A Devine Wright?

abridged-shakespeareAs much of the world begins a new academic year, so does Theatre Room. I am going to pick up where I left off in August with a further two articles that were published as a result of comments made by Ira Glass about Shakespeare and his relevance to a contemporary audience.

The first one that particularly caught my attention was written by Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic. In it,  Berlatsky talks about Shakespeare’s political conservatism and how this shaped his writing.

 

Ira Glass recently admitted that he is not all that into Shakespeare, explaining that Shakespeare’s plays are “not relatable [and are] unemotional.” This caused a certain amount of incredulity and horror—but The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg took the opportunity to point out that Shakespeare reverence can be deadening. “It does greater honor to Shakespeare to recognize that he was a man rather than a god. We keep him [Shakespeare] alive best by debating his work and the work that others do with it rather than by locking him away to dusty, honored and ultimately doomed posterity,” she argued.

Rosenberg has a point. A Shakespeare who is never questioned is a Shakespeare who’s irrelevant. And there are a lot of things to question in Shakespeare for a modern audience. One of those things, often overlooked in popular discussions of his work, is his politics.

Shakespeare was a conservative, in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. When Hamlet spits out the lines:

Oh fie, fie, ’tis an unweeded Garden
That grows to Seed: Things rank, and gross in Nature
Possess it merely.

The vision of sickening wrongness there is in part repulsion at his mother marrying his uncle, but it’s also a political disgust at the fact that the rightful ruler is gone, replaced by a usurpur. What’s “rank and gross” is not just sexual impropriety, but perversion of divine order. The Tempest is about restoring the rightful Duke to his place in spite of his usurping brother, while Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.

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In Shakespeare, those in authority rarely provoke resistance through injustice. In general, the one thing Shakespeare’s rulers can do wrong is to shirk their authority, trying to retire too early (King Lear) or consorting with those beneath them (Henry IV.) Often, their role is to come on at the end as a kind of hierarch ex machina, assuring all that “Some shall be pardon’d and some punished,” like the Prince at the end of Romeo and Juliet, or Prince Fortinbras at the end ofHamlet (“with sorrow I embrace my fortune”—yeah, we bet you’re sorry).

It’s sometimes said that Shakespeare always wrapped things up with a king on his throne and all right with the world as a reflection of a general belief among his contemporaries in the Great Chain of Being—a conception of the universe as divinely ordered hierarchy, each subordinate in his or her divinely ordered place. But there were many people in Shakespeare’s time who were mistrustful of kings and received authority—real-life versions of Malvolio, who Shakespeare pillories. Within his own context and within his own milieu, Shakespeare consistently championed the most powerful, and set himself against those who challenged their authority. He saw hierarchy as good and rebels as evil.

None of this is a good reason to dismiss Shakespeare. But it is a good basis for critical skepticism toward him. What would Twelfth Night look like from Malvolio’s perspective—or even from a perspective where it is not on its face ridiculous to imagine someone marrying across class? What real grievances might Iago or Macbeth have if it were possible for Shakespeare to show us an authority figure who isn’t a paragon? What happens to Julius Caesar if the rebels have some actual, genuine concerns about tyranny? As Rosenberg says, Shakespeare was a man, not a god—and as a man, he had a particular perspective, particular axes to grind, and particular blind spots. His plays aren’t entombed, authoritative holy writ; they’re living arguments, which means that, at least at times, they’re worth rebelling against.

The second comes from The Washington Post, written by Alyssa Rosenberg and explores the notion that the way a play is adapted/staged/interpreted will, of course, have a bearing on its relevancy to a modern audience: What we get wrong when we talk about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Sucks

A beautiful spat has broken out amongst the literati Stateside this week, all sparked by a tweet from Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life:

Ira Glass 1_FotorHe then followed it with this:

Ira Glass 2_FotorSocial media went mad and it was picked up and discussed widely. The debate is fascinating and I thought I would share some of it with you. Firstly, and this is really worth listening to, a podcast from Born Ready. Director Steve Boyle and theatre producer Rob Ready discuss, to paraphrase Born Ready site, why Shakespeare has been elevated to something like a Prophet, and how his plays have become a point of shared experience and a cultural touchstone. I should warn you, however, that some rather choice language is used during the discussion.

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Now, whilst Glass didn’t personally attack John Lithgow, to tie him in with a rant about the irrelevancy of Shakespeare was bound to cause an outcry. Firstly, Lithgow is akin to acting royalty in the US and secondly, North Americans really love their Shakespeare – you only have to look at the amount of Shakespeare festivals that take place across the continent every year and the fact that New York has been swamped with productions of late.

The reaction on social media was, it has to be said, highly entertaining as these pieces on CBC and The Wire highlight. If you click-through on the second tweet above, you can read it for yourself. Others have weighed into the debate, most, not surprisingly disagreeing with Glass – even Esquire, in a piece entitled SHAKESPEARE IS THE MOST UNIVERSAL WRITER EVER – Ira Glass doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

One of the best responses comes from the New Republic by Adam Kirsch, who calls Ira Glass a Philistine for saying Shakespeare sucks, while noting that he is not alone in this opinion:

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 Does Shakespeare suck? Ira Glass, the host of the popular upper-middlebrow radio show “This American Life,” apparently thinks so; he tweeted as much after suffering through a performance of King Lear in Central Park. The backlash has been swift and severe, thus answering the question of whether there remain any literary taboos in the twenty-first century. Apparently, calling the Bard “not relatable” is still enough to get someone branded as a philistine.

I come not to praise Glass, certainlyI think he is a philistinebut also not totally to bury him. For there is always something admirable in speaking with complete honesty about one’s aesthetic reactions, even when those reactions are plainly wrong. Those who automatically praise Shakespeare because they know it is the right thing to say, or because they fear Glass-like ostracism if they say otherwise, may also be philistinesThe kind that Nietzsche, in his Untimely Meditations, called the “culture-philistine,” who “fancies that he is himself a son of the muses and a man of culture,” but is actually incapable of a genuine encounter with art. The first rule of any such encounter is honesty: If you fail to find what you are looking for in a work of art, even King Lear, you must be willing to admit it. Then you can move on to the question of whether it is you or King Lear that is deficient.

The truth is that Glass could have summoned some pretty impressive names to testify in his defense. George Bernard Shaw famously hated Shakespeare, complaining that “Shakespeare’s weakness lies in his complete deficiency in the highest spheres of thought,” and offhandedly claiming “I have actually written much better [plays] than As You Like It.” Tolstoy, too, had a low opinion of Shakespeare: “Open Shakespeare … wherever you like, or wherever it may chance, you will see that you will never find ten consecutive lines which are comprehensible, unartificial, natural to the character that says them, and which produce an artistic impression.” Shakespeare’s fame, Tolstoy concluded, was purely a matter of convention: “There is but one explanation of this wonderful fame: it is one of those epidemic ‘suggestions’ to which men have constantly been and are subject.”

But then, to be hated by Shaw and Tolstoy is itself a distinction. For these great writers, Shakespeare stood in their way as an indestructible obstacle, representing a way of writing that they opposed because they could not practice it. To Shaw, whose plays are political and polemical, Shakespeare was not political or polemical enough; to Tolstoy, who strove for organic naturalness, Shakespeare was neither organic nor natural. When T.S. Eliot declared that Hamlet was an artistic failure, he was not trying to make people stop seeing or reading Hamlet; rather, he was trying to get us to change the way we think about what makes a play successful.

