To coincide with the beginning of the third and final Zola season, the BBC have put up a brief interview with me on their website. It was conducted by Polly Thomas at the end of our recording of Crash (episode 3.1) and it covers our approach to the books, the nature of Zola's ideas and how we tried to convey them and also the impact of the books in our adaptation.
So I co-organised a conference (alongside Élisabeth Angel-Perez and Aloysia Rousseau of the Sorbonne and Liliane Campos of the Sorbonne-Nouvelle) about British theatre in the 21st century. And I'm pleased to say it was a real success.
The standard of the papers was very high, higher than usual, I'd say, for a conference like this. I think lots of things are to do with that: the conference being in Paris at the Sorbonne meant that I think all we British academics felt we needed to raise our game a little, but also it really just confirmed that the field of British theatre studies is very, very strong right now.
There were papers from Martin Middeke, Vicky Angelaki, Trish Reid, Mike Pearson, Donna Soto-Morettini, David Overend, Marilena Zaroulia, Louise Owen, Marissia Fragkou, Nicholas Holden, Helen Freshwater, Clara Escoda Agusti, Déborah Prudhon, Tom Cornford, Kirsty Sedgman, Mark Smith, Sarah-Jane Dickenson, Clare Wallace, Adam Ledger, Mark Robson, Jen Harvie, Lynette Goddard, Damien Giraud, Ramona Mosse, Anna Street, Séverine Ruset, Seda Ilter, Ben Fowler, Chris Megson, Jerri Daboo, Clare Finburgh, Liz Tomlin and Catherine Love. They covered a huge range of writers and theatre makers from the very established (Caryl Churchill, Forced Entertainment, David Greig) to the newly emerging (James Graham, Alistair McDowall, Kieran Hurley, Alice Birch) and on themes as diverse as belief, war, aural theatre, new writing, immigration, audiences, community and crisis. The theme of Brexit was a constant presence. And there were keynote presentations from David Greig, Tim Crouch and Katie Mitchell.
It was a joy to see so many scholars working on British theatre from right across Europe.
My brief opening remarks focused on Brexit and suggested ways of seeing that prefigured in British theatre. If you like, you can read those remarks here:
Meanwhile, Kirsty Sedgman tweeted the whole of the conference for the Society for Theatre Research and those tweets have been storified here:
So Dario Fo has died. He is one of the giants of European theatre in the twentieth century, a standing counter to any of the boring arguments that political theatre is worthily dull and just preaches to the converted. Dario Fo reached an absolutely vast popular audience with his extraordinary mixture of farce, mime, comedy, and revolutionary politics. He played sports arena; he got an audience of 20 million on TV; he was excoriated by the Vatican, undermined by the right-wing secret police, adored by millions; he shocked Italy's stuffy literary culture all over again in 1997 by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was a performer and a playwright and the two were indissociable; he wrote his best plays by performing them.
I was asked to go on Radio 4's Last Word to talk about him. Me and Griff Rhys-Jones (who starred in Trumpets and Raspberries (1984) [Clacson, trombette e pernacchi, 1981]. It came out quite well, except please ignore my fumbled suggestion that Fo did not want to put himself in the tradition of Molière. Of course he did. But anywayyou can listen to it here.
And if that whets your appetite, click the video at the top to watch the first half of his fantastic performance, 'Pope Boniface VIII'. It's in Italian, but you'll understand it. Boniface was a thirteent-century pope, viciously corrupt and violent, hated by many, including Dante who in Inferno put him in hell before he'd even died. In this scene, Boniface is getting dressed in his papal regalia, bullying his altar boys. In the second half of the scene, Christ returns, and Boniface quickly but feebly tries to divest himself of his finery to curry favour with him.
I've written an article on the many shows that Tim Crouch has made that are for or involve children. It's here:
Rebellato, Dan. 'Nobody Really Wants To Be Here: Tim Crouch's Work for Children.' In Tim Crouch ou la scène émancipée, edited by Élisabeth Angel-Perez, et al. Coup de Théâtre. Paris: RADAC, 2016, pp. 89-108.
The essay talks about the way that his work for children is every bit as experimental as his work for adults and that, in some ways, he debuts some of his more radical ideas with children before he tries them out on adults.
