Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Well Good Play

John Elsom (Post-War British Theatre, 1979) says that 'the well-made play' was a compromise between naturalism and the Aristotelian virtues. Following a 'romantic' obsession with art in imitation of nature (following Wordsworth and every other poet who never met a sublime visage, or some flowers, they didn't love to distraction), Ibsen was a 'scientist' who used a combination of chatty language, modern dress and probably a bit of Freudian theory to make theatre 'realistic'. 

Realising that naturalism wasn't enough by itself - true connoisseurs of naturalism could find enough of it on the street corner without having to buy a ticket to the theatre  - he nicked some of Aristotle's favourite jams (The Crisis, The Heroes, The Unities). 

Sometimes I fucking wonder about the level of theatre scholarship in the 1970s.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Innes on Brecht

Brecht's approach, if not the details of his theory, has been perhaps the most significant single influence on world drama since the 1960s.

Christopher Innes, Modern German Drama (CUP, 1994)

While ostensibly describing the influence of Brecht on subsequent German theatre-makers, Christopher Innes manages to explain how easily the theories of Brecht have been manipulated into far less interesting productions. Harmurt Lange, for exaample, took the Greek myth Murder of Ajax and overloaded it with a series of metaphors, until the story itself collapsed beneath clumsy comparisons with Soviet history. Allegory becomes a 'straightjacket' and influence becomes plagiarism when Helmut Baierl decided to take a passage from Brecht's The Exception and Rule, change a few words and shove it into the introduction to his The Finding.

In these cases, Innes continues, it's not the approach that matters so much as the Marxism. Baierl lacks the ironic sensibility that made Brecht's scripts so much more than propagande or agit-prop: he wants to believe that he can prove Marxism's righteousness on the stage. And, according to Innes, it ends up being all a bit Soviet Kitsch.

Political Theatre is Obvious


...that the only important theatre is political theatre.

It's equally obvious that all theatre is political and that it's simply a question of refining the definition. Politics is the study of power relationships, the mechanisms of control and dominance, but it is also the specifics of government and ideologies at all points in history. A political play is usually seen as more like the latter definition - The Absence of War (1993) by David Hare which exposes the machinations of the British Labour Party, Shakespeare's remarkable propaganda piece Richard III which supported Tudor claims of regal legitimacy, George Bernard Shaw's 1928 The Apple Cart and its monologues explaining various political philosophies. And it is in GBS' ideas that the importance of this specific kind of political play is revealed as crucial.

Shaw argued that plays ought to be useful: he knew that Shakespeare could provide better poetry, but the script that addressed a social issue - and became redundant for later generations - had far more worth. Brecht agreed with this diagnosis, and English Edwardian drama was full of now forgotten examples of these 'issue plays': Houghton's Hindle Wakes (marriage between social classes and women's emancipation), Galsworthy's Strife (strikes) and Justice (which persuaded Home Secretary Winston Churchill to reconsider the validity of solitary confinement in prisons) and even a sequel to Ibsen's Dolls House by Henry Arthur Jones called Breaking a Butterfly that returned Nora to good grace.

Brecht makes the strongest argument - at least in this theories - for the importance of political theatre. As a Marxist, he had a revolution to encourage, and he saw theatre as a useful weapon. early experiments with video, which he would use to project relevant statistics behind the action, gave way to a more elegant dramaturgy. By the time his Berliner Ensemble did his version of Coriolanus, he was able to adapt a classic to examine the importance of the proletariat rather than yet another great man's tragedy.

Anyway, political theatre goes back to performance's earliest incarnations. The mighty Oresteia is a trilogy that celebrates the rise of Athenian democracy, a symbolic enactment of the city's introduction of justice and, its patriarchal companion, the pardoning of young white men with promising careers ahead of them. Euripides has plenty to say about the antics of the state in The Trojan Women, Aristophanes parodies popular politicians in his comedies. Roman theatre might have been a bit more circumspect - the tyranny of the emperors didn't take well to satirical commentary, and the Mystery Cycles of Christian theatre were focused on the heavens, not the carry on of the state. However, even the most abstracted tragedies of the neoclassical era had an edge: as studies of political power relationships, they also reinforced the dream of aristocrats that fate, ruling the world, determined their social status.

The British critic Dryden had an interesting opinion on that: the downfall of a great man, in tragedy, signified that fate was no respecter of status, thereby making the tragedy all the more universal. That might be for another time.

