That Is The Question

An article in the New York Times caught my attention a couple of days ago, Maximum Shakespeare, To Renovate or Not to Renovate. Written by Charles Isherwood, a very well-known american theatre critic, it deals with the hoary old question about whether modern productions of Shakespearian plays should be contemporized. With a slew of The Bard’s plays to open on and off Broadway in the near future, Isherwood and other NYT writers will be

regularly posting commentaries on aspects of them, engaging larger questions about how today’s theater artists approach these canonical works, and inviting you to add your opinions about how vitally Shakespeare continues to speak to modern audiences. (Opera, ballet and movies will come up as well.)

If you read the article below and then follow the link above, you can see the discussion has already begun. I shall be following with interest.

Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway

Orlando Bloom in Romeo and Juliet on Broadway

Wherefore art thou riding a motorcycle, Romeo?

So might audiences muse at the start of the new Broadway staging of “Romeo and Juliet,” the first in the season’s plentiful Shakespeare productions, both on Broadway and off.

As the shows open in the coming months, fellow New York Times writers and I will be regularly posting commentaries on aspects of them, engaging larger questions about how today’s theater artists approach these canonical works, and inviting you to add your opinions about how vitally Shakespeare continues to speak to modern audiences. (Opera, ballet and movies will come up as well.)

David Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened on Sept. 19 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, announces its point of view in the show’s opening moments, as Romeo removes his helmet (odd, that, for a swooning romantic; Mercutio, one suspects, wouldn’t bother) and reveals himself in the comely person of Orlando Bloom, clad in ripped jeans, T-shirt and hoodie, plus the kind of assorted man-jewelry you can scoop up by the handful at Urban Outfitters.

DISCUSS: Is Shakespeare better with contemporary imagery, or clad in classical garb?

The question I opened with — why make Romeo a facsimile of an urban hipster? — points directly toward an issue that I suspect will percolate throughout the season, namely whether in producing Shakespeare today the most effective approach revolves around cloaking the text in contemporary imagery, or hewing to a more “classical” line, dressing the actors in what passes for traditional Elizabethan costume.

With its set dominated by a giant Renaissance-style fresco scrawled with graffiti, the new Broadway production didn’t strike me as an ideal test case for the here-and-now approach. The costuming and visual effects meant to reorient this tragic love story as an urgent bulletin from today’s world felt pretty generic, as did his somewhat half-hearted gesture toward infusing the play with an element of racial tension. (The Capulets are all played by black actors, while the Montagues are white.)

But it is easy to understand the impulse, particularly with this play. “Romeo and Juliet” is the ur-drama of young love, and it is often the first Shakespeare play kids read in high school. Young audiences alienated, or at least challenged, by the arcane language of the play may be encouraged to stop texting and give it a more attentive hearing when the drama comes packaged in imagery to which they can relate.

Baz Luhrmann proved the efficacy of this approach in his fiercely imaginative movie version from 1996, with a pre-megastardom Leonardo DiCaprio and a pre-“Homeland” Claire Danes playing the doomed lovers in a Southern California riven by gun violence.

It was a palpable hit, so to speak, and deservedly so. And of course one of the most popular iterations of the story is the beloved musical “West Side Story,” which dispensed with Shakespeare’s language but kept the fundamental architecture of the plot.

Denzel Washington, far right, in the 2005 Broadway production of Julius Caesar.

Denzel Washington, far right, in the 2005 Broadway production of Julius Caesar.

But there are many grumblers out there, I suspect, who have had their fill of Shakespeare productions that try to shoehorn contemporary relevance into the plays by dressing the conspirators in “Julius Caesar,” say, in business suits, or “Macbeth” in 20th-century military attire.

In fact these days I’d argue that the default Shakespeare style — at least for the major tragedies, and many of the comedies and romances, too — is contemporary. (With the history plays that concentrate in detail on specific periods in the progression of the British royal line, there isn’t always as much innovation.)

What may get lost in the debate is the fact that dressing Shakespeare in off-the-rack duds is nothing new; in fact what’s comparatively newer is the tradition of presenting the plays in Elizabethan or Jacobean attire. As no less an acting authority than Alec Guinness once pointed out, in a 1953 program for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the plays were traditionally performed in attire drawn from the era in which they were produced until in the 19th century manager-actors such as Charles Kean and William Macready introduced a vogue for historical accuracy in Shakespeare.

Some scholars cite the innovative productions of Barry Jackson in the 1920s at the Birmingham Repertory Theater as marking a true inflection point in bringing modern dress into Shakespeare production. His 1923 production of “Cymbeline” was a game-changing landmark for British Shakespeare staging. Coincidentally — or perhaps not — the company was home to some of the greatest British actors of the 20th century, from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft.

The great director Peter Brook was hired to stage three productions there at the age of 20. In America, meanwhile, Orson Welles is often lauded as the radical innovator who yanked Shakespeare out of the realm of fusty classicism, with his famous “voodoo” “Macbeth” and his Fascist-styled “Julius Caesar.”

Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester in the National Theatre's production of Othello in London

Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester in the National Theatre’s production of Othello in London

Many years of Shakespeare-watching have left me agnostic on the issue of “to update or not to update.” Nicholas Hytner’s riveting “Othello,” which I saw at the National Theater last summer (and which will be broadcast in movie theaters beginning Sept. 26), was a superb case in point. Without altering the text, in setting the play in a 21st-century war zone the production made cogent and disturbing points about the way, in a largely male-dominated military environment, women can become the object of repressed or warped violent impulses. (Emilia, here, was a soldier too.)

A scene from the 2006 production of King Lear at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

A scene from the 2006 production of King Lear at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

And perhaps the best overall production of “King Lear” I’ve seen was Robert Falls’s aggressively violent production for the Goodman Theater several years ago, in which Lear’s kingdom was represented as a failing, vaguely Balkan state, illuminating the way in which a power void automatically unleashes violence, which only begets more violence.

But I could just as easily cite any number of bland, unrewarding attempts to dress Shakespeare up in modern garb and gimmicky attempts at relevance, which I suspect some directors impose upon their productions because they (and their actors) are less at ease with the language than they ought to be. The hope is that novelty (although it rarely qualifies as novelty anymore) will prove a distraction from mediocrity.

