Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reykjavik Love Stories.

Back to the IAA this afternoon for a session on verbatim theatre and story telling. We started with some warm up games to get the group comfortable at telling each other stories and listening to them before setting up an exercise in pairs.

I asked the group to decide on a theme that they'd like to share stories about. After a brief five minute discussion the group decided to focus their work on love. In half of the pairs I asked the listener to watch carefully and replicate the story with as much physical and vocal accuracy as possible. In the other half the listening partner was given a recording device on which to capture the story. I explained that the stories could be personal, philosophic, fictional or familiar, but whatever angle chosen the stories would be told publicly later in the session.

The pairs found somewhere private to tell each other the tales. For ease I suggested we should work in Icelandic which meant I was left to follow the authenticity of the rhythm and behaviour of the actors, rather than understanding the content of the story.

Vigdis M went first and was magnificent in performing Alda. We paused briefly afterwards to ask Alda how it was to hear her words retold and whether this act of recreation was honouring or exposing.

Vigdis J went next, but found it an impossible job to be Luca. She false started two or three times and although she finally gave us the performance she made it clear how uncomfortable she found the act of 'parodying' somebody else. We talked about the ethical implication of taking on somebody else's story and Vigdis highlighted the dilemma of having Luca in the room. She agreed that had he not been there it would have been much easier to 'approximate' his story. She just felt all she could do, in the circumstances, was to diminish Luca's words. It's interesting that we feel this. Should we not be able to honour somebody's story in performance whether that person is in the audience or not? Once a story is told who does it belong to?

We turned our attention to the recorded stories. Maria put on a pair of head phones and, repeating the recorded story out loud retold the story of Vigdis G's parent's first meeting on a cruise ship, including the romantic tale of her late father asking her mother to dance.  Thora then channelled Svala's, occasionally sceptical philosophy of falling in love using the same technique. The group noticed how the very act of re speaking the words resulted in both actors reshaping their bodies to become physically more like the original tellers. Each body has a different relationship to language.

The two monologues seemed to at times to challenge each other, at times underscore and at times highlight and at times reveal. We ran them alongside each other, as an overlapping conversation. The result was fascinating and occasionally very moving, Once we'd taken off the head phones neither actor had any idea of what they'd done.

To end the afternoon we talked briefly about how we might use these Reykjavik love stories. Maria came up with the idea of collecting more and then arranging for a 'love bus' to pick up tourists from the hotels and drive them to sites  all over the city, in each instance choosing the most appropriate for the telling of the story. Passengers could also be encouraged to give the driver instructions and take the bus to a place where their story might be told. These in turn could be recorded for actors to tell later. Over time a whole archive of love stories could be developed.

Each tour would be unique with actors being picked up and dropped off en route. It sounds a plan. I hope she'll follow up.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Harpa and John Lennon's Peace Beam.

A day off from teaching and a chance to reconnect with Reykjavik. In many ways the city has changed little over the last decade. The shops on the main street seem as quirky as ever, it's still tough to get a seat in a coffee shop. Some development has taken place downtown however. The lonely statue of two sailors looking out across the sea has been rather swamped by an extended car park built to support the Harpa, a new concert hall built overlooking the bay.

Behind it a new kind of tourism has replaced the bobbing fishing boats. There are cafes, burger bars and whale watching tours. A new hotel filled with tiny, but warm boxed rooms over looks this revamped commercial centre.

The crash affected Iceland very badly. Possibly as much psychologically as financially. In my visits here ten years ago I'd always been aware of a basic level of prosperity, particularly in the city. A snug insular world of warm home comforts designed to provide protection from the huge wilderness of the rest of the island. Now there seems to be a slightly a more outward looking approach. Iceland is less a place for tourists to discover much more a centre catering for their needs and the Harpa itself which sits so prominently on the shore makes a bold statement that Iceland is open for business and keen to attract investors. Beyond the glass fronted exterior are spacious foyers, welcoming cafes, several beautifully proportioned concert halls and an expansive sense of possibility.

Perhaps there are some lessons here. The centre was planned before the slump and the decision to push ahead with it's building even during a time of rising unemployment and a devaluing of the currency - at one point the Krona lost 80% of its value - was controversial to say the least. But as Icelanders were faced with the need to reassess their own values and concerns (a process we in the UK may still have to face) it appears to have been a master stroke. Rich countries always believe that an ability to consume is a mark of prosperity - but Icelanders were forced to re prioritise and increasingly turned to culture and art, to look both for solutions and solace. It might break up the flat horizon of the seeming unlimited shoreline but the Harpa does stand as an optimistic symbol, attracting international musicians and audiences to Reykjavik.

At nightfall the Imagine Peace Beam shoots up vertically from the tiny island of Videy in the bay.  Designed by Yoko Ono, it's lit every year on John Lennon's birthday 9th October and shines heavenward until December 8th, the day of his assassination. Lennon never visited Iceland, but Yoko chose to base the installation here because of the countries position on the tectonic fault line between Europe and America. It makes a powerful statement in the unpolluted night sky.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Nordic Saga.

The second day of workshops and a chance to explore the role of actor/ teacher in Drama based work. Often in Applied Theatre work the relationship between the stage and auditorium is blurred. Boal uses the term Spect-ACTING for the dual role of participants in an interactive event. With the Joker being the conduit between the world of the play and the real world. In a Drama in Education session the teacher themselves will very often act as the guide.

