Carry On Screaming

Antonin_Artaud_jeune_b_SD-1I have a couple of things to share this weekend, both of which are little gems. Firstly, courtesy of Open Culture, a recording of a never-aired radio play, written and performed Antonin Artuad To Have Done With The Judgment of God.  As any good student of theatre knows, when it comes to Artaud and his theories, tangibility is an issue, so to have this recording of his work is a rarity to be savoured. Generally speaking, his ideas about theatre were more popular than his actual productions. Perhaps his most famous play, Les Cenci, was staged in 1935 and tells the story of a father who rapes his daughter and then gets brutally killed by his daughter’s hired thugs. The play was a flop, running for only 17 performances and was generally considered not to be very good. Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu (to give the To Have Done With The Judgment of God its original french title) proved to be equally unpopular. Commissioned by Ferdinand Pouey, head of the dramatic and literary broadcasts for French Radio in 1947, the work was written by Artaud after he spent the better part of WWII interned in an asylum where he endured the worst of his treatment.

The piece is as raw and emotionally naked as you might expect –an anguished rant against society. A raving screed filled with scatological imagery, screams, nonsense words, anti-American invectives and anti-Catholic pronouncements.

Give it a listen and you will what I mean:

The piece was programmed to go on air on January 2, 1948 but the station director Vladimir Porché pulled it at the last moment. It was said, apparently, that he wasn’t terribly fond of the copious references to poop and semen or the anti-American vitriol. Parisian intellectuals including Jean Cocteau protested the decision, with Pouey resigning from his job in protest, but to no avail. It never aired. Artaud, who reportedly took the rejection very personally, died a month later. You can listen to the broadcast above. And, in case your French isn’t up to it, you can still appreciate its theatrical elements,  while reading an English translation of the radio script here.  It is a fascinating (albeit difficult) listen and really does give you a sense of what Artuad was getting at with the Theatre of Cruelty. There is an english audio version on Youtube, but it doesn’t touch the original recording. There is also a somewhat dated recording of a staged version of the piece, performed by Billy Barnum and John Voigt:

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The website that has the english translation of To Have Done With The Judgment of God is a good little find too. Surrealism-Plays is a mine of information about surrealism and avant-garde theatre.

Thanks must go to my good friends and colleges, Sherri Sutton (International School of Geneva) and Kerry Rochester (WIS, Hong Kong) for bringing the Open Culture post to my attention. Drama teachers of the world unite!

Not In Polite Company

There is an old maxim that says you should never discuss religion or politics in polite company. Well today I am going to do both, by sharing a couple of articles that have caught my left-leaning, atheist attention.

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The Vote at The Donmar Warehouse

Firstly politics. Despite the best efforts of the out-going right-wing government in the UK to decimate all things culture by way of spending cuts in the name of austerity, whilst at the same time ringing the death knell of arts education in schools, theatre, by all accounts, would seem to be thriving. As a general election looms in two days time, British theatre is playing its part in the national political debate in a significant way. Written by Andrew Dickson for The GuardianJudi Dench and the anarchists: why British theatre has gone election mad explores the various plays that are placing the politicians under the spotlight and asking difficult questions. It comes as no surprise really given that theatre, by its nature, has a leaning towards the political left. In the article, Dickson talks to David Hare, the grand old statesman of political playwriting, who has spent much of his career exposing the dark underbelly of ‘the establishment’ in his work. Although focussed on Britain, Dickson’s piece is well worth a read, as he links back to the origins of western theatre in the civic ceremonies of 5th Century Athens.

Our theatre has always been a talking shop – and talking is still how we do our politics, especially during election season.

And now religion. Mark Lawson, also writing for The Guardian, has published an article, Dahling, you were divine: religion on the stage which explores why God remains a draw to theatre-goers. Obviously, in a country which still has an established Church, it is not entirely surprising that such representation happens. However, when that religion is in decline, the debate becomes very interesting.

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman

Again I recommend a read of Lawson’s article. He dutifully traces the lineage of religious drama in Britain back to the incorporation of performance into worship which was first recorded at the time when Christianity was only 500 or so years old. Lawson goes on to document how religion was manifest on the english speaking stage in the 20th century, and given the inherent link between church and state (religion and politics, if you will) it is hardly surprising that David Hare also makes an appearance in this article with his seminal work, Racing Demon, which examined religious faith from a sceptical perspective.

