Rewriting the Nation, British Theatre Today by Alex Sierz – Review

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On my recent holiday, one of the books (I’ve not got a Kindle or iPad, old school I know) I took was the above. Alex Sierz book In Yer Face Theatre, is the definitive book looking at British theatre in the nineties. I was hoping his latest book would fill a similar need to look back and comment on the “noughties “, which has been a varied and interesting decade for British theatre.

He starts out with an informative introduction, and a chapter on the context of modern British theatre, which is very helpful. Then he leads us into his personal definitions of “New Writing”. It’s his book and so it’s really helpful that he so clearly sets out his understandings and definitions. Personally I’m not sure I’d agree with what I feel is his narrow definition of new writing. For example he decides that plays writing about history are not “new writing”. I also totally disagree with his views on Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, there WERE (and perhaps still are!) schools like that. My own grammar school being a point in case. I had a lecture with Alex Sierz at a college study weekend a while ago and remember chatting to him there regarding new writing, I’ll certainly have some more to discuss with him the next time.

Even if you don’t agree with his definition of new writing, I commend him for stating it clearly and can understand his reasons. It also helps to keep the book focused rather than getting too unwieldly.

Part two covers various themes in British theatre over the last 10 years; Globalisation, Market Forces, Class divides, Relationships, Sexuality and an illuminating chapter on plays that look at our world from alternative realities. This part is superb, with references to an amazing gamut of plays, Alex Sierz draws out themes, observations and comments and gives a brilliant “birds eye view” of what British Theatre has been doing and saying over the last ten years.

My only gripe is his incessant praise and sycophantic comments on Martin Crimp, Mark Ravenhill and Philip Ridley. On reading yet another sentence about how brilliant they are, I wanted to scream “Ok, I get it, you like them!”. However I really don’t think he offers any grounding as to why they are so “good”. admittedly I’m biased as I don’t think their work is very good (although I agree with Alex Sierz on Caryl Churchill – my own views on her work changing in the last 12 months, and Sarah Kane). Unfortunately I feel a book like this will only continue to propagate the idea that this trinity of Crimp/Ravenhill/Ridley are the greatest British playwrights. It’s Alex Sierz book and he’s entitled to his views obviously, but I felt too often the book read as a tract promoting them to the expense of other British playwrights.

I really loved the conclusion where he again skillfully gives us an overview of what British theatre has been saying and I was struck how he also points out what it HAS NOT been saying. I found this very refreshing, as he points out, there may well have been right-wing playwrights who’ve written plays, but as the ethos of the major producing theatres is liberal/left-wing, perhaps the British theatre world is self censoring itself? I too agree that it seems odd that certain themes or views on them appear to be absent from British theatre during the last 10 years, I find it hard to think of the 20,000 or so new scripts the theatres that literary departments receive each year, none(or very few) have dealt with, the house-price boom, the ethics of choosing schools, global warming (although 2011 seems to have changed that with Greenland at the NT and The Heretic at Royal Court). As Alex Sierz says;

“Who spoke up for ordinary middle-class couples doing ordinary middle-class things?” 

 He goes on to add;  “The irony is that, in the final analysis, those theatres that were so proud of being cutting edge were often offering something very like escapism: gritty plays about poor people on council estates could be as unchallenging as a feelgood musical.” 

He’s not afraid to praise all that has been good in the last ten years, but likewise to point an informed finger at where there have been shortcomings or blind spots.

If you are a student of theatre or a practitioner, I’d say this is essential reading, likewise if you have an interest in theatre, this will certainly throw light on current trends in British theatre. As a reference work it’ll be invaluable and it also brought a large number of plays to my attention that I’ve noted down and will be working my way through their scripts to see what I think of them. I’ll certainly re-read this, he writes in a very accessible style with some laugh out loud descriptions. Whilst I don’t agree with everything, I love the fact that Alex Sierz gets me thinking “why do I disagree/agree/feel this way”. The other key point is Alex Sierz has seen these plays, he’s been involved in British theatre over the last ten years. It is invaluable book and well worth reading and pondering over.

I was fortunate to read this book in gorgeous sunshine on the banks of The Rhone, if only all the books I read could be completed in this way!

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Study Weekend 2011 – “Pieces like this make me want to puke!”

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The sun always shines in Sidcup

Well as mentioned previously the annual Study Weekend at Rose Bruford College is the highlight of my academic year. 2011 was no different.

