Simple. Clever. It speaks for itself. Just watch!
Simple. Clever. It speaks for itself. Just watch!
I have a backlog of bits and pieces I’ve been meaning to share so here goes the first. Veteran theatre maker Peter Brook is still going strong at the age of 91. As the UK’s most influential theatre director of the 20th Century (despite being based in France for many years) Brook’s contribution to theatre is almost unmeasurable. In an article for The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish comments that detailing his long-lasting contribution [to the stage] is a daunting task. He goes on to say:
In a career that has stretched across an unrivalled seven decades, he has washed up fresh ideas on our shores, and helped sweep away much of our theatre’s conventionality, insularity and clutter. Scores of books have been written about him. But one single phrase goes to the heart of explaining the transformation he has helped to bring about: “the empty space”, the title of the slim volume he produced in 1968 that has remained a manifesto of sorts for successive generations of theatre-makers.
Will I be alive for the opening night?’ was written earlier this year, prior to the opening of his latest work, Battlefield, which had since toured globally, including a celebrated showing here in Hong Kong.
Brook’s career and influence is such that he features in Theatre and Performance Collection at the Victorian and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. As part of this collection, the museum have produced an excellent resource pack, which explores why Brook and his collaborators approached particular plays and themes when they did. Click this link, Peter Brook Resource Book, to download a copy.
I stumbled across this quite incredible TEDx presentation yesterday and just had to share it. It is given by Adina Tal, founder of the NaLagaat Theatre, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Clearly an inspirational character, Tal talks about how she came about forming the first blind-deaf theatre company in the world. I urge you to watch it.
To quote directly from their website:
The theater ensembles of Nalaga’at are composed of 18 deaf-blind actors. Some of the actors are completely deaf-blind, some have remants of vision or residual hearing. All actors have personal interpreters of sign language by touch, who accompany them during rehearsals and performances. Most of the actors have “Usher Syndrome” – a genetic syndrome in which the person is born deaf or with hearing impairment, and developes during adolescence to retinitis pigmentosa eye disease, leading to visual impairments and blindness..
Ongoing employment of the actors strengthens their self confidece, improve their interpersonal communication ability, reduce their social isolation and allows meetings with the seeing and hearing audience and with people with the same and different disabilities. Most of the deaf-blind people can communicate only with a person who knows to sign language by touch or to use the “glove” system (every joint on the palm of the hand is a letter in Hebrew that you can type on). Communication between the deaf-blind actors at Nalaga’at has developed in many ways, as every person in the group has different needs and abilities.
Nalaga’at means “Please Touch” in Hebrew and the centre that houses the theatre company, also has a restaurant, The Blackout where diners are served in total darkness by blind waiters and Café Kapish where the serving staff communicate with you in sign language.
In an article for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner says that watching the company is a compelling, idiosyncratic and joyous theatre experience. Entitled Blind Man’s Loaf, Gardner paints a very vivid picture of the whole Nalaga’at experience. Wonderful.
A play at the National Theatre in London recently made headlines, but for an unusual reason. In the first 6 days of previews, 5 people fainted and 40 people left the auditorium apparently shocked at scenes of graphic violence and torture.
The play in question was Sara Kane’s 1998 Cleansed, directed by celebrated and controversial British director, Katie Mitchell. According to a report in The Guardian,
the revival of the production features characters being electrocuted, force-fed and tortured – including the removal of one character’s tongue 20 minutes into the play – which has proved too much for dozens of audience members during the first six performances. Five others were so overwhelmed they fainted and required medical attention. During one preview, the lights in the auditorium went up and ushers came into the audience to help a man who had collapsed.
Mitchell admitted the production had taken its toll on the cast, who all had “very strange nightmares where very extreme events take place”. She [said]: “We have to laugh a lot in order to balance the despair and the darkness of the material.” But she argued people’s shock at the violent production was also related to the fact it was written by a young woman. “There isn’t a big tradition of putting the violence of atrocity on stage in Britain,” she said. “We’re afraid of that dark female voice that insists we examine pornography and violence. We just don’t feel comfortable being asked to do those things, particularly by a woman.”
