Saturday, 29 September 2012


The government's much vaunted UniStats website was launched at the back of the week. It'll be interesting to see how students and sixth form institutions use them to make choices about where they want to study.

For Universities it's a chance to acknowledge where they're perceived by their own students as doing well and where the fault lines are.

An initial survey provided good news for Drama St Mary’s with all three of our pathway courses Drama and Theatre Arts, Drama and Physical Theatre and Drama and Applied Theatre recording overall satisfaction levels of over 90%, putting them all in the top 100 out of the 622 registered courses in the UK.
Drama and Theatre Arts did particularly well listed as one of the top ten programmes of its type in the UK. The courses also scored highly on graduate employment.
Where we really stand out is in the percentage of contact time our students receive. Drama students at St Mary's spend 43% of the working week (9 - 5pm) in class. This compares favourably (we believe) we other similar institutions who are offering between 15 - 20%.
Some students arrive here and are surprised by the commitment we expect. They occasionally shoot envious glances at their peers on other courses who rock up for a couple of lectures and a seminar a week and spend most of their time in the library.
It can particularly tough on cold, autumnal mornings to drag yourself into a rehearsal room, knowing your going to working physically for the rest of the day - but we're convinced that the training and investment students put in now makes the difference between disciplined, self-motivated practitioners and moaning, misunderstood artists later. 
You only have to look at the Drama Schools, who continue to produce the vast majority of professional actors in this country, and the levels of training expected of their students to see that our continuing efforts to resource rigorous training conditions for our students is the right way to go. It's good to see our commitment to focused skills based training is reflected in these statistics.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

Back at the National this time to see a wonderful adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliot.

The key to the show's success is the almost imperceptible re framing that Stephens pulls off, using Haddon's first person narrative as a journal which, in the hands of a sympathetic teacher is to be presented as piece of theatre. The persuasion needed to enable the main character Christopher Boone, who has Asperger's syndrome, to understand that there is a difference between theatre and lying provides a clever layer and an unusual tension on the idea of a play within a play. In keeping with the novel this theatrical device enables us to feel sympathetic to all of the play's main protagonists.

The production immerses us in Christopher's mind. A brilliantly designed geometric set is augmented by a superb literal lighting design, which brings to vivid life mathematical equations and the secret patterns of the universe. Cold ttechnology helping us to gain clarity about Christopher's epic journey up to London in the most unsentimental way.

The show is littered with fine performances. Luke Treadaway is stunning as Chris. It's a breakthrough performance which, coming on the back of earlier work on War House, confirms him as one of the hottest young actors around.

He gets fantastic support from Paul Ritter, as his embattled father and Nicola Walker, as his estranged and wounded mother.

A beautiful moment at the curtain call when Christopher, denied an earlier stage for explaining exactly how he answered an A-level maths problem, returns to 'out' the shows technology and introduce the technical crew before using them to give us a breathtaking explanation of his proof. For all our love of mystery, secrets and backstage rituals Christopher rightly has the last word, bringing the pure understanding of the autistic mind unambiguously into the light.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Scenes from an Execution.

To the National to see the first preview of Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution starring Fiona Shaw as the sixteenth century Venetian painter Galactica, commissioned by the state to create a huge canvass in celebration of the State's naval victory over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto.

Galactica wants to focus on the sinewy horror of the battle. After all 40,000 men lost their lives in less than four hours, but her vivid style and bloody depiction disturb the authorities who would prefer a glorious tribute to the triumph of good over evil.

The dialectical argument on censorship and patronage is a good one and Barker's skill is in making both sides resonate with intelligence and truth. The final moment is key as the work in finally being accepted is rendered immediately impotent and Galactica, recently released from prison to celebrity acclaim, accepts dinner with the Doge, a brilliantly spiky performance from Tim McInnerney.

Fiona Shaw is superb, almost too pitch perfect for the part. As ever she is immersive in each moment, pulling the audience into understanding her unremitting drive and psychological make up. Occasionally though this approach detracts from a clear understanding of the power politics involved and slightly devalues the sense that Galactica is engaged in her own pragmatic decision making process. This is portrait of the artist as wounded animal, all instinct and impulse. I suspect the text affords moments of rational compromise that would complicate her relationship with the state further still. Nevertheless this is about the most complete performance I've seen on stage all year.

