Monday, 30 August 2010

Tricks with the Light.

The weekend has sped by. Living with a one year old, even for the shortest time, does change your routine a bit and we've all tended to use Mario's downtime to grab our own naps on the sofa before heading out for bike rides, drinks and meets with old friends in the warmth of the evening.

On Sunday one further exhibition at the Forma gallery - a joint retrospective of Phil Stern's candid pictures of off guard Hollywood celebrities from the late fifties and early sixties set against Olaf Erwin's stunningly composed contemporary portraits, which fuse the control of studio photography with the pretence that we, the viewer, have accidentally caught a vital moment of existence. The two collections played neatly off each other.

This morning I said goodbye to my Italian family and headed south to Rome for the last throw of Summer. It was early evening by the time I'd discovered my hotel, but I still had enough time to wander into the near deserted St. Peter's - no queues if you turn up at 6pm - and had a slow hour circling round the basilica from Michelangelo's Pieta, past the saints, the rather blue mummified remains of Pope John, who looks happier in the postcards, the venerated statue of St. Peter, himself and finally ending up underneath the massive dome. By now the sunset was flooding in from the high western windows, dissecting the massive space in an awe inspiring light show which sent several pilgrims to their knees in prayer. The architects clearly knew what they about.

I ended the day sitting by a fountain in Bernini's square surrounded by lovers, beggars and cats, excited about the few days of exploration ahead.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Portfolio and Partisans.

Milan is the ultimate cat walk city. Years ago Paola took me to the Piccolo theatre to see a Pirandello play (what else?) and I was gob smacked how the audience paraded in all their finery across the playing space during the interval. Twenty years on the whole place is as obsessed as ever with capturing a shape, a moment and holding it, only to dissolve and create something else. Unlike Florence or Venice the past doesn't seem to matter much here. The present seems to be everything. People are caught for a second, savoured and sold on by the tipped acknowledgement of a hat or the release of a gentle head nod. It's a city of elegant voyeurs all clocking each other. The line, the cut, the frame all hold Milan in a perpetual narcissism.

I spent some of today looking at Paolo's latest portfolios of work which he's taking to a photo journalist conference in Perpignan next week. He's got two offerings - one a series of young footballers who play on the church owned oratory pitches and a second of the faces of Rugby players mid-action taken during the 2007 World Cup. They're both interesting in their own way but his best work was a tender collection of portraits of six women partisans from the resistance whose stories he's recorded in order to get them to pose for pictures. I was, of course very excited by the interviews, especially as we listened to them whilst looking at the pictures. Paolo hadn't really thought they could be useful beyond a lever to get the old ladies to trust him, but the combination of their sure voices and Paolo's beautiful images gave the work an incredible poignancy. Both Paola and I pleaded with him to take the whole package to France, but Paolo felt nervous, claiming he didn't have enough material. Perhaps it's something he needs to incubate for the future? I hope so, there's something very important there.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Faceless Autobiography.

Milan in all it's near empty glory. I'm here to spend a couple of days with Paola, Paolo and one year old Mario who has now added pointing, singing and running at high speed towards the corner of any table skills to the smiling and crying he was mostly into when I last saw him in January. The world is wonderful and there's much to point at and sing about.

With an August exodus the city feels strangely deserted, but welcoming like an old friend. It's easy to pull up a chair outside a pavement cafe, order an iced coffee and read, write or just watch the world. It could be worse.

I accidently flew business class - someone must have pressed the wrong button when I booked. Everything and everybody designed to make you feel rich and powerful. No queing, doors held open, fast track through passports, a space age lounge filled with play stations, internet access, complimentary newspapers in every language and beautiful - if slightly orange - people who glide silently to restock from the buffet and bar with an air of entitlement. Annoyingly I found myself enjoying it and began mimicing the surroundings. My posture improved, I held my gaze longer, I stopped fidgeting and if I hadn't banged my head on the low hung metal lamp shade I might have got away with initiating a conversation about blue sky out of the box ball parks or moving forward or the need for my people to meet your people.

The service carried on on board. A curtain was drawn so that the economy class passangers couldn't see how nice the food we were being served was and scolding towels, hot enough to melt your face were handed out by a specially trained steward in shiny buttons. No need to call for service he was eerily on it from take off to landing. You can shove Easyjet.

In contrast to the efficent nivarna of arrival I spent my first morning in the Palazza della Ragione looking round an exhibition of Francesca Woodman's troubling photographs. Many, including Paolo, rate her as the greatest self portrait photographer of them all.

