Tuesday, 23 May 2017

This Is Not Culturally Significant.

I was having a conversation with an actor earlier this week (I know, I know, I’m sounding more like Dominic Cavendish by the day) about how contemporary theatre was going down the drain: subject to the rigorous processes of development and commercialisation that have dogged film and TV to breaking point and that are now slowly but surely encroaching on theatre, running out of room to breathe, running out of money to support new talent, theatre is turning into a land of musicals, revivals and bugger-all else, the theory goes (not sure Dominic would have put it like that, but still).

So, it’s gratifying that in little under a month, I’ve seen *three* indescribable shows; three shows so much bigger than the sum of their parts that it seems facile to describe them in tortuous detail (I’m going to anyway – that’s what critics DO, dummy) but that expand as soon as you leave them, riddlingly open and broad. The first was Cock and Bull, the second This Beautiful Future, and now, at a second run after seeing its original iteration nearly a year ago, is Adam Scott-Rowley’s This Is Not Culturally Significant.

The show is a small miracle. Not just in its execution, which is breathtaking, but in the very fact that a show as formally disturbing as this exists at all.  
I guess an accurate description (here we go) would be 55 minutes of breakneck bouffon clowning, performed in the nude: a sort of den of disturbing grotesque characters, with sort-of narratives and sort-of stuff to stay, splitting themselves in half in front of you in their attempts to get beyond their monadic, vituperative worlds; constructed to be seen, exploited, and then discarded.

But that gets you no further than the show as object– and that also suffers from making it sound horrible and shit, which it isn’t (I’m trying not to put you off, so let’s just say it’s a funny panto, yeah?)

The piece is humane and direct: narrative theatre is a violence; the world is a storm of damage and isolation; this violence is played out and explored, though without any explicit comment or explanation, through gender, sex, class, race, and violence.

Every other review I’ve read of this show– I don’t mean to be a wanker about this but it’s patently true– seem to want to turn this into something more coherent and, well, significant. I think I’ve rarely seen anything where “the show you wanted this to be” is less easily accommodated without damaging the object as such. The programme notes describe it as a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get show” and that seems so perfectly summative.

This is not a set of characters easily built into contingent existence. Their worlds do not fit easily together and searching for connection between them is a slippery game: the politics of this piece are not as simplistic as “people are a bit lonely, aren’t they?” or “the police are a bit nasty, aren’t they?”, rather it asks chimerical, mesmeric questions about what it actually means to believe in character and what the voyeur-spectator loses in the search to enjoy another person’s pain.

For the pain at the heart of the show, really, is the performer’s. There are moments where, under strobe lighting or repeating “I love you” over and over, Scott-Rowley pulls away from character and we are suddenly faced by a man, naked and vulnerable, waving at a roomful of people staring at him in the harsh light: like his trip has taken a terrifying turn and he is exhausted and desperate for us to let him return to the world, only to be submerged back into the torrid world he has created for us.

Basically, it’s just taken me six hundred words to explain that a show with the title “This Is Not Culturally Significant.” might be playing complicated ironic games with how culture signifies. So. Well. Done. Me.

There were a few niggling issues: the lighting design seemed not quite as subtle as the show it was serving; the heady heights of certain monologues (a particularly beautiful line about a grieving woman switching the organic eggs for the normal ones hit me right in the gut) left me wondering whether others were deliberately shoddily constructed and whether this was a formal choice or just a bit of a shame; and I think on reflection the show loses rather than gains in its transfer to a bigger space – the intimacy of the first time I saw this show in Edinburgh last year in a tiny room with twenty people, five of whom walked out, was a particular magic that’s hard to synthesize in a larger space.

But I think I'm willing to forgive these flaws because the show is so hugely ambitious and, here's the kicker, it offers such a riposte to the sorts of shows that Fringe venues are otherwise producing: narrative-based new writing about sellable, sexy, clickbait-y, young-speak-y subjects.

So, this fits securely into a year of some properly exciting, weird, wonky, misshapen treats, coming from places that could really be expected to be sticking to less experimental fare and you should all pop along and catch this latest one. Don’t worry, I’ll let Dom know.

