Saturday, 31 January 2009

Smells Like...

Vix and Lara treated me to an afternoon at the Lyric to see Spring Awakening - the musical, which opens to the press next week, following two years of critical acclaim on Broadway. I suspect it'll be a wild and popular success, mostly because it's so very clever at tapping into and emulating both the language and the oedipal desires of teen spirit. I can see standing ovations all round.

In reality the show's an odd, but not unengaging, mix of Wedekind's original nineteenth century play with it's radical exploration of post- puberty and a modern rock opera with attitude. Neon light strips and hand held mics, languidly held, intersect with formal school uniforms and severe haircuts. A kind of History Boys meets the Pussy Cat Dolls.

Most of this British cast are on their first professional show and they're very, very good. Clearly committed, sweet voiced and charismatic. Their relative inexperience is ably supported by strong performances by old hands Sian Thomas and Richard Cordery. Although in one tricky sequence the cast properly rock out, which hangs the two older actors out to dry, leaving them gamboling Mary Poppins stylee in an embarrassing attempt to keep pace.

Whether the show marks a new standard in the never ending battle to make theatre accessible, relevant and meaningful to young people remains to be seen, but in terms of design, content and style it's certainly having a good go. It's a gift for Drama teachers looking for a credible yet mildly subversive big show experience to take their classes to and if you're a teenage dirtbag yourself you'll find the rebellion of Spring Awakening - the musical both moving and 'told you so' affirming.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

When having your heart in the right place isn't enough...

To the Barbican to see The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv's production of Plonter (meaning Tangle) - a collaborative piece devised by Arab and Jewish actors to portray the current tensions between Israel and Palestine. Focusing on the shooting of a Palestinian boy Khalil - the play then spirals out to explore the emotional effects of this one event on the families of both the child and the soldier who fired the gun. It follows the impact of the revenge killing of an Israeli child and even explores how the event is turned into a playground game of heroic martyrdom by Khalil's school friends.

This is all important, immediate and direct, but once again I felt I was watching socio-political theatre whilst sitting in a culturally informed audience who all understand compassionately that these violences and abuses happen. Most of us want to do something about it. None of us know what to do.

So what I didn't get, and longed for, was a sense of a potential future - be it inspired or sinister. These actors have worked together for six months and I wanted to know what more they understood, felt or anticipated about the conflict. The work was devised before the recent bombarbment of Gaza and so perhaps events have rather overtaken the companies even handed approach and brought the disproportionate power relationship between the two sides acutely into focus. However, the time is now and I felt we urgently needed insight, either a hope or a warning - I'm not sure we came away with either.

The best scene was the first where a conscientious Jewish family tries to entertain, without offending, their Arab neighbours. In the course of the uncomfortable dinner party every prejudice is revealed and every taboo about race and culture broken. It's very funny, absolutely democratic and offers a real expectation that the rest of the piece will hit hard.

Perhaps the current situation in Gaza and the settlements is just too awful ... perhaps the trauma too great, but theatre needs always to ask the difficult 'What if?' and leave the regulated media to try and reflect the current reality.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Twelfth Night

To the Wyndham's to see a stellar cast in Twelfth Night, directed by Donmar supremo Michael Grandage. I really enjoyed the production but left feeling slightly short changed. Hard to know why.

Set lightly Sur La Plage, and looking swish on a stage of stressed driftwood, the production gives ample opportunity for virtuoso performances - but perhaps the vast array of individual talent on display comes at the expense of a unified whole. It's a form of West End-itis. Excellent work from Ron Cook and Guy Henry, who use their own discrepancy in height to great comic effect as Belch and Aguecheek, whilst Victoria Hamilton's Viola pitched perfect the moments of anguish, as she struggled not to reveal her true feeling to Mark Bonnar's assured, but haunted Orsino.

Derek Jacobi is, as expected, a wonderful Malvolio, who grows stronger the deeper he is gulled. A brief moment of fear in the cell is quickly crushed on release, but his misplaced sense of new found nobility, makes it almost impossible for him to speak the word 'revenge' and he chooses instead to demonstrate his plans by violently ripping up the letter that trapped him, before straightening his shirt and walking off head held high. A dangerous psychosis - chaos to calm.

