So I haven’t been much good at updating this recently. I’ve been busy writing stuff elsewhere and making stuff too. More on the latter shortly but, before I get on to that, I wanted to post up an interview I did with Greg Manley, the creator of Circle Rules Football and the Commissioner of the Circle Rules Federation. If you don’t know what Circle Rules is, I’m posting a video above. Basically there’s a circular pitch, a massive ball (the size of a yoga ball but lighter), two teams and the goal is in the middle of a circle at the centre of the pitch. You can use any part of your body to touch the ball but you can’t hold on to you. Complete rules are here. It’s one of the most successful new sport in terms of numbers of active players and it’s also one of the most theatrical and playful. Fire Hazard sometimes run Circle Rules sessions in London and you’ll see it cropping up at a lot of various games festivals. I highly recommend giving it a try. There’s even a “gamefinder” here. This is what Greg had to say just before going off on tour with Warhorse (!).
WD: When you first made Circle Rules, it was a university project in an experimental theatre department, is that right?
GM: Yes. The Experimental Theater Wing of New York University’s undergraduate drama department encourages its senior students to do what’s called an “independent project” Typically these are original one-act plays. Deciding that a sport is just as much theater as any play, I made an original sport instead. And I got an A grade.
WD: How important was the performative element from the start?
GM: Performance is the whole thesis of the thing! Any football match is a two hour long performance that needs to be costumed, scripted, and rehearsed like any other play. Once you start thinking of the rulebook as the script, and the team managers as the directors, all sorts of similarity pop up. The less philisophical answer is that I love all the absurd characters players assume when they compete. I wanted to build a structure (the game) where players could feel that superhuman feeling.
WD: Were you thinking of it more as an experience for the player or a spectacle to be observed in the way theatre usually is?
GM: I developed it with two original aesthetic elements: the big ball and the circular field with a central goal. After that, I focused entirely on developing a well balanced game for the player. If I’d built it with the spectator in mind first, the game wouldn’t stand the test of competition and it could only go so far. This way, I can walk away from the game for a while (as I have done this past year) and rest assured that the game is good and people will play whether they have spectators or not.
WD: What do you feel is missing from other sports and sports culture that a new sport like Circle Rules provides?
GM: I think sports culture is awfully narrow minded. Many teenage athletes don’t realize how much they have in common with young artists. Sports and artwork require exceptional creativity, and I hope building a new sports culture offers an opportunity for surprising collaborations. I get so excited when the Olympics come around. They are such an ideal combination of the best artists and architects in the world collaborating with the best athletes in the world. Hopefully, with Circle Rules and similar new sports, we won’t have to wait two years for that spirit to come around again.
WD: How important is competition for you in Circle Rules?
GM: Competition is the test for the legitimacy of the game. If the rules can sustain all the wild emotional and physical outbursts of a talented competitive athlete, the game is airtight. I don’t always enjoy playing competitively, but I feel very strongly that the game needs to support all levels of competition. Some detractors may feel that extreme competition discourages cooperation and respect. I think teaching somebody healthy competition relies heavily on cooperation with your team and respect for your opponent and the game.
WD: Because the game references existing sports (e.g. soccer, basketball, handball) but with an extreme difference in the scale of the ball, do you feel that there’s a level of irony or satire in that referencing but also distancing mechanism?
GM: I’ll admit the game looks silly or at least irreverent. (Our irreverence is intentional; it clears the way for a new sports culture). But I’ve tried to keep irony out of the game as much as possible. The only exception to that is when we sing the national anthem at the beginning of our games. (we measure our equipment with the metric system, so we can’t be that patirotic). But honestly, other than the national anthem, there is no irony in circle rules football. Being truthfully convicted to winning keeps many of our players coming back.
WD: Do ever think that players are playing sports ironically (though perhaps not playing Circle Rules ironically, if that makes sense)?
GM: Maybe some people join social Dodgeball leagues or Kickball leagues to play ironically, but I think many of the players quickly realize that it’s more fun to care genuinely. I can’t speak to other people’s intentions, but I can imagine myself joining a kickball league because “hey this is something I did in elementary school. Wouldn’t it be silly if I joined a league again and went out to a bar with friends afterwards”. There’s some irony in that. But mostly, it’s about feeling like a kid again.
WD: As the game gets more successful and some players get better and better at it, do you think there is a danger that this puts barriers to entry and makes the game less accessible to everyone? Or do you think that is something that will self-regulate as people divide themselves up according to abilities?
GM: This has already happened with circle rules football in New York City. Our casual Sunday pickup games have lost a lot of their energy to the NYC league. The league is very competitive, and therefore more dangerous than the casual games. In trying to focus our efforts on developing the league, we may have lost our primary means of recruiting… So we’re recalibrating. A couple years ago, I asked a group of team managers and devoted players “As circle rules moves forward in NYC, we need to ask ourselves a question for the sake of the game’s spirit: Are we Wednesday night (the league night), or are we Sunday afternoon (the casual pickup games). What I didn’t realize at the time is we need to be both.
WD: What’s next for Circle Rules as a sport?
GM: So we are thinking about where to make the next push for the sport. The league in New York is barely sustaining itself with the volunteering of its players, but it is not growing quickly enough. It isn’t making any money, so there’s no extra capital for outreach. We’ve got players and teachers who have introduced the game all over the world, but we need to come up with some kind of incentive for them to: A) keep in touch with the Federation. And B) transition from casual play to competitive play with regional affiliation. Once both those things happen, we could make the next crucial step towards regional competition. We could keep each other playing. The sky’s the limit with a developing sport, but it’s a long way up.
I realise that I’ve been remiss in updating this. It’s been summer though so I was probably out frolicking in the meadows or something. If you’re interested in my writing, I’ve written things recently for Unwinnable about Wifred Bagshaw’s Time Emporium, which I also worked on, various things for Exeunt including a piece of Punchdrunk's Aldeburgh Festival audio-adventure and an interview with my mate Jack McNamara about his Edinburgh show The Boss of It All.
I haven’t been in Edinburgh this month and always find it hard to shake the feeling that I’m missing out during an August spent in London. I’ve been hard at work though, on a very exciting new project with Coney, which will be part of Futurefest at Shoreditch Town Hall on 28th and 29th Sept. There are loads of fascinating people speaking there as well as the playful performance that we’re cooking up. There’s going to be a playtest on 7th September at Toynbee Studios too, so come along to that if you want to see where we’ve got to so far. I promise it’ll be fun and we’ll go for a beer after so you can tell us all the things that were wrong with it. Get your (free) tickets for that here.
Also, I’m going to Athens from 12th to 15th August for the Athens Plaython. I’ll be giving a talk on the 14th and running a brand new live game on the 15th.
Apologies for the prosaic nature of this update. I will be posting up something a little more exciting soon, investigating the issue of competition in games and sports that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently in connection to a Killscreen article I was researching. More on that soon… In the meantime, please come along on the 7th Sept and get your ticket to Futurefest too.
The Hunt for the Yellow Banana and A Scanner Darkly
Venice as a Dolphin has been in Malé, Maldives, joining a group of games designers from Denmark, Germany, Czech Republic and the US to create new real-world games for that city. Any connection between this and the recent sightings of a human-sized yellow banana in that city are, I can assure you, purely coincidental.
Closer to home (if your home’s in Bristol), I’ll be running a play-test of a game that’s been in development for a while that explores the gaming potential of the intersection between physical presence and radio presence through the computers most of us carry around in our pockets (smartphones). The game’s called A Scanner Darkly and it may or may not have anything to do with the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Time and place: Sunday 19th May, 2.30 pm, Cabot Circus Bristol. If you want to play, it’s free but you do need to sign up in advance by e-mailing email@example.com
We’re play-testing it before taking to the w00t Festival in Copenhagen on Saturday 25th May, so if you’re in/near Copenhagen, come to that because it’s going to be loads of fun. There will also be a talk from Tim Kindberg, who I’m collaborating on the game with. Then I’m going to Venice to present the games we made in the Maldives at The Museum of Everything.
More about the Maldives soon… In the meantime, come and play.
This isn’t the first time Belgian indie studio Tale of Tales have asked probing questions about what games can be. They appear to adopt a similar approach to thatgamecompany in wanting their games to provoke particular moods in players, rather than giving them something they can beat or complete. Bientôt l’été may be their most radical (non)game yet and, while you’ve got to admire and value their tireless experimentation, I didn’t feel that bientôt l’été finds enough to replace everything it takes away…
We can say with some certainty that 2012 will end after 31st December 2012 and that it’s unlikely the world will end on 21st December 2012 (the end of the Mayan calendar). The inevitability of the end of the year and the unlikelihood of the world ending before Christmas has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to gather together a few thoughts about endings, particularly endings in games and how they relate to our experience of them as separate from everyday life – or not.
I started playing Skyrim on Xbox 360 sometime in September and I decided to stop playing about a month ago and it was the point when I stopped playing it that got me thinking about endings. For those who don’t know it, Skyrim is the latest instalment in the Elder Scrolls series. While previous games have been defined by the richness of the world and the extensive and detailed back stories they sit upon, Skyrim took this to a whole new level. From the beginning you are plunged into a world under threat by the return of dragons (actual dragons), thought to be long dead, a threat that only you, as the Dragonborn (meaning you have the power to use dragon “shouts” and absorb dragon souls), have the power to overcome. The world is also in the middle of a civil war between the Imperials (those loyal to the Empire of Tamriel) and the Stormcloaks who are fighting for an independent Skyrim. The Stormcloaks are Nords, the dominant ethnic group in the country, but not, it emerges, the area’s original inhabitants.
So the “main” mission is to save the world from destruction by the dragon Alduin, the World Eater, and the dragons who follow him. It would be extremely difficult to complete the main quest straight away though because your character won’t be powerful enough. The game is specifically designed to encourage the player to get to a higher level by doing other quests. This is standard for a RPG (Role Playing Game), you need to level up to progress. What distinguishes Skyrim is quite how many quests there are and how many story-lines. Some quests are self-contained while others are entire story-lines of their own, with one quest generating another and so on until the whole storyline has been completed. Notably, you can choose sides in the Civil War and this is where the game provides with a complex political decision. Do you support the status-quo even though it is corrupt and disturbingly controlled by outside interests or do you side with the rebels despite the fact that their fierce nationalism extends to institutionalised racism towards immigrant communities within the country? There are also story-lines that relate to your decision over which category of player you want to become: so you can train as a Mage or become a member of the Thieves Guild.
