Some people resent critics on the grounds that they supposedly set themselves up as arbiters of taste, truth-speakers, beyond reproach. But in practice and in person, I don’t see that any more than I see playwrights who think they’re unquestionable visionaries or electricians who think they’re Thor.Tim Atack, in the best thing I’ve read about criticism in ages.
So life’s pretty full-on innit.
My bedroom’s been destroyed and re-plastered, I dragged my loved ones 350 miles for one shitty glass of warm prosecco at my MA graduation, we’ve been frantically hunting for new flatmates with the requisite love of schadenfreude, work is suddenly very real and scary and HEIGHTENED, I had to go to York for a week to deliver a festival, my landlord says I can’t paint my room fucking WHITE because - get this - “it’s TOO STARK” (sorry, what?), my new glasses had to go back because they WOULDN’T EVEN STAY ON MY FACE, and my auntie’s cat died pretty much immediately after it clapped eyes on me at the weekend.
I’ve basically wanted to be in bed for a month now. Anything that has delayed bed, theatre/art included, has been a gross misuse of my time and energy and will not be tolerated. But it appears that my obsessive need to record my thoughts on this shit is now a borderline mental health issue, so here is an arbitrary list of artistic encounters coupled with some entirely superficial observations.
Happy Days at the Young Vic
A woman buried in sand talks about the stuff in her handbag. I liked that you could take a 2 minute slice of the action at any point and get the same glaring, claustrophobic, unforgiving sense of exposure and imprisonment, but I was so knackered that, actually, 2 minutes of it would’ve been quite enough thank you very much. Also, fucking WEIRD curtain call. Fair enough she’s trapped in sand, and probably wearing yesterday’s joggers, newsreader-style, but lack of even a smile or nod or mouthed ‘thank you darlings’ meant that the whole power of the THIS IS THE END NOW moment was lost in awkward audience shuffling. It needed to be a clear actionactionactionactionEND thing. (I’m pretty sure I got that term from Zizek or whatever.)
Martin Creed at the Hayward
Loved this for exactly the same reason that I hate that fucking awful chicken on the fourth plinth. Almost every work is like Harry Enfield art: created by a HILARIOUS Fast Show character called ‘Gallery Wanker’ or something. A huge wall of paintings made with brocolli, paper completely coloured in with one felt tip pen, a film of a woman taking a (constipated if you ask me) dump, a massive outdoor screen showing a looping flaccid-erect-flaccid-erect-flaccid-erect cock. Any one of these works, on its own, would be a chicken-level embarrassment. A whole exhibition of them is like a glorious fuck you to every ‘Gallery Wanker’ in there. He’s laughing at you, not with you.
Ballad of the Burning Star by Theatre Ad Infinitum
I saw this just last night, and I needed it. I needed to think about something bigger than my own to-do list, and have a good old cry about murdered children and religious persecution. Ballad of the Burning Star is cabaret, drag, mime, history lesson, family saga. Jews and Arabs and faith and ego and glitter. Unlike Happy Days, you can’t half-watch. It wasn’t perfect (turns out I’m now one of those old bastards who complains about performers with a lack of clear diction), but it sucked me out of my own bubble and kicked me in the face before I left. Fucking excellent.
Secret Theatre - Show 4 at Lyric Hammersmith
The first of the Secret Theatre shows that’s been in the Studio space, and it feels like a more appropriate home. The style of these performances requires an intimacy that the main auditorium can’t sustain. This one is based on an old text, which makes it seem a bit wordy and over-long, but Secret Theatre is starting to get those shocking, hold-you-breath visual moments really really right. (That’s all I’ll say about Show 4 because I’m not a dick.)
United Visual Artists at the Barbican
"The new Rain Room" apparently. It’s actually better than Rain Room, because you’re not just walking down the Curve gallery to get to this fucking tourist attraction at the end, you’re experiencing a space that’s been designed to alter your mood, your pace. And it’s powerful. Couples sway gently as their eyes follow the lights, children shut their stupid faces for a minute, everybody slows down. Those slow-shutter images the Barbican are using don’t do it justice. It’s mesmerising, but very gentle. I’ll go back when I get some more breathing space in the coming weeks. It might actually be the thing that helps me get hold of some breathing space to begin with.
