Encore Theatre Magazine
The Value of Theatre [>]
The Value of Theatre
On the Gift [>]
Richard Maxwell [>]
Children on Stage [>]
Robert Holman [>]
Edinburgh 2003 [>]
Scottish National Theatre [>]
An Usher Writes # 1 [>]
Two interesting documents were published this week. One is an Arts Council report on the Economic Impact of UK Theatre. The other is a personal paper by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, on Government and the Value of Culture. Neither sounds like a particularly thrilling read, but there's something stirring here. The Arts Council document is in the tradition of Tony Travers's Wyndham Report of 1998, which gladdened the hearts of theatre workers everywhere by calculating for us the amount of wealth we were giving to restaurateurs and taxi drivers. This new document aims to show "the positive effects theatre can have on the local economy" and calculates that the "theatre has a huge economic impact: £2.6bn annually," adding tellingly "This is a conservative figure".
It's not just a conservative figure, it's a conservative way of seeing the theatre's value. This is not to blame the report's author, Dominic Shellard, who has done a very good job within a restricted brief. But it's striking how reluctant public bodies are to defend the value of theatre in any but economic terms. There are three problems with this kind of utilitarian calculation.
(a) It bears no relation to what any theatre workers think they are doing. Has anyone ever worked in theatre in order to provide income for restaurants and cabbies? There are important community theatre projects which certainly want to engage with, and 'give something back to', the local community, but this is not usually expressed in economic terms. This mismatch might seem trivial but over the last twenty years, theatre workers and theatre artists have had to provide endless monitoring information that simply takes them away from the work. This document, which recommends widening the use of impact reports will do nothing to remedy that.
(b) If the economic impact on the community declines, the theatre is left without a defence. If all we can say is that theatres are good for the local economy, then we're in trouble when they don't. The average "annual visitor spend" in the West End (i.e. the ancillary costs of going to the theatre that flows into the local economy: drinks, food, transport, babysitting, etc.) is £53.77. Outside London it is £7.77. Does that make the West End nearly seven times as valuable as regional theatre?
(c) The economic defence of the arts also opens up the economic attack on the arts. If it's so embedded in the market economy why shouldn't we let it sink or swim in that economy? (And we know what kind of theatre that produces; right.) As we often hear, think how many nurses could have been hired if we closed down the National Theatre, let the Madonna of the Pinks go into private hands, gave the Hallé its marching orders.
What is missing from the Arts Council's report is any independent, non-economic defence of the value of art. Okay, we might not expect that from a narrowly economic study, but even its sister document, Implementing the national policy for theatre in England. Case studies: 1, shies away from talking too full-throatedly about cultural value; instead it leans very heavily on some issues of access and on the development of new forms. These things are important but deep in the heart of this there's a black hole. Are we afraid to talk about art any more?
Which is why Tessa Jowell's very unexpected paper comes as such a shock. It's mild in tone, cautious in spirit, and the Department for Culture Media and Sport stress how personal the paper is so hard it almost looks like they're disowning it. But, my God, she talks about art. Almost without apology. Listen to this: "Those who have, however it has come about, had the transcendent thrill of feeling, through chance exposure of patient study, the power of great art in any medium, have gained the use, however seldom or often they may use it, of a sense to add to those of touch, taste, smell, sound and sight." It's a long time since Encore got excited by this government.
More importantly, she identifies, really rather precisely, the limitations of that instrumental view of art: "Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas - education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing - explaining - or in some instances almost apologising for - our investment in culture only in terms of something else. In political and public discourse in this country we have avoided the more difficult approach of investigating, questioning and celebrating what culture actually does in and of itself".
In a way, this is what Encore is about. Talking about what is artistically good in the theatre is really difficult. It's easy to be sneering and superior (de Jongh), pad out your review with banal political truisms (Billington), go for autobiography (Spencer), or ignore the show in favour of general reminiscence (passim). But actually saying why something is artistically valuable is hard; it's why we've all fallen into those easy options of slagging a show off for some minor political offence, or avoided really getting to grips with what a performance was trying to do by relating it to other shows. It's easy to take the piss than to praise, especially in company, which is why press nights are so poisonous.