There's a very good piece by the tremendous Charlotte Higgins responding the the Arts Council's recent suggestion that they will start to use 'quality metrics' in their evaluation of the work they fund. That is, they will use quantitative methods to judge the artistic success of all the poetry, music, theatre, and more than is a recipient of arts funding.
I have a small dog in this fight, in that I have been working with the British Theatre Consortium and UKTheatre/SOLT in generating a lot of quantitative data about British theatre (reports here and here), in part for the Arts Council. It's very revealing about the work being done with arts funding. But nowhere does it say anything about artistic quality. I don't think it means that a show is good just because it had a huge box office or lots of people went to see it. I doesn't mean a show is bad or good if it was written by a writer from a particular democratic.
This is because facts do not entail values. In other words, I don't think you can logically deduce a statement of value from a statement (or a series of statements) of fact. For instance, 'Harold Shipman killed more than 200 people' does not, of itself, entail 'Harold Shipman was a bad man'. You need some other value premise to come in between ('killing people is wrong' for example). And that's a value statement.
A judgment of aesthetic quality is another kind of value statement. No matter how many statements of fact you generate about a piece of theatre, it will not tell you whether it's good or not. Even if you believe that there are 'rules' about what makes a good play (which I sort of don't), those rules will only ever be necessary; they won't be sufficient. In other words, let's say, for the sake of argument, that a good play must be a complete representation of the arc of a single action (as Aristotle suggests), with a beginning, middle and end, the three parts connected by strict necessity; if that's true that means a good play cannot be written which does not conform to that rule; but it does not mean that if the play conforms to that rule, it will definitely be good. It's crucial that it has that aspect, but it is not enough.
And we know this because, obviously, if everyone knew how to guarantee a good piece of theatre, they'd do it all the time, but we've all been to see terrible theatre so it can't just be a matter of rules. And - even more obvious - no one agrees what those rules are.
So no matter how many facts you amass about a show, you won't know how good it is. And that means that quality metrics are bound to fail as an evaluative method in itself.
Charlotte Higgins's piece is a lovely overview of these argument with some good points of its own. I was briefly phone interviewed about this and I have a comment towards the end, though, in truth, my view is better summed up in the words of Tim Etchells right at the top. Quality metrics is 'horseshit'.
There's a new website that is trying to bring together theatre academics and drama teachers, to share good practice, resources, experiences and ideas. It's called Essential Drama and you can access it here:
I think it's a great initiative and so when I was asked to write something for it, I didn't hesitate. My piece, 'A Little Revolution', is a hymn to school drama and a call for academics to work with teachers.
After going to see Simon Stephens and Michael Longhurst's Carmen Disruption at the Almeida last year, my friends Louise LePage and Billy Smart got talking about the show. Billy's enthusiasm for Simon's work seems to have paled somewhat and he let fly with a very acute and thoughtful shopping list of stuff that always seems to happen in a Simon Stephens play and concluded that he's stopped engaging truthfully with the world but instead only with theatrical form.
Louise had the interesting idea of getting some British theatre scholars to respond to Billy's provocation on video and then Louise would edit the video into a film about Simon's work. The other people to take the bait were Chris Megson and Aleks Sierz - and of course Louise herself.
Louise also requested that we 'think about how you locate yourself visually in your film? Obviously the form we are working with here - individuals reflecting upon these plays via technological means, crucially atomised and yet rendered individual by means of place - is intended to give a nod towards Simon Stephens' own dramaturgy. So please give some thought to how you frame yourself.' I mention this in case you wonder why the hell I'm standing by a tower block.
But I think it's a very interesting film. I particularly liked Chris Megson's thoughts about the here-and-now in Simon's work, the way it signals how the contemporary smoothed-out global world erases memory, and how those memories are now replaced by commodities. There's a nice bit where he described googling Helmut Lang dresses and the dresses indeed do pour onto the screen.
You can watch the video and read the provocation here:
I reviewed Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015) for Contemporary Theatre Review and the review is here. The book surveys the influences of Darwinian and post-Darwinian debates on theatre since Ibsen and I think it's rather fascinating. There are some really interesting discussions of Eleanora Duse's reputed ability to blush at will and what is meant by the complicated debates around the representation of childbirth and breastfeeding on stage. The book also manages to say something new about Ibsen and Beckett, for which there should be some sort of cash prize.
