Performance Monkey: February 2009 Archives
Have you heard the story of Romeo and the gorilla? Christopher Gable was the dancer on whom Kenneth MacMillan created the role of Romeo for the Royal Ballet in 1965. MacMillan planned a harrowing final scene; the distraught hero, he said, should attempt desperately to revive Juliet, but when his efforts failed, she becomes no more than a piece of meat as his hopes fade. Gable was reminded of a gorilla in London Zoo, whose baby had just died. She refused to give the body up to the keepers, but instead dragged it around with her, bumping it over the floor and into the walls. This image of numbed connection became Gable's touchstone for his own performance.
It's hard to imagine many similar acts of naturalistic creativity taking place in ballet. I thought of this last week, when preparing a pre-performance event for the BBC Philharmonic. They performed (with scalding energy, under conductor Yutaka Sado) a selection from Prokofiev's score for Romeo and Juliet (1935), having previously played Tchaikovsky's luxurious score for The Sleeping Beauty (1890). We discussed how Russian ballet had developed between these two landmark works, and part of the answer was in the dramatic demands.
How does drama meet ballet? There's more after the click:
Practical criticism is a loosely recurring strand of the blog in which we look at the outside world through the eyes of a critic. It's kind of a pun. But today, people, we're going to do old-school prat crit, the like of which I haven't done since college. We're going to look at a text, and decide what it's telling us. We'll look for rhythms and repetitions. We'll parse individual phrases. We may even examine the punctuation.
This might seem a purely academic exercise, if the text weren't Seven Jewish Children, Caryl Churchill's short (10-minute, as staged at the Royal Court this month) play written in response to the situation in Gaza. Short but with a prolonged aftermath of debate and dissent. Most of the discussion has involved people who didn't see the play staged - I'm one of these too. But the play is available for free download (props to the Royal Court and Nick Hern Books), so we can all arm ourselves with the eight pages, and get down to some textual analysis.
Ready? Pencils sharpened? We'll begin after the click.
It's the time of rustling envelopes, awkward presentations and a deranged gush of thanks or gracelessness. Awards season reaches its Oscar apogee this weekend, while British theatre continues to scatter statuettes over the profession, leading up to the Olivier Awards ceremony on 8 March.
As we know, awards are random acts of randomosity and little weight should be attached to who's in and who's out (though should the monkey ever find himself nominated for, say, best speccy no-mates it will be a different story). But surely we can agree on the categories? Writing, directing, designing, yes? My personal favourites are the Clarence Derwent Awards which recognise supporting roles, at which the British excel (in the US, they are awarded to promising young actors) - as Anthony Lane observes, 'Character acting is, of course, one of the four things that the British still do supremely well, the others being soldiering, tailoring, and getting drunk in public.'
But why in 2009 are acting awards still divided by gender? What is it that male and female performers do that is so very different from each other? Aren't Judi Dench and Ian McKellen engaged in a similar process on stage and in rehearsal? Is it sensible or valuable to discuss actors separately according to their gender? How does that help us assess a performance?
Now, I'm naive but not wholly idiotic. I realise there are other factors at work here. In both theatre and film, actors tend to grab more headlines than their creative colleagues. They provide glamour and celebrity and idiosyncratic red-carpet attire. On the podium they blub and blurt. Who wouldn't want to double the acting categories and thus the attendant news coverage?
But we can always devise new acting categories in order to guarantee thespian involvement. Many recognise comedy as well as drama, single out musical theatre and Shakespeare. Let's add prizes for best sweaty naturalism, period prancing or conceptual dedication. But surely it's time we dropped the division by gender. After all, wouldn't you like to love to see Streep and Rourke go head-to-head? A Brangelina smackdown? See, feminism can be fun...
What is the Monkey missing here? Should we continue to separate the sexes at awards time? And if you could bestow just one acting Oscar or Olivier, who would you pick? Kate Winslet or Sean Penn? Penelope Wilton or Derek Jacobi?
Performance Monkey's blurb claims that theatregoers sit in the dark. Well, not always. In fact, increasingly less often, as site-specific and promenade productions frequently exploit the visible presence of the spectators and implicate them in the show.
