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

Recommending: Growing your own vegetables

Criticism is dying?

We lack enough good criticism. Michael Coveney’s argument here here says essentially that.

Other art forms may also bemoan their critics. Modern photography has very little thoughtful criticism (John Berger, Susan Sontag aside), dance and poetry are too rarefied and often ‘art’ (in all it aspects) criticism is either too academic or too facile.

One point to emerge from the Talawa discussions, was the lack of a “black” theatre criticism,. I say “black” as I mean that on many levels. Essentially, the theatre practioners were suggesting that there were not enough people to tackle their work in an informed and intelligent way. This in turn was hampering the development of good work and artists.

I think a good critical response is vital. A first stab in trying to put an artist and their work in the context of today and of the history of where its coming from.

It’s very alarming that Coveney believes it is failing in mainstream theatre, for that makes it much harder for the non-mainstream.

However, I can’t help wondering if it points to a wider problem in the critical form and its interactions with the art mediums of today.

TV probably remains our most pervasive form, however most artists in tv aren’t striving to push boundaries and form. There’s film. Film criticism is developing, however I wouldn’t say it was a large body of work as yet. I believe, the forms brewing on the internet mixed with digital media, whether you call it dv, film or tv, will be the next most pervasive art forms and our critical language in that arena is, I believe, virtually non-exisitant in the wider domain.

So does this suggest that although good critcism is vital and can envigorate an art – it is not some thing which we can readily expect going forward?

Verbatim theatre: Gladiator

Zahid Mubarek was an Asian teenager sentenced to 90 days in Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute for stealing £6′s worth of razor blades and interfering with a car. On 20 March 2000, the day he was due for release, he was attacked by his violently racist cell-mate, Robert Stewart. Mubarek died a week later.

Tanika Gupta turns this into, I think, an important piece of theatre particualrly in terms of what “verbatim” theatre can do and where it might be heading. It seems that it is dramatic, political, enlightening and inherently theatrical (which can be a problem for this style of theatre eg Hare’s Stuff Happens although not so much his Via Dolorosa). I grappled myself with some of these problems in Lost in Peru.

Furthermore, the piece is important in highlighting the varied culture that England is made up of (I guess we could call it “diversity” if we must) and some of the problems of white racism.

Lyn Gradner reviews it here and says:

“… The title of this piece refers as much to the family’s David-like tenacity in taking on the Goliath of the government and the prison service, as it does to the suggestion raised during the inquiry that prison officers saw it as sport to put ill-matched prisoners – such as a white racist and a black inmate – into the same cell and bet on the outcome… The power of this evening, staged with effective restraint and beautifully performed, is not just in its excavation of the failings of the prison service and the Feltham regime, but in the way it puts the victims centre stage… ”

Gladitor is on at Stratford East (and Sheffiled Crucile until sat) from 2nd to 12 November.

Ten points for happiness

The BBC are trying to make Slough happy.

Led by Richard Stevens, a psychologist of well being, he’s distilled his philosophy into 10 ideas just for the Slough experiment:

They run in no particular order:

-exercise three times a week
-count your blessings at the end of each day
-talk for an hour to your partner three times a week
-grow a plant and keep it alive
-cut TV viewing in half
-smile at strangers
-phone a friend you have lost touch with
-have a good laugh every day, even if it is at yourself
-give yourself a treat
-spread some kindness by doing a good turn

so if you’re feeling down, why don’t you try some of them out.

Free Speech

David Edgar writes about defending free speech in the performing arts. I didn’t think it was so under attack, still Edgar writes convincingly:

“…Behind all of this is the idea that there are subjects too important, too profound, too dangerous for writing (and painting, and performing, and even reporting) to touch. Behind that is an assumption that fiction writing in particular has no positive value, that it is a trivial pursuit, a luxury pastime which if it proves to be dangerous to its consumers should be suppressed for the greater good, like high-risk sports, keeping attack dogs, or eating meat off the bone.

We have been intimidated by such accusations – aided and abetted as they have been by post-modern critics in the universities – to ignore or devalue the positive role of art in our lives.

