Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Desire: an encounter with a play by Kathy Acker

Enjoyably baffling, as I was expecting. I have neither a strongly positive nor a strongly negative reaction to the Woosters’ tepidness: it is what it is, and I’m obscurely happy someone somewhere is exploring their really particular aesthetic. They definitely have, like, a schtick: audio fed to performers via headphones, scrolling text on CRTs, a way of both acknowledging the original context of works and also kind of gently exploding that context.

As with their Emperor Jones, which I saw yonks ago, I wonder if this approach is really the best for material like Acker's dealing with intensity. Acker isn’t exactly a dispassionate writer. And yet also the Wooster thing—their suite of concepts, whatever you want to call it—lets us grapple with things that might be too uncomfortable to otherwise stage. In the loveliest moments, a one-person vocoder duet between Romeo and Juliet, the avant-garde weirdball weirdness yielded moments of real loveliness. At other points, you know, it was vague and a little bit uncomfortable and kind of amorphous. Definitely one (1) unit of late New York avant-garde; I left with the feeling of the dutiful art-goer rewarded with some capital-A art. What I didn't feel was in any sense wrenched apart, or confronted with a truth of the universe; once again, instead, I got intensity in quotation marks.

Monday, August 5, 2019

There is a Light that Never Goes Out: SCENES FROM THE LUDDITE REBELLION (Royal Exchange/Kandinsky, 3 Aug 2019)

You’d have to be dead inside not to be excited by the prospect of Luddite theatre in Manchester. My hopes were so high for this—the fabulous, simple set, a bold swash of red in the middle of my favourite theatre building in England; the possibility of seeing labour history recreated in its actual Manchester location. (Or, I mean, nearby—the Exchange has moved several times over the years, but near enough.) And some scenes were great: the smashing of the Exchanges windows, and even the first couple of appearances by General Ludd, brought into existence by a coat and a vocoder. One of the actors wore lovely purple Chuck Taylors, but had crossed out the “Converse” logo on the heels—a way to remind the audience of the texture of manufactured goods in our own lives.

For the rest, this was solid eat-your-broccoli, learn-your-facts-and-gosh-aren’t-they-still-sort-of-relevant stuff. Nutritional, but not particularly exciting. There can be not-all-that fantastic theatre that’s still worthwhile. The premise here was, as the title suggests, to give a patchy history of the Luddite movement, with whatever wasn’t covered in historical documents patched up with modern speech. And, it must be said, modern television cliché. The conversations between a secret society informer and his police, I guess, handler in particular could be guessed in advance; the domestic dialogue of a protesting handloom weaver and his factory worker daughter grappled with Northern clichés (“No girl of mine wut work in factory,” my notes say—you get the idea.) The comparison between traditional crafts and machine manufacture creating new, cheaper, lower-quality clothing has of course contemporary relevance. Of course, the last thing I saw at the Exchange had lamenting the end of industrialisation—the shutting down of the coal industry—and now this was an attack on its beginnings, and the creation of the heavy industry that would use that coal. (Look for my The Theatre of Regional Grievance, my upcoming monograph.)

The production borrowed heavily from ideas promoted by (among others) EP Thomson: that prior to industrialization, handloom weavers lived according to their own schedules; factories destroyed this self-scheduled Eden. All well and good—but then this needed dialogue that was less, frankly, industrial: a reproduction of what gets said in analogous TV productions, rather than any sort of formal challenge to its norms. I can remember no standout line of dialogue: instead, every class position, every crux of dialogue seemed borrowed from the most generic sources.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

education education education (Wadrobe Ensemble/Trafalgar Studios, 10 June 2019)

