply because it took your mind off everything else and there wasn’t anything especially wrong with it). As a result, one can kind of ignore that fact that one is sticking one’s neck out and making judgements for money. One relies on the sense that even though it is “only my opinion”, it is an opinion that you believe to be right, and would firmly and stoutly stand by if challenged. Taken further, one relies on believing in how right you are. At the same time, I am ever conscious of Robert Hewison’s age-old advice to “avoid egotism” - not to use “I” in reviews: “You've signed the review; of course it's you who thinks it. Just say ‘it is’.”

But in the end we return to the idea of “expertise”. It’s an idea that gets a fair amount of bad press these days. Not least, ironically, from the blogsophere, where some critics make a positive virtue of their “amateur” status. That said, the best of these (West End Whingers, View From The Stalls) absolutely do display a very real sense of knowing what they are talking about. Much though the Whingers won’t thank me for it, surely it is their ability to wear their considerable knowledge as lightly as they do that makes their reviews as credible as they are funny. After all, unless they had seen and written up Punchdrunk’s Faustus, they would never have been able to construct this masterpiece of a Red Death review, for example. It’s obvious they know whereof they speak. Meanwhile, over at View From the Stalls, consider the opening sentence from this review of Hidden: “We’d seen this group of RSAMD students in The Winters Tale and Women Beware Women earlier in the year and a few of them had already cropped up in other professional productions, but I was keen to see them tackle a contemporary piece.” Pure credential flourishing. I know what I’m talking about, it says. Which is very different to merely proclaiming an opinion. It suggests that the opinion will probably be worth something, because you have seen something else, which gives one’s ideas a bit more depth. On the other hand, one can see lots of examples of a thing, and simply not like it. Or can one’s taste start to suffer Stockholm Syndrome?

In the mean time, I need a crash course in Contemporary Dance appreciation. All pointers gratefully received.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Munich - part two

First draft - links still to come. Ditto: italics, bold, spelling, grammar and sense checking, and, oh, everything else...

As I mentioned yesterday, running alongside the SpielArt festival - and the other reason I was in Munich - was a series of workshops run by Festivals In Transit (FIT) under the banner of their Mobile Theatre and Communication Lab. Led by Lyn Gardner, these sessions sought to explore the challenges facing critics and writers-on-theatre dealing with about new forms of work. As yesterday's post on the work we saw in Munich hopefully suggests, the SpielArt festival was an ideal setting to confront this issue.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these workshops, however, was finding out about where theatre criticism was at in other European countries. The situation in Britain, for better or worse, is that theatre critics here are untrained journalists whose interest in theatre is most frequently evidenced (if at all) by their directing or acting in amateur, university theatricals during their student days (often at Oxbridge, or, if not, almost certainly at a “red-brick” university). In this respect, they differ very little from those who have run the NT, the RSC, the Royal Court and so on.

Theatre reviews appear in all five of the “quality dailies” (formerly “broadsheets” until they all went format-crazy), The Daily Mail and occasionally in the Express [is this true?], as well as across the equivalent Sundays. Strikingly, the Sun/News of the World also has a theatre critic (along with a wine critic!) in the form of former Fleet Street editor Bill Hagarty, who is dispatched to report on the opening of occasional West End musicals. Aside from this, a majority of the remainder of writing on theatre comes from academic journals, and is conducted in characteristically dense, idiolectal, and frequently opaque language.

As a result of this situation, there can be observed a disjuncture between the demands of the newsroom and the needs of the artform. Mark Ravenhill recently mooted the possibility of reducing word counts for reviews of West End musicals and correspondingly expanding them for densely written plays of ideas. Apart from the incorrect idea that there is less to say about a West End musical - there may be less intentional intellectual content, but imagine if our critics had space to deconstruct the semiotics(!) - Ravenhill's basic idea is doomed since reviews are largely commissioned according to mass news values. Open The Sound of Music after a ten-week TV series to find its star and even if there are only fifty words in the review (plausible), they will be accompanied by a photograph taking up enough column inches to write a minor treatise on the Western musical since 1939. Being British, we love to grumble about this situation and despair.

The differences across Northern Europe - the group of twelve writers included two Brits, three Germans, two Poles, an Estonian, a Latvian, a Lithuanian, a Slovakian, a Slovenian and a Finn - are quite pronounced. Most notably, there is a clear divide between the continuing dominance of the academy in former "Eastern Bloc" countries and the more free-market ethos which flourishes in capitalist Germany, Finland and the UK. That said, the Channel/North Sea does seem to put a good deal of distance between mindsets in terms of ways to approach theatre. Watching a panel debate including a presentation by __ __ of UK theatrical pioneers Blast Theory, in which he suggested that theatre was a contract between audience and performer (I paraphrase - a lot), the German sitting next to me turned and asked, “but isn't theatre the contract between the artist and the audience, that everything staged is a sign?” (cf. Berliner Erika Fischer-Lichte’s 1983 book Theatre semiotics). It's a fascinating difference in perception. Similarly, in a conversation with Tomas, the Latvian writer, he explained that he was studying/had studied in his university's faculty of visual arts, which - naturally, he thought - included theatre. Obviously this is surprising to a Briton who is brought up to think of theatre as a subset of "Literature". The gulf in thinking could not be more usefully and starkly rendered.

Elsewhere, Ott Karulin, the Estonian critic, explained the requirements for writing about a production in his country. Admittedly this was for a theatre magazine article, but his description was of watching the “play” (almost certainly the wrong word) several times, seeing everything else that the company had produced, and doing a good couple of months of background reading. My inner sadist briefly pictured Charles Spencer being subjected to the same rigours. Of course, this is writing of an entirely different order - but one of the subjects we discussed was what reviews are actually for. Who are they for? What purpose are they supposed to serve? Are they simply consumer guides? Should they seek to provide a definitive artistic judgement? If we are scared of alienating non-aficionados with complexity, can we hope to get close enough to the subject to talk meaningfully about it? One thing that seemed nice was that there appeared to be far less anxiety about the possible ignorance of audiences coming from the other critics. On the other hand, underestimating the intelligence of “the masses” is a British pastime from time immemorial, which should be resisted.

That said, the idea of “masses”, or even “a lot”, seemed pretty remote in many of countries represented. It is important to remember the sheer scale of everything in Britain. We have a population of 61 million, and rising rapidly (hilarious conversation on first night. Me: “So how many people live in Lithuania?” Her: “Well, about 3m, but about 100,000 of them are in your country right now.”). Aside from Germany and Poland, most of the other countries were populated so sparsely as to make any Londoner, living two to a floor in a sectioned-off semi, green with envy. Many of their theatre scenes were on so small a scale that they knew literally everyone else working in the industry. Do you know how many people graduate annually from drama school in Slovenia, for example? Seven to ten. And that’s too many, apparently (from the same conversation, after trying to explain how actors might find work in Britain, having explained that there are probably around 1,000 drama school graduates a year and plenty more actors who don't even train, and describing the agent system, my interlocutor said: “Oh yes, we have an actress in our country who has an agent. She is considered very exotic.”).

