Friday, August 31, 2007

Thoughts On Theatre Blogging

Blogging about blogging can often result in the worst kind of online onanism, so you’re going to have to bear with me for a bit here. Because today I participated in a panel discussion at the British Shakespeare Assocation’s annual conference at the University of Warwick. The topic was Blogging The Bard, though it actually encompassed a much broader debate about the nature of blogging and theatre criticism in general – what are reviews for, what role does traditional theatre criticism serve and what does blogging bring to that dialogue.

The panel was chaired by Andrew Dickson, the arts editor of Guardian Unlimited, and also featured Peter Kirwan, who, in his excellent Bardathon blog, details his experiences of attending the entire RSC Complete Works Season in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Patricia Tatspaugh, a contributor to Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare Quarterly – and very much a non-blogger.

It was a fascinating experience, with questions posed that I’m still mulling over. I know why I blog. I blog because I enjoy the process, both as a creative exercise and as a way of ordering my thoughts; if it happens to entertain other people, well, then that’s a bonus. Blogging at its best can open up discussion, it can create an evolving conversation – in a way that a straightforward review often doesn’t. And while I don’t have the decades of theatre-going experience of a Michael Billington, I, and the people behind all the theatre blogs that I read, have a palpable passion for the medium and its possibilities – and that really comes across in the writing (even if there is whinging involved).

Bloggers have the space and lack of constrictions (no overnight deadlines, no press night hoopla) to focus on the nuances of a production, the details and the small moments that make a production linger long in the memory or pick you up and smack you in the gut. They can bring some necessary shade to the sometimes black and white world of theatre criticism and, in cases like that of the recent RSC Lear, where the press where held off from attending until Frances Barber recovered from a knee injury, while the paying public watched an understudy in her role, provide information unavailable elsewhere.

I think that academic analysis, theatre criticism and blogging are all part of the same discourse, the words all flow in the same direction ultimately, and while I know my blog can veer towards the trivial and flippant sometimes, there’s plenty of people out there who write considered, thoughtful pieces on matters theatrical with more eloquence than I’m capable of (him for instance, and him), and anyway I think there’s space in amongst all that for a little flippancy now and then (insert predictable gin reference here).

Anyway the discussion went well, and it was a nice being back at Warwick, where I did my MA, if only for a short while. I hung around for the plenary lecture by Philip Davis on The Shakespeared Brain an interesting look at the way the brain processes language, particularly the syntactically adventurous language of Shakespeare, before heading back to London in the afternoon eager to get my hands on a copy of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound after Andrew quoted from it in his introduction.

Next week looking very theatre-heavy indeed, which I’m really looking forward to after such a comparatively quiet August.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Short and Sweet (Well, Sort Of)

After a quiet bank holiday weekend focused mainly on flat-pack assemblage, I got back into the swing of things last night, heading over to the National for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s early work The Emperor Jones.

This particular production was first staged by Thea Sharrock in 2005 over at the teeny tiny Gate Theatre in Notting Hill and appears to have been considerably re-jigged to fit the (much) larger performance space of the Olivier.

The excellent Paterson Joseph reprises his role as the self-declared ruler of a small West Indian island. He plays a black American prisoner who, having killed his prison guard and escaped across the water, talks the island inhabitants into becoming their Emperor. However they soon tire of his despotic rule and turn against him leaving him with little recourse but to flee into the forest, fearing for his life. As the sun beats down, he is forced to discard his Emperor-y accoutrements, to shed his finery (I did try and wedge a ‘new clothes’ reference in there, but I’m a bit lacking in glib this morning) until he is left completely diminished, half naked, sweat-slick and shaking. Joseph’s is, by necessity, both a charismatic and a very physical performance, he is constantly dashing and ducking across the stage, shoulder-rolling and hurling himself to the floor with considerable force as his character becomes increasingly paranoid and desperate, haunted by images of slavery and shadows of his past misdeeds.

Stripped of what was presumably a very claustrophobic setting at the Gate, Sharrock ensures that the play still has the requisite feverish intensity – a sense enhanced by the use of light, filtering it through a huge corrugated metal disc that is suspended from the ceiling (which rather reminded me, to a degree, both of the great orange sun sculpture they had in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall a while back and of the sweatbox scenes in films such as Bridge On The River Kwai). Some superb percussion added to the atmosphere of the piece, but the seeming need to fill this space, with stuff, with bodies, had its drawbacks, and I found the sudden influx of extras filing on stage for a slave auction scene rather unnecessary and detrimental to the overall mood.

