Tag Archives: theatre blog

Whatever happened to Baby Jane (née Theatre Criticism)?

Bette_Davis_and_Joan_Crawford_in_Whatever_Happened_to_Baby_Jane_trailer

Theatre Criticism is in crisis and this isn’t something new. Financial issues, the shift from print to online and the emergence of theatre blogs etc have all had their impact. However, there is another issue that is going unaddressed and that is, the hush hush muzzling of the critic.

Opportunities for  emerging critics are few and far between and so, many are opting to create their own platforms and use social media to promote and disseminate their reviews. However, there seems to be an unspoken rule that makes writers uncomfortable with writing negative reviews. The idea of writing a negative review conjures feelings of anxiety about: how it will be received, whether or not you’ve the knowledge and competency to say such things, concerns about the backlash, worries about upsetting the company in question, fear of rocking the boat and, feeling as though you’re not established enough to be the Craig Revel Horwood of criticism. All of these feelings are valid however, how much of an influence have external sources had in forging these feelings? Probably quite a lot.

Let’s start with rocking the boat. There are multiple media platforms around Britain that do not allow negative comments about plays in their reviews. If as critics we are only supposed to write a positive and/or polite commentary of every piece of theatre we see, we may as well take off our hats and hand them to the PR team.

Criticism, by definition, is about assessing the merits and flaws of a piece. And of course, the merits are raved about by default. But what happens when a piece is flawed from beginning to end and arguably inherently problematic? Are you supposed to right good things based on what others have said or on what the company was trying to do? Or maybe write a synopsis with a polite dig at the end? Or maybe just don’t write anything at all? Should you decide to write a very negative review, you have volunteered yourself to walk a very thin line and possibly sacrifice your credibility as a writer and that’s because credibility isn’t what it used to be. Just like Sunny D was pulled from our shelves and returned with the same branding yet a completely different taste, criticism is slowly becoming a going through the (positive) motions participatory activity, rather than an observational, analytical commentary. How did we end up here?

Fear of becoming a car crash and theoretically upsetting the establishment is what led us here. If you’re not one of the high flyers yet, one review is unlikely to have a national impact on how a piece of art is perceived and if it does, well that says something about the art, the critic and the audiences of the two. A negative review with no point to it will sink relatively quickly but, one that has a point may well gather some momentum and cause people to have some conversations (and prompting discussion has its plus points). You may well be branded the devil incarnate by a whole wealth of people but, your duty here is to your audience and the art form as a whole, not to individual artists. If a piece of art empowers you and people like you, you’ll push that boat right out into the sea so, if a piece of art offends and dehumanises you surely you are allowed to do the same? You have agency over your words. The pressure to give everything a more mellow tone to ‘take the edge off’ is a washed up means by which to limit freedom of opinion, pigeonhole us into a writing in a template that leans towards regurjitating tired, standardised views and, it stagnates the positive changes occurring in theatre.

Theatre is moving – it is growing and it is slowly dismantling its elitist roots and this is something we all need to see. So many theatres are making the active effort to welcome in new audiences and diversify their productions and staffing structures. These changes are huge, necessary and encouraging. So when you spot a piece of theatre that does the complete opposite, if you wish to, you have every right to call it out and challenge its message. You have the right to write what you feel and place it in the public sphere. Not everyone will agree with you, you know this. In fact, most people will disagree with you. But, there’ll a lot of people who do agree with you but didn’t feel that they could air such an opinion. To clarify, criticism isn’t a voice of the people but, it is a possible window into a world that still only attracts certain types of people and makes acknowledgement of the audiences who aren’t sitting in theatres.

Theatre criticism was like Baby Jane (full of spark and potential) and it can be that again – but, writing critical honest letters to our audiences may be a more transformative (though controversial) venture than simply pretending to write a heart felt letter to daddy.

 

Tagged , , , ,

Review: The People Are Singing, Royal Exchange

The People Are Singing

The People Are Singing by Lizzie Nunnery

Royal Exchange, Manchester [07.04.2017]

A tin tub with some cargo net. Some coloured rope. Three photographs. A tally chart counting nothing. A man lighting candles. A child skipping.

Distant memories of childhood games immerse us in a younger world view in Lizzie Nunnery’s new play. We observe a twelve year old girl, Irina skipping and playing hop scotch. But, at unexpected instances her actions and thoughts are no longer her own  – trauma is her puppet master and fear, her strings. This external domination of Irina’s choices only grows as the piece progresses. What starts as an external war to their small home, grows into an indoor war in which Olena (the mother) demands that Irina sing everything away for her, this war lapses when Olena is shot by Dima, a strange man who comes into the house offering safety, food, a ‘home’. A new war is waged as Irina runs away to escape Dima and ends up in a highly original forbidden forest, en route to a freedom she has only ever imagined.

Whilst this piece possesses a strong narrative, it is its physicality, poetry, sound and visual artistry that make it a poignant piece of theatre. Irina’s poetic monologues take us on a harrowing journey in which she begins to question her actions and who their purposes pertain to. These pieces alongside a soundscape that removes the need for specific physical props, gives us a true sense of immersion into this abraded landscape and unsettling forest.

The movements within this piece highlight the characters relationships to the warped world in which they are living and express the proximity in sensation between fear and excited pleasure: each time Irina throws her arms out, are these sensations what she perceives them to be or are they crafted externally. Theses mixed emotions are almost like a replica of the state of uncertainty that arises when you are not sure whether or not you are having a panic attack.

