EXIT, PURSUED BY BEAR

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*Pensively considering a future beyond blogging*

As some of regular followers to the blog have noticed, there has been a distinct lack of updates over the last few weeks. It is true that Civilian Theatre rarely summons up much seasonal good cheer for Christmas-themed theatrical offerings, and with loathsome pieces of soulless corporatisation like Elf: The Musical on offer – so clearly produced with the singular purpose of extracting hard-earned wages from stressed-out parents – it is hard not to avoid a certain Grinch-like sensation.

However from a personal perspective, this lack of wonder is part of a wider malaise that has been affecting the blog – and my theatre going – for a few months now. It is the peril of any critic that the initial wide-eyed enthusiasm and joie de vivre may eventually drain away leaving the hapless blogger a shrivelled up husk of jaded cynicism. By year-end, I’ll have seen almost 90 shows, and approaching 300 since starting the blog. For some this may seem like small fry, but it is worth remembering that 94% of people go less than 10 times, and 78% see less than 4 shows a year (Source).

I often go with friends for whom theatre is a rare treat, and I am continually struck by just how more positive they are about what we watch. For them they still see the endless possibilities of what theatre can be; how it can transport you emotionally, make you believe a bare stage is a bustling street scene or amaze you with some live technical effect. For me, too often I am thinking back to when I have seen something similar, or done better.

The final curtain came watching the wonderful Kneehigh for the first time in a decade, remembering the importance of The Red Shoes in my theatrical education, and watching a hall full of teenagers, in rapt silence, going through exactly the same process of discovering the possibility of theatre. At that moment I knew I could never go back to regular blogging again.

Creating and running Civilian Theatre has been absolutely brilliant, and it has achieved pretty much everything I wanted it to be. I’m constantly surprised that people have engaged with my long rambling sub-academia theorising in an age where ‘listicles’ is both a word, and a genuine way that people are encouraged to write. I’ve found it heartening that enthusiastically, long-winded essays that are happy to go merrily disappear down tangentially-related rabbit-holes are something that can survive on the internet.

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“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – I’m so I’ve generated an excuse to post this photo. Credit: Roger Bool

However it is time to say goodbye, step away and go back to enjoying theatre purely as an audience-member. The blogging world has exploded in the last couple of years and I know that there are many better writers than me who I am going to enjoy reading and engaging. (Yes, sorry folks, I haven’t quite laid up by mouse and shield, a life of being a keyboard warrior awaits).

And in an incredibly self-indulgent way, I am going to thank a few people. First and foremost is the rather wonderful Rebecca Felgate who, before fleeing to the safety of maple sugar and snow, was primarily responsible for bringing together a disparate band of introvert types who liked nothing better than to sit in the dark and go home to furtively bash away at keyboards, and forcing them to be sociable. Find out more about how to be involved at London Theatre Bloggers.

Thanks to WebCowgirl and There Ought To Be Clowns. In the relatively short history of theatre blogging, I hope they don’t mind me calling them veterans, but their blogs inspired me to get started and they are still going strong today.

I have enjoyed reading, and sharing the occasional press night mutual appreciation, with the (not very) Grumpy Gay Critic, Laura at (the original and best!) The Play’s The Thing, Shona at View from the Gods and Emma at Hello Emma Kay. Go on, have a read!

A shout out to the press agents who recognise and value what bloggers can add to the sort of theatre companies who aren’t going to get blanket companies across the mainstream media. Kevin Wilson and Chris Hislop consistently support and champion online voices, even when reviews are sometimes scathingly critical of what’s on show. Hopefully others will follow your example.

And finally a special mention to Chloe Nelkin (and not forgetting in this festive period, the importance of her regular, rotating troop of Angels!), who always provides great post-show chat and is responsible for getting me to see some absolutely brilliant plays. Thank you, and I’ll make it to the office one day, I promise…

Well, that about wraps things up. It’s been as self-indulgent as a speech at the Olivier Awards. And all that remains is to find some suitable Shakespeare to end with (well, who else could it possibly have been):

Goodbye – and if you wonder what becomes of Civilian Theatre –

“Think not on him till to-morrow. I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him. Strike up, pipers!”