Ira Glass, of course, was not engaged in this kind of literary maneuver. He was speaking as a playgoer who found, evidently to his surprise, that King Lear was not providing whatever it was he expected a play to providethat is what “not relatable” really means. And even here, Glass is not alone or even a pioneer. Until the Shakespeare revival of the eighteenth century, King Lear was regularly performed in England in an edited version, in which Cordelia lived at the end. No less a Shakespearean than Doctor Johnson approved of this change, on the grounds that “the audience will … always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.” In other words, Johnson was saying that the devastating conclusion of Lear was not relatable; it did not tell people what they expected a play to tell them. (Similarly, Johnson remarked on the “seeming improbability” of Lear’s conduct in impetuously disowning Cordelia, and explained it by the primitivism of the England of Lear’s time; after all, he wrote, such barbarism “would yet be credible if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar.”)

If audiences today would not stand for such a prettified Lear, that is because our sense of reality, of how the world really works and is supposed to work, has changed since the eighteenth century. Lear is generally considered the most powerful of Shakespeare’s plays precisely because, in its unsparing picture of a violent, unjust, continually brutal world, it conforms so well to what our history teaches us to expect. In other words, Lear is all too relatable, though what it relates is deeply disturbing (as it was for Johnson, who objected to the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes as an unstageable obscenity).

If, in the face of this overwhelming power, an audience member remains simply unmovedif, like Ira Glass, he just thinks the play fails to workthen something has obviously gone wrong, not with the play, but with the spectator. Exactly what is wrong in this case is something only Glass can answer, but I have my suspicions. Not just Ira Glass, but all of us, are growing increasingly unused to the kind of abstraction that art requires. Lear’s plight is supposed to move us not because it is something that could really happen to usalready in the eighteenth century, Johnson found it incrediblebut because it is what Eliot called an “objective correlative,” an artistic formula for producing a certain emotion. The horror of life that Lear communicates is something deeper and more constant than the particular actions of its dramatis personae. The same is true of Oedipus’s self-blinding, or for that matter Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: We can only appreciate these stories if we imagine our way into them, rather than demanding that they come obediently to us.

Perhaps that is the difference between art and entertainment. And in a culture with so many proliferating sources of entertainment, the work required to encounter art is becoming increasingly unfamiliar. When people stop going to see Shakespeare altogether, we’ll know that we’ve lost this particular part of our humanityone which we have traditionally honored as among the noblest and most valuable.

William Shakespeare

The Guardian in the UK published a list of writers through history who have dared to rubbish Shakespeare, Shakespeare sucks: a potted history of Bard-bashing, while The New York Times ran an op-ed piece asking the question, Should Literature Be ‘Relatable’?

It’s a healthy debate, whatever side you are on. It is also noteworthy that Glass is clearly having second thoughts having faced the vitriol – the original tweet has been deleated.

I’ll leave you with BuzzFeed’s take on it all – Radio host Ira Glass didst belittle Shakespeare and the internet doth protest

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Still Streaming

89264It has been a few months since I have written about the discussions and debate surrounding the streaming of theatre, live and recorded, to cinemas, performance venues and across the web. In my last two posts on the matter, Something to Stream About and Something Else To Stream About I wrote about the experiences, arguments and concerns as they were being put forward. In the UK in the past few weeks the discussion has gathered pace again, with further written comment, the publication of a piece of research with regard to its impact on audience figures and continued experimentation with the form.

In a piece for The Guardian newspaper, Let’s stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screenthe highly regarded, veteran theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:

But while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity. This represents…….a revolution which knocks on the head the old argument that theatre is an elitist medium aimed at the privileged few.

Following Billington’s piece, another theatre critic and editor, Andrew Haydon (who also runs the excellent blog Postcards From The Gods) wrote an article Coney’s no island: could streamed theatre let audiences call the shots? in which he talks generally about the continuing development of the form and in particular about a new show, Better Than Lifeby the company Coney, who describe themselves as:

Interactive theatre-makers….[who] weave together theatre and game design to create dynamic shows and experiences that can take place anywhere that people gather: in theatres, schools, museums, on the streets and online.

Haydon describes Better Than Life thus:

The live premise is simple: you arrive at the “secret location”, take part in a bit of audience participation and then meet Gavin, a man who has been granted the power to draw pictures of future events (a plot wittingly or unwittingly lifted from the wonky US science fiction TV show Heroes). The online premise is more complex: Coney’s stated aim is to experiment with how they might be able to let people interact with the performance even if they are not physically present. To this end, online viewers could choose which camera they watched from, interact in the site’s own chat facility and even control spotlights in the room itself.

BTL_webdesigns-17-1024x1024Now this is clearly a different beast to streaming theatre as it has been developing so far, but indicates the pace at which interactive technologies have the potential to shape the future development of theatre. Arts journalist Miriam Gillinson also wrote about her online experience watching Better Than Life, as opposed to Haydon’s ‘real-life’ viewing, in her blog post, ‘Better Than Life’ review or ‘Is there a triple click option?’. However, both seem to agree that whilst it was a form still very much in development, there was distinct and intriguing potential in the work and how it might point to the we ‘watch’ theatre in the future. To explore Coney’s work more, there is an excellent interview by Rohan Gunatillake with the company’s co-director, Annette Mees, for Native Magazine intriguingly titled Gorillas, beautiful tension & Better Than Life. In the interview, amongst other things, she explores the difference between their work and the more conventional broadcast streaming of theatre.

Coney's Early Days

Coney’s Early Days

As I said at the beginning of the post, one of the things that prompted me to revisit the streaming discussions was the publication of a survey in the UK that seems to show that the advent and growing audiences of streamed theatre is not, as some feared, having a negative effect on live audience attendance either in the capital or in the regions, as some feared. The survey was carried out by Nesta (a charity that funds innovation in the arts sciences and technology in the UK) and you can read their findings here. There is a condensed version of the findings here, courtesy of Whats On Stage

The National Theatre's Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller

The National Theatre’s Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller

Now obviously, these statistics are for the UK and they left me wondering how they would extrapolate out for international audiences of streamed and broadcast theatre. Since I last wrote about this subject and lamented the lack of broadcasts to Hong Kong, the National in the UK have at last found a cinema partner here.  Their initial foray – Frankenstein – was an immediate sellout (I was too slow) and since then, more and more broadcasts have been added with Coriolanus and The Audience begin shown multiple times in the next couple of months. They are immensely popular with Hong Kong audiences (I don’t mean just expats either) and I can see how they are creating an audience-in-waiting of theatre goers ready for their next trip to London. I could be cynical of course and comment that all of these productions have star actors with international reputations and are therefore an immediate box office draw. However, I won’t and I can’t – I am just delighted that I can now see what I consider to be some of best theatre in the world in the place I choose to call home.

I also want to a mention of another streamed event, that in a week that saw 500,000 people take to the streets of Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage, has significant resonance for me. On June 24th, The National Theatre of Scotland hosted The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know 5 Minute Theatre Show  which streamed for 24 hours, pieces of theatre lasting no longer than 5 minutes to and from around the globe.

