quotes in this post are taken from company websites

Feels like ages since I last dissed Shakespeare. As ardent readers of this journal may have noticed, I have no time for the fellow and consider him directly responsible for the complacently novelistic condition of much British mainstream theatre. (Yes, I know it doesn’t follow but it does when you hear my argument about it which I can’t be bothered to rehearse here because it’ll slow me up.) globe.jpgNevertheless, we took our girls to his theatre the other day, to see Footsbarn do ‘A Shakespeare Party’. It’s not uninteresting going into the Globe because you succumb to the feeling that ‘this is how it was’ quite readily and find yourself studying the joinery with an uncharacteristic intentness. I was also surprised to find myself wondering about Elizabethan Health & Safety sensibilities (fairly rudimentary) and the extent to which the architects of Globe II had to accommodate the current mildly hystericised concern about such matters. There is, I’m sure, an easily obtained illustrated booklet that would lay my curiosity to rest. Stout modern handrails are in evidence.
globeseats.jpgAnd it’s nice sitting up in the Upper Gallery, despite the price. Not only does the tiered globularity enable good views of the stage but you can study all the other tiers and the groundlings (a fiver) at your leisure. At first I rather sweetly thought that this emblematised some sort of olden days egalitarianism but then I corrected myself: wherever you sit (or stand) you can see who can afford what and assess precisely how much better or worse their view is than yours. You know where you are. In our seats, in fact, the view of the audience was excellent and that of the stage okay. I didn’t mind this.
Then the show started. But first some context (from The Guardian article by Lyn Gardner here): ‘It is a quarter of a century since Footsbarn was resident in the UK, but its name has passed into theatrical legend as a once-great British company that we somehow allowed to get away. Now based in a farmhouse in the Auvergne region of France, where its members dream of founding a theatre school, the company grew out of a meeting between student actors Oliver Foot and John Paul Cook at Goddard College in the US, a college with a strong tradition in radical theatre, at the end of the 1960s. Back in Foot’s native Cornwall in 1971, the pair set up Footsbarn (taking its name from the barn owned by Foot’s family, where the company initially lived and worked) and travelled around the south-west, setting up a tent on Cornish cliffs and Somerset village greens, and putting on theatre for local people.’
foots1.jpg‘The company’s aesthetic was make-and-do; a magpie approach using found materials and alighting on anything its members admired in the work of theatre-makers from Grotowski to Brook. Its pick-and-mix bag of styles appealed to new audiences. In the words of company member Paddy Hayter, who joined Footsbarn soon after it started and never left, bringing up his children on the road: “We share a performance with the audience, rather than perform it for them.” When (the Globe Theatre’s artistic director Dominic) Dromgoole caught a performance of Hamlet in Somerset in the late 1970s, the audience were so enjoying the grave-digger scene played by clowns that it went on for more than 20 minutes. Dromgoole remarked on this to a company member. “This is nothing,” he replied. “You should have been here last night. It lasted an hour, and the audience still didn’t want it to stop.”‘
There are a number of British alternative performance companies who have made their bases either in the countryside or small towns. Forkbeard Fantasy, for example, have been based in the depths of Devon since 1974 and appear entirely indifferent to urban allure. Welfare State International, founded in 1968, settled for much of their performing life in Cumbria, while I.O.U Theatre, which broke away from Welfare State in 1976, are based in Halifax in West Yorkshire.
lantern.jpgWith the exception of Forkbeard Fantasy, whose work has a fevered, zany quality that sets it apart from the others, the groups produce work that, in the words of John Fox and Sue Gill, founders of Welfare State, situates them in the ‘celebratory arts movement’. Fox and Gill devised ‘fire festivals, lantern parades, rites of passage, community carnivals and site-specific theatre’.
iou.jpgIn 2003, I.O.U, who often work with ‘giant mechanical props’, presented ‘Tattoo’ in which ‘A fuming army of petrol driven insects are in erratic pursuit of a monstrous mechanical egg factory. Venting gooey foam along the way, this towering structure ambles through the audience attempting to keep its precious crop from the clutches of the marauding swarm.’ The work of both groups is often spectacular in scale and in detail, features bizarre structures, grotesque costumes, masks and make-up and presents audiences with work that, at its best, is startling, intensely imagistic and, importantly, demonstrates that ‘celebration’ need not be civic or even especially wholesome.
The celebratory qualities of Footsbarn involve ‘transcending the barrier of language with its unique blend of visual theatre, music and magic.’ The company focuses on the work of Shakespeare and Moliere and has performed much of its work in its own circus big tops. ‘A Shakespeare Party’ features highlights from, among others, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, strung together in a loose but festive manner. The festive manner consistently grates and exemplifies some of the fundamental flaws in what could be called the ‘sunny side’ of the celebratory arts movement.
It would be naive to assume that when playing happy characters on stage, actors themselves are happy. We are also familiar with the assumption that Cheerful Charlie Chuckles, the widely admired comic entertainer, is himself a fount of irrepressible joy around the house. We know, in fact, that Charlie is often a morose sot who comes to life on stage and does a good job. smiley.jpgThe problem with ‘sunny side celebration’, as profiled above, is that we are expected to believe that, unlike those who merely perform jollity, sunny side celebrants are actually jolly and, when they lay aside their ribbons, bladders, confetti and amusing bottoms at the end of a hard day’s capering, continue to celebrate, possibly in a slightly lower key, the very fact of being alive.
