A Quiet Mind

This week I have watched 9 new pieces of theatre, as part of the exam season in my school. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful and prescient young peoples’ theatre can be and this week was no exception. A friend of mine (and ex student who did the same examination almost 20 years ago) commented that the real strength of a devised performance exam is that it

isn’t a recollection of prescribed ideas but in many ways a reflection of a group of young people’s interpretations of their surroundings expressed through [drama] techniques, skills and knowledge…

This is so true and why a drama education has so much value beyond the performance skills taught. My Grade 11 students tackled a range of issues from the Palestine/Israeli conflict to autism and it is the latter that led me to the focus of my post today.

The piece was inspired initially by this interview with Robin Blamires on the BBC World Service Outlook strand:

and the podcast, Inside The Mind Of A Hypomanic created by him.

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Blamires is autistic and has suffered with hypomania and bi-polar disorder. His podcast explores what it feels like to go through a manic episode.

WAAD2014_FotorThe piece my students created was called A Quiet Mind and drew on verbatim interviews with those on the autistic spectrum, poetry, soundscape, physical theatre and Butoh.  It simply created the world of someone with Aspergers and allowed the audience to experience that viscerally.  It moved many to tears. It is now being re-staged next week as part of an awareness campaign for World Autism Awareness Day. It was an amazing piece of theatre and really got me thinking about how in theatre we represent mental illnesses and disorders. In some societies, mental illness remains an unspoken subject, almost taboo. Representing what such illnesses are really like for the sufferer is difficult and we often end up with stereotypes or simply exploring the worlds of the people around the person, not the person them self.

There are a good many plays that have characters who are clearly suffering a mental illness, amongst the best are Find Meby Olwen Wymark and 4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. But even in the former the narrative tends to be led and experienced by those around Verity, the central character, rather than by her own direct experience.

In a fascinating article for Everything Theatre, Dr Rachel Proctor argues that:

theatre has an opportunity and a responsibility to educate us about the realities of mental illness, not simply increase our misunderstanding and paranoia.

Proctor’s stance is clear – the portrayal of mental illness on stage is not done well, often touching on stereotypes and lacking true insight. She concludes, asking:

Am I criticising the portrayals? How can I – writers, directors and actors have a right to put on stage anything they want……. but what I would argue is that there is a responsibility for some accuracy in a topic so grossly misunderstood. Mental illness scares us – whether through lack of understanding or fear of it in ourselves. Theatre is a powerful educative tool, and I believe it has a place – and indeed a responsibility – to educate us on this topic.

A recent very successful adaptation and staging of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time could be viewed as pushing mental disorder in to the theatre mainstream. In this case the narrative is driven from the perspective of the lead character, school boy Christopher. You are led to assume that he is autistic, although this is never stated in either the novel or its adaptation.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Yet the reality is, and back to Dr Proctor’s point here, there are precious few examples of plays that deal with mental illness honestly, realistically and allow the audience to truly understand what it means to be a sufferer. However, and is often the case when I decide to write something specific for Theatre Room, two examples of what I was really looking for popped up in my Twitter feed.

Firstly, a play called The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland by London-based company Ridiculusmus. The play is inspired by a treatment method for psychosis that has virtually led to, as the title suggests, the eradication of schizophrenia in Western Lapland. It is described here as a startling piece of work by Maddy Costa for The Guardian and here as dense and audacious by Stewart Pringle for Exeuent. Not unlike my students’ work, it immerses that the audience in the world of the suffer. Interestingly, the play was commissioned for the SICK! Festival in the UK, which is a new festival exploring the medical, mental and social challenges of life and death and how we survive them (or don’t).

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland by Ridiculusmus. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland by Ridiculusmus. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The second play, Head Hand Head by Laura Jane Dean is a solo show written and performed by her, drawing on her experiences of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In her review for Exeuent here, Alice Savill says that being trapped in Laura’s perspective feels almost dangerous; her explanations of her fears seems so rational, their results so irrational. Whilst in A Younger Theatre here, Devawn Wilkinson says that it is quietly devastating and that it blazes with honesty. 

Head Hand Head

Head Hand Head

Interestingly, and by way of wrapping up, as I was doing the research for this post, I was reminded of a theatre company, Stepping Out,  who have been creating theatre about mental health issues for almost 20 years. Their work is multifaceted. Not only do they make theatre about metal health issues, they also use it as therapy for sufferers. I also came across an organisation in Australia called Mindframe Stage & Screen whose purpose, amongst other things, is to provide research and sources to writers dealing in such illnesses as well as ensuring that

Depictions of mental illness are based on accurate information, challenge stereotypes and myths about mental illness and encourage people with mental health problems to seek help.