For the longest time Barker was seen as the great outsider of the British theatre. His plays shunned by the big producing houses. His intellectual energy deemed too dense for a good night out. His wit seen as exclusive rather than embracing. In a brilliant double irony that won't be lost on either him or Nick Hytner - it's fitting that this play about the dangers of artistic acceptance should now find a home in a lavish production at the largest subsidised theatre in the country.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Power of Words.

The first Early Modern Drama lecture this afternoon. We've made a few modifications to last year's programme and whilst we still try and use the sessions to give students a vivid picture of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean Court, we've focusing far more on Shakespeare and his contemporaries as craftsmen and, in the case of Aphra Behn, women.

This means we're looking ever more closely at the playwright's choice of words and arguing that student actors need to develop a curiosity for and love of language. Shakespeare is a joy for actors because he gives them such wonderful things to say.

Too often undergraduates have had a negative experience of Shakespeare at School and come cowering into University, fearful that their lack of understanding will be exposed and that once more an encounter with his world will leave them staring into the void.

The truth is Shakespeare's language is ours. More than any other single person he augmented our vocabulary.

According to the Oxford English dictionary during the sixteenth century some 12,000 words were added to the English language. About half of them have taken permanent residence and are still in use today. Shakespeare’s work is full of examples of words being used for the first time. It's hard to imagine we'd be able to communicate effectively without them.

When students look for accommodation they're using a Shakespearean word.

When they break up a sentence with an apostrophe they’re using a Shakespearean word.

When they turn on the TV and hear that politician has been assassinated they're hearing a Shakespearean word.

In fact every time they do something with dexterity, every time they feel dislocated the experience has been defined by Shakespeare.

Every time they do something premeditated, or try to emulate somebody else or emphasise a point or demonstrate their anger or meditate in private they're using Shakespearean words.

In fact all of us who live frugally, speak obscenely, find ourselves reliant on others are using Shakespeare to describe our actions.

 If we're agile or prodigious, or modest or pathetic or horrid or alluring or lonely or pedantic or impertinent or cavalier or critical or suspicious we're using Shakespearean words to describe ourselves.

So if you find two people indistinguishable from each other. If your situation is dire. If you set up a barricade or join a mutiny or travel a vast distance or discover a submerged corpse Shakespeare is helping you to explain your state.

If you extract a thorn from foot, feel antipathy, observe a catastrophe or kill somebody in a homicide.You’re simply using words Shakespeare gave to you.

And it’s not just individual words. Shakespeare offers us beautifully turned phrases that we use everyday.

The be all and end all...Break the ice...Elbow room...Fair play...Fancy free...Foregone conclusion...Heart of Gold...Hot-blooded...Housekeeping...Lacklustre...Leap frog...Long haired...Naked truth...Too much of a good thing...A pitched battle...The mind’s eye. All come from the plays and poems that he left for us.

I hope over the next few weeks as we explore the plays and mastery of the London playwrights the students will start to savour the sense of power that a command of the language brings. If you can work confidently with this stuff then you can tackle anything.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Finding The Anchor.

A lovely end to the week with an induction treasure hunt up in town, most of the staff came to support.

We met the first years outside the National Theatre and sent them off in teams of four or five, along the South Bank, across Hungerford Bridge, up Villiers Street to the Galleries on the North side of Trafalgar Square, up through Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, along Shaftesbury Avenue into Covent Garden, back down Drury Lane to the Aldwych, along Fleet Street, up Ludgate Hill, round St. Pauls and then back across the millennium bridge to the Tate and The Globe before handing in their papers at The Anchor Pub on the river, where, legend asserts Shakespeare regularly nipped in for a jar or two on his way home. En route there's thrity questions to answer.

Apart from encouraging the students to meet each other, the plan is really is to get them to realise not just want a fantastic cultural resource London is, but how much is free or vastly discounted to them. The world's greatest stage actors, directors and designers show off their work nightly and most theatres offer great deals, if you do a little pre-planning. On the Oyster card the 40 minute tube ride from Richmond up to Sloane Square or the Embankment only costs a couple of quid. From here everywhere worth going is walkable. Everything is very, very close and pretty affordable.

