Saturday, 15 December 2007


The bevy of blogs responding to Arts Council England, Yorkshire's decision to cut funding for the National Student Drama Festival has occasioned a fair amount of personal soul-searching.

Like everyone else, I had some of my most important formative experiences at NSDF. Hell, I trump everyone else's stories: I met my wife there. Future generations will owe their lives to the Festival.

Unlike everyone else, I live and work in Yorkshire. I rely, to put it rather cruelly, on some organisations not getting funding in order that I might eat. For me to sign the petition would send to ACE Yorkshire - and my name would be noticed among the signatories - a very peculiar message: "don't fund me, fund them."

Nevertheless, I say, in full knowledge of the peculiar personal position this puts me in: Don't fund me, fund them.

Everything everyone else has said about how NSDF contributes more to the future of theatre for £52k than any of the region's producing theatres do for several times that figure is so obviously right that I don't need to rehash their arguments here: follow the links in the first sentence. I'll give you one more NSDF alumnus to be going on with: Alan Lane, winner, with his excellent company Slung Low, of this year's Samuel Beckett Award. By his own account everyone hated his two shows at NSDF. I'm guessing that's not quite true, but the work he makes now is fantastic and I've been proud to be involved in some of it (now that I think about it, that probably constitutes a declaration of interest. But honestly, I'm never deliberately nice about work I don't like, even when I like the people who made it).

But there is one key sticking point that no-one addresses and is, I think, worth looking at.

ACE Yorkshire's remit is, in large part, to support the arts infrastructure in its region. Producing theatres undoubtedly do that. Touring theatre companies do that not only by developing and producing work in the region, but also by becoming known as, e.g. "Leeds-based Unlimited Theatre", or "Sheffield-based Third Angel" or "Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment". I could go on, but you get the point: these companies bring kudos back to the region's arts scene.

Yet NSDF is a peculiar anomaly: it does very little for the region. Almost none of its alumni goes on to work here: they all go to London. Lane, my wife and myself are very rare exceptions. The work is not seen primarily by people from the region. It makes no dent on the regional media: when I was working as a journalist I repeatedly pitched articles on NSDF to the Northern Echo and the Yorkshire Post, but they weren't interested; it wasn't a story for them. Funding NSDF doesn't actually hit any of ACE Yorkshire's direct funding priorities.

Still, it should be funded. It's a unique organisation and like any unique organisation, it falls between gaps left by more conventional models. A stunning number of people from every individual festival go on to work professionally in the industry. Maybe they would have done so anyway - but almost every single one of them will cite NSDF as a huge influence, a turning point. There are fifty-two years worth of stories like Lane's. It's important. Its funding should be a national priority.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Hot Salt

I don't cry much in the theatre, and I'm fairly tough to crack in the cinema, too. But this really got me.

Doin' it for the Kids #2

It's that time again, when the year, ebbing away into its life support, is prematurely euthanased by endless end-of-the-year reviews. Let it be known, therefore that there will be no end of year summary from Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, until the year is good and dead.

The end of the year summary, incidentally, provides an excellent illustration of the founding temperament of this blog, viz, last year was a bit disappointing but here are all the reasons to be excited about next year. You'll get that from me on January 1, as I'm trying to emphasise the optimist. Call it a new year's resolution, but not til a fortnight Tuesday.

With which in mind, today I'm going to talk about children, whom Molly Flatt thinks should be seen and not heard at the theatre. Except that's probably not what she thinks, as that header is no doubt the work of a scurrilous sub-editor.

Anyway. Obviously it's a real pain if you're watching Shaw or Much Ado and there's a school group restively stirring their crisps, texting each other along the row and chatting about how fit Claudio is. But I put it to you: if your audience is that bored, you simply ought to be doing better work. It doesn't matter how old they are: don't ask them to be more polite, physician, heal thyself! and be less earnestly dull. I absolutely refuse to accept that there are groups who simply cannot behave in the theatre. The fifth comment on that Guardian blog derives entirely from class prejudice and is the sort of thing that makes me really quite cross.

An equivalent to Chris Goode's cat test might be the child test. It works like this: you do a show with some kids, of any age, in your audience. If they get a bit restive and you ignore them, you are not live. If you can weave their restiveness into your action, even just by acknowledging they're there, then you are. The first kind of show sees people getting more and more restive. The second infallibly quells their restiveness. Better still: be live enough, and good enough, to keep them from getting restive in the first place. It really is that simple.

It works on exactly the same principle I use when running workshops containing rowdy elements. If someone's talking while I'm talking, I look at them for the next few words, with no accusation or criticism, just to make it clear that I am talking to them, not just talking. And they listen. Teachers and workshop leaders who talk without making any eye contact at all invariably lose everyone's interest in seconds. Whenever I go for interviews for this sort of work I'm always asked the same question about how I deal with seriously disruptive children. My honest answer is that I've never had any in my groups. Maybe this is why.

Shows which are specifically designed for children make a virtue of audience interaction, as does pantomime. As we get older and we "learn to shut up", we learn to tolerate a certain amount of boredom because "it's good for us", so the work we see is allowed to shut itself off. But I do an awful lot of work with teenagers and, I promise you, they're just as capable of concentrating as you or I. They are also a lot happier to admit they're bored. Any show which is not capable of keeping teenagers interested is not live enough, not good enough, not fit for purpose.

There's a perception, because of its association with panto and childrens' theatre, that talking to the audience is somehow lowbrow and infantile. I give you as counterexamples: the theatre of Brecht and Shakespeare. No writer has surpassed those two in their ability to mix seriousness and fun. When they're produced, of course, people tend to emphasise the seriousness and we get the worst kind of deadly theatre. Emphasise the fun, though, and the seriousness will look after itself.

While I'm about it, there is no virtue in "forgetting yourself" in the theatre. That's what Hollywood rom-coms are for.

This is going to sound like a personal diatribe. It's not. I think Flatt's writing is excellent and I recommend her blog, particularly this post on the genius that is Seth Lakeman (my own long-promised post on folk clubs is on its way, I promise).


Regular readers will notice that, in a mild fit of redesign, I've moved myself further to the left and my thoughts further to the right. Read into that what you will.

Friday, 7 December 2007

One's Company

Natasha Tripney has a pop at the monologue over at the Guardian blog, and it's true that such shows can make for rather anaemic theatrical experiences. But not always.

The key to Tripney's argument is that in monologue "the writing is inevitably foregrounded" and that in the end this can make the whole process "a bit anti-theatre". This is possibly true. So let's consider the distinction between "monologue" and "solo show".

A monologue implies an actor talking some words and not much else going on. My heart stops, bored, at the thought of this, although I suppose it's probably salvageable as a form. Maybe we'll even get to some examples.

A solo show is a lone performer in front of an audience, doing their thing. This includes stand-up, violin recitals and the Vin Garbutt gig I went to on Tuesday (of which, more in the next couple of days). It also includes, for example, the solo work of Chris Goode which, though scripted, does not foreground the writing so much as the performance. This is what should happen in a solo show.

As soon as there's a second performer on-stage, the actors can engage in the collective delusion that there's no audience present. This is foolish, but comprehensible, and it's possible to rehearse their interactions in such a way as to make them credible.

A solo performer has no-one to talk to but the audience and no possibility of hiding from them. For interactions with that audience to be credible, they have to be real. If you, up there on stage, pretend I'm reacting in a certain way, or just pretend you're making eye contact with me when you're not, then I quickly start to lose interest in you. You're lying to me. The more contact you make and the more that contact is genuine, the more live your show is.

It's true that there is little more exposing than the solo show, but not because weaknesses in the text are more likely to be exposed. A weak text is weak however you say it. No, a solo show is exposing for the performer. It's exposing because you can't hide from the audience. And if you try to, you might get a bit of a safety net from a strong text, but ultimately you're going to hit the floor, hard. In our theatre, where so much futile sweat is put into trying to pretend the audience isn't there, this is peculiarly difficult to get hold of. So many actors pretend to be talking to the audience when they're not. We can tell. Don't pretend I'm not here. I haven't paid ten pounds to be sat in the dark and ignored for an hour. That's just rude.

A couple of examples from recent memory. I saw Limbo, which Natasha mentions, here in York. It's an extraordinary, fully-realised example of the sort of theatre I'm mostly not particularly interested in: the level of naturalistic detail is so overwhelming I even almost suspended my disbelief for possibly the first time in my life. Director Dan Sherer teaches at the Strasberg Centre in New York, and you can tell. Everything is subjugated to verisimilitude: rhythm, tempo, nailing the laughs. Nothing is more important in this production than truth. Nothing is important in this production but truth.

