23 January 2010

Ivo van Hove and a fragile democracy

The problem of theatre in our lifetime is not an aesthetic one. It is social. It is not that we do not know 'how' a play should look, or what a theatrical form should take: it is that we do not know how to make it. We are unable to grasp the importance of theatre, for theatre's sake, understood on its own terms.

Because we cannot see theatre in theatrical terms, we cannot understand its position in society. And so every time we go to see a play, our reaction expresses discomfort. Not discomfort over particular social actions or circumstances: but discomfort with theatre's way of telling it.

Theatre seems constantly to be telling us about something else's view of the world. It is society's little secretary. A secretary which thinks its speech combines the polyphony of voices and stratas in all aspects of the corporation. But in actual fact, in losing itself, in becoming a mouthpiece with no mouth of its own, it simply keeps the boss in charge.

If theatre is a secretary, what is the political shape of the world in which it functions? Is there a power in being secretarial? And how does this relate to an understanding of democracy - or otherwise - in the cultural and social landscape? Does a secretary not represent many of the most repressed, and repressive, aspects of representative democracy?

Who do we elect to represent 'Theatre' now? And why does it need representing?

Theatre wants us to fill in a form. Age, name, date of birth, postcode, email, tick this box to receive further details.

How can we move it to a position of asking questions?

Several months ago I saw Toneelgroep's Roman Tragedies at the Barbican, directed by Dutch-born Ivo van Hove. The Hall was transformed into a muzak-filled corporate lobby: grey block sofas across the stage, a bar, first aid area, and internet zone all occupying the space. The audience were invited on stage, moving between dispersed video screens and relays of the action. An electronic ticker tape below the main projection screen showed the latest world news, noted forthcoming scene changes, and even provided a Roman history countdown: 3 mins til the death of Julius Caesar; 75 minutes til the death of Antony, etc.

At the end of the performance, when many members of the audience were already heading for the door, there was a projection of 40 questions concerning politics, theatre and acting.
Is it possible to have politics without a desire for power?
Is anti-political rhetoric the key to popularity?
Are all politicians actors?

I am interested in how van Hove's questions, and the extraordinary, sprawling-yet-minutely calculated 6 hour collation of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra might encourage some consideration of theatre escaping its reflective duties of echoing social 'reality' and theatrical tradition.

There is something in the overt posing of questions which abrogates a sense of self - and simultaneously a sense of invitational, inclusive debate - so rarely seen (unless in pure egoism) in contemporary productions of Shakespeare. Roman Tragedies was not mute secretary; we were handed no forms. Instead we were confronted with a brief epilogue which challenged the timid assumption that theatre interrogates social reality only through dramturgical cleverness and mimesis.

Yes, Toneelgroep's production had sublime moments of dramaturgical re-visioning: playing Calpurnia's bad dream scene with Julius Caesar face to face with Brutus' final night with Portia; choosing to cast Octavius Caesar as female. Yet it also did something I have never seen in theatre: it combined this subtly woven re-vision with direct questions. It literally turned to the audience and said "what do you think? What does theatre have to do with politics?"

Whilst I was surprised how many people were already ignoring these directed challenges by the end of the show, apparently the London audience paid them most attention.

This was one of the observations made on Thursday 21st January when van Hove gave a talk and a round-table discussion at King's College London of his recent work and general practice.

A sleek, well-dressed man in his forties, van Hove is not particularly well-known in the UK, though his international reputation, having begun his career primarily in New York, is weighty.
More of us should know who he is.

In the roundtable discussion, Van Hove said that he treated the plays - Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra - as if "Shakespeare had sent them to me that morning". (Somewhat eerily - or perhaps she had heard it before - Lyn Gardner's review for the Guardian makes the same observation almost word for word).

Read only what is there, not what other readers and directors have found there.

Of course, we could argue that each text of Shakespeare is itself an historical construction which must be scrutinised; but not in the realm of a theatrical production. Not in the beginning stages of bringing a text to the stage. Van Hove's comments insinuated that his process was one of mapping, of plotting points in the plays' existing fabric against his own points of view ('the end must be slow'; Antony and Cleopatra would always come last; the snake had to be real): creating lines and planes of dialogue, a fresh play.

