Grate Britain

Thank god, I only paid a fiver, I thought, as I sat folding and unfolding my ticket with restless fingers. It was the interval of the Saturday matinee. I’d only been there an hour and a half but it felt like five, and the prospect of another seventy minutes of boorish writing and teapot acting made me want to grab my ice cream and get out of there as quickly as suede high heels would carry me. The posters had called it “laughter-making on an industrial scale”. “Raucously funny” they said in over-compensatingly HUGE, RED WRITING. Normally, when attending a National Theatre production, you can be reasonably well assured that even if its a bit dull, you’ll probably learn something useful along the way. Unfortunately not this time. This time I was proved wrong. 

Great Britain directed by Nicholas Hynter and starring Lucy Punch as That-Character-She-Always-Plays and a vast ensemble of other, undoubtedly talented actors  in vapid, cardboard roles was a bit of a car crash at the Haymarket last weekend. The play explores the tenacity and savageness of the media through the recent phone-hacking scandal. We follow Paige Britain, a career-driven journalist working at the imagined Free Press  and gunning for the position of sub-editor for the entirety of the performance, to no avail. An intentionally unlikeable character (I hope), played in an unpleasant comedy-sketch style, Punch sucks her teeth, twists her face, drops her hip and sashays in self-satsfsaction across the stage without a hint of remorse, development or humanising trait for the full two hours and forty-five minutes. If Hynter’s aim was to utterly alienate the audience from his protagonist, then he succeeded. This wouldn’t have been such a dangerous choice if there had been other redeemable characters in the play, but unfortunately everyone else on the stage was just as cartoon-drawn and boringly overdone, as well as over-acted. Even the typically useless Police Chief inspired no fondness or affection in me regardless of his constant, bumbling mistakes. In fact, they were more annoying than endearing as I assume they were meant. Indeed, the only memorable comedy came from a short video used during a scene change, intended as a YouTube remix of one of the chief’s unfortunate interviews into a song. Even this wore thin before it ended.

However, everyone else in that Satuday matinee seemed to find the play “raucously” funny as advertised. The original production at the National Theatre got rave reviews from everyone important. A strong part of my high-heeled and dissatisfied self wished that I could have seen Billie Piper in the role, to discover whether she was as obnoxiously off-putting as Punch in the role.

The set was fairly adaptable and appropriate, though nothing fantastic or exciting. The see-through flats used as glass-windows dividing offices became screens to show news bulletins and online videos during scene changes, but nothing really seemed innovative, exciting or ground-breaking about this performance. The aim was to show Britain’s problem with the press, and how lightly the phone-hacking crime was taken in the offices. I felt however, utterly vapid and ambivalent towards the entire narrative. I didn’t even hate them for doing it. Why? Possibly because I never saw the victims, never saw the lives that were destroyed, never saw the repercussions beyond a police raid of the Free Press offices to arrest a news team in disarray alongside an unconcerned Paige Britain. Yes, Great Britain is intended as a satirical play and meant to be a laugh, not something that’s in-depth and self-aggrandising. Even so, Hynter says “Great Britain has one big ambition; to make an audience laugh, to be uproariously funny” and leave with “something to think about”. Oh, dear.

Sorry Nicholas, but that’s actually two.

Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Teh Internet is Serious Business… don’t you know?

The Royal Court Theatre is world renowned for its showcasing of new writing and contemporary themes, and Tim Price’s Teh Internet is Serious Business is no exception. Running at the world-famous theatre until the 25th of this month, Hamish Pirie’s directorial debut with the Royal Court is a vivid and masterful retelling of the real-life hacking scandal of Anonymous and Lulzsec in 2011.

“On reading the script for the first time, it was clear than Tim had managed to concentrate the almost endless insanity of Anonymous into a real, tangible, thought-provoking piece of work” writes Jake Davis, one of the original members of Anonymous. Davis was integral to the writing of the play and was consulted throughout the process. With the production in its final week, he is a staunch supporter of Teh Internet as a “shocking, candid” portrayal of life online, and the inherent dangers and opportunities that the internet offers.