During the 1990s, the Labour government decided that art was a good way to change society, and thus instrumentalism became policy. There was plenty of funding, for a while, and theatre became the place for big ideas to strut their stuff. Even now, companies like Kali support the work of artists from minority (not a term I like much) groups, presenting experiences to the public through the magic of the stage.

In an age when theatre is struggling for an audience - a fact that is probably something to do with the post-modern anxiety about stating things as facts and, instead, being all complicated and clever about it - the political theatre offers a certainty and clarity. A good, clean message, fitted to an appropriate format. 


A Few Relections on Live Art and Theatre

While Michael Billington wonders about the lack of gay plays in British theatre (2006), gay and lesbian live art is thriving. Live art, as opposed to theatre, tends towards a greater flexibility of form and content, and is less markedly associated with fictional characterization, moving easily between the 'authentic' and the artificial or theatrical.

Dramaturgy and Performance, Turner and Behrndt (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008:86)

Turner and Behrndt's bold statement claims that
something intrinsic in 'live art' (a 'greater flexibility' has encouraged artists to use it to express LGBTQ experiences, in place of the more traditional scripted theatre. Despite listing a range of 'gay plays', from Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clapp's Molly House (2001) to Larry Kramer's 1985 The Normal Heart, they insist that live art draws on dramaturgies like drag, 'where the drag persona is presented as authentic' (ibid) and suits artists who themselves 'already position themselves between or on the border of two (or more) cultures' (2008: 88).  

The contrast between theatre and live art is not as clear-cut as Turner and Behrndt suggest: the example of Stacy Makashi's Fold (2001) described a performance that is fluid in its use of language, but not one that differs considerably from a Brechtian influenced monologue in its movement between multiple characters which deconstruct the notion of diagetic identity. Richard Schechner's description of performance studies would place them both under a broader umbrella.

Behaviour is the 'object of study... what people do in the activity of doing it...Performance must be construed as a 'broad spectrum' or continuum of human actions ranging from ritual, play, sports, popular entertainments, the performing arts (theatre, dance, music, and everyday life performances... there is no historically or culturally fixable limit on what is or is not 'performance'

Performance Studies: An Introduction, Schechner (Routledge, 2002:1-2)

While Turner and Behrndt are concerned with cataloging contemporary dramaturgies with a view to tracing the influence of Brecht's innovations, Schechner's agenda was to broaden the material under consideration, yet they all share an Aristotelian desire to present a taxonomy of performance. Schechner's apparently porous boundaries and rejection of an absolute definition are disingenuous -  far from liberating performances from a Eurocentric hierarchy, he colonises the performance of global cultures beneath the measuring rod of anthropological investigation. However, rather than deal with live art and drag as merely different kinds of theatrical dramaturgy, Turner and Behrndt place the work beyond the boundaries of theatre and swiftly return to 'hybrid dramaturgy' in their discussion of work from the African diaspora. 

Like Billington in the opening quotation, Turner and Behrndt don't see the LGBTQ performance as theatre but within an alternative tradition. Schechner's more inclusive discipline, in this case, would enhance their analysis.

Papal Decree

It is chastening to realise that one of the earliest
attempts to describe the function of the critic is also one of the most comprehensive. Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) ponders the purpose of pondering, before offering advice that goes beyond 'make sure that you spell all the actors' names correctly'.

After a little throat clearing on the difference between the poet and the critic, Pope emphasises the importance of style:

Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.

And while recognising the faith that most people have in their opinions, he is clear that learning and intelligence are no substitute for self-awareness. 

Some have at first for wits, then poets passed,
Turn'd critics next, and prov'd plain fools at last.

The theme of the critic as self-critical is maintained throughout the poem, and in his final couplet, Pope pushes home the message.

He, who Supream in judgment as in wit,
Might boldly censure, as he boldly writ,
Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame,
Averse alike to flatter, or offend,
Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend. 

Pope's vision of the critic is not as a mere addition to the creative process, nor as a member of the theatre's marketing team, nor a writer of consumer guides. Rather, the critic is a type of person who embodies strong social values and is willing to express them in public.

Not that Pope dismisses learning: he imagines the critic to be eclectic in their reading ('All books he reads', 614) and aware of the rules designed by 'the Ancients' (Aristotle, Horace and the Athenian playwrights) without rejecting those artists who go against them (161 - 180). His construction of the critical personality is, itself, founded on the Christian virtues of his time ('Pride, the never-failing vice of fools' 204) and the rising enthusiasm for rationality ('Reason drives that cloud away' 211) and a rejection of the kind of limited education that encourages ill-considered click-bait headlines.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking largely sobers us again.

