London’s summer of loveliness

A strange thing has happened in London this summer. While politicians have indulged themselves in ever more empty macho posturing, each one boasting to have made more savage cuts than the last, the capital’s art venues have been filled with a spirit of playfulness and kindness, and a series of shows and experiences that have left even hard-hearted critics with a giddy smile on their face.

At the Hayward Gallery Ernesto Neto, has filled the concrete corridors with colourful gossamer tunnels, each of them scented with herbs. There’s a magical tea house to sit in, a playhouse turret to climb and even, installed on the gallery roof, a swimming pool, which we swam in at the Hayward party, feeling slightly like a performing seal and hoping that no-one would throw fish. I also loved Rosalie Schweiker’s charming, interactive installation at her Camberwell MA show, part of her Emely project.

At the V&A there’s the Architects Build Small Spaces show: seven perfect small buildings that play with our ideas of inside, outside, sanctuary and space. They are also truly interactive as visitors clamber past each other, exchanging looks, comments and smiles. My favourite is from Studio Mumbai Architects: modelled on dwellings crammed into a narrow urban corridor behind the Studio Mumbai offices, it presents an architectural ‘cast’ of a sliver of space that is home to a family of eight.

At BAC there was the thrilling one-on-one festival, in which we interacted almost as much with other audience members as performers, swapping stories, recommendations and warnings. Not all the shows were for the faint-hearted — Internal returned for another soul-crunching run, while you might also be kidnapped or locked in a coffin — but the overall effect was one of remarkable warmth, trust and shared experience, none more intense than being bathed, cradled and fed by the remarkable Adrian Howells. Other favourites for me were Lundahl and Seitl‘s spooky, unsettling Rotating In A Room Of Images, Through The Wardrobe by Breathe and the little treasure hunt from Coney, one of the most exciting companies working in London right now.

At the National Theatre there’s Watch This Space, which continues through September, with many more delights to come. I particularly enjoyed metro-boulot-dodo’s FIB, in which 14 audience members spend 3 minutes in each of 14 boxes over the course of an hour, each one a mini experience about truth and lies. It still feels like a work in progress, and needs to challenge the audience more, but it has the germ of something that could really leave its mark.

And of course there was the latest iteration of the delirious, exhilarating You Me Bum Bum Train, which is the closest you will ever come in real life to this:

There’s plenty more to look forward to, including September’s Thames Festival, which includes a brand new project from the House of Fairytales, Joanna MacGregor’s Ignite at ROH and the welcome return of The Paper Birds to CPT. In the meantime I’m heading to Edinburgh to see if the spirit of loveliness has made its way up north.

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A Place at the Table (CPT)

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You’re welcomed into the darkened theatre to find a large, polished wooden conference table. At one end sit three smartly-dressed officials, armed with microphones and a slide projector. Two or three other people sit at the table: are they performers or your fellow audience members? Eventually there are twenty-nine of you; and everyone, actors and audience alike, has a front row seat. Then the lights dim, a slide comes up, and the story begins.

The last few years have seen a slew of “verbatim theatre” productions, in which real testimony — the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, the Hutton report on Iraq — is dramatised by actors. At its best it can be thrillingly authentic, at worst simplistic and hectoring. A Place at the Table, which investigates the 1990s conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, embraces the best of it, sidesteps the pitfalls and creates something thrillingly different and new. There are real life testimonies here, from participants, victims and journalists, but there is also exciting physical theatre, a constantly surprising staging and a sometimes very funny deconstruction of the show itself. The performers are steeped in information — it’s deeply researched, including first hand interviews — but they cheerfully acknowledge the complications of the story: even the official UN report, it turns out, was unable to make clear distinctions between Hutus, Tutsis and the other groups involved. Indeed, this is part of the point of the story: once you start trying to trace the roots of the conflict you quickly find yourself chasing leads back to the 1993 Burundi coup, then to independence in the 60s, to the Belgian occupation in 1916, to German East Africa in 1890 and as far back as the 1300s, when the Hutu people first settled in the region.

Along the way there’s also a brilliantly simple demonstration of just how to stir up ethnic hatred, an analysis of the connection between cell phones and colonialism and some terrific, understated acting that’s all the more effective for its rigorous lack of sentimentality. This is sometimes harrowing material, and the show allows it to speak for itself. The one thing that is certain is that conflict can’t be solved by looking backwards; the challenge is to figure out what forwards might look like.

A Place at the Table is an evolving piece of theatre that will no doubt evolve further. There are a couple of uncertain moments, and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between the performance and its audience develops over time. But it’s a fantastically confident show, one that deserves a long life in different locations; and for all the darkness in the story, it leaves you inspired and exhilarated, both by the potential of theatre and the human capacity for hope.

A Place at the Table is a Daedalus production at CPT.

Loving the audience

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In my work with broadcasters I’ve often been to the Edinburgh International Television Festival at the end of August. It’s a glossy, lavish combination of lectures (Al Gore), masterclasses (Stephen Poliakoff), interviews with channel controllers and of course a whole lot of networking. But in all the years I’ve been there hasn’t been a single panel, lecture or discussion about the audience. 

This might seem strange. After all, the audience is what makes television — certainly commercial television — possible. And they’re changing fast. Demographic shifts, technological shifts and radical changes in household structure are all having huge impacts on the way we watch — and how it’s measured. But in reality discussion of the audience is generally confined to the research department, which finds out who they are, and the sales department, which figure out how much they’re worth. Visit most television companies and the walls are plastered with pictures of programmes and stars, but there’s almost no evidence at all of who might be watching them. 

