Thursday, 28 June 2007

Plays and Theatre

There's a real difference between going to see plays and going to see theatre. Plays privilege the literary. Theatre privileges nothing, refuses nothing, denies nothing. Some plays are theatre and some theatre uses plays. What the hell am I talking about, you ask?

As noted in an earlier post, I was terribly excited by Mike Bartlett's My Child at the Royal Court. Not only was it a cracking piece of writing, but it seemed to me to bespeak a new era at the Court, one that might even be called theatrically dynamic. It was a good play, but it was great theatre; the space and the design were as much a part of its success as the text, if not more.

So it was with some disappointment that I left latest Court offering The Pain and the Itch having utterly loathed it. I don't think Michael Billington is wrong when he indicates it's tremendously funny: like the rest of the audience, I laughed a great deal. (Billington watchers: go to the penultimate paragraph of that review, read the second sentence, and tell me he hasn't descended into self-parody.) I just found it completely hateful.

The problem is not the target: the "phoney liberals" who people the play, drowning in their wealth and self-importance, get my goose as much as Norris's. I have no truck with people who talk equality and liberalism before - or even while - engaging in casual racism of the laziest sort. I find such people considerably more ennervating than straight-down-the-line bigots like Bernard Manning or Richard Littlejohn. But in real life, I just avoid such people; and if I for some reason can't, then my fists start to itch. That's exactly what happened at the Royal Court last week. Listening to these terrible people behaving terribly made me terribly, terribly angry. The acting was so good I thought I was watching real people, real, terrible people. I wanted to get up on stage and give them a good kicking. In what way does the inspiration of such feelings make for good art?

And it wasn't at all interesting theatre; it was one of the normallest things I've seen in a very long time, unusual only for the lavishness of its naturalism rather for the one clumsy way in which it pretended to be daring. In a device borrowed from Six Degrees of Separation, the characters broke the frame occasionally in order to narrate the story or comment upon some aspect of it to an almost-silent Arab character, Mr Hadid. But unlike Six Degrees, nothing interesting was done with this device and it took us nowhere; it just provided a convenient way of unravelling the plot at the climax, and of pretending it wasn't just a very dull old-fashioned play.

The Court's peak in the sixties and seventies saw a series of plays of breathtaking theatricality. Bond, Brenton: they even used to let Barker in. Many of these plays and more sprang from the writers' group run by Bill Gaskill, in which he had them participating in mask workshops and movement sessions, experimenting with puppets and doing chorus work. Writers' groups today are all story, inciting incident and character arc, tools borrowed wholesale from film. Those tools are important, for sure, but there's a whole world out there that they don't touch. Why are we afraid to show new playwrights the tools of their own trade? Fin Kennedy's How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found was one of few, of very few plays I've seen recently of any real formal innovation. It took years and a John Whiting Award for it to find a home. "These aren't rules, they're guidelines", I keep hear writers being told. "They're there to be broken." Yet when writers do break them, we very rarely know what to do with the results.

There's a widening fissure between plays and theatre in this country. On another theatregoing night in London I saw Kneehigh's adaptation of A Matter of Life and Death. It's a great sign of the health of alternative approaches to theatremaking that Kneehigh are presenting work on the biggest stage of our National Theatre. But if anything the current strength of companies like Kneehigh serves only to show how far apart are the "alternative" and the "mainstream". It's absurd that an arbitrary line should be drawn. But it consistently is, and it's down to a reluctance on the part of mainstream theatremakers of all types - actors, directors and designers - to engage with this wacky and intimidating world where people play in order to make plays.

I have a madcap theory about this. In 1599, Shakespeare sacked his clown Will Kemp, no doubt irritated by practices such as the jig. What's the jig? It is something no one ever tells you about, which should give you a clue as to whether the institutional sympathies in this country lie with plays or with theatre. It was a twenty- to thirty-minute improvised act, featuring a lot of dancing but also lots of flummery and fun, performed by the clown from the play. So at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Peter the clown (remember him? He's there) takes the stage, sweeps aside the corpses, and buggers about for half an hour. It was phenomenally popular, and audiences would often creep in at the end of the play just to catch the jig. The "nasty, bawdy jig" irritated many a playwright, not least because those creeping in at the end for it avoided paying the price of admission.

So Shakespeare sacked Kemp and took his company off in a new direction. The jig was done away with, and the new clown, Robert something-or-other, was required to perform much more cerebral stuff, the kind of jigging with words seen in V.1 of Hamlet. It was a big artistic risk, but the audiences, seeing that he was doing good work, continued to come.

Shakespeare's was a good artistic decision. It was also the thin end of the wedge. Pretty much since that time "plays" and "theatre" (or perhaps we might say "performance") have existed in two separate traditions - often overlapping and frequently cross-fertilising. But separate all the same. The same fissure never occurred in Italy, whose performance tradition of commedia dell'arte survives in one form or another into the plays of its best-known writers - most obviously Dario Fo, but no less so Pirandello if you read him carefully. Meanwhile, in this country, plays are as close in sympathy to poetry as they are to performance.

