Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation

Recommending: Growing your own vegetables

Benjamin Yeoh won the international 2006 Gate Translation award for NAKAMITSU. Ben was born in London to a Chinese-Malay father and Singaporean mother. He trained as a behavioural neuroscientist at Cambridge, before studying play writing at Harvard. Theatre: LEMON LOVE, Finborough Theatre (2001); LOST IN PERU, Camden People’s Theatre (2003); YELLOW GENTLEMEN, Oval House Theatre (2006); NAKAMITSU, Gate (2007). Radio: INVENTOR OF FIREWORKS, Radio 3 (2004); PATENT BREAKING LIFE SAVING, BBC World Service (2006); PLACES IN BETWEEN, Radio 4 (2007).

Blog currently on sabbatical.

Endings of plays vs novels / One Day by Nicholls

Modern plays tend to have short or very short codas. The scenes after the climax of the play. The “quick in quick out” school of scene writing which some attribute to the David Mamet style (start the scene close to the climax/turning point, end the scene close to after the turn) has been influential in this.
Compare this to Shakespeare, which had many scenes of the climax to wrap up (or create) loose ends. Today’s audience does supposedly tend to become a little bored with long codas.
However, on many occasion I do find codas satisfying but I read them more in novels.
Former actor David Nicholls (stage name David Holdaway) has written an immensely readable book: One Day which charts 20 years through the lens of one day in the off/on/off/on/sortof relationship of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew from 1988 onwards.
(Nicholls also adapted Simpatico for the screen) and although the one day view point structure means many chapters have a “quick in quick out” compelling drive to them towards the end of One Day he writes a very satisfying coda after the dramatic climax of the book. It gives enough insight and resolution to all the major characters of the book that leaves you feeling you know how they are coping in the world today.
Great book for holiday or tube reading. Or at any time really.

Eigengrau

Seeing or reading a play written by someone you know is not the same experience as coming to it blankly. Inferences – probably mostly imaginary – seep through like when meeting a celebrity your mind is unintentionally full of the – probably mostly imaginary – media reports. Reactions to plays build upon what you know, experience and imagine and build upon what you’ve seen before.

Intrinsic grey or Eigengrau (or Eigenlicht intrinsic light) is the colour seen by your eye in pitch darkness. The optic nerve triggers some action potentials even without light photon triggers and causes the perception of a uniform dark grey colour.

In Eigengrau, in scene 2,  Mark switches his choice of tea from Rose(hip) to (Earl) grey. At the end of the play, Rose says to Cassie Grey:

Can you believe out of something so

Meaningless

you can get

Actual

Life?!

Referring to Cassie’s professed one night stand. This theme – in my reading – is riffed through out the play. Potentially meaningless or insignificant actions can or do take on momentous clothes – the stubbing out of a cigarette, the sum of £399.

Is this an indirect commentary on London as well? Flatmates brought together by Gumtree and lives that can be lead in splendid or tragic isolation.

It can be so, but need not be so, and I for one will continue my effects to connect and re-connect with those around me.

Reviews of my friend Penelope Skinner’s new play Eigengrau have been good (eg Independent, Stage, Guardian) although some dissenters (Telegraph). You can see it at the Bush theatre until 10 April, but it is already sold out on some nights, so book ahead 020 8743 5050

David Hare: writing tips

From the Guardian, which also highlights other authors writings tips.

I like Morpugo:

Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.

And in semi-jest, Richard Ford’s : “Don’t have children.

Link here.

David Hare

1 Write only when you have something to say.

2 Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.

3 Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.

4 If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

5 Jokes are like hands and feet for a painter. They may not be what you want to end up doing but you have to master them in the meanwhile.

6 Theatre primarily belongs to the young.

7 No one has ever achieved consistency as a screenwriter.

8 Never go to a TV personality festival masquerading as a literary festival.

9 Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.

10 The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction”.

A time to be born, and a time to die.

My neighbour and friend at Harvard, who was training to be a priest, recently gave me a book on David Jones. Jones’ poems In Parenthesis and Anathemata are great works I come back to time and again. They are not easy first reading but very rewarding.

From In Parenthesis, part 7

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk
let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
you’ve got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot
fills, as when you tread in a puddle–he crawled away in the
opposite direction.

Turning to economic woes, I’ve only just been made aware of my friend, Leigh Caldwell’s blog on economic and related subjects, called Know and Making. He runs his own business and comments from the front lines, so to speak.

In the tide of reading a lot of commentary on the current state of the economy I rediscovered a poem from Ecclesiastes and with my recent correspondence with my priest friend on transubstantiation I thought appropriate for these times. (I amalgamate the translations somewhat).