While Pope's survey is caught up in the debates of his time - the classical references reveal a working knowledge of Greek and Latin that surpasses that of most contemporary scholars - his advice on specifics is strangely topical. 

A perfect Judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ

Here's the first rule of criticism: be generous to a production and engage with it on its own terms. In 1711, this was a bold statement. Previously in critical theory, a play was assessed on its ability to follow the terms set out in Aristotle's Poetics - this stricture had led to the creation in France of an academic body to enforce conformity. Pope goes for a more open approach, that allows the artist more freedom. He follows this up with 'Survey the whole' (235), a statement that rejects petty complaints about slight missteps. 'Critics of less judgment... offend in Arts... by a Love to Parts' (285 - 289)

He goes on to draw out the importance of the matching of form and content: 

A vile conceit in pompous words exprest
Is like a clown in regal purple drest (320-1)

Leaving aside the swipe at the noble art of clowning - he didn't have a chance to see Red Bastard - Pope isn't fooled by the surface. He wants to look deeper. He adds in an enthusiasm for innovation - noting how the English language is in a constant state of evolution.

Nevertheless, the essay is filled with epigrams that have entered popular culture - mainly as catchphrases for self-help manuals. The rhyme helps to make the epigrams ear-worms: Pope was making memes without accompanying pictures of cats. These moral demands cut to the heart of his belief in the critic as pursuing an almost spiritual path.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Drone Dramaturgy: Elliot Roberts @ The Vault

Ever wondered what would happen if Call of Duty or Battlefield were real? DRONE is the story of 3 friends and 1 outsider, living in a bunker after a nuclear war... the only thing to do is to play the game... but at what cost?

Drone is a piece of new writing from actor/writer Stephen Redwood presented by Crimson Phoenix this week at the Vault, 11 Merchant Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2QD.
Wednesday 25th – Friday 27th 7pm, with additional 2pm performances on the 25th and 27th
£10 tickets are available on the door, or in advance online from https://www.crimsonphoenix.co.uk/shop/drone-tickets/

Dramaturgy Database entry written by director Elliot Roberts

What was the inspiration for this

At the point at which I became involved with the project, I remember that Stephen Redwood (the writer) was particularly interested the gamification of warfare and the increasingly close, and increasingly problematic ties between entertainment and the military.

I think for both Stephen and I, there was also an intriguing challenge to be found in representing games and games culture onstage, as it’s an area not often tackled in performance despite its sizable role in the entertainment of our generation.

For Stephen too, this piece represents an experiment of sorts in its mixture of technological dynamism, post-catastrophic genre study, and closely observed realism. In pitching the show to me, Stephen focused on a new kind of theatre borne out of the gaps in Scotland’s current theatrical culture, of which Drone represents an intriguing hint of things to come.   

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

I believe that it is, particularly if you are interested in the kind of less didactic approach that can accommodate for multiple interpretations and which can facilitate the interrogation of cognitive dissonance. By design, a dramaturgical process structured around collaboration in which carefully selected participants are offered ownership of their own material can help a work to become more richly textured, more porous to audiences, and more rigorously constructed.   

With that in mind, it has been a terrific experience opening up the plays ideas to the collective thinking and questioning of the rehearsal room, and we hope in turn that this opening this play up to an audience will yield similarly fascinating results.

How did you become interested in making performance?

For me, I would have to say that I think that my longstanding interest in the power of theatrical storytelling comes from our ability to recreate and transform small parcels of our universe into beautiful pockets of human expression, to say the unsayable, to achieve the impossible.

Since then I have tracked a journey from an amazed audience member taken in by the theatres magical spell, to an enthusiastic deconstructer of the mechanics that make such seeming magic possible, then from ill-advised forays into acting into more promising roles in directing and dramaturgy.

In particular, I have been fortunate enough to work frequently with new writing, where the challenges of process and the priorities of storytelling take their cues from the text itself, allowing for a fresh set of tools and questions every time.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

Going into rehearsals, I was acutely aware that for Stephen and his production company, Crimson Phoenix, this piece represents something of an experimental approach by marking out territory that they hope to explore in future developments and productions. On the page, the piece called for a cross-medial approach to action, spanning physical theatre, film, live-gameplay, and sonic dimensions.

Certain sections in the text were even marked out specifically for creative intervention in the form of audio-visual and movement choreography. As a director presented with these generous calls for my own contributions, I felt particularly aware of the responsibility I feel towards the dramaturgical intent of the writer, and my place in providing a staging that compliments and clarifies the qualities of this particular text. 