This is, of course, only a very brief description of the enormous world of Skyrim and the many, many possibility that are at your disposal to create your own narrative within that world. I think I played it for around 80 hours altogether. I thought alongside the Strormcloaks in the Civil War, defeating the Imperial Forces. I became the Arch-Mage at the College of Winterhold. I became a Thane of various Holds, bought houses and had a gay marriage (Skyrim is surprisingly liberal in certain ways). I trapped and befriended a dragon whose back I rode on to the Land of the Dead where I enlisted the help of my ancestors the ancient Nords to finally defeat Alduin, the World Eater, thereby saving the entire world. The game still wasn’t over though. There were still quests that I could do. I had to make the personal decision to stop playing the game on the grounds that the quests that were still on my to-do list were now going to be anticlimactic. How could I go from saving the world to fetching packages and delivering letters for people? As the narrative and the character’s behaviour had been placed in my hands, I had to follow what I felt to be the logic of my character’s journey. So I decided to end it.
I checked some online discussion boards to see if other players had experienced a similar kind of confusion about when, if ever, the game was over. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s a more information online about Skyrim than there is about several nation states. There was quite a bit of debate over when someone could say that they had “finished” Skyrim, with some people suggesting that you had to have played the main quest through with every different class of character, become a Thane of every Ward, bought houses in every major town, etc. before you could say that you had “finished” the game.
Bethesda, the studio who make Skyrim, actually brought out a DLC (Downloadabe Content) for the game called Hearthfire. This allows the player to buy, customise and maintain their own homestead. It gives you the option to hire your own stewards, your own bard and there is even the possibility of adopting children (Dragonborn can’t reproduce though, it would seem). After all your heroism, you have the option of becoming a member of the land-owning bourgeoisie. One of the comments that stayed with me most from the Skyrim online forums was someone complaining about domestic life in Skyrim after you’d completed all your major heroic endeavours: “the trouble is that you can’t play Skyrim in Skyrim.”
Having started as a piece of escapism with dragons, trolls, elves, swords and sorcery, the game in some ways becomes the victim of its own immersive enterprise. The world becomes so immersive that it can’t possibly remain exciting. It starts to resemble the domestic mundane existence you wanted to escape from in the first place. This is what happens when the narrative ends and all that is left is the world. It then comes up against the problem that we already have a world to live in and that world has more possibilities than any game that we can imagine existing and always will do.
Can a game be never ending? And if it doesn’t end, is it still a game or does it become something else? And if does become something else, what is that thing? It is part of the principle behind MMORPGS (Massive Multilayer Online Role Playing Games) like World of Warcraft that they are ongoing. While I haven’t played these games myself, I understand that they are based on the structure of RPGs like Skyrim where you have missions to complete within a world. The “games” themselves are not so much games as platforms for game missions and worlds in which those missions or games can exist.
This brings me back to the idea that, for all the delights of escaping into a detailed online fictional world, we do have a real world around us and we are physical bodies within that. What if an MMORPG wasn’t online (an MMRPG)? I’m not talking about a bunch of people trying to replicate World of Warcraft in a field somewhere in the countryside dressing up as massive cows and elves or shooting each other with bows and arrows. That isn’t existing within the real world but taking a closed off controlled environment that is as close as possible to an online world. A real-world MMRPG would have to sit on top of our everyday lives. It would have to use elements of the real world but make us see these elements in different ways. In this sense, it might have more in common with our dream-lives than with any fictional world: it would take the pieces of our own lives, mix them up and turn them around, creating new systems and rule-sets. Our avatars would look a lot like us and only other people who were playing the game would know our secret identities as players of the game, inhabitants of this other world. This world would always be there for this if we wanted to step into it. The game won’t last forever, of course, but then neither will we.
You may remember that back in September I was looking for people to help test out a new game I am developing with Tim Kindberg. After that very early jam at Westfield Shepherds Bush, we’re now doing a “proper” play-test of the game, which for the moment we are calling The Deed, at Cabot Circus in Bristol on Thursday 25th October at 6.00 pm. If you’re interested in playing (it’s free!) please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in the “Ask Me Anything” form in the right hand menu. We need to know what kind of phone you’ve got and what your mobile number is.
There are two teams and you’ll find out what team you’re on and what your starting point is going to be closer to the time. The game is part race, part espionage and you will need your phone (fully charged) as well as your ability to blend into the crowd… Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Game!
This month, on consecutive weekends, there were two weekend-long festivals of live games in the UK, curated and hosted by Slingshot and Hide & Seek, in their home cities of Bristol and London respectively. I went along to both. At IgFest (the Interesting Games Festival) in Bristol, I was running my own game: The Eschaton. The game went well and I was pleased that, after repeatedly refining and tweaking it over the course of an initial play test at Battersea Arts Centre with Coney followed by running the game at playARK in Cardiff and Playpublik in Berlin, it felt like I had got it down to something that was as accessible and fun to play as I could make it. I also have to say that the players at IgFest were a really great bunch who seemed very literate in their understanding of these kinds of games and also, more importantly, up for engaging and being playful. I wasn’t running anything at the Hide & Seek Weekender on the South Bank so I went along as a punter on the Saturday and mostly watched people playing games. One of the things that Hide & Seek have been concentrating on in their recent series of Sandpit events has been games for audiences and this came across in the performative nature of several of the games, making it an enjoyable experience for a spectator as well as for the players themselves.
There was one large-scale headline game that featured at both festivals: Incitement by the Bristol-based “purveyors of fine experiences” Splash and Ripple. I want to write a little about that here because I am aware that games like these don’t get “reviewed” in the media and this means this limits the wider discussion of the work to those who have actually experienced them.
There are, of course, a number of difficulties with criticism in relation to games of this kind. The first is the fact that they are often one-off events. While plays get reviewed at the beginning of their runs and video games and novels are available to buy and experience ad infinitum, live games are often only being run once or twice. However, gigs and concerts get reviewed after the event and the consumer information element is similarly absent there. Also, increasingly, as live games gain popularity, I think we are going to find more and more of them having further lives. For example, Slingshot’s Zombie Chase game 2.8 Hours Later has been going for two years now and continues to sell-out in cities across the country.
The other difficulty is the fact that this is still a new form of urban experience, distinct from either video games or theatre, and, as such, games can frequently be works in progress, still learning from their mistakes. Due to this and the still relatively small number of people making work in this area, a very supportive community of games makers has been formed and it is therefore with some hesitancy that I would approach any criticism of someone else’s game in the public forum. On the other hand, I do feel that, for this kind of experience to move on to the next level, it does need to widen out the level of discussion and put itself on the same level as other forms of art. In doing so, my hope is that the bad habits that other kinds of criticism have fallen into can be avoided.
Finally, there is the subjectivity of the experience which is something that plagues all criticism to varying degrees and which I have actually discussed before on this blog. Each individual’s experience of a game however is significantly more divergent than it would be for a traditional piece of theatre, a novel or an album. You can see this reflected, I think, in the kinds of verbs used in a good video games review, as the critic attempts to grapple with the multiplicity of possible player experiences. For example, this is from Kelly MacDonald’s review of Fallout: New Vegas from The Guardian in October 2010:
“Head out into the wasteland with no place in particular to go and you may well get yourself killed, but you might also discover something miraculous; a closed community, a broken-down old supermarket stuffed with lifesaving supplies, a pre-apocalypse radio station with the computerised diaries of its staff at the moment of annihilation still intact.” [my italics]
This a challenge for anyone writing reviews of games and something that must be acknowledged but it should not prevent us from discussing our incomplete, subjective impressions and attempting the leaps of imagination required to envisage how someone else’s experience might have been different. It is also something that is becoming increasingly important for criticism of immersive and experiential contemporary performance.
With these lengthy disclaimers out of the way, I will say a few words about Incitement, which I played in its second outing in London, starting around the South Bank. The experience begins when you buy your ticket. You get an e-mail telling you about the world of the game. The nation is controlled by an all-powerful force called the Authority. The Authority holds detailed information about every citizen in a “profile”. At some point in recent history, the body that was to become the Authority dealt with the issue of political apathy by allowing a computer program to predict how you would vote according to your profile (based on post-code, shopping habits, newspapers you read, etc.) In time this was of course manipulated by the same body to dispense with having to choose a new party altogether. Since then, the Authority has been in charge but this is okay because the Authority “is everybody”. I got an e-mail telling me that I was a member of one of four underground resistance factions and giving me a meeting place. There were also videos to watch on YouTube: warnings from the authority. This kind of detail meant that I could begin to immerse myself in the narrative of the game world straight away.
The rules of the game were explained at the meeting point. We were competing against the other factions for the chance to have our views heard at the “Platform”. One faction was chasing us, while we were chasing a different faction. If you caught a member of the faction, you were chasing they had to give you a band. There were also activities that you could do at each faction’s base for which you would be rewarded with bands. Everyone started off with three bands and the aim of the game was to get the largest number of bands for yourself as an individual and for your faction.
The catch was that you could only claim bands off other players within the “chase zones”. These were the zones immediately surrounding each base. In order to find other factions’ bases you had to use your map to find clues. These would eventually lead you to a base where you might be able to claim bands from other players (if you found any from the faction you were pursuing) but you would also be at risk of having bands taken from you from the faction that was pursuing you.
The world of the game was brilliantly realised and each faction had its own distinct identity, which was represented by the personalities of the faction leaders as NPCs (non-player characters) and the bases became a part of that world and an extension of those personalities. The representatives of the Authority were imbued with just the right amount of cliché for us to recognise them within a gaming context (dark suits and aviator sunglasses) but the real coup was when they stopped me and knew my name and the fact that I had been in Bristol last weekend… For all the broadness and cliché of the encounter, it succeeded in making me feel for a second like I was living in a police state. I was sufficiently immersed in the world of the game to feel both scared and angry at their invasiveness.