The moment though wasn't supported by the ensemble, with each character responding with their own private reaction. This may be authentic, it may even spin a new ambiguity over how we as an audience experience Malvolio at this crucial moment - but I find it lacks a basic theatricality. The little Malvolio in my own head wants the audience to be momentarily shamed by the cruelty of a joke that went too far, rather than have an opportunity to banish puritanism forever through unforgiving laughter. It just seems to fit with the rhythm of the packed final scene; the discomfort coming hot on the heels of the miraculous reunion of the twins, and moments before the lovers escape the stage, painfully reminds us that love can be as exclusive as it is wonderful which in turn sets Feste up for his final song of acceptance to the audience.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Prison Dramas

Great to see the broadsheets beginning to pick up on the dangers of the public acceptability test which I blogged about last week.

Yesterday's Independent published this article, drawing attention to the new directive.

...and this was followed up by Libby Purves in today's edition of The Times, which articulates brilliantly the rehabilitative journey.

I'm delighted that support for the brilliant work that goes on in Prison arts has been galvanised and a counter attack against reactionary measure has been launched.

Elsewhere, the St.Mary's production of Yard Gal (a play initially commissioned by Clean Break to play to Prison audiences) continues to roll with news that's it's picked up Fringe Production of the Year from Fringe Report. The award ceremony is in Leicester Square in early February. Once again it demonstrates that we really do support some excellent theatrical as well as community focused work. Congratulations Stef!

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Watching the News Eat Itself.

I've almost finished marking all the Ways of Seeing essays ready to pass on to the external examiner. The most popular question has been about whether the media now has enough influence over our lives to dictate reality to us. The problem with the question is that it assumes reality to be fixed - whereas our very understanding of the term evolves along with everything else. I suppose the virtual or escapist worlds of the Internet and TV might distract us from immersed forms of sensual engagement with the world - but in general I'm not sure we're clamped into a total brainwash even when 'reality' equates to a highly edited surveillance show or the news is just about the news.

This morning the BBC made a (crazy) decision in deciding not to broadcast an emergency appeal for aid to support the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, on the grounds that it would weaken their reputation for impartiality... but bizarrely the corporation has then spent the rest of the day interviewing its own journalists and managers, debating whether the decision is actually moral and, in itself, impartial. This self-doubt has ended up giving the very broadcast it decided not to broadcast a near monopoly of coverage..

I've been waiting for BBC news to broadcast the broadcast that they'd decided not to broadcast along with a voice over saying...

"We're now looking at clips from the banned BBC broadcast, which, having decided not to broadcast, we now broadcast, to demonstrate our impartiality"

It's pure Catch 22. To ban the appeal the Beeb have had to explain what the appeal is - and in the spirit of fair play (the very British interpretation of impartial) have interviewed several commentators who have given out the phone number needed to donate.
I suppose it's a result in the simple immediate terms of encouraging the public to give money and help relieve the crisis ... but it's so bigoted of director general Mark Thompson to suggest information needs to be censored to avoid political bias and so naive of the corporation not to realise their influence and own capacity for confusion.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Pathway Progress

The first year single honours students have been working on projects this week. The Theatre Arts students have been with Out of Joint's Ian Redford, developing a piece of verbatim theatre from testimonies gathered at a local care home. Meanwhile the Applied Theatre students have been working on a physical piece about tube travel with Imogen Bond, who was an associate at The Orange Tree last year and the Physical Theatre students have had five days re adapting Kafka's imaginary travelogue Amerika with Mitch Mitchelson from The Circus Space.

The work was shared at lunchtime today and was really impressive, sensitive and at times delightful. The verbatim piece had real poignancy, stories of heart attacks mistaken as practical jokes, memories of dancing and a wonderful sequence as a group of pensioners slowly read aloud a description of Obama's inauguration speech with knowing nods and the occasional 'ahhh - well good for him.'

