Archive for October, 2009

World’s Greatest PA has introduced me to my new favourite comedy website: www.regretsy.com¬†, an edited highlights (or, more properly, the low points) of the “craft and trading” website, etsy.com.

I am extremely pleased with her, not simply for introducing me to the world of the “mature plush teddy bear” (hand-made teddy bears, with startlingly plump vaginas stitched in somewhere just below their belly buttons), but for the manner in which she helped me find the image in question.

She came to my desk, gave me the address, and then, as I scrolled down the toolbar to find the picture she guaranteed “I would love”, she issued the following, straight-faced instruction:-

“Scroll down. Scroll up. Up. Click on “Vaginas”.”

That I should hear this instruction issued by her is a happy and good feeling.

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Last night was my first visit to Deborah Warner’s production of this great, great play. It won’t be my last. I’ve booked tickets for two further performances and I cannot wait to see it again, and again, and again.

I pretend no impartiality when I discuss this great actor. I think her Hedda Gabler is the greatest performance I have ever seen on a stage, regardless of gender or material. I think her Electra and Medea were both definitive. She brings an intelligence and an immediacy to everything she does, and she is totally in control of the fact of her medium. There are few others (Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, Antony Hopkins) whom I think bear comparison (as stage actors) – so I was always going to like this (unless it turned out to be a hideous reminder of that cheek-burning awfulness “The Powerbook”, the hysterical, indulgent, unimaginative, DOA torpor of which is with me still).

Was it good “Brecht”? I don’t know – but then part of the joy of any Shaw/Warner (the brilliant Deborah Warner was watching her own production on the night I went, as she was when Me As A Protestant went – commendable commitment to the theatre as an ever-changing art form) is their lack of reverence for how a play “should be done”. “Hedda Gabler” should be a stately progress through the defiant disenchantment of a strong woman who chooses death before dishonour – but they reinvented it as a frenzied run through the last days of a woman who was cowardly and terrified of how she had lost control of her life. “Medea” should be a horrifying revenge of how an older woman exacts revenge on her former husband through the calculated slaughter of their children – but they reinvented it as the story of what happens when passion runs out between two people, where the children are collateral damage. “The Waste Land” should be read…. And so it goes on.

What I know is that last night was a boisterous, fresh and vital production of a play that I would have believed had been written this year. There was no “reverence” (but nor was there – nor is there ever – any disrespect), no sense of “inherited best practice” or anything that felt accepted, rather than felt. Absolutely fresh-minted and lively as hell. Having the songs performed by Duke Special and his band was a great touch: this Weimaresque pixie and his band created a great score of new songs, orchestrated somewhere between 1930s nightclub, gypsies’ wedding and rock concert, and the eponymous leader rightly shared a final curtain call with Shaw.

And she was astounding: a performance of enormous energy, commitment and intensity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fake smile she mustered to convince the soldiers that the body in front of her was not that of her son – and I think the great triumph of the performance was the decision to stress the Mother in “Mother Courage” (too often have I seen a defiant, hip-swinging roaring girl who “happens to have children”). These were some of the most credible family relationships on a stage I have ever seen (the relationship between Swiss Cheese and Katrin was peerlessly executed; and Courage’s love for the daughter she claimed to see as ordinary was palpable). That iconic scene (as memorable as Vladimir and Estragon standing still, not going, if not more so) when Courage strapped herself to the cart and started to pull it forward made my heart pound: it captured all the nebulousness of the description of the stage direction. Was it defiance? Was it the indomitable human spirit? Was it despair? Was it clinging to all she had? It could have been any one of those – and the reason I feel so excited to go again, is that I know the next time that I see it, it will be something entirely new.

When Fiona Shaw came forward (after prolonged insistence) for her final call, and (it transpired, standing ovation) from the audience, it was her absolute due. A towering performance in a fire-cracker of a production. If you can get to see it, do.

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I saw Best Friend last week, thank God.

She’s one of the few people I always feel better for having seen (and one of the rather greater number whom I always wish I saw more of), and what made it all the more fun was that we ate at St. John’s in the City: the home of “nose to tail cookery” – and this is just to record that whilst I ate neither nose, nor tail, it was one of the best – and incredibly reasonable – meals that I have had in a long time.

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Well: I feel rather stupid.

I thought I was off to the National Theatre to see “Mother Courage and Her Children” starring Fiona Shaw (a production that, in spite of its delayed Press Night and decidedly mixed reviews, I am assured by Me As A Protestant has rekindled a love for Brecht in him – so that’s pretty high praise…), and it turned out that I was going to see David Hare’s (equally schizophrenically reviewed) “The Power of Yes”.

Once I’d actually LOOKED at the tickets, and realised that I wasn’t just going to see a different play, I was also going to see this with my parents, rather than alone (Miss Shaw being someone whom divides opinion, but about whom, like Shakespeare, Steiner, Titian, Matisse and a few others, I am not prepared to hear negative opinions – so I tend to worship at that altar ¬†alone), I started to get very excited. I am absolutely in Hare’s camp. I think his work is serious (which is not to say that it can’t be, simultaneously, incredibly funny), heart-felt, ambitious and extremely accomplished. Like everyone else, he has his ups and downs: but I think a man who has given us “Plenty”, “Racing Demon”, “The Absence of War”, “Murmuring Judges”, “Skylight”, “Stuff Happens” and – my favourite of them all – “Amy’s View”, has got to be counted amongst the gods of contemporary playwrights.

