Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Conviction, Ground Control and the well-made play

Conviction
I listen to more than one podcast about the art of screenwriting. No wonder that people think they want to write movies and television. There’s an industry of books and podcasts and lectures that break down the rules of screenwriting. It’s the three-act structure. It’s the hero with a thousand faces. It’s Robert Mckee’s Story.

Theatre, though, is struggle. Michael Gow spoke about “The Agony and the Agony” in his keynote address at the National Play Festival. It wasn’t, as I suspected, just about the agony of writing, but about the struggle of the characters – from moment to moment and scene to scene.

Agony derives from the greek “agon” meaning “contest”. It’s where we get the terms protagonist and antagonist from. The person we want to win the contest and the person who is trying to stop them from winning the contest. This is particularly clear in film and screenwriting books.

Gow has an addiction to self-help and “how to write” books. When I did his masterclass as part of the Play Festival, he expanded on this notion that the rules were laid out in books; he both believes that and distrusts it. He likes Robert McKee’s Story and hates Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Television, in some ways, is more daring in casting its protagonists into grey areas. We have Dexter and The Americans; The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. I think television needs its characters to struggle with good and evil, simply so the writers can find ways to keep writing them for years at a time. In cinema, characters almost by design need to fit more neatly into boxes; we spend less time with them, their motivations can’t be so murky.

Theatre, for me, exists somewhere in between these two things. It needs to tell a compact story (mostly) but it can be driven by characters who exist in grey areas and whose struggle can be defined by the smallest thing. Theatre doesn’t always have a clear three-act structure, even though we can usually intuit a beginning, middle and end.

Zoey Dawson’s Conviction is, as with most of her work, a play about herself. It’s an arrogant play about arrogance. A pretentious play about pretence. A very Zoey Dawon play about Zoey Dawson.

As much as I love a well-made play, let me revel in the naturalism of Tennessee Williams or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, there’s something about the play that tears down expectations of theatre that’s thrilling. And I think disassembling theatre can be a more complete experience than a non-narrative film and it may be due to the live aspect; the visceral experience.

Zoey Dawson is a writer who writes about writing. This is a fraught exercise, of course. Writing is different for everyone and not everyone wants to be reminded that they are at the theatre while in the theatre. But this is Zoey’s struggle; antagonist and protagonist of her own plays. What do I write about? How do I write it? And what do I leave the audience with?

The first play I saw of Zoey’s was The Unspoken Word is Joe (the title a reference to Angels in America) ended with the audience being ordered out of the theatre before the traditional applause. To this day, I feel like that experience was incomplete; an experience that film could never replicate. An experience that television only approximates when a series is cancelled.

Conviction left me with a deep sense of unease; not just about writing but about how we engage with theatre. The play begins with stream-of-consciousness thoughts on what Zoey might write about and then we start to get a story about convict-era Australians. We get the opening of a well-made play, but even as that unfolds, the seams are exposed and the audience is unsettled.

Is this a satire? Is this black comedy? Is it just full of shit? The cast has the courage of its convictions, but what is the writer bringing? Self-doubt.

The play shifts from colonial Australia through the modern day and zips into a post-Apocalytic world. We get pretty clear stories about women’s roles in those societies and, in some ways, the three time periods evoke that three-act structure we expect from film and well-made plays. Set-up. Rising Action. Climax. And denouement.

Zoey Dawson struggling with herself. The audience struggling with Zoey Dawson. And women struggling with society’s narrative expectations. It reminded me very much of Rachel Perks’ Ground Control at Next Wave. This feminist science fiction story played with our expectations of what a space drama should be. We are introduced to an astronaut alone in space, escaping a post-Apocalyptic world, her only companions a plant and the ship’s computer.

That is a set-up worthy of great science fiction films, but like Zoey, Rachel wants the story to not just be about a hero’s journey, but about the story she’s telling and deconstructing all at once. Both women want you to feel like you’re at home in the narrative you’re expecting, while also pulling the rug out from under you.

Conviction and Ground Control both end with uncertainty and the set being deliberately dismantled. The immersive aspect of theatre makes this literal deconstruction more visceral. The soundscapes of both are discomfiting. The monologues of Captain Chris (played by Rachel Perks) are as confronting as the relentless harmonies of the four actors in Conviction, who are voicing Zoey’s self-doubts.


In a world where women’s voices on stage are still the exception and science fiction on stage is a rarity indeed, these two (well-made) plays were experiences I won’t soon forget. And there are no books or podcasts or self-help books that could teach you how to write either.

Ground Control

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Inspiration: The National Play Festival and surviving the big chill


Over the last few days, I’ve been to the National PlayFestival – this year held in Melbourne at the Malthouse Theatre. The Festival presents readings of new work from writers at every stage of their careers and these public readings are part of the development process; writers get the chance to work with directors and dramaturgs on their scripts in the days before their work is presented in front of a paying audience.