This final quote helps me make my final assertion too. As I said at the beginning, mental health issues are often hidden away, seen as taboo. Theatre has a duty to explore the human condition and by doing so help people understand themselves and each other – and in this context help themselves and each other.

Post Script.

I should say I have made a purposeful point of not mentioning plays where it could be  assumed that a character is suffering from a mental illness of one kind or another – think Hamlet, Lear, Medea, Blanch DuBois and so on – as they are merely projections by a director or actor in search of meaning and truth that probably never existed in the playwrights mind to begin with. Also, there are terrific works like Blue Orange by Joe Penhall which treat mental illness sensitively and in context, but use them really as a way to drive a broader narrative.

Blue Orange

Blue Orange

The Spirit Of Performance

Traditional chinese opera maskAlongside World Theatre Day, Theatre Room Asia is also celebrating. Today it has taken a new domain name, theatreroomasia.com  (although the old ibreadingroom address will continue to direct you here). Also today, Theatre Room is likely to pass it’s 10,000 view mark, which I find both thrilling and extraordinary. When I began, it was a meant to be a curated resource for my senior theatre students and indeed it still is. However it is now viewed across the world –  114 countries to date – and has a growing readership. It delights and encourages me that there is a need out there for something like Theatre Room and despite all the threats that theatre and performance face, be they economic, cultural, political or ideological, there is still a need to make theatre and reflect our humanity within that. South African playwright (and designer, director, installation maker and artistic director) Brett Bailey wrote the  Message of World Theatre Day 2014. His opening statement says it all, whilst his closing question is a challenge to every single student, teacher and practitioner of theatre across the globe.

Wherever there is human society, the irrepressible Spirit of Performance manifests.

Under trees in tiny villages, and on high-tech stages in global metropolis; in school halls and in fields and in temples; in slums, in urban plazas, community centres and inner-city basements, people are drawn together to commune in the ephemeral theatrical worlds that we create to express our human complexity, our diversity, our vulnerability, in living flesh, and breath, and voice.

We gather to weep and to remember; to laugh and to contemplate; to learn and to affirm and to imagine. To wonder at technical dexterity, and to incarnate gods. To catch our collective breath at our capacity for beauty and compassion and monstrosity. We come to be energized, and to be empowered. To celebrate the wealth of our various cultures, and to dissolve the boundaries that divide us.

Wherever there is human society, the irrepressible Spirit of Performance manifests. Born of community, it wears the masks and the costumes of our varied traditions. It harnesses our languages and rhythms and gestures, and clears a space in our midst.

Brett Bailey

Brett Bailey

And we, the artists that work with this ancient spirit, feel compelled to channel it through our hearts, our ideas and our bodies to reveal our realities in all their mundanity and glittering mystery.

But, in this era in which so many millions are struggling to survive, are suffering under oppressive regimes and predatory capitalism, are fleeing conflict and hardship; in which our privacy is invaded by secret services and our words are censored by intrusive governments; in which forests are being annihilated, species exterminated, and oceans poisoned: what do we feel compelled to reveal?

In this world of unequal power, in which various hegemonic orders try to convince us that one nation, one race, one gender, one sexual preference, one religion, one ideology, one cultural framework is superior to all others, is it really defensible to insist that the arts should be unshackled from social agendas?

Are we, the artists of arenas and stages, conforming to the sanitized demands of the market, or seizing the power that we have: to clear a space in the hearts and minds of society, to gather people around us, to inspire, enchant and inform, and to create a world of hope and open-hearted collaboration?

Left Foot Forward

bec7cf1f76a3df6efdf60f12fcd545f2_FotorMy post last week about theatre and (geo)politics, A Rocky Road, has caused some interesting discussion in my department.  Today I would like to add another dimension to that debate by sharing an article by Holly Williams, for The independent. 2014 sees the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War, especially in Europe and Australasia. Over the course of the last year, there has been much polemic surrounding the nature of the commemorations, with many fearing, in the UK at least, that these commemorations could descend into jingoistic, flag waving events, rather than reflective experiences that explore the atrocity and human tragedy that was the First World War. Inevitably, the debate has largely split along the political divide, with even a government minister joining in, accusing British theatre of being left-wing in its portrayal of the events of the war – and this is where Holly Williams begins:

The First World War on stage: Lest we forget… the politics of war drama

At the beginning of Theatre Royal Stratford East’s revival of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 musical Oh! What a Lovely War, a Pierrot clown describes a series of pre-war Bank holiday scenes, while a slide-show projects images of the seaside, bathers and a donkey. Except the “donkey” is the Education Secretary Michael Gove.