Fundamentally, a great Shakespeare production will rise or fall not on what the actors are wearing, and whether they are barking into cell phones or slinging swords at each other, but on whether they can infuse these magnificent, challenging texts with the life blood of honest feeling and formal beauty

Are the most memorable Shakespeare productions you’ve seen modern or “classical”? Do you find it jarring when Hamlet picks up an iPad? What did you make of Mr. Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet”?

Don’t Take Yourself Seriously

I have stumbled across three articles giving tips to budding playwrights and I thought it would be good to share them.


Firstly, in a piece called Writing for the theatre? Be practical, by Miriam Gillinson, playwrights are told to use their instinct and heart but also to be pragmatic and stay grounded.

Writing for the theatre? Be practical

Write what you know, write what you feel and remember you are writing for the theatre. These are the fundamental tips I would pass on to a first-time playwright. But playwriting isn’t just about instinct, integrity and heart – it is also about pragmatism.

I read for a number of theatres and playwriting competitions and I’m surprised how often writers neglect the practical side of playwriting: the presentation of the play, the lay-out, stage directions and even the cast list – all these aspects matter greatly.

Some writers are so brilliant they can ignore such concerns, or at least give the impression of doing so. Beckett could have described his characters as vegetables and written his plays in comic strip form and their cool power would have still blasted off the page. But if you’re just starting out, it’s worth paying attention to the small details – they’re a bigger deal than you might think.


Unless this has been directly requested, I would strongly advise against including a synopsis. They are rarely useful and often a hindrance. Most distracting is when a playwright explains or justifies his or her play in the synopsis – no good can come of this.

Such suggestions are always limiting and, strangely enough, often out of sync with the play itself. Playwrights often don’t have the foggiest what they’re writing about or why. This really doesn’t matter – as long as the playwright stays schtum.

Title page quotations are often much more useful. For example, Philip Ridley precedes his brutally moving play Vincent River with Margaret Atwood’s words: “Grief is to want more.” Jez Butterworth uses TS Eliot to introduce his eerie play The River: “Except for the point, the still point/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” And Simon Stephens begins The Morning with this: “What it was … still mostly in my mind … is unconnected flashes of horror.” These quotes are brilliant; they give us a whiff of the play without ramming it down our throats.

Character list

I’ve read a huge number of plays that are preceded by pages and pages of character descriptions. Such extensive character lists won’t ruin a good play, but they certainly won’t help a mediocre one.

Look in almost any published play and the character list will be just that, a list of the characters’ names and nothing else. Sometimes, if a playwright is feeling particularly verbose, the character’s age might be included or even a sparse physical description. But that’s about as extensive as it gets.

Just as a lengthy synopsis risks undermining a play, so too does a comprehensive character description. They tend to reduce rather than enrich the overall reading experience; to shut down the imagination rather than provoke it. The best thing about reading a new play is those rare moments of surprise. This is not going to happen if we’re told all the characters’ secrets in advance.

Stage directions

These are often overlooked or underwritten, but they are a crucial component of any play. Stage directions don’t just help visualise a play, they also reveal a lot about the playwright. Good stage directions distinguish a great dramatist from merely a good writer.

The style of stage directions says a great deal about the writer and the time in which he or she is writing. Lyrical stage directions used to be in vogue – see the beginning of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “An air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.”

Since then, stage directions have become increasingly sparse. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a prime example: “A country road. A tree. Evening,” or Sarah Kane’s infamous stage direction in Blasted: “He eats the baby.” More recently, Payne’s directions in Constellations are as restrained as they are extravagant: “An indented rule indicates a change in universe.”

In some ways, the stage directions need to be more honest and lucid than the play itself. They are the reader’s direct line to the playwright and the director’s link to the visual world of the stage.


I’ve read plays illustrated with pictures, photos and masses of symbols – some scripts have even included links to clips on the internet. Apart from a few inspired examples, these additions don’t help. Instead, they come across as amateurish: a rushed afterthought rather than a crucial component of the play proper.

These visual touches – which are often poorly executed – suggest a lack of faith in the writing. Obviously, there are no set rules and a series of brilliant sketches could, theoretically, beautifully complement a play. But such additions shouldn’t be shoe-horned into the work; they need to be as carefully considered as the rest of the play, or they will only take away from the writing.

Write your own play

Most playwriting competitions and (fringe) theatres are not looking for adaptations; they are looking for original work. Despite this stipulation, I have lost count of the number of imitation plays I have read, faintly disguised as new work. Even if the play is set at a bus-stop and the central characters are called Victoria and Esteban, it is still Waiting for Godot.

There’s nothing worse than a playwright trying to pass off another writer’s idea – or even their diction, rhythm and use of pauses – as their own. Such iterative writing feels brittle, ugly and thin. But an honest writer, who is true to themselves, their material and their medium? Magic.


Secondly in a piece published on his blog, Nick Gill offers his own rather satirical take, although with some wise words too.

Some advice for newish playwrights

1. Get a job.

Statistically, the number of people who define themselves as ‘A Playwright’ and who make a living from writing plays is so small that it might as well be zero. It follows that you’re very unlikely to be one of those people. Find something you can cope with, and that allows you enough time and space to write.

2. Take the work seriously.
Work at it.  Don’t say ‘Oh, that’ll do’. If what you’re writing ever gets anywhere, it’ll be judged on the same scale as the most successful shows there are – if you don’t take it seriously, who will?

3. Don’t take yourself seriously.
You want to spend the only life you’ll ever have making up stories.  Have some perspective.

4. Avoid oxides of metals.
By and large, metal oxides are pretty toxic; it’s a good idea to avoid them if at all possible. If it isn’t, be sure to wear relevant protective safety gear when handling them.

5. Don’t have a process.
If you have A Way Of Doing Things, it’ll be very easy to make minor variations on The Same Thing every time you sit down to write something new. The assumption here, of course, is that you want to write something new each time…

6. Suit your medium.
Be sure that the thing you want to write about should be a piece of theatre. Maybe it’s just a story that would work better as a novella, or a short story, or a secret little dance you do in front of your girlfriend.

