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.

10 October 2006

Dear WG Sebald

Sarah and I got into a conversation yesterday about how language affects national character. The English have lots of words to fudge with, so we are drawn to politesse and euphemism and make good civil servants. The Dutch have fewer words and no word for "please" (at least, none comparable in usage) so they are direct, even appearing blunt. The Germans have a ferociously complicated set of rules regarding sentence construction, so their philosophers are as analytical and technocratic as their sense of humour is broad. In The Liar Stephen Fry postulates that the Germans have produced so many musical geniuses for the same reason: relatively little can be expressed in their language, so more must be squeezed into the music. Us Brits having a pretty much infinitely flexible lexicon, our compositional excellence is stunted by our ability to think about it too much. Yet in the modernist twentieth century, as music became an intellectual exercise as much as a means of expression, we suddenly started to punch above our weight.

I'm not sure how much of this I buy. But reading your Austerlitz, I'd love to talk with you about it. Given such a proportion of your work is concerned with the effects of suppressed national trauma on personal identity, I doubt you'd have much truck with a theory silly enough to rest on assumptions that definable national characters even exist. You'd be quite right to demur. A couple of years ago I went through a period of obsession with the notions of "Englishness" or "Britishness", both of which exist only at the level of cliche. What connects the football hooligan and the mandarin beyond mere coincidence of birth? And though both might understand the another, aren't there as many differences as similarities in the language they use?

Perhaps what we're really talking about is the character of the intellectual elite. But the intellectual elite across national boundaries have more in common with one another, I suspect, than they each have with the football louts of their respective nations. More importantly, as communications render the world affectively smaller (what many mean when they say the earth is becoming "flat"), national differences are eroding.

Bernard Henri-Levy, on yesterday's Start the Week, expostulated in his spectacular fashion on models of integration: the English and French models, resting to varying degrees on the firm-jawed retention of national identities, he said, have failed; while the American model, resting on the concept of the "melting pot", has succeeded. And if an article on last week's Channel Four news showing American muslims to be very much in love with their adoptive homeland is anything to go by, he's right. National differences are eroding.

All of this has relatively little to do with you, except that I thought you'd be interested. Maybe I'm conflating you with Austerlitz, who I'm sure would be. Either way, I wanted to leave you with this: this article links to a radio programme about language and music. It points out that speakers of tonal languages such as mandarin are, by a staggering proportion, far more likely to possess perfect pitch. But this gift has its downside in the west: their music and their language being much more similar, we understand neither.

06 October 2006

Dear Bertolt Brecht

It seems strange that this is my first letter to you. I've spent more than three years preparing a thesis on your work and haven't thought to drop you a line once. Sorry about that.

On reflection, it seems likely that spending my time wrangling with your work is itself my reason for not writing sooner. Or, more precisely, having wrangled with your journals, and the opinions of your biographers. Pretty well everyone who met you was won over, but in the absence of your personality you're difficult to like. And three years in, your work starts to pall a bit, too. Why write to someone you see every day?

But I'm writing now because I thought of you while writing about greatness in art to James Joyce yesterday, a letter which was written, like this one, in place of 1000 words on you. Your opinion of Joyce is, as far as I know, unrecorded, but the shrewd guess is that you'd go along with mine so far as his formal importance is concerned. Perhaps you'd even consider him to be using verfremdungseffekt, except: where I consider him to fall short of greatness because I don't think formal importance is sufficient, I expect you'd consider him totally defunct for just that reason. You probably won't even allow me to describe the multiple stylistic lenses through which Joyce viewed the world as verfremdungseffekte, because they don't focus attention on social realities. Which, for the orthodox Marxist, are pretty much the only realities admissible.

But I'm not an orthodox Marxist, and now you've been dead for fifty years and a month, you can stop pretending you are, too. You're not an orthodox anything, partly through contrarianism, but also - to be honest - because you never really understood Marx (or Hegel, or, for that matter, Chaplin). Still, by using them for your own ends, ends which happen to be more than purely formal, you become a greater writer than Joyce.