P.S. Apologies for sarky annoyance here. I think it stems from a frustration with just how many of the critics, who really should no better, were interested in what performing in the buff might mean, rather than thinking about all the other good stuff about the show. Seems to me an insufferably lazy interest in the window-dressing rather that, well, the window, I guess. That’s all.

This Is Not Culturally Significant. is on at The Bunker until 3rd June.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Ferryman or Jeez, Jez

*This review will contain one section of criticism but mainly it’ll be a lot of asdnjkagnjknagljkgan-ing. *


Wow. What a corker.

It feels facile to state it but this play is really good. Really really really really good. And what I think makes it so good is that it’s painstakingly well-made. Careful, rich, and detailed in a way that is so satisfying for a show that could so easily have got away with much less.

Its story arcs over politics: laying its three acts down in a bustling harvest-day farmhouse in Armagh, with the hunger strikes of 1981 rumbling underneath every word spoken. It follows Quinn Carney and his family as the secrets of the past clutch at their present and the kids get drunk and the adults get poked out of hiding. Closed-space and three scenes (and a prologue) in closed time, the structure of this play, while conventional in all sorts of way, shoots out at you, subplots collapsing into each other, proleptic images chomping at the bit to release themselves. It is breathtaking to hold it up to the light.



And what light! I’ve rarely seen a production so textured, so detailed, where every character’s wrinkles are legible without being trite, where every gesture seems to blast apart the idea that you could perhaps stop listening for a moment (I was hooked by every beat for all three and a half hours-- standing – though for 10p, I’d be hard-pressed to complain about that, though I did – plentifully– in the interval, but shhh.) And the literal light, the design of the thing by Peter Mumford, was sensational: casting brutal shadows, then burning into the characters and washing them away, I thought it added so much to those speeches, often pages and pages of storytelling, to make them really sing over time for an audience.


And and and those performances. Jesus Christ. There were twenty-five people onstage at points: all of them managed to make my stomach fizz, all of them were addictive as custard creams. None of them, this is the real mastery in the directing, dropped the ball. They shone without cutting short other performers. Of course Paddy Considine and Laura Donnelly were majestic, but I felt really singed by Tom Glynn-Carney’s Shane, all riotous energy and punchy bluster, and Genevieve O’Reilly’s absent wife Mary, whose beautiful final speech made me dizzy with its desperate, receding, clemency.


This play hurt. It really hurt. And it’s the details that make it: the aged Maggie's flutey, broken-backed singing – a Cassandra calling to the unknowable light beyond this room; the trinkets lining Rob Howell’s intricate design; the way in which the degrading relationships unconsummated, the conversations un-had, match perfectly onto the hunger strikers mentioned and mourned throughout the course of the play. Oh, and that fucking goose!


*Honestly now, if biased nitpicking of beautiful theatre with minor inclusions isn’t your bag, then skip ahead to the next section. Like in an adventure book. Or a tax return.*

Here goes: I have three main thoughts.


Firstly, it’s not [here we go everyone!!!] Jerusalem. Quinn Carney is no Jonny Byron. You don’t love or delight in this character like you did Rooster. Or at least I didn’t. Which is not really a problem, just a prediction that while this play might be loved and lauded, I’m not sure the character will stick quite so unshakably to the culture.


Secondly, a few moments, just a few, are either a tad overwrought (surely a character reciting a bit of Virgil, however apposite, is always going to feel like a port-fucking-entous sledgehammer) or stretched too far. I like a long speech, but many people don’t, and I couldn’t help feeling that *that* many speeches, with that much decadent language, begins to look a little like a writer too big to take cuts.  