None has been more eerie, for me, than Punchdrunk's phantasmagoric Faust in 2006. We crammed beaky white masks over our faces and wandered the corridors and staircases of a disused warehouse as scenes from the Faust legend erupted around us. Even more uncanny than the thrashing, wordless performances was looking up at a crowd of impassive masked faces, knowing that you looked just the same. Were we watching ghostly scenes, close as breath but separated from them? Or were we ourselves the phantoms?
Less invasively, it's impossible to be unaware of the audience at Shakespeare's Globe, especially during daytime performances when the stage action must compete for your full attention. The RSC doesn't solicit such a vocal response, but it too strives to reinforce the communal nature of performance. Stratford-upon-Avon's vast proscenium theatre - an art-deco icon of the 1930s, and one of the too few major British buildings to have been designed by a woman, Elizabeth Scott - is being extensively remodelled. 'We have gone for a thrust stage,' says artistic director Michael Boyd, 'where the audience are aware of the rest of the audience. I'm sorry for those of you who like sitting in the dark - I recommend the cinema.'
All very bullish, but I'm in two minds. There's a thrill to a darkened auditorium, a heightened concentration fostered by the sense of being alone in company. Community is great, distraction less so. Boyd's own mighty cycle of Shakespeare's history plays last year was probably the best argument for his preferred stage, light spilling over the audience to make us implicit in the power play of squabble and grudge. You'd catch sight of your own feelings of excitement or dismay echoed on another spectator's face, while Jonathan Slinger's thoroughly disdainful, runtish Richard III could take us easily into his confidence even as he scorned our pity.
Sometimes, however, the lights can be blazing but you're far too busy to notice. Take Rotozaza's wonderful Etiquette, a play for two people who are both performers and audience. It is staged on a table top in a public place; we took part last year in a crowded foyer of the Barbican centre on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and it is now occurring in a cafe in Dalston, east London. I shouldn't say too much about it - unpreparedness is the point - but it's a mixture of new wave dialogue and shaggy dog story, deploying homely props and keeping your wits busy as you concentrate on instructions fed through your headphones and on your partner's lines and actions. You're in full view (though not doing anything particularly outlandish), but your mind is in the dark even as your body sits in the light. For some, that's the perfect theatrical experience.
Most drama we see on stage is historical drama - written, set or referencing the past. Do we ask it to fit our notions of a lost era? Some of these questions popped up the other evening at Barry Lyndon, part of a Stanley Kubrick season at the National Film Theatre in London. My, but it's a brilliantly strange movie - the 18th century but not as we know it. It's the kind of film which is often described as theatrical - richly costumed, painstaking compositions, acting which bumps alongside recognisable human behaviour. It is, of course, intently cinematic, but might ask us to reconsider what we want from theatre. In particular, Kubrick reminds us that sex in art doesn't have to be sexy, and style doesn't have to be uniform.
Period comedy usually offers style and sex, but Kubrick denies us both in Barry Lyndon. His films often suggest the vanity of human wishes. Not in the sense that what is desired cannot be achieved. But that wishing itself is a hollow, pointless activity. Barry Lyndon (1975), for example, based on Thackeray's rarely-read novel, is a tale of ruthless social climbing which operates in a similar fashion. Wealth, fun, status, security: the narrative appears to slavers after them, but what emerges on screen is cool and sceptical, though barely satirical.
Linda Ruth Williams, writing in the current issue of Sight & Sound, looks askance at Kubrick's lack of sexiness. 'His films overtly announce sex, but then he puts a lid on it,' she declares. 'He might well be the least sexy film-maker ever to direct people simulating sex.' Which seems to me precisely the point. For all its come-on promise and power-couple casting, Eyes Wide Shut offered a dislocated experience. Tom Cruise wanders through a honey-sheened city, bumping into debauchery but left not only unsated but fundamentally uninvolved. It's a taunting disquisition about desire's inability to deliver, about a quest strangely without impulsion.
In Barry Lyndon, the detached, corrugated voiceover by Michael Hordern describes a rapscallion protagonist up to his craw in rapacity. But the figure he describes doesn't match Ryan O'Neal's blank performance. Like Cruise in the later movie, he seems lost in a sluggish dream. Moving from rural Ireland, recruited by more than one European army, bagging a rich young widow and running riot through her fortune is gamey stuff. And O'Neal is surrounded by gamey performances, florid wigs, screen images which bring Georgian canvases to life. He himself remains oddly dissociated from his social climb and swift descent: a 20th-century drifter in a precise stylistic world.
