Thursday, 30 June 2011

I first appreciated Junction 25 during their astonishing examination of family ties, From Where I Am Standing. While it might not have been as blisteringly vicious as last year’s Teenage Riot—in fact, it is a rather gentle, respectful piece—it revealed a Scottish company that were taking on the lessons of the Europeans who had been visiting Tramway for the past twenty years. Devised work that came directly from the lives of the performers, confident episodes performed by accomplished actors, an atmosphere of fun and complicity between the stage and the audience: it almost seemed irrelevant that J25 are a youth theatre.

Jess Thorpe (Artistic Director)

We started Junction 25 as a response to our feeling about the need to represent the voices of young people in contemporary performance. There seemed to be a lot of theatre schools working with traditional forms but little that saw young people speaking for themselves about their own experience in their own time. Then it was  about delivering this work within a 'professional' context so that an audience might be able to view it as more than a participatory experience but also as a valid piece of art in its own right. 

We were lucky in that this feeling corresponded with Tramway's wanting to develop a group for young people that reflected its programming at the time.

At first it was a challenge for us to find ways to communicate a new style of working for young people. It wasn't about changing the ideas or making the work 'less rigorous' or 'less difficult' it was about finding the right way to have conversations about experimental art with people who had never been seen it before. It was exciting to introduce new methods as young people often think about theatre in one way - as being a character or 'acting' because it is the dominant form and most of their experience. It was hard for some of them to imagine what was interesting about 'just being themselves' but in time this has changed and the culture of the group really helps to support new members as they discover the way we work together.

The style of working has clear similarities with the work of Glas(s) Performance: in some ways is inevitable but it is important to recognize the distinction - Junction 25 is our collaboration with young people. It does not mean 'Jess and Tashi'. It means what we do together - a collective. It means young people trying out new ideas and working together to explore the world in which they experience. They need to and can speak for themselves. 

Megan (Performer)

I like how the how the show explores lots of different types of love, its not just about the typical romantic love. The devising process of the show was challenging but once we gained momentum the show came together in no time. Its such a personal show, its defiantly one of my favourites because it is all about us, our experiences. One of the challenges was trying to connect all the different stories together and make sure it was fluid, but thankfully we pulled it together, it makes me proud to be in it. 

Scott Ramage (Performer)

When the concept of the show was first announced as love I was a little unsure what to expect, although when we got started I knew straight away it wasn't just going to be about romantic love.  I was surprised as one of the first things we decided on was the name but when Nathan came out with "I Hope My Heart Goes First" quite a few people actually said "That's it".  Throughout the coming months we had a large sheet of paper spread across a wall and we all wrote ideas and feelings on it for the performance, none refused or removed.  This was then the catalyst for more activities breeding more ideas and eventually performances.  

The activities were usually either performance or question based but we still had ideas out of games that we played.  By the end we had a show. 

The King of The Stabbed Up Nation

If theatre has a purpose beyond entertainment – which is increasingly a by-word for freak show or sentimental exploitation of ambition – it can engage with political and social issues. My own tastes prefer something more intimate and personal: dance is always good for an abstract take on emotions or ideas, and explicitly “issue-based” drama is all too frequently blunt. Nevertheless, the strong Caledonian tradition of realism, leading back to the recently revived Men Should Weep and through Trainspotting, is still healthy.

Scottish theatre has reacted energetically to the political shifts of recent years: ironically, two of the strongest responses have come from plays that have roots in the past. Wee Andy, a short play that emerged from the Greek-style tragedy of Fleeto and King of Scotland, re-engineered from a previous Fringe success, and now with added celebrity satirist Jonathan Watson, both grapple with the hard realities of financial and social depravation.

While Fleeto has a rough-hewn poetry, Wee Andy is a savage blast of frustration. The victimised hero hardly speaks, and much of the script consists of angry lectures, political diatribes and coarse social analysis: author Paddy Cuneen is clearly frustrated by the lack of political will to clean up knife crime and the society that perpetuates it. A grim piece of gritty realism, it is a direct, simple polemic.

Wee Andy is disappointingly dogmatic: there are few gradations of good and evil, and Cuneen's rage fails to suggest a solution, beyond perpetuating a vigilante cycle. Yet this immediacy might be the point: without a clear statement of disgust, can the horror of a slashed up, fucked up generation really be expressed?