The play is “a fictional account which has been inspired by a true story”  telling the tale of the creation of Anonymous – a group of six hackers who managed to topple the online domains of the Church of Scientology, the Fox Corporation, MasterCard and Paypal to name a few. A potentially dry storyline, culminating in the trial and punishment of the members that were caught (five of six), and taking place almost exclusively online, the play is rescued from the realms of boredom by intrinsically clever production value and innovative portrayal of life online. Unlike Enda Walsh’s Chatroom, the actors do not simply sit at their computers, staring into the middle distance and conversing. Teh Internet achieves a much more dynamic and vibrant portrayal of the digital world. Instead of staying with the users, we are taken inside the internet with their avatars. Jake, whose name remains unchanged from his real-life counterpart Jake Davis, and Mustafa, are the two teenage boys that we follow into the internet. They converse with other anonymous users’ avatars, such as Kayla, a Japanese schoolgirl, who insists that she is indeed the rare and highly sought after female-online, and Tuxedo, a Star Fleet engineer. These characters interact directly in a set comprising of a grey box, split into squares, several of which turn out to be trap doors and hidden entrances. Likely representing the mechanics of the computer, the avatars move freely around the set like in a regular, naturalistic dialogue scene. Real life scenes are played on the periphery of the set, along scaffolding. Coding is expressed through interpretive dance, more and more performers joining as the code grows. Memes are personified by people in costumes, allowing Advice Dog and Socially Awkward Penguin to grace the stage on a regular basis, offering unhelpful interjections into conversation. The huge ballpit taking the place of the orchestra should also be mentioned I feel. Avatars such as the overly American Scientologist in a suit were rolled into the pit and quickly disappeared beneath the clamouring coloured balls, never to be seen again.

Physicalising a virtual world was never going to be easy, but director Hamish Pirie seems to have achieved it in a flurry of bright lights and animal costumes. The play is funny; it was always going to be with actors popping up from random, concealed trapdoors dressed as Rick Astley and singing Never Gonna Give You Up. However, beyond the comedic value of the utter absurdity and bizarreness of the production, there is humour as well in the dialogue. While there were a few stand-out performances, such as Lanre Malaolu as Mustafa’s gasping school friend in the Second Act, a lot of the acting performances were unfortunately obscured by the technical success. Neither of the main characters, Jake and Mustafa, were particularly relatable, making the larger-than-life avatars easier to gravitate towards. It’s possible that this was a directorial decision; making the fake internet more relatable than the real people, expressing one of the main problems with the digital world, however it does seem rather counter-intuitive to alienate your audience from the play’s protagonists.

TheaterAs3DMany could argue that these flamboyant production techniques are just fur coat for a play with no knickers, but Teh Internet offers a real message about the dangers as well as opportunities that the internet offers in this digital age. Shakespeare is wonderful and is a malleable study of human emotion, dynamic and interpretive, it offers a timeless insight into human emotion for any age. Price’s play offers the same insight into modern, digital and current issues with Teh Internet. For all the purists out there, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was radical in his day just as Price explores new methods of theatre in this one. There is an age-old hate of change in every generation since time began. The non-existent  “Golden Age” of theatre, as well as language, manners, finance and courting among many others has always been mourned. The expected and traditional is often considered superior to the new, even in art. While a ballpit may to some seem low-brow, perhaps if looked as a physical metaphor for the power the internet has to absorb people’s lives into an entirely virtual realm, it will begin to seem less gratuitous. Many would argue that Pirie’s production is using smoke and mirrors to make a dull play seem interesting to new audiences, but every creative decision has been carefully calculated and is intelligently representative of online life.

We are shown the internet in all its glory, all its memes and in-jokes, all its social networks and pop-ups. We are shown both a romanticised version of the internet, and a darker more sinister one. We see the impact that the internet has on the real world, and how the digital can seep into the physical with dire consequences. We are warned directly by Jake in an unexpected and riveting soliloquy near the end of the Second Act that the internet is a dangerous place that knows where you go, and when you there, what you eat and who you eat it with, because you tell it without thinking. It knows how much is in your bank account, and how awful you look in yellow. This warning is not hidden; its overt and undeniable, but the same tune sings subtextually throughout the play. When a member of Anonymous is revealed as who they really are, when an Online Security specialist rather ironically, musically and spectacularly loses everything because he uses the same password for everything. Price appears to be telling us that the internet is great; it empowers people, allows them to make friends internationally, makes the world a smaller place, but at the same time it encourages a casual, anonymous cruelty and knows everything about you and is impartial when it comes to selling your information.