Other traditions have related pecularities. I met a French playwright who announced that for him, plays are essentially poetry, explorations of ideas through language. His play was terrible. Utterly inert, undynamic and untheatrical in every respect; more like an arch Socratic dialogue than a dramatic text. Yet both the French and the German playwriting traditions have a superabundance of this sort of thing; plays of situational and linguistic verve but lacking completely for the dramatic. Those playwriting traditions have gone way beyond our own divergence from the theatrical. But they make up for in (after a fashion) with a performance tradition which survives in their utterly (sometimes brilliantly so) batty directors. There is no onus on the playwright to provide dramatic or theatrical spectacle; the directors will do that, and in any case the writers write the sort of thing that seems to get put on. Loads and loads of our writers get done in France, and especially in Germany - and by the time they get performed they look as mad as anything written in the native language. I heard about a Dutch company who commissioned a new play, developed it with the writer, then once the rehearsal period had started (and all publicity had been done), chucked out the text completely and devised something new instead. And David Greig tells a story about going to see a production of his play Europe in the former East Germany, during a particularly poignant scene of which the characters were seen chucking a giant inflatable carrot around the stage. "What did you think of the show?", the director asked him afterwards. "I liked it", David replies, ever polite. "There was one thing though. The carrot? What was that all about?" The director gives him an uncomprehending look. "The carrot: it is communism.

We're lucky to have a tradition in which writing is accorded respect. As Sarah Kane said about the Germanic tradition of mad productions, "it's all very well doing that with Shakespeare: you can't ruin his chances of a second commission." Writers can create theatre with directors and actors, rather than providing material for those people to either fuck about with crazedly, or do the same old thing they always do. But writers are hemmed in at the moment: they're being developed left, right and centre, and the result is the same three plays over and over again. They should go to the theatre more often, rather than just going to see plays.

There are, of course, exceptions. Anthony Neilson has his faults, but he writes theatre, not just plays. Chris Goode not only makes fine work of this sort but also articulates exceptionally well the process by which he does so. It's a shame the first two examples that come to mind happen to be writers who direct their own work; for whom writing and directing are part of the same process. Anyone got any good examples of writers who write the sort of thing I'm talking about, then hand it over to someone else to direct? I hope Man Across the Way fits the bill to an extent, but we haven't finished it yet so now's not the time to push it forward. There must be some, but the mind's a blank.

To end though, an exemplary exception from across the pond. A pair of theatre trips in London saw me taking in Tony Kushner's epochal Angels in America. I have several reservations about the production, about which perhaps more another time. But the play seems to me very near the apotheosis of the playwright's art. Kushner has written into it not just character arcs and inciting incidents and good jokes and invisible exposition. He's written into it theatre, and even in a production that falls short of several markers, it's an extraordinary, exhilirating spectacle and a resounding experience. It's seven hours in total and barely a moment wasted. Reminds you of why you like plays. And theatre.

Business as Usual?

Another politicky one today, folks. But hey, it's a politicky time, what with a whole new Prime Minister and everything. It's the first change of Prime Minister of my adult life, so if I can't commemorate it with a brace of blog posts, what can I commemorate?

So, Gordon's new cabinet. Surprising? Not really. Most of it was leaked wholesale to the papers over the last couple of days - either that or they're just very good guessers. Milliband as Foreign Secretary might be quite surprising if it hadn't been in the news yesterday. Straw as Justice Secretary was a conclusion likewise foregone, although his bonus post of the Lord Chancellorship is quite surprising, given that he's not a Lord. So with one exception, the surprises mostly take the form of people in the smaller jobs who arrive at unexpectedness by being hitherto unheard of.

The one exception, of course, is Jacqui Smith at the Home Office. Creating the first ever female home secretary neatly gets Brown off the charge of having an excessively male cabinet, especially as he's got rid of four senior women in the reshuffle. It could be observed that one of these senior women, who tried to hold onto her job with her gritted teeth, happened to be the first ever female foreign secretary, but there's no point in trolling so early in a premiership I announced myself optimistic about only yesterday.

So, good old Jacqui Smith, who at 44, is also pretty young for such a senior job. Brown has a history of surrounding himself with Bright Young Things, so it's hardly surprising to see the so-called Primrose Hill set liberally adorning the cabinet table, but I'm a bit sick of not being surprised so I'm going to be surprised. Wow! A really high-profile woman in government! Take that in the teeth, equality-doubters!

Although the cabinet is, with the sole exception of Baroness Scotland as AG, entirely white.

And one has to feel sorry for any new home secretary. However popular they are to start with - and Smith certainly has her lovers on the Labour benches, despite having been Chief Whip - the job inevitably turns them into ravening bigots of the hang 'em and flog 'em sort, usually within a couple of weeks. One must be seen to be tough on crime, and if one is seen to be tough on the causes of crime instead - well, that's just another way of saying "soft". Perhaps this is part of the reasoning behind splitting the Home Office up - Smith might in fact turn out to be the first popular Home Secretary in history. Meanwhile at Justice, Jack Straw gets to be desperately unpopular all over again. Talk about a poisoned chalice.