Still, it’s a strong, intense, unusual production and I’m sure its 70 minute running time will please some people as it leaves ample time for a post-show glass of red on the National’s terrace. Good as it was, ultimately it really made me wish I'd seen that Gate production, I expect that really would have been something.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pretty In Pink

Adults playing children on stage – it’s always a fine line. When done well, as in Amelia Bullmore’s Mammals a couple of years ago at the Bush, the incongruity can add to the overall comedy of a piece, or as with the work of Shared Experience, it just somehow fits with the overall style of the production, but more often than not it can break the spell. Watching a chap with a bald patch sitting on the floor playing with toy trains, as I did in some show or other recently, can be a little distracting and – worse – unintentionally amusing, especially in an otherwise naturalistic play.

There were a fair few adults playing kids in Ma Vie En Rose at the Young Vic. But because of the essentially dreamlike nature of the piece it wasn’t quite as jarring as it sometimes can be. This was an adaptation of Alan Berliner’s film of the same name (which I haven’t seen) about a seven-year-old boy, Ludovich, who dreams of being a girl. Director Pete Harris has chosen to stage it as a dialogue-less, music-driven piece with the six main characters played by professional actors and the rest of the cast played by members of the local Southwark community.

The stage of the Young Vic’s cold, concrete-walled Maria studio had been covered with turf and the bench seating with scratchy grocers’ grass. A small group of musicians sat in one corner. I was worried this wordless approach wouldn’t be enough to sustain an, admittedly short, performance, but while there were a few rough moments, they just about pulled it off. There was a very entertaining sequence where the cast played a bunch of schoolgirls and boys in the playground, the girls skipping and singing as the boys fight one another and play football. Another scene, where the mother tries to cut her son’s treasured long hair was also well-handled, the torment of all concerned well portrayed. However I'm still a little bemused as to who the show was aimed at. It had some very dark moments - at one point Ludovic tries to kill himself by shutting himself in the deep freeze - but its messages about acceptance and identity were fairly simplistic, and it all felt a little bit worthy in a way that the Young Vic's similar community project, Tobias and The Angel did not. The musical accompaniment was also rather repetitive and twiddly for my tastes, and while I was glad that it didn’t do too much emotional sign-posting, a bit more, I don’t know, oomph, wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Speaking of oomph, it was in plentiful supply at Brick Lane’s sweaty, purple 93 Feet East on Monday. I had gone there to see a band called Devotchka, a Grammy-nominated-but-not-really-that-well-known-over-here four-piece who, apparently, provided the soundtrack for hit indie flick Little Miss Sunshine. I didn't know much about them, but I'd been told they might be up my street, so I gave them a go. Their music combines Eastern European-influenced rhythms with the feel of a mariachi band and their material is unapologetically anthemic and sweeping - songs to sway to is a fairly apt description I think, preferably with a wine bottle held aloft and a drunken friend draped on your shoulder. I don't think I'll be dashing off to Amazon their albums, but I enjoyed the evening a lot. And I now know what a sousaphone looks like, which has enriched my life no end.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It Is Good To Know That...

…if, through a combination of incompetence and sheer poor fortune, you were to find yourself unable to gain access to your new flat on a not all that warm August evening, then your new local (and rather posh) not-Oddbins wine emporium will be only too happy to uncork a nice bottle of Merlot and provide you with complimentary sympathy nibbles.

This way you at least have a something to sip while you sit on the front step feeling sorry for yourself.

Life still somewhat boxed-up and bubble-wrapped, but some theatre stuff coming later in the week, promise.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Not In Edinburgh

I am not in Edinburgh. And am suffering from a fairly strong dose of Edinburgh envy as a result, made worse every time I pick up a newspaper and flick through the arts section. Plus all the twiddly business of moving house has rather impacted on the time I have to spare doing anything that doesn’t involve packing my worldly goods into cardboard boxes.