The idea that there is something to celebrate, above and beyond weddings, betrothals, comings of age etc holds, unlike the bladder, little water. I recall being told, almost on a daily basis, throughout the 60s, that there was a level of consciousness, within us all, akin to bliss. While I have no problem with the idea that we are all potential ecstatics – trainspotters, for example, have mastered the acquisition of this unnecessarily occulted condition – we should not confuse ecstasy with bliss. Ecstasy is a satisfying state based on the elimination of diverting stimuli by absorption into a single, fixating stimulus, as avid television watchers have discovered. Bliss seems to be, according to its fans, a state that is simply there, if only you could get to it. Whether it’s out there or in there is a matter of resistible debate.
So to get into bliss what you have to do is strip away all the layers of shit that prevent you getting into it. It’s not an unattractive idea. The trouble is it can’t be done. It’s possible that certain strong drugs or ritual privations might momentarily reveal glimpses of something very bright and extremely cheerful but this is a minority practice requiring a dedicated lifestyle. Most people seek out diversions that work okay for them. If it works it’s a psychological achievement, not a mythological transformation. It tends not to last, which is a bummer.
Sunny side celebrants are fundamentally irritating because their colourful jollifying suggests a permanently open line to that which is celebratable. When these people take off their wigs they’re still clowns! When they brush their teeth they’re celebrating the rhythms and sensuality of the operation! Even when they’re not happy they are happy!
The sunny siders move through the masses of the morose purporting to engage them in ways which will facilitate the casting-off of time-based sorrow. Gazing around the audience from my perch in the Upper Gallery of the Globe I thought I could see a simultaneous engagedness and quizzicality on many faces. A common expression involved a fixed smile that would indicate enjoyment were it more mobile and an anxious tension around the eyes suggesting the difficulty associated with the need to withstand the torrential effusiveness. I’m not suggesting that the audience members were uptight bastards incapable of having a good time, far from it. It’s just tricky, not to say burdensome, regressing yourself to the nursery level that might enable you to identify with the jollity.
When, after capering through the groundling audience playing olden days musical instruments, members of the cast present an enactment of the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ playlet from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the Footsbarn aesthetic reaches its limits. The excerpt is presented as broad slapstick with yokel vocals and much clown-based bottomwork. At one point a bumpkin sticks a sword up another bumpkin’s arse, pulls it out then sniffs it disgustedly. I thought this wasn’t too bad – clowning, after all, derives great energy from re-presenting highlights from toilet training and, in the classic spilt paint/thrown water set-pieces of the family circus, ventilates the tensions implicit in the lifelong maintenance of a suite of highly trained sphincter muscles.
The problem is that if Elizabethan humour was relatively coarse and Footsbarn wish to make, so to speak, a stab at it, then they have to accommodate their audience’s disaffection with its lack of sophistication. Again, I’m not suggesting that sophisticates don’t laugh at toilet humour but that they like their toilet humour presented within a contemporary aesthetic rather than framed by the paradoxically wholesome didactic project of ‘taking a journey into Shakespeare’s world’. In brief: Shakespeare’s humour has been shit for a long time and nothing can be done about it. About the only recourse left to a director is to entrust the comedic episodes to exceptionally skilled comic actors who might compensate for the obsolete text and its mirthless situations by the application of inordinate amounts of energy. foots2.jpgThere are a number of very assured comic actors in the Footsbarn ensemble but the company is, nevertheless, caught between two stools (cheeky!): the tendency to modernise runs up against the fact that the ‘comic’ (and proto-celebratory) texts are intractable and insufferable while the heritage industry invitation to the ‘Late Medieval World’ theme park, if it features ‘authenticity’ achieved by the minimising of sophistication, risks alienating most adults and many children.
The jollity at the Globe was reminiscent of the mania of disc-jockeys. The late and lamented John Peel – himself an exemplar of non-sunny side genial moroseness – used to tell the tale of his employment, at the beginning of his career, by a Dallas radio station whose management requested that, while on air, he speak ‘with a laugh in his voice’. Peel’s anecdote, aired more than once on Radio 1, would culminate with a pleasing demonstration of this jollified vocalisation. His colleagues were largely not sensible of the possibility that Peel’s critique applied very much to themselves and their crazed cheeriness. Radio DJ celebratory speaking styles suggest nothing so much as panic and anxiety, given that it is not possible to locate the celebratable on a 24 hour basis.
Sunny siders, despite their justifiable antipathy to straight show business culture, are purveyors, ultimately, of depression. Celebratory art, when disconnected from august occasions, generates and – can one say this unglibly? – celebrates depression. Only the depressed would wish to display their mania vocationally. Their witnesses are drawn into unwilling reciprocation: the injunction to be up is a downer.