It’s apt that this landmark show about the First World War, which took swipes at the ruling classes who made a mess of it, should now laugh at today’s politicians too. And Gove is an easy, and justifiable, target: he made headlines recently by attacking Oh! What a Lovely War [as] perpetuating myths of the Great War as “a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite” and denigrating “patriotism, honour and courage”.

Birdsong

Birdsong

While it’s easy to smirk at the mental image of Gove stamping his foot, his reference to Oh! What a Lovely War reignited the debate about whether British theatre is inherently left wing: it’s hardly the first time it’s been accused of being the preserve of bleeding-heart, right-on liberals. But Gove had better stiffen that upper lip – 2014 sees First World War centenary events across all art forms, with theatre addressing the topic with particular vim.

The charge has already begun: Northern Broadsides are touring An August Bank Holiday Lark, about boys from a Lancashire village going to fight in the Gallipoli campaign, while the aforementioned  Oh! What a Lovely War is a huge sell-out at its original east London home. There are adaptations of books: a version of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong is on tour now, Pat Barker’s Regeneration arrives on stage at the Royal & Derngate in September, while a one-man play of Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun opens at the Southwark Playhouse in May. The National Theatre revives the rarely performed anti-war 1928 play The Silver Tassie in April, and there’s new writing too: Peter Gill’s Versailles is about to open at the Donmar, while in the autumn Shakespeare’s Globe stages Howard Brenton’s Doctor Scroggy’s War and the RSC has The Christmas Truce, a family play by Phil Porter.

These offer a vast array of different angles, from the impact of war on a rural community (An August Bank Holiday Lark) to the inner life of a man who had his limbs and face blown off (Johnny Got His Gun). Meanwhile, their protagonists range from officers in the trenches to civil servants in the corridors of power and the women who stayed behind. To assume that playwrights are wielding their pens like righteous political axes is simplistic, to say the least.

Rebecca Howell, Caroline Quentin, Alice Bailey Johnson and Zoe Rainey in Oh What A Lovely War

Oh What A Lovely War

And few within the industry have anything positive to say about Gove’s comments. “I thought it was unfortunate, unpatriotic, appealing to the worst side the country,” says the venerable Gill, who is also directing Versailles. “But mainly silly, and a bit embarrassing, frankly. Does he think we’re a fan of the Kaiser? It’s just childish!”

His play is set in the aftermath of war and centres on a young man sent among the British delegation to draw up the Treaty of Versailles; both in Paris, and at his family home in Kent, debate rages about the future of Europe.

And while Gill witheringly refutes the notion that British theatre is inherently left wing – “the National is hardly Trotskyite, is it?” – he does suggest that the stage is the ideal forum for ideological debate. “The Greeks showed us it is the perfect democratic instrument. It’s live and, unlike film, it’s not quite so able to manipulate. It’s the perfect dialectical [form] – I’m sounding like a communist now! – but it’s a perfect instrument for all kinds of things, and one of them is certainly airing [political debate].”

Versailles

Versailles

David Mercatali, directing the UK premiere of Johnny Got His Gun, suggests politics are a natural by-product of drama’s primary concern: the story. “There is nothing to say that politics needs to drive any medium, but I think that many people in theatre are looking to go beneath the presentation of history. If, in looking at those human stories, people feel a left-wing bias starts to come out, I don’t think there’s a lot we can do about that.”

He did, however, choose to stage Smith’s self-evidently anti-war monologue this year as a riposte to the misty-eyed patriotism that will also be sloshing about. “We have to be really careful about glorifying it. I actually think people try to protect the presentation of the First World War – it’s important that we expose the shortcomings behind it as well.”

An August Bank Holiday Lark

An August Bank Holiday Lark

Deborah McAndrew’s An August Bank Holiday Lark is winning rave reviews. But the playwright doesn’t see her role as political adjudicator. “Real historical analysis is probably not the job of a play, she says, “I’m a storyteller, I was looking for a story.”

However when she discusses Gallipoli, she can’t help but become angry. “If I was making any little political point it was that I felt young men’s lives were disregarded. And there was gross incompetence – Gallipoli was a disaster. There’s no way of spinning it. They were trying to invade Turkey, a whole country – the sheer numbers would tell you that was doomed to fail.” Which, really, is no “little” point.

Rachel Wagstaff, who adapted Birdsong for the West End in 2010 and rewrote it further for its current tour, echoes McAndrew: “I don’t think the job of a playwright is to teach history; it’s to tell stories.” But, she adds, writing is also an imaginative attempt to understand history and humanity. “How can we have allowed the situation to develop where, for example, in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 [British troops] were killed? How can that ever be justified? As a playwright you’re trying to illuminate and question what it is to be human.”

Her show stages such battles – a logistical challenge that the production rises to with evocative use of lights, smoke and sound. And Wagstaff points out that theatre can be uniquely powerful in conveying the physical horror of war: “When it’s a real human being in front of you in that moment, I find that so much more affecting than on film or TV.”

