Amsterdam

– At first it’s irritating.
– Irritating?
– Yes, at first she’s irritated by the way they talk.
– Only at first?
– No, for a long time. For most of the play, actually.
– Actually.
– What’s wrong with the way they talk?
– Too chirpy?
– Partly.
– But what else?
– What else irritates her? Go on.
– Well, doesn’t it feel a bit…
– What?
– A bit what?
– You know.
– Go on, spit it out, we’re all friends here.
– Are we?
– We’re all friends here, go on, spit it out.
– Well, just a bit
– A bit?
– A bit knock-off Martin Crimp, OK?!
– Wow.
– Wow.
– Patronising, much?
– Dismissive, much?
– Because she’s a woman?
– The playwright?
– Who else?
– The woman.
– What woman?

– The woman, you know, the woman in the flat.
– The pregnant violinist.
– The eight months’ pregnant violinist.
– The nine months’ pregnant violinist.
– Yes! The nine months’ pregnant Israeli violinist.
– Living in the flat in Paris.
– No, in Berlin.
– No. In…
– Amsterdam!
– Yes, living in the flat in Amsterdam on the Keizersgracht.
Ding!
The Keizersgracht is the largest of the four canals in Amsterdam’s city centre.
– And she thinks it’s the nicest.
– Her flat has a view right over the canal.
– It’s a story about her.
– The woman.
– It’s not a story about the Holocaust.
– Wow.
– Wow.
– Nobody mentioned the Holocaust.
– Before just now, nobody mentioned the Holocaust.
– I thought she was a pregnant Israeli violinist?
– Yes?
– Aren’t all stories about pregnant Israeli violinists about the Holocaust?

– Sorry, can we stop saying Holocaust?
– Can we just shut up about the Holocaust for a second?
– Oh, that’s so Amsterdam.
– In Amsterdam, they shut up about the Holocaust.
– It’s not like Berlin.
– It’s not like in Berlin, with all those Stolpersteins.
Ding!
German for ‘stumbling stone’ or ‘stumbling block’: 10 square centimetre brass memorials embedded in the pavement outside the last known residences of victims of the Holocaust, engraved with the victim’s name, date of birth and fate. Created by the artist Gunter Demmig.
– Except for Anne Frank.
– Remember Anne Frank?
– Anne Frank scribbling away in her diary, tucked behind a bookcase.
– Anne Frank scribbling stories in her diary.
– Not stories.
– No?
– You don’t write stories in your diary, you write real things that happened to you.
– Like the Holocaust.
– She didn’t write about the Holocaust.
– The playwright?
– The Holocaust isn’t a story.
– Yes it is.
– No, it’s not. The Holocaust isn’t a bogeyman monster hiding in the walls.
– In the attic.
– In the sewers.
– There are plenty of stories about the Holocaust.
– Yes! Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas…
The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
The Librarian of Auschwitz.
– The Botanist of Auschwitz.
– You made that one up.
– Did I?
– They’re all made up.
– Is that OK? Are we OK with that?
– We’re making this one up right now.
– This isn’t a story about the Holocaust.
– Not yet.

– This is a story about the pregnant Israeli violinist in the flat on the Keizersgracht and the letter that someone slides under her door one day.
– The letter from her sister back in Tel Aviv.
– No, the letter from the director of the Philarmonic Orchestra in Bonn.
– No, the letter from the council.
– The gas bill!
– The gas bill from 1944.
– For one-thousand-seven-hundred euros, including interest and arrears.
– Addressed to her landlady.
– Why hasn’t her landlady paid her gas bill?
– Her landlady’s dead.
– That’s not why.
– No?
– That’s not why she hasn’t paid her gas bill from 1944.
– Then why not?
– I don’t know.

– Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?
– Do you ever get the feeling you’ve got an audience?
– Yes!
– Hello, audience!
– It’s a big one.
– Not too big.
– No, not huge.
– But I’ve seen more people here than I do in shul!
Ding!
Yiddish for synagogue.
– Who said that?
– The woman sitting in front of her. In the audience.
– Funny.
– It’s a funny translation.
– The playwright?
– Do you mean it’s bad?
– I wouldn’t say it’s bad.
– Oh no no no no no, no-one’s saying it’s bad.
– Just… sometimes things don’t quite seem to follow.
– Like a lamb to the slaughter.
– What? No, not like a lamb to the slaughter.
– What are these chains for then?
– Oh yes.
– The wall of chains slowly rising to the ceiling.
– Isn’t it meant to look like an abattoir?
– Does it?
– What does the floor remind you of?
– Egg yolk.
– Yes!
– Cowardice.
– Yes!
– A Star of David.
– No!
– This isn’t a story about the Holocaust!

