Around Town: Next Week in London

The lack of an update for over a week is a sign that Civilian Theatre has been taking a well-earned break following the enduring trauma experienced by watching Babel. However the reviewing season kicks off again in earnest next week with three plays lined up, each of which I am quietly confident about.

Antigone has the enticing prospect of Christopher Ecclestone returning to the National Theatre after a 22-year absence. Performing in one the great plays of the classical era, Ecclestone has the craggy and worn features that seem ideally suited to play Creon, a man who has spent years charged with the responsibility of holding together the state over and above any call to personal desires. He is one of our great character actors who actually appears in a lot less work than you probably remember but whose appearance is usually a clue that we are going to be watching some quite special – he is superb as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It; one of those rare films where you can feel the anger of injustice bubbling through every scene, and equally good in the seminal 90’s TV series, Our Friends in the North.   

The Physicists will be the next play under Josie Rourke’s tenure at the Donmar. Having scored a big hit with The Recruiting Officer but perhaps underwhelmed slightly for many with Making Noise Quietly, Rourke will be looking to come back strongly with Durrenmatt’s The Physicists. It is hard to think of a playwright, or indeed style, that has fallen more out favour in recent years than Durrenmatt’s slightly avant-garde, philosophical work. However I can remember being absolutely blown away by a production of The Visit and the staging possibilities that such a play open’s up. When you take time to sit back and survey London’s theatrical landscape do you realise the striking absence of such originality- even if plots and narrative can still remain freewheeling and anarchic, there is a sense that dramatically everything looks a little a bit conservative. Admittedly Complicite are still pushing boundaries but, for all the positive reviews, plays like Laura Wade’s Posh appear very formal in style. One hopes that a strong production of The Physicists will help start getting director’s to re-embrace the experimental in formal settings rather than feeling that experimental necessarily means site-specific pieces and audience engagement. Time was when director’s used a theatre to recreate an atmosphere, currently it feels that the audience aren’t trusted to suspend our disbelief and will only understand that we are in an abattoir if we see real cows hanging off hooks around us.

The Ninagawa’s Company production of Cymbeline at the Barbican promises to finally kick start what has been so far a rather disappointing World Stage Festival. Little more needs to be said about Babel, and Three Kingdoms, whilst interesting, did not set the world alight with a mixture of fantastic ideas and, at times, incoherent structure. Having previously missed all of Ninagawa’s English productions, I am tremendously excited by a company that has a global reputation for Shakespeare and a history of producing visually spectacular tableaux that meld together Shakespearian storytelling with traditional Japanese techniques. Cymbeline is a particualarly interesting choice of play, as it is one of Shakespeare’s more problematic narratives and seems to be one that is alighted on more frequently by companies that often take an angle slightly askance of the traditional – the last major London production being Kneehigh’s version at the Battersea Arts Centres, which included all its usual visual flair but perhaps provided a little too much fun over substance.

Stills from Ninagawa’s Cymbeline

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Six of the Best: Scathing Babel Reviews

With the dust beginning to settle around the remains of the ill-fated Tower, it only remains to pick through the rubble for some choice quotes from a set of reviewers who have acted with a singularity of purpose that one wishes might have applied by the eight partner companies behind Babel.

With hindsight it seems horribly inevitable that a production based on the story of the development of languages should be so inchoate in its own messages. Working together like a pack of wolves scenting blood, reviewers of all shapes and sizes have seized on its weaknesses in order to give all concerned a right kick in the Babels.

Given the general tone of respectable politeness that most of my peers exude the only reasonable explanation is some kind of Village of the Damned-style mind control. Tragic of course, but rather than waste the opportunity this humble reviewer has taken the opportunity to gather together the most scabrous, haranguing, bad-temperedly bilious reviews in one easy cut-out and keep article. So do please enjoy.