I was thrilled by the high level of quality work I heard over the past several days. New work by writers I already admire. New work by writers who have never written for the stage before. And the absolute highlight of the week, the selection of works from Playwriting Australia’s Lotus initiative – one that gives a voice to Asian writers in Australia. Really thrilling, provocative and hilarious works that excited me for the future of the Australian stage.

These four days at the Festival, which included a masterclass with Michael Gow (no relation, but I’ve written about beingconfused for him before), have been really inspiring. Even this morning, I was at a 9:30 session, a series of talks by professional playwrights about their process of writing. Sometimes it’s nice to feel validated in the way I work; or to be prodded to try a new technique. I’m always eager to find new things to try.

One panel that I thought might be dry was titled The Big Chill – A Survival Guide; it wasn’t at all dry, but very moving. It was inspired by recent funding cuts to the Australia Council and its onflow effect to the small-medium sector; how does a playwright survive a setback and what skills do they have to keep going?

A panel of six writers spoke about their artistic practice and gave beautiful speeches about different problems they have faced and how they dealt with it. Jane Montgomery Griffiths talked about the importance of representation is on our stages. Chi Vu spoke about recycling what’s left over at the end of a piece she has made. Tom Holloway was elegant about the ways in which he is inarticulate.

And then Van Badham stopped us all with a heart-rending story about her world being turned upside-down by the death of her father. Sometimes, it seems, there is no way to battle the obstacles you are up against. Sometimes, you have to find a new way to work and a new place to live.

Out of all the things I heard presented this week, Van Badham’s story was the most dramatic. It shook me up. In the middle of this festival, in the middle of a chilly week in Melbourne, I was stopped cold. And I had to retreat to a corner to think.

2016 has been an awful year. It’s a refrain we’ve heard a lot. It’s a feeling I’ve felt for a range of personal reasons, too. And, as a playwright, it’s been a tough year for me as well. Writers learn to live with rejection, it’s true. But sometimes, many times, it’s hard to withstand a series of knockbacks. Hard to keep going when you don’t even know if you came close or missed by miles.

Writing is a passion and I’ll keep doing it always, but it’s difficult to progress if you don’t know if you’ve made a great stride forward or inched slowly ahead. Or if the rejection is a step backward or a stumble.

I haven’t written anything for the stage all year until this week.

Now, to be clear, as a writer, I try my hand at different things and I have co-written a feature screenplay and the first draft of a pilot script for a TV show in 2016. So, it’s not like I’ve been slacking off.

I’ve also written a couple of applications pitching a theatre show or two. And that’s part of my life as a writer. Applications for festivals. For grants. For funding. For interest in my work. But every time I send off, even a query email to someone I know asking “Any chance you could read this for me,” I could be met with a rejection.

But I haven’t written anything for the stage this year until I sat in the mezzanine of the Malthouse foyer yesterday and while I ate my lunch, I wrote a couple of pages of a new play. Just to get an idea down. To find a way through that door. Or onto that road. To get a sense of who these characters were that had been standing just outside my periphery, trying to get my attention.

It’s not that I haven’t been excited by some of the works I’ve seen on stage this year. This is the year of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Elegy, Lungs, The Events, revisiting The Glass Menagerie and wrestling Adrienne Truscott. But, overall, I haven’t felt a palpable sense of excitement around theatre in Melbourne this year.

Maybe I’ve missed the best of the best. Maybe I’m not hearing things on the grapevine. Maybe 2016 really is so awful, I can’t even escape into brilliant theatre.

Today, as the National Play Festival wrapped up for 2016 (and did I hear it’s going biennial now?), I left early to attend a reading of a play of my own. It’s called A Modern Superwoman. I’ve been working on it (off and on) for years. A lot of years. I keep forgetting how long. It’s been so long, I almost put it behind me this year. Sometimes you just have to put things behind you and move on.

I’ve heard this play read in Melbourne and Adelaide and New York City. I’ve written and re-written and re-structured this play nearly a dozen times. But today it clicked. It finally clicked. Having had some time away from it, I finally saw it clearly; what was working and what wasn’t working. It’s been a slow process, but it’s always been inching forward. Never stumbling back.

This week: I saw Amanda Muggleton on stage, twenty-five years after I first saw her in a one-woman show; I sat in a masterclass run by Michael Gow, whose work I studied in high school; I listened to exciting new works being read aloud in one of the country’s best theatre; I took pages of notes on the wisdom imparted by professionals; I heard a playwright give a eulogy to her father and her career; and I finally saw a way to make a play of mine work, while taking tentative steps to writing a new one.

