This was supposed to be a longer article, but owing to a series of cancellations and sell-outs I’ve only managed to catch two fringe-scale plays. But it’s a pleasing two, which coincidentally share the same theme of dystopia.
Most dystopias are of a dystopian future. Black bright Theatre, however, entertains an alternate dystopian past. In these alternate 1980s Deborah and Megan are holed up in their farm deep in the Yorkshire Dales. The world has become a dangerous place since the disease took hold, spread through those who ate the flesh of infected pigs. Those who survived must evade the infected, who have been transformed into flesh-crazed monsters who can infect you. They must also, we presume, evade the vegans, who will never let you hear the last of this.
The Zombie Apocalypse is a trope that’s frequently dunked on. It’s the trope that’s been so over-used by films that it’s practically considered a genre in its own right. Every time a new zombie flick comes out people take the piss out of it with “OMG, this is the most brilliant idea for a film. You’ve got a world where this people become ZOMBIES, and they can turn other people into MORE ZOMBIES. But wait, here comes the best bit. There are survivors who group together, but the real danger is – wait for it – when they FIGHT AMONGST THEMSELVES!” Even when plays or films don’t play to trope stereotypes, it’s difficult to produce anything that’s original and not predictable. Madeline Farnhill’s primary challenge, therefore, is to somehow create something different in some way. How do you do that? Maybe play on the last corny real-life catchphrase? Learn to live with the virus?
COMMENT:The Rare Earth Mettle debacle exposed that the Royal Court did not take complaints of anti-Semitism seriously – but there’s little reason to believe any other theatre would have behaved any better.
A common mistake made by theatres in the regions is to obsess over the latest drama hitting a London Theatre. Nine times out of ten, it’s a local issue of little consequence elsewhere in the country – or at least not as bad as more serious issues on your doorstep your local theatres are ignoring *cough**cough**cough**cough**cough*. If this uproar over the naming of a character at the Royal Court was only a London issue, I would quite happily have left it to Londoners to argue over. However, this one I believe goes deeper than a local row. I am in agreement with the majority of people that the Royal Court has screwed up big-time, but I’m not convinced it’s wise to single out one theatre here. I fear this is a symptom of an endemic nationwide problem.
So, for those who need to catch up, this is all about a play at the Royal Court satirising billionaire, master bullshitter and possible Bond villain-in-waiting Elon Musk. Now, I could put a lot of energy into why Hyperloop and all his other miracle transport solutions are bollocks, but that’s a different story completely and not for a theatre blog. Everyone was fine with this play until the name of character based on Musk was announced: Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from all Jews in London (pretty much) for stoking stereotypes. The Royal Court apologised and agreed to rename the character to Henry Finn, which might have settled things down had they not attempted to blame their mistake on “unconscious bias”. Then a Sunday Times article (£) came out that suggested this concern had previously been raised and ignored, prompting a second statement promising to reflect further. It could have been worse, but boy, what a fiasco.
COMMENT: It is no longer acceptable for arts organisations to behave behave like abuse going on elsewhere isn’t their problem. If the arts industry does not take collective responsibility for its failures over safeguarding, it is complicit.
It was dispiriting enough writing about the alleged (and now pretty much proven) abuse at Tyneside Cinema, but I really didn’t expect another three scandals to follow. There came the abusive vice-principal at Ballet West that resulted in the closure of the Ballet school. Then just over a month ago it was back to the north-east with the region’s biggest and most powerful music promoter – and now, of course, it’s Noel Clarke. I will say up-front that in the latter two cases the allegations are still just allegations, Noel Clarke and SSD’s Steve Davis deny the allegations made against them personally, and we’ll need to wait for the investigations to finish before making a final conclusion. But I’m done with commentating on individual cases. It’s the sheer numbers I’m now concerned about. It now seems that every time we deal with one scandal and try to move on, another one takes its place. Four in twelve months, plus who knows how many regional scandals are happening outside the north-east.
