Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review of Edinburgh 2011

This was my tenth fringe and around my seventh I started to realize that each year, I could find themes in the plays and comedy.  This year was about the biggest questions of human existence asked with icons and stories of the past.  This year I saw a sort of mass acceptance of schizophrenia as a state of being:  we can be two things at the same time, we can be different things.

(Spoiler alert for everything.  In my mind it doesn't even matter.  Who is going to manage to see all these plays? I write these like the NYT reviews books:  knowing that the person reading the review will probably never pick up the actual book.  Is that so wrong?  I don't feel any duty to withhold narrative.  Does that make me a monster?) 

Friday started with Tuesdays at Tescos, an English adaptation of the Parisian hit Mondays at Monoprix:  a monologue of an over the hill transgendered daughter who used to be a son, and her Tuesday visit to her ancient father.  The writing is so rich, and has layers that I am still considering.  The monologue was performed by Simon Callow, the guy who dies in Four Weddings and a Funeral, remember, the totally jolly gay guy with a beard who danced like a maniac?  He was occasionally mesmerizing, but the monologue was punctuated with dancing.  And instead of the sensuous grind you would expect from a person who made their living as a prostitute, I'll be damned if he didn't dance just like in Four Weddings.  It did not fit into the piece.  It was performed with a musician onstage and sparse, discordant music.  Companion K thought it excellent.  I was a little too distracted by Callow (Is that really the only way he can dance?) to be too moved, although the ending is moving (cheap deus ex machina moving).  (You may think this demonstrates that people who review plays are just bitter playwrights constantly critiquing the successes of others like craven Salieris.  Well done you for spotting this. Ten points to Griffindor!)

Next was the famous impresario and occasional actor Guy Masterson acting in a revival of a 1998 production: a one man character study of Shylock.  The beginning is really unbeatable.  A human being telling the story of how his race had been the whipping boys of humanity since Ceasar and Shakespeare's place in that continuum.  And how Shakespeare's imagining the Jew as human - if you cut me, do I not bleed -- maybe started to turn things around for old Shylock and the Jews a bit.  Maybe reminded people of their humanity.  I know a Jewish guy in his 40's and when he moved to Texas as an adolescent, kids in his school really thought he had a sawed off tail and horns.  We have not done right by the Jews, and the slow realization of the scope of the persecution with a Jew performing was very moving.  Unfortunately, the Jew is also British and as such the show had twenty minutes of mostly very boring stories about the great actors performing Shylock in the past (there were to be fair some very funny lines).  The British and their obsession with the past.  Their backward looking DNA.  It has some downsides.

After that was Dave Gorman's Power Point Presentation.  I went to see his Googlewhack show in 2003 when I was pregnant and we had run in from another show and I had to go to the bathroom through the whole thing.  I had to go so bad.  I thought I was going to get a bladder infection.  The thing was, though, he was too funny to leave- he has this magic build in his comic storytelling.  I can think of no higher praise for a comedian that I once risked a bladder infection to see his show.  He had another big thing about Jews, everyone thinks he is one, and it's an awkward as hell thing to play.  He also had a segment about mobile phone marketing, he is obsessed with the Facebook and Twitter icons of  fake people that appear in the picture of the phone in a newspaper.  It was a very sly attack on the utter pointlessness of advertising.  Perhaps so sly that he didn't even notice it?

Last on Friday was Mat Ricardo in this great venue - The Viper Rooms - performing Three Balls and a Suit - more obsession with the past but also a genuinely talented but sweetly insecure juggler.  He told tales of gentlemen jugglers of the past, and tried his own sleight-of-hand to a Tom Waits song.  The Fringe has had a real surge of circus and cabaret, and I do appreciate seeing feats of skill.  It is entertaining.  It was only OK.  I actually think he would be happy with me saying that.

