Thursday, 27 August 2015

In which I am the Moonfool

Dear Anna-Helena

It was lovely to meet you yesterday. I suppose it's not the usual way to initiate the whole 'critic and artist' dialogue', by snorting at each other like a pair of rutting hogs but, still, we both work at the cutting edge of our respective art-forms. Let me say that seeing your performance was the most intimate experience I've had in the past three years - especially when you undid all my shirt buttons - and I can still smell you on my hands. Wonderful.

I was wondering whether it's a breach of professionalism that spent most of last night stalking you on the internet - I was just trying to find out whether you are unattached because, frankly, I have a bit of a problem with distinguishing between reality and theatre these days. I do have a track record of ending up on stage at some point; recently, I've been kissed by many great drag queens (including Taylor Mac, which was amazing). But it was much better to have been picked out by a beautiful and talented woman.

I mean, I know you do this every night - it is part of the Titania cabaret - but when our eyes met... and I knew you were coming for me. Now, I am pretty loaded up on tablets these days, and they have tamed my libido... this is why I can do such dispassionate reviews of shows like The Illicit Thrill... but I'm not ashamed to say that be laid out in your bower was the highlight of my Fringe.

It's not just that you are into physical theatre - the way you embody the faerie is superb - or that you play the cello - I used to as well, and they say the cello is the most sensuous instrument. You take one of Shakespeare's most over familiar plays and rip it up, pluck out the sex war, and rescue Titania from being a bit-player in her own drama. 

That and the making of music through loops and vocal tricks... the cello both mournful and ecstatic, and the leaping joyously into desire and magic and roses and the audience and... me.

There, right at the back. Our eyes met. You came towards me. I grunted. You grunted. It was a snarl, a snarl of recognition, perhaps? The two spirits together in this material world. A longing to transcend the fictions of real and performed. Or is the battle between the faerie monarchs a fine metaphor for the clash between critic and artist...

But wait... I was Bottom in your play. The ass-headed fool, the pompous one who thinks he understands the stage but in fact slips into a world he cannot comprehend... and your bewitched and bewitching glamour contains me, seduces me for my dream to have no bottom.

To cling onto that moment... in your lap and I say I love you and I dream of you and... ah, that's the sound of laughter. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Jonathan Mills does not understand freedom of speech

I am very glad that Jonathan Mills is not the director of the Edinburgh International Festival. It's not his programming - the EIF will always be hit and miss, that's the nature of its scale - nor his fashion choices. Even his defensive attitude about his comment on the Referendum is fair enough. I just found him... odd.

It's something critics rarely mention, but when I interview somebody famous/cool/talented, it is a relief and a pleasure when they turn out to be interesting and interested. Recently, I was on the phone to that Philip Ridley, playwright, visual artist, film-maker and a man who has every right to dismiss me as the guttersnipe I am. But he was charming, well up for a chat, and generously let me grill him on dramaturgy way past the time needed for the 250 word article I intended to write.

Mills was the opposite. I'd meet him at social functions and, if we spoke, he'd always give me an extract from the speech he was about to give to the room. He came across as mechanical, ill at ease with conversation. My last memory of him was at the farewell party for him at the EIF. I spotted him in the corner, alone, looking like a sixth-former who had gate-crashed the party and was wishing he could talk to the older girls...

But there he was, on the panel at Walking the Tightrope. Every time he got the microphone, he lectured. He wasn't actually too bad, and was clear on his position. Those people, he said, who had disrupted Batsheva Dance... well, they liked to protest. But did they like to support? Were they there when, in 2008, he programmed a Palestinian company? 

Well, that's one objection to the boycotting of Israeli academics and artists. Mine is more simplistic: I believe a boycott is counter-productive. Being an anarchist, and to be consistent, I would have to boycott any artist who took money from the state, since the nation state is a nineteenth century fiction, a formalisation of feudal property rights into a capitalist commodity. 

Starting from October, I would also have to boycott myself for accepting funding from the UK state, which I believe is far too involved in the propagation of arms trading. 