More specifically, I was aware of the role that my direction would shape in issuing first impressions of Drone to both audiences and potential producers alike. I’d have to say that one of the key aspects of my approach to the piece would be a pragmatic appraisal of what could be achieved in the time and resource limits that fringe theatre is subject to. We are grateful to have welcomed the contribution of professional cast and creatives whose passion for the piece, along with liberal doses of creative thinking, have together brought this piece to energetic, detailed, and sometimes chilling life.

In terms of production process, we were working on a scale that people might most commonly associate with the Play, Pie, & Pint programme, in which new writing is given two weeks and rehearsal and one week of performances. It’s not too hard to see why this model is popular in that it can often deliver punchy, disciplined results that gets new ideas in front of an audience quickly and without too long spent incubating in the rehearsal room. 

And for me, some of the most successful examples of work made on this scale is that which makes bold, disciplined, and theatrical choices when presenting their material to an audience: For me, Drone ticks many of these boxes in that it takes places in a single location over an almost uninterrupted span of time, it juggles themes both large and small, it is populated by flawed but never unfeeling people, and explosive drama always sits just under the skin.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

For me, this is actually my third collaboration with Stephen Redwood, having previously directed the short play Kansas for the Tron 100 Festival and the development of his play Blood for Bread. So despite all of those plays having quite different themes, tones, and styles, I can see a continuity in our process as theatre makers which sees us entering the rehearsal room with a pretty clear proposition which can be poked, prodded, questioned, and altered by our cast and creative company in a way that opens the play up to as many perspectives and audiences as possible.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I think there can be a bit of a genre expectation that work that is post-catastrophic should be harsh, violent, and particularly stark (think Mad Max, Fallout, or Walking Dead) that I think both Stephen and I were keenly aware of. So in some ways this was something that we hoped to both encourage and subvert, by picking this particular segment of culture to survive and gain an eerie significance.

The more I’ve watched the play grow in rehearsal, as it jumps off of the page and into the actors bodies, the most keenly aware I am of the kaleidoscope of emotion that this play is. At points it is funny, endearing, tender, electrifyingly tense, haunting, and pulse-quickening.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

As a dramaturg myself, I am acutely aware of the benefits wrought from having an outside eye as part of the process, although I was mindful of the time and resource limitations of the process, so I came around to the idea of utilising a collaborative rehearsal room process for cast and creatives that would allow for a regular feedback of ideas not unlike that offered by the formalised use of a dramaturg.

Aside from that, I was particularly keen for the design of the piece to reflect the same dramaturgical thinking as the staging, allowing for a kind of total theatre, in which all of the elements of the theatrical production can together form a multi-faceted and engaging theatrical experience for audiences.  

Brief thoughts on Chapelain and English Neoclassicism

In his survey of The Classical Drama of France (OUP, 1971), Wll G. Moore dismisses many of the neoclassical theorists as 'proto-critics' who, at best, were 'paving the way for true criticism by the practices of animated discussion' (1971:64). He does, however, show respect to Chapelain, who was tasked with the development of the neo-classical doctrine. 

He writes as a man called to stem disorder and to curb individualism: 'nothing is more certain than that pleasure is produced by the observance of order and by what is credible. The Ancients constructed their works on the very principles which people wish now to destroy, If confusion and ineffectiveness in the theatre could give pleasure, it would be for rustics and entirely unable to affect civilised men. I wish to watch a performance and not a jumble.' (ed. Hunter, 1931:128)
(Moore, 1971:66)

Chapelain is chiefly remembered for his insistence on the 'twenty four hour rule' - an elaboration on the detail of Aristotle's unity of time. He was supported by Cardinal Richlieu, who coordinated the Académie française. Alongside François Hédelin, abbé d'Aubignac, he was a staunch defender of the neoclassical and resisted change. 

Chapelain's stentorian comments represent the most disappointing strand of critical writing: determinedly conservative, he equates an established dramaturgy with a moral good, and demeans experimental as both 'a jumble' and a threat to social stability. 

Fathers Dramaturgy: Magentic North @ Traverse


Magnetic North – in co-production with Traverse Theatre Company for the very first time – 
present Our Fathers

The first theatrical adaptation of Edmund Gosse's book Father and Son, woven with personal stories from playwright and Traverse Associate Artist Rob Drummond and Magnetic North’s Artistic Director Nicholas Bone

Uniquely explores father and son relationships, and how to respectfully disagree with someone you love

An intriguing new play exploring the relationship between fathers and sons will have its world premiere this October at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre before touring the rest of Scotland. 

What was the inspiration for this performance?

