December 2008 Archives

In the spirit of these slimmed-down times, let's keep the new year's resolutions simple this year. Mine is short and relatively unambitious: at long last, to see a ventriloquist's act.

It's amazing that I've got so far through my performance-haunting career without seeing someone throwing their voice or appearing to talk through the dummy on their knee. Ventriloquists were a staple of children's tv in my childhood, despite the potential for technical fakery (though it's perhaps telling that the most brilliantly anarchic flesh-and-fabric double act involved the apparently hapless Rod Hull and his silent but unmannerly Emu, the curl of whose beak presaged a savage atrocity committed on someone's dignity, while Hull maintained the air of an apologetic shamble as the bird attacked).

I've been thinking about vents after reading By George, a darn gripping novel by Wesley Stace. There are two Georges, one a boy, one an eerily plausible schoolboy dummy. How they are linked is the plot of the book, but its fascination is in the idea of ventriloquism itself. Finding a voice, losing an identity, deflecting attention - it's a brilliant device for building a character. The human George negotiates his fraught passage through adolescence; the dummy belongs to the son of an indomitable and celebrated performer, and for both of them the question of who speaks, who listens, who cares, is particularly vexed.

The ventriloquist is the controlling, shadowy presence of his or her act, but of course no one remembers the human being, a sidekick to their own weirdly animated prop. It's a brilliant idea - so why have I never gone to see for myself? In part, it's what seems the degraded nature of modern ventriloquism - the dummy as a pretext for foul-mouthed backchat and audience-baiting (these, I can do for myself). But it's time that I gave myself over to the pleasures of the uncanny: I'll give it a go and report back.

What theatrical resolutions do you have this year? What genre or artist might you try for the very first time? I'd love to know.

December 31, 2008 6:03 PM | | Comments (0) |

Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve, was essentially a London writer. It's not just that he was born and bred here - my mother remembers seeing him play Macbeth at school in Hackney. But he also drew on an intimate sense of the city in a way that gave his plays an apparent fixity and also released them into a daring poetic space.

In one sense, Pinter's London is a map of social aspiration, possibly his own. The early plays, of the 1950s and 60s, travel out from the grimy east end and unglamorous fringes of the city to the placid suburbs where (in The Lover) life can only be relieved by pretend adultery. Later plays inhabit the dauntingly posh enclaves: literary Hampstead, glitzy restaurants. Who fits in and who is excluded - often viciously - is a recurring question, and place names have bite in a city where your postcode fixes you in a mesh of class and economic indicators.

What sets Pinter's work apart from other London playwrights? His dialogue can be brilliantly funny - incongruous and more pleasurable than is often acknowledged. But he doesn't much share the habit of mining mundane English place names for comic potential (in Ackybourn's The Norman Conquests, for example, guffaws are raised every time East Grinstead is proposed as a hot spot for an assignation). There's also a long, bustling tradition of London plays set in public, commercial places - the taverns of Falstaff's Eastcheap, the streets of Middleton's mercantile comedies, the parks and coffee houses of Restoration comedy. Samuel Adamson's Southwark Fair revisited this pattern in 2006, with strangers in the city making random connections and crossing wires around London's South Bank.

Pinter's plays, however, almost exclusively take place in private rooms: the outside world is constantly mentioned, but until it comes to seem almost phantasmagoric. Davies in The Caretaker insists on his trudging progress through north-west London, in which everything came to grief after he lost his papers in Sidcup. Since then he has been unmoored, a troubled shadow of a man who may have lived in Shoreditch, Aldgate, Putney or the Caledonian Road. The remembered 'lovely London' of Old Times functions as a manipulative nostalgia, as Anna and Deeley compete to define Kate's memories: 'Don't tell me you've forgotten our days at the Tate?'Spivvy Lenny in The Homecoming operates a scatter of demi-criminal schemes from girls in Greek Street to an unspecified survey of North Paddington, while his uncle traces the city from the confines of his cab: the town is a confusing blur of pinpricks compared to the clammy, irresistible notion of home.

The more the city is invoked, the less real it seems. In Pinter's late plays, the setting is often an unnamed totalitarian state, but the toxic chatter of Party Time or Celebration also draws on the contemptuous assurance of boomtime London. Its energy is shallow and greedy, disdainful of the wider world.

Pinter's city isn't lifted from the A-Z, of course - it's a topography of the imagination. Anna's youthful bohemia, Lenny's eye for a convenient bombsite, the publishing world in Betrayal: each, like Hirst's Hampstead mansion, is a theatrical no man's land. Each is a place for painful negotiation, somewhere to assert a fading identity. In Pinter's London plays, talismanic nuggets of the actual metropolitan world lose conviction, and the characters are left without maps, fixed only in the words they speak and their presence on stage.