– It’s becoming one though. You just have to say it enough times.
– Holocaust?
– The story.
– You just have to tell the story over and over
– And over and over
– And over and over again.
– L’dor vador.
Ding!
Hebrew: From generation to generation.
– And it becomes a story about the Holocaust.

– She feels like she’s being watched.
– In the supermarket, behind windows, from above, faces in the canal, beneath the bridges, under her feet, between her thighs, under her skin, on the train, on the tram, through the windows, behind the bookcase, in the walls, on the other side of the Wall, the other side of the fence, they’re watching her…
– Paranoia!
Ding!
From the Greek: Unjustified fear or mistrust of other people, delusions of persecution.
– Do they know she’s Jewish?
– She looks a bit like Anne Frank.
– Not again.
– Never Again.
– No, she does, doesn’t she? That hair.
– Dark.
– And curly.
– Long brown, curly hair.
– Not long: in a bob.
– Yes! Curly brown hair in a bob.
– Looks Jewish to me.
– And her nose.
– She doesn’t have a Jewish nose.
– She doesn’t have a European nose.
– Are they out to get her?
Attempts on Her Life.
– Oh, that makes more sense now.
– Are you scared?
– Of what?
– An audience.
– We’re all friends here.
– Are we?
– Go on, spit it out.
– Go on, spit it out.
– Go on, spit it out.



Our Town

Now is a good time for a play that speaks to a privileged London audience about the lives of people in small rural towns.

A secret at the heart of one of London’s famous parks, hidden behind Madame Tussaud’s, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre feels like an interesting space to stage Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – not just because it’s open to the sky and the trees, but because it’s an institution with an audience of white, middle-class, cultured Londoners. Mostly Remainers, probably. I’ll count myself in that – I remember going to the theatre here as a child.

So it’s a theatre in which the localism of Our Town, the small-town-ism of it, is an alien experience to a significant proportion of the audience, I reckon. Regent’s Park is very much a theatre of the capital city, even though – maybe because – it’s away from the traffic and bustle. Grover’s Corners is not our town.

Our Town has long had a reputation as a hokey, folksy, sentimental play – an easy one for schoolchildren, with its mild themes and large cast. It’s been produced so often and for so long, that – in the US, certainly – it’s become just part of the furniture, something that most adult Americans associate with the innocence and minor drama of high school, and haven’t really thought about since then.

But in 2009, David Cromer’s production, which came to the Almeida in 2014, was widely considered to have blown the dust off the cliches surrounding the play. The actors spoke in their own voices instead of old-timey New England accents; wore their own clothes instead of turn-of-the-century period costume; the house lights were kept on throughout.  It felt contemporary again. In Our Town‘s post-Cromer era, Sarah Frankcom’s production at the Royal Exchange in 2017, just after the Manchester Arena bombing, spoke perfectly to a city holding itself together as a community in the aftermath of an enormous, collectively-felt tragedy.

In publicity interviews ahead of this production, Ellen McDougall has spoken about her interest in the timeliness of a revival of a play written in 1938. In the programme notes, she says that one of the things that she finds so extraordinary and important about Our Town is that, despite the fact that Wilder had witnessed at first-hand the rise of the far right and the march of fascism through Europe in the 1930s, the play is “underpinned by a deep love of humanity.”

But this is actually where her production falls down, I think. It’s too kind to its characters, the residents of Grover’s Corners. It’s too desperate to give us the idea of “humanity” as a good in the face of encroaching evil. And so it translates “humanity” into a simplistic notion of community, and then it has to portray a community – too naively – as a place where everybody cares for each other. The housewives help each other shell peas in the sunshine; and the soda-fountain man lets the kids off paying for the more expensive milkshake; and the milkman comes without fail, rain or shine. It falls back into the old trap of staging Grover’s Corners as a small town, once upon a time, where everybody was just so goshdarn nice to each other.

It feels like a real waste, because – although this was the first time I’d seen the play – I could hear the darkness already present in it, and see the production refusing to draw it out.

Between the first act, set in 1901, and the third act, set in 1913, the townsfolk start locking their doors. There are just a couple of references to this change, slipped in – but they signal the failure of the idea of goods held in common, and the spread of blind belief in the notion of private property. By 1913, the townsfolk drive Fords. Fordism – industrialized mass production, the foundational principle of twentieth-century global capitalism – has reached Grover’s Corners.

