Pastoral, Soho Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

We’re all familiar with the terrifying threat posed against our planet by global warming, but what if it was nature that turned on us for a change? Thomas Eccleshare’s Verity Bargate Award-winning ‘first play‘ imagines just this, offering a madcap mix of mythology, nostalgia and post-apocalyptic narrative tropes. His motley group of protagonists, anchored by the excellent Anna Calder-Marshall as good-humouredly grumbling old spinster Moll, face not nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, but the creeping invasion of grass and trees. Nature, it would seem, is rebelling, thrusting roots through concrete and branches through windows. Saplings are sprouting up in Paperchase and there are deer on the loose in Aldi.

This is catastrophe played firmly for laughs – Day of the Triffids reimagined as a sitcom. As the escape route planned by Moll’s young protectors Manz and Hardy is rapidly cut off, the trio are soon joined by a fleeing family, establishing the confined and somewhat ridiculous conditions conducive to quick-fire comedy. The running gag of flora and fauna taking over the local high street seems at first to promise some cutting comment on fiercely branded consumer culture, but instead it’s just an excuse to make spiky quips using familiar chains. While the long-awaited Ocado man – a late capitalist Godot – is a beautifully witty touch, the laughs can’t quite escape the feeling of being at the expense of ideas. Eccleshare has hit on a promising concept but rapidly submerged it in humour.

This black comedy all plays out in the precarious space of Moll’s flat, which Michael Vale’s skeletal metal design renders immediately open to the plant life that later wrestles its way in. Despite the momentary alarm engendered by the progressively collapsing room, however, there is little peril evident in this environment, even if it does involve some scene-stealing foliage. A creaking tree – not aided on press night by technical difficulties – provides about as much menace as birdsong, its swooping canopy more comical than threatening. While we’re often told about the encroaching danger of nature’s seemingly unstoppable onward march, the danger is never seen, only reported.

Eccleshare also leaves us in the dark as to the cause of this environmental anomaly, a decision that opens the way for interpretation but leaves questions hanging frustratingly in the air. Is the sudden overgrowth to be understood as a punishment for humanity’s thoughtless neglect and abuse of its natural environment? And does the play’s newly green and pleasant land herald a return to a golden age of natural harmony? This is certainly implied by the wistful hints of mythology, encapsulated in the youthful hope of Polly Frame’s bolshy yet faithful Arthur, an eleven-year-old boy with an ancient king as his namesake. Yet such intriguing suggestions still feel slightly underdeveloped, tangled in the swiftly growing branches.

As the play concludes with an outpouring of tongue-in-cheek sentimentality, its attempted archness looks remarkably like maudlin slush, a fate from which it’s just about saved by the simple tenderness of Calder-Marshall’s and Frame’s performances. There’s no denying Pastoral’s appealing ambition and often joyous eccentricity, but in the end it’s all too content to settle for a neat emotional pay-off over genuine complexity.

Photo: Simon Kane

A Tissue of Quotations: Theatre & Authorship

To state that theatre is an essentially ephemeral art form would seem to be a reiteration of the obvious. The distinct nature of performance lies in its liveness, its specific relationship with a specific set of audience members at a specific moment in time, none of which can ever quite be replicated. At a less specific level, each production is a crystallized present moment, an entity that exists only for the length of its run and is determined by a very particular set of choices and aesthetics. Theatre is, at its heart, a fleeting phenomenon.

Yet we remain, at least in British theatre culture, obsessed with preservation, with legacy, and with the rigidly hierarchical process of pinning a production down to a single authoritative source for the purposes of that preservation. Hence the primacy of the “author”. And I was, initially, as unquestioningly compliant with this notion of authorship as anyone else; it is, after all, easier for the purposes of a review to assume that the content of the piece has been born from the mind of the writer and to conflate all connecting themes, threads and resonances with the intention of the playwright. But such assumptions have been bracingly unsettled by the recent focus on British theatre’s false dichotomy between “new writing” and “new work”, a dichotomy which I would argue has deeply ingrained notions of authorship at its core.