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Driven by the upcoming vote on Scottish independence from the UK, the idea was to create a democratic, dramatic response to the theme of ‘Independence’ – identity, borders, language, and national identity. You can watch some of the contributions again here. Quite rightly, many of them are from Scots making their own comment on what is to come on the 18th September, but there are also contributions from around the world. Theatre and democracy, hand in hand.

So as the experiments continue and the debates rumble on, I leave you with an article, Three Nationals, again from Native Magazine, this time by David Kettle, in which he talks to leaders in the three national theatres of the UK – The National, The National Theatre of Scotland and The National Theatre of Wales – about their digital visions. It leaves me in no doubt digital theatre broadcasting and streaming is hear to stay.

Truth and Lies

Today I want to share some thoughts about a new play in London that has been making headlines among the chattering TP3_Fotorclasses in the metropolis. Adler and Gibb is currently playing at The Royal Court Theatre. Written and directed by Tim Crouch, who is renowned for experimenting with and rejecting traditional theatrical conventions, it has created much debate, about both it’s form and meaning. As I have said before, I tend not to write here about specific plays in production, as there seems little value when most people who read Theatre Room are on the other side of the world.  However, Adler and Gibb has attracted so much attention I thought it merited some discussion. The first article I read about the show, Is this the real life? Is it just fantasy? by Holly Williams for The Independent is a good place to start to get a flavour of the piece. I followed this with an article by Crouch himself for The Guardian, The theatre of reality and avoiding the stage’s kiss of deathwhich begins with:

The old showbiz dictum of never working with children or animals is not because they’re uncontrollable. It’s because they’re too real. Not realistic, but real. And when you’re an actor giving your realistic all, there’s nothing more undermining than performing it next to something real. The set collapsing is real. Your fellow actor forgetting lines is real. I would suggest that full nudity tips the scale of real. Actual sex is right over there, as is actual violence. Even a kiss. In a production of King Lear I did for young audiences, when Edmund kissed Goneril the play momentarily came to a halt because the audience could only see the real.

And ends by noting:

In my play there are children as children and there are children as animals. There is an animal as an animal. There are objects pretending to be other objects, light pretending to be other light, a set pretending to be another set, an actor pretending to be another actor. And a kiss. A real kiss.

It was this argument that caught my attention.  Many times in my theatre journey I too have experienced the ‘real’ that Couch is talking about, which disconnects you from the ‘reality’ of the drama and connects you directly to the real world. I am convinced it is this that has shaped how I make theatre myself, trying to avoid the ‘theatrical reality’.  Crouch also notes that

There’s a danger when, as artists, we attempt to annex the real and put it in our work, thinking that by doing so, the experience we’ll give our audience will be more authentic, more honest, more deeply felt or perceived

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In an interview given to Aesthetica, Crouch also says:

It is theatre’s loss not to think more rigorously about form. Visual art has moved beyond all recognition in the last 100 years. Theatre is still mired in notions of realism. There’s a great quote from the American scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones: “Realism is something we practice when we aren’t feeling very well. When we don’t feel up to making the extra effort.” The form of realism is about an attempt to capture reality – and it is this acquisitive aspect of realism that I am interested in exploring.

Not surprisingly, the critics have tended to fall into two camps – love and loath – with regard to Adler and Gibb. Matt Trueman, in his review, writes that

Crouch is, at some level, offering us an ode to theatre: it is dual status as fiction and reality, its honesty with semiology. At its baldest, art just gives us objects. Film, merely fiction. Theatre, the sweet spot in the middle, can hold both at once.

adler-and-gbb-playtextIn her blog, playwright Hannah Silva has written twice about the play, in attempt to answer questions she was left with – both in terms of form and message. Over all she says it is entertaining, strange, provocative, and a masterclass in theatre. She also shares a photo of a page in the programme/playbill (right) which indicates what will happen in the interval and that in itself gives you some idea of the unusual nature of the play. Below is a conversation with Crouch and one of his co-directors, Karl James, in which they talk about various aspects of the play. What has become clear to me as I have been trying to piece together a remote understanding of the play and why it has provoked the reaction that it clearly has, is that Adler and Gibb is one of those plays that keeps the watcher thinking and talking about it long after the viewing is over – a quick Google trawl through most reviews, both professional and personal, will attest to that.

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Another writer and theatre-maker, Dan Hutton, writes:

What’s extraordinary here is the way in which Crouch allows the language and emotions of ‘truthful’ representation to take hold even as the play as a whole questions those things. You feel emotion even as you know you shouldn’t, and see truth even though you know it’s fiction. By drawing attention to all these things, however, Crouch demonstrates how the difference between all these things teeters on a knife-edge, with only the framework and context pushing it one way or the other.

Theatre is only a step away from film. Truth is only a step away from fiction. Art is only a step away from reality.

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Clearly the bigger questions are about form, One reviewer for PostScript Journal spoke about the fact that the constant reminders of ‘real’ reality meant  that he simply didn’t connect to the characters (although though it did make him think). On the other hand, Beccy Smith in her review for Total Theatre wrote:

Yet, as Brecht discovered, story’s seductive power has the ability to draw us in despite theatrical attempts to confound it. For all the clear and pleasing formal frames of the closing scenes (through cameras, screens, acting theories and film production), what lingers are the emotional realities portrayed.

And I suppose there you have it – or perhaps you don’t!

A Shakespearian Smorgasbord

Today’s post is a bit of a pick and mix of all things Shakespeare that have come my way recently. Firstly, a very recent interview with Sam Mendes, acclaimed director of both stage and screen.  His latest theatrical outing was directing Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theatre in London. Here he is in conversation with Mark Leipacher about that very production.

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Along with Mendes, there are a series of video and audio recordings from the National that talk with the actors about their approach to creating all the major roles in Lear. You can listen to Talking Lear here or watch them here.  Another from the same series, which is really interesting, is a discussion hosted by theatre critic Michael Billington between psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley, and academic, Laurie Maguire, where they discuss Shakespeare’s understanding of the complexities of the human mind and how these would appear to be evident in King Lear.

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Finally in connection with King Lear Simon Russell Beale wrote a piece for The Telegraph in April, Whys Shakespeare always says something newin which talks at length about playing the Bard, the dangers of editing the text and why he considers that Shakespeare still has something to say today.

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Another production that has been making headlines beyond its rave reviews is Titus Andronicus currently at The Globe Theatre, London. Titus is renowned for its violence – 14 deaths, a brutal rape and scenes of mutilation and cannibalism. Inevitably, stage blood is often used by the litre in productions of the play, and occasionally to great and gruesome effect.  This particular production has clearly pushed the boundaries, being described as full of violence and sick humour in Hannah Furness’ article for The Telegraph, Globe audience faints at ‘grotesquely violent’ Titus Andronicus. The fainting count at the time the article went to press was growing rapidly. If rumours are to be believed, the largest number to faint so far in one performance is 43.

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It is clear from the publicity photographs why the squeamish are not faring well at The Globe. Indeed those who faint have been dubbed ‘droppers’ by fellow theatre goers and Globe staff. Furness writes:

One theatre-goer, who watched the show’s opening night, said there had been “quite a few droppers” in the audience, who fainted upon seeing so much blood. Another reported he had “almost puked” by the interval, while a third warned: “You will definitely need a strong stomach”. Others praised the “Brilliantly staged and flawlessly acted” production, but warned of “blood and violence galore”

What is amazing that amongst all the gore, the director, Lucy Bailey has also been highly praised for bringing out the darkly comic elements of Titus and making sense of what is often seen as faltering marriage of knock-about humour and extreme suffering on Shakespeare’s part.