The actual mechanics of the game were deceptively simple. It was a little frustrating being confined to the chase areas, as opposed to something like 2.8 Hours Later, where you feel that a zombie could be around every corner. The simplicity worked less well with the clues because there was a lack of consistency in these. Some involved a basic level of puzzle-solving while others were simply giving you grid references for your map. I felt that the clues were a distraction from the more interesting tactical element of the game (though this may be my fault for not working it out sooner): the second-guessing of the other faction’s moves. If I wanted to find members of a particular faction, I could try going to their base but there was no reason for them to be there because they would have left to go looking for whichever faction they were pursuing, so it should go to that faction instead. However, if the faction, I was pursuing were thinking the same thing I was thinking, then they wouldn’t be at that base but the next base along, which was actually the faction that was pursuing me, therefore exposing myself to danger. So for all the apparent simplicity in the chase mechanism, there was actually something more complex going on though the circularity of the chasing and I thought that the game could perhaps have capitalised on this more.
I am not going to reveal the climax of the game except to say that it takes place at the platform when the contest is over. In London, this was on the South Bank right outside the BFI on a Saturday night. Maybe approximately 200 players gathered there on a busy late summer evening in a very public arena in the capital. Something happens that it is an act of both solidarity and resistance. At that moment, it felt like being part of something: like each one of us had agency but that together as a collective we had power and we had a voice. For any reservations I have about the mechanics of the game that led up to that, I do feel that the brilliance of that moment had only been made possible through our shared experience of that evening, our competing against one another while avoiding the oppression of the Authority. It was a political act within the world of the game but also one that resonated powerfully with the world outside the game and its public nature was an intrinsic part of that.
I hope that Incitement continues to develop and that more people will get an opportunity to play it. I also hope that this entirely subjective account of my own experience can inform people about what the game is and encourage them to take part if it does have any future outings.
The Eschaton at IgFest in Bristol Saturday 8th Sept
I’m very excited to be taking my game The Eschaton to Bristol as part of IgFest, the UK’s biggest street games festival, this Saturday. It’s part of the IgFest Fringe and specific timings haven’t been confirmed yet but I will post them as soon as they are. It’ll be in afternoon between 1 pm and 7 pm though. To play, you need to come along to the IgFest pop shop and get tokens. Full details on the IgFest website (see link). I’ve been developing The Eschaton for several months now after originally playtesting at the BAC with Coney as part of a Day of Play and then taking it to playARK in Cardiff and Playpublik in Berlin. There are lots of other very exciting games going on: three headline games: two from Slingshot: 2.8 Hours Later and Cargo and one from Splash and Ripple called Incitement, which I know a little about (not going to reveal anything but I think it’s going to be pretty incredible). Also lots of fantastic companies running games on the Fringe. Particularly looking forward to finally getting a chance to play Larkin About’s Hacked Off. So, if you’re anywhere near Bristol or fancy a trip down there, there’s a whole lot of fun to be had on Saturday!
I’m off to Berlin tomorrow for the Playpublik Festival, which is going to be amazing so I’m really proud to be part of it. There’s lots of really exciting stuff going on. I’m particularly keen to see the latest stage of the development of Coney’s Early Days of a Better Nation, which I blogged about the play test at Battersea Arts Centre, but there are also exciting new games by Make and Do and the organisers Invisible Playground and the extraordinary sounding Our Broken Voice subtlemob. There’s lots more and looking forward to getting to experience work by companies I’d never heard of before from all over the world.
In the meantime, I’m working on a game with the brilliant Tim Kindberg that uses crowds in public spaces and the latest smartphone Wi-Fi technology to create a web of 21st Century espionage. It’s at the early stages of its development and at this point what Tim and I really need to do is to try it out with some real people with real phones. We’d like to do this at 6 pm on Monday evening (13th Aug) for a couple of hours. If you’re free and up for trying it out, please drop me an e-mail at email@example.com and I’ll let you know more info. You need an Android phone or an I-Phone to play. It’ll be fairly Central London and very near a tube. We’ll probably head to the pub afterwards.
After a trip to Cardiff on a rainy Saturday two weeks ago for the brilliant playARK Festival (thanks Allie and the various kind people who lent me tennis balls), The Eschaton will be taking on Berlin as part of the Playpublik Festival from 9th to 12th August, exact times TBC. It will be in the vicinity of the amazing Computerspielemuseum on Karl Marx Allee in Friedrichsain. I’ll post full details on here when they are announced. I’m also currently designing a game for Einstein’s Garden at the Green Man Festival. Check back here for more details or, if you’re going to Green Man anyway, just find Einstein’s Garden and see what I’ve come up with!
Venice as a Dolphin at the Applecart Festival - Sunday 3rd June
I’ll be running some fruit-based games at the Applecart Festival with help from a couple of brilliant and generous young men. The games are for grown ups and for children. They’re pretty straightforward and they mostly involve fruit. Some good old-fashioned fun in the sun. If you’re coming to Applecart anyway, come and find me. If you’re not, maybe you should think about it. Adam Ant’s going to be there!
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve experienced two events at the Battersea Arts Centre. Both involved some combination of watching and participation and both required me to engage in some of kind democratic process. I would describe them both as political theatre and I feel both are striving to find new forms that this can take, perhaps that are more suited to our world today.
The two shows were Make Better Please by the Uninvited Guests and Early Days of a Better Nation by Coney. The first was a fully developed show that visited a few other venues before coming to the BAC, while the second was a scratch night of an event that is still in development. It is part of the nature of both events that they are different every night.
As you enter the room for Make Better Please, you are invited to hang up your coat, to take a seat at one of the tables with other audience members. On the table are tea, biscuits and copies of the day’s papers. You are asked to look through these and find a story that makes you angry. Everyone chooses and story and writes the headline on a piece of paper. The group then decides which of the stories it would like to focus on. The subject is then discussed within the group before the whole audience gathers together and each group nominates a spokesperson to share what they’ve been discussing with everyone else. As this sharing is going on, headlines or bastardisations of headlines are being written up on flipchart paper all around the room. These stories and the issues they raised then lead to various exercises we do as a group, which have an element of the rehearsal room and an element of therapy (e.g. the Guests tell us they are David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Rupert Murdoch, etc., they ask us to imagine that half of us are gunmen and the other half are a crowd leaving church in Nigeria about to get shot by the others, etc.) Some of these are more successful than others in stimulating our collective imagination (though I can only speak for myself of course not the collective) but my issue with the endeavour was not how effective all this was but how it didn’t seem to reflect what we had considered to be most important as a group.
I saw it the day after Jeremy Hunt had refused to resign after it emerged that his special advisor had been giving feedback to News Corporation about the BSkyB takeover bid and the Prime Minister had stood by him. That day though, for whatever reason, the news story that was of most interest to the majority of people in that room was the proposal to pay teachers according to performance. We had a very interesting debate within our group about this and then it turned one of the other groups had chosen the same story. However, when our stories were being channelled into the various exercises by the performers, the Jeremy Hunt story suddenly started taking centre stage instead. By the time we got to the grotesque catharsis section in which one of the performers wears a massive papier-maché belly and phallus and says “We’re going to take all that into ourselves” (“that” being all the stuff that has been making us angry). He then claims to be Jeremy Hunt, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, etc. We throw tea at him. We put on masks of dead people from the obituary section. Someone plays the piano.
There is a kind of logic to the shape of it but my problem was with the fact that what began with a really interesting discussion about what made us angry about the society we live in today and by extension what our values were as individuals and as a collective seemed to have become hijacked away from something specific that was derived organically from that particular group at that particular moment and became a show where the performers were showing us what they felt and what they thought we felt too.
The best moment of Make Better Please had nothing to do with the Uninvited Guests, at least not as far as I know. In the final section of the performance, the Guests were burning the pieces of tissue paper on which we had written the headlines that made us angry. They would each headline out loud and say “Make Better” or “Stop”. We gathered around watching them do this. As this was happening, a motorcyclist who was driving down Lavender Hill took the time to pull up his visor to shout “Wankers” at us before speeding off.
Early Days of a Better Nation starts similarly but more directly. No time for tea and biscuits, we fill in questionnaires about our core political beliefs and are given an envelope which tells us which party we are a member of. We all have a certain number of beans and there are various things you can do to earn beans. We also each have a department. I was in the Green Party and my department was military. You work out the policies that are at the core of your party’s beliefs. Then everyone in the room votes for which party’s policy they prefer. They could abstain (voting costs one bean), vote on party lines or vote against their own party. It’s also possible to change departments (at a cost) or to change parties (for free). If you persuade people to join your party, you earn beans which you could keep or give to them, whatever you work out. As the game goes on, everyone has to vote on which departments to cut heavily and then finally, after the assassination of the new nation’s founder, on the new leader.
Everyone will play the game differently and this will probably depend on your patterns of behaviour on a personal level and your political beliefs. What’s interesting is I don’t necessarily think you would have found a massive difference in party political affiliations, reading material, etc. between the Make Better Please audience and the Early Days of a Better Nation players. In some cases, of course, they were the same people. Away from the crutches of political tribalism however, it was interesting how varied people’s responses were. There were lots of protests, deals being done, total rejection of the cuts, rejection of the democratic system, an unelected politician decided she was power-sharing, etc. People started thinking about cross-party policies that would bring other players to their party giving them more power. Our party, the Green Party, was the largest party in the end so we chose the new President but almost everyone who wasn’t in the Green Party refused to vote in protest. I felt upset about this. I’d been feeling that we were the good guys. Our policies suggested as much. I left the Military to join Education at the cost of two beans. Yet there I was thinking maybe I was on the side of wrong. As I left the theatre, I was half expecting that same motorcyclist to catch up with me and let me know what he thought about my policies.
On Friday and Saturday night (4th and 5th May), I was a referee at The Austerity Games in an old World War II bunker in a car park behind McDonald’s onKingsland Road. I realise that I should have maybe blogged about this beforehand but I didn’t get round to it so here it is now.
The Austerity Games were a kind of experience/installation based on the last timeLondonhosted the Olympic Games, which was 1948, the first since the 1936Berlingames. This was an age of genuine austerity. There was still rationing on food, so athletes were allowed an increased ration in line with dock workers and miners. No new facilities were built and there was no Olympic village for the athletes so male athletes were housed in RAF bases and female athletes in local colleges. Though we are constantly being told that we are in new age of austerity, the current administration feels no need to save money on the 2012 games clearly when it could be privatising the National Health Service (created by the Attlee administration that had just come into power after World War II) and cutting benefits to society’s most vulnerable.