A quick Google image search tells me that the cast of Blurred Lines at the National Theatre don’t wear the same costumes for every show. A quick check of my own conscience tells me that it is inappropriate to focus on what the female cast of a show about the everyday oppression and exploitation of women are wearing on stage.
But I need to tell you about Lorna Brown’s trousers.
They were black, and high-waisted. Kinda gathered at the top and draping diagonally to tapered ankles. I can’t find a single picture of them in the production shots. I am in love. They made her whole silhouette just so fucking BADASS. If I owned a pair of those trousers I’d be like “Fuck yes look at my fucking brilliant backside. My arse could well kick your arse. FEAR ME FOR I AM ARSE-FIERCE.”
Having been to the TOTAL FUCKING WONDERLAND that is the National Theatre costume stores, I’d be surprised if any cast wore their own clothes on stage, but I think Lorna Brown might just be my new style icon. (Note the thumb ring.)
Yeah, so Blurred Lines is pretty good. Especially if you go on a Badass Trousers day. I have a tendency to recoil from overtly feminist stuff because I’m one of those “fuck off I don’t need your help” types (and I like that Robin Thicke song an’ all), but it’s really inventive for such a self-referential theatre-y thing. LOVED the opening miscellany of unnamed female characters, a nice little Bechdel Test reference. The wanky Oxbridge director at the end was almost too close for comfort too. Hopefully a few industry arseholes will think it’s based on them and have a crisis. Ha.
I am THIRTY YEARS OLD NOW.
I’d prepared myself for a big psychological freak-out, mourning every forgotten 3am kebab and sleeping bag sunrise, and, in an attempt to emerge from my bloated, wrinkly pupae in peace, took myself off to Margate for the weekend, because I’d seen that nice John Smith seaside film in the Estuary exhibition last year and it had made me feel like a grown-up.
With hindsight, I think I might’ve actually had my big psychological freak-out after my 29th birthday instead, so it was nice to have a relaxing couple of days looking at art and eating chips in my new Twisted Vintage necklace from the guys at work. The sun shone and my room was upgraded at the hotel. I even won an argument about modern art with a taxi driver. (I fucking DID SO win it and if he says otherwise he’s a lying bastard.)
So, let’s talk about Turner.
I understand his importance intellectually, and his skill, but I remain entirely unmoved. (Frankly, I’m not sure we should’ve been encouraging the Impressionists either.) For someone who spent his time painting ACTUAL REAL PLACES, there don’t even seem to be any marks on the fucking canvas. Not any proper lines. It felt like my glasses had been smeared in lard. All soft-focus cotton wool crap. I kept thinking about that time they discovered that all those shit-brown paintings from the olden days were actually meant to be bright blue but they just used rubbish decomposing paint. Like Turner was actually creating these brilliant, vivid, angular landscapes but he accidentally used paint that dissolved into lardy mush within a few months. It’s like he’s painted the Alps using one of those textured rollers you got from B&Q in the 90s.
The gallery itself (the Turner Contemporary that my PHILISTINE cabbie called “the shed full of shit”) is WONDERFUL. It’s architecturally stunning. A David Chipperfield design, who did the Hepworth in Wakefield too. Smooth concrete handrails backlit with this palatial white glow. It’s making me sound like a wanker, I loved it so much. The activity rooms and learning rooms all had these balcony-style walls that opened onto fuck-off great big panoramic sea views. And in the proper-proper gallery spaces, this central linking corridor with several entrances and exits. I found it by coming through the main Turner room, which was painted a colour I can only describe as “suburban yellow” (vom), but then I saw this huge monochrome Helen Frankenthaler canvas in the middle of a brilliant archway of white, completely framed by the whole entrance. I was like, see ya never Turner, imma goin in THERE.