I really enjoyed it. It was fascinating to watch a show in which almost every single decision taken was different to the equivalent decision I'd have taken, and to see a really convincing case made for each of those decisions. If you're interested in finding truth in theatre, you have to go this far or not bother, otherwise you're just saying it. And the one decision I'd have shared was that the performer spoke to the audience throughout. She didn't fake it one iota. A bit neglectful of the crap seats, maybe, but it was real communication between performer and audience. The company would perhaps prefer me to say real communication between character and audience, but I'm not going to. Oh, and the declaration of interest: Dan's a mate. You should meet him. He's top.

Limbo possibly comes under the category "monologue", but I'd say that because it's theatrically so interesting it's more of a solo show. I think I've just realised that I'm simply going to call bad solo shows monologues as a term of abuse from now on. Oh well.

Another reason solo performances are tough is because the introduction of a second and a third voice make it much easier to vary the music of the piece. Finding a high rhythm is incredibly difficult when you've only got one performer, and finding a new note is, too. You need to be a virtuoso, otherwise listening to your voice all evening is going to become tiresome for us. There was a solo show in Edinburgh a few years ago called Basic Training, in which the performer played about seven different characters and flipped between them with bewildering pace and dexterity. It was quite a flimsy piece of gusty All-Americanism, but as an example of solo performance it was sensational. Your man on stage Khalil Ashanti was a virtuoso.

Chris Goode's solo work slips this leash a bit, though. I hope he'd forgive me for describing him as not a virtuoso actor. Nonetheless, his solo shows really work, because he has a very simple and honest way of being with an audience, in this room, today. His relationship with his material is not that of an actor relating to a character by attempting to convince us that he is that character, rather that of a performer presenting a story, or some websites, that he reckons we might find as amazing as he does. He finds them amazing, and he hopes we will too. And the honesty of his amazement, coupled with the fact that he's got a lovely, idiosyncratic way with words and a magical ability to weave together images, communicates to us, directly, and this roomful of people shares something, now.

Tripney's right that solo shows are rarely seen beyond the Fringe. So it's difficult to resist the idea that economics is the driver behind their being put on. Thus as the economy tightens, perhaps we can expect to see an awful lot more of them over the next few years. All the more important then that we pay some proper attention to what makes them work.


After all of the above, it now seems to me particularly foolish that I'm about to embark on making my own solo show, an adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I make no claim to being a virtuoso performer, either. Hey ho. I'm young, I'll learn. It'll be finished around March/April. Anyone want to book it?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Pretending to be Other People

Andrew Field is, as usual, right, when he tells the world to stop getting so het up about perceived pretensions. (Andrew and I have got to stop cross-referencing each other so much, or people will start to talk.) For my money, though, he misses one major reason pretension is a good thing in the theatre.

The basis of almost all theatre is people pretending to be other people. Pretension is written into its very nature.

It gets very complicated, though, this pretending to be other people, when we start to think about it professionally. I'm not sure it was like that for the Elizabethans. I'm pretty sure they just got up and did their lines in a manner they hoped would prevent the audience, as far as possible, from throwing pies, starting fights, or shouting too much during the quiet bits. Stanislavski put paid to all that, if it wasn't on its way out already. From that point it became necessary, in order to pretend to be another person, to try to have a good idea of what it would be like to actually be that person.

And not just a good idea. Research. Truth. The Actual Objective Facts About People, even when those people and those "facts" are made up. Certainly in the British drama schools, this is the method of training which obtains today, a method heavily predicated on the assumption that there is a truth that can be got at, a truth that is usually considered to be inscribed in the text. There is a character in there, if only I can get it out. Like those weird guys with metal detectors, you may be looking for the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but you're mostly finding old Coke cans. Pretension is problematic when you tell us that what you've found is of value and most of us believe you.

This isn't acting, it's voodoo. When did pretending to be other people turn into trying to become other people? The search for truth seriously limits our options; isn't the credible much more interesting and broad than the true? Theatre is a space where we can make stuff up, where we can indulge in a collective let's pretend, where it's all a big fun game. Yet so much of the time we see shows, if you follow, pretending that they aren't pretending. Pretending it's actually real. As if somehow this will dignify the practice of let's pretend. You're chasing shadows, doing this. You'll never succeed in convincing me that something that's not real is real, because I know it's not. I'm not an idiot. I've got ten GCSEs, and that's more than I need to see through this one. Stop wasting your energy, and instead try to convince me that something incredible is credible. Ask me "what if...?"

I'm not saying that the act of pretending should be foregrounded the whole time, like with Forced Entertainment's gorilla suits and the Wooster Group's blackface. (Incidentally, if you're interested in the Woosters, you simply must check out George Hunka's excellent essay Ghosts in the Text and - another Field plug - Andrew Field's stuff on the Woosters' Hamlet in the blog linked to above.) I've greatly enjoyed work by both companies, but a theatrical diet based exclusively on such post-structuralist struggles with subjectivity would be thin gruel indeed. If all theatre were simply about theatre, I'd be too bored with it to bother thinking of an end to thi

If there's a problem endemic in contemporary theatre, if there's a problem with this culture of literary management that people seem to get worked up about, it's a different kind of earnestness. Much of comptemporary work is obsessed with telling stories. No bad thing in itself. But it doesn't tell them, it exhibits them - an artist exhibiting a painting doesn't actually need to be in the same room as those appreciating it, but an actor does. Why pretend otherwise? We should give back some primacy to the simple pleasure of pretending. Pretending to be other people is fun and watching people pretending to be other people is fun, too.

Brecht felt that by stopping bothering to pretend that what's going on in the theatre is real, the reality of what the play referred to would be felt all the more. It's a bit pat to suggest that by pulling away the scales of theatrical illusion, our eyes also learn to correct for the distortions of that other great deceiver, capitalism. But it's certainly true that if all our interpretive energy is directed towards trying to catch people out in a lie or an inconsistency, then our attention might more productively be directed elsewhere.

I leave you with Sir Ian McKellen on the subject:

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Our Friends in the North #2


Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will Goes Investigative

OK, listen up. You know that canoeist, the chap who disappeared five years ago off Seaton Carew beach and turned up this week at a London police station? Well.

A source close to Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, who happens to live in Seaton Carew, was talking to this blogger on the phone last night. Amid talk of Christmas presents and free beer, the topic of the canoeist came up, partly because our source had the news on in the background, and there were pictures of Seaton Carew beach being shown thereon. I said I thought there might be a play in there (although actually, Fin Kennedy's written it). But as it turns out, real life is sometimes just as interesting as plays.

"Yeah, I thought he'd turn up", said our source. "A couple of days after his disappearance I had a couple of pints with him in the Staincliffe."

When I had recovered from my astonishment sufficiently to pick up my shopping, I pushed further. There was more.

This chap, name of Darwin, had not only not actually "disappeared", in the strictest sense of the word, but this non-disappearance was fairly well-known among the Seaton Carew community. The list of those in the know includes more than one police officer and the staff of at least one hotel.

Shortly before his "disappearance", Darwin bought two very large sea-front properties (total value: around £600,000, very possibly more). It is not known precisely when he took out his life insurance policy, but adding these properties to his portfolio can't have done that policy any harm.

Yet he was a prison officer. Where did he get that kind of money? Well, the fellow he bought the houses from was the local cigarette smuggler, who'd recently been sent down for nine months. Did they change hands for well below the market rate, to avoid an uncomfortable meeting between the Inland Revenue and a convicted smuggler? You may very well think that: I, of course, couldn't possibly comment.

Since he was declared dead in 2003, his wife has been living in Panama. Where has he been? Do you want to know my guess? Panama. As reported in the Daily Mirror, a photo of the couple was taken there last year. The BBC says it hasn't been independently verified, but this is me, verifying it, now.

So why has he come back? Again, pure playwright's speculation, but I'm betting: he's fallen out with his wife and, since she holds the purse strings on his life insurance policy, he's getting back at her the only way he can.

And now he's been arrested, which never happened to that pianist they found. We know not on what charge, but I'm guessing insurance fraud is only the top of the list.

Now there's a story.

DISCLAIMER: the above is mostly either single-sourced or speculative. Take it with a pinch of salt. Personally, I trust the source, but this should not be taken as a guarantee of fact or even a reliable allegation. It's speculation. I like stories, that's all.


Seaton Carew, by the way, is the only place in the world where I've ever attended a funeral with a Mob presence. That's Mob, organised crime, not mob, gang of yobs. Even though, for once, everyone's wearing the same kind of suit, you can still tell who's who.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Who the hell am I?

Last time I was cited on the Guardian blog I was "director Dan Bye". I've just been cited again, by the excellent George Hunka, one of the top bloggers in the sphere (thanks, George!), this time as "blogger and playwright Daniel Bye".

If you write for the Guardian blog and you're reading this, could you cite me as something entirely different, just to add to my collection? "Long-distance runner D.N. Bye", for example. Or "Middlesbrough supporter and deviser Daniel Bryne". (After this last review my friend Will sent me the following message on Facebook: "I just saw a show called Can of Worms, directed by this guy Daniel Bryne. It was really good. You should do something like that.") Or perhaps "academic and drunkard David Bip".

