Sunday, 28 April 2013

Thoughts on Mayfesto

The Mayfesto programme is mercurial - starting off as an explicitly political selection of work, it has adapted to the shifting interests of the times, and has landed on Identity as this year's theme. As Andy Arnold recently pointed out in an interview, May is a time of political activity: the festival's movement from its first year towards the individual probably reflects a broader preoccupation with personal as political.

Then again, old school activism has its moments: Over The Wire goes back to 1974 and a riot in a prison  - like The Sash, now touring, it is a reminder of how the early 1970s saw "the Irish question" hit the headlines. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a success from Fringe 2012, is a timely look at the impact of Apple on its workers (yep, that MacBook was made with sweatshop labour but the integration of web browsing and word processing excuses it, doesn't it?).

However, there are plenty of shows that focus on issues closer to home, and less concerned with the global. Jenna Watt's Flaneurs wonders about the by-stander effect, where large crowds will ignore acts of violence, and was inspired by a friend being attacked in 2010. Jukebox is Ankur's celebration of the Asian Diaspora and Bandwagon aims to tell "the story of mass hysteria... and learning who you are in the process." Putting Words in My Mouth  is about the ethics of eating.

Of course, all of these offerings connect to wider questions, but they lack the overarching sense of agenda that marked much political theatre in the past. For all the talk of a resurgence of the political, the grand themes of agit-prop are now background tones in a canvas that emphasises more immediate matters.

On one level, it appears timid. Thanks to the Con-Dem government, inequality and corrupt thinking are more prevalent and obvious than at any time in recent memory. Without suggesting for one moment that the politicians of this country are materially corrupt, the British government's insistence on austerity has seen a comprehensive attack on the state's obligation to support the less fortunate. Even the consensus politics of the 1970s inspired more artistic rage.

However, there's a logic to this: Steve Jobs might be a naughty man, but he would not have managed to be so naughty if consumers had not bought his production. The Dalai Lama advertised his products (despite this little irony). When No Logo was all the rage, it concluded that the complicity of the individual in the conspiracy of the multi-nationals was inevitable.

None of this means that raging against the machine is pointless - just conflicted. Grand statements are compromised, and homing in on matters closer to daily life allows a more nuanced response. Flaneurs opens up the problems of responsibility (and the bystander effect was, of course, based on the case of Kitty Genovese, which reveals that this is not a new problem). Where a Big Statement about the injustice of the government is emotionally satisfying (those comments I made about Cameron's gang made me feel bold and warm inside), thinking about how I behave in daily life is far more likely to lead to change.

From the Archives: Richard DeDomenicion the NRLA

If I can be accused of favouring any particular artist, Richard DeDomenici is the one. It's not that he frequently gets himself into scrapes (like that time he asked some leading questions about the projectile range of Mons Meg, or that his attitude to Live Art (it's serious, but still a good laugh) mirrors my own. It is just that we were both born in Watford, and have a fondness for the town that is incomprehensible to anyone who thinks that it is the same place as The Gap.

This interview was originally done in 2010 - old news, what with the NRLA itself now consigned to history and DeDominici having met my mother in the interim. These days, our interviews usually begin with a long blather about her dance school and I have to text her to say "Richard says hello..."

What does the National Review mean to you as a performer?

I was lucky to be invited to the NRLA shortly after my first post-graduate performance. I've habitually returned every year since; four times as a performer and four as a punter.

In fact, I consider the NRLA to have had a similar effect on my career trajectory as the mysterious black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey had on the evolution of the human race.

In recent years the National Review of Live Art has become the number one NRLA in the world, according to Google. This is a testament to the work of Nikki and Colin, and, although angering the leadership of the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association and the National Right to Life Academy, has ensured a rapidly growing albeit inadvertent audience for live art among rank-and-file lumberjacks and anti-abortionists.

Your work seems to sit in an interesting place between Live Art and other performance arts- I've heard people say that you do stand up. Do you still see yourself as a "Live Artist"- and what is influencing your particular mixture of genres and formats?

My work often straddles the worlds of high art and low-grade civil disobedience. So far this arrangement seems to be working out fine, and I has yet to be forcibly ejected from either camp. Although it’s probably only a matter of time.

I suppose I'm quite funny for an artist, but I recognise that that doesn't make me a comedian. I used to perform quite a bit on the spoken word circuit, supporting people like John Hegley. It was a bit like comedy, but without the jokes, which suited me fine, but I eventually recognised that it wasn't the most efficient use of my skills.

I use humour in my work as I believe that in our cynical world, humour is a far better way to break through barriers than hard-nosed political rhetoric. Being playful about important issues is serious work.

What do you have lined up for us this year, and how does it relate to past offerings?