Lots: Episode 3

This post is in a series: please start at Episode 1

Let my imagination go. Uhuh. Roger was very likeable and I was flattered by his view that the eccentric work of Lumiere & Son – or something like it – would be viable in the centricity of BBCTV. I would pull out all the stops on this one. I would go where I had not gone before. I had long been irritated – as suggested from time to time throughout Strength Weekly – by the received wisdoms of playwriting, especially those which asserted the primacy of well rounded character, credible dialogue and a good story. While, as a consumer, I was often content to savour the accomplishments of playwrights, screenwriters and novelists who had no axe to grind with regard to these matters, when it came to producing my own stuff I was hardcore and became increasingly so as the years went by.
I mused on the notion of just how much could be removed from performance before it vanished. Peter Brook, of course, had said “A man walks across an empty space, whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” but it’s not really a night out, is it? Besides, I wasn’t a minimalist, I wanted busy, fast, imagistic theatre.
Then it came to me. One of the wisdoms was that drama could not exist without conflict. Who said? And how dare they? I would write a (television) drama without conflict. I would open the screenplay with some characters facing an insurmountable problem which they would proceed to surmount without developing as characters. Having removed the plot engine about a quarter of the way in I would then guide the characters – the detectives Jean and Max and their client Anna – through a series of situations that delivered modest challenges which were almost immediately resolved for no reason connected either to the nature of the principals or their efforts or some mysterious yet beneficent quality of the phenomenal world. Shit, then, would just happen.
As I noted this down I began to realise that this was what Britain was waiting for: thanks to the perspicacity of Roger, a young 39 year old playwright would storm the small screens of the country with his moreish avant-gardism and quite quickly find a snug abode in the nation’s hearts. He (I) would become the Bleasdale of the New Bleak, the uncompromising author of works of hilarious sad violent beauty that eschewed irritating wisdoms.
Fortunately I have always been calm in the face of heck and was able, despite my dizzying prospects, to continue applying myself to the compositional task. I decided that not only would conflict be removed wheresoever it arose but that the characters would move backwards through time because, as everybody knows, the olden days were so much better in all ways except for medical science in particular anaesthetics. As scenes progressed, the characters’ costumes would regress through the styles of the centuries. Not only that, I decided, but – following my own insistent logic – the species would travel backwards to its origins in the Garden of Eden after which the women would disappear into the mens’ bodies via a wound appearing just below the site of their sixth rib.
Episode 4: The draft is borne into the world. It makes an impression on representatives of the BBC.

