Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton Film), 12.07

As this is a film based on a (wonderful) piece of musical theatre, it’s well within the scope of this blog. It’s also interesting because I (and others) seem to have very mixed feelings about it.

On the on hand, it is clearly very visually arresting and features some excellent performances. It’s periodically funny, and makes some effective cuts to the score to maintain the narrative drive on the screen. It’s certainly worth going to see, and is overall an enjoyable experience. However, I felt that the film didn’t fully come together. I was left, ultimately, with a nagging sense of unfulfillment, and that’s what I want to explore today.

For me, the central problem was the flat, conversational tone that the movie never seemed to shift. All the songs, and every scene, were performed as if it were routine, as if a damper had been put on all emotions. Todd’s killings for example, though gruesomely blood-soaked, were enacted with such nonchalance that they lost the power to appall, frighten or excite. While this was intended to show Todd’s obsession with killing Judge Turpin, it served instead to undermine the dramatic intensity of these scenes, which quickly became routine and somewhat flat.

I think perhaps part of the issue here is that the eminently theatrical language in which the musical is written has not been transposed to the screen with complete success. While it’s possible on stage to switch nimbly between scenes of deep emotional turmoil and macabre, carnivalesque violence, on screen it’s not quite as easy. Here, Burton creates such a strong visual setting for the piece, and establishes such a strong tone of strange emotional detachment that the film isn’t able to support the larger, more ebullient musical numbers or the joyfully extravagant ruthlessness with which Todd dispatches his victims.

While I recognize and value Burton’s seeming desire to find the emotional realism that could be obscured by a more over-the-top interpretation, I think here he’s gone too far in the other direction, obscuring the delightful insanity that is at the true heart of this musical.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Encounter – Peter Brook, Barbican Pit, 02.05

Occasionally on this blog I’m going to post about an encounter I’ve had with a famous or significant figure in the world of theatre. I hope people find these memories interesting: I’ll try to write as much about the insights they offered into the magic of theatre-making as about my personal recollections of the meeting. To begin, I feel I must start with the time I met Peter Brook at the Barbican Pit in London - Brook, of course, is one of the 20th Century’s most influential directors, and I went to see his French-language production of ‘Ta Main Dans La Mienne’.

I arrived at The Pit maybe three hours ahead of the start of the show: it was completely sold out, and I was hoping to be first in line for returns. First in line I was, and as I was waiting outside the theatre there were quite a number of people milling about, deep in discussion. At one point I remember looking up from my book and doing a double-take: there was Peter Brook! He was scheduled to take part in an interview after the show, and was clearly there ahead of time to make sure everything was in order. I didn’t at that time have quite the confidence I enjoy today, and I didn’t dare approach him. Instead I quickly took a few photos on my phone, and tried to hear what was being said – they were speaking in French (which I don’t speak that well) and quietly, and I couldn’t make it out.

Eventually, he entered the theatre, and more people arrived for the returns queue, so I had to stand at the front of the line. About an hour before the show a ticket opened up, and I was faced with a conundrum: take the ticket, which offered only a side-view and wouldn’t allow me to see the English subtitles, or wait and hope another ticket became available. I decided to wait, and ten-minutes before the show began (after I was getting extremely worried that I had let my opportunity to see the production pass me by) another single ticket, with a full view, was returned.

I took it immediately, and entered the theatre with great excitement, taking my seat in a middle row roughly opposite stage-centre. I was surprised to see two free seats to my right, when there was a huge line of people waiting for a ticket who couldn’t get in. However, seconds before the piece began, two people came to fill those seats: Peter Brook and a female companion! So, I had the rather bizarre experience of watching the play while myself being watched by Brook, who was clearly enjoying my enjoyment - I was once told that watching me watch a play can be better than the play itself! Of course, I kept sneaking a look to my right to see if I could catch any sense of how he was receiving his work, but he was somewhat sphinx-like and displayed little in his face.

At the end of the performance he got up to take the stage for his interview, and as he passed me I was able to exclaim (perhaps somewhat over-familiarly) “Thank you, Peter!” In a way that I improbably hoped would express my admiration for all his work over the decades. He did not respond.

The interview was fascinating. He spoke about simplicity in the theatre not being something to aim at, but the result of the recognition that some things are better ‘left to themselves and with space around them’. He expressed his feeling that ‘theatre is about human beings. And there’s nothing more interesting than a human being revealing itself.’ He used an analogy for his process of ‘elimination’, saying ‘instead of a colourful glass, try a clear one: we want to see the water!’ He stressed that playmakers should, instead of trying to start with nothing, overdo and then decide what they want to keep – thus ‘distilling’ the work.

Of extreme interest, particularly as relates to the focus of this blog, was his contention that “there is good, very good, bad and abominable acting. Objectively.” And that the quality of a performance (and, by extension, a work) should be judged relative to the effect it attempts to produce and its success in producing that effect.

He described the rehearsal process as ‘working from a hunch…feeling that certain activities are worth doing’, and he suggested that, as the rehearsals progress, the hunch becomes collective, and form appears. When asked ‘What happens if the piece isn’t going anywhere?’ he responded reassuringly with “That is the basis of the process. It happens all the time.”

