January 2009 Archives

The 1950s has become the go-to era in which British directors situate classic plays. Mrs Affleck by Samuel Adamson, just opened at the National Theatre, reimagines Ibsen's Little Eyolf on the Kent coast in 1955. Ibsen's unhappy husband and wife, rancorous in their loneliness, plus their disabled little boy and uncomfortably clingy sister-in-law, occupy a dank town by the sea, and are preoccupied by space age dreams, wartime phantoms, Lucky Jim and kitchen appliances.

As I wrote in an earlier post, British theatre is having a fifties moment. But what exactly is it about this decade? And why is it considered hospitable to plays from other times and places? So many classic works involve protagonists who kick against the rules, and the period seems to represent, in Britain at least, a time which offers a set of immutable social codes. Kathryn Hunter, for example, directing a new Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company, feels the 1950s is the most recent period to which the play could be updated; the last stand of public racism in Britain.

Let's define the fifties as a 'long decade', an austere period between the weary aftermath of World War Two and what Philip Larkin gloomily posited as the beginning of sex in 1963. Here Matthew Bourne's unloved prince in Swan Lake drags his feet through royal duties but dreams of something wild, while the RSC's latest Richard III slipped happily into a world of East End gangsters with sharp suits, sharper knives, scruples blunt to the point of oblivion.

Marriages might seem unhappy but inescapable - Kate Winslet locked away in Revolutionary Road stands for a miserable phalanx of trapped wives, stifled by domesticity but unable to identify an alternative. At the National, Adamson's Rita Affleck too laments this tightly tailored persona: 'I'm not just "Olly's mother". Mummy... school gates and lunches and 'pilots of the future' and those doctors... those waiting rooms with the women looking at me... always bad Mrs Affleck or good Mrs Affleck but never a person... and worst of all, not a person to you.' I'm sure the true historical picture about gender and marriage is far more complex than this suggests; even so, it seems to represent the last moment at which a spectator can't merely roll their eyes at a despondent stage wife and suggest they find a job, or jump in the Hillman Imp and head for new towns, new possibilities.

Some early reviews of Mrs Affleck cavil at the setting. They suggest that strange things may take place by fjords, but that they simply don't happen in England, thank you very much (in fact, a macabre strand of the English imagination involves a shady dance between the occult and the mundane by the bleak bleak shore: take a look at All the devils are here, David Seabrook's sly cultural tour of the Kent coast). They equally suggest that the new period does nothing to illuminate Ibsen's original. True, the journey doesn't transform the source play, but it does sharpen details for us. Alfred Allmers, hapless intellectual, has often seemed a passive character (Ibsen's pacts between strong, unfulfilled women and weak men can still seem ahead of their time). In the wake of the war and especially Hiroshima, this Alfred is not a wuss but a pacificist, which gives point to his attempt to define and live some kind of good life. Rita's ferocious ennui, and the silences which everyone finds easier to wrap about them, also strain in this period, as if they sense free speech is but a few years away.

Many of the subjects the Afflecks find difficult to discuss - like Ibsen's Allmers before them - would be touchy in every era, including our supposedly frank-speaking own time. Hopelessness and lacerating need, the unacceptable desires and hatreds that cluster in family life, are never easy to address. Marianne Elliott's fine production of Mrs Affleck clears away the period kitchen set for the final act, and designer Bunny Christie creates a grey, misty space in which the characters wander, lost, bound less by their period and more by their unhappy psyche.

If we ask classic plays to present our past to us, to serve as grandparents to our imaginations, than it is hardly surprising that we situate them a generation or two back. From there, they can reach to us over a social divide that we recognise but which also contains the prospect of its own dissolution. And we realise, perhaps, that our own era, with its unwritten codes and hypocrisies, may come to fulfil a similar purpose in the future.