It would be unwise to think that Tessa Jowell's pamphlet heralded a change in the government's thinking (what? there are things more important than money?) but given this government's dogmatic adherence to the market as the source of all value, it's a bold step and we'd urge Encore's readers to give the DCMS your support on this one.
You can read the three documents listed by clicking on these links:
:: Theatre Worker Thursday, May 06, 2004 [+] ::
On the Gift: A Message to Hannan, Stock, Motton, Godfrey, et al.
In February 2001, British artist Michael Landy created Breakdown, an installation/event in which he destroyed everything he owned: clothes, family photographs, books and records, white goods, a meat-grinder inherited from his mother, his car. In the disused former premises of C&A on Oxford Street, London, his possessions were catalogued, bagged up, and pulverised by a team of demolition 'operatives' (left). The event profoundly tested our confusions between experience and consumerism, between who we are and what we buy; it also tore at our sense of belonging - is it sentimental to keep family photographs, even if you never look at them? A particular ethical puzzle was raised by the fact that among his possessions were some original artworks by his contemporary - Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Gary Hume and others. When his plan was announced, some of those artists protested.
It might have seemed that Landy was testing the limits of BritArt's conceptualism; what, were the creators of the unmade bed and a fly-blown bull's head, the makers of aggressively ephemeral work, getting precious about their work's permanence? Maybe, but they may have a point.
In Marcel Mauss's The Gift, an anthropological study of gift-giving in various cultures, he claims that all gifts involves reciprocation, the promise of a counter-gift. He shows how various gift rituals involve circuits of exchange where the value and significance of the gifts is carefully balanced between the parties. This allows him to make, at one point, a striking comment on art: that artworks can never be the possession of a single person. And why? Because an artwork might be created by a single person, but it ultimately is the property of us all. This is why, it is so shocking when, in Howard Barker's 13 Objects, a multimillionaire who has bought a Holbein at auction decides to destroy it to keep it from the attention of the vulgar mass. It's the mechanism that unfailingly produced a gasp in the penultimate scene of Yasmina Reza's Art. It's why collectors who hire thieves to steal them paintings that they can never be able to display fill us with bewilderment when designating a currently inaccessible barrier reef a World Heritage Site seems quite fitting.
.It's because no one can own an artwork. At best, you can buy privileged access to it, but the limit of your relationship to that object is that you are its custodian. If a mother buys a can of beans, she is entitled legally and by common moral agreement to do what she likes with it, eat it, burn it, bin it unused. She does not have the same entitlement with her own child, because the possessive - 'her' - designates not full right of ownership as it does with the beans but custodianship. She has privileged right to make choices about that child, but ultimately she is looking after something that can never be owned by another person. An artwork is more like a person than a thing.
Okay so where's this going?
There are several extraordinarily gifted writers for theatre who are not writing. Where are the new works from James Stock, that imaginative beacon who stopped the breath in all our throats with Star Gazy Pie and Blue Night in the Heart of the West (right)? Where's Chris Hannan's follow up to Shining Souls (it's been almost ten years)? Paul Godfrey seems to have retired from writing for the stage since the reception of Blue Ball and the craven refusal of British theatres to stage Catalogue of Misunderstanding. Gregory Motton seems to be happy to give British theatre the impression of him as Strindberg's second-most-famous translator. There are others. There are many others.
I guess the stern conclusion from looking at Landy and Mauss is that for a great writer not to write is like burning a great work of art. Bizarrely - is this really so bizarre? - you don't have the right; your talent is not your own; you are only its custodian.
Is there a flaw to this logic? Oh undoubtedly - Encore's not a philosophy magazine - but let us know where we've gone wrong. But dare we hope it might put these retiring writers on the back foot, prompt them to reconsider their silence, even, even, encourage them to produce a new play? British theatre writing is cruelly enfeebled without your writing. So write.