Sensing Spaces is the new exhibition at the RAA, where a bunch of famous architects have designed “environments” for us to enjoy. It was pretty good really. Even if some rooms weren’t immediately impressive, you could see what they were trying to do, or what bit of the existing architecture they were trying to respond to. There was a wooden maze that could’ve been part of a Punchdrunk thing, and a walkway full of kids building sculptures out of straws. That bit was a bit irritating tbh. Some kids are fucking CRAP at sculpture.
Turns out that now I’m nearly 30 I like my “environments” like I like my men: tall, hard and grey. The photo at the top of this post was taken in the darker of the two Grafton Architects rooms. It was kind of Southbank-y, but cleaner and calmer. The shafts of light coming from the top were blocked out of two corners, like little nests. Have you ever been the that underground sky-hole bit of Yorkshire Sculpture Park? It felt a bit like that, a bit Rothko Chapel. The central chamber was basically filled with dickheads like me all taking smartphone pics of the light. Which I guess is the whole point of the exhibition really: to show the way “environments” affect mood and behaviour.
Frankly, I’m glad all that playing-with-straws stuff kept the kids out of our bit.
I hate Shakespeare. All of it. Even his stupid Terry Nutkins haircut. I’ve ranted about the old dead bastard for long enough now that concerned friends and colleagues have begun calling in favours and pulling strings in order to test my resistance. Thus, on Tuesday I found myself in a fucking brilliant seat in the Olivier (I’m strictly a row G of the Circle kinda girl normally) for the Mendes/Russell Beale Lear. I had a print-out of the plot from Wikipedia because fucking HELL the 3G in that building will be the death of me, and a vague instruction from an Oxbridge pal to “work out who all the Lords are as soon as you can or you’re fucked”.
This is what I learned.
Turns out they were saying “Cordelia”, not “Ophelia”. Ophelia’s actually in a totally nother play.
Tom Brooke is going to be a huge massive ultra-famous stage star one day. Not only a name that can open a show, but a name that will be remembered. A name that will have other stuff named after it. (Plus you get to see his penis.)
I’d always thought Lear was a tragedy but there were definite funny bits.
Having said that, I don’t think SRB was meant to be so jolly. He was like Brian Blessed’s understudy, always on the verge of slapping his thigh and ending every sentence with a belly laugh.
One of the actors was replaced by an understudy in the interval and Mendes came out to tell us, which was brilliant because it meant I knew which one Edmund was for at least an hour of it.
I really liked the oil-spill backdrop. And the storm clouds. And the grass and the flames. And the stag. And the identikit army of Hugo Boss Menswear models. And the bit where Tom Brooke ran around with his dick out. But I’m just trying to be positive really. It was mainly boring. It’s an irrelevant, over-complicated story about dull people and their collective sense of entitlement. And it just goes on and fucking ON. Three and half hours it took. Peggy Woolley divided up her estate in The Archers this week and it took her about 6 minutes. Probably less. Pat and Tony are a bit put out but everyone else is just like “guys, guys… get over it”. And they will. No eye-gouging necessary.
I’m being a bit shit at theatre writing right now because, frankly, I’m a bit bored of theatre. If ever there’s a good time to have one of these troughs, it’s January, but in the meantime I thought I’d pop over here and point out two absolutely fucking brilliant bits of writing about the Beckett trilogy at the Royal Court.
You may remember that I fell in love with Not I when it was on last year (not to mention Vicky F’s gold ankle boots). First time around I saw it up-close-and-sideways from the cheap seats, whereas last week I’d splashed out on centre circle and found my experience suffered a bit. I can see Matt’s point about it being so much smaller than expected, although at the time I just made a note to get my glasses prescription checked.
Anyways, here’s a link to Matt Trueman’s piece. Like I say, I can totally see how Matt finds it a frustrating piece of theatre to watch, but I kinda think that’s the point. It’s the giving in to the sound and rhythm of it where the joy lies. Same for Rockaby, which is kinda the opposite of Not I in its pace. (Fuck know what the point of the middle one, Footfalls, was. Maybe it works as an exercise in lighting design?)
