If you’ve got nothing nice to say about theatre, then… um… well…

Back in February, a regional theatre whom I follow on Twitter retweeted a throughly nonplussed 2.5 star review of one of their shows. This seemed not so much ‘odd’ as ‘batshit crazy’ at the time, and I assumed it was just a mistake – born out by the fact that that particular retweet isn’t on the theatre’s timeline any more.

And yet. And yet… the idea that a theatre had implemented a policy of promoting ALL reviews of a show, no matter how negative they were, was very interesting.

A few days later, the Telegraph‘s Tim Walker did this:

Image

…and the Almeida, to their credit, took him at his word and retweeted it.

The review was (for me) perfectly valid and incisive in some parts and less so in others. It’s an interesting read, albeit that it originally contained the bizarre assertion that Orwell was ‘the Left’s favourite playwright’ (which to their credit, the Telegraph very promptly rectified), and Tim also seems to use ‘thoughtcrime’ in completely the wrong sense to what it actually means: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoughtcrime.

HOWEVER, I thought his approach was genuinely quite ballsy and brought up a key problem in British theatre – what are you to do if you don’t like something that’s popular?

 

We live in a free, accepting society, right? One of the beautiful things about it is that we can flounce into the public domain whenever we like and let off steam and we won’t get labour-camped or shot or anything. Just look at Twitter – a bewilderingly diverse range of opinions on everything from politics to sport to theatre. Yes, I said ‘theatre’ and ‘bewilderingly diverse range of opinions’ in the same sentence – is that a problem?

Well, yes, basically. Sometimes it really really can be. I’m sure we’ve all felt at times that there’s a suffocatingly supportive orthodoxy, a tyranny of encouragement for average art which says nothing to us, nor can we imagine it saying anything to anyone at all. Pick a Twitter hashtag for a show, any one you like. Tally up positive vs negative comments. I bet negative gets caned mercilessly every single time. Why is that? Is it Twitter’s innate left-wing, arts-friendly bias? I’ve personally witnessed far more polarised discussions about music, film, art and TV than I’ve ever seen about theatre. I suppose Vicky Jones’ The One (of which a bit more later) is a recent ‘kind-of-exception’, and even that tends to be a fairly orthodox ‘is it a 3/5 or 4/5 show?’ – which in terms of greater industry importance is a bit like discussing who’s going to make it to the 2014-2015 Europa League.

Imagine you went to see a show. Let’s assume also you hadn’t made the schoolkid error of broadcasting your excitement in advance (e.g. “On route [sic] to #12YearsASlaveTheNakedMusical 😀 #inspired #lovetheatre” or somesuch). Let’s assume it surprised you by being a pile of shit. How do you react to this? If #12YearsASlaveTheNakedMusical lived up to all your expectations then you’d be all over their unwiedly hashtag (and, most likely, ephemeral and ill-advised @12YrsNudeMusical Twitter account) like an endorphin-fuelled ant-plague. You’d be giving your opinion to support a piece of art that you’re excited about. Why then does it feel ‘different’, ‘weird’ or even outright ‘wrong’ to deliver feedback that is less than wholly positive, that isn’t any less honest and, if done well, can be sufficiently constructive to help the show (which you could still be excited about) develop in the future? Why would we rather strangle ourselves with our own actual lips than risk looking unsupportive?

For my money, it’s because theatre has a bit of a messed-up relationship with power. There seems to be a *very* big gap between the two broad power categories of ‘Limited-to-Nil’ and ‘Upwards of fairly considerable’. Two recent examples:

Firstly, a writer of what I would consider the latter category tweeted ‘DMs scare me. Say it out loud! Why do we have to go to the corner to talk??!’

I’m not saying that Twitter direct messages don’t have their own sub-universe of of bullshit politics, and of course I know nothing of the particular context which gave rise to this, but I might answer: ‘Well, you’re quite a well-known writer who’s had a lot of recent success. You can say a lot closer to ‘anything you like’ and notionally worry less about how it will affect your career. Have you genuinely got to where you are right now by openly speaking your mind ALL of the time? Because lots of us don’t feel like we can afford to do that, or indeed anything remotely like it’.

The second was when a critic I know engaged in a passionate discussion with the Artistic Director of a theatre about a play that they hadn’t enjoyed. It was a lively and informed conversation, with precisely neither side resorting to ‘YO MOMMA’ at any point. Well done, humans. But much as it showed the ADs’ enthusiasm for the project, it seemed more prickly and defensive than it ought to have done, especially since the critic hadn’t by any means hated the show, just seen a lot of scope of improvement. It wasn’t so much a perfectly reasonable defence of the right-to-fail as a refusal to accept that failure might have even occurred. It was troubling.