Jonny Got His Gun

Johnny Got His Gun

Not that Birdsong isn’t also patriotic: Wagstaff says it also captures “the British spirit, that dark sense of humour” through its portrayal of the bravely upbeat Tommies in the trenches. “You have to show the events and honour them, and allow people to feel the horror,” says Wagstaff, “but on the other hand, you can’t have people sitting there for two hours just feeling sick, revolted, distressed and disturbed!”

Many of the plays being staged in 2014 do, then, question the decisions made before, during and after the war. Such harrowing source material naturally often lends itself to troubled – and sometimes explicitly anti-war – interpretations. But, despite what our Education Secretary might fear, they are also complex and humane in their interrogation, rather than limitedly “left wing”. “Isn’t it brilliant that people are having this debate?” says Wagstaff, injecting a note of positivity into the whole Govian furore, before concluding: “We must never allow such suffering to happen again, so it’s really important that we commemorate, and remember, and we tell our children. It’s more important than ever.”

I make no apologies for posting an article that is very UK-centric. I know similar debates are had right around the world about how politics and theatre collide, and that theatre makers are viewed as inherently left wing in their views. I think Williams’ word will have resonances everywhere. The politician Michael Gove is held in huge contempt for his ideology by the left leaning middle-class in the UK,  and for transparency’s sake I have to say I am in total agreement with them. I’d be interested to hear if a similar debate about theatre and the commemoration of the War is taking place elsewhere with such political overtones.

I want to finish with two other pieces of writing by theatre critic Michael Billington, both for The Guardian. Firstly, Oh What a Lovely War: the show that shook Britain which explores the impact of the original production in 1963 both on British understanding of the war and on theatre making more widely. Then, secondly, his review of the latest production of Oh What A Lovely War that has just been staged at the original venue of the ’63 production, Theatre Royal Stratford East. This latest staging formed part of the 50th anniversary of the play’s original staging as well as part of the centenary of the First World War.

Exits, Pursued By A Bear

When I was a child, we had something called ‘wall charts’ that normally came free with weekend newspapers, and that covered every topic imaginable.  Today’s version of these are ‘info graphics’ and very often still created by the now online print media. Today I have two infographics to share, the first of which has been doing the rounds on social media for a while, but worth a look if you haven’t seen it. A great little aide memoir to all things death in Shakespearian tragedy. Following on from my last post, I’m guessing Kin Jong-Un hasn’t seen it.

BhLC9dlCcAA6eTlCourtesy of Cam Magee and Caitlin S Griffin

The second is one I stumbled across from goodreads.com which is rather amusing in it’s own way:

1366703200-1366703200_goodreads_misc

A Rocky Road

normal-2Perhaps more that any other art form, theatre is a political beast. It has to be, it is about the human condition.  Whether it is the content that is political, or the mere act of staging something in a certain place, politics is never very far away. In democracies that have a left leaning government, theatre usually thrives and is supported by the state as a forum for discussion and debate. In those that lean to the right, theatre making shrinks as state funding is usually withdrawn or cut, being viewed as subversive and unnecessary. What the right have yet to work out is that their attempts at suppression only forces theatre makers to shout louder. More extreme governments hijack theatre as propaganda and/or ban work that doesn’t support ‘the cause’. Now of course these are generalisations, but without doubt there is some truth in them.

This week there have a few rumblings of discontent about the forth-coming world tour of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre, which I wrote about in July last year, Going Global. The theatre announced that in their attempt to visit every country in the world, North Korea was on the itinerary for September this year. This immediately drew criticism from Amnesty  and Human Rights Watch. Niall Couper from Amnesty said:

North Korea is a country where the horrors inflicted on people who fall out of favour are worse than any fiction….No tragic play can come close to the misery that 100,000 people trapped in the country’s prison camps endure, where torture, rape, starvation and execution are everyday occurrences.

normalTo be fair, Amnesty didn’t suggest that the theatre should boycott North Korea, but urged the company to read up on its human rights abuses first. Meanwhile Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch (Asia) commented that exclusion would be the order of the day if the performance went ahead:

It’s going to be an extremely limited, elite audience that would see a production in any case. It would have to be in Pyongyang, which is a showcase city whose residents are selected to live there because they have shown their loyalty, so there’s a strict pre-selection process involved right from the off.

Many commentators have of course noted the sinister connection between Prince Hamlet’s murderous revenge on his uncle Claudius in the Shakespearean tragedy and recent events in North Korea. As a report from CNN said

The parallels of staging a drama about an epic family power struggle in Pyongyang, where the country’s young leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek executed has raised a few eyebrows…..Jang was considered instrumental in Kim’s rise to power, but Kim turned his back on his uncle in spectacular fashion late last year as Jang was branded “a traitor for all ages” and executed on charges that he had attempted to overthrow the government.