Lots: Episode I

I’m in the front room of Hilary’s old house, which she is probably going to sell. All around the walls, on shelves, in boxes, cabinets and crates she has stashed a great archive of the papers of Lumiere & Son, the theatre company we ran together from 1972 to 1992 when the still Thatcherised Arts Council withdrew our grant in response to our failure to attract large audiences. The V&A want the archive so we’re meeting to determine if there are any items that should be retained by us for any reason.
“Would you want this sort of thing?” Hilary says, reaching for an old folder. She opens it up and I can see some foolscap scripts secured with black plastic spines. She holds up a script. On the cover it says “Lots – a television play by David Gale”. I am staggered. My eyes fill with tears. “Lots! Lots?! My God!”
It is necessary to scroll up to 1983. A man called Roger contacted me. He was a producer from the BBC, had seen some of Lumiere’s work and wondered whether I would like to write a play for television. I was pleased to take on the commission that would make me a household name and, after my agent had fixed things up, I sat down at my typewriter in an abandoned house on the edge of Bath, amongst other places, and began wondering what I might dramatise for the nation. Roger had said “Just let your imagination go, David.” Right, then. I was drawn to a couple of characters I had come up with for a 1979 Lumiere play called ‘Jean Pool’. Max Cope and Jean Pool were private detectives – Max tending to the terse and pragmatic and Jean abstractedly to the abstract. I thought I had a good thing going between them and so would revive them for TV.
Given that the tale I will unfold is of enormous personal significance – yet of little public moment – I think I will serialise it. It needs a bit of care and attention and I don’t want to try to get it all down in one go. Also Morrissey is on ‘Later’ and I want to see Vivienne Westwood on Jonathan Ross.

Set Pieces

I shall carry the images to my grave. In one of the two shows I’ve written and directed for presentation at Wimbledon College of Art this week (previewed here), the designers proposed a set, described in the playlet text here, the walls of which were built to be leaped through. Large, thin, rectangular sheets of polystyrene were papered with wallpaper then mounted in frames between a series of doors. The walls thus formed looked entirely solid. The audience had no clue as to their fragility. Two minutes from the end of the show, which had featured a great deal of dashing in and out, farce-style, of six doors, the actors played a scene behind the set, not visible to the audience, who could only hear their voices. A dangerous situation requiring instant escape arises…
But first, the prototyping. In a rehearsal and building process which compresses two weeks’ work into three days, it became necessary to see just what might happen when an actor took a run and jump at a wall. jude.jpgWe ran a scene back to the top so that the designated jumper, Jude Barrington, could arrive at the wall with the full weight of the drama behind her. The production team stood back to watch the test. At the appropriate moment, Jude dove through, from frontstage to back. With a satisfying crack, the wall gave, leaving a gaping hole through which one could see an actress slowing down. All present cheered and clapped.
By the following day it had been decided that rather than jumping through the wall away from the audience, the actors would jump towards the audience. Michael Pavelka, supervising the designers, had suggested loading the backs of the exploding panels with cement powder, which would hang cloudily in the air as the wall exploded. In the dress rehearsal the office scene is enacted and a dangerous situation requiring instant escape arises. The air is rent with twin explosions and the empty fore stage is suddenly littered with chunks and graced with the spectacle of two figures dancing fiercely to the pounding strains of Novaspace’s mix of ‘Beds Are Burning’. The actresses have gone through. A second later the centre panel blasts apart, sundered by the flying body of Chris Newland, who, as soon as his feet hit the ground, starts dancing. Fade to black.
Not bad – could be better. The panel on audience right has not shattered because Katie Roberts – who didn’t get a test dive because we were low on polystyrene – ran at it without putting her arms up, thereby pushing it aside rather than wrecking it. This is discussed and arm positions are demonstrated. The crew has twenty minutes to install fresh, pre-papered panels. Two hours later ‘In the Bosom of Roy’ is under way with a packed house rammed right up to the very edge of the stage. A dangerous situation requiring instant escape arises. A deafening and utterly startling explosion delivers, almost into the laps of the front row, two actresses, hazed around with dust, dancing in front of two gaping, Tom and Jerry-style black holes. To the further astonishment of the audience, Chris hurtles out a moment later and the cast dances dementedly in the debris of the formerly pristine set.

