Archive for the ‘playwrighting’ Category

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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Here‘s the frequently wise and always unashamedly clever (and why should he be, there’s nothing wrong with it) Chris Goode gossiping about Robert Wilson; and somewhere in that lengthy post you’ll see him touch on formalism in theatre-making. He and Big Bob, he says, are the only people he can think of “who will be able to tell you what the 55th or the 74th minute of a piece will feel like long before it’s cast or its narrative is developed or its surface scenario is even conceived.”

Now, Goodie is clearly an exceptionally precise man (and I would challenge the 55th-minute thing only so far as to invite him to admit to being a little less specific than that) but there’s an anxiety here about the apparently slipshod conception of our theatre-makers (who I’m calling ‘writers’, even though some of them use different notation to others) – do they know what they’re doing at all? Did they really believe that workshop where someone said that once you come up with the characters and the scenario then it just all comes out? Clearly not, I think we can all agree when we watch a creaky plot device turning, or feel an awkward gear-change as we lurch into a sad bit. And let’s be honest, these are very often considerably clumsier in the borderline performance-art-world shows than in the well-made new plays. Possibly this is because they don’t care as much, or possibly because the experimentalists are often younger and callower than the extensively-workshopped playwrights.

We make plots and we make plans. We know what the arc of the piece is – and ‘what it will feel like’ is something we all hope we’ll be able to predict. Perhaps because Chris is the director of his own work, he can be more confident that the emphases won’t be reordered by another hand. I’m interested in how this plays off against the emergent demands of the narrative. If the narrative suggests that that 55th-minute elation might sit up and beg a little higher if it happened in the 63rd minute, because of the inspiring surge that is newly available for the 51st minute, then what’s wrong with that? Once you start getting dirty with the plausibility of the relationships or the realisation that there’s room for a really excellent joke there, then your pre-conception becomes just a framework. But isn’t it interesting to think about what happens if you did refuse to compromise that rigid plotting of emotional buttons; it can act as a demand on you to find a better, more efficient, possibly more inventive way of telling that preceding bit of story. Perhaps your original time/feeling map could be a benevolent tyrant.

I do think that there should be a way for that formal conception to be the governor of a theatre piece. A way that the audience can approach a piece from a number of different directions, to be able to invest in it emotionally on a level that is separate from the advancing narrative. If you look at a sculpture or a painting, then you can choose your access point – it might be form, colour, texture or explicit or implicit narrative content; you can fly away on your peripheral associations and return, safe in the knowledge that the object will still be there and constant.
The existence of time, and our expectation that things will change causally over the course of it, means that it’s harder in theatre to maintain a shape and allow an audience that sort of freedom. But while the narrative (or some sort of narrative) unfolds, perhaps we could be concentrating on what remains solid within the pieces that we’re writing or making; what it is that is revealed and explored by the action.  I suspect what this usually is is the ‘writer’s’  worldview or set of values; it will be a conception of a person, a place, a time, or a concept. Isn’t this what happens in those historical verbatim pieces like Permanent Way or the Tricycle works; we know what events the unfolding narrative will deliver; what we’re watching is how they are deployed to reveal a (permanent) perspective/artefact.

So it’s not just the crazy experimentalists or the impenetrable avant-gardists who are  know that it’s not just the story that counts, it’s what you put in it; and I think the cannier and more experienced of the orthodox playwrights are as aware as Chris that they need to know how it will feel to watch various moments in their work for it to have real impact. Let’s not pretend this is some ideological divide; it’s a divide about which audience you want to be valued by.

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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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Storytelling should be a by-product of the drama, but it doesn’t have to be its aim.

You might take issue with ‘drama’ – we could say ‘show’ or ‘piece’. This seems a bit contrary, probably, as lots of theatre people suggest that theatre is a storytelling medium. Well that may be – but in a more immediate sense (and also a broader sense) it is a manipulated experience. So what would it be like if it wasn’t a storytelling exercise? People arrive at a venue, come in, some things happen in front of them. This is a question about what theatre needs to include to be ‘theatre’. I’m proposing that ‘it needs a story’ isn’t the answer. What about the story might it be that you need?

I think involvement in some way, probably emotional. I think we can also say that as a sequence of events happens, there is (in some sense) a story unfolding regardless of intention – one between the audience and the performers, or (in a circus, say) the story of each of the performers’ engagement with their activities – their successes and failures. In a sports event this is what you might call the ‘theatre’ of the event.

So what i’m suggesting is that we don’t need to feel that our top priority is to tell stories. If our top priority is to engage poeple in what we’re doing and keep them engaged, we will find stories of all sorts springing up around us like weeds.

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theatre djs

It struck me the other day how much a theatre writer (I use writer in as broad a sense as possible), when they’re really successful, is not trying to cover all the bases and present a perfect play, but is instead sharing their own guilty pleasures. “look at my viewpoint on things” we say. “isn’t it interesting?” The culture of workshops and playwright training give the playwrights a lot of ‘ways in’ to writing their play, but perhaps we should be looking to enable them with ‘ways out’ of the implied imperative to please all of these different schools of thought. The playwright is like the DJ – “listen to this stuff. It’s not everything, but it goes well together and it makes sense together.”

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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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