I haven’t written on this blog all year. This week, of all the weeks in 2016 so far, I had to write something. And when I have to write something, I start to write a lot.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

My Favourite Theatre of 2015

I’m scared I’m going to forget something. I saw so much great work this year, I’m worried that I’ve missed something from my list. Or it wasn’t recorded properly in my Calendar. I reserve the right to add to this later, if I wake up in the night, remembering something I forgot to mention. Or a rave I forgot to make.

I saw shows in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney this year – and amazing work in all those places.

Here we go... in alphabetical order...

THE TOP TEN

ANTIGONE - Malthouse
It divided the critics (along gender lines) but I thought Jane Montgomery Griffith’s translation/update of Antigone was superb. One of a number of shows that left me utterly speechless this year. I eventually found words.

BIRDLAND - Melbourne Theatre Company
Simon Stephens’ work always seems brutal and fragile to me all at the same time. Even the most awful people feel like they are going to break apart. And Leticia Caceres’ production was really astonishing. Easily the best thing at the Melbourne Theatre Company this year.

FAKE IT TIL YOU MAKE IT - Theatre Works
I’d heard a lot about Bryony Kimmings and then I saw two of her shows within a few weeks of each other and she has become one of my favourite theatremakers and performance artist. This show about men and depression is so funny and heartbreaking, almost at once.

I AM A MIRACLE - Malthouse
Another stunning achievement from Declan Greene and Matt Lutton. Again, I didn’t know what to say after. But couldn’t stop talking about it once I found the words.


IVANOV - Belvoir
I’m not a big fan of Chekov’s work, but I’ve grown more fond of it since Simon Stone’s The Cherry Orchard and now Eamon Flack’s translation of Ivanov – into the present and the Australian vernacular (though still ostensibly set in Russia). Made me go back and read the Chekov play and sit in awe of what an incredible achievement this production at Belvoir was.

LOVE & INFORMATION - Malthouse
Caryl Churchill is one of my favourite playwrights because she always challenges form. Love & Information goes so far as to make a play that could be staged in billions of ways (no exaggeration) and still feel heartfelt and insightful. Kip William’s direction is so thrilling, keeping the actors and the set moving, but creating moments of stillness that are unforgettable.

SEX IDIOT - Adelaide Fringe
The first Bryony Kimmings show I saw this year and I love how honest she is about her sex life and how uncomfortable she made her audience – and how forthright she was with dumb male hecklers in the audience. With possibly the most unique audience participation I’ve ever seen.

SHIT - Neon/Melbourne Theatre Company
Patricia Cornelius is one of Australia’s greatest living playwrights. Her career spans three decades and her work is always engaging and confronting – particularly when collaborating with director Susie Dee. So excited this is getting a return season at Fortyfive Downstairs next year.

YOUARENOWHERE - PS122/Melbourne Festival
The show I want to tell you all about, but never give away its secrets. It blew my mind and had me in tears, not because it was sad but because it was so smart. So very smart. And filled with the unexpected.

WIZARD OF OZ - Belvoir
Sydney didn’t know what to make of Adena Jacob’s bold feminist take on the Wizard of Oz, which is about childhood and girls becoming women and what society does to them. I had some idea, having already loved her work in Melbourne. Yes, two Adena-directed works in my Top Ten. And another further down the list.

THE NEXT TEN

BRONX GOTHIC - PS122/Melbourne Festival
A visceral experience, this show opened with a dance piece that was so captivating that I was shaken when it ended and the actress began speaking to us, reading letters from teenage girls to each other. It is shows like this that open up new worlds to me, even when they feel familiar – everyone experiences life so differently.

DEAD CENTRE/SEA WALL - Red Stitch
A one-two punch from Tom Holloway and Simon Stephens at Red Stitch. Two beautifully crafted short plays that enrich each other – with a pair of beautiful performances to bring them to life.

FAG/STAG - The Last Great Hunt/Melbourne Fringe
I saw this twice because it was so deceptively simple: two best friends, a gay guy and a straight guy, talk about the days leading up with their best friend’s wedding. The discussions are so real and so poignant, I needed to see it again to figure out how they did it. But it was just amazing writing and superb acting and something that felt so real.

GROUNDED - Red Stitch
Red Stitch is always amazing but I don’t get to see everything there, so I was glad I caught up with this show in Sydney. A tight and taught script, performed with hair-raising brilliance. Probably the best single performance I saw all year.


MINNIE & MONA PLAY DEAD - The Last Great Hunt/Melbourne Fringe
The Last Great Hunt’s second of their great one-two punch (after Fag/Stag) wasn’t anything like I expected, which was a very good thing – because I’m not sure I would have gone if I knew what I was getting. With a subject as confronting as suicide, I was glad this show looked after their audience every step of the way.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER - Melbourne Fringe
This show was guaranteed to make me laugh: tearing down untouchable male characters from signature 80s action/adventure films. Rowena Hutson lulls the audience into a false sense of security with her bald cap and five Die Hards in five minutes – and then tells us how hard it is to grow up wanting to be Han Solo and then discovering she wants to have sex with him, too. Genuinely smart comedy.