The ferocity of the vision must take precedent in this process; but van Hove equally remembers where it came from. The triumphant epic quality of Roman Tragedies came from within one quick reading of Antony and Cleopatra on an aeroplane: it is a direct response to something that clearly is conversant within Shakespeare's Roman plays.

A distinctive quality of van Hove's work is his insistence on an element of the 'real' - usually a very fleeting encounter which once again forces a tumultuous reevaluation of the context. He attributed this to his background in performance art. In Roman Tragedies, this came with Enobarbus' speech prior to his death:

I fight against thee? No, I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die; the foul'st best fits
My latter part of life.

In every performance, the actor playing Enobarbus fled the auditorium, followed by a camera which then relayed the outdoors back indoors to the audience members huddling around the grey sofas of the 'conference centre' playing space.

Van Hove noted in the discussion in January the importance of place in the success of this 'real' moment. It is a moment when, in a playing space already dissolving lines between audience and actor, we are abruptly reminded that there are thousands of other barriers, spaces and borders to be dissolved. The actor crashes into the Barbican carpark: eerie but for the comical sight of my friends Rachel and Hugh having a sneaky cigarette mid-performance, stepping out of their 'moving'-audience role assigned in the auditorium, to another role. The borders, it seems, are not just dissolved and reconstituted: they choose and change themselves.

Van Hove's favourite city for this moment was in Amsterdam, as the play was staged in a theatre located on the city's most central square: Enobarbus would emerge into the scream of traffic, trams, taxis, commuters, hawkers, vendors, businessmen, beggars, fighting amidst the din to have his own wailing heard.

Van Hove construed the production as a study, charting from republic to empire and onwards 'the fragile birth of democracy'.

What might an understanding of birth, fragility and democracy make me see when I think now about Shakespeare, and about this nominal democracy of Britain 2010?

I think about voices, and about van Hove's earlier comment on treating a script as if the writer finished it this morning. About having certain approaches or techniques when it comes to staging, but never becoming an aesthetic brand. About being delicately democratic with a text - any text, Shakespeare or otherwise - rather than despotic or tyrannical.

I also think about van Hove's practical approach with his actors, a mode of being which he calls 'intense relaxation'. The performers are at ease, yet are able to change gear into moments of real violence or extreme emotional ferocity swiftly and believably.

Van Hove's approach to theatre is unremittingly even-handed. Respectful. There are no heroes or special stars. Of course he has favoured actors, preferred venues; but as he himself admits, there isn't a recognisable 'van Hove' style. Instead he treats each play, each performance, as if it were born then and there. He reads a text and asks what it wants to be, not what it has been before.

With regards to Shakespeare, or otherwise, his approach is something which every British director can learn from.

It strikes me that there is something ridiculously undemocratic, and brittle rather than fragile, about attitudes to Shakespeare productions in English, in this country. Roman Tragedies was lauded, and rightly so, for its sublimely Brechtian puncturing of political and theatrical precepts. Yet I cannot help thinking that its unrivalled praise in the British press was also gilded by its foreignness; by its not being in English. After all, we love Shakespeare in another language - a Japanese Titus Andronicus, a Polish Macbeth. It allows us to focus on the poetics of the stage, on the physicality of the bodies and sounds, rather than the semantics.

Yet this wild praise for foreign language Shakespeare insinuates a still-existing tyranny of language: that the words, the exquisite "poetry" (always 'the poetry'!!) of Shakespeare are all, or nothing. The absent marker in the Dutch muscularity of Roman Tragedies or the central lynchpin of Trevor Nunn's woeful read-a-long Lear for the RSC a few years ago. English productions of Shakespeare become more and more like radio programs, or audio books; international productions are subsequently expected to dazzle us with 'physical theatre' (a term which only seems to exist in theatre communities in Britain: other cultures just call it "theatre") - something to make up for that absent "poetry".

Any English production that does dare to change the language or structure significantly is itself accused of violence: it is arrested, and taken to the gallows for its insult on the sovereign of our great literary landscape.

