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Now is the winter of my discontent

Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish has pissed off theatre Twitter.

In his calm, sober column  he wrote: “Over the past few years, Shakespeare performance has increasingly marched to a “woke” drum. Some would say it has been galvanising, a corrective against conventionality and Bardolatry. We’ve seen greater diversity in casting and much gender-flipping…”

He continues: “But if woke continues its ascendancy, the logic of its fault-finding mission (fraught with tensions between specificity and inclusivity) will render our national playwright as much taboo as totemic.”

This week, Lyn Gardner issued a riposte in The Stage,  stating: “Shakespeare would have long been relegated to a theatrical footnote if new generations didn’t take the work and make them their own… The moment Shakespeare’s plays will become endangered is the moment the Shakespeare police put up fences around them and erect “hands off” signs. But for the moment Shakespeare is doing just fine, and will continue to do so as long as we don’t claim there is a right or wrong way to stage plays.”

It was a bold thing to write, as Cavendish knows only too well the response of theatre twitter and cancel-culture. In truth he knows, though, that the vast majority of his readers agree. Also, he is never going to be a poster boy for the ‘burn it down’ brigade. Perhaps using the term woke now instantly triggers some.

Personally, I hate the phrase.

The Taming of the Shrew at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019. Photo: Ikin Yum

The Taming of the Shrew at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2019. Photo: Ikin Yum

Indeed, this week Natasha Tripney writes in her new column : “There is no one way to stage Shakespeare; The idea that there is a ‘correct’ way of staging these plays – be that ‘the way Shakespeare intended’ or with ticking clocks and live video feeds – is limiting and blinkered. The beauty of Shakespeare is his elasticity. Stretching across the centuries, his plays speak to our past and our present. If one production’s not for you, there’ll be another one along soon enough.”

We live in chaotic times and the problem belongs to theatre, which has turned twitter into an all-consuming blood sport parody by encouraging a genuine concern about quality and artistic integrity to be hijacked and weaponised by all sorts of charlatans.

This, I should add quickly, isn’t Dominic’s fault.

Contrary to what some obviously think, this doesn’t help the case for being “woke” or pro-diversity. It dilutes and blurs it. It is possible to be both.

credit Gemma Whelan, Danielle Phillips, Rob Rouse and David Mitchell  © Johan Persson

Gemma Whelan, Danielle Phillips, Rob Rouse and David Mitchell © Johan Persson

I’ve no doubt Cavendish was being entirely sincere whenever he talked about preserving Shakespeare from being “cancelled” and safeguarding the Bard from a “woke” generation of artists who are intent on gender-flipping. He stuck his head above the parapet and was writing for his audience.

The sad and immediate result from seeing some of the deeply personal tweets and abuse directed at Dominic being, I’m as disengaged with some of my favourite people writing about theatre as I am transfixed by critics simultaneously complaining about shows being too long, too short or even “problematic”.

So, be in no doubt, then that Cavendish isn’t complaining about being hard done by. He is a professional critic who has been reviewing theatre for two decades.

The tone of his article wasn’t inappropriate. Forceful, yes; provocative, yes. But that is what his job is: to put a case as strongly and as well as possible.

Let’s not pretend, for the sake of looking right-on, that Cavendish personally selected the photo of actor Nadia Nadarajah from the Globe’s 2018 production of Hamlet as the featured image. Newspapers have sub-editors, you know. Nor is he a massive racist.

Above all, I would hope that it is still possible to write about and talk about theatre openly without all this collective fury and bile; there is, in fact, a nuanced and constructive conversation to be had. I am sure of it.

I suppose, my main concern with the decline in print sales is that this kind of bellyaching has become the only accepted way of evaluating and discussing theatre and pertinent issues surrounding it.

So, once I have published this blog, I have decided to cancel myself. Not.

Upstart Crow is at the Gielgud theatre, London, until 25 April.

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Random Theatre Thoughts & Lyn Gardner: “I’m delighted that the blog has found a home at the Stage where it will reach a wide audience.”

Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

I haven’t mentioned it much over the last couple of years but when all’s said and done I’m pretty keen on the output of Lyn Gardner. Sadly, theatre criticism is on the decline. Increasing numbers of aspiring arts journalists are writing for free on a long-term basis – with no end in sight. It doesn’t help that mainstream media’s obsession with celebrity and whacky politics has hijacked the discussion of the theatrical craft and process.