:: Theatre Worker Tuesday, March 30, 2004 [+] ::
The organisers of the Barbican’s BITE season have just announced the cancellation of a proposed run for the New York City Players' Henry IV Part One, directed by Richard Maxwell. The website primly declares that "having now had the opportunity to attend early performances of Henry IV Part One in New York, we do not feel that it is appropriate for inclusion in the Barbican’s programme". The British Theatre Guide is more explicit: "the production received bad notices - and demands for money back - when it played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Variety described it as 'risibly bad Shakespeare' and staff at the Academy estimated that a fifth of the audience walked out".
We have to be careful here. BITE have been London’s principal supporters of Maxwell’s work, bringing over House (pictured) and Boxing 2000 in 2001 and Drummer Wanted earlier this year. But it remains puzzling. Maxwell’s work is characterised by his use of non-professional actors, his deployment of flat, toneless, awkwardly articulated and amateurish performance styles. He uses these styles to bring a curious unworldliness to his performers, an unworldliness that is also other-worldly. It’s very funny to watch – as we did in House – the characters standing awkwardly in a line flat repeating (always just repeating) their dialogue. In Boxing 2000 the sequence of rounds in the boxing ring proceeded identically, the warnings and imprecations from those around the ring clashing with the stodgily choreographed moves.
Maxwell is extremely confident in his use of stage space, and his texts are witty and allusive, using cliché and syntactical ungainliness to great effect. The juxtaposition of this with that affectless acting style shakes up our sense of theatrical value. But more, the flatness creates an estranging experience for the audience; oddly, it makes us tune into the oddities of the dialogue more crisply. The resonances of the dialogue become more important because they are less skilfully tied down to character and situation. In Drummer Wanted (pictured), a young drummer, injured in a traffic accident, is forced to go back to live with his mother. It's a situation fraught with Oedipal tensions and when Pete Simpson (the son) tells a crude joke, laughs throatily and then explains boorishly to Ellen LeCompte (the mother) ‘I’m just fuckin’ with you, ma,’ these tensions gain expression but remain only partially tied to character. The technique achieves what anyone with an ounce of poetry in them has always wanted to create on stage – a sense of otherness, volume, space, an opening out into an endlessness of meaning.
But this is not to claim that Maxwell is laughing at bad actors. He plainly works with his actors to produce this style of performance; it takes effort to drain one’s words of affect – indeed, aimless emotional excess is a sign of real amateur theatre. In other words, he uses badness to remarkable theatrical effect. His bad theatre is good theatre. He’s certainly the most interesting American theatre worker to visit London in years.
So what can Henry IV Part One have been like? Isn’t it obvious that it was going to look like ‘risibly bad Shakespeare’? What else were they expecting? When I saw his last three shows I did so in half-, maybe two-thirds-empty houses. But all three were among the highlights of BITE’s recent seasons. Is it possible that poor ticket sales are why BITE has lost its bite? The RSC’s departure from the Barbican was an opportunity to rediscover those plays free of all that tatty pomp, that self-important tradition-keeping, all that risibly bad Shakespeare; it’s a shame that this great opportunity to find Shakespeare again will be denied us.
- There's information about the work of the New York City Players at their official website.
- There are interviews with Maxwell from PerformInk and TheaterMania
- And I have in the past been able to open up a video interview with Maxwell at this address so you could give it a try (but it's freezing on me just now). You'll need QuickTime for this and the following links.
- There's a short, hilarious clip from Boxing 2000 here.
:: Theatre Worker Monday, October 20, 2003 [+] ::
Jade Theatre Company's latest play, Cake, written by Sarah Woods and currently on a tour that will conclude at London's Battersea Arts Centre in December, is based on a simple and highly original premise. A woman attempts to bake a series of cakes, explaining her actions to the audience in a manner pitched about midway between Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith. Her attempts at clarity and efficiency are increasingly undermined by a combination of utensils with minds of their own and an insistent talking doll, until the set of a gleaming kitchen is horribly bespotted with flour, sugar, butter and eggs. The utensils - almost wholly spoons - and doll are operated by puppeteers.
