Thursday, 22 October 2009

celebrate Howard Barker

Yesterday The Wrestling School, Howard Barker's theatre company, turned 21, something to celebrate. It makes Andrew Haydon ask himself if plays are to be enjoyed at the Guardian (I wish he would have written a longer piece about it, as it's a very interesting concept, why do we go to the theatre?).

There are few people in the theatre right now that I admire more than Howard Baker, few who posses such awe-inspiring integrity. I think integrity is not a word many theatremakers take into account when making career decisions. Only Trevor Griffiths, somehow, comes to my mind, when I think about the kind of stubborness with which Barker refuses to comply to either the material goals of commercial theatre and the trends in the art world. Like he says, he doesn't fit.

Howard Baker is a difficult writer and I must admit his Arguments for Theatre went over my head. But in a good way. I know that someday soon I will have to develop my own theoretical take on the medium, other than hurl volumes of Artaud, Brook and Barker at people. All dramatists should shape their own basic beliefs about the form of art they are choosing. Barker is one artist I can look up to and look for guidance in his texts. He is driven by a complete faith and wild trust in theatre, which is something that in our cynical world is almost always met with suspicion.

"Tragedy is the greatest art form of all. It gives us the courage to continue with our life by exposing us to the pain of life. It is unsentimental, it takes us seriously as human beings, it is not condescending. Paradoxically, by seeing pain we are made greater, it becomes a need."

It's not his ideas but his poetry that I keep coming back to Barker. I still remember reading most of Dead Hands standing up in the National Theatre bookshop, rooted to the ground by the power of his words.

I have only dipped my toes in Barker's body of work and though I have a long way to go so far all I've read has left a mark on me, both radio versions of Victory and Scenes from an Execution and the reading of Dead Hands, Gertrud - The Cry and He Stumbled. These are complex plays, full of unforgettable images and magnificent poetry. They leave me trembling. It's a very particular response that I associate with the sublime.

Now, I have to make a confession here: I have never seen a production of a Barker play just yet. Victory came at a hard time for me to see theatre and Found in the Ground well, let's say that the location of the Riverside Studios makes me lazy to get my ass there. But I think there's something more than that. I guess I don't want the feeling I've got when reading Barker plays in the privacy of my own bedroom, or listening to the radio adaptations, to be disturbed by the actual staging of his words. Barker plays live in some sort of abstract reality for me and I am still reluctant to face the materiality of them on stage. This is something I have to get over, of course, because plays are meant to be seen on stage. But maybe I'm not there just yet.

Impossible to overlook the fact that I feel specially close to Barker because he holds Shakespeare in such esteem.

"I am so far as I am aware not at all influenced by dramatists, expect for Shakespeare, who I have to say, it is impossible not to be influenced by if you hold language to be the major element of theatre. "

- Read Whatsonstage brief interview with Howard Baker (9 Oct 2009).

- The Telegraph on the 21x21 celebrations.

- Check out this excellent interview with Barker at the archives of Theatre Voice.

11th May
Howard Barker

At the ceasing of the running:
What terrified us so?
At the fall of the cities:
Why did we inhabit them?

I love the way the grasses one genus
Following the other smother the dead cars
The strict order of their progress

I love the way her neck falls into
Soft lines and the hardening of her hands
The strict order of her decline

I sung the world no longer there
Hardly a dried flower of Apollinaire
Hardly a chair
And we would fail to know it in the market

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

news: Royal Court Spring Season 2010

The Royal Court has announced its Spring 2010 Season (details at Whatsonstage):


- Off the Endz, (16 February-13 March 2010) by Bola Agbaje (Gone Too Far).
- Posh, (15 April-22 May 2010) by Laura Wade (Breathing Corpses). Directed by Lyndsey Turner.
- Sucker Punch, (18 June-24 July 2010) by Roy Williams.


- Disconnect, (22 February-20 March 2010) by Anupama Chandrsekhar.
- The Empire, (8 April-1 May 2010) by DC Moore (Alaska). Directed by Mike Bradwell.
- Ingredient X, (26 May-19 June 2010) by Nick Grosso.
- Spur of the Moment, (20 July-14 August 2010) by Ania Reiss.

Not much to be cheerful about. Roy Williams is a great writers but he is always a hit-or-miss business. It will be interesting to see Nick Grosso come back to the Court - he is a writer in my opinion who has never lived up to the promise of his first pieces. I'm sort of looking forward to Spur of the Moment, which on one hand it seems like the Court trying to find a new Polly Stenham (please no) but it also seems like something right up my alley. We'll see.

