Archive for May, 2009

Le Camping

There are a few things that are bound to strike terror into any right-thinking mind: workshop, feminist physical theatre collective, Richard Littlejohn – and camping. All of these are things which I have viewed with a combination of suspicion and terror for a while now, but I am now ready to reassess one of them (and after The Power.book. it certainly isn’t feminist theatre collectives…): camping.

I have just come back from a week in the Charentes with the family (and three other families), and it was fantastic – even if it wasn’t quite “camping” (we were in a static home rather than under canvas). This was a vast and densely planted park in the grounds of a chateau, with four pools, a boules lawn and a pretty decent restaurant – and (although it was half-term) the place was half empty.

The children had the holiday of a lifetime, and the weather was superb – and it must be confessed that it would be a very different proposition if it hadn’t been – which meant that we spent a week swimming, barbecuing and catching up with the other families. The whole thing was accomplished for about a quarter of a similar experience in a hotel, or villa – and actually, the adventure of being in a mobile home added an almost unbearable frisson to the children’s (who thought that this is where we now lived and bore their newly altered circumstances with complete indifference, which was rather heartening) experience.

Next: I shall set myself the challenge of falling in love with the workshop (just as well, seeing as I’m running two of them for the next ten days in Singapore…) – but I fear that Littlejohn and I are just not meant to be…

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Ah, Holiday!

Is there a better feeling? Wife and I and the children leave for France tomorrow, to spend half-term recovering from a non-stop schedule of shoots (in her case) and too many conversations of the “Is it “Intelligence” or “Wisdom”?” variety in my case.

I am also looking to recover from the draining effects of seeing “Duet for One”, which (while it boasts two of the best stage actors around in Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman, both on blisteringly good form) is a play that only gets up to 90% of capacity, and leaves the audience with the unrewarding feeling of coitus interruptus.

It’s a real museum piece: full of the newly popular joys of psychotherapy (it was written in the early 80’s, and is clearly inspired by the life and illness of Jacqueline du Pre – although in the play the heroine is a violinist and her affliction is Multiple Sclerosis) and very static – unsurprisingly since the heroine is wheelchair-bound and it takes place in an office. The oddest thing about it, however, is that the final act feels like an Epilogue, rather than a conclusion: the emotional fireworks all come in the previous act, leaving the final one feeling very,very flat – and for all the firepower of the actors involved, they can’t quite coax it into the life that it needs to satisfy the audience’s need for resolution.

Maybe it wasn’t the best piece to see straight on the back of “Madame de Sade” – although interesting to learn that “Duet for One” is another play that goes over a bomb with our Gallic friends, recently having run for a record-breaking year in Paris. It’s another “listening” play, in the Racinian tradition – although Me As A Protestant would have been happier with the audience’s behaviour at this performance, as there were no crass exclamations of “Oooh!” as swear words abounded and emotions were stripped bare, as there were at the Mishima.

Anyway, next is some Shakespeare: “The Winter’s Tale” as part of The Bridge Project, so while it’s not the most action-packed of Shakespearean dramas, it is in a very different vein – and I have to confess that I am more than ready for that.

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I am at the start of what I think is going to be a very long process of writing a book on the above idea. I’m looking at collaborations between partners in diverse fields, hoping to identify a series of common principles or even practices that can be imported into any situation where creativity is necessary, and born of a collaborative, rather than solitary, process.

And so… and so it is more than a little dispiriting to keep coming up against evidence of how old-fashioned advertising agencies (so keen to profess that they are “in the business of creativity”) are in their approach to trying to encourage EITHER collaboration OR creativity.

I am off to Singapore for a week with some of our “best” creative talent from round the world – and yet, trying to get even twenty minutes with Woody Allen in Robert de Niro’s Body Creative Director (who is meant to be partnering with me on this experiment) is proving rather more elusive than Lord Lucan riding Shergar. I am increasingly concerned that the session (which should be a really interesting examination of some classic storytelling structures and narrative archetypes) is going to fall flat on its face, as a result of a simple lack of preparation – on both our parts.