To everything – a season, and a time to every delight under the heavens:

A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck the planted.

A time to slay, and a time to heal. A time to break down, and a time to build up.

A time to cry, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance.

A time to scatter away stones, and a time to pile up stones. A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embracing.

A time to seek, and a time to destroy. A time to keep, and a time to throw away.

A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to be silent, and a time to speak.

A time to love, and a time to hate. A time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3. [Young’s literal / King James / Yeoh translation]

Hamlet / Fat maggots

we fat all /
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for /
maggots

Caryl Churchill

Playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions

Mark Ravenhill writes an article ahead of the Royal Court season of readings, I hope to catch some of the plays although I am travelling out of London most of the time.

The Caryl Churchill readings are at the Royal Court, September 16-26.
020 7565 5000, royalcourttheatre.com

Juan Munoz / Theatre


“dira’ que loque me interesa en el teatro es que no hay replica posible. Cuando cae el telon te vas. Una pieza deberia tener esa anolidal no poderla replicar”

“I would say that what interests me about the theatre is that no reply is possible. When the curtain falls, you leave. A wok of art should have ths quality of not being able to reply.”

I saw this translated as “art should have this quality of not admitting a reply” but I read it as art should make the viewer unable to reply/speak.

I’m not sure I agree in all cases as I consider theatre often a conversation, and art too. It is not complete without a viewer, without an audience. The audience some times needs a reply.

Yet, the best art can leave you “speechless” and perhaps this is what Munoz is alluding to. Or maybe it is as the first translator says, he thinks great art has the quality of not being able to be argued with.

Cheap Theatre tips

Look out for pay as much as you want nights and Mondays are good too.

Gate Theatre has Monday as pay as you want. Royal Court has a cheap Monday.

This is on top of previews, and other regular offers.

Recommending

Under the Blue Sky. David Eldridge play. I know David, although not very well and he was a great blogger before he closed his blog. His play is many faceted, but I like it as 3 connecting love stories, which I think, in the end, affirm life. And if you take away from the theatre more than you began with, then that has to be worth seeing. Interview in Indy here.

Stars in the Morning Sky. At the Riverside Studios. I’ve not seen it but a friend is in it and could be worth a trek West London.

…some trace of her at the National Theatre. I like Katie Mitchell’s work and Hattie Morahan is a friend. I wonder how the mise-en-scene has developed since Attempts on her Lifesuggestion from the Whingers, maybe not that much.

Both Kung-Fu Panda and Wall-E. I love animation in all its forms and these are two – different – but hugely enjoyable films for all ages. You will learn about the Wuxi finger hold in Kung-Fu Panda and be charmed by robots in the other!

On the home front: I’ve now had several portions of home grown french beans and courgettes. Courgettes particularly are easy to grow, so if you have any outside patch I say plant one in a pot next year. If you only have indoor space then I recommend radishes.

Festivals

There is an atmosphere of shared experience at festivals that theatre only occasionally matches. I thought this while watching Beck at the recent Hyde Park festival.

To be fair, theatre makers probably do not always wish to engender this experience. Punchdrunk in eg Masque of the Red Death encourage you to create your own adventures and story throughout the evening.

Festivals do this too with the easier ‘framing device’ of live bands!

I wonder if groundling crowds at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s time or watching a hanging brought humans together in this way, historically.

What place now football matches? There’s an amazing shared experience for fans in that – even rival ones.

Recent Exploits

Recent exploits include

Dressing up as a fairy godmother

Researching where Counter’s Creek starts and runs in London. It’s a “lost” river.

Finding a copy of the Worm Scrubs Act 1879 (still in force but not available on the internet. Thank you Guildhall library). Editing the wiki on it to reflect my reading. Thinking about use of vacant urban spaces. Like here. Pic.

Seeing Blackwatch for second time. Excellent. Still excellent.

Seeing …Sisters. Sadly, only once.

Being rejected by Radio 4. Basically because of the economy. Not that R4 has run out of funds, but more because my story heavily involved the City and the economy.

Making a Freedom of Information Act request. One of the best UK legislations in the last 50 years.

Thinking about GLP-1 analogues and diabetes.

Trying out Hix Chop house and Portal restaurants. Both good but expensive if you’re paying.

Watching my beans and courgettes grow and getting distressed by mould and slugs; and the neighbours’ cats constantly pooing in the garden. Ugh.

Lyn Gardner back to school

Gardner back to school….