On the opening night I'm launching my own National Review of Live Art documentation bank - called DeDomeNRLArchive, based on notebook entries, photographs and other ephemera amassed during my past nine years in attendance. It's hoped that this archive will compete with and compliment the official NRLA documentation bank in Bristol.

To mark the launch, a reception will be held during which I'll give an audio-visual presentation derived from my collected materials, and disseminate copies of an inexpensive small publication based on said archive.

The pocket-sized publication will contain 50% blank pages and 50% pages printed with extracts from my NRLA notebook entries, the idea being that people would use the blank portion as their own notebook, and the distinction between printed and user-generated content would become blurred. To aid with the blurring, sparkling white wine will be served.

I'm also planning a couple of 'black-ops' projects, which have been cautiously approved by the management, but are not listed in the programme. I can't say anything more for reasons of plausible deniabilty. And I might be performing at the Peachy Coochie event on Friday night.

So it's all new work, and of no use to the international programmers present at the NRLA as it's site-specific, and therefore untourable. In this economy, that's probably somewhat foolhardy.

Who are you looking forward to seeing this year at NRLA?

As an artist I'm regularly exposed to massive doses of visceral live performance. As such, I worry that I’m becoming increasingly desensitized to the power of art. Guillermo Gomez-Pena was the only work I saw in 2008 that elicited a genuine emotional response. So I definitely want to see him.

Actually, just looking through the programme (something I tend normally not to do until after the NRLA is finished), I also want to check out Jamie McMurray - he has a healthy disregard for health & safety which always makes him excellent value for money.

And you can't go wrong with a little bit of Stelarc.

Geraldine Pilgrim is brilliant too, as is Marcia Farquar.

Also try and get in the front row for Ron Athey if you can, but don't make the same mistake I did in 2006 and wear a new pair of white trainers.

Christ, what a line-up. I'll be lucky if I make it out alive.

How is the plan to get city status for Watford going?

Thanks for reminding me! I've just checked and, according to Hansard, Peter Mandleson announced on January 5th plans for a national competition for city status to celebrate The Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Annoyingly, applications need to be made through the local authority, and last time I spoke to the mayor about it she seemed supremely disinterested in my plans.

So as an idea it might still be ahead of it's time, and, as such, I may have to defer my bid until the Queen's Uranium Jubilee in 2032.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Oh Please, Just Stop: Critical Process Pondered. Again.

In a recent article in The Metro, when asked to respond to the increased importance of social media in the critical process, Barry Norman claimed that "the biggest obligation is to the readers, viewers and listeners," and defines honesty as the criteria for a "good reviewer." While it is a clear and solid piece of advice for critics, it doesn't really address the article's core issue - that the internet has allowed everyone to think that they are a critic. His subsequent comment ("the professional critic should have seen a hell of a lot more films than the amateur") gets closer to the point, although whether my obsessive viewing of Pasolini really helps me to judge  Iron Man 3 is a moot point.

Being prone to introspection, Norman has set me off thinking about the purpose of criticism. Since The Metro article ends with the opinions of a film PR, there's the underlying assumption that a review's main purpose is either attracting or warning off potential audiences. That works for film (and albums), which might explain why movies and music get more space in traditional press. Unfortunately, there's a fair proportion of theatre that won't get long enough runs to need a glowing press commendation.

It is a pretty esoteric question - why do I think theatre criticism is worth spending my life on? - but it might answer some of the questions about my own subjectivity. Sure, my enthusiasms for Jesuit spirituality, scientific method and classical Greek theatre are bound to inform my opinions - as are the relative tightness of my belt and the comfort of my seat. But in the last few weeks, I have noticed that my opinions on certain performances, which aren't necessarily in accord with either audience reaction or the other critics (whom I respect), can be related to my belief in the nature of criticism.

Admittedly, I probably took my faith a little far when I shouted that the job of the critic is to be a witness ("in both a legal and religious sense," I hollered, much to the bemusement of my fellow passengers on the train into Glasgow). And it does go back to my undergraduate study of ancient tragedy: I regard art as the place where ideas get discussed, and the critical process is the further discussion of those ideas.

So, something like Poke or Wuthering Heights (both winners of The Arches Platform 18 Award) are both "my kind of theatre." It's not even that I agree with the politics in the pieces - Poke's representation of masculinity frightens me, because it might be true and the penis might be mightier than the mind. But against Scottish Ballet's revival of Highland Fling, they are all about forwarding conversations. I've been deliberately mentioning them in fragments across the blog, never making any real aesthetic judgments but alighting on ideas, letting them sit. Highland Fling, meanwhile, is a bit of a laugh, but I am not sure it has that much to say about Scottish identity or the nature of erotic fixation - a more aesthetic analysis would be closer to the choreographer's intentions.