With the students off on the hunt we wandered along the South Bank, taking in the Autumn afternoon. London is still basking in the self-contented glow of post-Olympic adulation and most people exhausted by the revels seem to be happily greeting the change of season. A man in shades played electric guitar in the shallows of Thames as the tide came in. At first the water lapped his feet, then his knees and finally rose up to his waist. A crowd gathered. The first chestnut sellers are stoking their stalls.

At the pub we settled down with drinks and chatted about the department. It's a happy place just now. full of optimism, possibility and the excitement at the new year ahead. After a couple of hours the students started to arrive full of discoveries and surprises. I hope, as the semester progresses, they'll regularly find an excuse to get on the train and head up to catch a show or exhibition.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Meeting the Freshers.

We were finally able to meet the new intake this afternoon in an hour's induction meeting. It's a big moment both for the students and us as staff. A chance to set out the stall and make clear some of the expectations for the next three years crystal clear.

There's a tension at the heart of University education, made even more apparent by the sharp rise in fees this year. On the one hand students expect something for their money; but not enough research has been done into what exactly that expectation might be. In a consumerist society the temptation is to assume education is a purely transactional arrangement. I give you £8000, you give me a good degree. There are of course other goodies on offer... access to great teaching, social experiences, a safe transition from the childhood home into adult independence. But increasingly the pressure is on the University to deliver the kind of qualifications that will help the graduates to pay back their debt as quickly as possible and begin to construct a decent standard of living for themselves. It troubles me that some students, and indeed institutions, are beginning to equate the new fees with a passive sense of entitlement. It's a fatal mistake.
So at Drama St Mary's we look at the other hand. We're operating in an incredibly competitive industry where only those who invest their time properly will have much chance of success. Drama training is not a place for eighteen year old consumers to browse and make casual decisions over what they want to commit to and what they don't. It's not useful to pay to opt out.

Much of our initial chat today was focused not on selling the experience of being a student, but rather on the basic requirements to be part of Drama St Mary's. We stress the importance of being early to workshops, of taking the initiative to be ready, focused and alive by the time the session starts. We talked about tactics to avoid being ill, hung over, under energised. We explained how impossible it is to rehearse a scene if one member of the cast is late or off sick.

In many University disciplines - particularly in the Arts and Humanities - the focus is on taking time to think, to explore, to extend the deadline in the interest in improved results or more profound discoveries. All this is great, but being a Drama student has more in common with the kind of training taken on by elite sportsmen and women or those serving in the military. In all these cases others are reliant on your ability.

It's early days and there's so much to learn, so much to be excited by. For now though we insist on these two things. Full attendance and immaculate punctuality at all times. With these in place all things are possible. Without them you might as well flush your fees away.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

This House.

To the National to see a preview of This House, the new play by up and coming playwright James Graham. James came to attention a couple of years ago when his National Youth Theatre commissioned play Tory Boyz, which explored homosexuality in the modern Conservative Party, raised eyebrows at the Soho.

The new work, set during the turbulent parliament of 1974, takes a broader chronological sweep and looks at the tribal loyalties of both the Labour and Tory party, through the ever seeing eyes of their respective whips offices.

Labour are in power... just!  But this is a period where hanging onto power proved far more important than creating and enacting policy. As their narrow majority dwindles with bi-election defeats and dying members, the whips resort to ever more drastic tactics to keep the government from falling.
Whilst the big beasts Heath and Thatcher, Wilson and Callaghan roam and posture in the chamber upstairs, down here, in the grubby engine room, a very different, less dignified, game is being played.

It's all great good fun. Philip Glenister, who has form as seventies rule breaking maverick DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars, plays the little known, but highly effective deputy chief whip Walter Harrision with suitable untouchable intelligence. He has excellent support from the spritely Phil Daniels as his boss Chief Whip Bob Mellish. Whilst on the Tory side Julian Wadham and Jack Edwards provide impeccable dramatic balance as the frustrated Humphrey Atkin and Jack Wetherall who, always a half step behind, complain bitterly about the Socialists' spoiling tactics.

