This could be critically important for new playwrights over the next few years. We shall see…
Monsterism may have started out as a moan but it is a positive, forward-looking campaign by writers to ask British theatre to raise its game. Moira Buffini says:
“Deluded though I may be, I am an optimist. If we playwrights work together we may effect a change. If we are allowed to give our imaginations free reign, if we have use of the same resources, the spaces, budgets, casts and directors that are usually reserved for the deceased, we may write the kind of plays that will attract a new audience. We all moan about tired old productions and dead theatre. We can only try to bring it back to life.”
Monsterism is a theatre writers’ campaign to promote new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive, forward looking movement that aims to create opportunities for British theatre writers to create large scale plays, for large stages.
The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:
• Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
• The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
• Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
• Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
• The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
• Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:
• The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio “black box” to the main stage
• Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)
• Use of the very best directors for new plays
• Use of the very best actors for new plays
Saw Friel’s Aristocrats at the National. Left feeling slightly perplexed. I wasn’t particularly moved by the play and the pacing seemed slow but perhaps I simply just wasn’t engaging it on its level. I shall dwell on it. It certainly is meant to deal with “big” intergenerational themes of the “aristocratic” roman-catholic Irish seen through the conflicted children.
Richard Bean, writes on a big theme at the Royal Court from beginning of Sep in his new play Harvest: Yorkshire rural life from 1914 to 2005, as seen through four generations of the same family. Wilson Milam directs. There are at least 12 in the cast. Wow. As a relatively new writer, I don’t think I’d get away with 12 in the cast but maybe that’s why we have monsterists trying to change that…
Hull-born, Bean’s trademark at first was gritty work plays – Toast (Royal Court, 1999) and Under the Whaleback (Royal Court, 2003) – but he also writes politically incorrect black comedy: The Mentalists (National, 2002), The God Botherers (Bush, 2003) and Honeymoon Suite (Roayl Court, 2004).
He’s known for being a “monsterist” and was involved in the Monster Day Out at the Hampstead this year.
A group of writers who originally met during Trevor Nunn’s valedictory Transformations season at the National in 2002. Practitioners such as Richard Bean, Simon Bowen, Moira Buffini, David Eldridge, Tanika Gupta, Jonathan Lewis, Colin Teevan and Roy Williams issued the Monsterist manifesto ‘to promote new writing of large-scale work in the British theatre’.
The idea is to see new work that is large in theme and large in ambition (not necessarily large in cast size?!)
It’s interesting to ask what is a big play? how long should it be Michael Billington thinks he knows.
But “small plays” or rather small scale can actually turn out to have amazing “big ideas” in them, like Pinter, I wonder if these would fit the monsterist ideal. Probably not quite as they are aiming for large scale. More in another post.
Prometheus Bound is a rarely performed Aeschylus [disputed] play.
It’s a tragedy and is the first in a trilogy. Unfortunately the two sequels, Prometheus Unbound, and Prometheus the Fire Bringer are ‘lost’.
The play is set after the Olympian gods, led by Zeus, have overthrown the Titans, the older race of gods led by Kronos (Cronus), Zeus’ father, who had overthrown his own father Ouranos (Uranus). Prometheus and his mother were the only Titans on Zeus’ side. Zeus is now consolidating his power, and, like any new ruler, is busy crushing all dissenters.
Prometheus despite having helped Zeus come to power is now being punished for helping mankind survive by giving them fire. This however seems a bit of a cover for the fact that Zeus wants Prometheus to tell him his prophecies [Prometheus knows a lot about the future] the play introduces the bound Prometheus and tells the story of why he is bound.
Aeschylus [note there's debate as to whether this is an Aeschylus play for several reasons, which I won't go into here but see the wiki] likes the themes that made Athens great. In the Agamemnon trilogy, he focuses on the institution of law, which replaced blood feuds. In “The Persians”, he cheers free Athens’s victory over Persian despotism. And in Prometheus [if it is Aeschylus] he celebrates resistance to tyranny.
It is in this resistance to tyranny, and refusal to give in that strikes a note to modern happenings – Nelson Mandela comes to mind.
There’s also a parallel in the use of restriction, constriction (like Beckett see my other recent post) and isolation which seems a very modern topic.
James Kerr translated and directed and at times it was brilliant but I can’t honestly say it was consistently so, perhaps this has to do with the difficulties of a relatively “back story narrated”, mono-paced, no action ‘Aeschylus’ style and also the lack of humour [that’s how the Greeks liked their tragedy?]. Occasionally the direction lacked a touch of clarity, in my mind. However, I think these are all difficulties in trying to stage Aeschlyus’ tragedy and I would not really fault the director. Further, the translation seemed lively.