I, Healer

It’s that time of year when I write two plays in four days and rehearse each one for eight hours. This is the annual performance project at Wimbledon College of Art, where I teach, from time to time, in the Theatre School, which delivers one of the most respected theatre and screen design courses in the country. I have written about my endeavours there before in Strength Weekly. Working with the design students is an annual lark with an extremely permissive writing brief and a design team that invariably rises to the occasion with great energy and imagination.
When I write performances for a paying public – outside the haven of Wimbledon – I feel a certain caution with regard to matters of coherence. I have no desire to be utterly incoherent but I am very absorbed in the possibilities of experimenting with the conventions and established forms of theatre and this, in turn, can lead to the production of unfamiliar forms. My plays generally have rather slender narratives and are barely concerned with story-telling. My characters lack character though I like to think they are replete with psychology. When the opportunity arises to play to an in-house audience I feel I can push these aspects further and test their limits.
At the moment I find myself drifting steadily further and further away from even the most tenuous narrrative continuity. I get irritated when I read, transcribed from the volubilities of an earnest playwright, that ‘story-telling is a healing process’. Why would you want to be healed? Nobody else is. Furthermore, if it does work, how long does it last? Two days? Then you have to see another one. I’ll stop there before I go off on one.
The idea that, in a world of rubble, theatre has an ‘urgent duty’ to shape and articulate ‘as never before’ is hopelessly redundant. All I want to do is make work that takes note of the irreversible fractures and reflects them, possibly offering a modicum of poignancy in the process. It’s much too late for instructive and consolatory models. Oops, I went off on one.
Anyway, since the fall of the Towers, the rise of consumerised psychic deracination, the consolidation of permanent war (this book is excellent on the latter) and the rapid descent into the shitter of all known ecological systems, I have felt a strong desire to write shows that, at the level of what you see and hear, are as disconnected as a snake over which a railway train has recently passed.
The idea that you might write a scene in which some people want something then either get it or do not get it strikes me as luxurious. Surely it makes more sense, in the sense of not making sense because it’s not an appropriate response anymore, to write a scene in which some people want something then some other people come in and start something that has nothing remotely to do with the first people’s desires or fears, to the extent that the first people go away and you never see them again. Now that’s what I call theatre.
This is all very well, I am finding. It’s very hard to shake off the temptation to make one scene somehow modify the one before it and set up, in a coherent way, expectations for its successor. One of the delicious playlets I have just written, ‘In the Bosom of Roy’, was intended to be as connected as a rat and a raincoat, to the extent that I started writing deliberately at great speed without planning, piling up short scenes that, I thought, were as complementary as syndiotactic polypropylene and Celine Dion. Then damn me, on an interim read through, if I didn’t find I’d written a story but with the scenes in the wrong order. Having noticed this I was subsequently unable to resist completing the story so that all the people in it who wanted something did or didn’t get it. Blimey. Clearly, the West End beckons.