Primarily I’ve laughed lots and shared my passion for theatre with a group who feel equally as passionate, even when my disdain for Stanislavski and some modern playwrights is expressed by me in rather blunt tones! It great to mix with other people with a vast range of experiences/nationalities/views. I really enjoy the stimulation this weekend gives me, intellectually, physically and emotionally.

So what did we get up to?

Well it kicked off with a session by David Chatterton on “Signs of a Good Performance: Writing for Readers and the Work of the Theatre Critic”. This was a fabulous start, David gave us much to think on and we broke into groups and looked at varying reviews of a recent production. This was especially helpful to me and the reviews that I write. David is the tutor for a module I commence in September on Theatre Criticism. This session gave me much to muse upon and I imagine this module will have a very strong effect on my reviews – I trust for the better!

Next up Dr Rachel Clements led a session on “Plays Without Signs.” Here we were given sections of plays written in the last 15 years by Sarah Kane, Martin Crimp and Simon Stephens. My group had the play Pornography and it was fascinating what others in my group thought about how it should be staged. I was surprised too, this play deals with the events of the 7th July attack in London, I lived very near where the bus exploded that day and I was surprised how emotional this play made me feel and how feelings I thought were a thing of the past came right back. So an emotionally tough session but worthwhile. The title of this post  “Pieces like this make me want to puke!” was exclaimed by Sharon, on her feedback from her group, they had Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life as their text, this split the class but I’ll be honest I agree with her! I’m not sure what merit there is to a “playwright” who writes so little of a play that the cast and crew and director has to basically create the work?

A break for something to eat which was just as well as the afternoon was going to be pretty physical.

We had a session on Kudiyattam theatre. This is an ancient Indian form and was certainly outside of all our comfort zones. Our tutor  Arya Madhavan was extremely patient as we tried to learn the foot, hand and rhythmic movements required. Think aerobics and yoga with a bit of drama thrown in  and I think that’s probably what the class looked like. We then had the chance to work out our own brief sketches using this form to present back to the whole group later on.

Dinner was served, accompanied by a nice glass of red wine.

We returned to the Rose Theatre and presented our pieces back to everyone, which was good fun. Our tutor then presented a 10-15 minute performance of a Kudiyattam performance, telling the story of the young baby Krishna. It was spellbinding to see this intricate and unusual theatrical form performed for us. A brief interview and Q&A session followed which was equally as enlightening.

A visit to a tavern was a suitable  finish to the day to continue our discussions.

Loosing an hour of sleep, failed to deter us returning fresh as a daisy this morning for more. I unfortunately was held up with “technical” issues preparing for my lecture in the afternoon. So missed most of Prof Michael Walling’s session on “Physicality, Energy and the Making of Meaning”. I did get to see the groups performances at the end of the session and enjoyed those.

After lunch I presented my own lecture to the students, “The Closer You Look, The Less You See.” Looking at signs and gestures used in the art of conjuring. The students and staff seemed to enjoy my performance and lecture which I was pleased at. I’ll post up a synopsis of the lecture up on here at some point soon.

A final session on study tips and encouraging us all as we study remotely, was a perfect end.

I huge thanks to all the staff that helped organise and run the weekend, and thanks to all those that attended, it’s sharing events like this with such a fab bunch that makes studying so enjoyable and the Study Weekend the highlight of the academic year.

Study and Induction Day at Rose Bruford College 11/09/10

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The offer of spending a day in “sunny” Sidcup is hard to refuse at the best of times, even more so when the offer of spending it is at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance for a day of workshops and fun.

It was lovely to meet up with old friends and to meet so many of the new students, I trust you didn’t feel too intimidated by us old hands.

A packed day was laid on;

  • Is it Really All about Text? with Professor Michael Walling
  • Telling the Tale: Voice and Essay Writing with Dr Stephe Harrop
  • Using the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and Learning Resources Centre (LRC) with David Matthews and Librarian Frank Trew
  • Pick a number between 1 – 100 with Jayne Richards and David Matthews

Michael Walling’s first session on “Is it really all about text?”, was great as Michael used a clip of an act from his latest play that opened on Thursday (http://www.bordercrossings.org.uk/Productions/Default.aspx?ProdID=12 ). An in-depth discussion followed as we analysed the performance. It was interesting to see what others had seen in the piece and the interpretations we had. It also gave me a taste of this production and if I have time I’m keen to catch it whilst it’s on in London.