The actors gave great performances. David Oyelowo was amazing in articulating the internal and physical struggle of Prometheus. He also looked beautiful as did the rest of the cast.
I also liked Io’s performance by Hayley Atwell.
(Zeus fancied Io and jealous Hera, Zeus’s wife, has turned her into a cow and tormented her with a magic stinging insect [giving her gangrene]. She’s delirious with pain but wants to know her future
“speak the truth; the worst thing a person can do is give false comfort”)
Atwell has a great physical presence and her performance was compelling or as compelling as people portraying cows get!
Also, it’s worth noting the Sound Theatre is a great new venue.
The play is a should see for interested in tragedy but could drag for those who need instant gratification or humour from their theatre.
Lyn Gardner makes the point that new writing with poor directing and poor production can damage the writing/writer beyond repair (See Here). Equally, good writing can certainly be helped and nurtured by good directors and theatres. I agree, exposure too early on or too harshly can ruin promising writers and writing.
Most writers take a while, usually many many years, before they find their voice and their best work. Exposure early on can be enormously helpful but it is unlikely that a 20-something or even 30-something is going to produce their best work.
We need directors to nurture them and we need high production values to inspire them onwards and we need constructive criticism too.
So, I think Lyn makes a good point about supportive directors and theatres. But new writing (despite James Agate’s arguments on the same guardain blog) needs support (and time to develop, eg Ibsen wrote many rubbish plays before hitting his stride) and the Edinborough fringe is not necessarily the place to get it.
The blurb: Seven self-regarding critics assemble at a disused theatre in response to a mysterious invitation. Too late they discover its gruesome purpose as Edward Lionheart, an actor frenzied by a lifetime of sneering reviews, hacks his revengeful way through the bloody works of Shakespeare, assisted by a gang of murderous tramps.
Previously a film, the Improbable team give the show a “visual theatre” makeover.
I like Improbable (the last show I saw of theirs was a re-run of Animo an intimate improvised puppet piece and it was brilliant) and they have created a very fun piece. Visually much more interesting then an average National Theatre production (but not as stunning as Complicite and others have been recently, in my opinion).
However, once through the surface fun there’s not so much substance to the play. There’s a nod or two to the role of the critic and the symbiotic role they can play. There’s the motives for revenge and the ham side of acting but aside from that it’s an episodic tale of murdering a critic each scene in an inventive manner.
On the other hand, the ensemble acting and visual fun is great. Jim Broadbent hams it up as required and is ably supported. The scene changes and theatrical manipulation are very inventive and smooth.
In the end, personally, I wanted more from the play. Either the intimate totally inventive style of Animo, or the spectacular visual nature of Complicite / Robert Wilson / Lepage. Or something with a more driving narrative and deeper themes, not just several inventive ways of watching a critic die to the background of Shakepeare.
But that’s just me, there are many others, for who, some frivolous fun is just what they want. And I do too but Theatre of Blood didn’t quite do it for me. Perhaps, I was just in a more cerebral mood.
Go, if interested in visual theatre, or want some fun where you don’t have to thinkvery hard. Don’t go expecting an intellectual challenge.
I have to declare a possible bias as she’s directed a reading of one my plays, Yellow Men and I think she is an intelligent, thoughtful and sharp director with vision and importantly is lovely as well. In my opinion, the writer-director relationship works best with an intelligent director who you get along with. Vision is a plus but is perhaps less important with a living writer to help out than it is for, let’s say Greek tragedy.
Abrahami directed Beckett’s Play / Not I very elegantly. Both pieces involve restriction. The first, three characters stuck in urns and mired in a ménage. The second, a pair of lips or more accurately “mouth” as Beckett describes it.
This constriction forces sharp direction if the performances are to be successful. The smallest actions noted. I observed the moments of blinking. The lack of expression except at crucial moments. The lifting or not of heads. All very precise and the good direction obvious for being subtle. The only aspect that I was indifferent too, was the (in my view) slight overuse of smoke/dry ice at the start.
I hope and expect to see Natalie Abrahami to go on to direct more brilliant productions in the future.
It’s no surprise to me that Tim Crouch had co-directing from a smith – Andy Smith. This type of work would appeal to Andy, I think. See here for Tim’s article in the Guardian on his thoughts on Oak Tree.
In the programme, it says
“a smith is an artist who attempts to make accessible and poetic work. Most often employing forms of performance, writing and installation, this practice uses ideas of the everyday and social as its base, and build itself from there”
I’ve not seen that much of Smith’s work but have had occasion to chat to him a couple of times. There was one particular performance that sticks in my mind. It was part of his series on London and we were both showing work at the Gate Theatre, as part of the ROAR season.