“…In my day, it was just accepted that theatre was part of school life. Every summer term, each class would participate in the drama competition, putting on a play from scratch. By the time I’d left St Anne’s, I had been involved in devising, writing, directing, designing, acting in and stage-managing seven plays, with almost no adult input. I wouldn’t be doing the job I do today without that experience. Mrs Martin says, sorrowfully, that today this would be impossible. “There are too many exams, not just in the summer but throughout the year. There just wouldn’t be the time.”

So the Coloma girls end up creating performance and theatre not for the sake of it, not because they really want to, but because it can be marked and graded, in what seems to be the GCSE equivalent of Pop Idol. As I take my leave, I can’t help thinking the girls aren’t as fortunate as I was – at school in a time before endless tests and league tables, when we could spend our days spouting poetry, putting on plays and seeing as much theatre as we could afford for the sheer pleasure of it. It was great fun. Little did I know how useful it would be.”

Theatre Critic watching darts.

One for Theatre Critic watchers: Michael Billington watching darts.

The image is not appearing properly so click through here if you to see it…

http://image.guim.co.uk/Guardian/culture/gallery/2008/jun/16/1/billnotes-4961.jpg

And his review:

Driving down the M4 on a bank holiday Monday in pelting rain to watch a darts tournament in Cardiff, I wonder if I am being punished in some way, either by God or the Guardian. As a darts virgin, I imagine watching sweating, beer-bellied arrowmen playing to a few hundred spectators. What I discover is that Premier League darts is a mixture of showmanship, skill and big business played to more than 4,000 people, who pack every inch of the Cardiff International Arena. “Darts,” I am told by Sky Sports commentator Sid Waddell, “is working-class theatre.”

I get to talk to Waddell in his presentation box and soon realise why he is as much a legend as the players he describes. In the course of doing his vocal warm-ups, this genial Oxford-educated Geordie talks to me knowledgeably about the original Pitmen Painters (recently dramatised by Lee Hall in his play about the Ashington miners, now at the Cottesloe) and quotes Wittgenstein’s remark that trying to define sport is like trying to define language. But he has none of the pretentiousness of Keith Talent, the anti-hero of Martin Amis’s novel London Fields, which I have been reading by way of preparation. Talent talks of “the address of the board” and “the sincerity of the dart”. Waddell gives me shrewd tips about the players, the punters, the phenomenal popularity of darts and, on air, displays a manic fervour that produces off-the-cuff lines such as “he could play a ukelele and make it sound like a Stradivarius”.

The event itself – consisting of two play-off semis and a final – is a mixture of razzmatazz and expertise. The players, flanked by glamorous female acolytes, enter down a red carpet, like championship boxers. The crowd chant, shout, sing, roar on their favourites, hold up placards (“Kids, has the babysitter turned up yet?” reads one) but fall appreciatively silent for each “leg” of the contest. What soon becomes clear, however, is that we are here to watch the coronation of a darts genius: Phil “The Power” Taylor, who has won the three previous Premier League finals and is about to sweep to a triumphant fourth.

“Taylor is to darts,” I was told by Waddell, “what Bradman is to cricket or Pele to football: he has set a standard which we know will never be matched.” But in sport, as in theatre, there is always a hidden story just beneath the surface. In the second semi the 47-year-old Taylor defeats the 23-year-old Adrian Lewis with contemptuous ease: only later do I learn that both hail from Stoke and that Taylor is a professional mentor to the visibly crestfallen Lewis. And, although in the final Taylor beats the 25-year-old James Wade with a run of remarkable trebles, the steely, bespectacled Wade periodically unsettles the champ. Are we, I wonder, seeing the darts equivalent of drama’s peripateia: a crucial turning-point in which the reigning king has to acknowledge a rival to the throne?

But, for now, the rotund, unflappable Taylor displays the perfect hand-to-eye co-ordination and muscle memory of the great sportsman. His only mistake, in picking up the £100,000 prize, is to say that “it’s been a great year for English sport” momentarily forgetting that he is addressing a crowd of raucous, partisan, tanked-up Welshmen. Darts may be a display of sporting skill. But, as one of Waddell’s Sky colleagues said to me as I was about to quit the noisy arena: “You can take darts out of the pub, but you can never entirely take the pub out of darts.”

5 things

1. What was I doing 10 years ago? I had directed the Crucible at Cambridge and now with summer I’d be heading towards exams in Natural Sciences and then my first May Ball.

2. What are 5 things on my to-do list for today?

- Assess the benefits of GLP-1s in diabetes, make sure I mention the Gila monster.
- Think about writing
- Make sure A. does not stress out too much
- Think and write about planning applications
- Figure out how to keep the cats from pooing in the garden especially on my beans.

