Thursday, 17 June 2010

'The Dramatist' by Frederick Reynolds in the RADA Bar, 16/6/10

The Theatre Royal, Bury St. Edmunds, built in 1819, is one of the few remaining Regency theatres in the country. With its thrust stage and horseshoe-shaped auditorium, it's the missing link between the Elizabethan playhouse and the Victorian proscenium arch.

Since 2005, the theatre's been running the 'Restoring the Repertoire' project, to rediscover and, where possible, perform, the plays from the period around its own construction, doing for the Georgian repertoire what the Globe does for the Elizabethan and Jacobean. On Wednesday, I went to a rehearsed reading of Frederick Reynold's 1789 play The Dramatist in the RADA bar, directed by the theatre's Associate Director, Abigail Anderson.

Like a lot of Georgian plays, The Dramatist is a comedy of intrigue, focussing on young people who want to get married and old people who want to stop them. What lifts it above the pack is the title character, Vapid, a budding playwright who both takes part in the intrigues and comments on them, analysing them in theatrical terms, and criticising other characters for their poor dramatic construction of their love affairs. His presence gives the play a giddy, self-reflective quality that makes it (to steal a line from Steve Coogan) 'post-modern before there was a modern to be post'.

In the post-show discussion, both actors - mostly RADA students - and audience wondered why plays from this period don't get revived more often. The director argued that one reason is that they depend on a close connection between actor and audience, and so don't work well in proscenium arch theatres.

It's easy to forget that, for most of its history, the theatre made no attempt to pretend that cast and audience were in different spaces. It was only the nineteenth century that split them up, under the twin influences of fourth-wall naturalism and opera, which divided stage and auditorium so as to have somewhere to put the orchestra . Later on, the coming of electricity made it much easier to light the stage while putting the audience in darkness. Rather worryingly, one of the first people to do this was Richard Wagner.

In my career as an academic, I've sometimes said that the proscenium arch is the theatrical equivalent of the missionary position - it's a bit dull, it doesn't really allow for the best contact, it involves some dubious ideological assumptions (about gender relations in one case, actor/audience in the other) but, for various reasons, it's ended up being the default option, almost the norm. It's sometimes worth questioning whether, as theatre-makers taking that option, we're fully allowing ourselves the best circumstances in which to - ahem - perform.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

On Calendar Customs, the Knollys Rose ceremony and 'Posh'

I've always been a sucker for calendar customs, especially in London. Whether it's a hot cross bun preserved for a widow's son lost at sea, or a blessing of sore throats near Holborn, if it happens once a year and has a bit of history, I'm there.

Which is why, last Monday, I found myself outside the church of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, waiting for the Master of the Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames to emerge, cut a rose from the garden in Seething Lane, and take it on a velvet cushion to Mansion House, with an official escort of Thames boatmen, and an unofficial one of American tourists and people like me.

The Knollys Rose ceremony goes back originally to 1381, and owes its existence to Lady Constance Knollys, who owned houses on both sides of Seething Lane and built a footbridge between them. Because she hadn't obtained any kind of official permission, the Lord Mayor imposed a fine of a single red rose, payable once a year on the feast of St. John the Baptist.

These days, the ceremony's an excuse for a dinner and a photo-opportunity. The suited and behatted congregation make their way from the church to the garden, where the Master cuts the rose, assuring us that he has permission from the City Gardener to do so. The rose is then pinned on a velvet cushion and taken to an official dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor. The whole public part is over in about fifteen minutes and, on a nice day, it's quite pleasant.

(This, by the way, was not my first encounter with a Lord Mayor. In 1981, one of his predecessors presented the books at my school prize day. I'd selected a volume on 'Who Played Who in the Movies' with a cover picture of Theda Bara as Cleopatra. When it came to my turn, the Lord Mayor picked up the book, pointed to Bara's cleavage and said 'Well, what about that, then?' I'm still not sure what he expected me to say.)

