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

Recommending: Growing your own vegetables

Gordon Brown on liberty

What is my central thesis?

It is the view that Britain is defined not by race nor ethnicity – as those who would impose a cricket test would have us do – nor by our ancient institutions, nor just the various national traits for which we are famous across the world, but by our shared values formed and expressed in the best of our history…

He gives a lecture on liberty

and starts off with

“There was a time when words were like magic,” a North American Indian poem runs.

“The human mind had mysterious powers, a word spoken by chance might have strange consequences, it would suddenly come alive and what people wanted to happen could happen all you had to do is say it.”

which is some times how I feel about stories.

2005 draws to a close

2005 draws to a close and I seem to have missed (yet again) a raft of good plays. I missed most of the Ibsen this year as well as the new Mike Leigh (although I was never going to be organised to get a ticket.

Susannah Clapp at the Observer
offers her review of the year which includes:

Most disconcerting drama: Neil LaBute’s incisively acted This is How it Goes at the Donmar

Most interesting new subject: Agriculture, explored in Nell Leyshon’s Comfort Me With Apples and Richard Bean’s Harvest

Most spectacular vomit: The projectile version in And Then There Were None at the Gielgud

Turkey: Romance, David Mamet’s unfunny courtroom comedy at the Almeida

I think for me, Death of a Salesman was all I expected and more. Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, in a very different way, was also more than I expected. I shall have to think of other shows which made an impact this year. Dragon’s trilogy comes to mind.

Thinking back on the year…

I had a reading of a new play at the Soho Theatre, went on a Royal Court course, got some ideas through to the final rounds at BBC radio, received funding for YELLOW GENTLEMEN and managed to keep on writing while working – so not a bad year, all in all. Hoping 2006 will bring more good things.

Deranged Marriage

Went to see The Deranged Marriage at the Riverside Studios before Christmas. It was a great spectacle and worth seeing for the spectacle that any wedding but particularly an Indian wedding can bring. However the story seemed a slightly unsuccessful Bollywood-type plot and the cast although performing admirably (especially the beautiful singing) didn’t seem quite settled.

Christmas some times seems like one never ending drama. People, who normally wouldn’t necessarily be drawn together come together due to ties of blood and do fun things. I had a fun Christmas in that spirit.

It snowed today and the streets looked fairy tale like. Like the city was being wiped clean ready for the New Year.

Have a great festive season and brilliant New Year.

Ken Campbell says “yes”

Ken Campbell argues not saying “no” can bring about great improv.

Decor Without Production, his series of late-night shows scheduled for the Jerwood Theatre from March 2006, is in part a tribute to the improvisation and mask work led by George Devine and Keith Johnstone in the 1960s and 1970s.

Campbell says he has begun to wonder “whether it isn’t time to disband the Royal Court as a writers’ theatre. I don’t understand the worship of writers in this country,” he says, “since none of them are much good.”

… Last weekend saw the inaugural Improvathon, a 36-hour play hatched on the spot at Ladbroke Grove’s Inn on the Green between 10am on Saturday and 10pm on Sunday, with only one or two five-minute breaks in the action.

I didn’t know it was on, but supposedly it was based on the idea:

‘Don’t ever say no. Work round it. Do not say the word no … Saying yes will often bring surprises and will dig you deeper. Yes will make the world open up.’”

This is much like the Yes-man book of Danny Wallace. I think there might be something to this notion of always saying yes…

Danny said: ‘I, Danny Wallace, being of sound mind and body, do hereby write this manifesto for my life. I swear I will be more open to opportunity. I swear I will live my life taking every available chance. I swear I will say Yes to every favour, request, suggestion and invitation. I SWEAR I WILL SAY YES WHERE ONCE I WOULD HAVE SAID NO.’

… With this modus operandi making a really extended improvisation possible, the really interesting point comes about 30 hours in, says Campbell. “The lizard brain is the key,” he says, explaining that at this point in the improvathon, the performers gain full access to some of the supposedly primitive but very useful areas of the human mind.

“After hour 30, people I hadn’t thought were anything in particular became brilliant. Hours 26 to 30 were the most uniformly abysmal, but they were followed by six hours of sensations.”

I’m looking forward to seeing some stuff next year although I’m not sure I can yet quite agree with his assertion that writers here aren‘t much good. His assertion though rhymes with what Mark Ravenhill was saying about new writing….