I have also been left feeling uncomfortable about plays that inhibit the conversation around a subject. Quiz Show is full of fantastic facts - yet to discuss its core issue is to give away the twist in the tale. At risk of invoking Plato (and revealing my relative idiocy), I have a moral problem with this - not an aesthetic one.

But this is my problem - not theatre's. It might help to explain why I prefer certain productions, or excuse my frequent failure to include those essential features of the review ("this actor was good, that director was imaginative"). I am throwing out a few questions - the joy of a blog is never concluding, never conforming to the format of beginning, middle and end...

Friday, 26 April 2013

Total Football

It's around the half-way mark for Behaviour - as soon as The Arches finishes up, it's turn for The Tron to take up the baton with Mayfesto - and the emphasis on "emerging artists" has provoked me to reconsider how I approach reviewing each show. Since it's possible to buy a season ticket for Behaviour (no point in saying that they are well priced, since I don't actually work for The Arches.. yet), I wonder whether it's worth waiting until the final artist has performed before having a final opinion. I mean, the other times that people buy season tickets are for sport, and it's dangerous to access the success of a football team before the last ball has been kicked.

Watford FC, for comparison, have been looking tasty all season, but a sudden slump in form has meant that they are unlikely to qualify for automatic promotion this season. So while Behaviour has had some strong entries, including a reading of stand-up comedy that made me sentimental for 1970s' political drama and a monologue from one of the USA's most honest and bold performers, it's not over until Torycore rocks the 2013 Budget with some heavy riffs in the Glad Cafe

Unlike Watford, Behaviour has not been marked by a shift towards champagne skills after years of malign press about their old fashioned tactic: in many ways, the "emerging artists" have a closer link to the Hornets' years under Graham Taylor. There is a kick'n'rush freneticism to Amanda Monfrooe's Poke (making it an uncomfortable experience, challenging and unashamedly brutal), and Rantin recalls the deceptively jolly ceilidh style pieces that were all the rage in the time of 7:84. 

Rantin is a departure from Hurley's previous play, Beats: it is more episodic, the collaboration with musicians and other actor/devisors more explicit. There's a moment of full-bloodied politics, more violent than anything he describes in Beats (which had a police charge) or Hitch (culminating in a massive protest). A teenage girl sits on a hill, ponders the legacy of the luddites and heads into town, swinging a golf-club.

Monfrooe, meanwhile, has the entire planet engulfed by apocalyptic fog, when the battle between two women over the last child on earth goes beyond the wordy arguments beloved of Greek tragedy. The rage behind these moments - which may or may not reflect the authors' own feelings on supermarket automatic tills and environmental crisis respectively - harks back to the relentless energy of Watford's 1980s 4-2-4 formation than the sophisticated midfield mastery of Gianfranco's XI. 

Whether these moments presage a building theme within Behaviour, in which the political climate has provoked a more ferocious theatre, or are simply isolated fragments within a more gentle programme, they suggest that some theatre is following on from its foundations in Athenian tragedy. Apart from making a more traditional criticism difficult - if Rantin does contain a desire for an anti-technocratic revolution, does commenting on the quality of Hurley's performance as an aging, cynical alcohol matter?  - these hints are hopeful for anyone who clings to a belief that art might be more than just a matter of expressing the economic infrastructure.

See E V E R Y T H I N G with a BEHAVIOUR Festival Pass (£45/£35)

The Embassy New Great Britain

Last time out, Josh Armstrong transported Cryptic back to a Victorian tragedy, in a secular retelling of The Little Match Girl Passion. This time, he's jumping into a fantasy future, equal parts SNP dream (an independent Scotland, a retired monarchy, a flooded London) and Lovecraftian horror (that water level rise isn't just bothering London). And in typically Cryptic style, this isn't just about the drama: the audience is being invited to join the players for an evening in The Embassy of New Great Britain.

The evening is centred around the performance of NGB's theme tune - thankfully not by The Proclaimers or Chas'n'Dave - and it is an mordant number: Requiem for a World. This new commission from David Donaldson is scored for voice, quartet and electronics, an appropriately diminished ensemble against the usual anthem line-up of big orchestra and massed choirs. 

There's more than music: cocktails are promised and the New Great Britain has renounced the puritanism of its forebear and gone for a nation that "embraces the beauty of the individual... a body is not to be covered up but to be celebrated." Gender and sex boundaries have been broken and Mother Earth has replaced JHVH as the number one deity. 

This has had a impact on both diet (no more meat) and the nation's motto (“terre tournera sans nous”  “earth shifts without us.”). Technology has kept on moving though: all payments are made electronically. I'm not so sure about this other advance - "personal services are bought at the level of common goods." 