The Master also made a small joke about Lady Knollys' punishment 'for failing to get the equivalent of planning permission - how times have changed!', which elicted an appreciative, Littlejohnesque murmur from the well-heeled guests. Of course, an annual rose is hardly punitive - it's barely a slap on the wrist. The story is less one of punishment, more of complicity between old pals. Lady Knollys is a medieval equivalent of those who complain because 'Elf and Safety' won't let them build an extension on their houses, or the dining-club boor of Laura Wade's Posh who tells a prostitute 'One would assume we pay you and you do whatever's required.'.

In this connection, a little history is instructive. Like most British traditions, the ceremony's a lot younger than it appears - it stopped in the seventeenth century, and was only re-established in 1924, soon after the First World War and the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which first brought in universal adult suffrage (for men, at any rate - most women still had to wait another ten years).

I begrudge no one their customs, and, lord knows, there are more important things to worry about, but you do at least have to wonder why, at that point in history, someone elected to revive a ceremony that is, when you get right down to it, about the entitlement of the rich and powerful to do whatever they damn well want.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

On Arts Subsidy, the Beatles and Brian Eno's 'Scenius'.

A few months back, I was reading Jonathan Holmes' article 'Why We Must Fund the Arts' (Guardian, 27/2/10) and the online comments. Many of these were predictable anti-subsidy rants, deploying the classic Daily Mail argument - 'I-don't-like-it-therefore-it-shouldn't-exist' - and a curious preoccupation with Tracy Emin's Bed - a work produced, by the way, entirely without government aid.

One comment, a bit more interesting, came from a poster who called him/herself 'liveanddangerous' and read, in its entirety: 'The Beatles never received an Arts Council Grant. Why should anyone else?'

It's a worthwhile question, because it highlights a problem in the whole way we talk about great achievers in the arts and, by implication, in any other field.

The achievement of the Beatles lay in their fusion of diverse, almost contradictory influences - American rhythm and blues, skiffle-inflected folk and country, music hall, Lennon's art-school surrealism - into something entirely original. Once they settled in London, their tastes got, if anything, even more eclectic - Ian MacDonald's brilliant Revolution in the Head chronicles their visits to theatres, galleries, classical concerts, alternative bookshops, all of them, ultimately, informing the work.

Surprisingly, it was Paul McCartney, rather than the more obviously intellectual Lennon, who was the band's real explorer of the avant garde. MacDonald, describing the genesis of 'Paperback Writer' in the Indica bookshop, makes the connection explicit:

'English culture of the period benefited immensely from the patronage of Jenny Lee, Harold Wilson's Minister for the Arts. Under her direction, theatres, concert halls, galleries and libraries received vital funding while the Arts Council, chaired by Lord Goodman, gained new grant-giving powers and expanded financial resources. In this atmosphere, creativity flourished in every walk of cultural life.' (Revolution in the Head, p.174)

There's a broader point here - we tend to consume (and study) art through a number of Great Men (mostly) and their Masterpieces - a Hamlet, a Citizen Kane, a Sergeant Pepper - and to ignore the soil in which they grew. Brian Eno has a useful concept here - 'scenius', which he defines as 'the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene' (A Year With Swollen Appendices, p.354), as opposed to the individual 'genius', and gives a few examples of particularly productive ones - Russia 1905-1915, the Dadists in France, the punk era in London.

To create a strong scenius, you need a few things - communication and co-operation, a receptive audience, committed critics, and, yes, enough money (from whatever source) to ensure that the financially unsuccessful - who might be the most creative - aren't forced out.

Did the Beatles ever receive an Arts Council grant? Not directly, no, though they played in venues that did, and recorded sessions for the BBC. Was their work enhanced by contact with people who did? Unquestionably.

P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that I have myself been the recipient of arts subsidy. In 1987, I got £500 to tour The Tempest round parks and other open-air venues in Norfolk. Just making it clear.