Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Dystopia of Richard III

An evening screening of Richard Eyre's film version of Richard III as part of the Early Modern Drama module. It's brilliant proving, if proof be needed, that Shakespeare's understanding of the human condition transcends time and space and helps us unveil the universal truths that allow us to unite under the broad term of humanity.

The War of the Roses were only three generations away from Shakespeare. Only eighty years separate the real king's death from Shakespeare's own birth. If not a living memory then there would certainly have been stories, songs and myths from the wreckage of that time in the same way that our generation still have a cultural sense of the trenches, the Somme and Passchendaele.

Eyre sets his production in the interwar years and imagines what would have happened in that long weekend had Britain itself been conned into National Socialism. Ian MacKellan superbly judges Richard as a charming Mosesly-esque figure, eyes on the main chance, driven by a desire for adulation and power. Jim Carter plays Prime Minister Hastings as a bluff squire in the Stanley Baldwin mould. Maggie Smith plays Richard's mother, the Duchess of York as Mary of Teck and Annette Benning's American Queen on the make, Elizabeth offers all too clear parallels to Mrs Simpson. The growing importance of the RAF is also given credence through Edward Hardwicke's Stanley, who heads up this service and effectively brings Richard's reign to an end by switching sides before the Battle of Bosworth and bombing the King's camp into the ground. It's a counter factual history that makes complete sense.

The film enjoys a certain amount of witty and dystopic cinematic references beginning with a cruelly shattered homage to The Dambusters. The Lady Anne scene is straight out of Brief Encounter and Dominic West's wholesome Richmond gives a great audition to be the first James Bond.

It's a masterclass in concept direction. The idea that old stories can be used to help us understand new truths. Linking the past with our modern sense of ourselves.


Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Museum of London.

A day at the Museum of London looking in particular at some of the restoration artifacts. It's a brilliant museum and a fantastic resource. I just wish it were larger.

I'm beginning to turn my mind to writing something on the reformation of a theatrical scene in London and the friendly, for the most part, rivalry between Tom Killigrew and William Devenant, who were awarded the two exclusive royal patents to build new playhouses and start up companies. Charles II's own love of theatre not only endorsed the new age, but made it absolutely essential that anybody who is anybody be seen there. It's a classic tortoise and hare story. Killigrew, who'd loyally spent the 1650s in exile with the King set to work at once with a prolific output of work, hiring all of the best known actors from the days before the commonwealth and resurrecting the rhetorical style of the Jacobean and first Caroline period.

Devenant took his time, explored and pioneered European staging effects and recognised the importance of the scenic to the bright new age of show and light. When his Opera opened a year behind Killigrew it caused a sensation with the King himself switching patronage.

All of this of course is beautifully and gossipy recorded in Samuel Pepys diaries and after I'd finished at the museum I took the short walk east to Seething Lane where he lived for the large part of his adult life, and the parish church of St Olave, where he worshipped and prayed forgiveness for his many indiscretions. High above the alter stands a bust of his wife Elizabeth, mouth slightly open, eyes unblinking. She died young and Pepys distraught commissioned the sculpture to look down on him once a week, keeping him in check, reminding him of duty. It didn't work very well. I suspect Samuel enjoyed feeling guilty a little too much.


Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Veil.

A strangely lacklustre evening at The National Theatre watching The Veil, Conor McPherson's new offering. It was only the first preview, so perhaps it's unfair to judge too harshly, but that in comparison to the haunting beauty of previous work The Weir and The Seafarer, something felt amiss.

Set in a dilapidated country house in 1820s rural Ireland an uncertain future faces aristocrat Lady Lambroke and her family, haunted both by the rapidly radicalisation of the rural poor on her estate, and the ghost of her dead husband who hung himself by jumping off the mantelpiece in the grand hall. Debts and fears riddle the house and even the arrival of the defrocked Reverend Berkeley and the discredited laudanum addicted poet Charles Audelle, a strong double act from Jim Norton and Adrian Schiller, to escort Lady Lambroke's seventeen year old daughter Hannah to England, marriage and potential salvation, only provokes further problems as Berkeley attempts with some success to raise the ghosts of the past.

