Sunday, 20 May 2012

She Stops at Costa's

(A Costa coffee, somewhere in North London.  A WOMAN is sitting alone with a coffee and a laptop.  A BARISTA is talking into a mobile phone.  Enter a MAN, carrying a pad of writing paper.  He approaches the counter.)

BARISTA: (into phone)
And so I had another drink and said to her -
Hang on a second.  (To MAN.)  Can I get you something, sir?

I'll take a chocolate brownie and a large flat white.
Oh hell - I've only got a ten, is that alright?

That's fine - I've got the change.  Five pounds and fifty pee.
I'll bring it when it's ready.

Thanks a lot.  I'll be
There in my usual corner, writing.

BARISTA:  (handing over the change)
There you go.

Sugar and caffeine sometimes help the juices flow.

(MAN takes the brownie and heads towards his corner.  He pauses before the WOMAN, unable to pass her outstretched feet.)

Excuse me, madam, could you poss'bly move your feet?

Did you say something?

'Scuse.  I'm trying to reach my seat.

Of course.  I beg your pardon.  I was miles away.

It's really not an issue. (As he passes.)  Thanks.

WOMAN:  (letting him past.)
Have a nice day.

(MAN goes and sits down, and starts writing.  At some appropriate moment during this next section, the BARISTA brings him his coffee.  The WOMAN returns to her reverie.)

I've always found it tricky
Meeting people face-to-face
'Cash-rich, time-poor''s a cliche
But appropriate in my case.

Tried speed-dating on the offchance
But you know that something's wrong
When the regular three minutes
Seems half-an-hour too long.

A colleague came in knackered,
So I ask if she's alright
She says 'Oh lord, I'm sorry.
I stayed up half the night.'

I ask her 'On the razzle?'
She says 'No, on the net.
You ever heard of Second Life?
You ain't seen nothing yet.'

One drunken night, I took the plunge-
What could happen at the worst?
A second life's attractive
When you haven't got a first.

Made an avatar - the person
That I'd like myself to be -
Blonder, thinner, quite a winner
An upgraded sort of me.

It's easy to get flirty
Where nobody sees your face -
Met a virtual kind of fellow
In a virtual sort of place.

It's virtual, not virtuous,
Things quickly got obscener,
Things move on rather quickly
In an avatar's arena.

When now's the only moment,
And you're neither here nor there,
There's little to restrain you
In a virtual affair.

Lord knows, I've had my moments
In the world of real-life men
But this was regaining virginity
And losing it again.

And again and again and again
And again and again.
Our avatars made tender love
Until that moment when...

A message popped up on my screen
I read it - Bloody hell!
He said "Since we're so good on here,
Why not try IRL?"

(WOMAN sits for a second.  The MAN finishes writing.)

If men are from Mars, and women from Venus,
The vellum's the vulva, the Parker the penis.
The page undiscovered, a virginal land
Awaiting the touch of the pen in my hand,
Which grows slowly erect, like a conjuror's wand,
Each word a caress on the Basildon Bond.

I fondle each sentence, draw up to the brink,
As the seed of my passion pulsates through the ink.
Every paragraph marks an additional stage
To the climax that comes at the foot of the page
And I sign off 'Yours ever, let's never forget'.
Perhaps a P.S., like a last cigarette.

We stare at the ceiling, exhausted, replete,
The evidence round us, as marks on the sheet.
Put it into the envelope, make the world guess
Exactly what's hidden beneath her address,
Find a soaring red pillar, insert it and then,
Head back to the cafe and start it again.

Are you all done with these?

Yes thanks, take them away.

(BARISTA takes the coffee cup and plate, leaving the man alone.  MAN starts to pack up his pen and paper.)

I think there isn't that much reason I should stay.
I'm writing to a girl I've never really seen,
Our only contact point a laptop's screen.
Her avatar I know, in real life, she's a blur,
I wouldn't know my love if I fell over her.

(MAN gets up and heads for the door.)

I've not decided what to do,
Now, here's the irony.
I wouldn't know the fellow
If he fell over me.

(MAN finishes sealing his letter, and walks towards the door, again towards her outstretched legs.  As he approaches, she pulls them in, and he walks past her.  Finis.)