He also had some fascinating insights into Chekhov, and a take on Russian theatre-history I hadn’t heard before. If people are interested I could go into it in more detail in a note. For now, I think the above is enough to describe this remarkable encounter – one I feel very privileged to have experienced.

Varekai, Royal Albert Hall, 01.08

I saw Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Varekai’ earlier in January (their visits to London have become something of an annual pilgrimage for me), and one scene sticks in my mind and seems worthy of further attention.

In contrast to many of the other acts of the evening, this was very simple: just a single male singer wearing a somewhat absurd blue tuxedo and ‘singing’ Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ under a spotlight. Slowly as he sings the spotlight shifts to his right, and the singer moves to remain inside it, until walking into a piece of the scenery. The spotlight continues, and he hurries to catch it up. When it seems he has regained his position in the spot, it continues to move, capturing his outstretched arm, then only his hand crooked in an emotional plea to his unseen love.

The act continues in this manner, with the spot moving and the performer trying vainly to catch up while still singing his song. The spot starts to vanish completely only to reappear in a different place, requiring the performer to run to catch it. At one point it hovers just above his head, and he jumps up and down trying to stay in the light. Eventually he’s sitting on audience-members’ laps and climbing the scenery, and finally the spot directs him to a point on the floor which he falls into, and he sings the last phrase with his head, lit by a handheld torch, sticking out of this ‘manhole’.

For such a simple act, based around a single dramatic impetus, it drew peals of hysterical laughter and well-deserved applause. Why? How does this little scene become so funny and riveting to watch?

The choice of song and the singer’s performance are, of course, part of the scene’s success. ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ is an iconic song that many in the audience can be expected to know (especially a French-speaking audience like those in Cirque’s native Canada) and, due to Brel’s own emotionally-charged performances is ripe for parody that hams it up to the point of ridicule. Claudio Carniero’s performance as the singer, with his slicked-back hair and furious pouting, brings out the latent absurdity in the song effectively, and adds to the comic mix.

But key to the success of this act is the very simple idea of a wayward spotlight and a performer’s struggles to remain within it. The situation has inherent dramatic tension, in that the audience soon realizes what is going on and begins to think “Where will the spotlight appear next?” At the same time, the dramatic possibilities of the situation are stretched to the extreme: the spotlight appears in the most unlikely of places, requiring the performer to climb scenery, leap across the stage and even leave it and enter the audience. This is accompanied with a striking attention to detail, as the singer leans more and more horizontally to stay lit, or extending his arm and seeing the spot travel along it to his fingertips. A lesser dramaturg would not have explored the potential of the central dramatic idea so fully, and much of the excitement would have been lost.

Furthermore, the singer’s desperate attempts to regain the light make a comment on the act of performance itself. The efforts of our singer recall the scrabbling of so many who want to be in show business and who will do anything to get into the limelight. As such, the piece becomes delightfully self-referential, commenting on the act itself and the show in which it is contained.

As such, this simple dramatic motor drives four minutes of completely riveting theatre: funny, exciting and meaningful.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Little Mermaid, Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 25.01.08

Perhaps it will seem inauspicious for my first post on a specific production to be dedicated to a stage-translation of a Disney movie. There are those who think that such extravagant Broadway epics are incapable of being great theatre, or that the theatrical dabblings of huge media corporations will inevitably be lowest-common-denominator rubbish. Indeed, 'The Little Mermaid' would certainly be described by Grotowski as an example of 'The Rich Theatre', by which he means, as he was happy to tell us, 'Rich in flaws'.

I am therefore delighted to state, quite categorically, that this production was an absolute triumph, and a model example of how to bring the big-screen to the big-stage. In keeping with this blogs raison-d’ĂȘtre, what follows is not a review (although the show is fantastic) but what I’m calling a ‘critique’: I’m trying to examine how the show achieved the effects it did, and why it might have worked so well as a piece of drama. As such, this piece may have something of a different focus to many – it will include minor spoilers, but not any rundown of the plot etc. I’m more interested in selecting and analyzing bits of the show which demonstrate how it functioned as art.

Possibly most striking was the way the two different worlds, that of the humans above and the mermaids beneath, were characterized. The use of different lighting schemes (a deep orange for the human world, and a rich blue for the mermaids’) immediately brought the distinction to the fore, an effect that was amplified by the huge rotating ‘sun’ that hung above centre-stage and became stunning sea-jewel when we were ‘Under the Sea’. The first scene exemplifies the slick transitions between worlds that characterize this production: the curtain rises to reveal a ‘ship’, itself orange and gold and emblazoned with sun-imagery, floating serenely on the ‘waves’ with a beautiful golden backdrop. After the first number the ship and ‘waves’ rise above the stage, and we are given the impression of floating down to the depths of the ocean. As we descend the orange backdrop become blue, and the sun rotates to become the sea-jewel. Furthermore, the ship itself is essentially made up of two large ‘pendulums’ with astrolabe-like markings on them, lending it a technological air – and this distinction between the technologically-driven society of the humans and the magic-based one of the mermaids is maintained throughout the show.

