Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review of Location, Location, Location - a glimpse into the lives of others

Location, Location, Location gives us more insight into the intimate lives of others than the East German Stasi achieved with all their vast resources.

Promotional photo of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy for the film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) (photo by RKO Radio Pictures)

During the latest UK property crash, as a mark of respect, Location, Location, Location presenter Phil banished himself to Australia and co-presenter Kirstie confined herself to making cushions out of gingham and lace. But now that things have hotted up again, Location, Location, Location is back on our TV screens. It’s gripping stuff.

In this week’s episode, property finder Phil cheerily announced that they have two sets of ‘perky’ house hunters looking for homes in the Home Counties. We cut to police officer Emma who is already in tears, comforted by her partner, IT manager Kelly. So not that perky, Phil. Fellow property finder Kirsty firmly bounces on, doing her best to control the maelstrom of emotion stirred up by a series of sturdy Berkshire properties. Emma seemed to regard each one more as a scene of the crime than a potential home, reluctantly opening cupboard doors as if expecting a trussed body to tumble out.
Regardless of how it might have helped the ratings, Kirsty did seem somewhat alarmed at the usual vicar’s tea party descending at an alarming rate into Ibsen territory. She made a desperate attempt to jolly things up by lying outstretched on a floral carpet. Breaking point for Emma arrived in the shape of a 1950s’ boxy, detached house. True, it might not have ticked all the boxes but it had a very pleasant palm tree outside.
Where was Phil when we needed him, with his breezy, naughty schoolboy sleaze that perfectly matches Kirsty’s bossy head girl’s sternness? 'I’m always up for it, Kirsty’, he tells her gamely. But he was in the wrong location for lightening the mood with Kelly and Emma, busy as he was finding an £850,000 pile in Surrey for a couple of chartered accountants. The programme's editor really did an excellent job: every time the Sturm und Drang down in Berkshire got too much, we’d be back in Surrey, pondering whether David and Lucy would have enough storage space. But then things hotted up in Godalming too, when Phil pulled out of the bag an extraordinary, quirky house built by Arts and Crafts architect Edwin Lutyens. It had the most immense inglenook fireplace. David’s normal composure fell away as he ecstatically imagined a future where friends would come round and he could say ‘Beat that!'.
This is how Location, Location, Location, despite its apparently limited palette, gets to the crux of the human condition: David’s fantasy takes us right back to our Stone Age ancestors, surveying their new cave. Fire, the hearth, bringing home the kill – it’s all there. Cue Phil on the voiceover: 'If I had such a big one, I'd want to show it off too, David'.
Being a Grade 2 listed building has its restrictions, though. As everything has to be left as it is, were David and Lucy’s modern appliances going to fit? It’s a question with an almost existential dimension. And here is the beauty of Location, Location, Location. Yes, the formula may superficially seem a tad tired, but within that, every sidelong glance, every sigh, every hand squeeze, every clash about the merits of a downstairs toilet has a significance, is a subtle revelation that draws us closer to each couple and their dreams and their rage. We gain more insight of the intimate lives of others than the East German Stasi managed with all their vast resources.Though I have to admit I’m still not quite sure why lovely Emma was crying so much.
This program was Episode 5 of Series 14.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

What Antonin Artaud Really Meant by 'Cruelty', and his Concept of the 'Subjectile'

What Antonin Artaud Really Meant by 'Cruelty', and his Concept of the 'Subjectile'

Language, magic and the uncooked in Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, and how his blend of surrealism and expressionism influenced contemporary theatre.

Antonin Artaud (source: Agence de presse Meurisse)

Devising Techniques: Embodying Character through 'Hot Staging'

Combining the technique of 'hot seating' with a compelling exercise used by French theatre director Jacques Lecoq, which draws on the Ancient Greek chorus.
Adieu in Forum Freies Theater, Dusseldorf (Photo by Oliver Paul)
I came up with ‘hot staging’ by combining the technique of ‘hot seating’ with an exercise used by French mime artist and theatre director Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999) to create a more embodied method of developing character. It's as effective when used with A-level students as it is with more experienced theatre practitioners. 