If we are honest, the thumbs up emoji is hardly a good indicator by which a member of the public can get to grips with the work that they are watching. As a direct consequence, the artists and cultural history to which they contribute are largely left out of the public discussion. (“Who is Laurence Olivier?” a student in one of my classes asked me recently.)

Nowadays, when we go and see a show it’s *mostly* in the context of no context and this has left little room for sensibility. The more we know about our artists, writers, directors and creatives, the more we appreciate their art. If we need better work on our stages then we need better audiences in our stalls. In a time of terror, the theatre takes on a significant social appeal. Society may be dividing and imploding from within but now, more than ever, it is not only a demonstration of courage but an engineer of it. I know theatre is not easy to get right. That’s why I get excited by the successes, find myself amazed by the triumphs, am dismayed by the fiascos and get angry with anyone who underestimates the medium and its enthusiasts so much that they exploit theatre by trying to get away with what they know is drivel.

Anyway, back in March, The Guardian cut its contract with theatre critic Lyn Gardner for 150 blogs a year. She will continue to write features and reviews. The reaction across the industry was one of regret and writers, directors and creative practitioners called for the decision to be reversed. They didn’t reverse the decision.

Fast forward 8 weeks and rather brilliantly, the Stage announced yesterday that Lyn will be joining the newspaper as associate editor. Gardner will also join the judging panels for The Stage’s numerous awards, namely The Stage 100, The Stage Awards and The Stage Debut Awards. This is fantastic; I think it will work well for both parties. At least The Stage has a business model that means they can pay for the journalism etc, etc and so on.

Today Lyn has been announced as a new Master on the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins.

I caught up with Lyn and asked her how she was doing: “I was astonished and touched by the response of the theatre community to the axing of my contracted 150 blog contributions to the Guardian Stage online. So, I’m delighted that the blog has found a home at the Stage where it will reach a wide audience,” she tells me.

What’s the plan going forward? “I will be continuing to review and write for the Guardian which remains committed to quality theatre coverage, but it’s lovely to also have a new platform where I can think out loud about the challenges facing theatre and develop a dialogue with both the industry and theatre-goers,” she says.

So there we have it. ‘Journalism’.

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Save Lyn Gardner’s Top Tickets and 150 blogs a year dedicated to U.K. Theatre 

Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner

Lyn Gardner

You may have seen this morning the terrible news that Lyn Gardner’s incredible and important blogs (150+ a year) dedicated to theatre have been cut from April 1 by the powers that be at The Guardian. What. A. Fiasco.
Here are two things we can all do right now:
Email 
Editor-in-chief, Guardian News and Media
 Email below >>
 Dear Kath and Liese,
The absence of this important blog will have implications on regional & touring Theatre. This blog stimulates positive conversation & its absence will have a detrimental effect on provincial work.

Lyn’s ‘What To See’ or Theatre Tips have become a staple for audiences all over the country. The Guardian Stage must reinstate this and understand the aspects of this weekly blog that are of lasting value.

 All best,
 [your name, obvs]
 (BUT, I reckon would require hundreds of emails to get it changed. Do it now.)
 Tweet 
 @KathViner
@LieseSpencer
 Use the hashtag >> #SaveLynsBlog
 We can all show individual support by subscribing or donating to The Guardian (whatever the amount). We can also suggest to the editor that it would be useful to be able contribute specifically to sections, such as the arts, currently suffering the most cutbacks in terms of coverage.
UPDATE  ( on 15 Mar 2017)
The wonderful folk at Exeunt have started an online petition. Well done all!
You can sign here >> https://t.co/2fhDWwQgc3
Let’s do our best to reverse this appalling and frankly idiotic decision, folks. It’s worth a shot!
Cheers!
Carl -x- 🙂
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So, in 2017 who is getting it right?

Rufus Norris and Carol Ann Duffy

British Theatre is in a state of evolution and everyone has an opinion.

It’s all very confusing. *Stares wistfully out of the window*

This week, critic Michael Billington issued a brutal indictment of the National Theatre’s desertion of classic plays, stating: “A theatre that cuts itself off from its past is denying itself access to world masterpieces. Actors, designers and directors will eventually lose the ability to recreate the works of the past.”  His fellow-critic Matt Trueman responded aspersively: It’s safe to say there are more pressing matters than whether or not audiences appreciate the nuances of Jonson and Moliere.”