Speaking of which, what do we think to Alistair Darling as the new Chancellor? He's reckoned by the Guardian to be Brown's "safe pair of hands", but anyone outside of the Westminster village is going to find it hard to judge on that from his wonkish performance at DWP. And I suppose a wonk is exactly what Gordon wants at the Exchequer, so he can drive policy on what is effectively home turf while letting Darling do the detail. Let's not forget that for the last 24 hours Brown very briefly emulated Gladstone by being Chancellor and PM at the same time. I bet he's never been happier. Although I don't suppose he'll follow Gladstone in hoping to abolish the income tax (introduced by Pitt the Younger as "a temporary measure" to help fund the war against France, fact fans).

And peaceniks might be pleased to note the presence of David Milliband at the Foreign Office: he's known to have opposed the war "in private", which means in cabinet. Coupled with the return of John Denham, who resigned over the war, might we see a shift in policy, Iraq-wise?

But it is inevitable on this blog that we finally get to and chew over the real surprise: James Purnell at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A surprise because I for one have never heard of him. But fear not! Your intrepid reporter has scoured the internet for goodies! Read on, and all will be revealed...

It's a pleasant surprise to note for a start that he lists his interests as "film, music, theatre and football" - and at the time of writing he hasn't even updated the page to include his new job, so at least we know it's not a sudden and recent addition in the light of his new job, like the new Milkybar Kid hastily taking his support of the Nestle boycott off his blog. With the exception of theatre, it might be noted that those are everyone's interests, but then we don't yet know what sort of music he likes; it might be the Arctic Monkeys, it might be Schonberg. Most politicians say jazz, don't they? Let's assume he likes jazz until we learn the sorry truth.

Still, most people don't say theatre, so let's further assume for the time being that he actually does like it. He was, for a time, on the board of the Young Vic, so he probably does. And it'll be nice to have someone at DCMS who actually likes the arts, and his earlier track record, including a stint as Blair's special advisor on Culture, Media, Sport and the Knowledge Economy, suggests that he might not only like them but even actually know something about them. He might even survive the inevitable moment when a radio station throws him unprepared into one of those embarrassing quizzes, asking him who plays up front for Spurs and how much a ticket costs at the Royal Court. He'll get special kudos if he knows about the 10p standing tickets, even more so if he's a regular purchaser thereof.

An aficionado holding the brief hasn't happened since Chris Smith and he's now widely considered to have been A Good Thing, so there may be reasons to be cheerful. And hilariously, Tessa Jowell remains in cabinet as minister for the Olympics, so she'll get all the flak for that and Purnell can get on with doing a proper job. It'd be like having kept Mandelson on, but solely as Minister for the Dome. A hoot. Poor old Tessa.

But hold your horses. His voting record is much less encouraging: pro ID cards, foundation hospitals and bombing Baghdad, against investigating the circumstances leading to war and determinedly agnostic on the transparency of parliament. He's emphatically a partyliner, perhaps due to conviction, perhaps due to his admiration for Chief Whip Jacqui Smith, who's persuaded people to vote for some pretty preposterous things in her time. James Purnell has been one of the persuaded.

But (he says charitably and with gritted optimism) a voting record tells us very little about how a person would adminster a department like this one, and Purnell's administrative record is marginally more encouraging. He brought in the legislation on the relaxation of the licensing laws which, after an appalling hoohah in the conservative press, I think we can all agree hasn't led to the end of civilisation as we know it. If anything what it shows us is that the licensing laws should be relaxed further - and I say this while firmly ensconsed atop the wagon. He is considered, I learn, to have stewarded this legislation, and others, very effectively. But that still doesn't tell us if he's going to get a better deal for the arts, which is, after all, why we're all here.

So perhaps we should listen to what he has to say: try this speech to the IPPR (for whom he used to work) given in 2005. It's a very predictable speech giving the arts the usual instrumentalist support and using some very distasteful examples of British creativity: Coldplay? Reality TV? Euch. But as ever with these things, it's difficult to tell whether he does this in order to get the speech maximum coverage or because he's an idiot. I'd rather it wasn't necessary to look like a philistine idiot in order to get arts funding better priority, but if it works I'm happy so long as I don't have to strike the same pose myself.

There's a great deal of distaste in the arts world for the instrumentalist argument for subsidy - ie, the argument that we stimulate the economy above and beyond any subsidy we receive and so indirectly, we punch our weight or above. And it's right that we should resist this argument to some extent, because that risks the implication that art's purpose is to stimulate the economy, and by extension the implication that art that does not do so should not be supported. Art's purpose is to be good art; the economy is irrelevant. But with that caveat, why not use this argument? As Alan Bennett said in rather a different context, to a man crossing the desert, the question "Perrier or Evian?" is moot. So long as I don't accept funding granted on the condition it stimulates the economy, I don't mind accepting funding won because someone thinks it might. It might. It probably won't, but it might.

But pleasingly, Purnell acknowledges in the speech, once you've got past the really guffy bits, that "not every bit of the value created by Nick Hytner, JK Rowling or Gilles Peterson is captured by the economic transactions that relate to their work. I believe in art for art’s sake, and creativity would still be central to our lives and the role of Government if it didn’t generate any revenue." That's good to know. How are you going to support it?