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Globe to Globe - the Second Week

The Yohangza Company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream has been around for a while - I remember the opening scene tearing the roof off an Edinburgh preview in 2005 - and it's got the confidence of a show that's been playing in for several years.  This is very much a Dream told from the point of view of the fairies, adapted as the spirits of Korean folklore, with Puck (here divided between two actors) as a roguish master of ceremonies.  The lovers are intruders in this world, and the mechanicals disappear entirely, apart from a single female herb-gatherer, who in an surprising gender-reversal, in wooed by the king of the fairies after being turned into a pig (an image which carries a strange overtone for anyone who grew up in the '80s).  This is a very physical, joyous production, with the cast, in beautiful costumes and make-up,  throwing luminous bracelets into the audience like rock stars - one tweeter described it as 'the closest I've seen to a rave in the theatre'.

I Termini's Italian Julius Caesar was an altogether drier affair, the kind of thing you might expect to see at the Barbican.  The cast was stripped down to minimum - Caesar himself was kept offstage, discussed but never seen - and costumes were eclectic; Casca in leather and jeans, a bald-headed Cassius in tails and Brutus in a moustache and frockcoat that gave him something of the look of fellow assassin (and actor) John Wilkes Booth.  Spaces were created with moving doors, in the manner of Steven Berkoff's The Trial.  This was a polarising production; I spoke to many people who hated it, and it was certainly sometimes annoying - when the schoolchildren behind me started giggling at Portia's headbutts to her husband, I wanted to shush them, then realised that I agreed  - but there were also moments of extraordinary beauty, like the assassination itself, with the three killers gathering round a black chair (to the Balanescu Quartet's version of 'The Model') and slowly drawing lines on it in red chalk.  Written down, it sounds absurd, but (as I observed last week) the step from the ridiculous to the sublime can sometimes be as short as that in the other direction.

The South Sudan Theatre Company were here as representatives of a country which has only existed for a year, and their production of Cymbeline did, at times, feel like something that should be admired more for its existence than for its quality - the Jupiter scene, with spirits in white sheets appearing in the gallery, was pure school nativity play.  This was another piece of ensemble storytelling, like the Greek National Theatre's Pericles, drawing in this case on African traditions rather than Mediterranean - an usher told me that the company had blessed the stage before the performance by pouring a bottle of beer round the perimeter (He seemed very keen to tell us this; I think he was worried that we might think that the alcohol smell was coming from him).  It was an unpolished but good-hearted show, made remarkable by the sense that we were witnessing the birth of a nation - my companion quoted Theseus "never can anything be amiss/ When simpleness and duty tender it" - and it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by the curtain call, as the cast took the hands of the entire front row.

National politics were also inevitably brought out by the Ashtar Company's Palestinian Richard II.  But for my season ticket, I probably wouldn't have bothered with this show - it's a play I dislike, and one that only seems to work if you accept that the detestability of the lead character.    Here, Richard was clearly a Machiavellian villain - the play opened with an additional scene showing the political killing of the Duke of Gloucester, his throat slit Sweeney Todd-style as his shaved in prison, using the first of the show's many mirrors.  As you might expect, this production was cynical about regime change - Bolingbroke gradually became as brutal as his victim, his final pledge to travel to the Holy Land gaining an additional irony from the company's origins.

One of the incidental pleasures of this festival has been the matching of national companies with individual plays.  A few patterns have emerged - plays involving magic have tended to go to Asian companies, complicated plots to Africa, political plays to Eastern Europe and Latin America.  In this respect, it's interesting that the two most gory plays - Richard III and Titus Andronicus - have been performed by Chinese companies.  The Tang Shu-Wing Theatre Studio's Titus, in Cantonese, was a cool, minimalist production, with clean angled furniture and colour-coded costumes - Titus' family in grey, the Emperor's in sharp-looking whites and the Goths, like their subcultural homonyms, in stylish blacks (Tamora, in particular, wouldn't have looked out of place on Camden High Street of a Friday night).

