Friday, September 21, 2012

Janet Suzman

Last night saw the last of our talks on African theatre, which, like the first one back in May, was co-presented with Chickenshed, alongside their production of The Rain that Washes.  Janet Suzman is a "Founding Patron" of Chickenshed, so it was a great chance for me to interview her for 45 minutes.

If only it had been longer.  While Janet is incredibly famous in the UK as a classical actor, and has had the odd brush with Hollywood as well, very few people know about her work in South Africa.  But that is actually the most exciting bit.  As she said in our chat, there is something about the country of her birth that has kept pulling her back throughout her life; and there is something about countries in crisis, countries which have been invaded, and countries very much in the process of becoming that makes their theatre vital and immediate.

We talked about her early years, her growing awareness of injustice, and her family's involvement in the struggle - Helen Suzman was her aunt.  We talked about her breaking of Equity's cultural boycott to direct John Kani in Othello at the Market Theatre - she got permission from the ANC in exile, who agreed that Shakespeare was a protest playwright - and in any case, she suggested, the boycott played right into the hands of the regime as it meant there were no dissenting voices in the public arena.  We talked about her adaptation of The Cherry Orchard as The Free State - an extraordinary celebration of the end of apartheid.

Today, The Free State perhaps feels unduly optimistic.  But, as Janet said, it encapsulated the spirit of a moment, the euphoria that greeted Mandela's election.  Almost twenty years later, laws from the apartheid era are being used by a black President to justify the shooting of striking miners.  This isn't the Rainbow Nation which the play eagerly expected.  And so we talked about what a revival today could mean - how the cold wind of the future might blow through the falling trees.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I went to see Timon of Athens at the National on Friday.  I doubt many other people there had seen the play at all - I have the dubious privilege of remembering two previous productions.  Jonathan Pryce played Timon for the BBC a very long time ago - and David Suchet did it at the Young Vic, with Trevor Nunn directing.  The Nunn-Suchet one was the production that made me think this really could be a very exciting play for the present money-obsessed age - and to keep suggesting it as a show I'd like to direct to American Shakespeare companies.  Needless to say, nobody ever rose to the bait.  Shame.

The timing for the current revival could hardly be better.  Financial crisis - and Greece getting the worst of it (I liked the irony of the production in the Globe to Globe Festival being by a company from Germany).  But Nick Hytner hasn't gone anywhere near Greece - his Athens is unequivocally London, with various iconic landmarks making appearances in the set, and hints at current movements, politics and even individuals (Tracy Emin is definitely the model for the Painter!).  The reviews have been glowing, and I expected this to be another moment like his Henry V at the time of Iraq, when Nick brings a bit of Shakespeare right into the present moment.  In the first half, he does.  Lots of it is quite jokey, but the jokes work - and when Simon Russell Beale is left alone on stage before the interval for the first blast of misanthropy, it is truly electrifying.  But the play, which becomes one long rant after the interval, doesn't allow this to be sustained. It's hard to see where any of it is going.

I've always felt that the most challenging element of the text is Alcibiades - and it's not a bad idea to equate his dissent with Occupy.  Really to pull it off would need much more textual doctoring, I think  - and more ensemble work.  The crowd acting is very "blocked" - you don't feel the mass movement.  When Nick ends the piece by having Alcibiades and his main cronies absorbed into the suited world of the bankers, it should be a cynical staging triumph - but somehow it isn't, because we don't really sense that there is anything to betray.

Alaknanda, who went with us, told me that Mike Alfreds (great and now overlooked director) is feeling very unhappy about the theatre in the UK at the moment.  Actors, he says, are just playing manufactured caricatures of themselves.  It was an interesting thought to carry into Kristine Landon-Smith's workshop on intracultural approaches to Greek drama, which she invited me to visit this morning.  Kristine was working with young actors from a very wide range of diverse backgrounds - lots of South Asians, with all the variety of that community today, and also people from (for example) West Country vicarages.  What was fascinating was the way she hardly bothered about "the character" or "the text" at all.  What interests her is the actor, the actor's imagination, the actor's voice.  Her way in to Greek tragedy was to place each actor in a situation they could relate to and perform in their own voice - and the situations were not necessarily even related to that in the text.  But, in the instances where the performers responded well, it was astonishingly freeing.  As in our own work, the key to interculturalism is for people to work from who they are - not to attempt to fit into some preconceived idea of what mainstream performance should be. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

An answer to Maureen Lipman

It's taken me a week to get round to doing this - I'm responding to something Maureen Lipman said on last week's Review Show - so you may not be able to see it on i-player any more - but here's the link anyway.

She was talking about a show called Wonderland by Vanishing Point - a devised piece about internet pornography (pictured).  It's a brave and important subject, but I haven't seen the show and I can't really comment on it.  What I can comment on is Maureen's discussion of the devising process.  She talked about devised theatre "getting endless rehearsal time....  while the rest of us have to do with three weeks", and stated that "you get great performances, but you never get a play".

Let's talk about the second point first, because in a way it's more important.  Devised theatre, as it's currently understood in the UK, is quite a new thing.  That's not to say that the form is new, of course - commedia dell'arte, African and Asian forms have depended on improvisation for a very long time - that's why some of the most important devised work to impact on our theatre emanated from Africa (I'm thinking of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Island  and Woza Albert! in particular - plays which were possible because of the improvisational skills of African actors - and which I would have thought, as canonical pieces, more than fit the description "a play").  Mike Leigh, who Maureen herself mentioned, was an early pioneer in Britain - though his methods are quite idiosyncratic - and he makes very carefully crafted, wonderfully constructed pieces.

She might have had a point if she'd been talking ten years ago.  Back then, we were making our first devised pieces, like Mappa Mundi.   It was almost an act of faith that we should make the play entirely by improvisation and discussion - I suppose I regarded it as a political statement about equality in intercultural performance. As a result there were Lipmanesque performances and great visuals - but the overall structure seemed lacking.  We weren't the only ones - lots of companies were working in this way, and the results were very much in the world Maureen described.

But not any more.  These days, lots of devising companies collaborate with writers.  We did on Re-Orientations: Mahesh Dattani, Paul Sirett and Brian Woolland were very much part of the process.  It doesn't mean that spontaneous improvisation and multiple voices aren't very much part of the process - in some ways, more so, actually - but we are also stepping back from the improvisations to think about structure, theme, character development and good old story.  The last few days, I've been revisiting improvised material from our spring workshop of Consumed in Shanghai, and comparing it with notes from research, discussions, interviews and feedback.  It's leading to some whole new ideas for the play's development, and also to a serious consolidation of what was achieved.  None of this turns me into a conventional playwright, or invalidates the workshop.  Quite the opposite - the play is made possible by the workshop.  It will be rehearsed (and re-written again - by everybody) early in the New Year.  Watch this space.

This may be what Maureen meant by "they have months of rehearsal time" - though I doubt it.  In fact, our workshop was three weeks long.  The rehearsals won't be much more - we aren't funded to the level where we can work for months, much as we would like to.  I suspect that our devising process is actually cheaper and faster than commissioning a writer and then rehearsing their script.  Not that something being cheap is a measure of anything in the arts, I should add!