Amongst other things, this of course raises many questions about verisimilitude on stage, but when violence is clearly ‘done this well’, you have to commend the theatre practitioners behind it – both on and off stage. I say this not because I particularly enjoy watching human suffering being performed in front of me, but because I spend a lot time talking to younger students about why such acts only work when they are truly believable. Kane’s plays are never easy on the audience and nor are they meant to be and in Mitchell’s hands this production was bound to be particularly brutal. The play itself is based on a university campus turned interrogation centre, in which a series of misfits are subjected to vicious tests to prove their love, with scenes including hands being cut off, incest, electric shocks, murder and suicide amongst other horrors.
According to an excellent profile of her, British theatre’s queen in exile, written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Katie Mitchell provokes strong reactions:
Some think of her as a vandal, ripping apart classic texts and distorting them to her own dubious purpose. Others consider her to be the most important British director of theatre and opera at work today – indeed, among the greatest in the world. Her critics characterise her as high-minded and humourless, a kind of hatchet-faced governess intent on feeding her audiences with the improving and bleak. Others, though, talk about her gentleness, empathy and swiftness to burst into a joyous and slightly dirty laugh. One theatre professional told me that some agents only reluctantly put forward actors for Mitchell’s productions because of her fearsome reputation; and yet there are actors who have worked with her for 30 years.
Mitchell has been described as a director who polarises audiences like no other and in the way the critics have received Cleansed, she has clearly managed to do the same with this current production. One said that the play left him feeling drained rather than shocked into new awareness while another said you’ll either walk out or give it a standing ovation.
In an interview for the BBC strand Front Row, Mitchell said those who focus on the violence are missing the point:
All of the torture that is going on is led by a doctor whose making tests about love, its durability. The gay couple in it, the durability of their love is being tested, and they are being tortured to see whether their love will survive, and their love does. So love wins in this play, not violence.
As the world marks the death of William Shakespeare, 400 years on, there have been many celebrations of his work across the globe. Today I want to share some of them – the ones that have particularly resonated with me. Here in Hong Kong, we have just had the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performing some of the Histories, all the Henries, in repertoire, to great acclaim. The company then moved to Beijing, where those plays have never been been seen before. My first offering, therefore, is a lecture by Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, given upon his return from this tour. Entitled Is Shakespeare Chinese? , Doran speaks beautifully about the universality of Shakespeare, and for those of you that follow Theatre Room, you will know that this is something that often raises questions for me….but more of this later.
As a theatre practitioner, generally people expect you, firstly, to love Shakespeare with a passion, and secondly, to have seen every single play he ever wrote. My answers to both of those inevitably provoke a surprised response, which I secretly quite like. Recently, one of my students, Nadia, chose a speech from King John to use in a solo performance employing some of the techniques of Jerzy Grotowski. The outcome was stunning, the words brought alive in an incredible way. I have never seen or read King John but that performance has now compelled me to do so. This brings to me to my next share, a series of Shakespeare’s monologues and soliloquies performed by some of the UK’s most respected actors. Filmed for the The Guardian and presented in two parts, they are very compelling viewing.
An accompanying piece written by theatre critic Michael Billington, also for The Guardian, explores three of the films in greater detail. Connecting to this, in an article for The Independent, journalist Oscar Quine interviews Cicely Berry (pictured below), who has been voice coach at the RSC for over 45 years. Known to be a force of nature (Berry has worked with some of the best known actors over the last half century) the piece, The RSC’s formidable voice coach reveals how to capture the sound of Shakespeare, makes interesting reading.
Another two-part documentary really caught my imagination. Made for the BBC and written and presented by historian Simon Schama, eponymously titled Simon Schama’s Shakespeares, they explore the world of Shakespeare and how it shaped his writing. They are both worth a watch as Schama manages to vividly connect the plays and their characters to the contemporary world in which they were written to exist.
And finally, in the interests of balance, another BBC production from their programme strand Arts Night, in which writer and broadcaster Andrew Marr champions some great Renaissance dramatists who, he posits, have been neglected because they worked at the same time as William Shakespeare.
