Sunday, 30 June 2013

Abstract texts: a defence

[something I wrote a month ago]

Four hypothetical statements:

[Kill Your Darlings by Fabian Hinrichs] is a very open text, clearly allowing for huge amounts of directorial creativity.

It is unembarrassed about acknowledging the presence of the stage, the auditorium, the cast, the audience - the experience of theatre.

It is actually quite bad, in my opinion.

“At their worst German playwrights have been so castrated by the power of the director that they kind of stop writing anything at all and just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all.

After a brief email exchange, where I asked [our old friend, the taken-out-of-context Straw Man] if he’d mind me writing a bit of a come-back, he closed: “I would love to hear your thoughts on a comparison between playwriting in German and English speaking countries. Are they REALLY any good???

Now, I know next to zip about most German playwrights. Thinking about it, I didn't see all that many New Plays when I lived in Berlin; although I did see quite a lot of New Work – a distinction I’m loathe to resurrect. Those plays I did see, I don’t think I understood nearly well enough to make any comment on; primarily because my German isn’t nearly good enough. I wrote about hardly any of them because it would have felt so futile – if you’re reviewing a new play, and you can’t really assess the immediacy of the text (but instead have the bits you didn’t catch explained afterwards), then surely you’re covering less than half the experience.

My argument against the provocation is partially a variant on another proposal – Simon Stephens’s proposition that “language is noise,” which he most famously tabled as part of his speech Skydiving Blindfolded: Five Things I Learnt From Sebastian Nüblingat the Stückemarkt of Theatertreffen'11 (the text of which itself seems to contradict much of the proposal above). And partly it’s a simple objection to the enormous leap from “I don’t like” to “they are castrated”.


But before getting onto defending Germany, I’d just like to make a couple of possible observations about British playwriting, the culture that surrounds it, and what we often characterise as Britain’s “Writer’s Theatre”.

Let us imagine a hypothetical New British Play, by a much fêted Young British Playwright, which opens to a spread of unbelievably positive reviews.

Then let us imagine that I happened to see the piece in an early preview. Apparently what the press saw was considerably cut and altered from what I had seen. And both things are pretty different from the text that “went to print before rehearsals finished”. And all three of these versions are different again from the seven or eight drafts that the playwright wrote in the half-year or so between the first auditions and press night.

[It might also perhaps be amusing imagine that in their writer’s note, the playwright first says they spent six years writing the play – although during that period also wrote more or less every other play in their oeuvre, and a bunch of episodes for TV – and then goes on to thank most of all the director for their “rigorous dramaturgy”...]

And they say we “privilege the writer”.

It strikes me that maybe we just overwork the writer. By which I mean, I think the changes that the hypothetical writer was having to go home and make could easily have been made by a dramaturg or a director – indeed, we could imagine that many of the changes were being suggested by several such figures – but instead the changes are “made by the writer” (who might have been asked to make them at gunpoint for all we know) to ensure the “integrity” of the script – of the writer’s vision – in this “Writer’s Theatre” of ours.

Obviously that’s all fine if the writer and director and whomsoever else in their organisation that has a say are all well into the spirit of this sort of close collaboration. [Let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that it is a lot of executive voices above the director asking said director to mediate their requests through the director to the playwright, but that the playwright is perfectly happy to trust this advice].

It strikes me as funny, given the above, that we still say we have a “writer's theatre”, and that the Germans have a “director's theatre”, when in Germany the writer agrees a final version of their play with their publisher that directors can then take, pay for, and make whatever changes they want themselves, rather than keeping on sending the writer back to their laptop to kill more of their darlings.

It is also ironic to think - given our play-publishing culture and our sanctification of The Text – that the version of Hypothetical New Play, which got, perhaps, five stars from Michael Billington, is not the exact play which has been printed, and most likely never will be (unless the final versions are what will go into Hypothetical Playwright: Plays 1). And so, all future productions based on this published script will be treating-as-sacred a version of the play that was never actually performed. One which is actually quite a long way from the play as performed – the published, sacred text is one that was deemed “still a bit too long/unclear/in need of revisions”.

In this British process, there are also the poor actors – who keep having to learn new versions of the script right up until the third-to-last preview – to consider. Might they not wind up feeling nervy, exposed, and more deserving of our sympathy than anything else on press night? It seems a big ask to only have a final script two days before opening, to say the least.

As such, it strikes me that the British system could be seen to be equally, if not more brutal to writers, than the German one. And in a way that might ultimately be more tiring and demoralising for the writer, whose original concept/text is now just a file on their laptop called “Final Draft version 1”, which will never see the light of day. Compare this with Germany, where the writer’s preferred version is still the definitive version, in the possession of their publisher. A version with which any director may fiddle, but none can permanently change.

Beyond this, I might briefly add note that given Germany’s preference for “Directors’ Versions” of plays, the same text by a writer can frequently open in more than one theatre in its first year of production. It could remain in rep in those theatres at the same time. It is, by contrast, rare for any play in Britain to even get a second production. Let alone a second and third in the year the first opened. Which, quite apart from any artistic rewards, is simply more lucrative for the playwright.

In this scenario, which country’s playwrights are really being “castrated by the director”?


Anyway, to return to the Straw Man’s initial decontextualised proposition/s:

a) It is actually quite bad. In my opinion.

I've only read about half of the text [of Kill Your Darlings], but I already don't think I agree (although, since the subjectivity is carefully foregrounded here, I can’t say I believe the statement is *wrong*, not that I would. But I do disagree). I’ll try to explain:

I read Kill Your Darlings in the café of the Lyric, half reading and half re-formatting the sodding thing so it was readable. I just re-read the first half that I formatted again now [Sunday, 2 June], and had several thoughts. The thought I was having in the Lyric café inspired by Skydiving Blindfolded was this: language isn't only noise: each language is quite a specific set of noises. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take the lyrics of, say, Search and Destroy by The Stooges:
I'm a street walking cheetah
With a heart full of napalm
I'm a runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb
I am a world's forgotten boy
The one who searches and destroys
Honey gotta help me please
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby detonates for me
Look out honey, 'cause I'm using technology
Ain't got time to make no apology
Soul radiation in the dead of night
Love in the middle of a fire fight
Honey gotta strike me blind
Somebody gotta save my soul
Baby penetrates my mind
And I'm the world's forgotten boy
The one who's searchin', searchin' to destroy
And honey I'm the world's forgotten boy
The one who's searchin', searchin' to destroy
Forgotten boy, forgotten boy
Forgotten boy said
Hey forgotten boy
On paper they (arguably) look like some of the worst writing there is. But would we say Iggy Pop was “so castrated by the power of the music that he kind of stopped writing anything at all and just evoked vague images and left gaps”? And “The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all”? I think we could say that. We could probably say it very easily. And be “right”. But the fact remains that Search and Destroy is basically awesome, and, more crucially, works perfectly. I'd be just as happy to substitute Eliot's The Waste Land here. Pretty much the same principle applies. (Also, crucially, isn’t what happens in the gaps in the text (drums, bass, guitar) as important as the text?)

In fact, quite a lot of my favourite music and poetry could be described as “the evocation of vague images and left gaps”. Here language isn’t just noise, it’s also the deployment of words which connote, imply and resonate. There is sense beyond the senselessness that anyone with a shared cultural understanding grasps intuitively. We understand exactly why “napalm” and “A-bomb” and “radiation” in a song which is basically just a plea for someone/anyone to fuck (although someone else can write the PhD “Iggy and the Stooges: Cold-War Paranoia and Vietnam as Come-on”).


Another component of both Search and Destroy and The Waste Land is “language as noise”; the inexplicable rightness of two words sat next to each other. The crackle of consonant on consonant. The music generated by word-sounds.

The main thing I learnt directing Hamletmaschine was that if you get a poetic text that sounds *really great* in German then, well, it doesn't in English. The words aren't the same. Sure, English can be made to sound brilliant if you’re starting from a point of being allowed to choose whatever English words you like. However, if you're trapped by the fact of having to translate word-meaning from a poem written in German into English then you're at a severe disadvantage. The right-meaning-words don't even begin to spark off each other or nestle together in the same way at all.

We could reasonably assume that any translation of an obviously poetic text - especially in a literal translation – is probably going to lose so much in translation, so simply saying “it’s actually quite bad” – while a reasonable assessment of the thing in front of you – is perhaps making a bit of a leap to call it an assessment of the thing itself.

I’d feel happier saying: “With the information available, it is impossible to tell”.


There’s also the question of context to consider. Kill Your Darlings (henceforth KYD) was apparently written by Fabian Hinrichs specifically for, and after a month of conversation with, director René Pollesch (who usually writes his own texts). In the same way that Search and Destroy was written specifically by and for Iggy and The Stooges. On some levels, that too is an open text – I would contend all texts are open – but, at the same time, the initial point of destination for Search and Destroy was known. As was KYD’s. Indeed, the script for KYD that we’ve got includes what are pretty much stage-manager’s notes of who’s doing what, where, and when. It’s got more stage directions than a Mike Bartlett play, zum bespiel. Therefore, as with Search and Destroy, it perhaps does the text a slight disservice to imagine – in the manner of a British theatre critic – that the text should operate its full level of sense without all the other elements intended for its completion (a stage, actors, concept, direction, dramaturgy, design), or even to analyse it as text at all.