January 29, 2009 12:08 AM | | Comments (3) |

Tell me you wouldn't love this. You're settling into your seat at the theatre. The curtain is about to rise on The Jersey Boys , say, or Act Without Words II. But before the show begins, the stars of three or four other shows rush in and hurtle through capsule versions of their productions: all tease and shiver, crackle and charm. Yes, my friends, the monkey would love to see trailers, live on stage.

You can't quite see Dame Judi Dench hurtling round a dozen theatres in London's West End to plug Madame de Sade? Me neither, alas, but wouldn't it be amazing if she did? The closest we get on the London stage is smart dance house Sadler's Wells, which each year offers snatches of its shows in programmes called Sampled. They're a bit like galas - one of the curses of ballet, to my mind, with their glutinous miscellany of crowd-pleasers - except that the tickets are cheap and the evening's function is unashamed come-on. There's a good atmosphere, but a whole evening of trail becomes wearing, so I ducked this weekend's selection, which included ABT and Matthew Bourne's Swan Lakes, plus circus, flamenco and hip-hop.

I love trailers: during a stint as a movie critic, and mostly attending press screenings, I began missing them, and would have to lean into the laptop at home to scratch that itch. Theatre companies still seem pretty shy about trailing their productions. The National Theatre goes for arty black and white, but what's fantastic about a trailer is the minidrama. In two minutes you get a narrative arc, principal characters, a couple of the second-best jokes or less jaw-dropping action sequences- everything bar the don't-spoil-it highlights and the ending.

The monkey is still hazy about the details of how this would work, though you'd surely need some boom-throated actor to stand beside the stage and intone, 'She thought she could have it all. The man. The glory. The gun', or maybe 'When times are hard, something's for the chop.' And, yes, ten scene changes in 90 seconds might be taxing. But think of the joy, people.

A recent New Yorker profile of Tim Palen, Lionsgate's promotional general, shone some light on the trailer's dark arts - how you work with what you've got, unless you haven't got it. In which case, you pretend that you have. Savage recutting makes snoozy films seem snappy and whiny ones romantic. We're used to seeing foreign-language movies trailed without a line of yer actual Hungarian, and I only realised quite how box-office-poisonous Woody Allen has become when watching the trailer for Vicky Cristina Barcelona earlier this evening. In his pomp, his name would have sold the movie, bannering across the screen in big caps. Now it's strictly small print, and the trailer is all about Javier Bardem's tomcat moves plus some smoochy girl-on-girl action.

Even so: I don't care if they tell little white lies, or even big nasty fibs. I don't care if they run over dramaturgical integrity in the hobnailed boots of immediate gratification. I just want trailers on stage, live and lively. Someone, please, make this work.

January 27, 2009 12:31 AM | | Comments (5) |

The distinction of Barak Obama's presidential campaign was a sense that words matter, that they can express a person's truth. Our public discourse, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been both muddied and diluted in recent years. We expect spin, distortion, sheer mendacity. The poverty of recent political language fosters cynicism, but the heartfelt reaction to Obama's oratory suggests our own surprise that we can be stirred by speech, that our readiness to believe in a mature public talk has been lying dormant, and is ready to awaken.

Today's inauguration speech in Washington was serious, less emotive than some Obama has given. But amid the noble Lincoln rhythms and the unexpected nod to Jerome 'pick yourself up' Kern, it displayed a writer's gift for tingling , intimate images and word choices. The dead in Arlington cemetery whisper through the ages. The pioneers of the republic huddle in the blood-stained snow. And just 60 years ago, we are reminded, the new president's own father might have been turned away from a local restaurant.

It wasn't just Obama who rose to the occasion - Dianne Feinstein opened the ceremony with a stirring invocation, and the Rev Joseph Lowery closed them with a delightful twinkle. Elsewhere, the words were less well-judged - including the poem by Elizabeth Alexander, which sounded prosaic and inconsequential immediately after the solemn rhythms of the new president's address.

