On returning to the faultline

As part of my resolutions this year I decreed that each month I would set myself a writing target. And, through a degree of chance, this month’s writing target has been to write about theatre again. This blog got a little lost in the months of moving across London and taking a show to Edinburgh Fringe and then transferring that show to London and then having to have a break from theatre because I was tired and full of consumption*. But people keep inviting me to go to things on the proviso of writing about them and that really does need a place – moreover I enjoy writing about theatre and it probably won’t hurt the ears of my friends to have me write all that here rather than rant at them.

So – here goes…

*Well, not actually consumption but there was a week or so where, if I’d been in a Victorian novel, I’d have been marked for death courtesy of the cough.

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Brave New World

The internet is bad for print media but great for journalism – in the same way that the printing press was bad for Monks who hand wrote material but great for writers.

I’m paraphrasing Lyn Gardner there – sitting on the floor with a dead-leg isn’t entirely conducive to remembering exact quotes – but I packaged up that sentiment the moment I heard it at last night’s YPIA event.

In may ways the topic up for discussion – Is the theatre critic dead? – was a little bit too broad for the time available (not to mention the fact that I’d like to have had chance to hear more from each of the panelists in their own right). Mark Shenton has blogged a good overview of some of the things that got discussed and there were lots of tangents I’d like to have jumped upon had there been more time.

It was Gardner who commented that the internet means that criticism has changed forever and the situation will never be able to be reversed (a point I made somewhat more facetiously when I accused Matt Trueman of making “a futile attempt to hold back the sea by wagging a finger at it and pulling a stern face”). This makes having a debate entitled ‘is the critic dead?’ almost pointless. The much more interesting debate would be to imagine what the critic might be now. Only this week Knee Jerk questioned the ability of critics to respond accurately to immersive theatre (the immersive element being directly against the desire of the critic to observe). During last night’s debate live art was singled out as an example of a form which has been ghettoized, commented on only in impenetrable academic speak. Will the same happen to immersive theatre (and all the variants of new work that sit outside traditional comfort zones)? Of course, it is not for the art form to adapt itself to the critic but for the critic to adapt themselves (and how they review) to the art form. If theatre is constantly innovating and adapting – why not criticism?

There are easy reasons – space, time, age, predilection, outside demands – why this isn’t happening in print media. But remember the paraphrase I started this with. The internet – that horrible word, the blogosphere – offers something different. There are no word constraints, or have-to-sees and an editorial policy enforced only by the blogger. In the way that we have to learn to use – and exploit – all new mediums there inevitably has to be a period of copying previous forms, messing up, starting again and some down right bumbling along.  Why have the West End Whingers proven so successful? Because they use the form of their blog to do something that can’t be done elsewhere (would you get this, this or this in the Guardian or The Times? Of course you wouldn’t but, with the Whingers’ overt focus on audience experience, the theatre ecology is much the better for their existence). Why is A Younger Theatre such a great addition to critical debate? Because it provides a voice that simply isn’t given space elsewhere. I suspect part of my annoyance with the reviewing-previews debate was due to the fact that it transposes the rules of one medium (in this case print criticism) to another, distinctly different, medium. Blogging has its own etiquette and bloggers (myself included) don’t always hit the right balance. But have you seen those theatre companies on twitter who endlessly retweet positive comments or don’t reply to @ messages? (Yes, Royal Court for the former and National Theatre for the latter – I am looking at you). That is utterly terrible twitter etiquette. But, just as with bloggers, they’re learning. We’re all learning.

So what might the internet allow a critic to be? Obviously it widens both the pool of people who can express their views and the pool of theatre that can be recorded. Democracy writ large. Gardner (again) pointed out that there are areas that bloggers could carve out a niche in and yet most bloggers are taking part in the same circular race as the mainstream critics. That’s not entirely true but, Whingers aside, maybe we haven’t yet found a new way of writing criticism that doesn’t simply copy the form of the print media. When Andrew Haydon glanced over my blog in the wake of the preview/review debacle he concluded there wasn’t anything that approached a review on my front page. He was wrong – it simply wasn’t in a form he recognised. For I’d grappled with how I might explain my experience of Belt Up’s The Boy James. No, it’s not a traditional review. But then, as mentioned above, maybe a show like The Boy James needs something different. I don’t think I’m at that “something” yet (most basically in terms of rigour I don’t locate the piece in its context) but it’s probably closer to the experience of that show than sitting with a notebook would have been.

