Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Business End.

We're getting to the business end of the year now where lecture classes begin to look more directly at the assignments and students begin the switch from idealistic consumers of new knowledge to pragmatic foragers for good grades.

For some pathway Drama students essay writing is really tough. Our focus on practical training means they're only really producing 6,000 words a semester and whilst many are grateful that the bulk of their time is spent in rehearsal rooms rather than libraries, it does mean an additional pressure that the joint honours students, who produce essays every fortnight, don't have.

This can lead to a mean approach with students looking to find out the minimum they have to do to pass rather than embrace the assignment as an opportunity to research and develop further their own unique interest in a field. The one off assessment also encourages a kind of conservatism, borrowed from their schooling, of believing that if clear guidelines are followed, high grades are guaranteed. There is some confusion when lecturers feign vague on this matter or answer student questions with further questions.

Overall though I do sense in the Level 1 and Level 2 classes that I teach a slight shift and the beginnings of an understanding that turning over your essay is the tip of a much more impressive ice berg. Reading plays and going to see theatre may exercise different creative muscles to physical and vocal workouts but are just as vital in developing an understanding and cultural security about the profession. Drama students seem to work more naturally from the inside out, finding expression for their experience. It soon runs dry though if they're not investing the other way. Looking at the world beyond themselves and storing their discoveries for the future.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Political Cabaret.

The Level 2 Applied Theatre students performed their second political cabaret of the semester in the Dolche Vita this evening and tried something a little different. For the first half hour they provided us with the usual fare of review sketches, topical songs and provocative takes on contemporary events both within and beyond the University; all well received by an appreciative audience.

The second half of the show, changed tack. The students had teamed up with a writer from the Professional and Creative Writing degree who'd written a clever short piece set in the Starbucks, opposite the Occupy London site by St Paul's. It called for different skills from the performers and demonstrated how quickly good theatre can fabulate to shine new truths and fresh perspective on real events. This is a possible new direction for the work.

The evening ended with a short forum play looking at sexually transmitted disease with Natalie jokering. I was unsure how this might sit with the other work, but they played it with a light touch and brought exactly the right sense of playfulness to allow the audience to explore the issue. It provided a prototype for a longer piece of work.

Political Cabaret has been running for two years now and is beginning to establish itself on the Drama St Marys calender. It'll be interesting to see what the students made of tonight's variations and how that effects the work in the future.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Meaning of Feste.

We watched Trevor Nunn's film version of Twelfth Night this evening as part of the Shakespeare on film season I'm running to supplement the Early Modern Drama module. Filmed in and around the beautiful Penwith peninsula in Cornwall and set in the early years of the nineteenth century, it's a version that's grown on me over time.

I've often thought of Twelfth Night as the pivotal play in the entire canon. A moment of revelation for Shakespeare as a writer. The moment, perhaps, where he simultaneously becomes sure of his place in the world and his impending mortality. Nothing he wrote before was as tightly structured and nothing he writes afterwards is as freewheeling.

The key to my mini-theory is Feste who seems, particularly in the last moments of the play to be as autobiographical a character as Shakespeare wrote. His final song, which starts so clearly to lay out the ages of man, seems to loose heart after just four verses - compare this with Jacques in As You Like It, written just a couple of years earlier, who finds seven distinctions in his All the World's A Stage speech.

The song ends with a passionate statement in which personal ambition is resigned in favour of self-knowledge. The focus is shifting from virtuosity to craft.

'A great while ago the world begun

With a hey, ho the wind and the rain

But that's all one, our play is done

And we'll strive to please you everyday.'

Shakespeare was 38 when he wrote that and staring into middle age. The sixteenth century had come to an end. Within a year Elizabeth had died and England was once again thrown into religious and political uncertainty. His later works, all written under the new patronage of James I, would reflect a desire to provide intellectual and philosophical succour to the Jacobean world order. Illyria was the world that he left behind.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Comedy of Errors.

To the National to see The Comedy of Errors starring Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse. It's a rip roaring production played out with enough chutzpah and sense of fun to give even the most cynical theatre goer a good night out.

