Sunday, 19 September 2010

Edinburgh 2010 diary - memories / cry thoughts / theatre

image: Operation Greenfield

Last year, I went to Edinburgh Fringe Festival again after a break of five years or so. I was there for my birthday, which in accordance with cosmic law, must always ends in proper crying. In 2009 it was silent unstoppable weeping at the poetic, unflinching horrors spoken to us in Palace of the End;  followed by I-can't-actually-breathe-now actual crying with laughter at Daniel's Kitson's stand up; topped off by uncontrollable, almost adolescent bawling at the most romantic gesture I could ever have dreamed of at Uninvited Guests' Love Letters Straight from the Heart. It's a show I've seen four or five times, and one which never fails to move me; though it's never made me cry before.

So this year, I kept the visit fleeting, avoided my birthday and brought my boyf along with me so he could make any romantic gestures he felt the need to make, in private.

Thursday 12 August: 7.30am train from Bristol. No window. Long journey. Almost nostalgic already. Like fucking clockwork, it started raining almost as soon as we started walking round Edinburgh. LOVIN' IT. Braved the Royal Mile to pick up tickets and got the hell out as fast as possible.

Went to Black Bo's for a drink before the first show. Tim and I had what we could speculatively call our first date there; speculative given that we didn't start going out till 8 months later-ish. I ended up having to pay for dinner, but then he had got me top whack tickets for Pina Bausch's Nelken as a birthday present. Now there's a show to see on your birthday. Tears? yes.

Fifteen years later, I'm no longer vegetarian so we stuck with a drink. One of the few UK bars where you can get a bottle of Furstenberg. We talked about Freiberg and good friends we haven't seen for a long time.

image: Pedstrian
First show up is Tom Wainwright's Pedestrian at the Underbelly. The Underbelly is amazing building, but most of what I see there gets overwhelmed by the space, because no-one has the get in time to work site-specifically. Today, the venue left a MASSIVE FAN running for the first 20mins of the show. Tom has to cleverly weave it into the text 3 times before it gets turned off.

The piece has been trimmed by 20mins since I last saw it, and it's caustic cynicism is more striking and funnier for the tighter pace. It's a mashup of sharp satire, surreal grotesquery and self-deprication delivered with so much precision, energy and charisma that you can't stop looking. The lovely details of the sound and animation reflect the sort of modern-day bling and crapness that the monologue speaks of. It's an impressive piece of work. After seeing it a couple of times now and thinking about it again over the last few weeks, I realise that my problem with the show is that the story is presented as a dream. It's all fine and good being inspired by a dream, but presenting this mundanity and misanthropy as merely a dream, deeply undermines the satire for me. It lets us all get away with it; Tom included.

Then we hoof it over to Zoo Roxy for Little Bulb's Operation Greenfield. Little Bulb put a big fat smile on my face with Sporadical last year and I was well looking forward to whatever unpredictable magic they'd have up their sleeves this year.  It's Stokely, middle England: the annual talent show approaches and this year they're determined to win... These teenagers meet at Stokely Christian Club, bands are formed, friendships are forged and skewed, the school year comes and goes. Desperate, gawky, incomprehensible desire and rampant adolescence all over the shop. Some reviewers have been critical of the storytelling in the show, but I think it's clear and clever. Yes, the story progression skips between the layers of straightforward narrative theatre and the more arch, "performance" modes; but I never felt that one mode was contradicting or undermining the other. In fact, it was this ease of slipping between the 'truth' of the uncool Christian folk stylings and the 'metaphor' of the pop fantasies in the likes of David Bowie and the Arcade Fire (culminating in that final alt-folk-post-rock-annunciation-tableau) that sold the show to me. I do think they could shave 15mins out the middle where some sections feel more about the gags than keeping the story going; but aside from that, it was filled with charming, funny performances and a warm nostalgia without getting mawkish. And it was proper laugh out loud funny. It shouldn't work, but they're such incredible musicians and their work is filled with such heart: if you don't find something to love in it, you're probably not human.

Then a coffee before the last show of the night. The only place open, that doesn't have some sort of Salsa/Bagpipe/Bongo night going on is Starbucks. We get a coffee 10 minutes before they chuck us out and close up. We're sitting in the window and I think I spy Richard Dufty walking by at pace. It turns out it is Richard Dufty. Dufty, Tim and I were at university together (though none of us were in the same year). Funny that we're all still making theatre. And funny that we randomly booked into the same slot of a show with such limited capacity.

image: Sub Rosa
This show is David Leddy's Sub Rosa. We're gathered on George Street and walked over to the Mason's Lodge on Hill Street. The usher tells us, museum-guide style, about the history of this building, about the uses of the spaces, about how we must respect the artifacts in there even if we do not understand them, and about how we must stay silent for the duration of the piece. Rather than instructions as such, the tone of the intro leads well into the show which follows.

