Thursday, 30 July 2009

Turning Back Time.

A strange night of theatre going. First to the National to see Caryl Churchill's short Three More Sleepless Nights performed with verve and intelligence on the Phedre set. I was thrown a little by the man next to me wearing a mask. I wondered if he'd got swine flu and was protecting us, but on asking him I found out he was 'just being careful!' Is it going to come to this in the Autumn?

Next, down to the Young Vic, to see Anamaria Marnica perform Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis as a monologue. The play itself has a kind of iconic mystique in the hindsight of Sarah's suicide a decade ago. It was found amongst her things and swiftly, but beautifully, produced as a memorial by her director of choice, James MacDonald, at the Royal Court. Nobody knows whether it was meant for performance, but back then collective grief gave it allure and the production seemed to beg us to find the reasoning that had escaped Sarah and to go on living.

In contrast, this latest production, seemed to me, cliched in its confrontation and entirely lacking nuance or irony. In fact gone was any sense of the poetry that marked Sarah out as a breathtaking, uncompromising and complicated talent and we were left meanly scratching about for autobiographical clues. I wish she hadn't been ill; I wish she hadn't died and for those reasons I wish this play didn't exist, but still I sat with the rest of the audience engaged in cultural voyeurism of the worst kind. It was dumb of me to go.

So to side step this spectre here's Carol Ann Duffy's brilliant poem, written to commemorate the passing, over the last fortnight, of the last two World War I veterans: Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. It was published this morning and seems a fitting final word.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin

that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…

but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood

run upwards from the slime into its wounds;

see lines and lines of British boys rewind

back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-

mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers

not entering the story now

to die and die and die.

Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.

You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)

like all your mates do too-Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-

and light a cigarette.

There's coffee in the square,

warm French bread

and all those thousands dead

are shaking dried mud from their hair

and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,

a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released

from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

You lean against a wall,

your several million lives still possible

and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.

You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

then it would.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Nor Shall My Sword.

To the Royal Court this evening to see Jez Butterworth's instant classic Jerusalem. It's a fantastic piece of writing, supported by confident direction and wonderful performances. In its complexity and layered exploration of English identity, the play is streaks ahead of anything else I've seen this year, providing the kind of night when you float out of the theatre head reeling and heart pumping. It's as broad as Salisbury Plain and the running time of over three hours only helps to reinforce the epic nature of this state of the nation hymn.

It's Saint George's day and the annual Flintock fair is in full scrumpy flow, waiting for the crowning of the newest, coming of age, May Queen. Meanwhile holed up, outside his derelict caravan, sits, Johnny 'Rooster' Byron - a dead dodgy, but lovable, rogue as English and anachronistic as Archie Rice; as large and lawless as Falstaff, The Green Man or the Great God Pan, himself.

For twenty years or more Johnny has been supplying drugs, alcohol, love and mythical stories of giants and dare devil feats to the minors of South Wiltshire, whilst waiting for Kennett and Avon council to serve him eviction orders. Mark Rylance's performance in the role is triumphant. Lithe, dangerous and full of charm, his fearless bravado all but manages to mask the fears of a man who can see simultaneously the beauty and betrayal of youth. He knows the hay making is over but goes down fighting nevertheless.

The symbols of an alternative Eden abound - a rural world that is at once glorious and feral -where council officials are ineffective and vigilante justice endemic. Here the children of England are subtly inducted into adulthood by the most local of heroes and Morris dancing, happy slapping, sweet garlic and speed compete for the attention of the annual merry makers.

It's marvellous to see a contemporary playwright, unafraid of creating an expansive plot, striding out his territory with humour, insight and threat. This is a mighty Blake-ian blunderbuss which attacks the bucolic at every turn.

Monday, 27 July 2009

A Long Walk in Arcadia

A reading day. I took the train out to Windsor for a change of scenery and had a productive morning sitting in a coffee shop with a pile of books. As ever I'm struggling to focus on one thing and today I jumped from Walpole's letters, to the short stories on Sarajevo that I'm planning to adapt, to Quantum a fantastic book on the relationship between Einstein and Neils Bohr. I still have a naive belief that everything links at some level and that you can be as eclectic as you like - eventually some meaning will come forward.

