Thursday, 23 March 2017

Easy! Easy! Easy!

Mark E. Workman's Dramaturgical Aspects of Professional Wrestling Matches suggests a dynamic tension in the spectatorship of professional wrestling: the event can be interpreted either as a straight up performance - with the result predetermined - or as a sporting event, in which the outcome is open-ended. The contemporary description of wrestling as 'sports-entertainment' echoes this suggestion. Aside from presenting a possible differentiation between sport and art, Workman postulates a dynamic tension within wrestling, a parallel battle to the actual fight, between authenticity (sometime known as 'the real') and theatricality (fictionality, I suppose).

His allusion to the 'frames' of Goffman implies that the decision by the spectator to interpret the wrestling event is influenced by the circumstances in which it is presented. A couple of guys throwing down on Sauchiehall Street, for example, is revealed as authentic because it happens in a public place. The 'squared circle' of the wrestling arena, however, imposes theatricality on a pagga between Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Tropes and Genre...

Cuttin' a Rug, Expensive Sh*t, Toilets and Voyeurism

Religion and Triple Threat and Propaganda

L'espirit de notre Religion est directement oppose a celui de la Tragedie. L'humilite et la patience de nos Saintes sont trop contraires aux vertus des Heros que demande le Theatre.

Saint-Evremond, De la Tragedie ancienne et moderne (1672)

Eric Bentley's defense of the Spanish 'Christian tragedies' (The Life of the Drama, 117 - 119) presents The Trickster of Seville and Damned for Lack of Trust as 'plays of ideas'. The theology that underpins both scripts is tested against 'the natural impulse' and Bentley recognises in their authors - both 'priests without heretical tendencies' - as dramatists rather than simple propagandists for their God. 

Lucy McCormick is doing something rather different with Triple Threat: it takes Jesus and exposes the familiar story of the New Testament to popular culture. What emerges is too easily enjoyed as a blasphemous mockery - tedious liberals invoke its potential blasphemy to remind themselves how liberal they are, not to add to the show's power. It takes a tiny shift in perception to see it not as a critique of Christianity through pop culture, but a critique of pop culture from a Christian cynicism. Triple Threat tells the gospel in a time when sanctity has been stripped away and, for all McCormick's skills as a singer - or the sharp moves of her to 'buff' co-stars - exposes the failure of contemporary culture to offer anything more than celebrity and half-remembered porn tropes.

Watching Jesus - performed by a woman, already a challenge to orthodoxy, natch - getting fingered off Doubting Thomas; replacing frankincense with frankfurters; having Jesus get a snog off Judas; dismissing the teachings of Christ with a shrug: McCormick doesn't undermine the validity of religion, she ignores it. Driven by her (character's) desire to be famous, the Messiah is replaced by a performer who is only concerned with their ego, trying to find meaning in a familiar mythology but only twisting it to promote herself.

It's a bit like watching the career of Madonna reduced to an hour. It plays off a series of lively tensions: McCormick's sly performance art sensibility and her musical theatre chops undermine her egotism but allow her to deliver the emotion in even the most obvious musical choices. When she arrives on stage, singing into a dildo (which she mistook for a microphone), she is already revealing her (character's) absurdity. Taking on all of the important roles in the New Testament raises the stakes. Reducing the Bible down to a few theatrically effective moments reflects a crass ambition that refuses to be impressed by anything.

It's surprising how robust Christianity can be: even in mockery, it holds a seriousness that undermines the critique and offers a quiet counterblast to the roar and display of contemporary pop culture (which is all a bunch of empty tropes, anyway). 

All Opinions Belong to Dr Doom, The Thing, Namor and Mr Fantastic.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Surfin' the Soul Ways

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You...

Kirby and the Corruption of the Self

Kirby and Virtue

The tableau's unity and, consequently, its ability to signify univocally is always the result of intense objectivation and subordination of the elements within its confines. Diderot's rejection of contrast in both painting and theater as well as his repeated obsession with unity in both genres must be understood in this light. For the rejection of opposites and the desire for unity necessarily imply a leveling among elements and the existence of a certain self-censorship, which founds, according to Rousseau, the notion of the republic. (21) 

Thus, the "inner-democracy" of the tableau's elements underscores their subservience to deliver of the moral message. The constant association in the bourgeois aesthetic between tableau and virtue is not gratuitous; both exemplify the direct exercise of power over men and objects.