When was the last time you saw an actor command the stage as Obama did the podium? British actors are supposed to be iambic naturals, but even the most impressive investigators of text - in the last couple of years there's been Ian McKellen's King Lear or Fiona Shaw in Beckett's Happy Days - delve into fracture and contradiction rather than cresting the mighty roll of language. Actors and directors distrust grandstanding, doubt a figure who plants their feet centre stage and makes the spotlight hold steady till they are done speaking.

Modern stage writing is similarly dedicated to disrupting the surface of speech, scrabbling at polished phrases and questioning orotund certainties. Portrayals of the powerful burrow and niggle: Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon projected the disgraced president's face in huge close-up on a screen above the stage action, acknowledging that his face might betray him sooner than his own words. In his new play Gethsemane, David Hare finds British politicians' speech cramped and pusillanimous; they're terrified of saying anything so interesting that it might subsequently come back to haunt them.

Obama's rhetorical triplets and pauses which gather up attention mark a change to that notion that political speech is a disingenuous gruel. The words are rich and sustaining, the ideas sturdy and defiant, the delivery secure. Let's hope the action will now suit the word.

January 21, 2009 12:25 AM | | Comments (2) |

Directors, actors, critics - all scratch their heads about what a playwright's intentions may be. The truth is, however, that there isn't a single truth. An author may know exactly how s/he intends a play to be received, but once it is out there in the world, interpretation is up for grabs.

For example, it's hard to imagine that Ibsen would have been thrilled to learn that Hitler was a devotee of Peer Gynt. Yet Hitler's Private Library, Timothy W Ryback's new study which uses the dictator's books as entry points to discuss his career, reveals that he was indeed a major fan of Ibsen's verse epic. This unwieldy masterpiece has long been the most problematic of Ibsen's plays for directors and translators. Now, as if there weren't already enough difficulties surrounding it, we have to wonder what makes it so very appealing to fascists.

Hitler became acquainted with the play when making a name for himself in right-wing politics. An early mentor was the writer Dietrich Eckart, who spotted the spuming Austrian's potential as a speaker and encouraged his progress in proto-Nazi Berlin. Eckart had also translated a successful production of Peer Gynt, pouring contempt on the established German version of the play, which was by a Jewish author. He identified strongly with the wandering hero, hungry for fame (he took it as a portent that he was conceived just as Ibsen began writing the play: 'for me this fact holds a transcendent epiphany').

What did Hitler see in Peer Gynt? And what does this tell us about interpretation? Some thoughts after the click:

January 18, 2009 10:54 PM | | Comments (0) |

Verbatim theatre continues to be a productive development on British stages. Black Watch, Gregory Burke's searing account of soldiers in Iraq, is the most prominent of shows that draw their text - sometimes literally - from interviews with members of the public. Some burrow into events that have wide political ramifications - like Burke's play, or Deep Cut by Philip Ralph, another production that takes a hard look at military culture and examines the lack of transparency of the deaths of recruits at a British army barracks.

Companies in the UK are enthusiastically picking up the technique most closely associated with Anna Deveare Smith, who weds a chameleon ability to inhabit her interviewees' bodies with a writer's eye for the details that reveal a life. With her company Recorded Delivery, Alecky Blythe has examined an oddball range of material - from a siege in Hackney to the elderly at play and comfort-sized prostitutes. The actors hear the recorded interviews in earpieces as they perform each night, building a character from their precise vocal rhythms. Even dance theatre is exploring the technique - DV8's To be straight with you marched into contentious territory of race, religion and homophobia, putting juddering bodies to frequently pained voices.

And then there are those companies who only want your shame. London's Bush Theatre is appealing for stories of sudden loss of dignity, just as they solicited tales from heartbreakers and the broken-hearted for Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover. A team of writers will turn these indignities into drama.

Companies are trying ever harder to connect to their audience - though Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre and Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company are the only major troupes I know of to set up a twitter feed (I'd love to read dispatches from a rehearsal room, but can imagine that the atmosphere of intensely private searching would be compromised by a constantly tweeting assistant director). But what better way to engage with an audience that to draw on their own experiences? Not so much write-what-you-know as write-what-they-know. So, will anyone be sharing their shame with the Bush? And is this an effective way to keep drama real?