The sun came out at lunchtime, so I went for an explore, firstly, the splendid three mile hike of The Long Walk through Windsor Great Park - up to the Copper horse of George III. From here you can see Canary wharf, Wembley, the planes coming in and out of Heathrow as well as the full majesty of the Castle poised high above the curling Thames. It's amazing how much land the crown estate has. Space is the absolute defining factor of privilege - space to think in, to move in, to project into. The more that's democratised for public use the better. I walked on the grass all the way back to town.

Across the river the mini Oxbridge of Eton where eighteen Prime Ministers, the latest royals, spies, Shelley, Matthew Pinsent, Maynard Keynes, Ian Fleming, George Orwell, David Cameron, Boris Johnson, The Duke of Wellington, four martyrs and a saint were all educated. Nice cloisters if you can get it!

Horace Walpole was sent here in 1727 and quickly formed a quadruple alliance with the future poet Thomas Grey, Thomas Ashton and Richard West - they provided pastoral protection for themselves from the rowing, horseplay and general bullying of public school by taking alter egos from Romantic poetry: Orozmandes, the Persian Sun God for Grey, Almanzor, from Dryden's Conquest of Granada for Ashton, Zephyrus, the West Wind for West and Celadon, the Shepherd from Honore D'Urfe's L'Astree for Horace himself. So they read, napped, dreamed and whilst their contemporaires went off to forge new empires, prepared to let the world pass them by, on the banks of the sun dappled river.

It's all Wonderland stuff and less than a tenner for a day return from Twickenham.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Value Added Incest of Pub Theatre.

London theatre is rich indeed. Apart from the big subsidised companies and the commercial West End, there's also a thriving and sometimes ground breaking fringe scene played out in rooms above pubs, cellars underground, temporary tents and the public spaces in Covent Garden and the South Bank.

There's no money here, but plenty of talent and often the shows give up and coming practitioners the chance to prove their invention and technique without having a production budget to hide behind or a box office return to protect. Hawk eyed producers, casting agents and directors occasionally come and watch in the hope of discovering a new idea or flavour. It's a breeding ground for future development, kept alive by some bloody minded acts of determination and sacrifice.

This afternoon I went to catch my friend Kris in an ambitious interpretation of John Ford's bloody Caroline revenge drama Tis a Pity She's a Whore! at the thirty five seat, White Bear Theatre in Kennington. It's really hard to manipulate a cast of fifteen on a stage the size of a postage stamp without over imposed mannerisms, and inevitably the quality in casting was uneven, but up and coming director, Joanna Turner, got terrific performances from Alan Mirren and Siobhan McMillan as the incestuous siblings Giovanni and Annabella.

It was great to see the play at such close quarters. A kind of rough cut Romeo and Juliet - no punches pulled, blood, forbidden desire, ripped out hearts and hell fire. Crazy to try and get away with it in such a tiny space but it reminded me that the best projects come out of passion and personality, not pragmatic consideration or safe return.

Friday, 24 July 2009

To the Mountaintop.

To the Trafalgar Studios to see To The Mountaintop recently transferred form Theatre503. The play focuses on an imagined encounter between Martin Luther King and an angel, disguised as a chambermaid in Room 306 of the Lorianne Motel the night before his murder in 1968.

I visited the motel, now the Museum of Civil Rights, in Memphis last summer, but when the guided tour tried to take us into the room - I baulked and found it impossible to enter. Fortunately the guide allowed me to use a fire escape route to skip the shrine and take me directly to the gift shop. I can't explain why I couldn't cross the threshold - and I have no belief in evil as a force - but my protest in that moment was visceral, almost fibril, rather than intellectual. America was still to elect a black president.

So tonight, almost a year on and with Obama safely installed in the White Heart, it was weird to finally be taken into the room for this powerful and important play. The two central performances by David Harewood as the cadence inflected King and Lorraine Burroughs, as straight talking angel Camae are superb. Together the pair analyse the meaning of the seemingly prophetic Mountaintop speech, explore black history and consider possible futures, implicitly pulling the audience into a debate about the progress of civil rights in America over the forty years since the assassination.

