Posts tagged "commentary"

Infinite Play

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.

The Limits of Control

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.

Photograph: Stringer/Colombia/Reuters 

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 Borkman at 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”.

Criticism and the View from my Window

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.  

 Michael Billington

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. 

Mike Bartlett

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.

On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God


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. 

Sailing On


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.

The Passion


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.



Farewell to the Impossible

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.


Photo: Herman Sorgerloos

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.

Fear of the Familiar

[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.

Happy Halloween!

Suspensions of Disbelief

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?


Notes to Shakespeare

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.

Hip Hop’s on Holiday

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."

Gaming Dramaturgies

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.



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Venice as a Dolphin is William Drew. I am a writer and game designer. Here you will find information about my latest projects in the field of live games and interactive theatre, a blog about theatre, performance and gaming. I will also post links whenever possible to other sites that I write for.

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