22 December 2009

chartered territories: The Forest and the Field

It has taken a long time to get anything concrete written about Chris Goode's performance of The Forest and the Field. Its absence from the blog so far derives not from a lack of things to say; rather a struggle over what it might mean to wholeheartedly praise or criticise it.

Originally a lecture given nearly two years ago at the Miscellaneous Theatre Festival in Cambridge, this current - admittedly transitional - incarnation found itself playing out in the rumbling darkness of Camden People's Theatre in mid-November.

The argument webs van Gennep's theories of liminality with collective spatial analogies which posit theatre as potentiate forest, suggest a future as a magical-post-liminal field and - a new addition for this evening's performance - finally proposes an archipelago.

The work is entirely grounded in the personal: in finding conversation between the convictions and experiences true to Goode, and the representative trends of the world about him. Indeed, the earnestness which suffuses his critical and creative writing seems propelled by an anxiety over the ethics of working in this kind of big, traditional proscenium arch theatre. The commercial, bums-on-seats type of theatre which typifies the RSC, NT or West End, is the very space for which Goode is most desperately contesting – these are the arenas, after all, which can claim to have a socially-integrated force and scope on a comparable scale to the theatre traditions which Goode recalls.

But the ethical dilemma is that the wider-audience reaching antics of these big Theatres are underpinned by an adherence to a late free market capitalism which has sustained and - in part - constructed these edifices. It is a dilemma which Goode himself flags up during the lecture with a quotation from Keston Sutherland:

and as we know, since we know enough, and since we eat enough, living under capitalism is not an act anyone can desist from, terminate, or even pause in. Try doing it now.

Try doing it now. Sutherland captures more than the anxiety over the Theatre as business; it taps into an anxiety over being itself in a late capitalist context. There is no escape; there is no fantasy forest: more than that, there is no way of saying so, no way of observing our entrapment circumscribed by capitalist exchange without further participating in it.

Yet I feel that Goode has secret hope harboured against Sutherland’s claims. There is always an air of escapism in his statements of what the theatre could be; yet the fantasy that theatre-as-representation can do things which pure language (or pure lecture) cannot, are still subjunctive rather than perfect.

As I suggested at the post-show talk, the logical end of Goode’s Forest project seems to involve shifting the essay’s ideas out of printed form and into a poetics of theatre where these arguments could be made in the embodied vocabulary of performance: not expressing an idea about theatre but articulating it. I had expected, in Goode’s own terms, a theatre more like theatre, rather than a lecture trying to say something about theatre. It struck me that Goode had not quite engineered that shift of presentation which would allow his ideas to articulate themselves as dramatic joints and counterpoints.

The most solid and exciting indication of where this might reach if translated into the poetics of performance came from the projector. In one of the lapses after Goode's deft deconstruction of 'The Empty Space', the projector lit up. There was no image or quotation to be projected with it.
The simple action of the light, creating a glowing-black square on the back wall, punctured Brook's essay articulately and decisively: the light, the switch on, reveals itself both as content, and reveals even more the wall-as-wall, as undeniable, lived-in space.

In the projector becoming visible through its 'empty' light, this innocuous illumination proved a point of genuine engagement with theatrical space as space, moving the inquiry on the page into a physical dialogue with Camden People's Theatre which achieved more insight than drawing shapes in salt.

The fleeting nature of those moments confirms that this is still a piece of work in transition, with several undecided notions of theatre, and space, at stake. In focusing on Shakespeare as a propagator of 'liminal' theatre in what was also a liminal time for theatre history, we miss out on the subtleties of pre- and post-Shakespearian space. More than that, it collapses certain binaries that are assumed but unacknowledged in the piece: what is the difference between Theatres as buildings, as spaces in themselves, and ‘the theatre’? Do the same spatial analogies hold? Why are the forest, field and archipelago such rural and idyllic fantasies of predominantly urban theatre practice? And what about the tension, alongside this, between indoor and outdoor?

Outside the transitional ontology of Shakespeare’s theatre, there is an absent-ed tradition which – perhaps because we know less about it – enacts an invisible pull on Goode’s radically ‘conservative’ vision.

It is the amphitheatres of Greece, which pose a united affront and an answer to the scope of F&F's argument. They are open-air, on the outskirts of the city, and using the landscape as backdrop: on all of the frontiers between Goode’s binaries of rural/urban, indoor/outdoor, building/area. In this model, the playing space, the wilderness and the city are all visible, and interactive, in the same ritual event. Space becomes function, and function space.

And in the neo-classical nostalgia of Goode’s manifesto, it is clear that he wants to return to ancient Athens, not to Shakespeare’s London. This antic theatre, and its spectators, implicitly present to Goode an economy still far enough from modern free market capitalism, a society where the arts had a designated function and appeal, special to itself and no other art form.

Yet there is a potential exclusion inherent in Goode’s retroactive vision of theatre which ensures the happiness of a society of men at a price.

Where is there a place for women? The proto-liberalism of both ancient Greece and early modern England present theatres where women might mingle in the audience, but not on stage. If we take a historicist slant at these spaces, something yet to be woven into the lecture, we must see first and foremost their own individual boundaries and limitations.

Whilst theatre was perhaps one of the few social occasions of ancient Greece which allowed women a spectatorial, participatory role, this cannot be lifted out of its wider contemporary social context, where women were nevertheless second class citizens and breeders. Shakespeare may have had a female monarch, but even her power was problematised by conceptions of femininity and propriety more actively repressive in the populace.

So before we ask any question about fully integrating theatre into society, we must first ask whether theatre is able to integrate society in its fullness, into its practice. However much I am seduced by the earnestness of Goode's argument, and his dissection of Shakespeare’s spaces, how can I be prepared to follow a theatrical vision in which women seem, by proxy, not to exist?
If Sutherland is right and we cannot escape the pernicious value-making of late capitalism which requires the unfreedom of the many to ensure the freedom of the few, then any theatre with a completely integrated social function is not just impossible, it is criminal.
Theatre must speak to more than the theatre community. Ideas of Otherness, of property and ownership, must be available to explore in their greatest scope; yet how can we achieve this with such a small, homogenous pool of artists? The danger of Goode's desire that theatre become more like itself is that it will indeed count itself a little world, a fragile O which still teeters dangerously close to isolation when it comes to reflecting not just the concerns, but the literal demographics and pragmatics of society.

I believe that Goode sees and acknowledges these tensions, the claustrophobic creative and social conditions of theatre which mutually limit each other. Yet his proposal takes us back to the crisis of unfettered resistance in ‘Try doing it now’. Like the making of a Utopian theatre, making any great statement about what that theatre should be, involves a choice and valuation, a corruption of the whole in order to instate the particular. In making his personal claims, Goode must – and does – sacrifice certain social facts, closing off certain paths in order to open up others.

Such is the tension also between the limitless limits of the forest, the field and even the archipelago. No boundary is un-violent; no space is empty; no border is innocent. I wonder whether Goode, whilst acknowledging all of these facts, is still reluctant to spill any blood. Perhaps such encountered claustrophobia, such narrowness in modern theatre’s reaches is what sees him leap immediately outside the city limits to bright, expansive spaces; ironic when he favours so often very dark, quite enclosed spaces in which to stage his productions.
Yet leaping over such boundaries into the next meadow/mountain range/plateau ignores the fiercest and most crucial battles along the frontiers. And out of respect to himself, and his dream of the theatre, it is partly Goode’s responsibility to tackle them.

19 December 2009


Before I saw Mike Bartlett's Cock (and I'm going to make an attempt to avoid all possible puns) in the last week of its run I’d really wanted to dislike it: because of its name, because of its popularity in the newspaper reviews. Thankfully it wasn’t to be so, and I felt strongly in favour of the piece by the end, I liked it, even.

It seems possible, however, that to enumerate my several reservations, here, might productively contribute to whatever is this repetitive strain.