3. Snacks I enjoy: Kinder surprise, chocolate buttons, home made crispy pork scratchings, Tortas de Aceite de Ines Rosales. I like all yummy food, snacks included! Can I have Jamon Serrano or culatello as a snack?

4. Things I would do if I were a billionaire: Amongst other things, I’d kick start some creative hub or industry; with theatre but probably other arts as well. Some great arts centre maybe like the ICA but with more resourced sections for various artists.

5. Places I have lived: London, Ham, Cambridge, Cambridge, Mass.

Yellow sidelined for Brown and Black?

“Are artists/practitioners with East Asian roots sidelined in favour of South Asian and Black British work?”

lc, as an actress writes in the comments:

“Definitely! As a performer, so many times I’ve wondered how a friend has got that dream job/audition while I didn’t even get a look in… only to realize later that the company had specifically been looking for a black performer, although the colour of the character was not at all relevant to the piece…

Quite simply, I get the impression that black is cool, brown is quite cool, yellow is not.

But this applies not just to theatre but to a wide range of areas including music, politics, media… East Asian societal figureheads do seem in short supply in comparison with black and other Asian counterparts. I do still think that we are very passive in Britain, despite being (I believe) the third largest ethnic group.

I’m ambivalent about these labels “black/brown/yellow theatre”. I’m all for culturally diverse work, but I do long for the day when I can work with a company composed of individuals from a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds, when we won’t be known or celebrated because we are all black, yellow, or just “different” but because we are simply producing high quality work that unites people regardless of race, class or nationality.

Idealistic? Of course! And there are flaws in the proposal but I find myself increasingly drawn to notions that unite and not divide us. If theatre is about humanity, then it should be our (shared) humanity that drives it, not our appearance.

And returning to this idea of being “sidelined” – part of me wonders if we are being sidelined, or whether we’re simply not fighting hard enough”

Shovelling stones

I’ve been working hard. I’ve been shovelling stones in the garden. I’ve been struggling with many things.

I missed my friend, Penny Skinner’s play, Fucked, at the Old Red Lion although to be fair it was sold out and so I couldn’t get a ticket.

I’ve not seen an awful lot of late for the above reasons. But I have been thinking about some of the similarities between creative processes.

The crafting of a play; its themes, characters, plots, images and the designing of interior architecture.

Trying to create enough ingredients to sustain the interior or the play. Fun, surprise. The constant re-working of ideas. The seeking of inspiration.

I’ve also been asked to write on this posed question: The British East Asian theatre experience; if “brown is the new black”, where does that leave yellow? Are artists/practitioners with East Asian roots sidelined in favour of South Asian and Black British work?

Any thoughts welcome.

I’ll be back when I have something more to say. Lots of good plays around at the moment. Am going to try harder to get out and about. At least the sun is out.

Humbleness

Reading about Eliot Spitzer, New York Governor, being caught using a high class escort ring leads me to thoughts about humbleness that I have been having over the years.

The FT writes “Spitzer was educated at Horace Mann preparatory school in Manhattan, at Princeton University and at Harvard Law School, which encouraged arrogance and self-righteousness. These qualities led him to become a client of a vice ring although he had prosecuted such outfits before and knew the risks involved. Whether or not he committed a crime, he acted so recklessly that it beggars belief.

I was educated at Westminster school, Cambridge University and Harvard University.
Do these places encourage arrogance and self-righteous? Or was it his own personal and family history (rich background) which led him down that path?

I would say first and foremost, with a bit of luck, the places I was educated at encouraged free and independent thinking and pitted that thinking against very high critical and intellectual standards. I wasn’t rich.

The other areas I ply my trade, as long term readers would know, are in theatre/arts, science (particularly medicine/pharmaceuticals) and the stock market.
I believe the true observer and participant in the markets would learn humbleness. No matter how good you are, you do not know if next day or next year you will have assessed the market wrong. Even the best, such as Victor Neiderhoffer in the trading arena have come unstuck and Warren Buffet will admit his investing mistakes too (read his shareholder letters). More often than not, the market “knows” best and if it does not then it can remain “irrational for longer than you can remain liquid” ie you will run out of money first before the market does.

That is part of the thrill and challenge for traders and stock market lovers.

I was good at Maths when I was growing up. I could probably say I was very good. However, I was good enough to know I was not a genius.

I liken it to being able to climb a hill in order to see that there are other mountains further ahead. There are lots of people who don’t climb that hill at all and I guess perhaps a hill or a mountain can look the same from further away.