The connections between these games and the 1948 ones evoke a particular political provocation in themselves but the installation itself was essentially a bit of fun with people dressing up in grotesque outfits and putting on mock East London circa 1950 accents. The bunker was quite dark and damp, which helped to create a sense of atmosphere straight off. There was a bar and five games had been set up in various rooms: Boxing Clever, Slipper Discuss, Bow andHarrow, Gymnasties and Hate Lifting. There was also a Winner’s Enclosure.
With the market for casual video gaming growing so fast, it was introducing to test out physical games in a more casual environment. Basically anyone who had aLandofKingsarmband could come in to the Games so, though there were other arts events going on as part of festival, most people were realistically there to see bands and drink. It was actually surprising therefore that as many people came along as did. We had nearly 400 people there throughout the evening on Friday night.
For the most part, people weren’t gamers and the games that were there benefitted from being very simple and easy to explain. Though I didn’t referee all the games, I noticed that the most successful ones were those that were easiest to quantify and the least successful were those that seemed to contain any elements of randomness. The principle motivator to play in this kind of social environment was not necessarily to beat the game (people weren’t really allowed to have more than one go) but to do better than your mates.
What worked surprisingly well was the most difficult game of the lot: Boxing Clever. This was simply a wire buzzer game (i.e. you move a hook along a wire and if you make contact with the wire the buzzer goes off) except that you had to wear boxing gloves. The boxing gloves significantly reduce your flexibility so your wrist cannot turn in the way it normally would. This meant it was almost impossible to get past a certain point but people were determined to try. Watching other people failing miserably made them all the more determined to have a go themselves, convinced that they would be the one to succeed. They would almost say: “it’s much harder than it looks” and “it’s not touching the metal”. It was always touching the metal.
Thanks to everyone who came down and played. It was fun.
Enda Walsh is one of my favourite playwrights but my reaction to his work has always been one of adoring bafflement, of inexpressible infatuation. Seeing the revival of his 1999 play Misterman at the National Theatre on Monday night reminded me how much I love his writing and provoked me to try to force that feeling into some of coherent analysis.
Photo: Sarah Weal
There are always themes and preoccupations that any writer will come back to time and time again. Some create a very particular atmosphere in their work which instantly makes us recognise the territory as theirs (Martin Crimp, Philip Ridley, EV Crowe). In Walsh’s case, there’s a sense of claustrophobia that every play of his that I know contains and which becomes both the theme and the engine for the narrative. This is as much the case for those set in urban environments (Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce) as it is with those set in small, rural communities (Misterman, The New Electric Ballroom). You could even say that the claustrophobia is emphasised in the ‘urban’ plays as it tends to be self-imposed: Pig and Runt’s intense relationship (Disco Pigs); the small flat in South London where three Irishmen frenetically recreate the story of their last days in Ireland (The Walworth Farce).
Seeing it now, Misterman seems to be a particularly defining play for Walsh and perhaps this is why he wanted to return to it with a large-scale production of this kind, starring the extraordinary Cillian Murphy who first worked with Walsh on Disco Pigs in 1997. While there’s no doubt that Pig and Runt’s relationship is an unhealthy and unsustainable one and that they are trapped in a pattern (defined largely by a shared language) that can only be broken through with violence of some kind, they are not actually physically restricted. In Misterman, Magill is physically trapped in the playing space we see in front of us. He is compelled to recreate the events that brought him to that point. He performs his story with absolute conviction and single-mindedness. The act of performance feels like a matter of life or death or maybe it is something more than that.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
It’s significant after all that he plays it all out in front of us. We feel he’s done this before but the question of whether anyone else has been there to witness it until now remains open. Almost everything we are seeing and hearing has been directed, designed and performed by Magill (played by Walsh himself in the original production), except, it would seem, for two elements: the dogs outside and the song that seems to play from the tape recorder which he smashes up at the beginning only to find that it keeps playing. The dogs torment him. They act as harpies but they are also recognisable as the “real-life” dogs of Inishfree, who hate Magill for what he did to one of their kind. If anything belongs to the outside world though, they are it. The song is disembodied, again a kind of torment but an ethereal one, the sound of the other world threatening Magill with never ending torment.
The character is trapped inside their own narrative, condemned to play it out night after night in front of an audience who can temporarily, at least, release them from this purgatory, as we release Prospero from his island at the end of The Tempest.
This has become the structure for almost all Walsh plays subsequently. In Bedbound, father and daughter tell each other the story of how they came to be stuck together in this small bedsit with the father in the state of the title. With both The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce, family members come together to tell and re-enact the stories of how their lives came to be what they are now. In both these cases though, there’s an attempt to rebel against the tyranny of these repeated narratives. Even when the rebellion is met with violent suppression, those plays contain a sense that there is the possibility of change, the possibility of resisting the forces of inherited narrative.
In Penelope, Walsh’s last play to be seen here, we meet the mythical Penelope’s ill-fated suitors on the eve of Odysseus’s return. Not only do those of us familiar with the myth know that the characters are facing death at the returning hero’s hands, they know it themselves through a prophetic dream. They know they are going to die and they are performing for us and for Penelope in a quest not for self-preservation but for self-justification for how they have lived and who they have become. All they have left is a chance to show what they are taking with them from this life. In Burns’s final speech about love, he accepts death by transcending the self and talking to Penelope about love not as a force by which he can be delivered from death but as a force by which we can all live better and in doing so accept the inevitability of our mortality. The ability to mix profundity and futility is what makes Walsh a unique and important writer because it is genuinely tragic in its gesture. What is more though, in a time and culture saturated by irony, he is unafraid to show us characters on stage speaking with utter and eloquent sincerity. This is truly rare.
It’s the second time the Royal Court has hosted a Literary Ball, which is a fantastic, writer-led event that was created by La Coopérative d’Ecriture in France and is well-established there with very large attendance at the events. The first time was part of the 2010 Rough Cuts season and it involved five British playwrights and five French: Mark Ravenhill, Nina Raine, Marion Aubert, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Penny Skinner, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Nathalie Fillion, Fabrice Melquiot and Samuel Gallet.
This time, the writers are appropriately almost all writers from the Young Writers Festival: Hayley Squires, Alistair McDowall, Brad Birch, Rianna Mitchell-Henry and Rose Lewenstein, as well as Nathalie Fillion representing the Coopérative. Over the two days leading up to the ball, the writers get together and work out the playlist for the night, what the story might be, who the characters might be and then they go off and write short plays (about the length of a song) which they or their fellow writers will perform on the night. There are no actors. Then on the night itself, each short play is read but the hook is that the final line of the play is the title or the first line of the song they’re about to play. When the music starts, everyone dances; when it stops, it’s time for the next play, and so on. It’s loads of fun. Part of the pleasure, as the audience gets in to the format, is anticipating where the story you are being told is going and how it might end up with the title/lyrics of a popular song.
As I coordinated the last one at the Court when I was working there, I’m coming back to help out and to translate Nathalie Fillion’s play. It’s free but ticketed and its technically “sold” out now (as was the last one) but there’s always the possibility people won’t turn up, so if you’re interested, pop along and the chances are you’ll get in. It’ll start at about 10.15 pm. There’s a late bar and they’ll be more music and dancing after the plays are over.
Photo: La Coopérative d’Ecriture
NB: This is in the South of France during the summer. Don’t get your hopes up!
The next day I’m going to drag my slightly hungover self out of bed and over to Hampstead Heath to play Firehazard’s new Easter-themed live game Eggs of the Alien Queen, which I had a hand in designing during a pints and planning session in the Pembury a few weeks ago. Very much looking forward to seeing how it works out. Kicks off at 2 pm. Come along to that if you like running around and shooting people with nerf guns and stuff. Here’s a wicked video of the last Fire Hazard game: The Howling, to give you a flavour.
Coney and the Battersea Arts Centre are hosting a Day of Play on the afternoon of Sunday 25th March. It will feature two live games: ‘A Gossiping Town’ by Coney and ‘The Eschaton’ by me. ’The Eschaton’ is inspired by a game described in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It uses the paraphernalia of tennis to simulate a Cold War era end-of-days scenario. All players are divided into teams representing Cold War blocs and the game involves a combination of diplomatic strategy and mutual destruction through tennis balls representing nuclear megatonnage. It will be in the Grand Hall at the BAC. Please come along from 3 pm to play. It’s free but if you want to come please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That communication necessarily involves collaboration is a truism. That creation involves collaboration is perhaps less obvious but creation has to be communicated at some point otherwise it comes down to the idea of the tree falling in the woods with no one there to hear it. It’s entirely possible that a hermit could create works of staggering genius alone in his or her cave and never show them to anyone. Nobody would ever know. To the outside world, it might appear that the hermit is delusional. If the staggering work of genius burns to the ground, for example, we would be left with nothing but the hermit’s assurances that their creation was indeed a staggering work of genius. Of course, the hermit might not actually say this to people because he or she is, well, a hermit.
So there’s necessarily a level of communication. In some cases, this is made as direct as possible. Journalism is an obvious example but let’s take forms of communication that do not involve the transmission of information or a particular message. A visual artist puts the finishing touches to a painting, a sculpture or an installation and it is a complete entity that can be bought and sold and shipped to art galleries around the world to be discussed, admired or mocked by those who see it. A novelist finishes a novel and makes a commitment to put it to print. A decision has been made: this is it; this is what I want to say to my readers; I want them to read these words in this order; I want it to start at this point and end at this point. Obviously this is something that Jonathan Franzen feels strongly about, as his recent speech at a literary fair demonstrates. In the end, it’s all about control. Franzen wants control over his creation. At some level, he is scared that an e-book of The Corrections could be altered in some way, could get away from him and stop being under his control. Ironically, the first publication of Freedom had to be pulped because it contained a number of errors. This rather undermines Franzen’s argument about permanence and could have been easily resolved in the e-book version by issuing a patch or an update with significantly less financial and environmental cost.