I think his piece was called “London Calling”. There were about 40 in the space and and it started with Andy singing the song, then Andy made us write down a description of an image that we thought of as our London. When we had finished, he read them all out. Our descriptions juxtaposed to weave a personal portrait of London – lyrical, funny, weird, sometimes disturbing; it was utterly brilliant.
I think it might have been some sub-conscience influence on my performance piece, Confessions that also persuades the audience to write down their confessions.
This play teases with transforming nature of art, belief and imagination while at the same time produces a moving observation on the different facets of grief.
Quite a few years ago, I wandered into the Tate Modern. I didn’t have a purpose. No specific exhibition or anything to see.
I passed a glass of water on a shelf. I looked away. Looked around. Looked back. There was a label and some text.
An Oak Tree, 1973 by Michael Craig-Martin
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size…
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.
Q. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?
A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.
Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?
A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.
Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.
Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?
A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.
Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?
Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?
A. There is no glass of water anymore.
I’ve always liked the piece because it strikes at the heart of both the playfulness and seriousness of how artists are trying to re-examine the world we live in. Ridiculous, profound, funny and sad.
A bit like Tim Crouch’s piece. See here for more on Tim’s company.
The story of An Oak Tree is relatively straight forward.
A father, Andy, has lost his daughter, Claire, in a road accident. Claire was hit by a car driven by a hypnotist. It seems it wasn’t truly the hypnotist’s fault as Claire was listening to music on a walkman/ipod.
Andy’s wife, Dawn, grieves for Claire but takes the attitude that one has to pull it together and soldier on, to deal with the facts; particularly to keep it together to support Marcy, Claire’s young sister.
Andy has a very different reaction to Claire’s death.
“Dawn went to the mortuary. I refused. If anything, in those first few days, Claire had multiplied. […] She was indentations in time, physical depressions, imperfections on surfaces, the spaces beneath chairs, surrounding blunt pencils, inside plastic buckets.
Dawn was diminished, She clung to material evidence. To her, Claire was a hair left on a bar of soap, some flowers taped to a lamp post. She was the photograph farmed and hung above the piano. For me, these things were no more of Claire than of anyone else.
I came to the roadside. I needed a hug from my girl. I looked at the a tree. A tree by the road. I touched it. And from the spaces, the hollows, the depressions, I scooped up the properties of Claire and changed the physical substance of the tree into that of my daughter.”
Just like Craig-Martin suggests.
Dawn tells Andy she is losing her husband and Andy doesn’t know what to do. He sees the sign for the hypnotist and goes to the show thinking that the hypnotist can help. Here, we also discover the hypnotist has his own reaction to Claire’s death manifesting physically in his ability to hypnotise anyone anymore, except Andy who he doesn’t recognise at first when he comes to the show.
The story is relatively simple, however the performance structure adds a brilliant theatrical and transformative layer.
Tim Crouch plays the hypnotist, but the father is performed by a different actor each night. An actor – male or female – who has not seen or read the play until the performance begins. [I think it may be better with a female, but did not get a chance to see it with a male.]
In this way, not only is there an honesty to the performance but the imagination of the audience that transforms the actor into the father in our minds is paralleled by the transformation of the oak tree into Claire by Andy (and by the glass of water into Craig-Martin’s oak tree).
The piece examines:
The layers of grief and our reactions to them.
The power of the mind, to suggest, to imagine, to transform “ the fact”
The power of the actor to transform a performance
The imagination of the audience to transform the actor
In this Guardian article, Paul Arendt talks about how expensive fringe shows are.
Most lose money. The director and performers are unpaid and he’s still almost 10k down (see budget below). My last show Lost in Peru, which was paid at equity rates (although producer’s and writer’s fee were low) at the Camden People’s Theatre came in on a lower budget (our set cost much higher, but PR was handled by producer and no accomadation cost) and had good ticket sales.
If you can get a slot, it suggests to me that the regular London fringe is a more “cost effective” show case, although of course you don’t get the same buzz or (one if you are lucky) perhaps the same exposure. I also think if at all possible performers should be paid a fair (ie equity) wage.
Expenses so far for the show Faultless and Torrance Take Their Faces/Off
Public relations: £900
Magazine advertising: £584.27
Fringe brochure entry: £242
Venue hire: £3,900 (or 40% of box office, if greater)
London previews venue hire: £300
Accommodation for three: £1,500
Train travel for three: £123
Poster design: free
Poster printing: £145
Flyer printing: £200
Set costs: £36.20
Rehearsal space: free
Replacement umbrellas for umbrella fight: £27.40
Stuffed dog: £13.50
Miscellaneous props (elastic, lampshades, silly string): £31.70
Shows I’ve seen and recommend
An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch at the Traverse. It’s a moving, clever, meditation on grief.