So a supernatural Chekhov? I'm not sure. Like Chekhov McPherson allows his characters lengthy monologues in which memories, speculations and mysteries are unearthed and the plot structure mirrors in conscious detail The Cherry Orchard. At times though it drags terribly with McPherson's own direction tending towards staged tableaux which stifles rather illuminates the dynamics of the play. The love of a good ghost story, so effective in McPherson's earlier work, seemed here to be wasted, clumsy and irrelevant compared to the background Catholic uprisings and Berkeley's discovery of Hegelian philosophy.

At the curtain call I couldn't help feeling that I'd rather missed the point. It's a long evening and at this stage seems to lack the hook to justify the meandering. I hope things are sorted out before the press night.


Monday, 26 September 2011

History from the Bottom Up.

We're into the second week of lectures now and in the main the students seem focused, happy and curious about the work. In London Theatre Now I've been trying to set out a brief context for our current scene by offering a swift history of theatre in London from the first Shoreditch playhouses of the 1570s to the present day.

It's a difficult journey for some of the cohort to go on. Dates, events, monarchs, plays, actors and buildings running parallel as separate but interlinking narratives. I sense I go too fast, as we rush thorough the Jacobean age to the interregnum, the restoration, the glorious revolution, the eighteenth century and onwards ever onwards into the realism of the Victorian age, bourgeoisification, matinee idols, American influences, commercial musicals and long runs.

I know in some ways my teaching style is old fashioned, favouring, as it does the belief that a chronological understanding gives us the clear outline from which all our subsequent observations might be made. Looking out into the auditorium I can see some furrowed brows.

So why is it so important?

Well, for me, having this knowledge provides a sort of route map that helps avoid stupid mistakes or assumptions. It's a form of security that offers order and a fixed point from which to begin to explore. A base 'given' from where we can look at what was and might be possible.

Later on, as they read and research, I hope the students will redraw the map, deciding what the key moments really were, determining history in such a way that prioritises their own politics and sense of progress. For now though, I sense, the most important thing is simply to establish some past events as a common vocabulary.

For all the impossibility of trying to cram 450 years into a two hour lecture, I thought the session began to provide a shape to things that with further reading might come more into focus. Remember it's only one way of many to tell the story.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Jesus in Jeans.

To the National this evening to see, or perhaps it should be to hear, Bach's St Matthew's Passion given a fresh new staging by Jonathan Miller. It's a deeply humanist reading, taking the score from the formality of the raked church choir and plonking it into a rough and ready workshop where the singers in rehearsal baggies wander in and out of the space, occasionally joined by solo musicians whilst simple props hint at our unsophisticated understanding of God's glories and the poverty of our response. It has an air of humble spontaneity that perhaps allows us to listen to the story afresh. All this endeavour is almost spoilt by staging the work in the vast, restless and occasionally muffled Olivier, but the beauty of the music and the wonderful voices triumph.

There's a popular tradition in the British theatre of being informal with the bible. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar made the word of God trendy for the 1970s and The Globe's recent production of The Mysteries crucified Jesus in blue jeans and a white T-shirt. Whilst Miller's work follows the everyman approach and eschews religious hierarchy in favour of a more democratic presentation, it, more than any of the other examples, succeeds in appearing natural and unforced, as simple, sleek and nerveless as a band of travelling players rolling into a strange town and setting up in the market square. No nods, no winks, just the best way to do the job. This is a production that, in every way, places faith in simplicity.


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Philosophy and Drama.

A fascinating lecture this evening at university by Peter Worley who runs The Philosophy Shop, a group dedicated to introducing primary school children to philosophy, with remarkable results.

His method, as common to many pedagogic models of early year training relies on a practical and playful exploration of ideas based on the children's experience and understanding rather than asking them to learn 'knowledge' or a 'history of ideas.' In this respect it mirrors the ongoing debate amongst drama teachers. Do we prioritise letting children explore imaginative worlds of structured play or do we focus on exposing them to tradition and technique?

Peter was very clear that at A-level the focus seems to be on testing short term memory with questions such as 'Explain and illustrate two criticisms of idealism' which although interesting enough as a research topic, rewards those able to regurgitate others ideas rather than form their own. Does this form of training encourage emerging philosophers?

Instead he proffered a different way called the Sibelius Model which suggests that the present accepted tradition for teaching philosophy (and I would argue many other subjects) at Higher Education can be compared to the repetitive musical form of Beethoven's Fifth symphony. Dun Dun Dun DAH!!!