There is a similar emphasis on training for critics in former Eastern Bloc countries. Very few people are admitted to the courses, and there is essentially no chance (if I understood correctly) of being a critic without such training. On one hand, one marvels at the commitment and rigour, but at the same time, feels a slight swell of pride at the more buccaneering spirit of the British free-market commentariat, where anyone who likes can attempt to prove themself in an open arena. On the other hand, there is a concomitant pang of regret when a brilliant piece of work is pulled to pieces because the attendant critic didn’t have anything approaching sufficient mental furniture to deal with the concepts on offer. In Britain, it does often feel like critics are required to be primed with a hair-trigger radar for “pretension”, which Must Be Stopped At All Costs. The converse situation in mainland Europe might be that over-trained critics enjoy work which appeals to their extensive understanding, but which would alienate a lay-audience. However, the European laity does, on the face of it, look a hell of a lot better equipped to deal with what would be considered “extremely challenging” work. It goes back to the point about anticipating a contract of signs. If that mode of semiotics is woven throughout one’s entire education, rather than being presented as an exotic add-on at degree-level, then clearly one’s approach to the work is bound to be different.

These differences aside, the core question remained: how do we usefully describe work that is, for example, largely visual? Rose Fenton, the founder of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), commented that much the same problem had faced her, when writing brochures for the Festival, as had faced the few critics who came to consider the work. Namely that without sufficient terminology and a set of protocols which largely denied the possibility of writing something subjective or - God forbid - “heartfelt” about the work, it was very hard to adequately sell it. She admitted that often spurious intellectual/social-realist notions would be tagged on to descriptions of work in order to make them more comprehensible to British critics and audiences. But, when faced with largely visual work, an interesting problem emerges. If nothing much is given by way of context, then the interplay of signifiers, signified, and signification becomes, in a perfectly Barthesian way - wholly subjective. A fascinating early example was provided in the second workshop where we were all reading out our deliberately subjective response to Stifter’s Dinge. While Mark Romisch (German) and I both likened the early troughs of brightly-lit white power gradually covered in dark water to sand being covered in oil or blood (or both), Goda, a Lithuanian, swore blind that it was clearly meant to be snow. And while for me and Mark the visual symbolism suggested the war in Iraq (isn’t everything about the war in Iraq?), for Goda it was about snowy landscapes and state oppression. Cultural specificity is a fascinating area, but in the field of international theatre, does it matter that readings across national/geographical boundaries vary wildly? If part of a critic’s contract is to read the signs, does it matter if the language in which they are reading is different to that in which they are written? Do we need to be anxious about fixing meaning at all, or might there be room for a multiplicity of meanings, out of the creators’ hands, which can be accorded equal weight and value? If so, where does that leave the critic?

Friday, 23 November 2007

Munich - part one

First draft

As is becoming alarmingly traditional, I must begin by apologising for my lengthy absence. This time I've actually got a valid excuse, though. For the last five days I've been attending the SpielArt Festival in Munich under the auspices of the concurrent FIT Mobile Theatre and Communications Lab programme, as one of two British representatives acting partially on behalf of the LIFT festival (my co-Briton was, confusingly, the British-born, Australia-raised, Britain-domiciled creative director of the Total Theatre organisation Pippa Bailey). Snappy introduction, huh?

I actually got back from the Festival on Wednesday, but have been putting off posting because attempting to summarise the experience of the festival and the FIT Lab seminars is dauntingly similar to being asked to put the North Sea in a jam jar.

Over the four days we were there, we saw a total of six pieces, alongside a packed programme of discussions and workshops. And "pieces" is about the only catch-all term that comes even close to being able to encompass the sheer range of work on show. The theme of the workshop strand was the need to discover new ways of writing about emerging and innovative forms of "theatre". As with the recent debate on ways of talking about non-mainstream forms of work, terminology immediately becomes a significant preoccupation. By the end of our stay we were starting to ask where the boundaries of what you can describe as “theatre” actually lay. We had seen accomplished work that had so challenged our understanding of the term. Hell, some of the work made me wonder whether there was much value in having terminology at all. Below, I’ve tried to give a rough idea of what the pieces we saw were like, and have given them all faintly reductive possible genre-labels to break up the text a bit. In the next day or so, I'm hoping to offer a similar overview of the ideas that arose from the workshop programme. In the meantime, get this:

No-performer theatre

The first piece we saw, after a long day's travelling, was Heiner Goebbels/Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne’s Stifter’s Dinge (trans. Stifter’s Things - Stifter being a 19th century German writer, who one of the Germans in the group described as having a reputation for being fiercely boring).

The most striking thing about the piece was that it contained ABSOLUTELY NO ACTORS. No performers either. Apart from a couple of stage-hands who appeared early on to construct three low troughs and shake salt over them, there were NO HUMAN BEINGS ON STAGE. In a densely contested field, this must still rank as a pretty extreme example of boundary-breaking radicalism. I'm pretty sure that most definitions of theatre I've ever read have specified that there at least have to be people watching people for the act of theatre to be engaged. Well, Goebbels blows that idea clean out of the water. Instead of human subjects moving, standing and speaking, the piece consisted of a virtuoso display of special effects, lighting and sound technology. As a display of technology it was astonishingly accomplished. But at the same time, it still felt satisfyingly "arty". Without even the ability to understand the occasional extracts of German speech, the "performance" became an exercise in decoding signs to create narrative, or meaning. An interesting issue which arose from this, to which I intend to return, was the difficulty of cultural baggage and/or specificity.

Durational work / Installation

Deconstruction made by the Belgian group Needcompany seemed almost tame by comparison. For British readers, as far as I can make out, the best shorthand the best way to imagine Needcompany is by picturing a Belgian Forced Entertainment. Not wholly typically of their work, Deconstruction is a durational performance installation, which was housed in Munich’s Haus der Kunst art gallery. It took the form of a sort of large island made from wooden packing crates and polystyrene shapes, taking up most of the centre of a large gallery space. Within this, a cast of wackily attired performers moved around: a girl in tight t-shirt and shorts go-go danced while wearing a large, shiny, white, plastic, bullet-shaped, stylised rabbit head; a Japanese girl dragged herself across a different platform wearing a large animal pelt. A band experimented with reverb and delay effects, producing something that might turn up on a Radiohead b-side. Elsewhere an actress read text into a video camera behind a two-way mirror. This was shown on one of the many television screens woven into the fabric of the island’s haphazard structure.

At one point during our time there, the band suddenly launched into a song (unknown to me, but possibly extant - sounded not unlike some Nick Cave or possibly Will Oldham) and the whole cast joined in singing. This moment was quite hauntingly beautiful. Parts of the lyrics from this song were written on one of the packing cases. It suggested a hitherto unsuspected coherence to this seemingly random assemblage. If we hadn’t had to rush off to the next piece, this moment would have easily seduced me into staying for the whole afternoon to see what else would happen.


Following Deconstruction we saw two of the films in the Tragedia Endogonidia cycle made by Italian director Romeo Castellucci/Societas Raffaello Sanzio - a beautifully made record of the series of performances which Castellucci devised in various cities to reflect the particular tragedies of those cities. We watched Strasberg and London. Strasbourg was perhaps a little opaque, revolving around a bus load of people arriving in a square at night to watch Hitchcock's Psycho projected onto the side of a building. While another sequence saw a Panzer tank advancing and reversing round a floodlit sandy ring like some sort of a dancing horse.