I mean, it doesn’t matter how skilled we are, we all have a magnificent underlying ability to be completely wrong. I’m a QPR supporter; nobody is more aware of their own laughable folly than I am. I also use post-it notes upside down because I’ve convinced myself that that’s how they’re *supposed* to work: IMAG0312

As you can see, I think I’m a genius for discovering that, but I could just be a total idiot for not realising the rest of the world already does it. I guess I’m about to find out…

I have immense respect for anyone who can come out and say ‘yeah, to be honest, I was totally wrong about that and it didn’t work’. Failure, as Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor once said, is one of the basic freedoms. It’s how scientific method works. I also believe that it goes hand-in-hand with the freedom to call out failure when you perceive it, provided of course you can back that up on some rational level or other. I’m not going to go on about what’s rational or not-rational when talking about what theatre you like, as that would be insane, but I strongly believe it has virtually nothing to do with how much you know about theatre.

So, you don’t like a show? What do you actually do about it? The way I see it you can:

i) Be enthusiastic regardless and resign yourself to a lifetime of breezy, backstabbing deception or constant professional discomfort, whichever floats your boat.

ii) Maintain TOTAL UNCOMPROMISING SILENCE on the subject, as if by doing so you can erase it from history altogether, like a passive Stalin.

iii) Obfuscate by focusing on some aspects at the expense of others – ‘it had a lovely set’ is a classic.

iv) Just, erm, I dunno, tell the truth?! I might be horribly naive (remember, I’m a QPR supporter), but I’d like to think that even if I disliked a show by someone I knew personally and really liked then we’d have a good enough relationship that I could tell them. Obviously I’m responsible for not being a total dick about exactly when and how I do this, but that ought to be possible, it really ought. I’d also like to think that if you don’t know me and I didn’t enjoy your show that you wouldn’t dismiss all my opinions forever as being lousy and ill-informed, provided of course that I’m not a total dick about it. Naturally, I follow all my own sage advice to the letter ALL of the time, thanks for asking…*

I realise that, by calling for more reflective negativity on Twitter, I might sound like I’ve lost my mind. I don’t think I have. I just think that critique gets stifled by cultures like this, to the extent that when it does come out, it’s more likely to do so in a way that isn’t wrong per se, but is unhelpful and inarticulate enough to defeat what it’s trying to achieve. The same could be said of praise – if it’s ubiquitous it starts to lose the ability to express itself, like a recent review of The One that three times referred to it as a ‘Drywrite show’, and not once as the Verity Bargate Award winner, which was why it had been produced in the first place. An altogether different version of this happened to me once when I asked an open question about why a show had been directed the way it had, which was then retweeted (without comment) by a member of the cast. #Unity.

Assuming I’m not just full of nonsense about this, why does it happen? Well, I don’t think anyone does it because they enjoy it. I think it’s because too much power in the industry is held by too few humans, and like all humans they have egos and get defensive about things they’ve made and loved. Add to this the fact that it’s perceived as a glamourous industry but is actually shockingly ill/un-paid much of the time, meaning that a lot of people are constantly desperate for work and/or frantically trying to move up the ladder – someone I know put it very well when they said of a show I didn’t like: ‘Really? But everyone I know who wants to work with [THE COMPANY THAT PRODUCED IT] seemed to really enjoyed it’. I don’t hold it against anyone who feels like this – it’s an indictment of the industry, not you. And God knows when so many organisations and theatres are losing funding, a ‘siege mentality’ of pep is understandable. Understandable, but not helpful.

* – another semi-nuclear, nipple-gripple-so-hard-their-chest-turns-into-a-tablecloth option is stone-cold passive aggression of the pious ‘if you’ve got nothing nice to say…’ school – something like ‘Well, that was definitely a play that was on/that got produced/that somebody wrote’

Expressions that are not to be used again to describe theatre: True

We’ve all seen it. The review that overcooks itself and praises a story for feeling or being ‘true’. I don’t like it when they do that, and here’s why:

– Surely it only really applies to a very familiar, i.e. naturalistic situation, in order for the judgement to be valid. That being the case, logically, anything abstract, speculative or fantastical is excluded forever. A play revolving around an intergalactic war (we’ve all written one of those, right?) couldn’t be described as ‘true’ because it’s based on events that *specifically* haven’t happened.

– Even if it’s naturalism, the concept of ‘truth’ is actually a bit dumb. ‘Carthage’ (the current, and apparently very good, Finborough show about social work) is written by former social worker Chris Thompson. I’m sure that with ten years experience of social work, he can write very truthfully about it – but then, he would, right? It’d be downright weird if he somehow engineered to write untruthfully about it. But every writer, sooner or later, has to examine subjects they don’t necessarily have first-hand experience of. It’s why research exists and continues to be unpopular. Is it still ‘truthful’ when they do? If I wrote a play about social work then I’d want it to appear truthful – except it wouldn’t be, because I’m not one. Believing the ‘truth’ of a story in that context proves nothing more than that it’s been convincingly told – and liars are also adept at telling stories very well.

– ‘But actually Duncan’, you might say, ‘we’re talking about truth of emotion, rather than truth of circumstances’. I’d argue that that’s just a sentimental way of talking about how thoroughly and consistently the characters are constructed. That’s only ‘truth’ inasmuch as the characters always act in line with how the playwright’s created them to act. If the writer’s done a good job, the characters only ever do things that make sense in their emotional world (which is why ‘Breaking Bad’ is so terrific). If they haven’t, the characters are doing any old thing for any old f*cking reason and congratulations, you have unlocked the achievement ‘writing crap drama’.