I was looking forward to Stephe Harrop’s session following the workshop she did on the Greek Chorus at the March study weekend (https://theatrethoughts.wordpress.com/2010/03/28/kate-and-edith-a-pineapple-bra-and-greek-chorus/). This was an engaging and helpful session empowering us to use our voice in our assignments. Taking an extract of Duncan Williamson’s stories, we dissected it, and made it “academic”, whilst this was an extreme exercise, it really hit the point home and was worthwhile. Then followed a game where we had to tell a story in groups but for each verb/adjective/noun, give three other alternatives, alas no thesaurus or dictionaries were allowed.

The VLE is a new venture for the college’s distance learning program and has been a giant leap forward for us all and already is making distance learning better. David showed us some future things to come, which will make it an even funkier place. Learning more about the LRC was really helpful especially their online resources as I’m going to need them for my next assignments.

For the last session we got into groups and examined part of an anonymous students assignment against the marking criteria. What followed was interesting, I’m just glad none of my colleagues mark my assignments, especially Debbie!!! The tutors then pointed out the positives and negatives in the assignment. I’m guilty of many of the negatives, so it was good to be reminded what needs to be done as my assignments begin to loom.

The room was then divided between the continuing students and brand new ones, what followed was really good, the new students could ask us any question they liked of the continuing students and we answered from our group experience. I found this helpful as the advice given by other students was really good, and I trust it helped the new students.

As usual the food was fab (Mary has promised Jaffa Cakes for the March weekend as Kevin has requested them), there was a distinct lack of pineapple this year which while disappointing, was amply made up for by the melon and apples! (sorry to students not at March 2010 study weekend, it’s a “had to be there” joke)

For me though, the key thing I appreciate the most is to meet with other students, realise I’m not doing this on my own and to have a good chat about all things theatrical with people who share the same passion (if not the same views) as I. That’s why these study days are to me the highlights of the academic year. Bring on March 2011!!!!!!!!!!

Fabulous Featrical Feasting

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Yes, I know to my college peers it’ll seem like I’m being smug, but I’ve been cracking on with my background reading for my modules which are due to start next month. Being brutally honest this is the first time that I’ve actually got disciplined to read through as much as possible before the module starts, and so to my peers I highly recommend you get on with some, as I’m finding it exciting and also feel like I know a little bit now about the subjects I’m about to study.

So over the last two weeks I’ve been reading through several of the plays I’m going to be looking at more in-depth, and it’s been great to be reading such a variety. Here are a few of the highlights:

Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, totally surprised me, I’d never heard of it or Joe Penhall. The background blurb mentioned that this play had won the Olivier for Best New Play in 2001. I absolutely loved it, it covers a subject (schizophrenia) that is close to my heart as a close friend suffers with this condition. More than this though, it’s so well written and “tight”, no line of dialogue is superfluous, and the conflict of interest between the three characters, really made me want to yell at the character Robert for being such an egotistical numpty!

I love it when the degree introduces me to great plays and playwrights, I can’t praise this play enough, and look forward to reading more of Joe Penhall’s work.

Next I read my first ever Terence Rattigan play  last week. The Browning Version was the play and again I enjoyed this, it again had a link that I could identify with, as I went to a Grammar School. The character Millie is certainly  up there with the list of “stage bitches” such as Hedda and Lady Macbeth. I found the introduction about Terence Rattigan at the start of the book, fascinating, his struggles, and life certainly make for a good read. I’m not sure what I’ll make of his other work but The Browning Version is certainly worth reading or seeing.

Into the Absurd with Jean Genet and his play The Balcony, I read this on the train during rush hour this week and I wonder what my fellow passengers thought as they read snippets over my shoulder. It’s set in a brothel and the first few scenes are rather “kinky” in places.

However as the play develops, Genet’s genius shines through, what or who is real? What is merely illusion? Who really has power?  These are all questions he brings to the fore with this clever play, with sometimes uncomfortable answers. The absurdity of existence is shown in an entertaining and powerful play.

Other writers I’ve read are Ionesco, Pinter and Wesker, more on them in the not too distant future.

It’s great to be challenged, stretched and have my mind and eyes open to such a wealth of theatrical writing, bring on August when the modules start!

