The Immediacy of Multimedia Theatre

Liz Kettle in Waves, photo by Steve Cumminsky

In the Guardian, Lyn Gardner discusses multimedia in theatre, with some kind words for my friend and collaborator Judith Adams, and for Fifty Nine Productions (of which I am a proud, if non-executive, director):

with the technology at their fingertips, answers and images can be conjured by theatre makers immediately during the rehearsal or devising process, sound can be fed directly into the ears of the audiences in pieces such as Small Metal Objects or Judith Adams’ Ghost or Clickwind

Speed and immediacy is one of the key benefits of digital technology. New ideas can be tried out immediately, and discarded or incorporated into the thing being created. The speed at which one can do this means that the train of thought is not interupted, the creative process can continue.

Earlier this year Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of Fifty Nine Productions – who have contributed brilliant work to Katie Mitchell’s Waves and Attempts on her Life and the projection design for Warhorse – were made the National Theatre’s youngest ever associates. … From what I’ve seen of it so far, Fifty Nine’s contributions to the productions on which they collaborate, whether it is in Black Watch or the adaptation of the cartoon Alex, are integral to the production and always in service of it. But I keep seeing productions in which it appears as if playing with the technologies is the prime interest of the theatre-makers, rather than the show itself. [My links].

Previously, ideas for video and multimedia had to be planned in advance, and video artists would return days or weeks later with the ideas discussed… by which time, the creative process had moved one. Being able to quickly realize a complex idea on screen is probably also part of Fifty Nine’s success. You need quick technology, but you also need a quick mind to grasp what the director wants to see, and why. This, as much as the state-of-the-art technology, is why Leo and Mark were appointed associates at the National Theatre, earlier this year.

The Extinction of a Language

I see that an Alaskan lady named Marie Smith Jones has passed away. As the last speaker of the Eyak language, an entire way of thinking dies with her. (h/t Mark G)

A couple of competing quotes come to mind. From GK Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“The Señor will forgive me,” said the President. “May I ask the Señor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?”

“I never catch a wild horse,” replied Barker, with dignity.

“Precisely,” said the other; “and there ends your absorption of the talents….
In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses–by lassooing the fore feet–which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilised.”

Versus this one, from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

I doubt very much that my inital thought, that the Eyaks of Alaska are some kind of Eskimo (or Esquimaux, as Chesterton has it), is correct. Nevertheless, their Northerly homeland does remind me of the story about how Eskimo’s have forty words for snow (or is it fifty? Or a hundred?) What special, specific thoughts and words have we lost now that Mrs Smith Jones has passed away? Matthew Parris, writing in the Spectator last week, says “I know exactly what I mean. I just can’t think of the word for it” referring to those Meaning of Liff or Meaning of Tingo type words that should exist, but do not. How many words, phrases and thoughts could the Eyak have taught him?

Shockingly late War Horse Round-up

War Horse59 Productions did the video design for the delightful War Horse. It has been running for a few weeks now: Better-late-than-never with my customary company-aggrandizing review round-up.

Michael Billington of the Guardian enjoyed his four-starred evening at the National, and his colleague at The Observer, Susannah Clapp, predicts a success:

War Horse will be one of the National’s biggest ever hits: it is inventive, distinguished and it makes audiences cry.

Charles Spencer describes the show stealing puppets in the Telegraph:

Joey and the other horses in the show are truly magnificent creations by the Handspring Puppet Company which don’t aim for picturesque realism but with their wooden framework, translucent fabric skins, and extraordinary mobility somehow capture the very essence of everything equine.

And Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times explains just how compelling the horses are:

This is acting of the highest order, inhabiting an entirely different character and bringing him to life before your eyes. It just so happens this character isn’t human

And check out Sam Marlowe in the week-day Times:

Now and then the theatre throws up a piece of work so exhilarating that it makes you rejoice to be alive

I suppose, in a way, its a shame that the technical achievements of projecting onto a 20 metre strip of scenerywere glossed over by the reviewers. But this is a very blinkered outlook. In fact, all design aspects, top-notch though they are, must play second saddle to the horses… as indeed do the performances of the actors playing human characters! The appearance of Joey and Topthorne always get the biggest cheers at the curtain calls, and it is the puppetry that provides all of the stunning coup d’theatres that punctuate the show. Do go and see it if you get the chance. If you miss the current run, I hear it will be revived later in 2008.