Declan Donellan's seriously under-appreciated Troilus and Cressida in 2008, was criticised heavily for some of the staging choices and cuts. by a press unwilling - or perhaps unable - to engage with the reasons for those choices.

It seems that the English press can only judge any Shakespearean performance against Shakespeare, and the history of shakespeare in performance. Different rules seem to apply: you even get it in the US; take a look at recent press for Young Jean Lee's Lear-less LEAR at the Soho Rep in New York. The New York Times critic judged the piece a brave failure because it did not 'speak' sufficiently to the themes of original Shakespeare text.

I think about how this severity, this unchanging reification of a writer's plays into one voice, "Shakespeare", might bear similar traits as the voice of an ex-Prime Minister who, nearly a decade after some of the twenty-first century's most devastating political decisions, declares that he would 'do it all again' with half the chance.

Blair's attitude is a resolute, though highly self-motivated, failure to acknowledge the undeniable restlessness of political reality. The unending festering of social life which means that people cross borders, bodies are buried under rubble, decay and are never found, stock markets change every instant, money changes hands, languages interfuse.

And in Blair's stony declaration, I hear echoed the radio-friendly tones of a certain booming, boring Shakespearean theatre which has been 'doing it all again' without ever noticing that the decision to play it like that was wrong in the first place!

The man who agreed to invade Iraq was wrong, though he made a spectacularly elaborate attempt to derive empirical justification from absolute fiction. The practitioners who decide to 'read' Shakespeare to their buttock-numbed audience have trodden the same path - not in relation to this one writer, but in enslaving and corrupting our theatre in its entirety. They have bastardised it in constituting it, and given it a nice name badge to wear.

In Iraq that name badge reads 'democracy'. In theatre, I have no fucking clue what it reads, but I don't like it.

I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's 'Introduction' to A Thousand Plateaus, and of my friend Jonny, who will read this post, with whom I discussed just what this might mean for a theatre-maker:

We assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why
have we kept own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make
ourselves unrecognizable in turn. To render imperceptible, not
ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think. Also because it's
nice to talk like everybody else, to say the sun rises, when everybody
knows it's only a manner of speaking. To reach, not the point where
one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any
importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will
know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.

And just what might this mean for a theatre-maker dealing in the biggest oak-tree of them all? What tiny dendrite or little polyp can weld and weed itself about this monumental structure? Surely the only way for an oak like Shakespeare to keep growing is laterally, subterraneously: re-germination, decay, cutting, trimming, suturing as re-construction not de-construction. Trimming to stimulate growth: or simply delving into the soil - soil is a false surface; not a plane but a planet of its own, a dense forest - to seek out the freshest, most living part of Shakespeare. The part that can thump on your desk at 9am this morning - underneath your hands and in your fingernails like sods of mud. The part that is still growing, even whilst the tree above, in all its hopeless verticality, dries out.

The [boss] is dead, long live -

...Now boast thee, Death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparalleled.

19 January 2010


Some youtube wizard, the imperceptibly named dabble778, is responsible for the above. Bringing Bob Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times into glorious dialogue with Charlie Chaplin's 1936 movie of the same name, finally initiated me into the joys of Charlie Chaplin, after just about everyone else on this planet.

I've always venerated Dylan in a totally unhealthy way, but with Charlie Chaplin I suppose I assumed his raggedy limbs and musical hall clothes had nothing to do with me. All it took was a simple gesture combining the not-quite-arbitrarily-connected two, to unlock a world of pleasures. Well, four minutes of it.

In a link so tenuous it should have a new title, the Modern Times: Responding to Chaos exhibition just opened at Kettle's Yard Gallery, in Cambridge, bringing into an extraordinary conversation drawings and films by an astonishing variety of different modernist artists.

To name some names: Pollock, Malevich, Mondrian, Grosz, Klee, Pollock, de Kooning, Giacometti, Bourgeois, Beuys, Serra, Judd, Twombly, Boccioni, El Lissitsky.

