Final WOS Blogs

Verbatim rights & wrongs

Monkey Bars publicity image

This week I’m back at a subject that continues to niggle me – ideas of morality in verbatim theatre. When we use people’s voices onstage in edited pieces of drama, how fine is the line between representation and exploitation?…read more

Theatre buildings & communities

Bristol Old Vic

The oldest working theatre in the country, Bristol Old Vic, turned its lights back on last week after 18 months of refurbishment. This week warm reviews of its opening production, John O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats, show it is in as rude a health as it was when it housed rowdy 18th century audiences…read more

Lyric keeps it local

A scene from Morning at the Lyric Hammersmith

A blend of robust poetry and agile circus, I was recently wowed by Ockham’s Razor’s Not Until We Are Lost at Artsdepot. But it wasn’t only the stunning aerialism that captured me – just as impressive was the skill displayed by a choir of local singers who had been brought together for these performances…read more

Horror on stage? A chilling thought

Original poster for Let The Right One In

When I read that the National Theatre of Scotland was to do a staged version of Swedish horror film Let The Right One In I got chills down my spine for all the wrong reasons. Horror is notoriously difficult to do on stage and even with the formidable partnership of John Tiffany and Jack Thorne at the helm it seemed a doomed prospect – after all the NTS turned The Wicker Man into a musical earlier this year….read more

And in the end…

Poster image for A Life at The Finborough

So it’s pretty presumptuous to title my final blog with a Beatles lyric used to signify the end of their journey, but I’m going to do it anyway because endings are what form the basis of this blog…read more

Review: Someone To Blame

Written for Time Out

Sam Hallam has spent the last seven a years in prison serving life for murder he (backed by a number of witnesses) claims he didn’t commit. ‘Someone to Blame’ is the newest facet of his family’s campaign as they battle against this alleged miscarriage of justice.

Tess Berry-Hart has trawled through hours of cold transcripts to give us a highly charged, sharply crafted verbatim soap opera. Cloudy witness statements create a cacophony of whispers that turn into cold hard ‘facts’ in the courtroom.

The injustice of what are here presented as inconsistencies genuinely prickles, but Berry-Hart has overplayed her cards and ‘Someone to Blame’ begins to feel more like propaganda, while her lack of objectivity removes some of the power of Hallam’s protest.

David Mercatali’s staging opens up the narrow King’s Head, placing the voices judging Hallam all around and putting us at the centre. Robin Crouch as the imprisoned 24-year-old is a compelling eye of the storm.

This is moving drama but just as we are asked to draw our own conclusions, the echoes of the ‘correct’ ones posited by Berry-Hart hang manipulatively in the air.

Running until 31st March 2012

The Only Way Is Essex & Alecky Blythe, where will scripted reality take us next?

When The Only Way Is Essex won the YouTube Audience Award at the BAFTAs earlier this year there were snobby grumblings from the artistic establishment. But there’s more to TOWIE, and shows like it, than people first think. On closer inspection it’s clear they are forging into the same ground as one of the current darlings of the theatrical elite verbatim theatre director/writer Alecky Blythe.

Arguments about the rights and wrongs of verbatim theatre have often been bandied around.  Should we be making art out of the traumatic, exceptional or even downright ordinary incidences of people’s lives? Surely the whole idea is defunct anyway because anything that’s edited has been tampered with in some way and therefore isn’t real. And isn’t ‘bending the truth’ a necessary evil, as straight up delivery real life dialogue is un-dramatic and ‘dry’ (David Hare I’m looking straight at you here).

But we remain obsessed with the idea of truth on stage, of drama made from real people. And now we’re taking it one step further. Blythe’s method of recorded delivery has begun to properly blur the lines between reality and fiction. Here you have actors not only representing us folks at home but acting as vessels to recreate exactly what we say.  These performers listen to a line through headphones and then repeat it, literally verbatim on stage. With this method Blythe is probably closer to Edward Gordon Craig’s uber-marionette ideal than anyone before her; she has created walking and talking machines.

Blythe’s work has come under more fire than most from those who criticise verbatim theatre; people wrongly see her work as unedited reality, when in actuality it is immensely manipulated. Whilst this marriage of truth and fiction causes consternation, irritation and sometimes fury in some, most theatre audiences are lapping it up as the success of London Road attests, people love seeing themselves centre stage.