Another episode which shows how fully these two societies have been conceived, and how carefully contrasted comes later, when we meet the women of Prince Eric’s (Sean Palmer) court. In comparison to the mermaids (who, ingeniously, ‘swim’ about the stage on those shoes with the wheels in the heels, enabling them to glide effortlessly and walk normally as required) the women of the court had huge spherical bustles which bounced up and down as they walked. This gave them a weighty solidity and ungainliness in contrast to the mermaid’s beautiful gliding, and enabled Ariel (Sierra Boggess), who did not wear such a bustle, to seem graceful and expressive in her movements.

Indeed, the entire section during which Ariel is mute was elegantly handled. Having your leading-lady lose her voice for most of the second act presents a significant difficulty to any producers of a show based on this story, and the theatre has no recourse to close-ups or other filmic conventions to show the fine facial expressions that might enable Ariel to ‘speak without speaking’. The producers of this musical handled the problem quite ingeniously. First they use well-staged sections in which Ariel sings her ‘inner-thoughts’ for the benefit of the audience. While potentially something of a cop-out, these sections succeed in becoming musical soliloquies that don’t seem at all out of place. The second approach, however, is even better: a new song (‘One Step Closer’) introduces the idea that “A dance is like a conversation”, and Eric teaches the mute Ariel to dance to express her emotions in lieu of speech. As well as being a great new song, this section also became a delightful commentary on the expressive capacity of art. This concept is emotively realized in a later scene in which Ariel, instead of singing to win Eric’s heart, dances for him – and through her dance, he knows her.

Finally, for pure theatrical extravagance, I must give a nod to the wonderful ‘Les Poissons’ scene. The film version of this scene is already so over-the-top that I was surprised at how perfectly they managed to catch it on stage. The absurd overhanging belly and hugely tall chef’s hat worn by John Treacy Egan effortlessly conjured the maniacal chef of the movie: evidence that costume-design can transfer a film-image to another medium. One of the stand-out scenes of the production.

There were a couple of less-effective decisions that deserve to be noted, both related to the ending. Most significantly, the decision to have Ariel defeat Ursula (the marvelous Sherie Rene Scott) instead of Eric was, I think, a mistake. Withstanding the significant challenges of realizing on-stage the wonderful scene in which his ship pierces Ursula’s breast, by having Ariel defeat the play’s nemesis a crucial element of its dramatic balance is upset. The film has a balance that the play does not, then: Ariel saves Eric from drowning, and in return he saves her (and her father) from Ursula’s machinations. By having Ariel triumph alone, the reconciliation between the two-worlds (reminiscent of a happy-ending Romeo and Juliet) seems a little forced, for what has Eric done to ‘deserve’ Ariel? Likewise, having the undersea and landlubber courts dance together at the end somewhat undermines the dramatic impetus of the plot: for if mermaids can live with man through the wave of a Trident, why turn Ariel into a human at all? Nonetheless, it provides a great finale and can be forgiven as the product of deserved exuberance.

These slight flaws, though, do nothing to diminish the overall effectiveness of this wonderful production. Go see it, and after you’ve seen it come back here and comment on what I’ve written – perhaps you’ll get a richer understanding of how the powerful effects created function dramatically, or perhaps you’ll violently disagree. In either case, please feel free to comment and add your thoughts about this startling piece of theatrical magic.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Curtain Rises...

You sit forward on your seat, straining to see into the shadows as the plush red folds ascend, giving way to... what? Perhaps a grandiose scene from Ancient Rome, or the bleak image of a subway train, rattling through underground caverns. You are there to experience something - something important (you went all the way to the theatre, didn't you?) - and yet you are not quite sure what awaits you in the hours and minutes to come.

Perhaps you are there to forget yourself, to immerse yourself in fantasy and fly away. Perhaps, instead, you seek thrills and excitement, or are drawn by the allure of the forbidden. Maybe you just want to laugh, and feel your worries slough off like shed skin. You may even be there to be terrified or made miserable, to see horrors unfold before your eyes.

But one thing is certain - the experience should leave you with fresh ways to view the world beyond the theatre-walls, new perspectives that enrich your life outside. Ideally, your experience in the theatre should help you learn something, help you understand the world better - or at least differently. The shared-experience the theatre offers should not cease to affect you when you exit the space, but stay with you, nudging you towards new ways of seeing.

The Theatre of Thought is dedicated to providing such experiences. When we create or critique a show our primary perspective will be this: 'What can the audience learn from this? How will their ideas be advanced or challenged? How enduring are the new lenses this piece offers? How fully does it enrich the lived-experience of the theatre-goer?'

Of course, no dramatic offering can be successful without commanding the attention of the spectator, so a second strand of inquiry will seek to examine whether the work is compelling, and for which audiences it can be expected to function most fully.

Finally, as students of dramatic form, we will ask the questions 'How does this work work? How is it achieving the effects it achieves?'

We hope that these musings, informed by aesthetic philosophy, poetics, cognitive research etc. will be of value to those who love watching and making theatre and those who want to develop a better understanding of how theatre does what it does.

Welcome to the Theatre of Thought!