I’m tired of scandal after after scandal after scandal being put down to a few bad apples. Something is going very badly wrong in the arts industry – but for years the arts industry seems to have been in a collective state of denial. One thing that all of these four scandals have in common:it was not the arts industry that brought thing to light; two broke through social media, and the other two came through investigative journalism. And yet – with a few honourable exceptions – everybody who’s anybody in the arts has historically behaved like it was always the responsibility of other people over there, and nothing to do with them, nothing needs to change. Enough is enough. This isn’t good enough any more.
Now we move into the fourth year of the blog. Again, a good haul of outstanding plays to match the previous year. No haul of terrible plays this time, but I did have an agonising choice over what to name best play of the year.
There was also a sixth piece that didn’t quite make it into the hall of fame, but instead is notable for a related reason.
The National Theatre is an odd one. For some reason, almost all the plays I’ve seen I considered either excellent or over-rated, with very little in between. The star player of the National, however, is surely Marianne Elliot. War Horse was such a success the puppet horse became the iconic image of the National, but edging ahead is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.
Most Ike Awards are picked on the basis of a single innovative idea executed well; this, however, makes it to the list as an excellent all-rounder. Every stage of this creation is excellent: a great story in its own right from Mark Haddon (Haddon said he never said any proper research on autism, but it doesn’t matter, he got it spot on), Simon Stephens captured what matters in the play script perfectly, but the icing on the cake was the data-themed projections over all the stage. Trying to put your own stamp on to a stage adaptation of a successful book is a risky business – I’ve found this technique to backfire as well as it succeeds, but it is a prime example of how to do it right: a play just as iconic as the puppets in War Horse, but nothing important lost from the original book.
Last summer I recommended Yen at the Edinburgh Fringe. As director Hetty Hodgson has previously twice hired the City Theatre which I’m a trustee of, I couldn’t include this in the reviews, but I nevertheless raved about this as much as I could short of the review. All four of her productions I’ve seen (three at Durham and one at Edinburgh) have impressed me, so with her fifth and final production within Durham Student Theatre coming up, I caught up with Hetty to talk about this latest play, here experiences of Edinburgh, and more.
If we start with what’s coming up next week, tell us all about the play.
It’s a play called Beats, it was written by Kieran Hurley, and performed first in 2012 at the Edinburgh Fringe then it went on to London for a bit. So it’s a play about a boy, fifteen years old, when rave culture was banned in 1994, and it’s all about youth solidarity and the power of the youth and quite interesting and really cool because it’s a one-man show.
We’re performing it in Wiff Waff, in one of Durham’s nightclubs, so that’s a bit different, it’s a bit more immersive, it’s site-specific in some ways, and it’s got live video and visuals throughout, and also a live DJ, so I guess it’s more of a multimedia show than anything else I’ve ever done. And it’s been really interesting, both in creating work with an actor, but also a huge focus of it is the music and the video because that’s something that’s consuming throughout – that’s been really fun to work with.
The Wind in the Willows is one of the longest-running family Christmas productions in regional theatre – and seeing it for myself, it’s easy to understand why.
What do moles and rats do when spring arrives? Go out for an idyllic boating ride and picnic, of course. “But wait,” I hear you say, “aren’t rowing boats a bit big for a mole and a rat?” Honestly, don’t you know anything? In the early 20th century, moles and ratties and badgers were all human-sized and did human-sized things, mixing with humans and subject to human laws of the land and all that. This, at least, was the premise of Kenneth Grahame’s book, originally meant as a bed-time story and ending up an accidental children’s classic. But the reason the book endures in so many memories is of course our hero, or rather anti-hero. Mr. Toad, the wealthy but vain owner of Toad Hall, is not arrogant as such: simply a flawed individual who is – if you will pardon the mixed metaphor – only human.