The tube work was tight and movingly realised as a world weary traveller escaped into a fantasy sequence where his copy of the financial times morphed into a beautiful sun, flowers, a spliff from which love heart smoke rings blew and finally a beautiful girl in a pink dress who stole his heart.

Amerika was simply epic - an incredible body of work for four days. Imaginatively realised, not just full of fun, but disciplined and worked with concentration and belief.

The best of it is to realise what great potential there is in the year and when focused, committed and invested in the work, how much can be achieved in a relatively short time.

We're going to look at repeating the exercise next year - possibly as an induction exercise. It felt as if great progress had been made.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Vagabonds and Slumdogs!

Great news from the scholarship committee this morning that Ian has got start up funding to establish an in-house company, Vagabond Flag. Initially the idea is that over Easter Ian creates a director free environment with an ensemble of ten professional actors, to explore A Midsummer Night's Dream working as closely as possible to the original collaborative rehearsal conditions.

Underpinning the work is a reclamation of Shakespeare's language as the source of production decisions - a move against concept driven direction. It's an exciting plan and can lead on to all manner of research into the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage potentially including practice based research into the difference between the Quarto and Folio editions, single sex productions, the use of boy actors, different models of rehearsal, the learning of parts, doubling and original staging.

I also suspect that the relegation of the director, might unmask some interesting truths about the limitations of current production processes. The director as auteur is such a recent concept in the history of the theatre that I often wonder if it's just a phase we're going through. Will actors always need the outside eye coaching, relaying impression, validating or questioning decisions? Or do the best of them have the ability to both inhabit a role and stand aside objectively from it? I'm certain the old Commedia actors just self-regulated and let the audience shape the work through trial and error. They had to get it right or they wouldn't beg enough to eat. Is the director an indulgence? Perhaps needing to sing for your supper produces more impacting performance? Maybe the director is the inevitable consequence of bringing theatre into a building and selling tickets.

Later this evening I threw the marking to one side in favour of Slumdog Millioniare - which is an absolutely fantastic film about karma ... and how to get the girl, kill the baddies and save the entire planet! Kind of feel cinema was invented for movies like this so I hope it wins a shed load of Oscars. Today's been a day for the nice guys!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Oxford Magic.

Spent the day in Oxford showing Matt and Aida around. It's an incredible place of myths, legends, stories and moments. At every turn there is an improbable tower, a pouting gargoyle, a secret quad or conspiratorial pub.

Oxford has always been a city of the imagination and so much of what the British have come to consider classic children's literature was created here from Alice in Wonderland, through the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings to His Dark Materials. The Wind in the Willows is set a few miles down stream somewhere between Goring and Pangbourne on the sun dappled, lazy Thames.

Why so much from this relatively small place? Partly the need of the clever to escape from the high brow world of academia into a more innocent and blissful place? Partly because the severe ridiculousness of paternal tradition, blind authority and ritual can only be made sense of through the fantastic or the absurd? Mostly though, I suspect, the writers of these stories wanted to pay homage, to weave a web of magic half -remembered dreams through the reality of the streets and buildings in the soft Cotswold stone city that they loved a great deal... and as infantile or regressive as it may turn out, don't we all want to share in our lives wonderful memories of sublime pleasure? And perhaps these transforming moments are impossible to describe in any way, other than through the glory of allegory and metaphor?

These are the final words from the first draft of Alice in Wonderland called Alice's Adventures Under Ground. It's a homecoming to Eden and rather beautiful.

'She saw an ancient city, and a quiet river winding near it along the plain and up stream went slowly gliding a boat with a merry party of children on board - she could hear their voices and laughter like music over water.'

Oxford seems to enchant most of it's visitors as much with it's mystery as with its place in the history of the nation. It's secrets provoke curiosity and wonderment. In this, above all, it is a place of childhood.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

To the National this evening with Matt to see Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. I read the play at University and remember being confused, unable to visualise the staging, the precision of which felt absolute, or understand where a director might start.

Two men share a cell in a psychiatric hospital. One, Ivanov, believes he owns an orchestra; the other, Alexander, is a political prisoner pronounced insane because of his dissident opposition to the Soviet regime - a discordant note in a highly orchestrated society. He is begged constantly by, Sascha, his son, to recant and tell the lie that will enable the authorities to declare him sane and release him.