I’m getting carried away when this was only supposed to be two links to two other people’s work. Let’s try again. Focus Meg. HERE IS A PIECE BY MATT TRUEMAN WHICH IS FANTASTIC, EVEN IF I THINK HE’S LOOKING AT THINGS THE WRONG WAY ROUND: http://matttrueman.co.uk/2014/01/nor-me-a-brain-splurge-on-not-i.html
And here is Dan Hutton, who can sometimes be a bit serious for my tastes, reviewing Not I as if he was writing Not I, which just fills me with so much joy and excitement that it has precipitated my running back into the living room (to within wi-fi range) in order to post this blog in the first place. More and more I don’t give a fuck about theatre criticism unless it’s a show I’m literally on the tube home from, or it’s something like this. Something creative and readable and yet full of the little accuracies that demonstrate a massive understanding of the show/form/genre/actor/whatever in question. Hats off Hutton. Enjoy: http://dan-hutton.co.uk/2014/01/19/not-i-footfalls-rockaby-by-samuel-beckett/
All the others are shit (unless of course you’re thinking of one that is good but I just haven’t added it to the list yet).
Elevator Repair Service
Nofit State Circus
(Note the absence of the “Theatre Company” suffix.)
The pictures speak for themselves really, don’t they?
I’m massively late to the L’apres Midi d’un Foehn party because you all saw it in Edinburgh last summer but I would like to point out that I just spelled that from memory so who’s the real winner here.
But one thing that was unexpected about “the plastic bag show” was just how fucking brutal it was. It felt like watching one of those Attenborough programmes where a baby wildebeest has been separated from its mates by a canny pack of wolves and they slowly circle round and it’s looking at the camera like “mummy!” before one of them lunges. There was one bit where a plastic bag person got stuck to the stand of one of the fans and slowly - heartbreakingly - deflated while all the others were like “WAHEY! CHECK THIS OUT!”, all floating up and down and talking to each other in their weird rustly language like they had not a care in the world. And all the while their forgotten, collapsed brother died slowly, alone, and in pain.
This is NOT a kids’ show. *weeps*
Rihanna with a monkey
“You can’t weld. It’s not a skill. There’s no such thing as a welder.”
The guy who turns everything to Skittles
Hype Williams again
The man with the smallest mouth in the world
Papering over the cracks
The word “modular”
Black and white
Black and beige
Yellow post boxes in Berlin
‘Telephone’ by Gaga and Beyonce
Talking with a snotty nose
Requiem for Detroit
Get Your Freak On
“The Nokia 3310”
Time as a singularity
Those elephants I dreamt about which were drowning in Russia
Black uniforms on white snow
Rachel Goodyear being eaten by a fish
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Vagina Stadium
Festive advice from your local community support team
Fire Marshall Training
Marshall Mathers LP
“It’s funny, ‘cause at the rate I’m goin when I’m thirty I’ll be the only person in the nursin’ home flirting”
and it reached 3,000+ words so I can’t fit it onto my blog without totally fucking up the design.
Apologies to: Secret Theatre, Forced Entertainment, Greg Wohead, Quentin Tarantino, David Chase, Punchdrunk, Alan Davey, Margaret Thatcher (actually, no - not her), Rufus Norris, Annie Baker, Samuel Beckett, Jay-Z, Idris Elba, Eve Nicol, Sergio Leonie, Kieran Hurley, and the entire population of New Orleans. Fuck it. I apologise to everyone.
I am so so sorry.
Have you ever been scared at the theatre? I mean, of course, by the theatre. I once got locked in a toilet cubicle for a few tense seconds at The Yard but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’ve been scared by the theatre. Once at It Felt Like A Kiss by Punchdrunk in Manchester in 2009, and once on Friday night at the Royal Court for Let The Right One In by NTS. That’s it. Two times. Twice ever.
