June 2009 Archives

There was no halfway house with Pina Bausch. As my editor remarked earlier today, you were either a devotee or sceptic, and if a devotee you were very devoted. There will be many tributes to Pina Bausch in the next few days - I'm writing one myself. So this is just a memory. Of the first time.

For many years, Bausch's company (Tanztheater Wuppertal) didn't appear in London - there was no stage suitable for her intimate epics. Only when Sadler's Wells refurbished did she return. And the first show was Viktor.

I was ill that day, with the winter sniffles, and feeling unprepared for my first encounter with a choreographer noted for her gruelling demands. Four hours later, I emerged exhilarated. This was art made during and about a long, bad century - it offers a social veneer then crushes it underfoot like the carpet of pink carnations in Nelken. There's a collective and individual pain, in the bone and in the society. But also astonishing was what Bausch believed you could put on stage, and how long you could keep it there.

I thought I'd seen extremity on stage, but it was almost impossible to believe how long she was prepared to extend a sequence, how many repetitions she would demand of her dancers, how much attention she would ask of us. A stark example: in Viktor, a woman is used as a water pump. She swallows, her body is worked like a lever, she blurts out water. It seems like a fairly simple metaphor for male cruelty. Except that Bausch repeats and repeats the sequence, until we're feeling it and dreading it, and then almost getting used to it. It becomes a terror, and then a habit - which is terrifying.

We never pay enough attention - and performance rarely goes at a speed which makes it possible. But Bausch made it not only possible, but unavoidable. As with the loss of any great artist, I feel bereft - because now I'll have to do it for myself, make myself look hard, feel keenly.

June 30, 2009 11:58 PM | | Comments (1) |

I was much tickled this afternoon to read the performance artist and lecturer Lois Weaver recalling a visit to David Hare's play The Secret Rapture. Her colleague Peggy Phelan, a reluctant co-attendee at the matinee performance ('this sea of the well-behaved'), became exercised during the scene in which the heroine's dangerously obsessive ex bursts in on her with a gun. The dynamic of the play was pointing to the passive heroine copping it, but when the ex-boyfriend dropped his weapon, Phelan's infuriated cry through the polite afternoon atmosphere: 'Pick up the gun and shoot the bastard!'

It's a brilliant reminder of the many-headed nature of a theatre audience, a factor that is often taken for granted. Weaver's story is in her foreword to Theatre & audience, part of Palgrave Macmillan's neat new series of accessible theatre studies theory. The book itself is by Helen Freshwater, who notes both how often critics, academics and practitioners describe audience reactions as monolithic (the monkey holds up a guilty paw: he often uses the grand critical 'we feel,' 'we see,' 'we realise'). And she also wonders why theatrical theorists often regard the audience with 'a complex mix of hope, frustration and disgust.'

As a post-performance discussion will often reveal, audiences offer a hugely varied body of opinion, squirming like a sackful of ferrets. The bravura Melbourne-based blogger Neandallus even uses such disputations as the basis for his reviews, presented as florid, piercing Platonic dialogues.

Yet any performer will tell you that audiences each have their own individual collective character. While on stage, they seem not to experience contradiction, but consensus. Playwright David Edgar in How Plays Work, his rewarding examination of theatrical craft, frequently returns to the weight of audience expectations, and how authors can exploit or undermine them. Genre expectations are so deep-rooted, he considers, that 'theatre's dirty little secret' is that 'audiences know the ending of most plays (or certainly the sort of ending) before they begin.'

It's difficult to think and write about audiences in ways that don't treat them as monoliths, or as passive, or as neatly-defined target groups. It's a fascinating exercise - how do we describe spectators' involvement and investment in performance in ways that respect their individuality but don't become too separate to be meaningful? Are we - sorry, you - a flock of sheep or a chaotic convocation?

June 28, 2009 11:58 PM | | Comments (4) |

We critics - dressed in our usual dowdy - were discombobulated when we arrived at Sadler's Wells last week for English National Ballet's tribute to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. There was a red (actually black) carpet, and a healthy jostle of paparazzi. Not, it turned out, for us (who knew?), but because there were British stars in attendance. Jeremy Irons, Stephen Fry, Matt Smith (who? The new Dr Who, that's who. Much excited squeaking in our corner of the foyer...). And the stars were there, because Karl Lagerfeld had created a fashion-forward tutu for ballerina Elena Glurdjidze, performing Anna Pavlova's signature solo The Dying Swan. See? Swan plus fashion plus celebrity = an Event.

