It is with great regret that I have to announce the departure from this publication of F D Levin. A letter sent to the office this week cited ‘editorial ineptitude, censorship and resulting artistic frustration’ as the root causes of his resignation.
Levin was considered to have the potential to be a great writer early in his career. He was later described as ‘the third best theatre critic in the entire Hereford Theatre Journal’. Unfortunately the journal was only able to afford two theatre critics due to cut-backs and so Levin was sacked. From there began what many fondly remember as ‘the lost years’, a period in which Levin appeared to disappear, evading employment, the taxman and his friend. It is thought he left the country, but the circumstances and validity of this claim are unfortunately unverifiable. It is from out of this wilderness that F D Levin came to us at the start of this term. His CV of wit, winning misanthropy and above all fierce dedication to the world of theatre was absolutely peccable, and so we decided to hire him. It is hoped he may one day return. And if you see him, remember to feed or employ him, though neither is a guarantee against your future evisceration by his pen, a lesson I myself have now learned.
He is currently rumoured to be the subject of a police investigation into identity fraud.
There’s been some serious hype around the OUDS New Writing Festival this year, and it all comes to a head in 7th week – the work of four of Oxford’s hottest new writers, battling it out in the BT for the coveted Best Play award. Speaking to the writers themselves and the directors who brought their work to the stage, it wasn’t difficult to see what the fuss was all about. With a line-up as diverse, dedicated, and downright talented as this year’s crop, there was never any question that it’s going to be a zinger. The heterogeneity in terms of experience, approach, and style is remarkable, showcasing talent from the full range of Oxford’s extensive pool. Sami Ibrahim of St Peter’s, throwing his hat into the ring with writing debut The Man Who Loses, concedes that “I haven’t written much before – a few sketches with a comedy troupe. I guess I started writing because I thought it would be a challenge: I wasn’t sure if I could actually write something, so I thought I’d give it a go”. Not so with James Biondi, writer of Lover’s Suicide. Connecticut native, he is in Oxford completing a Masters in English and American Studies. Having managed to produce “six complete plays (including Lover’s Suicide), a novel, and a whole bunch of other kernel-y things”, he told me how his play was written “a couple of years ago, while I was an undergrad under the guidance of Amy Herzog, an American playwright who was a visiting professor at Yale”. What is clear across the board is the value of OUDS Drama Cuppers as a means of incubating theatrical bright sparks – Ibrahim directed in it last year before trying his hand at writing; Lamorna Ash, architect of Christchurch’s five nominations for The Twin Paradox in 2013 Cuppers, returns to the fray with Love Plus; Daniel de Lisle credits “everyone who was a part of Hugh’s 2013 Cuppers” as a key influence. Whether the works have been two months or two years in the making, it’s not just the writers who are putting in the legwork – the directors, hand-picked by NWF producer Isabella Anderson, have been working feverishly to polish their productions. Daniel de Lisle, directing Howard Coates’s Polly, indignantly asserted that he’d “suffered for this production. I’ve taken rehearsals ill, and as my friends will attest (and mock me for), I haven’t been on a night out since we started rehearsals”. The directors all share that dedication, but the delicate writer-director balance is struck differently for each. De Lisle “worked closely with Howard in auditioning the cast and discussing how we would approach the text”, but in the words of Coates himself, “I’ve since let Dan get on with bringing the thing to life”. Olivia Dunlop, directing Ibrahim’s The Man Who Loses, recalls “a number of Pret-based luncheons and heated discussions. On one occasion, we drew in a neighbouring member of the public as to how best to solve a plot point spatially, reenacted using cryptic drawings and available detritus”. Ibrahim, though, “took a back seat”. Having directed new writing last year, she “always felt a bit awkward with the writer there, as I felt I might be ruining his work with every decision I made! So, when the tables were turned, I decided it was best to let the director do whatever she wanted with the play, once it got to the rehearsal stage”. Biondi is taking a less orthodox approach: “I take in the scenes with my eyes closed to avoid obsessing over the actual staging of it”.