The telling and hearing of stories (in whatever medium) is not an optional extra or a trivial pursuit. It is central to our being as humans. Indeed, certain crucial aspects of humanness could not exist without it.

The most obvious is our ability to imagine other worlds and other times through stories told either from or about them.

The second is our capacity to plan, which relies on the ability to imagine a series of actions and their consequences and, on the basis of that speculation, to choose between them.

But third, fiction teaches us to empathise….”

Theatre blogs

Strangely, there are not many theatre blogs out there. Especially, in the UK

The Stage has one by Mark Shenton

There’s playwright, Stephen Sharkey’s blog

The director, Paul Miller’s blog, sadly now not updated.

And [also a little out of date]

and again not updated much

When will more theatre blogs start appearing? And why aren’t there more?

Spat on Radio 4

Spat on Radio 4 between Joan Rivers and Darcus Howe, moderated by Libby Purves.

What amuses me is imagining all the R4 listeners as this spat erupts…

Darcus Howe: … since black offends Joan.

Joan Rivers: Wait. Just stop right now. Black does not offend me. How dare you. How dare you say that. Black offends me? You know nothing about me. How dare you.

Howe: The use of the term black offends you.

Rivers: The use of the term black offends me? Where the hell are you coming from? You have got such a chip on your shoulder. I don’t give a damn if you’re black or white. I couldn’t care less. It’s what the person is. Don’t you dare call me a racist. I don’t know you. I want an apology.

Libby: Purves I don’t think it was personal, Joan.

Rivers: Oh, I think it was, when someone says the term black offends Joan. I will not sit here and be told that. How dare you say that.

Howe: I think this is a language problem.

Rivers: No, I don’t. I think it’s a problem in your stupid head. You had a child, you left them, your wife said you weren’t there, you married a woman, you deserted her, now your son comes back and he has problems. Where were you when he was growing up until he was eight years old?


Howe: Normally I wouldn’t ever meet you in my life.

Rivers: No, nor would I choose to meet you.

Howe: No, she is not a racist.

Rivers: Thank you. Now please continue about your stupid film.

Purves: Can we talk about your tour Joan?

Rivers: I’ll talk about anything you want.

Howe: I don’t think you brought me here to be insulted.

Rivers: Nor was I brought here to be insulted by someone and to be called a racist.

Purves: I think we have to move on to Joan.

Rivers: Please go to Andrea because I’m so upset.

Purves: Andrea, shall we talk about plant photography while Joan and Darcus glare at each other?

Language: animals vs humans

Nadia makes a good point in animals vs. humans. She suggests animals do not have a sense of justice.

I think others might also argue for:

Reason, inquiry, wonder, longing, religion, morality, aesthetics, creativity, imagination, aspiration, humour…

and other “human” qualities.

However, the counter-argument would then run that all of those qualities including a sense of justice only comes from the ability to form language and the abstract ideas that language can bring.

Without language to describe the concept of justice, would we still have a sense of justice?

We can then argue from patients who have lost “language” and mentally ill patients, but then we often have to start making tricky assumptions. This also leads us into the hotly debated area of the origin of language

Another way of debating this is “No animals have language. Discuss.” This is easier to answer but is by no means definite either.

One more string to argument, is the (arguably) general difference in how humans raise children compared to most animals (eg we willingly adopt etc.)

Bruntwood Royal Exchange playwriting prize

Article in Guardian annoucing the “Booker prize for Playwrights”

The Manchester Royal Exchange theatre announces the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, a “national contest to discover and celebrate Britain’s best writers for the theatre”. Launching next month, the competition has a prize fund of £45,000 and offers the winner a fully staged production in the Royal Exchange’s 750 main house theatre. A runner-up play will be staged at the theatre’s smaller, 120-seat studio.

Entry to the contest is anonymous.

The only criteria is that submitted plays must not have been produced already.

The final panel has: former culture secretary Chris Smith, Nicholas Hytner, actor Brenda Blethyn and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah.

