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.

24 October 2009

lean upstream

something to do with november:


eyes peeled for the forest and the field performance.

18 October 2009


As hoped, we start on a positive, girding our skirts revealing inelegant ankles, in inarticulate admiration of Tim Crouch’s The Author.

The move towards writing something in response to the theatre I see was initially motivated by outrage: at Simon Stephens’ latest offering, Punk Rock, and its response, the inexplicably uncritical chorus of praise from the capital’s theatre reviewers. Its other, and more enabling influence has been the inestimable Thompson’s Bank of Communicable Desire. There still aren’t enough critical responses to theatre in the UK. This is the beginning of a small cyber-redress. Okay:

Tuesday 30th was one of the press nights of The Author, and the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs comprised of two opposing structures of raked seats, and no stage, only a narrow walkway between them. “Don’t you love this?” says a performer in our midst, “It’s such a versatile space!” The glee with which the audience greeted the first ten minutes, thrilled and terrified by the piece’s self-reflexivity, I found tedious at times, but the ease with which this humour was revealed to be invested in the play’s bleak destination, was a masterclass of theatrical implication.

The reviewers, distributed evenly throughout the rows, have never been more visible. The Times reviewer, sitting next to me, harrumphed and cheated, flicking through his copy of the playtext. The presence of Dominic Cooke, in the far corner across from me, was compelling; presiding over a piece which questioned the value of a type of play for which the Royal Court theatre has received much attention. These types of plays, whose graphic representation of disturbing acts has not yet been the subject of serious critical interrogation, have had a lasting influence on Western theatre and its audiences.

The basis of the piece was the account of another, fictional play written by the ‘famous’ author (‘… the darling of the universities…’): Tim Crouch. There is a war, dismemberment and incest. These representations, he tells us, are motivated by the ethical imperative not to ignore those things which disturb us in the world. The account of the effect this fictional play had on those involved points towards a deeply held conviction, following Plato, that theatre’s inclination towards social ills contaminates both its audience and its actors. The piece remains deeply uncertain, troubled even, by this paradox. The theatre-maker does not want to shy away from the problems he or she sees in the world, but is concerned at the effects of doing so in excess. Surely, I thought sagely, the answer is moderation. But, as one performer reminds us, art is all about extremes. The only extremes this piece allows for, however, is either to attempt to take on all of the world’s problems, or to shy away from them; the first wildly unrealistic, the second cowardice. The self-referentiality of the play is its own egress, and its effervescence.

The most extraordinary presence was Jules, Tim Crouch’s wife. She, namechecked often, sat next to her husband, beamed at his compliments whilst all the time forcing the danger of the climax to an extreme. Meanwhile I sat in the darkness, grateful for the brief respite the blackouts bring, listening to Tim Crouch’s final speech, appalled by the lengths to which his argument was extended and, to my shame, exhilarated.

A performer asks us, and the play is clever to pose its most convincing arguments first as questions: “Isn’t this the safest place in the world?” A curious accusation, but undeniable. I thought then about the theatre as a social exchange, a permeable membrane realised in the ebb and flow of its audiences. A theatre which feels too safe is in danger of complacency and inaction, but how extreme does a theatre need to be in order to endanger? The theatre’s danger is rhetorical, and contained, but can only be revealed as such after it has presented new challenges to the relations between society and art, safety and danger. Then I started to wonder how daring an act of programming this actually was; rather than proposing a new kind of theatre, it engages constantly with one familiar to its audience. By the end of the piece, however, daring seemed redundant: but it is necessary, certainly.

In contrast, the populist credentials of Inherit the Wind and A New World assert themselves in opposition to Crouch’s artful, formal, offering. They are theatre neutralized of all rhetorical effect, solemnly reenacting a more conservative past in which a radical idea has been met with ridicule, paying mere lipservice to the importance of freedom of speech, doing little more than pour scorn on those whose beliefs have long been ‘disproved’. The former, staged at a theatre which seems intent on convincing its audiences that nothing has changed since it was the National Theatre.

The conviction with which ideas such as the evolution of species were said to be dangerous was greatly undermined by an unquestioning confidence in the effectiveness of traditional theatre. A New World, set in the generic past of smudge-faced street urchins, rehearses the unfailing radicalism of its subject, Thomas Paine, but its most eloquent gesture is towards the failure of its author to renew his radicalism to respond to the challenges of twenty-first century life. The mantra show don’t tell, a favourite of the drama class, reminds us that in theatre form and content must be commensurate, something it seems only ‘experimental’ theatre-makers are able to realise.

Superlatives aside, theatre that is a safe place is ethically dangerous. Whilst we don’t want our handbags to be stolen it is ethically imperative that, in the theatre, our values most worth defending are subjected to the greatest challenges.

16 October 2009

Suspended in darkness: The Author / Tim Crouch

The attempt is towards a constellation where every idea is a path to and from all others: where the statements made by Crouch’s play move as dynamic moments.

It is unfashionable to talk about suspension of disbelief: most discerning contemporary audience members, as well as practitioners and writers, cloak it in irony. Tim Crouch’s The Author, upstairs in the Jerwood Studio at the Royal Court, named itself a story of ‘hope’ and ‘exploitation’, exploring modern actors’ over-eagerness to please. Yet it revealed that the powers engendering such self-abasement rest in darkness: the blackened auditorium, the back corners of the mind, a quiet flotation tank outside the city.

