23 May 2007

This blog has moved house

This blog has moved house.

It is now incorporated in Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will.

Letters to Dead Writers will occur just as irregularly, but there'll be other stuff happening there to fill in the gaps.

14 February 2007

Dear George Orwell

Full disclosure to start. I'm not a great fan of your fiction. In both 1984 and Animal Farm the broad, bold strokes of your ecriture degree zero don't seem to me to be supplemented by sufficiently complex inner life on the part of the characters to avoid cartoonishness. This is perhaps more forgiveable in the case of Animal Farm but there the allegory is so blunt as to constitute assault. Who really likes allegory anyway? More on this later, perhaps.

Your non-fiction is much more satisfying because you've no need to strain for the plausible or the well-rounded; you can allow the stupidity of the real to stand untrammelled. You need neither to exaggerate nor contextualise the flaws or the crazes of the people you observe: and you have the freedom to sometimes not know. Given the trends in fiction when you were writing, the authority of yours is striking and just a little untrustworthy.

No such problem with the non-fiction: I just read Homage to Catalonia for the first time. And like so many people, aside from spurious musings about the two sides of Orwell, I can't help but wonder how you'd react to the world of today.

God, but that's a tedious and well-worn thought! And yet: who have we got today reporting like you did? Polly Toynbee's Hard Work goes some way toward being the Road to Wigan Pier of its way, except it's not as good: a bit too prim, a bit too much awkwardness and cant. Robert Fisk has the passion but none of the balance; likewise John Pilger. Christopher Hitchens doesn't know whether he most wants to be you or Tom Paine, but there are plenty of reasons he can't touch either. Noam Chomsky I like, but he doesn't get out enough. I could go on, but it's all a bit too depressing: and these are the radicals. I hate to come over all Medialens on you, but there really is an appallingly small range of opinion in the mainstream press.

But wait! You said just that in 1937: and not only about the mainstream press. Yet where you were feted, Medialens are broadly considered ridiculous. Despite their having as firm an evidentiary basis as you ever had, and as patient a style of argument, there's no question of their being the 21st Orwell. Perhaps this is because, like Chomsky, they don't get out and about actually reporting much; perhaps it's because they're a bit sententious. It's also because there doesn't seem to be any space for the rational left these days: the only remotely radical leftie voices that get heard in the papers are the hysterics:they may be right, but they give nobody a good name and persuade no-one who wasn't already persuaded. Medialens are a bit of a relic of days when the left were taken seriously. They need to be taken seriously. But most of all we need someone like you to calmly shock us into seeing why. If you can't help, I'll try Tom Paine later.

23 January 2007

Dear William Shakespeare (5)

So, the project I mentioned in my last letter has got underway: four weeks of workshops on Romeo & Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing. As feared, it really is too much, in two hours, to expect a Damascene revelation, a realisation on the part of the slouchingly assembled crew of 15-year-olds that, actually, you're great. No-one else has ever written for the stage this fluently, with this richness and this craft. Wow.

The students seem (for the most part) to enjoy themselves; they seem (for the most part) to leave feeling they've gained something. Perhaps a thing no greater than help with the exams, but something, nonetheless, to take home. Maybe this little bit of help will mean that, one day, they have that Damascene revelation. This is easy. After all that struggle, resistance, face-pinching, it's suddenly luminous, magnificent, clear. Wow.

I hope so. But I work in the theatre. I want to see the moment of revelation for myself - or at least have it reported back to me quickfast pace Chekhov or the Greeks. Otherwise, despite the absurd feedback forms showing that teachers tick consistently under "excellent", how do I know I'm doing any good?

11 November 2006

Dear Sophocles

I don't enjoy reading your plays. Or those of Euripides or Aeschylus, for that matter. It's probably in large part a language thing: not many people read Ancient Greek these days, and I count myself among their unhappy number. The very structures of language have changed since your day, to the extent that a literal translation is no longer even a plausible pretence, as it just about is from French or German. Still, most of your translators are academics attempting just that, and coming up with playtexts that smell like 2,000 years of dust.

Added to that, I've never seen a classical Greek play in production that I've enjoyed. Highly competent productions in obviously highly competent translations have moved me to nothing even resembling catharsis. Perhaps this is due to the extraordinary alien-ness of the world. I simply cannot empathise with characters whose worldview is predicated on their being controlled by the fates and the whims of capricious gods. Even before I read Marx, even before I abandoned christianity at aged 13, I couldn't share that view.