Child’s view: Drunk people are bad

Children always give a fresh perspective on life.

An online questionnaire, organised by sponsors of National Kids Day, Luton First, for under 10s asked about famous people, best and worst things in the world.

God just beats Wayne Rooney, who beats Jesus. Football seems to be about as important as Christianity then.

The survey, according to the Guardian, also found that 72% thought they would marry when they grow up, although almost a quarter answered with a definite no. Asked what they would ban if they had unrivalled power, children voted “telling lies” number one, followed closely by getting drunk, fighting and drugs.

Most famous person
1 God
2 Wayne Rooney
3 Jesus
4 David Beckham
5 The Queen

Best things in the world
1 Money and getting rich
2 Being famous
3 Football
4 Pop music
5 Animals

Worst things in the world
1 Drunk people
2 Smoking
3 Litter
4 Graffiti
5 War

Review: The Magic Carpet

David Farr was made artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith in June 2005 and his season kicked off in September 2005. He’s embarked on an ambitious programme in 2006 which includes Nights at the Circus – an adaptation of an Angela Carter Story by Emma Rice of Kneehigh and Tom Morris (ex-BAC); and Farr’s own version of the Odyssey.

For Christmas, he brings us The Magic Carpet by Farr and Ben Hopkins (and also The Magic Lamp for younger children – a puppet show with Steve Tilapdy of Little Angel, which looks great).

I think most children (and plenty of adults) will like this show. There’s a lot of action. There’s comedy. There are many references to stories and to panto (look behind you) children will know, like those in the Arabian nights. It’s definitely better than your average panto.

Two thieves led by their patron magpies have to save the world from a magician gone bad, Du Shao. Du Shao used to be a wonderful musician but he lost his ability to play and now hates all music and wants silence to descend on the world. To do this, he needs to obtain his father’s magic lamp, but it’s been stolen along with the flying carpet by the thieves.

The thieves have a great relationship which develops from mistrust into love. Miloshin (Stephen Mangan) is macho and arrogant; “I only steal because it’s fun”. Zhivta (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is independent and bold. Very charismatic. The story cracks on at a fair pace and Farr’s direction and Angela Davies’ design work superbly. There’s transformation after transformation, often simple, almost always surprising.

For very restless children, there may be a touch too much exposition at times, however part of the restlessness may be if a child gets stuck in a seat behind an adult. Most seats at the Lyric give a good view, but the seating is something to think and ask about if you are bringing lots of children.

There are flying carpets, magic lamps, desert kings, music, dancing gerbils, sword fights and death defying love. It’s all you need for Christmas.

The niggles: was there really huge sexual innuendo between the thieves when they were trying to untie themselves? If so, it made me uncomfortable especially around so many children – precocious ones or not; with places of so much exposition, the play never really relaxed and perhaps a bit less exposition would be more satisfying.

Until January 14, book here or call box office: 08700 500511.

[Disclaimer: links are for ease, I don't gain anything from the Lyric but I did get a reviewer's ticket.]

More on Mamet

Mamet is interviewed by Salon back in 1997.

He says some interesting things about film, but this about grief and exploitation struck a chord.

Why is a movie like this that feeds into the audience’s need to feel good about itself pernicious?

DM: I thought it was especially pernicious in the case of “Schindler’s List” because, as a Jew, I don’t like the fact of the Jewish people being exploited, whether in the name of good or ill. For example, everything that has been said about Diana, including this, is gossip. The people who showed pictures of her embracing X, Y, Z and the people who wrote that the pictures were bad and this comment I’m making are all gossip and exploitative about something that’s nobody’s business. They’re all exploitative about that dead person. Just so, attempts to picture Jews going to the gas chambers are exploitative, even if they’re done for the best reasons in the world.

The only response is silence?
I think so.

Is that the only legitimate response to someone else’s grief?
Absolutely so. It’s in the Talmud that you’re not supposed to say anything when someone is in mourning. What’s there to say?


I’ve been through the grief process a few times now.

One thing I did find is that from people I didn’t know, silence was more comforting than words. However, from people you care about then I think one wants mroe than silence.

I believe it is true that a grief itself can not be shared,
but the will to share grief can be shared. We can share the same intention if not the same outcome.

I’ve also always believed that “if you have nothing good to say then it is best to say nothing”.