Thirdly. And most bigly. The play to me doesn’t feel at all politically active. Which is fine. It doesn’t feel like it teaches you very much. Also fine. It doesn’t feel like it’s that sort of beast: "A carrot is a carrot and we know nothing more." and. All. That. So, probably, altogether, maybe, fine. I genuinely don’t think this play is that interested in the Troubles or terrorism, I think it’s a lot more interested, like Miller– to which this play owes more than a little– in human-ness within a political backdrop. Though, Billington seemed to find lots of this stuff where I found little – he would, though, wouldn’t he. *Miiiiiaow*


Anyway, anyway. This is all ok. Fine. Great. But BUT, in rooting around for a political statement from Jez, and the director and the Royal Court, one has to notice for just a second the complete absence of performers of colour, the absence of LGBTQ characters, the absence, in such an ENORMOUS cast and creative team, of seemingly any consideration of diversity – the creative team are all, to a man, white and male, which makes this an all-white show, which I’m not sure, however realistic for a small Irish town in the 80s, is really OK any more. I know *yawn, this again*. But all this “baggage” within a play about violent homosocial relations and two women in love with the same man and lots of big male parts for younger male actors and kind of weedy parts for the younger female actors, is not not political. And that’s worth bearing in mind, I think, just for a moment. And it’s not something that’s not been levelled at this writer’s work before. Right. That’s that done.


*A return to blind imbalance*


Basically, gah good god it’s good. You should go, obviously. If you can. It’s sold out but, as I say, 10p tickets from the Royal Court if you queue up from 6 o’clock-ish – the views aren’t great but if you creep up and stand on the stairs, it’s visible as your knees slightly tremble.


And if you can’t, read the script. It’s a masterclass in plotting. And that ending, even though political Michael mentions he didn’t buy it, left me properly hand-over-my-mouth, tearing my hair out, shaking.

P.S. There's something about seeing a baby onstage that's a small, specific wonder. You become hyper-aware of everyone in the room: every sharp object onstage becomes enormous; every risk hyper-real. Particularly when they start bawling and the actors have to soldier on. I know States writes on this, as does Chris Goode. But maybe there's an essay to write about how babies in theatre are like Barthes' theory of the punctum in photography. If that essay exists already, holler at me.

P.P.S. I think the Virgil bit has rubbed off on me and turned me into the biggest wanker alive.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On Sitting In High Chairs

Exeunt’s cogent, reasonable (perhaps a little *too* reasonable even) defence of their Mayerling review to the gruff, ballet-going trolls, makes really fascinating reading. It speaks to all sorts of concerns: what sort of things critics should deal with in their reviews, how class divisions beset all sorts of artistic communities, and how best to respond to people being a little bit nasty about you (*spoiler: be smarter and lovelier than them*).

I thought their response showed tremendous integrity. Holding their hands up to concerns about ageism (I’d be really surprised if the “unprecedented number of emails” came in large part from elderly ballet-goers offended by a critic who might have noticed their liver spots, but that’s by-the-by), whilst defending their right to be a different sort of publication, one that offers reviews that, unlike the majority of other sources of theatre criticism, don’t pretend to be by a robot who wasn’t in the room at all with any of the people in that room and who didn’t have any prejudices at all coming into that room. Their reviews are what all good theatre criticism should aspire to be (in my opinion), an attempt to get the reader closer towards the feeling of being in the room: nose in the air of it, ears and eyes and liver-spotted hands in the mix.

So, to ignore the structural stuff that makes up your perspective on the show seems an absurdity. If someone next to you is farting the whole way through the show, for god’s sake WHY should you not mention it? It doesn’t have to be the headline, but theatre criticism only gets close to the texture of people’s actual messy experiences of being in a theatre when it tries to pin down the boredom, the messiness, the fizzinesses, the disappointments, and, yes, the farts.

Anyway, anyway, what I want to add to the throng of opinion is that theatre’s structures – their architected, objectness rather than anything to do with their audiences, rude or otherwise – can negate all the pretence towards outreach, access, desire for live performance of any sort to be some sort of proletarian, woke, political gathering.

Off-West End and subsidised theatre’s do much, in comparison to private theatres at least, to find ways to provide cheaper tickets to those who we really should want in these spaces. The majority of subsidised theatres in London seem, from their websites and their ticketing provisions, really interested in finding ways to get students, under-25s, and the unwaged into their theatres (I’m going to skim over the facile reality that the unwaged, no matter how cheap you make the tickets, are exceptionally unlikely to be able to pop across London to take in some theeeeeeatre).

