Category Archives: Theatre

The Dangers of Labelling

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The Christians by Lucas Hnath. Published by Nick Hern Books and first performed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, Louisville, Kentucky, 8 March 2014. The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, 8 September – 3 October.

I’d heard very positive comments on this play from its time in New York in 2015, the 2015 Edinburgh Festival and its transfer to The Gate Theatre. I was not disappointed and came away troubled – and reminded – about the reality of a religion (and perhaps religion in general).

The staging is simple and you walk into a deliberately blurred setting between drama and church. The Gate is a tiny theatre so the stage and its joyful choir on the stage are very close.  A luminous cross sits at the back of the stage in between their two sides.  In front of the choir are two standing microphones from where Pastor Paul (a brilliant William Gaminara from TV’s Silent Witness) and Associate Pastor Joshua deliberate the theology of salvation to the shock of their congregation – which is both the choir behind them and us the audience.

The microphones are at first a distraction since the whole script is delivered through them, but we have to remember that this is a ‘mega’ church in America. I also found the microphones to be metaphors: when you are talking about your faith and particularly when what you say is controversial, it does feel like the whole world is listening, and likely making its judgment.

The whole play hangs on the question ‘what happens when you die if you are not a Christian?’ and Pastor Paul is haunted by his witnessing of a boy who runs into a burning house to save his sister’s life only to lose his own. The boy worships a different God and is likely to never have heard of Jesus Christ.  As Stephen Portlock of the Independent Catholic News, October 8th, says, ‘Ghastly as is the notion of this compassionate young man going to Hell, it is hardly less of a travesty of justice than that of an all forgiving God who places the murderer and his victim together in Heaven.  Furthermore, if salvation is open to all then why bother being a Christian at all?’

Gaminara delivers the powerful sermon with his news that he does not believe in Hell with complete sensitivity, earnestness and passion, and manages empathy too. The aftermath is devastating – members of his congregation leave as does his colleague and friend Joshua, whom Paul had mentored, feeling betrayed that he drops a theological bomb shell at this point in time when all the church’s debts are paid off from the congregation’s gifts, and his marriage faces a split.  At the start you support Pastor Paul in his strength and want to believe what he says, but the catastrophic implications come crashing down.  He didn’t share any of this, what some would call, revisionist and progressive theology with his wife until she hears it with thousands of others on a Sunday morning.  Suddenly you realise that faith is never really private.  It affects how you behave to others, and what they think of you.

Pastor Paul

Pastor Paul

There isn’t time here to go into issues of translations of words in the Bible which the play spends some time discussing but in a nutshell, Pastor Paul reminds us about taking the words of Jesus out of context; and one issue did hit me with almost horrendous resonance for the 21st century world we try to comprehend: we label people into ‘Christians’ and ‘non Christians’ with one group going here after death and one group going there after death (as if we can even have any understanding of what life after death could be – we cannot), and in labelling them we forget that a big part of Christianity is about trying to make a heaven on earth through ‘loving one another’ and embracing the stranger. Pastor Paul alerts us to the potential of the pollution of Christian behaviour when it twists, and uses the example of a group of thieves – they stick together because amongst themselves they don’t keep telling each other how useless or ‘bad’ they are.  The thieves are alike in the way they have gone wrong in life.  Christians are their own worst enemy with phrases such as ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ – if you are in the latter camp, whether you are a thief or whether you just happen to have been born into a culture where Jesus just isn’t around, then yes, you may well feel worthless if you are condemned as ‘unsaved’.  Let us not forget the words of Jesus to the thief that hung on the cross next to him.  Thankfully for him, he went to his death released from the ‘bad’ ghetto that society had put him in.

Pastor Paul, at the start of the play, says he has a powerful urge to communicate but that he finds the distance barrier insurmountable. You realise what he means as the play goes on and it’s shattering, as by admitting his struggle with this part of the Christian faith he loses much of what he holds dear – but at the same time there is the all too real fact that by putting the human race into categories we create distance between ourselves as we simply label ourselves as different. (The Dalai Lama said the same thing, The Big Issue, 28 September 2015.) Either way there is huge loneliness.

Before this turns into a sociological essay, let me turn to the author. Hnath says that when he was younger he wanted to be a preacher but didn’t want to be responsible for other people’s souls so he switched to medicine but then didn’t want to worry about other people’s bodies.  So he became a playwright (full interview on http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/).  Ironically, in writing this play, he has partly become responsible for how people feel about their souls and bodies.  He says of the play ‘…lack of obvious resolution can be uncomfortable, agitating… And maybe something more complex and true becomes visible within the agitation…I think back to a [picture in the] physics class I took [pre-med days].  The picture is of a very tiny particle. The only way you can see the particle is by colliding it with many other particles, from many different angles.’