Still haunted by the question of a friend in town for the Cumberbatch Hamlet: “does all London theatre have to do that dance thing?” They were referring to the tendency of productions to juxtapose naturalistic, or at least somewhat naturalistic, scenes of dialogue with more abstract dance bits—the characters twirl around, to represent angst or whatever. Used correctly, this kind of interrupted motion can convey lots of information, theme, mood—really anything.
Used badly, and you get whatever this was. A tribute of sorts to education at the cusp of the Blair years, and of course a sad Brexit coda, education education education played out as a kind of b-list My Country: A Work in Progress, from several years ago at the NT. Characters who Represent the Nation, As Well as Idiosyncratic Persons occupy space at a comprehensive school Somewhere in England. The audience of course hooted at the easy signifiers of nineties-ness and school-ness: Spice Girls! Sweatshirts with school crests! And the actors went through the expected motions: a violence, a shag, a rueful, a drink. (I’m not the first foreigner to remark on the English tendency to see the secondary school years as somehow the cradle of civilization.) There was even a visit from King Arthur, reflecting a general tendency to repeat every plot point or Significant Statement About the Nation at least twice, if not more. 

I didn’t like a lot of things about this—in particular, the scene transitions just didn’t work. In a repeated metaphor made flesh, the characters spun around as if underwater, while the narrator helpfully explained that this was because they were feeling overwhelmed. But maybe more significantly, this thing was just less out of the bubble it was trying to comment on than it thought it was. Narrated by a German stereotype of a visiting German teacher, the play wanted to make some sort of statement on England. But the England it was commenting on was a homogenous place, indeed. There were Germans in England, even in 1997; there were also ethnicities beyond, say, the list of echt-English names given during a roll call of students. And the long, lyrical account of the German Reichstag building, and the idea of politics it represented--legislators looking up at the people they served--suggested that any such political possibility could not be found in the country itself. Even when hymning European politics, the play could not imagine itself part of them. The shrug at a nationalism drowning in slightly shit mythology was, itself, a bit shit and lazily nationalistic—or at least blinkered, in what it imagined the nation to be. 

Odder still, if telling, was the play’s allocation of character attributes. The English teachers were easily recognizable types: the gym teacher who reads the Daily Mail, the passionate bearded language teacher, the bitchy would-be head teacher who is inevitably female. The play let men be passionate defenders of the inchoate truth, and women shrewish ball-breakers with temporarily lapses into random shagging. Finally, the only efficient technocrat was German: a stand-in for the chilly EU, I guess—but also a clear othering of anything that wasn’t typical, muddling-through, Englishness. I’m sure the play’s devisers think of themselves as staunch anti-Brexit types—but their assertion of the Englisness, the typicality, of England, “soggy” though the nation may be, they revealed themselves as more a piece with the Leave mindset than they seemed to believe. So this had its slightly crap cake and ate it too, in the process overwriting the genuine hope—and the actual, practical gains—of the Blair years. Its assertion of the naffness of King Arthur itself kept bringing him to the stage. If the monoculture keeps producing such dreary stories, maybe theatre-makers should start looking elsewhere for their inspirations.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Quizoola! (Forced Entertainment/BITEF Festival Belgrade, 22 September 2017)

Seeing theatre outside of its country of origin is often illuminating. Some of the self-evidence, the obviousness, of certain things is stripped away. Seeing Robert Lepage recapitulate the same Canadian problems—the FLQ crisis, Bill 101, etc.—at the Barbican felt like looking at them from a spaceship hovering overhead. Similarly, seeing Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! in Serbia made its particular sort of grumbly Englishness feel a bit smaller and more limited. Here’s liberal England basically, as it came bubbling up from the performers: it’s damp and cold; life’s a bit shit but there’s no god and we’re scared of death; we like to fuck and drink; we’re sad and angry about Brexit.

