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.