– If you’re still feeling argumentative, you might wheel out verbatim at this stage and present it as theatre being ‘the literal truth’. Which is FINE, as long as it’s delivered in a COMPLETELY balanced fashion and isn’t edited or truncated in any way. At all. It probably wouldn’t hurt to accept also that the reasons for creating and putting on a theatre production are inherently partial and therefore representative of one side of an issue/situation or another. If there is one side, there must therefore be another, which means the whole exercise is subjective and ultimately a test of the ‘truth’ of your particular argument. I think one of the most interesting things about humans is that they can make an argument for absolutely everything.

Basically, next time you enthuse about how ‘true’ a piece of art is, remember that what you’re really saying is ‘I BELIEVED THIS’.

Think on.

Age ratings for theatre

This idea occurred to me recently and I think it has a lot going for it, for the following reasons:

 

– Actual guidance for parents on how age-appropriate shows are.

Not so much because ‘I ACCIDENTALLY TOOK MY 5 YEAR-OLD TO SEE BLASTED AND WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN’ as because it’ll prevent you taking your 5 year-old to see The Coast of Utopia and getting furious at all the fidgeting.

 

– Theatre attains real-world context.

Movies have age ratings. Video games have age ratings. By extension you could include TVs’ ongoing 9pm watershed. All these are part of (and indeed shape) popular culture, and many people find them useful when formulating opinions about whether to go and see them. A rating in itself does neither movies nor video games any harm, nor does it hurt a TV show to on after 9pm – I’d argue that it frames their themes and imagery within a generalised idea of what the viewers’ feelings and opinions might be. Whether you necessarily agree with any given rating is irrelevant – it helps you work out what you feel about it in the same way that trailers and interviews do. I think that without this, theatre looks like ‘high’ art that only smart people will really understand because it’s sooooo complex. This isn’t helpful.

 

– Theatre looks cool.

I suggest that there is no more effective way of getting people under 18 to see your show than ensuring it’s rated 18. *This* is how accessibility actually works, not making it an accepted, ‘improving’ educational activity. Anyone who says ‘we’ll be getting the wrong type of under-18s coming to see theatre’ is hilariously unaware of the extent to which they are part of the problem.

 

– It doesn’t need a board of classification.

I think such ratings should be set be the producers rather than a revived Lord Chamberlain’s Office, especially since any given revival of a play might be more or less ‘adult’ then another. Also, no one should police it any more than they do right now. This could be some sort of handy ACE performance indicator too, perhaps, in terms of the work being produced?

 

This is just a thought – open to take-downs, improvements or acclamation. What do you reckon?

Expressions that are not to be used again to describe theatre: New

We can’t really start to address this issue without asking what ‘new writing/a new play’ actually means.

 

This is one of those questions so big that every answer is wrong. As such I can only answer for myself – these are the various red flags it throws in my direction:

 

– Direct contemporary relevance (one might almost say… ‘urgency’…), including being set in or heavily referencing the present

– An ‘edgy’ style reminiscent of the ‘in-yer-face’ school which formed the formative development stage of a great many of the ‘new’ writers and ADs of today – e.g. ‘fractured’ dialogue where people take about a page to say stuff and repeat each other a lot for some reason; the death of a baby; bad dramatic swearing; a ‘look-at-me’ body-horror set-piece; the death of a baby; some form of dissociation (perhaps because depression is harder to cobble together without time-consuming research); and the relentless, inevitable, bang-ordinary death of a baby.

– A bias towards younger characters

– Relationships are hard

– People have computers

– Computers have the internet and that is a thing

– As late 90s/early 00s ‘confused man’s decent band’ Embrace once said “Come back to what you know” (e.g. family, where you grew up, etc.)

 

[NB. A lot of plays are like this – they have a ‘keen sense of place’. I don’t mind it in the slightest as an audience member, and obviously to a lot of writers it’s extremely important. Fair play to them. But for me, who was born in Maidstone, moved to Worcestershire when I was one and spent my entire childhood being considered ‘posh’ by my contemporaries, it’s just something I haven’t got. My ‘home’ has been defined by people I’ve met – the individual places I’ve met them have become increasingly irrelevant. So when I see a play being specifically praised for vividly conjuring the place where it’s set, it goes right over my head – alienates me, even. Just to reiterate, I have *absolutely* no problem with it being done – but for me, on an artistic level, it’s like having all the characters wear a red hat. If that’s your artistic choice then great, go for it, have a blast – I just won’t fully understand why it matters. I sometimes think ‘hmm, that might be nice’, in the sense that getting a tattoo ‘might be nice’, but that says nothing about how likely it is to actually happen]

 

What I’m trying to say, in a dreadful rambling roundabout way, the fact of something being a new play doesn’t *really* matter very much to me. If a play looks interesting I’ll watch it. Personally, I don’t see that much innate artistic value in revivals/

 

