Archive for August, 2010
I performed this old poem for the lovely folks at Climate Camp TV, and they’ve just published it online. Lovely!
WARNING: This poem contains strong language, and may not be suitable for those of a vegetarian diet.
I’m currently based in Edinburgh. The world’s biggest arts festival happens to be here. Here’re some part reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre. Part 1 (featuring Freefall, Penelope, The Author, and much Forest Fringe) was here.
Three theatre-makers I love greatly collaborating on project about boxing: like a dream. When a project brings in heavyweights you expect it to pack a punch – how does that expectation frame your experiences? It largely depends on the individual, I suppose: those I went with were mostly mildly confused and disappointed: I was delighted, enchanted. The play was deeply experiential, deeply in the present, in its music and video, in its movement, in its speeches: everything was about what is happening right now. Memories of the past were treated with scorn, hopes for the future drove only immediate action. Jab. Cut. Punch. Yes, to go into the issues and feelings in more depth would have been more recognisably satisfying – but I licked the way this grazed huge moral conundrums, vast emotional chasms, and then rapidly moved on. Like most of life, like most people’s lives.
Sometimes it can be fun to see a production so awful that by its depths it serves as a warning, reminds you what to avoid in making theatre. The metre was ignored, voice weakly squeaked emotion, bodies were floppy and unresponsive, the cuts were nonsensical, the characters ciphers – oh my, it was so very bad. But they were trying to hard! It breaks my heart to see a group who clearly cares about theatre, who clearly wants to make good theatre, do so many things so obviously wrong.
Simon Callow / Jonathan Bate: The Man from Stratford @ Assembly
A biographical lecture in theatrical form. Surprisingly not as pompous as I thought it would be, actually rather tender at points – though too often it is a vehicle for Callow to plum his way through his favourite snippets of verse in his hammy way. I didn’t learn much, but I did get to thinking how the cipher of Shakespeare’s life allows authors and actors to fill him up with their own lives and desires – so though we know nothing of how Shakespeare made it into theatre, Callow tells a story of gradual working upwards through roles that is remarkably similar to his own. But I suppose that’s part of the fun, in the plays and the person.
A startlingly beautiful deathbed play, in which four actors take on a dizzying array of roles comic and tragic, playing out an ordinary Irishman’s life for him in his final moments. Only occasionally mawkish and frequently hilarious, it touched me rather deeply. And yet. The narrative was wonderful, but what do I remember the next day? What ideas it had were trite – it was only an emotional storyline which carried me through. So beautiful, but not so substantial. Another note: the protagonist seems quite the most blameless man in theatrical history, having seemingly said only one misanthropic thing in his life, for which he immediately apologised.
(Pro-feminist pedantry: yet another play in which all female characters are defined solely by their relationship to a man, and in which an elusive Mother and a longed-for-to-protect Maiden are the driving forces. Sigh.)
Well gosh. It feels like a play that could have been written 50 years ago, very consciously in the shadow of Beckett and Ireland’s great male dramatic blarneyists (Farquahr, Wilde, Shaw, Coward, Beckett . . .) Four awful men compete at the bottom of a decaying swimming pool for Penelope’s affection; they are lover, soldier, justice, pantalone, and death. They meditate on life, masculinity, love, porridge. There is a dazzling and brutal quick change act. While it sometimes mistakes verbosity for erudition, and while we really do not need yet another play about maleness in which the female role is a purely mythic ideal, it is conscious of these flaws and brilliant despite them. I was quite breathless. From laughter as much as from action and thought. It lasts.
At the forefront of contemporary cabaret, singing songs from throughout the 20th Century, performing everything from an astonishing impression of Tom Waits to a gorgeous reimagining of Jacques Brel. I’ve heard her music before, but now her promoters are seriously trying to make her a moneyspinner – she’s the most advertised show in Edinburgh, as far as I can see. It hasn’t done her enormous harm, but there is this strange thing that happens to musicians as they grow in scale: they get excited by the possibilities of new money, start hiring more musicians, expand the effects of the show. And, of course, the best ones discover that they were better off minimal all along. I preferred her when she just had a piano and a coupla horns, when her theatricality and persona weren’t dwarfed by the staging, tighter, crazier, sexier.
An odd thing happened at the show: a couple booed her country rock cover of Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (a fantastic stomping feminist reappropriation of the mellow anthem). I’ve never heard a boo at a music show before! Only for comedians, or for performers being genuinely offensive. What would move someone to do that? It really threw her: she said a couple of angry things, and then dissolved into tears, apologising for being mean, saying nothing like that had ever happened before. I wouldn’t apologise for telling asses to piss off – but she was that sweet. And vulnerable. A theme for this festival: the vulnerability of performers, the uncertainty of being on stage in front of people, the necessary critical self-consciousness of performance. Dangerous, intoxicating, enthralling.