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - Victorian Opera
Putting aside the wooden performance in the lead role, Victorian Opera’s production of Sondheim’s masterpiece was superb on every other level.

THEY SAW A THYLACINE - Malthouse
I’ve been following the work of Human/Animal Exchange for several years now and I was thrilled their highly regarded Fringe show from a few years back was making a leap to the mainstage this year – and will tour the country in 2016. There is such beautiful work in this show.

WE GET IT - Neon/Melbourne Theatre Company
Boy was it uncomfortable being a man in this audience, which – you know – good. Basically it’s a reality show about female actors pitting their talents against each other – to prove themselves the better actress and the better woman. Emily Tomlin’s performance was shattering. And those tweets on the screen behind her, I felt like throwing up.

YOURS THE FACE - Theatre Works
Fleur Kilpatrick’s show about a model and a photographer was memorable for her writing, and unforgettable because of Roderick Cairn’s performance as both model and photographer. Holy shit.

OTHER MEMORABLE SHOWS

BECKETT TRIPTYCH – forget your Endgames, the best Beckett I saw this year was Eh Joe, Footfalls and Krapp’s Last Tape at the Adelaide Festival

DEAR DIARY – Congratulations to Andi Snelling on a superb show. Melbourne Fringe

GENDER SPANNER – there were a lot of shows at Melbourne Fringe that explored gender; this was one of the most compelling.

JUMPERS FOR GOALPOSTS – another awesome show from Red Stitch, which I caught at Midsumma

MASQUERADE – Kate Mulvany’s exquisite adaptation of her favourite childhood book. Melbourne Festival


NO PUNCHLINE – I don’t know circus, but I know what I like. I loved this. Melbourne Fringe

PROJECT HYSTERIA – two Tennessee Williams’ short plays, prototypes for The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, created a tension between what we expect of those characters and what happened in these shows. Poppy Seed Festival.

SHOW PEOPLE – Christie Whelan-Browne and Dean Bryant’s incredible show about show people. Christie is phenomenal. Chapel Off Chapel.

THE BACCHAE – The third Adena show on my list for the year and another unforgettable night at the theatre. Theatre Works.

THE YELLOW WAVE – Beng Oh and Jane Miller’s satiric adaptation of an earnest 19th century novel, warning of the dangers of those who come across the sea... A laugh a second. Poppy Seed Festival.


Previous years...

Favourite Theatre of 2014

Favourite Theatre of 2013

Favourite Theatre of 2012

Favourite Theatre of 2011

Monday, 21 December 2015

How old were you when you first saw STAR WARS?









No spoilers for The Force Awakens.


Watching films is so different these days. It’s not just the films themselves. It’s the way we watch them. The way we talk about them. And how quickly we devour them and wait for the next thing.

How old was I when I first saw Star Wars? Five, maybe? Or seven? I was too young to have seen it on its original release (I was only two at the time), but I have a distinct memory of watching it at a friend’s house on VHS after school. This is before we had a VCR at home, so this was a big deal. Such a big deal, that we watched Star Wars a lot.

I think I remember The Empire Strikes Back being released, but I’m not sure. I would have only been five years old then. What am I remembering? A re-release before Return of the Jedi when I was eight? Possibly.

I do have a very clear memory of seeing Return of the Jedi for the first time, not just because I was so excited for the movie – but because I am pretty sure my mother would have preferred to see Roger Moore in Octopussy, which was playing at the same time. (My James Bond obsession didn’t begin until high school. So the first Bond film I saw at the cinema was The Living Daylights.)

I know I saw other films before Return of the Jedi. ET: The Extraterrestrial, for one. I’ve still got the programme somewhere. Yes, films came with programmes even in the 1980s. And the original Spider-Man movie starring Nicholas Hammond – which was just episodes of the TV series that were released theatrically outside of North America. We saw that at the drive-in.

Was Star Wars shown a lot on television in the early 1980s? Could I have also watched the films that way? Had my friend with the early model VCR taped Star Wars off the television? We didn’t get a VCR until around 86/87. I’m pretty sure hiring the Star Wars films was at the top of my list of priorities then.

Watching films is so different these days. Kids today aren’t going to be able to pin-point when they first saw something, because the Blu-Rays will have always been easily available and streaming services deliver a unwatchable amount of content into their homes.

Back when I was young, you had to wait for something to be on television. And unless you were waiting for those screened-every-year favourites like The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music, you might never know when you’d next see your favourite films.