After the debate (when some of us had predictably decamped to the pub) the issue of the difference between reviewing and criticism came up (I tip my hat here to Trueman)- and clearly the internet free of the demands of space and ‘general’ audience allows us to redefine how we might engage in criticism. Maybe we need to look at that just as much as at how the internet looks at reviewing. Look at Hannah Nicklin’s engagement with the In Between Time festival. Again it couldn’t be in any other medium and yet it responds to work that might not be explored in the traditional model and pushes how that response might be created. Obviously Nicklin was engaged in this response by the festival – meaning it encompasses ideas of documentation as much as anything else – but it raises questions of where bloggers might follow.

There is no one way of blogging about theatre – that’s the joy of the medium – it’s for all of us to explore and find our own way. It’s easy to get caught up in rounds of debate, for us to cling to our respective positions and refuse to look beyond them. The old way might not be the new way. And we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

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Getting Ruffled: The Problems of “About”

In the past few weeks there’s been an interesting discussion across various blogs about narrative in theatre (you can read an overview on Noises Off). As part of that discussion Andrew Haydon wrote on the notion of “about” plays. An “about” play starts with an idea rather than a character or a situation or an image or a phrase (or any of the multitude of other ways a play might start). “About” plays make people suspicious, in the same way that someone asking “what do you write about?” makes a writer suspicious.

Last night I saw a play that was most definitely an “about” play. Ellen Gylen’s Ruffled is about how the fashion industry exploits the people who actually make the clothes. It’s a pertinent topic with enough complexity to make it uncomfortable and/or troubling. There’s our own obsession with cheap and instant gratification and the seduction of the world of fashion before we consider the fact that War on Want and Labour Behind the Label both state that the “cut and run” policy often used by brands when the media expose conditions in factories “does nothing to improve conditions for workers, and serves to punish them for speaking out”. It’s not simply a case of “this should stop” (of course it should), but “how?” and “by what means?”

Gylen has done some of her research – the number of charities thanked in the programme points to that. What Gylen has noticeably failed to do is research the fashion industry with the same thoroughness as her statistics. It’s crudely sketched without care or attention. Much is made of the fact that the characters are going to Milan for fashion week whilst even the most basic of research would have shown that if Milan Fashion Week is next week then this week must be London Fashion Week (something which remains curiously unmentioned in the play given that it is set in London). It’s not clear where Ruf sits in the fashion industry either – there’s some talk of boutique, but the turn around time, the copy-cat designs it seems to demands (not to mention the lack of a Designer) seems to put it more in the Primark spectrum. “Fashion is your life” one of the characters tells another. It’s difficult to find that anything other than horribly glib.

If Ruffled‘s “about” is only half-researched then that might be forgiven if it had given rise to something dramatically interesting. What greets us instead is a line-drawn play without shade or real punch. It claims to be a “satire” but it’s neither clear-eyed nor anywhere near funny enough for that. At the centre of Ruffled is Emma (also Ellen Gylen), head of Ethics at Ruf. She’s got an idealistic best friend, an unexplainable affection for her misogynistic boss and some ethics which may (or may not) have been compromised along the way. She’s also entirely passive in the play. Event after event happens to her and she scrambles around open-mouthed waiting for the next event to hit her round the face. Only John Milroy’s Rufus – coincidentally the character lobbying on behalf of a charity – has any real charm or character depth. We’re told he’s an “egotist” – there’s a lot of telling going on both in terms of what we should think of characters and in terms of the “about”- but he’s got the type of  vitality that the play otherwise lacks entirely.

By choosing to have the play polarised between equally absent and voiceless shareholders on one side and factory workers in Bangladesh on the other Gylen lets both herself and the audience off of the hook. Lou Ramsden’s Breed (also at Theatre503) demonstrated how effective drawing an audience into a morally complicated (some times abhorrent) world can be before twisting the knife in deep. It’s not that the devil should necessarily have the best tunes but he should have some. Where’s the conflict otherwise? By not questioning the consumerism and demand which drives the sweatshop industry – and how our own shopping habits have to change before the problem will – Gylen allows herself to draw an uncomfortably neat ending.There’s a nice aside, through the character of Nina (a corporate climber without a heart) about how the fashion industry treats its workers in the UK (particularly women) as well as abroad but it’s never developed into something meaty or substantial.