But there’s no acknowledgement of this in McDougall’s production, really. The characters’ characters are fixed, unchanging, too non-specific, too archetypal. And they’re fixed as nice nice nice, and charming, and sweet, and it’s sad when they die, but life goes on, because humanity is eternal and will outlast war and etc.

Except perhaps Simon Stimson, the Choirmaster, played here by Peter Hobday. He’s slight, straight-backed, with a well-groomed beard. Light-grey slim jeans and a pale jacket. When it rains, he opens an sky-blue umbrella with a stylized cartoon cloud pattern on it. I mean, (whisper it) I think he’s gay. He’s a gay man in a small town, and he’s also the town drunk. As Dr Gibbs says about him – and he’s the one character anyone suggests this about – “Some people ain’t made for small-town-life.” He stumbles around the town late at night, avoiding his wife, and the townsfolk look the other way. What can we do about it? they ask, half-heartedly. And they decide to just… not notice it. And by the third act, he’s hanged himself in his attic and the epitaph on his gravestone is a line of music that no-one can read. That’s dark. And it’s a darkness that’s pretty specific to small town life. There’s a history and a reason for the stereotypes of metropolitan queers.

I think the production needed to bring out more of this. Just as it’s unhelpful, in Brexit Britain, to portray people living in small towns as insular, bigoted, white, racist, ignorant, just as it’s as unhelpful to ignore them, it’s also unhelpful to portray them as idyllically innocent.

Well-off London audiences are in need of plays that ask us to think about others, beyond our walls, beyond the inner circle of our central parks. And those plays need to show us something true, which means something complex and difficult. It’s nice, sure, to dream of a play about the beauty of unity in divisive, individualistic times, and I understand McDougall’s political commitment to those ideals – but I don’t think Our Town is quite the right play for that at the moment. To make a utopian production, in which Grover’s Corners is a place without pain, is a mistake.

Our Town can demand that we take a long hard look at ourselves. I think it has to, here, now.

It’s nice, but too literal, to try and show the audience ourselves by having a diverse cast, as McDougall’s production does. Especially when there are probably more people of colour onstage than in the audience.

It’s nice, but too literal, to try and show the audience ourselves by interpreting Wilder’s bare stage as a raked bank of chairs like the ones we’re sitting on, in Rosie Elnile’s design. (As a side-note, this doesn’t even quite work, because the chairs are distractingly a bit different to ours.)

It’s nice, but pointless, to have the Stage Manager played by a woman (Laura Rogers), if she only occasionally calls attention to the gender politics of the town – and if it’s not clear what the Stage Manager is doing, or what she thinks she’s doing, to us, or to the townsfolk.

I want an Our Town at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2019 that says

Look at yourself.
Look at what you’re complicit in.
Look at what you let happen because you weren’t paying attention.
Look at who you’ve let down – let die – because you chose not to notice them.
Look at the mess you’ve made of the world beyond yourselves. 

 

salt.

in my pocket, for two days now, a rock of pink salt, a small clenched fist.

the salt is a reminder of a history that is not mine.

this might mean that the salt does not belong to me. but still I hold it in my pocket, carrying the weight of it out of the theatre and into my weekend.

at the end of salt. Rochelle Rose thanks the audience for staying with her in “the radical space of not moving on” created by Selina Thompson’s words.

it is difficult, watching salt.

because salt. demands, with insistent clarity, that the audience carry its weight. there are jokes in it, light-hearted moments, a simple love – but there is also a magnitude of grief that does not lift.

time accumulates.

the effects of the Atlantic slave trade are still felt by Black people in Europe today. imperialism and global capitalism are power structures that remain deeply racist.

more than that, they are reliant on racism for their continued supremacy as systems of power.

so this is a thing that the world is complicit in, still, today. i thought of these three poems, near the beginning of salt.

summer, somewhere, by Danez Smith

a small needful fact, by Ross Gay

obit., by Gboyega Odubanjo

that Black men are still dying because of their blackness. that white states reinforce and reassert their power through the deaths of Black men.

and Black women.

but in those poems, and in salt., there is a pushing-back, a stopping-in-tracks, a twist of the cycle.