There are many perceived differences underlying this opposition between what has been loosely referred to as text-based and non-text-based theatre, differences connected with narrative, character, aesthetic etc., but it seems to me that the unifying aspect at their centre is the presence or absence of a single author. Text-based work is typically associated with naturalism, linear narrative and a coherent driving “message” because it is supposed to be the creation of one dominant creator, one authorial “voice”, with all other elements of the production harnessed to serve the vision outlined in the text. Non-text-based work, by contrast, is seen as eschewing all of these notions of linearity and coherence because it has been conceived by a devising ensemble and consists of a multiplicity of voices.

Of course, such assumptions are often not the case in practice, but while the moment of performative realisation may be more democratic, it is the author whose name will remain attached to the work long after its production. For this reason, as Kat Joyce eloquently argues in her guest column over at Exeunt, work that does not have a clear hierarchy of authorship and that explicitly depends upon the nature of its liveness risks being obliterated by the very text-based process of historicising, thus perpetuating the supremacy of scripted work. In Joyce’s words:

“At its deepest level, does a system which fixates on individuals and playtexts also radically undervalue the potentials and possibilities of live performance in all its unfixed, unstable, temporary glory?”

It is clear – at least to me – that we need to rethink our rigid definition of authorship if we are not to devalue the moment of performance and neglect a huge swathe of this country’s theatrical output. But this isn’t just about recognising the work of devising companies, because recognition alone does not necessarily smash down the persistent divide between text-based and non-text-based work (undeniably reductive and misleading labels, but ones which are handy for the purposes of this piece). Negotiating that divide and the reasons behind it is much trickier.

It boils down, I think, to an idea of authorship that extends beyond the realm of theatre and performance. We are part of a literary culture which is, as Roland Barthes put it in his seminal essay “The Death of the Author”, “tyrannically centred on the author”. Throughout secondary school, students are encouraged to interrogate texts in order to unveil their “meaning”, as if reading was one long act of detective work, with the author’s intention enshrined at its centre. While university courses in literature explore a much more nuanced approach to textual analysis, there is a general subscription to the prominence of the author in all text-based art forms, an approach that has insidiously crept into understandings of theatre.

Because such an author-centred approach is key to our culture, much talk in theatre has been given over to “serving the text”, “serving the writer”, “staying true to the writer’s intention” etc. Within such a model, all other elements of a production become tools to illuminate the writer’s purpose and the other creatives involved are viewed as little more than vehicles to convey an overarching authorial “message”.

The problems and contradictions inherent in this model can be illustrated by a couple of examples drawn from conversations I’ve had with theatremakers, examples which I’m sure are not unique. Discussing feedback that she’d received about her interpretation of Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, Greyscale’s Selma Dimitrijevic told me that audiences seemed outraged about certain directorial choices that she had made (the most discussed of these being her decision to cast male actors as women) until they became aware that she had also written the play. Apparently directorial interpretation is only acceptable when it originates from the writer. On a slightly different note, Thomas Eccleshare expressed his frustration with the fact that, despite creating work for two years with his company Dancing Brick, it was only when he won the Verity Bargate Award that he earned the label of “writer”, with devised work remaining stubbornly excluded from the narrow category of new writing.

Joyce’s column, which draws partly from her own experiences as the co-artistic director of physical theatre ensemble tangled feet, again expands on the difficulties posed by a culture which places a disproportionate value on the written text, while Hannah Silva has blogged on numerous occasions about the restrictive definition of new writing that prevails in this country and the difficulties of negotiating that definition (I can’t track down the exact piece that I have filed away at the back of my mind, but read her blog for some fantastic reflections and provocations about writing for theatre).

There’s much more to say about how the divide between text-based and non-text-based theatre has been reinforced, particularly through the Arts Council funded new writing drives referred to in Alex Chisholm’s essay for Exeunt, but I’d like to remain focused on this central notion of authorship, its complexities and how it might be reconfigured. Barthes, who I have already quoted, provides one answer to how the false idol of the author might be displaced. He describes the text as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In other words, no piece of writing is truly original and all writers are continually quoting their antecedents.

