Distant Voices, Still Bloggers

It has been a quiet few weeks for Civilian Theatre as the rigours of work and the first signs of Spring have being jostling theatre for my attention; providing a distraction from the questionable pleasures of spending precious free time sitting in darkened rooms with strangers having a shared experience (in a way distinctly less kinky than that may sound).

What it has done is allow time to catch up on the rest of the blogosphere. As I have mentioned previously the rather wonderful, and supremely energetic, Rebecca at Official Theatre has circled the wagons around #LDNTheatreBloggers and an increasing number of bloggers are gathering around the Twitter campfire

It is quite depressing how talented – and young – most of them are but (deep breath) it’s about collaboration not competition. Although I am sure that the desire to rewatch Theatre of Blood (96% on the Tomatometer people!) is purely coincidental.

This being the Internet there is naturally a blog for every niche interest imaginable and below are just a few of my favourites.

Making money from being brainy

For a long time Matt Trueman has been writing comment and criticism that has been the model for Civilian Theatre’s own output. Quite regularly a review will be uploaded, only to discover that Matt Trueman has written a far more perceptive and challenging article that gets to the heart of matter with half as much pseudo-intellectualism. Read him and weep – no wonder he is actually making proper money from this. The new Michael Billington (with all due respect to the existing Michael Billington). http://matttrueman.co.uk/  

Victoria Sadler, writing at The Huffington Post, is one of these infuriating bloggers who have demonstrated themselves as a master of all trades, jack of none. As articulate and interesting writing about art exhibitions as she is about theatre, if you are looking for another regular weekly columnist then Victoria Sadler’s articles for The Huffington Post a well worth a look-in. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/victoria-sadler/

Thinking about theatre

James Waygood – the self-styled Grumpy Gay Critic – is somewhat less churlish in person than his Twitter handle may suggest. Luckily his critical faculties are, if anything, all the more potent as a result and he is always willing to give the plays he watches the write-ups they deserve. If you prefer in-depth commentary about what makes a production work to a 400 word plot synopsis and the casual awarding of 4 stars then Grumpy Gay Critic may be the blog for you. And now with added videos! http://grumpygaycritic.co.uk/

Laura Peatman is part of the aforementioned brigade of young and talented bloggers. However I try to keep my jealously intact and not to hold it against her as we have a tendency to swim in the same waters and Laura is always good value for a refreshing, perceptive and informed take on anything from ancient Greeks onwards. https://laurapeatman.wordpress.com/page/2/

I am sure that neither would thank me for mentioning it but Webcowgirl and There Ought To Be Clowns are relative veterans of the theatre blogging scene. There Ought To Be Clown’s first review dates back to 2003 – Trevor Nunn’s magical production of Anything Goes, which happens to be still the only musical production that Civilian Theatre has been to more than once – whilst Webcowgirl was in full flow by 2006. Early adopters indeed. Both blogs were key to encouraging Civilian Theatre dipping his toes into the murky world of internet blogging. Still the original and still often the best.

There are a number of multi-reviewer sites and these are often a mixed-bag. Views from the Gods is worthy of mention due to its impressive commitment to reviewing plays from the fringes of London’s theatre scene. The array of reviews at Views from the Gods acts as an important reminder that you can barely swing a cat in London without someone labelling it as site-specific theatre and charging £16 a ticket, and they offer a valuable service in telling you whether that would be a good investment of your precious time and money.

…And they just keep coming

There are obviously loads of other great sites. Exeunt is good for pretentious elitism, Everything Theatre is good for bite-sized reviews and A Younger Theatre is good for my developing Dorian Gray fantasies.

As part of the single-blogger army I am always happy to see others confidently carving their own individualistic furrow and so the final three recommends go to Mingled Yarns, The Bardette and Hello Emma Kay.

Happy reading folks.