If anyone can make this utopia as ravishing as it claims, it is Armstrong. His Little Match Girl Passion integrated singing, dance and visual theatre into a satisfying whole without losing the bite of the text. Meanwhile, composer David Donaldson has just come off of working on The Great Gatsby, having previously produced the soundtrack for Ray.

For fans of Tramway in the early 2000s, the inclusion of Steve Dugardin (singing) is a nostalgic treat. Dugardin was last in Glasgow with Les Ballets C de la B - he took care of the vocal duties in Bâche, which was one of the pieces that inspired me to become a critic instead of a Latin teacher. 

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Sutra @ EFT

Sutra has been knocking around for a while - I managed to miss it two years ago when I was in Prague on a rare trip outside of Glasgow for the Tanec Praha - and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has been around for longer. I saw one of his works in Tramway, and it came straight out of that spirited Belgian choreographic school that I associate with Les Ballets C de la B: a purgatorial dance of death and rebirth, featuring a bit - I'm pretty sure - when Jesus turned up to save the various disgruntled souls from an eternity moaning at each other.

Cherkaoui's collaborators - Antony Gormley (he did that big northern angel, and wasn't he involved in getting people up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square?) and the Shaolin Temple - are a rather cool combination. The Shaolin temple can't help but evoke king fu action moves, or a Wu Tang b-side when they used to be good, and Gormley is surprisingly sensitive when building for dance. 

Originally, Cherkaoui danced and choreographed, but he has been replaced on this tour by Ali Thabet (another former member of C de la B). However, there are still the seven monks from the temple and the iconic wooden boxes that feature in the more spectacular scenes and give the dancers plenty to groove with. 

Despite not having seen the production, I am assuming that I am on fairly safe ground when I suggest that it has a spiritual thrust (the title is a clue, I hope). Back in the day, when I started off my career in criticism, I was reticent to accept that dance could be a useful medium for expressing Big Ideas. This was more true for scientific concepts, and I have seen some good companies blow it in trying to express evolution and quantum physics in movement: Chaos and Contingency, however, is a recent example of how a mathematical theory can inform and inspire choreography of rare beauty. And I have found, thanks to the work coming out of Belgium and beyond, that dance is uniquely suited to the exploration of metaphysics.

It's partially because it isn't tied down to the literalism of words - explaining a scientific idea in a scripted play can easily turn into an eye-watering lecture - and the truth of dance has the same abstract quality as the truth of metaphysics: its ontological status is not so absolute, yet its applications are manifold. 

We'll just pretend that last paragraph was edited out, shall we? 

Instead, let me talk about how Sutra was made with real monks from the original Shaolin Temples - not the ones from associated temples who are featured in the more commercial shows. And 
Ali Thabet first worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in 2004 when he performed in Tempus Fugit with the les ballets C de la B.

Monday, 22 April 2013

We Are Northern Lights and Rantin (Introduction and parentheses)

Time to get the Vile Arts on point for the summer season, I think. Nowhere better to start than with typical faux-political opinions. Saw Kieran Hurley's Rantin last week (although, as always, impressed by early comment within play that this work was made collectively, Hurley making a point about how his theatre is collaborative). Had that politics I respond to so readily: not party political (although that may lurk, unheeded by simple critical emphasis on aesthetics). Then received release for We Are Northern Lights which, I guess, shares something of Rantin's interest in picturing the national identity not through out dated ideas of state and cultural but through a survey of diverse individuals and perspectives. 

(Natural or instinctive disdain on my part for any nationalism that is based on theory or geographical ancestry is countered by these "state of the country" missives, not least because they often refuse to make a grand statement of intent... either work could be put to the use of autonomous zones or regionalism. I'll still shout "Wessex Forever" before demanding any new evaluation of where we ought to put the customs houses.)

We Are Northern Lights was made by Nick Higgins, through workshops and a "myriad of different lenses – those of the Scots themselves." Cineworld spotted that its early showings, including one at the Glasgow Film Festival, were sold out and had some of the audience sobbing, so have decided to slot in a run across Scotland, between the popcorn shifters.

(Luckily, I can now go to see Iron Man 3 and pretend I am in to see the micro-budget documentary, thereby letting me indulge my love of superheroes and hold onto my credibility as a supporter of grass-roots projects.)

(Although this is an example of an international chain being supportive of radical film, and that confuses my knee-jerk anti-corporate attitude.)

(I thought a political blog would be an easy way back into blogging. I ought to have stuck with the defense of Christianity I pulled. Less complicated, if more controversial.)