Hot Seating

Hot seating is used to help an actor get a deeper understanding of the character they are playing, and is used in both devised work and when working with a play text. The actor sits in the hot seat and must answer, in character, questions asked by the others in the room.
As here we are interested in devising, let’s imagine that a group of actors have a rough idea of the characters and storyline and now want to give both greater depth. One of the actors is to play an eight-year-old girl. So she (or, of course, it could be a male actor) settles down into the hot seat and the questions begin.
Someone asks: ‘What is your greatest fear?’ The actor instantly has to use her imagination to think of a reply. She says, in a little voice, ‘That I will be lost in a park and it’s getting dark and my mummy can’t find me.’ Someone else asks: ‘Has that ever happened to you?’ ‘No. But it happened once to mummy when she was small. She told me.’
The hot seating could open up in various ways from here, perhaps asking more about the mother, asking a related question about what else the girl fears, or changing the subject completely by asking what is her favourite dinner. All these questions help to build the actor’s understanding of this character: we are formed partly by who our parents are, our fears affect how we react to situations and people, and our taste in food reveals much about our class, culture and attitude to eating.
The process, which lasts around ten minutes, can be grueling; the result is that a more dense and complex character has now been formed, with whom all the actors can now play when devising their performance. The mother, for example, may never be mentioned, and yet the knowledge that everyone shares about her will inform the play. Then it’s on to the next actor to take the hot seat.
Jacques Lecoq and Ancient Greek Theatre
The problem with hot seating, though, is it is static: it’s a hot seat, not a hot stage. So here is where Lecoq’s exercise comes in. In Ancient Greek theatre, the chorus, who had the role of commenting on the action unfolding on the stage, sometimes had a leader called acoryphaeus. Therefore, Lecoq would instruct his actors to imagine the stage was like a wobble board balanced on a central pivot, and that one of them was this coryphaeus. The coryphaeus was deemed to weight the same as the combined weight of the other actors, and would begin by standing next to the imaginary central pivot, with the other actors the same distance from it on the other side. The coryphaeus would then begin to move around and it was up to the other actors to counterbalance his weight by changing their positions, to prevent the stage from ‘tilting’.
Hot Staging
In hot staging, I combine the coryphaeus exercise and hot seating to create a technique where actors embody their characters as they learn about them, so that this knowledge becomes remembered not just by their minds but by their bodies. The actor being questioned is the coryphaeus, who then responds to the questions at a physical, as well as a mental, level, by how she positions herself in relation to the other actors. The other actors need instantly to respond to this by trying to counterbalance the coryphaeus’s weight. But what begins as a mathematical problem takes on a gripping, psychological dimension.
A Hot Staging Example: the Little Girl
Let's replay the previous example:
An actor is to play an eight-year-old girl. Someone asks: ‘What is your greatest fear?’ The actor replies:‘That I will be lost in a park and it’s getting dark and my mummy can’t find me.’
This time, however, the actor responds to that emotion of fear, and that fantasy of the dark park, physically as well. Since she is currently next to the central pivot, the other actors will also be huddled close to her. Does the girl find that comforting or intimidating? Does she try to get even closer? If she does, the other actors must also press in closer, until they are touching. Is that too much? Does she then pull away, causing the actors to move away as well, or does she clutch one of them? Does she see these actors as strangers, ghosts, familiar faces? If strangers, are they to be trusted?
From this, you can already glimpse the compelling dynamics that can be provoked, and how this can offer insights for all the actors. No-one can sit back, half-listening, as everybody has to be intently involved and ready to move. Each becomes aware of the power they have to shatter the pattern of actors on stage by even a change in physical posture or in the tone of their voice: perhaps an actor asks a question aggressively and provokes a violent reaction in the girl, which then causes a ripple effect through the other actors. Or perhaps the girl is running around playfully, causing the others to run too, and then a seemingly innocent question stops her - and therefore the other actors - in her tracks.
That innocent question might be about her favourite dinner. The girl freezes and then runs as far away as she can and hides, because perhaps the dinner table in her house is a place of terror. Now the other actors must also go to the far reaches of the stage, so the next question must be shouted over, with all intimacy lost.
After the Hot Staging
Afterwards, all the actors need to discuss what they experienced. Still stay standing, so that emotions can be demonstrated physically and earlier movements easily replayed. Has this given one of the actors a revelation about how his character might respond to the little girl character, about how their lives might cross?
Then he can be the next one up to take the role of the coryphaeus and explore who he is.
Copyright Catherine Rosario

Friday, 4 April 2014

2 May 1997 by Jack Thorne

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush walk through the Cross Hall of the White House before the start of their news conference, 2003 (photo taken by the US government).
Jack Thorne's play 2 May 1997 premiered at the Bush Theatre in London on 8 September 2009, directed by George Perrin. It is set on the night and morning that the British Labour party gets back into power, and explores the zeitgeist of the recent past through three stories that unfold as the voting progresses, with a nostalgic soundtrack of music from the late 1990s. Each of these tales is a two-hander taking place in and around a bed: first dying Tory MP Robert and wife Marie, then shy Lib Dem campaign supporter Ian back home from an election party with gate crasher Sarah, and finally A-level politics students and Tony Blair fans Will and Jake, waking up in the morning after crashing out in Jake's bed. 