I'm collecting identities and I shall wear them like so many hats. Who would you like me to be?

UPDATE: Thanks, Kelly!


While drinking my breakfast coffee, I found this procrastination aid at the wonderful Soho the Dog:

1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer


1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
I Can’t Stand It – James Brown
I have a low threshold

2. What would best describe your personality?
Ulcragyceptimol – The Associates
This word seems to have no use in the world apart from in the title of this song. In a way this is the most perfect use of this meme: the song sums up my personality, not just its title. Worrying if so.

3. What do you like in a girl?
Grace - Jeff Buckley
My wife is serene.

4. How do you feel today?
Crime and Punishment - Fun Lovin' Criminals
And I only had two pints last night

5. What is your life’s purpose?
Personality Goes a Long Way - Pulp Fiction Soundtrack
Hear hear

6. What is your motto?
Motorcade - Magazine
Ooh, cryptic.

7. What do your friends think of you?
Versus - Avail
Mostly, my friends are against me. Maybe this is because I really like Avail.

8. What do you think of your parents?
Carcassi 7 - David Tanenbaum

9. What do you think about very often?
Waggy - Blink 182.
By this point I'm starting to think that the compilers of this meme thought songs had more meaning in their titles.

10. What does 2+2=?
Part One - Ben Grove, Man Across the Way soundtrack
I've got a GCSE in maths, you know.

11. What do you think of your best friend?
Instant Karma - John Lennon
He's a good guy

12. What do you think of the person you like?
Five Guys Named Moe - Joe Jackson
I can't narrow it down

13. What is your life story?
Poe-Naw-Grah-Fee - Bill Hicks
Oh dear.

14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
Heart of Glass - Blondie
I want to get smashed.

15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll - The Killers
This has actually been true, on occasion.

16. What do your parents think of you?
Stain - Nirvana (from Incesticide, obviously)
I should have remembered the sorts of things that are in my music collection before I embarked on this exercise.

17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
Love Dance (Act One) - Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet
Doesn't bode well for my marriage.

18. What will they play at your funeral?
Grey Gardens - Rufus Wainwright
I want everyone to be really miserable

19. What is your hobby/interest?
A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles
I really like working unsociable hours.

20. What is your biggest secret?
Wonderlust King - Gogol Bordello
That's what they call me. They just don't tell anyone.

21. What do you think of your friends?
Half-Empty Bottle - A.F.I.
They're disappointing.

22. What should you post this as?
You - Avail again.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

An Ululation

Have a listen to this bizarre interview with Katie Mitchell, from yesterday's Woman's Hour. Among other things, Jane thingy asks her if the actors secretly think she's rubbish, and admits she's not earnest because she appears to like cake.

Most notably, there's a lot of the usual stuff asking Mitchell about whether she likes dividing the critics. This is a peculiar notion people have when they don't make work themselves. Of course people don't want to divide the critics. They want undivided adulation. But if they're making work honestly, as Mitchell undoubtedly is, they simply have to make the best work they can according to their own instincts, and hope critics and audiences share those instincts.

Jane Whatsit cites this review by Charles Spencer, considering it typical of the sniffier responses to Mitchell's work in its accusations of "arrogance", its decryal of her "smashing up the classics", its despair that her "primary aim isn't to serve the dead author". My feeling is that Euripides' reputation will survive Mitchell's degredations, if such they are. And if he thinks she's cut too much, he should see my production. I think we've got about five lines that derive from Euripides.

But seriously folks. Is the director's first responsibility really to the unknown whims of dead people? Not to the audience? Not to their artform? To a guy who died 2500 years ago? That's 500 years before Jesus, for crying out loud. God's bread, it makes me mad. And then the very next day, Spencer writes this even more egregious assault on the idea or possibility of art in the theatre - and that's just when talking about Trevor Nunn. When he demands plays be allowed to speak for themselves, what can he mean? If that's what he wants, why does anyone direct them at all? Why not just sit around and have a reading? Or better still, why not *$%* off home and let those of us who actually like theatre carry on making and watching it?

Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Women of Troy

I'm not going to get to Katie Mitchell's much-blogged-on production of Euripides' The Women of Troy, partly because tonight I'm opening a production of Euripides' The Trojan Women. Bloody National Theatre, always nicking all my best ideas.

Writing the adaptation has been one of the toughest writes I've ever had to do. For seventy minutes (eighty in Mitchell's production, but she's added lots of dancing while I've just put in a song), nothing much happens on stage, relationships change very little and there's almost no drama in our understanding of the term. It's an exercise in sustained tension, almost never driven by the characters on stage, almost always driven by the sudden arrival of Greeks. Andrew Field is right to use it to challenge the notion that Greek plays end in catharsis, although it's worth pointing out that the notion comes from Aristotle, not Brecht. Beyond Antigone, Brecht didn't display much interest in Greek drama and used Aristotle's theory not to engage with the Greeks but to elucidate the ways his work was different from - in his mind - pretty much all drama that predated him.

And yet there is something Brechtian about the givens of much Greek drama. Early in his career he commends the young Helene Weigel, to whom he is not at this point married, for her performance as the servant in (I think) Oedipus. She enters and proclaims the death of Jocasta in a perfectly controlled and measured way, and the young Brecht is struck by this (all-too-rare in the theatre of Weimar Germany) avoidance of histrionics. It's easy to imagine that this led to his formulation of the much-ruined-at-A-level conception of the "street scene", in which eyewitnesses report a road accident while bracketing off their statements with "he said" and "she said" and so on, putting them at a critical distance from their own observations. Yet it's my experience when devising or running workshops that develop work out of stories from life, that people rarely give in to histrionics when reporting real events. They are calm, and they are measured, and they look for laughs however grisly the matter, in many ways just like in that performance of Helene Weigel. The reportage of offstage events onstage, it seems to me, lends itself to sachlichkeit.

Now that I think about it, I realise we've shat on this somewhat in my adaptation, through the way we've deployed Cassandra. In the spirit of the democratic apportionment of stage time, I've got most of the major Trojan women on stage most of the time, rather than having them pass through on coaches or whatever (reading between the lines of some reviews, it sounds like Mitchell may have done the same thing). So most of the reportage is done by Cassandra, who with her "gift" of second sight is able to witness these events as if they were happening in front of her. So she's pretty histrionic. No critical distance there, then, except in so far as, however compelling the evidence, she is cursed never to be believed by the other women, which is on occasion quite funny; Cassandra going loudly nuts and everyone else looking at one another wondering who's going to address the elephant in the room and tell her to shut up.

And as my PhD thesis hypothesises, the further you get into a Brecht show which isn't a comedy, the more prominent becomes a kind of comic verfremdungseffekt. There's nothing like laughter to remind us we're in an audience. It's not out of a conscious adhesion to my reading of Brecht so much as out of the same instinct that makes me read Brecht in that way, but the grimmer the situation in this production, the funnier the show gets. The second half starts with a game of grandmother's footsteps and ten minutes from the end Hecuba, who's on her last legs by this point, tells a no shit actual joke.


I hope to regale you further with my thoughts on Greek drama, but frankly it's unlikely. I've been planning to blog about this show since we started making it, but the aforementioned PhD thesis is causing a bottleneck of all other output. If I don't finish and hand in by December 31st I'll be shot, so it'll be slim pickings from me for a while longer. Now I'm going to go and knock out 3,000 words before I go to the theatre at teatime. Wish us luck!

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Mud Unslinging

I'm not one to sling mud without cause. Not much, anyway. So if I sling mud like I did here and the victim then removes the provocation like she has here, I unsling the mud. Lyn Gardner is no longer a metropolist. That is all.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Quotation Competition

"A theatre that can't be laughed in is a theatre to be laughed at."

Answers on a postcard. Winner gets a beer next time they're in York. Or next time I'm wherever they are.


I've said before that the extent to which I usually agree with Lyn Gardner is a little giddying. Some people like a critic who's a reliable barometer of their own tastes. Some like to stand proudly aside from the whole hubbub. I'm in the latter, smug contrarian, camp. But Gardner consistently hits the mark.

All of which is prelude to a rare but impassioned quarrel with her most recent post on the Guardian blog. I don't disagree with anything she says in her "tips on the best drama around the country". The shows in there I've seen are great, the ones I haven't I want to. So what's up?

The clue is in that phrase "around the country". Let's do some sums. By my count, seventeen events are recommended. Of those, thirteen will take place in London. Of the other four - or, to look at it another way, of the shows mentioned in the one paragraph that looks outside the M25 - two are by London-based companies, and a third (A Play a Pie and a Pint) is noteworthy because someone in London (Paines Plough) borrowed the idea. Tim Crouch lives and works in Brighton. Gardner even goes so far, in her mention of Gecko's new show, as to say "if you want a sneak preview [...] before it arrives at the Lyric in January", thus managing to imply that anyone watching theatre outside London must be a Londoner looking to get ahead of the game.

