Monday, 24 March 2014

A word from The Lighthouse Keeper - rehearsals week one

Simon Spencer-Hyde here. I play the Lighthouse Keeper, Mr Grinling as well as numerous other characters in the show. It has been an excellent first week. Costumes are well on the way and the set is taking shape around us; all this really helps us inform our world and our characters, the fact that Eastbourne’s seagull community are in regular converse around our studio also helps place us in the world of the lighthouse keeper.

(L-R) Grant Stimpson, Becky Barry and Simon Spencer-Hyde
I’m really enjoying working out how our performance arena works - and it’s relationship with the audience. Stevie Thompson [our director] led us through a clown exercise she wants us to incorporate into the show, where you constantly ‘check-in’ with the audience. This was really interesting to explore; and rewarding to watch the other actors trying it out, because when they “clock”, you [the audience] feel really involved with the action. We also had a fabulous session on Friday afternoon looking into the physicality and voices of our various characters. We started off exploring how they walk etc, how their feet land, how they hold their shoulders, neck, where they lead from etc. But then Stevie got us to get a song that was relevant to that character into our heads [could be from the show but not necessarily] and start moving around the rehearsal studio seeing how this ‘internal music’ affected the character’s movement. It was a brilliant exercise, and totally changed the movement style I was exploring. This movement quality we had discovered was then extended to the voice and I found myself talking in a way I had never done before, something close to Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, but a bit more real!

Lots of music to weave into the show as well, and on lots of different instruments, which I particularly love. We’re trying to get all the incidental music as live as possible, considering there are only three of us and Grant [who plays Hamish the cat] hardly ever leaves the stage, this is a tall order, but it’s worked splendidly so far, although it does make for some challenging costume changes! Rowan Talbot [our Musical Director] is rewriting some of the music to adapt it to live instruments and it’s sounding really great.

Next week will be about getting through to the end in basic form, getting off book, cementing the current shape and then adding layers and detail, which is always an exciting part.

Bring it on. If only I didn’t have a stinking cold [it won’t stop me though].

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The birth of Macbyrd

Here I am back blogging in 2014. Last ‘term’ (once a teacher, always a teacher!) I was trying to get my head round the concept of theatre that is ‘cutting edge’ and which ‘breaks barriers’ and the truth is, despite seeing quite a few plays, I couldn’t find anything that really and truly did it for me. I haven’t given up and have visits planned which you can be sure I will tell you about. Also, please (and here’s a test to see if anyone is actually reading this!) tell me what you think is cutting edge and I’ll see if I agree. Anyway, in the meantime I thought it only fair to put myself and The Rudes on the line and tell you about how we make plays. I intend therefore over the next few months to open up the murky world of my brain and tell you what is going on as I write our summer play. So here goes!   

Back in September the word ‘Macbird’ came into my head (I don’t know where from; I had definitely not heard it before. See below) with the idea that it might be fun to write a version of Macbeth set in the bird world. I vaguely knew what it was about. I subsequently wrote this.

“It’s 1940 in the Sussex village of Jevington. George, a retired mechanic, cheerfully tends his vegetables (for the war effort) when his wife, Lil, comes out with a cup of tea, a piece of delicious upside-down cake, and… a letter from The War Office. ‘What’s this?’ he says. ‘What’s this?’ Above in a cotton wool sky bombers set out across the channel.  But clouds are menacing, bubbling up like ink blots above the Downs. Magpies gather, hopping in a circle on their twiggy legs. ‘What’s this?’ they cackle. ‘What’s this?’ And then, with clattering wings, they seem to screech, ‘Peck out his eyes! Peck out his eyes!’ But it’s not to George they croak. A raven, black, and sleek as silk, lands nearby on a branch, head held high and wings outstretched, bouncing like a tight-rope walker. ‘Peck out his eyes! Peck out his eyes!’ the magpies call, lowering their bodies subserviently. ‘Your time has come, Macbird,’ they whisper. ‘Listen to the wind! Peck out… his eyes!’ Amidst the cabbages, broccoli and comic absurdity, a dark and menacing intrigue simmers as a power struggle breaks out amongst the birds.”

At this point I didn’t really know much more of the story than this. Then…disaster! Someone told me that there was another play called ‘Macbird’, an obscure 60’s American play about Lyndon B Johnson. His wife was called ‘Bird’. My story was clearly different and I couldn’t get ‘Macbird’ out of my head, so someone suggested ‘Macbyrd’. A door opened. This was the correct spelling. Like ‘wytch’ and ‘wyerd’ it felt ancient. Ango-Saxon. And the characters started spilling out. Macbyrd, Wormwood, Cygnus, Pen, Thorn, Yewberrry, Nightshade, and so on – and then the story followed easily. Once they are named, they are alive. The life is in the name. Creatures from another world. And the story was just what they did. I then created a human time context, one of my favourite years, 1940, and I created humans to go with them, George Beeskep, a retired mechanic, Lil Beeskep, his wife, Cedric Lilywhite, a little man in a suit with a briefcase from the War Office up in London, and others.

