Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Reviewing Peers

It is an issue for me, whether or not to review my peers if I am given the choice and in most circumstances I have turned down the opportunity. This problem has been in the back of my mind since I recently (for the first time I hasten to add) told my editor that I could not review my good friend's production of Arturu Ui for the unsubstantiated fear that if it were not successful I would be unable to set aside my allegiances and give an honest report. It is my belief that when reviewing, one should not be influenced by the relationship they have with the people involved in what is being reviewed, loyalty should remain with reader; this is the critic's job. However at this point in my career I have not yet had the ability to separate the two.

After a pleasant evening spent at a double bill dress-rehearsal performance, both written, directed and created by friends of mine, I have decided to confront my fear and write a fair and honest response to each show:

'Until She Showed Me Otherwise'

The night begins with a relaxed atmosphere as Lisa Ellis welcomes us into the intimate space she has created in order to perform a one woman show in which she engages us with stories of lesbian and bi-sexual women. As a lesbian herself, Lisa has a strong connection to the verbatim material and she shows a passion and respect for the women she embodies as well as revealing her own personal 'coming out' story. Her persona is one which is comparatively a cross between the carefully constructed persona of Lian Aramis in 'Swimming to Spalding' and Kristin Fredricksson's relaxed amicability in 'Everything Must Go'. There are also elements which strongly resemble the form of 'The Vagina Monologues' and work magnificently.

Ellis' characters and the stories they tell are intriguing and yet heart-breaking; Ellis has an ability to draw the audience in, at times using us, without expectation or pressure, to read out individual stories of women which are capable of inducing shock and dis-belief. It is an eye-opening experience for anyone who refuses to accept that there are still problems in the acceptance of gay women in our society today. The effect is one similar to DV8's 'To Be Straight With You'; you leave the theatre feeling ignorant of the issues still plaguing the gay community and at times, this realisation brings a tear to your eye.

Some of the less effective elements of the piece includes the total ignorance of the elaborate set behind Ellis (constructed mainly for the second part of the double bill, 'Toast') to the point where one forgets that it is even there, and the placement of an onstage dramaturg. The dramaturg, Gemma Williams, becomes more of a distraction than a help, as she is used to dress Ellis in the various costume pieces and to occasionally clear up after her. It seems to be a case of anything Williams can do, Ellis could do better, which begs the question; why is she there?

The show itself, however, is strong, engaging and full of impact. Ellis raises issues that need to be raised without preaching or running her audience into the ground with overly-emotional lesbian horror stories. There is a careful balance of humour and integrity which keeps the audience amused and involved.


The second half of the show, although presented in a very separate format with different directors, continues along the theme of homosexuality, exploring the relationship between gay men and straight women. Through a text created part from Verbatim material and part from cast improvisations, the play introduces the space as a wake for Dixie Spartan; a drag queen who has seemingly left his best friend Maggie in the lurch by not acknowledging her in a letter he has written before he died. The dedication to delving deeper than the label 'fag hag' makes this piece interesting in it's new perspective, however some plot holes diminish the impact of this by diverting the audience's attention to what is not justified by the end.

The cast are superb in their very natural characterisation of Dixie's friends and one by one they make their own arena of debate on the subject through beautifully delivered monologues created from the Verbatim material. Unfortunately, at times, it is rather too obvious what has been improvised and what is other peoples' words; there is a missing connection between the two which creates a barrier between the humour of duologue's and the more serious nature of the monologues. The audience interaction is plausible and does not intimidate the audience, rather one feels a part of the celebration for Dixie, who is present throughout, mounted on the stage surrounded by glittering trees, shoes and over sized apples. It is a shame that this arena is not used by the other characters as instead we are diverted around the space to various tables at which they sit.

Whilst there are flaws at this stage of the rehearsal process, with development and attention to the finer details, this play, with it's fantastic array of colourful characters (in particular Dixie) and superbly fabulous set, has the potential to be thought-provoking whilst remaining thoroughly entertaining.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The day flies by... when you're with Ian Rickson

Today I had the pleasure of spending a full 6 hours with the inspirational Ian Rickson. This was my fourth and final session with the former Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre and I must say I was sad to say goodbye. One might expect the reputation Rickson has earned to have had some effect on the man's ego, yet his calming presence and gentle voice put me at ease immediately; he is neither patronising or self-absorbed, nor did I get the impression he was killing time to get the work day over and paid for.

As a former teacher I believe that this is the most positive influence on his work as a director. He clearly has an understanding of people, he is an excellent listener and extremely patient. Here is where the key to his success lies; he is a people person and undeniably has a passion for what he does. Furthermore, his investment in people obviously informs his character work which is detailed, precise and well thought-through.

The workshop itself was a balanced melange of script work and textual exercises (surrounding a new play by Joe Penhall) injected with ball games which saw us all laugh and relax around each other. Throughout, Rickson maintained a level of respect and admiration without demanding either. It is refreshing to meet such a big name in the theatre industry without feeling at all intimidated by their career history. In fact, this pressure was non-existent, rather I felt that this was how all workshops should be; fun and thoroughly enjoyable.