The piece centred around a man, John (Ben Whishaw), who has committed an infidelity with a woman, 'W' (Katherine Parkinson), and told his male partner, 'M' (Andrew Scott), and has promised both that he will end relations with the other.

It was very funny. As in Simon Stephen’s Sea Wall, Andrew Scott’s performance, and especially his Irish accent, lent a great warmth to the performance, which at times felt slightly too seductive. There’s nothing like comedy for instantly identifying a consensus and a hierarchy of thought, an us and a them, and the orthodoxy here felt chauvinistic. It’s an allegation made against gay men I have heard before - that they don’t need women, so they don’t respect them, and that’s why catwalk models are so skinny & c & c. Some of the humour depended on the reversal of a more ‘typical’ situation in which it is the gay relationship which is the shameful: John is agonised at the thought of his female lover coming to his workplace. This notion is predicated on the idea, and wrong I think, that being gay has been totally normalised.

The play’s love triangle structure immediately recalls Pinter’s Betrayal, and before that, Racine’s Andromache, and it is a really viable attempt to newly write this human situation. The geometry of Bartlett’s play is disrupted by the arrival of a fourth, and largely inconsequential character: shortly before the dinner at which John is going to have to tell his two lovers which he is going to commit to, there is a knock on the door, and his male lover admits he has called his father for ‘backup’. This seems a daring joke, a very modern moment of bathos, unfortunately the flaws in the father character – whether badly written or badly acted or badly directed – was the greatest disappointment of the evening. His main speech, in which he sets out what it is to be gay in our society, is largely a succession of clumsy psychoanalysis and sham genetics.

The plays’ several explicitly political moments troubled me: a character talks about the starving in Africa (as if repeating a generalised concern for an entire continent in any way productively contributes to the debate), another by the father about how he says grace since he saw the thing on the telly about Bangladesh ‘or whatever’. In this way voicing the opinion that we are unrelated to ‘the third-world’ un-relates us. An argument over who should eat a satsuma could think more productively about politics than the occasional reference to wars abroad, or the needy at home. Pretending to care about foreign affairs or domestic civil liberties infringements should not be a necessary part of contemporary theatre-writing.

At another point in the play, 'M' tells John: ‘I would torture for you’, and we return to the debate voiced in my earlier post on Dennis Kelly, that is to say, the glib equivalence asserted between love and human rights abuses. The attempt to exclude forms of fascism from love is more honestly made in the poetry of Keston Sutherland, in light of whose work these plays appear dully complacent, as if it were not possible in the theatre to really want something.

In the context of the totally pathetic thing raging at the moment between Boris Johnson and the Ben Bradshaw, over whose candidate should run Arts Council London, it seems that the politicisation of art within mainstream British politics is inevitably accompanied by a neutralisation.

Cock’s playtext begins: ‘There is no scenery, no props, no furniture, and no mime. Instead the focus is entirely on the drama of the scene.’ This play is making a claim for purifying our focus on what drama is. I liked that the clothes worn in the piece could have been the actors’ own. It has decided drama is not things, but bodies and speech.

In between scenes Ben Whishaw drinks from a water bottle on the desk of the prompter, in full view of the entire audience. This act, however unaudacious it is in light of more experimental performances elsewhere, encourages me.

In spite of this, we are told things like characters are sitting when they are still standing, or take of their jacket when they are wearing no jacket. This constant interplay between what is being acted, what enacted, and what is not being done at all, felt at times tiresome. There is a joke about a fake dog , which is vaguely gestured towards at the side of the stage. But of course it is not there: it is a fake fake dog.

Dramaturgies are often predicated in what is present and visible, what is absent and what we are asked to imagine. John asks his partner, ‘M’, take off your top. Andrew Scott does not move, but John says thank you, and we are asked to imagine ‘M’ has. Had he actually done it his real shivering body - so close - would have made an extraordinary dramatic moment, when ‘M’ asks whether he has made his decision now, and John says: Yes. Yes. I think. Yes. The decision to underplay the extremity of such moments is one thing, but the decision that theatre consists of people just standing and talking, is less defensible. This asking us to imagine where no act of imagination is theatrically necessary, emphasises the extent to which this model of theatre is still undecided, uncommitted.

These moments, however, are justified by a strain of meta-theatricality in the play. One character talks of ‘a personality – a character’. John (or was it Ben Whishaw?) is told, about ten times, to ‘be yourself’. This is beyond a joke. The (relative) lack of conventional boundaries between audience and actor is undermined by this need to claim that we are all essentially actors a lot of the time: performing gender, sexuality etc.

At points I wondered whether the dilemma existed only for that the wrong questions were being asked. John explains his confusion in actorly terms: imitating other peoples’ voices until you can’t remember what your own one is. The conceit at the centre of the play is this: imagine you are an actor who can suddenly no longer work out whether you are playing a role, or being yourself. I’d be more tempted, perhaps predictably, to imagine the dilemma at the heart of this play to be less about sexuality than the theatre.

The model for theatre envisaged at the Royal Court seems to be that a playtext is produced as ‘new writing’, then reproduced as ‘new writing’ theatre. This places the newness of the playwright at its centre, to the exclusion of those other elements central to what theatre is: dramaturg, director, actor, audience. For me this is a fallacy: Derrida said ‘writing is inaugural’, and the idea that writing could be done without the act of imagining the theatre for which finger touches keypad (etc.), seems naïve, even regressive. Far better to write for a new theatre than new writing for an old theatre.

One of the play’s most sustained motifs is the notion of ‘going round in circles’. The movement, of actors within the ply-wood cock-pit theatre constructed ‘Upstairs’, is eloquently choreographed. They encircle one another in small, quiet steps, enter or leave through one of the two exits, or ‘sit out’ one scene on the stairs at the side. But the presence of the father character confuses the subtle balance of earlier movements: the dialogue doesn’t viably extend to a foursome, the square stands uneasily within the circle.

One character exclaims: Are we all waiting for something to happen? It struck me that there were points at which the piece was felt meta-theatrical where it should only have been theatrical. This play privileges the dilemma whilst urging it towards a solution, paradoxically admitting the impossibility of saying anything productive whilst waiting for a conclusion. The wrong questions have been asked, staged with almost maximum effectiveness.

That not knowing is at the heart of this play. The challenges made to the self of the person who finds themselves in love with two people; the challenges a theatre-writer poses to his own theatre practice.

The play’s achievements were most clear at the point ‘W’ made a last attempt to secure John’s commitment, sketching out the possibilities of their future together. She remembers their shared plans to travel to Paris, talks about becoming pregnant, she names their children, and numbers their grandchildren, even though she remains nameless. The absurd sentimentalism of this vision of heterosexual life is, by this point, laughable, and the greatest act of brutality: what the play had done to our vision of the possibility of happiness in a life together.

18 December 2009


One luxury my involuntary post-university ‘gap year’ has afforded me is time. Living in Central London has meant much entertainment and culture within walkable distance. This paradigm, however, has extended further and further, proportionately with the ever longer and colder jogs with the capital’s unemployed along the southbank. On Thursday I walked from Queen Mary’s in Mile End to the British Library via a circuitous route which allowed for a peek inside the Whitechapel Gallery, the extraordinary St. Alban’s Tower, and Leadenhall Market, feeling like a rather uninspired psychogeographer with no winter coat and the wrong kind of shoes. But I wanted here to detail some observations from two unusual (for me) outings: an afternoon spent at the Iraq Inquiry and a morning at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The inquiry was held at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre opposite Westminster Abbey, in a small peripheral room decorated in the blue ‘Iraq Inquiry’ branding. Apart from the panel, and a small group of associated officials on laptops around a democratically circular table, the audience was populated of Whitehall types and women who I imagine must either have been unemployed or retired: one was knitting and another was wearing a palestinian scarf (away from whom the video camera recording the event edged sheepishly).