I haven’t started writing yet. That’s not how I do it. I have to create all the pieces first (like a puzzle) in random order and then in a huge flurry of activity with cards stuck all over the wall I put it together in six weeks. I will tell you about it as I go along. At the moment I’m collecting words, phrases, poems, songs, gags, images, visions – and music. Musical phrases suggest events, so I collect them on my guitar (or this time round the piano). And I know now mainly what it is about. I can tell you this much.

It’s about the way the village’s life is disrupted when The War Office takes over a field and builds an airfield. But, while the human world provides a context, the main story sees the events from the birds’ point of view that live in the valley. Macbyrd is a raven, a minor clerk who has risen to become mayor of Aviana through force of character & political nous. He is content to defer to the Leader, Cygnus, an effete and over-refined swan, who with his partner, Pen, luxuriate in their own wealth, beauty and established status. But when magpies predict that ‘his time has come’ and that darker, cleverer, more powerful birds will rule the sky, provoked by his bitter and ambitious wife, Wormwood, he begins to think the unthinkable. Then when the human world intervenes and the pond is ripped out by machines he is convinced that he is destined to be Leader and kills the swan in a titanic battle. When Cygnus’ body is found in a ditch we see the events from the human point of view as the local bobby, PC ‘Dog’ Wood, investigates. The play is on one level a comedy of manners in that it reflects the idiosyncrasies of village life and wider society.

But, like all our adult plays, it is intended to provoke thought. Macbyrd feels obliged to preserve the status quo and observe moral values, but the feeling that he is a better, more capable, more worthy being gradually overwhelms him and makes him resentful of the fact that Cygnus is only there because of wealth and traditional, social and hierarchical structures – and the rightness of his case becomes greater in his mind than the wrongness of the act needed to change things.

So it deals with the way moral principles can warp through a sense of injustice - and bitterness can fuel extreme behaviour. It will be funny, but provocative and dramatic, too. Aristophanes meets Macbeth. Lyn Gardner pointed out that our antecedents are found in ‘commedia, Brecht, agitprop and magic realism’ and all of these will be found in the play. We work in a very conservative area and cannot be, nor wish to be, political, but we do wish to challenge and show how resentment develops and a sense of injustice drives someone to extreme behaviour. And, of course, the skies above Jevington in 1940 are a reminder of another little man who rose to power through force of character & political nous on the back of bitterness and resentment. We want our audience to tie these things together in their minds. Our roots in commedia typically will be evident, but, unlike last summer when we chose to work more traditionally, we will use the principles of commedia more, rather than the ‘archaeological artefacts’ - such as in the use of archetypes and by finding movement in the body language of animals as the basis for our technique.

More next week!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

From Morning to Midnight

This will be my last blog of 2013. Is that the heels of my dwindling following I see before me? Come back! I still have things to say! Those of you who have followed me from the start – Hi! Mum! – will know that in response to some faint praise from the Arts Council I have set myself the task of tracking down genuinely cutting edge theatre companies working today. The breakers of barriers!  The non-conformists who knock me back in my seat! Alas, as yet I have to report that, despite a fair bit of enjoyment, I have found not a single one. Way out in front is Kate Tempest who moved me deeply, but so stripped back was ‘Brand New Ancients’ to one or two ingredients in the cake, I feel I cannot count it, wonderful though it was (and I will be going back to The Royal Court). I want ‘total theatre’! Flat out, story-making, mind stirring, character driven, actor centred, all round physical theatre! 

So where better to find it than the National Theatre. After all that is what it was set up for and, what with a budget of probably a quarter of a million per production just for some of the sets, you would think I was on to a pretty hot bet. We were reminded a few weeks ago when its first fifty years were celebrated just what beauty, what devastating beauty, there has been, but what of now? Well I have two shows to report.

They have a handy little studio theatre, a sort of red prefab thing; well that’s what it looks like. It’s called ‘The Shed’, ‘a temporary venue celebrating new theatre that is adventurous, ambitious and unexpected’, according to the NT website. I went to see a play there, 'Nut', by debbie tucker green (which you annoyingly have to explain - like e.e.cumming - is how she spells it). The story centres on a young black woman, Elayne, whose obsessive neurosis finds her making endless lists, including a guest list for her own funeral, and then on a separated couple who argue bitterly about access to their child. Through it all there grows a feeling that something has been lost, innocence, a childhood, something robbed by growing up into a pathetically inadequate adult world. Finally, the constant smoking begins to make sense as Elayne reveals the cigarette burns on her arms. It was beautifully acted as far as it went and there was a pared back beauty, even poetry, in the language. But it didn’t move me. It should have done. Kate Tempest moved me at the first word she spoke.  Maybe it was because I knew in her case it was real. She really had suffered. Whereas this was yet another piece of theatre being ‘relevant’. Of course, in its own way it was brilliant. Michael Billington gave it 4 stars in The Guardian. So why was I not moved?