Monday, 19 October 2009

News, Interviews, Food for Thought

- Interview with Lesley Sharp at Whatsonstage. Apart from her current run in Jim Cartwright's Little Voice at the West End Sharp talks about her next project, a version of Ibsen's Ghosts directed by Ian Glen (I saw a rehearsed reading of this a while back at the Young Vic, with Sharp, Glen and my beloved Tom Brooke; and it blew my mind). Don't forget Little Voice opens officially tomorrow at the Vaudeville Theatre. It is really worth it, one of the most enjoyable plays of the season - you can get very cheap first row day seats if you swing by the theatre around 10 in the morning.

- Listen to a new adaptation of Berthold Bretch's and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera for Drama on 3. A collaboration between BBC Drama and the BBC Philharmonic. A quite splendid production of this masterpiece, thanks to the very special talents of Joseph Millson as Macheath and Zubin Varla as Peachum.

- Speaking of this blog's favourite actor, Joseph Millson; news are officially out that he will play Raoul in Love Never Dies, the sequel (or reimagining, or whatever Lloyd Webber said it was) of The Phantom of the Opera. To no one's surprise, since Millson was strongly rumoured for the role as he had already recorded the part in the concept album (you can order it at the official website). News about the cast announcement via Playbill, and the always useful Joseph

- "Sacred" opens tomorrow at Chelsea Theatre. A season of contemporany performance that promises to be something quite different to our usual theatre evenings. Looking forward to it.

- Also opening this week If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet at the Bush Theatre. The always wonderful Josie Rourke directs and the always interesting Rafe Spall is in the cast.

- Simon Anstell will be doing his stand-up routine, Do Nothing at the Royal Court in November. I saw two warm ups and it's a really enjoyable act, charming and well-observed. You won't regret spending money on this, I promise.

- Matt Trueman's article in the Guardian yesterday, "Is the live theatre experience dying?" left us a bit worried. Not because the live theatre experience might be dying (although all this business of Tennant's Hamlet DVDs and live transmisions from the National Theatre is quite annoying) but because some people's implication that the mix-media might by killing it. As the article says indeed the theatrical experience, its liveness, needs to be re-examined, but not from a position of deriding the new shape narrative and performance art takes. One of the examples used, Katie Mitchell's use of video on her productions, feels specially significant for me, because ...some trace of her remains one of the most original, touching and yes theatrical experiences I've had as an audience. So maybe all this genre-bending and media infiltration is not the death of live theatre but rather its evolution in order to survive.

- Also interesting, Michael Billington's little note about the use of the word "Brechtian" and how it tend to send audiences running out of the auditorium. I agree people have a natural reluctance to the adjetive. As for me, I am not Bretch's most fervent fan, far from it, but I was brought up to believe you can do worse than "Brechtian" in your plays.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Speaking in Tongues Q&A at the Duke of York's

My only complain about the otherwise perfect Speaking in Tongues revival is that the Duke of York's is the wrong place to have it on. So I feel sort of vindicated when I heard Toby Frow insinuating the same concern, and saying that his first options had been off-West End and that it had been the producer's decision to move the play to a different, wider (and in my opinion, wrong) audience. Now we can only dream how wonderful this production would have been in the Almeida.

The highlight of the Q&A event with director and cast (minus John Simm) was of course Ian Hart's repetition of his well-known stand on "hating theatre". Nevermind, cause he does offer a good and coherent argument for it and I, personally, have nothing to protest about his belief. I think it's his right and I think it's admirable that he says so with honesty. But eyebrows were raised upon hearing this:
Ian Hart: That’s what I hate about theatre. What Kerry’s just outlined as a pleasure and a joy to me is an intrusion on what I do for a living. The audience, I can’t stand you. Collectively, not individually, I’m sure you’re all lovely people, but as a collective entity I find you abhorrent. I genuinely don’t understand from your side of that divide what it is that you want. That’s up to you to decide, what it is you come in with, whatever it is you want to get out of this experience. As far as I’m concerned, it ends at the edge of the stage and I work on the stage with my colleagues, tell the story, and obey the writer’s instructions and the director’s intentions. What you get out of it is entirely up to you. I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to respond to your laughter, your crisp packets. It’s not my responsibility to take on board.
You can read/hear the rest of the Q&A at the website.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

COMEDY: Ricky Gervais, New Theatre Oxford, 12 October 2009

Having seen two warm-ups previous to the tour there was little to surprise me in this show. Although slightly less rich and coherent than Fame or Politics, seeing Ricky Gervais is always a treat. His presence onstage is charismatic and likeable.

He doesn't tone down the polemic elements in his stand-up but nor does he exploit them for polemic's sake. He is vital and inventive and though some parts of the show work better than others (his encore is a bit underwhelming after what came before) the fact that we are still laughing after seeing the same material twice before is testimony to his genius.

And in any case it's just exciting to see one of the best writers of any generation in the flesh.