When my James Bond obsession started, it wasn’t easy to find all the films – even at video rental places. I just had to hold out hope they might appear on Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood. They eventually did, with Bill’s withering commentary on the scripts and George Lazenby’s acting – even though he quite liked On Her Majesty’s Secret Service overall.

Then again, movies often took years to make their television debuts back then. I don’t think E.T. aired on television until the late 80s.

The Star Wars films weren’t available to buy on VHS (in Australia, at least) until the mid 1990s – and then we were able to see them in their full widescreen glory. Imagine our surprise to see that Han Solo was so relaxed in the Cantina, he had his foot up on the table. What a guy!

And by then, George Lucas was announcing the original trilogy’s return to the cinemas in Special Editions – and a series of prequel films! How exciting! The kid in me couldn’t believe it was finally going to happen. We were going to see Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace.

What a disappointment that turned out to be. The Special Editions, too. All those childhood memories turned on their head. All those hours reading Star Wars comics and buying Star Wars action figures and plotting Star Wars stories and making Star Wars radio plays... yes, okay, that last thing is weird. But we totally did it! Recording stuff onto cassette was the coolest thing back then.

As the prequel trilogy was released, there was a lot of talk about whether the joys of your childhood could be recaptured. Maybe we were so nostalgic for those original films, nothing could live up to them? Maybe kids of the early 2000s could love Jar Jar as we loved Yoda or the Ewoks? Maybe the original series had bad dialogue and wooden acting, too?

Each of these new films landed with a thud and a vague hope that the next one would be better. And I remember at the time desperately trying to find things I liked about each of them. I didn’t want those new films to be a waste of everyone’s time. I wanted to find something worthwhile.

After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, we all went on with our lives. The Expanded Universe of books and comics got ever bigger and more complicated. I didn’t read that many of the novels, though I did occasionally hear about significant events in the characters’ lives.

There was a Clone Wars animated series or two, but I never watched them, either. Those amazing films of my childhood were so long gone that I just couldn’t bring myself to care.

There was talk of a live action TV series at one stage – and I got pretty excited about that concept. I know they started to write that but nothing ever happened.

In 2012, when Disney announced they had purchased Lucasfilm and that a seventh Star Wars film would be released in 2015 – I couldn’t help but get excited. Yes, the prequels were bad. Yes, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Yes, this film had so much speculation surrounding it... how could it possibly live up to those stories I made up, those comics I read, those radio plays and action figure battles we had?

How could it honour and live up to the original trilogy and be its own thing?

Watching films is so different these days. The last time I went to a midnight screening was The Phantom Menace, I think. Or maybe the Special Editions. These are the only films where I’d even consider that. Mostly because I don’t think I could convince anyone to go to a midnight James Bond film.

I was so excited for The Force Awakens that I couldn’t wait. I had work the next day, but I didn’t care. It’s pre-Christmas rush, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see the film so badly. And quickly. Because I didn’t want to be left out of conversations. And I didn’t want to get spoiled.

It’s been five days since the film opened. A lot of people have seen it already and multiple times. It’s made more money in five days than The Empire Strikes Back made in its entire theatrical run. Yes, things were cheaper back then, but they also ran for a lot longer.

Somehow, the spoilers haven’t been splashed over front pages or discussed outside of spoiler space. I mean, if you search for certain things once you’ve seen the film, you’ll see that some websites are assholes. And Google itself will unfortunately fill you in on things you might not be expecting...

Oh, and The Force Awakens itself? It lived up to the hype. Well, it lived up to my expectations. Somehow, after waiting 32 years since Return of the Jedi, I was pleased. Very pleased.

I could nitpick. I could complain. But this new film gets so much right, it seems ridiculous to worry about small things.

The new lead characters are wonderful. The return of old favourites is handled perfectly. And the new bad guy balances the needs of both sets of stories. It’s all very clever, really.


Watching films is so different these days. Not just the films, which can be eerily similar to those from the past. But also the way we watch them, because it makes us feel five years old again. Or seven. Or however old we were when we first saw Star Wars.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

SPECTRE: Does it meet expectations?



MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SPECTRE

After 2012’s Skyfall – a commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the James Bond film series – any follow-up was going to have hard time hitting that height. And the series, since its 2006 reinvention with Daniel Craig, has been a solid run of films. Even the maligned Quantum of Solace really only suffers in comparison to Casino Royale and, for me, it’s a perfect sequel to Craig’s first outing.

Spectre, on the other hand, doesn’t just suffer by comparison. Its own internal logic doesn’t stack up and where it wants to tie together disperate elements from the three previous films, it makes little-to-no sense. Yes, we’re still talking about James Bond films here. A series whose low points include James Bond in space (Moonraker) and James Bond in an invisible car (Die Another Day).