In fact scripted reality seems to be taking over the world. TOWIE and Made In Chelsea make grotesque but insanely compelling viewing.  Every week millions of people watch a group of young sexy something’s experiencing the highs and lows that any friendship group will recognise (perhaps a little more frequently than they occur in off-screen life) with a wry grin.

Of course these ‘reality’ shows have a little bit of help from their friendly, but undeniably pushy, producers on whether that person really needs to be chucked into a swimming pool or who gets invited to lunch by whom in Cannes, but it’s all real right? To this there is no correct response, because scripted reality does exactly what it says on the tin; it is both real and false at the same time.

In this as an audience we are being taught to accept a type of doublethink of which George Orwell would be proud. The strangeness of this was brought home to me when I encountered someone who could not compute that the two opposing concepts could be true at the same time.  He was unable to marry white and black together whilst I, as an, albeit wary, fan of Blythe’s realised I was sat in some grey area that if dismantled, made no sense at all.

Scripted reality is moving entertainment into a genuinely new, uncharted direction. For years with the growth of audience led artistic experiences and call in shows we’ve been taking more of a role in our own entertainment. We have wanted to place ourselves at the centre of the story. Now that we, Joe Public, are firmly in the spotlight where are we going to go next in terms of creating our own reality? And will it matter that in the end we may not know who’s real and who’s fictional?

London Road

Written for

London Road is something of a surprise. The idea of a piece of musical verbatim theatre based around the murders in 2006 of five sex workers in Ipswich sounds like pure madness. In musicals all the characters know the lyrics and the dance-steps through a weird Borg-like symbiosis; how could such a fantastical form hope to engage with something so grimly real? But Alecky Blythe, composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris have succeeded in creating one of the best new musicals of recent years using not just the words but the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of an embattled community. What’s more they’ve tackled this raw and painful subject matter in a manner that is both respectful and believable, no mean feat.

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This much is true and I’m not pulling any punches.

This Much is True picture

Sally Stott has written an interesting and seemingly controversial blog asking the question already buzzing around my own head since seeing This Much Is True.  The Theatre 503 show is the newest play to deal with the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.  Sally posits the idea that, in the light of the two productions already surrounding this topic, it’s time for leftwing playwrights to broaden their scope and tackle a new subject.  She has been quite strongly reprimanded for her comments but I feel that hers is a completely valid and pertinent assessment propose that she was actually a little too kind to the newest edition to this canon.

I had an incredibly strong reaction to the ‘in yer face’ nature of Peter Unwin and Sarah Beck’s play.  Dazzling as it may have been, with it’s over theatricalised stage dressing and genuinely impressive and versatile performances, overall it smacked of a desperate knowledge that they didn’t have enough new material to justify the creation this show. The term bandwagon springs lightly to mind.  Maybe it was this slightly vacuous feel to the work, or the high level of emotional manipulation that upset me but I really felt its stylish yet wide reaching and unfocused approach made the whole thing seem gratuitous and consequently in bad taste.  Style won over substance and when you’re dealing with life and death that just can’t be allowed to happen.

Unwin has responded to Sally’s piece and Lyn Gardner’s review vehemently, saying they did in fact have reams of new material.  It’s funny how it really didn’t feel that way.  True, we did hear more from the family but it is hard to know how this enlightens our understanding of the tragedy which unfolded here except to make us feel more emotionally connected with him as a person.  I for one felt this human connection to Jean Charles de Menezes strongly enough through watching his actual family on television speaking about him; how does copying it word for word, using an actor as a mouth piece and adding some gratuitous theatrical wizardry really help? 

This could be seen as a bigger issue with verbatim theatre as a whole.  It can clearly be a powerful tool as the seminal Black Watch, the amusing The Girlfriend Experience or the touching Caravan have proven.  But using people’s real words is so en vogue that people seem to be using it willy nilly now in order to simply sell a show.  It should be used to give voice to those whose issues can’t be heard any other way.  By repeating what has already been spoken in a truer, less jazzy sphere, Unwin and Beck’s seem to be doing nothing but treading old ground to try to glorify their own artistic ambition and very little else.

That’s incredibly tough of me, but for some reason I feel the need to be extreme in this situation.  I wish that Unwin and Beck had taken their considerable talent and turned it elsewhere to tell stories that aren’t really vocalised yet.  Then maybe I would have felt that their integrity matched their prowess and turned my concentration away from the spectacle to listen to them a bit more.