For communicators in other media, there is much less of an expectation that an individual creator will remain in control all the way through the process. In theatre, there are too many variables for any one individual to be under the delusion that they are totally in control. It’s just not possible. Even if a writer is directing their own work, there’s the great variation of actors’ performances from one night to the next as well as audience numbers, reaction, the heat of the room, etc. After seeing a piece of live theatre, we tend to feel that we have seen “it” as if “it” is a solid entity in the way that you have seen Guernica or you have read David Copperfield but you haven’t. You’ve just seen one version. The others might be very similar but there will never be an identical performance to the one you saw just as there will never be a fingerprint or, indeed, a life the same as yours.
Photo: Simon Annand
This is an idea that Nick Payne’s astonishing new play Constellations at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs explores so successfully. In it, we see some basic life events in the story of a couple: meeting, first date, sleeping together, breaking up, getting back together falling in love and finally confronting mortality. For every event, multiple variations are played out. As well as being “about” the two characters and “about” the implications of discoveries in modern physics for the lives of individuals, it acts as a metaphor for the act of live performance in its tiny variations night after night. Through Payne’s play we can see ourselves but we can also see the theatre and then we can see ourselves again. It creates a kind of telescope through which we can see another planet where people are looking back at us, just like us but slightly different. What Constellations also does is provide a rare example of the use of branching narratives in the theatre, though we do keep getting pulled back to the thrust of where the story is heading.
It’s an experimental piece of work but I would say that it fits into the category of experimental playwriting (like Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart) as opposed to experimental theatre in that the experimentation is worked out by the playwright on the page, brought into the rehearsal room and the actors and directors then deal with the challenges that those experiments dictate. It’s a play about randomness and possibilities but it’s all very controlled and carefully orchestrated.
Experimental theatre-makers, as opposed to experimental playwrights, have been investigating the ideas of randomness and the relinquishing of control in live performance for many years. Tim Crouch (who is both) wrote a text for An Oak Tree part of which he learnt and performed himself; the other was read “cold” every night by a different guest. So the familiarity between the performer and the text that we usually take for granted in the theatre was removed. The text remained a constant however.
Jack McNamara’s Exterminating Angel (seen at the Tristan Bates Theatre last summer) was a long form improvisation where the basic situation had been established by him and the actors improvised around that, knowing the events they needed to get to and roughly when. His new piece Malaise will involve a similar format but will also introduce an element of randomisation by the inclusion of a television as an external factor that the performers must react too. In both of these cases, the control of the text is being handed over to the performers every night. The audience remain passive however.
In Cartoon De Salvo’s Hard-Hearted Hannah, the audience had an essential role in creating the story that was being told on stage coming up with the situation, the characters, etc. Having offered these up though, they then sit back and watch the performers create an improvised story based on them. So going back to power relationships, the format was that the power was handed over to the audience at the beginning of the show and then the performers create something with what they have been given. It was watching them to do this that was one of the principle pleasures of the performance.
There was a moment in Vinge Vegard and Ida Müller’s radical version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkmanat the Prater Theatre in Berlin recently in which the actors playing Gunhild and Ella (grotesque in hag-like masks) stop fighting each other (not the verbal jousting and veiled attacks of Ibsen’s first scene but a punch-up complete with over the top action movie sound-effects) and turn on the audience. The stage is at this point littered with black cardboard boxes for some reason. The performers pick up the boxes and start throwing them (quite hard) at the audience.
To give a bit of context, this was roughly two hours into a show that apparently can last as long as eleven hours and which I left after a pretty much continuous stint of around seven hours. For the first couple of hours though, I’d been feeling very disengaged from what was going on stage. There was lots of radical punk sort of stuff like jumping down on the stage from a height, the performer pissing in his mouth, etc. But I had felt it was intellectual and artistic masturbation up to that moment. In that moment, everything changed; in that moment, we – the audience – were under attack. The first person to catch one of the boxes threw it back on to the stage. This seemed to enrage the performers even further and they started to throw the boxes at us with more force. Some audience members decided to fight fire with fire and threw the boxes directly at the performers when they threw back. When hit by a box, the performer would often fall down as if badly hurt before getting up again to throw more boxes, perhaps identifying their attacker and determining to take revenge. Every time a box was thrown, it was a transfer of control. The audience stopped being a mass of people gathered together to passively watch a show. They started becoming individuals in a room and, confronted with this, individual personalities began to emerge. Some people retreated to the back seats, others decided this would be a good time for a break, others took pleasure in trying to take out the performers, while many just concentrated on defending themselves while staying where they were getting a kind of thrill from the fear of being hit.
This went on for some time. We the audience were waiting for the performers (who know what is supposed to be happening, have control of the situation) to stop what they were doing and move on to the next bit. It started to become apparent though that they had no such intention. As long as we kept throwing the boxes back, they would throw them back at us and this process could potentially go on all night. We had to work out the rules ourselves. We had been given control of the situation. People started piling up boxes instead of throwing them back. As we slowly made sure all the boxes were in the auditorium rather than on stage, we could guarantee that we had removed the performers’ possibility of action so they would have to find something else to do.
In setting up a situation which has to be read, interpreted and acted upon by the audience, Vegard and Müller relinquished control of the events of the evening for that period of time. In setting up a rule that the audience needed to discover in order to move the performance on, they were introducing an element of gaming into the piece.
I think this explains why a number of experimental theatre practitioners have been drawn to gaming recently. Games seem to represent the next step in relinquishing artistic control. In the act of giving away control, artists change their relationship with their audience. The object is constantly changing and everyone in the room is having an affect on it. In the words of Joseph Beuys: “Everyone is an Artist”.
I very rarely read theatre reviews anymore. This is because I generally trust practitioners more than I trust critics. When I do, it tends to make me angry. I don’t want to use this blog to vent spleen however, as there already seems to be plenty of that on the web. I actually think there’s nothing more tedious than bloggers complaining about established critics. Having said all this, I realise I’m not only person to feel frustrated by Michael Billington’s The Best Shows of 2011 round-up. He is, after all, the chief critic for a national broadsheet with a very substantial theatregoing demographic and this year his annual summing up has been particularly damning of new writing in the UK. It feels like an extremely negative indictment at a time when a new generation of writers and theatre makers is emerging both in the UK and internationally.
First of all, there’s the unwillingness to acknowledge the degree of subjectivity behind his views. Even a professional critic going to the theatre six times a week cannot possibly see everything, so they pick and choose. By the use of the passive voice though, Billington seems to suggest that his experience of theatre going in 2011 is the universal experience: “Just think of the plays that left a strong impression in 2011…” After laying claim to objectivity in this way, he presents as fact that the best shows of 2011 were revivals of plays from the 1940s to the 1980s and that the “one new play that almost everyone enjoyed, Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, was a skilful reworking of an 18th Century classic”. Who “almost everyone” might be, he doesn’t go on to explain.
This sets him up for his attack of new writing in 2011. There have been some plays he admired by Mike Bartlett, David Hare, Alan Ayckbourn and David Edgar but while “there is a vast quantity of new writing today, the quality is variable”. Of course, this is a truism but what’s extraordinary is that he is using it as a way of dismissing all new writing that has been presented this year apart from the four men he mentions. He then goes on to explain there are still a few (male) writers who “possess a passionate commitment to the theatre”: Richard Bean, David Eldridge and Roy Williams, but that these are the “notable exceptions”. This is an extraordinary and deeply contentious claim but one he doesn’t even feel the need to justify it with reference to Bean and Eldridge’s last original plays The Heretic (Royal Court) and The Stock Da’wa (Hampstead) and The Knot of the Heart (Almeida). The fact that there have been no new Roy Williams plays this year also isn’t an issue.
In dismissing all other new writing, he ignores every new trend to emerge in new writing this year. He ignores the continued emergence and maturation of what might be called a “Crisis in Femininity” in Penelope Skinner’s work with The Village Bike at the Royal Court. He ignores the deeply political new plays that focus on details of human interactions rather than didacticism: Zinnie Harris’s The Wheel (Traverse), debbie tucker green’s truth and reconciliation (Royal Court) and E.V. Crowe’s The Young Pretender (Underbelly, Edinburgh and Watford Palace). The Wheel is also notable for its formal experimentation. There are three different time scales at play: stage time, play time and historical time. We watch the play for a couple of hours during which time the characters appear to be travelling for a few weeks but in the course of doing so they have experienced a century of wartime existence. The play then folds on itself a little like Martin Crimp’s Play with Repeats or Laura Wade’s Breathing Corpses but, unlike those, contains a sense that the violence we have seen is not inevitable. Also resolutely knocking down the doors of naturalism were Pedro Miguel Rozo’s Our Private Life (Royal Court) and Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon (ATC).
Photo: Keith Pattison
And perhaps the most glaring omission of all of these was the unbridled delight of David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in Wils Wilson’s brilliant production for the National Theatre of Scotland. An astonishing technical feat from Greig in writing the play entirely in rhyming couplets, like the Border Ballads which inspired it, and from Wilson in staging the whole thing in a pub with the multi-talented cast flitting around everyone’s tables, getting the crowd to create snow and sing along at key moments, basically just telling a grown-up story in a wholly accessible way that appealed to the child in all of us.
Of course some of these were seen and reviewed by Billington and he would obviously disagree with me about their merits. That’s fine as this process is very much a subjective one. I would also say that I am not claiming that every single one of these plays and productions were unqualified successes. I am simply saying that, in my view, together they represent some of the most exciting things that are going on in new writing at the moment and that this seems to have been ignored by Billington.
Several of these productions were either not seen or not reviewed by Billington however and therein lies a problem which goes back to the subjectivity of the whole issue and the extent to which we all, even critics, seek out the work that interests us in the first place so are never really in a position to give an overview (myself included, of course). The only productions that Billington mentions in his round-up that were presented outside London are David Edgar’s Written on the Heart (RSC in Stratford) and Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch (Scarborough). The only play written by a woman is Top Girls. That’s fine if that’s what he wants to go and see. I haven’t seen many of the productions that he discusses, usually because I was uninterested or couldn’t afford them or both. The trouble is when he starts to make claims about the health of new writing throughout the country on the basis of this very narrow and selective experience.