I was a skeptic about Let The Right One In. I’d seen production shots from its run at Dundee Rep and thought ‘oh man, they’ve even copied the fucking climbing frame from the film’. I’m not going to even pretend to be clued-up enough to have read Lindqvist’s novel, but I saw (and loved) the film when it made its way to the top of my LoveFilm list a few years ago. When I first heard about the NTS production I thought ‘boring, attention-seeking, marketing-driven programming from a company that has better ideas than this for breakfast’. I bought a ticket for the London run in the same way I bought my ticket for Book of Mormon. ‘That’ll be a nice enough night out at a time of year when there are few better options.’
And in the first half it was. It was a solid 4-stars. Quality-by-numbers. A successful story recreated exactly and with a few artsy movement flourishes to make up for the fact that there’s no quick editing in front of an audience. It was enjoyable. I probably would have thought about it about as much as the Book of Mormon now crosses my mind (ie: not much), were it not for the second half.
Woah. There were a couple of make-you-jump moments that are easy enough to create with the right lighting/timing, but then (and here be spoilers - don’t read on if you don’t want to) a boy climbed into a tank of water and was held underneath the surface. For ages. There was all sorts of shit carrying on all around, but I couldn’t see beyond him at all. He wasn’t struggling or anything. Just looking out at us through the water. For ages. I was so relieved when he was snatched out of it that I got a bit Mum-weepy at the end. Like, ohmygodohmygod he’s okay he’s okay.
I sobbed my way through the final moments, still catching my breath, and watched as this fucking badass killer creature thing carefully handed the boy fresh clothes. It was electric.
Being in the living room of our old house on the fish farm in Scotland. Wondering why my Mum was crying at the telly. Wondering why the man on the telly was wearing a suit if he was just getting out of prison. Wondering if his wife and all those other people had also been in prison with him the whole time and now they were all getting out together. Being totally confused by the idea that a good person could be sent to prison in the first place. Not really believing that the images on the telly were actually really happening right now, very very far away. Imagining how long the wire from the camera would have to be to reach our telly by Loch Eil. Sitting down to watch this bewildering, yet somehow important, thing happen. Not really understanding until years later.
I’ve been to more dance! TWO more whole dance things! Well, one of them I didn’t realise was going to be dance until about 15 minutes in, but still, DANCE! Look at me, going to see all this dancing. I feel like Coco Chanel at Nijinsky. (Stop laughing.)
This week was Fatherland by Nic Green, and Sun by Hofesh Shechter. They were VERY different, and prove that I still have a long way to go before I’m a proficient member of the global dance audience. I dunno any of the fancy words for the steps they do, and kind of have to watch through this ridiculous pop culture filter to make any sense of it. The Hofesh Shechter piece, for example, is basically a stage version of Lost. They’ve been on the island for 6 months already, so clothes are getting a bit sun-bleached and the Others are mid-infiltration. They’re hunting semi-successfully and there’s a guy dressed as a doctor overseeing a rudimentary justice system. A few of them have started shagging. There are flashbacks to happier times spent moving in slow-motion at warehouse parties. And every so often a massive pulsating boom is heard and some unspecified TERRIFYING SHIT goes down. A few minor characters get supernaturally murdered, and some poor fucker suffers a violent loss of reason roughly every fifteen mins.
The lighting design was fucking unbelievable (some of the best I’ve ever seen), but neither the music nor the dancing was interesting enough for me to stop pretending I was watching Lost. By the end of it I’d ascribed most of the Shechter Company to their island counterpart. There’s really no unseeing it, when you’re twiddling your hair and wondering what they’re, y’know, actually doing up there.
Nic Green’s Fatherland was a very different show, and it’s actually a bit unfair to compare the two. Sun was MASSIVE. Big ensemble, big stage, big audience, big tech. Nic Green was in BAC’s council chamber with a couple of drummers and a piper in full traditional dress, but we were an audience of about 60, and we were right there with her. In almost the exact opposite of Sun, I didn’t have a clue that it was going to be dance, but I did at least know what it was trying to say. It was about making connections with the roots and traditions of your ancestors, by a woman who had met her Scottish father only once. I know this because it said so on the flyer. No need to transpose low-quality American fantasy drama here, no siree. For one thing, Nic Green and I have a bit of Venn diagram overlap. I was born in Scotland to English parents and lived there for a relatively short time. I have felt my Scottish identity seep away over the years. I went to country dancing lessons at school when I was wee, then lost my accent a matter of weeks after moving away. The piper had made my heart flinch even before I sat down.