The winning playwright receives £15,000, while runners-up get £10,000 and £5,000. T

This is an amazing opportunity. I better keep at my next play. It being anonymous gives unknowns a really big chance…

Ravenhill says produce fewer new plays

The headline goes: “Theatres must stop producing so many new plays and focus more on the classics”

says Mark Ravenhill in the Guardian

This isn’t quite what he is trying to say. It’s better summed up by:

“It’s time for a shakeup, for a new wave of energy in our theatre. And we shouldn’t look to this from just the new work, or just the classics. The best actors and directors have always worked in both. They present different challenges. It’s only by having a theatre culture that continues to explore and expand our relationship with the past, as well as presenting the best of the present, that we’ll have a theatre that is fully alive.”

ie, Don’t just look at the new work but also the old, to get a complete sense of theatre. OK, not that controversial really.

In this, his argument could be seen to run counter to the monsterists who believe new work should be treated to the same standards as old work (and that there should be more large scale new plays).

Old work has stood the test of time, and allowed itself entry into the canon but without new work that canon will not expand.

Still, much depends on what is actually being produced. A bad old play is still a bad play as is a bad new play.

Furthermore, if you look at the data (here and here) from the Monsterists, it would suggest that still far more old work gets produced than new work:

Sep -Dec 2004

-Total number of plays (incl. Shakespeare)? 236
-No. of original (not trans/adapts) new plays: 42%
- No. of original new plays – adult? 88
- No. of original new plays – children? 12
- Average run for original new plays (adult& child, ex RNT = 95): 4.7 weeks
- Average cast size for original new plays (as above): 4.3

so with 6/10 plays being old, I don’t think Mark has to worry about newer work taking over from old.

I’d be maybe more worried about:

Authors: Women? 38 Men? 180

which means only 18% of the plays were by women….

Harold Pinter wins Nobel prize: an interview

listen to this almost comic telephone interview with Pinter. Telephone interview with Harold Pinter after the announcement of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, October 13, 2005. Also Pinter’s response in the Guardian.

– Hello. Good morning.

– Good morning, good morning, Mr Pinter. Congratulations. I’m calling from the official website of the Nobel Foundation.

– Yes. Well, thank you very much.

– It’s fantastic news for us here; and I would like to hear what your thoughts were when you received the news.

– Well, I’ve … I’ve been absolutely speechless. I am … I’m overwhelmed by the news, very deeply moved by the news. But I can’t really articulate what I feel.

– You didn’t have any idea it could come your way, did you?

– No idea whatsoever! No. So I’m just bowled over.

– There’s so much to talk about. But I would like just to ask you what, in your career, you think has been the most important, what has the most …

– I cannot answer … I can’t answer these questions.

– No, I understand.

– There’s nothing more I can say, except that I am deeply moved; and, as I say, I have no words at the moment. I shall have words by the time I get to Stockholm.

– You will be coming to Stockholm?

– Oh, yes.

– Okay. Thank you, Sir.

– Okay?

– Thank you.

– Thank you very much.

– Thank you.


The great man has done it and I feel this gives support to his politics (an issue I believe the judges were arguing about).


But, maybe his interview should have read more like (!) :

-You had no idea.
-No idea.
-I would like to…?
-I can not answer. I can not answer.
-I understand.
-I do not have the words.
-I will have the words when I come to Stockholm.
-You’re coming to Stockholm?
-Oh. Yes.
-Thank you.
-Thank you.
-Thank you.

What makes us human

One more thought on whether language defines who we are (see application key words).

For my final exams, a question which often comes up is of the form:

The only defining difference between animal behaviour and human behaviour is the ability for humans to use language. Discuss.

It’s actually a lot harder to argue against than it might first seem.

Ancient noodles

Researchers have found 4,000 year old noodles, in North-West China

I ought to write this in my food/resturant blog, but I can’t get on to blogger so easily, so I’ll count this as part of “life”.

The noodles oxidised immediately when exposed to the air, but there was still enough to figure out they were made from millet. Now, I wonder what the recipe was?

Also, is it almost definitive evidence that the Chinese were the first to the noodle?