No one could claim that this highly ambitious work was without its faults. The text is often unsynchronised with the puppetry. The loose structure sometimes feels rather aimless. The puppeteers' limitation of four hands tends to prevent the doll from having much interaction with more than two spoons at a time. Yet the play frequently evokes sensations of recognition and empathy in the audience in its depiction of motherhood that give it a value and rarity that far outweighs its occasional frustrations.
Curiously, the most moving and human moments of the production are provided by the spoons rather than the ostensibly more intelligible figure of the talking doll; Mum's attempts to talk to us become increasingly distracted by the spoons' demands to be fed - eventually her words dry up as four wooden spoons adhere to her breasts (the mother expression of perplexity, concern and mild embarassment at this interruption is intricately subtle and complex). A spoon is drowned in the kitchen sink, the mother desperately attempts to revive it and as we are led to understand that the spoon has recovered life she is overcome by relief, fury, and exhaustion. Most touchingly and ridiculously of all, Mum lays her brood of spoons to bed, covering them with a tea towel for a blanket, kissing the bowl of each in turn.
I cannot think of a more elemental or universal theme than that of a mother's care for her infant children with all of its attendent feelings of love and warmth, yet when was the last time that you saw this on stage? I have to go back five years to the terrifying recollection of a daughter's drowning that lies at the heart of Conor MacPherson's The Weir, and that was an incident of extreme horror being recounted rather than more commonplace life being enacted.
It seems curious that theatre, at its best the most powerful art form for creating a sense of collective intimacy, should be so lacking in showing mothers with young children. Film, and especially TV, is full of children but I have to wait a long time before I see any type of child on screen that I recognise as a rounded human being amongst the parade of nauseating sentimentality, "gifted" freaks and alarming delinquents. Only very occasionally does an Etre et Avoir or A Childhood come along, the patience and lack of editorialising required making it hard to justify in the context of television's current demands for pace and ratings.
The problem of child actors is one that can be circumvented with skill and imagination, as Cake tantalisingly hints at. A representation of a child can activate an audience's sympathy as much as an actual child. One of my most treasured theatrical memories is of Theatre de Complicité's 1997 production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Juliet Stevenson's performance as Grusha and her growing love and care for the foundling boy, Michael (pictured). For much of the play, the infant was played by a simple white cloth puppet and although the audience's initial pleasure was partially to do with the fascination of seeing an unusual skill ably performed, by the time that Michael took his stumbling steps towards Grusha in preference to his blood mother, we were preoccupied with the characters and their emotions and dilemmas rather than merely the skill of the puppeteer. This contrasts rather favourably with the famous incident on the press night of Katie Mitchell's eighties Oxford production of the play when the audience were preoccupied by the real child performer's attempts surreptitiously to wave at his parents in the trial scene.
Since I saw that Complicité production six years ago, I have longed to see another convincing representation of a mother's care and worry towards her children on stage. Cake is the first thing I seen since that attempts it. For the remarkable moments where it succeeds, it should be seen.
:: Theatre Worker Sunday, October 19, 2003 [+] ::
Robert Holman's Renaissance
Could 2003 be the year that finally recognises Robert Holman's importance and vitality in the British theatre? There was a new play at Chichester, Holes in the Skin, a thrilling piece of writing, building elliptically on the experiences that underpinned his last piece, Bad Weather. And next month, long-time supporters Sarah Frankcom, David Eldridge and others are mounting a series of revivals and readings at the Royal Exchange, Manchester (pictured), including full productions of Across Oka a tale of tenderness and emotional intensity that will tear at your heart, and Rafts and Dreams whose writing is so crystalline, so vigorous, so ambitious and imaginative, you will be appalled to have lived so long without it in your memory.
