Finding The Words

©Richard Davenport 2012. London UK. Chris Goode Publicity Images

Originally written for Exeunt and the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

I’m sat on the edge of my bed, postponing the moment when I need to leave for work, staring with feverish intensity at the glowing rectangle of my phone. In these stolen minutes at the start of the day I’m reading every last word I can about Three Kingdoms, the new production at the Lyric Hammersmith that has sparked a long, sprawling critical debate. My own words are also out there, somewhere in the tangle of online criticism, and for the first time since releasing my opinions into the virtual world I feel as though I’m part of a real conversation.

I walk out of This Is How We Die at Ovalhouse with ears ringing and skin prickling. I don’t have the words to describe what I just experienced, and I’m not sure I ever will, but the search for them feels like the most important thing in the world in this moment. On the bus home, hands still shaking a little, I type an inadequate, sweary tweet on my phone and wonder if a piece of theatre will ever leave me this exhilarated again.

It’s late. Far too late. Far too late – or rather too early – to still be tapping away at my laptop with a full day’s work waiting for me in the morning. But I just can’t stop. I’m writing about Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, a gently mind-stretching essay of a show, and wrestling at the same time with some of the really big, essential questions about this art form that I love. What is theatre for? Why do we make it or see it? What really happens when we all gather in a room together to experience a show?

Who knew theatre could be so epic, so thrilling, so sexy? It takes about five minutes for The TEAM to steal my heart and squeeze it tight with the gorgeous, adrenaline-fuelled juggernaut that is Mission Drift, their warp-speed race through 400 years of American capitalism. Later, catching my breath and staring at a blank Word document, my only thought is: how do I possibly write something even a fraction as exciting as what I just saw?

These experiences are rare. In a lifetime of faithful theatregoing, they appear as sporadic, fleeting flashes on an otherwise calm horizon. It’s the promise of such moments, however, that keeps me going through all the boredom and mediocrity. It keeps me hopeful and it keeps me questioning, two vital qualities for anyone who wants to write about theatre with any kind of passion. No matter how many awful shows I’ve seen, the words constantly on my lips – like a much less glamorous version of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret – are “maybe this time”.

I find it hard to think of any one piece of theatre that set me on a course towards criticism. Writing about theatre, like so many other things in life, was essentially a bit of an accident. As an undergraduate student I kind of liked theatre, I kind of liked writing and I kind of wanted to start a blog – it wasn’t any more interesting or exciting than the serendipitous alchemy of those three things combined. Instead, what I find easier to pin down are the shows that subsequently kept me on that strange, coincidental path.

When first writing about Three Kingdoms and still feeling a little dazed, I suggested that “we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing”. This is what the best theatre provokes. There’s a line that I love in Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism: “In the midst of an earthquake, the critic is no better a guide than anyone else”. It’s a slightly embarrassing thought for critics, but an inspiring one for theatre-makers. They trace new contours in the world; we scrabble around to redraw the map.

Or, to put it another way, the theatre that I most want to write about is the theatre I don’t yet have the words for.

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The Hidden Participants

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Somehow, on a rainy Monday afternoon, I find myself crawling around on the floor of a primary school classroom, pretending to be a lion. I’m taking part in Speech Bubbles, London Bubble Theatre Company’s Key Stage 1 schools programme. I came along with the intention of watching quietly from the sidelines, but the only real way to get a feel for this kind of work is to get stuck in. So over the course of an hour I’m a tree, an adventurer, a monkey, a dragon and, yes, a lion.

It might not sound all that different from games usually found in the playground, but the silliness and role-play is part of a structure that is all about storytelling and, crucially, theatre. From an educational perspective, Speech Bubbles has a proven track record of improving communication skills, helping children to listen to others and to express themselves. But at the same time, this is theatre on the most small-scale, everyday of levels, happening quietly and without fuss at schools across the city.

As arts funding continues to be threatened, the argument is regularly put forward that theatres need to embed themselves at the heart of their communities. If those buildings and companies really mean something to local people, then their audiences will fight for them. It’s an argument I agree with. But I wonder whether theatre is already built into more people’s lives than the theatre community itself recognises. Theatre isn’t just what’s on in the West End or at the Royal Court or even in tiny, alternative venues like Camden People’s Theatre. It’s happening in village halls and community centres, in parks and in schools. So why aren’t we claiming all of this work?

A while back, playwright and campaigner Fin Kennedy suggested an idea that he dubbed “I Am British Theatre”. As a way of tackling the public perception that everyone who works in theatre is a privileged, air-kissing luvvie, he proposed that ordinary theatre-makers talk about the reality of the industry in a series of blog posts or short films, stripping away the gloss of showbiz glamour. The message was to be that it’s not all champagne and red carpets.