January 15, 2009 4:47 PM | | Comments (4) |

Chloe Veltman's terrifically provocative piece across the hall (prompted by Amanda Ameer and her enquiring mind around the corner) wonders if the traditional theatre programme should be killed off. It's certainly true that what most audiences are offered is lamentable - over-priced, under-thought, padded by gushy biographies and dullsville PR, with the odd background article written by a drudge with no spark or insight into the production.

But does it have to be that way? Is it the fault of print and paper that they're used so soullessly? I'm certainly not knocking internettery and its uses. Sure, you can do all manner of whizz with it, and why wouldn't you? Work that website, luxuriate those downloads, share the sound and vision. But is it either/or? The glory of a publication is that it's there in your hand - before, during and after a show. And a good one feels like having a lively, papery companion along for the ride.

I'm hardly disinterested here. I've edited a raft of programmes in my time, and written notes for many more on theatre and dance. What I have learned that it makes an immense difference if you can get involved in the production in some way. I once spent six months at the Royal Shakespeare Company, covering a sabbatical by their then head of publications, Kathy Elgin. She had developed a richly informative programme style - a canny student could have used one of Kathy's programmes as a generous casebook of context and criticism. Directors were also used to being involved in discussions about what the programme could contain, and the best of them would share their sense of process to produce something that would both enhance the production and be rather gorgeous in its own right (Andy Williams, head of graphic design, take a bow).

I had some great fun working on these programmes. For pleasure-seeking Love in a Wood by William Wycherley, I wrote a Time Out-style guide to Restoration London, with details of where to drink, shop and party. For an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (by the lovely poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell, who died at the end of last year), we set out the background information like a board game, carrying the reader from page to page with a grave playfulness that I must admit I would have loved when I was little.

I also edited the programmes for the first several seasons of BITE, the Barbican Centre's consummate international performance series. Despite the pioneering artists - Cunningham, Ninagawa, Anderson, Lepage, Wilson - we had to work much harder to produce creative programmes. Many artists weren't used to Brit-style programmes, or feared over-explaining their work. We again commissioned brainbox essayists, devised chronologies and other imaginative contexts. I was hugely proud of some of these publications, and thought they really enhanced the shows - I certainly learned a lot - but other times felt the lack of connection with the artists, and worried that the result, however interesting, ran parallel to a production rather than opening a door into it.

Freesheets can be fine - they're common in abstract contemporary dance, but even there it's frustrating to have little more than a list of names. Pay-for programmes certainly have to justify their price tag. The National Theatre produces fat little booklets, crammed with goodies, and have rightly been promoting them as valuable adjuncts to the show. Sadler's Wells is sealing its status as London's most thoughtful dance venue by upping the content of its once skimpy programmes - it's no wonder they keep reaching new audiences. Many new writing venues combine programme with playtext, which is a wonderful idea.

Yet you dig in your heels and cling to your wallet. Shouldn't a piece of theatre stand on its own, you say? Oh yes. If you need a programme to make sense of it, it's unlikely to be a good night. But there's nothing wrong with pointing an audience in the right direction, giving them a sense of the process, making them feel involved. Equally, a good programme can help you carry on the conversation after the show - connect with the words and images you've seen, clarify your own thoughts (even if in disagreement), remind you that theatre is a dialogue and that what happens in your head after a show is as significant as what takes place before your eyes.

What programmes, if any, have you found genuinely helpful at theatre, dance, opera or concert? What information would you like to find, but rarely do? If you're a practitioner, do you enjoy having a programme accompany your work, or is it a distraction? Let me know what you think.

January 13, 2009 5:15 PM | | Comments (0) |

It's the mild-mannered schlub you should beware. As the case against Wall Street trader Bernie Madoff continues to assemble - his lawyers are this week protesting a move to deny him bail and return him to prison - the head-scratching continues. Madoff doesn't look much like a financial Mephistopheles. But then, what would that look like?