Well, he hammers on at some length about competition, but he's talking about broadcast and telecommunications by this point (his definition of "creativity" is large), not the arts as supported by the Arts Council. He's got nothing to say about those, and really, it's a rather depressing speech. It's wonkish in a way that might be useful for the chancellor but I'm not sure is so much so for the DCMS. He seems to have unlimited faith in agencies, councils and bureaux. It's New Labour to the core. And it hasn't got a spark of passion or belief anywhere in it, unless you were to count the desperately weak Shaun of the Dead joke.

The stocktake, then: likes theatre, or claims to, but exhibits no discernible love for it apart from serving on a board. Likes music, but it's Alan McGee who makes him tongue-tied, not Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Likes films because every pound invested brought three pounds at the box office. Has Brown only given him the job because [edited on grounds of good sense]?

So it looks like it's going to be business as usual. And this is the only logical conclusion one can reach when one considers that really, no arts minister fails to make an argument for greater arts subsidy. All they fail at is convincing those who need to be convinced: the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. It seems unlikely that Brown will suddenly change his mind now he's moved one door down. We're all just as fucked as before.

But then. Purnell's journalism is regular and fairly appealing. What little I can find on his radio appearances seems very positive about his sharpness and appeal. And given the echoing appearance of the odd phrase "core script", to indicate where the arts aren't quite and should be, in both this IPPR speech and Blair's recent and far superior (if utterly disingenuous) speech to arty types earlier this year, perhaps we can detect the guiding philosophy of one James Purnell, Supporter of the Arts. Perhaps he really does want to see the arts as part of the core script. Perhaps he really does believe in art for art's sake. Perhaps the poverty-stricken language and thinking of the IPPR speech can be diagnosed as wonkishness solely for delivery to an audience of wonks. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps. At least until he's done something.

Brown is well known for being utterly intransigent - until at length persuaded, when he becomes utterly intransigent on the flipside. And once he's stuck on something he'll go at it all guns, be it PFI or (perhaps) proper subsidy for the arts. Blair, on the other hand is easily persuaded into saying anything that will please his current audience. If Purnell means it when he says he values the arts, rather than just being a well-informed apparatchik, he might be able to persuade Brown to act on it where he could only persuade Blair to say it. Perhaps.

Let's be optimistic.

UPDATE from a proper journalist

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Arts Under Socialism

So today's the day. Blair is finally off, and not a minute too soon, to be replaced by a real politician, Gordon Brown. And the last couple of weeks have been excellent demonstrations of the view of politics as a branch of the entertainment industry, with cliffhangers agogo: what will happen next? Will Tony set up his preposterous face-to-faith forum, since he's done so much for the good name of Christianity and good relations with Islam? Will he recover from his "frank" drubbing from Pope Benedict, hardly a moderate himself? Gosh, no, it looks like he's off to bring peace to the middle east. (Surely that's meant as a joke, as though the Fonz disappeared to a monastery?)

Meanwhile we have all the humming and ha-ing about who will compose the first Brown cabinet. Will there be a deputy Prime Minister? How can Jack Straw's loyalty be rewarded without giving him a brief he might fuck up? How to deal with David Milliband, the nearly-challenger? Or Harriet Harman, who one can't help feeling wouldn't have been Brown's first choice as Deputy? (The latter has been neatly dealt with by doubling up the deputy leadership and the party chairmanship: no dangerous cabinet brief for moderately disloyal Harriet.)

And now we have one final twist in the tale: Quentin Davies' splendid resignation of the Tory whip and defection to the government benches. It could hardly be more timely for Brown, or more cutting to Cameron, who is indicted on a bewildering number of charges: vacuity? check. Superficiality? check. Hypocrisy? check. It's lovely, and I hope Blair saves some of it for Brown rather than using up the whole lot in his final PMQs today.

But this resignation is pleasing for more reasons than mere entertainment. It's about time someone stuck it to Cameron or, more to the point, about time people started to realise that being a nice young man with his heart in the right place is not a suitable qualification for the highest office in the land. So he deserves everything he gets and it'll be nice to see the Tories start unravelling again. That is satisfying, in the way it's satisfying to see the judge don his black cap when passing judgement on the man who killed your children.

Perhaps through the principle that a change is as good as a rest, I'm feeling oddly optimistic about Gordon Brown. Admittedly you can't put a fag paper between him and Blair in terms of policy. But Brown's a details man, so perhaps he's in a position to make some of the admirably-conceived reforms of the last ten years actually work. (Before you deluge me with comments: not all of the reforms have been admirably-conceived.) And Brown actually believes in them, whereas change the name at the top of Quentin Davies' letter and it could just as well be read to Blair. Let's hope the one thing Cameron doesn't learn from his Labour alter ego is the teflon trick.

The one thing I don't feel particularly optimistic about is the future of arts funding. The comprehensive spending review due later this year is unlikely, whoever the new chancellor turns out to be, to deliver even inflation-level rises to ACE, and nor is it likely to address the losses suffered by the smash-and-grab raid recently effected on behalf of the Olympics. It's these losses that are most damaging for me personally, as they manifest themselves as a 33% cut in Grants for the Arts, the scheme making grants on a project-by-project basis, and through which all of the public funding I've ever had has come.