Essentially the images are totally inclusive. She's both artist and object, trying to find a way to protect herself from her own vision. I found the level of self-conciousness overbaring and - a bit like when I read a Sarah Kane play - couldn't help but wish she'd found a way to sidestep the layering of constructed mask on constructed mask. There's no escape, no other universe to retreat into, which, no matter how playful the composition makes the experience of reading the work a very serious contemplation.

Woodman's nude in most images, but her face is always hidden, either behind a flow of hair or decapitated by the frame. She often traps herself in corners and painfully tries to cover her body with inadequete screens - a pain of glass, translucent paper etc. Even though she was very young it all seems so obvious, so American, so private made public. Perhaps she was ill, perhaps she was enthrall to despair - either way the images felt restless and cowardly to me.

End of the Season.

Summer's really coming to an end now. I'm off to Italy to clear my head ready for a new term and enjoy some light and heat before the mellow fruitfulness of Autumn by the river. In someways I don't mind - most of the last week has been spent redrafting the Sarajevo play and although it's in better shape now I've lacked the bravery to create the new material it needs and ended up with a touch of coffee fuelled, tidy the flat again, cabin fever. I know what needs to be done, but it probably needs the distraction of other work to really get a shift. The first draft went down easily simply because I should have been researching for Tender Souls.

On Tuesday had a lovely understated day of escape down to Whitstable with Eleanor. She did her MA in Victorian Studies - which is a period I'm a bit fearful of - never really seeing beyond the gloom, claustrophobia and rigid definition. It's a prejudice she might just help me overcome.

And the Victorians certainly got things done so much so that we're still following their projects today - transport, health care, crime prevention, housing all have their roots firmly ensconsed in organisation of the nineteenth century. In education we still, more or less, teach to the confident scale and discipline of the Victorian curriculum.

We stopped off to look at the Pre-Drawin, first draft dinosaurs in Crystal Palace park - assertively innacurate, but fearlessly presented with thumbs for horns, thigh bones for backs. It's easy to imagine what a stir they must have created when they were unveiled. Eleanor explained that a banquet was even thrown inside one of them in celebration at their creation. Sunday afternoon strolls in Sydenham can never have been the same again.

On to Whitstable, which still, in the fishermans' cottages along Squeeze Gut Alley, the old Horsebridge and the weatherbeaten oyster parlours has echos of past pleasures. Steamers used to leave London Bridge and stop off on the way to Margate. One of the first passenger railways ferried tourists to and from Canterbury on the long defunct Crab and Winkle line; whilst out in the bay the wrecks of some of the old fishing fleet smacks reveal themsleves at low tide.

Truth be told there's not much to the town now. Charity shops, pubs and sunsets - but the smell of the salt, the dark squals roaming across the horizon and the sound of the shingle pulled back down to the water's edge makes it a great place to come and forget work for a day.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Unicorn.

Spent much of the day at Benjamin Disraeli's country house, Hughenden, which now serves as the regional headquarters for the Thames and Solent region of the National Trust, as I try and work out how to develop Drama St Mary's partnership onwards and upwards.

My initial plan is to create a touring version of The Canterbury Tales and, starting in Ham, tour to different properties on the Pilgrims way - ending up in Canterbury itself. The issue, as ever, is budget and after the 400th celebrations earlier in the year the desire to keep building.

There may be other ideas and projects better suited to the financial climate and the partnership. In particular the Trust's continued emphasis on going local means that something that focus on community participation within Ham may have a better chance at attracting support and funding. Still the meeting went well. The Trust want to develop work with us if they can.

I was given a guided tour of the house by soft spoken Edward, who seemed both to admire and slightly disapprove of the Disraeli. He painted him as a fabulous, impossible creature, filled with brilliance and promise, but, like most radicals, unable to compromise over or capitalise on the success he gained. An expansionist eventually exhausted and overrun by events. The more I learned the more I liked him.

The house itself, now bereft of peacocks, is still beautiful and once inside, remarkably modest. Bizarrely, it reminded me of Graceland. A family home and calm retreat from the flamboyance of very public life.

The gardens filled with mature trees and gorgeous views drifting over a narrow valley, down to the small parish church and gurgling trout filled stream must have given him great joy. Despite his roller coaster career and outsider status Disraeli never really doubted his own importance or ability to be actively involved. It's a lovely place to be.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Off with Eleanor to see the National Youth Theatre's launch of S'warm at Battersea Power Station. A very different kind of youth arts project, raising awareness about global warming and the decline of the bee population in an impressively marshaled outdoor spectacle featuring over 500 participants.

