For catch-ups on last year’s visual arts go here and films here. (...and if anyone’s wondering, theatre and gigs go together because they’re both fundamentally live experiences, and not because they were the last two left!)
Though I’m normally not quite as bad at attending the theatre as I am writing about it, I’d concede that I’m not exactly good at it. However, I did manage to see more things this year – principally because of an arrangement where National Theatre plays are transmitted live in Brighton’s Duke of Yorks cinema. (And in many other places round the world, check their website to see if anything’s going on near you.)
Through this, I saw and enjoyed ’The Cherry Orchard’, Danny Boyle’s quite splendid version of ’Frankenstein’ and ’Collaborators’ - a new play by John Hodge riffing on Stalin’s encounters with Bulgakov. Hodge’s play was a good example of how an artwork can be good in itself, yet also be entirely politically reactionary.
Of course, the last thing we would want is a pro-Stalinist play, but at the same time we’re used to Stalinism as a stick. It’s like we’re supposed to believe in some binary choice between the world exactly as it is now or dying in some gulag. Hodge went out of his way to contrast RP-speaking aristos against proley revolutionaries. (Stalin himself was given a South-Western accent, and everyone had a similar variant.) The ‘problem’ of the revolution was therefore not that a gangster group seized their chance to usurp power, but that the toffs-on-top natural order was reversed.
The most absurd moment must surely be when we hear the peasants had their entire harvest stolen by Stalin’s troops. All true of course, yet we’re told this by a tearful landed gent, as if they had all been treated indulgently under feudalism. Admittedly, the theme of the play is a narrower one of man-meets-devil (in itself done very well) rather than a general comment about the Russian revolution, yet even so this ludicrous toss shouldn’t go by uncommented. Simultaneously a great play and risible.
Speaking of Stalinist Russia, I also saw ’Dying For It’, a new translation of Nikolai Erdman’s celebrated ’The Suicide.’ The play’s both famous for its quality and notorious for being banned. (Erdman had the bad luck of attempting to stage it in ’28, just as Stalin took power.)
Watching it today it seems less anti-Soviet than anti-ideological, you could almost call it post-structuralist if that term had existed when it was written. When a young, unemployed man contemplates suicide every social group (from the workers to the intelligensia) attempts to claim his act for their own dogma, despite his motives clearly being tawdrily personal. Perhaps that defence would have cut little ice with Stalin!
It was only let down by the semi-professional production. The acting ranged from the very good to the plain old wooden, which unfortunately can make for the worst of both worlds. If all the acting is poor you tend to adjust to it, like listening to a singer who can’t really sing. Unfortunately, some good acting will only draw attention to the bad.
Perhaps out of some subconscious perversity, I managed to go to Shakespeare’s Globe twice without seeing a single Shakespeare play! Instead I took in Marlowe’s ’Doctor Faustus’, followed by ’The Globe Mysteries.’ (A new version of the Bible stories staged in Medieval times by different groups of workmen, the “mystery” in the title coming from an alternate name for guilds.) Alone of the above, these two I did intend writing about...
Much of the appeal of the Mystery Plays is in their reductiveness, in their telling cosmogenic stories in ways which fits the conventions and limitations of the stage at the time. God, for example, is presented as the Guv’nor. Of course all but the dimmest contemporary audience member knew that God didn’t really have human form, any more than a shed is really Noah’s Ark or a blue sheet the flood. A dramatic device is simply being used to represent him. Nevertheless, the play recreates creation time when the Bible stories were thought of as historical events.
It seems significant that characters not only address the audience, but interact with it and even climb down into it. (When Judas introduces himself we boo, like we’re at the panto.) The actors are there to demonstrate something to us, not convey some illusion of depth. Lucifer, for example, rebels against God simply because that is what he does in the story.
By Shakespeare, we have a stage full of metaphor and ambiguity – all of which rests upon the development of character psychology. To take the (upcoming) example of Macbeth, when he sees a dagger before him the whole scene is predicated on our understanding the dagger is not there, it’s merely a projection of his guilt.
Though Marlowe’s life was roughly contemporary with Shakespeare, his ’Doctor Faustus’ struck me as transitional between these two. You could call it Marlowe’s ’Hamlet’ as it’s based around the indecision of the central character. Like Hamlet, Faustus doesn’t address the audience but soliloquises - thinking aloud that we might hear. He could easily be seen as a sympathetic figure, not hungry for worldly things but for knowledge, Renaissance man bumping frustratedly into the confines of his world.