Selina Thompson writes that inherited trauma is not the same as lived trauma, but that it bears a relation. that trauma echoes through DNA. a cycle in the twist.

salt. tells the story of a journey back. to Ghana, to Jamaica, across the sea.

it is about the difficulty of that journey. it is about the difficulty of that journey, truly.

how the Master of the ship they travel on refuses to allow them to film on board; how in Ghana, she is so tired that she spends most of her 11 days there sleeping; how her period becomes trapped and bloating in her body;

the diaspora is seeking home in places you can’t belong

how Elmina Castle, where West Africans were incarcerated before being carried to slavery in South America, is just horror, nothing there, rotting wreaths left too long in the corners of its chambers

how the question where are you from will always be asked

salt is a thing of life, flavour, healing, buoyancy, tears, sweat,

but they used to sow salt on the land to prevent regrowth, to signify conquest

on the black sand of a beach in Jamaica, she says, if we didn’t eat salt we could fly home

salt. is told so cleanly

it is
i will
i do not

 

 

All About Eve

Malcolm OK this is what I wanted.

Night. She wakes up, and the house has changed somehow. Her feet on carpet, not wood. In a patch of moonlight she sees it’s dark red. Uterine. Dirty roughened patches where the guests have spilled their wine. She brushes against the wall and feels something come away on her clothes, wispy strands of something grey-brown, ghostly, moved by a mysterious breeze. Hair. The whole length of the corridor, covering every wall in the flat. And now it’s on her, and caught in the warp of the blood red carpet too, and in her mouth, at the back of her throat, and she can see it now in the hairbrush on her bedside table, in the food she served to the guests, a wet clotted whorl in the shower drain. Ahead, through the half-open bathroom door, the shower curtain flaps white in the same strange wind that wafts the hair on the walls. And now you’re aware of it – although it had been there all along, in the background – the skreeek skreek skreek of the violin in Hitchcock’s Psycho. She spins around but the young woman is there, smiling, pale in the dark corridor, and beyond her the bodies of the guests slumped and littering the floor, and here is horror, real horror, that comes for all of us at last.

A slow clap.

Bette  Wonderfully hammy, darling. Almost prosciutto.

Malcolm  There’s something in it though. This was almost – almost – a horror story. Except the central character is a menopausal woman instead of a teenage girl. The same tropes – blood, hair, shower, party. But they don’t push it far enough. If you’re going to do something – if you’re going to take on All About Eve, in colour, onstage, in 2019 – do something proper with it. The best thing about this was Jan Versweyveld’s set, but still it was half-arsed. It should be a dream opportunity, to do the stage play of a film about theatre, but Ivo van Hove’s use of live film onstage is just lazy in this. That party scene, where all the guests are absolutely crammed into the teeny kitchen? And there’s the entire huge stage/living room, and no-one even mentions how stupid it is that they’re all crammed in the other room – it wasn’t funny, it was just stupid. We get it, it’s offstage but we can still them on the screens, whatever. The only bit where film added anything really was when Gillian Anderson looks in the mirror and then her face turns all old and wrinkled on the screen – horror, again – but even that was a bit lame and hoary and not that good. Not existentially scary.

Bette   Who are you calling a menopausal woman?

Malcolm  You. Margo Channing.

Bette  Fuck off. Who is Margo Channing, anyway? She’s Bette Davis. And now even Bette Davis has ceased to exist.

Malcolm  Well, in this she’s Gillian Anderson. But I agree, I think. She seems miscast. Maybe it is because she’s trying to play you. Or trying too hard not to play you.

Bette  How old is she?

Malcolm  50

Bette  raises her eyebrows and blows smoke in my face. I was 41.

Malcolm But – and no offence meant, here –

Bette I’ve said it myself darling, no need to beat around the bush. That film resurrected my career. I was washed up after the war. As good as dead. The vultures were drawing in.

Malcolm  And that’s not who Gillian Anderson is. She’s a weird thing. I remember watching Bleak House with my parents and my dad couldn’t get over how good she was in it. Apparently she was a notoriously bad actor in The X Files, and now suddenly she’s everywhere. Yeah, she’s had a career renaissance, but this wasn’t it. The timing’s wrong.  She’s done Blanche in Streetcar, The Fall… Everyone loved her in Sex Education, and that was just earlier this year.

Bette  You know who loved me after All About Eve? The queers.

Malcolm Right. It’s a camp film. You’re high camp, Bette. You witty Golden Age actresses. Susan Sontag calls you – and Barbara Stanwyck, and Tallulah Bankhead – ‘the great stylists of temperament and mannerism’.