I'm not seeking to deny that much of the country's best theatre is originated and/or performed in London. Obviously it is, and I frequently go to London to catch up on new work. But not all of it is. And if you're going to give us a column on the best theatre around the country, then tell your readers beyond the orbital something they don't know, or stick to London and be done with it; and get Hickling to blog on the north.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

I'm Gonna Live Forever

I've been namechecked on the Guardian blog. At a time when the Guardian is contractually obliged to source two-thirds of its blog contributions from amongst my friendship group, perhaps all that's surprising is that it took this long for me to find this fame. More dedicated readers, however, will simply find themselves wondering why I haven't been asked to contribute myself. But I'm afraid I can't decide which of the available flippant answers to give to that question, so they'll have to continue wondering.

So instead I'll direct you to Andy Field, Guardian blogger extraordinaire (one n? one r? it doesn't look right), who has a bit more to say on the history of a conversation that, were it to take place in a pub, would look for all the world like a clique of bloggers. For the record, I've never actually met Andy F and were it not for his byline photo on the Graun, wouldn't know him from Adam. But I've known Andrew H for nearly ten years and Alex F was at university with my wife.

I'd also like to point out my favourite irony of recent months, in the photo selected by the Guardian subs to adorn Andy's post. To illustrate an article comparing theatre's audience engagement unfavourably with that of sport, the photo shows a sparse audience dozing off at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre (I'd know those orange seats anywhere). But they're not dozing off during the current production of Amadeus, directed by the splendid Nikolai Foster, oh no. They're dozing off during the snooker.

Nonetheless, everything Andy says is entirely right.


In other news, Glasgow's Tron Theatre is advertising for a new artistic director, barely a year after the appointment of the current incumbent Gregory Thompson and little more than six months since his first production there. Now I've met Greg; he's a top man and a triffik director, but it's fair to say that his work there has not been popular. But a little year? Are we seeing in theatre the disease that infects football (McClaren Must Go!), whereby managers get a couple of dozen games to prove themselves before speculation breeds that they're facing the boot? Or did he jump? Either way, McClaren must go.

Before Greg, the Tron's artistic director was an Irishwoman whose name escapes me (Abigail something, I think),* and she, also, was there for little more than a year. And before that the building was run for ten years with phenomenal success by Neil Murray, a splendid fellow who's now Chief Executive of the National Theatre of Scotland. Michael Billington recently wrote an article of rare good sense arguing, inter less uncontroversial alia that the current spate of appointments of producers to helm theatres cannot be to the good: "theatre is too serious a business to be left to the suits". Neil Murray is the most powerful counter-argument that statement could have.

I recently met Mark Feakins, who's co-helming Sheffield Theatres during their post-Sam West dark period (pun intended?), during which they're presumably replacing the orange seats, not to mention the extraordinary carpet, a local talking point, which somehow manages to clash with itself. Mark reminded me of Neil Murray in several ways: grounded, fun and stuffed with good sense. I don't want to talk my sort out of jobs, but Billington's view is rather Manichean. Directors have run theatres badly and made appalling artistic choices, just as producers have run them boldly and well. Who'd've thought Avram Grant would be doing so well at Chelsea?

* Postscipt: it was Ali Curran

ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: one or two of you have asked if my gruntles have been dissed by my not having been asked to contribute to the Guardian blog. Set your minds at ease. Assuming journalism hasn't changed in the five or six years since I practised it, it would be necessary for me to ask them if I wanted to contribute, not the other way about. I was merely being tart without cause.

Monday, 12 November 2007


To the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Kneehigh's Brief Encounter, a more expensive business than usual: I missed the numerous performances to which they were prepared to give me comps, and now that I've moved to York I have to pay nine quid just to get to the right city. My penury has dimished slightly since I last moaned about it, thanks to the excellence of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation, who are backing The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but still. Upwards of twenty quid for a theatre ticket? It had better be good. I don't usually pay anything. Do you know who I am?

But if there's a good bet, it's Kneehigh, right? The makers of Cymbeline and Tristan and Yseult, two of my favouritest shows since, well, ever, can always (or almost always) be relied upon to come up with the goods.

And it's quite good. In terms of fun, life and sheer chutzpah, it still defectates precipitously on just about everything else that gets put on these days, G-G-G-Granville. Sadly, Kneehigh are just about the only company who can produce something that's in so many ways exemplary and still nevertheless find themselves drowing in the sea of "slightly disappointing"s. The trouble is, after huge mythic narratives like Cymbeline and Tristan, to move onto a story about an unhappy love affair between two members of the upper middle classes is a bit anticlimactic. The fact is that the leads are the only people in the show who are almost no fun to watch; the stage consistently flattens slightly whenever they're on it. This isn't because they're giving poor performances, it's because I'm not interested in angsty repressed near-adulterers. Not only am I a happily-married man, I also have a serious weakness for plays where things actually happen. Yeah, Godot's ok, but it's an exception.

The show represents a consolidation of the aesthetic shift made in A Matter of Life and Death, both shows exploring a more distinct social world than the previous mythic work; that world being that of WW2. It's a well-realised world that manages to incorporate the usual Kneehigh-isms we all know and love, like the aerialist bit and the chorus (this time of cinema ushers testily waving their torches and pleading for quiet) into an MGM aesthetic, blending in some lovely video at the top and tail of each half for good measure. There's also a music hall strand which sits a little oddly alongside the cinematic, and also alongside Coward's urbanity for that matter, but helps thread in Kneehigh's popular roots and works, in the end, rather nicely.

There's also Stu Barker's music. Pretty much since Emma Rice's tenure as artistic director began, Barker has provided terrific music, played live, that manages to blend theatrical sensitivity with a sort of parka-wearing indie swagger that gives the whole thing a super edge. Rice's loyalty to the regular faces is a wonderful thing - Kneehigh's constant activity make them just about the closest thing we've got to a rep. system - but in this case it's a cockup.

Music is such an important facet in the creation of any show's atmosphere, and the atmosphere of this show is constantly unseated by music that doesn't quite fit. There's an argument to be made that the quality of not-quite-fitting is in its own way a worthwhile one to pursue, that it provides a sort of temporal Verfremdungseffekt. I'm not having it. It just gets in the way. It's neither MGM nor music hall, and its not being either of these things is felt never more keenly than when it's trying to be. In pastiche, in tribute, and in abeyance of these influences, it remains stubbornly Stu Barker. It's great stuff in and of itself, but it's just plain wrong. Sorry.

So I've never felt more keenly the need to use period instruments in the Kemp show. We'll do it irreverently, perhaps we'll play modern songs on them. But before we can upend that aesthetic world, we have to get inside it.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Do not adjust your set

Apologies for the radio silence, pessimism watchers. I moved house at the weekend and my life is slowly emerging from its boxes and black plastic bags, like a very slow audit of my existence.

And we haven't got internet in the new place yet, so here I am posting from Starbucks, where it costs a thousand pounds an hour (only payable by credit card) plus the cost of a bucket of green tea that's not as nice as the one I'd have had at home.

But I want to plug you before I disappear back to the horror of bill payments and transferring of direct debits: I'm doing a show! A week from today!

Sanctuary is a new ten minute play for two performers and a church. It can be seen five or six times during the course of next Friday evening, in the Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, York. For those of you who are in the area, come. For those of you not, come to the area. It's an extravagantly ambitious piece about global warming and the nature of faith and stuff like that, and it really oughtn't to be missed, not least because I've succumbed to hubris and am "writing" it as well as directing it. Writing is in inverted commas because more than half of it will be done in the rehearsal room. With which in mind: keep your eyes peeled next week, once BT have pulled their fingers out, for a nice long post about combining directing with other activities in the same process.

Back to the binbags.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Dear Will Kemp,

Someone got here recently by googling "Shakespeare's relationship with Will Kemp", a subject I addressed here. I bet you wondered if people would remember you after Shakespeare booted you out, and here you are being googled.

Regular readers will know that the next Strange Bedfellows show is going to be about you, and your relationship with Mr WS will certainly obtrude, painful though that may be. That show is well over a year away, so this being no doubt the first of many missives I'll keep it to one thought:

It can't have helped your relationship with Shakespeare when, in one of the first plays to be presented after your ejection from his company (Hamlet), the main character experiences a significant life moment while clutching the skull of a dead clown:

"I knew him, Horatio. A fellow
Of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath
Borne me on his back a thousand times. And now, how
Abhorred in my imagination it is. My gorge rims at

For many years you bore him on your back, and this is how he repays you. My gorge rims at it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Our Friends in the North #1: Sheffield, 21:35, Monday

(The first in an occasional series)

It's always alarming, that moment when a drunk starts bearing down on you in the city centre at night. This one was no different. Mid forties, hoodie, bald as a snooker ball and lugging a Lidl bag presumably stuffed with the booze that's causing the lurch.