Brown was recently full of praise for the arts in Britain, almost as fulsome as Blair was earlier this year. But it's utterly meaningless. Screwing the arts is politically low-cost and so it's all too easy to smile, and smile, and be a villain. But no-one will ever resign a whip because of little white lies like these.


I've spent the last couple of weeks in London working on Man Across the Way, and trying to watch as many shows as possible, so apologies to my readers (both of you) for the extended absence. I'll fill you in on all my adventures over the next few days. In the meantime, here's one meditation. Finding myself with an hour or two to kill before a show at the Soho Theatre, I wandered into the London Review Bookshop and browsed my way to JB Priestley's essay The Arts Under Socialism. In it he lambasts the confusion between means and ends that he sees as besetting much of left-wing art. Art under capitalism is not a means to the end of socialism; art under socialism is not a means to the end of the maintenance of socialism. Such a view of art impoverishes art immeasurably, as good art is an end in itself, not arguing for this or that case of affairs, but rather pushing us, or dragging us, towards greater understanding or greater awareness of our lack of understanding. Art is good under whatever system of governance and the enlightened system will support it. What do you reckon, Gordon?

Friday, 8 June 2007

Space Cadets

"Space" is one of those words that's used an awful lot in theatrical discourse, drawing almost no attention. I've used the phrase "a really nice space" countless times to describe theatres I like. I caught myself doing it this evening. And yet if I said it to my mother she'd have no idea what I was talking about. "A really nice space?" A really nice emptiness, one might just as well say. A really nice nothing.

Because what we're actually talking about is the moulding of that space, what surrounds it and what encloses it. The context in which space is found, the angle at which you look at it and how many different places there are to stand, are all-important, but space itself is, well, space. That's it. It's what makes you look at it that counts. A good theatre will make you experience that emptiness and the filling of it with immediacy; a good show will fill it and sculpt its interruption with beauty and dynamism.

In my own practice I'm fairly neurotic about finding plenty to fill the emptiness. In the last week I've seen two things that have made me think about that afresh - neither of them theatre pieces.

First up, Anthony Gormley's Event Horizon, a collection of 31 casts of the artist placed on rooftops in central London. From the south end of Waterloo Bridge, standing alongside the most earthbound of the statues, I could count eighteen. And it has quite a dizzying effect, like the way you feel when seeing something utterly different through a kaleidoscope while knowing that the materials making up the image remain identical. How many of us, even those of us who think ourselves attentive to the city's landscape, have ever really stood and just tried to absorb it all? That's what this piece asks you to do. There's the fun of spot-the-statue, for sure, but added to that is a new sense of awe with each one. "How the hell did he get it up there?" "God, that building's massive." "And I've never even noticed it before."

The attention it demands forces you into a whole new relationship with the cityscape, with its space and with what mediates that space. Every new interruption by one of these bronze men is a fresh and satisfying surprise. And even more impressive is its unforceful but unavoidable insistence on the scale of the human in this city. It's astonishing from how far off you can spot the statues once you've got your eye in, but it's equally astonishing how tiny they are when, for example, on a roof just opposite St Pauls. It sounds banal to say that human beings look insignificant in a city the size of London, or small next to a building the size of St Pauls. But what Gormley has achieved is something that makes the viewer feel that afresh, in a manner akin to Schklovsky's notion of defamiliarisation.

And what's really beautiful about it is the way, in focusing your attention on these distant figures, it suddenly makes individual human beings appear less insignificant. Perhaps that's a trick of the light, but the piece is magnificent, and it's really good fun too. I'm looking forward to catching the rest of the Blind Light exhibition at the Hayward.

But it's fairly average compared to Andy Goldsworthy's new exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This really marks the point where my very limited vocabulary for visual art begins to crumble, if it wasn't already doing so. So first, the facts.

The main part of the new exhibition consists of four large underground rooms, each containing a large-scale installation constructed out of materials found on the site of the sculpture park. Before you even go in, you see three large stone archways each constructed from perhaps thirty individual pieces of stone. Each is a pleasant, almost classical interruption to the landscape, until the moment you realise that each of them is entirely free standing and self-supporting. Suddenly walking through an archway is a terrifying experience and building one an awesome feat. And that's just the start of the warm-up gig: in the entrance to the gallery, but before entering any of the spaces, there's a twelve-foot pine cone constructed from piling and intertwining large logs. Again, it's entirely free-standing, an impressive testament to patient and laborious craftsmanship and a terrifying prospect to stand alongside. What if it falls down? What are the health and safety implications?

There's nothing about the spaces that will sound as impressive as they look and feel, so I'll keep it relatively short and just stick to the best one. The most impressive room has been transformed into a hut, again constructed of free-standing logs; going through the entrance you walk straight into something from the Viking era and the smell of sweet timber grabs you by the nose. The roof curves up smoothly to the centre of the room, where logs give way to twigs, and since the only place light can come in is the way visitors do, it's dark enough to give the sense of dim light flickering in the centre. One thinks of hunter-gatherers clad in animal skins gathered round a fire, giving off more smoke than winter warmth.