The premise of the thing is simple. Two performers in clown makeup ask each other questions, from a list of allegedly around 2,000. This list is a major prop: it looks increasingly ragged, as befitting a show that has been run in one form or another since 1996. (The performers remarked on this during the performance.) The stage is surrounded by lightbulbs. They take turns: one asks, one answers. The questions run all over the place: do you imagine you’ll live to be eighty? Why did you become a prostitute? How big is your house?  Is your cunt tight? (This asked to a male performer, this evening.) Whorls of stories, of no particular veracity, emerge from the answers: of being happy about their genetic prospects for long life, but sad about what their lifestyle might do to it; of meeting a stranger on the plane the previous night, and having slept with them. Patterns emerge: Etchells, for example, kept saying little kitty cat in a particular intonation, stretching this out across questions. Performers keep asking each other why they’re lying, again to no particular effect. Many of the questions involve university: Etchells talks about what he learned there; the other performers, mostly, claim not to have learned anything. I left my pen behind, and wish I’d taken better notes—but I’m not sure what importance these notes of individual moments might have had. The important thing, if anything was important, seemed to be the rhythms: the way the performers settled into a back-and-forth, which they then disrupted; the way the two performer switches that happened during the six hours took on immense significance. For a while the lights failed, and the performers continued while stagehands sorted out the lighting onstage; nothing, particularly, changed. Some cell phones went off. We got older.

The show is well-established: 24-hour versions have been run, and the questions are all published, available for sale from the company’s website even. Etchells himself teaches at Sheffield, and this work is as I understand it duly canonized within discussions of this kind of semi-theatre, semi-performance-art.

It’s almost required if you’re a cleverboots writing about this sort of thing that you mention things around the edges of the performance. For me this meant noticing how your attention also switches to the other audience members. In part this was because, this evening, someone who had not figured out how to turn the beep noise on her DSLR off took questions, approximately every ten seconds, for almost the entirety of the six hours. If I hadn’t been sure she was with the performance I might have hissed something at her; in retrospect this felt as much a part of the performance as anything else. People entering and exiting drew everyone’s attention from the performers; we then drifted back to the performers. They didn’t seem to want to be there, but they didn’t seem not to, either. I was reminded of Beckett: it would pass the time, and it did. It felt like the saddest parts of living in provincial England, in Lemaington Spa: like the sun was dying, and I might just lie down in a field and die--but first a hangover and some thoughts about sex.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Tempest (RSC/Barbican, 10 August)

I had a bad feeling about this from the very beginning. The Tempest begins with a shipwreck--mariners shouting as their ship falls apart. I'm not sure if the director of this production played the Bosun in school or something, but by god: if you've ever thought the people shouting at the beginning of The Tempest don't get their due, this is the production for you. Of course, that scene is usually run through quickly because it's not particularly interesting unless run through quickly. Here, it's sort of stately--mostly, boring.

This would continue. I saw this quite late in its run, and maybe the cast was having a bad night or something. But I've never seen a Shakespeare production that felt more like a long road trip--Dad, are we there yet? The Old Vic King Lear last year put running act and scene numbers at the top, which I thought was a mistake: Lear's a long play, and you sometime's looked up to see, oh god, we're only at III.2. The Tempest is a much shorter play, but this one went on endlessly, distended by a tendency to mistake pauses in dialogue for interpretation. There were just pauses throughout. Politely I would say that there was something democratic in making sure that every single scene got its due. But just slowing something down is not excuse for actually understanding it. I was spoiled by the Andrew Scott Hamlet earlier this summer--and his was in no sense a quick performance--but some of the scenes heere were just deadly. I dreaded every time Stefano opened his mouth: James Hayes spoke slowly and made sure that every dick joke--even those the play itself repeats several times--was telegraphed to the audience through a range of unsubtle businesses. 

And Caliban. The Tempest nearly becomes a problem play in some interpretations, and in its way I was happy to see a colonial reading not be The Issue of the play. At the same time, making Caliban into a green, vaguely H.R. Geigery Santa Claus was the oddest punting of this issue I could imagine. (Did Sycorax fuck the Grinch or something?) I get that productions might not want to distend themselves with an issue that has informed Tempest productions for forty-odd years; however, I expected better than the vague insinuation that it wasn't easy being green. 