Yet the spirits and demons conjured up by his cursed bargain inhabit some transitional space between physical beings and projections of his psychology. The “good and evil angel”, frequently rushing on stage to dramatise his conflict, are presumably no more than embodiments of his mind. However Mephistophilis can, when it suits him, be seen by other characters, and even confesses to slyly manipulating events before he first appears. This makes him a character in his own right, not a creation of Faustus’ mind but a demon who was standing waiting somewhere before he was summoned.
And yet at the same time, he insists Hell is not a place at all but instead a state:
“Hell has no limits, nor is circumscrib’d
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is there must we ever be.”
Perhaps more crucially, Hamlet’s conflict is over his course of action. Yet Faustus signs away his soul early in the play. After that, his endless pontificating is rather after the fact, like a man wondering whether he should have jumped from the twelfth floor as he passes the seventh. Nor does he seem corrupted by his worldly knowledge, he just carries his conflict with him as the play crawls to its fated conclusion. Instead of development it is structured around set-pieces, such as the dramatic appearance of the Seven Deadly Sins, many involving acrobatics and visual pyrotechnics.
Yet what, on the page, makes the play sound stuck at some mid-point, may be precisely what makes it enjoyable to actually watch. It has the vibrancy of the stilt-walking demons, dramatically parading the stage in their animal-skull masks. Yet it is more than a mere show, or demonstration of a moral, for we sense a character (however sketchily) at the centre of it all. The two traditions, show and play, may not logically fit together, but like plugging together two incompatible devices they create a lot of sparks.
After not seeing any Shakespeare at the theatre specifically dedicated to him, I did take in Platform 4’s version of ‘Macbeth’. Taking advantage of the intimate confines of Brighton Pavilion Theatre, they employed minimal props and a dark ambient soundtrack to play up the crucial claustrophobia of the play. It was only marred by a weak performance in the (somewhat central) role of Lady Macbeth.
Somehow the one thing I do seem to have managed to write about is gigs. (Even managing to fit in things I didn't go to - not quite sure what the logic is there!) Let’s get started on the few exceptions...
As a kind of very early Colour Out of Space warm-up (seeing as it was in January, and the main event November), Primate Arena was staged in Coachwerks. Israeli artists Eran Sachs and Alex Drool performed with local boys from Blood Stereo and Bolide Awkwestra. This was about as enjoyable as it was indescribable, but fortunately there’s a YouTube clip...
(Incidentally I am still intending to write something about Colour Out of Space itself, hopelessly out-of-date as it may be.)
I took in one night of the Soundwaves festival, at the never-before-used venue of Brighton Town Hall. (Imposingly grand and Victorian, if you’ve never seen it.) This was full of good ideas which frankly didn’t come off very often, but I suppose it’s better to have fought and lost...
I saw both Acid Mothers Temple and Wire again, both of which I’ve written about before. (AMT here, Wire not since Ye Olde Print Days.) Here’s something from the AMT gig, complete with craaaaazy light show...
...and, in what couldn’t be more of a contrast if I was trying, Wire going through their paces...
Despite seeing the O’Neill brothers many times as (the massively under-rated) That Petrol Emotion, this year was the first time I ever saw the Undertones. It was very much a back-to-basics set, playing the first album in entirety. New singer Paul McLoone is a great frontman, my only possible quibble would be that he (and the band) are perhaps a little too polished and accomplished for songs about the fumbling awkwardness of adolescence. I did like the way they didn’t save this number for the closer, but audaciously dropped it in the middle of the set...
I even had a ticket to see Death in Vegas the next night, but alas was beset by the lurgee by then and unable to attend. They sounded something like this, I would imagine.
Late addition! For some reason, mostly likely connected to foolishness, I forgot to include any mention of 'Faster Than Sound: Brainwaves' an evening of music inspired by MRI scans featuring Mira Calix and Anna Meredith. Not sure absolutely everything worked but the highlights were high and, with it's instillation pieces in the audience and such, it felt very much like a special event.
Still later addition! For some reason, my aged noggin skipped over one of my favourite gigs of the year - Chumbawamba at the Ropetackle Centre in Shoreham. This was not only the first time I'd seen the stripped down/ acoustic version of the band, but the first time I'd seen them since the Nineties! Once one of my favourite bands, I kind of went off them after 'Anarchy' (for reasons unconnected to the infamous-for-some EMI signing), but this new version were kind of quietly resplendent! It's cool the way they can ceaselessly morph without ever conforming.
It made for a Chumbawamba-themed couple of days, as the night before the Cowley Club had shown their docu (the splendidly titled 'Well Done, Now Sod Off!' and Boff (no longer an active member) had given a talk.
Couldn't find anything from the gig YouTube-wise, but this (from Cologne) was a number they performed. Joe Strummer's 'Bank Robber', from those quaint old days where we still imagined it was people who robbed banks...
Coming soon! Let’s hear it for the out-of-date stuff...