Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Songs From The shows!

[Lemsip-fuelled madness]


I sometimes joke that I get out so little the only place I hear new music is in the theatre. This is of course nonsense, I just need to stop listening to Radio 3. And you never really hear new music in the theatre anyway. Nevertheless, here’s my countdown (alphabetically) of my favourite tunes from this year’s theatre!


Clapton, Erich von – Let it Grow, from Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok?



I should have banged on more about just how good and how revolutionary Susanne Kennedy’s production of Warum Läuft Herr R. Amok? was in my Best of 2015, but banging on about it here will do. The play follows Herr R. while he has an abiding fixation with a song he’s heard on the radio. He goes into a record shop, asks colleagues, and tunelessly sings a meaningless refrain from the song with – in this production – no real notes at all. Snippets of the song get played until Herr R. has a full-on breakdown and murders his wife and children, at which point the song gets played in its entirety while an old woman dances on stage. It remains perhaps the most theatrically revelatory thing I saw last year, though not because of this. Still, uhrwurm-city for weeks after.


DAF – Der Mussolini, from Die Unverheiratete



Also at Theatertreffen, and probably my favourite stage design of the year, Robert Borgmann’s production of Eward Palmetstoffer’s The Unmarried was superlative in many ways, but few moments beat the bit where the action of the text was broken off for a re-recorded version of this German electro-punk classic from 1981, playing loud under flashing lights chucking of bits of set around. Basically the other half (see previous song) of what we go to Germany for.


Fall, The – Blindness, from Stewart Lee’s A Room With A Stew



Slightly cheating, since it’s play-in/pre-show music, not technically theatre, and possibly only from the Leicester Square gigs, not the Edinburgh ones. But still, seeing and reviewing Stewart Lee’s show in Edinburgh seemed to do Postcards’s reader numbers no end of good (write about things people have heard of and there’s a ready-made audience! Who knew?). And led to my getting to interview him for Exeunt in October, which was nice. The other reason to include a song by The Fall is that they’re probably one of the best bands to ever come out of Manchester, and moving to Manchester in March this year still feels like one of the other best things I did this year.


Hawkwind – Master of the Universe, from The Angry Brigade



Ok, so I haven’t really explained the rules of this game, have I? Basically, it’s my favourite songs/music that were used in theatre productions that I saw this year. In theory I didn’t really get on all that well with The Angry Brigade at the time – although I did like the bit when they played this. That said, it’s worth saying that, along with the other political pieces I mentioned in my Best of 2015 round-up, a lot of the facts and ideas in Angry Brigade really stayed with me. It strikes me that there’s maybe another examination of this to be made by theatre and soon. Maybe by Breach Theatre next time...


Iron Maiden – Run to the Hills, from La Mélancholie des Dragons



So far I’ve been doing a fine job of writing these little commentaries while listening to the songs. That is not possible here. Phillip Quesne’s La Mélancholie des Dragons was a remarkable, tender, fragile, brilliant, beautiful piece of theatre which played in Manchester for all of about three nights thanks to Walter Meierjohann’s remarkable good taste in international imports. The opening of this delicate thing was four blokes listening to heavy metal in a car (on stage) for about ten minutes. This was one of the songs. (The fact it’s a violent dual perspective narrative of British soldiers slaughtering Native Americans didn’t seem to impact on the play.)


New Order – Age of Consent, from The Shrine of Everyday Things



It’s funny, writing this list. Shrine of Everyday Things was *such* a good show. Should probably have been included in Best of 2015 too. It was a kind of site-specific promenade piece around an old estate in Manchester, just by Contact Theatre, which is going to be knocked down (the estate, not Contact). As we walked to the estate we listened to people who had lived there’s memories of the place. This song came on just as we walked into the estate itself, and it really did feel like we’d been shifted back in time. Utterly beautiful.
[Edit: And, Christ! What a video on YouTube! Not the version they used, but great.]


Purcell, Henry – Music For a While, from Adieu



The whole first half(-ish) of Adieu consisted of solo performer Jonathan Capdevielle standing alone on a sparsely lit stage singing snatches of Madonna songs into a microphone. Pretty much note perfectly, but still, it was eerie, disorientating – there would also be long pauses – and almost daring the audience to leave. As the thing mutated and started to cohere into something, at some point he also sang most of this. Also unaccompanied. Also beautifully. And it was somehow the most wrenching, ghostly thing imaginable. And then it segued into Hung Up or even Music. Most arresting use of music award right there.


Ukrainian National Anthem, from Maidan Diaries



Eagle-eyed observers amongst you will have noticed that I go to Eastern Europe more than the average theatre critic. And those of you who know me will know I have a bit of a sentimental spot for a fair few Eastern European National Anthems.

It’s easy to forget, what with all the fun going on in Syria right now, that there’s still basically an unresolved war in Ukraine right now. A war that is so incendiary to European peace that many Eastern European friends were predicting that we’d be at war with Russia by Christmas. Instead, we seem to be fighting a proxy war with Russia through the medium of Syria on the pretext of ISIS, which literally no one understands, least of all the civilian population in Syria. Meanwhile, Ukraine seems to have been split in two, and no one even remembers what the protest in Maidan Square (literally Square Square?) was about anyway.

Anyway, yes, the Ukrainian National Anthem was sung in this piece of verbatim theatre about the Maidan Square protests, and was very moving, even if, at the time, I didn’t know the words or what they meant. Fans of Eastern European National Anthems will spot the similarities to the Polish National Anthem, and consequently Israel’s and Yugoslavia’s. Fans of logic will notice that despite the assertion that their enemies will vanish like dew in the sunlight, there is subsequently a lot of talk of sacrifice. :-/


Bonus track:

Chameleons Vox – Singing Rule Britannia, from (cheating) the Chameleons Live at the Manchester Academy II, 18/12/15



It’s odd, isn’t it? Going to a gig shouldn’t feel quite as alien as it does, but, hell, I’m nearly 40 and I never much liked standing up all night anyway. Still, if you live in Manchester, you have to go to gigs; it’s the rules. And there seem to be more, and more reasonably priced, and more local, and more Relevant To Your Interests. But, yeah, went to this last Friday and it was just amazing. Pretty much all my favourite songs played back-to-back for an hour and a half. Brilliant atmosphere. The nicest audience. Just lovely.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

2015

[including a tiny bit of a think about Best-of lists...]


Entries in reverse chronological order. As close to ten as I could reasonably get it.

La Mélancholie des Dragons – HOME, Manchester

Adieu – BITEF, Novi Sad

The Iliad – BITEF, Belgrade

Lanark – EIF, Edinburgh

Tonight I’m Going to be the New Me – Forest Fringe, Edinburgh

The Encounter – EIF, Edinburgh

The Beanfield – Edinburgh Fringe

Tree of Codes – MIF, Manchester

Skriker – Royal Exchange/EIF, Manchester

hang – Royal Court, London

Oresteia – Almeida, London

Iphigenia in Splott – Sherman, Cardiff

Warum lauft Herr R. amok – Theatertreffen, Berlin

Carmen Disruption – Almeida, London


End-of-the-year Best-of lists are daft, aren’t they? (Maybe individual ones more so than voted-for ones, those I find fascinating) I mean, what kind of criterion is “Best”? What does it mean? And, if you’ve been reading my reviews, wouldn’t you know all the above anyway?

In the above list, “Best” means all sorts of things. There are things there that are “Best” because I found them incredibly moving, but there are also things there that I didn’t find even remotely moving. There are things that completely changed my idea of how theatre works best, or what it can do, and things which didn’t really surprise me in that way at all. There are a couple of things that while I was watching them I wouldn’t have thought would have made it onto my Best of 2015 list, but which haven’t left me alone since, coming back as a reference point for all subsequent work. Is the compilation of a Best-of list really about “Best”ness or about politics and canonisation? (Yes, yes it is.) Or is it about a genuine emotional or intellectual response to Things Seen In An Artform Over One Year (ok, yes, it’s that too).