Bette Darling Tallulah, how is she?

Malcolm Dead.

Bette I thought it seemed quiet.

Malcolm The language of the original film is the voice of the end of 1940s Hollywood – the wisecrack, the drawl, the sugar-coated spite, the acid tongue. And over time, and even latently in the film itself, that’s become coded queer. Especially amongst gay men, as bitchiness, sass, shade. But it’s lost in van Hove’s production. Its rhythm is completely smothered, all the way through, by P J Harvey’s score. I wasn’t expecting a gay man to make such a straight production.

Bette Well, men are strange creatures.

Malcolm So are women.

Bette Yes darling, they certainly are. It’s a funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common,  whether we like it or not. Being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve all got to work at it, no matter what other careers we’ve had or wanted.

Malcolm See, in lots of ways that speech is amazingly prescient for the early 1950s –

Bette  I haven’t finished. And, in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner, or turn around in bed – and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman.

Malcolm  – aaand in other ways it isn’t. So what’s a production in 2019 doing, if it doesn’t interrogate the attitudes of the film?

Bette  Ah but maybe you’re forgetting, sweetie. Sure, I might only talk about womanhood as a relationship to men – but I’m an older woman talking about desire, and that doesn’t happen very often. I still don’t really see that happening at all.

Malcolm  But honestly this production barely seemed interested in women at all.

Bette  Then tell people to fasten their seatbelts and watch the film instead.

24 Italian Songs and Arias

I haven’t been to the Yard in ages, which is notable, because I think of it as one of my favourite theatres. And this is a Thing, for me, because 24 Italian Songs & Arias, Brian Lobel’s show there as part of the theatre’s annual NOW Festival, has started me off on a minor existential crisis about what ‘my favourite (kind of) theatre’ is.

The Yard say that they ‘upend traditions to fill the gap between performance and writing’. Lois Keidan, Director of the Live Art Development Agency, similarly describes Brian Lobel as ‘an itinerant artist, moving between staged performances, public interventions, one to one encounters and performance installations’. And I would describe myself as a lil bitch for those gaps: gimme that sweet sweet wavering boundary between theatre and performance art and I’m there – and so I was there, to see Brian Lobel’s new show at the Yard.

But I’ve been having a think/worry recently about this kind of work – and I’m giving it a broad swab, but to be fair I’m talking about the kind of work that I’m starting to make, having just finished my MA… Basically, I worry that there is a tendency for the artists I like to rest too comfortably on the idea that because they are presenting the performer’s self honestly/vulnerably/authentically (i.e., because they tend to perform as themselves, not a character), they are offering the audience a new way of watching theatre, a way that doesn’t involve pretending there’s a fourth wall, etc. etc. – and that this is an act of generosity and therefore social, an act of sharing, of collectivity.

But the thing is that it can also be a bit… self-centred. At least, I worry that my own work is self-centred. I think my generation of theatre-makers are – rightfully – wary of speaking on behalf of people affected by issues that don’t affect us personally. So we make work from direct experience, about our own lives. Maybe this is because I’m a wimp, but I know I’ve shied away from making, say, applied theatre, from working with children or disadvantaged communities, in favour of making work about myself. Now, I’m not wholly uninteresting, and I’ve got to make work about something, and as long as I try and make sure that it’s entertaining and self-aware and doesn’t punch down, then maybe it’s fine. Chill out Lil. Like I say, I know I like seeing those kinds of shows, at theatres like the Yard.

But but but. It’s a common feature of this kind of work to throw in a sentence or two blaming “late capitalism” or “heteropatriarchy” for the performer’s feelings of failure/outsiderdom, for the personal vulnerabilities that they’re talking about. And because the audience also live in a world in which they’re affected by capitalism and heteropatriarchy and white supremacy and other massive dominant ideologies, we think we’re widening the reach and context of the show: it’s not just about me, I’m talking about something that affects other people too. But – argghh – does that really do anything about those structural and systemic oppressions? Does it offer or encourage any concrete means of action?

Or am I being a little bit too Stalinist now? “ART MUST BE USEFUL, AND BY USEFUL I MEAN IT MUST BRING ABOUT THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTION!!!” – Maybe.  I spoke to some friends about this stuff the other day, and they were like, yeeesss, but sometimes it’s still nice to see a show about someone and feel like you’re getting to know them and then that makes you feel a little bit better and a little bit more open to the world and maybe even a little bit more ready to call out oppressions or injustices when you see them, and so the art has done something good to you and maybe because of that you’ll do something good to the world, and that’s just kind of how art works, stop stressing about it. Which is maybe true.