Phil Robertson drily noted that

When the North Korean leadership gets around to reading the plot of Hamlet, one imagines they might well insist on something else from the canon

hamlet_hedingham_Fotor

The story has made international news, from Bangkok and South Korea, to Germany and the US.  I suppose this says a lot about how well regarded the Globe is around the world. However, it is politicking that is driving the story. Not surprisingly, the Globe hit back issuing a statement that, amongst other things, said:

We have decided that every country means every country, since we believe that every country is better off for the presence of Hamlet. Shakespeare can entertain and speak to anyone, no matter where in the world they are. We have always believed that cultural communication, and different peoples talking to each other through art, is a force for good in the world. In every country, we are going for one single and simple purpose: to play Hamlet there.

We are very proud of our record of working with a selection of NGOs over the years – Amnesty themselves, PEN, Reprieve and Human Rights Watch. We have raised money for their operations, provided space for them, and felt their influence in many of our productions and the new plays we have performed. In that light, we were disappointed that Amnesty put out a quote about our touring without realizing that it was a world tour, but under the impression that it was going solely to one country.

I take their point, but I do wonder whether this is a wise move, as it could be seen as a potential endorsement of the brutal North Korean regime. There is something to be said for cultural diplomacy, but as the USA News points out, it can go too far. On the other hand, Mark Lawson writing in the Guardian, Is there something rotten in taking Hamlet to North Korea? argues that theatre does not always legitimise its hosts and can be a weapon against oppression. If the Globe were to avoid all repressive regimes, their World Tour simply wouldn’t be.

I’ll leave the final word to Couper and Amnesty who noted that

There’s a dark irony in the fact that Hamlet focuses on a prince wrestling with his conscience. Kim Jong-Un is no Hamlet. Sadly he shows no sign of wrestling with his conscience.

 

Provisional routing of the tour

Provisional routing of the tour

Bit Between The Teeth

Last week I went to the theatre with a group of students. Nothing unusual in that of course. However, it was one of those occasions where my expectations were wildly off the mark. As I have said previously, it is International Arts Festival time in Hong Kong and when I book tickets for my students, I always try to book a range of performances – something to challenge, something from a world theatre perspective, some dance theatre and something to entertain. I think its important that my students understand that theatre is a ‘broad church’ and my want to book a piece that is a little ‘lighter’, shall we say, is part of encouraging life long learning.

Rob-Drummond-Volunteer-opening-520x327My ‘lighter’ choice this year was a piece called Bullet Catch, a solo performance by Rob Drummond, was described thus:

A stunt so dangerous Houdini refused to attempt it, the Bullet Catch has claimed the lives of at least 12 illusionists, assistants and spectators since its conception in 1613. Drawing help from his daring live audience, modern-day marvel (William Wonder) presents a unique theatrical magic show featuring storytelling, mind reading, levitation, games of chance and, if you are brave enough to stay for it, the most notorious finale in show business.

You can see why I might book it. However, this description barely touches on what the piece is really about or the depth of the intellectual and visceral responses it provokes. What I actually ended up seeing was one of the most engaging pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time and one that has caused endless discussion between teaching colleagues and students from all grades. The piece plays with theatrical form in such a way that it leaves you with endless questions about what you have just witnessed. It is about illusion and reality. It is about free will, trust and connections. To use a modern idiom, it messes with your head. One critic said

it is…..painfully honest about the choices we make and the way we stare despair in the face while pretending we are OK.

It is beautifully and cleverly manipulative of the audience and dramatic tension – you are never sure what is truth, as it plays with content and form. All in all it is deeply unsettling and the better for it as a piece of contemporary theatre – not surprisingly it won a Total Theatre Award when first performed.

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Bullet Catch has played in the UK, America, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and now, Hong Kong. The critics have been almost universal in their praise and I think largely so because of the fierce intelligence that is clearly behind the theatre making. It is as much an exploration of dramatic form and how theatre ‘works’  as it is the telling of a story. It plays with your suspension of disbelief in an almost cruel way – although in hindsight and after considerable thought I am astounded at the deftness with which Drummond (as writer, performer and co-director) has done this.

A review of one of its original performances by Lyn Garnder for The Guardian gave the piece a highly praised 4 star rating:

“This isn’t magic; it’s a conversation,” says Rob Drummond in this remarkable, multilayered and utterly gripping show inspired by the infamous bullet-catch trick. It’s remarkable for several reasons, not least for the levels of tension it invokes as it heads towards a climax in which Drummond persuades a member of the audience to shoot him.