Especial treats included a fourteen-minute-long video by Ferdinand Léger called Ballet Mécanique (which you can watch here), and a small drawing by Kurt Schwitters, entitled 'Koi'. This I had to bend forward to inspect properly, and I found it rewarding in a way no drawing ever has been. The lightness of the marks made, the careful deployment of colour and shade, and the way it lingered on the brink of signification (and its opposite), meant it revealed itself incredibly slowly. Several days later, its presence in the exhibition remains far more problematic than the bolder works of abstract expressionism which surrounded it, busily proclaiming their new language for art.

A friend remarked it looked like a drawing-board offcut, and intriguingly it did seem to bear the imprint of industry once more important but no longer otherwise accounted for, quietly commanding all your attention.

18 January 2010

trying to be nice - Trilogy at BAC

After a conversation with my flatmates this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about justice and theatre. Justice, that is, as 'rightness'; the particular set of rules which may or may not apply when we consider a piece of theatre and how it makes us feel or act.

We had been talking about how performance studies was becoming increasingly popular as a training tool for medical and legal professionals, with actors used to create 'lifelike' situations of crisis or dispute which the training doctors or lawyers could use to respond to appropriately.

I thought a lot more about how performance encourages or prescribes response; but more than that, about how attitude and theatre might have an interesting relationship; a relationship which can sometimes be coached or trained, just like the actors in medical instruction videos attempt to train doctors to exercise more 'gentle' or human responses to their patients particular illnesses or tragedies.
Is it possible to use something like a theatrical performance to 'coach' people into being nice?

And what is it about this tricky word 'nice' that makes me think of Nic Green's Trilogy?

The piece is a self-proclaimed feminist performance in three parts, a runaway success as at the 2009 Fringe which enjoyed a recent run at the Battersea Arts Centre and will transfer to the Barbican this weekend.

As the name might suggest, the piece works in three parts.

The first, about twenty minutes in length, is exposition with dance-moves. Green and friend and collaborator Laura Bradshaw enact a 'celebration of womanhood' which culminates in about 50 female volunteers naked and dancing on stage. Which is exuberant sheerly because its participants are exuberant.

This is followed by the longest - and most arduous - part of the show, which is inspired and driven by lengthy projections of Town Bloody Hall, the film of a public meeting on Women's Liberation in 1971, chaired by infamous misogynist (and bad sex novelist) Norman Mailer, featuring Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston.

Projections of the the two speeches delivered by Greer and Johnston are accompanied by - and interspersed with - the five strong company (four female, one male, as in Hall), reciting in unison various statements and parts of the discussion. They begin the section by telling - and sometimes showing us - how they were born; they end, naked, in a cluster, upstage; seven members of the audience, clothed, tracing circles with their arms gather downstage and move across the diagonal so that the groups switch places. (Greenm in preparing the audience for this moment, assures that their presence at this point will make sense when it happens...it does not.)

Finally, a shorter section which makes Trilogy an argument or a structured piece of gentle rhetoric rather than a discursive performance. A mini lecture about women's rights abuses, a proposed solution in the form of a 'Womanifesto', and the culmination: all the audience on stage, some of its female members unclothed, singing Jerusalem.

Re-reading what I have just described, I am surprised (as someone who does consider themselves a feminist but also a fairly critical cynic) that I enjoyed myself. Not least because I notice how different my voice, and experience, becomes when I write retrospectively about something I have seen; when I try to place it in an order or category of meaning or ideology. I thoroughly enjoyed being at the BAC on Saturday; it was as if I was filtering out my apprehensions, saving the political commentary for the blogpost, or the aftershow discussion.

And there were numerous points which jumped out mid-piece that threatened the political integrity of the piece by being so singularly idealistic.

In the third part, Green 'accidentally' showed us a slide, mid 'Womanifesto', of a lady getting stoned to death. The woman was buried up to her shoulders, in a white shroud and sobbing, keening to one side. The image was profoundly affecting - I spoke to many people (all women) afterwards who said that from that point on they were in tears.