I've already written about the Q Brothers' Othello; the Remix, a smart, very knowing adaptation, so I won't go on about that.  So far, everything I've seen has been either inspiring or (at the very least) interesting.  We're nearly at the halfway point, and a few themes have emerged: absent lead characters, the different performance aesthetics of hot countries, political subtexts and bare (male) buttocks - I'll write about these in my next post.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Q Brothers' 'Othello - the Remix' at the Globe Theatre - May 5, 2012.

(To get the effect of this, you really need to read it aloud - it doesn't work at all on the page.  Also note that, in the traditions of both hip-hop and Shakespeare, I claim the liberty to stress and elide words any way I damn well want to.)

Friends, Londoners, countrymen, knock me your lobes,
Othello - the Remix is rocking the Globe's
G2G season, and nobody should mind
That it's not foreign language as usually defined.
You could call it Ebonics but that still wouldn't be right,
As three out of four of these fellows are white
(Which needn't cause you any kind of a crisis -
They're more Marshall Matherses, less Vanilla Ices).
From the moment they enter, with cool finger clicks,
(That inevitably suggests an earlier kind of remix)
These guys have the Globe-goers glued to their seats
As they shake up the story to common-time beats.
They say it themselves, they're just doing what's
The thing Shakey did when he plundered his plots.
'Our own plagiarism is keeping it real;
Good artists borrow, the best artists steal'
(And iambic pentameter isn't much more
Than old-school hip-hop with five stresses, not four).
The story's the same, but they're making it sillier,
By setting it all in a music-biz milieu,
Among three touring rappers - Iago, Othello,
And Cassio, a pretty boy, Bieber-ish fellow
Who takes Iago's place higher up on the bill
Giving I. (as he sees it) a license to kill.
His insinuations split husband from wife,
Rapper from crew and a girl from her life.
He turns poor Othello from lover to slayer
By making him think his beloved's a playa.
Desdemona's unseen - it's the company's choice
That she's only a sample, a soul-diva's voice -
Which is all rather like - the coincidence is curious -
What another show did with Caesar (that's Julius).
In less than two hours, hardly pausing for breath,
They tell the whole story, from marriage to death.
There's lots of good jokes, and some times when you think
That they're going to swear, but come back from the brink.
Emilia and Bianca are played by the guys,
Which starts as a joke, then Emilia dies
And it all becomes moving, as the passage of time
Transforms the ridiculous to the sublime.
Pop culture, high culture, this has it all in
(There's even a quote from Tom Petty's 'Free Falling').
I say this with wonderment, not with disparagement -
This so easily could have been an embarrassment,
But they're truthful to both sides of the equation,
Shakespeareans and hip-hoppers get education,
And I'm not an expert (I mean, bloody hell,
The last rapper I saw was M.C. Melle Mel)
But I hope you can all understand what I mean
When I say forty-something felt like seventeen,
And as culture meets culture, it seems what we've got
Is the wooden O turned to Blue Mink's Melting Pot.
If you haven't got tickets, you've reason to curse;
This is poetry in motion - it's gone bard to verse.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Globe to Globe - the first week

One of the most interesting parts of this summer's Olympics-related Shakespeare shenanigens, the Globe to Globe festival features 37 plays (plus a narrative poem) in as many languages, from not quite as many countries.  I bought a season ticket, which gets me a matinee standing place for all of them for £100.  I'm told there are about a hundred of us - I'm starting to recognise the others by sight, notably a middle-aged couple who bring their toy rabbits and sit them on the front of the stage, dancing them around at the curtain calls.  So far, I've seen six shows and, it's got to be said, every one's a winner.

The Festival began with  Venus and Adonis, from Cape Town's Isango Ensemble.  Although it might seem perverse to kick off with something that isn't even a play, this was a canny choice of opener - fairly short, dance- and music-heavy, partly in English (as well as parts in IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana and Afrikaans), and from a company who've played London successfully before.  As ever, they sang and danced like angels - it's hard to imagine a more moving start to the Festival than the sight of a young South African actress, a little smile playing across her face as she paused before singing words that had left this city four hundred years ago, now returning after their journey a continent away. 

The poem's a story of lust and obsession, in which the young and beautiful Adonis is pursued by the predatory love-goddess.  One of my university lecturers said that the ideal casting for a film version would be Elizabeth Taylor and Woody Allen; in this case, the part of Venus was divided among the seven female cast members, of different ages, costumes and physiques (starting with the regal Pauline Malefane), the collective style creating a Jungian eternal feminine.