The many registers of performance in Barry Lyndon remind us that texts aren't mechanisms, yielding to a single stylistic key. There isn't a single monolithic style that must be used for a Chekhov play, or for a Wilde comedy or O'Neill drama. And although we tend to ask a production to present us with a uniform style, Barry Lyndon reminds us that it isn't necessary: that dissonance can have its own point. We often look to the past to let us access appetite - classic revivals encourage big desires and ravening performances. But the past is odder than that, and what we make of it more strange and various.
When Britain decides how it should feel about foreigners, it will be a nation transformed. I briefly scratched my head today over the news that comic Omad Djalili, born in London of Iranian parents, will succeed Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in the West End revival of Oliver! in July. A performer whose act riffs off Middle-Eastern stereotypes but whose screen roles often embody them now has a chance to take on a notorious Jewish stereotype. The show's producer Cameron Mackintosh lauds Djalili's 'comic energy and wily cunning', which isn't necessarily a quote to soothe any fears that ethnicity is once again being used for a laugh.
The revival of Oliver! initially won attention for casting key roles via a tv show, I'd Do Anything. Subsequent debate was sparked by the marketing chaps wilfully raising hackles about the show's comic-villainous Jew, with a poster image that offers a colourful hook-nose caricature. Playwright Julia Pascal, whose work frequently engages with received notions of Jewishness (including a complex, revisionist version of The Merchant of Venice), discussed her unhappiness that Fagin was still with us - and with him his semitic 'wily cunning.' Tellingly, the response on The Guardian website was frequently vitriolic.
My head is with Julia, my heart muddled by nostalgia. My Jewish family grew up with shows like Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof. Broadway musicals have always had a strong streak of yiddishkeit: there's a brilliant line in Kauffmann and Lardner's 1931 comedy June Moon, in which a Tin Pan Alley pianist shrugs, 'If song-writers always wrote about their home state, what a big Jewish population Tennessee must have.' And, if you wanted to see some kind of representation of the Jewish experience in the mainstream theatre, these shows might represent a better bet than the work of Arthur Miller or Harold Pinter, both of whom often refuted suggestions that characters like Willy Loman or the family in The Homecoming were Jewish, as if that might impugn their universality.
You don't have to like, or even recognise, Fagin, Shylock, Othello or O'Neill's Emperor Jones to feel that at least ethnicity is being acknowledged on the mainstream stage, or that a doorway into conversation has been opened, however crudely. Fagin is a miserable creation, but his rapscallion vigour is so much more charismatic than the surrounding mass of bullies and urchins. I can recite large chunks of 'You've got to pick a pocket or two' and 'Reviewing the situation', but that might prove nothing more than that I've ingested huge tuneful dollops of bad faith since childhood, and have lost sight of the distinction between the sound of a good night out and that of an opportunist rattling the bones of racism.
Meanwhile, Richard Bean's new large-scale comedy for the National Theatre, England People Very Nice, examines successive waves of immigration into London's East End, traditionally the area in which new groups settle. Although still in previews, it has already been attacked by Hussain Ismail as a play which 'tries to mask its ugly prejudices behind claptrap, cheap humour and tired stereotypes.' One person's equal-opportunity satire is another's discomfort - but producing discomfort, however interesting, surely isn't enough. It may be a sign that a writer has located a raw and conflicted subject, but not that he's treating it interestingly. We'd better keep reviewing the situation.
Has Fagin had his day? What kinds of stage portrayals make you squirm? Is entertainment its own justification? Let me know what you think.
Every cultural moment finds the classic drama that will help it make sense of the present, and I have a feeling that the recession could be the time to return to classic German-language plays. Not so much Schiller and Goethe, but the writers who derived their energies from the fertile, febrile decades between the mid-19th and mid-2oth centuries. London awaits major new productions of Brecht's Mother Courage (Deborah Warner directs Fiona Shaw at the National Theatre) and Ödön von Horváth lesser-known Judgement Day (at the Almeida) this autumn. The American musical take on Wedekind's Spring Awakening has just opened here, and a terrific collection of writing by Hugo von Hofmannstahl (best known as Strauss's librettist) has just been published.