Yet I found the inclusion of the picture a little cheap; as if this woman was a victim of great physical torture and injustice, that was becoming a representational ('poetic'?) injustice too. Green did not tell us who this woman was, where she was from, what year the photo came from, or exactly what the situation or conditions of stoning-as-punishment are. Such necessary details make an unjust event more telling, more clearly atrocious, but equally, they are fairer to the event itself.

There is something troubling in grabbing a picture off the internet (even if Green herself knows exactly what it means and where it's from), using it to powerfully influence the emotions of the audience (just before you are about to ask them to take off their clothes and sing Jerusalem, a wildly misread, politically manipulated tub-thumping England song) and not giving that audience sufficient information to contextualise and truly empathise with the victim.

And here is the rub. Green's piece was about celebrating difference, she cried, the difference in every female body, in every name and history of woman; yet there was very little consideration of ethnic specificity, or class struggle. Money, race and gender score a very desperate, confusing trio: and perhaps the key to really finding a place for feminism in 2010 is to acknowledge rather than condemn the inextricable bonds between all of these issues.

What is more, there was a sense in which Green seemed to be aiming for a kind of non-theatre. Sometimes we were watching dance; sometimes we were being sung at; sometimes it felt like a motivational exercise video, sometimes like a weird power-church.
The form was flawed, but it had good intentions, which almost seemed to misplace themselves, unsure whether to wholly unite or respectfully differ. I am thinking here about the role of nakedness in the piece.

I recalled Chris Goode's latest incarnation of The Forest and the Field, and its consideration of the distancing artificiality of nudity, which tries to cast the unclothed body in some kind of interpretive or eroticised, art-ified fabric, opposed to the honesty of nakedness. Trilogy's physical nakedness was underpinned by a certain ideological nudity, or prettifying; a particular attitude which wanted to use performance, to stage openness, in order to make people more open. Like those instructional medical videos, it was acting in order to get us to act nice, in our own lives. But was it giving us the naked truth?

Perhaps such honesty is impossible in a medium which relies on poetic license. Yet at times Trilogy felt like it didn't want to be theatre at all, so little did it use the forms and conventions of its space and tradition.

There was an element of the show which, my friend Jess rightly pointed out, felt a little like a sermon. I am thinking specifically of the final part. Whilst its attitude was not sermonising, delivered in that long, considered, too-smiley broad cadence which seems to have infused contemporary theatre which addresses its audience face on (I think again about the different - thought nonetheless considered, weighted speech of Tim Crouch's The Author ), but the effect it achieved, and the effect it aimed for, seemed to be one of making us sweet; coaching us, like doctors in those instructional videos, to be more 'human' (I am keeping 'human' in deliberate speech marks), as if we had none of that humanity already.

Though I was troubled by some aspects of the piece whilst watching them, I nevertheless appreciated, more than anything else, the opportunity to feel genuinely included and appreciated in a theatre. I am sure that the feeling of security which I experienced at one point of the performance was not entirely shared by everyone, but I believe that it was respected by everyone. As I mentioned in the beginning, its lack of obscurity meant that I as an audience member felt myself in an expansive space of personal contemplation (and this may have been as much due to my mood that night as the performance itself).

But something about Trilogy allowed me to dislocate my very analytical, often quite harsh, defenses and enjoy the event in real time, rather than anticipating all the points or criticisms we might throw at it later. I am aware that this generosity I felt from the performers may well be the effect of a theatre which deliberately appeals to women; I went with four female friends, and afterwards we stayed and talked for a few hours about our mothers, children, changes in feminism through our families' recent generations.

Yet however much our female discussion might have been conducted in a post-euphoric glow after having been naked amongst strangers on stage, or given the optimism and singular simplicity of Nic Green and her company's idealised vision for contemporary sexual attitudes, it was important.
The piece barely registered, its aesthetic accessories- and they were accessories: save for a beautiful moment when the five core cast created a kind of step ladder out of their naked bodies, draped one over the back of the other, and brushing the hair of the person behind them, created a kind of wave of spiralled movement up and down the ladder.

It was the moment of having a throng of naked bodies (all female, bar one) on stage which made me think. Nothing more.