But a couple of things make these provisions unsatisfactory, in my opinion, and particularly the Royal Opera House (ROH for those in the kn–-wankers).

I’ve been going to the ROH since I was 18, often alone and exclusively off my own back. My parents, as lovely as they are, are not in the slightest taken in by Verdi. But it was something I wanted to try to understand, to get to grips with what other people saw. I liked the music but I hadn’t the foggiest what people liked about the experience. Then I saw Madame Butterfly, and the Humming Chorus had me in tears, for no comprehensible reason. A staid, trite love-story hit some part of me I didn’t know worked that way and I got a bit lost in it.

I saw Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works recently and I came out beaming, properly brimful of happiness: I had more fun in a ballet – an effing BALLET – than in any theatre event I can remember. There were lazers and projections and that recording of Virginia sounding silly and posh. It was complete magic.

But I only saw half of it. In both of them. Because I was in the cheap seats. So profoundly the cheap seats that there weren’t seats. I was standing, right at the back of the auditorium, as high up as you can get, because the tickets were all I could afford.

When I first did this, there was something quite romantic about it. I quite liked the idea, like a terrible Flaubert character, of being the grubby aesthete, craning their head at the top of the building.

But as with many elements of not having very much money, the romance of it fades tremendously quickly. I still buy those cheap tickets when I go to the ROH, they are, objectively, a bargain. A fiver for a piece of world-class opera or ballet, whatever the angle you’re seeing it from, is an extraordinary gift.

However, and this is a big however: I made it through the rain. I was a time-rich student, a performance enthusiast, and really keen to make a go of the whole lot of it. I was willing to ignore my position in the building, the fact that, when going to get some tap water during the interval that I had to walk past all the beautiful people drinking champagne in a glass cathedral (that’s a properly not hyperbolic description, if you haven’t been, it’s worth it just to see that bit, it’s an ACTUAL glass cathedral for the wealthy. But maybe pop in on a Tuesday morning when it’s free from-- how did Anna Winter put oh so accurately that it hurt my sides-- the “braying denizens of Barnes” [God, I love that].)

I’m constantly struck, when unable to see half the stage during a show, whether at the Opera House, the Court, the Almeida, the Old Vic, by the reality that the sightlines in the theatres of London were designed so that the royal box and the aristocracy around it, should be able to see better than those anywhere else in the room. The Royal Gaze, and the plebiscus around it, is made manifest most clearly in a place that can so often, to those most welcome, feel like an artistic idyll and to those feeling most neglected, feel like an alienating roomful of people seeing something you aren’t.
I understand the theatres exist, they are built, there is money in the brickwork that can’t be unspent. The design is the design. They can’t all have the enlightened style of the Barbican. I even partly accord with people who suggest that part of the romance of these theatres is just how beautifully old and ornate and stable a part of London’s ecology they are. I get that.

But what more surefire way to turn off someone who has given opera or ballet a stab, given up their evening and taken a punt on a five pound ticket (never mind that these tickets sell out within days of their release, so you’d only be able to take a very well-prepared punt) than to send them to the very top of the building, make them stand, unable to see most of the stage, while all the well-healed richer people in the stalls gaze knowingly at the dazzling performances? How are people supposed to enjoy the full effects of a performance medium, if they can’t actually see it?

All well and good for the wealthy to talk about how much these are a media for everyone, that if the working-class would only give it a chance they might learn something from it, but my response would be, ok, well, give up all the boxes in every performance, prime of place, for people who have never been to an opera or a ballet before, don’t shove them out of sight and expect them to come back.

Which brings me full-circle to Mayerling. I took my sister to the ballet last week. She’d never seen a ballet before. Never been to the ROH. She was excited – by the big glass conservatory as much as anything else (her joyful amazement re-amazed me, it was lovely).