The King of Scotland dwells in no less a deprived estate, but the hero’s madness slips into a magic realist world of talking dogs and flying taxis. Watson is confident in the monologue: he lends the descent into an insanity a friendly familiarity, and failed romance and social exclusion  combine to describe a life lived without purpose and false hope. If the final delusion of royalty is a hackneyed stereotype  - madness is rarely recognisable once it reaches the stage as anything more than a blunt metaphor – The King of Scotland takes a wry glance at Scotland’s self-image and the empty rhetoric of social improvement.

Although there is a clear reason why this theatrical vision of madness is unhelpful – it hardly helps dispel the stigma of mental ill-health if a vague, and amusing, craziness is substituted for the representation of psychological sickness – it allows The King of Scotland to poke at the underlying delusions beneath the romantic ideals of political positivity. Without a clear villain, The King pictures a disintegrating society, sugar-coating the message through humour. And by playing in a more abstract territory, it asks broader questions about how the decline of an entire class has been connived at by a political class more interested in the talk than the walk.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Welcome to Edinburgh, Fringe Fans

It may just be wilful patriotism, yet I am tempted to make my annual Edinburgh Fringe Preview an all Scottish spectacular. I’m not ignoring international performance – if it says Belgian or Czech on the label, I’m first in the queue– but I’d like to remind the hoards of London-based performers and agents and PRs and promoters that wee Caledonia can do quite nicely without their annual invasion.

My inbox currently receives around twenty emails an hour, each containing dreams of success, arrogant claims about the future of theatre, promises of sex, alongside appeals for reviews. I haven’t been this popular since I logged into an adult chat site as “22-36-22DirtyBabe”.  I do love the Fringe – it is a rare chance to indulge my joy in unpopular, awkward theatre, and catch up with the latest excuses for on-stage nudity. However, there is something unsettling in the sheer amount of performance, most of which will end up seen by two men, a student critic and a bored technician. The only way to be successful in the Fringe is either to be an established comedian or own real estate.

That said, my nationalist inclinations allow me to concentrate on shows that I feel confident to support. The Tron showcased A Slow Air as part of Mayfesto, Cryptic’s Orlando got its premiere at Glasgay!, in the same week as Fish and Game heralded a new use for the iPad through Alma Mater. Even these three demonstrate how Scottish performance has diversified beyond the simple script as template: A Slow Air is a reassuringly intimate two-hander by Glasgow’s master of linguistic detail, David Harrower; Orlando follows Cryptic’s distinctive passion for music and technological experiment; Alma Mater is am ambiguous reflection on education and childhood that uses film to evoke ghostly presence. All of these shows share a fascination with the possibilities of self-conscious performance, tapping away at the inherent unreality of theatre.

Harrower deliberately disconnects his two actors, letting them describe their mutual love and hate directly to the audience. Although the two characters, a brother and sister, seem to be dwelling on a family argument, Harrower subtly weaves larger themes – the split between generations, the rivalry between East and West coasts, the mixed blessings of personal history, the redemption power of absurd conflicts – into their homely, defensive chatter. Without making huge statements, and capturing the nuance of sibling compassion, Harrower champions the traditional script as the blue-print for a moving, intimate performance.

Orlando is a far more expansive work, even if it is a solo for one actor. Originally staged with live music, it mixes Virginia Woolf’s magic realist story of an immortal transsexual, cutting edge computer graphics and an electronica soundtrack to remystify the text, revealing fragments of passion, beauty and insight within the century spanning narrative. It is exceptionally hi-tech for the Fringe, intensely serious and blinding in its neon beauty: Cryptic are as fascinated by the image as the word as the music, and while Orlando is familiar from the superb Sally Potter film, this version’s transformative, hallucinatory rhythms cuts to a mystical heart.

Fish and Game are “Scotland’s Live Art supergroup”: Alma Mater, ironically, is a video performance. Originally a site-specific “guide” to Glasgow’s Scotland Street school museum, it has been displaced to Remarkable Arts’ Edinburgh church venue. Refusing to fall for either clich├ęs about the greatest days of your life, or school as bullying hell, Alma Mater is beautifully balanced between celebration and critique and uses the iPad as a tool to layer reality with a supernatural resonance.