It’s not that the series has ever been consistently one thing or another, let alone consistently good. Each actor brings his own quirks to the role and every time the character is re-cast, the producers rethink their own take on a spy who was invented post-World War 2.

Roger Moore leaned so far towards comedy, that his films became farcical. Timothy Dalton wanted Ian Fleming’s harder edge back. Pierce Brosnan wanted to be some combination of his predecessors and Sony never seemed to know what to do with this character in the 90s; he seemed so old-fashioned, they decided to polishes his edges away.

With Casino Royale, they transplanted Fleming’s “blunt instrument” from Fleming’s 1953 novel into the present with a film that’s as faithful to the original text as any of the first four Sean Connery films. But this is a James Bond that lives in the world where we have a big screen Jason Bourne and a small screen assortment of leading men who are hard-edged to the point where they are unlikable.

Over the first three of Daniel Craig’s films, different iconic elements were reintroduced to paint a more vivid and complicated portrait of this MI6 agent with a licence to kill. And the ending of Skyfall dropped two final pieces of the mosaic into place – a male M (and his “damnably cold grey eyes” in the form of Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (a sidelined field agent). It almost promised that the next adventure we’d get would hew closer to the classic action/adventure mould of the earlier films.

I like that this series has been flexible enough to reinvent itself. I might find it hard to watch Octopussy or A View to a Kill without rolling my eyes at how old Roger Moore got in the role, but that the series continued after double-taking pigeons and Bond dressed as a clown, shows how resilient the franchise is.

Timothy Dalton wanted a tougher Bond and, for me, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, are two of the highlights of the pre-Craig era. But Dalton’s second outing was his last, because audiences weren’t ready for a bleak story about an agent out for revenge, his licence to kill revoked.

The Craig films seemed to take the adventure of Dalton’s last film to heart, as he’s barely taken a legitimate case since Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre are all revenge films of a sort, with Craig’s Bond going rouge much of the time and MI6 feeling even less and less relevant as the series progressed. Spectre, in particular, wants to make a point here about global intelligence agencies being at the mercy of rogue elements (both agents and super villains) but the script is flaccid and facile.

I gave Skyfall a lot of latitude because Sam Mendes was never going to make anything resembling a traditional Bond film and, as I said, I like to see the franchise bent in interesting directions. As much as the Fleming novels mostly have an expected structure, some of them are surprising in the way Fleming chooses to approach the story. “From Russia With Love” doesn’t have Bond appear until the halfway point of the book. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is told from a woman’s point of view and Bond doesn’t appear until the last few chapters. And Skyfall was a celebration of fifty years and Bond was in a reflective mood. We even returned to his childhood home, echoing paragraphs from Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” about Bond’s parents and his upbringing.

With Mendes returning to the franchise, Spectre again refuses to be anything like a classic James Bond film. Sure, it’s got the gunbarrel sequence back at the beginning (finally) and a rousing pre-credits sequence. But the film deliberately veers away from what you are expecting. There are effectively two villains, whose plans are only tangentially related. There is a scene told from Monica Belucci’s character’s point of view, until Bond enters at the last minute.

And after about a third of the way through the film, there are really no dramatic stakes. This is Mendes wanting to pull apart the James Bond character, after four films and nearly ten years and see how Daniel Craig’s James Bond ticks. But there’s no story to anchor that expectation.

When Casino Royale was released, I wrote a blog post examining the elements of the James Bond canon that might be introduced in the following films. Since we had a definitive adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, might we see his series replayed in a modern context? Each successive film built on the last, but with Spectre wanting to cement all this together, the experiment almost falls apart.

The villainous group Quantum is introduced by name in Quantum of Solace, but they are clearly and obviously connected to the events of Casino Royale through the character of Mr White. They were also an obvious stand-in for the recurring villains in the original novels, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

The rights to the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. group and its head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, have been in legal limbo for much of the part forty years, because Ian Fleming published his novel “Thunderball” based on a treatment co-written with Kevin McClory. McClory then co-owned elements of that novel, allowing him to make his own big screen Thunderball in 1983, Never Say Never Again.

Quantum were the modern-day S.P.E.C.T.R.E. until, of course, Sony & MGM reacquired the rights and based their latest film around Spectre's reintroduction to the franchise. This fourth film should have been another definitive step in replaying the Bond mythos. But it’s a misstep in several ways.

The introduction of Spectre is lacklustre. Bond is sent on a mission by the previous M, who has conveniently left a tape with a mysterious clue on it. Bond connects that to some effects recovered from his childhood home, for some reason. He goes to a funeral, rescues the widow and is then pointed to where Spectre’s next meeting will be held. There he comes face-to-shadow with someone who knows his name... but everything is kept perfectly oblique, even though two-and-two can only really equal four.