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I16iht-lon16-superJumbo_Fotorn her article for The Guardian, There’s method in theatre’s blood and goreMarina Warner talks about violence on stage through history, why tragedies such as Titus bring us face to face with intense violence and how they also carry a vital contemporary message. A great read.

There is some really good related reading on The Globe’s website. One is a great piece wittily entitled Food for Thought by Cedric Watts about the cannibal or anthropophagous banquet scene in the play.  Another is The Sound of Cracking Bone by Robert Shore which looks at the rehabilitation of Titus as a play of substance and how staging it in a theatre resembling its original setting allows it to breath again. It also reminded me of my favourite of Shakespeare’s stage directions, which comes from Titus, 

Enter a messenger with two heads and a hand

The maxim, there’s no such thing as bad publicity seems to have held true for The Globe and they have quietly taken advantage of the ‘droppers’ to garner extra publicity for the show. No one has actually said how much stage blood they are getting through, but it didn’t stop one intrepid journalist heading off to find where it was all made. There will be blood! written by Nick Clark for The Independent visits the suppliers of the fake blood for Titus who make up to 450 litres of the stuff every week and have doubled their production in the last year, largely due to bloody productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Finally for today, a shout out for The Internet Archive which has recently posted the Orson Welles Shakespeare Collection, a selection of Shakespeare’s plays adapted for the radio by him in the 1930s and which were groundbreaking at the time. Welles is perhaps best known for the movie Citizen Kane, as well as one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of radio, his adaptation War of the Worlds which caused widespread panic when American listeners thought it was real and that an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was taking place

Orson Welles as Brutus in However, he was also a celebrated Shakespearian actor and during the late 1930s, Welles was the toast of Broadway, thanks to a string of audacious revivals of the Shakespeare’s work. The most famous of these was his 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar. Welles costumed the piece in modern dress with soldiers wearing what looked like Nazi black shirts. The show was lit in such a way as to recall a Nuremberg rally. Obviously this was playing at a time when Hitler’s power was growing, and the production is said to have jolted American audiences and made Welles famous, with Time Magazine even putting him on its cover.

The recordings made available by The Internet Archive are obviously dated and sound quality is not always great, but they have a surprising intensity about them. You can access them here and I have embedded Julius Caesar to give a flavour of what the rest are like.

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Redemption Sung!

By way of post script to my last post about the restaging of Miss Saigon in London, I want to share some of the reviews.  Before that, however, a great piece by Mark Lawson in The Guardian that caught my eye. In Miss Saigon, Yellow Face and the colourful evolution of answer plays Lawson talks about the David Henry Hwang’s new play, Yellow Face which opens with a character talking about his role in a campaign against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Asian character of The Engineer in Miss Saigon’s original Broadway production. Hwang is probably the most famous Chinese (American) english language playwright of our time and much of his work reflects his heritage. 

There’s a phenomenon in pop music of the “answer song”, written in direct response to another track: Carole King, for instance, recorded a number called Oh, Neil! after hearing Neil Sedaka’s Oh, Carol! There’s a similar – though sparser – theatrical genre of answer plays and a recent example is currently running at the National Theatre: Yellow Face by the Chinese-American dramatist David Henry Hwang.

Yellow-Face-squareHwang’s play begins with a dramatist called DHH describing the events that followed his involvement in a campaign against the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Asian character of The Engineer in the 1991 Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon. Timed, presumably not coincidentally, to run at the National just before this week’s opening of the first London revival of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical – with an Asian-American actor, Jon Jon Briones, in the Pryce role – Yellow Face is a response to that show. It is also, in a particularly rare example of a playwright answering himself back, a response to the failure of Hwang’s own 1993 show Face Value, a comedy about racial identity, even though, in Yellow Face, the dramatist exaggerates the content and controversy of that work.

Face Value and Yellow Face, though, were not Hwang’s first involvements with the retorting form. His first hit, M Butterfly (1986), was a tetchy conversation with Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, with Hwang using the enduring musical story of an American sailor’s marriage of convenience to a Japanese woman as a parallel to the fact-based scandal of a French diplomat and his Chinese “girlfriend”, who doubly fooled him by concealing the facts of being both a spy and a man.

Curiously, Miss Saigon, which later drove Hwang to his typewriter, was itself inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, although, for me, the musical belongs to the category of adaptations, rather than answer works. Boublil and Schönberg maintain the basic racial situation of the opera – both the American and Asian central characters are seduced by the dream of the US – while Hwang’s M Butterfly questions cultural stereotypes: challenged on his failure to have spotted the gender of his lover, the French diplomat revealed that he had never really seen “her” body because of typically Asian female modesty. Even so, it is possible, as if in a game of theatrical consequences, to create a chain of five works: Madame Butterfly-M Butterfly-Miss Saigon-Face Value-Yellow Face.

Perhaps, as Miss Saigon came some years after M Butterfly, the writers were influenced, even subliminally, by that other reply to Puccini. But, in any case, the above line of descent suggests that race is often a motivation in response projects. Hwang, from his perspective, queried the European view of the east, while Boublil and Schönberg approached the Vietnam war through their nation’s own history in what the French called Indochine.

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Racial redress was specifically the motivation of Arnold Wesker’s The Merchant (1983), in which Shakespeare’s Shylock – and the anti-semitism inspired by him – were given a counter-balancing characterisation by a Jewish writer.

A similar impulse underlies another chain of plays: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Bruce Norris’s Clyborne Park (2010) and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Beneatha’s Place (2013). Although the connection was more apparent to American than British theatregoers, Norris’s play has a first act (set in 1959) that picks up Hansberry’s characters and narrative of a black family in Chicago and then a second, set 50 years later, that depicts the change in demographics and American race relations. Kwei-Armah was so inflamed by his fellow writer’s treatment of the subject that he wrote his own play, which also has two halves set a half-century apart, but takes a more optimistic view of social progress.

Another string of dramatic inspiration links a British flop and a hit of the late 1950s. As the programme for the recent National Theatre revival of Shelagh Delaney’s 1958 play A Taste of Honey pointed out, the author, at the age of 18, had written her script in angrily rapid response to seeing Variation on a Theme by Terence Rattigan when it was performed in her native Salford. Delaney was irritated by Rattigan’s depiction of gay characters. As it happens, he was gay, while she wasn’t, but he had grown up with cautious attitudes enforced by the legal taboo on male relationships.

Rattigan’s play script was, as the title hints, itself an answer play, inspired by the Dumas drama La Dame aux Camélias. As a result, A Taste of Honey is a variation on a variation on a theme. It would be wrong to say that the three plays hold hands – the second and third are scarcely on speaking terms – but the two English language texts both owe their existence to a precursor.

Less specifically, two of the other most influential plays of the 50s – Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) – can be regarded as answer plays written in response to the prevailing mood of drama at the time, with Beckett questioning the preference for social realism and Osborne objecting to the narrow class range.

In drama – as in pop music – the responses given by these answering works tend to be irritated or argumentative, with Hwang’s M Butterfly, Face Value and now Yellow Face as good examples. The Chinese-American writer was correcting or questioning social attitudes; as, in various ways, were Delaney, Wesker, Norris and Kwei-Armah.