Back to 24 Italian Songs & Arias. 

[Summary with spoilers.] When he was in high school, Brian failed the test to get into the prestigious New York State School Music Association summer school, scoring a close-but-not-good-enough 94/100 after singing a song from the well-known choral textbook, 24 Italian Songs & Arias. My girlfriend, who is an excellent amateur singer, sang a song from 24 Italian Songs & Arias for her choral scholarship university exam; it’s a thing. Like, ‘if you were a nerdy music kid at school, you remember this’. Which is cute. The bulk of the show is kind of a argument-through-arias between Brian and Gweneth-Ann Rand, a professional opera singer who once reached the finals of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World (and then didn’t win). At the end, the middle-aged woman who has been turning the pages of the songbook while Brian plays piano stands up and reveals herself to be another beautiful singer. Naomi Felix once had a promising career but ‘drifted’ (her words) after an early failure. She spent years in administrative jobs, or out-of-work, and had stopped singing onstage until Gwen introduced her to Brian while they were making the show. And then right at the end, a choir of ‘failed’ singers rise from their seats in the audience and sing one of the songs from the book, together. It’s a show about failure, and ways of coping with failure, and ways of talking about, of singing about, failure.

There was one real nice bit, where Gwen sang an aria and then went to sit down while Brian delivered a monologue. Then Brian got up from the piano and started to head centre-stage. Suddenly, he doubled-back, picked up a glass of water next to Gwen’s stool, and carefully handed it to her. It was a moment of gently parodic obsequiousness, apprentice scurrying to serve the master, and I think it caught Gwen by surprise, because she did this big sudden laugh when he crouched down and popped up with the water, like PAhaha! 

It was real nice because otherwise, where Brian was completely at home onstage, chatting with the audience, rolling with the show – both the women often sounded slightly stagey or wooden (apart from in that one moment with the glass of water). It’s a criticism that I’ve seen in a number of reviews of the show. But the thing is that I reckon it wasn’t so much because they were ‘bad actors’, as that it wasn’t their medium. Opera is just so different, not just to theatre, but to this kind of theatre-performance-boundary-where-the-performers-perform-as-themselves. Because it was Brian Lobel’s show, right? The audience at the Yard, if they were anything like me – and they mostly were – were there for him, not for Gweneth-Ann Rand or Naomi Felix.

I’m trying to be careful here, because I 100% don’t want to say that it was a racist show at all – it did loads of things right, I thought, and I’ll come back to them – but I felt slightly uncomfortable about its staging of black women. Because they were staged – as much as they were telling their own stories in moving and engaging and funny and beautiful ways – they sounded ‘staged’, in a way that Brian, telling his own story, did not. Because ultimately it was his show, not theirs.

So there were times watching it where it felt, to me, like they were there not exactly in their own right as strong black women, but as ‘strong black women’ foils to Lobel’s ‘queer white man’. Gwen says to Brian, ‘it is a privilege to be seen to be falling apart’. And that’s a really important point for the show to acknowledge: that being allowed to fail is often a white male privilege. It’s one of the many things it did right. So it’s a small criticism really (and I might be being particularly hyper-critical because I’ve just made my own show that also didn’t examine the relationships between queerness / whiteness / weakness quite as thoroughly as I would have liked it to) (and I’m also very conscious that I’m writing this criticism from a white person’s perspective) but I still think it’s worth saying: Sometimes it seemed like Gweneth-Ann Rand and Naomi Felix were there to allow Brian Lobel to acknowledge his own privileges, rather than to really speak from their own perspectives. And I wonder whether, had the show not been made in the performance style it was, for an audience (like myself) at the Yard, it might have been skewed differently.

This is, I know, partly my old cynical attitude towards a show whose heart was definitely in the right place; a show that gave black women (and other people who don’t usually get the chance to sing in public) a voice in front of an audience; that brought an amateur choir together in a true and lovely collective endeavour; and that a lot of people in the audience visibly found moving. Brian says at one point in the show that he wants to make “art that includes and comforts you” – and it did do that, for a lot of people there, and I do think that’s often and generally a good aim for art to have. But also sometimes I don’t want to be included or comforted, sometimes I want to be told that we’re wrong and now we need to fuck shit up and change our lives. I think I need to see more shows that aren’t for me.

