Magnetic North Blog

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The sound of silence

Most people will have heard by now about the campaign to get John Cage’s 4’33” to be the Christmas no.1 single ahead of the X Factor winner.  Last year a similar campaign managed to unsettle Simon Cowell’s plans by getting an old track by Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas top spot and this year’s campaign has honoured this by calling itself Cage Against the Machine.  As a friend of mine tweeted yesterday “we have to make this happen, it’ll be the best thing ever!” and I share his enthusiasm for a number of reasons. First of all, what on earth will they do on the chart countdown?  Radio silence is anathema to broadcasters as it means that anyone who turns on during it will re-tune on the assumption that the station is down.  Secondly, I share a dislike for Simon Cowell’s apparent mechanisation of the music process – popular music has of course always been susceptible to a purely business-led approach (and the results have sometimes been great) - but I get the feeling that he does music because that’s where he sees the greatest financial returns are possible rather than because he feels any great need to produce great music.   It seems that it could just as well be films, widgets or software if any of those thing had the same potential for cross-market selling.

But the main reason is that it’ll bring an iconic and very important work of art into the mainstream.  Conceptually, 4’33” is as important as Duchamp’s Fountain, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in its gamechanging importance.  Like all of those works of art, Cage’s piece changed the way people thought about art; similarly it attracted criticism along the lines of “I could have done that”.  To which the obvious response is “well maybe you could have done, but you didn’t”.  4’33” can initially appear rather crass, but like all great art, the strength of both the idea that underpins it and its execution shine through.  Before Cage wrote “Tacet” and nothing more on a piece of manuscript paper, silence had been a punctuation – the thing around which music was formed – but Cage’s brilliant idea was to show us that there is actually no such thing as silence, only less noise.  If you sit for 4’33” and listen you discover that the world is full of sound, but we rarely give ourselves the opportunity to really listen to it.

In a sense, 4’33” has finally come of age – we are now so surrounded by activity that the opportunity to just stop and take time (even if it is less than 5 minutes) to just be is a gift in itself.  For that alone, Cage deserves this unusual accolade.

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How far is too far?

I went to see Tim Crouch’s The Author today at the Traverse.  I had already read the play so was aware of what the play was about (and I shall do my best not to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen it), but I was still surprised at the sheer discomfort of watching it.  To say that the performance unsettles the audience is an understatement – one person left after 5 minutes and there was a steady flow throughout, with a mass emigration in the last five minutes (including one man who left singing “Some day my prince will come”) – but this is clearly a calculated risk and something that is, paradoxically, important to the production.  I talked briefly with Tim afterwards and he said that this was the largest number of walk-outs they’d had, but that there were always some and that during one performance in London he was threatened with physical violence. 

So what is it that has this effect?  I was certainly discomfited by the performance, but I knew I was in a theatre watching a show and I knew that the character Tim Crouch was playing – who is also called Tim Crouch – was not the same as the ‘real’ Tim Crouch.  To some extent, I think it is the identification of the audience as a character and the complicity that this carries.  Some people want to sit in the dark and have the actors behave as if they’re not being watched.  This is, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon dating back no further than the 19th century when Richard Wagner decided to turn the houselights out at Bayreuth.  Before this the audience were very much part of the show (literally in some cases as seats would sometimes be on the stage itself).  Tim Crouch takes this a stage further and actively seeks out the audience’s approval throughout the performance - “Is this OK?”, “Shall I carry on?” he and the other actors ask of us regularly.  As I mentioned before, he blurs the lines further by playing a character called Tim Crouch, an award-winning playwright with a play on at the Royal Court (where this production originated), all the actors play characters with the same names and the character Tim’s fictional wife has the same name as the real Tim’s.  So far so Paul Auster, but Crouch not only makes his character morally dubious, he also avoids the common actor’s trick of trying to make his character likeable.  His character makes no attempt to defend what he has done, he presents it to us in order that we might form our own opinion.  In doing this, he makes the audience in some way complicit and I think this is an incredibly brave thing to do.  In many ways, the performance needs at least some people to walk out because this acknowledges the way it empowers the audience.  Yet this act of empowerment is easily mistaken – one critic from a smart Sunday paper gloriously misunderstood the central motif of Tim’s earlier play An Oak Tree as narcissism rather than recognising that it was the very opposite.  (In An Oak Tree the second actor is played by someone new every night, they knew nothing about the play in advance and only met Tim shortly before the performance starts – during the performance they are given lines to read, or fed them through an ear piece.  The critic in question mistook this for narcissistic control rather than recognising the surrender to chance.)