Director Dominic Cooke sets the play in a composite place somewhere between the West Indies, North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. He has a Romanian band thrown in for good measure. The openning section where the Syracusean merchant Egeon lays out the back story uses the full glories of Bunny Christie's inventive set, to create a vast poetic story board. A visual trailer for what's to come.

And what's to come is very good with Henry, who won rave reviews for his Othello a couple of years ago, revelling in the comedy. He has presence, a sense of ease with the language, great timing and, of course an anarchic spirit of irreverence. It made me wonder why we don't encourage more of our stand up comedians to take the comic roles in Shakespeare. Rickie Gervais as the Porter ? Frankie Boyle as Lear's fool? Paul Merton as Touchstone? or even Tim Minchin as Feste? If it hasn't hasn't already happened I'm sure it won't be long before James Cordon is offered Bottom. It just makes sense to put audience pleasing specialists into these roles.

Elsewhere there is some marvellous support from Chris Jarman as the other Antipholus, Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser as the Dromios and stealing little moments, the wonderful Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry as tottering wag-esque sisters Adriana and Luciana.

This isn't a show that reclaims or reinterprets the play for our times. In many ways Cooke's production is a classic rendering. It doesn't half leave you with a smile on your face though.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Tales from a Sea Journey.

Our old friends NIE returned to the Drama St Mary's theatre this evening with their new show Tales from a Sea Journey. It was lovely to see them bring their peculiar brand of Post-Brechtian clowning back for a new generation of students to enjoy. It was wonderful to see ex-student Kieran back, playing a brave Norwegian sea captain.

Unlike their earlier trilogy, which sought to dramatise the cataclysmic history of twentieth century Europe by telling the stories of three families, this new show focuses more directly on the way stories help us to pass time, to form communities and to dispel our fear of loneliness. Whilst it lacked the political bite of previous work there was a metaphysical dimension at work here.

The company created the show a year ago when they spent ten days as passengers on a container ship travelling from France to Guadalupe in the West Indies. Each member of the company was asked to take along three stories and a couple of songs for the rest of the actors to learn. They fused this process with observations and tales from their own adventure. The result is a wickedly funny, kaleidoscopic treat of tentative offerings, songs and fables, made poignant by the ever present awe inspiring vastness of the Ocean. We're tossed and turned from moments of gloriously silly slapstick to sublime majesty.

As in previous work NIE stand to assure us that stories are our real solace, inspiration and the only thing we can genuine offer in the face of the unfathomable mysteries of the deep.

Saturday, 19 November 2011


To the National Theatre to see John Hodge's witty new play Collaborators, intimately staged in the Cottesloe. The play, based in part on truth, centres around the relationship between the dissident writer Mikhail Bulgakov and Josef Stalin, brilliantly played by Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale.

It's 1938 and Bulgakov's new play about the life of Moliere has been declared subversive and withdrawn from the stage. In a Faustian pact to get it back on, he takes a commission to write Young Josef, a hagiographic play celebrating the dictator's impeccable revolutionary credentials. Unfortunately the writer's artistic sensibilities make the task impossible and despite some nasty threats from Mark Addy's blackly comic secret policeman he finds himself struggling to make the first night, scheduled for Stalin's surprise 60th birthday party.

Stalin, who of course, doesn't do surprises, steps in and arranges a series of secret scripting meetings where he delights in swapping roles with Mikhail, typing up glorious scenes from his heroic past whilst temporarily handing over the reins of the USSR, to his adversary.

The leading actors are superb. Russell Beale's Stalin weaves easily between avuncular openness and childish impatience - under which we sense a monstrous ego held short. Whilst Jenning's imbues Bulgakov with the painful realisation that principle has pragmatic parameters and the tired disappointment of a man who, taken off guard, has fallen a little for the devil.

Nick Hytner and Bob Crowley create a surreal, constructivist universe, where dreams, desires, fictions and startlingly reality mix in full absurdist glory. It all made for a dark and delicious evening, designed to puncture any optimistic belief that art can flourish in a totalitarian system.

Friday, 18 November 2011

We Are Three Clever People.