Why does he connect M’s warning to the name Oberhauser? Why does he ask Moneypenny to check up on Oberhauser’s history both before and after his supposed death? Just because he gets the first two clues at the same time? I guess that tape and the photograph of Oberhauser were in the same box. None of it makes much sense.

We then get the reintroduction of Mr White (“The Pale King”, something Bond accidentally overheard in Mexico), who tells him that all those who were part of Quantum were also really part of Spectre. Thus wiping the slate clean; the producers seem to hate Quantum of Solace so much, we hear the name Dominic Greene (that film’s villain) but never see his face like we do Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) or Raul Silva (Skyfall). Quantum is dead; long live Spectre.

But why should we care? An evil organisation is an evil organisation. What is their nefarious end game? What are these super villains up to?

Something about terrorist attacks and infiltration of government agencies. The head of Spectre is Oberhauser, who was James Bond’s boyhood friend – a brother figure who calls himself the “author of all [Bond’s] pain”, who somehow convinced Vesper to kill herself or something. Not sure, nothing makes much sense by this point. How the plot of Skyfall figures into all this (Silva was seeking revenge on Judi Dench’s M)  is anyone’s guess.

Oh, and Hannes Oberhauser doesn’t go by that name anymore. Call him Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He’s evil, on his mother’s side.

What we have here is a reveal that has all the air taken out of it because in this version of the franchise, the name Blofeld doesn’t mean anything to anyone. It’s just like when Benedict Cumberbatch was revealed to be Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, after a year of JJ Abrams telling everyone he wasn’t playing Khan. What does the audience gain by that? What does the story gain?

The characters don’t care. Bond has never heard the name and doesn’t know this supervillain is best remembered by fans for stroking a Persian cat in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. Spectre even botches that reveal by showing us the cat before Blofeld reveals his true (new) name. After a year of Sam Mendes telling everyone that Christoph Walz wasn’t playing Blofeld.

There have been memorable female characters in all of Craig’s film, but in Spectre we get Belucci’s Sciarra – who is effectively a cameo – and Lea Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann, who threatens to be interesting but becomes the thinnest-drawn Bond girl in decades. At some point she loses all personality, becomes a victim of daddy issues (an old-saw from the Fleming stories) and then falls in love with James Bond, just in time to need to be rescused at the film’s climax. It’s all so rote.

Sam Mendes doesn’t want to give you the kind of Bond film you used to enjoy, so he gives you a ponderous pastiche of those films, humour and fun completely exised. The fight on the train is an admirable homage to a similar (and far better) scene in From Russia with Love. The confluence of Bond falling in “love” again, with the threat of Blofeld over his shoulder, echoes Fleming’s masterpiece “On Her Majesty Secret Service”. The film is pretty great, too – regardless of what you think of George Lazenby’s one-off 007.

In fact, OHMSS seems to be one of the key inspirations for this film. That book was published a decade after Fleming’s “Casino Royale” and features Bond falling in love for the first time since Vesper. In the film version, there are allusions to previous adventures, mostly to make sure audiences understood that Lazenby was playing the same man that Connery had played in his films.
Spectre tries a similar trick, reminding us of where this Bond has come from – through reference and allusion and homage, without really finding its own voice. Skyfall wanted it both ways and succeeded. Spectre does not.

Earlier versions of the Spectre script (revealed during the Sony hack of last year) suggest that Blofeld’s assistant Irma Bunt from OHMSS was to appear in this film. And, to add insult to various injuries, the last script line of this new film was going to be “We have all the time in the world” – a direct lift from the end of the book and film versions of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Be grateful the filmmaker’s chose to cut that line or I might have done something drastic. Or, in any case, there would have been some memorable invective from my Twitter account.

It’s been a long time since the James Bond series had four good films in a row. Probably some combination of films in the 1960s, to be honest; whether it be Connery’s first four films (Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball) or, depending if your taste leans bigger, the final four of that decade (Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and OHMSS). I was hoping Spectre might buck that trend of inconsistency in the franchise, but it met that expectation full-on.

I did expect Spectre to overshadow Quantum, the evil organisation. I kind of hoped it might. Spectre and Blofeld are to James Bond as the Joker is to Batman. It was the most significant element from the novels yet to be introduced. And now we have a Blofeld who is effectively James Bond’s “brother”, which serves no purpose to the story, either narratively or emotionally.

As ever, even after a terrible film, the James Bond series will continue. I’m hoping Mendes steps away and the next film (possibly Craig’s final film, if this one wasn’t already) is allowed to be bigger, more exciting and a little bit fun.


But how long must we wait until there’s a solid run of four good films in a row? Another half century? Given box office receipts and still (somehow) decent reviews, we might have to wait but the franchise has all the time in the world.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sometimes I write reviews: YOUARENOWHERE


YOU ARE NOWHERE.