When I stepped out of Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Measure For Measure at the Young Vic, I was certain it would be on the list, but for some reason, in the cold light of day, it’s currently been pushed off. (Although already it’s starting to creep back.) But I do wonder if it doesn’t deserve to be on the list anyway for offering one of the biggest headrushy, gut-reaction shows of the year.

Similarly, for the number of times I’ve referred to it since I saw it, Rob Icke’s production of The Fever (at the May Fair Hotel for the Almeida) surely deserves a place, but that would make it the third Almeida show and the second Rob Icke show, and it’s so hard to compare The Fever with, say, Tree of Codes in terms of Bestness that we might as well give up on the idea altogether.

If I was more intellectually honest (or adventurous), or more politically-minded, I think added to the two BITEF shows already mentioned should be: Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People as Brecht’s Learning PlayThe Discreet Charm of MarxismThe Death of Ivan IlychOnly one of which I even really enjoyed watching at the time, but all three of which made me think about politics, and theatre, and theatre & politics, more than anything else I’ve seen for some considerable time. Indeed, as you can see from the list, apart from a bit of radically joyous vintage French fluff (La Mélancholie des Dragons premièred in 2008), the stuff I saw at BITEF kinda made made everything I saw after it for quite a while feel pretty flimsy by comparison. But also, who can account for moods, anyway? I do wonder if the running order in which I saw plays were reversed, would BITEF (now in April) have cast the same shadow across the Edinburgh and Manchester international Festivals (now in April and May respectively) as it did across this autumns already slim pickings?

Internationally, also close to the list were Young Stalin from the Warsaw Drama Theatre, seen in Slovakia, Romeo Castellucci’s Doktor Faustus at the Malta Festival, Poznań, Roar, China! – Teatr Powszechny, Warsaw, and TWO different versions of Agota Kristóf’s A Nagy Fuzet / The Notebook.

Bloody close to inclusion were Seeping Through at Forest Fringe and Blood Wedding by Graeae at the Liverpool Everyman.  And, if shows could get in on set design alone, I think Robert Borgmann’s Bergtheater production of Die Unverheiratete, which I saw twice – in Berlin and Bratislava – would definitely have been top five.

I also very much liked Hamlet is Dead, Fat Man, Anna Karenina, Work, A Doll’s House, Velveteen Rabbit (late, I know), Violence and Son, Lemonsx5, and Some People Talk About Violence. I also thought, when I’d just seen them, that Untouchable and Kingsize, both at the Royal Opera House, would have been dead certs for the Best of list. And I saw Quizoola again, this time at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh rather than on the internet. And I still love it, but it’s been on two Best Of lists since 2012 already, and this one was “only” six hours long.

I do wonder, looking at what did get onto the list and what didn't quite, if you could make some sort of map of my mental priorities for theatre, although unless you'd been in my head while I was watching them and since, I'm not sure how accurate it’d be.  Unexpectedly, I'd say the thing that unites most items in in the Best list is a kind of hallucinatory, light-headedness during watching, a lasting visual impression, a sense of something changed inside, and a violent emotional response by the end (not all, but most).  Which is maybe a bit unfair on theatre that performs more normal functions, but, hell, why not demand the impossible from this strangest of mediums?


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Some answers...

[written 27/09/15]


 Occasionally I get sent these sorts of interview questionnaires. This is one I filled in for an online magazine in September.It never really occurs to ask myself these sorts of questions, so I often find the answers I give quite interesting about myself. Anyway, in the spirit of my ongoing end-of-year clear out/tidy up, here it is.

When did you start writing a blog and what do you wish you’d known then?

July 2007. And, if you want a really boring/honest answer, I wish I’d known that Wordpress was going to get infinitely better than Blogger. Also; if I’d known it was going to last eight years (and counting), and would start getting quoted on posters and in my biogs, then I’d have chosen a name a bit less daft than Postcards From The Gods.

Which other theatre blogs do you read?

Meg Vaughan. Maddy Costa. Holger Syme. Miriam Gillinson. I know Exeunt isn’t a blog, but that. And a lot of the new stuff that The Stage is doing should also get a very big cheer indeed. When Dan Rebellato writes something, that’s invariably brilliant too.

What’s also great about the (awful phrase) “theatre blogosphere” is that as people move on (farewell, Dan Hutton), brilliant new voices seem to pop up to replace them. Kate Wyver and Ben Kulvichit are new this year, and Andrew Latimer in Newcastle and Dave (Murray) in Manchester are new to me...

[edit: annd since I originally wrote this, Simon Bowes! Bloody hell, Simon Bowes!]

How much of your time do you spend on blogging?

Between “professional” reviews, chapters for books (on theatre), articles for magazines (paid or otherwise, UK or foreign) and the blog, that’s pretty much what I do with my time. I don’t really draw a distinction between those various parts, except for maybe trying to observe the niceties of someone else’s house-style when I know I’ll get asked for re-write if I don’t. But, yeah; really it’s all one project, just spread across as many platforms as I get invited onto. Hopefully it all adds up to something coherent in the end.

Have you turned your blog into a profitable business or do you write it just for fun?

No. [Horrible phrase. Ghastly idea.] The blog itself makes no money, but it’s been quite useful for opening other doors. I’m not sure that I do it “for fun” though; that makes it sound frivolous. I treat it *as work* and I’m quite serious about it. Most of the work I review is pretty serious; I try to respond to it seriously. That feels like the very least I can do, given the amount of space I’ve got. But, because it’s not professional, I do occasionally write things to amuse myself too. Those things invariably get about five times as many readers as lengthy analyses of Slovenian politcal theatre do.

What advice can you offer someone who is thinking of starting a theatre blog?

Give it a nice, sensible, neutral-sounding title. Theatre Today or something. Then you’ll sound cool and authoritative. You’ll get quoted on posters and won’t wince when you’re introduced at panel discussions.

And, as general advice: always be completely honest. Don’t try to second guess an audience or try to have an opinion that pleases them. You’re only any use at all if you’re just completely upfront about everything you think. On the plus side: you’ve got years. There’s no rush. You’ve got all the space and time you want. The only thing you need to worry about is being interesting enough to keep people reading. Also, it’s probably best not to go into writing about theatre because you want to make a lot of money because you won’t. I reviewed for seven or eight years for free tickets alone while working a succession of variably dull day-jobs and even that felt like a brilliant trade-off. Get involved in A Younger Theatre if you’re young enough too. They’re a brilliant organisation. I wish to God they’d been around when I was little. Noises Off at the NSDF (which did get me started) is still running, and is invaluable too, I think.

Which show is your guilty pleasure?

Oh, God, I dunno. The History Boys? War Horse? After the Dance (Sharrock/Rattigan, NT, 2010)?
I don’t really like the term, but sadly I fall right into it.

If you could have dinner with any actor, living or dead, which would you choose and why?

Probably a living one. Less likely to put you off the food.

The use of mobile phones in theatres has become a major problem...

No it hasn’t (at least not in my experience). Occasionally one goes off and that’s a bit annoying. The tutting and hrumphing that comes after it seems to go on much longer and is probably louder and more distracting. Self-righteous indignation is usually more annoying than an accident.

How do you propose we tackle the issue?

Switching them off seems to stop them ringing.

No, but seriously, I like Relaxed Performances [see also Extra-Live]. I tend to think all performances should be relaxed. If you go to the theatre to, I dunno, celebrate our shared humanity, or something, but can’t cope with the person sitting next to you, then, well, what’s the point? People kinda need to chill the fuck out a bit. But, that goes both ways. I mean, love your fellow man and all that, but, hey, fellow man, don’t wave the bright thing with the shining screen around when we’re all sitting in the dark for a reason, yeah?

Which performers do you think will head the Olivier nominations for 2016?