For all these reasons (for a start), it then seems an especially big leap to then say:

b) At their worst German playwrights have been so castrated by the power of the director that they kind of stop writing anything at all. And just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all.

[Well, firstly, see the bit about Hypothetical New Play for a different sort of “castration” (although, I wonder if castration isn’t an inappropriately male image. Is playwriting all about having balls? Different question. Back to the point...)]

Secondly, see all the prior bits of defence of images and gaps above.

Another difficult thing I learnt about the German language is that its poetry works in a different way to English poetry (I learnt this when someone explained to me that the poetry in Baal was actually very beautiful. I'd always thought, from reading translations, that it was a play about a lousy poet).

Compare Brecht’s Den Nachtgeborenen:

Future Generations 
I confess this:
I have no hope
The blind talk about an escape.
I see.
When the errors are consumed
The nothing will sit next to us
as our last companion.
Ich gestehe es:
Ich habe keine Hoffnung
Die Blinden reden von einem Ausweg.
Ich Sehe.
Wenn die Irrtümer verbraucht sind
Sitzt als letzter Gesellschafter
Uns das nichts gegenüber
(Just read the last one outloud to yourself). Very statementy in English. In German, much more lyrical and stark (“stark” in both English and German meanings, thinking about it). Added to this is the fact that culturally, being statementy is more allowed and admired as poetry in German [probably not the best example, but the internet wasn't being very helpful. Will see if I can find a better example].

But let’s move on to the charge that guilty German texts...:

just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all”.

Well, boring first question: does a text-for-theatre itself have to “say” something? Moreover, can it ever say “nothing”?

Also: don’t gaps speak as eloquently as dense wording? More eloquently sometimes. Can a gap ever say “nothing” on a stage? Can a gap even be a gap on stage without also being something else?

To quote the opening of my review of Simon Stephens’s play Wastwater:
‘Debussy once said “music is the space between the notes”. This is how Wastwater works. Through the vast spaces between and within three tangentially connected dialogues it paints a picture of the world on an enormous scale.’
Then: is it really possible to say that this piece does “not actually say anything at all” when it says:
We saw choirs of the workers,
We saw choirs of the proletariat
And Communist comrades,
But we have not seen a choir
Representing capitalism, but with the
We are doing,
With the
(Ok, those last few lines really seem to suffer from the translation, but I think the intent is clear enough).

Surely this is the opposite of saying nothing. This is making a precise statement. It is a straight-forward, out-and-out musing on the difference between the parades of the former-DDR and the trendy capitalist net-cafés of Mitte, Prenzlauerberg and Kreuzberg. (Probably)

Or this bit:
Jean Ziegler calls but numbers:
“Every 5 seconds last year and now,
A child dies under 5 years.
100,000 people die of hunger,
100,000 per day. 923 million;
3 years ago 854 million in 3 years to nearly 100 million.
2,700 kilocalories adult individual per day without problem, 12 billion people, we are 6,3 - or twice”
Jean Ziegler calls but numbers, but that does not reach us.
And numbers that can not reach us, who are not political.
That is us here tonight. It is not enough that we go together tonight here eat pizza
That is really dangerous.
[Jean Ziegler was the Swiss-born (as Hans Ziegler) UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2000 to 2008 and a member of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council from 2008 to 2012.]

I think that’s also saying stuff. Very specific stuff. Directly. To the audience. About the audience.

Oddly, re-reading it today, it occurred to me that one of the things this style of Kill Your Darlings also reminded me of was Stephanie’s final speech in Morning:
All music is shit
and all art is shit
and all theatre is
shit and all television
is shit and all sport is
shit and all cinema is shit.
The food is shit and
everything is just fucking shit...
And everybody wants
a hopeful ending
and there won't be one.
We have a decade.
And then everything will retract.
Everybody wants a message
and there is none.
Everybody wants hope shining through the darkness
and there isn't any...
There is only terror
There is no hope.
I stuck in some new line breaks for fun, but you see what I mean. (And – given that the specificity of British playwriting is later mentioned in the original email, I’d suggest KYD is frequently specific.)

Except, I guess with Kill Your Darlings, there are no “characters”. So the level (perhaps the most debated and most misunderstood level of New Writing in Britain), the level of the “is this the author or the character speaking?” or the: “is this the author's message?” question, operates in a different way.

[as an aside, I was also reading BruceLaBruce’s Notes on Camp this morning (HAU, 2012) and he had this useful observation to make about irony:
“A critic in Harper’s Bazaar once identified irony as “the ideological white noise of the nineties”: a proclamation that always stuck with me. This wasn’t to say that irony no longer operated as a useful device or sensibility, or that it could no longer be used to subtle or witty effect. It simply meant that irony had itself been normalized and generalized into the default sensibility of the entire popular culture, thereby rendering it more difficult to detect and less effective to use unless expressed very carefully and consciously for a particular effect.”]
Obviously the text is still “authored” and is still written down. And it’s not being spoken by the person who wrote it, but the way that the layers of, well, I guess irony and/or distanciation are different. The trick of non-“character” (postdramatic) theatre perhaps makes the author seem at once more present and more absent?


After writing all the above on 2 June, I then went and discovered the American critic/curator Andy Horwitz’s excellent account of his week at Theatertreffen (it is worth reading in full). In reference to this discussion of new German writing, I was particularly struck by the text of Elfriede Jelinek’s latest stück, Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall (The Road, The City, The Raid), to which he linked.

Jelinek, who I’d not thought of recently, is perhaps the German-language author par excellence, of this sort of text. It is worth clicking the link just to look at the shape of her text. It will adapt to the size of your browser window. There is no measurement to the length of the lines. There is no craft to the setting out of the words in white space. There is only the text. Dense, dense text. No handy line-by-line changes of character or “speaker” (although different speakers are occasionally indicated – one every several feet of text, I think).

You ask, “Are they REALLY any good?” – to which, here, I can point you in the direction of the committee of the Nobel Prize who made her a Laureate for Literature. True, they might have been thinking more of her novels, or her films with Michael Haneke – but in Germany, at least, Jelinek still seems to be pretty much revered (at least in some quarters) in the way that perhaps only Beckett is in Britain. Her texts are open, but give no clue as to how they should be staged. And yet, stagings of her texts are mainstays of the German-speaking stage. To me, this indicates a profoundly different theatre culture, much more than it suggests the castration of its writers.


So, to recap before continuing and (hopefully, please God) concluding:

  • Evoking images and leaving gaps is cool.
  • I disagree that a) the gaps are necessarily there in the way you suggest, and b) that these texts don't “say something”. (although whether they tell us what they say might be a different question. This one sort of seems to, though. Albeit in that way that arguing about capitalism using any postmodernism quickly turns into a zero-sum game, or is like a dog chasing its tail, or like repeating bashing one’s face onto concrete).
  • And I don't think texts like this represent castration of the writer: by the power of the director or anything else.

In fact, if I were feeling argumentative, I’d say that texts of this theoretical-poetic text-for-theatre school represent the sort of challenge to a director (and probably also to a budget) that would defeat most British directors (and buildings, and possibly audiences).

I would also say that, not having seen it, or read it to the end – or in German, because I couldn't – I still have no idea whether KYD is actually any good or not.

Or rather – since “any good” sounds like some sort of objective criteria (and therefore something that doesn't exist) – "any idea whether I’d have enjoyed it or not". I mean, obviously understanding German perfectly would be a start. But then, thinking German seems to be the more necessary boost.


But, to conclude, I want to return to the original point:

It is actually quite bad. In my opinion... Are [German writers-for-theatre] REALLY any good?

I would like first to rephrase your statement slightly to: “I didn’t enjoy this text. Is it ever going to be possible for me to enjoy texts of this sort?”

Throughout, I’ve ducked out of discussing Germany’s more playwrighty current playwrights (Dea Loher, Nis Momme Stockman, David Gieselmann, Marius von Meyerburg, Roland Schimmelpfennig, et al), primarily because I just don’t know enough of their work, but more because I think with your suggestion: “they kind of stop writing anything at all. And just evoke vague images and leave gaps. The gaps have become so big as to not actually say anything at all” you’d inadvertently described almost an entirely separate strain of German writing-for-theatre. While authors like Schimmelpfennig and von Mayenberg especially enjoy some success in British theatres – not least because their plays are identifiably not unlike some of those written in Britain – writers like Jelinek, Pollesch and even Heiner Muller remain largely obscure, and certainly deemed unlikely by producing theatres to attract a popular British audience.

There is an irony that these above-named writers are considered some of the foremost writers in German theatre. But perhaps this is also possibly the key to their obscurity in Britain. Perhaps they are so German, the points of contact between them and us are all the fewer (this might be why playwrights who seem almost obsessed with their Englishness – anyone called David, basically – tend not to cross the North Sea in the other direction). But I would argue that the key issue here is the issue of language. Jelinek is frequently described as “untranslatable” (in spite of Penny Black’s excellent rendition of Sportstück last year – but then, if you talk to Black, you quickly realise that making a decent translation of a Jelinek is no walk in the park). As I noted above, while Muller is translated, the translations fail to capture the spark of genius in his work, and will mostly fail to popularise him, while the very context-specific nature of his work – its inexorable struggle with European history, literature, and the postwar Communism of the DDR – render it ever more obscure to modern British audiences.

