Bits and Bobs ~ theatre notes

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bits and Bobs

1. The VCA blog Spark Online makes my heart beat faster this morning with the brilliant news that Oscar Redding's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, produced by A Poor Theatre, will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I saw the play, and I've seen enough of this movie to ensure that I will be thrusting the lame and the halt brutally aside to get into the cinema. Trust me, you don't want to miss this one.

2. Kudos to the Malthouse (and to co-producers the Sydney Opera House): after a successful opening in Vienna last week, Honour Bound, Nigel Jamieson's stunning physical/visual theatre piece about David Hicks, has scored a season at the Barbican in London. Revisiting my review of its Malthouse season last year makes me wonder how the Brits will respond: it's rather different fare from the David Hare-style political theatre they're used to. Which brings me to...

3. ...the continuing saga about Dead White Males presently enlivening the London theatre scene. The Guardian's Michael Billington recounts a showdown in a car park between himself and the NT's Nicholas Hytner, who sparked this particular brawl with an exasperated comment to the Times. Billington's latest punch has sparked a deal of scornful commentary, on the Guardian's blogsite and elsewhere.

As Encore Theatre Magazine reported, this battle began in earnest in March, with Katie Mitchell's controversial NT production of Attempts on Her Life. The London debate interests me because it's very similar to conflicts here - in both cases, the outrage has been sparked as the theatrical vocabulary of what some people like to call "the fringe" is given legitimacy and cash and main stages. Readers of this blog will remember the bitter attacks last year, for example, on Kristy Edmunds' direction of the Melbourne Festival. (As an aside, Mark Davis's recent essay on turf wars in the Age - itself a follow-up to his book Ganglands - gives these arguments a broader context.)

To return to London: in response to Billington's defence of the importance of a critic's individual voice, Andrew Fields scathingly points out on his blog The Arcades Project that the actual problem is that the major voices are all too uniform:

In fact, [Billington is] sounding remarkably similar to those of all the other daily critics for, though they may have different tastes and prose styles, they all share a fundamentally limited notion of what theatre can or should be - a notion that sees Billington dismiss Katie Mitchell's the waves as a 'sterile piece of theatre about theatre' that is nothing but a 'celebration of technical ingenuity' in much the same way as Nicholas De Jongh calls her work 'a dreadful form of directorial embellishment' and Spender states that all devised theatre is becoming 'more like an acrobatic display than a piece of real drama'.

Playwright David Eldridge also has some interesting comments and links to yet more responses - you could read the tos and fros all day. All the same, it seems to me that on the whole Billington is rather unfairly getting the worst of it, and it makes me want to defend him (and not only because he proves himself a good chap by linking to Theatre Notes). As I said in a review in which I tangentially discussed Billington's collected reviews, One Night Stands:

Billington has his limitations: his subscription to a notion of theatre as a branch of sociology meant, for instance, that he initally missed the significance of radical talents like Sarah Kane (although he was man enough to admit it later). But a read through his collected reviews will give you a fair idea of the ferment of ideas that ran through British theatre in the 70s and 80s – the variety of its aesthetic, its political concerns – filtered through a fascinated, mobile intellect. More importantly, it leaves you with the feeling that the theatre is an exciting, vital place to be.

It occurs to me that Billington has drawn some fire which might more justly be directed towards some of his colleagues: whatever one's disagreements with him, he puts himself out there, and is still up for debate. You never know, he might even revise his assumptions: something that, judging by Charles Spencer's impregnably superior response in the Telegraph, seems unlikely in his peers.

And to get parochial for a moment, I can't see this kind of discussion happening under the august banner of the Age's arts pages. Melbourne's print critics are rather shy little petals.


Andrew Field said...

I think you're most probably right - the only reason that Billington has got it in the neck is because he continues to offer his opinions in a manner that encourages debate rather than seeing us as drifting contemptuously somewhere beneath him. He really represents the cudliest and most honourable of the old guard.

But old guard they still are and I really do believe that around the time Sarah Kane was writing and more experimental forms (from Complicite through to Kneehigh) were being accomodated in the mainstream Billington's theatrical vocabulary was made fundamentally limited.

As an example of the alternative look at Lyn Gardner's wonderful review of Punchdrunk's Faust (,,1925545,00.html). A critic capable and willing to engage with a different form of theatre and not seeing it as an gimmicky, fringe-y distraction from 'real theatre'.

Gosh... how we love to stir up a great big storm in our tiny teacup of an island. Get's us through the weather I suppose which, as I look out of my window, is utterly miserable...

Alison Croggon said...

No argument there, Andrew - it is about different kinds of theatrical vocabulary. Btw, still to get back to you on your Ghosts paper, which I much enjoyed reading, but I have a question!! Soon...