The smooth running of the relationship is certainly aided by the pack’s interdisciplinary talents. There isn’t one of them who doesn’t have some experience of another facet of theatre – acting, directing, writing, producing – as Biondi puts it, “theatre, from speaking words onstage to writing words on paper to hammering nails into the wood that people will stand on, has been a huge part of my life for about half of it”. Olivia Dunlop, too, “dabbled in acting in the past, which greatly informed my writing. I think directing arose out of a dissatisfaction in my own acting ability to portray what I imagined, so now I harass others for ‘truth’ instead”.
Clearly, competition is going to be fierce. But whoever wins the day, the heart of what makes the New Writing Festival so exciting is in the name – new, fresh, exciting and searingly bright theatre from playwrights who may well go on to do great things – as Olivia Dunlop puts it: “Oh, I suffer for my art, terribly and endlessly. But I am saving the ordeals for material for that next play”.
“Do you get lonely?” Before the words had fully passed from my lips an emphatic answer came flying back, as Michael Grandage shifted noticeably forward in his chair: “Very lonely yes, it’s a lonely profession directing…you have to take all the responsibility, the flak. We’re a little bit like football managers, Artistic Directors; we have no employment rights whatsoever. If you start to underperform you get hauled in front of your board and sacked. It’s as simple as that, you constantly know you’re answerable to a board who are looking at not just figures but also reputation and the moment it starts to diminish in any way you’re vulnerable.”
The vulnerability of Grandage’s role is easily missed if you glance at his career and consider his current reputation. Raised in Penzance, he recounts how he, “took a year out after grammar school to audition for drama schools, got a place at the Central School in London…I was clear at that time that I wanted to pursue an acting career”. Twelve years later, he I realised I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I’d hoped and started to seek other opportunities. “The most obvious thing for me was to find out if I could direct.”
Twenty years later the consensus is that he certainly can, as his stints as the Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres (2000-2005) and the Donmar Warehouse (2002-2012) prove. Not to mention the more than 80 major awards he and his company have picked up. There’s a reason that The Telegraph described him as “the King” when he left the Donmar.
However, while at the Donmar, Grandage developed strong relationships with key collaborators, such as Christopher Oram (production design), Neil Austin (lighting design) and Adam Cork (sound design). These collaborations are not only aesthetically vital but personally so too: “collaboration becomes very very important, otherwise it is a very lonely job…you need another group of people, you make them a very important part of your life”.
I suggest that this collaboration extends to the text (although this collaboration probably doesn’t help the loneliness too much): “I think my entire job is about serving the writing and, therefore, the writer I suppose. In that set-up I’m the interpretative artist and the writer is the creative artist. I think that it’s quite important if you are a text based director never to lose sight of that. I think it’s good to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and think ‘I’m an interpretative artist’. If you wake up and think ‘I am the creative force’ then you start to usurp the reason you’re there in the first place.”
Pausing, he takes a moment to slightly recast his words: “I don’t want to diminish the creativity part of it. One is still a creative artist with a huge creative brief, but that’s personal to me.” He asserts that this creative urge for new challenges strongly influenced his decision to establish the Michael Grandage Company in 2012 when he left the Donmar: “I’d spent the best part of 20 years running theatres in the subsidised sector. Sheffield theatres was three auditoriums and the Donmar was a studio space: between those two I’d come to understand everything I’d needed to about presenting theatre within buildings. Another building to run would have been just doing the same, possibly even a backward step. The company offers me a degree more freedom”.
This freedom has resulted in the risky project of staging five plays in the non-subsidised Noel Coward Theatre and “the time to break off and make a film”. Genius, starring Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender, will be Michael Grandage’s first movie and is a portrayal of the relationship between Editor Max Perkins and the writer Thomas Wolfe. “We start filming in the second half of 2014” reports Grandage, “I’ve always been interested in seeing if I could make a film. Over about a decade there have been people offering me various scripts to develop but it’s just that this particular script came in and I felt there was something very personal that I could bring to the story”. The editor and director do, after all, both inhabit a similar region of interpretative space in the form of the page or the stage.