December 26, 2008 10:01 AM | | Comments (2) |

The Trocks are back in New York - and with any luck will stay there for some time. Certainly their London season was a notable low point of my autumn dance-going. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the all-male ballet travesty troupe, are critically adored and loved by spectators, I know, but they're a joke that leaves my funny bone relentlessly untickled.

The party line is that the trannies in tutus are threefold marvellous because they're fabulous dancers, steeped in ballet lore and wickedly subversive. To which the monkey replies: (a) yeah, they're ok. But they're still big-thighed blokes in tutus; (b) they truly are, and their bunhead geekery is by far their most endearing quality, with semi-parodic excavations of lost repertory and faded ballet manners; and (c) they are so not. Prima ballerina catfights are old news, and their slapstick shtick is grim. But most problematic, to me, is that the Trocks are in thrall to the dubious ideals of classical ballet. Rather than address the singularly fraught version of femininity on which so much of the art depends, these boys all want to be the prettiest girl at the prom, and the joke becomes a snigger at how some people are excluded from paradise.

Admittedly, the monkey's yearning for a hardcore queer feminist take on ballet doesn't suggest that he's the best judge of what makes for comedy gold. But to me, the reputation of the Trocks only confirms that, packed with virtues though they may otherwise be, ballet people have absolutely no sense of humour. Not a ribbon-trailing shred. What they have instead is a simulacrum of humour - they construct something that sounds like comedy (funny Russian names and diva squeals!), looks like comedy (it's a guy - in a dress! And he's falling over!), maybe even smells like comedy, but is a prissy substitute for heartfelt laughter.

The monkey is often a misery, it's true. Don't get me started on the desperate physical stunts directors pull to persuade us that classic bawdy humour is actually funny. Have you ever - ever - seen anyone in real life do that pumping-pelvis thing Shakespearean clowns are often forced to do? They must teach it alongside fencing and how to toss your ringlets in some special drama class at RADA. And yet, though the monkey cringes, audiences often titter along gamely as soon as an actor starts whomping his crotch back and forth. (The reverse is also occasionally true - when a craggy rake strolled onto the stage in the acerbic Restoration comedy The Wives Excuse, having left his latest conquest sleeping, he unwound what we supposed was a hair from between his teeth, and one member of the audience released a startlingly filthy chuckle. How mortified was I when it emerged that chuckle was mine.)

And Coppélia. Come on, how is that funny? Tiny-minded villagers gang up on an old man who is, yes, gnarled and secretive, but also the one inhabitant with horizons bigger than market day and marrying the miller's son. So what if he creates a mechanical doll? It's not as if he's going to get intelligent interaction from any of his neighbours. Winsome Swanhilda and her boyfriend Franz are a minx and an oaf whose marriage will be a mutual torment relieved only by adultery and the opportunity to lead a lynch mob, you mark my words.

Most dance, and classical ballet in particular, makes an unholy compact with a slim, dewily youthful ideal of grace. But much stage comedy involves the way the body blunders in to disrupt our plans - the vanity of human wishes painted in tones of lust and hunger, sloth and stench. I'm generalising unfairly, clearly - but I wonder if ballet dancers, whittled slender and disciplined from tot-hood, can ever inhabit a comedy that depends on frail wills or bumptious bodily functions.

Is the monkey just a spoilsport? Does dance ever make you laugh (in a good way)? Go on, tell me I'm wrong...

December 22, 2008 11:25 AM | | Comments (2) |

Well, that would be a tall order... but this is just a thank you to the kind people who have nominated the blog in the end-of-year survey initiated by our immensely sparky neighbour at Life's a Pitch. I'm very chuffed indeed. Not sure if, although we do discuss lyric art forms here, that this is exactly a music blog, but it would be wrong to quibble. Anyone who wants to cast a vote can do so here, apparently...

It has been a blast writing all manner of stuff here in the past weeks, and getting some enthusiastic and provoking responses. Critics often don't get comments, so often try to generate our own artificial food for thought. However, I really feel that I'm getting some valuable nutrients from you. Realise that the lofty claims I initially made for regular structured items on the blog quickly went for a burton - structure is less important than stimulation, I now feel, so will be less controlfreaky about the whole thing next year. Merry festive thoughts, one and all.