With the the imposing shell of the building as a backdrop to the action and a golden sunset over the river behind us, the hive sprung out from all corners of the dusty wasteland and choreographed a manic and at times breathtaking ballet, punctuated by a brilliant dystopian band and the operatic cri de coeur of the dying Queen. The commitment of the participants was amazing, wherever you turned mini dramas, battles, dialogues and conflicts were being wholeheartedly invested in. The lack of cynicism and desire to create an encompassing event for the audience drove the work and made for a really memorable experience.

Part of the exploration behind the S'warm has been to access technologies in innovative ways and some of the rehearsals have looked at the way social networking, skype and specifically the text can both control and manipulate our action and thought. Some of these workshop discoveries made there way into the performance, with random instructions and individual patterns being sent to each of the actors. The hive is uniform, but each member has a different schedule. It's a persuasive metaphor for the pretence of individuality that sites such as facebook celebrate. Conformity as a price for social cohesion? Here's this story.

The work is the first section of a five day odyssey that will take the action and message of the piece up river, culminating in the polished money markets of Canary Wharf next Sunday.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Back to Bosnia.

With our recent projects at an end Stef and I had the chance to sit and talk about where to take the Sarajevo work next. I've drafted a semi-verbatim play with the working title It Could Be Worse - which Stef's had some time to read and that, rather than the initial Sarajevo
Marlboro' stories seems to be where both of us see the focus. Her work with the Oval Youth Arts has convinced her that, touching as those stories are, the need is to find a story that offers a connection between the recent history of the Balkans and our lives in the West now. Are there links between NATO's failure to protect Bosnia and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe over the last fifteen years?

Stef's has family roots in Irish republicanism and said that our trip to Bosnia had made her reassess her opinion about the IRA in particular. The tribalism and refusal to break a centuries old feud took on a completely new meaning for her. Resistance might be noble, but violence in the name of history is tricky. We simply don't carry each others pasts with us.

One area where we might look further in the redraft is our relative positions during the interview process. I was much more comfortable sitting down and listening to stories without a need to return very much. Stef felt more leech like and was much happier when actively involved - running workshops in Srebrenica or dancing with the locals in the club. She couldn't have been more lost and sulky when we went to look at what remains of the National Museum.

The play already touches on the moral repugnance of voyeurism (which is essentially what the Dutch peacekeepers ended up engaged in as the Serbs overran the enclaves) and perhaps Stef's desire to intervene early, to be in dialogue from the off, against my diffidence, needs to find a more urgent metaphor in the writing.

I'm going to spend the next week on a redraft (the first was very self-indulgent) trying to firm up some of the ideas - without hitting the audience over the head and then Stef will try and pitch it. We're going to target The Bush, The Gate and The Tricycle to begin with, as well as The Lyric, where she begins work on Blasted in a couple of weeks.

The work is clear enough in suggesting that peacekeeping is sometimes not enough, but one of the reasons I wanted to work with Stef in the first place was her no bullshit directness, which I know tempers my reflectiveness. To keep the show on the road I need to engage more with the morality of intervention and give her something more meaty to tackle.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Ladies Loos and The French Revolution.

Finally caught up with Danton's Death at the National this afternoon - it was worth waiting for. Buchner was only 21 when he wrote the play and I was amazed by the beauty of the language and the clarity of the arguments. Directed by The Donmar's Michael Grandage, this production focuses on the dialectical dispute between Danton, darling of the revolution and maestro of sensual pleasure and the incorruptible Robespierre, who having engineered the initial terror now seeks to impose a concept of 'virtue' onto the tumult.

Elliot Levey is superb as Robespierre and finds a depth and rationale for his actions - taking him away from the cliched puritan villain. The psychopathic danger is always there, hinted at by the elongated vowels of a man used to leaving the boot in slightly longer than necessary; but beyond the calculated violence is the loneliness of the outsider wrestling the world to order in the face of a misconceived perception of looming danger. Constantly left alone with his own thoughts on the vast Olivier stage the picture is of a victim trying to give revenge a nobler name - and failing miserably.

Against him, Toby Stephens' Danton roams casually through the Parisian brothels looking for escape from the bloodshed. The playground bully tired of fighting and interested in cashing in for reward. His nobility and entitlement sits uneasily in the equality of the new world order unleashing the waves of envy that will eventually send him to the guillotine. Great play. Great production.

Straight up to Camden and the Etcetra Theatre where Stef has been directing Jennie's play When Women Wee for the Camden Fringe. Set in the women's toilet's at a club it was all froth and fun. A bit under rehearsed and probably a draft away from carrying a meaning - but nevertheless Stef got some neatly observed performances out of her young cast and it's another decent credit. Her turnover of work is really impressive at the minute.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Hazy Shade.