Six of the best

6. Michael Coveney, What’s On Stage

“The best part of it is the queuing outside (rather like on the first day of a Lord’s Test Match), the bar inside, the gathering in the Pleasance round the corner…”

Well it seems only fair that we kick off with one of the more positive reviews. It is true that a £3.50 for a decent sized cup of red wine, the bar on site proved to be remarkably better value than the eye-wateringly high prices that regularly empties the pockets of punters frequenting the Barbican.  The review does rather go downhill from there…

5. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

“…politically correct, dramatically inert and involves a great deal of tiresome queuing

Ok, scratch that, maybe not everyone liked the queuing.

4. Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies

“…sickly stench of hippyish platitudes and synthetic good will”

Hmm, it really does seem that people were turned off by the do-gooding spirit of the whole affair. Perhaps audiences have become more cynical but I am sure that we weren’t the only ones expressing some sympathy with the guards, particularly when being forced to face protestors with sentiments that sounded like they were agreed by passing around a conch at a commune in the 1970’s.

3. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

“…we are instructed to “cherish the child that holds your hand.” At this point I thought I might throw up.”

Yes, there really was a backlash against the way the sentiment in the show is presented. Even our muesli-eating friends at the Guardian had problems with it being ‘too politically naïve, too lacking in complexity and texture’. If they hoped it might strike a chord with those issue-conscious Indy readers then, well, bad luck: making the schmaltzy declarations of our shared humanity […] shouted out at the end harder to swallow”.

=2. Eleanor Turney, A Younger Theatre / Michael Coveney, What’s On Stage

banal pomposity” / “self-conscious, low-level, intellectual sloppiness”

A tie for 2nd place as A Younger Theatre and What’s On Stage battle it out for the most succinctly elegant riposte. Turney wins on artful simplicity, whereas Coveney has the edge on bilious testiness.

And our winner is…

1. Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies

“Only the spirit in which Babel was conceived saves it from being irredeemable. In its execution, it ranks as a failure on all fronts, most significantly on the grounds that it fans the very cynicism that it sets out to counter”

Umm, ouch. As an introductory paragraph this pretty much takes the biscuit. In most of the reviews it would take until the second or third paragraph before really laying into the production but Trueman sets his sights on the jugular from almost the first word. In fact the whole effect is magnified by the half-hearted attempt to inject some positivity by referring to the spirit of the production. I remember being in a rugby team walloped by over 100 points against our public school betters, apparently we could console ourselves in the fact we ‘played the game with spirit’. It didn’t console me then, and it shouldn’t console anyone now.

Tower of Babel crumbles to reveal evidence of shonky workmanship

Babel – Performed at Caledonian Park,  until May 20th 2012

When it was announced that a collaborative project involving Wildworks, integral to The Passion of Port Talbot; the Theatre Royal Stratford East, previously home to Joan Littlewood;  the Battersea Arts Centre, long-term supporters of Kneehigh and Punchdrunk; and the Young Vic, would focus on the story of Babel as part of the World Stages Festival there was a feeling that it could become the theatre event of 2012.

Involving a cast of over 300 and creating an immersive experience in the middle of London, Caledonian Park to be exact, Babel had the potential to create a truly gripping experience that would draw an audience together in a piece that would explore questions that have remained fundamental to human nature since the  birth of our earliest civilisations.

The story of Babel is a story of primeval humanity and the development of language. Primarily thought of as biblical, it has antecedents common to a number of ancient civilisations. This is not uncommon in origin stories, and Babel in particular touches on questions of a universal root language that is as central to modern linguistics today as it would have been to ancient thinkers. It is hard not to imagine an oral tradition passing the story of Babel down through the generations as an an answer to the question of how it came to pass that humanity, rooted in theistic societies, spoke with such a multiplicity of tongues?

It is a story that has many resonances with the modern day, particularly in a world where Twitter bridges culture and internet search engines can  translate web pages instantaneously. Perhaps after thousands of years humans are beginning to hurtle back towards a supposed original state where humans can converse across a universal language. The fact that Babel so singularly fails to address any of these questions is only the starting point of a troublingly flawed production.