It’s True It’s True It’s True

Writing about IT x 3 feels like pressing a bruise. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, but as time goes on I’m also letting its mark fade from dark mauve to pale yellow, disappearing under my skin, becoming something invisible, something that no longer hurts. I’ve been scared of writing this review, of examining the bruise, because the show was important to me and I’m worried about saying it wrong.

At the Theatre Dialogue Club immediately afterwards, people began by talking about something like the show’s accuracy, the exactness of its reenactment of the historical past, of what had really happened at the trial. And yeh of course that was one kind of ‘truth’ that Breach were intentionally contending with:
How can the past be translated into the present?
How is reality translated into theatre/fiction/representation?
What is verbatim theatre lalala?
Which is obvs fun to think about, and I’ve definitely gone away from loads of biopics or fictionalized versions of real-life events wanting to find out ‘exactly what really happened’ – but at the time, as the conversation went around me, it just seemed like such a strangely irrelevant concern.

(There was also some really interesting and thoughtful and caring chat in the Theatre Dialogue Club, it’s mostly my fault for being a lil bruised and fragile peach that I was still getting over being upset about the show while this first bit was going on, so I couldn’t join in at the beginning and so I stayed quiet and stayed quiet and then I felt like I couldn’t join in later with the good chat without sounding like I was finally making a portentous announcement, classic.)

And now I’m here and I’m trying to explain what I wanted people to be talking about and I’m trying to avoid saying ’emotional truth’ because it sounds wanky and vague but maybe that’s the closest I can get.
I mean I felt like IT x 3 was true in its expression of the anger of a woman who has been raped, who has been repeatedly fucked over by a man, by men, who is just young and trying to live her life and make good art and be happy, and true in its expression of the pain and terror and grief of discovering that it might be too much to ask, to be a woman and live free and unafraid.
And if the show hadn’t been true in its expression of those feelings, then it wouldn’t have been worth making. But I think it was. At least it felt true to me. Call this high praise.
G l o r i a.

In my notes I’ve written faithfulness/fidelity/veracity as if they’re all equal synonyms for truth. But faith isn’t the same thing as truth – that’s the point of faith, that it has to exist without knowledge of the truth. And when Ellice is insisting it is true it is true it is true facing the audience and looking us in the eye directly she’s also asking us to have faith have faith have faith in Artemisia Gentileschi and in the women that have come after her and taken men to court for rape. And so it felt like a betrayal even to be asking, in the Dialogue Club, how ‘true’ Breach had been to their source material, the trial transcripts. Because I don’t know, because I don’t think it matters because even if they changed things it’s not a reason to lose faith in the truth of that central moment in the show. And because it also felt like a betrayal of the actors and the company, particularly Ellice, to doubt them on those grounds. That moment happened there, in the room, live, doing theatre properly (yes mate), and it was upsetting, it was clearly upsetting for her as well as for us, and she does it night after night and then you go off and wonder how accurate it was??

I think partly what I’m talking about is possession; it’s rare that I feel so possessive about a show, and so protective of it. Here are a few reasons for this:

  1. Breach are about the same age as me; I’ve seen three of their shows now; we have some mutual friends; sometimes I see them hanging around in the foyer waiting to go and see things I’ve also got a ticket for. I don’t know them personally at all, but you know when it kind of feels like you do.
  2. My mum’s an art historian and once used to run a tour of women artists in the National Gallery as a job and when I was younger I remember her taking me to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting and since then it’s been one of my favourite paintings. So watching IT X 3 I was thinking about my mum and whether she’d like it – whenever we watch period dramas, she’s always pointing out historically-inaccurate bloopers – and I decided that ultimately it would get her seal of approval, which in my scheme of things means it’s officially good art, those are the rules.
  3. I asked for Patti Smith’s album Horses for my fifteenth birthday and I have listened to the song ‘Gloria’ millions of times since then, and with that in a sound track along with X-Ray Spex and The Slits you’re playing my formative mid-teenage years and it’s impossible not to feel possessive about those.
  4. There was a time in my life when I didn’t like women with big breasts wearing men’s shirts (because of internalized homophobia, kids) but now I’m like fuck you past me, why shouldn’t women with big breasts wear men’s shirts, in fact big-breasted women wearing men’s shirts is a pure and good thing and I will fight to the death to defend their right to do it, especially when the shirts have over-sized cuffs and collars.