Anyway, I recommend it, if you're interested in the intersection of science and theatre.
Animals, my first episode of season one of Zola: Blood Sex & Money, has been nominated for the Radio Academy's ARIA Award. These are the replacement for the Sonys and they are, I guess, the most prestigious radio awards in the UK. The ceremony is in Leeds on 19 October and I probably won't be able to go, which is probably a good thing, since the only other time I didn't turn up to an award ceremony I won something. Not that I'm holding out much hope. I got nominated twice for Sony awards and came away with nothing (despite odds of 3/2).
It's a very strong shortlist...
- Zola: Blood Sex & Money Season 1 - Animals (written by Dan Rebellato, produced by Pauline Harris, sound design Steve Brooke) BBC Radio Drama North for Radio 4
- Cuttin' It (written by Charlene James, produced by Jessica Brown) BBC Radio Drama London for Radio 4
- Lament (written by debbie tucker green, produced by Mary Peate) BBC Radio Drama London for Radio 4
- Merseyside Blitz (written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Roger McGough, et al.) BBC Radio Merseyside
- The Sky is Wider (by Linda Marshall Griffiths, produced by Nadia Molinari, sound design Steve Brooke) BBC Radio Drama North for Radio 4
The Emily Rising company have made Emily puppets of various sizes for various points in the play. But they've also made a much much larger one, this one for the Hackney Carnival today. Here are some pictures of it from the Little Angel's Twitter feed.
For the production of Emily Rising at the Little Angel, they've done video interviews with the creative team, aimed at children, mainly. I did one and it's weirdly bleached out and the sound's not great and I look a nightmare, but here it is anyway.
I did an interview for the National Theatre a few months ago for a series of videos about Sarah Kane's work. The first (above) concerns her apparently 'unstageable' and 'impossible' texts. It features interviews with playwright Simon Stephens, actors George Taylor, Peter Hobday and Graham Butler, and me. It's got some great images from Katie Mitchell's production. The second and third (below) offer overviews of her work, going sequentially through all the plays. I think they've done a pretty great job. Emma Reidy did the interviews and, I think, edited it too.
I'm running a study day at the National Theatre of 15 September 2016, to accompany the current production of The Deep Blue Sea, on Terence Rattigan. The event will run from 10.30 - 4.30 and alongside me there will be Michael Darlow (author of Terence Rattigan, The Man and His Work), Nancy Caroll (who played Joan - magnificently - in the 2010 National Theatre revival of After the Dance) and Sean O'Connor (who wrote Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan and produced the recent Terence Davies movie of The Deep Blue Sea), plus there will be extracts from the plays performed by members of the The Deep Blue Sea company.
It looks like a good day and a great chance to find out more about this popular but elusive playwright in the company of some of the great experts on him and his work.
You can get tickets HERE.
My play, Emily Rising, is in production. They've been building the puppets for the show in the extraordinary workshop at the Little Angel Theatre and you can see some of the images here. You can see Emily herself in various versions but also her mum and dad and her brother, Robbie. You can see her teacher, a social worker, and a nosey neighbour.
I've also finished the stage adaptation. We had a very interesting R&D workshop at the theatre at the end of June, working with the director, Oliver James Hymans, members of the production team, and David Duffy the production manager at the theatre and a writer for puppets himself. The principle is that writing for puppets needs to externalise as much as possible (Hamlet-type introspection is less effective than something physicalised and made visual. This doesn't mean you can't be psychological, but you need to throw shapes and strike attitudes. In some ways, each scene needs to have a tableau level at which is can be understood - two people fighting, or kissing, or one person walking out on another, these things work very well and the dialogue just sits on top of that, refining, making more precise.
The original script for Emily Rising had a few bits where clearly I was enjoying writing contemporary dialogue and there are some self-conscious moments. I've tried to eliminate those in favour of clarity and vividness. The social worker, for example, now has, basically, a sort of catch phrase; the helicopter pilot is more of a comic figure and so on.