Increasingly I've been interested in looking at what performative skills are needed to be an effective actor in work like this and, more importantly, how can we train you actor/facilitators to be good at it.

Many practitioners will argue that charisma is at the root and as such cannot be taught. You either have the personality for it or not. In this sense does being a good teacher or a good actor or a good facilitator rely on talent?

We began the session by using an old teacher in role narrative borrowed from some of Jon Neelands and Dorothy Heathcote's early work. I played Beowulf - a role I've taken on in many workshops at St Mary's, but never in such a Nordic setting.

The work begins with me welcoming my warrior brothers and sisters from the four corners of the kingdom. I explain that I have called them to the great hall because I have received word from my cousin the King of Denmark that the evil monster Grendel has been attacking Danish villages, raising the buildings to the ground, killing the citizens and taking the children into slavery.

Although there are normally initial giggles the group are quickly into the story, at my prompting reminding each other of former exploits and debating how best to defeat Grendel. I ask them if they are resolved to fight and, on this occasion, receive unanimous backing.

The students are split into four tribes representing the North, South, East and West and each is invited to devise a task or game that will teach us something about the culture of the region they come from and help us train in preparation for the challenge ahead.

Maria led the warriors of the north with a very energetic game which needed quick reactions. She explained that the special quality of the the light in the North meant that people from that region are renowned for the clarity of their vision, often over large distances. They are a voyaging people, who have built up their wealth by looking beyond the immediate horizon to trade with other lands.

Luka introduced the warriors form the south with a counting exercise. The rest of us noticed that it was tough to play the game if  you thought too much about what you were doing and Luka confirmed that the people of the South lived life in a very fluid and relaxed way, not worrying too much. Many great musicians had come from this part of the Kingdom.

Vigdis greeted us as the Queen of the West with a boisterous game of chase, where warriors had to work together to keep a monster from catching his prey. She explained the rugged, direct nature of the West, a land of mountains, where people worked hard and played hard. It was common for  the people from this region to share the little they have with each other. Everybody in the West works on the land and understands how important it is to cultivate and respect it. They are a fiercely loyal people.

Rakel introduced the Eastern warriors with a medative exercise designed to improve our attentiveness and watchfulness. Hers are a spiritual people who often live in solitude. Stone is a vital part of this culture. They build their houses from it, create jewellery, ornamentation and furniture from it and worship at the quarry.

We're only about half an hour in, but already the group are generating a huge amount of material to take forward.

We run several more improvisational tasks. I ask each warrior to return home and explain to their loved ones the nature of the task ahead. The short scenes that this generates are very moving. Maria has to ask permission from Thora, who is the Queen of the North, and then explain to her teenage daughter Thorinna that she will be away from her for many years and may not return at all.

Luka finds it impossible to say goodbye, tries to write a song about how he feels, fails and ends up getting drunk with his friends. Vigdis throws a big party and tells the rest of the warriors in the West that they should live the evening as though it were their last whilst Rakel takes her sister Alda to the furthest quarry in the East and performs a self mutilation ritual where she sacrifices her right eye for an all seeing stone that will, she believes, act as a powerful charm to protect her from danger. Alda in a sacrificial ritual of her own cuts off her left hand and replaces it with a glove full of sacred stones. This she assures us will give her the strength to defeat Grendel.

Although we break for coffee, the group are reluctant to come out of role and so the work continues.

in the main studio the warriors from the North and East begin using all available furniture to build a beautiful boat. Thora finds a piece of drain pipe and fixes it to the bow. This she explains will be used to call up the sea goddesses who can help to calm storms.

 In the kitchen the warriors of the West and South prepare the drinks whilst working together on a song for us to sing on our voyage.

With the washing up in the sink, we're on our way again. The song works beautifully as a round with each warrior given a separate phrase to sing, one that most befits the job they've been allocated to on the ship we soon reach Denmark.

The final part of the workshop sees the group split in two. The warriors of the North and West form a tableau of the great battle verses Grendel. The actors who have played warriors from the East and South time traveller forward to the twenty first century. They are now archaeologists who have uncovered the great hall of Beowulf. Much in the hall has been destroyed by time, but carefully preserved high on one wall are is the outline of this magnificent painting. They quickly decide to call a press conference and interpret their findings to the world.

We're been working now for three hours and it seems an opportune place to bring the story to an end. We talk a little about the joy of the work, the constant active creativity. Svala is interested in the focus I provide stepping in and out of the main role. I point out that all of them have done exactly the same. At once fully committed to the action and fully aware of the audience.

This is the essence of the Applied Theatre actor. There is a script and a performance to deliver which this should be done with as much conviction and belief as possible. This is the same as for the actor playing Hamlet at the National. But alongside this, in the course of the Applied Theatre play's action, a thousand other small improvisational interactions might occur with the audience, shaping and deciding on the action and ultimately the narrative. This is the same for the teacher in the classroom encouraging questions and observations on the topics presented.

Applied Theatre actors merge these two roles effortlessly, knowing when to push the action on and when to allow the sect-ACTORS the opportunity to make a change.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Images of Theatre and Education.

Some things in Iceland stay. The slight smell of sulphur and the scolding geothermic temperatures of the shower. Water straight from the furnaces of middle earth.

Our first session was early this afternoon at the Academy. We're working with 12 artists, actors, musicians and educators throughout the week. We began with some image work just to get used to working together.

