Thursday, December 13, 2007

...if you care about the future of theatre in this country, or indeed, the present of it...

It seems Arts Council Yorkshire have cut their support to the National Student Drama Festival, declaring that they want to "refocus our investment". I just can't stress enough the extent to which there is no single thing that Arts Council Yorkshire which would be more effective in screwing up the future of theatre (and, indeed, of theatre criticism) in the UK. The Festival has until January 15th to appeal, and are putting together a petition to support the appeal.

Go here and sign the petition.

I'll put together a fuller post on the subject when i've managed to speak to some people at the Festival and get a bit more information about the situation and their plans. In the meantime, does anyone know enough html to put together a button that people might be able to paste into their blogs? i'm looking at you Davis Wateracre...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

...go there...

i've just discovered a really wonderful blog: Miles Alinson's A Confrontation with Falling.

"We burn in time and produce nothing which will remain except our own disappearance. "

from the blog.

"Art is life remembering magic. It is being. It is activism. It is ritual and prayer. It is play. It is the first word. It is the antidote. It is futile. There is only the dull hum of air-conditioning units without it."

from The City, I

...go confront...


Thursday, November 22, 2007

...does anyone speak finnish?...

Cos i want to know what they're saying about the reduced michael billington here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007 and now, friends, here and now (part one)...

theatre is theatre and not something else because it is taking place in the here and now.

it is a sharing of that here and now that can take us beyond that here and now.

beyond even the wider here and now of our lives hereish and nowish.

it is a commonsensicle cliche to say that it does so by constructing a fictional not-here and not-now.

Distrust commonsense. And cliches.

Beyond: what if the here and nowness of theatre is itself a fiction?


...can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Prologue, Henry V

And this is me talking. This is really me talking to you now.
Dad, bedbound, Enda Walsh

There exists a place where all the contrarieties are true
William Blake

Theatre offers the promise of a "here i am" on the part of the performer that goes far beyond the "here i am" of everyday life. In a sense it embodies nothing less than a desire to say "hello", an act which asserts the hereness of both myself and yourself. This desire in itself can be seen as a reaction against the inevitable experience of disembodiment encountered when something comes forth from within us - something like the voice. My voice is mine but it's not me. It leaves me.

Children, until they are told they shouldn't, often begin their stories with "Hello". As the voice is removed from even its origin in the body by written text, this "Hello" crystallises the pretence - the "i am not me", the "Hello. I am a lion." - of fiction which is a retreat from the self, we find a simultaneous counter-urge:

"Hello, here I am."

"I am a lion."

There are drama forms in which a character's first act is to introduce himself.

Ego sum Alpha et nouissimus.
I am gracyus and grete, God withoutyn begynnyng,
I am maker vnmade, all mighte es in me;
I am lyfe and way vnto welth-wynnyng,
I am formaste and fyrste, als I byd sall it be.

First lines of the York Mystery Cycle

(Hello God!)

There's a word for this but i can't remember it. Anyway, there's a lot of it, and to consider it unsophisticated is to miss the point that the Big Hello happens every time an actor steps into view.

Of course, we're not really talking to God. God isn't here. It's just an actor. "Hello God!" is a ridiculous thing to think. More so to say, because he can't hear you.

Oh, hang on.

It makes everything a lot easier if you've got an omniscient deity watching over the processes of representation which uneasily clunk around in between me and you. "Hello God!" we think and God hears even what's inaudible. "Hello" i say to you and god legitimates me and you by knowing that i'm here and you're there and he heard you hearing me and understanding me.

But we don't got that now, at least not at the heart of our metaphysics, so we're going to have to try again...

The "Here" in the "Hello, here I am" of the actor's entrance has at least two meanings. It's the here of this stage here, and the here of not-this-stage, maybe the "vasty fields of France", maybe a field with a single tree in it. To speak of the second "here" as a lie and the first as a truth is to ignore the special status of the theatre space. In other words, that first "here" enables the second. I can say "Hello, here i am. In France." And if i'm onstage, i won't get the response i will get if i say it in Tesco in Holburn: "No you're not." The audience allows it. The theatre is not a lie that tells the truth; the stage is what allows theatre to transcends the true/false binary. This is why we can talk about the "magic of theatre" - but this magic, unlike other magics, need not hide its workings. It's magical even as you see the pocket that the rabbit's kept in, even as it exposes to you its secrets.

But all the world's a stage ne c'est pas? Well, peut-etre, but if that's the case then where does the audience sit? For all that identity and its constituents may be a performance, they don't (always) take place in a theatre and so they don't get to bail out from the true/false party. On stage, being theatrical is mandatory. Elsewhere it's another way of saying you're being a dick.

Who or what gives the theatre this magical special status? A stage is not a stage because it's in a theatre, it does not need to be blessed like a temple or launched like a ship in order to come into being.

"You see that space there?"


"It's a stage."

"No it isn't."

"Well, ok, let's pretend it is."

Perhaps the contract between performer and audience goes no further than this: we agree on the fiction that this here is a stage.
update: as Paul Burgess has a really interesting piece in the same kind of area here (go to notebook and scroll down to november 10th)

Friday, October 5, 2007




The belowpromised fisking is running late. This is partly because i'm trying to be all positive and sunny about things and not snarly and negative, and partly because i can't be arsed to trawl through right-wing websites to hunt down sources. i'm sure i'll get round to it next time i'm feeling masochistic.


On the other hand, imminentish is the arrival of a piece on the theatre and commodity fetishism through the prism of Brecht. And some other stuff i haven't figured out yet. persons unknown: where obscure performance theory and Marxist economics collide! i bet you can't wait...



George Hunka is back. And this time he's Redux! (i can't help but hope for The Arcades Project: The Director's Cut, in which Andrew Field gets to say what he really wanted to before the studio made him put in an explanatory voiceover.) This is good news! Go there! Sadly, but totally understandably, he's decided that a comments section is simply not worth the hassle anymore. Thankfully, persons unknown is flying below the radar of the kind of people who might want to ruin it for everyone else (read - has a readership of you, me and my girlfriend) and so has thus far avoided The Tragedy of The Comments.


Yes, that was a convoluted economics pun. Sometimes i even disappoint myself!


In common with Andrew Haydon, i demand that you head on over to I Am The Movies where you'll find, like, totally the best film reviews ever, and leave comments begging for more. That way Lily might write some more, and then we can all be happy.


What's that? You're a fan of analytic philosophy mixed with jokes and argumentativeness and things about books? Well then, why not pop your webhead into Ed Lake's fabulous Incorrectamundo.


Also also, Dan Bye, if you're reading this, we want more. Your public awaits...


Also also also, i've just discovered Ben Ellis. i like...

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Friday, September 28, 2007

Thursday, September 27, 2007

...useful hints...

If you're bored at work, don't just randomly click through Chris Goode's Blogroll in search of something diverting and arty. Most especially, don't click through to Dennis Cooper's blog. No really. Don't.

Also, i wanted to draw all 5 of your attentions to a shitstorm that doesn't affect theatre, but is an issue that affects bloggers, people who give a flying fuck about free speech and football fans (even if those most likely to be affected do support the wrong team from North London). Also, Craig Murray, around whom this furore first furored, was a character in Talking To Terrorists, so it's sort of on topic. And if someone shuts down all the websites, who's going to write the abovementioned CG's plays for him?