An alternative to this might be to consider the rhythm of our lecturer/ student exchanges and attempt to develop, as Sibelius did, a symphonic form where unrelated fragments of idea, conversation and thought meander and interplay, allowing the more familiar themes of the discussion or argument to be changed by either or both parties. Hard to assess, but incredibly liberating to our thought process.

The difference between these two pedagogic forms, Peter suggested, was that in the authoritarian Beethoven analogy the main themes have already been worked out whereas the melodic nature of the Sibelius allows us to work towards discovering and reinventing these themes. It's a braver form of engagement, partly because the results are so inconclusive and unpredictable.

In all of this I was struck by how good directors work with actors. In their discussions, dialogues, intuitive guidance and occasional expert support they work for all the world in this symphonic way. By contrast poor directors enter the room already knowing what they want to get out of the actor and determined to force him or her into delivering it. I left wondering whether we can find a way to bring this kind of poetry into our assessment led culture?

Friday, 16 September 2011

National Treasures.

A day on the Southbank. Patsy, Matt and I were at the National Theatre early to set the first year students off on an induction treasure hunt - designed to get them a little more acquainted with London as a theatre city. The route took them across the river, up through Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Piccadilly along Shaftesbury Avenue into Covent Garden, down Drury Lane and off along Fleet Street to St Paul's before crossing back to The Globe and a finish at Shakespeare's favourite watering place The Anchor in Southwark. We thought it would take them about three hours to get round, but by the time we'd set the last team off, browsed the bookshop and made our own leisurely way down river to the pub the pace setters were already waiting for us with their completed answer sheets. The single greatest resource our students have is London itself. It's important they get familiar with its museums, galleries and theatres as quickly as possible.

Stayed up in town and managed to get a £5 standing ticket to a preview of the new Mike Leigh play Grief, which doesn't open until next week. As ever with Leigh's work, the play is delicately textured and beautifully paced. The cast are growing into their work and trying to find the balance in time for first night.

The play is set in 1957, where war widow Dorothy is trying to bring up her rapidly changing teenage daughter Victoria, in line with the imagined wishes of her dead husband. Meanwhile her older brother Edwin faces up to retirement from the Yorkshire Insurance company after 45 years of uninterrupted service.

The suburban house they share is a still place, books line the shelves, small sherries are drunk at the end of the day and a card table is brought out for a treat. Meanwhile in the background the Soviets put a dog into space, early computers are developed at Manchester University. The sixties are beginning to gently tap on the windows.

All this is superbly acted by Lesley Manville and Sam Kelly in the lead roles, with admirable support from a sparkling ensemble. It has the feeling of a gorgeously constructed piece of chamber music.

Leigh, the conductor supreme, carefully controls the minutiae of these shifts and leaves us wondering which of the many small acts of resistance from the siblings leads to the play's ultimate tragedy. Progress here is evolutionary, growing from tiny changes to recognised routines. It's a small challenge to the pervasive, and perhaps arrogant notion, that the future is in our hands.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Begin Again.

A first meeting with the freshers this afternoon and a chance for us to set out our stall for the coming year. I really enjoy this first session it always takes me back to my first day as an undergraduate looking round at the others in the room and realising that they were going to play a very importnat part in the next few years of my life.

Drama is, in some ways, an odd subject at University. It doesn't sit easily in the academic world and yet every year thousands of school leavers apply to take up a place. The crucial difference I guess between our discipline and the more traditional curriculum is that students are so reliant on each other to achieve. Of course the quality of debate in seminars is important, but few other subjects actually rely on teamwork. It's helpful to be in a good cohort.

Each year group has it's own personality, but the key early on is to create a positive culture based on punctuality, investment and hard work. Pride in the work comes soon after, but only if these intial building blocks are put in place. We really believe the best thing to do is to start work and learn quickly to enjoy the surprise of surpassing your own expectation.

We've no idea how these new students will fare. Looking out at the auditorium of faces it's impossible to know what's out there. The future director of the National? An Oscar winning actor? Award winning playwrights? Groundbreaking designers? Theatre Managers? Agents? Administrators? Fund Raisers? Producers? Critics? It's day one. Everything is possible.


Monday, 12 September 2011

The Number 10 Courier Service.

The new students have arrived and suddenly the place comes alive again. Lovely to see the 2nd and 3rd years coming up to the Drama corridor to check their new timetables and help out the new recruits. It won't be long until firm friendships develop.