Wetherall and Harrison, in particular, had a grudging respect for each other. On the night of the crucial 1979 vote of confidence, which did finally bring down the government, Harrison, realising that MP Alfred 'Doc' Broughton was on his deathbed and too ill to travel down form Leeds for the division, went to see Wetherall to invoke the gentleman's pairing agreement that if a sick MP from one side of the house couldn't make a vote then one member of the other side would abstain to compensate. Wetherall initially refused, saying the vote was too important for the agreement to stand and that any Tory abstaining would, even if the government fell, spend the rest of their political career in the wilderness. Harrison understood the position and made to leave, at which Wetherall, seeing his old sparring partner in despair, offered to abstain himself because he felt not to do so would be dishonourable. Harrison was so moved by the offer, that he refused to except. The government fell by one vote, Thatcher won the subsequent election and the rest, as they say, is history. Wetherall himself went on to become a very popular and unsurprisingly trusted speaker of the house, during the eighties. Harrison remained an opposition MP for a further two terms before retiring, in 1987, into relative obscurity

The gentleman's agreement scene is poignantly acted out at the climax of the play and as with so much of this work suggests that more unites politicians, even in the pre-PR days of class focused presentation, than divides them. In one lovely moment Harrison is caught by fellow whip, and future Blairite Ann Taylor, listening to opera, whilst Atkin walks in on Wetherall engrossed in an episode of Coronation Street. Both deputies are surprised by what they discover.

Graham doesn't just give us a satiric farce on the lengths and limits of parliamentary democracy but also suggests that the seeds of a different kind of political class were already being sown in the confused chaos and narrow margins of the mid-seventies.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Reshaping for the Future.

A new semester begins today. For the first time in months the corridor is full with students full of excitement, questions and expectation for what will happen over the next three years. Most of us can remember our first day at University. That sense that after a year of planning, reading prospectuses, applying, interviewing and waiting through summer you've finally arrived. Gulp! The team spent most of the day shaking hands, chatting to our new cohort and helping the freshers find their way about. No closed doors for us, but big smiles and warm welcomes.

 There are a few changes at Drama St Mary's. After eight years at the helm Trevor has stepped aside from running the Programmes to enjoy his Professorship. He's still very much part of the department and students are going to really benefit as he gets to spend more time in the rehearsal rooms and lecture theatres. Beyond the return to teaching he's also going to concentrate more on developing our external partnerships and looking for ways to improve the employment opportunities for our graduates.

It's been a difficult time for Arts and Humanities subjects this year. Although it's clear that, despite the rise in fees, there are still thousands of both school leavers and adults returning to education, looking for a degree in these subjects. It's equally clear that, if we want to continue to be attract students the onus on us is to do everything we can to create a curriculum relevant to the industry. One that not just produces informed graduates, but also makes them ready to pick up first jobs in the theatre profession.

Drama St Mary's has always run an extra curricular meritocracy, with the most able students being invited by the lecturers to support their own professional gigs, mostly as technicians or taking small parts. Whilst our links with many of  London's Theatres seems to encourage our students to write the letters, arrange the meetings and gently hustle for opportunities to get started. Trevor's charged with formalising our approach and making sure that the industry is aware just how able, willing and work focused our graduates are.

The change has meant that I've now become Academic Director and Patsy has taken over my role as Programme Director for Applied Theatre. In the main, though, it's business as usual.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Morning at the Lyric.

To the Lyric Hammersmith to see Simon Stephens highly acclaimed new play Morning, fresh form its successful run at the Edinburgh Festival. The young company includes Jo Nastri, who graduated from Drama St Mary's this summer, and puts in a real strong performance as Cat, one of two teenage girls who lure a boy into the park in anticipation of a threesome tie him up and casually kill him.

Like so much of Stephens' work the play suggests a moral vacuum at the heart of our society and paints a picture of a a teenage culture devoid of a direction or anchor. How do we nurture young people when all values seem so relative?

As ever the dialogue is crisp and the interaction between the characters demonstrate the confrontational nature of communication amongst an unpoliticised generation for whom sub textual hint is a poor substitute for direct declarations of desire and entitlement. It's a warning that unless we're clear and intelligent in creating empathy for the developing needs of our children we'll end up incubating monsters for the future. Nihilism may be an essential part of teenage experience, but this work suggests the malaise is more than just a posturing act or a phase we're all going through.

The production is in part an experiment in taking a company of young actors and developing work with them through workshops and rehearsals. It's partially inspired by the pioneering youth theatre  work of Sebastian NĂ¼bling at the Junges Theater in Basel, and gives full energy to a chaotic aesthetic, with the abandoned debris of each scene strewn about, and a live sound engineer manipulating the soundtrack from his Mac.