To take one particular example, I thought Romeo Castellucci’s On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God was an extraordinary piece of work and its an experience that will stay with me for many years. Billington didn’t agree. He found himself “mildly bored rather than morally outraged” and thought the “sudden leap from mundane medical realism into apocalyptic iconoclasm” made it seem “perverse rather than profound”. As Castelluci himself said in an interview after the show, “any reaction is legitimate”. Billington assumes that perversion is a bad thing in a piece of theatre. I do not.
At least he saw that show though and could therefore express his distaste for it. I assume the reason he doesn’t discuss Mission Drift, You Once Said Yes, Sailing On and Maybe if you choreograph me you will feel better - all award-winning shows from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe - is because he didn’t go. Nor is he in a position to discuss the way theatre is moving out of traditional spaces and traditional ways of engaging audiences with great public events like National Theatre of Wales’s The Passion at Port Talbot in April this year and with large-scale live gaming events like Slingshot’s 2.8 Hours Later, a cross-city zombie chase game that took place in Leeds and London this autumn.
Performance takes place all around us. For the most part, we seek out the kinds of performance we want to experience or we think we want to experience. Sometimes, performances find us. The riots this summer in London and around the country were a kind of performance, among other things. The Leveson Enquiry is both a performance and a narrative. In cities like London, New York or Paris, you could go to see a different “show” every night of the week if you had the finances and the energy. Almost anywhere in the world, we are bombarded with images. So we choose what we see. We filter. Right now, I could hear a bird outside. I could leave my desk and find a way from which to see it. I could watch that bird for hours. That experience might be profound. It might be more important to me than anything I see on the “stage” all year in 2012 but would anybody understand me if I tried to explain it to them? Probably not but that doesn’t make it less valuable. Perhaps it makes more so.
3Abschied is a collaboration between Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Jérôme Bel, which had two performances at Sadlers Wells earlier this week. Lights come up to reveal De Keersmaeker’s regular collaborators Ictus, a Belgian contemporary music ensemble, seated with their instruments and De Keersmaeker herself at the lighting desk to the right of them. Recorded music plays. It is Der Abschied (The Farewell), the last movement in Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Specifically, as De Keersmaeker explains after the piece comes to an end, it is Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with Kathleen Ferrier as contralto. The recording was made in 1952, a year before Ferrier’s death at the age of 41 after she knew she had cancer. De Keersmaeker believes that the performance has a particular power because its subject matter is death and it is being sung by a woman who knows she is dying at a young age. The text of Der Abschied was taken from Der Chinesichen Flöte (The Chinese Flute), Hans Bethge’s German translation of the seventh-century Chinese poem by Mong-Kao-Yen and Wang-Wei. Its final stanza in Steuart Wilson’s translation is:
I seek but rest, rest for my lonely heart.
I journey to my homeland, to my haven.
I shall no longer seek the far horizon.
My heart is still and waits for its deliverance.
So far, so resigned to death but Mahler added his own final resolutely Romantic ans somewhat ecological stanza for the composition, which goes like this (again Wilson’s translation):
The lovely earth, all, everywhere,
Revives in spring and blooms anew,
All, everywhere and ever, ever,
Shines the blue horizon,
De Keersmaeker explains that she was inspired by the piece of music and wanted to create a piece of choreography to accompany it. She explains meeting Daniel Barenboim, after discussing a possible collaboration, and telling him her plan to which he responded that it was impossible to create choreography to Das Lied von der Erde because the music is so monumental and so beautiful that anything you could do would simply detract from that. This was obviously a red rag to a bull to a single-minded experimentalist like De Keersmaeker. She describes wanting to sing it herself but being told by her singing teacher that attempting to do so would be completely insane. At this point in the process, she got Jérôme Bel involved, she says.
The thirteen musicians onstage along with mezzo-soprano Sara Fulgoni then play Schoenberg’s arrangement of the piece (Mahler’s original version requires a large orchestra). As they play, De Keersmaeker moves around them dancing and imitating their movements. She’s like a child shut off and unnecessary to what is being achieved by the musicians but wanting so desperately to be part of it that she attempts to recreate it. I remember, as a child, watching an actor on stage smoking and thinking he looked very cool so, when I got home, I held an imaginary cigarette up to my mouth and blew out imaginary smoke. De Keersmaeker’s movements evoke a similar spirit. There are also moments when she stands away from the musicians, at the back of the stage or on the steps to the audience right. There’s a sadness to these moments, a temporary realisation that she is making a fool of herself and that this is something in which she cannot participate. We find her in this position in the piece’s final section where Mahler’s own words are sung.
Jerome Bel then takes to the stage and, rather like a director explaining his process to a handful of artistic staff from the building explains that he quite liked watching Anne Therese dance around the musicians like that but he wasn’t sure what to do with the final bit. He gets the musicians to show two of the things they tried out for it. These involve each musician leaving the stage (in version one) and faking their own death (in version two) after they play their last note in the piece. The first is dull; the second very funny. He then says that they tried one other version which only involves the pianist and Anne-Theresa. This is the final Abschied, he explains. What follows is the pianist playing the same music on the piano while Anne Teresa sings it.
Of course, Anne Teresa’s singing teacher was right. She can’t do it. It’s totally, totally beyond her capabilities as a singer. The result is the audience spend some time watching one of the most important contemporary choreographers in the world failing to sing Mahler and flinging herself around the stage as she does so. To many, this was time to leave.
It was painful but it was also very funny, for a while, rather like watching someone sing karaoke to an inappropriately long song: funny for two minutes then a little torturous. Of course, there’s no inherent value to watching someone do something they’re no good at particularly when they haven’t done a lot of the thing they are good at. The value of that final section, the final farewell, therefore can only be derived from the context.
The trouble is that the context itself is unavoidably self-referential. It is about being inspired by a work of art and feeling that, as an artist, you should be able to create a new work of art that evokes the same feeling for an audience that you got when you first experienced the work that inspired you. It is about the quixotic folly and the audacity of that endeavour. 3Abschied therefore is all the things that Mahler’s Song of the Earth isn’t. It isn’t visceral. It isn’t universal. It is aloof, knowing and elitist. It only takes risks in the safest possible way of experimental artists who are expected to take risks. The only reason we are watching De Keersmaeker sing badly on stage is that she is De Keersmaeker. At the end of the show, our ideas about De Keersmaeker and Bel as “risk-taking”, experimental, avant-garde artists are reconfirmed. For Mahler, for Walter and for Ferrier, there were no such safety nets. A great deal of British and European avant-garde performance takes as its subject the impossibility of things: the space between what we can achieve and what might exist in our imagination. I don’t want to suggest that this hasn’t yielded some fantastic work but, by setting ambitions so lofty we are all in on the joke that they can never be achieved, isn’t there a certain kind of comfort?
What’s incredible about the 1952 recording played at the beginning of the show is the absolute conviction and sincerity of every artist involved. Of course, lines like: “The lovely earth, all everywhere/ Revives in spring and blossoms anew” may seem embarrassing, quaint, old fashioned and, taken in isolation, they can read as such but when Ferrier sings them, they are transcendental. They are humbling. This is the possibility of human achievement. This is what can be done. Forget about what can’t be.
[SPOILER ALERT - You might not want to read the whole post if you haven’t seen or read We Need to Talk About Kevin]
What are you most afraid of? The answer probably isn’t zombies, vampires or werewolves. For adults today, these creatures of the night are no longer the subjects of whispered stories round the campfire; they are familiar, referenced, parodied, sampled and sanitised. Our palettes have been so dulled that horror films have to resort to more and more desperate measures to actually scare us and they sometimes content themselves with eliciting emotions of disgust more than actual fear.
At the route of these myths though is a very basic concept that goes to the heart of what seems to me to be the most enduring source of horror: the possibility of those that are close to us, those with whom we are intimate turning on us; those who protect and who we protect wishing us harm.
Think about the people you live with, the person (or people) you share your bed with. There is a deep level of trust in that relationship: a mutual understanding that you all wish to avoid harm and to avoid each other coming to any harm. This isn’t even about love. It’s about cohabitation, coexistence, working as a unit towards self-preservation. These myths are about those that are close to us becoming our enemies, seeking our harm. The other important element is that they are able to disguise themselves so we do not recognise them immediately as hostile. We think they are still the same people.
There is another myth as old as vampires, werewolves and zombies and more closely associated with the British Isles but less familiar to us in modern popular culture: that of the changeling. Changelings were the offspring of elves, trolls or fairies who had been swapped with a human child while the mother wasn’t watching. In Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver suggests that the legend was used to explain children who were developmentally disabled either physically or cognitively. Autistic children, for example, might be identified as changeling children because they weren’t like other children. This only explains one aspect of the phenomenon however. I would also suggest that idea of the changeling child could arise from a mother feeling a lack of a maternal connection with her child (like many folk and fairy tales, these tend to exist in an oral tradition of female storytelling).
In Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant We Need to Talk about Kevin (based on Lionel Shriver’s novel), Eva seems to initially be concerned about her son’s cognitive ability as a toddler. He doesn’t speak and won’t engage with her. In one scene, she repeatedly rolls a ball to Kevin and asks him to roll it back to her. After not appearing to understand what she wants him to do, he eventually rolls the ball back to her. She is clearly delighted and feels she has made a breakthrough. He has observed that passing the ball back to her makes her happy. She tries again. He doesn’t roll the ball back.
In taking Kevin to the doctor to try to find an explanation for his behaviour, Eva is engaging in the modern equivalent of the mothers of “changeling” children. She is trying to categorise her child in the context of her worldview and her culture. She is trying to make sense of him.
So in a sense, it’s an updating of the changeling myth for the twenty-first century but it’s also a brilliantly contemporary nightmare narrative. Given that this is a work of fiction, it goes without saying that Kevin is a construction but he is constructed out of Eva’s deepest fears. She is a highly intelligent, educated, successful, worldly woman. She falls in love and wants to have children but she is concerned about what this will mean for her, how her life will change as a result. The expectation is that the sacrifice she makes of her freedom will be more than compensated by the love and affection she will receive from her child. This is contract she is entering. Kevin doesn’t comply though. In fact, he seems to derive pleasure from causing her pain. He becomes her torturer, her tormenter. As an adolescent, he shuts her out from his world but goes about taking over her world entirely until we see her reduced to living on her own robbed of her husband and daughter and entirely defined by her relationship with her son. Kevin has won.