Mamet argues poetry in plays is not enough

Mamet argues

Playwriting is a young man’s – and, of late, a young woman’s – game. It requires the courage of youth still inspired by rejection and as yet unperverted by success. Most playwrights’ best work is probably their earliest. Those prejudices of anger, outrage and heartbreak the writer brings to his early work will be fuelled by a passionate sense of injustice. In the later work, this will in the main have been transformed by the desire for retribution.

Then he argues

1. Plays are written to be performed. This may seem a tautology, but consider: description of the character’s eye colour, hair colour, history and rationale cannot be performed. An actor can perform only a physical action. Any stage description more abstract than “she takes out a revolver” cannot be performed. Try it.

2. In a good play, the character’s intentions are conveyed to the actor, through him to his antagonist, and through them, to the audience, through the words he speaks. Any dialogue that is not calculated to advance the intentions of the character (in the case of Othello, for instance, to find out if his wife is cheating on him) is pointless. If the dialogue does not advance the objective of the character, then why would he say it?

And concludes

Without intention, vehement intention, there is no drama, in life or on the stage. And so, even if the speech were poetry, to what purpose?

Maybe Mamet is right and every line has to drive the action in the well made play, but I can’t help but think there are some times room for other things. Things which show us or the characters that we are human and perhaps that some times includes poetry, as well as song, music or other uniquely human attributes.

Harold Pinter theatre insights

Harold Pinter makes insightful remarks about his work for his Nobel lecture as well as criticises US policy Defintely worth reading, some extracts here:

There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false….

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.
Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.
The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’
In each case I had no further information. …
I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

It’s a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort. …

Neil LaBute on what’s interesting to him in theatre

Neil Labute replies to critics of his play, Wrecks, and says:

“For me, though, it is the world of the “possible” that is interesting. As a playwright, I feel it is my calling to transport an audience to a new place, a world that has heretofore been unseen or heard. I’m not a documentarian; my job is to ask questions in a new and exciting way rather than answer them the same way, over and over. The main question asked in this play – can someone honestly love another person whom they have deceived for 30 years? – seems well worth asking, at least in the relative safety of the theatre. If not on the stage, then where else?”

And he ends

“I have also been asked to take “dramaturgical responsibility” for my actions, to which I can only say: keep the hell off my grass. I have no responsibility to anyone other than my characters.”

That’s a useful thought for writers to keep in mind: “a responsibility to characters”. I wonder if LaBute feels much of a responsibility to the audience.

Arts funding from the private sector

According to the charity, Arts & Business, private support for the arts has risen from £393m to £452m in the last two years.

The majority of private money donated in 2004/5 went to heritage projects – over £163m. Museums benefited from around £43m and theatres a little under £31m. The only sector to see a significant fall was the visual arts, where business funding has dropped nearly 20% to £54m.

Theatre is one of several sectors where private funding has rocketed, seeing a 40% increase in the last year.

Guardian quotes:

I’m completely comfortable with the idea that we live in a mixed theatrical economy,” said the NT’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. “That is always what has happened. For us it’s worked brilliantly.”
Hytner dismissed fears that ever-increasing corporate sponsorship could allow businesses to exert an editorial influence: “It’s easier to imagine being asked to do tiresome things to sustain a state subsidy.

Those of you who have a little bit of the spread sheet geek in you (and unfortunately I do) here’s the pdf of the report in summary.

It’s interesting that theatre funding has risen. Maybe this is because association with good plays and theatres is useful for companies or perhaps there is a growing demand for the performing arts.

Stafford-Clark diary, Polly Teale’s wishes

Polly Teale of Shared Experience, if she had a lot of money would:

Build inspiring buildings…
plant lots of trees and make magnificent public spaces…
fund arts centres and galleries and theatres so that they became the hub of our communities, instead of the shopping mall and the retail park. I would make it possible for everyone, of all ages, to see, make and learn from drama in its many incarnations. As for prisons, I would make them places of rehabilitation by using drama to open up possibilities of communication and expression….

And buy a Paula Rego.

Also Max Stafford-Clark’s diary of Macbeth in Nigeria which contains this exchange:

“The beach opposite the hotel is a toilet littered with plastic. Why is it not an asset like it would be in the Caribbean?”
“We are not a sunbathing people,” cries Adura (Gentlewoman and Third Witch) passionately. She is Nigerian.
“What shall happen to the corrupt?”
“Kill them all,” giggles one of the Nigerian guests.
“That’s what [former president of Ghana] Jerry Rawlings did – invite them to lunch and kill them all.”