So, I was excited, and after just over two hours (for it runs without an interval), I wasn’t sure. It is a very dense play, crammed with facts, figures, historical events – and even mathematical formulae. It has the great seriousness of purpose that I so like in his work (and how could an analysis of the current financial crisis fail to?) – and it is an absolute endorsement of theatre as THE art form to encourage reflection, debate, understanding and dialogue about our immediate surroundings.

And yet, it did, at times, feel like a draft, not a play. The sub-title is “A Dramatist Attempts To Make Sense of the Financial Crisis” – and therein lies some of the problem. The play is, a verbatim record of Hare’s characteristically pains-taking research and meetings with the people directly involved in, and writing about, the crisis: real people, real conversations, real exchanges. The cast of characters (and to some extent, the cast itself) is huge – and this has necessitated (in Hare’s opinion, at least) the need to precede every appearance made by any character with a Choric figure announcing his or her name, role and involvement in the crisis. This slows the pace considerably, and I wonder how necessary it was, either at all (after all, the endless Dramatis Personae in Shakespearean history plays don’t get the equivalent of a personal introduction every time they open their mouths…), or through some other medium (the set is magnificent and consists almost entirely of projections: there would have been one alternative, at least…). We keep returning to the figure of Hare himself being asked by a kindly, female trader who has been roped into briefing him if he is “alright” and if he is “keeping up” – and it’s hard not to see that as a quick reminder to the audience that this is what they are being expected to do. I felt at some points in the evening that what this should really be is an extended essay in one of the few periodicals that still publishes these things: “The New Yorker” or (oddly) “Vanity Fair” where Hitchens has been so brilliantly contrary – but that is to dispute my credit to Hare for exploiting theatre as a medium so brilliantly, so it becomes self-defeating.

In a very different play, by a very different dramatist, Alan Bennett gets round the issue of having himself on stage (and tackles this issue of “trying to understand how I feel about something”) through the device of two “Alan Bennett’s” in “The Lady in the Van” – and it works very well indeed (although the comic tenor of that play is a little more forgiving to this sort of conceit than Hare’s aggressively “real” piece would be…

I think what stirred me into thinking “This is a draft” is that there is a magnificent, and all too brief scene when Hare is matched with a female journalist who reported on the crisis and who (it transpires) used to count amongst her friends a number of the bankers involved, or those very like them. Maybe it’s Hare’s undoubted flair for writing female characters, maybe it’s because “writer to writer” something comes alive in the language, but this is the scene that sets fire to the whole night and made me wish for more of the same. In response to Hare’s bewildered (and utterly credible) cry of “Why has not one banker apologised for this? How can they be so arrogant?”, she asks him “And when critics attack your work, do you think they’re right? Do you revise your opinion, do you change what you wrote, or what you will write?” and the play moves into a new dimension.

My parents, I should say, were unreserved in their admiration for the piece: intention and execution, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone, but perhaps in the way that one might recommend “All’s Well That Ends Well” (which I directed my own broken-backed production of when at University…) or “Measure for Measure” to someone: fascinating, but apt to leave one thinking about what the structure is and might be, as much as simply enjoying what is there in front of one.

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There are some things that I would do almost anything to avoid. Chief amongst these would be seeing “Cyrano de Bergerac” performed by amateurs under the age of 15, trying to learn how to fill in SAP time sheets, or doing my “I think you’ve really found the beginning of something brilliant here” face for more than five minutes at a stretch. All of these things, however, I HAVE done – but there is one thing that I have not done (and to be fair, was not invited to do): a “Disco Break” in the gay bars of Manhattan for six days.

Wife, however, could not have been happier at the prospect, and so she flew over to see Talented Photographer for six days and nights in Manhattan, while I took the week off work to look after the children. Were I to record all of Wife’s exploits here, they’d be hard to credit: the night where the cabaret consisted of a woman dressed as a vagina, rubbing a glitter-speckled plastic tongue up the length of “her” labia; the mid-op transsexual who sodomised himself with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (as Jude Law inter alia looked on); the pool party to which the wearing of a gold bikini and an Afro wig was (apparently) “de rigueur” – these are but the tip of the iceberg. But – fuck me: childcare is hard work!

Thankfully, Wife (who vanished in a flurry of tears and luggage late on Friday) had left me notes of such regimented precision that there was no way that I could slip up. But I (who had, naively been anticipating a slacking off in the pace of the workplace) was absolutely staggered at the amount of effort, energy and organisation it takes to get three children to school, after school clubs, playdates and then bed, without forgetting to wash and iron their clothes, or buy and cook them food. No wonder Wife is as thin as she is: I can’t imagine when she gets time to eat…

Any full-time carers reading this will no doubt be rolling their eyes and shouting “Well…DUHHHH!” at their screens: but this isn’t a tale of “Professional Guy Takes On The Childcare And Through A Series Of Hilarious Fuck Ups Learns Real Life Lessons” – I did a sterling job, with the children on time, on best manners and well turned out wherever they had to be – but it was a real eye-opener in what should be a mainstay of my professional skills: the ability to walk a mile in someone very different’s shoes (even if the person in question was my wife and the mother of my children).

Anyway: she’s back now, thank God – utterly exhausted and Disco’ed out, needing a holiday to get over her holiday – and so life will resume its usual pattern: and I, for one, will be glad of the rest.

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