This makes me incredibly nervous – I know from various enterprises (from directing in the theatre, to Planning in advertising) that preparation is essential in getting the trust, and enthusiasm, of the people one is trying to lead. At this rate, they will be nervous and wary – and (what is worse) right to be so.

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The Circus

Fresh (if that is the word) from “Madame de Sade”, I went (this time en famille) to another theatrical venue: the circus.

I used to love the circus when I was little – back in those days when (certainly my own) moral concerns over the ethics of performing animals were a little less convoluted than they are today. Lions, tigers (no bears – “Oh my!”) and any number of acrobats was my idea of a perfect treat.

And so it was (with a slightly different cast) that my family reacted – including Wife, whom I have established (at length) is no lover of the dramatic experience. She was there, in part for a photographic assignment, and has created a magnificent hommage to Sarah Moon – but we were all there, chiefly, for the children.

Youngest Son was quick to show his contempt for the low-brow clowning: it was all a bit beneath him – a little too broad, a little too unrefined. Happily, Eldest Son thought it was the funniest thing he had EVER seen, and Daughter yelped through the entire thing: when a miniature pony was followed onto the stage by a real live ballerina I thought it was entirely possible that she would combust with sheer girly-heaven-joy. There was a low point when Eldest Son turned around (for they were sitting in front of us) and asked “Will there be any Big Cats?” and got a negative response, that would have introduced a bout of sulking (had it not been for my tart: “But I hope you’re enjoying it anyway, Eldest Son, as Mummy and I wanted to take you for a nice treat” and got a very wise “It’s fantastic!” response), but otherwise, it was an absolute winner, and at two hours, it was incredibly good value – especially when one considers that it was rounded off with THE WHEEL OF DEATH!!!!

Wife, who had arranged permission to photograph the show with the staff previously spoke to the Ringmaster in the interval. “People forget that this is real family entertainment. We please everyone from the ages of three to eighty” he said – and I agree with him. There was a real charm (not to mention nostalgia) to the whole experience: some routines and some acts unchanged in – at least – thirty years: and if the choice for “family entertainment” is between the circus and “Britain’s Got Talent” (which should, of course, be more correctly entitled: “How DareYou Stand Before People As Great As Us, The Mighty Simon Cowell, The Gifted Amanda Holden, and The Legendary Piers Morgan and DREAM That You Have Talent? We Shall Now Humiliate You, You SCUM!”), well, I know what I would choose.

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Well: my father was right – that wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, based on the truly horrifying reviews.

I went to see Mishima’s “Madame de Sade” with Me As A Protestant (we were due to be accompanied by his wife, though not, of course by my theatre-phobic wife: but she was too late in her pregnancy, suffering the ills of acid indigestion to join us – which was a shame): he is a huge Mishima fan, and confided to me that, other than “Hamlet”, this is the only play that he has seen four times. Four times! It’s hardly ever performed – at least in the UK – so this is “theatregoer as sleuth/pilgrim” if ever there were a case of that.

Anyway, it was great to see him, as ever, and great to hear that his prodigious talent is pushing out into yet another area (he’s starting work at The National Theatre Studio this year), and (as should be evident from the above) there probably isn’t anyone who is more likely to be a great companion at this play.

It really is considerably better than the critics would have you believe. Most of there problems have centred on the play itself and how “nothing happens”. Well, that is as true as saying that nothing happens in Racine (or, indeed, Beckett – but then everyone KNOWS that “we don’t say that…anymore”) – what happens, happens off-stage and is reacted to on-stage, by the six women who comprise the cast. The other problem with the play (from an English perspective) is that it is about sex, passion, profane and sacred love: there isn’t a fat neighbour with a speech impediment, or a nouveau-riche couple with HILARIOUS pretensions in sight – and that gave rise to a lot of embarrassed reactions to some of the rhapsodic passages in the play, and indeed to a chorus of “Ooh” from the stupid cunt in the seat in front of me. One can imagine how it has come to be part of the repertoire in France, and is so rarely seen here that it’s the first time it’s been seen in the West End, sadly.