I’m not entirely opposed to “about” plays. Out of Joint’s Talking to Terrorists and David Hare’s Via Dolorosa are most definitely examples of the “about” genre which captivated me. More recently David Benson’s Lockerbie: Unfinished Business centres on an “about” – namely who was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing – but winds the story with consummate skill around a personal tale of grief and the consequences of single-mindedly pursuing truth. Benson not only informs, he creates something dramatically moving in its own right. And this feeds back into the urgency and power of the message he’s conveying.

Theatre doesn’t do lectures well. If I wanted one of those, well, I’d go to an actual lecture. Equally if I wanted someone to beat me over the head with an idea, I can probably find someone in London willing to do that for free without my having to navigate TFL. When I located a programme after watching Ruffled I discovered that the play had been funded by GMB Union and received funding in kind from several charities. I don’t have a problem with Unions or charities working with theatre companies. I do have a problem when – albeit unintentionally – the theatre company subsequently produces sub-standard theatre that, at best, is worthy but distinctly dull issue-by-numbers stuff. Ultimately I got more out of the leaflets and material that War on Want provided than I did from the play itself.

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Danny Boyle & Nick Dear Frankenstein Platform, National Theatre

A man at the front of the stalls stands up to ask his question: how far is this Frankenstein influenced by ideas of genetic engineering, cloning and the advances of science? “Massively” Nick Dear responds. Not in any concrete way – Dear proclaims he doesn’t understand science – but because “it is in the ether…This is a story about things which are increasingly pertinent”.

There are a number of things that make Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein memorable (not least the difficulties of actually getting a seat – 5:00am queuing is pretty much the only way to get one now). There’s a large dollop of sheer theatrical joy about Frankenstein – the Olivier, in all its vastness, revolves and extends, illuminated by a shimmering ceiling of light. Dear’s filleting of Mary Shelley’s original (he explicitly rejected creating a “Dickensian epic”) brings together something theatrically resonant whilst still embracing the concerns of the original* (towards the end of the Q&A Christopher Frayling, its host, quotes Dear saying “if Mary Shelley popped into row G she would recognise what she wrote”. It’s most likely true.). The two central performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller are complicatedly delicious, tying together creature and creator in a knot of dark dependence.

But it’s the mood – or the ether – of Frankenstein that captured me. Boyle alights on the need to “find something a modern audience can identify with, not horror ticks”. This becomes the Creature as a form of difference (he plaintively asks towards the end of the play “why can I not be different?”). The Creature and the Scientist are “two sides of the same coin”, something intensified by the doubling of roles (Boyle references the RSC production of Richard II where Richard Pascoe and Ian Richardson alternated the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke as an early inspiration). The Scientist creates the Creature in his own image. Narcissistic yes, but it leads to a different type of question than the plethora of adaptations that come before it – the question for this Frankenstein is not “what does it mean to be a monster?” but “what does it mean to be a human?”. It’s this that caught me as I left the auditorium and lamented not the story but “how bleak the human condition is” (maybe it’s also the Olivier that does that to me, I experienced a similar heartbreaking bleakness at the end of Mother Courage too).

Boyle notes how the time we spend with the Creature during the play intensifies the sympathy we feel for him (something which he also notes would be impossible to achieve on film). We “sympathise with him despite what he does” and “attach ourselves to his predicament”. It’s certainly the Creature’s play and not Victor’s (Victor remains as much a shadowy presence for the audience as much as he does for the Creature during the first half of the play). “Responsibility” becomes a recurring notion (you can tell the importance of this because I’ve written it in my notebook in capitals and underlined it) – both Boyle and Dear give it parental overtones.