The first thing you should know going into this show is that you should know nothing about it. But isn’t that true of all shows? The less you know, the better? Maybe, but you see Desdemona having read or seen Othello. You see The Bacchae, perhaps knowing the original play or the Greek myth or the word bacchanalia, at least.

I went into YOUARENOWHERE knowing it was made by Andrew Schneider at PS122 in New York and that it was highly regarded by people who had seen it as part of the Coil Festival back in January of this year. I knew this was one not to be missed, but I didn’t know why.

The brief in the Festival program was enough to whet my appetite. It hits my interest in science fiction and time travel and individual perspective. And the production/promotional image is intriguing.

The first thing I want to say about my reaction is that I walked out of the theatre speechless. I get this way. If I don’t know what to say, it’s always because I loved the show. Because adding words to the experience can’t make it better. Because starting to talk about something right away almost tarnishes it.

If I come out talking about a show, maybe I liked it, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I need to talk it through. I’m the most vociferous when I hated something. If I’m barely out of my seat and I’m ranting, something’s gone wrong.

It’s two days since I’ve seen YOUARENOWHERE and I’ve tweeted about it and raved on Facebook. And because I’ve not wanted to say too much, I might have said too little. And I’ve spent a lot of time reading reviews from here and New York; trying to piece together my thoughts and trying make sense of what I saw.

And part of reading those reviews and listening to podcast reactions to the piece is in seeing how much people have said about the show and how often the phrase coup de theatre has been used. Do they settle on talking about the technical achievements and the physicality of Schneider’s performance because they don’t want to tell you what else to expect?

Yes.

Some of the best theatre I’ve seen this year has been non-text-based and that’s always invigorating for me because my own work is driven by the texts I write. Schneider says his work evolves from his performance; that he has no great stories to tell but is interested in exploring moments. And this is true of this show in many ways: the sound and lighting design responds to Schneider’s movements. The story is told as much in his physicality as it is in any of the particular words he chooses to say – whether forward or backward or when he mimes to “Lonesome Town” by Ricky Nelson.

Even knowing nothing more than the show would tackle themes and topics that are of interest to me, I still brought in cultural and personal baggage. There are moments early on in the show that reminded me of Philip K Dick and, soon after that, of David Lynch. If you are going to talk about an understanding of what makes you you (and not someone else), why not allude to those who have preceded you on this very subject? Give the audience little touchstones before pulling the rug out from under them.

Some of the discussion in the foyer after the show focused on the technical achievement, much like the reviews have. Even standing there talking with people who saw what we saw – filtered through our own perceptions – we wanted to tackle the lightning and the sound and not touch on the pure emotion we felt when... well... that thing happened. That thing we will never talk about.

The use of LED lighting combined with as pure a blackout as I’ve ever seen in the theatre (no illuminated Exit signs here) was disorienting. Schneider is here and then he’s there. And now he’s lit by a frame hanging in the middle of the space. And now his face is in shadow.

And then there were the technical difficulties which, were they part of the show? I still don’t know. There’s a tension between performer and audience when such a slick show starts to fall apart and yet everything else was so precise, maybe these mistakes were deliberate? Maybe he wanted us to think about technology by having it go wrong? He’s already talking directly to us anyway. It’s a lecture, it’s a speech, it’s an AA meeting, it’s a desperate call from the future.

Schneider is charming, engaging and funny. I was with him quite early on because I had a handle on things. These observations on observation. These musings on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A mention of “missed connections” on Craigslist. These are the moments Schneider wants you to connect with, small things we can grasp and understand. Before... well, before.

There are several surprising moments in the second half of the show, though once the rug is pulled out from under the audience once, it’s hard to reset their expectations and pull the wool over their eyes again. Which is fine. Once for me was enough. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing at first. I couldn’t process it. I was lost, confused. What was happening? Where was I? How?

There were gasps of surprise. Intakes of breath. Nervous laughter. Chortles of recognition. A wave of WHAT HAS HAPPENED HERE. WHAT’S GOING ON. HOW.

I had tears in my eyes because... for so many reasons. Because it was a coup de theatre. Because it wasn’t just a spectacular trick; it was so simple. Because it told us more in a second than some shows can tell us in their entire running time. Because it’s as pure a moment of theatre as I’ve ever seen.
And the show kept marching forward. And my mind couldn’t keep up.

And I wish I could see it again, so I was better prepared. But I know that magic moment wouldn’t quite be there the second time, but at least I might be able to parse what was happening a little more easily.

Sometimes I write reviews because I need to tell the world about a show I’ve just seen.

Sometimes I write reviews to better understand why a show hasn’t worked for me.

Sometimes I write reviews to even understand what I just saw.

Sometimes I write reviews just to record that a show happened and I was there.

Sometimes it’s all those things at the same time.

YOU ARE NOW HERE.