God, I don’t know. The year’s only halfway through, and I can never remember what’s eligible and what’s not anyway. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine. They are the Society of London Theatre Awards. They should always be referred to as such. I think more than half the stuff I’ve seen this year isn’t eligible (because abroad, or outside London, or during the Edinburgh Festivals, or in the wrong theatres in London, etc. etc...). Bloody silly criteria for the Oliviers, really.

 – FIN –

[as we can see, maybe a bit of a mismatch of agendas there, but interesting to write nonetheless. Interesting too, to feel myself gradually becoming the patrician death-eater I’m predestined to be...]

 “cover” image: detail from Levittown Variation I (2013) by Richard Forster

Monday, 14 December 2015

2014

[what’s a year between friends?]


Ok, so, everyone’s sticking up their Best of 2015 lists. I’m a bit behind, and I’ve still got at least five shows to see before the year finishes, any or all of which could be better than other things I’ve seen this year so far.

But, because everyone loves lists, and because I never got round to posting this last year, I thought now’s as good a time as any to stick up The(/My) Best of 2014.

The rules are: I’ve tried to keep it as close to ten as possible, the ranking is strictly chronological, the double/joint entries are generally linked in my mind by proximity (temporal, geographical, or stylistic) and indecision.

Body of an American / Don Quijote

In der Republik des Glücks

A View From the Bridge

King Charles III

Road

Nothing

CRIME

Damned Be The Traitor of His Homeland

Men in the Cities

Confirmation

Show Five

This is How We Die

Spine

Pomona


Should also be on the list:

Teh Internets / Adler and Gibb / Idomeneus

Speak Bitterness / And on the Thousandth Night


What’s fascinating, looking back on this “2014” list, is how many of these shows I’ve either seen again, or could have seen again this year: of the main list, only Body of an American, Ali Pidlsey’s Road, CRIME and Spine (that I’m aware of) weren’t revived/still in rep. *somewhere* this year (and, for some people who saw them for the first time this year, were probably some of the best things they saw in 2015).

So, yes; see you again in about two weeks for THE BEST OF 2015!!!

Friday, 11 December 2015

What if...?

[expanded from this report on NachtKritik.de]


What if one of Europe’s leading theatre directors turns out to measure about 99.9/100 on the Trump Scale?

Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has terminated his contract with the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg because he doesn’t like the theatre’s pro-refugee stance.

Let’s just take a minute to absorb that.

He is not in favour of a theatre being pro-entry for refugees.

In the original statement from the Thalia, he is quoted as having said: “The German enthusiasm to open the borders for refugees would be extremely dangerous for the whole of Europe, because among them are terrorists.

“Simultaneous support of terrorists and the Parisian victims is not possible. While not all refugees are terrorists, all terrorists are refugees or their children. The attacks in Paris show that we are in the middle of a war. In any war we must choose a side, the Thalia Theater and I are on opposite sides. The days of political correctness are over.”

In a subsequent clarification, he issued his own statement:

“I asked to cancel my production in Hamburg Because of the very private reasons. I am currently working in Paris and living in exactly the same part of the city where the massacre happened. Everyday life here feels like in Israel. Permanent paranoia. Even worse because the Paris Jewish community are the first who are abandoning this city. Everywhere we are surrounded with a threat and fear. We all are traumatized here after what happened two weeks ago.

“I am a father of seven children and I am not ready to work in another potentially dangerous town. As we know, the people who participated in 9/11 came from Hamburg. We know that even the German government changed the refugee politics after Paris tragedy. So the price paid to finally admit the connection between emigration policy and terrorism was the death of 132 young people in Paris.

“Is the silent taboo in Germany to connect emigration policy and terrorism?

“After speaking with a people from Thalia Theater I understood that they are not open to different opinions. They are identifying themselves with a refugee-welcome centre. No, I do not want to participate in this. Can I afford to have my own choice and my own opinions? What about democracy?

“I do not think did my political opinions are more radical then Those which are shared by a majority of Europeans. We do not support this enthusiasm to open the EU borders for uncontrolled emigration. Especially in Eastern Europe we do not understand this euphoria. Do you really think that 40 million citizens of Poland, For Example, are neo-Nazis and racists?*”


It’s so startlingly stupid and wrong, that it’s almost impossible to know where to begin.

Of course, that faint plea to the principles of democracy and free speech – that he should also be allowed to have his views (despite it being him who has walked out on the Thalia because of theirs) – does briefly sound worrying. Like, maybe theatre’s should also be putting on anti-refugee screeds in order to better represent the interests of ignorant fascists. (5 million Poles can’t be wrong!)

It is a welcome wake-up call, though, to those within theatre (particularly here) who believe that theatre, simply by virtue of it being theatre, is an ineffable good in and of itself. Or that a *particular style of theatre* will be beyond reproach. Hermanis’s work is reputedly excellent. The one piece I’ve seen (Sonja in Riga, 2008 – no review, annoyingly) was indeed beautifully made (even if I do remember having vague reservations about a possible overly cruel, bullying sense of humour that seemed to lurk at the outermost margins). And his work spans a range from detailed theatrical naturalism (cf. Sonja) to full-on postmodern regietheater. So there’s no hiding in any of that for anyone.

It’s fascinating to see the Thalia at the centre of this storm. I saw the theatre’s most famous, direct, successful engagement with Europe’s refugee crisis, Die Schutzbefohlenen, at Theatertreffen this year, and, discussing it with Annegret Maerten, Meg Vaughan and Theresa Gindlstrasser for the Theatertreffen podcast, I remember us worrying that the production might still come across as *a bit racist* (even if impeccably well-intentioned). Hermanis level of ignorance and prejudice absolutely blows that kind of fretting out of the water (wrongly. We should still think about the micro-level, even while some dick reminds us of what the macro-level looks like).

I don’t really know what sort of conclusion one can hope for in a piece like this. I like to hope that a vast majority of people understand and subscribe to the You ain’t no Muslim, Bruv school of thinking – that you can’t associate the actions of a few violent psychopaths with whatever school of thought to which they happen to ascribe their actions. I would have liked to have hoped that this was a minimum understanding of humanity for a theatre director. But apparently not. Bleak.


*In fact, the population of Poland is 38.3million, of whom only 5,711,687 voted for the amusingly acronymed Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party. Sadly, this did consitute 37.58% of the vote, and gained PiS an overall majority in Poland’s recent general election. Are their voters neo-Nazis and racists? Possibly not *all* of them, there are further-right parties/gangs for the *really* hardcore fascists, but they’re pretty right-wing: imagine UKIP underpinned not by a buffoon in the pub, but by hardline Catholic views on LGBT issues, abortion, etc. All my Polish friends without exception (all of them theatremakers) are appalled beyond words by the result. (See also: far-right Hungary, which has just deteriorated further and further since I wrote that report in 2011.)

[cover photo, Hermanis’s previous Thalia production, Late Neighbours. From stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The irony.]

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Ali McDowall Interview: writing Pomona

[written for the programme of Pomona at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester]


So, what the hell is it all about?

I’d been obsessed with Pomona for ages. You go from Manchester City Centre to Salford Quays – which are now these two steel and glass places – and in the middle there’s just this inexplicable wasteland. I was particularly interested in it at night. Because there are no street lights there, when you go past it, it just looks like this blank – like someone forgot to fill the rest of the map in. There’s just this hole.

A few years previously I’d driven back from Newcastle very late. I was on the M60 when there was no one on it. It was three in the morning and I missed my exit, so I had to keep going round. And there was this odd sensation that you could just stop the car and stand in the middle of a road... Just to keep myself awake I started having conversations with this imaginary guy who operated out of his car. I just thought there was something fun and interesting about that.