The book Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, coupled with the coincidence that Rob and Nicholas are both atheist sons of clergymen.  Father and Son is Edmund Gosse’s memoir of  growing up in an evangelical fundamentalist Christian family in the second half of the 19th century.  The book charts the gulf which emerged between book-loving Edmund and his father - a preacher and renowned scientist - as Edmund realised he couldn’t share his father’s beliefs.  As we say at the start of the show, Nicholas’s own clergyman father suggested he should read the book, he passed it on to Rob and they started talking about how to adapt it. 

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

Yes, we think so!  One of the themes that developed as we were making the show was about how human beings can disagree better, more respectfully and more usefully.  The making process has coincided with a time of political and social upheaval – Brexit, Trump, terrorism and the far right resurgence – and increasing polarisation of views and opinions. Political debate and social media seem increasingly to result in unproductive disagreement where people just abuse each other.  Placing discussion and different viewpoints within a performance, relating ideas to a personal story and putting a dramaturgical structure around the discussion, seems to result in a better conversation.  

How did you become interested in making performance?

Nicholas and Rob each grew up watching their fathers preach every week from the pulpit, which is a performative practice. Rob’s mum would direct the church shows which Rob would star in and then when he got older he was taken to variety shows like Francie and Josie and so performance was always a part of his life. 

Nicholas's family weren't particularly interested in the theatre, but he was fascinated by film performers like Buster Keaton from an early age.  Nicholas has been making performances for many years now, mostly as a director and devisor, but occasionally as a performer; he is a member of the movement collective In The Making and has performed with them at the Fringe for the last two years, this year with a durational performance at Dance Base. 

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

We started with Edmund Gosse’s story, as told in Father and Son, and then explored Rob’s and Nicholas’s stories and the points of intersection. We then worked out how to weave them together and how to echo the relationships in the stories in the relationship of the two performers on stage.  

Adapting Father and Son has its challenges: it’s a dense Edwardian text with long descriptive passages featuring lots of multi-syllabic words we wouldn’t use today.  But in his account of his childhood rebellions – at first minor and then escalating – Edmund Gosse can also be very funny.  We’ve tried to include both the humour and the tragedy of the book in the show – as Gosse says in his introduction, It is not usual, perhaps, that the narrative of a spiritual struggle should mingle merriment and humour with a discussion of the most solemn subjects – but it does make for an interestingly complex book and piece of theatre.  

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Yes and no.  For Magnetic North, it’s the first time that Nicholas has appeared in one of our productions and it’s the first time he’s told his own story as a version of himself on stage.  Rob has generally either performed his own work as a solo (Bullet Catch, In Fidelity, The Majority), or more recently written plays which are performed by other people (Quiz Show, Grain in the Blood). 

This is the first time in Rob’s career that he has appeared as part of a double act.  But there are also many examples of elements which do relate to other productions – Magnetic North has a strand which we might call ‘adaptations of tricky books’ such as Walden and A Walk at the Edge of the World.  The development and devising process, where we’ve given ourselves time to make the show and brought in collaborators early on, is also a typical way of working for Magnetic North.  

The involvement of the rest of the creative team – co-director Ian Cameron, assistant director Jenna Watt, designer Karen Tennent, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and composer Scott Twynholm – has really helped shape this production, and previous Magnetic North shows have always featured that same collaborative, cross-artform process.  

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

We hope that the audience will share in our investigation of the relationship between parents and children, how it’s possible to both grow apart and remain close, and how it can be so hard to have an honest conversation with someone you love.  

We think that – as everyone has had a parent, or been a child – there is a way into the show for everyone.  We want the audience to leave feeling satisfied with the stories that we’ve told them, but we don’t want to try and give anyone any answers; we want them to leave still thinking and asking themselves questions.  

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

There are a couple of sections in the show where we directly invite the audience to ask themselves some questions – about their own parents and about their own principles.  We give them space to consider those questions and hopefully that connects them more closely to the stories we are telling in the show as well as allowing them to reflect on their own lives and experiences – not just listening to ours! 

But we have also tried to make sure that the story contained within the book is served too, which gives the audience a through line to hold on to. There’s an element of pure storytelling, which comes from Nicholas’s resolve to honour the text, which is counterpoised by Rob’s irrepressible desire to open out and share directly with the audience, asking them questions and looking for feedback. The book is subtitled a tale of two temperaments, and, for good reason, so is the play. 

Our Fathers is co-produced by Magnetic North and the Traverse Theatre, and is written and performed by multi-award-winning playwright Rob Drummond and Magnetic North’s Artistic Director Nicholas Bone.