But good theatre, like good novels, ought to be able to take me to this alien world and help me share an experience of it. I may not be able philosophically to get along with your work, but if I were only capable of enjoying plays about people like me I'd be a startling egotist. No, the problem is not that I haven't succeeded in identifying with these people, this worldview. The problem is that the productions haven't. They've understood it on an intellectual, rather than an intuitive level and shown what it means, rather than how it feels. To feel I understand is far more powerful than to think I do.

There are three partial exceptions. The first is Katie Mitchell's production of Iphigenia at Aulis, shown at the National a couple of years ago. Theatrically this was astonishingly bold. It was studiedly undramatic: moments were missed, lines were mumbled. A fourth wall was partially built out of suitcases and any emoting that was done was done while facing upstage. At one point about seventy suitcases were brought in and counted. Someone lost count so they were counted again, all of which took about fifteen minutes. During this time no drama was obvious. Imagine Euripides' play performed by Forced Entertainment. The sheer insolence of this approach made it all quite gripping, and when the big moments came - and they were big moments - they had more power than if a great deal of effort had been expended on setting up high stakes. Whether I felt I understood this alien world is another matter.

The second is Kneehigh's production of the Bacchae, again about two years ago (that's also Euripides, isn't it? You'll wonder why I'm writing to you and not him. It'll become clear). When I remember this show I do so fondly, as it was the usual Kneehigh fun and games. Interestingly in this context, one of the first things that happened was a mini-lecture on the Greek metaphysical order, a cheeky bit of exposition made acceptable by its not pretending to be anything else. This succeeded principally in rendering the Greek metaphysical order a subject for fun, but at least it didn't just assume we knew what it was. When I remember the show I do so fondly, but when I think about it in this context I remember its faults. The transition from Bacchic joy to its horrible consequences was more of a lurch than a development - in part because the audience were never permitted to share the Bacchic joy, instead laughing at it hard. And when that transition was made, it came at the expense of any audience contact; the show retreated from us. So this one was tremendously enjoyable, but not a success on the terms under discussion.

Then last night I saw a production of your Ajax, directed by my friend George Rodosthenous. It was reminiscent of Kneehigh in that it was a complete re-rendering of the text, but aside from that it was completely its own thing. Scrupulously modernised, it became about a modern day (Gulf?) war. And it erased all reference to the Greek social order. Athena became the Defence Minister and all other references to the gods became references to God. It was the first time I've seen a Greek tragedy and felt that it was truly tragic. Why?

I don't think it's because of the re-vision of the metaphysical order. I think the same effects would, if anything, have been stronger for the "workings of fate" business. No, it worked so well because it created atmospheres rather than ideas. Any scenes that were led by two or three people having a conversation were pretty below par, exhibitions of intensity to no particular purpose, unleavened by sensitivity or gentleness. But when the full machinery of the production got going - led by George's magnificent music - it really whipped up a storm. Ajax's death came after a party sequence featuring frenetic Greek dancing, and the juxtapotion was astonishing. All of the set-pieces were just as strong. When Ajax's daughter sang a lament over his dead body - the first song in the show - it was breathtakingly powerful despite the fact that she wasn't much of a singer.

So my thinking is now that the way to make plays like yours work is through massive ensemble commitment and radical revision of the text. And for the first time ever, I've a desire to give one a go. Devising a version of the text is the only way to go. Perhaps a future Strange Bedfellows project? I'll let you know. But first of all, I'll need to read some of them...

17 October 2006

Dear Samuel Pepys (2)

Necessity is the mother of invention. She's also the mother of motivation, invention's less glamorous sibling.

Seriously, I don't believe anyone ever did anything they didn't have to. The difference in industry from one person to another derives simply from what each considers "necessary". For example, for whatever reason, you found necessary an impeccably meticulous work ethic in the office, plus extra-curricular reading (general and scientific), an hour a day of music, and regular philandering - not to mention unfailing daily diary entries for the decade before your sight failed. Because if you hadn't, people might have looked at you funny in the street: "old Sam's not been pulling his weight lately. He's really let his viola da gamba slip and looked a real fish when asked about Newton's latest paper."