I’ve also got a lot of anxiety problems and it seems to me like I’m living in the best possible time for anxiety. Like, there is the most fuel for my anxiety imaginable. Everything is jittery and the internet is... You don’t have to look at anything for more than five seconds... You can just click, click, click, click, click... Everything is just bite-size and everything is just going in and going in and going in...

So, I had all these elements that I didn’t quite know what to do with and they gradually began to coalesce.

I wrote Pomona straight after I wrote a big three act history play – a murder mystery, which hasn’t been staged yet – and to help me get through that I thought “the next thing I’m going to write this really free-associative thing where I’m going to plan it very little and just allow all the elements to just spiral off each other and be more impulsive.”

As things started slotting into place, I realised there was this big plot going on and there were all these characters who just started emerging who were all circling this spot in the middle of the city – as the M60 was circling the city. My model for that was partly the film Chinatown. In Chinatown they also don’t go to Chinatown until the end, but it also forms this kind of greater metaphor for the whole.

How did the Cthulhu figure from HP Lovecraft get in?

While the play didn’t end up as free-associative as I’d intended it to be, I did try to leave space for things to happen in the writing of it to surprise me. This was a play where I was just going to allow the background noise to seep into the foreground. And the HP Lovecraft references turned up because they operated on a similar frequency to the rest of the material. And because I’d been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

I didn’t know the ending when I was writing it either. Which was weird. Normally I’ll have the beginning and the ending, and the middle will gradually bubble, but this time I had everything except the end. I had characters, and *they* knew what was going on. Or they seemed to. And as it went down underground it became clearer and clearer what was going on down there.

And that was a surprise to you?

It was. It was a weird surprise. Like when you find your keys. It’s like, oh, they’re there. Of course they’re there.

By the time I’d gotten to that point a huge amount of the play had revealed itself to be about consumerism, and capitalism, and people buying things and selling things basically, and how we operate when *everything* is globalised. When every product we buy is available in every country in the world.

Even though that stuff is not on the surface all the time, it dictates how the characters relate to each other. It’s not a coincidence that the scene audiences seem to really connect with is the scene where two people actually do connect with each other – where Mo talks to Faye; when he goes to visit her in the brothel – that’s pretty much the only scene where two people directly connect to each other truthfully. And that’s the scene where he’s paid to be in her presence.

I remember the sensation watching the play was like this incredibly fast helter skelter or a spiral or something... And then there’s something mobius-strip-like about it...

It kinda loops back on itself by the end, yeah.

And there’s no way in linear space, or time, or whatever, that it’s possible. Is that right?

It depends how you’re reading it as well. Some people who’ve talked to me about it are convinced that the whole thing is a game – like we are just watching that game he’s creating in the middle of the play. And some people are convinced about whether or not she has a sister is just psychosis. And then some people are just totally convinced that she does have a sister. So.

I have my own explanations for everything. But, those are like the least interesting explanations ever. Like, I wouldn’t want someone to actually explain Mulholland Drive to me.

I was just about to say Mulholland Drive. Is it the blueprint for this kind of story?

Absolutely, yeah. Anyone who’s doing anything like that with narrative... But what’s so weird about Lynch is that he’s so resolutely American. His films are just drenched in a particularly fifties Norman Rockwell kind of America...

But what’s interesting about Lynch’s films, and I guess about Pomona as well, is that there’s a real commitment to Story. It’s not like A Vague Thing Vaguely Happening In A Universe of Vague Things.

No it’s not. It’s different though, because Lynch seems to write more like dream-logic which I could never do. I mean, he’s a true artist, that guy. Pomona was written in the order you see it. I didn’t muck around with it. I knew exactly when things were coming. I knew exactly what was happening when. Even though in the initial writing of it, I didn’t know the precise nature of what was going to happen at the end.

Even thought the initial impulse was to write something really impulsive and free, it’s actually one of the most aggressively structured and plotted things I’ve ever made.

The nature of its structure makes you second guess yourself and break everything at every turn. Recently with my writing I’ve been thinking it’s far more interesting to just explain as little as possible; to deliberately leave as much space in there for the audience as possible.

Does that way of telling a story have a meaning in itself for you?

It’s symptomatic of the fact that life doesn’t generally feel naturalistic to me. Everything feels like black and white and technicolor at the same time. And everything feels like quiet and loud. And everything feels like it’s got like completely weird competing beats and rhythms to it. So if I want to write about human behaviour, or the way I see things, or or whatever I want to write about, I get to a certain point where I need to not be as rigidly in reality any more. My recent shift away from linear narrative is a reaction to that as well. It’s part and parcel of the same thing.

By the end of your day, you can make sense of your day by going, “I got up, I ate, and then I did this, and then I did this, and I did this” But, actually, when you just allow the memories and things to buzz around in your head, certain things will take prominence, and certain things will fall away, and certain things will mesh over and and blend and muddle about.

In Pomona the big shift – my way in to write that feeling – was “Ok, I’m going to write about a city.” It’s not about Manchester, it’s not about London, it’s just about A City. It’s what it feels like to be in a city. If I’m going to do that then the form has to be the form of a city and the way I thought about doing that was if you walk down a shopping street, like Market Street here, or Oxford Street in London, you’re like hearing about fifty conversations that are streaming past you, if you really open your ears. And you’re seeing all the everything at once and you’re walking past shops that are playing like, I don’t know about shops, but, like chart music, and that place plays jazz, and that place plays whatever, and everything is just really just busy and chaotic, but because of how we’re able to live we can find a kind of clarity through it. And that’s what I wanted the play to feel like.

That was the real thing about writing it. When people ask: “why can’t it be in the right order?” And “why can’t it be this?” It’s like: *because*. It would be dishonest, if I’m writing a play about a city, for the form not to be a city. The play had to be city. Every scene has a different kind of architecture. I really had to think carefully about that in order to faithfully recreate what it was like in my head, you know...

Interview: Sibylle Berg

 [written for Exeunt]


Ok, so...

Historically I haven’t really done a lot of interviews. Part of the reason is that they’re extremely time-consuming. An hour of conversation can cover ten pages of Word no problem. Typing it up takes *hours*. And then there’s the fact that the accepted convention for feature interviews in mainstream media is highly editorialised. All the power lies with the “interviewer”, because they go away with the tape of the conversation and then create a narrative around it: the writer gets to describe their subject, to refer to other pieces of information about their subject taken from the internet that were never mentioned in the room, and so on and so on... Viewed charitably, this is just to make the piece easily digestible, and to add a sense of what it was like to actually talk to the person. So often, though, it resorts to clichés about actresses wafting into rooms and everyone turning to stare at their perfect skin and blah, blah, bullshit blah. The general format for any mainstream media interview is, I think, predicated on those weird merry-go-round interviews that film stars do 20 of in a day in a hotel suite. Stretching out 15 minutes of bland, repetitive material over 1,000-2,000 words. Theatre people seem happy to offer more time, and are maybe prepared to say more, or more that they are prepared to put out there in the public sphere. (The extent to which even very successful actors self-censor is both fascinating and scary.)

My project when doing interviews has been, wherever possible, to be as honest about the process and to the conversation that took place as space and likely interest will allow. Very few people actually speak in perfect grammatical sentences. Most people have a “like” or a “y’know” or an “I think” that they use to slow down words and give themselves time to think. It doesn’t make people stupid to leave these in, it makes them sound human.

At the same time, the dynamic of the interview is really weird. On one hand, as often as not, you meet a perfect stranger and ask them intrusive questions. You’re like a drunk bloke on a bus trying to start a conversation. You’re an annoying barber asking about the weekend. On the other hand, they know you’re coming, and will have been interviewed a hundred times before.

All of which is preamble to excusing the amount I’ve got to interpolate and explain this forthcoming piece. Sibylle Berg is a German novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, little known in Britain, but directed by Sebastian Nübling at the Gorki in Berlin (which gives you some idea of the disparity). Her English is excellent, but non-native, and I’ve left that, as I think it reads more honestly. What you really have to understand, though, is that she’s mostly joking.