Might as well deal with the special effects. I have no particular antipathy towards video projection. However, as someone young enough to play video games, I also sort of need video effects not to suck. This production's frequent moments of black magic were dominated by the sort of effects (the cracking of the earth, the summoning up of demons) I remember from video games in about 2007. Having paid for the Barbican, they might have sprung for better than an XBox 360. 
The more positive visions, in contrast, reminded me of nothing so much as the video in Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games, minus a unicorn or two. A long projection effect filled the stage with peacocky things coalescing into vaguely rectal whorls. 
And yeah, a few of these effects were great--although I'll note that the best tended to be slightly more traditional things, like the glowing effects built into the stage. I will modestly note that the colour saturation of video projection still isn't all that fantastic, yet--until this gets sorted, overly-pictorial productions will need to be careful lest they seem like giant screen savers or the background effects at a Sigur Ros concert. (At one point Propsero is surrounded by a swirling yellow ring, as though you had clicked on him in Warcraft.) I still think the most effective stage device was Trinculo's bicycle horn, which might have cost £6. And they seemingly couldn't afford a curtain for the discovery scene, which truly broke my heart: the actors just came on with a chessboard that then lit up, like in the video for One Night in Bangkok. I never, ever thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I missed the faint energy of those generic Dolce and Gabannish things the RSC were doing last year.  

Oh, but the Telegraph liked the effects, if not so much the structure of an English sentence:
I couldn't tell if Simon Russell Beale was accessing his not particularly great dementia-addled Lear or was simply sort of sleepwalking grumpily through the end of his time in this production. He was somehow convinced to give a shit in exactly two scenes, and it nearly cracked the play open. Responding to Ariel's "If I were human," he seemed genuinely to pause; in the next scene, overcome by rage in the middle of his daughter's vision of happiness, his angry sadness tore the undersaturated onstage pageant to shreds. This made me angry in turn--it pointed towards what the production might have been. By the conclusion he was back to seeming a bit bored. The final soliloquy, which (real talk) I think is basically holy, again substituted pauses for interpretation: he'd say a few lines, wait for a bit, then say a few more. He practically shrugged, by the end. Around him were some non-decision interpretations. Miranda was played like Gabrielle, Xena's wan but spunky lifetime companion; I remember one moment of Antonio fixing his hair more than any other aspect of his performance. Ceres sang like Enya; the music sounded like Yanni. Sail away, sail away. 

Maybe it's the shitty time and the shitty politics, but I noticed that this was a very obedient production. Prospero's manfeels about getting old tear up his child's happiness, without anything really happening as a result--Gabrielle doesn't even get to look sad about it. Ariel's team of sprites curtsey when they put on his Milanese cloak--indeed it takes four young people, working as a team, to remove his garment. This was an uncritical Prospero for the Trump White House, with his overtanned daughter, evident fear of aging, and undersaturated dreams of flame and terror. 

Not that this has anything to do with the production, but on the way out one of the young men behind me--exactly the sort of bored posh accent you'd expect--said, to his ghastly friends, "One of them couldn't act. The black dude, the older one." (Joseph Mydell was in fact fine as Gonzalo, the definition of an unforgiving Shakespearean part: this sort of island Polonius, well-meaning and repetitive.) I grant no particular importance to the opinions of my younger social superiors; a man could go mad. But at the end of this particular evening, I was furious, all the way back to Moorgate Station. I'm not saying audiences need to be awed into silence by a noble Caliban, every time; but this points towards the essential frivolity with which this play addressed most of the play's potential issues. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (NT/Duke of York's Theatre, 7 June)

Of course the problem with taking this sort of thing seriously is that you're not supposed to: this was at heart something like an ELO jukebox musical, for heaven's sake, playing across the street from Bat Out of Hell: The Musical at the ENO. Yet if I had to think of a paradigm for class immobility, it would be something like this performance. That's not in any sense to knock the quality of acting, script, production, musicianship, or anything else: this was a talented cast and production, the result of a lot of time and craft.

And in a sense that's my problem with this, an account of a rollicking day in the life of a number of sexually omnivorous but by all accounts future-deprived Scottish schoolgirls. These certainly are not characters in need of a lecture of mindfulness: their moment is everything. One seems to be dying of cancer, while the others seem fated to what happens to the unpensioned classes under late capitalism. Even the most conventionally middle-class character, the lone fated university-goer, seems (not to give anything away) fated for at the very least turbulence on the way there. I worry that I'll wind up sounding like David Brooks, or Matthew Arnold or somewhere: less fornicating, gels, and more books, and you too can ascend the declining heights of middle-class stability!