I was fortunate enough to catch the entirety of Tim Cross’ testimony to Chilcot’s very merry team of peers and knights. Cross, a major general of the British Army, was discreetly assigned to Jay Garner’s Organisation for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in Washington, established before the war on Iraq was declared to be resposible for post-war planning. He later followed Garner to Kuwait, again before Britain’s commitment to the war had been declared, and entered a while after the invasion. ORHA were tasked with establishing essential things such as transport and currency. Incidentally, there was no mention of links between companies and ORHA, though last week’s Private Eye identifies a potential conflict of interest between Jeremy Greenstock’s post as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (2003-4) and his directorship of De La Rue, who successfully pitched for the lucrative contract to print Iraq’s currency the month the invasion began.

Cross, an exceptionally intelligent and articulate individual, took the panel through his experiences in the lead-up to the invasion: his difficulties in communicating with Whitehall his concerns that ‘planning for the aftermath’ was deeply insufficient. In Cross’ account of the half an hour he spent with Tony Blair before leaving for Kuwait, it became clear that whatever Cross said, then as well as now, the pragmatism of his task has rendered his position in the operation depressingly insignificant. Though it was clear to Cross from a very early stage that the invasion would be carried out ‘successfully… at least from a military point of view’, Cross said he was surprised at the lack of coherence in visions for post-war Iraq, his initial response to ORHA was ‘There must be more to it than this.’ When he arrived in Iraq an even greater shock was that the structural insufficiencies were less the result of war than long-term neglect.

The most colourful aspects of the experience for me were the phrases Cross used which most explicitly spoke of army attitudes and Whitehall bureacracy: ‘logistic assets’, ‘he [Garner] wanted to follow the sound of guns’, ‘various internecene rivalries in Washington’, ‘theatre of operations’, ‘the southern option’, ‘Fortress Baghdad’ and the three T’s for reconstruction: ‘time, treasure and talent’.

The different components of the team assembled in Washington to discuss the reconstruction were brought together in what the Americans, according to Cross, called ‘a dog fight’. At one such meeting Cross perceived that one colleague had been doing an unusual amount of research: the colleague was invited to join Garner’s team, but later left, or asked to leave. An inquirer asked why and Cross replied ‘he was challenging the paradigm’. ‘What was the paradigm?’ ‘[The paradigm] was the plan is we do not need a plan.’

This moment of dialogue, amongst others, made me feel that this was a privileged experience of political insight. Of course all the information of the inquiry is being transmitted onto its website, but it felt more important to be there. The gentility of the panel (though politeness to Cross felt justified by his ostensible cooperation) was suspicious and I was reminded that the process of their selection has been the subject of much criticism.

A comparable experience, in aim and effect, is perhaps David Hare’s Stuff Happens, and the numerous other pieces of theatre in Britain devoted explicitly to investigating the War in Iraq. The value of Hare’s piece, as well as the others, is the speed in which theatre has been able to respond to important moments of policy and politics, but one can’t help feeling that informationally theatre has often failed to communicate ideas, by staying too close to the format of The Inquiry, an increasingly popular political phenomenon. Indeed Hare’s The Power of Yes celebrated its author’s own personal inquiry into the recession, whilst doing great damage in suggesting theatre is unable to develop its own forms of inquiry. Hare himself has claimed the speed with which theatre is able to respond to contemporary events as a triumph for theatre. When this comes accompanied by the sacrifice of the integrity of theatre’s ability to communicate thinking, or its unique ability to reformulate the ways in which we receive information, it is of no use whatsoever.

The Times’ quote attached to the publicity of Enron - ‘The political theatre of the 21st century...’ – has had me wondering recently what it might actually look like. In the context of my earlier discussion of Dennis Kelly, and soon to be posted review of Cock, the case of former Guantanamo inmate and terror suspect Binyam Mohamed has interested me recently, and I went along to witness the second day of its appeal session. No need to sketch out the background of the case, the media has been doing a lot of that, and they are playing a significant part in it.

The appeal concerns the right to make public the whole judgement of the Divisional Court which apparently contains a number of paragraphs whose content David Miliband claims is sensitive according to the best interests of national security. The paragraphs are known to contain details, admitted by the Americans, of the torture techniques used to extract a confession from Mohamed he now disowns. Mohamed’s legal team and the legal teams of the UK and US media claim that Miliband wants to reduce embarrassment to the Labour government by preventing the details of our collusion with torture and extraordinary rendition to be known. The legal counsel working on behalf of Miliband claims the CIA and USA Secretary of State have indiated that said release of the information could force the USA to reconsider their intelligence sharing agreement with the UK.

The barrister acting on behalf of the government is Jonathan Sumption, whom it has been said is the most expensive man in the business, brough in by Miliband for the appeal case in particular. The lateness of his introduction may have been the only concession to thrift made. Sumption’s submissions to the court were masterfully clear and deliberate close reading – unsurprising from a man who is currently written a multi-volume history of the Hundred Years War – as he effortlessly disparaging the judgements of the previous hearing. Representing Binyam Mohamed was Dinah Rose, the integrity and intellect of whose rhetoric was extremely impressive. It seemed strange that the inmates of Guantanamo were for so long denied access to a lawyer and here were around twenty of them in one room discussing the release of seven paragraphs of information.

What I saw was the battle of almost no consequence whatsoever, something publicly admitted by all parties. What the paragraphs contain is apparently so similar to information already in the public arena that quoting it would, according to Rose, prejudice the court’s decision. The parties opposing the Foreign Secretary are struggling for an ever-diminishing moral victory, to make public that which has been known for a long time. The Labour government have consistently resisted publication of the information we need to know our involvement in practices which run directly against the values for which the British nation is claimed to represent, through the clever evasions of some highly talented and astronomically well rewarded individuals.

Just as the temporary architecture of Brian Haw’s protest, initiated in 2001 in response to sanctions on Iraq, has been mutated into a paradoxically permanent establishment, it seems impossible, once you start to consider the extent to which we have been ethically compromised by this Labour government, you could ever stop protesting.

29 November 2009


A couple of nights ago, caught in a heavy downpour of freezing rain, I passed between two structures:

Brian Haw's encampment at Parliament Square (established in 2001), and the Houses of Parliament (established c.1100).

26 November 2009


A strange comic duo, Mitchell & Crimp’s Pains of Youth has been playing at the Cotteslowe Theatre for a while now. The reports haven’t been good, one friend left in the interval and said it was ‘very, very boring’, I’ve been avoiding the newspaper reviews, but it sounds as if its reception has at best been mixed.

The play consists of a series of fairly dramatic events which take place in the rooms of two female medical students at a European university at some point, it seemed, during the 1920s. The play as well as its characters appear on the cusp of knowledge of Freud’s discoveries, almost as if the principle of the uncanny were being applied to itself.

The first thought that crossed my mind was, as usual, why have I come to this? And then, what is the point in fourth-wall naturalism? And then, how much more could we achieve if we just stopped doing it for good? Where is Katie Mitchell’s engagement with liveness, in all its artifice, present and visible in Waves and …some trace of her? The considerable achievements, however, of this surprising exercise in a nineteenth century theatrical model, have very gradually revealed themselves to me.

hit me if you won’t forgive me

It has long appeared that Crimp’s project has been a careful dismantling of dramatic theatre. This is often manifested in a strangeness of dialogue, which at once appertains to the theatre of Ibsen or Chekhov and the anti-naturalism of Artaud or Beckett.

hit me then if you’re not a thief

Repetition (and its frequent correlative, boredom) seems very much at the forefront of his practice. During one argument, a character says the same line ‘sit down’ four times. Bruckner’s script has been delivered into lucid and elegant English. Words between lovers are rendered with stark brutality.