The thing about defining yourself as A Playwright is that you’re confronted with a classic problem: if all you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail. I suspect there’s a strong impulse to say to yourself ‘I find this particular Thing I Saw On The News interesting; I will write An Important Play about it’, while not considering what it is about live performance that particularly suits what you’re trying to do.

I would also add that it’s a good idea to have some perspective about what theatre can do.  Andrew Haydon put it very nicely in his Postcards from the Gods blog:

…there was a repeated strain of question which seemed to be formulated thus: “How can Theatre block the flow of a river in a steep valley, thereby storing all the water in a reservoir, which can then be used for hydro-electricity or irrigation?”
To which the sensible answer is: You want a dam for that, not theatre.

7. Go to see some plays.  But not too many.
Let’s be honest, most plays are rubbish. Not just plays, of course:  plays, films, paintings, albums, novels, dances, drawings- most of them are rubbish. If you go to see too many plays, you may well see too many terrible things, and become disillusioned with the whole medium, which would be sad. Moderate your theatre intake.

8. Network. A bit.
This is a horrible thing for me to write as I hate it, both in principle and practice.  Nevertheless, meeting people is A Good Way to get people interested in what you do.  I find that very few directors and producers pop round to my house to see what I’m up to, so leaving the house seems the only option. I recommend you do the same; but, once again, moderate it.  You need to leave some time for video games and general procrastination, after all.

9. Know your tools.
I have been called a snob for wanting writers to construct a decent sentence, with properly spelt words and even some punctuation in the right place.

If I see a carpenter trying to use a slotted screwdriver on a posidrive screw, I’m going to be a little sceptical about his ability to put up a sturdy shelf; if I see a script with ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ used interchangeably, or paragraphs of text without a comma or a semicolon to break it up, I’m going to be sceptical about the writer’s ability in other areas.

Likewise clumsy metaphors, ham-fisted emotionally-manipulative dialogue, characters so clichéd they could have been culled from 90210, lazy pop references, all that jazz. If you care about writing, you should care about imagery, sonority, grammar, allegory, form, structure, spelling, all the good stuff they teach you in English literature.

10. And finally.
When the first day of rehearsals comes round, and you meet the actors, and the director, and the sound designer, and the wardrobe mistress, remember this:

You have not written A Play.
You’ve written A Script.

And if you really need the difference explained, you should probably reconsider how you’re spending your time.


And finally Top 10 Tips for Playwrights: Advice from the Other Side of the Line. This is written by Van Badham who is both a writer and literary manager*.

* In a theatre company, literary managers are responsible for reading and selecting plays for production.

Everyone’s A Critic

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, Critiquing the Critics, in which I touched upon the notion that professional theatre critics are being threatened by the rise of the internet blogger/critic. Since then one of the major UK news papers sacked all its arts critics and another got rid of its chief theatre critic. The picture is the same right across the globe.  Arts criticism is clearly and sadly becoming a minority interest in the eyes of newspaper owners. All of this has not surprisingly stirred up quite a debate about the role of critics in relation to theatre and the purpose they really serve.  It has fascinated me and has raised a few questions about the synergy between theatre critic and theatre making.

In her article for Fourthwall magazine, The Future of Theatre CriticismEmily Hardy lays out the debate.

THE ESSAY: The Future of Theatre Criticism

In an information, saturated world, who do you trust? What is the future of traditional theatre criticism? Emily Hardy investigates.


Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the internet, brought about a revolution that overwhelmed, consumed, and eventually defined contemporary society, facilitating freedom of speech in its rawest form.

A universally accessible resource of information, music, film and literature, the internet has reduced the value of the tangible book or CD for example, resulting in the inevitable and devastating decline of particular industries.

Theatre remains relatively safe, largely unperturbed by the culture of the ‘free download.’ A curated theatrical experience can be purchased in the form of aPhantom of the Opera concert DVD, but nothing available online yet threatens live, visceral, organic, fleshy theatre. However, traditional theatre criticism has fallen victim: In one respect, the immediate, wide-spread accessibility of a review has facilitated increased readership, but rapid turn-around and ‘free-for-all’ authorship means that the quality of criticism, at one time an art form in itself, is suffering. After all, “If everyone’s a critic, then no one’s a critic.” (L.Winer, Newsday)

Where once, books were ritually burnt because of the political threat posed by the persuasive written word, the internet, by putting power into the hands of the people, has actively encouraged the spread of opinion. Writer John Moore explains that, “When it comes to arts criticism, the internet was supposed to be the great equaliser,” but, what truth or meaning is there in anything online? The internet is everything and nothing because it has no centralised governance. What is fact without validation? Opportunistic bloggers, tweeters, and rapid-response reviewers, have filled the information vacuum created by the impartial internet, and whilst these unpaid, unqualified, unknowledgable writers slather the web with their opinions, informative, measured and witty criticism slips into the archives of yet another lost art form. Web reviewers, writing to varying degrees of purpose or proliferation have spawned a culture of speed rather than that of considered opinion, and this has resulted in wide-spread unemployment; John Moore, for example, was the last full-time, professional critic in Denver.

As experienced writers become surplus to requirement we need to ask, can theatre exist without criticism? The answer is dependent upon what you believe the purpose of criticism to be. What do you read and who do you trust? What do you hope to achieve by flicking to the arts pages of a paper? In any case, with the standard of criticism (online and in the papers) continuing to slip, the critic’s reputation worsens. What future is there?



Before we confront the future, let us look firstly to the past. The earliest known reference to criticism dates back to C.380 B.C.E and Plato’s Republic. Laying a foundation for critical discourse in the classical world, Plato explains how it was fitting for a rhapsode, (poet) to respond verbally to theatrical entertainments: “For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him.” In the beginning then, there were high expectations. In the 1800’s, critics played an increasingly important role within the American press, and despite being accused of reducing feelings to a state of miserable refinement, they were valued, employed and at least possessed such skills. Meanwhile, as Irving Wardle outlines in his book Theatre Criticism, the Grub Street slums of Georgian London rapidly became a bohemian hive of artistic activity and were the probable origin of theatrical criticism in Britain. By the 1850’s, advancements in printing and the press fuelled an explosion in journalism, and in 1935, cementing that progress, establishment of The Drama Critic’s circle ensured that the critic’s influence continued to abound.