(However, both the film and Rantin remind me that the arts are far more interesting places to think about Big Idea, like national identity, than the political domain. I know Alex S is all cool now he admitted to liking some science fiction at the GFF, but I know who has the more nuanced opinions...)


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Which one will you pick?

So - I am in a foul mood. My belated enthusiasm for football has me on an emotional roller-coaster, and the comprehensive defeat by Peterborough of Watford has me in a very bad temper. It makes a nice change from the anger that I feel about my personal failures, I suppose. At least when the Hornets get drubbed, I don't blame myself.

However loud I shout, the team won't hear me in the south of England. Instead, I'll find something else to complain about...

One of the things that has preoccupied me as a critic is the idea of the curator as an artist: manipulate, Arika, Svend Brown with Minimal. Simon Reynolds suggests that this is a very contemporary response to art: in the mood of the internet, it becomes collation rather than creation that is the focus of artistry.

And I have been positive about this development. Taste, determination, the ability to see connections between disparate artists: the curator does need a skill set that could probably be taught in an art school. But let me add another quality, something from the stock of the comedian: timing. It would be wonderful if the audience weren't forced to pick between events.

For fans of music outside of the mainstream, here's the choice for next week: first up we have Outskirts. It might be a little old school - having a band at the top of the bill and all- but it is at Platform, meaning that there's a chance for a swim if anyone turns up early and it features two artists - Xana Marwick and Greig Sinclair - who get into the music/live art cross over action.

Second choice: Freedom is a constant struggle, from Arika, at Tramway. I have quite a bit to say about that, and look out for updates in the coming days...  however, this ought to appeal to anyone who likes chat as much as music: Arika are all about the dialectic.

Third choice is at The City Halls. A special mention must go out to UNESCO, city of music. They have a lovely website that tells you all about the events in Glasgow without mentioning their own weekend of Man and Machine. Being disconsolate that Watford only managed to pull back two goals towards the end of the match, I am just going to cut and paste the press release...

Robots and Space
Fri 19 April, 7:30pm
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Main Auditorium
The amazing M&M robot orchestra from Gent fills the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall auditorium with its magical offering of musicality and machinery. Musicians interact with the machines – part techno magic, part steampunk fantasy – to create a moving and theatrical performance.

Andrea Sartori (from Bologna) makes music characterized by fine grooves, evocative moods, humid reverbs and hypnotic synth patterns. The grand finale is Volkwerk Folleto, again form Bologna: audio visual fantasists with a lyrical edge.

Please note there is nudity at this performance.

Man High and OdeusSat 20 April, 7pm
City Halls, Recital Room/Old Fruitmarket

Man High brings together live and electronic music with spectacular live manipulation of visuals to pay tribute to a pioneer of the space age, Joe Kittinger. In 1960, Kittinger set the record for the longest skydive, from a height greater than 31 kilometres. He recently hit the headlines again for helping Felix Baumgartner break this skydiving record.

A club night of outstanding sound and vision from across Europe and a rare gathering of digital artists, innovators, visionaries and mavericks. Odeus, a digital ‘orchestra’ from Seville fill the Recital Room with ravishing cinematic soundscapes using the latest technology.

Part of Man and Machines: UNESCO Music Days in Glasgow.

I take one weekend off and miss three things that would have excited, intrigued and fascinated me. I guess there are three workshops on being a curator. The "what" you put on is sorted, and the "where" (all the venues are worth a visit on their own, let alone when packed with happenings). It's just the "when" that needs some work - a date without competing events is a good idea: all three of these events will be of interest to similar audiences...

Happy 25th, Tramway

It's pretty clear that Tramway has been the most influential venue in my life. My career as a critic was inspired by the work that I saw against the Big Red Wall between 2002 and 2005. It might have been an accident that I moved into a flat just around the corner, but it terrifies me to realise that my relationship with Tramway has last longer than any relationship that I have had with a human being (excluding family members).

What I know of Nick Fells' work is mostly through the enthusiasm of his various students: he has been involved in the Soundlab programme, one of the City Halls' imaginative programmes to provide a platform for music not usually heard, and teaches at Glasgow University. Along with Kate Burton, he is intrigued by the way that a particular space engages with particular sounds.

I might be slightly jealous that he is getting to make those sounds in Tramway's fabulous space, and that he has captured sounds from the space itself. That red wall, built by Brook and always a towering presence in any production that happens in T1, turns an event into an occasion.

In any case, there are few better ways to celebrate a birthday than to have someone compose a special  tune for it. And there is a bonus feature....

Beggars Opera


At this year’s Critics’ Award for Theatre Scotland, Vanishing Point swept the board with the intimate Interiors. For latest production, The Beggar’s Opera, they negotiate a co-production between Tramway – home of radical European performance – and the more sedate Lyceum. Bridging the gap between hip and sedate, Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton is one of the most important directors in Scotland.