I have this terrible habit of making eye contact with people. Once that's done, you have to smile. And who knows where that might lead?

He nods. "Alright, fella."


"How you doing?"

(I'm going to miss my train.) "Really good, thanks. Yourself?"

He's unmistakeably lunging towards me now.

"I shouldn't be drinking," he slurs. No shit.

"Night in tonight, then?" No chance.

"I'm going to the pub." He points to the pub in question. I doubt they'll let him in with his goodie bag, even if his demeanour doesn't put them off. He's definitely swaying and spit comes out when he talks. He's going to carry on talking to me first, though.

"What you up to?"

"I've just been working at the theatre." Please god don't make me have to explain a physical comedy workshop. This guy is a physical comedy workshop.

"I went to the theatre once."

"Oh yeah?" I hope this doesn't sound as sceptical as it looks in type.

"Just once in my life I went to the theatre. What do you think I saw?"

Cinderella? Babes in the Wood? I hazard no guesses and just ask him what he saw, but he's drifted back to the sotten world in his head. I ask again and he tells me.

"Swan Lake." That was unexpected. He continues: "Swan Lake. And do you know what it made me do?"

I definitely don't want to know the answer to this, but I figure he's going to tell me. I wait for him to negotiate his way through whatever thought process allows him to speak.

"It made me cry." Now that was unexpected. Then with a lurch of logic to match his gait, "how old are you?"

I tell him, and he reciprocates by asking me to guess how old he is. Why do people insist on doing this? There's no way of coming out of it well. I once worked at a drama group peopled by asylum seekers and I guessed the age of an Afghan called Khan at 45. He was 28. I don't think booze has quite the same effect as war, but I decide to play it safe anyway.


"I'm 45. You've got everything, Dan" (when did I introduce myself? I suppose I must have done. Come to think of it, that explains why he's got hold of my hand at this point.) "You've got everything. I've got my dinner here. Bread, baked beans and sweetcorn. You've got everything. Go out there and give 'em hell."

He shows me the contents of his bag. Wholemeal bread, baked beans and sweetcorn it is, multiple cans of Stones it isn't.

"Go out there and give 'em hell."

"Um. Cheers. Have a good night." And I go off to catch my train.

For the five years I've been going there regularly, Sheffield has maintained a minimum of 90% building site. It's looked like someone's lost a tenner and is systematically uprooting the whole city in its pursuit. But now it's finished and a light show of mirrored steel and waterfalls illuminates the walk from the theatre all the way back to the station. It's not always what you would expect.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Are you starting, like?

I just can't stay away, can I?

The occasion for my precipitate return is the announcement by Channel 4 that my hometown is the worst place to live in the UK.

Difficult to know how to respond to that sort of abuse, really, except with a dignified silence.

My Friends in the North

Just back from a weekend in Newcastle. I went up to see Our Friends in the North at Northern Stage, and The Pitmen Painters at Live. Both have had excellent reviews (Our Friends in the North; The Pitmen Painters). It's nice to see my native Northeast riding so high in the regional theatre stakes.

All the more disappointing, then, that I didn't see either show. Saturday night's performance of Our Friends in the North was cancelled because a bit of set had fallen on an actor. And Live put the tickets for their Sunday matinees on sale from noon the day before, and when I phoned at twelve thirty they'd sold out.

Still, not an entirely wasted weekend. Stayed with a friend who's a qualified physiotherapist, so he had a look at my knee. He reckons I've irritated the bursar, which sounds like something one might do in an episode of Porterhouse Blue. Fortunately it's not too serious and another few days rest ought to see it usable again. The even better news is that it turns out that Benet, who I've known for ten years, also does a bit of running and has similar times and goals to me. So we're going to work as virtual training partners and target Paris in 2009 as our sub-3 marathon. Buy your tickets now.

Otherwise, it might be a quiet week for me online. I've a lot of words to write this week, as well as some very ugly accounts to sort out and a couple of small projects to start casting. Also, I'm moving house on Saturday. We're gradually edging closer to my spiritual (and, I suppose, actual) home, by moving thirty miles further north, to York. After nine years almost entirely living in Leeds, it's time for a change of scene. York is a very pleasant scene, especially if you like very old buildings, real ale and easy access to some of Britain's most beautiful countryside. I like all of these things, so expect to be hearing from a contented Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will in the not too distant future.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Good News?

Good news, I think. It's always difficult to penetrate the minutiae of Government funding strategies, and judging by the slapdash grammar the BBC writer hasn't spent a great deal of time doing so either. But it appears that, despite DCMS receiving only an inflation-level increase in its budget, the department has been able to announce a slightly above-inflation increase in the budget for ACE. It's not whooping and tossing of hats into the air stuff, but it's good news - not least because it goes some way to proving the thesis that James Purnell is a genuine friend to the arts.

Of course, a fair chunk of that money must go into funding the Cultural Olympiad. But artists needn't feel particularly threatened, as it seems increasingly likely that those responsbile for disbursing the cash will use it to fund the sorts of projects that would have got funded anyway. And I predict that in the next round of ACE policy reviews, the criteria will be re-adapted to place a much bigger focus on excellence. Call it a hunch.

But we're not in the sunlit uplands yet, because there'll be an election in 2009 which, the way Brown's going, the Tories are in serious danger of winning. And how do you think they'll fund their massive cut in inheritance tax?

Friday, 12 October 2007

The Dreaded Accordion

The music in devised theatre is always the same, isn't it? I went to some of the Light Night entertainment in Leeds library and art gallery earlier this evening, and there was a super burlesque-cabaret-bunch of stuff going on. But I've heard it all before. Chris Goode's mooted moratorium, mentioned earlier today by Andrew Haydon really ought to incorporate the whole musical aesthetic implied by the dreaded accordion.

Don't get me wrong. There are episodes of The West Wing that I've seen a dozen times or more without my geekery thinning out. I like this stuff. But will someone please create a piece of devised physical theatre using something else?

Who's to blame? Brecht? Shockheaded Peter? Answers on a postcard.

It must be possible to create a piece of theatre using a different musical tradition as its pulse. I'd like to see a show soundtracked by Vin Garbutt, if it has to be folksy, or maybe, radically, something involving neither guitar nor accordion. My next show for Strange Bedfellows is going to be a sort of life of Will Kemp. Part of its artistic mission, I've now decided, is to make the lute cool.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Staring at the Coalface

There was a time when novels were written predominantly for those with sufficient time on their hands to read them. Tolstoy might have been an emancipator in spirit, but do you think War and Peace was read by even one of the 80% of Russians who ploughed out their existence in the serf-and-peasant-ry? Alright, maybe one. But not many. And as literacy started to climb, so more and more novels were written in instalments, in a generous acknowledgement that the idle rich were thinning out and the not-so-idle middle-classes who formed your boom market didn't have time to gobble down all eight hundred pages of Bleak House in one sitting.

When did that start to change? When did it become de rigeur to deliver your novel all neatly packaged between conclusive covers, as if we can be trusted to read responsibly and not let it interfere with our other responsibilities? There's a point, maybe a hundred or two hundred pages into a really good novel, when the world of that novel permeates the real world utterly, and the only way to resolve or collapse the resulting confusion is to get the damn thing finished. This is fine when the novel's only three or four hundred pages, you can usually knock it on the head on a Sunday, but when it's War and Peace you're saying goodbye to anything constructive being achieved for the best part of a month, assuming you're still obliged to clock in and out and can't just plant yourself on the sofa and guzzle it down like Mr Creosote. Instalments, like rationing, would keep everything under control if, like me, you can't be trusted to behave responsibly when caught in the magnetic field of a good book.

Aside: just because The West Wing was released in weekly instalments doesn't mean that I haven't lost weekends - weeks! - tearing through the DVD box sets of seasons I didn't see the first time round.

I'm currently devouring John Banville's The Sea which, though short, has the added problem of being the sort of book whose sentences you frequently want to read again. It has no chapter breaks. Putting it down is almost impossible, so giddy are the pleasures it affords. I succeed in manfully tearing myself away to do some work, write 500 words or so, then find I'm stuck in a terrain determined by Banville, attempting to write a thesis on his terms, when who knows, he may never have read any Brecht and certainly has little interest in clowns. So I've come here instead to get some of it off my chest.

The range of temptations the modern world offers to put dents in one's productivity are endless. I'm in the midst of endless games of scrabble on Facebook and have somehow also got embroiled in three games of chess, a game I've no taste for. I regularly check some twenty or so blogs on theatre and politics, not to mention actively participating in the Runner's World forum.