When I last wrote to you a year or so ago I was suffering a real slump of motivation and couldn't understand how I got so little done, you so much. And still, whenever my thoughts turn to you it tends to be in self-reproach. But in general I'm riding a wave of productivity at the moment. Why? Because it's necessary.

I turned fully freelance a couple of months ago. Until then, I had the support of a bursary to pad out times thin for work. No matter how slow I got, I never neglected the essentials of keeping Silver Tongue afloat, because for whatever reason it seemed necessary. Now, I rely on keeping Silver Tongue afloat for my future rent and food, so its necessity is even more keenly felt. Although I've had days in the last couple of weeks less productive than the ideal, none have been totally wasted.

If you need something doing, ask a busy person. I'm now getting on top of a lot of Silver Tongue's administrative machinery, which I really ought to have dealt with when I had leisure to do so. The website is being redesigned, the financial governance sorted out with considerable outside help I could easily have engaged more than a year ago if I'd looked in the right place, and the legal constitution put in place. All of this will be done within a few months. (Added to all of which, I'm keeping up these correspondences with much more regularity.)

Inspiration comes from the strangest of places. As you may have noticed from recent published letters to other correspondents, of all my work in the pipeline I've been most enthused for a while about the clown show. Shiver didn't get the reception we'd hoped in Edinburgh and, though we're reworking it, selling the tour has been a tough gig. And I just haven't thought in enough detail about Man Across the Way to get excited about it. But wandering around the internet looking for good models for theatre company website design, I found myself poking about the Complicite website. I couldn't say what it was in particular, but I found myself thrilling with excitement at the possibilities of that show. So because of one necessary task, I found myself inspired with new and welcome enthusiasm for another.

It's not right to say I haven't been looking forward to the Man work. It's just not as new as the clown work, and so it's easy to become blase about it. But what I realised while reading about Simon McBurney were all of those things that are new. I found my first words of the development process, which starts in a fortnight. I found myself talking about how different this process will be from previous Silver Tongue development projects. I found myself seeing the things about the show that are different, that are new. This is all very exciting. It's not as though we're totally changing everything, leaving behind all that has made us what we are. But we're forging ahead anew.

Is this how you maintained your enthusiasm for all your projects? If in stasis, change things? If it ain't broke, fix it? It's a pretty good principle, especially in the arts. It's impossible to create to a model; in order to be genuinely creative, you need first to create the model. It's zero budgeting, it's the clean slate. Change is vital, it is the engine of creativity. But sometimes it doesn't appear necessary, and necessity is, of course, the mother of invention.

16 October 2006

Dear Leo Tolstoy

Last week, for the third time, I saw NIE's Past Half Remembered. It's one of their twentieth-century lives trilogy, the life in question being that of Maria Mikhailovna Gurevich, a Russian whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. Unlike the character, the real Maria Mikhailovna never quite made it to 100, but that's a small piece of license in what is an extraordinarily faithful recreation of her story.

You see, until doodling round the internet just now, it hadn't really occurred to me that NIE's might be a true story. Its sweep, from WWI, through the Russian Civil War, to the siege of Stalingrad, with Mikhailovna always in the wrong place at the wrong time, seemed just too conveniently large. And it fits the requirements of Russian clown/storytelling way too neatly, a real feast of theatrical ingenuity and madcap idiocy. Still, it's a great piece of work, powerfully imagined whether true or not, extremely funny, terrifically sad, and beautiful.

I want to discuss with you Russia as an aesthetic idea. NIE's show, though brilliant, conspicuously stops its storytelling around the end of WWII. And I saw one genuine Russian show (NIE are international, the nearest nationality to Russian being Czech) in Edinburgh this year, The Family Semianyki, by clown troupe Licedi, which is likewise aesthetically stuck in about 1916: battered suitcases, and costumes Popov would have thought old-fashioned. For sure, it's hardly surprising that our Western idea of Russia is held in pre-war stasis. Remarkable, though, that the same seems to be true of Russia's.

It's worth noting that this thesis rests largely on clown-based work. I haven't seen the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg, currently showing in London, and perhaps they'll prove these ideas do not apply to text-based theatre. But I'm not so sure. Although they're widely professed to be brilliant, it seems aesthetically they're developing strictly along the path indicated by Stanislavski. This doesn't mean they're not brilliant, and I may be totally wrong. (Imagine, if you wish, this whole paragraph in parenthesis.) But they're certainly not strikingly contemporary. The photos prove that.