Monday, September 17, 2007

That series on theatre criticism with an overly long title - Part 3

People have been talking about reviews and criticism and the difference thereinbetween. Dan Bye cites Leo Benedictus in the Guardian: "A review is a practical tool designed to help people choose a show. Criticism is an attempt to describe the way a show works and analyse why it works well." (Dan, incidentally, deserves great credit for being the first person i've come accross to lay into someone for giving him a good review.) Ian Shuttleworth, in various comments around the blogs (which i now can't find half of - please feel free to point them out or to correct me if i've misrepresented you, Ian), tentatively puts forward an alternative view, which might be sumarised as "criticism places the work within a wider social/political/historical/cultural context." Similarly, Michael Billington states that "The critic has a duty to set any play or performance in its historical context" although he does so in a piece in which he seeks to draw a distinction between the blogger and the professional critic rather than criticism and reviewing.

i don't really buy any of these distinctions. Reviews simply don't interest me, but insofar as they are conceived as guides for the consumer, they are a) rubbish, and b) dumb (although i like the idea of nipping into WH Smiths to buy a copy of What Play? magazine so that you can be told which play to go to by experts who have tested all the major brands of plays to destruction). They are dumb because it is dumb to view a piece of culture solely as a commodity to be consumed by a consumer. Of course, once culture enters the market it becomes commodity, but becoming a commodity does not stop it from existing as other things as well. Other things like art, communication, expression, performance. Similarly, when you buy a ticket you become a consumer, but you're still an audience member as well, just as you're still a biological organism which can perform complex functions like breathing without having to consciously think about them. If you weren't, you'd die.

They are rubbish because any interpretive or analytical or evaluative account of a piece of art or entertainment which has a conception of art or entertainment as primarily as commodity implicit in its very raison d'etre is necessarily going to be a pretty poor account, because it will have missed the point of what entertainment or art is. Furthermore, audiences don't know what they want. This is True Fact. Even if they think they know what they want, they only know it in such a way as to make the vaguest of claims - "a show with nice songs in it", "some good physical theatre", "things that will make you laugh/cry/think". It's not quite like trying to decide whether you want a washing machine with an energy saving function, is it? When they know specifics - a show with a hollywood star in it, for example, there's no need for a reviewer to tell us that there's a hollywood star in it.

I also don't much care for the idea that criticism is distinct from reviewing because it tells you how and why things work. As a practitioner i am interested in how and why things work in the theatre. i do not go to critics to learn about that - i go to other practitioners and to teachers, who can teach me about how and why things work. As an audience member i see no reason why anyone should be any more interested in how a particular effect is achieved than they are in how the sparkplugs work in their car.

Shutters' distinction - that criticism places the work within a context (he said reductively)- is more satisfactory in that it conceives of the critic as someone who must necessarily have a sense of that wider context and so in some sense deserves their expert status. But i don't go all out for it because i believe that a piece can be great critical writing without ever placing the work in a wider context. What if the critic works inwards rather than outwards? What if they produce an account that is detailed, intelligent, passionate and witty, but fail to tick the broader context box? i still count that as criticism.

So, I'd like to propose an alternative distinction:

A review is someone saying what they think about something. It has a value of very close to nothing whatsoever on the persons unknown index of how important something is (PUIHISI). Unless the jokes are good. Someone saying what they think about something and asking you to believe it is relying soley on your perception of them as someone with expert status, someone with authority. Perhaps this is one the reasons that professional reviewers are so often keen to point out how many shows they see, as though, like someone training for the Tour de France, the more miles they have in their legs the better equiped they will be (although i'm not sure if there are any performance enhancing critical drugs on the market). The other end of the justification you often hear for this type of reviewing is that "a review is just one person's opinion." This is something that makes me angry, and there'll be a whole post on it at some point, but for now suffice to note that this is not a justification but an apology - it's effect is to reduce the value of the review as well as to disavow responsibility for it. It means it doesn't matter if what the writer writes is dumb, is biggotted, is illogical, is just plain wrong, because, after all, it's just one person's opinion. The question we might ask in response is "why on earth should anyone care about just one person's opinion? You fuck!"

Criticism, on the other hand, is writing in which an argument is constructed about (/around/through/with) its subject. Its value is not conferred by the supposed authority of the author, but is found in the way the writing itself engages the reader. Writing of this kind can be "critical" in all the meanings that cloud around that word (compare this to the simple second look implied by a re-view). It can also be rubbish - there is such a thing as bad criticism just as surely as there is such a thing as bad writing and bad theatre, but it is critical that writing of this kind exist, because this form of engagement with art is valuable in itself, and because it has utilitarian value - it enables to think about art in new ways. And because it's nice to have something to talk about.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Live Sex Show!

i'm very much looking forward to Told By An Idiot's production of Carol Ann Duffy's Casanova, currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith. Here's an interview with the company by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian.

Cassanova is to be played by the fabulous Hayley Carmichael, who, as the more observant of you will have noticed, is a woman. Look:

Now, this isn't just my favourite publicity shot of the year - there's a few key things that the company say that deserve drawing out, because they have implications for how we might make and watch theatre, for the portrayal of sexuality on stage, and for people who care about gender, power and representation within the theatre (the rest of you, stop reading now. I mean it. Now!)

Gardner reports that early versions of the play about the great lover, contained, unsurprisingly, a hell of a lot of sex. As the show developed the sex disapeared. This from the article:

"We actually copied some of the sex scenes from the Fellini movie," explains Carmichael. "But, bit by bit, the sex disappeared, because it looked ludicrous and because, even with me on top thrusting away with a man beneath me, I still somehow felt and looked like a victim."

Now, obviously there's nothing wrong with making a show that doesn't have lots of sex in it - plenty of people do that all the time - and it's certainly true that very often sex on stage looks ludicrous. I'm not in any way taking issue with the decisions that the company have made. What concerns me is that, even in a production which has obviously feminist undertones, overtones, and presumably every other kind of tone on display, a woman engaging in simulated sex onstage should make the performer feel and look like a victim, even when all the obvious signifiers seem to be pointing towards her being strong and in control. Again, from the article:

[Paul Hunter, the show's director] believes that there are very few situations in either the real or literary world "where women have the licence to behave like a Casanova without having to also deal with the judgment and censure that goes with that territory".

I find it odd that the two statements can sit so closely together with no connection made by either interviewer or -ees. I'm also puzzled by Gardner's assertion that the staging is such that "the matter of gender becomes completely irrelevant". It is hard to believe that if a man were on top thrusting away with a woman beneath him, he would feel and look like a victim. It is almost as though in the theatre here described there is a live version of the film camera's male gaze at work - perhaps an invisible lens in the space between audience and performer, and even between the performer and herself.

All of this makes it seem like the stage is an aggressively male gendered space, and maybe it is. Of course, in the real world we can't fix the effects of several thousand years of patriarchy in an instant, but the theatre isn't the real world - in's much better than that, and in the theatre space we can do whatever we damn well please. But in the theatre nothing is easy. Is it a theatrical problem or a broader cultural one which also manifests itself in the theatre? Are the structures of power inscibed into the theatres themselves or is it that they are etched into the psyches of audience and actor alike? What would a women's theatre look like?

i don't really have answers to these questions - so i was wondering if you guys have anything to throw into the ring...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

...set it off...

i've been doing my best not to bite, or in fact to do anything at all, but hey ho and whaddaya know, sometimes you just can't help yourself.

persons unknown update:

1. persons unknown are mildy concussed, apparently. If i look confused, if this post stops making sense, or if clear liquid starts coming out my nose, please stop reading and get me to hospital straight away.

2. persons unknown have a new job. A new job scaring people, although this currently only works on people who are easily scared. Points one and two are not unconnected. Scaring people is a dangerous business. Still, at least these days i am performing for a living. And at least i have my dignity. Oh, wait...

3. persons unknown are very sorry they've been neglecting you - i hit the intellectual trough i predicted way back when with quite some force and have been wallowing in it since. i've had plenty to say but no belief that it was worth saying. Of course it's perfectly possible that this lack of belief has been entirely justified, and that reignition is the worst thing that could possibly happen to this blog. But to those who doubt me i say, like Tony Blair before me: History will be my judge. Lets just hope that Judge History likes bad puns and disastrous, illegal wars.

So, my friends, lets begin again by fulfilling a promise - that whole objective true factual truth about theatre criticism shizzle - i said it was a series and a series it is - so here's part deux:

Theatre Criticism - The true objective factual truth part two.


Q: Theatre criticism - why should anyone give a shit?

A: Andrew Haydon admits here to a moment sloughing the trough of despond at the pointlessness of it all - tv critics, he says, get to write about stuff that people care about, because tv is sometimes about stuff that people care about. Added to this, people care about tv, whereas only about three people care about theatre and they're all at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival right now watching a man tie strings to his genitalia and yank at them whilst reciting every other line from A Winter's Tale ('Marionette of the Penis' - i'll give you evens on it winning a fringe first next year).