I have to say though, when a society examines itself this acutely through its artistic culture, it often means there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Exchanges On Acting

Untitled_FotorOne of things that I enjoy about keeping Theatre Room is the fact that I am constantly surprised by what I stumble upon in my research. There are always things out there that I haven’t seen before and today I want to share a recent find. The Oslo International Acting Festival took place in 2012 and 2013, organised by The Academy of Theatre, Oslo National Academy of The Arts and The Norwegian Actors’ Center, with a view to exploring the nature and future of the art of acting globally. As I write I can’t find any information about whether the festival will continue in the future but the videos (posted on a YouTube channel) from the two festivals so far are a goldmine for theatre students. At the 2012 festival the theme was techniques and methods and explored the work of Constantin Stanislavski, Stanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Michael Chekov and Bertolt Brecht amongst others. I’ve posted the discussion about Brechtian technique below:

The 2013 festival had audience as it’s focus, with talks and discussions including one led by The Wooster Group’s Richard Schechner and another by Gisella Mendoza, a South American practitioner of Theatre of The Oppressed, posted below:

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A great and interesting resource.

In Its Blood and Bones

Graeae Theatre Company. "Reasons To Be Cheerful"For me, the power of theatre as a living art form is its ability to hold a mirror up to society, thereby forcing us to question and re-examine the world in which we live – by extension, therefore, theatre is politics. Today I found myself teaching the fundamentals of Brechtian Epic theory (as I do once or twice a year) and I am always energised by the potential and capacity theatre has to bring about change. Theatre is a hugely powerful medium with the ability to make people dig deep and really confront the issues of the moment. Here in Hong Kong during the Occupy protests , it was only a matter of weeks before the first Cantonese language performances hit the stage, questioning the violent and heavy handed reaction of the authorities to what was an essentially peaceful movement.

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However, my reason for this post is to share a truly excellent article written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Theatre: the nation’s debating chamber which explores what she calls a golden moment for political theatre in the UK. However, it does more than that – it explores its heritage as far back as Shakespeare in the UK and then even further to the birth of western theatre in ancient Greece.

Theatre is politics, in its blood and bones

I urge you to read it. It may be largely UK-centric, but I know it will have resonances for any theatre maker, anywhere.

The Last Great Titan

ARTHUR MILLEROne of my absolute favourite playwrights is Arthur Miller. I think I have might have seen more productions of his plays than I have any other single writer – including Shakespeare. He created fully conceived, living, flawed characters who inhabit the stage. A Pulitzer Prize winner for perhaps his most famous work Death of a Salesman, he is amongst the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century.

To quote the National Endowment for the Humanities,

For nearly six decades, Miller [created] characters that wrestled with power conflicts, personal and social responsibility, the repercussions of past actions, and the twin poles of guilt and hope. In his writing and in his role in public life, Miller [articulated] his profound political and moral convictions. He once said he thought theater could “change the world.”

It has been said that together with A View from the Bridge and Death of a Salesman, All My Sons established Miller as Ibsen’s dramatic heir.  This obituary from the BBC following his death in 2005, goes as far as saying that as a tragedian, his plays will stand alongside the masterpieces of not only Ibsen, but Shakespeare and Sophocles too.

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So why am a drawn to writing about him today? Well, as A View From the Bridge (above) transfers into the West End in London (also being broadcast to cinemas worldwide later in the month) and a new production of Death of a Salesman  to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company later in the year, Miller’s plays continue to demonstrate their enduring popularity – for audiences, actors and directors alike.

f2d11603538bbe93d0be50675361f8572015 marks the ten years since his death as well as the centenary of his birth, hence the new productions  – and this is in the UK alone. There have also a been a number of articles published in the last few weeks. From its archive, dating back to 1998, The Guardian shares an interview with Miller, View from the Barricades. It is a wide-ranging piece and makes a really interesting read. The Telegraph in the UK published another, Arthur Miller in his own words: from McCarthyism to Marilyn Monroe which brings together a series of quotations from the man across his career and life.  However, the best and most interesting I have read so far (also from The Guardian) is The economics of Arthur Miller: salesmen, dockers and gilded preachers. It takes a long view of Miller’s plays and explores the role of money as part of the American Dream so vividly captured and painfully explored in much of his great work.

For me though, his appeal goes beyond his genius as a playwright. He was a vocal advocate for human rights and equality and was never afraid to speak out. He challenged the status quo and the establishment almost to the day he died. One of his last public speaking events was to give the Jefferson Lecture in 2001, entitled On Politics and the Art of Acting, bringing together his two great passions.

To end, an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose, in which Miller was asked the question, what distinguishes a great playwright?