So, do you want to talk about this play?

[beat] No?

Ok. You started as a novelist...

A hundred years ago...

And then also started writing plays...

I think the first book – maybe it’s boring – the first book came out in ‘95, I think? Until now I have sixteen or seventeen novels. Twelve years ago – because unfortunately I can’t make a living just from the books – I think, ‘What else can I do?’ I love theatre, but I get bored most of the time in theatres; so I think, ‘I have to try and do it better...’ So that is why I started [writing plays].

Did you have any literary inspirations in the theatre?

Yes! Not from the words side, but I don’t know if you know Alain Platel? This was my theatre awakening. For ten years [I saw] all this German classic theatre bullshit... Die Rauber... / Bleugh...

/Poor old Schiller...

/And then I saw this Platel and think I go mad, and I thought, ‘Aha! This is how theatre can be!’ The same time, the same year as this, I saw Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter, and these two pieces gave me hope. I thought, ‘Ok, you can do something wild in the theatre.’ So I started with a really wild thing. Helges Leben [2001]. I think it’s translated into English, but the translation is bullshit.

[some discussion of the play and translation]

Well, you can hear my English is okay, but I can’t really say if something is a good translation. For example, Nils, my theatre agent, he is also a translator, and I think it’s hard to catch the humour...

[some talk about cultural difference]

So that is why I don’t have success in the UK!

Well, Elfriede Jelinek has no success here...

She doesn’t? [pauses to think] But then she’s not funny...

[laughs]

Well, no, she is funny...

I had also a bad experience here with a book. It was a bestseller in the German speaking world and the Queer scene love it. It’s about a hermaphrodite... And then I had an agent here and he just gets all the publishers saying no. I think maybe – really – it’s because you have your own people here.

We are bad at selling/buying “foreign” authors.

[Agent: talks about difficulty of selling work by foreign playwrights to English theatres]

I think that’s not so... I mean, the Brits have quite brilliant writers. So maybe they don’t need others. I don’t know.

[Agent: but the Germans have brilliant writers and the French have brilliant writers and the Argentians have brilliant writers, but they still bring others...]

But the German [writers] are boring.

A lot of our writers are boring, too...

I don’t know any Argentinian writers. The French they have Houellebecq, but who else a little bit funny, a little bit modern? In Germany it’s the same, what do you have there? I mean, Elfriede’s quite funny in the theatre, but the books... oof.

They are quite heavy.


And then you have all this German [thing of]: “My grandfather was in the Waffen SS...” I mean, really boring shit...

Maybe that’s another thing that happens in Britain. That we perhaps have pre-prepared narratives for German writers. If you write about how it was very sad in the DDR, great start; if you write about the terrible things the Nazis did, we’ve got all the time in the world for German books about that. Normal life in modern Germany? I don’t think many British people see that it’s relevant.

Although maybe now people are more interested in the/a perspective from the New Europe. I mean, you’re Swiss now, aren’t you?

I’m a good Jewish Swiss now, ja.

You were granted Swiss citizenship in 2012. Does that affect things? The perspective from which you write?

No. It only makes me happy not to be in Germany. I haven’t made it to LA, so I sit there...

Is that serious, or er...

It’s serious, ja.

You want to go to L.A.?

Yes, but I need a fucking bestseller for this.

That’s interesting. You want to write novels for the Americans?

America is completely another story. A friend of mine is in Rammstein – I don’t know if you know them [I do] – and they tried for ten years to go to America. Now they’ve made it in America, but it takes them ten years. Oof. That is hard, and I’m too old for this bullshit. I must stay in fucking Switzerland.

Switzerland’s very...

Cute. [spits word]

It’s very clean.

[laughs]

And the trains run on time...

Yes, ok. But they piss me off a little bit now. They are all over the right-wing, they’ve gone a little bit more right wing now. And you think WHY? You have no problems here. You have money. What reason is there to vote right-wing?

You feel that, even in Switzerland (which is outside the EU)? That Europe is becoming more right-wing?

Sure. The whole society is becoming more right-wing and angst[y]. And you think, What? You all have to die. What’s this angst? They’re all loaded with money and they have this angst. This is so all over Europe. The Germans go completely nuts. Angst! ANGST!

You’re writing about young people, now.

This was not actually my idea. Nübling, the director, suggested we should work together... I don’t know if you know the German theatre scene: we have Pollesch, he is funny, and then from the directing side we have Nübling and he works mostly with youngsters and he’s really oof! Anyway, he has the idea to do something with young women, and I say, ‘Ok, let’s do something with young women.’ So before I write this play I meet a couple of young girls – the actresses [in the Gorki production] – and talked with them, and I realised that they are the same like in my time. Nothing has changed. Ok they have iPhones now. Big deal. But all their problems are the same. They are young and they think the know everything better. But they do all this body torture bullshit. For women especially; this ‘how you have to look’ – the way you are comparing yourself with some Kardashians and bullshit – this is a little bit heavier than in my time.

Did living in the DDR have no impact? Being a young woman in East Germany then is essentially the same as being a young woman in United Germany now?

No. Well. There are differences. Ok. First difference is that I never see myself as a “young woman”. That was not really a thing. There was complete equality. There was nothing where I think, ‘Oh, I can’t be a cosmonaut’ or whatever. More, in the other direction, as a woman you felt a little bit stronger, because most of the men you saw in the daily life were alcoholics. [laughs] It was actually the women who ruled everything in the East. Another difference, but I’m not sure it’s to do with the East, is all this what you have today, this: “I have ADHD,” or... They all have sicknesses today.

Hmm.

You are aspergers or you are this and... If you are complicated you are complicated and if you are sad you are sad. You’re not depressive. This bullshit didn’t exist...

[I don’t agree with this, for the record. Something else I realise during this interview, is that it’s not really my job to change an interviewee’s mind. Also, that I’m not wholly convinced, had we been speaking in German, the above would have come out the way it does in English here, but maybe it’s a generational thing. Perhaps erasing it from the transcript would be better? I don’t know.]

But it’s nothing to do with being a young woman. Also the system was very hopeless. I grow up and I thought, I have to stay here for the rest of my life? It’s fucking boring.

It’s interesting because in the West we had this story about what living in the East was like sold to us over and over, about the terrible fear you all lived in...

No. It is bullshit. They get drunk like all over, the fuck like all over. We listen to the same music, in a way... It was only a little bit more... Fuck! There’s the wall and you are here.

So you prefer united Europe?

I think it’s going to the dogs. I think this European idea was complete bullshit. I don’t know if my English is good enough to answer. But you know it for yourself. This capitalism... The same [currency] and we do it only to sell our products to all over without borders. It’s bullshit. I think the Europeans before, they felt like Europeans, you don’t need all this bullshit and all these laws from Bruxelles, I think it can’t work. And now you see with all this refugee bullshit how it goes kaput.

…?

But I’m really too stupid to understand all the details. Every day now I think ‘I don’t know enough’ about this refugee situation. I don’t know who in Syria? What? Where? Who’s really behind all this bullshit. Every day I feel a little bit more stupid. But I think I share this feeling with everyone.

I don’t know how it is here, but it feels like there is a “they”. But who are “they”? “They” keep the humans busy with hating each other... It’s a little bit like Nazi times, they make them hate the foreigners, and hate the homosexuals, but the real people to hate are there sitting in Nestlé or...

So, I give up. I’m too stupid. What I do is stupid.

Really?

Yeah. A little bit. I have the feeling it’s not really important. Stupid little plays. You know?

[Agent: connects the above to both the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the feeling of information overload also present in And Now: The World!]

I am on my computer, online 24 hours. I don’t know why, but I get bored if I’m not connected. They make us... They? “THEY” make us addicted to this bullshit!

What sort of things are you watching/reading
?

Actually all day I have the TV on. I have seven TVs.