Of course, when you work in television, the audience is always elsewhere. If you work at ITV’s South Bank studios you might walk past the queue for the Jeremy Kyle show, but it’s generally possible to spend an entire career in television without ever having to mingle with the viewers. In theatre it’s very different. The audience is right there in the room each night, and can often have a profound effect or interaction with what’s happening on stage. But even in theatre is there enough discussion of its role — and its potential? In an increasingly networked, interactive culture, how are audiences’ expectations changing, and how should artists best respond?

This article gives an interesting account of a recent debate on the issue between some of mainstream theatre’s leading directors, while at CPT this week Apocryphal Theatre are presenting a show that changes every night, involving and engaging with the audience throughout. There’s also an interesting piece by Mark Lawson on the mantra of participation here. Whether the show is a traditional fourth wall drama or, like Punchdrunk’s Christmas performance, a completely one-to-one experience, there’s no right or wrong answer, but theatre’s willingness to engage in the debate should be an encouragement to television, and may help point some way forward. Finally, here’s a quote from Peter Handke, author of  The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, on his own ambitions for performance:

“The prime purpose of theatre is … not to produce illusions for an audience, but rather to produce audiences out of a special kind of encounter.”

In A Thousand Pieces by The Paper Birds at CPT

As the media’s news cycle becomes ever faster, ever tighter, its searing spotlight blinking bright for just a moment before it turns away, already bored, so too does our ability to care. It’s not comfortable to admit it, but it’s the natural result of too much information, poorly processed, caught in time. For a week or so we are all experts, the names of cyclones, Burmese generals or Zimbabwean politicians tripping off our tongues; then the caravan of news rolls on. 

Just as the news cycle has grown tighter, faster, so too has the speed at which today’s shock headline is tomorrow’s drama — and at which novelty becomes familiar. Boat people, cockle pickers, paedophiles all too easily become dramatic shorthand, a spice to add to the familiar recipes of TV drama, crime novels and soaps. All the more reason, therefore, to applaud The Paper Birds for their new show In A Thousand Pieces, which takes a fresh look at sex trafficking, one of the most simplistically exploited themes of recent years.

The devising of the show began with time in Poland, as well as deep research with charities in the UK, and could easily have become didactic, telling us what we choose not to know. But while the research is certainly there, it does exactly what it should do: gives the show conviction, clarity and purpose, rather than the grim recital of fact. Because, despite the darkness of its subject matter, the show itself is exhilarating, both physically and intellectually. There’s some wonderful theatrical craft: two suitcases banged together become electric airport doors; an outstretched arm and a Glade fir tree is all it takes to conjure up a taxi; a simple jar of buttons becomes a bitter litany of rape. Intellectually too it’s thrilling, as the cast deconstruct their own experience of devising it, discuss the dangers of cliche, and confront a problematic issue: can attractive young women play sexual victims without in some way exploiting themselves? There’s also a brilliantly funny section in which they mime to recordings of street interviews, highlighting the easy prejudice of Daily Mail readers — and then slyly undermine some equally simplistic liberal judgments: no-one here gets off the hook. 

If anything, the Birds could have more confidence in their work. The score, by their regular composer and collaborator Shane Durrant, is powerfully emotional, but in places too insistent; the performances can carry the emotions alone. A video projection, paradoxically, illustrated Poland less effectively than words and simple props. But these are minor issues. In A Thousand Pieces is what theatre should be: simple resources, superlative craft and challenging ideas, beautifully brought together. I hope we’ll see the Paper Birds back at CPT soon.

http://www.thepaperbirds.com/

Nightfall by The Special Guests at CPT

Twilight on Midsummer’s Eve, the shortest night of the year, brought Nightfall to CPT. It’s a time-specific performance, set across the border between day and night: what cinematographers call magic hour. And no matter that thick cloud cover meant that there was no visible sun to set; or that the sick-slicked streets of Camden are not exactly Stonehenge; this was a sparkling, seductive and ultimately unsettling piece that created real magic of its own. 

The show is an investigation of the twilight hour: we get live updates from the street outside as the light begins to fade; a demonstration of the official definitions of darkness; a psychic autopsy on Londoners as they cross the line between their day- and night-time personalities; and there are monsters lurking in the darkness that led to some clutching of arms in the audience. This is wonderfully innovative theatre: a washing line across the stage becomes first the horizon, then a timeline of the night; a delicate, spinning moon on a stick becomes a rebellious member of the cast; and a cheerful dinner party chills into a shudder, and an ending that was truly something of the night. 

www.thespecialguests.co.uk

Measuring excellence

I wrote in January about the McMaster Report, which proposed that public funding for the arts should be based on how good the work is. The very fact that this was seen as a radical step forward (what next? Eat food you like? Wear trousers that fit?) is an indication of how fragile the relationship between Arts Council England and arts organisations had become, none of which was helped by the row over February’s funding announcements.

Today, though, ACE’s chief executive, Alan Davey, gave some first indications of how the new system might work. Essentially it will be based on two elements: self-assessment and peer review. Self-assessment would be based on a simple series of questions, covering artistic excellence, financial management and audience satisfaction; peer review would consist of occasional informal inspections plus a formal review every three years. These would be conducted by a panel of experts, including other practitioners — dance companies by other dance managers, for example, or mimes by other mimes, which could lead to some interesting meetings — and business leaders. 

At the heart of this proposal is a very simple idea: find people who are good at something, reward them for excellence, and trust them to get on with it. Richard Sennett, in his new book (and inspiration for this blog) The Craftsman, would agree with these sentiments. A craftsman, in Sennett’s terms, is something who does good work for the sake of it: who creates something excellent because he or she believes in excellence. It’s an idea that’s perhaps unfashionable in cynical times, but one that, for two reasons, we should hope proves successful for ACE. First, because it will clarify and simplify the process for arts organisations, and support the work we really need. And secondly because it potentially provides the basis for a radical rehaul of public service funding as a whole.