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Knocking down the Berlin (fourth) Wall

An Enemy of the People – Schaubühne Berlin @ Barbican (24 – 28 September 2014)

They don’t make many like they make Thomas Ostermeier. That he is not on the tip of the tongue of British theatre-goers says more about the appallingly low number of productions that make it across the channel and the limited tours when if the even get here. An Enemy of the People was sold out for its five performances at the Barbican and I am certain if there was the bravery to finance a small tour then people would come. How can people71c4ddf9-d738-459e-9cb0-b6f09f73e98d-460x276 learn what they like if they never get the chance to see anything different?

The glorious thing about watching an Ostermeier production is that while you may not know quite what you will get, you know it will still be a quintessentially Ostermeier affair. For, yes, we are back in the realm of the director as  auteur. Cue much huffing and puffing from the comment boards and cue rapturous, and occasionally unthinking, applause from everyone else. An Enemy of the People is the latest to hit the Barbican and follows on from a radical Hamlet that tore down almost every Shakespearian convention and reinvented the play from the grave up.

T1Ostermeier seems to be a man who will be anything but be dull. He brings his own hyperactivity to the text and energises performances far past what audiences should find comfortable; Hamlet clocked in at 168 minutes without an interval, and An Enemy of the People doesn’t fall far short at 150. Yet the quality can be seen that, despite the ridiculous running time, the audience sat in rare rapt attention, with not a rustle or toilet break to be seen disrupting the action.

An Enemy of the People is not without flaws and there is a nagging suspicion that Florian Borchmeyer commits serious logical fallacies in trying to bridge his adaptation of Ibsen’s text with a modern element that draws on the anonymous 2007 paper, The Coming Insurrection. However these flaws don’t destroy the integrity of the play and should be placed in the context of the vitality of the production and the creation of a theatrical experience that genuinely led to an enforced, and welcome, assessment of my own political values.

That the modern element fails is a shame due to the fact that Ibsen’s own play is so strangely contemporary that it barely needs updating to maintain its resonance. The idea of the small, righteous man standing up against a society that does not want to hear his truth has never gone out of fashion and has grown in stature in recent years, with the Young Vic staging a 1970’s set version last year.

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Hiddleston’s impresses as Hal but Eyre’s Henry can’t quite match Goold’s Richard

Henry IV part I: The Hollow Crown – BBC 2  / BBC HD

Following the rapturous reception received by Goold’s treatment of Richard II was always going to be a challenge; the highly experienced Richard Eyre was assigned the task of continuing The Hollow Crown through Henry IV parts I and II, and on last night’s offering is set to deliver a textually inventive if slightly visually austere riposte.

Overall The Hollow Crown concept has been left a little exposed – clever and audience-enticing as it may be – as the stylistic dissimilarities mean that, other than the continuation of history, there is little in Henry IV part I that audiences would recognise from the filmic vistas of Goold’s Richard II.

Fortunately Shakespeare is not constrained by the straightjacket of slick BBC publishing. Henry IV part I is a play that needs no extra gloss; it contains his most-loved character in Falstaff and gives the audience, as Simon Schama pointed to in his recent documentary, a view of England from the bottom-up. This is in direct contrast to a Richard II that inhabited the world of kings and noble elites.

It’s also a play in which Shakespeare sketches out, in Prince Hal, the images that he would shade in later in one of his greatest creations, Hamlet – complete with two fathers (Falstaff and Henry IV pre-empting Claudius and the Ghost) and a play within a play (the great Act II Scene IV where Hal, in the guise of his Father, banishes Falstaff).

There is a seismic shift in language between Richard II and Henry IV. The world of Richard’s verse has been replaced by the more naturalistic prose of Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV. It serves to emphasise the working people that inhabit the play; the phrasing and speech reflects the way people actually talk to one another. It reflects a changing England; the shattering of Richard’s divine right and replaced by a, now frail and ill, Henry IV paranoid to the threat of conspirators. There is no place in this landscape for the playful verse that marked Richard II. This point is rammed home by Shakespeare through Harry Percy who ridicules and undercuts the fanciful imagery put forward by Glendower about his birth.