Likewise the tableau demands the subordination of the parts to the whole and forces them to assume a unity and coherence that are fundamentally unnatural; virtue necessitates the individual's self-sacrifice to an ideal (Family, Friendship, and Country). 

Both tableau and virtue are the sites of self-imposed inner violence; both stage, in the full sense of the term, the workings and tactics of a force and discipline (virtu) that originate not from outside, but from within. In this, the tableau and virtue are particularly bourgeois forms of power: all is natural. (22) 

Diderot's strategies of both "naturalization" and the delivery of a moral message are essential components in Diderot's idea of bourgeois happiness.

Bryson, Scott. "Strategies of happiness painting and stage in Diderot." French Forum 29, no. 1 (2004)

Actually, I can't push the parallels that far: Scott Bryson, in looking at Diderot's championing of the tableau in drama, suggests that it expresses the inner virtue of the human being. Identifying a conflict between bourgeois and aristocratic notions of 'happiness' in eighteenth century France (and claiming that there was a serious class war happening that was spilling over into the arts), Bryson argues that Diderot regarded the tableau as an expression of bourgeois values. Everything is in its right place, and the individual is determined in terms of social relationship - performing an act of self-sacrifice in order to take up their appropriate place in society.

I don't think Kirby is making that particular point in this splash page from Devil Dinosaur. In fact, I am pretty sure that Diderot would not be delighted by the fantastical subject matter. However, the splash page operates as a tableau, in which the relationship between the dramatis personae is defined by space and gesture. Notice how Moonboy is simply ignored by his captors. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Sight seems simple

A Perfect Dramaturgy: Pelleas and Melisande (Scottish Opera) which the critic explains his failure and introduces a notion of dramaturgy...

While other critics are sensibly engaging with serious issues or trying to provide support for important theatre that sits outside the mainstream, I have increasingly retreated into recondite and abstract discussions of Enlightenment Dramaturgy. It's a bit like that time the guitarist from REM decided to replace stadium rock riffs with mandolin and minor chords - just before the band broke up, as I remember. Instead of relating theatrical events to the turmoil of political activism, I've gone obscure and cod-academic. 

My obsession with dramaturgy as a product of eighteenth century thinking is either a cowardly response to a world that doesn't share my values, or a by-product of access to a University library. And by dramaturgy, I am not exploring the strategies used by theatre-makers to get the show on the road, and I haven't reached the bit about Brecht and its revival in 1950s Berlin. I'm fooling about with fragments of Diderot and Lessing, and collating their opinions into a system. It's like an Ur-dramaturgy, a foundation for critical analysis. 

Diderot and Lessing did not show much interest in opera: for Diderot, it was probably an Italian upstart of a medium, a distraction from the proper business of plays about middle-class merchants; Lessing was too busy trying to beat off the neo-classical fanatics who'd been shaping German theatre into a pale imitation of the French. As it goes, the Enlightenment dramaturgy disappeared pretty quickly - I think the French Revolution and the Romantic did for it around the turn of the century - before coming back a century later, through naturalism.

However, they did sketch out some key areas of concern: time/space, the tableau, narrative content, script and emotional content. There are plenty of other areas, but I'll stick to these five today. Lessing, in particular, saw dramaturgy as a way to account for quality: he published The Hamburg Dramaturgy as a kind of educational handbook for audiences. And Scottish Opera's production of Pelleas and Melisande is ripe for some dramaturgical analysis. which the critic excuses his decision to critique Pelleas and Melisande through the filter of eighteenth century dramaturgy...

Maurice Maeterlinck's script of Pelleas and Melisande was written well after Lessing and Diderot departed this veil of tears that is best understood through reason and not faith: Debussy's operatic adaptation arrived in 1902. Besides, the Diderot-Lessing dramaturgy itself is a compilation of their thoughts that I've been collating in my ivory tower. It's a safe bet that nobody, from playwright to director, was sitting about with open copies of the Hamburg Dramaturgy when the show was being developed. However, the innovation of Enlightenment Dramaturgy was to focus on the production of a performance rather than the script. As far as I'm concerned: if it happens live, it's fair game.