Part Edinburgh reviews, part jumping-off points for thinking about theatre.
A monologue and video performance about hitch-hiking to the 2009 G8 conference in L’Aquila, Italy. Direct, simple and moving – a performance about travel and about political action, dwelling lightly but significantly on the meaning of both, telling a good story and a few jokes. Sweet, and a little inspiring.
An unusual play about biology, performance and Abraham Lincoln and death, as well as a lot of other things. Employs so many theatrical techniques and touches on so many themes that it sometimes seemed incoherent, but it was at least a fun an hyper-real journey through thoughts and experiences. I liked the frankness of the delivery especially, the feeling that the avant garde elements weren’t self-consciously or pretentiously outré: they were just presented for what they were.
An African drumming and dance show strung along a paper-thin plot about football. The music and movement is stunning – skilled, celebratory and exhausting. The story is a near-nonsensical retelling of the boy-wins-girl triumph-over-adversity plot, hopping effortlessly from cliché to cliché. It feels like a very Western myth, as well, which leads me to think hard and confusedly about the semiotics of the show: what does it all mean? What roots does this show have, and how much is it a construction for Western audiences? What does it mean to the participants, and where they’re from? Whenever I see something fusion or cross-cultural, I feel my ignorance strongly.
You roll a dice and get a library ticket; you enter the library and find your book – a human, with whom you have a conversation about the future. Mine was a Town Planner from Edinburgh; my conversation was enlightening and enjoyable. I liked this concept a great deal, but felt that its programming didn’t allow it to fulfil its potential: there was only really time for me to have one ten-minute slot. I wanted to browse this library! I felt under pressure, instead of enjoying being around fascinating tomes. Hopefully we’ll see it more, with more leisure.
This play’s been causing a lot of talk. The audience are sat in banks of seats facing each other, with no stage space, and the actors are spread among us. It’s a play that tells the story of a play about violence – The Author is about the portrayal of violence in our culture, why we make art and view art about violence, and what it means for us. Here’s what I wrote about it in response to this Guardian article.
1 ) Violence and Walkouts
I’m in the happy position of not understanding in the least why anyone would walk out of this play. (Not counting the initial staged walk-out.) There’s nothing particularly sensational or awful going on — to repeat a cant that’s only got a little tired, there’s no narrative of something happening off-stage that is any more unpleasant than in, say, Titus Andronicus. Despite the unexpected staging, the audience is genuinely made to feel comfortable, the actors work hard to keep on-side, even when perpetrating acts of violence on their ears and minds. This is really a very conventional play, about subject-matter we should be used to dealing with. Of course, if someone is uncomfortable they have every right to leave — but I wonder if some audience members don’t go to supposedly controversial plays with the intention of walking out. Still, it does make for good drama!
2) Violence and Interactivity
This is not an interactive play. It starts with the illusion of interactivity, but this simply serves to put the audience in the right frame of mind for thinking about the play, rather than to create a contract of interaction with the audience. There are no choices for the audience, no branching points, no option of guiding or refusing the narrative. (I tried, at one point, when “Tim” asked if we wanted him to stop, saying “Yes”. The audience whooped a little, the script carried on relentless.)
As such, the play constitutes an act of violence on its audience: like “Esther”‘s “Karen”, we are offered the illusion of choice, only to have it roughly taken away.This is a neat reflection, only a little too neat, which helps to bring out some of the salient themes — but I do wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have a play that’s genuinely interactive. To have a genuine conversation about these ideas. To have a play that’s really happening, rather than purely representational. As it is, despite the beauty of the writing and the depth of the thought, the approach to choice can seem as trite as the closing of Ben Elton’s “Popcorn” . . .
3) And is it any good?
Well, yes. It’s a very good play, a beautiful and sensitive approach to its subject matter. But, at the same time, being a play about theatre most of all, and culture/media in general more widely, it has rather limited scope and appeal — that is to say, it’s a play written for theatre people. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is limited. While the post-modern game-playing isn’t too overwhelming (thank goodness — that would be morally irresponsible for this subject), it is still a bit smug, a bit exclusionary. I wonder if the play “The Author” describes wouldn’t in fact be a wider and more interesting and more accessible exploration of the same subject matter. I’m reminded of the Presnyakob Brothers’ “Terrorism”, which deals with many of the same ideas — the meanings of violence, of choice, and of the infectiousness of representations of horror — but with more humour, wider scope, and greater relevance.
