Archive for August, 2006

I went to see ‘sunday in the park with george’ last night. I think Sam Buntrock the director has done a wonderful job, obviously with stitching together the amazing video work but also in getting some pathos and meaning out of the characters (the characters and relationships seem lightly sketched at best). I wasn’t much taken with the writing and composition. Now let’s be clear, I don’t know much about musicals though I’ve seen a few. But it seemed to me that the singing and the music were doing the same thing all the time. I wonder if it the same thing as my friend meant when he said there were ‘no tunes’. Normally when people say this I think they mean that the tunes are not very good – but in this case it’s as if there is a missing layer of the music – both the band and the singers are playing parts (often the same) and you’re wondering why it isn’t supporting some wonderful melody that has a relationship with it. My thought was that this is the same tendency that you see in a boring show. When I got home, Heat was on the TV – the big running battle / urban shoot-out scene. I remebered thinking even when I watched it all the way through and was more involved in the characters, “why is this so long?” we don’t get any new information from the sequence of shots: our understanding of them, and their relationships doesn’t grow: we don’t even think much about their fear. It’s just repetitive loudness. The guns go off, to no substantial effect, again and again and again. Pacino, de Niro, Kilmer, the other ones, all run a bit, stop, shoot a bit, stop, run a bit. The camera stays on Kilmer a lot, by which we know that we’re supposed to be drawn in to his story and care when he is shot, but when do you ever care about any of Val Kilmer’s characters? And de Niro seems out of place in this film, that has no respect for his sort of stylised psychological instensity. Probably quite a lot happens in Heat but I still turned it off. I couldn’t turn off ‘sunday in the park’ because I was there, but very little indeed happens: you meet everyone and they tell you how it is for them, and it doesn’t seem to find anything amazing in the relationships. And worst of all there’s this doubling up of effect between music and word. What is the point of having the music, then? Thank god the scenography was doing something to add to and develop the scenes. It did serve to emphasise that it’s a more involving event when different things are allowed to work with (and against) each other – so that we can have difficulty, tension or confusion in the stage space. Here there’s people babbling over one another, but they never really achieve any involving dramatic confusion.

About Daniel Evans too, who plays George and manages to seem to be congratulating himself whilst giving the performance. Actors who seem to be fanning (and dazzling) themselves with their own love during the curtain call are irritating, but there are a special few who can do it whilst playing a scene. Mark Rylance is another. This entry is more like someone’s blog. Maybe this will become a blog after all. I slightly hope not. Off to the Edinburgh Festival for a bit today. By the time I come back I will have seen lots of shows, had some brilliant ideas and insights, and forgotten them all. I’m going to try not to (forget).


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I think this might be at the bottom of everything for me. The piece of theatre is like a piece of music (I think i went near this on the previous post). So there are all sorts of different moods, modes, sounds and textures that you might include. And some theatre makers only write solo pieces, some write complex but facile pop, some write light quartets.. you don’t need to know all the instruments to make something successful. The text is usually our guide because it comprises quite a lot of the information – there’s the actual music and rhythm of the dialogue of course, easily laid out, and a fair map of some of the other instruments: the themes, the moods (sometimes), and depending on the writer, more, or less. But of course in the experiencing of the piece, the scenery, the costuming, the sound and music (enormously), the placing and movement on the stage, the overlapping of one thing into another thing, can re-create those ideas and energise those patterns. We don’t call it a revival for nothing – the text is dead outside of production.

And like a good, complex piece of music, some instruments are off doing something hugely important and almost subliminal while your attention is on the dominant melody lines – they’re setting the context of that line in a way that allows that line to stand out. And sometimes there are multiple strands of melody that are happening simultaneously – and at other times each of them are allowed to be heard alone. The different aspects of the theatrical piece don’t need to be doing the same thing either – if they are all working slavishly together, you only get loudness when you could be having a co-ordinated surge of emotion, action or theme. It’s the sort of advice we give to writers a lot to consider in how they construct their plots, but it’s just as important for everyone else (directors especially).

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Try this. I’m sure it’s not at all surprising. Directing is like being an arranger and a conductor. There’s so much argument (and weirdly, anger, and offence) now about how much directors should or shouldn’t contribute: it almost makes no sense. Clearly the critics are behind the times when they give those huge walrus-cries that the director is crushing the vision of the writer: you sometimes hear something similar from someone at the Royal Court (i’m guessing someone pretty unimaginative and with poor perception). Because of course the director’s idea of what the script says dominates it, however supportive he is trying to be to the writer’s idea – and if he leaves gaps, the actors will fill them. And they will also be making their own decisions when they do.
I really don’t see the controversy. If you hate the director’s vision of your favourite play, well, the play remains: it’s the director’s contribution that will only live in the memory. Possibly, another director will repond with a production that’s more in keeping with your own tastes. It feels as if the people who complain are really screaming out in the (lack of) realisation that they don’t own the play themselves: they thought it was theirs, but now this new egocentrist has corrupted it. Well that’s what plays are for.