I've written about productivity before, and I suppose by most external measures I count as a fairly productive person. Inventory: I just had two new shows on in Edinburgh, both of which I produced as well as directed. I'm currently running projects in Oldham, Sheffield and York, alongside various one-off freelance engagements in Leeds, York and elsewhere. I'm writing two plays and a PhD thesis, I'm going to Newcastle this weekend for meetings and to see two shows and I'm moving house next weekend. Meanwhile I'm trying to get and stay fit and yet today I'm sitting around reading novels and writing a blog on the internet for the benefit of a readership the majority of whom I'll never even meet. What am I playing at?

I have a fantasy life in which, yes, I'm creatively busy and fulfilled, making work in various media as and when it takes my fancy, but in which I am perfectly able to keep up with my reading. The defining question of each day is "what do you want to do today?", not "what must be done today?" Yes, my life's ambition, as a chippy working-class boy from Teesside, is to be a gentleman of leisure.

I also notice that I've been more positively productive and taken more pleasure in my work in the last couple of weeks than for much of the past couple of years. Sure, I've done work in that period and some of that work has been good, but the pleasure of it has been drowned out by the grind. A brief look at the balance sheet quickly reveals what's been missing for the last couple of years: regular running. And the reason I feel a slowdown this week is because a knee twinge prevents me from pounding the trail of a morning. There's nothing like flushing the system with oxygen before getting on with one's work, there really isn't. The resultant rise in energy levels and productivity is astonishing. I haven't been out since Sunday, no wonder I'm languishing.

Go running, people. It's the only way to create time to read more novels.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A Gloria Gaynor moment

I've occasionally been the among the first in the theatrical blogosphere to bemoan the latest degredation to arts funding, but I have to say Lyn Gardner's trounced me this time. There was me still plashing about in the shallows of what information I could find. Meanwhile Lyn's waded right in to the deep and said everything I was going to say. But with less semantic gallimaufry.

In my earlier post (below) I urged Brown to be bold. I expect he's pondering my words as we speak, wondering how best to take my medicine. What I didn't mention then was the arts, which are, quite frankly, skint. A bold move would be to give them a huge booster injection of cash and see if it's true that we stimulate the economy like Will Hutton says. Even I don't expect that to happen.

As Jon Spooner says in his comment at the bottom of Lyn's blog, it's going to be an interesting month. Guaranteed, though, is that the emerging companies, the ones you haven't heard of yet, will be the losers. I emerged at just the right time, in a period of unprecedented feast between one biblical famine and the coming period of Herodesque child murder. The big organisations currently receive the sort of funding they could only dream of ten years ago, and rightly so: we need healthy standard-bearers, and I don't propose to advocate redistribution. But if we want the bold artists of today to be the standard-bearers of tomorrow, we need to support them, and that's what standstill funding (especially as it's standing still having been cut back) doesn't do.

So it's going to be an interesting few years. Companies who are just starting to establish themselves, companies who are just out of college, even some more well-established companies, are going to fall off.

Unless we are bold. To survive, companies are going to have to estalish new models, new frameworks in which to create work. They are going to have to form partnerships with universities, schools, corporations. One of the more idiotic statements made in that Work Foundation report (linked to above) is that "Shakespeare required no subsidy; his work was self-supporting and arguably the stronger for it." No it wasn't. His company was The Lord Chamberlain's Men and subsequently The King's Men because the gentleman in question paid handsomely for the company to perform for him; the equivalent of a benefit gig or a testimonial. On top of that, Shakespeare wasn't alone in anonymously penning doggerel for mooning lovers desperate to impress their beaux. Of course he needed subsidy. It just wasn't paid for by income tax, which wasn't invented for another two hundred years.

I predict that companies working in intelligent partnerships with larger institutions, and with one another, is going to be the future. Witness the wonderful things being done between the Bolton Octagon and Bolton University. Masses of students are gaining experience in all departments of the theatre, the theatre has become an increasing part of its community, and audiences are up. Thanks to a generous initial investment from the University, the Octagon has been able to upscale its ambitions, and thanks to the spirit of friendship between the two the University has been able to trumpet all sorts of successes.

On a much smaller scale, touring companies can bring great kudos and valuable expertise to any number of institutions, and those institutions can be a valuable life-support machine to the companies even without pumping in the sort of cash Bolton University gave the Octagon. The lowering of the overheads alone would be enough to keep some from going to the wall. But of course, the worry is that this affects the kind of work done by the companies: if Unlimited were to suddenly take up residency in a hospital, wouldn't they end up making a moribund series of shows warning us to give up smoking?

Of course it will affect the work. If the partnership is the right one, it will affect it for the better. I for one can imagine Unlimited, whose previous shows have tackled teleportation, quantum physics and the science of coincidence, making some magnificent, provocative work about the ethics and sociology of human health. It'd be a farsighted PCT that took them in, for sure, but the opportunity to have a theatre company working with its patients could benefit everyone. Surely it would be healthy, and not just financially, for any number of companies to plant good firm roots in any number of community settings?

And if there's not enough money to go around from the central pot, it's in our interests to go out and make the case that we can really bring something of value to whatever institution we happen to find ourselves in. Because yes, art does stimulate the economy, and yes, art needs money to survive. But no, art is not reducible to economics. There is another way through.

Brown is the new Yellow

So Brown blinked first. I fear that if he wanted to win, it was now or never. Let's assume he wanted to win.

David Cameron played his first good hand in months by saying "bring it on" and making us believe it. In folding when he did, Brown lands himself with a hatful of "bottler" tags and ends up on the back foot. If he'd played out the hand and called an election, he'd have had to hold on through fearfully gritted teeth, unless he'd managed to find a way of re-raising Cameron. But how could he have got the stakes any higher? He'd've had to declare that the election would be decided by unarmed combat.

So he has to convince us all that he's not a ditherer or a bottler, and the first thing he does is present us with a grab-bag of diluted Tory fiscal policies. That trick worked for a couple of months, when he could steal Tory policies simply because no-one noticed they'd had them (and that, in any case, "policies" was a bit strong). But when a massive part of the Tory turnaround is based on their "policy" of taking less money in tax from those who've loads of money anyway, then stealing that might be a bit obvious. It's all very well me nicking your new jumper, but if I do it just after you've said to everyone "do you like my new jumper?", they're going to notice.

What's Brown's tactic to be, then? When we've noticed that he was the chief architect of New Labour so can't dissociate himself all that much with the last ten years, when we've noticed that his (delightful) injections of cash into ailing institutions like the NHS have been fatally compromised by PFIs swallowing that cash, when we've noticed that he voted for all of Blair's most hated activities and has ceased, um, none of them, that his famous stability just led to the first run on a British bank in 130 years and that he might not even be the strong leader we all thought he was, what can he do?

He has to be bold. Tactically and strategically he has no other option; politically a change of personality is not proving sufficiently refreshing; and crucially the country's governance needs a rethink.

He says he's a conviction politician but he's not prepared to tell us what his convictions are. Conviction politicians risk their popularity on their convictions. Lincoln risked losing half the country. Brown's only conviction is that the people want a conviction politician.

So why not do something that will actually make a difference, instead of Ranieri-esque tinkering? Why not renationalise the trains or knock PFIs dead and have the NHS run by an independent trust like the Bank of England? Why not abolish grammar schools and introduce a whole new practical and vocational pathway in secondary education? Hell, why not re-introduce the death penalty or have a troop surge in Iraq, declare war on France rather than face them in the rugby or just abolish democracy altogether? Why not do something that will wake us all up?

Why do you think?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Sound familiar?

And just in passing let me add: If anyone’s
Not for me he’s against me and has only
Himself to blame for anything that happens.
Now you may vote.

- Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Monday, 8 October 2007

Time for Blogging

So, where the hell have I been for the last six weeks? At least George Hunka told us all he was going away.

Well, like Alex Ferguson I spent a while feeling a bit down and like I didn't have much to say, and like Chris Goode I am unutterably, spectacularly, broke (although unlike Chris my album collection is too much like everyone else's to be able to sell any of it). All of these things are, of course, down to Edinburgh, which was a great success, but when you follow it with a three-week London transfer and subsequent Yorkshire tour, it went on too long and I was tired. Fortunately the indefatigable Andrew Haydon has been posting enough for the lot of us.

So I've spent the last few weeks trying to get body, mind and credit card back in serviceable shape. I'll tell you about that in a bit, but like Bill Hicks with social comment and dick jokes, I'll butter you up with some thoughts about European theatre first of all. So.

European Theatre

If you're interested in European theatre, you must go to see Don Quixote at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. You may hate it - a shuddering majority has done exactly that - but you must see it. Why?

There's a lot of guff spouted about European theatre on these shores, some of it on this blog. The broad argument, which I endorse, runs like this: ours is too much of a text-bound tradition and we could benefit from a more imaginative approach to space, visual effects. We can, in short, be a bit more crazy.

