Tag Archives: Collaboration

On Midsummer Mischief, Part One – Collaboration

There’s a bit of a revolution going on at the RSC.

Those are words I never thought I’d write.

I use that qualifier “bit of” for a reason, because this is not a whole-scale, violent insurgency. Erica Whyman’s Midsummer Mischief season is a lot more subtle than that. But for the first time in my RSC-going experience, it feels like there’s a counter to the mainstage fare in Stratford, working in tandem with and in opposition to the prevailing ideology. Continue reading On Midsummer Mischief, Part One – Collaboration


Looking back at the World Shakespeare Festival: Part Three

What varieties of artistic collaboration emerged during this Year of Shakespeare and what kinds of artistic, civic, and/or ethical implications might they hold?

I’ve already spoken about the ‘collaborations’ between the Globe Theatre and international companies and the ethical implications they may hold, so this entry will look more specifically at collaborations between British companies and artists.

A good place to start here is the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, one of the most high-profile productions of the World Shakespeare Festival. What’s interesting here specifically is the way in which the season was put together. Four of Britain’s most high-profile directors collaborated on the piece (Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre, Thea Sharrock and Sam Mendes as producer), and the endeavor was, as already mentioned, funded by the BBC. So there are two types of collaboration here: artistic and financial.

In the first instance, the absence of any real kind of overarching aim should be noted. True, the four plays are narratively and thematically linked, and clearly effort was made to make them aesthetically similar if not identical, but there are many imperfections. Take Tom Hiddleston’s Hal; in the two parts of Henry IV, he’s presented as a rebel, complete with leather jacket and cheeky grin, but in Henry V his thoughtful, heroic King seems to be a different character altogether with little in common with his former self. The decision to use some of the same cast in the latter three plays but begin with a completely different ensemble in Richard II suggests the first is seen as an entirely separate entity. There seems, then, to have been executive artistic decisions being made at a higher level to the three directors, and little attempt to find cohesion between each of the films. The result then, is a jumbled one, for though the four parts look similar, that’s where the collaboration ends, leaving them feeling disjointed and incohesive.

Where the money came from suggests another kind of collaboration; that between the BBC and the British public. The History plays can often be seen, if not as a cruel, at least an honest look at the monarchy. The constantly warring factions and immature attempts at power hardly portray Britain’s royal heritage in a kind light. Nonetheless, the BBC, the monarchy and Shakespeare are all now British institutions and can be seen as conservative in some cases (though not always, I hasten to add), and all three were spoken of highly over the summer. The BBC’s remit is to represent “the UK, its nations, regions and communities”, but in essence what the Hollow Crown films did was to represent our aristocracy in a positive, heroic light, making them palatable for the summer of Brand Britain, where Shakespeare wrote far more nuanced and human characters. A silent pact was made between the BBC and the British public not to question Queen and country this summer, and this is implicit in the way in which the royal family is portrayed in the Hollow Crown season.

Another large-scale institution to collaborate with the British public was the RSC, through their RSC Open Stages project (not directly linked to the World Shakespeare Festival but receiving significant coverage because of it). The idea behind the scheme is to “bring professional and amateur theatre makers together”, through a sharing of skills and ideas, though to the best of my knowledge little money changed hands. Of course, theatre doesn’t need money to be great, but when all a big company does to support an amateur show is to play them a few videos and give them a logo, one has to wonder just how much ego is present and how much those involved are capitalizing on prestige. One of the most prestigious RSC Open Stages productions, Will Tuckett’s West Side Story in Newcastle, was referred to as “the RSC’s West Side Story” in a few contexts, demonstrating that for many all that mattered was the name of the RSC. This is problematic not merely because of the confusion about origin, but also because this takes away credit from the communities and companies creating these shows, as the RSC takes precedence and the individuals involved have to overcome this pressure. The national becomes more important than the local.

It’s easy to criticise when you haven’t been directly involved, and I know here I’m being nit-picky (and some of my arguments don’t really hold water), but these things are worth thinking about. I’m not complaining for a second that these productions and collaborations exist, either; they’ve done a lot to add to public understanding of Shakespeare and have given incredible opportunities to thousands of people. The question at the top of this post is a multi-layered, far-reaching one, and I haven’t even begin to answer it. Nevertheless, thinking about the implications which the World Shakespeare Festival has on our wider cultural discourse is important, as is considering what the underlying dogmas are which some of these collaborations bolster.