The core of Henry IV is not, of course, the King but his son, Prince Hal. Falstaff may steal the show but he is not the heart; the heart is the relationship of Hal to his two fathers, the King and the Fool, and the inevitable renunciation of the latter in order to safeguard the former.

In this production Eyre appears to have taken a very deliberate step to recast Hal and Falstaff’s relationship away from the loving underpinnings with which it is normally shown. It is usual to show a warmth and affection in Hal when he undercuts Falstaff’s numerous embellishments but here there is coldness in Tom Hiddleston’s Hal. This is introduced from the very opening scenes of the play and Hal’s speech where he talks of renouncing his way of life; it is delivered in voiceover and there is an added potency to lines like ‘So when this loose behaviour I throw off’ [I.ii] given out in contemptuous manner at the same time as Hiddleston’s Hal strides through the Boar’s Head. Outwardly he is smiling, winking, interacting, whilst his interior monologue makes clear he understands that he is just playing a part that will be discarded.

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Masterful Richard II proves the BBC does ‘do’ Shakespeare

Richard II – BBC2 and BBC HD, until late July 2012

Settling into watching Richard II in glorious HD on the BBC last night it was difficult to ignore the Beeb’s previous ill-fated attempts to engage with ‘the Bard’. Whilst Civilian Theatre has a better opinion than most of the BBC’s attempt to film all the Shakespeare plays; where else could we see an Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as the leads, or a young Helen Mirren playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Imogen in Cymbeline – it is still hard to avoid the criticisms of wobbly sets and at times really duff stage-to-screen acting.

However the BBC’s reputation has been pulled significantly out of the mire after their last two adaptations of acclaimed stage productions – Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart’s Macbeth- received sensitive transitions. Goold’s Macbeth in particular had a visual style that was magnificently assured given his background as a stage director. So hearing that he had been tasked with opening proceedings with Richard II did a lot to calm the nerves.

This calm was only reinforced by the sweeping shot across Richard II’s court; Ben Wishaw as Richard; Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt; Rory Kinnear as his son, Bolingbroke; the two David’s – Suchet and Morrisey – as father and son of York; and James Purefroy, steaming under armour as Mowbray. It goes without saying that once such accomplished actors are placed in position then there is little left to do but let them unfurl Shakespeare’s glorious language.

Richard II, compared to the rest of the history plays, is difficult. It has less of the cartoonish villain that makes Richard III such a crowd-pleaser; it lacks a comic core of Falstaff or the jingoism of Henry V. It is a wordy play about a poor king and bitter nobles. To make it worse Shakespeare, as a stylistic tic, vastly increases the amount of rhyming verse. For those untrained in plays of the era the language is often perceived to be a barrier – and Richard II does risk encapsulating everything that people think they dislike about Shakespeare – it is difficult, unnatural and can be hard to follow.

Goold and the cast respond to this challenge magnificently. For perhaps the first time we see that TV could have the edge of stage productions in some aspects. The history plays, far more than the tragedies and comedies, are complex, difficult and rely on a certain level of prior-knowledge that Shakespeare contemporaries would have had but that current audiences, for the most part, lack.

The ability to zoom-in, jump-cut and provide proper location filming – sweeping landscapes and equisite interiors that provide a true sense of time and place – thus provides an essential element in driving the plot. No longer must we scan the faces of a court scene to decide who Richard is castigating, the camera does this for us. Some may cry foul but this is both good TV – no-one needs completely static shots – and also good for accessibility. It is a period location but that does not mean that modern stylistic devices shouldn’t be used.

Goold deserves a huge amount of credit. This, and his Macbeth, were excellent adaptations that demonstrated he has a natural eye for balance and an assured touch. He may well work alongside a mighty fine cinematographer but having seen a number of his plays staged, it is clear that he has an innate understanding of composition and brings to the theatre filmic elements and here he proves he can work his artistry in reverse.

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