I think it was the feeling that the content was the thing and the form only needed to be ‘good enough’. It was well acted. All of them were good young modern pros – including the child in it, who moved about silently like a ghost until he sang with a haunting little voice. But you don’t have to ask of a diamond that it be brilliant. It just is. In the cut. In the lustre. And, for me, the acting was good, but didn’t sparkle. It didn’t sing. It talked. Just like on the telly (as usual with so much contemporary acting). Oddly, too, when it ended nobody seemed to know it had. People were looking round at each other to check. Rule 1: The ending must be clear if all else fails. Well, this aside it was well done, but is that enough? Just because it is about self-harming or child abuse (It wasn’t that clear as Michael Billington acknowledged) and is just ‘well done’, does that make it cutting edge? It felt like ambulance-chasing to me and, however, sympathetic I was to the cause, I really couldn’t be bothered to chase.

So I went back to the National for another go last week. Maybe this time the best resourced theatre company in the country would come up trumps? I knew the play this time and it wasn’t new. Written in fact way back in 1912, which begs the question: Can plays still be cutting edge if they are a hundred years old? If they can, maybe we should also ask: Have we learnt anything since? It was Georg Kaiser’s ‘From Morning to Midnight’ (a piece of German Expressionism. This I should like!) in a new version by Dennis Kelly and directed by Melly Still. With so much money to spend, it knocked Chimerica out of the water with its contraptions, back projections and front projections and Buster Keaton type collapsing houses and rows of antique bicycles. The main difference was that from the very outset, despite all this, it was about acting. Of course, being a piece of Expressionism, all naturalistic movement was out of the window, which was a great start for me.

Let me clarify that. I don’t need actors to hold a mirror up to nature. You don’t see nature anyway – just mirrors. So why not go the whole hog? Don’t bother about nature and ask the feet to do what feet can do and the hands what hands can do? So much drama is in the surprise and it’s no surprise that feet can walk and hands can hold. What else can they do? They can point and glide and twist and turn. The body can make shapes and represent as well as just ‘do’, and it can just ‘do’ as well. The fun is in the discovery – in just what can be said. All this applies just as much to the voice. There is so much that can be said with the body. (As I hope we shall see at the London Mime Festival soon.)

In this play the central character, a bank clerk, just called ‘clerk’ – immediately universalising him – spontaneously steals 60,000 marks and, pursued by the police, undertakes to find, to buy in effect, ‘the one meaningful thing in this world that could be worth the sacrifice of my life….A reason for being alive. A reason for actually drawing breath’. Is it in the purchase of art? Is it through philanthropy and the sponsoring of a great cycle race? Is it through downright pleasure and sex? Everything disappoints plunging him into further disillusionment. Finally at a Salvation Army hall he finds reflections among the penitents of all the sins in his own life and following their example finally eschews them, flinging his money into the air so that it falls like snow. But, rather than eschewing money as he has, instead the penitents and even the Salvation Army major herself, scramble on their knees, not to pray, but to stuff their pockets with the cash. In despair the clerk, with the police bursting through the doors, electrocutes himself in the shape of Christ on the cross.

It is a fantastically evocative piece in its constantly shifting imagery, the spare existentialism of the language and the huge imagination of Melly’s direction and the play really was cutting edge in its time – and feels as though it should be cutting edge even now. But I was disappointed. I know I am so hard to please! But at the end there was a feeling of anti-climax. Unlike the end of Propellor’s  ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where the audience erupted with applause, here the applause was weak and, embarrassingly, the audience had stopped clapping when the cast came on for a second bow. Of course, it may be that the Expressionism wasn’t understood, given the shallowness of telly, the common diet, and the expectations of West End tourists that the National Theatre is bound to be good – and ‘good’ has to create a degree of common ground. For me it was just a technical thing. There were about five or six penitents in the final scene each reflecting a part of the clerk’s psyche and it took an age to get through them all, losing its pace. I would have pruned it right back. I don’t speak German so don’t know how well the translation reflected the original. But here’s a second example of a National Theatre production not paying proper attention to the ending. There was also a feeling that: We can do what we like because we have the resources - and they can't. But it did give a glimpse of what can be done.
Maybe the failures of my current search are just about the way the world is now, or England at least? Shallow. My one attempt at tweeting just said: Why is the world so shallow? I don’t have many followers! I wonder why? But I might have a point. This week I read that one of the few pieces of moderately decent television drama, 'Ripper Street', has had its next series cut, because it’s not attracting a big enough audience. No doubt it doesn’t meet the normal standards of the BBC, that is, on interest values, compared to the fascinating consumption of grubs in jungles by minor celebrities, or the foul mouths of chefs, or who is not talking to who this week. Ah, well. We almost found the cutting edge this time.