Ricky, we are not worthy.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Little Voice, Vaudeville Theatre, 9 October 2009

Photograph: PR

There's a line Jeanette Winterson says when referring to Virginia Woolf's Orlando and the enthusiastic reaction it got from readers: "They (people) did not understand it but it charmed them."

The same sentiment could be used to describe "Little Voice" and its singular misguiding nature.

It is a charming play and it's easily misconstructed by the audience as a feel-good, uplifting play. Its structure suggests a simpler play than it really is. Of course it helps that this is a West End revival and the girl playing LV comes from the world of X-factor.

But (like the equally misjudged "Speaking in Tongues" at the Duke of York's right now) this is not a West End play and though it has enough going for it to woo a West End audience I dare say few people sitting around me at one of the preview nights stopped and thought just how extraordinary a play this "Little Voice" is.

This is not your usual West End musical it is a piece of poetry. Jim Cartwright is a poet. His language is extraordinarily experimental but it comes wrapped up in what Marc Warren calls a "northern showbiz fairytale". There are songs and good feelings and a budding, cute romance amidst the tragedy and wasted chances of these characters' lives. The play paints quite a dark picture of these dead-end people, of brash, loud, selfish Mari (Lesley Sharp) and her shy, anti-social daughter (Diana Vickers), and the chancer, has-been disaster that is the charming Ray (Marc Warren).

It's a redeeming and familiar enough story: LV, shy and self-confined to her room and her late fatheer's records gets out in the world through her extraordinary gift, a voice that can mimick those of the great singers: Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey. Exploited by her dissatisfied and uncaring mother and a manipulative manager LV ultimately escapes the clutches of her opressive family life and finds love and freedom.

It is at times Disney-like fable and at times grim, tough Jimmy McGovern-ish Northern social drama.

It's curious to see how this revival sells one point but then the actual production doesn't turn its back on the other. It shouldn't blend well but it does. I suspect there's a lot of irony in Cartwright's assumed happy ending but there's a lot of heart, too. It's a complicated ending, too. It offers hope but few answers.

Although I think Lez Brotherston's girating set was a bit distracting at times I appreciated that Mari's house was every bit as ordinary and bleak as her life, and that they didn't prettied-up or clean the set for a more conventional audience than the one Jim Cartwright usually writes to (not for, I don't think he writes for anyone but himself). The production - despite the glittery posters and heavy pr campaign - doesn't shy from the darker themes of the story and, for example, the heartstopping last fight between Mari and LV is a perfect example, wonderfully pathetic and raw.

And the asset of this production is its cast, so that the GORGEOUS prose of Cartwright's get to shine as it deserves:
Mari: "You've always been a little voice and you've never liked much, to speak and such, but this thing you've developed could make us Ray reckons. Don't know where the hell it's come from, such a quiet lonely thing you've always been. I could almost fit you in my two hands as a babe. I don't know if it's the drink but I keep seeing you tonight as our little LV there, little pale chil' in me arms, or in the old pram there, that lemon coloured crocheted blanket around you, tiny good-as-gold face in the wool. I'm sorry for the way I am love at times, it seems to be the way I am. It seems to be something..."
Of course most people turned up at the theatre wondering if X-factor contestant Diana Vickers was up to the challenge. Well, yes and no. I have never seen X-factor so I had no previous reference, and I wasn't particularly concerned where she was coming from, as long as she was able to do a decent job. She is not a very good actress but she is not a very bad one, either. She fits the part of LV in a way that makes her believable. At least I believed her. She is sympathetic and the scenes with LV's love interest (played by the playwright's son, James Cartwright) carry the perfect balance of cuteness and embarrasment. But Vickers is not a great singer so when the times comes for LV to shine the moment is just a little underwhelming. But all in all she doesn't hurt the production irrevocably.

It was interesting to see two of my favourite actors acting together for the first time; although both Marc Warren and Lesley Sharp were pretty much in their comfort zones with this one. That doesn't diminish their merit, of course, but I always enjoy my favourites when they are doing something new (like Warren did with "The Pillowman"). Sharp is a veteran Cartwright-ist, having been in the first production of his seminal (& people use this adjective far too often but here I mean it) play, "Road" and her skills for both lyrical and down-to-earth moments makes her the perfect Mari, as if the role had been written for her. And Warren is used to play charmers so he is at home with Ray, but he also shows his capacity for pathos in the wonderful scene where Ray breaks down at the club.

It is always wonderful to see such gifted actors doing their thing.

"Little Voice" is a rare thing; it's a show that I utterly love but also I show I would recommend to everyone for very different reasons to those why I love it. Whether you are looking for a bit of West End escapism or for a searching, lyrical piece of art, you will leave the theatre satisfied. Cheered up even.