However yesterday I allowed myself a brief window of escape from bubble wrap and packing tape for the new show at Theatre 503. Called Yoga Bitch, it consists of one woman’s account of a her experiences on a two month yoga retreat in Bali, and as such is so very Edinburgh-fringey sounding that I had to have a look.

And it did tick a large number of boxes on the dreaded One-Woman Show checklist so amusingly skewered by Festival, Annie Griffin’s underrated and hilarious comedy about the Edinburgh festival – stuffy above-a-pub venue; a set consisting of little more than a yoga mat, a bamboo screen and a plant; a monologue about self-discovery, getting to like your true self and, er, that kind of stuff; and, of course, one (American) woman performing the thing.

And yet, Suzanne Morrison, the One Woman in question, has an easy, warm presence as a performer, she knows how to hold an audience and for all her cynicism about her Indonesian experience, for all her anecdotes about Bali belly, wee-drinking, scented candles and Gucci yoga mats, she’s never cruel in her comedy. Better than I thought it would be is, admittedly not much of an endorsement, but well, it was better than I thought it would be.

Oh, and for a look at One Woman Shows of a rather different kind, Helen Smith’s blog is worth popping over to.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


“Why you want to go see that?” asked me great aunt, stubbing out a cigarette in a ridiculously chunky crystal ashtray, “it probably just two hours of clicky-clicky.”

My great aunt, a solid Serbian seventy-eight year old, who stands five-foot-nothing in her crocodile court-shoes, has a way of dismissing things that makes most come-backs redundant. She’s never been much of a one for the whole theatre thing either, preferring the oeuvre of Schwarzenegger to Shakespeare (though if Peter Hall were to direct something that featured a lot of oiled Central-European types kicking each other in the head, I suspect she might be swayed otherwise).

The show she was so quick to write off? Paco Pena’s A Compas! To The Rhythm, which I’d been excitedly describing to her – while idly wondering if anyone had ever done a study into the health giving properties of drinking a double-whiskey a day whilst wearing a whole lot of leopard print. And, yes, it was two hours of clicky-clicky, but it was also much more than that.

This celebration of all forms of flamenco has played in London before now, and was returning for a short stint at Sadler’s Wells. The dancers – two male (one spectacularly be-mulleted) and one female – were incredible, their moves full of sensual and writhing gestures and impossibly intricate footwork. They performed in shafts and squares of light with Pena and his fellow musicians and vocalists seated on stools behind them. It was a hugely atmospheric show; I’ve never seen a Sadler’s Wells audience so lively, all whooping and stamping feet.

Oh, and the shoes. I must mention the shoes. Just as Savion Glover’s only concession to the glamour of his profession, when performing at this same venue, was a pair of cool green tap shoes, one of these chaps sported a pair of aggressively scarlet flamenco heels. Now of those, my great aunt I’m sure would approve.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Losing My Prom Cherry

I have Prommed!

Yes, though I have lived in and around London my whole life I have never been to the Proms before now, and this year I decided that this was something that needed to be rectified. So after work on Friday I hauled myself over to the Royal Albert Hall and got in the day ticket queue (for I intended to Prom proper).

The Prom in question was number 28, an evening that consisted of the Magnus Lindberg clarinet concerto followed by Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. Neither piece I knew beforehand, but both were amazing in their way. The Lindberg was performed by Kari Kriikku and was technically amazing. He made the clarinet make noises I had no idea it could make. It was clearly a superb display of musicianship and yet it was difficult to connect with beyond this.

The Rachmaninov, on the other hand, was very accessible. This was big sweeping stuff, almost cinematic in its emotional uppy-downiness. I was totally caught up in the music, and left reeling by the power of the piece. I was less impressed by the Royal Albert Hall. Having never ventured inside this great domed building before now, I was surprised to find, once you ventured through the doors and into the arena at the centre of the hall itself, that it felt like a kind of period Wembley Arena – equally cavernous and surprisingly cold - though my disappointment was alleviated somewhat when I spied the War of the Worlds type saucer thingys that hung from the ceiling as acoustic buffers. They were quite something to behold.

And the people! My fellow Prommers. Well, they were something too. One couple lay on the floor, barefoot and ram-rod straight, with their eyes closed. Another man lay curled nearby like a sleeping child, while an immaculately dressed man beside me was almost vibrating with pleasure through the whole of the Rachmaninov piece. The experience wouldn’t have been half of what it was without them.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A Confusing Carmen

My week has continued in a pleasantly South Bank-y fashion. Not the National this time, but the Royal Festival Hall, where Jude Kelly is staging Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones as her big “hello, we’re open again,” show.