December 22, 2008 11:19 AM | | Comments (0) |

Criticism about popular comedy is tricky. Either you laugh or you don't: what else to say? Yesterday I saw plays by Britain's most frequently performed playwrights, Alan Ackybourn - two slices of his 1974 trilogy The Norman Conquests, revived with wonderfully shaggy panache by Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic. Ackybourn's faultless technique and deceptive suburban territory often declaw criticism (though the programme hinted at the darkness behind his comedies, with a flinty epigraph from Raymond Carver and a rambling article by Paul Allen which nailed a central theme: Ackybourn's central subject, he writes, 'is human happiness; specifically the destruction of mental health').

Noël Coward is equally tricky - in part because so much of the writing about him that has appeared since his death originated from his estate, friends and fans. John Lahr produced an acute critical study in 1982 and Philip Hoare a smart biography in 1995, but otherwise there has been an awful lot of gush about the man known as 'the Master'. Quantities of previously unpublished work continue to make it into print - most recently, a distended selection of letters (padded out with toe-curlingly twee screeds of light verse which Noellie and chums exchanged as thank-you letters and aide-memoires).

Short, sharp and deliciously unexpected, Terry Castle's Noël Coward and Radclyffe Hall (1996) couldn't be more different. Castle wonders what the insouciant playwright and direful novelist might have had in common - and in particular the exquisite flippancy of Coward's Blithe Spirit (1941) and Hall's remorselessly dank The Well of Loneliness. The pair were friends, though were not intimate pals - part of the loose community of boho/society gay men and lesbians between the wars. A version of Coward crops up as Jonathan Brockett in The Well, with his 'hard clever face' and sympathetic but finger-wagging strictures. And Hall herself had spiritualist leanings that may have fed into Blithe Spirit.

How does this illuminate the play? Why will we need the phrases 'hag-ridden', 'Claridges' and 'a real rouser'? Find out after the click:

December 18, 2008 11:23 PM | | Comments (0) |

I'd been to the box office, I'd phoned and dogged the theatre's website like a shadow. When a couple of tickets to the RSC's sold-out Hamlet came up, I pounced, and rejoiced in my luck. The next day came news of lead actor David Tennant's injury and I took it badly. Like everyone else who will see the first few weeks of the production's London run, I caught Edward Bennett, bumped up from Laertes to take the title role.

In some ways, we were fortunate: Bennett was far more than merely well prepared, he gave an eloquent, angry reading of the role, apparently quite distinct from Tennant's. He's a stolid baritone of an actor (as the king of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost, he made a good dogged foil to Tennant's febrile Berowne), and his was a thoughtful, determined Hamlet, even if short on wit, edge and lurching instability.

Should it matter? As someone who habitually only gets round to booking shows as they're about to close, I've often found acclaimed performers replaced by understudies or wholly recast. Catch even the great Michael Gambon some time after opening and you may as well get an understudy: I still remember watching his Volpone and regretting that his absorption in the role seemed to have melted into a get-me-out-of-here gabble. No one is indispensible, of course: ballet-goers in particular are used to finding a slip in their cast sheet announcing that, due to injuries almost everyone on stage seems to be standing in for someone else.

Is that what theatre is: understudying for life? People pretend to words, emotions, actions that aren't their own, while we sit in the dark putting our own lives on hold to invest all our concern in the fiction. It's pleasurable - often, let's face it, a relief - but also necessary. Theatre as a substitute for the existence outside may not merely give us a chance to escape our lives, but also to think about them more clearly, more profoundly.

That may not be much consolationwhen you want to see Dr Who. There are times when the show is the star, and a substitution may give a role a new gloss, it doesn't alter a strong directorial vision. At times, understudying is almost the point: Chris Goode's fascinating experiment ...Sisters at the Gate Theatre last year was a radical, partly improvised, re-distillation of Chekhov's last play. Each performance began by the six performers being allotted their roles, which might differ every night. This radical substitution was perfect for a text in which virtually everyone feels they've been denied the life they deserve. The sisters and their friends all feel that they've been miscast, subject to random acts of disappointment, if cut by brief shards of promise.

The RSC Hamlet is certainly not that kind of show. So what difference did Tennant's absence make? Although some commentators lament that audiences are dangerously in thrall to star power, we can't pretend that the casting of the central role isn't crucial in a play like Hamlet, in which so much is prismed through the prince's consiousness. It's particularly true of this production. Doran is a sensitive director, and often an interesting one, but his readings of Shakespeare are often built around a strong leading performance - by Antony Sher in a series of productions, by Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart in Antony and Cleopatra, and by all accounts by Tennant in Hamlet.