It was a great idea in lots of ways, but it cut out a whole swathe of British theatre practice. If we’re talking numbers, the people who really represent British theatre are probably those participating in amateur dramatics groups, those watching their kids in the school show, those going along to a weekly drama class, and those crawling around pretending to be lions at 2pm on a Monday. This is how theatre really enters and animates people’s lives. It’s less showy, less exciting, less overtly theatrical, but it’s completely embedded in the rhythms of life.

To return to Speech Bubbles, this simple process of sharing, telling and acting out stories offers children the opportunity to engage in theatre as author, performer and audience member – sometimes all three at once. It also positions these roles as fluid, creating a relationship with theatre that is active and curious from the beginning. Perhaps most importantly, it tells its participants that they have stories that are worth listening to, something they might not be used to hearing in a world in which, as theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin puts it, capitalism has stolen our stories and sold them back to us.

This is just one example, but it points towards a huge, largely invisible section of this country’s complex theatre ecology. While it’s not often talked or written about, and in many cases doesn’t even carry the label “theatre” for its participants, it’s a vital entry point to the art form. And often it goes on to feed the system that it’s an unobtrusive part of, igniting the first spark that inspires those kids in primary school classrooms to continue making theatre in one form or another. The important thing to recognise is that it is all theatre.

Theatre isn’t necessarily for everyone, in the same way that football or knitting or heavy metal music isn’t necessarily for everyone. It can be easy to forget that in the zeal that surrounds audience development initiatives. Not everyone wants to be an audience member, and that’s OK. But plenty of the people who are supposedly so difficult to reach are already engaged in theatre, whether they recognise it as theatre or not. And maybe those of us so invested in doing the reaching out could try a little harder to see those hidden participants.

Matilda the Musical

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Originally written for the Guardian as part of their Musicals we love series.

In a recent episode of Outnumbered, a headmistress in the mould of Roald Dahl‘s deliciously vile adults announces her desire to ban the beloved author. “He’s probably ruined more children’s lives than polio,” she sneers. “Ruined them with the ludicrous belief that all adults are stupid and can routinely be outwitted by small children and the occasional fox.”

This is perhaps Dahl’s greatest achievement. Adults are fallible, flawed, fickle creatures, and we could all do with an occasional reminder of that. None of Dahl’s resourceful young characters do this quite as well as the heroine at the heart of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical adaptation, who outsmarts her adult oppressors with the triple threat of brains, guts and telekinesis.

The irresistible charm of this musical is not so much its music, its book, its design or its performances, but the appealing streak of naughtiness that runs through them all. Listening to Matilda sing “Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you/ Mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you”, I was suddenly eight years old again, cracking open the pages of Dahl’s book and feeling an instant connection with his bright, brave and bookish protagonist.

Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s version is that rare thing: a stage adaptation that manages to both honour the spirit of the original and confidently stake out its own identity. The insertion of songs is vindicated at every turn as they allow mischief and emotion to explode out of the narrative, from the gleeful rebellion of Naughty to the bittersweet optimism of When I Grow Up. Minchin is an inspired choice as composer and lyricist, marrying his own brand of irreverence with that of Dahl’s and throwing some wickedly clever rhymes into the bargain (see the dazzling pairing of “miracle” and “umbilical” in the opening number).

And there is plenty of substance beneath Minchin’s witty tunes. Dahl’s narrative of a young girl overcoming cruelty and neglect with a little help from the books she voraciously reads carries a number of implicit but never patronising messages – about the importance of standing up for oneself, the value of intelligence and the power of the imagination. Then there are the characters: the smart, plucky protagonist, her fantastically grotesque parents, and the frankly terrifying Miss Trunchbull, who had not a little of the Iron Lady about her in Bertie Carvel‘s interpretation.

The show’s real sucker punch is saved for after the interval, as When I Grow Up hits the stage with a sudden, unexpected wallop of sentimentality. Just like Dahl’s prose, the musical boasts a direct line back to childhood, leaving younger audience members grinning with recognition and their adult counterparts misty-eyed with nostalgia.

What Matilda is strongest on, though, is an aspect that musicals often neglect in favour of razzle and dazzle: storytelling. It says a lot that Kelly, a seasoned playwright, was brought on board before Minchin; the RSC wanted to get the story right. It was a canny choice. Matilda is, at heart, a story about stories. Accordingly, the musical is drenched in narrative and bursting with words, right down to the brightly coloured letter blocks of Rob Howell’s gorgeous set – a Scrabble lover’s paradise.

Despite now being a hit on the West End and Broadway, with a clutch of awards to its name, Matilda’s fate was by no means secured. As Kelly has stressed, no commercial producer would take the risk that the RSC did in commissioning the show and putting it in the hands of two writers with little to no previous musical theatre experience. If ever there was an argument for arts subsidy, this joyous, playful, rebellious musical has to be it.

An Innately Optimistic Profession

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Originally written for Exeunt.