Anyway: there are some flaws in this production. It seemed to me that the director couldn’t entirely commit himself to one style  – there are a series of projections that appear on the walls of the set, often accompanied by an echo appearing on the voices of the actors, which pushes the production into a very different space than that which the (for the main part, see below) acting styles and costuming seem to be pushing it. It’s as if the director doesn’t quite trust the actors, the script and the design to carry the meaning of the text: so we get it all underlined for us. And then, there is Frances Barber. Frances Barber is in a different production to everyone else: one that is akin to Gerald Scarfe cartoons come to life: she arches her eyebrows, she cracks her whip, she tilts her head and gives a hearty sneer – tipping the wink to the audience at every opportunity. I have never been a fan of hers, having seen her stamp her stupid way through major roles in “King Lear” and “La Dame Aux Camellias”, but when counterpointed by an actor of the talent, subtlety and grace of Judi Dench, her flaws were glaringly awful. Sadly, she dominated the first ten minutes – that critical point of orientation for any audience, when they starting thinking “Ah – so that’s what they’re doing here…” – and so she took the play into an eye-rolling, thigh stroking pantomime of “Ain’t I SHOCKIN’?” – so it’s hardly surprising that the audience took its cue from her and thought they were in for a naughty night. That opening speech (it seemed to me, though no expert I) should have been flinty and cruel, not salacious and smirking: we got the equivalent of a child waving its bum at a bunch of adults and then saying “I’m a naughty girl”. Euch.

Ah, but then there was Judi! She was magnificent, and in a role that must have been a joy for her: malignant and loving in equal measure, with a couple of speeches that she gave her unparalleled all to. I’ve never seen her anything other than splendid on the stage, and I know that a number of people whose view on acting I admire enormously (chief among them: David Hare and Richard Eyre) view her as our greatest actress, possibly they mean “actor” (though possibly, let’s be honest, they don’t…). Rosamund Pike, too, was first rate, providing as good an account of sexual and moral fervour as I have seen – and of course, she looks sensationally right for the part, a Blakean rose in full bloom.

The look of the thing distracted me (and not in the hugely satisfying way that the lovely Rosamund did): the set is certainly opulent – a silver gilded, paneled salon, with the gilding and the patina on the mirrors suggesting mould. The costumes are straight out of Fragonard and Boucher – but the palette is all wrong, and it’s hard to understand what is being suggested by the contrast between the setting and the costumes. And by the times the projections are in on the act (photo-real, adding another visual language) it all gets very muddy.

Anyway: I am glad i went. if I can, I might go again. It’s a treat to see a play that is so unapologetically for an audience (a group of listeners, let’s not forget), and that is entirely dependent on women to hold the narrative. I’d give it a healthy four out of five, and would suggest that were you to attend on a night when the audience weren’t hoping for “Whoops! There Go My Bloomers!”, and when Frances Barber is indisposed, then you might be in for a real treat. And for a different treat – those of you who are interested, might like a rather more scholarly (and certainly, better informed) take on the production:-


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There is a noxious bunch of Harpies (or perhaps they are no more, in which case my tense usage needs happy revisiting) called The 3am Girls who work for one of Britain’s grimier tabloids. Their task is to trip up celebrities (or other fodder), prising secrets from them – or, more likely, simply making them up on a slow news day – and then presenting such inventions as fact. Their name is derived from the time of the early morning that they find their carrion at its weakest and most likely to be indiscreet, having been liberally refreshed in Bouji’s, Bungalow 8 or whichever Yates’ Wine Lodge they are frequenting that weekend.

Now, it goes without saying that I would rather discover that Daughter had chosen a career as a pole dancer, over this kind of specious and loveless vindictiveness – but she is certainly something of a hit on the party circuit, albeit a rather more “sandwiches and Smarties cake” geared one, and has already had two parties this weekend. Needless to say this has meant the usual appointment with her stylist (Wife) and the usual temper tantrums with all the couturiers’ risible efforts to create THE perfect party dress for her foray into the Chiswick Toddlers’ A-List, and has now (to the whole entourage’s relief) been rounded off with tears and a 3pm nap. My lovely, perfect daughter: may she always be a 3p.m., rather than a 3a.m., girl.

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