Read Marc Warren's diary of the production.

The Stage.
The Guardian.
The Telegraph.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Press heads up: Jonathan Pryce Interview

Excellent (if as always shorter than we'd like) interview with Jonathan Pryce at the Guardian. He talks about coming back to the Liverpool Everyman for a revival of Pinter's The Caretaker, and about his career origins on that very stage.
Pryce is returning to the Everyman for the first time since the early 1970s, in a production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, playing Davies, the loquacious tramp. He could have waited until the theatre's refurbishment was complete, but Pryce says he had a nostalgic urge to experience the old venue the way he remembered it, "before they got hot water in the showers".
Liverpool is a long way from London and there are very few people in the world for whom I'll make that trip. But I went to see Marc Warren in Leicester and so at some point of this month I will pack my bags and board one of those uncomfortable National Express coaches heading North to see not only Mr.Pryce but own personal favourite Tom Brooke alongside him.

I really loved Liverpool on my first visit (to see The Coral in concert) and I can't think of a better reason for an impulsive one-day trip than theatre.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

ENRON, Royal Court, 2 Oct 2009

Sometimes a good night out is quite a surprising thing. For I might be only person in the UK whom upon seeing the name "Rupert Goold" in the credits I am immediately less likely to go see that play. I think he is overrated, I can appreciate why he is a critical darling but I believe his ideas kill the text more often than they enhace it. He overdoes things, everything he touches becomes infussed with obviousness and self-importance. Six Characters in Search of an Author remains one of the most repulsive theatre experiences of my life.

Yes, I did have prejudices about Enron before seeing it. But I gave it the benefit of the doubt because I had quite liked Time and the Conways (even if Goold destroyed the ending with his heavy-handed direction) and above all else was the matter of Tom Goodman-Hill. As much as I love seeing Samuel West on stage and how he is always worth the money of the ticket, it was my admiration for Goodman-Hill and his acting skills what decided me to brave the queues and take my chances with a return ticket of this sold-out production.

Two hours of queue later I was in (with quite appalling seats but the Royal Court is small enough for them to be decent) and enjoying it.

It's a fun play to watch. Most of it comes from Lucy Prebble's confidence as a writer, which translates into this indescribable energy that pushes the play even through its less compelling moments (these are very few, indeed, but still there are some glitches). I call it "cocky writing" and it's always a good thing. It was a highly entertaining piece of writing, and clever and never didactic though I admit I learned a few things. The old woman by my side was confused by the economics of it but I think the play does a superb job of explaining the important details of the convoluted finantial affair while never talk down the audience. It's a fine balance and Prebble succeeds.

Sam West always makes for a compelling lead, one of the few actors in UK who can carry the weight of such a huge enterprise as this on his shoulders. He goes from nerdy, socially awkward genius to self-assured, cool guy and the tranformation is quite something to witness. West navigates through the character of Jeffrey Skilling flawless.

Tom Goodman-Hill is a revelation himself. I was quite unsure how much stage time he was going to get and if the price of my ticket would be worth it just to see him, but he was quite pivotal in the plot, had loads of scenes and he excelled in all of that. He was at turns sympathetic and pathetic, ruthless, a villain and a victim. His performance outshone the rest of the cast, for me, the real highlight of the night. The rest of the cast was competent but not exciting (although it's always good to see Ashley Rolfe). And the production in general was very good, with a couple of moments when Goold overdoes it but in a play like this his natural tendencies do less harm than to other works. It is a flashy play. In the best sense. It has great ideas (the raptors, for a start; the newscasters) but sometimes it feels a bit too much, with the lights and the video and the plastic chairs racing like bikes. But I guess it's part of the point the play is trying to make, the abundance and collapse of it all.

In short, the writing was so solid that not even Rupert Goold could do it much harm, and Sam West and Tom Goodman-Hill alone are each worth the price of the ticket. If you can get one, that is.

There's always the West End transfer.

Read other reviews:
The Guardian.
Another article in The Guardian about theatre and banking.
This is London.
Times Online.
Aleks Sierz writes about it.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The Bush Library opens

The Bush Theatre Library opens today, welcoming back Simon Stephens' monologue "Sea Wall", easily my favourite piece of theatre of 2008, performed by the most excellent Andrew Scott, easily the most talented actor on the stage nowadays. If you missed it last year you have until Sat 17th of October to catch it. You won't regret it.

Read more.

Friday, 2 October 2009

the fear of rejection

I've submitted a (very) short play to Hampstead Theatre's Start Night. I wrote it in about two hours so I'm not trusting my chances. Specially since they already rejected some of my stuff this year. But I think it's good to get things out there. And Start Night is a great idea, very encouraging.