From the moment the curtain rises on the two-levels of the set, with A Band Called Quinn ready to rock and a huge video screen in the rafters, The Beggar’s Opera boasts its cross-platform, multi-media, contemporary theatre practice credentials. But when the band kicks into the first tune, the contradictions are painfully evident. Muffled music, garbled lyrics and the sort of physical theatre that needs proper choreography: conservatism triumphs, reducing any radicalism to a suggestive, symbolic trace.

The tension between Vanishing Point’s desire to create an edgy, modern version of John Gay’s satire, and the politeness of the adaptation is never fully resolved. The humour – hardly helped by performances that veer from school-play melodrama to pantomime mugging – is lost and the moments of explicit social comment are blunt.

The visual impact of the criminals, hidden behind gas-masks and outré costumes, is lost whenever they slip into Gay’s text and the video footage is static. Predictable swipes at celebrity, brief soliloquies, sexy costumes - even the famous finale that breaks the suspension of disbelief - attempt to transcend the fourth wall but are all half-hearted: even a brothel scene is unerotic and trite, where the presence of a dominatrix is merely a signifier of taboo, lacking emotional impact. The presence of a healthy burlesque culture in the central belt exposes the three whores as tokens of subversion, rather than frightenly sexual and alluring.

The references to popular culture – including a weak version of The Doors’ The End and – oh God – The Streets - are limp and the antihero MacHeath misses either charisma or genuine edginess. The overall impression is of either a mainstream company appropriating alternative theatre, or an gang of outsiders selling out.

Yet it was, at the curtain call, fairly well-received: despite the jokes and the dramatic tension falling flat, it seemed to serve, for the Lyceum audience, as an interesting and titillating experiment. It is encouraging that the Lyceum is willing to engage with more challenging work, and that Vanishing Point are willing to move out of their comfortable small scale: Quinn don’t disgrace themselves, even if they are competing with Weill and Brecht’s re-imagining of the play, and Damir Todorovic evinces a sinister policeman.

The ideas driving this production are beautiful, but it needs better performances, tighter pacing and less compromises with accessibility: it fails to shock or threaten, and its challenges are predictable. Vanishing Point are still a vibrant force, and they will go on to create good work again, but this is a disappointing jumble of good expectations and poor taste.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Musings (Feel Free to Ignore)

I am always wondering about the purpose of criticism. Frankly, that's just an application of my general feeling of existential dread to the task in hand. I wonder about the point of life most of the time - sometimes in the positive, student manner, when it becomes a matter of joy and experiment. Other days, I look back at my reviews - especially my early ones - and wonder what the hell I was thinking, and how I could be so unpleasant about the striving of my fellow humans.

Traditionally, the critic has been all about the review: here's a few words explaining what happened in the theatre, and here's my aesthetic opinion. Now and again, there's a more political edge to the review - certain magazines might be fairly predictable in their allegiances and bias. But the review stands to give potential punters a quick overview of whether they ought to invest time and money in the action.

By the time I got around to seeing Gary McNair's latest, the punters had already decided: it was sold out. I was glad about that: Donald Robertson really impressed me, and set a very high standard for the rest of the NTS' Auteurs programme. Having seen McNair's early work, Donald Robertson felt like the culmination of McNair's explorations of the monologue. His persona was tighter, even when he consciously undermined himself and his ideas about the power of comedy were clear and brutal. 

Looking at McNair's previous pieces, like Crunch or Count Me In, it is surprising that he hasn't joined in with another more obviously political piece (he even turned up in Lyn Gardner's round-up of political theatre a few months back). Surprising and admirable - to be honest, I didn't want to hear a monologue about independence - but the shift towards social rather than political drama paid dividends. However charming McNair can be on stage (he can charm old ladies into ripping up hard cash), political monologues can be alienating. There are a few artists knocking about around Scotland at the moment, whom I adore and respect, but I fear that they might start talking about independence at any moment.

Getting back on task - my review of McNair won't be persuading anyone to go and see it - too late - unless the NTS and The Arches decide he is worth a second production (and it totally is). But I am interested in reviewing work like this from another perspective: what is its context, and how does it relate to that context. I think I want to be a post-structuralist: looking at how the environment shapes  something's creation, then how it shapes the environment back. Or, to put it another way (before I look up post-structuralism on wikipedia and find out that isn't what it means): the critical discourse manifested within the popular review embodies a dialectic between the created art work and the precreated context within which it is contained. 

Using clear, coherent language, eh? 