The Bible presents us with challenging situations resulting in unanswerable questions – and contradictions. It is the particle in collision with others.  But then I’m reminded of the person of Jesus – denying self in order to find Self.  We see him as coming to earth as a man – one of the reasons being to understand what it was to be human.  But he became accessible – living as ‘other’ to be at one with us.  So there is a contradiction right there.  He was an explicit human but implicitly God so who are we to judge that someone is not explicitly Christian? – the fact is, Jesus was not always recognised for the entity he was so for us to be dividing people into who might go to Heaven and  who might go to Hell, seems far beyond us, when we recognise the implications of what this does.  I leave the last words to Hnath:

‘A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible.  The theatre can be that too.’

with cross

The Clown in us all

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I recently attended a weekend workshop with LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts (based in London and Berlin). I knew the school focussed on physical theatre, after the work of Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris, but didn’t realise how relevant the focus would be to be my own interest in masks, clowning, mime, puppetry and the expression of the unknown, the unseen. We don’t always think of the links between clowning and acting and we tend to brush off the term ‘clowning around’ thinking of it as just silliness but you don’t have to look far to see how clowning can work hand-in-hand with acting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon MacBurney (Director of Complicite Theatre Company), Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Kathryn Hunter trained under Philippe Gaulier who was a student and teacher at Lecoq’s school in the 1960’s and 70’s and is known for his ‘Inverted Clown’, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm. Gaulier was interested in the pupil finding a ‘wonderful spirit’, rather than teaching a ‘style’. (Just as Tom Stoppard, according to actor Joseph Fiennes, says ‘imagination will take you to a greater truth than academia.’) He popularised the ‘buffoon’ genre of 1960’s theatre – during festivals, the ‘ugly people’ (buffoons) would entertain the ‘beautiful people’. These beautiful people were often part of the Government or Church. The idea was to make the ‘beautiful people’ think, and realise their lives were meaningless. There is a slight irony here in that the acting world (at least Hollywood) tends to favour more commercially good looking people. But if we think about what really makes a good actor, we’re attracted to the ones who portray truth more than how beautiful they are. Speaking personally as someone who performs, it’s difficult to be truthful and beautiful as those two things mean different things to different people – and truthfulness is unfortunately less valued than looking beautiful in this society.

Lecoq

Lecoq

However in opposition to this, in a recent interview with film director Harry Macqueen on his film Hinterland (opening February 2015), Macqueen talks about the importance of truth and honesty to him saying ‘this ‘truth’ lies in the spaces between words – the unnoticed glances and mutual experiences, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of the things that cannot be said…’ Later I will talk about how mask plays a part in taking this further. Philosophically speaking, truth, beauty and ‘goodness’ are all inherently linked but that’s a subject in itself. The programme at LISPA itself, integrates relevant elements from the Junguian concept for personal growth and additional body-movement-performance based practices.

The type of physical theatre I explored was very much rooted ‘in the body’ and asks the actor to think about resonance with an object, or a person (or just something – for example a colour), and once that resonance has been activated, to then embody that ‘other’ (the object, person, colour). I found this a very useful way in to truthfully portraying something outside myself, whilst using what I have within me. Lecoq and Gaulier theatre is about the actor finding the most successful performance outcome for themselves by rejecting technique, and that acting is ‘play’ which creates a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination. You only have to see a few pictures on the Lecoq School’s website to understand this.

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‘Neutral Mask’ is a cornerstone of LISPA’s philosophy. Masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. At the same time, they are the access to the Invisible, giving us a glimpse of the yet unseen and unlived. Thomas Prattki, Founder and Director of LISPA (and tutor on the course I did) says ‘there are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can also be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche …an experience of the collective or transpersonal dimension within us.’

Lecoq called the Neutral Mask ‘the mask behind all other masks’. The Neutral Mask is a unifying ‘reality of body, psyche and world, which has been described in mythology, science, philosophy and depth psychology as the ‘Atman’: the Implicit Order, the Real, the Flesh or the Self.’

Wearing the Neutral Masks that LISPA provided made me feel bigger than I am – by that I mean I felt my own presence. I felt more alive and comfortable in my own skin, maybe because I wasn’t showing my own face – which looking back, in fact is rather unsettling. The course says it is for artists, actors, dancers, educators, healers, therapists and human beings. The mask forms a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious. My movement and expression in the mask became more defined – it is what the school calls ‘staging the shadow’ – as myself I don’t live certain elements of myself because of constraints or expectations of society, work, friends, family – the conditions that govern my life. In the mask, my shadow surfaces.