Is it simply because I am female, and this is theatre about 'feminism' that I felt engaged? What did the male spectators think? What did the male actor think?

I feel confused about my response to Trilogy because I cannot pinpoint anything in the form of it which was thoughtful or so discursive; yet it did encourage me to think about what it felt like to be a woman, to be a woman in a theatre, to be a woman in 'the' theatre, to be in a theatre full of women and men, to be a naked woman in a theatre full of women and men.

My confusion over its meld of form and content has led me to believe that this wasn't a piece of theatre at all: it was a display of attitude, its own manifesto, an instructional example.

If we conclude that it is no longer a piece of theatre but an attitude, a display, I wondered whether it was possible to be precisely critical about an attitude or emotional offering? Is it ok for me to morally judge the impulse behind an action, or are we confined to making a more secure judgement of the presentation and execution of that action onstage? Is it ok for me to say the piece was... nice?

I thought about several different aspects of the relationship between attitude and theatre, and between justice and attitude and response. This consideration of niceness, of artistry and attitude also made me wonder about the role of the critic. It is inadequate for me as critic to celebrate a piece for having good intentions even if its resulting art is less satisfactory, or purely transitory. Yet it is human nature to work with the best of intentions and perhaps not quite achieve: it would be social and emotional cruelty to condemn failure to follow through, because we fail at it all the time.

It then made me think about the differences between the collective and the individual experience at the theatre. Perhaps it is impossible to create a collective critical response; but it is infinitely plausible to engineer a collective experience. The difficulty is that I find my sensory reception and my critical disagreement occurring together, offsprings of their mutual conflict.

So whilst I enjoyed the warmth and contact, so absent from contemporary theatre and our daily lives, of the final section as we stood shoulder to shoulder and sang Jerusalem, I felt deeply troubled by Jerusalem itself.

Firstly, as a former English student who knows Blake's prophetic books a little, and disagrees entirely with the cortarizing of this piece of verse from the bulk of Milton.

Secondly, as a feminist and political being who is uncomfortable with any song that has been trumpeted by the Conservative Party for campaigning purposes.

Thirdly, as someone who is Welsh, not English, aware that equalising cultural, ethnic, circumstantial differences for political unity can lead to a dangerous kind of ideological imperialism which feminism both fights, and flirts with, everyday.

Perhaps a show like this can only achieve an either/or: either political engagement and scrutiny; or a celebratory inclusivity, an interactive event. Trilogy will surely be criticised (mostly be some men I know, and respect very deeply) for squaring itself solely at women in a mode which is unable to be as egalitarian as the maxims it preaches. A play about women for women. Thus some might see it as an entrenchment of several divisions between the sexes: after all, no men were invited to come up on stage and take off their clothes.

Nevertheless, it made a necessary and eagerly non-discriminatory gesture which tried to incorporate the women of the past within and about the women of now. And for this particular reason, its singular focus on the female body was an attempted compensation for the deletions of history. Showing the female body, calling on the female presence today, in order to remind us of the physical similarities that bind women together. With a generosity directly opposed to the denigrating gaze which separates viewer and viewed, woman from woman, until they become competing objects for attention. To present the body in a way which is not primarily sexual.

In this sense, Trilogy is not a piece of theatre, but an opening of parentheses, a long moment. For creating a moment of community within the theatre, which transcended actors and audience, it should be acknowledged. But it must be questioned for its own politics, its particular form which seemed so eager to share yet did not offer a spoken dialogue or discussion of issues. It relies upon the men and women watching to do all of the critical thinking: to separate themselves from that collective moment in order to contemplate it.

So what legacy are women to take up now?

5 January 2010


I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but this blog has at times felt like pouring a whole carton of grape-juice into a bottomless abyss.

The feedback we've received so far has been almost exclusively related to layout. It seems people think the juxtaposition of purple and black has been challenging and colourful where our prose has not.

So, as a concession to our readers (the unhappy few), to show we can take criticism (and would infact welcome some comments), but most importantly to ease your eyes and soothe those saccadic jerks, our purple prose has a new background.

Thank you for reading