The crowd sat bisected, facing itself on two raked sets of seats with a tiny platform between; all were prodded and engaged by four actors sat amongst them – Crouch included, playing a capitalised version of himself. It reflected a state which has been crystallised in modern theatre audiences: no longer suspension of disbelief, simply suspension. A lulled complicity, silent disconnect.

“Don’t you love this?” pipes up the over-eager Theatre Goer, gesturing to the lights, the crowd, the promenade, “aaaalll this?” One by one, the audience meet the Theatre Goer, the Author, the Actor, the Actress; the characters began to weave a story, detailing the process of one of “Tim Crouch”’s plays, a violent exploration of an abusive and incestuous relationship in a war-torn Balkan country.

We got all the trappings we were told to expect: some musical interludes; a display of lights, the unravelling of a crisis. The key: this illusion of intervention, as performers and audience acted under what they assumed were each other’s instruction, pretending to mix, but in reality divided.

Crouch’s project seemed an angry attempt to transgress the two suspended spheres, between viewers and viewed. The piece wanted to be an invitation to fill in the gaps created by the curtain-up switch-off that occurs as audience cross the threshold of the theatre; but equally as actors ‘find their process’ to perform. It achieved an ellipsis, a deformed version of the circle of trust.

So; the audience regards itself, waiting, examining: looking for an author-ity figure to get us going. We are half-aligned to with the writer-character, the inflated ‘Author’, as a collective body designed to ask for more and more: like the exaggerated scribe, the audience becomes implicated in a series of actions where the violence, the sexual abuse off-stage as well as on, is the result of our demands on those we ask to perform for us. “Is this ok?” “Are you alright?” “Shall I go on?” We usually concur.

But - actors are not the only individuals who perform. The suspension, that crucial gap between the audiences is nothing but a reflection of the critical crack between manufacture and consumption the factory and the foodhall.

Through the skewed author-audience alliance, we notice that the processes of obtaining information, of dissecting and discerning the behaviour of others, are variations on the same axis: the audience demand from the performance; the writer-director demands from the actors in rehearsal; the actors demand from “real life” in order to feed the chain of production.

When Crouch’s author-figure begins to re-enact a hot-seating rehearsal with his female lead, who has been on a earnest researching field trip and has interviewed a fourteen year old girl sexually abused by her father (“just like my character!”), he invites us to join in the questioning.

Nobody joins; but nobody stops him either. The silence licenses his probing. Karen, through Actress, through the actor, is allowed to emerge through the parameters set in place by the demands of the Author and the space of the studio. Crouch assumes that the audience wants to know, desires this ‘slice of life’: yet he also constructs the piece to make us want to know. We know that the ‘Actress’ is not the actor; we know that the ‘Actress’ is not Karen, the teenager: yet are we not still using each and every one of these figures, real and imaginary? Do we need the actors to comfort us as much as they need us to comfort them?

The onus is once more on the audience. And the message is: this is what you do to us. However this argument comes full circle: the audience does not stop the actor, but the actor does not stop him or herself. The ‘Author’ does not – dare we assume, cannot? – stop himself casually sexually violating the baby of his lead actress; the lead Actor cannot stop himself from lashing out in violence at the autograph-hunting Theatre Goer on the final night of performance.

Where are the provisions for containing, understanding, expressing such violence and violations? What are the conventions which should be used – or abused – in order to do this? How can we bare to watch ourselves?

At times I am unsure whether the piece asks these questions through its own development: arguably not; The Author does not think with its audience, rather it presents a statement of fact, an angry accusation which is realised slowly across the 75 minutes, as we listen to Crouch’s final speech in the dark.

That idea, ellipsis, again. The kind of ellipsis that speaks also to the shape of other Royal Court favourites, notably Sarah Kane, who do not fracture the tradition of British theatre, but briefly pull it out-of-joint. That is, I cannot think of any work of the Royal Court darlings or any others, however violent in its grammar, which demands the audience play a new role. Instead, each play interrogates, and questions, the convention which seems to allow audiences to arrive with their silent part down pat.

In The Author, at the moment of the hot-seating, when we are asked to question (and in some performances there have been audience questions), there is almost a new axis found, we are almost pulled out of our regular suspension in this dark box, but we are returned, unchanged to the regular orbit, still enveloped in ‘the safest place in the world’.

This hang up on cycles, completion, statements is perhaps more to do with a theoretical hang-up than a reaction to Crouch. Theatre here seems unwilling to hitch its bandwagon to the anti-circular notions of performance enacted through Deleuze’s Logic of Sense and Foucault’s reading thereof. But a residual thought - what happened to Karen? Do we even care? The brief intrusion of her, a made-up ‘authentic’ person used to bring the Author’s Play/Crouch’s play “alive”, is symptom of an epidemic. As Mamet says, theatre too is real life, people live in it: yet does this mean that the only way to tell the abuse of others by abusing a few more?


this is a hello, from us to there

welcome to repetitive strain

we will try to talk about theatre