 Witty and moving, it is a reminder that experimental theatre can bypass theatrical artifice for an immediate, compassionate, emotional hit.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Wrong and Long: Not a Relationship Update

Four Hours of Drone was never going to offer too many surprises: drone has a habit of doing exactly what it suggests it will. There are, broadly, two types of drone. One is the type that sounds like a politician left alone in a  recording studio: insistent, repetitious, monophonic, dreary. Then there is good drone.  Apart from explaining how it gets made - tonight is mostly electronic, with an acoustic guitar finale and multiple cassette players generating a more interactive section - there isn't much to say about it, musically. It finds a level, and pulses.

I might be off-beam, but I think that Long and Wrong are not trying to compete with the last Saturday at The GSA: FHoD offers a listening atmosphere, not a selection of dance hits. I drift in and out of the music, and whenever I go outside, I am assaulted by how hectic the CCA bar seems. Even mellow conversation sounds like a BNP discussion about allowing Asian membership. I take a stroll down Sauchiehall Street. It appears to be populated by very busy trolls and elves. I hurry - as far as my biorhythmic ecstasy allows me - back to the CCA. Just like that time when I heard Capella Nova sing Hildegard  in church, or I sacked out at Instal 10, my body chemistry was pumping out something very interesting.

So, if the drone gets abrasive, my thoughts become melancholic and frustrated. When the drone is smooth, I relax. The drone musician isn't trying to hook an audience. They guide.

Inevitably, I find myself drowning in my subconscious. It's like some forms of Live Art. It doesn't communicate clearly but invokes a highly subjective response. An hour's drone a day on Radio One would go a long way towards encouraging a more contemplative society. It might also frighten most of the population, leaving them struggling for a way in, an explanation. Yes, it's a bit like music - on acid.

When I focus on the sound, the slightest details or shifty becomes important. When I let my thoughts float on the music, I trail off into self-examination. It's a handy corrective to the compressed mayhem of modern media  overload.

Long and Wrong are having fun, developing a very different sort of performance space. One day, when my dreams of a post-modern cabaret are fulfilled, I'll have a drone act instead of a disco. In the meantime, I am looking out for their next event: if the blog is any guide, they are moving deeper into experimental territory, a DIY version of Arika.

So You Think You Can Capture Dance on Television?

Please browse away now if you don't want to hear the result.

The phrase "contemporary dance" contains no meaning.

Attempts to define dance often end in bitter arguments or a reductio ad absurdum. Contemporary used to be a short-hand for "not ballet". These days, companies that share ballet's emphasis on line, musicality, discipline or training undermine even that thin sliver of meaning.

I watched So You Think You Can Dance? Last Night.

For every contestant, the answer is "yes, I can."

They did solos that lasted about a minute, contained a trick or two, and expressed nothing.

They did duets - the only one I can even remember was called Prom Night, and garbled big band jazz and 1950s Americana.

A big panel of experts pontificated. I'm all for the critic being given more importance than the performance - it is the foundation of my every application to Creative Scotland. Yet this sanctified the structure of the post show discussion, in which everything gets addressed to the performers and nothing about the performance gets expanded into a broader discussion.

The audience did that screaming thing, which means "I like you personally, but haven't got an opinion on the qualitative value of the work."

The dancers were reduced to crowd-pleasing tricksters.

Cat Deeley bellowed.

They did some things they called contemporary dance. They were a bit like Kate Bush videos. I like Kate Bush, and I liked the way she danced back in the 1980s.

However, I wouldn't suggest that the video to Wuthering Heights became the foundation of a movement within dance in the way that Yvonne Rainer or Isadora Duncan might have done.

I have always regarded television as a poor media. It flattens. It fragments.

SYTYCD, by using contemporary dance, becomes another problem in using the phrase to mean anything.

When I was a lad, I liked art that disorientated. By that aesthetic, I ought to love SYTYCD. I try to write about it, but the format, the content, the atmosphere baffle me.

Ideas float in and out. Nothing develops. Opinions are static hiss.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kirk Attacks Vile: Dunsinane II

Gareth K Vile’s review of Dunsinane might be agreeable in the dramatic specifics – good performances, well written, a mixture of grand tragedy and comic interludes – but his regionalist sympathies have blinded him to the political meaning of David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth. For all the humanist sympathy for the English squaddies, who kill and die for a cause they barely understand, the relationship between England and Scotland is repeatedly shown as unequal and abusive.