Of course, as Andrew says, television can be a medium for journalism, whereas theatre very rarely is (particularly if you buy my contention that "theatre is not a medium of communication of anything other than itself") - it is art or entertainment. i'd go further and say that when theatre has journalistic elements or intentions (as in the case of much verbatim theatre) the theatre critic still has to write about something that only three people really care about - it's just that she has to locate her theatrical analysis within a broader social/political culture. It says much about either my laziness or the current paucity of our reviewing culture that i am yet to read even half an analysis of the relationship between a verbatim theatre piece as theatrical event and the political value of that event (for either the individual audience member or the body politic). If anyone knows of one then please do point it my way.

What i'm sketching around here is that when theatre approaches social or political reality it's not very much use for anyone to describe what think of that social or political reality. Or more accurately, it's not very much use for anyone who's interested in theatre for you to do that. What needs to be articulated, even from the point of view of someone whose interest lies more in politics than theatre, is what the theatrical performance brings to the party.

Anecdotage: the first verbatim play i saw was The Colour of Justice - a dramatisation of an edited transcript of the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation of the unprovoked, racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence which labelled the Metropolitan Police "institutionally racist". Now i knew and felt plenty about this already, and whilst i may have learned a little more about what actually happened, the value i took from it was certainly not primarily the acquisition of knowledge - there was also the act of a group of people, both actors and audience coming together (entertaining) as a form of protest, but most of all i understood things differently as a result of confronting those events in relation to the presence of real physical human bodies in front of me - in short, the theatricality of the event was important. In approaching the show as a piece of theatre it is unnecessary and trite to say that what happened was wrong. It is even missing the point to analyse how and why it was wrong except insofar as theatre opens up new paths of understanding of howness and whyness.

Down the untheatrical path idiocy lies. David Hare's Stuff Happens had a lot wrong with it (almost everything in fact). David Aaronovitch praised it for it's ambivalence:

"So ambivalent, in fact, that - with one or two fairly minor changes - you could have shown this play to an audience of intelligent Republicans and had them laughing and applauding, albeit in completely different places."

Aaronovitch, of course was a moonlighting opinion piece writer (and one of many at that), but he gets the theatre all wrong here in spectacularly stupid fashion. To value a cultural event because it might be liked by some right-wing americans if it was a bit different and was happening somewhere else rather suggests that you might want to spend a bit more time in the, you know, here and now. But this is what happens when we try to look at theatre as though it's NotTheatre. On the same page Polly Toynbee, who should be more naturally a Hare sympathiser, does a much better job of understanding the play (and consequently some of its shortcomings) in theatrical terms, despite being a similarly moonlighting opinion journalist.

So, if you want to talk about issues and ideas, become an opinion journalist. Of course, Andrew knows this, and pretty much says as much. But he concludes by lamenting the fact that he is so often reminded of the "supreme irrelevance" of theatre and theatre criticism. Yes, television creates the possibility of a form of shared cultural experience on a national level, but that no more imbues it with relevance than the limited reach of a limited run renders theatre irrelevant. But i digress - this is not about why theatre is important, which you're just going to have to take as a given for the time being, because its my blog and i say so, but why theatre criticism is important.

So let's swerve back to somewhere in the region of the point. Theatre criticism matters not because it tells people what shows are worth seeing (it doesn't) or because it tells artistic directors who can't see everything who they should be hiring (it does, and this is a real problem) but because the discourse surrounding theatre affects our perception of theatre, and (and this is so key that, where it to meet with Zuul, it would have Marshmallows dancing down the street) affects our ability to think about theatre. This is primarily of concern not to the artist, but to the audience. Reconfiguring that a little, the responsibility of the critic is to neither the artist nor the work, nor some vague and abstracted Theatre in the Capital Letters sense, but to the reader.

Note - i'm aware that this is a pretty partial response to all the issues it raises - apologies. This has been sitting in my draught folder for ages, and in the interest of getting this blog rolling again, i've decided to stop dicking around and publish it. There's much more to say on this - hopefully, at some point, i'll say it.

Friday, August 3, 2007


i know, i know, i'm a bad man, and i've been neglecting you, and when i return it's to plug my girlfriend's show, but hey, i've been moping. so there.

Right, Lily has been assistant directing on Accidental Heroes, for the Hammersmith Lyric Young Company. It opened last night and it's great. It really is. A genuine ensemble piece about growing up, gun crime, young love and loss it communicates the by turns painful and brilliant experience of youth in a way in which the professional theatre singularly fails to do. The reason young people don't go to the theatre is that it's not like this (he generalised reductively). It's timely treatment of a tough subject, and you should see it, because it works as a piece of theatre, not just as a piece of youth theatre. The light and sound design are both fantastic, and there are several moments of fantastically vivid theatricality which puts most work which happens on a main stage to shame.

It's on tonight, and twice tomorrow. Go.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


i've come across this via the Guardian's online coverage of the Tour De France. What a story.

Consider this a sort of taster to the forthcoming "Why cycling is the most Beckettian of all sports", so i can talk about bikes whilst still pretending that this is some kind of arty blog.

...acting out stories...

"Theatre is the branch of the performing arts concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience using combinations of speech, gesture, mime, puppets, music, dance, sound and spectacle — indeed any one or more elements of the other performing arts."

News to me.

Friday, July 6, 2007

...this blog, for one, welcomes its new theatrical overlords...

My stats counter (which, of course, i check obsessively) is telling me that we have a sudden influx* of readers, thanks largely to nice things said by Dan Bye, George Hunka and Alison Croggan - all of whom are fine examples of the way the blogonets can open up a space for the citizen critic to articulate critcal thought about theatre which raises the level of discourse about our art. How great is that? Now Dan has to say nice things cos he's my friend, but it means a lot that such clever, articulate writers are linking here. Alison calls us a "cognac blog", from which i think we are to understand that she has correctly deduced that we smell of booze.

In the meantime, if anyone has 46minutes and 10 seconds to kill (and quite frankly, who doesn't?) then there is almost no better way they could conceivably kill them than by listening to Andrew Haydon talking to Chris Goode over at Theatre Voice. Lots about his career, but also some very interesting thoughts about the limitations of scratch culture, the position of language within theatrical performance and what we'll reductively call the nature of the audience experience. Feel free to discuss any point raised in the comments...

* "sudden influx" in this context means quite literally "some".

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


a quick one...

Thanks to Andrew Haydom for his big old comment below. Anyone else with any thoughts please do jump in. As i promise in the comments section, there will be more about theatre criticism, which is a subject close to my cold black heart. i bet you can't wait, you lucky lucky things.

So, recent news. Saw Longwave at the Lyric, which was beautiful. i agree with Andrew here. Also saw Angels in America parts one and two, also at the Lyric. On consecutive days. This meant three nights on the trot in West London for me, but pity poor Lily (Hi Lily!) who's working there, and so spent every single day for a whole week there. On Angels, i agree with Dan Bye here (last para). This week i have no thoughts of my own.

It was an interesting experience seeing Angels with that gap in the middle - being suspended mid-play for a whole day. My otherwise unremarkable day at the day-job was framed within its epic narrative, and i felt as though my real life, the life that matters, which here was the life of a theatre-goer, was on hold.

i'm fascinated by how performance extends beyond itself, how theatre - which by definition happens only at that time and only in that room - has meaning and an existence in the life beyond that point in time and space. This is one of the reasons that theatre criticism matters, but it's also one of the reasons that theatre matters, or at least, that theatre should matter (or, perhaps, to appropriate a phrase from persons unknown's official famous friend, why theatre that matters matters).

Of course the bleed works both ways if the life beyond seeps into the priveleged performance space (which is of course also a space in time). Oooh look! A dialectic!

Anyway, there'll be more on this at some point when i'm feeling like my head's working. Right now i just feel totally stuck, not just intellectually, but also creatively, and that's immensely frustrating. Gah.