In the case of Pollesch, I wonder if the problem isn’t so much one of linguistic translation as a cultural one. After all, the first production I saw by him was in Warsaw. In Polish. A friend did describe in almost shocked tones how beautifully written she’d found one of his (later) texts, but that was clearly in contrast to his normal (hysterical, camp) style. No. Here, as with Kill Your Darlings, I think the issue the British would have with the text – were a Pollesch to transfer, or one be commissioned here (both, sadly, unlikely) – is the directness. Describing camp, or perhaps irony as “directness” seems counter-intuitive. But the words I always manage to understand without fail during his shows are: “Kommunismus”, “Kapitalismus” and “Sozialismus”. Direct words. The use of these words – even discussions of these concepts – feels like something utterly alien to contemporary British theatre. Perhaps the only way to envisage a René Pollesch show for someone who hasn’t seen one would be imagining Anders Lustgarten’s activism diaries being staged at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern by a stageful of transvestites, with an almost de-rigeur live video feed... (actually, I would totally pay to see that).

Indeed, mention of the RVT kind of neatly makes the segueway for my last thought on this school of writing-for-theatre. That these texts aren’t “proper plays” still seems to put them (issues of translation aside) beyond the comfort zone of the British Theatre Mainstream – the tour of Jelinek’s Sport’s Play went mostly to quite alternative venues (The Chelsea Theatre in London, for example). However, given the way that British Theatre has divided itself taxonomically, such venues a) seem to tend toward a horror of the written playtext – although this itself is a situation in flux – but more crucially, b) tend not to have in-house productions, let alone an ensemble available for long rehearsal processes.

So, at the moment, I think apart from the odd, independent production, we seem doomed never to see this work produced domestically. Perhaps we have our own versions of it, perhaps found in the work of those borderline theatre/Live Art artists (perhaps texts by writers like Tim Etchells or Andy Field might be our equivalent – albeit with the proprietorial controls of their sole production by their authors removed).

But then, the question you didn’t quite ask is “will I ever like it”?

And, well, I admit I too find the density and/or directness difficult sometimes (although often perhaps exacerbated by my watching most of these texts in another language as well). And reading the texts after the event is tricky, precisely because the texts themselves are so dense. So you kind of need the whole stage picture to make sense of the vocal score (as it might also be thought of), so, yes, we’re in a bit of a bind here. Because no British literary manager is going to pick up one of these scripts and say “ooh, yes, good play, stick it on”, and very few directors here would know where to begin with such a text. And, perhaps pessimistically, I don’t think many audiences here would necessarily even want to get a handle on it. Perhaps that last category is untrue, but it would take more struggle than there is for a German audience from whose culture all these elements have sprung.

As such, I dunno. Can we hope that one day we’ll like this sort of thing, or get it properly. I mean, we seem to go nuts for Sarah Kane (and also like Martin Crimp) so perhaps it could work, but any more abstract and or concurrently more direct than that, and I do wonder if a lot of British instincts don’t just go into shut-down.

Which, speaking as someone who has been fascinated by these pieces – this marriage of some of the most amazing stagecraft, and some of the most direct, engaging, provocative political thinking – strikes me as a tragedy, since I think some of this might be exactly the sort of theatre of which we need to see quite a bit more.

Generation Game: week 9/10 – The Yard

Alexandria – Peter Cant & Krzysztof Honowski

On the Benefits of Being A Troll – TheatreState

Annoyingly, the only comment I can make about Peter Cant and Krzysztof Honowski’s 7.30pm show Alexandria is that Hackney Wick is a long way from Hammersmith and I’m very sorry I didn’t make it in time.

This did, however, mean I had time to sample some of the Yard’s current menu (Jerk Chicken, rice and “devilled halloumi”, which, at £8, is slightly more expensive than a Byron Burger – so that probably wants a bit of looking at).

TheatreState’s On the Benefits of Being a Troll is that increasingly rare thing – a “devised piece”. I’m not sure where all the “devised pieces” have gone. Perhaps they haven’t gone anywhere and I’ve just stopped looking for them, or grown so far out of the age-group at which they’re marketed that they have become invisible to me in the same way that the music of Justin Bieber is.

I suppose I haven’t been to the BAC in a while (I should), but at the same time, I think the language has also shifted. I think “devised piece” has acquired too much baggage and now no one will admit to making one, even if “a devised piece” is exactly what they’ve made. So maybe it’s a bit unfair to call On the Benefits... of being one. Even though it clearly is.

What happens is that our two compères for the evening, __ and __ (sorry, left programme in flat, will amend) address us in deadpan, ironic voices and talk about not being big joiners. And how that was tough when growing up, thanks to the craze for line-dancing exemplified by RedNex’s Cotton Eyed Joe. It all goes on. There’s some low level interactivity. Then some more involved interactivity. Then we notice that some of the people they’re pulling out of the audience are clearly plants.

Eventually we’re all drawn onto the stage to take part in a bad tempered re-enactment of a comment thread about Arts Funding – probably from the Daily Mail (but it could equally be the Guardian) – during which we all read a bunch of silly comments into a microphone.

Eventually, all the cast and plants have left the stage, and we’re all left standing in this proxy internet lit by disco lights and wondering if the show has finished and feeling sheepish.

Oddly, perhaps the best bit of this show was the five or so minutes after it ended where members of the audience debated among themselves whether to leave or to keep sitting and see what would happen. I think it only eventually ended because everyone felt bad for the theatre staff who still had to clear the stage.

Plays about the internet are clearly going to be a growth market as we spend increasing amounts of time conducting our social lives online, and indeed reading wonderful, penetrating criticism t/here. At the moment it still feels like the best formal representation of this phenomena is yet to come. And theatre’s biggest difficulty is how to represent a medium which is in more or less every way antithetical to itself – i.e. exchanging screen burnt eyes and total anonymity for warm humanity huddled in the same dark rooms.

On the Benefits... isn’t perhaps the best show I’ve ever seen, but nor was it painfully embarrassing, stupid or offensive. And it had some really ragged live music and sarcasm, which I quite liked.

TheatreState are doing an adaptation of Fanny Hill in Edinburgh this year, which might be fun.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Pigeons – Royal Court

[the honeymoon continues...]

Who’d have guessed that one of the things the Open Court season would achieve was the rehabilitation of the naturalistic, gritty, urban, social realist drama?

Long-term readers of this blog may have picked up the faint impression over the years that I was implacably opposed to this school of playwriting. It’s not true, of course. I’m still impressed by the best examples (Roy Williams’s Fallout, SS’s Herons, etc.), at least as texts (as it happens, I didn’t see either production in those cases).

But I think many of the reasons I did like Carrie Cracknell’s production of Suhayla El-Bushra’s new hour-long play Pigeons so much are actually entirely consistent with some of the things I’ve been worrying and grumbling about for years.

The basic story of the play in a nutshell is that Amir (Nav Sidhu) and Ashley (Ryan Sampson) – a pair of Asian (Pakistani?) and English schoolboys who fall out – mostly over a girl – and retreat into the more dogmatic ends of the belief spectrums that their respective cultures have to offer (i.e. Amir embraces Islam and Ashley goes all EDL).

The reason I didn’t mind this – and on paper the outline does sound exactly like the Royal Court Racism-is-bad Play™ – is that El-Bushra’s structure largely mitigates the possible clunkingness of the potential “message”. Rather than following the standard beginning-to-end chronology, the play begins at the end, and then rewinds in a series of jumps to explore why everything had gone wrong.

Actually, the one thing I could have lived without was the EDL bit. Or rather, while the character of Carl (Ferdy Roberts) is a surprisingly well-written/realised example of his type he is still such a familiar trope that you kind of want to see what would happen to the play if he wasn’t there. After all, friends of different ethnic backgrounds fall out all the time. There isn’t an EDL recruiting officer sitting on every corner waiting to snap all the white ones up. The EDL are a lunatic fringe of the English psyche, and the less we imagine most people are ever going to sign up for their hardcore thuggery and racist marches, the more balanced a picture we will have of the UK. (Yes, I’m aware that it’d be foolish to ignore them, but on the other hand, most of their propaganda is the credence and fear they are accorded by mainstream media outlets and, I guess, by dramas like this.)

[spoiler-ish paragraph] However, because of the structure here, there seems to be an interesting get-out clause (although I’m still in two minds as to whether I’d take it, because the play *as is* does have some lovely moments that this option would sacrifice) The structure is telegraphed by some graffiti which says “shit that went wrong”, then for the second act “wrong” is replaced by “right”, and then at the end, “right” is also deleted and replaced by “wrong” again. One possible version of the play would end at the end of “right”, with the two boys somehow reversing a history that had yet to happen, and the play leaving them as the dance topless and pilled out of their little boxes on top of a stolen car together.

Because of this structure, the momentum doesn’t feel so relentless, heavy or (most importantly) inevitable. The jumps in time give an impression of choices and let air into something that could – played chronologically – feel as if it were unstoppable.