(I find it weird that the film and TV industries gets such a hard time for producing remakes, when theatre essentially does it all the time – what’s the *actual* artistic difference between a revival and a remake? The only obvious imperative is that playwrights don’t get repeat fees or DVD sales, but that only applies if they’re still within copyright and can actually make some money for the writer or their estate. I’ve always liked to think that Shakespeare would be a bit disappointed at how much of his work we’re still doing. ‘Yeah, cheers, but you know, steady on’, he says in my head, ‘what are YOU guys writing, more importantly?’ – which might illustrate why relatively few people have asked me to write historical drama)

 

/but essentially I take each play on its own merits. Like most people, I have relatively obvious prejudices – the paranormal, moral ambiguity and foul-mouthed animals cover everything pretty well – and much as I try to expand my there’s not a lot of point pretending otherwise. I’d be more interested in seeing a revival of The Witch of Edmonton (written, collaboratively, in 1621) than a conventional ‘new play’, which might contain any/all of the arbitrary characteristics mentioned above and make me wish I’d stayed at home with a feature-length Poirot.

 

There are any number of ‘new’ shows that I’ve absolutely loved and they couldn’t be described like this in any way. I often find myself thinking ‘yeah, it’s described as a “new play”, but still, the content sounds pretty good’. You suck, marketing. I know you dearly want a tiny box to put this piece of art in, but seriously just tell me what the play’s ABOUT. I don’t care about new-ness. That means f*ck-all. There’s no correlation between new-ness and whether I’m interested. Call them ‘original’ maybe, give the ownership to the writer not to the era. If it’s a great play the era will mean f*ck-all and will continue to mean f*ck-all for many glorious years to come. That’s the measure of it.

 

Incidentally, you might reasonably ask ‘but what about people who actively seek out new, as opposed to old work?’ I’d argue that, by their nature, people who want to see new plays are likely to be what you might call ‘connoisseurs’, and will therefore have a good knowledge of ‘old plays’ to begin with. They will keep up to date with events in the new writing world and are likely to already be aware of contemporary new writing companies and/or individual writers. Therefore they probably already have sufficient knowledge about whether or not a play is ‘new’ and won’t need to be told.

 

People who only want to see old plays and specifically not original plays won’t go anyway. And, y’know, that’s a thing they do. Don’t come to my shows, don’t buy my records (they won’t – they don’t – I haven’t even got any records out. God help you when I do).

A homeless play

Sometimes you write something so context-specific that you can’t usefully use it in any other capacity. In these situations you have to ask yourself “tough questions” (expression licensed from A Bunch of C*nts, May 2010) about what to actually do with the thing and whether you’re fundamentally happy with it or not.

I’m quite happy with this play. It was written for a Youtube-oriented call-out for short plays and didn’t get selected. It’s essentially ridiculous and maybe will have a life of its own one day, but right now that seems unlikely, owing to having to watch the video first and enact that onstage in a practical fashion. Anyway, do enjoy it. If you end up performing it some day then do tell me – it’s just nice to know these things…

“Something stupid I wrote where cats are funny on the internet”

 

Watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h6mlNiDkHXA

APACHE sitting onstage. A white plastic bucket over APACHE’s head. APACHE looks comfortable. NEASDEN enters, notices what APACHE is wearing, swears and almost exits immediately. NEASDEN pauses, thinks better of it and slowly advances to sit next to APACHE.

NEASDEN

Yeah. Yeah, you’re funny. You’re very funny.

 

APACHE

(giggling) Yeah, I know. This is brilliant. Topical and witty. Amuses me intensely, this does.

 

NEASDEN

You don’t think it’s got even slightly old?

 

APACHE

NO.

Pause. APACHE starts laughing.

APACHE

What was most funny/

 

NEASDEN

/you’ve said/

 

APACHE

/I know – what most funny was how serious you looked, like it was either a total game-changing revelation or some kind of horrible trap. And then you just stuck your head in it. Because you’re a genius.

 

NEASDEN

Doesn’t hurt to be curious.

 

APACHE

Yes it does. Yes it definitely does. There is SO much precedent for the danger posed by curiosity. To quote another human saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you look like a massive bellend’.

 

NEASDEN

It’s actually quite tragic when you think about it.

 

APACHE

Why?!

 

NEASDEN

I was the daring, clever one, now they just think I’m a moron.

 

APACHE

What?! Neasden, they did not think you were the daring and clever one.

 

NEASDEN

They did!

 

APACHE

When?! They called you ‘Neasden’!

 

NEASDEN

When I was on the… on the thing, they loved that.

 

APACHE

On the skateboard?

 

NEASDEN

Yeah.

 

APACHE

When you stood on the skateboard?

 

NEASDEN

…yeah

 

APACHE

When you stood on the skateboard and sort-of trundled around going ‘what the fuck’, and then a while later you did it again?

 

NEASDEN

They filmed it. Loads of times.

 

APACHE

They filmed ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ loads of times. Means fuck all.

 

NEASDEN

Why were they even filming me with the cup? I don’t even remember the camera being there.

 

APACHE

Yeah well… you wouldn’t.

Pause.

NEASDEN

What do you mean?

Pause.