We're led through various rooms in the building. In each room we hear a fragment of story, from a different character's perspective. It's a theatre company, under the tyranny of a sadistic, misogynist manager. As we move up through the old lodge from room to room, we hear of the brutal abuse and murder of a young female performer, before we're finally released back into the night. This was a proper shocking, violent tale delivered through (in the main) perfectly pitched, sinister and weirdly intimate monologue performances. But the space felt overly theatricalised, lit up all magenta, rainbow and green, and accompanied by typically "spooky" soundscapes. I wish it had gone for a more cinematic, ghostly, shadow horror aesthetic - which I think might have helped it feel more attuned the site, rather than a show created for a theatre and then rammed into a resonant, but nevertheless non-theatre building.  But then drawing our eye to the nooks and crannies, making us suspicious of the shadows, could well have pulled focus away from those mesmerising performances and the gothic drama of that story.

We left by the fire escape. Suddenly I recognise this place... I've done warm-ups in this car park... Turns out it's the venue I performed in on that one time I was actually in a fringe show. Not a good show. An important experience. Totally teenage angsty tears.

Friday 13 August: Dropped by the Fruitmarket gallery. Failed to catch the Martin Creed show, but successfully caught up with Iain Morrison, who Bristol has recently lost back to Edinburgh. Iain made working behind a box office an actual fun activity. Sometimes he laughed so much he'd have to lie down. I'm sure his smiley chops encouraged many a newbie to take a punt on Arnolfini's galleries back in the day.

Then to Forest Fringe for too short a time. James Baker has not yet reached space. We've arranged to meet Kate Yedigaroff in the cafe, but in no time at all we've gathered Duncan Speakman, Jo Bannon and Ed Rapley in some kind of magnetic force of Bristol-ness.  Tim's never been to Forest Fringe so FF Co-Director Andy Field very kindly takes him up top and we get a sneaky peek at the Non Zero One piece, which looks really fun but is all booked up. The sheer amount of work at the Edinburgh fringe (and the fact that it's largely uncurated) makes it feel like a shouty, atomised context in which to see work; but FF offers a real antidote to this. There's a genuine sense of generosity with ideas, response, time that makes it feel communal.

image: 30 Days to Space
Some people have suggested that James Baker's 30 Days to Space would have been braver programmed in a 'bigger' venue, but I can't imagine it being anything but sidelined in a more mainstream venue. Aside from the practicalities of how you resource non-ticketed durational work at Edinburgh rates, FF encourages you to spend time, to move away and come back, to find your own relationship to the work. FF isn't perfect, and perhaps more than anything it needs to think harder about how it welcomes in audiences who are not yet experienced roamers, but it adds something uniquely precious to the fringe experience. Not least because Andy and Debbie work hard to get it at least some of the media coverage it deserves.

Then Molly Naylor's Whenever I Get Blown Up I Think of You at Zoo. A lovely show which was full of warmth and genuinely surprising. Starting with her experience of being caught up in the 7/7 bombings, we're guided through moments of what if, what happened, what didn't happen, and what happened next. It was beautifully observed and delivered, sincere but not overly dramatic, and funny. It wasn't angry. It was filled with humanity (at one point she discussed the fact that 'her' bomber was almost exactly the same age as her), and the impossibility of rationalising it - neither why it happened nor the value of her being caught up in it. There was a deftness to her observations that allowed us right in (or as close as we could possibly get) to the moments she described - tactile, visceral, skewed moments. Very occasionally, she'd slip into a couple of lines of obvious poetry and this would shift her delivery slightly, alienating me for that second, but other than that it was a subtly absorbing and compelling show.