Yes. Though it pains me to say so to one with an ego so monstrous as your own, by the criteria I set out to Joyce yesterday, you're a great writer. Your use of popular forms to greater effect than plain populism seals it. But like Joyce, in some ways you become truly great almost by mistake. "Emotion floods through that celebrated dam the alienation effect at every turn. More and more one sees Brecht as a man whose feelings were so violent he needed a theory to curb them." (Kenneth Tynan) The harder you work to refuse the audience what they want, the harder they are forced to work to find it. But because everything else is so impeccably achieved, they are prepared to work. Nowadays your work is unfashionable because often nothing is achieved apart from the refusal, lending your work an appearance of petulance which your personal qualities as they appear in the journals and the biographies only serve to confirm.

But when done right, your work has everything. Fun, entertainment, emotional and intellectual seriousness, and ideas which resonate outward long after the half-height curtain has come down.

My thesis situates you in the tradition of clown from Karl Valentin, whom you knew, through Chaplin and Dario Fo, finishing by looking at how the contemporary, fiercely apolitical view of clown can be brought to bear on your work. Jacques Lecoq and John Wright insist clown cannot have political force because the clown, as an inveterate debunker, cannot hold any opinion for longer than about two seconds. It's a sound premise but a false conclusion: put an idiot in the right context and it's easy to illustrate the thesis that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. You don't need the clown himself to support the thesis any more than you need Richard III to support the thesis that tyranny is bad. Slightly harder than to illustrate a thesis is to explore a question undogmatically, but the principle is the same.

This combination of popular form with serious enquiry is at the core of your work (although don't worry, I'm not accusing you of being undogmatic). It's also what I'm trying to do with my clown show this winter. I love the work of Peepolykus, Ridiculusmus, Cal McCrystal and so on, but their work is, like candyfloss, ultimately unsatisfying. There's nothing left to savour once the madness is finished, no flavours left to deepen on the palate. I love Kneehigh above all because they manage to explore beauty, humanity, frailty through this kind of work. Why not create something of this stamp that is also intellectually exciting? The aim of the forthcoming clown show is to touch on serious geopolitical questions, but never stop being clown, never flip from funny to serious for cheap effect. The serious questions are there, but they are left to mature in the audiences' minds. It might not be great, but I hope it will be quite good.

But the other reason I wanted to write is the thesis itself. It's all over bar the writing up. That's the difficult bit. Reading the books was easy. I now know what I think. Fine.

I object to having to set it out in dead prose for the reading displeasure of six people I'll never meet again. The only thing motivating me to finish the damn thing now is politeness: I've been funded to the tune of about £25k to research the thing, so it seems rude not to give them something for their money. But that doesn't get a chap out of bed in the morning. I'm a freelance theatre-maker with a living to earn and both the work and the living are of considerably greater importance than completing a thesis to no purpose. These letters are a welcome opportunity for reflection. If I have to reflect much further on your work, I shall set fire to it.

I'm off to dash off 2000 words while I'm not feeling too negative about you.

05 October 2006

Dear James Joyce

Bafflingly, reviews of John Carey's What Good are the Arts are cropping up everywhere, some three or four months after it came out in paperback. I thought of you.

An article on Crooked Timber examines the Ribena theory: I prefer Ribena to Chateau Lafite and no-one can tell me otherwise; who am I to insist on the superiority of James Joyce over Barbara Cartland? Good question. The Crooked Timber post answers it by arguing that Chateau Lafite requires great dedication and skill to produce, and great experience to appreciate, whereas Ribena is mass-produced to appeal to the broadest possible palate. Cf. Ulysees and Her Throbbing Passion (not a real novel as far as I'm aware, but near enough in a Richard Hoggart-esque sort of way).

This argument is all very well. I'm quite attracted to it as filling a need for an answer to Carey I haven't managed to come up with for myself. But it does end up as something of a Pseud's charter. I'm fond of Ulysees, but by the measure advanced it comes out far inferior to Finnegans Wake, which took you longer to write and has been very thinly read. "If you don't understand The Waste Land", TS Eliot apparently said, "go away, read more, then come back and read it again." Personally, I prefer Prufrock.

The purpose of any theory of art being to justify the aesthetic prejudices of the theorist, I'm keen to find one allowing me to prefer Ulysees to both Her Throbbing Passion and Finnegans Wake; Prufrock to both The Waste Land and Tea With Kingsley Amis. The best I can do is to suggest that while cultivating one's palate is a rewarding activity, any work of either literature or viniculture that requires more of disparate knowledge than cultivated experience is pushing its luck a bit. In requiring us to learn about forty three languages to get the full experience of Finnegans Wake, you're taking the piss, I'm afraid. Whereas the majestic final section of Ulysees can be appreciated with or without having read Homer, but not without having spent some time developing one's literary palate.