On the plus side, here's a picture of me doing the 120 mile British Cyclosportive in a touch under 7 and a half hours last Sunday. i was the 1507th fastest! Apparently, Ian Wright was doing it as well, but he got lost. i was exactly one hour and 50 minutes quicker than him according to the official results. It is persons unknown policy never to knowingly be slower than former Arsenal players.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Theatre Criticism - The Objective True Factual Truth Part 1

i've been meaning to say something about AA Gill's Sunday Times attack on the critics and the responses that it's provoked. This particular storm seems to be already well on its way to blowing over, so maybe no one gives a shit anymore, but hey, y'know, i've been busy*.

Leaving aside snarky comments about dress sense, and the fact that some people have suggested that he's angling for a job, the substantial content of Gill's attack is as follows:

1. Critics are basically uncourteous towards the theatrical establishment, making unreasonable demands which compel theatre managers to rearrange the seating for press nights and being in such a hurry to get out of the theatre and write up their reviews that they do not even applaud the work like every other fucker has to.

2. Theatre is uniquely ill served by the critical establishment which surrounds it. Reviewers are "a moribund, joyless, detached bunch. Where are the voices that ring out as being aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining?" In short, the writing itself is boring and stylistically bankrupt. Theatre criticism has suffered as a result, slipping in "cultural importance".

3. Britain has a great tradition of theatre writers which puts the current crop to shame. At present there's no one who can hold a torch to Tynan, Hobson or Shaw.

4. The critics place theatre in relation to other theatre rather than in relation to life outside the theatre because they have seen lots of theatre, but not lots of life outside it. "The only context for theatre in their reviews is other theatre. Drama exists in a closed museum of nostalgic experience."

Right, it's fair to say that plenty of people aren't very happy about this, although it hasn't quite caused the kind of stink that the whole "Dead White Men" shenanigans skunked off.

Now, i think it's fair to say, that 1. doesn't matter very much. 4. is arguable, but Gill don't argue it very well (although interesting Lyn Gardner accepts this point in a piece which is otherwise a refutation of everything he says), but 2 and 3... Well, put it this way - if there's a writer as good as Hobson or Tynan around now, can someone name them please? (If you are one of those who maintained that there was Absolutely Nothing Wrong, Nothing To See Here, Move Along Please when Hytner levelled the misogyny charge, you can double up this challenge by explaining how this review by Nic de Jongh is an example of feminist criticism, or how when you're living in a world in which the most famous line from a half-way recent review is essentially a middle-aged man getting an erection over a Hollywood star, 'Pure Theatrical Viagra', everything's tickety-boo on the power/gender axis.)

Now what's more interesting than Gill's article is the responses. Michael Coveny (second article down) raises himself to below Gill's level by saying he looks gay. Mark Shenton calls him impertinent. Impertinent? How. Very. Fucking. Pompous. Criticising the critics is impertinent unless done by, who? The Queen maybe? Is she allowed?

Lyn Gardner, as ever, is the only person to say anything half-way intelligent.

Now Lyn, along with Maxie Szalwinska, was one of the very few in the critical establishment to respond to Hytner's accusation with anything other than dismissive, contemptuous indignation, and in general she seems pretty up for asking questions about what criticism is for, and whether the critics are doing their jobs. So big credit to her for not partaking in the collective ingestion of the blue pill every time anyone throws up the possibility of the red one.

But she says some immensely depressing stuff.

" style I suspect that Gill really means the flip, cynical wit which characterises his own TV and restaurant reviews and which is so beloved by editors. Don't get me wrong, they're a great read, clearly written - like his article on theatre criticism - with provocation in mind. But in my experience only the direst theatre shows with no redeeming qualities lend themselves to that kind of waspish humour. Such writing often showcases the reviewer over the work and while it may be possible to give blackened cod and wilted greens such treatment on a regular basis, my own experience is that when you apply it to the live experience of theatre it has a distorting effect. Funny and fair are often awkward bedfellows."

Now, one thing at a time. Thing one: Whilst it may be true that Gill "really means flip, cynical wit" it's not actually what he says. What he says is "Where are the voices that ring out as being aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining?" There are a few, a very few, and Gardner herself is one of them - her passion for theatre permeates her writing, and when she likes something you can actually feel the thrill that she gets from it rather than the cold, dry, sub-academic categorisation that you'll get from some of the others - but jeez, does anyone really think that these attributes are the norm in critics? Really? Honestly? Anyway, it's true that it's a good thing that everyone's not being all waspish and all, but it seems a little unfair to attack Gill's argument by saying that what he actually means is something different to what he actually said, and that this hidden meaning is a Bad Thing.

Thing the twoth: Lyn seems to be saying that you can't be both entertaining as a writer and fair to the piece. Look, the most famous line in British theatre criticism ever is Tynan's "I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger" which is a mighty fine example of vibrant, playful, even witty prose that says a hell of a lot, and a hell of a lot good, about the play. Writing can be passionate, articulate, entertaining and truthful, insightful and well argued. In fact, i think you can make a pretty strong case for the likelihood of it being the latter being pretty well correlated with its possession of the former set of attributes. And yes, as Gardner says, it's a really bad thing that reviews are getting shorter, but does she really believe that 300 words leaves little room for "style to swagger"? Style isn't an optional extra that gets tacked on around the edges of the serious writing. It's how the writing itself is written. If you (as Lyn doesn't, but as some of her commenters do) believe that by using an idiosyncratic style you're making the writing about the reviewer and not the play, you're presuming that there is some kind of neutral style in which the reviewer becomes transparent and that the play is a passive object entirely separate from the reviewer. And you're wrong on both presumptive counts.

I can understand why the critics feel the need to close ranks in the face of every attack - many of the arguments used against them are specious and ill-thought-out bitterness from practitioners and they are being squeezed by editors who barely tolerate them. But Hytner and Gill have been met with the same hostility that Ian Shuttleworth was on the end of when he pointed out that a generation of critics was being lost because of the effective tenure of the first-stringers. There is, with the honourable exception of Gardner during the Dead White Males affair, almost no take-up in the opportunity that these moments offer for self-reflection, for self-criticism. Can no one even brook the possibility that the way things are working right now isn't perfect and that the people doing the jobs aren't all doing it in a perfect way? A healthy critical plurality would be debating the issues that have been raised by Gill and Hytner, not just with the provocateurs, but amongst themselves. What we have instead is univocal shouting down of dissent.

5 points and a pie to the first person who can explain why that's a good thing.

* In this context, "busy" means "lazy".

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bloody Hippo World Mess

Apologies for the unforced absence. Turns out i'm really lazy. Who knew?

Saw a preview of Chris Goode's Hippo World Guest Book at Arts Admin's Toynbee Studios. First up, what a lovely complex. i didn't even realise it existed, despite having been to parties at Toynbee Hall. i hereby resolve to drink more coffee and see more things there.

The show was lovely, sweet, funny and depressing by turns, but i don't want to say too much about it cos it was only a preview. Suffice to say, it's certainly in my top two ever plays about websites about hippos i've seen. And that it raises all kinds of interesting questions about the way we communicate or don't, the way the body relates to the text we produce, and that there's a whole essay to be written on the way it problematises the assumptions on which verbatim theatre builds its dramatic house of straw, whilst still being a piece of verbatim theatre of sorts. If you're going to be in Edinburgh, i'd highly recommend it.

Then i saw Forced Entertainment's Bloody Mess - part of Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown. Bloody Mess is the piece they made to celebrate their twentieth anniversary of being a big ol'experimental theatre company (whatever that means). Now, i saw Pleasure by Forced Ent when i was seventeen and it blew me away. When they did their 24 hour show Who Can Sing A Song to Unfrighten Me i spent a total of 18 hours watching it. Recently, however, their work hasn't thrilled me in quite the way it once did.

There's plenty to celebrate about 20 years (more now) of Forced Ent. Anyone who saw Katie Mitchell's Attempts On Her Life at the National may well have spotted their influence looming large, and on that stage that's a victory that shouldn't be taken lightly. But there's also a difficulty in producing theatre to celebrate a theatre company who are so intimately concerned with failure - the failure of narratives, the failure of performance, the failure of understanding. What happens when your failure gets successful? When your mess isn't really a mess because it is so securely contained within a dramatic framework that you've established over the years?

