Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Power of Yes - National Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

“This isn’t a play” says “David Hare” at the start of his latest “play” The Power of Yes. That’s alright, Sir David, neither were Berlin or Via Dolorosa. And, frankly, if Gethsemane and The Vertical Hour were anything to go by, we should all be rather grateful.

At a later point, one of Hare’s “characters” quotes Andy Warhol’s suggestion that people continue to have sex because it reminds them that sex used to be good. Perhaps this is why the National Theatre keep on staging plays by David Hare.

The Power of Yes is a piece of verbatim theatre. David Hare went out with a dictaphone, or video-camera, or whatever, and interviewed a load of people about the recent financial crisis and then edited the results into an hour and fifty minutes of the bits he thought were interesting and shaped them into a kind of narrative; sometimes, within the process, commenting on this fact to the people he was talking to.

Unusually for this sort of interview-based (as opposed to tribunal-based) verbatim theatre, Hare himself is represented on stage (sadly not by Alan Bennett in a wig). Actually, Anthony Calf’s performance of David Hare is a remarkably good one. There’s even the neat visual gag that he’s wearing exactly the clothes Hare wore on exactly the same stage when performing Berlin. Or perhaps Hare’s only got one set of clothes. But, yes, Calf is so convincing that by about halfway through you’ve almost forgotten it isn’t him who’s irritating the hell out of you, but an uncanny impression of the person who is.

And, to give Hare his due, I think he knows as much and plays with it. The structure of the piece – its subtitle is “A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis” (self-dramatist might be closer the mark, but I digress) – foregrounds his quest for knowledge. In this respect, the piece is almost identical to Berlin. It starts with Hare not getting something, and ends with him concluding that it’s about the death of an idea. I’m looking forward to the piece where he goes about trying to comprehend astrophysics and concludes it’s all about the death of an idea. I mean, really, surely there are hundreds of things David Hare doesn’t understand.

The problem is, David Hare really doesn’t get it. And, because of the way the piece functions, that’s our problem; because he’s up there asking all the questions, effectively on our behalf. And either he thinks we really are very stupid indeed, or he is radically out of touch with the real world. As such, the first half of the play virtually turns into a lecture. At several points a blackboard is even wheeled out for Christ’s sake. Normally, as a critic, it feels slightly silly or ostentatious to have a notepad parked on one’s lap. Here it felt like everyone in the audience ought to be issued with one.

It turns out that the script isn’t by any means the biggest problem. The beginning is indeed rather droll and the rest of the structure is perfectly sound, if pretty much the most obvious way of doing presenting the story. The material, of course, necessarily depends on the acuity or sense of humour of the interviewee. Some are incisive, witty and make good jokes. Lots of others talk in dead language and platitudes and are probably made several degrees more interesting just by dint of being played by actors.

Visually, however – directorially – the piece swings between complete inertia, visual sign-posting of such ludicrous literalism that it’s hard not to conclude it is intended as a joke and some of the worst theatrical kleptomania I’ve ever seen. There’s one sequence practically lifted wholesale out of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, but without either the wit or the warmth. But mostly it’s just men in suits standing around. Sometimes there’s a woman in a suit. Very occasionally there’s a nice stage-picture, and the stage does have an admirably shiny black floor. But that’s about it. The acting is pretty good.

Given how pressing the issues are, it is strange how uninteresting …Yes manages to make them. In a way, it feels like it’s because the whole thing is mediated through “Hare” – this fictional construct of an actual playwright. It’s not about the financial crisis, it’s about his interest in it. And it feels like that’s the thing we should be interested in. It’s about him feeling for us, taking the sins of capitalism onto his Christ-like shoulders and bearing them for us. He gets jolly cross on our behalf, to absolutely no real effect. Perhaps his impotence is also our impotence.

Elsewhere, some of his clever-clever self-reflexivity rebounds rather badly on him. At one point close to the start, one of his interviewees suggests that he’s got a tough job in trying to dramatise the financial crisis, and isn’t it going to be impossible to stage the stock market. I don’t think I’m going too far to suggest that the knowing laughter this elicited was two-fold. One, the intended: “Oh, ha ha, yes, very good, how on earth would one stage the stock market? Ha ha!” and, Two: those who had recently enjoyed Enron and seen an imaginative writer and director do just that laughing at the dramatic irony. Ha ha, indeed.

At another point, Hare is pursuing the arrogance of merchant bankers in a conversation with a (former?) Financial Times journalist. The journalist (here played by Claire Price) asks him “but don’t you also ignore your critics” (or words to that effect), Hare’s response is quite remarkable rage concluding “writing plays doesn’t ruin people’s lives” (again, I’m paraphrasing, the NT really should give away script-programmes rather than charging £8.99 for copies of the text). Actually, the FT journalist seems to have precisely skewered the massive truck-sized hole in Hare’s project. He seems to want to preach some sort of left-ish message, I guess, but the means he’s using are entirely right-wing. Everything on the stage is normative. By chasing a news agenda, he’s already so buried in the system, that he can’t even see it around him. He, like these merchant bankers he so despises, suffers from colossal arrogance and flatly refuses to recognise it.

