Two audio recording shares today. Firstly an interview, courtesy of Theatre Voice, by theatre critic Matt Trueman with verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe (and director Joe Hill-Gibbon) about her play Little Revolution. Performed earlier this year and receiving very polarised reviews, it explores the 2011 London riots. The interview gives a fascinating insight into the processes of writing and staging verbatim theatre. Blythe also writes about her approaches in The Telegraph, It looked a bit hairy. But I had to go.Interestingly, the same newspaper also gave Little Revolution one of it’s best reviews, calling it Absolutely Compelling.Truman’s own review of the play is a little more interrogating.
The second share, and not wholly unconnected, is an interview with writer and theatre maker Stella Duffy (and others) about the life of theatrical maverick Joan Littlewood, whose centenary has been marked this year by many events, not least the Fun Palace initiative, started by Duffy herself. Again a great listen about a woman who made theatre differently.
Today, I want to share a thought-provoking video. It is a panel discussion from the Royal Court Theatre in London entitled Can Theatre Ever Be Green. Part of a larger Day of Action on climate change, the theatre’s spaces, including the stage, the bar and the bookshop, were taken over by climatologists, environmentalists and other experts exploring how we might fight climate change as artists, audiences and human beings. This is connected with the performance of 2071 which I wrote about in my recent post Willing To Speak Truth To Power. In the discussion, the panel analyse the responsibility to climate change in their work and discuss more environmentally friendly ways of producing theatre.
The speakers are Natalie Abrahami (Theatre Director), Natasha Chivers (Lighting Designer), Alison Tickell (CEO, Julie’s Bicycle) Ben Todd (Executive Director, Arcola Theatre) and Paul Handley (Production Manager, Chair).
Give it a view. As theatre makers, it will really make you think.
A super new resource, The Black Plays Archivehas just been launched in the UK. Curation started in 2009 and the aim is for it to be an online catalogue of the first professional production of every African, Caribbean and Black British play ever produced in Britain. It was born out of an idea by playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and involves a considerable number of institutions from across the UK, with the National Theatre being the primary partner.
It contains Essays that can be read online or downloaded, Interviews (both video and audio) and recorded Play Extracts, either from their original staging or specifically recorded for the archive.
The plays are drawn from around the world by playwrights with an African or Caribbean heritage. Once complete the archive will be an incredible resource of black theatre writing. However, it is wider than that and includes interviews with directors, academics and practitioners that cover the whole spectrum of theatre making. For instance there is an essay from Dr Michael Pearce (academic, theatre director and native of Zimbabwe), Tracing Black America in black British theatre, which explores the rise of the Black Power movement in the US in 1970’s and how this was manifested in British theatre. This is a truly extraordinary and unique project and well worth an explore.
A quick but superb share today, especially if you have an interest in world theatre forms. Discovered by a student of mine, Tsz Yu, while she was doing some research into movement and gesture of Japanese Noh actors. A new site, The Noh.com is a superb english language resource. There are a few other online sources out there, but they tend to be quite brief in their content aimed at a tourist market, rather than a resource for students. Noh.com is an evolving site with new material being added all the time. In the Trivia section you can ask, and expect an answer to any Noh related queries. The Play section is a real gift, as it contains a database of over 200 Noh plays, translated into english (shown alongside the Japanese text) which can de downloaded as PDF files.
One of the better other online sources is from the Japanese Arts Council which has revamped its website and it is now much more accessible to non-Japanese speakers, including the process of booking tickets, should you find yourself in the country. They have three introductory guides available on the site:
These are great beginners guides if you are a novice in the main three traditional theatre forms. There is also a fantastic playlist on Youtube that has over 50 videos about these theatre forms, from documentaries to traditional music to recordings of performances. A veritable feast of all things Japanese Theatre.
Three articles published over the course of the last week, by The Guardian UK, have caught my attention. The first, a review by veteran theatre critic Michael Billington, about a ‘play’ called 2071. I use the inverted commas advisedly at this point, as the piece has one actor, a scientist called Chris Rapley, who spends 70 minutes talking to the audience about climate change. Some might, and indeed have, called it a lecture, nothing more.
Some will argue this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays. And Katie Mitchell, who directed both this show and Ten Billion, realises that the eye needs to be satisfied as well as the ear. Rapley sits in a chair and, without notes, talks to the audience with an astonishing calm and command of facts for 75 minutes. Meanwhile Chloe Lamford’s design presents us with swirling video images behind him that illustrate Rapley’s arguments and have a strange beauty of their own.
The play is being staged at The Royal Court in London under the directorship of Katie Mitchell, who did a similar staging two years ago with a piece entitled Ten Billion where scientist Stephen Emmott (below) spoke about global over-population and its consequences. In fact Ten Billion was given the number 10 spot in the best plays of the year, according to one newspaper.
In this podcast from the Royal Court Duncan Macmillan (co-writer), Mitchell (director) and Rapley (speaking as scientist, co-writer and performer) talk to literary manager Christopher Campbell about the play.