“The prehistoric noodles were on top of the sediment cone that once filled the inside of the inverted bowl. Thin, delicate and yellow, they resembled the traditional La-Mian noodle that is made by repeatedly pulling and stretching the dough by hand…”

Sarah Kane

Mark Ravenhill (see previous posts) writes very thoughtfully about Sarah Kane, here.

I don’t think I would have had as much courage to stage Lost in Peru if it wasn’t for Kane’s work earlier.

Like Kane’s work, Lost In Peru draws its inspiration from events such as “the disappeared”, torture, Kosovo and the darket parts of humanity. I’ve not delved there so deeply since but I think I will at some point. It’s important and difficult, just like Kane’s work.

Ravenhill writes:

“…Kane’s work wasn’t just some outpouring of the soul. It was immensely crafted. She wrote the first draft of Blasted while studying in Birmingham. But, she told me one day in her basement flat in south London, that draft was very different. It was full of long, rich sentences, inspired by Howard Barker. When a friend suggested that a more edited form of language might be better, Sarah began retyping the play, working on her manual typewriter, each time refining, tightening, honing it. Yes, there was something of the obsessive artist about her. Yes, that retyping, over and over, had a compulsive drive. But it was that discipline that informed Blasted as much as the emotion at its core….”

“…It struck me that she was essentially a modernist – her enthusiasms were Beckett, TS Eliot; work that was flinty, imagistic, not immediately accessible. Whereas I would locate characters in a postmodern landscape of shiny surfaces under which pain was bubbling, Kane was placing her work in an essential, somehow more substantial, landscape. My artistic world was the claustrophobic bubble of high capitalism; Kane’s was a more brutally naked environment. The horrors of Auschwitz and Kosovo provided her with inspiration; mine came from the hollow world of the Big Mac and Disney World. I wrote on a laptop, Kane on a manual typewriter. We understood each other, but our visions were very different. We joked a lot at our first meeting. I teased her about her taste in indie music – she had a particular liking for the Pixies. I bought her several beers and, as she relaxed, her sardonic humour and ability to tell an amusing story came to the fore….”

Application “key” words

University of Hertfordshire has done some research and come up with the top words to use in university application forms see below and here).

I guess you could call these “key” words. My dislike for the word key in this context is growing. It’s beginning to become one of those meaningless words, following the path of proactive.

Still, we do use them as they serve a purpose. The listener/reader most often knows what you are talking about but some times they don’t as the meaning has dissipated.

As a writer, I find words fascinating. Words and their use can embody people and particularly theatre characters. I’ve been struck by the great vernacular used by the black [before we get on to “blackness” this has encompassed Nigerian slang, Caribbean argot, and South-London] writers in my Talawa group.

Maybe language really does define who we are?

However, if all you want is a better a career just use these words….

The top 10 words to include on an application form are:
Transferable skills

The 10 words to avoid:


I was in rehearsals for my new short play, On the Eve of the Collapse [Soho theatre ths Thursday, do come!] that Talawa are producing.

Rehearsals are both immensely exciting and also a bit nervy. Actors ask you all these questions:

Why did you write the play?
Is the character based on anyone?
What does this mean?
Have you any experience of this…?

And then you have the director:

Can we cut this?
For the purposes of this reading, can we do this…

and the arguments between everyone; rhythmn, pacing, intention, meaning… thankfully everyone wants to serve the work in its best possible light, in which case although there may be disagreements, generally everything works out.

We only had about 3 hours, which is hardly enough to get the play read a couple of times and get some basic understanding done. Still it’s amazing hearing the words and characters come to life.


This idea by Dave Eggers (can any thing stop the creativity of this man?) sounds brilliant.

It is a drop in tutorial centre for children. A place where they can do homework, get extra help, be creative… I would be so up for helping with one.

What do others think?

“The real business here is words. Set up three years ago by the writer Dave Eggers and some friends, 826 Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission district is a drop-in centre for schoolchildren looking for extra help with homework, a bit of peace and quiet, or a chance to listen to a good story.

The place has been so successful that it has spawned imitators: New York City has one in Brooklyn (the front is a superhero supplies shop, where the aerodynamic qualities of capes can be tested using an industrial fan), Los Angeles and Michigan have them, and others are imminent in Chicago and Seattle. Massachusetts and Cincinnati have centres modelled on 826.