Ivanov's orchestra are visible throughout demonstrating the profundity of his delusion by filling up the vast, revolving, Olivier stage. They serve to underscore, parody and illuminate both the action and power relationships between the patients, the doctor, memory and the colonel.

There is something deeply beautiful in Toby Jones' fragile performance as Ivanov. It's part resignation, part suffering, as he treads the corridor of a right angled stone path, across the stage, unsure whether he can stray, trying to conduct, trying to reconnect.

Music as a metaphor for mental health is a persuasive one and in this production the orchestra stands touchingly both for the functioning society and the complex mind. The work is peppered with jokes, reinforcing the illogical, the ludicrous and the farcical notion of sanity. The line between reality and the absurd is thin. At what point to we declare the unorthodox insane? When does individualism become destructive?

The final moment is gorgeous. As Sascha reassures his hunger striking father that 'Everything can be alright!' the back wall of the theatre opens up to reveal a series of mirrors that create an infinite perspective for the stone path. It's long, it twists, it's complicated, but the journey is possible. Not will be ... can be.

Friday, 16 January 2009

The Public Acceptability Test

Planning meetings yesterday and today. Firstly with Molly to look at how we manage the TIE, Theatre for Young People and Drama in the Community modules next semester - all together we have over 50 second and third year students working out in schools and colleges and the logistics of making sure everybody gets a great experience is taking some sorting. Much of our work is focused in Hounslow, with the culminative Chiswick House project somehow tying everything together.

Today I went up to Camden to explore further collaborations with Keith and The Comedy School.

Following the attack on the companies work in The Sun at the back end of last year, which resulted in Justice Minister Jack Straw pulling a drama course at Whitemoor, the Prison service have released a new set of guidelines for Prison governors demanding that all activities going on in their Prison should meet 'the public acceptability test' avoiding initiatives which would 'generate indefensible criticism and undermine public confidence.'

Perception is sadly the primary concern here, whether the work is effective or not in crime reduction terms is of secondary importance. Between the lines this directive directly threatens most of the rehabilitation work done by arts organisations and hands power to the tabloids, the shock jocks and the reactionary right. The Sun and The Mail must be delighted, especially as the Governors are asked to refer any borderline decision to the Services' Press Office.

I suspect deeply that 'indefensible criticism' will in practice have more to do with loud clamour than with judicial scrutiny. It's a spineless sop of a decision.

Keith is a little more bullish than of late and senses that the third sector will come together in a concerted effort to reverse the decision and reinstate a more positive image for the role that the arts play in the criminal justice system. However, with a general election coming up within the next 18 months, both political parties will be want to posture and look tough on crime - as the self-fulfilling public acceptability test may well reveal -it's a vote winner!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


The week is cracking on. Students are negotiating, and occasionally fighting, for space to prepare their Creative Collaboration projects and Directors pieces. Meanwhile we've had our first round of auditions for next September, held the programme boards and written up action plans for the coming year.

The auditions went very well and we met some really talented performers. Kasia, Trevor and myself sat on the panel and it was interesting to realise that despite the individual focus of each of the pathways, in general we were looking for similar applicants.

For what it's worth, and if you're due to audition for us, I suspect the following four points are true.

1. We're looking for genuine people who just give the script a really good crack. Occasional dries don't bother us (everyone gets nervous), but we do expect candidates to have tried to learn the words and offer a sense of performance. We don't have long to make a judgement so be yourself, be friendly and show us you're keen to work.... We're not the X-factor. We're not looking to make 'reality' TV at your expense. We genuinely want you to do well. We hope every candidate who comes through the door will be wonderful (it makes our job much easier!)

2. Often we ask for candidates to try the piece again with a little direction. This is nearly always because we want to see if you're as good as you initially appear. Can you listen and respond to a fresh direction?

3. We don't expect you to know everything, but we might be about to spend the next three years working with you, so we want to see that your curious, interested and not trying blag your way onto the course with pseudo knowledge or, worse, flattery. We like students who ask when they don't understand a comment or question.