Saturday began with Ten Plagues - this is a song cycle about the plague year - 1685 -- that killed 100,000
in London.  It was performed by Marc Almond, one half, I came to find out, of Soft Cell (Tainted Love, dude!). The book was written by Mark Ravenhill (Shopping & Fucking).  This was the highlight of the Fringe for me, so ingenious and powerful was the end of cycle.  Oh, this piece crept up on you.  It had some sweeping music, but the story of a lone man who lived through the plague, who got so close to death, who knew and lived at that powerful edge between life and death for so long.  When his friends returned to London, he could not understand them, he was a different person.  Suffering turned him into something different.  It made him indifferent to the petty commerce of the time, but indifferent in a true and enlightened way.  The way the world goes on and ignores its own mortality is simply appalling.  And one of the great tragedies of this world and of our own time.  The way this man changes is artistic genius of the highest order.  So powerful that I felt the waves coming out from the stage into me.  (I hate using that phrase and all real artists I know truly hate it as well - artistic genius - but I felt such a resonance, such a resonance that continues to today and to now that I don't know what else to say) I was sobbing despite myself at the final blackout.  Also during the final blackout, two teenagers sitting next to me, stood up, announced "WELL THAT SUCKED!" and stomped out.   So then I cried and laughed at the same time, such is the absurdity of the world.

And the absurdity of the world and more precisely the observation that life is a joke -- a very funny joke, but a joke -- was the point of Theatre of Wales' Dark Philosophers.  This told the story of the inhabitants of a terraced street under a mountain owned by a lecherous tyrant and the perverse behavior and bizarre coping mechanisms that evolve to protect humans from and through such suffering.  Coal mining.  It is the gift to the Welsh that keeps on giving:  this time in a metaphor for the Welsh themselves, digging down through the black rock like some kind of polluted cortex.  It had Welsh songs.  It was fantastically inventive.  The snatches of narrative were interlaced with a possibly true story of one of the boys becoming a TV personality.   (But the sound system was way too loud and I watched the end with my fingers in my ears).  Since I am Welsh but am not always very clear on what that means, I really ate this up as immediately useful information.  One of the best descriptions of my brain was provided by a woman singing a love song so passionately while at the same time, six actors told the story of love, by three fights of two people trying to kill each other.  But in a slapstick way.  There was waves of this kind of symbolism as well as absurdity.  It was a little long.

Next a very different show:  Bryony Kimmings in 7 Day Drunk.  This is a comedian, an incredibly adorable young woman who must draw inevitably comparisons to Katy Perry (but cuter and smarter).  Her show was the result of an experiment:  she got drunk for seven days and it provided the material for the show.  There are segments where she is chewing on a lemon, chewing on coffee grounds, stabbing a pen into a teddy bear and you think, WTF?  then you think, ok, right, she was drunk.  She also got an audience member drunk and tracked her progress.  It was billed as tackling the question of substance use and creativity but it didn't tackle it with any profound or even very interesting observations, she just sort of said that being drunk probably ended up helping the process a little.  She succeeded in getting three sets of people to make out for a while who didn't know each other, in a great slow dance sequence, and ended with a dance party that was supposed to celebrate the now, the fun of this moment, and kind of did, but mostly for the people who had been making out and the girl she got drunk.

We then went on to the East End Cabaret in the delightfully anarchic Free Festival; the Fringe is broken down into theatres and venues - aggregators who have fifteen or so venues near each other. The price to go to a show has gotten really high (I remember when the most expensive ticket I bought at the Fringe was £6, I am now paying on average north of £15 for a play) so most people need to take advantage of discounts offered for seeing multiple shows at the same venue.  I kept talking to people who had only seen shows at Pleasance, or the shows at Assembly.  The Free Fringe is a collection that seats for free but then solicits donations on the way out.  Refreshing.  And the show was a fantastic naughty cabaret that was funny and racy and had a song about ping pong balls in Bangkok and the trajectory they travel that had marvelous sound effects.  The crowd is definitely drunker at the free shows, and for late night cabaret this is a plus.

We ended with Glen Wool, a comedian who looks like a roadie in a tribute Metallica band tour of Australia.  (I think he would agree with me.)  He was funny, but the show's conceit was a revenge story involving feces and you are never going to get me completely on board with that material.

