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Archive for the ‘directing’ Category

What are we to do? It’s a golden age of London theatre. Is it? Sometimes I walk in and out of shows and am just knocked sideways by how slick and competent everything is. When it comes to product, we have got some top people and the public are lapping it up. And honestly, it doesn’t seem that a few months can go by without something really, genuinely good being on somewhere within the London postal area. Has it always been like this? Did I miss it before? Doesn’t it feel like the designs are more interesting, the writers and directors interested in difficult questions, probing the possibilities? the actors.. well, the actors are a bit variable. Perhaps the casting directors didn’t get the memo. But I do feel like it’s a healthy time

And yet, and yet.. Is it fuck. Aren’t we wallowing in self-congratulatory, unambitious mediocrity?

What could have been more depressing than the Young Vic’s Prayer for My Daughter?Bent Coppers Not least for the Vic itself, who presumably set out to pack the seats with hip young theatregoers who like the 70s, like sleazy cop drama, like retro, like Americana (if not America, necessarily), and ended up with a proper dud on their hands. Just a sloppily written, clumsily plotted feast of the predictable and obvious, a handsome but interest- and ideas-free production of a play-by-numbers, Prayer… didn’t seem to have any ambition at all. At least The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each other had some – but how it squandered it on surely the most misconceived production of this script ever. How many people walked onto that stage in the NT’s lengthy rendition? I don’t think I believed in more than about three of them. The rest were sloppy physical caricatures, stagy comic turns no different from some sort of ultra-Fast Show. This vision of the play as a sort of surreal music-hall variety seemed confirmed by the direction of Jason Thorpe’s sneering clown – an indulgent routine that shared nothing with anyone. Thousands of people watching, and an opportunity firmly missed.

And yet.. part of me wants to be pleased that the Lyttelton audience see so much Katie Mitchell (some of it really good) and then got followed up with a modern wordless European classic. It’s just… What if you saw Attempts and found it a bit limited, and you saw Hour and found that it missed the point.. God, you’d be running for the amiable safety of your Nick Hytner Much Ado or Major Babs, wouldn’t you? And something seems to happen to these theoretically risky productions in the big houses – as if some damage limitation exercise has been wrought, they come out with the rough edges all chamfered clean. Any honesty and openness of their presentation has disappeared.

Smiles Mean Sales

I don’t think we’d mind them partially failing, if only they didn’t sit there looking so smug as if they thought they’d succeeded. I’m sure it’s to do with our new sales-friendly arts culture; in this age of competition and free market, none of the venues are allowed to admit that any of their shows have been anything less than a success – it’s not just looking for positives, it’s presenting an inane grin to the public, ACE and sponsors. Which is fine if you think the public are morons to be misled by your smile (as the ACE and sponsors will be). But if you give them any credit at all, you just look like you don’t know what you’re doing.

It’s consistently not good enough. Surely. I still want to applaud people for stepping in the right direction. And I know how hard it can be to get it right – goodness knows I don’t manage. So it’s thrilling to have seen, for example, the recent double at the Gate – I Am Falling and Press. Not for what they were as much as for what they tried to be – a really bold reinvention of the venue’s policy. I thought Falling was a lovely little piece of work – it was short, yes, but you could also say it didn’t outstay its welcome – and it unaffectedly did find a common ground between the open artifice of dance and the deliberately apparent artlessness of dialogue. Press was much less overwhelming even though it was technically a more extraordinary performance. I didn’t see any great dramatic coherence to the composition – and the last section with the video camera felt thrown in as a free gift – this was the much less interesting of the two pieces, much more like the circus exhibitionism of the most self-regarding dance.

random up at the Court is the Important Production of the month. But although the subject is closer to home, it’s miles from the urgent frisson you got from debbie tucker green’s previous Sacha Wares collaboration, generations. Nadine Marshall gives a brilliant performance, turning repeatedly on a sixpence to offer a beautifully observed set of roles, and no one puts a foot wrong – it’s tasteful, thoughtful and honest. So why did I nod off a few times? random was so fully inside my expectations of a one-woman dtg show about the pointless death of a teenager (as the publicity made it clear it would be) that it simply couldn’t grab hold. Seven rows behind me a young school group of mainly black kids whooped whenever they recognised a bit of characterisation or a turn of phrase, but they didn’t seem impressed by the narrative either. My feeling is that perhaps the brief (self-imposed or not, I’ve no idea) was too restrictive for dtg to be able to think about how she might hook the audience. This didn’t cement her reputation. She is the most unconventional and poetic playwright of her generation, certainly, but here for a moment the anti-capitalisation started to seem like an affectation.