It’s also a different kind of responsibility though. Shelley’s Frankenstein is about “emotion but also ideas”. Frayling characterises it as a “novel of ideas”, Shelley “like a hyperactive, bright six former failing to fully digest her sources”. This form of responsibility, the form that is in “the ether”, is what makes Frankenstein work for me. Dear forcefully insists on why he kept the original setting – the production is explicitly set around the mid to late teens of the 19th century, the same time as the original. To understand Frankenstein it is necessary for it to be routed in the scientific details of that particular moment, for us to feel the blast as “technology explodes” (delightfully demonstrated in this production as a steam train almost driving into the watching audience). Of course technology is also exploding for us too (like Shelley we can say we live in genuinely revolutionary times). What use we make of this technology is what defines us. Science for science’s sake could be Victor’s motto. Dear’s Victor “doesn’t think he’s right – he knows he is”. His inspiration meets the moment and it “doesn’t matter about the consequences”. There is quite simply “no moral baggage”. Are we really any different?

It is Frayling who sums it up most succinctly: in 2011 our “creation myth is no longer the Book of Creation but Frankenstein“. More than anything Boyle and Dear’s Frankenstein offers this up for us to consider.

*Sadly the same cannot be said of Dear’s dialogue which is frequently clunky and, more often than it should be, down right cringe-inducing. Thankfully Frankenstein could never be described as a “wordy” play.

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Review: In A Forest Dark And Deep – Vaudeville Theatre

In a doll-like house siblings Bobby and Betty are alone in the forest, a latter-day Hansel and Gretel. Ostensibly they’re there to clear Betty’s holiday cottage though it’s clear in the tension that fills In A Forest Dark And Deep that there’s something lurking below the surface.

If childhood stories have told us the perils of going into the wood and losing ourselves then Neil LaBute suggests there’s something we should fear more. However much thunder, lightning and broken fuses he might pepper the play with, that is not where the real danger lies. There’s a recurring preoccupation in LaBute’s work in the ability of humans to either casually or maliciously (though often carelessly) damage each other. Love is a tool for manipulation and here Bobby and Betty are no different from their counterparts in In The Company of Men or The Shape of Things. Their romantic relations are littered with disastrous results (Bobby having assaulted at least one of his ex wives, Betty as a teenager having pursued a string of meaningless sexual relationships) whilst their own relationship is one fraught with antagonism and the hardly contained threat of physical violence. It is no longer the shrivelled heart of the fairytale witch that we must fear but our own black hearts.

The atmospheric underpinning of In A Forest... doesn’t conceal that there’s a slightness to the play that makes it difficult to invest energy in. The plot revolves around a twist which even a vaguely half-alert audience member will see coming and the packaging that LaBute gives to the twist isn’t sufficient enough to compensate for lack of surprise. In a web of lies and actions with little to no consequences (we’re told a lot about morals but none of it is actually enacted) it’s difficult to dredge up enough emotion to care. Aside from when Bobby and Betty beguilingly dance together in momentary childlike abandon there’s very little shade to their relationship. Rather than increasing the tension from a drip to a flood we’re plunged head first into their raised voices and angry words from pretty much the opening moments of the play. There is, quite simply, no where for us to go.

Within this Matthew Fox, displaying an impressively unattractive beard, exudes a sense of raw force that makes Bobby, even in his stunted menace, oddly compelling. Olivia Williams has a more difficult job with the complicated and disingenuous Betty, though there’s a steely glint to her performance that almost gives Betty a subtext the writing denies her.

In A Forest… undoubtedly has flashes of the LaBute who can take your breath away as he explodes a comfortable veneer with the force of a hand grenade – there are ideas of age, sexual attraction and self-worth which glimmer at the knotty heart of this play – but these are never successfully built upon. Somewhere in here there’s a taut thirty minute two hander or a deliciously dark short story. In A Forest… is neither of those and leaves you with a clutch of atmospheric impressions and a niggling sense of what might have been.

(Disclaimer: reviewed whilst in previews)

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On the fault line…

I’d been toying with starting a theatre blog for many months, a place to store some of my thoughts that I couldn’t find a home for elsewhere. Then I went along to an evening about theatre blogging run by Twespians and not only did it get me fired up and enthusiastic about the form – it also made me think about where I might fit in.

writing on the fault line is a space for thoughts, comments and, maybe the odd review or two, all about new performance work. I’ve a particular penchant for (and interest in) what we might class as “new writing” and this will undoubtedly shape the blog. Beyond that – well, it could go any where…

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