Conversely, 2007 saw the beginning of wide- spread layoffs at newspapers and magazines leaving dozens of veteran arts journalists professionally homeless, expunged by internet reviewers or cheaper freelancers. And the situation continues to worsen, evidence now suggesting that criticism has reached such a point of decline that it is no longer significant; it no longer has a part to play.

What could today’s critic offer in order to reinstate their own necessity and worth? What do we want? Reviewing, simply put, is the act of writing or speaking about the performing arts, so no one person can dictate what it should or shouldn’t be, and if critics disagree amongst themselves, that is nothing compared to the public disagreement over what their role should be. We all require something different, but one might hope to locate at least one, two or a combination of the qualities listed below:

A review should be…

Informative. The piece should contain basic, accurate information about the show/production in order to keep the reader in touch with the continuously evolving theatrical landscape – a landscape which, for some, sits at the epicentre of social functioning. The reviewer therefore, is required to attend, watch and inform.

Entertaining. Theatre is occasionally entertaining. Shouldn’t we be entertained when reading about it too? Be it witty or not, criticism should capture the style and essence of the show – reflecting, not just referencing it. It is good for the industry if people flick to the review pages; interesting articles will promote that intrigue.

Historical. Criticism is a way of documenting, remembering and celebrating past theatre, as well as present. Therefore a critic should have theatrical knowledge in order to root the production in question within theatrical history.

Constructive. Good, impartial criticism can provide the fresh eyes a creative team require. Reviewing is a fundamental and integral part of the development process – a way of improving theatre. “Only critical faculty enables any artistic creation at all.” (Wilde) What good does a sycophantic wash of praise do?

Opinionated: A review should assist the reader in making the all-important decision: to buy tickets or not to buy tickets? That’s a big responsibility, and if “everyone is a critic,” then who should we trust? Marketing might initially catch the attention of the consumer but a good review can cement the £60 per ticket spend. The public need an arbiter of taste.

The critics bible

The critics bible

And is this what we are getting? According to writer, John Russell Brown, criticism is an “unmapped quagmire,” – an art form that has remained, until recently, unexamined. But, in light of increased instability, it feels appropriate to turn the tables and examine what remains. Reviews that meet our expectations are increasingly difficult to find, but they do exist: Ben Brantley, for example, reviewed Menken and Fierstein’s Broadway musical, Newsies, for the New York Times. His piece, ‘Urchins with Punctuation,’ is lengthy and entertaining, reflecting the show’s energy and offering a measured and reasoned opinion from which the individual reader can decipher the production’s suitability. A literary achievement, he gives credit without verging into the bland territory of hyperbole: “Mr. Feldmen’s lyrics are spot on, while the melody reminds us just how charming a composer Mr.Menken […] can be.” Overblown praise only provokes cynicism, disappointment and a wilfulness to protest. He is refreshingly witty: “That doesn’t stop them from burning energy like toddlers on a sugar high at a birthday party,” and immediately captivates the reader, much in the same vein as a play might wish to do. Brantley also resists the trappings of writing a gratuitous plot synopsis, instead summarising the narrative in one Plato line: “The show’s title characters, feisty lads of the urban jungle […] make their living pushing the papes.”

In terms of language, Brantley uses the “read all about it,” exclamatory, punctuated energy of the show to drive his piece and employs the colloquial so as to serve the readership and the show’s potential audience. In addition, the grounded review acknowledges current social trends: “These days urchins have mostly been replaced in popular entertainment by troubled teenage vampires (‘Twilight’) and fresh-fleshed human killing machines (‘The Hunger Games’).” Perhaps you could criticise Brantley for failing to address the historical concerns of said urchins, but the all singing all dancing, lavish musical does not lend itself to a serious discussion of these themes. If the show fails to address it, then why should the reviewer? Instead, Brantley reviews Newsies for what it is. Finally and perhaps most importantly, is Brantley’s impressive honesty. He bravely asserts his opinion in the confident 1st person, and in a way that is simultaneously constructive and comical: “I commend the cast members for always appearing to be excited by what they are doing. Unfortunately, that is not the same as being exciting.”

Of course, Brantley is not the only capable writer in print, but with the situation as it is, and talented writers (young and old) being forced to write to unrealistic deadlines, often for no pay, is it any wonder that standards and expectations are not being met? Infuriatingly, criticism also continuously undermines itself in the following ways: Firstly, reviews have become monetized.

It is increasingly common for large production companies to pay papers (inevitably tantalised by the fee) for headline quotes. We are now bombarded with emphatic posters making incredible claims: “It’s the greatest show on Earth!” for example. But, if companies pay for quotes, how are we, the reader, able to distinguish between a review and a sales pitch? The differentiation no longer exists. Secondly, writers for particular sites receive a rate of pay dependant on the number of ‘hits’ a review receives. Obviously, a 5* piece, fizzing with praise, is shared and circulated by the company and consequently, only the sycophant can afford to eat. This severely limits the opinion of the honest reviewer, terrified of displeasing. That’s not theatre, nor is it criticism. That’s bribery and actually, all the reader gets is more marketing.

It is no coincidence that as we see more of the above, (not to mention dry, ignorant, distasteful writing) people lose faith in criticism, no longer functioning in the traditional capacity on which they relied. Simply put, the remaining work is not good enough to sustain the form’s validity. Let us remember for a moment Oscar Wilde’s expectation: “It is criticism rather than emotional sympathies, abstract ethics or commercial advantages that would make us cosmopolitan and serve as the basis of peace.” (Wilde) Gone, I fear, are the days of this long lost ideology.


Oscar Wilde

So what can be done? Due to the human need to impose form on chaos, art will always be accompanied by some sort of criticism; it cannot exist without it. However, in order to prevent being displaced entirely by the unmediated voice of the internet, critics need to act. Public reviews, such as those found on Amazon or Trip-Advisor, for example, tend to be either glowing or scathing. The internet rarely offers informed, impartial, measured opinion. For as long as this remains to be the case, the critic, as an arbiter of taste, stands a chance. Continuing to encourage a wealth of discussion and increasing public awareness will assist to stimulate change; only an amalgamation of minds can forge progress at this stage and suggestions are already being made.