The results are muddled to say the least. For a start, the setting has been twiddled with: Hammerstein's original Broadway production relocated the Carmen story to a parachute factory in the US, but Kelly has uprooted it again, swapping this Deep South setting for a vaguely Cuban-looking backdrop. For, um, reasons that never become clear. All that this change of location achieves is that it makes the piece feel rather unanchored and uncertain of itself. The set is also an oddity, sitting awkwardly in the middle of the RFH stage, with the wooden back wall of the hall very visible behind it.

The amplification was all over the place too, making it hard to decipher a lot of dialogue, and, well, I could list more little niggly negatives, but actually the show wasn’t as unsatisfying as I’m making it sound. Though the first half is distinctly shaky, the production was far more cohesive and compelling after the interval. The orchestra were excellent (Kelly has plonked them in a pit in the centre of the stage with the action playing out both behind and in front of them) and there were some standout moments, most notably that of Beat Out Dat Rhythm On a Drum.

Performance-wise there are some excellent voices amongst the large cast. But it’s impossible not to notice that both Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, as the volatile Carmen, and Andrew Clarke, as Joe, the man she seduces, are eclipsed in terms of charisma and presence by, respectively, Sherry Boone, who plays the heartbroken Cindy Lou, and Rodney Clarke, as the boxing champion Husky Miller. Indeed the only truly bravo-worthy episode of the evening was when Boone sang My Joe, a quiveringly beautiful lament to her one-time lover; it was a quite, quite wonderful moment.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Some Enchanting Evening?

I do love the South Bank on a sunny evening: the glittering river, the hum of human life, the glass of wine sipped whilst watching odd performance art types juggle bunches of flowers outside the National.

It was almost a shame to leave it behind for what promised to be two hours plus of Scandinavian gloom at the Cottesloe, but I had tickets for The Enchantment, so leave it behind I did. The play is by Victoria Benedictsson, who, though rather lost to history was an influential figure in her day, inspiring both Strindberg and Ibsen. Her 1888 play The Enchantment has never been performed before in the UK but its premier production has been directed by Paul Miller, (the man who brought the magnificent Elling to the stage) so my anticipation levels were high.

Nancy Carroll plays Louise Strandberg, a young Swedish woman living in Paris, existing in a world of artists, though she has no artistic talent or inclination herself – Paris for her is about escape and liberation from her tedious provincial background. Here, she embarks on an affair with Gustave Alland played by Zubin Varla. He is supposed to be a magnetic, attractive character – a man capable of exerting an effortless hold over the women he encounters. But the odd rhythms of speech Varla employs, and the strange emphasis he puts on unexpected words, speak less of boundless charisma and more of a man struggling to remember his lines.

In the second half, the action reverts to Sweden and we see the life Louise is escaping: marriage to a kind but staid and middle-aged bank manager and a living room swathed in symbolic dust sheets. The denouement is predictably, Swedish-ly bleak.

Though the play is slow in places and comparatively heavy-handed in others, Benedictsson’s writing contains some flashes of insight into the muddle of love and the impossible position of women in 19th century society. She knows she stands zero chance of changing Alland, yet she remains besotted with him, in total awe, able to excuse away his every abuse of her love. Nancy Carroll has a glowing presence as Louise and Niamh Cusack is equally good, if sometimes a little shrill, as her close friend (and former conquest of Alland’s). But good as they are they’re not quite capable of enlivening this rather stiff and tiresome production.

The Cottesloe’s in-the-round staging meant that I was seated with my back to the curious wall projection thingy, thus missing out on the most inventive aspect of the set. However my position did mean that, when a character dropped a rather crucial letter on the floor, it landed pretty much at my feet, allowing me to inspect whether it actually said what it was supposed to say. Unfortunately before I could decipher the scrawly handwriting, it was picked up again – however, and I’m just guessing, it may have said: “Off to run head under tap in preparation for melodramatic final scene.”

Oh, and the women’s costumes were rather beautiful, it has to be said. I really, really want a bodice and bustle now – I think it would look rather fine in the office.