Grandage believes the technicalities of film-making practise will “push me out of my comfort zone,” but then he also believes that, “I’ve always operated best slightly out of my comfort zone, because the moment you start to think ‘I know what to do and how to do it’ you start to get complacent”. While always trying to move himself out of his comfort zone in the theatre, Grandage has relentlessly tried to makes others feel more at home there: “I’m borderline obsessive about access and developing careers with young people because people [like Pat Trueman at The Mercury Theatre, Colchester] did that with me”.
It’s somewhat surprising to hear that “seeking opportunities for the next generation is even more exciting than directing the actual play”, and is indicative of his commitment to making theatre an important part in the lives of others, be they future audience members, writers or directors like himself.
But what of the future for Michael Grandage? “You always put your efforts into what you see on the horizon as opposed to what’s beyond the horizon,” he replies, and that horizon is filled with Genius. But beyond that he has a few rough sketches: “I’ve never done devised work; I’m not sure how that will present itself but I’m not against the idea. I’ve not done any particular work in found space and I like that idea, partly because my first experience of theatre was seeing it not in a theatre building; I like the idea of making theatre in spaces where you have to educated people to come and see it in a different context.”
As he answers, new possibilities and challenges seem to keep popping into his head. The restlessness is sure to return after his film project, as it keeps doing during our interview, judging from his frequent movements and shifting in his chair. The threat of complacency continues to drive him on and it seems that the challenge of bearing the loneliness of the long-serving director seems certain to remain for some time.
“It’s an intense hour-long romp” says Misha Pinnington, who plays the Düsseldorfian Ripper Peter Kurten in Normal. The show, written by the ‘90s playwright Anthony Neilson, will attempt to scandalise audiences at the BT in 3rd week through its depiction of Kurten’s relationship with his lawyer, Justus Wehner, during the serial killer’s 1930 trial.
Director Sami Ibrahim was attracted by the play’s origin in the ‘in-yer-face’ movement, which he describes as “very confrontational and loud, not trying to be pleasant.” Normal is certainly not a play trying to be agreeable: “Kurten kills a lot of people and goes into quite nasty depth about it,” says Sami, “and there are lot of crude sex references, which is always nice.” Alex Shavick, who plays Kurten’s prim lawyer, notes that it’s hard to know whether we’re meant to laugh or be horrified: “There are times when it’s meant to be funny. Some lines are just ridiculous. It’s that mix of a nice bit of black humour with really intense killing.” As Misha explains, this mix presents a challenge for the actors, with it being “quite hard to get the balance exactly between menacing but not overtly menacing.”
Sami decided on a cross-shaped stage for the play, with the audience arranged in four blocks around it. Why this unusual set-up? “I guess part of it is it’s a bit of a novelty,” he says, adding that the thinness of the stage turns what could be a natural space into something more abstract. It makes you feel involved, he says, “but at the same time awkward and alienated by the whole thing. You have an actor standing there screaming so you’re kind of drawn in but also taken out a bit.”
Experimentation with emotional extremes during the rehearsal process is central to what Sami does, and the results are evident in the fervour of the actors’ performances. “We’ve gone through all of the scenes and tried them out in completely different ways,” says Alex, “then we pick the bits that we like and put it all together naturally.” For Sami it’s important to test out the emotional volatility of the play’s characters while rehearsing: “you try them at their most angry or most upset. It’s nice and flexible.”
What attracted Sami to the play? “The fact that there are 30 scenes is a fun prospect. It’s more interesting than having five scenes in an hour. You have to switch from different styles very quickly.” Scenes range from Kurten describing how he ‘seduced’ his wife (by picking up a saw and threatening her) to a black and white Chaplain-like mimed farce.
Despite the dark subject-matter, Sami thinks the play will brighten up our 3rd weeks: “It’ll be different from other stuff you’ll see around Oxford. It’ll be an experience.” Even those seeking a inexpensive thrill are provided for: “it’s not too long, it’s nice and cheap and hopefully you’ll come out of it being a bit shaken.” Thank God there’s a pub nearby.