No one can prescribe a format for ‘good’ criticism; pieces are as individual as plays or paintings, but perhaps, as was conceded at ‘The Art of Criticism’ conference in London, 2013, the future of criticism might hinge upon a willingness to adapt. For example, Brantley argues that reviews cannot be written well AND quickly. “I don’t think you should go with your very first instinct. I don’t think theatre is sports.” However, in order to adapt to 21st century demands, critics may no longer be allowed the luxury of “a chance to process what [they’ve] seen.” Mark Shenton, in his blog for The Stage, identifies how critics, such as Billington, Taylor and Letts, have been attending performances ahead of press night, in order to allow

for writing time. This is not an ideal solution – a preview should be a preview, but early viewing could potentially improve the standard of published work. Also in question is the star-rating system, which some papers have dismissed in order to encourage a thorough reading of the piece. It is too tempting to place great emphasis on the over-simplistic, reductionist, blurry distinction between 3 or 4 stars.

There are problems to be addressed and solutions to be trialled, but with persistence, adaptation and adjustment critics may well prevail. (Alternatively, we can hope that readers themselves might start to demand better!) However, if the horizon continues to darken, traditional theatre critics, artists as they are, may continue to suffer, reminiscent of where it all began – Grub Street and the impoverished, bohemian neighbourhood of hack writers.

It is clearly a debate that is going on in many places. For example, in his piece for the Australian newspaper The Age, theatre critic Cameron Woodhead talks about the rise (and dangers) of the internet blogger – Slagging off theatre, a case of foul play. You can read the blog Woodhead talks about, Shit on your play, here.

Meanwhile in London this week, The Critics Circle held its centenary conference and the link below is to a recording of a discussion, hosted by theatre critic Lyn Gardner, about the future of theatre criticism in a, twittering, blogging world.

The Critics’ Circle Centenary Conference: The Future of Criticism.

In the recording, I was particularly struck by the audience and panel talking about Harold Hobson and his championing of new writers that went on to become some of the most successful writers of the 20th century:


Irving Wardle also had a fascinating relationship with Harold Pinter, which he wrote about in Intelligent Life Magazine, The Unconditional Harold.

The Chair of the Drama section of the Critics’ Circle is Mark Shenton, theatre critic and avid tweeter. He also blogs for The Stage and two of his recent postings, Critics in intensive care – but can Twitter fill the space? and The critical and Shakespearean conundrum add to the debate.

It seems to me that there is a strong case in all of this for the professional theatre critic and we allow them to be drowned out by the likes of Shit on your play at our peril.

Why? Why Not!

As a theatre teacher working in the northern hemisphere, this time of year always makes me question my motives a little.  It is the time when the graduating class are making their university choices and younger students are choosing their electives at various examination levels. With these decisions comes conversations with both parents and students that usually centre around the questioning of the value of taking a theatre course at any level.

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard a sentence that started with “but what’s the point”  or “how is that going to help in the future” or “but he/she doesn’t want to be an actor”, I would be a rich man. I then find myself churning out the usual responses about life long learning, confidence building, being an effective communicator, the value of team and cooperation skills – the list is long.  I have developed it over my career, almost as a defence mechanism, as I find myself a little offended every time one of those questions is asked.


I know the value of a theatre course. When my students leave high school to continue the study of performance at university I am immensely proud, but I am equally proud of those that go off to become doctors, lawyers, business people, writers, veterinarians, linguists, teachers, visual artists, bankers (yes, even bankers)….the list is long and wonderfully varied.

So it was with some glee, a little churlishness and a lot of delight that I read the following blog post by Brian Sibley, under his alias, Change Agent.

9 Ways a Theatre Degree Trumps a Business Degree

Some of you may know this about me, some may not. Despite having spent the last 15 years as a PR & communications professional, my college degree is in theatre. I have never in my life taken a marketing class, or a journalism class, or a business class. Yet, by most measures, I’m enjoying a successful career in business.  ”So what?” you ask… read on.


I was having a conversation with a friend this week. She’s an actress. Like most actresses, she also has a Day Job that she works to pay the bills between acting jobs. This is the reality for most working actors in LA, New York and the other major centers of the entertainment industry. She was pointing out to me that she viewed her theatre background as a weakness in her Day Job career field, and that it was holding her back. She asked for my advice.

My advice? There IS no weakness in having a theatre background. There is only strength. Here are just a few skills that a theatre degree gave me that have served me enormously well in business:

  1. You have advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills: taking a script and translating it into a finished production is a colossal exercise in critical thinking. You have to make tremendous inferences and intellectual leaps, and you have to have a keen eye for subtle clues. (believe it or not, this is a skill that very few people have as finely honed as the theatre people I know. That’s why I listed it #1).
  2. You’re calm in a crisis: You’ve been on stage when somebody dropped a line and you had to improvise to keep the show moving with a smile on your face, in front of everyone. Your mic died in the middle of a big solo musical number. You just sang louder and didn’t skip a beat.
  3. You understand deadlines and respect them: Opening Night is non-negotiable. Enough said.
  4. You have an eye on audience perception: You know what will sell tickets and what will not. This is a very transferrable skill, and lots of theatre people underestimate this, because they think of theatre as an ART, and not as a BUSINESS. I frequently say (even to MBA-types) that theatre was absolutely the best business education I could have gotten. While the business majors were buried in their books and discussing theory, we were actually SELLING a PRODUCT to the PUBLIC. Most business majors can get through undergrad (and some MBA programs, even) without ever selling anything. Theater departments are frequently the only academic departments on campus who actually sell anything to the public. Interesting, isn’t it?
  5. You’re courageous: If you can sing “Oklahoma!” in front of 1,200 people, you can do anything.
  6. You’re resourceful: You’ve probably produced “The Fantasticks” in a small town on a $900 budget. You know how to get a lot of value from minimal resources.
  7. You’re a team player: You know that there are truly no small roles, only small actors. The show would fail without everyone giving their best, and even a brilliant performance by a star can be undermined by a poor supporting cast. We work together in theatre and (mostly) leave our egos at the stage door. We truly collaborate.
  8. You’re versatile: You can probably sing, act, dance. But you can also run a sewing machine. And a table saw. And you’ve probably rewired a lighting fixture. You’ve done a sound check. You’re good with a paintbrush. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty for the benefit of the show. In short, you know how to acquire new skills quickly.
  9. You’re flexible: you’ve worked with some directors who inspired you. Others left you flat, but you did the work anyway. Same goes with your fellow actors, designers and stagehands… some were amazing and supportive, others were horrible and demoralizing to work with (we won’t name names). You have worked with them all. And learned a little something from every one of them.