At the end a standing ovation from a predominantly black audience, who clearly endorse the key message of the play, that although access to the promised land may have been hard won, Martin's dream must never be taken for granted.

Exhibitionism and a Definition of Passion.

After the meeting I headed off into Trafalgar Square to see what the latest people on the plinth were up to. I've always loved Antony Gormley's work from the Angel of the North, to the men on Crosby Beach to the static figures that occupied the rooftops of London last Summer, but I can't help thinking One and Other, is a disappointing experience both for those who take up their lonely hour amongst the statues of generals and soldiers and for the crowds who flow through a square disfigured by the huge green pre-fab, used as dressing room, security and administrative hub for the work.
It all leaves the performers standing aloof, out of reach of genuine communion, secured by an eyesore safety net, and marshalled by two stewards in fluorescent jackets and rapid response radios (called into action when a girl in a pink tutu began to throw sweets into the square.) I imagine an hour up there must seem like an eternity, to even the most raving exhibitionist - particularly if health and safety requirements stop you from doing anything dexterous.

It started to rain, so I sought sanctuary at the Curzon on Shaftesbury Avenue and caught the wonderfully tender 35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis - a fantastic film about a widower father (Lionel) and his daughter (Josephine), coming to the end of her schooling. They live calmly, caring for each other in the Paris suburbs. Whereas most dramas focus on the gap between people, the tragedy of missed communication and the scramble to bridge and maintain relationship at all cost - this piece explores the wonderful overlap when two people genuinely love and care more for the other than for themselves. Nothing is overplayed or sensationalised. It is a perfect hymn to functionality, passion and hope.

The most beautiful image of nurture is of a rice cooker. Unbeknown father and daughter buy each other one, on the same day. The daughter realises first what has happened and, understanding her father's pride and being able to give, puts her gift in a cupboard. The father finds it in the last moment of the film - no confrontation is offered. Instead, unspoken, both acknowledge the stages of this ritual of leeway, and honour its meaning. A gorgeous movie!

Malawi Moves.

Morning meeting in Charing Cross with Matt and Patrick, who's back from Malawi for a couple of weeks. What started as discussion about possible partnership two years ago is now hurtling to fruition, with our first cohort of Applied Theatre students due to work with Tfac in Lilongwe in eighteen months time.

It looks as if the time is ripe for a second visit, following up on Matt and my initial trip in Spring 2008. This would enable us to put in place a 'buddy' system linking our students with members of the Tfac team and enable a year long induction process to evolve using video postcards and the sharing of best practice. All of us are keen to avoid the facebook OMG! type exchanges, but there is some room here to really use blended learning and begin to provide a genuine context for the placements in 2011.

With this in mind we're thinking of sending a St Mary's student out in one of the reading weeks - either November or February, to meet the Malawi team, the British Council and to provide the rest of the group with a point of contact - either Matt or myself would accompany them to help with the orientation of this ambassadorial role.

Patrick has been working on the disused stables in the Tfac house and they will now serve as a rudimentary sleeping block for us. It's very exciting to be able to introduce students to Theatre for Development through this amazing hands on experience.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What you know...not who you know!

Unleashing Aspiration - The Cabinet Office's paper on social mobility was published today. It's a slightly aggressive title for what, on first reading, seems a noble, but timid set of eighty recommendations. Behind it is the absolutely correct assumption that the class system prevails in a fairly fixed state and that, with a few brave and remarkable exceptions, the accident of your birth is still the singularly most important factor in determining what you end up doing professionally.

My issue with the document, welcome though it is, is that its frame of reference hits the same old debate of saying more resources need to go into schools, more initiatives, more extra-curricular activities... more, more more! The report continually makes a comparison depicting state schools as poor relations to the private sector, where a disproportionate percentage of our lawyers, doctors, cultural leaders, academics and chief executives begin their journey. That this is true and indefensible is basic stuff, but the state system can never compete. A fresh approach is needed. Of course resources are important but the real reason why the private sector produces so many 'leaders' is because it sets less value on 'socialisation' and more on nurturing individual talent and ability than the bureaucratised state sector. The unifying component of all successful leaders, regardless of political persuasion is that they are independent thinkers. Despite occasional revolution, cavaliers and libertines nearly always possess the charisma to lead puritans and roundheads.