“Three Kingdoms” by Simon Stephens

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Thursday 17th May 2012

I am well aware that I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this one. By now, it feels like most of the young theatre-going population has seen Three Kingdoms, and the debate which has ensued online has proved that the production is nothing if not provocative. In my opinion, the very fact that Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling have created such a ruckus is proof enough that this is a brilliant piece of theatre; after all, isn’t that one of the main purposes of theatre – to inspire discussion? And if you don’t agree that this is a game-changer for the shape of British theatre, I’m afraid you’ve been proved wrong already; by putting it in these terms, bloggers and theatremakers alike have now set a benchmark. Even if not all British theatre ends up like this (and that, naturally, is extremely unlikely), a whole generation of practitioners have just had their brains pushed into action.

Now let’s be clear about this. This is by no means the best production you’ll see this year nor even the best new play of 2012. Quite aside from the much-discussed – though arguable – misogyny, Stephens’ script isn’t overly exciting in narrative structure and Nübling’s production fails to really affect an audience. But where Three Kingdoms excels (and the reason why it will be influencing British theatre in the next decade) is in its ideas and refusal to patronise its audience. Unlike many shows currently performing in the West End, the production team here wants us to actively question and consider what is happening on stage rather than simply guzzle it up; we aren’t treated as consumers but as adult, thinking human beings.

I’m ignorant about Estonian theatre, so it’s difficult for me to understand exactly where Ene-Liis Semper’s home culture permeates Three Kingdoms, but it’s clear that the visual tradition of German theatre and the linguistic basis of British theatre are placed together so they may interrogate and shed light on one another. Stephens’ poetic and – for want of a better word – deep text often sheds light on the carnivalesque imagery in Nübling’s direction and vice versa, whilst Semper’s design accommodates the shifts in the dialogue from stark realism to utter surrealism.

The play focusses around the character of Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) who, with his associate Detective Sargeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts), travels to Germany and Estonia to understand the death of a prostitute working in London. Stephens raises questions about the work and trustworthiness of the authorities in Europe and manages to highlight some of the issues surrounding sex trafficking, such as freedom of choice and quality of life, but in themselves the themes of the play are not that ambitious or challenging.

What is subversive, however, is Nübling’s unashamedly theatrical representation of the script, which uses excess to comment on excess and gratuitous violence to examine our violent world. Some have argued that these aspects simply indulge in the very ideas they rail against, but they forget that we are viewing a stylised representation of these acts so that we may be alienated from the subject and attempt to comprehend the immoralities. To me, this argument feels like a more adult version of the “video games create murderers” debate; the audience is intelligent enough to understand that what is occurring on stage is not okay. Before we can begin to tackle problems in the world we should at least be mature enough to face and discuss them.

There is an elegant simplicity to Semper’s box design, which draws attention to the blemishes on its surface like the pencilled height lines and blood in the corner, left in plain view from previous performances and reminding the audience that what we’re watching is a fictional performance. The various entrances and exits create a liberating claustrophobia, entrapping the cast even though there is a way out. Through the bar-window at the back of the box, cleaners creep along as if on a conveyor belt, and heads pop up unannounced. Though it’s utilitarian, is also houses the spectacle of Nübling’s vision.

Lars Wittershagen’s music adds yet another layer to proceedings, containing within it a quality which seems to halt the show when it’s used. The diversity of songs used is both comedic and exciting, as the heady words of, for example, the Beatles is juxtaposed brilliantly with the bleak world on stage. Risto Kübar’s performance as the singing ‘Trickster’ gives the notes an ethereal air.

The different styles of acting utilised for this production heighten the collaborative nature of the work, emphasising the differences in cultures and language. There isn’t one weak performance, but Tennant, Roberts and Steven Scharf as Steffen Dresner stand out; they are the emotional and comedic heart of the piece, and if it wasn’t for them the narrative thrust may fall apart. Tennant is the everyman and, try as he might to be liberal, thoughtful and kind, he is constantly let down by the world around him. His questionable morals and dubious background serve to make him all the more engaging, and though he doesn’t bare as much as other actors physically, his emotional depth is nothing short of remarkable.