But this is what happens when people operate on the borders, they leave themselves open to misinterpretation, but thank goodness for Tim Crouch – we need people like him to ask questions and make us feel uncomfortable.  Did I enjoy The Author?  I don’t think I could say that, but would I recommend it to others?  Absolutely.

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Come on in, the water’s lovely

I’ve just spent a few days at Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) in Glasgow and it was a good opportunity to see work and chat with other theatre people from Europe and further afield.


From the work on show (which was all from Scotland) it was clear that so-called “immersive” theatre has become a big part of theatre making.  Immersive theatre, like many names coined for particular performance styles, is a rather misleading title – like “physical theatre”, which seems to imply that nobody moves around in other plays – isn’t all good theatre immersive in the sense that it draws you right into its world?  Anyway, whether you like the name or not, immersive theatre has become very big news in the last few years as companies like Grid Iron in Scotland and Punch Drunk in England have created work in non-theatre spaces that brings the audience into very close proximity with the performance, often blurring the lines between the two.  “But haven’t people been doing that for years? Isn’t that audience interaction and site-specific theatre with a new name?” you may say, and you’d be pretty much correct.  There is, of course, rarely anything genuinely new – someone, somewhere has always done it before and there is a very interesting new book about this which I shall write about at a later date.


The point is, though, that recent immersive theatre has tended to take this to more extreme ends than perhaps people had done previously (though read Charlotte Higgins’s article here about how quickly the shock of the new can fade).  I went to several performances at IETM and only one of them took place in a theatre, and even that wasn’t originally built as a theatre but as a railway arch under Central Station. 


Because immersive theatre has become rather voguish it means there is a variation in the skill with which it is executed (again, see Charlotte Higgins), but I saw (or rather took part in) a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking performance in a flat in Sauchiehall Street that exemplified the best of immersive theatre.  The small audience (about 12 or 14) knocked on the door and were ushered into a living room in which enough sofas and armchairs had been crammed around the walls to seat us all.  Our host, Adrienne, welcomed us warmly, asked our names and sat us down, offering teas and coffees.  Adrienne is the alter-ego of Adrian Howells, a pioneer of “confessional theatre” and she chatted to us about what was going to happen over the next two hours (and I have never felt two hours pass so quickly).  The structure of “An Audience with Adrienne” is deceptively simple and cleverly hides a good deal of thought about how the performance works – the audience is given a laminated café menu with the name of dishes substituted by alluring story titles like “Charles Bronson’s Weeping Wounds” and “Sad Songs”.  All of the stories are episodes from Adrian’s life, and he invites the audience to share their own stories as well, though with no pressure to do so.  At three points, Adrienne plays short films of interviews with Adrian’s parents and friends while she changes into new clothes.  In the middle we all do some creative group work when we decorate paper plates in small groups.


Apart from the subtle skill with which the evening is constructed (subtle in the sense that the audience is not really aware of the structure), there is a wonderful sense of community created within the audience and a number of surprising and touching moments.  After telling the Sad Songs story, Adrienne asks permission to sing a song for us, and with a can of hairspray as a microphone sings Seasons in the Sun.  Now, this is one of the worst, most sentimental songs I can remember from my childhood, with its tawdry story and sing-along chorus, and it has never previously made me feel anything but the boke.  Here, though, it suddenly became quite moving – not that the song was any better, but delivered with genuine feeling and a sense that this song was important, it created a moment of connection between everyone in the room.   


So, is immersive theatre the thing that’s going to revitalise theatre?  Not as whole, because like any form, there are good and bad examples of it around.  What will keep theatre alive is a sense of adventure among theatre-makers and audiences and an understanding that finding the right medium for the story is the essential – Adrian Howells understand this, and the intimate setting he chose for An Audience was perfect, but there are other examples where a play has been shoehorned into an immersive setting because it is the current big thing rather than a necessity for the show.  Plays in theatres and plays in unusual locations will continue alongside each other because theatre succeeds or fails by the quality of the performances and the ideas contained within rather than where it takes place.

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Archetypal stories again..