Yellow Face at the National Theatre's Shed

There’s also, though, another type of answer play that gives a friendly or generous response to the predecessor text. David Hare’s South Downs (2011) was commissioned by the Terence Rattigan estate as a sympathetic companion piece for Rattigan’s one-act The Browning Version. And, watching Moses Raine’s amusing and moving drama Donkey Heart at the Old Red Lion theatre, it struck me that his depiction of an English Russian-language student billeted with a family in modern Moscow seemed to include several deliberate echoes of or variations on themes or scenes in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard: the final scenes of both plays, though different in intent and outcome, feature old Russian men left alone in a family house.

Such critical fancies can often be a result of having seen more plays than most playwrights do and the apparent homages in Donkey Heart might equally be explained by the fact that Russians (Raine’s play was inspired by a visit to the country) behave in a Chekhovian way. Raine was present at the performance I saw and when I asked him afterwards, he confirmed that a production of The Cherry Orchard had been one of his key theatre-going experiences and that the allusion in his conclusion was deliberate.

David Henry Hwang, left, Ben Starr and Gemma Chan in Yellow Face.

Human nature being what it is, though, the most appealing answer plays are those that disagree. As artistic director of the Center Stage theatre in Baltimore, Kwame Kwei-Armah staged A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park and Beneatha’s Place last year as a season of dispute. There are no formal joint ticket deals for Yellow Face and Miss Saigon, but anyone who arranges their own double deal will experience an infrequent but powerful form of theatre.

In an accompanying article, David Henry Hwang shares is thoughts on the issue of racial casting – now and then – as well as the role he played in the protests against Pryce’s casting. Racial casting has evolved – and so have my opinions.

David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang

Described as a probingly political play by one critic, you can read a review of Yellow Face here. Equally as interesting, from the archive of The New York Times, the 1990 article about the furore surrounding Pryce’s role as The Engineer, which includes Hwang’s original Complaint, Actors’ Equity Attacks Casting of ‘Miss Saigon’.

So now back to the reviews of Miss Saigon, out this week. In extracts from his review for The Guardian, Michael Billington noted:

Seeing the show for the first time in a quarter of a century, I was more struck by its satirical edge than its emotional power. It’s not just that Chris condemns the Vietnam war as “a senseless fight”. Connor’s production implies that, although the story is about a cultural collision, the opposing forces of communism and capitalism carry strange visual echoes.

Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon became, is embodied by a towering golden statue before which Viet Cong troops parade with well-drilled fervour. America, meanwhile, is symbolised by a Statue of Liberty replica before which chorines dance with military precision. The show is not morally equating the two systems; it is simply suggesting that they feed off each other.

The show’s political point about the casualties of a disastrous war comes across clearly.

Ever the gentleman critic, Billington refuses to get drawn back into the original’s casting debate, preferring to note:

The show’s satirical quality is best embodied by the character of the Engineer: a pimping Pandarus, bred of a Vietnamese woman and a French soldier, he is caught between two worlds and dreams of escape to America.

He was excellently played by Jonathan Pryce in the original, but here Jon Jon Briones makes him an even grubbier, sleazier figure who is the victim of both his background and pathetic fantasies that see him in the penultimate number, The American Dream, pleasuring himself on the bonnet of a Cadillac.

It comes as no surprise really that the other critics have so fair failed to make comment on the context of the narrative, simply bemoaning, like an aged aunt, that the original production was better – Mark Shenton in The Stage and Charles Spenser in The Telegraph to name but two.

Birthday Bardolatry

Wednesday marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. Now regular readers of Theatre Room will know that I have a certain ambivalence to the works of the bard and occasionally find myself in arguments with others who refuse to believe anything other that he was the greatest playwright to have ever lived.

MR at The GlobeIt was therefore with some great interest I listened to a programme presented by British playwright Mark Ravenhill (left), who has just finished a two-year stint as playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In Shakespeare: For and Against for the BBC, and to quote the promotional material for the programme

…..Ravenhill challenges our adulation of the Bard and asks: Is Shakespeare’s genius beyond question? Casting a sceptical eye over centuries of bardolatry, Ravenhill calls for a new approach to the plays.

Exploring the intellectual tradition that has seen important figures from Voltaire to Tolstoy to Wittgenstein challenge Shakespeare’s supremacy, Ravenhill searches for today’s dissenting voices.

Tracing the transformation of a working playwright into a national poet, global brand and secular god, Ravenhill asks if it’s still possible to enjoy Shakespeare without being overwhelmed by the cultural and commercial baggage of ‘brand Shakespeare’.

It is really fascinating and amongst other people he speaks to scholar Ania Loomba who describes India’s changing relationship with Shakespeare, and Professor Gary Taylor talks about the ambivalence of large parts of America toward the Bard. Have a listen below:

In the interest of balance I would also like to share a piece written for The Telegraph by the highly respected actor Simon Russell Beale (interviewed by Ravenhill in the above) whose latest Shakespearian outing has been playing King Lear at the National Theatre.

Why Shakespeare always says something new

As the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth approaches, the great Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale explains his secrets

At the very end of King Lear, a frail, old man appears carrying the corpse of his youngest and much-loved daughter. It’s an image, like that of Hamlet holding a skull or Juliet on her balcony, that has imprinted itself on the minds of readers and spectators over the last four hundred years. For some, it is unbearable, even morally irresponsible; for Lear’s lonely, individual grief seems to reinforce the possibility, iterated again and again in the play, that all human life is essentially meaningless.

Whether one accepts that bleak vision or not, here once again is that familiar magic – Shakespeare’s astonishing ability to open out his work, to manipulate a single storyline, so that it includes, implicates and challenges everyone.

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The old king and his daughter do not enter alone, however. They are accompanied by at least one soldier, possibly more. This soldier, about whom we know almost nothing, has a single line later in the scene, but his entrance is not marked in either of the authoritative texts that have been handed down to us – the quarto and the Folio – and, consequently, presents the director of King Lear with a problem. When, precisely, should the soldier, or soldiers, enter? Every line spoken by Lear in this short, final scene is a wonder and I suspect that most directors instinctively feel that his words and the image should be left, as it were, to stand alone.

But, as so often, Shakespeare gives us a context for Lear’s pain, a counterpoint. The soldier is there to remind us, amongst other things, that the old king is not simply a grieving father but also a prisoner- of -war (a war for which he is ultimately responsible) and to confirm, with his single line, that Lear is still powerful and angry enough to have killed the man who was murdering his child.

This is a tiny example of another Shakespearean manoeuvre, one to set against his skill at articulating the big things like love and hate. It’s the type of thing that makes mounting Shakespeare’s work endlessly fascinating, demanding and frustrating. For whatever reason – the way the texts have been transmitted, carelessness on the part of the writer, a change of intention – the plays, in their lack of precision, often raise questions for which the playwright has provided no clear answer. Any actor or director in search of clarity could be forgiven for interpreting this as an opportunity or a challenge.