Any road, at the end of the panel discussion, an old lady pipes up. She was one of the anti-Israeli protesters. She explained that she had been abused on the picket line. She added that she thought the behaviour of the Israeli state was so bad that it was more important to protest it than allow theatre performances to go ahead.

I don't agree, but I understand. If you believe that by stopping a hip hop opera in Edinburgh you can protect children in Gaza, and you fail to act on that, you are a moral idiot. I do not believe it works like that, but I am open to the idea that stopping genocide is more important than choreography.

But Mills asked her whether she had been there supporting the arts in 2008. She didn't know, and so Mills, with support from playwright Tim Fountain, mocked her for being a protester and not a supporter.


To be clear, two white men with microphones shouted down an elderly lady. They did not respect her position. They did not engage her in a dialogue. They used the power of the PA to drown her out.

That's not freedom of speech, Jonathan. It's bullying. There are no winners in the battle for freedom of expression. It doesn't work like that. 

Strangely enough, Mills begun his chat by saying that he'd enjoyed the plays in Walking the Tightrope (and they are great fun) because they used humour.

I'm glad he thinks that, because I have been laughing at him for years. 

I Defend A Fellow Critic, admit to paying for sex...

Few things have given me more pleasure during this year's Fringe than standing up in The List's office and announcing that I am off to see a prostitute. It might be antics like this that have led to my relocation to a small room just off the main office, where I sit next to the publisher, and can't distract my fellow workers.

And it was probably a lot less amusing the second time I did it...

Both menage and Hula House are intimate, site-specific (not in a theatre) shows about sex work. They have different aims - menage is a montage of verbatim stories, Hula is a polemic for legislation. They share the conceit of using a flat, however, to recreate the experience of a sexy visit to a lady of the night.

Mark Brown once described tragedy as all about sex and death. The attraction of shows about strippers and sex workers is probably sex and money. When those two team up, whacky adventures are sure to follow.

Anyway, I don't want to pick on Hula House - it doesn't quite work for me but the performers give a great deal and clearly believe in their message - and I don't want to defend Lyn Gardner. I am, however, going to do the latter, and hope it doesn't upset the two women who made this audacious work.

The Guardian being what it is, Gardner's scathing review is followed by comments (from people who have not seen the show) saying how her review is determined by her stance on sex work. They attack her on the grounds that she makes judgements, not arguments (there is a debate around which one of these is the critic's job), and observe that other people - Sally Stott - liked it. 

I think that's the same Sally Stott who spent one Fringe having a go at burlesque, and caused the most glamorous protest in Scottish history.

I don't know where my politics are on this. I haven't researched it. I'll have an opinion one day, when I spend a few hours reading up about it, and Hula House has certainly encouraged me to think about it.

But it is not Gardner's job - and she does not actually do this - to say whether the politics are wrong or right. Her job is a theatre critic and she does critique the performance. 

So, I am going to talk about my experience of Hula House again, and dwell on one moment.

It is the moment when they have a quiz and ask: who has paid for sex?

Mum? Stop reading now.

I put up my hand, alone of all the room. Not because I have, obviously.

No, look, really, I haven't. I'm not saying it is wrong for women to sell sex, not at all, just that... I don't pay for theatre tickets, I'm the homeless critic, do you think I can afford it? And I do have a problem with the commodification of intimacy.

Also, my medication has killed my libido.

Anyway, I put up my hand, expecting to be engaged in a witty banter about where and when (I had this really cool answer, too), but they just went onto something else.

I was left with my hand up in front of my colleague and friend Joyce MacMillan. I had humiliated myself. I blushed. I realised that everyone in the room was thinking the same thing about me.

The question was pointless - don't ask if you don't care, and how did this move the action forward? Sure, feeling uncomfortable was part of the process, and I guess it is a rare thing for me to feel. Later on, I was sat on a bed with one of the actors all tied up next to me. I probably ought to have felt uncomfortable then. But I was admiring the colour scheme of her red and black cuffs.

Hula House aren't the only company guilty of this, but sometimes the dramaturgical choices - in this case, the decision to make the show immersive - are not always considered. 