Diaghilev, the matchless impresario who spun like a virtuoso, would have been proud. He both hired fashion designers (notably Chanel, now directed by Lagerfeld) and inspired them. However, as a monster among artistic monsters (Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Fokine), he would also have been able to insist on changes to the Lagerfeld tutu, which was hideous. Glurdjidze didn't look so much like a dying swan as a fatally injured one - the feathered chocker was hefty as a neck brace, and the bodice swaddled her. As the Guardian's Judith Mackrell suggested, Lagerfeld disregards the needs of the dancing body (his own film of tubby the tutu is here). Where ballet costume works to give the illusion of weightlessness, this was earthbound - less swan than turkey.

The best thing about the programme was that it reminded us how various the Ballets Russes repertoire was, and how it altered during the twenty years of Diaghilev's exacting and unsentimental stewardship. Burning bridges as he went, he kept his eye on the next big thing. Fokine's limpid early pieces gave way to Nijinsky's startling primitivism; Nijinska, Massine and Balanchine followed and tugged the repertoire in new directions.

It was Fokine's perfume and exoticism that dominated the ENB programme. The wretched swan and Le Spectre de la Rose seem to have lost their scent - like flowers long ago pressed in a book, you know they must be important to someone, but struggle to guess who, or why. (Spectre's set, however, does have the most fab artistic wallpaper, except perhaps for Les parapluies de Cherbourg, a movie which is all about the wallpaper.)

There was also a world premiere, Faun(e) by David Dawson, set to Debussy's score to L'après-midi. It shared with Nijinsky's original a narcissistic, masturbatory impulse: two men in grey rehearsal frocks, watching and dancing, older and younger shadowing each other's memories and fantasies in an empty theatre.

A programme bookended by Apollo's diamond patterns and Schéhérazade's deranged tumble of gems and garnets, to begin with Balanchine and work back to Fokine, is to see how Diaghilev steered a path for his company between popular entertainment and stark modernism. And he kept the work coming, and kept people guessing what he'd do next. The unpredictable is always in fashion.

June 25, 2009 11:32 PM | | Comments (0) |

Helen Mirren sickens in the sunlight, bends double with torment, makes clammy advances to her stepson and scrabbles at herself in remorse. It's quite unlike the starchy home life of our own dear queen, as portrayed in Mirren's previous Oscar-winning performance. But this is a Racine queen - Phèdre, whose toxic desire blights her family in the 1677 French tragedy.

Many have welcomed big-screen opera, live and in high-definition. But theatre is a new development: on Thursday, the National Theatre pioneers an innovative scheme to bring its productions to new audiences, both in Britain and beyond, when its new production of Phèdre is broadcast in over 200 cinemas across the globe.

The National's inaugural productions aren't cosy choices - next up is Shakespeare's problematic fable All's Well That Ends Well. And Racine is a notoriously tough nut to crack for Anglophone theatre. I saw Nicholas Hytner's production at the weekend - not in cinematic close up, admittedly, but certainly up close, as we were goggling from the third row. It's certainly worth a goggle, with some ripe performances and a strong design (set: Bob Crowley; lighting: Paule Constable): a rocky Greek terrace, cut by searing sunlight from which Phèdre cowers in her guilty love.

Mirren, in particular, is great: sardonic notes catch on the iron edge of her voice, while her body appears to be wasting away, as if to tame the heart through sickness.

But I'd also like to hear it for the translation by poet Ted Hughes. First performed in 1998, it has now received a pummelling by critic Michael Coveney, who claims 'You simply don't get the tragic tread of the French alexandrines in a bolshie arrangement of free verse with the odd iambic pentameter thrown in. And there's no formal rhyming, essential to the meaning in Racine, so you're left with a po-faced series of encounters between rather boring people.'

It's true that language is meaning in Racine: the tight verse form mirrors his characters' lack of wriggle room. In Cheek By Jowl's recent Andromaque, for example, the French cast inhabited a cruel geometry that mirrored their situation. Hughes didn't claim to ape the original: he calls his text a 'version', and though it can't reproduce the aural effect of the alexandrines, he makes Phèdre a distinctively pained experience.