And if the giant pine cone was terrifying, this adds to that a sense that, if it were to collapse, one would be buried alive. It's truly awesome, in the Edmund Burke-eighteenth-century sense of the word; terrifying in scale yet also inspiring a delighted astonishment. And somehow the reflections it provokes are not on the great achievements of Andy Goldsworthy (well, not entirely), but on the achievements of Mother Nature (unforgiveable anthropomorphisation purely for rhetorical effect: sorry about that). Because we're never afraid that what she made might just collapse: while marvelling at them, one is simultaneously forced to confront the frailty of human achievements when compared with Scafell Pike, or Derwentwater. Whatever we might think about the awesome nature of these installations, the renewed sense of astonishment at the landscape and its sculpting over the millenia has produced something of considerably greater sublimity. One leaves the gallery into gawping sight of the magnificent vistas afforded by the YSP landscape and it feels as though the whole world is part of the exhibition, that everything has been put there for our delectation.

There is, of course, an extraordinary arrogance about such reflections if we allow them to centre entirely on ourselves; it makes the whole world appear like something from your latest hypomanic episode. But to simply revel anew in the natural landscape strikes me as a very worthwhile thing to do and it's also utterly thrilling. And although I drifted not for a moment to fearing for the future of our planet and its glories, that's something subsequent reflection taken me back to several times. Human figures can have an impact on the landscape, but the landscape is both more beautiful and more terrifying than anything we can muster.

How this relates back to my own practice, I'm not sure. But the question it presents to me is: how can we, in the theatre, most powerfully present to our audiences the sense of human scale in the world, of the fragility and beauty of individual lives against this vastest of backdrops? If we want to present great reckonings in little rooms, how do we compare this prison where we live unto the world?

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Doin' it for the Kids

I'm in a steaming distemper today, which could be for any of a dozen reasons, so let's just discreetly blame the weather. It's oppressive and it needs to rain. It's making me hate.

Yet it's rather ungrateful of me to be in such a foul mood, given that I was rather flatteringly offered a job last night. "Are you going to advertise?", I said. "Not if you want it", they said. Aren't people nice?

The job is as Artistic Director of the youth theatre company with whom I did The Apple Harvest a couple of weeks ago, which is to all intents and purposes a producing theatre with an ensemble company whose performers all just happen to be aged under eighteen. As The Apple Harvest was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences I've had in the theatre for ages, and the show was really rather good (though I do say so myself etc), I'm well minded to take it. It's a part time position so I could carry on with all my other activities and the solid bedrock would save me having to scrabble for other work. What's not to like?

And given that they have their own theatre, there are loads of possibilities for a kind of creative mission creep. Why shouldn't the theatre start receiving really good professional work (funding permitting blah)? Why shouldn't it form a de facto home to Silver Tongue and Strange Bedfellows, and for that matter the handful of other ideas I've been knocking around in my head for yonks but haven't had the opportunity for because of the aforementioned scrabbling about for work - or, more to the point, for cash to fund work? Given I've made a resolution to cease being a producer from this autumn onwards, this could be the beginning of a brave new world.

(Warning: extremely lengthy parenthesis.

I didn't mention that resolution, did I? Well, I'm sick to death of scrabbling around for cash like a beggar looking for the last 34p towards his bed for the night. I was brought up not to go round asking people for money and quite apart from the indignity of it and the fact that, consequent to my perception of it as undignified, it's not my metier, it means I spend considerably less time than I want to thinking creatively about the projects I'm trying to make.

As I said a week or two ago, one of the reasons I was able to enjoy The Apple Harvest so much is that it involved none of the crap usually thrown my way during the making of a production. In the professional theatre that crap is irreducible, but there are people called producers whose jobs it is to deal with it; they do so creatively and with pleasure and they probably shouldn't be the same person as the director if he wants to stay sane and free of a heart condition all the way into his thirties.

So someone else does it, or I retire early. I'm not quite sure who that is yet, but frankly if no-one wants to pick us up after all the work we've done and the successes we've had over the last few years, then we should probably be left to die quietly. Man Across the Way is going to be our calling card to producers. Jolly good news then that it's going to be an extremely fine piece of work. Though I do say so myself, etc. Interested parties, apply here.

I've never believed anyone will go about producing for Silver Tongue with more commitment than I bring to it myself, but I've naively assumed commitment in equals success out. But I've effectively been charging with my head down for four years, and it's time for someone with more finesse to step in. Then I can get on with being a proper theatremaker poncing about making art like I always intended. How the hell did I turn into a producer? I used to be so much fun.)

Even now I get a great deal from working with young performers whose energy and enthusiasm haven't been dimmed by this very sapping profession. Not to mention the fact that the work is very good: there's a prevalent belief that community and education work is consistently second-rate and unartistic, partly because it's encouraged by admittedly unappealing Arts Council priorities and partly because too many people simply think they're above it. But good work can be done in all manner of contexts so long as there are good people doing it. (And yes, I'm trying to smuggle in the implication that I'm good - but if I didn't think that, I wouldn't bother, would I?) Anyone who thinks good work can't be done with youth groups doesn't know how to work with youth groups. If Anthony Neilson can work with untrained performers, why can't I?