Above all, England is clearly an invader: it is English troops that ravage the countryside, and an English leader who worries about an unstable Scotland. The brutality of the second act – children are killed and quartered, entire villagers are massacred – is precipitated by the thwarted passions and good intentions of the English commander. When the Scottish clans respond with a medieval version of suicide bombing, which stresses the link between past English adventures and modern jaunts into the Middle East, it is the desperate violence of the dispossessed. Greig, a visitor to Palestine, is not unaware of the parallels and pressures that lead to extremism.

Scotland is depicted as both geographically and culturally different to England. The soldiers’ descriptions of the landscape, poetic and precise, contrast the mountains and snow with the flat and warmth of England. Their desire to integrate – seduce local girls -  is thwarted by a language barrier. The English commander Siwald, a warrior who looks for peace, is disgusted by King Malcolm because he does not understand the nuance of clan rivalry.  What appears to him as decadence is merely a way to avoid violence. Malcolm’s strategy, of being too ineffectual to attract envy or threat, is familiar to anyone who has caught the 38 bus across Glasgow on a Saturday night. The relentless English insistence on honesty and reason leads to the resumption of a civil war. The message is clear: the two nations do things differently, and England’s presence is a disaster.

Greig is quite obviously more sympathetic to the moderate, and dishonest, characters. Malcolm, and Siward’s assistant, have different moral compasses, and this allows them to survive in the chaos. Like heroes from a Grahame Green novel, they lack the sort of intensity that makes them tragic, yet they do less harm. When Greig moves Siwald and Lady Macbeth to their dramatic finale, the echoes of Greek tragedy insist on the consistent message of Sophocles: it is better to small than great.

If Macbeth is an obvious source, Greig is dealing with more ancient plays: the tragic ending brilliantly recalls Virgil’s Aeneid IV, as Lady Macbeth’s appeal to future generations echoes Dido’s curse on Aeneas. For Virgil, this explained the violent enmity between the Carthaginians and the Romans: here, Greig mythologizes the Anglo-Scottish bitterness. And like Virgil, Greig recognises the importance of the poet in defining a nation.

That Greig avoids the obvious – Malcolm is no English stooge, and Lady Macbeth is not stripped of her malevolent majesty – and pictures a complex nation, prone to self-harm and proud. Not naive enough to see nationhood as simple, nor willing to relinquish a common humanist compassion, Greig rescues nationalism from the politicians that Gareth K Vile despises.

Dunsinane: Uncut

Although Dave Greig’s sequel to Macbeth imagines a Scotland occupied by an English army, and tautly deconstructs the brutality inherent in even the most honourable military morality, Dunsinane is a wryly understated argument against Scottish cultural independence. Co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre of Scotland, with a cast drawn from England and Scotland, this engaged drama by Caledonia’s most prominent playwright depends on the original by Albion’s master of the stage for its emotional impact, while Greig’s own honesty prevents him from caricaturing the English as oppressors. While it traces the roots of Border Warfare back to an mythical aetiology, the tension between the neighbouring nations is more an offshoot of Scotland’s fratricidal battles and the invaders’ lack of cultural sensitivity than any inherent conflict between two countries.

Politics is far too important to be left to politicians and media commentators: Greig’s nuanced reading of the tensions between states and individuals clearly demonstrates how theatre encourages more complex analysis. By firmly identifying with the soldiers caught up in a battle they do not understand, rescuing Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s slanders and giving English commander Siward a tragic depth that compels him to do evil in the service of a perceived greater good, Greig is neither sentimental about Scotland’s past, nor unwilling to draw parallels with modern global conflicts. Echoes of military adventures in the Middle East, and the revolutions in Africa draw no easy conclusions: the new broom is already tarnished and corrupt, and the defeated tyranny remains potent and popular. If there is a message, it is a plea for rounded vision.

Running at over two hours, Dusinane consists of two plays, somewhat uneasily joined: a tragicomedy of the troops, and the almost classical tragedy of Siward and Lady Macbeth. Part medieval Blackwatch and part bold rewriting of Scottish legend, some of the characterisation, especially of King Malcolm is too inconsistent, bending to the demands of the themes: and the humour often sits uneasily with the more melodramatic confrontations. The acting, although brilliant across the cast, is uneven in tone: Brian Ferguson’s decadent monarch is dryly hilarious, where Jonny Phillips pulls off Shakespearean grandeur. But while they never coalesce as an ensemble, they lend the play an uneasy tone, echoing the broader sense of political confusion. And in those moments where it works, as in a sudden shift from flirtatious banter to suicidal terrorism, it heightens the emotional impact.