Speak again after the Winter Festival. Have a good one! 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A rainbow of theatres

The brochure for the London International Mime Festival dropped on my doormat last week, as it has every year more or less since ‘I don’t know when’ – and, of course, I shall be going, as I have been for most years since.  As almost all of the programme will involve devised shows, you may wonder why I am so keen, given my recent diatribe on the limitations of devising. The clue is in the word ‘mime’. My focus has been text, because that is one of the things that interest me most about theatre. But LIMF reminds me, in case I had forgotten, that there isn’t one ‘theatre’: there is a rainbow of theatres.

Not that text and script are exclusive of each other; for example, my own company, The Rudes, are both a mime and a text based company. Mime isn’t about the lack of words, but the abundance and richness of physical movement. What the LIMF mainly programmes and embraces is non-verbal ‘theatre’. It reminds us, therefore, that theatre has a pallet from which we practitioners can choose. What I liked about Kate Tempest’s ‘Brand New Ancients’ was just how rooted among the ancients it was. Among witch doctors and adepts of the tribe. It focused on the core process of theatre.

The Apache attached hooks to their bodies and, braced with leather thongs to their totems, wailed and danced into states of delirium. Northern folk listened to stories danced and sung by the shaman among yew groves thick with the vapours of hallucinatory taxus baccata berries. But that’s religion surely, you ask? Well! What’s the difference? Just think about it? The actor/priest/adept/ shaman takes up the empty space. The magical space. Start juggling, or playing, or dancing, or singing in the street and a magical space opens up where all but the witless will not walk. Weird! Try it. Then comes the initiate/votary/congregation/audience divided from the actor/shaman by this invisible barrier, or ‘fourth wall’. As we are drawn magically into the drama, it becomes an issue that: We might be absorbed by it. Will they come through to us? Will we become penitents? Will the wall disappear? Will it take over our minds? At our shows I often hear, ‘I’m not sitting near the front; they might pick on me!’ But they come: half exhilarated, half afraid. We, as audience members,  can sit back and keep it at a distance, or we can let it take over us, take us on a journey. There’s that business about breaking barriers again. The subject matter is: The world and all that walks in it. It is rehearsed for us and we are rehearsed in it – until, if it works for us and the journey takes place, we are somehow purged. This is theatre.

The actor/shaman’s palette, the intoxicating whole, is, in no particular order: the words, or vocal sounds, the music, the magical objects and the swaying of his body, all telling the story – what happens, what happened before, what happens next and how will it end? It is all fundamentally the same, except that practitioners focus on different things.

This year at the LIMF Phia Ménard will cause small plastic bags, kept afloat by currents of air, to dance to the music of Debussy and a storm of beautiful airborne demons will fly and float before our eyes.  Compagnie Philippe Genty will plunge us into ‘a world of dizzying dreams and beautiful landscapes’, with ‘breathtaking optical illusions and ever-changing stage pictures’ and ‘captivating fantasies’. And Gecko will bring us ‘a delicious world of warped imagery and beautiful music’ with ‘stunning design and unusual choreography’. And there will be clowns, and no doubt there will be grummelot, the clown’s glossolalia - sound that imitates speech, and sometimes just vocal noise, the physical manifestation of air through the throat. And there will be acrobatics, and female robots that do all the chores in a male fantasy world, and boxers, and giant puppets and jugglers. Well, all according to the brochure. As I quoted from T.S.Eliot last week, ‘Art never improves, but the material of art is never quite the same’. 

Is all this cutting edge? Well, I will make my mind up after I’ve seen it, but in a way it often is, because, while they are not pushing the boundaries of the spoken word (my own precious thing), they are trying and trying and trying to explore what can be said by doing without words. As the brochure says of Gecko, they seem ‘to have mastered a new form of communication in which sounds and movement convey meaning more effectively than words’. But... conversely maybe it can just as easily convey, and forgive my language, but you are grown up’s, just so much bollocks. Sometimes just doing anything different is mistaken for art. As Eliot said: Is the past changed by it and is it changed by the past? But I do always keep going back and usually am both elated and disappointed. But it is all about looking – and these artists are always looking. We can look and sometime we find and sometimes we don’t.  