I won’t let you go until you’ve hit me

Crimp’s repetitions, however, at points felt excessive, almost too easily written. Whilst his dialogue often appears thrillingly incisive on the page, it does not always translate into utterance entirely at home on stage.

he wouldn’t hit me

Nevertheless, many moments suggest that Crimp has accomplished that much-coveted thing – an achievement exclusive perhaps only to David Mamet, Harold Pinter, debbie tucker green and Caryl Churchill – a personal literary language indigenous to contemporary theatre.

he wouldn’t hit me, kiss me harder

A puritanical aesthetic is not the same thing as austerity, or restraint. Vicki Mortimer's set looked simple but expensive; it might have been co-designed by Bang &/or Olufson. An obsession with immaculateness has long evident on the page, in Crimp’s scripts, and on stage in Mitchell’s production. This lies at odds with Mitchell taste for drastic intervention in classic texts, and for this reasons has often baffled critics and audiences. I found myself thinking back to Jeremy Hardingham’s one man King Lear, and wondering: what’s wrong with making a mess? Then I thought of Patti Smith’s Babelogue: “I would measure the success of a night by the way by the way by the amount of piss and seed I could exude over the columns that nestled the PA…” and realised: theatre doesn’t merely reside in the light and shadow of bodies in space. Blood, ink, sweat, mud, paint, are all crucial ingredients. They must be spilt before they can dry.

And I’d rather watch paint dry than dry paint.

The eloquence in the opening and closing of a door were for me the closest approximation to a poetic act (for want of a better term) in this kind of theatre, and a testament to Mitchell’s dedication to detail. In contrast, the apex of of bad naturalism - pointless scene changes – abounded, to the extent that I began to suspect it was all a big joke about theatrical convention. This was corroborated by the (questionable) humourousness of Mitchell’s approach to scene-changes: the entrance of people in sharp suits and forensic equipment felt ultra-pretentious as one of those post-modern beer adverts. Yes; we know Germans (Austrians, whatever) are rigorous, precise, nihilistic etc.

In spite of this, precision is clearly something at which Mitchell’s team are extraordinarily adept. They are an artistic Vorsprung durch Technik. But there must have been more to it, I found myself wondering: was this a very clever pastiche? The lighting, by Jon Clark, was a masterpiece of heightened naturalism. At points it seemed to be that the production was lit solely by the three lamps visible onstage, but this state would shift subtly towards an unnatural and stylised destination. Another aspect of stagecraft, the props, were reinvisioned as a vocabulary of equal importance to the plot: the carefully articulated object-journeys of bottles, books, money, threatened to displace human narratives at the heart of the play. Only a director as accomplished and celebrated as Mitchell could have coordinated such a careful experiment, drawing together conventional theatre’s component parts into an uneasy unity.

Other good things: there were some lovely bits of yoga. Lydia Wilson’s charisma and Geoffrey Streatfield’s distracted brilliance were exemplary, at the heart of the play’s successes. A moment in which the pretty-but-principled maid is convinced to prostitute herself, was particularly affective, perhaps the high-point, it felt like the reason we were there.

We hope to be impressed (or at least titillated) by the progressiveness of what shocked audiences almost a century ago, but this is hard to compute, for we live in the twenty-first century where we can watch, on 4OD, reality tv-shows like The Doctor Who Hears Voices. When the decadence of Bruckner’s play is no longer shocking, what remains to be seen?

The second half jerks between an annoyingly insouciant social satire, languid weltschmerz, and a series of unconvincing proto-existentialist declarations. The characters display an unsentimetalism about medical practice possibly shocking to earlier audiences, but the play itself seems at times deeply sentimentalised decadence. And in spite of the lip-service paid to the play’s rigorous interrogation of scientific objectivity, I remain uncertain as to whether it scrutinised its characters decadence or merely indulged it. The plot – thankfully – proves to be totally irrelevant. (It has just occurred to me that this perceived occlusion is an embarrassment of content which may be my own. I don’t know; you tell me.) The realisation, for which we wait over two hours, is extraordinarily banal. I forget the exact wording, but it went something like this:

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da,
Life goes on, bra
La la how the life goes on

A while ago, attending a deeply uninteresting performance of a play by Chekhov, I listened to Jeremy Hardingham working his way tremulously through a packet of individually-wrapped boiled sweets. It seemed to me the simplest, most intelligent intervention in the ineptly conventional spectacle being staged in front of us. In the same spirit, if I were to offer some advice as to how one might go about enjoying Pains of Youth it would be to listen for those moments of interference,and watch carefully for the flickers of artifice. The characters constantly question whether they should “embrace bourgeois existence”, and this indeed seems relevant to the production itself. Since reading Nicholas Ridout’s Theatre & Ethics I have been wondering whether the most interesting endeavour of Crimp’s theatrical practice resides in engagement with and resistance to the role theatre plays in bourgeois subject-formation. This endeavour is at its most successful when resistance is most forcefully attempted, or argued for. The less pleasing – more dissonant or boring – the production was, the more I liked it, the more important an endeavour it seemed. When you don’t care what the characters are saying (“I’m going to commit suicide…”) you are more free to admire the wallpaper, untroubled.

But is this anything more than a jaded theatre, which thinks its own cynicism clever? Crimp’s writing is at its best where it is most ethical, and this is most often at the points in which the pressures of parenthood are central. This piece, so interested in the uncertainties of youth, feels deeply ambivalent. Should it, like Bruckner’s protagonist, do the decent thing and commit suicide? In the context of last week’s revelation – Chris Goode’s The Forest & the Field – it seems that unless a theatrical intelligence is motivated towards the creation of something hopeful, which in turn hopes for something to be created good, this kind of cynicism feels more than just unimaginative – deeply unclever, troublingly unproductive.

This is the bit of the NT programme designed to embody the nation’s most successful experiments, and "pure art" free from bureaucratic concessions to diversity, opportunity, accessibility. But this is avant-gardism revealed to be aesthetic, palatable, and its conclusions foregone. It only remains to ask whether this isn’t the most successful of experiments but the most compromised.

no innocent line// [no innocent party]

Perhaps it is only because I have been reading it very closely this week, but the comments made by Michael Billington last night in conversation with John Stokes seem to work a neat parallel alongside Baz Kershaw's observation of contentions between modernism and post-modernist in The Radical in Performance.

Kershaw argues that 'radical performance' - as moments of theatrical presentation- most effectively emerges in a field where modernist and post-modernist visions of the world collide and interact: where symbols and semiotic systems are interrogated by deconstuctive, self-reflexive, participactory tendencies that destabilise heirarchies (between audience and actor, meaning and sign, tradition and representation).

As far as I can tell, post-modernism is not at work for Michael Billington. Whilst Kershaw neatly points out that post-modernism signals an "as yet fictional historical phase", he rightly notes that post-modern thinking has suffused the world in which we live. Billington, it seems, wants to save, or re-instate a modernist world in which certain theatrical principles, and ways of seeing, can be taken for granted.

'Experiential' theatre which takes place outside designated 'Theatres' is dismissed as leaving no lasting trace, and existing only in the present. Billington - not unjustifiably - fights the cause for the text, the playwright. Yet it feels as if rather than placing these undoubtedly elemental skills and materials as part of an ongoing dialogue in an ever-changing tradition (which acknowledges, as Kershaw does the encountered 'limitations' of theatre vs. the troubling 'limitlessness' of performance), Billington wants to preserve them at the expense of everything else.

Billington tells an anecdote about Augusto Boal attempting to set a play about domestic servitude in Argentina in the houses of the women he is working with; when Boal suggest that they set the play in the houses where the work, the site of their servitude, the women demur: they want their play in a theatre! The point is spot on, and undeniable in its relevance: Billington chuckles. It is a delightful ('seriously funny'?) observation on the potential hypocrisy of 'on the streets' theatre; but he asked the audience to remind him of Boal's name.