And there's a good interview with Robert Holman in today's Guardian. In it, Lyn Gardner quotes Holman's well-known credo of playwriting. "Asked why he wrote," recalls Gardner, "he said it was for those rare and glorious moments during the process of writing a play when he suddenly discovered things that he didn't know, or didn't know that he knew."
It's one of the glories of Holman's work that he is unafraid of the imagination. It also explains why the Royal Court is playing no part in the Holman revival. Indeed, London theatre seems to be going through a long period of deep imaginative timidity; desperate to appear knowing, playwrights and critics are locked together in fear of metaphor. When were you last surprised - not shocked, surprised, your head spinning, your imagination working furiously to keep up - by a play at the Royal Court? It is shameful. It is scandalous. They are robbing theatrical writing of its most powerful weapon.
So, all who can, go to Manchester. Let's remind ourselves what the finest achievements of the playwright's imagination can do.
:: Theatre Worker Tuesday, September 30, 2003 [+] ::
The Autumn seasons are mostly published and the big transfers of new plays from Edinburgh to London seem pretty well established. What do they reveal? That once again, London has no taste and doesn't understand the greatness of Scottish new writing.
The Traverse has, as usual, been first off the mark with transfers. Henry Adam has followed up on Among Unbroken Hearts with The People Next Door which packed them into Traverse 1, but is playing draftily at Stratford East. The critics were fooled by this one; it's a very slight play wrapped around a hugely charismatic central performance from Fraser Ayres, as a hopeless, workshy, pothead strong-armed into infiltrating a militant Islamic group. The play's been touted as some kind of statement about global terrorism, but it really isn't. The central character's just not serious enough the sustain any of that stuff. It's a tv-ish, virtually plotless, horribly overwritten, slapdash comedy with a few good comic moments padded out with a good few mirthless stretches.
The critics also raved about The Straits by Gregory Burke (pictured), which moves to the Hampstead Theatre at the end of October. It's a play about the Falklands War, but following a small group of boys (and a girl) in the English community on Gibraltar. The boys spend their time fantasising about being in the army, learning how harpoon octopus, and growing up. It sounds good, and probably was in its previous incarnation as a radio play. It now has an imaginative staging by John Tiffany, and some effective movement sequences interposed by Frantic Assembly's Steven Hoggett, including a terrific aggressive work-out to The Pistols' 'God Save the Queen'. But it's a pretty shallow piece; the characters are two-dimensional and obvious. The story drifts in predictable directions and Burke seems too hooked up on turning the story to touch anything morally or emotionally surprising. And finally it amounts to very little; boys get off on guns? there's a reality of pain behind our image of war? Britain needs to face the fact that it's no longer an Imperial power? Well, strike me pink, Mr Burke, that sure needed saying.
What is striking about these two pieces is that they are the least 'Scottish' of the new Scottish plays up at the Traverse this summer. The locations and characters of neither play draw much on Scotland, and the thematics of neither play seems much drawn from anything close to Scottish experience. Which is perhaps why the London critics like them, clearly preferring their Edinburgh experiences to be untainted by anything too Caledonian. In fact both plays serve up images that London's stages are familiar with: teenage violence, drugs, comic police brutality, obvious historical reference points. The critics believe these plays reach out beyond Scotland. They do, but only as far as London, and they flatter the critics into believing that London is the wider picture.
This must explain the moue of distaste that pursed its way across most critics' lips when reviewing Dark Earth. David Harrower's play is a tautly constructed thriller in which a couple breakdown in their car and find refuge with a family living out in rural Scotland. Out of this fairly ordinary beginning, Harrower spins out a tale of mutual antipathies between country and town, between old and young, men and women, between the Scotland of popular legend and the Scotland of the dark earth. Okay, the play seems get away from him in the last twenty minutes, but there's a passionate concern for the meaning of where we stand, morally and geographically, that should be seen everywhere, and the first act is one of the most perfect pieces of playcraft in years. Alas, so far, it seems, London has turned a blind eye.