I am in no way an expert on European theatre, but what’s fantastic about Three Kingdoms is that, compared to the few productions I’ve seen on the continent, it fits in visually. Particularly brilliant is the party scene towards the end of the play, complete with dancing transvestites and trippy music, revelling in its own amateur nature while chaos occurs downstage. The simplicity in the motifs repeated in the first and last scenes is equally memorable, as are the sequences representing travel between locations. Nothing is simply ‘shown’, and Nübling always takes care to use the most inventive way of staging any given moment; this is theatre, after all, so why should things be done exactly as they are in real life?

The only thing groundbreaking about this is that it’s being performed on British soil; otherwise this is very similar to the kind of theatre our cousins across the channel are accustomed to. This is collaboration in its truest form, where different parties work together and use one another’s ideas to shape a creation; in Three Kingdoms, text, design and direction go hand in hand in hand, and it’s not difficult to see similar projects coming along in the future, perhaps with different permutations of which nationality fills which role. And, as the world gets ever smaller and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to travel, more young theatre makers will experience work abroad, until there comes a time when the British theatre establishment isn’t idiotic enough to call itself “the best in the world” but instead attempts to become part of a more open, invigorating and global discourse.


at Commodity Quay, Saturday 10th September 2011

Anyone who believes that there are certain issues which art shouldn’t tackle is wrong. End of story. Just as there can be bad art about the most basic of issues, there can also be extraordinary art which tackles the most profound questions. Headlong Theatre has proved that no stone should be left unturned in the quest for truth, representing a wide selection of viewpoints on the World Trade Center attacks. Decade is a provocative, exciting and entertaining piece of theatre which never once shies away from the subject matter.

Rupert Goold has taken a collection of short plays from several writers and meshed them together. One thing unifies them; they all represent in some way an opinion on 9/11, delving into the lives of survivors, widows, historians, nurses and politicians who were affected, directly or indirectly. Lively, pedestrian choreography from Scott Ambler and brash, loud music by Adam Cork mix with Goold’s direction to mirror theatrically the cacophony of voices which fight to be heard. Yet even before we enter the space, the point is made that the voice of authority is always the one which prevails, as we are searched and questioned in a customs-style process – although those in power want these to be the only voices which are heard, the real human arguments cannot be suppressed.

Perhaps the most successful playlets are the monologues. Simon Schama’s Epic and Recollections of Scott Forbes, edited by Samuel Adamson, give the most direct and clear opinions, and are performed as wholly believable lectures by Tom Hodgkins and Tobias Menzies respectively.Ella Hickson’s Gift, about a gift seller who capitalises on the emotions of women after Ground Zero tours, and Harrison David Rivers’  not resentful at all give some humorous opinions on the aftermath.

We are also shown vignettes which highlight how tolerance has been compromised post-9/11. The Odds, by Lynn Nottage, shows Islamic members of the community slowly becoming ostracised, and Rory Mullarkey’s Trio with Accompaniment suggests we are all guilty of prejudice on public transport.

One storyline which runs throughout, Matthew Lopez’ The Sentinels, charts the progress of three women who were made widows by the attack as they meet on September 11th each year. We watch as the years go backwards from 2011 to 2000, seeing how their lives have changed and subsequently asking what life was like before the towers were brought down. The performances of Emma Fielding, Amy Lennox and Charlotte Randle here are mesmerising.

But Decade is far more than the sum of its parts. For, while each play makes a point on its own, it is together that they resonate. The scene changes are among the slickest and most engaging I’ve seen; Ambler’s choreography is seared onto the mind, just like the images of citizens jumping from windows. The final moments include a chilling song created by text messages sent on the day, reminding us of Cork’s recent success in London Road and asking us to feel emotion where before we were asked to think.

Miriam Buether’s design is staggering. We are in Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. On each end of the room are views of Manhattan, and on another a glass-fronted walkway which is used to great effect. The attention to detail is astonishing; we are even given a menu to peruse before the play begins. It is lit with flair by Malcolm Rippeth, and the dust on the shoulders of Emma Williams’ costumes completes the startling picture.

Decade is collaborative art at its best. Goold brings together a selection of sources which sometimes disagree and sometimes overtly contradict, yet the production never feels anything but cohesive. There is glue in the desire to question and debate one singular event, and no one is ever deprived of their right to speak. The epic is made human and vice versa, and spectacle is never far away. This is theatre.