Swindlers in drama tend to be small-scale, street-sized. Wise guys and grifters, sharp-talking Jacobean city boys or scamps who spot a miser in Molière. Large-scale fraudsters are less frequently spotted. Perhaps because we need to follow their gradual reputation-gathering rise before the shockingly abrupt fall, fat 19th-century novels are most on the money (sorry) when it comes to crooked financiers. The florid Augustus Melmotte in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, say, or the near-anonymous Merdle in Little Dorrit.

The latter, Dickens' most debt-obsessed novel, has been my dramatic touchstone of the season of bad news in its BBC tv adaptation. Merdle is as much an idea as a character, but Anton Lesser found the perfect note of sick-at-stomach to embody a financial maven in way over his head, piling up delusory investments in the hope that together they might somehow cover each other's tracks. And, as novelist Thomas Mallon suggests, Madoff too seems a rogue out of Dickens: 'even his name is sort of Dickensian. Made-Off. It sounds so perfect.'

For the play that best nails a thoroughly respectable swindle, join me after the click:

January 7, 2009 4:17 PM | | Comments (0) |

When I interviewed the director Sir Peter Hall recently, he mentioned that when he was preparing the British premiere of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in 1955, Peter Brook suggested that he consider Francis Bacon as set designer. Although Bacon had established an international reputation with his 'screaming pope' paintings, Hall had never heard of him. They met for a drink, and it immediately became clear that the painter had no interest in theatre, and especially in collaboration. The prospect of what Hall wryly described as 'screaming tramps in a tree' swiftly receded.

It may be just as well, though I've still never seen a production of Godot that matches the intensity of my imaginings, and reverent visuals are part of the problem. Catching Tate Britain's Bacon retrospective just before it closed at the weekend, I edged through the crowded rooms with possible Godots in mind. Beckett and Bacon, two great artists of mid-century despair, might seem a perfect match, but the exhibition made me wonder. The quality of despair in each is quite distinct: Bacon's is savage, more insistent that humanity is trapped in animalistic flesh.

Both artists are drawn to the still air of interiors (Godot, like Happy Days, is a rare Beckett play set in a landscape), and there's certainly something theatrical about these canvases: Bacon's figures are overtly caged, even staged, trapped behind a kind of experimental proscenium. Later works, especially around the time of his lover's suicide in 1971, place figures beside ink-black doorways, hovering on the verge of extinction. Fleshy puddles of paint gather at their feet, as if the body is seeping away. Spectatorship and its queasy relation to suffering is a particularly disturbing element of Bacon's crucifixion triptychs, where men in homburgs slouch at the sidelines, gazing dispassionately at the passion.

The form is highly composed, as it must be to contain such eviscerated subjects - the stretched tendons, the exposed spines, the mouths hissing through death-rattle gnashers. Livid swashes of colour carry the pictures, especially Bacon's trademark orange-red. Although the Godot was an idea quickly abandoned, it's interesting to see his works inspired by Aeschylus' Oresteia (1981). You wouldn't use them as a backdrop, but they are powerful responses to the tragedies: the bodies hacked about, rent open, reduced to scraps of limb and torso around a deep red throne.

The crossover between visual artists and the stage is surprisingly attenuated. Mostly, it centres on Diaghilev's pioneering and publicity-magnet commissions for his Ballets Russes, scooping up Picasso, Chagall, Goncharova, Matisse. Christopher Wheeldon has discussed plans to follow in the impresario's footsteps with his own Morphoses company, and last year, Wayne McGregor collaborated with artist Julian Opie on the Royal Ballet's Infra. As theatre becomes increasingly interested in creating an environment for work rather than presenting a static picture, you can imagine further collaborations in which the visual artist is neither guest star nor supporting player but a fully integrated partner in the production. Who would you like to see move from gallery to stage?

January 6, 2009 11:08 AM | | Comments (2) |

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