However, the plot is sort of the least interesting aspect of either the play or the production. What’s much more exciting here is El-Bushra’s incredibly funny script, and her (as far as I can tell) dead-on ear for the neologisms and rhythms of Amir, Ashley and Leah’s teenage speak. What’s also gorgeous is the relationship she makes for the two boys. In fact, I think I could have pretty happily watched plotless hours of them just pissing about chatting shit. (and conversely, my least favourite moments were those that were most on-the-nose or exposition-y).

Which leads to the next Excellent Thing about this production, which is Ryan Sampson’s tour-de-force performance as Ashley. What’s particularly brilliant about it is How Much Acting he is doing. This sounds like a criticism. It isn’t. There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing someone who hasn’t just been parachuted into a role because a casting director thinks they are basically exactly the person they’re meant to be playing. Sampson pins down a whole other accent, age and physicality with seamless perfection. Seriously. Pigeons is worth seeing for this performance alone. (And everyone else in it is also excellent.)

Another Excellent Thing is that, thanks to Chloe Lamford’s box (the versatile set which just keeps on giving), the production doesn’t look anything like the usual way that this sort of play is staged. That also helps to prevent it sliding into the mire where these things usually end up. I think this is related to the sense of agency and imagination in the script and in the casting. Just the sheer fact that none of what’s on stage, either actors, or text, or setting feels like a signed, sealed and delivered done deal stops the piece as a whole feeling like it presents a forgone conclusion. Which, thinking about it, is, I think, my real problem with British naturalism as it is usually presented. When pieces appear – almost as if bound like a doctoral thesis – then the way they operate seems to be to tell you (/us), the audience, that This Is How It Is. They seem to present inevitabilities. They feel like roadblocks rather than analytical tools, or openings into worlds, or an imagination of possibilities. Pigeons doesn’t. Pigeons, strangely, made me totally rethink my attitude to the possibilities of the “realist” social drama. Which isn’t bad work for an hour-long show rehearsed for only one week.

And yet another reason to be grateful to Open Court.

Which MUST become an annual thing, right? Right.

oh, and the atmosphere round the place is still extraordinary. It actually does feel like a Festival. God bless Open Court.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Perfect American – ENO, Coliseum

[grumble, grumble, grumble]

Arts types (and not just critics) are difficult buggers. On one hand, there’s the opinion that you want artists – composers, directors, writers, whoever – to observably develop from show to show. Artists who don’t are quickly accused of “treading water” or “re-hashing old ideas”. On the other hand, it doesn’t always go down so well when artists who are popular for A Thing do something that is only a watery shadow of The Thing They Do, or, worse, A Totally Different Thing. Can’t be nice to be an artist. Caught between the rock of perpetual reinvention and the hard place of still being the artist whose Thing everybody adores.

All of which is to say, The Perfect American is a long way from Philip Glass’s best work. However, I’m not convinced that my less-than-joyful reaction to the piece was anywhere approaching entirely his fault. Nor, I’m relieved to say, was it especially the fault of director Phelim McDermott, designer Dan Potra, video designer Leo Warner, animation designer Joseph Pierce (and, given that most of the video *was* animation, I’m not sure where that leaves Leo Warner, actually, but...), nor the conductor Gareth Jones, or any of the singers or musicians. No, the problem with The Perfect American is the atrocious libretto by the improbably named Rudy Wurlitzer.

The story of The Perfect American is a look at the life of Walt Disney from the vantage point of his final few months in the autumn of 1966. The clue to understanding the trajectory that this retrospective takes is in the title of the show. It’s irony, folks. Disney, who preferred to be called Walt, by everyone, turns out not to have been a perfect American at all. In one particularly clanging bit of exposition, he re-writes the Gettysberg address that he’s putting into the mouth of an animatronic Lincoln in Disneyland because he disapproves of Lincoln’s siding with “the negroes”.

I don’t know much about Walt Disney, but the few bits of his biography which have filtered through – that he was a massive racist, that he was anti-union and incredibly right-wing, that he wanted to be cryogenically frozen before he died and that he treated his employees appallingly – are pretty much all the facts that this inert script deals in. Actually, there’s also a lot of pop-psychologising of his childhood, or rather there is repetition with heavy quote marks of the myths he built up around his own childhood. Even that makes it sound like an idea that should bear fruit. This doesn’t. This fruit tree is well and truly withered.

“But,” I hear you say, “it’s a sodding opera, Haydon; most operas’ librettos are nonsense at best, aren’t they?” Perhaps I’ve been a bit spoiled by new operas this year, but last week’s The Importance of Being Earnest managed to animate and even improve on Oscar Wilde’s much-loved comedy. And, though I was a bit sniffy about the way Martin Crimp’s libretto for Written on Skin interacted with the music (I really must write that review up some time), there was no denying that some guiding intelligence was behind it. Wurlitzer (I promise that’s the name in the programme) trades solely in the kind of banal truisms that might be just about excusable as dialogue in a really snappily paced TV drama where you’re not really thinking about what anyone’s saying. Stretch a sentence like that over the better part of a minute – as this opera repeatedly does – and you’re forced into contemplation of some of the worst writing I’ve read this year.

Of course, the fact that it’s so stretched really doesn’t improve matters.

I used to really love Philip Glass. I mean, he’s the guy who wrote Koyaanisqatsi. He’s the guy who did the Low Symphony with Brian Eno and David Bowie. He’s the guy who wrote Einstein on the fucking Beach, for Christ’s sake. At his best, his music was full of attack and astringency, crisp, like lyrical mathematics. The same sort of romance as quantum physics. This, by comparison, is basically Glass soup. Ok, he’s got older. And he doesn’t have to keep re-writing Einstein... except here he sort of has, albeit, like it’s being played as some sort of dreadful Romantic period cross-breed. TV incidental music composers told to come up with something “a bit like Philip Glass, maybe?” could have written this. Better, probably. They wouldn’t have a massive reputation to back up whatever they ended up tossing off.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly pleasant, and if there hadn’t been surtitles (and they could have maybe sung in German or Italian) I think the evening would have been fifty per cent less bad/disappointing/grating.

If Philip Glass suffers from the problem of having developed away from the stuff that used to make him good, then I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that Improbable are slightly suffering from not having really moved on.

No, it is unfair. Apart from anything else, video work like Warner and Pierce’s probably wasn’t even possible in theatre 14 years ago (when I first saw a show by Improbable). But what I kind of see as Improbable’s aesthetic – making visual theatre from relatively limited resources – doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit here. On one hand, you’ve got the large gaggle of performers who periodically move about the stage dressed as olde worlde Americans, or else as identically dressed Disney employees, throwing the sorts of shapes that, well, that the same gaggle do in Complicité shows. On the other hand, there are two gantries revolving from the ceiling, with video projectors beaming moving images onto massive gauzes dangling from the other end of each gantry. I admit, I’ve not seen that before, and it’s not half a bad effect. However, amid such a  of massive projections, the actors are absolutely dwarfed, and it’s sometimes hard to remember to look at them at all. But there’s still a weird disjuncture and the hi-tech makes the rest of the stagecraft look even more analogue. And, to be honest, without the video projections the stage pictures look slightly ordinary – like a scaled-up version of something you could plausibly find at BAC or the Oval House.

But why all this grousing? By coincidence, I’d even spent some of the afternoon prior to seeing ...American reiterating my not-really-liking Robert Wilson position. And yet, there I was in the Coliseum kind of wanting the aesthetic to be a bit more, well, clean and sci-fi with fewer of the ersatz eastern-Europeanisms of Britain’s late-90’s Alternative Theatre. But that’s a taste thing, right? I mean, it was a perfectly good one of those, right? Well, to an extent. I don’t think it was an outstanding example, and well, coupled with the music, I wanted it to be outstanding.

Ultimately though, aside from the car-crash libretto, this was a perfectly pleasant evening. I don’t really remember being bored. Even the plotting had enough hook-y moments to keep you interested, even if the dialogue sucked. And the music was perfectly pretty. The singing (particularly Christopher Purves as Walt) was actually some of the best I’ve heard. Purves has a singing voice that manages to hit all the notes, keep the words audible and never once sounded forced (to my inexpert ears, as far as I remember).

On the other hand, I did wonder about the entire purpose/trajectory of the piece. Coupling leaden satire to this kind of slightly kitschy musical take on Americana, while an obvious choice, didn’t seem to reap the rewards which should have been its by right. Perhaps the biggest obstacle here was always going to be context. I suppose to an American audience, this might still seem like a shocking bit of iconoclasm – a daring takedown of one of the country’s best loved sons, and with it, another part of the American Dream.