The problem is with a funding system - and a theatre culture - that sets up a dichotomy between "art" and "the other stuff artists have to do". But approached properly, the two can enrich each other hugely to the extent that they are at some points identical (I heartily recommend Fin Kennedy's blog for his frequent more temperate thoughts on how so). Because any dynamic theatre is a fully engaged and engaging part of its community and its culture - BAC is, Live Theatre in Newcastle is. The Royal Court suddenly, spectacularly is again: look at how many writers in the new season have suddenly burst out of its young writers programme, speaking directly to precisely the audience Dominic Cooke identified in his opening press conference. This to me bespeaks a sudden refinding of trust in the areas of its operation that aren't dedicated to immediate production. A nervous Royal Court sees the Young Writers' Programme as a way of maintaining certain funding streams, hitting arts council targets and maybe, just maybe, finding some writers who'll maybe one day do something good - but not yet. An adventurous Royal Court, looking for renewal, draws heavily on all this resource, treating it as an integral part of a producing theatre's armoury and - hey presto! - an excellent theatre is born again.

Such young writers' programmes, or community programmes, or whatever, are too often a part of a theatre's programme of work as a result of some funding priority or other. This more or less guarantees that they will be effected in bad faith and thus be half-arsed and yield no fruit. But - whisper it - these priorities exist because enlightened theatres should be doing such work. Not because it's good for those people lucky enough to be selected to participate. Because it's good for the art. Now and forever. Amen.

Think of it as a football club. The short-sighted manager, in fear of his job, wants to buy a Ghanian today, not train fifteen local kids for some distant tomorrow. "You never win anything with kids", said Alan Hansen. But the visionary manager invests in the kids and proves Alan Hansen comprehensively wrong, winning the treble in the process. But more to the point: it shouldn't be one or the other. Sir Alex Ferguson can afford to invest in the kids and buy Owen Hargreaves; why should we in the theatre be denied the same sort of opportunities just because we want our subsidy from the government rather than from some dubious foreign billionaire?

Unfortunately no artistic director in a panic and in search of a quick fix can be forced to believe that the youth set-up is anything more than an expensive lottery, an enforced tax on hope, any more than they can be forced to believe in God the father, the son and the holy spirit. He'll always resort to the safe, to the tried and tested. This, then, is the central idiocy of the fundingocracy: they haven't got their priorities wrong. They just shouldn't be trying to bribe people into sharing them. Chris Goode once said that, when at university, he thought he'd invented devising. As artists, we like to think it's our idea: even if the government body happens to have got it right, they won't make us believe they have. We need to find it out for ourselves.

So I exhort you all: look to the kids! Which in some contexts, includes me!

And apologies for the intemperacy/inarticulacy of all this. It still hasn't rained.

Monday, 4 June 2007


To Mike Bartlett's My Child at the Royal Court on Saturday. I was particularly amused to note in the programme that "this is Mike's first play for the stage". Well, I was at university with Mike, I saw two or three of his plays then, and I know of several more since. It's odd that whereas actors' programme entries will say "this is x's professional debut", those of writers seek to deny that any work whatever was done before fully-formed arrival in a blaze of professional glory. More than odd, it's rather damaging to all the young writers who read the entry and are thus permitted to believe in the myth of such an arrival without years of student and amateur hard work before it. Mike has worked incredibly hard and deserves his success, which is built on the solid foundations of having learned the lessons of the seven or eight prior plays, rather than on beginner's luck.

And my word, the boy done good. It's a really terrific piece of work, a real statement by Dominic Cooke's new regime at the Royal Court and a real credit to that regime. Mike is only the second or third playwright in Royal Court history to have his debut play on in the main theatre downstairs (Blasted debuted upstairs, for example, which excessively intimate placing of such an expansive play may have had something to do with its lack of success on its first run), and designer Miriam Buether has been given permission to completely remould the space. Entering the theatre, one steps into an upscaled tube carriage, with some seats around all four sides, but mostly with standing room only. It takes the capacity of the venue down from 500ish to about 200, and with a cast of eight and a running time of only forty minutes, it's quite a big call for an Artistic Director to make.

But my word, does it pay off. The configuration of the space makes for a level of immediacy rare even in the smallest studios: you're right on top of the action, a sensation augmented by the way the actors disconcertingly emerge from among the audience and melt back into the throng throughout the action. The pat logic behind this staging decision is that it shows that everyone is complicit in the events shown - during the climactic fight, for example, one could quite easily step in. I hesitate to endorse this interpretation simply because it sounds so pat. But there's a difference between a play saying, and a play making you experience this feeling of complicity. My Child does the latter.

But it's been a long time since my reviewing days: what is the play about, I hear you cry? It's about a guy who finds himself gradually eased out of his son's life and, at his wits' end, winds up in desperation abducting his son, and hunted down by his ex-wife's tough, rich new husband Karl. It's an incredibly taut, driven piece of work that allows very little time for contemplation of the Alfie sort. But the very end widens the lens just enough. Reflecting, bruised by Karl's beating and Karl's greater success as a man in the contemporary world, on the creed of kindness and selflessness he has inherited from his parents, he is forced to conclude, "it doesn't work. Does it?" It's a blast that coruscates the pretence underlying much of contemporary social morality and it's still ringing in my ears two days later. It's really terrifying, and it's a brilliant piece of work.