 

Spear Carrier Number 1

Yes, in my time I’ve been on the other side of the divide. Spot spear-carrier no. 1. somewhere in the mix.

 

 

 

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Talking Theatre – Mixed opinions on updating an ancient classic.

Time for another installation of the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast. Having previously contributed to podcasts on Oresteia and Bakkhai, I was particularly looking forward to adding my opinions to Medea – the final of Rupert Goold’s trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies that has formed the spine of an impressive Almeida season. Rachel Cusk’s updating of Euripides’ Medea has divided audiences and critics, and the podcast proves no different. If you have read my review then you know which camp I fall into but it is always instructive to hear the views of others – and whilst I don’t agree, I admit to understand where they are coming from.
You can hear my further reflections, and those of my trusty companions on the podcast – brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson, with contributions from Gareth James, Phil from the West End Whingers, JohnnyFox and myself. The full bill contains reviews of Medea, Showstopper! The Improved Musical, and Teddy Ferrera.
You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 
Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

Talking Theatre – Mental health in the modern world

Back once again with further theatre chat. A whole bunch of plays in this podcast episode. I was particularly engaged this week with People, Places and Things (National) and Song From Far Away (Young Vic), which by chance I had booked within days of each other and that turned out to compliment each other perfectly. It is unusual to see two new plays of such high quality close together, and even rarer when they cover very similar ground. Both explore issues related to people who are experiencing a crisis event; yet how the plays unfold due to the nature of the crisis and the personality of the person in crisis is absolutely fascinating. They are performed with total commitment and great emotional honesty by two fantastic actors (Denise Gough and Eelco Smits), and are written and produced with a rare perceptiveness.

I must also confess an additional interest in both these plays, as I have recently spent almost a year and half looking into many of the issues that surround people in crisis, and (plug alert!!) have just written a report on crisis care in England (which you can find here). However when I booked the tickets I didn’t know what either play was about, and was knocked sideways by how accurately the events on stage had reflected the experiences people had shared with me.

You can hear my further reflections, and those of my trusty companions on the podcast – brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast. The full bill contains reviews of Photograph 51, Casa Valentina, People, Places & Things and Song From Far Away.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Hamlet – Barbican Theatre, until 31 October 2015 (returns and day tickets only)

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Shakespeare, as is so often the case, provides the perfect introduction to the matter. He may have been giving voice to Claudius’ concern about how to deal with Hamlet following the death of Polonius, but these fifteen words pithily capture the frenzy surrounding Benedict and the Bard.

Whilst I do not intend to rehash the countless articles, Twitter-debates and journalistic etiquette that preceded opening night, one cannot ignore the implications of the media circus for the production. That the show was going to sell tickets was never in doubt, but the collective madness that took hold shocked everyone. Cumberbatch may be a star name but the West End is hardly lacking in this department; Oscar winner and genuine Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper could be seen in his boxers in The Elephant Man, while John Goodman and Damien Lewis are flexing their stage muscles in Mamet. Both shows sold well but not close to the stratospheric demand for Hamlet.

I disregard the casual elitism of those who seem to fear the masses will come bearing placards professing their undying love, wolf-whistle the sweet prince and general treat the experience like feeding time at the zoo. My view is that if just one-tenth of the near 40,000 people who bought tickets decide that theatre might be for them then I don’t really care if the only reason they had for going was because they live in a house built of discarded copies of Sherlock fanzines.

However we must consider how audience expectations and the surrounding pressures may have impacted on the production. In the theatre we allow the illusion of being outside of reality, but it would be naïve to believe that Lyndsey Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch and all others involved did not feel the weight of hype pressing down on them. Productions face a difficult problem when the audiences’ focus is so clearly on one man; they are attempting to perform Hamlet the play, but many are watching for Hamlet the man.