London, on the other hand, was gripping: part contemporary dance, part nightmare, it sees a woman disrobe, be seduced by a gargoyle door knocker, go mad and part bury herself in a large old fashioned stone tomb, before bleeding to death on the floor. A second sequence sees a man before a mirror, seemingly tortured into madness by curious bearded children and voices in his head, cut out his own tongue. What it all means was anyone’s guess, but somehow felt irrelevant. It didn’t feel as if the project was all that interested in exact meaning, but in a whole panoply of pregnant signs and possibilities, combined with a very immediate, visceral sensibility.

Site-specific verbatim theatre without actors

Monday offered two further puzzles. The first, Soko Sao Paulo, made by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi (the latter being one of the founders of newly seminal European festival circuit group Rimini Protocol), takes two of the most hotly debated forms currently on the margins of mainstream British theatre - verbatim plays and “site-sympathetic” work, combines them, and in the process makes the British approach look hilariously stage-y and old-fashioned.

The nominal subject of the piece is the use of guns by police in Sao Paulo combined with insights into the life of the Munich police force. It is easy enough to imagine the British verbatim play on the subject: conduct the interviews, cherry-pick the strongest moments, edit the whole into a satisfyingly play-like dramatic shape, complete with thesis and easily grasped message and deliver the finished script to Max Stafford-Clark. The approach here is somewhat more radical. Yes, they have conducted video interviews, and they have people relating stories, but they have arranged them over two sterile floors of a largely disused downtown office building, Punchdrunk-style. Moreover, all the “performers” are the actual people whose stories are involved. No actors playing other people here.

The audience is free to wander around an impressively large number of installations. Several rooms offer various video recordings, in others members of the German police force sit, telling their stories, while further rooms offer a series of practical demonstrations of police training methods.

What is striking about the installation was how comment-free it seemed. Impressive, given that in one demonstration, a Brazilian police officer smilingly demonstrated with paintball gun and life-sized drawings how not to shoot civilians before shooting a sketched gunman in the head. By the time I saw his demonstration, it must have run a fair few times, so there were, what? seven bloodied paintball explosions on the crudely drawn head? The resonance was inescapable, and it sat uncomfortably with happy films of German police choirs merrily singing away.

After an hour and a half of wandering around, the audience was herded downstairs to don headphones and sit around a miniature football pitch on which the various “performers” from the installation played a full on game of football, while we listened to the roar of a football crowd and a running commentary on the game by one of Munich radio’s real sports commentators. It was a surreal ending to a fascinating piece.

As a non-German speaker, much of the information was lost on me, but it is striking how far beyond anything we’d be prepared to call “theatre” in Britain Soko Sao Paulo goes. In fairness, there was some mixed dissent among my German speaking colleagues as to how successful it was as either a piece of theatre or as a “living museum”. Perhaps experiencing much of the thing in an alien language set up a greater series of resonances and a profitable sense of dislocation which worked better for the subject matter than straightforward information could.

Technology and Liveness

Monday’s next piece - O_Rex made by Belgium’s Eric Joris/CREW - was perhaps the most fascinating of the week. Along with Stifter’s Dinge it set up a series of challenges to where the boundaries lie in the field of “innovative” “theatre”.

The basic set up was as follows: At the beginning, members of the audience in the bar volunteer to be “inside” the show. One is selected by a show of hands and is ushered off while the rest of us file into the auditorium. The thing begins. Brilliantly. A soundscape is followed by a little remote controlled car - audible in the darkness - writing on the stage in a luminous marker while telling the whole of the Oedipus story. The lights come up and a compere welcomes the audience to the Muffathalle Theatre. While he does so, a giant projection of Google Earth on the floor around him zooms in on our location, until he is standing on a projection of exactly where he is standing. As uses of technology actually enhancing “liveness” go, this is a pretty neat one. Most of the computers, lighting boards and sound desks are also on the stage, adding the extra dimension of the use of technology itself being a performance.

The compere reintroduces the guy we’ve chosen to be our Oedipus, Zlatko, standing outside, shown on CCTV. By means of a radio headset, the compere talks him back into the building through a series of rooms as we watch his progress on a large screen. Eventually he is wheeled into the auditorium on a stretcher, and to symbolise Oedipus’s self-blinding, a large virtual reality-type video helmet is placed over his head. Zlatko is told that the helmet has video cameras on it, which feed into the screen inside the helmet. In fact, what he is shown is the video feed from an entirely separate set of cameras, elsewhere in the building - or perhaps pre-recorded (or both, it wasn’t entirely clear).

For the rest of the piece, Zlatko wanders around the stage lost in a virtual world, while the compere talks to him, sketching out a sort of memory/dream sequence for this lost Oedipus. It is fascinating stuff - perhaps most especially for Zlatko - but it is also limited. In spite of the extra visual elements on stage - laptops on remote controlled cars showing video sequences of crawling men and body parts - and the occasional live soundscapes provided by a female singer, there is nowhere near enough content to justify the length of time we get to watch Zlatko/Oedipus in exile. The conclusion of the piece, when our man removes his helmet and realises he has been nowhere like where he thinks he has been returns a sense of human drama and interaction to the thing, but it may be too little too late.

The fascinating thing about the show is the sheer level of advanced technology on display. Eric Joris at a subsequent post-show discussion, and on panel discussion the next day, comes across as a near-messianic Timothy Leary-style advocate of virtual reality as the future for theatre. The problem is, as he readily admits; only one person is really “inside” the show, and the rest of the audience is “outside”. While it is reasonably interesting to look into the fictions being beamed into another’s mind, without any real interaction or tension, the audience becomes slightly superfluous after a while. If this is to become theatre, Joris and CREW need to find a way of presenting its fascinating work in a more outward facing way. That said, the frequent question asked about work termed “experimental theatre”: “What’s the experiment?” cannot be applied here. CREW’s work is pure experimentation. And there is an ongoing risk that temperamental technology may cause the entire show to seize up. But, in terms of the technology/liveness debate, this is as live as anything I’ve seen. The compere talks directly to the audience, Zlatko/Oedipus is directly in the moment. What he is watching (to the best of my understanding) is totally live, and, I rather suspect, it would pass Chris Goode’s Cat Test with flying colours. Actually, the introduction of a couple of cats, or maybe a goat or two, might liven things up a bit.

Science and Theatre

We only saw one piece on the final day (following the final workshop and a panel discussion in the afternoon) - Tip of the Tongue by Plasma Theatre. Plasma are a German group who seem to be interested in exploring ideas about science in theatre - apparently this is quite a significant movement in Germany, with books and conferences on the subject. Despite being performed in German, the piece is easily the most comfortably normal bit of experimental theatre I saw all week. Imagine a Frantic Assembly show as performed by a four-strong Oxbridge sketch comedy group - that’s about where Plasma are at. The show is one of those slightly mathsy devised pieces where identically dressed performers go through similar routines with one occasionally falling out of step for comic effect. The piece is pretty text-heavy, but since the text itself has apparently been taken from learned scientific research journals, knowing German isn’t apparently even much help to the Germans in the room. The point here is not to communicate the science as it is with, say, Unlimited’s Ethics of Progress, but rather to use the text as pretext for routines, humour and perhaps some sort of reflection on the implications of the neuroscience described. While it is an enjoyably enough trot though some nice routines and funny material, a selection of false endings toward the close seemed to highlight a feeling in the room that Tip... has run its course and could do with maybe fifteen minutes knocking off.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Our theatre, right or left

For some reason, someone has felt the inexplicable urge to ask “why are there no right-wing plays?” again. As if it hadn’t been adequately addressed in March here, here, here, here, here, here, etc. [I'll add some more when I have more time].