For me, the key component of the discrepancy is not class (which seems a lazy descriptor for this kind of debate) but the relatively small number of students in each private institution and the amount of 'space' those students have to think, play and explore in. In supportive circumstances learning becomes a stimulating job and surveillance (interpersonal in the private sector) can be used to support each individual's development rather than to protect property or control crowds. All this leads to a different and ennobling attitude towards the young, and it's this that needs cultivating rather than trying to bridge the commodity or even opportunity gap. The investment in the over crowded state sector needs to be made here, providing the intellectual architecture for a change in mentality - which would eventually make private education, if not obsolete, then unnecessary. An after school club is a stop gap in comparison.

For arts educators the report makes a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of soft skills and there is an interesting idea that all 5 -11 year olds should have an entitlement to visits and training under a scheme called 'Arts Explorers' but alongside these fine proposals run oppositional terms such as 'cost effective' and 'well evidenced.' Again a sign that 'aspiration' needs to be imposed rather than discovered. This teaches students to over-respect authority rather than to see, question or, dare I say it, set agendas. It doesn't take too much logic to see how a hierarchy like this, paradoxically, develops notions of inferiority and hinders social mobility. What is lost if you prescribe more, is the space and time for young people to reflect, choose and occasionally reject.

For us the problem is manifest in the number of students arriving at University needing to be 'de-schooled.'

Symptoms include a fear of failure, of risk taking, of engaging in even the mildest form of debate and seeking permission for every thought. Too many are sure right and wrong exist and spend far too long playing a percentage game of working out what lecturers want, a wasted effort, counter to the true spirit of enquiry.

I hope the broad ambition of the report leads to positive changes, and I think it could make a real difference to some of our most disadvantaged communities; but you can't truly 'unleash' anything if you're only looking at structure.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

It is required you do awake your faith.

When I was at school I remember an enlightened English teacher telling me that some of Shakespeare's plays would only come into focus for me as I got older. He suggested that, as a teenager, I was ready for the fun of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the obsession of Romeo and Juliet, the games of A Merchant of Venice and the blood and guts tribalism of Henry V. And the rest? Be patient, he told me, they'll carry more meaning later. When I looked disappointed he confided that he'd not yet understood King Lear, but was beginning to sense a shape!

This afternoon I went to the Old Vic to catch Sam Mendes' production of The Winter's Tale, which has long been a cherished favourite; watching Simon Russell Beale's astonishing performance as Leontes, I heard familiar words with fresh ears, elevating a wonderful story to the most immaculate work of poetic art. Russell Beale has a singular ability to fill a line simultaneously with regret and desire. Thousands of thoughts and possibilities seem available to him at each moment.

He's ably backed up by Rebecca Hall, as a graceful Hermione and Ethan Hawke who brings a real cameo burst of stardust as the travelling minstrel Autolycus. If the rest of the production is uneven it's forgivable against these bolts of lightening.

Shakespeare wrote the play towards the end of his life and his skillful shifts of time and regeneration have a wisdom and certainty that ensures we submit to the cosmic existential truth - that although time is our mortal enemy, if we defy or waste it, we simply cease to be. Parallel to this is an acknowledgement of the rough effect we have on each other. The relentless pounding of demands, needs and causes that we give and take, shaping each other as determinedly as time itself. When Hermione pleads to her raging husband -

My Life stands in the level of your dreams

...his retort - Your actions are my dreams! - is as honest as it is threatening. Its meaning, particularly when spoken by an actor of Russell Beale's calibre, is both domestic and metaphysical and in the moment he is victim as well as predator.

Equally it is not just the reawakening of Leontes' faith that resurrects Hermione after sixteen years, but rather Paulina's double edged promise to her Queen - I will fill your grave - breaks the spell.