If this challenge seems, at times, difficult to meet then it’s comforting to know that we are not alone. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s younger contemporary and a writer whose narrative was always meticulously charted, found his older colleague’s work, for all its beauty, sloppy and often absurd. He probably found the paucity of information about Lady Macbeth’s child, for instance, infuriating. Unfair though it might be, however, Shakespeare’s capacity for absorbing endless reinterpretation, in contrast to the demands that Jonson makes, is maybe one reason why the latter’s work has never been as popular as his colleague’s. Perhaps we should be braver with Jonson, but the truth is that, over nearly thirty years of working on Shakespeare’s plays, there have been countless occasions when, in the rehearsal room, I have witnessed (and expended) a great deal of enjoyable effort in the attempt to sort out apparent inconsistencies and ambiguities. We could leave the plays alone, I suppose, but that seems the lazy and irresponsible option. Shakespeare demands a more considered response, I think.

This is a tricky business, however. One never wants to “tidy up” Shakespeare’s writing without considering as many options as possible and ambiguity is often a good thing. There are sometimes unexpected discoveries to be made by investing fully in something that is apparently confusing. The soldier in the final moments of King Lear is there precisely to complicate matters. In this case, the king may very well be embodying a profound and far-reaching pain that has universal relevance, but the playwright cannot resist providing a more mundane and savage context. Lear is not floating free of the real world; and this may remind us that it is in the oddities of Shakespeare’s writing, his exploration of the confusion and ugliness of any situation, his absolute refusal to sentimentalise, that a great deal of his power lies.

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The fact, too, that the plays are, from an interpretative point of view, open-ended leads satisfyingly to our questioning, not only the playwright, but also each other. We may not agree with a particular analysis or interpretation, but if it is neither wilful nor illogical, then it may well be, despite our preconceptions, valid. Shakespeare’s plays are very hospitable. As a fellow actor said to me recently, interpreting Shakespeare is “a game we can all play”.

The feeling that one is standing on shifting ground is there right at the start of any close reading of the text. The astonishing work of literary scholars over the last century has radically changed our view of the plays as comprising an unchanging and rigid canon. Not one of Shakespeare’s plays exists in a single, unchallenged version. There are, as I mentioned earlier, two authoritative texts for King Lear – with significant differences – and three for Hamlet. Plays like Measure for Measure are frankly a bit of a mess and Timon of Athens is clearly unfinished.

It seems that Shakespeare’s plays are, in some sense, there to be adapted. We have to tread carefully, of course, because we are dealing with a man who was unquestionably a genius;, but he was also a working man of the theatre and, it seems, was willing to adapt his work, responding to his own changing ideas and, presumably, to the demands of those he worked with. What this all boils down to is that you can’t perform a play by Shakespeare without first editing it. There is no set text.

The reason why this is a worry for some is that editing is necessarily an interpretative activity and our judgment of a play can therefore be manipulated. Choosing between options that the playwright himself offers is not, of course, objectionable, although many are surprised at how different these options sometimes are. For instance, one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies, his last, “How all occasions do inform against me” is not in the Folio version of the play.

Difficulties arise when theatre practitioners change things that Shakespeare did not clearly authorise. In the production of King Lear that I am currently involved with, there is a glaring, perhaps even controversial, example of this. The Fool, one of Lear’s few friends, disappears halfway through the play and this is considered by commentators as either gratifyingly mysterious or simply unsatisfactory. We decided that the King, now mad and predictably violent for much of the time, should club the Fool to death.

Whatever arguments we can produce for such a decision – and I, of course, think they are watertight, despite the fact that much later in the story Lear mentions that the Fool has been hanged – there is no doubt that some find such a departure from the text distressing. Years ago, in a production of The Tempest (also directed, as it happens, by Sam Mendes), I played a rather haughty Ariel who, at the moment of being given his freedom by Prospero, spat in his master’s face. This seemed to me to be an absolutely understandable protest given Ariel’s long years of servitude, but many spectators, for understandable reasons, disliked it intensely.

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My defence is that the texts themselves are not stable and that, anyway, we are following Shakespeare’s footsteps. For instance, editing a play for performance often means cutting lines and we know that some of the plays exist in shorter versions, presumably intended for particular occasions and I’m sure he changed things for other reasons than that of length. Even if the principal aim of a group of practitioners is simply to reduce the playing time, rather than something more devious, distortion of some (largely mythical) ur-text is inevitable.

This process of editing may challenge our preconceptions about a play and those preconceptions, especially if they manifest themselves in a desire for something that we can easily define, are often very difficult to shift. I’m aware, when watching a production of a Shakespeare play I know well, that I have to work hard not to impose my rigid requirements on the performers in front of me. There is always a danger that, while working on a Shakespeare play over months or even years, one can persuade oneself that a certain interpretation is the only one possible. After all, it is part of an actor’s job to convince an audience that, within the context of the production, this is momentarily the case. But Macbeth need not be, as I saw him, a man whose poetic imagination is liberated by a murder that is a gift to his wife. Iago may not have a second-rate mind, as I would argue, but perhaps is really is some sort of Machiavellian superstar.

I know I have to fight against my own prejudices (and acknowledge that, in any case, my ideas can change). Equally well, I have been guilty in performance of smoothing over, rather than embracing, difficulties, in the vain hope that no one will notice. For instance I have always found it hard that Hamlet, a character that I love and admire, is guilty of a puerile misogyny and, perhaps, more worryingly, of the unnecessary deaths of his old friends from university, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When I played him, I could find reasons for the misogyny but half- ignored the murders. The conflict and, most importantly the play on our sympathies are there, however, and should not be ignored.

The question of sympathy is one that has been exercising me over the months that I’ve been working on King Lear in Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre. If the soldier in the final scene is a reminder that Lear is not just a poor old thing but an angry, indeed homicidal, man, operating, however feebly, in a harsh world, then the first scene of the play is a direct challenge to our natural desire to like the central character. Unlike Othello or even Macbeth, we never get a chance to see Lear at his best, to see the man that Cordelia loves and that Kent and Gloucester, his devoted allies, respect. There are ways of softening the scene up, of playing it in a more vulnerable way, although I feel that this dodges the issue. What the king does in dividing his kingdom and banishing his daughter is, in Kent’s word, “evil”. Consequently, it’s a long haul back to forgiveness both from the other characters and from the audience; to be honest, I’m not sure we ever really get there.

Forgiveness, and the difficulties of defining it, is something that Shakespeare seems always to have been interested in and this interest becomes especially intense in his later plays. In The Tempest we see Prospero offering forgiveness to his errant brother in a manner that looks suspiciously like another arbitrary display of power. The brother, perhaps significantly, does not answer. Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, wracked with a guilt that seems for a long time too deep-rooted to shift, faces a wronged wife who talks, not to him, but to their daughter. Not a word is spoken that promises unequivocally a settled and happy resolution.

Shakespeare recognised that the wish to be forgiven and the desire to forgive is the start of a process, that reconciliation or redemption take time, and time, of course, is the one thing that Lear and Cordelia do not have. That is what ultimately is so heartbreaking about King Lear. Not all mistakes can be fully rectified, all damage repaired and all love restored – at least, not here and now. The best we can do is accept the muddle of it all.

What Shakespeare always demands, though, is our sympathy, because, to put it simply, he writes about people like us. Offhand, I can think of only one character he wrote – Iago in Othello – that slips through the safety-net of his concern. Shakespeare might not agree with Lear’s sweeping and anarchic assertion that “none does offend”, but he sensed, I think, the danger of easy judgement. He recognises that self-worth and dignity are hard-won and that our lives cannot but be inconsistent, unpredictable, and confused. The only sane response for all of us, perhaps, is to emulate him – to look carefully, to withhold quick judgment and to try to understand.