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All Mouth

As the Hong Kong International Arts Festival kicks off this week with a trilogy of Samuel Beckett plays in the shape of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby I thought I would share an interview with celebrated British actress Juliet Stevenson about her current role of Winnie in one of Beckett’s more accessible plays, Happy Days. Stevenson was interviewed by Heather Neill for Theatre Voice in January this year.

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This particular show is a revival of a critically acclaimed production for Stevenson, as these reviews are testament to in The Telegraph and The Guardian. She has spoken extensively about playing Winnie and getting to grips with Beckett, one of them being an interview with Paul Taylor in The Independent.  The productions of Happy days and Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby have brought about a rash of writing in the UK with regard to Becket and his work. One of them, Up to their necks: The singular joys of appearing in Samuel Beckettwritten by Holly Williams for The Independent is great read, as is What lies beneath Samuel Beckett’s half-buried woman in Happy Days written by Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson for The Guardian. Natalie Abrahami, director of Happy Days, spoke in January to the BBC Radio 4 programme Start The Week. This is the excerpt from that programme that carries her interview as part of a panel discussion about memory:

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The production of Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby which we will have the joy of seeing here this week, is the original London production starring Lisa Dwan, on its way from playing internationally in New York and Perth.

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Again, the reviews have been universally superb; The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent all throw superlatives at the production and Lisa Dwan in particular. Dwan wrote a piece published in The Guardian Beckett’s Not I: how I became the ultimate motormouth in which, not surprisingly, she talks about playing ‘the mouth’. You can see an excerpt of her in action here

One review spoke of the piece as being a ….deeply sobering and equally intoxicating experience…[and a] harrowing and beautiful production.  I can’t wait.

Endangered Species?

downloadContinuing from the previous post, I wanted to share the final article mentioned, written by Lyn Gardner in her Theatre Blog for The Guardian,  Is the playwright dead? Most of the theatre my students make is collaborative and new, applying and testing the creative skills and performance theory they have learned. However, they are also empowered by interpreting a written text and are challenged by that process in equal measure. As always, I find myself agreeing with Gardner. I have left her original links in the article as they lead to further interesting reading.

Is there an anti-writer trend in British theatre? Only if you insist on a very narrow definition of what constitutes new writing and fail to cherish playwriting in all its rich variety

“There has been a shift of opinion against playwriting, in favour of collective methods of theatre. The very activity of playwriting has been attacked as individualistic, undemocratic and even immoral,” declared playwright David Edgar when it was announced that he would be this year’s visiting professor in drama studies at Oxford and giving lectures and hosting discussions in February.

Blimey! Edgar talks of an “anti-writer trend”. That sounds serious and worrying. I’d like to think that he was being a little tongue in cheek because, after all, he also pointed out that “for the first time in at least 100 years, new work has overtaken the old work in the repertoire”, which can surely only be a good thing for writers of all kinds. Then there’s the roll call of people he’s invited to take part in discussions over the week, who include, among others, Bryony Lavery, David Greig and Chris Goode, who definitely all write plays but who often also create work in many different ways via collaboration, and for whom text plays distinct roles in different contexts.

When I was talking to Scott Graham of Frantic Assembly recently, he talked eloquently about working with Bryony Lavery on Stockholm and how she expressed the wish to write silence, condensing a scene to the point where “words were redundant”. That’s still very much writing in my book, and I bet most other people’s, too.

Frantic Assembly

Frantic Assembly

But even if what Edgar is saying is just a provocation, I’m really not sure that talking about an “anti-writer trend” is either true or helpful. After all, the adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Let the Right One In are still distinctly scripted plays however many other tools have been utilised to make them. And why wouldn’t all theatre-makers – and that includes playwrights – use all the tools available to them that they find helpful for a particular piece of work? The danger is that Edgar’s statement sets up the idea that different kinds of theatre are in opposition to each other, and that the individual playwright must be at odds and in competition with those making work collectively or collaboratively or using other kinds of theatrical languages.

It’s not a case that one kind of theatre-making invalidates another or steals money and resources away from others. There is room for all comers and different ways of working because different is good and invigorating – and variety adds to the richness of our theatre culture. What suits some as a way of working will not necessarily suit others or perhaps only at particular points in their career for particular projects. Bryony Lavery can work fruitfully with Frantic Assembly and write plays entirely on her own, too. Doing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other.

David Tennant, Hamlet

David Tennant, Hamlet

Does the fact that we have a variety of methods of working mean that the individual playwright with a singular vision is an endangered species? Of course not. You only have to look at the programmes of our new writing theatres to see that’s not the case. The fact that……. theatres across the country may also programme other kinds of work, some of it made collaboratively, simply reflects the fact that most of those now directly involved in new writing understand that what is needed is a far wider and looser definition around what we mean by new writing. That doesn’t threaten the playwright; it potentially liberates and provides more opportunities.