NEASDEN

What do you mean I wouldn’t remember being there?

Pause.

APACHE

They don’t call me ‘Apache’ for nothing. I move like a shadow.

Pause.

NEASDEN

What? No. No no no no no. You can’t work a camera.

 

APACHE

Er, you point the bit that looks like an eye at what you want to look at and you press the big red button. Yes I can. Because I’m a genius, and you can’t get out of a cup.

Pause.

NEASDEN

Why would you do that?

 

APACHE

Partly, to be honest, for a massive fuck-off giggle at your expense. Enjoy. (pause) And also for you own good.

 

NEASDEN

How?! In what way ‘for my own good’?!

 

APACHE

Left to your own devices, you were gonna come to a bad end. It’s a slippery slope. They get used to the idea they can just make you do anything. Stick you anywhere and you’ll put up with it. All it takes is a house party and a mate who’s a dickhead and you end up in the tumbledryer. Or worse. Not worth it.

 

NEASDEN

At least they wouldn’t film that.

Pause.

APACHE

Anyway, I’ve made my point. I can probably take this off now.

Pause. APACHE does nothing.

NEASDEN

Do you need a hand?

 

APACHE

Nah. I’m still finding it pretty funny in its own right, to be honest.

 

NEASDEN

You’re very harsh.

 

APACHE

I’ve got quarter of a million views. Come back to me when the world stops finding it funny.

Pause.

APACHE

You know I’m right, Neasden.

 

NEASDEN

Maybe I was feeling the pressure. All that responsibility and expectation I didn’t even understand. It was too much. Maybe I wanted this to happen.

 

APACHE

(sniggers) Yeah, like most people want the whole world to see them make a tit of themselves. Obviously.

 

NEASDEN

Do you not worry people will think you’re being even more stupid and film you/ (APACHE turns the bucket around – on the reverse side is a fabulously-drawn portrait of a glamourous and sophisticated-looking cat)/ no, no course not, you’re a genius. (pause) Can I have a go? You know, get the monkey off my back.

Pause. APACHE slowly removes the bucket and passes it to NEASDEN. Pats NEASDEN on the shoulder and exits. NEASDEN stands holding the bucket and looking at it. Fade down.

 

Get your Kit-on

I got to see a work-in-progress show of Daniel Kitson’s TREE last night. I enjoyed it on many levels, and it made me think about the relationship between his extremely distinctive ‘style’ and playwriting.

Yes, some of you will already have grunted in annoyance and are probably already commenting on the immense amount of arts-based privilege-checking I’m due. I’m also not really qualified to talk about the relationship between storytelling and theatre in a wider context, but if what follows is so awful that it prompts someone to do that, then I would love to read it.

Anyway.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a LOT of Daniel Kitson (all of it? LIKE F*CK I HAVE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kitson#Live_shows) and a lot of contemporary new writing. I’d go so far as to say that I know barely a single playwright who doesn’t just ‘not-care’ about him, but actually wouldn’t go out of their way to see him (if possible – this is a man whose name alone can destroy any online booking system on any given day). It’s a level of devotion not even enjoyed by Stewart Lee, who is probably the next closest attainable equivalent outside theatre itself.

Ah yes, ‘outside theatre’. Is Daniel Kitson ‘outside theatre’ or is he essentially still a stand-up with a unique gift for lyricism and plot progression? That’s a question that even he might not be able to answer, most likely because he wouldn’t give a shit about someone trying to put him in a box. Let’s call him a ‘performer’ – he performs on stage, that’s beyond dispute.

So, back to TREE. It’s a reasonably radical departure in that it’s a character-based two-hander also featuring Tim Key. The closest to a two-hander that he’s done before (that I’ve seen) was the verse-based Lucinda Ding and the Monstrous Thing (which I reckon partly got its title from this old Scooby Doo episode: http://scoobydoo.wikia.com/wiki/A_Highland_Fling_With_a_Monstrous_Thing – DISCUSS). Whilst Kitson is credited with the writing (and, to be fair, declares that he wrote it), it would be interesting to know whether and to what extent it was collaborative, since Key is a celebrated performer in his own right and I can’t imagine he was roped in simply because of the star wattage partly generated by his extremely f*cking good outing in Alpha Papa.

Lucinda Ding…was very different in a lot of ways, but one comparison is that the ‘classic’ Kitson of say, It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later or After the Beginning, Before the End (which to me are closer to ‘story-telling’ in the purest sense) is at least slightly subservient to another style – verse with Lucinda Ding, and pure drama with TREE. However, TREE differs again in that it’s in the first person. This is the first first-person show of his that I’ve seen – you might have seen one that I haven’t, if so your thoughts would be very welcome.

The difference between monologue in storytelling and drama to me, in my head, is as follows: when telling a story, you stand outside it – generally in the third person, with more knowledge than the characters in the story and (as a consequence) expected to be impartial and truthful. When telling a story through drama you’re almost expected to be partial, deliver in the first-person and have at any given stage the same amount of knowledge as your characters. That’s a generalisation, obviously, there will be any amount of evidence that that analysis is wrong, but watching TREE last night, that was what occurred to me.