There is absolutely nothing reprehensible about Billington's obvious tastes and preferences - who are we to judge or deny Pinter, Shakespeare or Chekhov as great dramatists? - however, there is something suggestively dubious about saving what he calls 'texts' at the expense of all else.

After all, contemporary theatre practitioners' work contributes as much to our understanding of theatre as any new play. Not to mention plenty of companies like Complicité and Cheek by Jowl whose relationship to a host of practitional traditions, international theatres and languages create a newer challenge to conventional ideas of borders, frontiers and definitions.

More than that, it would be a fascinating (and necessary) extension of Billington's State of the Nation if its social/theatrical historical dialogue mapped out a conversation between these bodies that existed in foreign languages, with touring international companies as well as British companies working in other languages, inimical to the flux of exchange and ever-altering equivalencies and identities in a Western free-market capitalist 'performative democracy'.

More Kershaw there. He points out that so much of this tension extant in contemporary exasperations over Theatre/theatre/performance/performativity lies in the imagined binary that is figured like Cressida's split gaze: the post-modernist eye twitches at the (perceived) 'limitations' of "theatre" and with the other modernist eye waters at the potential 'limitlessness' of "performance".

The point is that the above binary, like Cressida's split gaze, is a division where there is actually pollination. Modern theatre/performance's perspective is cross-eyed, not doubly-divergent: these eyes should meet, however squ-iff they might be.

Yet Billington seems to represent the modernist slant on theatre so far as to resist the value of post-modernisms' slippery interjections and discursive attempts to connect to a society where theatre the Theatre, and text is not the only loading bay for meaning, memory and lasting experience.

I ask him, with reference to a quotation from Chris Goode's The Forest and the Field [F&F-related post forthcoming....] about whether he means that theatre can only be 'more like theatre' inside under a proscenium arch with a comfortable middle-class audience. (The Guardian, Billington's paper, recently described Goode as "British Theatre's greatest maverick talent"; yet Billington draws a complete blank when I naively add, "who I'm sure you know" as I describe Goode and his work.)

He doesn't really answer the question. The space/place issue, so central to Goode's earnest engagement with the dichotomies of theatre(//performance - dare I add it) is turned into a binary where the dark spaces of the Jerwood Upstairs are edgy sites for exploring new texts whereas 'trendy' warehouses in East London exist only to displace the middle class audience and hand them a slice of superfluous 'cool', a momentary experience with no residue, no text, nor history.

When he is then pressed on what audiences can and should do to help theatre find itself, he cites Travelex £10 tickets as the greatest change in theatre in the last 10 years whilst still evading all notions of class that do not disappear just because the price goes down. (Though he does add that if theatre was free, class would not be a problem.)

But what are we to do, then? Are all performance experiments outside a theatre bound to die a death the moment the 'experience' finishes? Does that mean we can't do a text-based play in a warehouse? Why are we still assuming that a text has to be a written piece of script? It is as if Billington has pitched his tent on the modernism side of a debate which Kershaw demonstrates is now an illusion: that modernism=theatre and post-modernism=performance.)

All the exciting potentials, freedoms, obstacles presented to contemporary theatre (and I deliberately say theatre here, not performance) seem ready to be abandoned.


Discussing his late friend Harold Pinter, Billington noted"that there is no innocent line" in a Pinter play. But let's not stop there, Michael. There is no innocent line full stop. There are no innocent parties, political or otherwise; there is no innocence in a world, or theatre.

Where Billington stands, and what kind of theatre he likes, was made perfectly clear via his un self-conscious dismissals and appraisals. I have no designs on 'tastemaking' - I am not on some Arnoldian project - but why raise up and list anybody's tastes if not to dissect and truly discuss them?

Stokes never interrogated anything, he simply added a few more names to the set menu. It's shame he was not taking questions too: there is a lifetime of discussion to be siphoned from his throwaway analogy between Pinter and (our peripatetic Arnoldian) T.S. Eliot, in which Billington's assertion of the impossibility of the existence of modern British 'theatre' (I have no idea what that word means these days) without Pinter is vacuum-packed with Stokes' statement:

"modern poetry would not have existed without T.S. Eliot"
Yes it would. It would be a different prospect, yes, but it is dangerous to play the father-son artistic reproductive game in a cultural epoch that demonstrates the usurpation of physiological filiative principles by dissolution, the fracture and dissolution of fixed systematic principles; the negotiation of allegory and symbolism itself, surely?

It is a shame that the we as audience could not temper our own politeness with a little more incision.

15 November 2009

festival d'automne iii // The Shipment


Issues of comfort, discomfort and familiarity were central to the latest offering from New York-based Young Jean Lee's Theater Company, The Shipment. The piece deals with white perceptions of black culture, and more than that, black participation in the white-codified realm of Western theatre, using a five-strong black cast, in a structured show which constantly teetered between exposing and playing the stereotypes.

Music plays a central role, becoming a key site for exposing the struggle for agency, identity and theft between black and white constructions of self in American culture. [I feel compelled to both include and erase 'American' there, as it is clearly the intention of the piece to deal with more than Obama-era American race politics - yet its choices and scenes are very specifically rooted in North American traditions and prejudices.]

The opening is a dance by two men in dinner suits to what the notes call "the whitest" song the company could find, with obvious moves taken from minstrel dancing. This is followed by an unwavering piece of extreme stand-up: its content and delivery conveyed in such a way that I could not call it a parody of black male comics or archetypal 'white-folk/black-folk' jokes, only an example.

The most accomplished, technically brilliant and ideologically interrogative element is the middle piece, in which the rap ambitions of young city-dwelling Omar are played out, to audience, in a series of gestured tableaus/ signifying physical remarks that are so coded, so semiotic in themselves as to recall late Renaissance and early Restoration theatre and performances of gender (interesting gender parallel of these tensions in Stage Beauty; indeed, gender is also constantly at play in the piece).

It is brilliant, hilarious and entertaining: by accident, fortune, mistake and intention, Omar turns one-time crack dealer, jail inhabitant, rap star, drug addict; the audience laughs but remains uncertain, I feel, at excatly what it is laughing at. Are the stereotypes being confirmed? or created in front of eyes, completed and constructed by those watching, as if controlling the mannered twitches of each actor as if he or she was a puppet.

The climax comes at the very end of this part, as the audience seem to take a gasp from the laughter. The one female cast member and the actors playing Omar and Desmond (Omar's one-time crack dealing boss, shot in a drive-by) move to the edge of the stage and stare at the audience. They then sing, after around two minutes silence, a beguiling acapella version of another 'white' song, 'Dark Centre of the Universe' by Modest Mouse.

It is a moment of utter transcendence, as the three voices interweave in harmony and syncopation. Yet, again, it is a reminder of the marks of oppression and definition that characterise the nature of black artists and art in mainstream culture: the acapella sound is not just an African tradition. This particular type of popular vocal singing is also one which was so neatly marketed by white singers in barber shop quartets; one of numerous examples of white culture appropriating and blanching black traditions and expression for its own success.

Yet The Shipment is not trying to deal a good ticking off to white culture. Nor is it simply presenting these tensions, these inter-filiations of thefts and gifts and offerings, as comment c'est. The power of the performance emerges through the stereotypes that are recalled, created and extinguished on stage. Lee herself says "I work with stories that I find trite and embarrassing", and that the rehearsal, devising and performance all work to emphasise the problems and difficulties of the texts at work; that is, the triteness of stereotypes is the heart, the drive of the piece.

And this play on the trite scraped close to simply presenting a series of white-contrived black stereotypes to a predominantly white middle class in a renovated theatre complex on the outskirts of Paris. Yet its honesty in its relationship with performance - its acknowledgement of the stage existing, of the construction taking place - made it a far superior political tool than Cohen's Golgotha.