I must finish with something closer to home, Ed Hall’s marvellous company Propellor’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I saw them a couple of weeks ago. Their palette like our own is both about the words (always in their case Shakespeare’s) and the poetry of movement. Because they choose to play only with men you are forced to think about the movement of women. They don’t put on wigs or padded bras; they don’t pretend to be women. They are just men playing games with the familiar movement of women – and it is very funny. But all the movement is crafted with lovely detail, especially the ensemble work, the feet and hands always as studied as the head and shoulders. Two scenes stood out: The lovers’ enchantment sequence when they fling insults at each other in total abandon, possibly the funniest scene in Shakespeare, and the Pyramus and Thisbe sequence, which was so silly it had pretty well everyone guffawing like donkeys.

Have I found my cutting edge? No, not really. I thought the delivery of the words at time laboured and at best conventional – and it was a total mystery to me that the actor playing Hermia also played Snug the joiner, which meant that Hermia wasn’t present with Lysander to watch the rude mechanicals do their play. But does it matter that it wasn’t perfect and not cutting edge? It was such fun! And the movement like Henry Goodman’s in Arturo Ui a few weeks ago was so exhilarating. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Creating the sparks

In my recent blogs you may have felt that I was a bit niggardly in my judgments of other companies’ work. I had harsh words to say, for example, about Lucy Kirkwood's ‘gripping thriller’ for Headlong Theatre Co, Chimerica. That it won the best play in The Evening Standard theatre awards and received a five star review by Michael Billington may suggest I might be needing to attend to egg misguidedly delivered to my nostrils instead of my mouth. Let me briefly remind you of my complaint, not that it didn’t have a good story; indeed I was gripped (-ish). What I felt was that the actors’ skills were buried under a scree of ‘newness’, an all singing and dancing set, language so ‘now’, and shot from the hip with such coolness, if words were bullets, Al Capone himself would have struggled to keep up, and a storyline so ‘relevant’ it could have come from the front page of The Guardian (and maybe should have). So wondrously was it all done (And it was! The production values were immaculate) it seems to have carried all before it like a hurricane (except hard to please and niggardly misers like me).

All this begs (on its knees) the question: For something to be cutting edge does it have to be by definition ‘new’. My threat of descending into the scholarly barely touched the surface last week. You may duck now if you wish.
T.S.Eliot’s classic essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ still has a great deal of relevance. So, Eliot says of the poet, but it applies in my opinion just as much to a new piece of theatre, ‘the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past’. So here’s a value to ponder: Newness alone is not enough: creativity should involve the past and the present modifying each other. 

Everything is ‘new as such’ (at some point) as life unfurls, but is it just a cheap imitation of the past or, just as inadequately, an attempt to sever its roots with the past? That thought is helpful to me. When I look at a piece of theatre I am asking myself: in what way has it changed the past and in what way has it learnt from the past? Ok, Chimerica told a good story! Enough said. I give up! But what did it learn? To bury the actors’ skills in fancy toys? And do Forced Entertainment absolutely need to throw out author, plot and character completely?

That is not to say ‘that the material of art’, must always be the same. On the contrary, to quote Eliot again, ‘art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same’ – and part of the cutting edge is in the finding of new tools, or the re-application of old tools. I have no problem with the projection of photo-montage onto revolving cubes, or of actors firing rockets from their backsides if they so wish (and it helps things along) - as long as certain eternal values are maintained: In this case the centrality of the actor and his/her core skills.

If I am to wag my finger (as if anyone would take any notice) it would be to say: Let’s not argue that because something is new it must be breaking barriers. Newness isn’t even half the story.

So if I am so keen on the actor, why did I give devising such a hard time last week? Fair point, given that devising places the actor at the very centre of making theatre. Well, I’m not questioning devising for that reason. I want actors to be at the very centre, too, but first you’ve got to look at what is going on when making a play and in what ways they can be at the centre.

In the Saturday Guardian’s review last weekend of Stanley Crouch’s ‘Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker’, Crouch quotes a colleague of Parker. “The thing I loved about Bird (Parker) is this: he wasn’t one of those who’s got to write something down, go home, study on it, and the next time we meet, we’ll try it out. Anything anyone did that Bird liked, when he found out what it was, he’d do it right away. Instantly. Only once on everything.” So if Charlie Parker can make something straight off without studying, why, potentially at least, can’t actors? The point is, as the reviewer mentions, he could do it because he had already put in the 10,000 hours. Similarly, Keith Jarrett can sit down at a piano, pause, not know what he is going to play and then make something up on the spot that is beautiful. So why am I against devising? I have already answered that last week, so I want to talk about the converse of it: Why I believe working in another way is better.