If we accept Barthes’ definition of the text, authorship is at best an act of curation and interpretation – not, really, all that different from directing. In a staunch defence of the writer’s intention in his essay “Interpretation – To Impose or Explain”, playwright Arnold Wesker posited this argument in order to deride it, laughing at the possibility of “interpreting an interpretation”. I would contest, however, that this is not such a ridiculous idea. Not only might a writer produce an interpretation rather than an utterly original source text, but that interpretation might be jointly (re)interpreted by director, performers and entire creative team in collaboration with the writer (or writers), acknowledging that theatre is an emphatically collaborative art form.

It is also worth briefly interrogating the term “text”, which I’ve been carelessly throwing around as if it had one single, fixed meaning. This term is generally interpreted to mean the written text in the form of a conventional script, but it can – and perhaps should – be expanded to include the entire dramatic text, encompassing all elements of a production and its reception, acknowledging a circuit that is completed by the audience. I’m reminded of another discussion with Selma Dimitrijevic, in which there was some consideration of the similarly unstable word “play”; Selma said that she typically interprets this to refer exclusively to the written script, but it is used interchangeably by critics, at some times indicating the script and at other times the whole production.

Bringing critics into the mix flags up their (our?) role in this binary. There is a tendency, conscious or not, to write separately about all the individual elements of a production, isolating writing, direction, design and performance in a sort of criticism by numbers that I know I’ve been guilty of employing. This is often a case of convenience and is to an extent inevitable; without having observed the process, which is another debate entirely, it’s impossible to know who was responsible for each and every creative choice. Yet there is a danger, because criticism again holds a certain lasting currency by virtue of its written format, that a failure by critics to acknowledge the collaborative nature of work will perpetuate the schism. I’m not yet entirely sure how this danger can be overcome, but it’s worth considering.

Having scratched away a little, if only fairly superficially, at the notion of authorship, how might it be possible to rethink the format of the legacising theatrical (written) text? To answer this question, it’s also necessary to answer the question of what a playtext is for. Physical theatre company Square Peg summed it up nicely in a response on Twitter: “Is the script the beginning or the end of a process? A document or an instruction? Can it not be both?” I’d agree that the written element of theatre has a dual role, acting as a (non-fixed) jumping off point and as a form of preservation, though both of these twin roles are slippery.

Some intriguing questions were asked via a recent conversation on Twitter between Bryony Kimmings and Oberon Books, with contributions from others, which was one of the catalysts for nailing down these thoughts. As later blogged by Kimmings, she wanted to explore whether the kind of art she creates could be published as a script, and if so what form that might take. She asked: “How does a live artist that plays in the Cabaret space at Soho Theatre and just did her first stand up gig get her work published … does she need to?”

The need could be quite persuasively argued as a form of documentation and legacy, a way of recording live art in the same way as text-based theatre. The question of format, however, is less easily answered. Would it be a script detailing the original performance, or a DIY kit allowing space for interpretation? It all depends, of course, on whether a work is intended to be produced again. At the risk of banging on about it yet again, here I think it’s interesting to bring in the example of Three Kingdoms (which also, though I won’t discuss it here, provides an interesting challenge to British theatre’s text bias, possibly offering a way to bridge the gap). Here is a playscript that differs so dramatically from Sebastian Nübling’s production that they are really two different texts. Were anyone brave enough to attempt another production, would they start from Simon Stephens’ script or from its collective realisation on stage?

Much more could be written on this thorny issue, but for now I’d just like to bring in one final example that complicates matters even further. In the absence of a space at Edinburgh this year, Forest Fringe have made the fascinating decision to “create a performance space built not of bricks and mortar but paper and ink”. Paper Stages is a book co-authored (again destabilising the concept of a single voice of authority) by a wide range of Forest Fringe artists and made available for festival-goers to perform themselves. There will as a result be multiple dramatic texts, many performed in the absence of audiences and without documentation, giving fluid meaning to ideas of authorship, performance, reception and collaboration.