Doran's Elsinore delves into how relationships curdle within the family and friendship, but only fitfully relates that to a broader vision of the world. The prominent figures here have all made uneasy compromises with pragmatism: Patrick Stewart's usurper is a man who has longed for power for years, only to find that, once attained, he doesn't really know what to do with it. Penny Downie's queen is accustomed to compensating for her husband's gruffness - remembering people's names, making them feel important - while setting strict limits on what she allows herself to know. Oliver Ford Davies is an excellent Polonius, a spymaster sliding into senility - but although the production excellently shows him turning surveillance on his own children, it seems less interested in his governmental function. He is eventually shot when skulking behind a mirror, which cracks like a spider's web: a nice visual metaphor for an Elsinore we haven't really seen.

To galvanise all of these careful performances, we need a risky, questing Hamlet, a man who will always go too far, grieve too much, ask too much. The first act ends with an unexpected shock (don't worry, no spoiler here): but it depends on our believing that the prince might do something bloodily impulsive. The moment sat awkwardly on the substitute prince - if Tennant's Hamlet is a maverick existential detective, Bennett is a diligent copper, and that's not enough to galvanise this production. Some things you can't replicate.

December 13, 2008 5:01 PM | | Comments (3) |

The Pride, a debut play by Alexei Kaye Campbell at London's Royal Court Theatre, begins with a pepper of clipped 1950s vowels, and the audience can't help but giggle: 'I lived in a tiny little house at the foot of the Acropolis. Infested with mice, but absolutely charming.' Three well-bred people, chatting awkwardly over pre-dinner drinks and failing to talk about anything important to them: we know this scene from a hundred half-seen movies, and we pity their black and white existence. The play, of course, complicates these expectations - the past is another country, but we can use it to make our own seem strange.

The middle decades of the last century have a different resonance in Russian and American culture, cowering in a pall of cold war antagonism. In Britain, however, the postwar period from late 1940s into the 1960s is about thwarted desire and stifled fun. Its ur-text is the 1946 Noël Coward/David Lean film Brief Encounter, with its adulterous romantics nursing flames of passion but backing away from their impossible love. Thrillingly miserable, and based on Coward's 1930s one-acter Still Life, the film's dank yearning encapsulates a resonant notion of Britishness.

But it can be made to release other stories. In an inspired adaptation by Kneehigh Theatre, Brief Encounter was staged in a central London cinema this year. There were warnings on the posters at the front of the cinema reminding people that this was actually a live show - not something you can always say with confidence in London's west end. But director Emma Rice wonderfully located an antic energy around her lovelorn protagonists. Bunting was strewn over the auditorium, and some of Coward's saucier songs were interposed with his taut dialogue: romance was disrupted by the raucous. As played by the brilliantly pawky Amanda Lawrence, Beryl the put-upon skivvy of the refreshment rooms threatened to become the sly, giggling heart of the piece, scampering cheekily around the stage. If mid-century Britain was a place of banked-down passions, Rice suggested, it was also home to a rorty energy. Even the lovers weren't confined to their overcoats. Thanks to an aerial interlude, Laura and Alex didn't merely sit in the tearoom quivering at each other, they took flight, briefly refusing the anguished gravity of their situation. Misery is not the only fruit.

How does The Pride play with similar material? Find out after the click:

December 8, 2008 4:30 PM | | Comments (0) |

Is it possible to love productions you've never seen? Oh baby baby, it is. I'm not just talking about Garrick's Shakespeares, or brightly coloured 19th-century extravaganzas, or the Moscow Arts doing Chekhov for the first time and minting a new voice and a transforming style of acting. Though I do love these too. But closer to home I adore the productions by Philip Prowse, Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald, presiding triumvirate at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre for over 30 years, between 1969 and 2004. Most of their shows were staged before my theatre-going lifetime, but I know about them through one, quite marvellous book: The Citz by Michael Coveney. Originally published in 1990 by Nick Hern Books, it's not in print, but you'll find a second-hand copy online.

I was led back to the book because I've been reading about Diaghilev's Ballets Russes recently (yup, add 'em to the love list above), including MacDonald's lapidary memory play Chinchilla, loosely based on the impresario's waspish retinue and ardent commitment to talent. A bare, white beach at the Lido was gradually populated by mirrors and raffia chairs, lithe-limbed boys, the bulky, black-overcoated figure of Diaghilev himself. The 1977 play was a key Citz production: all three artistic directors were involved, as writer, director-designer, actor, and the show, as Coveney describes it, defined how the company 'had chosen to collaborate fiercely on what they believed to be good theatre in the teeth of ridicule, misunderstanding and critical contempt.'