Greig may not be imitating Shakespeare, but the debt he owes to Macbeth emphasises that this is a self-conscious attempt to make a major Scottish play. That it is built on an English original serves to stress the way that Scottish identity is tangled in a wider British identity: the passages of Gaelic, and the brilliant use of traditional song, combine with the English squaddies’ alienation from the Highlands to locate Scotland as not merely English with an accent, and further complicates Greig’s take on nationhood. Fierce and thoughtful, intelligent and inconclusive, Dunsinane may be Greig’s most important work to date, and he is never disappointed by either the production or the performers.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Although his producer Harry has betrayed him by heading off to Cornwall for a weekend in the surf, Vile has taken this week's show very seriously. He is digging out tracks by Can and Lydia Lunch to preview upcoming gigs, inviting guest presenters from the worlds of contemporary dance and science fiction, buffing up his interviews with the cast of the NTS' Dunsinane and extending invitations to Flatrate Theatre, Virginia Gallery, Nick Spaghetti (who is bringing North American War ) and Andrea Marini. As usual, he takes Harry's holiday as an excuse to overload the Hour. 

"We've been running the show for nearly six months now," he begins. "In that time, Harry and I have made the move from spending two hours talking about the tunes we have just played and what party he is crashing that weekend towards something that vaguely mirrors the dynamic hustle of Glasgow. And yet..." He trails off into silence.

"It's not enough?"

"I did this list of all of our guests a few weeks ago. That was the first time I realised what we were doing. I mean, I have always had this vision: an online radio show that brought together the arts communities of the West Coast, that bickered with Pop Goes The Revolution about South West identity, matched an efficient technology hipster against a balding performance critic and leapt between local bands and contemporary classical music. But now... there is something, just at the edge of my sight, a looming presence."

"Don't the pills help with that?" 

"It is all very well to address my anxiety through medication. It's Glasgow that is the problem. It's the second biggest centre of the arts in the UK, after London, and I can't cover it all. This week, we go visual art through the Virginia Gallery - "

"An exhibition of Painted Ladies? How very Vile Arts."

"Then Flatrate are actually doing what I wish more theatre groups would do: getting their work into the pubs. We go all National with Dunsinane, over to Edinburgh for some Mutationpress action with Mark Harding. As for music, I only heard of Andrea Marini on Twitter this week, and I have a new guest for the show."

"That might say more about your knowledge than anything else. I take it you have heard of The North American War?"

"I am their friends on MySpace."

"But what do you really want to do?"

"I want to tell the world about Glasgow."

"And get sponsorship for your hare-brained schemes, no doubt. Anyway," said the doctor, removing his rubber gloves. "You can pull your trousers up now and I'll see you next month."

War On Art "Will Be Over By Christmas" Promise Shady Cabal

A highly sinister group of celebrities, who cannot be named due to super-injunctions, have declared that their "war on art" is entering its final stages.

The cabal, who influence policy by making contributions to political parties and writing open letters to newspapers and the government, have been instrumental in the ongoing battle against people leaving their homes and watching live performance since the invention of television.

"Like all wars, this one has been good for the economy and has propelled technological innovation," announced a figure wearing a football shirt. "When we began our campaign, we relied on poor transport infrastructures and some black and white films of a potter's wheel. Now we have the internet, cable pumping out shit on an infinite number of channels and a systematic attack on arts funding. We are almost sorry to announce our victory."

The cabal went on to admit that pockets of resistance were a necessary consequence of the triumph. "By leaving isolated groups of cabaret, theatre and music performers at large, we are able to cream them off to create the next generation of light entertainment minor irritants."

Although it was controversial at the time, amongst the five or six people who noticed it, the War Against Art is regarded as a necessity across the political spectrum. Live Performance is seen to encourage groups of people to assemble in public places and either enjoy themselves and thereby create a community outside of easy consumer control, or engage in a contemplative manner with serious issues.

There have been serious setbacks over the years. In the late 1980s, Rave Culture inspired a generation to take drugs and dance about in fields, while making vague gestures towards a culture of equality and creativity. Luckily, the ill-formed laws against repetitive beats combined with a campaign to glamorise binge drinking to dissolve this fragile community into competing groups of serious electronica fans and pissed up clubbers.