It is only the fluid play of memory and imagination that marks us out from other animals. This two headed beast helps us understand simultaneously our past and future. The Winter's Tale more than any other play that I know asks us not to despair, but honour and treasure these interconnected gifts, even as our age pulls them out of balance.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Yesterday was graduation in full grandeur at Westminster Cathedral. The highlight of the academic year and the final act for this year's finalists. I started at St Mary's three years ago, on the same day as the graduates, and feel very close to them as a group. The whole ceremony from the rather silly Hogwarts type processional to the blubbing parents was very, very moving indeed.

It's a long process as the each name is read out and the student climbs the platform for a handshake and brief conversation from the principal, but as each member of the Drama department went up it sparked a memory of a moment, a conversation, a story from our time together. Lines from the poet Andrew Young kept coming into my mind.

These acaademic gowns flap like the wings
Of half-fledged blackbirds that attempt to fly.

The ceremony also helped me remember some of the hardships, tragedies and struggles that many of the students have been through to get here - not just over the past three years - but over a lifetime. There were graduates there who've had all kinds of circumstances and demons to fight to get this far, but their tenacity and faith in working towards something bigger than themselves is incredibly inspiring. I hope they were proud, I certainly was.

Hands red with clapping and a tear in my eye I came back to Strawberry Hill for a less formal end to the day.

Olympic Park. A Theatre for Sport?

St Mary's is full on in preparation for the Olympics now. We're going to use the brilliant sport facilities and accommodation as a pre-games training camp for one of the teams - last I heard it was a toss up between Japan and New Zealand. We're also hoping to provide some of the athletes for the games ourselves, building on the successes that we had in Beijing last Summer.

Drama is involved, mostly in discussions for how we can contribute to the Cultural Olympiad that will run alongside the games themselves.

So yesterday off we all went to a tower block in Stratford East twenty two stories up and looked down on the quickly developing regeneration around Olympic Park. It's impressive stuff as a huge 80,000 stadium rises up from the debris, along with an aquatics centre, a velodrome and a 16,000 capacity athletes village. For the residents of Newham the legacy of this is hugely important - can the complex economically sustain itself when the games are over? Will it offer the jobs, the affordable housing promised - and who is going to follow up the promise once the world's media have moved onto 2016?

The opportunities are there, clearly, but taking them is another issue.

As for the Cultural Olympiad the real problem is that it's difficult to tailor creative work that will support the games. Large scale participatory events, carnival, processions etc are obvious because they are inclusive, spectacular and celebratory - but it's difficult to move beyond a united nations, flag waving, are we having fun yet event?

One of the real reasons is that the genuine drama nearly always lies in sport itself. Two Sundays ago Roger Federer and Andy Roddick battered each other into submission in the Wimbledon final like Titans slugging service game after service game at each other - it had little to do with winning, everything with refusing to be beaten. A week on and at the fingernails of the first Ashes test James Anderson and Monty Panesaar spent a traumatising hour blocking every ball that the Australian bowlers could chuck at them. Two naifs, surrounded by a howling pack, somehow, from somewhere finding the tightrope route to survival... and so it goes on. Sport in itself is an art form, filled both with beautiful moments of impossible technique, dexterity and skill, but equally dependent on the psychological flaws of its participants which provide the catalyst for the epic, twisting narratives, which in turn suspend us temporarily from our everyday existence and keep us glued to the action.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Private Fears in Public Places.

Off to the Theatre Royal in Northampton to see my friend Kim in a really well staged revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places.

The play is unlike anything else of Ayckbourn's that I've seen - a filmic, episodic amusement on loneliness and secrecy in the modern city that had more in common with Patrick Marber's Closer and David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago than the comedies of manners and class aspiration that I'd usually associate him with. Although, as ever, social hypocrisy is the driving force.

Six characters all trying to find the key, normally another person, to allow them happiness. They lie, pretend, make plans, drink, forget, flirt and ultimately return to their lives unchanged by a string of tiny regrets and failures. There is a parallel with Time and the Conways. The sense that a fixed ambition, that doesn't allow circumstance or opportunity to bend it, is bound to lead to disappointment.