Rickson has a way of meeting everyone in the room's needs. I was impressed that he remembered all of our names from last year and took the time to listen and get to know each of us individually in a one to one tutorial.

His advice to me seemed to be rooted in a real belief that I could actually achieve my dream of becoming a theatre critic. What a wonderful feeling to be complimented by Ian Rickson! My time with him today and the advice he gave me has reaffirmed my self-belief and boosted my confidence in what I do. If I can perform well in an Ian Rickson workshop and be pointedly thanked for my contribution, why could I not convince any editor of my capabilities? Hard work and passion is all I need, he said. I have both, I just need to demonstrate them to the right people now.

Friday, 5 March 2010

How far is too far?

Smoking Bans. I can understand them in certain circumstances. Nobody wants to be coughing down a mouthful of smoke with their dinner. Nobody wants to wake up after a night out and realise that that smell is coming from the clothes you wore the previous night. And nobody wants to pay good money to see a film, or a performance only to be stuck in that space breathing second-hand smoke from an audience dotted with smokers. But what happens when it comes to the arts? How far is too far when it comes to smoking on stage?

These questions have arisen in my mind due to being presented with the issue myself. 'Pornography' requires cigarettes to be smoked; it is written in the script on a number of occasions and to my fellow directors and I, fake cigarettes will just not cut it. We want the visceral effect of the smoke, the smell of it drifting downstage, the sight of smoke rising up to the rig and the sound of a performer inhaling a long drag. The atmosphere someone smoking creates is irreplaceable. Yet, to achieve this effect, we must first gain the permission of the Council, then the University and finally, if we do break down these authorities and are allowed to smoke on stage, a complaint from an audience member could see us facing a fine! Is it just me, or is this ludicrous?

It was not so long ago that people smoked on public transport and only recently was our country made completely smoke free, yet attitudes to smoking and smokers have changed to such a dramatic effect that it instigates outrage. What used to be a part of a culture, has now been eliminated for health and safety reasons. Health and Safety regulations may be in place to protect, yet most times they seem to restrict and limit artistic vision. What is surprising is that these rules are even more imposing at University. Particularly one such as ours which ironically pushes us towards the contemporary, the experimentational and the original. However we are stifled by these boundaries and the endless paperwork that has to be done just to smoke on stage. When did society get so uptight to the point where art is suffering? A line needs to be drawn at some point, the question is where? However, until it is realised that it is more practical to use discretion in these matters, art will continue to struggle against such rules and we will continue to go through the many motions to ensure that our artistic vision is not compromised.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The Future of Theatre Criticism...

A few days ago I attended 'Leading London Theatre Critics In The Spotlight' at Royal Holloway University. This event was, for me, an exciting one. Lyn Gardner, Mark Shenton, Ian Shuttleworth and Kate Bassett in one room? I entered the dark studio with an anticipation rivalling that of a child on their first day of school; I was ready to be inspired. I was not disappointed, particularly with Lyn Gardner. Her contribution as a theatre critic to the theatre world is not only insightful, but it is admirable. Unlike other London critics, she ventures outside the big city to support regional theatres and shows which do not boast the likes of Jude Law of Keira Knightley. Although this is not to diminish the respectability of the other critics. It is the sad truth of the situation that under the pressures of the recession, theatre critics are not provided with the expenses to travel out of the city. Worse news still, with no money in the newspaper business and the rise of free blogging sites such as this, why is there a need to pay struggling theatre critics when there are so many online going unpaid?

Now this is not the first time I have heard all of this. In fact, this is the third time I have been warned off my career path, and even though this time it is by the top end theatre critics who even worry about keeping their jobs, I am not going to give up before I have even begun. This could be a terrible mistake that sees me near enough wasting a year of my life with no income or means of supporting myself, but who knows? I could just get lucky.

What worries me more in fact is how the lack of 'expert' theatre critics will affect the reception of theatre and performance. With The Times employing in-house staff such as culture columnist Libby Purves to replace Benedict Nightingale as the new drama critic (a position that comes around once in a blue moon) to cut costs, it is difficult to see how, at age 60, she can even find the working years left in her to fill his almighty boots. It takes years of experience, preferably some notion of what it is like to work in the theatre world, and a great interest in performance to be heard and respected by someone like myself, a mere student. I listen to the experts because they are exactly that. They know more about it than me, they have been around longer, seen many more shows and written tens of thousands of words in their time. They know what they are doing. Who do I listen to if all the experts die out?

What is of even further concern is how contemporary theatre will be affected. It is my belief that there will always be some instances where contemporary performance is better understood or appreciated by someone who has experience with new styles of theatre; someone who can contextualise a company with other works they have produced; someone who understands what the whole point of a piece is. It is true that in some cases contemporary theatre fails, and this can be determined by most audience members, with or without the background knowledge, but do we want to risk not going to see a new and exciting piece of theatre because the reviewer (through no fault of their own) just didn't get it? Even the critics who have been around a while have got it wrong from time to time so what chance does anyone else have? My theories are yet to proved, but I know that if the reviews of an ignorant, inexperienced critic become detrimental to the progress of contemporary theatre, the editor will have a lot of people to answer to. Lets just hope Livvy Purves does justice to her new title.