Don Quixote is utterly bat-shit crazy. If a book falls from the sky, the relief at such a normal thing having happened is palpable. There's a scene on space-hoppers. There's a bit where they do a cover of Natalie Imbruglia's Torn, with a bloke dressed as a wizard among the assorted finger-snapping backing vocalists. If you want to see Greg Hicks gyrating to Madonna's Like a Prayer, this is the show for you. It's nuts.

And this is what European theatre looks like. I've seen contemporary theatre on main stages in Austria, France and the Netherlands, and read texts from a good handful more countries. This is what it looks like. It's properly mental. It is not about storytelling. It is not about sustaining dramatic action or tension. It is about a quasi-choreographic agglomeration of more-or-less surprising coups-de-theatre.

I saw a show in Austria, which I later directed in an English translation. There was a bit in the Graz production where everyone threw noodles at each other for a bit, and a bit where they projected some cartoon porn for a few minutes. When I was studying the text for my own version I was trying to remember when all this had happened. The cartoon porn was easily discoverable, as there was a bit where some porn comes on the telly (if only for a few seconds) by mistake. But the noodles were nowhere. All I could figure was that it must have been one of the bits where everyone shouted at one another. Fine. But I'm not sure that was reason enough to leave one of the characters festooned in noodles for the remainder of the show.

Every time someone complimented me on the craziness of my own production, with its gradually inflating airbeds and repeated duckings in various buckets of water, I giggled inwardly at how much less bats it was than the premiere in German: at least all of my stuff was inspired by an image or occurrence in the text. Don Quixote is as crazy as the stuff you get over there, and we've no stomach for it over here.

I quite liked it.

So hurrah to the Royal Court for its current season of European plays. Due to the aforementioned credit card situation, I won't get down to London to see any of them. But I like the sound of The Ugly One, and I like the sound of Ramin Gray's production. But I bet they didn't do it anything like that in Germany.

Credit Card

If you're not interested in what's going on in my life, in those thoughts of mine which don't look for the wider issue, stop reading now.

In by far the worst state of my body, my mind, and my credit card, is the latter, which has taken some hammer since I last earned in early July. Compounding that is my bank account being well over its overdraft limit. No, not well overdrawn: well over its overdraft limit. I went to give blood a couple of weeks ago and they had to stop, because my BMI is so low I don't have any blood to spare. That's what my financial situation was like about a month ago, and they haven't stopped the pump and given me a biscuit.

It didn't help that my car died last week, or that I'm moving house in a fortnight.

So I'm working every hour god sends, in order to pistol whip my accounts into shape. I spent last week running endless workshops on The Merchant of Venice. I'm running a weekly devising class in Sheffield and a writing class in Oldham. I started work at the weekend on my latest show with my fantastic youth theatre in York, a new adaptation of The Trojan Women. It doesn't leave much time for blogging.


I'm also trying to finish my PhD. It'll be news to lots of you that I've even started one, as I don't tend to advertise the fact very widely. Lots of the blogosphere during my hiatus has been preoccupied with discussion of the relationship between bloggers and critics, which itself grew out of a discussion about the proper relationship between critics and practitioners. I've a post brewing on the relationship between academia and practice in the theatre and it's going to be a humdinger.

So there'll be a good deal more on this subject over the next few weeks: if I don't finish the thing by the turn of 2008, I'll be shot, so I'm trying to get a serviceable first draft done for the end of this month. There, I've said it in public, I'll have to do it now.

And with the help of that, I'm starting to feel mentally fresh for the first time in - I don't know - over a year. I've been on a bit of a treadmill hurtling past one major production and the next for some time now and I've not been able to really capitalise on any of them as a result. Having given myself permission to slow down for a wee while and plan some bespoke productions, rather than setting everything up along the same lines as the last one, you can expect a quiet couple of years from me in terms of big splash - just a few pebbles tossed in the pond here and there - before I empty it of water completely sometime in late '08/early '09.

And the freedom afforded by not being a producer means I'm writing again, developing a few little bits and pieces which will constitute the abovementioned pebbles. It doesn't leave much time for blogging.


And finally, if that diet of post-Edinburgh restoratives makes me look like I'm slacking, I'm trying to get into shape again. Before a nasty injury in 2005 that finally got operated on in February, I was doing some pretty good times on the old pins: 37:40 at 10k and 85:51 at 1/2M, for example. I had a feeling there was plenty more in the tank, but then my leg burst open in a game of football and I had rather a long enforced absence. So I'm now following a long, slow training programme to build up my mileage again over the winter before starting some serious training in the spring. Last week I managed just over 30 miles, with a long run of 9, which is peanuts when you consider Paula was doing 140 in the buildup to her GNR comeback last weekend. So I'm gunning for 50/week by January.

But now my knee feels a bit dicky, so I'm going to be doing all this week's miles on the bike (at a ratio of about 4:1 that means I need to cycle about 120 miles this week) to make sure it doesn't get any worse. It's a long, long road back. But Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will feels cocky today, so considers it appropriate to set some targets in public, so as to remove the possibility of somewhere to hide:

In 2008 the 10k time will go under 35 minutes and the 1/2M time under 80. In 2009 a marathon will be run in under 3 hours and 2 1/2 more minutes and five minutes more will come off the other two respectively, at the very least.

For the moment, though, I'll settle for not getting injured again immediately. It doesn't leave much time for blogging. But I'll try not to neglect y'all so badly in the future.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Back to Earth

Being deeply pre-occupied with one's Edinburgh ventures cloaks out the real world. It's one reason I'm glad the Festival takes place in August, when there's very little news anyway. Then every so often something happens to pull one forcibly back to earth, to remind one that, actually, all this preoccupation with reviews and run-times is pretty trivial.

Something in the papers? No. I got a call from the Anthony Nolan Trust. I've been found to be a partial match for someone in need of life-saving surgery, and can I come in for some further tests? So I'm going in next week when Man Across the Way is in London and I'm there too. "How will you fit it in?" asked my mother. Yes, I'm pretty busy - and I've a fun-packed autumn lined up that I'll tell you all about soon. But the opportunity to prevent someone from becoming dead is worth putting a show temporarily on hold, no? Surely a far far better thing I do today, etc?

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Reviewing and Criticism

Leo Benedictus, writing on today's Guardian blog, makes a distinction between "reviewing" and "criticism". I've a terrible cold and a billion things to do for next week's London transfer, so I'm going to do little more than applaud the distinction: "A review is a practical tool designed to help people choose a show. Criticism is an attempt to describe the way a show works and analyse why it works well." Yes. But a review without criticism is like a frame without a painting.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Andrew Haydon kindly commends me for my director's eye view on this year's Festival. That's very nice of him, but unfortunately that's not really what I'm doing. I've a couple of posts brewing on the different processes of keeping my two shows pinging away at full power - or trying to. But I'm not going to post them. I'm a slightly different director for every actor, which makes me six different directors at this Festival. That's a pretty delicate balance to strike, and posting on it in public and in detail would only make my job harder. Maybe when the dust has settled...

So instead, I'm going to engage in the time-honoured tradition of whinging about the critics. We've had some lovely reviews for both shows, but they really mean not a jot. Let me tell you why.

The top review for either is probably this lovely one from the Scotsman. Of course, we were very pleased, especially when we learned that the estimable Sally J Stott had further honoured us with a Fringe First nomination (which, unless Joyce McMillan has the best poker face in the business, we won't win). But already the clues were there. For a start, she gets my name totally wrong despite it being quite clearly written in the programme. Then comes her final sentence: "if you only feel you can cope with one show on torture and terrorism this festival season, this is probably going to be the funniest." Well, if you only see one, it certainly will be the funniest. These are tiny quibbles, perhaps, but along with a few other clunky sentences and a lack of any sort of penetration beneath the surface (it's not a difficult show to penetrate), one starts to lose trust.

Then came her review of Man Across the Way. Having swapped around characters and events in the plot recitation that dominates the review, she concludes that the play "ends cryptically". Certainly it does: if you aren't paying enough attention to get the character names the right way around, then teasing out ambiguities won't be your cup of tea. Then one backtracks this even more egregious lack of penetration to the Can of Worms review, and loses what little trust one had.

Let me get this straight: I don't at all mind having bad reviews. I've had much, much worse reviews than this humdrum three-starring (Can of Worms has had worse this festival, of which more soon) and I've even agreed with some of them. What I mind is presenting my work for assessment to someone who's not up to the job. Every audience response is valid, and she's not the first to find the play a bit too elusive to grasp. But it would be nice to be reviewed by someone for whom it's not such a strain. Should our reviewers be a member of the audience picked at random? Or should they qualify for their authority status with a minimum level of knowledge, penetration and ability to articulate those qualities?

Our best review for Man Across the Way came from the Metro, for whom we're also Pick of the Day today. And gratifyingly, he seems to have got it. So why do I also not trust that review?