David Greig's work has been massively skewed by London's myopia. Perhaps the highest profile productions of his work in London have been the RSC's Victoria and the transfer to the Royal Court Upstairs of 2002's Outlying Islands. These are good plays, but not his best, and are fantastically unrepresentative, making him look like some modern Scottish D. H. Lawrence, obsessed with posh folk baring their arses on rainswept hillsides. In fact naturalism is just one of this prolific writer's many styles. His best play so far is this year's San Diego (pictured), a co-production between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Tron. It's a massive piece of work; global in reach, European in its dramaturgy, a constellation of emotions and ideas revolving around the author's fantasised memory of his first trip to America, to see the US premiere of Cosmonaut (the play of Greig's that this most nearly resembles in style). But where Dark Earth was too Scottish, this appears not to be Scottish enough for the London critics, who pretended to be baffled by the play. (At least we should hope they were pretending.) In fact the play and the production (directed by Greig and Marisa Zanotti) are crystal clear, colossally intelligent, and awesomely grand in their reach. It's a massively enjoyable and important evening which begins its run at the Tron in three weeks, and then, incredibly, will probably stop there. This is a production which should be moved - whole and intact - to the main stage of the Royal Court. It would be the best thing they'd have had in that building since Far Away.
London believes it went through a revival in playwriting in the mid-nineties. It did, but it was nothing to the revival in Scottish playwriting that began a little before it. But the London renaissance was all about aggression and anomie; the Scottish renaissance was about stage poetry, vast investigations of identity, meaning, love and politics. London's losing out and it will only hear the lessons Scottish theatre has to offer it when it listens to the Scottishness of these plays.
:: Theatre Worker Tuesday, September 23, 2003 [+] ::
A Scottish National Theatre, At Last
It’s a shame that London’s National Theatre has abandoned touring. True, it never seemed very comfortable doing it; if it wasn’t coming on like an awkwardly hand-wringing social worker visiting a decimated mining village it went the other way, offering no. 2 tours of hit productions, like some grand duchess scattering her tarnished gems from a carriage window. But without touring, the National seems to be retreating into its bunker, as if the building were the company. But the building is not the company. The company is the workers and the work.
There’s no such confusion in the plans for a Scottish National Theatre which have just received official blessing, and, more importantly, the promise of £6.5 million over the first two years. The SNT will be quite properly stageless, instead being a commissioning body selecting promising work to co-fund, working with existing buildings, companies, and theatre workers to promote the best of Scottish theatre, past present and future.
A Scottish National Theatre has been a dream of many years, at least as far back as James Bridie (pictured) in the 1940s, and it’s been pursued on and off ever since, most fervently in the pages of the sadly-defunct Theatre Scotland. That magazine withered and died just as Scottish theatre got into its stride. Since the late eighties, Scotland has produced some of the finest theatre in Britain; there have been new and renovated theatres, vigorous artistic directorships, and a group of young writers without equal anywhere: Chris Hannan, David Greig, David Harrower, Sue Glover, Simon Donald, Stephen Greenhorn, Zinnie Harris, Linda McLean… The list goes on: Henry Adam and Gregory Burke are relatively recent discoveries whose latest Traverse shows are right now on their way to London.
National Theatres are a largely nineteenth-century invention, and carry with them the monumental assumption of a theatre building as their obvious focus. The SNT is a much bolder scheme; perhaps acknowledging that nation-states are far less secure agents in the global network than they once were, the SNT is both geographical and virtual. It is not quite right to call the SNT buildingless – it will take over a suite of offices in Glasgow – but more importantly the SNT will be a network formed by and between every building in which one of its commissions plays. Encore hopes that a bold and inventive artistic directorate will fairly soon have put SNT work in most theatres in Scotland and that, in a sense, Scotland’s theatre will be its National Theatre. And it’s to the great credit of Scotland theatre community to have embraced this dispersed, decentred, weightless theatre network with such unanimity and enthusiasm.