Are there some stories that essentially can't be dramatised? Last May I had an uninspiring evening at the Richmond Theatre watching Shared Experience explore with little dramatic punch the relationship between the Bronte sisters and their characters. Polly Teale's script had strong intent in that it showed how fantasy helps us escape claustrophobic circumstance but having made its point the play faded.

Tonight at the Rose in Kingston it was the turn of another acclaimed touring company Northern Broadsides to find a way into the dark and lonely world of Haworth Parsonage with their production of We Are Three Sisters. Again it made for a long night.

In someways the piece is a triumph of conceptual elegance over good storytelling. Writer Blake Morrison and critic Susannah Clapp realised, over dinner a decade ago, that the Bronte sister's story had some obvious parallels with Chekhov's The Three Sisters. They floated the idea to Broadside's Artistic Director Barrie Rutter and a script was developed.

It's a bold idea, but it's realisation lacks conviction. Essentially it's Chekhov's play (without soldiers) set in rural Yorkshire, but the doggedly enforced biographical detail needed to replace Olga, Masha and Irina with Charlotte, Emily and Anne and unsubtle grafting of fact and fiction felt incredibly self-conscious and at time even precocious. Charlotte, searching for a publisher, stares out and parodies Irina's famous lines on Moscow with a cry of 'To London! To London! To London!' A looser relationship between the two stories would have allowed the audience to enjoy making their own connections.

I really admire Susannah Clapp, both as an editor and critic. Barrie Rutter has forged a fantastically muscular, no nonsense approach to classic plays through Northern Broadsides and Blake Morrison's eulogies to his parents are amongst the most poetic memoirs ever written; but something about this meeting of minds has served to flatten what could have been an interesting restaging into a rather predictable academic exercise.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Nandos Education.

Spent much of today in City College, Brighton with first years Ami and Megan, delivering a talk and chatting to sixth form students about the courses here at St Mary's. It was a really good experience and something that, in the scramble, to ensure our courses are full next year we need to do more of.

Although it's still not really clear how the rise in tuition fees has effected recruitment, not just nationally, but for individual institutions and programmes, the one thing that is clear is that seventeen and eighteen year olds are being much more careful about choosing their options.

In the last few years I've often asked potential applicants who've turned up for open day how many similar events they've been too and, with some notable exceptions, the answer has always been 2 or 3. This year, however, it's more likely to be 7 or 8. One girl I spoke to at the last evening had been to an impressive 22.

Last year the Universities had the luxury of a competitive market to work in. The number of Gap year students feel dramatically as school leavers tried to get a place on the old fee scale. This year, with applications down, the choices are all with the students and the onus is on us as institutions to offer attractive and worthwhile courses. Already this is making itself felt in St Mary's where a new marketing campaign 'you said, we did...' is encouraging students to claim entitlements from the institution.

Whilst student experience needs to be at the heart of most decisions a University makes there is a crude theory that all of this will drive up standards across the sector. The more students pay, the logic goes, the more they will demand. But it's the nature of that demand that matters and it's romantic to think that the primary drive of the young is value for money. In many cases I think undergraduates are driven by appetite and for educationalists, if you'll excuse the pun, that's difficult to swallow.

Education is a challenge. Learning new ways of thinking, making connections between disparate disciplines and subjects and absorbing fresh knowledge takes personal investment and willpower. The threat of a consumer driven sector is that students believe they are paying their lecturers to do this work for them and repackage it all in dumbed down, easy to access forms. Paying more doesn't necessarily mean you'll go for the healthy option. Given the choice many students will head for Nandos every time.


Monday, 14 November 2011

Juno and the Paycock.

A smashing production of Juno and the Paycock at the National this evening with Ciaran Hinds as a brilliant Jimmy Boyle commanding every inch of the Lyttelton stage. In some ways the character is an Irish cousin of Rooster Byron, admirably played by Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, over the river, a larger than life fabulist whose enjoyment of life's journey leads him into huge trouble and eventual bankruptcy.

The play is set in the civil war that followed the failure of the Anglo-Irish treaty talks and brilliantly captures the political indifference of a family caught up in desperate acts of survival. The fighting outside the peeling tenement flat is mirrored by the ongoing battle between Juno, played with stoic fortitude by the impressive Sinead Cusack, and her delusionist husband.