The play is inspired by Edmund Gosse’s 1907 book Father and Son, which tells the story of Gosse’s upbringing as the only child of evangelical Christians in Victorian England, and his growing realisation that he did not share their religious faith. Both Drummond and Bone are the atheist children of clergymen, and bring their contemporary perspective and experiences to the story.

This new production is the first co-production between the two Edinburgh-based companies and is also the first time Rob Drummond – a Traverse Associate Artist and writer of Grain in the Blood, Bullet Catch and In Fidelity – has worked with Magnetic North. 

Nicholas Bone, the company’s Artistic Director, will appear in a Magnetic North production for the first time and, in a reversal of roles, Ian Cameron – who performed in Magnetic North’s award-winning A Walk at the Edge of the World in 2014 – will be co-director. Cameron most recently worked at the Traverse as collaborator on the hugely successful and award-winning Black Beauty.

As the performance unfolds, weaving together Edmund Gosse's story with those of Bone and Drummond, the audience will also be invited to contribute – given the opportunity to comment on the story and talk about experiences of their own in dialogue with the performers. Bone and Drummond will also be available before the show at each venue to meet audiences and chat about their experiences of family relationships.

Rob Drummond, writer/performer and Traverse Associate Artist, says:

‘This is a deeply personal play for both Nick and myself. In adapting this book for the stage we have found it necessary to talk about our own relationships with our fathers and reminisce about our religious upbringings. I am now an atheist. My father is decidedly not. How do we respect people who we disagree with? Are there certain things that should simply remain unspoken? This is a play for anyone who has ever been the child of a parent, the parent of a child or who has ever found themselves in ideological disagreement with a loved one. Everyone, then. I’m very excited to be back at the Traverse – it feels like the right place to launch a show about religion and family as the Traverse is a spiritual home for me.’

Nicholas Bone, writer/performer and Magnetic North Artistic Director, says:

‘As we've worked on Our Fathers we've become very interested in how people talk to each other, and maintain a relationship with each other, when they disagree strongly. In today's world of political discourse, 24-hour news and conversations over social media, this theme has considerable contemporary resonance. We're looking forward to sharing the piece with audiences at the Traverse and then on tour.’

Orla O’Loughlin, Traverse Artistic Director, says:

‘As long-time admirers of Magnetic North’s ground-breaking work, the Traverse is thrilled to be collaborating with them for the first time on Our Fathers. We are looking forward to not just welcoming back our Associate Artist Rob Drummond but also to the whole Magnetic North team to look at the delicacy of many father-son relationships, and to discuss the increasingly important and timeless issue of how we respectfully disagree or begin uncomfortable discourse with those whom we love.’

Traverse Theatre

Wednesday 25 October—Saturday 28 October (previews 21 and 24 October, BSL Interpreted 25 October)

Press performance: 25 October

Box Office: 0131 228 1404 / online here

The production then tours to Glasgow, Inverness, Banchory, Aberdeen, Greenock, St Andrews and Peebles. Detailshere.

Magnetic North

Based in Edinburgh, Magnetic North is an award-winning theatre company formed in 1999 by theatre and opera director Nicholas Bone. Magnetic North works with playwrights, composers, visual artists, choreographers and other artists to create striking and intriguing new work. The company runs an extensive multi-art form artist development programmes, with a particular focus on creating opportunities for experienced artists. Its recently launched Artist's Attachment programme creates a unique opportunity for an experienced artist to work on a significant development in their practice. Previous productions include Pass the Spoon, a collaboration with Turner Prize-nominated artist David Shrigley, and the highly-acclaimed Walden. www.magneticnorth.org.uk

Traverse Theatre

Formed in 1963 by a group of passionate theatre enthusiasts, the Traverse Theatre was originally founded to extend the spirit of the Edinburgh festivals throughout the year. Today, under Artistic Director Orla O'Loughlin, the Traverse is proud to deliver its year-round mission of championing creative talent by placing powerful and contemporary theatre at the heart of cultural life – producing and programming urgent and diverse work spanning theatre, dance, performance, music and spoken word.

Through the work it presents, the Traverse aims to both entertain and stir conversation – reflecting the times and provoking crucial debate amongst audiences, inspiring them to ask questions, seek answers and challenge the status quo.

The Traverse has launched the careers of some of the UK's most celebrated writers – David Greig, David Harrower and Zinnie Harris – and continues to discover and support new voices, including Stef Smith, Morna Pearson, Gary McNair and Rob Drummond.