I like to think of our own work, that is The Rudes’ work, as similar to jazz. Jazz is by definition ensemble; it is the bringing together of specialists. Each has put the work in, done the 10,000 hours; each has accumulated a billion epithets (little bricks or units of construction) to contribute to the whole construction. Then they come together and, sparking off each, they dig deep into themselves and offer something - like each bringing something to a meal, one the pasta and one the wine. Sorry about the mixed metaphors, but what the hell. This is what I have; this is what I want to give – and, knowing what to give and what not to give, the whole is put together and something unique and beautiful is made. Ok, so surely this is devising? Yes it is, but the issue with making theatre is that the actors have their bodies and voices, skills studied over thousands of hours, the writer brings language, equally studied over thousands of hours, and the director brings possible directions, organisation and objectivity. If any one of these three parties tries to do it all, then something is lost. So what appears as spontaneity is in fact an ‘electrical event’ when several already charged particles come together.
I want to talk again, another time, about the apparent spontaneous creation of language in the commedia dell’arte tradition of which we are a part and the misunderstandings about all’improvviso, but for the moment in my pursuit of the cutting edge I am looking for: creativity that involves the past and the present modifying each other, the proper distribution of roles within the whole, and each party having done the work so that when it all comes together sparks can fly. I shall talk about Ed Hall’s company Propeller next week and their production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Enforced entertainment

I warn in advance that this blog might degenerate into the scholarly in places because of the possible need for me to justify opinions I have on a subject that has cropped up this week – that is, devising. Feel free, therefore, at any point to cut to next week if you feel it coming on. If I may remind you, I am currently on a mission to determine what is meant by ‘cutting edge’ theatre and ‘breaking barriers’ – and indeed whether we can ever hope to attain this ‘ethereal state’.
I therefore caught up last week with what I understand is the epitome of cutting edge theatre, Forced Entertainment. The artistic director Tom Etchells once said, “We sometimes go to the edge, a really interesting place to be.” Well, there y’go, it must be cutting edge – and they are one of the Arts Council’s portfolio companies, that is, the Arts Council give them a great deal of money every year to do what they do and guarantee it for several years in advance, or to quote from the Arts Council website: “Since forming the company in 1984, Forced Entertainment have sustained a unique artistic partnership for quarter of a century, confirming their position as trailblazers in contemporary theatre.”

So last week I saw ‘Tomorrow’s Parties’ at the Battersea Arts Centre. The set was a pallet on which the two actors, one man and one woman, stood for the duration of the play (about an hour and a quarter) framed overhead by a festoon of coloured lights (which I understand from the website represents ‘a makeshift fairground’, although there was no reference to fairgrounds in the play itself. The entire thing is a sequence of fairly brief conjectures about the future, ‘utopian and dystopian visions, science fiction scenarios, political nightmares and absurd fantasies’, to quote again from their website, spoken in turn by the actors with each conjecture separated from the next by the word ‘or’. There are no variations from this at all.

So, and I have to confess I can’t remember one single conjecture exactly so I am making these up, but they are not untypical: In the future ‘there will be no men at all, but the world will be run by a tribe of Amazonians’, and then the other one says, ‘Or...there will only be five people left in the world, one on each continent, and they will all be vegetarians and will contribute to the final stages of global warming by farting simultaneously on Sundays’. And the other one then says, ‘Or....’, and suggests something else, and so on – the same pattern ensues for the entire play.

There were no named characters as such – unless the actors on the stage were just themselves, or maybe not, but taking on a persona. I don’t know them personally so I can't say. There was no story as such either, although as the lights began to dim towards the end and side-lit shadowy profiles began to loom, you felt at least that we were moving into a darker state, a dystopian endgame. So there was a beginning (fairly light hearted), a middle (a bit more argumentative and contentious) and an end (dystopian). The script I understand was devised, that is the actors and director talked about the agreed theme (‘guilt and innocence’ apparently), made suggestions, played games, thought of scenarios, and so on, and then what they came up with was written down and became the script. I think that’s how it happened.

So, no characters, no story, no author and no movement around the stage. So was it theatre at all? Let’s use FE’s cutting-edge-ometer again. (For those of you who have just turned up late, see my last blog.) Did it excite? As much as watching the skin form on a rice pudding. Did it frustrate? It certainly did that. After thirty minutes or so I did just begin to start hoping for fewer or’s and more and’s, or however’s or therefore’s. Did it challenge and question? It certainly did that, too.