These are the top reasons I’ve found my theatre degree to be a great background for a business career. What are yours?

What I liked even more that the blog post itself were the comments that people made, reinforcing his view. If you need to convince anyone about the value of theatre education, get them to read those comments.

Sacred Texts, Mr Bond

I have a very eclectic mix to share over the next few days, but I will start the weekend with a short note from the Alice Jones’ Arts Diary in The Independent newspaper:

Daniel Craig on Pinter’s pauses: ‘If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it’

The Broadway production of Betrayal starring real-life couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall finally opens on Tuesday night.


The play, about an affair which runs in reverse from break-up to first kiss, is one of Harold Pinter’s finest.

But Craig isn’t overly reverent towards the late playwright’s script. “I think if the pause doesn’t feel right, don’t do it,” he told New York Magazine. “He’s not around anymore, so it’s tough s**t.”

My response to this? Two things specifically (as well as “how dare he!”). Firstly, I recently read some advice for budding playwrights (which I will share at a later stage). The final point  made was

You have not written A Play. You’ve written A Script.

And generally I would agree, the art of theatre making being about interpretation. However, Pinter’s pauses are not to be messed with. You do so at your peril and if you do, you totally ruin the whole rhythm of the writing.

Secondly, Betrayal is one of my favourite Pinter plays, which unusually works on the page as well as the stage. This sounds a little odd, but I know when I read play texts,  I am reading something that will only come to life when put on the stage. Betrayal works in both worlds.

I would suggest Mr Craig has forgotten his roots and should stick to the film set.

Complicité Genius

Published yesterday, today’s share is a joy. Perhaps one of the most famous theatre companies with a global reputation of the last 30 years is Complicité.

The Company’s inimitable style of visual and devised theatre [has] an emphasis on strong, corporeal, poetic and surrealist image supporting text

Stephen Knapper, Contemporary European Theatre Directors.

[The main principles of our work is ] seeing what is most alive, integrating text, music, image and action to create surprising, disruptive theatre


Complicité at 30: Simon McBurney (founder and artistic director) and Judith Dimant (producer) in conversation


If you have never seen any of their work, here is a great taster

And a few more words of theatrical wisdom from McBurney


Theatre on a Tear Drop

I’m conscious that Reading Room hasn’t been living up to the Asia bit of its name of late , so I am putting that right today. Those of you that read me regularly will know that one country I hold dear for many reasons is India, and as a result I know quite a lot about its theatrical life. Not so for its south-eastern neighbour, Sri Lanka, though.  So I have been collecting a few bits and pieces that I want to share today.

09Apr07_125_FotorSri Lanka has been through years of bloodshed and struggle between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. It’s not surprising therefore that during this time the arts have struggled and many traditions have been hidden. One of the best sources of information I have found is the Active Theatre Movement which has as a goal, building a rich theatre culture for the nation development. The site isn’t very well maintained but there are some real gems on there. One that really interested me is Drama and Theatre Arts among the Tamils of Sri Lanka and is well worth a read, putting theatre in terms of the conflict and the traditions of the Tamil people. Also, much of the writing out there focuses on Sinhalese theatre traditions so this is a good, balancing source.

In common with a lot of asian theatre traditions, Sri Lanka’s is largely dance based underpinned by ancient ritual. Perhaps the one that is best known, is the Kandyan Dance – Uda Rata Natum – that originates from the ancient royal capital, Kandy. According to the legend, the origins of the dance lies in an exorcism ritual. However, today, the genre is considered the classical dance of Sri Lanka. You can read more here.


Another, less formal dance genre, again from an exorcism ritual, is the Salu Paliya or the Shawl Dance. This is a comic dance featuring the spirit Salu Paliya wearing a white shawl. Salu brings the blessings of the goddess Pattini to the patient. The appearance of this spirit in the healing ritual known as the Tovil has a specific significance – although demonic in appearance, Salu acts as a clown and uplifts the spirits of the patient and takes away his fear.



The other notable feature of Sri Lankan theatre tradition is the use of mask, and again this goes back centuries and is rooted in folklore.

More about masks in the articles listed below, especially The Yakun Natima – devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka


On of the best sources I have found is the Sri Lanka Virtual Library.  I have taken a number of articles from there, in pdf form:

Ritual Dancing in rural Sri Lanka09Apr07_316_Fotor

Mystery of the masks

Dance and music of the Sinhalese

Dances of Sri Lanka

Drums of Sri Lanka

Kolam, Sakari and Nadagan Theater in Sri Lanka

The Yakun Natima – devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka

Classical Dances of Sri Lanka

Did Sinhala Drama Originate in Christmas



Ghost In The Machine

I tend not to write about dead white european men (DWEM) here very often. Much of contemporary theatre practice can still be dominated by them. It’s not that I don’t think DWEMs are important – they are, and form a basis for much of what we do – but there is just so much else to write about. It therefore comes as a little bit of a surprise to me that I am writing about one for the second time in three days.

I really want to share an article about one of my favourite plays and playwrights, Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s plays have always drawn me to them, there is something about the way he creates characters capable of communicating so much about themselves to an audience, while failing to communicate with one another. Respected veteran director Richard Eyre is currently rehearsing a production of Ghosts and has written in The Guardian about adapting the play for a 21st century audience.