This afternoon Matt and I had our first meeting with level 3 to kick start their third year company module. They get an office, £250 quid start up and off they go making theatre, booking venues, touring their work. Next week they'll present their plans for the year and from then on the stabilisers really will come off as they try and bridge the gap between the safety of the University and the realities of surviving as freelance practitioners. It's an exciting, if nerve wracking step forward.

Matt himself has had an exciting summer with the Foreign Office requesting a copy of his verbatim play developed at Drama St Mary's, The Robben Island Bible, to give as a gift to Nelson Mandela for his 93rd birthday.

Matt was back in Indiana at the time and had to hurriedly FedEx the script from Indianapolis. A few days later Matt's having a coffee downtown, picks up a copy of the Indianapolis Star and sees a picture of David Cameron handing over a bag of gifts to Desmond Tutu. So he speculatively sends off an email to his contact at the foreign office to make sure his present also arrived safely - only to find that the present in the bag was the play itself. Apparently the plan had been for David Cameron to present the gift in person, but had, had to fly back a couple of days early and so left it in the care of the Archbishop.

You couldn't make it up could you?

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Legend of Lucy Lightfoot.

Back in the Isle of Wight for the weekend and a visit to the cul de sac village of Gatcombe and its 13th century church dedicated to St Olave. In the sanctuary at the East end of the church lies the carved wooden effigy of Edward Estur, a crusader night who died in Palestine in 1303. His feet lie crossed on the back of a faithful dog. His eyes stare into the middle distance, lost in the timeless thought. An angel sits behind his right ear, looking over him. Nobody knows how the knight ended up in the church.

In the early nineteenth century Lucy Lightfoot, a local girl, who lived just over the down in Bowcombe began to attend services at the church. She was gorgeous, with flowing black hair and an easy laugh. Many tried to win her hand and many failed. Lucy never felt ready to take a lover.

Often though, after service, she would stay on in the church and sit in the sanctuary next to the knight, staring at him and stroking his face and apologising to him. The villagers began to take notice of her strange bond with the effigy and gently teased her for it. All she could do was shrug her shoulders and say that she found him unbearably beautiful.

Then one morning - the 13th June 1831 - to be precise, whilst out riding Lucy was caught in a huge storm, prompted by a total eclipse of the sun. The sky turned black, the winds blew huge and the rain began to fall. Frightened by the encroaching darkness she rode hard to the church, tethered her horse and sought refuge inside. It was the last anybody ever saw of her.

Two days later George Brewster, a local farmhand, noticed the horse looking scared and famished, still tied to the lynch gate. He raised the alarm and a search for Lucy was started - but to no avail. Her family were devastated.

Years passed and then in 1865 a distinguished Medievalist scholar Samuel Trelawney came across a document dated 1297 recording how the King of Cyprus had been in London recruiting English knights for the sacking of Alexandria. One of those volunteers was Edward Estur and, accompanying him to Cyprus went a dark haired beauty from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight going by the name of .... Lucy Lightfoot.

They parted at Larnaca. Lucy vowing to wait patiently for his return. Edward sailed bravely on but sadly with the battle raging and the town repelling all advances, he took a blow to the head, suffered severe amnesia and was transported straight back to England to convalesce. Lucy waited for three years and then, believing him to be dead, married a Sicilian fisherman. She never returned to these shores. At least not in her first lifetime.

If you're ever in the Isle of Wight take a little detour to Gatcombe and look hard into Edward Estur's unblinking, far away eyes. Plucked from the past he could tell you a secret that would untangle time - if only he could remember it himself.


Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Dream Kitchen.

To the National to see a preview of Arnold Wesker's superb fifties drama The Kitchen. It's a fantastic reminder of the way in which, for a brief period, British playwrights had a fascination for the sociological and economic structures that held our country together.

Set behind the scenes at the Tivoli restaurant an international cast of chefs, cleaners and waitresses work together to try and keep the 2,000 covers a day flowing to the customers out front; their co-existence only made possible by the economic need they all have to survive in London. There are tensions. Peter and Hans are on a post war reconciliation exchange scheme swapping British and German chefs, Max the butcher wonders whether the gas chambers weren't an efficient way to get rid of criminals, Paul is trying to find some peace and quiet in which to piece his life back together after a failed marriage. Others deal, thieve, flirt, swear and somehow keep it together despite the heat and stress of their work.