What do I mean here by honesty (especially in a medium which, as Quizoola! showed us, best reaches truth via honest mistakes or dishonest disguises)? Our understanding of the term honesty is itself too contorted by the Puritanical strains and humanist ideals that haunt the theatre even now. In relation to The Shipment and its unabashed willingness to stage the process of cliché production as well as the clichés themselves, I mean, quite simply not-hiding.

The piece did not choose to reveal anything, like Golgotha; it did not pretend to be telling us anything new. It placed production and product side by side. Like the blurred make-up of the performers in Quizoola!, its honesty, its truth, was in its refusal to pretend that certain elements of theatre are off-stage, pre-existent, fixed. Like ideological play with identity and race, all is play, all is up for grabs. Lee's theatre shows you it is making theatre, it does not pretend that all arrived pre-conceived: it constructs space, set, music, archetype, climax, before your eyes.

And these honest machinations are crucial. Before the final part (indeed, the weakest in the entire piece), a forty minute 'white' urban dramaticule in whic a party becomes ever more absurd, LaBute-inspired collapses of decorum and violent 30-year-old itches, the entire set, meticulous glass by glass, was brought in.

Through this set-dressing, the audience was told the entire story of the dramaticule before it began. First on the empty stage came a brown leather sofa. This could be Omar's sofa? Could even be in a crack den at a push (maybe he really did lose it after he reached rap stardom; surely that's how all rap stars go...that's what we're all thinking, right?). Then a carpet. Then a modernist coffee table, huge stacks of thick books underneath. A lamp. The sofa becomes decorated. A drinks cabinet. Martini. Cranberry juice. A few tasteful candles. Some nibbles.

The acapella must have signalled a change: suddenly we are dealing in white stereotypes. The mental process encouraged by watching these painstakingly laid-out furniture items was itself a way of demonstrating signifiers of race and prejudice: I knew the moment the coffee table came on that this was in fact a white apartment. Indeed, in all the slightly flabby psych-101 drama that follows, the punchline is that the people we are watching are, of course, white, as they play Library and sip whiskey and worry about being lonely. Yet really, the punchline is that we thought that the moment we saw the furniture.

As with all the pieces mentioned in this blog, you might again wonder why Jean Lee has chosen to do this play. Why, as a Korean-American theatre maker has she deliberately addressed black/white relations? The company artistic statement notes:
When starting a play, I ask myself, "What's the last play in the world I would ever want to write?"
Then I force myself to write it.
So perhaps The Shipment is not just a piece dealing with America, or American race relations. It is, of course, specifically dealing in that vocabulary, in a country which has the audacity to call itself 'post-race' (see Kai Wright's review).

Yet the deliberately singular focus allows it a wider relevance. Its difficulty, in creation, devising and execution does not more than tell us that 'race is an issue'. In being the anti-play, the play Young Jean Lee does not want to create, and in rigorously examining the traditions, prejudices and tendencies of certain popular cultural practices (where each section of the show is, like the stand-up, an example, not mere aesthetic parody or reference, not just there to make a facile neo-liberal point), The Shipment examines the gaze, the spectating, and perceptions that create or maintain stereotypes. It performs the very constructions or ideas we are told are natural and innate.

In a greater sense, then, this is a piece about identity. With this on the brain, Ramsay Burt's chapter 'Looking at the Male' from The Male Dancer springs to mind, as it deals with the centrality of performance and liveness to the formation (and negotiation - or negation) of a notion of race, masculinity, universality. Indeed it could very easily be a piece about gender as well as race: how these two 'identity markers' are themselves created by acts, by performances of gender, or performances of race. Those performances, though, are not "Race"; yet the idea of race, or indeed of gender, could not exist without such enactment and experimentation, such codification and disruption.

And Young Jean Lee does not shy away from what might be trite in these ideas of marking and unmarking, of being marked one way and totally unmarked in others . After all, triteness or discomfort is often that which, like cliché, gets very close to truth.

festival d'automne ii // Quizoola!


A piece which genuinely did interrogate the notion of liveness, 'performance' and prescription was Quizoola! by the ever-inventive Sheffield-based company Forced Entertainment, showing on Saturday afternoon in 315 at the Pompidou. Based on a written text of 2000 questions by Tim Etchell (one of the company's artistic directors), the piece is a durational 6-hour affair with the audience dropping in and out as the two seated performers in grubby clown make-up and casual clothes (three in total; they all swap roles) play question-master and answerer.

The piece has been in action for over five years; you can see a snippet of a 2003 version at the Tate Modern here. There is clearly a formula; there are ground rules (never question the question seems to be one); there are certain set questions which recur over and over, or which arise in every performance with the same response [-what is the definition of comedy? -timing]. Yet at the same time there are clearly entire sections that appear to be intended to topple the other performer into uncontrollable laughter - or out of 'character'.

The inexhaustible cleverness and simple appeal of the piece is that we have no idea what 'character' is here. Which points are personal? Which points are simply constructed to raise a wry smile? How much control do the performers have over timing, over invented questions?

It is an utterly compelling way to show that genuinely exciting, convention-challenging theatre can be made on the most simple of premises: Quizoola! manages to be deeply existential, totally daft, (quite British), not at all exclusive, baffling, moving, seductive and intellectually exciting. At one point the entire body of people present collapse in laughter as the female answerer's clever responses to the male questioner's tightening circle of queries hit an ingenious/inevitable impasse of one upmanship and self-exposure:

-Why do always have your hand down your trousers? - ....Because I'm.....masturbating.
- Why don't you have any friends? - Because I masturbate all the time.
-What do you do when you are not masturbating? -....Shoplifting.

Both performers are holding on to prevent themselves from uncontrollable laughter; yet the personal, the sexual and the false are all played off each other. The straightness of the female response becomes a defense, a bettering of the male's intrusive questions. The status shifts and we are all in on the (serious) joke.

Thus the audience is always completely involved because constantly trying to ascertain 'what is real'; who to believe; where the illusion begins or ends. Like the performer's face paint, it's a blurred line.

And such a blur is even more compelling for being performed by actors accustomed to and comfortable with the structure of the piece. Thus, the negotiation between distinction and uncertainty, performance and genuine reaction becomes even more meshed: as the 'actors' are in a state where the "performing" element of the piece, the "scripted" or "enacted" parts, are just as naturalised or comfortable as the "real" parts. Those two parts are, in fact, the same.

14 November 2009

festival d'automne i // Golgotha

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"I don't actually know what the fuck performance art is, yet I'm brilliant at it."

Not my words, but the words of Stephen Cohen, South African-raised, French-based performance artist whose 'Golgotha' was applauded with ferocity by a higbrow crowd at the Centre Georges Pompidou last Friday.

As much as I, like Stephen, admit to not really knowing "what the fuck" performance art is, I do know what the fuck I saw, and I am pretty certain that it wasn't "brilliant".

The Grand Salle at the Pompidou, like an opened cardboard box on its side, enveloping the audience and drawing the gaze downstage, was adorned with a series of wrought, beautiful/horrible images before the artist emerged. On either side of the white floor, two huge ceiling-to-stage photographs. In one the artist wears elaborate butterfly make-up and a suit, balancing on "skullettos" (his words, not mine) impossibly high teetering platforms made with the balls of the feet placed on genuine human skulls; on the opposite, with the same make-up and shoes, he wears an overwrought, embroidered and mirrored corset, which also stands downstage right, on a mannequin. Next to this is another dressmaker's mannequin with a skeleton bent around it to imitate a tutu and bodice.

On the downstage left area, a box/climbing frame construction, of metal and muslin screens, which the artist later used to attach himself to and swing from. On the studio floor, a massive crucifix created with tiny lamps, animal figurines, flowers and black sheets of perspex. The back wall was a massive screen projecting images of the artist first in the mirrored corset, a kind of delicate prologue; then, for the rest of the hour and a half, in various states of balancing, in the skullettos-and-suit garb around the streets of New York.