REALLY?

Yes really! They cost nothing any more, so... I have two flats and in every room I have them on, so they talk, and I have the computers. So, I am a little bit...

And you write with all that going on in the background?

Absolutely. I don’t listen to music I just... You have all this information now, but your life didn’t change. I don’t know, maybe your life changed. But really we just live our normal life still, but we feel some pressure, some new electricity, but where’s the problem actually? And you have to work more. This I realised. I thought as I get older in the German speaking area I’m quite comfortable, but the generation above – Elfriede, Haneke – they live quite well now. I live *good* but I thought I could work less when I get older. But I work three times more and have the same money. So this is maybe... Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis.

Although moving to Switzerland... I mean, it’s expensive there...

Yeah. This was bullshit actually. I could live in Ukraine in a palace. How is the life here?

I think it’s got much worse for people recently. It’s a catastrophe.

Yes. I should move to Poland. Poland has a nice government now...

[laughs]

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make that joke work on paper. Right-wing playwright Sibylle Berg said...

This could be my success. This could be my way to Benedict Cumberbatch...

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch, have you seen any theatre since you’ve been in London?

I look in the internet to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, and I was like ‘What the hell are they doing here? It’s like theatre in Germany fifty years ago. There was a table, and some old fucker. He plays Churchill. I think he plays Churchill [pause] But they speak nicely. But who the fuck would watch these kind of plays?

Oh, everybody. Everybody does.

But now he plays some Shakespeare bullshit? And they transmit it all over the world in cinemas? That is fame! This is what I want.

That’s true. Yes. If you get Benedict Cumberbatch in one of your plays...

And this little girl from Game of Thrones. I want her. The little one with the sword. I want her and Benedict.

[cackles] You should write it! Obviously it’ll have to be done in the Gorki Theater and directed by Sebastian Nübling first...

No. I have this nice play, you must read it. It’s a monologue for a man. An angry man. I don’t know if you have them, but in Germany you have all this Pergida, and it’s this middle-class, middle-aged men and they are so ANGRY, and you ask why they are so ANGRY, so I wrote this. It’s a fucking good play. Really. That’s for Benedict, I think.

I’m not sure how I’m going to make this joke fly in a written interview.

I’m not so serious.

It’s my big problem in Germany. They don’t know really where to put me.

That must be true.

They go mad. Most of these men... Middle-aged men hate me. Really, Hass, Hass. I don’t know why, I’m cute. And in the theatre before the Nübling – I start now for the first time to direct by myself – I don’t know, it was a disappointment. But, er, they don’t know what to do with me. They seem that the German humour is something, I don’t know, so they put the jokes, they put some funny hats and found it funny. Or the take the set apart... I don’t know.

But that is diffcult isn’t it? Because the whole German *thing* could be characterised as being very serious/ and straight-forward.

/Fucking serious.

/And it hadn’t struck me about you, but maybe saying something and not meaning it, in that context...

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Jewish thing, or maybe it’s the... I don’t know. But I realised from the beginning that they take everything so seriously and half of my stuff is jokes. They hate me for this. I don’t know about over here, but now in Germany they are all making political theatre.

The second part of this play [this play = And now: The World! Second part = Und dann kam Mirna] – I think the idea is me and Nübling, we do it now until we die, until the end of our lives, we make every play with these four girls – the second part of this play is fucking funny. (In Germany it’s four girls playing the protagonist.) And in this one they have a ten-year-old. Really funny. In the Gorki again. And the first review I read was all, “Ja, it is nice, but aren’t there more important subjects at the moment?”

ENDS

This is the 900th piece on Postcards From The Gods. Christ.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Roar, China! – Teatr Powszechny, Warszawa

[seen 11/11/15]


11/11 is Independence Day in Poland. The independence they’re marking is from Poland being divided up and ruled by Russians, Prussians and Austro-Hungarians, essentially ended by the Russian revolution of 1917, the German surrender in 1918, and the associated collapse of the Habsburg Empire because reasons. Poland enjoyed almost 21 whole years of independence before next being invaded, and occupied for the subsequent 50 years (and two months). On 11/11, right-wing/far-right/nationalist football fans have a bit of a march to Warsaw’s National Stadium (built for 2010’s European Cup). This happens to be right next to Teatr Powszechny. In previous years, this march has tended to end with paving stones being ripped up and flung about. However, two weeks previously the right-wing, nationaist Law and Justice Party won a parliamentary majority in the general election here. It’s the first time they’ve won an election, and the first time any party has achieved an overall majority in the free elections established after the fall of Communism. The result is a complete catastrophe for Poland, but apparently good news for the paving stones of Warsaw’s Praga district.

Roar, China! is a 1926 (or 1930 according to Wikipedia) play by the Soviet Russian playwright, Sergei Tretyakov, and in its original form and intent is full-on agitation and propaganda. Given Poland’s history with Russia, a contemporary revival is *obviously* not as simple as an attempted resurrection of “authorial intent”. I don’t imagine anyone would even begin to approach it as such. At the same time – almost half a century of Soviet occupation between when the play was written and now notwithstanding – this Polish production is clearly making use of Tretyakov’s anti-Western-imperialist message, largely by just putting it onstage and letting it resonate how it will.

I watched the piece with a synopsis, rather than full text, so I was at one remove from any immediate resonances there were to be had, but, on the plus-side I didn’t have to keep looking away at surtitles, and the staging was such that I was more thasn completely engaged throughout. Even without understanding a single word that was said (my Polish isn’t all that) it was completely possible to follow the action, to be moved by it, and excited by the staging.

This is the first paragraph of the synopsis:

“The story takes place at the beginning of the 20th century, in the Chinese province, in the Wansien city by the Yangtze River. During this period Western countries economically exploited the region, treating Chinese people as slaves. The events unfold in two places: on a ship, where white colonists are gathered – the Captain, the Lieutenant, de Bruchelle family, and on a river bank, where we take the perspective of poor Chinese people (Boatmen, representatives of the administration, the Student, the trader). The Page serving on a boat and on the land is a link between those two worlds.”

There’s an excellent summary of the play’s narrative and theme here:


[I should note, for the benefit of British readers, that everyone in the production is white. Given that Poland’s population is 98.6% white, this seems understandable. (Poland’s Vietnamese population runs to a whole 0.1% (either 29,000 or 50,000 according to different places in the same Wikipedia article) of her population.) It is interesting to see a play essentially about racial tensions performed by a cast that is entirely racially homogeneous – at least visually. (Indeed, it seems statistically unlikely that there would be even one non-white actor anywhere in Poland (employment in the live performance sector is 71,000, 0.5% of Poland’s total employment).) It goes without saying that *of course* I would find it deplorable if Poland’s overwhelming whiteness were ever cited as an excuse not to train or employ non-white actors.]

For what it’s worth, there is actually very little discernible comment in the narrative on “racial difference”. This is, after all, a strict Marxist-Leninist piece which analyses the situation seeing the British and Americans’ white supremacist arrogance as a symptom of their Imperialist bourgeois capitalism. I do wonder if this analysis is entirely correct. It’s interesting that white workers are largely absent from the story, and as a result, their false class consciousness – scenes of white soldiers and sailors allying themselves along racial lines with those exploiting them rather than with their fellow (Chinese) workers along class lines – is absent.

The stagecraft itself here is wonderful, particularly after having been in England for a while*. As it happens, I’d seen something Paweł Łysak directed before. [His production of Danton’s Case from Teatr Polski Bydgoszcz was at Warsaw Theatre Meetings in 2009 (“one of the best I've seen in any language this year”), so I was incredibly pleased to discover he was now the director here.]