High school massacres happen. Children kill parents and siblings. It’s not inconceivable. It’s more likely than the zombie apocalypse but the events of We Need to Talk about Kevin are so extreme, so coolly premeditated that they really are the stuff of nightmares more than they are of this world. Nightmares are expressions of our fears though and our fears are real.
I spent last Wednesday night creeping around the Science Museum trying to place misleading labels on various exhibits while avoiding being spotted by “aliens” who looked like humans dressed in highly eccentric outfits. I was playing Hide & Seek’s Take me to your Scientist, the first event in the Player Festival which took place throughout the Museum from 29th September to 2nd October. We were trying to convince the alien committee that the civilisation of Earth is harmless because it is technologically and scientifically backward and we were creating new plaques for items to reflect, e.g. the first computer is a child’s toy; a space rocket is an elaborate nasal hair removal device, etc. For me, one of the great pleasures of this kind of live gaming is the possibility of immersing yourself in the world of the game and taking those rules seriously. When you watch children at play, you see the utter sincerity and conviction with which they play and that kind of investment in what you’re doing will always yield the most pleasure, be it actual delight or some kind of catharsis. It’s not easy to get adults to do the same though. We all know that the aliens aren’t real. They look intentionally ridiculous. We all know that the future of the Earth doesn’t lie in our hands. Nobody there literally believes it but we can believe in the world of the game while we are playing it. On the way out, I heard some fellow players laughing at one of the other players who had been playing the game with real conviction. They were drunk and they were in a big group and they were there to have a bit of fun. Fine, I thought and didn’t think anything more of it.
On Saturday though, back at the Science Museum, playing Seth Kriebel’s absolutely fascinating performance/game The Unbuilt Room, I noticed a similar thing from one of the four fellow players/audience members. The lady was a middle-aged mother there with her teenage daughter. The inhibiting factors were very different for her: obviously she was sober and there wasn’t a sense of peer pressure but one of discomfort and otherness to this kind of work. There was a similar sense of embarrassment and unwillingness to invest in what was going on though. Kriebel’s game is based on text-based 1980s computer adventure games where you had to type in basic instructions into your keypad: e.g. go north, go south, pick up sword, etc. In The Unbuilt Room, the world you are exploring is a psychological one though. Each room sounds like something from a psychological test and is named after a part of the brain. It takes place in any empty room with a square of benches and Kriebel acts the part of the computer going round asking each player what he or she wants to do. With no visual element, you have to create a map in your head. Even for someone like me with a terrible sense of direction, it wasn’t hard to navigate from room to room in order to move the story forward. There are bound to be a few times you mess it up and go the wrong way, of course. This was different though. Every time she was asked what she wanted to do, the woman was reluctant to respond, felt embarrassed and eventually got flustered and sent us in the wrong direction.
I think it’s a feeling of embarrassment in investing in a fantasy that involves your own participation. People suspend their disbelief in theatre all the time. They don’t find it embarrassing. Why not? The usual conventions are just as ridiculous, if not more so. One group of people enters a room which is often made to look like a room that it isn’t and there another group sitting facing them waiting for them to do things. As if that wasn’t ridiculous enough in itself, the people in the fake room then start pretending to be other people. Despite this, how often have you been in the theatre and somebody’s just turned round and said: “He’s not really Caesar; why’s he wearing that silly outfit?” Interestingly, this is something only children do.
Do we live in a culture that values passive consumption over active play? Is that why we teach children that the instinctive imaginative play they engage in is something they must grow out of, while the acceptance of a set of performance conventions they cannot initially understand is a taste they must acquire?
This is a dramaturgical critique of The Merchant of Venice that I once had to do for a job application (I didn’t get the job). It treats the play as if it had been written by a living writer and intended for a contemporary audience:
The central storyline of Bassanio’s attempt to woo Portia and the lengths his friend Antonio will go to in order to assist him in this is very strong. The ambiguity that surrounds the motivations of almost all the main characters (Bassanio, Antonio and Portia in particular) allows plenty of scope for a production to develop its own interpretation of the story. While the storytelling is pacy, confident and sustained throughout, there are several scenes whose function seems to be almost entirely illustrative, rather than dramatic (e.g. Act II, Scene 2, the first part of Act II, Scene 3, Act III, Scene 3) and several “characters” that are merely used as devices to convey information to the audience: Salerio, Solano, Balthasar, Stefano, Leonardo and Tubal. There is also the issue of Lancelot, whose function as a messenger could be dispensed with quite easily and whose comic sections are at best superfluous in what is already a comedy, at worst form a frustrating distraction from the main thrust of the narrative. I would question if all these characters are necessary and if any of them could be dispensed with in order to tighten up the piece.
The other key issue is the play’s racism. This is not a moral or political point. It is simply important to acknowledge what the effect is on the relationship between a character and a modern audience if they either express views that could be seen as racial hatred or embody qualities that seem to be drawn from a stock racial stereotype. While there is no doubt that the society in which the play exists is highly anti-Semitic, providing Shylock with a strong motivation for his attempted act of revenge, there is still the issue of how the author chooses to portray Shylock: not what others say about him but what he says about himself. Shylock’s statement that he dreamt “of money-bags” (Act II, Scene 5) draws on anti-Semitic stereotypes of greed and avarice and pushes the audience away from identifying with him as a real person. By extension, what is Jessica’s motivation throughout the play?Why does she leave her father, her community and her faith in order to run away with Lorenzo and convert to Christianity? Why does she steal from her own father? These are extreme life choices and we get little sense of what is behind them leaving her character underdeveloped. Perhaps Elizabethan audiences would view these choices as self-evident based on racial and religious prejudice but that wouldn’t be true for the vast majority of modern audiences.
Since the trial scene is so dramatic and feels like the climax of the play, the challenge is to sustain that interest in the two scenes that remain. This has to come from Portia’s motivation in saving Antonio at the trial and then tricking Bassanio into giving her the ring. At the moment, the tone of these sections is light-hearted and they need to be rendered more robust in their gesture for the audience to remain engaged after the play’s most obviously dramatic scene.
Sometimes a set of conditions are created in a society and culture in which certain individuals feel alienated and marginalised from it. They feel there’s a party going on that they’re not invited to and this makes them angry. They direct this anger towards others and infringe on their freedom. We’ve seen this situation played out all too clearly recently in the case of David Starkey
The fact that his comments on Newsnight were racist has been much discussed and is hard to argue with. He essentially casts as dangerous and illegitimate any culture that isn’t one that he personally recognises, meaning that black people are okay as long as they sound white and the great tragedy is apparently “the whites have become black”. He goes on to claim that people have been influenced by “rap” to commit crimes. He sees rap as synonymous with violence. He asks Owen Jones if he “glorifies rap”. When asked if he equates rap with rioting on the street, he says that it “certainly glorifies it”. He doesn’t go into how exactly he glorifies it and which musicians he might be talking about. By this stage, he’s lost at sea of course because he doesn’t seem to have actually listened to any hip hop.
Richard Godwin writing in The Evening Standard said that “it may come as a surprise to David Starkey that the MCs who have achieved [commercial success] have not done so by inciting violence but by being open-minded, industrious and positive.” He goes on: “Dizzee Rascal used to rap about estate violence; now he sings about the restorative effects of going on holiday” [my italics].
It’s interesting to compare two songs by Dizzee Rascal in this light and analyse exactly what he is praised for in Godwin’s eyes. Here’s the video to Holiday, the 2009 track to which Godwin refers.
The track itself was originally produced by Calvin Harris for The Saturdays to perform but they rejected it (maybe because it’s awful). It’s not hip hop either. Dizzee does rap parts of it but there’s also singing, which Godwin clearly approves us and sees this as a progression towards something positive for Dizzee, not just artistically but morally and socially. Consider the gesture of both the lyrics and the video though. The message is clear. Dizzee’s rich. He can go on holiday to an expensive beach resort in the Med and drink champagne and be surrounded by women in bikinis who all, no doubt, want to sleep with him. He’s having a great time. He’s a pop star in a pop video and as such he is reinforcing the value system of the mainstream culture in which he exists. While some people may find this video faintly ridiculous and faintly offensive, it’s what we’re used to in modern pop culture. We’re saturated with these kinds of images of success and fulfilment. It presents a world that is inaccessible to the vast majority of people by so does a huge proportion of advertising, television, Sunday supplements, etc. What it isn’t doing is encouraging or even representing crime. Dizzee’s left that world behind. He’s a pop star now.
In contrast, here’s Sirens from the Maths + English album released in 2007. The video and the song itself are at odds with one another and this could well have been with the view of managing Dizzee towards popular appeal. In the video, an all-white fox hunting party is hunting down Dizzee through the estate where he lives, who appears to be totally innocent of any crime. He seeks refuge with a white female neighbor who takes one look at him and turns him away. He is cornered and apparently ripped apart by the hunting party who then blood their faces. There’s a political point there about a victimized and persecuted underclass in Britain, with young black men the worst off. Dizzee isn’t an innocent victim in the song’s lyrics though. He describes going out with a couple of friends with the express purpose of assaulting and robbing people. The final refrain is “I break the law, I will never change.” The lyrics are the kind of thing that the Starkeys and the Littlejohns of this world get all hot under the collar about.
The danger is when people who don’t understand or listen to hip hop take it literally. They underestimate its sophistication in literary terms. Firstly, it’s storytelling. People are telling stories about the kinds of things that happen in their communities, not necessarily things that have happened to them. Secondly, it’s play acting. Hip hop artists are playing characters. This is why they have monikers. MF Doom does actually wear a physical mask at all times. The reactions to the lyrics reveal more about the people who are reacting to them than about the people writing and rapping the lyrics because the latter are always at a degree of removal from their material, putting on a mask, adopting a name, telling other people’s stories in the first person.
Hip hop artists are in the charts in the UK right now, as they were in Los Angeles in 1992 when six days of riots broke out following the acquittal of the police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King. In many cases, their music is pop-crossover and they present themselves as pop stars who can then be praised by people like Richard Godwin. In the US in the early 1990s though, hip hop was a subversive and political force. Hip hop artists did not provide easy answers. They continued to provoke and continued to ask questions. There are so many questions that the riots have brought up and conversations that desperately need to be continued: about race, about class, about unemployment, about materialism, about marginalisation. For all the best will in the world, middle-class white liberals are not the best placed to provide the answers or even to know what questions to ask.