Finally: I’d find it a bit sad if this were indeed Edinburgh’s most talked-about play. That would show an extreme insularity of theatre-goers — one which I suspect exists, but which I wish didn’t. For us to be talking about a play which talks about talking about violence — oi, that’s a little too circular and self-referential for my tastes. Yes, this play is excellent, but I’d still rather be actually doing things instead.
A “spoken word film” about Birmingham and coming home. Beautifully written and performed, with charm and grace. Only a little maudlin at times, only a touch slow and meandering. But full of moments of pure light.
I’m thinking about this directness and simplicity thing a great deal, as it’s a current not just at the Forest Fringe, but throughout contemporary fringe performance, especially in the penumbra of Live Art. Commonalities: an artful artlessness, a lack of guile and deception, the presentation of a performance for what it is, a thing in itself rather than a thing which is represented, a desire not to overreach, an imagination that plays very directly with the audience rather than to the audience. I can only explain the phenomenology of these shows by implication, but it is there. I wonder what it means. I like it, but I’m uncertain of it, and it does have to recognise the virtues of whimsy, utopia and entertainment, to avoid being too self-satisfied in its simplicity.
Still to come: Beautiful Burnout, The Tempest, The Man from Stratford, Penelope, Freefall, Camille O’Sullivan
I find that, when I’ve had a lull in blogging, for whatever reason, it’s hard to write that return post. There is so much to say! So much I meant to write! A useful technique, I think, is simply to provide a short, unartistic summary post of things which have been happening to wipe the slate clean, clear the baggage to enable me to write good posts again. Which is what this is.
Things I’ve been doing
I have been in something of a fallow creative period — not barren, but just lying fallow, regaining my fertility, taking my time — instead spending my time contributing to wider projects. But, to disgustingly mix metaphors, I’m emerging from the cocoon, new shoots are showing, something’s brewing. I see myself starting some new performance and creative projects soon.
But I have been helping make an exciting and wide-ranging project happen at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens: it’s called The Secret Grove, and it has involved taking over an often-forgotten section of the gardens, just behind the glasshouses, and turning it into a space for exploration and imagination, with an ecological twist. Our space has been filled with art installations, we have hand-built wooden yurts housing multiple creative and environmental workshops daily, and each day there are interactive performances embedded in trees, on lawns, and on benches around the space. You can turn up there any time during the day and something exciting — and sometimes chaotic! — will be happening.
I’ve also been working for the Edinburgh International Science Festival, training their street performers. Throughout the festivals this August, there will be street scientists with Christiania Bikes packed full of experiments for the public. They’re big, loud, smelly and fascinating; I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing together developing the show, and I think they’re a great piece of accessible and entertaining science communication. It’s been useful for me to hone my professional workshop skills as it becomes more and more clear that the way to survive as a performer and theatre artist is to get paid to run a lot of workshops. I’m gonna need to professionalise this site a wee bit more.
What else? I’ve had the occasional poetry gig, done odd little performances here and there, kept things smouldering. Read a lot, rediscovered comics, felt sometimes sad and sometimes astonished by the world. I’ve been doing what’s in front of me.
Things that are happening soon
First up, I’m doing a full set at Express Excess in Camden next Wednesday 18th, details coming soon to my poetry site. I’ll probably be hitting up the ever-brilliant and constantly-growing Chill Pill the night before. I have brewing to start a new free Open Mic and Read-Easy season in Edinburgh as well, now that I’m here for the long run, so stay tuned.
Climate Camp is coming to the city on the 19th as well, of course, so that’s going to be consuming a lot of my time. I’ll be performing there, but also practising my facilitation my helping run massive consensus decision-making meetings: always exhausting, but often thrilling, the sense of genuinely discovering anew what true democracy can be. I’m reading David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography at the moment, and it’s helping whet my appetite.
Come September, it’ll be time to get a large-scale theatre project of my own happening again. Happily, there’re a few things brewing. I’m talking with an old collaborator about developing plans for internet site-specific cybertheatre — intimate and surprising theatre performed in cyberspace — and I’ve plans to build on Open Source Theatre‘s cycle of work on property and capital, including the long-awaited debt project.
Meanwhile, what have I been thinking about? The purpose of theatre, of my life in performance, I suppose. (O delicious privilege!) At the moment Forest Fringe, the best place to be at the Edinburgh Festivals, is helping me with that a lot. Genuinely experimental performance, days of interaction and experience, so many opportunities to grow and think about art together with people who are committed, sincere and fun. I’m hoping to be writing more about that soon, keep my mind working, keep communicating.