An Interview with Andrew Haydon…

I recently interviewed Andrew Haydon; freelance theatre critic behind the hugely successful (and turning 10 years old!) blog: Postcards from the Gods. He had some interesting opinions regarding the authority of theatre criticism, and the cessation of Lyn Gardner’s blog deal with The Guardian. 

In theatre criticism, is a newspaper critic more ‘authoritative’ than a theatre blogger? Why?

Well, the short answer is: depends on the critic, depends on the blogger, and – to an extent –  depends what they’re writing about.

I mean, “an authority” almost has two meanings:

1) A person who is assumed to know an awful lot.

2) A person really does know an awful lot.

I think if you say “The Theatre Critic of The Times” to people, it will sound more “authoritative” than “Theatre blogger Andrew Haydon”.  Am I more of “an authority” on theatre than American parliamentary sketch writer Ann Treneman, who was given the job of Times Theatre Critic a year or so ago?  It’s possible that I am.  (It’s equally possible that I’m not.)  But she’s definitely got the title that confers “authority” on whatever she feels like typing, even if she turns out to know very little.

And it’s worth remembering as well that newspapers aren’t necessarily interested in having an “authoritative” critic. Indeed, I think some newspapers (naming no Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times names) actively mistrust critics who seem too fond of the medium.  The point of critics, from a newspaper editor’s point of view, might only be to spice up the culture pages with a bit of entertaining spite.

How do you feel about the cessation of Lyn Gardner’s blog deal with The Guardian?

Short answer: *obviously* it’s a catastrophe.

Long answer: well, the long answer could probably run to a whole blog of my own, so I’ll try to do the condensed long-er version…

It is without question a terrible, terrible step backwards for the Guardian to cancel 150 of “Lyn Gardner’s Theatre Blog”s a year.

It is terrible, because it had a unique place in both British theatre and journalism: it was the only mainstream media platform that gave a critic enough space to say whatever they wanted, to explore any issue of their choosing, to open up a forum for the industry, without having to turn it into a cosily packaged “feature,” preview, puff piece or interview. But the resulting discussions happened – in theory – in front of the general public; conducted for the benefit of the general reader.

That said, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the point in September 2012 when the Guardian essentially cut the Guardian Theatre Blog and replaced it with Lyn Gardner’s Theatre Blog. (And it’s partly a self-interested thing, as it basically meant that it was much harder for freelancers to get blog pieces accepted by the Guardian thereafter…)  Although, really, there were losses *AND* gains due to that change of format. This time there are fewer [no] likely benefits. It just sets theatre-journalism-in-the-mainstream-press back to 2005.  Although perhaps the changes and improvements that it seeded have now flowered/blossomed/borne fruit, etc.

Do you think your readers trust your word over the likes of publications like Exeunt, which have a variety of writers?

I have literally never once thought about that before. I mean, I hope my readers trust my word.

(Which is a completely different thing to thinking I’m right.)  Trust my word *over* Exeunt’s?  Hmm.  Well, if they’re *my* readers, then: yes; I hope they trust both my word *and* my taste over whatever scoundrel Exeunt sends to review a particular thing. Unless the scoundrel happens to agree with me, that is.

I mean, I guess the thing people get from Postcards is a fixed perspective.  It’s always me.  My mind thinks in a certain way, and my tastes are pretty consistent (if perhaps still leaving room to surprise people from time to time – like that time I liked a musical which wasn’t even in German…).  I guess that breeds a certain sort of, well, if not trust, then inevitability, at least…

The downside of being a solo-blogger (although I have written for Exeunt and etc. anyway, so it’s a bit of a false binary), though, is that there is no external source of authority for you to point to.  There’s no editor who’s commissioned you to write a particular thing because they think you’re good enough to write for their magazine.  Instead, you’re just some person who decided that on their own.  (Which is fine. Results can vary. But by the same token, how else would anyone ever get better?)

(In practice; the above doesn’t especially apply to me, as *I* had been writing for the multi-authored review site CultureWars.org, albeit *very sporadically* for about seven years by the time I started Postcards. And I’d been the editor of Noises Off at NSDF for four years. In fact, blimey, I’d even had a book that I edited published by Oberon before I started Postcards…)

How do you think theatre blogging has changed since you began ten years ago? 

Actually, this directly leads on from the above.  Essentially, “blogging” only really started at all –  certainly as a mainstream(-ish) pursuit – after I’d started reviewing theatre. Even after I’d started reviewing theatre *online*.