I won’t mince my words though: Fatherland took a fucking age to get going. I’d definitely started to look skyward and curse myself for taking such a stupid risk with £12. Then, about 20 minutes in, the dancing started. It was a bit like my country dancing lessons all those years ago, except a bit better, and was remarkably in time with a drummer who had started to keep the beat quietly. She was stepping round in circles (loads and loads of circles - poor love must’ve got well dizzy) and doing a few fancy pointed-toe twiddly bits (technical term) when the other two drums kicked in. Like, literally kicked in. So there are these three bass drums being hammered in time to her foot-stomping and suddenly she wriggles out of her clothes too, until she’s jiggling and jumping around in these custom-made clan pants, absolutely fucking BEAMING. The following night I would spend an hour trying to work out the point of Sun, but just this short section of Fatherland gave it to me right between the eyes. The point is to be unapologetic. To stamp and leap and twirl to your own personal drummers, tartan knickers and tits oot and fuck the lot of them. Proper JOYFUL. Proper FREEDOM.
I guess Sun was just too… choreographed.
I’ve had this stuff buzzing round my head for a week or two now. Turning it into a proper argument (with paragraphs and structure and stuff) would be disingenuous, so here’s a bit of a list.
1) Partly in response to the Independent on Sunday laying off all its critics, Andrew Haydon wrote a piece for Nachtkritik that listed some of the best theatre criticism blogs in the UK today. Every one of his choices is fantastic. One, however, hasn’t been updated since 2011 and all follow the standard form of some-words-with-some-pictures-provided-by-the-theatre’s-PR-team.
2) Long-form blog thinkpieces are not new or groundbreaking. They are simply preserving a culture of theatre criticism that the printed press can no longer sustain.
3) Last Friday I listened to a recently-laid off arts critic, recipient of thousands of pounds worth of free tickets and wine, accuse embedded criticism of being a worrying development because theatremaker becomes paymaster.
4) At the same event, I heard current theatre critics say of embedded criticism “you mean a feature?”
5) I look forward to the first public casualty of marketers confusing embedded criticism with easy publicity. I look forward to it EAGERLY.
6) One of my favourite ever pieces of arts criticism is Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.
7) The absolute best and most forward-thinking critic working today is Eve Nicol. She has critiqued work via Snapchat, and her Edinburgh Furinge blog is the only one I’ve ever seen that can truly and universally communicate the delight that the theatre can inspire. She is a genius.
8) Eve’s blogging has never turned me from a reader into an audience member. It is not ‘consumer guide’ criticism. Andrew Haydon, on the other hand, a man who recently described a book published in June this year as “seminal” with a straight face, has moved me to part with hundreds of pounds. My annual holiday next year has come about as a result of his writing.
9) Matt Trueman said that criticism is “a team game”. It takes all sorts. Something something landscape.
10) Now that it has no in-house critics, The Independent on Sunday is printing an aggregate. What the weekday Indy said, what the other papers say, what NORMAL PEOPLE think. Is this the same as a “team game”? Who picks the team? If the reader picks the team, isn’t that what’s always happened?
11) 2 weeks ago I went to a blogger event at the National Theatre. I’d been invited by someone in the show. I ended up falling out with her over my use of the word ‘posh’ and felt so dirty for taking the ticket that I deleted my review in less than 48 hours.
12) That same week, I went to another show, didn’t write anything about it, but then was asked to send a private comment for the artists’ ACE evaluation. More than happy to my friend. With pleasure. And no, it wasn’t 100% positive.
13) The West End Whingers’ schtick got boring.