This is a play in which desire turns monstrous, curdling relations between stepmother and stepson, father and son, husband and wife. And desire and rage are all interiorised - Racine's protagonists speak to themselves or unload on a hapless confidante (I hope you'll appreciate Margaret Tyzack's magnificent bloodhound features as Phèdre's nurse Oenone: as the queen bangs on about her misbegotten passions, Tyzack looks concerned, mortified and profoundly irritated).

It's true, Hughes makes the tragedy, um, Hughesian - and on its own terms it's a powerful piece of dramatic writing. He truffles for the way emotion turns interior in Phèdre. Unable to find mutual expression, desire feeds on itself, or turns on itself in revulsion, and Hughes richly images that interiorised churn. It's a visceral register: Phèdre wants to empty the blood from her rival's carcass, fears that truth will vomit out of her mouth, feels bloated with her crimes.

See the play as a masterpiece about revulsion as much as desire, and the translation makes perfect sense - culminating in a gory report of an atrocity (delivered with appalled fury by John Shrapnel) that left 'a rag of flesh on every thorn' and feels 'like a great wound through my body.' Hughes returns the body to Racine, locates poisoned passions in the gut and in the blood.

Anyone planning to spend a night with Phèdre? Let me know where you were, and what you thought...

June 23, 2009 11:53 PM | | Comments (2) |

We can probably file this under marketing rather than fund-raising, but the Goodman Theatre's latest wheeze - a money-back guarantee for a new play by Migdalia Cruz - is certainly eye-catching. I've written a piece for the Guardian's theatre blog here, wondering if punters would really have the gall to demand a refund after sitting through an evening at the theatre. Early comments suggest that many people are way less forgiving of an unsatisfactory night out than I might be.

Actually, mediocrity is less forgivable than ambition that doesn't quite come off. I fervently hope that 2009 doesn't hold any plays more lame than the duddest of this year's duds: Nicholas de Jongh's bafflingly overpraised drama Plague Over England and the quickly buried recession comedy Ordinary Dreams. Admittedly, I was on review duty those nights, so money-back wasn't an option (but, oh, how I resent those lost hours). Even so, my heart went out to actors working like demons to flog some life into lines that fell dead from the page. Would it take a heart of stone to demand a refund? Or am I just a big softy?

And, fundamentally, is this refund scheme really the best use of the Richard H Driehaus Foundation's dosh? Was the real point to get attention? If so, job done. But look at how cleverly Britain's National Theatre has used sponsorship - notably the Travelex scheme offering low ticket prices. This scheme has helped attract audiences to sometimes challenging work (this season including new plays and rare revivals). The result is a theatre that buzzes, an audience that is at home with multimedia experiments and audacious stagings, that hangs out in the bars and foyers. Surely growing an audience is more about strategy than stunts.

June 19, 2009 7:23 PM | | Comments (0) |

Many theatres search for a stonking family show that will unite the generations, and it is hardly surprising that they frequently turn to classic children's literature.

Those classic stories, though: aren't they weird? No, really. Especially those developed in the dark stew of Victorian morality and the hothouse of the subsequent fin-de-siecle. The period provides a rich source for theatrical adaptation: Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, among other works by E Nesbit and Rudyard Kipling - and the most poignant wish-fulfilment fantasy of them all, Peter Pan.

A new version of Peter Pan opened last week in a state-of-the-art tent in Kensington Gardens - which is fitting, as it's here that JM Barrie developed the story while attaching himself like a winsome leech to the Llewelyn Davies family. What is it like to watch these plays as an adult?

Some thoughts about that after the click:

June 16, 2009 3:44 PM | | Comments (0) |

If there was an award for best-dressed Hamlet, Jude Law would walk it. His smart-suited performance bucks a trend for geek-chic Hamlets. Admittedly this isn't a brand new trend: since David Warner's Aldermaston scarf in 1963 or Mark Rylance's stripy pyjamas (nothing better to suggest an antic disposition) in 1989, Hamlets have dressed to express that they are off message and out of joint in the Elsinore spin cycle. The prince's inky costume would have proclaimed catwalk - but not smart - melancholy in the very first production in c1600, while his subsequent deconstructed doublet and pale pale shirt would have nailed the 'careless desolation' of this most fashionable malaise.