And that is a big difference between the “first wave of theatre bloggers” – people like Chris Goode, David Eldridge, Natasha Tripney, Alex F/Swift, Dan Bye, Andy Field and myself – and *now* is: we weren’t all 21. Like, the technology arrived for the first time, and a completely disparate group of people discovered it and started using it. I was 31 when I started Postcards, I think Chris Goode must have been 35/36 when he started Thompson’s.  David Eldridge too, perhaps?  (And, outside the UK, George Hunka and Alison Croggan – two hugely influential early theatre bloggers – must have been at least 40 or so around 2007).  Now it feels impossible that people who already have an established career in theatre would suddenly to write a blog. I mean, Imagine if Rob Icke or Lucy Prebble just started blogging tomorrow!  (I mean, HOW GREAT! I wish they would. But they probably won’t…)

And I think the sorts of things that “Theatre Blogs” *are* has changed too, now.  I think that first wave that I mentioned were more like “theatre people” *blogging* about stuff.  Postcards didn’t start out completely dedicated to theatre. I used to do other bits and pieces too.  Now I hardly ever do.  And the discursive/”feature-style” pieces I do write are maybe a bit more formal now, or at least, are less sprawling than they used to be. I hope.

It’s interesting thinking about it, though.  Particularly in the light of Matt Trueman’s much-pilloried piece about “where have all the bloggers gone?” that he wrote late last year.  I wrote a similar piece (not “where are the bloggers?” but “haven’t we now covered *everything*?”) in December 2007.  And the most hilarious thing is; I was probably right, give or take.   The subsequent nine years of Theatre Blogging has basically/arguably all been tiny intricate improvements on pretty much exactly the same sorts of things that were identified and anatomised in the first six months of people blogging about theatre, but with the world and theatre changing (if usually at a glacial pace) around them.

Another interesting change (well, interesting to me), is the landscape in which blogs sit. When we started, I guess the internet was much, much emptier.  And then, one of the first things that happened, when I started Postcards, is that *everyone* (“everyone”) who had a theatre blog also started writing blogs for the Guardian’s Theatre Blog.  I remember people worrying in 2008 that the Guardian Theatre Blog had pretty much killed theatre blogging because it had hoovered up all the contributors, but didn’t give them enough lee-way to write in the way that actually made them good.  But, against that, I do wonder if the Guardian’s emphasis on outward-facing-ness, and a bit of discipline re: subject and wordcount weren’t also useful…

But, yes. I think “What a Theatre Blog is” is now a much more formula-ised thing, based on everyone looking at everyone else’s and essentially creating an almost unconscious “template” by gradually, en masse, knocking off the outlying elements of prior blogs, until they now look not unlike the Review and/or Feature (+ interview, + preview) format of MSM arts pages.  (Although fewer interviews. Almost no one will ever do transcribing for fun.)


 

Thanks so much to Andrew for taking the time to talk to me!

You can find him here:

http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk

@Postcards_Gods (Twitter)

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It’s a God-awful small affair

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Adrian Berry
Marlowe Studio
10th February 2017

As someone who cried for 24 hours when David Bowie left us, on hearing of a production entitled From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, I was dancing in the street all the way to the theatre…only to be hugely disappointed. Adrian Berry’s play centres around a teenager (Martin), whose absent father and alcoholic mother mean that his obsession with David Bowie becomes his coping mechanism. The one man show, starring Alex Walton, features cliche multi-rolling, hyperbolic acting, and stock images lazily projected onto a backdrop. The piece lacks strength aesthetically, but also has a great deficiency in focus within the plot. Eating disorders, suicide, and celebrity obsession are just a few of the topics Berry attempts to cover during the fleeting 60 minutes, which unfortunately does not allow for a full exploration of topic, and has an overall disengaging effect.

Berry has a way with words that provides the play with some merit. Bowie lyrics are cleverly sprinkled among the dialogue with an air of subtlety that generates pleasure from the dedicated Bowie fans in the audience. However, the over exaggerated acting on Walton’s part totally diminishes the power of the text itself. The majority of the performance is over-acted, with stereotypical and unrealistic physicality being the only indicator of a change in character. Despite the fact that Berry’s writing deals with taboo subjects such as mental illness in a raw and ‘to the point’ manner, the falsity of Walton’s acting enforces a sense of disconnect, and meant that I was unable to experience an emotional response, even in moments of attempted sentimental intimacy.

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is a mix up of a multitude of motives, and the result is an underwhelming quality of performance that is a disheartening portrayal of David Bowie’s lasting legacy that I don’t doubt would have Mr Stardust himself turning in his grave.

Kiss & Cry…A touch of genius.