The main problem with TREE is a lack of drama. That’s got nothing to do with it being a work-in-progress show, by the way, it’s far more fundamental. Yes, there are sequences where characters drift into reverie maybe more than would be usual. There’s nothing wrong with this – Philip Ridley does this a LOT and indeed embraced it in this year’s Dark Vanilla Jungle, which might have been what made that one of his strongest shows that I’ve seen. There are worse things in the world than occasionally allowing both your character voices to blend when one should be speaking and the other ‘enabling’. The bigger issue is the end.

Yeah, dramatic endings are hard. But endings in storytelling are differently hard because it’s more okay for everyone to know what they are. We’re not watching the story evolve – it’s already there. It’s being delivered by someone outside it, so we don’t expect it to ‘live’. Our relationship to it is therefore different. Whether by their onstage or reported actions, when we’re watching characters we want them to develop somehow. I won’t spoil the ending of TREE, it hasn’t even technically started yet, but it has an issue in this regard. Lacking clear drama, something that the characters respectively want and try (successfully or unsuccessfully) to change in order to get, you’re not left with many options for resolution. Not many that work anyway…

As I said, I know a lot of playwrights who adore Daniel Kitson. I still do. In a lot of ways TREE works extremely well and frankly Key and Kitson (notwithstanding their ‘comic whimsy supergroup’ billing) are a joy to watch together, perhaps even more so in a WIP context where a certain ‘scrappiness’ is part of the charm. But it’s probably the first show of this most un-pin-down-able of performers that feels like it can be properly judged as ‘theatre’. So that’s what I’m doing.

As John McClane once said: ‘Welcome to the party, pal…’*

*I hope this article doesn’t come across as the equivalent of dropping a dead crook onto Daniel Kitson’s notional police car. That’s not the idea at all. Although I’m now obsessed by the idea of a ‘Die Hard’ remake featuring Kitson as Sergeant Powell. And so are you.

Playing the ghoul

Now, I’m not the type to get het up about the latest ‘thing-an-Edinburgh-Fringe-play-has-done-to-get-publicity’, but I read this today and it made me do a sadface:

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23522166

 

Killers basically involves Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen and Ian Brady* writing letters back to (for want of a better word) ‘fans’, respectively a lonely suitor, a supermarket worker and a schoolboy.

 

I myself was, for some time, the kind of lonely boy (yes, it’s ALWAYS boys) who would while away considerable hours reading about the violent and harrowing things that humans sometimes do to each other. Perhaps I thought it would give me an insight into human behaviour and thereby make me more interesting, or perhaps I was just a bit misanthropic because of how often I thought life had shat on me and wallowing in ‘the dark side’ somehow satisfied that part of my nature.

 

This all started to die off when I played a ‘guess-the-famous-person-on-the-post-it-stuck-to-your-head’ game at youth theatre and realised nobody else knew who the serial killer was that I’d written down for someone else. Later, when actually living with a woman, I became aware of how my keeping sensational documentation of, quite often, sexualised violence around the house was both unsettling and unbecoming. I don’t own books about murders any more. I like to think I’m now a bit closer to the kind of genuinely sensitive guy I never thought I could be, who picks up on crappy gender writing issues like manic pixies, sexy lamps (http://endlessrealms.org/2013/03/writing-women-the-sexy-lamp-test/) and many other ways that a lot of mainstream film, TV and, I’m sad to say, theatre is currently written. It’s an ongoing process – if some day I should hit the big time, think I’ve got this whole issue nailed and start defending gleefully graphic and generally gender-angled violence on Luther or something, then you all have a free hand to nipple-gripple me in public until I learn some humility.

Anyway.

 

If I’ve learnt one important thing from this phase in my life it’s that, actually, ‘ghoul-ing up’ on serial killers doesn’t tell you piss-all about general human behaviour, any more than cordyceps (that fungus that takes over the brains of invertebrates, makes them climb up trees and then bursts through their bodies to spore – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordyceps) tells you about general fungi. They basically have the same lives as we do, but, because of some quirk of nature, they happen to live aspects of their life them in a relatively unusual and extremely anti-social way.

 

Obviously Killers writer Glenn Chandler can write whatever play he wants – first rule of commenting on the purpose of someone else’s art is that you can basically fuck off forever (especially if they’re better-known than you) and I’m fine with that – but he probably says the Second Most Disingenuous Thing I’ve Heard Regarding Theatre in 2013™, when he maintains:

 

‘…for me, the most interesting aspect of the psychology is the people who are writing to the serial killers.’

 

…which is obviously why the only characters featured in the play are the killers themselves, why the script entirely consists of the words the killers have written and why, I presume, the play is called Killers. Obviously the point is the people writing to the killers. Even a child can tell you that. It’s barely about Sutcliffe, Brady and Nilsen at all. Chandler hardly even mentions in the BBC News article about his play Killers that one of them has been in contact about it.