Sculpting is a brilliant way to get a group going, partly because it allows everybody to realise they have a unique perspective on the world. In pairs one person imagines themselves to be a great artist, the other a lump of clay. (We swap these roles - after all sometimes artists lose their powers and it's always possible fro clay to aspire to something more creative.)

Without talking the great artist gently manipulates the clay into a three dimensional image. The pairs all work at the same time and so in a few minutes a collection of sculptures fill the room.

The artists are then encouraged to tour this quickly assembled exhibition commenting on similarities and differences.

I always begin by asking the artists to create a sculpture called 'Mother.' In mixed groups this quickly provokes conversations about gender and culture. Within half an hour we're working and on our way.

The pairs swap roles and creating a complimentary (or occasionally conflicting) image called 'Father' these two images are then 'staged' in relief to each other. The discussion begins to develop an aesthetic dimension. A story is beginning.

From here I decided to repeat the exercise using creating images for 'Education' and 'Theatre.' Again the pairs created a composite image by deciding how to stage the two images in the same space. The results were fascinating.

Luka and Rakel are first to go. In their image Education is slumped asleep against a wall. Theatre stands in front, feet firmly rooted on the ground, but she bends over and reaches between her legs reaching backwards to take Education's hand.

The conversation focuses on who is pulling who. Is theatre trying to raise education from its slumber by pulling it through her legs. Or is it education that, tired of holding hands with theatre has slumped onto the floor, pulling her with him. The complication of two such disparate images still holding hands gave another cause for reflection.

Next up Olof and Savala. Olof's  'theatre' was a figure on all fours, looking up and begging at the feet of Savala's 'education.'  Education seemed to be offering Theatre a coin. Both characters had their heads cocked to one side and were smiling. Most of the group saw an element of the fool in the theatre image, a sense of self-deprecation of playing rather than being low status. Education on the other hand was seen as self confident and patronising, relating to theatre as a curiosity rather than a friend. We felt that once the image dissolved the two elements would not stay in touch.

The third image from Vigdis M. and Tora saw the images stand next to each other, facing outwards towards the audience. Tora's 'theatre' stood as neutrally as possible, waiting for us to project onto her. Vigdis' 'education' sat cross legged, looking up from an open book with an expression of shocked amazement - perhaps at what she'd discovered. We couldn't help but feel, because of their relationship to us that both were performing for us.

The fourth image was created by Maria and Edna. Maria's 'theatre' used a shawl to cover half her face. The material draped down the length of her body, making a costumed disguise. The other half of her took up a triumphant and coquettish pose, weight on hip, hand extended and flirtatious smile. The duality was clear to us all.  Edna's 'education' stood behind, again reading a book, but this time self absorbed, somewhere between indifferent to and bored by Theatre's charms. Some in the group saw a master/ servant relationship between the two with Theatre leading and Education following behind. When looked at like this the image reminded me of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

The fifth image saw Alda's 'education' in clear opposition to Torinna's 'theatre.' They stood facing each other, upper bodies leaning in slightly, as if in combat. They chose a place in the room, where the harsh rays of the now fast approaching Reykjavik sunset crossed their stage, which added an epic feeling to the work. Education stood taut and tense, fist raised high above her head, perhaps looking to land a blow, perhaps merely as a triumphant gesture. Theatre, by contrast, seemed defensive, one hand on her heart, one on her head as if to indicate the two most essential parts of her being.

Vigdis noticed how hard it was for 'education' to stay still in the image. The tension Alda was forcing her body into made her shake slightly and it was a real struggle to keep such an assertive form. Theatre, although on first appearance the more passive of the two, seemed in many ways more at ease with herself.

The final image saw Vigdis G's 'education' strangle Margaret's 'theatre' in another clear battle. Theatre looked out helplessly as education seemed to go in for the kill.

I was fascinated by how, overall, the group saw education, as a stifler of the arts rather than an ally or conspirator. It was also interested to notice how much strength the group invested in their images of education. Time and time again theatre was seen as the victim.

These initial impressions, clear, creative and tangible give us an excellent base form which to further explore the connections and oppositions between the actor and the teacher.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Solo to Oslo.

I'm off to Iceland for a week to do some teaching at the Iceland Arts Academy in Reykjavik at the invitation of my old friend Vigdis Jakobsdottir. We're primarily going to be looking at the artist as educator and I'm hoping the five days of workshops will give us plenty of scope to explore the relationship between the two roles.

For some strange reason it was much cheaper to get to Iceland via Norway than take a direct flight which meant a painfully early start. The flight was simple enough and I was in Oslo in time for a spectacularly expensive lunch - £9 for a beer - in the transfer lounge.

It all felt a little surreal particularly when the former Man Utd and England full back Gary Neville came running by. A stocky figure, carrying a suit, shouting back in broad Mancunian to his companion to get a move on in order to get the plane back to Heathrow. What he was doing in Norway is anyone's guess. Scouting? Visiting former team mate Ole Gunar Solskjaer? Nobody seemed to notice him at all.

Soon enough I was airborne again and heading north west across the frozen ocean towards Reykjavik, coming through the clouds just as the southern shoreline came into view.

It's almost ten years since I was last here and Iceland has since then gone through the most spectacular of financial crashes. Vigdis and her husband Jakob were working in Brussels when bottom fell out, but they returned soon afterwards. I'm fascinated to see how the crash has effected life here.