Using those five areas, I'm going to work out whether Diderot and Lessing would have enjoyed Scottish Opera's Pelleas and Melisande. It's like reviewing a performance without taking responsibility for my opinions. Maybe now my obtuse approach become clearer...

...the importance of time and place is revealed...

One of Diderot's biggest bug-bears was the dominance of neo-classical rules, especially the Aristotelian unities of time and place. Lessing went further, I suppose, when he wrote his classic Nathan the Wise, having a plot that played out over several days and happening in different locations around Jerusalem during the Crusades. Pelleas and Melisande wins big in this round. Maeterlinck's source script is a bit mysterious in the first place: Melisande meets her husband in a big forest, then they wander about in a big castle, with extra scenes at a magic well, the vaults beneath the castle and a cave. 

As for time... Debussy's melancholic and allusive score reinforces the passage of time, enveloping the action in a dreamy, surreal haze so that when, in the last scene, it turns out that Melisande has been in (what might have been) a coma for nine months, it's hardly jarring.

While it might not be the word Diderot would use, Rae Smith's design is really cool: the forest is represented by branch-less trees, and these sometimes turn up inside the castle: other times, the furniture of the castle ends up in the forest. Apart from the dream-like atmosphere, this dislocates the action, making each scene reflect the others. And time, rather than be lineal (as per Aristotle and his 'make it all happen in a single day') flows and deceives. And the overlap between forest and bedroom enables one of the most striking aspects of the production... which the virtue of getting people to stand about like paintings is revealed...

I know that Diderot would love the start and end of Sir David McVicar's direction. They are the same visual aim: the husband with his back to the audience and his wife on a bed, probably snoozing. He's in the woods, and he's lost (both times). It's like a painting, representing the dynamic tension between the pair that drives the plot and... it's like a painting. Diderot called out for tableau as a regular feature of a play.

It's partially because he liked visiting the gallery, but also because he thought it was a sweet way to express the relationship between the characters on stage. And McVicar uses this technique time and time again. Sometimes it is just the husband by himself, looking all uncomfortable (his brother's been boffing his missus). Then there are family scenes, with the generations arrayed around in symbolic positions. Or that one where the naughty brother is playing with Melisande's hair, which she dangles out of the window. Check it out, seriously...

I think we get the idea of what is going through their minds at that moment. If I could pan out from the photograph, the sense of scale adds to its visual qualities. There are dwarfed by the castle wall, there's a forest on one side (which by this point is becoming a symbol of the wild passions erupting out the window).

The use of tableau is what makes this production 'full of dramaturgy'. Although Debussy's score does have shades of Wagner, it doesn't tend to get too over-excited: it is subdued. The sexual sublimation of the hair-stroking session (before it descends into a representation of Pelleas' fetish) suits the muted tones of the orchestra. So far, that's two thumbs up from the Lessing-Diderot dramaturgy.

...lest we spend all day here, the cut to the chase: emotional and narrative content, with the script, in one go...

I actually don't think Diderot and Lessing would like the plot, though. It all hinges on the mysterious power of sexual desire. Basically, Golaud picks up Melisande in a forest, marries her, brings her home, and she decides she likes his brother Pelleas better.

Diderot reckoned that scripts ought to be about the conditions of the characters, not the characters themselves. Maybe Pelleas and Melisande could pass as an exploration of the role of the husband, but it's really about the problems of adultery. Maeterlinck's script never seems to condemn Pelleas, so it's not that kind of moral tragedy, but sex causes all sorts of problems for the characters.

Now, I'm guessing, but Diderot seemed the type not to get hung up about this stuff. He wrote a naughty book as a youngster - so naughty that Lessing references it while refusing to mention its main conceit. I'm just going to say that the closest thing I've seen to this conceit was performed by Betty Grumble at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016. Meanwhile, in Nathan the Wise, the young crusader thinks he fancies a girl, but it turns out he's her sister so gets over it quicker than Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strike Back. The kind of intense passion that the romantics love, and that ruined my twenties, is not part of the dramaturgical plan.