With two custom-built and versatile theatre spaces, the Traverse's home in Edinburgh's city centre holds an iconic status as the theatrical heart of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe every August

I read The Champions, and I liked it

The fuss about Marvel's alleged 'social justice agenda' is all the more ridiculous given that Stan Lee, when discussing the origins of the comic books that made Marvel famous, explicitly stated that he wanted to express progressive values. The introduction of the Black Panther, for example, undermined racist tropes about 'primitive' African nations (although there are more than a few details, from the name of the hero down, that raise eyebrows).

The Champions is probably one of the series that has been identified as part of this agenda, because it manages to avoid women embodying the most common superpower, has a racially diverse line-up, asks questions about the moral consequences of heroism and suggests that leadership is less important than collective organisation. Issues have addressed themes like racism, capitalist greed and even the absurdity of villainous tropes: guest star Gwenpool is convinced that racist and homophobic activities are the result of a mind-control ray, or something, and balks at the suggestion that there isn't a conspiracy working behind the scenes. With its lively art (clean panels, cartoon-like characters, energetic story-telling), The Champions walks the line between didactic content and playful adventure.

Ms Marvel, who decided to form The Champions after feeling that the older Avengers lacked social responsibility, had already been criticised for her own comic book. A female Muslim, living in a multi-racial New Jersey, Ms Marvel followed the classic Marvel pattern of trying to combine her powers with responsibility: like Spider-Man, she struggled with romance, homework and the demands of fighting baddies who had all sorts of magical powers. 

Unlike Spider-Man, she had to deal with literal - as opposed to fantastic - racism, but had an extended family and broke with the orphan trope. Despite the occasional lapse into heavy-handed didactic tactics (the one about voting ends up with her marching about, explaining why voting is good while waving an American flag), Ms Marvel demonstrates that the superhero genre can adapt to progressive politics, and that exciting fighting works well enough alongside inclusivity.

It's a bit off kilter but I tried anyway

Just Leave Him Alone, He'll Get Over It

Hedda Gabbler: National Theatre on Tour

Gary Day’s insistence that tragedy emerged from sacrificial ritual becomes increasingly problematic in his reading of Hedda Gabler. Recognising that Ibsen’s interest in naturalism – ‘the scientific observation of ‘real’ people… who speak and dress in a ‘realistic manner’ (2016: 132) does away with the religious trappings and the necessity of sacrifice, Day identifies Gabler’s universe is ‘approaching the world of Beckett where we are waiting for things to wind down and where there will be no new beginning… there is no scapegoat who can purge (society)’ (2016: 133). Indeed, he concludes that Hedda’s suicide at the end of the play evokes the murder of Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, a death that removes an obstacle to patriarchal power and is the opposite to the redemptive sacrifice at the heart of ritual.

Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabbler (National Theatre, 2017) does offer a reconciliation between Day’s notion of the tragic and Ibsen’s naturalism. Using a translation of Ibsen’s script by Patrick Maber, he strips away the period detail in the scenography and locates the action in a vaguely contemporary setting. Van Hove’s direction vacillates between the measured naturalism of the script – Adam Best portrays Brack as a thuggish rapist who hides behind a veneer of louche sophistication – and a more symbolic dramaturgy which concludes with Hedda’s suicide enacted on stage, contrary to the source script, and the other characters arranged, in silhouette, facing her dead body. The pistols that will eventually be used for the suicide are placed on the wall of the set, encased in a cabinet and clearly on display in a very literal placement of the ‘Chekhov’s gun’ trope – emphasising the tragic inevitability of the deaths in the way that Brecht found objectionable in the Aristotelian tradition. When Brack threatens Hedda, he pours tomato juice over her white dress, making the violence of his threats as explicit as blood flowing from her body.

The challenge of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler lies in the tension between the conduct of the protagonist – she is manipulative, deceitful and desperate for a life that she cannot have – and her punishment in the final act. Having manufactured the suicide of her ex-lover Lovborg, she is trapped in a loveless relationship as her husband is now collaborating with Hedda’s rival and Brack’s intention to ‘visit’ her as a companion in her husband’s absence: van Hove’s production has made it clear that this would mean repeated sexual assaults. Hedda’s decision to commit suicide and to make it ‘beautiful’ – that is, to find the meaning in a clean death that has been denied her in life – mirrors the botched suicide of her ex-lover. In her death, she attains the dignity that her character has denied her.