A very modern problem is tackled in a very modern way with Teh Internet is Serious Business. If younger audiences find Shakespeare too long-winded, Beckett too slow and Osbourne too outdated, then this is the play they should go and see to challenge their perceptions of the theatre as a dying form. The true art of Teh Internet is to be found in the realisation that this multi-modal performance exists only on a physical level; there is not a single screen or projection used throughout the production. Everything on stage is as real and tangible as the story. If anything is to keep theatre alive, then its productions like this, tackling modern issues in a modern way. Innovation will out.

Digital Theatre Broadcasts Old Vic’s ‘The Crucible’

This summer’s production of ‘The Crucible’ at the Old Vic is being shown in cinemas across the UK by the Digital Theatre initiative.

This will be the first time that Digital Theatre has collaborated with the Old Vic. The recording will be distributed by Cinema Live to over 350 cinemas across the nation on the 4th and 7th of December, extending the reach of one of this year’s best productions.

Richard Armitage’s performance has been lauded as one of “London’s best” in his role as John Proctor. The production, which was performed in the round, will extend the reach of “the best British theatre” and allow Yaël Farber’s image of Arthur Miller’s great work be shown to thousands at cinema prices.

Digital Theatre works together with the best British theatrical companies to record and distribute top quality theatre to the UK and the rest of the world. Plays and performances can be rented or bought online for the same price as renting a movie. The company was launched in 2009 and has achieved incredible success in making theatre available to everyone. The company has made theatre on screen a creative and accessible reality.

Image courtesy of Tristram Kenton

Innovative “Neo-Ticketing” gets Funding Boost

A new ticketing system has been given over £100,000 to fund development by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. This pioneering technology has been spearheaded by the Firestation Centre in Windsor to allow more flexible ticket prices and improve audience outreach.

“Neo-Ticketing” has been designed and implemented by the Firestation Arts Centre in association with Monad Software Ltd and the Department of Economics at the Royal Holloway University of London, and will be used in the venue until September 2015. The technology utilises the same algorithms as airlines; raising and dropping tickets prices according to sales. The more tickets that are bought, the higher the price. The centre explains that there will also be regular “Price Crashes” to stimulate interest. The Firestation Arts Centre, which is in the heart of Windsor, hopes that these “flexing” prices will make their performances more accessible and perhaps more appealing to a wider audience, rather than tickets being stuck at a fixed price.

The Firestation explains that this will hopefully mean more full houses for their performers to play to, and hopefully more profit from each performance, while at the same time, giving theatre goers a better deal too. With rising claims that theatre is becoming “elite”, these innovations are a welcome attempt to make theatre a more communal and diverse place. arts_tech_graph

The Digital R&D Fund has outlined the importance of these new developments, and how the merging of technology and theatre is bringing new audiences and offering new possibilities to the world of theatre. The managing director of the Firestation Centre, Dan Eastmond comments that these new developments are the only way to survive as a traditional theatre in the modern technological age. “I would think every theatre, unless they have a slight death wish, is looking to see what new ideas are out there, and what they can do differently”.

Header Image Credit

The Theatrical Relic

In the grand scheme of humanity’s time on earth, theatre has been around for a very long time. Spanning from the masked tragic theatre of the Greeks, through Medieval morality plays, past the soaring eloquence of Renaissance drama and up to the contemporary, naturalistic theatre that we expect today, theatre has been around for quite a while. The art form has evolved and developed extensively across the ages, adapting all the while to keep up with the interests and expectations of new audiences. As a form of entertainment, it is one of the most enduring and traditional art forms of our time. And it seems that this has become something of a problem.