In the best of these plays, the keening heart is balanced by a gimlet eye on society and culture. We still don't find it easy to release expressionism on stage in Britain - or, it seems, elsewhere, as Alison Croggan suggests in her beautifully attentive response from Melbourne to Buchner's Woyzeck, the grossvater of modern drama. It's a challenging style: romantic in its attention to individual torment, yet finding bold theatrical metaphors for the wider culture and demonstrating how people may exemplify their social function to the point of caricature. There are critics who bridle at Brecht in particular, fearing a finger-wagging lecture on their bourgeois ways. It's true, bad productions can fail to access the concentrated, bone-dry poetry of his theatre. This is lyrical theatre, not didacticism.
As if a sodden grey London day wasn't sufficient to depress, I lowered my spirits yet further this morning by reading Faith, Hope and Charity. Ödön von Horváth wrote the play in 1933, just as the Nazis seized power and shortly before he skedaddled to Paris (where he died in a bizarre accident in 1938, killed by a falling branch). It's a searing sliver of a play - 'a little dance of death,' he called it - about a young woman who, desperate to work, falls foul of bureaucracy and lands a criminal record, slipping from shelf to shelf in a suspicious and cash-stretched world. The Weimar Republic knew from credit crunch, and the short scenes (it takes no time to fall into trouble, which is partly Horváth's point) seem wincingly familiar.
Most familiar of all is the heroine's refusal to be downhearted: her constant refrain is 'I never let it get me down.' (The elegant translation is by Horváth enthusiast Christopher Hampton, and you'll need to find a second-hand copy). She's running on empty hopes, and you fear for her - and for our own necessary optimism in the current crisis. These plays, which refuse to look away from despair, which remind us we're buffeted by economic and political forces way beyond our influence, are astringent medicine.
How can classic German plays help us? Why does the original Spring Awakening seem more contemporary than the new musical version? Find out after the click:
Here in Britain we're often accused of living in the past. This week it's true - specifically 1978, our winter of discontent. There have been unexpected snowfalls, London's public transport ground to a halt, post went undelivered and trash uncollected. And last night the power failed, so we sat around with candles and red wine - free from the laptop at last.
Dim light and shadows have not only their consolations but their beauty. I'd been thinking about this since seeing Shun-kin, the latest show by Complicite. It isn't a huge advance by director Simon McBurney, who marries a physical style of theatre to bogglingly sophisticated ideas about the way in which our minds construct the world. Shun-kin is interested in the way our senses apprehend our surroundings, and offers a beautiful evening in the theatre that reminds us of the power of shadows. A collaboration with Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre, it is based on two 1933 texts by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. One is a poetic fan letter to darkness, In Praise of Shadows; the other a pervy, postmodern fake biography about a blind musician and her devoted manservant.
Throughout Shun-kin, light is curtailed, tightly focused, its levels often low. It's a risky strategy in a big auditorium, but it focuses attention wonderfully. Drawn to the glimmers, we hover there: as a capricious puppet rages for attention, or as a voice-over artist surreptitiously peers at a message from her lover on the mobile, lit only by a small desk light. Shadowy emotions, sharpened senses, flourish in the strictly rationed lamplight.
I don't want to sound like a sheep, but I like my attention being manipulated in this way at the theatre. Good lighting is poetic but also acts like a nudge - look here, closer, longer. Lighting design is an under-praised art - always the first credit to be cut when a reviewer starts running out of words. But Paul Anderson's work on Shun-kin deserves a shout, and already this year I've seen a couple of wonderfully evocative designs by Neil Austin: a disorienting misty coastscape in Mrs Affleck, where Ibsen goes to England, and a hard, sharp design for Piaf, light glinting from the coal-hard walls.
Lighting has a major part to play in dance, of course, where the stage has often to be kept clear. Designers like Lucy Carter (who works with ubergeek Wayne McGregor) and Michael Hulls (Russell Maliphant's longtime collaborator) do marvels with architecture, space and texture, providing a spatial and emotional journey through a piece. And it's this invitation to look, and to look again, that is so compelling.
Nominations for Britain's glitziest theatre awards, the Oliviers, have been announced, and Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington is chafing at some omissions. In particular, he feels that Gethsemane, David Hare's new play at the National Theatre, has been neglected.