Here in Britain, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve had Uncle Walt pegged as a crypto-fascist for most, if not all of my lifetime. And, sure, I grew up watching the odd Disney movie in the holidays, but they were hardly the bedrock or defining myths of my childhood (those honours go to Michael Horden’s C.S. Lewis, the BBC’s Lord of the Rings, Alan Bennett’s Pooh (never Disney’s), and Martin Jarvis’s William). So I guess there’s just less at stake for us here. I readily concede that the idea/ideal of America is a moving one. The Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Gettysberg address and so on: a country founded on anti-imperialism. But, hey, I think we’ve all caught up to the fact that countries don’t always deliver on their promises (I’m still disappointed that the Soviet Union didn’t pan out quite as hoped, FFS), so to use 1966 and Disney’s death as the tools to dissect America now itself feels like the same exercise in quaint nostalgia as Walt’s own harking back to his mythologised childhood/foundation myths.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Sand – Royal Court

[or: the honeymoon’s back on]

Essentially, Sand is a monologue or (spoiler alert) a pair of monologues. And it feels bloody silly reviewing (much less spoiler-alerting) something that you can as easily watch on YouTube. It totally removes the primary function of theatre criticism: reportage. So, look, why not watch it first and then we can have a chat about it:

Good, isn’t it?

But then, saying what happens and so on isn’t the only point of a theatre review.

I’ll try to keep the usual Time Out/WhatsOnStage bit brief:

Nick Gill’s new monologue/play-for-voices, Sand (Surprise Theatre, Upstairs at the Royal Court, 17 June ‘13), is a fractured, multiple-narrative tale about nuclear weapons.

It begins in 1942 with the Nazis exploding an atomic bomb over Newcastle. It then hops backwards and forwards in time up to the present day and back again, and many points in between. It does not become more explain-y or conclusive. Instead it plays with our uncertainty and uses precisely this to operate.

One of the narratives concerns a (woman?) working in a nuclear research facility who has suddenly been arrested by unnamed authorities. It echoes both accounts and the rhetoric of the adversities suffered by many nations seeking to equip themselves with nuclear armaments: Israel, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea. But if this is still the parallel universe in which Operation Sealion went ahead in 1942 – a parallel universe in which it was that Nazis and not the Americans who developed the atomic bomb (and Gill cleverly plays with this yet further, noting that 6 August, 1945 is the date America “invades” Japan, not the date of Hiroshima/Nagasaki) – then this persecuted scientist suddenly stops being some nameless Iranian of whom the even the moderate British media would have us be terrified, her insurgency might suddenly be British anti-Nazi resistance. Or perhaps, even Irish resistance to the Nazi German Empire. Similarly, the descriptions of the effects of what a nuclear bomb going off means for the people underneath are urgent and unsentimental. They also recall the horrors that the British and Americans recently visited on Fallujah. Since, despite avoiding sentiment, they are not impersonal statistics. They describe the human horror and cost. Facts delivered as assurances in her presentation: “The heat from the blast, however, should be sufficient to fuse the ground beneath to glass. To a depth of three metres” take a beat to process in relation to what that means in human terms.

“And the world turns” comes the refrain. Recalling Kurt Vonnegut’s similar use of “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse Five. But also the global/universal perspective of the Tienanmen Square segments of Chris Thorpe’s forthcoming There Has Possibly Been an Incident (“And so, Universe, you neglectful fucking parent, here we all are, silent. The stilled tanks with their operators inside. The crowd, sweating in the sun...”).

Actually, as writing, a lot of Sand did remind me of Chris Thorpe (I intend this as a compliment to both parties), right up until, at the end, it began to remind me irresistibly of the poetry of Chris Goode. And Goode’s own performances of those poems, which seem to be as much about the fear of breakdown in language and communication as about complexity, texture and modernism. Here, in Sand, that breakdown is given a clear illustrative purpose rather than a more abstract one. That said, purpose or not, the final ten minutes or so of the piece, where the language breaks down irrecoverably is about as good a piece of writing-for-theatre as I can think of. Something about the tone and the precision makes it particularly chilling whilst being strangely beautiful.

But what of the production? Well, in this incarnation – as a one-off for the Surprise Theatre strand of Open Court – it would be unreasonable to expect a massive set and cast of thousands. But It has got Eileen Walsh directed by Vicky Featherstone. For younger readers, Eileen Walsh is basically... Well, put it this way: before there was Lucy Ellinson there was Eileen Walsh. Half of the original cast of Disco Pigs, a quarter of the original cast of Crave (also directed by Vicky Featherstone), and for my money, she’s better in Sand than either of these other two (no mean feat. Although I was probably a bit young to appreciate the original production of Crave. And, having only ever read about Sarah Kane from Blasted, spent most of the time worrying that something really horrible was about to happen and not really concentrating on the play itself). But, yes, this is subtle, clever, nuanced, textured. Featherstone and Walsh have absolutely nailed the rhythm and tone of the piece to the extent that – having now watched it a couple of times – I struggle to imagine it being done any other way. I think Walsh hits the pauses, the hesitations and breaths of Gill’s text absolutely dead on.

Of course, I say, I can’t imagine it done differently, but in truth I’m torn. One of the most frequently repeated comments following the performance of Sand was the expression of hope that it would have a longer life after this initial Open Court season passed. I agree, and it’s hard to fault the present production. Of course, it could be performed on more of a stage. In theory, there’s no reason why the second voice need be recorded. I even suggested to Nike that if they were worried about the length, I’d have happily watched it a second time through straight away, so he could have pulled that Beckett trick of “repeat Sand”. And I like this production’s simplicity.

On the other hand, monologues of this quality (see also: Chris Thorpe’s meditative socio-political epics for solo voice) always make me think of the texts-for-theatre that Elfriede Jelinek writes, which, on paper, also look like they’re monologues. And it makes me think of the diverse ways in which these pieces get staged.

And I kind of want to say: if you do Sand again, maybe try doing it a different way. There was nothing wrong – literally *nothing at all* wrong – with this production, but it’d be astonishing if we starting seeing monologues produced as, well, for want of a better work “visual theatre”. For example:

[extract of Jelinek’s Das Werk directed by Karin Beier filmed by me when broadcast in Potsdammerplatz as part of TT’11]

[ intro // full disclosure // gushy bit ]

Nick Gill is bloody brilliant. Let me tell you about Nick Gill. I don’t actually remember when I met Nick, so let me tell you a story instead...

A long time ago, before this blog started, I think – or around the same time – I was still kind of up-in-the-air about whether to pursue literary management or theatre criticism as a career. I’d been writing reviews of plays since 1997, but that’s partly just having opinions on plays, right? That’s kind of just saying: “wouldn’t it be better if...?”; “What are you really trying to say here?” Except in literary management, you get to say that before the thing hits the stage and makes you cross for an evening. Right? (Possibly not right, but bear with me here.) About the furthest I got along this “career” path was a chat with Neil McPherson about the job of Literary Manager for the Finborough. It became clear pretty quickly to both of us that, while there was plenty of mutual respect knocking about, we were pretty much chalk and cheese when it came to taste-in-plays and styles of production.

One of the things I’d been asked to do was to was suggest a play I’d like to see produced. The play I immediately suggested was Nick Gill’s play Heaven. Heaven still hasn’t been produced. Someone should. I still think it is a remarkable play (although I’ve no doubt that Nick now considers it an embarrassing bit of juvenilia). The character names were: A Sense Of Falling, Glass Darkly, Holding In, Slip, This Too, and Vertigo. Scene breaks with suggestions like: “// satellites fall, unnoticed, into the ocean //” and “// underground rivers through lisbon finally erode the city’s foundations //” (shades of Pornography, non?) It has a scene described thus:

“// an encampment high up in the mountains // // exactly the same as before, but different // // all actors are animals, in costumes and masks //” (and this was how many years before 3K?). Etc. etc.

What was remarkable about Nick’s writing was its precision, its musicality. But there was also a steeliness about it. A ruthless exactitude in the way that he pinned down the language of Englishness. Of Officialdom. Of the ruling class. Of excuse-making. At his best, Nick Gill – the writer of fiction – was the closest thing British theatre has to the Orwell who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also one of the freshest "experimental" voices we had.

I might have first met Nick through his involvement with The Apathists. I’ve written about them before. Possibly too many times before. But, for my money, this short-lived gang-of-six did as much to alter the possible face of British playwriting as Simon Stephens’s tutorship of the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme and Dominic Cooke taking over at the Court put together. That the Apathists first, most obvious success was Mike Bartlett, and their most recent recognition (prior to Sand) comes in the late-to-London recognition of Duncan Macmillan’s massive talent with Lungs, kind of demonstrates what I’m talking about. That Nick Gill was the last of the group to have a professional début (with arguably a quite conservative production of his most conservative play, Mirror Teeth, in 2011) says much more about British theatre than it does about Nick’s writing. Back in 2008 I described Nick as an “uncompromising playwright”, and I think that is actually true. I mean, Nick’s not stupid. He could write a kitchen sink drama that would leave the audience in pieces, I reckon. The fact that he has no interest in doing so is why I think he’s such a hero.

Another reason Nick hasn’t got on as fast as I think he should have done as a writer, might be because he’s also such a sodding prolific musician. One of the earliest things on this blog (back when it/I did all sorts of stuff) is a review of a gig by his band The Monroe Transfer. And indeed, theoretically, the first time I came across Nick Gill in any form was when he did the music/soundscape for Lucy Foster (now of Improbable)’s production of Crave at NSDF‘02 (that play again).

Anyway, this kept happening. We kept on bumping into each other. He also – quite by coincidence – ended up doing the background sound/music for a number of Katharina Schmitt’s plays, so we wound up hanging out in Berlin too.