In business circles, it is often felt that any negativity in performance appraisals should take the form of the infamous ‘shit sandwich’ – for those unaware of such a delicacy, it generally involves a criticism layered carefully between two positive statements. Unfortunately in the case of Babel, there is far too little of the positive to create a sandwich, at best you might be able to fashion some form of Danish Smørrebrød but even that appears optimistic.

<< Click here to continue to full review>>

The Cultural Olympiad: Better late then never?

Well the big news of the day is the announcement of some major theatre projects that will be heading our way in 2012. One of the elements of the Olympic legacy that never really seem to have caught the public imagination is the Cultural Olympiad – something aptly skewered in the BBC’s painfully accurate picture of life as a middle-manager on the Olympics (something that I have at times had the questionable fortune to view first hand). 

World Stages London is (and this sounds does sound a little to close  to the clip above for comfort) “…a once-in-a-lifetime celebration through theatre of the exhilarating cosmopolitan diversity of London’s people and culture”. Well okay, in fairness London is one of the great international cities of the world – and what sets it apart on the cultural stage is it is ability to be a melting pot that blends the ingredients of the art and world view of different cultures to create something unique – in a way that only New York can really claim to challenge..

With talents as varied as Peter Brook and Jonathan Dove, and pieces including a 500 strong site-specific work about Babel and the first-ever production of Wild Swans, it seems pretty certain that there will be something for everything in the run-up to the Olympics (where it will be wall-to-wall British sporting patriotism for the best part of six weeks).

Reasons to be cheerful…

The Suit

Peter Brook, in a collaboration with Marie Helene Estienne, continues his exploration of fables and the art of story-telling and  myth-making with this adaptation of a short-story by Can Themba. Now personally I have found Brook’s last two outings at the Barbican insubstantial and well below the standards that he is capable of. Lately his reduction of the stage to its barest essentials have taken on the feel of an ascetic. However one always lives in hope of a return to the form that made him a colossus of 20th century theatre.

It runs from 21 May to the 16 June. More details can be found here


In what looks like a very special production and the possible flagship event of the whole project, Battersea Arts Centre and WildWorks (responsible for the critically acclaimed The Passion at Port Talbot) are teaming up for Babel, which includes a cast of 500 community and professional actors, musicians and performers. It is site-specific and the location is yet to be revealed, but it seems likely that a famous London landmark is involved and one imagines that it will have to be somewhat tower-shaped (my personal hope is Big Ben but one imagines security concerns may make that one tricky)

It runs from 08 – 20 May. More details can be found here

Wild Swans

A literary classic and a world-wide best seller (no hyperbole here, over 30 translations and 10 million copies – thanks Wikipedia!), Juna Chang’s novel looks set to be one of the more popular smash hits of the festival. Telling a story of one family’s multi-generational struggle against the backdrop of an ever-changing China, it effectively contains the biographies of three generations of women in the Chang family.

I must admit it has never held any interest for me whatsoever. I haven’t read it and can’t imagine doing so soon. No doubt it is my loss but then so are many of the other books I have never, and sadly will never, read. It is almost certain going to be a complete sell-out and if you want to go, you should get your tickets soon.

It runs from 13 April to 13 May. More details can be found here

Three Kingdoms

Despite being one of the more mysterious offerings on the programme, its sheer intriguing nature has me hooked and will be what I will be most looking forward to this spring. Written by Simon Stephens and exploring the trade in trafficked women and organised crime across Europe, it doesn’t profess to being the most uplifting evening you are likely to spend in the theatre. However a new play by Stephens is always worth catching and it is interesting to see a plotline that seems more suggestive of a film being given the stage treatment – throw in the puzzling trail picture (above) and you can count me in.

It runs from 03 – 19 May. More details can be found here

Much more on World Stages London