I took the bus through the familiar lava field landscape into town where Vigdis and her daughter Julia met me at the station.  It's great to see them again.

We ended the day in the old theatre next to the Tjornin in the centre of the old town where Jakob's band were crooning their way through nostalgic Icelandic hits of the sixties and seventies. They were one of seven or eight amateur bands of all ages, enjoying the warm appreciation of a crowd of 200 or so. And despite the much deserved ribbing of Jakob's spotless white jacket and shiny blue winkle pickers, it was all wonderfully open hearted.

We finally gave in at midnight, but the party continued until dawn.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Four Weeks in.

We're four weeks into the semester and time seems to have rushed by. The first years seem, for the most part, to have settled in and there's some really promising work coming out from Levels 2 and 3.

I'm still finding my feet a little as Academic Director with each week bringing further challenges. I'm still in the honeymoon period, but it's feeling a bit like a race against time. One day, very soon I know I'll be expected to have more answers than questions.

The toughest part of the new job is getting used to not being so directly involved in the students' work. I hear of good things in dispatches now, rather than being in the meetings or rehearsal rooms myself. I'm really pleased that the second year Applied Theatre group have started a blog for their project, which, even if I can't be directly involved with I'll have some chance of staying in touch with.

Most of my new role is about looking forward and outwards, trying to plot a course for the Drama Programmes over the next few years, whilst raising our profile beyond the institution. It's less operational and more strategic. After five years of Programme Directing though it's taking a bit of effort to learn to let go of some of the nitty gritty, day to day problem solving. Ultimately it's a question of trust, though, and Kasia, Patsy, Matt, Michelle and of course Trevor make up a vastly experienced team. It's still delightful to catch someone in a corridor and hear them speak excitedly of how their work is going.

So to the future. The best way forward is, I think, to push for very high standards of practice and delivery from our current students, whilst doing everything we can to keep a buzz about the shows. Exciting, creative work attracts attention, builds reputations and enables us develop ever more interesting projects. I've always thought that successful cultures are built on the high demand of everybody operating within that culture.

In the short term I want to make sure that each student is aware of the expectations that the course has for them and feels secure within those expectations. If we can get that right then we'll be in a better place to create some wonderful theatre.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Bread or Freedom,

A fascinating talk at college this evening from Jeremy Ramsden, a professor of Nanotechnology at Cranfield University on the threat posed by the corporatism of Universities.

Jeremy suggests that the managerial structures, which every institution in the UK works within, are inimical to free and meaningful research and the need for Universities to maximise their income, leads to research projects increasingly being written in response to the stipulated criteria of the research councils.

This isn't just unfortunate, but on occasion highly dangerous, as the need to maximise income leads to the very real need to please the client. Unpopular, or unorthodox findings, might jeopardise an ongoing and lucrative arrangements.

The talk reminded me of Richard Bean's wonderful play on climate change and academic freedom - 'The Heretic' which played at the Royal Court last spring, where an academic whose research had convinced her that climate change had only a negligible impact on the natural world was censured by her management team who were tying up a big investment from an ethical, carbon neutral company. Bean's twist was clever as most in the audience were both conscientious liberals with a tendency to worry about the ozone layer and believers in the kind of academic freedom of expression represented by the main protagonist.

I recognise the problem, but find it hard to see a solution beyond dividing the HE sector into research and training. The growth in post-18 education has been broadly successful. More young people staying in education for longer does help reduce crime, create jobs, lengthen lives and so from a utilitarian societal perspective it's a good thing. This focus on training, however, has led to the very corporatism that Jeremy was talking about. As an academic I'm corporatised to deliver qualifications to students, who, in the process are corporatised to find employment in the market place. Apart from sounding like a mundane teadmill this all needs funding and a supportive administrative structure, which as Jeremy suggests, fixes working patterns and dictates the shape of everything from departments to ideas.

It's clear that very few undergraduates can pro-actively contribute to their tutor's research - unless of course that research is in them. Many academics, feel, even if they don't say, that the volume of students that they have to see each week, rather than aiding their research, simply gets in the way. Also the very reliance on an administrative culture means that many members of a Universities hierarchy can only demonstrate their ability to fulfil their management role by constantly requesting data from those members of staff in contact with students. A time consuming and ultimately pointless process. Transparency and accountability sound prudent, but a slavish insistance on their authority they can stop radical or free thinking teaching and research in its tracks.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Richard III & Rep Training.

A lecture on the opening of Richard III this afternoon followed by a practical study of the breathtakingly audacious Lady Anne scene. For the actors playing the seduction it's a case of deciding how and when Anne goes from furious defender of her father-in-law's body to agreeing to be Richard's wife.

My theory is that it's a political realisation rather than an emotional one and behind Richard's sugared words lies the latent threat that if Anne can't find a way to love him, he'll ensure the further destruction of her fortune.

Richard could of course just be brutish about this, but in the most Machiavellian way he finds it more becomes him to toy with her, bringing her gently to the realisation that her choices are limited.

The key moment of the scene comes after she has spat at him. At once an agressive and intimate act. He feigns tears at the act and uses a personal anecdote about his own father's death to 'seem to' excuse her transgressive act. The response is, without doubt, surprising and often in productions it's played as if Anne begins to fall in love with Richard's apparent vunerability. The section is much more grotesque and more in keeping with the pre-renaissance sense of power politics, if both of them understand that the tears and the story are a cruel parody, demonstrating Richard's resolve to have Anne. This isn't to suggest he has to 'act' badly, just that Anne is not genuinely moved by any other emotion than fear at what will happen if she doesn't consent.