It is striking that this question seems to be asked most often and most loudly by those who have no apparent background in theatre. There are three possible explanations for this. Those of us who actually do work in and around theatre are such tools of a left-liberal - or even further left - consensus that they are a) happy with this apparently liberal-consensus-centric status quo, or b) so soaked in their ideological stance that they do not realise that it is the case. Alternatively, c), those who work in theatre, or as its attendant critics, tend to see enough to convince them that there is in actual fact quite a spread of work being staged. After all, Quentin Letts, Charles Spencer and Lloyd Evans, as the three most prominent non-leftie critics, do grumble from time to time about how much writing seems to be of the left - but none of them, to my knowledge, has ever said there are 'no "right-wing plays"'.

Obviously, since Rayner’s blog is a partial take on his Observer piece, it is difficult as yet to engage fully with his queries and qualms. But since this question has been raised a million times before, it should be pretty easy to trot through the available positions.

Firstly - to define terms - what do we mean by “a right-wing play”? Christopher Campbell, the Literary Assistant of the National Theatre is very interesting on this point: “When Nicolas Hytner made his comment about wanting a ‘good, mischievous right-wing play’, we were suddenly inundated with plays arguing that Hitler was right.” he says. I’m assuming that this is not the sort of right-wing play that anyone (well, hardly anyone) wants to see.

So we are talking about plays which effectively advance, endorse, or at least do not attack mainstream “right-wing” positions, yes? Or is there a wider question at work? If, once a Conservative knows a particular playwright is left-leaning in his or her personal life, will that colour their conception of their work? For a play to satisfy the criteria, does it actually need to be written by someone who actually votes Tory?

Another pressing issue is: which element of the right-wing are these plays to advance? Currently the spread of values among just the Conservative Party and its published commentators, let alone its grassroots support base and life-long non-party-member voters, ranges hugely from Neo-Cons, Libertarians and Free-Market fundamentalists to paternalists, patricians, old-school (and old-school-tie) social conservatives, and every possible stripe and combination in between. The gulf between David Cameron and Norman Tebbit, or between Michael Gove and Simon Heffer, or between Peter Hitchens and Peter Whittle, rather suggests that if this putative right-wing play were to be devised by committee, it would be a conflicted, confused beast indeed. In much the same way, many so-called “left-leaning” plays are attacked just as vociferously from the left as they are from the right: which hardly points to a “liberal consensus”. So why pretend that there is a single entity that is “the right-wing play” that is not being produced? There are a lot of writers I know who while privately left-wing or centrist in their outlook would be mortified to be told that they had created a “left-wing play”.

And are all the plays currently being produced really left-wing? Looking at the irritatingly scant number of plays I’ve seen in the past week or so: there was Joe Guy - Roy Williams’s morality tale about a British-Ghanaian footballer; Present Laughter - Noel Coward’s amoral-but-conservative light comedy; Casanova - an historic, semi-sexualised romp; Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s intellectually demanding chamber epic about particle physics and the invention of the atom bomb, and on Monday I’m catching up with Ramin Gray’s Royal Court production of The Arsonists - Max Frisch’s tale of how a well-meaning middle-class couple take in a pair of lodgers who turn out to be terrorists plotting their destruction - a play that Gray has explicitly talked about in terms of containing a clear critique of Islamism and Britain’s role in the War on Terror.

Now, call me blinkered, but I’m not seeing all that much to upset a middle of the road Tory in there. Perhaps some at the more Mary Whitehouse end of things may find the humorous, unapologetic promiscuity of Casanova a bit much. However, because of the company’s impeccably concerned and feminist ethics, the way that this sexuality is handled makes it totally appropriate, if potentially baffling, viewing for children.

And this leads to another point. Hundreds of “right-wing” positions find analogous positions on the left. For every anti-globalisation protestor moaning about McDonald's, there will be some Home Counties Tory bemoaning the vulgarisation of his/her local high street. Each conservative Church-going objector to an increasingly sexualised culture will have an opposite number in the feminist-intellectual camp. Every Marxist writing off the church as a superstitious opiate of the masses will have a cool-headed Richard Dawkins-type rationalist agreeing whole-heartedly. These culture wars are being fought on deeply asymmetric territory. There is perhaps an impression given by the right wing press that “British Theatre” is left-leaning, precisely because it employs such as range of voices that at least one will find something to object to in any given play, leaving an overall impression of a unified front against another unified front, whereas in fact the truth is much more subtle.

As Ian Shuttleworth points out in his comments on the Jay Rayner blog piece, compared to the sixties and seventies, economically there is now hardly any playwright who appears to subscribe to any sort of radical departure from current fiscal policy. And if there are more than a handful, it certainly isn’t being reflected overtly in their work. Indeed, I would argue that in practical terms the old argument that “the right won the economic argument, while the left won the culture wars” seems to offer a far more decisive victory for the right’s victory than that of the left.

At the same time, is it really a triumphalist liberalism to argue that it is a good thing that homophobia, racism and misogyny are now widely understood to be wholly unacceptable? Would a “mischievous right-wing play” be a Richard Littlejohn-penned caper in which comic caricatures of homosexuals and immigrants cavorted with clear criminal intent until brought to book by heroic, stout Englishmen? One suspects not. That said, it is worth remembering, irrespective of how one feels about his columns with their perceived racism and homophobia, that even Richard Littlejohn was good friends with the (gay) Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker (is there no end to this liberal conspiracy?).

So, firstly we should not accept this uninformed prejudice trotted out that the views of the right are uniformly rubbished or ignored on the British stage. When this teacup bothering tempest last blew into town The National was showing Etherege’s Man of Mode - about as right-wing a play as you could wish for on many levels - while the Royal Court was showing Mike Bartlett’s blistering assault on the failure of liberal values in a capitalist society My Child. Now it blows into town again, the National is doing Coward and the Court is doing the Arsonists as a kind of “warning from history” about Islamic fundamentalism. The longest running play in the West End is still The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, who was hardly a Marxist. Andrew Lloyd-Webber - himself a Conservative supporter - still packs out theatres with his musicals, many of which contain at least soft-core messages, which could easily be argued to be pointing rightwards. And increasingly adaptations of Hollywood movies and jukebox musicals fill in other spaces. Of course both Hollywood and pop music are reviled by certain sections of the right - but broadly speaking, such productions, especially in view of their attendant prices and aura of commercialism, put off many more theatregoers with leftist leanings. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, The Finborough has made a point of staging plays by writers with contentious political stances, such as David Irving’s friend Rolf Hochhuth.