Then to the Traverse for Shared Experience/Sherman Cymru's Speechless. This was premiering here, so I'm sure some of its unevenness will iron out, but to my mind there were core problems with the script that no amount of running in will resolve. It's based on the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, the "silent twins' who, already ostracized as West Indian Immigrants in rural west Wales, stopped speaking to anyone but each other, falling out of society and eventually being committed to Broadmoor High Security Hospital. I was expecting something uncomfortable - possibly tragic - but instead it seemed to be all explanations and statements. I swear to god, one of the characters ONLY spoke in exposition (seriously, the phrase "as you know" in a script has got to set off mega alarm bells, never mind the rest of what that poor actor was faced with...). For a play about silent twins, there was an awful lot of noise and talking (including from the twins). My main problem was that an explanation was offered for everything, and as a result the whole thing felt patronising, pompous and boring. I hate to be harsh, but the wikipedia article on June and Jennifer Gibbons sparked more in my imagination than the show, and I didn't have to pay £17 for the privilege.

As usual, there's nowhere to sit in the Traverse bar. Someone has left an iPhone on one of the sofas. No-one nicks it. I suppose that's either because we're in a theatre, or because we're in the north.

image: Freefall
Next is Dublin Corn Exchange's Freefall. It's not bad. Michael West's script has some nice, natural dialogue rhythms and the performances are strong and in tune with each other. The design is impressive and bold and it's all very slick; but basically, it was like an episode of Holby City and for all its high production values, I just kept thinking that it's too small a story for theatre. I didn't care about any of it. It never made a claim to its place in a bigger world. My other bugbear was that it was really inconsistent with when it did and didn't break the theatrical illusion. From time to time an actor would break from character, come to the edge of the stage and visibly create the foley sound - but not for every sound effect. That sort of inconsistency smacks of smugness and showing off. Be more rigorous.

It's late now. Tim and I find this tiny Spanish restaurant down by where we're staying. It's no bigger than our dining room at home and the clientele looks like a mixture of festival accidentalists and couples waiting for the right moment to propose. Despite being literally a 5 minute walk from our hotel, we decide to take a cut through which gets us lost round the back somewhere, through streets that look more like northern france than anywhere in Edinburgh. 45 minutes later we back round the corner from the restaurant and nearly home.

Saturday 14 August: Last year, I went went to see Power Plant at the Botanical Gardens. There was some proper sci-fi wonder in that installation because of the way it worked so fabulously with that extraordinary site. This year, I was determined to spend some time in the Botanical Gardens without any art getting in the way. That place is ACTUALLY AMAZING. It takes us 4 hours to get round all the glasshouses. Then we look at the world's longest hedge.

We go to the Filmhouse and have an afternoon beer before going into Melanie Wilson & Abigail Conway's Every Minute, Always. I have fond memories of the Filmhouse. Back when the Edinburgh Film Fest coincided with the theatre festivals, the Filmhouse was where I first saw work by the phenomenal Russian Animator, Yuri Norstein. It must have been 1996? or 1997? He gave a talk about his work, which continues to influence me; comparing working under soviet rule to enslavement to the dollar in modern Russia. He was extremely humble and full of humour. The Hedgehog in the Fog is my favourite. It's at once fairy story and existential coming of age tale. And I've never looked at the stars the same way since. Yes, there were tears. And it still makes me cry every time I see it.

image: Every Minute, Always
Every Minute, Always has a lovely tone and is happily unafraid to play sentimental. A headphones piece for many couples at a time, it's lovely to be able to watch the couples in front of you in the choreography of small gestures we make. It's perhaps not long enough yet to forget how instructional it all is, but it has the potential to be fragile and moving.

We find this crazy Chinese restaurant round behind the Lothian Rd. It's massive, but half the signage has fallen away and it looks like it's been shut for ages... something vaguely Spirited Away about it... we have a great meal and then hoof it across to the Royal Lyceum.

Elevator Repair Service: The Sun Also Rises. Tonight is its world premiere and I'm loving that an experimental theatre company from New York has pulled such a full, eclectic audience for an almost 4-hour long untried show, half a world away from home. It's an astounding, mindblowing show. I can't describe it better than to say that the experience was somehow exactly like the experience of reading a book. It's utterly a live experience in the moment, but it's absolutely not a drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from Hemingway's book - as is the narration, given by Jake, played by Mike Iverson who is on stage for the entire show, reciting the words just the way it would sound in my head if I was reading the novel. These are flawless, charismatic performances. And it's laugh out loud funny at points. There's no attempt to be realistic in style. This is the way the world of the book would look, in your head: endless bottles of booze...  modern day cultural references creeping in (the dance routines come from youtube)... the occasional rereading of a line... and suddenly somehow we're no longer in a bar, but at a bullfight, so the bar tables morph into a raging bull... It sweeps from slapstick to the height of sentimentality without jarring. The sound and light design is full of subtlety, infiltrating the auditorium from all around us. The staging is gorgeously cinematic in the way it fills the frame, 'irrelevant' actions by 'insignificant' characters at the edge of the principal action, making the world of the show deeply rich and compelling. It felt surprisingly intimate as an experience - like reading. They made it so easy to be absorbed in a world conjured so vividly from those words.