The Trans-sexual Song

I’m busy watching the Royal Variety Performance, and one of my bug-bears has reared its ugly head: The trans-sexual song. You know, one of those songs popularised by a person of one gender… yet performed by a person of another gender. And rather than simply sing the song as was written, they take the decision to swap the words around so they don’t sound, y’know, gay or something.

Sometimes, it’s fine. For example, ‘The Power of Love‘ is a serial trans-sexual, and “You are my lad-ee, and I am your man” does not sound so unnatural next to its opposite (“I am your lady, and you are my man,” which I assume is the original).

At other times, however, the sex-change makes a mockery of the song and its lyrics. In tonight’s gala, young crooners Teatro gave a harmonised rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Boubil and Schonberg’s private mint, Les Miserables. But, the song was given a sex change, and such poignant lines such as “he slept a summer by my side” and “he was gone when autumn came” were emasculated. Since the song is about stolen innocence, broken trust and the crushed dreams of a teenaged girl, the emotional intensity of the song was dropped into the surgeon’s waste bin along with its gonads.

Its irritating that these guys are making a living by taking this kind of liberty, and calling it art. I would rather they kept to the original lyrics, and made a stab at trying to convey the original emotions. Voice and music are powerful enough to communicate such things, regardless the gender of the person singing.

Continue reading “The Trans-sexual Song”

Shilpa's Shoddy Show

Sam Marlowe is scathing about Shilpa’s new show:

Given the anguish and humiliation that Shilpa Shetty suffered in the Celebrity Big Brother house this year, the British public are probably prepared to forgive her almost anything. Even so, she is pushing her luck with this shoddy piece of opportunism.

She should have taken my advice and gone for a six-part drama.

Theatre reviewing and blogs

This week, there has been a short online discussion about blogging on the (virtual pages) of The Guardian. Michael Billington asserted the need for professional, paper based reviewers, but I think some of his comments betray a patronising tone. He is simply wrong when he claims that

The critic, unlike the blogger, also has a duty to set any play or performance in its historical context.

… since blogs have the same responsibility if they want to be considered relevant (or simply, ‘good’). Billington is taken to task for this misunderstanding in the comments, and also for a misplaced nostalgia when he says:

The blog seems to me have supplanted the kind of prolonged argument about the arts that once took place in the correspondence columns of newspapers. Example: years ago, when I rashly suggested that Shaw was the best dramatist after Shakespeare, a considered, if heated, debate went on for weeks in the paper itself. Now such a suggestion would be a 48-hour wonder on the blog.

But that’s the point, says Ian Shuttleworth in the comments:

Blogs in this respect are filling a gap that has for some time and increasingly been left by editorial neglect in print publications.

Meanwhile, Lyn Gardner is a good deal more positive about the medium of blogging. It was her contribution which drew me to the debate, because last year I remember she used The Guardian’s theatre blog to publish a dissenting review of Katie Mitchell’s Waves, which had been panned by… none other than Michael Billington. Sadly, an online argument about Mitchell’s (admittedly divisve) work never materialised. This was a shame, since this sort of debate, between critics who care, is a feature which Billington himself misses. Blogs can complement theatre criticism, not challenge and marginalise it in the way that TV and film reviews have done.

Other writers also lament the absence of such robust industry. I am reminded of Michael Coveney’s essay in Prospect (November 2005). Here is a telling paragraph:

But the truth is that newspapers increasingly devote largely uncritical coverage to the latest product of the publicity machine … Previews and interviews now take precedence over critical responsibility. But the idea that they do so in order to meet a public demand is, I believe, false. Anyone under the age of 30 who wants to read about pop music, new film and reality television knows where to go. That place is not the broadsheets, but magazines and the internet. So the liberal, professional intelligentsia who read the broadsheets are confronted with coverage they don’t want and comment on “high culture” by people who often know less about it than they do.