And one of the things that enables it to be so successful is the way it strips everything to its bare essentials, with no dramatic waste whatever. The pace is blistering. The staging is a part of this, enabling instantaneous cutting from one scene to another by the simple expedient of starting scenes while one or more characters are still in their place among the audience. No unwieldy scene changes, not even a lighting shift, just straight through without time to blink. It's a stylistic choice that, though incredibly theatrical, owes a tremendous amount to cinema.

My generation and those around it are now so steeped in cinema that it's idiotic for theatremakers to ignore its implications and possibilities for our less influential art form. One of those is quite simply that you can't afford to drop the ball, that if you want scene changes you must find ways of doing them as quickly as can cinema, or you must find ways of filling the gaps. Audiences are used to not blinking, so to give them a chance is to give them a chance to get bored.

Way back in 2005, Bella and the Beautiful Knight's cinematic influence manifested itself in short scenes and quick cuts more stylised than those in My Child but equally rapid. It kept the pace and the intensity right up high and allowed the piece to turn on a sixpence from fury one second to strained silence the next in a way that is certainly possible in a more conventional piece, but not so consistently or so often. This among other things led to people occasionally describing the show as filmic, and certainly it took this aspect of film as a conscious influence. But I think both us and Mike found a version of this technique that made our respective shows distinctively theatrical. How so?

At the risk of overlapping too significantly with Alex Ferguson (no relation)'s most recent post, the significance lies in one of the key differences between theatre and film, although one that has nothing to do with the audience. It's the common sense fact that, if you cut to another scene in film all traces of the previous one remain only in memory, whereas an instantaneous cut in theatre must necessarily contain physical and visual traces of the previous one. The guy in the previous scene who's not in this one can't simply disappear in an instant. So his presence becomes part of the new scene, too; a physical memory, a reminder of the previous scene and a haunting of this one. In Bella we used this very deliberately, having the actor who's not in any given scene actively watching it and powerfully present, only cutting people out with light during monologues. My Child does something similar, to the extent of very often having two scenes going on at once. It's a brilliant theatricalisation of a language borrowed from film. Because in the theatre, we can be in two places at once in a way that, as Alex quite rightly says, the concreteness of film forbids.

And we must take that language on board: it's now part of how audiences understand stories. It doesn't reduce theatre to borrow from film. On the contrary, the language of film can be used to augment theatre for contemporary audiences. David Mamet talks about Eisenstein's policy of leaving out all the in-between parts, cutting to the quick. More on this later, but film's great ruthlessness with the chaff is only the beginning of what we can learn.

I had great fun with this on The Apple Harvest in York a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to see if a filmic montage sequence could work in the theatre. The montage is that bit, shortly after the mid-point of the film, where the protagonist is either at his highest or lowest ebb, music plays and we get a sequence of shots of him walking sadly down lonely streets, or joyfully driving a series of expensive cars, or whatever. It's the bit in Karate Kid in the funfair, the bit in Shrek where "Hallelujah" gets played, the suicides sequence in Groundhog Day. In film these bits are often pure emotional candyfloss. But they're useful staging posts and there's no reason they can't be intelligent just because they so often aren't.

So John and I wrote a song broadly in the "Hallelujah" category and made a "dark night of the soul" montage that cut together about eight different short scenes very rapidly. And whereas in film these scenes would rapidly supersede one another, in the theatre we were able to have most of them overlapping, with several running as presences all the way through the sequence and frequently cutting through into whatever else was going on. The traces of all being present in any one part of the whole, it became much richer than these sections ever are on film, an exploration of the creation of atmosphere and the juxtaposition of experience. It was lovely.

And My Child managed to use something from film I've never seen before in the theatre, at least not in quite the same way: the jump cut, that is, a jump ahead in the story that leaves the audience to fill in the gaps. The classic example is: shot of man taking woman by the hand and pulling her up from her chair, followed by shot of man and woman falling along the same plane onto a bed. The audience fills in the whole story in between the meeting and the lovemaking, so the film doesn't need to. This is the bit of Eisenstein Mamet gets so excited about.

In My Child, for example, there's a scene where the man and his son discuss watching a DVD:

CHILD: Let me see it.
MAN: All right. I'll put it on now.
The video comes on.
CHILD: This is shit. It's just a video camera in a cinema.

All the rigamarole of putting in the disc, switching things on, trailers, and all the rest of it, is cut away and we are simply asked to believe that all of this has happened. That's fine. It's not what's interesting or important about the scene, so why should we be shown it? Because that's how it would happen in real life? Well, theatre isn't real life, it's theatre. And by these means My Child tells us a great deal more about real life in its forty minutes than many a two-hour piece of straight-down-the-line naturalism.

There are plenty of other ways in which the theatre can borrow the successful bits of film: the best theatre-makers are always magpies. How do we take on board underscoring, for example, while bearing in mind the demands of our own medium? How do we make rain, or run through the airport, without cheating or resorting to cheap tricks? When watching films, I'm not just looking at what makes for successful film, I'm on the lookout for what I can steal for the theatre.