In the spirit of Ibsen

The premiere of Ibsen’s Ghosts caused an explosion of outrage and critical venom. Richard Eyre discusses his new production of the play, and how all acts of adaptation leave a trace of authorial presence

Richard Eyre (left) at a rehearsal of Ghosts

Richard Eyre (left) at a rehearsal of Ghosts

Ibsen said of Ghosts that “in none of my plays is the author so completely absent as in this last one”. Nine years later, when he was 61, Ibsen met an 18-year-old Viennese girl and fell in love. She asked him to live with her; he at first agreed but, crippled by guilt and fear of scandal (and perhaps impotence as well), he put an end to the relationship. Emilie became the “May sun of a September life” and the inspiration for the character of Hedda Gabler, even if Ibsen himself contributed many of her characteristics with his fear of scandal and ridicule, his apparent repulsion with the reality of sex, and his yearning for an emotional freedom.

Perhaps his disavowal of authorial presence in Ghosts was a little disingenuous. When he was working on the play he wrote to a friend: “Everything that I have written is most minutely connected with what I have lived through, if not personally experienced … for every man shares the responsibility and the guilt of the society to which he belongs. To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.”

The audience for a play has to be left with the impression that the characters exist independently of the writer and have come to life spontaneously. “Sitting in judgment on oneself” means mediating one’s ideas, emotions and anxieties through one’s characters, who in their turn have to absorb the subject matter into their bloodstream – in the case of Ghosts: patriarchy, class, free love, prostitution, hypocrisy, heredity, incest and euthanasia. In that sense Helene Alving, the protagonist ofGhosts, is as much an autobiographical portrait as Hedda: yearning for emotional and sexual freedom but too timid to achieve it, a rebel who fears rebellion, a scourge who longs for approbation and love.


Ibsen’s great women characters – Nora Helmer, Hedda Gabler, Helene Alving, Rebecca West, Hilde Wangel, Petra Stockmann – batter against convention and repression. He empathises, actually identifies, with women both as social victims and as people. “If I may say so of an eminently virile man, there is a curious admixture of the woman in his nature,” said the 18-year-old James Joyce. “His marvellous accuracy, his faint traces of femininity, his delicacy of swift touch, are perhaps attributable to this admixture. But that he knows women is an incontrovertible fact. He appears to have sounded them to almost unfathomable depths.”

Yet in spite of – or because of – his sympathy for women and morbid view of the state of society, you emerge from Ghosts with a sense of exhilaration, albeit underscored by the conclusion that it’s impossible to achieve joy in life. In the face of the bones of true experience, you feel that the great enemy, apart from social repression and superstition, is to be bored with life and indifferent to its suffering. The great political activist Emma Goldman wrote: “The voice of Henrik Ibsen in Ghosts sounds like the trumpets before the walls of Jericho. Into the remotest nooks and corners reaches his voice, with its thundering indictment of our moral cancers, our social poisons, our hideous crimes against unborn and born victims.” As with Chekhov, Ibsen sees boredom and indifference as the insidious viruses that infect all society.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

Ghosts was written when Ibsen was living in Rome in the summer of 1881 and was published in December in Denmark. He anticipated its reception: “It is reasonable to suppose that Ghosts will cause alarm in some circles; but so it must be. If it did not do so, it would not have been necessary to write it.” He wasn’t to be disappointed. There was an outcry of indignation against the attack on religion, the defence of free love, the mention of incest and syphilis. Large piles of unsold copies were returned to the publisher, the booksellers embarrassed by their presence on the shelves.

Ghosts was sent to a number of theatres in Scandinavia, who all rejected it – it was first performed by Danish and Norwegian amateurs in a hall in Chicago in May 1882, for an audience of Scandinavian immigrants. The play was staged in Sweden the following year and this production then appeared in Denmark and, in late 1883, in Norway, where the reviews were good. Even the King of Sweden saw it, and told Ibsen that it was not a good play, to which, in some exasperation, Ibsen responded: “Your Majesty, I had to write Ghosts!”

In England the lord chamberlain, the official censor, banned the play from public performance but there was a single, unlicensed, “club” performance in 1891 on a Sunday afternoon at the Royalty theatre. It detonated an explosion of critical venom: “The experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon Ghosts as regards public performance was both wise and warranted”; “The Royalty was last night filled by an orderly audience, including many ladies, who listened attentively to the dramatic exposition of a subject which is not usually discussed outside the walls of an hospital”; “It is a wretched, deplorable, loathsome history, as all must admit. It might have been a tragedy had it been treated by a man of genius. Handled by an egotist and a bungler, it is only a deplorably dull play”; “revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous”; “a dirty deed done in public”.


In case we bask in the glow of progress and the delight of feeling ourselves superior to our predecessors, it’s worth remembering that the response to Edward Bond’s Saved in 1965 and Sarah Kane’s Blasted 30 years later was remarkably similar.

Shortly after Ibsen’s death in 1906, the director Max Reinhardt asked Edward Munch to design the set for the production of Ghosts that was to open his new intimate theatre in Berlin. Munch had no experience of stage design but helped the actors by doing sketches of the characters in different scenes, expressing what was going on in their minds. He designed a set that surrounded realistic Biedermeier furniture with an expressionistic setting, walls of sickly egg-yolk yellow fading to ochre. “I wanted to stress the responsibility of the parents,” he said, “but it was my life too – my ‘why’? I came into the world sick, in sick surroundings, to whom youth was a sickroom and life a shiny, sunlit window – with glorious colours and glorious joys – and out there I wanted so much to take part in the dance, the Dance of Life.”

Munch, profligate and alcoholic, feared syphilis as much as he feared madness. It’s often said that Ibsen misunderstood the pathology of syphilis, that he thought – as Oswald is told by his doctor in Ghosts – that it was a hereditary disease passed by father to son. It’s much more probable, given that he had friends in Rome who were scientists (including the botanist JP Jacobsen, who translated Darwin into Norwegian), that he knew that the disease is passed on through sexual contact, and that pregnant women can pass it to the babies they are carrying. He knew too that it’s possible for a woman to be a carrier without being aware of it, and perhaps he wants us to believe that Helene knows she is a carrier. It’s a matter of interpretation.

