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

IT'S WHAT YOU DO TO ME: A REVIEW OF COCK

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 na├»ve, 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

THEATRE OF OPERATIONS: A BRIEF REPORT FROM THE IRAQ INQUIRY AND THE ROYAL COURTS OF JUSTICE

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.