It would suggest you read the comment’s that follow Beale’s piece – they make interesting reading. This one says it all for me:

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Lost in Translation?

I’m guessing that the name Anders Behring Breivik will strike a chord with anyone over the age of 16. If doesn’t, Breivik was the man who, almost 3 years ago, bombed government buildings in Oslo, Norway, killing eight people, before going on to kill 69 other people, mostly teenagers, in a mass shooting at a summer camp on the nearby island of Utøya.

UtøyaNow this might sound like an odd introduction for a theatre blog, but bear with me. I was reminded of the atrocity this week on two fronts. Firstly, an attempt by the national government in Norway to create a memorial to the victims of Utøya shootings has been challenged by families of the victims and the locals who live near the proposed site.The memorial would see a channel cut across the tip of a peninsula which points out towards Utøya. one of the locals, Ole Morten Jensen said:

We will see this every day, a constant reminder of what we saw that day. All the blood, the noises, the shooting, the screaming. No, I don’t want to remember that. I think it is cruel for a government to expect us to be reminded of that.

I then read an article by Dominic Cavendish, for The Telegraph about David Grieg’s play, The Events, which was a response to the violence unleashed by Breivik back in July 2011, and asking how far human forgiveness will stretch in the face of atrocity. The Events doesn’t set itself in Norway, nor is there any direct reference to the Utøya massacre, but the parallels are obvious.  The play originally opened in the UK in summer 2013 and was a critical success, even winning best play of the year in one set of awards. It is still touring.

The Events, by David Greig Written by David Greig

Now, it has just had its Norwegian premiere and I wondered, given the opposition to the national memorial as one reminder too far, how The Events would be accepted by an audience who might want to put the horrors of Utøya behind them. Having said this, the play isn’t about that fateful day and its doesn’t recreate any particular event, but rather, as Lyn Gardner says, it is about grief, anger and revenge, but also about the things that bind us together as a community, the things that drive us apart, and what it is that makes us human. 

Now translated into Norwegian and titled Hendelsen the play opened in the town of Drammen, which is less than a 50 minute drive away from Utøya. Cavendish’s article below, deals in depth with the sensitivities surrounding the re-staging and whether it is something that Norwegian audiences will welcome:

David Greig: ‘I always knew I’d put The Events in front of a Norwegian audience’

The Events, David Greig’s acclaimed play about the aftermath of a massacre, has returned to its Norwegian source. But what did its first-night audience make of it?

David Greig in rehearsals for the Norwegian production of The Events

David Greig in rehearsals for the Norwegian production of The Events

A man stands on stage and points his fingers at a woman as though he were aiming a gun at her. “I have one bullet left,” he says. “Who is it for? Which one of you is it for?”

That’s what you’d hear if you translated his words into English. On this evening in late March, at Drammens Teater, a plush playhouse in a suburban town 30 minutes from Oslo, the man is speaking Norwegian. “Jeg har bare en kule,” he says. “Hvem er den til?” Even if you didn’t understand the words, you’d instantly grasp the seriousness of the threat.

I first saw Scottish playwright David Greig’s The Events at its opening performance in the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, last August. At the time, I was gripped by this pivotal moment, in which the unnamed perpetrator of a mass shooting revels in his power of life or death over a young choir leader called Claire. This was only one of many elliptical and absorbing dramatic encounters.

Like Greig’s heroine Claire, a priest who almost loses her sanity in her quest to understand the loner who joins and then destroys her multicultural choir, the playwright had become obsessed with trying to fathom what made the Right-wing extremist tick – and flip. The resulting drama was as economical as it was experimental. Just two actors were needed, the male taking on multiple roles, not only of the killer but also those with insights into his actions and even Claire’s female partner. The added ingredient was a supporting choir of local singers drafted in from wherever the production might be playing. The show ingeniously explored the urge to understand mass murder and the limits of that understanding. While its conclusions seemed bleak, the choir’s vitality and solidarity felt wonderfully life-affirming.

But for all that potency and poignancy, the show in the UK allowed audiences to feel removed from its dark Scandinavian origins. Occasional references located the piece in Greig’s native Scotland. You might recall the Dunblane massacre of 1996, perhaps. You didn’t have to think of Utøya.

On its opening night in Norway, however, Hendelsen, as the play is titled here (and which translates as “event”), will strike home hard. Drammen is the capital town of Buskerud, the county that contains Utøya, which is a 50-minute drive away. A stone’s throw from the theatre, facing the river, stands a memorial to three local teenagers who died in the tragedy, the youngest aged 14.

I learn that during the afternoon’s dress rehearsal, members of the Drammen International Gospel Choir – an inclusive, multicultural project of precisely the kind Greig envisages – were left in tears after watching some of the scenes for the first time. “It took us back to the day it happened,” one of their number later confides. “We remembered the helicopters flying over this town that night, bringing people to the hospital.”

Apprehension and anticipation builds before the performers wander on to the stage to begin their choir practice, as though everyone was invited into their warm rehearsal space.

Heidi Gjermundsen Broch and The Drammen International Gospel Choir in rehearsal

Heidi Gjermundsen Broch and The Drammen International Gospel Choir in rehearsal

“I don’t think people will stand up and scream, ‘This is wrong, stop this!’ ” reflects Elsa Aanensen, the artistic director of Brageteatret, the company presenting this touring premiere in a co-production with ATC. But she can’t be certain. Last month, controversy engulfed plans for one of the permanent memorials chosen to honour the dead – Memory Wound by the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg – when the mother of the youngest victim complained about its location and a lack of consultation with the bereaved. Last year there was much heated discussion when a Danish theatre company called CaféTeatret brought over Manifesto 2083, based on the document Breivik distributed shortly before the attacks. And when Greig and Gray visited Norway in 2011 to talk to people and do research, the scepticism captured on the streets by a TV news crew almost set off a backlash against The Events before it had even been written.

“We still have a big wound in this country,” Aanensen explains. “I certainly think about those events and that day whenever I pass Utøya. I think that’s true for many people. It felt like our 9/11.” She consulted a number of survivors before proceeding, all of whom approved the idea, but admits she heard nothing after sending a letter outlining the project to the Workers Youth League. The choirs involved have needed reassurance too: “The worry was that there might be shooting and on-stage deaths.” She wants to set off a debate, not cause a disturbance.

“When I wrote The Events, I was always thinking about tonight,” Greig, 44, confesses over a cup of coffee after he arrives in Norway on a flying visit. “I knew there would come a point when I would have to place this play in front of a Norwegian audience. I had to feel I could hold my head up and say, ‘There’s nothing in this that is easy, sentimental or tawdry.’ ” Although as outwardly calm and articulate as ever, he has, he says, a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach.

When the hour finally arrives, two things are immediately obvious. First, that the theatre is not full, a possible indication that the company has been soft-peddling on marketing to avoid any sensationalising effect, or that the public is still wary. More importantly, it is suddenly clear how close to the bone the play is – and the performances take the work to a new pitch of intensity.

Local resonances are pronounced from the start. In the opening scene, the choir joins in rousing folksy rounds of Norwegian Coffee Song as Heidi Gjermundsen Broch’s radiant Claire vainly tries to welcome in Rolf Kristian Larsen’s silent, sinisterly impassive, “Boy” – here white and bearded, rather than an ethnic “outsider”, as he is in the UK production.