This is the time for UK hip hop and grime to get political and get confrontational and reclaim the right to transgression in their work in order to raise awareness of what young people from the poorest urban communities are going through. The mainstream media will be delighted if they all start singing about their holidays in the South of France and can be described as “positive role models” as Godwin does in his article.
Looking back on the ascendency of the West Coast hip hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s (labelled as gangster rap) and what has happened to hip hop culture since, Ice Cube, though maybe it was O’Shea Jackson speaking with the mask off at this point, said in an interview with Stool Pigeon last year:
"People were just happy that the word was gettin’ out; that we weren’t goin’ through it alone and that there could be some understanding of what it takes to be black in America. But you realise years later that nobody cares. They were just lookin’ for sensational stories to entertain themselves with. Nobody wanted a real movement; just records they can dance to."
"maybe if you choreograph me, you will feel better" Forest Fringe, Edinburgh
I am reluctant to reveal too much about Tania El Khoury's performance art piece because I think that not knowing what to expect is part of the delight and the impact of the experience. From the Forest Fringe venue of Bristo Place you are taken by an usher, a volunteer and also, it emerged, a performer to the first floor of Blackwell’s bookshop on South Bridge. It’s in the anatomy section she points out mysteriously and then tells me to go and stand behind the screen. Behind the screen is a window on to the street facing one of the main buildings of Edinburgh University. There are also speakers, a dictaphone and three pieces of paper that have been turned over: a letter and two photos. There’s a voice coming through the speakers. It’s a young woman’s voice. While the words are the performer’s words, it isn’t her voice. She has disguised herself behind someone else. She tells you to find her in the street among the passers by. You do this by issuing her with instructions. Once you work out who she is, you are given a series of choices about how what you want her to do, what you want her to be, etc. I won’t reveal what all these things are. Some are binary choices, others are more complex and open. It is interactive performance in which the spectator/participant is given a degree of control over the performer but you also form a sense of your own role in this brief relationship so in a sense you create a character for yourself. Just this in itself would make “maybe if you choreographed me…” a fascinating piece of performance art but it’s all complicated yet further by the identity politics that come into play and this is where it starts to get really fascinating.
Tania El Khoury, the performer, is a young Arab woman and the spectator has to be male. On a basic level, of course, this means that there’s an implicit comment about the male gaze and the gender roles of who is looked at and who is looking. El Khoury manages to integrate the global political into her performance though by having you read a letter to her, which she says she has written herself as a kind of therapy, while she smokes a cigarette. The letter’s author acknowledges his wrongdoings and asks the woman (you have chosen her name) for forgiveness. The identity of the letter’s author seems to shift through the letter from the woman’s husband, her father and the state: the various manifestations of patriarchy that have dominated and defined her life. At another point, you are asked to choose between two looks for the performer: a Palestinian freedom fighter or a glamorous Jordanian royal. There’s a clear satirical point here in the limited option global society affords Arab women in their representation. The very fact that you (a man) are controlling what El Khoury does creates a political space in itself. By relinquishing her agency in the context of the piece (which she has purposefully constructed, of course), she interrogates that lack of agency in the modern world for women generally and more specifically women in the Arab world. I initially questioned the conceit that the performance can only be experienced by men. I felt that a woman could experience it as long as she knew that her role was that of a man (like a woman taking the man’s part in a dance for example). Thinking about it though, I’ve realized how important this idea of segregation is becoming in Arab society and being strict about this is again making a political point. Of course, a woman can take up a role designed for a man, it’s not difficult, but the point is, to varying degrees in societies around the world, she can’t. There are all kinds of roles we can play as human beings but there’s a big difference between that potential and what is allowed within a cultural system and this is a space that people are dying in order to bridge right now in Syria. If you’re in Edinburgh and male, I urge you to see this brilliant piece of work.
"What Remains" at Anatomy Department, University of Edinburgh Medical School
I saw Grid Iron’s new show this evening, which is an enjoyable hour but maybe a little too controlled and rushed through, not giving the story or the world of the piece as much space to breathe as it could have benefited from. It attempts the very difficult thing of making a horror film for the stage (though it is site-specific and promenade). Our antagonist is an obsessive pianist, the Maestro, Gilbert K. Prendergast, played by David Paul Jones, who has also composed the music. There are some brilliant moments, like when you are instructed to lie down in beds and DPJ patrols the room threateningly with a tray of surgical instruments, but the over exposure of the figure who is supposed to instill you with fear means that any potency he has to terrify has dissipated by about half-way through, so by the end he appears comically insane rather than a dangerous murderer. It’s an endlessly inventive piece of work though, as you can expect from Ben Harrison and Grid Iron, and there are some moments of interactivity that opened up some interesting questions for me. One in particular:
We enter a room with a keyboard, a phone and a cupboard. A recorded voice instructs the first candidate to step up to the keyboard. The dozen or so audience members know they are candidates because they all filled in application forms in the previous room. There’s a silence. Nobody steps up to the small spot-lit keyboard in the middle of the room. How long can this go on for? What happens if nobody does it? Eventually someone approaches and attempts to play the simple sequence of notes we’ve just heard played to us by the same recorded source. It becomes clear the reason for the hesitation. Nobody in the room can play the piano or read music. Several candidates approach and though, with the help of a small clue, we start to get closer to success, everyone is told that they have failed to achieve perfection. This education by trial and error is interrupted by a phone call and by a “body” tumbling out of the cupboard wrapped in black plastic. We are asked to believe this is the body of a student who, like us, failed. We then leave the room and move on to the next stage of the show. What happens though if someone in the audience can actually play piano? Is the outcome any different? I have a feeling that the answer is no but I’m fascinated if anyone has had a different experience of seeing the show.
All narratives have a point of entry for the individual experiencing that narrative. In the theatre, you take up a position (usually a seat) and your view of the events that occur will be different to the person sitting in the stalls below or in the seat behind you. The story will be the same but your experience of it will be slightly altered. The point of entry for a novel or a film is the same for everyone because our experience is guided in a concentrated way by the pages we read and the camera through which we view the events. Even if the audience is allowed by the creator of the work to see something that he or she doesn’t usually see, it is not only because of the express intention of the creator (for example in Lars von Trier’s Dogville or Jean-Luc Goddard’s Le mépris). The creator has total control over what is presented and experienced, even though he or she can never ultimately control how it is experienced and interpreted. Even in the most uncomfortable, challenging, experimental work, there’s no getting away from the fact that the relationship between the viewer and the object is a passive one, in practical terms.
In most cases, we need an individual whose experiences we follow and through whom we can see the story and the world that story takes place in: the protagonist. In some novels, it can be quick to identify who this is but some can trick the reader by employing framing devices and narratives within narratives like Condrad and Balzac. There aren’t always obvious indications as to the protagonist’s identity in films and plays either. If the narrative is working though, the protagonist’s identity should soon emerge not through analysis but through an emotional connection with that character’s plight.
In games, on the other hand, there is no question about who the protagonist is. It is the very nature of interactivity that you, the player, are playing the game and therefore you are the protagonist in the game narrative. For narrative-based games, that protagonist is also a character in the world of the game controlled by you the player. While in other narrative forms, the character of the protagonist is the creation of the storyteller, this isn’t necessarily the case in games as the player can have a degree of authorship over their character’s identity. On one end of the spectrum, there are games like LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV in which the character you control is inherited fully formed, making these games more akin to a film, play or a novel. The player-characters – Cole Phelps, John Marston and Nico Bellic respectively – are fixed and therefore so is their place in the world. You are never given the option whether or not to accept the morally dubious tasks Bellic is set in Grand Theft Auto IV (despite one or two moral choices that do not affect the overarching narrative arc): there is no option of saving up money and actually buying a car. If you need to a car, you steal one: the clue’s in the game’s title. Similarly, there are no opportunities to be deviant as Cole Phelps. The one moment when Phelps commits the act that leads to his downfall - and which, in the context of the story, can only lead to his self-sacrifice in the final moments of the game - is out of your control. You can’t decide whether or not Cole cheats on his wife. He simply does.
Then there are games where you can choose your characters’ gender and appearance, often meaning that the character itself becomes something of a cipher. The advantage of these cipher-type characters though is that they allow more opportunity for the player to be the author of their own player-character through making decisions of their own about that characters’ behaviour, rather than it being pre-defined. In a game like Fallout: New Vegas, for example, every action has consequences which will affect how the story moves forwards. The player chooses the player-characters’ place in the world. Games are the only medium that allows this. It is often the case with games that the technological advances take precedence and garner more attention than the actual development of new narrative forms. There’s no question that LA Noire represents a huge leap forward in terms of technology and the game does operate as an engrossing and entertaining narrative, in a sense the most complete and satisfactory that I can think of in a game. However, I wonder if it achieves this appearance of completion and satisfaction by replicating an existing narrative form (i.e. film noir) very successfully instead of pushing the possibility of specific gaming dramaturgies.
Gaming dramaturgies have also increased in popularity in the realm of what is known as theatre, in the broadest sense of the word, and performance a little more accurately. Inspired perhaps by the success of a few companies like Punchdrunk and Slung Low, performance makers are presenting audiences with worlds to be explored rather than a series of events to be observed at a distance. Like video games, these gaming performances do not have to follow a set order. The worlds can be explored by the player/audience member, with a degree of flexibility previously unknown in theatre experiences. This allows a degree of freedom and may even allow for different meanings to be extracted from the event depending on the order in which they are experienced. The idea that the spectator could also be a character with a distinct identity in the world of the narrative is also being touched upon but has not yet to be as fully explored in live performance as it has in the gaming sphere. At the moment, this feels like the front line of narrative development in our culture. Unsurprisingly therefore, this year’s Edinburgh Festival is full of gaming dramaturgies, be they actual performances like Look Left, Look Right’s You Once Said Yes or an ARG like Coney’s The Loveliness Principle. I’m leaving my X-Box 360 at home (for now) and heading up there to see what the future might look like. I will be posting my comments on the shows I see there (not just those featuring gaming dramaturgies) so, if you’re interested, please keep checking this blog. Thank you for reading.