It's great to see a company searching so hard to find a theatrical way to speak honestly of the need teenagers have to understand and contextualise their role in an ever confusing and ambivalent world.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Timon of Athens.

To the National to see a fantastic production of Timon of Athens boldly conceived by Nick Hytner as a parable for post-recession London and starring Simon Russell Beale in the leading role.

I always think of the play as one of Shakespeare's most straight forward. The first act is a clear morality play about the limits and dangers of generosity and patronage. Timon, the only major protagonist in Shakespeare's canon to have neither family nor love interest, is deluded into thinking friendship has no bounds. He's disabused when he realises nothing exists in his world beyond financial transaction.

The second act almost anticipates the sparse wastelands of Beckett's nihilistic imagination as Timon plagued with a reactive cynicism philosophically tackles the society that has destroyed him and will, in time destroy itself.

Shakespeare wrote the play, probably with Middleton, as a critique of the indulgent Jacobean Court, but Hytner cleverly manages to provide a broader social context for this version with bankers calling in creditors and an Occupy London protest rapidly gaining momentum in the background. The production ends in a fantastical synthesis where, under the threat of revolution and after a short period of negotiation, these two groups come together to form a future society, denouncing Timon en route as an icon of a discredited credit focused system.

Tim Hatley simple, but localised set, draws attention to three different groups of flatterers: artists, politicians and bankers in the first act, before switching to a building site for a new skyscraper, abandoned, one suspects, in the face of rising costs.

Russell Beale is magnificent in the title role. Urbane and witty to begin with, his fury at the inability of his friends to return his acts of generosity becomes almost precocious in its wounded sense of entitlement. In one moment, reminiscent of the mad disbelieving scrabble that Enron and Barings executives went through as they realised there lives were going down the plug hole, he rushes out, shirt unbuttoned into the street to confront his creditors and wrestle with the paparazzi.

Timon of Athens was Karl Marx's favourite play. He found wisdom in Shakespeare's analysis of the mercantile society and warning of cataclysm. Hytner's work, once more, hints that a more radical solution than a tightening of out belts might be needed. I think Marx might approve all over again.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

James Henry Pullen.

For the last couple of years Drama St Mary's has been using the Langdon Down Theatre as an overspill rehearsal venue. It's just down the road from Strawberry Hill, near to Hampton Wick Station and for many of us is a quiet, undisturbed space, where work can be really developed away from the hustle and bustle of the main campus.

The Theatre itself has a remarkable history. It was founded by John Langdon Down, an inspirational Victorian doctor, whose pioneering work with his patients led to the publication of 'Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots' and the naming of Down's Syndrome as a particular medical condition.

For Langdon Down the term idiot was not in the least derogatory. He used it fully aware of it's original Greek meaning - 'the lonely one.'

Rather tan seeking to subjugate his patients the good doctor championed a programme of expressive arts as a way of enabling them to live active, joyful and fulfilled lives going as far as building the beautiful theatre, where we now work to mount plays and entertainments. He was, without doubt, a pioneer of Applied Theatre.

This evening we went to a talk at the theatre on the life of James Henry Pullen, one of Langdon Down's most remarkable and creative patients. Who despite never mastering the skills needed to read and write, and being a very poor verbal communicator, became a great inventor and craftsman. Much of his work is on display in the small theatre underneath the main space.

From his early childhood Pullen was excited by ships and after he'd been encouraged to take up woodwork as a hobby began to create wonderful models, firstly perfect copies of the great man-of-wars such as The Princess Alexandra and then an exact miniature replica of Brunel's Great Eastern, which was exhibited at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

From here he began to take a more imaginative approach creating a fantasy crafts, designed to be Queen Victoria's personal transport to paradise.

The care and attention to detail Pullen demonstrated in accomplishing his work meant that he often found even the slightest disturbance unbearable and so, with this in mind, he built a mechanical giant puppet, with a hollow body to allow a small person to stand inside and operate levers connected to the blinking eyelids, a tongue that can stick out, waggly ears, flaying arms and a menacing roar. He hoped it would discourage visitors, but in truth it just provoked further curiosity. Sometimes it's important to be the lonely one.