A script is not fixed or indeed finished until the moment of performance and reception, but perhaps a performance’s documentation is equally unfixed. To come full circle, theatre is ephemeral. While preservation remains an important concern for artists attempting to secure their place within a text-biased culture, there is an argument that to resist the uniqueness of live performance is essentially futile. We should be celebrating liveness, not attempting to solidify it.

 

Utopia, Soho Theatre

Visions of Utopia have a knack of falling flat on their face, so it seems only appropriate that this new collaborative theatre project should recruit clowns to conjure its perfect worlds. In this partnership between the Soho Theatre and Live Theatre in Newcastle, six fools fumble through flawed blueprints, searching in vain through all of humanity’s failed efforts for a reliable model of perfection. These blueprints come courtesy both of a long line of thinkers, whose words are revealed to us via projected quotations, and of an assembled group of writers who have all produced their own responses to the central theme.

Which all sounds great on paper, but is underwhelming in its execution. In the hands of joint directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts and their diverse team of writers, big concepts are rendered bafflingly small and an idea that is fascinating by itself becomes marred by its own realisation. Looked at a certain way, this is all ironically apt given that the piece is dealing with the desire for and impossibility of a utopian world, but this is not quite enough of a justification to excuse what more often than not simply feels like clumsiness and poor scene selection. A frustrated question kept nudging at me as I watched: are these really the most interesting utopian visions we could dream up?

There are admittedly some nice pieces (the word nice chosen here precisely for its very bland variety of praise). ‘The Presentation’, created by Thomas Eccleshare, Josh Roche and director Marmion, is a witty interpretation of perfection in our material culture, showing us Utopia as Steve Jobs might have imagined it, shiny and pocket-sized, but there is little depth beneath the slick cleverness. There is also a startling moment in Chi Onwurrah’s gameshow-inspired ‘Humanity’ when one character unexpectedly reveals the selflessness that human beings are capable of, while Janice Okoh’s vision of a world where medical science has been perfected and death is purely by choice is one of the more compelling scenarios.

One of the most fascinating, thought-provoking and disturbing scenes is not produced by any of the collection of writers, but instead by another dangerous utopian dreamer. Partway through the second half, we are confronted with a rousing election speech stuffed with rhetoric promising a better future – we half expect Obama’s mantra of “yes we can”. But with a startling sideswipe of anti-Semitism, this vision is smashed and it becomes horribly clear just whose words these really are. It is a stark, extreme reminder that one man’s idea of paradise is another’s vision of hell, and also that utopia and dystopia can be just a hair’s width apart.

As this overlong creation nears its end, however, there is the danger that intellectual investigation is abandoned in favour of emotional release. While the regrets of a now elderly ex-politician and the poignant attempts of a widow to “make the best” of her situation with the aid of a bit of over-50s zumba add moments of tenderness, they seem also to dilute the evening’s purpose. Fortunately Simon Stephens’ beautifully simple speech, spoken between the six actors, is suffused with enough grounded normality – the simple dream of drinking without getting a hangover, or of finding the perfect cup of coffee – to stall the decline into trite sentimentality.

Thinking back over the production, my complaints are admittedly not so much to do with this piece of theatre as it stands alone. It is frequently amusing and occasionally intriguing; it draws committed and energetic performances from its cast, particularly a sparkling Laura Elphinstone; it flirts playfully with form; there is a bubble machine, which tends to immediately raise most performances a few notches in my book. It is rather Utopia’s failure to meet the potential of its fascinating premise that makes it such a staggering disappointment. The level to which this wastes a brilliant concept makes me almost angry.

I can’t help but feel that many of the production’s problems arise not from its concept, which is an undeniably intriguing one, but from the way in which it has been assembled. As contributor Eccleshare politely and diplomatically hinted at when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, creating a co-authored show by having those authors each write in isolation is a tricky process. Had I not known about the technique of piecing this together, I think I would still have suspected a lack of dialogue between the writers. Utopia never really feels like a conversation.