Sunday started with Phil Nichol performing a monologue written by Royal Court young writer David Florez.  It was putatively about a man in a North London cafe lusting after a Lithuanian restaurant.  Also it was about the life and death of a perhaps fictional but maybe not severely disabled guy.  Also it was about the cheap trick that a play is, that storytelling can be.  But the narrative twisted and moved and grew in a way that belied the cheap trick protestations.  Phil Nichol is unreal:  one of the greatest shows I have ever seen on the Fringe was his 2005 Naked Racist.  I really don't understand why the United States hasn't discovered him yet.  This show was called Somewhere Beneath It All A Small Fire Burns Still and if you get a chance, see it.  It replaced Ten Plagues as my darling of the Fringe.

Next was Futureproof, like Ten Plagues at the Traverse, which has reputedly the greatest bar in Europe.  I dispute this claim, but it is a great bar.  Futureproof is the story of a travelling freak show trying to update for the times.  Conjoined twins, a Fat Man, a hermaphrodite, a armless bearded lady and a beautifully mysterious fake (maybe not fake) mermaid.  Everyone is starving using the traditional freak show, so the circus owner comes up with something good for business:  show the freaks becoming normal.  SO he puts the fat man on a diet and shaves the bearded lady and they lose something essential in their identity, of course, even as he eyes the conjoined twins and hermaphrodite for corrective surgery.  It was beautifully staged with mesmerizing costumes and this idea of cutting off part of your identity to fit in is very interesting to contemplate indeed.  The images stay with me, and I think of the truths behind this piece quite a bit especially because I am not clear what they are. 

 Then a mad dash over to a real Festival play - the Fringe is called the fringe because it took place at the periphery of a large international arts festival.  Now the Fringe is much bigger than the Festival but to be high art and old school we thought we would check out the Festival and saw a Japanese-American play called Wind-up Bird Chronicles, an adaptation of a psychological Japanese novel.  As we were finding the theatre, an officious intermeddler informed me that we would never be able to follow what was going on in the play if we hadn't read the novel.  She was kind of right but I got a few things anyway.  There were some nice symbols but after all the crashing tumult and bravery of the Fringe it did seem a little staid.  Only incest?  Only two stories unfolding at the same time? Still, some nice puppet work and a very multinational audience.  Subtitles are a bitch in a play though. 

Then from Festival to the Pyjama Men - an extended hallucinatory sketch show roughly revolving around an alien kidnapping a baby, I think.  It mostly was funny because the two performers kept corpsing, although I thought they were legitimately trying to make each other laugh. 

What a great three days.  It was magic.  


Friday, August 26, 2011

Review of London Road at the National Theatre, August 2011

Book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe, Lyrics and music by Adam Cork.

In 2006, a part-time truck driver named Steven Wright rented a house on London Road in Ipswich and proceeded to murder five prostitutes working nearby.  He was ultimately found guilty in a jury trial and is serving time in prison. This musical tells the story of  Wright's murders entirely through scripts of interviews with actual residents of London Road.  It is the legacy of Anna Deveare Smith, in that it is composed entirely of first person commentary.  It is the legacy of Sarah Kane because the language sung, the music sparse and enhancing the inherent musicality of the language, is meant to wash over you.  It is multitudinous and inaccessible except as some new kind of noise.  (The musicality of the language is dependent upon the severe country accent of the Ipswich dwellers. One of my companions was a woman from Singapore who found it impossible to believe that English really was spoken with such distortions and assumed it was a creation of the playwright.  Sweet heart, I said, welcome to England).  It was so rich and complex I found myself wondering how the musical form would ever  go back to the likes of Les Mis. 

This is an amazing work of art and everyone should see it.  A cast of twelve plays a bossy woman intent on creating a gardening competition to give London Road a better reputation, the prostitutes, the police, the reporters, the photographers and an affable man heading up the local neighborhood watch.   It is seamless.  The choices made by the writer created a mesmerizingly intelligent picture of the real London Road:  the neighbours were quite excited by the whole thing and enjoyed it, and deep down, they were glad that the prostitutes weren't going out on London Road anymore.  Of course, the interview scripts don't say that clearly, that is something that comes across gently, partially hidden, something that only an audience listening to the same words spoken over and over could tease out, could interpret.  This is a musical told in subtext.