I have been intrigued by an article in The Independent, by Emily Jupp, about the latest offering from immersive theatre company You Me Bum Bum Train. Founded in 2004, the company has been at the cutting edge of the immersive theatre form, winning awards for their work which relies heavily on significant groups of volunteer performers. Jupp writes the article having experienced being one of those volunteers.
You Me Bum Bum Train: The latest journey into challenging immersive theatre
As a volunteer at the immersive theatre production of You Me Bum Bum Train, I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t normally do. I’ve fixed two sewing machines, I’ve lugged furniture around, I’ve painted walls and I’ve felt incredibly capable and resourceful while doing them. Tackling things outside your comfort zone is at the heart of the You Me Bum Bum Train experience, where an audience member, or “Passenger”, is thrown into the heart of the action.
From tonight, Passengers will arrive at the old Foyles bookshop building in London where the new YMBBT show takes place, and be hurtled from one short scene to the next, in each of which they have to improvise their part while the rest of the cast react. The Passenger has no idea what is going on behind each door and the YMBBT team would like to keep it that way. They don’t even have publicity photos. Instead, the founders strike silly poses against surreal backdrops – see right. So I can’t reveal what’s happening this year. But previous scenes have involved discovering you’re the head of MI5 and making a world-changing decision or having to operate a forklift truck without any guidance.
In each scene the audience member is the focus of attention and the cast of volunteers – who aren’t professional actors but who often have skills or experience relating to the context of the scene – interact with that Passenger. Each scene is timed and during the one I was cast in we had about two minutes before resetting and then running the scene again with the next Passenger. There are about 70 Passengers passing through in one night, so it’s frantic.
Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd founded You Me Bum Bum Train at art school in Brighton in 2004. It was held in the basement of an office block. “I found it very depressing trying to find something that meant something to me at art school,” says Bond. “A lot of art is very egocentric but what I love about this is there is no one leader and it’s not a production where every scene is rigidly fixed, so it’s accessible for everyone. No volunteer ever gets turned away.”
YMBBT has grown to huge proportions. It was awarded the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust prize for its show in 2012 at the Barbican in London and an Olivier award for outstanding achievement. Stephen Fry, Dominic West, Jude Law and Sir Ian McKellen are just some of the show’s celebrity fans, but there aren’t many detailed reviews or articles about the experience. That’s because secrecy is key.
“If a Passenger has been forewarned then they always say they regret knowing about it,” says Bond. “In the early days, people would just find a flyer in a pub saying You Me Bum Bum Train, a time and a location and nothing else.”
In a recent show, one Passenger had been told by his friend that they were going to see Billy Elliot and had no idea what would happen. “He had to take a break from the show because he was shaking and he just wasn’t prepared for what was going on, but he said it was amazing, he just felt overwhelmed.”
“A lot of the shy people say if they knew what they were going to do they would never have taken part but they get a huge confidence boost from realising they can.”
The show is run on a shoestring budget; props are scavenged from websites like Freecycle and car boot sales. It’s amazing how detailed and realistic they are considering they started with a building site three months ago. In one of the scenes I rehearsed for, the scene director suddenly stopped talking to examine the ceiling. “It still needs cornicing. It won’t look right without it,” he said. The cornicing was added the next day.
YMBBT receives a grant from the Arts Council to help with running costs, and Bond and Morgan pay themselves a small wage (Bond is on working tax credits), but the army of volunteers are all unpaid, aside from being given meals. “It would be nice if Bum Bum could give back more,” says Bond. “We have a fantasy of treat chutes going through to every floor with snacks and vending machines and making it more Willy Wonka for all the volunteers, but we haven’t been able to yet.”
They’ve been criticised for not paying, but the production couldn’t happen any other way, Lloyd and Bond worked out that a ticket (£48.50 for this production) would cost around £2,000 if they paid their volunteers minimum wage and broke even on the running costs.
The best bit about the volunteer experience is that people from all walks of life and all ages get involved. “It makes people more open-minded because it is such an open-door policy and you meet people from different backgrounds,” says Bond. “We had a lawyer who asked to volunteer and afterwards she became a human rights lawyer instead of a commercial lawyer because of the experience.”
The bonding element has even produced some Bum Bum marriages over the years, says Bond. “A bit like going to war, it brings people together, and they achieve things that are really huge.”