She begins the scene attempting the illegal burial of a denounced leader and ends it with the possibility, she believes, of retaining some form of status and protection in the new regime. Love has little to do with it.

After the lecture some of the Applied Theatre Level 2 students, Patsy and I ran a very jolly trainign session for student Programme Reps from across the University. We use a pseudo-forum technique firstly performing a disasterous programme board, in which both the staff and student characters perform badly. The audience watch carefully and then break into small groups to offer advice to each of the characters, who respond in role. After discussion and a couple of mock arguments we perform the scene again, taking on board the audience's advice.

It's the second year most of the AT students have done this and  it was good to see them settling into the roles and finding new nuances and possibilities. They're also getting ever more confident at interacting generously in role with a strange audience. It's very good to see.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Wild Oats.

A lovely day in Bristol watching John O'Keeffe's late eighteenth century anarchic romp, Wild Oats at the beautifully restored Old Vic. Our old friend Kim is part of the company playing the blustering sea dog Sir George Thunder.

The refurbished theatre really is a treat and the production, a perfect choice to encourage the returning audience to the space. Any city would be proud of a building like this.

The auditorium itself is invitingly intimate. The old stalls have been raised slightly to give closer proximity to the stage and the actors revel in the complicit relationship that is suggested by the new space. It's hard to imagine a better playhouse for restoration and eighteenth century revivals.

And Wild Oats is a play you need to keep a close eye on. It's a sprawling thing with a life of it's own.  Thunder finds himself unexpectedly at the house of his niece  Amaranth, who has recently inherited a large legacy on the condition that she live as a Quaker.

Thunder hoping to gain in the enterprise summons his son, Harry, to woo his rich cousin. Harry though has deserted his naval college and run away with a troupe of travelling players, led by the charismatic, if overrated Jack Rover, charmingly played by Sam Alexander.

In an ever changing plot all of course works out in the end. Rover is revelled as Thunder's long lost son. Amaranth reveals the hypocrisy of Quakerism. And Harry somehow, in a twist too far for me to follow, inherits the fortune.

In many ways it just doesn't matter that it's hard to keep up the vibrancy of the playing and the theatrical in-jokes more than make up for the sense that, like that other eighteenth century tangential experiment Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, we're rather flying by the seat of our pants, half way between the recognisable and the surreal.

Afterwards we went for a coffee with Kim, who seems to have had really enjoyed the run. The company are also doing a late night cabaret show: Does My Big Society Look Big in This? directed by the Vic's artistic director Tom Morris. The highlight of the show is offering members of the audience £200 for the best community idea of the night. Patrons have to come onto stage and promote their cause, which always leads into a lively debate about local needs and desires. It's a lovely idea to balance a satiric revue with a political forum.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Damned by Despair.

To the National Theatre to see a frankly disappointing production of the Spanish Golden Age play Damned by Despair by the Spanish monk Tristo de Molina, which left me wondering why it had been added to the repertoire?

Paulo a devout monk is tricked by a devil in disguise as an angel to go to Naples and find Enrico, an extortionist thug, played with moments of quiet menace by Bertie Carvel. God has decreed, says the devil, that the two men are destined to meet the same end. The devil encourages Paolo to go to the city and follow the gangster's example.

Under cover in Naples the monk is appalled by Enrico's excesses, but fails to comprehend the basic humanity beneath the murderous exterior. True to his promise he transforms himself into a murderous shark and, in so doing, reveals the uncovered sin at the heart of his piety: pride. He has seen salvation on purely transactional terms and upset that God is not in the business of offering rewards his renunciation of a holy life leads him into everlasting damnation. By contrast Enrico's redemptive speech in the face of death sees him soaring up on a trip wire to heaven, situated somewhere high in the rafters of the Olivier.

The play is deceptively simple and this production falls into the trap of trying too hard to find a modern relevance. The psychological truths looked for by the actors fail to connect them with the two dimensional allegorical characterisations that they are called to represent and the attempt to stage the Naples scenes in a modern setting trivialises further the basic Christian message which gives the play cause.

Overall there is a sense of failure here. The show is much shorter than advertised. An admission perhaps of late rehearsal cuts of unplayable scenes. The set frames the world in a parody of an El Greco painting, jagged mountains and vertical planes abound. It's pretty, but adds little to the telling of the tale. Occasionally there are nods to the £12 student tickets, a reference to Reservoir Dogs and a visceral slow motion shoot out, but nothing really holds together.

A clue to how things might have been different does come in the form of a young choir boy who appears in the stalls to sing an effecting psalm. It's a wonderfully beautiful moment in a sea of confusion. In a more intimate setting where bangs, tricks and whizzes could be done away with the play may well have carried more meaning. Perhaps the director, in a strange parallel to Paolo's own dilemma fell for the temptation of giving this religious drama a secular treatment which reveals more about the demands of the modern audience than the intentions of the play.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Full of Vexation and Complaint.

The Early Modern Drama lecture this afternoon focused on the first scene of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and in particular the clues that the language gives us about the relationships between the characters.