And the problem with the piece (or one of the big problems with the piece) is that it is never at risk of failure. What we're seeing looks a bit like failure (people say they're going to do something - tell a story say - and then they do it badly and everyone else around them conspire to fuck it up by playing, variously, with a smoke machine, the sound effects, giving unhelpful support and advice, interrupting to talk about sex, you know, all the kind of shit that goes wrong when you're in a Forced Entertainment show). It smells a bit like failure too - the person who's trying to do something will get annoyed and shout at the people who are fucking it up for him. But it isn't actually failure. Why? Because this is the whole point. There was never any hope that anyone would tell a story. Never any chance that anyone would actually do anything. So it's no loss when they don't. So it just doesn't matter. The failure is so obviously, so obviously the point, that it just isn't actual failure.

At their best Forced Ent can debunk what they're doing, can comprehensively fail, yet still somehow actually manage to achieve something. So you get something that is funny and stupid and yet somehow dignified and beautiful. But this rarely happens here. The opportunity is there for some really powerful moments, but this opportunity has not been taken. So when we're told that we're going to have a beautiful silence (and we're told at length - two naked men suggesting the exact type of beautiful silence we could have for a very, very long time, and we know they are going to go on, and on, and on - that they are not going to stop at the point that we would normally consider this boring, and that we're going to have to sit and watch it or walk out - and some do - the Ents love to play on this tension and whether or not you like them pretty much seems to depend on whether you're prepared to let them do this without thinking that they're wankers) it is, obviously, constantly interrupted. Thing is, if you want a five minute long (cos that's the length they set) silence to fail, you don't need to have actors talking through it - it'll fail anyway. People will move, clothes will rustle, the speakers will hum, you can proabably even hear the lighting grid. But in the attempt to have a five minute silence, and in the failure of that attempt we may learn something about silence and something about failure and we may experience something that comes sufficiently close to silence, something that is sufficiently rare and special, that it becomes beautiful and valuable and worth something. What I'm trying to say is that actually trying to have a five minute silence, actually bloody-mindedly sticking to it, actually forcing that particular entertainment on us instead of playing up to us by distracting from it with a load of jokes would be cool, would feel daring, and would generate genuine tensions - between performance and audience, hope and failure, experience and meaning. This doesn't. Instead we get a lot of bad jokes about not being able to have a silence, and a pretence at frustration from the performers who purport to want a silence, but we know it's only a pretence and, crucially, we don't buy into the pretence, because the Ents have already pretty thoroughly debunked pretending.

And yet, and yet - i went with Lily who was seeing them for the first time, and who said she just. wanted. to. scream. throughout the show. And i found myself defending them. Gaaarr. And not just saying look, there's good bits in it (and there are - the opening's great and there's a brilliant Gorilla). This is the thing about Forced Ent - just when you think you can not like what they're doing, you end up having to argue that people have got them wrong, and that there's actually nothing wrong with what they're doing. (Which is why when i wrote this -the only 'proper' review i've ever written in that i went as a critic on a press ticket, brrrr - i did it in the form i did.) Maybe i'm just so egotistical that i can't bear the idea that someone dislikes something for a different reason than the one that i dislike it. But maybe there are still fights to be won about what constitutes theatre, about what you can do with theatre, and about what we should expect from theatre, and the things that forced ent seem to be saying are things which need to be said, and are right, but right now, they just aren't saying them very well. And frankly they should be, because when you're Britain's leading experimental theatre company (whatever that means), it's your job.

ps - i've referred to them as the Ents for much of this post in the hope that Mathew Warchus will dress them up as trees and put them in his show. Fingers crossed...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


some meandering thoughts that don't really do this justice:

i fell in love with Noh Theatre at the age of 17. Except, obviously, i only fell in love with it in the abstract, seeing as there wasn't a lot of it going in Surrey in the late 90s. Truth be told, I fell in love with one page of a theatre history book that i found in my school library - the briefest of overviews of an ancient, foreign art form was enough. Partly i just thought (and still do) that masks were cool. But I was also impressed by the rigidity of Noh's formal structures - its codified language of speech, music and gesture acting as both a representation of the world and as an idealised form of theatrical poetry in its own right. A stage space that has already reached its full realisation, and so remains unchanged for centuries. A largely unchanging narrative structure. This is dramatic convention solidified into a tradition which reaches back over 700 years. The English, even the European, theatre has no such connection with it's antecendants. All our traditions are dead - commedia dell'arte, medieval pageants, the popular voice of the chorus - living performance consigned to history and never to be resurrected, useful, perhaps as a training tool, and half-glimpsed as memories in the occaisional attempt to offer a modern take on the system of human relationships that characterised them. A living tradition which long ago solidified its structures, and yet which somehow still survives, offers more than a conversation with the past - it offers a way of relating to events, to people, to action, which we have forgotten, and which, because it is located in the now (which has never, it's worth remembering, happened before) is in itself a new thing. This is the opposite of the ossified remains of dead structure encoded in the dead and deadening museum walls of London's West End. The only space in London which comes close to provoking us in this way is the rebuilt Globe, ghosted not only by the memory of the players that once played there, but by the new forms of interaction demanded by an old but still dynamic (and essential popular) performance space placed in a modern context with all the no flash photography, mobile phone related-announcements and passing air-traffic that entails.

But I (unsurprisingly) digress.

In looking to the past (and to theatrical traditions outside our own) we discover conventions, codes and rules of performance which, when played now, would be seen as right on the cutting edge of the avant-garde. When Yeats was conducting his theatrical experiments at the Abbey Theatre he drew as heavily from Noh in his attempts to forge a theatrical form as he did from Irish mythology in his attempts to find a National content for his drama. Those plays still have not been, and perhaps never will be, assimilated into the theatrical mainstream in the way that, for example, the earlier works of Beckett have been. In short, they still feel avant-garde, and its pointless to try to force them to conform to the conventions of now and pointless to judge them by how closely they recall these modern conventions. So when Lyn Gardner describes Benjamin Yeoh's translation of Nakamitsu at the Gate as "a titbit", largely on the basis that it lasts little more than 50 minutes, she is making this very error. Some things take a long time, some things don't. Doesn't make long things any better than short nor vice-versa. Sometimes you can travel a fantastic distance in a very short space of time, and that's exactly what happens here.

What we are not presented with is a piece of Noh theatre. Rather Nakamitsu is a piece of contemporary British theatre that draws heavily from Noh. To attempt to imitate the tradition without the specific skills and training it requires would obviously be a fruitless task. So the elements of the design echo elements of a Noh stage without ever trying to copy it just as elements of the performance language echo that of Noh. Performers can suddenly switch to the third person and begin narrating their own actions, often before they've happened (which has multiple of neat effects- forcing us to watch how the specific action unfolds like a good brechtian audience, but also forcing us to watch in the knowledge that the outcome will not be good, removing the possibility that an action may be interrupted no matter how much we may want it to be, making events feel inevitable, yet not making them seem fatalistically predetermined because moments of choice are also highlighted and explored).

Another steal from the Noh tradition is the fantastic use of music, which takes up as much space as the action, and which provides far more than mere athmosperics, driving and illuminating the drama as strong rhythms and beautiful harmonics go straight for the head and the gut. Also, there's an instrument called a hang that looks like a flying saucer.

So, while I've already said that this is very much a piece of modern British drama, it still feels very unfamiliar. The levels of tension at which it is played with heightened delivery of poetic text are generally things that take a while to work up to on the London stage, but here they thrillingly interrupt the dumb-show/prologue/framing device and don't let up until the end. Passages are delivered or sung in Japanese and it makes perfect sense when this happens. As a result, a climactic song in English fails to achieve quite the same level of, errr, height. While the song is beautiful and beautifully performed in itself, having heard the same performers singing in Japanese as they make their journeys accross the narrow traverse space, that song feels more like something you might find in a musical, and less like something you might find in a Noh play or equivalent. If that makes sense.