While having only two people interacting on stage allows for a real intimacy, it does also bring limitations to the possible dynamics, although this is compensated for by a rich world of off-stage characters and also by Thorne's ability to create links between these couples who have never met each other. Sarah, for example, is roughly the same age and as similarly messed up as Robert and Maries' daughter, and precocious Jake is like a much younger version of Robert, at the start of his life, while Robert looks back over his own, with a certain bitter disappointment and awareness of how much he sacrificed his family life for politics. While the scenes take place almost simultaneously in time, the effect, therefore, is of watching a condensed three ages of man/woman.This linearity is reinforced by the bed which smoothly tracks across the stage as the action progresses. There are occasions when time and place are disrupted on stage by characters from other scenes still being on the bed when it now belongs to the next couple, but this could have perhaps been more fully exploited. For example as it was in Rufus Norris's production of Festen, where the audience saw two bedroom scenes acted out simultaneously in the same space. 

Jack Thorne would have been the age that his character Jake is in 1997, and this play appears to represent an attempt to understand life's trajectory, how an era is formed and how it comes to pass, and how the personal interacts with the political. In his exploration of this, Thorne succeeds in transforming the potentially stock scenarios of the long-suffering wife, the man who was almost great, the brittle vulnerability of casual sex, and the pain and confusion of adolescent desire into a searching piece of theatre.

Adorno and Horkheimer on the Enlightenment

Eine Mutter ├╝ber dem Kinderwagen ihrer Zwillinge im Tode
erstarrt, Dresden (photo by Richard Peter)

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment as the world around them was ravaged by World War II. Even before the war, Horkeimer and Adorno – both of Jewish descent – had already watched their own country of Germany destroyed from the inside by the vicious and insanely idealistic Nazi regime, and had left for the States in the 1930s. Their book, then, was written out of a deep sense of despair. It begins with the haunting words:
In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.
Here they were voicing what many others also could not help but see: the Enlightenment, which had been meant to lead us out of the darkness of the Middle Ages into an ever-brightening light of reason, intellect and freedom, had been too much for our still essentially primitive minds, and we had twisted its noble aims.The Enlightenment’s bi-products of technological inventiveness, scientific advances, fearsome organisational skills, and a blind determination to impose one’s own ‘rational’ will on others and achieve material wealth at whatever human or animal cost had created a toxic combination that led to brutal colonialism and imperialism and reached its climax with the horrors of the Holocaust.
The now-widespread use of film and photography meant the world was confronted by and could not escape the harrowing images of its own cruelty: the Nazi death camps, the blackened city of Dresden burnt skeletal by the allied bombing, and the terrifying literal erasure of humans in the allied nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in the epicentre left only their shadows. The phoenix that rose out of the ashes of this devastating war was a battered and bewildered creature.Those aligned to the centre of power had to review their unswerving beliefs in their own grand narratives. And in their weakness they were able to offer less resistance to those other, previously excluded voices, now demanding to be heard in both the realms of politics and art.
In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in his rallying speech to the nation, spoke of how Britain must defeat Adolf Hitler, or the world will ‘sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science’. This is a striking foreshadowing of the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer.However, less foresight is shown by Churchill when it comes to looking at the state of his own nation and its colonies, rather than at Germany, as he goes on to say that, ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour”', echoing the Nazis’ belief that their Third Reich would last a miillennium. It is now hard for us to re-enter this mindset of the 1940s, when it was still possible to believe that the Third Reich or even the British Empire could endure for another ten centuries.Hitler's Reich would last just five more years, and within a generation the British Empire would be dismantled and begin to be viewed in many quarters as a dark age itself, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science. A new era in the West had began.


Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. By John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997). This was first published in 1947.