Then we took our seats, in the upper slips. Actual seaty seats! [Well, cushioned benches, actually-- armrests are bourgeois]. And the lights went down, as lights do. And the curtain rose, as curtains do. And then, and then...

For the first half hour, we kept leaning as far as possible forward trying to see the action, but after that we had to give up, forced to be content to occasionally glimpse the elbows of the action. Pas de deux came and went and I saw some very lovely extras and some very nice occasional bits of limb and I’m informed the show was a triumph.

But every time the dancing moved beyond downstage centre, we couldn’t see it. We could see the empty seats, out of my price range, in the stalls (tickets for Don Carlo, currently on sale, are available between £49 and a staggering-- actually, sickening for a subsidised space-- £245) but maybe a third of the action.

I felt bad. Really bad. Maybe I could have spent more than the tenner I had. I should have done. But I know from experience that anything under £20 in that space will either get you a standing seat as high up as you can go, or a seat on the side where you can’t see anything. And ours weren’t even the worst seats.

My sister was very lovely about the two intervals (she really is wonderfully positive, everyone should get to go to the theatre with her) but I'm not sure she enjoyed it very much. Hell, I’m not even sure I really enjoyed it properly. There was a pretty magical final bit, before the posh horrible bloke killed the woman and himself* where the dancing seemed to break down and undo itself and exhaust itself in a syphilitic burst of wild, risky undance. But that was about it. I couldn’t review it, because I didn’t see most of it.

And this is not just the ROH – though it is a particularly effulgent target, with its subsidies, its ludicrously lavish productions, and its fairly silly sponsorship by Coutts – it is theatre in general. I mentioned briefly the design's blocking of my view at The Almeida last week, or Restricted View seats at the Old Vic--  I’ve not been to that many football matches, but I don’t remember there being huge poles in the way of the goal blocking the fans’ view-- and the same thing has happened countless times to me on The National's stages, for Christ’s sake, where a show has been blocked so that the action recedes into the back of the stage: all well and good for those downstairs, or for the director, or for the pictures put up online, not so much for those without the night off and a couple of hundred quid sloshing about in their foxfur-lined pockets (OH, I JUST HAD TO YOU TWEEDY KNOBS. JUST YOU TRY AND SUE ME FOR DEFAMATION, I’LL MAKE THEM RIFLE THROUGH YOUR FOX-STUFFED WARDROBES AND THEN WHO’LL BE LAUGHING.)

I understand that it’s an economic business; unsold seats are money down the drain. But if the seats aren’t good enough for the denizens of Barnes, why the hell would they be good enough for someone on a lower income? You can't pretend you care about them coming, construct a whole structure around them to make them feel as unwelcome as possible, passively or otherwise, then be disappointed when they don't come back or don't tell their friends about it.

You can see, given all that, why people would rather stay in and watch Netflix. And that really is the competition. Theatres will lose, in the long run, unless they start caring more about the fact that watching only half of a show, even a masterpiece, is just shit.  

*The gender politics of applauding a pretty blatant act of very beautifully performed domestic violence felt odd, but that’s probably an ill-informed reading, and one I'm sure more well-informed people would take issue with, so I'll retract it as soon as saying it. [Which doesn't mean I didn't think it and don't still.]

P.S. Apologies, over and over, for the woefully London-centric approach: I hope it isn't too grating for those outside this environment, it's just the closest tool at hand, I promise.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

This Beatiful Future or How I Forgave the Yard Twenty Times Over


Before this show I *hated* the yard. Really hated. Not just disliked, actively detested. 

They'd tricked me out of my money too many times over the past six months with their superficially sharp aesthetic and everything had then been crass, flash, faddy, and stupid. Not to mention boring. 

I emerged of the insipid Pilgrims feeling like I'd just had a run-in with a precocious-and-smug-with-it six-year old. Removal Men (directed, as TBF was, by Jay Miller [I'm only being rude to make the bias apparent, promise]) was one of the most genuinely offensive, mishandled, incomprehensible pieces of drivel I'd ever had the misfortune to spend money on (can you tell I didn't like it?) And Big Guns, a hopeful last leap-- a great writer! a great director! a great write-up by Andrew Haydon no less!-- was, to my eyes, a big pile of formless, imprecise pants masquerading as a play by employing a good sound designer.