Bruised, battered, exhausted and this is a “small part”

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Poster for the Play

Note to self ; should you ever be offered “just a small part”, ask to see the script before saying yes!

While the parts I’m playing in A Few Good Men are small from a dialogue point of view, I’m actually spending a huge amount of time on stage. I’m also helping with most of the stage transitions and moving the set etc. So I’ve got LOTS to do. No sitting in the dressing room waiting for my entrance and then retiring to put my feet up until the next scene.

The past week has been one of the most satisfying but draining of my life. I’ve been working my “day job” then going off to the theatre for rehearsals most nights. It’s quite a physical play and I literally have the bruises to show for it. We had a session with a military advisor on Monday night, which involved the cast being drilled around the car park, I felt like I was back in the cadet force.  I’ve come into the play quite late and so have had an enormous amount to take on board. I’m helped in the fact that another cast member who is also playing some of the other “bit parts” started at the same time and it’s him and I that are doing the scene changes. So we’re getting there together, it’s nice to have a “buddy” to double-check with.

Actually being involved with a production has been so helpful and has really made a huge amount of things I’ve learnt at college “click” into place. I have to read so many scripts but this has been a great reminder that I need to read them as though they were to be put on, not as pieces of literature.

The rest of the cast have been really welcoming and I’m really struck by the camaraderie that we have. It’s a play with only one female role so I feel a bit sorry for her being so out numbered. There’s a great range of ages and skill levels, I’ve learnt a huge amount about acting just by watching two of the cast in particular.

We have a long day tomorrow planned, we’re having a full tech rehearsal, where I can really nail the scene changes. Then we’re all going to be kited out in our costumes. These are genuine US Marine uniforms, I got my crew cut today and so feel being “booted and suited” tomorrow will really help us act the parts and get into the essence of the play much better, than doing it in our “civies” as it’s hard to take someone seriously as a toughened US Marine when they’re in a pink shirt!

We’re due to have some photos taken tomorrow, and will put some up on the blog as soon as I can.

Well I have tonight and then it’s “all about the play” for the next twelve nights solid!

A Retrospective Look Back

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The assignment’s been sent down the portal and now I have a few weeks until it returns with the notes and grade.

Looking back, what have I learnt, liked, loathed?

The last academic year has been one of changes for me. I moved house, started a new job and the first three months or so of the course suffered due to it. This is also due to having to study Stanislavski and his “nonsense” (as David Mamet calls it)  in the first few units too – I’m going to do a blog on Stanislavski in the near future, where I’ll formulate my views into more depth than just “nonsense”, but that’ll do for now. I got rather bogged down and got really behind in the work, as I just couldn’t get motivated.

After Xmas I was extremely close to throwing in the towel and quitting. I had a long chat with the college who were really helpful and supportive as ever. I then had a long sit down and actually took some time off from work and had a long hard look at my life and where I want to go, what  I want to do and what I enjoy. Theatre is my passion, and the college course is certainly the reason my knowledge and passion has increased these last five years. Following this reflection I took some drastic measures and simply said “NO” to all my other commitments and interests and immersed myself in my studies and all things theatrical. My long-term aim is to work in the theatrical industry and so I realised I needed to focus on it 100% if that’s to become a reality in the near future.

I attended the study weekend and that certainly continued to fire me up, I found the more I got into the course, the more I enjoyed, I suppose it’s the cliché, you only get out what you put in. For the last few years the course has been a nice addition to my life, whereas actually if I really want to get the most from it (and the best grade) it needs to be the focus point. Anyone on the course knows how hard it can be, especially fitting all the reading in, but it is possible, as I said you just have to be ruthless, and again another cliché comes to mind, if it was easy then it wouldn’t count for much and if it was easy there’d be no point doing it.

As mentioned in previous posts I chose to look at Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal for my assignment, which I really enjoyed, both these practitioners have profoundly effected the way I see and do theatre. So much so that I was several thousand words over my word count for my assignment and so had to cut lots out for the final draft, this is something that has never happened before as for most assignments I’ve been under the word count even at the final draft stage! Doing in-depth research for the assignment certainly paid off and is a lesson I’ll take through for the next modules.

I now have a few months gap before the next modules kick off (what I’ve chosen will be on my blog soon), I have the bibliographies and have got some books from them already, now onto the background reading for these modules. 🙂