Add into this that the opera is a bit of a fairy-tale... kinda. It's all kings and castles and mysterious maidens but then again, the magic well doesn't work anymore and the analysis of Goulard's jealousy is pretty naturalistic... maybe it subverts the fairy-tale setting... actually... totally.

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Lukacs gets it Wrong and Right!

Monday, 6 March 2017

If I Had A Dramaturgy: Mariem Omari on tour across Scotland

AMINA, MWRC present
If I Had a Girl…

A powerful new production, set within the beauty, sounds and aromas of an Asian-Scots wedding celebration, explores the real-life stories of honour-based violence.

Written by Mariem Omari | Directed by Umar Ahmed 

UK TOUR Monday 27th February – Thursday 16th March 2017, various times   

A captivating mix of verbatim storytelling, physical theatre and live music, this vibrant new performance provides a bold and hard-hitting insight into the lived experience of survivors and perpetrators of honour-based violence in ethnic minority communities around Scotland.

The performance, which had a sold out Glasgow showcase in 2015, exposes how the choices we make, the families we are born into, and the expectations of others can shape our lives irrevocably. If I had a girl… speaks for those who suffer honour-based violence, and all who have experienced violence at home, whose voices are silenced or stolen and ultimately offers hope. 

Writer Mariem Omari said: “Storytelling is healing. This is the reason why If I had a girl... was born. After running a three-day workshop focused on healing and storytelling for women who have experienced abuse and honour-based violence, we decided we wanted these stories to have a life beyond the workshop, and I started a year long process of weaving the stories together. It was clear that I needed to balance the women’s stories against the stories of men who have lived the experience of violence, either through perpetrating it or trying to stop it. 

With support from Safer Families in Edinburgh, I interviewed men on the Caledonia Programme - a three-year programme for men with a record of domestic violence - to give a more complete picture of the journeys that all these people go on, and their struggles against a backdrop of long held cultural and religious traditions based on honour and shame. 

“At times the performance can be challenging to watch, but my focus was always on what I wanted the audience to feel and the integrity of the stories. There is a wonderful push-pull between the drama and the humour that unfolds as each story is revealed to the audience.”

AMINA MWRC is a leading, award winning organisation, recognised by BME communities within Scotland for its pioneering work with BME and Muslim women. 

Having invested in this area where there was previously a gap in services in Scotland, Amina is now recognised as the national hub for gaining access to and consulting with BME/Muslim women across Scotland, and for initiating innovative services to meet the particular needs of these women as well as working in partnership with mainstream services to contribute to national policies.

Their Violence Against Women Programme and You Can Change This campaign builds on years of work which includes the production of a range of films encouraging Muslim Imams and scholars to speak out against sexual harassment, ‘honour’ based violence and domestic abuse. Their work on Violence Against Women has created a platform for BME/Muslim women and men to speak out against this issue. This work has now culminated with the production of If I had a girl...

How did you become interested in making performance?

I've always been fascinated by the reaction of audiences, especially when they are caught up watching a good story. It's so much more powerful to see how peoples faces screw up, or their bodies shudder in the theatre, more so than when watching a film of TV, because it's all happening right there in front of them. It's so much more engaging than seeing the same story told through a screen.

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The inspiration for If I had a girl...was two fold - bringing the issue of honour violence and domestic abuse in minority communities in Scotland to the forefront of people's minds, and the use of storytelling as a way of healing. 

Is theatre still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Absolutely! My work is what might be termed social engaged theatre, which is why I focus on verbatim. The verbatim plays I have written have been looking at issues, such as honour violence, or childhood trauma and adult shame, specifically to incite public discussion post show. And they have! That's the beauty of a live audience - it gives you the opportunity as the writer, to inspire them to feel the things you want them to feel, in order to act. 

Was there any particular approach to the making of the show, and does this reflect your 'usual' approach’?