Gary McNair is not Joking

The comparisons with stand up comedy in Gary McNair’s previous work were always misleading: he did stand up on stage and make the occasional joke, but his seriousness connected him more closely to the spoken word artists. But by taking these comparisons as inspiration for Donald Robertson is not a Stand Up Comedian, McNair has made peace between his intelligence and amiable persona. He does tell a couple of jokes around the middle of his monologue, but the thrust of his story is a sharp deconstruction of both the need to be funny and the state of contemporary savage stand up.

If McNair hasn’t become a shock comedian, his persona has certainly toughened up. His asides to the audience, explaining each comic strategy, operate as sardonic deconstructions of the comedian’s art and soften his more aggressive moments. After warming up with a series of failed jokes, using Paul Claydon’s stark lighting design to give the impression of a montage, McNair eases into his story. He meets a young boy and tutors him in the way of the comic. Through imbibing McNair’s advice, young Donald becomes a success by stabbing his master in the back.

McNair’s vision of comedy is bleak: it becomes a survival strategy in a world of bullies and victims. Donald has the dream of escaping his victimhood through bad jokes, but McNair encourages him to take a more aggressive approach. The two strands of the tale – a meditation on getting laughs and an ironically poetic version of The Karate Kid – mesh elegantly, allowing McNair to expose the viciousness of the stand up, undercut sentimentality and temper the humour to his thoughtful conclusions.

McNair is at his best when he reveals the tactics behind his monologue, or describes a specific episode of Donald’s journey. He avoids representing too much vicious comedy, preferring explanations of how its nastiness performs a social function. The joke is inevitably aimed at someone, and is an attempt to order a hierarchy. Anger, muses McNair, connects people.
Against the increasingly unpleasant roughhousing of comedians like Frankie Boyle, McNair considers the role of the joke in building communities. It’s a technique to create insiders and outsiders, to affirm one group’s superiority. Even the self-deprecation, which McNair has used in past pieces and is a feature of Reginald D Hunter’s skill at disguising his nastiness, is exposed as a trick to gain sympathy.

McNair’s analysis is unsparing – without mentioning particular acts, he attacks the fashion for brutal comedy, assimilating it into his own reflective process and draws an unsentimental picture of school-yard brutality. That he takes time to win over his audience, and adds an epilogue that smartly deconstructs his persona’s confidence adds to both the charm and the bite. 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Captain Anchor (old Interview transcript)

How did you get involved with London Burlesque Week?
My burlesque friends had mentioned the festival to me. It seemed like a great way to perform at a showcase in London. I had been trying to get a gig in London for quite a while and it can be difficult to go down as an unknown performer. London Burlesque Week offers me that shop window that I wouldn't have been offered in the usual run of things.

What act are you taking down and what inspired it?
I'm performing an act at the Saturday Jetsetters Ball, and the VIP Awards Ball on the Sunday at Cafe de Paris. At the Jetsetters show I'm performing the Loveboat Theme tune, an act that came from my first self produced show, Hello Sailor! Obviously with a name like Captain Anchor, I'm obsessed with all things nautical. The Loveboat theme tune: it's quite cheesey and over the top. It's almost a comedy song. I'm also doing Rain on my Parade, the Bobby Darin version.

I like doing songs written for women and reinterpreted for men.
I'm inspired by great singers, and Frank Sinatra is one of the best. This is why my final song at the festival will be 'Theme from New York, New York'. It's such a big dramatic song, and a song where I can have fun and change the lyrics to suit the mood. And there is a big finish. I love a big finish!

Why cabaret, and how does it fit with your musical projects?
I see cabaret as a genre of music that fuses jazz, musical theatre and popular music. Cabaret can combine music, art and theatre.  In terms of my own creativity, cabaret allows me to be a musical theatre performer on my own terms. My ambition is to record an album of covers and to record original material.

What other acts are you hoping to see?
I'm looking forward to catching all the International acts that I wouldnt normally get to see. Even the stage names are interesting. There is a performer from Atlanta called Vagina Jenkins, where else but burlesque would you get that? I'm hoping to catch up with some of the Scottish performers also, and just some general mingling and networking!
Do you think that there is any particular style or approach that can be defined as "Scottish cabaret"?
I'm not sure if there is a particular style of cabaret or burlesque in Scotland. Although I first got interested in cabaret and burlesque in Edinburgh. So much so that my own performances will soon to include male burlesque or 'boylesque'. There are'nt many guys doing burlesque, but in some ways it makes things easier. You can make your own path and develop the performances according to your own rules. Boylesque involves dance and I love dance in all its forms.
Scottish burlesque performers are a community of people as much as a section of the entertainment industry. It's quite a close knit community and performers are quite supportive of each other. I'd like to say that everyone is really bitchy and there is so much drama, but I prefer to keep that for the stage.

