One thing I’ve made a conscious decision on this month to stop covering for the time being is the ongoing row of Times Square Panto. There is now little argument over who was in the right and who was in the wrong, and now it’s descending into legal wrangles over whether anyone should be held personally liable. I don’t kick artists when they’re down, and that includes speculating over legal liability. When this is all over, one way or the other, I may come back to this, but that’s all for now.
Without that, I expected this to be a short article, with not much of interest (apart from one thing I need to write a full article on), but when I checked back, more things got added to the list. So it’s an eventful month after all.
Stuff that happened in March:
All change at Durham
Starting on home turf this time, there are two big announcements from Durham venues. I have links with both these venues and frequently hear stuff in advance of official announcements, but before anyone tries reading between the lines here, I must make it clear that: 1) everything I’m telling you has already been stated on the record, and 2) at this moment, there is nothing I’ve heard off the record that I’m not telling you.
So the biggie is the refurbishment of Durham University’s Assembly Rooms. It’s a full-blown project with a lot to offer by the end of it, but the snag is that the theatre will be out of action for a year. My understanding is that there was no alternative here: urgent theatre-closing repairs were needed no matter what, and presumably all the improvements are coming on the basis that if you have to close for a year, you may as well make the most of it. But in the short term, this is set to have a lot of impact in Durham far beyond the student theatre hosted by the Assembly Rooms. There’s a huge amount of for a university the size of Durham – some say it’s set to dominate the theatre scene in Durham completely, including the Gala – and with the Assembly Rooms normally saturated during term time, suddenly we’ve got over 20 extra groups looking for alternative venues. Suddenly all the other venues in Durham could be having a busy year.
The other big announcement is the the Empty Shop are taking a break from Empty Shop HQ as a venue – possibly a permanent break. For years, Empty Shop has been synonymous with an upstairs space near Framwellgate Bridge, but it hasn’t always been this way – it used to be a mobile organisation that took on temporary spaces as and when they cropped up. They have described this as “the comfort of the known versus the shock of the new”. The detail that grabbed my attention, however, was never letting an event fail. From separate personal experience, I know this can be an issue. Even when the deal is that and the venue owner does nothing more than provide a room and performers take full responsibility for their event, it doesn’t always work like that in practice. Inclusive venues take on beginners, and beginners inevitably make fuck-ups. This gives the people running the venue a choice: either do nothing and let the event fail (and also reflect badly on the venue), or go the extra mile to put their mistakes right. No-one wants to do the former, but the time spent on the latter adds up. Time that could be spent on something more productive and long-term.
But it is vital that artists have the chance to get started, and it’s not clear who else in Durham can provide this if the Empty Shop doesn’t. So what will happen? I have a guess that covers both venues, but I’m going to keep it to myself for now, because no matter how much I insist it’s only my speculation, someone’s going to think it’s an exclusive from an insider. Come back to me in 18 months and I’ll tell you how close I was.
Conrad Nelson steps in at Northern Broadsides
The other notable bit of Northern theatre news (at least what southerners call the north – everyone knows that Yorkshire and Lancashire are the Midlands, Birmingham is south, London is abroad) is the news on Barrie Rutter’s successor at Northern Broadsides. It’s Conrad Nelson. Pedantic but important detail: this is a 12-month appointment. Oh, and this is not to be confused with the recruitment of a new chief executive that went out to open application, or the recruitment of a permanent artistic director whose process is yet to be announced. If I’ve already lost you, however, the bottom line is that Conrad Nelson is temporary artistic director for now, with every possibility this will become permanent.
This choice was slightly different than my prediction. My money was on the other half of the husband-and-wife team, Deborah McAndrew; out of the two, however, Nelson probably had the better claim solely on the grounds of being with the company longer. In practice, however, the appointment of one or the other probably works out as the same thing. The McAndrew/Nelson productions were close to becoming Northern Broadsides’ main attraction anyway; and they work together so tightly as writer and director this is surely set to continue. Regardless, with change of leadership normally being risky business, it’s rare for any theatre company to have such an obvious safe pair hands (or pair of pairs of hands) ready and waiting. Northern Broadsides are very lucky to have that.
Last Night at the Circus
One of my intended uses for odds and sods was for early reporting for works in progress that grab my interest. I’ve been following Yve Blake’s upcoming Fangirls with interest, which has had a couple of previews in London now, but so far they have not coincided with any of my London visits. As it stands, I don’t know any more than I reported from January last year, but I’m keeping my radar switched on.
In the meantime, however, some advance notice of another upcoming show I really like the sound of. As I reported in an exclusive scoop last Edinburgh Fringe (note: exclusivity of scoop may vary from that advertised), Jane Postelthwaite, star of sleepy/sinister shows Made in Cumbria and The House, was planning to base her next show in the circus. At the time, I thought this seems like a logical new setting for her style of humour, because as we all know, clowns always turn out to be mass murderers (“if we can’t make them laugh, no-one will make them laugh”).
However, I finally got to hear more about the new show on her crowdfunder. I would have been quite happy to see a similar show in a new setting, but this, it turns out, is far more ambitious. Last Night at the Circus looks like a personal story. It’s described as a “one woman multimedia show exploring what it means to sabotage your own success set in a dystopian yet breathtaking Circus landscape,” but one of the stories in this is based on her own struggles with bipolar disorder. This will be coming to Brighton Fringe in May, and this will be a gamble. But I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out, because if it comes off, it will take humour she built up with her last two works, but use it to create something very different.
A sour note for Immersive Gatsby
Now for something I’m very sorry to report. In February, I gave a glowing review of the Guild of Misrule’s immersive version of The Great Gatsby. Even with all the great things I’d heard, it outperformed all expectations I had, in particular all the way they’ve combined old stories with new ones. But now comes the reports of sexual assault taking place during performances. Not from directors, or other actors, but people in the audience. It looks bad: 17 incidents reported overall, and the Police called twice. (Usual caveat applies: at present, we only know the Guild of Misrule’s side of the story, but you’d have to be pretty stupid to get the Police involved if it wasn’t true, so we can safely assume it’s broadly accurate.)
To be clear, what’s been reported cannot be put down to any misunderstanding of an immersive theatrical experience. Having seen this myself, I can vouch for this. Flirting from characters to audience is part of the act, but there’s no way any sane human being could mistake that as an invitation for anything else. It’s also fair to say that The Guild of Misrule have not neglected their duty of care – they thought about this and had a system of code words in place if anything like that happened. It’s just that it’s turned out it wasn’t enough, and now the cast are being issued panic alarms instead. This might have looked paranoid a year ago – now it very much looks like a necessity.
I can’t say how sad I am to report this. The Great Gatsby is a huge success story, with a parallel run now opening in Wales and the London run being extended again and again. For such a landmark production in immersive theatre, the last thing we want to be talking about is the safety of the actors, but talk about it we must. If the Guild of Misrule got one thing wrong, it was that they underestimated how shitty some people are. This problem is a different problem to people abusing positions of power in film or theatre, but the one thing they have in common is they have to be fought with eternal vigilance. As we learn more about what’s been going on, this has never been so important.
A solution to funding reviews?
Now you’re all feeling depressed, let’s move on to something more positive. For a few years now, there’s been a debate over whether it would be a good thing for theatre reviewers to be paid. On the face of it, the easy answer is “yes” – they provide a service, giving good acts the acclamation they deserve, giving other acts advice on how to get better. However, as soon as you start asking questions over how this would actually work, it gets less straightforward. I last wrote about this during Edinburgh Fringe 2016, and raised two sticking points: firstly, where the money comes from (in particular whether any strings are attached); and secondly, who decides which reviewers are funded (in particular, we don’t want a situation where sponsors have so much power that reviewers who can’t get funding don’t stand a fair chance against those who do). So, in the interests of balance, it’s only fair to report a funding model that gives good answers to the questions.
The model in question is The Stage’s funding for reviewing the Vault Festival. They made Fergus Morgan their resident critic, and this was sponsored by We Are Waterloo, a consortium of local businesses in the area. The obvious advantage is that there’s no question of undermining the integrity of the reviews. A reviewer supported by a theatre company might be compromised reviewing productions of that company; even a reviewer supported by a big business might be compromised reviewing a play critical of that kind of business. Neither scenario applies here (at least, not unless the local business of Waterloo are exposed in shady hedge funds and arms deals – we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it). On the question of who decides who gets funded – well, that decision was obviously decided by The Stage, but other publications still got noticed without sponsorship, so again there’s no worries that the sponsors have too much power.
Where this model does have limitations is who benefits from it. In general, theatre companies need to already have a considerable standing to get a review from The Stage, or indeed to get programmed into the Vault Festival at all. The people who need reviews the most are the performers starting off, who are the mostly likely to be ignored by the media. But Fergus Morgan’s suggestion of other festivals that might benefit from this system is a good one. Especially Brighton Fringe. At Brighton, a newcomer will be lucky to get one review. If Broadway Baby, FringeReview, FringeGuru or the Review Hub managed to pull off something similar to what The Stage pulled off at The Vault Festival, the could make a big difference.
More Nypmhgate (groan)
This final items I don’t really want to write. I’ve already written at length about Manchester Art Gallery’s stupid stunt to remove a much-loved painting because it had nudey ladies in it, and I wanted to give it a rest. However, I had hoped that if the gallery wouldn’t have the grace to admit they lost the debate they started, they might have at least dropped it quietly. Instead, they’ve waited for things to quieten down, then doubled down with more of the same rhetoric. Numerous interviews and features have appeared in various places, but this article appears to be the blueprint, with the other articles broadly repeating the same opinions. (It’s written by Sonia Boyce rather than the MAG’s management, but the two are pretty much working in lockstep here.) The line she’s taken on behalf of the gallery is … bad. I don’t have time to rebut another article in detail all other again, but the bit about middle-aged men lingering over the painting (which must be because they’re misogynists and perverts and couldn’t possibly be because they’re studying the painting for style or technique) stood out as a particular awful argument.
It is not clear what the motive are behind the numerous sycophantic articles that have suddenly appeared over the internet; maybe Manchester Art Gallery actively canvassed people to spread their message, maybe all these websites felt obliged to auto-defend a contemporary artist from public criticism, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that someone is counting on people having very short memories. The revisionism is just breathtaking. Compare what they said then to what they’re saying now. Once they thanked the public for taking time to respond – now the entire public response is being dismissed as online vitriol. The only discussion that matters, it appears, is the hand-picked artists who came up with the idea of removing the painting in the first place. They are heavily relying on the claim that it was always meant to be a temporary removal for a week, but the quote at the time from curator and cheerleader-in-chief Clare Gannaway was “We think it probably will return, yes, but hopefully contextualised quite differently”. That suggests a far longer removal was intended, with the option of a permanent removal kept open. Most tellingly, the promise at the time of further public discussion – starting with a chaired panel debate inviting a broad range of speakers – has been dropped without explanation. Really, Manchester Art Gallery, anyone would think you’re backing out quietly because you’ve realised you can’t win an open debate? Surely some mistake?
Sorry for allowing this to become a rant, but thing that riles me here – apart from the flagrant revisionism they’ve been allowed to get away with – is that this embodies everything I hate about contemporary art. People who think they’re better than us with their more enlightened cultural values. They impose themselves and their art where they’re not wanted and not asked for, interfering with art they deem inferior that the rest of us enjoy. When questioned, they justify their high-handedness by saying they’re provoking debate, if engaging the public with one-sided rhetoric counts as debate, which they do. When the public inevitably responds with overwhelming opposition, they then decree the public verdict doesn’t matter: all dissent, no matter how articulate or considered, is dismissed on the ground that you didn’t consider the issues properly. Still congratulating themselves for starting a debate, they look elsewhere validation: people who think they’re better than us with their more enlightened cultural values.
Apologies to all the contemporary artists I know who aren’t like this, but as long as this culture of arrogance, authoritarianism and moralising continues at the top, it’s no wonder the public have such a poor view of it.
Things I wrote in March
Apart from that, I had quite a busy month catching up with reviews. Here’s what I wrote:
For Love or Money: Rutter’s farewell (for now?): Barry Rutter’s Swansong was an an 18th century-comedy transplanted to 1920s Yorkshire. Good energetic problem, but not convinced this story works in the new setting.
Lumiere London 2018 roundup: The one non-theatre arts festival I never miss, I gave my verdict on the second festival in London, including how it rose to the challenge on coping with London numbers.
War of the Worlds: way up North: A low-budget low-key production in Northern Stage’s smallest space proved to be very popular, and rightly so.
The untold case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: This, however, was the unexpected gem of the month from Blackeyed Theatre, writing in a new character to the classic tale, and making it look like that’s how it was meant to be written all along.
Roundup: Vault Festival 2018: A catch-up of all the plays I saw at Week Four of the Vault Festival, including me finally discovering Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho.
Hedda Gabler: without the gloss: And finally, my very first review where I’ve had to put a content warning. Ivo van Hove’s production is good, but there’s a controversial but necessary depiction of sexual coercion.
That’s it. One more odds and sods for April, then it’s a break during Brighton Fringe coverage. Which I’m in. Christ, Brighton Fringe can’t be that near already, can it? Eeek.