image: The Sun Also Rises

But I don't know how to recommend this show to anyone. It's not a straightforward piece of theatre and unsurprisingly, it gets a mixed response. Essentially The Sun Also Rises is a story of mid-war American dilettantes who come to Europe to get pissed up and find themselves. It's not a story I'd normally gravitate towards - but then neither is The Great Gatsby, and that's one of the best books I've ever read. Like The Wire, it requires you to 'lean in' to get the full effect, but unlike The Wire, you can't just lend someone the box set and insist that they make it to episode four before pronouncing on it. I'll have to think up another strategy...

We walk back in a sparkly haze; our world exploded.

Sunday 15 August: Get up. Eat breakfast. Check out. Get to the Traverse for Daniel Kitson's show at 10am. It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later intertwines the stories of two people, Caroline Carpenter and William Rivington, but "it's not a love story; though it does have love in it". One story is told from birth to death, the other from death to birth. For 90 minutes, Kitson bombards us with tellings of small moments - moments of realisation over breakfast or in front of the television or at a funeral. A hundred lightbulbs hang over the stage like stars. With each moment recounted, one bulb glows just that tiny bit brighter for the duration of the story. It's a hyperballad to the magnificent (extra)ordinariness in our lives. A wonderful, humane, paean to the value of just being here and living your life. It's deceptively simple, but the intricacy of Kitson's writing is unbelievable - what sounds like a stand-up style throwaway gag will crop up half an hour later as a resonance in one of the character's lives - and he performs with relentless conviction, never letting us get dismissive of Caroline Carpenter or William Rivington or anyone they held dear. He starts talking, he barely stops for breath and then he stops, and that's it. At last Edinburgh 2010 has made me cry. It is a sad and a beautiful world. And funny. And sometimes a bit rude.

Miraculously, there's a table free in the Traverse bar. We have coffee.

And then the final show of the trek: While You Lie by Sam Holcroft. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Having just written about Kitson's show, I don't actually want to spend too much time dwelling on While You Lie. The script should never have got near an audience in that state. Lazy cliches and shambolic politics. It was like when you have an idea (inevitably a vaguely political one) when you're really drunk and instead of waking up in the morning to feel sheepishly embarrassed about it, you find you've written a script and which then goes and gets produced in front of a bunch of probably not very drunk yet people who've paid nigh on twenty quid for the privilege. Structurally, I think it might have been trying to be a farce, but it was so seriously messy in terms of how the plot was driven, and the characters' motivations, that it was hard to tell. Written and directed by women, it was nevertheless riven with a frightening skein of misogyny; its female characters dependent on male attention (no matter how fickle or violent) and its male characters only interested in manipulating the women. It just kept lurching charmlessly from scene to scene, the parameters of its world so unclear that it was impossible to understand any moral position or question from it.  I genuinely can't think of a single positive thing to say about this piece as it stood. Sorry.

And then to the station. We have a window for the long journey back. Best start saving the pennies for next year.

image: The Hedgehog in the Fog

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Things I've seen in between: May - July 2010

image: Food Court
Funnily, it feels like I've not seen as much this year as I saw last year. Not sure if that's true. Not sure if it matters. I made it up to Edinburgh for a fleeting few days this year and am hoping to blog something about those shows shortly. In the meantime, here's the inbetween list, including some rich Mayfest pickings:

- Full Beam Visual Theatre: The Lesser Spotted Collectors' Club
- Forest Fringe Microfestival at Bristol Old Vic for Mayfest
- Stoke Newington International Airport: Live Art Speed Dating
- John Moran and his Neighbour Saori... In Thailand
- Bodies In Flight with Spell#7: Dream-Work
- Dancing Brick: 6.0 How Heap & Pebble Took on the World & Won
- Orbita: Dogger, Fisher, Faero
- Tinned Fingers: The Last Romance Club
- Lone Twin: The Festival
- Jasmine Loveys: Five Fat Fish
- Nic Green: Trilogy
- Peggy Shaw & The Clod Ensemble: MUST - The Inside Story
- Sylvia Rimat &Kate Ashman: Falling For You
- The Plasticine Men: Keepers
- Ed Rapley: Who Knows Where?
- Will Adamsdale: The Human Computer
- David Rosenberg/Frauke Requardt/Fuel: Electric Hotel
- Flying Eye: Cutting the Cord
- Stacy Makishi: STAY!
- Simon Godwin/Bristol Old Vic: Far Away
- Back to Back Theatre: Food Court
- Andre Andrianov & Oleg Soulimenko: Made in Russia
- Fuckhead: Carnival of Souls
- nadaproductions: THEM
- Jacob Wren & Pieter De Buysser: An Anthology of Optimism
- Back to Back Theatre with The Necks: The Democratic Set (Cardiff)
- Twisted Theatre: Othello
- Jimmy Whiteaker & Anna Harpin: I Could Have Been Better
- Natalie McGrath: Scottish Kiss
- Adam Peck: My Bristol Vista - A Partial View of Where I Call Home
- Tom Wainwright: Custard
- Timothy X Atack: M32 Is Also A Galaxy
- Nalaga'at: Not By Bread Alone

image: MUST: The Inside Story

A few international artists in this list, including the wonderful Peggy Shaw who I could have had me under her spell for a whole lot longer than 45mins.

On the flip side, the young Austrian company, nadaproductions, produced one of the wrongest shows I've ever seen, and one that I ended up walking out of (which is very rare for me).

Once again though, Back to Back produced one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen with Food Court: brutal, uncompromising, impeccably performed and looking and sounding like the most beautiful nightmare - a show which reminds you of the power of theatre as a live medium. Utterly extraordinary.

image: Food Court

Monday, 24 May 2010

Four Lions

I went to see Four Lions yesterday. For a number of reasons:
  1. Saying you love going to the cinema, but then mainly staying at home as if you secretly prefer to wait for everything to come out on DVD is not cool. And I do love going to the cinema.
  2. The last film I saw at the cinema was Mic-Macs, and that was rubbish. Not even "bad in a good way".
  3. I've yet to be disappointed by anything Chris Morris has made. Even when it's not LOLZ funny, it's always intelligent.
  4. It's bloody hot, and the air conditioning in the Watershed cinemas is always pretty reliable.
The thing that surprised me most was how weirdly, unerringly humane the film feels. There's a real respect for the characters as people, even if they're idiots setting out to perform a terrifying, inexplicable, reprehensible act. The fact that these uber-clumsy suicide bombers remain somehow sympathetic (unbelievably!) is what makes the film much more resonant and thought-provoking than the excoriating (perhaps more reactionary?) satire I was expecting from Chris Morris. I've been thinking about it all day.

"Fuck mini Babybels." 

Importantly, it is also fucking hilarious. I was proper snorting and guffawing in the cinema like I haven't done since probably The South Park Movie. [I only saw In The Loop on DVD]. I can't wait to see it again - and that's mainly to catch some more quotable lines.  I am already using, and will continue to use the phrase, "we're eating our SIM cards" in a matter of fact tone, to indicate any activity that could be deemed normal or rational: like breathing. Or walking into a room.

I once had a debate with someone about whether The Thick of It was farce or not. To my mind, it was obviously farce in terms of genre, but my mate struggled to label it as such, because in his mind the word "farce" equated to simplistic, unsophisticated comedy. Reading some of the reviews of Four Lions, I get a sense that a fair few people are disappointed that the film is clearly a farce - as if that undermines any intellectual weight it might have. That argument doesn't make sense to me. Just because the film works beautifully as a knockabout runaround in the Ealing comedy mode (and who doesn't love a good Ealing comedy?), doesn't mean it therefore undermines the thought and care that has gone into the characters, or diminishes the film's treatment of suicide bombing as terrifying and unjustfiable.

Perhaps the cleverest choice is in the film's refusal to offer any explanations of how these numpty jihadists come to the point of wanting to kill themselves and others for a heaven that equates to being on the rides rather than in the queues at Alton Towers. There is no attempt to rationalise their drive. Even between themselves, their reasoning is unsure and mobile... a sort of feedback loop of uncertain understanding and 'belief' made believed only by desperate reiteration. The characters are so beautifully played, that they remain sympathetic right to the end, and the tragedy is that all the while you feel that their instincts are telling them that what they're about to do is wrong. By refusing to give us any reasons for what drove them to take this course of action, the film humanises the suicide bombers. Right up to the end, you feel like each one of them could choose not to go through with it. That's a pretty amazing achievement I'd say; and about a million miles away from Spooks, and most of the rest of the media for that matter. Maybe if we feel like we could change their minds beforehand, we'll try and do that before we feel like we have to shoot the wrong man in the head.

