How refreshing to see a piece of theatre that isn't afraid to wear its values on its sleeves. At first glance The Lion King might appear to be just clumsy-mimsy right-on pro-immigration handclapping. In fact it's far cleverer than that: it's a hymn sung to the glories of patriarchy, authority and the political right. Lovely. I'm surprised Quentin Letts ever goes to see anything else.
Take the King. Mufasa brilliantly represents everything that has been lost by limp-wristed contemporary masculinity, dominating his hyena underclass with a no-nonsense iron fist, and making fun by dangling his staff's jobs in front of them. They certainly know who's boss. Even though he is a lion, Mufasa is so manly he walks on two legs with a gait that suggests balls the size of coconuts. We could do with someone like him to take the mewling Tory party by the scruff of their necks and parade them before a fawning stupefied people. They don't know they're born.
His brother Scar, by contrast, is the embodiment of evil, murdering his brother, stealing his throne, and heralding a deeply sinister "new era of lion-hyena co-operation". (How brave of Mr Disney to use an all-ethnic cast to demonstrate the dangers of inter-racial mixing!) We know Scar is evil right from the off, because even though he lives in the savannah, it is always dark when he is on stage. And his taking the throne from a rightful King - that step towards Communism! - is clearly and unambiguously shown as against nature: the very crops are blighted, wither and die. And then already awful Scar gets worse: he could have any lioness, but only lazily contemplates marriage when the question of an heir comes up. I bet Mufasa had no such namby qualms, rutting anything without a mane. That's what I call a real man. But what do you expect from arrivistes like Scar? Power corrupts, unless you're supposed to have it, like big-balls Mufasa, or emotional simpleton Simba.
The production is really about Simba, a power-crazed junior sociopath who "just can't wait to be king". Sporting Jimmy Porter-esque levels of self-absorption, our anti-hero has everything it takes to succeed in a lion-eat-lion world. And delightfully, this anti-hero has none of Porter's fashionable lefty whiny. His mantra means "no worries" and boy does he live by it. Even when confronted with the sudden, brutal death of his father, some rudimentary fart gags are enough to ensure he doesn't spend the whole show moping. I'm not quite sure why his accent changes so radically upon his accession to adulthood, but thank heaven it doesn't transform into that of the warthog and the other one who taught him his mantra Hakuna Matata. It's fine for such people to teach in schools, so long as they keep their opinions to themselves and don't shove them down the throats of innocent children.
Much has been written about The Lion King's narrative debt to Hamlet, but more interestingly, the production is proof positive that experimental theatre techniques aren't limited to service of the Left. I particularly liked the participatory elements, with the Revenue Control Officer hurtling up and down the Grand Circle's vertiginous steps flashing her torch at any audience member with the temerity to take film poor-quality footage of something available on CD and DVD for not much more than the cost of an extra ticket. There were also powerful elements of durational performance, particularly in the scenes with the parrot.
The moral of the whole thing is summed up in the excellent songs by Sir Elton of John and Lord Timothy Rice-Webber. It's all about "the circle of life". To end up other than where you started is against the natural order of things: "I am not who I was", protests Simba, resisting his natural destiny as King. "Remember who you are", replies his father, and just like that, he does. The only good change is a reactionary change.
At the end, there's an interesting moment when two of the play's value systems collide. Scar has to die, because the death penalty is just, and the only appropriate punishment for communists. But Simba cannot kill him, because then he will be a murderer and deserve death at the hands of the universe. To be honest, I think Simba should just have killed Scar. We'd all have been on his side, foaming as we were for the blood of the usurper. But the play cleverly side-steps the issue by having Scar fall off a convenient cliff. I didn't know they had any in the savannah, but they must have. How else is a monarch to survey his Kingdom?
Yes, The Lion King might look like it's just fucking atrocious, but it's actually far more serious than that.
So, Andrew Haydon wrote an excellent post about what he calls "embedded critics". Jake Orr and Maddy Costa have both spent time in rehearsal rooms recently, reporting on process, and Maddy was the convenor of a D&D session on this topic, which she unpacks more fully in this post. There must be something in the air, or it wouldn't have turned up in Matt Trueman's latest Noises Off column on the Guardian theatre blog. That sounds like a swipe at Matt, as though he's always the last to pick up on anything. It's not: his job in that column is to digest the things everyone's talking about. Everyone's talking about "embedded".