I've always thought that the most intriguing aspect of this opening is the role Hippolyta plays. She is the first character mentioned as Theseus lets us know how impatient he is to wed (and bed) her and how slowly the time is passing.
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.
Hippolyta's response is conciliatory, but there's an immediate choice for the actor here. Is Hippolyta soothing her impatient fiance, as is traditionally played? Or is there a cord of sadness that her independence and royal authority about to disappear as she takes a consort's role. She is after all, with or without Theseus, the Queen of the Amazons.
Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.
This is the first and last thing she says in the scene.

The text then introduces another character: Philostrate. Has he been there all along? Or interrupted this private moment between Theseus and Hippolyta? The director must decide, but either way Theseus at once acknowledges his presence and sends him away.
Go, Philostrate,
Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;
With the servant dismissed the Duke once again turns his attention to his new Queen, conceding his conquest of her was not altogether chivalrous.
Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;


Why does Theseus need to tell her (and the audience) this? Is the recognition a form of mild apology? Aware of her hurt is he trying to gently placate her? The Queen is a long way from her native land. Has she come willingly? Or it it just a triumphant boast? Has she fallen for a man who - to put it bluntly - is very good in bed?

The next two lines offer a change of approach. The 'but' used here always makes me think that Theseus is indeed a little ashamed of his behaviour up to this point. He is keen the wedding should be celebrated by both parties. It's an attempt to make up for the misdemeanour.
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.
There is much still to discover in the relationship but Shakespeare brilliantly stages another interruption here, stalling further discoveries about how Theseus and Hippolyta come to be together. Egeus bursts in with his daughter Hermia and her two suitors Lysander and Demetrius.

Happy be Theseus, our renowned duke.

Theseus seems thrown and has to quickly adjust from a the intimate privacy of his previous conversation to the formal tone of a head of state. It's clear from Egeus' arrival that he has urgent business. Theseus invites it on.
Thanks, good Egeus: what's the news with thee?
Egeus then sets out the problem. Hermia is betrothed to her father's preferred choice of son-in-law Demetrius. She, however, has fallen in love and wants to marry Lysander.
 Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch'd the bosom of my child;
He ends his speech by summoning an old patriarchal law giving him the power to decide his daughter's future

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

Theseus response is interesting. He neither agrees nor challenges Egeus, but rather asks Hermia for her opinion, albeit reiterating the importance of her father's decision. Has Hippolyta's continued presence in the scene any baring on his gentle approach?
What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.
Hermia contests a little and, although nervous that she is speaking out of turn, finds the courage to ask for clarification of the sentence should she refuse to marry Demetrius.

I do entreat your grace to pardon me.
I know not by what power I am made bold,
Nor how it may concern my modesty,
In such a presence here to plead my thoughts;
But I beseech your grace that I may know
The worst that may befall me in this case,
If I refuse to wed Demetrius.

Again Theseus' answer changes the dynamic of the scene. He introduces the notion of celibacy and suggests it as an alternative to the death penalty. But in the same breath, perhaps talking as much to Hippolyta as to Hermia, he describes this life as 'cold,''fruitless,''barren,''mew'd' and 'withering.'
Either to die the death or to abjure
For ever the society of men.
Therefore, fair Hermia, question your desires;
Know of your youth, examine well your blood,
Whether, if you yield not to your father's choice,
You can endure the livery of a nun,
For aye to be in shady cloister mew'd,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.
Thrice-blessed they that master so their blood,
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness.
A mini argument breaks out between the two young men, during which Lysander reveals that Demetrius has broken off a previous relationship with Helena and left her heart broken. The implication is that he will in time treat Hermia in the same way. Like the Leopard he can not change his spots.

Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.

The question is how does Hippolyta hear this? Whether she has been brought to Athens by force or whether she is willingly marrying a man she loves, it's almost impossible to construct a reason for her to support Demetrius' claim on Hermia. She is the only character in the scene who is not Athenian. There is little reason for her to support the 'ancient privilege.' Theseus knows that Demetrius has behaved dishonourably and makes an excuse that his own wedding preparations have stopped him intervening. Do we take him at his word here? Perhaps the public nature of Lysander's claim is now forcing him to act? Would he have preferred to turn a blind eye?

I must confess that I have heard so much,
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof;
But, being over-full of self-affairs,
My mind did lose it.
There is a final twist. Theseus for all his bluster and confusion does engineer a way for Hermia and Lysander to be alone together. How smart is he being here? Is he giving room for them to plot and ultimately subvert Egeus' wishes and his own state decreed judgement?
But, Demetrius, come;
And come, Egeus; you shall go with me,
I have some private schooling for you both.
He leaves making a public statement, however.

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father's will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
Which by no means we may extenuate
To death, or to a vow of single life.

And then comes the line that gives a key to the whole exchange. It lets us know that Hippolyta has observed all that has gone on and that her emotional response to it is, at best, ambiguous.

Come, my Hippolyta: what cheer, my love?

The royal party make to leave.

In modern productions the actors playing Hippolyta and Theseus have often doubled up to also play Titania and Oberon. This seems entirely appropriate to me. Could the eponymous dream itself be Hippolyta's? The complicated nightmare of a captured bride on the eve of her wedding in which she reveals to herself a confusion about her attitude to the man she is about to marry. Is he a proud Prince, capable of powerful magic? Or an uncouth bore with little more sophistication than a donkey?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Preserving a Sense of Place.