The Guardian’s consideration of blogging is welcome, but ultimately, I cannot help but think that these critics are arriving late onto the scene, when they should have been in the vanguard. When Natasha Tripney writes

Bloggers are not constricted by word count or deadlines, and have free reign to write about what they want, when they want

or when Michael Billington types

critics are much more accountable for their opinions… the blog also gives a voice to the hitherto voiceless

we are reading insightless cliché – Many of us have been identifying these features for yonks! To paraphrase Michael Coveney, bloggers are being presented by comment on “blog culture” by people who often know less about it than they do.

Attempts On His Cake

Layers of sponge, layers of meaning: My mother does a fantastic line in meta-cakes. Last year, we had the Famous Blog Cake. This year, we have a representation of the theatre production I have been working on, rendered in the medium of icing and lego.

Attempts on His Cake

The show combines film and live performance, where the characters conjure “seventeen scenarios for the theatre”. So my birthday cake is, in fact, a rendering in icing of a rendering on film of a rendering on stage of an imagined story. That’s at least four layers, which works out at two-per sponge tier.

I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the little man with the beard and computers, standing off-stage/cake. It is meant to be me.

In fact, I was presented with the cake by means of a short video, e-mailed to me while I was at work. Given the context, it was the perfect combination of medium and message. It is unfortunate that the sublime wit might not be apparent to anyone other than myself, but I sincerely believe it was a very clever creation.

Faust in Wapping

I can feel sweat in my groin as I stagger through the gates and out of the wasteland. The air cools my face, but my baggage weighs me down and I am heavy on my feet. I am alone again, and immediately the images I have left behind begin to distort and fade.

The bar is too familiar. People from other parts of my life appear right in front of me. How is it possible that they be here too? Sometimes they recognise me, and sometimes they ignore me. Either way, they disappear just as quickly. With no-one to talk to, I turn around and give the musicians my attention. Their fashions, and the décor of the room, have been carefully picked. Observing the other clientele, I see they are totally credulous. With their hats at jaunty angles, it is clear that their outfits have been carefully chosen too. It is as if they are just playing the part of illicit revellers in this underground den. The feeling of solitude returns as I begin to think that this is just another installation.

Through the door, and suddenly we find ourselves outside, walking through a field. The masked faces in the crowd carry me with them like a wave. No time to stop and think about what we have just seen.

The man is already naked and lashed to the chair when I arrive. The crowd know that this is wrong in so many ways, but their masks hide whatever it is they might be thinking. We are all free to jostle for a better view of this ritual, his exposure. His tormentor circles with apparent menance… but is that a glint of benevolence in his eye? Peering through this mask and the wire fence, I cannot be sure. Two hundred white faces look on, without emotion, as the man in the chair is beaten, tortured, broken over the back of the chair. His adversary flies around him like a bat.

Whatever happens next, it is never what I expect. A man abruptly eats an apple handed to him by a woman – He devours it whole and complete, including the core. Then he pours a jug of water over himself (and me), and tries to ravage her. She just laughs, and conceals herself under the blanket.

These grotesque masks bring out a feral side. Women scamper past me down corridors like rats. Men push open doors and barge past me. And they do so with such purpose of stride and movement, I begin to wonder whether they are fellow voyeurs like me, or perhaps undercover performers. And yet even I am changed. I don’t run like the others… but I become a kind of sociopath, wilfully invading the privacy of the rooms I find. I steal sweets from a jar that is clearly not meant for me, and rip a bible page off the wall. When I find some cards on a table spelling the word ‘SLOTH,’ I change them to read ‘SLUT’. I follow a girl into a hotel room, and sit on the bed while she undresses.

I ignore the ostentatious coffin of baby, which is easy to find, and head to the upper floors. I spend delightful clandestine moments alone in a labyrinth of corridors and side rooms. I learn to turn the handle of every door I find. Most are locked, but every now and then a few open for me, and I slip into the darkness. I find an archive, with rows and rows of shelves stacked with identical files. A single lamp struggles to light the whole room, but only I am looking.