His style (if it’s fair to extrapolate from two productions) is maybe closest to Sean Holmes’s work with Secret Theatre, or perhaps Joe Hill-Gibbins in The Changeling. But more *relaxed* than either, somehow (I mean that as a positive). I mean, it’s not *relaxing* to watch (have a look at the trailer), but the actors just seem to move more freely on stage. I think this is related to what Holger Syme was talking about. There’s also that greater sense of abandon in the staging. Comparing it to Joe H-G’s recent Measure For Measure, which I loved for its successful embrace of so many “European” visual tropes, it makes the M4M still seem remarkably hidebound, strict, and mannered. Which surprised me. But, yes. The stage itself is simply designed. I think we the audience are seated on what’s normally the stage of Teatr Powszechny’s main house, while the auditorium has been built over so that the playing space was kind of “in-the-round” (well, actually an extreme thrust, with loosely configured seating). In the centre of the stage was a shallow trench and then a deep section of it filled with water – enough to submerge a couple of actors standing up next to each other. There is also a lot of hose action. I know it’s cheap to be excited by something so simple, but there was something brilliant about both how casually it was just *there* and then how violently it was used. Like, you knew it would get used, but even so, when it came, it didn’t felt like the usual UK concern for not getting the audience annoyed/wet. There was also a HUGE bag of squeaky plastic chickens.

It’s difficult to review a local production in its local context when you are not also local. However, it seemed incredibly clear to me that this was a horribly urgent-but-accurate bit of programming. No one could have known the election result when the theatre was programming the play, even if Poland’s rightwards drift began some time ago.

On the day of the Independence Day March, the literary manager of the theatre took me to a new exhibition at the Zacheta museum on the rebuilding of Warsaw of post-war socialist art, architecture and propaganda. On our way back to the theatre we passed the crowds peeling away from this year’s completed march. One large group of young men with Polish-flag armbands, Polish flags and flags of 1930s Polish fascists posed around a large banner proclaiming their resistance to ISIS. The banner was of course written in English, for the benefit of the world media.

The arguments of the play seem relatively simple and clear-cut in their own context. Their multiple meanings and resonances in a modern Europe are far more complex. That its concerns with imperialism and racism seem entirely modern is on one level deeply depressing, but the fact of its beings staged, and its success and popularity are at least a small reason for hope. And God knows we seem to need a lot of both reason and hope in Europe and beyond at the moment.




And not this sort of hope:



*It’s been striking me a lot recently that it’s odd that Britain ended up fixing on Germany as a point of theatrical reference-for-change. I suppose [broad brushstroke analysis] that it’s *so* different, with so few fixed points for comparison, that it is easier to feel swayed by, and so to take as an example with which to try to change our own culture. But, for my money, I think there’s actually more comparison between British and Polish theatre. Perhaps as a direct result of our recent interest in Germany. Polish theatre, it seems to me, exists in a similar place to where Britain’s now is, with on one hand a good grasp of conceptual ideas, but on the other hand a recent strong tradition of naturalism and emotional empathy, so that a synthesis of the two doesn’t feel like a complete betrayal of a philosophy in the same way as it does in Germany. At the same time, I know it’s as foolish to talk about “Polish Theatre” as it is to imagine there’s one “German Theatre” or one “English Theatre”, and that there are easily as many internecine squabbles between schools of thought.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Je suis homme blanc / Wir sind alle weißen Männer

[on representation, equality and narcissism (in theatre)]


Now’s not a great time to be a white man.

No, no, stop laughing.

Of course it *is* a great time to be a white man. It’s never not been a great time to be a white man [depending on how we’re designating the Ancient Greeks or Romans, depending on how we’re choosing to classify European Jews, allowing that we’re excluding homosexuals from counting as “men” for long periods of time, assuming that we’re often only comparing the white men in question to white women in comparable social brackets, etc.]. And it’s *still* a great time to be a white man, if you have absolutely zero social conscience, and the means by which you can continue to avoid reality in an increasingly unstable society.

But let’s assume that you’re a white man who is left-leaning, avowedly anti-racist, anti-sexist, trans-positive (or whatever the best term for that is), etc. etc. etc. Maybe you’re gay, disabled, Jewish, Muslim, a trans-man, or “white” only because your mixed heritage is invisible in/on your skin, and so on. Or, even if you’re a straight, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian-atheist man (i.e. the God you don’t believe in is by default the Christian God first – it would never even occur to you to confirm that you also don’t believe in the Hindu Gods, for example), maybe you feel marginalised (though, God, you’d be the first to point out that you’re not as marginalised as anyone else) by your mental health, or by addiction, or by your physical health, or even just by your minority political beliefs. You are the sort of white man who would be the first to admit that, by comparison, you are still privileged by your “white identity”, and your “maleness”.

What are you going to do?

It’s tricky isn’t it?

Because the best thing you can do is resign. Now.

[This essay is about theatre, but I’m reasonably sure it holds good for everything else in Great Britain too.]

If you are a white man holding a prominent position in an organisation (or even just starting on the ladder towards one), it is numerically probable that it would be better for society if you resigned your job and it was given to a woman and/or someone from an ethnic minority. And, ideally – in many, many cases – not just given to the white, upper-middle-class, privately-educated woman who’s already in the office next door to you.

If we want The Arts in Britain to resemble society in Britain, Then only 10% of those working in The Arts can have been privately educated. Only 50% may be university educated. 40% AT EVERY LEVEL in London must be BAME; although nationally that figure is only 20%. And 51% of all arts jobs must be occupied by women. And it would not be enough that the totals add up. If most of the artistic directors are still white men, then it’s still unbalanced and unrepresentative. And if, even after a shake-up, 51% of artistic directors are women, if 95% of them are white and privately educated, then it isn’t a triumph for of feminism but a further failure of equality.

Now, as a good socialist – irrespective of my race, gender or class – I find this level of mass redundancy, especially during such a period of ongoing economic fuck-up, troubling. But there is not nearly enough “natural wastage” to achieve anything like equality coming up any time soon, and apparently there isn’t the money to expand the arts to achieve equality simply by adding all the people necessary. So it is the only way. A few fig-leaf appointments won’t do. Just putting someone different in charge of the National Theatre won’t make everything okay (although it would be a start). No. There has to be a systematic root and branch purge of white men.

Or, at the very least, plans have to be put in place to ensure that this gradually becomes the future – over the next ten years, say. Of course, ironically, given who’s mostly in charge now, those plans will, like-as-not, have to be drawn up by white men. Which will, of course, be a problem...

***

I wrote the other day about Critical Tribalism, or “teams”, considering a modest division into two teams (the existence of which I was denying anyway). And I stand by that as an analysis of the current situation. In criticism We *Are* All Individuals. But that situation – even in the self-selecting, do-it-as-well-as-your-day-job world of having a blog – is, with painfully few exceptions, *still* very white and very middle-class.

As such, it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that there is only one real “team”, and all it does is quibble about minor differences in how best white, middle-class interests are represented on stage. Criticism has at least pulled its socks up a bit in terms of gender, to the extent that at least 50% of the critics I read are women (personally I’m not really interested in the pretend hierarchies of newspaper critics’ ranks, or divisions between “blog”, online, and print. With those taken into account, a) it’s doing a bit less well, but b) so is what it covers, and c) how it covers it).

What interests me about this state of affairs in criticism, is how much it affects the situation in theatre (might we extend this to the equally self-selecting world of audiences?). Implicitly, explicitly, whatever. And where the fault-lines lie most deeply.

I like to hope that theatres know better than to try to please “the critics”. I like to imagine that good reviews and bad reviews have no impact on what theatres do. I do also imagine that this is a somewhat naïve view to take. I’m not a theatre, I don’t know. But it would be a catastrophe if all our theatres programmed to please the tastes of whomsoever is writing about their work. Of course, the argument can be made that while the critics resemble the race, age and class of a theatre’s core demographic (and indeed its artistic directorship), there’s already a certain confluence of interests there, and the rest is merely quibbling about approach and outcome. A realist might point out, however, that the reason the core audience coincides so exactly with the race and age of the critic is not simple coincidence, and the elision of interests began a lot longer ago than them all happening to turn out to be in those positions. At which point the appointment of the artistic director of the theatre becomes rather inevitable-looking. (In this respect, it is an oddity that more women go to the theatre, proportionally, than run them or (until recently) wrote about them. Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s recent speculative comments were fascinating on this subject.)