There’s no doubt that Hare sets himself up for this sort of criticism. Indeed, viewed optimistically, the play’s a piece of self-reproach as much as anything. Having himself portrayed on stage as well as being responsible for the script, does make writing about the piece feel unduly personal. I have nothing against the actual David Hare, who I’m sure is charming and generous, but here he does present himself in a deeply unflattering, and central, spotlight. Less forgivable is just how dull the play is to watch. Sure there are bits of narrative interest, and the stuff with billionaire financier George Soros, charismatically rendered by Bruce Myers, is fascinating. The piece concludes with a rather beautifully rendered dinner between the two in an anonymous skyscraper looking out over the twinkling lights of the financial centre of some major world city or other. While failing to land any particular punch, it does feel oddly, fittingly Faustian. Here we are with David Hare, his concerns, and a multi-billionaire enjoying a glass of mineral water. Lovely. How polite. How informative.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Beyond the Frontline - The Lowry, Salford

This is still in progress, but, well you can see what I've written so far if you like... [sorry it's still unedited and rambly]

Oh, and currently contains spoilers too...

On one level, the most impressive thing about Beyond the Frontline is its sheer scale. Essentially it’s a promenade, avant garde, requiem to the British Army with a cast of about 150. Intriguing, no?

The actual form of the piece is quite simple. The audience is led into a field tent nestled by the side of Salford’s imposing Lowry centre. In the dark, in driving rain, the nervous, grim expressions on the soldiers’ faces make for an unnervingly realistic atmosphere of tension. We are divided into numbered chairs and greeted by the commanding officer (Oliver Senton). In a rather neatly crafted speech he informs us of our role as inspectors, cleverly blurring the theatrical rules into briefing and backstory – the British Army deployed on our own streets as a counter-insurgency force.

Because Beyond the Frontline isn’t concerned about the rights and/or wrongs of any specific conflict, who “the enemy” are is left deliberately unclear (al Qaeda? The Continuity IRA? The Scottish?). While this is helpful to the show’s general theory – “in a civilised society when men and women lose their lives in the course of their duty, society should take a moment to pay tribute” – it suspends the action in a kind of moral void. Perhaps reflective of the state of soldiering. We don’t get to worry about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, only that the soldier’s duty is to carry out work that their country has asked them to do.

The format of the show is essentially another variation on the headphones and boxes formats of earlier shows Last Seen and Helium. Following the briefing, the audience is divided into four groups and each taken out into the plaza in front of the Lowry, where officers lecture us on the principles of this sort of military presence. We are shown checkpoints. People passing through the square have their papers checked by sentries, dozens of soldiers line the rooftops around the square, and can be seen in the windows of the theatre and outlet mall opposite. Searchlights sweep the rainswept paving. It’s all enjoyably apocalyptic and totalitarian, contrasting with the clipped but friendly, urbane tone of the officers. Suddenly there’s a massive explosion at the far end of the square. Our headsets crackle into life as suddenly dozens more soldiers are running across the square; there is gunfire; confusion; we hear orders being issued as we are rushed toward a set of nearby trucks.

Inside each truck is the next part of the show – essentially four dramatic monologues. Each audience only sees one monologue as part of their experience of the hour-long piece, however. Having nothing better to do in Salford, I went round all three of the evening’s performances (shows start at 7.00, 8.15 and 9.30) and managed to catch three of the four (apologies to Dom Fitch and John Hunter). It’d be helpful if these monologues had names (or if the programme made the credits a bit clearer – bloody ensemble efforts). Each monologue is an entirely separate commission from a different writer. As a result each is wildly different, and makes for a completely unique middle of the show, which in turn impacts on how one experiences the final segment.

Comparisons between the three pieces were fascinating. How each negotiated its place within the truck, how they differed in terms of style and content, and indeed in performance.

Joel Horwood’s piece, for example, cleverly morphed from being us, the audience, really in the back of the truck with a solider into a hallucinatory death rattle. Chris Thorpe’s piece, by contrast, made no such concessions to setting – immediately, once we were in the truck, we were in a room with Chris Thorpe, a upturned spotlight and a microphone.