Much of it reminds me of Walker Percy's book Lost in the Cosmos:  the idea that it is fun and interesting to witness or be a part of something big and transgressive, much more interesting than our normal dull lives, so we feel more alive.  Suicide rates, they say, go to zero in a hurricane.  

The best musical number is based on two women being interviewed. They talk about what it was like to go into town shopping during the murders.  They are standing at a bus stop.  Their eyes stray on a man and they say:  "You automatically think it could be him."  The ominous repetition of this phrase reminded me of all those scary walks late at night in my life.  It is accompanied by a nervous laugh and cascading into it are the other women of the company.  It is worth the price of the ticket to see that alone.

By the intermission, my other friend was shaking his head about the banality of the neighbour's concerns. I found it at the same time amazing and boring to consider and reconsider the messages behind the banality.  Because in taking the time to consider it, I eventually saw how none of the characters are actually very wise, and all (as are we all) are blind to themselves. 

There was throughout an amazing lack of empathy for the victims and a unsurprising obsession with property values on the street of a serial murderer (described by Sky as the Red Light district of Ipswich).  The acting was unobstrusive, as were the songs, a kind of minimalism that would sneak up on you.  Absorbing.  

That is what I love about this kind of art, this hyper-real form that makes you revisit reality more and more, kind of a chance for a slow-motion replay.  Our gardening hero is separately interviewed near the end, and says she wishes she could shake Steven Wright's hand and thank him.  Because those prostitutes were nasty and for years she had been calling the police on them.  At the very very end of the play, the gardening woman, with her property value intact, the murderer in jail, the gardening competition in glorious bloom, cries happy tears as the local paper gets its photograph as she exclaims how wonderful it was to have people share their gardens.  Which is what none of them would do with the poor and tired drug addicts who sold themselves and who Steve Wright preyed on.

Walker Percy also liked to say that sentimentalism - like the tears of the gardener - leads straight to the gas chamber.  This work has considered this connection.  I think there's a pretty good chance it will move to someplace small in NY and if it does, please go.  And please see it at the National if you can.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pending verification by the Blues Brothers, a message from God

There is so much to write about - I have seen 15 plays and shows and want to tell you about them all.  My annual present to myself, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  Thousands of Jacobs, wrestling with their angels, demanding the truth.

I wandered in a swoon through Richard Bach's pictures from the bible.  His nativity, passion, Tower of Babel and depictions of heaven and hell done as mosaics of modern images.  In these times, it seems to me, atheist or theist, it makes sense to look at these archetypes, these images, and ask what they tell us about our times.  Our times now.

In the States everyone told me about the searing heat of the summer.  Searing heat.  And then an earthquake, that reaches to the United States capitol and while ignoring all other buildings, alters forever the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.  A visual assault on the most easily recognized icons of church and state.  I am finding the fact that these buildings were the only ones damaged too much to bear.  I believe in the interconnectedness of all things.  I guess at a time when I am obsessed with the nature of the law and the state, of God and belief and identity we also seem to be having a lot of extreme events displaying the raw power of the earth.  And at the heart of my own obsession, I feel that power and I want to speak for the earth.  Problem is, that would probably buy me a couple weeks at the Priory.  Because I know, other people don't see it that way.

I know.  I still do though.  I don't care whether you call what happened God or Karma, or the power of the very earth rising up against a parasite as I described in my first dream:

Here is the earlier blog post so you don't have to look it up: 

I had a dream. I had a dream last night and in the dream I was watching the sea with some men I did not know. And the sky was white, swirling light. And I felt dread and fear. The sea came over the earth and enveloped it in water and I saw dolphins, soldiers, swimming in formation to attack the people of the earth. Then I saw in the sky a prism and a black rainbow and I was afraid. I looked to the men who were with me. They could not see what I had seen. I knew more.