Oh, and then he did the music for my production of Hamletmaschine at All Change in April.

I think that’s full disclosure now. So, that’s me and Nick. I think he’s a bloody hero and one of the most important talents we’ve yet to properly discover.

And so, on to Sand...

[please return to top of review...]

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest – Royal Opera House

[written for]

I'll put the text up here once WOS have had their (no) money's-worth from it...  For now, click through.

In short, great show, go see...

Death Tax – Royal Court

[Honeymoon period over?]

Following on from last week’s bonkers Georgian offering, The President Has Come To See You, this week’s Open Court offering is the infinitely *straighter* Death Tax, an American play by Lucas Hnath.

While lacking the freewheeling energy of Featherstone’s production, John Tiffany brings a remarkable degree of precision to bear on a production which has had only a week’s rehearsal. So much so, that it’s impossible not to admire both cast and director for this tight, snappy, focussed production. In fact, it makes you wonder what other “straight” productions of plays spend the other three weeks of their usual allotted rehearsal time doing.

On the other hand, it is a shame that the most exciting moments in the staging come from Chloe Lamford’s wooden box being opened again – differently to how it opened in The President... – and the first few moments of the actors moving around on it; the strip-lights moving up and down; and Natasha Gordon announcing “This is a play with five scenes. This is scene one...” At that point, anything could have been about to happen, and it all felt excitingly, well, Brechtian. Granted, Lamford’s box had opened to reveal a pretty convincing hospital bed, and in it, a pretty convincing-looking patient (Maxine, played by Anna Calder-Marshall), what with real tubes up her nose, and a bleepy machine to one side, but, still, that might be an elaborate ruse. Sadly, it isn’t.

You know those Playwriting courses that they have? Ones which teach about characters wanting something, and about giving characters backgrounds, and obstacles to getting the things they want, and about conflict, and about illuminating the world through these interpersonal conflicts? In many ways, Death Tax is almost a perfect illustration of what I imagine will come out of these courses. (I should state that I’ve got no idea if Hnath’s ever been on one, or whether he’s just read Oleanna until he’s absorbed more-or-less everything you could learn about playwriting from it.)

That said, Death Tax is still actually frustrating on precisely these terms, rather on any doctrinal concerns about naturalism versus bonkers or whatever the battle-lines are these days. It’s frustrating because it starts in one place, with one specific conflict, and – after way too long setting it up – it’s a good starting point – dying woman Maxine is concerned that her vile daughter is paying her nurse, Tina (Natasha Gordon) to have her killed off before tax laws change on 1 January and the daughter’s inheritance shrinks. Leaving a little ambiguity as to whether this charge is true or not, the nurse eventually claims that the mother is right, and allows the mother to bribe her to keep her alive.

Scene two: Tina is confronted by her line-manager Todd (Sam Troughton) about receiving cheques from Maxine. To complicate this scene, Todd is in love with Tina (everyone wants something from someone else). Tina is not in love with Todd, but needs the money to get her son back from her ex-husband in Haiti. To be fair, for all that laid out cold like this it sounds contrived, Gordon and Troughton, playing with utter conviction, manage to make the situation work.

Scene three: Maxine’s daughter (no name, called “Daughter” in credits) turns up to see her mother. Now – having achieved the set-up, and then established a secondary struggle which explores themes of migrant work and power-relationships – if not along gender lines, then certainly gendered here by virtue of the fact that Todd is a man in love with Tina, a women who works under him – we get a twist. The twist is, although the mother won’t see Daughter, Daughter has a couple of reasonable things to say. She was never trying to have her mother killed (at least, that’s the impression I got). She (also) has a son. She (also) has no money. She also has a mother who she claims has treated her as if she were “evil” her entire life.
(I was briefly reminded of the definition of child abuse in Bruce Norris’s The Pain and the Itch:
Kelly: It was straight out of Alice Miller. Neglect alternating with sarcasm.
Carol: (relieved) Ohhh! Oh, I see. Oh, I though… oh, pfffft.
Cash: Oh, God. Not sarcasm.
And I never really wanted to be reminded of anything in The Pain and the Itch, ever again.)

She also knows that Tina is receiving money from Maxine. The daughter doesn’t acquit herself especially well either, but does then leave having made a rather spectacular gesture: of having cut herself out of her mother’s will. She leaves Tina with a notarized letter to this effect and fucks off.

Scene four: Tina confronts Todd with the letter. They are now in cahoots, he having agreed to cover for her and to help out with keeping Maxine alive (currently at his personal expense), until they can get the money and split it fifty-fifty. He now holds this over her, but is really hanging on to the hope that she will love him. The letter throws another cat among the pigeons. Tina wants to at least give it to the mother after they’ve got the money. Todd wants it destroyed now for fear it’ll capsize their whole (criminal) enterprise full stop.

Scene five: FAST FORWARD TWENTY YEARS!! Sam Troughton is now playing Charley, Maxine’s grandson. Gordon is now Candice, a social worker. Daughter is nowhere to be seen. Maxine is still in the same bed, still alive. “Everytime I got worse, they invented a new machine to make me better/keep me alive” she says (I paraphrase. No freebie script, alas).

This final part suddenly up ends all the previous drama into a bit of a cipher-led debate about the right to medical care (remember, this is set in America, and therefore all the care Maxine has had thus far has had to have been paid for by her). Maxine is now cleaned out of money and is therefore going to have to go into free/state care, which, as she puts it, won’t keep her alive.

We’re never told Maxine’s age, so we can’t guess what’s really at stake here, but it seems likely that she’s been extended from dying at, say, 85 to, now, 105. Yes, the play raises questions about “the value of life?” and “how old is too old?” and “can there be a ‘too old’ if medical science can keep a person alive?” And, yes, I suppose, with an ageing population and with the increasing erosion of free healthcare, even in this country (is the USA’s horrific third-world solution, now just an inevitable endgame for British National Health?), these are indeed pertinent questions.

Perhaps my main problems with the play, however, are its ways and means. For a start, each scene is just too long. Hnath writes well, but what he writes is characters who just won’t shut up. There’s no point made here once if it can be reiterated several times in a five minute monologue. The characters speak a kind of ticcy, Mamet-led dialogue, which, while stylish, is also kind of hellish to listen to after a while. For a play about the economy, it could learn a lot about economy.

Then there’s the kind of short-circuiting of each drama. Given how much time is given over to each scene, you kind of end up wanting each thread to be picked up and developed in a satisfying way. Yes, of course, there’s always an argument to be made for subverting or frustrating an audience’s expectations. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still bloody irritating. And the five second pay-off of the whole first four scenes as reported incident (a reported incident which sticks out like a sore thumb) in scene five, is a particular low point.

It’s not that I think this is a “bad play”, but it feels like it’s an accomplished first draft, and one which could do with the existing scenes cutting down to their bare bones, and then several new scenes being added to properly explore what has actually been set up.

It also constitutes another example of the “start-in-the-wrong-place argument” play. By which I mean, it takes one objectionable position and then sets it against a different, opposite objectionable position, and then makes out that these are the only options. All the problems in this play could be solved by higher taxes and proper state-run healthcare (not to mention people being less greedy, and by the state not making the bottom line unsurvivable). And no one is going to convince me that ignoring these facts makes for better drama.

But whaddaiknow? I hate reviews where critics effectively script-edit post-fact. Still, as I think I’ve said before, I think there’s kind of a point if you can say what you would rather have happened, you’re giving a basic idea of why what did happen didn’t completely work for you. Right?

And I haven’t once demanded more bonkers staging or more social context, ok?

So, in conclusion: still hugely impressive work by Tiffany and his cast. Not my favourite play. And, I wonder if the thing that the other few weeks of a rehearsal process are the bits where character is explored in more depth – which might have led to altogether different Maxines and Daughters than the ones here.

Another thought, I wonder if, rather than making sure a thing looks polished by opening night, it would be more interesting if remaining Open Court Ensemble pieces allowed the polishing stage to be substituted for more investigation and leaving the lack-of-polish exposed as a badge of pride. It’s a risk, sure, but what’s this season for if not risk? On a different set, Death Tax could have been a part of the Cooke regime, circa Now or Later. and that’s not such a cheering thought.

Sunday, 16 June 2013


Partisan-ship is a horrid thing, right? And totally undesirable in a critic? I dunno.

Walter Benjamin has this to say:
“I. the critic is the strategist in the literary battle.
“II. Anyone incapable of of taking sides should say nothing.
“V. ‘Objectivity’ must always be sacrificed to partisanship when the cause being fought over merits it.”
(Walter Benjamin, One Way Street – 1928)

While everything in my training (such as it wasn’t) suggests that this model is, at the very least, sublimated by the British model of newspaper theatre criticism, at root, I think the above maxims are still held close to every critic’s heart.

If we’re pretending that there isn’t a culture war being waged all the time, then we’re fucking kidding ourselves, right?

It might very well be a tiny, pernickity, anal, niche argument, the nuances of which the disinterested theatregoer might forgivably overlook when they go to see the odd show here and there. But the echoes and resonances of what it’s about can be felt much deeper. And by everyone.