Last week I heard two programmes on Radio 4 within the space of an hour which seemed strongly connected and set me thinking. First, I heard Peter Brook talking about his new production 11 and 12 (on at Tramway in April) on Start the Week.  There has always seemed to be something quite elemental in Brook’s work – a search for some basic truths of life that has seen him explore some of the great world myths and stories, including The Mahabharata, as well as head of on a journey through Africa with a group of actors in the 1970s.  Brook is always fascinating to hear because he has such a restless, inquiring mind – always exploring, never satisfied but always defining interesting points on the journey.  As a side note, he was particularly interesting about politicians and the common belief that they lie to us.  Like any actor, he said, a politician can only be convincing if he or she believes absolutely in what he or she is saying. To me, this idea is much more interesting than assuming that, say, Tony Blair lied about Iraq.


Immediately after the programme came A History of the World in 100 Objects – British Museum director Neil McGregor’s new series which aims to do exactly what the title suggests.  The item under discussion was an Assyrian clay tablet more than two and half thousand years old. In 1872, only a dozen years after The Origin of Species had been published, a story startlingly similar to the Biblical story of the Flood, but much older, was found on this tablet.  The man who translated it and realised its significance was an autodidact named Charles Smith who was apparently so excited by his discovery that he began to dance around the room stripping off his clothes, to the understandable alarm of those in the room with him. This discovery caused some difficulty for the religious (and continues to do so for those of a fundamentalist persuasion) because it seemed to contradict the idea that the bible was the word of God.  Was God perhaps a plagiarist?


The answer is that there are some stories that are so fundamental and important that they will continue to be retold and reinvented (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that there is a fundamental difference in the intention of the two stories). The flood myth that appears in the epic of Gilgamesh appears in many civilisations.  These stories are mythical in the best sense of the word, which to me suggests something that is fundamental to our understanding of life rather than untrue.  There is actually something unnervingly truthful about great myths, which I suppose is why they survive, they seem to make us understand something about ourselves without us necessarily completely understanding what it is – more like an intuition. This gets to the heart of what I think art should do – make us sense something about ourselves without necessarily understanding what it is that we now understand. 


Peter Brook’s restless search has seen him continue to work into his 80s and he seems to tap into that same sense of indefinable truth that myths contain.  Although 11 and 12 has had a mixed response, it will still be fascinating to see his latest thoughts.

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Shouting and Pointing

I used to have a tape of songs from Hollywood movies that I would listen to in the car and at one point I developed a theory that the difference between good and bad art could be summed up by the difference between Al Jolson singing Mammy and Gene Kelly singing Singing in the Rain (I was doing a lot of driving at the time).  Jolson is all ham and razzmatazz, he tries so hard to show you he really means it that I always feel like he doesn’t mean a word of it and by the time he slows right down to sing “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles (big gulp) my ma (big swoop) aaa mmy (pointless flourish on last note)” you feel like crying for all the wrong reasons. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, is so light that he leaves space for the listener (or viewer if you’re watching the film) to share the experience, rather than bludgeoning them into submission.

I have been reminded of this by the publication of a fascinating sounding book called Michelangelo’s Finger by Raymond Tallis.  In it, Professor Tallis discusses why pointing, so apparently simple, is actually an incredibly complicated and transcendent act. I half-heard him talking about it on Start The Week while I was getting ready to leave for work a few weeks ago, and then came across a mention of the book in The Guardian a little later. The central thesis of the book, as I understand it, is that, although the act of pointing is apparently simple, it is an incredibly complicated and culturally vital activity.  What caught my ear on the radio was Tallis’s notion that the act of pointing implies that the person who sees you pointing will understand that there is something of interest to look at and that this implies a shared sense of culture, which defines humanity.  I remember hearing Stephen Fry point out the futility of pointing in the direction of a thrown stick to a dog because the dog will look at the finger rather than the stick, but it had never occurred to me how important this is. Imagine, every time you point at something, you are confirming your humanity by placing your self in a transcendent “other” place.

I love the idea that the essence of humanity can be iterated by such a simple action. It seems to me that art, at its best, tells us something about how we live.  Bad art merely tries to provoke an emotion in the passive viewer/listener/reader, good art provokes a stream of thoughts and sensations the end result of which may or may not be emotional.  In rehearsals or in preparing a production, we are often trying to find the simplest and most direct ways to communicate ‘the thing’ that the play is about (and discovering what ‘the thing’ is in the first place is one of the hardest parts of the process).  Many of the greatest plays find an apparently simple metaphor that perfectly captures a more complex idea (the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Willie Loman’s job as a salesman), but the idea that our innate humanity can be summed up by one gesture is so breathtakingly, beautifully simple that it takes my breath away in the way that Al Jolson never could.    

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