The supporting cast is uniformly good. Clare Dunne is pitch perfect as Juno's daughter, carefully balancing the pragmatic need to find a suitor who'll take her out of poverty, with a fading notion of romance and Risteard Cooper, an Abbey favourite making a rare appearance in London, is terrific as scrawny scavenger Joxer, constanly searching the corners for the means towards a next meal.

At times the production is lit with breathtaking beauty, which adds an epic quality to the social realism, but never detracts from the underlying sense of watching lives lived at the very edge.

This is a company completly in tune with the demands of the play and working as a natural ensemble, whose precision and sure touch, draw the audience in. The attention to this kind of detail is a hallmark of director Howard Davies' work. It makes watching plays easy.


Saturday, 12 November 2011


Spent the day in University preparing for the evening's rehearsed reading of Mary Kenny's play Allegiance a fictional re imagining of a meeting between Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill and Irish Republican Michael Collins that occurred in October 1921 in which both men outline their positions politic and personal and look for a way to progress the Anglo-Irish Treaty Talks. I'd been asked to play Evans, Churchill's butler.

It was a fascinating afternoon watching the speed with which Matthew Marsh, playing Churchill and Colm Gormley, as Collins went about the text. On paper the play had seemed rather expositional, a lesson in history and biography, rather than a lithe political poker game, but as the afternoon went the texture of the piece was teased out, the changes in strategy noted and slowly a more interesting architecture to the play emerged.

Beyond ten or twelve lines of introduction my role was chiefly to fill up the drinks. Mary, who was in the audience for the show, makes it fairly explicit in the script that the men's trust for each other grows the more they put away. Certainly at times when the negotiation became entrenched Churchill's tactic was to pour another drink and carry the conversation into personal territory: love, children, common ground.

It's strange to act again. I haven't done anything on stage for years and in the end I was just relieved not to have sent the accumulating brandy glasses flying.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Its No Joke!

Off to Lost Theatre in Lambeth this morning to see It's No Joke! The Comedy School's TIE show dealing with knife crime, which has been touring the borough over the last few weeks. Today a fifty strong group of year 6s from a local school were brought in.

It's a good show, eschewing shock and sentimentality and instead using humour, broad characterisations and fast paced storytelling to cover the ground. At the end the kids hot seat and offer advice to the characters - including the victim (who always gets asked what it's like to die.). The level of questioning really demonstrated how much had been learnt.

It's No Joke! has been on the road for three or four years now and gone through several recasts. The latest incarnation stars Danny Morgan on his first job since graduating from Drama St Mary's last summer. It was great to see all of the hard work he put in over three years being rewarded with an opening gig and he was really good value. Light, charismatic and confidently in control of the audience, particularly as he jokered the Q & A at the end. Keith seems impressed with him so hopefully he'll be considered for future projects.


Sunday, 6 November 2011

The First Actresses.

A morning lecture at the National Portrait Gallery by way of introducing their new exhibition The First Actresses, a fascinating collection charting the rise of women on the stage from their first appearance in the 1660s to their glittering ascendancy through the eighteenth century.

It was a fascinating talk focused mostly on the competitive way in which the eminent but formal Joshua Reynolds and the more natural flowing Thomas Gainsborough sort to gain commission from the actresses of the day for academy portraits. It was the start of a real move into respectability. Up to that point Gillray and Hogarth had reinforced the popular image of actress as whore with a string of satirical cartoons; but by the 1770s a counter revolution led by David Garrick ensured that performers such as Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan and Sarah Siddons were viewed as artists in their own right.

The exhibition itself is fairly small, and a bit overpriced, but it does offer a coherent sense of theatrical history and some startlingly comparisons in the way in which these early celebrities were depicted. My favourite picture was of the beautiful but tragic Elizabeth Linley, whose promising career was brought to an end at the age of nineteen, when her new husband the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan - made jealous by her popularity and concerned his own reputation would be compromised insisted that she retire from the stage. She went on to manage the books in Drury Lane and died at just 37. Gainsborough's painting captures the loneliness and boredom of an out of work actress. She looks past us now trying to remember a happier time, when her gaze engaged. Restless hands idle in her lap. She's absolutely still whilst the wind temptingly provokes her to act by gently ruffling her clothes.