So, I was so unsold on going to This Beautiful Future. I was so ready to hate it. I had my battle face on. I was practically preparing a speech asking for my money back (I'd rehearsed the same speech during Removal Men then smilingly shuffled past the ushers on the way out). 

But, and this is almost painful to say after such a zealous and committed belief that The Yard is where culture goes to die, This Beautiful Future is miraculous.

*Spoilers. Millions of them. Go see the effin show first. I promise these words will not compensate at all.*

Miraculous in the sense that it just flies in front of you, in the face of all you think you want out of a show, and displaces it, turns it on its head, makes you really wonder how directors still get away with thoughtless direction that just does the play, when this direction so much is the play.

It tells the story of the final night in a relationship between two teenagers in occupied France in 1944: Otto, a deferential Nazi boy soldier, supremely played here by Bradley Hall; and Elodie, played here by Hannah Millward with the sort of spiky self-assurance that only deferential teenage boys, Nazi or otherwise, can inspire.

The action onstage plays out compellingly if prosaically, foreground to a historical background of which we are never anything but hyper-aware [how did Rita Kalnejais’s script manage that!?]. They dance around each other in sequences of pseudo-intimate, proto-sexual, non-conversations, and it really is the closest I have seen to a sort-of evocation of sort-of teenage life onstage: full of the morbid confidences, the untouchable anxieties that make up your warped sense of the world. 


But this goes only halfway to explaining the show: on the sides of this story, framing the stage, standing in little karaoke booths, are two older actors. Facing away from us, watching their screens, they sing, mainly unheard, from within their little booths. But when they are heard, often operating as a sort of legible commentary on the "play" going on in front of us, they sing along to synthy-poppy-silly versions of Boum or Someone Like You. 

We read them, simplistically as older versions of the actors onstage, but as the play reaches its ending, as it deconstructs and they leave their little rooms and engage with the action, we are left projecting onto them something to which they have no hold. 

They become-- the operation is so complex-- the present selves of the performers but also, simultaneously, the locus of past regret. They are both older and younger than the characters onstage [HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE!!?? MAGIC'S HOW.] and emerge as not just contingent to the plot, but the exact space where meaning existed all along. 

*Of course* a play about two people at the cusp of life, living under extreme violence, should play out through karaoke, that most simultaneously insubstantial, joyous and yet profoundly private and unreproducible medium. *Of course* karaoke Adele, sung by the audience, should be the place for deeply extreme, deeply private, deeply-purely-contemporary feelings felt communally and through all time. 

One feels, or at least I did, that This Beautiful Future is some sort of gauntlet thrown down. This is how you do new writing. This is how you direct a play (I saw Obsession a few days before and Jesus does Ivo need to pop by). The design by Cécile Trémolière, the sound, the lighting, the way contemporary politics are pinned down quietly and without fanfare-- for Christ's sake all of it is just so much sharper, keener, brighter, livelier than anything I've seen this year. 

So, I accept The Yard's apology. They have my undying support. I'm buying a Yard tee. I've got Jay Miller's face on a mug. 


Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Treatment (or oh Lyndsey Turner we love you get up)

The Treatment is a weird play. It is the story of Anne, a woman to whom a terrible event has happened (or didn’t happen or will happen) and her dealings with two married culture merchants in New York looking to turn it into a script. The title refers both to the one-page treatment they want from her and to the manipulation she is subject to so that they can get it. That's both a fairly good summary and one that really doesn't offer even a thumbnail sketch of what the play is about.


Crimp’s language has a deftness almost unlike any other’s. He’s as poetic as Ridley but with a more keen sense of how this might work into drama and his images aren’t stubby grenades like Ridley’s but expansive: they accrete out of nowhere, at first seeming facile, but resolving into real weight.