But of course there is an elephant in the room here. While it is possible to make a case that there are in fact plenty of “right-wing plays” and many others which, through seeking to have no political position whatsoever, could be equally enjoyed by right- and left-leaning audiences alike; the fact remains that a seemingly vast proportion of those who work in theatre in some way self-identify as “leftish”. Sure many of these claims wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny. And there is also what feels like a growing tendency for increasing numbers of actors to be quite Tory nowadays. But at the same time, that also leaves a lot of left-wingers of various types working in and around British theatre. In much the same way that, I suspect, there are an awful lot more Conservative voters working in investment banks. The question is, does this mean that there is the potential situation where plays which propound right-wing ideals get binned, shelved, censored and vetoed? Is there a conspiracy of left-leaning artistic directors, directors and writers that ensures that no right wing play ever makes it to stage? Well, quite aside from the previously discussed examples - I think the honest answer is that it varies wildly.

I don’t think for a moment that Lisa Goldman the artistic director of the Soho Theatre - and formerly artistic director of the Red Room Theatre company (a company whose name was quite deliberate in its implied associations) - will ever stage one, for example. Her political acumen does however appear to be limited enough to let all sorts of apparently non left-consensus arguments be made on her stage, provided they are made by the right sorts of minority - not so much in the case of Joe Guy - which has its moments - but certainly the summer’s Deafinitely Theatre show made a lengthy argument for deaf separatism which would put it right at odds with anyone with any sort of “inclusion” agenda, for example.

On the other hand, Dominic Cooke (like Ian Rickson before him) and Nicholas Hytner both seem quite comfortable with accommodating and representing a plurality of views on their stages. Is Nicholas Hytner even left wing? We don’t know. Apparently when Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll was discussed at the Royal Court, there were some furious arguments made against it, and against allowing its conservative writer a platform in a theatre that used to be regarded as a preserve of the left (especially by one particular female left-wing playwright). However, the play was staged. And no one actually did resign over it. And it did good business both at the Court, where it sold out its run, and in the West End.

It is fascinating that while many are inveighing against a preponderance of leftist plays in the theatre, many of those of the left - commentators, theatre-practioners, critics and, uh, Bidisha - view theatre as conservative, Conservative, reactionary and all manner of other tropes considered right-wing by such accusers.

Without wishing to bandy platitudes or get all Panglossian about it, this tentatively suggests a potentially healthy state of affairs. Being accused from all sides of being against whatever it is that the accuser would rather you were for, particularly when the accusation is spread so widely across the political and artistic spectrum, rather suggests that there is some even-handedness at play. More heartening, though, is the fact that anyone cares enough to be making the accusations. As long as there remains a fierce battle for theatre’s soul, at the very least it suggests that there is a soul there that is worth fighting for. And the battles themselves, both the political battle and the attendant artistic one, create an air of vital urgency on which the artform itself thrives.

In other news: Anyone who cares at all about theatre should read Chris Goode's new essay on the relationship of mainstream theatre to experimental work prompted by the announcement of Dominic Cooke's forthcoming programme at the Royal Court, of which Andrew Field offers a more upbeat assessment.

There should also shortly be reviews from me of Told By An Idiot's Casanova and the excellent revival of Copenhagen at the Tabard Theatre, along with a review of Michael Billington's State of the Nation and, oh, I dunno, some more bloggy stuff, I expect.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Productivity Tuesday


New reviews of Present Laughter and Joe Guy now finished.

On the Guardian’s theatre blog page today, Alison Croggan’s latest poses a thoughtful, elegantly written question on the seemingly irreparable division between poetry and theatre. It’s also worth returning periodically to the comments thread of the Bidisha article to track the discussion. “Identity” has established itself in recent years as a real matter of concern, and at present no one appears to have the faintest idea What It All Means. Meanwhile, Natasha “Interval Drinks” Tripney continues to ask some consistently enjoyable, off-the-wall questions about some of theatre’s less pressing issues.

In other news, I should probably draw attention to my most recent Guardian blog post for Postcards’s one reader with whom I’m not in regular personal contact. Elsewhere, Billington has written a thing about being reviewed, which is perfectly nice. My reading of his book continues apace - okay, technically I haven’t even picked it up today, but then I haven’t been on a bus yet. Irritatingly, I don’t think it’ll be getting much of a kicking from me, either, from what I’ve read so far. Although I might try, now that he’s asked so nicely.

About three million years ago, I mentioned wanting to write a piece wondering whatever happened to literate pop music [near end]. Now, using only significantly more regrettable terminology, someone at the Guardian’s Music blog seems to have saved me the bother - and gotten an enviable amount of comments into the bargain - even if it is the same five or six people bickering over the course of half a day.

Still, it’s cute that while over at Music they are playing the popular late-Seventies game Prole or No Prole, we at Theatre have graduated to the popular early-Eighties game of baseless denunciations as misogynists and snobs. I bet over in Books they’re already as far as only liking Nirvana when they were on Sub Pop; or, uh, Martin Amis when he was signed to Pat Kavanagh, or something. Actually, that’s not a bad place to leave it with Amis.

Finally, I cannot recommend highly or urgently enough how much you need to go to Chris Goode’s blog now and download both PDF and MP3 versions of his latest poems, which he has posted for those of us (me for one) who were to stupid and tired (or inconveniently domiciled) to make it into central London on Saturday night. Both components are vital, by the way. I tried reading a bit of An Introduction To Speed Reading off the page, in my head, while the MP3 was downloading, and it came across a bit like Peter Jones playing The Book in the BBC’s seminal series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - which doesn’t even begin to approach the astonishing amphetamine- fuelled machinegun delivery that Chris’s performance provides.

This happily ties in to Alison Croggan’s post on poetry and the stage, and makes a striking case at least for recordings of the live version as opposed to paper/book versions - in much the same way that listening to a radio version of a stage play is still miles more satisfying than simply reading one. It also ties the two neatly together, since parts of ...Speed Reading, for example, sound not entirely unlike passages from Hippo World Guest Book, Goode’s Edinburgh Fringe show this year, which was billed as Theatre, just as this is billed as poetry. Maybe the two worlds aren’t as irreconcilable as previously feared.

Joe Guy - Soho Theatre

A ‘topical peg’ off which to hang a pre-held opinion must be an immensely irritating thing for a playwright to find themselves. Roy Williams, whose new play Joe Guy opened last week at the Soho Theatre, finds himself in just such a position thanks to an article from this Sunday’s Observer. The piece takes Williams’s play and reduces it to a couple of lines of racial politics. I dread to think how many potential audience members will now steer clear as a result of this cock-eyed view of the play.

The eponymous Joe Boateng is a first generation Ghanaian immigrant footballer, who in his teens is teased by his British-Caribbean peers for his accent and studious attitude. He goes on to achieve enormous success as a footballer, gradually through the narrative ditching his old life, his accent and eventually his moral compass. While the play uses his specific racial identity as a starting point for these events, in the final analysis it is impossible to read Joe Guy as anything other than a curiously old-fashioned morality tale.