It might seem that moving a play from radio to puppet theatre is to move from one end of the dramatic spectrum to another: from an entirely un-visual dramatic form to an almost entirely visual form. But in fact, it doesn't feel like that. There are some things I've been able to do on stage that I couldn't do on the radio (double takes, having Emily learn to fly, etc.) but equally there were some things that I knew wouldn't work on stage. But mostly, I think both are forms in which what you are trying to do is offer prompts for the audience's imagination. The puppets are never going to look realistic, nor would you want them to be. Instead you want them to be evocative and make a young imagination soar for a bit. Same with the script: you want to give them just enough to be tickled by the story and imagine what it would be like to experience it for real.
The show opens on 10 September and runs until 20 November. Tickets available 020 7226 1787 and www.littleangeltheatre.com.
Chester, Hayley, and Dan Rebellato. 'Where Are We Now?' UK Theatre Magazine, August 2016, 40-42.
I co-wrote a report on the British Theatre Repertoire 2014 in collaboration with SOLT/UK Theatre and now I've got a short piece, written with Hayley Chester, about the report, picking out some of the key findings and thinking about what it might mean for the industry and the future. Hayley's also picked out some of the graphics I did for my presentation at Theatre 2016 (itself extensively covered in this issue) to highlighty some trends. It's in the current issue. Presumably available in all good newsagents.
In a couple of months, once the next issue is out, I'll stick up a scan of the piece.
23 July 2016. Welcome to the world, darling boy.
BBC Radio 4, 30 July 2016, 10.30am.
Radio 4 have a comedy-documentary series called Punt PI, in which Steve Punt (The Now Show, The Mary Whitehouse Experience) investigates historical mysteries. In this week's episode, he's asking if Émile Zola was murdered. The story is that in the early autumn of 1902, Zola and his wife went to bed with the fire on in their bedroom. In the small hours, both started to feel sick, though Zola was convinced it was nothing serious. In the morning, the servants had to force the door and found Alexandrine unconscious in the bed and Émile dead on the floor.
Most people have considered it a tragic accident, the result of a poorly cleaned chimney which fed carbon monoxide into the room. But Zola had many enemies, particularly as a result of his intervention in the Dreyfus Affair, and when in the early 1950s, Libération reported that a chimney sweep had made a deathbed confession to the murder of Émile Zola, speculation rose and his been high ever since.
Of course, it's probably impossible to know if he was murdered or not, though to my mind it's certainly not inconceivable.
I was interviewed down the line at the BBC's Paris studio - ironically, although Steve Punt visits Paris for much of the programme, he interviewed me in Paris while he was still in London. As is usual with these things, I cycled away from the recording feeling I'd said nothing of interest and sounded like an idiot, but the bits they used of me in the programme make me sound reasonably intelligent.
It's a fun, enjoyable programme and you can listen to it below:
(In case anyone's listening to this because they're writing an essay or something: near the beginning, he says that Zola's 20-volume Rougon Macquart novel series concerned the French Second Republic - in fact it was the Second Empire.)
UPDATE: Pleasingly, the programme - and my segment of it - was featured on Pick of the Week on Sunday 31 July 2016. You can listen to that HERE for a month.
I gave a paper at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama yesterday. Kim Solga is a visiting fellow there and she has a longstanding interest in naturalism, particularly a very interesting project of engaging with but complicating the political critiques of naturalism as a contemporary practice. She's also very interested, as am I, in Katie Mitchell's work which we both see as a contemporary avant-garde naturalist theatre practice. We discussed and decided to make her research seminar there a double-header, with Kim giving a talk and I giving a response.
The particular issues that Kim was interested in are work and labour, and the precariousness (or precarity as people are currently saying) of that labour. She also drew my attention to Jonathan Crary's terrific recent book, 24/7, which takes as its starting point capitalism's constant encroachments on sleep as a kind of last bastion of corporeal resistance to the round-the-clock creation of profit.
Under the joint title 'Precarious Naturalism', our papers were interestingly complementary. Kim gave a rich and nuanced paper looking at moments in Katie Mitchell's work that disrupt time, which resist the accelerating onrushing conversion of time into nothing more than an opportunity for consumption.