At the close of his introduction to the latest book in the Methuen Modern British Playwriting series, Andrew Haydon departs on a distinctly optimistic note. Surveying British theatre at the end of the 2000s, he sees a landscape of possibilities, looking towards a “future where old divisions between ‘New Work’ and ‘New Writing’ had turned into fertile breeding grounds for collaboration” and “where a progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty had begun to replace condescension and refusal”.

Almost halfway through the decade following that with which the book concerns itself, the barrier between ‘New Writing’ and ‘New Work’ – although productively challenged – has not entirely dissolved, while continued funding cuts pose a threat for that “progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty”. But what comes through strongly, both in the period discussed by the book and the years since, is an increasing spirit of collaboration, as pointed to by Haydon. Faced with the rise of new forms and shifting understandings of the relationship between theatre and its audiences, a number of contemporary British playwrights have adapted their practice accordingly, embracing new and varied ways of working.

Two prime examples, both discussed in Methuen’s volume, are Simon Stephens and David Greig. As Jacqueline Bolton points out in her excellent chapter on Stephens’ work, his prolific output is “distinguished by a willingness and enthusiasm to work collaboratively”. Perhaps his most striking collaboration is that with German director Sebastian Nübling, which Ramin Gray has suggested is unique, but beyond this he has a sustained interest in opening up his writing. Stephens has spoken on many occasions about how his encounters with other theatre cultures and artists – and, indeed, with critics – have invigorated his practice. Talking to me in a recent interview, he described his plays as “the starting point of a conversation between myself and a director, a director and a cast of actors, director and artistic team, artistic director and a director, and then artistic collaboration and an audience”. The play is not the thing; it’s a point of departure.

Bolton’s chapter goes one step further by linking Stephens’ interest in and commitment to collaboration with the recurrent preoccupations of his writing. While many have noted the bleakness and brutality of the worlds Stephens puts on stage (with the help of his collaborators, of course), Bolton sees instead – or, rather, in addition – a compassion for his subjects and a genuine quest for communication and understanding. This chimes with the spirit of collaboration pursued in Stephens’ work; as Bolton puts it, “To work collaboratively is, after all, to affirm the importance and significance of truth, of respect and of generosity”. This can be supported by Stephens’ own assertion that theatre is “an innately optimistic profession”.

Greig’s work has an equally complex relationship with optimism, as The Events knottily demonstrated last year. He has also worked in a number of different ways, with an output that ranges from shows created through devising processes to the libretto for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; from plays for children to epic, abstract, internationally focused pieces. In her chapter for the Methuen collection, Nadine Holdsworth describes him as “deeply invested in the possibilities of the collective imagination, pursuing ideas across different media as well as linguistic and stylistic boundaries”. He shares with Stephens an interest in travel as a narrative theme and an openness to different collaborations.

Similarly to Bolton, Holdsworth moves away from a familiar critical narrative about Greig’s work – in this case, his engagement with Scottish national identity – and chooses to focus on the “passionate internationalism” of his plays. Her analysis opens up a consideration of how Greig offers audiences different perspectives on the world, positing brief and delicate moments of communication across seemingly irreconcilable cultures. While this is not her primary concern, her study also reveals Greig’s willingness to experiment with structure and storytelling, clashing together different theatrical styles and techniques, and how through this process the playwright often questions his own authorial status in the creation of his plays.

Some of these ideas, which I have only briefly sketched out above, will be discussed further at two upcoming symposia in Lincoln and Brighton, addressing the work of Greig and Stephens respectively. The University of Lincoln’s David Greig symposium at the end of this month will feature papers examining a wide range of different aspects of Greig’s work, including the role of dissonance, empathy and conflict in his plays, the way in which he deals with questions of place and nationality, his engagement with Scottish identity and the independence debate, and the historical dimension of his work.

At a separate symposium at the University of Sussex in April, meanwhile, scholars will be engaging with Stephens’ plays and in particular his dialogue with Europe. I’m looking forward to making a contribution of my own to this conversation, with a paper exploring how Stephens’ work in Germany has shifted his perspective on British theatremaking processes and the implications this might have for our own theatre culture. As Stephens has suggested, “when we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before”, offering him an intriguingly distanced view of British theatre.

It feels important that events such as these carry on the conversation, provoking the sort of new insights into these playwrights’ work that they both habitually seek. The best we can hope for is, to return to Haydon’s words, “a progressive spirit of inquiry”.

The University of Lincoln’s one day symposium on the work of David Greig is being held on 29th March. Registration is now open here.

 The University of Sussex’s symposium on Simon Stephens’ connection with Europe will take place on 30th April 2014.

Photo:Stephen Cummsikey.

Scene Changes: Theatre Criticism

As part of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, I spoke on one of the Scene Changes platforms on the subject of theatre criticism. I was part of a panel alongside Michael Billington, Andrew Clarke and Mark Shenton and the discussion was chaired by Dan Rebellato.