However, the Government, which somehow has the same policies whoever gets voted in, demonstrated a rare example of joined up thinking by expanding the public subsidy for arts in a time of prosperity. Not only did this distract many artists from making political work, it encouraged grant junkies and administrative staff to out-number the actual artists within the arts. When the funding started to be cut, many artists were no longer able to imagine ways of funding their projects, and joined Facebook groups instead of considering Performative ways of protesting.

"It's been a difficult half century," admitted one source. "But now we can all get back to watching TV and buying crap off the internet."

I'd Skip this One, if I Were You

Most of the time, I call myself a Platonist  - which makes those frequent comments by women that they would like to remain “platonic friends” all the more ironic. In reality, this means that I once read The Republic and got over-excited by the deconstruction of ideas: in practice, I wander about shouting that we are all living under a delusion enforced by the tyranny of television, which Plato clearly predicted in his parable of the cave.
Quite how this impacts on theatre criticism is open to question. Apart from those difficult paragraphs where Plato explicitly rejects the presence of actors in his perfect state - luckily, I think he was joking most of the time – Plato didn’t set out a specific approach to performance. It is a far cry from his jilted student Aristotle, who ruined theatre criticism by insisting on all sorts of perfections and strictures, mainly to get back at Plato for dismissing theatre, but also to justify his subjective opinion that Oedipus Rex is the best play ever written.

Oedipus is a great play, but there is no need to make up an entire system of analysis to prove it. Sadly for Aristotle, he couldn’t get a gig writing reviews for The Scotsman and his opinions needed to be made of sterner stuff before they could irredeemably influence generations of makers and audiences. Slapping down “the unities” of time, place and plot, and slicing the possible plots into moral categories is fine for an afternoon’s drinking conversation, but there is no reason for playwrights or critics – or teachers of Classical Civilisation – to take it seriously.

Perhaps the reason that Plato didn’t spend time deciding how to analyse and undermine theatre is that he was a bit touchy about his past. It says on the internet somewhere that Plato had been an unsuccessful playwright before meeting Socrates, who tried to cheer him up by taking him to a party. Given that he went on to write most of his philosophy as dialogues – so similar to the central scene in most Greek tragedies where the competing visions fight it out before someone’s mother rips their head off – and that his writing is littered with allusion to poetry and tragedy, it’s not unreasonable to think that Plato’s anti-drama stance is more notional than serious. Frankly, it is just a relief that Plato didn’t leave us with a huge body of dogmatic opinion to test performance.

The little Plato that I read in the Beginner’s Guide, however, is instructive. He does blather about the age-old battle between poetry and philosophy every so often, but that seems to me an unnecessary division between genres - the sort of thing Aristotle was far better at, anyway. His most famous pronouncement, that he would ban theatre from his ideal state, mostly on the grounds that it is a lie, deserves a little investigation.

First of all, Plato explicitly admits that the actor is a skilled professional: he even goes so far as to say that he would praise them before booting them out of the city. He then acknowledges that the theatre’s threat is in the impact it might have on the citizens, what with its portrayal of good men being done over by the gods, or the promulgation of ideas that don’t fit in the proto-totalitarian machine that he appears to be advocating.
Since he said all this in the context of defining his perfect society – and contradicting himself from chapter to chapter on everything from women’s rights to the right place for dancing girls at a dinner party – it strikes me that Plato took theatre far more seriously than most modern political thinkers. I checked out most of the manifestos at the last election, and they contained platitudes about the necessity of state support. Assuming that we can count politicians as “thinkers” in any meaningful respect, they accept the liberal idea that “art is a good thing”. They probably have some theory that it can be used to promulgate social cohesion.

I’ve watched a great deal of performance, had a few tragedies in my life, and agree with Plato. Art is fucking dangerous. Music persuades youngsters that rebellion is a good idea. Pop music sells shoddy consumer products. If art had no impact on our behaviour, there would not be adverts in the cinema. The very environment of art makes us vulnerable to persuasion.

