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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Now usually I like to keep out of the real world on the blog but this one is just too much.
I can barely listen to an edition of the world at one without someone coming on and telling me there should be more local government (who is Tony Travers?). Well, the Wandsworth Council here in vibrant, cool, cultural, insightful London have decided that they need to cut their funding to what is as far as I can see their only professional theatre, BAC.
BAC, in case you aren’t up on the development of British theatre companies, is the place where you go if you’re not a playwright – or even if you are a playwright if you’ve come to London and got bored with the Royal Court Young Writer’s programme. Almost every theatre-maker of value has been involved in some way with the work there. We’re not talking about the tourist trade theatre you understand. You can read elsewhere on the web why it’s so good. Here, for example, or here. But seems to be happening is that the councillors of Wandsworth have no idea how good it is, and are acting in an incredibly blinkered, short-termist way.
Every local borough in the world has a few things that they have that are brilliant. It might be a park or a sports facility, or an old building. Wandsworth has a few, but less than most other parts of London if we’re honest. Sometimes (usually) they cost a bit of money but it’s worth it because that’s what that part of the world is about. BAC is a brilliant thing that needs to be kept alive – they should be bigging it up and splashing it across their own publicity, not choking it and stifling it in stages as their current plan seems to be. It looks like they have decided it would be OK if BAC slunk off quietly to die, so they’re cutting off the food and water.
People are saying this is the effect of the Olympics. The idea’s alright – the olympics is supposed to provide a focus for sport in the UK for the next 5 years (plus all that beautiful tourist money). But it’s only two weeks long. Can’t we cancel the Olympics, spend the extra money on community sport, and on making sure every london borough has the basis of arts and sport provision? Wandsworth should be investing in more arts, not less.
But I can’t expect them to succeed on my standards. Wandsworth is a Conservative-majority council who are mainly interested in the appearance of things, and keeping the council tax down. But what’s depressing is that they fail by their own standards: they’re failing to value and preserve the things they have. My (limited) experience of local councillors is that they’re self-important idiots, closed-eared party ideologues, single-issue activists or impotently parochial. This is how they behave.And we want to put them in charge of more services?
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I walked past (but wasn’t at) the ‘devoted and disgruntled’ event at BAC that Improbable have been curating. Everyone who’s anyone seemed to be there, talking – it looked to have been a massive success. I felt I was a little in dereliction of my duty to have avoided it. There seems to be a tremendous attitude of support towards talking at the moment – and towards seriously trying to come up with some way of making things better for artists in British theatre.
I hope good things happen. But I spend a lot of time waking up thinking that things are pretty good at the moment. Not for me personally (like, I’m sure, most people, i feel underemployed) , but actually, we saw loads of excellent things on the stage in london (and elsewhere) last year. Of course there are a hundred types of cynical shit being peddled by the commercial producers – but let’s just be clear that their aim is not to bring the best work to the audiences – it’s to bring the most saleable work. And let’s be honest, not only will people put up with some real rubbish, but a lot of the time they prefer things that aren’t new. Look at TV, which is much more in need of a devoted and disgruntled event than theatre if you ask me. Anyway I love the new and the challenging, but I don’t always go out to be invigorated.
But – young writers are emerging (perhaps being overcommissioned, but they are greeted with excitement). Venues are looking for innovative companies to create work in different ways. There’s an openness to experiment. There’s a struggle between the literalists and the metaphoricalists (if you’re to believe the bloggers) – which must mean both are in health. There’s a lot to be gruntled about, in truth.
We’ve all got gripes. It’s difficult to get people to trust you to produce work, and there’s not enough money to go round, but in our society where we’ve been brought up to think we can all be theatre directors, there are bound to be lots of them. Most of the inequity can be traced to people being people – nepotism, favouritism, blaggers blagging their way, artistic nervousness leading to programming conservatism. What kind of a system would ensure the meek but talented got ahead of the confident, time-rich and persuasive? That I’d like to see.
When i have been in those discussions the bottom line for most participants seems to be”why is it that my company are scrabbling around to get support?, when we could be creating great art?” It seems we’re all underpaid and overstretched. I hope the devoted and disgruntled people come up with a good list of clear problems that they think could be addressed.
This may need some adjustment.
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I found this post in my drafts after not being here for a while. But it still makes sense so here it is. And Faust may still be on. Cynically I also slightly wonder if it will increase my hit rate (from zero…). Perhaps I should link to David Eldridge and Fin Kennedy‘s excellent blogs if i want attention.
So punchdrunk and shunt make genuinely interesting attempts to redefine the relationship with the audience. I think this is true. And with the astute (but hands-off) backing of the NT, they are able to attract the kind of bemused, uncomfortable, slightly frightened middle-aged, middle-class audience with lots of cash that mill around a little nervously amongst the hip kids with media studies and art degrees. It is worth making a comparison of these two barnstormers of the current London experimental scene (if there is such a thing). Shunt are by some distance more radical, I think, and more serious-minded, and perhaps for the same reason more prone to create moments that don’t translate. The confrontation is important to them, always has been as far as I remember: there’s a hint of a stylish Forced Entertainments about them, with cabaret as a reference point rather than 70s and 80s Americana. FE have always celebrated the vapid and challenged you to decide whether they’re being profound – sometimes Shunt’s attempts to celebrate the profound can seem a little vapid. Plus shunt are so determined not to be seen as being overserious that they include lots of defiantly flippant material – which can come across as a bit dada-by-numbers.
I’ve only seen Faust of Punchdrunk’s work and its scale is certainly awesome. There are real treats – tiny private moments – and I think the emphasis on movement rather over text suits this kind of work brilliantly – it’s their most definite and distinctive contribution. But here (and with dreamthinkspeak, who must be bewildered at having missed the NT boat – despite an arguably more consistent output; but they don’t have punchdrunk’s cockily feel-good, sponsor-friendly cool), there seems a laziness to the structure – the audience leave when they get bored. Which seems to me to be a terrible way of ending a theatrical event when we so often talk about the shared experience. The streets around the venue are intermittently spilt with punters who think they’ve probably seen about as much as they can be bothered to see without walking up all those stairs again.. there’s something wrong here. Watching the band in the bar isn’t a unifying experience (or if it was to be, the bar needed to be a lot bigger and more chaotic). What about the audience (again)? When we try these new ways of relating, aren’t we making something in collaboration with them, making decisions together about when it’s over and that we’re satisfied to be unsatisfied or happy to have been fulfilled? Perhaps it’s not possible, on the industrial scale that Faust works on, to worry about the little guy in the sweaty mask.
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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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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 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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