 

The very suggestion that this story would even be newsworthy and provide valuable publicity in the first place if the play just involved some everyday lonely people, rather than the ‘UK’s Vilest Murderers’ version of the Sugababes (original line-up), is patently nonsense. It’s not like it could have been dramatized in a totally different and unorthodox way, like maybe having the recipients of the letters reading them, emphasising the poignancy and loneliness of everyday experience in a way that an audience can properly engage with. It’s quite clear that the only way to enact this properly is to basically wank off over the smokin’ hot irony of Dennis Nilsen giving someone advice on same-sex relationships and the fact that Ian Brady thinks he’s a *tiny* bit smarter than everyone who has ever lived, despite currently being in prison for crimes he’s committed.

 

[speaking of smokin’ hot irony, I’m going to stop that now. When it comes to sarcasm I’m more an opportunistic sprinter than a majestic long-distance Stewart Lee and I find I lose my thread after a while]

 

So yeah, if that sounds like fun, go and see ‘Killers’ if you’ve really got to; if you feel theatre is really missing a ‘Channel 5 real-life crime’ genre; if you think it’ll be anything more than just some people talking, who have public profile because they killed other people; if that’s what you feel you need in your life.

 

There’s a target market for this kind of thing, as Chandler and his producers know perfectly well. I know too, because I used to be part of it. This would be cynically spun at me like it’s psychologically insightful, but it isn’t. It’s a return on an investment, an exhibition of curios that depend on the capacity for human vileness in order to have meaning. I’d be essentially paying money to the egos of mentally-ill criminals. I didn’t think so at the time, but I deserved better than that – and so do you.

 

 

* = as it happens, the show deals with a killer of women, and killer of men and a killer of children of both genders, so bizarrely it’s quite egalitarian for what it is…

Expressions that are not to be used again to describe theatre: Urgent

Hi Urgency. How you doing? Been well? Yeah, I’m not going too bad, thanks…

Always be polite to your nemesis. Constant anger is knackering, unattractive and way less fun than an ongoing jokey acknowledgment that one day you will destroy each other. I try to be Jon Pertwee to Urgency’s Roger Delgado. Like the Pertwee, I don’t always necessarily come off best.

Urgency comes under many guises – a throwaway comment in a theatre blurb, an artistic statement, sometimes even from the very lips of a theatre groupie who’s gotten so carried away they’ve let their guard down. Sometimes it gets a long-form re-boot like ‘Why does this play have to be produced now?’, or ‘What does this play say about the world we live in?’, designed to sort the playwriting sheep from the goats ahead of longed-for meetings with a theatre’s literary department.

If you can answer these questions confidently, then you are an amazing liar will have written your play as an impassioned response to a glaring and perceived injustice, and part of the strength of the play is the raw and furious energy which you’ve deployed to rail against the government, the justice system, the resistible rise of the Saturn peach, etc.

[As a rule, this is a Good Thing. Don’t write about things and people you don’t care about – it shows. These kinds of plays can be technically proficient and fancily-written, but they have the soul of a fork.]

But how long will it take to get this play on? If relevance and urgency are key parts of how it came to exist, then surely the public need to see it before the moment passes, right?

Every instance of a play being created will have its own unique process and one sweeping statement isn’t going to encapsulate everything. Therefore I take full ownership of my thoroughly unscientific research which suggests that the length of time from commencement of writing a full-length play to opening night is, on average, 3.75 years.

 

Interlude – please use this time to cry, guffaw with derision, etc depending on your own experience.

 

Yes, 3.75 years. On average. For a great many plays it will be somewhere between ‘more’ and ‘never’, but let’s take 3.75 years as our stock figure for now. That’s nearly the length of the First World War. In some cases it would take less time for a law to be passed to rectify whatever it is you’re writing about. The only realistic chance you have of comfortably beating this is if you’re Alan Bennett (in the Year of Our Lord 2013, Alan Bennett uses this privilege to write plays savaging the National Trust).

Tied-down Urgency shows its age. It’s liable to make producers sigh and say ‘I wish we could put this script on right now’, and then never touch it again because the historical ‘moment’ has passed. Even if your play gets the go-ahead, you’ll probably still be deep within our 3.75 year window, waiting for the privilege of one day seeing your play presented as ‘bleeding edge’ a long time after the events that inspired it, by a producer/company/theatre that has a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the bleeding edge.

Urgency is a lie. 3.75 years is not an urgent response. Urgency only really works effectively for shorter, cathartic response pieces (a la Theatre Uncut, 503’s Rapid Write Response), where everyone knows what they’ll be about, and the point is the freshness rather than the longevity. It is possible to write and stage a play in a matter of months, but this format usually accentuates the flaws (and there will be flaws – the text is only a few months old) in a way that’ll ultimately do an injustice to what you’re trying to say. It also makes the play itself feel ‘disposable’ – if that’s your attitude to the play, why do you expect anyone to watch?

Plays focussing on a *very* specific issue or situation can also pull Urgency off, but only where the specificity allows you make general points about the culture within which they exist (see Glengarry Glen Ross, many better verbatim plays for examples). This again is better done over time.