The only character who seems not to desire personal change is Charlotte, played by Lucy Briers, a fundamentalist Christian estate agent and part-time carer; half devil, half angel, who lends her friends and colleagues pornographic videos of herself in action, labelled as religious programmes. She is fully aware that the latex fantasy she offers brings private relief and pleasure, but is equally secure that in the confused world none will have the courage or intimacy to challenge her bible reading persona. Maybe her desire, or hope for salvation, is to be called, but in this play moral ambiguity and confusion are the only certainties.

Once again the production threw actors and audience together in the same space, which supported the swift scene changes and immersed us in the action. The playing was noticeably controlled and subtle to cope with this proximic and whilst this meant we were never in belly laugh territory it did bring a tender humanity to the production, which normalised even Charlotte's outrageous behaviour... anyway Sir Alan's far too clever a structuralist, not to bring the audience with him.

Kim was great as the stoic barman Ambrose, whose duty of care for both his dying father and his customers deny him any chance exploring his own feelings. It was lovely to see both him and this intriguing play.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Reasons to Be Cheerful.

Had a planning away day with the teaching and learning group at the beautiful Pembroke Lodge, Bertrand Russell's childhood home on the edge of Richmond Park. It was a good opportunity to work with and talk to colleagues from across the University. It also gives us a chance to see where we're making assumptions about each others processes and practice and steal the good stuff. The hot potatoes remain around contact hours, assessment and technology, but this year a new focus on student engagement puts us on the front, rather than the back foot. If we get the learning environment right for students I think many other issues, such as recruitment, induction, retention and progression, will either fall into place or become clear.

Mark and Ben, the outgoing and incoming SU Presidents, were with us for the day, which gave me a chance to chat over lunch about ways in which the Drama department might work with the Union to improve the range and frequency of live performances (be it drama, dance, comedy, bands or pukka DJs) on campus. Ideally I'd like to see our students event managing the SU Hall for the Union, but getting accreditation from us as part of their degree. The details for such a plan have to be fleshed out, and rightly the Union needs to maintain its autonomy, but it could be a very productive development that would make the SU less of a pre-club bar and much more a place of innovation, discussion and excitement, whilst giving our students the genuine opportunity to programme and run a venue alongside their formal training. We'll see.

In a suitable break my colleague Caroline, who teaches PGCE Art, took us off to find Ian Dury's bench - where you can sit for a while, plug in your headphones, take in the view down to Petersham and listen to the great man's favourite songs - all solar powered by panels in the arm rests. Apparently it was his favourite place to write songs. Richmond's full of treasure!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Passing Time.

I can imagine that when Time and the Conways came up for Rupert Goold, as his first show at the National he might have seen it as a double edged sword. The comparisons with Stephen Daldry's zeitgeist production of An Inspector Calls, which opened in 1991 and now, a New Labour renewal and collapse later still tours the regions, outlasting the very movement it seemed to herald, is an obvious place for any critic to start. Two Priestley plays, two young directors at similar moments in their careers, championing a desire for a certain kind of theatricality to extend beyond the bounds of naturalism. Time present and time past, perhaps?

That this production won't live as long in the memory as the long shadows and collapsing dolls house of Daldry's master work lies as much in the structure and indulgence of the play as in the vision of the director. The playful form and suggestion that we don't have to perceive time in an exclusively linear way is a kind of early post-modern diversion, perfect for mucking around with, but harder to grind any meaning from.

The first act opens on Kay Conway's twenty first birthday, in 1919, with her family gathered around her playing charades and dreaming of their futures. War is finally over and the brave new world is opening up before them. The second act jumps forwards twenty years to the eve of a second war and the dreams have been somewhat dampened: Kay is not the best selling novelist she wanted to be, but a gossip columnist in a tabloid newspaper, Madge who felt invincibly empowered by the thought of a coming socialist utopia is a teacher in the local school, hero fighter pilot Rupert is a drunken spiv, glamour girl Hazel, is unhappily married to a rich bully of a factory owner and wide eyed Carol, the best and brightest of them all has died. Only ever steady Alan remains as he was, unchallenged, unambitious and calm, aware that making an enemy of time will inevitably lead to despair.

...I believe half our trouble now is because we think Time's ticking our lives away. That's why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.

The third act returns us to 1919 and allows us to see the seeds of unhappiness being sown.

