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Archive for June, 2009

It’s here in black and white: Fiona Shaw opens in “Mother Courage and her Children” in a version by Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame), directed by the brilliant Deborah Warner at the National Theatre in September.

The poster image is a pastiche of the “shot” of Tony Blair photographing himself on his camera phone, with a scene of massive atomic destruction behind him – so who knows how modern we’re going to be going… Anyway, as I have written before, I hate not to know where my next fix of Shaw is coming from, and so I shall sleep easier now; even if I have also been haunted by the fact that she really needs to get a wriggle on and play Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” before too much more time goes by. But I think it’s time for her Cleopatra next, though who might be her Antony is a trickier question: Simon Russell Beale? Antony Sher? Ralph Fiennes? Sean Penn? Only one of those would be right – and he’s the only one who is never, ever going to do it…

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I went to China last week. For a day.

That’s right: two days (or rather: two sleepless nights) on a ‘plane for a meeting of slightly less than five hours. It was utterly pointless, not least because when I got there (after a night of precisely 28 minutes’ sleep), I was UTTERLY unable to keep my eyes open. The view from our agency is spectacular, though – and well worth seeing – and the hotel was fine.

The strangest thing about the trip was a “modern trade visit” – which means “going to look at a Chinese supermarket”. in point of fact, this was looking at a Carrefour (so a British/French supermarket) and that was about as alien as it felt. The most starling thing wasn’t the differences between this supermarket and one in a totally different culture and country, but the similarities: by and large, the products were the same, the brands were the same, the layout was the same, and the consumer behaviour was the same. It was all rather underwhelming.

Of course, this was an example of the Westernisation of the world: the INTENTION is that everything is standardised, but it was still striking how little variation there is globally, even in something as culturally specific as eating and shopping for the family. Oh well…

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Brilliant New Planner was telling me a story of her unsuccessful days in Account Handling in New York.

Her agency was pitching for a large bit of business: large enough, it would seem, for the CEO to be running the pitch himself, and for his displeasure at his teams apparent lack of “Can do” spirit that he had made an impassioned, and (no doubt) embarrassing speech to rally them around the possibility of a new account win and the very real difference that would make to his bonus.

Brilliant New Planner was relatively junior, and was deputised to make sure that all the operational essentials of the day were in place: the projector primed, the pencils sharpened and lined up just so, the agendas typed and the flower fresh. And then there was another request – unforeseen, but not unusual in a business that believes in “pitch theatre” (a scrotum-shrivelling embarrassment to all that insists that if your company is pitching for a holiday company, then you must ship in sand, and palm trees into the presentation room, and don flip-flops and Villebrequin in which to present, and so on): “We need Munchkins. Get some Munchkins.” said the CEO and left the room.

Well: she did it. With less that 24 hours, she got ten actors in Munchkin make-up and costumes, all ready to be wheeled into the room, presumably to sing a jingle, stand their smiling as they “brought the idea to life” (or to scare the Bejesus out of the audience, more likely) etc. She was in the presentation room early, and when the CEO strode in, he was happy: “Where are the Munchkins?” he asked. When she replied that they were downstairs, she was instructed to go and get them – as they weren’t any good down there when the presentation was upstairs.

So she returned, leading her troupe of made-up midgets into the room for the CEO’s inspection and orders, expecting praise for her quick thinking, can-do approach and flawless execution. 

What she wasn’t expecting was to be told that “Munchkins” was a brand of doughnuts – and that all she had actually been asked to do was organise breakfast.

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Being the middle-class parents that we are, Wife and I are very enthusiastic about encouraging certain things (watching National Geographic TV, rather than a drip-feed of Cartoon Network; saying “Please” and “Thank You”, rather than, say, “Fucking Hell”, which was Eldest Son’s latest, entirely innocent offering: as evidenced by his unsettling request: “Could I fucking hell have some Ribena, please Dada?”). One of the things that we ARE keen on is the children learning more about animals, and basically communicating with each other in a way that is more reliant on words than it is on hair-pulling and kicking.

One incarnation of this is a guessing game that Wife invented, called “I am hairy and I am scary…” This title immediately won the two boys over, and it forms the opening phrase for construcing clues around an animals identity. Thus: “I am hairy and I am scary, I am black and I am a kind of monkey and I live in the jungle and I can kill people.” would be “Gorilla”. having played the game relentlessly for, oh I don’t know: 137 years, I would guess, we have broadened the parameters to allow for variations such as “Hairy but NOT scary” (puppy), “Not hairy, but scary” (shark) and even, “Not hairy and not scary” (Cinderella – a favourite clue from Daughter).

And it is Daughter’s two clues that she gave us as we walked to school today that I am going to record in a fit of shameless “Aaaaah!”

“I am lovely, and I am beautiful, and I have a dress.”

“I am lovely, and I am tall, and I go to work.”

The answers were: Mummy, and Daddy.

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A while ago (perhaps ten years ago, now) Me As A Protestant and I staged a production of Racine’s “Britannicus” in Islington, London. It was a fascinating experience (him directing, me designing) and was blessed with a few truly excellent performances – and a pretty vital directorial snap, which Racine absolutely needs. I saw the play some time later, with Toby Stephens as the eponymous hero, with Diana Rigg playing his mother, and was struck by how deadly the play became in a large space: declamatory, slow, passionless – like Classical Greek tragedy without the scale.

And so it was that I went to see The National Theatre’s new production of “Phedre”- Racine’s best play to my mind. Nicholas Hytner directing, Helen Mirren starring (alongside Margaret Tyzack and Dominic Cooper) and a translation by Ted Hughes: so what’s not to love?

Well: the set was great, the above-named actors were great, and the direction was very strong. Theseus was astoundingly bad: with all the heroic presence of Jeremy Beadle, he waddled around the stage like a fisherman on shore leave. But Racine doesn’t work in English. I don’t know that it works brilliantly in French. There is too little duologue, too much declamation and not nearly enough character development – and if your theatre tradition is Shakespearean, it is laughably poor by comparison.

So, I can’t imagine it being done better – but I don’t think I want to see any more Racine again for a long time.

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Oooh… what’s that taste in my mouth?

It’s sweet (indeed, it’s almost honeyed) – and there isn’t even a hint of a bitter aftertaste to it. It’s wholesome, and good and very sustaining. Yes: that’s right – it’s the taste of vindication.

Turns out that one of the regional directors for Very Big Client is less than impressed with the team that Travesty of All Things Gay has lined up to succeed me, and has now asked for me to come back on the business as a consultant. But the best news is the little soundbite he used to describe Travesty of All Things Gay and his coven: “They bring politics, not ideas.”

Oh frabjous day! Calloo Callay!

Anyway: the upshot is that this is going to be communicated direct to my boss (as I have advised that I cannot get involved with the brand again unless it’s sanctioned by someone rather higher up the food chain than Travesty of All Things Gay) by Client: so I have some hope that this juicy, tasty morsel will be repeated again, verbatim. And at last, the world will know…

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