These people seem to defy gravity, as they pirouette across walls and ceilings. In a roadside diner, somewhere in Small Town America (I know where we are, because the waitress wears roller skates), a man chases a woman under tables and over the counter. She welcomes his advances, and yet somehow she fears him, and cannot allow him to come as close as she would like. This conflict persists throughout all the interactions in this place. Lust strolls past me on the kerbside, but violence and resentment lurks in every dark corner. They jump out for a moment, and then disappear into the shadows, like a mugging.

Down in the bar, and there is a palpable apprehension among us all. We know we have bought into something we do not understand. We know we have taken a risk, but we are sure that we will be strong enough to resist the conjuring tricks of these people. But then they force these white masks onto our faces, and shove us into an elevator. Its grate smashes against the wall with a clatter that makes us all jump. I want so desperately to understand and unlock their plan for us, but when we are separated from one another, it is clear that this will not be possible. Things will happen that they will not show me. I hear laughter and screams echoing down corridors, and throughout, the feeling never leaves me that somewhere else, on another floor, there is some wild act of debauchery taking place, from which I have been excluded.

A set of winding stairs, and a weed-riddled track. Now I am at the same gates once more, but I do not recognise them. A burly man lets me in, as I sidestep a group of twitching, anxious youths. They offer me money for something I do not yet possess. I pass through, and although they clamour to follow, their path is blocked. And then I am alone again, standing outside a church. I have lost my sense of direction. I am late, confused.

I’ve just spotted some interesting writing on the performance by Patrick Judd at the London Theatre Blog. He also stole sweets…. I caught one of the last performances of Faust by the inimitable Punchdrunk. However, The Red Death Is Coming, so don’t miss it.

'Attempts' Review Round-up

There has been crop of interesting reviews for the show we have been working on, Attempts On Her Life. Having sat in rehearsals for several weeks, I (perhaps unfortunately) know every twist of the production. It is therefore very strange to read the opinions of those who are beholding the bizarre spectacle for the first time. And of course, it is rather frustrating when they fail to understand something which has been worked through in painstaking detail…

However, some critics seem to be on the same wavelength. Kate Basset, over at the Independent on Sunday, appreciated the cast’s effort:

[The Cast] mercurially play film industry hacks, journos, porn stars and pop stars with satirical wit, icy callousness, then surfacing fear and despair. This is all while they are filming each other live, appearing both on the stage and on several giant screens.

Though it would take more than one viewing to understand half of what is going on, a disturbing portrait emerges of modern lives being dictated and damaged, manipulated by creative artists and the media with a horrible gulf between glossy ideals and grim realities. Mitchell’s staging is fantastically orchestrated, intelligent and haunting. She and her team emerge here as world class avant-gardists.

Another Kate, Kellaway from the Observer, considers the relationship between our giant screens, and the action on stage:

… in Katie Mitchell’s dazzling new treatment you never feel that anyone on stage is unclear about the material. Their authority deepens our doubt. Who is Anne? Artist? Terrorist? Porn queen? Stories about her jostle in darkness. The key props are cameras which, you suspect, always lie. In a virtuoso alliance of theatre and film (designer Vicki Mortimer), actors’ faces are projected overhead. Every moment on stage has a second, simultaneous life on screen, a dual reality which further weakens any grasp at truth.

Meanwhile, Alice Jones of the weekday version of the Independent is also complimentary about the video design, but worries that it might overwhelm other aspects:

In many cases this video work is spectacular and effectively evokes a society in which life is lived through a lens and every action is filtered by the media. But Crimp’s clever-clever writing is often submerged in the whirl of camera-work and pastiches of the X Files and Nineties music which make up Mitchell’s vision

The same issue is the deal-breaker for Michael Billington at the Guardian:

But Mitchell’s version for me focuses too exclusively on media manipulation at the expense of the play’s political purpose. On a stage crowded with lights, cameras and video screens, each scene becomes a new set-up offering us a different image of Anne. And, while this means the 11 actors are kept restlessly busy, it too often turns the play into a self-conscious media satire … while this reveals Mitchell’s sharp observation of visual cliches, it implies Crimp’s play is principally about the media’s creation of an alternative reality.

What I miss is the moral anger of a work which implies virtually everything in modern society conspires to reduce our sense of self.