It's worth noting that what Andrew means by "embedded" and what Jake and Maddy mean differs slightly. Jake and Maddy have evinced a specific interest in witnessing rehearsal rooms in action, and have so much money in their mouths on the subject, we'll have to have a whip-round to buy them lunch. Meanwhile, Andrew is going to every single night of Forest Fringe at the Gate, which is a thrilling level of critical attention to bring to a small-scale operation, but in practice makes him little more embedded than, say, Joyce McMillan at the Traverse for the first three days of August. Andrew writes some of his reviews from a tiny office at the Gate, sure. But Joyce wrote the official history of the Traverse Theatre. And Danny Concannon has a desk in the White House. What's your point? There are loads of great things about what Andrew is doing, few of which I'm going to talk about in this post. It's the Jake-and-Maddy version I'm engaged with here.
An increased closeness between critic and artist is obviously problematic for the reviewer writing what Andrew calls "consumer guide" criticism, helping audiences to choose which play to see as one might select which wine to have with their roast lamb. Even if the critic is hand-on-heart sure they'd have loved the show whether or not it was written by their best mate, not everyone will share their confidence. Adam Werrity might be a great doer of whatever it is he does, but you'd be forgiven for thinking he wouldn't be doing it if he weren't friends with Liam Fox.
Closeness between critic and artist is just as obviously unproblematic if, like me, you're more interested in critical writing that in some way illuminates, rather than just swiftly evaluates the work. It's the difference between saying someone has "thighs of steel", and describing the science of muscle growth. The wine-guide approach, with its 300-word limits and star ratings, is obviously inimical to that, so let's just accept, like Maddy Costa at that D&D session, that we're talking about something else: a new space for critical writing, a form that is more than briskly evaluative.
From the point of view of the artist, it's easy to bemoan the state of theatre criticism.** Some artists spend more time doing so than making, you know, art. And they've plenty of good points. The wine guide approach, the tiny word-limits, the star ratings, the ridiculous glibness this and everything else about our culture cultivates. Yes, lots of theatre criticism is bloody awful. Artists have running jokes about most of it, and many critics laugh along.
So what could possibly be edifying about not only having your outfit criticised by this facile culture, but first inviting the critic into your bedroom to watch you get dressed? With the amount of idiotic criticism there already is, the last thing we need is more of it, in the room, while we're trying to work, eating all the bananas and typing during the nude scene. But the only way we can save criticism as an institution from the idiocy imposed on it by the marketplace and the broader culture is by giving it space, access and generosity. Criticism is in trouble as a serious form, and keeping it at a respectful distance from its subject isn't going to help, any more than Aggers broadcasting from a fort helped produce good commentary (as opposed to a whizz-bang story for the BBC). It won't get better if we shut it out.
And of course there are plenty of ways in which illuminating criticism can happen without a critic ever setting foot in the rehearsal room. Some of those are exactly what Andrew is doing over at Postcards - you know, the stuff I'm not talking about in this post. And I'd welcome more such long-form discursive writing on contemporary theatre that, say, considers a production as part of a continuing tradition, for example, or as part of a wider cultural discourse, or indeed as part of a social or political problem. Anything that does more, goes deeper than: it was well-written, tick, the acting was good, tick, I didn't like the set, cross, three stars - is A Good Thing. You don't need to know whether they did voice warm-ups or played knee tag in order to write those pieces, and write them well. Let's have more of this, please. This is what the blogosphere can do that the mainstream press can't, or won't, and it's heartening to see an increase of interest in this, and a burgeoning of spaces where it can take place. All I'm really interested in is what illuminates the form, and the work.
Thus, in one sense, the question about whether or not critics should spend time embedded in rehearsal rooms is a simple one: will it illuminate? The answer is obvious: sometimes. Sometimes a brilliant critic will enter a rehearsal room and see things no artist has ever seen about their work. Those insights will be revelatory for audiences, students, emerging artists and makers. Other critics will find their skills not as well-suited to this particular method of engagement, and make right tits of themselves. Some should stick to reviewing, some should write long discursive pieces about the formal kinship between Forced Entertainment and Beckett - but stay out of rehearsal rooms. And some will find that there's a whole territory here, uncharted by pretty much any critical writing.