David Edgar’s week of lectures and discussions do sound fascinating – you can read the programme and participants here. They will all be published online so watch this space.

Is The Playwright Dead?

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Vanessa Redgrave

Today, I have stumbled across an astonishingly fascinating series of video recordings and I am compelled to share them straight away. They come from Humanitas, a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge which brings together leading practitioners and scholars to explore major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities. In one of the strands, Drama Studies, the visiting professors so far have been actor Vanessa Redgrave, director Greg Doran, playwright Athol Fugard and will be joined this year by another playwright, David Edgar. All of them are giants in their respective fields. Fugard speaks in three videos; firstly about the defining moments in his life and work, then about staging his plays and finally about his playwrighting process. In his first video Doran gives a practical masterclass looking at what clues Shakespeare puts into the verse for the actor and in the second, another, masterclass, this time on how Shakespeare spins rhetoric for the actor. However, my favorite, are the series given by Redgrave, doyen of the theatre on both sides of the Atlantic as well as prominent social activist. Click on the image below to take you to the first of a series of four lectures and panel discussions, entitled, not surprisingly, Theatre and Politics.

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The 2015 series, with David Edgar, promises to be equally interesting and provocative as he explores contemporary playwrighting from a number of perspectives. In an article in The Guardian born out of his appointment as Humanitas Visiting Professor, entitled Is the playwright dead?, he is quoted talking about the anti-writer trend that he considers to be prevalent in current collaborative theatre making. This notion will form the basis for his first lecture and the article itself, my next blog post.

Mummer’s The Word

1526395_10152523488451363_3782136421900951347_nI am often asked where I draw my ideas and sources from for Theatre Room. Today’s post is a good example of just how eclectic and diverse those inspirations often are. The image on the left first popped up in my Facebook feed, but it was a busy day and I didn’t read the accompanying post. A day or so later I saw the same photograph in a picture gallery in The Telegraph of a performance celebrating Twelfth Night in London. So this is where the trail began. The photograph is in fact of an old friend of mine, Daniel, who is trustee of and occasional performer with a company called The Lions Part. The Lions Part, amongst other things, recreate traditional Mummers Plays, one of the oldest theatrical traditions in Europe. Mummers Plays or Mumming are short dramas with rhyming texts, traditionally performed at certain times of the year, usually associated with traditional Christian or Pagan festivals, such as Christmas or All Hallows Eve (Halloween). The origins of Mumming are a little obscure, but have been traced to medieval Europe, most specifically Germany, Britain and Ireland although there are suggestions that it was much older than that, perhaps even stretching as far back as ancient Egypt. Another theory places the emergence of Mumming alongside that of Pantomime in the 1700’s, with connections therefore, to Commedia dell’arté

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The word Mummer can be traced to Greek mythology.  Momus was the personification of satire, mockery and censure.  Mummer can also be connected to the late Middle English word mommer and the Old French word momeur.   Each relates to miming, masking and folk play. There is a short but comprehensive history of Mumming and its origins, written by Peter Millington, which you can read here. Millington comments that the exact history is unclear and there are a range of views with regard to the real origins. He points to an even more interesting source of information and research by the Traditional Drama Research Group (TDRG),  based at the University of Sheffield. The TDRG site is simple, but full of interesting information including many original  texts.

In Britain, they are rarely performed today, but the images above show that a few hardy individuals are keeping the tradition alive. This particular performance by The Lions Part has taken place on Bankside, outside the reconstructed Globe Theatre for many years. The Mummers are dressed up as characters such as Turkey Sniper, Clever Legs and the Old ‘Oss and perform a boisterous play about the story of St. George, which dates back to the time of the crusades. This is done alongside other Twelfth Night celebrations, which traditionally mark the end of the winter festivals and the turn of a new year. You can get a sense of the occasion in the video below:

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I was reminded of a recent presentation given by a student of mine, Sidney, on the Irish tradition of Wren Boys which is associated with Mumming in Ireland, where it is also still performed. Perhaps what surprised me most though is that Mumming is still alive and well in Philadelphia, in the US, where there is even a museum dedicated to the form. There is some fascinating (silent) footage from British Pathé which shows the Philadelphia Mummers parade from 1927.  Clearly the American version of Mumming has evolved radically from its original European form, but its roots are evident.

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In the unlikely event I ever find myself in London in the middle of a freezing European winter, I shall certainly be taking a look at this great theatrical tradition.