***

I’ve been nursing a vague question in my head for a few years about how much theatregoing is narcissism. Put bluntly, to what extent do we want to go and see things that we “identify with”? And, to what extent is something being “relevant to our interests” a deciding factor (in whether or not we go and see it; or, if we’re already there, in whether or not we like it)? Is “identification with” the same thing as “something we’re interested in/by,” and does that matter? [I wrote most of this piece on 8th November – bookended by watching Andy Brooks’s Blake Remixed at the Royal Exchange and the first series of Master of None on Netflix – a week before the terrorist attacks on Paris refocused this debate on “relevance” “narcissism” and coverage.]

My perspective is obviously white, male, middle class, able-bodied, ostensibly heterosexual, lapsed-protestant, and socialist. The most important of those things (to me) is socialism. And I suspect that’s because it’s the only one of the things that (for me, unconsciously,) make up my identity which is in any way in opposition to the (hitherto?) main-stream of British culture. I’m also apparently “quite bright” (at least, arts-bright; I’m fucking hopeless at languages, maths and natural sciences) according to the way that UK society is set-up.

It may or may not be relevant to note that I smoke at least 30 cigarettes a day, and am consequently not terribly sporty or fit (although: chicken and egg; maybe I started smoking because I don’t like sports), and have never been much of a dancer (understatement). I preferred drawing to writing, and then alternative music to chart music when I was growing up. I’m probably more shy than people realise and dislike speaking in public immensely. I could go on, listing more and more niche aspects of myself until someone could write and stage a play that is tailored solely to my interests. And there’s every chance that I’d think that play was better than Hamlet (that other great play about an indecisive ex-goth, right?).

You get the point. Troublingly, there aren’t, as we might have been brought up to believe (and that might depend on how old you are), “universals” in quite the same way we hoped. White men are not the neutral figures someone once imagined they were.

Now, no one but white men needs this pointing out to them. The best recent comment on this was made, almost identically and nearly in the same week, by theatre director Rachel Chavkin and writer Vinay Patel. Here: “I’m a woman, so I think in women. I think through women. When I read Astrov or Hamlet on the page, I see qualities I identify with. Often, in production, I don’t.” Cast a woman and, hey presto, it’s back.” and here “I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones.” (Both those pieces very much worth reading in their entirety, btw.)

Obviously, if you are a white man, then your base rate for specificity has hitherto been set very high. Almost all the celebrated high-points of your culture have been made by white men, been designated as the high-points by other white men, and agreed upon (or quibbled over) by countless further white men. We white men (and all the other things that we are that we never think about being) can then happily oppose Hamlet with King Lear, or argue the toss over Marx against Friedman, or Martin Crimp versus David Eldridge, David Hare or Heiner Müller, Rupert Goold or Jeremy Herrin, etc. etc. etc. without ever once leaving our cul-de-sac. And of course these things do *matter*. A bit. At least to us. (More than just a bit in the case of Marx v. Friedman, I’d say.) But we should also acknowledge that all the above could also reasonably be construed as entirely narcissistic as well.

That isn’t to say that only white men care about those things. And it’s not an admission that white men care *only* about these things – it was near impossible not to bring white women Katie Mitchell and Sarah Kane into those oppositions of writers and directors I just gave, for example.

*OBVIOUSLY* for *ME*, those things matter a lot. They’re my favourite things. I’m a white man and some of my favourite things are: Joy Division, Sleaford Mods, Beethoven, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Heiner Müller, Martin Crimp, Marx and Engels. Some of my other favourite things are the work of Katie Mitchell, Sarah Kane, Gisèle Vienne, Cornelia Parker, Jenny Saville, Megan Vaughan, Sixth June, Onutė Narbutaitė, Lizzie Clachan, Rosa Luxemburg and Ulrike Meinhof. I also like debbie tucker green...

Ok, so maybe I’m overstating a point, but you see what I mean. My tastes up to this point in my life have probably been overwhelmingly white, and probably more male than female. They’re just one person’s subjective tastes, and I don’t think anyone has a problem with that, per se (after all, apparently all *anyone* wants to see is *themselves* represented. I should go and read some Freud on Narcissism and the Mirror-Phase). The problem bit starts immediately afterwards when my tastes become my work, and my work then occasionally becomes a matter of record and maybe influence. And then that record/influence goes on to contribute to a knock-on effect. (A very grand way of putting it, but suggested in the spirit of concern, not boasting or delusion).

And I’d be the first to say that my views are relatively minor in the grand scheme of theatre in Britain; compared to more senior critics, compared to literary managers, compared to the artistic directors of theatres, compared to the people who appoint those artistic directors of theatres. On the other hand, it would be stupid not to recognise that while my tastes are my tastes, informed by who I am, so are those other, more important views, and while we all keep coming from a relatively narrow background, is there not going to be, at the very least, the risk of an unbroken cycle?

Moreover, what is absolutely crucial to recognise is that my tastes – while they might record my favourites – do not, can not, amount to any kind of objective or pseudo-objective index of “quality” (or, ahem, “Greatness”), even though I do have *really good taste*.

I mean, Christ, after everything I’ve outlined above – and what with none of it being news to anyone – I REALLY CAN’T SEE HOW ANYONE CAN’T SEE THE PROBLEM.

Basically, while there are any people with different lives to mine living in the UK, those people’s life-experiences and conseuquent tastes need to be represented at every level of any artform that wants to account itself relevant. It is in no way good enough for me to have tastes and for everyone else to have to shut up and listen to me (or people like me) about them.

***

That said, this isn’t a counsel of despair. Indeed I kind of hope it’s the opposite.

At the same time, what my idea of hope is might not necessarily be everyone else’s. So that’s complicated. My hopes are after all, the hopes of a [we know the drill now, right?]...

My hope is that if theatre in Britain were more diverse, more cross-cultural, and more inclusive, then the net result would be that *everyone* – both audiences and those involved in making it alike – would end up feeling more represented. Theatre would feel more “relevant” to all of us because we all live in the same society. (By extension, we might also one day get round to watching theatre from other countries while understanding it as itself, rather than as examples of failures to be more like British theatre (as if such a single monolith exists anyway).)

But perhaps I’m kidding myself here. And this is the bit I really don’t know, or can’t know. After all, just as my tastes don’t even necessarily represent anything like even those of just the next white middle-class man (etc. etc.), I don’t for a moment believe that Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic taste or experience is a single thing. Or that working class taste and experience is one thing. Or that female taste and experience is. Or that gay taste and experience... And so on. Etc.

So, something else that fascinates me is: along what lines theatre may differ in a more diverse future.

Is society (helped along perhaps by the internet?) becoming more fractured and entrenched in its smaller, more niche communities? (Or was it ever thus, with the internet just making it more apparent?) Will taste and experienc be divided not just by race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., but smaller and smaller intersectional subdivisions of these? And will micro-communities want to pursue a theatre dedicated more and more specific to themselves? Or, if we ever manage to achieve greater equality (and, well, Christ, not just in theatre obviously), will we watch and engage with less narcissism? Will it be discovered that people have more things in common than not, or will difference continue to be emphasised? Indeed, is the internet not already bringing more and more members diverse communities into contact and making collaborations that cross every previously described division (except maybe political) ever more possible? [Or are other cultural boundaries also as immutable as politics?]

Frankly, who knows?

What remains unarguable is that the issue of equality can’t keep on being dodged. Representation needs to be tackled properly and tackled now. Only when everyone feels represented at the table is there any point in arguing the toss about the things that get put on the table. Right?