As the play opens Joe is being interviewed by a tabloid journalist. We hear that he has been implicated in one of those footballer-rape-stories which surface with worryingly frequency on the front of our red-top Sunday press. We hear that he has been accused of fathering a child with some other woman. In short, in the first five minutes, we are given precious little to like about the play’s central character beyond an undeniable wit and charisma. But then we flip back ten years and Joe is Joseph, a likeably diffident, earnest young man trying to do his job in a burger bar in spite of the abuse he is getting from two young girls and a contemporary from school.

And this is pretty much the scope of the play, which goes on to chart the transformation of the latter young man into the former. Williams’s writing fairly fizzes and sparks throughout. It is as if the mechanics of plot simply irritate him in comparison to the creation of verbal swordplay. At its best the language deployed is every bit as rhythmically acute and dazzling as a latter-day Shakespeare. The plot, on the other hand, is in need of a good going-over with a red pen. As a result, if the play is trying to say anything particular, it gets slightly lost in the clunk-click progress of the story.

Is the play’s racial dimension significant? Yes, insofar as it nominally seems to provide both the engine and the central image for Joe’s gradual downward moral spiral. Although I wonder if Williams intends the possible reading that the more Boateng abandons his West African accent in favour of a Jamaican patois the worse his conduct becomes. Surely we are not meant to view the play through an African: good, Jamaican: bad prism. And, yes, the apparent divisions between London’s African and Jamaican black communities is at least depicted, if not actively explored, beyond a few outrageous comments made by a radio phone-in guest and by Joe’s father suggesting that Africans are superior to Jamaicans because they weren’t so stupid as to get caught and enslaved.

For all that, Joe’s story is essentially no different to that of Faustus: it is a narrative of soul-selling. The further Joe moves from his roots, and is given greater and greater riches, the more he abandons traditional ideas of decency and morality. Joe Guy would be a far more interesting piece of work if the obvious attractions and moral tug-of-war was foregrounded. As it is, it is impossible to empathise with the thuggish lout that he quickly becomes. Moral pangs are clumsily deployed in the form of overheard conversations and occasional defeated looks. More interesting yet would be the Barker or Ravenhill version in which morality were cut from the picture altogether, leaving the audience to pick their own way through the spectacle of a man suddenly enabled to act on his most depraved, licentious or avaricious instincts.

Present Laughter - National Theatre

For some reason, last week Noel Coward seemed to be everywhere last week. He looms particularly large at the start of Michael Billington’s new blockbuster State of the Nation, while it was reported in a number of papers that Sir Winston Churchill personally blocked a knighthood for Noel Coward because he disapproved of the playwright’s flamboyant lifestyle. In the middle of all this, there is the National’s new revival of his 1939/42 play Present Laughter.

Written only months before the outbreak of World War Two and first staged three years later, Present Laughter invites the audience into a few days in the hectic life of Gary Essendine (Alex Jennings), a louche, amoral, philandering theatre star, very much in the model of Coward himself, albeit re-worked as a promiscuous heterosexual.

The play opens with a pretty young thing emerging, very pleased with herself, from Essendine’s spare room having spent the night. As housekeeper and secretary arrive it becomes obvious that she is a long way from being an unusual occurrence. Essendine’s ex-wife turns up. As do his financiers. Essendine surfaces from his slumber. All this is conducted largely through quip, aphorism and one-liner. It is the essence of ‘light’. Or at least it ought to be.

It would be unkind and unfair to say that the funniest thing about this new production is that the National have chosen Howard Davies to direct it. But he is a pretty rum decision: Davies is not known primarily for his sense of humour. He might be a really funny guy in civilian life, but as a director his metier is heavy, often depressing naturalism. And it appears to have been a hard habit to break here. There is a sense that the actors have really done some work finding the “emotional truths” of their characters. And, while I deeply dislike casting according to physical charm, it would not be unkind to say that this is an unusually unglamorous cast for a Coward play. It’s an interesting experiment - to attempt to play such superficial froth as if it had been written in 19th century Russia - but one which yields mixed results.

Tim Hatley’s set reflects these dual urges toward naturalism and artifice with a gaudy false-perspective turquoise room, with a detailedly damp-afflicted ceiling. That one of the characters remarks that one of their chief roles in Essendine’s life is to stop letting him buy new/more houses, this seems a false note to strike. Essendine is clearly intended to be far wealthier than this set suggests. He is not, far all, a faded member of Russian bourgeoisie, but a spectacularly successful actor in ‘30’s London. Conversely, where the naturalistic approach really pays off is in the usually trivial subplot that Coward throws in far ultra-light relief (for when the usual lightness all gets a bit, what? heavy?) - the antics of Roland Maule, a would-be playwright of unusual uselessness, who has become obsessed with Essendine.

In more traditional productions, Maule is a straw man quickly dispatched with a few witty remarks. Here, although by far the most to-type act on show, when he and Essendine discuss his play, and Essendine lets rip with a series of catty attacks on the putative script, we wonder for the first time whether he has got it right. Of course Coward was lashing out against all manner of playwrights of whose work he disapproved, but here Davies somehow subtly undermines the watertight argument Coward has constructed against his foes, and briefly Maule sounds like he might be a wholly credible writer whose work very definitely deserves a wider public. (indeed, hearing a Coward-cipher inveighing against “no plot, no character, no psychological depth” on the Lyttleton stage only months after Attempts on Her Life briefly makes you wonder what on earth Coward would have made of it).

Davies’s production, almost as if trying to justify public subsidy being lavished on mere “fun”, also places the play in the context of its conception: Essendine sitting alone in his flat, playing the piano with the wireless on in the background, listens to the announcement that war has been declared. It’s a strange decision, since having heard it, neither he nor any of the other characters feel move to comment on the fact that war has broken out.

However, for all this seriousness, the play still manages to achieve a consistent atmosphere of fun. As a hymn to the fun of amoral seduction, betrayal of one’s friends, and an ineffable sense that one should do exactly as one pleases and to hell with the consequences, it is pretty hard to beat.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Lagerfeld Confidential (dir. Rodolphe Marconi)

First draft

One of the most appealing things about doing Culture Clash on 18 Doughty Street is that it makes me see things (films usually) that in the normal run of things I would never have bothered with. Lagerfeld Confidential is precisely one such item. I haven’t seen a lot of advance-publicity for this film, so the preconceptions with which I approached it were largely those born of the general prejudice which I nurse against the fashion industry. I have absolutely no time for haute couture. The whole business strikes me as an offensively decadent affront to all that is decent, hard-working and nice; not to mention the very plausible worry that it promotes and trades heavily on women starving themselves. Suffice it to say; had I not been required to see Lagerfeld Confidential (henceforth LC), there is no reason on God’s earth I would have bothered. And I would have missed out on one of the most fascinating films I have seen this year.

From the off LC is surprisingly, pleasingly far from what I expected. The fashion industry has a pretty well-defined trope: the models, the cat walks, the lights and cameras; all the brittle gloss and angular lines. LC opens with an agreeably fuzzy shot of grey waves breaking over rocks at dawn or dusk with the Lightning Seeds’ Pure playing over the top. The waves on their own, you could perhaps assimilate; it’s the use of one of pop music’s most ingenuous, sweet-minded, innocent love songs that throws you. The lo-fi film stock is also a surprise. The idea of the world of fashion being presented as anything other than crisp, hi-gloss is disconcertingly disarming. Of course, to an extent, looking cool is the main thing, and lo-fi is a construct first and a, uh, signifier of integrity much further down the line.