The play is marvellously balanced with each individual story spun gently like a plate to create a dizzying impressionistic effect overall. Wesker's genius, mostly through the sure fire way he controls the tempo, is to ensure none of these stories drop and we're left in no doubt that beyond the rituals and routines of survival, that each worker is in search of the space in which to nurture their own dreams.

At times Bijan Sheibani's direction works against this. Time is made oddly relative, frozen at moments, slowed at others, which although suggesting that some of the characters are on the brink of sanity, occasionally impedes on the flow of the text. This is most apparent in the wonderful set piece service at the end of act one where flying waitresses, and choreographed dance undermines the sheer breathtaking ability of the kitchen staff to deliver the volume of food demanded by the customers. The spectacle is there already. The embellishment unnecessary.

For all that the revival is timely and I was struck by how contemporary this play, about migrant workers negotiating between cultures whilst working in the service of the invisible affluent, remains. As a metaphor for the symbiotic structures that capitalism provokes it works brilliantly.

The anarchic ending offers no solution, but, in its own way, makes a political and humanist statement every bit as powerful and challenging as Nora's infamous door slam at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both are masterpieces of the well made play.

Monday, 5 September 2011


It's a big year for the University in the lead up to the Olympics. Our new multi million pound sport centre named after the famous Polish Goalkeepr John Paul II opens later in the month, the summer months saw visits to campus from both Sebastian Coe and Usain Bolt and we're now busy making preparations to host athletes from China, Ireland and South Africa in pre-games training camps.

The biggest boost though came yesterday with local hero and former student Mo Farrah racing to gold in the 5000 metres at the World Championships in Korea. It's great news - particularly after the disappointment of being pipped at the post in the 10,000 metres earlier in the week.

Mo is a remarkable man. Before he headed off to Oregon last year you'd have seen him doing laps here most mornings (he does about 130 miles worth a week) and no matter how early you cycle in, feeling like the first person in the world to rise, you know full well he's been out there for an age. No alarm clock on five minutes more snooze for him. The dedication in itself is inspiring.

Mo's going to have a lot of pressure on him between now and next summer and the win probably catapults him into superstar status - Channel 4 were on campus first thing this morning filming clips of the running track for a forthcoming documentary - but St Marys has been a good home for him. He's rapidly becoming our big medal hope for 2012.


Thursday, 1 September 2011

September's Here Again.

So off we go again a new year to look forward to. Ten years ago I started my MA, twenty years ago I was entering my final year at University and thirty years ago I was heading for my first day of secondary school. If you stay in education Autumn always seems to be the beginning of things.

After work I went with Patsy over to Commodity Quay in St Katherine's Dock to see the first night of the new National Theatre / Headlong production of Decade a kaleidoscopic exploration of events both during and since 9/11. The piece has been created by nineteen celebrated writers from both sides of the Atlantic including verbatim pioneer Alecky Blythe, TV Historian Simon Schama, Mike Bartlett, Samuel Adamson, DC Moore, Abi Morgan and Christopher Shinn.

On one level the collaboration appears mouth watering but, as we headed past 11pm, I began to wonder whether the editing process wouldn't have benefited from some Cameron-esque tough love. Some of the material just isn't well conceived, much of choreography lacks polish and whilst the best of the writing sparkles and shines the jumble of voices and impressions seemed to leave the audience exhausted. The applause at the end was strangely muted.

But it's certainly worth seeing. There are great performances throughout, most notably from Emma Fielding, Charlotte Randle and Tobias Menzies and some of the speculated scenes carry real weight and poignancy. 9/11/2001 was certainly a day of incomprehensible chaos and confusion. Along with everything else I remember being aware that for the first time in my life events were moving quicker than the media could and that much of our understanding of what was occurring came from mobile phone images, last second texts and an explosion of disbelief. As one character rightly points out it was like being suddenly thrown into a disaster movie. What Hollywood had imagined as catharsis New York experienced as reality. 'What would you do? Jump or fry?'

What surprised me watching a response ten years later is that we're still in the forensic process of honouring and listening to every voice. Perhaps the production was being honest in refusing to move away from democratic impressionism? Perhaps the number of collaborators make it inevitable that we'd only receive fragments from an imagined history? Perhaps it's just still to recent to do more than honour the memory? Time may not be able to heal everything but this show couldn't half do with someone making a decision to knock half an hour off it.