I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether the classification as theatre is a correct one. Mitchell and Macmillan talk further, in the second of the articles I referred to earlier, about their reasons and the processes behind verbatim theatre of this kind. Climate change play 2071 aims to make data dramaticis written by Stephanie Merritt:
“As a dramatist, I’m interested in working with text in a different way,” Macmillan explains, when I meet them during a break in rehearsals at their south London studio. “There was the formal challenge of how to express Chris’s science, and what we could bring to him as theatre-makers – not just with a different audience for those issues, but in terms of technique and how to structure the material. For example, if Chris is writing a scientific paper or delivering an academic lecture, the convention is that you begin with your finding and go on to explain it. But that’s like Hamlet avenging his father’s death in the first five minutes. The simultaneous challenge we’ve had is how to take the anger and emotion out of the issue and at the same time make the data dramatically compelling to listen to.”
The subject matter is undoubtedly emotive, but more so political and therefore ripe for the theatre – even if it is a difficult subject to stage.
I am sure that it is no coincidence that on the same day Billington’s review for 2017 was published, he also wrote a rallying piece entitled Speaking truth to power: this is the rebirth of political theatre in which he talks about the resurgence of political theatre on the British stage at the moment, 2017 included. You can read the article yourself, but I’ll finish this post with his final paragraph which says much about the theatre I was brought up with, educated by and in which I believe passionately.
It is also something that seems part of our native bloodstream. Some years ago I was invited to take part in an international discussion of political theatre organised by the British Council in Santiago. After I had talked about the British theatre’s oppositional tradition, two French delegates treated my remarks with polite condescension. They observed that someone had recently staged a play in Paris about President Bush but that it had excited little interest. As we talked, I realised we were arguing from different premises. For my French colleagues, theatre was primarily an aesthetic discipline and something apart from life. From my entrenched Anglo-Saxon perspective, it was a vital part of life; and that inevitably embraces politics. I remain convinced to this day that among British theatre’s greatest strengths are its readiness to put our society under the microscope and its willingness to speak truth to power.
I wanted to share a short video today, an excerpt taken from a piece called Nowhere by Greek experimental theatre director, choreographer and visual artist Dimitris Papaioannou, (who incidentally was the creative director for the Athens Olympics in 2004). Nowhereis dedicated to Pina Bausch and was created to inaugurate the new main stage at the Greek National Theatre.
To quote the theatre’s website:
Nowhere is a work about the physical space of the theatrical stage. Constantly changing and defined by the men and women that inhabit it, it can be countless different places while designed to be nowhere at all.
The scene I’m sharing contains nudity, so be warned, but the reason it caught my attention will be obvious when you watch it. Simply stunning.
Known as the body mechanic system, it was used by Akram Khan in his piece Dust, part of a large work called Lest We Forget for the English National Ballet. Khan credited Papaioannou in the programme for the idea:
I have a feeling it might be making an appearance in some of my students’ work, minus the nudity I hope, given their reaction to it.
The latest piece from internationally renowned physical theatre company DV8 has just opened at the National Theatre in London, following a premier earlier in the year at the Vienna International Dance Festival. The company is almost 30 years old, yet the work they continue to produce is still be considered cutting edge. To define them precisely in terms of genre is a difficult – they work in a mixture of dance and physical theatre as well as verbatim theatre, and usually all done with a dark sense of humour. Of course over time their ‘style’ has evolved and of late has become much more speech driven. Lloyd Newson, the co-founder and leader of the company said in a recent interview:
I could never understand the discrepancy of dancers yakking away in the wings, then pretending to be mute the minute they stepped out on stage,” Newson says. “A friend and former colleague of mine, Nigel Charnock, once said: ‘Whenever I’m dancing, inside my head, I’m talking to myself the whole time’.”
The new work, eponymously entitled John, is again a verbatim piece, created using interviews conducted by Newson with more than 50 men asking them frank questions about love and sex. To quote their publicity:
One of those men was John. What emerged was a story that is both extraordinary and touching. Years of crime, drug use and struggling to survive lead John on a search where his life converges with others in an unexpected place, unknown by most. JOHN authentically depicts real-life stories, where movement and spoken word combine to create an intense, moving and poignant theatrical experience.
This is a man who has talked of dance as “the Prozac of the artforms”, for what he sees as its vacuous, anaesthetising beauty; he sums up his own approach as “if people don’t understand what’s being said physically, I’m not interested”
Yesterday, the BBC Front Row programme interviewed Newson about the creative process behind the work:
Too early for the english language reviews to be out, but Twitter has been alive with fulsome praise:
John is will be on a national tour when done in London, but is sure to be heading off across the globe soon. I do hope so, anyway.
Since writing this post, the reviews are in for John. Almost without exception, they are praiseworthy and talk fulsomely about Newson’s work. The London Evening Standard sums up the piece thus:
John is a powerful and absorbing piece full of innovative visual touches but there’s a question over the bisected nature of the narrative and the sudden switch of tone, the new cast of characters, the move into (scatological) comedy.
Yet it works because there are themes that thread all the way through: the search for something, be it escape, obliteration, sensation, intimacy or love — at whatever cost
Obviously confronting in many ways, John has clearly made an impact. There is one review however, that had me whooping with laughter. Written by Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail, a right-wing, ‘hang ’em high’ and ‘send the immigrants home’ rag published in the UK, screamed with the fabulous headline A National DISGRACE: Sleazy. Amoral. And paid for by you!I think Letts might be missing the point, don’t you?