He is also, I would hasten to add, not a writer who should be trusted. His work does not reward anything but startling vision in directors and collaborators. Written On Skin is as fine a modern opera as exists: Crimp’s breathtaking libretto providing the imagistic structure that Benjamin’s score and Mitchell’s direction enlivened. There have been enough unthinking Attempts On Her Life productions now to demonstrate that it’s not a script that just works on its own. His are scripts that needs fixing: they need interpretation, they need a lens, muddled or otherwise, to make them work.


The Treatment is not postmodern in the same way (at least a few of the characters onstage are supposed to be based in the real world and people don’t always talk funny) but it’s not some naturalist soufflé. It’s a grubby play about grubby people.


Take one central motif of The Treatment: noise. Everywhere in this sort-of New York of Crimp’s imagination there is noise: people hear alarms that no-one else can, music from nowhere plays in every restaurant, people cannot find the signal to hold onto in any story.


Yet this feels like the least noisey version possible of this play. It draws out the implicit plotlines-- everyone is subject to being bought and sold and fucked and blinded-- and makes them woefully explicit, without finding ways to develop or complicate them or even solve some of the problems in the text. Every opportunity for a gag becomes a gag. Every opportunity for a shock becomes a shock.


And that’s the main problem, really. This production doesn’t solve anything, it sort of sticks to the cue sheet. Having your main female character have her story stolen from her, get manipulated into having sex, then have a breakdown, then get tied up by her ex-husband is the definition of a problematic text crying out for some intelligent, progressive direction but Turner’s direction just does it: no comment, no reconstruction.


People dance a bit to some nice music at the end of the half and coming out of the interval and there was a quietly theatrical moment where Anne does a handstand but everything else seemed to be a pretty paint-by-numbers flashy reconstruction of a pretty dated play.


And the stagecraft was actually at times quite harrowingly poor: extras kept walking through doors at the back of scenes for some unknowable reason (I imagine this was because the city is so busy with people or some other pointless reason, but I just kept thinking, these people probably did five rounds of auditions to pointlessly wander across a doorway and back again); a party scene with aforementioned extras had them all rhubarbing at specific moments and over-emoting like I was watching the chorus of Les Mis all trying to get spotted to play Glinda in Wicked; and the set, well the design seemed to me to believe that nasty, Crimpy, noisey, New York looks like those panelled walkways on fancy new underground stations, all grey and boring and occasionally-- as when we actually were supposed to be on a subway-- the screen they lowered for all the transitions and when they wanted the visible stage to by shorter for whatever reason, all that really happened was that sightlines were impaired for anyone not in the stalls (i.e. me in the cheap seats). There was a fun bit at the end with some loud music and some more dancing and a fan blowing paper everywhere but that does not a revival make.

Basically, I was disappointed. The central performances were generally pretty good and well-played but I remember seeing Chimerica in the same space early in its run in 2013 and thinking how expansive the production had been, how glad I was to have seen it realised so thoughtfully and theatrically, how I wished I had more money so I could go see plays directed by Turner more. No such luck here. If you want to be enlivened, have a read of the script. Or this poem, if you're feeling not sold.

P.S. I don't know when it became OK for people to do ropey American accents onstage and charge £40 for the privilege of making an audience squirm, which is not to suggest I think a bad accent is unacceptable, just that maybe all that Pointless Extras money might have been better spent on some accent coaching, Mr Almeida.

Cock and Bull and Beautiful False Advertising

I went to Cock and Bull thinking it was going to be funny. The way it was sold to me, and the way I then described it to anyone who asked me what I was going to see, was a show where “Three females perform their own alternative party conference”. It sounded like the sort of comfy, sketchy satire that could best be enjoyed on a Sunday evening by a bunch of well-intentioned liberals looking to have their anti-Tory, anti-Cameron, anti-May grievances massaged. I was in.


But it’s not that show. Not at all. I don’t think I’ve come out of a show more confused and terrified this year. I thought it was extraordinary.