So if you are doing the first production of a new play, you might well want to stage it with considerable simplicity – you are after all, finding out how it breathes. Or you might spot the potential for an amazing theatrical coup that the writer didn’t see – and (with or without consultation with the writer – you have your own ethics, I would discuss it) you make the most of it – for the material and for the audience. But if it’s Woyzeck or Macbeth, or, for goodness’ sake, The Seagull, then you’re engaging with a massive performance history. Sure, some of your audience won’t have seen it before, but they will have their own opportunities to compare it with other readings as they go and see more stuff. Your main responsibility is not to bore them rigid. Then they won’t ever want to see another production of it and will never form their own opinions. That would be really sad.

So the director should be more than a conductor. I think (s)he needs to arrange the music on the page, too. We pick the phrasing, the overall colour, work out how the melodies, motifs and chord structures of the piece can most beautifully or effectively be placed and repeated to suit the space, audience and political climate. That is what makes it a creative act.

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I’m going through some obvious ones as I begin. But here’s one that we can all agree on: Everything that happens to the audience is part of the show. How frustrating it is to have terrible, pushy ushers. No wonder we always want to design the auditorium, or to stage our plays in found, appropriate spaces. And when these things are out of our control, how hard the directors work to define the edges of their work. Curtains, blackness, musical sections for the beginning and ending. But you can’t get away from it: the audience still step out into the National Theatre (or the backroom of a pub) after the show.. if you can’t make it your own you still need to find a way to counteract or respond to it.

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I’m not persuaded by the perceived distinction between ‘experimental’ theatre artists and ‘mainstream’, or worse, ‘commercial’ theatre artists. In any instance of making a show, the creators need to take into account who it’s for – the context including the size and shape of the auditorium, (and it’s history and porgramme), the same of the producer, the city and culture where it’s taking place – and what expectations this might inspire in the audience. The idea that we make theatre in a vacuum, or that it will be possible for the audience to arrive free of preconception (even, and possibly especially, if they are a new audience), is a naive one. At this point the artists have their artistic freedoms to make choices. Do they want to subvert, or take advantage of, these expectations? Is it a burden to be making a new play for the Royal Court – it’s certainly going to be a different production and mood if it’s there as opposed to, say, a small found-space venue, even if the director, designer and script are the same. So I hope that we all feel that to make something extraordinary is better than making something ordinary. Having said that, if you are making a production of a farce for a large auditorium, and you have a stunningly radical idea, you’d be doing a poor job if you surrendered to the thrill of the moment and implemented the idea, destroying the delicate construction of the play in the process. The work on the script (and the brilliance of the writer) has introduced the idea to you – but it might have no place in this production. which is not to stop you picking up on the idea and making a piece of theatre elsewhere, later, which expresses that idea to its full.

What I believe is this: that the delicate judgments of an Alan Bennett, Sheridan or Goldsmith, writing for a large popular audience, do not come from different impulses than those of our more esoteric, modish or obscurantist cult heroes. They’re just expressed in such a way as to serve the purpose of the immediate context of making the play. Which makes me wonder why unimaginative writers and directors are encouraged at all. Why can’t we be allowed to make mysterious, ‘arty’ installation pieces which demand close attention one month, and crowd-pleasing moral tragedies that cheerfully manipulate the emotions the next? Certainly the commercial companies are to blame for being absurdly risk-averse, when they know that the real hits have innovation shot through them.
Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, and our peers don’t believe that we can enjoy both aesthetics. If you think this, I think you are wrong.

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One of my favourite themes. Aren’t the quiet bits the best? I’m working on the thesis that the loud bits are only there to help you distinguish between different types of quiet. It can’t be just me who tires quickly from loud bits – shouting, ranting, violence, etc. The shorter and tighter the better, surely – make your point and get out sharpish. Perhaps its because the loud bits stay on the same tone. The quietnesses, on the other hand – tension, longing, fear, anxiety, concern – are blessed with ambiguity (thus, muttering or sobbing might count as a loud bit even if they’re not technically noisy). I suppose that’s why I find them more involving. They need to be modulated too – a quiet one-note performance is just as boring. It may be an over-reaction to a dislike of hectoring. I’m very much opposed to the arrogant and the overconfident – the ‘listen to me’ school of work. For me, the place of the actors, writer, director, and all of the team is ‘look at this’: in alliance with the audience, not in opposition to them. It’s our job to invite the audience to look past us, at the material, the story, the extraordinary ironies or tragedies of our show. In that sense, the quiet bits offer the audience more opportunity to reflect on things, to create a mental response and examine their emotional one.

But silence, on stage, well-performed; the potential for a massive range of action – how thrilling.

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I make theatre, in the UK, and here I am going to try to work out for myself what I believe in. I can only apologise for doing this. It’s an attempt to organise my thoughts and arguably some sort of self-help. It may not be very interesting. I’m going to try to restrict myself to thinking about things here working on the assuumption that no-one is reading. If you are for god’s sake don’t comment or i might clam up. If you do, I will try not to find out who you are – the anonymity is good news for me and for you. Of course if you are someone who knows me you might recognise me from the thoughts. Maybe.

Actually forget that. Do comment. Together we might realise something important.

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