Saturday, 5 November 2011


Went to the cinema to catch Anonymous Roland Emmerich's frankly bonkers film which suggests that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford was the real author of Shakespeare's work. If you can get past the nonsense of the thesis, ignore the moment by moment chronological inaccuracies and relax into the swashbuckling silliness of the conspiracy theorists world, then it's quite a fun night out.

I thought Vanessa Redgrave was wonderful as the aging Elizabeth I, returning beautifully to second childishness. Her performance every bit a match for Judi Dench's Oscar winning cameo in Shakespeare in Love. Whilst Rafe Spall gives us a believably magpie-esque Shakespeare, a sharp, live wit with an eye on the main chance. What he lacks in Latin, Greek and Italian travel, he more than makes up for in opportunism, charisma and imagination. I saw no contradiction between this lustful, life loving, optimist and the poet philosopher of our popular imagination. Why shouldn't a grammar school boy create King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III? He also knocked out Falstaff, Bottom and Christopher Sly.

I suppose I've never been that interested in the authorship debate. For what it's worth I think Shakespeare was probably a wonderful writer, but the first folio only appeared seven years after he died and I've no doubt that by that time the parts had been refined, honed and road tested by his surviving colleagues in communion with the demands of the audience. Actors wouldn't have worried too much about the authors posterity, but rather there own survival. They'd have kept what was popular and re improvised moments that didn't grip. Think of the play as a performance rather than an script and it soon becomes possible to imagine the collaborative forces at work. A terrific synergy that leads to 'genius.' I suspect Shakespeare gave his companies great material to work with, but in truth the canon stands less as a monument to one man's achievements and more to the increasingly democratic and enlightened spirit of the age.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Twelfth Night, Political Cabaret & Fasymmetric Theory.

A busy day. After tutorial I headed off to meet the Applied Theatre first years at The Orange Tree, where Henry had invited us to provide the a dress rehearsal audience for an anarchically silly Twelfth Night, which he's been putting together with a group of four actors. It's wonderful to be able to get into rehearsals and the students really enjoyed the privilege. Next semester it'll be their turn and I hope having this opportunity will at least have helped them see how much fun work for young audiences can be.

After the run through the cast tried out a short workshop on us to demonstrate how Shakespeare creates different voices for his characters. We ran 'If music be the food of love' just using the vowel sounds... 'eee ooo eee ooo ooo' to show Orsino's open romanticism and then 'Have you no wit, manners nor honesty?' playing just the consonants ' vvv nnnn wwww tttt mmm nnn ttt' to reinforce Malvolio's lack of grace and patience. It was very smart. A great, accessible introduction into the text.

Rushed back to campus to interview Keith for Making Theatre. Much of the discussion focused on how tricky some actors find Stand Up. The suggestion was that to begin with they 'act' what they think a comedian should be like never really letting the audience into themselves.

'Comedy is the great leveller,' he said 'but if you're going to play it you've got to be prepared to come down to meet the crowd.'

From there we headed over to the Dolche to catch the second years perform the first Political Cabaret of the semester. Some really clever material on facebook and a couple of really well crafted songs. Interest in this work has grown from last year and the room was packed to the rafters. The students just seemed relieved to have got through it but it was a really good first attempt and hopefully will have given them confidence to write with even more freedom next time round.

The day ended over in the theatre watching the Theatre Arts production of Fasymmetric Theory, a really encouraging first play from Level 3 student Kat Evans who's put together a Martin Crimp like montage of slightly disconnected scenes, parodying our obsession with beauty myths. It was very exciting to see a student play getting a full production. The cast and director did an admirable job in showcasing a promising talent.


Thursday, 3 November 2011

Battle Cries.

Tonight's screening in the Early Modern Drama series was Olivier's glorious Henry V which still carries all before it in technicolor glory. Commissioned by Churchill it was made in 1944 as a morale boosting pageant, its release timed to coincide with the Normandy landings.