    Friday, 30 April 2010

    Things I've seen inbetween (January - May 2010)

    image: and the line goes dead...

    Funny how 2010 sounds much more sci-fi than 2009.

    Anyway, thought I'd list up before Mayfest hits. Already this year, there's been a couple of fests or festy type seasons showing all kinds of work in development, rehearsed readings or just concentrated goddamn art experiences, so best get the diary out.

    - Travelling Light & Champloo: How Cold My Toes
    - Marcia Farquhar: 12 Shooters
    - Tom Wainwright & Sam Halmarack: Mouth
    - Alan Williams: The Girl with Two Voices (pts 1, 2 and 3)
    - Timothy X Atack: and the line goes dead...
    - Shaqgufta Iqbal: Untitled + Jam For Girls 
    - Tristan Sturrock: Frankenspine
    - John Hegley: Dancing With Deckchairs
    - Stewart Wright & Craig Edwards: The Nothing Show (Pt 2)
    - Bristol Ferment Rehearsed Readings (new writing by Natalie McGrath, Shiona Morton, Jimmy Whiteaker, Timothy X Atack, Lee Coombes)
    - Action Hero: Watch Me Fall
    - Tom Marshman: Pole Dance
    - Bristol Old Vic Theatre:24
    - The Wonderclub: The Lamentable Tragedy
    - Yara El-Sherbini: Universality Challenge
    - Harminder Singh Judge: The Modes of Al-Ikhseer
    - Prototype February 2010 Platform (5 pieces)
    - Firebird Theatre: The Tempest
    - Murcof & Anti-VJ work-in-progress
    - Third Angel: Words and Pictures
    - Gillian Dyson: Site Unseen
    - Marty St James: Homage
    - Los Terreznos: The Desert
    - Varsha Nair & Lena Eriksson: LOOC: Line Out Of Control
    - Manuel Vason: I BELIEVE IN
    - Marcia Farquhar: The Omnibus
    - Anne Seagrave: Do Gory Nogami (Upside Down)
    - Rosie Ward: Breathing Space
    - Trace Collective: Post-Historical-Cluster-Fuck
    - Lisa Wesley & Andrew Blackwood: The Project: 2040 AD
    - Paul Hurley: Untitled Actuation, March 2010
    - Professor Liz Aggiss: Survival Tactics
    - FrenchMottershead: Were You Here The Last Time
    - Forced Entertainment: Void Story
    - Also at National Review of Live Art (Michael Mayhew, Lei Cox, Qasim Riza Shaheen, Kate McIntosh/Eva Meyer Keller, Michelle Browne, Sam Rose & Annette Foster, Iona Kewney, Monali Meher, Robyn Archer, MC Neil Bartlett)
    - BLOP: Bristol Live Open Platform 2010 (63 pieces)
    - Bristol Old Vic: Juliet and Her Romeo
    - Champloo: White Caps
    - ATC & Bristol Old Vic: Project Underworld
    - Short Fuses (new plays by Natalie McGrath, Craig Norman, Jenny Davis, Timothy X Atack, Adam Peck)

    image: Void Story

    Wednesday, 17 March 2010

    Juliet and Her Romeo

    Tuesday 16 March 2010, Bristol Old Vic

    Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but set in a care home, where Romeo and Juliet are amongst the elderly residents. The conceit is that Juliet's daughter wants to marry her mother off to rich ole Paris so that she doesn't have to cover the spiralling costs of residential care. It's a compelling spin for a 2010 retelling.

    But there's not a lot of other mucking about with it. There's some folding in together of characters, but only cursory changes to the original text and a real faithfulness to the structure of Shakespeare's story. Which is perhaps where - for me - its principal flaws spring from... but let's not start there.

    It is always good to see an intergenerational cast - perhaps in part because it's surprisingly rare to see one, but more because it extends the world in which the show exists. And it's wonderful to see the focus on a core group of elderly performers. It's not a new device per se (then, who really cares about new?), but what is unusual is that the state of being elderly is the context in which the story is set. It's not a reflection on 'old-ness' in the way that say, King Lear is; or in the way the fact of age is present and acknowledged in more experimental, non-narrative work such as Ursula Martinez' OAP or Tom Marshman's The Invitation .