I wasn't looking forward to seeing the Metro review. As a director I may be absurdly critical of my own work and certainly I'm rarely completely satisfied. But that show was the worst we've had. It was the day before everything clicked into place and the actors got a sense of the space and the tech and how everything fitted together. That day, it was low-key, it dragged and the audience shuffled. So did the guy from the Metro, who was sitting in front of me. So I'm glad he was nice about the show - and certainly, he was right to not really say anything at all about the production, if he was so determined to make a good show out of it - but it doesn't gratify me as a review does when it's earned.

And his review of Can of Worms was a real stinker. This doesn't invalidate his response to Man Across the Way (if it needs invalidating), but whereas Sally J Stott failed to engage with Man Across the Way, Christopher Collett flat refuses to even accept the premise of Can of Worms. Given that the press release promises a show that clowns around the subject of torture, surely they should have sent a reviewer who was, at the very least, prepared to engage with that? The first paragraph could have been written before he even saw the show.

Again, I don't mind that he didn't like the show - we knew some people would take against it, and we knew some of them would have pens - but it's a little galling, for example, that he doesn't even address whether or not it's funny. As it happens, the day he was there, there were gales of whole-audience belly laughter and I would have counted that performance a success. No audience is totally unanimous and I'm keen to hear from people who don't like the show. If they've something constructive to add.

Perhaps having intuited my irritation on this point, in his latest review, of Cal McCrystal's Callate! at the Assembly Rooms, he graciously acknowledges that "a section of the audience was clearly enjoying itself" before concluding that "it was hard to see what was so funny". Bullshit. It's your job to figure out what was so funny. And if you don't agree with those who thought it was funny, it's your job to figure out why, and to articulate that.

As I've perhaps neglected to say on these pages before, I'm as happy with both shows as I've ever been with anything, and it's exciting to run two such utterly different shows back-to-back. Like Chris Goode, who's been much more badly-done by than me this year, I feel I deserve a bit more effort at engagement on the part of my critics. It's also frustrating that people keep sending the same reviewer to both shows, when they've only any interest in one sort of show. Surely people should be sent to see the sort of work they like, so they can assess it on its own terms, rather than attacking the terms?

We've a reviewer from The List coming to both shows today. I wonder which one she'll like?

POSTSCRIPT - I'd be interested to know if there's anyone on the planet apart from me who likes both shows. Announce yourselves! And if you liked one and not the other, I'd like to know why.

UPDATE - We've Lyn Gardner coming in to Man Across the Way in the next couple of days. I trust Lyn Gardner. Whether she likes it or not, I'll listen to what she has to say.

There, I've said it now.

AND ALSO - another two reviews for Can of Worms, one four star, one two star. There's something quite satisfying about splitting the critics...

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

On punctuality

One spends so much of the Edinburgh Festival waiting.

(Not least for one's favourite bloggers to sharpen their pens and get to work on the whole affair. In the meantime, I'll have to do. UPDATE: about three hours after this post, Chris wrote something. Excellent!)

At the beginning of every show one sits waiting to see if an audience is going to turn up. In Can of Worms yesterday we had seven people, the legendary Fringe average. It was the smallest house yet and a real endorsement of the show when several of them stayed behind to chat afterwards:

WOMAN FROM NEW YORK: Have you guys been to New York?
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: It's our first show, actually. We've not really been anywhere.
WFNY: You should come to New York.
SB: If you book us, we will come. [I know, sorry about that]
WFNY: Have you been on the BBC?
SB: It's our first show. We've been doing it for five days.
WFNY: You should be on the BBC.
SB: Thanks.
WFNY: Have you been on television?
SB: It's our first show. We're a theatre company.

She was very nice, and she made us late for our get-out.

I can't abide unpunctuality. It's rude, plain and simple. It says "I don't care about you sitting on your own in the cold". I also can't abide how nice I am about it when people are, inevitably, late. I somehow make them feel that it's ok, that I'm not annoyed. Note to you all in the future: I am annoyed. I'm just really, really nice.

This also goes for latecomers to the theatre. Would you start a book on page four? Then get there in time for the play to start. If the play's any good, the beginning bit will be there for a reason and missing it will be like missing a few bits of what's probably sky from a jigsaw that's mostly sky. You might be fairly sure it's just some more sky you're missing, but you can't be sure.

I make a slight exception to this for Can of Worms, simply because, being clown, your late arrival provides us with meat. The day before yesterday, someone arrived, magnificently, just as Nick intoned to Paul the line "you're late". "And so are you", he added in the direction of the tardy few. It wasn't at all big or clever, but it got a big laugh. I'll explain why some other time.

Everyone knows that being late professionally is bad. An actor missing their entrance or their cue, even by a fraction of a second, disrupts the whole piece, especially if they do so consistently. Anyone who's seen more than one of my shows will know that pace is an obsession. In my shows, actors need a cast-iron excuse to pause for thought before a line: why can't they say the thing as they think of it? Very often, there's no good reason, apart from to draw attention to the acting, when everyone looks better if the cue-bite is sharp. If I'm bored in the theatre, there's an evens chance that a large part of the reason is that it's "contemplative" or whatever, which is simply another way of saying that the actors let the energy drop between every line. People describe The West Wing as unbelievable because "no-one really talks like that". But I'm not interested in watching drama about people who think and talk at the same speed as me. I want a distillation of what's true, not the truth itself; I want to see people thinking rapidly, performing remarkable feats of emotional and intellectual dexterity. I don't want to watch them torturously arriving at the place where I've already been sitting and tapping my watch for ten minutes.

But the best way of "not being late" is to not say what time you're going to arrive. Which brings me, finally, to the press.

This time last year, and the year before, and all the years before that, I remember being an unspeakable ball of tension, waiting and wondering whether any reviewers were ever going to come. Then about fifty-one weeks ago, and all the years before that, a couple had been in and I spent another week as a ball of tension waiting and wondering whether the reviews were going to be any good. In times like these one holds for succour to stories like Unlimited's: they sold Static averagely for four weeks, then won a Fringe First on the final weekend and succeeded in carrying the momentum into the following Festival.

So this year I feel like someone who's thrown a party to which everyone's turned up at nine on the dot. It's nice, and all the nibbles are ready, but it's not what I've prepared myself for emotionally. We've had the Scotsman, the Metro and some website I've never heard of in to both shows, The Stage in to Can of Worms and Three Weeks in to Man Across the Way. And the good thing about getting them in early is that the delay until publication will hopefully not quite be so long.

So have a look at this, and this, and this. They might not be particularly articulate, and one of them might get my name wrong, but for the time being I'm very happy to have something I can put on the flyer. Then I can get back to waiting for audience members with slightly more optimism.

Saturday, 4 August 2007


I'd like to do an Edinburgh preview, but I'm still in monomaniac mode and can't really think about anyone's shows but mine just yet. A couple more days and I'll start seeing things and telling you about them. In the meantime:

the dash is over, and the slog begins. Both shows are open and thus commences the daily grind of building an audience, raising press profile and, most importantly, helping both shows to bed in for a long run.

The needs of both shows are completely different. With Can of Worms, it's blowing off the cobwebs accumulated over a couple of weeks in the drawer - and a much longer period since it last squinted into the glare of an audience. The first show was a mite tentative, but yesterday's, kickstarted by the support of a couple of particularly vocal audience members, really took off. There's something about the permission generous laughter gives to the performers to be daring that really helps to transform this show. Yesterday had some really thrilling sections that were completely new to us all, and several of the old sections felt completely new-minted. A couple more good days and the performers will feel sufficiently emboldened to be so daring from the first moments of the show: then that laughter will be theirs by right.

Man Across the Way, on the other hand, sailed with great confidence out of an intensive rehearsal period and is now being buffetted on all sides by the demands of a new space and a fairly complex tech plot. Not to mention a tech/fit-up that ran from 11pm-3am and thoroughly knackered everyone while nonetheless not being quite sufficient. So the show isn't exactly being knocked off course so much as taking a little time to get the wind back into its sails. It's a show with a huge amount of energy, but the space is huge and somewhat echoing, so sucks some of that energy right out again. Added to a couple of tech problems that lead to the odd bit of pausiness, the whole thing still feels just a mite heavy. But it's not so much about energising - the energy's there, it's just not quite coming through - as balancing it. Again, a couple more shows and it should be properly centred.

Ideally I'd like a couple more previews for both; two isn't really enough for them to bed in. But "press night" in Edinburgh is a fairly meaningless term, as the press come whenever they like, and in any case we've none booked in for today. So it's another preview, albeit one for which people are paying full price.

But we do have the Scotsman booked for both shows over the next week. I'm not going to say when, as the actors don't want to know when there's press in and there's a tiny chance one of them might read this. I just wrote several more paragraphs bemoaning the power of one or two pens belonging to people whose authority (a particular problem in Edinburgh, where there are so many rookie reviewers) we have no reason to trust or even recognise. But I realised I was treading the age-old path of lamenting my powerlessness in the face of the press. The shows are good. The press will recognise that. FACT.