Meanwhile, playwright David Hare claimed that classic British drama is ‘being infected’ by radical European staging and the untraditional ‘distortion’ of plays. Lyn Gardner rebuffed this in the Guardian: “All theatre cultures have plenty they can learn from each other. It’s when you stop learning and become insular that theatre culture becomes desiccated and begins repeating itself. Particularly when it comes to classic texts.” I agree – there is room for everything. The debate over the value of new work versus revivals is as old as theatre itself.

Image result for NATIONAL THEATRE

All these opinions have been a joy to read, yet left me cold, angry and in the dark. Why?

It seems to me that there are now two quite separate theatre industries at play. One is generating all the quality stuff that tends to be hidden away. The other is spinning out mainstream froth in a void.

In a 2007 article, playwright Anthony Neilson wrote: “Boring an audience is the one true sin in theatre. We’ve been boring audiences for decades now, and they’ve responded by slowly withdrawing their patronage. I don’t care that the recent production of The Seagull at the Royal Court was sold out. To 95% of the population, the theatre (musicals aside for now) is an irrelevance. Of that 95%, we have managed to lure in maybe 10% at some point in their lives, and we’ve so swiftly and thoroughly bored them that they’ve never returned. They’re not the ones who broke the contract. They paid their money and expected entertainment; we sent them back into the night feeling bored, bullied and baffled. So what are we doing wrong?”

British Theatre should be leading the way in fostering genuinely exciting new work, because now more than ever (as we find ourselves isolated from Europe and tied to a toxic America) we need theatre with bite. In this dismal new world of “alternative facts” and “post-truth”, theatre needs to be properly amazing, i.e. not just a Wobble Board of traditional Ibsen and Ayckbourn.

It’s not all bad news. The state of the world has already inspired quality work at Theatre 503 in the form of ‘Top Trumps’, an evening of satirical plays by a range of writers responding to current affairs. This year at the NT, alongside crowd-pleasers like Angels In America and Imelda Staunton in Follies, Rufus Norris is throwing his hat in the ring with a new Brexit play, ‘My Country; A Work in Progress’, a verbatim piece collated from interviews, fine-tuned by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

But for an industry that is apparently booming, there is little risk taking. There are only two big British West End musicals opening this year: Stiles and Drewe’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’ (London Palladium) and Gary Barlow/Tim Firth’s ‘The Girls’ (Phoenix Theatre). Meanwhile, rising ticket prices are pushing West End shows beyond the pockets of all but the affluent. This is bleak, right?

And perhaps restricted resources have limited artists’ disposition to experiment and progress. Traditionalists penalise anything outside a narrow idea of what theatre ‘should’ look like, but I believe that view favours short-term benefits for artists and the theatre as a whole. British theatre-makers should feel like they can do anything. But how can we persuade more people in power to take more chances? It’s worth speculating what might have happened to a cutting-edge writer like Barney Norris or Lucy Kirkwood if their first plays had received little to no mainstream support.

Cultural organisations dependent on public subsidy are preparing themselves for real-terms cuts as Arts Council England has cautioned standstill funding in the next round of national portfolio grants. How can we safeguard opportunities for our mid-career writers, composers, designers and directors to progress to greater spaces that are bountiful? The Arts Council urgently needs to take a chainsaw to publicly-funded rubbish and maybe also have a word with those commissioning work that is not fit for purpose.

Change is imperative – whatever Billington and Hare might say.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015 – vlogs

Vlogs

  1.  Day 1 at Edinburgh Festival with journalist Mark Fisher (The Guardian)
  2. With Jake Orr ( A Younger Theatre)

3.  I caught up with Amit Lahav (Gecko Theatre Company) in a bar at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, who’s show Institute is playing The Pleasance.

4.  Edinburgh Fringe Festival Vlog featuring Kirsty Housely, Co-director of The Encounter (Complicite)

5.  Featuring Lyn Gardner

6.  I caught up with Charlie and Louis from Circus company Barely Methodical Troupe who are presenting Bromance at the Circus

7.  Chit chat with Associate Director of Proteus Theatre company at Ed Fringe.

8.  Rather randomly, I bumped into Britain’s Got Talent winner Susan Boyle at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015.