I’m giving nothing away by telling you this is a piece that plays, with swaggering confidence, with the nature of truth and illusion, invoking Harry Houdini and claiming to be inspired by the real-life case of William Henderson – apparently killed while undertaking the trick in 1912 in front of 2,000 people. Was it an accident or did something more sinister take place when a labourer with no history of violence was grabbed from the audience and invited to pull the trigger?

BulletCatch4web

It is also remarkable because while it revels in sleight of hand and celebrates the magic of theatre, it is also painfully honest about the choices we make and the way we stare despair in the face while pretending we are OK.

Drummond is both measured and infinitely vulnerable and, in a way that reminds me of theatremaker Tim Crouch, he introduces an element of dangerous uncertainty into the show by inviting a member of the audience to play a major role. “It couldn’t have happened any other way,” are almost his final words, but Drummond marries form and content to prove that it’s a lie.

One of my graduating students was appalled that we were actually being asked to wait to watch another human being shot at, which was a view expressed by Sarah Hemming in her review of the show for The Financial Times. Hemming describes the magic trick itself  as:

……a launch-pad for a gripping, terrifying inquiry into free will

At the very end, Drummond and his co-opted member of the audience re-enact the Bullet Catch and this is where Drummond works yet more of his real magic – that of absolute psychological (and theatrical) manipulation. We know that it is just a trick, an illusion about to be acted out in front of us – it couldn’t possibly be anything else in a risk-averse 21st Century. Yet when the audience are offered the opportunity to leave before it takes place, some do. Of course there are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Like my student, the prospect of one man holding a gun and aiming at another is just wrong on many levels. Equally, despite the fact we know that it is fiction, we cannot quite manage to suspend our disbelief and the anxiety is just too much.

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9478c756-cd60-4928-90fd-b4971df84a1b-460x276I am still not clear if I have been able to give a full enough description about why I feel this piece is a unique theatrical event, but  if it tours near you I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending you going to see it – even if you have to leave before the end.

No Longer A Refugee #2

In January I wrote a post, No Longer A Refugee, about a group of women refugees who had fled the vicious civil war in their homeland Syria and were involved in the staging of a production of the Greek Tragedy, The Trojan Women. As I was driving to work today I listened to another thought-provoking programme about the project, which was broadcast by the BBC World Service, as part of their Outlook strand. If the January post struck a chord with you, I certainly recommend a listen to the Outlook podcast below:

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Moods and Doodles

As a practitioner of theatre I have always created work in pictures first – both with the actors and with the set. A couple of years ago a visual art colleague watching some site-specific work I had created commented, with some surprise, that we clearly both worked in the same way, driven by a visual aesthetic. Obviously this is only one part of the creative process involved in making theatre, but is one I love –  in another life I think I would have liked to be a set designer.

I was intrigued to read, therefore, in an occasional series in The Guardian, an interview by Georgie Bradley with Colin Richmond, a UK-based theatre designer entitled How do I become … a set designer

How do I become … a set designer

Good communication skills, an ability to network and willingness to start out making the tea have got Colin Richmond a long way

Colin Richmond conjured up fantastical uses for pegs when he was a child. His carpenter father would make miniature theatre sets out of leftover wood while Richmond covered pegs in “Borrower”-sized clothes.

'You have to keep emailing and creating worlds,' says Colin Richmond, 'get ideas on paper even if you don't have work.'

‘You have to keep emailing and creating worlds,’ says Colin Richmond, ‘get ideas on paper even if you don’t have work.’

“I loved going to the theatre for a bit of escapism. After I had seen Starlight Express I came home and made a model version of the set from memory,” says Richmond. He also recreated Gotham City at the age of eight.

Richmond, 32, from Ballymoney in Northern Ireland, wanted to be an actor. He had a string of school production credits to his name when he was cast as a member of the Jets in West Side Story, performing with the Ulster Theatre Company. “The set was this massive scaffold structure and I thought it was interesting how an environment changes you as an actor. And it made me realise this was the part of the process that was so appealing to me,” he says.

Richmond then attended the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama,  where he took a three-year theatre design course. It culminated in a final-year show with all the pressures of a professional production. “It’s a hardcore three years of hardly any days off. It begins with sculpture work and developing the imagination and building up good skills,” he says. “We had a puppetry project to do, which we also performed in to understand the other side of the process. The second and third years are when you specialise in costume or set design.”

After his course, Richmond moved to London to become as an assistant to Bob Crowley, the designer of Mary Poppins and The History Boys, whose main assistant at the time was a friend of Richmond’s head of design at college.

Getting a break through someone you know is common in this line of work, although getting one job does not automatically lead to another. “You have to keep emailing and creating worlds, get ideas and designs on paper even if you’ve not got work. You have to be relentless in knowing who is doing what and where.”