It opens with an introduction, a simple explanation of the show and how it got here, the sort of postmodern, DIY, antitheatrical gesture towards “liveness” that really gets under your skin-- but here it’s rendered by a female performer dressed in a shiny black suit, with pristine gold paint covering her hands and every word is emphasised and mechanised as if the teleprompter is going too slowly and she’s trying to cover. It’s breath-takingly uncanny.


The performance then begins and over the course of the next hour, you’re spellbound. It’s this macabre dance of empty gesture after empty gesture. Phrases and movements--  Cameron’s smug “pumps me up”, his slatheringly condescending pointing when he said “do up your tie” (am I betraying my political bias yet)-- pour out and are turned into beats, a sort of choric, Philip Glass score of inanity.


David Cameron’s infamous “Hard-working families” refrain is deconstructed, ripped apart, metamorphosed into a plangent crie de coeur, tingling and peeling the skin from the strains of Dido’s Lament out of which it emerges.


There’s moments at which errors seem to slip in only to be taken up into the gesture: a collapse onto the floor, becomes a repeatable movement. Every motif becomes empty as soon as it is ingested into the theatrical machine. As the performance builds they tear their clothes off, they mime sex acts with the chairs, they slap their arses: political discourse has never had its orgiastic and erotic nature made more clearly manifest. Gone is Purcell, in its place crass striptease, pure revelry to the sound of Frank Zappa’s Bobby Brown Goes Down, rendered through DIY editing into a song about David Cameron’s dreams.


And then the music stops and you are left with three nude female performers covered in slightly lustreless gold paint staring at you and the silence, broken by Donald Trump saying that line from that recording. Their heavy breathing, pulling the artificial delight back to the spatiotemporal present, was deafening.


In the final moments (this is not a spoiler, how could something so ephemeral and indescribably be spoiled through description) the performers embrace. It is a quiet, closed-off moment. We anticipate a slowing, after the bombastic nude fetishized female body has exerted itself so fully, and it is achieved. There is a sort of cute-meet as they hold each other.


But as their hands keep moving on each other’s backs, keep placing themselves carefully, robotically, we remember that they are not nude for their benefit, but for ours, they are not holding each other, they are performing. There is no escape from this: the labour is not just as much for them as for us, it is we who wanted this.


I have rarely seen a better matching of form and content as the performers exhaust themselves, standing on tiptoes until the sweat drips off them, tearing their clothes off until any pretense toward character seems laughable, as they attempt to escape the shackles of the piece they themselves created.


And I couldn’t stop thinking about Benjamin (I mean, who CAN!!!) Absent presence made manifest onstage, the empty labour of performance-- bodily labour-- fetishized in just the same way that people fetishize the sloganing of the political elites. Simultaneously lamenting and revelling in the hollowness of Theresa May’s “strong and stable government”.


And I haven’t even mentioned how funny it was; how much it complicates the highly gendered nature of this oppression; how BEAUTIFUL it was! Glimmering golden hands performing a gestural dance in shafts of light: it was unbearably expressive.


I was glad to be missold: like our current political discourse (*hammering the point home never felt so cheap but I’ve done it anyway*) anything good is not soundbite-ready, not commodifiable, and through the very process of making this show, along with a critique of current politics, this show is also a reflexive cry at a neoliberal cultural landscape that requires art and artists to be mechanised, that forces every show to be summariseable in under thirty words, I mean, I’m at 750 and I’ve barely begun.

Hello

Well, this is new.

This is a place I'm going to be putting regular thoughts about the theatre I've liked and hated.

Almost all the criticism will be out of date, because this isn't predominantly an exercise in recommendation or even reviewing, more one of longform (-ish -- I'm not made of time) criticism to inform practice and organise thoughts and hopefully offer some somewhat insightful, at the very least hypercritical, thoughts.

It makes no pretence to being anything like impartial or distant: I have a very human set of interests and dislikes, and I'm not going to go around suggesting otherwise.

But I'm keeping it anonymous (or at least an internet-version of anonymity) because "clean hands do no useful work" and if I'm rude about people I know, or will know, I'd rather not then have my dirty hands on public display for them to feel offended by personally.

Here goes.