    The problem for the show though, is that being old is different to being fourteen. And aside from a few moments where the age displacement creates some wry ironies in the text (Benvolio: "I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire", Juliet: "I have forgot why I did call thee back"), the production's reverence to the text prevents it making a convincing case for these characters as old star cross'd lovers. It's not that they wouldn't fall in love so deeply and so immediately, but their fluster at the situation and their haste to take action seems viable only with the wide-eyed naivety of youth. And when it comes to considering death... it's not that older people are less afraid of death (quite the opposite in many cases) but again it doesn't ring true that these elderly people would talk as if death was so alien to their thoughts.

    It's this lack of investment in the contextual world of this version of the story that most undermines the production. It's as if the director felt that 'the big reversal' was done in the casting, and the rest would... just... follow. But of course it doesn't. The lack of rigour in maintaining the conceit to any depth, made the whole work feel insubstantial, and ultimately a bit gimmicky. This is despite compelling performances by the older cast, particularly (IMO) Sian Phillips and Tim Barlow*. After the first act, the care home exists merely as a set. There's no sense of these people living their lives within any kind of institutionalised system.

    The most fundamental problem for me was that Juliet's daughter never convinced as someone with the capacity to act tyrant over her mother. Surely one of the scariest prospects of old age in modern times is the loss of independence. An arranged marriage is frightening enough at any age, but after a full life, where you have proven your ability to live by your own wit and intelligence, to have your child turn round and try coercing you into a marriage against your will must be the ultimate betrayal. But it doesn't play like that here... in part, I imagine, because there's nothing in the original text that allows for Juliet being old, but also because Abigail Thaw's heavy acting has no sense of authority next to Sian Phillips' more assured performance. It's inconceivable that this prissy daughter could get her clearly more confident mother to do anything she didn't want to do. Surely we need to believe that Juliet really will be condemned to a life with Paris, and a life without Romeo, in order to buy into the drama? Unfortunately that never rang true to me as a possibility (never mind as a threat) so everything that followed all seemed a bit melodramatic. I kept forgetting that the marriage deal with Paris was even on. In my head, the furrowed brows were entirely about the Montague/Capulet enmity, which has always seemed a bit suss to me in the way it's never explained... I mean you know, even Doctor Who would offer at least a token bone to the audience on that, if only to say, "no-one can even remember how it started" (yeah, you Sontarans and Rutans, I'm talking about you).

    Having said all that, I did find the decision to emasculate Paris a poignant one; to have him reduced to waiting, wandering, seemingly kept in the dark as his would-be bride is being bullied into marrying him. There was a darkness in the exploitation of this man that was left subtle, in a production with very little darkness or subtlety.

    On basic points:

    The set design worked well and beautifully made use of the depth of the Theatre Royal stage. As an aside, I'm always amazed how rarely the depth of that stage is used... I'd kill for that kind of depth to work with. But where the set pointed into the deep, the action happened almost exclusively on the thrust... I know it might be hard to hear dialogue from the back of that space, but there must have been a million opportunities to extend the staging of action through the full depth of the space. If only to have had people moving in the background, the actions and routines of the institution reminding us that this was not Juliet's big house, but a station for many, towards the end of many individual lives, still living lives. It would have bolstered the veracity of the contextual world AND looked good!

    The sound design was very rough - but then, I've come to expect that from most theatre shows. It's a pet hate of mine, that sound always seems to be the last thing considered in constructing a theatre show. You'd never get away with that in a film.

    Where the older actors were captivating, the younger actors were almost all outrageously unconvincing - like they were acting at doing Shakespeare: all huffing and puffing, shrugging shoulders and pronouncing with their arms. I'll give a little shrift to Golda Rosheuvel, playing the nurse, who definitely had some sort ownership of the role, even if it was an unnecessarily broad characterisation. At least she wasn't Tristan Sturrock, who basically seemed to play the Friar role as if everything was a big game... WAY to undermine the drama, dude. And I hate to say it, but I sometimes had to actually turn away when Pal Aron as the Doctor came on stage. To be fair, I think the Doctor had an unclear role and his relationship to the characters, his agenda, were all so vague that the fact that he mainly seemed to be shouting into the void can't entirely be his own fault.

    It's a solid production, with a couple of lovely moments - the balcony scene was beautifully and simply played, and the fracas which leads to Mercutio and Tybalt's deaths had genuine tragedy about it. But the main disappointment for me was that I was expecting something bolder. The company seemed to be happy with the high concept twist, but then failed to shape a production which would make the implications of that twist resonate. I was hoping to find something unexpected, even moving, in this telling of the story; but ultimately it was all quite predictable.