Prescription may be our greatest enemy – especially when our arts overlords are so keen on good planning and management. Get me a knife-crime play. You can’t just prescribe something and then create it. On a download from his site, Chris Goode does some talking (densely of course – don’t you ever read it back and try to make it easier, Chris?) about ‘liminality’ and his aspirations for what theatre should aim to be. He talks about loads more than this. But of course, like a million writers and directors before him, he wants the event to resonate outside the rooms and the hours it takes place in. But it’s one thing to say”I want this to resonate” and another to actually sit down and make the work. All we can ask for is care and attention to what resonates instead of what looks cool. StampsIt doesn’t matter if your source material is Chekhov, a new play or a performance devised from a book of postage stamps – you’re just as likely to make something conventional. A culture of wanting to plan what impact your production is going to have combines badly with a culture of asking people to deliver things in the vein of the their previous work. Artists (and the visual artists do us no favours here) are expected to have a schtick nowand to plough their proven furrow. Shunt’s David Rosenberg is about to open his project at the Lyric, Contains Violence – I’m terrified that it’s just going to be a tired old set of noirish/pulp fiction/voyeuristic cliches with some aggressive ‘attitude’ and an air of the defiantly amateurish. Clips from Shunt shows you might have seen, taken across the road and watched through the windows. We used to toddle down to Shunt cabarets to be surprised (and, be fair, quite frequently disappointed), but never bored. I really hope Rosenberg has kept hold of his ability to pull the rug from under what you’re expecting. Goodness knows all the advice he’s been hearing will have been about providing a satisfying ending.

So we’re surrounded by ‘good’ pieces of theatre – target-hitting, slick,Excellence well-produced and performed work: like in what is undeniably an important production of random, not least because the school group had a good time. But the ‘good’ness can really stifle what might really be exciting in it. The Arts Council are scratching their collective heads about what excellence might be; it isn’t this. I’d prefer a time when companies didn’t have to lie to you about how good their work is, so they can have actual dialogue about how good they want it to be – and what they dream of it being.

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What do people go to the theatre for? I lay awake at night considering much more trivial issues, but that is kind of question that I allow to prevent me from doing productive work.

I mean there’s all sorts of things – we like a bit of novelty, a bit of heart-swelling get in theresong, a jaw-dropping spectacle and whatnot, but what is this fundamental thing that draws an audience in – you can see them doing it despite themselves. They’ll tell you it’s narrative – but what do they know? Only believe what you see with you own eyes. The narrative is a side-effect of something else. Isn’t it that we have natural curiosity, out of self-preservation, and ambition (and evolutionary necessity if you like it like that), to understand how other people see the world? It’s part of our social development. And you can see it by watching real people, or you can have it served up in a convenient (well, usually) package by some people you’ve paid (through the tax system, and by ticket) to observe and report for you in a contrived vehicle, that will put that perosnb through strain and strife (or examine something much subtler in detail). So we get these plays in which we can understand why people do what they do. Or even if we don’t understand, play out possible consequences. And maybe we feel a tiny bit safer or more knowledgeable.
We’ve also found that we can produce mind-spinning, eye-brimming, mobile, pulsating art in the same environment. Why we don’t do both more often is known only to the wisest, and possibly some of the most cowardly.
I went to see Hoipolloi’s Floating at the Pit, which wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping it would be, but still worth a much belated recommendation – it asks some great questions and then plays in the sandpit for a while, very pleasurably, without really returning to them. I believe they’re doing more in the same vein, which may be good news. It’s an affectionate satire on ridiculous and impenetrable performance artists making hopefully profound experimental theatre – and they succeed in making it both funny and relatively successful experimental theatre. It’s not quite profound yet, but I think they want that. They did an extended joke about ‘microtheatre’ which tried to communicate an experience to the audience through fragmentary sensations. Which seems to me what great writers,great theatre makers of all sorts, do in words and through implication.

I did also see the universally praised Saint Joan – which is nearly as good as you might ask a production of St Joan in the Olivier to be. It’s pretty long and it’s not a totally flawless ensemble, but Marianne Elliott keeps things going with some nice movement, song and big symbolic gesture. It’s a confirmation that she’s very very tasteful in her selection of content – a terrific judge of how much is enough, and perhaps that the theatre of symbols is on its way back – it’s got big-time appeal to a big audience here.