It may seem shallow as a puddle to discuss Hamlet through the cut of his suit, but it encapsulates Jude Law's version. He's an angry prince, in part because he's primed to step onto the Danish throne. We never learn what he was studying at Wittenburg, but I'd guess an MBA - with that and the threads he's good to go and fire up his first power point presentation for the cabinet ('Norway: trade is the new diplomacy').

This is quite unlike the outsider Hamlets of recent years. Few have sought power, from Simon Russell Beale's self-hurtingly wry prince and George Anton's extreme provocateur for Calixto Bieto, to David Tennant's antic hero (which, no, I didn't see, thanks for reminding me. But I saw the production that framed him, and at least there's a chance to catch it on screen). Peter Brook staged it as a carpet-bound meditation with Adrian Lester, while the Wooster Group pays impish homage to Richard Burton's landmark filmed version.

Most of these Hamlets have been dangerously funny, or at least witty (as Russell Beale showed, wit cuts both ways). But not Law: he's serious, even stern, and speaks snappily but with odd halts, as if his mind was racing ahead of his tongue. The speed characterises Michael Grandage's production, which gallops through its cut text. People march on, gabble and march off again before they've built a character. In a play haunted by moments of moral choice and possibility, there's no time in which the action can hinge.

This can only limit the prince himself, a man who apprehends more possibilities than most, even as they hem him in. Law is fine (bitter, big hands stretched wide), but he's not my idea of Hamlet. And the production, which closes the Donmar Warehouse's season of classic plays in a West End theatre, suggests that Michael Grandage has retreated from the sharp finesse of his best work.

I'm reluctant to rubbish the season, because it's such a fine idea: yummy casts in nourishing plays, with seat prices far cheaper than the West End norm (I sat in the middle of the back row of the balcony for a remarkable ten quid). But Grandage's productions have been culinary. They look ravishing: set designer Christopher Oram's weathered, beaten textures and Neil Austin's fog and diamond lighting are heart-stopping. Hamlet stages 'To be or not to be' amid snowfall at the back of the granite stage, Law sinking to the ground against the black back wall. Swoony visuals can't themselves make plays sing: if Grandage missed the probing wit in Hamlet, he ducked the darkness in Twelfth Night, and he failed to detect any point at all in Mishima's wigtastic Madame de Sade (Judi Dench and the rest of the cast not so much acting as holding up a wall of heavy rhetoric, hoping it didn't fall and crush them). Only Chekhov's Ivanov emerged as an urgent, necessary play - a black-hearted tragicomedy of depression and debt. It's yelping despair was what we needed to hear. Hamlet's furrowed brow and smart clothes look good but won't help in a crisis.

June 14, 2009 11:04 PM | | Comments (2) |

Well, maybe it is great, after all. Am still in a bit of a fanboy daze about Arcadia, Tom Stoppard's 1993 play which has just received its first major London revival. I was asked to write something in advance about its claims to be a 'great' play, and had to confess that I was uneasy about the term.

Greatness, especially in theatre, is a mutable concept: each age takes what it needs from the past, and often those choices are unpredictable. Who would have thought that the acrid Troilus and Cressida or quibbling Love's Labour's Lost would have come to seem among Shakespeare's most pertinent texts? Or that Schiller's impassioned realpolitick would have secured a place on British stages?

Among more recent plays, it's even more difficult to predict what will stick. When text is increasingly a secondary element in so much memorable theatre, we have to wonder which of our own era's drama will survive, and in what form.

Nonetheless, Arcadia is a marvel. David Leveaux's revival is drier than Trevor Nunn's romantic original, and less charismatically cast. But to this fluffy-headed arts monkey it nails the science much more strongly, and the sense that ideas matter, terribly, to everyone onstage is thrillingly conveyed. This is in part due to a remarkable performance from Stoppard's own son, Ed, as the maths whizz Valentine tracking grouse populations on his Apple. He's knobbly and awkward - these are some of the most expressive ankles and cheekbones you'll see on the stage. And he not only gives the impression that he thinks as he speaks, but that he thinks as he listens. It's a rare gift.

Stoppard stretches between Romantic poetry and chaos theory, between the Georgian age and our own. The panorama of his subject matter may be wide, but not his social focus. The play nestles rather too adoringly among the ruling elite, plus the aspiring clever-clogs who hope to join them. Even so, the idea that we can define ourselves by what we think about as well as what we feel is both inspiring and quietly moving. I'm still not comfortable with labelling lays as 'great' or otherwise: but it's hard to think of many modern British plays that so confidently lay claim to the term.