The main issue was: Is it theatre at all? Well, yes it was in my opinion. Here’s my definition. Theatre is art and art is about intention. If a drunk drops a bottle in the street, it’s litter. If he manages to balance it on its thin end and mutters, ‘Look at that!’ it’s art – because he is manipulating our perception of it. He is getting us to see the bottle in a different way. That is art. It may be bad art, but it is art. Ditto with theatre. The intention comes first and then the aesthetic. Forced Entertainment didn’t accidentally turn up. It wasn’t a dinner party where a couple of people were chatting about what the world would be like. They wanted me to hear and watch and be moved, ‘moved’ in the sense of shift my position on something. And they did do that.

So the aesthetic. How well did they do it? Well not having characters and a story does kind of take away a lot of the fun: Seeing how the victims and the heroes and the villains get on, who they were and what they have become, whether or not they get their just desserts, having the feeling of the denouement  when all the strands are brought together and sorted out, all that was missing. 

And the language was devised, damn it! I have yet to see a play in which the script has been devised, and I know I might offend some people in this, which has any richness or depth in the language. It may be witty (and this was, very funny in fact at times); it may accurately reflect the rhythms and textures of everyday language and therefore feel ‘real’, and people like ‘real’. But compare it with Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas. Is it rich, is it like a garden, or even like Kate Tempest’s urban flowers? I have never known it in a devised script and it wasn’t the case in this either. The great commedia dell’arte actor Isabella Andreini could, it is said, improvise perfect verse. Who can do that today? Maybe the urban rappers begin to – and there’s another tick in Kate Tempest’s quality box. I once looked at a paragraph of my own in ‘The Fairy Queen’ and thought, ‘Hey! That’s as good as Shakespeare!’ And then you look at a play like ‘Twelfth Night’ and you see that he did it for page after page after page.

I have recently started learning to play the piano. I’m loving it – and I reason that, according to the principle that to become brilliant at anything you need to put in 10,000 hours, if I play for three hours a day for the next ten years I could be as good as Keith Jarrett (my favourite jazz musician), or if I put in one and half hours a day I could be half as good as Keith Jarrett. Of course, this kind of misses the point that Keith Jarrett probably has a gene or a chemical in his brain somewhere which allows him to feel music in a way I never could in a million hours of practising – and so Shakespeare was the same with language. You can’t just do this stuff off the cuff! It takes time, practice and that special ‘other thing’. I’m not saying there is no place for devising. It’s good where the movement is more important than the words, and useful  if you don’t have a writer handy and you are desperate to make theatre.

So was 'Tomorrow's Parties' cutting edge or breaking barriers? Sorry. It was not, because using their own definition it did not 'entertain' enough. Maybe it was a useful kind of performance art, a sort of art of 'near theatre', helping (as they claim) to challenge us about what theatre is – and things don’t have to be brilliant all the time. They can sometimes just be good and still have value. In one respect ‘Tomorrow’s Parties’ was really good. They were excellent actors and by having to look at them in one spot all the time you see things microscopically. Look at people at a dinner party: They will poke their ear, scratch their nose, shift their weight, twist their neck to ease stiffness, and so on. It’s what people do – and these actors made a perfect study of it, so I could not take my eyes off them. Of course, because there was no story and they didn’t move around the stage, there was no development – and what was wonderful about Henry Goodman in ‘Arturo Ui’ was the development, the story of his movement as he moved from small time crook to arrogant dictator. That marks the difference between ok-to-good and brilliant theatre. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Tempest (not as we know it, Scottie)