The film starts with a beautiful panoramic view of London, the silver thread of the Thames snaking its way past the towers and steeples of a city at rest with itself, in perfect harmony under William Walton's score. In we zoom to the playhouse, the great globe itself where bustled preparations for the afternoons matinee mirror the industry of preparation for the invasion itself. Everybody is involved regardless of class, gender, age. All united in readying themselves and the space to receive the play.

Soon it's on us. Leslie Banks' muscular chorus pulling us into the comic clerics conversing in the minstrels gallery above the stage. We follow their exit to the backstage world where make up is applied, costumes dusted down, and actors poise ready for their entrance.

The camera fixes here watching knights and page boys process onto the stage, set now for Henry's court. Then a beat. A second of empty frame and forward with one tentative step comes Olivier, not as a mighty God anointed King, but an actor, a nervous man with a slight cough, trying to get a feel for the house.

He is us and we are him, waiting for our cue. It's a brilliant moment of levelling. The messages are clear. Heroism is a human possibility and our duty is to act.

One of the most moving things about the film is to watch these our actors working in concert. George Robey, the great star of the Victorian Musical hall and friend of Henry Irving, plays the dwindling Falstaff. The pioneering Australian dancer Robert Helpman provides a comic turn as the Bishop of Ely, Matinee idol Robert Weston plays Pistol. Esmond Knight, himself blinded, earlier in the war, takes up Fluellen. Max Adrian, who would go on to be a star of the formative RSC, is an enigmatic Dauphin, John Laurie, an eminent Hamlet in his own right, but most famously remembered as Private Fraser in Dad's Army plays Scots captain Jamy and George Cole, who later found fame as Flash Harry in the St Trinian films and Arthur Daley in the eighties TV series Minder is a fresh faced boy. Most remarkably Renee Asherson, who played Princess Katherine, is still alive at the ripe old age of 96.

Any acting company at any moment of history will have a spread of youth and experience and one of the most magical things about the theatre is this sense of continuity. Olivier casting stars from the past and the future. This band of brothers united in a common cause and captured in a brief moment of time.


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Church and State.

After work I headed into town, met up with Eleanor and went off to have a look round the Occupy London site outside St Paul's. We'd gone to see a debate at the Cathedral about the radicalism of Jesus' mission, but on the back of two resignations and the continuing fears about safety and public disorder, the event was, ironically if unsurprisingly, cancelled. The church has really missed a trick with this one. The worries seem to be more about how having a lot of unwashed hippies on the doorstep will effect box office takings in the gift shop rather than engaging with the larger questions surrounding the increasing gap between the rich and poor.

So with the doors of St Pauls firmly closed we instead spent some time in the camp. It's an impressive set up. The largest marquee has been given over as a space for free lectures and seminars. An impassioned debate about public space was raging. During the day a full programme of events are publicised outside, offering everything from talks on the geo-political challenges of the next decade to placard making workshops. Next door is a small library where members of the camp swap books and supporters of the protest bring regular donations.

A little way along an avenue of pop ups is the makeshift media centre where three bespectacled men sat furiously typing responses to the thousands of supportive messages coming in from around the world. The tent is a geeks haven of wires and laptops, all illuminated by a single light bulb run from a noisy mini generator. Next door are the kitchens where huge metal cauldrons bubbled with veggie stews and coffee is handed out to all visitors and beyond that a jam tent, complete with a piano and a couple of broken stringed guitars.

At the centre of it all a small gazebo works as a control point. Lists of needs - food, literature, equipment is scrawled up on a whiteboard, whilst new supplies and donations are registered and distributed. New arrivals also check in here and are either allocated a plot or a place in one of the existing tents. And, as long as this is a fun and diverting place to be, they will keep coming. The headache for the authorities is that for many protestors the Occupy site isn't a necessary discomfort. Its a real social alternative to homelessness or destitution. It won't be easily shifted.

At one end of the camp guarding the entrance to Paternoster Square stood two police officers, refusing to let anybody go near this privatised area. They were, for the most part, ignored.