Back on planet earth after a week fighting the predictable post-show blues and a quick trip into University as thoughts begin to turn towards September and the start of a new academic year. It's been drizzly for most of the week and as if to confirm that Autumn is in the air Richmond Theatre sent out an email confirming the panto casting - Brian Blessed and Tim Vine. Might have to rush to squeeze a holiday in before the troops arrive.

I had a brief catch up with Siobhan, now firmly ensconced in her impressive presidential office and busy with preparations for freshers week. She seemed to have settled in well and is already looking for ways make her mark.

The first thing she's had negotiate is the papal visit - which for all the prestige is causing some problems - not least in that the rugby pitch is going to be used as a car park on the day. The potential churn up could mean no home fixtures until February. Relocating the matches has become a huge headache.

We talked a bit about broadening the appeal of the Union. 24% of students voted at the election - a high turnout in proportion to most other institutions - but still leaving 76% not really engaged. Siobhan is keen to look at welfare and campaigns as a way of reaching out. It seems a marked difference with the 'let them come to us' attitude of previous administrations. The bar and cheap drink offers will always take care of themselves, but a new principal coming in may offer a chance to look more intelligently at student services, accommodation, support and health advice (occasionally compromised by our Catholic mission.)

The last couple of years have seen the Union create it's own media outlets smuc radio and a newspaper both, if unshackled, give the possibility of a more distinct student centred voice coming through. Again it'll take brave leadership to promote.

It's also possible that a more diverse range of societies may politicise some of the activities - already a Lesbian and Gay society has been proposed and it'd be exciting to see other lobbies form to provide momentum for a diverse an empathetic campus. I hope under Siobhan the Union can become a genuine and serious voice looking to make progress, rather than a shrugging victim content with a sports club culture. She's making a start.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Earthquakes in London.

On Friday night Patsy and I went up to the National to see Mike Bartlett's highly acclaimed Earthquakes in London. It's directed by the ever inventive Rupert Goold whose boyish style always seems to stand somewhere between genius and precociousness. It's a jumble sale of a production and you have to sift through the tricks to find the bits worth buying.

The story focuses on the psychological plight, and gradual breakdown, of three sisters, estranged from their hard line environmental scientist father - whose research leads him to wish he'd not brought them into the world in the first place. One is a Lib Dem minister in a coalition government trying to stop airport expansion, the second a special needs teacher struggling to come to terms with her own pregnancy and the youngest is a hedonistic college student who spends half her time engaged in political protest and the other in burlesque dancing.

It's epic, break neck speed, stuff swinging from the sixties to a projected dystopian future - after floods have drowned half the capital - all played out on wipe down nightclub of a set, featuring a cat walk that snakes it's way across the auditorium. The action is as irresistible as climate change itself.

So what was wrong with it? Well at three and a quarter hours it's twice as long as it needs to be, slips into shiny kitsch stupidity when projecting the future and is compromised by trying to find a visual metaphor for every possible environmental argument. It's also a bit soft in the middle and it would have been exciting, particularly in the humanely liberal National Theatre, to have really explored the Malthusian catastrophe of population growth. The rarely spoken truth is that the later we leave taking major steps to halt global warming the more fascistic, inhumane and extreme the eventual action we take will be. At the interval this basic point had been stunningly and persuasively made - by the end it was lost in an distracting display of authorial and directorial fireworks.

Tender Souls

... and then it's over. Theatre's so mean like that. Weeks of work condensed into one terrific evening and then gone by the next morning. Thursday went by almost as a complete blur, but the show went well and I think we managed all that we set out to do at the beginning of the project.

I really enjoyed the build up - working through the cues in the morning with the crew, writing good luck cards in the circle whilst the stage was prepared. The young writers arrived, palpably excited, and then the actors, everybody upbeat. We walked through and highlighted small sections that have particular resonance in the space and then into the routine, teching smartly, dress running and finally thanking everybody and letting the whole show go with an 'all the best.' I think this is always a heart break for directors - your direct influence is over, but nothing has yet been achieved. It's limbo land, at least for a couple of hours.

Put on a suit and headed down to the foyer where a sizable crowd was coming in. How mixed it was. All the theatre's loyal and ancients, many of those we'd interviewed, the curators working on the exhibition and then the families and friends of the young writers, few of whom had been to the theatre before. I was suddenly aware of how many Drama St. Mary's students were there. I think Karen had put out a facebook message. I was incredibly moved to see them all in the middle of their summer break.

