November 2009


Finally, I saw something at the theatre that I really liked. Something that was actually theatre rather than just a nicey-nicey radioplay with sets.

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Of course, it wasn’t English – it was Amsterdam’s main theatre company Toneelgroep on tour – but wherever it came from it was wondrous. It was a happening, an experience, a real 3D theatrical event.

Six non-stop hours of Shakespeare – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra – all one after another. In Dutch.

The Barbican stage was all opened up with seating areas, tables, places to buy coffee, drinks, snacks. There were television screen all over and the actors were filmed live as they acted in different places and the images screened above the stage. Katie Mitchell uses the same techniques in her shows at the National and the stage reminded me of William Forsythe’s Kammer/Kammer which I saw at Sadlers Wells a few years back. But the genius touch with this show was that the audience were encouraged up onto the stage to watch the action from the seats and sofas on stage.

The six hours were broken up in to 20-40 minute chunks and music would play and a voice would invite us to move around, maybe buy a beer or a brownie, chose where to sit.
Sometimes I was in the auditorium, sometimes right at the back of the stage looking out, or right at the front, a metre away from the actors.

This was wonderful for me because it removed the terrible envy i feel of good actors – that nagging desire to want to be on stage and be part of the gang. I was part of the gang momentarily.

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And this was the point of the show. All these Roman tragedies are concerned with politics and the role of the ‘people’ in the machine of politics. Bringing the audience into the production was a neat analogue of this. It also balanced the fact that the director had (mercifully) chosen to cut all the scenes and characters that represent the plebians in the plays. So no clowns, no prostitutes in A&C, no artisans and weavers in Coriolanus and JC.
This made it bearably long (I never once felt bored – partly because I was on stage supping beer or moving around) and concentrated us on the powerplays of individuals thinking they were acting for noble reasons.

The genius of Shakespeare (and I talked about this here about another JC at the Barbican) is that he is sophisticated enough to be ambivalent. For Brutus, Cassius AND Mark Anthony to be all be admirable in their own ways. This production took a risk (it’s a risk constantly making people look away from live action to screen) but that looking away and mediation of message through media was also part of the subject.

I loved it. If it comes your way. Immerse. You don’t even need to bring sandwiches. You can buy them on stage.

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I have to say that I hate jazz. All those endless jabbering solos. It rubs me up the wrong way – and I usually avoid it like the plague. Especially since jazz always features saxophones and they’re like my worse aural enemy. Ghastly, bleating things.

So when I was invited by Will to see Roberto Fonseca, the new big thing from Cuba, I was thinking more Buena Vista Social club (which I do like) rather than free-jazzers (which I don’t).

I have to admit that Fonseca was great. He was the pianist in the combo with a drummer, percussionist, bass and (of course) saxophonist. And the arrangements and solos he played were dazzling: witty, technically amazing (he didn’t even look at his hands) and musically interesting. Naturally the screeching saxophone set my dentures on edge – but even 4 minute sax solos only slightly dented my fairly mild mood.

However, as the Fonsecas warmed up and whirled and wailed away, I did ponder what exactly I don’t like about jazz.

I think it reminds me of those friends I had as a teenage who would insist on playing the guitar and force you to listen to them for hours on end. You’d be at a party and everything was mellow – you were talking, maybe even flirting – and then out came the guitar and you’d have to sit in silence while they murdered “Space Oddity” or “Paint a Vulgar Picture”.

Some of them were good. But that was besides the point, it was the imposition that irked me. There’s something of the show-off rather than the communicator about both jazz musicians and teenage guitarists.

It’s also a very straight thing. You don’t get female jazzers or gay jazzers. I can’t think of a single gay saxophonist. It’s a scrupulously straight male art form. And now I think of it, there aren’t many of those.

So what is it that attracts straight men to jazz-making? (I don’t deny that women and gays can enjoy listening to jazz – but you have to admit that not many of them make it….)

Well, there’s definitely a team thing going on. There was a lot of hugging and back slapping after the concert ended and you can see the glee in those five mens faces as the solos roll out and musical teamwork moves up a gear.

There’s also some showing off – some competition. My solo’s bigger than yours.

And there’s also a reticence about communicating emotion. This was made very clear because Roberto Fonseca (who is incidentally a slayingly sexy dude) was preceded by Mayra Andrade from Cape Verde. She sang and everything was about communicating something of her across the footlights to the audience. Fonseca was communicating with his fellow jazzers but he was impressing us. Communicating emotion and impressing with style are two very different things.

Jazz shares this with Prog Rockers. “Look how clever we men are. A gang of talented boys doing something great together on stage.” There is – I hesitate to say – something slightly autistic about it. Only slightly…

The point was that I passed through my discomfort with these amazingly talented, straight show-offs into a appreciation of their difference.

I will (sadly) never be as talented a pianist as Roberto Fonseca. Nor for that matter, will I ever be a slayingly handsome Cuban. But I am learning bit by bit, to not related to everything so narcissistically.

It’s true that a tiny part of me finds gangs of straight men showing off in a group intimidating – and that may well result in a smeary desire to belittle what they’re doing. (I try and like football really I do…) It’s also true that a (possibly less tiny) part of me is envious of other people’s talent and unconsiously wants to spoil it. But bit by bit, I’m getting used to those tiny parts of myself that are a bit mean. I’m learning to put them to one side with a wry smile and then relate to the thing in front of me.

Rather than finding fault with Roberto Fonseca’s band for non-musical reasons, I enjoyed the music and also enjoyed the fact that straight jazzers do do things differently. How cool. The world is not full of clones of me who are not quite getting it right – instead it’s filled with billions of real people doing it their way. Some consonant with my way – the great majority not.

I would still smelt all saxophones and make horse brasses out of them…

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