4. We respect candidates who have been bold in the choices they make. We're looking for you to perform the truth of the speech, so you must have read the whole play and understand what the character is going through, thinking, feeling at the moment they speak. You might have an experience of your own to draw on to help give the lines authenticity; if not then your imagination must delve deep to explore the speech. Either way, even if your interpretation is not to our taste, we'll consider you if we think there is thought and rehearsal behind the work.

Also be very aware that in some ways the audition is two way. If, having spent a day with us, you don't feel at home or excited by St.Mary's then maybe it's wrong for you. You'll learn lots here and we always try to push, challenge and stimulate our students, but ultimately the choice is yours.

Hope that's useful.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Polka Pinocchio

Went with Lara and Vix to see Ian play Pinocchio at the Polka in Wimbledon.
It was a fun show, full of invention played out on a jumble sale of a set, which gave plenty of opportunity for theatrical play, hiding places, secret compartments and clever object theatre. Ian was charming, energised and rather brilliant in the title role. It's hard work to keep a young audience focused for over two hours, but the company did with clarity and enthusiastic storytelling - the kids seemed to have a brilliant time.

There are two dedicated children's theatres in London, here and The Unicorn and it must be a fascinating job creating a magic venue that will really inspire kids to want to see live entertainment. The Unicorn I always thinks suffers a little from it's setting and the amount of money invested in it. It feels like a mini National, great for socialising theatre going, but perhaps a bit imposing to be genuinely child friendly. Polka, with years of experience have done it really well in their red roofed shed of a building, with a cafe in the shape of a train, a rocket disappearing into the roof, dressing up boxes and rocking horses in the foyer. It's chaotic, colourful, imaginative and spacious. It rightly feels as if it belongs to the audience. Nobody is shoving you out of the door or herding you towards the gift shop, the adults sit on the edges of the spaces and let their children run around and play.

Ian had a huge head shot poster on the boards outside, which eclipsed even Lara's gargantuan picture outside Theatre503 before Christmas. They both seemed fairly nonchalant about the self-publicity... but Vix and I know better. It's War!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Spiralin' & Student Offer.

Third years Kat and Mark have just come back from Northern Spain where they've been working with Spiral, a theatre company who use their process to raise and investigate rural issues in the La Rioja region.

They gave a fascinating and hilarious talk back this afternoon part adventure story, part evaluation of their trip. Despite some wonderful cultural confusions what shone through was their admiration for the work that the company does.

Amongst many other projects, Spiral are using forum theatre as a means of advocacy, working alongside villagers and other community groups to look at ways in which the area can rejuvenate itself after a period of depopulation and economic statis.

The Spanish government are looking to bring tourism into the area through the opening of a bio diverse national park, which might transform the area, bringing a new level of prosperity. Equally, of course it brings a sense of threat to tranquility of an indigenous local community.

This kind of community issue seems to be where forum theatre can really tease out fears and underline potential obstacles. It's empowering and democratic work. Much more vital than a newsletter or paper consultation exercise.

Tina has been involved with Spiral for a number of years, both in Spain and here and I'm hoping we'll be able to develop and cultivate further placements and projects with them in the future.

.... Other News. Stef O'Driscoll has just sent this through.

As part of this year’s 33% festival (see image above) Oval House Theatre are offering all St Mary’s drama students a special two for one ticket offer for The Unfortunate Love Of The British Empire: if you call the box office on 020 7582 7680 or book online at and use the word ‘EMPIRE’, you will get two tickets for the price of one concession ticket, that’s just £5.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Moves Towards Utopia

Back into work and full of new plans. The big project this semester is the Chiswick House show, which will hopefully involve many of Hounslow's schools and culminate in a big spectacle event in May. At this early point everything seems possible, which is both exciting and slightly unsettling.

Molly has posted a really inspiring youtube lecture by the author Dave Eggers in which he gives a hugely enthusiastic account of creative learning centres in the States.