The criticisms leveled at Lloyd and Bond go back a number of years, some of which from 2012 you can read here in The Guardian and The Stage. I think it raises an interesting issue for immersive theatre, which by it’s nature often require very large casts indeed. Also, if you audience are expected to become characters in the story, as is often the case, why not invite non-professional actors to be part of the permanent cast?
In a not unconnected story from The Guardian in September a German theatre company, Schauspielhaus Bochum asked their audience to pack into a refrigerated truck to give them a glimpse into the hardships experienced by the migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe from war zones.
The event was billed as a memorial to the 71 people, four of them children, who were found dead inside an abandoned lorry in Austria. About 200 people took part in the event, entering a 7.5 tonne refrigerated truck similar in size to the one found in Austria.
Next to it on the ground was a rectangle marked out to measure 2.5 metres by six metres which represented the size of the original truck’s interior.
Seventy-one volunteers first tried to stand inside the rectangle before trying to cram inside the lorry. When they did the truck’s doors could not be closed.
“The lorry was completely full, the people were squeezed right up against each other,” explained Olaf Kroek, the theatre’s artistic adviser.
“This action is not disrespectful,” he said. “What is disrespectful is the political reality in Europe that people suffering so greatly hand over thousands of euros and must take such unsafe routes while for the rest of us Europeans it is so easy … to travel in the other direction.”
Both pieces pay testament to the ever-changing nature of theatre as an art form and in an increasingly digital world, it should come as no surprise that audiences are demanding, and expecting, their theatre experiences to be more visceral, more real.
This week, actor, director and playwright Steven Berkoff stirred up a bit of controversy when he responded to a review of a new production of Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which casts black actors in both the roles of Othello and Iago. The review was written by Paul Taylor, for The Independent and opens with the words The days when it was thought acceptable for a white actor to black up as Othello are well behind us. It was this that seemed to stoke Berkoff’s ire, which ended up with him taking to Facebook with the following post:
Not surprisingly, this provoked a rash of responses from his followers who both applauded and condemned Berkoff in equal measure. The Independent followed their original review with an article by Jess Denham, who managed to get further comment from the man himself:
I believe actors of all colour, particularly black actors, should be cast for the immensity of their talents and not the slack-jawed nod to political correctness.
To reserve, out of the hundreds of Shakespearian characters, the role of Othello for black people only, is a form of racism in reverse and to me, particularly obnoxious.
What drama does is express the fundamental core of human existence and to omit one play, is like taking a major key out of a piano. The immense range and passion of a role like Othello belongs to all humanity. In its performance, it reveals the deepest part of the human soul.
Some of the greatest performances seen over centuries have been when an actor has taken on that particular part from Edmund Kean onwards. I would like to see black actors not only play Othello, but Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet etc.
The production in question has been universally celebrated by the critics largely for the casting of Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago (above). In his review Michael Billington comments that amongst other things the casting reinforces the historic bond between Othello and Iago, and helps to explain the trust the former places in his ensign allowing you to see exactly why Iago would detest a Caucasian Cassio who tries to show his kinship with the men by taking part in a rap contest during the Cypriot drinking scene. Dominic Cavendish, writing for The Telegraph talks about a crucial shift of perspective…..that makes this event…electrifying and that a blow is struck for diversity without at all diluting the play’s perturbing power. These are strong affirmative words.
Now all of this of course is part of a much wider debate about the casting of BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) actors in theatre and one not to be ignored. Of the play itself, Andrew Dickson writes an article for The Guardian, Othello: the role that entices and enrages actors of all skin colours, which explores the history surrounding the question of race in the play. But the crux of the discussion, highlighted by Berkoff’s post, is around colour-blind casting. An old friend of mine, theatre director Joe Harmston commented on Berkoff’s post thus:
It is appalling that black actors don’t get cast in what are seen as white roles – Hamlet, Lear, Stanley in The Birthday Party. A travesty that so many of our non-white colleagues find they have to go to the US to kick start great careers. Perhaps when we colour blind cast black actors in ‘white’ roles, we can think again of white actors in black roles but until then black actors are right to argue that Othello is theirs.