And I think this is because English as a voiced language is relectuant to go to those kinds of heightened and enobled places. Some people still think that church services in Latin are more, I don't know, sacred - and it's not all that hard to see why. So the extent to which Yeoh, the directors and the production team have discovered a language, both textual and theatrical, which manages to become heightened at all really is an achievement. The only similar performance I've seen in terms of the sheer thrill of being present in a space in which words, and particularly breathe and the bodies' movement are all exciting a heightened state of tension and awareness in the spectator is a production of Sophocles' Electra in ancient Greek at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge, in which the foreign sound of the dead language was so skillfully manipulated by the performers that it felt like they were running you through the gears of some kind of theatrical automatic transmission in your gut. Anyway, when it's working, and it's working rather an impressive lot of the time, that is what's going on here.

The show feels a hell of a lot longer than its 50 minute running time, and that's in no way a negative thing (I know everyone else is saying 45 minutes, but I'm pretty certain I checked my watch when I came out) . Just as the crossing of the beautifully sparse stage can be elongated into a rhythmic, hypnotic song and dance in which we understand something about the nature of journeying, so the action can be halted for comment or further explanation of its details. Time and space become elastic. Dan Bye says some very perceptive things about theatrical space and that which surounds it here, but to carry on a bit and disagree with him a bit, space can be perceived not as absence or emptiness but as the site of action, of events, of articles and artifacts. i am necessarily in space, and the space i am in is altered by my presence as i am by its. Even the empty space is actually always full, even if it's only full of emptiness. Emptiness has meaning, has associations, has a particular way it operates on the head, the gut, the toes. And emptiness can be filled up with all kinds of other nothing - this is the very basis on which mime operates. So when someone moves or speaks within a space (or within a space of time) they are not so much filling a space as acting upon it. When this is done skillfully, space becomes a kind of theatrical piece of putty in the performer's hand, at once being manipulated and remaining very much the same piece of putty.

Gaaargh. I've wibbled on for ages now, without in any way coming to the point. Look, it's on till Saturday - go and see it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

machines for making you happy

There are now two persons unknownses - i met up with the marvelous Chris Perkin and we're going to make a lovely theatre company thing happen. i'm genuinely excited, not just because Chris is a great writer and runs a London's exciting Tabard Theatre, but because for the first time in ages i feel like i'm a part of something rather than an individual trying to make things happen, and also because i think i'd almost forgotten what collaboration means and how fucking exciting it is.

We chatted about one project in particular and it very rapidly went from half a thought that's been floating around in the back of my mind for the best part of 5 years to something that's actually going to happen, and it's been a long old time since i've so enjoyed the pinging around of an idea. i love the way that a very simple suggestion can open up such different possibilities for different people, and how it's scope grows, but what i really love most is when someone misunderstands what you're saying and ends up doing coming up with something utterly different and much better than you could ever have thought of.

And this is at the heart of what i think about directing. i know lots of actors like to get the impression that the director knows exactly what they're doing, but the fact is that even those who pretend that they do are making it up as they go along. The alternative, and this is probably much worse, is that they are clinging to an inflexible methodology, and i really do believe that whilst you need to put thought into your process, you also need to believe that people, even actors, are a little bit more than perpetual emotion machines into which you can feed certain inputs in order to obtain certain outputs.

So when you accept that it's basically impossible to get people to do what you want them to, and that half the time it's impossible to even get them to understand what you think you want them to do, everything gets a lot happier and a lot more exciting.

So, yes, persons unknown is going to be a theatre company. hurrah!

sadly, i somehow doubt i'll manage to get chris to post on this blog, but i'll give it a go. And then everyone can appreciate his charming grumpiness through the medium of the interweb.

In other smiley news, I went and played Tassos Steven's fabulous theatrical game A Small Town Anywhere last week, as well as thoroughly enjoying the celebrations around the Royal Festival Hall's re-opening after its refurbishment (although so far as I can tell, it's exactly the same as it used to be, only with less toilets - sorta the opposite of Wembley) - especially Billy Bragg leading everytone in a glorious rendition of Waterloo Sunset, as the sun set, near Waterloo, and a remarkable and totally joyous blast of skiffle from The Bee Strings (who sadly, or more correctly I suppose, not sadly at all) seem to have no online presence at all. All benignly overlooked by Anthony Gormley's Event Horizon figures which suddenly seemed to leap back to life that evening having faded into the background of a habitual city landscape after the initial thrill of their discovery.

And I have a new laptop, having had my old one and about three years worth of work stolen from my house last weekend. Sample conversation:

- So did you have your work backed up?

- No.

- So you've lost all your work?

- Yes.

- You have to back up your work.

- Yes.

- Otherwise you'll lose all your work.

- Yes.

- It's very important to back up your work. You can get an external hard-drive to do it with.

- Yes.

- So you've lost everything?

- Yes.

- You should have backed it up.

- Yes.

Moral of the story: try again, fail again, use a secure online storage facility to back-up your failures better.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


Right, the long-trailed explanation of why Pirates of The Caribean: At The World's End is the most radical film of the decade:

The first two instalments of the filmilisation of the rollercoaster were great fun - basically resting their appeal on the fairly solid ground that i) pirates are cool, ii) Johnny Depp/Keira Knightley (delete as applicable) is hot and immensely talented/hot (delete as applicable). Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow, a loveably insane rogue, was one of the finest, funniest filmic creations we'd seen for quite some time and if the Oscars rewarded talent and not po-faced sentimentality, he'd have one Oscar more.

As family film entertainment goes, the films were top draw - witty, fantastical, swashbuckly, without schmaltzy sentimentality, and with more than a hint of self-knowing and self-deprecating irony. Although the second half of the second film was a bit unsatisfyingly flabbily plotted, and didn't so much end as do a to be continued thing which is mildly irritating when you have to wait a week for the next doctor who, but it infuriating when you have to wait a year for the next film.

So, when you're making the third bit, presuming you neither i) an idiot, nor ii) a Machieavellian evil genius intent on destroying Hollywood and the minds of children, you give us more of the same. More big monsters, more big swordfighty stuff, more good(ish) vs evil conflicty heroismy shit, more wide open blue seas.

Now, because I'm a generous man with a weakness for evil genii, I'm going to presume that the makers of At The World's End are ii).

Now, so far as I'm aware, it's been a while since someone made the third part of a family film trilogy in which all of its selling points have been replaced by things much crazier.

About a quarter of the total footage might as well have been filmed by DAVID FUCKING LYNCH for all the sense it makes. Seriously, it's warped.

Everyone fell in love with depp's brilliantly deranged Cap Jack Sparrow in the first two instalments, where he was always viewed from a distance, the camera celebrating his charismatic eccentricity. Part III is shot from much closer, right inside his crazy fucked up head. The result is confusing and not a little unsettling, with multiple depps fighting over his possible futures. It's really fucked up. Really. The bit where he rams himself through with a sword over half a peanut is a pretty salty metaphor for a mind going awry in a world gone awryer.

Every single character ends up being so deceitful that it pretty rapidly becomes rather difficult to figure out what's going on. The result, not of deficiencies in storytelling, but of an ever-shifting web of self-interest, deceit, confused loyalties, barely concealed animosities, alliances of conveniences, Machiavellian posturing, and god knows what else, which eventually makes the film feel as though it's about to collpase in on itself like a Black Hole with an eye patch. In a good way.

The beautiful world of lustrous blue seas and the freedom they suggest of the first two films is supplanted a filthy night-time of raging hostile waters in which the only calm is the calm of the purposeless dead.

Oh yeah, and it starts with a kid getting hanged. a scene from which 95% of directors would doubtless pussy out, but which here is unflinchingly carried through. And people die relentlessly. all the way through. Really horrible shit happens to them.