The accompanying strong element of visual arts only builds on this experience. The use of bungee cords (in the colours of the Ukrainian flag) as household items, undergrowth, outdoor games, and a physical expression of both internal and external limitations imposed on us, gives the piece a continued identity – which starkly contrasts with the decomposing identities of all of the characters.

The People Are Singing leaves us questioning ways to respond to wrong doing and whether it is right to do the thing that is most truthful. The snapshot experience we have through a little girl’s eyes also brings us to consider what truly crafts one’s identity in childhood and how this is impeded by the cold light of trauma.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Review: Nothing, Royal Exchange

Screenshot 2017-04-20 22.28.52

Photo by Fureya Nelson-Riggot

You know a play is dark, when you leave the theatre with that “i’m not okay” kind of feeling. You know a play is really dark, when you leave in a state of indescribable distress and an inability to articulate the state that you are in. If a play triggers me (especially if it happens on multiple occasions throughout its duration), I usually refuse to write about it. But. But, Nothing. Nothing is exactly that, it is something that needs to be talked about and experienced in all of its catastrophic disturbances because Nothing matters. Every dark tale weaved into this distorted, Rubix coated search for meaning, reminds us why we are here, why we matter and why we are more than our experiences. I am not going to go into detail about the plot of Nothing, but I will give you a list of some of the objects of reference (to meaning) in the piece and allow you to join up the dots: antidepressants, a hamster, a finger, a pair of trainers, a diary, a dvd box set, a t-shirt, a phone, a dog’s head and virginity.

In playing with levels, the elements, physicality and close proximity delivery, this production places the audience right in its centre. You are not the fly on the wall, but the fly free to roam the room and feel all kinds of sensations that you may or may not want to engage with.

Did I enjoy this play? No.

Is it an exceptional piece of theatre that breaks the mould and stays with you once you’ve left the space, in a very real way? Yes.

And for that reason, I do not regret experiencing this. It has pushed me to reassess how much my experiences matter to me and how I let them shape me. It has compelled me to think about what really matters because when nothing matters, everything matters. Nothing is to be commended for its challenging nature, a story that truly makes you ache and an amazingly talented cast.

 

P.S. Shout out to Annie Rogers who played Sophie – you made me cry.

Tagged , , , , ,

Review: The Wedding, Northern Stage

IMG_20170401_191905_405

The Wedding by Gecko             Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

The trials and tribulations of marriages of all sorts are brought to light, dismantled and re-conjugated in Gecko’s newest offering, The Wedding. New arrivals drop onto the stage after a whirlwind romance overheard by the audience as though we have a glass against a dorm room wall. They shoot out of a tunnel slide and land in a pile of misplaced and forgotten innocence – each arrival leaves their teddy bear on the pile and goes in pursuit of their dream dress and their contractual existence. Gecko use their trademark physicality to shift between time and space, and escort us on a journey of overrun offices filled with overenthusiastic and overworked staff. Within this frenzied atmosphere that resembles a poetic wall street hosting a brief case endowed nu wave cha cha slide, we experience relationships. Each is shared between two characters and we feel everything from anger and love, to confusion and loss. We are there with them. And reminded of every occasion that we wanted – no needed – to scream, to be held, to let go, to get out, to be seen, to belong. To be.

It is rare that you go to the theatre and experience an ensemble being and then laughing, and then being whilst laughing. The final moment of The Wedding will stay with me for a long time. As the cast brought their chairs to the stage edge, set them down and let their lights come up, they made the most beautiful body percussion which brought every emotion to the surface. I was compelled to join in, not because I was happy, but because I could truly feel. I could feel despite limitations that I have placed on myself and that others have placed upon me.

When I saw The Institute a few years back, I thought it was the most incredible piece of physical theatre I had ever seen. Now having seen The Wedding, I have concluded that Gecko have a way with movement as Margaret Atwood has a way with words. Awaiting their next offering with anticipation…

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Review: The Suppliant Woman, Royal Exchange

33454568725_d7008a0553

The Suppliant Woman by Aeschylus       Royal Exchange, Manchester

It’s not often you get to say that you watched a play that is 2500 years old. So, I’ll say it now: I watched a play that is 2500 years old. Aeschylus’ opening and only living remainder of his lost trilogy is an epic that shares the story of 50 Egyptian women fleeing their country to escape the grips of the cousins they are betrothed to, and heading to Greece to seek sanctuary.

35 young women fill the round – singing, chanting, dancing, praying and seeking. As they move with grace and intention, we see each of these women’s individual qualities and quirks emerge. The strong collective energy of this ensemble creates a definitive sense of unity and commitment to both one another and their cause. However, the energy ceases there.

This is supposedly a play about women’s rights and empowerment but whilst there is an attempt at an exploration of the former, the latter was lacking to say the least. In the presence of the men, the women were more often than not kneeling and hanging on their words – this is not an example of empowerment, it is an example of why we still need feminism. Taking in to consideration the time at which this play was written, it is not surprising that patriarchy takes a dominant place within its structure. However, surely a modern day take on this theatrical relic could have been more aware of itself and the message it is giving to an audience. The dominance of the male characters and the women’s dependency on their decisions cannot be overcast by their choral singing. If anything, it is a reminder that, within patriarchal structures, women challenging the status quo are perceived as noise and nothing more. This is a falsehood that needs to be challenged and it was unfortunate that whilst this challenge proposed itself through the physicality of the piece, it failed to follow through on this hopeful spark.

I did not leave The Suppliant Woman feeling empowered. Empowerment is a development in strength, confidence and power, it is growth in one’s ability to make their own decisions and move forward. The stagnation of progress expressed in this piece left me feeling tired – tired of the long road ahead. But, it also left me even more confident that a feminist revolution is what will evoke change.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,