It's hard, I grew up in a Christian home and I ingested plenty of Old Testament stories.  I read Revelations.  Plus I get messianic and people I respect consider that pathological.  Still.  If I was still a Christian I would be hard-pressed not to consider in light of my Christian traditions the reality of these earthquakes.  What is God trying to tell you?  (Answer:  He is trying to tell you to read my blog)

  I am no longer a Christian and I am even more hardpressed to ignore this event.  What if all the yogis are right, and the earth will be balanced when we are balanced?  What if you think the fact that an earthquake took out the two poignant symbols of church and state in Washington is a pure coincidence? Perhaps you could still have some reservations about the bloated corporations that have slowly replaced over time our religions, our corporations and our sovereigns?  About the nature of the economy when capital is concentrated in the hands of too few? 

Usually on a good day - and almost always when I post a poem - I get around 60 blog hits.  When I wrote the previous piece on the riots, all of a sudden I had a couple thousand.  I don't know why, but two of the comments speculated  that perhaps the far left (if you can call me far left and not just far OUT)  and the far right have more in common than we think.  No matter where you come from, ideologically, chances are you are not very happy with the way things are now.  Probably, like me, not enough to quit your job and take to the streets and do the hard work of clawing back power from institutions to people, but I don't know, I get closer every day. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Riots: Why is The Economist confused?

I am sitting on the South Bank (London) right now, working at a Giraffe (are those in the States yet?) and waiting for a play – tonight I see London Road, a play about a serial killer of prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, a musical with book and lyrics taken entirely from interviews of witnesses, Anna Deveare Smith style, if you remember her incredible first play about the LA riots.    

It’s the first time I have been to London since the riots.

And now comes my full and heavy heart spilling over about the riots. 

When I lived in West Hampstead/Maida Vale/Kilburn – leafy North London - in 2006, I was pushing Owain in his stroller home from nursery one summer evening.  We walked past a gang of, as they say, youths, who were harassing a blind guy walking along with his seeing eye dog.  There were three of them, and one articulate one was explaining to the blind guy how he had a knife and was going to gut his dog right there on the sidewalk.  I pointed out to Articulate Thug that it really wasn’t an impressive act of bravery to harass a blind guy and/or kill his seeing eye dog.  At that, all three thugs ran up to me and spat in my face.  (I called the police:  useless.  They told me not to wipe the spit off.  Morons.)

The thugs were shaking with rage.  I still can see the closeup of a throbbing neck vein and the erratic hopping run down the street.  I could feel their rage standing near them.  It was a forcefield.  Like physics, like psychosis, it was an unarguable fact. 

This is the rage that was rioting.   

Yet the coverage provided by that touchstone of reasonableness, The Economist, my faithful Friday night date spoke not of the rage.  It said only that it was confused and depressed that the urban youth of Britain had no morals and did not feel they had a stake in the future, at least not enough of one to refrain from looting.  Those editors said they were confused. 

I’m not confused.  It’s all so clear that it hurts.  Really, incredibly obvious.  We raise these kids on a diet of consumerism, on enforced obsolescence of technology and the essential nature of the next new thing.  Then we give these kids no real prospects of being in a position to acquire these things, because the state education competes so ineffectively with private education that sending your kids to a state school is in most cases dooming them to a working class, or lower middle class life.  And when those kids take to the streets and get unruly, instead of forcing the police to interact and deal with them, we demonize them further by giving the police ASBO power – essentially non-judicial authority to put under house arrest unruly youth who have been convicted of no crime.  Then the police kill an innocent man, the second that we know of this year, and refuse to explain their actions at a peaceful protest.  Then there is rioting.  Not such a confusing unfolding of events. 

Now the government is talking about punishing this rage with yet more stupid laws.  To me this is like punshing psychosis.  Sure, some people were in it for the blackberries and the sneaker/trainers and property laws were broken, but punishing the rage misses the point and misses the big picture.  It’s weak and cowardly to focus on the hoards and their property crime.  Much bigger and braver and more important to ask ourselves why – attempt to clear up that confusion   When they rioted in LA, there were reasons.  When they rioted in Paris in 1789 there were reasons.  And there are reasons why they riot now.