But can critics really bring any insight? Surely artists write well enough about this for themselves, without the unnecessary degree of exposure? Well, I'm not so sure. Many artists, when asked about their process, will first say they haven't got one. Then when they've had a few hits, Nick Hern will ask them to write a book, and they attempt to formulate a process by describing a series of exercises. These exercises are in fact no more the process than a suit of armour is a soldier. What the artist really describes in these books tends to be the work's construction, it's architecture, while presenting the assumptions on which that construction rests as god-given universals.
So the obvious place to start this kind of critical enquiry is with the process's embedded assumptions about form. I think it gets even more interesting if considering its embedded assumptions about humanity. Eh? Well, the process is constructed of a complex web of assumptions about the ways people should and do interact with each other, how best they work under pressure, how they can be enabled to produce their best work. In this respect a rehearsal process is no different from any other human interaction geared towards a common end. And it's amazing to me how many processes work according to assumptions radically contrary to those the work is attempting to encode. How much work espousing collectivist left-wing politics is made under (benign or otherwise) dictatorships? Good critical writing about process could observe inconsistencies like this in a way artists might not - could observe assumptions and conventions so internalised we're not even quite aware of them. I hope they'd also observe the ways in which many artists in rehearsal rooms are open, generous, brilliant people, but you've got to take the rough with the smooth.
We've all learned that how our food is grown, or how our clothes are made, is of ethical concern to us. Why should this be any different for the theatre we watch? Sure, we're unlikely to find that the actors we're watching were treated in the same way as Chinese workers at the Apple factory - although you'd be surprised. But it'd be nice to know that work espousing or decrying particular social practices can live according to its own principles, just as it is nice to know that a politician practices what he preaches. If Mike Daisey taught us anything, it's that how the work is made can very quickly become part of the experience.
Of course, the rehearsal rooms that are most ethically problematic are exactly the ones that won't let critics in. Like Burma, or North Korea. But the very existence of a discourse around the practices and processes of a rehearsal room must be healthy for the form as a whole. It has to raise the bar, just a bit. Even then, artists won't necessarily talk about this stuff in public - that's my bedroom you're talking about - but at least they might start talking about it in private. At present, plenty don't even do that. Richard Eyre once said that "directing is like sex - everyone's curious about how everyone else does it, but they never get to watch"***. (He probably said that before the internet took off and enabled us all to watch the press night version of sex at any hour of the day or night.)
Many of you will be more interested in the embedded assumptions about form, about what theatre should be or do. I'd argue that's inseparable from what I've described above, but plenty of critics will separate it anyway and do pretty good work. An example. I've long been fascinated by the structure of Forced Entertainment's large-scale work. They obviously don't structure their work according to narrative conventions, and it seems to me they do so according to musical shapes: sometimes verse-chorus-bridge, sometimes something more akin to classical sonata form, but nonetheless the effect is of a rhythmic ebb and flow that provides shape to the experience. What I don't know is how, or even if that is articulated in the rehearsal room. I don't know whether it's intentional, or based on a set of assumptions I haven't been able to diagnose from the work alone. But observations from the rehearsal room would tell me more about this. I'd learn more about Barcelona's tactics by watching them train than I can discern from watching them play.
Now, I'd argue that the assumptions you make about the ways you choose to structure your work are inherently political assumptions. But I'm a bore, and anyway I don't propose to unpack that here. This is already quite a long post. Suffice it to say that valuable critical work can be done on process-work without getting too deep into its political assumptions, as I hope I've suggested above.
Finally, though, the key reason for discussing the rehearsal process as well as the product is to do with the status and nature of the artistic work itself. Thinking of a work of art as a "product" of its process, or even of its society, is a fundamental misconception. We've been sold the idea that we buy plays, or movies, or cups of coffee as perfected objects, smooth the the touch, no care unlavished: finished. Cobblers. However polished, works of art are no more or less than part of an ongoing cultural process. They're not products of the conversation society has with itself, separated from it by the label "finished". They are part of that conversation. And they aren't the last word on a subject, either, though if they're really brilliant they might be the first one. Thinking about the process that led to the creation of a piece of work (which process is itself not hermetically sealed from the outside world) can only help to correct this bizarre view of works of art as artefacts, relics clamouring for museum space as soon as they emerge into the world. I can't think of anything that exists purely as "product". Even shit's a fertiliser.