People recognise that they need to integrate the shadow into their personal and collective lives. Movement, theatre and performance are some of the most direct ways to unearth the Unlived – the body, play and imagination are pathways into the anarchic vitality which are there in us as children but get covered as we grow. The paradox is that uncovering them is done via this mask.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The art of clowning I learnt comes from picking up on the little details about life (how we walk, how we hold our head etc) and then blowing these up into a chaotic act. To celebrate the strange, the untamed and sublime and find your own clown, the buffoon (via the Grotesque mask – moving on from the Neutral) which you become, announces the arrival of the Fantastical and Mystery. Prattki calls this ‘the untamed Other within yourself who deeply enjoys failing, falling and the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Contact with your clown shadow will enrich your creative potential and unearth the pleasure of being truly stupid.‘ We find we develop the dialogue between our shadow and conscious mind, between chaos and form. You find who you are via ‘the other’ – though ‘the other’ is more you than you know, since you are simply making visible the Invisible.

Philipp Schaeffer is a professional clown, actor, TaKeTiNa Ryhtym teacher and alumni of Lecoq, and says ‘Rhythm is my tool as a clown and as a teacher in order to create space…there is no need to learn a new instrument, since you are your instrument. You will find out how to play it in the best possible way.’ Many times on the course, we were told to give ourselves permission to ‘be’.

The puppeteer Basil Twist III (an example of his work below) was one of the creators behind Kate Bush’s comeback concert in 2014 and has been at the Barbican in January 2015 with his own show as part of the London International Mime Festival – he says that although puppets are marginalised, he says this has its benefits as when they make an appearance, they surprise people – by virtue of the surprise, they have a powerful message. The unseen/invisible puppeteers are behind the seen/visible puppets – it is ‘reverence for something beautiful…a rare, strange thing…To see something coming to life that is not alive, that you know is not alive, is an existential experience…puppetry has very sacred roots. Fundamentally it’s dealing with the frontier between life and death. There’s nothing more profound.’

Twist

 

Inside Out Theatre

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Richard Armitage, currently playing John Proctor in The Crucible at London’s Olc Vic theatre, says he approaches John from the inside.  He says he is not a character who can be ‘put on’ from the outside.  The fact that he draws from within himself is displayed for all to see on stage.  It is a raw and honest portrayal of a man exposed for all the wrong reasons; John Proctor is a beacon of truth in a society ravaged by its own paranoia and eaten up by its abuse of religion.

JP

It is fitting that Armitage is so willing and able to act this part from the inside, as the play’s subject matter is that of a society being attacked from its inner core; the values it thinks it lives by are the very values which are responsible for its destruction.

As with all Arthur Miller’s plays, we should learn from this.

Phoenix Rising

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I’m not saying anything new when I say that this year’s Eurovision winner won for more than a song (if people do win for their songs).  It was a win for anyone who feels that they cannot be who they are – Conchita not only is who she is but stands up and sings about it.  She has been interviewed many times since winning, and she talks about a difficult childhood – as usual, those who are seen as different are sidelined, or worse, bullied.

Conchita2

Her song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is about identity – she has also said since winning, that she is her own truth, which is as close as you can get to living authentically and being truly who you are.  It’s ironic in one sense that there is still a stigma against people who want to do this – and have the guts to do it.  You can be punished in this world for being truthful – be dishonest about who you are and this is preferred!

In Greek Mythology, the phoenix is a powerful symbol of rebirth and regeneration – it is also associated with Early Christianity for the same meanings.  It can also mean the ‘exceptional man’.  All of these apply to Conchita Wurst and as one person said, she not only provokes questions about identity, but she also provides the answers to them, all within herself.  She won for the quality and power of her singing voice but also because thankfully, we saw that what she represented is not something so very foreign to all of us, that we all have a voice and with that an identity, and we should look to her to know that it is possible to be ourselves.  Eurovision this year was meaningful.

Pheonix

Real lives being recognised

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There was a common thread to this year’s Oscars – many of the speeches paid tribute to the REAL characters they played.  This is one of the reasons I tune into these Award Ceremonies because the drama they represent is the real life of other people.

Jared Leto accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar

Jared Leto accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar

Leto, whose performance was a revelation in Dallas Buyer’s Club, said: ‘And this is for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to Aids and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you.’