The Vakhtangov Theatre's Russian Measure for Measure, by contrast, was characterised by a doubling rather than a sharing - the Duke and his replacement, Angelo, played by the same actor.  This production started worryingly like a '70s fringe show, with boxes of plastic bottles and paperbacks (including Carrell's The Shakespeare Secret) scattered around the stage, but picked up as it went on, with staging flourishes like Angelo's dream sequence as he and Isabella tangoed around the platform, broken by a sudden Spike-like awakening (I wanted at this point, to include a link to Spike waking up after his unexpected erotic dream about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I can't find one that hasn't been messed about with, or turned into a fan's music video.  Anyway, you get the idea.).  The doubling came into its own at the very end, with the Duke's proposal to Isabella, blocked in exactly the same way as the equivalent Isabella/Angelo scene earlier in the play.  It's tempting to conclude that this feeling of 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' is one that has an extra resonance in Putin's Russia.

I only saw the second half of the Ngakou Toa's Maori Troilus and Cressida, after catching Zefferelli's Much Ado About Nothing at the NFT (I realise that sounds pretentious, but it's what I was actually doing that day - so sue me).  I hadn't actually intended to attend it at all (two and a half Shakespeares in a day is quite a lot), but kept hearing positive positive things, from Stella Duffy's blog, and a fellow season ticket holder I overheard in the Measure for Measure queue, who said, in a phrase that stuck oddly in my mind, that the play was well-suited to 'that bare-chested, tongue out, foot stomping haka machismo'.

That turned out to be quite an accurate description - the males tattooed and bare-buttocked, the females more clothed, with plaited hair (which led to one lovely gag on Cressida's post-coital entrance with dishevelled JBF bed-hair).  I don't mean it as an insult when I say that the highlight was the curtain call, with a full-cast haka being answered by another in response from a group of Maori in the audience - it's the only time in my life I've seen audience response get a round of applause.

This illustrates one of the incidental pleasures of the season - the appearance of multi-culti London in the audience, as different nationalities and ethnicities turn out for their team.  This created an especially interesting effect for the Company Theatre's Hindi Twelfth Night, , with South Asian families (who'd obviously booked in advance) in the galleries, and Caucasians in the yard, in a sort of reverse-Raj.  (It also meant that verbal jokes got laughs from the gallery, physical from the yard.)

The Company's blurb described them as drawing on Indian theatrical traditions including Kathakali - to this ghorah, it seemed closer to Bollywood, with primary-coloured costumes, apart from Malvolio's black jacket, and song and dance in almost every scene.  The musicians were placed dead centre, actors joining them when not onstage and occasionally joining the action as a chorus.  This was popular, high-energy performance, with an impish female Feste and odd jokes in English - Malvolio at one point said 'Goodness gracious me'.  At the risk of coming over all Billington, it was a bit one-note for me, strong on the play's humour, less so on its vein of melancholy.

The National Theatre of Greece's Pericles was another production that kept the cast onstage throughout - actors became different characters by slipping on a coat or (for the oily Simonides) a pair of shades, sometimes turning into a chorus of fishermen, or  trouserless punters at Marina's brothel.  Again, there were throwaway jokes in English - Pericles, begging for food from an audience member 'Of course I've got no money -  I'm Greek.'

This was another production where it was impossible not to see the cultural history as part of the experience - the ensemble playing evoked not just conventions from the classical Greek theatre, but of the whole Homeric tradition of storytelling.  The opening captured this beautifully - a single lute-player sat alone on stage; when it was time to begin, an actor joined him, gave a whistle and, as the cast gathered from all over the auditorium said (in English) 'Let's play.'

This sums up the whole wonder of this season for me - companies from all over the world coming to the symbolic centre of Britain's theatrical and literary culture, and bringing their own history and achievements to the party.  Shakespeare's plays are turned into a vast adventure playground, and this year, the world's come round to play.

(In case you're wondering, I didn't see the Swahili Merry Wives of Windsor or the Mandarin Richard III - on the only occasions when I could have done, it was pissing down with rain.  I'm dedicated, but not stupid.)