I think audiences are quite supportive too, It's different to London, where there are shows every other week. I think, for me it's easier to become a big fish in a small pond, as opposed to in a bigger city where everyone is so jaded with the fact that you are a performer.

Edinburgh and Glasgow offer me great opportunities to do shows, and I hope to tour to more Scottish cities also. Cabaret and Burlesque has become so popular that people get it, and you dont have to perform to a burlesque crowd for people to be into it. 
Captain Anchor will be performing at The Voodoo Rooms, Speakeasy, Edinburgh. Thursday May 6th at 9pm.
see for more details.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Fringe Forward: Four Clips off You Tube of Shows You Might Like

I was struck by the absurdity of Olly Murs' song about the Grenade. It's not the protestations of love that bothered me - singers having been saying stupid shit since they worked out that love rhymed with glove. It is the way that Murs sounds so disappointed when his beloved wouldn't do the same". Is this a song about a suicide pact?

Today on the Vile Arts...

While I struggle with the very idea of authenticity - at least in my daily life, being a philosophical post-modernist who barely understands the meaning of the word - I am content to be enthusiastic about the guests I manage to persuade to come on the show. Of course, trying to keep up with the Glasgow art and music and culture and performance and drama and Live Art scenes has probably contributed to my general anxiety. The irony might be that the remaining sanity that I have has been preserved by the art that I see.

In the meantime, here are some puppets who are coming to Edinburgh Festival Again...

Monday, 1 April 2013


If there is one word I'd like to keep from the vast lexicon of pretentious art speak, it is "problematise." I haven't seen it so much lately, but it used to be fashionable. Performers in the Live Art area would frequently claim that their work intended to problematise their content - effectively taking accepted ideas and finding out what was wrong with them.

My current explorations into comedy have led me to conclude that comedians often problematise matters to get a laugh. Stewart Lee's good at this - better than he is at being funny, at any rate. When he talks about nostalgia, for example, he deconstructs the lazy attempts by comedians like Peter Kay to squeeze the chuckles out of supposed shared memories.

Science, in its methodological foundations, is very good at this. When Darwin took a break from marveling at life's diversity, he asked how the hell it came about. Posing problems presents a powerfully positive process for positing possible practical projects.

This is one of those rare bits of jargon that illuminate rather than mystify. And it seems that the critical project is a process of problematisation. When critics objected to Jim Davidson's assumption that a joke excused all manner of obnoxious language, they identified a battle-ground that has probably done more to expose the dangers of racist language than any number of amendments to Hate Speech legislation.

This rather tedious soul-searching does have a purpose. Over the past year, I have made various comments mocking Marxism, despite having tremendous sympathy with aspects of its attitude towards the oppression of capitalism. I have also expressed irritation at the way wonderful art is frequently obscured by the bullshit that serves for explanations.

Very slowly, I have realised that it isn't enough to complain. I have to have some solid foundation to my objections. I am championing the word "problematise" as a sort of credo. This is what I do. The reason I can bear Lee's rambling journeys around his ego is that they are frequently challenges to the simple assumptions that I live by.

But of course, this soul searching came up after a real life event. Following the election of the new Pope, my Facebook account had a rash of friends' updates - friends whom I value and share certain political and social values. Most of these had something negative to say about the Pope.

It's not that I have a great deal of time for any organisation that doesn't pay me, or have me in a leadership role. And I have a harder line on the Vatican's attitude to women than many of its critics: where they are content to call it "sexist," a term better used to describe the script of On The Buses, I regard a hierarchical structure that systematically excludes women as misogynistic.

But Pope Francis is going to problematise matters. It wasn't enough for him to break with tradition and wash the feet of some criminals on Maundy Thursday. He washed some women's feet. He washed some Muslim's feet.

It doesn't make up for two thousand years of oppression. But it is a start. It might even be a sign.

Another one of Stewart Lee's monologues praises Political Correctness. He notes that Political Correctness has, at the least, encouraged the Conservatives to be more creative in hiding their racism. He sees PC as being a basic attempt to get people to talk about each other in a respectful manner.

I guess Reginald Hunter hasn't heard this particular routine - his rather bizarre campaign to normalise the N-Word seems to laugh in the face of the most commonly accepted resistance to hate speech.

I guess my defence of the Pope is PC gone mad. It's living in Glasgow: anytime I hear anti-Catholic talk, I don't assume it is bold atheism making a claim for a rational morality. I assume it is a sectarian chant and that a bunch of Rangers' fans are about to come around the corner.

When Frankie Boyle launches into one of his rants about the Church, I always see a fourteen year old boy trying to convince a circle of six foot lads wearing blue and white scarves that he isn't a Tim.