Posts tagged ‘carousel of fantasies’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

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29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

11 July, 2010

One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Battersea Arts Centre, 6 – 18 July 2010

Written for the British Theatre Guide

The One-on-One Festival is a coming of age ceremony, celebrating the graduation of the one-on-one encounter from experiment to bona fide artistic genre. That the symbolically removed training wheels are replaced surreptitiously with alternative support arrangements is not necessarily an admission of weakness: some art forms are at their best when leaning on others.

Take any one-on-one encounter on an individual basis and it’s easy to see why the genre has been repeatedly accused of inherent exclusionism and insubstantiality. Encounters rarely last more than half an hour, and many little more than five minutes. For obvious logistical reasons, audience capacity is almost always severely limited.

But to consider individual examples in isolation is to be wilfully blinkered to the genre’s unique qualities – qualities the people at Battersea Arts Centre understand well, having personally supported the development of a good few practitioners through their Scratch Festivals and Supported Artist programme.

Hence no individual work is made the centrepiece of the One-on-One Festival. Instead, 30-odd artists are installed throughout the building, and a ticket gets you a sort of charm bracelet of encounters, with three appointments timetabled for you by BAC and the chance to accessorise the experience by discovering hidden extras in the interim.

Whether or not the experience satisfies therefore depends on BAC’s quasi-random allocation process, the skill of the artists and the adventurousness of the customer in roughly equal parts – which seems appropriate, given that the defining feature of one-on-one is an exchange between artist and participant.

Inevitably, with so many acts side by side, there’s still an element of exclusion: no one can see everything, and discovering something exciting only to be told you can’t experience it without an appointment is undeniably frustrating. But whereas the limited capacity of individual one-on-one works can feel unfair, like artificial scarcity calculated to drive demand, the issue here is that there’s too much to see and too little time, which is easier to deal with.

Likewise, certain of the acts are still as whimsical and weightless as spun sugar. Patrick Killoran’s Observation Deck, in which participants lie with heads and shoulders sticking out of a third-floor window for ten minutes, is something of a ‘so what?’ experience taken on its own, for example. But the One-on-One Festival experience as a whole can’t be as easily dismissed – not when it also contains Ontroerend Goed’s profoundly moving The Smile Off Your Face.

To demand that one-on-one encounters stand up to criticism when viewed in isolation is to approach them with a narrow mind. One-on-one is not theatre; the genre may have incubated in a theatrical environment but one-on-one encounters are not plays, or even necessarily performances, and it would be wrong to measure their success by theatre’s usual benchmarks.

One-on-one is collaboration. It’s exchange. It’s intimacy. It’s two people tied back to back, scaling the inside of a chimney: something neither one could do alone. Stop imagining one-on-one encounters taking place in theatres and start imagining, say, Folk in a Box installed at a music festival, or Franko B’s You Me Nothing in a modern art gallery. One-on-one will not be pigeonholed. Stop trying.

Need a second opinion?