It’s a funny thing to feel possessive about a piece of theatre that is about someone’s right to autonomy and choice and the judgement of their own body and the meaning of their own art. Maybe it’s something that I feel a bit uncomfortable about – like my response to the show is excessive, demanding, somehow unfair. I don’t own it, I’ve done nothing to actively deserve ownership of it.

I was listening to a Theatre Voice podcast with Breach where they say that some audience members came up to them after the show in Edinburgh and told them that it should have ended after the it’s true it’s true it’s true moment. Which is maybe not so completely different a position to my own: an expression of unearned ownership. Instead of simply being affronted, though, Ellice and Billy explain that they were absolutely certain they needed to include the final scene of the show because they felt like they couldn’t leave the audience (or themselves) on a note of hopelessness. IT x 3 is as generous a piece of theatre as that answer suggests.

 

 

The Wild Duck

OK so I was gonna start these notes talking about my favourite thing about Rob Icke’s Wild Duck, which was how Gregory Woods wasn’t just a Brechtian narrator – he was gradually revealed to be completely unreliable and his insistence on truth weirdly troubling and fucked up even-though-also-right-maybe? Like it’s weird to me that Billington hated it so much, because ultimately I think Icke still comes down on (what MB identifies as) Ibsen’s side. Greggers argues that Ibsen was telling a lie (or at least, being hypocritical, not telling the whole true truth) when he claimed that truth is destructive. He argues that good or right can only be brought about through truth. But Icke’s version of Ibsen manipulates our emotional response – it kills a child, that’s literally the most emotionally manipulative thing you can possibly do to an audience – in order to make us disagree with Woods, I think? We hear Woods plant the idea in Hedwig’s mind, for his own ostensibly moral reasons – and then when she goes and does it, it’s undeniably his fault. It meant that I came out of the play very unsure as to whether my morality aligned with Icke’s, or Ibsen’s, or Woods’s.

Because also Icke does this thing, and I think he did it in Uncle Vanya as well, and it feels very Islington, no I mean like very Lib Dem, where he makes an argument for moderation that I don’t think the plays necessarily make themselves. Actually thinking about it – Oresteia, Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, this – the question of whether sacrifice is worth it is the big boy. And I feel like the Wild Duck says no – but Icke’s version frames it in a way that I found disingenuous. Should a thirteen-year-old girl should sacrifice herself in order to save her parents’ marriage? No, obviously not, that’s fucked up and unlikely to work anyway. (I will say it’s a genius thing of Icke’s to make the conversations and situations that his characters appear in seem utterly plausible and real – he somehow always contrives to make scenes that we might have seen as melodramatic, the bloodbaths of the original plays – seem like the natural and inevitable consequence of the previous events.) But Hedwig’s sacrifice is specific and personal and its meaning is familial not societal. To make it stand in for the sacrifices of political revolution, as Icke does, particularly through Rellings’s analysis of Greggers’s character and motives, is false. It doesn’t make the play more relevant and timeless, it makes it something like untrue. (Is this a very Billington thing to say? I suppose at least where I differ is that the microphone-interruptions, the direct address to the audience, didn’t bother me at all, either simply because I’m used to postdramatic theatrical devices by now but maybe more because I’d still argue that they added more than they took away – formally, the production acknowledged the play’s thematic concern with the nebulous subjectivity of truth and perspective by asking its audience to think critically about what the characters say to each other, and I’m cool with that.)

Anyway, so there’s that. And then as I was about to write all that up, this morning on Twitter everyone’s talking about the protest on press night, flyers handed out to critics detailing accusations of misogyny in his practice and outlook levelled at Icke.  Press night was a while ago, but no critics mentioned the accusations, or walked out as the flyers demanded  – although Andrzej Lukowski has said he didn’t see them. And obviously there’s the irony that the production of a play about submerged truth has apparently tried to keep its own truth from coming to light. For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t feel like the production was particularly sexist, although maybe that’s because I’m inclined to sympathise with Gina – James Ekdal made me feel a bit sick tbh, with his weird soft voice and kind of creepy closeness to his daughter and his own misogyny. And then there’s rumour and the uncertainty of truth and the thing is, I don’t want to be someone who hedges their bets when a leading male director is accused of misogyny – absolutely odds-on he’s an entitled dickhead and that plays out disproportionately in his treatment of women involved in his productions – but also I can see it happening; were you a critic on the right side when Icke was accused of misogyny? And I want to be on the right side but I feel blind about it. I don’t know who made the flyers, who leaked the accusations. And I’m pretty sure I believe them, I do believe them, but I know I’m doing it without knowing the truth.