Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Edinburgh Fringe Wrap-up

If I felt more passionately about the Fringe, I would be happy to declare it as the worst place to make theatre.

Unfortunately, I feel so jaded and apathetic about the whole thing that it's difficult to muster the energy to attack it. It's such an overwhelming institution.

I'll limit myself to some simple expressions and observations.

It was disappointing to see how much the Fringe has not changed since 2006, when I was last here. Theatre certainly has. The hallmarks are still here - the little cliques, the networking, the audiences treating theatre as a supermarket, browsing around, ultimately making bad decisions based on the most trival justifications. It seemed like most audiences wanted to escape something which might be actual, real theatre.

I don't buy the argument that simply having so many people in the same place to watch theatre is enough to justify whatever. Rather, the screws appear to be being turned on artists more than ever. It was so terrifying to see young people there, joining the fray, as it were, handing out flyers, trying desperately to make their money back on their huge upfront investment, to pay back that loan they took from their parents, or that credit card debt.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Blind Hamlet

Regular readers will remember my beef with Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, a play whose popularity seemed based on its manipulation of the West's already misguided perception regarding Iran and a fairly flimsy gimmick.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was spectacularly successful, playing globally and on some big theatres. So what was said in that play, particularly about Iran, was important. But - that damage is done.

Soleimanpour's follow-up Blind Hamlet, playing a full Edinburgh Fringe run, will probably not be as successful - but it's in many ways a better play. The audience arrive to a stage manager setting up a mic next to a tape-recorder, and Soleimanpour's voice wafts out, explaining that he's losing his sight.

The play proceeds from this spectatorship of a machine into a series of theatre games, ringmastered by Soleimanpour via the tape-recorder, that are loosley related to Hamlet, using the audience as participants (in a reference to WR,RR). The games centre around the ideas of death and vision. It's revealing of an occasionally insightful, occasionally callous, reading of Hamlet - but it's one that's never without contemplation.

Friday, August 22, 2014


My article about #flyerfreeday was published over at A Younger Theatre.

Will it take off? My pessimism about human nature says no. But I'm always ready to be surprised.


Stories about Love, Death, and a Rabbit

I've been interested lately in British politeness, especially within the context of Europe, as it seems to me the defining trait of the people on that group of islands. And it also seems to function a particular way, and with a particular (political) outcome. I'll confess that, at least for now, I'm not at all sure what that outcome is. A certain type of power, gained through excuse?

The irony is that within performance, this is something that's seldom examined. Much more popular in UK drama are the kinds of hard-hitting, abrupt violence, site-specific live art or experimental hybrid performance, or design-driven spectacle. 'Manners' is a term distinctly left for comedy.

I don't read Stories about Love, Death and a Rabbit as a comedy. It's funny, yes, if nothing else because of its familiarity, but there's certainly something else motivating the creation of this character. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Dame Edna-esque Ms Samantha Mann, alter-ego of performer Charles Adrian Gillott, was created. Was she a mockery of British politeness? A satire on a kind of upper-class cliche that now surely exists only in the imagination? Or was it, as I read it, working towards something darker and more biting, like a terrible, violent underbelly. After all, not every old woman throws in lines like 'I'd better lighten the mood or you'll all go and throw yourselves in front of a bus'.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


The most remarkable thing about Chris Thorpe's Confirmation is that I agreed with it almost entirely.

There is, indeed, a problem of confirmation bias. People do, indeed, seek things which confirm their pre-existing beliefs. There are, indeed, subjectivity difficulties involved in seeking out other, opposing perspectives, in attempting to see through the eyes of another.

Yes, yes, yes, yes...

My chief concern here is, somewhat ironically, whether this is a play that will change anyone's mind. You either walk into the theatre with some reasonable understanding of social critique, and therefore almost all of Thorpe's text will drip with familiar crisis, or you can not, and it will seem totally bogus.

I'm most interested in the other side of that argument - which I don't represent. What is it like to walk into that room, from your 9-5 job where you support unquestioningly an entire system of beliefs that you have supported unquestioningly, unconsciously, for your entire life, into this tirade of problems of xenophobia, white supremacy, and various distancing mechanisms. Do you walk out changed?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Show 6

Disclaimer: I just finished a workshop studying under the writer.

Further disclaimer: This appears to be an example of a review where the critic absolutely did not understand even the basic premise of what it was about - apparently a real life occurrence of Chilean children forgetting (or being forced to forget) their parents in the 70s. I choose to publish as-is, as the plot was not as important to me as other things which were going on.


We live in the age of hyper-forgetting. Jameson, Baudrillard - these guys are from 20 years ago now. History is rewritten daily. So not only is there 'no war' going on in Iraq right now, ones that we are absolutely certain did happen are disappearing.