The Featherstone takeover of the Royal Court is a perfect example. Suddenly, downstairs in the bar, everyone – especially the bar staff – is/are smiling. There’s a disco on a Thursday night. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel that by going to the theatre we’re mostly crashing a bunch of posh cunts’ evening in a restaurant. It suddenly feels like our bar again. And if they don’t like it, they can fuck off to the Donmar.

I don’t really like the “us and them” mentality. The real endgame is always going to be “us” rounding “them” up and executing “them”. If “them” don’t get “us” first. It’s ugly and it’s wrong. That said, if we haven’t spotted that a bunch of “them” seem to have staged a massive coup in government and are all but rounding “us” up and putting “us” in detention centres already, then we’re more blind than I thought.

Put simply, don’t we watch news about theatres with a kind of plus and minus ledger? Don’t we all – however unconsciously – have a kind of “wins” and “losses” column, for artistic director appointments?

Recently: Greg Doran to the RSC: lose. Josie Rourke to the Donmar: lose (well, no score draw, really). Erica Whyman to the RSC: win. Rupert Goold to the Almeida: massive win. Vicky Featherstone to the Royal Court: another massive win. Jeremy Herrin to Headlong: catastrophic loss.

And that last appointment is the reason I’m writing this. When the appointment was announced, I was on Twitter. I said a couple of intemperate things. And I think they want backing up with at least an explanation.

I should say straight off that I think Jeremy Herrin is a lovely bloke. This is the opposite of personal. In fact, it’s kind of painful that he’s such a nice bloke, because I don’t get off on kicking nice people. So: Jeremy Herrin is a lovely bloke whose life, taste, and personal choices seem to have led him to a place where he passionately supports more or less exactly the opposite sort of theatre to that which I like. And that’s actually about it. At the end of the day, this isn’t even a culture war so much as a taste grumble.

And we don’t know what Herrin is going to do with Headlong. There’s a chance that, freed of the constraints of commercial expectations, he’s going to finally get to do all those bonkers productions of little-known European and Renaissance Classics that he’s always been itching to do. That he’ll commission the most exciting New Writers and will push their work to the limits with non-literal productions, rather than doing more Polly Stenham and David Hare plays about rich kids living in precisely the rooms described by the sodding text.

On the other hand, the fear is that Herrin really does believe that Stenham and Hare are the most exciting playwrights writing in Britain today. And that the best way to “serve the text” is a matter of following stage directions. And that Shakespeare should be “revered”. And that good-looking actors are somehow better than talented ones. Which is where this stops feeling like a taste-grumble and starts feeling like something that is to do with class, and ultimately to do with oppression.

Even this is unfair. Of course Stenham could yet come up with a play that isn’t about her abandonment issues and how tough life is when you’re rich. Of course Hare could rediscover his youthful rage and get rid of his massive sense of entitlement. And of course everyone could wake up to a bit of interrogation of how and why they stage plays in the way that they do and shake things up a bit. But the suspicion is that they won’t.

And then, one of the most forward-looking, imaginative, eclectic new companies – even when they were at their worst (Salome and Electra that I saw) this was still true – will be utterly destroyed. And, worse, the legacy of Faustus, Macbeth, Enron, King Lear, ...sisters, Lulu, The Trial of Judas Iscariot, Six Characters..., etc. (some of the best nights I've had in the theatre in the last eight years) will have been for nothing. Or, rather, it’ll transfer to the Almeida. And Headlong might as well go back to being The Oxford Stage Company.

And that matters, I think. So, while I apologise for describing the appointment of Herrin as “a catastrophe”, based on no information other than the past, I don’t retract the statement. I would welcome being proved wrong, but if Headlong is turned into another polite, middle-class-talking-point company, with no apparent use for stagecraft, then this is a sorry day for British Theatre and I make no apology for saying so.

New Court

In May 2007, when Dominic Cooke took over the Royal Court, my review of That Face by Polly Stenham – opened thus:

“An early indicator of what we might be able to expect from Dominic Cooke’s new regime as artistic director of the Royal Court can be found downstairs in the theatre’s stylish concrete basement bar. Here, nestling comfortably on the shelves that until recently housed the theatre’s now-relocated bookshop, are organic teas and wine, fine dried pasta and lemons. It is unclear whether these are for sale, a knowing nod to Cooke’s much discussed promise that the theatre was going to start doing more plays for the middle classes, or simply a scene-setting installation for the Court’s new Upstairs production of 20-year-old Polly Stenham’s first play That Face, concerning the miserable lives of an upper-middle-class family...”

This historical detail is interesting to recall in the wake of Vicki Featherstone’s Royal Court takeover.

The first issue of “Surprise Theatre” (Mon 10 June ‘13) was Mark Ravenhill’s Cakes and Finance – a stand-up verbatim piece/lecture (a surprising, excellent new genre) in which he “played” ten playwrights/writers-for-theatre talking about their “Ideal Theatre”.

It is clear that Featherstone – despite (or perhaps because of) coming from the buildingless National Theatre of Scotland, and before that, the excellent touring outfit Paines Plough – has given that fact of the Royal Court’s physical form a good deal of thought.

For the first time since its 2000 post-refurb opening, the downstairs bar has – thanks to designer Chloe Lamford – been given a burst of colour. Along what was the tastefully black-gauzed far wall there are now three massive panels picturing a high green hedge and above it blue sky. Yellow and Orange lanterns now hang over colourful canteen style tables. And greeting you as you enter via the still-imposing concrete steps is a large magnetised blackboard with those colourful fridge-magnet letters spelling out this week’s “found play” – this week, an overheard conversation between a little girl and her grandmother.

In short, the Royal Court bar has been de-poshed.

The menu has also been brought a bit closer to the means of those who actually work in theatre, with a selection of burgers hovering around the £6 mark. Chips are down by a quid and there’s a 20%-off happy hour after the show comes down between ten and eleven.

This is all excellent news.

Looking round on the second night of Surprise Theatre it already looks like a younger, non-Sloanie crowd have discovered these facts for themselves, and are gratefully making themselves at home. As Royal Court revolutions go, this one strikes me as much better than a misanthropic howl from an angry young man destined to turn almost immediately into an embarrassing old bigot. 

“Affordable chips at the Royal Court? We never thought we’d see the day,” people will tell their grandchildren. And the ethos, too, and the work...

I admit, not least in my introductory chapter to Modern British Playwriting: 2000-2009, when Dominic Cooke took over from Ian Rickson, I was a bit seduced by the rhetoric. Talking to Ramin Gray for the book, he suggested: ‘When Dominic came in he did basically what Graham [Whybrow] had been saying for years and years, which was “programme the thing actively, bring in some exciting voices from outside to goad on English writers, and put on a blast of English writers who no one had ever heard of”. I mean, there was a lot of stuff that had built up on the Young Writers’ Programme and Dominic brilliantly... I mean, it was all there in the larder, Dominic just unleashed it.’

But that initial blast of fresh air felt like it transformed into something else around 2010. What started as a provocative new direction quickly calcified into a difficult middle-class-narcissist agenda, where moneyed audiences were shown repeated, increasingly flattering portraits of themselves, many of which were plainly invented with an eye on a West End Transfer.

As such, who could have predicted that the Court was going to re-open with a verbatim lecture and a week-long run of a really niche satire of Georgian politics? That The President Has Come To See You isn’t perhaps the best new play that’s been seen in Britain this year hardly matters alongside the fact of the gesture it represents.

That it’s performed by an ensemble of some of the best actors in Britain, who are learning/rehearsing a new show every week by day and then performing last week’s rehearsed show by night gives the entire building a new energy that it has been utterly lacking since before 2010. Yes, at some point, it will be nice if we don’t have to be thoroughly acquainted with the ins and outs of some really abstruse politics in order to really appreciate the plays. But, really, for now, especially in the light of what seems to be going on elsewhere, it just feels bloody great to have the Royal Court back on our side.

[cover image from here]

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Generation Game: week 6/10 – The Yard

[short reviews of both shows from the sixth week of the Yard's excellent Generation Game season]

A Cure for Ageing – Ira Brand

Fox Solo – Foxy & Husk

I first saw Ira Brand’s A Cure For Ageing as a half hour scratch performance at Forest Fringe at The Gate last year. Since it is still partly in development, and Brand hasn’t been inviting journalists to write about it, as such, it feels more appropriate to update that report than to knock out a whole new review before re-seeing the finished product in Edinburgh. If you’re after a “star-rating”, take the fact that I’m perfectly happy to go and see it for a third time as indicative.

Since its last outing, it’s lost the section in which she either shows or describes a video of someone naked talking about their body and its signs of ageing. More touchingly, it’s gained another email from her mother about her grandfather’s health. Briefly, there’s also a section where Brand now carefully tips two buckets of earth onto the stage and unfussily creates a makeshift grave. She plays a tape of her grandmother speaking (in German) about her love of dancing. And she then dances on the “grave”. It’s all so not-flagged-up that this could be purely my interpretation. At no point does she say “This is a grave. This is me dancing on a grave”. It’s a curious juxtaposition, though, since the expression “to dance on someones grave” – most recently trotted out with unsurprisingly regularity after Mrs Thatcher’s death – is generally taken as a celebration of that person’s death, not of their life. Here it feels more mournful and elegiac.