Out of the vast body of work produced by the American writer Reginald Rose, the court room drama Twelve Angry Men is the most well-known and frequently adapted piece on stage, film and radio, and has become an inherent part of many a literature course’s curriculum. Amongst the various adaptions and remakes are several theatrical versions of the drama that cast women in the roles of the jurors, however, Twelve Angry Women: A Rehearsed Reading will put a new twist on the gendered nature of the play according to director and OUDS president Katie Ebner-Landy and producer Rebecca Roughan.
Working with the original script by Rose, Katie argues that previous all-female renditions of the play merely refrained to “modelling the characters in their plays on the male characters; it wasn’t like creating a whole new atmosphere, just reflecting or transposing it”. She explains how this particular interpretation of the play challenges the conventional ‘gender-swapped’ renditions from a linguistic perspective: “I think it’s quite a challenge for an actor to be able to create a female character out of a male character, it’s a totally different way of approaching a text. (…) My aim was to have people read it through after creating female characters and try a come up with alternatives to ‘gentleman’, ‘boy’ or ‘guy’ on the spot; we had to change lots of stuff and the things that was most pertinent was not how aggressive they were to each other physically, but how they speak, their really confrontational style of speaking. You just can’t find an equivalent with women, with female pronouns, it just doesn’t work which we found really interesting, so we’re trying to keep that disjuncture and that awkwardness”. An example for the linguistic rearrangement of the script is the sentence ‘How would you like me to cave your head in for you, you smart little bastard?’ in which the original ‘bastard’ will be replaced with ‘c***’, a word Katie describes as a “more female insult”.
Rebecca highlights that changing the format of the drama from a stage play to a rehearsed reading is first and foremost an experiment: “We’re seeing where this goes. We’re replacing some things to try and make them sound natural, but we’re also leaving some things (…) so the audience can almost exactly feel how jarring it is for a woman to say a man’s words”.
Although the reading is set out to explore the shift in power dynamics within the play by replacing the male juror with an all-female cast and, additionally, challenges the lack of great female roles in the majority of plays, as Rebecca points out, it does not have an explicit feminist agenda. “I think there has been a very exciting and fantastic growth of feminism in the last like two years”, says Katie, so for “students who are in this kind of environment of feminism, this might be a way in for thinking about issues and start to explore them” whilst Rebecca adds: “It’s quite interesting for people who don’t consciously identify with feminism at the moment, and we’re not setting out to put this on to ‘convert’ people, but because we think it’s interesting and we think it will be a great discussion”.
And with a Q&A session planned after the show on Monday evening, Twelve Angry Women is certain to kick off a debate around gendered language, women in theatre and feminism in general that will invite the audience into an on-going and much needed discussion around gender equality.
Monday, 3rd February (with Q&A afterwards) & Tuesday, 4th February (3rd week), Oxford Union, free entry; show starts at 8.30pm, but guests are welcome to join cast and crew for some music by all female artists from 8pm; the donations collected during the evenings will go to the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre.
Continuing a cultural trend of resurrecting has-beens, this week the London Palladium played host to An Evening with Sylvester Stallone. An ‘actor’ second only to Brando for unintelligibility (probably a positive if you’ve read some of his scripts), rumour has it that he next plans to (possibly literally) tackle the great Bard. A comedy of errors, presumably…
Numerous recent surveys have exposed some brutal facts about the acting industry. Equity, the union for performers, announced (as a result of a member survey) that nearly 60 percent of its actors were below the poverty line. Maybe they should get a different union. Or get a proper job. Like me.
Reading The Guardian online theatre pages, you might be fooled into thinking that not much has happened this week. Or last week for that matter. Their ‘top story’ for the past fortnight details how Nick Hynter plans to pretty much continue what he’s already doing when he leaves The National Theatre later this year. Thought you’d all like to be kept abreast of this development. I’ll let you know if anything else stays the same.