The next shot, in which we see Herr Lagerfeld for the first time, is taken from his bedroom. He is in the next room, half visible though an open door. The camera looks round the room. And it keeps looking. Impolitely. Pruriently snooping. Scrutinising little details. Looking at the bookshelves, at the artfully arranged piles of books, at the minimalist designer bed and lighting which contrasts with the general atmosphere of 19th century peeling grandeur. Lagerfeld totters in. He is a gloriously over-the-top parody of a fashion designer: clad in tight, black jeans and a very designed high-necked jacket; his white hair in a pony-tail and eyes covered with trademark sunglasses (indoors. In a dim room). He is choosing thick, chunky metal rings to wear, and accessories for “the brats”. At one point he takes one of the bowls containing the rings and tips the contents into a zip up bag, wryly observing he “might need some more rings later”.

And it is utterly charming. You immediately warm to the man. He clearly has a live, alert sense of humour and an undeniable intelligence. He is also deliberately charming. The unexpected attractiveness of the room helps. This is not the living space of someone who subscribes to preposterous, fashionable-because-we-say-so trends; this is the room of someone who clearly has a very fine sense of aesthetics.

What is interesting about the film is how little context it gives its subject. Perhaps, in the right circles, Lagerfeld’s reputation-making triumph in turning around the fortunes of Chanel in the Eighties is such a well-worn tale that it needs no further explanation. To this fashion-ignoramus it was a closed book which was barely ajar at the end of the film. Instead director Rodolphe Marconi contents himself mostly by following Lagerfeld around and framing artful shots on different film stocks. This is another point in the films favour. Seeing it maybe a couple of weeks after the immaculate Control it may have suffered for being somewhat overshadowed, but it is a very different sort of creature. Where Control is frequently gorgeously minimal - almost Teutonic - LC is more like in the vein of a lo-fi David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick.

Another fascinating aspect of the film is the way that it seems to play with ideas of narrative and, in a very French, post-modern way, with ideas of genre. There is a long, languorous sequence in which Lagerfeld is photographing (shooting?) a particularly beautiful male model at some out-of-town location at sunset and at night. The next thing we see is Lagerfeld driving off alone in the morning, back into town. The whole episode reads like a sexual liaison, or even a murder. Lagerfeld makes a convincingly sinister hit-man with his dandified black suits.

The business of photography is central to the whole film - indeed Lagerfeld seems to spend more time taking pictures than he does designing clothes. This again adds to the film’s very contemporary preoccupation with both the image and post-modernity’s Russian-doll layering. There is one scene in which the director films Lagerfeld photographing a gaggle of male models who are posing as a paparazzi pack, all aiming cameras and flash bulbs at Lagerfeld. It seems to be a key scene in unlocking what the film is up to.

Elsewhere, Lagerfeld amuses himself unpicking the documentary process. There are a number of sit-down interview moments, staged mostly in Karl’s sensationally decorated apartment. From behind the camera, the director, who can be glimpsed occasionally in a handily positioned mirror - further foregrounding the filming motif - starts tentatively to ask Karl about his sexuality. Lagerfeld laughs and teases him about his coyness. The power dynamic flips, and rather than an interrogation, or a session with a psychiatrist, it becomes a matter of the director trying to reassert his conventional dominant role as questioner. That Lagerfeld is both witty, and oddly cold on the matter further enhances the interest, telling in unsentimental matter-of-fact tones of how he was twice sexually assaulted aged 12, and that his mother's reaction had been: "Well, if you will go out looking like that".

The film offers is a portrait of a man absolutely determined to be in control. At no stage does the mask slip; indeed, the sunglasses barely ever come off. More than that, much - most - of what he says regarding his emotional life revolves around his continual determination to prevent anyone from getting too close to him. He is explicit and coldly rational on the point. It is for this reason, I think, that the Telegraph, Guardian, and Metro didn't much like it. The FT seemed to have a tiny bit more time for it, but all four reviews seem to want the film to give it all to them on a plate. What __ says about Lagerfeld giving good aphorism is interesting. At two weeks' remove I am reminded of Anthony Blanche's description of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, when he asks "Tell me candidly, have you ever heard Sebastian say anything you have remembered for five minutes?... When dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then - phut! vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing." This is a film that needs to be actively read and engaged with. It is not a simple documentary, it is a playful text. The film is nothing like a “warts‘n’all” biopic. Quite the reverse. It is a film of surfaces about surfaces. As such, it is both beguiling and seductive.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Commission me not for my complexion

Over on the Guardian’s theatre blog page today, there is this pile of hogwash. Of course it’s always interesting to hear reactions to theatre from those coming from a position of seemingly total ignorance, but on what possible grounds does Bidisha (the author goes by a one-name name, like, uh, Björk*) feel qualified to make the following, perplexing accusation:

“The danger is that the current spate of commissions is simply part of a trend picked up by the white men in power, in which non-white men are ‘in’ for the time being, while nothing really changes; the plays go on, but nobody heeds their message. The establishment must get behind those dramatists who are non-white and even (yuck) women, whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it.”

For a piece purporting to critique a “white” tendency to group all “blacks” together, that’s some pretty serious lumping together that Bidisha has undertaken (would it be cheap to wonder how White-Man-in-Power Nicholas Hytner, for example, would have fared in White-Man-in-Power Hitler’s Germany?). That she has hung it on the topical peg of Roy Williams' new play Joe Guy - which as a Tiata Fahodzi production is in no way a commission from a White Man in Power, unless Artistic Director Femi Elufowoju jr is a consummate illusionist par excellence - seems wrong-headed in the extreme. That it is co-produced with the Soho Theatre (artistic director Lisa Goldman) adds a further dimension of wrong-headedness to these accusations about who commissions what, and why. Tiata Fahodzi translates as Theatre of the Emancipated; it seems foolish at best to argue that the emancipated should go cap-in-hand to “The Establishment” (I’m sorry, the what?) and ask for their support. Surely the point in being emancipated is, well, precisely the opposite.

Similarly, doesn’t saying - “Parcelled up into various catch-all terms, the funniest of which is the meaningless 'ethnic', are dozens of countries, histories, cultural influences and artistic traditions. Any reference to white racism or discrimination is expressed in a spirit of sadness, not outrage.” - rather smack of, at best, hilarious hypocrisy and at worst, unconscious racism? Is “white” really any more meaningful a term than “ethnic”, taking in, as it does, dozens of countries, histories, cultural influences and artistic traditions? It is? Tell that to anyone who’s seen a No Poles or No Irish sign in a pub window.

Elsewhere she turns her attention to race + gender, arguing “the playwright Tanika Gupta, who has been producing exemplary work for years, is still not a household name. It is men who are being promoted.” Leaving aside the question of whether Sugar Mummies was really exemplary, I would suggest that Tanika Gupta is pretty much as much a household name as Roy Williams or Kwame Kwei-Armah. Or indeed David Eldridge, David Harrower, Marie Jones or Charlotte Jones. That is to say, well enough known in households where the names of reasonably successful modern playwrights are known at all. Bidisha is kidding herself if she thinks that even Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill will mean much to the disinterested user of the Clapham omnibus.