Of the three I saw, the first – sat in a leaking truck, following driving rain in the square – suffered slightly for being seen with fifteen-odd sixth-formers who, while perfectly amenable, were also catching one another’s eyes and looking slightly self-conscious and disconcerted. It also sat mid-way between the other two pieces, neither naturalistic or totally frame-bursting. Instead, Dave Toole plays a kind of fragmentary ghost (by Matthew David Scott). An echo in the back of the truck. Perhaps from a previous tour of duty. His reflections intercut with static, crackle and snippets of dialogue through our headphones as this ghost’s final moments play out in a kind of feedback loop. It’s a grimly effective little piece, but perhaps slightly too fractured and clever to achieve either a real punch or a sense of intellectual vertigo. Which is precisely what the other two do, respectively.

Horwood’s piece is, in many ways, typical of his writing: touching recollections of adolescence, some excellent jokes, and a real emotional kick at the end. Simple but effective. It also had some new stuff: a disconcerting Donnie Darko-like imaginary best friend called Roof-Rack, who seemed to have horns and fur and some beautiful linked images of death and blood soaking into snow, or bandages. It also has an outstanding performance from Daniel Rigby who flips from friendly, chatty squaddie to Welsh youngster and back again...

Chris Thorpe’s text, by contrast, is a taut, angular bit of writing that hurtles at psychotic speed with chippy intensity from a near-Marxist-theory version of why bread is made in factories to the emotional breakdown of someone who designed computer software to make it easier for soldiers to kill people. Thorpe’s performance couples a flat accent and blunt mateyness to a piercing, unblinking stare and machine-gun delivery in the glare of stark white lighting. While it’s not exactly ‘moving’ in the sentimental sense of the word, it is perhaps all the more horrifying for its relentless pursuit of logic.

Money - Shunt

This is also nearly finished, but I need to put this post up now so I can link to my Beyond the Frontline review for a Guardian blog.

The Author - Royal Court

[sorry it's late. Still needs a bit of an edit, but here goes...]

Forgive the preamble. The Author is one of those pieces of theatre that really forces the critic to think about the purpose of their review. Put simply, I went in with very little information about the form or content of The Author. That seemed pretty much the perfect way of experiencing it. The Author is definitely worth seeing. Go and see it. Don’t read any more until you have seen it.

But then there’s the people who won’t get to see it. And the people who have seen it and want to read about it. There’s a sense that one should write both a spoiler-free review and then one in which the contents of the play and what (and how) they mean are discussed. Because of the way in which The Author is constructed, discussing what it says in anything beyond generalities will alter the way in which a person experiences it saying them.

Ok, so we can’t make theatre in a void. As Ian Shuttleworth discusses in a recent Theatre Record editorial, normal critics just need to make a judgement call, and hope it doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Given the option, it feels like it would be good if there was also space for more in-depth reviews which don’t have to strain not to let the cat out of the bag and consequently can discuss what’s in the play and what that means.

So, again, if you’re going to see The Author, you’ll have a different experience of it if you carry on reading now.

One of the most fascinating things about The Author is precisely this sort of choice. The idea of choice is also central to the way in which it operates. When you enter the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to take your seat (unallocated: again, choices), you look at the two banks of seating arranged in traverse, and then you notice that there’s no space between them. There is either no stage or it is all stage. What we’ll be watching is each other. Even just as an arrangement it feels uncanny. Because we’ve been here before we know the seats and seeing them just facing each other, implacable, is somehow oddly disconcerting. It’s funny, of course, but also a little unsettling. There’s something about the proximity of the two front rows, as well. Perhaps even a little too close together.

After a deliberately long period of pre-show seatedness, performer Adrian Howells, sat with us in the audience, starts to talk loudly to the (in this case) woman next to him. He is playing an audience member called Adrian. Good natured banter about how much he loves the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs ensues. At this point, depending on how much attention you paid to the programme or posters, you might or might not know how many other people in the audience are also performers. If you know what Tim Crouch, the author of The Author looks like, and know he is also in The Author, you might spend time amusing yourself watching the author instead of watching The Author.

After a while, Adrian stops talking. There is a pause. A very long silence, in fact. The “house lights” go down so that we, the audience, are the only thing that’s lit. Music plays.

The cessation of performance, the change of lighting to focus our attention on, well, on the performance area, which is also where we are sitting, means that we have our attention drawn – as audience members – to one another. Most people in the audience have come as couples, and so turn to each other and talk quietly. There’s a pleasant if bemused atmosphere. What was interesting to me was that while the piece was playing a game with expectation, revelling in its liveness, in the fact that anyone in the audience could do anything, there was also a printed script in the programme. At any stage, one could open it up to find out what’s going to happen next. Of course, in theory, this is an option for any play at the Court. But normally one’s sat in darkness. You’d have to squint. It’d feel rude to the actors to look at the script instead of watching them. One is normally coaxed into the suspension of disbelief.