June 7, 2009 11:42 PM | | Comments (0) |

It's rare for a living artist to be the focus of individual celebration, outside of a major arts festival. But this spring, London has allowed audiences to focus on two idiosyncratic American artists and provided a spotlight on their often complex work.

The differences in reception have been marked. Although critical opinion was divided on the merits of recent work by Frankfurt-based choreographer William Forsythe, no-one seems to have questioned the wisdom of devoting a season to his work. For New York playwright Wallace Shawn, however, the reaction has been far more mixed. Some critics have responded positively, but others have dismissed the season as a vanity project, and at the performances I attended, audiences were voting with their feet. Maybe this does nothing more than suggest a difference between Wallace and William - or perhaps it points to a rift in approach between audiences for mainstream dance and theatre.

It certainly suggests that the dance world is far more open to uningratiating work. Forsythe's Decreation, for example, was a very tough watch, but most everybody at Sadler's Wells stayed to the end and there was a whooping curtain call. For all of their distinguished casts (Miranda Richardson, Jennifer Tilly, Jane Horrocks, Clare Higgins), the Shawn plays at the Royal Court have been marked by walkouts - on Monday, half of the audience for Grasses of a Thousand Colours had melted away by the third act, and there were also some noisy removals during the interval-less Aunt Dan and Lemon.

Why should this be? What do the two seasons tell us about each of these fascinating artists? And is the theatre world less willing to experiment than dance? More after the click:

June 4, 2009 11:02 PM | | Comments (0) |

Blogs are notorious for elevating the minutiae of the blogger's life into distended posts. Well, grab a couple of matchsticks for your eyelids, Gladys, because minutiae don't come much more minute than this.

The scene is a checkout queue in my local supermarket. The time is a quiet weekday morning. So quiet, in fact, that few of the lines are open, and the gent in front of me has a full family load of goods ambling towards the till. He asks for help packing his purchases: none is forthcoming. I offer to help: he refuses. I, foolishly, think he's merely being polite (pointless self-denial is the British way), so I offer again. He declines again, rather more forcefully. 'It wasn't an aggressive offer of help, you know,' I say, taken aback. 'Look, I've said no three times now,' he snaps. 'Just leave it.'

Well, I warned you it was minutiae. But there is a point, honest: as I stood there, baffled, oddly chastened and waiting for him to deal with pastas and salads and fancy biscuits, I reflected on how audiences read acting. We go to the theatre and we confidently assign meanings to human behaviour. Sometimes those meanings are diagnostic (he's angry; she's grieving), sometimes they involve a moral judgement (naughty man; nice lady). But although my neighbour and I might disagree about these readings, there is usually a good steer from the performer or production to help us assess the character.

Without context, I realised, we flounder. I had no idea why the man in the queue responded so sharply. Was he painfully shy or furiously self-sufficient? Did he feel that his alpha-masculinity, already severely compromised by shuffling celery on a Thursday morning, was placed under even greater threat when another guy offered assistance? Would he have responded differently to a female shopper? Was he planning to poison his wife with a toxic tagine, and fear that he'd been rumbled? How could I begin to guess?

Or, even more troubling, was I failing to read my own behaviour correctly? Maybe I didn't seem friendly at all, but pushy, or even creepy. Was this a scene about an angry boor spurning a good samaritan, or about a reserved man fending off a meddling loon? Without some establishing scenes involving friends, family, authority figures or a Greek chorus hanging around the frozen goods, it was impossible to know how to read the encounter.

So far, so Thursday. But critics tend to describe characters and performances with just a phrase or a single epithet: recently, I find, I've gone for harried, gorgon, 'a shambles of dubious potential', 'droll-dimpled' ['were his dimples really droll?' asked my editor. Yes, indeedy], 'unglamorous voluptuary' and, I'm afraid to confess, 'a cock with a quiff.' The last was cut, but on grounds of taste rather than its unimpeachable accuracy. All seemed spot-on to me - but how would I sum up the man in the queue? How would I describe myself? How much confidence do we have in our character readings?

June 1, 2009 6:42 PM | | Comments (3) |

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