I wonder if a truly collaborative approach (by which I mean bringing the contributors together at the writing table and even in the rehearsal room, shaping the piece while writing it) might have produced something far more interesting, as it is often when different utopias collide that the most fascinating discussions occur – a fact that Marmion and Roberts surely recognise, considering their central aim to provoke debate. It seems, then, an odd choice to have pieced together the show in the way that they have done, creating separate entities, smashing these apart and gluing their jagged edges together.

When mixed with the text of historical and literary utopias, the two directors have a deluge of content to channel into a finished piece, which seems partly to be the point but also makes for an inevitably messy production. Marmion and Roberts’ project is still to be admired for its aim and ambition alone; it is a beguiling idea, and one that is given a fittingly democratic treatment by mingling so many voices, if not entirely successfully. Perhaps, just like its subject, any attempt to tackle the concept of Utopia without isolating a single vision of perfection is doomed to fail.

In the end, it all just feels like a bit of a shame. Look at how good we could have made it, Utopia tries to say. Yes, quite.

Utopia

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Originally written for Exeunt.

What might a perfect world look like? A new and unlikely project conceived through a collaboration between the Soho Theatre and Newcastle’s Live Theatre sets out to ask just this. Utopia is a reaction against the current overwhelming mood of pessimism, both in the world in general and in theatre in particular, charging its team of writers – including Simon Stephens, Janice Okoh and Dylan Moran – with dreaming up a vision of a flawless society.

As contributor Thomas Eccleshare tells me, the Soho Theatre’s artistic director Steve Marmion, who helmed the show together with Live Theatre’s Max Roberts, “wanted to create a piece of political theatre that wasn’t cynical or pessimistic”. Their aim instead was “to challenge people to write a view of the world in a completely optimistic light and to think ‘what would perfection look like?’”

I suggest that it seems a slightly incongruous time to be thinking about perfection, in light of a strikingly imperfect world, but Eccleshare disagrees. His research has revealed that “utopias have often come out of pretty dark places”; it would seem to be human nature that when the gloom is at its thickest we are most intent on glimpsing that faint glimmer of hope for a better future. Eccleshare echoes this: “I don’t think it’s impossible to view the light at the end of the tunnel just because we’re in such a dark place”.

Marmion and Roberts both agree that the timing is important, precisely because of the prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom. As they see it, people have forgotten political optimism and seem content to accept imperfection. Offering the example of socialism, they contest that a few years ago this concept “wasn’t seen as fantastic but simply as the other option, to be followed and tested and explored. We seem to have lost some of that urge for solving our problems rather than just enduring them.” The directors go on to explain that the project also sets out to differentiate itself from the similarly abundant pessimism in much of today’s theatre. “So much of the theatre that we see nowadays is essentially dystopian with a small chink of hope offered at the very end; Utopia is something very different”.

Unlike Thomas More and other authors of early utopias, however, the writers involved in this project have had to grapple with a pervading atmosphere of cynicism and a generally accepted recognition that there is no one utopia that can satisfy everyone. Conceding this, the directors tell me that “the only option for us as we created this show was to present each writer’s vision truthfully and then celebrate the moments of humanity that shone out in each”. As a result, this is necessarily and perhaps wisely a patchwork of several different, personal utopias rather than one grand, unified vision of a perfect world.

Eccleshare admits that he struggled somewhat with the inherent subjectivity of the idea at this show’s centre. “There’s an awareness of how many people there are in the world and an acceptance, at least in the liberal leaning Western world, that there isn’t one right way of doing it,” he says. “If you’re looking to write about perfection, you inevitably come up against the problem that one person’s perfection is someone else’s imperfection.” As a result, it is a struggle to approach the concept of utopia without a healthy dose of irony, and Eccleshare tells me that, even with the directors’ brief, a lot of the pieces have “a sting in the tail”.