I'm back in rural Oxfordshire for the weekend spending time at my childhood home in Appleford. The village has seen many changes over the last few years, and since my last visit at the end of summer has sadly lost it's last pub, the old Carpenter's Arms, which was unsuccessfully re branded a year or so ago has finally closed down after serving thirsty villagers continuously since 1891.

Just over fifty years ago there was a thriving community here. A small primary school had 25 on the roll, a small shop doubled up as a post office and opposite The Carpenter's Arms stood The Black Horse giving the agricultural workers, who made up the majority of the village's population a choice of sawdust strewn drinking holes in which to wet their whistle after a long day in the fields.

The Black Horse was the choice of Appleford's most famous son, grand national jockey John Faulkner, who lived until a 104 years old and sired 32 children. When he wasn't riding one thing or another he spent most evenings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with a pint and a pipe in his favourite seat in the snug.

By the time I was born in 1970 the school and The Black Horse had gone and although the main work in Appleford was still on the three farms that lie to the South, West and North there was already the sense that a new kind of village was developing, a slight expansion had begun to attract city dwellers out of their urban environment into bucolic bliss.

Still, on Friday nights a fish and chip van came round and on Sunday mornings a bus shop stopped by. There were regular visits form mobile libraries and ice cream vans.

In the eighties and early nineties, the old farm cottages were converted, new barns were built and the sense of an interdependent community had started to wane.

New priorities developed, the desire to increase property prices drove the council to rename the village Appleford upon Thames, ironically in the same month as the local farmer closed off his fields denying legal access to the river.

The post office hung on until the end of the eighties, but out of town supermarkets at Didcot and Abingdon meant that it couldn't compete. It became essential to have a car.

More recently the church has been struggling to pay its heating bills, meaning the fortnightly services are increasingly being held in the village hall. Another certainty of village life threatened.

The closure of the pub brings to an end a process that has been squeezing the village for half a century. It's a pattern that's being repeated all over the country.

I often think the theatre has a disinterested view of the countryside. State of the Nation plays seem to me to predominantly be set in the big city or the housing estate. With the exception of Jez Butterworth's brilliant Jerusalem and Richard Bean's underrated Harvest there has been a real dearth of great rural plays over the past couple of decades and that's a real shame.

Other forms of theatre, such as the celebratory work done in the seventies and eighties by Welfare State and explored in a Spanish comtext by Chris and our friends at Spiral, might offer a different way to encourage and reconfirm local identity, but in general, in an increasingly affluent, but fearful world the idea of sharing time and space with your neighbours seems to be suffering a lingering death. In its place we have self-protective family groups, commuting far away to work and returning home to collapse anonymously in front of the plasma TV screen. The self contained private culture of the city has successfully invaded the countryside.

There's an irony in as much that one of the great middle class aspirations of modern urbanites is to live in a village like community. And so you  hear ridiculous claims from residents in Stoke Newington and Blackheath, Camberwell and Clapham that village life is thriving in the inner suburbs. These villages have little in common with their rural counterparts, where everybody knows everybody else, where children feel safe and neighbours can be relied upon to give you a lift or lend you their stuff.

Theatre can still make a difference. It's a simple form that brings people together to share stories and concerns. It takes an initial act of courage and investment to introduce yourself to a room full of strangers, but even with a minimal amount of resources, amazing results can be achieved. Time does change the feel and function of a place, but if we meet and tell each other what we think, through poetry, action and performance, we have a chance to recognise this change and structure the future that we want, making sure nothing of real value is lost along the way. It might be counter intuitive in a technological age to suggest it's a physical coming together of people that will make the difference, but sometimes you have to rehearse the community you want to build and the creative act of telling a shared story contains in it's form as well as it's final content the seeds of a more generous social structure. As Boal so often reminds us - Theatre is the rehearsal for revolution.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Writing in the Gaps.

Today I took a workshop on scripting dialogue with the Level 2 Theatre Arts students. In the past we haven't looking at this aspect of theatre making with a great deal of rigour and, instead, tend to present a model of devised theatre or physical storytelling. This year though, with the new validation, we've created more opportunities for our students to structure and write scripts for performance.

In part this is a response to some of the poorer practices of devised theatre which have in the past led to the creation of unworthily dull work, often compromised by a coalition of opinions in the planning stage and made ever more bland by the desire not to offend or upset anybody. The final work is often sentimental, cliched and lacking in bite.

It's also a response to a realisation that Dramatic structure isn't, necessarily part of the students DNA, regardless of how well read they are, how often they go to the theatre, how many Hollywood movies they've seen or how many computer games they've played.

I wonder if in the Stanislavski obsessed world of actor training, where the moment to moment psychological impulses of the character are the paramount focus of the actor's work, we've some ignored the idea that even the most naturalistic of plays works to a patterned plot, which draws the audience into it's world. Actors are taught much about identifying super objectives, but less about the architecture of the play as a whole.

So where do we begin? Do we start by stepping back to look at the structures of plays or do we take a magnifying glass and begin to examine the nuts and bolts. Pedagogically both approaches seem to have merit. I decided, however, to get some material down first so we began with some scripting.

The students seemed to enjoy the chance to create dialogue, putting contrasting agendas and ideas on stage in front of their peers. We focused on short scenes in the main - a minute or less.