There has been a lot of talk about critics in the arts. I think this has increased since the advent of blogs have given voices to more art goers.

From my point of view, I see a fair amount of modern art in all its forms and on many occasions, I don’t understand it. Some times, I don’t understand it but it still moves me – this happens to me in dance and some times I’m left blank.

Is this the artists problem or mine? That is probably the wrong question posed in the wrong binary form.

However, for most art I believe there is a compact between artist and audience/viewer/reader. Theatre is not complete without an audience. Not to the same extreme but towards the same effect: art needs a viewer, literature needs a reader, music needs a listener, architecture needs inhabitants; art forms have died when its audiences have been lost like gods die when believers fade.

Both the artist and the audience have a problem if they can’t communicate. Some times both will want to fix this problem, some times neither.

As a viewer of art, I like to take the humble approach first and assume that if I don’t understand some thing, it is a problem first with me and not with the art.

Some times I can solve this, I can find out more about where the piece is coming from, some times I can not and some times for various reasons, I will not – probably to my loss. The piece may well move others.

Science has an inbuilt mechanism in its process to rely on evidence, testing and re-testing that can somewhat diminish too much individual arrogance.

However, over the years, I can’t help thinking that the world would be a more peaceful, perhaps more productive place, if and when, we come up against something we don’t understand, we first ask ourselves what it is about ourselves which means we can’t understand it, and then try to understand it on its terms from its own place before we dismiss it as not our problem but the X’s problem. [Think theatre criticism, but also religion, Middle East, conflict etc.] Many of our greatest mountains pay respect to large matters – Stephen Hawking to the Universe, Warren Buffett to the markets, Monet to nature.

Some days, I think it would have been amazing to be a mountain, but when you are on the top of the world perhaps it is difficult to put matters in perspective.

Eliot Spitzer couldn’t. Why would I be better?

Fledgling talent easily crushed

Lyn Gardner writes:

“Like almost every critic working when Max Stafford-Clark was artistic director of the Royal Court, I had my fair share of letters from him, but Max’s letters were always written more in sorrow than in anger. In fact, you could actually see the tear stains, which I found deeply touching.

I suspect that alcohol plays a part in many letters written in response to theatre reviews, and I imagine that the vast majority find their way into the bin rather than the post. But when I was starting out, I reviewed a play by a young woman playwright whose work I’d previously seen and enjoyed. Her next play was a disappointment and I said so bluntly in my review. One day I ran into her. “What are you working on?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said. “I haven’t written a word since I read your review.” Was it true? Maybe, maybe not. But it was a salutary lesson. Fledgling talent is easily crushed: I try to remember that whenever I sharpen my pencil.”

I garnered a 2* review from Lyn for Lost In Peru but I remember she had an uplifting line or two in there for the young playwright; not sure a 1* review would have completely stopped me in my tracks but it is good to think critics do some times think of the people they review.

More critics here.

Press, Gate / Pina Bausch

I think Pina Bausch said something a long the lines of

I’m not interested in how people move, I’m interested in what moves people.
I was lucky enough to see Cafe Müller / Rite of Spring and Pierre Rigal’s Press, at the Gate, on consecutive nights last week.

The Bausch was incredible and did not seem 30 years old at all. Watching the performances so close together, I could almost draw a wiggly line to come from Bausch to Rigal probably via Wim Vandekeybus.

I’m incredibly fond of the Gate for many reasons and so a useless reviewer of work there but Lyn Gardner and  Andrew Haydon have both described Rigal’s work with high praise.

What I liked and I link between both the Bausch and the Rigal is that the story seems to be on the edge of your mind. You can’t complete the narrative in any straightforward way, some of the dance and physicality and atmosphere has to complete it for you. And so, the pieces become both highly personal as the work only makes sense in your head and will be pretty different in another’s I suspect but somehow quite deep and universal as everyone grasps the themes: alienation, love, patterns of history, stress, confinement, battling machines, life in you head — that apply to the Rigal and Bausch in no particular order.

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  • About me

    I'm a playwright and investment analyst. I have a broad range of interests: food, gardening, innovation & intellectual property, sustainability, architecture & design, writing and the arts. I sit on the board of Talawa Theatre Company and advise a CIS investment trust on socially responsible investments.

  • Recent Work

    Recent plays include, for theatre: Nakamitsu, Yellow Gentlemen, Lost in Peru, Lemon Love. For radio: Places in Between (R4), Patent Breaking Life Saving (WS).

  • Nakamitsu

  • Yellow Gentlemen