The film's moral universe is fantastically ambiguous. Whilst it buys into the romantic dream of the pirate as a free-living, free-thinking, lovable rascals, it's notable that none of the actual pirates do any actual pirating, being far too concerned with various romantic quests. On more than one occaision in the trilogy the crews confront a captain for his failure to, y'know, attack ships and steal shit. The one consistent baddie is the rapaciously capitalist and imperialist East India Company, whose influence easily dwarfs that of the state as it fights for commercial and maritime hegemony. Even there, old-fashioned ideals of fair-play, romantic love and self-sacrifice can trump the prevailing ill wind.

All of this falls to pieces if you stick around after the credits and watch the, frankly awful epilogue. So I suggest you don't.

Meanwhile, in the world of film of a less piratical nature, I am one of the, what? actors? models? bodies? in Vita Hewison's beautiful, inventive and mesmerising animation Fold which can be seen here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

like taking a theatre of physicality and poetry from a baby

My posting opportunities are currently limited due to the big old pile of empty space on my desk where my laptop used to be. But i want to point to the sad news that the Wrestling School has lost their funding (check out the blind fucking stupidity of some of the commenters limboing under the already seriously low bar set by the usual standard on the Guardian Theatre blogs. The internet - now everyone can spout shit from a position of absolute ignorance! In public!) Barker is, as one of the commentators notes, a man with a staggering sense of both entitlement and persecution. But then i guess being probably the most important playwright of the last 50 years who can't get his new work staged by pretty much any theatre in the country while David Hare idly wonders what Colin Powell said to the French and calls it a play at the National will probably do that to you.

Of course, he's not helped by the way that he sets himself in opposition to the theatrical establishment, and so, no doubt, he ruffles a fair few feathers. This is one of the problems with the theatre world - if you think something's shit, you can't say so because someone, somewhere is going to get upset and that someone is at somepoint going to end up being a gatekeeper and you're going to end up on the outside. (This is one of the reasons I love working for Noises Off at the NSDF - it encourages artists to talk openly about each other's work, and to not be so fucking precious about it when someone doesn't like their own work.) If, like Barker, you think everything is shit, indeed, that the very foundations on which almost all work produced today are built are shit, then you're bound to find yourself with few friends, and so the possibilities for staging and funding your work are going to be limited.

Thing is, what if he's right?

[edit - as Dan Bye rightly points out, Barker hasn't actually lost a regular source of funding, but not been awarded funding that he has in the past regularly received, if that makes sense. ]

Thursday, May 31, 2007

story, characters, and all that other bourgeois reactionary shit

Every now and again someone says something that you've been thinking and saying for ages, but does so so much better than you ever put it that you feel a rather silly and not a little shamed that you thought you were being so clever. This from Chris Goode's blog:

"I'm not one of those hairshirt experimentalists who despises story or disagrees with the fundamental importance of narrative to our lives and behaviours and relationships: but I think the idea that a theatre piece ought to tell a story is basically misguided. As human beings we don't experience stories. We experience ideas, images, moments, indications, and we sort through them using a bunch of different ordering and mnemonic technologies, of which narrative is one of the strongest and most effective. It's important that we tell stories to each other, and some of the fragments that come to us in our experience will of course be other people's stories, and that's important too. But for story to be meaningful, we have to order -- in other words, to author -- it for ourselves. "


It seems to me that this simple fact is little understood in the theatre. I think some of my best work has rested on a fairly solid foundation of straight-down-the-line storytelling (which in turn has rested on the skills and commitment of some of the fantastic actors I have been lucky enough to work with). I'm thinking in particular of when I directed Enda Walsh's bedbound and Disco Pigs. But in order to make the storytelleryness of these pieces work, we never, as far as I can remember, talked about story. Our job is to make each moment work in and of itself. The audience does the job of turning this into a story. Theatre, even a theatre of storytelling, does not trade in stories. It trades in experience, in sensations. Moments, feelings, and actions must be constantly given concrete form. The human brain's remarkable capacity for narrativising can then kick in - even something as abstract as a particular curve in an arm can be assigned its place in a story. It's remarkable the way people's understanding of the collective experience diverges once they start talking about what they understood to be happening after a show, even a successful one. "I thought X did Y because of Z", "really? I thought they didn't do Y, they did A". And yet they all laughed at the same points, and they all sat in the same awed silence through the same passages. This is not a function of failed communication, but of the fact that theatre is not a medium of communication of anything other than itself. It is most especially not the medium of communication of narrative, because narrative is nothing more than a way of relating things to each other - threading them temporally and, often, causally.

One interesting thing about the narrative urge is how totalising it is. It is always possible for a narrative to absorb any act or sequence of acts, even if that act or that sequence is explicitly attempting to escape being seen as either a part of a narrative or a narrative in itself. "And then I went to see an arty play that didn't make sense and didn't have a story" is a sentence which imposes both a sense and a story onto its object. It is significant that the sense and the story here can be very different from the actual thing itself without being in any way untrue, but still never being fully true.

Another interesting thing about the narrative urge is the hostility that things which resist it can provoke. (This resistance is, of course, both futile and vital. Futile because narrative can and will always reassert itself. Vital because it foregrounds the moment at which the experience is an experience, not the representation of an experience or the memory of an experience - a piece of data which can and will always be interpreted and manipulated. In short it foregrounds the liveness, the theatricality of theatre. It is the point at which theatre is most itself.) Perhaps because most dramatic forms we encounter are very deliberately asking us to see them as complete narrative units (the exception, obviously, being the Teletubbies), we find this by far the easiest way to see things. And things we are used to make us feel comfortable, things we aren't used to, don't. I often wonder what the results might be if you brought up a child exposing them to language only through the late prose and poetry of Samuel Beckett. Would the logic of connections between words and things in Beckett come to seem intuitive to them, and the logic of narrative connections in, say, Eastenders provoke the kind of hostility and derision that, even now, someone like Beckett can provoke? I say often - I lie. I suppose he'd probably end up writing Mills and Boon novels or something. Anyway...

I suppose there are two conclusions that I would draw from this - one, that it is possible, but very difficult, to create work which, whilst it cannot escape narrative, can at least wriggle into the cracks in the logic of the totalising narrative urge. Clowns, for example, are useful for this, because they don't respect the logic of anything, so as soon as something starts looking like a story, you'll probably find your somewhere else entirely. This kind of work is important in theatre because it creates an experience which is uniquely theatrical. The other is that once the performance has become data in the hands of the heads of the audience, it is beyond your control as an artist. All you can do is make every moment as real, as concrete, and as powerful as possible - it simply isn't possible (or desirable) to control how the individual members of the audience put these things together. This isn't to say that as artists we should reject responsibility for the meaning of our work (although I'm not convinced that this isn't a reasonable position to take.) (Actually, scratch that - I am.) but that, once acted, the action no longer belongs to us.

I think similarly about character. Character is something created by the audience by judging the actions of an actor and pretending that they're a person (by which I don't mean that actors aren't people - although you do sometimes wonder - but that the audience pretends that they are a person distinct from the person who is an actor. Oh, you know what I mean.) I am deeply suspicious about any process which involves asking questions about character, and I try to avoid talking about it with performers. When I decide whether I want a cup of tea or coffee, I do not do so with reference to my character (thinks - would my character take sugar? yes, i think my character has a sweet tooth), but with reference to whether or not I want a cup of tea or coffee. An actor playing me would not need to think about my character, but simply to discover a desire for coffee, or, better yet, a particular flavour of desire for coffee.

Anyway, that's all for now folks. At some point we'll see if my character is sufficiently organised to actually write up his argument for why Pirates of the Caribbean 3 is the most subversive film of the decade, but until then, my character wants a cup of coffee and is going to have one because my character is the kind of person who knows what he wants and won't let anything stand in his way.

[update] I've just realised I meant to say something else about all this, and that I forgot. One thing that consistently frustrates me is the way reviews seem to contain as standard a synopsis of the narrative as though that were explanation enough of what the performance was like. The actual story that needs to be relayed is the story of the theatrical experience, and that is so rarely present in theatre reviews that it's incredibly disheartening. And by this I mean we need much more than an evaluation of the quality of the acting in a cursory final paragraph - we need a desciption of what it was actually like to be sitting in that room in the presence of those other people. Sadly, I think that very few critics have either the desire or the vocabulary to provide us with this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

half a thought about half a film...