The theatre writer, perhaps, exists on some kind of precipice - balanced between the two acts of forgetting and archiving - their words solidified in print before exploding out of the mouths of actors, and then sitting on a shelf, hopefully awaiting revival. If there is anyone who understands the politics of forgetting, it is the playwright, stranded as they are between these two worlds of preservation and declaration, the library and the public square, as it were.

Mark Ravenhill's new play Show #6, performed by the ensemble of Secret Theatre, seems like a play that forgot even to have a title. Fragmentation of speech - a method that Ravenhill employs in some other plays - is here ramped up to 11, as the characters hang suspended in an inability to articulate.

The meat of the play is a political and philosophical crisis, expressed through the personal in the form of the poetic. Banal reality collapses quickly into fantastic fantasy, and the two become interchangeable. Lines like 'You have to remember accurately or you should stay silent' or 'you can choose a story that makes you happy' and several references to competing realities display a confusion for truth in a mess of political, familial and existential violence. It's a poetic attempt to articulate a crisis that cannot be described with rational speech.

It's disappointing to see the production not meet the demands of the text - though more in the manner of how. The ensemble and director have elected to meet the difficult puzzle of the language with a cold, sharp, almost militant clarity in their decisions. This results in an overcompensation which feels oddly like going to drama school - I could almost imagine an invisible director screaming commands from over the shoulder of each actor.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Edinburgh: Where Theatre Comes to Die

Over the next week I will be writing criticism at perhaps the worst possible location for one to write criticism - the Edinburgh Fringe - the home of star ratings and grabby taglines, as well as performing my own theatrical monologue End of Species to be presented together with a nightly forum with climate change scientists at a secret location in Summerhall.

I LOVED IT *****!!!! is all that any artist coming here wants to read. So I fully expect to find nothing here, and no reward for anything that might pass as actual critical writing. Sitting in the courtyard at Summerhall - you can almost explode with the conveyer-belt of flyers, pedalled by desperate artists in cut-throat competition. For what? One may well ask. To tear at the few scraps of what was once theatre? Looking around, you can't help thinking that, if there is a place where theatre comes to begin a longer journey into the public consciousness and eventually into history,  this isn't it. This is a place where theatre comes to die - where it has finally exhausted all that it can give.

There will be nothing here. So why am I here?

Perhaps, as a friend suggested to me today - I am here to be proven wrong. I am certainly ready for that.

Laughing at Critical Thought

The past week I was a participant in the workshop 'Laughing at Ibsen', which was hosted by the Venice Biennale of Architecture (which has a small side program in theatre) and led by Mark Ravenhill. The workshop participants were half Italian, half foreign, and we examined methods of injecting laughter into dramatic situations in which does not obviously belong, in this case, Ibsen's Ghosts.

An interesting thing happened at the end of the four days - I was invited to share reflections. My response was filled with the gusto of one totally swept away by the moment - I babbled insipidly about the Italian comedians in the room, something about how they were gloriously lent to comedy. True - but not useful. So the below is an attempt to reclaim some lost critical territory, as there are important things to be said about laughing today.

Upon re-reading Henri Bergsson's essay On Laughter, what I noticed the most was how it seemed at once relevant and irrelevant. Bergsson's focus is not on the generic 'comedy' but on the human reflex 'laughter', and exactly what that is in a very scientific way. This approach essentialises 'the comic' into its audience response, and in doing so achieves a universality born of neutrality. Examining the impulse - laughter - and not the form of comedy effectively splits the content's meaning and its function. In short, it removes comedy from ideology.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Like many critics, I am not in the habit of writing about a work-in-progress. But in certain circumstances, you just get the feeling... why not? Plenty of theatre does not need gloss to make a clear and relevant point. Audiences, from my experience, do not really care about mistakes, perceived or actual - they care about the contest for reality. This can be present in theatre at any stage of development.

Having said that, it's hard to  imagine a work-in-progress feeling more complete than this work from Agrupación Señor Serrano, presented as part of the Venice Architecture Biennale workshops I attended as a participant. We enter an auditorium half-filled with seats and half with cushions on the floor, and are met with a stage that gives off a similar sense of lounging, white sofas lazily strewn together to form a lounge room, with a big screen projecting a video game behind.

At this point, I admit, I expected what followed to be shit. Call it years of seeing theatre stages of lounge rooms, unselfconsciously realised on stage in a replication that shows no acknowledgement to a world outside a middle-class world of leisure. In retrospect, I should have noticed the tiny abnormalities. Why the casual appearance of the actors? Was there not at the same time some tightness in the air? Why the all-too-boys-club behaviour, joking and high-fiving one another in front of a video-game replay of Italy vs Croatia in the World Cup? Why the clashing combination of sterile sofas and home-made cardboard shanty town on the table?