Of course, having no building places enormous emphasis on the artistic team. The National Theatre in London has an implied mission statement in its architecture which comprises a stage for classics, one for the modern repertoire, and one for experimental work. It’s exciting that the SNT can be founded without setting its artistic principles literally in concrete, but it’s evident that the approving consensus could disintegrate. At the moment the SNT could be anything done in a Scottish theatre, so no one is unhappy. When it comes down to the detailed decisions about who gets funded and who doesn’t, which companies get the gold seal of National approval and which miss out, the artistic principles of the company will undoubtedly come in for some criticism.
But the Theatre and its funders should hold their nerve. It is a bold idea to make a theatre work that is capable of responding with equal vigour to a touring production playing at Dervaig village hall as a starry Shakespearean revival at the King’s Theatre. An artistic policy will have to be articulated, but it can be processual, flexible, as alert to the margins as to the centre.
Thoughts are already turning to who could take on leadership of such a project. It has not yet been decided, as far as Encore is aware, what structure of artistic directorship will be used to steer this project.
The automatic appointment would be a single artistic director of the sort that runs most of Britain major theatre companies. One of complexities here is that many of the top jobs in Scottish theatre have just had a shake-up. Some of the more obvious contenders for the position - like Hamish Glen who left Dundee Rep for Belgrade Coventry or Michael Boyd who has just taken over the RSC - would seem curiously disloyal if they immediately jumped ship, having only just fought their way on board. Nonetheless, there are some names in the hat. Kenny Ireland has made no secret of wanting the job, and he's free, having left the Lyceum after ten years at the helm. That decade saw some triumphs, but much of the work was patchy and is he temperamentally suited to work with all areas of the Scottish theatre community? Giles Havergal recently handed on the Citz to Jeremy Raison. He would have the respect of the Scottish theatre community for sure, but has been sceptical about the whole idea of a Scottish National Theatre, and may feel that his retirement should hold. David McVicar has been mentioned, but has his theatrical energy been lost to opera? Ian McDiarmid recently handed over the reins at the Almeida after more than a decade of extraordinary work, but does he have the drive for such a diverse and collaborative job? (And who's going to tell the Dark Emperor of the Universe to move to Glasgow?)
Perhaps a more appropriate structure would be an artistic team that contains within it the same diversity of view and style that one would wish to see characterising the SNT work. A vital figure would be a creative producer, someone with artistic contacts and sensitivity, but with the energy and financial authority to keep control of a great proliferation of projects big and small. Faith Liddell built the Edinburgh Book Festival up to rival the theatre in popularity and profile, though has recently taken on a major responsibility at Dundee Contemporary Arts. What about Neil Murray from the Tron (pictured)? Under his directorship, Tron audiences have grown substantially, attracted by a varied and challenging programme, with highlights like Alison Peebles' splendid revival of Shining Souls, Iain Heggie's production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Zinnie Harris's take on Dealer's Choice, and most recently Marisa Zanotti and David Greig directing the latter's San Diego. He has also shown a talent for creating links with interesting young companies like Improbable, Suspect Culture and Vanishing Point.
Alongside this creative producer it would be useful to find a dramaturg. Scottish theatre has not taken this figure to its bosom, any more than has the English theatre, but one of the jobs of a Scottish National Theatre must be to excavate, test, and present the cream of the Scottish national repertoire. This person will need to have the kind of restless imagination that wants to trawl the world repertoire for work that can speak to the contemporary Scottish experience, commissioning new Scottish versions of classics, adaptations and versions of work. One idea might be Joyce McMillan. In all seriousness. No one has done more to champion Scottish theatre over the decades, and the renaissance that we still enjoy today is in part due to her tireless championing, questioning, judging and encouraging of new work. Like Tynan, let into the new National Theatre by a reluctant Olivier, McMillan might be an exciting, daring appointment. Another route would be a playwright. Various figures suggest themselves: Iain Heggie, Liz Lochhead, Peter Arnott maybe. In Encore's view the most obvious candidate is David Greig, a playwright who, to judge solely by the work, has the kind of questioning approach to Scottish identity, tireless prolific energy, and openness to the spiky diversity of international theatre form that would be essential for the job.