Fresh from college, a designer can expect to be an assistant with tasks including the necessary evils of tea making and photocopying, but perseverance and a bulky portfolio will help you climb the ranks.

Richmond has recently worked on the RSC’s Wendy and Peter Pan, where he designed both the costumes and set. “You’re only contracted up until press night and then you’re free to go.” Walking around the warehouse of a set at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, Tinkerbell’s fairy dust is everywhere, Captain Hook’s ship is being recharged in the wings and the plurality of the show’s scenes are inconspicuously layered.

Richmond believes in challenging the audiences: “Letting the audience use their heads to add to the story is a way to give them that escapism or realism. I’ve seen the most overdesigned sets that left nothing to the imagination. However it does depend on the show.”

Frantic sketches and doodles are part of the designer’s work, but a lack of drawing skills won’t set you back. “References, mood boards and montages are equally as effective,” says Richmond. Up until the set is constructed, the concept goes through different model stages, working at a scale 25 times smaller.

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Good communication skills are vital for a good set designer. They are always feeding back to the director and therefore need to be able to articulate ideas and have strong people skills. “At the end when it all comes into fruition it makes every part of the process worthwhile. The schedules are exhausting but you’ve got to keep doing more because it doesn’t pay well,” says Richmond. “You’re either a prince or a pauper in this industry.”

One of the great things about how large producing theatres now market themselves is that they are ready to promote all aspects of their production process. As a result the design of a play is often shared, along with other key aspects of the production, as the video above of Richmond’s work on the RSC’s Wendy and Pater Pan shows. Here is another, this time of the work of Bunny Christe, the designer of the UK’s National Theatre production of Emil and The Detectives, adapted from the 1929 novel by Erich Kästner.

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The High Priestess

February and March is International Arts Festival time in Hong Kong which draws its repertoire from across the globe. One regular visitor every few of years is Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary and this year they will be performing Iphigenia in Tauris which is one Bausch’s earliest works from 1973.

SPECTACLE: VOLLMONDCHORÉGRAPHE: PINA BAUSCHLIEU: WUPPERTAL - 2006

Vollmund

I love this company’s work and alway take myself and my students when they are in town. Prior to their run here they have been performing in London with another piece, 1980. Their appearance in the UK has generated a number of articles that I thought would be worth sharing here. I’ll start with a comment piece by Lyn Gardner for The Guardian which says everything about the genre and why it works for me and my students, who are invariably enraptured by this style of work.

What’s it all about? In theatre, it’s sometimes best if you don’t know

As Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1980 proves, theatre is at its most potent when it doesn’t offer answers

Somebody once asked the dancer Anna Pavlova what she meant when she was dancing. “If I could tell you that,” she replied, “I wouldn’t dance it.” Theatre’s most thrilling evenings often come cloaked in ambiguity. Too much certainty is embalming in the theatre. It leaves nobody – writer, choreographer, performers, audience – with anything left to discover. I like leaving the theatre feeling as uncertain as when I went in. After all, the world and humanity are too complex and messy to explain easily and tie up in ribbons in a couple of hours.

The performances I most distrust are the ones that tell me emphatically what to think, where the playwright inserts a speech (usually somewhere towards the conclusion so we don’t forget it) that instructs as to what exactly the previous two hours have been about. Sometimes the director does it in an essay in the programme instead. I also distrust those performances that seem simply designed to confirm everything we already know about the world and ourselves. Plays that are “about things” are often really journalism in another guise.

The stage is like the mind itself ... Tanztheater Wuppertal's 1980

The stage is like the mind itself … Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1980

The great Robert Holman once told me that one of the glorious things about writing plays was uncovering in the very act of writing the things that you didn’t know that you knew. With a very good play or an astonishing performance, that can be just as true for the audience too. In the act of listening and watching we suddenly hear a distant chime that reminds us of something we had forgotten or buried; glimpse a ghost version of ourselves; or unexpectedly discover something we didn’t know we knew or felt.

Pina Bausch’s extraordinary and unmissable 1980 – surreal, truthful, mysterious, witty, heart-breaking and painful – is like that. In some ways it is as secretive as an oyster, but it is so emotionally textured and dramaturgically open that the vast stage becomes like a massive mirror of memory, endlessly reflecting our own childhoods, our own griefs and terrifying sense of fragility, and our own ludicrous and absurd way of preening and presenting ourselves to the world in the face of our own mortality. The stage is like the mind itself, sometimes focused and at others surfing wildly. There are interesting things going on all around the edges, as in life. You never quite know where to direct your attention, or where you should look.