Goold, who enjoys layering different realities and time frames on the same stage, is the right director for this and he gets brilliant performances out of Paul Ready, as Alan and Hattie Morahan as nerve ridden Kay - but I can't help thinking that in 1937 (fascinatingly the play was written two years before the second act is set) there were more urgent and truthful things to write about than this rather strange and disappointed attack on determinism. Perhaps Priestley himself saw the near future opening up ahead and was already laying down an analysis of what had gone wrong in the inter war years? - he certainly believed in precognition. Even with hindsight and retrieval, however, the play feels more like an existential debate than a relevant commentary. It literally passes the time.

An alternative view can be found on the Guardian's website

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Rogering Phedre!

Saturday matinee at the National for the much lauded production of Phedre. I suppose I should have loved it - but I didn't and I'm not sure why. It all seemed so much posturing, the characters slightly out of reach, operatic, not really rooted in the dilemmas with which they're faced. It's a cracking story of lust, pride, secrets and deception but Hytner's production seems to take us away from a face to face encounter and into the realms of flatterers and admirers gasping at the beautiful set, frizzed by being in the presence of Helen Mirren, but never really sucked into the turmoil.

Why this is so difficult to fathom is that the acting is very good. Mirren, as with all great performers is effortless, unchecked and sure moment to moment. Her love for her stepson Hippolytus tortured and contorted physically and vocally. Stanley Townsend's Theseus ranges across the stage like a true commander of the ancient world. A man/god of huge proportions - you do genuinely believe he has a hotline to Olympus and most impressive (possibly because the most human) John Shrapnel as the counsellor Theramene who seems the only one able to give psychological shape to Ted Hughes' translation.

The younger actors don't fare so well and for all their poised control neither Dominic Cooper, as Hippolytus, nor Ruth Negga, who plays the enslaved noble Aricia, really move beyond their drama school training. Technically sound, but lacking the twist or punch to fully command the roles.

I missed the production when it was screened at cinemas a couple of weeks ago as part of the new NT live initiative and two hours in, watching the rather staged blocking and the unimaginative fades from scene to scene I couldn't help but think the unthinkable: that this would be better in close up and might have been directed with one eye on the screening. The blues and whites of Greece always look lovely on celluloid and Dominic bare feet, rolled up trousers and elderly love interest has been on these islands before, albeit in Mamma Mia!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Up and Down the Oxford Road

The other big theme of the conference is what Universities might be for as we begin to head into the twenty first century. Are we trainers, focused on providing the future work force? Are we cultural enrichers looking to provide students with the passions and interest to sustain them through life? Are we a field of experts for legislators to lean on? Are we pioneers, divorced from immediate society, leading the way with new developments in medicine, computing, the humanities and sciences? Are we the bastions of genuine 'authenticity' in a world increasingly focused by careful considerations of responsibility? Or are we part of GB plc, clear of our accountability, roles and procedures and contributing to the solidity of our nation as a cultural product? If any trend is discernible, it's that we're coming out of this corporate phase and looking forward to a more entrepreneurial future, which has the confidence to reinvent its own, standards and terms of reference.

The opening debate this morning focused on whether we should abandon academic disciplines and focus on learning about learning. Society has never seemed so fluid and perhaps our only wise course of action is to encourage our students to, in the words of Piaget 'know what to do when they don't know what to do.' I think this is sensible, but it doesn't negate the need to teach something be it skills, technique, strategy or knowledge. After all at core our role as academics is to find things out and tell other people about them. I hope we might be about to return to enlightenment principles, allowing disciplines to tear down the walls between them. To really see the poetry in science and the geometry of art. To look for the unities that helps us make sense of the world and make sure however fast we spin and in however many different directions we go we look out for each other.

After hours I found myself catching a bus down to Didsbury, where my own teacher training took place and then, following my own desire paths, meandered back the five miles up the Oxford Road, prompting many memories of Withington, Fallowfield, Rusholme, Whitworth Park and the Victorian University. I used the walk to think about why teaching remains so important to me and why sixteen years on from my PGCE I'm still enthrall to education as a process. It was a symbolic journey from where I was to where I am - as much about time, as psycho-geography.