Van Hove articulates this tension by a shift from a naturalistic approach for the first acts
– despite the sparse scenography, which takes it cues from comments made by Hedda and her husband that they cannot afford to furnish their flat – and moving towards symbolism in the final third. Using Joni Mitchell’s Blue as a repeated motif, the production stresses Hedda’s alienation, and clumsily foreshadows several dramatic moments: the suicides through the guns, the burning of her ex-lover’s manuscript by the maid slowly lighting a fire at the start of Act II, Hedda’s death in the trail of tomato juice. Hedda’s behaviour is presented without apology. She taunts Mrs Elvsted for her beauty, encourages Lovborg to drink heavily – knowing that it would destroy him – and mocks her husband’s claims on her body. Lizzy Watt’s performance has a whirling energy, as she dominates conversations, makes little effort to charm her companions and is quite obvious in her insincerity. That Mrs Elvsted could fall for her deception only reveals how naïve Lovborg’s lover (and co-author) must be. Hedda is a monster of vanity, and despite references to her father as a man of status, and a few insights into her loveless and sexless marriage, the script offers little explanation for her behaviour.

It’s only towards the finale that Hedda elicits sympathy, and this is as much to do with Ibsen’s adaptation of the tragic format as her situation. A brutal reading of the play could emphasise Hedda’s responsibility for her fate: her attempted, childish rebellion against social mores only enmeshes her in its less charitable snares. Yet from the report of Lovborg’s suicide – presented by Brack in a heartless messenger speech – Hedda’s decline to death takes on the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Like Oedipus, Hedda awaits news – the detail of Lovborg’s suicide, which she hopes will be ‘beautiful’ – and the news, far from redeeming her, crushes her hopes. Brack then spells out to her the detail of her future oppression – a sexual relationship with him, once posed as a sophisticated dalliance, is now a compulsory payment for his silence on her complicity in Lovborg’s death. Meanwhile, her husband abandons her for Mrs Elvstead: although they are working together on completing Lovborg’s manuscript, Annabel Bates lends Mrs Elvstead an innocent flirtatious charm that clearly displaces Hedda in her husband’s affections. It is as if Hedda is being shown the tools of the torture, and Brack’s wry statement that he intends to ‘occupy her fully’ has the overtones of a judicial sentence, lascivious and fatal.

It’s in these scenes that van Hove abandons the naturalism for a more ritualistic drama. The characters take on the aura of archetypes: Brack the compromised and self-serving magistrate, Hedda the victim of patriarchy, Mrs Elvstead the innocent who is protected and rewarded by society. Death becomes, if not redemptive, at least meaningful. And with the pistols hung boldly on the wall from the very beginning of Act I, all of this is inevitable. The production signposts the fatalism so clearly that it is as if it has taken Brecht’s complaint against ritualistic tragedy and amplified it even to the point of parody.

Van Hove draws out the problems of Ibsen’s use of both naturalism and tragic form: Hedda is both an object for sympathy and a description of a particular rebellion against the constraints of society. By abandoning the detail of Victorian society for its vague contemporary feel, van Hove dislocates the events into the tragic abstract, exposing Ibsen’s reliance on the traditions that he aimed to replace. The production’s dramaturgy speaks of the influence of Aristotle, Brecht and even absurdist nihilism, without settling on a single dominant dramaturgy. Hedda’s behaviour denies her the ‘purity’ of the scapegoat – hence Day’s problem with her sacrifice – but she undeniably becomes a victim of a system that demands her submission. Her suicide – elegantly performed, a statement of refusal – partakes in both the political as an act of revolution against oppression, and the nihilistic, a rejection of life’s innate worth and value. Her life, on the other hand, was a petty rebellion, ill-informed, malicious and barely aware of the constraints that contained it. Her death is a lesson that her life could not teach.

And perhaps Day’s description of Hedda’s suicide as ‘another version of the sacrifice of Clytemnestra… no one will be held to account for it’ (2016:135) misses something. A play is not merely a ‘report’ but as Brecht puts it a ‘live representation’ (Short Organum, 1964:180). Eric Bentley (The Life of the Drama, 1983) grapples with Brecht’s political stances, defending it as ‘employed in what doctrinaires on both sides might call subterfuge and evasion, rather than celebration of the true faith’ (1964:141): in the same way, Ibsen’s feminist intentions, explicit in the suicide but occluded in the ugliness of Hedda’s character, refuse to compromise his depiction of a woman caught in patriarchy but unable to formulate a mature resistance. That she relies on stereotypical ‘feminine wiles’ rather than a robust attack, that she is painted as mean-spirited and trivial only serves to broaden the play and offer a dialectic of which Brecht, Marx or Hegel would be proud. Hedda’s sacrifice is not intended to redeem those within the play, but demonstrate to the auditorium.