It is thrilling to be in at the start of something like this. Encore will watch all developments with close attention and love. Any comments on our shortlist can, of course, be emailed to the usual address.
:: Theatre Worker Friday, September 12, 2003 [+] ::
One of our the earliest ideas for Encore was to offer a space for theatre workers whose voices are rarely heard. And who is more ubiquitous and anonymous in our theatres than the usher? Their nightly management of the audience, and their repeated viewings of the show, give them an intense appreciation of the performances and the people who watch them. Any other ushers who would like to give us a low down on their shows and their publics please email us at the address at the top of the page!
An Usher Writes…
National Theatre: Olivier (Henry V)
“I hear the National is dropping the Royal from its name”, exclaimed one disgruntled matinee customer, “it’s a disgrace, you should be proud to be Royal; I don’t know what this place is coming to, I really don’t”. Fortunately, this monarchical theatre-goer wasn’t attending Nicholas Hytner’s bravely inventive and critical redefinition of the traditionally heroic Henry V. For many years Shakespeare’s play was known only as a flag-waving celebration of jingoistic Englishness. Hytner’s measured production, which began rehearsal on the day Allied troops invaded Iraq, undercuts the rhetorical glamour surrounding war and its leaders, capturing the nation's uneasy post-Iraq mood.
Whilst winning favour from audiences and critics, Henry V hasn’t proven to be a favourite amongst ushers. The urgent bartering away of Olivier shifts can regularly be heard along the ushers’ corridor. Admittedly, despite Hytner’s cuts Henry V is still a long, intense show that doesn’t benefit from the irresistibly funny, foul-mouthed arias of Jerry Springer, the light, pacey satire of His Girl Friday, nor the early finish time of Elmina’s Kitchen (guaranteed to win over the most cynical of ushers). However, this usher applauds Hytner’s intelligent and thrilling contemporary revaluation that brings out startlingly up-to-the-minute political resonances from the play.
In the opening scene of this modern dress production, Henry, a presidential committed Christian in a double-breasted suit, chairs a cabinet meeting round a table littered with ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports and bottles of mineral water. In this epitome of Clare Short’s ‘guided discussion’, Henry and his key-advisors present questionable justifications for invasion that remain unchallenged. Adrian Lester’s King is not a great King, but a single-minded and blinkered leader who isolates himself in the pursuit of a place in history. Henry recognises the power of the media and spin, speaking as much to the camera as to his own troops. In relaying Henry’s traditionally rousing speeches through television screens, Hytner effectively creates a critical distance between audience and King. Henry’s soundbites are also cleverly subtitled for anxious viewing by the French palace; reinforcing the imminent threat of invasion.
Hytner’s potent cast, including Penny Downie’s hero-worshipping spin doctor-cum-PA Chorus, play out Shakespeare’s discourse on war amidst a barren stage of shadows, explosions and fiery mist. The Travelex £10 season’s reduced budget challenges designers to make the best use of simplicity; something Tim Hatley achieves here with style. Hatley’s versatile partitioned wall of dark panelled screens folds away, back and up to accommodate the various locations; including a vast desolate wasteland invaded by thrilling and deafening battle scenes.
Hytner has played down the challenge his production offers to Sir Laurence Olivier’s heroically romantic film of Henry V (1944), but the fact that this production plays on the Olivier stage is a bold statement of intent for this new Artistic Director. By convincingly anticipating and articulating the current political climate, Hytner stamps his authority on the grand Olivier theatre. In his hands Henry V becomes a finely attuned state-of-the-nation epic that captures the imagination whilst unapologetically debating immediate national issues. And isn't that the job of a National Theatre?
:: Theatre Worker Tuesday, June 24, 2003 [+] ::