As I say, the piece is still “in progress”, but even while it’s being tidied up, it’s well worth a look, especially if you’re not going to be around in Edinburgh to see the “final” version (if such shows can ever be said to have “final versions”).


When people have asked me what I did last night [7.06.13], after briefly describing A Cure For Ageing, I then had to try to find ways of explaining Fox Solo.

What Fox Solo is is a woman dressed as a fox – including full face make-up; half orange, half white – lip-synching with a tape of her (old, very posh) grandmother talking about love and some pop songs. It’s performed as a duet with one of those nodding dogs. Early on, for example, they both mime along to Sonny and Cher’s I Got You, Babe. Foxy does the Cher part and the nodding dog, well, s/he nods along to Sonny’s part. Given that Foxy is miming anyway, the effect of the model dog next to the unplugged mic is uncanny and very funny. There’s something oddly suggestive of transvestism and cabaret about the performance as a whole. At the same time, the piece is actually more gentle than out-and-out subversive. As the piece progresses [spoiler alert, if such performances can be spoilered], Foxy sets her nodding dog companion adrift on a heart shaped raft in the middle of a transparent container holding eight pints of milk and some red food dye. The little creature sits in the middle of this pink pond until, as their love affair gradually seems to die, Foxy tips up the container spilling pink milk and dog onto the stage. And then leaves. Fin.

It’s completely bewildering. I have literally no idea what to do with it at all. I enjoyed watching it, even though I wouldn’t have predicted vaguely transvestive, animal-play, lip-synch, cabaret was my bag at all. I’m not at all sure my critical faculties are up to it. I mean, it’s well done. Definitely. Foxy (no other performer credit given) is obviously a talented performer, but it’s so idiosyncratic – so opaque as to either function (pfft) or meaning (who wants transparent meanings anyway?) that, rarely for performance art, you really do have no idea what’s going on: what it’s really about. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it is just a woman dressed as a fox lip-synching to the voice of their grandmother talking about love and some pop songs.

Interestingly, you do still get a palpable sense of the loss one feels when love dies. It’s not manipulative – not aimed at jerking your tears from you. In fact, for all its outward-facing-ness, it’s probably quite an inward-looking little piece. For all Foxy’s wide-eyed smiles to the audience, it feels like this could be more theraputic for the character than her observers. I tell you something else: it feels more than a little ridiculous trying to analyse this. Still, if you want to go and see something that is pretty much guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve seen before, then this is a good bet. It seems to be performed with total sincerity and produced in good faith (also rare). And it more or less entirely defies reason.

One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Worth going to see if you ever get the chance...

Dances of Death – The Gate

“You won’t like this,” suggested my friend cheerfully as we sat down for the press night of August Strindberg’s Dance(s) of Death. “But, but, but... I liked Kenneth Branagh’s Ivanov and After The Dance, FFS” I protested, as the lights went down.

But I do like a challenge. And, apart from being interested generally in what The Gate has to offer, I’d never seen Strindberg’s Dance of Death before. This new version by septuagenarian terrible Howard Brenton also has the (questionable, it turns out) advantage of included the second, rarely performed part of the piece. But my challenge was to like it. And, for the first forty-five/fifty minutes or so, I did like it well enough...

Dance of Death itself is a kind of misanthropic, Scandinavian old-people’s Private Lives, or an even bleaker version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A married couple approaching their thirtieth wedding anniversary bicker, fight and torture each other. Edgar (Michael Pennington) is a retired, middle-ranking army officer, his wife Alice (Linda Marlowe) is a thwarted actress. Apparently, they’re such a pair of old cunts that no one else on the island where they live even invites them to social events any more, and you can see why – they’re self-absorbed, showboating old drama queens. One stormy night Edgar’s old friend Kurt (the excellent Christopher Ravenscroft) turns up to visit. TBH, not a great deal happens. Edgar blusters at him and then almost has a heart attack. Kurt sits with him through the night. Alice flirts with Kurt. There’s a lot of territory marking and to-ing and fro-ing and eventually [SPOILER] it turns out Edgar and Alice are likely to remain together torturing each other, and anyone else who slips into their orbit, until they die.

In the Havershambles of a second part, the focus shifts partially to Edgar and Alice’s daughter Judith (Eleanor Wyld), and Kurt’s son Allan (Edward Franklin) where Judith is coming on all Estella with Allan’s Pip. Edgar continues his campaign to “destroy” Kurt mostly and Alice a bit too, this time using their children and Kurt’s money. I won’t tell you how it ends, but a few days later, I don’t really remember it even mattering much.

Tom Littler – who has spent three years with the Peter Hall company – offers a production that is almost a dictionary definition of safe and conservative. Nothing wrong with that, of course. In many ways, it is potentially exciting to see these big old actors up-close, prowling round the Gate’s tiny stage like so many caged big beasts. Annoyingly a few things conspire to puncture this proposition. Firstly, for my money the performances could mostly do with being turned down from 11. We’re not in the Theatre Royal Bath now. You can hear someone whisper on stage from the back of the Gate. Certainly no one needs to raise their voice. Beyond this, at certain crucial dramatic moments the production barely avoids tipping over into melodrama. Perhaps all this is the director’s intention, but for me it was all a bit shouty, and old-school.

Then there is the problem of characterisation. Generally I’m not a big fan of Michael Pennington. He has a pronounced line in capering, which I just can’t stick. So, I was pleasantly surprised here to find myself rather admiring his largely de-capered portrayal of Edgar. Until, as I say, abut the 45/50 minute mark, at which point, we’d been fed so much information about Edgar’s character that what the actor was doing didn’t seem even remotely to communicate the character he was apparently playing. Now, all this could be part of some very clever thinking on the part of actor and director. There is, after all, the fact that most of the things we’re told about Edgar are things we’re told by his wife, who is herself a ridiculous old drama queen, milking the alleged tragedy of her situation for all the sympathy, melodrama and leverage she can get out of it. On the other hand, Pennington just doesn’t really seem up to the job of being even credibly mistaken for a frightening tyrant. He Is much more befuddled, cuddly and grumpy, so when he does start properly making people’s lives a misery in the second part, it seems all the more surprising. I’m not really sure what I wanted instead (well, Ian McDiarmid, probably); I’m not saying I need my villains to be pantomime villainous, but at the same time, well, if someone is being actually nasty, don’t we need to get a sense of that? Here instead, it felt like everyone on stage was an unreliable narrator, to the extent that the story stopped mattering because there was no way of believing any of it.

There is also the matter of Jerwood Young Designer James Perkins’s set. On first glace, its curved walled study/living room is a fine, functional, anywhen room which offers a credible space for the actors to inhabit. There are perhaps nit-picky details of construction, but on the whole it is sound. It is in the second half, when the room transforms into a conservatory, the windows of which given out onto – well, onto a bunch of projections of different paintings and photographs scene-by-scene that we’re into stranger territory. Obviously I’m not about to blow something up for a sudden shaft of non-naturalism, but in the scheme of this production it is bloody strange, and rather artlessly done. Worse, though, is William Reynolds’s lighting design, which has to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen, with every light pressed into service, and still there is pooling, the projections are all but eradicated, several lights seem only to be lighting the beam in the Gate’s ceiling directly in front of them (distracting), or the heads and shoulders of the first two rows (again, distracting in this sort of fourth-wall production). And the less said about the sickly green light that comes on whenever Edgar is feeling a bit ill the better. On the up-side, Linda Marlowe stagey-ness actually fits the melodramatic Alice rather well, even if her cattiness is a bit too pat. And both Franklin and Wyld as the two youngsters are actually rather good. Christopher Ravenscroft, who I think is one of my favourite actors of his generation since I saw him in Taking Care of Baby, is also mostly great, although he does get regrettably co-opted into some of the melodramatics to the detriment of his performance.

Beyond this, there is also the problem of Strindberg’s utterly stupid views of humanity to deal with. Incredibly, Sue Prideaux who writes the introduction (and Brenton, I think), both comment approvingly on Strindberg’s feminism – Prideaux noting his 1884 book Getting Married as a 24-point manifesto for Women’s Rights. I find this notion preposterous. Strindberg is nothing if not an irredeemable misogynist of the first water and this play bears that out as much as anything. The only way Strindberg might hope to mitigate charges of woman-hating is to plead in his defence that it’s not just women. And he might be onto something with that. He takes such a dim view of humanity en masse that to suggest it’s just women he hates is perhaps a bit unfair. Oddly, there’s also *another* fairly in-depth bunch of chatter about the politics of Scandinavian water regulations (cf. Enemy of the People), which for perhaps Pavlovian reasons, didn’t endear the piece to me further. It did also make me wonder whether Scandinavian water regulations weren’t somehow the new sign of our own troubled political times, albeit in a way which is utterly impossible to fathom.

Overall, it could be that my friend was right; that I was destined never to like this, but, having given broad-mindedness my best shot, I think there’s also plenty for fans of naturalism at which to bridle. On the other hand, the production doesn’t really embarrass the Gate, and if you’ve not seen the play(s) before and are keen to do so, then this is a production that will at least keep you engaged and show you what happens with a minimum of fuss. Not exactly a high point of my theatrical year so far, but a respectable distance from its nadir.