I’m not going to begin to open that can of worms that is: “the plays go on, but nobody heeds their message”. We’ve already established that Bidisha appears to have a somewhat oblique understanding of what theatre is/is for/does, so it seems foolish to waste time going over old ground regarding plays with “messages”, one of which, to its credit, Joe Guy isn’t, really.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the article, though, is the way that having opened by claiming that “whites” group “blacks” together, Bidisha then goes on to discuss "black" writing in much the same way. More worryingly, she appears to imply that writers of Caribbean/African/Indian/whereveran origin/ancestry are the only ones who should be tackling plays about their communities. What is interesting is that while I don’t think many liberal-minded people would mind if Roy Williams wrote a play with a largely white cast – hell, Sing Yer Heart Out... is precisely that – I suspect the same people would be much less interested in a white writer creating a play with mostly black characters. Indeed, after my Guardian blog on this subject, I got an email from a (white) writer friend who said: “I recently suggested [details cut to preserve anonymity] to [...] who are interested in commissioning me. [...] was great, ripe for dramatisation, and something I think I could write well. Only the story was about [...] black men. And that was the reason I was given for why the theatre didn’t feel it would be right to commission me. Not, 'We don't like the idea' or 'you're not good enough' but because I am white and middle class. Ironically, they then asked to commission [a black writer] for the same idea.” On the other hand, Stephen Jeffreys gained a great deal of praise for his play about American racial segregation and the blues I Just Dropped By to See the Man, which had a mostly black (sincere apologies to anyone genuinely offended by that generalisation) cast. Here’s hoping the attitude that informed the latter decision will ultimately prevail.

Writers need to be freed from precisely the sort of identity politics Bidisha promotes in order to be able to write about whatever they like. As Roy Williams does. Sure, if he’s interested by an issue concerning identity then he should make a play about it. There is also the ongoing concern to do with the form that such plays can take. As critic Carole Woddis noted in a comment to my piece: “The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a flowering of greater stylistic experimentation, Winsome Pinnock for one. Edgar White and Derek Walcott were just two earlier pre-eminent Caribbean writers whose styles embraced a whole range of embroideries - ritual, fantasy, dream - to explore various themes to do with ‘the mother country’.” It is vital that the doors to these options remain open. It is hard to imagine them doing so if: “The establishment must get behind those dramatists... whose vision of society is the most penetrating and whose wisdom may save it.”

Wouldn’t it be better if “the establishment”(!) just got behind those who wrote the best plays? Or indeed those who co-create the best works-for-theatre using non-traditional or experimental models of theatre-making?

* Edit: originally Jordan. See third comment.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

The shock of the "slightly established"

Chris Goode recently wrote beautifully about one of those silly lists which lists “influential” movers, shakers, and, unaccountably, actors, in the theatre world. The Evening Standard Awards are a much less muddled affair. This is, after all, simply a list of the things some people thought were best. From which shortlists and eventually winners will be picked.

Apart from serving to highlight how much I have managed to miss at the theatre this year, the lists and categories really illuminate precious little. Unlike the Oliviers, there are, to my knowledge, no restrictions placed on what can be nominated, but unlike the Critics Circle Awards, there is a far smaller panel making the choices. Indeed the Evening Standard Theatre Awards judging panel is a curious collection, comprising as it does Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard, Georgina Brown of the Mail on Sunday, Susannah Clapp of The Observer, Benedict Nightingale of The Times and Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph. Heaven forfend that I should kick off the Dead White argument all over again, but there are considerations here that should be looked at. For a start, they are all senior critics, Taking a wild stab, I’d say the youngest (one or other of the two women) was probably closer to 50 than 45. Not a problem in itself, but they are also all first stringers. That is to say, the senior (or indeed only) critic on their paper.

The way that newspapers in this country seem to organise their arts coverage often appears to be as rigidly hierarchical as an old-fashioned prep school. There are hierarchies of theatres, and hierarchies of critic. Given that papers will run one or two, maybe three reviews a day, and there will be a corresponding or higher number of openings, these generally appear to be divvied up through a process of matching a theatre’s rank to that of a critic. Generally speaking, depending on the paper, the West End comes first. A massive new musical with star names and big budget will take precedence. Frankly, no one with any sense will open against it. It often strikes me the National should use such occasions to open their more experimental offerings to the (usually younger and far more receptive) second stringers.

After the West End comes the National or the RSC. And not close behind the other major subsidised and boutique London houses like the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Almeida and so on. After these come the leading Fringe venues like the Bush, the Soho and probably still the Gate, maybe now also the Arcola and Chocolate Factory, which is fast overtaking the Gate in terms of critical acclaim. The BAC probably still fits in on this rank, but thanks to Artistic Director David Jubb’s determination (until Masque of Red Death) to make the damn place almost critic-proof by limiting a majority of runs to about three nights it hardly ever manages to get coverage for its wide variety of work. Behind these venues will be places like Theatre 503 and that other new writing venue in south London that I can’t remember for the life of me. Behind these - if it’s a really slow night, you might find a critic venture out to the Old Red Lion, The Hen and Chickens or the Pleasance. But the show in question would have to have a pretty impressive press agent to get a national broadsheet through the doors without a major name of some description.

Outside of this London ranking, regional coverage by first stringers seems to be increasingly dying out. Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield all now seem to be largely the province of second stringers, or regionally based critics, while Scotland, outside festival time appears to have been handed pretty much wholesale to critics based in the country.

To return to the point: there is, then, a rather obvious problem with the Evening Standard’s Awards if its whole panel consists entirely of first-stringers. They will only have seen a tier of work that is deemed “top rank”. Fine, one might say, awards are elitist, and so only the top rank should be under consideration. Except that no one is even pretending that the “top rank” is top because it is best. It is top because it is largest and most expensive.

So what to do? Well, for a start, why not introduce a couple of second stringers onto the panel. Lyn Gardner and Dominic Cavendish would do nicely. Interestingly, they would also bring a whole new ethos to the table. After all, there is, perhaps, on the current panel’s line-up, something of a tendency toward the comfort-zone in terms of taste. Sure, all matters of taste could be considered comfort zones of a sort, but I would argue that the comfort zones of Cavendish, and especially Gardner are still a good deal more, how to say this tactfully? adventurous?

So there we have it: The Evening Standard Awards, through presumably no deliberate malice aforethought, managing to preserve a vision of theatrical excellence that is predicated largely on grounds of size and expense.

To round off, I’d like to echo Chris Goode’s comments by highlighting some of the seemingly odd choices in the “Promising” playwright and “Newcomer” categories. Surely by now Dennis Kelly has done a lot more than “promise”. Christ, whatever it was he promised, he more than delivered both before and after Love and Money. And Matt Smith, while quite brilliant in That Face, was also brilliant in Chatroom / Citizenship at the National in 2005, wasn’t he? Still, maybe “slightly established” is the new “new”. Which doesn’t bode well for the new.