Why ridicule, why contempt? When Havergal took over the parochial Scottish theatre in 1969 and invited Prowse and MacDonald to join him, he created a defiantly cosmopolitan theatre. It staged the gorier bits of Jacobean drama, the less tractable corners of the European repertory. It featured an acting style that was less about quivering sensitivity and more about rhetorical attitude and the ability to carry off Prowse's assertively glamorous frocks. Blood, flesh and pearls decorated the stage. Hofmannstahl, Karl Kraus and lashings of Goldoni were scintillatingly translated by MacDonald.

I read about these shows in Coveney's panting account and I shiver with pleasure: how the corrupt world in Massinger's The Roman Tragedy was reflected in a grinding soundtrack that suggested 'now the Emperor's mental instability, now the application of torture, now the buzzing of flies in a grotesque charnal house.' Or how the passing of years in Semi-Monde, Noël Coward's divinely decadent jeremiad, was marked by beige vases of pink and blue lilacs being restocked with tiger lilies. Or how Jonathan Hyde, stalking in drag through a brilliantly coloured Goldoni, claimed to be 'dressed to kill - well, maim.'

It's thrilling to read about productions which are intellectual but never bookish; stirring but never sentimental; eclectic, electric and informed by a sensibility that seems impervious to outside opinion (which is why actors and audiences loved [some of] them). Frankly, I don't burn to know what the Citizens are doing now (though it usually sounds pretty interesting). And nowadays, Coveney isn't, to be honest, a favourite writer (he's currently chief critic at Whatsonstage): he's often too snide or chummy. But in The Citz, describing audaciously and unfashionable - if high-fashion - shows which took place far from London, he can't play the insider and he hits grace note after grace note, an enthusiast mainlining provocation with every production he describes.

Go on then, tell me - what are the shows you wish wish wish you'd been in the right place and time to see? And where have you found the most exciting descriptions of them?

December 5, 2008 12:32 AM | | Comments (2) |

A report published in Britain today suggests that maltreatment of children here is far more widespread than previously thought. It pools research into the continuum of damage, from the most grievous sexual and violent abuse to longterm neglect. We are also still digesting the facts of the death of a London child known only as Baby P. He was progressively abused by his mother and her boyfriend until his death, at 17 months, in August 2007. The recent trial and subsequent inquiries have discovered an alarming number of warning signs that the social services failed to spot or were reluctant to act upon, and several high-profile resignations have already taken place.

As happens in similar cases around the world, one or two images of Baby P have become familiar. Two blurred snapshots in particular recur in media reports: one shows a tentatively smiling blond child, the other a face heavily smeared with chocolate (a ruse to conceal the child's bruises). These pictures are fuzzy with untrammelled truth; although upsetting in the light of subsequent events, they aren't shaped or edited. They just are.

Children on stage are quite different. Stage children must always mean something: innocence, cheek, poignancy. Shakespeare's child roles are precocious with foreboding: young Macduff in Macbeth, Mamillius in The Winter's Tale ('a sad tale's best for winter') or the little princes in Richard III. Tiny Tim in numerous adaptations of A Christmas Carol is a rickety little index of the true meaning of Yuletide, while in musicals Orphan Annie and the Artful Dodger are sassy beyond their years and accompanied by a swarm of exuberant urchins who remind us of unquenchable youthful spirits. Ballet children may be more decorous but they're all over the shop in Nutcracker season (one senior London critic always rolls his eyes in December and mutters something heartfelt about Herod). And again, they're not just children, not mere people, they are conduits of innocent delight.

Kids' roles are often tricky to play: mined for sentimentality (even - especially - Ibsen's weakling children in The Wild Duck or Little Eyolf). Sometimes adult actors are cast in these parts, and can be painful to watch (the RSC's recent Love's Labour's Lost had a singularly unhappy-looking Moth who looked as if she'd rather be doing anything than trading pert Elizabethan banter). Children used to eerie effect may come off best (a new production of TS Eliot's The Family Reunion casts children as the baleful Furies).

The novelist and critic Jenny Diski has written incisively about how difficult it is to portray a child's watchful consciousness in fiction: she equates them with ventriloquist's dolls, worked by adult hands. On stage too, a child is often a marionette, stringed for significance. No child ever just happens to be onstage in the way an adult does. And rarely do they have their own independent character. Their fragile presences are freighted with import. In life, it doesn't work that way. We stumble through childhood, unaware of the story of our lives. If we're unlucky, there will be no-one watching out for us, finding meaning in us. With good fortune we'll make it into adulthood, ready at last to perform our adult selves.

How often have you seen lifelike children in theatre and dance? Let me know about three-dimensional tots and unconvincing infants...

December 4, 2008 12:30 AM | | Comments (5) |

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