Our Joan I was a bit disappointed, though, that this, and the production in Bath of Pygmalion (which I haven’t seen – what travelcard zone is that in?), were seized on by Shaw champions as evidence that he’s neglected. I’m only me, but from what I saw and what I’ve read of him he seems to be as successful as a playwright can be who has no real talent or instinct for writing plays. The plays are explicitly, deliberately and insistently dialectical. They mainly seem to be interested in presenting a man having an argument with himself (and fitting in his drollest thoughts on the subject), rather than being any sort of meaningful engagement with the mysteries of life. I was pleased that the characterisations in Joan weren’t as schematic as I’d expected – frequently the chap said exactly the opposite thing to what you expected – but I never felt that this was because they thought it, I always thought – oh, that’s clever, Mr. Shaw. Just like he wanted me to.
I mean you’re welcome to put on Shaw plays if you like that sort of thing, but don’t go pretending that he’s not banging on or that he’s a breath of fresh air. Saint Joan has a production that is working incredibly hard, and, frankly, against the text, to keep some fire in it – to show that the windy rhetoric is being generated by passionate lungs rather than by a narcissistic pen. Well done for making Shaw work for us – not well done Shaw. A victory for the director’s theatre…?

And to return to the discussion of the characters of reviewers, I had the rare pleasure of picking up a copy of the Sunday Times and looking at the St Joan review – I think it might be the first time I’d given a thought to a man called Christopher Hart, who seems to have a brilliant technique of targeting his imagined reader – writing for the man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t like. Hart wades out bravely into the stalls, wearing his ignorance pulled right down over his eyes, in case he accidentally finds himself thinking about what’s in front of him. It’s a heroic and touching sight: ideal reading for the theatre-goer who doesn’t really want to go and doesn’t want anything too interesting when they do.

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So I’ve been away (or busy maybe) for a bit and overwhelmed by the consistent requests for me to return to the blog. Not really, you’re all very discreet.

So I had a look around to see what’s rousing folk in the london theatre blog world. Goodness. Everyone loves/hates Attempts on Her Life, and quite a few people are excited by Anthony Neilson asking playwrights to be less boring and pretentious. Neilson is right to feel a bit I told you so about it, isn’t he? – he’s been being thrilling, imaginative and unpretentious for ages even when it wasn’t that fashionable. In fact his plays often seem a bit wilfully controversialist – it’s his determination not to let them be flabby that have saved them. I bet his old mucker Lisa Goldman wishes she had a few more like him to programme into Soho. I take a bit of an issue with his dislike of the pretentious though. You absolutely need to balance it and be tough on yourself, but pretentiousness has a lot to offer, in that it represents our urge to try out being something we’re not. Which has a good pedigree in the theatre community. So if I (or Chris Goode) pretend to the assurance of Robert Wilson in making a piece, it very likely benefits the assurance of the piece – Wilson is an awesome role model in that respect. If we copied his actual style it would be less successful. Shopping and Fucking is a pretentious play because Ravenhill’s pretention to be a voice for the commercialised generation blended well with his hard-working well-made play structuring. It’s not as amazing and pure a source of innovation as those that come from necessity (“the only way to make this show work is to do it underwater/in the air/spoken half in Uzbek”) but it’s undeniably part of the psychology of every theatre maker, who is always pretending/trying to be less like (say) David Hare and more like (say) Anthony Neilson. All our best playwrights and theatre-makers are a bit pretentious. And they’re good enough not to let it get out of hand.