I tend to agree. However, for me as an international theatre educator based in South East Asia who needs to teach through the context of world theatre, the question of colour-blind casting is an ethical dilemma. I would love to direct my students in, say, A Raisin in the Sun, Sizwe Banzie is Dead, The Island or a whole host of plays that have indigenous Australians or native Maoris as central lead characters, but I just don’t feel that I can. Does that make a fiend of political correctness?
I’m not sure.
I’ve got a great mixed bag of talks to share today from various TED× events around the world and all of them worth a listen when you have a spare ten minutes or so. Most people are familiar with TED talks, but theatre makers are rarely given a platform. However, the independently, locally organised TED× events often have theatre professionals exploring their craft for a wider audience.
The first comes from TED× Stormont, in Northern Ireland where Tom Bowtell, from interactive theatre makers Coney, discusses the powerful potential of offering theatre audiences opportunity to have a say over how the story ends, by inviting them to participate in the creation of the theatrical experience. Entitled Can Theatre Actually Change Anything? it is a super little presentation.
The next two come from TED× events held in Sydney, Australia in 2011 and 2014. In What is theatre capable of? theatre director Simon Stone deconstructs some of the common visual and audio tricks of modern theatre while in Know More About Theatre, You Uncultured Oafs theatre ensemble post attempt to answer, amongst other questions, What is theatre? and What makes good theatre? Very entertaining!
In the next one, The Architecture of Acting, actor Stephen Lang talks to a TED× audience at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania about how he created his one man play, Beyond Glory.
In The Essence of Acting, actor Mirjana Joković talks beautifully about what lies at the heart of the craft.
I have quite a few others to share, but I am going to finish with a wonderfully insightful talk from theatre director John Wright, one of the co-founders of Trestle. Entitled Rediscovering playfulness in acting and given at TED× Square Mile (London), Wright talks about how we love our (dead) gurus in actor training, the constraints they place upon us and why play should be at the centre of our creative processes.
Many writers find their work adapted for the stage, but perhaps one of the most recreated and reimagined is Franz Kafka. Similarly, there are few writers who have had their name turned into an adjective and, with the coining of kafkaesque, he is one of them. Born in the Czech Republic, but writing in german, Kafka is arguably one of the most intriguing and revered writers of the 20th Century.
Kafka on line, a one stop shop for all things Kafka, says the writer
…….is renowned for his visionary and profoundly enigmatic stories that often present a grotesque vision of the world in which individuals burdened with guilt, isolation, and anxiety make a futile search for personal salvation.
I think it is these universal themes that draw theatre makers and audiences alike. Metamorphosis, especially, has been adapted for the stage many times, perhaps most famously by Steven Berkoff, who also staged The Trial and his lesser known work, The Penal Colony.
Currently there is a series of programmes on BBC radio, In the Shadow of Kafka, which explore his life, works and on-going influence. Amongst these is an adaptation of The Trial, by playwright Mark Ravenhill, called The Process (also embedded below) and well worth a listen.
Along with Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis, Josef K from The Trial is probably one of the most famous literary (and theatrical) characters of the last century, and both warrant their own programmes as part of the BBC series. The former is also being read by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch over 4 episodes.
The most stunning adaptation of Metamorphosis I have had the pleasure of seeing is by VesturPort Theatre Company from Iceland, performed here in Hong Kong a couple of years ago and which has toured world-wide to critical acclaim. A fabulous piece of physical theatre and stunningly designed.
For me as a theatre maker, Kafka require risks to be taken both in staging and in interpretation and VesturPort do just this.
Finally, I should say that the title of this post is a quote from the man himself rather than a Sunday afternoon existential reflection of my own.
Courtesy of my friend Paul Mór who teaches at Branksome Hall School in Jeju, South Korea, is my second quick share for today. Theatre in Korea is a publication from the Korean Arts Management Service which explores recent theatre history as well as contemporary playwrights and directors from the country. An unusual find in English, it is a great resource for any world theatre student. Korea has a rich performance history and has really embraced, integrated, made its own and adapted western theatre traditions to create a very distinct theatre landscape. Click the link above for a PDF download of Theatre in Korea. Enjoy.