Less helpful, I felt, was Charles Spencer from The Daily Telegraph:

Is the heroine a woman or a brand of car? If the author doesn’t know, how can we? … Since Crimp can’t be bothered to name his characters, I won’t bother to name the 11-strong cast. They all perform with wit and ingenuity, keep the cameras running, mime a couple of porn sequences and even perform a little pastiche pop music. But do they touch us? Not once.

This seems to betray a very narrow conception of what theatre can be. The performance is as much a poem as a play, and the fluid nature of the actors’ roles seems to be very much part of the point, the style, of the show. The cast are an ensemble, a troupe, a chorus of sorts, who conspire to create and recreate ‘Anne’. The flexibilty of the piece is one reason why it is so popular with actors and directors, and naming the characters in each scene would force a particular interpretation, something which Martin Crimp obviously wishes to avoid. More importantly, picking out individual characters from those who make the ‘attempts’ would detract and distract us from the various ‘Anne’ characters that Crimp allows his actors to conjour, and then discard. To my mind, the anonymity of the ‘players’ gives each ‘attempt’ a purity it might otherwise lack.

Unfortunately, Nicholas De Jongh of the Evening Standard feels that what purity there may have been in Martin Crimp’s text, this production adulterates it. Awarding the production just a solitary star, he says:

Anyone who attempts to understand, let alone appreciate, Martin Crimp’s satirical panorama of political, cultural and social decadence in the decade before Mr Blair took control of our lives in 1997, will find its director Katie Mitchell gets in the way … Typically the scene’s verbal potency is lost because it succumbs to Mitchellitis – a dreadful form of directorial embellishment.

Writing in The Times, Benedict Nightingale is more complimentary, but perhaps a little biased:

Yet one of the National’s functions is to take risks and embrace the odd and outré. And Claudie Blakley, Kate Duchene, Zubin Varla and the rest of Mitchell’s cast kept me absorbed and alert. But maybe I’m prejudiced. My wife is called Anne.

Screen shot from Attempts on Her Life

Attempts On Her Life

The National Theatre have today launched a micro-site for their production of Attempts on Her Life, which I am working on for Fifty Nine. There is an ambitious blog for audience reviews, and a short trailer which previews a couple of the scenes we have been working on.

And it is an ambitious production. Written by Martin Crimp, the play is billed as “a roller-coaster of late 20th century obsessions”. The ‘attempts’ deal with idolatory, fetishisation, and control.

Anna-Nicole SmithI think these obsessions have become particularly acute in the past few weeks. Anna-Nicole Smith was fascinated by Marylin Monroe. Just like her heroine, she died young and in the media glare. And just like Norma-Jean, she was objectified to the point of destruction. When we apply convenient euphemisms like ‘former Playmate model’ and ‘widow of the billionaire,’ we conceal the seedy truth: she was paid money by men who used her as an object for their own gratification. As the ever honest Onion put it, some seven years ago: ‘Anna Nicole Smith Awarded $450 Million In Nonagenarian-Fucking Fees’. We should feel uneasy about her life and descent into drugs and death. Instead we gawp, and then offer the judge in the custody case for her child a TV contract.

And always, always, the deceased woman is depicted in a red dress. Why is that?

Meanwhile, when Britney Spears chooses a haircut which does not fit with the conventional image of feminine beauty, she inspires more column inches and moral panic than when she drops her baby. Marina Hyde manages to stay above the fray as she discusses Britney’s hair in today’s Guardian supplement… along with some pertinent comments on Danielle Lloyds redemption via a series of underwear photos in Maxim, and a woman who, instead of living her own life, spends her time impersonating the obnoxious yet popular Naomi Campbell.

Another 20th Century obsession and (for me, at least) an overarching theme of Attempts On Her Life, is our relationship to The Screen. In many places, the show uses the language and conventions of TV and cinema to critique and satirise western consumer culture. Editing together the images produced, its hard not to be reminded of how pervasive these media are. It catalyses and magnifies these other obsessions. There is no escape from the larger than life icons that surround us. They are like an ever-present ambient noise, which we cannot help but absorb. No wonder there are legions of us who seek to be on The Screen for its own sake.
Continue reading “Attempts On Her Life”