One theatre group, two nights, six plays. Almost Random Theatre (ART) is barely twenty months old and has begun 2014 with a stomping start. On offer were six brand new pieces: four from the winners and runners-up of two playwriting competitions two plays by ART founder and producer Chris Sivewright.
Sivewright’s School Assembly explores the twisting suffocations of jealousy and the drive for revenge. A teacher (Paul Barrand) discovers that his close friend and colleague (Simon Donahue) has had an affair with his wife. Despite unpersuasive advice to ‘keep things private’ from a headmistress (Angela Myers) desperate to avoid bad publicity, confrontation takes place and, as the play ends, it seems that so too has disaster. Paul Barrand captures ferociously the fuming agonies of a man who feels himself wronged, his body shaking in furious tension throughout. Some strange moments of script (no man genuinely devastated at the infidelity of his wife would make a bad pun about another man ‘popping in’ to her body) didn’t prevent the play from being thoughtful about the gap between appearance and conduct, although it could have been subtler, showing more and telling less.
Next up was Lisa Nicoll’s Poedunk, a black comedy in which a fourteen-year-old girl visits a psychiatrist who seems to have problems far worse than hers. The joy of this play was all in the words, with frenzied moments unfolding at perfect pitch. Ellen Publicover’s Pippi is marvellous: frantic, overthinking, self-torturing, and yet also self-empowering, determined to prove that she can make life better. Her delivery was superbly matched by Victor Ptak’s Dr Igor Harvatz. This 20-minute play has a clever twist and an interesting storyline, but what really shone through was a talent for expression that belonged to script and actors alike.
Monday’s final play, just 10-minutes long, was Pool Boy, by Edwin Preece. Although the most modest—minimal props, no flashy lighting, cast of two, action grounded in dialogue—this was also the sharpest of the Monday plays. The script is eerie, and smart, lulling the audience into the complacent sense that they have guessed the denouement, only completely to surprise them in the play’s final moments. Both actors (Soraya I-Ting and Marcus Davis-Orrom) mastered their roles, manipulating well the economy of the script.
Tuesday began Chris Sivewright’s second offering, Transformation. This play felt more sincere than School Assembly, if less coherent. Schoolgirl Emily (Rachel Eireann) is doing a school-project on well-being and has asked her grandfather (Richard Ward) for help—although it doesn’t seem that she actually needs it, given that when he is talking she tends to spend most of her time texting her friends or frowning in boredom. The relationship between the pair could have done with a little more honing: Emily spends so much time huffing or ignoring her grandfather that the closeness the storyline needs to claim for them isn’t quite believable. He seems charming, she obnoxious. The play seems more about the ills of modern life than anything else, which makes grandpa’s plea to be kept involved in the changing times sound disingenuous. And of course, ultimately, it is grandpa who shows Emily that he knows what it is to have a good time.
Jonathan Skinner’s Kind is a consummately structured piece, and my favourite of the shows. Six short scenes show the turning of fortune’s wheel as rich Richard and penniless Penny swap places. Dick wants the homeless Penny off his posh pavement and even gives her a tenner to disappear. But the two become acquaintances. The play’s plot is obvious early on, and it is part of the play’s strength that it remains absorbing even though we know how it will end. Penny (played gloriously by Rachel Eireann) seems to be one of life’s winners, even when her luck is low; her way of looking at things transcends that of the naïve young girl. Richard (Simon Donahue), on the other hand, is miserable even when things seem good and one can’t help worrying as the play ends that, unlike Penny, he won’t be able to leave homelessness behind him. Perhaps the play isn’t about kindness so much as life-attitude.
Ian Fletcher’s The Trinity ended the ART sextet. A 10-minute play about three criminals who want to become super-villains, the play explores friendship and ambition, suggesting that both are doomed to failure. The play had elements that provoked thought but would have benefited from more development. There are three major scenes and each of them seemed too short to merit the emotional significance attached to them by the dialogue. The friendship test isn’t successfully realised as momentous because the close friendship we hear the characters profess has not been exhibited. Whether this is a problem of direction or just that the play could do with being longer is a question that deserves attention, for there are seeds of potential interest here. A little more care and nourishment may bring them to fruit.