The most succinct summary of those reasons was provided by my husband:  a fish rots from the head down.  The government does not have moral authority nor does it deserve our respect.  The government is more interested in preserving its cosy relationship with Murdoch and taking care of the banks.  The people in government are more interested in tinkering with their expense accounts for their own personal gain.  When police are regularly bribed by journalists, who regularly Christmas with the Prime Minister, who has rarely lived or worked beyond that rarified Eton/Oxford air, isn’t the state rotten beyond all respect?   Yes.  And the profit motive – not even efficient profit for the state, just creating more profit and more growth for the wealthy – that mandate of the state has become the mandate of the people, absorbed down to their very pores.   We as a species are affected by each other like this, like this always.  When the leaders act only for their personal gain at the expense of their institutions, it filters through. When the train prices go up but there are no more or better trains, when the economic development private initiatives created by the government to generate wealth only go to wealthy people, when a 25 year old banker on Wall Street gets a bonus of $22 million and an office manager I know commutes 2 hours each way every day for a salary of £19,000 per year, and the government only subsidizes the former’s salary, believe me, the message is getting through.  Robbery has been in fashion for a long time.

My generation is a terrible failure.  Our great legacy will be the extensions we built on our houses during the property boom.  Our great legacy will be Sex and the City and the mass fetish of fashion.  Our great legacy is that we have let our human organizations –the market, the state, the church – bloat bigger and fatter for the benefit of the few, for our own comparative advantage.  And corporations, sovereigns and religions spoil the earth and disrespect the rule of law.  And the Economist is confused? 

I remain an ardent fan of democracy and capitalism and – to a lesser extent -- organized religion.  All I want is for all to function clearly under the rule of law.  I keep posting this on my blog bur nothing is happening.  It’s enough to make me want to take to the streets.

But I have two children.  And I am interviewing architects for my own extension.  I want a guest room for when my parents come to visit!  My condemnation of our generation – which was first presented to me by my old friend Steve – is perhaps mostly a condemnation of myself.  Now, my husband tells me I will go mad again if I pursue this, so I’ve been warned.  But every time I see a child walk by this South Bank, I wonder what it will look like when they are forty-four.

I remember again my father in the car in the summer of 2009 when people were on the streets following the Iranian election.  I was upset about this woman, Neda, who was shot.  My Dad, ever clear-eyed and reasonable, pointed out that tyranny is only ever defeated by blood.  His generation knows and accepts this, that some things are more important than guest rooms.   His generation – Warren Buffet’s, I might add – his generation felt ok about paying taxes.  I remember coming to understand with some horror when my first paycheck arrived one summer the tax I was paying.  My father took me outside immediately and pointed at the road.  The government pays for that, he said.  And the sidewalk.  The fire hydrant and the fire department.  The police and Judge Githler and the school.  The library and the playground.  Denison Park Pool.  And for Mrs. Mitford to buy groceries now that she is old. 

I feel ashamed that I work at a corporation when I see how much structural damage has been caused by them and when I think about how much the world needs the activism of stakeholders like me.  But I do think that it is working at Skadden and then in my current job that helps me understand the underpinnings of the problem.

The underpinnings make it more difficult.   At least my dad’s generation – children during WWII – had an external manifestation of tyranny. An army marching across Europe.  Ours is within ourselves and our own organizations, a swelling, an obesity in our own institutions, a tumorous tyrannical working of tax code and derivative trade so that banks can and must do whatever they want, period.  A tumor fed by the best and brightest out of our universities, because of its promise of wealth so much greater than any other field.  But wealth without honor – paying taxes is defeat – wealth without fairness, wealth without kindness. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Big Brown Pills by Louis Jenkins

Big Brown Pills
I believe in the big brown pills, they lower cholesterol and
improve digestion. They help prevent cancer and build
brain cells. Plus they just make you feel better overall. I
believe in coffee and beet greens and fish oil, of course,
and red wine, in moderation, and cinnamon. Green tea is
good and black tea, ginseng. I eat my broccoli. Nuts are
very good and dark chocolate, has to be dark, not milk
chocolate. Tomatoes. But I think the big brown pills really
help. I used to believe in the little yellow pills but now I
believe in the big brown pills. I believe that they are much
more effective. I still take the little yellow ones, but I really
believe in the big brown ones.