Attempts on Her Life is really part of the same debate. It’s not boring. If you’ve got the balls (apparently unlike some of the walker-outers at the whatsonstage board) then you can fight the deluge of images and struggle to draw your conclusions from Crimp and Mitchell’s uncompromised circus of situations and angles. For what it’s worth, I thought that the permanent presence of the (thrilling) camera work gave it feet of clay. Crimp’s scenarios are about a lot of things, and there were times when the production seemed to filter all of the text’s potential through a limiting lens: I know that we use the media to shape lots of our understanding of life – but it’s not the only way I understand people. It was also hard not to feel that the camera action was clumsy set next to the overwhelmingly detailed (and beautiful) choreography of Waves. That said, I wasn’t much taken with the content of Waves – it was pretty much pure theatre to me – and am much more interested by the content in Attempts. The focus on media gave the text a fierce clarity of purpose which it might not have in some of the more catholic productions – and it seemed conscious of its status as not the only ever production. I think that’s what I like most about Mitchell’s shows now – this is her version and it’s not the end of the story. Clearly Hytner has made a good choice in continuing to invite her back to be a standard bearer for intelligent experiment in his programme. How great to be watching the rock band section thrash away in the bland old Lyttelton, with memories of the (equally effective but totally different) lush underscoring of Therese Raquin still in memory. I’m suspicious of encore’s effort to turn it into a polarised fight between the backward lithic critics and the fiery knights of progress – it’s only a show, it’s got problems – but I was much more appalled by the people who seem to be offended by it. Blimey, fogeys, it’s a national theatre, not just yours. I mean, sure, be offended by Jerry Springer if you don’t believe in freedom of speech and creativity (and expose yourself as a censor). But what’s to be offended by in a play that has a good go at discussing perception and reality, in a production that actually makes it easier to take something from? does your world not include rock and pop music, police progammes and late review and crappy films and adverts and all the rest? Discuss that some of the media satire was pretty limp (and Mitchell isn’t that assured as a film director..) engage with what’s in fornt of you. These people seem not to be interested in content – there’s plenty to get their (presumably gritted) teeth into in both staging and text, nor in theatre – theatricality – they would be having a lovely time. If they think theatre is just character acting and relationships then they probably need to be more selective when booking seats.

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opera

Fin Kennedy has popped up a post admitting that he didn’t enjoy an opera (here it is). I have to say I felt similar when I recently went to see an opera (Jenufa at ENO). I read afterwards that it was a piercingly psychological production that broke new ground in realism, to which I can only say that I’m glad I didn’t see a previous production, because it seemed pretty skinny as far as psychological complexity went. I particularly identify with Fin when he says that the music and the stage action seem to get in each others’ way. Increasingly, as I sat there in what is an amazing auditorium, I shut my eyes and just enjoyed the music, which was frequently terrific, but I would always peek out after a bit in case something had happened. All too often, it hadn’t. I thought the plot was OK as it goes – slim, and where a dramatist might take you further into the detail of the emotional or state of mind of the character, the opera writers seemed to stand still and reiterate the same emotion. It’s not repeating really, more sustaining – but I still frequently felt “yes, I got it the first time”

Even more troubling for me was the singing. I understand this is the point for lots of people – isn’t it amazing that the human body can produce that extraordinary sound (and so much of it). So my question really is, isn’t it going to be more powerful if you use it less often? They seem to be belting out all the way through. I can appreciate that when the sentiment is almost inexpressible, you need to go there to convey it, but (in this at least) lines like “who’s that at the door?” were delivered in the same vocal style. I found it very distancing – and kept thinking about a different version which could include speech and singing in different registers – so that you came out having experienced the range of the human voice, not just its top end.

I feel like I should like opera. I love the idea of music and drama working together and as I keep saying I think musical structure is effective within drama. But here the story and character were obstructed by the music, and here the stylings of ‘opera’ sort of prevented the content being experienced effectively.

There often seems to be a movement to revive opera or reimagine it for a new audience. Tom Morris likes this idea (consequently his encouragement of Jerry Springer). There were all those Almeida Operas – I dimly remember seeing one of those – agin musically and visually exciting but dramatically distant. Latterly David Lan and the Young Vic are right behind it too, with Tobias and the Angel and their Christmas show The Enchanted Pig. I saw the Pig and I’m sorry to say it didn’t work for me at all. It had all the bad things I remembered about the Jenufa, with none of the splendid music. It’s as if the directors and designers (the usually excellent Dick Bird in this case) think you won’t be paying attention and so feel like they have to caricature and simplify everything in the storytelling and characterisation. But the inordinate slowness of development and reiteration of sentiment ensure you won’t be left behind. It seemed exceedingly cruel to propose this as an entertainment for children, who have a much higher rhythm of curiosity and must have done very well to keep from jiggling. Far more successful in blending music and theatre seem to be companies like the Clod Ensemble orHeiner Goebbels. I don’t know if you saw The Clod’s The Silver Swan in Edinburgh a couple of years ago – apparently nothing to it by Fin’s storytelling criteria, but beautiful and unforgettable. But these people call it ‘music theatre’. Even The Opera Group who made The Enchanted Pig studiously avoided the word opera in their publicity.
So it feels to me that the principle of opera is good – it’s just the conventions (and aren’t there plenty) that keep it remote. What’s behind this quest for a new opera? Is it worth it or is it a blind alley, and can we just get behind the music theatre?

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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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music

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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conducting

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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