So, let's imagine critics start reporting from rehearsal rooms. Don't let's pretend there won't be problems along the way. The first and most prevalent of these will be writing about what's happening in this rehearsal room as though it's never happened before in any other. There was a little bit of this in Jake Orr's often excellent writing about Dirty Market's devising process at Oval House. Things that emerge as difficulties in any devising process loomed larger than life, as though they were particular difficulties faced by this company. A flat afternoon after a vibrant morning. A frustrating slowness in the coalescence of constituent parts. To Jake's great credit, he acknowledged this slippage in his writing, but it will remain a danger for any newly-embedded critic who hasn't already been in several rehearsal rooms - by the same measure, a tried-and-tested rehearsal method could, to a green observer, make an ordinary director appear a genius. Plenty of us in any medium think we have invented the slicing of bread, only for an audience to tell us otherwise. To observe what's distinctive about one piece of theatre, it's necessary to have seen several others. The same is true of wines, poems and a good cover drive.
Mistakes will be made. Critics will confuse the particular with the general. Then sceptics will do the same, damning the whole critical enterprise as flawed on the basis of one flawed example, like those ludicrous people who hate telly because they once saw something on ITV. And many readers (and indeed writers) won't be at all interested in the sausage factory aspect of theatrical process, arguing that only the sausages themselves are of real interest. Fine. Such people shouldn't read this strand of critical writing. Just don't be like those people who seem to think football should be banned because they don't happen to enjoy it. And don't come running to me when you find out your sausages are made by grinding up testicles.
It will also, if we really want this to happen, take a lot of will on the part of practitioners. Some of us will be pilloried for three weeks before the usual pillorying,**** then get pilloried again on press night. Some of us rightly. In my rehearsal rooms, for example, there come times when it looks like nothing is happening at all. Some critics will laud this as valuable space for contemplation, others will damn it as dossing about. They will both be right. Some will praise my commitment to optimism in difficult times. Others will damn my persistent cheeriness as a glib mask insulating me from serious issues. They will both be right. And plenty, more, I hope, will say things I never even thought of. Artists will need to be open to this new sort of presence in the room.
So I'd better put my money where my mouth is. Here goes. Over the summer I'm making several new pieces of work. I will happily welcome any critic who'd like to come and spend a long period of time in the room with us. I don't like people being excluded from opportunities on the basis of inability to pay, and of course I don't have a budget for this. So I will support, to the extent of co-writing, an Arts Council application to fund the possibility. I think such an application would have legs: this is Quite a New Thing.
(I'm aware that very little is clear about what this work is, where and when it's being made, etc. This page gives hints and links. We're working in the north east, for most of July and September. I suppose opening this offer and informing those interested as fully as possible demands a blog post about the, yes, process. But honestly, this one's taken me all day. I don't know when I'll get round to that.)
Dear Other Artists: go on. I double dare you.
* Please do read that post by Maddy Costa, and not just because she's nice about me on an unrelated point in the last paragraph. She is responsible for galvanising all of this.
** Although it's not irrelevant that I spent a brief year or so, from 2002-03, as a critic myself, writing in Scotland for pretty much every publication in print while trying to put together my first professional fringe show and figure out what I should write about in my phd.
*** This is a paraphrase. It's in his diaries somewhere, but I've spent long enough on this post already.
**** Although I suspect a certain sensitivity will be required of people you're going to spend three weeks in a room with. It's only polite, right?
A made-up dialogue inspired by real events.
Me: I think Blair should be tried for war crimes. HG Wells said that "a time will come when a politician who has willfully made war and promoted international dissension will be as sure of the dock and much surer of the noose than a private homicide. It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men's lives should not stake their own".*
Him: HG Wells also described Stalin as "the most loyal, kind and trustworthy man he'd ever met".**
Me: Yes. I don't agree with him on that. I also disagree with him on eugenics.
Him: So why are you quoting him approvingly?
Me: Because I approve of the thing I'm quoting.
Him: Quoting HG Wells approvingly is a tacit endorsement of Stalin.
Me: Is it also a tacit invention of the time machine?
Him: [no reply]
* I don't have this at my fingertips. I looked it up.
** This isn't actually what HG Wells said. My interlocutor didn't have it at his fingertips or look it up.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will