But that is only part of the story. Eggers, along with two colleagues, has also edited an oral history book, Teachers Have It Easy. It describes, with sometimes startling explicitness, their daily lives. Sure, there’s the teaching, the long days, the constant pressure of being on the job. But other things truly shock: the teachers who mow lawns at weekends or paint houses to make ends meet. The teacher who works in a bar to buy books for his class. If you want an easy life, the book explains in an easy-to-follow chart, become a pharmaceuticals salesman, not a teacher.”

Pinter is 75

Alan Bennett made a cheeky suggestion, on the occasion of Pinter’s 50th birthday, that the best way to commemorate it would be with a two-minute silence. [He is most famous for his pregnant pauses in his plays.]

For his 75th, Pinter is being celebrated in Dublin with performances of Old Times and performances of plays, poetry and prose. Michael Gambon is coming from New York, Jeremy Irons is from Budapest. Other participants include Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Stephen Rea and Penelope Wilton. Playwrights Tom Stoppard, Frank McGuinness and Conor McPherson are the guests at a Sunday night dinner at the Unicorn.

On Monday night, BBC Radio 3 premieres a new work, Voices: a collaborative venture between Pinter and composer James Clarke that deals with man’s inhumanity to man.

An article by Michael Billington here
with a gripe on why he isn’t being celebrated in London.

August Wilson has died

Sadly, August Wilson has died. Obit.

I mentioned he was suffering from cancer in an earlier post.

Kwame Kwei-Armah writes in the Guardian and quotes:

In his eulogy for John Osborne, David Hare wrote:

“Of all human freedoms the most contentious is the freedom not to fear what people will think of you.”

Wilson, himself said in the New York Times in 2000:

“I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness, and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavour, and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves”

If Cassandra and Eurythmy

I went to see If Cassandra at the Riverside Studios. I can’t say I comprehended it very well.

The blurb goes: Three women meet, wanting to spend a pleasant evening together. Despite their best efforts, noise, music and unexpected events repeatedly disturb the meal and the women are forced make repeated new beginnings: a process full of frustrations but also fresh possibilities. A poetic and tragi-comic composition of sounds, images and situations…

I have some experience of dance theatre and also pf the physical, visual spectrum and this piece fitted in to that.

I found some images intriguing, some particularly towards the end quite powerful. I also found some of the language of the movement towards the end quite absorbing.

However, the structure of the repetition of the meal left me a little cold, particularly the start which felt very awkward particularly compared to some of the physicality in the last quarter.

But, I must confess to knowing little about eurythmy, which I think was a core process used in this piece.

I learnt this about eurythmy here, and see below. I now think I don’t have the language to understand the process fully, but wonder about how many of the gestures were feelings being made visual.

Eurythmy is a movement art initiated by Rudolf Steiner in 1912, as the art of visible speech and visible song. Originally conceived as a performance art, eurythmy has unlimited possibilities in the field of experiencing spirituality through movement. It bears relationship to the ancient forms of sacred dance, yet it is wholly secular in its character. Eurythmy is used in medical, pedagogical and sociological fields. It is an essential part of Waldorf education, providing the somatic component of the multi-modal learning experience unique to the Waldorf curriculum.

The sounds of speech can all be experienced as particular feelings, with specific sculptural components that are then made visible through gesture movements. The dynamics, rhythms and meaning of language offer the components of the choreography of eurythmy forms. Similarly, the beat, rhythm, pitch, tones and intervals of music can be experienced somatically and brought into visual expression.

Director’s reply to critics

As I mentioned, I hope Tim Supple would be allowed to reply to Lyn Gardner’s review of What We did to Weinstein at the Menier.

And he has, here.

Supple makes some valid points about appraising what a play is trying to do and the evaluating it, although I guess a critic is also giving a personal opinion as well.

Certainly, I enjoyed the play much more than Gardner, though I note her point about drifting into possible cliches.

Still, it’s one of the resaons I think blogs (maybe like mine!) will become more important as a form of criticism going forward.

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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