Here, there’s a very interesting game being played with suspension of disbelief – with what’s “real”. Tim Crouch really is real. He really is the author of The Author. He is also the next person to speak. He talks about being led to a flotation tank by an attractive young woman. His description of her goes slightly too far. He asks us if it’s ok for him to continue. We’re always in The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with him, but he’s talking about being somewhere else. We’re not sure that “real” Tim Crouch would think like this about a young woman leading him to a flotation tank. So, oddly, it becomes fine for him to continue. Because we’re reassured that he’s acting. Or performing. The person he says he is (who he actually is), isn’t “him”. At least we hope not.

Gradually two more performers are revealed and begin to talk to us about their experiences relating to a play they’d been in (or, in Adrian’s case, seen) written by Tim Crouch, and performed in the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court. Tim is also talking to us about this play that he wrote and directed. The play of which he was The Author. This play that it’s claimed Tim wrote – if you know his back catalogue, or the recent production history of the Theatre Upstairs, then you’ll know it’s a made-up play – is a pointedly satirical conflation of several Royal Court Upstairs shows. It’s about father-daughter sexual abuse. Adrian talks about how many dead babies he’s seen in the Theatre Upstairs.

Tim and the actors talk about the (unnamed) play (“The title of the play referred to the girl in it, I suppose. It was her face on the poster, in the brochure – looking dreadful!!” – Adrian). About the subject: war, sexual abuse, violence; about their rehearsal process; about how they watched videos of soldiers raping women; about how they watched videos of beheadings; about how they visited the country where the play was set and met people they thought were like the characters in the play; about how they copied these people’s physicality; about how Esther was “lucky enough” to meet a 17-year-old girl who had been raped by her father – “Just like her character”.

Tim talks about how the play was “a poem, really”, he talks about how the violence in the play is a metaphor, but also an examination of precisely the sort of violence that exists in the world. How what they presented on stage was nothing compared to some of the things they’d seen in their research.

Even knowing that the play they were talking about is fictional, you know that the genre absolutely isn’t. You can think of the countless examples. Your mind returns again and again to Blasted, to the ultraviolence of “In-Yer-Face” theatre. You remember reading all those arguments about how the writers were exploring society’s violence in their plays in Aleks Sierz’s In-Yer-Face Theatre. If you were there the night I was there, you can watch Aleks spotting the references and smiling. You can recognise the absolutely real descriptions of research trips abroad, of actors researching their parts, of writers researching their plays, of actors talking to people who have suffered; and you can recognise yourself as an audience member watching these shows.

While doing no research beyond the theatre, The Author manages to talk eloquently about violence in the real world and the difficulty of making art about it. About the ethical questions that making art that examines violence raises. About the ethics of watching, consuming, art about violence. It actually takes a pretty stern, unequivocal, ethical stance. It finds it wrong. It makes us deeply uncomfortable that an actor and a writer will *interrogate* a rape victim in the service of their art. There’s an interesting performance style at play here. The way Crouch talks often sounds more like liturgy than in-the-moment psychological realism. On the other hand, the “scene” in which he and the actor Vic “interrogate” “Karen” his chilling precisely because of the cold aggression being pretended behind Crouch’s eyes.

Given the final two events which the narrative of The Author describes, it would be easy to conclude that Crouch’s point is that if reasonable, concerned, “nice” people spend enough time looking into violence, researching violence and sexual violence, looking at it, it will eventually make them psychotic. I think Crouch is actually more interested in making us think about the ethical implications of this sort of research-based “poetry” than simply slamming it. In a way, the play even questions the ideas of “authenticity”, and appears to make an interesting case against them. As such it constitutes a real line-in-the-sand moment for theatre. Of course real companies and practitioners will point out that they would be, are, more careful than these fictional counterparts; but Crouch’s challenge still stands. Is “behaving well” enough? I’m not sure I feel as unequivocal on the point as Crouch does, but having seen the play, it’s a position that suddenly feels much harder to justify.

That the Royal Court has commissioned and housed this J’Accuse against itself adds a fascinating extra dimension. It’s worth noting in passing that the script insists “T]he Author is set in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre – even when it’s performed elsewhere.” Then, later “The names of the characters in this text are the names of the actors playing them for the Royal Court premiere. If the actors change, the character names change accordingly, with the exception of the author, whose character’s name should always be Tim Crouch” and then at the bottom “The printed text may differ slightly from the play as performed.” It feels as if these elements are almost strangely contradictory, although I would be fascinated to see the piece performed by a wholly new cast in a totally different building, but can’t help feeling that although the play itself is very strong, the immediate and obvious resonances of its site-specificity would be lost. It would also be interesting to see what the effect of having “Adrian”’s part played by an actual audience member fitted with an earpiece, √° la An Oak Tree.

To conclude, this is a rich, densely allusive and morally urgent piece of theatre and essential viewing for theatregoers. Moreover, it is a piece that deserves and rewards being discussed and thought about. It is not just a play; in the most real sense possible, it is the start of a conversation.

[Edit: re: the direction - see below. Tim says it better than I ever will]