They make it clear how hard it is to live in a corrupt society and to resist corruption. …

Max wins a brownie point with me as he replies to letters sent to him by young aspiring writers (or at least he did to me) and many others I never heard a word from.

Emperor Jones: review

The production is brilliant. However, I am not as enamoured of the play as Michael Billington is, who gives it a rare 5 stars.

Billington argues

…in this 1920 expressionist piece, the first serious American play about black experience.… in little more than an hour, O’Neill offers us a kaleidoscopic vision of black American history…

And he sums up well

…His titular hero is an ex-Pullman car porter who has become demagogic overlord of a small Caribbean island. Warned of an impending coup, he goes on the run through a dark forest in which he experiences nightmarish visions of shackled chain-gang prisoners, black slaves inspected like cattle by white planters and a bone-rattling witch doctor who seems to embody his own enslavement to superstition….

As background, Clapp says

“It’s been considered a barely disguised satire on the tyrannical President Sam of Haiti, but Eugene O’Neill said he got the story from a travelling circus performer, who’d heard a yarn about a guy who could be killed only with a silver bullet. He also said he based the main character on a barman….”

Let’s start with the positives. Thea Sharrock directs brilliantly, with a great design (Richard Hudson), and good use of lighting (Adam Silverman) and sound (Gregory Clarke). Sharrock has had a fast rise since her re-staging of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls about 5 years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if she did land the job as AD of the Royal Court as Susannah Clapp argues.

The set is a long sand/mud box pit, which the audience peers into. Actors appear and disappear from hatches. “The roof” of the pit is made up by metal fans (which remind you of the tropical heat) which are raised and lowered echoing the claustrophobia that Jones feels. The theatrical whole (the change of lights and the haunting sounds) is a superb realisation of the play and Jones’ state of mind.

My only slight niggle is that the audience at the narrow end of the pit (and I was at one of these ends) couldn’t often see Paterson Joseph’s eyes or features, which meant we missed out on some of his amazing performance.

Joseph was great. Arrogant, charming, violent to haunted, wild, desolate and the whole range between. He was supported well but his performance drowns out most of the rest of the cast apart from perhaps the witch doctor.

So, what’s my problem?

First, it’s a white man’s vision. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this per se, at all. But, in my mind, O’Neill loses some thing in his crystallised view of “black history”. I found his use of the “savage black” and witch doctor slightly uncomfortable. But maybe this was my problem.

Secondly, I think the vision is crude. Billington would argue “he never lets us forget that Brutus Jones’s brief tyranny is both the product of historic oppression of his people and potent white example.” But visions of a slave galley and auctions by white people, to me aren’t enough. Particularly as these images are all told as flash back and to me don’t organically spring from the story. They are Jones’ nightmares come to haunt him and us, but in being flash backs I think O’Neill’s story is not as strong as it could be.

Still, the play is not bad and it does make valid points (and I don’t have a reputation like O’Neill or Billington). It is definitely worth seeing for the brilliant staging even if it is not, in my opinion, a brilliant vision of Black American history.

Gate Theatre. Until December 17. Box office: 020 7229 0706 (although I believe it is returns only at the moment.)

Michael Grandage

Michael Grandage (artistic director of the Donmar) in interview.

Two interesting points among many:

“The Grandage ‘ground rules’ are as follows. The first, although uncontroversial, is unusual. He expects his cast to have learned their lines before they set foot in the rehearsal room. And when they get there, he does not (as most directors do) have a read-through of the text. This is because some actors will have done more preparation than others and he doesn’t like unsettling inequalities paraded. Instead, the acting starts straight away: ‘The longer you leave the physical challenge, the harder it is.’ (As an actor, he suffered from directors who would spend a fortnight discussing a play round the table before anyone got up to act)….

…Directing must never be dictating. Grandage sees himself as ‘an interpreter’. Sometimes, this involves knowing when not to speak. ‘A good director will have an exact idea of how a line might be spoken and must then make a swift judgment when he hears it done differently. ‘Is this as good a way of saying the line?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then his rule for himself is: ‘Don’t pipe up.’ If the line doesn’t work, he will ask questions, steer actors towards a rethink. He doesn’t criticise. He is determined actors should own their parts.”

He’s also directing Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut in 2006, which in an earlier version for a Paines Plough Wild Lunch is the only play I’ve “acted” inon the London stage (!)

  • 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