This evening of theatre is also more political than it might appear at first glance. “I think there’s something quite political about the idea in itself,” Eccleshare suggests, going on to ask, “who is imposing this utopia?” His words point to the inherently complex nature of what this project is attempting to do; if one individual’s paradise can be another’s idea of hell, how is it possible to even begin to approach the idea of an overarching utopian ideal without imposing this? The problematic nature of the endeavour has been confronted head on by Marmion, who has inserted a political speech by Hitler as a counterpoint to the plays being presented and, as Eccleshare puts it, as “a reminder of how dangerous utopian visions can be”.

Rather than being presented one by one in a line-up of separate entities, the project’s resulting short plays have been chopped up and sewn together by Marmion and Roberts, all contained within a framing narrative of “six fools creating utopias in a world of blueprints”. These are also intersected with a variety of other wildly different utopian visions, from More to Shakespeare to, perhaps most strangely of all, The Village People. The directors have embraced this ideological messiness, while at the same time acknowledging that what they have produced is only a snapshot: “a show that tried to accommodate all the subjective visions of utopia would quickly become a logistics presentation of town planning and psychotherapy. Instead, Utopia is about the fruitless, stubborn hope that leads us to create such perfect plans in the first place.”

Despite speaking enthusiastically about the way in which this piece has been put together, Eccleshare has personal reservations about projects that ask writers to create work separately and then present that work together, expressing concern that if not done carefully it can become “a bit of a talent show”. Instead of the end result being viewed as a collaborative effort, there is the danger that audiences come along to contrast and compare, to rank the individual elements against one another. “It’s a really interesting form of political theatre,” says Eccleshare, “but whether I think that the best way of reacting to a theme is getting ten writers to work in isolation and create different plays …” He hesitates, before diplomatically adding “that’s a very delicate process”.

Plugging into current debates about new writing and new work, Eccleshare believes that the issue is primarily down to the inflexible definitions that are typically imposed upon British theatre. “The problem is that because the way in which theatre is divided up in this country is so rigid, people will see this as new writing, they won’t see it as a co-authored show,” he explains, his frustration palpable. Eccleshare argues that had this same show been produced by a company who were all in one room together at the same time, it would be seen as an organic whole rather than a mechanical construction of individual parts. He chooses not to dwell further on the point, other than to say that the divide between new writing and new work is “an unhealthy and unhelpful division”.

During our chat about the concept of utopia, what that might mean and how it is investigated through this piece of theatre, Eccleshare muses that theatre itself is a sort of “mini-utopia”. As he goes on to explain, through theatre “we see these impossible visions that are kind of real but not quite real at the same time.” By creating a vision of a perfect society within the essentially ephemeral space of a theatre, Utopia is implicitly recognising both the human capacity to conjure perfection and that perfection’s material insubstantiality. It is telling that the Greek term originally coined by More, which now forms this show’s title, literally means “no place”.

It may be an ultimately unattainable ideal, but Marmion and Roberts believe that the concept of utopia is integral to the human imagination. “Primarily, it is what lies at the end of all our politics and altruism,” they claim. “Without the hope for perfection, or at least the ability to aim for it, our willingness to cooperate diminishes and with that our empathetic relationship to the rest of humanity. Utopia is also the reconciliation of our religious visions with our practical ambitions. It allows us to build Nirvana rather than blindly hoping we will get there someday.”

So what does the project aim to achieve by building these utopias? Acknowledging once again the subjectivity of this concept, Eccleshare’s main hope for the show is that it will inspire debate. “I hope that audiences will be inspired to talk about it afterwards, that they’ll go with friends to the Soho Theatre bar and have a good old discussion about what their utopia is and whether it’s possible to have a utopia now.” Although he recognises that many audience members might simply think “that wasn’t my vision at all”, Eccleshare is confident that it is a positive outcome to get people talking about it at all. “And of course,” he adds with a slight laugh, “I also hope people will say ‘he nailed it’.”

Marmion and Roberts also hope to get their audiences talking. “As theatre producers, we’re at our best when we provoke argument in the bar afterwards. Not necessarily a sectarian, glass-smashing brawl, but a passionate discussion across generations, ethnicities, between strangers or friends, and one that has real content.” Utopia may not come up with any solid answers, but it is asking that vital, challenging question: “how good can we make it?”