Kiss & Cry- and I definitely cried. A playmobil figurine, a doll’s house and a toy train were just some of the weird and wonderful elements of this epic performance. The stage was filled with the creatives of Charleroi Danses, including a cameraman (Julian Lambert). A giant screen hung above them. The action that occurred on stage was filmed live and projected onto this screen for us to watch.

The piece began with a male narrator describing a woman and her five loves, “she could count them on one hand.” And indeed, the dancers in this play created people out of their hands. Positioned in an upside-down peace sign, their fingers became legs, and their hands transformed into a person, a person with a huge spectrum of emotion. Somehow, two hands managed to tell a rollercoaster love story, involving romance, humour and sex. Slight flickers of fingers and gentle caresses were inflicted with such depth that the feeling behind them resonated greatly within me. The genius’s behind this production managed to place an entire personality in the palm of a hand.

The most intimately beautiful part of this show was a sequence when two performers, one male, one female, illustrated their love story to the song, Nothing Compares To You. Most of the movement was contained on a small black platform where their hands could move freely, yet they branched out from this and incorporated their bodies into the dance. As they followed the traces of one another’s frames with their hands, petals lit by a single light fell down on top of them. I felt tears rolling down my cheeks, the purity of their emotion was so present in the room that I could feel it in the air surrounding me.

The use of set added to the fragility and beauty of the piece. The final ‘scene’, involved the female hand being on what appeared to be a beach. Real sand was used, and as her fingers walked across it, I could almost feel it beneath my feet. She then dug a little under the surface and was met with another hand. As this moment I snapped out of my trance and looked away from the screen and onto the stage, where there was a male dancer completely buried in sand from head to toe. As his lover dragged him out from under the sand, their entire bodies were allowed to touch, and for the first time we were given a close-up view of someone’s face. As the pair danced, sand granules fell delicately from his head and shoulders, which in the dimly lit space was absolutely breathtaking.

The Charleroi Danses have managed to capture the beauty and danger of love in the mesmerising Kiss & Cry. It is an absolute must-see that will blow you away. However, as a painfully single 20-something, it does have an air of loneliness to it that may leave you gasping for a gin and tonic on your way out.

Pride & Prejudice- A rotation into the world of Jane Austen.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a story we’ve all heard. Whether it be in a GCSE English class, or through the lens of Keira Knightley and Colin Firth. Regent’s Park theatre brought to life this classic tale of the era splendidly. However, I have reached the conclusion that once you have seen one Pride and Prejudice you have seen them all.

Max Jones’s set was simple excellence. An era-appropriate set of stairs attached to a corridor was placed on the rotating stage which allowed for a quick change of scene. However, this was the only exceptional element of the performance.
Let’s talk about casting. Never before have I seen a period play with such a brilliantly diverse cast. Nevertheless, the characters themselves to me were one-dimensional. Not quite fully developed, they played caricatures, merely adopting an attitude towards marriage and allowing this to be their sole influence for their decisions on stage. The fact that it was opening night may have been a factor here, but at moments I could practically hear the director Deborah Bruce yelling, ‘gasp here’ or ‘sound shocked’. The majority of the lines, particularly from the daughters just didn’t seem natural. Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelley as Mrs and Mr Bennet stole the show. Their humour and energy was intrinsic to my enjoyment of the piece.

The play began slightly rusty and jilted, possibly due to it being opening night. Yet, the second half was much more polished and quite pleasing. Regent’s Park theatre brought to life the words of Austen exactly how one would imagine, and that is the problem. Pride and Prejudice has been done endlessly, and has become predictable. While this performance was accurate and timely, it did not shock, surprise or enthral my imagination. It was the perfect period play.

Run The Beast Down- A platform of human experience.

Weird. The word that dominated my mind as I wandered out of the theatre in a daze. Run The Beast Down was a one man performance accompanied by a live electronic score, performed by Chris Bartholomew. This new play by Titas Halder, starring Ben Aldridge tells a story of Charlie’s struggle with insomnia, fuelled by a chaotic break-up, a council flat, and the loss of his job. Halder’s play encapsulates a person’s experience living in the UK at a time of economic despair.

The thing deserving of the most praise is the text itself. Halder beautifully utilises the lyricism of language in order to create a wonderfully sensory experience. When Charlie (Aldridge) described a “steaming hot cup of tea”, I swear I could almost taste it. This had quite the opposite but equally powerful effect at the end of the play when he illustrated the murder of a fox; the sensory word choice left me grimacing and squirming in my seat.