In my last blog I expressed my gratitude to ‘Forced Entertainment’ – Is there something accidentally betrayed in the name? You will enjoy this cutting edge theatre, or else! – for the supply of helpful terminology. Theatre must ‘excite, frustrate’, still not sure about that one, ‘challenge, question, entertain’ and ‘confuse’. Errm. Yes. Not sure still about that either, except that there must be some degree of challenge or we leave our audiences just where they were before and, maybe, when they have finished their journey with us, we need to drop them off a little further on from their bus stop, just to give them a little bit of cultural exercise?
 Well, this week I saw a piece of theatre – theatre, yes, or rather ‘theatre but not as we know it, Scottie’ – that really did blow me away (Note my efforts at contemporary from the hip lingo). It was Kate Tempest’s ‘Brand New Ancients’ at The Royal Court. Let me apply the FE–ometer to begin with. (Forced Entertainment! Come on! Catch up!) Did it excite me? Good lord! Yes! Did it frustrate? Errr, no. Did it challenge? Absolutely. Like a sentry’s bayonet at my throat! Did it question? Ditto. Did it entertain? In cart loads. Did it confuse? (Pause, while he thinks.) Yes, at times it did - and in little ways, but not without a series of mini-epiphanies (which suggests FE might have a point).
For a bit of background to help things along, Kate Tempest is a young person. Not exactly a ‘youff’; she’s 24. Not a grisly like me, in other words. She left school early and spent some time homeless before making a few waves as a rap artist. Began writing plays (success in Edinburgh). Among them ‘Glass House’ for theatre for the homeless company, Cardboard Citizens, and ‘Wasted’ and ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ for Paines Plough. I’m not sure that’s the right order – and won the Ted Hughes Prize for innovation in poetry. Sit up and listen! This is a serious artist.
The theatre experience? Well, the ‘set’ was just the band with a mic stand for Kate. She was the only ‘actor’. (More on that anon.) A very complicated drum kit with a lot of electronic things that were new to me. A tuba with an ENORMOUS mute the size of a dustbin! Literally! Something I would have given my right eye for when I was a teacher! A violinist and a cellist. There was a lighting scheme, not dissimilar but on a smaller scale to that at a rock concert. The music was ‘classical’ - without being Classical at all - fed through the electronic ‘things’. Stockhausen, but more friendly. Kate comes on and talks to us. She chats in her Sarf London accent. She wants us to relax. Hopes we don’t get ‘fucking bored’ (Her words not mine). It’s a 90% young person’s audience, by the way. Twenty and thirty somethings. I kept my head down. If this is theatre she’s broken several rules already. She helpfully tells us, however, that she hasn’t actually started yet. It’s not Brecht. Not alienation technique. She just hasn’t started.
Then the lights dim and she starts. Inexplicably a deep resonant emotion wells up inside me and I begin to cry. Privately. I don’t want to appear a wimp. Besides, it might be just because I know she was homeless. Perhaps I’m just pleased for her because she’s ‘made it’. Maybe it’s because she’s young and the father in me is reaching out to her. Maybe, perhaps all of those things a bit. She raps. But the rhymes are tucked away. Subtle. If words were flowers hers were picked in the cracks between paving slabs. The unmown corners of suburban litter strewn recreation grounds. By the side of railway tracks. She is no Marvell or Donne. But the words breathe. They rustle and hiss – and underneath are the rhymes and rhythms (tucked away) conveying it orderly along.
It strikes me she’s a bit like a gospel preacher, especially when the words swell up and burst from her as they do from time to time (in alternate waves and troughs). Is she in fact an actor at all, or just some sort of pedant shouting at me to ‘get real’ about the pain of her life and that of her kindred? Pain certainly pervades at a subcutaneous level. If she isn’t an actor, then is it really theatre? Yet she isn’t preaching as such.
I’ll use Pete’s cutting-edge-ometer again to test it out. Is there a good story? There is a ‘Sarf London’ story of poverty. (Spoiler coming up.) He dies (in Thailand with his Thai bride smiling at him). Taken out of context it doesn’t seem much, but I really did want to know what was going to happen next – and the ending did hit me between the eyes. Why should I care that this down and out died in Thailand with his cute little sex slave? But I did. So that’s theatre at least. And did her voice tell me a story? It really did control me with its rhythm and cadences. And did her body tell a story? She was clearly not a trained actor. How do I know? Well, there is a paraphernalia of performance, a way of moving, certain give away devices (Actors have habits and short-cuts), a self-consciousness about performance, the sort of stuff that makes it difficult for a theatre director like me to take some acting seriously - because I can see through it. Yet she did take on a role. The word ‘possessed’ springs to mind. I am an atheist and absolute non-believer in the spirit realm by the way. Yet the words and characters did seem to ‘possess’ her. When she sat she rocked like a disturbed child. When she stood she swayed. Her arms moved and hands flicked as if she were poking at invisible objects. I have seen some of these movements among rappers before and from young black men. It is a highly expressive and almost involuntary movement of the streets. Part defensive, part chin up saying: This is what I am. So if she is not an actor, what is she? Maybe we need to distinguish between different kinds of acting. Acting by definition implies that someone has taken on a role – and she certainly did, and just as quickly snapped out of it when she was ready to.
This was indeed ‘theatre, not as we know it’ and that probably makes it the first example in my quest for ‘cutting edge’ – unless it is just a return to the beginning. The witch doctor. The adept of the tribe. The priest. Maybe it is all acting. According to Pete’s cutting-edge-ometer, she certainly controlled me like a priest and seduced me like a whore. Maybe ‘cutting edge’ is about going back to the beginning. Seeing again. Afresh. A kind of ‘possession’.  
I had intended to talk more about Henry Goodman this week in his wonderfully physical role as Arturo Ui, but I have been waylaid. Maybe that’s the point. ‘Cutting edge’ and ‘breaking barriers’ stops us in our tracks. It waylays us. I will go back to Henry Goodman next week. In the meantime I look forward to seeing Forced Entertainment’s ‘Tomorrow’s Parties’. We shall see.