Larsen has drawn on mannerisms observed during Breivik’s trial – “I wanted the body language to be more relaxed than his to bring out the creepiness of that fixed smile,” he tells me. Partly as a result, Breivik-like assertions about “foreigners” and the urge to be famous, as well as allusions to the FAQ sections of his manifesto stand out more than ever. As do the risks inherent in Greig’s even-handedness; confronted in prison and asked to explain himself, the Boy is normal, pathetically inadequate. “I just got a bit obsessed with Aborigines,” he mutters.

There is no discernible weeping, wailing or complaining from the audience, yet the rapt attention is unmistakable and at the closing song – a haunting, specially composed ballad called We’re All Here (Vi Er Her Alle Sammen) – you can feel the room unifying in sorrow and defiance. Greig and Gray join the curtain call to loud applause, clutching roses – the flower adopted as the emblem of grief in 2011 – with the rest of the company.

David Greig (left) and director Ramin Gray standing beside a memorial to three teenage victims of the Anders Breivik massacre, with the Drammens Teater in the background

David Greig (left) and director Ramin Gray standing beside a memorial to three teenage victims of the Anders Breivik massacre, with the Drammens Teater in the background

It will take a while longer to get the measure of Norwegians’ reactions to the work – the tour eventually winds up in Oslo, with a choir drawn from the commune near Utøya. But the response so far has left Greig feeling quietly vindicated. He says: “I had a particularly touching moment where a lady came up to me who had a daughter on the island of Utøya and a son who was a security guard at a building that was bombed. Both survived but she had a very close relationship to what happened. She said that up until now she thought she was weird because she had all these arguments going on in her head – and Claire had articulated all those things.”

Gray, too, exudes relief afterwards: “This could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways – it was a real act of faith. I sat there thinking ‘Phew, this is OK and I’m proud of it.'” Ine Therese Berg, a young critic from the weekly newspaper Morgenbladet, strikes a more emphatically approving note. “I think Norwegians would find it interesting. It’s not just a gimmick, it has integrity, it’s touching. At the same time, I wonder if people want to deal with it. We all related to it at the time and we talk about it as a national trauma but I wonder who will come to see it.”

One voice urging her fellow countrymen to take a look –“It’s great, very serious. They are doing this in a good way” – is that of 26-year-old Tonje Kristensen, who survived Breivik’s killing spree by continually moving around Utøya, even though she badly damaged her back jumping from a second-floor window. It’s not a chapter she wishes to relive in detail again – she wells up when I ask her what it’s like to confront such painful memories – but the feeling of unreality described in the play as the shooting unfolds struck a powerful chord.

“I felt I was closer to death than I have ever been before,” she explains. “That’s a very special sensation that you don’t often get – it’s different from being scared. I think they really nailed that feeling – you’re not just scared, you’re terrified.”

Having made a concerted effort to move on, and not to dwell obsessively, as Claire does, on the whys and wherefores of the atrocity, she still understands why there would be such a compulsion to puzzle over it all. “I think everyone felt affected by it, not just the people who were at some of the places that he attacked. Maybe for some people it’s stronger even though they weren’t at Utøya.”

Can a play like this usefully add anything? She nods but it is perhaps Larsen – the man who plays, almost, not quite, the man who tried to kill her – who puts it best: “We don’t set out to answer all the questions. It’s as if we are in a massively large dark room and have lit a tiny match – and we have shed a little light in there, knowing that we are only going to find out so much before it burns out.”

I have to say I am left feeling slightly uncomfortable by this. I can’t help thinking that by taking the play to Norway it the becomes voyeuristic, particularly because it is written by an ‘outsider’. Perhaps, however, it could only be written by someone not connected with the events of July 2011. I don’t know.

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?

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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.

Something Else To Stream About

Yesterday morning, at 5.00am, I found myself watching live theatre. It had started at 1.00am and I was just tuning in. It was a live stream of a durational work,  12AM: Awake & Looking Down, by Forced Entertainment. And what a joy it was – my insomniac self isn’t normally this productive. To put it in context,

12am is a physical and visual performance that explores the relation between object and label, image and text…..The piece lasts anywhere between 6 and 11 hours and…..the audience are free to arrive, depart and return at any point.

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Although this will be the basis of another post, just for the sake of understanding this one, durational theatre is defined as:

a form through which TIME is manifested in its original (natural) purity and brought to the forefront as pivotal to the experience. The performance is designed so that time, as the primary theme of the piece, physically affects and mentally transforms the performer, the audience, and the space

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The particular production lasted 6 hours and although I only watched for just over an hour (the stream to Hong Kong was a little too stuttering to sustain more than that) it was an event that I enjoyed being part of. Both Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells were live tweeting alongside it, as were people around the globe who were watching too, which added to the experience. It felt very ‘live’, but it was the fact that it was a new ‘experience’, a new type of theatre, that I think I enjoyed it more.

Untitled 4_FotorThese tweets give you a flavour of ‘how’ people were watching and interacting, and they themselves, for me at least, became part of the narrative as it unfolded.

Untitled 3_FotorOther people, as the tweet above shows, were clearly having the same experience. But it was the one below that really made me sit up and realise what I was actually witnessing.

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I got more excited by the fact that Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment then tweeted the following in conversation with Matt Trueman, a theatre critic:

Untitled 2_Fotor Untitled_FotorIt is Etchells’ words about context that really struck home. Having written recently, and at length, in my post Something to Stream About about the emergence of live streaming and broadcasting of theatre, this was adding another layer. The day before I had read a piece, Filmed theatre: a new art form in itself?by Racheal Castell who is Head of Screenings at Digital Theatre.  In it she covers some of the ground I had in my post, but she also observed that

The stage is indeed a precious space, and what happens between actor and audience member therein is both magic and real. But we mustn’t forget that plays are both ephemeral and eternal. A play is written to be performed, but performed again and again on new sets by different actors in reimagined contexts. The tension between the live and the repeated is inherent to most theatre.

Although the point isn’t entirely relevant to this post, the last sentence does connect. However, this second point by Castell is very relevant:

It was more gratifying to witness the responses to our watch-alongs, where people around the globe tune in and press play on a production at the same time and are suddenly able to visit the West End, albeit virtually. It’s as though the breath formed to articulate a Shakespearean monologue, the energy emitted between an ensemble, the tear that falls from a performer’s eye, is the butterfly’s wing and we – with all our technology, our media, our distance, our global experience – are the hurricane.

She is referring to an experience, not unlike watching 12am for me. Digital Theatre’s watch-alongs are dependent on social media, both to generate an audience all watching remotely at the same time as well allowing for a communal commentary along the way. Twitter replaces the real life audience, so rather than turning to your fellow theatre-goer for affirmation of a shared experience, you tweet it instead.

It’s also just struck me – a little off the point – that watching theatre in this way gets rid of the errant rings and glaring screens of mobile devices, hacking coughs, sweet wrappers being opened and latecomers that pervade the ‘live’ experience.

Castell (and many others I have read recently) are struggling to define this new live theatre experience, let alone give it a name. Whatever we eventually end up labelling this vanguard movement, I know I will be in the front row.

I want finish this post with another comment about 12AM, this time from Instagram. It says it all:

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