One of the most interesting moments came after lunch in a short scene put together by Grace and Kelly. The pair played sisters. Grace's character has rushed home with excited news that her boyfriend, David, had just proposed. The problem is that a fortnight ago Kelly's character, having split up with her boyfriend, had, in a tired and emotional way, ended up sleeping with David.

In many ways the clash of agendas is an obvious one, played out many times over in TV soaps. Most of the students followed the traditional convention and created a scene that climaxed and ended at the moment of revelation. Kelly and Grace, however, tried something different and began the scene with the revelation, enabling us to hopelessly watch the fallout. It was a far more rewarding choice, particularly when Kelly began to defend David and attack her, apparently wronged sister.

Refusing to accept the convention, whilst working within a plot structure that an audience can follow is a crafty skill. It was good to see some brave exploration of what might be possible so early in our module.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Opening of Hamlet.

A really interesting lecture form Trevor about the opening of Hamlet yesterday in Early Modern Drama. We looked at just the first ten lines or so and in doing so really marvelled at the way Shakespeare was able to craft an opening.

There's a surprise right from the off with Bernardo - the guard arriving to take up the watch - asking 'Who's there?' a revealing sign of his nervousness and a clear signal to the audience that something is up.

Francisco quickly re asserts the natural order of command 'Nay, answer me: stand and unfold yourself.' But the mood has already been disturbingly set.

There's a quick exchange before Francisco tells Bernardo that he comes 'most carefully' upon his hour. Is this a man trying to maintain a semblance of sanity by reinforcing the precision of time? The double meaning here of carefully is brilliantly chosen to keep us on guard.

Shakespeare then gives us some more expositional cues. 'Tis now struck twelve' and 'Tis bitter cold' before Francisco reveals that he is 'sick at heart.'

Bernardo asks whether he has 'had quiet guard?' Francisco says 'not a mouse stirring.' Which suggests the fear comes from a deep disquiet rather than noisy crashes and bangs. As he's leaving Bernardo wishes  him 'good night' as a half line. He pauses here before adding almost as an after thought 'If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus, The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.'

Shakespeare's London was full of soldiers. English campaigns in the 1590s took men to France, Ireland and the Netherlands. War was a constant and, barely ten years after the defeat of the Armada, the Elizabethan audience knew the bravery needed to face down invading forces. So it's fascinating that Shakespeare chooses the toughest men in Elsinore - these professional soldiers to introduce such this atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty.

The ghost is on his way and the play is about to unfold itself.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Yours For The Asking.

Off to The Orange Tree to see Yours For The Asking, a Spanish play written in the fag end days of Franco's regime by Ana Diosdado, who, the programme note suggests, is the country's most successful contemporary woman playwright.

The play centres around the short affair between Juan, a one time investigative journalist, who, following a brief spell in prison, is reduced to writing a gossip column for a well known woman's magazine and Susi, a model who has gone from popular celebrity as the alluring face and body of a perfume ad campaign to public hate figure, after two children died inhaling the toxic fumes from the scent.

The shared loneliness of social exile pulls the lovers together after Juan is sent to Susi's flat to carry out an interview. Quickly exploiting each others sense of injustice, they spend the week holed up with each other, before the journalist returns, complete with a vividly written truthful account of their seven days together, to his work and girlfriend.

We learn very early on that one of the pair has committed suicide, after which most of the stage action is conducted through a series of clunky flashbacks, culminating in an over constructed twist right at the end.

Steven Elder plays Juan, with a cynical, weary dispassion whilst Mia Austen brings a naive sense of optimism, that somehow in a lover's arms the vitriol and exclusion she experiences might simply evaporate. She is distraught when Juan makes his excuse and escape.

In some ways the play reminded me of a weak version of von Donnersmarck's brilliant movie The Lives of Others, in as much as it paints a tragic picture of forbidden freedom in a totalitarian regime, but ultimately. the piece lacks a unifying metaphor and instead we're left with a simple, more direct, story of a man burnt out by his struggles to reveal the truth.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Tie Up.

Good news this morning from Sarah Esdaile, who oversees our MA in Theatre Direction and is currently up in Leeds rehearsing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

The theatre has teamed up with The Guardian to pioneer a new interactive way of covering the theatre production process, inviting the public to engage with her production process through hosted web chats and a daily blog. Once the show opens, next week, audiences will be encouraged to submit their own reviews and participate in a live twitter feed that will continue for the duration of the run. Both of the paper’s senior critics Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner are also going to publish full reviews.

MA Directing students are heavily involved in supporting the production and next week will travel to Leeds to take part in technical rehearsals and note sessions with the actors, who include Downton Abbey’s Zoe Boyle and Jamie Parker, fresh from playing Henry V at The Globe this summer.

Sarah's been running this course for us for ten years now, ably assisted by Chris White. Between them they're given a fantastically intimate, industry focused training to the cohort.

The presence of mature students in the department is also important. They nearly always come with a great sense of purpose and a real understanding as to why they want the degree. It's a good counter balance to the sometimes unfocused excitement of our undergraduates. Alongside the directing students' Kasia's MA Physical Theatre course is also going from strength to strength. Producing ever more interesting and imaginative responses to their project briefs.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse connection isn't just an added bonus, it's a great pay off for our belief that high profile practitioners, rather than renowned academics should deliver the Masters programmes. It's great that so early in their course the students are being given the chance to fully immersive themselves in the latter stages of a professional production process and to see close up how a director, a theatre and the media can work in concert to generate interest in the work.