Has theatre already reached its peak? Is it past it’s zenith? Certainly, since the invention of film and eventually television in 1925, audience numbers have dropped considerably. Theatre is no longer the most innovative and exciting form of entertainment for audiences. Even today, publications such as The Stage and The Guardian closely monitor audience numbers in British theatre and report them like the numbers of an almost-extinct species. The term “golden age” is bandied about and words like “innovative” and “experimental” are clung to like the handrails on the rush hour tube. The truth is, that theatre is at risk, and has been for a long time. If you come to Central London, you might find this very hard to believe. A short walk through Theatre Land has you shuffling and sidestepping your way through returns queues and day ticket lines that seem to wrap twice around buildings, housing classics and new writing alike. Lit signs above your head shout about ticket sales and record breaking runs for this new musical or that national favourite. Surrounded by the apparent booming business of the theatrical world, it could be difficult to imagine that the establishments flashing at you are actually struggling to keep their doors open. The truth is, that you can’t measure Disney’s success with their new movie by visiting Disney Land, and the same applies for theatre and the West End. As a tourist attraction, theatre in London is doing a pretty good trade, but in terms of fringe theatre and new, experimental writing, things are tough and have been for a while.

The fact is, that Chicago_(MdB)theatre just isn’t sparkly enough anymore. Yeah, sure, there’s more lights pointed at the stage of the Lyceum Theatre than there are jewels on Beyonce’s crotch, but you can’t rewind live theatre, and you can’t screenshot a ‘Chicago’ fosse final pose. You can see David Tennant in your living room, and there are no explosions in ‘Speed the Plough’ (though there is a minor car crash).

Film and television now provide a more instant and arguably spectacular form of entertainment gratification. Why would you put on a dress and go to the theatre in heels when you could wear your superman pyjamas and watch ‘Strictly’ on the toilet? Why would anyone choose to pay £35 for an uncomfortable seat  with a drink that has to last you at least forty five minutes rather than just downing three mojitos in one go and scrolling through your Facebook Feed in your Bugs Bunny onesie from Primark?

Well, I can answer that question. In fact, I’ve created this whole blog solely to answer all of the above questions. Theatre is a glorious opportunity to see real people performing live, solely for your entertainment. When the curtain goes up, a hush falls over the crowd that you just don’t get with the rustling of popcorn bags in the cinema. When the actors perform, they’re really there and you could just reach out and touch them if you wanted; the emotion and the story and the drama is lying in front of you like a hot buffet that’s been prepared for weeks on end with every last morsel, every last moment cooked to perfection. There is an inescapable immediacy in the theatre; you can feel it zinging in the air. You know that when the actors brandish swords and attack each other that its not two stunt doubles padded up and parrying their way through three moves at a time before the camera cuts and they move on to the next section. Theatre brings drama to life in a way that TV and film will never be able to, 3D or not.

The problem is getting people to accept this; to try theatre. If you are a person who has 1.) Never been to the theatre or, 2.) Been once and found it unimaginably dull, then I would challenge you to think of it like this. Would you avoid watching ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Downton Abbey’ – without even trying it – because someone told you it was elitist, snobbish and dull? Would you never watch another programme on TV because you watched this one programme once and it was really, like… boring? Your TV itself, along with your satellite subscription and your TV licence, plus all those DVDs and boxsets that you’ve accumulated over the years, have cost a lot more than a £15 day ticket you could get to a performance of ‘Richard III’ with Martin Freeman or ‘Great Britain’ with Billie Piper. Yeah – actually in the same room as Dr. Watson and Rose for fifteen quid.

Royal_National_Theatre_4British Theatre has been trying to find new ways to bring in new audiences for a long time, and audience figures have gone up in the past few years. New initiatives such as National Theatre Live, where live performances are broadcast to cinemas around the world, and discounted tickets for 16-25 year-olds have been implemented to try to encourage younger audiences into theatres. Also, Arts Council subsidised theatres like the Royal Court Theatre are dedicated to encouraging and performing new writing, on new topics for new audiences. ‘Teh [sic] Internet is Serious Business’ for example, is currently showing at the Royal Court and is being billed as part of their “revolution season”. The play is considered a “modern history lesson” with special appearances from Grumpy Cat and Socially Awkward Penguin. If that isn’t an attempt at engaging new and modern audiences I don’t know what is.

So is theatre a relic of a more dusty and traditional age of entertainment, or is it an evolving and engaging art form that has the potential to entertain and the right to question modernity as much as any other medium of expression? As a young actor, I lean towards the latter, however part of me does worry that the theatre is being left behind in favour of more glitzy and less-sociable technologies. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some in-roads together in untangling this complex question, and come to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion through the course of this blog. I hope you’ll make this journey with me and even throw in your own two cents; perhaps even to comment upon the appropriate irony of a blog pitting technology against theatre?

%d bloggers like this: