Odds and sods: September 2022

We’re back into autumn, so it’s time to get stuck in to odds and sods again: a round-up of various things that have been happening that don’t fit anywhere else on the blog.

Stuff that happened in September

I will mention at this point that this list doesn’t mention a couple of pretty major things that happened recently: Edinburgh International Film Festival under threat, and one of the worst scandals yet of abusive directors. I am still processing the information of these, and I will be commenting by October odds and sods by the latest.

Other than that, it’s been a slow news month overall, but a few things are worth mentioning.

Unboxed aka Brexit Festival

So the big news that broke in September – if you can call it that – was the festival on nobody’s radar. I raised by eyebrows when the idea of a “festival of Brexit” was first raise, but what with one thing and another happening in 2020 and 2021 I forgot about this. I vaguely remembered hearing about the festival happening in 2022, but to be brutally honest I had no idea the festival had come and gone until I read the news about it being a flop. Now, I’m not sure what sort of numbers it’s fair to expect for this festival, but it was pretty dire: 238 thousand visitors (whatever that means) against upper aspirations of 66 million. Ouch. Even more embarrassing, it allegedly cost four times the budget of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, which was enjoyed by most of the country.

However – and I apologise for breaking my rule of not kicking artists when they’re down – I won’t miss it. I will say exactly the same thing if Keir Starmer leads the UK back into the EU and holds a Festival of Brejoin (or whatever word we use): we should not be using arts festivals to celebrate flagship government policies. True, there is a counter-argument that the arts is dominated by pro-EU left-wingers, and that it’s difficult to find a place in an arts programme if you’re not either of those – and I do think we need a debate on this. The difference, however, is that no matter how politically partisan programming directors or arts councils funders get, they are not acting on behalf of the government. As soon is you’re using public funds to get the arts to peddle government line, that raises far more serious questions.

This could have got pretty nasty. Had the Johnson government decided to go to war with the arts, they could have allowed arts to wither on the fine in 2020-2021, and make sure the only real funding opportunities were conditional on supporting Boris and Brexit. And I suspect there would have been enough takers had they gone down that route. So although I don’t like to see any event fail, if one festival had to be a damp squib in 2022, I’m happy for it to have been this one.

Edinburgh Fringe launches a consultation:

Well, Edinburgh Fringe was a wild ride, wasn’t. Lots of arguments over where Edinburgh Fringe is going. Some things the Festival Fringe Society really should have seen coming; others were an inevitable consequence of trying to please everybody. Luckily for the Festival Fringe Society, at the end of week 1 this was overtaken by a row over Jerry Sadowitz getting kicked out of the Pleasance. For what it’s worth, I think Edinburgh Fringe has to make a decision on what sort of festival it wants to be and optimise it accordingly.

Anyway, in a bid to restore trust, the Festival Fringe Society has launched a big consultation campaign. They’ve done these before, but this was is the most far-reaching one I’ve ever seen, with different surveys for artists, audiences, disability access, venues, workers, media, arts industry and – the one I’m glad they didn’t forget – Edinburgh locals. Not all of this is new – the media survey, for example, I got and filled in a few weeks ago.

I suspect, however, this is the easy bit. This should be a useful exercise is gauging what people want. Unfortunately, it’s likely that different people are going to want very different. The hard bit will be the realisation that they can’t please everybody any more. What do they do then? Pick one side to please and alienate the other? Or carry on muddling and compromising and risk alienating both? It will be intersting if and when the survey result come to light.

Gatsby’s Mansion closes its doors

I mentioned this in What’s Worth Watching, but I’ll repeat it here as it’s also a pretty major news item. I thought his day would never come, but it finally has.

In 2017 Vault Festival, all the buzz was about an immersive version of The Great Gatsby, with men in dinner suits and women dressed as flappers walking to and from the space. By popular demand it came for one more month in June to catch up with the few who couldn’t get tickets. But the few turned out to be a lot, the run was extended and extended again, and by Vault 2018 it was still going. I turned up to see what all the fuss was about, and it blew me away. I was impressed with how they managed it as an immersive production, but what I hadn’t realised was that the audience splits up and joins back together, but whichever route you take, whichever characters you see, the story comes together. Sadly, the play also attracted a few shitty people to the audience and the Guild of Misrule quickly had to learn how to deal with people coming from a grope, but apart from that it went up and up and up. It moved from Gatsby’s Drugstore in Lambeth to Gatsby’s Mansion in the West End. I was convinced this was the play that struck gold and would never end.

But … the end is finally coming. The Great Gatsbycloses in January next year. It looks like I may never get to London in time to see how party girl Lucielle and security manager Rosy Robinson added to the cast. The only good news is that this is being billed as the last performance In London. Many closing West End shows follow up with a regional tour, and if so, I will be urging everyone in the north-east to see what all the fuss is about when the time comes. Or it might not. Whatever happens, well done to the Guild of Misrule for a truly phenomenal achievement. It’s rare for me to say a group revolutionised theatre, but this one of those times. Thank you and goodbye for now.

The Prisoner

Bit of news about things something in development now, and it’s a new project from The Foundry Group. They had a pretty good Brighton Fringe this year with Underdogs – a play superficially about a novelty world record attempt but really more about the London media’s disdainful attitude to working-class towns – getting a lot of good reviews and winning the Offies award for best Brighton Fringe play. Their best known play, however, is Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks about the golden days of pretending to wrestle completely genuine wrestling.

So, the news I’m getting from them is they’re doing an adaptation of The Prisoner, being the rather surrealistic 1960s series about a secret service agent who isn’t allowed to quit, and is instead sent to a strange model village (that looks awfully like Portmerion in Wales). Quite a line up here in the cast too, we have Ross Gurney-Randall aka Big Daddy, and also Robert Cohen who’s behind a series of great solo plays including High Vis and Something Rotten. It’s on the 18th-20th October at the Rialto theatre if you’re in reach of Brighton, but it’s down as a preview so this may well be their offering for Brighton Fringe 2023. Looking forward to seeing if they manage to put the trampoline sport on stage.

The wrong kind of Jews In Their Own Words

And finally, the most predictable bit of news there could possibly be. Back in June, I reported that the Royal Court was putting on a verbatim play where Jews get to talk about antisemitism. Surely nothing controversial about this, pretty much every other group gets a say on discrimination facing them. But lots of people lost their shit over this – coincidentally the same people who’ve spent the last seven years deflecting and downplaying this issue – and it won’t surprise you in the least to hear that now the play has been launched, they are losing their shit all over again. However, perhaps realising that continuing to rail against (((sinister all-controlling forces))) doesn’t look good, a new line of attack is emerging. The argument now is, no, they’re not claiming Jews shouldn’t be allowed to complain about complain about left-wing antisemitism, they’re just asking for it top be represented of all Jewish voices. It’s not fair they didn’t include the voices of left-wing Jews (if by “left-wing” you mean the small number who they endlessly retweet saying the whole thing was a smear job).

Against my better judgement, I am wearily giving my response

Jonathan Freedland has pointed out the Jews he chose for his verbatim piece reflect the mainstream opinion of Jews. I have to say, there is overwhelming evidence to back up his claim, but even if opinion was split down the middle, so what? This is a play, not a BBC documentary. There has never ever been a requirement for balance in a play. Should Oliver Twist include a section arguing there’s nothing wrong with child workhouses? Should 50% of I Daniel Blake be defending the government’s track record of supporting disabled people? Of course not. In case you’ve forgotten how freedom of speech works, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Or watch it and then tell everybody what they’re getting wrong. Or put on your own verbatim play and invite contributions of Jews in a way you think is balanced. I suppose you could argue that a subsidised theatre has a duty to be politically balanced, but if you’ve suddenly become concerned about balance when someone expressed an opinion you don’t like, I’m calling bullshit. In any case, balance across a theatre’s programme might be achievable, but demanding balance within every play is unworkable.

But I’m wasting my breath saying that. The people up in arms about this play already know this. Some Muslims think there is no Islamophobia in the Tory Party. Some disabled people think the cuts to disability benefits are fair. Some women think sexual harassment in the workplace is okay. Some black people are fans of Donald Trump. Some immigrants support deportations to Rwanda. But I don’t remember anybody demanding that these fringe voices are entitled to representation in plays about Islamophobia, disability benefits, sexual harassment or Trump, and why should they? … Let’s face it, there’s only one reason why you’d want less of a platform for mainstream opinion of a minority on racism and more of a platform for the fringe saying it’s all made up – and that’s to put a more acceptable face on your preferred form of bigotry.

In short: fuck you. I’m done now.

Footnote: Since I’m going to be asked, inevitably, I’m aware there’s a separate row with this play involving mentions of Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children, previously premiered at the Royal Court and considered by a lot of Jews to be antisemitic. I have never seen this play nor read the script, so I’m reserving judgement until and if I see for myself – although I easily understand why a lot of Jews have a problem with this. However, Caryl Churchill is allowed to defend herself from allegations and was within her rights to respond how she did. The difference between her response and the mainstream abuse is that the latter is attacking not anything said in the play, but the fact that Jews have a platform at all. If that’s the best defence you have, I’ll draw the obvious conclusion to what you really have a problem with.

Things I wrote since June:

Since the last ods and sods, here’s what I’ve been writing on the blog. Quite a short list for the summer, but honestly, I’ve been that busy.

What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2022: With Edinburgh Fringe almost back to full strength, my mega-list of things I recommend seeing.

Edinburgh Fringe 2022 – as it happens: And coverage of Edinburgh Fringe with very high stakes, features coverage of lots of reviews, and lots of arguments.

Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice: My take-home from how Edinburgh Fringe 2022 went: it can’t carry on trying to be everything to everyone. They must decide if they want to be a fringe where everybody has a chance to be a success, or one where the biggest and best acts battle it out.

What’s worth watching: autumn/winter 2022: My seasonal picks of what I’m looking forward to seeing for the rest of this year locally.

The Bruntwood doesn’t want you. Now what?: And finally, my hot take, where I urge people not to rely on the lottery of submitting scripts and hoping for the best, and to do what you can to produce your own plays and learn on the job.

And one other thing …

There is one other thing I need to mention. I will keep this brief at the moment, but I will try to flesh this out later. There is no good time to say this and no nice way of saying it, so this is as good a time as any to do this.

In the last month, I have heard three moderately serious allegations about various cultural organisations in the north east. I cannot tell you the details of any of these because in all cases I was asked to keep it confidential, or the details are not specific enough to act on it, or both. Nevertheless, I am approaching the point where I have to start thinking about handling information like this responsibly. I have had a go at cultural organisation over inaction numerous times over the last two years, so I have to justify to myself whether or not to take action on what I’ve heard. For the record, with the three biggest scandals to hit the north-east – Times Square Panto, Tyneside Cinema and SSD Concerts – the first time I heard something was wrong was when it blew up in public. There was not at any point a time when I knew something about those fiascoes that I kept to myself.

In the interests of transparency, and to keep myself in check, I am going to be drawing up some rules of how I handle this. This will need a lot of thought and I won’t be able to do this straight away, but I will make my rules public as soon as I have them. In the meantime, one important thing I want to make clear now is that any allegations I hear are assumed to be off the record unless I know otherwise. Please be aware, however, that if it’s off the record, it’s mostly likely I won’t be able to act on it. There are very few ways you can deal with anonymous allegations without giving away the identity of the person who complained. This means that if you want me to do something and you’re happy to be on the record, you’ll need to expressly tell me it’s on the record.

As for what happens if and when I get a complaint on the record … that will need a lot of thought. I’m a theatre blogger, not an investigative journalist. I may not be able to do what you want me to do. I will need to consult a bit before I commit to anything. But please be assured I am always on the side of the people who want to speak out. This is the last thing I set out to do when I started this blog ten years ago. But, so far, the people who are best equipped to stand up for the victims of harassment and worse do not seem to be doing so. If it really does come down to me, that will be a very sorry state of affairs.

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