This depiction of Mole, Ratty, Badger and Mr. Toad as only human was, perhaps, a driver for Theresa Heskins’ choice of how to bring this to the stage at the New Vic. Plenty of adaptations use make-up or masks to represent the animals – here, however, they are better described as human embodiments of the animals they represent. The ensemble of eleven never have more than a pair of ears or a tail to show which animal they are – and it works. Because this adaptation is not using tweeness as its selling point, but instead, human personalities working and conflicting with each other: Mole, keen to be friends with everyone; Ratty, pragmatic and easy-going; and Badger, the one who knows Mr. Toad best. Mr. Toad, by all rights, ought to be the villain of the piece, throwing lavish parties to big up his own ego, never feel sorry for anyone but himself, always frittering money away on the latest fad – but he’s such an idiot over all this he becomes a lovable idiot, desperately needing his friend to protect him from himself and his new-found love of easily-crashable motor cars. Continue reading →
It’s finally happened. Many times I’ve thought not a lot happened but ended up with loads to report, but this time, I’ve scoured far and wide for interesting news and discovered it really is a slow month news for once. So let’s get this over and done with:
Stuff that happened in October:
Not much, but amongst the not much going on is:
Junkyard Dogs expands in Brighton
So starting in Brighton this time, the bit of news that caught my eye is Junkyard Dogs. If you come to Brighton Fringe for the theatre, Junkyard Dogs may pass you by completely, because this is a venue that is dominated by comedy. But this venue has still managed to build a stellar reputation. having been voted Best Venue in the last two years. (Public votes should normally be treated with caution as they are open to vote-packing, but everybody I know who’s expressed an opinion on Junkyard Dogs has spoken very highly of them.) However, as a single-space 35-seater venue, so far this venue has kept a low profile compared to The Warren, Sweet and Spiegeltent. But that might be about to change. According to Brighton Fringe, next year they will have two black box spaces. This takes them up to three, just one behind the number of spaces used by Sweet and The Warren last year (albeit bigger spaces). Continue reading →
One of the early hits on my blog were my guides I wrote for the Brighton, Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes. Brighton was the original inspiration – as someone who’d previously been used to Edinburgh, Brighton was a very different environment to get used to. I was supposed to do updated versions every year, but, true to form, I was too disorganised to keep that up and the latest version of “How to make the most of the Brighton Fringe” was written in 2014.
I was thinking of doing an update, but it then occurred to me the more interesting thing is the record of what it used to be like. A lot has changed since then. Looking through the things I listed back then, it’s remarkable how much is different now. So, for a new angle, and because Buzzfeed has decreed that articles are now only permitted if they’re done in lists, here’s my observations on everything that’s changed.
1: It’s bigger
In 2007, there were 323 shows. (For comparison, that’s slightly under twice the present-day size of Buxton Fringe, a tiny fringe by today’s standards.) Now, it’s more like 1,000. Not that you need stats to tell you this – it’s an obvious difference to anyone who remembers back that far. But stats are immune from selective memory, and that confirms just what the extent of the change is.
I could end the list here. Pretty much everything else is a consequence of this unprecedented expansion. Some changes were easy to predict, some not so easy. But almost everything that is different about Brighton Fringe now can be traced back to this growth.
2: It opens with a firework display
The opening ceremony is a recent addition, coming to Brighton Fringe in 2016. In priciple, this makes little difference to the fringe itself – the plays, comedy and so on won’t be any better or worse because of some fireworks. But it was a huge statement of status that Brighton Fringe can now afford to do this, and a landmark to its expansion. Continue reading →
Holy shit, six years. Don’t I have anything better to do? But as WordPress has been keen to remind me, that’s how long I’ve been running this blog. Three years ago, I wrote What I’ve learned from three years of theatre blogging. It’s interesting for me to read my old articles, but looking at this now, there’s nothing where I’ve really changed my mind.
But now I’ve made it to six years (and I vigorously deny all those vicious rumours that I planned to do this for five years but I never got round to it), it’s a good time to add some new things. Some of them things I was close to learning anyway – on or two, however, are eye-openers, and not in a good way.
1: You have responsibilities
When I started doing this on a whim back in 2012, the last thing I imagined is that this would actually matter. Most plays, I just assumed, got plenty of “proper” reviews, and mine would be added to the pile. The most difference I thought this would make is that it would provide some constructive feedback that performers would be free to heed or ignore as they pleased.
What I hadn’t realised was how rare a commodity a review is. Outside of productions programmed by major theatres, it’s difficult to get any kind of coverage. Your review in a self-published blog may be the only one. It could be the only source of constructive feedback a group gets. You could be the only evidence a group has when making an arts council grant. It could spell the difference with whether or not other review publications give them a chance in the future. Continue reading →