In the last few days I've seen The Nic Hytner directed film of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, at least some of it, and the largely derided Pirates of The Carribean: At World's End, the third part in the trilogy, and probably the most subversive film of the decade so far. Hopefully I'll get round to writing up the scientific proof of the latter statement soon, but i wanted to splurge something out about the Bennett first...

I know it's bad form to bad mouth a bad film when you haven't seen all of bad it, and I reckon anyone that knows me wouldn't exactly be surprised that I didn't like it, but it warrants mention because its more than just something I don't like, it's something that's actively bad and is part of a larger, deeply pernicious, movement in both our cultural and political life, and because it raises some interesting questions about the relationship between a text and its medium.

THB rests its appeal on a nostalgia for something that never existed. The 80s boys' school in which the titular boys and their teachers do their education is a kind of incessently and aggressively charming ideal of Englishness as manifested in liberal poshness. If it was a person, it would think it was Stephen Fry. But it wouldn't be.

This is a world without bullying, in which the trauma of adolescence goes no further than being a bit sad that you fancy someone who doesn't fancy you back. Oh yeah, and it's a world without bullying. At a school. In the 80s. Where people are pretty open about their homosexuality. And there's no bullying. And no one feels the pressure or stress of work even though they're all trying for oxbridge. And there's no bullying.

The problem isn't so much that the film is unrealistic, but that it relies on your acceptance of its world not as a an explicit fantasy, but as a moment in a vaguely defined past - both your own past (school days, best of your life, etc etc) and the country's (When I Were a Lad This Were Nowt But Posh Schools). The rampant liberalism of the pupils might, at a push, feel reasonablish were the film set now, but of course the film can't be set now, because it specifically wants to avoid talking about now, because it wants to take you away to a world of notnow, a world of used to in which things were better and there was a sense of fairplay and decency. And whether or not you care for it seems to me to rest on whether or not you want to go there, whether or not your prepared to buy into it. Of course, kids always used to be better behaved, and the world has always been going to shit, but it's a necessary assumption of a particular kind of of conservatism that things only really started to get bad recently, and that the recent past is a foreign country in which you can and should have a pleasant holiday in order to build up your contempt for the modern and specifically the modern and young.

Of course, the film has been less feted than the play on which it is based - a play I haven't seen, but that's not going to stop me making wild assumptions. I'd imagine that they managed to get away with this in the theatre, and I do mean get away with it. The camera has a particular way of looking which the spectator in the theatre doesn't, and which, it seems to me, can expose evasions, faults and inadequacies which might not be evident on the stage. For one thing, location in film is detailed and specific, in theatre the specific and detailed location is the here and now that you're in. So I would expect that the film makes it feel very much more like we are supposed to be recognising 1983, and that there is very much more to recognise. A realistic visual film language makes you relate to the text (by which I mean both the spoken word and the action) very differently when compared to a realistic (or more usually a neo-brecthian/realistic-minimalist) visual language in theatre. (Which reminds me that I ought to go back to Raymond Williams' excellent Text and Performance someday soon.) Patrick Marber's Closer is another filmed play that suffers in this way. Sometimes, it seems, you just can't say those words on film without looking like a cock. And maybe you can in the theatre. In some cases i suspect this is to do with the language having an irreducible theatricality. In some cases (and i think THB falls into this category) the theatricality masks or partially masks the flaws, or at least makes them seem insignificant. I guess I need to think about what this means for a theatre maker. Can film point out the dishonesty in our art, and help us find a language which avoids these evasions?

For all of this, I very much prefer the way of looking (hearing, seeing, feeling, experiencing) that the theatre offers, not because it is partial (film of course, is partial in its own ways, and dishonest in its own ways too), but because of the possibility of reaching a point where evasion and dishonesty is no longer an option, where what you are seeing no longer partial because it is what is actually there.

Friday, May 25, 2007

You had me at hello...


You're looking well.

Shall we begin? oooh, lets!

To begin at the beginning, I want to think about influences, and to remind myself that I have them, and that these are the things that can inspire, feed and nourish you. If you're gonna be any kind of artist, I guess that these things need to keep a pretty much permanent place somewhere in your mind. Or on your blog. So none of this is going to sound particularly clever, and it's not an argument for anything, more a public note to self: remember this stuff matters.

So, to begin the beginning at the beginning - the Manics. I mean, yes, they're shit now, but you don't get to be that good in that way for very long. And of course that's kind of the point. What I take from the Manics is, well, number one - you live your art. The aim has to be to be an artist every minute of every day. Stay beautiful.

Of course, this has to be accompanied by a violent rejection of, y'know, all the shit. All the things which aren't beautiful, all the things that are actively anti-beautiful, Death Sentence Heritage etc etc. This is there in, i'd guess, 80% of great art, 90% of things I like, and 100% of rocknroll worthy of the name.

Of course, all of this is fantastically pretentious, but frankly, that's culture for you. Even shit culture is pretentious when compared to the vast majority of the vast majority of people's lives. I think the scale goes something like Hunter/Gathering --->Typing Things Into Spreadsheets ---> Eastenders ---> The Manics. If there's one thing the Manics have taught me, it's that pretension is a good thing. It's really just an arty way of saying "ideas above your station", and if you never have any ideas above your station, how are you going to end up above your station? Quite.

What this also means, is that if you want to be a rock star, you just act like a rock star. Everyone should be a rock star. The world would be a significantly better place if we were all rock stars. And this is a much more exciting version of egalitarianism than a dourly conservative reduction of everything to the mean. Just make everything better than the mean. Simple.

The other major contribution they make to my thinking is the understanding that, in a world in which the marketing and image of any artist are constructed to sell and comodify, turning the artist into something less than an artist and the art into something less than art, there is an alternative defence strategy to wilful obscurity and holier than thou DIY purity; there can be art in the image. Of course, this is easiest achieved if you're a rock star, relating to your audience in a number of possible ways (through the radio, through interviews, through TV, through recorded music, through live performance, through publicity photos which are often as meaningful and iconic as the music itself). But it's a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged, that artists of all hues used to know this, at least, all of the ones who realised that writing manifestos is cool. If I can figure out how this (lord, how any of this) works in relation to my production of After Miss Julie, I'll let you know.

The Manics led to Ginsberg, which led to Blake, and if there's every been a reminder that, no matter how bat-shit crazy what you're doing is, do it with enough rigour and y'know, it'll work, then it's Blake with his invented mythologies and theologies and his absolute refusal to see the world in either reductively materialist or airily ideological terms. Nice one Bill.

Theatre-wise John Wright is a constant source of inspiration with his serious commitment to the discipline of play, and Chris Goode strikes me as exactly the kind of person that more people ought to be, with a seriously thoughtful engagement with the possibilities of theatre (those possibiliies, of course, being more 99 times more than what 99% of people think theatre to be). And it's easy to forget nowadays, but there was a real radicalism and drive and about Peter Brook, and I really really must re-read The Empty Space, which was so exciting and eye-opening when I first came across it.

Brecht, of course, was a genius, whose reputation is being ruined by the fact that pretty much no one seems to understand him. He was a Marxist, and he thought damn hard about what it meant to be a Marxist and a theatre maker. The result was not only his own aesthetic, which has been pretty much absorbed into mainstream theatrical culture, shorn of the ideology from which it sprang and consequently become little more than a set of empty conventions, but also a new conception of theatre in terms of the way the action unfolds and the way we relate to that action. He deserves a post of his own, if not a whole series of posts, if not, y'know, a whole series of posts on a blog, and, maybe, some productions of his plays. For now it's enough to say that I really believe that he needs to be rediscovered as a radical, and that this will necessitate the discovery of a new aesthetic which takes into account the fact that the Marxist theory that Brecht was using has been superseded by important developments from the likes Frederick Jameson. And that's a big old project, but a necessary one in an era when the idea of political theatre has become so widespread and simultaneously so lazily unthought out.

I'm sure I'll think of other people I really ought to remind myself of soon, so I'm sure there'll be more where this came from, but for the time being, I guess that'll have to do. Do come again...