Which is, of course, what lies in the process of directing a play and translating it: it’s a matter of making choices. The first choice – and the first indication of the difficulty of rendering any play into another language – is what title to give the play. When Ghosts was first translated into English by William Archer, Ibsen disliked the title. The Norwegian title, Gjengangere, means “a thing that walks again”, rather than the appearance of a soul of a dead person. But “Againwalkers” is an ungainly title and the alternative “Revenants” is both awkward and French. Ghosts has a poetic resonance to the English ear.


I wrote a version of Ghosts six years ago when I was waiting for a film to be financed and was all too aware of the insidious virus of boredom. For some reason I couldn’t stop thinking of Oswald’s “Give me the sun…”, and I read the play, not having seen it for at least 20 years, with a sense of discovery: The producer, Sonia Friedman, commissioned it with a view to presenting it in the West End. It didn’t get produced because another production popped up and waved it away.

I worked from a literal version by Charlotte Barslund, and tried to animate the language in a way that felt as true as possible to what I understood to be the author’s intentions – even to the point of trying to capture cadences that I could at least infer from the Norwegian original. But even literal translations make choices, and the choices we make are made according to taste, to the times we live in and how we view the world. All choices are choices of meaning, of intention. What I have written is a “version” or “adaptation” or “interpretation” of Ibsen’s play, but I hope that it comes close to what Ibsen intended while seeming spontaneous to an audience of today.

If you haven’t seen the play, there is a full length version below with some excellent performances from the ‘A’ list of British actors.


Old Traditions, New Shadows

I quick little share today, courtesy of my friend Julie Hannaford, the work of a Japanese company enra.


To quote Nobuyuki Hanabusa, the founder of the company, enra, is a project to present a one-of-a-kind entertainment in (a) collaboration of images I create and performance (sic) by specialists of various genres.



Shadow theatre for the 21st century, I think.

We Are Strong

I have written here, on a number of occasions, about Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose founders were forced to seek political asylum in the UK in 2011. This was after being targeted by the government in their home country, Belarus, for standing up against its repressive and dictatorial regime.

The audience inside the 'house-theatre' listening a reading from a student of Belarus Free Theatre, taken in 2009 by photographer Alessandro Vincenzi. The audience was contacted by the company in a private and secret way the day before or the same day of the performance in Minsk, Belarus.

The audience inside the ‘house-theatre’ listening to a reading from a student of BTF, taken in 2009 by photographer Alessandro Vincenzi. The audience was contacted by the company in a private and secret way the day before, or the same day of, the performances in Minsk, Belarus.

In fact, the very first two posts on Reading Room Asia were about the company (Belarus Free Theatre Part 1 and Part 2). To quote their own website, BFT is now a two-headed beast with a new part of the company in London, and a permanent ensemble left behind in Minsk who perform and tour around the world as Belarus Free Theatre.

Natalia Kaliada

Natalia Kaliada

Natalia Kaliada, one of the company’s co-founders, has become a significant voice, not only about the human rights violations that are taking place in her own country and around the globe, but about the power of theatre to challenge such atrocities.

Jude Law

Jude Law

Since fleeing to London, she has used the new-found freedoms to rally support and has been joined by a whole host of influential people from both the theatre world and beyond. One of BFTs most high-profile supporters is the actor Jude Law, who has said when you talk about artistic freedom you are talking about freedom of speech and all our fundamental freedoms….it could not be more central to how we live. And these freedoms that we often take for granted are celebrated……by the struggle of the Free Theatre……These are freedoms which define us.

BFT now has a home in London with, and as an associate of, the Young Vic Theatre.  The company, together with the Young Vic have just released a short film, called Connection, with Law in the cast, which you can watch here.  It is a metaphor for BFTs own search to find a new home. Kaliada has written about this journey in an article for The Guardian:

Losing a home is always sudden, always a shock and always a tragedy.

An aircraft that can’t find an airport for landing, a doe searching in vain for a watering place in the desert or a man who has lost his memory in the middle of the metropolis – an endless stream of literary cliches could not reflect one hundredth of the horror and confusion that you feel after being left far from home without friends and family, without comfort and security.

We lost our home in Belarus involuntarily, without imagining that it could happen to us. The presidential elections in Belarus in 2010 resulted in thousands of arrests, long-term jail sentences, and hundreds of socially-active people fleeing persecution just for demanding one thing: respect for their rights. That is how the creators of Belarus Free Theatre ended up in exile.

Regaining a home doesn’t start with a space to live in, it begins with people. It begins with someone suddenly appearing next to you and asking one very simple but very important question: “How can I help?”


The film Connection……is a metaphor for our story. It is about how we as members of the troupe bridged the psychological gap between two societies; how we attempted to accept the fact that we were persecuted in one and celebrated in another. Jude Law, who co-stars in the film, supported us even before we escaped from Belarus. He performed in a Belarus Free Theatre production at the Young Vic a month before the ill-fated presidential elections of 2010. The theatre welcomed us with open arms, and Belarus Free Theatre soon began to show its performances there. It is no accident that the Young Vic became our London home: it’s an open, freedom-loving theatre, that listens keenly to others, with an acute sensitivity to theatrical innovation and freedom of creative expression. Belarus Free Theatre continues to show its performances underground in Minsk, but London is our second home, the place where our performances can be shown on some of the very best stages.

Jude was one of the first people to ask “How can I help?” and soon his voice was joined by Tom Stoppard, Irina Bogdanova, David Lan, Michael Attenborough, Kevin Spacey, Albina Kovaleva, Alison Stanley, Sigrid Rousing, James Bierman, Sam West, Laura Wade, Alexandra Wood, Joe Corré, Olga Proctor, Dominic Dromgoole, Joanna Lumley – first dozens then hundreds of people, famous and not so famous, influential and not so influential, wealthy and not so wealthy. Every single one of these people asked that crucial question and helped to create the foundation from which we began to build a new home.

Be assured, we are not complaining about our fate, nor are we looking for sympathy. We are strong. We want to work, to tell stories, to build and develop creative projects. Connection is not only a metaphor for regaining a new home, but a sign of communication between people coming together with the desire to create and collaborate; strengthening each other’s voice.

Incredible strength! If you want to get an idea of what it was like for BFT before being forced to flee, take a look at this work here by Alessandro Vincenzi, an italian photographer who charted their work and lives.