The sadness of Leto’s character is that his character is most moved in the film when other people show him some humanity – and when those once against you become your closest supporters and recognise that you are not so different from them:

Leto in role

Twelve Years A Slave paid tribute to those on whom the story was based.  McQueen reiterated his words from the BAFTA’s (see previous post)

Triumph for McQueen as he accepts his Oscar for Best Film but also that he stands equal with many races

Triumph for McQueen as he accepts his Oscar for Best Film but also that he stands equal with many races

and Lupita Nyong’o reminded the audience that her character was as real as she is: ‘It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey, for her guidance.’

Happiness but not without pain

Happiness but not without pain

There is no other forum other than that of film and theatre which shows us so well the injustices of life.  Yes these awards are also the glamorous side of acting that many of us won’t relate to but at their heart they showcase not only talent, but humankind, in its greatness but also its great injustice of the past, and in many cases, still today.

 

We are more similar to these men than we think

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I do not know one person who hasn’t liked the current National Theatre’s production of Othello in London.  Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello were perfect casting.

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What is so good is that both men play these men as ‘everyman’ – there are aspects of both whom we can identify with.  Othello stands strong and is great at holding other peoples’ situations together:

holding it together

but when it comes to holding his own when he is falsely led, he is less controlled.  By the end he has positively lost control:

losing it

A man such as Iago, whom Othello should see through, is someone who upsets him so much so that Othello makes the terrible mistake of losing his authority to him.  When you think about it, this is an extremely realistic situation – the steadfast person with the strong heart, deep soul and value-led conscience, is the person most likely to be influenced by the fickleness of life and people.  The harder we love, the harder we hurt others, and ourselves.

authority

Adrian Lester is one massive presence on a stage or screen.  He is an awesome actor with a big singing voice too and his exposure of the characters he is playing – whether as Othello in Othello or as Bobby in Sondheim’s ‘Company’, are a sight and sound to behold:

As Bobby in Company singing 'Being Alive' in a tribute concert to Sondheim

As Bobby in Company singing ‘Being Alive’ in a tribute concert to Sondheim

As he sings ‘Being Alive’ he reminds us, both as Adrian Lester and as the characters he plays, what it is to be alive.

 

 

Learning from History

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I had no idea how appropriate this play was for our times. Henry Goodman’s characteristics are deliberately extreme and the play is animated and at times extremely funny (Goodman’s scene with ‘the actor’ was Brecht’s way of illustrating the lengths Hitler went to, to create a powerful and convincing rhetoric) but the scene that stays with me is the last scene. The play is coming to London from Chichester so I can’t describe too much in case you go to see it, but the reality of it is stark; heightened, paradoxically, because the last lines are spoken straight, with no ‘performance’ by Goodman, and they rightly lack the bravado of the rest of play. What comes through is the bleakness of the mass death at concentration camps at the end of WW2 – and the shock is revealed in seconds. If the audience thought they were going to be protected from the reality behind the play by its farcical style, they were wrong.

'The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui' by Bertolt Brecht

‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’ by Bertolt Brecht

Goodman is tremendous and is both message and messenger. ‘Partly comic, it’s set in Chicago … the play has echoes of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard III, as well as The Godfather, Scarface and The Sopranos…Not just a knock-about comedy … this has a serious point … a Berlusconian buffoon can become a mass murderer.’ Patrick Marmion, The Daily Mail.

Arturo Ui (Goodman) and his men are representatives of any tyrannical government at any time, and in any place (and Brecht’s setting of the ‘Hitler rise to power’ scenario in 1930’s Chicago of course increases this realisation). In the same way, we, the 21st century audience, are representative of the common man at any time and in any place (enhanced in the performance at the Minerva at Chichester by members of Ui’s gang standing amongst the audience in his final speech – how are we different from them?). The world is still producing people who have the capacity to wipe out generations of a certain race who they happen to take a dislike to, whilst asserting (or precisely to assert) their power as dictator. And it doesn’t matter how those people start out in life – big or small, rich or poor, educated or non-educated: life and people are too complicated to make these divides. And we should not look for easy answers to complex problems. As Libby Purves in The Times said: ‘Brecht’s Fuhrer is no superman but a schmuck, a little man: the message is that his progress should have been resistible, even with the Depression economics. It is a superbly horrible performance, even in comic moments … his paranoia is rendered with awful hilarity.’

And it is this message that should sit with anyone who watches the play – evil can be resisted but resistance comes at a price. Those who stood against Ui (those who stood against Hitler) lost their lives. The play has been revived at a time when we have seen people crushed by their own government in their own countries. How does the world become such a terrible place, so quickly, over and over again, century after century? Watch the play and it is clear.