I guess these acts, walking and teaching, useless in themselves, are linked to mortality and the profound sense I have that the days need not only to be filled, but cherished and made full. Is there anything more to learning than the struggle to keep alive a sense of life's romance? Surely the most enjoyable of times are to be had when conquests are achieved or treasures uncovered.

This would be enough, but there is more. After all it's only through the journey, through the project, through working out the problem together that we see our friends and fellow travellers in action and at their bravest best. If education is not about change it's not about anything, and it's certainly life affirming to celebrate personal developments with students, but more than that it's a privilege to be able to spend so much time working with them on visions for our future, readying them to have a crack at making them a tangible reality. I'm not sure what else there is to do! Maybe the only thing teachers can teach is how to learn?

Time to head back South.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

i Pods and Rhetoric

The conference started in earnest this morning and the main theme was quick to emerge. There is a real crisis in HE as we try to understand and incorporate the new technologies which are driving so much of our students understanding of the world. Delegates lined up to tell stories of integrated pod casts, text polls, wikis and avatars. The race is on to 'outsmart' the technology and be on the level with the students. At best this challenge supports learning in ways that replicate the change in mindset that the new technology has undoubtedly brought, at it's worse it's an envious desire to infiltrate and control a world that has partly evolved in opposition to academic elitism.

I'm a little skeptical, partly because I'm an immigrant to the new world surrounded by native students who, as Matt pointed out in our own staff training last week, where born with a mouse in their hands. I may be able to learn some of these languages, but my brain is not programmed to move with the nuances and developments. I can also see a black hole opening up at the core where we stop creating meaning based on a palpable understanding of the world and instead hide away from war, poverty, climate change, genocide in a labyrinth of clever conceptual virtual truth. If someone is starving you feed them. If someone is cold you share your blanket. I don't think these things are relative and in so much I find myself in partial support of a more fundamental, and to my mind compassionate, way of passing knowledge from one generation to another.

However the opportunities do exist for a different form of relationship between teachers and learners and some of the formal processes that maintain tradition and hierarchy may be about to be swept aside. I'm in favour of having sessions for staff run by students, who know exactly how to join up the dots and make the most of their social networks and portals. It seems to me that learning is undergoing profound changes, and many of them, which look at working together, are for the greater good. A website like wikipedia isn't so much a dodgy encyclopedia as a process of collaborative meaning making with an ability to democratically create and dissolve information on a particular subject. A fluid way of refining and debating truths, in which millions of people make small, but significant contributions. It's peer learning and the future of university may be to offer the facility in which students come with ideas and are given the support guidance and resources to enable them to flourish. If it means that communities come together an develop greater awareness of the structures needed to live together so much the better.

In all this the individual and his or her sense of ownership has lost value. The net has created a democratic resource which priorities retrieval over knowledge. It gives us an architecture for participation and perhaps this means creativity will come to the fore as increasingly flexible, experiential learning represents the preparation students need to make an impact in society beyond the academy.

It's impossible not to roll with the changes. On average during term time students are in class for only 7.2% of their time. At St.Mary's because of our commitment to training this rises to 11.2%. This is negligible compared to the hours many students spend each day social networking. The trick is not to be trendy, but to anticipate how we can utilise these new resources in the most exciting way.

Late on in the afternoon I dropped in on a paper delivered by Michael Burke from the University of Utrecht who championed a return to teaching classical rhetoric. It was a convincing case for providing students with a secure grounding in the European traditions of logos, ethos and pathos. It seemed to offer a protection against being duped and paradoxically an exciting counterpoint to the shiny toys of the digital age.
At nightfall we had a drinks reception at Manchester's spanking new exhibition space Urbis, gleaming and glassed next to the red brick of the Cathedral and Cheethams School. It's a beautiful space, exquisitely designed and tonight hosting a wonderful exhibition of photographs of hidden Manchester, a back stage look at the abandoned sewers, locked rooms and unused spaces left behind as the city pushes ever forward. One image was of a cobwebbed attic high in tower of the town hall in which hundreds of civic records from the eighteenth and nineteenth century lie waiting in entropy and neglect; their beauty unquestioned but their active function long forgotten. It was a poignant image with which to end the day.