How Brecht rejected both Stanislavski's naturalism and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

Model of  Design for Brecht's Mother Courage, Bert-Brecht-Haus,Augsburg, Germany (Photo Adam Jones) 
Bertolt Brecht adapted for the theatre the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's 1920s' concept of how literature works by making the familiar strange, defined as ostranenie or estrangement, so that we question what we have once perceived as unchanging, eternal truths. In his 1949 A Short Organum for the Theatre Brecht laid out the techniques needed to create this effect in the theatre, calling it Verfremdungseffekt, the alienation effect. Key was to break the illusion of reality provided by naturalist theatre, so the audience is aware that they are watching actors playing a part. No longer absorbed in emotional empathy for the characters and the need to learn their fate, the audience is then able to engage critically with what they watch.
Brecht called this form of theatre epic, referencing classical epics, where the action is told, rather than shown, and the various episodes are to some degree self-contained, forming a montage (e.g., the various discrete island adventures of Odysseus, told in non-chronological order in Homer's Odyssey), so the audience is not too distracted by a burning desire to know how it will all end. 
While naturalism, spearheaded by Konstantin Stanislavski, attempted to create a sense of events unfolding in a linear present, and Antonin Artaud sought an intense, visceral, timeless hyper-present, Brecht wanted to create a sense of calm perspective, of watching events from a detached point of view. For example, by having scene titles on banners on stage, sometimes even descriptions of what is about to happen, these events seem already past, thus puncturing suspense. Therefore, we can think of it as Artaud wanting to reach the audience at a gut level, Stanislavski wanted to engage with our hearts, and Brecht  with our heads, or our reason.
Brecht and his wife Helene Wiegel found sanctuary from Nazi Germany in the USA, but then left following Brecht's interrogation by the HUAC over his communist sympathies. Returning to Berlin in 1949, as the Soviet puppet state of the German Democratic Republic came into being, Wiegel and Brecht set up the state-run Berliner Ensemble, which still exists today, although since 1993 it has been privatised. This theatre company  has been enormously influential around the world, particularly as it toured extensively during the communist era.

Gabriel Kuri: Before Contingency After The Fact

Before Contingency After the Fact is Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri's first solo work in a London public gallery. It works in purely formal terms as an exploration of the sensual experience of hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness.
The lightness also echoes in the playfulness of many of the exhibits: a delicate, blown-up condom precariously supports the weight of an abstract metal form in Untitled (Extra Safe) and empty energy drink cans, with their suggestion of life-giving elixirs, are crushed by the serene dead weight of polished tomblike marble slabs in Untitled (Shelter)So it is through this lens of aesthetics and laughter that we view the dense political content of the exhibition.
Untitled (Shelter) is perhaps the most disconcerting of Kuri's installations. It appears to be laid out simultaneously for a comedy show and an abandoned religious ritual. Three squat female stone figures stand together: are they revered icons or something used to prop open a greenhouse door? The precisely lined-up matches, some burnt, some unburnt, are absurdly, childishly large but also sinister, with their Little Match Girl symbolism of a futile attempt to keep warm and evade death.
Propped against the wall, and enlarged to the same scale as the matches, are burnt, cut-up credit cards, their lines of numbers bubbling up like welts from their smooth, black skin. Now ridiculously unportable and impotent, their only function is to help clumsily de-mark a sorry little piece of territory, by creating a dark fence against the white gallery walls. 
Above the credit cards hang a pile of jackets, sweaters and shirts, so dense they form a round, sensuous, beatle-like shape. They appear abandoned, and such is their number that there is little hope of anyone returning and being able to retrieve their own garment.
Possessions that provide us with an identity - the card in our pocket with our name on that allows us to spend, to be, and then haunts our lives with debt, the clothes that declaim who we are - are here made anonymous and useless. Attempts to make a shelter, a little place to call one's own, are again rendered comically futile by the knee-high barriers used.
Kuri's exhibition as a whole perhaps suffers from - or maybe enjoys - an excess of meaning. His choice of artifacts have such a rich inner life that their significances are hard to contain. Like in Untitled (Platform), which has cigarettes and their rain of ash suspended in a slab of resin, next to other glass, stone and concrete slabs. The cigarettes are arranged as lovingly as a Victorian botanist might arrange a particularly interesting collection of burrowing insects that he has unearthed. But here we are again caving in under rampant significance. I look at the cigarettes butts and see death, desire, sex, waste, pollution, corruption.
I found it a relief to walk out into the bare courtyard garden at the back of the gallery and contemplate, or stare in exhaustion at, a solitary cherry tree. Its drifts of pink, brittle leaves banked up against black roots had a gentle, distilled, haiku-like clarity. I thought again about Kuri's work and saw that it does aesthetically have this nature-like simplicity of form. Perhaps, then, it achieves its effect by colliding formal beauty with an over-burdened, anarchic content.