Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Losing the plot...

For my MA playwriting class, I’ve just read Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’. The play opens with a woman, Clair, describing to her husband a meeting with a writer, Mohamed, at a railway station – one of those transitional spaces that feature so often in urban stories. Mohamed has nipped into a shop to buy his daughter a diary before she leaves to live with his sister-in-law, but it takes too long and he misses his last goodbye. Instead, he gives the diary to Clair.

Later in the play Clair meets Mohamed again at a conference. Arriving at her bedroom door, he reveals that his daughter has been killed. In a scene also loaded with sexual possibility, he confesses his guilt at having prioritised writing over parenthood whilst she was alive. More shockingly, he reveals how he now feels liberated by her death. Not only will he have more time to write, but he’ll also have new material: ‘My child, you see, is like a log thrown into the fire, making the fire burn… more brightly.’

Clair’s appalled reaction is an emotion we can relate to immediately, in a play where empathy and understanding are otherwise just beyond our grasp. But at the end of the play we discover that Mohamed is entirely a product of Clair’s own writer’s imagination – a fact she records, disorientatingly, in the very diary Mohamed is supposed to have given her. Her husband Chris is moved to ask if he, too, is merely a fiction. In fact, the danger is even greater. These self-referential slights of hand imply that the whole story has been created out of nothing. ‘The City’ becomes a kind of anti-story, existing and not existing at the same time.

It also reminded me of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant ‘The Pillowman’ – a surreal satire on the crossover between writing and totalitarianism. McDonagh’s play builds around an extraordinary set-piece fairytale featuring a creature (the Pillowman of the title) who travels back in time to convince children destined for suffering to kill themselves before their personal tragedies can unfold. So traumatic is this job, that eventually the Pillowman can’t bear it any longer. Returning to his own childhood, he persuades his younger self to commit suicide before he can fulfil his terrible vocation. At which point, the universe is filled with the screams of previously dead children coming back to life and living out their pain-filled lives. As with ‘My City’, this is both a story and not a story; the whole grim tale derives from the actions of a character who turns out never to have existed.

Similar features can be seen in other stories rooted in paradox. The new science fiction film ‘Looper’ is one example. Whilst on a certain level the story clearly ‘exists’, it also contains a sort of self-deleting code. Searching for meaning in these circular narratives can be a perplexing and frustrating task - which isn’t to say they’re meaningless. All stories are a ‘construction’ of one kind or another, with - depending on which way you want to look at it - more or less reality that ‘real life’.

Next week I’m going to see Hedda Gabler – a more straightforward play about what happens to a writer when their life’s work is undone. And I’m also quite tempted by the film ‘Ruby Sparks’. A film about a novelist who writes a character into existence…

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Engaging the audience...

Having seen Will Eno’s ‘Oh, The Humanity’ at Soho Theatre last week, a lot of my students commented on the unconventional ‘interactive’ elements of the production. Only, when I thought about it, I realised that the last four things I’d watched at the theatre had all attempted a quite deliberate and specific engagement with the audience. And in each case, something about that transaction defined my feelings towards the play. Those productions were: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at the Globe; the Danish theatre company Republique’s version of ‘Hamlet’; Will Eno’s collection of shorts mentioned above; and The RSC’s production of ‘Julius Caesar’.

As far as the two (original) Shakespeares were concerned, the nature of this engagement derived mainly from the place of performance. The Globe is a theatre that demands the acknowledgement of a shared space. Shakespeare’s characters often directly invoke the audience and, as well as a running metaphor of theatre-as-life, site-specific references are frequently embedded within the texts. (These days, we have the added anachronism of planes flying overhead; actors stopping to let them pass being a guaranteed crowd pleaser.) With that in mind, the critical response to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ was interesting. Whilst the Daily Mail revelled in the simple fun of it all, the Guardian characterised it as ‘conventionally jolly’, never digging far beneath the surface. Michael Billington is sometimes criticised for a fixation with the ‘political’ in the theatre, but although I thoroughly enjoyed this production, part of me agrees that it was a missed opportunity to present one of Shakespeare’s most unsettling works in a relatively un-nuanced way. Isn’t a venue that has this relationship with its audience hardwired into it the perfect place to confront the play’s more troubling aspects? (By the by, it’s probably not worth being angry at the Daily Mail any more, but it’s amazing how effortlessly it can cause offence. Take this casual aside: ‘The Shrew will never be Harriet Harman’s favourite Shakespeare…’)

On the other hand, ‘Julius Caesar’, a West End transfer for the RSC, attempted to co-opt some of the Globe’s spirit. With the house lights up, the play was prefaced by music and dancing on stage, but the performers struggled in vain to reach out beyond the proscenium arch. Over the weekend, I read a piece of political commentary by Andrew Rawnsley that borrowed and adapted an Oscar Wilde quotation (quite freely, I think, as I haven’t been able to source the original…) Anyway, the basic idea was that authenticity is a uniquely prized possession. And once you can fake it, you’re made. It turns out to be a rather apt quotation in the context of Julius Caesar itself, but it also speaks to the dilemma of ‘artifice’ in the theatre. At any rate, this attempt to import something of the Globe’s participatory aesthetic into a West End venue didn’t fake it well enough for me.

In ‘Hamlet’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - a highly physical, multimedia ‘adaptation’ with live music by the Tiger Lilies - a different kind of engagement relied on the extent to which the audience knew the source material. Although some key scenes were preserved reasonably intact, much was skipped, re-ordered, or replaced. The result was a production that fell between two stools. Knowing the original fairly well, I found the snippets of text aggravating; I’d have preferred a freer interpretation. At the same time, I don’t think a newcomer to the play would have had much idea what was going on. The interaction with the audience was predicated on an assumed familiarity with the story, which simultaneously robbed it of its own energy.

And so to ‘Oh the Humanity’, a series of five short plays (mostly monologues) riff-ing on the gap between presentation and belief, and the hopeless ways in which we try to suppress our emotions. The plays are certainly beautifully crafted and lyrically realised. But they left me a bit cold. Perhaps the most distancing (if arguably the most interesting) was the fourth piece. Here the action spun 180 degrees, and the two characters on stage suddenly involved the audience in the setting up of a staged photograph. As we in the auditorium tried to fix our faces in an appropriate way, we were gently hectored and cajoled. The piece was all about authenticity - what can you read behind the eyes of those frozen on film? Formally, then, the device was in keeping with the wider questions of the play. So why did it feel so false? Why did I find myself becoming irritated by the faux spontaneity of the performers? The acting mantras of ‘living in the moment’ and ‘saying everything for the first time’, which count for so much behind a fourth wall, seemed contrived and disingenuous in this shared space. Ironically (perhaps) the audience’s inability to participate in a real conversation with the characters/performers was more starkly obvious here than in much naturalistic drama. Andrew Rawnsley’s butchered Oscar Wilde quotation seems appropriate in this context too. And while it’s a commonplace that the theatre depends on, demands, even inherently contains the concept of an audience, it’s also fascinating just how fragile and contingent that relationship can be.