And here's an unfashionable notion: that final section surpasses the rest of the book by such a distance in part because it's not entirely deaf to the requirements of Her Throbbing Passion's readership. Sure, their tastes are for the more immediate, for the quick release. But in this section of your book we have a human being in need of love, something so simple and immediately accessible as to be almost entirely unique in your ouvre. "Ulysess as romantic novel" (with a small r on romantic) would be an intriguing seminar paper and would begin to home in on my emergent theory of art.

Great art has to acknowledge the popular, but it has to broaden it. It has to engage with what the masses want, flirt with them, but not necessarily give it to them. The good popular artist knows what the audience want and gives it to them. The great artist understands what the audience want and, without frustrating them, is able to give them something else, something they didn't expect. Shakespeare, Dickens, Brecht: this is what they did. By engaging with popular forms they were able to broaden popular understandings of both art and society.

You engaged with forms popular among the literati and broadened their understandings of art. This makes you important, but it doesn't make you great. When you were great, you were great by mistake, you were great because your humanity crept in despite ferocious efforts to keep it at bay, because what made you important suddenly for a spell and by coincidence also made your work true. You were great for the last 60 pages out of 930.

04 October 2006

Dear William Shakespeare (3)

Another day spent trying to make teenagers like you. They don't.

They enjoy themselves because it's a day out of school. The boys enjoy playing at fighting and the girls enjoy playing at being in love. They don't enjoy doing it through this - to them - near-dead language.

To me the language is more alive than anything I'll ever say. And it's not just language. The words are spurs to action that, if you listen to them, can't be refused. "Why, does not every earthly thing cry shame upon her?" says Leonato, and the words "every earthly thing" make him cast madly around, looking for support, for succour, for answers. That's what we see. All he has to do is what the words make him, and we see Leonato in full.

It's easy for me to say. I've directed two and performed four of your plays, studied ten and read thirty. I've had practice. But the ones I've least enjoyed have been those I studied at school; I'm still getting over my education. I read Hamlet when I was twelve and enjoyed it, read Romeo and Juliet at fourteen and didn't understand it. That's the wrong way around. And that lack of understanding puts kids off learning about it and teachers off teaching it. Why are we forcing them to study what they might enjoy if left to find it themselves, but don't when forced? The best way of getting a kid to learn piano is to tell him he can't learn piano. Why not build up, through the eighteenth century, to your work, rather than trying to clear a four-hundred year comprehension gap in one leap? By year ten, they might get to Keats; why not save you until A-Level?

Or: if the teaching of languages weren't so lamentable in this country, and we taught French and German to primary children when they're fitted to learn them rather than at secondary level when their brains have started shrinking, perhaps the language wouldn't be so much of a barrier.

Or: I'm not teaching it right. I'm doing a five-week project running workshops on your work in January and February for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I'll get them to like you yet.

03 October 2006

Dear William Shakespeare (2)

I spent today running a workshop on Much Ado About Nothing. It would make you turn in your grave.

The afternoon was spent running exercises designed to show how performing in the Elizabethan playhouse affects one's reading of the text. Perhaps a bit ambitious for a year nine group, but I try not to patronise. No danger of that with this group. "This is fine", I say to one group. "But where are your audience? You need to be aware of your audience." "Here and here" says the self-appointed spokesperson, indicating pews. "You're not in a church", I say, brandishing a picture of the Rose, "you're on this stage." "We're not", she says. "That's the whole point of the exercise", I say. Then she brandishes her trump: "I've seen the film. They're in rows."

This has all given rise to much quoting of C.S. Lewis's Professor Kirk. What do they teach them in these schools? If only there were a way of showing people, in a blinding flash of light, your genius. I always took it for granted, until I learned to see it for myself (appreciation that hasn't come with every "great" writer). The thing about Shakespeare, as Mark Twain said of you, is that he really is very good, despite all the people who say he's very good. But with every passing year we move further from you and further from our youth understanding you with anything near ease. The language is changing every day, changing faster every day, changing away from your language. Soon you'll be as distant as Chaucer, then as Petrarch. You are not for all time, but for an age.

At the end of the workshop we had a Q+A. After some really perceptive questions that allowed me to think perhaps I'd got through, one girl said: "who wrote the play?"