My paper looks at the contradictory and paradoxical relationship between Naturalism and precarity. On one hand, Naturalism pays close attention to ordinary people; not tragic heroes, not exceptional or high-born people but ordinary people with their flaws and weaknesses; we are given opportunities to pay attention to them, to feel concdern for them, to feel the weight of that individual life. In addition, Naturalism tries to bring out the individual human heing with real vigour, stripped of the generalisations of classicism or romanticism and the codified gestural languages of melodrama, revealed in its actual particularity. On the othe, it breaks down the boundary between human and animal (the Naturalist human is 'just' and 'no better than' an animal) and between humans and machines (human beings are predictable, their operations finite, their behaviour in principle reducible to a number of organic algorithms). They are also half-living half-dead, constituted by social and biological forces and principles that are not themselves alive.
I find a similar ambivalence in Katie Mitchell's work which both uses technology as a means of scrutinizing the ordinary and everyday but also offers a vision of the human being reduced and marginalisaed by the machine.
I then considered some debates about the status of looking and images. Jonathan Crary's much earlier book Techniques of the Observer suggested that the early nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in the meaning and experience of looking. Images now became a kind of monetized economy; images began to circulate, stripped of their referents, distributed and exchanged across the world. Photography was a symptom, not a cause of that. I ask if Naturalism might be simply part of that. I conclude not, but think there is some ambivalence there.
Ultimately, I suggest, it's the comtradictions in Naturalism that are the source of what makes it a valuable political resource. It doesn't seamlessly duplicate the world but subjects it to contradictory scrutiny (fact and value, description and prescription) that interrupts the continuing encroachment of capitalism on time and the endless conversion of experience into commodity images.
The Royal Court wanted some instant responses to the EU Referendum result for a Tumblr and so I wrote this. It was, quite honestly, a bit of automatic writing, pretty much, and took about 20 minutes, but I was - and still am - in a state of horror at the total disregard for honesty, evidence and argument in this whole debate and I wanted to express something about that,
I love my flag.
I love the flag.
This flag is about us, and me, no, us.
It’s called Union because it’s a tribute to the Union of Carlisle who were the, well, mercenaries who assisted in the Pennant War that led, bit by bit, to the formation of the United Kingdom.
It’s called Jack after Jack Friday, the leader of the Ranger Riders who galloped from town to town in the 1460s taking foodstuffs from the tables of rich lords and distributing it to the poor, which I read about on a website, because I think you have to, because there’s a tradition in this Isle of ours and we must never forget it.
I’m no expert but it’s what I feel.
It is blue because the first flag makers wanted to remember the dark of a night sky, those skies when they would sit in their broad yards sewing the first flags, looking up at the sky and blessing their freedom, the freedom that had to be in the flag, of course it had to be, so they took crocus petals and they crushed them in alcohol and left them for six nights and then used the unctuous liquor to stain their flags, deep and dark and free.
And then it’s red, red as blood, the blood spilled in the War of Ice Paper, so called because the cruel and rebellious Scots captain Abhainn mac Cennédig who took a treaty offered by the British at the beginning of the year 1681 and threw it into the loch where it froze so solid men could ride horses across it and legend has it this man in a pub told me that in the battle so many died and so much blood was spilled that the loch froze bright red, red as this flag I am holding against my thighs now, and so it had to be in the flag, it had to be.
There are crosses on the flag.
I am so happy there are crosses.
I heard that the two crosses are the true cross, the first of them the cross of Joseph of Japha, the man who carried his cross on his back for eighty years, some say ninety, walking across modern Syria spreading the Word of Jesus to all who would listen, and some who would not, and this diagonal cross reflects his crooked legs and yet never stooped and always spoke truly.
His message was heard by the Crusaders.
Some say he’s still walking, I don’t know about that but I know what I know.
The second cross is a sign that says no entry, this land is not for you, because we are here, we who traced our Saxon feet along the cliffs, you know the story, it’s a famous story, I don’t need to fill it in, but the chalk falling as the leather sandal scraped a line across the cliff edge? Yes, this is the chalk cross that says we are here and you will not pass, no passerán! as they used to say in Anglo-Saxon.
I heard these things and I love them and I know them because they feel right and when I hold this flag I know them even more.