The choreographed space between the bodies is as eloquent as the bodies themselves, and the space between stage and audience so fully alive that it invites us to lean forward to hear those chimes and watch those ghosts walk. At the end of three-and-a-half hours, I had no idea at all what it was supposed to mean, but like a frightened child in the dark began to sense and grope towards the light and all the things it meant to me. The show, and the performers, exposed and opened themselves up and invited us to share their uncertainty. In theatre, that’s a rare, brave gift. We should take it when it’s offered.

Also in The Guardian were two other pieces.The first, by Chris Weigand, Performing Pina Bausch’s 1980 – in her dancers’ words, is an interview with three of the performers and the second, ‘She made you feel thrilled to be human’ is by actress Fiona Shaw who saw Bausch’s first London performance.

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Pina Bausch

If you are not familiar with her work (or even if you are) Sanjoy Roy wrote Pina Bausch: clip by clip dance guide for The Guardian, back in 2009, which is definitely worth a read and watch. Some of the original clips referenced in the article have been removed from YouTube, but a little search will find them posted elsewhere on the site.

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Sanjoy Roy

Sanjoy Roy is a prolific writer an all things dance/dance theatre and his own blog Sanjoy Roy Writing On Dance etc is worth a visit on any number of practitioners. I particularly like his Step By Step Guides to famous and iconic choreographers and companies, and his one on Pina Bausch is a great digest of her work.

Tanztheater Wuppertal tour widely across the globe and I thoroughly recommend you go if they come to a theatre near you.

How far that little candle throws his beams!

How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Portia, The Merchant of Venice.

Sydney Opera House at Night Australia Digital Art By mrmGoogle  ‘worlds famous theatres’ and the subsequent list is a mixture of iconic historic opera houses spanning a number of continents, the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and, not surprisingly, The Sydney Opera House. Now I could take issue on many fronts with what is considered to make a theatre famous, not least of all that none of them appear to take into account what actually goes on in inside. Yes, lots of them are works of art in themselves as this list from Huffington Post shows, but I would posit that were you to show these to most people they wouldn’t be able to tell what they are called or where they are. However, I would think a far great number would be able to tell you what and where this theatre is:

Pawel-Libera-Globe-Exterior

Shakespeare’s Globe was opened in 1997 and if you don’t know the history behind the reconstruction you can read that here. The point I am trying to make that since it opened, and for many reasons, it has become iconic throughout the world both for being the building it is AND for what goes on inside it. I’ve seen a play there and it is a truly unique way of watching theatre.  There is something democratic about the relationship between actor, audience and space – especially if it rains mid-performance. What’s more, as reported in The Stage, last year the theatre had a turnover of more that £21million, made a profit of £3.7 million, played to houses of 96% capacity and had a reach of 1 million people through it’s various ventures. Now that is some going for a theatre that started as one man’s, Sam Wanamaker, vision. It was built by raising money through donation and is less that 20 years old. The quote from The Merchant of Venice could well be said of Wanamaker and his vision, but I really intended it as an opening for the real purpose of today’s post.

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In January this year The Globe unveiled another theatre on its site, called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Again built through fundraising, this ‘new’ theatre is another faithful reconstruction, but this time of an indoor, Jacobean theatre, entirely lit by candles. The exterior of the playhouse seems quite innocuous, but the images of the inside are a revelation and the reviews of the the two plays staged in it so far talk with some passion about the theatre-going experience in this new space. There is a great gallery of pictures here, from The Telegraph.

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Much has been written about the Playhouse, not least of all the experience of lighting, acting in and watching a play by candlelight. The Jacobeans used candles made from animal fat, but the Globe have gone for pure beeswax, costing up to £500 per show, all of which are lit by hand before each performance. In a great article for The Guardian, Andrew Dixon give a real flavour of the place, New Globe playhouse draws us inside Shakespeare’s inner space

There is a very evocative and informative report from The Voice of Russia radio here which is fascinating, and talks about the experience as going back to storytelling in its most primitive form:

The Globe has produced a good series of videos about the Playhouse and I am going to put them all here, for ease of reference:

I think they tell a marvellous story. The following video is a collection of interviews with audience members on the opening night of The Duchess Malfi, and you get a real sense of what the experience is like:

There is also a really interesting podcast, courtesy of Theatre Voice, with Farah Karim-Cooper who is Head of Research at The Globe in which she explores indoor performance during the Renaissance and at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse:

There is also a lovely piece called Ten Reasons to get excited about the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, also by Farah Karim-Cooper, published on Blogging Shakespeare.

If you are a regular reader of Theatre Room you will know my relationship with Shakespeare has it’s tensions, but I can only applaud the people behind this project and how it extends our understanding of the history of performance. I will certainly be booking tickets to see whatever is playing next time I find myself in the UK.