Snuff by Davey Anderson at the Traverse. Fast paced, menancing Glasgow lowlife; also comments on the wider violence in today’s world ie Iraq.
Daniel Kiston in stand up at the Stand Up Comedy Club or his story telling: Stories for the Wobbly Hearted at the Traverse. Quirky, wonderful, funny, extremely well told, modern day love & loneliness fables.
Shows I’d recommend on strength of reputation, hearsay or interest:
Chris Goode and Signal to Noise’s: Home Made -it’s performed in yourown home or space, call 07914 629851
Ben Harrison and Grid Iron’s piece, The Devil’s Larder, set in the actual Edinburgh Debenham’s.
Other things to do:
go and see some puppets and children’s shows almost always interesting,
go and see some outdoor shows (the one in the botantical gardens: Children of the Sea is meant to be good),
try some “visual, physical theatre”, some thing strange sounding, things that won’t be coming to your howm town
go and see photographer Cartier-Bresson, artist Paula Rego and the Francis Bacon exibition.
Theatre bloggers Ben Yeoh (see benjaminyeoh.com) and Krazy Kritic (see http://blog.theweddingcollective.org/) are having a debate.
Krazy contends Saffron Burrows can’t act and that too many celebrities get cast because of fame and looks, not talent.
Ben doesn’t necessarily contest this, but offers explanations and thoughts on the matter, and reserves judgement on Saffron as he has seen her in anything.
So, to extend the debate, Krazy has offered £100 to the best defence of Saffron’s acting to really see if anyone thinks she is any good.
Do you know anyone who would come to Saffron’s defence? Spread the word.
Please see benjaminyeoh.com and archives at http://spittingyarn.com/benjaminyeoh/archives/16 and http://blog.theweddingcollective.org/
Arts Council England has threatened to withdraw Talawa’s revenue funding when the current funding agreement runs out in March 2006. This would mean the demise of one of the UK’s most prominent and established Black theatre companies…
See Talawa here
Lyn Gardner writes in the Guardian about the conflicting views of the Arts Council withdrawing its money to fund the development of a “black theatre” in Victoria, London.
Altough in many ways, as I’ve said before, this is a bit of disaster, going forward I hope they spend the money on something good.
Actually, the situation has become worse with Arts Council suggesting core funding will be dropped, as well see other post.
Things I remember
She was left handed
She used a black biro
She could not spell “Surrey” or “Mansions”
She was transport police
She had half the form filled out ahead of time
I told her it should be electronic – she agreed
Things I felt
I’m already running late
I’m not white
You didn’t really think I had a bomb in my rucksack
You marked me as slim-medium there fore I am not fat (yet)
Things I did
Filled in the ethnic classification as Chinese
Smiled and walked away
Things that did not happen
She asked for my number, smiled seductively and told me what time her shift ended
A naked body search
A remarkable thing about extraordinary pieces of theatre is that the audience acts as one. Shared experience.
Conversely, for bad theatre, we all can suffer differently.
For fairly good but not outstanding theatre, one can seemingly obtain differing opinions [I wonder if anyone liked Saffron Burrows in Powerbook?].
In another life, I studied behavioural neuroscience [yes I know a lot about finance and a lot about neuroscience, odd fish that I am] and an interesting property about supposedly qualitative judgements is that you often find very good agreement.
Find a group of people and ask them to rate “beauty” on a scale of 1 to 10 and that group will for the most part agree [there are interesting cultural differences occasionally when this experiment is run].
This comes back to Krazy’s assertion that “everyone knew” Saffron Burrows could not act.
One might argue that differing quality judgements makes this a hard assertion to substantiate.
Strangely, work on collective judgements would suggest that maybe everyone did know, which does begs Krazy’s question of why did she get cast?
On the other hand, for theatre which is not outstanding but merely fairly good, collective judgements are harder. Indeed, rating beauty is the hardest for “fairly pretty” people or people who have quirky features.
I relate this back to my recent thoughts on Shoreditch Madonna, which has not met the collective “outstanding rating” and has had two critics on very split views on Alexandra Moen’s performance. See earlier post.
One more suggestion, I could make is that Powerbook did not meet “outstanding” which Krazy, myself and others who care, aspire too. So poor Saffron came off badly in Krazy’s eyes and given Krazy’s high ambitions, this simply was not good enough.