Soon we were up and running. Some initial nerves from the actors, but an early laugh when the iPhone was introduced into 1898 brought relief and it began to settle. The Llewellyn Bowen scene got a brief round, as did the Johnny Depp and Lord Chamberlain sequences. My favourite moment came on Frank's line - 'In my day the audience used to dress to go to the theatre' which got a hearty burst of applause and a 'hear hear' from one of the Richmond Hill ladies - followed by giggles form some of the teenagers sitting around her.

And if this project has been about anything it's been about the relationship between these two things. Reminiscence and renewal. To have begun at the beginning and simply told a chronological pageant, wouldn't have recognised the way young writers think about either history or drama. It would have been a homage, a valediction but offered no hope or optimism for the future. Equally to have relied solely on imaginative fictions, encouraging the writers just to write about their own experience, would have been to dismiss both the need for inheritance and very real sense of continuum that keeps the theatre familiar, fond and seductive. I hope the balance was right in the play. It was in the audience.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Life, Mirrors, Art and Smokescreens.

We're pushing along calmly with the work. Tuesday was a very good rehearsal day. In the morning we worked carefully through the monologues and oral histories - deciding on the stakes behind the revelation of each memory. Which are vivid? Which fading? and what is the emotional cost of the recall? If we had more time we'd really try and capture the rhythm behind the reminiscence - but for now the focus is on clarity and narrative. Emily and Moira found that in the time we had.

The afternoon was great fun with the actors revelling in some of the more boisterous scenes. We spent an hour on the Lord Chamberlain section, which George and Katie had worked on in the V&A. Ian plays him like a corpulent bullfrog - shouting obscenities at the top of his voice, whilst Fran plays the Comptroller serpentine and slimy sycophantically agreeing with every word his boss utters.

Wednesday was tougher as we struggled with the eighties section when Laurence Llewellyn Bowen came as Carl Toms assistant to take part in the refurbishment. In Tender Souls we've got him meeting the ghost of Matcham to discuss the new designs. Fran suggested some cuts and slowly, working with Connor, we managed to shape a playable compromise and keep things together.

It was a bit of a tightrope - trying to honour the very good work Connor, Zoe and Jess had put into the scene - whilst giving the actor some security that the weaker sections weren't 'hanging him out to dry.' I suppose it's inevitable that by the third day any weaknesses in the writing (and there aren't many) will be signalling themselves to the actors - who, a day away from performance, begin to get jittery about any line that we haven't yet found a playable solution too.
Oddly enough as we worked in Strawberry Hill, Laurence himself turned up at the theatre to do some filming for his new TV series. Eleanor had some time with him and began texting new verbatim lines - which, fortunately given our negotiations, I didn't pick up until rehearsals finished.

The set delivered, Stage Manager Karen and I headed off for the pub to work through a paper tech in preparation for the morning. She is calmness personified. Nearly there.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Read Through and First Rehearsals.

In the thick of it now.

On Sunday we had the theatre for ourselves. There are three scenes with multiple characters in them, which we've agreed that the young writers can play. The difficulty is that the theatre is large and it's difficult without training to find the volume and clarity to make it work. Still we worked playfully and found some interesting moments in the work.

We brought one of the scenes out into the auditorium - and charging up and down the aisles and into the boxes helped to unleash some energy and bring a bit of energy to proceedings.

Monday morning, with the overnight proofed scripts hot off the photocopier, we began with the professional actors at St.Mary's.

They seem a wonderful bunch. David, whose come into play Frank Matcham, has a CV as long as your arm - working with Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn as well as with the RSC, at the National and on Broadway. For all of this there is no grandeur and he settled straight in, questioning the writers over key words and moments and really listening to every comment and point with interest - looking for the detailed clues needed to bring his part to life.

Emily, who plays Jo, a composite of the writers themselves, bounced around the rehearsal beaming with good humour and warmth, relaxing all of them and giving them huge confidence that they themselves would be represented intelligently.

Ian, Fran and Moira set to work immediately looking for the differentiation between the seven and eight roles that each of them have to carry. With fingers crossed we read through, there was laughter and our nerves began to disperse. The writers seemed to physically grow in stature as the words they've spent four months wrestling out of their imaginations took on new forms and rhythms.

In the afternoon we did some more focused work on the first section, slowly blocking out a shape and weighting the lines. The actors are quick and it was a joyful session.

I'm just so pleased and relieved that we're now finally on our way. No matter how much you think you've got the casting and dynamic of a company right you can never be sure until you've got them in the space and up on their feet ... and breathe out!