I don’t know exactly at what stage Urgency pulled this immense trick of convincing the world that it needed to exist. One of the most depressing sentences I’ve read in a while is this:

Edgar is adamant that his work “isn’t a play that is going to be revived in five years’ time or even two or three” [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/10116754/A-weeks-a-long-time-in-political-drama.html]

I don’t really know what the point of creating art is, unless it could say something to anyone, anywhere at any time. This feels like a tacit admission that the important thing is to respond NOW, so that for the next couple of months or so it feels relevant, and not really care about whether it’ll really mean anything in the long term. Obviously David Edgar can write about whatever he wants, but I’d want my art to be timeless. I’d want regular revivals for years because different groups of people across the world relate to, engage with and find different meanings in my work (plus I’d get paid more). Writing naturalistically about the specific state of your own nation, right now, feels like an inward-looking, self-centred waste of time. It feels like easily-consumable art that audiences don’t have to try too hard to recognise – going back to disposability, why would you expect audiences at any point to care about this?

If you’re about to haemorrhage with rage, let me put this another way: what *really* great ‘state of the nation’ plays were set and written, naturalistically, in the same historical period they document, within, let’s say, 1-2 years either side? You probably know drama a lot better than I do, and I’d be very interested to be proved wrong, but I genuinely can’t think of many. To illustrate my point, would The Crucible have been as powerful if it had been entirely set within 50s McCarthy-era American politics, or does it attain its power because its themes, issues and the motivations of the characters are essentially timeless?

I can understand that theatre needs to feel that it’s still relevant. It’s a lot older than TV and film and like an aging athlete, it sometimes tries too hard to demonstrate that it can still beat the young’uns at their game. But when theatre does this, it’s an idiot. It’s refusing to recognise that its best work arises from just being itself. For me theatre has always been a timeless medium – I try to keep it so by using metaphor and shiz, as much as anything because it makes the process of writing more interesting. I like to think this consequently makes my writing more interesting. Sometimes I do Peter Beagrie-style backflips of joy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMy_YdOvwnk) because someone tells me that it’s worked.

Urgency leads to plays about concepts rather than people. Concepts are abstract, they don’t go to the theatre. People like watching people. They see themselves. They see their attitudes and ideas. Sometimes they change. Urgency is a bag of crisps when theatre needs a full meal.

 

PS: Brilliant answers to the literary department questions posed above are as follows –

Q: Why does this play have to be produced now?

A: Because my play is awesome and it is ready.

Q: What does this play say about the world we live in?

A: Please read my play again and concentrate.

…at least they will be when I am Emperor.

 

PPS: I cannot *actually* do a Peter Beagrie-style backflip.

Expressions that are not to be used again to describe theatre: Darkly comic

We begin with a classic. A label that can be applied to every work of art ever created that incorporates elements of both tragedy and comedy – so ubiquitous that the two states combined have come to represent for many the idea of theatre itself.

And that’s really the problem in microcosm – it’s not just an ‘old’ description, it’s the basis of theatrical catharsis. It’s so deeply woven into the fabric of live drama that the likes of Brecht spent his entire career kicking against it. What I’m trying to say is that when you say a play is ‘darkly comic’, you kind-of might as well be describing it as ‘a play’.

Good storytellers know that balance is key. Relentless tragedy with not even a sliver of levity becomes a parody of itself – equally remorseless upbeat comedy simply stops being funny. Even Euripedes’ ancient gloom-fest The Bacchae has a bizarre pun slipped in right at the end to settle everyone down, and the most raucous farce needs a certain level of tension or ‘mild peril’ to give it meaning.

With new writing, please don’t say our play is darkly comic. It’s stopped meaning anything, except that we’ve mastered the preeeeeeeeeetty basic dramatic art of being Serious and Funny in the same play. Go us. Thanks to the over-application of this phrase, it’s now something that makes every playwright groan, whether internally, audibly, or whilst vomiting their kidneys up through sheer despair. Are there really existing human receivers of arts marketing who dedicatedly define everything as either Funny or Serious, with as little as possible in between? In the absence of an all-encompassing descriptive, do they phone the box office in tears because they don’t know how they’re going to feel at the end of the evening?

Also, what’s ‘dark’, exactly? Death? Crime? Deceit? Generalised things-we-prefer-not-to-talk-about? Isn’t theatre (or even art in general) sort-of supposed to be about aspects of life that aren’t widely or freely discussed? If so then aren’t we all equally fantastically brave and inventive for approaching uncomfortable issues with such innovative devices as Humour? And isn’t that what normal humans do anyway?

We’re playwrights. We’re humans. We’re darkly comic. We’re just doing the job.

PS. Don’t try and get around this by using ‘blackly comic’ instead. It means the exact same thing only you take a massive gratuitous dump on grammar at the same time. That’s not the sort of thing I’d normally worry too much about, but to illustrate the point, here is a list of other popular colours rendered in the same way:

Redly; Bluely; Greenly; Yellowly; Whitely; Pinkly; Purplely; Brownly; Orangely

Do any of these sounds like human words? That’s coz they’re NOT.

Year Zero

Yeah, I’ve needed to re-start this for a while. I under-used it badly and I now have more and better thoughts.

 

Let’s try again…