And the content never justifies weak structure, or abusing the trust of the audience. In fact, not thinking it through is the only abuse of trust possible in theatre.

Discuss. I'm not sure about that last statement. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Fringe Mansplained!

I have a very strict rule when talking about feminism: it always has to have an adjective. Saying a work is 'feminist' is both too simple and too complicated.

It's simple because it reduces feminism to a monolithic block of thought. It's complicated because it fails to open up conversations about what that description actually means.

So, as a reminder of how great patriarchy is, I am going to list a performance feminist top five... and label each show with an adjective to say what kind of feminism it represents. 

Before I go on: if you want to read proper feminist blog...


First up: Smooth Faced Gentlemen

I dig this company because their name sounds like a hip hop crew. They do all-female versions of Shakespeare. This year they have Titus  and Othello. Some genius on The List has lumped them in with some other female companies - he's such a lazy writer - but what feminism are they?

Well, turns out this is hard. A single adjective is not enough. 

The feminism that looks at gender by switching male to female and vice versa, and seeing what happens. 

Experimental Feminism.

Moving swiftly on: Desiree Burch

It is unlikely that I am going to shut up about Tar Baby in the next three years. I have a total art crush on Burch, and my interview with her has me being schooled by her. I usually worry about the USA's cultural imperialism but I want her to stay in Scotland forever and preach.

The feminism that recognises the intersectionality of race and gender and challenges cultural norms.

Dynamic Feminism.

The next show: Pole

This show deserves props not just for messing with expectations of what a midnight pole-dance show can be, but also for their support of Eaves Charity. They have not just taken the words of dancers and used him to get a theatrical thrill... they are helping fight trafficking of women.

The feminism that is ready to put money where its mouth is.

Activist Feminism.

The Penultimate: Fiona Soe Paing

Is a work a priore feminist because a woman made it? Or is feminism is the moment of connection between audience and art? Or am I making a list of cool stuff by women and using 'feminism' as a tag to link them? I have a slight obsession with the wooden doll that is the image of this show... but a woman in the macho world of electronic music is worth celebrating, especially when they never get booked at festivals.


The feminism that works in a medium dominated by men.

Subversive Feminism.

And finally: Diane Torr

I saw Donald...  at Buzzcut. Wait for the finale if you fancy seeing a layered male to female to female to male... she makes it complicated... so Diane does Donald doing Dusty. She also does Man for A Day workshops, with gives context to the show (as the show gives context to her remarkable career).

The feminism that messes with strict gender identities, reminding that it is all performed.

Torr Feminism.

There we go, Ladies. Feminism explained. I don't know what the fuss was about...






Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Freedom of Speech: The Chancellor is not on drugs at all

Despite bragging that I am an anarchist every five minutes, I do recognise that the British Democratic System does allow some degree of freedom of speech. For example, Jeremy Corbyn gets to go on television, get the left all excited at the prospect of a socialist being in charge, before he goes on to get slaughtered in a General Election, thanks to the deeply unfair First Past the Post system. Protest is okay, as long as not too many people do it (then they become a mob), and it is contained within the existing processes. 

Another thing I think is great: drugs. I love my drugs. When I have a headache, sweet codeine takes away the pain. Then there's the one I take for acid reflux, plus the anti-depressant which stops me from getting withdrawals from the anti-depressant, and a couple more to monitor my diabetes. 

Without drugs, I would probably be on a constant sugar rush, or in a coma, or aware of my innate alienation caused by the soullessness of late consumerism. Drugs are good.

This intriguing combination of enthusiams brings me to someone I don't like much. George Osbourne. There is a rumour - and a conspiracy theory - that Gorgeous George liked his drugs, too. 
Here socialist stand up Dennis Skinner accuses him of snorting coke, before getting told to leave the Commons by what appears to be a Latin teacher who can't control his students.

Then there is this video: hardly proof, but the look on his face is hilarious.


  Then there is the revelations by one of his former friends - it was in The News of the World. The documentary gets into murky waters - although they missed a trick by not noticing that George was pals with a Sinclair, from the aristocratic family who always seem to turn up in those wild history books about The Templars.