    * I'll freely admit I have a soft spot for Tim Barlow because of his part in Hot Fuzz - aka one of the funniest films ever (I know that's controversial, but this is my blog, so I win) and of course by being possibly the best thing about Destiny of the Daleks**.


    **Other than the legendary moment where the Doctor 'mis-tells' a couple of Daleks to "Spack Off!" and shoves a primary coloured explosive down Davros's nethers. Of course.

    images: Juliet's Death (from Charles & Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare), Sian Phillips as Juliet, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the 1936 film, Tim Barlow as Mr Treacher in Hot Fuzz

    Saturday, 13 March 2010

    Writers on writing - plus Graham Linehan is JUST FUNNY

    I don't think real writers like giving rules for writing. Only "screenwriting gurus" and people who think they're writers like going on about rules for writing. I don't know who this man is, but he looks like he might be prologue-ing for some rules.

    I just the watched Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe Screenwriting Special again. It's ace. And anyone who's interested in scriptwriting should watch it. It's not about rules, but instead features a bunch of very successful TV writers answering some simple, but revealing questions about their processes.

    And before any of you weird, freaky Brooker-haterz start moaning about Brooker being on it, he's actually very downplayed in this, and pretty much just asks the questions... I say just, but I know how hard it is to make an interview run smoothly AND get interesting answers from interviewees, so nyuuuuuuur you Brooker-haterz. Stop hating Brooker.

    I love hearing about artists' creative processes. If I had to sum it up in one line, I'd probably say that being an artist is about making decisions. Having ideas is one thing; but making decisions about what to do with them is the clincher. And I guess the processes by which you make those decisions is what makes your practice. And because I'm not one for all that rules business, I'm a big fan of pick-and-mixing creative processes from different disciplines. How would you light this show if it was a film? How would you structure this story if it was a song? What would Spielberg do? etc

    Going back to Screenwipe... on top of being properly inspiring, it's also not at all po-faced. And Graham Linehan is JUST FUNNY. Everything he says is funny. Even when he's not saying anything funny, HE is funny. It reminded me how funny his blog is. I mean, the fact that I now know that this clip exists, even makes a trip to IKEA hell on a Saturday bearable.

    The writers interviewed are: Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies, Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong, Tony Jordan and Graham Linehan. Even if you don't like their work, you can't argue with their success, so it's interesting to hear what they have to say. Plus, Graham Linehan is FUNNY.

    Saturday, 9 January 2010

    How do you like your criticism, pet?

    Wotcha! I wonder if I'll get anywhere near to regular blogging this year?

    Anyway, dreaming aside, at the end of last year, I applied to be one of the new Arts Council Artistic Assessors. For the last 8 years, and particularly in the job I've had for the last 4 years, seeing live art and theatre work, critiquing it with colleagues and feeding back honestly yet sensitively to artists has been a major part of what I've done professionally.

    Obviously, I was turned down. After about 30 seconds of hubristic grumping, I realised that this was actually a good thing. I looked back over the sample artistic assessment I'd sent with my application and though I agree with every word of it and think it is objective and fair, it's also REALLY BORING to read.

    The Arts Council isn't looking for journalism, but I'd made an assumption that they wanted to go the polar opposite, and gave them something so devoid of my personality that I doubt anyone who's heard me talk about work before would recognise me in it. I guess that's part of the point of objective assessment, but I realise now that it's not something I'm particularly interested in doing without at least some dialogue around it to personalise the investment and make sure it is useful to the artist/organisation being assessed... and that's something I get paid to do already.

    What's interesting me more at the moment is a more journalistic critique of art, where you get a sense of a real life audience member experiencing the work. I think that particularly for live art and more unconventional types of theatre, there's a particular lack of good, engaging journalism.

    Thank god for Lyn Gardner, who has carved out a regular, high-profile space for discussing contemporary performance on the Guardian Theatre Blog. And she's no longer the only voice discussing this work on that blog. But this still feels quite anomalous. The classic call from the live art/experimental theatre (LAET) scene has been that mainstream press refuses to be interested in non-mainstream work - which is an inevitable and ongoing frustration; but I'd say there's an equal problem in that non-mainstream work has not always been good at talking about itself in anything other than academic, jargonistic or cliquey terms. I think this is changing, with a greater appreciation within the LAET scene that a populist tone doesn't in itself necessitate 'dumbing down', but we've still got to get some more voices, writing articulately about the work, and getting published, regularly, somewhere that readers can easily find them.

    Not too much to ask for then.

    best get cracking...