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.