I didn’t see Saffron so would not like to pass judgement but if she was cast on looks not talent then, it is bad. Further, it is up to people like Krazy, critics and people who should know, to say and do something. I imagine Krazy Kritic thinks those who should know better and are in control aren’t doing enough. Then again, no one said creating good art was going to be easy.
I find this article in the Guardian more worrying than the 7/7 bombings in many ways.
This is because it shows how we’ve become desensitised in ordinary life, and we can let indifference, fear and effort become real obstacles to helping somoneone obviously in need, in saving some one’s life.
The article describes how no one helped a stabbed man on a bus.
It’s also just the type of indifference that I hope my writing and all good theatre fights against. If theatre is about the human condition, then good theatre can celebrate and inspire what is the best in humans.
[see Nadia's comments where it looks like people did stop to help. She raises the good point that it is the media re-telling which is quite scary. Although I seem to remember it was written by the real person as a non-paid non-journalist]
Krazy Kritic (see comments) brings up some more excellent points (all of which I will comment on in due course), such as:
(again see my post on differing views on a recent performance of Shoreditch Madonna).
There is occasionally that magic moment in the theatre when the audience lives as a collective. A shared experience. A time when everyone laughs or cries. When everyone’s heart is racing, or breath is still and a silence more profound than that of the desert because it is a silence generated by a full space not by an empty space.
As a writer and some time director, this is one of the great achievements of the theatre, which tv and film can find hard to match. The collective experience for film, is not the same. The immediacy is not there. Music and gigs can recreate a similar feeling, but not that same quality of waiting to see what happens next (although I admit gigs produce the europhic collective experience for people probably more often than the average play).
This brings me back to Krazy’s critique of Saffron Burrows. I haven’t actually seen Burrows so I take Krazy’s view at face value [Krazy also has the help of a Sinclair C5 in judging this thus dating Krazy’s preference to that golden age of computing]. However it is obvious that Burrows did not produce that magic for Krazy that I just described. So for Krazy (and I suspect others), the production failed.
Krazy suggests there were rumours that Fiona Shaw / Jeanette Winterson may have wanted Burrows for her looks (although I believe Deborah Warner as director would have had final say but the same rumour would hold – looks may have an overly important role in casting today). Krazy also asks why Nick Hytner let Burrows ”through the checkpoint” and that maybe it was all a marketing strategy for his Transfomrations season.
I simply do not know if Krazy’s suggestions have merit or not. They may be completely true. However, perhaps she actually performed a good audition, or Warner thought she mad the right mix of character for her cast, or maybe (if Krazy’s thesis that Burrows can’t act and everyone knew it, is true) they gave her the benefit of the doubt.
Krazy would argue that you wouldn’t give that benefit of doubt to dentist or F1 racing driver, but maybe you would for a dentist’s first few forays and F1 racers do go through F2, F3 (if they crashed a lot in F£ I doubt they’d mkae it to F1) etc.. [It looks like Burrows trained at the Anna Scher Theatre school, so might have been expected to be able to act].
My next observation is that Burrows (seemingly from her PFD CV) has only been in 3 major stage productions Earthly Paradise (Almeida), Powerbook, and Two Lips Indifferent (Bush, dir Vicky Featherstone) so by the time the Powerbook came round she had not been in many stage plays.
Perhaps she did a good audition, got on well with Warner and if there was a suspicion on her stage skills, she was given the benefit of the doubt. The fact she has not had many theatre roles since may suggest Krazy is not alone in being a critic of Burrow’s theatre performances (or maybe theatre just doesn’t pay as well).
Then again, maybe Krazy is right and she was cast because she’s pretty and a bit of a celebrity.
Krazy Kritic at the Wedding Collective blog satirises the lack of acting standards of celebrities getting roles based on fame rather than skill.
On the one hand, it’s definitely a good thing to have standards. However, judging those standards can be difficult (especially when critics disagree see my post on critics who are split Alexandra Moen’s performance in Shoreditch Madonna).
It’s a humourous piece, but I think it’s wrong to actually say there are no standards. The audience (and some times the critics) judge the quality. And yes, maybe some times they will tune in or watch a show because someone is famous but they will only have their heart racing and their mind spinning when the show is great.
Krazy ends with a slightly tongue in cheek
“If you have the nerve and self-belief. If you are prepared to ignore the knockers, mockers and critics, who’s to say you’re wrong and they’re right? Who’s to say you won’t be up there with the greats one day? No one.”
But actually, I think there’s a lot to be said for that. You’re not going to become great without determination and trying. And maybe you won’t but I don’t think we can knock Denise van Outen for trying (maybe for her performance) but not for trying.