<<Continue to full review>>

Bloggers, Press, Twitter-spats and Facebook-cliques. Or how to cause offence without really trying

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, the vast majority of blogs are read by not many people. That doesn’t reduce their value. If people are reading what you have to say, and gaining something from it then does it matter if it is 10 people or 10,000. Brand recognition, quality of writing, length of service or knowing how to game google; whatever the reason, there are few sites that hoover up the vast majority of web clicks searching for reviews.

This blog has always been comfortable with its hit count (its not the number of clicks that matters but the number of repeat visitors, ooh-er missus etc etc). And anyone who has bothered to read anything on the site will note that it contains an almost perverse desire to write in a style entirely out-of-keeping with the move to Buzzfeed listicles and short-form content designed to be read through the latest phone gadgetry.

Equally there has been a conscious desire to avoid giving star ratings. The classic 5* rating is a ridiculously unsubtle device for providing a quality rating (assuming equal banding, the difference between a 3* and 4* show could either be 1 or 39 percentage points; hardly an equal assessment of quality) and reading many many blogs, I am convinced that very few would hold true to Gaussian distribution patterns come the end of the year. Other factors do come into play (going to see shows you are more likely to like) but given a theatre review should help people make an informed decision on whether to see a show, it is hardly helpful if everything you see is a 5* classic.

Friends have called me a tough reviewer but that is because I see a lot of ‘good’ shows, and so a 3* rating for me would be indicative of a ‘good’ show. This year I have seen four shows I would definitely have given 5* to, and maybe another two that were on the cusp. However the primary reason this site doesn’t give star ratings is because people should take the time to read what it has taken the writer time to think about and write.

Ultimately its about personal choice. The web is brilliant because it doesn’t constrict you. There are no rules. This site has its own philosophy but it doesn’t seek to impose it on other people.

Yet there is also social convention. And here we get onto more unsure ground. Do we say that conventions do not apply on the web. This ventures into the land of the trolls. Most people feel that conventions, the unsaid rules that govern the functioning of society apply online. They might accept a certain loosening of the rules but we feel there are limits to this. Personal moral codes have no weight online but the majority of people would agree that issuing rape threats to female journalists for having the temerity to express an opinion is beyond the pale.

However these are the extremes. What about the everyday unwritten conventions of the blogging world. They may not matter to everyone, but break them and unleash the hellfire of Twitter upon you. And thanks to The Times, The Daily Mail and assorted publications, the journalist silly season has had the perfect content to bring this into the wider world in the form of the Barbican, the Benedict and the Bard. The preview is a theatrical convention that has held for years. You do not publish a review before press night because press night is the first night. That the media broke this is frankly ludicrous but the fall-out in the blogging community has been substantial and often quite illustrious.

The desire for the most clickbait-y post is understandable. But London theatre bloggers are a tight-knit community and breaking this code was never going to go down well. We are fully aware of the contempt and sneer that the likes of Dominic Cavendish and more ill-informed commentators hold us in. Lets not give them any more ammunition.

So the wonderful folks who have set up Theatre Bloggers (the soon-to-be-far-away Rebecca Felgate, the mysterious West End Wilma and doyenne of the South-East theatre scene, Sammi O’Neill) have come together to produce a set of blogging guidelines. These aren’t rules, they aren’t a charter, you won’t be excluded for not following every single one. Rather they are practical tips if you want your blog to have the veneer of professionalism (and if you don’t want that, then that’s ok too).

And just remember (jazz hands at the ready) – to paraphrase Matron ‘Mamma’ Morton – “when you’re good to theatre bloggers, theatre bloggers’ good to you”

Click here for the blogging guidelines.

Talking Theatre – More Podcasting

Another week, another episode of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast. This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcas

Plays under discussion are Bakkhai, 3 Days in the Country and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Joining our host, Tim Watson, was JohnnyFox, PaulInLondon, Nick from Partially Obstructed View, and Gareth James.

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Ben Whishaw related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)