Creating a web between the numerous images, videos and costumes (especially shoes), the piece promised a dynamic live exploration of issues of identity, body image, male-ness and capitalism. Yet the only true watchable element of it was the artist's struggle with - and ability to - balance in ever-more-impossible footwear. At the midpoint, in a green khaki suit which sat somwhere between guerilla bee-keeper and jungle spaceman, with no sound but his wheezing breath, wearing huge boots loaded with metal, he painstakingly raised his foot and crushed every single illuminated animal on the crucifix.

One of the friends with whom I saw the piece loved it, saying that it excelled in providing what she deemed as the ultimate goal in theatre: a series of beautiful images. I think her idea of such aspirations come more from the Mediterranean/south European theatre tradition in which she has worked. I on the other hand was hoping for at least some kind of attempted connection between the images and the potential thoughts/dangers/points that the artist was making. Or at least what I mentioned earlier: a conversation between every element, where each element (live or no) could be experienced, surprising.

Yet the most effective slippages (why was he very hairy in the films and completely and utterly hairless on stage? why include the footage of the genuine electric chair execution?) fell by the way side, in favour of overwrought, repetitious underlining of empty incidents. It seemed as if the real risky moments mentioned above were passed over in favour of an over emphatic silent monologue on the artist's part:

Look at how I spent nearly $2000 on two real human skulls, each costing $895 each from a store named 'Evolution' in the heart of Times Square. Isn't that ironic? And look how I am wearing a suit and crossing the road outside the stock exchange on Wall Street, the capital of capitalism. And look how I am pretending that nobody is watching, that I am the normal one. I'm making a point, you see? Looking like a freak death butterfly and crossing the road. I am showing you that you are the weird ones. Isn't that clever? Me being so superweird to expose how fucking fucked up you all are? Aren't you all just awful? Look at how I put the skulls on my feet! See how painful this is! See how much it hurts to wrench my body this way, with the money, and the shoes, and the death. I can barely stand.BEAUTY HURTS. I am telling you something about your own lives. I am your preacher. LOOK AT ME!!

And so Golgotha revealed itself to be as needless as the mindless spending of the free market capitalism so desperately flagged up yet not dealt with. Really, with the $900 skulls, this entire piece was little more than worship of the beast (is this the point of the religious touches; to admit we have all sinned?). Spending for spending's sake. (Surely we are a good decade or two beyond the time when such an exercise could actually have any new or interesting effect or appeal?)

Because there seemed no idea aside from the structure and the shoe changes, the moments which could have genuinely formed intersections of liveness and premediation, seem like stunts and shams: the use of a video of real electric chair execution displayed amidst the S&M climbing frame; the recreation of the twin towers with the skullettos; the name of the piece itself. Simply having a crucifix and a couple of skulls does not really provide sufficient justification for calling a piece Golgotha. Why choose such a suggestive, and heavily Christianised, evocative title if there is barely any acknowledgement of that religious power (or loss thereof)?

Does Cohen think he is Christ, a muscular, though ephemerally-decorated, Messiah, tottering through his streets where money is religion and he is being once more gawped at, bearing his cross as two skulls on his feet whilst the tourists on Wall Street and Broadway take ut their mobile telephones and video him crossing the road? Or are we to acknowledge that we live Golgotha, that we have killed any hope of redemption?

Perhaps. And if faith and spiritualism were really at stake, the piece would not have threatened sleep on several spectators. It could have fulfilled Cohen's own maxim "about letting you see the work as I am making it" if the pre-recorded and installed elements had not been presented as pre-existent, native, always-already there.

What a fallacy! This was a piece of such pre-meditation, such self-involved naivety: does Cohen really think that him being there in person, balancing between things, is enough to gloss over the mammoth amount of preparation and construction involved prior to the live show? There was no risk in the piece itself, no sense of fraying around the edges: it was all pre-edited, pre-beautified, utterly betraying its own vanity.

It left a residual distaste over the evident expense on show, amplified by the unquestioningly enthusiastic response of the Paris audience. Despite the power of its images, its inability (and unwillingness) to interrogate the construction of said images, the ideologies and processes which go into them, expose the event as the work of little more than a self-involved big spender, who thinks he's "brilliant", with little awareness of anything outside his undeniably well-trained, maquillaged body. Well, "fuck performance art".[That's still his quote.]

3 November 2009



1 November 2009


I witnessed one of the last nights of Dennis Kelly’s Orphans at the Soho Theatre, having transferred from a successful run at the Traverse in August. Horrified, but satiated by attacking my companion’s lack of outrage on the bus home, it wasn’t until reading Michael Billington’s review I felt moved to offer a written response. So to offer a meta-review, a review, and an apology for both:

Fundamental to my outrage at the play’s form was its reliance on manipulation, something which the review notes:

“Kelly is not above manipulating character to suit his thesis”

It certainly felt problematic that the play shared in the most irresponsible values of its protagonists, and we might read instead: Kelly is not above [his] manipulating character[s]. Manipulation was at the heart of the play as well as its characters; centred, as it was, around a number of lies drawn out for as long as possible before a devastating revelation was the only possible release.

Billington’s description of this process feels inadequate on a number of accounts:

“Liam's claim that he went to the aid of a knife-slashed stranger lying in the gutter is soon exposed as a pathetic lie.”

First, only the most exhilarated spectator could believe that this exposition was ‘soon over’. Pathetic, however, is right on the buzzer, but it is not clear whether Liam is to blame for being a rubbish liar, and an implausible character, or Kelly himself. Whilst the aspirations of a dramatist who leaves the fourth-wall pristine allows the accurate observation of people’s mediocrity, one might hope that a dramatist could conceive of a liar talented enough to conjure as plausible a drama founded on deceit as the ‘real’ one which emerges once the ‘untruths’ have been revealed. The drama was impelled not by a withholding of the truth, but by creative deceit which, when we remember that the integrity of a ‘thesis’ is at stake, vitiates any possibility of insight, let alone honesty, truth, or any of those words which, in this context, feel like they might have been carted out of an eighteenth-century exhibition at the British Museum.

But Kelly’s thesis, for which we have to endure so much, is that (in Billington’s words)

“our society is so worm-eaten and corrupt that even decent liberals will resort, under pressure, to torture.”

‘Kelly’s thesis’, which hardly merits the possessive, is no more than the stock response of the gullible to their daily newspaper: that the world is somehow uniformly getting much much worse. ‘Even decent liberals’ is a phrase which exactly describes the level of sophistication which Kelly’s social critique maintained. Billington’s use of the future tense – liberals will – is similarly symptomatic of the play’s confused vision of society: a deluded and hysterical dystopian vision of the present, making claims for itself as a clear-sighted but saddened pragmatism. Kelly’s play is not proof that liberals resort to torture: it is a rhetorical imagining. Kelly’s representative liberal does resort to torture, and we understand that Kelly believes we would too.

“Kelly creates a genuine moral dilemma and along the way makes some salient points.”

Whilst Billington takes Kelly’s play as proof that a liberal can be moved to torture he forgets that the liberal state has and does legitimise torture on its own citizens as well as citizens of foreign countries. Binyan Mohammed’s case is the latest of such unnecessarily frequent reminders. The point about Kelly’s play is that whilst it may darkly allegorise something ‘genuine’, in order to illustrate our complicity with such suffering, it only has hyperbole at its disposal. In the play, these are revelations sensationalised to the extent that, paradoxically, they are as totally banal, the quotidian rantings of a tabloid editorial.

Again, paradoxically, it would be a more dangerous, and useful, revelation to draw the link between, say, eating a bowl of Cinnamon Grahams and the torture of suspected terrorists in US military facilities. That would be literary realism taken to its most satisfactory extreme, and is a common trope in contemporary drama. But is it possible that we, unlike Tom Cruise in Minority Report, would be able to extract ourselves from complicity in crimes committed daily? That really would be fiction.

“McGuinness does his best to convince us of the dithering Danny's plunge into the inferno.”