Could it be that Communism, breathing down artistic necks, held back any serious progress? That it seemed safer to stick with what was known than to innovate? I think this is plausible, and it would explain how the Russians got so good at what they do. Afraid to move forward with leaps, the finest artistic minds turned to refining what already exists and they refined it almost to perfection. (The long rehearsal periods help, too, I guess.)

There is one obvious counterexample here. Derevo are clearly producing work of a contemporary stamp. I tend to dislike their exercises in pure aesthetics, but it's worth noting that when they were founded, two years before the wall came down, they quickly became known as "the first underground theatre in Russia". They were the product of something in the wind, one of many signs things were about to change. And they were able to thrive in a post-Soviet world hungry for new forms that had hitherto seemed risky.

When it comes to clown, this all seems hardly surprising. When was there last a clown of any nationality that seemed aesthetically current? There are examples, but the overwhelming majority have an odd timelessness at best and, failing that, a retreat into the safely-trodden past. And a remarkable number from whatever country hark back to a semi-rural Russia that seems little advanced from the world of Natasha's dance. What's that all about?

It seems attractive to say that you fixed Russian-ness so firmly in the popular imagination that no-one has yet succeeded in imagining it better. Attractive but wrong. In the west we have a cliched idea of Russian-ness that your clowns serve to confirm almost as much as do ours. And clown relies on shorthand, on the recognisable situation ripe for disruption, so appealing to the cliche is an obvious strategy.

The whole of life is in War and Peace, you laid Russia bare. Along with Chekhov (whom you considered "an even worse playwright than Shakespeare") and one or two others, you created such a strong sense of your country that it's recognisable even today: to the extent that it's become cliche.

11 October 2006

Dear William Shakespeare (4)

I saw your Cymbeline last night, in Kneehigh's (incredibly) free adaptation, and have just spent some time looking through the reviews. They fall, broadly, into two camps. Most are enthusiastic, excited by the verve and theatrical imagination with which they've tackled this tricky play. Unsurprisingly, only the bluff Telegraph deigns to use the epithet most fitting: fun. But several are sniffy, Michael Billington in particular exhibiting upturned nose on the grounds that this production "taught me nothing new about Cymbeline". What a complete arse.

He also cavils at the "relentless jokiness". Has he read any of your comedies? Some of your fools are so effortful those cast as them often look in danger of burst veins or worse. And this from a man who earlier this summer described farce as "the essence of theatre". What a complete arse.

Likewise Sam Marlowe in the Times complains about a "daft pun" at a key moment: misreading Posthumous' letter to Pisanio, Hayley Carmichael's Imogen reads "she has played the trumpet in my bed". Marlowe declares we get this "instead of Imogen's agony". Well firstly and for starters, that's not a pun. A pun is where the intended meaning of a word is mistaken for another, unintented meaning, not where one word is mistaken for another word entirely. Secondly, it got the biggest laugh of the night. Thirdly, I don't believe the agony is ever in doubt, but if it is then Carmichael's collapse from outraged disbelief (hilarious) to stricken gropes toward understanding (heartrending) removes it. The audience moves from utter bellylaughing hysteria to chokingly complete silence in an instant. I don't remember the RSC ever moving me to either of those states, let alone with such alacrity and skill.

These people, like those numerous who left during Stratford intervals (no such pomposity in Leeds), obviously nurse obscure feelings that Kneehigh director/adaptor Emma Rice is somehow cheapening your play. This may partly be derived from the fact that she uses very little of your text and they weren't told. Nothing more disconcerting than having to make your mind up on the spot. Marks off for not telling us in advance what we were going to see. There's an ill-concealed and sometimes even gropingly expressed feeling that without your language, it is impossible to match your grandeur. Bollocks. Kneehigh do with images what you do with words and I'm sorry if it upsets you, but this is the first production of Cymbeline I've seen and I know it's the best I'll ever see, text intact or no.

Still, I have a sneaking suspicion you'd like this show. Yours wasn't a theatre of reverence. Your crowds were rowdy and you had to keep them on side. So you gave them what they wanted to see - from wordmuddling fools to severed heads - in order to show them what you wanted them to see - the truth of loss, the joy of re-union. And if Kneehigh play to the crowds, they at no point pander to them. Barely a moment of this magnificent show is ill-judged, but a fair few of the responses are.