It's just that everything that brought everyone to the moment of performance, cast and crew, is precisely the sort of thing none of the characters in this play are allowed: study, focus, and time to develop. These are all characters who would likely have had difficulty attending a West End show, and no chance at all of performing in one. Or, at the least, this is what the play seems to suggest: even those characters with future plans, of one sort of another, see those fall apart over the course of the events described.

It also feels supremely odd--at this moment in British culture's frankly leery focus on guarding the sexuality of pre-adults--to watch a play about middle teenagers constantly having sex, to the frequent peril of their future lives. If you go to the theatre enough in London you'll see the world sort of array itself before you to perform: Argentines, Cubans, and now it seems precariat Scots, all affirming how often they get laid. This feels unsatisfactory somehow as the narrative of a shared global future. Moreover it feels like bad politics: we affirm the orgasms we share with the characters onstage--indeed, maybe we even envy them--but then go back to our more stable lives.

This performance felt faintly allegorical for society as it now exists. The theater-affording classes watch this sort of thing, and get to really enjoy it--and, indeed, this was an enjoyable performance. (You could buy sugary drinks in the lobby, to go with the on-stage sambucas.) The classes depicted, meanwhile, get the moment of performance, but no future; and the training necessary to get a performer to the West End level keeps any too-intrusive elements of actual post-working class life from getting into the mix.

There's a particular sort of rickety British theatre of the 1960s that tried to show alternatives, or at least a space of critique, of these sorts of things: Arnold Wesker's Roots does a lot of working in my thinking, as does Shelagh Delaney. And these plays are full of ham-handed moments of class transcendence or the failure thereof. But the very slickness of this play made me honestly nostalgic for that sort of thing: for the gesture, hewn out of a 1950s entertainment industry every bit as hostile to class critique as this one, towards lamenting and acknowledging structural problems. There are astonishing moments in this--it is a very fine production, and you should definitely go see it if you like this sort of thing. But a week on I feel queasy about this in a way I hadn't anticipated.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Deposit (Hampstead Theatre, 3 June)

If Brecht teaches us anything, it's to feel sympathy for actors as people. And oh, the poor creatures on the Hampstead basement stage, made to do representative rhythmic gymnastics through this terrible, terrible play. If Aldi sold Shaw scripts, like by the pound, they'd read like this.

"Generation Rent, innit?" Like imagine a play based around that being written on a napkin, and you more-or-less have the idea here. In a move that would please a particular sort of Russian Formalist, this is the kind of play where no-one has a personality beyond their representative function to the plot, which is to say: two couples onstage, saving for--wait for it--the deposit on a mortgage. Between this and having my work visa renewed at My Country, I did feel very relevant this past week--and I watched both nearly in the fetal position. However, whatever force this might have had was blunted by the script. I suppose--if I were inclined to be charitable--I would say that some of these liabilities were the point: that the housing situation so compromises people to the point where they no longer have interests or recognizable humanity. And yet: humanity does rather poke through. Someone likes waffles; another, Pokemon Go. Of such things is recognizable humanity made. No-one is actually as dreary as the characters in this play are. And woe betide the problem playwright whose jokes fall flat--whose moments of levity clunk like horseshoes, amidst the general discussion of Fucked,  How We Are. There are the elements of a truly epic Grand Guignol script here--certainly, at least half of the characters were in desperate need of a disembowelling. But this was too close to a Shelter press release given a barely fictional gloss.

When I saw this, of a Saturday evening, I was the youngest person in the audience. The man directly in front of me seemed to be a property developer, recommending that his friends invest in property. On the way out, I heard some of the fiftysomethings say "Thank god we don't need to buy again." As an immersive theatrical effect, this was somehow more impressive than anything I've yet experienced: the fourth wall, right down! But as an index of typical London depressingness, this was typically depressing. Still, if we're all fucked, let's have some better plays.