As it goes, I don’t believe Plato wanted to kick the artists out: even if he did, his ideal government is pretty much the model for complete state control, so we can reject many of his conclusions. If he hated tragedians so much, he wouldn’t have quoted them so often, and imitated their style. It is better to think of him as a satirist than a philosopher, and have the salt handy. I think that this passage is more a melodramatic allegory, emphasising the importance of art in shaping opinion, and also its potential as a counter-cultural force.
So this is where my Big Theory comes in. When I taught Plato – once, in a last minute panic revision session at a Masonic School in Hertfordshire – my students suggested that the “Noble Lie” is the clue to Plato’s entire philosophy. I was drinking wine in a cloister, watching the sunset and surrounded by occult symbolism cast in stone: the perfect moment to adopt a teenager’s hunch as a foundation for my entire belief system.

Having spent most of The Republic detailing the hierarchies of a super state, based on reason, Plato slips in this little cheat. Social cohesion will not be developed through rationality. Instead, he makes up a major bullshit, something to do with DNA and precious metals, and some character having a daytrip to the afterlife.
Never mind that the story is less plausible, and open to less amusing jokes, that the ones about Zeus seducing women disguised as a golden shower: Plato has just undermined his entire project for a rational state. If a philosopher did that these days, he’d get a bad review in The Guardian, get an article in the Daily Mail with the headline EXPERT SAYS THINKING INCREASES CANCER RISK and end up as a MEP for UKIP. Back in the day, it meant that thousands of earnest men in bed sheets built their world view around it, ignoring Plato’s early invention of surrealism.

Reading Plato is like having a big argument with a dead man. You can’t negotiate details, push him on finer points and, after a while, it starts to stink. The Republic is an infuriating mess of contradictions, all of which are internally coherent. It makes you think.

And that, I contest, was his point. The Republic isn’t a handbook for the ideal state – even Plato mistook it, had a little political adventure and nearly ended up dead. It is a text-book for teaching dialectic – resolving problems through argument. Frankly, the dialectic in the book is terrible: Socrates and a bunch of cheerleaders. It’s the dialectic in the mind of the reader that is the point.

So that’s it. Platonic criticism is about a dialogue. I needed a thousand words to say this, claim a heavy duty precedent just to prove I am not a moron. And a Platonic Performance Criticism engages with the relationship between form and function, grapples with the issues of a Performance not its relative quality – which is why I either ignore things like “good direction” or get names wrong – and exists in the point of contact between audience and event.


Wednesday, 1 June 2011

In the Penal Colony

I watch performance in a desperate attempt to feel something. A constant stream of internet information, romantic failures, continued disappointment at the idiocy of elected politicians, a nagging sense of self-doubt and mounting financial concerns have conspired to convince me that an emotional numbness is the only way to exist. A night out at the theatre isn’t a gentle entertainment anymore. It is my last, best hope for feeling.

Opera works well for this. At the very least, it is a reminder of emotions I want to inhabit: huge passions, absurd expression, hopeless desire and tremendous waves of sound. And Philip Glass delivers wave of repetitive energy, working and reworking a small study of notes, building over time towards a final, deliberate moment of revelation and disgust.

When Kafka wrote about a brutal execution machine, he adorned his short story with typically obscure motifs and symbolism. When Philip Glass wrote an opera based on the story, he stripped it back to his usual minimalist intensity, turning Kafka’s meditation on the nature of punishment into an argument between a stern traditionalist and an uncertain liberal observer.

Music Theatre Wales are known for their stripped down approach to opera, and Glass’ clipped intent suits their style: the line from Kafka’s original through the score to Michael McCarthy’s direction is clear and sharp. The two singers move between torture table, ladder and around the voiceless prisoner: the certainty of the warden is slowly undermined by the discomfort of the observer. The subtexts, the passions, the violence itself, are all subsumed beneath Glass’ urgent and mesmeric strings.

For the first hour, the libretto sets up a moral conundrum. Is it still acceptable for punishment to be merely punitive, or must it be redemptive? In the last moments, the warden inevitably finds himself at the mercy of his own ideas, his own machine. As the blood drips down onto his back, the horrible revelation, that is no revelation, is unfolded. For all his talk of the morality of his justice, the warden is wedded to horror, not reform.

I write about performance in a desperate attempt to express something of what I have experienced. Yet, through Glass’ score, McCarthy’s direction and the musicians’ intensity, I am brought back to my own state of numbness. It is as if In the Penal Colony is reflecting my own shock and dislocation, resolving nothing and proving only that horror itself is merely anaesthetising.