With Umar Ahmed as the Director, I knew the approach was going to be physical, and played out on the actors bodies. Umar and I have worked to create what we refer to as 'Physical Verbatim Theatre'  - the use of verbatim stories combined with physical theatre - which allowed us to create a piece that is dynamic, rather than a static narrative which is so often seen with verbatim. 

We see the actors as the storytellers, and therefore choose to minimise the use of props and multimedia, so that what the audience gets is truthful, intimate storytelling.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I want the audience to be disturbed and hopeful - it's what I want all my work to do, which is why I am attracted to the hard issues communities often don't want to deal with.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Humour and truth. I write with that at the forefront of my mind, and Umar directs with this as his motivation.

Mariem Omari is an activist, playwright and performer. She lived and worked across the Middle East and during that time, she met and worked with some of the most vulnerable women in the region – refugees and survivors of violence. She has since committed to promoting the stories of women to strengthen the voice for human’s rights and equality. Mariem performed in a number of productions in Australia including Macbeth, Servant of Two Masters, and The Garrison. She worked for Master Puppeteer and Artistic Director of Company Skylark, Peter Wilson, on productions such as Wake Baby, Love Suicides, and The Hobbit.

Her solo show, Staring out of Windows, was developed as part of the Street Theatre’s HIVE Program and LaMaMa NY’s 2014 International Playwrights Residency, and will be produced in Australia in 2017. She is currently one of the National Theatre of Scotland’s selected Starter for Ten artists, for her new play, One Mississippi. 

Umar Ahmed is an actor, director, and writer. He has worked extensively in Scotland. His first play Sylhety was performed in Dhaka. He also wrote and directed Lupo for Grahamstown Festival, South Africa and he's the director and co-writer of How to make a Killing in Bollywood which toured nationally of the back off its success at the Edinburgh Fringe. Other credits  include: My  Name  Is (Tamasha  Theatre  Company), Eclipse (Necessary Stage Company, Singapore), Re-Union (7:84 Theatre Company, Scotland), Damascus Aleppo and Could You Please Look  into  the Camera (National Theatre  of Scotland/Oran Mor), Theatre UnCut (Traverse Theatre, Scotsman Fringe first), The Old Curiosity Shop and Rallying Round (NTC Theatre Company), Brrr... Arabian  Nights (Proteus  Theatre), The  Animal  People (The  Bare  project), Taggart (TV), Big  Sky,  A  World Elsewhere, Going Spare and Early Belt Present (BBC Radio 4).

Cast & company

Cast Louise Haggerty, Rehanna MacDonald, Storm Skyler McClure, Manjot Sumal and further names TBC
Written by Mariem Omari Directed by Umar Ahmed 

Running time: 75 minutes (no interval) | Age restriction: 14+ | @AminaMWRC | #IfIhadagirl 

Supported by Big Lottery Fund and the Scottish Government

Listings information

Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Westerhouse Rd, Glasgow, G34 9JW
Monday 27th February 2017
7pm | £8.50 (£5.00) 
Box office:  0141 276 9696 | Tickets from

Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, Edinburgh, EH1 2ED
Thursday 2nd – Saturday 4th March 2017 
8pm | £16.50 (£13.50) 
Box office: 0131 228 1404 | Tickets from  

Paisley Arts Centre, New Street, Paisley, PA1 1EZ
Tuesday 7th March 2017
7.30pm | £10.00 (£6.00) 
Box office: 0300 300 1210 | Tickets from http//

Beacon Arts Centre, Custom House Quay, Greenock, PA15 1EQ
Wednesday 8th March 2017 
7.30pm | £10.00 (£8.00) 
Box office: 01475 723723 | Tickets from

Lemon Tree, 5 West North Street, Aberdeen, AB24 5AT
Friday 10th March 2017  
7pm | £12.00 (£10.00) 
Box office: 01224 641122 | Tickets from

Eden Court, Bishops Road, Inverness, IV3 5SA
Tuesday 14th March 2017  
8pm | £12.00 (£10.00) 
Box office: 01463 234 234 | Tickets from

Dundee Rep Theatre, Tay Square, Dundee, DD1 1PB
Thursday 16th March 2017  
7.30pm | £14.00 (£12.00) 
Box office: 01382 223530 | Tickets from