Almost Random Theatre is random. The plays range in quality and success, but all of them are innovative and energetic, and the joy the company takes in performing them is manifestly evident. Each of these plays is brand new and it’s marvellous to see a theatre company so open to fresh talent and creativity. Even better is that, for all the ‘everyone’s got a shot’ ethos, quality doesn’t suffer and all of the playwrights, with all of their actors, deserve thorough applause. Most of all though, ART is to be celebrated. This is an initiative that will continue to gather strength.
Let’s face it: actors on stage don’t generally talk like real-life people. Until recently it would have seemed odd to hear the voice of the man on the street in “to be or not to be”, or one of Wilde’s epigrams spoken with the uneven intonation of everyday speech.
But what of verbatim theatre which, contrary to our expectations, is starting to bridge the gap between everyday- and stage-speak? The technique of using real, quotidian conversations replicated by actors is becoming ubiquitous, and challenging our assumptions about what theatre ought to sound like.
It was Alecky Blythe’s sell-out musical London Road, which appeared in the National Theatre in 2011, that brought verbatim theatre into the headlines.
It wasn’t just the play’s unconventional technique that surprised its audiences; the content was shocking too: the story came from a series of interviews that Blythe had conducted during and after the search for the Ipswich murderer in 2006.
Her first interviews were collected at a time when five bodies of the murdered prostitutes had been found, but no arrests made. Blythe wanted to capture the feeling within the community at this period of heightened anxiety: “The best verbatim theatre is as much present tense as possible”, she says, “it’s about capturing things as they happen.”
It’s not just the recordings that capture things ‘as they happen’ – the feeling of spontaneity is maintained even during the rehearsal process. The actors in Blythe’s plays are barred from seeing the text, replicating their lines instead from edited recordings which are played live to them during the rehearsals and even onstage during performance. Learning of lines is discouraged (since it is argued this would diminish the verisimilitude of the speech) – actors just listen to the audio and repeat what they hear. As Blythe said of London Road, “Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced.”
With such exact reproduction of everyday speech, it’s hard to determine when verbatim accounts become verbatim theatre. The introduction of musical accompaniment to Blythe’s verbatim technique added a new, more theatrical dimension: in London Road she enlisted the help of Adam Cork to incorporate music into the recordings without losing the speech’s honesty. Purer forms of verbatim technique are often overtly political, like Ice&Fire’s Asylum Monologues, which was performed at Christ Church in November 2013. The passionate delivery of the actors was striking, but, without costumes or props, the production felt like a reading – three extremely powerful accounts of asylum-seekers coming to Britain. But is this kind of journalistic verbatim performance really theatre?
With verbatim theatre employing journalistic techniques and subject-matters, perhaps we should be less rigid about distinguishing between ‘theatre’ and ‘journalism’. Blythe says she owes a lot to Anna Deavere Smith, who, in the early 1990s, was the first to combine the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of reproducing their words accurately in performance.
Now Blythe’s success is encouraging a whole new generation of verbatim playwrights to pick up the recorder. Amongst Blythe’s mentees is Ellie Browning, winner of the IdeasTap Underbelly Award, whose play Love Re-Imagined was created from interviews with prisoners and their families.
Perhaps the most potent aspect of well executed verbatim theatre is its ability, as Adam Cork puts it, to make “spontaneously spoken words formal…to explode the thought of a moment into slow motion, [which] can allow us more deeply to contemplate what’s being expressed.”
An emotion or thought spoken in an instant is magnified; politicised even. Unlike newspapers, verbatim theatre slows down time, facilitating the contemplation that is often lacking in our treatment of news stories. Recent news is full of material ready to be transformed into fascinating theatre using the verbatim technique. Leveson inquiry, anyone?
A still from trailer for Judgement at Nuremberg PHOTO / Roxlom Films/United Artists