Billington’s journalistic love of the alliterative epithet here reminds us that Kelly’s most reprehensible move is to implicated in a hysterically world only possible in the imagination of a sociopathic Daily Mail literalist shortly after being verbally abused on the way back from buying a pint of milk.

And here Roxana Silbert’s production fails to recuperate the script; behind the hopelessly yuppie couple’s wallpaper stand oversized iron railings, a slightly freakish papier mache version of what you see at your local park, an amateurish evocation of the social violence of the world outside. What, an urban dystopia? Pinch me, I must be in a piece of post-war British drama!

Billington’s review ends in a satisfactorily arbitrary moment of Conservative bashing:

“The play makes chilling viewing. But in a week when David Cameron has been spouting nonsense about our allegedly "broken society", I find it disheartening for a talented young dramatist to be aiding and abetting his cause.”

Moreover, that Kelly’s youth should have any symbolic currency is dismaying, and it is here that Billington is most complicit with Kelly’s failure: to achieve any single moment of lucidity in presenting the world unprejudiced around us. Perhaps the author’s heroism, staring into the abyss of British society, is no more different to the saddened but steely resolve of the blue-sky politician in the neat suit. And in this similarity an obsession with dirt masquerading as a desire to clean up.

26 October 2009

zero sum - Complicité's Endgame

'Since that's the way we're playing it, let's play it that way'

Hamm's croon stands out of the current Complicité production. (H)ham(m)-ing over his arm-cum-wheelchair, Mark Rylance purrs it with clear relish; the audience laugh obediently. The actor gripes and gestures please, the audience laughs thank you. Gambit accepted.
In this neat exchange, where Actor and Audience cancel out (x-y= 0) we find perhaps the most literal extension of this production's simplification of the script's radical mathematics (where x y, x/y --> ) .

Endgame is in many ways a play about playing, especially in considering its primary French incarnation as Fin de Partie. At its funniest - and most painful - it stares hard in the face of the worst-feared possibility: there is no end, no final whistle, but an irreducible fraction.
Yet in in Complicité's (highly reputed) hands, Beckett's explicit and meta-theatrical 'play'ing seems translated into a surprisingly safe play between playing styles. Beckett's piece treads a very fragile line: its entire enterprise is towards simplifying and balancing the equation formed by the bodies on stage. Yet the keynote is that we are not dealing with simple integers and equivalences: like Lear, reducing to zero is always-already impossible, because the component parts are not isolated figures but unstable fractions. We try to resolve, to reduce to zero, but if we ever land on such a reduction, we cease to represent the infinite and ceaseless truth. And Beckett stages the action of this: dying/living/acting-out, we call it many things. Theatre, in its repetitiousness, never wholly disappears, nor tangibly exists. Life too, in Endgame's parlance, is the same. (It is with this kind of deft dramatic achievement that Beckett has gained his reputation for speaking to al human existence - and perhaps now such glorification is sadly canonising him...the pat-on-the-back self-congratulation of the audience as well as the acting might suggest that. Has he become safe? Neutralised?)

Yet this uncomfortable tension is absent from WC2. Complicité does not work through with the play's attempts at balancing out, at solving that problem of reduction which plagues theatre and life: instead, it interprets, posits, a solution prior to the performance. And what we see is not the working-out, but the (reductive) solution, over and over. The play has lost its playing: it is just conclusion, in a series of stiff tableaux. Thus the discordant complementarity between Hamm (Mark Rylance) and Clov (Simon McBurney), is reified as a competition of two very different, though geo-historically intertwined acting techniques, which are thrust to the fore in the first fifteen minutes of almost-silent action.

Rylance's Hamm is Olivier, he is the English stage of the early twentieth century; he is the butt of Hamlet's actorly advice to "not saw the air too much with your hand". A good rendition of a very bad cocktail of Stanislavsky and speech lessons. Recalling, in his verbosity, B from Rough for Theatre 1 (though he is physically blind as A), he scatters half- stories ad inifinitum; he is the landowner, decaying bourgeosie - but more - he is the perpetually isolated blindman, gesticulationg in the dark and unable to sustain the act on his own.

Part parody, and almost all pastiche, Rylance's pandering to the Duchess audience rather than his on-stage cronies is again sympotamatic of a very modern, very British acting tendency which Tim Crouch's The Author scrutinised: that desperate need for unconditional approval. Such a need courses through Hamm as a character - but Hamm's audience is also Clov and the dustbins. It is no coincidence that - talented an actor as Rylance is - he stands for a very particular type of RSC-friendly conservative theatre. A theatre which can only play out, to its very quiet, very appreciative audience, as if they were behind a screen. (Which tonight, they are: a not-even-ironic fourth wall gauze slips down at the start and end of the performance!)

In this staged battle of opposites, Simon McBurney's Clov is stood to represent Complicité - and by proxy, much more than that. His jerky Clov, who cannot sit down and thus seesaws on his joints around a blind master who cannot stand up, is France, he is a line running through Artaud and Marceau to LeCoq, that also takes in the Russian and Eastern European influences of Meyerhold (and later Grotowski), he is a figure so desperately focused on the body that every line seems to arrive at his tongue already broken and crumpled. Speech seems not to fit him. It is instead reluctantly forced out in order to play the game.

And the two seem more like strangers. Like floating units. Complicité seems to have panicked and dropped the ball here, reading the piece as a concrete, barely-developing meditation...on what I cannot fathom. Isolation? The apocalypse? But this is done by crudely striking divisions and decisions through all of the key relationships in the play, as well as between audience and actors. As if these fixed binaries are the answer!

So Clov is all muscle, leg and torso; Hamm is all tongue, hand and throat. Such contrasts should be mindless/effortless, not foregrounded: because this play has been playing forever, it always will, the game is that there is no end.

Yet neither Hamm nor Clov seem used to each other - or tired of each other - enough to suggest that this endless rehearsal is second-nature to them. Perhaps because as yet, for the actors on stage, this performance is not second nature to them. (McBurney at times abandons - or alters - his hugely mannered walk, rendering its entire laborious construction ineffectual.)

Either way, the indifference between Rylance and McBurney is not that of Hamm and Clov's utter habit (and dependence). They seem unrelated: unrelatable. And this is indicative of the production's larger problem.

Complicité has not done its maths. None of Beckett's famous pairs can be carved up and given exclusive attributes: they are a mutual unity, the two play off each other and we must view even partially between the actors some verbal or imagined space where they play together.

This production's single-minded obsession with playing against means that another mathematical strain of Beckett's is reified and trivialised: the importance of Nag and Nell, the two stump(ed) parents of Hamm who live in dustbins at one side of the stage.

Hamm and Clov speak as if to themselves, individually. As such we do not get that sense of Nag and Nell having a private, quite beautiful though obsolete, irruptive energy of their own, which mingles and reconfigures what would otherwise have been a x=y, zero sum of a play. The intelligence and pathos of Beckett's text is that his characters cannot help but listen to each other, cannot help but respond. Here we feel that no such connection exists.

Thus the mutuality between the complementary pairs of Hamm/Clov and Nag/Nell are not allowed to mix and play, but instead, Miriam Margoyles and Tom Hickey do a tender job which is out of place in a production which would rather keep them under their lids.

And herein lies the problem: poor inversion on the director and actors' parts. Endgame is not simply a play about mutilation, but a mutilated play: it is a complex, fractious jigsaw that does not fit together.

For Endgame is dynamic, dramatic: it is no zero sum, no reducing to empty, no resistant little fractions that refuse to move away...yet to Complicité, it all seems to add up, and rest neatly behind the veil dropped over the scene at the start and end - an extra sfaety curtain as if we needed reminding who is in charge here: in this creaky proscenium, the fourth wall rules, x=y with no remainder, the arithmetic is absolute and Beckett belongs to the canon. Nothing more.