It'd be wonderful to be able to create an imaginative centre which allowed all kinds community centred activity and was linked to the University. I wonder whether we need something architecturally specific? Maybe a possible development for the department to begin to see itself as a venue for all kinds of activity, with students celebrating their role as facilitators and administrators as much as performers and directors. Already I've been convinced that the most exciting and meaningful learning experiences happen when we get off campus and relate our work to a non partisan audience or situation, the inverse where we host and support the work of the community on campus might also be fruitful and celebratory. Grassroots up rather than guru led.

I think the art of facilitating others ideas feeds back into your own aesthetic practice be it as a writer, designer or performer (directors and technicians are already essentially facilitators.) It's essentially empathic and it gives artists both a measure to creative ideas and helps them to find a clarity to your storytelling techniques.

The Chiswick house project could be a starting point for exploring a kind of facility to encourage children (and adults) to pursue their creativity and design into tangible results, be it a script that professional actors perform, a story or poem honoured through publication, a composition played by an orchestra, a wall painting taken to fruition, a menu cooked by a chef or garden made real by a horticulturalist. In the recent past we've tended to encourage children into expressive roles - asking them to 'perform' work prepared and directed by adults, but perhaps a future for creativity might be found in reversing this process from time to time.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Brighton Rocks

Wound up the Christmas break with a weekend in Brighton visiting Julie, who was my best mate when I was at University many moons ago. She lives in a cluttered flat with big south facing windows, high enough up to see the sea and commutes up to town every day to work at the Beeb. It's a fantastically quick journey down from Twickenham, change at Clapham Junction and it's only just over an hour to the sea!

It was a lazy weekend of catching up and eating too much (Julie has spent a major part of her life making bucket loads of leek and potato soup and baking anything that might rise in the oven.) We also headed off for short but bracing walks along the front, to the farmer's market in Hove and then on Sunday out on a Bloomsbury quest to Virginia Woolf's old house in Rodmell, Charleston Farm house, and Berwick Church to see the murals that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted during the war.

They're a luminous almost Mediterranean find in a tiny English village church, and it struck me that it must have been a brave act by the vicar to encourage these bohemian atheists in to paint in the first place, but the work is at once patriotic and galvanising for a rural community; and in this part of Sussex the threat of sudden invasion was very real for most of the war. The nativity is clearly laid out in a stable in front of Firle Beacon, attended by Sussex shepherds and Vanessa's own children; whilst at the feet of the ascending Christ on the East wall, kneel servicemen from each of the armed forces, and local clergy.

My favourite touches are on the four panels of the doors leading up to the altar, circular seasonal images of the agricultural year from Spring through to Winter. The comforting ritual of sowing, waiting and gathering in the harvest before the frosts. Above them is another panel picturing a mill pond under both a hazy sun and a bright, sea silvered full moon. The Sussex Downs are really a wonderful, peaceful place. A great way to end the holiday.

Thursday, 1 January 2009


Last day of the old year and I headed off to the Israeli embassy to register my protest at the continued acts of aggression towards Gaza.

It's gesture, I know, but once you become cynical I'm not sure what's left. Solidarity, is worth a great deal, and eventually if enough people say no, tipping points are reached. There were several hundred there this afternoon.

Amazing and heartening things have occurred in my adult life, mostly through popular movement - The Good Friday agreement, The end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin wall and we have to believe there is a way to peace in the Middle East. It's clear that closing borders and launching air strikes on one of the poorest and most densely populated areas on earth, even in the name of defence, isn't a way forward. It's more than a humanitarian crisis. Bombs are not subtle political negotiators - they rip people apart and those who survive don't forget.

Later I met up with Hsiu Chin to watch the fireworks on the South Bank. London was rather beautiful tonight. With the streets closed to traffic it really became the people's city, an immense boulevard from the Aldwych down the Strand and Whitehall, through Parliament Square and onto Lambeth Bridge - which at 10.30pm, with all the direct viewing areas closed off, was as close as we could get. The crowd were fun though singing, drinking, dancing and cracking jokes to keep out the cold.

A huge hassle clearing the centre afterwards, mounted police with megaphones trying to direct the half million strong crowd through the maze of circuitous London streets safely back to the train stations. It was gone 3am before I was pulling out of Waterloo.