There are a zillion things wrong with awards and their randomised outcomes, but on this point Billington seems pretty much alone (as the responses to his post suggest). Gethsemane is an entertaining editorial drama. It has some good lines, a promising set of situations, and a strong central argument - that mainstream political life in Britain has been leached of passion and idealism in favour of a heads-down pragmatism. That risk avoidance and damage control have become the most prized skills for public life.
But the thing that worries me here, as in much of Hare's writing, is the women. Forget Nicole Kidman's fake conk, what I found uncomfortable in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Hours was the way it glorified female hysteria and wilting passivity (at least his similarly-garlanded script for The Reader presents a no-nonsense woman who does stuff - even if, admittedly, she does some of it for the Nazis). Ignoring for a moment the character of a teenage girl, written with wincing implausibility, Gethsemane pits a female government minister, embroiled in several shades of scandal and fighting for her job, against an ex-teacher who helps sort out the minister's problems while acting as a sounding board for scepticism and decency.
Such contrasts are familiar among Hare's ladies. To be reductive, they tend to divide into witches or seers, pitted against each other in a smackdown for the moral highground. This can work: The Secret Rapture, with its subsoil of family trauma, made Thatcher's Britain a properly peculiar place - where the stubbornly unselfish self was left undefended against an almost evangelical sense of the greedy free market. A revival might be timely.
Elsewhere, however, Hare's women aren't allowed to 'be' - they're too busy representing, and arrived freighted with the burdens of moral choice. Although Hare is married to Nicole Farhi, the highly successful designer, his plays often credit women who duck out of the rat race with a heightened moral sense: Kyra in Skylight, for example, or Lori in Gethsemane (a former teacher who, disgusted by the bureaucratic burdens that intruded on education, now busks in tube stations). They act like lightning conductors, their neuroses symptomatic of a national malaise: as I found myself writing after seeing Cate Blanchett star in Plenty, Hare's hysterics are cracking up for England.
Hare would hardly be the first male dramatist whose female characters are as much emblems as independent creations. Pinter is a great example - Billington's biography of the playwright makes a valiant claim for the plays' feminist status, but I don't buy it. Pinter's chilly sex kittens and wary solitaries enter into territorial skirmishes with the blokes, often reluctantly, but sex is their only weapon and emasculation as much of a triumph as they can hope for. These are very powerful figures, archetypes of male anxiety - but their hollow victories can't be what feminism looks like.
I'm not so naive as to suggest that gender can, in our society, be neutral. In different contexts, our genders carry so much weighty significance about status, need, virtue, biology, that it's surprising we can't hear our chromosomes dragging their burdens along the floor as we move. But that doesn't stop us questioning some of our assumptions, blushing at our ideals and fantasies, finding more intelligent responses to the state we're in.
We ran into the pope this summer, as you do. We were aiming for the centre of Cagliari, Sardinia's capital city, but found one street after another was blocked. Traffic accident? Roadworks? Only when someone spotted the 'Il Papa in Sardegna' posters did we realise that his holiness was with us for the day. We began our holiday mooch around, but even on foot, all roads led to the cathedral, and eventually we stopped resisting: Il Papa would be our sightseeing treat.
As a theatrical spectacle, his arrival at the cathedral lacked something. The hours of waiting wilted in the heat, but even so it seemed (on this entirely unscientific survey) that Benedict XVI is not the draw his famously charismatic, tarmac-pecking predecessor was. The crowd was surprisingly scanty, and we had no difficulty edging towards the front of the line alongside the cathedral - alongside some guitar-playing evangelicals, and just behind a woman who demonstrated what to wear for a papal visitation, her bra strap spelling out 'RELAX' in diamante. Nuns of all ages were cheerleaders for the afternoon - a particularly chirpy quartet bagged the balcony opposite, and were stationed with smiles and banners. At last, Il Papa appeared, trundling along in the popemobile. Arm raised, ring blinging, big smile - but, we all agreed, such cold hard eyes.
It was all a bit muted. Not that I collect Italian Catholic ceremonies, you understand - what kind of a nice Jewish boy do you take me for? - but it wasn't a patch on St Gennaro's special day in Naples, when his martyred blood liquefies, and chasbules swing, young bucks wave rattles, old ladies stand on seats, and an entire congregation goes miracle crazy.
What is the relationship between the papacy and theatre? Some thoughts after the click:
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