Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The National Portfolio

After all the tension, the phone calls and emails started to fly around at 7.30 this morning. The Arts Council hasn't exactly had an easy task on its hands; and probably did quite a good job of cutting down the number of RFOs without simply slashing everybody in sight. The National Portfolio is published online, but of course this only says who got money (including all the usual suspects, with their varying levels of cuts). The headline figures are that 849 RFOs have been reduced to 695 - but 110 of these are new, which means that 264 organisations must have been axed completely. Well done the 110 new clients. We weren't one of them.

I've yet to talk to ACE about this, but I can predict from the written report what they will say. They reported that we were "Good" in every area - but "the budget is limited". Well, of course that's true - but it wasn't too limited to fund some other people, so we do need to know a bit more.... I'll let you know what they say!

On a nicer topic, I saw Peter Brook's A Magic Flute at the Barbican last week. It's had quite a mixed press - and you can see why, especially with regard to the singing. But it's an incredibly winning performance, especially if you happen to be sitting in the front row, which I was. All the bombast and vast scale of most opera has gone - this is a chamber show with a piano, and so becomes very subtle, human, and delicate. Brook doesn't look for "readings" or "interpretations" (which is something I probably would do). Instead, you get the sense of an elder of the theatre returning to a childlike delight in the simplicity of fable and fairytale. It is, in every sense, enchanting.

Brook has long been famous for his work on magical pieces, of course (A Midsummer Night's Dream is the stuff of legend). As in that production and his Tempest, the theatrical magic is in the hands of anonymous spirits, who employ circus tricks and the rough magic of theatrical honesty to make the performance happen and the story move forward. It's all about the audience investing totally in the show.

It's also one in a series of productions Brook has done of late, great works: The Tempest, The Cherry Orchard. As he's now 86 himself, you can't help feeling that this is in some way about signing off. So the fact that what may well be his last project is a late piece by somebody who dies aged 35 is very touching. As I said, it's childlike. Direct and simple magic.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Changing the World

Tuesday night saw the first Routledge / Stanislavski Centre Lecture at Rose Bruford. It was given by Anatoly Smeliansky, who is Dean of the Moscow Art Theatre School, and Associate Director of the MAT itself. So he has a bit of a direct line to Stanislavski - though he was at pains to point out that Stalin and Co. represent quite a gulf between modern Russia and the great man.

Anatoly is a dramaturg - that central figure of European theatre who you hardly ever encounter in Britain - and so he has been on the scene for many of the great events of Russian theatrical history, without taking part in them directly. It gives him the critical distance and ironic voice of the great raconteur. He seems genuinely to believe that all the main events in Russian history somehow happen in the MAT before they happen outside. The obvious case is Chekhov's prophecy of the Revolution in The Cherry Orchard - but his more recent anecdote is better. When Gorbachev came to power, he came to see Uncle Vanya. This in itself was odd, since most Soviet leaders only watched propaganda pieces. Gorbachev phoned the director the next day, and Anatoly was in the office. The discussion was about the actors, using their first names, about the play and how moving it was.... and at the end, the director put down the phone and said to Anatoly "Russia is about to change". And, as we know, it did.

Sometimes the world changes from below. I went yesterday to a workshop on Ethics in Participatory Theatre, run by Frances Rifkin for the Arts Council. Joel and Gabrielle from Polygon came too, and there were some very interesting and experienced people from other companies like Theatre Is... Spare Tyre and London Bubble. There seemed to be a bit of a movement towards establishing some sort of ethical code for practitioners - rather like nurses or therapists have. I'm not sure I'm convinced about that. The conversations through the day seemed to me to suggest that we live in an ethical minefield, and that every case has to be taken on its merits, with a huge awareness of political, social and cultural context.

Monday, March 14, 2011


The National Theatre's production of Frankenstein has been given some of the best reviews I've seen in years, and is a massive sell-out hit. So I was a bit surprised to find that it's not really all it's cracked up to be.

Benedict Cumberbatch was the Creature on Saturday, and he was undoubtedly brilliant. The opening scene, in which he emerges from a womb-like drum into life, was a tour de force. But the world into which he emerged was basically a series of effects from the National's massive budget, with nods at Les Mis in the form of snarling 19th century prostitutes. There was even a train. Not that I'm one to object to visual flamboyance in the theatre - but it needs to be done with a sense of meaning, and not just for show.

The crux of Mary Shelley's novel is the character of Frankenstein himself, the Modern Prometheus, and the question as to why he should create life, only to abandon it. In this production, for all the gimmick of the leading actors swapping roles, the character became a cipher, only of interest to the director and playwright in so far as he encounters the Creature. But without Frankenstein's urge to create, there is no Creature - so why should we care?

Heresy, I know.....

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


I've been on a semi-sabbatical from Border Crossings over the last few weeks (although I've still been having to do the financial reports for the EU through the evenings and weekends....), with Lance looking after the office and fundraising. I've been in rehearsals for Howard Barker's play The Europeans, which opened last night at the Unicorn. It's a final year student production for Rose Bruford - so it only plays four performances - two more today and one tomorrow afternoon. Which is a shame after five weeks of very intense rehearsals!

I've enjoyed working on the play very much - partly because the students are terrific, and partly because the text is fascinating. It's the second Barker I've done - the previous one was Victory, also at Bruford. In each case I've found that it feels horribly obscure when you first read it, but yields more and more depth, humour and energy as you go on. The Europeans is set against the background of the Siege of Vienna - so it's about a war between the Western powers and Islam... which is pretty relevant to us at the moment.... So we've found ways of setting the piece simultaneously in the 17th century and right now. Somehow it doesn't seem to jar at all.

The Unicorn is a wonderful space. The auditorium curves around a quite intimate downstage area, and then there is a huge open space behind. This means we can make some scenes very intense and others incredibly epic. It's as if the space breathes, moving between the public and the private. Like the Greek theatres.

Tony came last night, as did Carissa, and they both seemed to enjoy themselves! I also got to meet Gerrard McArthur, who is Associate Director of The Wrestling School. he said we had really found the style which Barker's work demands. So that was nice....