What I admired about this performance was the lack of ‘stuff’. Staged on a square, black platform, the only prop was a white stick of chalk that Aldridge used to write titles like, ‘Peter is dead’ directly onto the stage; giving the performance an episodic form. The bareness of the production allowed for an extension of emotion, that can often be masked by excessive set and props. Aldridge’s performance came completely from within; it was clear that the audience were dangling off his every word. He was able to create believable characters purely through a careful variation of voice.  Furthermore, the set was almost non-existent. This was no challenge for Aldridge, who employed his physicality to enhance the power of storytelling in a way that enabled the audience to identify with Charlie. A moment when he ran around the tiny stage, pressing his hands up against an imaginary glass wall, created such a strong image that additional staging was rendered unnecessary.

My only qualm with the piece is the poor execution of metaphor. Charlie discussed at length his personal vendetta against an urban fox. It was unclear whether this ‘fox’ was literal, or whether it was a sly hint at the business world, or the creeping economical problems of 2007. Descriptions of Charlie’s ‘ginger’ friend, and other subtle references suggested to me that the ‘fox’ was merely a metaphor for something deeper, perhaps something which existed only in Charlie’s mind. I anticipated a ‘lightbulb moment’ in this bizarre tale, yet when Aldridge uttered his closing line, I felt underwhelmed. I could not identify with what the piece was saying. Why did they want me to watch?

While The Marlowe Theatre created a ruthlessly accurate depiction of life in England at times of hardship, the essence of the piece was lost among a pitiful attempt to develop an extensive metaphor, which left me bewildered. Nevertheless, credit must be given to the aestheticism of the production, which provided a window to the soul in an organic, gritty space.

run-the-beast-down-main

Warner Bros’ new film didn’t PAN out so well…

As soon as I heard that Warner Bros. were creating a new film based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan I was filled with excitement for this beloved bedtime story to be brought back to our screens. However, when I finally saw this eagerly awaited creation, I was filled with faith, trust… and disappointment. Peter Pan has always been one of my favourite stories, so naturally I had high expectations. I longed for those well-known and loved characters to be brought to life, using today’s technical advancements to produce a believable and magical movie; in a more realistic way than Disney’s original classic. (1953).

Ok, it wasn’t all terrible. First time actor; Levi Millar played the character of Peter Pan brilliantly. He was totally believable and about the only thing holding the film together.

My main issue with this film is one I have with many movies that are being produced at the moment. Filmmakers of today seem to have an obsession with using their entire budget on special effects, meaning that they apparently can’t afford to hire a half-decent writer. Jason Fuchs’ script was disjointed and empty, completely lacking of any soul or gusto. The entire film was incredibly far-fetched. There was simply no logic to the magic. Every shot was so edited and false that it just wasn’t at all convincing. Additionally, the constant ‘arty-shots’ and fast-paced action scenes meant that there were only a handful of calmer sequences where the storyline could actually unfold. Obviously I understand that it’s a kid’s film, and I love the likes of Narnia, Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland. But this film was pure nonsense, and not in a ‘down the rabbit hole’ fun kind of way. For example, the pirates were introduced into the film by chanting to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, when the film was set in the depths of World War Two. You’re as confused as I am to what on earth they were thinking. I was utterly underwhelmed.

Overall, Pan had plenty of potential. But the magic of J.M. Barrie’s story was completely lost in the exaggerated nature of the film. This time, Warner Bros. should have saved their creative efforts and left us with Disney’s original classic.

T24 presents A NUMBER

On Saturday the 14th November I went to see T24’s version of Caryl Churchill’s A Number. Directed by James Nash, a second year Drama student, this two man play addresses the idea of cloning  and the nature versus nurture argument.

The play follows a series of conversations between a father (Salter) played by Peter Marsh; a second year English Literature and Drama student, and his son and various clones, played by Tom Clare, also a second year Drama student. Salter’s son Bernard always believed that he was an only child, and that his mother died in childbirth, but he has finally learned the shocking truth, he is a clone and the original child was put into care as a result of his father’s poor parenting after his wife’s death.

Nash’s take on the play was an organic production of the text, the set was bare and the only technical elements were two small desk lamps which were switched on and off between scenes in order to differentiate between the episodic nature of the play. This simplistic presentation of such an intricate play allowed the audience’s focus to be solely on the two actors. Clare’s performance of both the original son and the clones was brilliant, he was able to subtly create differences between the characters without explicitly presenting an alternate individual. Marsh’s performance as Salter worked incredibly well in correspondence with Clare, and he created a complex character who was able to capture the audience’s attention with moments of pure sincerity, but in the final scene, also employed magnificent comedic timing to enhance the performance with light relief as the play came to its close.

Overall T24’s production of Churchill’s 2002 play A Number, was an excellent and emotionally apt, and a great success for James Nash in his directorial debut at the University of Kent.